See my vest, see my vest, it’s me at my fashionable best

I’m not a fashion plate. In the pandemic world and comfortable middle age, I consider myself pretty flashy if I manage to wear a button-down shirt and pants that fit. 

But for a while in my wayward youth, I tried desperately, like almost everyone else does, to assemble an identity through what I wore. I loosely hung out with the theatre kids, nerds and punks and punk-adjacent in high school, and then with the leftie liberals and enviromentalists in my Mississippi college days.

There’s photos of me wearing horribly elaborate Duran Duran cosplay gear in the late ‘80s, at least one image of me in parachute pants MC Hammer-style (thankfully suppressed by court order) and several unfortunate pictures of my experiments in tie-dye. 

Portrait of a horribly pretentious college freshman trying desperately to look interesting, 1991.

Through it all, through my college years and on afterwards, I had one constant companion in my quest to define myself through fashion – See my vest. I bought a black suede vest sometime around the end of high school, and man, I wore that thing constantly for nearly a decade. 

It was my “Nik vest,” my attempt to stand out from the crowd in the strange world of the American South, where I was already the “weird California dude.” I’m not sure why I latched on to the vest, but I thought vests were cool – they seemed like something you’d see Christian Slater wear in Heathers, or maybe Stephen Malkmus in a Pavement video. 

The vest was flexible – with a t-shirt it was grunge, with a nice shirt it was passably fancy. I wore it everywhere – there’s photos of me in New York City at the World Trade Center towers with it, at comic conventions in the Midwest, at university and parties and weddings.

My friends gently mocked me for wearing it; I wore it so much that when I drew my daily college comic strip “Jip,” I made one of the characters (the cool one of course) constantly wear a vest and immediately got called out for the obvious attempt to homage myself. 

I wore that vest to pretend I was the kind of person I wanted to be, some kind of vaguely mysterious cool arty creative type. I succeeded at that mission perhaps 0.2% of the time I wore the vest, but I kept wearing it. Besides, it was comfortable and gave me extra pockets. 

I stopped wearing the vest quite so much in the mid-1990s after I graduated university and went on to start working as a journalist. It vanished entirely somewhere around the millennium – I don’t know, I imagine I was feeling vaguely embarrassed by it and it was also probably kind of worn out after nearly 10 years (suede was not easy to keep clean) and in another moment of stark self-invention, I chucked it.

I kind of wish I’d kept it now, not that I’d wear it in public in 2021 … But it was a symbol of who I was and who I was trying to be, and it’s sometimes worth keeping hold of those things to remember yourself by. 

Star Brand, the superhero who really sucked at his job

There’s a lot of competition for bad superheroes out there. But few of them are quite as catastrophically bad at the job as Marvel Comics’ Star Brand, who helped launch a “New Universe” of comics in 1986 and then pretty much destroyed it. 

Us old-timers remember the “New Universe” being a really big deal when Marvel and editor-in-chief Jim Shooter launched it in celebration of 25 years since Fantastic Four #1 kicked off the Marvel Universe. The hook was this new comics universe was “realistic,” and would detail the rise of superheroes in a world that had never had them. That might’ve been seen as innovative in the editorial planning meetings, but basically we ended up with a whole bunch of mediocre comics featuring superheroes who seemed vaguely embarrassed to be there, like Nightmask, Kickers Inc. and Spitfire And The Troubleshooters. The whole line was gone within three years or so. 

Star Brand, written by Shooter, was meant to be the big bang for this universe, the first real superhero and a catalyst for change. He was, but mainly because as written, Star Brand utterly sucked at his job. 

Shooter basically wrote Star Brand as a straight rip-off of Green Lantern, only with more “realistic” edges. A alien disguised as an old man grants human Ken Connell a mysterious tattoo that gives him impossible powers, but as it turns out this origin story is far more convoluted than that.  Connell is an unsympathetic, arrogant and sexist jerk, acting without thinking, and rarely truly “heroic.” The writing in Shooter’s first few issues is weirdly inert and distanced, as if in trying to be “realistic” they abandoned all the bombast and excitement of comics for something mundane.

Connell, an unimaginative mechanic, is unsure what to do with his powers, a conflict that could be interesting but basically ends up with lots of dull monologues and him doing things like visiting the Moon because he’s bored. He constantly screws up. He fights spies and muddles in the Cold War, and spends an awful lot of time cheating on his various girlfriends, and that “Old Man” who gave him his powers in the first place keeps popping back up, now apparently a villain, to fight with him every few issues. 

Shooter soon handed Star Brand over to other creators, and then it ended up in the hands of superstar creator John Byrne in his full “tear it all down and start over” mode. Byrne – who loathed Shooter – went on to do one of the biggest hit-jobs on a previous writer’s work in comics history. The cover of Byrne’s first issue finally shows Ken Connell wearing a superheroic costume after 11 issues, but it was a bit of a tease. Star Brand went public, and Byrne upped Connell’s fail factor to infinite levels by having him incinerate a comics convention full of fans during a battle, and then topping it all off by accidentally blowing up all of Pittsburgh (which was Shooter’s hometown, by the way) an apocalyptic moment that screws up the whole “realistic” vibe and basically leads into the end of the New Universe after a series of one-shots. Some of the characters and concepts have popped up now and again ever since, including a decent look back at Connell that examines his many flaws.  

A whole mess of other people end up wielding the Star Brand over Byrne’s tenure, including the President of the United States (!) and Connell’s abnormally-aged infant son (don’t ask). Connell himself dies and comes back a couple of times. After 19 issues, the series ends with a mess of timey-wimey handwaving that makes it clear that Star Brand was less a hero and more a toxic screw-up whose presence has left harm and death everywhere. At the end of the series, Connell sees himself as a man who’s caused endless suffering who deserves whatever punishment he gets. Not exactly a heroic epiphany. 

Star Brand is not a great series – those Shooter issues are weirdly slow and soulless, and the Byrne issues are rushed and rather mean-spirited in how thoroughly they tear everything down. Yet, Star Brand over its 19 issues is still fascinating to me because of how completely the “hero” at the centre of the story fails, and the story’s only solution is to negate him ever having been a hero at all.

Heroes have turned bad and been redeemed many times in comics, but there’s few series that seem to catalog one man’s utter unsuitability for great power and great responsibility quite like this one. 

Now showing: The beauty of boutique blu-rays and DVDs in a streaming world

I think I’m turning into a film snob. Maybe we all should, to bring back a little bit of the magic of the movies. 

It’s been a grim year or so for cinema as the great communal art form it was for so much of the past century. Theatres have closed, video stores are history, and streaming, while there’s a lot of great things about it, caters to the mob and the algorithms, and obscure or older movies are harder than ever to find (especially in NZ, where we don’t have all the streaming services sprouting up in the US).

But I dig going to the cinema and seeing treats old and new, and I do miss the video store era. Physical media is hurting and DVDs are vanishing from the shops even down here in the Antipodes, but for dedicated film nuts there’s still a booming niche market in what are often being called “boutique blu-ray” distributors. These companies are dedicated to lovingly repackaging and curating old movies with an appreciation for the art they are, whether they’re lofty dramas or goofy cult trash. It’s a world film nuts can get lost in – and spend too much money in – but I still love seeing ornate, beautifully assembled editions of my favourite movies arrive in the mail. Who knew that the 1960s Japanese kaiju flick Mothra could look like such a work of art?

Unlike a streaming selection, they’re there whenever I want them, and the plentiful special features, gorgeous box art and essay-filled booklets are all part of the handsome little bespoke packages. You do need a good solid multi-zone player – and boy, I wish someone would explain to me why companies still insist on antiquated region coding on these discs in the age of one global marketplace. Anyway, one of the big appeals of DVDs when they first arrived was special features, but their potential ended up in just one too many boring commentary tracks by disinterested movie stars. Happily, the special features on boutique labels tend to dig deeper, treat their films with real interest and curiosity, and don’t just come off as vapid marketing exercises. 

Criterion is the grandaddy of all cineaste labels, dating back to the 1980s and the laserdisc era and still the gold standard of assembling a modern pantheon of movies from Chaplin to Kurosawa to Michael Bay. The Criterion Collection numbered editions (now well over #1,000) appeal to the gotta-have-it-all collector’s mentality and their always-amazing cover art often makes you see a familiar movie in an entirely new light. I’ve picked up many old favourites like The Princess Bride, Blue Velvet and The Life Aquatic through Criterion, but also been introduced to countless cinema classics I just took a punt on from seeing the cover art and the beckoning prestige of that Criterion label. 

But Criterion aren’t alone these days in gorgeous exhumations of old movies, with a whole slew of similar film archivists popping up in recent years. There’s Arrow Video, who tend a bit more modern with things like a wonderful package of ‘80s teen sex comedy Weird Science that gives that film way more critical appreciation than I ever thought possible.

Shout! Factory and their subsidiary Scream Factory are kings of grand cult and horror movie packages like John Carpenter’s The Thing, while Kino Lorber do an amazing job digging deep into world film and silent film history with gems such as their box set of F.W. Murnau’s groundbreaking work.

The UK’s Indicator do some of the most beautiful packaging in the industry and deep dives into the hidden treasures of film. Also in the UK, Eureka Video have become a particular favourite of mine lately with their looks into vintage kung-fu with Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan or the forgotten non-Frankenstein work of Boris Karloff.

Even a relatively new cult exploitation-focused outfit like Vinegar Syndrome has proved to me that I never knew I needed an amazingly comprehensive box set of beloved cheesy barbarian ‘80s flick The Beastmaster, but now that I’ve got it, it shall never leave my side. 

I could go broke investing in all the fancy box sets and special editions these companies are spitting out, but I also appreciate them massively in a day when DVDs have been shoved aside to the bargain bin dumpster in most big box stores if they even exist at all, and consumers are happy to stare on their tiny phone screen at the latest Netflix series that everyone will have completely forgotten about a week from now.

Does that make me sound like a film snob? Well, I probably am a bit, but I’m happy to wear it. I love a good popcorn flick like anybody does, and yeah, I watch stuff on my phone too sometimes, but I also want film to continue to matter. The disappointingly inert and unloved Oscars this year (despite some very good films nominated) just felt like another nail in the coffin of the idea of movies feeling a little bit special.

I’m just enjoying the companies like Criterion, Arrow, Eureka and others who treat movies as something more than another disposable distraction in a world full of them, who treat movies as little miracles whether they’re beloved world classics or gory guilty pleasures, and who make them feel like events once again. 

They were young, they were savage, they were Beatles

There’s so much I’d do if I had a time machine, but whatever happened, I know I’d have to pencil in one trip to see the Savage Young Beatles, tearing up clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool 60 years ago.

Like most people who were exposed to the Beatles long after their breakup, I first grew to love the hippie Beatles – “Yellow Submarine,” “Sgt. Pepper’s,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” As I dug into their discography, for an awful long time I dismissed the early years as pleasant but slight pop songs (OK, “She Loves You” bangs, though). I felt that it was when the Beatles got weird that they really got cool.

But as I got older, I started to appreciate the amazing tight craft those young Beatles brought to everything they did. The covers they did of old Motown hits weren’t just disposable stuff they did as they learned to write songs themselves, they were the foundation for everything that came after. And boy, the more you read about those Savage Young Beatles, you realise how hardcore they were, a leather-jacketed, hard-living group of Liverpool toughs who earned their stripes gigging in impossibly difficult conditions in Hamburg, Germany and back home in Britain long before they appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show and kicked off a global revolution of sorts. It’s almost impossible to actually hear now what those shows – before the albums, before stardom – were really like, but you can imagine. 

I recently finished reading Mark Lewisohn’s fab “All These Years: Tune In,” the first of three planned mammoth Beatles biographies and one that only goes up to the end of 1962, with John, Paul, George and new member Ringo poised on the edge of a wave that would catapult them into history. It’s an immense, 1000-page or so deep dive into everything that went into creating the Beatles, and it brings their hungry young days and childhoods into vivid life. You can almost smell the sweat dripping off the walls of the legendary Cavern Club, or the energy of the booze-soaked, violence-filled German clubs they pounded away in. The Beatles would play away in the Hamburg bars and clubs for hours on end, sleeping in gritty dives and relying on uppers and the boundless energy of youth to get through it all. These are the Beatles just before they adopted the Beatles haircuts, before Stu Sutcliffe died and Pete Best was fired, when they ran out of songs to play and vogued, vamped and jammed to get through the nights. It was the apprenticeship that gave them the skills to do everything after. 

And boy, wouldn’t it have been something to ride that time machine and see one of these seamy Hamburg gigs with the benefit of hindsight, to get right up close enough to see teenage George’s fingers hit those chords and the cigarette-soaked aroma of John and Paul’s voices? Few people would ever see the Beatles up this close and raw again after 1962. It’s an era that’s been explored in movies like the great, underrated Backbeat and reimagined in books, but it’s also one that is mostly left up to the imaginations. There’s only a few recordings of The Beatles late into their Germany gigs, the main one being The Beatles Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg album from December 1962. The sound quality from old vinyl records of this gig are absolutely terrible, but thanks to modern technology there’s now a cleaned-up, remastered “Executive Version” of the show you can hunt for online that makes it probably as clear as we’ll ever get. It’s probably not quite what the Beatles at their pills-addled, sleep-deprived rawest would’ve been like, but it’s at least a taste. There’s an insanely amped-up, crazed version of “Roll Over Beethoven” that sounds something like The Damned mixed with Hüsker Dü. 

Still, though, wouldn’t it be something to be a fly on the wall in a dim, dark Hamburg club 60 years ago, to see a Beatles that I like to imagine sounded more like the Stooges than “Yesterday”? They were savage and young, and they’d never ever be like that again. 

Can you really watch too many kung-fu movies?

I’m not a violent man. I’ve been in like three actual fights in my life, and think I lost 2.5 of them. But I do love a good ass-kicking on the screen, the weird poetry of movie violence. 

In the pandemic era, there’s been no steady flow of blockbuster superhero epics and action flicks to look forward to. So I’ve been spending an unseemly amount of time diving into the past in search of an adrenaline fix, and eventually asking myself: Can one watch too many kung-fu movies?

I dig a good flying kick to the face, and have long loved the acrobatic chaos of Jackie Chan or the slick killer grace of legendary Bruce Lee. The scarcity of cinema visits and new movies to watch the last year or so has led me to dive even deeper into the wonderful, wacky bottomless world of martial arts cinema, a true “shared universe” of peak human suffering and mythological endurance, where men are battered, beaten and rearranged into new shapes without the benefit of CGI. There are literally thousands of movies churned out by Hong Kong and other studios in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and for every gem I’ve seen I discover another half-dozen I haven’t. 

There’s something visceral and exciting for me about seeing that Shaw Brothers studio logo opening up a film, a sign that the story ahead will provide epic action and mythic storytelling — maybe not so much character development or realistic human interaction but hey, that’s not why we’re here. Betrayal, vengeance, revenge and redemption – that covers the vast majority of themes, dressed up with an infinite number of brutal actions. 

I slid into the habit of watching more and more kung-fu flicks in recent months as a remedy to the chaos of the outside world – here, all problems can be solved by a good backwards kick-flip.

I drank in more classic kung-fu movies I’ve long meant to see, like The Prodigal Son, with Yuen Biao and the wonderful late Lam Ching-ying in one of the best zero-to-hero storytelling arcs; Sammo Hung’s hilarious bulky grace in The Magnificent Butcher and other films, the bloody King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death with its ripped eyeballs and music so memorably sampled by Quentin Tarantino; endearingly awkward Jimmy Wang Yu’s One-Armed Boxer and One-Armed Swordsman; the immensely creepy Mr. Vampire with its gloriously weird hopping “jiangshi” Eastern-style vampires. 

More recently, there’s the amazing work of Donnie Yen in films like the awesome Ip Man series and insanely intense battles in Kung Fu Killer or SPL (Kill Zone). Yen combines Clint Eastwood’s stoic Man With No Name allure with a dazzling speed and grace that’s made him one of the most exciting action heroes to watch perform in ages. 

Not every martial arts movie is equal – the attempts at humour in many “kung fu comedies” is often very broad, dated and sexist and too frequently, rather rapey for my tastes. The cheaper and goofier the movies are, the more raw and silly the experience. The cheapest kung-fu flicks like this massively fun bargain-basement box set I got a while back are watched more as archaeological experience than anything. 

Still, as much as I love these movies, one can overdose. When I start imagining everything in subtitles and every interaction involving duel of honour kicks and punches, I’ve got to back off sometimes and watch something which features actual human beings having actual conversations. The heightened, performative world of martial arts movies is such a self-contained world that it’s a shock to the system to see people in another movie going out to dinner without tables being overturned and bodies flying over the buffet. The pleasures of a good kung-fu flick are endlessly simple joys for me, but it’s never good to dine too much on just one thing. You can’t live on potato chips alone.

When I find myself with idle images of Jackie Chan somersaulting over furniture or Donnie Yen working the wing-chun dummy dancing in my brain at bedtime, it’s a sign to back off a little bit. But I always know I’ll be back, primed for yet another tale of endlessly acrobatic human beings and the damage they can do. 

Sneak preview: Amoeba Adventures #29!

Hey, it’s time for an Amoeba Adventures update!

It’s been a few months since Amoeba Adventures #28, but I’ve been busy – Amoeba Adventures #29 is all pencilled and lettered and will be 24 pages of all-new wacky adventures featuring twists, turns and shocking returns with Prometheus and Ninja Ant together in one wild detective mystery.

Look for it to premiere both digitally and with a limited-edition print version hopefully sometime in June! In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at my old-school pencils and lettering:

And remember that all 28 previous issues of Amoeba Adventures are available right over here as free PDF downloads. As always, give the Facebook page a like if you haven’t already!

Movies I Have Never Seen #9: Zardoz (1974)

What is it: The one where the late, great Sean Connery spends most of the movie wearing nothing but a giant orange space diaper. A rather big flop on its release in 1974, it’s generally regarded as one of the strangest science-fiction movies that came in that weird time in between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, when science-fiction movies turned into cosmic head-trips, equally rich in big ideas and spaced-out nonsense. How weird is Zardoz? It starts off with a floating giant stone head descending into a crowd of gun-waving savages, and delivering this speech: “Zardoz your God gave you the gift of the Gun. The Gun is good! The Penis is evil!”

Why I never saw it: Zardoz is on the obscure side. Director John Boorman delivered the hillbilly hit Deliverance, and this was his follow-up, in the days when directors got to do whatever crazy shit they dreamed up if they scored a big box office winner. So Boorman (who co-wrote, produced and directed this passion project) came up with a lofty tale set in the distant year of 2293, where what’s left of the human population is divided into the feral “Mad Max” style “Brutals,” and the hippie immortal “Eternals,” who live in their own closed-off world. When “Brutal” “Exterminator” Zed (Sean Connery) ends up infiltrating the Eternal world, it sets up a culture clash between enlightenment and instinct, life and death, and also lots of Sean Connery doing stuff you never saw Sean Connery doing anywhere else. At first, you think this will be some kind of weird post-apocalyptic Western, but it gradually turns into a darkly funny weird riff on “Tarzan” before swerving into another bleak and nihilistic direction entirely at the climax. The movie was a bomb at the time, and post-James Bond Connery never did anything quite so strange again. But Zardoz is kind of a cult fetish object now, although still on the obscure side, and even today, its odd pace, fractured hallucinogenic narrative and overstuffed philosophy make it a bit demanding on viewers. It strives for the profundity of 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but falls a little closer to the cheeseball fest of Logan’s Run

Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely, in that it’s frustrating, weird and sometimes slow and yet full of more searching ideas and deep thoughts than pretty much the entire Star Wars franchise post-1983. The experimental science fiction of the 1970s – 2001, Solaris, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, THX1138, The Man Who Fell To Earth – led to many spiritually-tinged, oddball narratives that weren’t just about people having wars in spaceships. They aren’t all successful, but there’s a fevered, inventive passion to them that is sadly missing in a lot of science fiction since. Connery’s character is curious – a monosyllabic brute at the start who gradually becomes more and more talkative and curious as he turns the tables on the “Eternals.” He’s hugely unsympathetic, raping and murdering at will, but then again the aloof Eternals are pretty flawed themselves. It’s hard to quite figure out what Boorman’s point ultimately is with the shapeshifting script, but despite all that, there’s a lot of startling images in Zardoz – the remarkably ominous floating head, groovy prisms, mirrors and colours galore, the dazed and ruined world of the Eternals, and a startling time-lapse shot at the very end that’s unsparingly brutal. 

Worth seeing? If you want your mind blown and to see Sean Connery’s least flattering wardrobe since the blue terrycloth jumpsuit in Goldfinger, Zardoz is definitely worth a look. Heck, Zed’s bizarre look was so iconic it even inspired a Superman frenemy I rather dig. It’s a movie that really is trying to make a statement, and even if in the end that statement is rather half-baked and obscure to me, it’s worth the weird, wild ride. 

Why George Harrison is my favourite Beatle these days

Asking someone about their favourite Beatle is always a kind of litmus test. Are you more of a John, or a Paul? A George or even a Ringo? 

But sometimes, the Beatle you love changes. When I was a younger, angrier man, like an awful lot of people, John Lennon was my favourite Beatle. I listened to the stark anguish of Plastic Ono Band a lot and thought that “God” was like, deep, man. I still love that album and I still love John Lennon, but due to his untimely death, the story of John Lennon’s solo career will always feel a little unfinished to me. 

The first Beatle whose solo album I actually bought was George Harrison’s 1987 chart-topping comeback Cloud Nine, with its kitschy-yet-cool bop MTV-friendly “Got My Mind Set On You” all over the place in those days. The rest of the cassette tape I scrounged my pennies together to buy was pretty good, too – it was an optimistic yet contemplative groove, smooth with an ‘80s sheen thanks to producer Jeff Lynne. “When We Was Fab” was a colourful ode to the Beatles whose own work I was just beginning to discover thanks to the CD reissues of their albums, while songs like “That’s What It Takes” and “Fish On The Sand” summed up George’s vibe – searching, yet determined. 

It’s twenty years now this year since George left us at the too-young age of 58. These days, I find myself turning to George’s solo work far more than any other of the Fab Four.  

Harrison always seemed to be looking for something in this life, and he found it mostly in the embrace of Indian music and an intense spirituality that in some folks’ view helped bring world music to a bigger audience, but other people felt it turned him into a humourless scold. 

1970’s All Things Must Pass is widely regarded as the best Beatles solo album, and it’s still a masterpiece of symphonic, elegant and yet deeply personal pop bathed in Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, with Harrison showing once and for all he wasn’t “just” the third Beatle, but an incredible songwriter in his own right. It’s incredibly lush, carrying on all the sweeping soundscapes the Beatles pioneered on albums from Revolver on to Abbey Road and it’s something that few of the other Beatles’ solo albums ever were – epic in its ambition. 

Yet when you peak with your first solo album and were once in the biggest band of all time, it’s hard not to have everything else afterward seen as a letdown. And no, Harrison never quite equaled All Things again, but he still put out some stellar solo work, including its immediate followup, Living In The Material World, which continued to explore George’s obsessions – inner peace, giving up your anger, and moving on (and occasional cranky rants, like “Sue Me Sue You Blues”). 

The rest of his albums never quite get as noticed now, but even the weakest has a few good tracks to recommend. 1974’s exhausted-sounding and rushed Dark Horse might be his nadir, but an obscurity like the underrated 1982 Gone Troppo has a relaxed, chilling on the beach vibe, harking back to the doo-wop and early rock and roll that the Beatles grew up adoring. The later albums George Harrison and Somewhere In England also marry George’s wry humility with hummable tunes. As he became mired in lawsuits and battles with his record labels, George’s solo career was mainly a product of the 1970s. After 1982, he only released one proper album, Cloud Nine, and the groovy collaborations with the all-star Travelling Wilburys. His long, long in the works next album, the valedictory and blissful Brainwashed, came out in 2002 after his death. 

Harrison sometimes has a reputation as the grim, silent Beatle, but many of his albums like Cloud Nine feel bathed in happiness. It felt like George was at peace. 

There’s a unified theme amongst his albums, which is something none of the other Beatles really managed in their solo work. McCartney has carried on his quest to write dozens more perfect pop songs but his work is often lacking in a vivid personal voice for me. While he’s been by far the most prolific solo Beatle, the sheer flood of albums dilutes the quality a little too often. Lennon wrestled with the demons of his past in a few great albums, was equally as questing as George but far more self-destructive, too. He then went silent for years, and his promising comeback was cruelly curtailed. Ringo was… well, he was Ringo, good-natured and always keeping the beat. 

Lennon inherited the fierce restless intellect and urge for experimentation of the Beatles, while McCartney got the gift for melody and craftsmanship. Harrison represented something else more intangible, something I might even call the Beatles’ heart. In the best of his solo work I find that all-encompassing warm feeling that I get when I hear the heavenly harmonies of “Within You Without You,” the solos that make “Something” soar far higher than most sappy ballads ever could, the distinctive single guitar chord played by George that opens up “A Hard Day’s Night.” In other words, listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about life, the universe and everything. 

George Harrison could certainly be preachy, I’ll admit. Harrison was looking for transcendence, and the older I get, the hope in something more to this life seems to resonate. I’m not talking about organised religion, really, but just the idea that you can find a calming peace by letting go of some of your baggage and flowing like water. The world is full of mystery. George Harrison never stopped trying to understand it.

George’s biggest song was “Something,” a tune that sums up his eternal questing and curiosity in its few minutes.  Is there something out there? I sure as hell don’t know. But the idea of being at peace with yourself and finding that inner calm that George spent much of his too-short life seeking isn’t the worst goal to have in this life. 

Listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about everything, and that’s why in these often-troubled days he’s my favourite Beatle. 

Review: Godzilla Vs. Kong, the monster mash we all needed

In a way, I’ve been waiting for this rematch most of my life. I grew up watching and rewatching 1962’s King Kong Vs. Godzilla on a battered Christmas gift VHS tape, my first exposure to classic kaiju movies. 

I won’t claim that ‘60s clash of the titans is an objectively good movie, but man I loved it back in the day, watching rubbery Godzilla and Kong stomp on model houses all over Japan. The Kong in that movie is awful looking, like a hairy Danny DeVito who was hit by a truck, but that didn’t really matter. It was all about the spectacle.

I’ve been a fan of Godzilla movies ever since, as I’ve written about before, and so decades after that VHS tape went to pieces, I went into an advance screening of the long-awaited Godzilla Vs. Kong this week with a kid’s eager anticipation. I was seeing it on the IMAX screen, really the only way to watch such a movie, and I left with my ears ringing and a mild headache after nearly two hours of chaos and carnage. It was loud, ridiculous and utterly fantastic. 

Look, you know going into a kaiju movie what to expect – lots of city-crushing action, some human melodrama, and a willing suspension of disbelief. By all those standards, Godzilla Vs. Kong succeeds admirably. They’ve been building up to this “Monsterverse” clash since 2014’s Godzilla reboot. Without spoilers, they create a good reason for the monsters to battle, throw in a few welcome surprises, and director Adam Wingard nicely straddles the line between kitsch and combat in a very fast-paced ride. Godzilla is the meaner, far more alien monster, and Kong is the more relatable human surrogate, but in the end they’re both just giant creatures smashing up everything in sight. 

Spoiler alert: The monsters do fight in two epic battle scenes, and it’s quite a sight. (The movie’s first clash, a battle at sea, is an all-time kaiju clash highlight.) Although I’ll always have a sentimental attachment to the 1962 flick, the action in this remake blows it out of the water. While these more recent Monsterverse movies can have an annoying tendency to have battles happen at night/in the rain, Godzilla Vs. Kong mostly stages them cleanly and coherently. The special effects work to bring Kong to life is particularly good, giving the big lug a real sense of personality. You could argue that maybe Godzilla isn’t in the movie enough, but actually, he usually racks up less screen time than you’d think if you look at charts like this uber-geeky fan study. The point is the impact he makes when he’s on screen. 

Godzilla Vs Kong actually reminds me a lot of the movies in Japan’s utterly bonkers Millennium series circa the year 2000, which married the zaniness of the original ‘60s Showa era movies with a slick, modern vibe and special effects, and a madcap “anything can happen” feeling. You can do a gritty realism version of Godzilla but you’ll never really better the dark Cold War paranoia of the original 1954 classic.

The key really is to not take these movies too seriously – a flaw that the sluggish Godzilla 2014 was particularly guilty of, while the underrated Godzilla: King of the Monsters managed to be a bit more interested in smashing over hushed awe. GvK takes on a Jules Verne-esque vibe that embraces the mysteries of lost worlds, a theme which we also saw in the great 2017 Kong: Skull Island (still the best of these “Monsterverse” movies, I think). 

The humans are mostly there to fill the gaps between battles, and medium-famous names like Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown and NZ’s own Julian Dennison get the job done. Those “family drama” issues that hobbled King of the Monsters are barely sketched in with each human just getting one or two character traits (scientist has a dead brother; woman adopts troubled orphan; guy loves conspiracy theories). The humans in GvK are almost shorthand approximations of human beings, but who goes to these movies for the humans? You have to just accept that in any realistic kaiju movie the human characters would be dead in the first five minutes and move on, rolling over the implausibilities and basking in the spectacle. 

And boy, there’s a lot of spectacles in Godzilla Vs. Kong. It’s the cinematic equivalent of three energy drinks and a bucket full of M&Ms, and it might leave you with a bit of a sensory overload hangover, but in 2021, there’s no blockbuster I’d rather see than a giant monkey punching a giant lizard right in the face. 

Review: Crowded House, Auckland, March 21, and we’re all in this together

The first time I heard Crowded House was on a fuzzy mix tape from a high school girlfriend. 

She put most of their entire second album Temple Of Low Men onto this tape, and it felt strange yet familiar. Neil Finn’s voice was gorgeous yet kind of tense, and songs like “Into Temptation” and “I Feel Possessed” felt like a secret code to me in the age of MTV and Bon Jovi. Finn’s lyrics marry the universality of the Beatles with a wry Kiwi humility and eye for detail. The music felt wiser, older somehow than the typical ‘80s pop hits I usually listened to. It felt built to last.

Ever since I think of rainy afternoons, fumbling teenage heartbreak and the impossible fragility of things when I hear Crowded House. 

I barely knew what New Zealand was, and Neil Finn and company were my first introduction to the place I’d one day end up living. 

I moved to New Zealand 15 years ago, the place that hissing cassette spoke of. I’ve now seen Neil Finn a live a few times solo and with other acts, even run across him in the crowd at other shows (it’s a small country, you know), but I never did see Crowded House live. 

Last night, I entered an arena and stood 25 feet or so in front of Neil Finn and the reunited House in one of the only countries in the world such crowded stadium shows can still happen these days. Like the best of Crowded House’s music, it was broad and intimate at the same time. 

Neil and the band, now joined by his amazing sons Liam and Elroy, put on a soaring, cathartic show, doubled in strangeness by seeming so normal with much of the rest of the world still howling in the heart of the storm of COVID-19. All around me, people kept looking at the nearly full arena, almost 12,000 people unmasked and very grateful to be here. 

The lovely little earworms have turned into national anthems – “Better Be Home Soon,” “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” “Something So Strong” – and it was kind of beautiful to have them become stadium sing-alongs. Sometimes the crowd sing-alongs are pretty cringe stuff, but it’s been a weird year or so and it felt good to be part of a crowd. We’re all in this Crowded House together. 

I’ve been here 15 years ago now and so I know what Neil’s singing about in “Four Seasons In One Day” when he talks about “the sun shines in the black clouds hanging over the Domain,” because I’ve walked the grassy fields of the Domain probably a hundred times now. 

And there were the deeper cuts that I’ve listened to over and over through the years – a mesmerizing “Private Universe,” the sultry “Whispers And Moans,” a right fierce bang-up on “Knocked Out,” or a marvelous cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” dedicated to all the front-line workers here and everywhere who’ve made New Zealand a safe island in a world of worries. 

That lovestruck teenager playing that cassette tape over and over couldn’t have imagined how things would end up. The teenage girlfriend and I didn’t last long, but the music echoed forever. 

Neil Finn was singing last night to a very crowded house, yet he was also singing to me, alone in my room a million years ago, listening to gorgeous lonesome pop music and never imagining where he’d end up in this life. 

It’s literally been decades since I got that mysterious mix tape that introduced me to Crowded House, and I’ve got no idea what happened to the quirky and cool girl who gave it to me.

If I could, I’d tell her how I saw Neil Finn sing those songs last night, about the wonderful Kiwi woman I ended up marrying, how strange it was that I ended up in the place that all that haunting music came from, that I’m doing OK and that I hope she’s OK too.