Sunday, May 18, 2008

KISS LOVES YOU

2007/Directed by Jim Heneghan
Reviewed by John Harrison

The early 1990s were a strange time to be a Kiss fan. Eric Carr, the band's drummer since 1980, had died in 1991 after a painful battle with cancer of the heart (thought to have been brought on by ingesting fumes from the near full can of lacquer he sprayed on his hair on a daily basis for over ten yeras). Revenge, the band's 1992 album with new drummer Eric Singer, was a strong return to their heaviest roots which wowed their die-hard fans and garnered some of the most positive critical reception of their career, but despite debuting high on the charts thanks to a big promotional push, the album quickly sunk without leaving much of a trace (it would eventually stumble to Gold status in the US), while Kiss' subsequent American tour in support of Revenge would be cut short due to disappointing attendances (again, despite great reviews and positive reception from the fans). It became clear that Kiss, one of the giants of 70s American stadium rock, who had even managed to find a degree of success in the 80s without their trademark kabuki make-up and studded leather costumes, were going to find the musical climate of the 1990s a difficult one to survive and thrive in.


Yet at the same time, the Kiss fan movement was probably at its most visible. Dozens of different Kiss fanzines were being self-published (in varying degrees of quality), and vintage merchandise and other memorabilia associated with the band was being sold at ever increasing prices. There were also the Kiss conventions, where fans (many in make-up and their own home made costumes) would gather and celebrate the band, watch vintage video clips on a big screen, see a tribute band perform, and shop at the dozens of dealers tables. Some of the bigger conventions would have former members and associates of the band as special guests, and have original costumes and artefacts on display.

The popularity of the Kiss Conventions showed the band (or at least co-founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley) that the past seemed to be where any future money was likely to be made. Kiss put together their own official travelling convention, which led to their MTV Unplugged appearance and eventual reunion in make-up and costumes with the four original members for a huge worldwide jaunt that would prove to be the most wildly successful tour in Kiss' history.


Produced on a fairly small budget, and shot over a ten year period, Kiss Loves You is an entertaining and at times fascinating and engrossing look into the world of Kiss fandom during this period, putting the bulk of its focus on an assortment of fans who attend the conventions, as well as several of the more popular Kiss tribute bands who flourished in the early-90s. A couple of contemporaries, such as Dick Manitoba from the Dictators and Twisted Sister's Dee Snider also offer up their (not always flattering) observations on Kiss.

Many non-fans will likely get the most enjoyment from seeing the parade of obsessive Kiss fans that are put before us – often decked out in visual emulation of their idols, they have been dubbed the 'Heavy Metal Trekkies' by the media and detractors, but while the moniker is not entirely inappropriate, Kiss fans differ in that they project a very infectious sense of enthusiasm and fun, and a very basic love and devotion towards something that – for good or bad - clearly means a lot to them.

However, it's actually the moments that involve the various Kiss tribute bands (who bear names like Strutter, Dressed to Kill and Hotter Than Hell) that provide some of the more entertaining and interesting scenes in Kiss Loves You. Director Jim Heneghan (a Swedish filmmaker who helmed the acclaimed 2002 Hellacopters documentary Goodnight, Cleveland) captures a genuine sense of bitterness, jealousy and backstabbing between the various bands – in a moment of art imitating life, the Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley impersonators in Strutter have a huge ego clash that ends when 'Frehley' leaves to form his own tribute band. Another member of Strutter refers to Kiss fans as "goons" who often get lost in the blurred line between reality and fantasy, with some treating the impersonators with the same degree of reverence as the real thing.

To Heneghan's credit, Kiss Loves You manages to celebrate the Kiss mythology even as it is simultaneously punching holes in it. Footage of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley steamrolling unannounced into a Kiss convention and taking a collector's exhibition apart to retrieve items they claim had been stolen from them while fans look on open-jawed, will not endear the pair to everybody, and the 100+ dollars which a dad spends to make a plaque for his ten year-old son to present to Paul Stanley at a Kiss Convention would have been better spent on beer and pizza as Paul simply takes the plaque, waves it around for about a second, before carelessly tossing it onto the floor behind him, where it is later found dumped.

But it's Bill Baker who comes off looking the most disillusioned in the film. A lifelong Kiss fan who idolised Ace Frehley growing up, formed his own Frehley tribute show, and finally became sometime friend of the Space Ace himself, Baker gushes in the early segments about his admiration for Frehley, he plays us some telephone messages Ace has left him, his mom tells us about the anniversary card Ace kindly sent to her, and Bill relates stories of helping Frehley move house, and how he couldn't have picked a better person to emulate. Cut to the footage filmed several years later and Baker seems genuinely hurt that he has not heard a peep out of Ace since he re-united with Kiss, and he also lets slip that he frequently lent Frehley money, hinting at some ulterior motives for the friendship (Frehley filed for bankruptcy just nine months before the reunion tour). Baker enjoys something of a last laugh however, when he adopts Elvis as his new hero, proposes to his girlfriend at Graceland, then sells his massive collection of Ace Frehley memorabilia (including original costume pieces and jewellery) and purchases a house with the proceeds.

At only 72 minutes in length, Kiss Loves You never gets a chance to bog itself down or outsay its welcome, although the DVD release has a great selection of bonus material, including more than an hour of interview outtakes (including Dick Manitoba telling a great story about how the Dictators got kicked off a Kiss tour when he went on and took the piss out of Paul Stanley's cheesy stage raps). The DVD also features a few minutes of silent Super 8 footage of Kiss performing is Sweden in 1976, an episode of a strangle cable access television show that features some of the fans and tribute band members featured in the film, footage from the 1996 press conference on the USS Intrepid at which the re-united Kiss announced their world tour, and more.

From a personal perspective, watching Kiss Loves You hit me in a strange way. I have never been to a Kiss convention, never worn Kiss make-up or costume, and think most of what Kiss has done in the past ten years is complete rubbish that has irreparably cheapened what it once was. Luckily, I am able to separate what it is to what it once had been, and as a kid Kiss were the first band I ever got into in a big way, as well as being the first concert I ever attended (VFL Park in Melbourne, 1980) – so I can see where the enthusiasm and joy displayed by the die-hard Kiss fans is coming from, even if I struggle to understand the length and depth of their often blind devotion.

Review Copyright John Harrison 2008

Friday, May 9, 2008

IRON MAN

2008/USA/Directed by John Favreau


Debuting in March 1963 in the pages of Marvel Comics' Tales of Suspense No. 39, Iron Man has been a perennial second-tier character for that company over the past four decades – popular enough to never really be threatened with cancellation due to low sales, but never quite capable of breaking into broader pop culture to rub shoulders with the likes of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The X-Men and The Incredible Hulk (the last three of which were all spawned around the same time as Iron Man, during a period of intensely creative productivity at Marvel).

Since Iron Man had never undergone a live action adaptation (some Baby Boomers may recall the cheesy but great low-budget animated cartoon from the late-1960s), Marvel's newly formed motion picture studio somewhat riskily chose the character as the feature of their debut, self-financed production. It's a move that's likely to pay off handsomely for the studio, and ensure the development of future productions – for Iron Man is a winning combination of action and comic book heroics, held together by a fine performance by Robert Downey Jnr. – that is bound to be a worldwide crowd pleaser.



Directed by John Favreau (the writer of Swingers and sometime actor also has a role in the film as a security guard), Iron Man updates the original comic's Vietnam setting for the deserts of Afghanistan, where brilliant billionaire industrialist Anthony Stark (Downey Jnr.) is kidnapped by a Taliban like terrorist group and forced to build a destructive new weapon which his Stark Industries company has been selling to the allies. Instead, he uses his resources and intelligence to build a crude but powerful suit of armour with built-in flamethrower and jet pack, which he uses to escape from captivity (how he manages to construct the suit under the noses of the terrorist group is probably not something we are meant to think too hard about – or maybe it's the filmmaker's way of telling us that these Taliban operatives aren't very bright).

Returning home to his Malibu mansion, Stark's ordeal causes him to have a complete change of character. He cuts back on his hedonistic lifestyle, announces to his stunned shareholders that his company will no longer be involved in the building of weapons (something which particularly upsets his right hand man Obadiah Stane – played by a deliciously evil, shaven headed Jeff Bridges in pure Lex Luthor mode), and gets to work on improving his metallic suit design into a sleek, near-impregnable defence unit, which in true superhero fashion he uses to combat the forces of evil (or at least the un-American ones). Helping him in his quest are his loyal (and in love) assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow in one of her few bearable performances) and Terrance Howard as his Air Force buddy Jim Rhodes (whom, based on a witty remark her makes while looking at one of Stark's Iron Man proto suits, is bound to be helping out in greater ways in the inevitable sequel). Samuel L Jackson also pops up in a neat little cameo after the end credits have run.


While Iron Man follows the standard format for a superhero film, it does it with a real sense of panache and excitement, and Robert Downey Jnr. imbues Tony Stark with humour and humanity, and a real sense of vulnerability (his kidnapping at the beginning of the film results in pieces of irretrievable shrapnel being lodged in his chest, necessitating the implantation of a powerful electromagnetic chest plate which stops the shrapnel from entering his heart, but also provides the source which powers his Iron Man suit). The story never allows itself to get too dark, with the suicidal alcoholism displayed by Stark in some of the more highly regarded Iron Man story arcs of the 1980s not being touched upon.

The only areas in which Iron Man disappoints is in its use of a somewhat generic soundtrack, which comes across as very gung-ho and Top Gun, and in its rather predictable climatic stand-off between Iron Man and the enormous Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges in his own metallic suit design), which is too reminiscent of the climax of Paul Verhoven's Robocop (1988). An action sequence earlier in the film, where Iron Man engages and outruns a couple of US fighter jets, is much more exciting and exhilarating.

As expected in a film of this stature, the CGI effects are very photo realistic and almost faultless, although it seems to be getting harder and harder for to wow audiences in the same way that Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park did in their day.

Reminiscent at times of the cliffhanger adventure serials of the 1940s (in particular, 1949s King of the Rocketmen), Iron Man should satisfy the kids and the adults alike, and makes for a welcome afternoon of old-fashioned, escapist entertainment of the highest order.

Review Copyright 2008 John Harrison