Sunday, 26 April 2015

A Night at the (Space) Opera

1980's Flash Gordon is like the best party you've never been to.

The host has just moved recently to the area. He had a lot of trouble with the neighbours initially, but they all seem to love him now.  To be honest, he's a little bit dim, (that must be what playing American football does for you), but he's always willing to see the best in people.  His partner is a New York City girl; she doesn't like things too quiet around here.

Their best friend is a clever man, apparently, for him everything IS rocket science, although it has to be questioned whether he's entirely sane or not. But he's nothing compared to the very loud guy with the huge beard and too many teeth, goosing everybody.  He's obviously the 'ice-breaker', making up for the rather stand-offish Errol Flynn-wannabe sipping martinis. There seems to have been some bad blood between these two in the past, but their hommies are mingling quite happily now.

A creepy older dude with outrageous facial hair who apparently used to be big in these parts still seems to look down on everyone else and speaks only to another unsavoury guest in a silvery party mask.  He's tolerated though, because he always brings his stunning daughter and can do a sensational party trick with the hostess.

There's no shortage of beautiful women seemingly (under) dressed for a Brazilian street carnival, little people, and a fair amount of weirdos too - but it all adds to the colour.
And the music, well the music is amazing...

The visuals match Queen's music as much as the other way around
I love this film, I'd watch it again at the slightest excuse.
But the first time I saw it, aged 15 and taking my science fiction terribly seriously, I hated it.
"They've desecrated a legend!" I wailed to my friends, who promptly recommended the early '80s equivalent of "pulling my head in" and suggested that my real issue was an insane jealousy of Sam J Jones's body.  That was me 'told', and as usual I was the last to 'get' something not immediately obvious.

Putting the opera back into space
Flash Gordon was never intended to be yet another po-faced  adaptation of a science fiction property propelled to the big screen by the success of Star Wars. Instead it was a Space Opera in the most literal sense, full of colour, camp, larger-than-life characters and glorious music taking centre stage.
And that's what brought me around - the soundtrack.

We were all already Queen fans, and the Flash Gordon soundtrack was probably the first album I ever bought (on cassette, of course).  There may be an actual term for soundtrack albums which also feature dialogue from a film, and this is one of the very best examples.  While I listened to the music (literally countless times) the performances, wit, sound effects and narrative were also seeping into my mind. To say nothing of the beautiful voices of Max Von Sydow, Peter Wyngarde, Topol, Mariangela Melato (General Kala) and others.  It was unintentional but very successful immersion therapy.

Klytus: silver-tongued, silver-faced devil
Of course, I wasn't doing director Mike Hodges' startling visuals justice, as I soon realised on later viewings.  While producer Dino de Laurentiis was convinced they were making a 'serious' film, Hodges knew Flash could only work with tongue planted firmly in cheek - but that didn't stop him researching his subject thoroughly. The title sequence brilliantly represents this attention to the source material, as do many of the sets, costumes and even camera angles, deliberately set up to echo original comic book frames.

I wasn't the only person to misunderstand this film on first viewing, many reviews of the time demonstrate no idea how to take this wry Euro-glitz amidst the deluge of US science fiction cinema vainly clawing for profundity and artistic merit.
Additionally,  a falling-out between Sam Jones's agent and de Laurentiis resulted in the film receiving little publicity in the US, which despite doing great business in Europe, stifled Flash Gordon's potential box office impact.

Bromance blooms in the Hawkmen city
But analysing real-world cinema economics and studio politicing seems a universe away from the sound and colour-saturated spectacle which is Flash Gordon. It took me a while, but I'm glad I finally came to this party. In fact, I might never leave.

Ted: Ah, you know, Sam, there's only one way to end a perfect day.
Sam Jones: What's that?
Ted: Flash jump, let's end with the Flash jump!
Together: YEAH!'

(Another synced 'In the wake of of Star Wars' blog production.
See if Dale:
or Zarkov:
enjoyed this film as much as I did.)

For Mark, Jont and Alan, who helped me finally see the light(ning bolt).

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Caping mechanism

There used to be a time when Marvel could only get Lou Ferrigno in a ripped shirt and kids' cartoons on-screen... 

March 1941: who'd ever have thought there'd be any kind of future
for a character like this after WWII, much less in 21st century cinemas?

I'm still processing my thoughts about seeing Age of Ultron, last night.  But initially my reactions are that :
A) It does confirm that the first Avengers film was something very special indeed
B) Despite more smiting and exploding then I've ever seen packed into any film before, it was the character moments and humour which I enjoyed the most.

In the meantime, here's an article I wrote earlier this week for the Ultron premier.

Superheroes have soared from comics and Children’s television to consistently top world-wide Box Office returns for the last decade and a half.

Masked marvels have flitted across movie screens since the 1940s, and the profusion of Marvel comics adaptations packing them in at the multiplexes now could merely be seen as the third age of superhero cinema.

DC comics' (Marvel's perennial competitor) flagship characters: Superman and Batman, first appeared on celluloid in their own Columbia serial adventures between 1948 and 1950.
These same two characters later stormed the cinemas anew, each in their own four part film series spanning the late seventies to the end of the 1990s, this time with vast budgets and star names to bring a new credibility to the genre.

So where was the now-ubiquitous Marvel while Superman and Batman were hogging the limelight?  Apart from the fondly-remembered Incredible Hulk television series and a couple of modest Spider-Man TV movies they focused mainly on animated adventures and very gradually built up the public recognition of their characters beyond comic book pages.

A sophisticated animated series featuring Marvel's mutant heroes the X-Men had done well for Fox studios during the 1990s, attracting a sizeable adult audience. When Fox paired the property with a young director who had just scored a major hit with a modestly-budgeted ensemble film, the Usual Suspects, it was the beginning of a cinema revolution.

Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000) was a surprise hit, launching Marvel onto the mainstream big screen, (as well as the career of an Australian stage performer called Hugh Jackman). When Sony Pictures launched their phenomenally-successful Spider-Man film franchise two years later, a costumed stampede from the comic book page to the multiplexes began, with mixed, but generally highly-successful results.

Marvels' pride at the how well their licensed progeny were doing in the 'real world' must have been tempered by the fact that they were only seeing a portion of the enormous profits . Buying back the under-performing Hulk from Universal, the recently formed Marvel Studios put an audacious plan into motion. Beginning with a title which had little public recognition: Iron Man, they launched what has become known as MCU - (the Marvel Cinematic Universe). This was to be an interconnected series of movie adaptations of various other characters, with the intention of combining them all in a huge multi-hero spectacular, four years later.

Not only did each of these films pack cinemas, but their climactic combination in The Avengers (2012), became the third highest-grossing film in history.
Three years on and the world shows little sign of tiring of the exploits of these powered-up wish-fulfillment figures. The old guard from DC: Superman and Batman, are also drawing their own latest generations of film fans for the third time.

But these films are certainly not cheap to make, (the Avengers cost $220 million), and could it be that even super-budgeted heroes have to come back down to Earth eventually? Industry legend Steven Spielberg warned in 2013 that the film industry could be in for massive changes ahead:
 "... there's eventually going to be an implosion, or a big meltdown... where three or four, or maybe even a half dozen, mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm."

Time will surely tell, but in the meantime it's certain that Marvel's finest will have more than enough to occupy themselves with in the latest cinema juggernaut opening today: Avengers: Age of Ultron.

It's early days for Avengers: Age of Ultron, but for now Spider-Man is Marvel's biggest-earning movie property at $3.9b. (and I don't think that even includes Nicolas Hammond's contributions)

Friday, 24 April 2015


They say pictures speak louder than words.  This a 'gallery' of artwork I've been privileged to work on for the ANZAC centennial commemoration

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Bargain beyond the Stars

Some claim that Star Wars got its blend of genres exactly right - but what would the result have been with half the money and twice the ingredients to mix?

This post is synced with:
Cayman of the Lambda Zone:
Space Cowboy:

The legendary Roger Corman was responsible for classy and opulent Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, and also some of the schlockiest exploitation cinema ever produced by AIP studios.  So when he jumped on the Star Wars band wagon (a little belatedly) back in 1981 with Battle Beyond the Stars, some wondered which result we were going to get.

Looking back now, I'd conclude the answer is both. A science fiction adaptation of the Seven Samurai/ Magnificent 7 is an obvious but sure-fire concept which would be far more difficult to fail with than extract fun from. Getting composer James Horner to bring one of his back-up Star Trek movie themes with him certainly doesn't hurt, and neither did employing someone called James Cameron to direct the rather brilliant miniature effects (I wonder whatever became of him?) Bringing Robert Vaughn in to reprise his performance from the Magnificent 7, and Sam Jaffe for a cameo also adds lustre.

One of Battle Beyond the Star's more subtle homages.
So much for the aspirations towards worthy artistic endeavour - now for the cheese board:
When George Lucas took almost every staple of the fantasy and pulp adventure genre for Star Wars, some were surprised that he totally ignored a critical element. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alex Raymond brought us many a scantily clad space heroine - George gave us a snitty tomboy clad from neck to ankle in a virginal white cassock.

Ride of The Valkyries - St Exmin racks up another kill
Roger Corman bless him, was having none of this and brought us a Teutonic Goddess in the unforgettable shape of Sybil Danning as St Exmin - showing us that, contrary to popular opinion, apparently it isn't very cold in space. The shock waves from her devastating impact upon our then-developing libidos can still be felt today. There's a joy to watching Danning so clearly aware of exactly what she is bringing to the mix and gleefully working it for all she's worth.

Sorry?  I haven't seen anything until I've seen a Valkyrie do what..?!
Moving on, when Corman did adhere to the Star Wars formula he came somewhat unstuck.  Luke Skywalker was a farm boy, wasn't he?  Well lets get a 'real' one for our film: John-Boy Walton! Han Solo was kind of a space cowboy - lets call our one...ummm... 'Space Cowboy'. That Force pseudo-mysticism seemed to go down well - lets make our's even more incomprehensible - and have a xylophone which causes landslides!

George Peppard brings flossing to the peoples of the galaxy
Battle Beyond the Stars is an oddly schizophrenic film: In the space of seconds it moves from a wonderful performance or beautifully shot miniature effect, to a Sid and Marty Kroft set with drapery sale costumes.  Director Jimmy Murakami can inject real excitement into a battle scene, but then seem to deliberately work against the intent of a light exchange between characters or comedy relief sequence.

Gestalt being Nestor enjoys a hotdog in one of the film's cleverer scenes.
But is it fun?  Hell yes.  Dodgy main villain Sador only wanted to live forever - but against all odds this film just might.

"Lazuliii!!" - We used to shrill Cayman of the Lambda zone's battle cry
when plunging from the high board of our town pool.
No-one we knew wore a St Exmin inspired bathing suit, though.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Ford is strong in this one

Just as we were about to disappear beneath an ever-rising flood of Avengers promotional trailers, a few seconds of two old friends from 'A Long Time Ago' appears to have pulled Marvel's plug.

I wasn't going to post anything this weekend, as we have another syncronised retrospective of a post-Star Wars 'homage' coming up in the next couple of days.  But perhaps appropriately,  the second teaser for Decembers Star Wars: The Force Awakens has taken the internet, and at least two Newspapers I worked on last night, by storm.

It's hard to describe what it means to see Han and Chewie back together again, but perhaps this video of Matthew McConaghey's reaction to the teaser sums it up most eloquently:

Naturally everyone's favourite space smuggler is now grey, but the lop-sided grin and trademark drawl are present and correct. Welcome home Captain and first mate of the Millennium Falcon, suddenly it really does feel like December will be an awakening.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The trailer that wagged the Dog

I don't mind The Black Hole, Uncle Walt's answer to Star Wars, it's just that the unique Disney episode created to publicise the $20 million movie was so much more fun.

Someone lost the coin toss for first pick of the costumes.

Major Effects - synopsis:

Joseph Bottoms stars in a semi-documentary about special effects. The plot is minimal, but it's delightful, if largely a plug for Disney's feature The Black Hole.

We've been here before, but instead of talking about the actual film which this surreal hour from the House of Mouse so ably promoted, I'm returning to The Wonderful World of Disney, Season 26, episode 5: Major Effects.

The Wizard of Speed and Time segment was covered in some depth here: but what about the rest of this TV Special?  Who was Major Effects? What was his history with the Flesh-Eating Fly, and where had we seen the lovely Barnstable twins before?

Even IMBD and Wikipedia don't tell us much beyond a cast list and running time, so I have to rely on my increasingly unreliable memory to describe an hour of TV from a Sunday evening 35 years ago.  But it really was that memorable for me.

The role of Major Effects was essayed by Joseph Bottoms, who this sync-ed Hole-y trinity:
might tell you also played the lacquer-headed Lt Pizer in The Black Hole.

"It's like a super trailer for Black Hole. I unravel all the mysteries of special effects, wardrobe, sound and even how to hang on a wire belt. Today I'm playing an old man of 99, but I also have this red and gold superhero outfit. I wear gold boots, gold hotpants, like Charo's, and red tights!"
(Actor Joseph Bottoms, interviewed in 1979, is breathless with enthusiasm for his role in Major Effects)

Bottoms is aged to 99 to demonstrate makeup effects
 (needs more than hair lacquer now)

The Major takes us on a sweeping, light-hearted look at visual effects, punctuated by many clips from The Black Hole and cheerfully deranged sequences like the aforementioned Wizard, and a battle between our caped super-host and some of his greatest adversaries. The villain he seems most rattled by looks like the title character from The Fly after spending years at the gym and taking a job as a bouncer.

Quark - another Star Wars-engendered production
more fun than The Black Hole.

Cyb and Tricia Barnstable were twin actress/models who already had a science fiction pedigree with regular roles in Quark, a briefly-lived 1978 NBC comedy sci-fi series about a galactic refuse collector.
One was Betty and the other was her clone, (collectively known as the Bettys), but we never knew which was which. This time the Barnstables assisted the Major in ways we can only guess at from this publicity still.

Cynically, it has to be mentioned that the direction (and indeed, title) of Major Effects strongly implies that state-of-the-art visuals were the whole raison d'etre for The Black Hole, a mistake which many Star Wars 'inspired' space sagas were to make.
In our current times of studio-vetted 'puff piece' extras on DVD and Blu-Ray editions and bland appearances on chat shows to pimp cinema releases, the idea of a movie promotion as elaborate, creative and intentionally obscure as Major Effects seems quite insane. And it certainly was, in the best possible way.

"...eight day shooting schedule cut to an effective two. Show cannot be obvious Black Hole promotional because promos will not be publicised by media.  Previewing the movie's workings might give away the magic.  Original plans to spotlight the true behind-the-camera stars fizzle when they don't want to appear in front of the camera.  Network temporarily pulls show for alleged PG-rated movie being previewed in G-rated timeslot - and much more."
(Writer, Director, Actor and Wizard Mike Jittlov explains the Major Effects production difficulties which led to genius)

The original reels have probably melted, been lost, or even turned into motorway landfill but I'd dearly love to see Major Effects released on disc - maybe with The Black Hole as an extra.

Mike Jittlov explains in his own words, in Starlog 33.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Tome Reader

When the going gets a little tough, you can always make your own 'carrot on a stick' to keep moving forward...

Real life (TM) has been a little trying recently.  I work in an ever-changing industry which seems to be reaching the point where a week's worth of stability is now more of a change than anything else coming our way.
A born fretter, fifteen years of exposure to this has environment actually made me more of a 'Once was Worrier', giving up the illusion of security in the arms of a caring employer has left me a happier and less troubled soul. Like Doris Day, I now draw comfort in life's one sureness of 'whatever will be, will be'.

But a current, particularly prolonged period of upheaval with no end in sight is going to eventually take it's toll, no matter how thick my shiny, philosophical glaze has become.  It's times like this you often look back and draw comfort from elements of your life that have always brought you succour when you've needed it.  For me, its Horror.

Yes, not only is that paradoxical but also weird and a bit creepy. But I'm generally regarded as a cheerful, positive sort of chap,  I believe partly because immersing myself in Horror cinema is deeply cathartic and lets me work out my fears and negativity on what is happening on screen.  Not to say I don't enjoy what I watch, I deeply love the genre of chills, although my particular preference is more for anything before and including the mid-seventies.  More latter-day slash and splatter leaves me cold - I'll take venerable atmosphere over teenage viscera any day.

I have shamefully neglected attributing another of the main influences for me beginning this blog for too long. The Hypnogoria podcast is an enthusiastic and meticulously researched homage to 'fantastic fiction' of every variety, including film, and host Jim Moon's melifluous Northern tones have accompanied us on many a long car journey.

His most recent 'cast was about a book which he regards as his 'bible', one of the very first 'coffee table books' about Horror Films, Alan Frank's A Movie Treasury of Horror Movies (1974).  This is something I was always convinced I actually owned, until Moon began to describe it in detail and I realised that I actually have the follow-up book: The Movie Treasury of Monsters and Vampires, published two years later and for many years the most lavish book I had in my embryonic but growing collection.  Although some of the choices of images in this book are distinctly 'sensation-seeking' (the back cover features the creature from Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell with bloody tissue hanging from where his eyes should be) Alan Frank is no slouch as either a writer or researcher. His analysis and reviews proved invaluable for me in deciding which Sunday Horrors really were worth staying up for.

If you think the front cover is startling, you should see the back!

When Jim Moon began reminiscing about how he gained his love of Horror film and enthusiasm for writing about and reviewing them at 'Alan Frank's knee' as he grew up; returning to The Movie Treasury's pages again and again, it struck a chord with my own experience. And I suddenly, desperately wanted the book he was talking about - the one I didn't have.
Flicking speculatively to Trade Me I was astonished to find that very book up for grabs and placed my first on-line bid ever. I can't honestly say an intense biding war ensued, mainly because you need at least one other participant for a battle, but I now have A Movie Treasury of Horror Movies winging it's way to me.

When coffee table books ruled the Earth, even the grim Reaper was a Cover Boy

It's a tiny event, I know, but sometimes it's the little treats we look forward to which help us hang on through life's bumpier passages. And if the book's original owner feels a little regret that he's surrendered this tome for the price of a cup of coffee, I hope he'll take solace in the fact the Movie Treasury will be treasured for at least my lifetime.

Now I know I had this one somewhere - time for a rummage in the attic.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Cool Change

I rate Astrology and the Little River Band equally, but I really was born in the sign of water, and it's there that I feel my best...

Where to today: pontoon, or fountain?

A competitive cyclist once told me that you don't see the scenery during an 'event'.  You're focusing on the road underneath you and the competitors in front of you.  I think I must have mentally crossed- off ever wanting to do the Round the Lake Taupo event there and then.  I enjoy cycling, because it takes me places where I can enjoy the peace and beauty of different and ever-changing surroundings - not the sight of blistering tar-seal or lycra-clad, frantically pumping buttocks ahead of me.  I'll never be a record-breaking or even technically-proficient cyclist, but just a happy one - I like looking around too much.

Like-wise, I love swimming but I'm hardly a good swimmer.  My head generally stays above the water, like a periscope with huge wing-nuts on either side, as I swivel it around enjoying the novelty of the undulating, bluish-green plane of Wellington harbour stretching out on every side of me.  The wet-suited, goggled and fiercely professional swimmers who knife past me, faces flipping in and out of the water in approved breathing fashion, would be shaking their heads disparagingly if they could, and weren't so committed to strictly pacing harsh gasps and strokes.

I think I get away with it because I'm ridiculously bouyant - staying afloat requires almost no conscious effort at all. Being a lightweight can have it's advantages, and this appears to be one of them. When I was given my own full wetsuit for Paua diving we had to keep buying and adding more lead sinkers to the weight belt just so I could submerge.

So with my mind off floating I can give all my attention to covering distance - which I've tried to extend over the past three months.  Note I say three months - January, February and even March have been drenched so abundantly in sunshine that the days I've been able to swim in the harbour during my lunchbreak far outweigh those when weather stopped play.

French Riveria? The Mediterranean? Nah, it's Wellington, bro.

Having an hour including the time it takes to get the beach means that there is no time for timidity over water temperature or concerns about what else might be in there. (The Wellington Waterfront has hosted a colony of stingray for many years, which has made a strong comeback since being devoured by a visiting pod of Orca).  Straight into the water and out to the moored pontoons is the usual pattern, but since reaching the fountain last year I've repeated that circuit many times this summer.

A potential 'swimming buddy' basks in the sun in neighbouring Chaffer's Marina

There is a special peace about being so far from shore, moving through the sparkling water with nothing else to think about than trying to keep your strokes and breaths as smooth and regular as possible. Every muscle is working but at the same time you are being supported by the sea around you - you might feel the effort afterwards, but for now it's as natural as breathing.  And achieving that blissful state of passive-exertion more important to me than winning a race or breaking a record (as if).

Now into April, I swam for what might be the final time last week. The weather is becoming distinctly less settled (daylight saving ends tonight) and the harbour seems a little more chilly.
 Oddly, despite having next-to-no body fat, water temperature doesn't seem to bother me too much once I get moving - but I have my limits.

I'm reluctant to fold up my towel for another year; it really does feel like saying goodbye to summer.  But what a summer it's been.

Some days you just don't want to stop: There's a buoy just out of view at the top of this map,
which I'd like to try for - next summer.


Not long after publishing this post, another potential swimming buddy 'surfaced'. A two metre female Blue Shark became temporarily trapped in a partitioned 'jumping well' on the Wellington waterfront. By some accounts the most cuddly of sharks, this specimen was freed at low tide with some help from the Department of Conservation.  
Hopefully, I'll have forgotten about this unfortunate event by next summer, when I'm swimming out beyond the fountain, so very far from shore...