Tom in ‘Succession’: I know that guy. I hate that guy!

The ‘Succession’ dynasty.

“Succession” is a murderer’s row of top acting talent, and one of the few shows in this era of never-ending “peak TV” that hooked me from the word go. 

It’s a cross between “Game of Thrones” and “Dynasty,” about a media mogul and his family grappling with his impending retirement, and it’s a beautiful show about very ugly people.

In the age of Trump, a show about unlikable rich folk is a pretty obvious move, but “Succession” succeeds because of its whipcrack writing (which just won an Emmy) and a cast of screen greats and newcomers alike who sear the screen.

The lion in winter Brian Cox leads the cast as totally-not-Rupert Murdoch rich prick Logan Roy, with his four squabbling children jostling for power – insecure heir apparent Kendall (Jeremy Strong), saturnine creep Roman (Kieran Culkin), paranoid drop-out Connor (Alan Ruck) and steely daughter Shiv (a wonderful Sarah Snook).

Everyone’s got their favourite part of “Succession.” Maybe it’s Brian Cox’s endlessly entertaining ways to tell someone to “fuckkkkkkkkk offfffff,” or Culkin’s sleazeball sexist insults. For me, it’s the often overlooked son-in-law Tom, in a star-making performance by Matthew Macfadyen. 

Tom is the guy who’s not quite in the inner circle, but desperately wants to be. He’s married to Logan Roy’s powerful, ambitious daughter Shiv, but he’s nowhere near on her level professionally or intellectually. She’ll dump him in a hot second. He ends up running huge chunks of the Logan Roy empire simply because of who he married, giving buzzword-filled pep talks to minion staff he doesn’t even know, and pretending he’s a much bigger deal than he really is. He’s that guy who stops you in the hall to make vaguely threatening jokey banter with you and always backs off with a “just kidding, dude!” just as you get really offended. The Roy family are golden gods of privilege gliding through life, and Tom will never ever measure up. 

Tom is every idiot who failed his way to the top, but he’s just charming enough to be forgiven for it, until one day he isn’t. There’s something captivating about Macfadyen’s ability to switch from smiling to sneering in a single line, about the way a thin veneer of confidence can never quite hide the need in his eyes. How many “Toms” do each of us encounter in our workaday lives, and wonder, how did THAT guy get THERE? 

I know that guy. I hate that guy. But I kind of like that guy, too. Dammit. 

Into the plasma pool: Why ‘The Fly’ sticks with me

“You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t you? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you?” – Seth Brundle

It’s gory, grotesque and disturbing, yet in my personal time capsule of favourite movies of all time, Jeff Goldblum and David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” sticks with me. 

Despite having watched it more than a dozen times since 1986, I’d never seen it on the big screen until the other night, when I caught a gorgeous 35mm screening. There’s nothing quite like seeing “The Fly” on a big screen, with an audience screaming along in synchronicity. 

Like most of Cronenberg’s movies, “The Fly” hasn’t dated at its core, except for Goldblum and Geena Davis’ big ‘80s hair. The gore is still horrifying, the emotions still tight, and the movie’s fundamental core of a man grasping for knowledge and being burned by its power is as old as Icarus. 

It’s a horror movie, with some of the most intensely disturbing mutations and goop of Cronenberg’s visceral career, but it’s also a doomed love story, brought to life by Goldblum and Davis’ immense chemistry (they were a couple at the time). 

When I first saw “The Fly,” it was on a battered VHS dub tape someone made for me back in high school. I watched that tape so many times that whenever I see the movie now I expect to see the same tracking glitches the tape had. It was my first Cronenberg, which will screw you up for life. 

“I’m saying I’m an insect… who dreamt he was a man… and loved it. But now the insect is awake.” – Seth Brundle

There’s a speech Goldblum gives towards the end, covered in latex and deformed, about insect politics. It and the movie as a whole are Goldblum’s finest hour as an actor. 

Everybody loves Jeff Goldblum these days, and heck, I do too, but he’s become kind of a cartoony eccentric version of himself. “The Fly” shows what happens when Goldblum actually acts instead of quirks, and it’s still revelatory to watch Seth Brundle’s horrible transformation and mutations. 

As a teenager, I saw a lot of myself in Seth Brundle’s horrific transformation into a human/fly hybrid. Golbum’s face breaks out, his body changes, he doesn’t recognise himself when he looks in the mirror. That’s every teenager in the world for you. 

I see it now, I see darker metaphors – as a middle-aged dude, your body continues changing, not always in great ways. At one point in the movie Goldblum worries that he’s developed some hideous form of cancer (spoiler: it’s way worse than that). Now I see “The Fly” as a parable about anyone who’s ever felt trapped in a body that’s a stranger to them. 

“I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, gray, fear of the flesh.” – Seth Brundle

I’ve had my share of health woes the last few years and I have to admit that watching Goldblum go from a dazzling shirtless golden god to a deteriorating, disintegrating wreck of a man hits home hard. We are all transforming, every day, in ways big and small. Sometimes it’s wonderful. Sometimes it’s horrible. The question is how we endure it. 

“The Fly” is still a movie I return to every few years, and each time I see something a little different in it. It’s dark and down, sure, but yet I also feel a weird glimmer of optimism in parts of it too. We never stop wanting to better ourselves, no matter the cost. We are all swimming in the plasma pool. 

“It wants to… turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.” – Seth Brundle

You really can judge a comic book by its cover

Batman_184I’ve been hunting for the Batman issue above for a long time. It’s perhaps one of the best comic book covers ever – how can you NOT want to read the story inside? (Spoiler: It’s not actually all that great, but how could it measure up to that cover?) As a comic book cover alone, it’s a work of art.

The_Flash_Vol_1_163We live in weird times, when comic books dominate pop culture and box office receipts, yet the humble printed item itself still struggles for sales. They’re still out there, and I hope they’ll be out there a long time, but we’re a long way from when an X-Men comic sold 8 million issues in the ‘90s. But great comic book covers have pretty much died as an art form, despite their still being a lot of very good comic books published. It’s like everyone stopped caring about the covers. Maybe I’m just a design nut, but to me the cover is an integral part of the whole comics package.

Comic book covers slowly changed around the turn of the century, when kids stopped buying comic books at grocery store spinner racks and the art of selling comics rested less on a dynamic cover image and more on short-lived gimmicks (ah, for the chromium foil covers of the 1990s) or story-telling events (Crisis that, Crisis this, Marvel relaunching their comic titles over at #1 about every 15 minutes). Comics sell now to a fairly entrenched group of older fans like me, and the covers stopped trying to be about grabbing your attention. 

tumblr_pipexotLzg1vvfgwko1_400I don’t know why comic book covers have gotten so boring, really, but Christ almighty they sure have. Instead the kind of dazzling images you see here from the 1960s-1980s, sometime around 1999 comic book companies settled into publishing bland generic pin-up shots and chaotic battle scenes which vanish from your mind soon as you see them.

Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man comic was so bad at this for a while in the early 2000s that I honestly could never tell whether I’d read an issue or not from its cover, usually yet another generic shot of Spider-Man swinging through the city. The Alex Ross school of lush, artsy painted comic book covers also took over – and I like Alex Ross’s work, but painted comic covers in general don’t grab the eye like they first did. 

cleanComic books are at their heart a unique form of storytelling that combines words and pictures and have created some of the greatest fiction of the last century. There’s a reason Avengers movies and Aquaman movies rake in the big bucks, because there’s an iconic, mythological heft to these characters.

Yet for some reason the big brains putting out the comics stopped trying to showcase their storytelling on their covers. I don’t want yet another boring pin-up image of Batman.

I want you to tell me a story that makes me want to read that comic book, just like that battered Batman #184 from the 1960s that I finally tracked down a copy of. I’ll never forget that cover, because it told me a story and I had to know what happened next. 

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Review: Aldous Harding, The Powerstation, August 31, Auckland

IMG_6778It takes a lot to shush up an Auckland Saturday night crowd with a single look. But Aldous Harding was able to do that with a mere glance at the sold-out Powerstation gig celebrating our home-grown songwriter’s success.

Harding is one of the more unique voices sprouting from New Zealand’s fertile music scene these last few years. At just 29, she’s crafting the kind of edgy crossover career that wins lifelong fans while never sounding like anything other than herself. She’s mysterious and strange, sometimes sounding like an alien come down to earth, with a voice that moves from angelic highs to booming lows with ease, and song lyrics that defy easy interpretation. There’s hints of Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush in her work, but it’s all dipped in an antipodean magic all its own. Her “Horizon” is one my favourite singles of the last few years, and her latest album “Designer” is one of 2019’s best. 

Dressed something like an extra in a 1990s Beastie Boys video, Harding took the stage alone, with a single guitar, and rather daringly played two of her most hushed, intimate numbers at the very start of the show. The crowd at the bar shushed; you couldn’t even hear glasses jingle, nothing but Harding’s chameleon voice echoing around the Powerstation. It was a masterful entrance by a performer who already clearly knows how to hold attention, and when the slower songs gave way to the full band joining her on the joyously bouncy “Designer,” it was a powerful burst of catharsis and exhaled breaths. 

Harding has developed a reputation for her striking performance style, sometimes gurning and contorting her features in confrontational ways. She was less trippy last night than some of her performances I’ve seen, but she still has a gift for upsetting audience expectations with an unexpected twist of her lips, roll of her eyes, or a kabuki-like set of gestures.  The show moved between quieter numbers and ecstatic jigs by her excellent band – there’s definitely a more pop sensibility in the songs of “Designer,” and a song like “The Barrel” is an anthem that still remains distinctly its own thing, with lyrics like “The wave of love is a transient hunt / Water’s the shell and we are the nut” rattling around your brain. 

IMG_6758I’ve been to shows at the Powerstation before for similarly stark, intimate shows and left annoyed by the singer being overwhelmed by the crash of beer bottles and the yammering of the audience. That wasn’t a problem tonight. On a cold August night, Harding felt like the hottest thing in town, something new and old at the same time blooming with an energy all its own. She closed with a magnificent, aching cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down The Line” and terrific new song, “Old Peel,” that left me with no doubt about her future. 

She wasn’t much for banter, but she gave us a glimpse of her self as she sighed with a tight smile at the encore, “What a life, eh?” Whatever strange roads Aldous Harding takes to in the future, I’ll be there. 

Wrestling with being a “Star Wars” fan at age 47

vsQSZluI’m a fan of a lot of things. But “Star Wars” is complicated for me. 

Like pretty much everyone born in the 1970s, I grew up with “Star Wars,” surrounded by Kenner action figures and C-3PO Underoos and painstakingly assembling the entire 107-issue run of Marvel comics. I never thought I’d still be seeing new “Star Wars” movies 40 years later.

But these days, the more toxic elements of “Star Wars” fandom have seeped into my appreciation of the Jedi mythos, already diluted by middling prequels and a never-ending tsunami of content-expanding product – some good, some unnecessary. They’re a tiny keyboard warrior minority, but seeing the misogynists and trolls outraged at gerrrrrls and non-white characters brought into their little biosphere in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” had a contaminating effect for me. I’ll always love “Star Wars,” but I’m uneasy lumping myself into the fandom scene.

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Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best of 1999’s “The Phantom Menace” have faced years of harassment and bullying for simply appearing in a movie. It’s hard for me to square up my own childhood Jedi fandom with an invisible online world of real-life Sith lords throwing bombs from their keyboards. If fandom is hounding an Asian-American actress off the internet for being in a “Star Wars” movie, I don’t want any part of it. 

So it’s complicated watching “Star Wars” movies in your late 40s, with a lifetime of your own memory baggage tossed into a cultural Tower of Babel of hot takes and trolling that never ends

qWglzM0I watched “The Last Jedi” again recently, and it’s the rare post-1983 “Star Wars” movie that actually gets better on each viewing. It goes in hard, unexpected places and objectively speaking is the most beautiful movie of the entire series to date, with director Rian Johnson composing painterly, stunning vistas that remind me of why I fell in love with the alien skies of Tatooine and Bespin in the first place. The cast is great (sorry, keyboard warriors) and it’s honestly the most surprising “Star Wars” movie since “Empire Strikes Back.” While I dug “The Force Awakens,” it’s hard not to see its plot as a ramped-up remake of “Star Wars”. “The Last Jedi” goes against what fans expected, and it suffered a backlash in some quarters as a result. 

And yet, “The Last Jedi” is also a cruel movie, where betrayal and despair is everywhere. Watching the last remnants of the Rebellion slowly being picked off and almost every character suffering incredible losses is a downer, much like the ending of “Empire Strikes Back” was in 1981. 

It’s likely that December’s Episode IX will live up to the title “The Rise of Skywalker” and deliver some kind of feel-good catharsis, but I don’t know. These are bleaker times than 1983. Cheesy as it may seem, the original trilogy had the standard-issue happy ending, with Ewoks singing wub-wub and everybody smiling at the force ghosts.

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Perhaps it’s a more brutal world now or a less blinkered one, but “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” are here to tell us there are no happy endings. (MAJOR SPOILERS ahead if you have yet to see either of these movies.) Han Solo has an apparently failed marriage to Leia and dies alone on a bridge, killed by his own son. Luke Skywalker sees his every ambition fail and spends his final years bitter and alone on a rocky island. General Leia Organa’s entire life is filled with failure and loss, the Rebellion crumbling around her, and whatever her final fate in “The Rise of Skywalker” is likely to be, it’s coming at the end of a hard life. I’m only hoping Lando has had some happiness in his final years. 

In the brief interregnum from 1984-1997 or so when “Star Wars” fandom went underground, where there were tons of comic book sequels and novels and the like, an entirely new ending was imagined for Han, Luke and Leia, one filled with ups and downs but definitely less fatalistic than the bleak realities of Episodes VII and VIII. I feel sad to see the characters I followed so obsessively as a kid not getting their happy endings. Then again, you can call back to Ben Kenobi’s lonely Tatooine exile or the brutal deaths of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and say that “Star Wars” has always had harsh endings. 

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Yet I can’t fault its reality – war rarely ends cleanly or easily in real life, and it was always a stretch to imagine a bunch of Ewoks in a forest singlehandedly brought down a galactic empire. But I liked the fantasy. I liked the happy ending in 1983, and not having to read hot takes on it all the next day online. One of the biggest problems with the 42-year history of “Star Wars” now is that everyone has their own expectations of how things will go, and their own disappointment when it doesn’t measure up. Like most things, “Star Wars” is an imperfect creation, and part of being a fan of it all after decades is coming to grips with it.  

In the end nothing will be as pure a love as the kind you had when you were a starry-eyed kid. I’ll always be a “Star Wars” fan, despite my misgivings. But it’s complicated. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #3: Master Of The Flying Guillotine

513wIAiRefLWhat is it: It’s not exactly a household name, but in certain circles, it’s the holy bible of cheesy kung-fu schlock. Master of the Flying Guillotine is a 1976 Taiwanese film written by, directed by and starring Jimmy Wang Yu, a sequel to his One-Armed Boxer (about… you guessed it). It’s one of the wackiest kung fu movies of the ‘70s, featuring an insane blind assassin and his fearsome “flying guillotine” (a bizarre weapon which resembles a bladed cap attached to a chain. You throw it and boom, instant haircut). The guillotine master has a mad-on for the famed one-armed boxer who killed his students, and the entire movie is basically an excuse for inventive, crazed kung fu revenge ultraviolence, leading to a fantastic showdown between a one-armed fighter and a blind guillotine wielder. 

Why I never saw it: Hell, I’d never even heard of it until recently, when I’ve been going on an extended martial arts movie binge, from the classic moves of Bruce Lee to the slapstick antics of Jackie Chan to the cool charms of Donnie Yen. 

MV5BMzgxMmMwODAtZTFjNC00OTlhLTlhMDgtZWE2OWRmMTkyZmVhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_Does it measure up to its rep? This is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movies and a clear influence on his “Kill Bill” series. It’s not slick, but its clunky moves (the ‘one-armed boxer’ moves about as smooth as I do on a Saturday morning), crazy krautrock-influenced soundtrack and bizarre characters make it unforgettable in a genre filled with wacky kung-fu killers. While Wang Yu is a kinda stiff leading man, Lung Kun Lee as the guillotine killer is fascinatingly over-the-top – with facial hair that makes him resemble a rabid woodchuck, a snarling theme song that announces his entrance, and a penchant for throwing explosives around every building he enters, he’s amazing. The entire movie stops dead at one point for a half-hour of so of a bloody, murder-filled martial arts tournament featuring crazily baroque fighters, which basically plays like “Mortal Kombat” invented 20 years earlier. There’s sheer energy to the way this revenge tale is framed that gives it a kick. Perhaps the best way to watch is it like I did, on a low-rent dubbed video which inexplicably switches back to Chinese 5-6 times during the middle of the movie for a few lines here and there. It’s like I was there in the grindhouse drive-in movie theatre parking lot of 1976 this movie was made for.  

34748.largeHow’s it different than I thought: Unlike the other “flying guillotine” movies out there in this sub-sub genre, this is pretty bloodless. In fact, a couple of the marquee decapitations in this flick are like watching an abandoned puppet go down, made funnier because in one scene you can clearly see the “headless man” is a man with his still-attached head stuffed into an extra-large shirt. And we won’t even talk about how the “one-armed boxer” is clearly hiding his arm in his tunic in almost every scene.

Worth seeing? Absolutely. It’s the kind of kung-fu insanity I dreamed about as a lad, and a hidden gem if you haven’t discovered its sloppy charms yet. 

The Elvis Presley behind the jokes

elvisSometime in the next few months, Elvis Presley will have been dead longer than he’s been alive. 

It’s 42 years today since Elvis died at age 42 in 1977, and it took a long time for me to take him seriously. For most of us Gen-Xers, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll who died fat and a parody of himself was a joke. It took me years to see that there’s a thousand different Elvises. 

I was a California kid, but I lived in Elvis’ backyard for much of the 1990s, just outside Memphis and just an hour down the road from his birthplace of Tupelo. I wanted to work at Graceland for a summer job, but I couldn’t beat the competition. I fell in love with a girl from Tupelo. I slowly found the King behind the jokes. 

There’s at least four eras of Elvis proper – the young fiery prodigy, captured best in the haunting Sun Records recordings that still amaze today; the post-Army burnout whose talents were wasted for years in movies and cheesy soundtracks; the black leather-clad colossus who stormed his way to a ’68 comeback, and who then melted into the sad sweaty mess of his final years. 

When a legendary person dies, they slowly transform into myth. There’s a Shakespearean heft to the Presley story, a boy from nowhere who conquered the world. Elvis becomes a trailblazing comet or a paunchy punchline, a star of endless daffy movies, a boy who mourned his mother, a kung-fu kicking drug case who once pestered his way in to see Richard Nixon. 

I like the “Comeback Elvis” years the best, from that stunning 1968 TV Special on to the early ‘70s. At his best, he’s like a lone gunslinger bashing through the saloon doors, reminding all the young guns why he mattered. It’s the height before the fall. He’s got the years to give him authority, but he’s still young enough to prowl like a tiger in that insane leather jumpsuit. There’s a horrible trail of wasted possibilities in the Elvis story, which you can lay at the feet of his drug problem, his emotional immaturity, or the terrible mismanagement by the Colonel, who never really understood the power of Elvis. The story is Elvis is a story of lost dreams. 

Imagine if a 60-something Elvis had gone on to have a Johnny Cash-style latter years revival, if he’d just taken a stage with a guitar and a song and captured something of the haunting echoes of the Sun Studios years. 

One of my favourite Elvis songs is “Hurt,” (not the Nine Inch Nails/Johnny Cash version, of course) which he covered just a year before he died. I used to listen to it with a jaded, ironic eye, because Elvis sings the HELL out of this song, murdering it with an unrestrained abandon that teeters right on the edge of parody. But listen to it, man. Listen to the voice breaking as the song launches into the stratosphere, listen to the way his voice dips deep into the canyons as he sings how he’s hurt “way deep inside of me.” He’s singing about a lot more kinds of hurt than just being dumped. This is Elvis in his autumn, looking back at his highs and lows. 

It’s easy to see a punchline in the thousands and thousands of different Elvises the world has seen in the last 42 years. But deep inside the best of his songs, whether it’s the slow burn of “Mystery Train” or the unrestrained operatic bombast of “Hurt,” the real king still awaits.