Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The best of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention have been my favorite musical act for most of my adult life. There's just something about the complexity of the music, the intricacy of the composition, the irreverence of his lyrics and the complete disregard for popular music trends that I've always found appealing. I could (and often do) listen to Zappa and the Mothers for hours on end, as you can always notice something different with each listening, and you can virtually listen for a week without repeating an album. Frank was very prolific in life, and his family trust keeps pushing out new compilations out of his tape vaults with regularity.

I'm not going to say Frank Zappa was some god of some sort. I've yet to see any modern performer that can be called that (sorry Clapton fans). The title track of Weasels Ripped My Flesh is the single most grating and maddening piece of noise that was only rivaled by Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Zappa had lots of idiosyncrasies that a lot of people found annoying and didn't seem to deal with people on a personal level with much alacrity, and tossed a lot of people to the side of the road without a lot of conscience. I've read quite a few books on the man, his relationships with his musicians and his work, and the best that can really be said that Frank Zappa was indeed a man like any other. But as a musician and particularly as a composer, he was one of the best that the 20th Century had to offer (to paraphrase one of his lyrics).

Here are the five albums (sort of) that I think are his very best, and are most representative of what Frank Zappa and the Mothers were about.

Uncle Meat (1969)
It is so very hard to decide on whether or not Uncle Meat or We're Only In It For the Money is the better album, but I have to give the former the upper hand in the contest. Uncle Meat is 90% instrumental and features some truly classic cuts ("Dog Breath", "King Kong", "Cruisin' for Burgers"), as well as the final vinyl appearance of the iconic Suzy Creamcheese. It has a near-symphonic range of sound, from Paducho-inspired garage rock to the orchestral arrangements of the various parts of "King Kong". And a few bars of "Louie, Louie" played on the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ don't hurt the production.

We're Only In It For the Money (1968)
Some folks, along with Frank Zappa himself, have said that this album was the final coffin nail in the Flower Power movement. That's debatable; I personally consider the travesty that was Altamont to be the end of the "Peace and Love" era. This album definitely heralded the end the Los Angeles Freak Movement, though a lot of people apparently didn't listen. This album, with the often-banned Sgt. Pepper-inspired cover, has some of the most poignant and powerful lyrics that Zappa ever wrote.  Much like many of the topically-inspired songs on Freak Out, many of these songs sill have the same relevance today, particularly "Mom and Dad" and "Flower Punk" (which many folks think was about Kent State, but is instead about an earlier tragedy).

Joe's Garage Acts I, II & III (1979)
While a lot of people may have become aware of Frank Zappa's work through the drive-time novelty hit "Valley Girl", the first song that ever caught my ear was the radio single of "Joe's Garage", a simple tale of a neighborhood rock band that practiced in a garage. Little would one expect that buying the full album (and the double album of Acts II & III), one would be delving into a world of Catholic girls, crew sluts, Scientology, 1984, German sex toys and eventually prison and prison sex. This is surreal humor for the ear ... the musical equivalent of listening to Bob and Ray, but with adult language. And there is some of the best guitar work ever heard on a Zappa album (or any album for that matter). "Watermelon in Easter Hay" quickly became my second favorite piece of music of all time.

Electric Aunt Jemima (1968; released in 1992's Beat the Boots II Boxed Set)
First off, this is a bootleg album, and Frank Zappa had little to do with it, other than reissuing it under his own label in the Beat the Boots series to get a measure of vengeance against the pirates. The recording quality is not up to Zappa's usual standards, but the performance is one of the best ever recorded, at least in my opinion. This live album is almost totally instrumental, and really shows the versatility of the Mothers of Invention.

London Symphony Orchestra Vols. I & II (1983, 1987)
The two LSO albums really showcase Frank Zappa as a true modern composer, and while they were released five years apart, I'm considering them as one double-album. While he was never happy with the performances he got out of any orchestra he paid to perform his music, you wouldn't know by the quality of the recordings on these two albums. Several of the tunes (notably "Bogus Pump" and "Strictly Genteel") have been heard in other forms on other albums and in other Zappa projects (the two mentioned were the opening and closing numbers of Zappa's motion picture, 200 Motels) and really come to life in the hands of a properly conducted orchestra.

Honorable Mention:
Bongo Fury (1975) 
This is one of my single favorite albums of all time, and features a collaboration between Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. The two recording legends were often at odds with each other, but when they got together, it was audio magic. Zappa produced Beefheart's (whose real name is Don Van Vliet) iconic Trout Mask Replica, and both have worked together on each other's projects over the years. This particular concert tour and album was spawned because Beefheart was having legal disputes with his former record label and wasn't legally able to record anywhere. He sings several songs and recites two poems. The album was also notable for what having I think was the first song to mention the U.S. Bicentennial being used as a marketing ploy, the first appearance with Zappa by drummer Terry Bozzio, and being the last album to feature a proper line-up of the Mothers of Invention.

I highly recommend anyone check out any of these albums.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Rambling Holiday Thoughts

I suppose a lot of folks get sentimental this time of year. I don’t often get maudlin and start sniffling about things, but I do occasionally think about my situation and how lucky I am to be where I am today.
The holidays are supposed about family. For most of my wonder years, I kind of had a family, but it was never quite right. I’m not talking an abusive horror story or anything like that here, but it didn’t have the stereotypes that a classic American family was supposed to have. I grew up with my mother, my grandfather and grandmother. My grandmother died of liver cancer back in 1973 or so. I recall her illness as being rather long, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of pain (for her) involved in it. My mother was mildly mentally-retarded and died of a heart attack in 1980. She was 41 and had been complaining of what I later learned were classic cardiac symptoms. She died while being forced to exercise at the hospital. I went to live with my grandfather, who took care of me (and whom I took care of in his later years) until he had one too many strokes and finally had to go into a nursing home, where he died at the age of 96. I was working at the answering service used by the nursing home, and I took the call hat he was failing early one morning.
The one member of my family that I have always held in high respect was my uncle David Reyes, a World War II veteran of Iwo Jima who was an electronics expert and traveled the world for Admiral Television. He passed away in the early eighties, a victim of cancer. I also have an estranged aunt, and supposedly somehow I’m related to the guy who played The Flash on TV, but I have no idea what my actual roots are; though I have been told I am related to the Scottish clan McPherran (or I think more properly spelled McFeran). I never knew my father, as the man I had been told was my dad had been chased away the day I was born and has since died. I’ve also been told that my father could’ve been the postmaster of the town I was born in, but he too has been dead for a long time. That was pretty much it for my flesh-and-blood family.
I came to a personal understanding a long time ago that a family is what YOU make it. Blood ties can only go so far, and there are no entitlements or disenfranchisements because of a few shared or lacking chromosomes. My family has always been a small circle of people who have been important to me, and usually a houseful of pets. I moved to Pennsylvania back in 1998 and married my wife, Elona. She has been my guiding light all this time. I’m not the most expressive guy, but I hope she knows how much I love her and how much she means to me, and especially how happy I’ve been since I she became a part of my life. Like a good married couple, we don’t like all the same things so things can be interesting, and we have enough in common to keep things on an even keel, through the good times and the bad times.
Neither of us wanted children. I have enough trouble explaining to someone how to set up an internet connection much less trying to teach a kid something heavy like the difference between right and wrong. But we have a plethora of furry children; our family currently consists of two small dogs (Emiko and Montagoon) and four cats (Pip, Luli, Maxwell and Liam). And unlike regular kids, we don’t have to worry about sending any of them to college. Unfortunately, as we’ve found in the past few years, they are also not with us nearly as long as a real child, and the hurt often seems to be just as great when they pass on.
Elona doesn’t really have many relatives that we’re in regular contact with anymore, as most of them seem to have different priorities than we do. We tend to keep to ourselves, not because we’re anti-social, but more because few people understand us - our sense of humor, beliefs and values. Our “extended” family still includes a lot of friends instead of “proper” relatives. I’ve managed to keep in touch with a few of my friends from my former life in Wisconsin, and there are a few folks around here that I have become good friends. Dennis Sninsky and his dad Johnny, who run the service station two houses down from here, went out of their way to make me feel welcome when I arrived. It was almost like I walked in the door and I was at home with the gang of old (and young) fellas that hung around the station. Johnny passed on a few years ago, but you can still feel him in the neighborhood. Our postman, Jimmy Purcell, is quite possibly the anathema of all postmen: Our dogs love him. Heck, he was my dog Duncan’s uncle (we bought him from Jimmy’s sister). Jimmy is one of the few people who could lay claim to the title of “Nicest Person in the Known Universe” ... and I wish he would. We also get the occasional craziness of phone calls from my friend Larry in Green Bay, and the more level-headed nostalgia of my pal Jim in Oakland.
I suppose by most people’s standards, this is going to be a horrible Christmas in our household. No tree, no decorations, no presents. Guess what? We don’t care! Any cat owner knows most decorations are a frivolity that will be taken down before you even finish getting them up. And while I wouldn’t mind seeing what effect a tree would have on our beasties, I always thought it was very strange and rather contrary to celebrate the birth of someone who advocated life and peace by violently chopping down and displaying another living thing. And as for no presents, again who cares? We both have everything we need right at the moment. Elona and I have come through a couple of long stretches of financial difficulties. It was lucky I was a hoarder of books and stuff before I came here, because we’ve had to sell almost everything of value we had over the years to pay the bills. There was one moment where we were two weeks from losing our house and everything. I’ve been unemployed since March of 2009, and since May of this year we’ve been a one-income family, getting by on what she makes at her job. I was recently approved for disability and in a couple of months there will be at least that much security in our future.
Like many families in this economy, we’ve weathered some hard times. But we’ve managed to come out of them on our feet. We have a roof over our heads, food in the kitchen, furry creatures next to us on the couch, and there’s always a lot of smiles and laughter in our home. As long as you’ve got the laughter, you’ll always have a family.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Album Review: Weird Al Yankovic's Alpocalypse (2011)

I’ve been a fan of Weird Al Yankovic since the Doctor Demento days, but I’ve noticed that as I’ve grown older, I’ve been becoming more disaffected with his pop music parodies, since I don’t listen to much of that type of music anymore. Alpocalypse is the first album that I believe I have no real investment in, as none of the out-and-out parodies are songs that I’ve ever even listened to all the way through, even once. I’m definitely not an ardent fan of Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, or Taylor Swift. However, I think Weird Al has improved his work immensely with his musical style parodies.
The album has five out-and-out parodies of actual songs: “Perform This Way”, a parody of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”; “TMZ”, which uses Taylor Swift’s “You Belong to Me”; “Party in the CIA”, after Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA”; “Another Tattoo”, a parody of “Nothin’ on You” by B.o.B. with Bruno Mars; and “Whatever You Like”, a parody of the same song by T. I. They’re all pretty engaging as parodies, particularly “Party in the CIA” and “TMZ”, but as I've mentioned, I don't think I've ever listened to any of those original songs all the way through.
“Polka Face” is the album’s requisite polka medley, and it is pretty good, though it does have two too many songs in it that originally featured Kesha, who I think most people realize is the Avatar of the End of Days.
The rest of the album features songs that are stylistic parodies of various bands. “CNR” is both a celebration of many somewhat-impossible feats attributed to the late Charles Nelson Reilly and a parody of the White Stripes. It’s also my personal favorite cut on the whole album. “Craigslist” is sung in the style of the Doors, and features Ray Manzarek on keyboards. “Ringtone” parodies the layered studio sound of the glam rock band Queen, as the singer bemoans the fact his ringtone is making the entire world hate him. The group Hanson is riffed on in “If That Isn’t Love”, about a guy who’s way too-good of a boyfriend, with Taylor Hanson providing back-up vocals. And “Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me” is a parody of Jim Steinman’s near-orchestral rock opus sound, as the singer pleads with people to stop forwarding emails to him. Weird Al hit all of these styles dead on. Any one of those songs could’ve been snuck into one of the “victims” albums and would’ve fit in quite nicely. Each one made me think as I was initially listening to it “oh wow, that’s a parody of Queen” or “Huh? He’s doing Jim Steinman? Way cool!”
Comedy acts in the recording business, particularly musical comedy acts, are very hard to maintain over a long period of time.  Alpocalypse shows that Weird Al Yankovic has managed to enter his fourth decade of parodying popular music, and shown he still has a level of freshness and inventiveness that warrants people buying his music. And he’s still pretty damn funny, too.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Album Review: "Torches" by Foster the People

I’m trying to find a musical analogy to describe Foster the People’s sound ... at least one that doesn’t sound lame. The band certainly isn’t, but I find it difficult to put a relatable label on this indie pop trio.  The best I can come up with is “Abba meets Gorillaz.” I know that sounds like a pop culture abomination, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.

I first became aware of the band when I saw the video for their debut single “Pumped Up Kicks” on a satellite music channel. It seemed like a sort of polished garage rock at the time, so I checked out the album. Mind you, I am not a pop music fan by any definition of the word. I prefer dinosaur metal, progressive rock and Frank Zappa. There’s something about the album Torches that appeals to me, for some reason I can’t totally grasp. Their music and vocals are layered and somewhat dense, but they still produce a sound that is light and danceable. The lyrics are interesting and rather strange at times. The first single tells the tale of a trouble kid with a gun, while “Helena Beat” seems to be simply about getting through the day.  There seem to be a lot of simple truths covered in this album, and they are related in a way that often catches you off-guard, with the real meaning of the song hitting you on the second, third or even seventh listening. That’s a welcome change from a guitar hook or a drum beat in your face and an auto-tuned voice whining a mindless but commercially-viable chorus.
Foster the People’s sound is what I would have expected had half the good college/alternative bands of the eighties and nineties stayed around long enough to hone their craft and become something truly relevant. This band has reached that plateau with their first album, and quite honestly, this is one of the first good pop albums I’ve listened to in the past thirty years. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book reviews: Nine days, nine books.

Well, I've been in a reading fervor for the last week or so, and naturally you readers have to pay the price! Here’s the reviews that are the result of all that reading. Oddly enough, this time I picked my titles a little more carefully, so I didn’t read anything that sucked the big one.
The Annals of the Heechee by Fredrick Pohl. This is the fourth full-length novel in Pohl’s long-running and award-winning Heechee Saga. Everything’s tied up with ribbons to end the quartet of main novels that focused on the adventures of Robinette Broadhead. I enjoyed it, but there’s a lot of semi-theoretical physics in it. The main character is also dead, spending his time as an electronic consciousness. If you’ve read the others in the series, this is a must-read, but I wouldn’t advise someone to start with this book, as even genre fans will be a tad out of their depths. And I’d recommended reading at least the first two books anyway, as they are true modern classics of science fiction.
Ballpark Mysteries: The Fenway Foul-Up by David A. Kelly. I hadn’t realized this was a rather Young Adult title, but its baseball, so how bad could it be? It literally takes less than fifteen minutes to read. It’s a mystery about a stolen bat at Fenway Park, but the clues are way too obvious, even for a kid’s book. The book has a lexicon in back with definitions of a lot of the baseball terms used in the story, and quite a bit of Fenway Park trivia is revealed during the course of the tale. I wouldn’t suggest an adult buy this to read for themselves, but it might be a good tale for a parent and a child who were baseball fans.
Doc Savage: The Man Who was Scared and Doc Savage: The Shape of Terror. These are #138 and #139 in the series of pulp adventures featuring the Man of Bronze, written by Lester Dent (under the house pseudonym of Kenneth Robeson). Both are excellent examples of both Doc Savage stories and great pulp adventures. The first story opens with a man falling dead on Doc’s doorstep, with his plaintive final words being “my breakfast cereal.” The second tale opens with Doc being kidnapped by the RAF and being killed in an airplane crash. His aides Monk and Ham die in a fiery car accident soon after. Both are well-written, as these books are in the phase where Doc was often a somewhat more fallible than his reputation.
I Had the Right to Remain Silent, But I Didn’t Have the Ability by Ron White. A good three-quarters of this autobiography is just restatements of Ron White’s stand-up act. I’m sure even the most anti-redneck/Blue Collar Comedy Tour fan will get a chuckle here and there. There’s a great section on White’s travails in trying to get a couple of TV pilots on the network. It’s a good read if you have an hour to waste.
Godzilla Returns, Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla at World’s End by Marc Cerasini. These are the first three novels in a short-lived Godzilla series from the nineties, inspired by the remakes of the Godzilla movies that started with Godzilla 1984. Godzilla Returns is somewhat based on that movie, but the others have no true movie progenitors. As with most of the Showa and Millennium era G-films, Godzilla was last seen in 1954, where he was driven away (and not destroyed by the Oxygen Destroyer) until his reappearance in the first book. The first two books are pretty standard, though the characters in the Godzilla Returns are a lot more accessible. The storyline in Godzilla 2000 is a bit hard to follow in spots. The third novel is a monster tour de force, with most of the Toho rogue’s gallery out to face Godzilla. It loses a little as it goes, because the whole tale tries to be too much in too short a story. If you’re a kaiju eiga fan, they should be on your reading list. If you’re just a sci-fi fan, try Godzilla Returns before bothering with the others to see if you like the style.
You Might Be a Zombie, and Other Bad News: Shocking But Utterly True Facts by the Editors of If you aren’t familiar with, forget this review and head over to that website immediately. This book is like an actually relevant edition of The Book of Lists meets The Daily Show. There are a lot of oddball, trivia facts in this little tome, and unlike the aforementioned Book of Lists, they’re actually presented in a very readable and hilarious form. Quite a few of the chapters have appeared on the website, but there are a good number of lists and articles that are exclusive to the book. Funny, sometimes caustic and highly recommended.

Well, that's all for this go-around. I've got a couple of album reviews and an old-radio show review on plan for next week, as well as another comic book from the "New 52" reboot. Take care, folks!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Kaiju Review: Space Monster Dogora (1964)

Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I enjoy weirdness, especially in movies. Give me a goofy b-movie and I’m happy as a clam. Space Monster Dogora is one of those bizarre movies that I love watching.
It’s not the most well scripted film in the world, naturally. In fact, the story comes off as two separate movies that were filmed over at Toho Studios and then the directors just said, “What the heck, let’s put ‘em together!”  The movie starts with a scene of a NASA-like room full of technicians and consoles watching a satellite. Apparently Japanese TV satellites have been getting wrecked, but only on their sixth orbit. This satellite too is destroyed, by a cell-like creature that is vaguely reminiscent of the giant amoeba that Spock flew a shuttlecraft inside of during “The Immunity Syndrome” on the original Star Trek series.

Space Monster Dogora in ... well, space.

After the credits, the movie cuts to a jewel heist in progress, complete with a Rififi-esque crew of safecrackers. The police are drawn away by both the lovely Akiko Wakabayashi and a drunken salaryman, who is levitating through the streets on his side. The safecrackers are also levitated away from the safe, and off we go on a very strange celluloid journey.

Drunken guy floating to work. It is Japan, after all.
While the whole plot is somewhat segmented, it all does seem to work in a rather enjoyable way. Dogora consumed carbon, and isn't necessarily all the picky in what form the carbon is in; A string of diamond thefts around the world are later attributed to Dogora, since it does apparently like to get the purest form of the substance first. The diamond heist gang is angry because only one of the big thefts was their work, and is looking for whoever's cutting them out of the action. The rather shifty Occidental Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham) is also in the web, a lone wolf "diamond g-man" working for a special commission. His loyalties are unsure for most of the movie, as he's a thorn in the side of the crooks and Inspector Komai (Yosuke Natsuki).

Meanwhile, Dr. Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura), a professor of crystallography, has been tangentially connected to the diamond case because of his work with synthetic diamonds. He becomes more involved as after Komai and the professor's beautiful assistant, witness a colliery's coal supply being sucked into the sky. Munakata also theorizes that there's a possibility that the giant space cell could start being less discriminating in its lunch habits, noting that humans are carbon-based, too.

Munakata works with the military, led by an old friend of his, to develop a weapon to stop Dogora. Inadvertently, Dogora's end also closed the case for the diamond gang.

Dogora in the skies above Doikaiwan.

This is another film that proves that things don't always have to make sense to be fun. Dogora itself is an intriguing monster, but I think since its not a big lumbering, city-stomping lizard, we don't have the same sense of urgency about its appearances. Even when it destroys the Wakato Bridge, which is a great special effects scene for the period, there's not a lot of terror (or at least the fake terror you'd normally assume in these films). If the plot does have a flaw, its in the point that Dogora hadn't started eating people yet ... just lifting them up and moving them away from what he wanted to eat wasn't all that scary or intimidating. Dogora might as well have just said "Excuse me" first.

With these two plotlines showcased in the movie, the performances are a little stilted. The version I've watched is the original, subtitled Japanese version of the movie (I haven't gotten around to getting a copy of the American International Television cut yet), and everyone comes off pretty one-dimensional. The cast is excellent though, considering this being a monster movie. Akiko Wakabayashi has appeared in genre films before (Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster and King Kong Vs. Godzilla) and is noted for being one of the first Asian Bond Girls (along with Mie Hama in You Only Live Twice). Robert Dunham has appeared in numerous Japanese movies, including Mothra, The Green Slime and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite, Godzilla vs. Megalon. The cast is further bolstered by genre veterans Jun Tazaki, Hideyo Amamoto and Hiroshi Koizumi.

Space Monster Dogora, for its obvious limitations, is really one of those rare movies that can't be compared to any other film. It is a piecemeal work that somehow manages to become a greater, and goofier, whole. This sci-fi/monster/heist flick is definitely worth watching!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Review: Godzilla Final Wars (2004)

Godzilla, standing amid the aftermath of doing his thing.

Godzilla: Final Wars was the last Godzilla movie in the current Millennium series of films. Right off, I have to tell you that this is not a great film. It’s barely a good film, but it’s mighty fun to watch.
The movie was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the original Gojira film, which began the many-storied Godzilla franchise. And as such, the movie is a virtual homage to Toho Studio’s science fiction/daikaiju (giant monster) output over the past half-century. The film itself is a melange of remakes of several previous Toho movies, notably Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters!
The story is pretty simple: The movie opens with the crew of the Gotengo managing to trap Godzilla under tons of Antarctic ice back in 1954. More monsters began appearing after that, and a race of mutants with vaguely-described physical enhancements also came into existence, working alongside humanity to protect the planet.  In 2004, all of the world’s monsters start attacking for no apparent reason. Then a seemingly-benevolent alien race from Planet X captures them all, and seeks to help Earth because a runaway asteroid is on a direct collision course with the planet. After a group of people discover something’s not on the up-and-up with the Xians, the monsters are released and the aliens reveal their plan to take over the world and use the human race for food. The rebels take off in a flying submarine to release Godzilla from his Antarctic prison, who proceeds to kick kaiju ass and the aliens are defeated. I could’ve labeled this “SPOILER ALERT,” but let’s face it, you know everything’s gonna be the status quo at the end.
I know, I know ... the story sounds rather trite and childish. Well, so what? If you want highbrow storylines, go rent some Kurosawa. Final Wars is merely a celebration of a genre that has given a lot of pleasure to a lot of kids (and kids at heart) for the better half of a century.
Let’s look at the special touches in this movie:
  • The storyline is a combination of the movies Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters!, both of which are near-classic giant monster slugfests.The Xians are very similar to the Kilaaks from DAM in motives, and the original Controller of Planet X is grabbed very much like the leader of the Xians was in MZ.
  • The monster tableau is almost the same as DAM, with a few of Godzilla’s other foes tossed in for good measure. Rodan, Gamackeras (the giant insect), Spiegas (the giant spider), Angillas, King Seesar, Ebriah (the Sea Monster - a giant shrimp/lobster), and Hedorah (the Smog Monster) all cause a lot of fun damage, as do two versions of the buzzsaw-bellied Gigan. A good number of the monsters are computer-generated this time around, rather than being regular puppets or man-in-a-suit-asauruses.
  •  Mothra and the tiny Twin Fairies make an obligatory appearance.  It's just not a Japanese monster movie without a pair of twins of indeterminate age to control a giant moth.
  •  The American version of Godzilla is acknowledged in the form of Zilla, who gets easily trounced by the real thing. “Stupid tuna-eating monster!”
  •  As in DAM, the flying fiery UFO from space turns out to be something else  ... Monster X, who transforms into King Ghidorah.
  • The plot point about an asteroid on a crash course with Earth was taken straight from the movie Yosei Gorasu, a sci-fi flick about a planet named Gorath that was going to play billiards with Earth. As over the top as this movie is, Gorath was prevented from destroying the world by moving the whole Earth out of its orbit with giant rockets. Again, I know, I know. But it’s another fun movie, so go watch it!
  • There are cameos of monsters from a number of lesser-known kaiju eiga, including Gaira from War of the Gargantuas, Baragon from Frankenstein Conquers the World, Titanosaurus from Terror of Mechagodzilla, Varan from Varan the Unbelieveable. Gezora (the giant, walking squid from Yog, Monster from Space), Manda, Destroyah and Megaguirus. Most of these cameos are film clips from the original movies.
  • The plot weaves in a lot of stylistic elements from The Matrix movies with a dash of X-Men. The main weapon of the defense forces, the flying, drilling, submarines, are taken directly from the movie Atragon, as was the monster from that movie, Manda, which is taken out of play by the Gotengo right after the opening credits.
  • The day is proverbially saved by the appearance of Godzilla's son, Minilla. He's too cute for words as usual. 
  • The cast is filled with Japanese stars of previous kaiju eiga, including Kenji Sahara, Kumi Mizuno, Masakatsu Funaki, Akira Takarada and Jun Kunimura.
I'm sure it sounds campy to anyone who isn't a fan of the genre. But you know what? It's fun! This film is a lot more enjoyable than some of the big-budget sci-fi blockbusters that tainted American screens back in 2004, like The Day After Tomorrow or I, Robot.

One has to always remember that, with one exception, giant monster movies are supposed to be just unbridled fun to watch. They aren't high art, and they don't have to make perfect sense. Godzilla: Final Wars is an hour and a half of simply pleasure that any fan should take the time to experience.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The inevitable death of genres, or why isn’t the Cisco Kid still on TV every week?

I’ve been reading a lot about how soap opera fans are decrying network plans to cancel their stories, and I really think that they should just consider themselves lucky that things have lasted as long as they have.
When you think about it, the soap opera genre has had one of the longer periods of popularity than most other forms of entertainment. From their days as radio programming staples in the forties to their popularity as TV programs from the sixties to the nineties, they’ve been around for quite a long time. And what’s more, they’ve been around in virtually the same form, which is responsible for both that longevity and for their downfall.
People enjoy following interesting stories, and enjoy being able to do so often. Soap operas were a reliable source for that, giving folks five days a week of quality entertainment. But that only goes so far, especially as tastes and entertainment options evolve and expand. Right now, there are a lot more entertainment options for the typical soap opera fan than there were in the thirty years of their heyday. It’s not just young guys who are at war with themselves over choosing what to do at any given moment; Everyone, even the stereotypical bored housewife, can find a lot of interesting stuff to do besides watching soap operas.
One of the problems with soap operas is that they don’t really seem to reflect the times as they once did. Sure, they try, tossing in the occasional homosexual character or weather-controlling madman, and making sure everyone has an iPhone now. But adult situations really aren’t address with the propriety that modern society now allows. The selfsame sponsors who promote their products on these programs are very wary of being controversial. At least most programs allow such things as multiracial relationships now, since that’s a big demographic.
Soap opera fans should feel grateful that their genre has lasted as long as it did. For example:
·        The Cisco Kid, The Roy Rogers Show, Hopalong Cassidy, the Range Riderthe Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke.  The classic television westerns rode off into the sunset over thirty years ago. All western fans have now are sub-standard “modern” westerns guised as “family entertainment.” Rarely is a shot fired or a horse reared-up in the cause of action, adventure and justice anymore.
·        After the Kennedy assassination, cartoons went from the action-oriented likes of Space Ghost, Birdman and the Fantastic Four to mostly cute animals and adventures were Superman never throws a punch at a villain. Scooby Doo is fun and all, but solving the same basic mystery over and over gets real old.
·        CBS shut down all their rural situation comedies in the late sixties/early seventies just to try and put some gilt on their big bloodshot eye, even though shows like the Beverly Hillbillies were still getting top ratings.
Science fiction fans got lucky, since sci-fi is still such a big blockbuster box office draw, that genre is weaved into many a program nowadays. Most games shows are syndicated now, relegated to the bargain basement of reality television, which has taken over the small screen because of the low production costs.
Almost every genre of fiction has a period of unrivaled media popularity, before it gets into a sleepy lull and fades into nostalgia. Sometimes there are ways to keep things going fresh and new, but often or not, circumstances will just not allow that. I'm sorry, soap opera fans, but I think it's just about that time for your shows.
Popularity is a fickle mistress, and she likes to sleep around.

Friday, September 16, 2011

DC Comics: The New 52 - Justice League #1

I have to say that I can’t recall seeing commercials on TV for comic books since the early eighties, when Marvel Comics did one for G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero #1. I didn’t see much point to that one, and I didn’t see much point to the current one for DC Comics’ “The New 52” line. And after reading Justice League #1, I can’t see much point to that whole idea, either.
It’s been very hard to be an old-school comic fan over the past decade. The few remaining writers that we could count on for quality stories have gone completely commercial and sold out. I suppose I can’t blame them, considering what a dying art form and hobby comic books and comic book collecting has become. But when I sit back and read fantastic tales stories in the pages of Starman or Doom Patrol or JSA or even New X-Men and see the kind of confusing, monotonous tripe that writers like James Robinson, Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns are putting out now, it saddens me.  I quit reading most Marvel Comics after the lingering “Civil War” crossover event, and stopped reading most DC books after the fiasco of “Final Crisis.”
The hobby is in a downward slide. For example, back in 1968, the first Doom Patrol series was cancelled for selling only 250,000 copies a month. The version of the series that was cancelled in 2002 was only selling around 15,000 copies. The best seller that month sold around 148,000 issues. Huge crossover events that are so convoluted you need a scorecard haven’t helped matters. Readers want solid stories of the characters they enjoy - they don’t want to buy a bunch of comics they’ve never read in order to follow the plotline of a single story. And since new comics are about as valuable as new baseball cards, there’s not even a speculator market anymore.
Let’s take a look at the first issue’s story, written by Geoff Johns and featuring art by Jim Lee, which is set five years before the current continuity. For some reason, Cyborg is set to be a major player in the Justice League this time around. I hadn’t realized that Victor Stone, who has gone through lord knows how many transformations over the years, was suddenly a major commercial star. But we’re going to be seeing his origin over the course of the next few issues. I’m betting some major accident involving some of the other soon-to-be JLA’ers. As for the “heroes” we also see in this issue, not a single one of them have any original qualities that make them endearing to me. The Batman is, well, the Batman - stuck-up and overbearing. Superman appears to be a jerk as well, and Green Lantern Hal Jordan is pretty much an idiot. Batman even pulls a stunt he did in All-Star Batman and Robin by stealing GL’s Power Ring. At least this time, Robin wasn’t around to nearly kill the “Emerald Gladiator”...
If this book is representative of the New 52 continuity reboot, I’m very scared for the future of DC Comics. It has the scent of the disastrous revamping that Marvel Comics tried in 1996, giving their flagship titles to Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld of the then-popular Image Comics to remold into something new. That was a creative fiasco, no matter how you look at it. Having Jim Lee as a player in any reimaging of any comic book is not something I’d call a move that inspires confidence in the whole. I’ve also read where they’re bringing in Liefeld, who is perhaps the single worst artist in the history of comic books, to do another of the New 52 titles (The Hawk and the Dove), so I’m having the distinctly ominous feeling that this is a venture that is doomed to failure.
There’s nothing in Justice League #1 that makes me want to pick up issue #2. Much like Marvel did, DC Comics is completely abandoning the remains of their hardcore, old-time fan base. I hope that they realize that in this economy, it’s a bad thing to lose steady readers for the sake of bringing in a few short-term sales on a bunch of #1 issues. And I also hope they realize that in this age, even those old-time fans can find plenty of other diversions to make them forget about new comics, and stick with the old ones they can rely on for solid entertainment.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Concert Review: "The British Invasion Show." Penn's Peak September 8. 2001

Amid the overflowing waters of north central Pennsylvania, my wife and I took advantage of some free tickets that I had won on Facebook and ventured up to Penn’s Peak (in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania) for what was touted as “The British Invasion Show.” It headlined The Yardbirds, with special guest Badfinger Starring Joey Molland. Due to the weather, the 1,800-seat venue wasn’t close to being filled, with only about 400 chairs set up and only about people attending.
“The Doctor” from Penn’s Peak Radio came out to open the show, and after a long list of announcements of upcoming events, completely forgot to introduce Badfinger. No one came out later to introduce the Yardbirds, either. Even Joey Molland seemed a tad confused with that. It didn’t really affect the show, as Badfinger started right into “Baby Blue” and an excellent show was off and running.
I know there’s been a lot of press about the problems and tragedies within the original Badfinger, but none of that came through this show. Joey Molland was an original member as of the first album, so as far as I’m concerned, he can lead a band with that name. He actually seemed to want to be up there playing, and the whole group seemed to be actually having fun, a virtual rarity in today’s business-driven music landscape. I’ve always thought that “fun” equals “good rock ‘n’ roll” and it was definitely the case tonight.
The entire band was pretty laid back, and Joey would introduce a lot of the songs with a little bit of history; After all, Badfinger was groomed by Paul McCartney and the Beatles at Apple Records. This is the closest most of the folks around here will ever get to that sort of legendry. The band was very harmonious and everyone except the drummer took a turn on lead vocals at one point or another. All of their major hits were played at one point or another, though I would like to have heard “Rock of All Ages” or “Carry on Till Tomorrow” in the set. What was really notable was that this was the first opening act I’d ever seen at Penn’s Peak that came back for an encore, playing two more tunes, including “No Matter What.” The whole performance had a good vibe, with some great tunes. I’ll definitely have no trouble paying to see Badfinger the next time they swing by this area.

Let’s see ... what can I say about the Yardbirds? I suppose they really had a lot to live up to, considering the talent that worked their way through the group: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. But I have to admit that I was never a fan of any of those particular guitarists, I wasn't influenced by that lineage. The particular line-up at this concert only barely made it past the criteria I have for calling a band by a classic name, since the only original members present were drummer Jim McCarty and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja. My wife actually thought they were some kind of warm-up band when they took the stage. The same positive group dynamic that Badfinger had fifteen minutes earlier wasn’t there with the Yardbirds. Here was a band that really seemed to be using a name to get a paycheck and nothing else.
The set list was fairly good, performing most of the Yardbirds’ big hits, like “Heart Full of Soul,” “For Your Love,” and “The Shape of Things.” One problem for me was that, while Andy Mitchell is an excellent vocalist, I really don’t think his voice was suited to most of this material. His stand-out moment was his rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.” He also managed a passable version of “For Your Love,” but most of the other tunes were lacking ... something. A good number of tunes were played off the "Little Games" album, including "Glimpses," a psychedlic number that just didn't come off well with Mitchell's vocal register. And it was considerably dated; Mitchell noted that the song hadn't been performed in concert before ... there's a reason for that. 
Lead guitarist Ben King does a good Clapton imitation. But that’s about all it was. Chris Dreja spent most of the show looking like he was frightened of coming too near his band mates, scared of his guitar, and completely terrified of the microphone (unless he was attempting to rap with the audience). I have to say that they did close the show with a fantastic version of “Dazed and Confused,” but the encore of “I’m a Man” was really uninspiring.
This incarnation of the Yardbirds is definitely a bar band and little more, but Joey Molland's Badfinger still has the chops and the verve to be a starring act. Badfinger made this concert into an old-fashioned rock show, and it's too bad that they weren't billed as the headline act.

Friday, July 1, 2011

RRR #3: More e-book reviews

Well, I looked at my Kindle this week and decided to go through it and read some of the short fiction and non-fiction that's been accumulating ... and YOU get to pay the price for it! Here's a bunch o' mini-reviews of the e-books that I've perused this week.

Heechee Rendezvous by Frederik Pohl. The third book in Pohl’s Heechee Saga, which began with the Hugo Award-winning Gateway, is an excellent sci-fi novel. The only problems are that you really need to have read the first two books in the series (or be familiar with Pohl’s Heechee Universe) to really know what is going on, and the story’s ending came on a little too quickly for my tastes. Good characterization and a good denouement to the series.

Beyond the Farthest Star by Edgar Rice Burroughs. A fun, if rather dated, sci-fi tale much along the lines of Burroughs’ Barsoom series. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the two episodes in this book were meant to be the precursor to a new adventure series. Tangor just didn’t get the push needed to join the ranks of John Carter, David Innes and Carson Napier in ERB’s pantheon of heroes. I would recommend it to fans of old-style science fiction and pulp adventures, but it will probably fall flat for fans of more modern science fiction styles.

Arctic Fever by Bruce Barcott. Excellent non-fiction about global warming, centering on the effects climate change is having on the food web of the Arctic, from plankton to people. Recommended.

A Flash of Inspiration: A Collection of Very Short Stories by Indie Authors compiled by Helmy Kusuma. A fascinating format for story-telling is shown to best effect in this collection. All of the stories are one-hundred words or less, and the way that particular challenge is met turns out to be some great reading. There are a lot of funny and poignant short tales, and I cannot recommend this e-book more highly.

Get Published by Infinite Ideas. An excellent primer and guide for the world of conventional book publishing and self-publishing. The only drawback is that it doesn’t really cover digital publishing options, such as Amazon Digital Text Platform and Smashwords.

God in the Machine: A Short Story by Thea Atkinson. Very interesting and atmospheric short story. Within two paragraphs, you know exactly where you are and what you are seeing through the characters’ eyes. Recommended.

After Shock: The Blast That Shook Psycho Platoon by T. Christian Miller. Excellent look at the unseen effects that explosions have on our troops, causing brain injuries even through the protection of armored vehicles. Recommended.

The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin by William S. Burroughs.  Short but interesting overview of the unique technique that Gysin pioneered to give new meaning to previously written works. The technique has been used by people ranging from Burroughs himself to Frank Zappa.

Queer by William S. Burroughs. Typical Burroughs, this time relating quasi-biographical William Lee and the alternative lifestyle he pursued while living as a virtual expatriate in Mexico. Definitely recommended.

Out of a Dark Mind by Ian Woodhead and Laurie Ricard. Some pretty good short stories in the horror genre, definitely very British. Like most short story collections, some are great, some of blah. None are exceptionally bad in any sense of the word. “Lumps” is my favorite story in the collection.

The Whisker of Hercules by Kenneth Robeson.  A Doc Savage pulp adventure, the134th in the long-running series. Doc and his five aides face off against some crooks that seem to have actual Herculean abilities. It is standard Robeson and very enjoyable.

Aces High and Shadows of My Mind by Kristina Jackson.  These two are both fairly short ghost stories, both set in the environs of Great Britain. The first suffers from a lot of typos and one missing point of explanation (at least in my mind, but I’m not going to spoil the story my relating what I thought that point was here). The second is a fairly well-written ghost story with some unique paranormal twists. Both are available free on Smashwords.

The Civil War: A Brief History by Charles River Editors. This touches on the high points of the conflict much like a Senior High School term paper would. I’m trying to understand why, out of all the pictures in the book, the only one with any identification was that of Abraham Lincoln. But then, I’m sure most people recognize General McClellan from his position on the five dollar bill...

The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook Presents: A Magical Christmas Menu Sample by Dinah Bucholz. Plain Christmas fare with little hint of Hogwarts in them, right down to pedestrian naming. The recipes at least appear to be working one.

The Boy Scouts with the Motion Picture Players by Robert Shaler. I’m a fan of old juvenile fiction series, such as Tom Swift, Rick Brandt, The Radio Boys and the like, but this particular book was pretty dull. By their nature, they’re usually a tad dated and full of too much exposition, but this one was just plain boring. This was the first book in this particular series that I’ve read, and it didn’t exactly endear me to reading any more of them.

Struwwelpeter: Merry Tales and Funny Pictures by Heinrich Hoffmann. I decided to read this simply because a line of one of the rhymes had been used in a story during Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol comic book. The rhymes are interesting but make little sense. They are also very much akin to the more bloody versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales ... I guess European children have different sensibilities. The book is very short and as such may be worth a read for the aficionados of the strange.

Rock and Roll: A Brief History by Charles River Editors. I’d expect high marks on this one if I was turning it in as a grade school term paper, but nothing more. At least it had some good pictures. I suppose you could easily use this book to make a proper outline to write a proper essay on the subject.

The Game by Kevin Tomsett. This book is basically fifteen minutes to an hour of your life that you will never get back. The closest analogy that I can make to what I think the author might have been shooting for is “Grey’s Anatomy meets The Most Dangerous Game.” The story is about an erstwhile serial killer picking victims, and unfortunately there are so many flaws in the process that it defies all belief and logic. The poor punctuation and grammar does not help matters, but I can usually forgive that on indie books. It does score on one point: You WILL remember it and you will tell people about it. Much like you would tell people of a raging fire in the next room or an oncoming hurricane.  I’ve heard that the author is re-writing it, so hopefully the next draft will be more enjoyable - the plotline has potential, but needs some energy to direct it.

If I Did It by O. J. Simpson. This is the single worst piece of fiction/non-fiction I’ve ever read in my life. You can hear the smarmy self-righteousness in every word. I haven't used my speed-reading skills since I got my Kindle, until I started this book. There’s no point in saying anything else other than AVOID THIS BOOK!

That's all for this week. Next week, I'm thinking of reviewing some old time radio shows and a couple of comic book series, but as always, we'll see what happens. Take care, folks!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rich's Random Reviews #2 This Week's E-Book Crop

I thought I'd do some quick reviews of the e-books that I read this week. FYI, Most of them were free books for the Kindle.

#1. To Prime the Pump by A. Bertram Chandler. The second John Grimes novel in Chandler's long-running sci-fi naval series. Excellent space opera - good characterization, fast moving and just a fun read.

#2. The Solar Pons Omnibus, Volume 1 by August Derleth. For those not familiar with Solar Pons, the Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street was an excellent homage written by Wisconsinite Derleth. The stories are written in a very similar style of Conan Doyle, and Derleth created some good characterizations and mysteries. This particular volume (the first of two) is somewhat derided because the editor published the stories in chronological order (instead of publication order) and took apparently took some liberties with the tales, but I find them very engrossing, almost nearly so as the original Sherlock Holmes' tales.

#3. The Schmoldenesse Falcon by John Northern. A free short story that has no idea what it's trying to be: Science fiction, hard-boiled detective fiction, or something else. It's a quick read, and free, so nothing ventured, nothing gained.

#4. L'il Red in the Hood by Graham Murray. Another free short story. I sort of assumed there would be some humor in this, but it's softcore porn. And worse, much like Paris Hilton and oral sex, Murray has managed to screw that up as well. Not even worth the price at nothing.

#5. Putt Up or Shut Up: A Shanktacular Guide to Golf's Greatest Excuses by Kevin Michael and Lacy Maran. A free humor book in which all the humor falls flat. I mean completely. It's like this book was written by the bastard love child of Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno - there's nothing even remotely funny in this book. The opening line, "What drunk Scotsman came up with the idea (sic) creating a club for every shot?" boded that it was not going to be a good experience. I've seen better humor and jokes on Laffy Taffy wrappers.

That's all for this week, folks!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Rich's Random Reviews: The Grandmothers "Eating the Astoria"

The way I look at it, when in doubt, make your first blog about something interesting, odd and cool. So I'm starting with an record I recently listened to for the first time: The Grandmothers album “Eating the Astoria.” It qualifies under all three criteria.
The Grandmothers are a band composed of former members of the legendary Mothers of Invention. And just as there were many different incarnations of the Mothers, so has been the course for the Grandmothers. The primary forces behind the Grandmothers were Don Preston, Bunk Gardner and Jimmy Carl Black who formed the original band in the early eighties. The line-up has changed various times, and there were even two separate bands performing under that name at the same time at one point. The band has also had some troubles with Gail Zappa, the controlling interest of the Zappa Family Trust, who handle the music of the original Mothers of Invention, which was usually ascribed as being written by Frank Zappa.  Jimmy Carl Black makes a brief mention to this situation without mentioning any names at the start of this album.
This concert was recorded in 1998 at the London Astoria. The Grandmothers line-up on this album includes only two original MOI members, Jimmy Carl Black (“The Indian of the Group”) and Bunk “Sweetpants” Gardner. Steve B. Roney handles the drums, Sandro Oliva guitar and vocals, Ener Bladezipper bass and Maurio Andreoni plays keyboards. While this may not be the actual Mothers of Invention, don’t let the fact that there are a lot of different names in the band throw you; this is an excellent touring group who know this relatively difficult material through-and-through.
I have to say that most of the album gives me the feeling that I’m listening to a live swing big band. The highlight of the disc for me was “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” a relatively long song that Jimmy Carl mentions was played only a few times live with the MOI (but that they play every night). There’s a good cross section of MOI hits, including “Call Any Vegetable,” “Big Leg Emma” and “Uncle Meat.” The Italians in the band provide a couple of numbers, including “Teen-a-Peek-a,” about the omnipresent matronly aunt that chaperones the female interest in a lot Italian romantic flicks.
Jimmy Carl Black takes the vocal chores on quite a few of the songs, memorably the bluesy “Lady Queen Bee” and “The Great White Buffalo,” both songs he wrote or co-wrote. He also closed out the concert on a medley of “The Orange County Lumber Truck” and the Native American-themed “Trail of Tears.” It’s clear that everyone is having fun and giving the audience what they came for: The music of Frank Zappa and the original Mothers of Invention.
While it probably helps if you’re a Zappa fan, there’s nothing I can’t recommend about “Eating the Astoria” - it’s definitely worth a couple of listens by any fan of good rock music.