Sunday, November 29, 2015

Rama Superman Indonesia (Indonesia, 1974)

According to some sources, Rama Superman Indonesia has been little seen outside of Indonesia due to the litigiousness of Kal-El Superman America’s copyright holders. Apparently, it is only for us, the fans, to call a spade a spade (Turkish Spiderman, Korean Batman, etc.), because for the filmmakers themselves to do it is to invite trouble. In the case of Rama Superman Indonesia, this is no great loss, as it is not a film that needs to be seen—unless, of course, you are suffering from a rare disease that can only be cured by seeing the dutiful trotting out of standard superhero movie plot points.

To be fair, Rama Superman Indonesia trots out those plot points with a lot of good natured zeal. It should also be commended for being only 70 minutes long, which is as long as any superhero movie needs to be. To further hold it up as a model of brevity, let me point out that it’s recounting of Rama’s origin story takes up as little as 5 minutes of screen time. 5 minutes! Seriously, Marvel, get these guys on the phone.

That origin story involves Andi (Boy Shahlani), a roly-poly youngster who hawks newspapers on the streets of the city. One day he offers food and comfort to a sickly old man whom he finds at the side of the road. In return, the man gives him a golden butterfly amulet which, when kissed, turns Andi into Rama (August Melasz), who looks like either a foxy surfer dude in a red leotard or a masked member of Kaptain Kool and the Kongs. (Ironically, Rama’s origin is less similar to that of Superman than it is to that of the original Captain Marvel, another character whom National/DC’s lawyers sued into near oblivion.)

In one of the film’s first capitulations to superhero movie canon, Rama’s arrival on the scene necessitates that Andi’s seemingly peaceful town immediately turn into a treacherous maze of peril and intrigue. An untended baby crawls into the path of an oncoming train, a random wacko starts chasing people around with a machete, etc. These vignettes, of course, allow our hero the opportunity to demonstrate his various powers for us. These include super strength and the power of flight, although we mainly just see Rama beating people up and grinding the stacked heel of his boot into their chests. Interestingly, there are times when Andi opts not to turn into Rama when under threat, as if these are situations for which the special powers of an out-of-shape 13-year-old are more suited. Also, Rama flies in an upright position, which is truly interesting.

In further obeisance to the form, Andi has an attractive female friend named Lia (Yenny Rachman, introduced with a spectacularly unsubtle ass-cam shot). While Lia is impossibly out of the league of a putz like Andi, it almost goes without saying that, immediately upon learning of Rama’s existence, she has a daydream in which she goes to the beach in a bikini and is attacked by literally every man on it—only to be rescued by Rama, who then makes out with her. In a later musical sequence (set to the song “Jabat Ha Ti”, sung by Rachman herself), she envisions Rama coming to her on a white steed and plunging with her into a sublimely silly montage of cliché romantic frolics.

Despite all this, it is not Lia’s rich fantasy life that makes her important to the plot of Rama Superman Indonesia. What does make her important is her role as that indispensable action movie mainstay, the beautiful daughter of the professor who has invented some new kind of super weapon. These efforts have made the professor a person of unwelcome interest for a character called The Black Dragon, who himself holds up a certain superhero movie tradition, the one decreeing that the villain is always the best part of the movie. Wearing a black hood that makes his head look like it’s wearing jodhpurs, the Black Dragon sits behind a desk covered with rotary phones and commands forth a parade of bumbling minions to kill the professor and steal his formula. These minions, of course, all end up being ground under Rama’s boot heels.

Aside from a refreshingly brisk pace, Rama Superman Indonesia boasts a great 70’s cop show funk soundtrack (credited to “Band THE DISC”) that always clues us in that we are watching an action scene, even when that is not manifestly apparent—as is the case with a couple of very leisurely car chases. The fights are of the Bollywood variety, with lots of ersatz kung fu accompanied by loud “DISHOOM DISHOOM” sound effects, but are nonetheless satisfyingly bone crunching—except for a bout with an especially dodgy looking cardboard box robot, during which Rama is conspicuously pulling his punches for fear of toppling the thing over.

Like that robot, the Black Dragon’s high tech lair is a triumph of dime store art direction, a strictly cardboard and construction paper affair. Indeed, Rama Superman Indonesia’s overall appearance of being an elementary school recreation of an old Republic serial puts it in the company of some classic Turkish pulp film of its era, such as The Deathless Devil and 3 Dev Adam. Many of you will recognize that as high praise coming from me, and I stand by it. Like those films, Rama enlivens dusty old tropes by attacking them as if they were new. It’s pure comic book ambitions could be made no clearer than by the Batman-style starburst graphics that accompany Rama’s blows. It is short, to the point, unfailingly entertaining and, by keeping it simple, in no way calls out for a reboot. Hollywood, take note.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ölüm Savasçisi, aka Death Warrior (Turkey, 1984)

 Karl over at the fabulous Fist of B List blog has kindly invited me, along with the rest of the members of M.O.S.S., to participate in his “Ninjavember” blog roundtable. I enthusiastically agreed, despite my feeling that ninjas, like zombies, have become sort of a generic cultural commodity—a faceless, insensate enemy seemingly readymade for wholesale, video game style slaughter—or, even worse, a lazy shorthand for a snarky kind of pop culture knowingness. Still—hey, ninjas!

I chose to write about Ölüm Savasçisi, a Turkish ninja film, because I thought that it would provide a welcome departure from all the Godfrey Ho Franken-ninja films that my co-hosting duties at the Taiwan Noir podcast have necessitated my familiarity with. Instead it turned out to be so similar to those films that it could almost be considered a Turkish remake of Ninja Thunderbolt, seeing as it largely consists of context-free fight scenes loosely held together by a lot of haphazardly assembled footage from other movies. In short, it is complete nonsense, albeit a very particular brand of nonsense.

I struggled to find a word to describe the editing rhythms of Ölüm Savasçisi. I finally settled upon “narcoleptic”, because watching it is like falling asleep in front of the TV and periodically waking up for 2-5 seconds at a time. Occasionally you will wake up to find that you are watching a scene from a James Bond movie and think, “Boy, I must have been asleep longer than I thought”—until you realize that that scene has been randomly inserted into Ölüm Savasçisi by its copyright flaunting producers. The best example of this is the film’s employment of the car chase from Diamonds Are Forever, which climaxes with two obvious toy cars being rammed together in front of a backdrop that looks like it was drawn with a magic marker.

Despite all of this, Ölüm Savasçisi differs from all of those Godfrey Ho movies in one very significant way, in that, rather than Richard Harrison, it stars Cuneyt Arkin, who essentially plays in it the pinnacle of Turkish manhood. This is usually the case with Arkin, of course, but here his innately Turkish awesomeness is put in especially stark relief by placing Ölüm Savasçisi’s action in an unnamed country with the grave misfortune of not being Turkey. Let’s call it Wimpistan, or Pussylvania.

This bloodless little country is being plagued by a series of ninja-style murders, and the only man for the case is Turkish police inspector Murat (Arkin), who must be roused from a Speedo-clad lakeside idyll with a bikini wearing honey to make the trip to Sissytopia. Murat, you see, has dealt with the ninja before and knows their ways. For the crazed Ninja cult that is responsible for the murders, this is a positive development, for it was the exact intent of their leader (Osman Betin) to draw Murat out so that he may exact upon him his vengeance for something or other. And so the wall-to-wall fighting that it is our divine right to expect from Turkish exploitation cinema begins.

Ölüm Savasçisi can be called many things, but a suspense film it is not. Murat so handily defeats all of his opponents that its outcome is as certain as sweet death itself. If there can be said to be any kind of real conflict in the movie, it is that between Murat and the police officials of Lameovia, who resent him hanging around and making them look weak and indecisive all the time (“What kind of man is he?” one asks, prior to meeting him. “Extremely honest, like all Turks,” comes the reply.) Time and again, they try to send him packing, only to have some new crisis come up for which he is needed. Finally, when the ninjas kidnap the country’s fat, sniveling president, Murat tears off on his motorcycle with a comely cult defector (Funda Firat) to lay siege to their mountain hideout.

Amidst the above described action, odd supernatural elements pop up throughout Ölüm Savasçisi like profanities from a Tourette’s sufferer’s mouth. A man is eaten by a hedge, and a zombie with a face covered in shaving cream rises from an autopsy table. Neither of these events is mentioned again. Elsewhere, much use is made of the careening “demon cam” effect from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, in one scene culminating with a ninja bursting up from out of the ground. Oh, and the evil cult leader can levitate rocks and turn them into incendiary bombs.

My wife watched a few minutes of Ölüm Savasçisi with me and opined that it was terrible. She was, and is, right. But it is terrible in the best kind of way. If you just want your brain wallpapered with eighty minutes of Cuneyt Arkin karate-ing ninjas into agonized heaps of human suffering, it is, in fact, a perfect movie. Because, hey, fuck those ninjas.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Pop Defensive

This past Wednesday's episode stands as testament to the indomitable spirit of Pop Offensive--proof that no malady, be it canine or technical,will keep us from delivering our message of hope to a battle ravaged world. Getting it to air required our emergency co-host Aaron Harbour to rebuild the KGPC website from scratch in a desperate race against time. To hear the result of our heroic struggle, simply go to the Pop Offensive archive, where the episode can be streamed in its entirety. If you are a deaf person with a vivid imagination, you can read the playlist for the show, which has just been posted over at the Pop Offensive Facebook page.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Pop Offensive returns this Wednesday

We at Pop Offensive know that we hurt you. You thought you could count on us for a good time and then, right around Halloween, we got all dark and moody on you. What can we do to prove to you that we're fun again? How about delivering up another percolating mix of super danceable international pop like we did in the old days, back when things were new. You remember those days, right? Just stream us live from starting at 7pm Pacific on the night of Wednesday, November 18th and let the healing begin.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Embrujada, aka Bewitched (Argentina, 1969)

Many men of a much coarser nature than me might look at Isabel Sarli’s body and declare it good for only one thing. And if you guessed “baby making”, then congratulations: you are Armando Bo, writer and co-director of Embrujada.

I have seen far from all of Bo’s obsessive paeans to his lover Sarli’s generous pulchritude, but I’m sure that none of them are as abundant in cray cray as Embrujada. This is a film in which Sarli portrays a woman who so desperately wants to have a baby that her maternal urges summon forth a literal monster. How do we know that she wants to have a baby, you probably don’t ask? Well, when we meet her at the film’s opening, she is in a toy store purchasing a baby doll, which she then takes home and tearfully holds to her enormous bosom. And this is only the first indication of the astonishing level of condescension that Bo brings to his depiction of Sarli’s character throughout the picture.

The problem is that Sarli’s character, Ansise, is married to Leandro (Daniel de Alvarado), a despotic lumber baron with a malfunctioning pee pee. This means that we get to see scenes of Leandro futilely humping the leg of a supine Isabel Sarli while weeping. In fact, if watching a voluptuous woman have blighted sex with catastrophically ugly old men is your thing, you can put those worn Ron Jeremy tapes away, because Embrujada is the only film you will ever need from now on. And, no, we are not spared the sight of their pale, flabby buttocks flouncing away on top of her, so strap in.

As with Bo’s other films, one of  Ebrujada's greatest pleasures is seeing actors throatily declaim the most absurdly overwrought dialogue imaginable with an almost self-immolating passion. Thusly, much audible hay is made of Leandro being “useless” as a man by both Ansise and himself. Leandro, however, is not being entirely on the level, as we later learn that his business works just fine when serviced by Peralta (Miguel A. Olmos), the sadistic foreman of whom he has made a boy toy.

Such betrayals, however, will have to be the subject of later hair tearing, as right now the priority for Ansise is getting someone to put a baby in her and fast. The route she takes toward this goal is a novel one. She first consults a witch, to little apparent result, and then becomes a hooker—which I suppose is a fairly direct path to parenthood if you don’t mind your baby coming with a side order of syphilis. Her first customer is a hirsute man-hag whom Leandro walks in on her with. Much glass-rattling lamentation and self-recrimination follows.

Finally, Leandro hires a workman with a less eye-punishing countenance than the other males in Embrujada, and he is played by Bo’s son, Victor, who we also saw getting it on with Sarli in The Virgin Godess. Which is to say that the two of them get it on here also. Love blossoms between the pair, only to be struck down by tragedy—that tragedy being the appearance of a rapey demon thing from South American folklore called the Pombero. The Pombero is traditionally referred to as being small in stature, but here he is a normal sized dude in a drugstore devil mask. In any case, he quickly gets to pawing away at Ansise, who, by all appearances, enjoys it lots.

Ansise is free in spreading word of her encounter with Pombero and is believed by no one. Leandro charmingly blames her belief in the creature on her immutable savagery, seeing as she is an indigenous woman whom Leandro married by arrangement with her tribe’s chieftain. Gradually it starts to appear that the ticking of Ansise’s biological clock, coupled with the roiling of her native blood, has driven her to madness. Indeed, the amount of visual noise (lots of abrupt flash forwards and flash forwards, bizarre superimpositions) that Bo employs toward depicting her mental disintegration raises the question of whether Embrujada was intended by him as his nudity-filled answer to Polanski’s Repulsion. Whatever the case, it could certainly count as a cut rate spiritual cousin to the current wave of maternal horror films lead by movies like The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy, though conspicuously bereft of the benefits those films had by virtue of having female directors. 

Embrujada was filmed in the Misiones province of Argentina and wisely gives visual prominence to the majestic Iguazu Falls, which serve as a resting place for our eyes between its scenes of grotesque human couplings. As for its other scenery, the film shows us a lot more than usual of Isabel Sarli, who is topless virtually throughout and often completely starkers. This is fine for dad, of course, but what does Embrujada offer for mom? Well, for her it has retrograde gender attitudes virulent enough to make even the most subservient hausfrau crackle with feminist rage. It’s a win-win, really.

Tonight! The 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down is on a collision course with METEOR!

It's 107 minutes long and it's heading straight for us! And, oh my god, it has Karl Malden's face!

That's right, it's the 1979 AIP disaster epic Meteor and, as I see it, you only have two choices: you can either run for cover or you can join us on Twitter, using the hashtag #4DKMSD, at 6pm PT tonight and tweet along with us to the film using the link below. What better way to spend humanity's final hours?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Meeting in Palmyra (Syria/Lebanon, 1965)

When I pledged to diligently seek out more films like Ana Antar, I had no idea that I would find a film almost exactly like it within just a couple of weeks. Like Ana Antar, A Meeting in Palmyra is an action comedy starring the popular Syrian comedy team Doreid & Nihad helmed by Egyptian director Joseph Maalouf.

Doreid & Nihad were so popular in their homeland during their 1960s prime that they are credited with revitalizing Syrian commercial cinema at the time. Demand was such that they were churning out two films a year and, in the process, prompting a dramatic increase in theater attendance throughout the country. Not surprisingly, their films were resolutely commercial in nature, which makes the fact that they were able to continue making them during a time of increasing government control of the Syrian film industry a further testament to their star power.

As in Ana Antar, A Meeting in Palmyra places the duo at the center of criminal caper. Doreid Lahham plays Nabeeh, the personal secretary to Farid, a businessman who has fled the country after being accused of murdering his partner. This partner, it turns out, had sold out their business to a criminal gang led by Mr. Nimr (Yacoub Abu-Ghazaleh). Nabeeh arrives in Beirut to aid Farid’s sister Laila (beloved Syrian star Hala Shawkat) in mounting Farid’s defense. There he is introduced to Laila’s uncle, a lawyer played by Nihad Kalai, who is named, as are Nihad’s characters in most of the Doreid & Nihad films, Hosney.

Throughout their time in Beirut, Nabeeh, Hosney and Laila are relentlessly tailed by agents of Nimr, who is determined to eliminate them before they expose his criminal operation. Fearing for Laila’s safety, Nabeeh—who, I think, is of Bedouin heritage—prevails upon solicitous tribal chieftain Abul Elahab (Sabri Ayyad) to escort her across the Syrian border to his camp in Palmyra, where her brother is also hiding out. Nabeeh and Hosney are then left behind to investigate the crime, facing no small opposition from Nimr and his cronies along the way. One of these cronies, it turns out, is Abul Elahab, who, unknown to them, has plans to kill Laila upon his return to Palmyra.

A Meeting in Palmyra is a very entertaining film. Doreid and Nihad have an appealing chemistry, and making them protagonists in a crime drama serves them well. This insures that they will have to periodically put aside their comic squabbling in order to work together at solving the crime. This, however, is not to denigrate their style of comedy, which is seminal in nature. Watching them run through their shtick will give a warm, fuzzy feeling to anyone familiar with the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and Hope and Crosby’s Road pictures. Lahham is especially funny as the small statured hipster/nebbish (I stand by my earlier description of him as a cross between Groucho Marx and 1960s Woody Allen) who is constantly trying to hit on women drastically out of his league by affecting continental airs with varying degrees of success. He also has delusions of becoming a popular singer, and his habit of croaking tunelessly into a portable tape recorder nicely dovetails into a narrative payoff at the film’s conclusion.

The film also evidences the sort of “entertainment at all costs” sensibility that offers us a lot of pleasing distractions along the way. There are a number of songs, including one sung by Syrian actress and singer Yusra Bedouin, as well as a Beatles spoof that sees a be-wigged Lahham join a beat group on stage to shimmy around spastically and shout “yeah yeah yeah” into the microphone. And then, of course, there is the fanciful set design, which colorfully combines the aesthetics of The Flinstones and The Jetsons into a sort of midcentury paleo-modernism. The attendant over-ripened color scheme makes the film overall feel like a Middle Eastern version of one of Frank Tashlin’s live action cartoons.

The finale of A Meeting in Palmyra sees Nabeeh and Hosney put on their hero pants and face off against Nimr’s forces amid Palmyra’s stunning landscape of ancient monuments. Of course, under the present circumstance, these sequences can’t help but have a bitter aftertaste, given that, as of this writing, so many of those monuments have either been systematically destroyed by ISIS or shattered by government airstrikes. The pain of this is made even more acute by the contrast of these events with the Pan-Arab openness of A Meeting in Palmyra—a film that combines Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian talent to create something that can be enjoyed by anyone with a love of movies, whatever their politics or beliefs. In this way the film speaks to a world that, while much less connected than today’s, nonetheless offered some modest potential for harmony among its people, who could commune via their shared desires in the darkness of the global movie house.