Monday, 28 April 2008

NOTES: Macross History (Prelude to MacF 1-4 Review)

Oh come on, you knew it had to happen. Just look at the sidebar! Unfortunately, space permits a proper plot description for much of this. Check out The Anime Encyclopedia by Jonathan Clemens and Helen McCarthy or Wikipedia for details, as the articles are fairly in depth.

25 years ago (well, slightly over - starting Oct. 2002), the Super Dimensional Fortress Macross changed the face of animation. With its lush character designs (Haruhiko Mikimoto) and transforming robots (the Valkyrie series, based on the F-14 fighter, adapted by Shoji Kawamori), the series not only looked distinctive, but played out like a true drama as we see a love triangle ravaged by warfare, and the dominance of pop culture over military might as the power of song saves humanity, rather than simply whomever has the biggest guns. Spurred on by its western adaptation (Robotech) and its 1984 film remake, Do You Remember Love?, The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross engaged a generation of fans around the world and belongs on the shelves of musical-lovers worldwide (even if one has to buy a dodgy DVD to get a subtitled edition thanks to licensing difficulties).

Ten years later, the franchise returned in a two pronged attack: the direct to video Macross Plus and the direct to TV sequel, Macross 7.

Macross Plus is what most western fans view as the franchise's ultimate version: high budget animation, stylish pioneering CG, and a driving soundtrack by Yoko Kanno bring the Top Gun-esque storyline to the heights of what anime is capable of achieving (the adverts even showed a scene and a surprised narrator would ask "This is animation?"). Plus also deals with similar philosophical issues as the more acclaimed Ghost in the Shell (man vs. machine vs. living vs. technology in our lives), but in a far more entertaining way. Both the original 4-part OVA (Original Video Animation) series and the cinematic rework are no less than stunning.

Macross 7, meanwhile, is loathed by many outside of Japan, and unfairly so. Keeping in closer tone to the early episodes of its predecessor, 7 is a colourful, joyous series, drawing its influences from traditional super robot shows (monster attacks, is fended off, repeat) as anything in the Macross universe (though thankfully retaining Mikimoto as character designer, using his models from DYRL as a retcon across the franchise). It also features some of the best music in anime history, focusing as much on the protagonists' band striving for success as the combat at hand. If the viewer can come to terms with the Beatles in Space (with a stubborn John Lennon-esque piloting a Valkyrie) and singing during battle, (s)he will be richly rewarded as Macross 7's cast come to terms with the same issues plaguing the viewers over the course of the series. Unfortunately, the time requirement needed is more than many are willing to devote to an admittedly shaky start. Regardless, Macross 7 was a huge hit in Japan, spawning two direct to video episodes, a short film (paired with the Macross Plus screenings), and a sequel OVA, Macross Dynamite 7 which doubled as the 15th anniversary release.

Needless to say, expectations were high for the twentieth anniversary production, Macross Zero. Helmed by Shoji Kawamori (who had also directed Macross Plus and headed the creative team for 7), this five episode OVA took over a year to release and proved a disappointment on all fronts short of its breathtaking animation. Unfortunately, the story failed to be engaging, as what could have been a prequel explaining numerous plot questions establishing the original series turned into an excuse for Kawamori to continue the environmentalist rantings of his preceding work, Earth Girl Arjuna. As new questions emerged, Zero failed to satisfy and is almost as much of a dud as Macross 2 and raised doubts in the fans as to whether or not the man who had helmed one of the most beloved series in anime still had what it takes.*

So where does this leave us now? Kawamori is helming the 25th anniversary series, Macross Frontier, and his new studio Satelight is responsible for animations. Their prior work, Aquarion, failed to impress the RZ, but how will he find this new addition to the canon? A look at the first four episodes comes tomorrow...

*Macross 2? An infamous spinoff without any of the original creative team involved. As such, it's been retconned out of canon and isn't worth mentioning except to say that you'll miss nothing except a few jokes in 7 by not seeing it.

Friday, 25 April 2008

REVIEW: "Eurobeat Almost Eurovision (Sarajevo)"

Tacky costumes, trashy visuals, Terry Wogan, and pop songs that you hate yourself for loving. Yes, the Eurovision song contest has set upon us again both in real life next month (May 20/22/24 in Belgrade) but on the touring stage before settling in the West End this September. That’s right, some clever Australians took that most beloved (and belittled) of European institutions to give us Eurobeat Almost Eurovision.

The current UK touring version, set in Sarajevo, features everything the real Eurovision is known for: low end local celebrities making awful jokes (this time with lots of double entendre) and stereotyped nationalities attempting to out-flare and out-pop each other. From the holdouts (Hungarian folk heavy) to the sellouts (the Brits provided the worst and blandest song as always) and the fallouts (Postmodern Germans and a Bj√∂rk-esque Icelander), our hosts (Les Dennis as children’s TV star Sergei and Mel Giedroyc as ex-pole vaulter Boyka) take us across this lovely continent full of “beautiful people, except France” and insure that none of the represented nations reach the end unscathed, but it rarely goes past the “nudge/wink” type humour that lets us all be in on the joke, although some jokes (“Leave it to the Irish to teach us about World Peace”) hit closer to home than others.

And just how are these mockeries of cultural pride and punishment? Some of them (Greece, Italy, Ireland, Russia) are surprisingly catchy and worthy of being on many an iPod and go beyond their novelty setting. Others exist for the sake of being intentionally bad and perhaps lack tunefulness as a result, but still work in the context of the show. Had the RZ a spare tenner on the night he went, he would have bought the CD without blinking on his way out of the theatre.

Of course, it’s not Eurovision without a winner, and the end of the first act provides the audience the opportunity to vote via text message. Needless to say, the second act lacks the pure entertainment value of the first as a great deal of time is dedicated to reporting the results, but the voting is accurate and the winner does change on a nightly basis (it’s even reported the next day on the website).

The one downside to this production is the continuing trend to eliminate live music. On the other hand, the Eurovision contest itself has been free of a live orchestra for years, and touring prices reflect the lower expenses. Whether live music will be implemented for the West End is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: it’s hard to care when you’re laughing so hard.

Where: Touring
When: Check the show website.
How Much: Varies by venue, £9-£25 in most venues
Concessions: Varies by venue
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20. £5 penalty for no live band. This show is damn funny and if you can see it at touring prices you’ll totally get your money’s worth (plus it clocks in just at 2 hrs. - someone gets to keep it short!)
RZ Other Notes: The theatre was frighteningly empty the night the RZ went, with over half the stalls and most of the first circle empty and the upper circle closed. While word of mouth is certain to build as the tour reaches its conclusion, the high camp factor (bordering on postmodern mockery at times) may have trouble attracting the wider audiences necessary to sustain an extended run in one of the West End’s major venues - then again, if Gone With The Wind closes as soon as everybody hopes, the New London would be a wonderful and not too large location with plenty of intimacy (though most of the touring venues are owned by the Ambassadors, so speculate for yourself where this'll end up). Either way, Eurobeat’s producers aren’t hedging their bets in the UK: productions in Asia, Australia, and Europe are in the works for the rest of 2008 and 2009, including an alternative version set in Amsterdam for some locations.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

THOUGHTS: Peter and the Wolf

(A late catch-up)

Prokofiev’s classic recently took up residence at the Hackney Empire, featuring a new “first act” establishing how Peter meets the animals in the forest before the piece begins as we know it. While some will undoubtedly take issue at playing around with the canon, the new material (text by Abi Brown and music by Philip Feeney) works well, complementing the original and giving the piece a relaxed air while hinting at the dangers ahead. Both acts, played well by members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, serve as a reminder of how classical music need not be seen as stuffy and dull, but a pleasure in our daily lives. Brought to the stage with a cast of dancers, kaleidoscopic lighting, and a comforting narrator in the form of Brian Blessed, this Peter is a sublime option for a family outing.

Where: Hackney Empire
When: Until 20 April, may be touring onwards.
How Much: £12-£24.50
Concessions: £3 off
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £24.50. Solid all around and worthy of mid-scale theatrical pricing.
RZ Other Notes: Props to the producers for employing a full cast of dancers (only one of whom cast doubles between the “acts”) and a proper orchestra. In an age of canned music (see the upcoming review of Eurobeat: Almost Eurovision), the joys of the live experience are worth remembering.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

THOUGHTS: Moths Ate My Dr Who Scarf

(A very short catch-up before running out to Hackney Empire...)

The anoraks have landed at the Arts Theatre as comedian Toby Hadoke brings his tale of childhood woe, social discomfort, and unabashed fandom to London. Drawing heavily on personal experience and an in-depth knowledge of the title programme to the forefront, Moths looks at what it means to be the outsider, to have an audiovisual security blanket, and how perceptions change the way we view ourselves and our cultural heritage. While non-Who fans will be able to follow what’s going on, many of the jokes will (obviously) be lost - ditto for those who aren’t familiar with local celebs and TV in general (e.g. a hilarious bit comparing Star Wars to Eastenders). Pleasantly short, Moths is a lovely way to start an evening in the West End.

Where: Arts Theatre
When: Until 19 Apr @ 19:30
How Much: £12.50-£15
Concessions: None
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £12.50. Lots of fun, but very specialised humour.
RZ Other Notes: A version of this show was produced for BBC Radio 7 and is available on CD.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

REVIEW: "I Saw Myself"

(A delayed review, but one clocking in at under 350 words.)

The Wrestling School
(Not really a school but a collective of RSC/Royal Court/RADA grads surrounding playwright Howard Barker) bring their mentor’s newest work to their alma matter in the form of a 2.5 hours on war, infidelity, and needlepoint.

Yes. Needlepoint.

Sleev, a well to do Mrs. Robinson figure loses the husband she has never been faithful to in the war. As is traditional in her time and place, she and her maids (a crone and two silly young things) must complete a tapestry full of the story of the deceased and his life. Breaking tradition, Sleev dictates the main story should be a reflection of her infidelity and lies. For 2.5 hours the women talk, abuse Sleev’s daughter, discuss the symbolism of tapestry, lose their eyesight, talk about the past, discuss the symbolism of tapestry, talk Genesis (the biblical book, not the band), fear the approaching war, and talk tapestry. One could say it’s a big bible banging stitch ‘n’ bitch.

There’s also cock. A lot of cock. Y’see, Sleev’s hiding a rather attractive naked man in her wardrobe whom she worships while fucking her daughter’s husband on the side. In order to express her own desire to be the dominated one, Sleev sends her husband to find an unattractive man to control her. When her adonis is called up for service (he later returns in the lower half of a late 19th century uniform looking as attractive, if not more, than ever), her condition deteriorates. Unfortunately, when the handsome one returns, we find that the character is far more interesting when silent - he has a never-ending speech where one wishes he’d just shut up and start killing people.

The RZ is making light of this work, which does deserve some serious thought. There’s a lot of dense and worthy ideas packed in here, but the delivery is in a dull and unengaging way which comes off as a Victorian or Edwardian piece with some sharp one-liners piercing the drama rather than today’s fast moving methodology.

Where: RADA/Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre
When: Until 19 Apr. M-Sa @ 19:30, 19 Apr @ 15:00
How Much: £18 General Admission
Concessions: £10 for usuals, £8 for RADA students
RZ Unofficial Worth Paying: £10. Add a few if you’re really in the mood for a brain buster evening or for a cheaper evening than a seedy club in Soho.
RZ Other Notes: The nudity ends at the interval. In seriousness, this is a play that takes time to digest. It’s not an easy work, in part because it drags (especially at the end), but also because there is so much discussion of symbolism and allegory to warfare, sexual fidelity, identity, feminism, etc. This is not a “fun night out play”, but an “I go to the theatre to think” play.

Also, permitting the spoiler, when the attractive man in uniform returns, Sleev begs him to fuck her. When he refuses, she offers her blind person’s cane (the RZ is awful for not knowing the proper title) and grovels for him to beat her instead. All the RZ could think of during said sequence was Forbidden Broadway’s parody of the similar scene in Spring Awakening.

Wendla: “My supporting castmate tells me her father beats her with a broomstick every night. And since I’ve never been beaten I don’t know what it feels like. So would you beat me with a great big stick?”
Melchior: “I couldn’t!”
Wendla: “Pleeeeeeeaaaaaaaasssssseeee?”
Melchior: “OK! Like this? (feeble smack)”
Wendla: “Put your back into it, you sissy...”

Sunday, 6 April 2008

THOUGHTS: Gone With The Wind

First Preview Power Strikes Again!

It's late and the RZ is a very tired blogger who has just sat through a particularly long and muddled musical. Some proper prose (including a worth paying) may be forthcoming, but here are some basics based on the notably unfinished show that the RZ saw tonight:

-The current runtime is 4 hours 6 minutes including interval.
-The RZ managed to hold out until 11PM before turning his phone on to check the time. He was not the only one doing so.
-There will (thankfully) be cuts.
-The cast, including Darius Danesh, are fine. Not amazing, but fine.
-Some of the accents, however, are like what real cockneys think of Dick Van Dyke
-The score is boring. Most of it is slow and attempts to be sweeping, but the RZ guesses that there isn't enough of an orchestra to pull off a properly lush sound. None of the songs stood out, but some reminded him of better songs from better shows.
-There are some laughably bad lyrics like "Wounded soldiers are physical wrecks, but at least they're members of the opposite sex".
-There is a LOT of narration. Everybody takes turns spewing dates and season changes and announcing the locations and how this or that character is feeling or what they're thinking.
-If the RZ was handling the edits, the narration is the first thing he'd cut.
-The author really tried to incorporate everything from the book. Something has to go because everything drags.
-Even though the first act is the shorter one, the RZ suggests summoning Officer Lockstock to enforce the rules on too much exposition.
-The second act is preachy. One song is the black cast singing "Every child just wants to be loved."
-The song about is painfully bad.
-The set is impressive when you enter, but pretty minimal by Napier's standards. There's a revolve for "interiors/house" and some platforms that are punted on and off stage. After a while the sets are as dull as the music. Is this really the same man who gave us the visual wonderments of Time, Starlight Express, and Cats? Or a reduxed rehash of Les Miz?
-The burning of Atlanta is a couple flashing lights and some fencing getting pushed over.
-The audience were racing like mad to catch their trains. Hopefully the cast made it home as well.
-The audience seemed to be OK with the show in general but almost everyone said it needed cuts.
-They hired child actors to appear in two scenes.
-Bonnie is a voiceover and has the lamest "death by horse" ever onstage. Aren't the crew from Handspring done with their run at the National yet?
-The act break is roughly in the middle of part 3 from the original novel.
-Mark Shenton was in the row behind the RZ, and the critic from the Daily Mail was also present.
-Did the RZ mention that it was four hours long?

In short: Unless you're a huge GWTW buff or a nerd for going during previews, wait until the press reviews are out because the edits could make everything more cohesive and add some much needed energy.