The Elvis Presley behind the jokes

elvisSometime in the next few months, Elvis Presley will have been dead longer than he’s been alive. 

It’s 42 years today since Elvis died at age 42 in 1977, and it took a long time for me to take him seriously. For most of us Gen-Xers, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll who died fat and a parody of himself was a joke. It took me years to see that there’s a thousand different Elvises. 

I was a California kid, but I lived in Elvis’ backyard for much of the 1990s, just outside Memphis and just an hour down the road from his birthplace of Tupelo. I wanted to work at Graceland for a summer job, but I couldn’t beat the competition. I fell in love with a girl from Tupelo. I slowly found the King behind the jokes. 

There’s at least four eras of Elvis proper – the young fiery prodigy, captured best in the haunting Sun Records recordings that still amaze today; the post-Army burnout whose talents were wasted for years in movies and cheesy soundtracks; the black leather-clad colossus who stormed his way to a ’68 comeback, and who then melted into the sad sweaty mess of his final years. 

When a legendary person dies, they slowly transform into myth. There’s a Shakespearean heft to the Presley story, a boy from nowhere who conquered the world. Elvis becomes a trailblazing comet or a paunchy punchline, a star of endless daffy movies, a boy who mourned his mother, a kung-fu kicking drug case who once pestered his way in to see Richard Nixon. 

I like the “Comeback Elvis” years the best, from that stunning 1968 TV Special on to the early ‘70s. At his best, he’s like a lone gunslinger bashing through the saloon doors, reminding all the young guns why he mattered. It’s the height before the fall. He’s got the years to give him authority, but he’s still young enough to prowl like a tiger in that insane leather jumpsuit. There’s a horrible trail of wasted possibilities in the Elvis story, which you can lay at the feet of his drug problem, his emotional immaturity, or the terrible mismanagement by the Colonel, who never really understood the power of Elvis. The story is Elvis is a story of lost dreams. 

Imagine if a 60-something Elvis had gone on to have a Johnny Cash-style latter years revival, if he’d just taken a stage with a guitar and a song and captured something of the haunting echoes of the Sun Studios years. 

One of my favourite Elvis songs is “Hurt,” (not the Nine Inch Nails/Johnny Cash version, of course) which he covered just a year before he died. I used to listen to it with a jaded, ironic eye, because Elvis sings the HELL out of this song, murdering it with an unrestrained abandon that teeters right on the edge of parody. But listen to it, man. Listen to the voice breaking as the song launches into the stratosphere, listen to the way his voice dips deep into the canyons as he sings how he’s hurt “way deep inside of me.” He’s singing about a lot more kinds of hurt than just being dumped. This is Elvis in his autumn, looking back at his highs and lows. 

It’s easy to see a punchline in the thousands and thousands of different Elvises the world has seen in the last 42 years. But deep inside the best of his songs, whether it’s the slow burn of “Mystery Train” or the unrestrained operatic bombast of “Hurt,” the real king still awaits. 

Wallace Wood, the best darn comic book artist there ever was

Image (17)Who’s my favourite comic book artist of all time?

It’s a hard choice to make. Of course, there’s Jack “King” Kirby, dynamic and passionate and the founding father of modern superheroes. There’s Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, nervy and intense and inventive, or the loose, energetic war and fantasy comics genius Joe Kubert, Robert Crumb’s neurotic creations, Herge’s elegant Tintin, and about a million more. 

But on most days, I’ll tell you that I think the best comic book artist of all time was WallaceWally’ Wood. 

Wood is one of the grand pillars of American comics – able to draw glorious science-fiction, chilling crime and horror and glamourous superheroes, all with a dense, classical sense of style that makes every panel of Wood at his peak seem like a museum piece.

I’ll look at a Wood panel for ages, drinking in the dense chiaroscuro of light and depth he created. Nobody drew gloopier, creepier aliens than Wood, more lantern-jawed spacemen, more gorgeous damsels. He’s one of the few comics artists whose work often looks best in the original black and white, without colouring.

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His greatest work was in the 1950s with the legendary EC Comics, on titles including Shock SuspensStories, Vault of Horror, and my personal favourites, the sci-fi duo of Weird Science and Weird Fantasy.

Wood illustrated many of the greatest science fiction comic stories of all time, singlehandedly crafting the images many of us think of when we imagine aliens and flying saucers (the creepy aliens of Mars Attacks? A Wood design). 

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He’d go on to projects like Marvel’s Daredevil (that iconic red costume? Wood), the Justice Society, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, his pioneering magazine witzend, classic war and horror comics for Creepy, his amazing Mad magazine strips and much more. 

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Wood lived a tragic life, working himself far too hard, embittered by the way the industry treated him, suffering alcoholism, poor health and diabetes. He shot himself in 1981 at just 54 years old. 

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But man, those dreams from Wally Wood’s pen. They live forever. 

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Film festivals are the bestivals

IMG_6510A good film festival is like a church for its acolytes – a place to find solace and enlightenment, to forget your troubles and to imagine exciting new possibilities in life. 

I’ve been going to the New Zealand International Film Festival every late July and August for more than a decade now, and every year, it’s a highlight of our rainy grey winters. I’m a mere amateur compared to some of the festivalgoers who manage 12, 15, 25 or 30 of the nearly 150 movies that unspool over two weeks or so. This year I’m managing eight, and it’s a spectrum of images and ideas, enough to make me close my eyes at night and dream of red curtains parting to see white screens.

On a Thursday I see documentaries about legendary film critic Pauline Kael and about the Satanic Temple, on a Friday I see a kiwi director’s gory delight, on a Saturday I see a documentary about a meth-addicted magician and on a Sunday I see a pulpy delight of a Korean gangster movie.

IMG_9530 KEY-2000-2000-1125-1125-crop-fillOn a Tuesday I attend a splendorous red-carpet premiere for a documentary about a Tongan family in New Zealand, which also featured brass bands, Tongan dancers, members of the Tongan royal family and grand and colourful frocks in a  dazzling, warm-hearted celebration of New Zealand’s rich Pacific culture. On a Thursday I see Aretha Franklin’s last bow and on a Friday I close it all up with a bizarre-sounding French movie about a man who falls in love with his new jacket. 

nosferatuNo wonder I can’t stop thinking about movies. It’s a kaleidoscope of cinema every year – in past years I’ve seen grand revivals of Sergio Leone movies, silent classics like “Nosferatu” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic, enigmatic Russian epics which demand to be seen on a gaping big screen.

And always something new or novel. Always something that just sounds like it might be interesting, whether it’s a documentary on tea in China or about the band Bikini Kill or a sprawling sci-fi epic or a thriller about zombies taking over a small New Zealand town.

Festivals like this remind me of why I’m so ambivalent about streaming. There’s great things about it, but I hate how it’s slowly eclipsing all other forms of cinema with what feels like an endless flood of cookie-cutter corporate “content.” Try finding more than a few token movies made before 1980 on Netflix. It’s much easier to sit and binge your brain on 12 episodes of some forgettable new show than it is to hunt down and figure out how to watch the greatest hits of a Billy Wilder or Robert Altman.

And while I’m down with the superheroes and the blockbusters there’s something special about gathering in the dark with a film festival crowd, whether it’s a bunch of twisted gorehounds cackling at gruesomely hilarious violence in one movie or an audience full of Tongans roaring at the quirks and jokes of their own closeknit culture.

Film festivals are the bestivals, every year a window into dozens of different worlds all flickering to life on the vast white screen. 

NZIFF: Ant Timpson’s “Come To Daddy” review

come to dady1.jpg.hashed.735adc58.desktop.story.inlineI joined a crowd of hundreds to cringe, scream and laugh last night at the premiere of NZ filmmaker Ant Timpson’s directorial debut “Come To Daddy” at the New Zealand International Film Festival, always one of my favourite weeks of the year. 

Timpson’s a national treasure for NZ film geeks, having run the Incredibly Strange Film Festival for 25 years, the 48Hours film contest and produced such slices of taboo-poking kiwi-fried film strangeness as “Deathgasm,” “Housebound” and “Turbo Kid”. Now he’s finally directed his first film, “Come To Daddy” starring Elijah Wood. 

Wood is Norval, a gawky man-child returning to visit his estranged father for the first time in decades. Dad (Stephen McHattie) lives in a surreal house on the edge of the sea, an alcoholic loner who apparently asked his son to visit but then batters and harasses him almost from the moment he arrives. “Come To Daddy” shapes up as an epic, tense battle of the wills between twitchy Norval and loathsome Dad, but then it takes a turn into stranger territory entirely. 

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It’s hard to review “Come To Daddy,” a shapeshifter of a movie that boasts wild shifts in tone from melancholy to bitingly nasty wit to grind house horror. This frenzied energy will likely make it a midnight-movie perennial, but it also means it’s the kind of movie that will really appeal most to those who like to get a bit battered by their cinema. The anything-goes craziness reminds me of Peter Jackson’s earliest gorehound work before he settled down to Middle Earth’s tranquil blandness.

Timpson’s got a very confident director’s eye as “Daddy” fluidly shifts its tone. He sets the stage with lots of languid shots of beaches and trees and Wood’s endlessly fascinating face, all rounded curves and rabbity energy. There’s some shots that manage a grotesque beauty out of the ugliest moments. Some of the secondary characters aren’t as well developed as Wood and McHattie’s, and unfortunately a pivotal character introduced halfway through seems more of a sketch than a fully-rounded human being. But amidst all the chaos that unfolds on screen, “Daddy” manages to say something touching and universal about the meaning of fatherhood.

Wood is the MVP of “Daddy” and the entire movie falls apart without his committed performance. This ain’t no Frodo Baggins. His career has been driven by his extraordinarily expressive deer-in-the-headlight eyes, which “Daddy” uses to terrific effects as Norval wrestles with his anger and guilt over his relationship with his father. His Norval is dressed in awkwardly hanging hipster’s clothes, a strangely sculptural haircut and topped off with a scribbly moustache that suggests facial hair hibernating for the winter. 

Like a lot of Ant Timpson-produced films there are scenes that will have you going OHMIGODNONONO as you cringe from the screen, guiltily chuckling all the way. There’s no better way to see them than in a crowded theatre with dozens of like-minded twisted souls. It’s the kind of defiantly original movie film festivals are made to celebrate, and I hope Timpson doesn’t wait too long to direct another film.

Just can’t get enough: Depeche Mode, I just can’t quit you

depeche-modeIf I ever was to bottle the essence of my late teenage angst circa ages 16-20, it would smell a lot like Depeche Mode.

Of all the ‘80s alternative icons I revisit in my dotage, there’s few  more evocative than Depeche Mode. There’s a grandiose charm to Depeche Mode’s work. It’s the kind of twisted pleasure you sometimes get from being alone in your room, miserable, but yet you don’t really want to be anywhere else. 

The Cure were dark, Joy Division were doomed, but the spice that Depeche Mode has comes from Dave Gahan’s sonorous voice, a bombastic prophet who makes everything he sings seem like the most important words anyone’s ever had to say. His Las Vegas-style showmanship isn’t subtle, but combined with the ever-inward songwriting of Martin Gore and the epic swirling keyboards of Alan Wilder, it made for a combination of gloom-pop you could dance to. Doubt and fear never seemed so glamorous. As Gahan sang on on 2005’s “Lillian,” “Pain and misery always hit the spot.” That’s Depeche Mode in a nutshell. 

One of my bigger teenage regrets was not seeing Depeche Mode on their ‘101’ tour when it passed through Sacramento. It would’ve been a great first concert for teenage me; instead I saw synth-popster Howard Jones, whose keyboards malfunctioned and he swore dramatically at them. 

1990’s “Violator,” released just shy of 30 years ago now, was peak Depeche Mode. The deeply layered woe-is-me “Enjoy The Silence” was everybody’s go-to misery pop anthem. “Personal Jesus” a swinging display of nonconformity. “World In My Eyes” and “Waiting For The Night” the kind of hushed dark romantic murmurings a black-clad teen wished he could dedicate to someone, anyone. 

I got obsessive enough that I was the guy that bought the cassingle of “Personal Jesus” featuring no less than five loping, thumping versions of their hit single, carefully analysing each piece on a quantum scale of misery.

ftcms-ef2870f2-15b1-11e9-a168-d45595ad076dDepeche Mode can roughly be broken up into three periods – their lighter “synth pop” phase of the first couple albums, when Erasure’s Vince Clarke was in the band, the “imperial phase” running from roughly “Construction Time Again” to “Ultra” when they pretty much ruled the proto-emo world, and the more muted, less omnipresent latter Mode, after Alan Wilder left the band, which continues pretty much to this day.

You know what you’re getting with Depeche Mode – dark, glittery midnight music that casts pretty much every decision in one’s life as an epic battle for the soul. It can wear thin – which is why their records post-1997 or so haven’t gotten as much traction – but even the least of Depeche Mode’s albums still has one fist-pumpingly bleak anthem to moan along to. I spin “Violator” yet again and it still transports me to their stark world. After that, words are very unnecessary.

I thought I’d grow up to be a hero: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at 50

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“I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” – Butch Cassidy

For a movie that’s just hit its golden years, “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” is still surprisingly modern. There’s a lot of great revisionist westerns I love, from Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood showcases to the gory nihilism of “The Wild Bunch,” but thanks to the late William Goldman’s Oscar-winning script, “Butch” is the only one that’s eminently quotable. 

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” is the blueprint for the flawed quippy heroic icon that exploded through the ‘80s in everything from “Lethal Weapon” to Han Solo to Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. It’s based on the true story of two charming rogue robbers as they fumbled their way through history, but it’s no dry period piece.  

“This is no time for bravery.” – Butch

B004LQEYAG_butchsundance_UXFX1._SX1080_The movie begins and ends with sepia tones, homaging an imagined western past that America has fetishised for decades. But in between “Butch Cassidy” is a determinedly modern movie, with Joss Whedon-worthy jokes being cracked left and right by Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Rather than the stoic masculine glares of an Eastwood or John Wayne, you’ve got Paul Newman’s motormouth Butch, whose first act of violence in the film isn’t a grim showdown – it’s kicking someone in the nuts. Meanwhile, Robert Redford’s Sundance Kid is the more traditional hero of the two, but he still shows cracks in his western hero facade. They don’t act like western heroes were ‘expected’ to: When trouble comes, they run. 

“Listen, I don’t mean to be a sore loser, but when it’s done, if I’m dead, kill him.” – Butch

Sundance Kid: “Love to.”

For fans of great movie writing, Goldman’s book “Adventures In The Screen Trade” is an absolute must-read. Goldman (who also had “The Princess Bride” and “Marathon Man” to his credit among many others) delivers a master-class in script writing, including reprinting his entire “Butch Cassidy” script and then unsparingly analysing its failures and successes. It’s pretty fascinating to read his process and even his admission that ‘it’s not about what I meant it to be about.’ 

00Butch“Butch Cassidy” is one of those pivotal movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s that forever cracked the old of the traditional heroic figure. The reason it still seems so relaxed today is that we’ve been surrounded by Butch and his offspring for years. Long may they ride. 

Butch: “You know, when I was a kid, I always thought I’d grow up to be a hero.”
Sundance Kid: “Well, it’s too late now.”
Butch Cassidy: “What’d you say that for? You didn’t have to say something like that.”

 

Christchurch, 8 1/2 years after the earthquake

IMG_6315I hadn’t been to Christchurch in 10 years, and I’m not quite sure how that happened.

I’ve been out of the country nearly a dozen times in that span, but the South Island of New Zealand always seems further away. If you don’t have family or friends on ‘the mainland,’ it seems another country sometimes despite it just being an hour flight away. 

Christchurch is flatter and more British in feel than melting pot Auckland, with lots of gorgeous old stone churches and a sky full of billowing, demonstrative clouds far different than the ones up north. You can feel the cold blue influence of Antarctica, a mere few thousand kilometres south. 

Christchurch also has a regrettable reputation as New Zealand’s unluckiest place to live. The terrible events of March 15 are high in everyone’s memory, of course, but Christchurch has also had fires and earthquakes, including the deadly February 22, 2011 quake that killed 185 people. This was the first time we’d been down there since then. 

IMG_6317The signs of the 2011 earthquakes are everywhere, far more prevalent than I’d imagined they’d be almost a decade on. Downtown is dotted with vacant lots, cranes constructing new buildings, and the cracked and battered abandoned remains of those structures that haven’t been torn down yet. For every building that seems fine, there’s another that’s a dust-covered shell that looks like something from Chernobyl. The gorgeous old Christchurch Cathedral is a broken and gaping maw, like a dollhouse cross-section where you can see inside a building. Dozens of pigeons still nest in the rafters, visible to all.

Terribly movingly, there’s a humble memorial across the street from the site of the CTV building collapse which claimed 115 victims that February day. It’s a gathering of 115 white chairs, all various types and styles, across the street from the site of the collapsed building, bearing silent witness. There is a baby’s car seat there, spray-painted white, full of silent grief. There is a list of names of people of all ages and from all over the world (the building housed a language school where a lot of the victims were killed).  

You read a fair bit about all the delays that have plagued Christchurch’s recovery since 2011. It’s another thing to actually see a city, one of New Zealand’s largest, still battered and scarred from a catastrophe nearly a decade ago. 

It’s also a reminder that yesterday’s news isn’t forgotten by the people at the heart of the storm – that long after the world’s attention moves on from something, there’s building to do, homes to relocate and towers to rebuild. 

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