Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Night Local: Shona Laing - 'Soviet Snow' (1987)

Let's go back to the Eighties. The mid-Eighties. The Cold War's not yet over, and we don't really trust those Russians, but we also don't want to go to war with them because what would follow would be a Very Bad Thing for the entire world. This dread of brinksmanship and the possibletipping point into nuclear oblivion is seeded throughout a lot of creative works from this era - even music. Even here in little old, Nuclear Free (tm) New Zealand.

Soviet Snow hails from Shona Laing's big comeback album South (1987); this version is a revamp of the earlier one on South's predecessor, Genre. In the time between albums the Cold War has lingered, perhaps a little less worryingly than the early 80s, but other, equally worrying events have unfolded.

At the time of its release I took the song's title literally, being aware of panic across Europe of fallout drifting with weather currents across Europe and as far as Ireland following the catastrophe at Chernobyl. Laing's song of course was composed before the reactor meltdown, but the incident allows a second reading of the song's chorus and, if I might be so bold, grounds it a little:

Now we're wide awake, the world's aware
Radiation over Red Square
Creeping off to cross Roman roads
Fear of freezing in the Soviet snow
One eye on the winter - oh, just a hint of Soviet snow.

So there's that, at least.

The video is pure Eighties - all big caps CG text buzz words and video montages. And of course, there's the Soviet and Russian imagery and iconography, none of it demystifying the Soviet Union of the Eighties, but anchoring it in a jumble of popular associations, a visual word association game. Laing is a far cry from her long-haired, freckled teenaged Seventies self with spiky, cropped hair (the infamous 'femullet' is, as far as I can remember, only a feature of the video of her bigger hit (Glad I'm Not a) Kennedy), her face intruding from angles, like Rodchenko's Lilya Brik. One more single, Drive Baby Drive and Laing's career would shift again, back out of centre stage; but this song at least freezes a moment of Southern Hemisphere pre-Glasnost anxiety, two years before the Wall would fall and the thaw would begin.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Friday, May 1, 2015

Friday Night Local: Neil Finn - She Will Have Her Way (1998)

God I love the Nineties. It's close to being the last decade I ever took notice of the pop charts, regularly watched daily music channels (initially the local Juice TV channel over breakfast, but later MTV in the UK when it had a brief life here in NZ), and when buying a CD happened more than once or twice a year for me. You never think that this sort of thing will leave you, and for some of my friends it hasn't entirely, but for me it has. The Nineties are now for me a golden age of grunge, Britpop, a glam revival, electronica, and ready-access to alternative and local music.  New Zealand music was begining to find its feet in a new way in the Nineties - Flying Nun had become part of the Establishment, and local artists were begining to get international recognition. Were were, in a small way, as it seemed on those music channels at least, in amongst it - part of the conversation.

All of which has little to do with the fortunes of one Neil Finn, whose music career in 1998 was already twenty years old through Split Enz and Crowded House, and for whom a first solo album at forty would seem a curious prospect. I've not heard anything more from its parent album Try Whistling This, but 'She Will Have Her way' is a personal favourite, with reliably enchanting Finn harmonies between chorus and verse, and some lovely production, not to mention a very infectious "to doot doot doo!" vocal refrain that makes this song a winner with Jet Jr at bedtime.   
The video is a hoot, too. A fun play on Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock - both as old as Finn himself, but also somewhat redolant of Nineties pop culture as well, to me. In film andTV weird science and UFOs were making a comeback with a mini Roswell craze, Independence Day and of course the runaway success of The X-Files. I'm drifting, and this is a topic I may return to shortly anyway. In the mean-time here's Finn's goofy unlikely wooing song, slightly delayed from its intended ANZAC eve posting, but better late than never.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Space Camp

Fig 1: Restraint
Flash Gordon (1981)

This is the third and final synched-review of late Seventies/early Eighties space opera movies. Guanolad, Jamas and Al have also covered this movie -check them out!

I am ten and- do you really want me to continue beginning my posts this way? Okay, how about this: I wanted to see this when I was a kid, arranged to watch it the first Saturday it got into town with my friend Paul (who I was 'sharing' with his weirdly jealous next-door neighbour), missed the first week, and on the last weekend, while mowing my Nan's lawn, watched then bicycle home past her house with my rival crowing that they'd just seen Flash Gordon and I hadn't. Screw you, Geoffrey McIntosh, screw you!
A bullet for my rival in friendship, Mister Memories, sir...
I eventually saw Flash Gordon  maybe twenty-three or twenty-four years later along with Mrs Simian at the flat of a workmate of hers, an expat whose lovely collection of movies also introduced us to such treats as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Mouse That Roared and one of my all-time favourites, School for Scoundrels. Flash was jokingly dreaded by both of us in advance, but by god we had a lot of fun watching it. I'm convinced I wouldn't have got half as much out of it at ten. Even now, I thought I'd be reviewing this with the old skeptical spectacles, and yet again fell for its prurient charms. I shouldn't enjoy it, but it wants me to. I can't take it seriously, nobody takes it seriously - god knows it can't take itself seriously. It's a beautiful thing.
This is the tamest 'kinky' picture I can find.
But let's try for some balance and address some ugly truths. This movie is kinky as all get-out. Leather, whips, leather whips, shorts, short shorts, leather shorts, thongs, spandex, gimp masks, bondage, drugs, and some of the campest lines this side of Scouting for Boys. And it's all deliberate.

The campness is a knowing wink towards the dated aesthetic of Alex Raymond's original strip, an appealing but unworkable welding together of Buck Rogers SF and the derring-do of a Douglas Fairbanks serial. This is borne out by the special effects, which switch the two-stroke whining sparkler-farting piano string borne rockets and painted cycloramas of the Buster Crabbe shorts (not those kind of shorts!) for studiously-designed models and a LOT of blue screen over lava-lamp cloud formations. 
Welcome to Mongo, hope you like red!
Once the rather wooden prologue connecting our three leads (Flash, Dale, Zarkov) is over and the All-American tee-shirt is ditched for Mongo attrire - in fact, once we're on Mongo, this retro design kicks in, and it sells the movie, really. The only gripe I'd have is in the lighting, which gives nothing in the way of shadows and makes the reds look garish, the gold look plasticky, and Mongo look a little two-dimensional. I'm not sure whether this is Mike Hodges attempting to replicate the four-colour look of Raymond's strips, or just dodgy direction, but there's probably too much hoving towards the old stagey serials in this approach, and not enough wide open spaces. I do bear a lot of goodwill towards the look of this movie and its aesthetic, but particularly towards the end it looks cheap, is directed flatly, and its realisation of the Hawkmen of Vultan aren't a patch on Barbarella's angelic Pygar, twelve years older.
Gaze into the Ring of Ming!
Vultan is of course Brian Blessed, one of a notable handful of Shakepearean actors hamming it up, supporting frankly weaker leads, though Max von Sydow and Chiam Topol are quite endearing in their fun as Ming and Zarkov, respectively. The straightforward script is given the minimum of conviction, and only then by Sam Jones and Melody Anderson - our leads and the weak links in the chain. Without them, however, and in the hands of actors more arch, I think Flash Gordon may well have been dismissed as a production just too knowing to be given its due. As it is, the balance is fine, teetering on lampoon, and the Queen soundtrack never really hits the highs of the famous theme song. Klytus is dispatched too easily and really has little threat, and his troops have the aim of graduates from Stormtrooper Academy.

Yup, if you're going to be in with this movie, you need to cast aside a too-critical eye, and maybe be a little longer in the tooth than the movie's adventure is pitching at.

But look - there's the ingredients here for a hell of a remake, and I hope Matthew Vaughan is taking notes as well as phoning The Darkness to do the soundtrack.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Blurred Lines

Today my chum Tim and I are going to brave Wellington's Very Big ANZAC Parade and venture out to one of Wellington's last remaining inner-city music shops to buy The Magic Whip, Blur's surprising new album (as in: "surprise! A new album!") I've juggled the idea for a few years as to how to approach Blur's discography, and as I've not long finished Manic Street Preachers', and the memory of the marathon that was Iron Maiden's discography is still fresh. Blur's set of seven studio albums to date is by comparison much more manageable, but for some reason I find the idea of sallying forth and covering another band - this band in particular, just a bit too hard. I've been a Blur fan for twenty years now (bloody hell. Seriously - Bloody Hell!), have read countless magazine articles, a Britpop biography and the bassist's autobiography, watched a few docos and their own very very good film story - and still I feel like I don't know them very well.

So the following is a potted mixed-up history of me and Blur via the means of a countdown of their albums according to me. If you've read this far, thangyewverymuch and enjoy:

The Great Escape (1995) Post-Parklife and the beginning of the comedown troika that reinvents the band and almost destroys it. Damon Albarn reduces his beloved Britain to shallow caricatures with caustic songs like 'Entertain Me', 'Stereotypes' and 'Mr Robinson's Quango'. There's so much more like that, but best to dwell on the successes: 'The Universal' and 'Yuko and Hiro' save this, really. Otherwise it's a spiteful, joyless stomping on Nineties Britain with no alternative offered. And then Oasis won the Britpop war to nobody's surprise. 

Leisure (1991) The debut album, unsurprisingly pulling in a lot of directions, many of them baggy and not a little saggy.  Very few bands indeed arrive fully-formed, and while this is fun, this is also Blur the followers and not the leaders.  The singles 'There's No Other Way' and 'She's So High' are harmless and non-threatening in such a way that it's interesting to note how much an impression non-single track 'Sing' made, earning it a key place in the Trainspotting album years later.

Think Tank – complicated and sad. If 13 is the break up album over Justine Frischmann, then Think Tank details the entropic effects of Graham Coxon's departure. There are some really good songs on this: 'Out of Time', 'Sad Song', 'Gene by Gene' and the sorrowful 'Battery in Your Leg', but Think Tank, being one foot in Albarn's politics and World Music dabblings, and one foot in Blur's heritage (including - inevitably- Gorillaz) is a discomforting body of work, and perhaps all the more interesting for it. 

Blur (1997) - the rescue attempt.  If I'm honest, I find Think Tank gets more of an outing on my stereo, but this nudges it because there’s more Coxon here. Also, 'Beetlebum', one of their best songs (particularly the instrumental coda) 'On Your Own', and 'Song 2' - the little song that broke the US when the band had long-ceased trying. 

13 (1999) – The millennium approaches, the band is hardly speaking, things fall apart, and William Orbit is around (with Stephen Street again) to literally pick up the pieces aided and abetted by ProTools. The result is never boring - from a spiritual 'Tender' opening, to some fuzzy, wiggish Bowie mugging ('Bugman') then to the some very trippy head music ('Battle', 'Caramel') the should-have-been-a-single culminating in a weary, weepy 'No Distance left to Run'. I love the flavours of 13, but it's not the sound of a band at its peak or in the midst of joy.

Modern Life is Rubbish (1993) – near-perfect,with the band firing on all cylinders distilling Kinks, Who, Small Faces and coming up with the true beginnings of their most recognisable sound, and kicking off their 'Life' trilogy. There's some great experimentation here: 'Oily Water' almost matches the live version from the Hyde Park reunion.  although the oom-pah shouting in 'Sunday Sunday' gets a bit much, and possibly the album is one song too long.  That said, it's indispensible.

Parklife (1994) – Where pretty much everything falls into place. The battle of Britpop doesn’t exist, and the zeitgeist is wholly grappled and pinned down. From the bouncing, bassy sun-drenched onlooking of 'Girls and Boys' to the wonderful shipping forecast lyrical closer, it’s an album that can be listened to end to end, and is still the band’s grandest sweep of British life in the mid-Nineties. For me it was a slow grower, and the first and still the most significant album of theirs I bought. The Clash may have formed my in-head soundtrack to a 2000 landing in London, but it was 'This is a Low' which fed the return home, and a flight over the northern coastlines of the British Isles.   

And so to The Magic Whip?  We'll see...

Monday, April 20, 2015

Fakes Seven

This is the second of three synched blog reviews with Jamas and Al - check them out!

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

It is 1980 and I am ten. I have never heard of this movie. In 2014 I finally see it. Can I stop now?

Oh, alright then.Three years after Star Wars borrowed elements of Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress, another 'noted' name of Hollywood sysnonymous with low-budget, profit-making schlockbusters did the same, purloining the master's Seven Samurai - and setting it in space!

Of course, between Kurosawa and Corman there was John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven, and it shold be said that Battle owes much more to the Western version, stealing dialogue and one of its stars - Robert Vaughn playing virtually the same character, as it does. I haven't seen Sturges' film, but I have seen Kurosawa's, and I'm biased, because my ideal sci-fi adaptation of Seven Samurai features robots (the Meknificent Seven) and was written by Pat Mills Tharg.

Corman's robots aren't bad - all disco moves and all, but they're no Hammerstein and company, and so the rest of the movie falls - too many humans in bad makeup, not enough sci-fi spectacle, and a space ship with a really distracting rack.
You have to give props to an actual spaceship to try to upstage Sybil Danning, but the organicaly-designed Nell does - for the most part, helped along by the very very thin character given Danning's Valkyrie, secreted somewhere between her Thor-lite costume and increasing innuendo. Seriously - Google will provide what I won't: fill your boots.
Our hero is Richard 'John-Boy' Thomas and a rag-tag bunch of desperadoes - the aforementioned Vaughan (taciturn gunslinger - nice idea, but phoning it in), Danning (The Howling II is only five years away!) and an affable George Peppard as an actual space cowboy ("I'm from Earth - ever heard of it?") alongside some nice but frankly squandered ideas - a female robot technician who technicians no robots, Nestor the gestalt entity who has a really nice jellyfish-like spaceship, and Cayman - a lizardman who is the last of his kind (awww.)
All have reasons valid and spurious to off chief baddie Sador, a limb-replacing, shiny-faced megalomaniac who farms civilisations, destroys planets and never leaves his ship (maybe he's in another movie? I wouldn't put it past Corman.) Honestly - would it have hurt Corman to actually have a end-level fight with the big bad and the hero on their feet and properly duking it out rather than all these interminable dogfight scenes? I don't care if they were the work of James Cameron - this is one of many wasted opportunities!

I'll draw this thing up. I'm glad I've finally seen Battle Beyond the Stars, but I fear a year of film studies and The Galaxy's Greatest Comic may have spoiled the novelty for me. This movie is just too contrived and cheap - its spaceships made from butchered Star Wars models, its dialogue lifted from another movie. As it turned out, I do believe I have seen this movie - or bits of it at least, aged fourteen watching the daggy ends of Tom Hanks opus Bachelor Party, where segments feature as part of a 3-D movie at the film's climax (still my favourite part of the movie - both movies!) Had I seen this aged ten, chances are my memories would be as fond or at least as vivid as those I have of The Black Hole. But at fourty-four I'm officially Getting Too Old For This Sh*t. And that's my review of Battle Beyond the Stars by Roger Corman.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

That Trailer...

No! Not THAT one. Jeez, that's everywhere - what could I possibly add to all that? Nice trailer. Very exciting. There, done.

No, I mean this one . Here's the earlier-than-planned teaser for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice,

I really hope you didn't actually look at the teaser in my small window and instead checked it out in HD with fullscreen loaded up, because visually it really is rather lovely to look at - especially now that we have the real deal and not some Brazillian shaky sneaky cinemacam (boo!)

So anyway, yep, it's a teaser and we're still over a year out from the movie. I say this because my first reaction was a quiet "uh-oh"  - to be honest, it looks like it plays directly into the hands and mouths of the vocal crowd who hoot the usual mantra about DC being "dark and gritty" and therefore not fun. Well, what did you expect?
The central premise of the movie is the first-ever cinematic head-to-head between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight. It's happened in comics and in animated adaptations, but here it is in live action - a big deal, so of course you put it in the teaser.

Some positives, then: Affleck looks pretty good in the Bat-suit, and there's an obvious study of Frank Millar's Dark Knight comics in Zack Snyder's direction. Crikey - Henry Cavill looks like a TITAN in his costume (and most of it is him!), and the recognisable voices - Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons, Jesse Eisenberg - Neil Degrasse Tyson, are really intriguing. Props for what looks to be Mexico in one crowd scene (the Day of the Dead one). If so, it's good to see some other non-US locations in a superhero movie these days.
And it's dark. Of course it's dark. It's always darkest before the Dawn - and guess what this movie's subtitle is? I think far from this being a hasty attempt to build a Justice League franchise inside a Sumerman movie, or a misguided muddying of a Superman sequel putting Batman front and centre, this looks to me more assured than that. Superman is front and centre here - the teaser is a direct callback to Jonathan Kent's warning to Clark in the first movie, so this story can only be a logical sequel, even if the first movie suggested a more optinistic ending. Millar's The Dark Knight has been shipped in, but it's intriguing to see the roles of the combatants reversed here - instead of Kal El being the government stooge sent to wipe out the renegade Batman, here we seem to have a Batman brought out of retirement and into some very heavy armour to neutralise the new Public Enemy Number One.
 And of course there are some notable omissions - no Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman and (maybe) Flash; Lex and Alfred are there in voice only. I can't wait to see them, but that's obviously being saved for further down the line. Really, if you're going to set up your stall around one of the biggest stand-offs in comic history, then this is a pretty good way of setting the scene. Roll on teaser number two!