Monday, December 18, 2017

Wednesday! Take a Nordic trek with POP OFFENSIVE!

On this Wednesday's Pop Offensive, I am foregoing the expected Christmas episode to bring you the gift of pure, unadulterated pop. Which means that I will be celebrating the pop traditions of Scandinavia, a land where even the police sirens have hooks and ASCAP memberships are issued at birth. Join us for this very special special episode at 7pm Pacific time, when it will be streaming live from Skål!

NOTE: This episode was postponed because I got sick as hell.  It will instead be broadcast on Wednesday, January, 17. My apologies for the delay.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Wednesday! Join me at Moe's books in Berkeley to talk PLEASE DON'T BEWAITING FOR ME

This Wednesday, December 6th, at 7pm, I'll be dropping by Berkeley's Moe's Books to pimp my recent novel Please Don't Be Waiting For Me. This will likely entail ME reading some salient portions of the book, answering audience questions, dodging various and sundry projectiles, and YOU buying the book and getting it signed by yours truly in a manner that is mutually consensual to both parties.

I am especially honored to be appearing at Moe's, because it is truly a Bay Area institution, serving the community for over 50 years. Given the East Bay bias of my book (its protagonists are teenage punks who go to Berkeley High School during the day and pogo at the punk clubs of San Francisco during the night), it's a perfect fit.

Moe's is located at 2476 Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, between Dwight Way and Haste. Please stop by and say hi. I'll be waiting for you.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Nine Demons (Taiwan/Hong Kong, 1984)

What better to review during a period of concern over masculine toxicity than a film by Chang Cheh, Hong Kong cinema’s chief promoter of male dominance? Of course, Cheh, during his life, objected to critics’ focus on the suffocatingly macho nature of his movies, and most vociferously to any suggestion of homoeroticism. But other evidence suggests that the director saw his restoration of the male hero to martial arts cinema—after the extended reign of the chivalrous swordswoman, personified by Connie Chan, Suet Nei and Josephine Shao, in the nation’s Cantonese cinema—as a holy crusade. Why else would his signature work, The One Armed Swordman, begin with a symbolic castration of its hero by a female opponent, followed by that hero’s arduous struggle to once again assume his place of mastery in the Martial World. I suspect that, to Chang, this was his own struggle cast in mythic terms—his epic, hardwon battle to turn kung fu cinema into a He-Men-Woman-Haters Club, slamming the treehouse door shut once and for all on any of those icky girls who might want to join the game. Bitches.

Fortunately for Chang, among his many filmic celebrations of chiseled male physiques both ripped and torn, are a bunch of films that are just plain goofy. These include his Journey to the West riff, Fantastic Magic Baby, his appropriately titled final film for Shaw Brothers, The Weird Man, and the film we are discussing today, Nine Demons. It’s fortunate for him, mainly, because I would otherwise never get around to writing about his movies, which, 4DK being the bastion of unbridled masculinity that it is, would surely cause him to spin in his grave.

Nine Demons (aka Nine Child Sky Demon), to the extent that it is known at all in the West, is notorious among fans of offbeat cinema for an odd quirk in its English dub. By this I mean that it’s two main characters, Zuo Qi, played by Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi, and Gan Yun, Played by Lu Feng, are known as “Joey” and “Gary”, respectively. Just as oddly, all of the other characters in the movie retain the Chinese names given them in the original. Yet those two names, spoken so often throughout the film, nonetheless succeed in injecting an element of stoner comedy into what is otherwise a fevered martial arts/horror hybrid in the style of Boxer’s Omen—as if Bill and Ted had somehow piloted their time machine back to 16th century China.

Zuo Xi and Gan Yun (yes, I was tempted to refer to them as Joey and Gary, but my dogooder impulses impel me to correct the insult done this picture by it’s foreign dub) are the sons, respectively, of Master Gan (Chang Peng), the patriarch of the powerful Gan Manor, and his loyal associate, Supervisor Zuo (Wong Tak-Sang). When forces lead by Gan’s treacherous servant Yin stage a takover of the Manor, killing their fathers and capturing Yun, Zuo Qi escapes, only to stumble into a hole that leads to the underworld. From other films of this type (Pearl Chang Ling’s Matching Escort, for instance) I’ve gathered that China was littered with such holes at this time, a pressing infrastructure issue that appears, by our time, to either have been resolved or become a very well kept secret.

Anyway, once in the underworld, Joey—I mean Qi—appeals to its ruler, the Demon Lord (Chris Lee Kin-Sang), to help him save his friend Gar—um, Yun. In reply, the Demon Lord tells him that, since getting his ass handed to him in an obviously ill-advised fight with God, he has been confined to the Demon Palace (which is, presumably, where we are now; there must have been some kind of copyright issue with just calling the place "Hell".) Instead he tells Qi that, if he would be willing to let himself become possessed by nine demons, he would attain magical powers that will help him in his fight against the usurpers of Gan Manor. There are down sides to this plan, naturally, and they are two in number: One is that the demons must regularly feast on human blood to retain their power; the other is that Qi himself will eventually become a demon. Needless to say, Qi agrees.

The demons, who are confined to a cage, are a noisome lot comprised of eight hyperactive little boys in grass skirts who caper around, doing backflips and sommersaults while cackling and jibbering like spider monkeys on crack. The group is rounded out by a sexy vampire lady played by Wong Gwan. These nine move about by turning themselves into flying skulls that hungrily bury their chompers into their victims. After the manifestly agonizing process of having the nine demons introduced into his body, Qi carries their skulls around with him in the form of a necklace, and uses a magical remote control called the Command Placard to deploy the demons at will.

Now, if the above sounds like a superhero origin story, it largely is—a fact driven home by the purple cape and colorful skintight outfit Qi is suddenly wearing once he’s become possessed. It also, in combination with Ricki Cheng’s feminine features and heavy eyeliner, drives home just how gay Chang Cheh’s movies can be. Though it needs to be said that Cheh might also  be adopting glam rock's playful approach to gender, as Qi looks like he's one Flying V guitar away from being one of the Spiders From Mars.

Gender identity aside, Qi swoops in to save Yun in true superheroic fashion and then join him, also superheroically, in defeating the usurpers of his throne. Yun’s rule is short-lived, though, as Yi soon dispatches another team of invaders, lead by the malevolent Fu (fight choreographer Sheng Chiang) and his two brothers, who kill Yun in the course of reclaiming the Manor. Qi again escapes and takes to wandering the countryside, seeking vengeance while at the same trying to keep his demons from munching too profligately on the populace. He fails in this last task so spectacularly that the frightened townsfolk end up giving him the name “Little Monster”.

In case you were wondering, Cheh does, in addition to the vampire lady, introduce one more female character into Nine Demon’s overwhelmingly male landscape, and she’s a whore. Mind you, this character, Miss Miao, is a virtuous whore, having been kidnapped and forced into the sex trade at a young age. As Qi's love interest, she also fulfills the role so often relegated to women in Cheh’s movies: that of the buzzkill. Like Wang Yu’s wife in One Armed Swordsman, Miao tries to urge our hero toward the peaceful life, thus potentially depriving us of the gore drenched pummel fest that both we, the audience, and the villains so richly deserve.

As we would expect from Cheh, Nine Demons is stuffed to bursting with well-choreographed fight scenes. The crowning set piece is an all-comers brawl that takes place upon a lattice of bamboo poles suspended over a swamp, where Qi first battles Yin's remaining forces and then the demons themselves in a fight to save his soul. As such, it’s a pretty entertaining film and, when we’re being treated to the psychedelic spectacle of cackling, glitter-flecked skulls flying into the camera, even approaches being fun. Unfortunately it’s weighted down by Cheh’s workmanlike (i.e. always competent, but seldom imaginative) shooting style and the fact that his actors are as expressive as sentient sides of beef. All in all, it’s a film much like a college guy’s apartment: utilitarian, homely, and—despite the odd, colorful flourish—crying out for a woman’s touch.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Charm offensive

Last Wednesday's Pop Offensive saw me settling even further into my role as solo host. I feel my confidence growing and, as it grows, my power. Soon you will all be eating out of my hand like the sheep--or, dare I say, "sheeple--that you are. You will be but pawns in my game. MARK MY WORD!

Sorry, must be the eggnog talking. What I meant to say is that last week's Pop Offensive is now available for streaming from KGPC's Pop Offensive Archives. Also, if you'd like to see the playlist, you will find it here, on the Pop Offensive Facebook Page.

Lastly, I want to let you all know that, as KGPC will be closed during the week before Christmas, there will not be a new Pop Offensive until January 17th. As consolation, we will be returning with a Scandinavian Pop Spectacular!

In the meantime, you might want to take advantage of the gap to scan the archives and catch up on episodes that you've missed. It's just good sense.

Friday, November 17, 2017

it's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast Episode 2!

As the first episode of the FBPSE podcast was met with little to no rancor, I am boldy venturing forth with a second one. This one focuses on one of my all time favorites, "Pretty Please" by The Quick, and includes an illuminating interview with Quick/3 O'Clock drummer Danny Benair. As this is something of a novice effort on my part, any comments you may have are welcome, rancorous or not.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Wednesday! POP OFFENSIVE returns!

It's been a couple months now since I took on solo hosting duties of Pop Offensive, and I dare say that I'm settling into the role quite well. Not that any of you should give a rat's ass about that, because, at the end of the day, Pop Offensive, is all about the music. The music and, second to that, my heroic efforts week after week to make my ego secondary to the task of finding and playing a unique array of unusual pop nuggets from around the globe. How do I do it, you ask? Why not dial in to at 7pm PT this Wednesday, November 15, and stream the show live for your edification. There will be a test.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Petty Offense

The spirit of the late Tom Petty hung heavily over last Wendnesday's Pop Offensive. Not only was Petty one of America's most iconic rock stars, but he was also one of it's greatest pop songwriters. He had a gift for stripping a song down to it's barest elements, and then letting that song stand or fall on the basis of its melody, arrangement, and performance alone. There are few examples of a Tom Petty song that is over-embellished to any degree or even a second too long. May he rest in peace.

Alongside paying misty-eyed tribute to Mr. P, we rolled out another show filled with percolating pop prizes, including a suite of tunes from Poland, an amusing story of a Eurovision songstress who absolutely despised the number two placing song she was charged with singing, and the debut of my long awaited Friday's Best Pop Song Ever podcast.

Per usual, the episode can be streamed in its entirety from KGPC's Pop Offensive Archives. And if my mush-mouthed delivery garbled any ot the song titles or artists' names beyond recognition, you can read the full playlist here. Enjoy!

Friday, October 20, 2017

It's Friday's Best Pop Song Ever--the podcast!

Today I'm debuting a mini-podcast of sorts based on Friday's Best Pop Song Ever. Not that it will replace that feature, mind you; I just thought it would be cool to occasionally delve into a song in more depth than to simply present it to you without comment. If you think this is something you might enjoy, please give it a listen and let me know what you think in the comments.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Guard's Daughter, aka Bint Al Hares (Lebanon, 1968)

The Guard’s Daughter (aka Bint Al Hares) was one of three feature films to star the Lebanese singer Fairuz, who to this day is considered one of the most popular singers in the Arab world. Making her debut at the International Festival of Baalbeck in 1957, she went on to be a force to be reckoned with in Lebanese popular culture, as well as a personification of mid-century Lebanon’s burgeoning modernity.

Judging from the songs she performs in The Guard’s Daughter, Fairuz’s music is classically Arabic in terms of both melody and composition, and performed by her with an almost ritual solemnity. You might think this would make her an odd fit in the Lebanese pop cinema of the day, which was typically light hearted and colorful. But The Guard’s Daughter serves her well, as it is a film with many faces: a musical, in which Fairuz performs almost a dozen songs, a comedy that presents an affectionate view of small town life, and a cold-eyed political allegory about income inequality and the callousness of the moneyed classes--oh and, finally, a romantic adventure featuring an elusive masked bandit.

The film takes place in the beautiful seaside town of Kfar Ghar, where Abboud, the father of young Nejmeh (Fairuz), is employed as a night watchman to protect the city from thieves. At the film’s opening, he and his partner are summoned before the town’s municipal council, where they are summarily fired, despite having served the city for dozens of years. The reasoning for this is that no thieves have threatened the town in the last five years. The mayor staunchly resists the good sense of those few members of the council who argue that this fact is testament to the guard’s effectiveness rather than their redundancy. The truth is that the move is really a penny pinching measure intended to further line the pockets of the city elders, who are also among the town’s most wealthy citizens.

Abboud, who has struggled to provide Nejmeh and her baby sister with a life of moderate comfort, soon finds himself facing financial hardship and, following his partner Saleh’s lead, heads off to Damascus to work in a shipyard. Actor Nasri Shamseddine plays Abboud with a fierce dignity (he reminds me a lot of the Indian actor Sanjeev Kumar.) You get the sense that he took a lot of pride in his work as the town’s protector. Thus, when Nejmeh visits him on the job at the docks, she is appalled by what she perceives as his diminished condition. She determines that she must get him his guard job back, and comes up with a pretty novel way of doing so.

The next time we see Nejmeh, it is in the guise of the Kafir Man (it’s translated as “Turban Man” in the subtitles, but what she’s wearing is a kafir, and 'kafir" is what the characters are saying), a rifle toting bandit who terrorizes the town’s wealthy and comfortable. While her primary goal is frightening the authorities into rehiring her dad, she can’t resist getting a little payback against the venal fat cats who have made life so hard for hers and the families of her neighbors. As such, she emerges as a kind of Robin Hood figure, cheered on by the common folk and hated by the rich as she carries out a forced redistribution of wealth. This is especially gratifying for us in the audience, as, throughout the film, we have been treated to a series of episodes presenting these villainous cretins at their worst.

Of course, since Nejmeh’s face is covered—but for Fairuz’s piercing and heavily made-up green eyes—everyone assumes that the Kafir Man is, well, a man. And, given this is the Middle East of the 1960s, why would they think otherwise? In any case, this makes things rather complicated when Nejmeh’s dad is rehired and tasked with bringing the Kafir Man in dead or alive.

Directed by Henry Barakat, one of the Middle East’s most acclaimed directors, The Guard’s Daughter is a charming crowd-pleaser. Some viewers might find it a little light on action, but I think that what action there is is handled well—and that Fairuz’s iconic appearance as the Kafir Man provides enough of a comic book thrill to make up for that. It also looks great, highlighting one lush, Technicolor composition after another--a sumptuous look that is perfectly complemented by Assi and Mansour Rahbani’s songs. It was the Rahnbanis who discovered Fairuz and guided her career, as well as composed many of her tunes. That they knew how to write for her voice is evidenced by the numbers in this film, which, as given voice by Fairuz, are hummable at worst and, at best, downright beautiful.

It also should be said that the film’s sometimes whimsical tone is offset considerably by the serious tenor of its populist politics. It’s a credit to Fairuz that, with the help of Barakat, she was able to smoothly traverse these conflicting tones. The woman was obviously a pro, and The Guard’s Daughter serves as a diverting, even winning, showcase for her talents. Whether the film struck any lasting blows for the proletariat is no doubt lost to history.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Friday's best pop song ever

Hoist your glasses. Pop Offensive 2.0 is GO!

Okay, maybe it's too early for celebration. But the fact remains that I made it through my debut as the official host of POP OFFENSIVE without a hitch. Well, that's not true, really. There were several hitches, although I did make it through the entire episode without breaking anything. And by "breaking", I mean "beyond repair", rather than "to the point that it had to be rebuilt virtually from scratch", as may have been the case.

Anyway, what I can say without qualification is that a lot of great music was played, and that there were a couple surprises--a new theme song! A double shot of Eurovision!--which means that you owe it to yourself to give it a listen. It's what Kathy and Hoda would want...those drunk bitches.

Pop Offensive #39 can be streamed from the Pop Offensive Archives.

Download the complete playlist at the Pop Offensive Facebook Page.

Please be advised that some of the streaming links are being removed from the P.O. archives, so if you want to listen to any episode(s), it's best you do so pronto.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Teens in the Universe (Russia, 1975)

I was hampered in my efforts to get you up to speed on the adventures of Moscow Casiopea’s crew of teenage cosmonauts by the fact that that film’s sequel, Teen in the Universe, came to me without the benefit of English subtitles. This was not as much of an impediment as you might think, however, because Teens, compared to it’s predecessor--which was a solemn chronicle of heroism and sacrifice in the face of the unknown--is markedly sillier and more dependent on timeworn space opera tropes—tropes that George Lucas would make even more timeworn just a couple of years later.

The film begins with the family of space-borne adolescent Sereda (Misha Yershov) celebrating his 40th birthday in absentia. This slightly awkward fete is intruded upon by I.O.O. (Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy), a character of vaguely defined magical abilities whom the first film taught us to view as a Willy Wonka-type figure with ambiguous morals and motives. I.O.O. proceeds to disgorge a veritable K2 of dialog that I presumed was meant to recap the first film while at the same time explaining the time-space paradox that required a sextet of middle schoolers to be blasted into space in the first place.

Meanwhile, back on the spaceship, we find that Sereda and his crew, though close to their destination planet Alpha Cassiopea, are in fact celebrating his 14th birthday. This is due to a mishap by stowaway Lobanov (Vladimir Boson) that caused the ship to travel at hyperspeed and get to Alpha Cassiopea much sooner than planned. This begs the question of why the powers-that-be, given they were already sending these kids on a probable suicide mission, didn’t have them travel at hyperspeed in the first place. It would be hard to argue that it was out of an abundance of adult concern.

Here I have to confess to having had a bit of trouble telling the young actors in Teens in the Universe apart. This is largely due to the two male leads looking virtually identical. Some intensive Google imaging eventually led me to understand that the one of these who was not Misha Yershov was Vladimir Savin, who plays Misha, the other square-jawed hunk at the command console. Vladimir Boson, who plays Lobanov, was easier to keep track of, given he is blond, gangly, and ruddy of complexion. The girls were an even easier matter: Varya, played by Olga Bityukova, is the icy blonde; Katya, played by Irina Savina, wears a pigtail and an expression of perpetual astonishment; and Yulia, played by Nadazhda Ovcharova, reminds me of the cartoon character Daria.

Making those identifications was crucial, because they now enable me to tell you that Sereda, Lobanov, and Varya head off in the ship’s shuttle toward Alpha, leaving Misha, Katya and Yulia in the plush, earthtone-leather-upholstered confines of the ship’s control room. They arrive on the planet to find it a sureal wasteland with odd, futuristic towers placed randomly along the horizon, and a peripheral herd of squeaking, bubble-like creatures that look like Rover from The Prisoner.

Finally they find a narrow white column from which a pair of odd, mime-like robots emerges. These wear tight, flare-legged jumpsuits and move with an exaggerated pimp walk , as if they were Tony Manero triumphantly stepping out onto the dance floor. After attuning their translating machines to the robots' language, which consists solely of whistling, the cosmonauts find themselves charmed by them enough to accompany them into their subterranean home. This, of course, turns out to be a really stupid thing to do.

Meanwhile, the remaining ship’s crew has encountered the noble, purple-haired original inhabitants of Alpha, who have been driven away by the robots and now live in a giant orbiting space station. Apparently, the robots have turned those inhabitants who stayed behind into robots whom they force into working in their robot factories--because that's how capitalism works in space. Sympathizing with their plight, Misha, Katya and Yulia take charge of another shuttle and take off for Alpha. Joining them is a bald headed dude whom I have to assume is some kind of soldier.

Once this team hits ground, all those old space opera cliches really come into play. First of all, Lobanov and Misha learn to disable the robots by addressing them with paradoxical statements (basically the Russian version of “everything I say is a lie.”) This, as you’ve probably already guessed, causes smoke to shoot out of the robots’ ears, after which they completely disintegrate, which is a nice touch. This leaves behind the robots’ helmets and sweet jumpsuits, which Misha and Lobanov don in order to infiltrate the factory, where they repeatedly escape discovery by the skin of their backs.

As for the other members of the crew, they don’t seem to be feeling too much pain, as they’ve been confined to a spacious and well appointed cell where the robots keep them soused on an endless supply of intoxicating libations. That is, until the robots reveal their plan to turn the girls into lady robots, kicking off a breathless race-against-time climax that somehow makes it seem as if the makers of Teens in the Universe were trying to make money.

That climax commences when Misha and company encounter a pair of errant domestic robots, one of whom seems to have been inspired by Rosy on The Jetsons (the implication here being that the robots rose up against their human masters; George's protestations of "stop this crazy thing" apparently went unheeded. ) These provide a way for them to enter the robots’ subterranean world, where the ass kicking begins in earnest. It is however, a very family friendly form of ass kicking, given our heroes’ opponents are machines, which means that smoke and sparks stand in for bloodshed.

Teens in the Universe is a fun, if hokey, movie—especially if you are a fan of that vision of the future peculiar to the 70s in which everything is made of white plastic and improbably spotless. This description excepts that fabulous leather upholstered control room, which is just one of the films’ many stirring design elements. The music, by Vladimir Chernyshyov, is also a delight, ranging from glacial strings in the style of John Barry to the kind of dopey Italianate scat singing (“dooba dooba do woww”) on which Pierro Umiliani would make his fortune. At a very reasonable 84 minutes, it is fast paced and easy going down, with all of those familiar plot gimmicks--which would be just as at home in an episode of Star Trek or Lost in Space—reeling out like a greatest hits collection

While by no means original or unique, Teens in the Universe resorts to outright pilfering in only one instance, which is almost absurd in its blink-or-you’ll-miss-it obscurity. During a final scene, as the repatriated Alphans emerge from a matte painting of a giant space ship in the background, a portal opens in the upper portion of the ship and the Voyager submarine from the movie Fantastic Voyage emerges and flies off to the left. This event, occurring as it does during a scene focusing on the foregrounded actors, is so pointless and unlikely to be seen that I can only view it as some kind of an in-joke among the film’s special effects crew-- especially since, given the rough compositing involved, it is probably the worst effect in the entire film.

Both Moscow Cassiopea and Teens in the Universe were popular films in their day—and apparently indicative of a consequent wave of kids-in-space movies, as a very similar sounding film, Bolshoe Kosmicheskoe Puteshevkie, aka The Great Space Journey, was released the same year. It’s easy to see why. There is enough evidence of good humor between the two films to indicate that, in the waining days of the space race, the Soviets—or their filmmakers, at least-- were not taking the whole project entirely as seriously as they once did. For a Russian populace beleaguered by the stagnation and scarcity of the Breshnev era, it’s hard to imagine such a relaxed stance not being a breath of fresh air.