Thursday, December 27, 2007

The new year is a good time to look ahead, not back

Other dates are more associated with division. There’s always some excuse to fight over the “true meaning” of Christmas, Halloween and even Columbus Day.

But while no one actively fights over it, no date reveals a greater divide than New Year’s.

That divide is between people who look forward and those who look backward. As 2007 ends and 2008 begins, we spend most of our time looking back at the year that was: who died, events that shaped the world, Time magazine’s Person of the Year. We spend a good deal less time, it seems, looking forward to trends and issues that will shape the new year and years to come.

If we spend more time looking backward than forward, that’s understandable. The past is easy. We usually know what happened even if we don’t know what it all means. The future, however, is unknowable. We can only imagine it.

Still, even if predicting the future is more difficult than reflecting on the past, that’s no excuse not to give the future a try.

Yes, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History is important, obviously. But as The Amazing Criswell once said, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” A phony, showbiz psychic has never spoken truer words.

Looking forward, beyond the short run, doesn’t come naturally to us. In fact, it’s a recent phenomenon. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have to look beyond the next hunt. And our agrarian ancestors, who came later, didn’t worry about much beyond the current growing season. As far as most people back then were concerned, the future was going to be pretty much like the past — awful. So, there was no point dwelling on it.

That didn’t really change until the early 1800s, and with good reason. According to Gregory Clark, chairman of the University of California, Davis economics department and author of “A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World,” living standards remained basically stable — and low — from our hunter-gather days through the 18th century. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution got under way in the 19th century that living standards (for some) shot up, technological advancement exploded and life spans increased.

Suddenly, the future mattered. In a big way. It’s no accident that the late 1800s saw the birth of science fiction, as seen in the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. People now had to speculate about the long term.

But before the Industrial Revolution could take hold, it needed the proper intellectual climate — one that fostered scientific discovery and entrepreneurship. That climate was the Enlightenment.

From the late 1600s through about 1800, scientists, philosophers, historians and economists — people like Isaac Newton, David Hume and Adam Smith — pushed forward the boundaries of human understanding. This was as forward-looking a group of intellectuals as the world has ever seen. By enabling the progress that followed, they helped make the rest of us in the West forward-looking, too.

Science fiction writer David Brin divides the world into forward-looking Enlightenment societies and Romantic societies, which look back to some long-ago Golden Age.

Romanticism in the 1800s was a reaction to the Enlightenment and idealized a pre-industrial bliss that never existed. Today, America still has elements of both its Enlightenment and Romantic heritages. But it’s the ratio that counts.

As we enter a new year, there is no better time to set out sights toward what is to come. We can indulge in nostalgia anytime. The past will always be there. But the future will be here before we know it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

All is quiet on the Christmas front

“Peace on Earth, good will toward men.” That’s what we say at Christmastime, and this year we’re getting it — on one front, anyway.

We’re not hearing much about the so-called War on Christmas. That’s a pleasant change from last year, when the airwaves were filled with chatter about a sinister conspiracy that was supposedly trying to stamp out the holiday season.

Instead, when I Googled the phrase “war on Christmas” this week, most of the recent discussions were about how all of the war talk had settled down.

During the Dec. 12 installment of his Fox News Channel program, Bill O’Reilly, whose voice had been one of the loudest decrying the alleged secular assault on Christmas, declared victory. The War on Christmas was over, and his side had won.

But really, how much has changed? I still see signs that say “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” instead of O’Reilly’s preferred greeting, “Merry Christmas.” Isn’t that a sign that the war is still on?

I suppose it would be, if people hadn’t been saying things like “happy holidays” and “seasons greetings” for decades, long before some people with nothing better to do decided those were fighting words.

The closest thing I’ve seen to a real war on Christmas in the past year is a T-shirt with the slogan “I support the war on Christmas.” Of course, it was a joke. The people who made those T-shirts did so only to irritate blowhards like O’Reilly.

Being a contrarian sort of person, I thought of getting one of those shirts for myself. But I decided I didn’t want to risk getting punched in the face.

If there is anything I abhor, it’s violence against me.

Anyway, as far as I can tell, nothing has changed. People are celebrating Christmas this year just as they did last year.

Yes, there are the usual little spats over putting explicitly religious Christmas symbols on public property. The Catholic League, led by the country’s most easily offended man, Bill Donohue, released a list of about a dozen instances in which a town refused to place a Nativity scene on a city lawn or something equally trivial.

Not that Nativity scenes are themselves trivial. They aren’t, and you can see them in front of churches far and wide, which is why one more in front of a courthouse or city hall doesn’t matter. People don’t need the government’s blessing to celebrate Christmas.

But most people don’t get worked up about such legal battles, anyway. How do I know? Well, I’ve seen a lot of houses decorated for the season, and I can’t recall one that had its own Nativity scene. There were lots of plastic Santas and reindeer, though. And since the houses were in Alabama, you can’t tell me that a bunch of Christmas-hating secularists live in them.

If people really did get agitated about the fact that you can’t put up religious symbols on government property, they’d protest by putting up their own — just as some students hold private prayer rallies to protest the fact that you can’t have officially sanctioned prayers in public schools.

It’s not much of a war on Christmas when the vast majority of Americans go about celebrating Christmas as they always have. And guess what? That includes most secular humanists.

Richard Dawkins, the British biologist and atheist who created a stir last year with his book “The God Delusion,” admits to loving Christmas carols. That doesn’t seem like much of a declaration of war, does it?

So, the unpleasant, divisive War on Christmas is over, or as over as something that was never real in the first place can be. If nothing else, it reminds me of the title of a John Lennon song:

“Merry Christmas (War Is Over).”

Thursday, December 13, 2007

‘The League’ faces its greatest threat: copyright

After nearly a year of delays, the third installment of Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novel “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” has finally arrived on bookstore shelves.

For those of you just coming in, the first two volumes followed a team of Victorian-era “superheroes” brought together by the British government to fight such dastardly evildoers as Dr. Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis Professor Moriarty, as well as a Martian invasion.

Hollywood turned the first volume into a dreadful movie, but the less said about that, the better.

Picking up about 60 years after the second volume, the third installment, “The Black Dossier,” follows rejuvenated League members Mina Murray (from “Dracula”) and Allan Quatermain as they sneak into 1950s England to steal a top-secret history of the League’s various incarnations throughout the years.

Whereas the first two volumes feature numerous out-of-copyright characters drawn from Victorian literature — notably, in addition to Murray and Quatermain, the Invisible Man, Capt. Nemo and Mr. Hyde — “The Black Dossier” includes thinly veiled versions of characters still owned by various corporations and estates.

Some are fairly obscure, especially if, unlike Moore, you didn’t grow up watching British television and reading British adventure magazines. Others, like James Bond and Emma Peel (“The Avengers”), while not named as such, are impossible to miss. And, it’s putting it mildly to say this is probably the most unflattering portrayal you’ll ever see of Ian Fleming’s bruising, boozing, womanizing super spy.

It’s the presence of Bond and other fairly recently literary, film and TV characters that has gotten this installment into trouble. DC Comics refuses to publish it outside the U.S. because of differences in international copyright laws — not to mention fear of litigious copyright lawyers. And that has led to the most recent dust-up in Moore’s long-running feud with DC. So, Moore is taking his next volume of “The League,” scheduled for release next year, to Top Shelf Productions.

Of course, if copyright law had been as expansive 100 years ago as it is today, a series like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” wouldn’t have been possible at all, and writers like Moore wouldn’t be able to draw upon our shared literary heritage in order to tell new stories.

Whenever the copyright term on characters like Mickey Mouse and Superman comes close to running out, companies like Disney and Time Warner, which owns DC Comics, rush to Congress for an extension. Characters and works that should enter the public domain — long after their creators have died — remain under copyright, where the rest of us can’t touch them.

A century from now, a future Alan Moore won’t have the option of creating his own league composed of, for example, Jack Ryan, Anita Blake and Hannibal Lecter. That will be a major loss for popular culture. Meanwhile, Moore is far from the only author to find new stories for old characters.

British novelist Kim Newman draws upon Sherlock Holmes and Victorian novels like “Dracula” and “The Island of Doctor Moreau” in his 1992 novel “Anno Dracula” and its sequels. And no one gets more miles from Victorian literature and early 20th century pulp magazines than science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer.

Through numerous books and short stories, Farmer has crafted a fictional universe that includes Tarzan, Doc Savage and, of course, Sherlock Holmes. Everyone loves Sherlock.

But unless Congress finally says no to Disney and the rest, the worlds of Moore, Newman and Farmer may be the last in which fictional characters from all over can get together for one big literary party.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Some Christmas presents are just like lumps of coal

If you read the letters to Santa that appear in this and other newspapers, you’ll notice that Christmas gifts are a lot cooler than they were years ago.

One letter last week was from a child who asked for a Wii, an Xbox and, just so all bases were covered, a PlayStation 3. Good luck with that. When I was about that child’s age, way back in 1982, I asked for a state-of-the-art ColecoVision game console. Instead, I got an Atari 2600, which was already obsolete, having been replaced that same year by the 5200. I was scarred for life and haven’t owned a home video game system since. Yes, I’m bitter.

But it could have been worse. Much worse.

At this time last year, I was browsing the videos at YouTube and came across decades-old TV commercials for what can only be described as the worst Christmas gifts ever.

Mostly, I blame Ron Popeil. Before the inventor/pitchman took up residence on late-night TV, using infomercials to sell food dehydrators and pasta makers, he was the man behind such contraptions as the Pocket Fisherman and the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler.

Maybe the Pocket Fisherman was a good idea. But how lazy do you have to be to want to scramble your eggs before you crack open the shells?

Every December, Popeil’s company, Ronco, filled the airwaves with commercials touting its latest must-have technological marvels. And as Popeil assured us in his chirpy voiceover narration, each made for “a great Christmas gift!”

One of Ronco’s biggest sellers was the Smokeless Ashtray. Now, when I was 6 years old, I didn’t need a Smokeless Ashtray. So, I got one for my dad.

Yes, I know. I should have gone with the Pocket Fisherman. The problem with the Smokeless Ashtray was that it sucked up cigarette smoke only when the cigarette was in the ashtray. As I’ve since learned, cigarettes don’t spend much time in ashtrays until after they’re snubbed out.

It occurs to me now that the Smokeless Ashtray was the perfect really, really cheap gift for a child to give to a parent. When young children buy gifts for parents, it’s definitely the thought that counts because children don’t have any money. So, it doesn’t matter that the gift is crap.

My favorite Ronco product, however, was Mr. Microphone. All you had to do was set a radio to the appropriate frequency, and Mr. Microphone would beam your voice into the radio for all around to hear.

As seen on TV, Mr. Microphone was a great way to pick up women, who were suitably impressed by guys who could ask them out via a car stereo. As seen in real life, Mr. Microphone was a poor man’s karaoke machine, provided you could sing a cappella, which defeats the purpose of karaoke.

But Ronco wasn’t solely to blame for the metaphorical lumps of coal in people’s stockings. Consider the Chia Pet.

Amazingly, Chia Pets are now cool, in a kitschy sort of way. But in 1982, when the first Chia Pet appeared in time for the Christmas shopping season, they were just lame. Giving someone cheap, animal-shaped pottery that sprouts weeds was a sincere expression of hatred.

Speaking of gifts for people you hate, you couldn’t go wrong with Shrinky Dinks. Nothing conveys contempt like small pieces of plastic that get even smaller when you bake them in an oven. When my mom insisted I buy a Christmas present for my arch nemesis in elementary school, he got Shrinky Dinks — the festive way to say, “Up yours!”

Still, I get a little nostalgic when I think of the commercials that ran in the early 1980s for Underoos, the children’s underwear that came in designs based on Superman, Wonder Woman and other popular superhero characters.

The commercials featured prepubescent children wearing only their Underoos and thanking the aunts, uncles and grandparents who gave them such great Christmas presents.

You know, now that I think about it, those Underoos commercials are really creepy.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Showtime ready to beat HBO at original programs

HBO’s dominance of premium cable TV may finally be ending, just as the channel’s main rival seems ready to mount a challenge.

“Sex and the City” is long gone, and “The Sopranos” has faded to black. For years, they were the pillars of HBO’s original programming, but HBO’s potential replacements have lacked staying power. HBO canceled “Rome” after two seasons, and to the disappointment of many fans and critics, HBO pulled the plug on its gritty western “Deadwood” after three seasons.

“Carniv├ále” fared no better. Despite impressive debut ratings and a passionate cult following, the show couldn’t retain its audience. HBO canceled “Carniv├ále” after two seasons.

“John From Cincinnati,” the heir apparent to “The Sopranos,” flopped. Of the original programs remaining on HBO’s schedule, “The Wire” is entering its final season and “Extras,” a British import from Ricky Gervais, creator of “The Office,” will air its final episode next month. That leaves “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Entourage” and “Big Love.”

Meanwhile, HBO’s newest series, “Tell Me You Love Me,” aired to lower-than-expected ratings despite the controversy aroused by the show’s sexual content. The sex scenes in “Tell Me” are some of the most realistic and explicit ever to air on HBO, and if that can’t attract an audience, what can?

Of course, maybe the viewers who would tune in for the sex are turned off by all of the uncomfortable talk about sex, and vice versa. “Tell Me” stubbornly insists on doing both.

Yet while HBO is struggling to retain its reputation for cutting-edge original programming, longtime also-ran Showtime seemingly can do no wrong. HBO isn’t in danger of losing its No. 1 position in terms of subscribers — HBO has about twice as many as Showtime — but it is dangerously close to becoming unhip. HBO looks more and more like CBS, which is No. 1 in the ratings but skews toward older viewers, despite airing three “CSI” variations.

For years, original programming on Showtime meant the soft-focus sex of “Red Shoe Diaries,” which, while definitely stylish, lacked something in the prestige department. Now, it means a likeable serial killer, which gives Showtime a better chance of winning some of those Emmys that HBO has been stockpiling for the past decade.

Leading the way for Showtime is “Dexter,” which, in terms a Hollywood executive could understand, is “CSI” meets Hannibal Lecter.

The title character, Dexter Morgan, is a blood splatter expert for the Miami police. He is also a serial killer who hunts down and kills other serial killers. “Dexter” has given Showtime its best ratings ever for original programming.

Then there is “The Tudors,” a saucy mix of soap opera and sex set early in the reign of England’s Henry VIII. Most viewers don’t notice the historical inaccuracies, and most critics are willing to overlook them.

Lastly, David Duchovny, star of “The X-Files” and “Red Shoe Diaries,” returns to Showtime in “Californication,” in which he plays a writer with a serious case of writer’s block but no shortage of female companions.

All three have boosted Showtime’s credibility and added to a schedule that also includes “The L Word,” “Weeds” and “Penn & Teller: Bull----,” a documentary series in which the Las Vegas magicians turn their wits to debunking scams and hoaxes ranging from UFOs to alternative medicine.

Even if you’re not a Showtime subscriber, never fear. Season sets of Showtime programs cost about half as much as DVD sets of most HBO series. I won’t pay $80 for a season of “Rome,” but I’ll gladly pay $30 for a season of “The Tudors.” So do what I do: Rent one DVD, and if you like it, buy the box set.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Forget the writers; how will the strike affect me?

If you’re a TV junkie, one thing you can be thankful for is that Hollywood’s writers and producers are due back at the bargaining table Monday.

That doesn’t guarantee an end to the writers’ strike, which already threatens to end the fall TV season at its halfway point, but the smart money in Hollywood seems to be on both sides reaching an agreement sooner rather than later. That’s good news for those of us who don’t want to see 100-plus channels of unscripted “reality television” or rejected pilots for the next six months.

The last Writers Guild of America strike was in 1988 and lasted 22 weeks.

As usual, the strike comes down to money. The producers have it, and the writers want more of it. Specifically, the writers want to be paid every time someone downloads a movie or TV episode from the Internet. That’s in addition to the upfront money they get from writing the scripts in the first place.

I can see where the writers are coming from. Every episode of “House” I’ve watched this season is one I’ve downloaded from Amazon.com, where they cost $1.99 each. Screenwriters might earn a fraction of a cent from each download, but with enough downloads, it could add up fast.

Still, I refuse to pick sides. Both the writers and the producers are looking out for their own interests, and there’s no moral high ground in that. But that isn’t stopping the writers from painting themselves as the “little guy” and producers as a bunch of evil, money-grubbing fat cats. After all, that’s a Hollywood script that almost writes itself.

The WGA didn’t do its image any favors by picking on Ellen Degeneres, who has refused to shut down her daytime talk show because she has this funny little thing called a contract — which promises her affiliates new episodes, not reruns. Heaven forbid that Ellen look out for herself and her employees by fulfilling her contractual obligations.

If you really want to talk about the “little guy,” he’s the fellow who owns a catering business that’s lost money every day since the strike began. When Hollywood shuts down, the first people to feel it are those who work in the service industries. You can’t sell lattes to writers who are walking picket lines instead banging away at laptops in your cafe.

But I’m not really interested in the little guys, either. Like the writers and producers, I’m looking out for myself. And what I want is a full season of “C.S.I.,” not a schedule full of “American Idol” and “Survivor” clones. Maybe I should make a sign and pace back and forth in front of some screenwriter’s house.

The WGA says it’s looking at the long run, when Internet downloads will become the main way people watch TV and movies. I say I’m looking at the long run, too. If the strike continues, how long will I have to wait for my favorite shows to hit DVD? And when the new season sets finally arrive, will they contain only half the usual number of episodes? These are important questions affecting my TV enjoyment well into 2008.

Probably the only good thing about the strike is its timing. We weren’t going to see too many new scripted dramas and comedies over the next month and a half, anyway. That’s because it’s the Christmas season, when TV programmers’ thoughts turn to endless repeats of classic and not-so-classic holiday fare. Never mind the 30 or so college football bowl games on TV, too.

If nothing else, it’s as good a time as any to check out what’s on BBC America. At least the TV writers over in the land of Shakespeare aren’t on strike.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Looking back at the first year of shocking culture

After writing this column for one year, it’s time to look back and see where some of the past year’s stories stand.

Dec. 7, 2006: I wrote about the newfound respect some science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick in particular, are receiving from traditional literary circles. That trend continued in 2007, when Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Lessing, 88, is the oldest person ever to win the award. Her long career includes two notable transitions. She went from communist to anti-communist and from “serious” fiction to science fiction.

The latter move upset some critics, among them Harold Bloom, who said, “Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction.”

But Lessing is unapologetic. “What (critics) didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time,” she said in an interview.

Good for her.

Jan. 4, 2007: I wrote about the new comic strip “Lio” by Mark Tatulli. Since then, “Lio” has increased its following. It now appears in about 275 newspapers worldwide, including The Daily. And that was enough to get Hollywood’s attention.

A live-action film based on the strip is in development.

Jan. 11: Time magazine named “You” its Person of the Year in recognition of ordinary people flooding the Internet with blogs and videos.

The flood continues, and it may be making its biggest impact in politics, where citizens are bypassing the “old media” to spread the word about their preferred presidential candidates. You get a sense of how revolutionary that is when a “second-tier” candidate like Ron Paul raises more than $4 million in one day when his online supporters stage a fundraising drive.

Feb. 1: I continue to receive e-mail about my column on self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Brown, who still hasn’t demonstrated anything that looks like real psychic ability. Perhaps that is why she has moved on to write, with the help of “her spirit guide Francine,” an absurd book titled “Secret Societies ... and How They Affect Our Lives Today.”

March 15: Marvel Comics killed off one of its most recognizable heroes, Captain America. He is still dead, but someone else is set to don an updated version of Cap’s red, white and blue costume. I still say the original Cap will return — eventually.

July 12: A cryptic marketing campaign for an upcoming sci-fi/horror film by producer J.J. Abrams (“Alias”) had fans scouring the Internet for clues. As it turned out, the Web sites www.ethanhaaswasright.com and ethanhaaswaswrong.blogspot.com, which many thought were promoting the then-untitled movie, were for an unrelated role-playing game.

At any rate, the film now has a name, “Cloverfield,” and it opens in theaters Jan. 18.

July 19: “Harry Potter” fans were eagerly awaiting the final book in the saga while trying to avoid spoilers that had leaked online.

By now, everyone who cares knows who lives and who dies. Also, Dumbledore is gay, but we didn’t learn that until months later.

Sept. 6: I wrote about a study published in Nature magazine, which found that the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is almost as accurate as Encyclopaedia Britannica. A spokesman for Britannica then e-mailed me a rebuttal, which included links to stories critical of Nature’s findings.

“Dozens of the so-called inaccuracies they attributed to us were nothing of the kind; they were the result of reviewers expressing opinions that differed from ours about what should be included in an encyclopedia article. In these cases Britannica’s coverage was actually sound,” Britannica responded.

After reading up on the controversy, I’m siding with Britannica, although I still think Wikipedia is an amazingly successful experiment.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Nashville con is fun for geeks, but on a smaller scale

As far as conventions go, the October Comic and Horror Fest is far from the largest.

Certainly, no one is going to confuse it with, say, Atlanta’s Dragon*Con or San Diego’s Comic-Con International, where tens of thousands of humans, Klingons, elves and other sentient life forms gather each year for weekends of revelry that threaten to knock the Earth off its axis.

But the Comic and Horror Fest, held every October in Nashville, is an eye-opening experience for convention newbies and a pleasant afternoon for geeks who would rather avoid teeming crowds.

This year, the convention returned to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds after a couple of depressing years during which the Fest took place at Nashville strip malls. It was definitely a return to form.

On Saturday, the fairgrounds’ Agriculture Building was filled almost to capacity. Fans browsed from table to table, where dozens of dealers hawked old comic books, vintage movie posters, DVDs, toys and other collectibles.

I managed, just barely, to resist a late-1940s “Phantom Lady” comic book with the $500 price tag. “Phantom Lady” became infamous in the 1950s as one of the comic books that crank child psychologist Frederick Wertham blamed for causing juvenile delinquency.

But I couldn’t pass up an original poster for the 1977 Clint Eastwood film “The Gauntlet,” painted by famed fantasy artist Frank Frazetta.

Speaking of juvenile delinquency, “The Gauntlet” has sentimental value for me, as it is the first R-rated film I ever saw in a theater. My dad took me to see it when I was 6 years old, and Dad isn’t known for his parenting skills.

This year’s guest of honor was John Saxon, and even if you don’t recognize his name, you probably know his face. Saxon played the heroine’s dad in the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” and, more importantly, co-starred with Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon.” More recently, he buried Nick Stokes alive in an episode of “C.S.I.” directed by Quentin Tarantino.

I got Saxon’s autograph and had my picture taken with him. Overall, I acquitted myself far better than the time I met Ray Bradbury and, for what I think was the first time in my life, was struck speechless.

One of the other guests at the Fest was Chris Durand, a stuntman and actor best known for playing Michael Myers in “Halloween H2O” and Ghost Face in “Scream 2,” in which he killed Sarah Michelle Gellar of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame.

“I killed her in ‘Scream 2,’ and she killed me in (an episode of) ‘Angel.’ So, we’re 1 and 1,” he said while signing autographs.

Such is the life of an actor who spends most of his career behind masks. It’s kill and be killed. And rise to kill again.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a comic/horror convention without a woman in a bikini. In this case, it was Thong Girl, the star of a series of no-budget films in which she fights crime. Or something. Mostly, I think, she poses while wearing a string bikini and a cape.

So, which is the more inappropriate crime-fighting attire, a bikini or a cape? You decide.

Thong Girl became something of a scandal for Gallatin, Tenn., Mayor Don Wright last year, when Wright let filmmakers shoot scenes for “Thong Girl 3” in his office.

City Council members and several little old ladies were not amused, and Wright lost his bid for re-election.

I guess some people just don’t appreciate the arts.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Internet radio is thriving now, but for how long?

I have a new addiction: Soma.

No, not the fictional drug of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” but SomaFM, an Internet-based “radio” station broadcasting commercial-free music from a garage in San Francisco.

SomaFM emerged in 1999 from one of those most noble of institutions: a pirate radio station. Not a “Pump Up the Volume”-style pirate radio station, but a station serving that year’s Burning Man festival.

Burning Man is an annual celebration of arts and anarchy held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. For more about it, see Brian Doherty’s definitive and entertaining book, “This Is Burning Man.”

Burning Man, however, was only the beginning. In February 2000, Rusty Hodge, SomaFM’s founder, launched a Web site to stream his station via the Internet to the entire world. SomaFM is now one of the largest Internet-only radio stations, broadcasting more than 3 million “listener hours” a month and reaching about 8,000 listeners on average at any given time.

SomaFM’s playlists are far removed from typical top 40 radio. The 11 separate channels at SomaFM.com offer mostly a mix of electronic, ambient, trance and trip-hop music — the sort of stuff often referred to as “New Age,” not that much of it has anything to do with the eclectic group of religions often lumped under that name.

It’s music most people usually can’t hear over the air, apart from public radio shows like “Echoes” and “Hearts of Space.”

Hodge and SomaFM quickly became an Internet success story, not in terms of profits because there weren’t any, but in terms of Web hits, word of mouth (or e-mail) and satisfied listeners who had gone unserved by the likes of Clear Channel.

If SomaFM were the subject of a VH1 “Behind the Music” episode, this would be the point in our story where everything goes wrong. As it happens, everything does go wrong.

In 1998, Congress passed one of the most poorly conceived pieces of legislation of the past decade: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. And in 2002, using the DMCA as a sledgehammer, the Recording Industry Association of America went after Internet radio stations for millions of dollars in royalties.

“I was looking at owing the RIAA an obscene amount of money, like $100,000,” Hodge told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2004 interview, “so I chickened out at the time and took the station off the air.”

Internet broadcasters fought back, and Hodge testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Eventually, the RIAA relented and settled on a lower royalty fee, which for SomaFM is $2,000 a year, funded by listener donations.

As a result, SomaFM is back. But the legal problems, unfortunately, continue.

On May 1, the federal Copyright Royalty Board raised the fees for Internet broadcasting, making Web broadcasters responsible for royalties that over-the-air broadcasters don’t have to pay. A bill in the U.S. House to overturn the CRB’s decision, H.R. 2060, has more than 140 co-sponsors, but so far it has gone nowhere.

The duplicity here simply reeks. Congress is filled with demagogues who routinely rail against the broadcasting conglomerates like Clear Channel and Cumulus Media, the two largest owners of traditional radio stations. But when it comes to fostering competition where it really matters — the Internet — Congress stands with the big broadcasters and major music labels.

Of course, traditional broadcasters are dependent on government licenses in order to transmit over the “public” airwaves, so they, unlike Internet broadcasters, are reliable donors at election time.

But for now, Internet radio stations like SomaFM are still going. So, try them out before it’s too late. And maybe leave a few bucks in the tip jar while you’re at it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Digital downloads remaking music industry

The British rock group Radiohead has found a business model that Priceline pitchman William Shatner could appreciate: name your own price.

Radiohead’s latest release, “In Rainbows,” went on sale this week as a digital download via the Web site inrainbows.com. The band’s contract with EMI having lapsed, Radiohead is cutting out the middleman. With no pesky record label in the way, Radiohead can sell its music however it wants.

And right now, Radiohead wants its fans to decide for themselves what they think the band’s music is worth.

I bet Radiohead makes a mint. In fact, with no record label to take a cut, I bet the band will make more from “In Rainbows” than from its previous releases.

Unlike Metallica, which waged war on the music-sharing Web site Napster in 2000, Radiohead is embracing the Digital Age. If you don’t want people pirating your songs, you’d better give them a reasonable alternative.

Radiohead gets it. The rest of the recording industry doesn’t. The Recording Industry Association of America persists in suing its customers, most recently a Minnesota woman ordered last week to pay an outrageous $222,000 in damages for downloading and sharing 24 songs on her computer.

The RIAA claims illegal file sharing is bankrupting the American music industry and costing people their jobs, although at least one study, by Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf published in The Journal of Political Economy, disputes that.

More to the point, the people sharing music online probably are improving the country’s overall economic welfare.

Writing recently at his blog, Marginal Revolution, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen said, “In the past most people didn't much like or listen to most of the music they bought, or in any case most of the value came from their very favorites. ... So if people can sample music in advance, and know in advance what they will like, music sales will plummet. This will be a sign of market efficiency, not market failure.”

Even if file sharing is costing the music industry the hundreds of millions of dollars the RIAA claims, it’s because most of its music isn’t worth paying for. People sample songs online and download their favorites so they don’t get stuck paying for compact discs containing only one or two good songs.

If the music industry is worried about its profits, it would do well to lower the price of CDs. And musicians would do well to make better music, not just one or two hits per CD for every 10 duds.

But if the RIAA’s member labels are slow to learn, others are eager to drag them into the 21st century.

Amazon.com has joined Apple’s iTunes in selling legal music downloads online. And while Amazon doesn’t have as extensive a music library, it has overtaken iTunes on two fronts. First, Amazon’s music is less expensive. Second, and more important, all of the songs at Amazon are available without Digital Rights Management.

DRM, embedded in most of the music iTunes sells, limits what you can do with your own music files after you’ve paid good money for them. Apple’s Steve Jobs says he wants to do away with DRM, but so far he hasn’t forced the issue. So, the only label to offer DRM-free music via iTunes is EMI, Radiohead’s former label.

But there is still a catch: iTunes charges more for EMI’s DRM-free music.

Still, with competition like Amazon around and bands like Radiohead going directly to their fans, I bet Apple will get the message. Apple isn’t as slow on the uptake as the RIAA.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Spider-Man co-creator has own secret identity

A "Doctor Strange" panel with art by Steve Ditko.
It’s all in the hands.

Well, maybe not. But Steve Ditko’s hands are distinctive — both his own and the ones he draws.

The hands Ditko illustrates on the printed page are weird, contorted and as expressive as eyes in their ability to convey emotion and mood. The hands at the ends of Ditko’s arms, however, are no less distinguished.

They’re the hands that gave birth in 1962 to Marvel Comics superhero Spider-Man.

Even people who don’t read comic books have heard of Spider-Man’s other parent, Stan Lee. Lee makes sure of that. So, it’s odd that most people have never heard of Ditko. Odd, that is, until you know a little something about him.

Ditko’s reclusiveness makes J.D. Salinger seem like Paris Hilton. Only four photographs of Ditko are known to exist, and he doesn’t grant interviews. From his studio in New York City, the 79-year-old artist still toils away on comics few will ever see.

He has turned down any share of the profits generated by the three “Spider-Man” movies. His life is one of self-imposed obscurity.

That made things somewhat difficult for British TV presenter Jonathan Ross when he decided to make a documentary about Spider-Man’s co-creator. The one-hour program “In Search of Steve Ditko” aired on BBC Four last month and appeared on YouTube briefly before the BBC’s copyright police intervened.

Eventually, Ross and writer/Ditko fan Neil Gaiman, best known for his “Sandman” graphic novels, got in to see the intensely private artist, but Ditko declined to appear on camera. Instead, he spoke to the two for half an hour before sending them on their way with a stack of Ditko’s more recent works.

Apart from designing Spider-Man and plotting many of the character’s early stories (Lee provided the cornball dialogue), Ditko created another Marvel superhero, Dr. Strange.

While never as popular as Spidey, Dr. Strange was a hit on college campuses and became, probably to Ditko’s horror, something of a drug-culture icon.

Dr. Strange, a master of the mystic arts, regularly visited otherworldly landscapes, and for some readers, that was the ultimate trip. An allusion to Dr. Strange appears in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 counterculture book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

For his part, Ditko in the 1960s was attracted to the novels of Ayn Rand, and soon he adopted her radically individualist philosophy of rational self-interest, Objectivism.

To this day, no one is sure why Ditko left Marvel. The prevailing theory is that the last straw was a dispute with Lee over the identity of Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin. Lee wanted the Goblin to be an established character, but Ditko wanted the Goblin to be a nobody — symbolizing the Objectivist view of evil.

Oddly, Spider-Man is, in a way, an anti-Objectivist. He always makes sacrifices for the good of others. But perhaps Ditko intended a lesson of sorts in that. What does Spider-Man get for his selfless ways? A life of misery, mostly. His alter ego, Peter Parker, is always broke. He never has money to help his poor Aunt May whenever she gets sick or faces losing her home — both of which happen a lot.

No issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man” during the Lee/Ditko era ended without Peter wallowing in self-pity.

After Marvel, Ditko worked for poverty-row publisher Charlton Comics. The pay wasn’t great, but he had more creative freedom, working on characters like Captain Atom, the Blue Beetle, and, most importantly, The Question.

A brief stint at DC Comics followed, and along the way, Ditko turned out explicitly philosophical comics for smaller publishers. One character to emerge from that, Mr. A, served as Ditko’s mouthpiece: There is black, and there is white, and there is nothing in between.

For Ditko, the principle of the thing is the principle of the thing. So, whatever his reasons, he remains in the shadows, letting his work speak for itself.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Walk of Fame or walk of shame, it’s all the same

It’s almost impossible to tell the difference between “Entertainment Tonight” and Court TV because most celebrity “news” seems to involve people in legal trouble.

It’s reaching the point where the Los Angeles County Courthouse needs its own red carpet.

Unfortunately, the slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” no longer applies. So, I’ve been subjected to two weeks of O.J. Simpson’s triumphant return to the police blotter. But this time, he’s accused of armed robbery instead of double homicide, so there’s no “good taste” grace period to endure before you can start joking about it.

Former Los Angeles prosecutor Marcia Clark —who crashed and burned as the lead prosecutor for Simpson’s murder trial — is on TV, handing out free advice to Las Vegas prosecutors. Yeah, like she knows anything about how to successfully prosecute O.J.

Apparently, you can never screw up so much that can’t still appear as an expert on TV. How else could Larry King book guests?

Speaking of screw-ups, who can resist the monumental fall of Britney Spears? Her career has gone the full 360 degrees, from rural Louisiana trash to pop starlet to Beverly hillbilly.

Not bad for someone at the ripe old age of 25.

That her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, seems like the more responsible parent in the two’s ongoing child custody struggle boggles the mind. You feel sorry for the children. And you feel sorrier for the gene pool that Britney and K-Fed reproduced at all. Be it nature or nurture, it’s bad news.

The judge in the case ordered Spears to undergo random drug and alcohol testing. But hours later, she was out partying again, according to numerous reports.

A sober Britney — let’s entertain the idea for a minute — just might keep custody of her children. But after her recent “MTV Music Video Awards” meltdown, her music career could be as dead as her post-“Crossroads” movie career.

Of course, I also thought we’d seen the last of Mariah Carey. But Carey can actually sing.

But I shouldn’t pile on Britney. I might upset Chris Crocker, a 19-year-old from Tennessee who has obtained Internet infamy with his tearful, babbling YouTube plea for everyone to “leave Britney alone!”

The scary part is that Crocker, whose sole talent seems to be the ability to blubber and scream incoherently, has signed a development deal for his own TV show, according to Variety.

If Crocker’s TV show ever airs, it’ll be just one more travesty for which Britney will have to answer. The next time she appears in court, it may be to deal with a class action lawsuit filed by the American public.

Meanwhile, the Phil Spector saga continues, with the judge in Spector’s murder trial declaring a mistrial Wednesday.

Spector, the bizarre 67-year-old record producer responsible for the Wall of Sound, faces a charge of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson.

Given what his syrupy Wall of Sound production style did to otherwise respectable rock albums, a conviction would have made Spector a serial killer.

With his crazy-old-coot antics and crazier hairdos, I’m surprised Spector’s attorneys didn’t try an insanity defense.

Lost in the hullabaloo is the victim, Clarkson, whose Roger Corman-produced, direct-to-video films “Barbarian Queen” and “Deathstalker” were staples of late-night cable TV in the 1980s.

That was when cable TV still aired programming besides “Law & Order” marathons.

Well, I’m sure Clarkson’s death will be a “ripped from the headlines” episode of “Law & Order” soon enough — assuming it isn’t already.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

NASCAR revs its engines and sends hearts racing

At a local bookshop, the sci-fi section begins where the romance section ends. Otherwise, I would never have discovered what is one of publishing’s strangest marketing tie-ins.

I somehow missed the announcement back in November 2005, but Harlequin, the venerable publisher of disposable romance novels, has entered into an agreement with NASCAR.

In terms of cross-promotion, this ranks up there with last year’s bizarre, one-time (I hope) smash-up between Marvel Comics and the CBS soap opera “Guiding Light.”

The less said about that, the better. You can Google it if you simply must know.

NASCAR’s press release, which I found on the company’s Web site, explains:

“The upcoming novels, written by some of Harlequin’s bestselling authors, will have plotlines centering on NASCAR and will feature the NASCAR brand on their covers. Harlequin will serve as the first and only publisher of women’s fiction for NASCAR.”

That was nearly two years ago. By now, there are more than a dozen Harlequin/NASCAR books in print and testing the limits of multimedia synergy. The titles include “Hearts Under Caution,” “Old Flame, New Sparks,” “Speed Bumps” and “Speed Dating.” The covers usually feature race drivers in the spot formerly reserved for Fabio.

I think this is the sort of thing NASCAR old timers have in mind when they say this isn’t your daddy’s stock car racing. Of course, if NASCAR isn’t what it used to be, neither are NASCAR fans.

Back to NASCAR’s press release: “Research shows that of the 75 million NASCAR fans in this country, 40 percent are female.”

Harlequin is counting on at least a few of those female fans wanting to mix their love of racing with their love of love. And maybe it’s not as crazy an idea as it seems because Harlequin isn’t the only publisher trying to cash in on female race fans.

NASCAR analyst Liz Allison, the widow of late NASCAR driver Davey Allison, recently released “The Girl’s Guide to Winning a NASCAR Driver.” Allison calls her book “tongue-in-cheek” and says it’s “just a fun book of how to daydream about your favorite race car driver.”

I hope her readers are in on the joke. In any case, if you look up Allison’s book at Amazon.com, you’ll see that customers who bought it also purchased Harlequin’s NASCAR books.

This isn’t the first time Harlequin has stepped outside of its traditional romance-novel box. Harlequin also publishes a line of comics drawn in the Japanese manga style.

Given that manga is one of publishing’s major growth categories, it makes sense to try to hook teenage girls on comics in the hope that they’ll eventually graduate to Harlequin’s bread-and-butter bodice rippers.

So, where does Harlequin go next? What other professional sports are ripe for romance?

This could be a whole new medium for David Beckham to conquer. I mean, it’s not as if the Los Angeles Galaxy’s $250 million man is putting in much time on the soccer pitch these days.

Maybe I’m just not creative enough. Every time I try to think of a clever title for a romance novel set in the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball, the result sounds more like the title of the sort of movie you’d find in a video store’s back room, if you see where I’m going.

Apparently, there is a thin line between romance and smut.

Anyway, for all I know, Harlequin has already announced deals with other professional sporting leagues and I just haven’t heard about them.

I could go online and Google the answer, but I really don’t want to find out. After what I saw in the bookshop, I’m starting to think there are some things man was just not meant to know.

As for you women, try to keep it to yourselves.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

What would Jesus do for an iPhone?

It’s symptomatic of the society in which we live that Steve Jobs had to apologize to his customers for lowering the price of Apple’s hip new gizmo, the iPhone.

Ours is a sick society, in which people feel entitled to, well, pretty much whatever they want, usually with someone else paying the tab.

Two months after Apple devotees made a spectacle of themselves, standing in line for days to pay $599 for Apple’s new high-end toy, they’re doing so again. When Jobs announced last week that Apple was lowering the price of the iPhone by $200, many of his staunchest acolytes in the Cult of Apple cried foul.

They had stood in line. They had shelled out nearly $600, plus tax and the cost of phone service. They had extolled the life-changing virtues of the iPhone to anyone who would listen, and some who wouldn’t. And now their hero, Jobs, was slapping them in the face by giving everyone else — the mundanes! — a 33 percent discount! How dare he!

The angry roar was deafening. And a day later, an apologetic Jobs announced that customers who had already purchased a full-price iPhone would receive $100 in credit good for other Apple products.

It was probably a necessary concession, if only to quiet the Cult. But you Apple fans shouldn’t feel too smug because Apple didn’t cheat you in the first place.

Remember when you finally had your brand new iPhone in your grubby little hands? Remember when you were skipping down the street with glee as you left the Apple store? Remember when you were showing off all of your phone’s cool features to your friends?

You were happy then, weren’t you? In fact, you were deliriously, nauseatingly giddy. The rest of us hated you and your stupid iPhone, and that made you even happier.

You would gladly have paid $800 or more to be the first on your block with an iPhone. At $600, it was a steal, even if it meant eating nothing but ramen noodles for a month to pay your rent.

As economists would say, even at $600, your iPhone gave you a big-time consumer surplus.

Then came the price cut, and that sense of entitlement kicked in. As loyal Apple customers, you felt entitled to the same deal everyone else was getting.

In fact, Apple was just practicing smart business. Apple charged one price at first, knowing its most devoted — one might say insanely devoted — customers would happily pay it. Then, later, it started charging a lower price to everyone else.

Because everyone else isn’t insane, but they still might like an iPhone for Christmas.

Economists call that “price discrimination.” That is when businesses try to divide up their customers, charging each group as much as it’s willing to pay. Businesses like to do this when they can because, obviously, some things are worth more to some people and worth less to others.

By being such a rabid Apple cultist, all of you rabid Apple cultists have practically begged Apple to charge you more. There is no use crying about it now.

I know, you Apple folks still think it’s just not fair that you paid more for your iPhone than all those unworthy latecomers did. So, maybe you should ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?”

In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells the story of workers in a vineyard. At the end of the day, the workers who had been there all along receive their previously agreed pay. Meanwhile, the workers hired later in the day receive the same amount.

The workers who had been there all day complain to their boss, saying they deserve more than the latecomers.

The boss, however, reminds them that they were paid the wage to which they had agreed beforehand, so they have no cause to complain.

Thus endeth the lesson.

So, if you’re still upset about “paying too much” for your iPhone, take it up with the man upstairs.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Wikipedia vindicates the wisdom of crowds

Two heads are better than one, or so the saying goes. So, how about 200? Or 2,000? Or maybe 2 million?

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is an experiment based on the premise that there is more wisdom to be found in crowds than among a few experts. Created in 2001 by Huntsville native Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia allows anyone to create and edit entries on a vast array of topics, many of which other encyclopedias ignore.

For instance, you can find entries on the Greek poet Homer, his epic poem of the Trojan War, “The Iliad,” and the latest archaeological finds at the site of the historical Troy. You can also find entries on the 2004 film “Troy” starring Brad Pitt and “Age of Bronze,” a comic-book retelling of the Troy legend.

As you might guess, given the proclivities of many of the Internet’s most computer-savvy users, Wikipedia entries devoted to subjects like “Star Trek” can be every bit if not more detailed than entries about George Washington or quantum physics.

But that is one of Wikipedia’s charms. Where else can the uninitiated learn about Capt. Kirk’s encounter with the Gorn at Cestus III? (If that seems like gibberish, you can always look up “Gorn” at Wikipedia.) Encyclopaedia Britannica can cover only so much. But no topic is too insignificant for Wikipedia.

Not that I’m saying “Star Trek” is insignificant.

Wikipedia, however, has had its share of controversy. Because anyone can edit Wikipedia articles, often anonymously, some entries fall prey to vandalism.

Vandalism can appear as racist, sexist or libelous comments. It can also appear as just plain nonsense. And sometimes people get caught editing their own entries, a kind of stealth public relations.

At the more innocent end of the spectrum, sometimes people editing Wikipedia entries unintentionally insert information that is simply incorrect.

Wikipedia’s critics, often in academia, cite such episodes as proof Wikipedia is not to be trusted. But actually Wikipedia’s vast network of users comprise a pretty good editorial staff, weeding out vandalism almost as soon as it appears and quickly correcting the occasional errors of fact. They’re so effective, Wales says, that overall Wikipedia is almost as accurate as print encyclopedias, which experts take years to compile.

A study published in the journal Nature found that the average Wikipedia article contained four errors, compared to three in a typical Encyclopaedia Britannica article.

The difference, of course, is that Wikipedia errors can be corrected immediately. Britannica errors remain “fact” until the next edition rolls off the presses.

Also, Wikipedia has the benefit of other Web sites that help monitor its content.

Another Alabama native, Virgil Griffith of Mobile, developed Wikipedia Scanner, which helps track who is editing what articles. He was inspired by news reports about politicians whitewashing their own entries.

Wikipedia is now one of the Internet’s most popular sites, and it’s an indispensable first stop for people researching just about any topic. That’s a good vote of confidence, no matter what the experts say; they’re just protecting what was once their exclusive turf.

It’s also vindication for the idea that order can arise spontaneously from disorder. Without any central authority behind them, Wikipedia users police themselves, correct themselves and continue to expand Wikipedia’s scope.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

‘Brokeback’ director’s latest film gets NC-17

For a columnist looking for an ax to grind, the Motion Picture Association of America is the gift that keeps on giving.

This time, the MPAA’s ratings board has slapped Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s latest film with the dreaded NC-17. That will keep out anyone under the age of 17, even with a parent or guardian in tow, and limit the movie’s promotion and distribution.

The film, titled “Lust, Caution,” is Lee’s follow-up to “Brokeback Mountain,” for which he received the 2006 Academy Award for Best Director.

Set during World War II in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, China, “Lust, Caution” is the story of a young Chinese woman, played by newcomer Wei Tang, who seduces an enemy collaborator (Tony Leung of “Hero” and “In the Mood for Love”).

According to a story last week in The Hollywood Reporter, “A source said too many of the film’s sex scenes violated the ratings board’s unwritten rules (like the number of allowable pelvic thrusts, for example),” making an appeal of the NC-17 rating impossible.

Lee’s studio is standing behind him, insisting that “Lust, Caution” will be released as is, with no cuts. But Lee is one of the lucky few in Hollywood with enough clout to get an NC-17-rated film released.

In a town where you’re only as good as your last film, Lee is fortunate this controversy erupted after “Brokeback Mountain” instead of “Hulk.” (I am one of the few critics who will defend Lee’s superheroic bomb.)

Lee’s recently bestowed Oscar helps. So does the fact that the head of Focus Features, which is releasing “Lust, Caution,” is Lee’s longtime collaborator and co-producer James Schamus.

Schamus co-wrote “Lust, Caution,” as well as several of Lee’s previous films, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hulk” and “The Ice Storm.”

Focus Features cannot release “Lust, Caution” without a rating because Focus is a subsidiary of Universal Pictures, which is an MPAA member studio. To Universal’s credit, it isn’t putting up a fight against Schamus’ decision to press on, even with the NC-17. I doubt anyone at Universal is eager to upset one of the studio’s most honored filmmakers.

The 2006 documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” makes a big deal about the MPAA’s double standard when it comes to rating independent films versus studio films, with studio films often getting more leeway. It pays to actually be a member of the club.

But as the case of “Lust, Caution” illustrates, even major studios and their subsidiaries can fall prey to the MPAA’s secretive, idiosyncratic and often maddening ratings process.

Graphic violence might earn a film an R rating. But if a movie shows people enjoying sex too much, it runs the risk of getting lumped in with pornography.

The MPAA introduced the NC-17 rating in 1990 as a replacement for the X rating, but the stigma associated with the old X label remained. As far as many theater owners were concerned, “Henry & June” might as well be “Behind the Green Door.”

The only NC-17 film that so far has received a wide theatrical release is “Showgirls,” but as one of Hollywood’s most notorious bombs, it didn’t do much for the rating’s legitimacy.

The handful of NC-17 films that open in theaters must settle with limited release, even if they star name actors like Ewan McGregor of 2003’s “Young Adam.”

If anything good comes of this latest controversy, it’ll be that a director of Ang Lee’s status will finally do something to remove some of the stigma that clings to the NC-17 rating.

With most real pornography now on home video and the Internet, there is no reason why legitimate films that happen to run afoul of the MPAA’s ratings system should have to suffer.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

MST3K formula gets new life with The Film Crew

Eight years after their Satellite of Love crashed back to Earth, three of the guys behind “Mystery Science Theater 3000” have a new gig.

Like before, it involves talking during movies.

Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett are The Film Crew, and their mission is to see to it that every movie has a commentary track. Unfortunately for them, their boss, Bob Honcho, assigns them the worst of the worst.

Nobody ever said commentary tracks should be reserved for DVDs of “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane.” Or “Showgirls.”

That’s the premise. But it’s just an excuse for Nelson, Murphy and Corbett to do what they do best: make fun of bad movies.

“Mystery Science Theater 3000” ran for 11 years in all, becoming for a time one of Comedy Central’s most popular shows. It survived a major cast change when creator Joel Hodgson left and head writer Nelson stepped into the lead role, as a temp forced to watch bad movies as part of a mad scientist’s ongoing experiment. MST3K, as it became known, also survived a change of networks, moving to the Sci-Fi Channel for its final four seasons.

Along the way, MST3K won a Peabody Award and the admiration of both fans and critics.

By the time MST3K moved to Sci-Fi, its core cast was Nelson as the aptly named Mike Nelson, Murphy and Corbett as his robot sidekicks, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, and Mary Jo Pehl as mad scientist Pearl Forrester. Murphy and Corbett pulled double duty as Pearl’s unwilling assistants.

Now, the satellite is gone, the mad scientist is gone, and Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot are gone, but The Film Crew carries on MST3K’s proud spirit.

And it does so without even being on television. The Film Crew’s barbs go directly to DVD.

So far, four Film Crew DVDs have been announced and two are already in stores. All are truly awful movies in dire need of a good ribbing.

‘Hollywood After Dark’

First up is “Hollywood After Dark,” a 1968 exploitation film in which a young Rue McClanahan (“The Golden Girls”) plays a stripper who gets involved with the mob while looking for her big Hollywood break.

By “young,” I mean she was 34. Unfortunately, she looks 54, which should alert you to the dangers of B-movie filmmaking. There sometimes isn’t money in the budget for decent lighting. But if any Golden Girl had to star in a movie about a stripper, at least it wasn’t Bea Arthur.

‘Killers from Space’

Next is “Killers from Space” (1954), starring a pre-“Mission: Impossible” Peter Graves.

Graves plays a scientist who goes up against ping-pong-ball-eyed spacemen bent on conquering the Earth with their army of giant insects and lizards, which, of course, are actually ordinary insects and lizards shot on model sets.

If this plot sounds a bit familiar, it’s because Graves also played scientists squaring off against giant insects in 1957’s “The Beginning of the End” and evil extraterrestrials in 1956’s “It Conquered the World,” both of which received their MST3K comeuppance.

Are these movies bad? They’re almost unwatchable. Fortunately The Film Crew’s comic skewering of these cinematic atrocities makes it all worthwhile. The Film Crew will never even approach the Comedy Central heyday of MST3K, but I’ll take what I can get.

What’s next?

Up next for The Film Crew is “The Wild Women of Wongo,” in which a tribe of beautiful cavewomen steals attractive cavemen from a tribe of ugly cavewomen. There is probably a college women’s studies class somewhere that would also like to riff that film. The DVD hits store shelves Sept. 11.

And on Oct. 9, the crew grapples with “Giant of Marathon,” in which oily bodybuilder Steve Reeves plays yet another variation of his most famous role, Hercules.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

British mogul set tone for 1960s cult television

Patrick McGoohan in "The Prisoner."
The copy on the book’s back cover says, “Think of any cult/fantasy television show of the 1960s or ’70s and the chances are that they were created by ITC ...”

That may be a bit of an overstatement, but just a bit.

The book in question is Robert Sellers’ “Cult TV: The Golden Age of ITC.” It’s an anecdote-filled history of one of the world’s most successful TV production companies, the Incorporated Television Company, better known simply as ITC.

Yet even if you’ve never heard of ITC, you’ve almost certainly heard of its shows, especially if you’re showing a little gray around the temples.

From the mid-1950s until its last gasp in the early ’80s, ITC produced cult classics like “Danger Man” (known in the U.S. as “Secret Agent”), “The Saint,” “Thunderbirds,” “The Prisoner,” “Space: 1999” and “The Muppet Show.”

Now it’s all coming back to you, isn’t it?

The prime mover behind ITC was its founder and chairman, Lew Grade.

A Jewish immigrant who grew up in London’s East End, Lew Grade rose to become Britain’s foremost media mogul. With his trademark cigars and uncanny deal-making abilities, Grade was a throwback to studio heads of Hollywood’s Golden Age — Britain’s answer to Louis B. Mayer (MGM) and Jack Warner (Warner Bros.).

When Britain ended the BBC’s broadcast monopoly in 1954, Grade’s ITC began producing programs for the new commercial network, Independent Television, or ITV. But Grade had larger ambitions. He wanted to make shows he could sell worldwide, and especially in the lucrative U.S. market.

So, ITC shot all of its programs on film rather than video to better compete with its slick American competition. Grade also wasn’t shy about hiring American actors.

Not everyone in Britain was happy with Grade’s approach. Some complained that ITC was making shows for Birmingham, Ala., instead of Birmingham, England. But they couldn’t dispute ITC’s success.

“Danger Man,” starring Patrick McGoohan as spy John Drake, became an international sensation. And McGoohan became such an important part of ITC that Grade couldn’t say no when McGoohan later proposed a series called “The Prisoner.”

Running only 17 episodes, “The Prisoner” is ITC’s most enduring program. McGoohan plays a former spy known only as Number Six. He is held captive in a dystopian community called The Village, where interrogators attempt to pry his secrets from him.

While superficially just another adventure show, “The Prisoner” is, at heart, a libertarian allegory pitting the individual against society, culminating in a surreal final episode that academics and fans alike are still trying to decode 40 years after it originally aired.

While ITC’s other shows didn’t attempt to reach “The Prisoner’s” artistic heights, most never failed to entertain. After “Danger Man,” “The Saint,” starring a young Roger Moore, was ITC’s signature hit. Moore followed up with “The Persuaders,” co-staring Tony Curtis, whom Grade personally persuaded to leap from movies to television.

But perhaps Grade’s most cherished accomplishment was “The Muppet Show.” When no American producer would back Jim Henson and his friends Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, Grade stepped in. And the world is a better place because of it.

Eventually, Grade shifted his focus to movies, leading both to hits like “On Golden Pond” and flops like “Raise the Titanic.” ITC’s last TV show aired in 1981. But its legacy remains. ITC programs still air on British television, and many of ITC’s best are available on DVD in the U.S.

Not bad for an immigrant boy who grew up in the bad part of town.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Anthony Bourdain has the best job in the world

When it comes to Anthony Bourdain, I’m torn between hero worship and mad, murderous jealousy.

Bourdain joined, unwittingly perhaps, the ever-growing population of celebrity chefs with the publication in 2000 of “Kitchen Confidential,” a darkly brilliant work that is half memoir and half guided tour of New York City’s seedy culinary scene.

Of course, based on my experience with chefs, placing the word “seedy” before the words “culinary scene” is redundant. Not that that’s a bad thing.

Since then, Bourdain has ensured his reputation as the bad boy of food, both on TV and in print. Last year saw the publication of “The Nasty Bits,” a collection of Bourdain’s essays, which are to food and travel writing what Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism was to politics. The new season of Bourdain’s Travel Channel series “No Reservations” began two weeks ago, and the first season was released on DVD in March.

Formerly the executive chef at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, Bourdain is now the restaurant’s “chef at large,” which apparently means he never has to show up for work. This leaves the increasingly restless Bourdain with plenty of time to travel the world, “No Reservations” production crew in tow.

As Bourdain says at the beginning of every “No Reservations” episode, he writes, eats and travels, and he’s hungry for more. He is the only chef on TV who never has to cook for himself. No doubt, it’s great work if you can get it.

I only get to write and eat, and I don’t eat nearly as well as Bourdain does because I don’t travel. Let’s just say I have a running feud with the Transportation Security Administration. So, I live vicariously through Bourdain, who goes to wonderful places and eats unforgettable meals.

Mind you, some of the meals are unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. Bourdain has described the warthog anus he was served in Namibia as the worst meal he has ever had. I’ll take his word for it. Better him than me, after all. But still, you have to admire his fortitude.

For Bourdain, food is a social, even cultural experience. Snubbing the local cuisine isn’t just rude, it’s antisocial. That’s one reason Bourdain hates militant vegetarians and, as he puts it, “their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans.” If you don’t eat meat, you’re turning your back on the vast majority of the world’s cultures.

Bourdain dislikes all of the right people. His attacks on Food Network chef/talk show host Rachael Ray — he calls her a “bobblehead” — are a joy forever. He also has unloaded both barrels on actor/raw food evangelist Woody Harrelson.

But the main reason I admire Bourdain is he is a champion of freedom. He stands up to activists who want to ban foie gras, as Chicago has already done, and government busybodies who outlaw food that is commonplace in the rest of the world, like unpasteurized cheese.

Yes, my fellow Americans, unless you leave the U.S., you’ll never (legally) know what truly wonderful, stinky, delicious cheese is like. But, hey, at least you’ll still have Velveeta.

During an episode of “No Reservations” set in Paris, Bourdain observed that almost everything done in one French restaurant he visited would be illegal if done in a kitchen in New York. Yet you don’t see Parisians dropping dead of food poisoning. And they’re not as fat as we are, either.

Irascible, profane, irreverent and an unrepentant chain smoker and hedonist, Bourdain has become one of my heroes. If I were a woman, I’d want to have his children.

He also has the best job in the world, the lucky (expletive deleted).

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Soap opera physics could destroy the universe

You think about strange things when you’re stuck at home with a 103-degree fever and the room is spinning.

Did you know that the laws of physics don’t apply to soap operas? It’s true. For one thing, time in soap operas isn’t a constant.

One character can start the day on the other side of the world, hop on a jet and arrive home hours later. Meanwhile, another couple of characters can have a conversation over drinks. All the while, the soap opera cuts back and forth between the two scenes as if they’re taking place over the same period of time. Clearly, something isn’t right. Time is moving more quickly for some characters than it does for others.

It isn’t widely known, but this is the problem Albert Einstein was trying to solve when he formulated his theory of special relativity. It goes something like this: For any child separated from his or her parents on a soap opera, time will speed up by a factor of 10 until child and parents are reunited.

As a result, any child sent to boarding school for two years of Earth Standard Time will return 20 years older than when he or she left. Because of this, lots of 5-year-olds have left for kindergarten only to return a short time later, ready to produce children of their own.

Of course, if you fool around with the time stream as often as soap operas do, it’s inevitable that you’ll accidentally create alternate timelines, which are bound to give you lots of evil twins. That’s the real reason there are so many evil twins on daytime TV.

No daytime drama is a greater threat to the space-time continuum than “Days of Our Lives.” This, after all, is the soap that once had a major character possessed by the devil. Every time I accidentally watch an episode of “Days,” I’m confused. People who are supposed to be dead aren’t, and people who are supposed to be good have gone bad.

For example, Thaao Penghlis has played “Days” character Tony DiMera on and off since the early 1980s. In that time, Tony has been good, evil, alive and dead more times than I can count.

While waiting on my meds to kick in, I learned Tony is once again alive and apparently evil. Then I went to the drug store for more meds and saw a soap-opera tabloid that claimed Tony is his own evil twin. Or maybe he’s the good twin. Who can keep up? Probably Einstein could if he weren’t dead.

My fever finally broke, but not before I had a flashback to a confusing period when “Days” featured three actors all of whom had, at one time or another, played the same character. At that time, two of them were playing different roles, and the actor playing the part all three had in common was the one who had started his “Days” career as yet someone else.

Those “Days” folks sure do play fast and loose with the laws of the universe. It’ll be their fault when reality starts to unravel.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Internet is a chamber of secrets for Potter fans

Several of my friends are under an “Internet blackout.” They won’t venture online until after they’ve finished reading “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the seventh and final installment in the adventures of the famous Mr. Potter.

That’s probably a good idea, as apparently the entire book has leaked online, with every page photographed and available via various BitTorrent file-sharing sites. As I write, The Washington Post claims only the first 495 pages of “Deathly Hallows” are online, but Salon.com disagrees and says it’s all there.

For Harry Potter fans, the entire World Wide Web is now a chamber of secrets: Enter at your own peril.

I haven’t read the whole thing. I’m not a rabid Potter fan and have no desire to download the book. But I have seen a few of the leaked pages (unless they are elaborate fakes) and a summary of all of the sorts of things you probably don’t want to know.

Not to worry. I’m not telling.

At any rate, Scholastic, J.K. Rowling’s U.S. publisher, is reportedly readying its legal team to sue the trousers off whoever leaked “Deathly Hallows” in the first place. So, my attorney advises me against saying anything.

It’s times like this when I’m glad the Internet wasn’t around when I was young. I didn’t have to go out of my way to avoid the great spoilers of my childhood, like Spock dying in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” or Darth Vader revealing that he is Luke Skywalker’s father in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Sorry if you didn’t know those plot twists already. I can’t be held responsible if you’ve been living in a cave. Besides, Spock got better.

Oh, and while I’m at it: Rosebud was Charles Foster Kane’s sled, Soylent Green is people, and “To Serve Man” is a cookbook.

I’d give away the ending to “Sleepaway Camp,” but you don’t care, anyway.

But don’t worry. I’m not going to spoil anything recent. The only time I’ve ever done that was when a friend and I saw “The Sixth Sense” and, five minutes into the movie, I leaned over and whispered the big twist. But I didn’t know. I was just guessing. It’s not my fault that it’s so obvious.

Wait. I did tell a few people the ending of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village,” but that was just to spare them the agony of sitting through the movie.

As important as spoilers for books, movies and TV shows have become, it’s amazing that the modern definition of the word “spoiler” isn’t yet in Webster’s or the Oxford English Dictionary. Clearly, English-speaking lexicographers are dropping the ball. Even Roger Ebert now sometimes warns of spoilers in his movie reviews.

(While I was writing that last paragraph, another friend went online and threatened bodily harm to anyone who spoils the final Harry Potter book for her. She is 34 years old.)

Unlike Scholastic, however, some publishers actually make a point of leaking spoilers to the media before readers have a chance to read for themselves. I’m speaking, of course, of Marvel Comics and DC Comics, which alert The New York Times and The New York Post every time something major happens to one of their characters. If Captain America dies or Spider-Man reveals his secret identity to the world, it’ll be on CNN before you have a chance to track down a copy of the comic book in question.

It just goes to show that Marvel and DC aren’t really in the storytelling business anymore. They’re in the business of promoting their trademarked characters, which they can then license for movies, toys and video games. This may be why I don’t read superhero comics anymore.

As for everyone who still does care about storytelling, remember: Think twice before you click on that link.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The movie with no name generates early buzz

The most interesting thing about director Michael Bay’s “Transformers” isn’t the movie itself. If you want a movie about giant robots who moonlight as cars and airplanes, the 1986 animated version, “Transformers: The Movie,” is a better deal.

No, the most interesting thing is the mysterious teaser trailer screening before “Transformers” — a teaser for a movie that doesn’t yet have a title.

The Internet Movie Database refers to the film as the “Untitled J.J. Abrams Project.” But rumors have floated around the Internet for weeks, usually citing the working title “Cloverfield.” Probably no bogus movie name has generated so much buzz since George Lucas began work on a film called “Blue Harvest” — better known as “Return of the Jedi.”

For now, “Cloverfield” will have to do. Executive producer J.J. Abrams (“Alias,” “Lost”) isn’t giving up many hints. On Monday, Ain’t It Cool News posted a letter from Abrams in which he denied any connection to two Web sites that seem to be part of a viral marketing campaign for the film: www.ethanhaaswasright.com and ethanhaaswaswrong.blogspot.com.

Whoever “Ethan Haas” is, the Ethan Haas Was Right site, which invites visitors to solve puzzles in order to uncover Haas’ prophecies of impending doom, looks pretty professional not to be part of some elaborate marketing scheme.

So far, Abrams said, fans have discovered only one legitimate “Cloverfield” Web site, 1-18-08.com, named for the film’s scheduled Jan. 18 release date.

The trailer itself is doing a good job of generating interest. At first, it appears to be home-video footage of a party. Maybe the movie is a comedy? Then things take a slightly darker tone, and you think, “A drama? Maybe a thriller?”

Then the explosions start, and the person holding the camera, along with the other partygoers, heads outside just in time to catch a blast lighting up the night sky, followed by what sounds like a roar.

When I saw the trailer in the theater, people in the audience were, at this point, asking each other, “Is that Godzilla?”

Godzilla doesn’t appear. But the next thing you see are buildings crumbling and cars flying across the city. Then something crashes in the street below.

It’s the severed head of the Statue of Liberty.

We’re in New York City, and Really Bad Things are happening.

Then the trailer ends with that date: 1-18-08. So, whatever is happening, you’ll have to wait seven months to find out.

That’s brilliant marketing.

Judging from just the trailer, the film currently known as “Cloverfield” looks like “Godzilla” meets “The Blair Witch Project” — a monster movie told from the point of view of amateur video. Probably not coincidentally, “The Blair Witch Project” is another film that took full advantage of an unorthodox marketing campaign, which had a lot of moviegoers convinced the film was a legitimate documentary rather than a clever work of fiction.

All we know about “Cloverfield” is Abrams is producing it, “Felicity” creator Matt Reeves is directing it, Drew Goddard (“Alias,” “Lost”) is writing its screenplay and it stars a cast of unknowns, who reportedly weren’t even allowed to see the script before they signed on.

For now, we’re left to guess. Is the entire film going to be “home movie” footage, or was that just a trick to throw us off. Is there really a giant, Godzilla-like monster? And what is up with all of this Ethan Haas stuff, which makes the movie look like some sort of cosmic doomsday out of the pages of an H.P. Lovecraft story?

That ought to keep people talking until January.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

British TV’s ‘Hex’ should leave viewers bewitched

This usually works the other way around. American producers find a clever British TV show, adapt it for the U.S. and spring it on an unknowing audience.

“The Office” and “Three’s Company” are two successful American shows based on series that aired originally in Britain.

“Amanda’s,” based on “Fawlty Towers,” is an unsuccessful one. Which is probably why no one remembers it.

But occasionally, an American show will have such an impact in Britain that it will spawn imitators there. Such is “Hex.”

When it first aired, “Hex” had a reputation as the British answer to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Actually, its first season has more in common with “Charmed.” The more Buffyesque plots don’t kick in until the second season, which is currently airing on BBC America.

The show’s first 10 episodes — all six episodes of season 1 and the first four of season 2 — are now available on DVD. The three-disc box set lists for $49.95, with most retailers knocking at least $10 off that.

Set at an isolated boarding school that once belonged to a woman who more than dabbled in the occult, “Hex” follows a shy student named Cassie (Christina Cole), who discovers she has both supernatural powers and a mysterious link to the late lady of the house.

That would normally be enough for any teenager to cope with, but Cassie’s problems are just beginning. As soon as her powers start to manifest themselves, she attracts the attention of a mysterious stranger, who spends most of his time lurking in the mists just off the estate and doing his best impression of a tortured Jane Austen hero — except evil.

The stranger is Azazeal (Michael Fassbender), leader of a group of fallen angels. And fallen angels are always bad news.

Cassie’s only real friend is her roommate, Thelma (Jemima Rooper), who happens to have an unrequited crush on Cassie. This is doubly bad news for Thelma, who ends up dead by Azazeal’s hand by the end of the second episode.

Normally, I wouldn’t spoil a major character death like that in a review like this, but in this case, there is life after death. When Thelma shows up at her own funeral, it’s obvious: She is a ghost, and she isn’t going anywhere soon — even if Cassie is the only mortal who can see her.

So, it’s up to Cassie and her ghostly and even-more-frustrated-than-ever best friend to unravel the mystery of Cassie’s powers and figure out what Azazeal wants, besides wanting Cassie, which he makes clear at every opportunity. It’s fate, he says.

While “Hex” lacks the self-conscious, pop-culture humor of “Buffy,” it doesn’t wallow in the sheer goofiness that made “Charmed” often too painful to watch.

What it has that those two shows lack, however, is gorgeous cinematography. The producers of “Hex” take full advantage of their rural English setting, and every episode has the look and feel of a movie.

They’re also not afraid to take chances. The seventh episode introduces a new character, Ella Dee (Laura Pyper), a 500-year-old demon hunter with impeccable taste in Goth fashion, who sends the series in a totally new direction. If Ella and Buffy were to ever face off, my money would be on Ella.

Note to movie producers: Pyper is an excellent actress who needs more work.

Although the DVD box set ends four episodes into season 2, it nevertheless ends with a perfect cliffhanger, which will leave anyone hooked by the first 10 episodes eagerly awaiting the show’s final nine episodes.

It’s just a shame “Hex” ended after just two seasons.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Movie studios tease fans with Halloween DVDs

Summer has just begun, but, right on schedule, I’m getting my annual, premature bout of Halloween anticipation.

It’s not my fault. It’s simply that this is the time of year that movie studios announce release dates for the horror movies they plan to release on DVD in time for the Halloween season. Halloween is big business, and Americans spend more money celebrating it than on any other holiday except Christmas. Hollywood isn’t about to be left out of the cash bonanza.

In years past, I could count on MGM raiding its vaults and releasing at least half a dozen chillers from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Then Sony Pictures purchased a stake in MGM, and MGM’s “Midnite Movies” line went dormant.

Sony’s co-investors were not pleased. Not only did Sony fail to exploit MGM’s catalog of horror titles, Sony didn’t get anywhere with most of MGM’s movie library. So, the other investors took charge and sold the DVD rights to MGM’s films to Fox.

It’s taken a while, but that move is finally paying off for fans of vintage horror. Fox has more than a dozen releases planned for Sept. 11. The list includes MGM-owned films plus several of Fox’s own. Most retailers are already accepting pre-orders.

The bulk of Fox’s announced releases are two-disc double features:

  • “The Beast with a Million Eyes” and “Phantom From 10,000 Leagues”
  • “The Beast Within” and “The Bat People”
  • “Blueprint for Murder” and “Man in the Attic”
  • “Chosen Survivors” and “The Earth Dies Screaming”
  • “Devils of Darkness” and “Witchcraft”
  • “Gorilla at Large” and “Mystery at Monster Island”
  • “The House on Skull Mountain” and “The Mephisto Waltz”
  • “Konga” and “Yongary, Monster From the Deep”
  • “Pharaoh’s Curse” and “Curse of the Faceless Man”
  • “Return of Dracula” and “The Vampire”
  • “Tales From the Crypt” and “Vault of Horror”

The best of the double features is “Tales from the Crypt”/“Vault of Horror.” Produced by Amicus Productions and released in 1972 and ’73, respectively, both films are anthologies based on EC Comics stories. Amicus specialized in horror anthologies, and these are two of the studio’s best.

Like all Amicus films of the period, both boast casts filled with well-known British character actors, including Joan Collins (“Dynasty”), Peter Cushing (“Star Wars”), Denholm Elliott (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and Tom Baker (“Doctor Who”).

Also on Sept. 11, Fox will release a three-movie set featuring the 1958 version of “The Fly” and it’s two sequels, “Return of the Fly” and “Curse of the Fly.” Horror icon Vincent Price takes a bow in the long-awaited DVD release of “The Witchfinder General” (aka “The Conqueror Worm”). And giant animals terrorize mankind in the 1976 schlockfest “Food of the Gods,” loosely based on an equally silly H.G. Wells story.

But I’ve saved the best for last: director Stuart Gordon’s second foray into the bloodcurdling tales of H.P. Lovecraft — “From Beyond.”

“From Beyond” reunites Gordon with “Re-Animator” stars Jeffery Combs (“Star Trek: Enterprise”) and Barbara Crampton (“The Young and the Restless”) for a tale of blood, guts and otherworldly monsters.

The “special edition” Fox/MGM DVD brings Gordon’s original version to America for the first time. The theatrical version released in 1986 omitted some gore and part of Crampton’s infamous “S&M” scene in order to get an R rating. The new disc restores the film to its intended glory.

That’s enough horror on DVD to frighten almost anyone, not the least of which is my bank account.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fans take possession of their favorite fictional characters

Officially, George Lucas decides who gets to tell “Star Wars” stories and Paramount Pictures controls the “Star Trek” franchise. But fans of those and other fictional worlds have their own ideas.

Lots of them.

While big media companies can sometimes go overboard when enforcing their copyrights and trademarks, most have gotten the message that it isn’t wise to irritate their fans. So, they increasingly pretend not to notice when those fans play around with the companies’ intellectual property. As a result, fan-made films are popping up all over the Internet.

Only true “Star Wars” fans like filmmakers Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda, for example, could turn Darth Vader into a comedian.

Well, technically it’s not Darth Vader. It’s Chad Vader, Darth Vader’s hapless brother. But they wear the same costume, and they both sound like James Earl Jones.

Chad Vader, however, isn’t a dark lord of the Sith. He’s the day-shift manager at a supermarket. He has an overbearing boss and an unrequited crush on one of his co-workers. But occasionally he does threaten the stock boys with his lightsaber, not that they’re all that impressed.

Chad is also the star of “Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager,” a popular series of short films online at Youtube.com and Sloan and Yonda’s Web site, BlameSociety.net.

Another comedic take on the “Star Wars” saga is the “Pink Five” series (www.PinkFive.com), which follows a clueless, fast-talking Valley Girl named Stacey, who is always one step behind the story’s heroes and refers to Han Solo has her “boyfriend,” although they’re keeping things quiet so “Princess Hairstyle doesn’t freak out.”

While he is usually overprotective of the “Star Wars” name, Lucas has embraced the community of amateur filmmakers that has grown up around “Star Wars.” He sponsors the annual Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards, and both “Chad Vader” and “Pink Five” are winners of the contest’s highest honor, the George Lucas Selects Award.

Fan fiction, stories fans write featuring their favorite fictional characters, has been a staple of the Internet almost since there was an Internet. You can find fan-written stories about almost anything, from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to comic-book superheroes to 1980s cartoon characters. And that’s not counting the stories that mix and match characters from different works. I’m sure someone has written a story about Hannibal Lecter somehow ending up in Victorian London where he is chased by Sherlock Holmes.

And if no one has written that story, someone soon will now that I’ve given them the idea. I could Google it to be sure, but I don’t necessarily want to know.

Some of these stories are funny. Some are serious. And an awful lot are erotic — or pornographic, the difference usually being how well written they are. There is an entire sub-genre of “Star Trek” fan fiction in which Kirk and Spock are more than just friends. The now ubiquitous online term “slash,” used for erotic fan fiction, came from writers labeling their stories as, for example, “Kirk/Spock.”

Fan films are the inevitable next step up from fan fiction. Although, so far, there are no “slash” fan films I know of. If they exist, don’t tell me.

With the cost of digital video cameras and editing equipment going down, almost anyone can make a short film — even one heavy on special effects.

The results can be lame, but they can also be amazing. The best “Star Wars” fan film I’ve seen is “Troops,” a hilarious mash-up of “Star Wars” and the Fox TV show “Cops.” In this case, the “cops” are Imperial Stormtroopers. The suspects in this parody are definitely not presumed innocent.

Some Hollywood filmmakers have long admitted that their works really belong to their fans. Now, however, that’s actually true.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

’80s nostalgia grips Hollywood, storms theaters

Either I’m imagining things, or Hollywood is in the grip of nostalgia for the decade of President Reagan and hair bands.

On July 3, “Transformers” opens in theaters across North America. This big-budget sci-fi/action movie from executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Michael Bay is one of this summer’s most anticipated films — and not because everyone suddenly thinks Bay has learned how to direct.

No, it’s because “Transformers” has a built-in audience of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who grew up playing with Transformers toys, reading Transformers comic books and watching Transformers cartoons during the mid-1980s.

But the Transformers franchise is only the first ’80s pop-culture touchstone Hollywood has decided to resurrect in hopes of cashing in on Generation X nostalgia.

Warner Bros. has two projects in the pipeline. The first is a live-action movie based on “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” with Joel Silver (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Matrix”) producing. The second is a computer-animated revival of “Thundercats,” with a script (for now) by newcomer Paul Sopocy.

Silver is already producing another nostalgia piece, “Speed Racer,” based on the 1960s Japanese cartoon, and he’ll be the second producer to take a stab at a live-action “He-Man” movie. The first attempt, starring Dolph Lundgren, staggered into theaters in 1987 and stumbled out about a week later.

Why the upcoming “Thundercats” movie rates only animation instead of live action is a mystery to me. There are at least as many aging “Thundercats” fans as there are “He-Man” fans. I guess it’ll save the actors from suffering through the hours of makeup needed to transform them into cat people. But it’ll also deprive me of seeing a suitable actress, say, Rebecca Romijn, made up as a cat person.

I’d pay good money to see that, and so would a lot of other guys my age, whether or not they’ll admit to thinking Cheetara was hot in the ’80s “Thundercats” cartoon series.

Don’t look so shocked. Teenage boys know sexually attractive cartoon characters when they see them. And according to at least one female friend of mine who had a thing for He-Man, girls are no different. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s one reason why Hollywood is pitching revamped versions of ’80s children’s shows to people who are now adults.

Speaking of sexy cartoon characters, my favorite, the Baroness, is set to appear in a live-action movie based on yet another 1980s property, “G.I. Joe.” Paramount has picked up the rights to the toy/cartoon/comic-book franchise about an elite, top-secret military unit and its fight against Cobra, the ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.

Of course, since the Baroness is a member of Cobra, this is one instance when I’m on the side of the terrorists. Sorry, but I can’t resist a woman in leather.

Assuming there are no delays, however, the “G.I. Joe” movie may not be out until at least 2010, the date currently listed online at the Internet Movie Database.

Even then, it may be called something other than “G.I. Joe,” at least overseas. According to one early report, the film’s producer doesn’t think foreign audiences will flock to a movie named “G.I. Joe.” Apparently this has something to do with President Bush having ruined America’s reputation abroad, where U.S. action movies typically make a hefty portion of their earnings.

Funny. Back in the ’80s, foreign audiences had no trouble with the “Rambo” movies. I guess some things really do change.