Monday, January 30, 2012

Wolves Don't Eat Meat, aka Kuwait Connection (Egypt/Lebanon/Kuwait, 1973)

Given that most of my exposure to Arab popular cinema has been through viewings of the relatively genteel and apolitical films of Egyptian cinema's golden age, Wolves Don't Eat Meat comes as a bit of a shock. Believe me, if there were pearls around my neck, I’d be clutching them. In making the film, Samir Khouri, a Lebanese director filming in Kuwait with an Egyptian and Lebanese cast, reportedly aimed to take advantage of what turned out to be a very brief relaxation in Egypt's censorship standards, but his kid-in-a-candy-store approach to the endeavor only ended up getting the film banned upon release.

Which is not all that surprising, given that Wolves Don’t Eat Meat (which was originally known as Zi’ab La Ta’kol Al Lahm and released under the international title Kuwait Connection) contains about a thousand percent more full frontal nudity than you'd ever expect to see in a film from a predominately Muslim country. And that's not even considering the jaw dropping amount of grand guignol violence on display in the film -- or the fact that this was the early 70s, when filmmakers everywhere, regardless of creed or country, were allowing themselves to go just a little bit crazy in their attempts to see what they could get away with.

According to an interview with Mondo Macabro’s Pete Tombs and Andy Starke over at Cinema Strikes Back, previous to making Wolves, Khouri had worked in Italy under such directors as Sergio Bergonzelli, whose output of rough sexploitation fare included lurid entries like In the Folds of the Flesh. And, indeed, that influence here is clear, though what’s really interesting about Wolves Don’t Eat Meat is just how many different trends in 1970s international cinema it channels, making its exact lineage hard to nail down.

Following a credit sequence set to Patrick Samson’s Italo disco hit “Hey Yaba Hey”, Wolves kicks off its narrative proper with a wild car chase through the streets of Kuwait, at the conclusion of which hired assassin Anwar (Ezzat El Alaili) staggers away from his wrecked car and into the desert. Eventually he somehow comes upon the mansion of a shady underworld type named Saleh, at which some strange cross between a party, an orgy and an occult ritual is taking place. Anwar collapses and is carried by Saleh’s men to a spare bedroom, where he is cared for by Saleh’s wife, Maya (well known Egyptian actress Nahed Sherif, whose frequent nudity here guarantees this title a strong showing in next year’s 4DK Search Term Tweet-a-thon).

In a bizarre coincidence, it turns out that Maya is an old flame of Anwar’s, a former bar dancer whom he met while working as a war correspondent in Southeast Asia. Further signaling our and Anwar’s entrance into some kind of uncanny alternate reality is Saleh’s sister, a wizened crone in a wheelchair portrayed by an actor in an aggressively obvious rubber mask -- and with whom Maya appears to be having a lesbian affair. And then, of course, there is the fact that Saleh is seen receiving a visitation from the ghost of his previous wife.

Upon recovering, Anwar tells Maya that the atrocities he witnessed while working as a journalist resulted in him becoming “blood-thirsty”. Among these was the massacre at Deir Yellin, an attack upon a Palestinian village that left hundreds of men, women and children dead and would go on to become a pivotal event in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Anwar subsequently fell in with the beautiful and psychotic hit woman Linda (Lebanese actress Silvana Badrkhan, also frequently nude), with whom he has come to Kuwait to retrieve ten million dollars worth of jewels stolen from the Mafia. This caper, as such things are won’t to do in stories of this type, has gone completely pear-shaped, with the result that Anwar now is being hunted not only by both Linda and the Police, but American mobster “Barney” and his gang as well.

Meanwhile, Saleh, not blind to the obvious attraction between Anwar and his wife, turns threatening, which leads to the two lovers taking flight upon Maya’s luxury yacht -- where, in one of the film’s many uses of symbolism that even the most remedial student of film theory couldn’t miss, they make love on a bed blanketed with live doves. Saleh’s menace is then diminished somewhat when he is mysteriously murdered. This event gives birth to a whodunit subplot that you’d think might ensnare Anwar and Maya in its web, but which actually threatens to eclipse their story altogether as it takes on a life of its own as a parallel narrative. Finally this all leads circuitously to another insane car chase and a blood spattered finale in which all of Anwar’s various nemesis converge upon him at once -- and then, more surprisingly, to a hallucinatory final sequence that echoes Fellini’s 8½.

Throughout all of this, Khori makes sure to place his film’s simulated violence against a jarring backdrop of the real thing. The flashbacks to Deir Yellin are made up of real documentary footage that is both graphic and harrowing. A bloody fight with hatchets is staged in an actual slaughterhouse, the pretend carnage playing out amid shots of live sheep being butchered. Because of this, fans of movie-style blood and guts not inured to the sight of actual dead and dying children and animals may want to look for their thrills elsewhere.

Despite its many aforementioned nods to Italian genre films -- be they Polizzioteschi, Giallo, or Gothic Horror -- what Wolves Don't Eat Meat seems to be most in its heart of hearts is a violent political art film. Whether those pop cinema elements are then intended as a seductive candy coating or a further provocation I can't say. But I have noticed that a number of online writers who have approached the film as a genre piece have characterized it as more or less a bad, if interesting, one. I can't say that, either. To me, it's too fiercely unique, too personal, and too genuinely disturbing to be subjected to such easy judgment. For me to achieve a clearer state of mind on the subject will no doubt require repeat viewings, of which I suspect there will be many.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Friday's best pop song ever

Tonight! The Drive-In Mob goes to a place "where nobody dared to go"

Tonight the Drive-In Mob will be camping it up 80s style with a gut-rumbling double bill of jaw-unhinging neon excess. First up, at 8pm EST, it's Olivia Newton John, Gene Kelly and who-the-hell-is-that-guy in Xanadu, one of the most gloriously upward failing musicals of all time. And then, at precisely 9:30-ish EST or thereabouts, it's Dino De Laurentis' delirious day-glo take on Flash Gordon, a film that has been scientifically proven to be better than Star Wars. Seriously, if these movies don't get you rocking, the wall-to-wall Queen and ELO will!

Both Drive-In Mob features can be streamed via Netflix Instant, and those who want to tweet or follow along can do so by using the hashtag #DriveInMob on Twitter. As for myself, I plan to eschew my usual tardiness and be present for the duration -- BECAUSE THIS IS FUCKING IMPORTANT, PEOPLE! Oh, and, as always, please check the official Drive-In Mob site for full details.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Indian Superhero Roll Call

No film industry that lays claim to colorful escapism the way India’s does can do so without putting forward its fair share of ridiculously garbed costumed heroes. I’ve encountered quite a few of these magnificent creatures in my day (though I’m sure far from all of them), so I thought that -- given that I’m feeling a bit lazy in the lingering haze of the just completed Tweet-a-thon -- my doing an informal survey of the topic might be a good investment of the minimal effort I feel like devoting to it. Let’s proceed!

SUPERMAN: It’s no surprise that Superman is beloved in India, certainly not least because he is goddamn Superman. But also because his supernatural abilities so resemble those of the heroes of Hindu religious epics -- such as the awesome Hanuman -- who, through appearances in everything from movies to comic books, have also become fixtures of Indian popular culture. As far as I know, India’s first screen adaptations of the Man of Steel were a pair of low budget productions released in 1960, both of which starred the actor Jairaj in the title role despite being the products of completely different outfits. One of these was Mohammed Hussain’s pragmatically titled Superman, while the other, directed by Manmohan Sabir, bore the more puzzling moniker Return of Mr. Superman, a direct result of pressure put upon Sabir by the producer of Hussain’s competing version. As you can see from the pictures above, Return of Mr. Superman’s interpretation of its titular hero (that’s Mr. Superman to you) stays well shy of honing too closely to the original source material.

Far less liability-averse were a couple of adaptations that came along during the 80s. These included the 1980 Telegu language version that is often referred to as "Telegu Superman" (and which is helpfully reviewed here by my colleague Tars Tarkas), and 1987’s notorious “Hindi Superman”, which went so far as to swipe actual special effects footage from Richard Donner’s mega-budget Superman, The Movie.

GURU (1980): Though basically a remake of Dharmendra’s 1973 thriller Jugnu, this Tamil language film sought to set itself apart via the inclusion of the pictured pink garbed caped crusader, who shows up in one scene to dazzle a slack-mouthed gang of hoods with his acrobatic skills before disappearing from the picture altogether. Mission accomplished, Guru.

SHIVA KA INSAAF (1985): The mid 1980s saw something of a mini-boomlet in Indian superhero films, with Shiva Ka Insaaf standing out as something of an early adopter. Shiva Ka Insaaf was also India’s second 3D film, and its first in the Hindi language. Star Jackie Shroff appeals to the god Shiva for super powers and gets them, along with a somewhat ill fitting leather costume. Other than the religious overtones, this is another pretty straightforward retelling of the Superman story, complete with Jackie taking the guise of a socially challenged reporter and Poonam Dhillon taking on the role of a serially-imperiled Lois Lane figure. Given the 3D process involved, it will surprise no one that Jackie’s super powers mostly involve throwing things directly into the camera.

MR. INDIA (1987): The superhero boom of the 80s was no doubt due in part to the success of this charming crowd-pleaser, in which Hollywood’s current favorite Indian, Anil Kapoor, uses the power of invisibility to defend Mother India from a vaguely provenanced foreign boogeyman (is “Chino-stani” a word?) played by Amrish Puri. Hail Mogambo!

SHAHENSHAH (1988): The road back to superstardom after his ill-advised detour into politics was a hard one for Amitabh Bachchan. Perhaps hoping to piggy-back on the success of the aforementioned Mr. India, his rapid-fire spate of late 80s comeback vehicles included not one, but two costumed hero capers. The first of these was the moderately well received Shahenshah, in which Bacchan played a Batman-style costumed vigilante. Unfortunately, I have yet to see this film -- though I intend to remedy that in 2012 -- and thus have yet to review it… by which I mean make fun of it.

TOOFAN (1989): But I have made fun of this one! Here Amitabh prays to Hanuman to aid him in avenging his father’s murder, and, in return, the monkey god turns him into a caped crusader complete with a nifty crossbow that looks like it came fresh off the rack at Sports Chalet. This is one of those movies that sounds like it would be a hoot when described, but in reality is a dispiriting slog. Avoid yar!

AJOOBA (1991): And rounding out Amitabh’s trilogy of cinematic superheroism is this odd Russo-Indian co-production, in which the Big B plays a righteous masked rider. But what you’ll really want to see this movie for are all of the bizarre creatures and weird special effects, which are plentiful. The happy ending to all of this, of course, is that Bachchan did eventually regain his foothold on superstardom and has not looked back since. Since then, he has refrained from playing any superheroes, but he has played the Progeria-stricken child of his own actual son, so I’ll let you be the judge of whether that’s a change for the better or not. (Both MemsaabStory and Beth Loves Bollywood are big fans of Ajooba, and are happy to tell you all about it in their equally erudite and entertaining reviews if you just follow the links.)

KRRISH (2006): Either I’ve missed out on some Indian superhero movies from the 1990s, or audiences of that era were having a hard enough time dealing with Karisma Kapoor’s outfits without also having to confront the spectacle of grown men in day-glo tights. In any case, in the 00s the superhero returned to India’s theater screens in big budget style with this loose sequel to 2003’s Koi… Mil Gaya. Heartthrob Hrithik Roshan plays Krishna, the inheritor of super powers that were given to his father by an E.T. Graced with enough state-of-the-art CG effects and wire-assisted stunts to make it almost indistinguishable from a crap Hollywood film, Krrish met with enough favorable audience response to merit two sequels -- which makes me wonder why I only barely remember watching it.

RA.ONE (2011): Admittedly I have yet to see this one, in which Shah Rukh Khan apparently plays a hero with some kind of Tron-based powers. Though I never thought about it before, the advent of Ra.One made me wonder why SRK waited so long to take this route.

DARA SINGH: It’s impossible for me to compose a list like this without mentioning beloved wrestler-turned-stunt-film-king Dara Singh. Although I don’t know of Dara ever starring in what could be described as a traditional superhero film, the man is something of a superhero in his own right, and, in keeping with that, many of his films have a fittingly comic book-ish feel. Included in these are pictures in which he played everything from Tarzan, to Flash Gordon-style space jockeys, to Zoro-like masked riders, all of which guarantee that, mask or no, his are films that provide all the breezy, cheesy thrills that any superhero movie fan could ask for.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Tweet-a-thon and the damage done

I think it's safe to say that the 3rd Annual 4DK Search Term Tweet-a-thon was a spectacular success, given the modest height of the bar for success in this case. Essentially, there were search terms and they were tweeted, and this done in the rapid  and extended sequence that might allow one to advisedly affix an "a-thon" to the end of things. To be honest, this was what I'd like my Twitter feed to look like all the time, but I just couldn't come up with gems like these on my own -- each one forged like a diamond inside a harrowingly unique mind which, in that fevered moment of creation, seemed to be finding its very reason for existing.

This year's selection of search terms was marked more by its variety than it was by any unifying trend. Yet there was at the same time no dearth of familiarity, most notably in the constellation of Bollywood stars on hand, the dragging of whose names through the mud has become something of a Tweet-a-thon ritual: Amrish Puri, Aruna Irani, and Bob Christo -- the latter via the entry "bob christosex", which memorializes his sexiness for the ages by making "sex" a part of his actual name!

And then there was the remarkable outpouring of guest contributions, among them those from the Cultural Gutter and Houseinrlyeh of The Horror!?, whose entries were so rarified and various that they made choosing a favorite difficult -- though I am partial, in CG's case, to "scary chinese people" and, in Houseinrlyeh's, to "muscle horror". Hell On Frisco Bay provided a local angle with "Making Frisco less pejorative", among others. Sadly, none of my searches for my own name or the name of this blog on any of these people's sites made the cut.

Probably those people who are most deserving of thanks, however, are all of my Twitter followers who failed to unfollow me despite the noisome and annoying ordeal I subjected them to for most of 24 hours. Sleep soundly, my friends, and thank you. You have a whole year to recover.

Friday, January 20, 2012

It's the 3rd Annual 4DK Search Term Tweet-a-thon!

Every year at this time I'm forced to come to terms with the fact that all but a very few of you come to this site in the hope of seeing a picture of Aruna Irani's lactating boob. As a consolation, it's also the time at which I get to survey all of the other insane bullshit that some of you freaks have been one handedly pawing into Google in your journey toward the inevitable disappointment that is 4DK. This in turn all gets fed into what is surely America's Next Top Social Media Based Pseudo-event: The 4DK Search Term Tweet-a-thon!

That's right, girlies, it's that time again. Starting this Sunday, January 22nd at 5pm PST and ending at the same time on the following Monday, January 23rd, I will be devoting 24 drunken hours to the tweeting of some of the most disquieting queries culled from last year's selection of keyword searches reported via 4DK's Google Analytics account. As always, I encourage -- no demand! -- that any other interested bloggers and web masters dip into their own deep reservoirs of search-based shame and join in. I will retweet any and all contributions made in like spirit. Though keep in mind that, in order to insure that my Twitter feed during that time is but one impenetrable wall of Dada-esque word vomit, I will not be responding to any tweets, so don't get bent out of shape, all you precious sensitive souls.

4DK's Twitter account can be accessed here. Remember, only you and I will know. The rest will just think that I had some kind of seizure.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Friday's best pop song ever

Drive-In Mob Tonight! Blue Sunshine and Squirm

Tonight the Drive-In Mob really lives up to its name with a salute to drive-in auteur Jeff Leiberman. First, at 8pm EST, we tweet-along to Lieberman’s killer hippie classic Blue Sunshine, followed, at 9:30-ish, by his creepy crawly debut feature Squirm. Both films can be streamed via Netflix Instant, and like-minded souls can both follow and tweet along on Twitter by using the hashtag #DriveInMob. As always, be sure to check the official Drive-In Mob site for full details.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Guru (India, 1980)

By all rights, I should have looked away from Guru, but lord help me I could not. At the very least I should have stopped listening to it. The version of this Tamil language film that I watched had been subjected to the worst Hindi dubbing job imaginable -- not only on its dialog, but its songs as well. And rather than re-recording those songs from scratch, the dubbers simply pasted the caterwauling Hindi vocals (Asha Bhosle being obviously outside the price range) over the original musical tracks, substituting, for the duration of the sung portions only, a sort of drum machine and Casio-on-factory-settings karaoke approximation of their more lush, live orchestration. It was not good.

At the same time, Guru offers a lot of the searingly colorful grotesquerie and carnivalesque thrill-jockeying that I’ve come to hope for in action films from India’s regional cinema. And this despite the film actually being a pretty close remake of Jugnu, Dharmendra’s solidly middling Hindi thriller from 1973. It even borrows the same footage from the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, as well as some footage from Jugnu itself. More importantly, we get an appearance by what is probably Jugnu’s most thrilling feature, the Jugnu-Mobile, although here it is the Guru-Mobile, thanks to the fact that Guru is, in this version, the name of the altruistic bandit played by our leading man, Tamil superstar Kamal Hassan.

But alongside these familiar elements, Guru makes an effort to establish itself as its own odd breed of beast. In addition to Kamal Hassan’s courageous thief with a conscience, we’re also presented with a pink-clad superhero -- seemingly also named Guru, although obviously played by a different actor -- who strikes terror into the hearts of evildoers through flamboyant and impractical displays of gymnastics (which, as in Gymkata, are entirely dependent upon those evildoers’ surroundings being equipped with the appropriate equipment, such as parallel bars). This Super Guru announces himself via the hurling of a small metal statue of what appears to be a pigeon covered with flashing colored lights -- a practice that I imagine would quickly become prohibitively expensive, kind of like giving everyone you meet a Kindle.

Sadly, once introduced, this magnificent creature is never to be seen again. But Guru has plenty of other gaudy and baffling visual stimuli in store for us -- some of them courtesy of its Hindi inspiration and some all of its own fevered machinations. Mirroring Jugnu, the monolithically pompadoured “Boss” wears on his arm something that looks like an oversized cocktail shaker, and which extrudes all manner of deadly pointy things on command. On the romance front, Sridevi essays the role played by Hema Malini in the original, and when Kamal Hassan first lays eyes upon her, it is in a picnic setting where she is amusing a group of female friends by blasting the words “I love you” into a giant paper heart with a revolver. Do I want to know what this means? Probably not. Nor do I need any further explication of the scene in which Kamal Hassan and Sridevi antagonistically serenade one another while she flies a helicopter and he buzzes her in a light plane.

The cycle of reciprocal remaking between Bollywood and its regional counterparts was and remains a not uncommon practice, with Telegu and Tamil hits frequently being remade for the Hindi market and Hindi films also getting the regional treatment. Then, apparently, those Tamil and Telegu remakes have sometimes been dubbed so that Hindi audiences could enjoy cheaper, idiosyncratic regional interpretations of films they’d already seen in their own language, though this time with all of the music and dialog ruined. Truly, in the condition I watched it, Guru was just one pink superhero away from being completely unwatchable, but sometimes it’s the pink superheroes that make all the difference.

And also the tasteful set decor.

[NOTE: YouTube has some clips of the original musical sequences from Guru, which demonstrate that the songs, composed by Kamal Hassan  favorite Ilayaraja, are actually quite nice in their unmolested form.]

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Friday's best pop song ever

Tonight! The Drive-In Mob with two heads!

One can never have too much head, so tonight’s Drive-in Mob gives you a little something extra. In the first half of our double-domed double-feature, The Incredible Two Headed Transplant, star Casey Kasem counts down the number of noggins on the titular abomination -- and in the second feature, The Thing With Two Heads (aka the movie that ended racism in America!), Free to be... You and Me star Rosy Greer finds himself sharing a body with a crabby old man played by Ray Milland. (You’d probably be crabby too if you had an inescapable second head singing “It’s Alright to Cry” at you 24/7.)

Now, I may be tardy for the first feature, but, believe me, I would give my left brain to make sure that I’m there for the tail end of this, um, double header. DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE? This is the level of wit you can expect tonight, people. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to tweet-or-at-least-follow along!

And as usual, you can do so by streaming both features on Netflix Instant, starting with The Incredible Two Headed Transplant at 8pm sharp EST, and joining in on Twitter using the #DriveInMob hashtag. Be sure to check the official Drive-In Mob site for full details.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Cinderella and Her Little Angels (Hong Kong, 1959)

Confronted with a film like Cinderella and Her Little Angels, one has cause to wonder just how many of life’s cruelest unpleasantries could be smoothed over by the warmly familiar conventions of the romantic musical comedy. Parodies like The Producers and Cannibal! The Musical, after all, not only mine the absurdity of setting real life atrocities to a jaunty musical score, but also highlight that form’s ability to defang and co-opt such horrors. Thus it’s not unthinkable that such a production could get our toes tapping to the sadly commonplace yet no less grim spectacle of child labor and sweatshop peonage.

A slick product of Hong Kong’s Cathay studio, Cinderella and Her Little Angels tells the story of Xiaolin (Umetsugu Inoue favorite Peter Chen Ho), a shy tailor employed by a swanky Hong Kong clothing shop. Xiaolin is smitten with Danning, a girl from the local orphanage, but has yet to work up the nerve to make his move. Fortunately, the shop has a mannequin that bears an uncanny resemblance to Danning on which he can practice, which isn’t creepy at all.

And why would Xiaolin be familiar with a girl from the local orphanage, you may ask? Well, that, apparently, is where all of the shops garments are made, with Danning basically serving as a cheerfully trilling galley master, urging her fellow orphans –- hunched to the task of sewing away with fingers both tiny and teenaged -- ever forward in their arduous labors through the power of uplifting song. A sample lyric:

You are sewing and I am packing
If you aren’t quick, you can’t get things done
Don’t look around, hurry up, hurry up
Even with no sleep we must try our very best

Danning is played by Linda Lin Dai, a versatile actress whose fame at the time enabled her to work as a free agent for both of Hong Kong’s titans of Mandarin language cinema, Cathay and Shaw Brothers. In 1961 she would sign a contract with Shaw, entering a period in which she would break the record for most awards for Best Actress received at the Asian Pacific Film Festival. Sadly, her suicide in 1964, at the young age of 29, would cement her legendary status, initiating a period of public mourning that saw her funeral inundated by thousands of fans.

And, indeed, Lin Dai’s beauty and charm are hard to miss in Cinderella and Her Little Angels, making it no surprise when Xiaolin’s boss, upon setting eyes on Danning during one of her rare visits to the shop, beseeches Xiaolin to recruit her as a model for his upcoming fashion show. This is a decadent proposition for the modest Danning, but wary of the underfunded orphanage’s desperate need for renovation, she relents, hoping to cover the costs with her modeling swag. Less easy to convince is the orphanage’s conservative headmistress, Madame Kong (Wang Lai), who ultimately must be kept in the dark about Danning’s moonlighting by means of a variety of comedic ruses, most of which somewhat preposterously involve Danning’s aforementioned mannequin lookalike.

Danning, needless to say, proves to be a natural as a model. And the fashion show, accompanied by sung narration from and off-screen chorus, is the clear centerpiece and highlight of Cinderella and Her Little Angels. The salt of Hong Kong, as presented in the film, are not too receptive to the distinctly Western peculiarities of modern fashion, as exemplified by Madame Kong, who calls the “Brigitte Bardot” style sample gown that Xiaolin brings to her “weird”, refusing to have her charges participate in its manufacture. Thus the fashion show sequence seems manifestly intended as a primer for the film’s audience, and as such bears all the hallmarks of a society in the throes of transition, with all of the deep ambivalence that that entails.

This last, I assume, explains why the otherwise chirpy ditties delivered by those unseen singers contain some couplets that seem both perversely and hilariously judgmental. Of a kimono it is said, “Westerners are naughty. They treat it as nightgown.” And, as for another stylish -- and relatively conservative -- evening ensemble:

Look at this new coat
It’s exciting with chest and arms exposed
Modern people like to be sexy
They love to expose their body

Composed by Yao Min, Cinderella and Her Little Angels’ songs, though delivering some harsh medicine, are relentlessly upbeat in tone. And dammit if, along with the winsome performances by the film’s leads, they don’t contribute to it being one of the most charming musicals about cheerful orphans conscripted into forced labor that I’ve ever seen. Toward the end, the singing becomes virtually wall to wall, with the songs providing an ongoing narration describing things that we’re already clearly seeing take place on screen. And if you had any doubt about how things ultimately turn out: