Year In Review: 3 disappointments of 2018

I love a good year-in-review post, and here’s the first of two looking at the highs and lows in the year in pop-culture for me.

I’ll start with the negative, with a look at three pop-culture moments of 2018 that let me down. Let the bummers begin!

doctor-who-s11_entertainment-weekly-3_new-episodic_wide-28f404cb12e08e88cb071a2b942bd5d23107103e-s800-c85Doctor Who: First off, I love the idea of a female Doctor. I think Jodie Whittaker was an excellent casting choice and did a fine job this season. But she was let down by trite and sloppy writing and a general lack of invention and passion in a pretty disappointing first season. I actually would’ve liked to have seen more done with the ramifications of the Doctor’s first reincarnation as a woman after 12 men and 1000 or so years, but the show barely dealt with it. The show stepped too far away from acknowledging the Doctor’s vast lifespan and history, and too often the Doctor came off as an uncertain novice. I was getting sick of the Daleks, too, but few of this year’s antagonists were memorable and the self-contained episodes often lacked real drama. Three companions is far too many, and the stories generally were bland sci-fi 101. The best of the episodes were ones like the Rosa Parks episode or the Indian partition story which felt like they had something to say. The worst were generic “monster of the week” tales like “Arachnids in the UK” with a completely unsubtle Trump stand-in. With the usual keyboard warrior suspects ranting and raving how a woman Doctor might give everybody cooties, I was hoping the show would shut them up with an utterly amazing year, instead of one that was just sort of OK. Let’s hope the next season brings back some of the mystery, invention and drama the best of the David Tennant years had. 

13OctfilmThe First Man: I really wanted to like this Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling, but I walked out massively disappointed by its turgid tone, seasick-inducing attempts to realistically replicate the experience of space flying, and disappointed by Gosling’s stone-faced portrayal of a man who admittedly was kind of boring. It had its moments – Claire Foy does a lot with the token doting wife role, and in the moments when Armstrong actually lands on the moon the claustrophobic aura of the movie actually lifts into something actually resembling poetry. But I think I’d rather watch more soaring, less interior space pics like “The Right Stuff” or “Apollo 13” again rather than sit through “The First Man” twice. 

ellisonDeath, devourer of all: This year was pretty rough on my cultural heroes. I know, a lot of them were in their 80s and 90s, but it still sucks. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, creators of millions of comic-book dreams. Harlan Ellison, writer with a voice like lightning and a creator who shaped my worldview more than most. Philip Roth, the last of a generation of great American writers like Updike and Vonnegut. Mark E. Smith, tattered, debauched voice of the clattering UK band The Fall. Legendary voice Aretha Franklin. Endlessly curious mind Anthony Bourdain. “Frasier’s” grand, underrated John Mahoney. The Lois Lane of my childhood dreams, Margot Kidder. Way too many others. Time is cruel, ain’t it?

Up next: Get positive, with my top ten pop-culture moments of 2018!

Review: The Breeders, Powerstation, December 11, Auckland

IMG_4440I’ve been on an unabashed ‘80s music nostalgia kick lately, seeing Bauhaus and Billy Bragg in recent weeks, so it was time to move on to the 1990s and the glorious return of that kick-ass combo of rock’n’roll twin sisters, The Breeders, featuring Kim and Kelley Deal. 

The Breeders, featuring the line-up that put out their hit album Last Splash in 1993, rolled into Auckland’s sold-out Powerstation last night on the final show of their world tour. It was a loose, giddy affair, with the Deal twins clearly having a lot of fun on stage at the end of a big year. 

Kim Deal made her name as part of the legendary Pixies, and was an integral part of their sound, but for my money, her best work has always been the more personal, evocative pop-rock she created when she set out on her own in The Breeders with her twin sister Kelley. The Breeders have been equal parts surreal, goofy and spooky in their career, always anchored by Kim Deal’s crystalline croon of a voice. 

The band barrelled through most of Last Splash and a lot of this year’s All Nerve, easily the Breeders’s best of their sporadic albums since Splash came out 25 (!!) years ago (and far better than the newer Pixies reunion albums minus Kim Deal have been).

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Photos by myself

The sibling banter of the Deal twins was often a highlight, but the powerhouse drumming of Jim MacPherson and bassist Josephine Wiggs anchored the songs with tremendous force.

The band romped through excellent new tunes like “Wait In The Car” and the sultry “Walking With A Killer.” Kelley Deal took centre stage for a show-stopping solo vocal turn in “Drivin’ On 9” while the sole Pixies tune of the night, Kim Deal’s “Gigantic,” had the audience pogo-dancing in glee. And of course, they played inescapable groove of “Cannonball,” one of the coolest songs of the 1990s, which sums up the Breeders sound nicely – rambling, groovy and always taking unexpected turns, combining classic pop riffs with grunge-era clatter and feedback.

(Edit: And here’s another excellent review by the Phoenix Foundation’s Samuel Flynn-Scott)

What’s probably my last time in a video store

VARIOUSI visited what’s probably just about the last surviving video store in Auckland the other day. It won’t be there for long, as it’s shutting its doors December 31 and was having a massive clearing-house sale.

The internet and digital media have knocked around book stores and music stores relentlessly, but some are still hanging in there. But the humble video store has been systematically annihilated in the last decade or so. I’ve lost track of how many ‘closing down’ video stores I’ve seen in Auckland in the relatively short time since Netflix finally launched streaming in New Zealand in March 2015. We were a few years behind the US, but the doom came calling here. 

Hey, I get it. I stream, too, but there’s an awful, awful lot of film history you can only find on home video. Also, I own it, and don’t have to suffer the whims of some corporation that decides to drop titles from their catalog at random. 

lsThe groovy Videon in Mount Eden, Auckland was never my regular video store – I lived too far away from it – but it was a part of my family’s lives, and it was the kind of classic, curated and smart video store that film nuts loved – carefully organised by directors, countries and detailed sub-sections, with an extensive selection that blows away anything on streaming when it comes to film history. 

I scooped up rare treasures like Tod Browning’s creepy classic 1932 “Freaks,” rare Robert Altman movies from the 1970s, and more, and I thought once again about how while streaming has its up side, its big down side is that movies from before 1990 or so barely exist. Little NZ doesn’t even have the smaller niche streaming services that the US does, so for us it’s Netflix and a few other competitors, and that’s it. 

I worked at a video store part-time in California almost 20 years ago now, in that brief era when they felt like the centre of the entertainment universe. DVDs were barely a thing yet and battered VHS tapes ruled the land. This store even had a back room full of obsolete Beta tapes. Even now any time I see movies of that time like “Blade,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Pleasantville” and “Ronin” I can picture their cardboard boxes lining a shelf, the greasy plastic cases holding the tapes piled up high at the rental return counter each morning. 

kimsVideo stores, while they lasted, provided a sense of community that staring at your laptop while scrolling through likes on your phone really doesn’t. Going out to ‘rent a video’ meant interacting a bit more than pushing a button. Sure, they could often be understocked or over-corporate or full of trash and porn, but still, the very best of the video stores, when they flickered through their brief life span, were a wonder. 

I kind of feel like this weekend’s big DVD clearance sale might well be the last video store I ever go into in my lifetime. I filled my arms with zombie horror and ‘40s melodrama and Orson Welles and Werner Herzog and bid one last farewell to an era.

Roll credits. 

Robert Altman’s “Nashville” 43 years on

fullwidth.98a99c88I’ve been on a Robert Altman kick these last few months, working through the late director’s diverse body of work. I watched what many consider his masterpiece, 1975’s Nashville, for the first time in years, and it’s surprising how relevant a 43-year-old movie about life in America still feels today.

OK, sure, it’s steeped in ‘70s fashion and style (Shelley Duvall’s barely-there groupie wardrobe deserves its own biopic), but underneath Altman’s sprawling loose-limbed tale of a diverse group of country musicians and politicians over a few days in Nashville is a keen eye for the eternal conflict in America – between messy reality and the urge to mythologise itself. 

Altman clearly saw the two Americas back in 1975 that we still have today, where one man’s entertainment is another man’s outrage, where one man’s favourite song is another man’s cheese. There’s multiple perspectives to be had on almost every moment in the film, depending on where you view it from. 

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A waitress believes she’s a great country singer despite the evidence. A smug BBC reporter constantly holds forth yet is quietly despised by everyone she interviews. One star country singer is an emotionally fragile wreck, another is a fading star worried about his own coming irrelevance. A black country singer who performs at the Grand Ole Opry is terrific, but reaction shots of the all-white audience show a lot of staring, silent faces. 

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Take a scene where Keith Carradine sings his Academy Award-winning love song, “I’m Easy,” to Lily Tomlin in a crowded bar. It’s a heart-tugging, gorgeous romantic moment, but the sentiment it’s filled with is undercut almost instantly because we know Carradine’s character is hopping from bed to bed, casual enough about it to call his next hookup while his current one is still getting dressed in his hotel room. That song is just a song. 

A maverick, outsider presidential campaign is a running thread throughout Nashville. The fatuous bromides and slogans coming from presidential candidate Walker’s truck that echo throughout the film could be Trumpisms, Bushisms, Clintonisms from any era. 

“It Don’t Worry Me,” the theme song that pops up again and again in Nashville, plays darkly into the climax, as a plucky singer sings it to raise the spirits of a crowd at a political rally following a tragedy. It’s a rousing anthem yet it’s also a defeatist one, a song where the singer shrugs repeatedly at life’s problems because, what else can you do? 

I can’t help but think it feels like a better American national anthem these days than any other:

“You may say that I ain’t free

but it don’t worry me…”

President George H.W. Bush and me

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One of my weird hobbies is a US presidential history fixation. I keep it separate from my politics, which like most things seems a lot harder to do in 2018 than it once was. What I’m interested in is the personalities, the stories and the things that drove the men (so far) who’ve lived in the White House. 

So the death of a President for a prez-nerd like me is a kinda big deal. George H.W. Bush wasn’t my favourite President, nor my least favourite, but he seemed significant to me. 

He’s the first President I ever voted against, and his 1992 and 1988 campaigns were the first ones I really paid attention to. I turned 18 a year too late to vote in the 1988 election, but I was an unashamed Dukakis fan who was set up for the first of many electoral heartbreaks. My high school friends and I were what the kids today might’ve called “woke” and actually cared about the election; I remember some organising a day for everyone to wear black after Bush, the uncool candidate, won the ’88 race easily. #Occupymyhighschool!

BUSH DUKAKIS DEBATE 1988

In ’92, I voted for President for the first time, with Bush, Clinton and wayfaring stranger from another planet Ross Perot battling it out. On Election Night a dozen or so friends gathered at my apartment to watch the results, pretty evenly divided between Bush, Clinton and Perot supporters, a combination of partisan friends which seems harder to imagine happening today. 

It’s been 12 years since a President died and America went through all its elaborate mourning rituals. I remember clearly where I was when each President in my lifetime died – Richard Nixon, in 1994, I was in New Orleans visiting the family of a short-lived girlfriend. In a bizarre cosmic coincidence I met Hunter S. Thompson there the day after his nemesis Nixon had died. 

In 2004 I was working the weekend shift running a newspaper in Oregon and splashed Ronald Reagan’s death on the front page; in 2006 when Gerald Ford died I was at our beach house and didn’t find out about it for days. When George H.W. Bush died I’d spent the rainy Saturday watching Spielberg’s Lincoln movie with my son and also reading some of the massive history of President Ulysses S Grant I’ve been working on for weeks now. It was a very Presidential day. 

For a brief four years or so, the fumbling Bush dominated the culture, much like Trump does today. Dana Carvey mocked him on SNL, he beat up Homer Simpson, his wife wrote a book about their dog and apparently people actually bought it. I rather like Maureen Dowd’s reminiscences about Bush in The New York Times, which captures something of the man’s goofy embarrassing uncle vibe and the kernel of compassion which kept me from ever truly hating him. bush-56a9b7835f9b58b7d0fe5472

I didn’t love him and he made a lot of mistakes – being in a gung-ho conservative Southern college when the Gulf War broke out in 1990 and having people in my dorm cheer about “killing rag heads” in “Bush’s war” was one of those moments when I realised what side in life I wanted to be on. But I didn’t loathe him quite like I’ve come to loathe some who’ve followed him (as the writer Peter David puts it, “every president who passes away from this point on will have to face one question: Was he better than Trump?”). I sneered at Bush a lot in his life, but yet, I wouldn’t have balked at shaking his hand. 

There’s something strange and evocative to me about when a President dies. It pulls a firm curtain on whatever era they stood for, reminds us that no matter how big a deal someone gets to be they all face the same end. A lot of people are talking about how Bush was the last President who wasn’t loathed by a massive percentage of Americans, the last Cold War president, last World War II veteran president and maybe the last of what he called a “kinder, gentler nation” too. 

I may not have voted for President Bush, but he was a part of history for better or worse, and it’s worth taking a moment to think about what all that meant. 

Review: Billy Bragg, Hollywood Cinema, November 21, Auckland

IMG_4220These days, it feels like there’s nothing more revolutionary than being sincere, than just being a man, alone, on stage with a guitar and a message. 

Folk singer from Essex Billy Bragg is back in New Zealand for a three-night run of shows at the grand old Hollywood Cinema in Avondale, and his first gig in the series was like a tonic in troubled times.

Being a protesting folk singer in 2018 may seem like a throwback. The old names like Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs are all gone and those that are left are getting up there in years. And it’s so, so hard for a protest singer to find that thin line between hectoring and speechifying, to not get stuck in rant mode eternally. But Bragg has ample humour and an immensely quick wit to carry him through the night. We need more voices like his.

His rallying cry at each show is a rejection of cynicism and a call for activism. Bragg is one thing a lot of musicians aren’t – utterly sincere on stage, clear-eyed without being naive. It’s inspiring and more than a little comforting to see someone unafraid to take a stand and who can sing a song like Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose” and make you believe every word of it. 

This first night of his run at the Hollywood, Bragg was in fine, upbeat form, playing for over two hours and loosely changing his set on a whim, at one point playing an amazing Leadbelly cover to demonstrate the skiffle sound (which, of course, he’s written a book about). He spoke nearly as much as he sang, on everything from Brexit to Stan Lee, but always engagingly.

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With immense control, he spun from a grim recounting and song about America’s history of lynchings to breezily playing a cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” from his busking days. What I’ve always liked about Bragg is his ability to switch gears between the hard-edged protest songs and open-hearted songs about love, or as he called it, “songs about rain and wanking.” Songs like “The Milkman of Human Kindness” or “Greetings to the New Brunette” are little gems of lyrical power and longing. 

And when several hundred people are lustily singing along and stamping their feet to “There Is Power In A Union,” for a moment, the world feels like it isn’t completely screwed in the long run. 

He capped things off with a biting and clever rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’ Changin’” for the Trump era, blasting at the grim tide with lyrics like “The land of the free and the home of the brave / Martin Luther King is spinning in his grave”. 

I don’t know about you, but these days I can get behind a protest song or three. 

Long live the revolution. 

Arrow: Still on target after all these years

After seven seasons, most TV shows start to run out of steam. And we’re in a big superhero TV show glut right now – if you’d told young me that one day there would be too many comic book-based programs out there for me to keep up with, I’d have laughed. 

But I always make time for Arrow, the show that kicked off TV’s “Berlanti-verse” of DC Comics-based series including The Flash, Black Lightning and Supergirl. It has its ups and downs, but the hero’s journey of Oliver Queen has always been worth watching. And the new Season 7 has one of the more entertainingly outlandish hooks yet. Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, is now Prison Inmate 4587. 

I admit to getting a fanboy thrill at the end of Season 6, when Oliver Queen is unmasked as the Green Arrow for all the world to see, and shipped off to prison for breaking anti-vigilante laws. A superhero going to prison isn’t entirely a new idea, but to watch it unfold for the hero we’ve been following for six seasons is new. 

The considerable charisma of the cast helps here. Stephen Amell has developed into one of the better leading men on superhero shows, full of a rangy self-confidence and physicality. In a lot of ways, Arrow is what an ideal Batman TV series in 2018 could be like – even the character himself has often been written off as an archery-obsessed Dark Knight wanna-be. 

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One of the minor flaws of the otherwise swell Marvel Universe movies is they often tend to be about massive world-shaking events, so you never really get a feel for the day-to-day drama of the heroes. The actual Avengers were only the Avengers for about 1 1/2 movies in the MCU before everything fell apart, for instance. A TV series in many ways is better able to follow in the month-in, month-out drama of the periodical comic books that inspired it. 

By the time Arrow has gotten to Season 7, there’s a rich sense of legacy and history to it all that apes the ever-blooming continuity in 50 to 80 years of the comic books. Oliver Queen’s passed through many life stages – spoiled rich kid, the Hood, the Arrow, the Green Arrow, an orphan, the mayor of Star City (!), a father, a prisoner. He’s gone through a whole costume shop’s worth of sidekicks, from Speedy to Black Canary (a couple of them!) to Ragman to Mr Terrific and Wild Dog. In the process, we’ve seen the character mature from a callow youth to a seasoned veteran. 

Arrow is hardly the Citizen Kane of superhero fare, don’t get me wrong. It’s more of a gaudy Saturday-afternoon matinee, with cliffhangers galore, hairy near-escapes and derring-do. The writing can sometimes let the characters down (there’s an awful lot of contrived interpersonal conflict in all these shows, to be honest). Yet I dig it, and love watching Oliver Queen’s journey unfold. Long may his aim be true.