Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday Night Local: Skeptics - 'Agitator' (1987)

This post comes a little late tonight as ths evening the Simian family were down at the waterfront following Wellington's Light Trail, a rather fun collection of international light installations, some animated, some fluorescent, some interactive, and many doubled in the reflection of a black, glasslike harbour. Gorgeous - but never mind the crowds...

It's the last Friday of the southern winter-we're nearly into spring, folks! And to mark the cold season's passing, here's one of the starkest, discordant, contemplative and gorgeous songs Palmerston North ever created. It's not going to be for everyone, but I'd suggest sticking around to the end if you can. No other song comes close to evoking the three bleak months of an Antipodean winter, with the sun farthest from the soil and the southerly ripping straight up from the Antarctic.

There aren't too many Skeptics video out there, and besides this, probably their most well-known and most infamous is AFFCO, which surely ranks alongside The Smith's Meat is Murder for warts-and-all coverage of what goes on inside your friendly local abattoir.

Despite the sensationalism, and maybe the dated sound of the sampling and drums (not to mention the dancing of Skeptics' late, great David D'ath), Skeptics were an important Flying Nun band, influencing the likes of Headless Chickens, Bailter Space and even non-Nun acts like Lung and Shihad, who, as mentioned in an earlier post, consciously doff their hats to this song in one of their own. In the last years of my own band back in the day Skeptics informed the big sound of my friend Victor's band Age of Dog. And so this one's for Victor, Piers and Tane, wherever they may be.

And here's to spring!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Requiescat in Pace, Vermithrax Regina

Dragonslayer (1981)
Valerian: Are you afraid of dragons?
Ulrich: No. In fact, if it weren't for sorcerers, there wouldn't be any dragons. Once, the skies were dotted with them. Magnificent horned backs, leathern wings... soaring... and their hot-breathed wind. Oh, I know this creature of yours... Vermithrax Pejorative. Look at these scales, these ridges. When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit... crippled... pitiful. Spiteful!
I came to this story almost entirely cold, knowing perhaps that it was about a young man charged with the duty of slaying a dragon, and that’s about it. Dragonslayer surprised me at a lot of turns, being unsentimental and daring to upset a lot of staid storytelling conventions – yes, the Old man Dies, but if you thought it was simply to enable his apprentice to step up and meet his destiny then you should think again. Clearly George R R Martin was taking notes when he watched this, using names from the story (the titular dragon is namechecked in an early Song of Fire and Ice book), and I must admit to comparing the rather unexpected ‘stuff happens’ mood of the tale to that of Martin’s Westeros. In the grand scheme of the story good triumphs of course, but  it’s an intriguingly sophisticated story that’s woven in nonetheless. And I rather like the fact that Valerian, once unmasked as a woman, doesn’t revert to an utterly opposite  feminine sense of dress and speech, but retains a lot of the toughness and huskiness her earlier guise displayed – she’s just not your typical wilting flower (and come to that, even the sacrificial Princess is a cut above your usual shackled screamers.)

Like a few early 80s movies from the House of the Mouse, this is not your typical Disney fare, with some gore, violence, onscreen deaths and even a little rear/lateral entity; but we should applaud it for taking these risks, as much as its stablemate Tron pushed the limits of computer technology, here is (prior to the inferior 90s Dragonheart) the most ambitious onscreen live action dragon to date, and prior to The Hobbit’s Smaug, certainly the best rendered. Vermithrax Perjorative is a splendid creation – admittedly heavy on the matte-lines and moving with the requisite stop-motion trembles, her presence is nevertheless awe-inspiring, and her fiery breath the more convincing for being (apparently) provided by a real flamethrower. Jackson’s Hobbit may have given us the description of “a furnace with wings”, but Dragonslayer’s worm is the real deal – you even find yourself sympathising with this ancient killer when she finds the corpses of the last clutch she’ll ever raise.

There’s a practicality to the story which I love – though the place names are imaginary, it works hard to evoke a Dark Ages setting; real low fantasy with grubby faces, brackish skies and spellbooks seemingly composed entirely in Latin, the scholar’s tongue. Ulric’s tower is simply the most convincing wizard’s tower I’ve seen on film, and I’ve half a mind to lift it in its entirely for a future Dungeons and Dragons game. There’s literal pragmatism, also – Galen’s weapon is forged by a blacksmith using magic, but is no great device of destiny and ultimately fails in the task; he’s better off with a shield made of dragon scale and having his wits about him instead. 

Yeah, Peter MacNicholl isn’t immediately convincing in his film debut (allegedly he leaves this movie off his CV now. But keeps Ghostbusters 2 on??), but who could compete against Sir Ralph Richardson, whose wizard Ulric is seriously jostling the shoulders of Gandalf and Dumbledore for Best Cinematic Wizard Ever?  John Hallam as Tyrion (another George RR Martin hat-tip) works a sinister pragmatism to his antihero role (Hallam is no stranger to playing the bad guy, but one of the few other roles I’ve seen him play is the fey but no less sinister Light in Doctor Who’s Ghost Light – a quite different performance), and overall there’s a pessimistic mood to the story. As Ulric’s remains shoot over the heavens and the appeaser-King is wheeled to the dragon’s corpse to deliver a post-mortem coup de grace heavy with cynical propaganda, you really get the sense that Valerian and Galen are wandering out of a dying, idealised age and into an uncertain future.
This may be the last early 80s fantasy movie I’ll watch for a while, so I’m glad it turned out to be this one, a surprising yarn that’s not quite family-ready, but ideal for the young adult with an interest in This Sort of Thing. I wish I’d seen it sooner!

PS: Hey, this is another synchronised review with Guanolad and Jamas. Check them out!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Night Local: Graham Brazier - 'Fight' (1986)

As I'm typing this I'm watching Queen City Rocker, known outside NZ as Tearaway. It's not a particularly flashy movie, and the song below, Graham Brazier's promotional video for the movie, isn't either. But at sixteen the video and the trailer for the movie were enough to convince me that I had to see it some day, and Reader, today is that day.

It's earnest in its intentions, including some assured and un-selfconscious portrayals of a mingled Maori, Pakeha and Samoan gang culture, but it's not aged well. 1980s Auckland is very much a different country, populated by younger versions of some of New Zealand's best TV actors including Roy Billing, Peter Bland, Michael Moriarty and the late Liddy Holloway, whose son Joel Tobeck has an uncredited role in the movie as well. Seemingly inspired by real events and produced not long after the Queen Street Riots, it references a very different time, and boy has it dated. Still, there's local music royalty all through this, from ex-Gurlz singer and future When The Cat's Away vocalist Kim Willoughby's female lead (I had such a crush...), Willoughby's future partner and former Dude Ian 'Tex Pistol' Morris in the soundtrack, a cameo by Brazier and the rest of Hello Sailor cameoing as in-movie band 'Nite Attack' (the much-missed Dave McCartney also provided the soundtrack), along with Ardijah, and there are snippets of NZ punk bands No Tag and electro-avant garde Flying Nun outfit Fetus Productions. And the riot scenes are pretty well done.

Somewhere out there is a cassette of my band's earliest jam sessions in our bassist's parents' garage (he had the soundtrack), and me in the mix gamely trying to replicate Harry Lyon's urgent stacatto guitar work from Fight. Ironically, a similar, slower riff appears in the National Party's campaign ad, launched just this week. Critics were quick to point out the similarity to Eminem's Lose Yourself - but maybe the ad's Australian music maestros sourced their inspiration from closer to home?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

As Pod is my witness...

These days I seem to produce little on this blog but quick notes, so in keeping, here's proof that my life has been a little bit busy and somewhat unexpected, as this week I appear to have accidentally become part of a podcast - to whit, Zeus Pod, the latest incarnation of what co-creator Jono Park has called 'The Zeus Plug Empire'. Yes, what started as a mild curiosity in a Vulcan Lane cafe in 2005 turned into an A6 pubzine in 2006 (the aforementioned Zeus Plug, alongside Phantasmodea's creator Al), and then a blog (Zeus Blog) towards the end of that year and now an actual downloadable audio thing.

Oh, and if you don't know the significance of the title, then Zeus Pod is a Doctor Who-themed podcast named after a fanzine (Zeus Plug) named after an obscure piece of TARDIS tech.

Here's the first podcast

And now back to the blog...

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Night Local: Th' Dudes, 'Be Mine Tonight' (1979)

Another quick post tonight: It was Mrs Simian's birthday last week, so this is for her:

Wow - Dave Dobbyn looks skinny here, there's no sign of Pete Urlich, and we really lost a great songwriter in Ian Morris a couple of years back (Morris co-wrote this one.) Be Mine Tonight was released as a double A-side with another great Dudes song and a personal favourite Walking in Light, a song that at the time I couldn't divorce from The Rolling Stones' contemporaneous Emotional Rescue and still sort of can't.

It was a close call deciding which video to put up this week - Walking in Light definitely has the better look (more wire-haired, wire-limbed guitar legend Dobbyn can't be a bad thing), but Be Mine Tonight has a nicer guitar line, more interesting verse to chorus progression, and I rather like the coda as well. No contest!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Quick reads: Irish Masters of Fantasy - Peter Tremayne (ed), 1979

Between Friday posts, here's a quick read-through of a medium-sized anthology. I picked this up on a whim at the Wellington Public Library, unsure of the content aside from a suspicion that I'd find nothing within that might nowadays be called 'fantasy' (i.e. no swrods and sorcery), and probably no or little actual Irish folklore. I was right on both counts, but it also proved that I know little of the genre - of the Irish writers I was aware of Stoker and LeFanu, but looked for Wilde and Yeats in vain – Peter Tremayne’s collection is instead a pretty sensible picking of a broad range of writers among whom largely two elements are common – forays in the fantastical, gothic or phantasmagorical, and at least a passing stint in the Emerald Isles. And so without further ado...

'Melmoth the Wanderer'(excerpt) -Charles R Maturin A man is stalked for years by a demonic figure. Both meandering and possibly the most action-packed chapter at that, of a long and turgid work. I was reminded of Varney the Vampire in its episodic, drifting style. Once the action heats up in a London asylum (described pretty starkly) the pace quickens, but it’s all pretty hysterical and ultimately, I was glad to reach the end of it. yes, that's not very charitable to a work regarded as one of the great progenitors of Gothic literature, but to me many of the hoarier aspects of the genre seemingly begin here, too - leaden and sonorous descriptive passages being one.  

'The Familiar' – Sheridan Le Fanu
A man is stalked for years for- hang on... Actually, this is a nicely paced work, just the right length. I’ve had a few brushes with Le Fanu’s Carmilla including as edited prose (a children’s version, if memory serves – good grief!), film adaptation (Hammer’s very loose Karstein trilogy) and audio adaptation (a rather fine reading by Miriam Margolis), but this was the first proper read I’ve had of his work. The Familiar is pretty good, with quite a neat ending - I was listening to a reading of Guy de Maupassant's The Horla at the time of reading and couldn't avoid comparisons.  

'The Wondersmith' - Fitzjames O'Brien Begins with a splendid descriptive opener reminiscent of Dicken’s Bleak House scene-setter (though this is set in a fictional New York), but soon mutates into an alternately ghoulish and sentimental story of gypsies, hunchbacks and outright villainy – and it gets rather silly towards the end. The story’s classed by some as the progenitor to the robot story with its murderous miniatures, but to me that’s a little too generous - like saying Pinocchio prefigures I, Robot. Sort of satisfying in the end, but a tad melodramatic. And the gypsy stereotypes are a worry.  

'The Burial of the Rats' – Bram Stoker Englishman runs for his life in a labyrinth of rubbish, pursued by desperate vagrants in post-Revolutionary Paris. Really really good. Skin-crawling and effectively tense. I loved it – it stayed with me for a few days afterwards.

 'Xelucha'- M.P. Shiel Man mistakes shady lady for ancient enchantress (or doesn't?) Hysterical. Complete bonkers from a decidedly shady writer and possible loon. Impenetrable text, verging on the wrong side of what we might nowadays call magical realism (maybe), but apart from the punchline ending, just stream of consciousness bobbins.

 'The Ghost of the Valley' / 'Autumn Cricket' - Lord Dunsany I shan't spoil these - both short, intimate and rather lovely pieces of supernatural pastoral fantasy. Alongside Stoker and Le Fanu's works both were enough to make me want to seek out more of Dunsany’s work.

 ...three to four out of six is pretty good, and I've a new writer to seek out. Not too bad!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Friday Night Local: Headless Chickens, 'Mr Moon' (1991)

A quick post tonight, and it's dedicated to two sterling chaps: firstly to my friend Dave, who I know likes this song a lot (a Happy Birthday for last week!), and secondly to Mr Moon himself, Jim Moon of Hypnogoria fame, who never fails to bring a smile in his wonderful podcast series...
Director: Jonathan Ogilvie
Film Archive
I had to hunt for this video, wanting the Fiona MacDonald piano fade-out of the music video version of the song and not the single or album mixes - inevitably, it's via MTV Australia rather than NZonScreen or YouTube, which is at least telling of the Chickens' Trans-Tasman success at their mid-life peak [link replaced, cheers even-bigger-HC-fan Jamas!] Have a good weekend, folks!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Strip to Screen: Ladies First!

It's a great time to be a comic book movie fan. Even if your world is as bilateral as MarvelDisney vs DCWarners (and if it is, hey - please accept my invitation to you to get a life!) the competition must be worth something more than bragging rights. And it is a competition, seemingly. First this, first that: first fast-running hero (Fox Win!), first aquatic antihero (DC Warners Win!), first non-nebulous galactic monomaniacal godlike tyrant baddie (MarvelDisney Win!) First superheroine- er...

It's complicated if you think this game has always been played. Is it Avengers' Black Widow? Well she's not the first ensemble heroine. Is it Captain America's Agent Penny Carter? Well, she's not a superhuman or imbued with superhero status [yet?] Is it X-Men's Storm? Rogue? Mystique?  Is it Catwoman? Elektra? Supergirl?

Well, I'm thinking those with a dog in the fight aren't looking that far back to the last generation of superhero movies, and ensemble superheroines are not as newsworthy in the sausagefest that is otherwise superhero movies these days, so let's say the counters are reset for the race to first female superhero in a title role. Marvel Studio's Kevin Feige says the time has to be right for a female superhero movie, and timing is everything. In the mean-time, no Black Widow solo outing. DCWarners have recently unveiled Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in 2016's Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice - it's great news, and about time, but stil two years away and DC's Amazonian hero won't be going solo until maybe 2018. There's no sign yet of a single X-Men hero going solo beyond Wolverine again (I'd suggest Storm again or Mystique for an easy pick, but no-one's listening!), and Fantastic Four's Sue Storm is probably unlikely to ever have her own solo movie. So who will be first...?

Apparently, it might be Sony's Black Cat, last hinted at in Amazing Spider-Man 2 (and nudged good and proper in pre-DVD promotions this week), slated for 2017 in a good-old reshuffling of the Sony Spider-Man deck this week. Interesting. And, look - the character probably isn't that distinguishable from Catwoman - similar name, similar look, similar raison d'etre - even an on/off thing with her superhero opposite; but she's also young, has none of the past casting baggage Catwoman has (Christopher Noaln pointedly doesn't use her title in The Dark Knight Rises) and as a younger woman with ties already to the likes of Oscorp, I think Sony could do worse than take the punt.

And for now, that's all I have to say about that!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Friday Night Local: Look Blue Go Purple, 'Circumspect Penelope'

More women in rock! More Dunedin Sound! More Eighties! Yes, it's a trifecta.

Look Blue Go Purple deserved more press, and better press. That rare thing, an all-woman group in an industry - a scene, even, which was dominated by young white guys with guitars and baggy jerseys. While the likes of The Clean, the Stones, Doublehappys and Verlaines were hapy to fill a room with squally guitar sounds and loose, alternative power pop, LBGP came across as a little more studied, a little more psychedelic in influence (the literary aspect is evident here, as also in later songs - Virgil's Aeneid inspires Winged Rumour, and Hiawatha borrows its lyrics from Longfellow's epic poem). The difference is refreshing, as is their choice of instrumentation - debut EP Bewitched from which this single hails is notable not only for Norma O'Malley's keyboards, but also the odd jab of flute in As Does the Sun. And, of course, there are five strong personalities here in the writing and composition, and a shared creative spark that makes for an interesting looking video below as well as some allegedly wild gigs back in the day. Penelope seems to be Kath Webster's creation, but equally strong songs from Denise Roughan (I Don't Want You Anyway) and O'Malley (In Your Favour) rightly endure. And there's Cactus Cat, too - but everyone picks that one, so here's my favourite today, filmed once again on the ubiquitous Otago Peninsula (maybe through the car windows you can see a young Marty Phillipps filming the Pink Frost video? Nah, probably not)

I previously had ambitions on devotng a longer post to LBGP here, but apart from a few asides to future projects (Roughan went on to be a 3D, Kathy Bull a Cyclops, O'Malley a Chug and Webster now edits the NZ Automobile Association magazine) there's little mroe to say. LBGP had their three Flying Nun EPs (Bewitched, LBGPEP2, This Is This) compiled onto a CD in the early 90s, but there's at least an EP's worth of uncollected tracks to be found on You Tube, including a rather good cover of Buffy St Marie's Coedine, and if nothing else This Is This desperately needs remastering. Fingers crossed, maybe.