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.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Man Chased by a UFO, aka Man of Ganimedes (Spain, 1976)

As movie titles go, Man Chased by a UFO is about as descriptive as they come. The film is the product of Spanish amateur filmmaker and UFO enthusiast Juan Carlos Olaria, who shot it in 16mm over the course of a few months in 1972, using a park in the scenic Garraf region of Barcelona for most of his locations. The film then remained largely unseen for several years, only finding distribution in 1976 once Olaria had spiced it up with some nudie and soft core footage. Why it is today known by the alternate title Man of Ganimedes I can’t say, but I mention it here because that’s the only way you’re going to find it on IMDB.

Man Chased by a UFO kicks off with a flying saucer heading toward Earth with its crew intent on abducting a human being. For reasons undisclosed, the hapless schmo they’ve set their sights on is Alberto (Richard Kolin), a middle-aged author of pulp fiction in the middle of one of those episodes of writers’ block that movies think suffice as character development when dealing with writers. And so the chase begins. Unfortunately for the aliens, Alberto is from the Bloody Pit of Horror School of writing, and is just as willing to bring Jack Johnson and Tom O’Leary to the party as a steno pad when confronted with extraterrestrial aggression. (“I gave them a good beating”, he later tells an interlocutor.)

Rather than dirtying their hands with the whole abducting business, the aliens delegate the task to a team of “mutants”. These are basically a bunch of guys in turtlenecks and slacks with what look like plastic shopping bags tied over their heads, and their first order of business is to undo the parking brake on Alberto’s car and roll it off a cliff. To further punk Alberto, they then take off with his car and set it adrift in space, so that when he returns to show the authorities what happened, there is no evidence to support his story. And this is central to Alberto’s dilemma: despite his distinguished bearing and all around tweedy-ness, no one believes him when he tells them he was “assaulted by aliens” who want to abduct him. WHY WON’T THEY BELIEVE HIM?

On a positive note, Alberto does seem to find a sympathetic ear in police detective Duran, who’s played by the director’s dad, Juan Olaria (Juan Jr., for his part, can be seen playing the pilot of the UFO). While not buying all of what Alberto’s selling, Duran suggests that he retreat to his summer cottage to wait things out, which Alberto does. Once there, he’s unexpectedly joined by his mistress, Carmen, whose open marriage with Alberto’s friend Ricardo seems to have Alberto as its primary beneficiary (just in case you forgot this was a European movie from the 70s). This sets the stage for a Night of the Living Dead style siege upon the cottage by the mutants, and finally those scenes of Alberto being chased around by a flying saucer that the movie’s title has lead us to expect -- or, dare I say, demand.

Man Chased by a UFO was Olaria’s first feature length film, following upon a series of 8mm shorts that he made throughout his youth. Because of this, it will likely surprise no one that it’s an amateur affair, as evidenced by its dopey special effects, unfathomable editing choices, numerous under-lit shots, and leaden dialogue. On this last count, Olaria displays one of the common weaknesses of novice screenwriters: never knowing when to stop writing words into people’s mouths. As a result, we get a lot of expositing about things that don’t need to be exposited. Until, that is, the final act, when the aliens finally divulge to Alberto their reasons for wanting to kidnap him. This involves something about the alien’s planet being a mirror image of Earth, as well as something about “anti-matter”, and ultimately ends up sounding like something that should be scrawled in very tiny writing on a sandwich board.

In a recent interview with Fantastique magazine, Olaria reconciled himself to being referred to as the “Spanish Ed Wood” by noting with approval that Wood often sacrificed quality for the sake of fun and entertainment. And in this I think he is spot on; while Man Chased by a UFO doesn’t provide much evidence that Olaria is capable of quality, it nonetheless continues a tradition of which he should be proud.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Cultural Gutter needs all the $$$

The Gultural Gutter have been supporters of 4DK since way back, and now it's time to throw a little back their way. You see, the Gutter Gang have suffered a cut in their funding from the Canadian Council for the Arts and are now having to subsist on a measly ration of sub-par government poutine.

Seriously, though, what the Gutter really needs is the dosh for necessities like web hosting -- things that they literally can't continue to exist without. Which is why they've started this Indiegogo campaign, making it convenient for you to throw what little cash you can their way to help them out. Because, seriously, if you don't think The Cultural Gutter is worth saving, you're obviously someone who can't appreciate the value of a site that provides consistently thoughtful and provocative writing on a variety of much maligned pop culture topics that ranges from genre movies, to comics, to romance novels. So fuck you.

For the rest of you beloved 4DK readers, please do help out if you can, even if it means donating as little as one dollar. As you'll see once you visit the page, the folks at the Gutter have made a range of enticing perks available to coax your wallet hand, so, yes, THERE IS SOMETHING IN IT FOR YOU.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get to work on writing some grant proposals. Until science invents a way to stop chimps from shitting, we're going to need diapers, and LOTS of them.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Mondo Bomba

The good folks over at the Mondo Macabro DVD blog invited me to write a guest post about the favored Mondo Macabro release of my choice. While the choices were many (I own a lot of Mondo Macabro discs), I finally settled upon Elwood Perez's Silip, a Filipino film that is at once haunting, poetic, disturbing, and very, very dirty. My vaguely NSFW thoughts on the topic can be read here.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

An Aneurysm for Ringo: Four Really Strident 1960s Italian Movie Themes

It just may be that Shirley Bassey's take on "Goldfinger" established the guidelines for all singers of 1960s movie themes -- those guidelines essentially being to belt the thing out as if you were trying to burst every blood vessel in your face while employing a level of vibrato commensurate with being on an out of control tilt-a-whirl. No one, it seems, took those guidelines more seriously than the Italians.

"Man For Me" from OK Connery/Operation Kid Brother, sung by Christy

"Lady Chaplin" from Special Mission Lady Chaplin, sung by Bobby Solo 

"Furore" from The Girl Who Knew Too Much, sung by Adriano Celentano

"Angel Face" from A Pistol For Ringo, sung by Maurizio Graf

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

From the Lucha Diaries Vault: El Asesino Invisible (Mexico, 1964)

Life’s petty obligations have overwhelmed me once again, which means it’s time to mine yet another golden nugget from the retired flagship of my Internet empire, The Lucha Diaries, which is easily the most exhaustively misinformed catalog of Mexican wrestling movies online or on anything else. Disfrutar!

Of all the lucha films in which classic movie monsters have made an appearance, El Asesino Invisible is the only one that I can think of that features the Invisible Man. There are a number of reasons why pitting a luchadore against an invisible foe is a bad idea, one of the most obvious being that Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras, for all their athletic ability, were not, as far as I know, accomplished mimes, and would have had difficulty selling the idea that they were grappling with a transparent corporeal being -- much less that they were walking against the wind or trapped in a small invisible box. Fortunately for us, the lead here is taken by professional actor Jorge Rivero, essaying the one-off role of El Enmascarado de Oro, aka The Golden Mask. (Unable to beat Santo at his own game, Rivero would go on to join him a couple years later as his co-star in Operacion 67 and El Tesoro de Moctezuma.)

El Asesino Invisible is the type of film that I imagine people are talking about when they refer to a movie as "an entertainment"; There's a sprinkling of plot, a bunch of musical numbers, a little romance, eye candy of both the male and female varieties, and, of course, a couple of wrestling matches shown in their entirety. The adorable Ana Bertha Lepe is the female lead here, and how much you like El Asesino Invisible will depend on how much you like Lepe (I do; she's adorable, remember), because she appears in several full-length song and dance numbers that are distributed liberally throughout the length of the film. Interestingly, Lepe is playing herself here -- or at least a version of famous star of stage and screen Ana Bertha Lepe who exists in a world where she might be stalked by a mad scientist with the power of invisibility -- which I can't help thinking was a move to compensate for the lack of verisimilitude that resulted from having an actor, rather than the "real" wrestler you'd typically see, in the masked hero role.

In a further concession to genre tradition, Rivero forfeits the romantic lead to Miguel Arenas' police detective character, and doesn't even appear unmasked until a very brief moment in the final scene -- an especially odd choice given Rovero's classic movie star looks. On the villainous front, the presence of the ever waxen Carlos Agosti in the cast once again makes a mockery of a film's attempts to create any mystery around the identity of its killer, invisible though he may be in this case.

On that point, I've got to say that the movie's invisibility effects, while not groundbreaking, are always competent and, in a couple of instances, quite striking; in particular the creepy "empty mask" effect when the killer tries to masquerade as El Enmascarado de Oro, and a bizarre, supernaturally-tinged moment when the hero sees the killer made visible as the reflection in a cat's eyes. I like to point out such technical accomplishments, because I've been troubled by some online reviews I've read of later luchadore films which seem to mistakenly interpret those films' shoddiness as being typical of the product of a backward, "Third World" film industry. The fact is that, at the time El Asesino Invisible was made, the Mexican film industry was the major provider of film entertainment for all of Latin America, was making its films for a worldwide audience, and had an established studio system that was a magnet for first rate technical and artistic talent from throughout the Spanish speaking world and beyond.

The real reason that those later lucha movies are shoddy is that, by the time they were made, the genre had fallen out of favor with audiences to the point where they were no longer an acceptable risk for the larger studios, and so became the provenance of smaller studios and independent producers looking to make a quick profit on as small an investment as possible. Still, I can understand how, if the only Mexican film someone has seen is, for instance, the first Superzan movie, they might not have the most charitable view of the country's film industry as a whole -- because that movie looks like it was made by some kind of cargo cult after some camera equipment washed up on the beach. (Hey, I'm not saying you shouldn't make fun of those movies; I'm just saying to be careful about the generalizations you make from them.) Still, even a glossy piece of fluff like El Asesino Invisible, which is entertaining but far from the best the industry had to offer, should serve to handily refute such notions.