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.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Why in the world is Todd in San Diego?

To all those San Diego resident and bound, I will be in that fair city this Friday, September the 8th, signing copies of my books Please Don't Be Waiting For Me and Funky Bollywood at the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, which is taking place at the Museum of Photographic Arts in historic Balboa Park. I should be there from the early afternoon on (and may stay on through Saturday, though that remains to be seen.) In any case, if you're there, please stop by and say hello.

I look like this:

Friday, August 25, 2017

The PLEASE DON'T BE WAITING FOR ME book trailer is punkalicious!

Friday's best pop song ever

An offense divided

Because I haven't posted a recap of last Wednesday's Pop Offensive until now, you may not know that my co-host of three years, Jeff Heyman, has left the show (that is unless you actually listened to the show--in which case, yay you!) Jeff is leaving Pop Offensive for the greener pastures of Alameda Community Radio, where he will be producing and hosting a punk-themed show called Outcastes Revisted. Hopefully it goes without saying that our split is an amicable one and I wish Jeff the best in this and all his future endeavors. As for me, I will be carrying the Pop Offensive banner by my lonesome starting with the next episode on September 20th.

And hey, if you want to hear it all from the horse's mouth, along with a lot of smokin' tunes (it was a really great show), just head over to the Pop Offensive Archives and stream that sucker. And if you can't hear us back announcing the songs over your own wailed lamentations, avail yourself of the playlist here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


That's right, babies. This Wednesday, August 16th, is the third Wednesday of the month--which means that, if you tune into at 7pm Pacific time, you'll hear a percolating parade of catchy, danceable pop tunes from around the globe. K-pop, J-pop, Europop, Turkopop, we don't care! We play it all! So grab your ticket and ride. Because, as the O'Jays say, "If you miss it, I feel sorry, sorry for you..."