Friday, July 31, 2015

'Rowdy' Roddy Piper, RIP

Roddy Piper as Nada in John Carpenter's "They Live."
The passing of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper at the too-young age of 61 strikes surprisingly hard. Unlike others who have died this year — Leonard Nimoy and Christopher Lee among them — “Hot Rod” died too soon. It’s a fate he shares with too many stars and former stars of professional wrestling.

The matches may be scripted, but wrestling takes a physical toll, none more brutal than what wrestlers do to themselves to make it to the top of their profession.

Still, Piper’s sudden death was a shock. Just hours earlier he was tweeting away on his frequently ungrammatical but always entertaining Twitter account. For a guy who spent the peak of his wrestling career as a heel, Piper always seemed to be the nicest of guys when it came to his fans. And Piper had lots of fans, both in and out of wrestling.

While other wrestlers have come out of the ring to try their luck in movies, few have done it so memorably as Piper did. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson may have racked up more lead roles and a lot more money at the box office, but Piper will always have John Carpenter’s “They Live.”

As a wrestler, Piper was known as much for his mic talent as for his moves in the squared circle. The man had charisma to spare, and that came through just as well on the movie screen.

For me, personally, Piper came along at just the right time. One’s teens are the perfect time to fall in love with wrestling and cheesy movies, and Hot Rod was there for both.

Back in the dark ages of cable TV, when USA Network was really worth watching, a kid could watch Rowdy Roddy ham it up in prime time during WWF (not yet WWE) matches from Madison Square Garden. Then he could tune in late on the weekend to watch Gilbert Gottfried host Piper’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick “Hell Comes to Frogtown” on “USA Up All Night.”

That, my friends, was quality television.

Piper’s death hits my inner teenager pretty hard. Piper was comfort viewing. He played the bad guy, but he was like a best friend. He had your back.

Now the curtain comes down on Piper’s Pit one last time. Cue the bagpipes.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

‘Doctor Who’ survives the wilderness

Paul McGann continues his adventures as the Eighth Doctor
in one of Big Finish Productions' audio dramas.
There was no real official theme, beyond the obvious, to this year’s Con Kasterborous, north Alabama’s annual “Doctor Who” convention. Yet had the convention’s organizers only thought of it, the theme could well have been “Doctor Who: The Wilderness Years.”

Four of this year’s celebrity guests played roles in keeping “Doctor Who” alive during the dark days between the classic series’ cancellation in 1989 and the revived series’ debut in 2005.

The guest of honor for the fourth Con Kasterborous, held earlier this month at The Westin Huntsville at Bridge Street Towne Center, was Paul McGann. McGann starred in the ill-fated 1996 “Doctor Who” TV movie, whose producers had hoped it would restart the series.

Two other con guests also appeared in the 1996 movie: Eric Roberts — as the Doctor’s arch foe, the Master — and Roberts’ real-life wife, Eliza, who played a supporting role.

McGann was arguably the most talented and accomplished actor to portray the Doctor up to that point (or possibly even since), and that’s no slight against his predecessors. McGann had previously played Anton in director Ken Russell’s 1989 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rainbow” (available streaming on Amazon Prime) and starred opposite Richard E. Grant in Bruce Robinson’s wry, must-see cult comedy “Withnail & I” (find a copy if you can).

Alas, the 1996 pilot was neither a critical nor a ratings triumph. Fans would have to wait another nine years for a successful reboot.

No one, however, blamed McGann. Maybe the script wasn’t up to snuff, maybe Eric Roberts overacted a bit — OK, more than a bit — and maybe the whole enterprise, being a U.S. co-production, was too “American” and not enough “British.” But McGann acquitted himself flawlessly. In just 90 minutes, he showed the world he could be an excellent Doctor if given a real chance.

As it would happen, that chance would come, just not in front of a camera.

That brings us to Con Kasterborous’ fourth crucial guest. Jason Haigh-Ellery founded Big Finish Productions in 1996, and it was Big Finish’s full-cast audio plays, along with novels from Virgin Publishing, that kept new “Doctor Who” stories coming during the wilderness years.

McGann returned to appear in many of Big Finish’s new “Doctor Who” stories, along with a series of new traveling companions, some of whom have themselves become fan favorites. And it was in the Big Finish audio plays that McGann’s Doctor — the Eighth Doctor — really came into his own.

Now that the revived “Doctor Who” has been around for 10 years and seen four new Doctors, it’s easy to forget what it was like not to have a new season of “Doctor Who” on television every year, much as the dark decade between the cancellation of the original “Star Trek” and the release of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is now just a dim memory.

Not only did McGann’s Doctor get to have via the Big Finish audios all the adventures he never got to have on television, previous Doctors got in on the act as well. Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, who was never served well by the quality of scripts during his too-brief tenure, finally got to shine in the Big Finish stories, proving that Six wasn’t such a bad Doctor after all.

The Big Finish audios and Virgin novels were also a training ground for writers who would go on to work on the revived TV series. “Doctor Who” writers who cut their teeth on either the audios, the novels or both included Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and “Doctor Who” producer Russell T Davies.

Between McGann, Eric and Eliza Roberts, and Haigh-Ellery on the one hand and the 1,623 fans who came out to see them on the other, Con Kasterborous 2015 was a commemoration of those years when the fans kept “Doctor Who” alive, in spite of the BBC’s indifference.

“Doctor Who” is back on television now and more popular than ever, but Big Finish keeps putting out its excellent audio dramas and McGann keeps appearing in them, even though his Doctor finally did get a proper sendoff in a 2013 “Doctor Who” 50th anniversary short, “The Night of the Doctor.”

For the Doctor and his fans, those wilderness years paid off.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Forget ‘Genisys’; we need ‘Terminator: Exodus’

By all rights, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” should have been the end of the line. The machine apocalypse had been averted, the loop in time had been closed and the audience was left, quite unexpectedly, with a happy ending.

But if there’s one thing the Hollywood studios hate more than reasonable copyright laws, it’s happy endings. Leaving the audience wanting more is the same as leaving money on the table, and that just won’t do. So we got seven “Saw” movies in as many years. Hollywood will dish it out until you’re sick of it, and then some.

That’s why, despite the fact “Terminator 2” left no room for a sequel, 2003 brought us director Jonathan Mostow’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” which was all about that thing “Terminator 2” prevented happening. And that was just where the trouble started.

You might think Arnold Schwarzenegger taking time away to play the Governator of California would spare us yet another unnecessary “Terminator” installment, but you’d be wrong. The franchise hit its lowest point yet in 2009 with “Terminator: Salvation,” directed by “Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle’s” McG and starring “Avatar’s” charisma-challenged leading man Sam Worthington at the height of his inexplicable rise to fame.

With Schwarzenegger back to making movies, yet another “Terminator” sequel was inevitable. So we now have “Terminator: Genisys,” directed by Alan Taylor, whose other credits include “Game of Thrones” and Marvel’s most disappointing movie to date, “Thor: The Dark World.”

The good news is “Terminator: Genisys” is better than its two immediate predecessors. The bad news is that’s still not nearly good enough to justify its existence.

“Genisys” starts with the events leading up to James Cameron’s original “The Terminator.” That means we get to see John Conner (Jason Clarke) send his father Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to save his mother Sarah Conner (“Game of Thrones’ ” Emilia Clarke) from Schwarzenegger’s T-800 so that John can be born and lead humanity to victory over the machines.

Only this time when Reese arrives in 1984 Los Angeles, he doesn’t find the past we know. Instead he finds a Sarah who is prepared for both him and the T-800, as well as a second T-800 that was sent back to an even earlier point in time and programmed to protect Sarah. And that’s before the shape-shifting T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee) from “Terminator 2” arrives — 11 years ahead of schedule.

It’s a premise that requires a lot of mostly nonsensical plot exposition. Unfortunately, there are few things more awkward than Schwarzenegger portraying a robot tasked by the script with explaining quantum physics and temporal paradoxes. Such things are better left to eccentric Time Lords.

Speaking of which, Matt Smith (“Doctor Who”) has what amounts to a cameo, no doubt meant to set up a larger role for his character in future unnecessary sequels.

Basically, humans and Terminators have jumped through time so many times they’ve managed to break time itself, which is as good a metaphor as any for what all this time hopping has done to the “Terminator” franchise. In other hands, “Terminator: Genisys” could have been a sly, tongue-in-cheek commentary on Hollywood’s financial dependence on sequels and remakes, always repeating itself with minor variations. But screenwriters Patrick Lussier and Laeta Kalogridis play it all depressingly straight, littering their script with callbacks to the other “Terminator” entries without a hint of irony.

The result is “Terminator: Genisys” plays like a greatest hits album, only the hits are all performed by cover bands. We’ve heard them before, and they were better the first time. Nothing in “Genisys” tops “Terminator 2’s” stunts, while Clarke and Courtney have the impossible task of following in the footsteps of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, and doing so with inferior material.

The lesson here is if time travel ever is invented, it’s probably too dangerous to use. But if we do use it, we should send someone to the past to stop all these unnecessary “Terminator” sequels. With any luck, the Terminator won’t be back.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mockingbird sequel kills a Finch

Flannery O’Connor famously dismissed Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a “children’s book,” which it is, obviously. But that’s only the half of it.

Many children’s books do their young readers a service, dispelling the illusions in which adults attempt to disguise their follies. Think of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Children who read those books come away with a healthy skepticism for the adult world’s duplicity. That’s a valuable lesson.

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” however, reads like warm, fuzzy nostalgia for a childhood that is more fantasy than reality, in which a beloved father figure comes across as something just short of a saint.

The movie version, in which the upright country lawyer Atticus Finch is played by Gregory Peck, only adds to Atticus’ larger-than-life allure. It won Peck an Academy Award, which should have been a warning, given Hollywood’s tendency to reward fantasies disguised as reality.

Lee’s novel doesn’t dispel illusions; it is the illusion. It sets up its readers for either crushing disappointment or imprisonment in a nostalgic fantasy world of their own making.

Thus came the shock and disillusion that greeted Lee’s accidental sequel — if we can call a book that was written first and then locked away a “sequel” — “Go Set a Watchman.”

In “Go Set a Watchman,” Jean Louise — “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” Scout, now all grown up — returns home to 1950s Alabama and a now aged Atticus, who we come to find out is a racist and none too happy with the new stirrings for integration and equal rights.

The Atticus Finch who was the perfect father and moral conscience of his community turns out to be just a man after all — a man of his time, and all the more flawed for it, looking back from Jean Louise’s now enlightened vantage point.

With all the suddenness and finality of Toto pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, “Go Set a Watchman” breaks “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” spell. Jean Louise’s younger self, the tomboy Scout, turns out to be an unreliable narrator, and once you realize that, there is no going back.

This is where trusting in a child’s naïveté has brought us. So, if we feel misled, we have only ourselves to blame.

No doubt many readers who grew up admiring Atticus Finch will tell themselves “Go Set a Watchman” doesn’t count. I sympathize. In some ways, it’s a lot like all the movie sequels I pretend don’t exist: the “Matrix” sequels, the “Highlander” sequels, the “Jaws” sequels, everything after “Terminator 2,” “Ghostbusters 2” and so on.

But in the case of “Go Set a Watchman,” there is one crucial difference: It’s not really a sequel. It’s the story Lee wrote first, even if it saw daylight last. In a way, its Atticus is the original, the genuine article, while the venerated Atticus of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the impostor.

“Go Set a Watchman” is the story Lee originally wanted to tell, the demon the first-time novelist had to exorcise. We got “To Kill a Mockingbird” only because her editor convinced her to put the demon back in the bottle. Thus, “Go Set a Watchman’s” flashbacks become Scout’s idealized childhood, which became Lee’s best-seller.

Lee wrote the truth, but her publisher convinced her to sell the lie, and generations of schoolkids have been taught it in class ever since.

Maybe in that lies the answer to the mystery of why Lee never, of her own initiative, published another book. She wrote two and saw readers fall in love with the story she originally had envisioned just as Scout’s falsified memories. Given the choice of the truth or the legend, she printed the legend, and everyone took it to be truth. That is a powerful and dangerous gift to discover one has.

None of that makes “Go Set a Watchman” the better book, the one that will now occupy space on all the required reading lists. But it is the more honest one.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Are the Dukes’ days numbered?

How you reckon them Duke boys are gonna get out of this one?
Well, them Duke boys have got themselves in a real heap o’trouble this time. How do you reckon they’re gonna get outta this one? They’re just spending their days the only way they know how, but that’s just a little bit more than Hollywood will allow.

“The Dukes of Hazzard,” long ago a staple of family television viewing, is now collateral damage in the culture war, and it’s all on account of that Confederate battle flag on the top of the series’ iconic 1969 Dodge Charger, the General Lee. After all, why react when you can overreact?

First, the consumer division of Warner Bros., which owns the series, said it would no longer license merchandise emblazoned with the Confederate flag, which means no more General Lee models and toys. Then TV Land abruptly dropped reruns of “The Dukes of Hazzard” from its schedule, drawing the ire of one of the show’s stars, John Schneider.

We should have seen it coming. Although it appears in a recent commercial, the General Lee is shot entirely from low angles, so the spot where the flag should be is never visible.

This all comes as the Confederate flag in particular and reminders of the Confederacy in general are becoming as endangered as photos of Leon Trotsky in Stalinist Russia.

Even NASCAR, once a uniquely Southern sport, has turned on the battle flag, going so far as to ask spectators not to fly the Confederate flag at NASCAR races and offering to accept used Confederate flags in trade for the Stars and Stripes.

That went over about as well as you might expect. At Daytona, for the first race after NASCAR boss Brian France told fans to leave their Confederate flags at home, the infield was full of pickups and RVs decked out in Confederate colors. Tell some Southerners they can’t fly the battle flag and they might do it just to show you they darn well can — even if they might not do it otherwise.

Whenever the issue of the Confederate flag is raised, we go around in circles with the same old arguments about what the flag means. Is it a symbol of heritage, as its defenders say, or a symbol of hate, as just about everyone else says? If only it were that simple.

The problem with symbols is they don’t mean anything in and of themselves. They mean different things to different people at different times. The battle flag is no exception. If someone tells you the Confederate flag means heritage, he’s right. If someone else tells you it means hate, he’s right, too. And heritage and hate don’t even begin to exhaust all the possibilities.

That brings us back to “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Running for seven seasons from 1979 to 1985, the series came at the tail end of a period when the South embraced the romance of the outlaw. Movies such as “Smokey and the Bandit” and “White Lightning” turned bootleggers and moonshiners into heroes. A lesser-known entry in the cycle is 1975’s “Moonrunners.”

“Moonrunners” became the basis for “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which toned down the lawbreaking for family viewing, but just the same was an outgrowth of the outlaw South, which pitted honest outlaws just out to make an honest, if illegal, living against the same corrupt authority figures who in real life were the villains of the civil rights era.

Confederate flags atop Southern state capitols are a relic of 1960s Southern intransigence on civil rights. But the Confederate flag atop the General Lee is a symbol of something else — opposition to corrupt politicians who use the law to keep honest folks down, regardless of their race.

The Confederate flag is as complicated as the South itself. The South likes to think of itself as the Bandit, but it keeps voting for Sheriff Buford T. Justice. And while we Southerners love the backwoods glamour of bootleggers and moonshiners, Southern prisons — just as Northern ones — are filled with pot dealers, a disproportionate number of them black.

Maybe the period when the Confederate flag was an outlaw symbol was a brief window, one that has since closed. So, maybe we can’t do “The Dukes of Hazzard” today; even the movie version was 10 years ago. But that doesn’t seem like a good reason to consign the reruns to the memory hole.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Are you paranoid enough?

It seems appropriate that “The X-Files” will soon be returning to our TV screens, even if only for a limited engagement.

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

The KLF, the universe and everything

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.