Monday, May 25, 2009

James Batman reviews

Review by Andrew Leavold:

James Batman is a rare example of Philippines cinema from the Sixties, a period in which between 150 and 200 films a year were produced. That's a staggering 150-200 Tagalog-language films each year, an overwhelming number of which never dubbed or subtitled into other languages and exported past the Philippines borders, and shot on 35mm film for a developing nation's relatively impoverished audience.

And yet , like other former colonial outposts Mexico, Turkey and India, the film industry boomed. Alongside radio and komik books, movies were a cheap and easily accessible form of mass entertainment, and the population took their own movies to their hearts, allowing the studios to maintain an elaborate system of stars, uniquely Pinoy forms of storytelling, and their own stable of komik superheroes and supervillains. Throughout the Sixties, "goon" films reigned supreme - the action-centic movies named after a villain's ape-like henchmen, and a staple of Filipino cinema right into the Eighties. The fact these "goons" are the Philippines' finest stuntmen AND action stars-in-waiting only adds to the gritty rough-and-tumble of these films' ubiquitous fight scenes. In the Sixties, the action king was Fernando Poe Jr; his comedic counterpart, the king of the "goon" parodies, was a man named Rodolfo V. Quizon Jr, or simply known to generations of adoring Filipino fans as Dolphy.

Dolphy began his career as a song and dance man and vaudeville comedian during the Japanese occupation during World War 2. The flourishing studio system in the early Fifties gave him a decade-long contact with Sampaguita Pictures, and he quickly graduated from bit roles and comic second banana parts to leading man in musical comedies. He encapsulated a droopy-shouldered and slightly pot bellied Pinoy Everyman: a henpecked, cowardly (if lovable) loser, or wily would-be trickster who both turn out "good" or at least functional to others in the end. Men identified with him, women adored him; before long he was making a movie a month, on top of TV and radio appearances. Parodies of Hollywood and European movies soon became Dolphy's forte, and he played the Pinoy version of everyone from the Lone Ranger to Tarzan, from - I kid you not! - Genghis Bond to Adolphong Hitler.

James Batman was released in 1966, at the height of the Filipino komik superhero AND spy craze, featuring Dolphy as James Bond AND Batman - and often in the same scene! The "international" crime fighters are both called in to weed out nefarious organization CLAW and their leader, the cartoonishly Oriental Drago. Dolphy is hilarious as Bond, complete with lecherous sneer and a checkered jacket that matches the bedspreads (cool!), and it's a role he's familiar with, having already starred in a slew of spy knockoffs - Dolphinger, Dr Yes, Operation Butterball to name just three. But it's his Batman where the film comes alive and he steals the scenes from himself: crazed fight sequences, sadly with no Tagalog equivalents of "BIFF!" and "POW!", but with exaggerated tilts and low angles, and Carding Cruz's ever-present stolen surfadelic score. There's an array of other villains, not to mention an army of nurses with pre-war tommy guns, an all-girl squad with low cut black cocktail dresses and executioners' hoods, and the ending in Drago's lair - complete with a huge hand for a chair spitting lasers from the fingertips - kicks the entire Manila-A-Go-Go enterprise up one big lunatic notch. Superb.

Todd Stadman's review from Teleport City:

I've mentioned elsewhere that I find the Philippines' Tagalog language pop cinema of the 1960s strikingly similar to Turkish pulp cinema of the same period. The products of both are comparably rough hewn and action oriented and, by necessity of their staggering volume, bear the hallmarks of being churned out at a very brisk pace. Both are also brimming with fanciful costumed heroes, many of which are lifted directly from Western pop culture sources with little or no concern for matters of copyright. Of course, the Filipino's have their own rich comic book history to draw from, and the decade would also see numerous screen adaptations of homegrown superheroes such as Captain Barbell, Lastikman, and Mars Ravelo's Wonder Woman inspired Darna, but audiences at the time were just as likely to be treated to fare along the lines of Batman Fights Dracula or Zoom, Zoom, Superman!

Filipino cinema had not always been that way, however. In fact, the previous decade had been what is now considered a golden age for the country's film industry, dominated by a quartet of major studios known as "The Big Four", who turned out relatively lavish prestige productions built around their respective stables of glamorous stars. Financial troubles and the resulting defection of contracted talent started to take their toll on those studios toward the end of the fifties, and by the mid sixties Sampaguita Productions was the last of the Big Four left standing.

And the landscape that Sampaguita found itself a part of was a markedly changed one, made up of dozens of scrappy independent production companies seeking to turn a quick profit by grinding out hastily produced imitations of whatever international product Filipino audiences were paying to see at the moment. This translated primarily into countless indigenous interpretations of the James Bond and Eurospy films (resulting, among others things, in the phenomenally successful and long running Tony Falcon: Agent X-44 series), Spaghetti Westerns, and, of course, the ubiquitous Batman television series and the numerous European costumed capers inspired by it. In this sense, Sampaguita's 1966 production James Batman can be seen as one of the studio's efforts to go with the dollar-chasing flow of this new industry environment.

Another tendency in Filipino cinema that is at play in James Batman -- one that, in fact, can still be seen in the industry's current cinematic output -- is a fondness for broad, Mad Magazine-style lampoons of Western pop culture products. It doesn't take a cultural anthropologist to see this as reflecting some ambivalence on the part of the Filipino people regarding the inescapable cultural influence of their former occupiers, but, whatever the case, the result was that, alongside more earnest efforts such as the Agent X-44 films, Pinoy filmmakers were producing an equal number of spoofs along the lines of James Bone, which starred the emaciated comedian Palito as a skeletal superspy.

This particular trend was a boon to one performer born Rodolfo Vera Quizon, who, under the name Dolphy, would go on to become the most beloved screen comedian in the history of Pinoy cinema (such was his popularity at the time of making James Batman that he had recently had the gig of warming up the crowd for The Beatles during the mop-topped ones' ultimately disastrous visit to the islands). After initially rising to fame in the fifties in a series of cross-dressing roles (sure-fire comedic gold in the macho culture of the Philippines), Dolphy had, by the mid-sixties, reinvented himself somewhat in a series of secret agent spoofs such as Dr. Yes, Dolpinger, Genghis Bond: Agent 1-2-3 (all 1965) and Napoleon Doble and the Sexy Six (1966). Dolphy didn't limit himself to parodying the spy genre, and also lampooned comic characters such as Tarzan and Captain Barbell during this period -- and for James Batman combined the two with a dual performance as comedic versions of both James Bond and Batman.

What makes James Batman such a strange animal -- aside from the obvious -- is that, in parodying the James Bond films of the mid sixties and the Adam West Batman television series, it's spoofing two things that are already spoofs themselves. On top of that, the film, in addition to delivering lots of very broad slapstick comedy, also strives to function as a proper action film, and as such features quite a lot of fairly soberly staged fight sequences and action set pieces. In fact, by the time we reach the final act, most of the comic antics have been dispensed with, and James Batman plays out its remaining length as a fairly straightforward action melodrama. The result is that the movie gets to have it both ways by presenting Batman and James Bond, as the objects of parody, as cowardly and preening, while still having them go on to perform the daring heroic feats that the audience expected of them.

James Batman's action starts at what is apparently some kind of congress of Asian nations, at which a Fu Manchu-like emissary of the criminal organization CLAW shows up to make extortion demands and threaten nuclear annihilation upon those who would not comply. What was most striking to me about this scene was the CLAW emissary's sidekick, who was played by a very elderly man who looked both disoriented and confused throughout, leading me to speculate that someone's grandfather had been put to work during furlough from the rest home. Anyway, the combined nations decide that the threat from CLAW is so great that the services of both Batman and James Bond are required. An actually kind of funny scene follows in which the movie's distinctly childish and self-regarding versions of both Batman and Bond, who are obviously none too fond of one another, sit before the committee and argue why each of them should be given the job exclusively -- an argument that quickly devolves into each of them shouting "pick me!" at the delegates.

One of the perks of the job for Batman is that it will increase his proximity to the chairman's beautiful young daughter, Shirley. Unfortunately, while Shirley is crazy about Batman (exemplified by a shot of her gazing dreamy-eyed at a magazine that confusingly features a photo of Batman and Robin as portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward), she has no time for Batman's alter ego, Dolpho, despite the insistence of her controlling older sister Delia that Dolpho, with his many millions, is a prime catch. Meanwhile, the members of CLAW -- which include a cloaked figure called Drago, an especially tall and roided-up interpretation of The Penguin, a guy with a spiked ball for a hand, and a masked female called The Black Rose who is clearly derived from the character in Chor Yuen's Cantonese film of the same name -- have learned that Bond, Batman and "Rubin" are on the case, and determine to eliminate them before they interfere with their plans.

In addition to former Sampaguita contract player Dolphy, the cast of James Batman serves as something of a showcase for Sampaguita's house talent at the time. Boy Alano, who plays Rubin, began his acting career at the age of ten, when he co-starred in the 1951 film Roberta, a smash hit that helped rescue the studio from bankruptcy following a fire that consumed a large part of its property. Bella Flores, who plays Delia, had portrayed the female heavy in that same film, and her performance was so iconic that it pretty much doomed her to the type of bad girl roles we see her essaying here. Finally, Shirley Moreno, who plays "Shirley", was a recent discovery whom Sampaguita head Dr. Jose Perez had that year included in a promotional launch of the studio's new faces dubbed "Stars 66". Despite the Spanish surname, the fair-skinned, conspicuously Anglo-looking Moreno serves as a perfect example of the Caucasian standard of feminine beauty that dominated in the Pinoy film industry at the time -- and still does to some extent today.

With its simple set-up out of the way, James Batman proceeds along a trajectory not unsimilar to that of most spy films of its era, trotting out a succession of action set pieces based around the villain's serial attempts to pick off our heroes. Only, in this case, those set pieces are punctuated by gag scenes in which, to give a few examples, Batman gets pantsed and produces condiments from his utility belt, and James Bond gets bitten on his bare ass by a rubber centipede. Alano's portrayal of Rubin as somewhat of a cretin also provides the opportunity for some Three Stooges-style rough stuff, since Dolphy/Batman is frequently driven to violence by his idiocy. Elsewhere, the level of the movie's humor can best be summed up by the phrase "boobies... hee hee".

Mike Simpson's review from his website:

Holy discovery, Batman! Here’s conclusive proof that, no matter how many extraordinary films are catalogued, described and eventually released on DVD, there are always plenty more that nobody has ever heard of.

I thought that I knew about all the famous, copyright-skirting Asian takes on western culture: the legendary Turkish Star Trek movie, the Indian versions of Superman and Star Wars. Batman, Spider-Man and El Santo rampaging through Ankara... But here’s something new. Could it be (I wondered, as I e-mailed my credit card details halfway round the world) that James Batman is some sort of unholy cross between Batman and James Bond?

Indeed it could!

The representations of Batman and Robin are based on the 1960s TV series, which must have been as popular in Manila as it was in Manchester and Manhattan. The Caped Crusader’s costume is reasonably accurate, except for a striped cape and an odd symbol on his chest in place of the usual bat. It’s either some weird Chinese pictogram or a silhouette of a stripper - I honestly can’t tell! The bat symbol is correct however on the tailfins of the (pretty good) Batmobile. And the Boy Wonder’s costume seems to be completely accurate.

James Bond is played by someone who looks as much like Sean Connery as I do and has an awful taste in jackets and hats.

The movie kicks off with a meeting of some sort of council or government (did I mention: it’s in Tagalog and therefore completely incomprehensible?), which is visited by an evil, Fu Manchu-style warlord. He threatens to detonate an atom bomb - somewhere - and evidently can also fire some sort of stun-ray from his fingertips. Bizarrely, we never see him again after this prologue.

Batman and Bond are both summoned, leading to one of several genuinely funny scenes, which transcend the language barrier. “This is a very important mission,” (or something) says the Council Leader. “I’ll do it!” cries Batman. “No, I’ll do it!” responds James Bond. “I’ll do it!” “No, I’ll do it!” “I’ll do it!” “No, I’ll do it!”

“It is a mission which will bring great glory and fame to whoever succeeds.” (Or something). “I’ll do it!” “No, I’ll do it!” “I’ll do it!” “No, I’ll do it!” “I’ll do it!” “No, I’ll do it!”

“It is a very, very dangerous mission.” “He’ll do it!” “No, he’ll do it!” “He’ll do it!” “No, he’ll do it!” “He’ll do it!” “No, he’ll do it!”

Let’s make it clear. This is not a serious attempt to dupe Filipino audiences into thinking that the stars of Batman and Dr No have suddenly been transplanted to the Philippines. It’s a comedy, a spoof. The Batman TV series was already a spoof, so that’s all right, and although this is meant to be James Bond, the character is more like the self-parodic James Coburn in Our Man Flint.

The actual plot? Goodness knows. Find me someone who speaks Tagalog. Actually, the film contains two sorts of scenes: talky scenes and fights, with the latter predominating. And they’re not bad fights either. Batman and Robin versus the bad guys; James Bond vs the bad guys, then everyone pitching in (as you’d expect). There are some decent martial arts moves on show here and imaginative (for the time) use of buildings and furniture. These are properly choreographed fights and are properly shot too, with reasonably long takes so that we can see what’s actually going on. Clearly the action is more influenced by Hong Kong than Hollywood.

The villains are an odd bloke in a hooded cloak with metal plates on his head (surely he’s not meant to be Doctor Doom from The Fantastic Four, is he?) plus a young chap with sunglasses who has a spiked ball instead of his left hand, and carries a heavy machine gun around with him at all times. Oh, and the Penguin! (And one of the minor characters turns out to be Catwoman later on.) Metalplate, Spikeballhand and the Penguin command their masked minions from a stage dominated by a giant hand - which we later see flex its fingers and shoot a ray, a bit like Fu Manchu did in the prologue. One of the oddest things is that, towards the end, when the Dynamic Duo and 007 (and his Bond babe) are held captive by the Penguin and his cohorts, they are rescued by a good-looking young man with a machine gun. I don’t know who he is - but we’ve never seen him before! Perhaps it all makes sense if you can understand the dialogue.

Has anybody seen this before? Several sources list a 1967 Filipino film called Batman Fights Dracula, although I can’t locate anyone who has actually seen it. Stephen Jones’ Essential Monster Movie Guide gives cast and production company and it’s clearly unrelated to this film. Pete Tombs’ Mondo Macabro mentions something called Alyas Batman and Robin in its Filipino chapter, but that’s a 1990s film. Looks like I’ve stumbled across something new.

So where did I find this rarity, which has remained uncatalogued these 37 years? I found it at Kabayan Central, a company which has an archive of old Tagalog movies. For a quite reasonable fee, they will make you up a VHS copy from the only surviving master. The print quality isn’t great - James Batman is very scratchy and the sound is all over the place - but when something is this rare, that’s a quibble. The simple matter is that James Batman turns out to be a genuinely entertaining collision between two icons of global popular culture, with lots of entertaining if slightly silly fights, and some amusing visual gags (see Batman dispense his lunch from his utility belt!).

With a title like this, it was a reasonably good bet what sort of film this would be. But what undiscovered gems lie behind those other enigmatic titles: Espada ng Rubitanya Mga, Magic Bilao, Nagkita si Kerubin at Tulisang Pugot, Tansan vs. Tarsan? (The only one I have identified so far is Dugo ng Vampira, which is the original Tagalog version of Creatures of Evil.)

There’s a lot to discover here, if my credit card can stand it.

MJS rating: A-

Review from Kim Newman's blog:

The Dark Knight is setting cinemas alight all over the world, but, as Kim Newman discovers, there are other Batman movies that aren't quite so well known... James Batman - which crosses the caped crusader with suave spy James Bond - probably didn't attract much Oscar buzz, nor was the word "masterpiece" mentioned in its reviews, but for completists, is it worth seeing? Does the Filipino film industry's flouting of international copyright law deliver a treat? Read on to find out...

So, riddle me this, trivia-hounds, can you name all the actors who've played James Bond or Batman in the movies? Including the likes of David Niven in the first Casino Royale and Lewis Wilson in the 1943 Batman serial? Well, dynamic dunderheads, did you know one actor has not only played Batman and James Bond but did so in the same film?

Step forward Rodolfo Vera Quizon (always billed as 'Dolphy'), the Peter Sellers or Roberto Benigni of the Philippines. Or maybe the Benny Hill or Don Knotts. Dolphy takes the two roles (three, if you count the 'Bruce Wayne' part separately) in the 1966 Tagalog-language multi-hero spoof James Batman -- which, with apologies to Christian Bale and Daniel Craig, is one of the darnedest things I've ever seen.

Evidently the Filipino film industry of the 1960s deemed itself outside the reach of international copyright lawyers, and laughed maniacally at the cold-eyed franchise guardians of Eon Productions, 20th Century Fox and DC Comics, not to mention the Performing Rights Society folks collecting royalties for composers Monty Norman and Neal Hefti -- the familiar 'Bond' and 'Batman' tunes are played many times in James Batman in what sound like garage band arrangements.

As the title suggests, director Artemio Martez is managing a quick-off-the-mark combined parody of the 'Sean Connery is Ian Fleming's James Bond' saga initiated by Dr No and the Adam West-Burt Ward pop art/camp Batman TV series which debuted in 1965. The runaway world-wide successes inspired filmmakers everywhere to try and get in on the action with imitations and parodies.

Of course, the funny fellows blithely ignored the fact that the 007 films stopped taking themselves seriously around the time 007 wore a duck decoy hat (Goldfinger, 1964) and the Batman show was always a send-up of the comic book and movie serial hero. So, this means that parodies have to go really broad in search of laughs. When Dolphy's Batman gets his tights pulled down during a cliffhanger, he is accompanied by the da-na-da-na-da-na Batman theme with a mocking 'wah-wah' instead of the traditional 'Bat-man'; and when his Bond gorily stabs an arch-villain, he pokes his tongue out rudely at the dying crook.

My Tagalog is a little rusty, but the plot is fairly easy to follow. A bearded Chinese criminal representing 'the Organisation', who could as easily be Fu Manchu or Dr No (though he looks most like Iron Man's comics nemesis, the Mandarin), strides into a meeting of a Pan-Asian United Nations-type set-up and reads out a list of demands and threats from a scroll. He illustrates this with stock footage from 1950s atomic tests and what I presume is newsreel material of the aftermath of a Pacific typhoon or hurricane, cackles in the approved master-fiend manner, and zaps someone with an electrical arc from his fingernail.

Weirdly, this promising baddie fails to reappear, though the Organisation also employs the Penguin (or a thinner, tougher, cigar-smoking variation thereof), a Catwoman lookalike who is apparently a Chinese movie villainess called the Black Rose, a sunglasses-sporting sniper with a mace for a hand, a hooded and partially metal-headed nasty called Drago whose chair is a giant hand with raygun fingers which can be slowly aimed and fired at those who displease him, and a horde of cowled, machine-gun-toting babes with plunging neckline mini-dresses.

The venerable Chairman, whose younger daughter Shirley (Shirley Moreno) has a crush on Batman (a picture of Adam West), is so concerned at the threats of the Organisation that he calls in Bond and Batman, who one-up each other in a split-screen shot and each childishly insist they should be given the solo mission. Later, in a frankly bonkers plot twist, the Chairman himself turns out to be behind the Organisation's nuclear plot, which allows for a poignant moment as Shirley pleads with him not to pull the lever that sets off the big bomb but begs the question of why he bothers to order the two comical but surprisingly efficient superheroes to defeat his own plan.

The heroes wear parody-of-a-parody outfits: Bond isn't in the tux usually associated with the character but a hideous check suit and hat (in one bedroom scene, they match a quilt) which riffs on the tweedy Brit-abroad outfits Connery occasionally sports in the early films; and Batman has baggy tights, a chest symbol which seems to be a silhouette of a girl with a feather boa and a floppy cowl/stripey cape combo which isn't that much sillier than the '40s look. Robin (Boy Alano) looks as if he's wearing a commercially-available Burt Ward costume, but hasn't got much to do in a movie where the hero can play his own sidekick. The budget runs to a fairly cool four-door stretch Batmobile with spindly fins, gadgets like a fork with a radio aerial and a computerised bat-device from which a Thing-like disembodied hand dispenses pre-crimefight snacks (bananas, mostly).

Most of the film consists of knockabout action comedy -- Bond is canoodling with a slinky villainess but doesn't notice her shooting him several times in the chest because he is wearing a bullet-proof vest, and later loses his swimming trunks while fleeing hordes of gunmen and is bitten on the bum by a centipede in the palm-leaf he uses to cover himself. He then pretends he's hurt worse than he is to get sympathy from a nurse and the other good guys. In fact, both Bond and Batman are such whiny dolts that a cooler, better-looking agent (the real James Bond?) and Robin's karate expert girlfriend show up to help in the busy climax.

After it's over, everybody gets a girl but Bond, who is pursued by a goofy-looking character in a Batwoman outfit and comically hops off as if chased by Pepe le Pew ('ugly' women with 'ridiculous' desires for frankly equally gruesome-looking men remain figures of fun in gross-out comedies of all nations to this day, so this instance of horrible misogyny isn't really unusual).

From a non-Filippino point of view, the strangest thing about James Batman is that it keeps turning oddly serious. After the comedy murder attempt, this goofy Bond roughs up a hit-woman in a sexualised way even Sean Connery would have thought ungentlemanly, stopping only just short of rape. The villainess is then taken to a police station where her low-cut dress excites Basic Instinct-like interest from goony cops who absent-mindedly shove cigarettes up their noses or drink from saucers while ogling her breasts (along with the camera).

Because the melées are shot in black and white on real locations (with thump noises but no 'Zap Pow Bam' captions) makes the karate fights seem more like the straight action of the '40s serials than the stylised silliness of the camp crusaders -- Bond vs the Penguin is especially brutal, but a pile of thugs drop a net on and then kick the helpless Batman and Robin as if acting out the wish-fulfilment fantasies of all those bonked, zapped and powed extras in the TV show. The mood swings take the edge off the Third World-level production values, and it's all bizarrely fascinating. I can honestly say I enjoyed it more than two Joel Schumacher Batmans and most Roger Moore-Pierce Brosnan Bonds.

For the record, there's more out there. Dolphy played 'Agent 1-2-3' in a string of films (Dr Yes, Dolphinger, etc) and remains a major star in his home territory (unlike, say, Adam West), but he wasn't in the 1993 Filipino musical comedy Alyas Batman y Robin. Sadly, Batman Fights Dracula (1967), a perhaps-serious Filipino cross-genre movie which vaults to the top of my 'must see' list, seems to be as lost as Andy Warhol's similarly-titled Batman Dracula (1964).

Meanwhile, if you need a bigger bat-fix, there's La Verdadera Historia de Barman y Droguin, Superbatman vs Mazinga V, La Mujer Murcielago, Bat Bitch, Splatman (which features a villain called the Pornguin), Buttman and Throbbin, Rat Pfink and Boo-Boo, The Wild World of Batwoman (aka She Was a Hippie Vampire), Bathman dal Pianeta Eros, the short Robin's Big Date (with Sam Rockwell as Batman) and Scooby-Doo Meets Batman, which is the only entry in this list authorised by DC Comics.

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