Sunday, March 27, 2011

ABBA


ABBA is the world's only supergroup.

They are the greatest pop band to ever form, then break up, then enjoy unexpected late-career success connected to a Meryl Streep film. They are Sweden's greatest export. The world was a darker place before they arrived from Heaven.

The name ABBA comes from an abbreviation of the name of the rarest and most valuable metal, Abbatanium. It is so rare that only two people in the world have jewelry made from it. Who those people are is a secret, but pay attention to Henry Kissinger's pinkie the next time you see him in a delicatessen.

There are four members of ABBA, although they each have enough cool for two people. So it would be scientifically accurate to say ABBA has eight members, on a cool-o-meter scale.

The eight members of ABBA are:

AGNETHA
Also known as “the blonde one”. She is called that because she is the blonde one.

Her hair is blonde, presumably everywhere, although I have certainly met fair-hued ladies who have more of a tawny brown tone to their action hair. People are really fascinated with the idea of action hair matching the hair on the head, and I guess it is disorienting when it really, really doesn't match. A girl with jet black hair who has a soft blonde tuft in her underpanties is wrong somehow.

Despite my advanced age, I am still too young to know the glory days of pubic hair. It seems like everyone these days is trimming or shaving, and generally practicing grooming and good hygiene. It's a real shame. Unruly pubic hair reminds me of European girls who smoke thin cigarettes while they're naked, and yell at you when you apologize after climaxing. I think of hazy, backlit, black and white photos of a girl with bangs and dark bags under her eyes. She's hungover from too much wine, but is still going to the farmer's market, because she wants fresh leeks in her eggs. She's a busy girl, and she ain't got no time to mess with shaving down there.

Those were the days, my friends. We've let soft-core porn and sorority girls with fake tans lead us down a sad, curl-free path.

BJORN

Look into the eyes of the perfect soldier. This is Bjorn.

They say that one in one-hundred humans are born without remorse, or human empathy. These people shine on battlefields; the hesitation and guilt that plague other soldiers does not exist in them. Bjorn is an example of this type of natural born hunter.

Placed in a Stockholm military school while still a child, Bjorn quickly rose to the dominate his classmates, commanding a respect normally reserved for silverback gorillas. Through sheer force of testosterone-fueled power, he became the youngest cadet to ever win the Steel Panther, the most prestigious student olympian award in Northern Europe. His skills on the pummel horse were matched only by his skills in the boxing ring, the pole vault, the cross-country skiing routes, and the firing range. Known for a combination of deadly accuracy and pure physical power, at age thirteen Bjorn was taken into secret training by the Swedish government. This program, called Operation Thor-storm, was designed to create the perfect Swedish military operative; a soldier who could kill with his bare hands, deliver a baby in a hurricane, and topple third world governments, all before Hot Cocoa hour (the traditional Swedish mid-morning naptime).

Bjorn's actions on behalf of the Swedish Secret Service are confidential, but it is known that he was present at most key battles of the conflict in Korea, and he was spotted in Cuba shortly before the Bay of Pigs. Released from service after a decade of covert operations, Bjorn began a second life; crafting the beautiful harmonies and song stylings of supergroup ABBA.

And so it was that Bjorn mastered two fields, as one of the deadliest assassins ever to live, and as part part of humanity's greatest pop quartet. A secret Nobel Prize was awarded to him in 1995; it is unknown for which field the honor was given.

BENNY
I was born in 1976, which was apparently a pretty crappy time in this country. There was a gas shortage (I think?), everyone was all sassed up about Richard Nixon going crazy or something, and there were lots of tight clothes and synthetic fibers.

I remember absolutely nothing about the seventies. Does anyone remember anything from ages Birth to Four? I know that STAR WARS came out when I was a year old, and it was a big deal. It had Mr. Spock and a magic laser gun, and it soothed the wounds of a nation still stinging from bad stuff that happened in Indochina. There was NATIONAL LAMPOON, which was way funnier than anything before or since, but by the time I was old enough to read it, it was a shadow of itself. I can't personally recall anything about the seventies. My brain was still soft, I suppose.

The most significant early memory I can muster is going to see THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK at the theater in my hometown. My oldest brother took me; he would have been sixteen or so. The STAR WARS films dominate much of my earliest memories, in a way that is almost depressing. This is the sad story of most of my male peers.

I clearly recall the early scenes of that movie, set on a stark blue and white planet of ice and snow. There was a tactile darkness to the tunnels and spaceship interiors, adding a texture to the film that made it as real as the theater around me. It was hypnotic, and I remember details from that movie vividly, much more so than unimportant stuff like kindergarten, which is just kind of a stupid blur.

Sometimes I wonder if the extended adolescence I call a life isn't rooted in being so completely enthralled with a ridiculous fantasy world at age four. It's like my brain has never allowed me to fully step back into a world of root canals and debt and girlfriends who dump you in horrible ways. I've never really put much stock in the supernatural side of the Abrahamic religions I was raised in, but when Yoda says "Luminous beings are we...", it affects me deeply. I do not like this about myself.

Anyway, Benny was a famous musician in the seventies and he seemed to be having a good time.

ANNI-FRID

Anni-Frid was also known as Frida, which is also the name of a character in PEANUTS who was obsessed with her hair. That was pretty much her entire personality.

The great thing about ABBA is the complete lack of irony. I don't know if anyone could have predicted, back when ol' St. Augustine was making stuff up, that there would be a time when everything was viewed through a cock-eyed lens of snickering and snide self-importance. A time when people know more about SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT than the Song of Solomon, and not because they actually love Burt Reynolds. Hell, I'm as guilty as anyone. I like plastic dinosaur toys, but only when they're terrible. Really beautifully crafted and scientifically accurate dinosaurs hold no interest for me. I like the garbage and the kitsch. I am not without sin.

But ABBA had sincerity in spades, and sometimes it makes me cry to listen to them. They are like an old gospel group; when they sing they mean it. They were corny, wore silly disco togs, and seemed to be genuinely loving every second of every bellowed harmony. Sincerity goes a long way, and they were up to their Swedish eyeballs in it. Abba is awesome.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

HIGHLANDER (1986)


The video stores of the late 1980s through the mid-1990s are now a lost species; an artifact of a time when VHS was the king of all media (apologies to H. Stern).
In those days, if VHS was the king of all media, then HIGHLANDER was the god.

The boxes on the shelves of the local video stores in my hometown were dusty and sun-faded, and they all seemed to have the same mix of B-movies and heavy-cable-rotation genre flicks. Of these, there was a small and revolving list of standards that my friends and I would routinely rent. This list included:

HELLRAISER
HELLRAISER II
KRULL
STAR WARS (This was at the low tide of interest between the heyday of 1977-1984, and the horrible over-saturation of garbage of 1997-present)
THE PUNISHER (Dolph Lundgren version. Underrated.)
BRAZIL
CONAN THE BARBARIAN
DUNE
FIRE AND ICE

… and any other number of grainy masterpieces, hidden behind cardboard sleeves featuring men with swords, women with swords, or robots with swords. They were either covered with intriguing and surreal imagery (as in the case of BRAZIL, where a man smiles beatifically as seraphim, sunshine, and a neon logo explodes from his head), or completely and laughably low-rent (as in the case of THE PUNISHER, in which the cover was little more than a publicity still of Dolph Lundgren in front of a prom-photo backdrop).

The high-water mark of this sordid selection was undoubtedly HIGHLANDER. It was simultaneously horrible and amazing, a concept that was initially hard for my mid-pubescent brain to process. I knew that Christopher Lambert, mumbling unenthusiastically through a horrible Scottish accent, was delivering one of the least interesting performances in action movie history. No small feat. I knew that the direction was ridiculous, and made for several indecipherable stretches, muddying an already silly storyline. The internal logic made no sense, the supporting cast (aside from two notable and obvious exceptions) was forgettable, and it is ponderous, with long police procedural scenes that are painful to sit through.

On the other hand, it's a movie where sweaty men decapitate each other with swords. It has one of the best soundtracks in the history of film, courtesy of QUEEN, and most importantly, Sean Connery is in it. This is a movie with a mythology that is thoroughly convoluted, yet it delivers a straightforward concept that, while it makes no sense, is primal and simple; THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.

With a central premise that essentially boils down to “men with swords must kill each other throughout history”, all the other details are inconsequential. Barbarians have survived to our era, where they secretly murder each other after long, intense swordfights. They are driven by ancient edicts, and can only be killed by having their heads chopped off. The main character has a samurai sword. Why?

Because it looks cool. Which is all that matters.

There are several things about HIGHLANDER which will always entertain me. First and foremost is Sean Connery. He is having as much fun in this movie as I have ever seen an actor have. It's almost as if he's on the verge of cracking up every time he delivers a line. He is smiling wide and every move is a bombastic flourish, but why wouldn't it be? The man is dressed in a cape and floppy hat, like some hyper-masculine Lord Fauntleroy. Sir Sean (Scottish accent in full throes) is playing an Egyptian, living as a Spaniard, who spent decades in Japan. None of this makes sense! Not even in the bizarre cosmology of the HIGHLANDER universe is this believable. Yet none of that matters. The only important thing, is that when Connery flashes his middle-aged grin through a soft-focus camera haze, we all get nerd-boners.

Clancy brown also brings the good stuff, chewing through every scene with a relish reserved for only the most hammiest of hams. His giddy-ass performance ranks with Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine in the STAR WARS prequels, or Anthony Hopkins in NIXON. These are villains who salivate with creepy glee as they deliver ridiculous lines, and the screen lights up whenever they start cackling. Clancy Brown's Kurgan is from the same world as Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, where saying terrible things while smiling horrifically is as natural as breathing. The Kurgan is evil because he is Russian, and that is the long and short of his backstory (this was the 1980s, after all). Over the course of the film, he rapes the hero's wife, sexually harasses nuns, kills Sean Connery, and dresses like a skinhead. Subtlety of characterization was not a concern here.

I am also perpetually entertained by the portrayal of the actual "highlanders", the group from whom the lead character comes from, and who lend their name to the title of the film. They are portrayed as plaid-smothered barbarians, covered in animal furs and generally looking like extras from LORD OF THE RINGS. The tartans worn would have required dye and weaving techniques that were not readily available until 100 years later, and the general historical accuracy on display is about on par with 300, or PLANET OF THE APES. Of course, this is beside the point. The closer the costumes are to CONAN the better, for my money. Watching a bunch of undernourished farmers (covered in buboes and wearing hastily woven wool skirts) trying to kill each other with dull weapons they could barely lift; this is not particularly enticing as a cinematic experience. A semi-fictional fantasy with overly-costumed actors swinging choreographed axe-chops is plenty fine by me.

The music, by QUEEN, is so iconic and wonderful that it barely needs be mentioned. It is so obviously brilliant that I suspect all the sequels and TV spin-offs were just extended and expensive excuses to use those songs again and again. To put gravy all over it, having QUEEN do the music led to a video where Christopher Lambert rocks out onstage with Freddy Mercury. Amazing.

All told, HIGHLANDER is ridiculous, horrible, amazing, laughable, and totally entertaining. It takes me back to the days when renting awful movies with your friends on a Saturday afternoon was as good as life got. I recognize that it is a genuinely bad film, but I love it dearly. HIGHLANDER is awesome.

(It is also free on Hulu.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tuesday Top Five: Aliens Among Us

Throughout history, creatures from other worlds have walked among humans, pretending to be one of us. They blend in and integrate, observing us with their beady alien eyes. It is one of the most terrifying ideas ever. I just gave myself chills thinking about it.

this picture is representative of a scary thing to me

There are many questions about these invaders. Who are they? Where do they come from? Why are they here? What do they want? And who are the TOP FIVE?

5. ZIGGY STARDUST


Real Name: Davey Jones
Planet of Origin: Mars
Known Activities: Glam Rocking, Extreme Druggery, Multi-sexing
Sinister Plots: Failing in his mission to warn of Earth's imminent end after being distracted by drugs, sex, material wealth, and enormous boots.

4. FORD PREFECT

Real Name: Ix
Planet of Origin: Somewhere small, near Betelgeuse.
Known Activities: Travel writer. Hitchhiker. Towel Enthusiast.
Sinister Plots: Kidnaps hapless Englishman while allowing civil servants of an alien government to demolish Earth. Writes unflattering article.

3. UNCLE MARTIN

Real Name: Unknown
Planet of Origin: Mars
Known Activities: Turning invisble, levitating stuff. Having TV antennae in his head.
Sinister Plots: Keeping Bill Bixby from his rightful place as The Incredible Hulk for 107 episodes.

2. THE DOCTOR


Real Name: Unknown
Planet of Origin: Gallifrey
Known Activities: Time-traveling, talking to robot dogs, dying and regenerating.
Sinister Plots: Giving nerds ample fodder to fill countless message boards and awkward conversations.

1. SUPERMAN
Real Name: Kal El
Planet of Origin: Krypton
Known Activities: Saving lives, fighting evil, thwarting marriage attempts from earth women.
Sinister Plots: How dare you. He's Superman. Show some respect.