Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, August 07, 2005
      ( 8/07/2005 10:01:00 AM ) Bill S.  

PHOTOBUCKETING – Just a test pic of dawgs Ziggy Stardust and Cedar as this blogger gives the former a brushing.

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      ( 8/07/2005 06:48:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BETTER HIM THAN ME – Wilson Barbers actually sits through the first "full-figured reality beauty pageant": Mo'Nique's Fat Chance
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Friday, August 05, 2005
      ( 8/05/2005 12:29:00 PM ) Bill S.  

PISS, VOMIT & OTHER CHUNKS OF COMEDY GOLD – Turned out to be Bad Taste Night over at Gadabout Central last night: watched the extended version of Bad Santa on Starz On-Demand, plus the two debut eps of fx's new "edgy" sitcoms, Starved and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In the end, it's the boozy Santa who won the night – and by a wide margin. I'm not entirely sure why this is, though one of my theories revolves around the idea that bad taste and ironic sitcom self-mockery too frequently cancel each other out.

Bad [or Badder, as the DVD release had it] Santa doesn't traffic in any Seinfeld-ian self-awareness: it's a loud and abrasive one-joke movie that repeats itself way too many times (its title hero is shown pissing himself twice in his Santa suit) and made me laff much more often than I expected it to. It's not just that Billy Bob Thornton is a stitch as the reprobate alky safe-cracker who makes his living dressing as Santa one month a year so he can rob the shopping malls that hire him (though he is); it's the John Waters-ian gusto with which director Terry Zwigoff (a long way from Crumb or Ghost World, but very close to R. Crumb's lumpen prole drunkard Bo Bo Bolinski) attacks the material.

In contrast, the makers of both Starved and Philadelphia seem too concerned with establishing their coolness cred than actually telling jokes. While both series revolve around a quartet of egocentric urbanites, it's Eric Schaeffer's Starved that has the more original premise (Philly is essentially a younger Friends blended with Cheers). His foursome first meets via an eating disorders group called Belt Tighteners and maintains coffee shop contact with each other outside the group. As someone who has more than a passing familiarity with addiction groups, I can attest to the fact that there's plenty of mordant comedy to be found in the rationalizations and neurotic behaviors of self-loathing addicts. But Schaeffer blows it in the outset by making his self-help group so cartoonish it keeps the comic focus away from its members' actions.

His Belt Tighteners, we're told at the outset, is unlike your typical twelve-step program in that it primarily works through humiliation and shame (whenever a member confesses going off the wagon, the rest of the group chants, "It's Not Okay!”) So when bulimic cop Adam (Sterling K. Brown) harasses a Chinese restaurant deliveryman so he can confiscate a bag of his goods and afterwards proceeds to upchuck his meal on a sleeping homeless person, the pay-off scene where he's threatened with expulsion from the group has no comic impact. We already know that what Adam did is "Not Okay;" we watched him do it, after all. What we need to see is Adam squirming as he confesses his appalling deed in public – or a response from the group that's more comically dissonant than the one we've already been primed to expect.

Schaeffer (who wrote and directed the opening episode, along with starring as the snobbish anorectic commodities broker Sam) occasionally comes up with a bright joke at the expense of his characters. A running joke in the first ep about Sam's obsession with the actress in a teevee ad for "Godiva Chocolate Muffins" makes some obvious but funny points about the commodification of food and sex in our culture – while a discussion between the foursome about whether a 5'9", 140-pound girl is "fat" is brightly piggish. "There's no way of knowing 'til you see 'em in pants," Adam definitively declares, and the joke is in the sureness with which he makes that pronouncement.

The problem is, after a half hour with this group (Laura Benanti's bisexual singer and Del Pentecost's overeating fat writer, included), I wasn't sufficiently concerned about any of their travails to either cringe at or relish their inevitable humiliations. Though they'd been driven to a self-help group, we're not sure why since none of 'em appear to be seriously distressed by their behaviors. Unlike Billy Bob's piss-stained Kringle, I never once saw the humanity in this pathetic quartet of narcissistic urbanites (or in Philadelphia's clump of even more vacuous twenty-somethings). Which ultimately made both shows' sitcomishly "offensive" moments much less funny – or shocking – than they should've been.
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Thursday, August 04, 2005
      ( 8/04/2005 11:05:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"AND I FEEL LIKE A BEETLE ON ITS BACK!" – It sez something about the pop music dialectic – at least as it's applied in the U.S. of A. – that it took so long for Gang of Four's Entertainment (Warner Bros./Rhino) to appear on compact disc. For the longest time, the only CDs featuring this Brit band were a one-disc WB retrospective – and a two-disc Rhino anthology. Both featured tracks from the band's debut release, of course, but in both cases, the package was sweetened by the inclusion of later, more openly danceriffic cuts (e.g., "I Love A Man in A Uniform.") It took the success of GoF-influenced popsters like Franz Ferdinand, I suspect, to pave the way for the re-release of this indispensable early 80's artyfact.

The Gang, originally a quartet, rose from the same British DiY scene, which also produced another great confluence of leftist quasi-musicians, the Mekons. The two groups shared the same indy label for their first singles (Fast Records, which also had the Human League in an artier incarnation) and angry political bent. GoF even name-check the Mekons in their debut album’s liner notes. But where the latter tempered their political righteousness with literary humor and a love of rock & country dynamics (even a punky classic like "Never Been in A Riot" is at heart a big nosethumb at the Clash), the Gang of Four were more unrelenting – and never more than on this premiere album. A few bars into opening track, "Ether," with Dave Allen's throbbing bass, Andy Gill's chaotic sputtering guitars and hectoring overlapping chant vocals by Gill and Jon King, and you either turned off on the band's impassioned herky-jerky post-punk sound and overly analytical lyrics – or just started spasmodically dancing.

Many of the best GoF songs took the minimalist strictures of dub & punk music and selectively enforced them in the most confounding ways possible: in more than one track, guitarist Gill deliberately backs away from doing a guitar solo, sometimes trailing off to let the bass and drums do the work, sometimes simply relying on dissonant feedback ("I Found That Essence Rare," "Anthrax") Gang of Four weren't the only band to create such rock noise in the late seventies/early eighties (Richard Hell & the Voidoids immediately come to mind); they were just the best, in large part due to their wondrous rhythm section. For me, the track that let me know I'd forever love this album was its fourth, "Damaged Goods," an anti-love, anti-capitalism song with one of the meanest, most insistent choruses in art-pop history ("Your kiss so sweet, your sweat so sour/Sometimes I'm thinking that I love you, but I know it's only lust!") and a startlingly searing guitar line.

Back in 1980, when the majority of Americans still wasn't sure about embracing the cartoon punkery of the Ramones (and isn't it a moment right out of Entertainment to realize that "Blitzkrieg Bop" is currently being used for a Diet Pepsi commercial?), the idea of dancing to a bunch of confrontational Marxists who could insert the phrase "bourgeois state" into a song with a straight face was a pretty difficult one for many rock fans. As a result, Gang of Four never came close to matching the same level of popular success that a political band like the Clash achieved, in part because they were more willfully academic. But if their lyrical approach limited their audience, it also meant that the band would never write a song as trivial as the Clash's most patent anti-consumerist tract, "Coca Cola," either. And, besides, there's always that set of great dance beats.

Gotta admit, though, that as happy as I am to finally have a copy of this album on disc (Rhino's repackaging also includes the group's follow-up EP, Yellow, which contains the atypically straightforward early (1978) Fast single, "Armalite Rifle"), I'm thinking that I won't pull it out as frequently as I do my favorite Mekons discs: at times, listening to the boys is like getting into a conversation with one of those irritating co-workers who is so concerned with being right that they don't bother filtering whether what they're telling you is obvious or profound. Sometimes you're in the mood for it; sometimes you're not. Too, for all their acknowledgement of the plight of the average men and women (e.g. "It's Her Factory"), the Gang just ain't as humane as Jon Lanford and his crew of boozy socialists.

I will note, however, that recently watching G.W. Bush on the teevee introducing "screw-you" U.N. ambassador appointee John Bolton to the American people couldn't help putting me in the mood to hear the band's written-history-is-bunk tune/tract "Not Great Men." Not sure I like the idea that this 25-year-old musical yowl still has so much current relevance, though. . .
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Tuesday, August 02, 2005
      ( 8/02/2005 03:22:00 PM ) Bill S.  

OVER AT THE GALAXY – Yonder at the Comic Book Galaxy, they've posted an "Off the Shelves" column by yours truly about a trade reprint I was surprised to find myself enjoying: David & Kieth's Wolverine: Blood Hungry.
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      ( 8/02/2005 08:18:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"WHAT WERE YOU GOING TO DO WITH ALL THOSE. . .BITS AND PIECES?" – Though it'd been sitting on my shelves for over a year, I was more than a little gun-shy about viewing Hammer Films' Frankenstein And the Monster from Hell (1974). The final offering in the once-popular series of genre films directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing as the anti-heroic Victor Frankenstein, Hell is generally considered to be the worst in the group. Few fans enjoy experiencing the work of a favorite artist or creative company in its decline, and the fact that the artwork on the Paramount DVD (set me back a full five bucks at Wal-Mart) looked so cheesy was a disincentive as well.

Well, I finally watched the movie over the weekend, and while the results weren't as painful as I'd feared, the movie is a definite bring down for the series. The best Hammer flicks gussied up low-budget b-movie storytelling with energetic acting, crisp writer, economically placed but lushly colored sets, and colorful bursts of blood. In Hell, you get the grue and Cushing in typically fine form – but the other elements are pretty shaky.

The movie opens on a decent note: with one of the studio's familiar character types engaging in a little bit of late-nite grave robbing. Our one-man Burke-&-Hare turns out to be the town drunk, not the best choice for this biz since they're likely to spill the beans the instant a comical copper starts looking at 'em sideways. This indeed is what happens, and soon handsome young doctor Simon Helder (Shane Briant, sporting a suitably 70's layered haircut and shown riffling through a blood-stained volume of The Collected Works of Doctor Frankenstein) is committed to the local insane asylum. Hiding within the institution (the model of which looks about as substantial as a power plant in a Godzilla movie) under the pseudonym: Cushing's Frankenstein, now calling himself Dr. Carl Victor. "Victor" is blackmailing the asylum’s corrupt director and, of course, performing his experiments on the inmates. Abetting him in this dastardly work is a beauteous mute named Angel (Madeline Smith), though why she's involved in this grisly work is never really explained. What we mainly learn about Angel through the course of the movie is: a.) she's beloved by all the other lunatics; b.) her muteness is a symptom of Posttraumatic Stress and c.) even though she's living in a grungy European madhouse, she never forgets to properly apply her makeup.

Dr. Frankenvictor enlists Dr. Helder to help in his latest project, a new manmade human built on the body of Herr Schneider, a recently deceased homicidal maniac described as a "throwback, more animal than human." To refine the resurrected Herr Schneider, the Baron is hastening the demise of inmates with promising body parts (the hands of a sculptor, the brain of a mathematical genius) and transplanting these parts to the shambling creature. Even with new hands and brain, Schneider (David Prowse, still three years away from Star Wars) appears animalistic – like a balding gorilla with a very hairy back, a bulbous human nose and red wax lips – but the look is remarkably unimpressive, particularly when we see that the mask Prowse is wearing won't even allow his lips to move. (This is six years after the original Planet of the Apes, after all, so it's not like that wasn't doable.) But before he can speak, Schneider, who was apparently killed in an escape attempt, requires both brain and eyes transplanted into his demi-simian head. This leads to the movie's grisly high point: an extended brain surgery sequence performed by Dr. Helder with a small handsaw and capped by a shot of the animal man's old brain being casually dumped into a pan on the floor, then kicked aside by Dr. "Carl."

It all goes bad, of course, in part because neither of the two visionary surgeons has sufficient sense to keep their experiment caged. He breaks loose twice, and the second time wreaks murderous revenge on the asylum director. The "civilized" professorial brain that he's been given is overpowered by the animalistic urges that had driven Schneider for years, and at one point Frankenstein considers giving Angel to the creature as a mate in the hopes that her influence will calm and civilize him. Before our heroine can even be threatened with this fate worse than death, though, the creature is rend into bits by the rest of the asylum's lunatics. The movie anticlimactically ends with the Baron sweeping up the debris in his lab, shrugging off this latest failed experiment with a there's-always-tomorrow stance.

There wasn't a tomorrow for Cushing's amoral mad doc, though, and perhaps that's for the best. Though the movie has some interesting grim ideas, none of them are as fully realized as they could've been; John Elder's script tosses out ideas willy-nilly, only to forget about 'em later. Fisher, a director who relied on crispness more than moodiness, seems particularly tired here and the movie really only perks up in its small bits of ghoulish comedy (as when Cushing holds up an eyeball and asks his colleague, "Do you think that color would suit our friend?") And then there's that damn creature: so consistently phony it looks like it could’ve come out of a Bowery Boys spook comedy. Makes you long for the simpler, more elegant mime corpse played by Chris Lee in the first – or the former Playmate transplant from Frankenstein Created Women – now they were some decent small-budget monsters!
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Monday, August 01, 2005
      ( 8/01/2005 01:56:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"TOGETHER FOR THE FIRST TIME IN ONE MIGHTY MAGAZINE!" – Recently picked up a copy of the Marvel hardbound, Best of the Fantastic Four, Volume One, released to capitalize on the successful summer movie (still haven't seen it – thanx for asking!), and it occurred to me while idly paging through its contents that Fantastic Four #1 has become the "Louie Louie" of superhero comics: a work of great rough-edged popcraft that's appeared in so many retrospective collections that few of us pay sufficient attention to it anymore, skipping instead to the less over-exposed stuff. Perhaps the upcoming Maximum Fantastic Four volume will correct this situation?
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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