Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, January 07, 2005
      ( 1/07/2005 02:20:00 PM ) Bill S.  

DOLLA A DISC – So I've stopped into our local Farm and Fleet (the place for all your agricultural and truckin' needs – and they have a darn good pet supply section, too!) And passing the tiny boomboxy electronics area, I see a bin of cut-out CDs that have been marked down to a buck apiece. Naturally, I can't resist checking out this display, and I discover – amongst the cheap crap "best-ofs" – some older discs that I don't already own in compact disc form. Among these are two Squeeze releases (the spotty Cool for Cats and the group's second best album Sweets from A Stranger); an Allison Moyet I've never heard in full before (Essex, not as good as her debut solo release or her work with Yazoo, but worth it for her cover of Jules Shears' "Whispering Your Name"); and the soundtrack to Shallow Hal (say what you will about the Farrelly Bros., but they hire great music supervisors).

But the gem of my haul has got to be Guilty Pleasures, one of those Sony CD collections released in the early nineties under the "Risky Business" umbrella. Compiled and annotated by Dawn Eden (a presentday conservative weblogger), the set is subtitled "Music You Hate to Love." It consists of kitschy hits and almost hits like "Quick Joey Small" (a bubblegum masterwork that at one time was part of the Cramps' set); Puppet's faux Nilsson cover of the theme to "Courtship of Eddie's Father;" Pilot's "Magic;" Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet" and a song by the Association that I singled out in a review of Hallucinations: "Pandora's Golden Heebie Jeebies." Ain't a lotta discs out there that feature both Paul Revere & the Raiders and Michelle Lee. We're all the poorer for it, I say.

In fact, after listening to the disc, I find I don't hate any of it. I love the goofy way the Village Stompers' "Washington Square" illogically morphs from Hootenanny folk into Dixieland – or the improbable reference by the band's whitebread singer to gettin' funky like Etta James in Blaze's "Silver Heels." These tunes all make me grin, and the Gibb Bros. crafted "Gilbert Green" (sung by Gerry of And the Pacemakers) reminds me what swell marshmallowy pop-rockers the boys could be back in the day. Even like the faux Beach Boys track by Celebration ("featuring Mike Love") that closes the set, though the Brian Wilson partisan in me still wants to kick Love's ass. (At his age, I think I could take him.) A great find: definitely worth a dollar!

UPDATE: Compiler Eden writes of her frustration with the Guilty Pleasures set (curse you, HaloScan, and your thousand font text limit!) in the comments section below.
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      ( 1/07/2005 07:34:00 AM ) Bill S.  

FISH FOR FRIDAY – You say you want a cat picture? Here's three of the OakHaus felines – Willow, Xander and Savannah – imbibing from a platter of drained dolphin tuna juice.

That's good lappin'. . .
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Thursday, January 06, 2005
      ( 1/06/2005 03:19:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"HAMMER HORROR! DRAGON THRILLS!" – With shows like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and movies like the Blade franchise successfully upping the ante on action-horror these days, the 1974 Hammer hybrid Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is certainly due for a reconsideration. A close-to-last-ditch attempt by the waning British horror film studio to pull in audiences that had switched their allegiances from gothic grue to chopsocky fighting, the movie was produced in collaboration with prolific Hong Kong kung fu producers the Shaw Brothers. The results are a messy hybrid – more Shaw than Hammer, actually – that's ultimately more goofily entertaining than gothically scary. But if you're not depressed by the spectacle of this once top-notch B-movie factory yielding to a standard of horror filmmaking that makes the Mexican Santos pics look slick, the movie can be cheesy fun.

Starring Peter Cushing as Professor Van Helsing, a role he originated in the early Hammer classic Horror of Dracula and impeccably portrayed through a series of movie follow-ups (the best of which is Brides of Dracula), and Shaw leading man David Chiang, as one of seven brothers enlisted in a battle against an army of the undead, the movie opens with a prologue set in Transylvania circa 1804. There, a mysterious Oriental traveler named Kah (Shen Chan) makes his way to Castle Dracula in an attempt to strike a deal with the vampire lord (mincingly played by a heavily made-up John Forbes-Robertson: the least menacing Dracula this side of Jeffrey Tambor). Kah is a high priest back in China for a group known as the Seven Golden Vampires, though from what we can gather this gang is so bad at their job that the village they've been terrorizing has been rising up against them. The priest has come to enlist Dracula's aid to help his vampire masters reassert their rightful place, but the master vamp has other ideas. Grasping onto the high priest, he "takes on" the image of Kah (how this is supposed to work is never explained, but it involves a lotta fx smoke – and we never see the human Kah again), then presumably heads for China.

The film shifts to Chung King a hundred years later, where we see (after a nifty village milieu establishing shot that includes a close-up of a frog’s head getting lopped off) Cushing's Van Helsing lecturing on vampires to a skeptical audience of Chinese academics. He recounts the Legend of the Seven Golden Vamps, which (we sharp viewers realize) is set in the same village that the high priest was talking about in the prologue. It is as Van Helsing recounts the legend that we get our first sense of just how different the Chinese bloodsuckers will be from Robertson's more familiar Eurotrash Drac. Wearing gold masks to cover their oatmeal-mottled faces and white buggy eyes, along with absurdly large gold bat medallions that appear to provide some sort of mystical protection (and are shockingly easy to remove), they hold up in a temple where they fondle and suckle on those half-naked village girls they keep chained in a circle around a cauldron of bubbling blood, while Dracula/Kah stands back and imperiously presides over the festivities. Instead of being burned by the crucifix, this band of bloodsuckers is susceptible to images of the Lord Buddha.

Despite his reputation as a vampire hunter supreme, Van Helsing's pleas for help in finding this village largely go unheeded – even though he assures the crowd that he's had personal experience with the lord of the vampires himself. (But didn't, the prologue conscious viewer can't help asking, Count Dracula leave for China a hundred years ago?) Despair not, though, for there's this one serious-eyed looking student in the group: Hsi Ching (Chiang), one of seven brothers (and a sister!) who come from that self-same village. Hsi has come to ask Van Helsing for help in ridding their town of this vampire scourge, which he agrees to do with the aid of his son, Leyland Van Helsing (Robin Stewart), and a tagalong Scandinavian heiress (non-acting beauty Julie Ege, one of the allergic vixens in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) who funds the excursion. You just know the latter is gonna be vampire fodder before the movie ends, especially after she starts getting close to Hsi on the long ride to the village.

We meet the seven brothers (and a sister!), who all turn out to be mighty fighters with varying skills that are really the only way we have of differentiating 'em (Look! There's the brother who’s adept at swinging his mace!) The middle part of Legend is primarily devoted to two energetic fight scenes – one against a gang of tong thugs, the second in a rubber-bat-infested cave against the golden vamps – which appear to have been directed by Shaw journeyman Chang Che even though Britisher Roy Ward Baker (a familiar name to British horror buffs) receives credit as the movie's director. The kung fu scenes are fun, though poor Peter Cushing is shunted off to the sidelines to basically look concerned as the kids all get in their kicks. Son Leyland is shown shooting the vampires, but I'm not sure he hits any.

By the time our crew makes it to the village to hold off a final siege of vamps and zombies, the younger Van Helsing has fallen in love with the group's knife-wielding and-a-sister! (Shih Szu). The scenes featuring the army of undead hup-hupping toward the village have a surreal charm, while the climactic battle itself is measurably more exciting than the movie's climactic battle in the temple between Van Helsing and Dracula (who helpfully morphs back into his Forbes-Robertson body). The latter is staged so quickly and perfunctorily (Drac leaps once; Van Helsing stakes him!) that longtime Hammer fans can't help negatively contrasting it to the great blood-and-thundery confrontations 'tween Cushing and Chris Lee. Maybe director Baker was being mindful of the actor's age (he was in his early sixties at the time this flick was lensed), but it certainly falls flat after we've been shown so much more dynamic fighting already. You'd almost feel badly for Cushing if you didn't know he was only two years away from playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars.

Despite its seemingly infallible blend of exploitation movie elements, Legend took several years to arrive in the United States (and, even then, it was released with something like fourteen minutes of non-action footage chopped off its 88-minute running time – and retitled The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula). It's presently available on DVD as a part of Anchor Bay's Hammer Collection, packaged in a two-disc set alongside the more traditional Cushing starring feature Frankenstein Created Woman. The disc containing Legend is a flipper, which includes the bowdlerized American version along with an audio track that I've yet to play of Cushing reading the "Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires." Not the first of Anchor Bay's Hammer Collections that I'd recommend to a viewer wanting to see what the studio could do at its best – I'd recommend the line's Quatermass two-fer first – but it's still plenty kicky. I'm betting Joss Whedon knows the fight scenes in Legend backwards and forwards. . .
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Wednesday, January 05, 2005
      ( 1/05/2005 01:20:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"CRAZY AS MUD BUGS ON A GRIDDLE" – Been re-watching episodes of Carnivale this week via "HBO On Demand," so we can be more up to speed when the second season premieres on cable Sunday. We've been enjoying the revisit, getting a stronger sense of character interrelationship this time through – as with fortuneteller Sofie's (Clea Duvall) sexually charged friendship with cootch show dancer Libby (Carla Gallo), which is foreshadowed earlier in the series than we remembered – but for some reason, the "On Demand" menu carries every episode in the first season except Episode Seven. As a result, ominous evangelical Brother Justin (Clancy Brown) goes from walking the dusty roads of California in Ep Six to receiving asylum shock treatment to the music of Brecht-&-Weill in Ep Eight – and we're scrambling trying to recall what occurred in Number Seven to get him tossed into the rubber room. Had to finally visit the HBO website to get the full skinny (after first sending 'em an email asking why the episode was missing from the package). Which rather undermines the whole idea behind that convenient "On Demand" cable option, don't ya think?
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Tuesday, January 04, 2005
      ( 1/04/2005 09:25:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WILL EISNER – Just read on Tom Spurgeon's site (and had it confirmed at Will Eisner.com) that Will Eisner passed away yesterday at the age of 87 yesterday following quadruple bypass surgery. (Per earlier reports, the surgery had gone smoothly, but at Eisner's age even the smoothest procedures can lead to complications.) I've been a fan of the man's work since I was introduced to it through the combined one-two punch of Harvey Comics' 1966 "Spirit" reprint comics – and Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes collection, which I also read that same year. His groundbreaking "Spirit" comics from the forties and fifties remain endlessly re-readable, and if his twilight graphic novels (from A Contract with God on) have always had an old-fashioned air to 'em, they're arguably the closest comics has to the mature movies of a Jean Renoir. Were it not for Eisner, comics storytelling would look a whole lot different than it does today.

Though I never met the man, I'll definitely miss him. . .

UPDATE: As the story passes around the blogosphere, Tegan has posted "The Spirited Life" eNewsletter with a fuller accounting of Eisner's life and accomplishments.
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      ( 1/04/2005 07:31:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"I'M ON AN ISLAND" – Now that all the holiday blog contests have concluded, Tegan of Bloggity-Blog-Blog-Blog is offering a copy of Jeff Nicholson's graphic novel Colonia: Islands and Anomalies to the writer to the writer who best captures in 50 words or less how or why comics make good educational tools. Details are here, so why not check it out? And if you win, we all expect a review (in 50 words or less) of Nicholson's book.
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Monday, January 03, 2005
      ( 1/03/2005 12:15:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"YOU CAN HEAR THE GUNS OUTSIDE/WATCHING RIOTS WITH THEIR EYES" – And as we open the new year's blogging for real, let's commence with a round of bullet-pointing!
  • As someone who chose a career in a low-salary profession (social services/child welfare), I've long been reconciled to the probability that I'm more likely to keel over and die still working than I'll ever see any real retirement. That noted, I've been reading a slew of material on social security over the past few weeks – and, while my economically illiterate self can't feel so sure of myself that I'll definitively say which take on the situation is correct, reading that the Bush Admin is modeling their sale of privatization to the Am public in the same way that they sold the War on Iraq can't help but send up the red flags. In this light, the administration's passing acquaintanceship with the facts becomes even more ominous.

    I've read some bloggers express the belief that the accuracy of the Bush Administration's claims around WMDs is small cheese compared to what's been accomplished in Iraq. I'm willing to acknowledge the possible validity of the need for governmental deception in pursuit of a "greater good." But the fact that this administration played so fast and loose with the threat of weapons of mass destruction can't help but undercut its alarums about the "social security crisis." Once you've been marked as Expediency At All Costs governers, it's difficult to regain that, whatchewcallit, believability when you're striving to rally the country a second time. . .

  • Was amused to see that my three-days of pet pics caught the attention of a hitherto unfamiliar blog called The Modulator and was included in a listing of pet blogs called the Friday Ark. That's it: reinforce the behavior by giving me unexpected pings!

  • We got a couple of the usual suspects DVD sets as gifts for the holidays: the Star Wars collection (yeah, I know the fannish objections, but as an endless rewriter myself, I'm totally empathetic toward Lucas' desire to "correct" his babies – and, even if the Jabba the Hut we see in the first flick is only a pale reflection of the bloated menace in Jedi, Lucas really did clean up fx that looked wobbly on the smaller TV screen) plus the full-bodied Return of the King. (Put me down as one of those viewers who believe the decision to keep Chris Lee out of the theatrical release of this flick was a woeful one.)

    And speaking of great British character villains, I also used a Borders gift cert card to pick up the Anchor Bay two-disc reissue of two Peter Cushing Hammer gems: Frankenstein Created Women (which I remember seeing on its American release at The Drive-In!) and the chopsocky vampire movie, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. I'd long heard about the latter flick, a collaboration between the British studio and the Shaw Brothers, but I hadn't managed to see it until now. (The American release, which didn't come out for about six years after its release, is severely truncated, so perhaps this is a good thing: Anchor Bay's DVD has both versions.) It's an enjoyable curiosity, though, which I know I'll be returning to in greater detail later this week.

  • After viewing Lucas' spruced-up reissue of A New Hope on New Year's Eve, we took in one of Starz network’s on-demand offerings of a James Bond flick this weekend: On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The cable nets have been using Bond for years as an easy holiday draw, but it's the first time since I-don't-know-when that the movies have been shown on a cable net without ads ("full-screen" versions, unfortunately). OHMSS is, of course, the frequently ignored "Not-Sean-Connery-or-Roger-Moore" Bond flick, though it's much loved in our house. (Two words: Diana Rigg.) But there's a moment in it that can definitely show the problems with not using new technology to spruce up old films. It's a quick bit, done when our hero (the well-chinned George Lazenby) has been captured by arch-fiend Ernst Blofeld (Telly Savalas, still the best Blofeld to my eyes) and the blackguard wants to gloat and show that he's been on to 007 all the time by shockingly revealing the body of a murdered agent dangling off the Swiss mountainside. There's such a distinct color difference between the block of image containing the unfortunate agent and the mountain rock surrounding it that the effect is totally blown. The movie itself doesn't really recover until its still-unmatched ski chases. . .

  • After reading several plugs for it in year-end music reviews, I picked up a copy of the Zutons' Who Killed. . .The Zutons? (Epic) last week. First few times I played it, I kept wanting to check the booklet to make sure I hadn't brought a Coral disc instead; both groups' lead vocalists share a similar voice, and their music has a intriguing ability to venture into psychedelic minor keys at surprising moments. I'd rank the Zutons' debut over their fellow Liverpudlians' sophomore release, though – am especially taken by the appearance of X-Ray Specs-ish sax squonks on several tracks and the band's willingness to look back farther than 1964 (all the way back to rockabilly) for its musical ideas. Loads of pop-rock potential, think I.

  • As a sporadic fan of DC's Legion of Superheroes (love the silly Silver Age stories with Superboy, but have had a difficult time with the Superboy-doesn't-exist-anymore-no-wait-now-he-does! series of more recent vintage), I was cautiously curious about Mark Waid's recent rebooting of the series, which debuted in December. Waid has taken the series' biggest central problem – the diffused focus created by an over-abundance of barely distinguishable supertypes – and made joke of it in the first issue. (Virtually every teen in the United Planets is now a member of the Legion.) Whether Waid'll be able to move beyond this gag to actually producing stories with characters we recognize and care about is still anyone's guess (first ish is mainly set-up). But I'm willing to give the first story arc a try.
More later.

(Background Music for this Round o' Bullet-Pointing: the Zutons.)
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Sunday, January 02, 2005
      ( 1/02/2005 07:50:00 AM ) Bill S.  

CAGED HEAT – And just to complete the circle this weekend, here's a pic of the house ferrets:

And to complete the survey of animal types in the menagerie, we currently live w./ two dogs, three ferrets and four cats. . . (We used to have ONE! SIAMESE! FIGHTING FISH! but it's since passed on.)
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Saturday, January 01, 2005
      ( 1/01/2005 01:01:00 PM ) Bill S.  

EQUAL TIME FOR CANINE BLOGGING! – I'm still in the middle of deadlining (though my wifely collaborator and I did just finish one of the aforementioned projects – the penultimate 100th chapter of an ongoing romantic serial, "Measure By Measure," which we've been producing for the size acceptance online site, Dimensions). So here's another stopgap animal photo, this time of our dawg Dusty contemplating the holidays:

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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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