Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Stolen Airship (Czechoslovakia, 1967)

Czechoslovakian director and animator Karel Zeman had a visual signature so distinctive that one is likely to find similarities only in those pioneers -- Melies, McCay -- who inspired him and those eccentric stylists -- Gilliam, Maddin, Burton -- who followed his lead. Combining live action and a fluid mix of puppet, cell, and cutout animation with a graphic sensibility derived from 19th century illustration, Zeman's work reveled in artifice. His emphasis was clearly on dazzling rather than tricking the eye, yet so immersive was the fantasy world he presented that one could not help but surrender disbelief.

Unlike George Pal, another Eastern European whose early forays into stop motion work could be seen as a continuation of his country’s long tradition of puppet theater, Zeman never sought his fortune in Hollywood. Still, a number of his Czech features did make their way to American television in one form or another, with probably the most memorable being The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, an English dubbed version of his Baron Prasil that confused and delighted many a young couch sprout throughout its run in the 60s and 70s. His 1955 dinosaur travelogue Cesta Do Praveku saw a belated U.S. release in 1966 as the dubbed and reedited Journey to the Beginning of Time, and Joseph E. Levine released his Vynalez Zkazy as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (boasting a process called "Mysti-mation") in 1961. It’s hard to see why 1967’s The Stolen Airship -- ne Ukradena Vzducholod -- wasn’t seen as being suitable for such treatment, but the fact remains that it appears to have never had a release stateside despite a potential to amuse and beguile equal at the very least to those aforementioned titles.

The Stolen Airship draws upon two different Jules Verne novels for its story: 1888’s Two Years’ Vacation and, on a somewhat more meta level, The Mysterious Island. But before getting into the meat of that story, Zeman sets the tone with an animated prologue depicting youthful troublemakers through the ages -- going back as far as the dawn of time -- wreaking innocent havoc and in turn being scolded by their parents (a caveman yells at his son for pissing on the fire he has made, some Roman urchins break an urn, etc.). This takes us up to the movie’s present day, sometime near the close of the 19th century, where our protagonists, a group of five young boys, find themselves standing in the docks before a disapproving judge, recounting their fantastic tale. One of these lads, Jakub, is played by Michal Pospisil, whom we earlier saw in Vojtech Jasny’s Cassandra Cat.

Now, in The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Zeman introduced us to a steam punk version of the Gilded Age in which man’s desire to fly and drive around in cool things has trumped the laws of physics and propulsion to the extent that a thrilling assortment of fantastic conveyances now crowd land, sea and air. Fans of generously mustached men in straw hats piloting bicycle powered flying machines will be pleased to know that this is the very same world that The Stolen Airship takes place in. In fact, as the tale proper kicks off, an exhibition of sorts seems to be taking place in Prague, at which the inventor Findeys (Cestmir Randa) is presenting an airship which he claims -- disingenuously, natch -- runs on a special, fire-proof gas. It is this fanciful craft that the five youths, fleeing the fallout from a recent escapade that involved braining a police officer, choose to hide in. And as anyone who has watched one of those “hapless schmo accidentally goes to the moon and meets space ladies” movies knows, it’s just a short, fumbling distance from there to the kids being set sail on an unsupervised journey into the upper atmosphere.

The sharp eyed among you may have already spotted The Stolen Airship’s potential to be a gooey paean to childhood and the power of imagination, and, while such sentiments are certainly at play within it, I want to sooth any mounting panic that they might inspire. As Zeman signals with his prologue, the film also comes armed with a mischievous sense of humor, not to mention a biting sense of satire, and as such boasts more than enough edge to prevent it from becoming overly saccharine. To wit, while the boys are marveling at the natural wonders of the world from their perch in the clouds, the yellow press back home is thrilling its reader with speculations about the exotic horrors befalling them. Meanwhile, the politicking city prosecutor loudly advocates punishing the miscreants to the furthest extent the law will allow -- until his own son is revealed to be among them, at which points he sets his sights on Findeys, accusing the inventor of using the kids as “guinea pigs” in an unethical science experiment. Finally, there is the spy, Agent 13, who attempts to get his hands on the bogus “fire-proof gas” formula by a variety of preposterous means.

It also should be kept in mind that, while marked by the whimsy inherent in Zeman’s style, The Stolen Airship is also very much a product of its period, and of the new wave of free expression that was sweeping through Czech cinema at the time. The emphasis on archaic illustration and Art Noveau that are characteristic of Zeman’s art direction are all there, but the color palette -- consisting of a mixture of color film with alternately tinted black and white footage -- lends to the presentation overall an aspect of irreverent, pop art inspired stylization. This extends to entire sequences switching from being bathed in one primary color to another, putting the film in contention with the 1971 Willy Wonka adaptation as a family friendly Trojan horse for seizure inducing psychedelia.

The Stolen Airship takes a narrative turn halfway through when a storm strands our five young travelers on a seemingly deserted island. Interestingly, the boys then seem to populate the island by dint of imagination. When they discover an underground harbor, they immediately recognize it as the port for Captain Nemo’s submarine The Nautilus -- because, like most boys their age would have at that time, they have read 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and its sequel, The Mysterious Island, and recognize it as such. (These scenes, by the way, bear a striking resemblance to the way they are depicted in the Russian adaptation of Mysterious Island from 1941, which perhaps testifies to the influence of original illustrator Jules Ferat on both films’ visual style.) They then seem somewhat unfazed as things proceed according to the template set by the novels, including the furtive attempts of Captain Nemo (Vaclav Svec) at providing them with assistance and even a battle with a band of bumbling pirates. Finally, things diverge into Flight of the Phoenix territory in a beautifully realized scene in which the kids successfully fashion a one man flying machine from the wreckage of the airship.

All told, The Stolen Airship is a seductively guilt free entertainment, appealing to the child within while at the same time being arty, strange and just cynical enough to spare the surrounding adult shell any embarrassment. Zeman’s bottomless bag of visual tricks alone is enough to sustain engagement, but the end product would not be even half as charming were it not for the efforts of a game and appealing cast. Sadly, I’m unable to identify the actor who portrayed the dashing reporter Marek, the closest thing to a traditional hero in the film, or Jakub’s rifle toting granny, who in one scene takes potshots at reporters as they doggedly shout questions from outside her home. Such vivid figures suggest that Zeman, while creating a fanciful alternative to our world, was in no way retreating from it. True, he might mock, but in the end he would bestow his gifts upon us in generous overflow.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

I heart poop (and Joginder)

"It’s about pooping and I have the sense of humour of an eight-year-old"
You see, journos? That's the kind of pithy utterance you can expect if you turn to yours truly for an illuminating quote to spice up your article. The line forms to the left.

In this case, the article is one by Shaikh Ayaz in the latest edition of India's Open Magazine. The topic of said article being the great Indian B movie auteur and star Joginder -- he of Pyasa Shaitan, Ranga Khush, and, yes, the notorious Lota Dance.

Any excuse to post that clip, really.

Anyway, if you'd like to read Shaikh's article, "The Poet of Poop", which includes further thoughts from both me and Teleport City's illustrious Keith Allison, please avail yourselves here.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sonics go boom

This month I’ve been getting back on track with my writing for Teleport City, in this case putting on my music critic hat for an overview of The Sonics, who are perhaps the greatest of all American garage rock bands. If you like music that thunders, stomps, and wails with all the fury of a caveman werewolf, jump in your boss hoss and head on over to TC to check it out right now.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Friday's best pop song ever

I've finally reached the gutter

The Cultural Gutter has long been one of my favorite sites, reliably providing well written and thoughtful commentary on a wide range of pop culture subjects... well, until now. That's because, when Gutter editor Carol Borden invited me to contribute, I leapt -- leapt! -- at the opportunity. The result is a troubled rumination on one of my favorite musical moments in cinema. Please toddle over and have a look, won’t you?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

But liquor is quicker

Teleport City’s move to its new home continues apace, with only, oh, several hundo reviews remaining to be reposted. In the meantime, I’ve complicated matters by providing some new content and, in the process, filling a few gaps. If it hasn’t happened already, my review of Death is Nimble, Death is Quick should cement 2013 in your minds as the year that Todd simply would not fucking shut up about Kommissar X. Nimble is the second film in that freewheeling Eurospy series, and one of the only ones not already covered by Teleport City. Better yet, thanks to Koch Media’s recent, loving restoration of the title, I was able to cull a really dazzling assortment of screen caps. Check it out, won’t you?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Peligro!... Mujeres en Accion, aka Danger Girls (Mexico, 1969)

We’ve seen time and again in Mexican genre movies that when a bunch of women get together they’re usually up to no good. And I’m not just talking sangria benders and serial viewings of Magic Mike. More typically it’s world domination that’s on the agenda, whether these femmes are terrestrial, as in Las Sicodelicas or Blue Demon contra las Diabolicas, or extraterrestrial, as in Blue Demon contra las Invasoras or Planeta de las Mujeres Invasoras. Treachery, your name is woman!

As Peligro!... Mujeres en Accion amply demonstrates, these visions of Amazonian apocalypse also guaranty the appearance of a lot of familiar faces. The film reads as a sort of Mexican “Follies of 1967”, providing little more than a thin pretext for parading the country’s pantheon of B movie starlets before the camera in an assortment of scanty swimsuits and lingerie. So top loaded is the female cast, in fact, that some fairly big names get only a bare minimum of screen time. American born Amedee Chabot -- she of Las Sicodelicas and Agente 00 Sexy -- has a role as an Ecuadorian hit woman that amounts to little more than a cameo, and frequent Santo (and one time Elvis) co-star Elsa Cardenas is on screen for only one brief scene before being unceremoniously picked off.

It’s another American actress, Elizabeth Campbell, who fares somewhat better, landing the meaty role of the picture’s lead villain. Both imposing and lovely, Campbell was probably the girl most likely to feature in mid century Latin men’s worst nightmares of female enslavement, having also appeared in the aforementioned Las Sicodelicas and Planeta de las Mujeres Invasoras, as well as the first four Las Luchadoras movies. Here she plays Sora, head of the international terrorist organization S.O.S. The organization seems to have a bit of a glass ceiling where men are concerned, but is nonetheless not exclusively female. For instance, there is the legion of anonymous, black turtleneck wearing commandos who collapse like fainting goats whenever a grenade goes off within fifty feet of them. And then there’s Jack (Cesar del Campo), an assassin with a solid gold left hand that he lovingly sharpens on a grinding wheel.

You almost wouldn’t know it, but Peligro!... Mujeres en Accion is actually the second of two movies featuring Mexican super secret agent Alex Dinamo, the first being the previously reviewed S.O.S. Conspiracion Bikini. That film’s star, Julio Aleman, returns to his role here, as does S.O.S. writer/director Rene Cardona Jr. and, perhaps most importantly, the swimwear of Oleg Cassini. This time around, Dinamo and two female cohorts, Barbara (Barbara Angely of the wonderful Tigresas films) and Maura (Doctor Satan’s Alma Delia Fuentes), foil a plot by S.O.S. to destroy an Ecuadorian refinery, only to uncover a larger plot by the gang to poison South America’s water supply with a deadly manmade virus.

As with S.O.S. before it, Peligro takes the tack of exploiting whatever production value it can muster to patience testing extremes. Fortunately, there seems to have been a bit more of a cash outlay this time around, so, in addition to the light plane that we see over and over again, there are also a mini sub and a helicopter for the camera to linger on at uncomfortable lengths. The buildup that the helicopter gets is actually quite comical, as if Peligro were providing humanity at large with its first glimpse of the contraption. (I imagine audience members leaping behind their seats and shouting “witchcraft!” at the screen.) There are also several conveyances and structures that get blowed up real good.

Probably the most conspicuous evidence of expense, however, is in Peligro’s assortment of locations. The movie was shot in Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and Miami, with each providing a suitably glitzy backdrop for the film’s otherwise prosaic spy movie action. Miami, in particular, affords the film the opportunity to walk in Goldfinger’s footsteps by including a scene shot at the Fontainebleau Hotel. Florida also provides the setting for one of the movie’s most exciting action sequences, during which Sora and her crew hunt Dinamo and his partners through the Everglades like well dressed animals.

All that moving back and forth between countries adds a dynamism to Dinamo’s actions that might otherwise be lacking, given that his progress involves a lot more luck than detective work. You see, the various operatives of S.O.S. may be cruel and cunning, but they are also women, while Dinamo, he is a man. As such, these ladies are practically lining up to turn traitor for him; helpfully pointing him toward the next plot point in return for some coyly implied canoodling. It’s merely a matter of him making sure he’s in the right port of call to receive the advances of the next whistle blower.

My favorite of these many turncoats is Cristal, a nightclub singer played by Nadia Milton. Cristal makes her biggest impression by performing a Nancy Sinatra style musical number that’s seemingly comprised mostly of improvised ESL whooping and punctuated by jerky go-go dancing moves. The overall effect is more that of a psychotic break than of any kind of choreographed entertainment. It’s by far the strangest moment in Peligro, and indicative of a type of strangeness that the movie overall could have benefited from a lot more of. Like S.O.S. Conspiracion Bikini , it’s a mildly likeable film that -- in a sea of Mexican spy films rife with femmebots, masked wrestlers and invisibility rays -- fails to distinguish itself above the competition. Fortunately, if one so chooses, he can just turn the sound down and treat it like a vaguely diverting fashion show of vintage bikinis.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Please help... or Weng Weng will kickstart those nutz

We obsessives have to help one another out, because we know better than anybody that compulsively cataloguing, collecting and curating things the way we do eats up resources like nobody's business. Take Andrew Leavold, for example; he's been working on his documentary on miniature Filipino action hero Weng Weng, titled The Search for Weng Weng, for over six years now, and in that time has amassed over 100 hours of footage. Now, unbelievably, he is finally within sight of the finish line, and getting there is just a small matter of you giving him money. To make that as easy for you as possible, he's set up a Kickstarter page for the film, where you can donate as much or as little as you want. Please give, because (A) I really want to see the movie and (B) to do otherwise would be selfish.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Savage Hunt of King Stakh (USSR, 1979)

The Wild Hunt is a component of Western folklore that dates back as far as ancient times and spans most of the European continent. While its details change from region to region, its broad outline remains the same: A horrific procession of ghostly, mounted huntsmen -- a collection of restless spirits lead, in most cases, by a fearsome figure from either local legend or history -- that charges across a stormy night’s sky as a harbinger of coming catastrophe. Its influence can even be seen stateside in tales such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky”. Just how far it penetrated into Eastern Europe I can’t say, but it was clearly enough to influence Belarusian author Vladzimir Karatkievich’s popular 1964 novel King Stakh’s Wild Hunt, which Karatkievich and director Valeri Rubinchik would later adapt into the film The Savage Hunt of King Stakh.

King Stakh begins just as any gothic thriller wanting to put its best foot forward should: with a stranger seeking shelter from the storm at a gloomy estate whose inhabitants all seem to have a chronic case of the heebie jeebies. Said stranger is Bielarecki (Boris Plotnikov), a young academic who has come to the remote northwestern region of Belarus to study its local legends, and said estate, we learn, is called Marsh Firs. The mistress of the estate is Nadzieja Janowska, who, were this an Antonio Margheritti joint, would be played by Barbara Steele, but who instead is played by the lovely Elena Dimitrova. Much to the consternation of the estate’s manager, Gacievic (Albert Filozov, I think?), Nadzieja tells Bielarecki that, if it’s bogeys he’s looking for, he’s hit the jackpot with Marsh Firs, where, according to her, “there are more ghosts than live people”.

And just as she says, it turns out the estate is troubled by a host of spectral entities, including a ghostly lady in blue and something they call “The Little Man”. But by far the worst of these is King Stakh’s hunt. Stakh, we’re told, was a despot who ruled over the region during the 17th century who was assassinated by an ancestor of the Janowski’s while out on a hunt. That ancestor then strapped the corpses of Stakh and his hunting party to their horses and sent them galloping off into the marsh. Stakh, however, still had enough life left in him to proclaim a curse on the man and all of his descendants. As a result, the ensuing years have seen the Janowskis visited by calamity after calamity, all heralded by the sight of the King’s macabre posse. Such has been the toll that today the only remaining heirs to Marsh Firs are Nadzieja, her uncle Dubotowk, his ward Vardna (lauded Russian stage and screen star Boris Khmelnitsky), and Nadzieja’s widowed aunt, Mrs. Kulsa (a laudably creepy Valentina Shendrikova), who has been driven mad with fear by the ordeal. It also explains the presence in the mansion of an old crone who, when we first see her, appears to be attempting some kind of an exorcism on Nadzieja.

Bielarecki, of course, is a man of science, and initially scoffs at the notion of such apparitions in “the age of steam and electricity”. Yet, once the inhabitants of the mansion start to turn up murdered -- and the local constabulary prove all too eager to write it off to mundane causes -- he becomes obsessed with figuring out just what exactly it is that the Janowskis are really seeing. He becomes even more deeply fixated once he himself starts to experience otherworldly phenomena, speaking of wanting to “feel ghosts with his hands”, and finally, upon personally being chased through the bog by the King and his coterie of mounted phantoms, becomes just as freaked out as everyone else.

As directed by Rubinchik and lensed by Tatyana Loginova, The Savage Hunt of King Stakh luxuriates in gothic atmosphere, putting it in good company with the aforementioned Italian thrillers of Margheritti et al, the AIP Poe films, and Hammer’s horror friendly take on The Hound of the Baskervilles. In contrast to those, however, it also boasts elements of stark modernism. A good example of this can be found in Yevgeni Glebov’s musical score, which alternates between lush romantic themes and an almost industrial minimalism -- while some of the film’s most frightening scenes conspicuously forego any accompaniment at all. The film also shows an affinity with traditional Russian fantasy cinema by embracing a kind of gauzy surrealism, lending the events a dreamy, oft times eroticized quality that’s well suited to the fog enshrouded marshland setting.

All of the above makes King Stakh a film that is, if not especially terrifying, nonetheless unsettling and darkly compelling. The cast, most of whom are charged with presenting varying levels of perturbation, do as fine a job as you’d expect from such a typically staunch ensemble of theater-trained Soviet thespians, taking things just enough over the top to add spark without plunging us over the precipice into camp. If you are a fan of haunted looks -- either giving of receiving them -- this is definitely one worth settling your troubled gaze upon.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Miss Lovely (India, 2012)

“Outlaw Cinema” is one of those terms we sometimes use to elevate the acts of film making and consumption to the romantic level of rebellion. From an audience standpoint, it allows us to feel that we’re totally sticking it to The Man while, in reality, we’re not in any way diverging from a role of passive spectatorship -- at least in those parts of the world where we have the luxury of spicing up innocuous pastimes with intimations of criminality. Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, on the other hand, depicts an outlaw cinema of a much more literal type, one in which the risks taken are far more than aesthetic, and the dangers, for those participating, are potentially mortal in nature.

Ahluwalia originally set out to make a documentary about India’s ‘C’ grade movie industry, but ran into a stumbling block when none of his subjects would agree to appear on camera. Equipped with a wealth of research and firsthand experience, he then set out to make a narrative feature on the subject, casting professional actors in the leads and using some actual figures from the scene -- who apparently weren’t averse to showing themselves as long as it was in a fictionalized context -- as background and supporting players. For a time period, he chose the mid-to-late 80s, sort of a golden age for the ‘C’ movie industry before it was elbowed into irrelevance by the internet and the easy availability of Western pornography.

Miss Lovely opens with a luridly hued, period appropriate title sequence before plunging us right into a “boo” moment from a Ramsay Brothers’ style horror cheapie. In fact, anyone familiar with the work of the Ramsays will recognize the likely inspiration for Ahluwalia’s main characters: a pair of brothers who produce low budget fright films for India’s downscale urban and rural cinema circuit. It is not so much the content of the brothers’ horror films per se that counts, however, as much as those films’ role as Trojan horses for the pornographic reels that are later inserted into them once they’ve cleared the censor and made their way into the theaters. This last delicate operation is accomplished by making hand delivery of the smut footage to the individual theaters where the films are being shown, whereupon they are spooled into the picture as it’s screened.

Such grunt work normally falls to the younger of the brothers, Sonu, who is played by Peepli (Live)’s Nawazussin Siddiqui. Sensitive and shy, Sonu seems to be nearing a breaking point when we meet him, his eyes searching for whatever exit can be found. By contrast, his older brother Vicky (Anil George) is being driven by his ambitions ever deeper into the dark underbelly of the industry, to the point where his clashes with the gangsters who run the distribution end of the business are becoming increasingly perilous. When Sonu meets and falls for an aspiring actress named Pinky (beauty queen and spokesmodel Niharika Singh, making an impressive feature debut), he attempts to woo her with plans to make a legitimate feature, a romance he’s titled Miss Lovely. Unfortunately, Pinky has also caught the eye of Vicky, who attempts in turn to woo her toward the less wholesome type of screen immortality that is his to offer. Thus is set the stage for the exceedingly grim playing out of an archetypal rivalry.

Some reviewers of Miss Lovely have described it as an Indian answer to Boogie Nights -- which, while inaccurate, is understandable as an attempt to neatly quantify a film that is admittedly difficult to categorize. For one, it lacks the element of nostalgia found in that latter film. The authentic clips that are included to represent the brothers’ product certainly convey the cheesy allure of Indian trash horror, but are presented in a context that prevents them from being sentimentalized. At the same time, while the film makes fairly clear that the “C” industry was the mirror image of a repressed and repressive system of control, it resists any temptation to depict its practitioners as scrappy underdogs.

It has to be said, in fact, that, viewed outside the Indian censorship system’s claustrophobic standards of propriety, those filmmakers’ movies would be considered soft core at the very worst, yet they were held so far beneath contempt by polite Indian society as to effectively have no legal recourse on those occasions when they disappeared into the justice system. This aside, it would be difficult to make heroes out of the habitués of Sonu and Vicky’s world, for, as they’re depicted here, they’re simply too busy exploiting, swindling and betraying one another to present a united front. And by this, of course, I mean the men, the women in many cases being too deprived of agency -- and often the subjects of outright pimping and coercion -- for even such basic displays of venality.

Ahluwalia’s documentarian touches make Miss Lovely a plum for anyone with a fascination for Indian trash films -- be they the dime store fright fests of Harinam Singh or the hoochie coochie daku dramas of Kanti Shah. His camera puts us right inside the smoke-filled hot boxes in which these films were originally seen by catcalling working class male audiences -- and also, whether we like it or not, into the filthy hotel rooms in which their more illicit sequences were shot. At the same time, he swathes the film in all the murky stylization of an art-house noir, contrasting the base allure of the films’ subject efforts with a more sophisticated stratagem of cinematic seduction. To be sure, this isn’t Bollywood by any stretch of the imagination (the film is, in fact, having trouble finding release in Ahluwalia’s home country due to censorship problems), but, as both a work of art and of film history, it's essential viewing for anyone wanting a broad sketch of Indian cinema in all its wildly contradicting contours.