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.