Monday, January 26, 2015

The Virgin Goddess (Argentina/South Africa, 1974)

Helmed by Dirk De Villiers, a South African director of prolific output but little renown outside his home country, The Virgin Goddess is proof that Argentinian sex bomb Isabel Sarli was more than just a buxom puppet in the hands of her director paramour Armando Bo. Don’t assume, however, that Bo was not close at hand. He shares a co-production credit on the film and also appears in a supporting role. Furthermore, his son, Victor Bo, plays the male lead. Victor, I should mention, would go on to give Armando Bo a grandson, also named Armando Bo, who would grow up to share screenwriting credit on Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Oscar nominated film Birdman. And thus is a membrane-thin veneer of contemporary relevance laboriously attained.

Like so many jungle adventures before it, The Virgin Goddess begins in a modern city, that pinnacle achievement of man in all of his so called “civilization” (but are we really so civilized… ARE WE?). Here, a flinty adventurer—appropriately named Flint and played by director De Villiers himself—regales a table full of sophisticated gentlemen with the story of his latest adventure—in a manner so putatively captivating that, before he is done, the entirety of the patrons and wait staff of the bar they are in has gathered around their table.

Interestingly, Flint’s tale requires a preamble that starts in 1495. It seems a certain, beautiful, monster-titted noblewoman (Sarli) was making a treacherous passage by schooner when a violent storm lead to her being washed up in picturesque dishabille on the shore of some unknown African land (the film was shot in Kruger Park, one of South Africa’s largest game reserves). Because everything that gets left in the jungle—cigarette lighters, old copies of the New Yorker, Jell-O molds—ends up being elevated to the level of a deity, the natives waste no time in scooping Sarli up and making a goddess out of her. And it is at this point that we get the first of many, many travelogue style scenes of natives dancing around and chanting. This provides for lots of National Geographic style nudity, which takes the onus off Sarli, who apparently had some kind of Amy Yip clause in her contract.

Sarli is taken under the wing of the village witch doctor, Makulu (Jimmy Sabe) who acts as her Henry Higgins in terms of teaching her the ins and outs of being a rain goddess. Soon her fevered undulations bring rain. The crops thrive and the village prospers. Meanwhile, Makulu himself has become hoodoo’d by Sarli’s overflowing charms and demands that she become his bride. She refuses, and he puts a curse on her: she will live forever, as will he, as long as she remains a virgin. Makulu, it seems, is running the whole show here, and does so with an iron fist. When a young warrior named Gampu (Ken Gampu) attempts to assassinate him, he ends up being run out of the village and goes into hiding.

The Virgin Goddess is an odd film. Its dialogue is a mix of both spoken and dubbed English and Swahili (and to add to the linguistic chaos, the version I watched had Spanish subtitles). It also, especially in comparison to what Armando Bo—whose mania for Sarli’s attributes seemingly robbed him of all restraint—might have done with this kind of material, comes across as sort of… sedate. The pace is slow but measured, and there is an overall hush that reminds one of those old documentaries where the filmmakers spoke in whispers for fear of riling the natives or causing a rhino stampede. It doesn’t help that, whenever De Villiers cuts to a shot of the surrounding wildlife, the animals appear as if they are about to collapse from boredom.

Like her animal co-stars, the usually lusty Sarli also appears anesthetized, laying back complacently as the natives worship her and carry her around on a palanquin—admittedly, as she well might. It takes the intervention of civilized man, that notorious ruiner of everything, to finally bring her back to her old self. This comes in the form of an exploration party comprised of Flint, handsome devil Mark (Victor Bo), financier Hans (Armando Bo), and Eric (James Ryan), a mustached Chuck Negron look-alike who provides the gratuitous folk music.

The Virgin Goddess does not do a very good job of letting us in on when it has transitioned from the 15th century to the present day, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when Gampu, the outcast warrior previously seen only in flashback, steps forward to offer his services as guide to the explorers. From here, the standard retinue of jungle perils and treacheries commences, as naggingly familiar as the morning alarm clock. Eric reveals himself to be the coward of the group and is killed by a leopard while making an ill-advised run for it. Hans is the backstabbing turncoat, and is fatally bitten by vigilant cobras while trying to steal the tribe’s treasure for himself. Mark is handsome, and immediately falls for Sarli once he spies her fondling her own boobs in the local watering hole. This fateful encounter sets the stage for the cataclysmic fuck that will end the film in a hail of volcanic ash and toppling huts (spoiler).

The Virgin Goddess is not boring, even though it feels as though it should be boring. It is instead mesmerizing; mainly for the oddly somnolent approach it takes to material that, in other hands, would provide for a lot of bombast. Dirk De Villiers, it must be said, is no Armando Bo—and I am startled to find myself admitting that Bo’s over-the-top approach was missed here. Because of that, I will deem The Virgin Goddess a must-see only for Sarli completists, of which the desire-perverting tendencies of the internet guarantees there are some. Others, looking for an introduction to this unique star/director combo, would do best to check out the previously reviewed Fuego. Now that’s a picture, people!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

We laughed, we loved, we kissed, we killed.

Last night's tweet-along to Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill ushered the 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down crew into a whole new world; a world where a woman's hair could only be either purple or margarine yellow, where unctuous innuendo stood in for charm, and New York policemen lead ravaging armies of milkmen across the capitals of Europe. To gauge our reactions for yourself, simply refer to the Storified transcript linked below.

The 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down: Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill on Storify

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tonight! The 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down goes spy high with KISS KISS, KILL KILL!

There is nothing I could say about Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill, or the Kommissar X series of Eurospy films, that this poster doesn't say already. Seriously, you can literally smell the awesome. Or, well, some of us can smell it. If that's you, I beseech you to join the Shout Down crew and I tonight at 6pm PT to tweet along to this gem using the handy YouTube link below. Don't forget to use the hashtag #4DKMSD.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

This Tuesday: The Kommissar's in town--and the 4DK Monthly Movie Shout Down has him!

The Kommissar X films stand out from the vast ocean of 1960s Eurospy films by just being a whole lot of goofy fun. Keith of Teleport City and I share an obsession with them that has resulted in us reviewing near every damn one of them. And now I'm proud to announce that Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill, the first of the Kommissar X films, will be the subject of this week's upcoming Monthly Movie Shout Down. Join us on Twitter, using the hashtag #4DKMSD, at 6pm PT sharp to tweet along to this colorful concatenation of femmebots, space age lairs, sharp suited sharpies, outlandish stunts, and diabolical gadgets. Oh, and lots of grade 'A', 60s secret agent smarm, as the trailer below demonstrates.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The offenses keep piling up

Last night's Pop Offensive, the first to be recorded entirely underwater (or so the above photo would have you believe), once again delivered an eclectic mix of danceable ditties from across the globe, bouncing from Oslo to Saigon, Sarajevo to Tokyo, Rome to Dublin, and back again to the good old USA. If you'd like to hear for yourself, the episode is now available for streaming from the 9th Floor Radio site. You can also peruse the playlist on the Pop Offensive Facebook page. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Cairo Station (Egypt, 1958)

My reviews of films from Egyptian cinema's golden age have a tendency to momentarily class things up here at 4DK. Cairo Station should prove no exception, as it is a recognized classic from one of Egypt's most celebrated directors. Formal attire may be appropriate.

Cairo Station looks to the bustling train station of its title--which also serves as the film's sole location--as a portal into the world of Egypt’s working poor, ignoring the thousands of commuters, tourists, and travelers who pass through its gates daily in favor of the various porters, hacks and vendors who keep its gears turning. Front and center among these is Qinawi, played by director Youssef Chahine, a newspaper hawker who lives in a lowly shack on the station grounds; this thanks to Madbouli, the kindly newsstand proprietor who rescued Qinawi from the streets. Gimp-legged, slow witted, and oddly passive, Qinawi is an easy target for bullying and ridicule by the calloused bunch who are his fellow workers.

Qinawi has developed a fixation on Hanouma (Hind Rostom), one of a number of unlicensed female juice vendors who make up part of the underground economy that has grown up around the station. A boisterous troublemaker, Hanouma teasingly encourages Qinawi's crush, even though she is engaged to marry Abu Serih (Farid Chawki), a burly porter who is engaged in an uphill struggle to unionize the station’s workers. Hanouma’s flirting inspires delusions in Qinawi that, once shattered, send him spiraling into madness, at which point Cairo Station takes a very dark turn indeed.

In terms of its cast, Cairo Station packs a lot of star power. “Egypt’s answer to Marilyn”, Hind Rostom (Ebn Hamido, Sleepless) imbues Hanouma with an almost savage sensuality while at the same time maintaining the hard, cynical edge one would expect from a character attuned to a life of scrabbling. As Abu Serih, Farid Chawki (Oh, Islam!, Antar The Black Prince), demonstrates the same brute physicality that made him one of Egyptian action cinema’s biggest stars and earned him the nickname “The Beast” among his fans.

The standout among the cast, however, is Chahine, whose Qinawi is alternately pathetic and sinister, sympathetic and repellent. Deprived of human touch, Qinawi can only look, and look he does. The walls of his shack are plastered with pictures of pinup girls, which, it is intimated, he spends most of his time clipping out of magazines and whacking off to. We are repeatedly shown close-ups of his eyes as he looks at the chests and legs of female passersby, and at Hanouma in particular. As wanton and free as Hanouma may seem, Chahine won't let us forget that she is nonetheless a prisoner of Qinawi’s tyrannical gaze.

Cairo Station was rightly praised by critics in its day, but Egyptian audiences-- accustomed to the frothy, Hollywood-style entertainments of Egypt’s studio system—gave it a much less cordial welcome. After all, while many films had at that point covered the topic of loneliness, few if any—especially in the Arab world--had addressed the issue of sexual frustration with such frankness. And it is indeed sexual frustration that sends Qinawi on the path to madness and murder, essentially turning him into a monster. Once he realizes that Hanouma’ s acceptance of his marriage proposal was only made in jest, he savagely knifes a friend of hers, Hawwalitum, thinking it is her, and stuffs her body into a trunk meant for Hanouma’ s trousseau, after which he attempts to frame Abu Serih for her murder. Hawwalitum, however, survives, and Qinawi, realizing he has avenged himself against the wrong girl, sets a desperate trap for Hanouma.

Like its namesake, Cairo Station contains multitudes, both narratively and in terms of genre. The primary story of Qinawi, Hanouma and Abu Serih is periodically pushed aside to focus on Abu Serih’s battle against his union-busting superiors, as well as a mostly silent story about a young girl who is waiting at the station to say goodbye to her apparently indifferent boyfriend. Stylistically, it combines gritty neo-realism with moody Film Noir atmospherics.

The film also, to some extent, works as a Hitchcockian thriller, albeit one that undermines its own suspense somewhat by playing havoc with audience sympathies. For example, it is still possible to feel sorry for Qinawi while at the same time fully appreciating the threat he poses to the women around him. Hanouma, meanwhile, is as cruel to Qinawi as she is kind, and Abu Serih, while unequivocally heroic in his efforts to establish a union, is also seen beating Hanouma mercilessly simply for dancing to rock and roll music. In short, there are victims here, but no heroes. The cumulative effect of that is that Cairo Station’s violent denouement, when it arrives, comes across as much more preordained and tragic than it does horrific.

The hostility toward Cairo Station on the part of Egyptian audiences resulted in it being banned in its home country for twenty years. When it was later rediscovered by more appreciative filmgoers, some claimed that it was the greatest Egyptian film ever made. I do not know whether that is true or not (I have not seen every Egyptian film ever made), but I would certainly recommend it. It is a well-crafted work of considerable risk taking, marked by both a clear-eyed vision of the human condition at its most humble and debased and an uncommon compassion.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Pop Offensive returns this Wednesday!

You know, there's no accounting for taste. Either you like awesome music or you don't... and suck. For those of you who do, there is Pop Offensive, which streams live this Wednesday at 7pm Pacific time on Thrill along as Jeff Heyman and I spin a dazzling mix of pop, dance and film music from around the world and across the decades, melding the pop of the J, the Italo, and the Swe with the beats of the Mersey and the freak, the girl groups and Group sounds, the souls Northern and funks Bolly, the dances electro and Euro, the garage and the House, the mod, the bubblegum and more. You get the idea.

If you do tune in, be sure to tweet your feedback (even if it's something along the lines of "YES-S-S-S!!!!!!!! BLARGHHH!!") to us at @PopOffRadio. And if you don't, avoid living forever in shame and regret by downloading or streaming the episode from the Pop Offensive Archives. We've got you covered!