Sunday, February 26, 2012

Loor Da Bala (Pakistan, 1999)

I keep telling myself that I’ll eventually reach some kind of tipping point where these Pashto language horror films won’t seem so strange to me anymore, but Loor Da Bala most definitely isn’t it. In fact, Loor Da Bala brings the strange on a couple of different levels. It’s guaranteed to be just about the most violent, grotesque and sleazy thing that you’ve ever seen, which would make you think that it at least wouldn’t be boring, yet it somehow manages to be that as well. Thankfully, those who are easily offended can occupy themselves during the slow bits by making angry phone calls to the VCD’s distributor, Sangar, whose phone number is helpfully plastered on screen for most of the film’s running time. I’m sure they’d love to hear from you.

To give you some sense of what we’re dealing with here, Loor Da Bala makes something of a theme out of people being sexed while supine. A woman is raped while unconscious, then turns into a monster and tears her attacker’s intestines out. A male protagonist is subjected to similar treatment by a “comic relief” gay character while he lies in a drugged stupor. A trio of globular college girls innocently knead at one another’s breasts while sleeping (as you’ll do). And finally, in a sequence that really puts Loor Da Bala on the world cinema map, a voluptuous female sasquatch-like creature lies chained to a table, moaning and writhing in a combination of fear and ecstasy as a pair of bears (i.e. men in matted looking bear costumes) nuzzle at all of her areas, until she finally breaks free to kung fu kick both of them into the middle of next week. This last was literally the weirdest thing I’ve seen yet this year -- and, yes, I know it’s only February.

The film features a duo of male protagonists played by Shahin Khan and, of course, Badar Munir. I say “of course” because Munir’s career as a star of Pashto cinema goes all the way back to 1970’s Yousuf Khan Sher Bano, the first feature ever produced in the Pashto language. In the ensuing years he came to fulfill the same role in Pashto cinema that Sultan Rahi did within Punjabi films, that of being the beefy, angry, yelling guy who stars in every movie, with a body of work that ultimately came to total over 400 films. Munir also worked in Urdu and Punjabi movies, and reportedly starred alongside Rahi on a number of occasions -- in films that immediately pushed their way to the top of my “must see” list the moment I learned of them.

As far as plot, the movie seems to have a couple of parallel narratives going on which I can’t say for sure, without the aid of subtitles, really interweave or relate to each other in any way. It could just be that, despite its horror trappings, Loor Da Bala couldn’t escape the requirement that it include, like most Pashto films, a storyline involving wounded masculine honor and corresponding bloody vengeance. Thus is provided a gang of scurrilous thugs who, in the course of terrorizing Khan and Munir’s village, kill off some of their woman folk, as a result setting the stage for much gunplay and scenes of men piercing, puncturing and perforating each other with various swords and daggers amid aggrieved throaty screaming.

But, of course, those are all things that you can see in any Pashto film. What you can’t see in any Pashto film is a pair of hirsute, mother and daughter (I think) hellbeasts who transform into dog, bird or human form by way of a variety of deeply bizarre psychedelic optical effects. Said hellbeasts then feast on the entrails of their victims -- that is, until Badar Munir slices off the head and hands of the younger one, who nonetheless fights on for a good few minutes despite being reduced to little more than a collection of blood squirting stumps. This affront puts the snaggletoothed mom-beast on a personal mission of vengeance against our heroes, one that can only be stopped by liberal applications of equal parts portly man martial arts and forceful readings of Islamic scripture.

In those moments when none of the admittedly exciting events described above are taking place, Loor Da Bala puts an earnest effort into becoming tedious through the application of a truly mindboggling number of not at all interestingly staged musical numbers featuring the usual assortment of rump-heavy women. And where that fails, the film courts inertia through sheer repetition. One or two crazed fight scenes might be plenty entertaining, but when all are pitched at the level of an apocalyptic final confrontation, it becomes a bit dismaying when they are followed by a dozen more. The same can even be said of the monster attack scenes, as wonderful as each is in itself. During the last hour, I on numerous occasions thought that the beast had been vanquished, only to have it come around again five minutes later like a bus on rush hour schedule.

Yet, as sleepy as things may get,  Loor Da Bala can always be relied upon to snap us to attention with one of its frequent moments of truly stunning seediness. Such is the scene in which the beast, having taken fetching womanly form, fellates the barrel of Shahid Khan’s pistol, sucking the bullets from the chamber as he sweatily derps out watching her. Also promoting wakefulness are the movie’s many aforementioned reminders of all the unsavory fiddling that might befall us should we nod off. The end result is a type of enforced sleep deprivation that might just make Loor Da Bala the rare film that violates international torture conventions. You have been warned.

 Again, that number is…

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Friday's best pop song ever

Drive-In Mob tonight!: Kingdom of the Spiders and Empire of the Ants

Science teaches us that arachnids are staunch monarchists, while ants are proponents of territorial expansion. Neither of these geopolitical bents works out all that well for us humans, as is demonstrated in both of the features in tonight’s Drive-In Mob. First up, at 8pm EST, is Kingdom of the Spiders, followed, at around 9:30pm EST, by Empire of the Ants. Both films are available for streaming from lord internet, in the case of Kingdom of the Spiders, from YouTube, and in the case of Empire of the Ants, from Netflix Instant. All you need to do to either follow or tweet along is use the #DriveInMob hashtag on Twitter… and of course check out the official Drive In Mob site for more explicit details.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gundala, Son of Lightning (Indonesia, 1981)

When it comes to source material for its pop cinema, Indonesia has a pulp and comic book culture to draw upon that’s almost as rich as its already well mined folklore. We have, for instance, already checked in with the fright-masked comic book crusader Panji Tengkorak, as well as the dime novel warrior hero Wiro Sablang. Gundala, a contemporary costumed hero of the type perhaps more recognizable to Western audiences, was created by comic artist Hasmi (aka Harya Suraminata) in 1969, and by the dawn of the 80s had achieved enough popularity to merit a big screen adaptation of his own -- in this case under the guidance of director Liliek Sudjio, who had traveled similar territory with 1980’s Darna Ajaib.

The origin of Gundala, as portrayed in the film version of his exploits, Gundala Putra Petir, is an equal mix of kiddie sci-fi and old fashioned mysticism. The young scientist Sancaka (Queen of Black Magic’s Teddy Purba) is hard at work on a serum that he hopes will render people immune to the effects of lightning strikes. This appears to be a common threat in Jakarta, for, no sooner has Sancaka injected himself with his latest test batch than he finds himself on the business end of a lightning bolt while out strolling. This somehow transports him to the realm of Kronz, the King of Lightning, who looks like something out of The Mighty Boosh. Kronz bestows upon Sancaka the powers of Gundala, which include, of course, lightning speed, as well as the ability to channel electricity, shoot lightning from his hands, and use his finger as a welding torch. He also bestows upon him the Gundala costume -- and, no, those wings on his head don’t flap, but they certainly look capable of it.

Once back in our mortal realm, Sancaka acquires that habit so common to newly minted superheroes of stumbling upon crimes in progress wherever he goes, which of course gives him ample opportunity to test his new powers on an assortment of disposable thugs and crumbums. He also begins work with his colleagues on something called an “Anti-Morphine Serum”. This last brings him the unwanted attentions of a narcotics ring run by the evil mastermind Ghazul, who is played by reliable Indonesian cinema bad guy W.D. Mochtar (Special Silencers). Ghazul and his gang eventually succeed in capturing and imprisoning Sancaka, which puts our hero, who is perfectly capable of escaping his bonds in his guise as Gundala, in a tricky situation as far as carrying out his superheroic duties while keeping his identity secret.

Gundala Putra Petir is a bit undernourished as far as superhero spectacles go, but perhaps no worse than some of the cheaper Italian costumed hero efforts of its day and prior. The sets, for the most part, look cramped and bare, and the acrobatics in the fight scenes are more often than not accomplished by jumpy trick photography. In addition, Teddy Putra, while filling out his street clothes nicely, tends to look a bit slight and scrawny in his form fitting Gundala costume. On the other hand, the film contains a number of other gaudy elements that are enough to keep its comic book heart beating despite its shortcomings.

For one, W.D. Mochtar’s Ghazul is a classic, Bollywood-style, OTT villain, complete with an intimidating pompadour, gold metallic gauntlets to cover his deformed, claw-like hands, and an array of brightly primary colored military style jackets -- not to mention his zebra patterned, fur lined throne. In establishing Ghazul’s villainy, Gundala Putra Petir follows the time-tested Bollywood matrix by which a character’s evil is measured by the number of liquor bottles he has in his lair. In Ghazul’s case, that lair looks like one big liquor cabinet, with an odd preponderance of J&B -- which leads me to think that they don’t have Vat 69 in Indonesia.

Another asset to the film is its music, in particular the funky Gundala theme song that starts pumping on the soundtrack whenever our hero springs into action. Elsewhere, the musical vibe is of the 70s cop show variety, which is wholly suitable to the scale of the action, while thankfully not as infectious as the song. I had that stuck in my head for hours afterward, which prompted me to reflect that superhero theme songs are an especially cruel type of earworm, as there is so little -- if anything -- in daily life that merits their accompaniment. To launch into a lusty chorus of “GUNDALAAAA” while preparing to brush one’s teeth or microwave a burrito is simply to mock one’s own life.

Gundala also, to its credit, manages to dig deep and deliver the rousing climax that so many cut rate superhero movies before it have lead us to expect. Poverty notwithstanding, you can rest assured that you will see sparking control panels, a damsel in distress suspended above a snake pit on a cross, and coverall clad minions being blithely tossed from elevated walkways as they vainly fire off their machineguns in a kind of automated death rattle. Gundala, you see, cares about being an enjoyable superhero movie, even though it's working against some pretty profound material limitations. That alone is enough for me to meet it halfway.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ratu Sakti Calon Arang (Indonesia, 1985)

I do not take it lightly when I say that Suzzanna and Barry Prima are among the great screen couples, right up there with Tracy and Hepburn, Bogie and Bacall, Mitr Chaibancha and Petchara Chaowarat, and the two Coreys. Ratu Sakti Calon Arang sees them brought together under the direction of Sisworo Gautama Putra, who had previously helmed iconic films for each star, including, for Suzzanna, Nyi Blorong and Sundel Bolong, and, for Prima, Jaka Sembung, better known stateside as The Warrior.

Ratu Sakti Calon Arang, like so many of Suzzanna's films, takes its inspiration from Indonesian folklore, in this case a Balinese legend dating back to the 12th century. Suzzanna here plays a dual role, in the first instance as the titular Calon Arang, a powerful sorceress who, along with her five female disciples, is conducting a reign of terror over the kingdom of Daha. Over the course of the film, she increases her strength by making human sacrifices to the goddess Durga, to the point where she is eventually able to set off a stock footage volcano simply by stomping her foot.

No chip off the old block is Calon Arang's daughter, Ratna, also played by Suzzanna, who tries to offset  the damage caused by her mother by using her own magic to perform small acts of kindness for the villagers. Unfortunately, her powers are no match for her mother's, and when Calon Arang becomes wise to her actions, she strips her of them entirely. The only hope for the beautiful Ratna is to be married off to one of the men of the kingdom and leave her mother's side, but, alas, the dick shriveling powers of having an all-powerful evil sorceress for a mother are not to be underestimated; Ratna is essentially considered the least desirable single lady in all of Daha, and no potential suitor is anyhere to be seen.

Meanwhile, a messenger for the king approaches the holy man Empu Barada (Amoroso Katamsi), asking for his aid in defeating the sorceress. In response, Barada sends his brave and devout son Empu Bahula (Prima) off with the mission of proposing to Ratna. In this the handsome Prima/Bahula is none too surprisingly successful, and the two are soon married in an elaborate ceremony. Strangely, Calon Arang's disciples wait until after the wedding to inform her that they had previously engaged with Bahula in a furious magical kung fu battle while trying to destroy his father's temple, and that he is furthermore in possession of a powerful magic sword. By this point, however, it is too late, for soon Bahula has run off with Calon Arang's book of evil spells, setting the stage for a final confrontation between good and evil that will involve much crazed back-flipping, spin kicking and extrusion of enchanted auras.

While Ratu Sakti Calon Arang is neither Suzzanna or Prima's best film, it is, of their co-starring ventures that I've seen, the one that most equally combines what is best in each star's individual films. We get a good deal of the horror elements of the typical Suzzanna film along with the wild martial arts action of Prima's, capped off by much of the gore and cut-rate but imaginative special effects common to both. There are also, thanks to the scenes between Bahula and Ratna, some romantic elements that may please fans of neither, but to me these were just another flavor in the already rich stew of genres that the movie presents, and hence welcome.

Suzzanna's dual performance also factors strongly in Ratu Sakti Calon Arang's appeal. To contrast Calon Arang with the virtuous but bland Ratna (who, to complicate matters, is not subjected to much in the way of makeup effects that would physically distinguish her in any way), the actress portrays the mother as a trashy, betel leaf chewing hag who, at one point, shoots a firehose-strength stream of piss at an attacker to fend him off. This character also appears to be a creature of pure evil, which makes the combined portrayals something of a split version of the usual Suzzanna villain, who, despite her horrendous deeds and appearance, is typically imbued with an element of tragedy, as well as a modicum of quiet dignity. As for Prima, his job here is mainly to act stoic and kick ass, minus the grandstanding tableaus of martyrdom that we'd get if this were his starring vehicle. In this he excels as would be expected, committing to film yet another iconic performance that the cranky actor today no doubt dismisses as completely worthless.

As for Sisworo Gautama Putra, the director here once again demonstrates his uncanny consistency in delivering colorful and surreally self-contained films that serve as models of giddy escapism. The only real criteria for determining if you will enjoy the film, then, is if you previously enjoyed any of his others. I did and I do, but honestly, the presence of its two stars are enough to guaranty my eyeballs no matter who's behind the camera.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Friday's best pop song ever

Drive-In Mob tonight: The man, the myth, the Matthau!

Although we are to a one flawless physical specimens, the Drive-In Mob is anything but a beauty contest. How else to explain tonight’s double feature, a jowl-to-jowl showing of two films starring the great Walter Matthau at his 1970s peak of hotness? The Matthau mania starts at 8pm EST with Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, and continue at around 9:30 EST with Hopscotch, a film that I have quite honestly never heard of. Both features can be streamed via Netflix Instant, and to play along at home all you need do is use the #DriveInMob hashtag on Twitter. As always, be sure to check out the official Drive-In Mob site for full details.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Las Sicodelicas (Mexico/Peru, 1968)

If you listened to the last episode of The Infernal Brains, you heard me and a couple of my pseudonymous associates discussing the Cantonese "Jane Bond" films of 1960s Hong Kong -- and, in particular, how those films stood out for their relatively non-sexualized depiction of the high-kicking contemporary action heroine. To see the absolute opposite of that, one need only look at lady spy films from pretty much anywhere else in the world during that era, and especially those from Mexico. 1968's Las Sicodelicas, a joint production between Mexico and Peru that was primarily shot in Lima with a combination of Mexican and Peruvian talent, although not technically a spy film, offers a good example. Of course, without the aid of English translation, Las Sicodelicas comes across as little more than a mod era fashion show. But, oh, what a fashion show it is!

Modelling the film's selection of lysergic, flower power inspired couture is what could be considered a sort of Valentines Day sampler of 1960s Mexican cinema's finest eye candy. Among these is Chicago born beauty queen Amedee Chabot, who left behind a string of bikini clad bit parts in American film and television for a career as a leading lady in south of the border genre fare during the late 60s. Also here is Elizabeth Campbell, another American, who won her pulp cinema immortality as one half of Las Luchadoras in the first three films of the Wrestling Women series. Isela Vega, a former model and singer whose enormous popularity as a sex symbol during the late 60s would lead to her winning a lead role in Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, represents Mexico. And last, but certainly not least, we have Batwoman herself, Italian import Maura Monti.

Here the four starlets play a quartet of hit women working for the deceptively grandmotherly "Aunt" Ermentrudis (Tamra Garina), who runs a protection racket under the cover of a somewhat unorthodox funeral parlor operation (in that, among other things, the funeral services include our four femme fatales acting as skimpily attired cocktail waitresses for the assembled bereaved). Aunty's targets are wealthy men from all areas of business, whom, should they ever tire of paying, find themselves on the wrong side of Maura, Amedee and company, whose job it is to hop into their chauffeured hearse and blithely eliminate them in any number of darkly comic scenarios. Thus is a recalcitrant luchadore hurled from a plane, another man obliterated by an exploding golf ball, and another herded into an abandoned arena to have a private audience with an angry bull.

Las Sicodelicas being the type of film that it is, none of its titular foursome are given any sort of character notes beyond what would easily fit inside a fortune cookie. Campbell's Patricia is the butch one. Vega's Dalilah is a hard drinking rocker chick in love with a pop singer named Ringo (Jack Gilbert, whose band is portrayed by Peruvian garage rockers Los Shains). Maura's Mireyra is, I don't know, the one most likely to pop her top, I guess. And it falls to Chabot's Adriana to be designated the most virginal and relatively sweet-natured of the group, which leads to her falling ass-over-teakettle for the private detective Arsenio, who is played by Rogelio Guerra as one part bungling comic relief and one part bargain bin Michael Caine. This last development requires Chabot to constantly make puppy dog eyes at Guerra, something that she proves to be weirdly terrible at. It also results in a plot snarl for the Sicodelicas once Arsenio takes it upon himself to investigate their latest string of killings.

As I alluded to above, the costumes worn by its stars are an undeniable highlight of Las Sicodelicas, as well as the one aspect of the film that most lives up to its title. Chabot especially, being cast as the group's resident flower child, gets to model a particularly astonishing assortment of floral-themed ensembles, which at one point include a piece of head wear that looks like an overturned flower pot rendered in macrame. However, aside from that and the nods to Beatlemania in Los Shains' musical sequences, there's nothing all that counter-cultural going on. For one thing, the Sicodelicas, despite their name, don't do psychedelics, nor, in fact, do they appear to do anything harder than alcohol.

Furthermore, there doesn't appear to be any element of "sticking it to the man" in the Sicodelicas' various transgressions, with the motive instead being a combination of financial gain and the fact that the girls just really seem to enjoy killing people. As such, Las Sicodelicas, for the most part, comes across as an amoral romp with a sort of frothy, free floating irreverence, taking its license from contemporary youth culture without subscribing to it on any deep level. That is, until its conclusion, when an ill-advised decision is made on the part of the filmmakers to call the girls to karmic account for their crimes.

No one in their right mind is going to come to a movie like Las Sicodelicas with an expectation of seeing anything remotely gritty or hard hitting. But if you're looking for a vibrant example of 1960s Mexican pop cinema at its most cheerily sex obsessed and silly, you couldn't do much better. Director Gilberto Martinez Solares (Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters), does, as will surprise no one familiar with his work, a merely workmanlike job, but it's likely he felt the combined appeal of his four female stars would be enough to carry him. And he was right. As highs go, Las Sicodelicas may be lightweight, but it's clear that everyone involved was enjoying the trip, and that's enough for me.

Monday, February 13, 2012

4DK nominated for a Rondo Award

I don't know how this happened, but somehow 4DK got nominated for a Rondo Award for best blog of 2011. To say that I'm honored is an understatement, especially since I know better than anybody how little I deserve it.