Wednesday, June 20, 2018

POP OFFENSIVE is TONIGHT!


My former Pop Offensive co-host Jeff Heyman used to give me a hard time about using so many pictures of women with guns in our posters. But I challenge him--and anyone else, for that matter--to confirm that the thing Jane Fonda is holding in the iconic photograph above is an actual gun, as it looks more likely to have been made by Dyson than Smith & Wesson.

Anyway, I hope you all will live stream Pop Offensive tonight from KGPC969.org, because it's going to be a rollicking good time. And I want to say that, by playing bright and upbeat music in these dark times, I am not trying to distract you, but rather to fortify you. Join me, won't you?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Abar: Black Superman (United States, 1977)


Abar: Black Superman has bubbled up to the surface of the pop cultural conversation in recent weeks, thanks to the phenomenal success of Black Panther. Taking a cue from its title, some writers are calling it “the first black superhero film”, and I won’t disagree with that—though I will point out that it’s tag line at the time of its release was “the first black science fiction film” and that it is as much a tale of mad science as it is of costumed heroics. On top of all that, it is also a thoughtful examination of being black in America circa 1977.

The film starts with Dr. Ken Kincaid (J. Walter Smith) and his family moving into the all white Los Angeles neighborhood of Meadow Park. The neighbors excitedly queue up to meet the new arrivals, until it is revealed that the Kincaids are black, at which point they completely lose their shit. One woman insists, to Dr. and Mrs. Kincaid’s faces, that they are not in fact the Kincaids, but rather their maid and chauffeur. When the Kincaid’s correct this notion, the whole neighborhood explodes into a collective racist hissy fit.


Crude signs (“NO SCHOOL BUSSING”, “GO BACK TO YOUR BLACK GHETTO”) are made and brandished, the N word is tossed around like it is going out of style, the Kincaid’s two children are called “Pickaninnies”, garbage is thrown at the house, and one tubby nebbish with a swastika armband walks around giving the “sieg heil” salute. That night’s local news leads with “A black family has moved into the Meadow Park,” and soon the City Planning Commission is meeting to discuss ways of quelling the situation. It as if the entire city’s equilibrium has been knocked off balance by the movements of this one modest family.

Of course, thing were different in 1977, but Abar’s depiction of white racism in Los Angeles as being so naked and vocal doesn’t quite jibe with my experience of Los Angeles when I was living there in the nineties. Sure, it was a racist city; jaw-droppingly so. But its racism was more insidious in nature, more ingrained (one could even say “institutional”). People didn’t talk openly about being racist, like they did so preposterously in Crash. Otherwise they might taint the city’s liberal, easygoing image. Instead, divisions within the city’s populace were enforced by the unspoken social force fields that confined people within neighborhoods like South Central, Westwood/Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood and insured that many residents of those areas never ventured into or met anybody from the others. In contrast to such a diabolically elusive system, the screaming, self-identifying harridans of Abar come off as overly broad, ridiculous caracatures, stereotypes even. But if that’s the price white people have to pay for a hundred years of African American actors having to wear bones through their noses in countless cheap jungle adventures, then I’d say that we got off pretty easy.


Anyway, as the racism of the Kincaid’s neighbors is so virulent that it can be seen from space, it is not long before it comes to the attention of John Abar (Tobar Mayo) and his fellow social justice warriors in the Black Front of Unity, or BFU. A cross between the Black Panthers and the Hell’s Angels, the BFU hop on their hogs and head toward the Kincaids’. Of course, the sight of black people on motorcycles alone is enough to send the white protestors scurrying back into their homes like scared rabbits, whereupon Abar introduces himself to the Kincaids and is invited inside, whereupon we see that the Kincaid’s home, with its succession of richly upholstered, primary colored rooms, is more like the dance academy in Suspiria than any home in a white middle class neighborhood has a right to be.

Dr. Kincaid shows Abar to his beaker-filled basement laboratory and reveals that he is working on a serum that will give a man superpowers – that is, if he can find the right subject to test it on, hint hint. This is more than Kincaid has told his wife (Roxie Young), to whom he has only referred to this project in the most mysterious terms, telling her that it is of “such tremendous magnitude that one day it will alter the destiny of the world.”


After this encounter, Abar returns to Watts, where he is normally seen preaching on a street corner in front of a large sign that says “SLA AVENGE ‘NOW’.” He has agreed to act as the Kincaid’s bodyguard, but is not around to prevent one of the bigoted local crazies from disemboweling their tabby and hanging it from their front door. Soon after, Kincaid’s son Tommie (Tony Rumford) comes across a thug planting a bomb on the property. When the thug makes a hasty retreat in his van, Bobby takes off after him, only to be run down and killed by him. This proves to be the tearing point for Abar, who bursts into Kincaid's lab and lustily chugs down the serum, then heads out onto the streets of honkytown to explore his superpowers. In a weird twist, this somehow convinces Kincaid that Abar is a “psychopath” who needs to be stopped. Gun in hand, Kincaid takes off after him.

It has been amply stated that the acting in Abar is uniformly dreadful. I won’t disagree, though I will conjecture that the poor actors may have just been overwhelmed by the amount of dialog they were asked to recite, which is a lot. In this way, the film follows in the discursive tradition of black community (or “gospel”) theater, in which metaphorical representation is eschewed in favor of the characters having long discussions in which the play’s themes are laid out in a very on-the-nose fashion.


In Abar, the primary topics of discussion are whether Kincaid is betraying his people by moving into a white neighborhood, rather than staying in the Ghetto where he is most needed. When he is not urging Kincaid to move back to the ghetto, Abar engages with him in plural discussions of the relative virtues of Dr. Marin Luther King’s non-violent approach to protest and Malcolm X’s more confrontational one. This affords the opportunity for portions of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to appear on the soundtrack.

To be fair, not all of Abar’s actors are amateurs, although some clearly are. The children, in particular, have that dumbstruck monotone delivery typical of so many first-time child actors, coming off like twin versions Dee from What’s Happening. This is especially taxing on credulity when young Tony Rumford is required to exclaim melodramatic lines like  “I hate them! I hate them all! They killed our cat.” J. Walter Smith, on the other hand has an authoritative purr worthy of Morgan Freeman, and it serves him well in the scenes where he is debating Abar, though he has a tendency to turn to granite when more warmth is required. As his wife, Roxie Young, has the thankless task of playing the buzz kill spouse who exists only to hector her husband to give up doing his awesome experiments in his basement labs in favor of becoming a staid family man. Nevertheless, she projects an admirable kind of patient strength while modeling a colorful array of Afro-centric fashions. Meanwhile, Tobar Mayo's shaved head, delicate features and soft voice give him an alien quality that well serves his portrayal of Abar, who seems to exist on a plane above the petty squabbles taking place around him.


In keeping with Abar’s thoughtful tone, Abar’s superpowers, once revealed, turn out to be more mental than physical. This means that he can undo both white racism and the ghetto with his mind. In a dizzying closing montage, he goes from turning a bum’s wine jug into a quart of milk to willing a gang of truants to go to college and graduate, all in the course of a few seconds of screen time. Finally, he mentally commands a hurricane to descend upon Meadow Park and literally blow all the bad white people away. In the aftermath, the woman who earlier accused the Kincaid’s of being their own servants comes to them begging forgiveness, claiming that her hostility was due to her being a black woman passing for white. Kincaid patronizingly tells her that he was aware of this fact, and also aware of her Sickle Cell Anemia diagnosis. Burn.


Abar is the sole directing credit of one Frank Packard, who is also credited with playing "Jonah" in The Spectre of Edgar Allen Poe. Packard seems to have been infatuated with the interior of the Kincaid home, and is at his best visually when exploring it's assortment of bizarre color schemes and weird modish details. Aside from this, he does little to prevent Abar: Black Superman from being called a cheap and poorly acted film.

And let's be honest: It is. But, because of that, some people will tell you that it is also stupid, which it isn’t. True, its message does sometime get garbled by its limitations, but at least it has something to say. I’d choose it over Crash every time.

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.