Thursday, July 02, 2015
If you believe your eyes, recently released production photos showing Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) back in action confirm the six-episode “miniseries event,” scheduled to air in January, is really happening. Before you know it, Mulder and Scully will be back to chasing ghosts and unraveling conspiracies.
When “The X-Files’ ” original run limped to an end in 2002, the war on terror was just beginning. The idea that the government might have surveillance programs capable of spying on the phone calls and emails of every American seemed like just another of Mulder’s wild conspiracy theories.
That was before WikiLeaks, before Chelsea Manning and, most importantly, before Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents detailing the NSA’s sweeping domestic surveillance agenda.
Reading journalist Glenn Greenwald’s account of the Snowden revelations, contained in Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide,” is almost like getting caught up in an “X-Files” plot, only without the extraterrestrials. That there are no hints of extraterrestrial encounters in Snowden’s treasure-trove of incriminating NSA documents is probably a good indication that if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, it has better things to do than visit us.
“The X-Files” returns to a landscape where large-scale wrongdoing and coverups by secretive government agencies are pretty much accepted as a given.
It is a landscape eerily similar to that of the 1970s, when revelations of government misconduct, especially by intelligence and law enforcement agencies, forged a golden age of Hollywood thrillers.
If you weren’t paranoid, you weren’t paying attention. This was the age of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. It was also when the public first learned of COINTELPRO, an unwieldy acronym for Counter Intelligence Program. Via COINTELPRO the FBI waged a sometimes illegal campaign against domestic political organizations it deemed subversive — organizations both on the left and on the right. The FBI’s tactics involved infiltration, surveillance and, most worryingly, disinformation.
COINTELPRO came to light only when the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI office, took more than 1,000 classified documents and turned them over to the media. It was the Snowden leaks but with analog technology.
As far as Hollywood was concerned, this landscape was fertile ground for a decade of political thrillers, from “The Parallax View” to “Three Days of the Condor.”
Now the ripped-from-the-headlines conspiracy thrillers are in bloom again. They sprout even among superhero movies, where “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” deals in secret governments within secret governments and spy networks that can be turned on innocent people with the flip of a switch.
It’s no surprise that Sydney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor” is in the early stages of being dusted off and updated for the 21st century by Skydance Productions, which is looking to adapt the story for television. Nor is it a surprise that “The X-Files” isn’t alone in bringing back the combustible mix of conspiracies and the otherworldly.
Netflix is prepping a series based on the “Montauk Project,” which is half science fiction and half urban legend, and takes in everything from secret experiments and time travel to aliens from space and Nikola Tesla. It’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to paranormal conspiracies. And the strangest thing about it is it’s set to star Generation X “it girl” Winona Ryder.
A true conspiracy theorist might well wonder if the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex is churning out truly outlandish conspiracies just to make a buck off the public’s renewed interest or to make people more skeptical of the real conspiracies.
Thursday, June 25, 2015
Depending how you look at it, JMR Higgs’ book “KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money” is either a book about the British pop band The KLF or it’s a book about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. Or maybe it’s a book about how something may appear to be one thing while also appearing to be something else entirely.
It’s a story that begins in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and ends Aug. 23, 1994, on the Scottish island of Jura, where The KLF, then known as The K Foundation, burned their last 1 million pounds. According to an online exchange rate calculator I found, that amounted to more than $1.5 million at the time.
These two incidents — the death of a president and the burning of 1 million pounds — either have nothing in common or everything. The complex web of relations linking them are either the product of coincidence or something more or possibly both — again, depending on how you look at it.
Both incidents are mysteries. Theories about the Kennedy assassination are endless. Theories about why The KLF burned 1 million pounds are less so but usually amount to “because they’re A-holes.”
Needless to say, Higgs has not written a typical music biography. But The KLF were not your typical band. “KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money” is a detective story in search of a motivation for something The KLF themselves cannot explain.
The KLF were Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, and while they were far more popular in the United Kingdom than in the United States, they greatly influenced music on both sides of the Atlantic, making contributions to hip hop, dance and techno, and helping invent chill out.
The KLF recorded under other names, too. Sometimes they were the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. At other times they were simply the JAMs. They had their biggest hit while as the Timelords.
Here we see the first clues. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu leads us to “The Illuminatus! Trilogy” by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, a cult sci-fi novel that mixes occultism, conspiracy theories, joke religions and cutting edge physics into one of the most mind-bending works of fiction ever conceived. The Timelords is a reference to “Doctor Who,” and the Timelords’ hit single, “Doctorin’ the Tardis,” is a novelty cover of the “Doctor Who” theme.
Wilson and his ideas about how we perceive the world are central to Higgs’ story. So, too, is modern neuroscience, which sees the human brain as mainly occupied with finding patterns, even where they may not exist. Higgs’ pattern brings in acclaimed comic book writer Alan Moore and Discordianism, a parody religion co-created by Kerry Thornley. It also features a cameo appearance by “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” author Douglas Adams, by way of Adams having written episodes of “Doctor Who.” Discordianism is a major factor in “Illuminatus!” and Thornley knew Lee Harvey Oswald, which leads to the JFK connection. JFK was killed on Nov. 22, 1963, and “Doctor Who” first aired the next day, Nov. 23, 1963. The number 23 is a holy number in Discordianism, and Wilson plays up the significance of 23 in “Illuminatus!” What does this have to do with The KLF? Nothing. Or everything.
As I said, Higgs has not written a typical music biography. But what he has written is fascinating and consistently funny. It may be the first music bio where knowing or caring about the band isn’t necessary, or even relevant. Higgs’ method is like that of a Douglas Adams character whom Higgs doesn’t mention: Dirk Gently, a “holistic detective” who investigates cases by first assuming that everything in the universe is connected. To solve the KLF mystery, you start with the JFK mystery.
Is it coincidence KLF and JFK share two letters while J and L are mirror images of each other?
But there are traps along the way. Once someone tells you the number 23 is everywhere, you start seeing it everywhere. It’s a glitch in our brains’ pattern recognition software. It could have been any number. For Adams, the number was 42, his nonsense answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. Still, was Adams’ choice of 42 mere chance?
Forty-two and 23 are related: 4 plus 2 equals 6, while 2 times 3 also equals 6. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, as they say. But don’t panic. It probably means nothing.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
|Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in 1973's "The Wicker Man."|
In the week since news of his death became public, people who knew him, and many who didn’t, have told a lot of stories about Sir Christopher Lee. Lee appeared in roughly 250 films yet never quite escaped his earliest starring role as Dracula in Hammer Films’ 1958 movie “Horror of Dracula.”
My favorite Christopher Lee story goes like this: Asked by an interviewer about his still-classified exploits during World War II, Lee sat forward conspiratorially and asked, “Can you keep a secret?”
Excitedly, the interviewer said, “Yes,” to which Lee, sitting back in his chair and smiling as only he could, with a combination of menace and charm, replied, “So can I.”
Lee’s wartime exploits, some reportedly involving Winston Churchill’s clandestine special ops force, nicknamed “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” and his postwar Nazi-hunting activities would be enough for most men. You could call that a job well done, a life well lived, and write your memoirs. But Lee was only in his early 20s when the war ended. He was just getting started.
It’s for his second act — as an actor — that we will remember him. It’s not the stories he told — no matter how well — nor the war stories he lived that will endure, but the stories he helped bring to life on the screen. In a movie career that spanned nearly 70 years, he went from “uncredited spear carrier” in Sir Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” to Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies. In between he was Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and Fu Manchu (all roles also played by Boris Karloff), as well as Bond villain Scaramanga in “The Man with the Golden Gun,” “Three Musketeers” antagonist Rochefort, lecherous Russian holy man Rasputin, and countless other silver screen adversaries.
While somewhat resenting his villainous typecasting, Lee also realized early on that the bad guys got all the good lines — except when they didn’t get any lines at all.
Lee claimed he played the part of Dracula mute in the 1966 sequel “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” because the lines he was given were terrible. (For his part, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster claimed not to recall having written Dracula any lines in the first place.)
The true mark of a great actor isn’t how good he is with great material, or even good material, but how good he is with lousy material. By that standard, Lee was one of the greatest who ever lived.
Even without lines in “Dracula: Princess of Darkness,” Lee hisses and snarls and dominates the screen. Just as his dear friend and frequent co-star Peter Cushing did for the original “Star Wars,” Lee brings menace and gravitas to its prequels, which need all the menace and gravitas they can get. He took his roles, however outlandish, seriously, and when he is on-screen, so do audiences.
Occasionally, Lee’s perseverance paid off and he’d get a great role, such as his own favorite, Lord Summerisle in the 1973 version of “The Wicker Man,” or Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.” But great role or not, he was a professional, bringing to his craft the same discipline that must have kept him alive during World War II.
Lee may not have won any Oscars, but he racked up the Guinness world records: most screen credits for a living actor (in 2007), tallest actor in a leading role (tied with Vince Vaughn), actor in most films featuring a sword fight, oldest video game voice actor, and most connected living actor (meaning Six Degrees of Christopher Lee is a lot easier to play than Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon).
The man of many roles was also a man of many contrasts. He was a British aristocrat often cast as the shadowy foreigner. He was prickly and reserved, yet warm and generous with those who got to know him. He sang opera, then later, in his 80s, recorded a heavy metal concept album. And he was a serious man who could become a babbling fanboy upon meeting his hero, J.R.R. Tolkien.
For most of the world, though, Christopher Lee was an unforgettable actor who often made even the most forgettable movies worth watching. And for an actor, there’s probably no better life story.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
I, for one, approve of the entrée getting a fighting chance. That’s something we couch potato foodies haven’t seen since Food Network stopped showing reruns of the original — and vastly superior — Japanese version of “Iron Chef.”
Who, having seen it, can forget Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai’s battle to the death with an octopus? There is something primal about a chef literally wrestling with his main course and, in the end, producing a dish that looks, as the cliché goes, too good to eat. Sakai, nicknamed “the Delacroix of French Cuisine,” after the French painter, often produced just such dishes.
So does Dr. Hannibal Lecter, portrayed with sinister serenity by Mads Mikkelsen (“Casino Royale”). Maybe there is a warning in that. On “Hannibal,” you never know whom you might be having for dinner. Then again, when has “looks too good to eat” ever stopped anyone?
The best — and best looking — show on television opens its third season with Hannibal and his former therapist and colleague (now accomplice?) Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) having escaped to Europe and assumed new identities.
When last we saw FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Hannibal had left them all for dead, and the first episode keeps their fates simmering in suspense. Showrunner Bryan Fuller has elected instead for a palate cleanser, setting up Hannibal and Bedelia’s new status quo.
With the change of setting, “Hannibal” becomes something new, too. Now it’s a fairy tale, in addition to everything else it is. Eddie Izzard’s wonderfully batty Dr. Abel Gideon, whom Hannibal ate last season, one severed limb at a time, tells Hannibal as much during a flashback.
“Let it be a fairy tale,” Hannibal replies as he pulls back a curtain to rejoin the story in the present, where the fairy tale is a grim twist on “Beauty and the Beast.”
After a brief sojourn in Paris, Hannibal and Bedelia land in Florence, Italy, where Hannibal assumes the identity of a Dr. Fell, as well the late doctor’s position as a resident scholar of Renaissance Italy.
But Hannibal is becoming restless and Bedelia increasingly apprehensive. Hannibal has barely killed anyone since arriving in Florence, but clearly that is about to change. One of his jealous colleagues is practically begging for a dinner invitation. Hannibal now kills for aesthetic reasons.
As Bedelia, Anderson is doing her best work to date, and her elevation to series regular — at least as long as her character survives — makes a great show even greater. As for Mikkelsen, he is simply the definitive Hannibal Lecter, which is the highest praise I can summon.
Fuller’s breaking of the fourth wall with Hannibal’s curtain reveal shows he is confident and fully in control of his story. It also shows him playing with themes that run through Thomas Harris’ Lecter novels. The idea of becoming something else is central to both “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Red Dragon.” As “Hannibal” the series reenacts “Hannibal” the novel, in all of its over-the-top, Grand Guignol glee, some sort of transformation is inevitable.
In Florence, everything is bright and colorful. The show reserves the clinical, desaturated look — so prevalent at times in the previous seasons — for the flashbacks. Fuller is painting in broader strokes.
Thanks to the quirks of intellectual property, “Hannibal’s” producers have the rights to all of the Lecter novels except “The Silence of the Lambs.” That means no Clarice Starling. Fuller has adapted by moving up the Italy story line and creating characters to fill the Clarice-shaped voids. Anna Chlumsky’s Miriam Lass is Clarice as trainee. Bedelia is Clarice at the end of “Hannibal” the novel. Fans dissatisfied by where Harris left things are finally getting a resolution, of sorts.
So far, it has all come together beautifully. That almost qualifies as a fairy tale ending.
Thursday, June 04, 2015
|The cast of Showtime's Victorian horror series "Penny Dreadful" season 1.|
Every so often, we get a TV show set in a recent decade, say the 1960s, and TV critics go mad for it. But the Victorian era (1837-1901), especially the latter half of it, seems quietly ubiquitous on our screens of late, much as it was 50 years ago, when Westerns dominated the airwaves.
This, however, is a proper Victorianism, a Victorianism of the city and not of its frontier periphery.
Last month, Showtime’s excellent horror series “Penny Dreadful” returned for its second season. “Penny Dreadful” is the latest from the sub-genre of Victorian literary mash-ups, which include Kim Newman’s recently reissued “Anno Dracula” novels and Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics.
(Fox turned “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” into a movie so bad it drove Sean Connery into retirement, and just last week news leaked that Fox wants a mulligan on the property. If at first you don’t succeed, and so on.)
Like its predecessors, “Penny Dreadful” weaves its narrative out of threads of late-Victorian fact and fantasy: “Dracula,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Jack the Ripper — and some pre-Victorian “Frankenstein” just for a bit of Romantic contrast.
But this would be trivia if “Penny Dreadful” were an isolated incident. It isn’t. BBC America has “Ripper Street.” NBC recently tried to give Dracula a makeover by turning him into Nikola Tesla. And Sherlock Holmes is always with us — doubly so at present, with the BBC’s “Sherlock” and CBS’s “Elementary,” which both transport the Great Detective from gaslit streets to Internet cafes.
When Holmes first met Dr. Watson, he greeted the doctor with, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” and indeed Watson had just returned from a war in Afghanistan. No wonder Sherlock Holmes adapts so easily to the 21st century; even the historical particulars are still current.
Holmes isn’t alone. Whenever Hollywood returns to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” or some other Victorian best-seller, it’s as likely to bring the story forward to the present as leave it where it was. Wells’ Martians have invaded Earth three centuries straight, and may well do so again in the next.
You don’t usually see this with works and characters from other periods, excepting the occasional updated fairytale or gimmicky out-of-time, out-of-place stagings of Shakespeare. (“Richard III” set in a thinly veiled Nazi Germany? Why not?)
The human condition hasn’t changed much throughout history, although we’re slightly less violent nowadays, arguably. But the Victorians were the first people really like us — and by “us” I mean 21st century inhabitants of the small-l liberal, small-d democratic, small-c capitalist West.
Caricatured as pearl-clutching prudes both by those who like to feel superior and by those who’d like society to “go back” to the caricature, the Victorians were the first moderns.
The Victorians, both in England and the United States, had the first sizable middle class. They had the first mass-produced popular culture in the form of novels and magazines. They ordered from catalogs. They were wooed by advertisers. They consumed lots of pornography, then felt guilty about it and took cold baths. Their doctors turned every bad mood into a disease, especially when it came to women patients. They invented our modern notions of childhood and the serial killer.
It all seems familiar because it’s so like us. We have Netflix and iTunes instead of plays and the opera, but apart from the new wrinkle of mobile phones and instant communication, we’re little changed from the Victorians. They struggled with war and peace, science and faith, sex and family, race and ethnicity much as we do.
With “Penny Dreadful” and the like, we continue to mine the Victorian era. It’s as far back as we can go and still feel we’re with people we really get. The main difference is the value of the penny.
Thursday, May 28, 2015
Cars, motorcycles and tanker trucks — all outfitted for war — spin, jump and collide as they speed across a landscape rendered cinematic by nuclear holocaust. This goes on for roughly two hours.
Miller’s return to the world he last visited in 1985’s “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” is a feature-length car chase executed with uncommon visual flair. At age 70, Miller retains his sense of style.
Also, an estimated budget of $150 million will buy you a lot of crashes and explosions.
The lavish praise most critics have heaped upon “Fury Road” is understandable, as is the moviegoing public’s relative indifference. Any action movie that isn’t in the style of Michael Bay’s poorly shot, badly edited and generally incoherent mode of filmmaking is a welcome respite. Critics have rewarded Miller accordingly, with a 98 percent fresh score on the Rotten Tomatoes meter.
Most moviegoers, however, seem content with the usual Bayhem, and they aren’t much interested in a film franchise that went dormant before most of them were born.
That doesn’t bode well for those of us who’d rather Hollywood bankroll a better class of action movie, which is what “Mad Max: Fury Road” is — a better class of action movie.
It isn’t just that Miller is a better action director than virtually anyone else handed a $150 million budget nowadays. It’s that his deceptively simple story leaves us with a lot of ideas to unpack.
Max, played by Tom Hardy, is a supporting character in his own film. With his story already told in the three previous installments starring Mel Gibson, Max is now our entry point for other characters’ stories. In “Fury Road,” those other characters are Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and the women she is helping to escape lives as sex slaves and broodmares to monstrous cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).
“Fury Road” will seem familiar to aficionados of post-apocalyptic cinema. The film’s plot is a reworking of 1987’s “Hell Comes to Frogtown,” starring pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper (“They Live”). Both movies feature a reluctant hero forced by circumstance to help women escape from a hideous mutant’s harem, and both wear their sexual politics on their sleeves.
While “Hell Comes to Frogtown” plays the war between the sexes for laughs, “Fury Road” plays it straight, which can be jarring for a movie in which so much else is deliberately absurd.
Immortan Joe and his followers are cartoon characters. Wearing a face mask that renders his speech a bellowing mumble, Immortan Joe might well be a parody of Hardy’s Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Joe and his “war pups” ride into battle spurred on by thundering drums and a screaming electric guitar — a leather-and-chains update of the fife and snare that led 18th century armies into battle. It’s a send-up of hyper-masculinity, contrasted with the earnest feminism of Furiosa and the other escapees.
“Fury Road’s” feminism is unavoidable. It’s in the title and in Furiosa’s name, which both recall the Furies of Greek myth — female spirits of vengeance.
Yet the feminism of “Fury Road” isn’t the feminism currently in fashion in academia or at websites such as Jezebel. “Fury Road” takes as given innate differences between men and woman that can’t be explained by alleged patriarchal social conditioning. In “Fury Road,” men are naturally more aggressive and women naturally more nurturing. Furiosa has shaved her head and become more physically masculine to survive, but she seeks to escape to the matriarchal paradise of her childhood, where women safeguard seeds and hope to restore life to the barren wasteland.
The movie’s climax then adds another wrinkle. Matriarchy ends up being just as much an illusion as patriarchy. In the end, men and women work together, and women redeem the civilization men have already started to rebuild from the rubble of the one they destroyed.
Action movies this simple yet this layered are rare. “Fury Road” is a film to be emulated, not a road less traveled.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
An apocryphal story about Wernher von Braun claims that when the first of his V-2s struck London, the pioneering German rocket scientist said to his colleagues, “The rocket worked perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet.”
Whether true or not, two things are not in doubt. The first is the strength of von Braun’s obsession with building rockets that one day could reach the stars. The second is the price others — mostly civilians — paid for his wartime work. Americans may be forgiving, given that von Braun helped us win the space race. But Londoners who survived the Nazis’ hundreds of V-2s are probably less inclined to forgive and forget.
Von Braun comes to mind when watching “The Wind Rises” the final film — assuming his latest pledge of retirement sticks — of 74-year-old Oscar-winning animator Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”).
“The Wind Rises” (Blu-ray and DVD) is a fictionalized biography of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi (1903-1982), who dreamed of making beautiful aircraft and who, like von Braun, saw his dreams perverted by war. The film follows Horikoshi from his youth, surviving the great earthquake of 1923, through marriage and on through World War II.
Horikoshi’s planes were marvels of design. When introduced, his Mitsubishi A6M Zero was unmatched in the skies above the Pacific. It was just made for the wrong purpose.
The dreamer whose dreams become the stuff of others’ nightmares is just the sort of dramatic tension that moves Miyazaki to do his best work. In his earlier movies, Miyazaki often focused on the tension between civilization and the natural world, between urban and rural. Such themes run beneath the surface of Miyazaki’s most beloved film, “My Neighbor Totoro,” and swell to the fore in his more mature work, such as “Princess Mononoke.”
In “Princess Mononoke,” Miyazaki’s heart clearly is with nature and the magical creatures lurking in its shadows. Yet he is aware enough and honest enough to show the smoke-belching factories of the city helping the poor and the outcast better their lives. Life is trade-offs.
In his more recent works, Miyazaki has turned from questions of ecology to matters of war and peace. A product of Japan’s postwar pacifism, Miyazaki now finds himself in a Japan more willing to use its military than at any time since World War II, and not just for self defense but for multinational operations abroad.
For Miyazaki, who was born in 1941, this must seem the slippery slope leading back to the Imperial Japan that ended in cities filled with death and ruin. One wonders if that’s why he finds it so difficult to stay retired. It’s not just his art calling to him, but fear of what Japan could again become. Miyazaki has spoken out against attempts to remove the anti-war Article 9 of Japan’s constitution.
In Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the hero, Howl, is a magician who is, to put it bluntly, a draft dodger, going from place to place in his moving castle to avoid being caught up in other people’s wars.
In “The Wind Rises’ ” Horikoshi, Miyazaki finds a kindred spirit — an artist and a dreamer. Some of the most beautiful scenes in “The Wind Rises” — a film full of gorgeous images — take place in Horikoshi’s dreams, where he meets his idol, Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caproni, who also saw the planes he designed sent off to war, most never to return.
Disney’s English-language dubbing, as usual, takes advantage of name actors, some of whom seem stiff behind the microphone. But there are a few pleasant surprises, Stanley Tucci’s Caproni among them. But it’s German director Werner Herzog as a German pacifist who steals the show.
Like all of Miyazaki’s works, “The Wind Rises” is a visual symphony, where the silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. While not his greatest film, it is a great film and a fitting capstone to a career touched by genius.