Thursday, July 31, 2008

‘Shaun of the Dead’ team’s ‘Spaced’ hits DVD

It was like a near-death experience. I saw my life flash before my eyes. Except it was divided into 14 half-hour episodes, and everyone was British. Oh, and it wasn’t actually my life.

Before they achieved fame, fortune and international acclaim with their hit films “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” actor/writer Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright garnered a cult following with the TV series “Spaced,” which aired for two seasons on Britain’s Channel 4.

Now, finally, nearly a decade after it first aired, “Spaced” is available on DVD in the U.S.
Starring and written by Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, “Spaced” follows two twentysomething slackers who pretend to be a couple so they can rent an apartment advertised as for “professional couples only.”

But that’s not really what the show is about. If it were, it would be nothing more than the British version of “Three’s Company,” which is already just the American version of Britain’s “Man About the House.”

In fact, the whole “pretending to be a couple” thing comes up only twice as a major plot point, so forget I even mentioned it. Seriously.

Daisy (Stevenson) is an aspiring magazine writer who would rather do anything other than write. Her roommate Tim (Pegg) wants to draw comic books, but in the meantime he works in a store selling comic books.

Tim’s best friend is Mike, played by Nick Frost, who, at the risk of being typecast, also plays Pegg’s best friends in “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” Mike wants more than anything to join the army. Unfortunately, he got kicked out for stealing a tank and trying to invade Paris.

I know what you’re thinking. You don’t need a tank to invade Paris. Just roll down the Champs-Elysées in a Volkswagen Beetle, and the French will surrender faster than you can say David Hasselhoff. But never mind that.

Daisy’s best friend is Twist (Katy Carmichael), who is either incredibly shallow or incredibly evil. Tim can’t decide which.

Tim and Daisy’s neighbor Brian (Mark Heap) is an artist who paints in bold strokes of anger, pain, fear and aggression. And their landlady, Marsha (Julia Deakin), is a chain-smoking alcoholic with a thing for Brian.

Although set in London, “Spaced” captures perfectly the American Generation X experience of arrested adolescence, underemployment and relationships forged by shared cultural experiences. It’s like that Winona Ryder movie “Reality Bites” except it doesn’t suck.

No, far from sucking, “Spaced” is simply brilliant. And it’s without a doubt the most fanboy-friendly sitcom ever made.

A year after breaking up with his girlfriend, Tim must deal with the end of an even more important relationship — the one he had with George Lucas:

“ ‘The Phantom Menace’ was 18 months ago, Tim!” says Tim’s boss, Bilbo (Bill Bailey).
“I know, Bilbo, but it still hurts!” Tim says. “That kid wanted a Jar Jar doll!”

Under Wright’s direction, “Spaced” creates a surreal, cinematic world, where a seemingly ordinary conversation can turn into a re-enactment of “Dawn of the Dead” and a paintball fight is a good excuse to reference “Platoon.”

“Spaced” is no ordinary sitcom. It’s a sitcom for a generation incapable of having a conversation without referencing popular movies or TV shows. You know, like a typical episode of “Family Guy.” In short, it’s for people like me.

But not to worry if you don’t know the difference between “Babylon 5” and “Deep Space Nine.” The new DVDs include a handy subtitle feature that explains all of the references.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

‘Dark Knight’ takes spot atop best superhero flicks

“The Dark Knight” lived up to the hype, earning every penny of its record-setting, $158.4 million opening weekend and capping a summer of superhero movies that didn’t stink.

The second installment in director Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman franchise now sits squarely atop my personal top 10 list of the best superhero movies. Chalk up most of the credit to the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, which is now the definitive interpretation of Batman’s arch nemesis. But even without Ledger’s contribution, “The Dark Knight” would be a compelling thriller. I didn’t check my watch during the entire 2½ hours, which is really something, given my short attention span and bladder the size of a walnut.

One of the summer’s other superhero offerings also shook up my rankings. While “The Incredible Hulk” and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” are on the outside looking in, “Iron Man” rocketed to the No. 2 spot.

Structurally, “Iron Man” is a by-the-numbers origin story. What sets it apart is Robert Downey Jr.’s fantastic performance as Iron Man’s alter ego, billionaire inventor/playboy Tony Stark. Downey’s Stark is the perfect blend of humor, ego and heroism. As with most Marvel Comics superheroes, the man is more interesting than the superman, and Downey makes the most of that. Yes, the action scenes are great, but they pale next to Tony Stark just being Tony Stark.

“The Dark Knight” may be better overall, but “Iron Man” is more fun. Marvel has “Iron Man 2” on its schedule for 2010, and 2010 can’t get here fast enough.

And now, the rest of my top 10:

“Batman Begins”: In retrospect, Nolan’s first outing with Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader seems like little more than a practice run for “The Dark Knight.” But that doesn’t keep it from being a great superhero movie in its own right. And “Batman Begins” gives Bale a chance to shine as Batman without having to compete for screen time with the Joker. Whether played by Ledger, Jack Nicholson (“Batman”) or Mark Hamill (“Batman: The Animated Series”), the Joker always steals the scene, no matter who is in the Bat suit.

“Batman” (1989): Speaking of Nicholson, his hammy take on the Joker was right at home in Tim Burton’s first Batman film. So what if “Batman” isn’t as dark or as serious as “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”? It is still a showcase for Burton’s moody, fairytale version of Gotham City. And for the record, Michael Keaton is still the big screen’s best Batman, even if Bale is a better Bruce Wayne.

“Danger: Diabolik” (1968): Chances are you haven’t seen this psychedelic masterpiece from Italian director Mario Bava. Better known for his horror movies — which have influenced filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino — Bava turns a popular Italian comic book about a costumed thief into a glowing spectacle of pop art. John Philip Law (“Barbarella”) stars as Diabolik, who steals from the rich and gives to himself, while also taking down pompous politicians and rival criminals.

“X2: X-Men United”: The only “X-Men” movie worth repeat viewings, “X2” hits all the main themes of Marvel’s flagship series about mutants sworn to defend a world that hates and fears them. Plus, it has fantastic set pieces, like the attack on the X-Men’s mansion and Magneto’s escape from prison. And how can you not love a movie that so shamelessly rips off the ending of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”?

“Spider-Man”: “Spider-Man 2” has better acting, better directing, better cinematography and better special effects. But the original has the better script and translates Stan Lee’s corny, soap-opera-style superheroics to the screen without seeming corny itself.

“Unbreakable”: Before he became a bad joke, M. Night Shyamalan did direct two good movies, and “Unbreakable” holds up better than “The Sixth Sense” because it’s not as dependent on its twist ending.

“The Incredibles”: Writer/director Brad Bird scores with his Oscar-winning animated feature about a family of superheroes and a villain who is the ultimate fanboy gone bad.

“Hulk” (2003): Ang Lee’s movie alienated more fans than it thrilled, but its comic-book-inspired editing and psychological depth mark “Hulk” as interesting and ambitious, if flawed.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Obama cartoon stirs controversy in post-irony U.S.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe irony really is dead.

At least I heard it was dead. “Death of irony” speculation was all the rage after Sept. 11, 2001. It was bigger than the death of Elvis. Mind you, I never grasped the link between the 9/11 attacks and irony. Still, there were people on TV who assured me there indeed was a link. You know, just like there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

But irony’s passing didn’t really hit me until Monday, when I heard the collective gasp of the nation’s political bloggers and cable TV pundits going into shock. Soon afterward, they all got their chance to beat up The New Yorker magazine for its current issue, which features a cover illustration of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and would-be first lady Michelle Obama.
The cartoon depicts Sen. Obama wearing traditional Arab garb and doing the now infamous “fist bump” with his wife, who is dressed as a 1960s-style “black militant,” complete with military fatigues, AK-47, bandoleer and afro.

To make the matter even more scandalous, Mr. and Mrs. Obama are shown in the Oval Office, which, for added effect, is decorated with a portrait of Public Enemy No. 1 Osama bin Laden hanging above a fireplace in which burns an American flag.

There is a word that perfectly describes The New Yorker’s cartoon. That word is “irony.”

Instead, Obama’s campaign went with “tasteless” and “offensive.” The campaign of Sen. Obama’s Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, apparently at a loss for its own adjectives, released a statement basically saying, “Ditto.” Surely, this is the start of what will be the cleanest, most civil presidential campaign since George Washington ran against nobody.

The reaction all across the Internet and CNN was much the same, not that any of the outraged parties actually believed The New Yorker was guilty of racism, stereotyping or just plain old libel. They all recognized the cartoon for what it was — irony. They were just afraid all the unwashed masses out in Middle America wouldn’t get the joke. Because, as you know, irony is dead. Gone and forgotten.
This saddens me. Irony was my third-favorite literary device, after sarcasm and double entendres and just ahead of puns.

I mean, really, how can anyone without an advanced literature degree from Harvard or Columbia be expected to recognize irony now? It takes years of graduate studies to know that The New Yorker’s illustration really meant the opposite of what it depicted — that it was, in fact, satirizing the many conspiracy theories that have grown like kudzu around the Obama campaign.

If Jonathan Swift were to write his 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal” today, who knows what would happen? Why, the Irish might actually eat their own children, just as Swift suggested. But at least that would add a little protein to the typical Irish diet, which consists solely of potatoes and whiskey.

Obama is not a radical Islamic terrorist just waiting to seize control of the U.S. government. He is exactly what he says he is — an agent of change. Except he means “C.H.A.N.G.E,” which stands for Cannibals, Homosexuals and Atheists for Nuking Grandmothers Everywhere.

Irony is not something we Americans do well. Consider Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic,” with lyrics like “It’s like rain on your wedding day” and “It’s the good advice that you just didn't take,” none of which are ironic because irony expresses the opposite of its literal meaning. Irony would be something like getting divorced on your wedding day, while rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic, just unfortunate. Unless you like rain.

Of course, a song about irony that contains no irony might, in fact, be ironic. And, in any case, Morissette is a Canadian. Isn’t it ironic?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

An old Hollywood gimmick makes a comeback — in 3-D!

A 1950s movie theater gimmick is making a comeback.

The latest cinematic adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” opens in theaters Friday. And apart from a new leading man in the form of Brendan Fraser (“The Mummy”), this version sports a new look. Moviegoers will see Verne’s prehistoric world at the center of the Earth as never before — in 3-D.

“Journey” is the first live-action, action/adventure movie to open in the Real D Cinema format. Theaters screened last year’s CGI “Beowulf” in both 3-D and 2-D. The recent Hannah Montana and U2 concert films also used Real D Cinema.

You still must wear special glasses to get the 3-D effect, but the new glasses are a far cry from the red-and-blue filters of years past. They use polarized lenses that allow each eye to see only one of two projected images, creating the illusion of three dimensions.

Special effects wizards love new toys, so it was a given that 3-D would make a comeback in a more user-friendly format. But declining movie attendance is probably even more responsible for the new generation of 3-D movies. You have to give the audience something it can’t get at home.

That, of course, is exactly how 3-D movies began.

In the ’50s, theaters faced their first real competition, a newfangled entertainment device called a “television,” or “TV” for short.

The prospect of families staying home to watch the black-and-white flicker of Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan terrified theater owners. Theaters needed something new to lure people to the big screen.
Hollywood experimented with various 3-D formats, but the best remembered is actually one of the least used — anaglyph 3-D, which required audiences to wear headache-inducing cardboard glasses with colored filters, usually one red and one cyan.

Anaglyph 3-D turned up mostly on B movies and short subjects. Despite its disadvantages, anaglyph 3-D was easier to use given the technology of the day. Other ’50s 3-D formats, which relied on two projectors and polarized glasses similar to those now in use, were hard to maintain. But Anaglyph 3-D was perfect for low-budget movies.

Hollywood produced anaglyph 3-D movies into the early 1960s, and, ironically, some of these films eventually made their way to television, the medium they were produced to combat.

By the 1980s, 3-D was all but dead in theaters, with rare exceptions like “Amityville 3-D,” “Jaws 3-D” and “Friday the 13th Part III.” Still, that was enough to trigger a boomlet in old 3-D movies airing on TV.

That was when I had my first 3-D experience, when a local TV station aired the 1961 horror movie “The Mask.”

“The Mask” was mostly in 2-D but featured 3-D dream sequences. Whenever the main character donned a demonic mask, he hallucinated being in a spooky, 3-D landscape. Viewers knew it was time to put on their 3-D glasses when a voice intoned, “Put the mask on now!”

As a bonus, the TV station also aired a 3-D “Three Stooges” short.

This was a big deal for me and my friends. We all had our parents drive us to the convenience stores where we could pick up our 3-D glasses. Then we waited impatiently for Saturday night to finally arrive, so we could all experience the magic of 3-D.

Yes, it was cool. But I can’t say I enjoyed the eye strain that came with those glasses.

Still, 3-D had come full circle. What started as a gimmick for theaters had become a gimmick for TV stations. And, yes, I still have the pair of 3-D glasses I got to watch “The Mask.”

So, the question is, has technology come far enough to make 3-D mainstream, or is this another gimmick in the making?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

TV remakes are the new British invasion

So, here we are, 232 years after our Declaration of Independence from the British Empire. But we still haven’t gotten over our fascination with virtually all things British.

With the exception of meat pies, which are disgusting. We’re over them. And the same goes for everything else the British pass off as edible. Seriously, the only reason London is now the world’s food capital is because of all the immigrants who brought their native dishes with them. But I digress.

Certainly, American interest in what is, culturally if not literally, the mother land has waned somewhat with the death of Princess Diana. The royal family just isn’t as interesting without her. Even the scandals have lost their luster. And there has been nothing in the past 40 or so years to compare to the British invasion of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Still, the United Kingdom is the first place we look to find television shows that can be re-tooled for American consumption.

“The Office” is a prime example, as well as a rare example of a British import that has staying power in its nicer, Americanized version. Personally, I prefer the original, darker model, with series co-creator Ricky Gervais as the loathsome David Brent, versus Steve Carell’s merely clueless Michael Scott. But you can’t deny NBC’s success in finally adapting a British series to the sensibilities of us less jaded Yanks.

Now, AMC is having a go at remaking a British 1960s cult classic, “The Prisoner.”

This is a much trickier proposition. The original “Prisoner,” created by and starring Patrick McGoohan (“Braveheart”), is one of the most revered TV shows ever produced. And it has a small but vocal following — including me — that will not look kindly on any remake that fails to remain true to McGoohan’s deeply personal, philosophical vision.

A surreal blend of science fiction and Cold War spy drama, “The Prisoner” follows a former secret agent, known only as Number Six, as he attempts to escape from the Village, a seemingly pleasant seaside community that is really a prison for people who know too much. During just 16 episodes, the series explores themes like the individual vs. society, freedom vs. conformity, humanity vs. technology and privacy vs. surveillance.

How much do I love this show? Currently, the desktop theme on my computer is emblazoned with one of Number Six’s most memorable quotes: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.”

Words to live by.

Each week, McGoohan’s Number Six matched wits with “the new Number Two,” the expendable bureaucrat charged with running the Village for the mysterious and unseen Number One. Almost every week, there was a new Number Two, replacing last week’s, who was presumably reassigned after failing to pry loose Number Six’s secrets. Only two Number Twos got second chances, most notably the one played by the late Leo McKern (“Rumpole of the Bailey”), who appeared three times, including in the final two episodes.

The lesson of the revolving Number Twos was simple: It doesn’t matter who is in charge. The problem is the system.

AMC’s remake will be a six-episode miniseries. Earlier this week, AMC announced that Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”) will portray the lead role of Number Six opposite Sir Ian McKellen (“The Lord of the Rings”) as Number Two.

AMC’s record doesn’t inspire confidence. The former American Movie Classics is the Holy Roman Empire of cable channels — it’s not strictly American, it doesn’t show only movies, and it rarely airs classics. But at least AMC is working in conjunction with two British companies, ITV, which aired the original series in the ’60s, and Granada.

With AMC playing junior partner to its British co-producers, the “Prisoner” remake should at least retain its Britishness. But whether it’ll be good, much less a worthy successor to McGoohan’s masterpiece, is an open question.

The end product could end up as appetizing as a meat pie.