Friday, December 30, 2011

The Angel-a-Thon: Season 5, the grand finale

OK, it was actually a few months ago now I finished my noble goal of watching all of Joss Whedon’s “Angel” and “Buffy” series, a whopping total of 254 episodes of vampire-stabbin’ good television. I wrapped it up with the final episode of the fifth season of “Angel,” “Not Fade Away.”

After the stumble that was the confused Season 4, the final season shakes up everything and goes in several new directions. At the end of the fourth season, Angel and his friends were put in charge of their longtime enemies, evil law firm Wolfram and Hart. The entire season is basically a meaty moral dilemma for Angel and co. – if you join the bad guys, work for the bad guys, doesn’t that make you a bad guy yourself? Angel, Wesley, Fred and the rest are determined to try and turn Wolfram and Hart into a force for good, but easier said than done.

For me, much of the enjoyment of Season 5 comes from totally changing the status quo. No more dank hotel and “vampire detective,” hello heavily funded mysterious corporation and deals with the devil. Some longtime “Angel” fans squawked about this season, but it’s a natural progression for Angel’s ever-shifting moral compass. It’s also a pleasure to see Buffy’s Spike, played by snarky James Marsters, join the cast. His cocky cockney schtick may be getting a wee bit tired after so long, but it adds a nice jolt of energy to the cast.

The pathos of Season 5 echo the show’s best year, Season 3 – there’s a ton of tragedy here, from the fate of poor Fred and Wesley to Gunn’s metamorphosis from street tough to silver-tongued lawyer. A real appeal for “Angel” is how everyone constantly changes, and you honestly feel that characters can die at any time – and often do. The show did get its legs cut out from under it a bit with the open-ended finale cliffhanger (which has been followed up in an OK fashion in comic books). Yet “Not Fade Away” ends in a spectacular, damn-the-torpedoes fashion, with the final battle to top all the final battles to date and some shocking turns.

Best episode: Several to choose from, including “Not Fade Away” and Cordelia’s bittersweet swan song on “You’re Welcome” – but for sheer quirkiness and a welcome blast of humour on a dark season, you can’t go wrong with “Smile Time,” the one where Angel is transformed into a deranged vampire Muppet. Awesome.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Year in Review: My Favourite Comics of 2011

Favourite Ongoing Series: Amazing Spider-Man continues to be reliably solid under writer Dan Slott. His massive “Spider-Island” tale this year was both ridiculously goofy and a lot of fun, as the entire population of Manhattan mutates into “Spider-People.” Slott knows the balance of humour and action is important in Spider-Man. While not every issue is a home run, the comic is the best it’s been in years, welcome news for this longtime Spider-fan. Runners-up: Batman Inc. by Grant Morrison; Criminal/Incognito by Ed Brubaker.

Finally got sick of: Brian Bendis' Avengers books. There was a freshness and novelty to The Avengers when Bendis took over and added characters like Wolverine and Luke Cage to the mix. But I’ve gotten really sick of his dialogue tics, his spinning out one issue worth of story into six, and his overuse of the ridiculous villain Norman Osborn (who should’ve stayed dead back in the 1970s, dammit). Enough already.

Best gamble that paid off: The "New 52" by DC Comics. As monthly comics face dwindling sales, there’s going to be more drastic action in the future. DC relaunching every comic was the first shot fired. Not every book was a winner but there's been enough to enjoy here and some particularly fun offbeat series -- the "horror hero" books like Animal Man, Swamp Thing and Frankenstein are my favorites.

Best overlooked book: Red Hulk by Jeff Parker & company. The Red Hulk is one of those awful-sounding comics concepts like the son of Wolverine that shouldn’t work, but under talented writer Parker, his book has become a real gem. The Red Hulk is the “green" Hulk’s former foe General Thunderbolt Ross, who has, as you do, become the thing he most hated. What I like about the Red Hulk is the character behind him - a frustrated, 60-something military man who now has to be a superhero. It's not revolutionary Hulk comics, but there's something unique in Parker's spin on the character and Red Hulk has become an inventive, exciting ride each month.

Disappointing: Some of my favourite alternative comics creators delivered heavily hyped, but unsatisfying new work this year – Chester Brown’s bizarrely cold and clinical memoir of patronizing prostitutes, “Paying For It,” which suffered from a very dry, emotionally distant art style. And then there’s Frank Miller’s “Holy Terror,” which has very quickly assumed almost legendary flop status. Rushed art, juvenile writing, and a paranoid world viewpoint that seems torn directly from the furthest fringes of the far right.

Biggest bomb: Fear Itself. Yet another overhyped, overpriced "event comic." Each time I get disappointed by a "Siege" or "Secret Invasion" I say I'll stay away, but the muddled, overblown calculated chaos of Fear Itself finally convoked me to stop buying the hype.

Best new series: I love Daredevil, but the grim, rain-soaked loner facing constant tragedy bit got very old. So it’s a delight to see Mark Waid deliver a more happy-go-lucky take on the Man without Fear, which doesn’t abandon the past but embraces a more optimistic view. And artists Marco Martin and Paolo Rivera have, for the first time in Daredevil’s nearly 50-year-history, come up with some amazing and inventive ways to illustrate a blind superhero’s perspective of the world. Runner-up – a bold new take on Animal Man at DC Comics, with a creepy, Clive Barker-meets-David Lynch sensibility and some truly disturbing art. Not sure it’s got enough steam for the long haul yet, though.

Best writing about comics: The good folks at TwoMorrows Publishing continue to put out some great reading. Back Issue magazine is the only mag about comics I get anymore (now that the Comics Journal is once every year or two). And their books are even better -- I just got The Quality Companion which is a retro-fan's delight of information about the comics from this Golden Age publisher – from Plastic Man to forgotten oddballs like The Jester, Bozo the Robot and The Whistler. Great stuff!

Best reprint series: We truly do live in a golden age of great comics reprints, when even my old 1980s guilty pleasure West Coast Avengers gets deluxe hardcover treatment, but I was especially pleased this year to see Fantagraphics kick off a massive reprinting of Carl Barks’ delightful Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, easily some of the best kid-friendly comics ever created. Reading the first volume, “Lost in the Andes,” with the boy was a great experience, and knowing there’s a flood of future volumes to come is great. Beautifully designed, full of content and at a reasonable price.

Best Comic Book Movie: I've got high hopes for The Adventures of Tintin, coming in a week or so, but until then the most enjoyable comics-based movie this year was Thor - with X-Men: First Class and Captain America not far behind. Green Lantern and Cowboys Vs. Aliens, we won't speak of.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Year in Review: My favorite music of 2011

It's that time of year, so here my picks for my favorite music of 2011, in alphabetical order:

Beirut, “The Rip Tide”
Sometimes sad is good, and Beirut does wonderful sad. Imagine Morrissey if he'd loved world music and brass bands. Zach Condon is only 25, but his music sounds like it's been around forever, steeped in old-world charm. Beirut's third disc, "The Rip Tide" is all sweeping melancholy and Condon's mournful voice, but it's the kind of sad that feels good to listen to. The jaunty "Santa Fe" is perhaps my favorite song of this year, while the title track is beautiful, broken-hearted and grand. If you like Arcade Fire or the National, you need to listen to this one.

Ben Folds, “The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective”
OK, technically it’s a box set, but it’s got new stuff, too. And what a treasure trove for fans of Folds and his wry, witty piano pop – three discs of hits, rarities and live versions. Folds’ tunes straddle the line between Elton John and They Might Be Giants, with a song able to break your heart and crack you up in the same verse. The Ben Folds Five were one of the great underrated acts of the 1990s and Folds’ solo career has been pretty winning. This set offers a whole new chance to appreciate the hooks and harmonies, and discover rare gems.

Fabulous/Arabia, “Unlimited Buffet”
New Zealanders Lawrence Arabia and Mike Fabulous have collaborated to create a dreamlike and gorgeous piece of Kiwi pop. Arabia's last album "Chant Darling" is one of the best Kiwi records of the last few years -- in that same creative, vibrant zone bands like Phoenix Foundation and Liam Finn are operating in -- and this record is nearly as good. High harmonies, floating hooks, a bit of winking irony and an undercurrent of funk swim together in an album that is perfect for listening to on a New Zealand summer's day, watching the waves roll in at the beach.

Kanye West & Jay-Z, “Watch The Throne”
It’s a gaudy and cocky monument to consumerism, with barely an ounce of subtlety – but still, the two titans of hip-hop deliver a caffeinated, hook-filled romp of an album. While less epic in its reach than Kanye's last album, it's still a pretty dazzling mix of ego and invention, with some of the best uses of samples in a long time. Most “event” albums -- like Lady Gaga’s latest -- fall short, but this one manages to deliver.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, “Soul Time!”
Unabashedly retro soul-funk, which may not be particularly groundbreaking but sure lights up a room. I've been on a big classic soul kick lately -- Otis, Aretha, Stax -- and Jones is one of the few folks today who carry on that tradition in a way that doesn't just seem like a tribute act. Top-notch musicianship and utter sincerity abound in songs like "Genuine" and "What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?" I'd take the well-seasoned, passionate voice of Sharon Jones over the staggeringly dull Adele any day of the week, myself.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, "Mirror Traffic"
Ah, Malkmus. Don't ever change. On the heels of the great Pavement reunion tour comes another slab of Malkmus' quirky, goofy rock, this time produced by Beck. Full of jammy guitar riffs, wacky lyrical asides and hooks that burrow into your brain, "Mirror Traffic" is good partly because it seems so damned effortless for the band. Only Malkmus could deliver the chorus to "Senator" with a straight face: "I know what the senator wants / what the senator wants / is a blow job." Awesome!

My Morning Jacket, “Circuital”
Some fans hated MMJ's last album, the experimental "Evil Urges," but I kinda dug it. The myth-drenched Southern rock combo return with an album that sums up all their parts. "Circuital" combines the spooky, reverb-filled feel of MMJ's first few albums with the free-wheeling charm of their later work -- got to love a song called "Holdin' on to Black Metal," which is defiantly tongue in check. But then album opener "Victory Dance" is a slow-building thunderbolt of a song, knocking you flat with its building power.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “Unknown Mortal Orchestra”
Out of the ashes of New Zealand’s punk-pop band The Mint Chinks comes this groovy psychedelic funk rock outfit, now based in Oregon. There’s a kind of alien, trippy loose-limbedness to this record, which blends solid grooves to space-cadet melodies. A bit like MGMT or Of Montreal, it’s a band giving a hipster take on well-worn genres with true adoration. It’s seasoned with a strange dash of melancholy that only makes the beats dig deeper.

Tom Waits, “Bad As Me”
After nearly 40 years of doing this, isn’t Tom Waits’ schtick old by now? But “Bad As Me” is as fresh and strange as anything else in the master’s cellar, and like many other critics have said, it plays almost as a “lost greatest hits” album. Waits saunters through every style in his book – the mournful ballad, the warped road song, the tub-thumping rant. I remember Waits being a bit of a cult figure when I stumbled across him in the late 1980s. But icon status, and even admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, hasn’t dimmed his distinctive weirdness one bit.

Wilco, “The Whole Love”
After two lovely but mellow albums, there’s a welcome return of tension and experimentation to Wilco’s latest. There’s less of the anguish that marked the band’s classic “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” but there’s a resurgent curiosity and sense of play. The band’s secret MVP is astounding guitarist Nels Cline, whose textural clangs, chords and riffs give frontman Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics added space and mystery.

Bubbling under: Florence + The Machine, “Ceremonials”; PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake”; Bon Iver, “Bon Iver”

Songs of the year
Beirut, "Santa Fe"
The Drab Doo Riffs, “Juggernaut”
Bon Iver, "Perth"
Liam Finn, "Cold Feet"
My Morning Jacket, "Outta My System"
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, "Senator"
Urge Overkill, “Thought Balloon”
Florence + The Machine, “Never Let Me Go”
Tom Waits, “Hell Broke Luce”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “How Can You Luv Me?”

Show of the year
I've been a total slacker on the concert scene the second half of this year, because I'm an old man in my 40s, after all. But I did see some excellent stuff earlier this year, including the sprawling traveling review of George Clinton & P. Funk - the big man may be past his prime but he was backed up by a great all-star cast. A '90s fave of mine, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, were also garage-rock fun, but the real highlight for me was seeing the post-punk combo Gang Of Four tear it up, and energetic front man Jon King ripping the Powerstation apart like it was 1979 all over again.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Superheroes I Love #10: Deathlok

Every red-blooded boy loves cyborgs. Half-man, half-robot, what’s not to love? The Marvel Comics character Deathlok is a bit on the obscure side, but debuting in 1974, he’s the grandfather of Robocop, Arnold’s Terminator and many more equally mean machine-men.

Who: Deathlok “the demolisher,” a.k.a. Col. Luther Manning, an American soldier who suffers horrible injuries but is reanimated and turned into the experimental Deathlok cyborg wandering through a ruined future world.

Why I dig: I didn’t often pick up “Captain America” as a kid but the cover of #286, featuring Deathlok taking aim at the Captain, is pretty darned sweet. Drawn beautifully by Mike Zeck, it really makes Deathlok look half-zombie, half machine, and you can practically feel the gritty rot. It was about 1983, my first exposure to Deathlok, but it took me years to get around to finding his obscure 1970s original appearances.

The original series of Deathlok stories that ran in Marvel’s Astonishing Tales comics in the 1970s was a kitschy romp, created by artist Rich Buckler, and with that marvellous “make it up as we go along” feeling so many 1970s Marvel comics had which make them such immersive, if goofy, fun. Deathlok wanders through an apocalyptic America (in the far future of 1990!!) hunting the maniacal Ryker. There’s not a lot of plot to these stories but Buckler and Doug Moench give it a tactile atmosphere. Many of the sci-fi tropes we now consider a bit cliché originated in these pages. I wouldn’t ever call Deathlok great art – the series flounders about in search of a real hook other than the mangled Deathlok’s identity crisis, and unfortunately it ends just as it's really getting good – but it’s still a lot of fun.

Read this: The “Deathlok Masterworks” hardcover is a bit on the pricey side, but it collects pretty much every decent Deathlok story there’s ever been, including that Captain America multi-parter that attempts to sort out his tangled history. Unfortunately, like an awful lot of characters, Deathlok’s been killed, reborn, resurrected, rebooted and redone so many times since the 1980s that I don’t even know who he is these days. But that’s all right. Give me the shiny Deathlok Masterworks and a sunny afternoon and I’m good as gold.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


…So long time, no post. As the last entry probably indicated, it’s been a rather rough year for us. We’re dealing with everything that’s happened and getting on with our lives, but admittedly, it’s a long haul for everyone, losing two parents from the family in less than 2 months. It's a cliche, but sometimes cliches are true: Everything has changed.

Somewhere in there, I turned 40. We buried my wife’s father on a Monday, and by that weekend, we were off to Sydney, Australia, for a long-planned holiday arranged well before all the funerals and such we’ve deal with this year.

I turned 40 and we spent the day in the sunshine at Manly Beach, on gold sand and warm water, and we went out for dinner at a fine little Italian restaurant where I ordered a proper steak for the first time in eons. Sydney is one of my favourite places, and it didn’t disappoint this time. All in all, it was a good way to get a year older – I thought I’d like to make the 40th something to remember, and it was.

And now 2011 is nearly over – I’m usually a fairly positive fella, but it’s been a year with a lot more bad in it than good. Good riddance to it, and hoping for a better 2012.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sir Peter Siddell, 1935-2011

My father-in-law Sir Peter Siddell died peacefully Monday, nearly three years after being diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor, and nearly two months to the day since his beloved wife Sylvia passed away.

To say 2011 has been a tough year for our family would be an understatement. To lose two parents, two grandparents, in less than 8 weeks is the kind of thing I hope nobody has to go through. The deaths were not surprises -- in many ways, we've been preparing for them for several years now. The year has been filled with slow declines, fading away and too many vigils, hospital visits and emergencies to count. There hasn't been a lot of time for blogging, or whatever passes for ordinary life.

Now all that's over. But it really is going to take us a terribly long time to get "over" losing Peter and Sylvia. I'm apparently going to be speaking at Sir Peter's funeral in Auckland Monday, and one of the things I will mention is how unceasingly welcome he was to this strange American joining his family, dragging his daughter around the USA and eventually bringing her home again.

Sir Peter was one of New Zealand's most famous painters, and it's a great comfort that he lived long enough to see his work recognized -- a wonderful coffee-table book of his art came out this year. And the family has a tremendous legacy left behind of his distinctive, uniquely Kiwi work.

Passed almost unnoticed this week was that it's been exactly five years since we moved back to New Zealand. We didn't know then what we'd be dealing with, or that our son would have such a short time with his New Zealand grandparents. But I'm still glad we've been here for it, that we were able to be a part of their lives and that my wife and her sister were so supportive in their final days.

We don't always know what kind of family we'll get when we marry someone. I was extraordinarily lucky and honored to be part of this one as long as I was.

More on Sir Peter's passing from local media:

* New Zealand Herald


* Auckland Art Gallery

* Artists NZ

* Beattie's Book Blog

* Siddell Art

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs and the world he left us

Like a lot of people, I heard the news about Steve Jobs dying via my Apple computer – in my case, my iPhone.

There’s been quite the reaction to the death of Steve Jobs, at 56, too young, and many of these comments talk about how much he “changed the world.” Despite my distaste for hyperbole, I’d have to agree. He’s one of the few business leaders you can say that about. Steve Jobs didn’t single-handedly create the home computer, the iPod or the iMac or the iPad, but he was a driving force in getting his vision across to talented others, and even more than Bill Gates, he was the face of the ongoing technological revolution. And unlike Bill Gates, Steve Jobs managed to be bloody cool.

An article I quite liked today noted how Apple “stood in the intersection of utility and desire.” That to me really sums up the instinctive appeal to the Apple line, which more than any other computer system has taken us into the future. We may not have rocket jetpacks and laser guns, but I have a computer the size of a sheet of paper and I can do video live conferencing with my parents on the other side of the world at a moment’s notice.

Apples were the first computers I liked, and the only computers I’ve ever really owned. A friend of mine in junior high had some of the first Apple IIs in the mid-1980s, which dazzled me with their ease and intuitive use, even with the poky black-and-white games. I was too danged poor in the 1990s to own anything but hand-me-down PCs but when I finally achieved fiscal stability, one of those beautiful blueberry 1998 iMacs had to be mine. Since then it’s been MacBooks, iPhones, iPods galore – and just last week, I bought an iPad 2. I’ve used PCs when I’ve had to, but I have never felt as at home, as comfortable on them as I have on my Macs.

I don’t know much about Steve Jobs the human being, who apparently could be a bit arrogant, but I do know that whatever his flaws, he drove a creative, engaging business sense that made Apple what it is today. His management style drove the innovation that kept Apple rising from the dead, again and again. Oh, and during that brief period Jobs was “fired” from Apple? He went and helped create Pixar, the home of some of the biggest computer animated movies of all time.

Sure, Apple’s business practices aren’t perfect, and the “hip” factor might put some off. But there’s a reason every other tech company scrambled to come up with their own mp3 players, their own tablets and their own smartphones that aped Apple as much as possible. It’s because somehow, Steve Jobs knew what people want. He’s gone, but he left behind a world that’s very much shaped in his image.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

DC Comics and the "new 52" gamble

I do worry about comic books. I’ve been buying them regularly since, oh god, 1982 or so, but the monthly floppy periodical business model may be something that, like a lot of good ol’ non-digital pastimes, is fading away.

So DC Comics shook things up quite a bit by deciding to cancel their entire nearly 80-year-old line of books (some up to #900 or so), and starting all over from scratch. I can’t get too fussed about that, really – there have been more “reboots” than I can count of comics universes in my 30 years of collecting and I’m sure there will be more.

I see this move, though – 52 new first issues of 52 series, all over the course of a month – as a real “hail Mary” pass for the future of comic books as a monthly concern. So far, fortunately, it seems to have at least for now been a financial success – because frankly, if it were a huge flop, it would be bad for the entire comics industry by proxy. While DC is far from the only comics company, they're one of the two biggest. I wouldn’t be half surprised if Marvel followed with some sweeping move of their own sometime soon.

I haven’t picked up a ton of the new DC 52 comics but I have generally liked the ones I tried. DC have put together a nice mix of mainstream heroes like Green Lantern and The Flash with more offbeat books like "Frankenstein" and "All Star Western."

The new “Justice League,” much touted as the flagship of the line, was a mixed bag – I’m over the “let’s take 6 issues to put the team together” decompression school of storytelling, and Jim Lee’s art has always been a bit overrated to me. But it wasn’t TERRIBLE – merely routine. Grant Morrison's new "Action Comics #1" is a far better relaunch -- a new vision of Superman that draws heavily on the nearly forgotten gangster-punching strongman of the early 1930s, but modernised with a twist.

I quite enjoyed the quirk-hero adventures of “Animal Man” (an old favourite of mine) and “Frankenstein and the Agents of S.H.A.D.E.” Also good fun were the medieval adventure “Demon Knights” and, surprisingly, the relaunch of conspiracy-heroes comic “Stormwatch” which combines a variety of franchises and DC’s venerable Martian Manhunter together and might actually make the characters Apollo and the Midnighter interesting for the first time in a few years. “Justice League Dark” was pretty cool, too, a kind of Vertigo-meets-mainstream caper with some excellent art.

More importantly, this whole "new 52" business has given comics a jolt of excitement that all the endless "big event" miniseries have failed to do. While there's a fair amount of junk among the new 52, I have to admit I've now suddenly got more DC Comics than Marvel on my monthly pull list for the first time in a long while.

In what is probably a testament to the problems comics sales are facing, I ended up downloading a couple of my very first comics on our new iPad too. It’s interesting to note that it was cheaper to download than buy them here and now that DC and Marvel are both doing day of release digital, it’s hard not to imagine that market taking off.

I was pretty impressed, actually, at how gorgeous “Superman #1” and “Justice League Dark #1” looked on the iPad – stunning colours, very user-friendly interface, and closer to “reading” a “real” comic than any other such digital endeavour I’ve seen. I'm still a sucker for the tangible object, though. I don’t think I’ll download often, but I have to say Comixology and the publishers have made reading a comic on an iPad a pretty satisfying experience.

Will DC’s “new 52” gamble pay off in the long run? I honestly don’t know. When you look at the figures a comic sells nowadays – if it breaks 100,000 copies it’s a huge hit, whereas 20 years ago some comics sold in the millions – it’s a tough fight ahead. However, whatever happens next I don’t ever think we’ll see the end of comics as a medium of expression – yeah, they may go entirely digital like so much else has, but the comic book is a sturdy, endlessly vast and variable way to tell a story, from “Love and Rockets” to “Archie.”

The comic book has its fingerprints all over pop culture these days. It ain’t going anywhere soon, no matter how it changes.

Friday, September 23, 2011

That's me in the corner: Farewell, R.E.M.

R.E.M. have called it quits, which saddens me -- not as much as it might once have, perhaps, but it's still worth taking a moment to remember how great they were at their zenith.

I know there's a lot of wags out there who expressed surprise they were still together, that the general consensus is that they peaked with 1992's "Automatic For The People" and it's been a slow downhill slope ever since, but I don't care what anyone else thinks -- they remain one of the finest bands of the last 30 years, and their influence can be felt on countless acts.

It's hard to be a band that makes it to that blockbuster level of a U2 or a Pearl Jam or Rolling Stones. Inevitably, you fall off the peak a bit. Name a band that sustains a 20+ year career of constant critical and commercial success, and it'd have to be a pretty small list. R.E.M. was a fluke as a mainstream success -- they were more comfortable in the shadows, in the cult icon category with people like their idol Patti Smith.

Like most things, I was a bit of a late bloomer to R.E.M. -- I didn't discover them until 1989's "Green," and it was appropriate that I discovered them in my first year living in Mississippi. In the early days, they were definitely a Southern band, steeped in kudzu, gothic mystique and fog. Someone in my college dorm was giving away some of his CDs and I snagged "Green." I remember playing one track over and over again that seemed directly written for me, freshly moved from the West Coast to the deep South -- "I Remember California," of course.

There was a big hoo-rah in the rock world around 1992 or so over who was better -- U2 or R.E.M. It's never been a contest for me. While U2 are grandiose, epic and often a bit overblown, R.E.M. were a cult band who briefly became mainstream through the sheer power and craft of their songwriting. Even now, 20 years on, I listen to the chiming mandolin chords of "Losing My Religion" and it still sounds fresh and peculiar on the thousandth listen, the urgency and murky universality of Stipe's anguished lyrics ringing true.

I love their entire career, which carved an arc from hushed Southern poets to stadium-filling anthems to the more hushed, emotionally open balladry that dominated their later work. Michael Stipe's gift as a lyricist, especially in the early days, was combining elliptical lyrics with heartfelt sincerity -- a song like "Fall On Me," "What's The Frequency Kenneth" or "Driver 8" could've been about anything, whatever you wanted it to be. Some of their more populist songs like "Everybody Hurts" or "Shiny Happy People" might've felt like sell-outs to the fans of the mumbling Stipe era, but even they had a dash of that R.E.M. mystique to them. R.E.M. never sounded like anybody but themselves to me.

I'd stick with them through thick and thin -- while they haven't released a truly great album since 1996's underrated, experimental "New Adventures in Hi-Fi," I usually found at least a few songs to like on their later work. I loved the hit singles like "Losing My Religion" but also the rare numbers like the soundtrack number "Fretless" or "Out Of Time's" sadcore masterpiece, "Country Feedback." 2001's "Reveal" I find particularly strong, with a gorgeous wanderlust on songs like "All The Way To Reno" and "Imitation of Life." They could disappoint toward the end -- 2003's "Around The Sun" was a dull bore -- but honestly, I don't feel like R.E.M. ever embarrassed themselves. Perhaps they chose to retire a bit later than they should have in order to get the proper amount of appreciation -- but I think in the end R.E.M. will be remembered as one of the giants of the "alternative rock" era.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Angel-a-Thon: Season 4

It’s hard to top a peak. The third series of “Angel” was such a taut, exciting ride that season four had a lot to live up to. And while it’s rarely rotten, Angel’s penultimate series falls a bit short.

There’s great momentum at the start of this season, as the cliffhangers of Series 3 are wrapped up and the apocalyptic Beast comes to town, raining fire on the streets and blocking out the sun. There’s a real sense of danger and drama in these early episodes – the Beast is by far the most inhuman villain the series has had, and it really seems nothing can stop him. The various psychodramas continue as Angel bonds and brawls with his bad-boy, instantly teenaged son Connor, Wesley works his way back from his dark exile into redemption (it’s amazing what a bad-ass Alexis Denisof has become as Wesley, especially when you view his first few appearances way back in “Buffy”’s third season), while Fred and Gunn wind down their increasingly annoying relationship.

But then it all kind of turns to custard. The writers apparently feel they have to keep one-upping the threat level, and so the Beast turns out to be a pawn of a now-evil Cordelia, who turns out to be yet ANOTHER pawn of the smiling goddess Jasmine. Really, the Beast could’ve been a solid enough protagonist to fuel the entire season, and the ridiculously labyrinthine plot by Jasmine is insulting to viewers (apparently pretty much everything that ever happened since episode one has been a part of the plan). But the worst misstep is how the writers abuse poor Cordelia, who’d shown the most fascinating growth as a character over the first 3 years, moving from selfish diva to selfless heroine. Her “ascension” at the end of the third season was tearjerking and yet very right.

But it’s all dumped on this year, as Cordy’s forced into an icky affair with Connor, gotten pregnant, turns evil, then is clumsily just written out of the series entirely. It’s a real shame that poor Charisma Carpenter goes out on such an awkward note (although fortunately, she has a better swan song in Season 5). Jasmine, played by “Firefly” star Gina Torres, is a character with potential – an ancient god who is bringing enforced world peace – but she never quite comes across right.

There’s still a lot to like in series 4 – we get the return of Angel’s evil alter ego Angelus, who’s sinister fun, and a guest appearance by Faith (Eliza Dushku) always provides a lot of energy. There's lots of great moments, but the meandering of the overall season storyline and the egregious waste of Cordelia do spoil it all a bit.

Best episode: In a season filled with dark twists and turns, it’s the lighthearted change of pace episode “Spin The Bottle” that provides some much-needed levity, and a chance for the cast to show how much the characters have grown. While the “everyone gets amnesia” plot is beyond cliché, it’s played out in a very fun fashion as we witness the return of bitchy high-school Cordelia, foppish Wesley and medieval young Angel and everyone bounces off each other in a nice locked-room mystery. It's a good showcase for the actors and just nice to get a break from the never-ending apocalypses. Runner-up: “Home,” the energetic season finale, which delivers a much-needed change of setting and mission for Season 5 and gives the entire mauldin, overlong Connor storyline a fitting, bittersweet sendoff.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Rugby World Cup madness comes to town

In New Zealand, there's only one event right now -- the massive Rugby World Cup. If you're in America, you might not know much about this, but if you're anywhere else in the world, it's one of the biggest sporting events in the known universe.

We in the media have been preparing for this for months, and my colleagues in print and online at the NZ Herald have done an amazing job. It's a massive undertaking, and I have to admit knowing it's just the start of a 6-week, dozens of game tournament kind of makes you quake a bit. It'd be lovely if this was just for two weeks or something, but going on till the end of October? Egad!

In-between working on the website and the paper Friday, I'd duck out and check out the scenes outside the building. It was like every college football game I'd ever seen rolled into one roiling mass of people -- flags of many nations, screaming drunken boys, nervous tourists, honking horns -- it was fun but also rather insane. Nobody in power seemed to be prepared at all for the massive crowds. Clearly NZ has gone a bit rugby-mad.

Unfortunately, the big opening celebration Friday night was a bit of a debacle on several fronts -- after months of hyping Auckland's public transport system it failed badly, with stuck trains, cancelled ferries, even elementary measures like failing to close the city's major downtown streets until hours of traffic chaos had ensued. Downtown Auckland was pretty madhouse Friday night -- estimates of anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000 people poured into downtown, which in a country of 4 million people is a HUGE gathering.

Yet there were pretty awesome moments -- the opening ceremony was amazing, the All Blacks won the first game against Tonga, the sheer energy was invigorating, and the gigantic fireworks ceremony -- apparently Auckland's biggest ever -- was stunning. A bunch of us climbed up on the roof of the Herald building for some stunning views of fireworks erupting from the Sky Tower and buildings around us.

It's hard to compare an event like this to something you'd see in the United States -- the US has never been a big player in the soccer, cricket or rugby international tournaments, so perhaps something like the Olympics is the only comparison. I've never been a huge sports guy, but you have to get swept up in it all. It is cool to see how tourists from the 20 nations have swarmed into town -- a peculiar mix of countries from rugby standards like England, Australia and South Africa to a dashing of proud Pacific Island nations like Tonga, Samoa and Fiji and then a few "what the heck" countries like Romania and Namibia.

While there's a certain sense of craziness and inconvenience to it all it's also kind of a cool thing to witness. You either ride with something like this or you waste energy getting annoyed at it. Right now for rugby-heads New Zealand is the centre of the universe. And for the next six weeks, it'll continue to be.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Sylvia Siddell, 1941-2011

"Max Taming The Furies," Sylvia Siddell, circa 1999

...My mother-in-law, and a wife, mother, grandmother, artist. She will be missed.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

It may have taken me a week or two, but I’ve finally seen “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the red, white and blue wrap-up to our summer of comic book movies galore.

I have to admit I wasn’t quite as excited to see Cap as I’ve been other superheroes on screen – I’ve just never been a gigantic fan of the character, who walks a thin line between inspiring and hokey. Most of my comics experience with Captain America has been as a supporting character in “The Avengers,” although writer Ed Brubaker has been doing some great stuff with him in recent years I’ve been catching up on. But “Captain America” the movie, while not groundbreaking, is a solid, fun time at the movies, a rip-roaring and mildly retro war action picture that is more Indiana Jones in tone than “The Dark Knight.”

What I liked:
Chris Evans has now played two Marvel heroes in recent years – first the Fantastic Four's Human Torch - but Captain America is a tricky role. He's idealistic and inspirational, which can make for a dull character. But Evans does a solid job presenting the man behind the icon, particularly in the marvellous early scenes with a pretty seamless special effect that makes him a 90-lb weakling as young Steve Rogers.

“Captain America” is quite tied into the whole overall Marvel movies mix, but it’s not done QUITE as intrusively as it was in “Iron Man 2” or “Thor.” There’s nifty little nods to the original Human Torch and Iron Man’s dad Howard Stark is a major character, and the ending is a natural lead-in to next year’s “The Avengers.” I love seeing old war comics heroes The Howling Commandos appear (seriously, did anyone ever imagine “Dum-Dum” Dugan would appear in a major Hollywood movie?).

Hayley Atwell makes a marvellous Peggy Carter, who’s both feminine and tough and has a naturalistic, unforced relationship develop with Rogers. Tommy Lee Jones is there pretty much for comic relief as the wisecracking old soldier commander, while Stanley Tucci provides a nice emotional heart in a few scenes as the doctor who gives Rogers his powers.

Director Joe Johnston did the beloved 1990s cult comic adaptation “The Rocketeer,” which “Captain America” almost feels like a sequel to. There's a great production design of 1940s New York that straddles realism and fantasy, and some fine visuals like the Red Skull’s flying wing of destruction and his proto-Stormtrooper armoured henchmen.

What I didn’t like:
Chris Evans, the flip side: once he gets pumped up into Captain America, oddly, I found Evans a little less interesting - the first half of the movie is captivating as we see how Rogers becomes Captain America, but once he does, it gets a bit routine. Probably my one big beef with Evans is that his Captain America lacks a certain authority, that leader of men feeling that the character needs. Even as the movie winds down, he seems a bit too green. I know it's the young Captain America here, but there's still a need for a bit more gravitas.

Hugo Weaving looks all grim and cool as the Red Skull, Captain America's evil doppleganger, but the character just feels a bit thin to me. Actually, I’ve had that problem with the comics Skull too, who’s just so darned evil and nihilistic that it’s hard to really feel any kinship with him. There's nothing that pushes him to a unique level like Heath Ledger's Joker or Terence Stamp's General Zod.

Overall, it hasn’t been a bad summer (or winter down here) for comics fans. I quite enjoyed both “Thor” and “X-Men: First Class,” and while “Green Lantern” was a financial and critical miss, it wasn’t the worst comics movie ever made and really suffers more because the bar has been raised so high the last five years or so.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Nik's Unheralded Albums #7: Joey Ramone, "Don't Worry About Me"

Death changes how you listen to an artist. You can't help it. Try putting on Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" this week and not thinking about her lonesome end. It's pretty much impossible. Of course, eventually the shock of death fades a bit and it's just another song by the Doors. There's a ton of famed posthumous albums, from Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged" to Roy Orbison's "Mystery Girl" to George Harrison's "Brainwashed."

Some after-death albums are better than others, some are obvious record-company attempts to catch in on leftover bits and bobs (hello, Tupac Shakur!). Occasionally, you get one that's a defining final statement by an artist who knows the end is near. Warren Zevon's "The Wind," the latter albums of Johnny Cash, and one of my favorites, Joey Ramone's "Don't Worry About Me."

Is it morbid? Hipster nostalgia? Probably a bit of all of the above. But 10 years after his death, I still find myself listening to and enjoying a Ramones fan curiosity -- the only solo album by lead singer Joey Ramone, released a year after his death from cancer in 2001.

"Don't Worry About Me" doesn't break the Ramones mold. Short, sharp and punchy, it's got that distinctive Ramones sound but shot through with a slightly more introspective air, and underneath the punk/pop you realize this is a loose concept album about Joey's life, and his battle with lymphoma.

"Don't Worry About Me" is a 34-minute catharsis for Joey, recording the album from his sickbed. Look at the song titles -- "Stop Thinking About It," "Like a Drug I Never Did Before," the marvelous "I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)". "I Got Knocked Down" is a song for anyone dealing with the horror of their body or a loved one's body failing -- "Sitting in a hospital bed / I want my life," Joey sings. There's nothing too deep or metaphorical about this -- it's Joey's very real frustration, delivered with the same blunt passion the Ramones would bring to lines like "Now I wanna sniff some glue." But "Don't Worry About Me" isn't a downer of an album. With typically goofy Ramones songs like "Mr. Punchy" or a cover of the Stooges' "1969," it's a defiant, resilient album. He doesn't ask you to feel sorry for him -- hell, the final song is the title track, "Don't Worry About Me."

Off-center covers of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World" are cliche by now, but man, I still love Joey's take on it, which opens the album with an ecstatic blast, a punch in the face of death and fate. Knowing the singer is gone now, too young, lends it an extra poignancy -- is that manipulative, I suppose? But something being manipulative doesn't mean it isn't also based on truth. As last blasts raging at the darkness go, "Don't Worry About Me" is one of my favorites. Play it at my funeral.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Angel-A-Thon: Season 3

In “Angel” Season 3, the vampire-detective show manages to get even darker, if that’s possible. You could measure the torment and angst on screen in some of these episodes by the gallon. Yet at the same time, this is the season “Angel” really gels and the characters form a real “family” of outcasts and freaks – which makes it all the more painful when bad things keep happening to them.
This season Angel Investigations continue to grow – the nervous Fred joins the team, while Gunn and the demon Lorne both also become full-time cast members. Fred’s a strange addition at first, and I felt Amy Acker overplays the whole “naïve country girl with an accent” schtick. But she becomes an enjoyable cast member, although I couldn't ever buy into the idea that her and Gunn would have a relationship – they never make a plausible couple.  I also really loved the changes Wesley went through this year, completing the transformation from tweedy geek in his early “Buffy” appearances into a grim, haunted and authoritative figure. (Alexis Denisof proves himself a pretty solid actor this season.)
But the big ongoing story this season is the tale of Darla, Angel’s evil ex, and her pregnancy and the surprise child she delivers.  It’s a great tragic soap opera storyline, complete with a resurrected ancient foe of Angel’s, Holtz. Holtz, wonderfully played by Keith Szarabajka, was a vampire hunter 200 years ago whose entire family was slaughtered by the evil Angelus. Brought back to life to continue his hunt for Angel, Holtz is a fascinating character – seething with righteous rage over Angel’s past deeds. The whole Darla/Holtz plot comes to a great conclusion as Angel’s son is born – then through one of those magic/timey-wimey things, ends up a few episodes later as a scowling Pete from “Mad Men.” The grown Connor and his fractious relationship with his father give “Angel” another surge of energy as the third season comes to a close.

This season is the best yet, as it tangles fatherhood, guilt, love, and vengeance into one boiling mass of emotions and twists. I’d have to say this year is when the spinoff becomes as good as the parent show “Buffy” was at its peak. It’s a tribute to the skill of the actors and writers that the show doesn’t drown in its own bleak plotlines. Just enough humour and action are used to break up the gloomy bits.
Best episode: There’s several great ones this year, but I have to go with “Sleep Tight,” about as tense an episode “Angel” has produced, with Angel’s baby son becoming a football passed between a variety of players. Wesley’s betrayal of the team is startling, but what’s even more gripping is how horribly his behaviour damages the bond between the friends of Angel Investigations – the easy camaraderie between the gang is broken, and the fallout from this episode lingers through the rest of this season and into Season 4. The shocking finale of this episode, where Angel loses Connor and Holtz, seemingly forever, is a gut-blow to the viewer. (Runner-up status to the season finale "Tomorrow" which has a great cliff-hanger ending -- one character sinking into the sea, one ascending to higher realms.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Movies I Have Never Seen Part 5: 'Easy Rider'

Grab your helmet and here we go again with another long-delayed installment of famed movies I've finally gotten around to seeing or the first time....

Why it’s famous: “We blew it, man.” If you were making a time capsule of 1960s counterculture, “Easy Rider” would have to be at the top of the pile. The tale of two hippie pals aimlessly motorcycling across America, it’s a landmark movie – a slap in the face of complacent middle America culture, it opens with the leads snorting cocaine at a drug deal. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are ‘Captain America’ and Billy, antiheroes living the footloose dream. Along the way they pick up a drunken lawyer (Jack Nicholson in his breakthrough role) and dive deep into the heart of Americana.

What I thought: This is another one of those movies that you can kind of feel like you have seen even if you haven't -- it seeped into the popular consciousness long ago, and actually sitting down and watching "Easy Rider" for the first time in 2011 is -- well, kind of a trip, as the characters might say. It's darker than you might imagine. “Easy Rider” caught the zeitgeist in 1969 as hippie freedom clashes with rural America, and director, the late Dennis Hopper, wonderfully catches that sense of possibility and nightmare lurking on the wide open road.

Even the wall-to-wall rock soundtrack was pretty groundbreaking -- Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe owe Hopper a lot of their style. Using Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" is a huge cliche by now, but when it revs up over the opening credits, you still feel a visceral kick as audiences must have done back in '69.

Yet while "Easy Rider" is full of great imagery (nothing says "freedom" quite like two bikes roaring down a desert highway), as a movie it sputters a bit. Fonda and Hopper have a great time -- developing the personalities they'd basically explore for the rest of their careers, Fonda laconic and mellow yet authoritative, Hopper manic and frenzied. Yet the first half-hour or so of "Easy Rider" is often slow and unfocused, with some really irritating "flashy" scene cutting editing.

But then Jack Nicholson bounds into the movie about halfway through and hugely lifts the game – it’s a star-making turn in every sense of the word. Drawling in a Louisiana accent, and less over-the-top than he'd become as an actor, his George Benson is the voice of the audience in this film, both gently mocking the hippie travelers and yet longing to trip out with them. But for Jack's character it all ends horribly badly. It's a short performance - just 25 minutes or so - but Nicholson etches himself firmly in your mind and has most of the movie's best lines: "They'll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em."

And that to me is what surprises most about "Easy Rider" -- while I had often imagined it to be some free-love paean to the sixties, it's really a movie that shows how that image was never true. I was struck by the scenes at a remote hippie commune where the people are trying to live off the land and failing -- one long pan shows the faces of these dreamers at dinner, dazed, confused and strung-out looking, beaten down by the impossibility of trying to "get back to nature". It's hardly a positive advertisement for the lifestyle. Few people really seem to be enjoying their so-called "freedom." The visceral hatred that "townies" show to the traveling bikers is startling, savage, and yet very believable coming at the end of a turbulent decade. "Easy Rider" may show us a lot of freedom, but in the end it shows us the price it usually demands.

Worth Seeing: Yes, as long as you know going in you’re going to get a time capsule of 1969 Americana. The themes of “Easy Rider” are still relevant today once you get past the groovy dated bits, man, and while I wish I could say 40 years on America has become a far more tolerant country, there’s still work to be done.

Grade: B+

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Nik's Unheralded Albums #6: Julian Lennon, "Mr. Jordan."

I do feel bad for the children of rock stars. Never mind all the lunacy involved around growing up being Keith Richards Jr or whomever, but then there’s the impossible expectations that come if you decide to follow in their footsteps. The music world is littered with Frank Sinatra Juniors, Jakob Dylans and so forth.

One kind-of-success was John Lennon’s oldest son Julian Lennon. He had a few minor hits back in the mid-1980s, then sank from sight. His first two albums were what I'd call perfectly pleasant pop -- with their biggest attraction Julian's startling similarity to his late father's voice. But only so much can be done with nostalgia, so Julian Lennon never quite rose above one-hit wonder status with his single "Too Late For Goodbyes."
Yet Lennon Jr. continued plugging away, and surprised with his third album, 1989's "Mr. Jordan," a more sonically adventurous little gem – the kind of pop that’s often called “Beatles-esque” which here at least can be traced partly to genetics. I’d say it’s the highlight of Julian’s brief recording career, with a self-assurance that his earlier work lacked.  The mellow singer-songwriter vibe has been replaced by a grittier, more experimental sound that really works well.

The very first track of "Mr. Jordan" announces that we're moving on from John Lennon to David Bowie as an influence, with Julian boasting a deeper, sturdier singing voice than before, more willing to expand his range. "Now You're In Heaven" pulses with a strong beat and crunchy guitar riffs, sounding like a lost single from Bowie's "Lodger." "Open Your Eyes" bounces along on a very '80s Human League keyboard line, mashed together with a dash of "Tomorrow Never Knows" swirl. "Angillette" is a sweeping ballad that does echo "Mind Games"-era Lennon, but is tinted with Julian's own distinctive ache. With "Get Up," Lennon reaches further back into rock history with a loose-limbed rockabilly pastiche. Everything-and-the-kitchen sink album closer "I Want You To Know" is a psychedelic romp that piles on the soundscapes (at one point Lennon sounds like he's singing while marching underwater). "Mr. Jordan" is a magpie of an album, with Julian trying on a variety of musical hats, some of which fit better than others. His willingness to experiment is bracing and he sounds far more free than he did in his earlier work. But after a couple more albums, that was it for Julian's music endeavors.
Lennon seems to have given up the music biz, and I can’t say I blame him – it rarely turns out well for pop kids. But over his brief heyday he delivered some material that moved well out of his father's shadow. (The music of his half-brother Sean, whose own hipster-ish solo records got a bit of hype in the 1990s, has aged far less well to me.) While Julian Lennon can't ever hope to entirely get past that formidable father figure, "Mr. Jordan" shows he had a voice of his own.

"Now You're In Heaven" video:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Movie Review: Green Lantern

Apparently, "Green Lantern" is the worst thing in the history of ever if you read the message boards. But it isn't actually. It's another fairly routine comic book movie, with a handful of flaws and missteps, but I still found it decent entertainment. Its big problem is it comes amongst a tsunami of comic movies and offers too much of the "same old thing," which "Thor" and "X-Men: First Class" managed to avoid. At this point, I think we comics geeks kind of expect more.

Green Lantern is a step or two down from the Batman and Superman level for DC Comics, but he's been a pretty successful character for going on 70 years now, through a variety of incarnations. The Green Lantern Corps -- a cosmic police force - has spun off into all kinds of configurations, but the best known Green Lantern is Hal Jordan, former test pilot who becomes Earth's first Lantern Corpsman.

"Green Lantern" the movie introduces Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) and his world and goes for a kind of "Star Wars" meets "Iron Man" tone. The faraway world of Oa and the diverse alien corps are wonderfully realized in a million hues of green. Where "Lantern" stumbles is the same place other comic movies like "Iron Man 2" did -- trying to cram in too much. Between the Corps members, Sinestro, villains Parallax and Hector Hammond and Hal Jordan's personal life, there's enough for a couple movies. The film develops a choppy rhythm, rushing to its climax where suddenly novice ring-bearer Jordan becomes an expert warrior.

But still -- I liked Reynolds' breezy, yet insecure Hal Jordan. Jordan is one of those comics characters I've never really warmed to - a generic square-jawed hero who later developed deep problems and even became a mass murderer (as you do). The movie takes the shorthand method of characterizing Jordan (using a heaping helping of traits from another comic Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner). Mark Strong also commands the screen as stern alien leader Sinestro, whose name is a dead giveaway for how the character ends up in the comics. Peter Sarsgaard also makes the most of a rather confusingly written character as the nerdy, betrayed Hector Hammond.

I didn't really think much of co-producer and overrated comics writer Geoff Johns trying to awkwardly cram in many of his own creations like Parallax, a nebulous floating fear demon, or yellow power rings and the like. I'm not a fan of the red, yellow, pink and whatever Lanterns he's created in the comics. The blue Guardians of the Universe are also one of those comic-book concepts that just look a bit goofy on screen.

Unlike "Thor" -- where I thought the balance between the fantastical Asgard and the mundane New Mexico actually worked -- "Green Lantern" comes to life best in the outer space sequences. I wanted more of Oa, more of the eye-catching alien Corps, and less of Hal Jordan mooning about over the bland Blake Lively. There's too much that's familiar in "Green Lantern" -- hero discovers powers, hero tested, hero triumphs. For comic movies to succeed when there's so many of them these days they need to set themselves apart, like "Thor" and its Nordic gods or "The Dark Knight" and its epic morality plays.

But y'know, I took Peter, 7, with me to it which is perhaps the best way to see a movie like this, with a boy whose eyes open wide at every sight we grown-ups would call cliche. I mean, Peter even gets a kick out of the much-maligned "Fantastic Four" movies (which "Green Lantern" still surpassed in my humble eye). I know "Green Lantern" isn't a great movie, but I had a great time watching it with Peter. So in that respect, it works pretty well for some ages.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

100 Years of The Daily Mississippian

An old boss of mine turned 100 years old this past weekend -- The Daily Mississippian, my college newspaper and the first place I earned my journalism "stripes," so to speak. Being on the other side of the world and all I couldn't exactly make the centennial events (but hopefully a drink or two was had on City Grocery's balcony on my behalf). But more than 15 years after I finished college, I've still got many a fond memory of the old DM, my training ground for a career that's been changing and shifting ever since. Since 1911, the DM has been the voice of debate and news at the University of Mississippi.

It's stunning to look back at my DM term - roughly 1992-1995 or so - and see how much has changed. The "Internet" was barely a notion then, the idea of computer layout of our pages was a shocking novelty (just a year or so before I came along, the paper was still using an ancient pre-desktop publishing system of pagination). The job I have today -- production editor for a major metropolitan newspaper website -- simply didn't exist then.

The DM was a terrific place to hang out in college, in the basement of Farley Hall and just across the hall from the hip campus radio station. Putting out a five-day-a-week newspaper felt like being in a club, where a variety of raconteurs, oddballs and iconoclasts were shoved together out of their shared love of the journalism dream. I held a variety of semi-official "titles" there -- opinion page editor, features writer, assistant entertainment editor or something like that, columnist, cartoonist -- and while I didn't live down there 24-7 in the basement like a lot of the staff, I felt the first tinglings of the familiar newsroom buzz that is still an intoxicant to any newshound. We alumni still fondly speak of "The Ice Storm of 1994" which closed down the campus and we scrambled to create an 8-page "EXTRA" edition to cover.

An awful lot of the newspaper's controversy revolved around Ole Miss' evolving place in the post-integration world -- this was a campus which was integrated by the government forcibly in 1962, just 30 years before I arrived, and the wounds were raw -- bullet marks still speckled the administration building columns. When I was there one of the editors was the great Jesse Holland, only the second African-American editor of the paper. I still remember the day some local redneck rang up and got Jesse on the phone and then angrily said, "I wanna speak to the WHITE editor!" Sorry, Mr. Cracker, the times have a-changed and Jesse's since gone on to be the Associated Press's US Supreme Court correspondent. Folks who haven't lived in Mississippi still give it a lot of scorn today, but I tell you, I was there to watch the world ever-so-gradually changing. I'd love to know how that redneck's mind was blown by President Obama.

I learned an awful lot at the DM -- I interviewed California's ex-governor (and once again governor today) Jerry Brown, I met Henry Kissinger, hung out with local writer-made-big John Grisham, and wrote vaguely pretentious newspaper columns about my first loves and the music I was listening to -- the kind of columns every 22-year-old writes and thinks nobody else has ever done.

But the biggest charge I ever got at the DM was doing my very own daily newspaper strip for a year or so -- "Jip," a kind of goofy pastiche of Martin Wagner's "Hepcats" with "Bloom County," "Peanuts" and "Doonesbury" that was like flying by the seat of my pants every day as I sat at the drawing board trying to come up with gags and one-liners and characters that seemed at least slightly real to me. It was a real stretch of the creative muscles and an utter blast to do.

These days I work in a "digitally active newsroom" where I do things like live-blog the Royal Wedding, a sentence which would've been half-incomprehensible in 1994. Unlike many of my old pals from the DM, I'm still hanging on in the journalism industry despite its many seismic changes and cutbacks -- and I'm always grateful to the ol' DM for helping get it all started for me. Happy birthday.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

I still remember how amazing it seemed 11 years ago that they were actually making an "X-Men" movie from one of my favorite childhood comics -- and here we are with the fifth now out, "X-Men: First Class."

I won't call it a "reboot," because man am I sick of that phrase, but as a prequel, "First Class" is genuinely exciting stuff, filling in the gaps in the relationship between Professor X and Magneto and providing the required amount of summer-movie explosions and such. It's easily the best of the "X-Men" movies after "X2," I think, although I don't view "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Wolverine" with quite as much visceral scorn as the rest of the Internet seems to.

The Malcolm X/Martin Luther King kind of dynamic between Xavier and Magneto over mutant rights has been fodder for many of the best "X-Men" stories over the decades, and "First Class" follows the relationship from its start -- including young Magneto's tortured youth in a Nazi concentration camp. There was the solid decision to make this a period piece set in the 1960s, in a world where mutants hold the balance of power in the Cold War and the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis is cleverly folded into the plot.

What I liked:
I have really dug Michael Fassbender in movies like "Inglourious Basterds" and "Centurion," and he owns the screen as a young Magneto. I'd actually say he's better than Sir Ian McKellen was in a lot of ways, tapping into the character's rage and wounded dignity. James McAvoy is less flashy as young Professor X, and plays it a bit goofy with his lounge lizard "groovy" slang sometimes, but ably convinces of Xavier's essential heart and compassion. You believe this man will grow up to be Patrick Stewart.

Jennifer Lawrence brings some needed depth as young Mystique, a shapeshifter trying to fit in. It's a shame her character was nowhere near as well written in the first few "X-Men" movies, and doesn't really mesh well with the more thoughtful woman shown here. The other younger mutants on screen here get less time to develop their characters and some of them are rather weak actors, but Nicholas Hoult as Beast is a stand-out (although I'm afraid I didn't find the CGI/makeup used for his "transformation" later in the film very effective).

The Hellfire Club of the comics, a kind of mutant Masons, were always one of my favorites, and it's good to see them on screen albeit in a somewhat different form. I love Kevin Bacon playing a scenery-chewing Sebastian Shaw. While he isn't exactly the same burly dandy the comics have featured he does a good job of providing sinister menace. January Jones as Emma Frost looks fantastic, but as seen on "Mad Men" the icy Jones seems to have exactly one facial expression about 90% of the time.

What I didn't like:
The movie is fitful in its desire to keep to the 1960s setting. While there's marvelous James Bond/Austin Powers type touches, like Sebastian Shaw's evil submarine and Emma Frost's go-go wardrobes, other times the movie seems to be set in the modern day. Director Matthew Vaughn ("Kick-Ass") has a lot of style, but it feels like he was holding back a bit (kicky split-screen montage sequences are one of his better gimmicks).

It's a real grab-bag of mutants assembled here for any long-time reader of the "X-Men" comics. You've got Beast and Professor X from the "real" comic book first class, then Havok and Banshee from a slightly later era, and then mutants so darned new in the comics I'd barely heard of them, like Darwin and Azazel. Still, unless you're some kind of rampant continuity nut, the team assembled here works for the story -- and if you're a rabid continuity nut you're going to be really annoyed anyway by how the fate of Charles Xavier in this film doesn't seem to match up at all with appearances he made in "X3" and "Wolverine." So it goes.

After the mixed reception "Wolverine" got I kind of hope "First Class" keeps the X-fires burning. There's a lot of good stories yet to be told, and "First Class" reminds us of the potential the first few "X-Men" movies showed, back when we didn't have 6-7 comic books opening a year.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Peter Sellers Saturdays #5: "The Magic Christian" (1969)

The story: Eccentric gazillionaire Guy Grand (Sellers) has apparently gone off his rocker. He adopts a homeless hippie (Ringo Starr) and embarks on a series of increasingly surreal practical jokes aimed to show the lengths people will go to for money -- humiliating themselves in various ways to get a handful of Guy's vast fortune.

Who's Sellers: Guy Grand. With his floppy hair, tweedy mustache, sad eyes and false good humor, Sellers does what he can with a horribly weak script to give the character life and motivation. I kind of saw Sellers playing him as a man who's done everything, who's been a debauched scoundrel, and who's now just going for sheer crazy kicks. Basically, though, he's a shit-stirrer, doing things like buying a vastly expensive painting to destroy it in front of a snooty art dealer, or filling a vat with urine, feces and money and seeing who'll dive in for the cash.

So how is it: How much more 1969 could this movie be? None more 1969. This is one of those Sellers movies that has a pretty bad reputation on a lot of fronts, but y'know, once I got into its anarchistic spirit, I kinda dug it. There's next to no character development and the plot just kind of lurches from skit to skit -- who is Guy Grand and why has he gone off his rocker? Why does "Junior" just blindly follow along with him? But there's a verve and lunacy to it all that makes it fun to watch, which a lot of other similarly "madcap" '60s flicks never quite managed. Ringo is, well, being Ringo basically, but his deadpan I'll-go-along-with-anything cheer plays well off Sellers. Great soundtrack, too, with Badfinger and Thunderclap Newman galore. It takes a while to really take off, but by the time Christopher Lee pops up on a cruise ship in a Dracula suit, you kind of just go with the flow.

While it's a sloppy, freewheeling and highly blatant piece of hippie kitsch satire, there's a bit of fun if you're in the right mood to be had in watching Sellers & Starr so eagerly puncture the hypocrisies of the uptight squares of 1969 London. With tighter direction and more emphasis on actual characterization it could've been a protest era classic, but as it is it's nowhere near as bad or lazy as some of Sellers' other misfires from this era. The biggest problem is that, like a lot of 1960s idealism, it offers a lot of attacks on a system but little in the way of solutions. Some other reviews point to this film as a forgotten link between the "Goon Show" comedy era of Sellers' early career to the world of Monty Python in the 1970s. (Pythons Graham Chapman and an amusing, already-officious young John Cleese appear in cameos here too to extend the connection. There's a ton of other cameos including Raquel Welch, Roman Polanski and Yul Brynner. Reportedly John Lennon even pops up but I didn't see him.) It's a failure as a "message movie," but "The Magic Christian" is still entertaining.

Grade: B+

Quote: "I just wanted to see if you had your price … most of us do." - Guy Grand