Friday, April 29, 2011

The Angel-A-Thon: Season 2

Here we go again, as I slowly continue my bloody plunge through all seven seasons of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and now into the five seasons of the spin-off "Angel."
As we enter season 2, Los Angeles' vampire detective Angel and his allies in the fight against darkness battle evil on a variety of fronts -- most notably the resurrected Darla, Angel's former lover and his vampire "maker," a plot line that drives throughout the season.

Season 2, I thought, was a lot more consistent and enjoyable than the sometimes stumbling first season was. We feel that Angel Investigations has become more of a family, and that makes the ups and downs the "team" has this year feel more effective.
It's also good to see the characters grow and change -- Cordelia becomes far more responsible than the conceited teen she was on "Buffy," while Wesley shows new inner strength as he becomes the leader of Angel investigations. A couple of newcomers join the cast too -- former anti-vampire gang leader Gunn and the delightful Andy Hallett as Lorne the Host, who tends to steal pretty much every scene he's in.

I also really enjoy Julia Benz' nasty, scheming take on Darla, a far cry from her sweet and charming wife on "Dexter." Angel's tug of war with Darla continues throughout most of the season, although some of the episodes get a bit repetitive with the whole cat-and-mouse game.
While there's a lot of darkness in this series of "Angel" it's leavened by some goofy humour as well. The season finale series of episodes set in Lorne's home dimension of Pylea are an often-silly treat, kind of "Angel" goes "Army of Darkness.".
Best episode: There's a lot to pick from this season, but "Reunion" takes the Darla/Angel/Wolfram and Hart triangle to a new height, climaxing with the stunning scene where Angel basically lets Darla and fellow vamp Drusilla kill off most of the law firm. It's a good showcase for Angel's dark side (which is talked about a lot, but sometimes doesn't seem very convincing), and takes the story in genuinely surprising new directions.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Concert review: George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Auckland, April 23

What is P-Funk? It's a style of music, a state of mind, a sprawlingly ridiculous cosmology all shepherded by the fried brain of one George Clinton, who brought his outrageous Parliament Funkadelic gang to Auckland for a show last night at the Powerstation that was a non-stop three-hour celebration of funk, rock and the joy of letting your freak flag fly a bit.

Clinton's tangled musical legacy includes the bands Funkadelic (more rock than funk alone), Parliament (who are a free-wheeling party band) and a whole slew of spin-offs and side projects like funk star Bootsy Collins. I've been a fan of Parliament for a while -- a band guaranteed to cheer you up no matter how low you feel -- while I've only recently delved into Funkadelic's catalogue, an eclectic, beautiful and gritty mishmash of genres and sounds. I wasn't going to miss a chance to see Clinton's mad revue on a rare trip down under.

Admittedly seeing the P-Funk show is more of a nostalgia act today than I'm sure the P-Funk circus was at its peak -- Clinton is nearly 70 now and served more as the "grand conductor" and a genial stage presence rather than really funking out himself; his croaky voice these days sounded a lot more like Captain Beefheart. But the ever-shifting band itself -- by my count nearly 20 people, some old P-Funk hands, some new -- kept a tight hand, with the invaluable rhythm section keeping songs going no matter how far afield they went. Near-naked ladies and men danced and sang, joints were freely passed about, and pretty much everyone on stage took a turn singing a song. A three-hour-plus show bounced and rambled all over the place without a single real break, sometimes the groove only moments from falling apart entirely. The band masterfully tugged and pulled to keep the audience's energy up till well after midnight.

The P-Funk "hits" came out -- "Atomic Dog," "Cosmic Slop," "Bop Gun," "One Nation Under A Groove," a delightful "Give Up The Funk," and blended in with other more obscure Clinton tunes. It's the kind of show where Clinton's granddaughter came on stage in the middle of the jam "Flashlight" to deliver an impromptu risque rap, and it all kind of works.

The best moments were sheer transcendence -- A sprawling 15-minute or so take on "Maggot Brain" really got me. The song in a sense is just one massively anguished guitar solo but Michael Hampton's loving take on it was great. "Maggot Brain" is the kind of song that you either ride along with or find indulgent, but for the space my head was in Saturday night, I found it gorgeous and glittering. Last night's show nicely showed how Clinton's sound can spin from hard-rock crunch to dance-floor anthems at the drop of a hat.

At its best P-Funk is a music of ecstasy, a celebration of being alive for however long we've got. Clinton is one of the few musicians who can be said to have honestly created a genre all his own. Part hard rock, part R&B sway, part pantomime buffoonery and part magic, it's a sound that's well worth seeing live at least once to get the full experience. Now I just need a couple more naps to recover.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Summer 2011 Movie Preview Excite-O-Meter

It's nearly summer in US movie theatres (or winter in my part of the world), and all the blockbusters are lining up one after another. This is the comic-bookiest movie season we've seen in a while. Typically every year there's one or two big comic book flicks but this summer seems particularly high on the spandex and sequels. Here's a handful of this summer's biggest movies and how excited I am to see them on a scale of 1 (might watch 10 minutes on the telly one night) to 10 (I'm already waiting in line).

I always liked the concept of Thor far more than I did the comic books unless they were by Walt Simonson or Jack Kirby. And this first of this year's flood of comic book movies is the first one that feels fresh to me, rather than yet another sequel or standard origin story. You have Norse gods walking the earth, Anthony Hopkins in the role he was born to play as Odin, a spunky Natalie Portman, and director Kenneth Branagh, whose "Henry V" dazzled me with its Thor-like mix of pomp and grit 20 (!!) years ago. I'm not entirely sure the leading man Chris Hemsworth is up to the job here, but I'm quite intrigued by what I've seen so far. Hopefully it doesn't all end up looking like a bad Queen video, but I'd say this and "X-Men: First Class" are most interesting of all the summer's comic booky movies to me.
Excite-O-Meter: 9
Captain America: The First Avenger
And yet ANOTHER first-time superhero. It's unpatriotic, but I've never really been a huge Captain America fan, although Ed Brubaker has been doing some great comics the last few years with the character. So I'm not as psyched about this as I was about the first Batman or Spider-Man movie, say. But Chris Evans is very solid casting, and what footage I've seen is intriguing. Setting it during World War II could work, or it could come off as a bit hokey. I'll probably see it in theatres like I have most comic book movies since 2000, but I want to feel a bit more energy first.
Excite-O-Meter: 6.5
X-Men: First Class
Speaking of which, The X-Men franchise may be running low on steam, but I'm intrigued by this one. I like the decision to set it in the 1960s, giving it a kind of cool retro-Mod design, and both James McAvoy (as young Professor X) and Michael Fassbender (as Magneto) are excellent casting. I'm not too sure what the actual story is about, but "Kick-Ass" director Matthew Vaughn is at the helm, so I'll go see.
Excite-O-Meter: 8

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I love the old '70s movie series, barechested Charlton Heston and all, and this is an intriguing kind-of-not-really remake of the fourth film in the series, "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes," taking on how the apes came to rule the world. An interesting trailer is out which is a bit clunky (I like how someone described it as looking like a zombie movie but with apes), yet it's a far more intriguing plot than Tim Burton's frankly awful remake of the original. But are CGI apes really an improvement over awesome rubber masks?
Excite-O-Meter: 6
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 82
Y'know, I know I've seen all the Harry Potter movies, but honestly, I barely remember much of them past about part 4. They're all perfectly adequate adaptations, but somehow, they've never really risen to the realm of fine art for me ("Prisoner of Azkaban" is the one I remember the fondest). So I might see this eventually, but I have to admit there's no substitute for them old-media books for me really.
Excite-O-Meter: 4

Green Lantern
Another "second-tier" superhero makes it to Hollywood. This could go either way, really. I like the concept of Green Lantern, and I like Ryan Reynolds, who's been appealing in a variety of movies. The latest footage is pretty cool, going for a kind of "Star Wars" meets "Cops" vibe with some striking design work -- although Green Lantern's costume looks a little too heavy on the CGI for my liking. It'd be nice for a DC hero other than Superman or Batman to succeed on screen, but really I feel this could either soar as lighthearted "Iron Man"-like fun, or be a big miscalculated "Spirit"-scale flop.
Excite-O-Meter: 7 

Transformers 3: Dark Side of the Moon
It was kinda cool to see the big robots come to life in 2007, but it was a Michael Bay film, so there wasn't much to it. Never saw #2, and no interest really in seeing #3 either. I miss the clean if clunky designs they had for the robots on the old TV cartoons myself.
Excite-O-Meter: 2
Cowboys and Aliens
Harrison Ford
and Daniel Craig in a movie that's about exactly what it sounds like. Steampunk mashups of this sort can be like "Wild Wild West," but it'd be nice if this was actually good. "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau is doing this, so there's hope, but gosh, it feels like the last time Harrison Ford really tried in a movie was back in 1997's "Air Force One," so I dunno....
Excite-O-Meter: 5
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
The first one was good fun, the second one went right up its own laboured and overcomplex mythology and lost all sense of fun, and I didn't even see the third one. I might check this out one day as it promises to be more self-contained, but really, Johnny Depp is kind of slumming it doing this for a fourth time.
Excite-O-Meter: 4
Cars 2
The boy will drag me to it, and I quite liked the first one even if I couldn't really swallow the idea of an entire ecosystem apparently built around anthropomorphic cars. Seriously, where are all the people? Did Lightning McQueen and his mates kill them all?
Excite-O-Meter: 6
The Smurfs
Excite-O-Meter: 0

Saturday, April 16, 2011

It's Record Store Day 2011!

I zipped on down to Auckland's mighty Real Groovy Records for a couple hours today for Record Store Day 2011, celebrated worldwide as a way to help draw attention to the sadly struggling independent record store industry.

It's been a grim year for these kinds of places -- both the other two Real Groovy stores in New Zealand have announced closures (one thanks to the Christchurch earthquake), and I'll do anything I can to keep RG Auckland going strong by grabbing up some more music for the ever-escalating collection. (But honestly, I really needed those Dead Milkmen and Oingo Boingo discs. And that rare Rykodisc Big Star Live album I've been hunting for forever? Score!)

In the last 6 months I've been happy/sad, because I've grabbed dozens of CDs and books from huge clearance sales at Auckland stores -- the Borders chain for instance pretty much got rid of all their CDs so I picked up stacks of bargains back around Christmas. It's awesome for bargain hunting, but kind of grim in the big picture -- these sales offloading stock are because half these places are in receivership or bankruptcy, after all. I don't even know how many of the great book and music stores, corporate and independents alike, will be around in another five years.

Ever since I've been a little kid, one of my favorite pastimes in the world has been shelf browsing. Ask my parents -- when I was 7, my idea of a treat was being taken to the library. And to this day, I get a nice sense of peace and happiness simply browsing the shelves of bookstores and record stores, hunting around for whatever I might happen to find. It's like a treasure hunt, and while sure, I can download that book or record now I might be looking for, I'm just a stickler for the tangible sensation. There's a certain way an old book smells, for instance, which sounds kind of freaky fetishistic to say. I've got a million fond memories of browsing in book and record shops from New York City to San Francisco to Sydney. Real Groovy is one of the greats and a lot of fun to spend time at.

Anyway, Record Store Day is an awesome thing. Take a chance wherever you are today to remember the thrill of browsing the stacks, of finding that rare gem, of supporting these endangered places. I'm all for the digital world, but man, I'll never stop being a fan of musty old second-hand books and previously owned albums.

Friday, April 8, 2011

If the devil is six, then God is seven

So apparently I've been doing this blog thing for SEVEN YEARS as of today. Which is like nearly one-sixth of my LIFE. Good god. That's a lot of bloggery. Blogging is such a relatively recent phenomenon that there's no real determination of its life span yet. Do blogs live forever? There's probably not a blog out there much more than 10 years old at this point. Am I at the end of its life or the midpoint? If a blog falls in the forest does anyone hear?

I dunno. Like most people who've been doing this for more than a year or two I've had a love-hate relationship with the blog, sometimes, even going so far as to take a long hiatus last year. But I'll keep on keeping on at least until we develop the technology to beam my ramblings directly INTO YOUR MIND. Sure we've got Facebook and Twitter to play with as well, but can I go on about old Peter Sellers movies, concert reviews and mix tapes for 1000 words at a time on there?

Also, I've recently changed the url or address of this site to my own goshdarned name, so it's now -- although the old address works just as well. I mainly wanted to scoop up my own domain so the thousands of speculators out there eyeing it don't steal it first. You also may need to update RSS feeds/bookmarks accordingly!

And as always, thanks to those of you who keep reading my occasional scribbles. Thanks!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

My 5 favorite authors 50 and under

In the last few years, several of my personal pantheon of favorite authors have died -- notably John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut, both of whom I'd followed religiously since college. Their time had come, they were in their 70s, yet it's still sad to see such lions leave us. But who will be the future Updikes and Norman Mailers in the iPad generation? Here's my 5 favorite current authors age 50 and under -- an age which might seem old to some, but frankly, I'm getting there, and most great writers don't really start cranking until well into their 30s at least. Keeping it to those under 50 leaves out a few of my most liked authors like Paul Auster, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Haruki Murakami or Jonathan Franzen (just over the cut at age 51).

David Eggers, 41
Eggers made his mark with the alternately funny and tragic inventive memoir of his youth "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," which went on to found the entire snarky, groundbreaking "McSweeney's" school of writing. But Eggers has gone on from just a kind of hipster icon to show amazing versatility, with the wry road-trip comedy novel "You Shall Know our Velocity!" and particularly the stunningly powerful journalism-based memoirs "Zeitoun" and "What is the What" which take the lives of real people -- a Muslim Hurricane Katrina victim abused by his own government, a survivor of Sudan's genocide -- and turn them into a story as powerful as any fiction. His work only gets better with each book.

David Mitchell, 42
Mitchell is a writer without borders whose sprawling books can take place just about anywhere. His first three novels, "Ghostwritten," "Number9dream" and "Cloud Atlas," are deftly created experimental interlocking narratives, using a variety of voices and techniques to tell his stories. "Cloud Atlas," for instance, cycles between a 19th century sailing ship to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, World War II Belgium, a noir California, contemporary England, and a futuristic Korea. Yet Mitchell has proved more than just a trickster with "Black Swan Green," a relatively straightforward tale of a lonely British kid growing up in the 1980s that had an amazingly distinct and honest voice. His latest, waiting to be read on my bedside table, is "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet," which swerves again into a historical epic of 18th-century Japan.

Michael Chabon, 47
Chabon crafts gorgeous, dazzlingly smart prose -- the effortless quality of his work probably reminds me more of John Updike than anyone else -- but unlike Updike's narrow suburban focus, Chabon is a pop-culture influenced magpie, who can tackle academic mid-life crisis drama ("Wonder Boys"), a comic-book influenced epic ("The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"), a florid pulp fiction homage ("Gentlemen of the Road") or a Jewish detective novel set in an alternate history ("The Yiddish Policeman's Union"). Chabon combines inventive plots with that fluid, elegant voice to make him consistently rewarding reading. He also writes some great nonfiction essays ("Manhood for Amateurs").

Jonathan Lethem, 47
Lethem is in some ways Chabon's doppleganger -- they both blend "literary" writing with "junk" culture influences like comic books and '70s soul records. But Lethem is a bit cooler in voice, more abstract than Chabon, with work that dips frequently into surrealism and sci-fi. His earlier books were science fiction with an uneasy twist, like "As She Climbed Across The Table," about a woman who falls in love with her own existential physics experiment. Reality always seems frail in Lethem's fiction -- his breakthrough, "Motherless Brooklyn," is a detective novel starring a Tourette's syndrome-afflicted gumshoe, and a book where language is subjective. Lethem's masterpiece to date is "Fortress of Solitude," a buddy-comedy tale of sorts of a lonely white kid and a streetwise black kid growing up in a vividly realized 1970s New York. Oh, and there's a magic flying ring involved.

Jasper Fforde, 50
I actually don't read a ton of hardcore science fiction/fantasy, but one author I'll let take me wherever he wants to is Fforde, whose "literary detective" Thursday Next series is one of the most madly inventive, witty worlds I've ever visited, a topsy-turvy universe where fictional creations are real and a complex hierarchy of rules delineate the crossover between realms. For a book lover, Fforde's books are full of easter eggs and clever in-jokes, but they also work well as a creative, twistily plotted adventure series. Fforde has also created fictional realms based on "realistic" fairy tales ("The Big Over Easy") and a world where society is determined by what colours you can see ("Shades of Grey"). Fforde's fiction is deeply allusive fantasy with a word-nerd bent, kind of like Lewis Carroll if he had an Internet connection.