Thursday, 31 January 2008

Dead Pool January Update

We're one month into 2008 and already there's been a huge amount of activity in the area of celebrity mortality. Unfortunately none of it has translated into points for any of our entrants.

The month started with Britney having a very public meltdown and custody crisis. It's all gone a bit quiet now, but earlier today (Melbourne time) celebrity blogger Perez Hilton reported on another media gathering at her house, and the rumour that she'd attempted suicide. We'll be watching this one closely.

On the 11th we saw the passing of Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Everest, philanthropist and all-round nice guy. Then on the 15th the world lost Brad Renfro, a young and talented actor taken way before his time.

The 17th was a tragic day for classic TV, with the passing of both Suzanne Pleshette (of The Bob Newhart Show and Will & Grace) and Allan Melvin (otherwise known as Sam the Butcher from The Brady Bunch).

On the 22nd, we were shocked by the announcement that Heath Ledger had been found dead in Mary-Kate Olsen's SoHo apartment.

On the 27th, Indonesion dictator Suharto died after suffering renal failure, and it's just been announced in the last few hours that British TV personality Jeremy Beadle has died, aged 59.

Scores in the dead pool are still nil-all. But the year is young.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Good News

One of my favourite shows of the 1990s, Good News Week, will be returning to TV on February 11.

Very excited, although I'm a little apprehensive about which new Channel 10 celebrities might get shoehorned in there. Kyle and Jackie-O anyone?

And in the interests of balance, some bad news:

It's been announced that New Kids on the Block are reforming.

I may be remembering this wrong, but didn't they change their name towards to end of their last career to just 'Kids on the Block'?

And shouldn't they now be 'Middle-Aged Men Desperately Seeking Credibility on the Block'?


Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne.

When it was announced a few years ago that Monty Python and the Holy Grail was being made into a stage musical, I knew Eric Idle was behind it. For years he'd been the one milking Python's legacy with new albums, new books and his 'Greedy Bastard' tour.

Then when I heard the title would be Spamalot I knew he'd finally flipped. As far as I was concerned he'd sold Python utterly down the river and abandoned its wondrous comic legacy to derision and ridicule. I wept.

But then the show opened on Broadway to quite some success. The reviews were good. Derision and ridicule were nowhere to be seen.

I swallowed my pride and saw the Broadway production two years ago, and I was awestruck. I apologised profusely to Eric for doubting him (in my imagination, of course . . . although I must say he accepted it very graciously).

Then last week I saw the Melbourne show and while it wasn't quite up there (missing, as it was, Hank Azaria and David Hyde Pierce) it's still great purely on the strength of the material. And Stephen Hall was very good as Lancelot.

For Spamalot, Idle has managed to bring together into a cohesive narrative the bunch of disparate sketches that make up the film, and it's nothing short of genius. To top it off, he's peppered it with a bunch of great tunes that both take the piss out of Broadway excess, while at the same time showing you how amazing it can be when it's all done properly.

The great songs only hinted at in the movie (like Brave Sir Robin and Knights of the Round Table) are pleasantly expanded upon. And the great dialogue from the movie, like the migratory sparrow, the mudeater's political diatribe and the French taunting, are all left more or less intact.

So if it's a choice between Spamalot and Priscilla, go see Spamalot.

Or I shall taunt you a second time.

4 out of 5

Friday, 25 January 2008

Home Again Home Again

All is well. Kate's back home and up and about.

Thanks for all the well wishers and wishes.

We will be resuming normal programming tomorrow.

Thursday, 24 January 2008


I just got home from the hospital, where my lovely wife Kate will be spending the night.

It's OK. It's probably not as serious as it sounds at this point. The doctors are just being extra-special cautious and keeping her in for observation.

An allergic reaction to an anti-inflammatory resulted in an extreme gastric reflux event, with the associated high blood pressure and heart rate.

She's doing fine now. I suspect she could have actually come home with me, but I guess the doctors think it's better safe than sorry (or sued).

It all began this afternoon when Kate rang me from work, saying she wasn't feeling well and that she was going to get a taxi home. About thirty seconds later I get another call from one of Kate's colleagues, saying that they'd called an ambulance for her.

At this point I ran out the door without really telling anyone why, and grabbed a cab to Kate's office. By the time I was halfway there I'd got yet another call to say she was on her way to hospital, resulting in a hasty detour.

We ended up arriving at the hospital at about the same time, and when I saw her I knew she'd be OK. She was joking with the ambos about the paperwork that would have been required had she actually had a heart attack. Phew.

What followed was much sitting and doing nothing in the emergency area, broken intermittently by blood extractions (for testing), x-ray examinations (for something, not sure what) and the more-or-less constant amusement of plugging the ECG connections back in every time they fell out.

Eventually we saw a doctor who diagnosed the gastric reflux thing and gave Kate a 'Pink Lady', basically a nuclear-strength dose of Mylanta, to cool the fires. Worked a treat.

Once she was settled in the ward and had some dinner I took a cab home, suddenly feeling bone-weary. It's amazing how tiring sitting doing nothing, but doing it very tensely, can actually be.

My cab driver, noting that he'd picked me up from a hospital, regaled me with stories about his lack of trust in modern medicine, his friend who had had a quadruple bypass ("That's six valves, yeah? Quad means six?") and the fact that he had nine children because he and his wife still enjoyed each other physically.

Seriously. If I'd not had the afternoon I'd just had I might have come up with something more than the wry smile I mustered.

Well, that was my day, folks. Goodnight.

Oh, and happy birthday, Budge!

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes

The Corner Hotel, Richmond.

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (hereinafter "The Gimmes") are a punk cover band specialising in covers of decidedly non-punk songs. (I use the word "punk" advisedly here, and only because this is the word used in their Wikipedia entry. Speed metal, or at the very least, pop-punk, might be a better description for their style, but more on this later).

The Gimmes have been around since the mid 1990s and even after their seventh album (the eighth due sometime this year) show no signs of running out of material.

Selections in last night's show included Kermit the Frog's Rainbow Connection, Barry Manilow's Mandy and My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music. Every single one of these songs was vastly improved with the Gimmes treatment.

The postmodern wanker part of me wants to deconstruct what they do in terms of breaking songs down into their base components . . . they're displaying these songs as they really are in a language easily understood by anyone. Sort of like turning Shakespeare's plays into a kid's colouring book.

But then the headbanger part of me gets the postmodern wanker into a headlock, throws him to the beer-drenched floor and glasses him for being such a tool. And he deserves it too.

There's no analysing this stuff. It's just flat out great fun.

The Gimmes were all dressed in cowboy regalia to complement their most recent album ". . . Love Their Country" (with songs like Jolene and Desperado) and much was made of the large handlebar moustaches sported by three of the five members. Banter in general was plentiful and amusing, although lead singer Spike's announcement that "this next song is a cover" before just about every song soon went from amusing to irritating.

For some reason I was surprised to see such a large headbanger contingent in the crowd. I guess I was expecting more audience members like myself: Gen X types moved to ironic amusement by these clever-clever shenanigans. While such people were surely there (but being much quieter) there were a lot of younger people who've probably never even heard the original version of Sloop John B.

Still, they seemed to enjoy themselves. God, I feel old.

More traditional hard rockers Roshambo and Stolen Youth provided worthy support, although Robb was bothered by the appearance of Roshambo's bong-monkey (their term - a roadie who brought a white space-age-looking bong on stage for use by the band between/during songs). I'll let him expand on this in the comments (if he will) but it was basically about the pretension and affectation this indicated, unworthy of a second-support act.

This got us talking about the relevance of traditional punk tropes in a post-modern world and didn't get very far before the wanker was again glassed by the headbanger (see above).

Anyway, my point somewhere in there was that the nihilism and sense of impending doom that characterised the great punk bands just isn't there for The Gimmes. They clearly love what they're doing and it rubs off on the audience. There's nothing quite like a version of Blowin' in the Wind at double speed and triple volume to make you think that Dylan should not only have gone electric, but should have moved to Seattle.

But all this thinking is well and truly beside the point.

It was very good and very loud. And that's all.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Sufjan Stevens

The Forum, Melbourne.

You know that moment in early-noughties TV shows when there's a heartfelt montage of meaningful scenes, all set to moving music?

You've seen it. The camera pans around the couple that just broke up, sitting alone in their separate houses; the gruff but lovable older character is sitting in a dimly-lit bar, drinking to console himself over that painful but inevitable decision; and the person who's been hurt most by all of this is efficiently getting on with their job, seemingly oblivious, but we know, just know, that they're really dying inside.

Scrubs used to do this sort of thing quite a lot.

If it's done well, you have to be made of stone not to get a tug on the heartstrings. And if it's done brilliantly, even the toughest of the tough will be surreptitiously blinking the tears away (saying "I've got something in my eye!").

This moment provides you with a deep feeling of connection to the characters on the screen. You feel their pain, you see their dilemma, and you desperately want everything to work out okay. It can be one of the highest achievements in blending music and visuals, and achieve for the viewer something akin to a mental orgasm. And the choice of music is absolutely critical.

Anyway, there were moments during Sufjan Stevens' concert last night at The Forum that made me feel like that. It's the only way I know how to describe it. A rush of music into a delicious crescendo made me raise my eyes, pulled at my heart and I felt it, from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.

The power of mixing sound and vision is not lost on Mr Stevens. The concert featured a visual accompaniment to each of the songs, projected on a giant screen at the rear of the stage. Images ranged from vague shapes in constellations of stars to psychedelic semi-random swirls to home movie footage of the band goofing off. And it all worked brilliantly well.

Sufjan (pronounced soof-yarn) looks, and speaks, a little like Steve Carell's dorky younger brother, but his self-deprecation belies an extraordinary musical ability that really has to be heard to be believed. Even those familiar with his back-catalogue may not have been quite prepared for the weight of live delivery. I certainly wasn't. Tracks that appear wispy thin, almost cheesy, in their recorded form take on a much darker mood and deeper feeling in the live space.

Sufjan's backing band were great, consisting of a brass section (two trumpets, french horn and trombone), a dude alternating between saxophone and clarinet, various combinations of piano, guitar and banjo, and a chick singing backing vocals. The brass section was particularly good, adding a beautiful underlying texture to proceedings. The clarinet was fine, but on occasion the saxophone noodling started to resemble that bit in Spinal Tap when they announced "We hope you like our new direction!". Not so good. But this was rare.

My one real gripe was the venue. While The Forum is great for loud rock shows, a show like this has so many contrasts in volume that the ambient noise in the room (or lack thereof) is really important to maintaining the magic. Unfortunately, The Forum has a bunch of bars directly adjacent to the audience space. There were lots of times when the music volume dropped to almost nothing as Sufjan whispered/wailed over a slowly rising backup, only for us to hear the unmistakable clinking of bottles and the sound of some guy caught unawares asking for another Lemon Ruski.

Ventilation was also severely lacking, with a hot and stuffy atmosphere marring what should have been a thoroughly awesome evening.

But really, these are minor issues. The performance on the stage was magic and far transcended it all.

Sufjan rules.


Here's a photo of the tattoo I got in Byron Bay last week.

It's a Möbius strip, one of my favourite mathematical constructs.

My first tattoo, but probably not my last.

Much thanks to Dave at Sharky's for his sterling work.

Monday, 14 January 2008

How to Survive the Writers Strike

The WGA strike has put the kibosh on most US television and film production, the most recent casualty being today's abysmally boring Golden Globes awards ceremony. If we see the same disastrous treatment of the Academy Awards in February . . . well. It doesn't really bear thinking about.

While patiently waiting for some sort of resolution to the dispute, we poor viewers are stuck with increasingly repetitive reality TV shows, reruns or dipping into our old, dusty DVD collections.

A pleasant alternative, to which I'd like to draw your attention, is the growing abundance of straight-to-web content available.

I'm not talking about videos of cats flushing toilets on Youtube (although these certainly have their place). I'm talking about high-quality short film productions made exclusively for distribution on the web.

These should help to see you through these dark days. And ironically, this is precisely the sort of content at the core of the writers' dispute with the studios in the first place.

While web content like this is limited at the the moment, continually falling ratings for free-to-air TV and the fragmentation of advertising revenue streams (many of which are now moving online) mean that we can expect a lot more of this in the future. But for now, these are some of the shows leading the charge:

Produced by the team behind Stargate SG-1, this is a professional production with an intriguing plot and more extra features on the website than you can poke a snaggle-toothed CGI creature at.

Stranger Things
Excellent anthology series along the lines of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, distributed as a video podcast.
Very high production values and some really great writing.

Star Trek: New Voyages
Fan production featuring the continuing voyages of the original series characters. Back in 1969 the series was sadly cancelled before the end of their 5-year mission, so this show continues the saga.
There are some dodgy stunts and wobbly sets, but no more than were in the real thing back in the day. The show also has the distinction of featuring well-known Star Trek scribe D.C. Fontana, as well as original series alums Walter Koenig and George Takei.

It's all in your hands
Video podcasting meets William Castle-style gimmickry.
These short films are broken up into episodes and at the end of each, viewers may vote on which way they want the story to go. Results vary, but a some of the stories, particularly "Satacracy 88" and "Find Me" are good fun.


Sunday, 13 January 2008

Byron Bay

Last Sunday Kate, Eliza and I flew north for a week of R&R, and hopefully some cooling off, in Byron Bay. It seems odd to have to go to northern NSW to escape the heat, but there you are. Climate change and whatnot.

It had been raining up there for a week and our arrival heralded the first day of sunshine. The weather was just starting to get hot again. The ground was steaming and the air was humid.

We picked up our Prius from the airport and headed south in a cloud of smug.

It was a couple of hours before we could check into the house we'd rented, so we decided to take a quick detour to Nimbin to pick up some 'supplies'. You know, postcards and stuff. Unfortunately, the road was flooded (as it was in many places around there) so we went back into Byron, only to confront the mother of all traffic jams.

We thought the crawling traffic was because of the once-a-month market in the town, but after a few days we realised it's actually like that all the time. Once we made it into town we wandered around said market for a while, got our fill of hippiedom (and local sausages - very nice) then went to find our house.

The house was in Suffolk Park, a three minute walk from Tallow Beach and far enough away from the madness that is Byron Bay proper to afford us some peace and quiet. The owner insisted on giving us a long, comprehensive and mostly superfluous guided tour before asking for next-of-kin details, on the off chance that we were all to perish simultaneously in (for example) a car crash. And she actually used the word 'fireball'.

Debbie and Danielle were arriving on Monday afternoon, so once we got rid of the owner, we had the place to ourselves for the first night.

The next few days consisted of doing nothing but laying around the house reading, laying around the beach reading, and playing cards on the deck overlooking the oddly lush (well, for a Victorian, anyway) tropical garden.

This, um, activity was broken up by a spa visit on Monday for massages and sauna, and on Tuesday another attempt, this time successful, to get to Nimbin. While in Nimbin the heavens fairly opened for a storm the likes of which had not been seen for at least a week (apparently) and we were thinking we might be stranded there. But just as we were starting to think this might not actually be a bad thing, the rain stopped and we left. Oh well. Great town, though.

On Wednesday Kate and Eliza braved the very choppy surf of Tallow Beach while I sat on the sand reading and snoozing. Same again on Thursday, although this time the surf was even choppier. The dirty foam lining the sand was knee-deep and before long it started to rain. We didn't stay long that day.

We got up early on Friday to pack up and get out before the owner got there and subjected us to another half-hour spiel on some irritating minutiae. (We just made it as it turned out . . . we saw her sitting in her car outside as we drove off).

On the way out of Byron we stopped off at the famous Sharky's Tattoo to get some ink. I got a Möbius strip on my back (so sticking with the nerdy vibe), Kate got 'miel' ('Honey' in French) in white ink on her wrist and Eliza got her father's (my uncle's) initials on her back, in memory of his passing away one year ago yesterday.

Our flight out of Coolangatta was in the evening, so we had almost a whole day to kill in the north coast hinterland and the Gold Coast.

And kill it we did. We drove through the Tweed region, which was reasonably entertaining and pleasantly eccentric. For example, the Tweed town of Mooball has taken its branding potential to a somewhat ridiculous extreme, with just about every surface (including power poles and the occasional rock) painted in black and white cow spots.

We stopped in Murwillumbah, a pretty little town with a cinema that the tourist lady breathlessly told us (two or three times) was original art-deco and had, would you believe it, bean bags. Gosh.

We had lunch in the cutely-named Tumbulgum before driving through Coolangatta to Surfer's Paradise. I'd not been there since our 1988 family holiday and it doesn't seem to have changed a lot. The architecture is staunchly 1980's tack (there must have been a bylaw passed requiring this) and the whole place screams North American Tourism. The mini-golf course is even named Putt-Putt Golf. We stopped at the beach for two minutes to dip our feet, then got the hell out of there.

We ended up being a little early for the flight so Kate did what she does best, and sweet talked the check-in guy into getting us on an earlier one. It's just as well she did. All the flights were delayed by a few hours and the earlier flight ended up leaving at our original flight time, with our original flight leaving much later.

All in all, a great relaxing week. Now it's back to work. Sigh.

And here's some photos.

Before: Footy field on the the road to Nimbin when we arrived on Sunday afternoon.

After: the same footy field 48 hours later.

Soaking in the atmosphere in Nimbin.

Tropical garden at the house. Thankfully the water feature (the pipe and tub contraption on the left) wasn't working. I hate water features.

Your humble correspondent faces the mighty Tallow Beach surf . . .

. . . before having a snooze.

Kate's feet. This is the only photo of her she'd let me use.

Eliza and Debbie playing Chinese Checkers. I think I'm reading Famous magazine.

Eliza and I at Surfer's Paradise. We didn't stay long.

No photos of the tattoos at this stage. I'll post some in the next day or two.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Week off (line)

Greetings friends and readers.

We're heading up to Byron Bay for a week's holiday, and we'll be dropping off the grid. Apologies in advance for the lack of updates here.

The weather up there's not looking good at the moment, but fingers crossed that it clears up. And if not, well, we have a stack of books to read.

On the off chance there's something worth taking a photo of, I'll post some photos and whatnot when I get back.

Take it easy, y'all.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass, adapted from the novel Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, is the latest, and by far the best, Nicole Kidman movie to recently grace our screens. Part of its appeal is that our Nic isn't in it all that much, and when she is, her particular brand of scenery-chewing actually works quite well.

It turns out that our Nic has a great line in badass-witch types, so it strikes me after watching this that she should stick to evil roles from now on. Maybe if she'd played Endora instead of Samantha in Bewitched it wouldn't have sucked so bad.

The Golden Compass is an alternate-world steampunk fantasy, following the adventures of Lyra Belacqua, a young orphan ward of Oxford College. Early on in the piece Lyra is entrusted with an alethiometer, or golden compass; a device which allows its user to find the Truth in any situation. Handy, but it also makes her the target of all sorts of nasty types (like our Nic) who want to steal it, destroy it, use it for nefarious purposes, etc.

The fantasy world the story moves through is beautifully realised, with lots of thought-provoking metaphysical elements a simple part of everyday goings-on. In this world a person's soul is real and tangible, taking the material form of an animal familiar called a daemon. As a child, the daemon is constantly changing form, but settles down into one form as the child becomes an adult. You could spend hours (and I'm sure the nerds will) dissecting the constant changes in form the childrens' daemons take, what it eventually settles on for the adults (like our Nic's golden monkey(!)) and what all this represents.

The cast is your basic who's-who of British stage and screen with Daniel Craig, Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee and Eva Green, and features the voices of Ian McShane, Sir Ian McKellen and Kristin Scott Thomas. Sam Elliott has a fantastic turn as an old-school wild west gunslinger type who for some reason, which I can only suppose is due to Mr Elliott's brilliant performance, does not come across as ridiculously anachronistic. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The kids on whose narrow shoulders rests most of the film's emotional connection do pretty well, with Dakota Blue Richards particularly good as headstrong mini-skeptic Lyra.

The creature work and visual effects are the requisite level of spectacular (although like Lord of the Rings they still haven't got the human-riding-mythical-beast movements to look real . . . is someone looking into this?) and the steampunk elements of the art design are truly great. The beautiful clockwork devices, giant zeppelins and funky-looking horseless carriages make the world presented almost familiar, but not quite.

It's sad, but it all somehow ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The film lurches from set-piece to set-piece with little in the way of exposition, and overall, it feels a bit rushed. At times it was like we were watching a best-bits distillation of a six episode miniseries, and maybe that would have been a better option for the adaptation. But even sticking with the feature film format, at 113 minutes it's not even close to the bladder-challenging Return of the King, so they could have easily spent more time padding some of the scenes out a bit.

Of course, the elephant in the room (given some of my recent thoughts on religion) is the accusation that the film has an atheist agenda, with the arch-villains of the piece being The Magisterium, a thinly-veiled reference to the Catholic church. In the novel the veil is that much thinner, with the group referred to simply as The Church.

But like Monty Python's Life of Brian, this is an unfair accusation. Simply opposing church authority does not an atheist make.

The film says precisely nothing about God or belief or, in fact, religion. Skeptics could easily argue just as validly that it's all too fantastical, particularly in its acceptance of metaphysics as the normal sort of thing.

But back to the accusation of atheism: similar to Life of Brian, this film questions the appropriateness of a single self-appointed body having ultimate Authority (a word much used in the film) over those who don't subscribe to its beliefs. In The Golden Compass it's especially heinous, as this Authority extends to suppressing knowledge, information and scientific investigation. While questioning the Church's authority may be heresy (another word much used in the film) it's certainly not atheism.

I was actually hoping that this would be a nice slice of atheism-for-kids, because there's a notable dearth of it out there. Kid's entertainment is heavily dominated by stories from the Bible, and in the interests of balance, there should be something showing the other side.

But as an exhortation to kids (and the rest of us) to always keep an open mind, to always question people's motives and not to put your faith in shadowy authority, this is very valuable stuff.

3.5 out of 5

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Dead Pool 2008 Nominations

Thank to everyone who has entered the 2008 Dead Pool.

We've got a huge variety in the nominations . . . big-scoring outside chances rub shoulders with low-scoring safe bets.

It should make for an interesting year.

The nomination lists are below for your ghoulish pleasure.

Tom Cruise
Queen Elizabeth II
Paris Hilton
Barry Humphries
Elton John
Bert Newton
Nicole Richie
Ian Thorpe
Donald Trump
Amy Winehouse

Muhammad Ali
Fidel Castro
Zsa Zsa Gabor
Michael Jackson
Jenna Jameson
Osama Bin Laden
Courtney Love
Liza Minelli
Keith Richards
Amy Winehouse

Akihito, Emperor of Japan
Ernest Borgnine
Kirk Douglas
Angela Lansbury
Liza Minelli
Peter O'Toole
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
Nancy Reagan
Britney Spears
Gough Whitlam

Pamela Anderson
Fidel Castro
Doris Day
Andy Dick
Farrah Fawcett
Estelle Getty
Rudolph Giuliani
Michael Jackson
Margaret Thatcher
Steven Tyler

Pamela Anderson
Fidel Castro
Clint Eastwood
Queen Elizabeth II
Hugh Hefner
Osama Bin Laden
Liza Minelli
Keith Richards
Britney Spears
Amy Winehouse

Fidel Castro
Ben Cousins
Jayden James Federline
Sean Preston Federline
Zsa Zsa Gabor
Jerry Lewis
Nelson Mandela
Pervez Musharraf
Ariel Sharon
Margaret Thatcher

Tony Bennett
Queen Elizabeth II
Michael J. Fox
Paris Hilton
Michael Jackson
John Laws
Paul Newman
William Shatner
Elizabeth Taylor
Owen Wilson