Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, July 25, 2009
      ( 7/25/2009 08:28:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SPLITFACE: Recently, TCM ran the four "Dick Tracy" B-movies produced by RKO in the 1940's, followed by Warren Beatty's big-budget misfire released in 1990. Watched the first 'un, simply titled Dick Tracy, this a.m. and found it be a decent little matinee time-passer: truer to the look of the black-and-white dailies than Beatty's weirdly colored Touchstone production managed with the Sunday "Tracy"s. Director William Berke makes maximum use of flat backgrounds and shadows to recreate the look of the strip. Actor Morgan Conway plays Tracy with more of a wink than perhaps is appropriate, though venerable movie thug Mike Mazurki plays the movie's nemesis Splitface (so named because of a deep facial scar) effectively.

The movie's plot (which requires us to believe that one of Splitface's potential victims doesn't remember the guy threatened to kill him until late in the picture) is pretty contrived, but no more so than many of Gould's daily strip adventures. Only place where it truly falls down is in the way it dispatches its bad guy. The original strip was known for its inventive mistreatment of its villains -- so much so that Al Capp would parody this tendency in his "Fearless Fosdick" strips -- but the only thing that happens to the murderous Splitface is his arrest and cuffing at the hands of comic relief Pat Patton. Bet there were a lotta disappointed bloodthirsty kids in the matinee audience when this first ran in the movie houses.


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Friday, July 24, 2009
      ( 7/24/2009 08:11:00 AM ) Bill S.  


THE USUAL NOTE: For more cool pics of companion animals, please check out Modulator's "Friday Ark."
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Wednesday, July 22, 2009
      ( 7/22/2009 08:41:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"LET ME TELL YOU 'BOUT THE AGONY OF LOVE." Here's criminally under-known band Luna doing "1995."

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009
      ( 7/21/2009 04:09:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"JUMPING JETS!" For many of us outside the United Kingdom, the comic series "Dan Dare" is mainly known for its influences on British rock. Pink Floyd, Bowie and Elton John have all included lyrical refs to the character, while the punk band Mekons memorably took their name from the sci-fi series' primary villain. Yet for many young UK readers in the fifties and sixties, Frank Hampson's "Dan Dare" was a major gateway into science fiction. Serialized in the weekly comic Eagle from 1950 to '67, the series recounts the adventures of the "Pilot of the Future" and his friends, most notably his rotund batman Digby and the inevitable nosy boy tagalong (Flamer, so named for his red hair, not any theatrical behaviors).

Dare's gosh-wow adventures, set in the far-off world of 1997, were serialized in two-page chunks in Eagle, with storylines lasting up to a year. While Hampson's strips were clearly aimed at a kid audience ("Golly!" and "Crumbs!" are the most intense interjections uttered in the strip), they were complex enough to engage older readers, while the art (courtesy of Hampson and a studio known as the Old Bakehouse) was meticulously detailed in its renderings of a futuristic Britain. (Hampson reportedly had scale models of many of the ships and cities built so they could be used as references in the actual artwork.) Beautifully realized and colored, the Dare strips are a pleasure just to pore over by themselves.

Titan Books has been reprinting these classic strips in handsome hardbound editions over the last few years, and their latest reissue, The Phantom Fleet, captures Hampson's penultimate Dan Dare adventure. (He left the series in 1959.) The story centers on two aquatic alien races, the Cosmodes and the Pescods, who come to Earth from a "system beyond Earth's scientific knowledge" after their own planet I-Cos starts drying out. The Cosmodes, who are shrimpy enough to stand on an adult human's hand, appear to be friendly, while the larger-sized Pescods are right bastards from the get-go. Utilizing a vaporized acid called the Crimson Death, they plan to conquer Earth and make its oceans their home.

The Cosmodes regularly reiterate that their intentions are honorable, though even our hero has his moments of niggling doubt about this — while some of the more bombastic members of the governing Space Ministry want to Kill 'Em All And Let God Sort It Out. Once the nasty Pescods actually begin their invasion, though, we quickly learn where the Cosmodes' sympathies lie.

"Phantom Fleet" is designed to follow its weekly two-page structure, with many of each week's concluding panels breathlessly telling readers that they sure don't wanna miss next week's "terrific thrills." At times, Hampson oversells the excitement to come, though the story does contain its share of neat moments, particularly in a sequence when our heroes come aboard the aliens' ships for the first time. Young Flamer demonstrates a remarkable facility for sneaking on board just before the big battles, natch: a transparent kid ploy that never would've worked for this reader even back in 1958. As an eight-year-old, I never was much invested in kid sidekicks; I'd much rather focus on the grown-up comic relief like Digby.

As a bonus, an eight-page Christmas trifle, "Operation Plum-Pudding," is included in the volume. Centering on Digby's thwarted desires for a big ol' holiday feast, it's pretty slight, though, again, young Flamer sneaks aboard Dan's space ship Swiftstar, this time with Digby's aid. The kid was incorrigible.

As for our stalwart lead, he's straightlaced and upright in the classic boy's adventure mode, though the "satanic" squiggle in his eyebrows hints at something darker. As a well-known pop culture figure in Britain, Dan Dare has inspired more than his share of satiric piss-takes (one written by Grant Morrison), though the version we get here is the real straight arrow. This is as it should be: you're gonna name your hero Dan Dare, then he'd better be as forthright and true as they come. Though later attempts to revive the character would foolishly try to make him edgier, Hampson's Dare is the model that deservedly endures.


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Monday, July 20, 2009
      ( 7/20/2009 08:46:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"WHY YOU ALWAYS TRYIN' TO BURN ME DOWN/ WHY YOU ALWAYS TRYIN' TO BURN ME UP?" Didn't know a thing about the band Hollands until I unexpectedly received a review copy of their debut EP Faces recently. Described as a New York duo comprised of guitarist/vocalist John-Paul Norpoth and violinist Jannine Barefield in the promo, the group appearing on the five-song disc appears to be a slightly different unit since Barefield's name appears nowhere in the credits. Instead, the second name on the creds is guitarist/violinist/electric bassist Earl Maneein, known for his more recent work in the heavy metal violin band Resolution 15, so perhaps Barefield replaced Maneein in Hollands after the band's debut was in the can?

Whatever the case, the Hollands repped on Faces has a winning alt-rock sound. Singer/songwriter Norpoth's has some of the alt-ish wavery flatness that I associate with bands like, oh, Dinosaur Jr. though it's more on key. I could do without the Strokes-styled vocal mushing that appears on some of the tracks, but that's my particular audio bias.

In any event, the group is at its best flat out rockin', which they efficiently do on three of the disc's five cuts. Opener "Strong Arm" features some nicely muted feedback, while "Over and Out" starts with guitar noise that brings to mind some of Lou Reed's more stately solo tracks before zipping into an organ backed (courtesy: Thomas Shaw) rock groove. The one dominantly acoustic number (by Maneein, interestingly enough) demonstrates that Norpoth could go the Jeff Buckley route if he so chose; it's sweetly moody with an appealing Latinate tinge.

The only duff track proves the disc's final cut: a slow and meandering piece of ponderousness entitled "High Class," which works overtime to convinced you how serious it is with all kinds of ambient computery background sounds. Okay, everybody's allowed one dud. Me, I'd rather hear Norpoth repeatedly rhapsodizing about how much he loves the freeway on "Coughing Boy," sounding like a more world-weary Jonathan Richman but still going a hundred miles an hour. After visiting the band's MySpace page and hearing how the current iteration sounds, I'm definitely curious as to how they'd fill a full-length CD.


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Sunday, July 19, 2009
      ( 7/19/2009 10:20:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"IF SADAKO COMES, A REAL GHOST MIGHT APPEAR." That Sawako Kuronuma, the 15-year-old heroine of the Shojo Beat manga series Kimi Ni Todoke (From Me to You) (Viz Media), looks like she belongs in a different manga series altogether is one of the central points of this lightly comic romance. With her jet-black long hair and "pale skin, even in the middle of summer," Sawako is nicknamed Sadako after the dripping wet ghost from the original Ringu and is victim to all manner of creepy rumors by her fellow students. "If you look into her eyes for more than three seconds," the rumor mill has it, you'll be cursed. Though our girl knows that she has no such powers, she still has moments when she begins to believe the stories about her.

As a result, the ultra-introverted girl largely keeps to herself until the appearance of the mega-dreamy Kazehaya in her class. Undeterred by the rumors surrounding her, he strikes up a friendship simply by being nice enough to call Sawako by her real name. Our girl opens up for the first time to the rest of her classmates, though in her eagerness to be a part of the group, she's incapable of telling when they're making fun of her. Thus, she volunteers to be the ghost on a school Haunted Trail activity, clueless to the fact that her doing so will only fuel the stories surrounding her.

How far you'll be willing to follow Kimi Ni Todoke most likely depends on your tolerance for its cute but socially inept protagonist. Me, I found myself occasionally wanting to shake her. Originally created by Karuho (Crazy for You) Shiina as a stand-alone one-shot, the high school romance has found a devoted following in its native land -- the tankĊbon reprinting the series are currently up to eight volumes in Japan -- so clearly there's a sizable group of shojo reading teengirls who identify with Sawako's plight.

Shiina hammers her plot points in this teen-rated series none too subtly (if you don't get that Sawako's every move is being watched and misinterpreted by the rest of her class, you're not even bothering to read the word balloons), but since the high school years aren't typically a time of much subtlety, the approach works. By mid-volume, when a substitute teacher who acts like he stepped out of the pages of Great Teacher Onizuka tries to thwart the romance between our two and is stricken with diarrhea, you can already anticipate the rumors that'll follow.

The scenes between Sawako and the object of her growing affections are handled a bit less broadly, though, again, they can grow repetitive. Still, Shiina's delineation of the miscommunications and misunderstandings that can accompany a developing relationship can be rather sharp. Another of the series' central jokes lies in the fact that both our central girl and boy are honestly "too nice" people; their unwillingness to hurt each others' feelings keeps 'em from taking risky steps in the relationship.

At times, watching these two slowwwwly proceed through the tentative steps of their nascent relationship, you wish for the presence of a wisecracking classmate to keep things moving. Though Shiina introduces several supporting characters in the first volume, none of 'em stand out enough to make an impression. Hopefully, one of these extras'll have more to do in future volumes; otherwise, this series could quickly become suffocatingly insular.

The pitfalls of Introvert Love.


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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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