Friday, January 11, 2019

The Singing Ringing Tree (East Germany, 1957)


The East German children’s film The Singing Ringing Tree might have slipped under the internet’s radar had it not been serialized by the BBC for its Tales of Europe Television series, whereupon it gained a reputation as one of the most frightening children’s films ever made. No stranger to the idea that a children’s film can be terrifying—I’ve seen Santa Clause and the Ice Cream Bunny, after all--I tucked into it with an expectation of seeing just what had caused so many postwar British toddlers to wet their knickers back in the day—and came away with the conclusion that that particular generation of British toddlers had yet to have instilled in them the Churchil1ian stolidity that got their country through the Big One. You see, the film just isn’t scary—at least not in the realm of scary kiddie films, the ruler of which is unquestionably that master sadist Walt Disney, whose Snow White and Darby O’Gill traumatized my elder siblings to an extent that it was no wonder my parents had given up on his movies by the time I came around.

In place of scares, what The Singing Ringing Tree gives us is a carefully constructed alternate reality, achieved through the use of fanciful indoor sets, miniature exteriors, and surreal puppet creatures. This, combined with a recurring motif of pretty things being made, or revealed to be, ugly, might upset certain toddlers, given theirs was a personal reality so cozy and familiar that there was no relief in seeing it subverted. Personally, being a somewhat downcast, serious minded child, I was always willing to sign up for an escape from the everyday. So much so that my fantasy world of choice was that inhabited by the expressionless automatons of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, Stingray, and Captain Scarlet.


The film further departs from reality by making of its characters mere archetypes who are designated by their titles only: The Prince, The Princess, The King, etc. The Prince, played by Eckart Dux, is, of course, handsome, and starts the film by showing up at the King’s door and asking for the Princess’ hand in marriage. In a flip of the usual fairytale script, the King takes an immediate liking to the Prince. This is perhaps because he knows all too well that the Princess (played by the indeed bodacious Christel Bodenstein) is a ravening bitch. Presented by the prince with a jewel box brimming with pearls, she haughtily casts its contents onto the floor and demands that he bring her the Singing Ringing Tree (or “Das Singende Klingende Baumchen”, which sounds really funny when the cast members say it over and over again.) Everyone present laughs uneasily at this, because, in truth, no one knows where the Tree is, or whether it exists at all. Undeterred, the Prince marches off into the blinding matte painting that lies just beyond the throne room door.

After marching dutifully across the colorful sets (constructed in DEFA’s Brandenburg studios) that represent the world beyond the castle, the Prince comes upon Fairyland, which is ruled by a malevolent dwarf in a psychedelic onesie. The Prince tells the Dwarf that he is looking for the Tree and the Dwarf tells him that he has it—because, of course he does. The Dwarf gives him the tree with the caveat that, if it does not sing upon being presented to the Princess—because it will only sing if the Princess truly loves him—he must return it by midnight or become the Dwarf’s slave. In an odd fit of bravado, the Prince declares that he will return the tree on time or be “turned into a bear”, which must be the most nakedly prophetic line in film history.


Of course, the tree doesn’t sing, because, as I said, the Princess is a total bitch. So the Prince returns to the Dwarf, only to be transformed into that most fearsome of the forest’s predators by way of a patchy looking bear costume (it’s fun, but nothing on the bear that the Prince gets turned into in The Thrilling Sword.) The Prince makes for a particularly grouchy bear, grumbling his way through his daily tasks while befriending all the animals of the forest—including a giant goldfish that looks like a cross between a carousel animal and a parade float.

I’m going to skip over a couple more back-and-forth trips between the kingdom and Fairyland by saying that eventually the Princess is brought, kicking and screaming, to Fairyland, where the Prince/Bear takes her on as an unwilling pet. The first thing we learn is that all of the animals who are so dear to the Prince instinctively shy away from the Princess, because—did I mention she was a bitch? In fact, the Prince tells her, in not so few words, that, if she looked on the outside the way she was on the inside, she would look like total ass. The Dwarf, always willing to lend a helping hand, obligingly turns her into a green-haired (yet still somehow hot in a Nina Hagen kind of way) hag to illustrate this fact.


There follows a series of scenes in which the Prince teaches the Princess to be kind to the animals, over the course of which she gradually returns to her beautiful self—with the added bonus that she’s not so much of a bitch anymore. This transformation is completed when she rides to the Prince’s rescue on the back of the goldfish.

In the course of writing this review I learned that, when the BBC aired The Singing Ringing Tree, they broadcast it in black and white, which might explain how it might have had a somewhat more ominous tone. This, I believe, was part of a nefarious BBC plot to turn all of the former axis powers’ children’s films into blood curdling nightmares by means of changing their color palette. Still, I have to admit that, in it’s normal, colored form, I found The Singing Ringing Tree engaging, a little charming and, at times, even beautiful. See it at your own risk.

Friday's best pop song ever

Monday, December 31, 2018

2018: A year in the rearview


I don't know about you, but last year was pretty busy for me. In fact, 2018 was the year when I finally started asking myself whether I had maybe taken on just a few too many projects. Then I would occasionally look up, bleary eyed, from my keyboard to contemplate what I would do without the firehose stream of literary, musical, web-based and broadcast projects I'd taken on--with the inevitable answer being that I would be paralyzed with fear and worry at the state of the world. So I had no choice but to say "Bring it on, 2018!"

For starters, 2018 was the year in which I published my second novel, So Good It's Bad. As you may know, that novel and it's predecessor, Please Don't Be Waiting For Me, make up the first and second installments of a trilogy that I'm calling The SF Punk Trio. Said trilogy concerns a tight-knit gang of teenage punk rockers who continually find trouble in the shadowy corners of 1980s San Francisco. The third and final installment, Never Divided, will be released in July of 2019. That one will take place in 1984, against the backdrop of that year's Democratic Convention and it's attendant protests. There will also be a covert gang of racist cops within the SFPD.

Then there is Pop Offensive, my monthly survey of the best in world pop music on Peralta College's KGPC. 2018 marked my first full year as sole host of the show following the departure of co-host Jeff Heyman to punker pastures in September of 2017. The standout show of the year was unquestionably our deluxe 50th Episode Celebration featuring special guests, a live musical performance, and three hours of music. Other highlights were our Scandinavian Invasion episode and our episode dedicated to cover songs.


In the podcasting realm, I entered my fourth year of acting as co-host on Ken Brosson's Taiwan Noir podcast, which is just a small cog in his massive Podcast on Fire empire. Though our release schedule slowed down this year (partly due to my busy schedule) I am proud that this year's episodes focused heavily on those goofy Taiwanese fantasies most beloved by me like Nine Demons, Hello Dracula and Fantasy Mission Force.

Meanwhile, my solo podcast, Friday's Best Pop Song Ever, clocked in a total of 14 episodes over the course of the year, with a 15th due in January of 2019. This is a podcast in which I take a more-or-less obscure pop song that I am particularly fond of and nerd the fuck out over it, providing context, commentary and personal observations. What I am most proud of is it's brevity, with episodes lasting from eight to eighteen minutes--in contrast to the bloated length of most podcasts, because just having breath in your body doesn't mean you have something to say. My most listened to episodes so far have been the ones focused on "Pretty Please" by The Quick, "Haunted" by the Pogues, and Kristy MacColl's "They Don't Know." The show is available on Stitcher, so, yes, I'm going to ask you to subscribe to it. And, hey, would it kill you to also rate and review it as well?

And last, but far from least, is 4DK, which I still consider the flagship of my whole operation, despite my falling far short of my original posting goal of 1-2 reviews a week. And though it might sometimes seem like the blog has become a bulletin board for all my activities elsewhere, I want you all to know that I still consider it to be primarily a film review blog and that, in keeping with that, I will continue to review films on it, albeit with the occasional lull. Happily, I've found that, despite the proliferation of film blogs, podcasts, and cult films on YouTube, there are still plenty of weird, obscure and even great movies to be found. Among my favorite films I reviewed this year were Banglar Robocop, the Indian CG monster-fest Creature, Abar: Black Superman, Fantasy Mission Force, Supersonic Saucer, Femina Ridens and Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss, to name a few.

Of course, what I am leaving out of all of this are the things that I'm currently working on for next year, such as a follow-up to Funky Bollywood and a musical. Those will have to wait until later, because I think it would be distasteful to make the first post of the year the longest. Also, I want to refer back to this post whenever I'm wondering why I feel so tired all the time.

Happy new year, everybody.

Friday, December 28, 2018

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER podcast!: "Ba da da bum"

Dara Puspita was Indonesia's first all-woman rock band, and likely one of the first all-woman rock bands in the world. As such, they faced all of the usual hurdles confronted by women working in a male-dominated industry--with the added snag that their country's government, the authoritarian Sukarno regime, viewed rock music as a pernicious Western influence whose silence was to be enforced by no small investment of official harassment and intimidation. Given this, it's a feat of almost wondrous proportions that they recorded a ditty as infectiously cheerful as "Ba da da bum."

Check out this latest episode of FBPSE on Stitcher and, when you're done, leave us a review, a rating, and, hey, would it kill you to subscribe?

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Attack of the Robots, aka Cartes Sur Table (France/Spain, 1966)



The Lemmy Caution movies are unique among Eurospy series by virtue of one of their entries being directed by one of the leading lights of the French New Wave—that entry being Alphaville, a deadpan masterpiece of dystopian surrealism helmed by Jean-Luc Godard. This makes Cartes Sur Table, aka Cards on the Table (American title Attack of the Robots) all the more interesting, because it was the next film to follow Alphaville in the series and, as such, gives us some idea of what the Caution films were like minus the symbiotic burden of the Godarian style.



As a first point of contrast, Cartes Sur Table was directed by Jesus Franco, a director whose fulsome self-indulgence was as far removed from Godard’s stark modernism as possible. Though it must be said that this was Franco circa 1966, when he had not yet succumbed to his impulses and was still capable of working within studio restrictions to craft an entertaining little B picture that purrs along like a well tooled engine. That is unquestionably what Cartes Sur Table is. Which is not to say that Franco didn’t work a couple of languidly erotic night club numbers into the picture to mark it as distinctly his own.



Hardboiled FBI man Lemmy Caution was created by British author Peter Cheyney and was the subject of ten novels written by him between 1936 and 1945. The character made his film debut in a Dutch compilation film called Brelan D’as in 1952, but would not receive the feature treatment until 1953’s La Môme Vert de Gris, produced by French producer Bernard Boderie, which was followed by two more Caution films within the same year. For his lead, Boderie chose American Eddie Constantine, a singer turned actor who had studied under Edith Piaf.

With his pocked, craggy features, Constantine was far from a glamor-puss. In fact, Godard had played on the actor’s rough looks in Alphaville by refusing to let him use makeup in some scenes. Nonetheless, Constantine was possessed of a rough-edged charisma and good-natured affability that made him perfect for the role of Caution, who, in the films, was portrayed as a wisecracking rogue who prevails as the result of a kind of bemused indomitability.


Cartes Sur Table begins with a series of political assassinations carried out by assailants who are, to a one, bespectacled, bronze-skinned, and capable only of saying the last thing said to them. It is later determined that these robotic killers all share the rare blood type Rhesus 0, a blood type also shared by the subjects of a number of recent missing person cases. The higher ups at Interpol decide to bring retired agent Lemmy Caution (“Al Anderson” in the English dub), who also has the same blood type, back into the fold to investigate and also serve as unwitting bait for the mysterious organization behind the killings.

When we first meet Caution, he is gleefully cleaning up the table at an Asian gambling den, where he first meets the character played by Franco regular Mara Lasso, the requisite beautiful woman of mysterious origins who serves as his companion throughout the rest of the film. After leaving the club, he is accosted by a gang of men in the employ of Asian crimelord Lee Wee (Vincente Roca) and taken back to their boss’ hideout. We will later learn that Lee Wee is also interested in using Caution as bait to entrap the rival gang, but for now Caution just beats the hell out of his men and escapes.


Once dispatched to Spain under the guise of globe-hopping businessman Frank Froebe (likely a nod to Goldfinger’s Gert Froebe), Caution learns that the villains behind the murders are relying on a pair of dissolute aristocrats with a knack for mad science to create their zombie-like assassins. These are Sir Percy, portrayed by reliable Eurospy villain Fernando Rey, and Lady Cecilia Addington Courtney, played by French actress Françoise Brion. It is in the scene where these two appear that Franco’s B Movie instincts really come to the fore, complete with flashing control panels, gothic atmosphere, and screaming captives being lowered into a giant test tube.

What surprised me about Cartes Sur Table is that, on top of being satisfyingly action packed, with a number of memorable fist fights and car chases, it is also quite funny at times. One of the most successful comedic sequences takes place when a quartet of robot assassins breaks into Caution’s hotel room, only to find a gang of Lee Wee’s men, who summarily kill all of them, then tidy the place up before an irate Caution can return with the hotel manager to complain about the mess.


This kind of deft genre alchemy combines with Eddie Constantine’s rakish charm and Franco’s pacey direction to make Cartes Sur Table a disarmingly captivating watch. Although Alphaville is one of my favorite films, I can confidently say that, without it, Cartes would still be a worthwhile investment of time for any fan of the Eurospy genre.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Star Virgin (Japan, 1988)


I approached Star Virgin expecting lightweight Japanese erotica, but what I got was something altogether more charming. What it was instead was a frenetic procession of goofy rubber monsters, robots, fun miniature effects and perky idol pop, all revolving around an appealing heroine.

Pin-up model and actress Eiko Kuroki stars as Eiko, an alien visiting Earth in the guise of a normal teenage girl who turns into the bikini clad superhero Star Virgin by way of a “transformation bracelet” given to her by her scientist father. When we first meet Star Virgin, at the film’s opening, she is tied to a crucifix and being threatened by a giant spiny frog with an endlessly extendable tongue. Two ineffectual hand puppet aliens look on. After she punches her way out of this sticky situation, she makes her getaway on a flying scooter as her catchy disco theme song plays in the background. And with that, as they say, we’re off.


In short order, Eiko returns to Earth and reunites with her nerdy friend Koh, only for the two of them to be immediately attacked by a maurading futuristic tank. They are next stalked from the air by a gigantic, bird-of-prey like spaceship, and then a virtually indestructible robot. All of this turns out to be the work of one Colonel Arashiyama (Isao Sasaki) a demented scientist type who heads the Tsukenerawa Organization, an evil cabal that conducts its world domination plans from a lair inside a hollowed out volcano. But this no ordinary hollowed-out volcano, as it is also a hollowed-out volcano that flies.

With her skimpy attire, indomitable cheerfulness, game physicality, and evident baby fat, Star Virgin reminds me a lot of the Philippines’ Darna, especially as played by Wilma Santos – and longtime readers of this blog will know that that is not a comparison I make lightly. And despite a montage of Eiko Kuroki posing that looks like a magazine spread, there is very little salaciousness to the way she is depicted. Mind you, one synopsis I read of the video game that either inspired or was inspired by the movie (details are unclear) described Star Virgin as having a super power that allows her to detect when a man is planning to rape her. This doesn’t seem like too much of a super power, as one of the super powers that men are sorely lacking in is the ability to be subtle when they’re horny. Japanese exploitation films are likewise ham fisted in portraying male horniness, so given I didn’t see any Oafish perverts chasing Star Version in Benny Hill-style fast motion, I feel I can conclude, even without subtitles, that that story element was left out.


I want to be careful not to over-praise Star Virgin, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. It is clearly a film of modest ambitions, but it doesn’t use those ambitions as an excuse not to do the best it can. While its special effects are far from convincing, they are always clever and fun (I mean, if I’m seeing a flying volcano hideout, I really don’t care how well it's executed; I just want to see that shit.) Likewise, its acting, while not of awards caliber, is always enthusiastic and appropriately cartoonish. In short, I would recommend Star Virgin to anyone who doesn’t have a huge stick up their ass, while urging anyone with a huge stick up their ass to seek medical attention immediately.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Goodbye Pete Shelley.


The death of Pete Shelley is hitting me really hard. That's largely because the Buzzcocks were a band that I followed from a young age, my favoite punk rock band. Given that, their songs serve as a powerful memory trigger for me.

The Buzzcocks were one of the last great singles bands. Following in the footsteps of bands like The Who, The Move, and--what the hell--The Beatles, they turned the craft of making a three minute pop record into an art form. I can vividly recall the thrill of racing up to Telegraph Avenue to buy the latest Buzzcocks single and returning home to hear such small masterpieces as "Promises", "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" and "Are Everything" for the first time.

And then there is also what we've lost with the passing of Pete Shelley. As a songwriter, the man was nothing short of a visionary. By merging punk and pop, he imagined a future for both genres: A pop that was edgy and emotionally honest and a punk that made room for romanticism and  sensitivity. And though this lays at his doorstep the blame for such dubious phenomena as Emo and Blink 182's sterile punk pop, it also credits him with setting the stage for more important artists, like The Smiths (it's hard to imagine Morrisey not having a well-worn copy of Singles Going Steady in his collection.)

That it was Shelley's heart--so often broken, trampled upon and scorned, if his songs are to believed--that finally gave out, is too poetic to bear. Perhaps it's true that a world as callous, violent, and in thrall of idiocy as ours, is undeserving of a soul as beautiful as his.

"There is no love in this world anymore," sang Shelley in "I Believe." I would like to believe that that isn't true, but right now I'm having kind of a hard time doing that.