Thursday, May 23, 2019

Friday's best pop song ever

A miniature offense

On last week's Pop Offensive, we conducted an experiment in scale and learned that, like Ant-Man, a very short song can be just as powerful as one of average length. That's right, for the better part of two hours, I played nothing but songs that were two minutes or less in length. If you listen to the show, I think that, like me, you will be surprised by the diversity and quality of these tiny blasts of pop goodness, and impressed by the number of iconic artists that were behind them. So why not take a minute to stream the episode from the Pop Offensive Archives and bask in the brevity?

Ironically, time is something that's in short supply for me these days, so I will be uploading the playlist for the episode onto the Pop Offensive Facebook Page sometime this weekend.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER podcast! "I Can't Let Maggie Go'

On this latest episode of the Friday's Best Pop Song Ever podcast, I tackle a question that has haunted man since the dawn of lunchtime: Could Honeybus have been as big as the Beatles? Though perhaps the more pertinent question might be "Who is Honeybus?"

Check it out on Stitcher and, while you're there, rate, review and subscribe.

Friday's best pop song ever

Monday, April 22, 2019

Embrace the Offense

I don't mind telling you that I had a pretty turbulent week last week. Fortunately I had Pop Offensive to help me blow off some steam. And now, you do too, thanks to the miracle of streaming technology. You can also check out the full playlist from the Pop Offensive Facebook page is you need proof that it really happened.

Friday, April 19, 2019

El Aguila Descalza, aka The Barefoot Eagle (Mexico, 1971)

Though Christa Linder is forcefully stripped to her skivvies at one point, El Aguila Descalza is still somewhat less lowbrow than most Mexican genre parodies of its day. Whether that presages its director’s subsequent arthouse cred is a guess best left to the tea leaves.

El Aguila Descalza was the directorial debut of Alfonso Arau, who, under the mononym “Arau” also played dual lead roles in the film. If his name is familiar to you, that is probably because, some two decades later, Arau directed Like Water For Chocolate, the movie that muscled out the competition to become that year's one foreign film embraced by mainstream America in 1992 (you could say it was the Roma of its day.)

In the film, Arau portrays Ponchito, a hapless man-child who still lives with his mom and works by day as a product tester at a pogo stick factory. An avid comic book reader, Ponchito indulges his superhero fantasies by night, roaming the city in the guise of the The Barefoot Eagle, a masked crimefighter. Though whether the Eagle’s intention is to fight evil or promote it is initially unclear, as, in an early scene, he breaks into the house of his boss, Don Carlos Martinez (Jose Galvez), only to spy on his beautiful daughter Sirene (Linder) as she sleeps. However, when an American mobster named Englepass (also played by Arau) kidnaps Don Carlos and Sirene, Ponchito takes it upon himself to rescue them.

While most superhero films traffic in fantasies of transformation, El Aguila Descalza injects into that fantasy the nagging realization that, if one were to attempt becoming a costumed hero in real life, he or she would make an absolute fool of himself. Ponchito’s costume consists of what looks like a dime store pirate costume topped by a backwards baseball cap with eyeholes cut in it. Though this is a result as much of Ponchito’s dire economic circumstances as it is of his haplessness, as the film pulls no punches in depicting the grime and squalor of the lives of Mexico’s working poor.

This aspect of the movie lends an aspect of pathos to Ponchito’s slapstick humiliations that you wouldn’t see in a film starring the likes of Eleazar “Chelelo” Garcia, Jose Angel “Ferrusquilla” Espinosa, or any of the other Mexican comedians whose names require a quotation bracketed diminutive. Which is not to say that the film doesn’t draw upon Mexico’s tradition of broad, MAD Magazine-style screen comedy, although it at the same time hints at the arch pop cultural savvy of the hip, adult oriented comedies that were starting to proliferate worldwide in the late 60s.

This tendency accounts for the film's few winking references to the lucha genre, which was, at the time, on the upward end of a decline in favor with Mexican audiences. Englepass’ henchmen are a team of burly masked luchadores, anonymous bullies whose threat to the malnourished Ponchito not only cements his status as an underdog, but also makes it that much more comedic when they are humiliated by him. Santo appears both as the subject of a comic book Ponchito is reading and in a wedding scene where the ring-bearer is a small boy in a child-sized version of the Enmascarado de Plata’s iconic mask.

It could be said that Aguila Descalza employs something of a comic book motif. Among other examples, Chona, Ponchito’s would-be girlfriend (Ofelia Medina), is seen reading a Kaliman comic and another of Ponchito’s friends has a Batman poster on his wall. Comic book racks are prominently displayed in a couple of the bustling establishing shots. All of this could be meant to underscore the cruel irony of the powerless seeking refuge in fantasies of super power, or perhaps Alfonzo Arau just really liked comic books.

But, of course--and perhaps predictably—Ponchito is not powerless. With Don Carlos and Sirene locked away, Englepass puts his whip wielding goons in charge of Don Carlos's factory and imprisons the workers families in cages. Ponchito's appeals to the authorities fall on deaf ears and he and Chona are thrown into an insane asylum right out of Marat Sade. They of course affect a clever escape and crash Englepass' forced wedding to Sirene with an army of lunatics.This adds an extra air of mania to that classic 1960s comedy climax in which every member of the cast takes part in a madcap brawl rife with trippy sight gags as, all the while, psychedelic rock plays on the soundtrack. Take that, respectable society!

While I have to credit Aguila Descalza for being a hair more progressive and socially conscious than films like Cazadores de Espias and Agente 00 Sexy, I have to shamefacedly admit to sometimes wishing that it was as fun as those films were. But with the vaguely hippie-ish tone of some of its comedy comes the awareness of all of those things that, in the dark days of the late 60s/early 70s, the hippie culture rose up in opposition to: war, corruption, and repression. That the film brings to its subject an unexpected amount of empathy and compassion makes it worthy of a compensatory admiration, while at the same time giving it an ineffable charm.

Friday, March 29, 2019

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast! "Modern Kicks"

On this, the 17th episode of the FBPSE Podcast, I take a look at the tragically brief history of The Exploding Hearts, whose "Modern Kicks" is a four minute, distortion-soaked slice of pure power pop heaven.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

LSD: Flesh of Devil, aka LSD: Inferno Per Poshi Dollari (Italy, 1967)

Given LSD: Flesh of Devil’s (sic) fervent anti-LSD rhetoric—“the most powerful hallucinating agent yet known” says one character, the effects of which on the human mind are “terrifying”—you’d hardly know that the drug was still legal in the U.S. at the time. But LSD: Flesh of Devil was not made in the U.S.; it was made in Italy, and, as such, takes a very Italian viewpoint on its titular scourge. Devilish the drug may be, it seems to say, but watching someone under its influence is pure comedy.

The film begins admirably, with lady secret agent Sheila (Mariella Zanetti) in mid pursuit of a shady jewelry dealer named Alex Corey (Isarco Ravaioli), who is acting as a drug courier for an effete crime lord named Korba (Mario Valgoli). Aiding Sheila is her partner, secret agent Rex Miller, who watches the chase through a periscope from his hiding place within a repurposed tanker truck. Finally, upon Rex’s direction, a sniper takes Corey out. His car crashes and, of course, explodes, whereupon Miller runs over and pulls his presumably contraband-filled brief case from the flames. Then he and Shiela go back to their hotel room and screw—because, hey, this is an Italian spy movie from the 60s; what do you want?

Rex Miller is played by Guy Madison, the American cowboy star-turned-Italian exploitation hero who we previously saw in The Devil’s Man, a Eurospy film memorable for both its pitiful impoverishment and the elliptical minimalism necessitated by same. The usually straight-laced Madison makes LSD: Flesh of Devil all the more interesting for some of the goofy stuff he has to do in it.

Miller’s plan is to impersonate Corey and make the delivery to Korba, who is just part of a much larger drug smuggling operation headed by one Mr. X (Adriano Micantoni), who must have been last in line when the diabolical pseudonyms were being handed out. Miller hopes by this means to infiltrate the gang and unmask its leader. In this he is superficially successful, although Korba remains suspicious, perhaps because Miller is too rugged and handsome for such a dissolute profession.

LSD: Flesh of Devil is at its arguable best when depicting the effects of LSD. This usually happens when Korba and his gang test their product on an unwitting innocent, but the most outstanding instance is during Miller’s briefing, when he is shown a newsreel-type film of an entire army platoon who have been dosed with LSD as part of a military “experiment.” While some of these soldiers are inexplicably frozen in place like statues, others, made gay by the drug, are dancing with one another and skipping arm-in-arm like children. Others writhe on the ground and others pray on their knees, while those remaining slam their hands to both sides of their head and scream. This appeared to me to be improvised by the young actors, who were no doubt making the most of this opportunity to demonstrate their grasp of The Method.

When a subjective view of the LSD experience is called for, it is accomplished with lots of red gels and the crude superimposition of dime store fright masks atop the actors faces. At other times what looks like either a white flower of a piece of popcorn is superimposed over the actors to make it look like their heads are exploding into bloom. Timothy Leary was obviously not consulted.

Perhaps because so many show business types had used LSD by 1967—often at the behest of their overpaid psychoanalysts—the movie industry seemed to be unable to keep a straight face where the drug was concerned. How else would you explain something like Jackie Gleason’s notorious 1968 drug comedy Skidoo? In the case of LSD: Flesh of Devil, director Massimo Mida seems to feel honor bound to take the tone of a highschool scare film while at the same time being unable to keep from snickering behind his hand at the drug’s imagined propensity to make uptight people act silly. To use a dated analogy, it makes the whole thing come off like an uneasy combination of a Dragnet episode and a Laugh-in sketch.

Anyway, once accepted by Korba and his men, Miller manages to exacerbate tensions between them and the gang of a Turkish drug lord named Cioglu. In this he finds an unexpected ally in Virgnia Blair, Korba’s assistant, who is played by Operation White Shark’s Franca Polesello. As the genre demands, his cover is blown soon afterward, and the combined forces of Korba, Cioglu and Mr. X close in on him – though not before he is able to call in a massive raid by the police. This allows LSD: Flesh of Devil to end with a scene in which dozens of people shoot at each other while helicopters fly around overhead.

Though, of course, that’s not how it ends. Because after that there is a comedic coda in which the characters played by Madison and Polesello are accidentally “dosed” with LSD, forcing the actors to caper around spacily in a manner that they imagine a person who was tripping balls would. Their colleagues watch them and laugh knowingly. As you would.

If LSD: Flesh of Devil’s treatment of its subject sounds dated and corny, it is. But it is also the one thing that prevents the film from being what it might otherwise be: a fairly by-the-numbers Eurospy entry. For, as beloved as the Eurospy genre is, its films often fall victim to a kind of rote sameness which makes any whiff of novelty—be it a startlingly low budget or a confused stab at cultural vogueishness--more than welcome. In the case of this film, it’s the next best thing to watching it on drugs.

Friday, February 22, 2019

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast! "Substitute"

"Substitute" by the South African all-woman band Clout was a number one hit in countries across the globe--but you've never heard of it, have you? Todd is here to make things right.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

4DK at 10: Haseena Atom Bomb (Pakistan, 1990)

[ORIGINALLY POSTED JUNE 3rd, 2009: This review of the notorious Pakistani sleaze-fest, Haseena Atom Bomb was, for several consecutive years, the most read review on 4DK. I love you people, but you are clearly monsters.]

If you wanted to make the argument that sleaze is an unavoidable byproduct of puritanism, you could do a lot worse for an Exhibit "A" than Haseena Atom Bomb. And I say that with full awareness that my own country, with its dizzying sexual hypocrisy, is in no position to cast stones in that regard. It is these United States, after all, whose porn industry seems to grow in inverse proportion to the sanitization of our mainstream cinema screens, and whose media dedicates as much energy to sexualizing underage pop stars as they do to working themselves into an apocalyptic tizzy over sexting. And let's not spare our pals the Japanese in this matter, either; as their own strident censorship laws, which prevent the depiction of human genitalia or penetration even in hardcore pornography, have lead the marketplace to fill the resulting vacuum with perverted visual delicacies like tentacle porn.

In contrast, Pashto language movies like Haseena Atom Bomb are not even explicit by Western standards. But when you consider that the members of their target audience -- men living in the tribal region along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan -- are forbidden by custom from even gazing upon women outside their immediate family, you get a sense of the yawning gap between public conduct and private desire that they address.

Haseena reminds me a lot of 1970s Telegu action films like Pistolwali, only with everything turned up to eleven. The women are more voluptuous. (Okay, they're fat, to be completely honest -- something on which I imagine even the most sensitized proponents of positive body image would have to concur.) The dances are raunchier, and the camera angles used to film them even more disconcertingly intimate. On top of that, the action is even more frantic and cartoonish; No blow can me shown to have connected with its target sufficiently unless it is shown several times in rapid succession, with the deafening sound accompanying that blow being enough to make Bollywood's trusty old "dishoom dishoom" sound like a limp slap with a wet paper towel in comparison.

Correspondingly, the histrionics on display are over the top to the extent of losing sight of it completely, with every line delivered in a full-throated bellow and every hysterically caricatured reaction shot accompanied by an ear-shattering clap of thunder. Yes, impossible as it may be to believe, Pashto filmmakers offer up a cinema that even Pistolwali director K.S.R. Doss -- a man whom I had previously thought was about as committed an enemy of subtlety as one could encounter -- can look down upon for its brashness and lack of refinement. Add to this a lack of budget and technical skill made plain by the film's grade school play level sets and abundance of dodgy camera work and the picture is complete. Haseena Atom Bomb comes at you as a film whose every mottled frame screams its utter trashiness at you, holding you forcefully by the shoulders as it does so in order that you may fully savor its ghastly, crazy homeless person breath.

Haseena and its like are also similar to Telegu films like Pistolwali in their heavy reliance on revenge themes - which is not surprising, given the prominent part vengeance plays in the Pashtun people's traditional code. In Haseena's case, we get, not just one, but three avengers. For starters, there is our titular heroine, announced at the film's beginning by a theme song, "Main Hoon Haseena Atom Bomb", whose picturization sees starlet Mussarat Shaheen's every utterance of her name punctuated by a thrust of her generous posterior and stock footage of a volcano erupting. Haseena is set on the vengeance trail after she is subjected to a protracted gang rape at the hands of a band of leering thugs on her wedding night, an act which her attackers top off by stringing her husband from the rafters and forcing him to stand on Haseena's shoulders until the poor woman's collapse from exhaustion sends him swinging.

Understandably hacked off over this treatment, Haseena sets out to murder her assailants one by one, an act which she typically accomplishes after first tantalizing her intended prey with a seductive dance. And these dances, once seen, are not soon to be forgotten: an unholy alliance between obese flesh and clingy synthetic fabrics -- often made even more constricting by the liberal application of water -- captured by the heat-seeking lens of a resolutely crotch-fixated camera. Thus is the fly drawn into our heroine's web, at which point he ends up being on the receiving end of some extremely loud fake kung fu before being strung up himself in the same manner as Haseena's betrothed. (As a side note, I wanted to mention that one of these dance numbers features Haseena singing a song that's set to the tune of "Kaate Nahin Katte Ye Din" from Mr. India.)

But alongside all of this we also get a parallel narrative -- a "lost and found" story of sorts -- about a brother and sister, separated by tragedy, who each pursue their own path to vengeance. He is a portly fellow in an awful disco shirt who rides around on a white horse, heroically intervening in the frequent gang rapes that seem to have replaced casual greetings in Haseena's milieu. His weapon of choice: A huge hypodermic needle, which he uses to spear and then drain the blood from his opponents. She is an equally portly (not judging; describing) young lady with a taste for leopard print spandex who prefers the use of her fists when it comes to giving lowlifes their comeuppance -- and who comes equipped with a ringleted paramour who's a ringer for the singer in REO Speedwagon. In addition, Haseena somehow also manages to shoehorn in a subplot involving Inspector Shabana, a lady cop who, when not hot on giant hypo guy's trail, is having romantic daydreams about her boss.

In fact, there is so much going on in Haseena Atom Bomb and -- for those English speakers like myself trying to fathom it without the aid of subtitles -- so little obvious connection between it, that, had there not been a brief scene in which Haseena and hypodermic guy appeared together, I would have just assumed that it was several different movies patched together. It didn't help matters that the version of Haseena I ended up getting my hands on appears to be severely truncated, clocking in at just over two hours when, as I understand it, the original is more in the two-and-a-half to three hour range. However, I'm not convinced that having the missing footage would serve to tie things together all that much, since the film's director, Saeed Ali Khan, doesn't give any signs of being all that concerned about doing so himself. At the film's conclusion, Haseena's path never proves to converge with that of the other characters, with each of their stories reaching their violent crescendos separately as the action cuts back and forth between them (in Hypo guy's case, involving some pretty nifty forklift-fu). Given that, I imagine that most of what I'm missing from Haseena Atom Bomb is more of the sexy dancing and implied sexual violence that appears to be its reason for being. Which is perfectly okay, really. I got the idea.

To be sure, Haseena Atom Bomb is a singular viewing experience, providing a not inconsiderable amount of trashy thrills to anyone who's up for the ride. But there's such an unremitting grotesquery to those thrills that I'm inclined to keep my experience of it at just that: singular. Omar Khan, in his review of the film over at The Hotspot Online, is right to see similarities in it to the early work of John Waters. But while, even at their most debased, Waters' freak shows always had an air of the celebratory about them, Haseena's suffocatingly masculine, crotch-cam view of the world it presents implicates its viewer in a spectacle that is all unalloyed prurience. As such - and in spite of all the reckless energy put into that presentation - it comes off as feeling more than a tad dreary.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

4DK at 10: Zimbo (India, 1958)

[ORIGINALLY POSTED DECEMBER, 21st, 2008: This review of the first Zimbo movie was not only a reader favorite, but also provided 4DK with its enduring mascot, Pedro the Ape Bomb]

Homi Wadia's Zimbo is proof that you can never have too much of a good thing. That is, if your idea of "a good thing" is Tarzan, because Zimbo is essentially just Tarzan under another name. That struck me as odd, because -- despite what the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs might have had to say about the matter -- Indian filmmakers have never seemed shy about making films about Tarzan under his own name. Lots of them, in fact.

Anyway, Zimbo: Professor Chakravarty, after years of toil in his beaker-filled jungle laboratory, has finally perfected his revolutionary youth serum, and secrets the formula away in a locket that he places around his young son's neck. No sooner has he done this, than a pack of angry lions invades the Chakravarty family home. The Professor only has enough time to place his son within the basket of a handy hot air balloon before being fatally mauled by one of the beasts. Chakravarty's wife is unable to join her son before the line mooring the balloon slips loose, and the child goes sailing off into the sunset without her.

With her husband dead and her son now a rapidly receding dot in the sky, Mrs. Chakravarty instantly descends into face-clawing madness and disappears into the jungle, only to emerge periodically throughout the rest of the film to go "boogity boogity" and freak people out. Later, Chakravarty Jr.'s balloon touches down in a remote part of the jungle, where he is taken in by Dada, a chimp played, according to the credits, by "Pedro, the human chimpanzee" (though, to be clear, Pedro is actually a real chimpanzee who acts human, and not the other way around). Thus is young Chakravarty's journey to becoming Zimbo, the lord of the jungle, set in motion.

Seventeen years later, the Professor's brother and his adopted daughter, Leela (Chitra), arrive in the jungle to look for the missing family, and it is not too long before they are confronted with the adult Zimbo (Azad) in all his glory. And hey, color me edified: It turns out that extremely well-built, mostly naked men who are in touch with their primitive sides, but at the same time display a strong, if nascent, sense of chivalry are quite popular with the ladies. Really, who'd have thought? Because judging from the look Leela gives Zimbo upon first laying eyes on him, she really like-a what she sees:

As does Maya, the evil queen of a secret kingdom hidden deep within the jungle:

It should come as no surprise that Leela will eventually become the Jane to Zimbo's Tarzan, and, despite the fact that the leopard skin togs she'll wear are a sight more matronly than those worn by her American counterparts, the obvious warmth that she feels for Zimbo's form adds an estrogen-fueled heat to Zimbo that I don't recall in any of Hollywood's entries in the Tarzan saga. Judging from that look she gives him, you'd expect that, rather than the other way around, it would be she who slings Zimbo over her shoulder and carries him off into the brush.

And why not? Zimbo, as he's presented, fully lives up to his almost-name: a perfect male bimbo, half innocent and half idiot, but with all of his manly parts in prime working order. In short, an ideal fixer-upper for the woman willing to invest herself in the task And Leela, by all appearances, is highly motivated.

While Zimbo provides a rote, eyepatch-wearing male villain with his eye on the Professor's formula, it is clearly a film that belongs to the ladies. And the real MacGuffin is not what's hidden in Zimbo's locket, but what's locked in his trunks. As such, our hero is little more than a delightfully oblivious boy toy, caught in a tug-of-war between two powerful females who both have a very firm grasp on exactly what it is that they want. Of course, we should expect such take-charge women from a director like Wadia. This is, after all, the man who made his directing debut by introducing the whip-wielding Fearless Nadia to Indian cinema audiences, and who would soon after that make Nadia the -- whip wielding? -- star of his own life by marrying her.

Eventually Maya's desires drive her to have her men capture Zimbo and bring him to her palace -- a wonderfully phantasmagorical set complete with cartoonish-looking giant idols that ends up giving Zimbo a bit of a Flash Gordon flavor. Here she tries to win his affections with sexy item numbers, but to no avail. Zimbo ultimately escapes, leaving Maya no choice but to take Leela, her father, and Dada prisoner in order to draw him back. This leads to a spectacular climax in which Zimbo leads a charging herd of elephants in an attack on the palace. It's a sequence that demonstrates that Zimbo, while having a B movie sensibility, is actually a fairly handsomely mounted production, with a large number of extras, some eye-catching sets, and a number of well-staged action set pieces.

While it's definitely the women's show, I don't want Pedro the human chimp's substantial contributions to Zimbo to go unmentioned. Not only does he perform all of the expected movie chimp duties by riding a tricycle and wearing a tutu (though, sadly, no fez), but he also -- while obviously doubled by a dwarf or a small child in a couple of shots -- takes part in a song and dance number with the movie's comic relief and, in the climax, displays a thirst for vengeance and handiness with a weapon that would not be displayed by a chimp again until Dario Argento's Phenomena in the eighties. I've never really sat down to compare the merits of various chimp actors before, but I think that, if I did, Pedro would most likely come out on top.

Zimbo is the rare entertainment that actually earns being described by the over-used adjective "rollicking", aided by what is, by all appearances, a very ahead-of-its-time, self-conscious sense of camp. In short, it's more fun than a barrel of monkeys, human or otherwise.