Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Sixto Rodriguez's time machine to 1970s Detroit

"music of the past expanding faster than the music of the future"

This is a great article by comedian Stewart Lee (weirdly sounding like
more like William Gibson every day :-) ) basically saying we are rediscovering great music from the past faster than we are finding new music, a phenomena I thought was related to BBC 6music.

I understand why this is a a current theme now, as I saw this over the

It won the Oscar for best documentary on Sunday night.

Essentially it is the rediscovery of a long forgotten folk/protest
artist from early 70s Detroit, totally ignored in the US before the
tunes are rediscovered in 90s South Africa as the the soundtrack for
white liberal protest against Apartheid. South African hippys track
him down and find he's been working as a labourer for 30 years, then
get him to tour and it finally kicks off his career. Sixto Rodriguez
is basically the Mexican Bob Dylan..and pretty much lives up to the
hype, his tunes are certainly the best thing about the movie..

Weird listening to the first album, Cold Fact, this morning, it is like a slice of fresh protest era Detroit. Most of it a lot less hippy-ish than the the singles I keep hearing everywhere and it is a lot more laconic and fatalistic then this contemporaries..

It is much more Marvin Gaye What's Goin On? than MC5 or The Stooges.

and that I think points to the wierdest thing..  if you've seen the
brilliant BBC4 doc on Detroit music, "Motor Citys Burning" you'll know that
era, as a long lost period of great music and red raw politics feeding
into each other. The real story for me of Sixto Rodriguez and his two
rediscovered albums isn't the South African huggy hippy feel good
story (especially as it appears he had been a favourite in Australia
and New Zealand long before his 'discovery' in South Africa). It is
finding fresh albums from nearly half a century ago, from a place and time that
absolutely fit right in with that era, yet seem relevant now.

How good is Sixto Rodriguez? Motor City is Burning now needs an update.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Agent Zig Zag, Skyfall, Argo, Flashman

Skyfall looks to be up for multiple Oscar's tomorrow night. My main problem with Skyfall .. i have to admit... is class, based on my own inverted snobbery

As introduced in that classic scene on the train in Casino Royale where Vesper reduces him, this new Daniel Craig Bond hasn't ridden up from a public school through the old boys club to the secret service, he has come up as a squaddie through the SAS. Daniel Craig's Bond is not the gentleman spy, but the ex-army (probably navy, probably ex-SBS actually) 'blunt instrument'.

Much as I love the earlier Bonds I could actually relate to Craig's Craig's version.

So finding out in Skyfall that, in this modern continuity, his parents really did die in a mountaineering accident, and he really did grow up in a Scottish castle, a bit disappointing. I know this is the way Fleming wrote it, but there is plenty about Fleming's Bond that is not to like.. and if you have read  Fleming's Britain of the 1950s, you'll know it is a world away from Britain of 2013. (I wrote something last year that tried to reflect the shock of the Fleming's 1950s if you are interested)

Not to totally disregard Skyfall, the opening titles,Macau scenes and the villain are truly magnificent BTW. But it easier to believe that a well bred James Bond is needed to socialise and seduce the power brokers of the world?

Well, as we continually find out, things happen in the real life world of  intelligence that just would seem ridiculous in a fiction. The events of Argo are competing with Skyfall for Oscars this year, and that story of hostages smuggled from Iran beneath the cover story of a star wars rip off movie treads a fine line of believability brilliantly.

The part time bass player with the punk band The Members ("Sound of the Suburbs"), who I sit across from at work these days at Deluxe MediaCloud, passed this incredible link from the NYT last week. Gérard de Villiers, the French equivalent of Ian Fleming ,has been writing racy spy novels for so long that he is a fully accepted member of their intelligence community and his plots reveal far more about recent history than the official version of events. So much so I'm hardly surprised that his novels are not on sale here.

But the real prompt for this post about spies and their believability was a Christmas present, Agent Zig Zag by Ben Macintyire. Yet another World War 2 history book, adapted as Radio 4 book of the week .. yawn.. but really this is different.  It is almost Blackadder Goes 1940s.

Imagine the womanising spiv character from Dad's Army finds himself in jail in Jersey when the Germans invade. Not being too well disposed towards his home country he volunteers for work as a spy for the Germans and lets all his considerable skills as a lying charmer go to work on them. He is inserted back into Britain to bomb the De Haviland Mosquito factory in Hatfield (now my alma mater BTW) but immediately gives himself up to MI5. By the end of the war he is perhaps the most successful double agent in history

Zigzag, real name Eddie Chapman, is very much a Roger Moore (louche adventure playboy) era Bond but lovingly lower class right from the off, and though though I'm sure the Zig Zag movie (see below) will make him Lord Peter Flint he begins as just a very upwardly mobile and resourceful Eas tEnd villain and pretty much remains so, in increasingly comical fashion, right to the end.

One insane piece of detail from the story, aside from the incompetence of the German spy agencies (so much so the allies wonder at one point if Chapman is a triple agent) one of Chapman's German Secret service rivals, a committed Nazi, is obsessed with Morris dancing and - after quitting the Abwher to join the fight on the Eastern from - is instead forced to become the Wehrmacht's chief dance instructor.

One very strange theme in this true story about WW2 is about Anglo-German friendship. Despite his constant rogue-ishness and his betrayal of everyone around him Chapman remains friends with nearly everyone, including his best friend, Stephan von Groning,  his handler at the German Abwher! Ben Mcintyre's masterful and touching summing up of the later careers of all the crazy characters in this story is worth reading the entire book for. Chapman's ability with women is truly staggering. One less than grateful female source rang Mcintyre after the first edition of the book to declare "He was an absolute shit you know, the handsomest man I ever met. But a prize shit" before hanging up without giving a name.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Chapman  is the constant connections to the Fleming's Bond series and the subsequent films. One of the gang of socialites Chapman finds himself carousing with in Soho is Terence Young, future director of Dr No and From Russia With Love. Later cast members remark on Sean Connery that his Bond is "simply doing a Terence Young impression". When at MI5 Chapman likely met the man on whom Quatermaster is based and, when working on a plan to deceive Kriegsmarine with a fictional U-boat detector Chapman almost certainly met Ian Fleming himself, then working for Naval Intelligence.

so the Zig Zag movie?

Getting the tone of the Zig Zag story will be awkward as it could be

 either be a 1940s Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy,

Or Catch Me If You Can, type crime caper

Or Mel Brooksian farce a la To Be Or Not To Be

It could be Terence Fisher era Bond film

It could be Lewis Gilbert era Bond film

It wouldn't even look out of place in Tarrantinos re-written history movies alongside Inglorious Basterds..( if it wasn't real)

The only person I can think to play Eddie Chapman would be Micheal Fassbinder, based on his star turns on period characters in Inglorious Basterds and Xmen : First Class. But Mr Fassbender is busy enough with many other projects, including apparently at crack at George McDonald Frasier's classic Flashman books, which immediately prompts another thought.. anyone.. anyone honestly who thinks the endlessly rogering, history meddling character of Sir Harry Flashman is a little bit unlikely really needs to read Agent Zig zag, because that unlikely life of 

Harry Flashman 1822-1915 

was aparently lived for real by 

Eddie Chapman 1914-1997

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

was going to review LINCOLN here....

Was going to review Lincoln here but to be honest you would save money
by renting Spielberg's earlier Amistad and watching it in slow motion.

If that seems harsh (I actually like Amistad a lot), the reviews of
the new movie are a little OTT, and I've been watching period movies
and westerns all week ...
what someone used to 21st century pace makes of Spielberg's Lincoln is
anyone's guess.

What really saved it for me was the players - really stirling work
from Danny Lewis as Isambard Kingdom Brunel* and Tommy Lee Jones as
Thaddeus wig guy ....with 3 hour movie saving cameos from Sally Field
as the Executive Err Indoors, Richard Harris Jnr as US Grant, and
Rorschach as the Vice President of the Confederacy

* if ignorant boneheads in the states can get confused during the
London Olympic opening ceremony and get Lincoln and the greatest
engineer in human history mixed up so can I

Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Martian Chronicles (1980): a Twilight Zone for a tacky decade

Obscure movie question - what recently deceased actor got the chance
to play Jerry Cornelius and Jesus Christ?

The Martian Chronicles (1980), was a much mocked and forgotten tv mini
series attempting to modernise and adapt a much loved Ray Bradbury
classic story of Martian colonisation. It is mostly recalled now for
excruciating special effects and the classic mauling it received form
the arch tv critic of the the time, Clive James. Nevertheless, despite
it's myriad faults and terrible reputation it deserves a
re-evaluation, especially as a remake has been threatened for a long

A US co-production with the BBC, it had the faults of genre
programming from both sides of the Atlantic at the time - wooden
acting and characters from NBC and BBC level special effects
(need I say more).

Despite that the credits were very impressive

Big stars...
Rock Hudson as Colonel Wilding, occasionally supported by genre stars
like Roddy Mcdowell, Barry Morse and Darren McGavin

Big Director - Micheal Anderson, best known for directing The Dam
Busters (1955), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and Logan's Run

Big producer - Milton Subotsky, the man behind Amicus films, (the only
series competition for Hammer in the UK) who had produced classic
horror omnibus films written by Robert Bloch (also of Twlight Zone)
such as Asylum, Tales From The Crypt and the House That Dripped Blood

Best of all, adapting Bradbury's classic novel, we had great genre
writer Richard Matheson creator of The Incredible Shrinking Man and I
Am Legend, who had previously contributed some of the classic episodes
to Rod Serlings Twlight Zone (Nightmare at 20,000 feet) and the
original Star Trek (The Enemy Within)

The awkward co production created an issue with the structure, with
the version shown in the UK being broken up into more episodic chunks,
and the US version apparently constructed as three tv movies. Watching
the BBC version would have been preferable, as it would have suited a
more 80s Twlight Zone feel (I'll get to that) and it would have
allowed regular exposure the incredibly haunting and melancholic

(after 2 minutes 20 secs of awful 70s special effects)

music written by equally forgotten film composer Stanley Myers, who
wrote guitar piece, Cavatina, for The Deer Hunter. As an interesting
note the soundtrack to Martian Chronicles (1980) was released in 2002
and includes a comprehensive 18 page full colour and fully illustrated
booklet - demonstrating a level of care and reverence never shown for
the DVD release of the show itself!

The miniseries was broken, awkwardly, into three parts

"The Expeditions"
"The Settlers"
"The Martians"

Which for BBC consumption was further split into the more episodic
storyline of short length shown midweek early evening in late summer,
traditionally a time for dumping bad tv even in 1980.

The first part, Expeditions, covered the first few doomed atempts to
explore Mars using wildly ridiculous technology - Mars seems to be
parked somewhere between the Earth and the Moon for the purposes of
this show, you'll notice for example the complete lack of delay in
communications with Earth. These first three 'Zeus Program' missions
are ridiculous but also surprisingly watchable in a doomed and
recognisably downbeat format.

Next episode The Settlers had a more bitter 1960s perspective,
covering the adventures of materialistic and foolish settlers as they
clashed with the haunted surrounding around them using plot cliches
and characters from the Charlies Angles and Six Million Dollar Man era
of dramatic storytelling. Yes.. that bad ...but again it contains
haunting moments and quite shocking twists that could pass as late era
Twlight Zone.

The final part, The Martians, tries to update Bradbury's masterful
twist ending into an era threatended by Nuclear devastation, when the
Martian settlers watch the Earth devastated by Nuclear war and realise
the only future for them is to become the Martians themselves. Seen
today It is still flawed and silly but remains shocking and again
could easily pass as something Rod Serling had a hand in. Arguably Rod
Serlings uber cloassic Twlight Zone of the 1950s was actually ape-ing
(see later) Ray Bradbury brilliant writing from the 1940s in the first
place but the effect is much the same.

Interested now ?
Woh there Martian cowboy. ...

Part 1 opens with tortured lingering on some truly awful effects
shots, which set Martian Chonicles (1980)'s place in history
henceforth. That week, in August 1980, masterful tv critic Clive James
had perhaps his finest hour..


'You tested the gyroscope?' Spacemen delivered lines like that to each
other in the first episode of The Martian Chronicles (BBC1),
purportedly a faithful rendering of the Ray Bradbury book, but
actually the latest in a long series of undeviatingly tacky science
fiction epics which carry the name of Milton Subotsky prominent among
the credits. I like Milton Subotsky, who once did me the honour of
asking me to write a movie for him. He is under the illusion, however,
that if one actor asks another actor whether he has tested the
gyroscope, the audience will be convinced that they are both spacemen.
Subotsky productions, whatever their budget, are dogged by an
ineradicable naivety. The only difference between The Martian
Chronicles and such hallowed items of Subotskiana as They Came Prom
Beyond Space is that this time more money has been spent on getting
things wrong. In They Came From BeyondSpace the female lead was
Viviane Ventura in a crash helmet. In The Martian Chronicles you get
Gayle Hunnicutt to look at – a distinctly more rewarding experience.
But the guys in the spacesuits are still asking each other whether the
gyroscope has been tested.

Anyway, it is 1999 or thereabouts, and Rock Hudson is in charge of the
first NASA mission to Mars. 'The atmosphere on Mars, though thin by
our standards,' Rock tells the waiting pressmen, 'is perfectly capable
of supporting life.' This suggests that Rock has not been keeping up
with the previous quarter-century of research into the subject, and
has perhaps stayed on in the job too long. It is important to remember
at this point that actors do not write their own dialogue. Rock was a
perfectly credible submarine captain in Ice Station Zebra, where he
had some convincingly technical-sounding things to say. But that was a
real movie, whereas this is the pits.

The spacemen, whose attire suggests that in 1999 military uniforms
will be very badly tailored, climb into their module and fly up to
join their waiting rocket, an order of events which intriguingly
reverses the usual procedure, in which the chief function of the
rocket is to lift the module. As it staggers through deep space, the
rocket has smoke coming out the back. It would look more like a real
rocket if it did not have smoke coming out the back, but the people
responsible for this series have either never seen any film of what a
real rocket looks like or, more likely, have seen it but not taken it
in. Their imaginations were formed by Flash Gordon Conquers the
Universes, in which rockets had smoke coming out the back.

To be fair the show was doomed from the start, as apart from the
obvious various problems with the shows construction, at the NBC press
junket to launch it in the US Ray Bradbury himself had described it as
"just boring". Perhaps the lack of attention given to Bradbury since
by Hollywood is perhaps because of this obvious snub, but Bradbury was
right, as was Clive James (mostly). It got a roasting not just from
mainstrean tv critics but from fans as well - Starburst was just as
merciless. Presumably any goodwill in the scifi fan community was
destroyed by the by the botched adaptation of a much loved book and
this is perhaps what this viewer - I have never read the original
despite being a Ray Bradbury fan still haven't, though I may well now.

The tv series It is - at least - a great tribute to Bradbury, in that
the themes seem to be there even if the execution is botched in
places. The story, from the tv, is obviously not a story of 21st
century colonisation, it is 19th century history replayed for a modern
audience, with Martians wiped out by chicken pox and cultural and
ethnic cleansing, becoming a profound and true story about colonisers
eventually being colonised themselves. What with that and the Martian
Christ it was eye opening stuff for kids weekday nights in the 80s.

Clive James has a point about the costumes, which look designed well
but never seem to feature any space suits, an odd omission for a story
about space colonisation. Production design is the for most part
atmospheric and believable, with the terrible terrible rocket ships,
rendered as sets on the surface, actually looking quite effective.
Though convincing, the human settlement looks surprisingly boring, with
lots of people in similar clothes aimlessly wandering around
pretending to have fun, a bit like Glastonbury Festival 2010.

Mars itself is mostly an unfiltered Mojave desert with occasional long
distance cutaways to a genuinely alien looking place which appears to
be volcanic Lanzarote. (If this sounds bad it is no less alien than
the Mars in the recent 250 million dollar John Carter of Mars

It is seriously cheap in places. Devastated post nuclear NASA/NATO is
just an empty set with humans mysteriously disintegrated - quite a an
embarrassing scene cut from version originally shown. It also appears
chaotically put together production - with the Barry Morse episode -
and they are episodes - seeming to be set chronologically way after
the rest but appearing about 3/4 of the way through. It is almost as
if the all-round enthusiasm in in the production disappeared with the
first look at the effects shots.

Someone deluded idiot must have been very proud of that abysmal first
special effects sequence as it is repeated at the start of every
episode. Clive James in his review is actually being unfair - to the
effects crew on Flash Gordon (and that's the 1930s Flash Gordon
version). They had never seen footage of Apollo 11 in orbit, or
Kubrick's 2001. The effects sequences in Martian Chronicles were
created three years AFTER John Dykstra's work on the first Star Wars.
The same year that Rock Hudson and Darren McGavin had to stand and
stare for five minutes while their plastic rocket wobbled off to
Mongo.. sorry Mars.. Han was piloting the Falcon through the asteroid
field in Empire. That's how bad the effects are in Martian Chronicles.
But in an age where people can see the charm in vintage Dr Who,
continuing to mutilate the corpse of this show with it's hilarious
effects is a little harsh (if fun). Clive James planted that stake and
further pounding on it is unnecessary, laugh if you want to but raise
a glass to Clive while you are at it.

So what are the pluses? Richard Matheson creates a hybrid of 70s
Apollo, 80s nuclear disaster and the original source novel that tries
to go in a genuinely new direction The same year the Ridley Scott's
Alien is taking science fiction deep into Lovecraftain horror
territory by way of Mario Bava's Planet Of the Vampires, Anderson and
Matheson are trying to do something similar, but with classic ghost
story, by way of Twilight Zone, contemporary politics (and a classic
source novel to work from). Parts of this show look like Flash Gordon
but are trying to be Nigel Kneale, and, occasionally, it works.

In perhaps the most effective scene in The Settlers, the best directed
bit of the four hours by some distance, Martians start appearing as
ghosts in the human settlement - including a Martian Christ, played by
Jon Finch. This is quite powerful stuff, especially for early evening
weekday nights on tv 30 years ago. Depressing to think that recently
deceased Jon Finch was equally unappreciated as Jerry Cornelius in the
equally reviled (by fans and the author) The Final Programme.

As things get spookier and the plot heads off in a very 80s post
nuclear apocalypse direction (certainly a more palatable way of
processing the message from Threads and the Day After for an early
evening audience) Rock Hudson carries the show with a quiet cool
dignity and gravitas of a classic era movie star. In a poignant scene
near the end Col Wilder encounters a Martian and both believe the
other to be a ghost - this was obviously filmed at different times as
he appears quite gaunt in some shots. A year later the heavy drinking
and smoking Hudson, the romantic comedy lead of the 50s and 60s, would
suffer a heart attack. In 1984 he would be the first big Hollywood
star diagnosed with AIDS, another detail which places Martian
Chronicles as a forgotten time capsule of its era.

In 1980 it was placed next to the effects shots in Space 1999 and
Battlestar Galactica (and the whimsy of that late era Baker era Dr
Who) and really suffered. Perhaps a fairer contemporary comparison
would be with Tobe Hoopers tv version of Salems Lot, and though he was
not involved in that miniseries Milton Subotsky would go onto several
Stephen King adaptations for tv after this. It certainly had a tragic
and melancholic air completely at odds with the bright up beat
escapism of the Star Wars rip-offs of the time. (Even the original
Battlestar Galactica seems hilariously upbeat now.)

If making the argument that the classic 1968 Planet of The Apes,
adapted by Rod Serlling, is the real Twlight Zone The Movie, and we
are being particularly generous, we could say Richard Matheson's
Martian Chronicles is best seen as Twilight Zone's brave but doomed
1980s descendant. The effects weren't too good in the Twilight Zone

DVD note :
The extended five hour DVD version oftentimes drags with pointless
padding (common fault with tv of that era) It needed a ruthless editor
and the original BBC version seemed to have that.