Thursday, January 29, 2009


Here is Hammer Studio's entry into the Kali canon, a companion piece to George Stevens's Gunga Din (1939) and Nicholas Meyer's The Deceivers (1988). Terence Fisher's film isn't as good as either of those, but all three are aiming for different effects, and this effort has some virtues of its own.

It opens with a recitation of what the film claims to be the founding myth of Kali. The great goddess was quite the monster fighter, we learn, which doesn't sound so bad. She invented the strangler's silk cloth because whenever she shed a monster's blood, more monsters would rise where the blood fell. How we get from fighting monsters to murdering travelers goes unexplained. Instead, we get a pre-credit initiation sequence including bloodletting and branding upon the arm.

Things are going bad for the East India Company. As native official Patel Sheri explains, trade shipments are simply disappearing, and disorder and instability prevail. Mr. Burns, a likely ancestor of Homer Simpson's employer, expresses the frustration of English merchants: "All we know is the situation is intolerable, and we won't tolerate it!"

Captain Harry Lewis arrives late for the meeting. He tells his superior, Colonel Henderson, that he's heard of thousands of disappearances from native informants. Oughtn't there to be an investigation? Why not. It means rescinding his letter of resignation, but his faithful flunky Ramdas can catch up with the letter. It means disappointing Mrs. Lewis, but she's the stand-by-your-man type and offers only encouragement. The problem is, Lewis ends up getting supplanted in charge of the inquiry by Captain Connaught-Smith, who has no use for Lewis since he was late arriving to bring him to headquarters. Never mind that Lewis was rescuing merchants from bandits. They get cut loose during some hubbub in the marketplace anyway.

The bandits are out of English hands, but they aren't free. They're renegade Thugs acting as freelance thieves, and Thug HQ is having none of it. Worse, one of them lost his strangling cloth to Lewis. "You have allowed the sacred silk to fall into the hands of an unbeliever," the high priest complains. Their punishment is having their eyes and tongues cut out. It turns out that Patel, if not a Thug himself, is in league with them. He can't stand to watch the punishment, but when someone offers him a hanky to wipe his sweaty brow, Patel slaps him.

Ramdas, who trains Turki the mongoose on the side, is one of the many Indians who's had a family member disappear. He tells Lewis that he could swear he saw his younger brother in a caravan, but the caravan leader says he had no boy in his employ. Lewis gives Ramdas a horse to pursue the caravan, and Ramdas gives him an amulet in return. Meanwhile, apprentice Thug Gopali takes instruction in schmoozing his way into a caravan. The high priest criticizes his performance as insufficiently pathetic, and demonstrates the proper abject manner while we notice that Gopali has an amulet similar to the one Ramdas gave to Lewis. As it happens, the priest is tipped off that Ramdas is on his way to the temple, and is the servant of the man who took the sacred cloth. "This Captain Lewis must be punished!" he orders.

Lewis's own investigations are going nowhere. Connaught-Smith can't be bothered with him, and strange men jump him in an alley. Connaught-Smith's idea of an investigation is to have an old man brought in and ask him if he's seen anything suspicious. No, not in 40 years? The next step is ordering the man to close his eyes and wander around the captain's office. The moral: in 40 years you have to have seen something! But no, he hasn't. Lewis has, of course; having shaken his attackers, he returns to report his silk cloth stolen -- like Connaught-Smith cares. Lewis has had enough. After losing at cards to his neighbor, Sidney Flood, he tenders his resignation to the Colonel after getting told that his criticisms (and his prophecy of the 1857 Mutiny) are insolent and disrespectful. Now he can conduct his own civilian investigation, after some cleavage-baring consolation from Mrs. Lewis.

Lewis has this odd attitude that people should care what happens to other people. So the East India Company doesn't care about thousands of Indians disappearing. That's predictable; they're mercenary bigots. How about the Indians themselves? Have any of them seen Ramdas lately? "Are you not interested in what happens to one of your own kind?" Lewis asks. "I am a merchant, he is a servant," says one. "I am a Muslim, he is a Hindu," says another. Everyone has his or her narrow identity that lets others disappear into the gaps. No one wants to talk about Ramdas. Maybe Lewis can learn something in the jungle on a tiger hunt with Sidney Flood. With the help of Turki the mongoose, he does learn something. He finds a mass grave, and all the corpses have broken necks. Connaught-Smith's response: so what?

"Have you ever heard of a cult of stranglers?" Lewis asks Patel Sheri. Uhhh, no. But isn't Patel interested in his fellow Indians? He might have been back in the day when he had real authority, but now the victims aren't his responsibility. Doesn't he want to know the truth? "Whoever rules decides the truth," he tells Lewis.

Meanwhile, a man is arrested for robbing Mr. Burns's house. Lieutenant Silver, a mixed-race officer, offers to interrogate the man. He takes off his tunic as if he's going to give the guy the third degree, then rolls up his sleeve to reveal the brand of a Thug. "Kali has sent me to you!" he tells the thief, ordering him to confess to murder and accept hanging by a noose. Then sweet Kali will forgive him. The thief complies, and at the day of the hanging, Lewis notices that some people in the crowd seem too happy to see the guy die. After they collect the body, he follows them out of town. He discovers the Kali temple, but is captured, staked and spread-eagled while a gratuitously buxom and speechless acolyte looks on. The high priest slashes Lewis's leg, and the scent of blood arouses a cobra. Fisher milks the snake's slow slither toward Lewis for all it's worth as our hero sweats over his fate, until it's Turki the mongoose, whom he'd brought along, to the rescue! Since "the death of a snake bodes evil," the priest deduces that Kali is displeased with Lewis's captivity, so he frees him.

Lewis promptly reports his discovery of a stranglers' cult to Col. Henderson, but Connaught-Smith and Silver, for different reasons, scoff him into silence. Meanwhile, it's graduation time for Kopali and the other apprentice Thugs. The final exam consists of strangling prisoners and slitting their bellies so their bodies don't swell and expose their secret graves. The prisoners are the two tongueless bandits and Ramdas, who recognizes Gopali as his little brother. Gopali kills him.

Arguing for strength in numbers, Patel convinces Burns and his colleagues to combine their resources into one big caravan. "I am confident the caravan will reach its appointed destiny," he predicts. Later, Lt. Silver suggests that such a crime will draw military heat. Not if we kill Lewis, Patel answers, especially if he dies by the sword to take anyone else off the Thugs' scent. Making it look like robbery will help too, and so will robbing and killing the neighbors so it looks even less like assassination. But the killers aren't efficient. They slay Sidney Flood, but his wife's screams awaken Lewis, who repels his attacker. Once Lewis learns about the caravan, which is in Connaught-Smith's charge, he's determined to catch up with it. Lt. Silver generously offers to accompany him.

Now everything begins to fall into place. Gopali proves himself an A student by totally suckering Connaught-Smith with his abject beggar act. This helps set up the movie's strongest scene, as the Thugs swarm over the caravan at night and strangle everyone but Connaught-Smith and three guards who were in tents. Connaught-Smith freaks out, screaming at the dead men to wake up and get up as a Kali chant builds in volume. He is now quite doomed.

Lewis and Silver catch up with a caravan that has vanished. Lewis feels certain that the Thugs have struck, and asks Silver to help him find fresh graves. That forces the issue with Silver, and with that settled, Lewis moves on to the temple, where the dead prisoners are prepared as "the greatest gift" to Kali. When Lewis recognizes Ramdas's body, he starts shooting and is quickly caught again. Now Kali gets a live sacrifice! Except that Gopali suddenly recognizes the amulet Lewis has been wearing....

Stranglers of Bombay is bound to be called racist for its treatment of India and its habit of implicating nearly every native character into the Thug conspiracy. Look past the obvious details, however, and we find Fisher and screenwriter David Z. Goodman attacking an indifference toward human life that extends beyond the Indians to most of the English characters. Lewis (and by extension his wife) is practically the only humanitarian character in the story, though Ramdas should get credit for familial loyalty. The film indicts a profit-motivated colonial administration that isn't really interested in governing, as well as what seems to be a degenerate caste-ridden culture incapable of human solidarity. Of course, the implicit answer to all these problems is imperialism, giving this screenplay from the sunset years of the empire a defensively nostalgic tone that can't help but seem patronizing to non-British viewers.

Ultimately, this is a Hammer film and that means more horror than history. The pacing could be better, but the formula of the desperate discoverer who can't make anyone listen works well enough here. Without Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, Fisher has to make do with Guy Rolfe as the hero. He seems a bit stiff at first, but his predicament and the obnoxiousness of his antagonists had me on his side eventually. Speaking of obnoxious, Allan Cuthbertson as Connaught-Smith is the only other real standout performance for me. None of the others are really bad, but George Pastell as the high priest is nothing compared to Gunga Din's Eduardo Cianelli when it comes to seething fanatic evil. There's little for the actresses to do, meanwhile, and the use of Marie Devereux as pure eye candy in the role of the mute (?) Kali acolyte is as annoying as she is attractive.

George Pastell contemplates death as the high priest of THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY
(still from

Stranglers is part of Sony's remarkable 4-film Icons of Adventure set of Hammer's non-monster period films, accompanied by Terror of the Tongs (thumbs up!), and two pirate movies that I haven't watched yet. The two-disc set is an embarrassment of riches, including commentary tracks and trailers for all films, a chapter from a Columbia pirate serial, a rare Andy Clyde comedy short, and a pretty bad cartoon. I'm probably not telling any movie-blog browser anything new when I say that the set is a must-have.

Mickey Rourke at "Work"?

The latest word on Mickey Rourke's wrestling future comes from a spokesman who says that the actor will not take on Chris Jericho at this year's Wrestlemania. The new statement says that Rourke is entirely focused on his acting career -- but why would that exclude professional wrestling? I note that Rourke himself apparently can't be trusted to make this statement. Meanwhile, I wonder whether the whole news of yesterday was what wrestlers call a "work," but if it was, what was the point? For that matter, what if today's statement is a work? We could be getting into Andy Kaufman territory if everyone isn't careful. This story may not be over.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

SANDOKAN, PIRATE OF MALAYSIA (I Pirati de Malesia,1964)

The year of Blood and Black Lace and A Fistful of Dollars finds Umberto Lenzi in Singapore filming a follow-up to a Steve Reeves vehicle. Reeves is near the end of his run in Europe; he'll make just one more movie, a spaghetti western four years later. At the brink of the obsolescence of his specialty peplum genre, Reeves is moving away from flaunting his body, opting for more conventional adventure stories. This is his second outing as a character who is hugely popular in Italy, and presumably elsewhere in the world, but is nearly unknown in the United States.

Sandokan is the creation of Emilio Salgari, who seems to have been Italy's answer to Jules Verne, Karl May and H. Rider Haggard. Salgari wrote eleven Sandokan novels, along with many others, before killing himself at the age of 48 in 1911. Sandokan is a heroic Malaysian pirate who thwarts the imperial ambitions of Europe in the South Seas. He has a Portuguese sidekick, Yanez, whose primary characteristic, as far as Pirate of Malaysia will tell you, is his cigarette addiction. Their arch-enemy is a historical figure, James Brooke, known as the White Rajah of Sarawak. From Wikipedia's survey of Brooke's career, Pirate of Malaysia appears to be set around 1851, when a royal commission was appointed to investigate his activities on the island. If so, there has been a telescoping of events, since Brooke is said to have only recently overthrown the rightful ruler, when in fact he had been named Rajah back in 1842. In history, Brooke died in bed, still in power, and succeeded by a nephew. In the Lenzi movie he fares less well.

Pirate of Malaysia presumes some familiarity with the characters, or at least with the preceeding movie, which was released in the U.S. as Sandokan the Great. There's little in the way of introduction. Sandokan, looking pretty swanky and well-fed for a pirate, saves someone adrift on the sea who proves to be a friend of his from the earlier film. This man, Tremal-Naik, is played by Mimmo Palmara, who often plays subordinate strongmen in the genre. He reports the conquest of Sarawak by the infamous Brooke and the flight of the island's princess, a person of interest to Sandokan. We see her trying to make good her escape with the aid of a faithful servant.

Sandokan heads to Sarawak to initiate guerilla warfare, demonstrated by Lenzi on the cheap with much offscreen mayhem and sound effects. It's too bad that he had to scrimp here, since the film benefits so much from the location shooting in Singapore and other exotic sites. Our hero learns that Brooke is sending a gold shipment to India with which to buy guns to suppress the insurgency. He decides to take the ship by subterfuge, hiring on as a humble cabin boy. In the meantime, Tremal-Naik is arrested during a botched rendezvous, while Sandokan fights his way out. Reeves doesn't have to be superhuman here, and his stiff roundhouse punches look pretty convincing just due to the size of his arms.

On the ship, the Young India (Lenzi uses a real ship to good effect) Sandokan is told, unsurprisingly, that he looks more like a pirate than a cabin boy. I suppose Reeves could pass for a cabin boy on some cruises, but that's a question for another time. For now, Sandokan wins the good will of the British commanding officer, who isn't too happy having Brooke's minions, headed by main underling Lt. Clintock, prowling around the ship. As it happens, the princess Hada is also on board. Sandokan conducts some sabotage to make the ship easier for his men to attack by swimming en masse with a rowboat of weapons in tow. In the struggle, Lt. Clintock is knocked overboard.

The first Sandokan novel first appeared in serial form, and it wouldn't surprise me if others did as well, since Pirate of Malaysia has a very episodic structure. For his next trick, Sandokan will pretend to be a shipwrecked prince in order to receive Brooke's hospitality, learn more about his schemes, and find a way to free Tremal-Naik, who's a prisoner there. This guy's a rebellious prisoner, and Sandokan is invited to witness his death by alligator. "I find that the thirst for liberty is best cured by salt water," Brooke remarks. Sandokan saves the day by grabbing a gun and shooting the animal, and excuses himself for failing to suppress his hunting impulse. He sneaks his friends some drugs so he can feign death. Sandokan then arranges for him to be buried in the local cemetery, since Tremal-Naik's people allegedly abhor burial at sea. That way Sandokan's minions can dig him up and free him. The ruse works well until Lt. Clintock reappears and rats out Sandokan. He and his men fight their way free, only to be captured quite easily in the next sequence, in which they're sentenced to slave in the mines. Sandokan promptly marks his territory by beating up a Chinese bully, and then it's on to further exploits leading to a climactic battle at a fortress on a high plateau....

I must confess to dozing off at moments during Pirate of Malaysia. Apart from the nice location work, Lenzi's direction is uninspired here. I was also not seeing it at its best, since this is the DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment's Warriors collection. It is incorrectly letterboxed, as is sadly illustrated by a scene where Sandokan and Brooke sit at opposite ends of a long dinner table and chat, but we see neither of them. On top of that, the image is cropped at top and bottom so that some of the opening credits are unreadable. Thanks to the location work (which strikes me as a preview of Lenzi's cannibal epics to come), the film has a visual quality that can't be denied even in this truncated form. The more serious problem is the acting (or voice acting). It renders this English version of the film pretty lifeless. I also felt handicapped by my unfamiliarity with the characters. This is the sort of film where familiar characters don't really need to be developed, but for a stranger that means little effort is made to make them interesting, apart from the oddity of Yanez's perpetual nicotine fit.

Just for the sake of its visuals, I'd recommend Pirate of Malaysia for a proper remastered DVD release in the correct aspect ratio. I'm unlikely ever to see it on Region 1, however, because of the lack of interest in the Sandokan character and the general disdain for the peplum genre. The peplum is the idiot stepchild of Italian genres, with less prestige even than the crazy uncle of the cannibal genre or the crazier uncle of Nazi porn. Why is that? Most likely because peplums seem childish, which is perhaps a handicap of the time they were made. They lack that certain edginess that emerges in every other Italo genre. The TV theme song probably sums up the problem: "These men of steel could never feel the curse of a coward's fears." Peplum heroes -- Hercules and all his sons, Maciste, Ursus, etc., are too good, too flawless, for their own good, compared to spaghetti western, giallo or police thriller protagonists. They ought to have a more honored place in the history of movie fantasy, but in the wild world of cinema they seem all too tame. Pirate of Malaysia barely qualifies as a peplum, and literally wouldn't due to its period, but Steve Reeves's presence probably makes it easier for people to dismiss a film that at least deserves a better first look than we get today, if not necessarily a second.

There doesn't seem to be any video footage from Pirate of Malaysia available online, so here's another poster.

That's Exploitation! Starring Mickey Rourke

Will Rourke take a dive for real? That depends on how you define reality,

Academy Award-nominated actor Mickey Rourke is no longer "The Wrestler," but "a wrestler." He is going to enter the ring at World Wrestling Entertainment's 25th anniversary Wrestlemania extravaganza against WWE superstar Chris Jericho. A feud has been manufactured for the two men, who have exchanged charges of disrespect. Rourke threatens to toss Jericho like a salad, and given how wrestling works when guest celebrities are involved, such an outcome is likely.

Somehow I'm not surprised by this development. The only aspect of it that does surprise me is that Rourke will wrestle under his own name rather than as "Randy the Ram." The alternative was not inconceivable, as Samuel L. Jackson once appeared on Monday Night Raw in the character of Shaft in order to promote that movie. Further back in time, a man in a Robocop suit appeared as the actual character to intervene in a match in another promotion. Professional wrestling is where much of the old movie ballyhoo and showmanship still survives -- but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone because of that. Meanwhile, Rourke's fans ought to worry that this might be his "Norbit" moment that costs him the Oscar. Time will tell.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Charles H. Schneer (1920-2009)

I'm just learning from some belated blog-browsing (and from this source in particular) that the man who produced Ray Harryhausen's fantasy classics has passed away. Compared to the outpouring that will come when Harryhausen himself (delay the day) passes on, Schneer has gotten little recognition. Let me do something about that.

Get the picture?

THE LIZARD (Bi Hu, 1972)

In Marvel Comics, "the Lizard" is a reptilian villain, but in this Shaw Brothers period piece, the title character is a Chinese Robin Hood, robbing from the rich -- well, he robs from foreigners, mostly, but he does give to the poor. He gets his nom de crime from the little lizard figurine he leaves wherever he's been at work. The film is set in what looks like the 1920s, a somewhat unusual period for a kung fu movie, but that gives Bi hu a relatively unique look, especially in costume design. It's a lighthearted affair for the most part, and despite what I said about the Lizard's choice of target, the film is nowhere near as xenophobic as some Chinese films. The English characters aren't portrayed as wicked, and even the Japanese consul is used as a butt of mild jokes rather than as an object of hatred. He's cowardly and incontinent rather than vicious.
Here's a modern trailer for the Celestial Pictures DVD release of the movie:

Chinese viewers may think that an English couple is humiliated by the fact that the Lizard spies them in the act of love during his opening exploit, but they're none the wiser, and from an American perspective the naked lady is rather nice to look at. The local police are under increasing pressure to catch the masked thief, as old detective Yo learns when the police director berates the force and vows to catch the Lizard himself, since he happens to be a genius. Yo himself has a grudging admiration for the thief, as do his grandkids, particularly granddaughter Xiao Ju. More ambivalent is aspiring lawman Cheng Long, better known as "Brother Dumb" to his sensitive pals, due to his stutter. But something about the way people vow in his presence that they could recognize the Lizard on sight suggests that they haven't.

Indeed, Brother Dumb is not so dumb. We see him at a casino operated by the corrupt police chief, Chen Can (Lo Lieh of King Boxer fame). The chief also supplies the prostitution market on the side with the sisters and daughters of debtors. He sees how the dealer is cheating at one table, and he hears how the dice land inside a shaker. He uses his Zatoichi-like skills to break the bank, then offers to take over the table and extend credit to the poor suckers who got cleaned out earlier. He then contrives to lose so they all get their money back.

The plot thickens at a reception for the Japanese consul. The Lizard has publicly vowed to steal a necklace from the consul's wife, so Chief Chen has the place ringed with cops, including Brother Dumb. On the one hand, this gives him an opportunity to rig the place with pyrotechnics to create a cover so that, as the Lizard, he can carry out his threat. On the other, Xiao Ju sees him leave the main hall at a conspicuous moment. Fortunately, she's inspired to help him maintain his cover. Later, to show off her knowledge, she waylays Cheng Long while wearing her own Lizard outfit. He has to admit that she has him dead to rights, and she gently taunts him by imitating his (fake) stutter. A charming sequence follows that culminates with our hero taking Xiao Ju on a thieving expedition against a crooked shopkeeper (he sells Japanese imports). There's a genuinely funny moment when they think they've stumbled in on a woman giving birth, but her husband is actually helping her remove some hangnails, I think. Afterward, our couple spreads the wealth around to needy folk.

I should note here that Xiao Ju is no mere wannabe. She's part of that great tradition of literal kick-ass heroines in Chinese cinema, as she demonstrates against a mob of would-be molesters and by holding her own against Chief Chen in several fights. I don't know if this is a modern phenomenon or if women warriors go further back in Chinese culture, but they're to be commended for it anyway. Connie Chan is probably the best thing about this film, which proved to be her last before an early retirement after a short but very busy career.

Back to the story: Through a blind fluke the bad cops decide to frame Cheng Long for the Lizard's crimes. They honestly don't know that he is the Lizard, but they'll figure it out if the Lizard stops doing crimes while he's in jail. So old man Yo and his kids contrive a fake Lizard crime, stealing a ceremonial sword from the hapless Japanese consul and framing the subordinate bad guy, Interpreter King, for the deed. This springs Cheng Long, but Brother Not-so-Dumb worries that clever Chief Chen will wonder about the timing of the crime that exculpates our hero. Sure enough, the suspicious Chen disguises himself as the Lizard to get Xiao Ju to betray her secret. He arrests her, Yo and her brother and gives them the third degree in the official torture chamber. Yo and Xiao Fu get the whip, but Xiao Ju is promised the fate worse then death if no one reveals the Lizard's hideout. The Lizard's answer to this problem is to kidnap that poor perpetual victim, the Japanese consul, to force an exchange of hostages, knowing full well that the chief is not to be trusted....

Connie Chan squares off against a disguised Lo Lieh in THE LIZARD

(photo from

I usually avoid giving away an ending when I think that spoiling it will hurt your viewing experience, but I have to say something about The Lizard's wrap-up. It will not shock you to learn that it involves a big kung fu fight pitting Cheng Long and the Yo brood against Chief Chen and a small army of cops and/or gangsters. It ends with Yo and Xiao Fu most likely dead, Xiao Ju badly wounded but likely to live (and still with-it enough to pull the dagger from her chest and fling a death blow at Chief Chen), and Brother Dumb pretty much intact. As I mentioned in passing, Chief Chen ends up dead. Very nice; justice prevails. Wait a minute, though. We know what we know about Chen and his rackets. But what stops the authorities (including the "genius" director) and the general public from regarding the Lizard and/or Cheng Long as not just a cop killer, but possibly a mass cop killer? Nothing has been done, as far as I could tell, to expose Chen's racketeering activities or to make his demise acceptable to people. So apart from getting Xiao Ju to a hospital, Brother Dumb should be thinking about getting out of town. I was thinking about this as the final showdown was going on, and it led me to expect an "everybody dies" ending of the kind we sometimes get in kung fu films. It really seemed like the screenwriter had painted himself into a corner, but it looks like he didn't give a damn about that. Have our battered heroes embrace, put "The End" on the screen, and think no more about it. But however you think about it, the carnage at the end somewhat undercuts the movie's relatively lighthearted, almost swashbuckling attitude. It doesn't do so enough, however, to negate The Lizard's entertainment value as an often pleasant change of pace from the typical kung fu formulae.

The Albany Public Library doesn't have a tremendous selection of martial arts films, but this is a recent addition to their impressive foreign-film inventory, which also includes The Magic Blade from the same director, Yuen Chor. Fans of '70s Hong Kong cinema, though not necessarily kung fu purists, will find this film worth a rental, especially if there's a place near you where you can get hold of it for free.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, 1972)

Lope de Aguirre may have been the first European in the Western Hemisphere to rebel against his mother country. He declared himself Prince of Peru in 1561 in defiance of the King of Spain, after leading a mutiny against an expedition on the Amazon river. According to the Wikipedia account of his career, Aguirre was more successful in his exploits than he is portrayed as being in Werner Herzog's landmark film. Learning that actually only reinforces the core of madness in Herzog's chronicle: why shouldn't Aguirre dream of glory in a time and place where some such dreams actually came true?

Even so, the odds were against Aguirre. Herzog enforces this impression by going on location for what proved to be a typically hellish shoot. He put his cast in the jungle and on the river, and they convey convincingly that they've undergone an ordeal. On one level, Herzog is a cinematic primitive. His approach is hardly different from the days of silent movies; he finds a spectacle and films it. But if that approach still works, why change? Herzog's virtue in our time is his ability to demonstrate time and again that it is still possible to discover spectacle in the real world and equally possible to make cinematic spectacle out of nearly pure raw material. Aguirre's opening shot of the expedition trekking over an Andean mountain pass is as epic in scale and scope as anything concocted on a soundstage or a computer, and more so once the sheer reality of it sets in. Herzog's commitment to authenticity keeps the film grounded as the characters sink into delusion. When two characters toward the end deny in the depths of their delirium that they haven't been shot with arrows, that it isn't raining out, etc., Herzog shows the truth (except about the arrows, that is).

Until the end, Herzog seems to follow the true story fairly closely. Aguirre participates in a mutiny against the commander of an Amazon expedition, but does so in the name of an associate whom he proclaims as Emperor of the Amazon. This fat fellow enjoys a privileged existence, but Aguirre seems to be the real power, and emerges as such when the slob succumbs during the river journey. The tawdriness of this ambition is demonstrated as the "emperor" pigs out on fish and fruit while his men subsist on carefully-rationed corn and the emperor's horse threatens to run amok on the raft until he orders it dumped into the river. Aguirre is the true visionary, or at least the true lunatic, but what else are you to conclude when Klaus Kinski plays him? Kinski employs what I learn to be an authentic limp in an intensely physical performance. The actor often phoned in his work, but Herzog always goaded him into giving his all. Aguirre may be Kinski's best-known, maybe even best role. I haven't seen as much of Kinski as some have, but if someone wants to make the case I'm prepared to believe it. This isn't the sort of movie with a plot that suffers from being given away, so here's the final scene of the film, as provided by a thoughtful YouTube member, featuring Kinski at the end of his tether.

History tells us that Aguirre and his daughter did make it to the Atlantic, that he did accomplish some of the things he fantasizes about here, and that he finally killed his girl himself rather than let her be taken prisoner and suffer the fate worse than death at the hands of loyalists. Since we don't see Aguirre die in the film, Herzog may work from an assumption that the man will make it, but his point about imperial madness or delusions of grandeur in the face of implacable nature seems to be made one way or the other. That point, which requires seeing Aguirre as a sort of self-defeating figure in his overreach, might actually be undermined if we got a more accurate account of his adventures in which the government gets him in the end. As it is, there are other film versions of the Aguirre story, though the others don't seem to be widely known in the U.S. I'd be interested in seeing Carlos Saura's El Dorado for comparison's sake, but movie history has most likely already given its verdict on the best Aguirre movie.

ATRAGON (Kaitei Gunkan, 1963)

Here's a Toho Studio special from the golden age of their monster and sci-fi films, but one that I'd never really seen before -- probably because it doesn't have any of the major monsters in it, and the monster it does have is pretty minor. But I was nearly won over immediately when we're introduced to two enterprising photographers, who are played by none other than Tadao Takashima and Yu Fujiki, who were the Abbott & Costello-like (or are they closer to Martin & Lewis) minions of Pacific Pharmaceutical in King Kong vs. Godzilla. That film is one of my all-time guilty pleasures, and it's a hoot to see those two as a team again. But it was unsettling, too, since they've been dubbed into English by different actors this time. I couldn't help feeling that these weren't their "real" voices, absurd as that may sound.

In any event, our heroes are quickly caught up in intrigue involving a mysterious attack by apparent aliens, mysterious stalkers of women and a beatnik-like journalist who asks too many questions. It turns out that agents of the undersea Mu Empire are after the daughter of Capt. Jinguji, a navy officer who fled with his advanced submarine just before the end of World War II. These Mu people are rough customers, as Agent 23, for instance, has "special energy" that makes him invulnerable to conventional attacks. In a movie reel intended for world viewing, the Mu folk reveal their obsession with Jinguji, whose abandoned sub fell into their possession. They're convinced that Jinguji is somewhere working on a more advanced sub, and they expect the surface people to put a stop to his scheme, or else face devastation. By the way, Mu intends to conquer the surface world in order to re-establish the rule they exerted everywhere until their continent sank. The United Nations are unimpressed by the threat, perhaps because the film includes embarrassing footage of Mu religious rites. For their disrespect, Venice and Hong Kong are destroyed.

The Japanese government puts pressure on Jinguji's former superior officer to account for his possible existence. Fortunately, the fellow who's been stalking Jinguji's daughter is, in fact, one of Jinguji's sailors, who can lead the admiral, the photographers, the daughter, and the beatnik reporter to a secret base where the great man himself reveals that he has indeed been building a super sub, which he unveils with the name of ... Gotengo!

Gotengo? Shouldn't that be Atragon? Well, it seems like another American distributor has pulled a "Godzilla" on us and slapped an entirely alien name on the project without really bothering to apply it to the submarine. As you'll notice, Gotengo isn't the name of the movie in Japan, either. The original label translates rather prosaically as "Undersea Warship." Said warship is equipped with a drill, an ice gun, and the power of flight. An ideal weapon against Mu, perhaps, but Jinguji isn't thrilled about saving the world in general, even if that means succeeding where an American super-sub had miserably failed. Speaking of absurd, Toho would have us believe that the U.S. Navy, at the height of the Cold War against godless communism, would name a submarine in their fleet the "Red Satan." The religious right, however, will take comfort in that ship's destruction under crushing undersea pressure. Jinguji, meanwhile, seems to want to hold Gotengo in reserve for a new round of imperial conquest. That gets put on hold, however, when the beatnik reporter proves to be another Mu spy and sabotages the sub.

Everything is building up toward an attack on Japan by Mu (including some cool model earthquake footage) and a showdown between the Gotengo and Manda, the vaunted god of Mu. This invincible creature is in fact a rather puppyish sea monster that frolics in the deep and tries to constrict ships to pieces. Once the sub is up and running (or flying) again, it manages to shake off Manda and freeze it. Then it's on to a genocidal attack on the Mu power center, Jinguji having realized that he's been a "knight in rusty armor" once he appreciates his daughter's peril. It looks like the captive Empress of Mu is going to be the empire's last survivor, but she is honorably allowed to jump into the ocean and swim toward the burning ruin of her city. And so we wish the Empress well on her long ... well, not so long journey home.

"Atragon" is really more of a fantasy film than anything else, and as such it's okay. Kaiju eiga fans will be underwhelmed by Manda. while sci-fi fans may get a kick out of the Gotengo's capers. Despite the appearnce of those two well-remembered performers (and several others from the Godzilla series), this movie never quite becomes the all-out fun experience that King Kong vs. Godzilla is -- in English, at least. Japanese genre fans should enjoy the widescreen DVD from Tokyo Shock, which does justice to Ishiro Honda's direction and Eji Tsuburaya's designs. It may be best appreciated on a camp level, or as a document from a certain historical moment of moviemaking. Either way, your time won't be entirely wasted.
Here's the Japanese trailer:
And you can see an American trailer here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

TRAGIC CEREMONY (Estratto dagli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea, 1972)

Italians, it seems, have never worried about whether movie titles will fit on their marquees. Their tastes run to surrealism as well as verbosity, as any giallo fan knows. The original title of "Robert Hampton's" film translates to "Taken from the secret police archives of a European capital," -- London, to be specific. For that matter, the original title of "Robert Hampton" is Riccardo Freda, the name of a seminal figure in Italian fantasy cinema. Freda used the Hampton pseudonym on several occasions, perhaps sometimes as part of the common Italian scheme of convincing audiences (their own as well as foreign) that they were looking at an American or English film. Freda worked in many genres, including peplums and spaghetti westerns, but was most at home making gothic horror films, from which group I can recommend The Ghost (Lo Spettro), a Barbara Steele vehicle from 1963 released under the Hampton name.

While the Italian title suggests a cop film or possibly something along conspiratorial lines, the title used on the Dark Sky DVD actually better represents what you actually get: a dark film having something to do with a mysterious ceremony. Tragic Ceremony is a late expression of Freda's gothic style, incorporating developments in cinematic bloodshed since his heyday of the 1950s and 1960s.

Over music by Stelvio Cipriani, we're introduced to four young people on a sailboat. The boat belongs to Bill, the scion of a wealthy English family. His pals Joe and Fred are basically sponging off him, while he gives Jane, the lone female, a gift of a pearl necklace he swiped from his mom. The necklace has a curse: it was given to an exorcist by a grateful client, but the exorcist was subsequently killed.

Our crazy kids continue their trek on land until their car runs out of gas. They make it to a gas station where the attendant won't accept Bill's traveller's checks without proper ID. The dumbass left all that important stuff back on the road or on the beach, but the gas guy pities Jane and gives them just enough, he says, to make it into town. They don't get quite that far, but do break down in sight of a gated mansion where they can buzz for assistance. The Alexanders prove generous hosts, giving the gang the run of the servants' quarters.

While the guys vegetate, Jane feels herself strangely drawn deeper within the mansion. In an atmospheric shot reproduced (and enhanced) in the poster art, she descends a staircase in a high-ceilinged chamber as curtains billow with the wind through wide-open windows. Along the way, she breaks the necklace. Jane discovers what appears to be a satanic ritual of some kind. She watches, enthralled, and then approaches languidly like a willing sacrifice.

By now the knuckleheads figure out that Jane's gone and make their way down the stairway and into the ritual area. They don't like what they see: crabby looking elderly devil-worshippers (an all too common motif in this period) about to kill Jane. Bill intervenes and struggles with Lady Alexander for a sacrificial knife. He ends up accidentally killing her. The satanists are understandably irked. Less understandably, instead of going after the meddling kids, they start killing one another. Each death is a set piece gore effect, the highlight being a man getting his head cleaved in half with a sword. It's effectively shocking the first time you see it, but Freda flashes back to it all too often later on. Most of the other effects are too blatantly mechanical to truly shock or chill us. The trailer gives most of them away.

The gang evacuates, dodging people pitching themselves off balconies, and zoom off in their refurbished buggy. They stop at the gas station, but it looks like the attendant's abandoned it. They head to Bill's place, but his mom sends him to his father's hangout. There they learn from TV that the police believe that some Manson-style youth gang annihilated all those poor old people. It might be wise to lay low where they are, except that there it's their turn to start dying....

With the botched sacrifice, Tragic Ceremony jumps the shark. There doesn't seem to be any good reason for the mayhem that follows, and you have no basis for believing that anything really supernatural was going on until the kids start dying later. Until then, Freda has been working a nice, slow burn, building up suspense and atmosphere in deliberate fashion, even including a good old fashioned thunderstorm. Once the gore commences, it's as if he lost heart. There's one good, agitating sequence as the last of the guys flees frantically on a motorcycle from a hallucination of Jane's half-rotten face, but from there the film staggers to a conclusion that tries to explain too much. You suspect that someone lacked confidence in gothic horror's potential to scare 70s audiences, even though this was made around the same time that Mario Bava had a success with the retro-gothic Baron Blood. By the end, you wonder if anyone knew what they were doing -- or what they wanted to do.

The DVD boasts the Italian soundtrack with English subtitles in a letterboxed edition that looks good but far from pristine. The main extra is an English-language interview with Camille Keaton, who played Jane, reviewing her European career prior to her most infamous screen credit, I Spit On Your Grave. I got the disc at a closeout sale at a pretty good discount, so that while I wouldn't really recommend it as a keeper except for Italian horror completists, I can't complain too much about the cost.

For Our Consideration

To be honest, I don't have much rooting interest in this year's Academy Awards, since I went to few movies in 2008 and am only just catching up to many on DVD. Usually I watch the nomination announcements, but this time I didn't even know that they were doing it on a Thursday instead of a Tuesday. Anyway, here they are. I plan to see The Wrestler soon, so I may join with those rooting for Mickey Rourke. For now I guess I have to pull for Milk for Best Picture, since it's the only nominee I've seen, and all the others have gotten profoundly mixed reviews. Heath Ledger will probably get his due, but I'm scandalized that Christopher Nolan didn't get nominated for Best Director. A nomination seems like the least the Academy could do to acknowledge Nolan's achievement and the fact that The Dark Knight was of a different order from the other popcorn blockbusters of the late year.

Actually, one item on the list really did surprise me. Can it really be possible that Jerry Lewis is only now getting the Hersholt? The man must have had plenty of enemies.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


One of my unpublicized New Year's resolutions was to broaden my cinematic palate by exploring areas I had not approached before. One of my top priorities was to try some "Bollywood" movies, since the Albany Public Library has a growing selection of Indian titles. They're remarkably up to date, since Ram Gopal Varma's "underworld meets terrorism" drama was a Summer 2008 release in India, where it met mixed to bad reviews and disappointed at the box office. The trailer promotes it as the continuation of a series of underworld movies from Varma (or RGV, as Indian cineastes call him) dating back to 1998. Since its release, and in the aftermath of the all-too-real terrorist attack on Mumbai, Contract has probably acquired an unhappy resonance for Indian audiences. But the trailer, of course, can have no inkling of that.

Aman Malik is an Indian Muslim commando on an anti-terror mission. He confronts Sultan, a terrorist leader, who challenges him to explain why he's fighting and tells him that he's only obeying orders for no good reason while he, Sultan, is a truly free man. Aman doesn't have time for a comeback before an explosion stirs confusion through which Sultan escapes.

Aman retires from the service and lives happily with his wife and daughter. Toward Divyi, his wife, he's rather condescending. She doesn't understand why terrorists do what they do. He answers: "If you can't understand anything, why think about it and spoil your mood? Change the channel and watch MTV!" He rebuffs Ahmad Hussein, a visitor from the police who hopes to recruit him for an undercover operation. He wants Aman to infiltrate the criminal gang of "RD," who has ties to Sultan's terrorists. He wants a military man because he doesn't really trust anyone in the police. Also, Aman can identify Sultan. Aman says no.

In the very next scene, Aman's wife and daughter are blown up by a terrorist bomb at a temple. It's a double blast and Aman is away from the first explosion. His family survived the first round, and he can see his little girl holding out her arms for him before the second blast. That image haunts him through the rest of the film, while the girl's rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" morphs into some sinister lyrics that play over a montage of Aman training on the beach after he volunteers for Ahmad Hussein's mission. Here's a sample verse, as translated into English subtitles from the Hindi original.

Staying alive is a big problem.
Everything is an illusion.
The bird died after crashing into the building.
They will kill me after barging into my house.

The refrain is, "We should plant a bomb." I was hooked. Ahmad Hussein gives Aman a new identity (as Amaan Ali Yusuf), a criminal record, and a prison sentence. Ahmad's idea is that Amaan should get RD's attention by killing a prisoner that RD has so far been unable to touch from the outside, a minion of RD's great rival Goonga -- a buffoon who lives on a yacht so RD can't reach him. Amaan does the job with little trouble, with the desired result. He's taken out of prison by RD's lawyer, who we witness discreetly beating his wife for being slow about making coffee.

RD himself is a charmer. We see him torturing a prisoner and blaming his minions for the prisoner's death; they had not provided the proper voltage. One minion protests and strikes a karate pose, only to be told, "This is the age of Osama, not Bruce Lee." RD promptly puts Amaan to work on a reign of terror that ranges from gang hits to political assassinations. Feeling the heat, Goonga uses his pull with the police to recruit Dara, an "encounter specialist," i.e. a police hitman, to kill Amaan. Amaan gets word and ambushes Dara in his apartment. The pudgy killer manages to escape, but only after being chased naked through the streets until he can steal a sari off a mannequin. Made a laughingstock by the media, Dara is more determined to destroy Amaan, while the police issue a shoot-to-kill order against the mole.

Finally invited to meet RD face to face, Amaan is challenged by the karate guy, whose kung fu is very poor. His strikes have no effect, and Amaan beats him down while Iya, who we'll learn is RD's sister, watches with wary admiration. Soon after this, at about the one-hour mark, or halfway through the film, we have the closet thing to the stereotypical "Bollywood" musical number. The song is called Maula Khair Kare, and the refrain seems to be, "God, Be Kind."

A bloodbath ensues, with many pretty people mowed down by machine gun fire. The goons coming out from under the pier were recruited by Dara, who is soon captured, interrogated and killed by RD. During his time at the compound, Amaan has been rather casually keeping Ahmad Hussein up to date via cellphone in full view of anyone who happens to walk in on him. Karim, one of RD's flunkies, hits the jackpot, but some quick mayhem and a word of advice to Ahmad Hussein save the day and leave RD none the wiser. Iya demonstrates her affection for Amaan by helping him plan Goonga's death. She buzzes the yacht on a jet-ski and asks for a drink of water while Amaan, who has clung to the bottom of the jet-ski, makes his way on board the yacht to kill everyone but Goonga's shrewish wife, who has provided comic relief up to this point.

Now the word comes to meet Sultan in Mumbai, where the terrorist has some mischief planned. RD sends Amaan along, and Iya comes with him. Amaan feels compelled to confess to her that "I am the police's man." She seems too drunk to care, but he insists that she help him destroy Sultan. "If he is Allah's devotee," Amaan rages, then why does he plant bombs like a coward? Not Sultan, but I am Allah's devotee!"

Sultan has a surprise once everyone's gathered together. He knows there's a police plant in RD's gang because he's captured and tortured Ahmad Hussein. He also knows that RD and his gang have been massacred back at headquarters. Fortunately, Sultan buys the story that Karim, the flunky killed earlier, was the mole. Satisfied, he kills Ahmad, then regales Amaan with the gory details he hopes for from his next exploit. Sultan wants to blow up a school ("Death is better than wrong education") and a train station. He wants maximum women and children casualties, and the body parts had better go flying through the air. Then he wants to just call in a threat to a hospital, so the victims of the earlier attack won't be admitted. His amusement at this idea is the last straw for Amaan....

Every death is dear to harmony.
Our business is to kill.
Blood flows in the vein.
It's important to shed blood.

Subtitled lyrics from CONTRACT closing credits

I don't know from Hindi cinema. As I said, Contract seems to have been unpopular in India, but I was won over by its ghastly enthusiasm in portraying a practically amoral universe. There seems to be a Scorsese influence here, particularly in the exuberant ball-busting humor on Goonga's yacht, and The Departed is sound-sampled when Dara visits a movie theater. The musical aspect of the film seems better integrated from an American perspective than I first expected it would be. Apart from the Maula Khair Kare scene, most of the songs are done over music-video style montages, and they aren't the shrill wailing I feared. The music is overdone sometimes in dialogue scenes. Varma has a bad habit of overpunctuating important conversations with overdramatic musical cues. That occasionally made Contract reminiscent of bad TV, or even soap operas. Overall, however, I thought the director sustained dramatic momentum throughout, though the final shootout scene was rather ploddingly done. There's also a scene earlier (you can see it in the trailer) where I couldn't tell if Amaan was supposed to be running over someone with a motorcycle or if that someone had simply done a backflip to get out of Amaan's way.
I was entertained by Contract, but I don't know if that makes it a good film. Novelty value was a major part of its appeal for me, but my relative estimate of Varma's work may change after I see more Indian films. It might serve, given its resemblance to a more conventional American film, as a relatively painless first look at Indian cinema, or Indian crime cinema especially. It's accessibly exotic, but definitely just the tip of a tropical iceberg that should be explored further.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On the Big Screen: GRAN TORINO (2008)

Clint Eastwood returns to spread more beams of cinematic joy in theaters across the nation with his second release of 2008. I speak ironically, of course, since the arrival of an Eastwood film in recent years, at least since Mystic River in 2003, has been more like an eclipse of the moon. The successive gut-punches of Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers established Eastwood as the feel-bad director of our time, a status hardly challenged by the more heroic narrative of Letters From Iwo Jima. The old man seems to have gone into overdrive, putting out six films in the last six years. If he's inherited his mother's longevity, and if he feels like following in Manoel de Olveira's footsteps, we could have a lot more from him yet.

I'm in the apparent minority in preferring Flags to Letters out of the Iwo Jima films. While Letters is the more conventional and, as I said, more heroic film, and is marred by some mawkish moments, Flags is a kind of masterpiece in its non-linear construction, its debunking attitude toward the "Greatest Generation" and its brutal denial of closure in never showing the end of the battle. I didn't get out to see Changeling, but it sounded like more along the same grim lines from Eastwood. Like many people, it seems, I was more willing to spend money to see the man himself in front of the camera.

People were quick to try and characterize Gran Torino as "Dirty Harry in retirement," but Eastwood has something else in mind, as becomes obvious pretty quickly. It hits you with a slap of audacity once you see him spit tobacco and the rat-a-tat drum beats rumble over scenes when he menaces hapless gangbangers. This isn't Harry Callahan in retirement, but Josey Wales in the 21st century. Memories of The Outlaw Josey Wales provide a map to how Eastwood wants us to interpret the story. Walt Kowalski is a man alone, convinced that his world is dead. He's ready to make war on the whole rest of the world, or at least hole up in his house apart from occasional forays to the veterans' hall or the barber shop, but he finds himself almost unconsciously building a new community as he grudgingly allows himself to connect to his Hmong immigrant neighbors and teach Thao (or "Toad") his old-school values. His climactic confrontation with the gangstas at their clubhouse is an echo of Wales's confrontation with Ten Bears, as Walt proves willing to sacrifice himself to save his little adopted community of decent people.But there's a crucial, possibly a cruel difference. Wales wins over Ten Bears by convincing him that, if his word of death is true, so his word of life is true. But Gran Torino has been telling us that Walt Kowalski may not have a word of life to offer, or may not think he does. If so, Walt can only do the next best thing....

Actually, I think that Gran Torino is too neatly plotted for its own good. Its resolution looks more like the logic of a screenwriter than a natural outcome of events. The end is telegraphed by Walt's contracting the infamous Movie Disease. The signs are all too obvious for trained observers. An otherwise healthy man pauses for a moment to cough up blood into a handkerchief, and is otherwise healthy until the next outbreak. The Movie Disease doesn't stop Walt from beating the snot out of a fat punk in order to set up the final sequence of catastrophes, but it does force him to ask Thao's help in moving a freezer up from his basement. At other points, however, the movie rings true about aging, particularly in Walt's refusal of neighborly attention and his apparent loss of appetite before he learns to appreciate Hmong cuisine.

Many people perceive Gran Torino as Eastwood's latest attempt to win a Best Actor Oscar. If that's the case, Clint might have a beef with his director. This film strikes me as a step backwards from Million Dollar Baby for Eastwood as an actor. Especially early on, he's far too blatant about Walt's grunts and growls of disapproval about things and his habit of muttering to himself. I would have guessed Walt to be a more taciturn or stoic sort. In any event, the grumbling gets on one's nerves. Eastwood is much better as his character warms to Thao's family and in his banter with his barber. On the other hand, the worst scene in the movie is probably the comic sequence in which Walt and the barber try to teach Thao how to talk like a real man, including the ball-busting banter that Walt applies to almost everyone in his life.

Walt's bits with the barber actually throw the issue of his racism into confusion. Our hero has issues with Asians and calls the Hmong (without knowing or caring at first who they are exactly) every anti-Asian slur in the book. You're primed to think him a plain hater, but then we see Walt using similar epithets in pure fun with the barber, who gives as good as he receives. So going back to the Hmong, does he hate them as Asians (he tells the gangstas, "We used to stack you shits five feet high and use you for sandbags.") or are his epithets just his way of keeping everyone at a safe distance? He never does stop using them even after he's clearly become friendly with Thao and his sister. He actually warms to the sister first because she's willing to talk back at him. There's a charming moment when she introduces Walt to friends at a party as "the white devil," to which Walt responds, "That's right, I'm the white devil," -- which I suppose might be as good as "the grey rider" as a description of Josey Wales. My point is, Gran Torino doesn't seem to be so much about a man overcoming racism, as early reports suggested, as it is about a bristlingly defensive, isolated man given a last chance, after having failed with his own family, to reach out to people outside his shell. Moreover, the racist epithets seem to serve, specifically when Asians are concerned, as a way to shield himself from guilt feelings over a war crime he confesses late in the movie.

Walt's testy chats with the local priest, who was tasked by the late Mrs. Kowalski to look after her husband, sound at first like echoes of the Eastwood character's irreverent scenes in Million Dollar Baby, as if Eastwood himself enjoys performing in that mode. But Gran Torino seems to grant the clergy more wisdom than the earlier film, since the young priest elicits Walt's admission that he knows more about death than about life. The films are alike, however, in leaving little room for consolation or salvation for Eastwood's characters. As with Thao's sister, the priest wins Walt's respect by standing up to him, but he can't dissuade Walt from making the movie's climactic decision, and is unable to thwart Walt's plan once he has an inkling of it. This doesn't seem to be a reflection on religion, but a reflection of the script's stubborn insistence on a certain outcome in order to make a point that isn't necessarily clear.

On one level, Gran Torino only makes sense in the context of Clint Eastwood's career. Eastwood is a darling of auteurist critics who see films as expressions of their directors' personalities. To my knowledge, he's never tried to write his own movies, but he's taken more steps in recent years to put a personal stamp on his product, most notably his Chaplinesque determination to write his own music. In this way, we're supposed to see what happens to Walt as some kind of comment on the Clint Eastwood movie persona, a statement on whether the type can flourish in the 21st century. Because Eastwood seems to be self-consciously chasing Oscars, he's probably encouraging this approach to the new film. My big problem with Gran Torino, which makes me rank it behind Million Dollar Baby and the Iwo Jima films, is that it muses on the "end" of "Clint Eastwood" at the expense of what might have been a more plausible ending for Walt Kowalski. But even a relatively minor Eastwood film from this late period has more going for it than many other films from other hands. Compared to much of what's out there, Eastwood's film looks like socialist realism, and is refreshing for that reason. The Eastwood character may end up somewhat unreal, but he's been placed in a convincingly real world and is ably supported by a mostly unfamiliar cast. I can definitely recommend the film to fans of Eastwood the director and actor as a kind of work or art, but laymen may not appreciate the film as much on its own terms.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


The DVD box cover lists this as a Swiss-Cote d'Ivoire co-production. It's the most recent of six films by director Roger Gnoan M'Bala, about whose earlier work over 36 years IMDB has little to say. The present picture is a period piece, set in the 17th century. Its hero is Ossei. a rebellious son who resist his father's pressure to enter into an arranged marriage. Ossei would rather romance a slave girl, to the annoyance of his snobbish dad and other village elders who ambush Ossei and beat him up after one tryst too many. Understandably, Ossei promptly says good-bye to the village. As a result, he misses a raid that razes the village. Seeing the flames, he rushes back to find his father and girlfriend, among others, dead, and everyone else missing. His mother, the outspoken Mo Akassi, and the other survivors have been enslaved by an army (including a cohort of orange-clad, face-painted women warriors) of Adanggaman, who has set himself up as a local emperor. Ossei actually manages to rescue his mother, but one of the women warriors catches up to them. She fights with a whip and a dagger. Ossei manages to take the whip from her, but while he's probably stronger, she has better skills and the dagger. She wounds him in the arm and leaves him for dead, taking Mo Akassi back to the slave caravan.

Ossei perserveres and makes it to Adanggaman's town, where the despot lords it over his vassals. He revels in tribute but rebukes an underling who took it upon himself to massacre an enemy tribe. Only Adanggaman gets to decide who lives, dies, or is enslaved! Some are sold to local villages, others to Europeans in exchange for rum and other goods. Ossei watches while Adanggaman inspects his new captives and gets a mouthful from Mo Akassi. When he renames her "Botimo" or monkey, she tells him he's the monkey because he's insatiable for everything. Meanwhile, an old healer finds Ossei and gets him out of harm's way. Ossei decides to turn himself in, hoping the emperor will free Mo Akassi in exchange. But there's no dealing with Adanggaman. In time, we learn that the healer's daughter, Naka, is the warrior woman who had fought Ossei earlier. Now she has an attack of conscience over her father's fate. She turns deserter, frees Ossei, and flees with him, hoping to start a new life together. Their idyll proves all too brief....

Adanggaman (center, with bone) presides over his kingdom in his very own movie.

Adanggaman is a grim affair, as is only appropriate. African enslavement was an atrocity the horror of which would be undermined if we had a story with a happy ending of escape. M'Bala makes a very smart decision right away by creating a family conflict that any audience could identify with, creating instant identification with Ossei and lending a bitter irony to his father's death. M'Bala's direction is pretty straightforward. There's no stylized action, and a lot of it is filmed at a distance so the audience will keep its distance, too. The exception is the initial fight between Ossei and Naka, and that's free of the sort of choreography that would be inappropriate here. One could easily imagine an Americanization of the story that would make Naka more of an "Amazon" (as the box cover calls her) than she really is, while Ossei would be more like the heroes of Apocalypto or 10,000 B.C. But that approach would obscure the mass reality behind an individual triumph. As M'Bala informs us in a closing title card, even Adanggaman himself would be caught in the net of the slave trade. There are no winners in this story.

New Yorker Films was clearly concerned about the potential for controversy in a film about Africans enslaving Africans. The DVD comes with a little "Historical Context" feature that makes pains to emphasize that no one should jump to the conclusion from a viewing of Adanggaman that blacks deserved what they got in America because of the way they treated each other. It's kind of sad that someone had to state the obvious, but I can understand why they did. You can check it out here. I don't know if African filmmakers have done anything dealing with the other end of the Atlantic trade, but if not, this would make a good first half of a double-bill with Jacopetti & Prosperi's Addio Zio Tom.

Once more, I have to give credit to the Albany Public Library for making this film available for me. They have several more African films in their collection which I'll be sampling during the year, along with faster-growing collections of Spanish-language and Bollywood movies. I'm extravagant in my DVD purchasing habits, but I'd be unable to fulfill my mandate of describing a wild world of cinema without the library's extraordinary holdings.

A Thankless Year for Michelle Yeoh

It grows depressingly more apparent that the estimable Michelle Yeoh has become little more than a bargaining chip or a bead in the abacus of global cinema. She's someone who gets cast in movies "for the Asian market" and not necessarily for any special contribution she might make with her talent. I just sat through a weekend's worth of damning evidence of this.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor may be the worst movie I've seen so far from the year 2008. It's easy to rip on Stephen Sommers following the disaster of Van Helsing, but Rob Cohen's movie illustrates negatively exactly what Sommers contributed to the previous Mummy outings. Sommers was probably doomed to hit a wall because of his more-is-always-better attitude, but before the crash came he infused his two Mummy movies with energy, enthusiasm and an authentic pulp mentality that got me over the stupidities of the stories. Neither Rob Cohen nor writers Miles Millar and Alfred Gough have anything like that enthusiasm. Nor do they have the strong pictorial sense that Sommers brought to the past projects. Nor does Jet Li contribute much to the new effort. This film appears to realize his post-Fearless career plan to take things easy, since CGI stand-ins do most of his work for him here. Worse, Brendan Fraser gives every indication of being finished as an actor. He gives the same sort of contemptuous performance here that he seems to have given in Journey to the Center of the Earth. Worse yet, Maria Bello is a terrible replacement for Rachel Weisz, while the actors playing the younger heroes are perfectly matched in stiffness. Worse still, the movie stops dead repeatedly to play out a needless family-conflict scenario in utterly predictable fashion. Yeoh, arguably, is the only major player not to embarrass herself. She plays an immortal witch who defeated Li's evil emperor 2,000 years ago and has been hanging out in Shangri-La (!) ever since waiting for him to make his move. This pays off in a fight scene that was supposedly highly awaited in Asia, but as with Li's encounter with Jackie Chan in the slightly less benighted Forbidden Kingdom, it came about a decade or so too late.

Dragon Emperor was probably a hopeless project. One gets the feeling that the writers skipped ahead past World War 2 in order to avoid aping the Indiana Jones movies with Nazi movies, only to stage scenes in a Shanghai nightclub in a way that can only expose the film's inferiority to The Temple of Doom. The only really impressive, non-derivative bit was when the Emperor calls down an avalanche on the heroes, who are saved by yetis. Otherwise, everything seemed lamely derivative of originals ranging from Army of Darkness to Planet Terror. There's nothing for Michelle Yeoh to do here but be Michelle Yeoh: a name on the poster to sell tickets somewhere.

I had a feeling that Babylon A.D. was not going to be as bad as American reviewers claimed, but it still proved pretty bad. I might not have been as critical toward it had it not reminded me of Children of Men at practically every turn. The comparison was always in favor of the earlier film. Mathieu Kossovitz is no Alfanso Cuaron. After starting out like he wanted to be the French Spike Lee with La Haine, Kassovitz has evolved into something like the French Lee Tamahori. There seems to be a career track for international directors that obliges you to make a gritty stab at social realism to get critics' attention, just so you can do impersonal genre stuff for the rest of your career. I've seen La Haine and I have to say it looked like style over substance even then.

Based on a Euro sci-fi novel called Babylon Babies (good call, American re-titlers!), this dystopia inflicts Vin Diesel on us (how soon before he's straight to video?) as a mercenary hired to transport some young woman from an Eastern European monastery to New York City. Michelle Yeoh is the girl's keeper who starts out like she's going to keep Diesel under strict discipline, but is never given a chance for payoff. It would have been wonderful to see her slap him around every time he swore or was otherwise a lout, but that might have introduced more humor into the story than director or star could stand. Either her age or Kassovitz's ineptitude as an action director limits her fight scenes. Yeoh is also constrained by the script's stubborn insistence on keeping us in the dark about why the girl is so important. This is sci-fi, not a mystery movie. Children of Men did quite nicely without false suspense of this sort, while Babylon A.D. seems to want to leave us in a perpetual state of "huh?" The horror of watching this a day after Dragon Emperor is the emergence of a pattern for poor Yeoh. In both films, she's a maternal or quasi-maternal figure who dies. Her expendability exposes the degree to which her participation in these travesties is based on market calculations and nothing else.

It's too bad, really. Yeoh has struggled to overcome career handicaps ever since she changed her name back from "Michelle Khan." You would have thought that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had earned her opportunities to break out of action typecasting, especially given her fluent English (especially compared to her male compatriots), but that hasn't been the case. Even getting to the point where she'd get the Charlotte Rampling part in Babylon A.D. would be some sort of progress for her. She still has a chance, though. I'd like to see Far North, her team-up with Sean Bean, for instance. But time is running out if she's ever going to be more than an international-cast action chick, and I think she deserves better.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Sidney Lumet and Sean Connery had last worked together on The Hill, a fiercely visualized portrait of a British military prison. Six years later, Connery plays "Duke" Anderson, an unreformed con who's just finished his full sentence in stir and thus doesn't have to deal with parole officers. He reunites with his girlfriend and gets the idea of robbing the entire building she lives in: six swanky flats in all, filled with valuables and collectibles. He gathers a gang: an effete antiques dealer, a driver, a young safecracker released at the same time he was, and, in return for a syndicate subsidy, a goon named Socks whom Anderson is ordered to kill during the job. The mob's reluctant to invest at first, warning Anderson that his scheme is hopeless in this modern age of perpetual surveillance. And, indeed, Anderson is being taped nearly everywhere he goes, though only because he crosses paths with people under surveillance: mobsters, Black Panthers, his own girlfriend, etc. But this is a "September 10th" world, and with each monitor concentrating on his original target, there's no sharing of information to warn anyone of Anderson's audacious scheme, and he seems to have the tenants at his mercy....

The Anderson Tapes is a caper film but also an anti-caper film. It demonstrates that luck (or fate) still has a lot to do with crime. Anderson skips blithely and luckily from surveillance to surveillance, but there are other factors that he fails to anticipate that complicate things toward the end of the film. It's an anti-caper film in the way it suggests that the caper formula doesn't work as well in a real-world setting like an apartment building as it does when master crooks are pitted against super security systems (as in Grand Slam and other films) that seem to exist only to challenge their skills. But it doesn't announce itself as a satire or refutation of the caper genre. Lumet presents the story in matter-of-fact fashion that might leave some viewers thinking that what they've watched is all pretty meaningless -- and they wouldn't necessarily be wrong, either.

This is one of the last appearances, I believe, of the "old" Sean Connery, the one from the Bond movies. He still has hair on top of his head, albeit much less than Bond does in Diamonds Are Forever, and he hasn't grown his moustache for good yet. Unfortunately, Anderson is a realistically dull character. He has a nice cynical tirade as he leaves jail, but Connery doesn't really infuse him with the charisma a caper leader needs to keep our interest going.
Meanwhile, the movie boasts that it's "Introducing Christopher Walken," while IMDB indicates that the young man had already made at least one film as an adult, in addition to TV work and some child performances in the 1950s. Walken is the young safecracker, "the Kid," and you'd be excused for thinking that his star persona has arrived fully formed when he enthuses over living free in America by saying, "I wanna eat it!" But there are few similar moments later; Walken doesn't have that much to do, though he has a dramatic final getaway try toward the end. Also noteworthy in the film are Martin Balsam in an uncharacteristically flaming turn, a slurring Ralph Meeker as a police captain who has to deal with the robbers, a pre-Saturday Night Live Garrett Morris as the cop who has to implement Meeker's plans, and Alan King in an early attempt at a gangster part, something he'd do much better in Night and the City and Casino.

The Anderson Tapes has been released on DVD as part of an odd collection of "Martini Movies." I assume it was chosen largely on the strength of Quincy Jones's electro-lounge score, but who knows why films like Nickelodeon are part of the series? The "martini" aspect of the package consists of two "special features" that look for all the world like commercials, combining promos for the series as a whole with mixed drink recipes. This is really one of the lamest gimmicks I've seen in some time. Isn't it about a decade behind the times, or did all that tiki folderol get trendy again? Considering that this comes from Sony, which has given us such incredible DVD concepts as the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott box set and the Hammer "Icons" collections, this concept leaves me scratching my head.

In Brief: WOMAN TIMES SEVEN (1967)

It's no wonder that Shirley MacLaine came to believe that she'd lived past lives, given that she's played more roles than the number of movie's she made. Here, as you may have guessed, she plays seven different roles in individual episodes, all directed by Vittorio De Sica. By this point in his career, De Sica, one of the fathers of the neorealist school and the director of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. among other classics, was making slick, light, colorful comedies. This can easily be seen as selling out, but looking at the neorealist films myself, I saw signs that style counted for more than social-realist substance for the director. He has an aesthetic eye for architecture and there's a quality of art direction even in these chronicles of poverty and human desperation. So perhaps it was natural that he'd go in a more conventional direction once he got the social consciousness out of his system. But that doesn't excuse this film.

Woman Times Seven rises or falls on your receptivity of the premise that Shirley MacLaine is such an awesome actress that you want to see her display her versatility in a collection of vignettes, some of which are little more than blackouts. On the other hand, since she is not an unattractive woman, perhaps it'll do to see her in a variety of costumes and hairstyles. That choice takes you in strange directions. In the second episode, in which she tries to avenge herself on her cheating husband by becoming a prostitute, her frumpy hairstyle, her glasses and elements of her outfit reminded me somewhat of Velma from the Scooby-Doo cartoons.

Shirley MacLaine as Velma -- I mean, Maria Theresa in WOMAN TIMES SEVEN

In another episode, in which she is most often addressed as "Miss Interpreter," she comes as close to unclothed as current standards and her own star status will allow. However attractive she may be, her looks are marred by her obligation to act, on most occasions, like an insane person. This appears to be the point of the whole film, and it is made early and often. She is paired by a cast of actors ranging from a completely wasted Peter Sellers in the opening section to ex-Tarzan turned Euro action star Lex Barker as a novelist to Alan Arkin as a sullen partner in suicide to Michael Caine as a silent stalker. They are all just little planets circling Shirley's blazing gas giant, and as romantic partners, none of them are exactly Audrey Hepburn.

If you can endure the MacLaine onslaught, the movie is in some ways a pleasure. It has attractive views of '60s Paris and a lush score by Mondo maestro Riz Ortolani. Woman Times Seven is probably best appreciated, for people other than MacLaine fanatics, as a period piece. It is self-consciously daring at a moment in time when its daring would very shortly seem quaint. That fact lends the film a certain poignancy that makes me more indulgent toward it than I might be otherwise. That's how nostaliga works -- even for a time when I didn't really live.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ricardo Montalban (1920-2009)

This is a sad day for pop culture historians, with Montalban following McGoohan so closely into the grave. MSN's homepage, as might have been guessed, identifies Montalban with "Mr. Roarke," and many people will remember him that way, while others may recall him primarily as "Khan!!!" Others still, hopefully not just older folks, may recall a decent run of roles he had at MGM in the late 1940s, from the bullfighter's son who'd rather be a concert pianist in the eccentric Fiesta to the grunt fighting alongside the late Van Johnson in William Wellman's Battleground to the Mexican cop going undercover as an illegal immigrant in Anthony Mann's tough gem Border Incident. And others yet will be able to cite more than I can, while another cohort altogether may know him mostly as the guy in the flying wheelchair in that one Spy Kids movie. Combine all these accounts and you have a persistent and diverse career that transcended the "Latin Lover" stereotype that prevailed when he was breaking in. The more of his older films I see, the better I like the man's work. I hope Turner Classic Movies gives us an opportunity soon to see more.

Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009)

It didn't seem right for the MSN homepage to identify the creator and star of The Prisoner TV series as a "Braveheart Actor," but we've reached a point when his '60s cult series has receded from general memory, at least until the promised remake appears. Most people today, at least of a certain age, will know him as, to be fair, one of the best movie villains of the 1990s. But to be fair again, the MSN homepage links to a story with a headline more correctly identifying McGoohan. He was mostly a television personage, but The Prisoner's influence extended beyond its small-screen boundaries and can, arguably, be seen in many movies that followed its run. His place in pop-culture history as a whole earns him a respectful mention here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


There are trailers in circulation on YouTube and elsewhere that gave me the impression that the Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith was someone to watch for tough action cinema from the '70s and '80s. A quick check of his filmography reveals his best-regarded work probably to be the Vietnam War film The Siege of Firebase Gloria from 1989. Before taking on that task, however, he made a pair of martial arts films set in Perth, Day of the Panther being the first. It would not make you optimistic about his later work.

The Panther films were meant to make a star out of one Edward John Stazak. He's introduced to us as Jason Blade, undergoing an initiation ritual at the Temple of the Panthers alongside Linda Anderson, observed by her father and Jason's mentor, William Anderson. Jason and Linda aren't just martial artists, they're also undercover agents for the British government of Hong Kong. Jason closes out his initiation by branding himself, an obligation Linda is apparently spared. This done, we see them sneak into a restaurant to observe a drug deal between some local gangsters and an Australian. He's Baxter, the right hand man of Damien Zukor, the crime boss of Perth. The deal goes bad and Baxter shoots his way out. Detected, Jason and Linda fight their way out, but just miss Baxter.

Linda tracks Baxter back to Perth. She finds herself stalked by three guys in masks: a skull-face, an old-man, and a pig -- or more likely some sort of cartoon pig that Australians might recognize. In an extended sequence, stuttering cross-cut with Jason gradually making his way to Perth, where the local cops mistake him for "one of the top triad enforcers," the masked dudes pursue Linda through an abandoned factory, and she gradually wears them down. It looks like she kills at least two of them, one getting impaled and the other thrown off a roof after a very convincingly clumsy rooftop chase. But it turns out that they've only softened her up for Baxter, who beats her down pretty easily, then finishes her with a switchblade.

The problem with Day of the Panther is that I've just described the action highlight of the movie, and it has about an hour to go. As Linda, Linda Megier is no great shakes as an actress, which may be why most of her subsequent credits are for stunt work, but she's nice to watch fighting for her life, and she at least brings a conviction to her big action scene that Edward John Stazak completely lacks. He's one of the most laid-back avengers you'll ever see in a genre film, and wears a dopey smirk on his face most of the time. The Panther films appear to be his only movie work, and that doesn't surprise me.

It isn't clear whether Jason Blade and Linda were romantically linked, but I suspect not. Jason's mode of mourning seems to involve training on the beach. Meanwhile, Linda's dad is hardly more bereaved. He runs a gym in Perth, and he's very quick to foist his niece Gemma (Paris Jefferson) on Jason. She's quick to foist herself, later seducing Jason in a ghastly '80s workout costume as "Take Me Back" plays on the boombox. But I get ahead of myself. We must backtrack as Jason plots his revenge by infiltrating Damien Zukor's organization. He shows up at Zukor's marina to apply for work by beating up a bunch of his bodyguards.

Soon afterwards the cops bring Jason in to warn him against blowing their delicate investigation of Zukor. Two lame comedy-relief cops, Flinders and Lambert, are assigned to tail him. Meanwhile, Jason's strategy has paid off. Zukor was so impressed by his demonstration that he's invited him to a party, where they match wits with such brilliant repartee as:

Zukor: You like parties?
Jason: Is that what this is?
Zukor: You're sharp, Blade.

Zukor gives Jason a tryout. Sent to deliver a drug parcel, our hero is ambushed but prevails with minimal fuss. News of this latest brawl further alarms the cops, with Flinders announcing, "We can't have him running around Perth conducting his own version of the gunfight at the OK Corral!" As it happens, Jason was set up with fake drugs; Zukor wanted to see if he'd run off with the goods. Zukor trusts him more now, but Baxter doesn't. Baxter struts about in a Miami Vice style getup and seethes with jealousy of Zukor. "He has weaknesses like most men," Baxter says of his boss, in a manner that made me wonder about Baxter.

Who can blame Baxter when Zukor has the bright idea of hyping Jason as Baxter's challenger in his annual martial-arts tournament, held in an amphitheater, by spreading the story that Jason had already beaten Baxter in a fight? Jason himself has supposedly suggested doing this so Zukor can clean up when he helpfully throws the fight, but Baxter likes the situation less and less. He sends some guys to do a Nancy Kerrigan to Jason in a parking garage, but Blade prevails in the usual rout. In the meantime, Baxter sneaks into the Anderson gym, grabs Gemma and interrogates her about Jason, and is challenged by William. Baxter gets one good shot in, but when William declares himself unimpressed, Baxter bails, announcing, "I don't have time for this shit!"

He's back again later and strikes paydirt: a picture of Jason and Linda Anderson, proving that Jason must be a special agent himself. He gets more men to attack Jason at a basketball court, and this time Jason runs for it. William and Gemma ride to the rescue and they all head to the amphitheater, where they suspect Zukor keeps his drugs. This time Zukor captures them all and stages a decisive fight between Jason and Baxter for his own amusement....

The early factory fight is not only the highlight of the film but the most violent scene. The rest, the climax especially, is quite anticlimactic, especially given that this is supposed to be a revenge film. But Jason and William seem all too mellow when it counts, if only to set up the sequel, Strike of the Panther (also known as Fists of Blood), announced at the end of the film. But the limp ending is consistent with the lack of enthusiasm and energy throughout the project. Trenchard-Smith must have realized that Stazak wasn't much to work with. That would explain the perfunctory, almost demoralized quality of the production. Since I was watching a fullscreen copy from the Mill Creek Entertainment Drive-In Classics box set, I concede that the film wasn't shown in optimum format, but it didn't look like I was missing much on the sides of the frame. On this evidence, Australian kung fu is no good, but I'm willing to be proven wrong on that point.