Thursday, December 18, 2014

Culture Shock 12.18.14: 2014 was the year of 'Weird Al'

Who would have thought going into it that 2014 would turn out to be the year of one Alfred Matthew "Weird Al" Yankovic?

Weird Al burst onto the music scene in the 1980s with a string of hits, from "Eat It" and "Fat," which parodied the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, to "Like a Surgeon," inspired by the Material Girl, Madonna. But as the age of music videos faded into the past, so too, it seemed, did Weird Al.

Now the King is dead, and whenever Madonna tries to be naughty and outrageous, her longtime fans beg her to stop.

Through it all, though, Weird Al was still out there, parodying everything from grunge to hip hop, and quietly producing albums, some of which charted in Billboard's top 10. We just weren't paying as much attention. Now we are.

Promoted with a batch of music videos released online, "Mandatory Fun," Yankovic's 14th studio album, peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It became the first Weird Al album to take the chart's top spot and the first comedy album to do so since Allan Sherman's "My Son, the Nut" in 1963. (Hey, hipster! Now there's an album that's probably missing from your vinyl collection.)

Creatively, Yankovic still has it. "Mandatory Fun" is his cleverest, most listenable album since those halcyon days when MTV still played music.

As is his habit, Weird Al doesn't satirize the songs he parodies but uses them instead to poke fun at other things going on in the culture.

"Tacky," Weird Al's parody of Pharrell Williams' inescapable mega-hit "Happy," takes the prize as the track you're most likely to listen to on an infinite loop until your roommate goes insane or smashes your speakers. As the name implies, "Tacky" targets people with the bad taste to wear socks with sandals or twerk in public.

Robin Thicke's controversial "Blurred Lines" becomes Weird Al's wickedly funny "Word Crimes," which lists in detail all the grammatical sins of which you are no doubt guilty. And "Foil," performed to the tune — what there is of it — of "Royals" by Lorde, starts out as a simple ode to the freshness-preserving properties of aluminum foil before taking a sinister turn into the necessities of wearing a tinfoil-lined hat to protect oneself from the Illuminati's mind-control rays.

Other targets of Yankovic's wit include corporate jargon and people who gripe about their "First World Problems." But Weird Al's most biting satire is also his most subtle.

"Now That's What I Call Polka!" is a polka-style medley of pop songs with their lyrics largely unchanged. It segues through Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball," One Direction's "Best Song Ever" and "Thrift Shop" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, among others. Stripping them of their catchy hooks and dope beats, and leaving only their banal lyrics, Weird Al — deliberately or otherwise — exposes the extent to which pop music has regressed to the naïve bubblegum infantilism of the late '50s and early '60s. The lyrics are often raunchier but just as trite. They amount to sub-Monkees gibberish.

As if delivering the biggest album of Weird Al's career weren't enough, 2014 also delivered an anniversary. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Weird Al's cult-favorite movie "UHF," which makes its Blu-ray debut for the occasion. And, in conjunction, making its DVD debut is Weird Al's 1985 straight-to-video mockumentary "The Compleat Al."

It's all a reminder that, ironically, Yankovic's career has gone on longer and stronger than many of the acts he has satirized. Most pop stars are here today, gone tomorrow. Parody is immortal.

By year's end, floundering electronics retailer RadioShack — whose latest last-ditch strategy to remain solvent bizarrely entails capitalizing on 1980s nostalgia while telling everyone the company is hip and modern — was putting Yankovic in its TV commercials.

I guess if anyone combines hip and modern with '80s nostalgia, it's Weird Al.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Marvel celebrates return of 'Star Wars' license by ruining original books

One bit of fallout from Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm is the return of the "Star Wars" license to Marvel Comics, which published the original "Star Wars" movie adaptation back in 1977.

To celebrate, Marvel is reprinting those original "Star Wars" comics in a collection to be released in May. That's the good news. The bad news is Marvel is giving those comics the "special edition" treatment.

From Marvel's press release: "Written by Roy Thomas with art by Howard Chaykin, this iconic story has been remastered for the modern age [with] all-new coloring by Chris Sotomayor."

As you can see from the before-and-after sample Marvel provided, the re-coloring is a disaster. It's as if George Lucas went back and inserted a lot of new CGI characters for no good reason. Wait. That happened, too. Anyway, here's a look. The re-colored version is on the left (click to enlarge):

I bet "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams appreciates the addition of the gratuitous lens flare in the first panel. Note that in addition to the re-coloring, which completely and anachronistically distorts the original art, the first panel has been partially redrawn and the text box removed. It's not exactly Greedo getting off a shot, but still.

I thought Lucas stepping away from the saga was supposed to put an end to these needless revisions. Guess not.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Culture Shock 12.11.14: Nolan's 'Interstellar' doesn't trust its audience

Christopher Nolan aims so high, and does so with such skill, that often it's only as we're leaving the theater that we realize he's pulled another fast one on us.

Yet as Nolan becomes more confident in his craft, he becomes less confident in his audience. He is a smart filmmaker who treats his audience as if we're a bunch of dummies. More and more, his movies condescend to us. And the more they do so, the more they spoil the illusions essential to moviemaking.

Nolan's latest film, "Interstellar," is mesmerizing in every sense of the word. It's visually and emotionally gripping as it deals with Great Big Ideas. It wants very much to be the kind of science fiction that went out of vogue after "Star Wars," and which is seeing a kind of mini-renaissance now. Ideally, given how its plot unfolds, a better title for "Interstellar" would have been "Gravity." But that name was taken.

I've argued that "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" is underrated because almost no one sees it for what it is: a humanist retort to "2001: A Space Odyssey." But there is no mistaking the fact Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother, Jonathan, mean to boldly go down the same path. "Interstellar" is about humanity taking the next step in its evolution, yet while retaining its essential humanity. It is anti-"2001" even as it updates that film's aesthetic for the 21st century.

When it comes to inspiration, Nolan looks not just to Stanley Kubrick's sterile masterpiece but also to its overlooked sequel, Peter Hyams' "2010," borrowing a few of its ideas and one of its stars, the reliable and reassuring John Lithgow.

"Interstellar" begins in our near future, where a blight is wiping out grain crops one by one, threatening the world with starvation and worse. Much of the population is implied to have died already, and all resources are marshaled toward food production, to the point that even the world's armies have been disbanded, which seems the opposite of likely. Otherwise, apart from a jab at American science education, the Nolans are deliberately vague about the political and economic circumstances of their near-future America, which is for the best. It saves them further embarrassment, and it's all merely the backdrop for the premise: The Earth is dying, and humanity needs a new home.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an astronaut-turned-farmer, ends up in the pilot seat for the mission to save humanity, which involves a breathtaking trip through a wormhole to another galaxy, where three planets orbiting the same star are the best candidates for a new world.

The trip, however, means leaving behind his children, son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), who, thanks to the laws of physics, age into Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain while Cooper stays the same age. (One suspects the irony would be lost on McConaughey's "Dazed and Confused" character.)

Rounding out the cast are Anne Hathaway (Audrey Hepburn in space), Michael Caine (her scientist father), David Gyasi (another astronaut) and Topher Grace (adult Murph's colleague).

As the movie goes on, the Nolans begin to over-explain everything. To the movie's detriment, the characters start to sound like Wikipedia articles on general relativity and evolutionary psychology.

On a practical level, "Interstellar" is a plea for more NASA funding to safeguard mankind's future. But such pleadings seem myopic when we're on the cusp of an explosion in space travel. NASA and the Soviets no longer monopolize space. It's open to all, from the European Space Agency to the Japanese to too many private concerns to name. People are already making space happen.

On a deeper level, "Interstellar" is about the resilience of the human spirit and the enduring power of love, even against the cold equations of relativity and the savage demands of Darwinian survival. Love, it turns out, is also a survival instinct.

Unfortunately, the Nolans don't trust us to figure this out on our own. Instead, they reduce everything to New Age gibberish no actor can portray convincingly and no one but Deepak Chopra can take seriously. "Interstellar" suffers for it, and so do we.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Culture Shock 12.04.14: 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' turns 35

Kirk inspects the newly remodeled Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." Director Robert Wise added the reflected Enterprise to this shot for his 2001 "director's edition" of the film.
Kirk inspects the newly remodeled Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."
Director Robert Wise added the reflected Enterprise to this shot for his 2001
"director's edition" of the film.
Thirty-five years on, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" remains one of the Trek franchise's most under-appreciated and misunderstood entries.

That's understandable. "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" — or "TMP," from here on out — was rushed into production, with a script that rehashes Season 2's "The Changeling." As released in theaters and aired on television, TMP seems only partly finished. In truth, that's because it was only partly finished.

Robert Wise's "director's edition," released on DVD in 2001, improves the pacing and completes some effects shots that remained rough in the race to meet TMP's locked-in Dec. 7, 1979, release date.

Yet with or without Wise's touch-ups, TMP deserves reappraisal.

Wise's operatic approach to "Star Trek" makes Alan Dean Foster's story more than "The Changeling, Part 2." In Wise's hands, TMP becomes a humanistic retort to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

In "2001" humanity has lost its sense of wonder, and in the process, its humanity. The most fully realized character is HAL (Douglas Rain), a self-aware computer, who becomes neurotic, then murderous. Emotions, when combined with big brains, are bad news.

While HAL is excited by the prospect of scientific discovery, the humans in "2001" are bored by space. It's simply where they work, as mundane and uninteresting to them as an office cubicle is to us.

Wise's TMP, building on Gene Roddenberry's hopeful vision of the future, flips Kubrick on his head. Harold Michelson's production design has much the same cool, antiseptic look as the production design of "2001," but here it's a setting where humans are still human, even when they're extraterrestrials.

In "2001," Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) naps during his trip to the moon. In TMP, the Enterprise crew stare wide-eyed and mouths agape at the immense living starship V'Ger. Wise drives his point home with an extended scene of the Enterprise flying through the energy cloud that surrounds V'Ger, our point of view shifting between the breathtakingly rendered alien craft and the crew's awestruck faces.

Eventually, the crew learn the ship is, like HAL, a living machine. But unlike HAL, V'Ger is cold, emotionless and searching. Without feelings, V'Ger can find no meaning, even after having traveled the length and breadth of the known universe.

Emotion is at the heart of TMP. The first familiar character we see is Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who has returned to his home on Vulcan to undergo a ritual that purges all remaining emotions. But he forgoes the ritual in order to join the Enterprise for its rendezvous with V'Ger, whose powerful consciousness Spock senses across the light years. Later on, Spock, having learned to accept his human half, weeps for the barren V'Ger as he would for a lost brother.

Decker and Ilia finally unite, and in a literal sense, when Decker becomes one with the living machine V'Ger.
Decker and Ilia finally unite, and in a literal sense, when Decker becomes one
with the living machine V'Ger.
When Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) first sees the newly refurbished USS Enterprise, it's like lovers spying one another from across a crowded room. Everyone and everything else disappears.

The scene depicting Kirk's approach to the Enterprise is the film's emotional high point, and Wise milks every second of it, accented by Jerry Goldsmith's sweeping score, making it the science fiction equivalent of the Bernard Herrmann-scored love scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

For Kirk, TMP is a love story that sees him reunited with his one true love. For two new characters, however, TMP is a slightly more conventional romance.

Decker (Stephen Collins) and Ilia (Persis Khambatta) are star-crossed lovers who come together at the end only when Decker volunteers to join with V'Ger, giving V'Ger the emotional capacity it lacks. V'Ger, Decker and Ilia become one, and the emotions that were HAL's undoing become V'Ger's salvation. Love conquers all, and humanity prevails because of its humanity.

V'Ger, like Spock, learns to feel, and the crew of the Enterprise help give birth to a new life form, one that seems far more hopeful than the creepy, ambiguous "star child" at the end of "2001."

Thanks to some "foolish human emotions," the human adventure is still just beginning.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Culture Shock 11.27.14: 'The Flash' hits the ground running

"The Flash" season 1 poster
This is the fall TV season when the superheroes took over.

Superheroes already rule the box office, but now they're making a play for your television. Four of the five broadcast networks already air at least one series based on a comic book. The fifth, CBS, has one in development based on Superman's cousin, Supergirl.

Fox's Batman prequel "Gotham" and NBC's "Constantine" join The CW's "Arrow" and ABC's "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD" on the increasingly crowded airwaves, with ABC's "Agent Carter" and The CW's "iZombie" yet to come.

But the breakaway star of this year's pack is The CW's "The Flash." The series based on DC Comics' "fastest man alive" hit the ground running and quickly earned a full-season pickup after scoring the also-ran network's best ratings ever. (Sorry, folks, but there will be more "running" jokes.)

The most surprising thing about "The Flash," though, is how good it is. Coming up on its mid-season break, "The Flash" easily outdistances most of its competition, with the exception of "Agents of SHIELD," which, now in its second season, has upped its game to the point of becoming one of the best things on TV, regardless of genre.

What sets "The Flash" apart, not only from other DC Comics-inspired TV shows but also from DC's movies, is it's actually fun. It feels a lot more like a Marvel/Disney production than it does a typical, ponderous DC/Warner Bros. production.

A lot of that comes down to star Grant Gustin. His dorky-but-likable Barry Allen is closer to Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker than he is to the square-jawed stiff Barry Allen who first appeared in "Showcase" No. 4 back in 1956.

Unlike "Gotham," which has struggled to settle on a tone, or "Arrow," which after three seasons still can't bring itself to call its main character Green Arrow, "The Flash" never takes itself too seriously and eagerly embraces its comic book origins.

Sure there's a lot of science jargon and hand-waving exposition, but "The Flash" doesn't back away from being about a guy who became super-fast after he was struck by lightning and doused with chemicals during a particle accelerator malfunction. I mean, how else is a guy supposed to get super powers? Space aliens don't hand magic rings to just anyone, you know.

You get the feeling watching "The Flash" that this is a show that just might have the Flash face off against a talking, super-intelligent, telepathic gorilla. Then the show rewards you by teasing just that.

Am I the only one who nearly fell out of his chair when the show gave us a glimpse of a caged gorilla named Grodd just a few episodes back?

Like Marvel's movies, "The Flash," itself a spin-off of "Arrow," is seeding a larger superhero universe. Casual viewers won't get all the references, but for longtime readers of DC Comics, every episode of "The Flash" brings a new Easter egg.

The show has so far slipped in the alter ego (one of them, anyway) of the superhero Firestorm, and it built an entire story around two Captain Atom antagonists, Plastique and Gen. Wade Eiling. The same story even name-dropped one of Captain Atom's civilian identities, Cameron Scott.

All these nods to other superheroes, as well as to decades of comic book stories, come across a lot more naturally than they do in "Gotham," with its winking references to future Batman villains. (OK, we get it already. Edward Nygma is going to become the Riddler one day. Did you really have to give him a coffee mug with a question mark on it?)

Yet one thing all these superhero shows have in common is standout supporting players. "The Flash" has two of the best: ex-"Law & Order" star Jesse L. Martin as Barry's childhood guardian and Tom Cavanagh as the mysterious Dr. Wells.

If it can keep up the pace, "The Flash" looks to be in for a long and entertaining run.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Culture Shock 11.20.14: Bullying spoils science achievement

And then the shirt hit the fan....
And then the shirt hit the fan....
The perpetually aggrieved are why we can't have nice things.

Last week, the European Space Agency did something incredible. It landed an unmanned spacecraft, launched more than 10 years ago, on a comet roughly 300 million miles away.

To give you a ballpark idea how far that is, the average distance from Earth to the moon is 238,900 miles. From the Earth to Mars is 140 million miles. And from here to Jupiter is 484 million miles.

It was an amazing feat of science and engineering, and for a little while, those of us who weren't alive for the Apollo moon missions got just a little taste of what it must have been like to watch Neil Armstrong take his "one small step" into the history books.

It isn't likely a lot of people will recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard a probe had touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. With a name like that, it isn't likely many people will remember 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at all. But in the annals of space exploration, the Rosetta mission is a pretty big deal.

That's why it's so frustrating that all some people could talk about afterward was one rocket scientist's bowling shirt. Matt Taylor, the lead mission scientist, made the mistake of thinking he could wear a shirt, made by a friend and given to him for his birthday, during the live Internet feed for the Philae lander's touchdown. Little did he suspect that doing so would make him a target for people who search for reasons to be offended.

The shirt wasn't stereotypical "rocket scientist" gear. It was covered with cartoon images of sexy women holding guns and posing provocatively, the sort of thing you used to see painted on the side of vans. Suddenly, Taylor's accomplishment wasn't the story; his "sexist" shirt was.

The most shrill response came from The Verge, which went after Taylor and the ESA in an article headlined "I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing." ("Ostracizing"? Really?) The article, by Chris Plante and Arielle Duhaime-Ross, goes on to say, "This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields."

That sentiment was echoed by other bloggers and on Twitter. It didn't matter that the friend who made the shirt for him, Elly Prizeman, is a woman, who took to her own blog to defend Taylor and thank him for the "sweet gesture" of wearing it on one of the most important days of his life.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I was taught that women could do any job men could do, that women were just as tough as men, that they didn't need knights in shining armor to protect them and should be just as free with their sexuality as men have always been. That was feminism.

What passes for feminism now, however, says women are afraid to go into science-related fields because male co-workers might wear loud bowling shirts sewn by their female friends. It says those female friends are mindless dupes of the patriarchy. And because I'm a male, this strain of feminism says I need to shut up, "check my privilege" and stop "mansplaining." I'm especially not supposed to have an opinion about what feminism is, nor cite any female scholars or writers who agree with me.

Bloomberg View columnist Virginia Postrel coined a wonderful term for this feminism of constant outrage: "link-bait feminism." Find any slight, real or imagined, no matter how small, and take offense. Blog about it, attach a sensational headline, and watch the outrage go viral. Rarely is the outrage even genuine.

This sort of cynical offense-stoking cheapens feminism and renders it increasingly irrelevant. Only 23 percent of U.S. women identify as feminists, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll. The brand is tainted, because link-bait feminism isn't really about equal rights, equal pay or reproductive rights. It's about a right not to be offended, even if you're only pretending to be offended. That's not feminism; it's Puritanism.

The link-bait feminists won the battle. They bullied Taylor into a tearful apology. But with any luck, this is the overreach that will cost them the war, allowing feminism to become relevant again.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Culture Shock 11.13.14: 'Twin Peaks' is happening again

I'll see you again in 25 years.
True to her word, it looks like Laura Palmer will indeed see FBI Agent Dale Cooper again in 25 years. Whether that's exactly what "Twin Peaks" creators David Lynch and Mark Frost had in mind back in 1990 is another matter.

Laura's prediction, in Agent Cooper's dream at the end of the first season's third episode, was just one of the many cryptic clues dropped during the show's brief, yet groundbreaking run.

When Lynch and Frost announced last month that "Twin Peaks" would return in 2016 for nine new episodes to air on Showtime, the news lit up the Internet like nothing short of announcing a new pope or a new "Star Wars" trilogy. As the giant told Agent Cooper, "It is happening again."

"Twin Peaks" returns to a television landscape radically changed from the one it shook up back in 1990 and '91. Back then, "Twin Peaks" was unique. Now, quirky shows with oddball characters and serialized storytelling that once was reserved for soap operas are virtually the norm.

"Twin Peaks" is in large part responsible for that.

When Lynch brought "Twin Peaks" to ABC in 1990, it was almost unheard of for respected filmmakers to slum in the television ghetto. Now that's common, too, and no one but the most obnoxious art-film snobs looks down on TV.

Yet that's not all that's changed about television in the intervening quarter century.
"Twin Peaks" is many things. It mixes comedy, melodrama, horror, science fiction, urban legends, bleeding-edge physics and Buddhist philosophy into the most compelling murder mystery since Jack the Ripper. "Who killed Laura Palmer" was the second coming of "Who shot J.R.?"

Yet structurally, "Twin Peaks" is deceptively simple. It's a parody of soap operas, and not the nighttime variety such as "Dallas" and "Dynasty," which reigned over the 1980s, but the daytime kind.

Like virtually every daytime soap ever aired, "Twin Peaks" is set in a fictional town with a sordid underbelly. A logging/resort community near the Canadian border, Twin Peaks falls into the long tradition of made-up burghs, from Salem to Genoa City, that attract more than their share of drama.

The show's mood music, courtesy of composer Angelo Badalamenti, swells with overwrought intensity at every romantic interlude. And the multi-generational cast reflects the storytelling necessities of daytime soaps, which traditionally shift their plots toward younger cast members in the summer to take advantage of teens being out of school.

"It is happening again. It is happening again."
"It is happening again. It is happening again."
Beyond that, "Twin Peaks" trades in all of the familiar tropes of daytime drama.

Infidelity? Aplenty. Convenient cases of amnesia? Nadine coming out of a coma thinking she's a teenager and back in high school qualifies. Characters presumed dead who turn out to have faked their deaths? That runs in the Packard family. A shady businessman who owns most of the town and schemes to gobble up or destroy everything he doesn't? Well, of course. "Twin Peaks" even has that most soapy of soap opera tropes, the identical twin who appears out of the blue.

James, a lovesick teen with resting pout face, seems to have just arrived from daytime TV. He goes through soul mates faster than most men do TV channels. He starts as Laura's "secret boyfriend" and moves on to her best friend Donna before the corpse is cold. Next he's on to Laura's identical cousin, then back to Donna and finally into the arms of an older woman, who so obviously plans to Double Indemnity him that we realize it faster than James can say Barbara Stanwyck.

In case all that doesn't clue us in, almost everyone in Twin Peaks is hooked on a soap opera within the soap opera, the amusingly overwrought "Invitation to Love": a parody within a parody.

But can "Twin Peaks" return as the same soap parody it was? In 1990 ABC, CBS and NBC each aired between three and four hours of soap opera programming each weekday. Today they air 3½ hours total between them. The daytime soap is a dead format, wrapped in plastic.

How the soap opera's demise will play into what Lynch and Frost have planned is, for now, just another of their unsolved mysteries. It could even involve a long lost twin.

"Would you like to play with fire? Would you like to play with Bob?"
"Would you like to play with fire? Would you like to play with Bob?"