Thursday, January 29, 2015

Culture Shock 01.29.15: Amazon confronts 'The Man in the High Castle'

The camera pulls back to reveal a theater marquee advertising "The Punch Party" starring Rock Hudson and June Allyson. It could be one of those romantic comedies in which Hudson so often appeared in the 1960s, often with Doris Day. But it isn't.

This movie is playing only in Nazi-occupied America.

Welcome to the world of "The Man in the High Castle," based on Philip K. Dick's 1962 Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel of the same name, set in an America that lost World War II.

From that shot of the marquee on, "The Man in the High Castle" plays with our expectations. Nothing is entirely as it seems. There's the small irony, for instance, that one of the actors still able to work under America's Nazi regime is a closeted gay man. His movies are no threat.

"The Man in the High Castle" is part of Amazon.com's latest slate of pilots, and of the retailer-turned-studio's hour-long drama prospects, it's the one most deserving of a full-season order.

Few artists teeter between genius and madness in quite the literal way PKD did.

Dick's struggle with mental illness translated into stories about people who are never quite sure what is real or what is fantasy. A man could come to find out the world he thought he inhabited was all a dream. Or he could learn that what he thought were paranoid delusions about a vast conspiracy controlling everything were real.

A lowly resident of the science fiction ghetto during his lifetime, Dick has, since his death in 1982, been welcomed into America's literary pantheon. Through his novels and short stories, and through osmosis, Dick has become the SF writer with probably the greatest influence on popular culture. He certainly is one of the most frequently adapted, for better or worse. The movies "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Minority Report" all spring from his sometimes fevered imagination.

At the helm of "The Man in the High Castle" is executive producer Frank Spotnitz ("The X-Files"), who also wrote the teleplay. The setting is roughly the same as in Dick's novel: an America where World War II dragged on past 1945 and Germany developed the atom bomb first, allowing the Nazis to vaporize Washington, D.C., and successfully invade the continental U.S. The story picks up in 1962, with the United States divided into two regions: Nazi-controlled territory east of the Rockies and Japanese-occupied territory along the West Coast, with an impoverished neutral zone in between.

The pilot opens in New York, where Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), trying to live up to the example of his war veteran father, joins up with a resistance cell. No sooner does he receive his mission — to transport a secret cargo to resistance contacts in the neutral zone — than the secret police strike. Joe is on the run from the outset.

On the West Coast, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) becomes involved with the resistance inadvertently when her sister, who is on the run from Japanese authorities, hands her a package containing movie reels labeled "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy." The film, made by a mysterious figure known as the Man in the High Castle, depicts a world were the Allies defeated the Nazis and Imperial Japan. It's a typical PKD conceit: Inside a work of alternate history, history itself becomes fiction.

So, film canisters in hand, Juliana takes up her sister's assignment and heads toward the neutral zone and an eventual meeting with Joe, which is where the pilot leaves off. But the episode is at its most  compelling when concerned with the deteriorating relations between Japan and Germany. The only thing worse than occupation is becoming the battleground for rival occupiers, which significantly raises the story's already high stakes.

Spotnitz squeezes a lot of potential plot threads into just an hour, while cinematographer James Hawkinson (NBC's "Hannibal," aka the best-looking show on television) gives everything an appropriately cinematic gloss, despite some obvious budget constraints.

"The Man in the High Castle" looks like it could be one the better PKD adaptations. The best of all worlds is where it makes Amazon's cut.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Culture Shock 01.22.15: 'Wonder Women' perfect movie riffing material


Say what you will about the Philippines under martial law, it was a great place to make a movie on a shoestring.

President Ferdinand Marcos was a kleptocrat with expensive tastes and a high-maintenance wife, so for relatively small sums by Hollywood standards, he gave budget-conscious filmmakers the run of the islands. So it happened that the early 1970s produced such Philippine-lensed classics as "The Big Doll House," "The Big Bird Cage" and "Women in Cages," among a host of other inexpensively made, quickly shot and fondly remembered movies of the drive-in era. Pam Grier owes her stardom in no small part to Marcos' willingness to do whatever it took to keep Imelda in Prada.

Grier returned to the U.S. as the women-in-prison genre's breakout star and began top-lining movies stateside such as "Coffy" and "Foxy Brown." But back in Philippines, directors were still churning out exploitation flicks to ship back to the States. One of them was 1973's "Wonder Women."

Now "Wonder Women" is one of the latest video-on-demand offerings from Rifftrax.com, the current movie-mocking venture from "Mystery Science Theater 3000" alums Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

The Rifftrax guys have been on a roll with their recent VOD titles, from 1987's "ROTOR" (think "RoboCop" by way of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" with the budget of a senior class play) to the infamous 1951 how-to-survive-a-nuclear-blast short "Duck and Cover." And "Wonder Women" is no exception. Nelson, Murphy and Corbett are at the top of their game, riffing with a confidence that takes viewers back the glory days of MST3K. There's no point now in MiSTies wishing for "Mystery Science Theater" to return; for all practical purposes, Rifftax is MST3K's second coming.

Apart from some brief poolside nudity that wouldn't have gotten past basic cable's standards and practices department back in the day, "Wonder Women" is exactly the sort of movie MST3K used to do best: entertaining schlock on its own, but comedy gold once the riffs start flying.

First of all, "Wonder Women" is not to be confused with Wonder Woman, although it's entirely possible the movie's distributor welcomed such confusion as long as it put butts in seats.

Tough-guy actor Ross Hagen (familiar to MST3K viewers from "The Sidehackers" and "The Hellcats") stars as Mike Harber, a safari-jacketed super spy soldier of fortune insurance investigator, or something, who takes an assignment to track down a criminal organization that's kidnapping star athletes and selling their organs.

Said criminal organization is run by Dr. Tsu, played by a bored-looking Nancy Kwan ("The World of Suzie Wong"). From her secret lair in the financially advantageous Philippines, Dr. Tsu oversees our titular all-women army, including exploitation mainstay Roberta Collins ("Caged Heat") and Maria De Aragon, who definitely didn't shoot first as Greedo in the original "Star Wars." (Seriously.)

Other supporting players include frequent Pam Grier co-star Sid Haig ("The Devil's Rejects"), as Dr. Tsu's financial go-between, and Philippine Peter Lorre look-alike Vic Diaz, who must have been contractually obligated to appear in every U.S. movie shot in the Philippines in the 1970s.

The plot is paper thin and serves mostly to provide Hagen reasons to shoot things and/or get beat up by various wonder women, which, when you throw in a free trip to the Far East, seems like nice work if you can get it. But insubstantial as it is, "Wonder Women" provides more than enough material for Mike, Kevin and Bill to work with. The seemingly endless chase scene through a Manila market district is one of the high points in the history of talking back to movies.

Exploitation fans will appreciate seeing "Wonder Women" in a new context, while for newcomers the Rifftrax VOD (available for $9.99 at Rifftrax.com) is the safest way to ease into the world of Philippine-shot exploitation flicks. Interested viewers can move on to Mark Hartley's fun 2010 documentary about the '70s Philippine exploitation boom, "Machete Maidens Unleashed!"

Friday, January 16, 2015

PR: Marvel talks 'Star Wars' No. 1

Star Wars returns home to Marvel Comics in this week's highly anticipated Star Wars No. 1 by writer Jason Aaron (Thor, Wolverine and the X-Men) and artist John Cassaday (Planetary, Uncanny Avengers). (It was worth the wait. — FH)

To make sure the entire galaxy knows it, Marvel has released this promo video. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Culture Shock 01.08.15: Nicolas Cage gets 'Left Behind'

There was a point in his career when one could have bought Nicolas Cage as a man going through a crisis of faith during a time of global turmoil. But not this point in his career, and not in this movie.

In and out of theaters in the twinkling of an eye, Cage's end times snoozer "Left Behind" has landed on DVD at a rental kiosk near your, where it sits side-by-side with the Syfy original movies it resembles.

Based on the first volume of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' best-selling "Left Behind" series, the movie follows those "left behind" after the rapture of the Christian faithful to heaven, in accordance with premillennialist interpretations of the Bible. As such, it's one of many recent low-budget movies aimed primarily at an evangelical Christian audience. But Cage's participation sets this one apart. Despite a recent string of bad movies, Cage still qualifies as A-list talent, which makes his name above the "Left Behind" title a novelty, to say the least.

It's certainly a step up in star power from the first time someone adapted "Left Behind" for the screen, the 2000 version starring former child actor and would-be Christmas savior Kirk Cameron.

Yet novelty aside, Cage brings nothing to the screen that can salvage this "Left Behind." As Christian outreach, it's tepid at best, falling back on canned platitudes about why God allows bad things to happen to good people. And as an apocalyptic thriller, it's light on both apocalypse and thrills.

Even viewers looking for unintentional camp value will be sorely disappointed. For once, Cage's performance is restrained. His histrionics, which enliven such dire fare as "Ghost Rider" and "The Wicker Man," are nowhere to be found. Cage says he made "Left Behind" in part at the behest of his brother, pastor and radio disc jockey Marc Coppola. But in playing the role of commercial pilot Rayford Steele straight, Cage may have succeeded in pleasing only his brother.

One problem with "Left Behind" is screenwriters/producers Paul Lalonde and John Patus think too small.

Say what you will about LaHaye and Jenkins' book, one thing it has is an epic scope. Owing both to budget and time constraints, the movie limits its action mostly to Steele's airplane, which is in midair halfway across the Atlantic when millions of people — including the copilot and several passengers — disappear from the face of the Earth. When we're not with Rayford and his troubled jetliner, the action shifts to his daughter (Cassi Thomson) back on the ground, where she dodges falling planes and driverless cars. For most of the film, she's the "Left Behind" version of Kim Bauer.

As Rayford's devout wife Irene, Lea Thompson ("Back to the Future") vanishes after just a couple of scenes, making her one of the lucky ones. Stuck with Cage is Chad Michael Murray ("One Tree Hill") as unfortunately-named cable news reporter Buck Williams.

Missing from the film is everything that distinguishes premillennialist sci-fi, such as the previous "Left Behind" and "The Omega Code," from run-of-the-mill disaster movies. There's no hint here of LaHaye and Jenkins' antichrist figure, Nicolae Carpathia.

Also missing is any sense of internal logic. After the rapture, Rayford is unable to make radio contact with the outside world, as if everyone with a radio were among the spirited away.

What remains is a bargain-basement "Airport" knockoff, shellacked with a coat of premillennialist theology so thin no one even uses the term "rapture." The target audience must have sensed the watered-down message and stayed away from the theatrical run in droves. "Left Behind" grossed just $19.7 million worldwide, while another preaching-to-the-choir movie from the same distributor, "God's Not Dead," did $60 million in domestic business alone.

For everyone else, "Left Behind" is weak tea even when compared to other end times movies, never mind when compared to secular disaster flicks. Its characters exist in a world of PG-13 explosions and G-rated language. Worst of all, "Left Behind" is the one thing you'd least expect of a Nicolas Cage movie about the end of days: It's just plain boring.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Culture Shock 01.01.15: Mozart on your television

Gael García Bernal as Rodrigo in Amazon's "Mozart in the Jungle."
I blame public radio.

For most of us, our only exposure to classical music on the radio dial comes from public radio, where the hosts — no one calls them "disc jockeys" — speak of the music they serve up in the hushed, reverential tones that have become public radio's most identifiable and risible trait.

If classical music has a reputation in the English-speaking world for being stodgy and largely irrelevant to the culture at large, and believe me it does, then those whose job it is to promote the art haven't helped matters.

The name is a bad enough handicap to overcome: "classical music." That alone says, "old, moldy and not relevant to my interests."

Performers, composers and conductors feel the passion in what they do, but most of their potential audience does not. We're a long way from the 1913 Paris debut of Igor Stravinsky's sensuously scandalous "The Rite of Spring," which so inflamed its audience that the performance ended in a riot.

Imagine that: a ballet riot. Today, we reserve that sort of passion for sporting events.

All that is why it's such a pleasant surprise Amazon.com took a chance on "Mozart in the Jungle." The first, 10-episode season of the half-hour comedy series, set amid New York City's classical music scene, dropped on the Amazon Prime streaming service just before Christmas.

The series is produced by Roman Coppola ("Moonrise Kingdom"), Jason Schwartzman ("Rushmore") and Alex Timbers, and inspired by Blair Tindall's memoir "Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music." As the book's subtitle so desperately conveys, this isn't your typical, stuffy classical music. Tindall's memoir is about young prodigies living away from home for the first time and taking full advantage of their newfound freedom.

The Amazon series is more circumspect. It begins with our Tindallesque heroine, Hailey (Lola Kirke), pursuing an open tryout with the fictional New York Symphony and ending up instead as assistant to the symphony's young, brash and charismatic new conductor, Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal of "Y Tu Mamá También").

While "Mozart in the Jungle" is structured around Hailey's attempts to balance working for Rodrigo, mastering the oboe and having a boyfriend (Peter Vack), it's the other members of the orchestra family who most command our interest. Over the course of 10 episodes, what could be just a one-note collection of sitcom supporting players grows on us, both as characters and people. Well, except for Dee Dee (John Miller), who starts out as the old hippie percussionist and pretty much stays the old hippie percussionist. But that's old hippies for you.

Saffron Burrows is Cynthia, a star cellist who is having an affair with Malcolm McDowell's Thomas, the outgoing conductor who has been relegated to a ceremonial "emeritus" position. And Broadway mainstay Bernadette Peters plays the symphony's president, whose main job is to keep the financially beleaguered institution's donations flowing in.

In trying to bring life back to the New York Symphony, Rodrigo faces the same problems that face the real world of classical music. When he gives Hailey a shot at trying out, it's because he values passion ("the blood," he calls it) over technical proficiency. Rodrigo's struggle to revive classical music, which Bernal makes our struggle, too, propels the series. The backstage shenanigans are secondary. Rodrigo sexes up classical music more than the sex does, as he confronts the ridiculous union rules and donor galas that become the comedic obstacles in the way of his creating something special, something that might connect with a larger audience.

Funny, sometimes quirky and glamorously shot, especially when Coppola is in the director's chair, "Mozart in the Jungle" is more than an entertaining comedy, although it is that. It's the best publicity classical music has had possibly since the Parisians rioted over Stravinsky.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Culture Shock 12.25.14: The accidental Christmas song

The hills are alive with the sound of Christmas.
"My Favorite Things" originated in 1959 as part of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music." By the time the film version of "The Sound of Music" premiered six years later, the song was well on its way to becoming a Christmas standard.

The funny thing is, "My Favorite Things" isn't really a Christmas song.

Yes, the song uses lots of wintertime imagery, such as sleigh bells and snowflakes. It also invokes ponies, kittens and bees. No matter how you look at it, "My Favorite Things" doesn't have anything to do with Christmas. Nor, for that matter, does it have anything to do with Hanukkah, the solstice or Kwanzaa. It has no part in a Festivus for the rest of us.

To this day, the best version of "My Favorite Things" remains the 13-minute tour de force of modal jazz improvisation that John Coltrane released in 1961. No one mistakes it for a Christmas song.

None of that, however, has kept other versions out of the annual Christmas rotation.

It's not unlike how "Die Hard" has become a Christmas movie, even though the only part of the plot that's Christmas related is the office Christmas party. A good screenwriter could easily come up with a plausible substitute, and a bad screenwriter could come up with a dozen implausible ones.

For the why of it all, I turned to Wikipedia, which as everyone knows is a wholly reliable source of information and not just a convenient way to settle bar bets.

There I learned Julie Andrews performed "My Favorite Things" during the 1961 Christmas episode of "The Garry Moore Show," a variety program today best remembered for helping give Carol Burnett her start in television. Evidently, "The Garry Moore Show" also gave "My Favorite Things" its start as a Christmas song.

Soon afterward, the song began appearing on Christmas albums, and it has been doing so ever since. The earliest example Wikipedia cites is 1964's "The Jack Jones Christmas Album," where it is performed by "Love Boat Theme" crooner Jack Jones.

A year later, it was everywhere, and by "everywhere" I mean it appeared on a Diana Ross and the Supremes album titled "Merry Christmas," an Andy Williams album titled "Merry Christmas," and an Eddie Fisher album titled, for a change of pace, "Mary Christmas."

So, when it comes to stamping the label "Christmas music" on "My Favorite Things," there is a lot of credit — or blame, depending on your point of view — to go around. Like Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, I put most of the blame for everything bad on Eddie Fisher.

He was a real piece of work.

Not that "My Favorite Things" is a bad Christmas song, despite its not being a Christmas song at all. There certainly are worse Christmas songs, most of which get a lot more airplay.

Despite their best efforts, not even the unlikely pair of Bing Crosby and David Bowie can do much with the soul-crushing monotony of "The Little Drummer Boy." And when it comes to maddening repetition, it's hard to top José Feliciano's novelty hit "Feliz Navidad."

Still, neither of those songs is the worst. When it comes to bad Christmas songs, ex-Beatles are experts. No one could turn noble sentiments into saccharine sentimentality faster than John Lennon during his Plastic Ono Band phase, and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" is Exhibit A, co-produced by convicted murder Phil Spector, who currently is serving 19 to life. But worse still is Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," which isn't so much a song as it is the sound of joy dying.

Yet even John and Paul can't top the sheer awfulness and condescension of Bob Geldof and Midge Ure's patronizing famine-relief fundraiser "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

The answer, Bob, is "yes." People in Africa might be starving, but they're not stupid. They know when it's Christmas. I suspect some even know when it's Boxing Day.

Compared to all that rot, "My Favorite Things" isn't bad at all, even if it's a Christmas song that's not really a Christmas song.

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.