Thursday, December 29, 2011

Culture Shock 12.29.11: Not everything was annoying in 2011

Once again, it's time to say goodbye and good riddance to another year.

As far as years go, 2011 isn't winning any awards, but at least it isn't the end of the world. For that, we have to wait until next December, or so I'm told by people who don't really understand how calendars work.

On Dec. 21, 2012, the Mayan calendar "runs out." This uneventful event is apparently regarded as cosmically significant by people who don't realize that our own Gregorian calendar runs out every Dec. 31 — at which point it cycles back to the beginning, as it has since it was introduced in 1582, replacing the Julian calendar, which ran out with virtually identical frequency, give or take a few doomsdays.

At this point, however, if the world did end, I'd be hard pressed to say we didn't have it coming.

When I look back at 2011 and see that one of the cultural high points was the return of "Beavis and Butt-Head" to MTV, I know the pickings are pretty slim.

Still, in keeping with the spirit of the season, here are a few things that did not annoy me in 2011:

The sixth season of "Doctor Who" was the best since the show's revival in 2005, and Matt Smith firmly established himself as my favorite Doctor since Tom Baker's tenure in the 1970s.

"House" is never going to be as good as the first three seasons were, but at least the current Cuddy-free season is an improvement over last year's. Nothing against departed co-star Lisa Edelstein, but after the writers decided to have House and Cuddy get together — and then break up — her leaving was the only thing that could save the show. It has been more than 20 years since Dave and Maddie's kiss of death on "Moonlighting," yet TV writers still tempt fate.

C'est la vie.

At the movies, the best of the best was Werner Herzog's 3-D documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

For superhero movies, it was a down year, with "X-Men: First Class" the best of the bunch, despite glaring flaws like January Jones' non-performance. I have higher hopes in 2012 for "The Avengers," but I'm worried about "The Dark Knight Rises," which seems dangerously close to taking the whole "taking Batman seriously" thing way too seriously.

Apart from "The Avengers," the two films I'm most anticipating are both prequels: Ridley Scott's "Alien" prequel "Prometheus," and Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," featuring Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. (If you're honest, you'll admit "The Hobbit" is a much better story than the bloated "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.) Speaking of Martin Freeman, he and Benedict Cumberbatch return next year for a second season of "Sherlock," the BBC's modern-day version of Sherlock Holmes, from the creative team of Mark Gatiss ("League of Gentlemen") and Steven Moffat ("Doctor Who").

The best books I read in 2011 were mostly nonfiction: "The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human" by V.S. Ramachandran and "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark," Brian Kellow's biography of the still-influential New Yorker movie critic whose style the rest of us all lamely try to imitate.

I'll have to take an incomplete on Haruki Murakami's newly translated novel "1Q84," which I've just started and is approximately the length of the Tokyo phone directory.

And lastly, on the music front, a word of advice: If you have a chance to see thepau Alabama Shakes perform live, take it. This little band, originally from Athens — as am I, so I confess a slight bias — is probably about to hit it big, and deservedly so.

For the Shakes, 2011 wasn't a bad year at all. But 2012 will be even better.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Culture Shock 12.22.11: When you wish upon a Wish Book

There it is was, on page 442. Seven and a half feet long, and the Holy Grail of G.I. Joe toys — the G.I. Joe aircraft carrier.

At a retail price of $109.99 — in 1985 dollars — you had to be a very good boy indeed for Santa to leave that under your Christmas tree.

I was never that good, but that's why they called it the "Wish Book," wasn't it?

Before the Internet killed the catalog business, you knew the Christmas shopping season had begun when the Sears Wish Book arrived in your mailbox. There were other catalogs — the J.C. Penny catalog wasn't bad — but none had the allure of the Wish Book. Whether you were a boy or a girl, it had just what you were looking for, whether or not you knew you were looking for it.

That's my idea of an "old-fashioned Christmas."

From remote-controlled airplanes and Teddy Ruxpin storytelling bears to Cabbage Patch Kids and the Atari 2600, the Wish Book was an illustrated guidebook to Christmas bliss.

You leafed through its slick, glossy pages — past the clothes and furniture, bedroom linens and other boring, adult things — and you stared in wonder, not just at the fancy, high-end toys that you suspected might be outside of Santa's price range, but at the elaborate displays of toys in action.

A two-page layout of "Star Wars" action figures might feature dozens of Stormtrooper action figures. Now that was more like it! Not just the one or two Stormtrooper figures you had, but an entire legion!

That was what you needed if you were serious about recreating scenes from the movies.

Just think: It was someone's job to put together those Wish Book photo shoots. Now that must have been a dream job.

The Internet has changed all that. Sears closed its catalog business in the early 1990s.

Nevermore a Wish Book. But while the Internet is great for ordering things, no website has yet come up with a browsing experience that equals sitting down with a fat, heavy catalog in your lap.

But when you had your wish list, what to do next?

Why, time to take it to the man himself, of course. Santa.

Today, you send a letter or email, or maybe you visit Santa's helper in the red suit at the nearest shopping mall. But there used to be a more ostentatious way of going about it.

Believe it or not, there was a time when TV stations aired shows that were nothing but young children sitting on Santa's lap and telling him what they wanted for Christmas. One of these was "The Santa Show," which aired Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in December on WAAY-31, taking half of the half-hour time slot usually devoted to cartoons.

A similar show aired for a time on what was then the Shoals area's NBC affiliate, WOWL-15.

Unfortunately, little video evidence of "The Santa Show" remains. You can find almost anything on the Internet, but the only video footage I could locate was a partial episode from 1982 (see vimeo.com/24661874).

I can only assume that most children whose parents videotaped their appearance on "The Santa Show" either destroyed the evidence or are too embarrassed by it to upload it to YouTube.

As I explain to my younger friends who don't remember much of the 1980s, to say nothing of the '70s, it was a different time back then.

Local TV stations were desperate for programming and would air almost anything.

It was a strange time in American history: getting big books in the mail, writing lists on paper and sitting on Santa's lap on local television.

Our children will never believe it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Culture Shock 12.15.11: Superheroes are real, and they look like us

Phoenix Jones is a superhero, or a reasonable facsimile.

For the past year, he has patrolled the neighborhoods of Seattle, stopping fights, changing tires and staring down drug dealers.

Despite incidents that have landed him in the emergency room, he has, amazingly, avoided a trip to the morgue.

Even more amazing, Phoenix Jones isn't alone.

According to journalist Jon Ronson, Phoenix Jones is one of about 200 self-styled, costumed superheroes operating from the Pacific Northwest to Florida.

None, however, embraces the calling as thoroughly as Phoenix Jones.

Ronson explores their comic-book-come-to-life world in his new e-book, "The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones: And the Less Amazing Adventures of Some Other Real-Life Superheroes."

Phoenix Jones doesn't have any super powers. He hasn't been bitten by a radioactive spider or survived a gamma-bomb explosion.

He isn't a billionaire with a cave full of high-tech equipment, which makes you wonder why billionaire do-gooders such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are such slackers. He isn't even a strange visitor from another planet, although that seems almost plausible compared to the truth.

Phoenix Jones does, however, have an origin story of sorts.

After someone broke into his car and his stepson cut his knee on the shattered glass, the man who would become Phoenix Jones took the mask the robber left behind and made it part of a costume.

"They use the mask to conceal their identity," Phoenix Jones tells Ronson. "I use the mask to become an identity."

That's how superheroes talk.

Ronson is no stranger to true stories that are nearly impossible to believe. He also is the author of "The Men Who Stare at Goats," the true story of the U.S. military's forays into spending your tax dollars on paranormal research. (That book was turned into a disappointing movie starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor.)

As advertised, Phoenix Jones' adventures are amazing — and baffling.

In his spare time, he is a mixed martial arts fighter, and until recently his civilian alter ego worked at a home for autistic children. But he lost that job after he was arrested for using pepper spray to break up a fight.

He was never charged, but now the world knows his secret identity: Benjamin Fodor.

Most of the time, Fodor seems to be acting purely to help others. Then he does something that makes you wonder, such as stopping to have his photograph taken with a fan while letting a suspect get away.

You wonder if maybe being a masked "superhero" isn't a kind of narcissism for the terminally shy.

"When I wear this I don't have to react to you in any way," says another costumed vigilante, Urban Avenger. "Nobody knows what I'm thinking for feeling. ... Sometimes I wish I never had to take the mask off."

In New York, Ronson encounters a group of "heroes" who seem anything but.

"These men just seemed menacing," he writes, "with no fun to them. I don't want my superheroes to be bullies."

Whatever his faults, Phoenix Jones is no bully, but he is imposing.

After watching Phoenix Jones intimidate — by sheer willpower — armed drug dealers into leaving a neighborhood, Ronson becomes a fan.

Whether he is really a superhero or just an arrested adolescent who has let his love of comic books go too far, it's hard not to be a fan of Phoenix Jones.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Culture Shock 12.08.11: These 'Dreams' old but not forgotten

The one thing that strikes me as off about Werner Herzog's documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is the title.

As we see, these dreams have not been forgotten. They've lived on, surfacing at other times and in other places, long after the cave vanished beneath a rock slide some 20,000 years ago, to be rediscovered only in 1994.

Maybe "Dreams of the Forgotten Cave" is the more accurate title, even if it sounds a bit too much like an Indiana Jones movie crossed with an H.P. Lovecraft story.

The cave is Chauvet Cave, located in southern France and site of the earliest known cave paintings, some of which are between 30,000 and 33,000 years old. As Herzog tells us, that makes them twice as old as any other known prehistoric paintings.

The cave of Altamira in northern Spain — subject of an admiring Steely Dan song, "The Caves of Altamira" — contains paintings generally thought to be about 15,000 years old, although some researchers argue for some of them being as old as the oldest Chauvet paintings.

That, however, is an archaeological dispute for another day, and one that probably doesn't interest Herzog in the slightest.

Given special permission to film in Chauvet — under severe restrictions — Herzog descended with a small crew and advanced 3-D cameras. Confined to a narrow walkway and limited to just four hours a day during six shooting days, Herzog and company nevertheless emerged with remarkable footage that Herzog has fashioned into an equally remarkable film, enhanced by Ernst Reijseger's melancholy score.

The paintings are astonishing for their age. These prehistoric artists capture horses, bison, lions, bears, mammoths and woolly rhinos in unmistakable detail. They simulate the movement of fleeing beasts by giving them extra legs.

More remarkable still, they use the irregularities and contours of the cave walls as part of their paintings. In the torchlight, Herzog notes, these creatures must have seemed to come to life.

For once, the 3-D is worth it. Viewing "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" in the standard two dimensions, you miss the three-dimensional tricks that play out over Chauvet's walls, and which Herzog recreates. Leave it to a 3-D skeptic such as Herzog to finally put the technology to good use. I wouldn't suggest purchasing a 3-D TV and Blu-ray player just for this film, but if you have them already, this is a film you must own, if for no other reason than to show off your home theater.

Perhaps the cavemen who left these paintings were showing off, too.

There is no evidence anyone ever inhabited Chauvet, so its purpose was likely ceremonial. Maybe it was the world's first art gallery, or maybe it was just the world's first graffiti.

In evolutionary psychology, there's a hypothesis that art, like the peacock's tail, is something used to attract a mate. Maybe we're looking at the works of prehistoric Don Juans trying to impress a girl.

The normally fatalistic Herzog (see his "Encounters at the End of the World") seems drawn to these artists as kindred spirits. They, too, document the world around them and seek meaning in symbols. The closest thing we find to a depiction of a human among the horses and rhinos is symbolic — part-woman/part-bison. It's the earliest blending of human and beast, starting a tradition that goes through Egyptian hieroglyphs and continues today in the pages of Batman and Spider-Man comic books.

Who were these Ice Age people who left behind only their art and their hand prints? What were their hopes and fears? In the end, they seem very much like us, and their dreams are our dreams.

In his career-long search for what he calls "ecstatic truth," a truth deeper than mere facts, Herzog has never come closer.

Thankfully, he takes us along for the ride.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Culture Shock 12.01.11: Ken Russell was uncompromising in pursuit of excess

Challenged to make a movie so offensive even he would say it should be banned, British director Ken Russell came up with an eight-minute film called "A Kitten for Hitler."

The title is just the beginning. It's downhill from there. And did I mention it's a Christmas movie?

Best known for his adaptations of D.H. Lawrence novels and "Altered States," his psychedelic foray into science fiction, Russell died Sunday at age 84 after a series of strokes.

Many filmmakers are described as "uncompromising," but few have earned that descriptive so thoroughly as Russell, who was uncompromising in his pursuit of cinematic excess.

Baffled audiences? An occupational hazard. Outraged critics? Serves the bums right.

Often, to watch a Ken Russell film is to be assaulted by sight and sound. If film is a visual medium more than a narrative one, Russell carried that to its logical — or is it illogical? — conclusion. In his hands, even so straightforward a genre as the biopic becomes a mad experiment in imagery and symbolism. The facts of the matter, when they matter at all, are in service to what you see.

Russell described "The Music Lovers," his 1970 film about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, as a movie about a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac.

That's a cute way of putting it. It's also a story of repression, obsession and madness. One thing it's not is a literal biography of Tchaikovsky. But it shouldn't be taken literally in any case. It's a backdrop on which Russell can project the fantasies, fears, nightmares and delusions of his characters, all set to the compositions of the Russian composer at the center of the proceedings.

By the time the "1812 Overture" inevitably comes along, we're not surprised to see actual canons going off and beheading Tchaikovsky's tormentors.

Even when working with a more traditional narrative, as in "Altered States" or his adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Lair of the White Worm," Russell used dreams and hallucinations to stunning visual and thematic effect.

His frequent collaborator — you might even say "muse" — Glenda Jackson, who won an Oscar for her role in Russell's "Women in Love," called him an "incredible visual genius." But he also was a director who got brave performances from his actors, whether from Jackson, as Tchaikovsky's doomed wife in "The Music Lovers," or the temperamental Oliver Reed, who shared an infamous nude wrestling scene with Alan Bates in "Women in Love."

For all his visual flair, it might still be possible to dismiss Russell if all there were to his films was the extravagance. In some of his movies, such as 1972's "Savage Messiah," it seems the only direction he gave the cast might have been, "Act louder!"

Not all of his experiments are successful. "Gothic," his 1986 retelling of how Mary Shelley came up with "Frankenstein," is absurd fun, but I'm not at all convinced it's actually a good movie.

Russell also tested the boundaries of subjects such as sex and religion, both of which tend to get artists into trouble. "The Devils," Russell's 1971's film set in a nunnery, deals with both, and it has yet to get a proper U.S. release in its uncut form.

When he didn't break a boundary, he at least showed the rest of us where it is.

In his later years, Russell returned to making television documentaries, which is where he started, and the cinema lost one of its most daring, original voices.

Ultimately, I'm not sure the world really knew what hit it when Russell burst upon the scene in the late 1960s.

And I'm not sure it knows now, either.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Culture Shock 11.24.11: 'Star Wars' fandom is like a dysfunctional family get-together

It was around Thanksgiving in 1978 that "The Star Wars Holiday Special" aired for the first and last time.

George Lucas supposedly hates the special so much it remains the only part of the "Star Wars" saga he hasn't marketed, merchandised and re-released multiple times in multiple formats.

And this is a man who still defends Jar Jar Binks.

That tells you two things. One, "The Star Wars Holiday Special" is bad in ways no brief plot synopsis can convey. (I will say Bea Arthur is in it, and she sings a song that is not even close to the worst thing about it.) Two, Lucas didn't have anything to do with it. His name isn't even on it. And it's much easier to disown something you're not responsible for.

Perhaps overcome by their devotion to their ancient religion, some "Star Wars" fans track down bootleg copies of "The Star Wars Holiday Special" — a much easier task now than years ago — and muddle through.

For some, this is a holiday ritual, and, truthfully, it's no more painful than most family gatherings, especially if your family is the Manson family.

Being a "Star Wars" fan is a lot like being in a dysfunctional family.

One day Uncle George gives you a timeless story about a boy, a girl and a universe, then the next thing you know, you're watching Chewbacca's family grunt at each other — without subtitles — for 20 minutes straight. (Again, this is much like human holiday gatherings.) It's one thing for some one-off TV special that Lucas disowns to let you down. It's another thing for the man himself to do so. That's an entirely different level of disappointment.

For an idea of what I mean, see Alexandre O. Philippe's 2010 documentary "The People vs. George Lucas," which recently made its way to DVD and video on demand.

In this case, "the people" is a subset of "Star Wars" fans who think the original trilogy belongs as much to them as it does to Lucas.

Think of them as Occupy Skywalker Ranch, only without the occupy part.

These are fans who have made themselves at home in that galaxy far, far away. The more enthusiastic of them make their own fan films set in the "Star Wars" universe, a practice Lucas even encourages when other copyright holders might unleash their lawyers.

Unfortunately, that sense of "fan ownership" runs into reality whenever Lucas — a tinkerer since boyhood, Philippe tells us — decides to tinker with his trilogy.

Lucas isn't just tinkering with movies. He's tinkering with memories.

Yet this sort of revisionism is common, particularly when it comes to sci-fi. Ridley Scott unveiled his "final cut" of 1982's "Blade Runner" in 2007, while Robert Wise's "director's edition" of 1979's "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" made its debut in 2001.

The difference is Scott and Wise improved on what was originally screened in theaters. If Lucas did that, few would complain. But every time Lucas changes the "Star Wars" trilogy, it's for the worse. We end up with new scenes that serve no purpose, digitally inserted characters who wander aimlessly into the frame and spoil the composition, new dialogue looped into scenes for no good reason, and "improved" special effects that don't mesh with the original.

Like Darth Vader says in "The Empire Strikes Back," "I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further."

At least I think Vader says that. He did in the original, anyway.

Even as a lifelong "Star Wars" fan, the best I can manage is weary ambivalence. Despite silly, overly entitled notions of fan ownership, "Star Wars" belongs to George Lucas, and he can do whatever he wants with it.

But as a critic — and a fan — I can't ignore where he goes wrong.

Sure, blame others for Bea Arthur. But blame George Lucas for Greedo shooting first.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Culture Shock 11.10.11: New documentary unleashes 'Machete Maidens'

A scene from director Jack Hill's "The Big Bird Cage."

If you want to make a movie today, you might seek out a location where the tax incentives are enticing (Australia, perhaps) or the production costs almost nonexistent (for example, Bulgaria).

During the 1970s, the place to be if you wanted to make a movie on the cheap and without a lot of pesky safety regulations was the Philippines, and "Machete Maidens Unleashed!" — the new documentary from director Mark Hartley — is a 90-minute crash course in the seat-of-your-pants filmmaking that resulted.

Throughout the decade, producers from the West looked east for a place to shoot inexpensive movies, mostly for drive-ins. Chief among them was B-movie king Roger Corman, who had formed New World Pictures and was instilling his penny-pinching ways in a new generation of directors.

When Corman learned he could make movies in the Philippines less expensively than in the U.S., or just about anywhere else, that was all he needed to know. He dispatched director Jack Hill, and Hill returned with "The Big Doll House."

"The Big Doll House" wasn't the first "women in prison" movie, but it was among the first to push the genre's exploitation elements to their limits. It was a huge success back in the U.S., kick-starting a boom in similar movies, like "Women in Cages" and Hill's camp follow-up, "The Big Bird Cage."

All three — recently released together on DVD and Blu-ray as "The Women in Cages Collection" — feature Hill's greatest discovery, and the only real star to emerge from the Philippine film boom, Pam Grier.

In 1972, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, but that did nothing to stop producers and directors from setting up shop in his country. They kept making their exploitation movies, and Marcos was just happy for the money. As director John Landis says, these were sometimes movies about overthrowing fascist dictatorships that were being made in a fascist dictatorship.

Or, as another filmmaker puts it, "Human life was cheap. Film was cheap. It was a great place to make a picture." With a few bribes, you could rent the army's helicopters for a day, provided they weren't busy putting down rebels somewhere.

It's an eclectic cast of characters that populates "Machete Maidens Unleashed!" The Philippines was where actors like Christopher Mitchum and Patrick Wayne — sons of Hollywood royalty — could make their own fortune, or not. It was where 2-foot-9 Weng Weng could be the hero in the bizarre spy spoof of questionable taste, "For Your Height Only."

It was mostly schlock and exploitation, although some of it wildly entertaining, Hill's movies in particular. Yet into this stumbled a film with an undeniable pedigree — "Apocalypse Now."

Martin Sheen may have woken up thinking he was in Saigon, but he was really in the Philippines. Where else was Francis Ford Coppola going to get all of those real military helicopters to set to "The Ride of the Valkyries"?

The Philippines was nearly the death of them both.

As with his earlier documentary, "Not Quite Hollywood," Hartley gives us high-octane history. It's not deep, but it is fun, glossy and well-made pop. If "Machete Maidens Unleashed!" doesn't quite equal "Not Quite Hollywood," that's only because, as wild as the Wild East was, the Philippines in the '70s and early '80s still wasn't as insane as Australia during the same period.

Those tax incentives you get in Australia nowadays are just no substitute for driving too fast, setting people on fire and blowing things up in the Outback.

"Machete Maidens Unleashed!" is new on DVD from Dark Sky Films.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Culture Shock 11.03.11: Beavis and Butt-Head bite the channel that feeds them

When the first new episode of "Beavis and Butt-Head" aired on MTV last Thursday, nearly 14 years after the show's apparent end, it was as if Beavis and Butt-Head had never gone away.

Like Sherlock Holmes returning from his "death" at the Reichenbach Falls, Beavis and Butt-Head picked up right where they left off.

They're still in high school and still laughing their way through every painful misadventure.

Their comeback seems perfectly timed. Something about this moment seems to be crying out for the deep cultural insights only two oblivious, cartoon teenagers can provide. And the first lesson Beavis and Butt-Head have for us is a simple reminder: The more things change, the more they remain the same.

When Beavis and Butt-Head vanished, it was from a world where the Internet was still new, "reality television" as we now know it was limited to MTV's own "The Real World" and MTV still aired music videos.

Beavis and Butt-Head return to a world of smart phones, smart cards and "Jersey Shore," to which "smart" doesn't apply.

But it's all the same to them. For Beavis and Butt-Head, the world was and is black and white.

There are things that are cool, and there are things that suck. And Beavis and Butt-Head know the difference.

In the 1990s, they told us Michael Bolton and Vanilla Ice sucked. Now, from the comfort of their battered sofa, they can confirm all of our darkest suspicions about "Jersey Shore" and "Teen Mom."

They may not have a large vocabulary, yet Beavis and Butt-Head have their place of distinction alongside other criticism-dispensing duos, like Statler & Waldorf and Siskel & Ebert's thumbs.

As before, Beavis and Butt-Head are idiots. In the season opener, they decide to become werewolves or vampires — it doesn't matter which — in order to attract women, because, as you know, women are all into that "Twilight" stuff. So, they get a homeless man, whom they mistake for a werewolf, to bite them.

Unfortunately, all that gets them is a litany of diseases that would intimidate even Greg House.

Yet when they watch television and talk back to it, Beavis and Butt-Head are almost geniuses, identifying and ridiculing stupidity wherever they find it.

Does TV make Beavis and Butt-Head smarter? Or is TV just so dumb now that they seem smart by comparison? What are we supposed to take away from Beavis and Butt-Head's half-baked couch-potato wisdom?

During his 14-year hiatus from "Beavis and Butt-Head," series creator Mike Judge turned to the Middle American pragmatism of "King of the Hill" and conceived the sci-fi comedy "Idiocracy," about a future that values anti-intellectualism and celebrity above all else.

When Beavis and Butt-Head talk back to their TV, it's impossible not to think of them as Judge's voice, and not just because he provides the literal voices for both.

There's a weird circularity to that. In the '90s, critics cited MTV in general and "Beavis and Butt-Head" in particular as prima facie evidence of Western civilization's decline and imminent demise.

Those were scary times. MTV had to forbid Beavis from saying "fire" on the off chance of his inspiring a generation of arsonists.

Today you again hear pretty much the same complaints about MTV in general and "Jersey Shore" in particular. And Beavis and Butt-Head have joined the chorus in passing judgment.

As far as Beavis and Butt-Head are concerned, the future of "Idiocracy" is the present of television, which has made Snooki and The Situation household nicknames.

It's too bad Beavis and Butt-Head aren't smart enough to get the joke.

I'm sure they'd laugh.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Culture Shock 10.27.11: Chuck Norris has met his match: Peter Cushing

Chuck Norris is no longer the toughest guy on the Internet.

Despite various "Chuck Norrisfacts" you may have heard — "Duct tape uses Chuck Norris to hold things together," "Chuck Norris destroyed the periodic table because the only element Chuck Norris recognizes is the element of surprise," etc. — Chuck has met his match.

A few weeks ago, another Internet meme quietly started making the rounds. It said:

"Killed Dracula with a pair of candlestick holders. Blew up Alderaan. Fought Daleks. Has been to the Earth's core. Killed more vampires than Buffy. Outsmarted Moriarty. Verbally bitchslapped Darth Vader. I beg your pardon, but do you really think Chuck Norris can top that?"

And who, pray tell, fits that description? Only one man: Peter Cushing.

Although not as famous today as his longtime friend and costar Christopher Lee, Cushing was just as important to the success of the second great era of horror films, spanning almost two decades from the late 1950s to the early '70s. Working together and separately, Cushing and Lee were their generation's equivalent of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Cushing was arguably the finest actor of all of the horror icons. Whether playing an upright hero or a depraved villain, his performances were precise, measured and deadly serious.

His Baron Frankenstein in 1957's "Curse of Frankenstein" marked the first time the character was played as an outright villain, rather than as a flawed, tragic hero undone by hubris. And his Dr. Van Helsing in the following year's "Horror of Dracula" was a bold, energetic take on the character. For the first time, Dracula's arch nemesis was an action hero, and their final showdown remains the screen's best confrontation between the vampire and the professor.

Cushing was the face of British horror, both for Hammer Films and Hammer's chief rival, Amicus. Cushing appeared in virtually all of Amicus' signature anthology films, from "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors" in 1965 to "From Beyond the Grave" in 1974.

Amicus also cast Cushing in numerous sci-fi films, most notably as the Doctor in two movies based on the BBC television series "Doctor Who" — "Doctor Who and the Daleks" and "Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D." — and as a scientist in the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation "At the Earth's Core."

Cushing was Sherlock Holmes in the first color Holmes film, Hammer's 1959 version of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," and he also played the Great Detective on television for the BBC.

But in a way, what has become Cushing's best-remembered role outdoes them all.

As Grand Moff Tarkin, military governor of the Galactic Empire's outer rim in the original "Star Wars," Cushing put Darth Vader in his place. He then ordered the Death Star's destruction of Alderaan, population 1.97 billion, just because he could.

That's first-class villainy. It tops anything else in the other "Star Wars" movies and, let's be honest, Chuck Norris has no answer for it.

Yet, by every account, the real Cushing was one of the nicest people you could ever know. He was a man so in love with and devoted to his wife that when she died in 1971, he started to slowly waste away.

Although still active in films until the 1980s, Cushing was never the same. He died in 1994 at age 81.

Halloween is the perfect time to sample the work of this most unassuming of horror stars. Cushing stars in "The Gorgon" and "The Creeping Flesh," airing back-to-back Sunday beginning at 5 p.m. CDT on Antenna TV (locally on digital channel WHNT-19.2).

Then, on Halloween, Turner ClassicMovies will feature four of Cushing's films during a marathon of eight Hammer movies from 6:15 a.m. CDT until 7 p.m. First is "The Gorgon" again at 7:45 a.m., then "Curse of Frankenstein," "Frankenstein Created Woman" and "The Mummy" starting at 12:45 p.m.

And who wants to watch Chuck Norris movies at Halloween, anyway?

31 Days of Halloween, Day 27

Hey! This looks like a rip-off of Mr. Bill! Oh, nooooooooooooooooo!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Culture Shock: 10.20.11: Whatever happened to the Halloween television special?

Like a lot of things from the days when there were only three TV networks and cable TV was mostly reruns and wrestling, the prime-time Halloween special is largely a thing of the past.

"It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," a holiday staple since it first aired in 1966, is pretty much the sole survivor from that bygone era.

It aired annually on CBS before switching to ABC a decade ago, a transition that came as a shock to those of us who grew up accustomed to seeing the swirling "CBS Special Presentation" logo — accompanied by a slightly alarming drum-and-brass fanfare — introducing each year's broadcast.



Halloween-themed episodes of regular prime-time shows don't count.

Besides, it's a little difficult to think of the "Treehouse of Horror" episodes of "The Simpsons," which have aired since 1990, as proper Halloween specials ever since Fox got the rights to the World Series and began delaying them until early November.

That's like watching a Christmas special in January. By then, you're over it.

The 1970s and '80s were a fertile period of Halloween programming.

"The Fat Albert Halloween Special" began its run in 1977.

What you need to understand about "Fat Albert," which was based on Bill Cosby's stand-up comedy routine, is that back then, childhood obesity was hilarious. Really, there was nothing better, especially if you tacked on a heartwarming life lesson.

The heartwarming life lesson at the end of "The Fat Albert Halloween Special" is that old people are, indeed, people, too.

More instructive in retrospect is the special's accurate depiction of trick-or-treating, which didn't yet involve parents hovering over you as you and your friends ventured from house to house wearing costumes unmarked by gaudy, reflective safety tape.

It's a wonder I survived the '70s, what with all of the horribly dangerous behavior I engaged in. We called it childhood.

A year later came "Bugs Bunny's Howl-oween Special," a glorified clip show comprised of classic "Looney Tunes" shorts linked by new and distractingly inferior footage. But who cared if the new animation was lousy and Mel Blanc's voice had changed so much in the intervening decades that Bugs didn't always sound quite right? It was Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in prime time, and that's all any kid needed to know.

But not every Halloween special was animated, and not all were instant classics.

In 1976, ABC gave Paul Lynde, best known as the center square on "The Hollywood Squares" and Uncle Arthur on "Bewitched," his own special.

It's on DVD now, but it aired only once, and with good reason. It was terrible. When I watched it recently, it was against my doctor's orders — he told me to avoid ham.

Yet "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special" does have a secure place in television history because it featured an early TV performance by Kiss and established that the Wicked Witch of the West from "The Wizard of Oz" (Margaret Hamilton) and Witchiepoo from "H.R. Pufnstuf" (Billie Hayes) are sisters.

It is also the only known instance of Tim Conway not being funny.

By the end of the show, most of Kiss look like they're going to have a long, serious discussion with their agent. They wouldn't do anything this embarrassing again until their sans makeup period.

The last gasp for Halloween specials was "Garfield's Halloween Adventure" in 1985, which had the advantage of being entertaining and airing before most people started to hate Garfield the way Garfield hates Mondays.

At least I assume Garfield still hates Mondays, because it's not as if that joke ever gets old.

You know, come to think of it, maybe there's a reason they don't make Halloween specials anymore.

31 Days of Halloween, Day 20

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Culture Shock 10.13.11: An unexpected nomination for best 'Dracula'

Few literary characters, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes, have been adapted to the screen as often as Dracula.

The creation of Irish novelist Bram Stoker, Dracula has appeared on film since the earliest days of the medium. Not counting a lost Hungarian film from 1921 titled "Dracula's Death," about which little is known, the cinematic Dracula first appeared in 1922 — with name changed and serial numbers filed off — as the horrifying, rat-toothed Count Orlok of F.W. Murnau's German expressionist masterpiece, "Nosferatu."

Dracula is again set to take to the screen next year in "Dracula 3D," directed by Dario Argento ("Suspiria," "Deep Red") and starring Dario's daughter Asia Argento ("The Last Mistress").

But of all the Dracula films both famous and obscure, one in particular is underrated and too often overlooked. Yet director John Badham's 1979 version of "Dracula" is arguably one of the best.

Take nothing away from Bela Lugosi's performance in the 1931 edition, and all due respect to Hammer's bold, energetic 1958 retelling, "Horror of Dracula" starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but Badham's "Dracula" is a complete package. It's a gothic fairytale with beautiful sets, imaginative set pieces and moments of truly inspired horror.

And it's just ambiguous, and ambitious, enough to be analyzed a couple of different ways. If you're into that sort of thing.

Like most of the better Dracula films, Badham's diverges significantly from Stoker's book. Don't get me started on Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula." That garish, parody-inviting misstep may be largely faithful to Stoker — apart from the addition of a standard-issue love story — but it looks increasingly ridiculous with age, done in mostly by bad acting (Winona Ryder, how could you?), non-acting (I'm looking at you, Keanu Reeves) and overacting (paging Anthony Hopkins).

In Badham's film, the characters of Mina and Lucy are essentially reversed, and Mina (Jan Francis) is the daughter of professor Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), while Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is the daughter of an older-than-usual Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasence). Also, the setting is shifted forward from the Victoria era to the end of the Edwardian era.

Dracula himself also differs from Stoker's original. Played brilliantly by Frank Langella, who, like Lugosi, had first portrayed the role on stage, this Dracula is the seductive Dracula of popular culture, a romance-novel figure with feathered hair and open collars, who, in one scene, rides a horse through the evening fog, looking every bit like a Jane Austen hero. He owes as much to John Polidori's suave Lord Ruthven — a product of the same stormy night that gave the world "Frankenstein" — as to Stoker.

Yet he's still a brutal, bloody figure, and Langella gives his lines real menace, as when he says to Van Helsing, "In the past 500 years, Professor, those who have crossed my path have all died, and some not pleasantly." And, more importantly, this vampire doesn't sparkle.

Weaving through these proceedings is a grand, sweeping score by John Williams, fresh off his Oscar-winning "Star Wars" triumph and at the peak of his talents. It's one of his best film scores, and like the 1979 "Dracula" itself, it's unjustly neglected.

Badham's "Dracula" is available on DVD and Netflix streaming. The DVD includes a director's commentary.

31 Days of Halloween, Day 13

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Culture Shock: 09.29.11: The third-worst movie gets 'special treatment'

According to the collective wisdom of voters at IMDB.com, the worst movie of all time is "Superbabies:Baby Geniuses 2," which is arguably the career low for the late Bob Clark, considering he also directed near classics like "A Christmas Story" and the Sherlock Holmes thriller "Murder by Decree."

The second-worst film is a German production from 2004 called "Daniel the Wizard." I know nothing else about it, and I plan to keep it that way.

Currently ranked third is a little movie called "Manos: The Hands of Fate."

Plucked from obscurity to become the best episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," this cinematic cow patty was made on a dare by the late Harold P. Warren, who wrote, directed and starred in it. That’s three strikes right there.

Warren, a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas, knew nothing about making movies, and "Manos: The Hands of Fate" testifies to his every bad decision, both in front of and behind the camera. And yet "Manos" is hypnotic. You can’t look away. Every frame has something to offer, even when it’s out of focus, which is a lot of the time.

"Manos" is no ordinary train wreck. It’s a high-speed passenger train full of piranha derailing in Six Flags during spring break.

That’s probably why "Manos: The Hands of Fate" is the first MST3K episode to earn the royal treatment — a two-disc "special edition" DVD set that includes both the MST3K version and the original as intended by Hal Warren, left to stand, however wobbly, on its own. Add new interviews with the MST3K cast and the documentary short "Hotel Torgo," which details the making of "Manos," and you basically have the Criterion of crap.

This Shout! Factory release also includes the documentary "Jam Handy to the Rescue," directed by Chattanooga filmmaker Daniel Griffith and starring a deadpan Larry Blamire ("The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra"). A clever, tongue-in-cheek parody of old educational films, "Jam Handy" is the story of Henry Jamison "Jam" Handy, who produced training films for the military and Chevrolet. And it’s here because Handy’s short "Hired!" is the comedic fodder for the MST3K crew at the start of "Manos."

Basically, Shout! Factory’s special edition is the ultimate "Manos" experience.

But what is it about "Manos" the film that makes it worth this effort?

Is it the characters saying lines of dialogue twice for no reason? The nonsensical script? The lapses in good taste and judgment? Bizarre characters like Torgo, the lovestruck satyr/caretaker with bad knees?

The protracted driving scenes? The lingerie wrestling sequence? The catchy, yet inappropriate jazz score? The two teenagers who seem to be in a completely different movie?

Who can say? All I know is "Manos: The Hands of Fate" has spawned no fewer than three stage versions, including a musical and one with puppets. And a sequel, "Manos: The Search for Valley Lodge," starring surviving members of the cast, is in the works for 2013 — as improbable as that may seem.

This past year, movie hostess Elvira,Mistress of the Dark, finally took her own shot at "Manos" on her revived "Movie Macabre" show.

Without a doubt, "Manos" has finally made it. It’s the big time, now.

Sadly, Warren didn’t live to see his movie become the phenomenon it is today, ridiculed but beloved, an inspiration to other independent filmmakers, giving them the confidence that comes only from knowing you can’t do any worse.

Thank you, Hal, for making a really, really bad movie.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Culture Shock 09.22.11: Can Netflix survive long enough for its master plan?

Netflix has had a bad couple of months.

Since the company announced its new price structure, which took effect this month and amounted to an increase for most subscribers, Netflix has been dealing with one PR disaster after another.

The rate hike was followed by Netflix's failure to renew its streaming deal with Starz, meaning lots of on-demand movies — including Disney films — will disappear from Netflix's offerings at the end of February.

As a consequence, the past two months have been ugly. Netflix has shed roughly 600,000 customers, while its stock has lost about half its value.

The backlash's severity caught Netflix's top brass off guard — and me, too, for that matter. I figured most Netflix users would complain and then suck it up, deciding Netflix was still worth the money. As it happens, most did. But, still, more than half a million customers actually following through on threats to dump Netflix. I don't think anybody expected that. It runs counter to the entire 20-year history of Internet griping, which had never amounted to anything.

Until now.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings tried to stop the hemorrhaging this week in an emailed apology that doubled as an announcement for Netflix's next move, spinning off its DVD-by-mail business into a separate company to be called Qwikster, while Netflix continues to offer streaming video.

Cue yet another round of angry customers and widespread ridicule.

Adding the cherry to this self-inflicted pie to the face, the newly valuable @Qwikster Twitter ID is already spoken for, and the guy who speaks for it does so only in a vague approximation of a language, presumably meant to be English.

From a PR standpoint, you couldn't ask for much worse, which is why it's ironic that from a pure nuts-and-bolts business perspective, everything Netflix has done makes sense — in the long run.

In the long run, DVDs are a dying format, destined to appeal only to collectors, aficionados and aging hipsters the way laserdiscs and vinyl albums do now. Nobody is going to make bank renting discs by mail. Even the Postal Service can't make money on mail.

Anyway, Netflix would rather spend money on content than on postage.

But, knowing that, all of the Hollywood studios have started upping their demands, which is what forced Netflix's rate hike and restructuring. Movies and TV shows don't come cheap.

The long-run plan is sound, but in the short run, Netflix has all of the dead-eye aim of an Imperial Stormtrooper.

Still, how bad are things for Netflix, really?

Despite losing half of its market value, Netflix's stock is still in the neighborhood of $130 a share, which is about $100 a share more than where media giants Disney and Time Warner currently trade.

Netflix also still has 24 million subscribers in the United States alone, which is more than either Showtime or Starz, and not far behind HBO's roughly 28 million. And Netflix has yet to roll out its own original programing.

The biggest threat to Netflix is still that someone might beat it at its own game. Blockbuster's new owner, Dish Network, might turn that floundering brand around, or a new owner might try to make Hulu competitive — something Hulu's current owners seem to discourage, with the exception of offering Criterion Collection films to Hulu Plus subscribers.

But first things first. Netflix really needs to buy that @Qwikster Twitter account.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Culture Shock 09.15.11: Don't be too quick to blame 'SpongeBob'

Someone needs to study whether or not stupid studies are detrimental to the nation's mental health.

They're driving me crazy.

The latest example, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, says fast-paced TV programs could be harmful to preschool-age children.

Maybe they are, and maybe they aren't. None of the studies claiming that TV is detrimental to children are all that persuasive. That applies especially to studies claiming to link television viewing and violence, even as violent crime rates have declined for most of the past 30 years. But one thing about this new study is clear: It offers no valuable evidence one way or the other.

Here's how the study worked. One group of 4-year-olds watched nine minutes of "SpongeBob SquarePants." That was the fast-paced show. Another group of preschoolers watched nine minutes of a slower-paced PBS cartoon called "Caillou." Immediately afterward, all of the kids were given mental function tests, and the ones who watched "SpongeBob" scored lower and displayed less impulse control.

That led the study's authors to speculate that fast-paced cartoons are bad. Mmkay? (Tell that to everyone who grew up with Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry.)

I drew a different conclusion.

I suspect that when kids watch nine minutes of "SpongeBob SquarePants" and then are yanked away to take some boring old test, all those kids can think about is how much they'd rather still be watching "SpongeBob." What else would you expect? "SpongeBob" is one of the most popular kiddie-TV programs ever and, for the past decade, one of the most popular shows on cable.

Meanwhile, the kids forced to watch nine minutes of "Caillou" may have been somewhat less traumatized by no longer watching "Caillou," even if that meant taking a test.

After watching a seven-minute clip of "Caillou" I found on YouTube, I wanted to do something that was not watching "Caillou." I also realized why some parents online complain that the show's title character is an annoying brat.

Also, I never want to have children.

Even if the study's findings are valid, they apply only to the short term. Why not test the kids an hour or two after they watch "SpongeBob" and see how they perform then? Obviously that's too much like a real-world situation and makes too much sense. Besides, if the study's authors did that first, they might not have any need to include the usual disclaimer about how more study is needed.

It's a lot easier to get grant money for your next study if the first study's main finding is something may be a problem and its secondary finding is more study is necessary. Finding that something isn't a problem or that more study isn't needed is bad for business.

Despite my cynicism about this particular study, I actually do think our generally faster-paced culture — including movies and TV — may be rewiring our brains, adapting us to life's quickening pace and all of the information coming at us from every direction. I also suspect this is not necessarily a bad thing, and it may help us with things like multitasking. But if that's the case, then the way we test children's mental abilities must adapt, too.

Kids aren't getting dumber, and steady increases in IQ — the Flynn effect — back that up. But children  may be thinking differently, and our tests aren't accounting for that, which might partially explain why test scores have remained flat despite rising IQs and greater per-pupil spending than ever.

Or I could be wrong. Maybe more study is needed.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Darth Vader learns to say 'yes'

Tired of Darth Vader screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!" all the time? See what happens when the Dark Lord of the Sith learns to say "yes."

Culture Shock 09.08.11: George Lucas isn't finished ruining 'Star Wars' yet

"Art is never finished, only abandoned," or so Leonardo da Vinci supposedly said, according to the entire Internet, apart from the websites that attribute the quote to E.M. Forster.

I'm going to side with Leo, because he was an eccentric genius, while E.M. Forster wrote novels that eventually became tedious Merchant Ivory films, if you'll forgive the redundancy.

But I'm not here to talk about Merchant Ivory films. I'm here to talk about films people still watch.

Next week, the three "Star Wars" movies that matter, as well as the three that don't, make their Blu-ray debut. They are why I mention da Vinci, although not because I think George Lucas is a genius — sadly, that day has passed — but because as far as Lucas is concerned, his original "Star Wars" trilogy has never been finished, only abandoned.

Abandoned and, unfortunately, revisited. Again and again.

Lucas has been making changes to the trilogy since at least the early '80s. For example, the subtitle "Episode IV: A New Hope" isn't on the original 1977 "Star Wars" print. But the first major changes that everyone noticed — the ones that really started to alter the films for the worse — came with 1997's theatrical release of the "Special Editions."

That's when Lucas revised the Holy Trilogy to change key scenes, add pointless footage and generally clutter one scene after another with needless CGI, all for no reason other than no one could stop him.

So, now Greedo shoots first, Han steps on Jabba the Hutt's tail and anonymous droids and giant lizards wander into the frame seemingly at random.

Next came the trilogy's long-awaited DVD release in 2004, and Lucas wasn't done yet. Among other, more minor tweaks, he replaced the ghostly Anakin Skywalker played by Sebastian Shaw at the end of "Return of the Jedi" with the prequel Anakin portrayed by Hayden Christensen. (I guess it could have been worse. Lucas could have replaced Shaw with Jake Lloyd.) Now it's seven years later, the original trilogy is set for yet another re-release, and Lucas is back to his old tricks.

The latest changes, leaked to the Internet last week, are almost trivial at this point, but they still leave me shaking my head. Now, Darth Vader screams an anguished "Nooooooo!!!" before grabbing the Emperor and throwing him to his death. I get that this "no" is supposed to echo the equally absurd "Nooooooo!!!" that Vader screams at the end of "Revenge of the Sith," but there's more to storytelling that just having one scene refer back to another. If that's all you've got, you've got lazy storytelling.

Congratulations, George. You've robbed what was once one of the screen's greatest villains of his last shred of dignity. To paraphrase Vader from back when he was still cool, "Your failure is now complete."

But why?

I've come to think Lucas does all this deliberately to irritate the legion of fans who made him the insanely wealthy film and special-effects mogul he is today. Maybe he really wanted to keep making small, personal movies like "American Graffiti." But the snowballing success of the "Star Wars" films, not to mention the "Indiana Jones" series, put him on a different path. Maybe, deep down in his soul, he resents that.

So, he takes his revenge with "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the "Star Wars" prequels and his repeated defacements of the original trilogy.

It's that, or else he really has just flat-out forgotten how to make a good movie.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Culture Shock 08.25.11: Discovering the uncanny truth about Canada


Let's get ready to fumble!

Even as football season begins in earnest tonight with the start of high school football in Alabama, to be joined by college football next week and the NFL the week after that, there's one place where they've been playing football all summer.

The Great White North. America's Hat. Canada.

Most Americans think of the Canadian Football League — when they think of it at all, which isn't often — as a kind of purgatory, to which players who can't hack it in the NFL are sentenced for an indeterminate time, and from whence only a lucky few (namely Doug Flutie) ever return.

Briefly, during an ill-fated expansion attempt, there was a CFL team in Birmingham. But it folded because Alabama is already home to two semi-professional teams and doesn't need a third.

Currently, CFL games air in the U.S. on NFL Network, which could help the league's profile here. Or not.

You see, I've watched several CFL games over the past few weeks, and I've reached a conclusion: Canadian football is creepy.

The CFL is a lot like U.S. football. After all, the U.S. and Canada are the only countries on Earth where "football" doesn't mean "soccer." So, we have that in common.

But there are slight yet unmistakable differences: the goal posts at the front of the end zones instead of at the back, the 110-yard fields with the C-line in the center, teams having only three downs (not four) to make a first down.

I mean, who puts goal posts at the goal line where players can run into them?

Watching the CFL, I was struck by how odd these small changes made the game. It was weird. Then I realized I'd had this feeling before.

I was watching an ABC cop show called "Rookie Blue." At first, it seemed like an ordinary police drama, but I soon noticed there was something different. The police cars and the uniforms weren't quite right. I felt uneasy. Then it hit me: "Rookie Blue" is actually Canadian.

Between "Rookie Blue" and the CFL, I had an epiphany. Canada is America's uncanny valley.

Think of a human being. Next, think of a cartoon character, like Elmer Fudd. Now think of an almost-human CGI character, like the Tom Hanks clones in "The Polar Express." The Hanks clones exist in the middle, between the two extremes of reality and unreality. They look almost human, but not quite, and their almost-but-not-quite appearance makes them creepy. They're too plastic, too artificial. They scare small children.

They fall into what scientists call "the uncanny valley."

For many Americans, Canada is like that. Sorry, Canada, but that's the truth. And that's coming from an American who can name two, maybe three Canadian prime ministers.

For someone from the U.S., I'm relatively Canada-savvy. One of my favorite comic books growing up was "Alpha Fight," which is about a team of Canadian superheroes. Later, I learned most of the characters were broad, possibly even insulting stereotypes. But, hey, it's the thought that counts.

Despite that, I get weirded out by how Canadians are so like us — more so, I suspect, than many Canadians would care to admit — and yet so different. It's the uncanny valley, like Angelina Jolie in "Beowulf," where you're attracted to her CGI double even as you're dimly aware it's a CGI double.

Yet I doubt Canadians feel the same unease about us. Roughly 90 percent of Canadians live within about 100 miles of the U.S. border.

Whether they like it or not, for better or worse, they're are a lot more familiar with us than most of us are with them.

And that, Canada, is why Americans act so strange whenever we come to visit. But we do appreciate you, even if we don't say so.

Who else could we pretend to be when vacationing in countries where everyone hates us?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Culture Shock 08.18.11: Of course you know this means 'war'


When they said "Storage Wars," I was expecting something
more like this.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered "Storage Wars" wasn't a sci-fi series about warring gangs of motorcycle-riding marauders vying for control of abandoned storage buildings in a near-future, post-apocalyptic wasteland.

At the very least, a TV series named "Storage Wars" should be a situation comedy about twin sisters locked in a life-or-death struggle for use of the walk-in closet.

Instead, "Storage Wars" is a "reality" show on A&E about people who bid at auction for the contents of foreclosed storage rental units in the hope of selling the glorified grab bag of items at a profit.

Since these guys are now reality TV stars, you'll have to forgive my inability to get overly enthused about their financial solvency, especially when their job involves picking over the former belongings of people who couldn't pay their storage fees.

In any case, while I understand rival buyers are trying to snag stuff at a bargain, to call this "Storage Wars" seems like overkill.

Is this really a war? Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya — now those are wars.

This isn't even a "police action."

Yet "wars" are breaking out all over my television, and that's not even counting Cartoon Network's "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," which actually is about a war, albeit a fictional one and one that George Lucas killed my interest in the first time Jar Jar Binks stepped in bantha poo.

In fairness, Travel Channel's "Food Wars" does make some sense. Two restaurants face off over which one is better at making their city's signature dish. When it comes to restaurants and food, sometimes the rivalries and customer loyalties do remind you of opposing sides in an armed conflict.

But the Travel Channel canceled "Food Wars" after one season, although it still airs in reruns.

Maybe "Food Wars" was just too generic, because Food Network has found success with "Cupcake Wars," which is currently filming its third season.

I don't get America's recent fascination with cupcakes and trendy cupcake bakeries. Cupcakes are what you settle for when you can't get a real cake. So, I certainly don't get a show about teams of pastry chefs trying to make the best (and most) cupcakes.

Don't get me wrong: I've eaten a lot of cupcakes. I've just never eaten one worth fighting for.

Then there is A&E's "Parking Wars," which sounds like someone turned that episode of "Seinfeld" where George spends all day arguing over a parking space into an epic, 12-part miniseries like "War and Remembrance." But no. It's a series about traffic cops who tow vehicles, which has got to make for the least sympathetic cast of characters since "Sex and the City."

Ready to give peace a chance? Too bad, because I haven't even gotten to Animal Planet's "Whale Wars," which isn't really a war and barely even qualifies as a minor inconvenience for the Japanese whaling fleet. Fortunately, "South Park" has already said all that needs to be said here.

VH1 has something called "Wedding Wars," which seems redundant to me, and IFC airs a show called "Whisker Wars" about the world of competitive facial hair.

Seriously. Competitive facial hair. I would not have believed such contests exist, never mind are the stuff of television, if I hadn't just Googled it. There was video and everything. And there was this man with, like, tentacles growing out of his face. It was frightening.

Then again, maybe "wars" is the right word for these shows, at least in one respect: You'd have to draft me to get me to watch another minute of any of them.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Culture Shock 08.11.11: Does anyone really still want their MTV?

"I am The Great Cornholio!"
Aug. 1 marked the 30th birthday of MTV, not that you'd know that from watching MTV. The network's birthday passed virtually unremarked.

Maybe that's because MTV, a channel identified with youth and youth culture, can't bring itself to admit it has entered adulthood. If real life were "Logan's Run," MTV would be running for Sanctuary.
Or maybe it's just that there isn't much to celebrate now that MTV is little more than the shambling zombie husk of the once vibrant, groundbreaking cable station that helped define the 1980s.

MTV has been on the receiving end of jokes for so long, it's hard even to recall, much less appreciate, just how relevant it once was. Professional "concerned parents" used to drum up hysteria about how "Beavis and Butt-Head" and racy Madonna videos were corrupting an entire generation. (Generation X turned out just fine. Thanks for asking.) Now, the most controversy MTV can manage is a few critics writing boilerplate articles about whether "Jersey Shore" makes everyone from New Jersey look bad or is offensive to Italian Americans.

Well, it does make Jersey look bad, but we've all got our stereotypes to bear, OK?

And if you are looking for a music video that tries way too hard to be edgy and "transgressive," well I suppose you can find some of Lady Gaga’s on the Internet. But you won't find them on MTV, which stopped airing music videos so long ago that the joke about there being no music on Music Television stopped being funny a decade ago.

But, hey, at least Mike Judge is back. After 13 seasons of "King of the Hill" on Fox — a successful run by any standard, but a wildly successful one given Fox's track record of canceling shows — he has returned to MTV with new episodes of "Beavis and Butt-Head." And this time around, Beavis and Butt-Head will be making fun on MTV’s current programming, including "Jersey Shore."

That merits repeating: Two animated cartoon characters once thought to be horrible, even dangerous role models for children will be dishing out insults at the expense of a cast of flesh-and-blood cartoon characters, one of whom looks like an Oompa Loompa.

What do you get from too much MTV? A pain in the neck and an IQ of three.

At 30, MTV looks old, tired, worn out. It's like 30 is the new 80. And for being MTV's signature show, "Jersey Shore" isn't even all that distinctive. Every cable channel has some fake "reality" show about awful people, whether it's "The Real Housewives" or "Mob Wives" or "Keeping Up with the Kardashians." It's all so homogenized, I had to double check that "Jersey Shore" is an MTV show. It could easily be on E! or Bravo or SyFy or History or any of a dozen channels that, like MTV, no longer have anything to do with their name or initials.

We're far removed from when MTV invented the modern reality TV show with "The Real World," which, now a quaint relic, is entering its 26th season — another zombie that just won't die.

And the days when MTV's music videos provided a new and exciting artistic format, which served as a proving ground for future movie directors like Spike Jonze ("Where the Wild Things Are"), Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") and David Fincher ("Fight Club"), are now the stuff of legend.

Thirty years after it shook the world, MTV looks like just another cable channel that has lost its identity. Sure, people still watch. But it's just not important anymore.