Film & TV

I know this much is TrueBliss

Amid all the coverage of whatever X Factor plot twist is the drama du jour, there’s one point that anchors The X Factor more firmly in New Zealand than any other imported television format: we started it. Popstars was a New Zealand show, which begat the Australian Popstars, which begat the UK Popstars, which begat Pop Idol, which begat The X Factor and that’s where we are today, bootcamps, mentors, deadlocks and all.

It got me thinking about the original New Zealand Popstars TV series. NZ On Screen have the full first episode and excerpts from the other eight episodes online, so I figured it was time to revisit this groundbreaking series from 1999.

Five girls and all the Lycra the '90s could fit

Five girls and all the Lycra the ’90s could fit

One big difference is the format. Popstars is a fly-on-the-wall documentary. The camera films the goings-on and there’s little sense that anything has been engineered for the cameras. A calm voiceover fills in a few gaps – and it’s that voiceover style is something that is still part of The X Factor (along the lines of “It’s day three of the auditions and so far the judges are not impressed.”)

Band manager Peter Urlich and label rep Mark Tierney supervise the auditions (they’re not even called judges) and are very nice to the contestants. After each girl auditions, the men thank them politely. There are no Cowell-like declarations of someone being horrible – even when the limits of talent are obvious. Of course, when the girls are out of the room, this doesn’t stop Tierney from making comments like, “Great personality, great body and can sing.”

There are a few crazy auditionees, but they’re not fussed over too much. The best is a girl who declares, “I said to them I’d be prepared to have my teeth straightened and breast implants if that’s what it takes.” I doubt the show’s budget would have stretched that far, meaning finding good singers who were pretty and had good personalities was the cheaper option.

Urlich and Tierney get serious over the stationery

Urlich and Tierney get serious over the stationery

Rather than a dramatic pow-wow over a table full of glossy headshots, the two men have a scribbled list on a bit of lined refill. They review the taped auditions, again with the blunt comments (“She’s relatively short, isn’t she?”)

The 500 auditionees are whittled down to a shortlist of 15. First up, they all go out to dinner to check out compatibility. Then it’s a proto-bootcamp. But rather than the tense, multi-day ordeal of The X Factor bootcamp, this is a workshop in a sunny church hall. The girls sing together and individually, are spied on at lunch to see how they get on (Carly freaks everyone out by sharing a friend’s birth story). They also do some dancing, but the voice over says this was an idea of the girls, rather than something the producers thought up. That’s right, they’re all making it up as they go along, even the contestants.

Eventually the final five have been selected. Most of them have the news broken to them by Urlich phoning them at home, with the moment captured by the camera crew. There’s none of the double-negative tricks (“I’m really sorry but it’s time to go home… and pack your bags because you’re through!”) that The X Factor uses to torture both viewers and contestants.

The girls are introduced with Urlich idly observing that Erika is “the only girl in the group who isn’t from a single-parent home”. This would never happen in The X Factor. Rather than just being an idle comment from a judge, it would be a feature where the other four talked about their brave solo mums.

Ok, so that’s the process of audition to final selection. In The X Factor, that action makes up the first part of the series – auditions, bootcamp, judges retreats – with a talent show tacked on the end for the second part. In Popstars, all that is shown in just the first episode and a little bit of the second one.

TrueBliss look to successful overseas pop groups for a lesson in the power of merchandising

TrueBliss look to successful overseas pop groups for a lesson in the power of merchandising

The rest of Popstars was about turning these five girls into TrueBliss – rehearsing, recording, makeovers, media, videos, public appearances, etc. The X Factor has a few behind-the-scenes clips but what we see is carefully planned. But by the time the live shows come along, the X Factor is mainly about performance.

Popstars really gets gritty, showing a full-on row between group members, and the tension when the first record detail falls through, leaving Urlich with no label and no songs. This stuff is entirely avoided by The X Factor.

Popstars shows that it’s really hard for a pop band to make it in New Zealand. The five girls all have day jobs to keep them afloat in the shaky early days, and corners are cut, favours are done in every direction. Sony’s managing director points out that even a hugely successful pop act doesn’t make a lot of money due to the relatively small size of New Zealand’s market. While Popstars openly acknowledged the uncertain fate that awaited TrueBliss, the X Factor‘s narrative hinges on the idea that the series winner will be huge star. Hey, they could end up like American The X Factor alumnus Cris Renee – a number one single and two top-40 hits in New Zealand, but never charting higher than #100 in his home country.

By the way, were TrueBliss a failure? Well, their pop dreams might not have lasted as long as they wanted, but compare them to other acts who were in the charts at the same time, like these guys, this trio, this fellow or this group. They’re all doing well compared to their peers. And no one’s on the dole.

The transformation from Popstars to X Factor was gradual but definite. The Australian version of Popstars tightened things up, making it appealing enough to attract the attention of ITV executive Nigel Lythgoe. By the time Popstars launched in the UK, the format was similar but the drama was intensified, with Nigel pioneering the “Mr Nasty” judging style.

The big moment came when Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller saw the appeal of Popstars and combined it with the traditional television talent show format to create Pop Idol. This also starred his pal Simon Cowell, who took Mr Nasty judging to a whole nother level.

Pop Idol added live performances and eliminations, as well as the allure of audience voting. Unlike Popstars, the selection of the winner (and it was just one person rather than a pop group) was chosen by the audience.

While American Idol has been running for 12 series, there were only ever two series of Pop Idol. UK Popstars similarly had two series, with the second series expanded into Popstars: The Rivals (a boy band versus a girl group) and – inspired by Pop Idol – the group members were chosen by a public vote.

Both Pop Idol and Popstars were soon swept away in favour of The X Factor. Pop Idol judge Simon Cowell decided he wanted his own series so retooled the format into The X Factor. The point of difference being that The X Factor allowed groups to enter and the judges also served as mentors for the contestants. It also meant that less-than-amazing singers could be selected for the final 12, with the idea being that the show would polish them into fine performers.

Fine feathered fiends

Fine feathered fiends

The X Factor actually seems a lot harder for contestants than traditional TV talent shows. In the olden talent show days, performers got to sing songs of their own choice, tunes they were very comfortable with. With The X Factor, contestants are given songs to sing and are also critiqued on their appearance and personality.

Whenever a talented singer with little personality is voted off The X Factor in favour of a less talent edbut charisma-filled act, that’s the legacy of Popstars. Only in Popstars, they were much more open about the need for personality and appearance as well as singing talent.

But while The X Factor format is the current hot thing, it turns out there’s still a sneaky place within it for the old Popstars format. In the seventh series of The X Factor UK, a five-piece pop group was assembled by the judges from rejected soloists. A year later, ITV screened a documentary looking at this group’s life after The X Factor, dealing with the adventure being a few pop group, recording, videos, fame, the media fans – all standard themes from the original Popstars series. The group was (you might have already guessed) One Direction, a secret Popstars-style band within The X Factor.

While the live shows of The X Factor are brilliantly entertaining (especially the nailbiting elimination episodes) and are a million times better than the awkward talents show of New Zealand’s television history, I miss the warts-and-all behind-the-scenes glimpses of the difficult world of pop that the original Popstars offered. The bad dye jobs, the fighting, the dodgy deals, the dubious wardrobe and the true moments of bliss.

cheers

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Film & TV

This is not America

After episodes of the X Factor screen, I like to go to their Facebook page to see what everyone is complaining about. And there are complaints. After the first bootcamp episode, there were two very New Zealand-specific moans, both involving Stan Walker.

Complaint 1: That Stan says “youse”, which is not proper English

Youse might not be formal English, but there’s nothing improper or incorrect about it. Millions of people around the world use youse, particularly in Ireland, parts of England, New York, Philadelphia, Australia and New Zealand.

English is an imperfect mongrel language and sometimes the “you as singular and plural” thing doesn’t work. If I walk in a room with five people in it and say “I want you to come with me,” do I mean everyone or just one person? If I said “I want y’all/yiz/you lot/yous/you guys/[your local variant goes here],” it would be clear what I meant.

Even though “youse” is in common use in New Zealand, we’re not used to hearing people say it on the telly. It sounds weird, so people think there must be something wrong with it. But it’s just another boring old way of expressing an unambiguous plural of you.

Complaint 2: That a judge sat on a table

Near the end of the second Boot Camp show, the judges were huddled around their table, choosing their favourites. Judge Mel could be seen sitting perched on the table. Oh no! Why didn’t Stan tell her off?

In any other X Factor production, this would not be an issue. But in New Zealand, many people – both Maori and non-Maori – consider sitting on a table to be tapu. It’s considered very bad form to put your bottom on a surface where you could also eat.

In this modern world of Spray n’ Wipe, one could argue that the practical reason for this taboo isn’t an issue anymore. But traditions stick with people and seeing someone on the telly sitting on a table is very upsetting for people who’ve been brought up to believe such an act is wrong.

It’s not the first time a reality show has got in trouble for this. In 2011 MasterChef New Zealand seated some contestants on a table. Since then they’ve put the back row of the masterclass on bar stools.

Maybe both these complaints have more in common than at first glance. They both stem from Stan doing something that violates a strongly held belief of some viewers. It’s wrong to say “youse”. It’s wrong not tell off your fellow judge for sitting on a table. There’s some logic behind both, but it’s more about the discomfort of seeing or hearing a tradition disregarded.

But I feel encouraged by this drama. There’s a concern that TV3 is just using an overseas format to produce cookie-cutter TV that doesn’t capture New Zealand culture. But the uniquely New Zealand friction the X Factor is causing in some viewers is evidence that something very Aotearoan is happening in this TV programme.

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Film & TV

Suspension of disbelief

The New Zealand version of The X Factor is both the most glorious and most ridiculous programme on the telly at the moment.

We’ve just sat through the initial judges’ auditions, mercifully condensed into only four extended episodes over two weeks. (Compare and contrast with New Zealand’s Got Talent, who stretched their audition shows out into a gruelling five-week stretch.)

The auditions were as entertaining as any other version of X Factor. The weird thing is how so many viewers seemed surprised that, well, the New Zealand version was following the actual X Factor format. That’s right, we don’t get some sort of special exemption that rules out featuring those few awful singers, thrown in purely for entertainment purposes. “That’s not fair! My cousin waited for three hours at the pre-audition only to be told she wasn’t what they were looking for,” wails Bewildered of Whanganui. “They should have given her a chance instead of that angry guy!” Actually, just imagine that. Imagine if the judges’ auditions were full of adequate singers doing acceptable but not exceptional versions of “Superstitious”. Crikey, that would be dull.

There was also surprise at the appearance of classic X Factor sob stories. The mousy looking woman who perfectly belts out a Celine Dion power ballad. The grieving widower who delivers an emotional country ballad. The timid girl who is delighted when her idol joins her to sing on stage. They’re probably going to all get cut at bootcamp.

Besides, the inclusion of those segments don’t make the series any less New Zealandic. This one is different because it’s ours.

The May issue of Metro magazine has a brilliant article on the X Factor audition process. Greg Bruce goes behind the scenes, casting a cynical but insightful eye on proceedings. He notes that winning the X Factor isn’t exactly a guarantee of success, that “If you want to launch a successful music career, you’re still way, way more likely to do it elsewhere than on a televised talent show. It sounds so mundane and obvious to say it out loud, but X Factor’s success depends on contestants and viewers suspending disbelief in that reality.”

The article also looks back at the old days of NZ Idol and notes that the Idol contestants didn’t exactly become huge pop stars. Idol is a different to X Factor (Simon Cowell made sure of that) in that the final 10 contestants were chosen by public vote, meaning that lots of pretty teens with wobbly voices got through. And back then Idol didn’t have such a good reputation. Since then the world has come to realise that such X Factor alumni as Leona Lewis and One Direction aren’t evil incarnate, people less likely to dismiss the X Factor as career-ruining piffle. The X Factor isn’t a guarantee of a successful pop career, but it’s a significant foot in the door.

So from all who have passed through the judges auditions round, it looks like we’ll have a decent final 12. I don’t think we’ll see any contestants as entertainingly brilliant as Rylan or Jedward from the X Factor UK, but on the other hand, I think we’ll also skip having a Christopher Maloney. The fun thing is the process of getting down to that final 12, the lame-arse bootcamp drama and the scenic lame-arse judges retreats’ drama.

And that’s why the X Factor is so much fun. Maybe the winner will only end up being world famous in New Zealand (like 2011 X Factor US contestant Chris Rene), but while that first series is screening, we can pretend that stakes are high, that this is the real deal.

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Film & TV, Music

X marks the spot

The X Factor New Zealand has a FAQ. One question asks…

How will The X Factor winner be distinguished from other talent contest winners?

The music industry has changed since the days of shows such as NZ Idol.

Winners of The X Factor have long-running international careers – think Reece Mastin, Stan Walker, One Direction, Guy Sebastian and Chris Rene etc.

Simon Cowell has been developing this talent show format for years; The X Factor is the result of everything he’s learned from earlier formats.

So X Factor NZ is getting it straight: if you win the X Factor, you won’t end up like Michael Murphy, working in road gang, wearing a high-viz vest.

But let’s take a closer look at their hall of fame. Yes, Reece Mastin won his year in Australian X Factor, but One Direction only came third in the UK X Factor. Chris Rene also came third on the US X Factor, but has only enjoyed major chart success in New Zealand (weird, huh?) Guy Sebastian wasn’t even an X Factor contestant – he won the first series of Australian Idol (so ’00s) and was only on the X Factor as a judge. Ditto for Stan Walker – he won the final series of Australian Idol but is on the X Factor NZ as a judge.

For every one of these high-profile success stories, there are the winners who don’t do so well – like Matt Cardle, Random, Leon Jackson, Altiyan Childs and ol’ misery guts Steve Brookstein.

Then there are the ones who don’t win the X Factor still but manage to forge a decent showbiz career from (or in spite of) their X Factor experience, like Olly Murs, Cher Lloyd or my beloved Jedward. And I’m keeping an eye on the extravagant Rylan from the latest UK series.

That’s what makes a series of X Factor work – it’s not just the brilliant singers who deliver every week, it’s also the battlers and the weirdos, the ones who can’t cruise through on talent alone. And that’s why they call it the X Factor.

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Film & TV, Music

Euro neuro

It’s hard being a New Zealand fan of Eurovision. I’ve been interested in the annual competitive songstravaganza since 2003 when UK entry Gemini infamously scored nil points for their song “Cry Baby”. But I was born in distant 1974, the year that Swedish Abba won with “Waterloo”, one of the greatest pop songs ever written. And I’ve grown up with snippets of Eurovision filtering through to New Zealand – a bit of “Making Your Mind Up”, some “Hard Rock Hallelujah”, but hopefully not that Cliff Richard song.

The trouble is, Eurovision doesn’t doesn’t screen on the telly here any more. Triangle Stratos did screen it for a while, but since it switched off last year, there is – as far as I can tell – no New Zealand broadcaster for one of the greatest shows in the world. Even Australia does it properly, with a dedicated broadcast on SBS, complete with local commentary and an informal vote for Australia’s favourites.

Fortunately the internet has made it possible for a lone New Zealander to join in the fun. This year the Eurovision experience started for me in around February, with the national selection competitions all around Europe, all of which were available to watch online. The biggest of these is Sweden’s Melodifestivalen, accurately described as a cross between the Olympics and American Idol, only bigger.

Soon the line-up took shape and a couple of weeks ago, the 42 entrants headed to Baku, Azerbaijan to rehearse, rehearse, rehease and reduce that initial group of 42 down to 26 via the semi-finals.

There are serious contenders (Loreen from Sweden with “Euphoria”. Sweden, of course, being to pop what New Zealand is to rugby), the show-stopping novelties (Buranovskiye Babushki, a group of Russian grannies who just wanted to fundraise to rebuild their local church that Stalin knocked down 70 years ago), and of course the Eurovision staple, the OMGWTF songs.

In a way, it’s the crazy entries that are the most fun. They don’t tend to make it through the semi-finals, but they get a few moments of fame and subsequent YouTube immortality. One of my faves this year was Rambo Amadeaus, the Montenegrin jazz poet whose song “Euro Neuro” was a direct commentary on the eurozone crisis – “Monetary breakdance! Give me chance to refinance!”. And there’s San Marino songstress Valentina Monetta, with “The Social Network Song (Oh Oh – Uh – Oh Oh)”, originally titled “Facebook Uh, Oh, Oh” until Eurovision rules on commercialism required a rewrite, but fortunately this didn’t affect the lyric “If you wanna come to my house then click me with your mouse.”

In the middle of all this are the quite-good entries. I was delighted to discover Israel’s entry Izabo, with their song “Time”. They’re a cool indie band with ’70s funk, psychedelic rock and Middle-Eastern flavours. “Time”, with its English verses and falsetto Hebrew chorus, wasn’t serious enough to get the serious votes nor weird enough to get the novelty vote and so missed out on the final. But still, I’ve delved into their previous albums and have a new favourite band.

But the talented underachivers of the semi-finals don’t matter. What counts is the 26 finalists, who’ll battle it out for supremecy at the final on Saturday night. I have my faves. There’s Italy’s stylish swing, the highly danceable tune from Cyprus, Ireland’s explosive pop charms, Moldova’s musical romp and Iceland’s dramatic duet.

Eurovision was created in 1956, less than a decade after the end of World War II. Like the Family of Man photography exhibition, it was an attempt to bring people together, to help ensure there’d never be another world war again. Has it worked? Yeah, sort of.

Politics still skims around the edges. It’s doubtful that Eleftheria Eleftheriou will do well for Greece this year, no matter how seductively she sings “You make me want your aphrodisiac.” There are always accusations of political bloc voting, but I figure that’s no more remarkable than how Australian pop does well in New Zealand. Neighbouring countries tend to be more culturally similar than distant countries.

Since the fall of communism, Eastern European countries came flooding into Eurovision. And here’s the interesting thing – due to the policies of their communist governments, a lot of those countries didn’t grow up listening to the same pop music that Western Europe did. No Elvis, no Beatles, no Abba, no Duran Duran. So today, popular music in those countries tends to be a mash-up of current Western trends and more traditional Eastern sounds. Try writing a song that ticks those boxes and will still appeal to Dutch grandmas.

Eurovision is mainly ignored by the New Zeaaland media. If it gets a mention, it’s either of the “Look at these wacky Europeanz!!!” weird news variety, focusing only on the crazy; or – like the BBC report that One News screened on Friday – it’s a sombre look at the impact of the Azerbaijani political situation on hosting Eurovision this year. But coverage of Eurovision never seems to make it in the regular entertainment news section.

So instead I make my own Eurovision experience. I’ve been watching footage of rehearsals in Baku courtesy of Eurovision bloggers, I’ve watched live streams of the thrilling semi-finals from the Eurovision website, and I’ll be waking up far too early for a Sunday to watch the epic live final, ready for some quality televisual entertainment.

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Film & TV

Famousness

talent-showI was mesmerised by the BBC documentary I Had The X Factor… 25 Years Ago. It looked at six people who were finalists in the 1986 grand final of the “New Faces” talent show – three singers, two comedians, and a violinist. They all enjoyed instant fame from the show, but with varying amounts of success. And that’s where it got interesting.

It seemed that most of them got work off the initial buzz from the show. But eventually that buzz faded away. Soul singer James Stone got work touring pubs and clubs, but his nice old lady manager kept his earnings from him. Comedian Vinny Cadman suddenly found himself unable to get the high-profile gigs he’d previously had. There are tales of divorce, alcoholism, childlessness, bankruptcy and sleeping in dumpsters.

It seems that for all of these contestants, once they had a taste of fame, of performing in front of an adoring audience, they were hooked, completely unable to go back to normal jobs, even when the showbiz gigs had completely dried up.

Has anything changed today? Are the contestants on The X Factor somehow immune to this fate?

Singer James Stone is also revealed to have been a semi-finalist on Britain’s Got Talent in 2008, his second shot at fame. He impressed the judges, but three years later he is revealed to be penniless but reasonably happy. He seemed like the sort of person who had a lot of personal problems that would always keep him from sustaining a career in showbiz.

I guess that’s what it comes down to. Talent is only one part of the equation. Showbiz is hard. It takes a certain type of personality to survive it, to negotiate the minefield of trends and competition. Maybe that’s the true X-factor.

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Film & TV

Adventures in Twilight

Having a bit of spare time at the moment, I set myself the task of having all the Twilight films.

I’d only seen one before, the second film in the saga, “New Moon”, at the time of its 2009 release. At the time I bitched, “It was such a shit film that it made me angry.” I couldn’t figure out who all the characters were and why everyone seemed so bothered all the time.

But now, two years later, I realised that despite my reaction to “New Moon”, Twilight films continued to be made, they were playing to big audiences, and weren’t showing any sign of becoming unpopular. Something was going on there. I had some catching up to do.

I started with the very first film, “Twilight”. Coming into it, I expected I wouldn’t enjoy it. See, I like my vampires a little dirty, like the sexually-charged moonlit Louisiana escapades of “True Blood”. Angsty teen vampires? No, it wouldn’t work on me.

But then there I was, a mere 10 minutes into the film, and suddenly Edward makes his first appearance and I got shivers. I instantly understood. Bella is this very ordinary tomboy-ish girl, and suddenly the most beautiful boy in school has totally fallen for her – and vice versa.

And it’s a really troubled love – what with him being likely to lose control and kill her if things get too hot during a makeout session. But all this sexual caution has one cinematic bonus: Edward’s experiments in sexual restraint produce what is possibly the hottest kiss in any movie ever, and the rightful winner of Best Kiss at the 2009 MTV Movie Awards.

I was willing to completely surrender myself to the Twlight world.

I then rewatched “New Moon” and I realised that my initial confusion was due to the film being made for fans. Unlike the “Sex and the City” film, there’s no complicated recap of previous events. The film figures you’re a fan and it’s not going to waste your time explaining who the Cullens are.

I still didn’t enjoy “New Moon” as much as “Twilight”, though it made me realise that I’d got one thing out of it the first time. There’s a scene where Bella goes on an awkward date with Jacob and Mike. They’re sitting in a movie theatre, each of the boys trying to get Bella to hold his hand. And that was when I said decided no more adolescent film date experiences, which has been a really good decision.

I wasn’t so enamoured with the third film, “Eclipse”. It started with Edward proposing marriage; it ended with Bella accepting. In the middle there was some drama with the grunge vampires from Seattle, which seemed to be an excuse so that Bella and Edward could prove their love for each other. And Bella got all emo over Jacob’s love.

But despite feeling a little disappointed by these last two films, I was still pretty excited about seeing the forth film in the saga, “Breaking Dawn: Part One”. And it did not disappoint, being at least as good at the first film.

I’ve seen critics complain that the film is a little slow moving, that the wedding takes too long. But the long, slow wedding gives the audience plenty of time to take in the splendour. There’s Bella looking nervous but gorgeous, and Edward looking like the idea of the man every girl secretly wants to marry. And pretty much everyone is really beautiful and things are perfect. Is it too long? Is a perpetually looping animated gif of Robert Pattinson biting his lip too long? No, it is not. It’s as long as it is because that’s how long it has to be. Speaking of animated gifs – this film also contains a scene where Jacob, angry and dripping wet, rips off his T-shirt and storms off into the forest. Aw yeah.

And just in case you thought things would get normal for Belz and Edz after they wed, “Breaking Dawn: Part One” also contains the honeymoon, with its bed-breaking consummation, which in turn leads to Bella’s speedy pregnancy with a weird demon baby, the even weirder demon baby birth, and the vampirification of Bella. OMG, so much drama!

Since I announced my Twilight viewing project, I’ve been surprised at the number of people who’ve admitted to being fans of the series, particularly some quite grown-up men. People who enjoy the books and the films, do that fully embracing the melodramatic, silly-fun world of Twilight. If you fight that, if you try to take the film seriously, then you’re just going to make it really unpleasant for yourself. It’s like watching a western and getting really angry that the film isn’t a hip hop comedy.

There’s also an argument that Bella is passive, that she should be more assertive like Buffy to be a good role model for teens. But the counter-argument goes that most teenage girls aren’t like Buffy. People in their 30s, who’ve grown in that confidence, are like Buffy. Bella is a dorky 18-year-old girl, who pretty much reminds me of when I was 18, only I didn’t have the vampire-werewolf love triangle or the weird demon baby. Though some of my friends in Hamilton managed the weird demon baby part.

I’m really happy to be part of the Twilight universe now. It’s brought me great enjoyment, and the thrill of anticipation for the final chapter in the series. I’m not about to get a Twilight duvet set, or call my firstborn child Renesmee, but it’s just nice to have this little pleasure in my life.

twilight-nz

And most importantly: I’m totally Team Edward.

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Film & TV

Topful woman talks about a film

My favourite film of 1997 was “Topless Women Talk About Their Lives”. Written by ex-Front Lawn man Harry Sinclair and starring Danielle Cormack, Joel Tobeck, Willa O’neill, Ian Hughes and Shimpal Lelisi, it told the bittersweet story of a group of inner-city dwelling Auckland cool kids and their crazy mixed up lives. It was released in my first year living in Auckland, and I think I secretly wished I had a similarly cool life, rather than feeling really awkward at suburban IRC parties. 14 years later, “Topless Women” has only just been released on DVD, including both the film and the original TV series consisting of 41 episodes of around 3 to 4 minutes each, as well as a good commentary track from the cast and director who have all gone on to proper fancy showbiz work. I watched the DVD (several times) and have come up with my fave things about the world of “Topless Women”.

The really expensive pizza

Um, that'll be $42.95

Um, that’ll be $42.95

In episode eight, Liz is working as a pizza delivery girl. She delivers a pizza – “Hawaiian with anchovy” – to old friend Gary. The pizza (and there seems to be only one) costs $42.95. This sounds astronomically expensive, but pizzas used to be priced like that. Today you could get a ham and pineapple pizza delivered for under $10, but back in the ’90s, they were strangely expensive. So we should be grateful for the pizza wars of the late ’90s, when people realised that pizza was really just shit on a shingle and therefore the pizza companies had no business charging such outrageous prices.

Party good times

Liz prepares for a productive day at the office (seriously)

Liz prepares for a productive day at the office (seriously)

I peripherally knew people like the characters in Topless Women. Cool kids who’d live in slightly grotty inner-city flats with no hot water (back before there were proper places to live in Auckland central), and life was all about pills and not eating and sex and being creative and abortions necesitated by broken hearts. There’s always a feeling that it can’t last, no matter how amazing it all seems at the time. Sooner or later someone wakes up feeling awful and things slowly get straightened up. Either that or someone ends up dead.

The most beautiful thing

The most beautiful thing

The most beautiful thing

Four years before “American Beauty” introduced the world to the poetry of a lone plastic bag floating on the breeze, “Topless Women” got there first. But instead of the wondrous instrumental soundtrack of “American Beauty”, “Topless Women” has Shayne Carter’s sexy sneer on the Straitjacket Fits’s brooding tune “If I Were You”. And it’s all tied up with the state of Ant’s mental health, Prue’s cheerfulness, and strange goings-on involving Ant’s mum and her girlfriend.

So much drama

Yes, yes, yes, yes!

Yes, yes, yes, yes!

There’s overlap between the later TV episodes and about half the film. In one scene, Geoff tells Liz he’d make a great dad for her unborn child. In the TV version, while this is going on, a television in the room plays a cheesy soap that Geoff in acting in. Miranda Harcourt is his co-star, doing a perfectly overwrought performance with lots of tears, flailing, a lolipop and so much drama. This is all missing from the film version and the scene plays a lot straighter. I like the TV version better, really laying on the tension.

The ghosts of buildings past

Auckland, looking like a proper grown-up city

Auckland, looking like a proper grown-up city

Liz lives in a house on top of the Fergusson Buildings and Civic House on Queen Street. It was demolished a few years later as those two buildings were gutted to be rebuilt as the new Queen Street cinema complex. Whenever I’m in the IMAX theatre, I like to wonder if I’m in the space formerly occupied by that house, especially the outdoor area where Liz and Neil kinda, sorta finally revealed their feelings for each other (or did they, etc). And that’s more exciting than any IMAX film.

The soundtrack

Subtitled Niuean appreciation of the Flying Nun back catalogue

Subtitled Niuean appreciation of the Flying Nun back catalogue

“Topless Women” had a killer soundtrack, using the best bits of the Flying Nun catalogue past and present. The commentary track gives credit to editor Cushla Dillon for suggesting Flying Nun tracks. In the TV series, each episode featured one song, carefully chosen to reflect the tone of the episode. The film used a smaller selection, each perfectly working with the story. It was the first time a New Zealand film had such an unashamedly New Zealand soundtrack, and now it’s pretty much standard that New Zealand films have New Zealand songs on the soundtrack.

The not-so-mighty Civic

If you're going to have a panic attack, you might as well do it in style

If you’re going to have a panic attack, you might as well do it in style

The pre-restoration Civic features as the location of Ant’s film debut. Little glimpses of its less glamorous past are revealed. Tiled columns at the entrance, burnt orange carpet in the foyer, faux rustic wooden benches, beige interior paint job, curly wooden decorative frames – all the bits and pieces that were gleefully discarded when the Civic was fancied up in the late ’90s. But the old Civic had a slightly creepy feel to it that made it the perfect place for the fragile Ant to freak out over his film debut.

Gift with purchase

Chris Cornell's distorted face makes a cameo

Chris Cornell’s distorted face makes a cameo

Neil wears a black T-shirt printed with the cover art of Soundgarden’s 1994 album “Superunknown”. These T-shirts were given away free with the CD when purchased from Sounds record stores, so they were everywhere. In fact, they were particularly common in Hamilton, probably due to its rich bogan subculture. I kind of miss this about buying music. Online, you might get a bonus track, but never a physical object. No t-shirts, posters, lighters, six-packs or MC Hammer limited edition baseball caps.

Tropical vacation location

Prue and Mike tie the knot

Prue and Mike tie the knot

When the TV series started, there was pretty much no budget, with cast and crew donating their time and filming on the weekend around proper jobs. Then along the way some NZ On Air and NZ Film Commission funding appeared and suddenly horizons began to broaden. Settings expanded from small flats and K Road to multiple locations, day and night, as well as the piece de resistance – the wedding in Niue. It’s not just an excuse for a trip to a tropical location – it perfectly suits that part of the story, removing the characters from their predictable loose-moralled urban setting and transplanting them to a deeply religious Pacific island. “Topless Women Talk About Their Lives” is available now on DVD. You should buy it. You can also watch the trailer at NZ On Screen, or just celebrate this choice film with the worst birthday cake ever:

Liz works at a computer so that's what she gets on her cake

Liz works at a computer so that’s what she gets on her cake

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Film & TV

Baby, you can drive my taxi

I’ve just been thinking about the Martin Scorcese film Taxi Driver, which is going to be playing at the NZ International Film Festival this year (in a lush 35mm restoration, hellz yeah).

I first saw Taxi Driver when I was 11 years old. I was a big Jodie Foster fan, due to enjoying her work in the original Freaky Friday film (which is sassy and all, but was actually surpassed by the Lohan/Curtis remake due to that losing the Disney slapstick ending and *ahem* sticking more to the flavour of the book).

Anyway, the Listener’s TV listings noted a late-night broadcast of film called Taxi Driver starring Ms Foster. I was all “Yay!” and set the video recorder. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Maybe a sassy young girl whose solo-dad father drives taxis.

When I started watching the film, I was immediately freaked out by the menacing opening titles, courtesy of Bernard Hermann’s score. But I persisted, going through various stages of “WHAT IS THIS? WHAT! IS THIS!” Jodie Foster was there all right, but playing a – gulp – street hooker.

The video timer hadn’t worked properly, cutting off the end of the film so I never knew how it ended until I saw it again a few years later in a slightly more mature frame of mind. By then it was too late. It had entered my DNA and become one of my favourite films ever.

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Film & TV

Marmont, Vegemont

I saw Sophia Copolla’s new film “Somewhere”, about a slightly-past-his-peak film star who slowly reconnects with his 11-year-old daughter. (It’s pretty good – you should see it.)

Anyway, I saw it at the Penthouse in Brooklyn, with a wrinkly daytime audience. A couple of ladies in the audience seemed a bit bored by it and spent a lot of the time whispering to each other about the film.

The actor (played by Stephen Dorff) lives in the Chateau Marmont, and at one point in the film he’s slumped in his room, rather depressed. And one of the ladies loudly whispered, “It’s obvious he’s going to kill himself. They’re setting it up nicely – that hotel, that’s known as the place where stars go to commit suicide.”

Which makes it sound like the Chateau is a Hollywood elephant graveyard, where those who are being eaten alive by tinseltown can go to curl up and die.

But there have been no suicides at the Marmont. John Belushi accidentally overdosed and Helmut Newton crashed his car after a suspected heart attack, but no grand royale suicides.

And Stephen Dorff’s character didn’t kill himself in the hotel. Sophia Copolla is far too clever to be that obvious.

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