Monday, June 11, 2018

Fantasy Mission Force (Taiwan, 1983)

I don’t want to be a buzzkill, but I think that, when reviewing Fantasy Mission Force, the first thing that needs to be said is that it is clearly a comedy. I think most people would agree with this, though some (you know who you are) would prefer to ignore that fact and skip right to talking about how crazy, awful, or crazy and awful it is. That’s tantamount to showing a Chinese citizen Anchorman and telling them it’s a drama.

Which isn’t to say that Fantasy Mission Force isn’t crazy. It takes place in a world beyond the dimensions of time and space—and, if coherence is a dimension, that too. Sharing a director, Yen-Ping Chu, with Pink Force Commandos and the Shaolin Popey movies, it is a certified work of Weird Fu, though one with an unusual pedigree thanks to its absurdly top-loaded cast. This includes Jimmy Wang-yu, Brigitte Lin, Adam Cheng, Pearl Chang Ling and-- the primary reason that many people who might otherwise have ignored this film have seen it—Jackie Chan.

How Jackie Chan came to be in Fantasy Mission Force is the stuff of cult movie legend, and, like most cult movie legends, the likelihood that it is largely apocryphal is high. As the story goes, Chan starred in the film as a way of returning a favor to its producer and star, Wang Yu. Producer Lo Wei, angry that Chan had left his company for Golden Harvest, had allegedly ordered Triad thugs to put the hurt on Chan, who appealed to Wang Yu to use his alleged “connections” to circumvent that beating, which Wang Yu did, allegedly. You got all that? The thing is that, like all the best cult movie legends, it is entirely plausible. It is also an ironically grim backstory for a movie as unabashedly goofy as Fantasy Mission Force to have.

FMF reminds me a lot of Bollywood masala movies like Dharam Veer for how, in its eagerness to engorge itself with as many crowd-pleasing elements as possible, it completely ignores the intricacies of period. In Dharam Veer, that results in a world where gladiators, pirates, knights in shining armor, and gypsies all maintain an uneasy coexistence. In Fantasy Mission Force it results in a version of World War II in which the Nazis dress like extras from The Road Warrior and drive swastika-emblazoned muscle cars.

The movie takes place in a sort of Rorschach test version of war-torn Asia that could be literally anywhere and nowhere at once. As it starts, we see a quartet of military Generals--one French, one British, one African, and one American—-being taken captive by the Japanese. When the American is asked to identify himself, he sternly replies “General Abraham Lincoln!” If you are someone who needs your movies to make sense, this sequence will shout an immediate warning to you to either let go of that entirely or stop watching.

Yet you’re still watching, aren’t you? Such is the fatal allure of Fantasy Mission Force’s giddy stream of nonsense. And now you’re watching a scene in which the top brass of What-the-fukistan are looking at slides of Roger Moore’s James Bond, Snake Plisken from Escape From New York, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, and Brigitte Lin’s character from Golden Queen’s Commandos. None of these completely fictional beings, one of them announces, is available to head a rescue operation. This alerts us that the characters they do choose for the operation will be just as much fictional archetypes as those just mentioned, that the force is as much, or more of a fantasy than the mission. Thus FMF is, step by step, laying the groundwork for it to do whatever the fuck it wants narratively—all while worrying at old wounds by making the Japanese occupiers its villains and ensuring that it’s redemptive violence will provide easy catharsis for its audience.

Anyway, it is determined that the man for the job is Wang Yu’s Captain Wen, who is then shown careening around in a jeep, casually firing a machine gun one-handed as extras dutifully fall on all sides of him. Just like in The Dirty Dozen (and also The Wizard of Oz) Wen wastes no time in assembling a band of roguish ne’er-do-wells to join him. Sun (Sun Yueh) is a hobo and master thief. Greased Lightning (Frankie Koh) is an escape artist. Lily (Brigitte Lin) is a gunslinger with a score to settle against her caddish ex-beau Billy (David Thao), who is also along for the mission. Hui Bat-Liu and Fong Ching are members of the Scottish Guard and also (I think?) gay.

Finally, there is Sammy, played by Jackie Chan, an exhibition fighter from New York who bills himself as “The Chinatown Strongman”. Now, before you get excited about all the great martial arts sequences that are about to unfold, let me tell you that Chan is here mainly for comic relief purposes that make use of his gift for slapstick. In the English dub, his bumbling character is even given the whiny, simpering voice (“Master!”) that is usually reserved for Hui Bat-Liu. To complicate matters, Hui Bat-Liu is also given that voice, which suggests that the whiny, simpering voice actor really got a workout on this film.

Indeed, given the array of talent at it's disposal, FMF really doesn't provide us with much in the way of hand-to-hand combat, preferring to fall back on gunplay and explosions instead. Brigitte Lin alone is provided with any kind of showcase, while the awesome Pearl Chang, playing Chan's manager, is given none, and is relied on mainly for her irascible comedic persona. Even a confrontation between Chan and Wang Yu consists mostly of Wang Yu trying to crush Chan with an earthmover as Chan wheels around in a car. My friend and podcast co-host Kenny B suggested that this was perhaps because the producers weren't willing to fork out for the kind of insurance that would allow their stars to throw down in earnest.

Anyway, once the team is assembled, it’s time for a couple of completely random digressions. First, the gang finds themselves captured by a tribe of amazons who are, by all appearances, ruled over by a tuxedo-clad Adam Cheng. Though this might seem like a detail worth examining, it is completely dropped once the Force frees themselves from the amazons and blow up their island as a way of saying goodbye. Next they spend the night in a haunted house filled with hopping vampires and mah-jongg playing ghosts.

If you have by now concluded that Fantasy Mission Force is essentially the honey badger of movies, you are absolutely right. And for all those who revel in the many fucks it does not give about being a conventional movie, there are an equal number of people who are enraged by it, insulted, even—thus its online reputation for being the Worst Jackie Chan Movie EVER.

Personally, I think that comprehension-defying films like Fantasy Mission Force provide a crucial service to serial movie consumers like me, in that they challenge our expectations, expand our idea of what a movie can be and, most importantly, open our minds. Of course, for that to happen, one must respond to the first of its many demands on our suspension of disbelief with a hearty “fuck yes!"

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Supersonic Saucer (England, 1956)

Supersonic Saucer is a children’s film produced by France’s Gaumont Studios in cooperation with Britain’s Children’s Film Foundation—of which Supersonic Saucer’s producer, Frank Wells, a son of H.G. Wells, was a top executive. The film concerns a group of school kids who befriend a friendly space alien who has landed on Earth all by his lonesome. What is most notable about this alien is that he is played by a puppet that looks like a cartoon owl in a hijab, and that he communicates solely by rolling his eyes, much like a fourteen-year-old girl.

Ok, that’s not entirely true. The alien, who the kids take to calling Meba, communicates telepathically with his young friends, while the rest of us, joyless adults husks with no capacity for wonder that we are, have to make due with eye-rolls. This leaves us to assume that all Meba is saying is “Oh my god-uh!” And well he might be.

Meba’s human playmates are comprised of four boarding school kids who, for various reasons, have had to remain at their school during the holidays. Rodney, played by the wonderfully named Fella Edmunds, is the leader of the group, because he is the oldest boy and it is 1956. Then there are two girls, Greta (Gillian Harrison) and the refreshingly ethnic-looking Sumac (Marcia Manolescue). Finally, there is Adolphus (Andrew Mette-Harrison), a toddler who remotely reminded me of Porky from the Our Gang series. None of the other kids inspired comparisons to Our Gang because, being uniformed boarding school students with posh English accents, there was just zero chance of that happening.

Because it was paid for in part by taxpayers’ money, Supersonic Saucer endeavors to impart a moral lesson upon it’s young viewers. This comes as a result of Meba’s habit of stealing things in order to make his little friends’ wishes come true. When they wish for a tableful of sweets, he robs a bakery. When they wish for a million pounds, he robs the Bank of England, and so on. The lesson here is, not only that one should not steal, or that one should be careful what one wishes for, but also that one should be careful what one wishes for when in earshot of a wish-granting alien with a limited understanding of human customs and law.

Eventually, the kids’ financial windfall comes to the attention of a gang of numerically designated robbers led by Raymond Rollett’s Number One. This paves the way to an exciting conclusion in which Meba uses his magic ability to make film go backwards to send the robbers scurrying back the way they came as fast as an undercranked camera can make them.

At just forty-seven minutes long, Supersonic Saucer does not overstay it’s welcome—provided you let it darken your door in the first place, that is. It’s naïve special effects are both charming and strange, and its young stars are too reserved to be annoying. It could even be of interest to fans of 50s sci-fi, given its plethora of scenes in which a cartoon flying saucer zigs and zags in the skies above London.

But, for me, what is truly interesting/galling about Supersonic Saucer is what happens to it when it hits the internet. The result is a lot of self-congratulatory posts in which a thematic through-line is drawn between it and E.T., the authors or commenters sometimes going so far as to say that they find it “hard to Imagine” that Steven Spielberg had not seen the film prior to making E.T. What I find hard to imagine is that someone would be so lacking in imagination, and so ignorant of the law of statistical probability, that they cannot imagine two people at two different times hitting upon a concept as generic as a child befriending an alien. In reality, E.T. has less in common with Supersonic Saucer than it does a “boy and his dog” story like Old Yeller. Nonetheless, the legions of people online who don’t understand how creativity works have made the internet, ironically, as much of a platform for gleefully calling out imagined plagiarism as it is for plagiarism itself.

But, who knows? Maybe a young Steven Spielberg really did see Supersonic Saucer, a film so obscure that even the people who made it have probably forgotten about it, and was inspired by it to make E.T. If that is true, we can not only say that, without Supersonic Saucer, there would be no E.T., but also that there would be no Mac and Me or Nukie. That’s a sobering thought if there ever was one.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Please don't be missing my new novel

As I mentioned back at the beginning of May, my new novel, SO GOOD IT'S BAD--which is a direct sequel to my previous novel, PLEASE DON'T BE WAITING FOR ME--will be out in a matter of weeks. What's changed since then is that there is now an official website for the book, on which you can find more information about the novel, read a sample chapter, view a gallery of relevant photos, and even hear the theme song. So what I'm saying is maybe you should go look at it now.

(NOTE: The image above might make more sense once you've read the novel, but I'm not guaranteeing anything.)

Saturday, May 26, 2018

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER podcast episode #7

No matter how lightweight a song might seem, if you think about it long enough, you're bound to come up with something interesting to say. In the case of Tommy James and the Shondells' much-covered hit ''I Think We're Alone Now,'' it inspired me to talk about cover versions and the  myriad reasons people have for doing them. Hear all about it in the latest episode of the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER PODCAST, which has just been posted on Stitcher.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Friday's best pop song ever

An aerial offensive

When you listen to Pop Offensive, you get a lot more than a selection of some of the most catchy and danceable pop music from around the globe and across the decades. You also get to hear me laugh at my own awful puns (because, if I don't, who will?) and make up outrageous lies about popular performers (which is to say that, no, P!nk does not have to stand on a highwire in order to sing properly.) Sound exciting? OF COURSE IT DOES! So check out the archived version of last Wednesday's episode, which can now be streamed from You--or I, at least--will be glad you did.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tomorrow! POP OFFENSIVE returns!

Peralta College's KGPC, the station that hosts POP OFFENSIVE, has a lot of programming that is quite progressive. At any hour of the day, you can tune in and hear all kinds of challenging music, be it experimental, industrial, world, indie, or what-have you. And then I come on and play ABBA, Mandy Moore and Janet Jackson and ruin everything.

I'll be unrepentantly repeating this sad ritual tomorrow night, May 15th, at 7pm Pacific time. You can stream it live from KGPC.ORG if you so desire.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018


If it seems like I've been posting less frequently, it's because I've been putting the finishing touches on my new novel, SO GOOD IT'S BAD, which is a direct sequel to my last novel, PLEASE DON'T BE WAITING FOR ME. Yes, it turned out I just hadn't put that lovable band of rapscallions through enough torment in book #1, so  I've lined up a whole new gauntlet of misfortunes for them in book #2. And what's worse, it's going to be a trilogy, so be sure to clear space on your shelf for the inevitable boxed set.

In the meantime, above is a preview of Andrew Nahem's butt rocking cover design for the book, which will be going to press in June. Sometime before then, I'll be putting up a website with more detailed info.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

All the good cover versions

The "all covers" episode of Pop Offensive has just been posted for your streaming pleasure in the Pop Offensive Archives. I know that the ratio of good cover versions to bad is not in favor of this episode being any good (see below), but take a listen and I think you'll agree that we resoundingly beat the odds.