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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

It's TONIGHT!


For four and a half years now, Pop Offensive has been bringing you the best in catchy, danceable and uplifting music from around the globe and across the decades. I mean, where else can you hear ABBA and the Dave Clark Five rubbing elbows with the Buzzcocks and the Gap Band? Now it's time to celebrate the show's 50th episode, which I will be doing tonight, October 30th, with a deluxe three hour show cock-a-block with music, special guests, and ribald tomfoolery. What do I ask in return, you might wonder? Only that you listen, which you can do by streaming the show live from the kgpc969.org website starting at 6pm Pacific this evening. Be there or B₂

Friday, October 26, 2018

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER podcast, Episode #12: Joy


In this latest episode of the Friday's Best Pop Song Ever podcast, I find both joy and complexity in former Judy and Mary singer Yuki's "Joy." Please check it out on Stitcher and, while you're there, subscribe and leave a comment, if you're so inclined.


Friday, October 19, 2018

How to be cool

I have long said that Teleport City’s Keith Allison is one of the best film writers on the internet, and now his talent has bled onto the page with his new book Cocktails & Capers: Cult Cinema, Cocktails, Crime & Cool. The book is a perfect expression of Keith’s unique and highly personal take on pop culture, flitting from subject to subject in a way that might seem disorganized in another writer’s hands, but in Keith’s yields one unexpected insight (or, in the case of the cocktail recipes, buzz) after another. It’s also a lot of fun.

How fun, you ask? Well, let me just say that the chapter on lucha cinema contains contributions from your truly—that’s right, me. So it would behoove you to jet on over to Bezos’ place and buy it right now! And while you’re at it, why not throw your support behind another worthy up and coming author? It will make you feel good about yourself.

Friday's best pop song ever

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Shoktir Lorai, aka Banglar Robocop (Bangladesh, 19??)


If you enjoyed the “Sweded” version of Robocop presented in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, you should get an equal kick out of Shoktir Lorai, a Bengali film that is popularly known as “Banglar Robocop.” It could be said that the whole process of Sweding was invented in the B, C, and Z movie industries of countries like Turkey and India, where a budget of a few hundred dollars was never seen as an impediment to remaking a Hollywood blockbuster that cost many tens of millions to produce.

Shoktir Lorai is a perfect example of this bold practice. Throughout its running time, there is never a moment when you are not reminded of how cheap it is. The Robocop costume appears to consist of a few metal plates hung loosely over a black body stocking and barely bridges the uncanny valley between Robocop and the Tin Woodsman. The sets are often comprised of as little as a few props scattered on a barren stage. Musical cues are often just needle drops on someone’s well-worn copy of John Williams’ Superman, The Motion Picture soundtrack.

 
Even the story is stripped down, completely eschewing both the satirical subtext and arch religious symbolism of Paul Verhoven’s original in favor of a basic “villain seeks to steal secret formula and is thwarted by righteous hero” plot. In short, if you are not overly concerned with the faithfulness of the adaptation, but can really appreciate thrift and a knack for cost-cutting, this may be the film for you. It’s conceivable that Shoktir Lorai’s budget was just a couple of coupons.

The film begins with young scientist Dr. Johan (Danny Sidak) and his mentor Dr. Mola working in a laboratory suggested by the presence of a couple of tables and some fishbowl sized decanters containing what looks like carbonated Jello. What they have just invented, according to the computer screen they are staring at throughout the process, is “Brain Wash.” My surmise is that this is a product that comes in handy when your brain has that “not so fresh" feeling.


A dapper, Ajit-like master criminal named Sharif Mohammed has other ideas about the formula, however, deeming it worthy of being acquired at all costs. Before this can happen, though, we must consume a sequence of Johan, his wife (Banglar King Kong star Munmun) and daughter Rita, who could conceivably be played by a miniature 35 year-old woman, frolicking on the beach in an idealized representation of family harmony that is just begging to be disrupted by the incursion of evil. This, of course, happens in short order, when a gang of hooligans show up to beat up Johan and harass his wife.

The family is saved by the intervention of handsome young police officer Inspector Suhil, who, despite being a cop and appearing throughout the rest of the film, is not destined to become Robocop. Another thing about Suhil that has little bearing on the rest of the film is that his girlfriend is Dr. Mola’s youngest daughter, who is introduced for the purpose of becoming a captive during the film’s final act. Other than that, this brief beach adventure serves to establish the fact that Johan is kind of a lightweight and set us to speculating about how neat it would be if he were given robot powers.


The first attempt by Sharif Mohammed’s goons to steal the Brain Wash formula results in an anonymous old man being murdered on the street. Johan witnesses this, and is subsequently forced to drive the thugs back to the vicinity of their hideout, whereupon he is released. Sharif Mohammed is as baffled by this turn of events as you are, and demands that Johan be killed.

An attempt on Johan’s life outside his family home results in little Rita taking a bullet. In her death throes, she executes a bizarre, slow-motion pirouette that Sofia Coppola would have done well to take a cue from. Her sacrifice is for nothing, though, as Johan is also killed. This leads to Johan ending up on the table in Dr. Mola’s lab, where Dr. Mola, for reasons lost to translation, sees fit to turn him into a cyborg with advanced killing power. This process appears to have involved Johan being given the Brain Wash, as, when it is done, an opening in Johan’s robot mask allows us to see his eyes staring out at us like those of a frightened deer (in this way, Johan is like a robot version of the wolf in the Caperucita Rojas movies.)


And it is at this time that Shoktir Lorai becomes the movie that we have wanted it to be for the last forty-five minutes. After Johan has a flashback to Rita’s death--followed by a Darth Vader “NOOOOOOO” moment--he sets out to get bloody, robotically enhanced revenge against her killers with his also pretty pissed off wife at his side to cheer him on. Finally Sharif Mohammed decides to fight fire with fire. He kidnaps Mola’s daughter and forces him to perform the cyborg process on his imposing female minion Julie, whom he summarily shoots and kills to get thing under way. This leads to an absurdly protracted climactic fight sequence in which Johan and Julie repeatedly throw each other into and smash various barriers, walls and other impediments to human-assisted flight as they make lots of loud grunting and gasping noises. I don’t want to spoil things, but one of them ends up getting thrown into an active volcano.


I have been aware of these Bengali knock-off movies—Banglar King Kong, Banglar Hulk¸ etc.—for some time, but, to be honest, Shoktir Lorai is the first one of them I’ve seen. My impressions are that it’s scrappy, rough-hewn nature reminds me a lot of exploitation films from India’s Telugu language cinema and, even more so, Pakistan’s Pashto region, with the fact that it is an attempt to recreate a big budget Hollywood film being the icing on the cake. The degree to which it falls short of that goal lends it a subversive quality that, while probably not intentional, is extremely funny nonetheless. I’d like to think that the people who made Shoktir Lorai are okay with people laughing at (or with) it, because, from where I stand, Danny Sidak in his scrap heap Robocop costume is every bit as funny as Jack Black in his.

Friday, September 28, 2018

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast #11: Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son


The latest episode of the Friday's Best Pop Song Ever podcast could be seen as a fairy tale of sorts, casting teen ye-ye girl France Gall as Little Red Riding Hood and walking hangover Serge Gainsbourg as the Big Bad Wolf--only, in this version, the wolf writes several hit songs for Little Red before metaphorically eating her grandmother.

Please note that the podcast is now on Stitcher, which means that you can rate, comment on, and subscribe to it, all of which I hope you do in rapid succession.