Thursday, June 27, 2019

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast, #20: Out of Sight, Out of Mind


It's the last Friday of the month and you know what that means: A new episode of the Friday's Best Pop Song Ever podcast--episode twenty, to be exact. This time I've excavated another little known pop gem for your delectation. Remember the Dutch band Shocking Blue, the ones who did "Venus?" Well, they had other songs, too.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Bad Black (Uganda, 2016)



With Who Killed Captain Alex¸ Ugandan zero-budget auteur Isaac Nabwana, aka Nabwana I.G.G., proved his marketing acumen by allowing the film to be released for free on YouTube, paving the way for it to become a meme-producing internet phenomenon. With Bad Black, he further proves his savvy with the time tested practice of putting a white American actor at the forefront of his film. Given that white American is his charismatic co-producer Alan Hofmanis, that strategy has seemed to bear fruit, as evidenced by the heat the film has generated on the festival circuit.

Nabwana also exhibits a higher level of artistic ambition with the film, along with a developing social consciousness, given he positions it, to some extent, as a gritty portrait of life on the mean streets of Wakaliga, the Ugandan slum that plays home to Nabwana’s Ramon Studios. And the portrait of Wakaliga that Nabwana paints, while affectionate, is not a pretty one.

The film starts with Swaaz, a young father, and his son committing a violent bank robbery in order to pay the hospital bills of his wife, whose life is threatened by a compromised birth. After a car chase involving many delightfully naïve miniature effect, Swaaz is killed by the police in a video-game like CG explosion. Back at the hospital, Swaaz’s wife, when informed of his death, seemingly drops dead herself.


This leaves their infant daughter Sarah an orphan. She is turned over to an older woman, whose husband, several years later, casts Sarah out onto the street. The couple already has mouths to feed and, Sarah, not being their biological child, seems like an unnecessary expense to him. Thus little Sarah walks the darkened streets of Wakaliga, where, within minutes, she is kidnapped by a Fagin-like street boss who forces her to be part of his gang of child criminals. Adjusting awkwardly to this life, she is frequently abused by the boss and is even, at one point, shot by him. It’s a pretty grim episode that is only lightened by things like one of the kids wearing a bootleg Rugrats tee-shirt, which is probably a pretty accurate representation of what a street kid in Wakaliga would wear. I could almost hear M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” welling up on the soundtrack.

Skip forward a decade or so and Sarah, now played by Nalwanga Gloria, has become Bad Black, a philanthropic gangster who shares the spoils of her wrongdoing with the city’s poor while exacting vengeance against those who made her childhood miserable. At the same time we meet Dr. Ssali (Hoffmanis), a kindly American doctor who provides free medical care to the impoverished children of the village. The product of a military family, Ssali wears the dog tags of his father, mother and brother around his neck at all times. When these are stolen by members of Bad Black’s gang, he confides the loss to his assistant, a little kid named Wesley Snipes (really). Hilariously, the kid reacts by punching Ssali in the face and telling him to stop being such a pussy. Someone from a family of commandos would not take such an offense lying down, the child admonishes him.


This launches us into the best training montage ever, as this kid constantly punches and beats the mild mannered doctor with a stick while running him through a series of calisthenics and fight maneuvers that will ultimately turn him into a badass, kung fu fighting engine of vengeance, which it of course does. Then follows an absurd sequence in which Ssali, now armed with a huge machine gun (crafted from scrap metal by the Ramon props department), goes on a violent rampage through the city in search of his stolen dog tags. This eventually brings him face-to-face with the none-too-amused Bad Black.

Bad Black owes an obvious debt to the female-fronted American Blaxploitation films of the 70s, such as Coffee and Foxy Brown. As influences goes, you could do a lot worse. But what Bad Black has that those films don’t is the presence of freeform narrator VJ Emmie, who, as he did in Captain Alex, peppers the soundtrack with his energetic yammerings. These range from heroic exhortations (“You are a commando!”) to subtle observations (“What an asshole!”) to lamenting the conditions in Wakaliga (“Poo poo everywhere!”) to rye commentary (‘This doctor needs borders!”) to Tourettes-like single word exclamations (“Subaru!” “Movie!”) This time Emmie debuts something new in his bag of tricks by loudly proclaiming a long expository scene “boring” and fast forwarding the film to the next action scene. I have to admit that, being forewarned of Emmie’s presence in the film, I found him far less jarring than I did while watching Captain Alex and even laughed at a lot of his lines. This is also because I appreciate his role in making Nabwana’s films less prone to mockery by showing that the filmmakers themselves don’t take what they present all that seriously.


During the chaotic final battle scene, VJ Emmie contents himself with simply shouting the names of various Hollywood action stars as the Ugandan characters appear on screen; “Schwarzenegger!” “Stallone! “Van Damme!” Of course, this is a symptom of the unabashed movie fandom that makes these movies so fun to watch. But when, in the battle’s aftermath, Hoffmanis delivered the kiss-off line “Don’t fuck with Americans”, it made me wonder what a Wakaliwood that was not so self-consciously in Hollywood’s shadow might look like. Even the name Wakaliwood begs the comparison.

Not that that is all bad, mind you. In Bad Black’s accompanying materials, Hoffmanis states that the film had a budget of sixty-five dollars, while acknowledging that Captain Alex, rather than the reported two hundred dollars, had a budget closer to eighty dollars. That these films can delight as much as they do is more impressive for the fact that they do so free of Hollywood’s reflexive irony and cynicism. Clearly Nabwana and his crew make movies because movies are fun, inspiring, and often empowering. I imagine those simple facts are hard to see on the opposite end of a two hundred million dollar budget.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Murdered... Battered... Abused... Taken... but NEVER DIVIDED


At the moment I'm preparing NEVER DIVIDED, the third and final novel in my SF Punk Trio that started in 2017 with PLEASE DON'T BE WAITING FOR ME, for publication in July. Until then, you can visit the book's official site and see a sample chapter, behold the book trailer, gaze at a gallery, synapse a synopsis, and even take a silly test. I've also created a hub page at sfpunktrio.com from which you can access the individual site for each of the three books. So come on, kids, set aside your anti-capitalist biases and lose yourself in the advance promotional fever!

Friday, May 31, 2019

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast, Episode #19: Do Ya


The Move are one of the greatest British pop bands to ever fail miserably at charting in the U.S. The closest they came was with "Do Ya", which was covered and released as a single by Move member Jeff Lynne's subsequent band ELO in 1976. Their version is ok, but I, of course, prefer the original, which I delve into in detail in this latest episode of the FBPSE podcast.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Ek Tha Tiger (India, 2012)


As the man who literally wrote the book on 1970s Indian action movies, it was enlightening for me to see a more recent example of the Bollywood spy films that the Hindi film industry is so fond of revisiting. And while 2012’s Ek Tha Tiger testifies to an industry miles ahead in terms of slickness, technical prowess and production value of the one that made films like Golden Eyes: Secret Agent 077 and Gunmaster G9, it also demonstrates that Bollywood is no less, if not more, influenced by Hollywood in its approach to tackling commercial genres.

For instance, within the first ten minutes of Ek Tha Tiger, I pegged it as being an Indian take on a very specific type of Hollywood action film--by which I mean a vehicle for a bankable, preternaturally fit star with an unlikable public persona who does penitence by sacrificing his gym-toned body on the torture wheel of post-millennial action spectacle. In this case, that star is accused domestic abuser and animal murderer Salman Kahn, who, in the film’s opening scene, is involved in a harrowing foot chase along the alleyways and across the rooftops of an Iraqi city (which I imagine was described in the script as “just like the one at the beginning of Casino Royale.”) Of course, Khan’s alleged crimes are more serious than those of Tom Cruise, who was made to hang from the roof of Singapore’s tallest building for sullying Oprah Winfrey’s couch, which kind of makes us Americans look like quite an unforgiving lot.


But that doesn’t really matter, because, almost as soon as that opening scene ends, Ek Tha Tiger shuffles genres like a well curated mixtape and plants us down in the middle of a pretty by-the-numbers Bollywood romcom. This happens when Khan, playing the dutiful Indian secret agent known as Tiger, meets Zoya (newcomer Katrina Kaif), the comely housekeeper of the professor whom he has been charged with protecting from Pakistani assassins. While Tiger is immediately, if reluctantly, smitten, Zoya, haughty and Western educated (this part of the film takes place at Ireland’s Trinity College) is resistant to his charms. So, yes, the type of by-the-numbers Bollywood romcom I’m talking about is that one where (sigh) a red blooded Indian boy is tasked with breaking the spirit of a willful girl via a nagging ritual that seems a lot more like stalking than courtship.

This conflict between love and duty, along with the academic setting, gives Ek Tha Tiger a superficial similarity to Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Naa, though to compare the two doesn’t flatter it. Khan and Kaif simply lack the chemistry and charm of Main Hoon Naa’s stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Sushmita Sen, while Salman Khan is too self-absorbed to attempt the type of self-parody that SRK proves so expert at in Main Hoon Naa Furthermore, Main Hoon Naa, as directed by Farah Khan, both a choreographer and a director, is a film that pulsates joyously with its music, while Ek Tha Tiger’s score is meager (I don’t think I counted more than four songs) and the dancing prosaically staged.


Eventually Zoya is revealed to be a rogue agent of the Pakistani secret service and she and Tiger, now pursued by the intelligence agencies of both of their countries, must go on the run. This leads into an episode marked by a series of the kind of beautifully shot location sequences that beg the question, "How can two such pretty people in such pretty places not fall totally in love?" And the answer is that they totally do.

Zoya is finally captured and taken hostage, at which point Tiger and his colleagues must enact a daring rescue. It is at this point that Ek Tha Tiger awakens from its reverie as if having received a well-intentioned slap to the face and becomes the stunt-filled, explosion laden killfest that we all (well, some of us) have been hoping it would become all along. During this section we get to see Zoya repeatedly demonstrate the She-Hulk like ability to drop from thirty feet and land on her feet without shattering her knees. We also get to see Salman Khan punched in the face in slow motion, which is pretty gratifying.



I don’t mean to be too hard on Ek Tha Tiger, but I think that, given it was an international box office smash, it can stand to take a few well-intentioned knocks to the chin. It is, in all honesty, not a hard film to watch. It’s an expertly made commercial entertainment that gives its audience everything they could ask for, though in a perhaps less manic and well apportioned manner than the Masala films of old. And there lies the greatest difference between it and the Indian spy films of the 60s, 70s, and 80s: rather than stirring its disparate genre elements into a rough stew, it puts them in a kind of narrative Cuisinart, providing its audience with a ride that is less bumpy and dizzying than its predecessors. If you see this as some kind of loss (as I do), I prescribe that you chase this film down with a viewing of James Bond 777.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A Heroic Fight (Taiwan, 1986)


Over my years of writing 4DK, I’ve developed an obsession with the Taiwanese actress Lam Siu Law, an extremely appealing performer who, for the better part of the 80s, played the adolescent male protagonists of a series of increasingly bizarre fantasy martial arts films. A Heroic Fight is not one of those, though it might be, despite its contemporary urban setting, even more bizarre than any of them.

The film begins with Thai crime boss Mr. Duh (Yuen Cheung Yan) arriving in Taipei for a meeting with Mr. Barner (Chin Ti), leader of the Golden Triangle gang. Barner wants Duh’s assistance in trafficking his drugs into Thailand, but Duh, having reformed, gives him a hard no. Enraged, Barner swears to avenge himself on Duh and his family. Going by the old “eye for an eye” rule, the commensurate revenge for being refused would be to refuse a request made by the person who refused you (say for a drink of water, or directions to the train station), but Barner is all about escalation. He will kidnap Duh’s little daughter Ting (who is not the same Ting seen in King of Snake, although that would be a fun bit of synergy.)


In a scene pretty typical of A Heroic Fight, the first attempt to kidnap Ting Ting happens while the child is happily karaoke-ing to Madonna’s "Material Girl" in a public park while wearing an age-inappropriate crop top. One of Barner’s men, disguised as a balloon vendor in a bootleg Mickey Mouse costume, hands her an enormous bouquet of helium-filled balloons and, of course, she immediately rises hundreds of feet in the air because helium was invented by NASA. Another henchman on the balcony of an adjacent hotel is able to snatch the tiny, distaff Icarus from the sky before the sun can ignite her and rushes her downstairs to a waiting van.

Fortunately for Ting Ting, young movie stuntman Lin Siu Long (Lam Siu Law) is nearby, miming a cover of Celine Dion’s “Power of Love” with his band. Hearing Ting Ting’s cries, he takes off after the van on his tricked-out bicycle, which, among other things, fires missiles and poisonous gas. The chase that follows is filled with crazy, dangerous looking stunts, as well as more than a few incidents of cleverly executed slapstick comedy, preparing us for the manic cacophony of tones that A Heroic Fight has in store for us.


Lest you assume that Long is a professional Celine Dion impersonator, we have already learned that he is part of a family of movie stuntmen who live in a gadget-filled house with their master/stunt director Master Lin (Yuen Cheung Yan.) The scene that introduces Long is one that easily could have been lifted directly from one of her earlier films, like Child of Peach or Kung Fu Wonder Child. It’s a movie-within-a-movie in which Long plays a young swordsman doing frantic, wire-assisted battle with a giant demon head that looks like it’s made out of yarn. A Heroic Fight’s film industry backdrop allows it to make some gentle fun of the Taiwanese commercial movies of its day and, in this case, the sometimes threadbare practical effects that they employed. A joking reference is even made at one point to Long always playing boys in her movies. She is also shown to have an appetite for peaches, in keeping with her career defining role in the Peach Boy movies.

And while the movie’s definitely a comedy--and often a funny one, even—I think it’s also fair to say that it was also intended by its director Chiu Chung-Hing, an action director who also worked with Lam Siu Law in Child of Peach and its nominal follow-up Magic of Spell, as a heartfelt tribute to the stuntmen of Taiwanese cinema. And it can’t be said that the stuntmen here don’t work hard to earn that honor; The film is nothing if not manically frenetic and loaded to bursting with cheekily over-the-top stunt sequences.


The movie is also as 80s as a spandex-clad Morgan Fairchild doing aerobics on top of a Delorean. From the numerous needle-dropped pop tunes ("Girls Just Want to Have Fun" among them) to little Ting Ting’s colorful dance/workout ensemble, to the BMX Bandits’ style dirt bike shenanigans, and pretty much everybody’s big ‘ol hair, this is a movie that is absolutely saturated with neon decade kitsch. Of course that will be a strike against it for some people, as will the fact that it’s a martial arts comedy, and I can’t really argue with that. Nonetheless, I think that to dismiss this movie too hastily would be a shame, because if you give yourself over to it (which I did), it’s a pretty fun ride. The in-jokey swipes at blockbusters both Hollywood and Mandarin give its humor a bit more of an air of self-referential sophistication than it might have if it simply relied on poop and piss jokes (though there are those, too.) and the action scenes are both directed and performed with a surplus of good-natured enthusiasm. It’s like a giddy celebration of everything that’s great about Chinese language action cinema.

Although it has to be said that it’s also fast paced to the point of being nearly incoherent. Once Long has rescued Ting Ting, he and his brothers become allies with Duh in his fight against Barner and his gang. This sets the stage for the films wild, all-fighting final third. Finally, Barner manages to take Ting Ting hostage, and the action takes on a more purposeful cast. Thankfully, as in her other films, Lam is never allowed to look totally convincing as a boy while she’s demonstrating her formidable fighting skills. One could hope that the makers of Lam’s films, in casting her as a boy, in no way meant to downplay the fact that she was both a woman and a kickass fighter.


To state the obvious, I liked A Heroic Fight a lot. I might even say that it is my favorite Lam Siu Law film that I’ve seen so far. This is not only because it provides a great showcase for the actress’ fighting skills, but also because it contains more madcap martial arts craziness than all of her other movies combined. That is not to say that I am suggesting someone try to combine all of Lam Siao Law movies, or to even watch them in one sitting. For that is surely the way to madness.

Podcast on FIre's Taiwan Noir episode #29: Kung Fu Wonder Child and The Legend Of All Men Are Brothers


You may have noticed that, in recent episodes of Taiwan Noir, Ken and I have fallen down something of a K hole with these crazy taiwanese fantasy matrial arts films. But oh what a sweet, um, hole it's been. For example, this latest installment features Kung Fu Wonder Child, a revered classic of weird fu starring the Peach Kid herself, Lin Shao Lu. Alongside that we discuss the lithesomely titled The Legend of All Men are Brothers, which takes a recognized classic of Chinese literature and spins it into something that can accomodate a pair of jabbering puppet aliens, zombies, and a master swordsman in a souped up wheelchair. It's pretty weird, is what I'm saying.

If you want to join us in our happily delirious state, you can stream the episode here.

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.