Thursday, June 26, 2008

George Carlin was our comedic George Orwell

Most successful comedians have a niche. For some it’s politics. For others it’s observations about everyday life. For others still, it’s family. George Carlin’s niche was the English language.

Carlin, who died Sunday at age 71, delved into other subjects like religion (he was against it) and politics (he was against that, too). But he always returned to language.

English is a funny language. As Carlin observed, we drive on parkways but we park on driveways. Is it any wonder that non-native speakers have difficulty navigating English’s odd twists and turns?
English is also an abused language. Words mean things, but they sometimes mean many things. In his book “The Mother Tongue,” Bill Bryson writes, “Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel and a critical part of a gentleman’s apparel, is clearly asking to be mangled.”

Too often, people deliberately choose words that obscure what they’re really saying. Used cars are now “pre-owned.” It sounds nicer in advertising copy, but it doesn’t make the car in question any less used.

When politicians are involved, of course, the stakes are higher. Consider one of Carlin’s examples: “friendly fire.” It almost makes getting killed by your own side seem pleasant. Similarly, “collateral damage,” is vague, while “dead innocent civilians” demands that we assign blame.

At the risk of overstating his influence, Carlin was our own George Orwell, only funnier. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell catalogs the faults of bad writing.

Passive voice, for example, is a favorite of anyone trying to avoid responsibility. We’ve all heard this one: “Mistakes were made.” Well, yes, mistakes were made, but who made them?

Orwell illustrated his point in his novel “1984.” He invented a simplified language, Newspeak, which the book’s totalitarian government invented in order to control its subjects. Without the right words, Orwell believed, certain thoughts are impossible.

Unlike Orwell, Carlin went for comic effect, but hidden somewhere behind the laughter was a point. Who, after all, really ever heard of a “civil” war?

There is even a point to Carlin’s infamous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine.
I can’t repeat any of those seven words here, even though you can now say them on cable TV. And only one of the seven — it starts with a “C” — is still truly unacceptable in most polite company. But if English is strange, then profanity, in any language, is stranger. And English profanity, by implication, is the strangest of all.

What makes one word off limits when another word, which means exactly the same thing, is not? Why can I write “urinate” but not an equivalent word starting with “P”?

In the TV series “Battlestar Galactica,” “frak” is a stand-in for the F word, but it doesn’t upset anyone. You can say “frak” 50 times in prime time without so much as getting a disapproving letter from the Federal Communications Commission.

Even within English there are oddities. In Britain, “shag” is the same as the F word. Here, we put “shagged” in the title of an Austin Powers movie. Another word is derogatory toward homosexuals here but is slang for a cigarette there.

Not all languages, however, have this problem. In Japanese, the difference between acceptable and off color is sometimes just a matter of a word’s inflection, or so I’ve read.

It’s probably a good thing Carlin didn’t live in Japan. His “Seven Words” might not have made much sense there.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

‘Hulk’ do-over gives the fans what they want

The fanboys got what they wanted. So did Marvel Studios, the Hollywood-based corporate sibling of Marvel Comics.

The fanboys wanted a Hulk movie that was non-stop action, with none of the pesky psychological drama and fancy editing of Ang Lee’s “Hulk” getting in the way. If there’s one thing they’ve made clear during the past five years, it’s that they didn’t appreciate Lee’s attempt to do something artistically ambitious with Marvel’s Grumpy Green Giant.

I’ll say this: There’s nothing remotely psychological about Marvel’s do-over, “The Incredible Hulk.” In terms of plot, this movie is about as thick as the Hulk’s skull. But that doesn’t prevent it from being a decent enough summer action movie. It just doesn’t aspire to be anything other than a decent summer action movie.

Marvel Studios, meanwhile, wanted a second hit to carry forward the momentum its first in-house production, “Iron Man,” generated last month. And Marvel’s studio executives must be pleased with a $55 million, No. 1 opening.

But let’s put things into a bit of perspective. Lee’s unfairly maligned 2003 version also opened at No. 1 and grossed about $8 million more during its opening weekend than the new model did. The only thing director Louis Leterrier’s 2008 edition has going for it is the lack of a fanboy backlash, which should soften the second-weekend drop-off that doomed Lee’s film at the box office.

If “The Incredible Hulk” has the legs that Lee’s adjectiveless “Hulk” lacked, Marvel’s plan for a multi-character franchise will be in good shape. If not, Marvel Studios may be holding its breath until 2010, when “Iron Man 2” and “Thor” are set to open.

Honestly, there is a lot to like about “The Incredible Hulk,” and if I seem overly hostile to it, it’s because my own inner fanboy is also a bit of an art-movie snob, and I still haven’t gotten over the drubbing comic-book fans gave “Hulk.” To me, the Hulk’s alter ego, Bruce Banner, is the more interesting character of the two, and Lee’s movie grasps that. The Hulk is Banner’s abused inner child throwing a tantrum — a literal “monster of the Id,” to quote the 1950s sci-fi film “Forbidden Planet.”

As played by Edward Norton, however, Banner isn’t particularly tortured. He just has an unusual medical problem. There is no real reason for his alter ego to be so angry, apart from constantly having to fend off an Army unit led by Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt).

Ross wants to capture the Hulk and find out what makes him tick, so that he can use it to create super soldiers. As an added complication, Ross is also the father of Banner’s estranged love interest, Dr. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler).

Drawing more from the “Incredible Hulk” TV show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigo than from the comic books, the film shows Banner in hiding, taking menial jobs and searching for a cure for his condition. That is, until Ross and Capt. Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) track him down. Then it veers off into virtually nonstop action scenes: Banner vs. commandos, Hulk vs. commandos, Hulk vs. the Army and, finally, Hulk vs. Blonsky, who uses a cocktail of super-soldier serum and Banner’s blood to turn into the equally hulking Abomination.

All of those combinations work well, except for the last one. Fight scenes should amount to more than two CGI cartoon characters pounding each other.

But “The Incredible Hulk” makes even my jaded inner fanboy smile by placing itself firmly in the larger Marvel Universe. Scattered throughout, if you know where to look, are references to other Marvel characters like Captain America and Nick Fury. The film also cleverly sets up the villain for the sequel.

Best of all, however, is Robert Downey Jr.’s uncredited cameo as Tony Stark — aka Iron Man.
Still, when the best thing about a movie is the actor who reminds you of a better movie, maybe there’s a problem.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

‘Swingtown’ promises sin in the ’burbs but doesn’t deliver

They say history repeats itself — first as tragedy, then as farce. But when the 1970s repeats itself, it’s pretty much farce every single time.

I’m referring specifically to “Swingtown,” a new drama airing, improbably, on CBS. Set in a Chicago suburb during the decade of disco and leisure suits, “Swingtown” focuses on three couples, all charting different paths through the jungle of casual sex and even-more-casual drug use.

Just about everyone loves to hate the ’70s. Liberals hate it because it commercialized 1960s radicalism and made it mainstream. Conservatives hate it because it commercialized 1960s radicalism and made it mainstream. Actually, the ’70s is one thing both left and right agree on.

It was the decade when sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll broke out of the counterculture. Music was groovy, and movies, finally free of decades of censorship, entered a new golden age.

It’s just too bad that the clothes and hairstyles were so awful. Probably the reason so many people were having so much sex in the ’70s is everyone, no matter their shape, looked better naked. In fact, that also may explain the streaking fad. And in the pre-AIDS era, even if sex wasn’t always safe, at least it couldn’t kill you.

That brings me back to “Swingtown,” which is all about sex, even though it doesn’t really show any.
First, you’ve got Tom and Trina Decker (Grant Show and Lana Parrilla). He’s an airline pilot — place your own cockpit joke here — and she’s a former stewardess who now mostly stays home and watches “The $25,000 Pyramid.” But at night, they’re the swingingest couple in the Windy City.

Yes, they’re swingers, wife swappers, whatever you want to call it. Asked if she has an open marriage, Trina replies, “Don’t you?”

The Deckers are the reason Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority.

Next, you have Bruce and Susan Miller (Jack Davenport and Molly Parker). They’re new to the neighborhood and to the whole swinging scene, but they’re eager studies. Of course, if “Swingtown” lasts more than six episodes, I’m sure they’ll learn that everything isn’t as groovy as it seems just after a couple of Quaaludes and a few Harvey wallbangers.

Ah, the intoxicants of yesteryear.

The Millers have two children, a son who has just discovered Playboy and a daughter who is into the works of Henry Miller and really into her literature teacher. (Feel free to pencil in your own “teacher’s pet” or “hot for teacher” one-liner here.)

Lastly, are Roger and Janet Hopkins. Janet is Susan’s best friend from the old neighborhood, and she’s simply appalled by Susan’s new friends. Roger, however, doesn’t seem particularly upset by the Deckers’ idea of a good time.

I sense marital discord in the Hopkins’ future, which is one of the two big problems with “Swingtown.” Just from the first episode, I figure I can predict with 97 percent accuracy where the rest of season 1 is headed. Assuming it’s not toward cancellation, which is my first guess.

Give “Swingtown” credit for getting the fashions and the music right, but for a show about swinging it’s depressingly sexless. What it’s doing on CBS rather than HBO or Showtime — or at least FX — is a mystery. As far as networks go, CBS doesn’t love the nightlife and doesn’t have to boogie. In fact, if CBS boogied, it’d probably break a hip.

On HBO, “Swingtown” would have made an excellent replacement for the explicit yet boring “Tell Me You Love Me.” On CBS, however, it’s like the first season of “That ’70s Show,” only not funny.
Unless the characters break out of their stereotypes, all “Swingtown” has going for it is its nostalgic setting. But how long will that stay interesting?

If it lasts, “Swingtown” will probably seem like just another network drama. Except without cell phones.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Lucas, Spielberg ruin my childhood memories again

I confess, I was too depressed to write last week. I blame George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Thank you, George, for once again violating my childhood. “The Phantom Menace” wasn’t enough, was it? It wasn’t enough to make all those years I devoted to “Star Wars” feel like a colossal waste. To say nothing of the money I spent on the action figures, comic books and, of course, my “Star Wars” lunchbox. I even had the stupid bed sheets.

No, you had to sully my memories of the Indiana Jones trilogy, too.

And Steven, you let George get away with it. You could have said no. You could have said the story was terrible and just walked away. But you didn’t. Way to go, Steven. You haven’t disappointed me this much since “Hook.” You ripped out my heart and laughed while it was still beating.

I ought to send you two the bills for all of the therapy I’m going to need to erase “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” from my brain. Refunding the eight bucks I spent on the ticket isn’t going to cut it. I saw the movie, and I can’t unwatch it.

See, I knew it was a bad idea to revisit the Indiana Jones series 19 years after “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Even back then, I could see the trend line: The humor was broader, the dangers less threatening than in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But “Raiders” is the ultimate adventure film, better even than any of the “Star Wars” movies. So, I gave “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” a chance, despite the nagging voice telling me to look away, like when Indy said not to look at the Ark.

But I didn’t, and I got my face melted off.

Still, you’ve got to hand it to Harrison Ford. The man is 65 years old, but he has an easier time beating up the bad guys and escaping certain death than he did back during his tomb-raiding prime. Oh, wait. That’s because “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” stinks.

When Indiana Jones retrieved the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazi convoy in “Raiders,” we felt every bump and bruise along with him. That was an Indiana who knew how to take a beating and still emerge triumphant.

Now, when he should be cashing his Social Security checks, Indiana can emerge from even the most ridiculous danger without a scratch. Survive a nuclear explosion? No problem. Go toe-to-toe with the Red Army? Piece of cake. Plunge over a waterfall not once, not twice but three times? Hey, sign him up for a fourth.

That’s because the Indiana Jones of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is no longer an action hero. He’s a cartoon character. The movie never convinced me that he was in any danger. It didn’t even try.
It did convince me — as if I weren’t convinced already — that Lucas is more interested in special effects than storytelling, even when the effects aren’t that special anymore. After all, he’s the executive producer, and he shares the “story by” credit.

But don’t let that fool you. The film’s failings aren’t all Lucas’ fault. As director, Spielberg sets the tone, and he hits all the wrong notes.

I never felt that the stakes were high, even though the baddies — Soviet agents led by Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko — have a pretty ingenious plan. They hope to use the fabled crystal skull as a mind-control device to take over the United States from within. It’s a clever nod to the Red Scare movies of the 1950s and one of the film’s few good ideas.

Maybe the Soviets just don’t make for interesting villains the way the Nazis do, because Spalko and her bumbling crew are about as exciting as Soviet architecture.

If “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” were the latest entry in the “Mummy” series, its juvenile antics might be excusable. The “Mummy” films are as much about slapstick comedy as they are action. But “Kingdom” fails utterly as an Indiana Jones movie.

Please, guys, you’ve made your money. Now, put the hat and the bullwhip away for good this time.