Thursday, December 31, 2009

Culture Shock 12.31.09: Sherlock Holmes is a 21st century Victorian

For a man from Victorian London, Sherlock Holmes is keeping up with the times rather well.

Other long-lived fictional characters like James Bond and Superman now operate decades removed from when they first came on the scene. Bond has gone from the height of the Cold War to the messy world of post-Soviet espionage and international terrorism. Superman long ago traded up from Depression-era thugs to extraterrestrial menaces and mad scientists.

Holmes, on the other hand, rarely leaves the comfort of the late 19th century. There are exceptions, like a TV movie that brought the world's greatest detective to the present day and a Saturday-morning cartoon that transported Holmes to a far future where tweed and deerstalker caps are back in fashion.

Also, the BBC has commissioned a modern-day version of Sherlock Holmes to air next year. This series, titled "Sherlock," is the creation of Mark Gatiss ("The League of Gentlemen") and incoming "Doctor Who" producer Steven Moffat. If nothing else, it has an impressive pedigree.

Still, for the most part, writers who tackle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "consulting detective" realize Holmes works best in a world of gaslights and cobblestone streets, which makes updating him for today's audiences problematic, especially if you don't want to enrage Holmes purists in the process.

The BBC's 2002 update of Holmes' most famous case, "The Hound of the Baskervilles," infused the old formula with "CSI"-style forensics, with mixed results.

Director Guy Ritchie, then, deserves a lot of credit for doing, if not the impossible, then at least the improbable. He has turned Sherlock Holmes into a modern action hero while remaining true to the character.

Doyle's Holmes began as a brilliant detective but knew nothing about the world beyond his cases. Yet over time, Doyle revealed that Holmes was a man of many skills and talents, a world traveler who had learned martial arts and had once been an amateur boxer.

Still, Doyle kept Holmes' skill at fisticuffs largely offstage. Ritchie brings them front and center.

Ritchie's take on Holmes, brought to life with foppish flair by Robert Downey Jr., is dirty and disheveled — all the better to blend into the Victorian underworld. But he remains, first and foremost, a detective. Even though the plot of Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" revolves around a secret society that practices mysticism and the occult, it's Holmes' devotion to science and reason that carries the day.

The 2009 edition surpasses many of its predecessors on one count: It avoids portraying Dr. Watson (Jude Law) as a bumbling idiot, which was the portrayal of Holmes' faithful companion that dominated the Holmes films of the 1940s. Law's Watson is a full partner, even if he is usually an exasperated one.

The dynamic between Downey's Holmes and Law's Watson is a lot like the one between Dr. Gregory House and Dr. James Wilson on the TV series "House." And that's no surprise, given that House and Wilson are basically updates of Holmes and Watson.

Downey's Holmes is not the definitive Sherlock Holmes. The late Jeremy Brett, who portrayed Holmes in the 1980s British TV series, still holds that distinction. But, against all odds, Downey and Ritchie have given us a Holmes worthy of the name — and a Holmes for the 21st century.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Culture Shock 12.17.09: 'The Venture Bros.' finds hope in failure

It isn't on in prime time, it doesn't feature any big-name stars and it probably isn't going to rack up Emmys, but "The Venture Bros." may be the best show on television.

The Adult Swim series wrapped up the first half of its fourth season Sunday with the long-awaited showdown between former Venture family bodyguard Brock Samson and newly competent supervillain henchman Henchman 21.

If you don't know who Brock and Henchman 21 are, or why their showdown is important, you should rent the first three seasons of "The Venture Bros." immediately. I'll wait.

On the surface simply a parody of the 1960s adventure cartoon "Jonny Quest," "The Venture Bros." has evolved into one of the smartest shows on television. I know this because there are at least three Web sites devoted to dissecting each week's episode. One thing is certain: "The Venture Bros." looks increasingly out of place alongside Adult Swim's other animated programs, which range from the endearingly sophomoric ("Aqua Teen Hunger Force" and "Metalocalypse") to the irritatingly juvenile ("Squidbillies" and the latest seasons of "Family Guy").

Every episode is layered with cultural references that hide deeper meaning, and at the center of it all is the hapless, dysfunctional Venture family.

Dr. Thaddeus S. "Rusty" Venture was once a boy adventurer, jetting around the world with his scientist/adventurer dad, Dr. Jonas Venture. Now, thanks to the childhood traumas his father inflicted on him, Rusty suffers from both an inferiority complex and delusions of grandeur. He spends most of his time hatching schemes just to pay the Venture Compound's utility bills.

Rusty will never live up to his father's heroic example — although it's strongly implied his father wasn't quite the hero of legend — and he'll never stop blaming his father for all of his personal and professional failings.

Then there are Rusty's two sons, Hank and Dean. Hank is full of false bravado, while Dean is a hodgepodge of insecurities, and both are generally clueless. They haven't grasped, despite loads of evidence, that they're both clones. The original Hank and Dean managed to get themselves killed long ago.

As Rusty explains, "They are Hank and Dean. They have all the same memories. Same annoying tendencies. Same everything. Look, if you have a clumsy child, you make them wear a helmet. If you have death-prone children, you keep a few clones of them in your lab."

But with the illegal clone farm destroyed at the end of season 3, Hank and Dean now get to grow up — if they can keep from dying. And that can be difficult when your father is the target of various insane supervillains and your bodyguard has resigned, only to be replaced by a reformed supervillain who also happens to be a "cured" pedophile.

"Venture Bros." creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer have said their show is ultimately about failure. But maybe that's not all it's about.

By trying to avenge the death of his best friend, Henchman 24, Henchman 21 has gone from being an ineffectual nerd to being the most feared henchman in the supervillain community. He's become the show's most unlikely success story. And it's telling that his role on the show is often to voice what the audience is thinking.

Maybe, despite all of the failure in which "The Venture Bros." wallows, the show is really about giving hope to us all. And that's pretty deep for a cartoon.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Culture Shock 12.10.09: Another soap opera's bubble has just burst

Chalk up another victim of the changing demographics and economics of daytime television.

CBS announced Tuesday that it is canceling its long-running soap opera "As the World Turns," which has been a fixture of daytime TV for more than 50 years. The last episode will air in September 2010, giving the show's writers and remaining viewers plenty of time to say goodbye.

It's the swan song not just for a TV show, but for an era. Earlier this year, CBS aired the final episode of "Guiding Light," its longest-running soap, which started as a radio drama in 1937 before jumping to television in 1952.

Daytime soap operas are a dying breed, at least in the U.S. With the cancellation of "As the World Turns," CBS has only two daytime dramas left: "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful." Both are safe for now. They're daytime's two highest-rated soaps.

Meanwhile, NBC's daytime schedule is in even worse shape than its fourth-place primetime lineup. "Days of Our Lives," NBC's sole surviving daytime soap, was flirting with cancellation, too, just a couple of years ago. The soap's producers even dropped two of their most popular and highest-paid actors — Drake Hogestyn and Deidre Hall — in order to cut costs.

Surprisingly, kicking John and Marlena to the curb didn't hurt the show's ratings. "Days" is now tied for second with "The Bold and the Beautiful" and is the only soap to increase its audience in 2009. (But I think my mom has stopped tuning in. You can't please everyone.)

That leaves only ABC with a full slate of daytime soaps: "All My Children," "One Life to Live," which could be the next casualty, and "General Hospital." And a full slate isn't what it used to be, with local affiliates pressuring the networks for more local time in the mornings and afternoons.

Time and technology aren't being kind to daytime dramas. The stay-at-home moms who once made up the bulk of soap viewers are a shrinking demographic. Add to that increasing competition from cable channels, TiVo, DVDs and soccer practice, and soaps are under more pressure than ever.

The decline in soap viewership doesn't come as much of a surprise. Most daytime dramas are virtually unwatchable, with ludicrous stories and dubious acting. Seriously, how Susan Lucci finally won that Daytime Emmy in 1999 — after 18 previous nominations — is a mystery. I guess the pity vote carried the day.

Still, that awfulness is sometimes a soap's greatest selling point. When I was in college, "Days of Our Lives" had a long storyline in which Marlena was possessed by the devil. This included plenty of "Exorcist"-style demonic growing and levitating-above-the-bed action. You have to admire a soap opera that's willing to go that far over the top. Every day brought some new horror-movie cliché, sanitized just enough for daytime's broadcast standards. Yes, it was a good time to watch TV between classes.

A few years later, "Days" even beat ABC's primetime hit "Lost" to the stranded-on-a-mysterious-island plot. Yet that brings up another reason why daytime soaps are fading. Most primetime dramas now have continuing storylines, which used to be mostly a soap-opera thing.

You no longer need daytime dramas to get your fix of large casts and complex, never-ending, incomprehensible plots.

When the last soap opera's bubble finally bursts, it won't matter. Everything is a soap opera now.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Culture Shock 12.03.09: Keeping the Krampus in Christmas

An old tradition that's seeing renewed popularity amounts to Christmas' own version of the good cop/bad cop routine.

The good cop is Santa Claus, aka Kris Kringle, aka St. Nicholas, aka Father Christmas. He's the "jolly old elf" known for his vast, global surveillance system — which he uses to keep track of who's been "naughty" and who's been "nice" — and his knack for breaking and entering.

Everyone has heard of Santa. But probably few have heard of his partner, the "bad cop" in our little tale. He goes by the name Krampus.

A scary, devilish, goat-like fellow with long horns and a bad attitude, Krampus originated centuries ago in German-speaking areas of Europe, where he was especially popular in the Alps.

While Santa bribes children into good behavior with the promise of presents, Krampus keeps them in line with threats of punishment. Santa carries a bag full of toys. Krampus carries a bag filled with naughty boys and girls.

Christmas is rife with Germanic and Scandinavian traditions, some of which, in different forms, go back to pagan solstice celebrations that predate Christianity's arrival in northern Europe. Evergreen trees, Yule logs and mistletoe come to mind.

Long before people used mistletoe to steal kisses from the unwary, the plant was best known for killing Baldr, the Norse god of light and beauty.

As years passed, these traditions became part of Christmas, as did, for a while at least, Krampus. But Krampus was perhaps just a bit too wild to settle down in what was becoming an increasingly Christian holiday season. As National Geographic blogger Marc Silver writes, by the 1800s church leaders had marginalized Krampus, making St. Nick a solo act.

By the time German Christmas traditions made their way to England, and later America, Krampus was no longer a major part of the festivities.

Anglo-American Christmas celebrations began adopting German customs like Christmas trees in the 1800s, after Great Britain had resorted to importing monarchs from Germany. German practices became even more prominent following Queen Victoria's marriage to the German-born Prince Albert.

By the time Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol" in 1843, Christmas looked much like it does now, with no Krampus in sight. Ebenezer Scrooge had to get by with three Christmas ghosts instead — or four, if you count Jacob Marley.

That, however, has started to change.

According to Silver, the Austrian state of Salzburg now has more than 180 Krampus clubs devoted to celebrating the long-lost Christmas figure. Most have sprung up in just the past 20 years.

Now, every Dec. 5, club members recreate the traditional Krampus celebration. They dress in ghoulish Krampus costumes and head out for a night of carousing, which sounds a lot like how adults currently celebrate Halloween in the United States.

Here in America, Krampus is still virtually unknown. And if he weren't, he would add a new wrinkle to the annual debate about the true meaning of Christmas.

But with the Christmas season now starting even before Thanksgiving, maybe there is room for one more Christmas tradition. You don't want to end up on Krampus' list, do you?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Culture Shock 11.26.09: Count me out of today's 'celebration'

This column originally appeared on Thanksgiving Day 2006.

I gather today is some sort of holiday. Now what is it? Turkey Day? No. That's not right. Oh, yes. Thanksgiving. How could I forget? Well, it's easy to lose track of a holiday that has been squeezed almost to a singularity by the juggernauts of Christmas and Halloween.

In terms of the amount of money Americans spend on them every year, Christmas and Halloween are easily the country's two most popular celebrations. And that's even without anyone getting a paid day off for tricks or treats.

Thanksgiving is under assault. You might as well call it "Official Start of the Christmas Season Eve." People used to get upset when stores and shopping malls put up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. Now, some stores put them up before Halloween. Some people complain about a "War on Christmas," in which Christmas is losing ground to other, more "politically correct" holidays. But Christmas has it easy compared to Thanksgiving.

Yes, dear readers, whether you've noticed it or not, we're in the midst of a War on Thanksgiving. And Thanksgiving is folding faster than the Polish cavalry in front of a Panzer division. It's time to take sides.

So, let me be clear about this — Down with Thanksgiving! Now, nobody is going to quibble with a day off work, so assume that if we abolish Thanksgiving, we'll get something else in return.

Let's face it. What's Thanksgiving for? Giving thanks? Well, if that's all, I don't need a holiday to do that, and if I do, how thankful am I, really? Mostly, Thanksgiving is for watching football and family gatherings. The last time I checked, there was no shortage of pro football on TV, even on days not devoted to the ritual consumption of poultry.

But what about all that family togetherness? That's all well and good, I suppose, if watching Aunt Margaret and Aunt Jill down a dozen glasses of sherry between them and then argue about which one of them Grandma really wanted to have the good china is your idea of a spectator sport.

Maybe Charles Schulz can help us? After all, the beloved creator of Charlie Brown and Snoopy did write a cartoon to explain the true meaning of Christmas.

Nope. The only life lesson I've taken away from "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" is that jelly beans and popcorn do not go over well as Thanksgiving dinner.

Maybe Thanksgiving is simply the day when we remember the Pilgrims, who, according to all the history books, came to America in search of religious freedom.

I hate to burst your bubble — well, actually, this is the sort of thing I live for — but the Pilgrims didn't come to the New World for religious freedom.

When they first left England, the Pilgrims went to Holland, the most tolerant society the world had seen up to that time. The Pilgrims had all the religious freedom there they could stand. In fact, they had too much, and they were aghast that their children were taking advantage of the freedoms Holland offered. So, they packed up and came to America, not to get religious freedom, but to get away from it.

Other people can celebrate that sort of thing if they want, but count me out.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Culture Shock 11.19.09: AMC's new 'Prisoner' tries to undermine the 1960s original

The original. Accept no substitutes.

If Patrick McGoohan were still alive, I think his response to the people behind the remake of his classic 1960s TV series "The Prisoner" might go something like this:

"Unlike me, many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment and will die here like rotten cabbages!"

That's what McGoohan's character, Number Six, told his fellow inmates in an episode of the original series. But it applies equally to the writer and producers of AMC's six-episode remake, which aired over three nights earlier this week. AMC's version doesn't just fail to grasp what the original was all about. It deliberately subverts the message McGoohan was trying to get across.

In the original, Number Six is a spy who resigns for reasons unknown and is then spirited away to the Village, a surreal, dystopian prison camp for people who know too much.

Overseeing the Village is a parade of interchangeable bureaucrats who all go by the title Number Two. Each one tries — and fails — to get Number Six to conform. If Number Six can be persuaded to settle down and join this community of numbered inmates, he'll tell his captors everything they want to know. But in each episode, Number Six refuses to play along.

"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered," he tells one of the Number Twos. "My life is my own."

Yet that uncompromisingly individualist message is apparently far too radical for today.

This isn't a case of six of one, half a dozen of another. The remake's writer, Bill Gallagher, revealed his hand earlier this year during a panel discussion at San Diego Comic-Con.

"McGoohan's version was about the assertion of the individual and freedom from the class society, freedom from authority. ... And I was interested in, well, what are the costs of that?" he said. "... What if that degree of individualism and selfishness is dangerous? What if it's reaching a breaking point?"

True to his word, Gallagher delivered a "Prisoner" that looks somewhat like the original, but thematically it's the polar opposite.

In AMC's version, Six (James Caviezel) has been stripped of his memories and must spend much of his time just figuring out who he is. As it turns out, he worked for a made-to-order evil corporation that spies on people, and he resigned after seeing something he shouldn't have. His fellow inmates, meanwhile, think the Village is all there is. As far as they're concerned, there is no outside world to which to escape.

The Village, as a result, is no longer a metaphor for conformist society. Instead, it's a stand-in for evil elites who manipulate an innocent, unsuspecting populace. McGoohan's struggle of the individual against society is transformed into a thoughtless, generic fight between society and corporate bad guys.

Appropriately, there is an episode of the original "Prisoner" that could serve as a nice allegory for what AMC has done to McGoohan's vision.

In "The Schizoid Man," Number Six's captors try to make him question his identity by bringing in an exact double. The doppelganger looks like Number Six, and Number Two treats him as if he is Number Six. But the genuine Number Six is too sure of who he really is, even after several brainwashing sessions, to fall for Number Two's scheme.

Ultimately, AMC's "The Prisoner" is just a doppelganger attempting to undermine the original. Accept no substitutes.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Culture Shock 11.12.09: This column is brought to you by the number 40

There comes a time when you realize you're getting old.

It first hit me when I learned Winona Ryder had been cast as Spock's mother in the most recent "Star Trek" movie. But that was nothing compared to finding out "Sesame Street" had just turned 40.

"Sesame Street" debuted Nov. 10, 1969, and has been a fixture on PBS ever since, making it the longest-running children's program on U.S. television. For Generation Xers like me, "Sesame Street" has always been there.

It began as an experiment to see if television could be educational. Eight years earlier, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton N. Minow had declared television a "vast wasteland." In retrospect, Minow's blunt assessment seems like pure elitism. But back in the 1960s, lots of people took government bureaucrats seriously.

Aided by experts in early childhood education and child psychology, Children's Television Workshop — now called Sesame Workshop — hoped to create a TV show that could teach young children basic reading and math skills, along with social skills they would need in elementary school. CTW succeeded, but fortunately, it didn't always listen to its experts.

The psychologists advising "Sesame Street" didn't want the show's human cast to interact with the Muppets created by Jim Henson's workshop. The experts thought mixing reality with fantasy would confuse children. And that's why people don't take child psychologists seriously anymore, either.

Those of us who grew up with "Sesame Street" remember the alphabet and counting lessons. But what we recall most fondly are the characters.

Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, the Count and Kermit the Frog were some of our best friends. Their popularity allowed Children's Television Workshop to evolve into a multimedia empire, built on royalties from toys, movies, clothing and books.

Somehow, CTW missed one opportunity. How there never has been a spin-off series starring Oscar as a slob and the Count as his obsessive-compulsive roommate remains a mystery.

We also loved the songs. "C is for Cookie" and "It's Not Easy Being Green" were part of our preschool soundtrack. Who doesn't know at least some of the lyrics to "It's Not Easy Being Green"? Al Gore probably hears that song in his head every time he thinks about his carbon footprint.

Despite being a money machine, "Sesame Street" receives federal funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, making it a political target for both left and right. A rumor that "Sesame Street" was adding a homosexual character — besides Bert and Ernie, I mean — incensed some social conservatives. And Ralph Nader, the nation's self-appointed killjoy, has complained about the show's token corporate sponsorships.

But the worst sin of which "Sesame Street" is guilty is letting Elmo come to dominate the show.

For anyone who remembers the show's pre-Elmo heyday in the 1970s, Elmo is like Scrappy-Doo or Cousin Oliver. He is an annoying interloper who steals time from more entertaining "Sesame Street" characters.

Children nowadays, however, seem to love him. Probably that's another sign I'm getting old.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Culture Shock 11.05.09: Be all the Jedi that you can be

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" is probably the most unlikely film that can justifiably lay claim to the phrase "based on a true story." The film, which opens Friday and stars George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, is based on author and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson's 2004 nonfiction book of the same name about a top-secret psychic spy unit within the U.S. military.

Just in case you missed that, I'll repeat: The book is about the U.S. military's top-secret psychic spy unit.

The movie version takes certain liberties. For instance, Clooney's character is a composite of several people, and the movie itself is played mostly for laughs. The book, however, is Ronson's best attempt to get the goods on probably the strangest program on which the U.S. government has ever squandered taxpayer money.

If you've ever listened to much late-night talk radio, you may already know part of the story.

One of the players is Maj. Ed Dames, who was a frequent guest on the "Coast to Coast A.M." program back when Art Bell was still its host. Dames claimed to be — and in fact was — a member of a secret "remote viewing" program intended to spy psychically on potential threats to Truth, Justice and the American Way. Remote viewing means just what it says. It means viewing events occurring someplace else, often on the other side of the world, and possibly seeing into the future, too.

When Dames wasn't safeguarding the American Dream, however, he was attempting to unravel deeper, more meaningful mysteries, such as the true identity of the Loch Ness monster.

Eventually, for whatever reason, Dames went public and told his story to credulous broadcasters like Bell. He also went into business, teaching others how to perform remote viewings. Not too long ago, on late-night TV, I saw a commercial for his remote viewing training seminars.

During his appearances on Bell's radio show, Dames made a lot of wild and inaccurate predictions, some of which Ronson chronicles in his book. One was that President Bill Clinton would be killed in April 1998 while playing golf. Eleven years later, the former president is still hitting the links, along with the lecture circuit.

The military eventually shut down its psychic spy program, claiming it had yielded no practical results, and this is one instance when I'm prepared to take the government at its word. But in the aftermath of 9/11, it seems like some of the military's experiments in unorthodox techniques — the ones that don't violate the laws of physics — have resurfaced.

While Dames is probably the most famous figure to emerge from the U.S. government's flirtation with the paranormal, he is merely a supporting character in Ronson's story. The main players are Lt. Col. Jim Channon, who sought to remake the U.S. Army using New Age philosophy, and Channon's main supporter, Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine, who commanded the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command from 1981 to 1984.

Channon wrote the manual for the First Earth Battalion. The battalion was never formed, but the manual advocated techniques that would supposedly turn U.S. soldiers into sensitive, caring Jedi warriors who could see the future, become invisible and even walk through walls. According to Ronson, Stubblebine was especially keen on that "walking through walls" bit, but Stubblebine's nose wasn't.

One of the soldiers Channon trained could supposedly kill a goat just by staring at it, and Ronson's search for that soldier makes up most of the first quarter of his book.

Unsurprisingly, nothing seems to have come from the paranormal aspects of the First Earth Battalion, but where there are Jedi, there are inevitably some who embrace the Dark Side.

Ronson uncovered information linking some First Earth techniques to the incidents of torture and abuse at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison. If being exposed repeatedly to Barney the Dinosaur's "I Love You" song isn't torture, I don't know what is.

Any story that starts with psychic soldiers and ends with the War on Terror has got to qualify as unlikely. But that doesn't make it untrue.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Culture Shock 10.29.09: 'Paranormal Activity' is disappointingly normal

I'd like to congratulate the filmmakers responsible for "Paranormal Activity." You made a bad movie, but you didn't spend a lot of money doing it.

Normally, someone would have to spend at least $100 million to make a movie that tedious, boring, mindless and overhyped. But you did it for less than the cost of my last car. Well-played, gentlemen. Well-played.

For a film advertised as one of the scariest horror movies of all time, you'd think "Paranormal Activity" could at least have made me jump out of my seat once or twice. But no. Or, failing that, it could have conjured up a pervasive sense of dread and foreboding. A lot of the best horror movies aren't really scary, but they are incredibly creepy, which is often better. A scary movie can lose its impact soon after the credits roll. But a movie that really creeps you out can stick with you long after you leave the theater. Sadly, "Paranormal Activity" isn't especially creepy, either.

The plot, such as it is, involves a young couple — Katie and Micha (played by Katie Featherston and Micha Sloat) — who experience strange goings-on in their house. Micha gets the bright idea to set up a video camera to record what happens while he and Katie are asleep. The footage from the first couple of nights includes some banging noises downstairs and a door that moves on its own. Spooky stuff, I'm sure.

But the supernatural activity finally begins to escalate once Micha begins taunting the spirit.

Everyone knows the score. The audience knows it. Katie knows it, and she tells Micha to knock off his juvenile antics. The psychic whom Katie calls in for a consultation knows it. But Micha keeps on acting like a doofus alpha male who isn't going to let something like a malevolent, demonic spirit push him around.

Like the worst horror movies, and the worst movies in general, "Paranormal Activity" depends on its main characters being complete idiots for the story to advance. The last thing you want in a movie dealing with the supernatural is for the supernatural element to seem more realistic than the characters' actions. For example, as soon as Micha gets footage of truly inexplicable things happening, you'd think he'd go public with it. He could try to sell it or at least post it on YouTube. But his response is to keep on calling the demon names. And nothing good can come of that.

Unfortunately, what does come next is telegraphed so far in advance that it fails to shock or surprise. And the only good thing about that is no one in the theater accidentally spilled a drink on me.

Far from the scariest movie of all time, "Paranormal Activity" isn't even the scariest movie of the year. For that, I suggest renting "Drag Me to Hell." "Paranormal Activity" elicits obvious comparisons to "The Blair Witch Project." Both are comprised of fictional "found footage" depicting supposedly supernatural events, and both films are extremely profitable, thanks to their low production costs and wildly successful viral marketing campaigns. But at least "Blair Witch," which also wasn't as scary as advertised, was sometimes creepy. "Paranormal Activity," not so much.

What a disappointment. Seriously, I haven't been this let down by a movie since "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." I guess if there is one thing I can say in favor of "Paranormal Activity," it's that at least it didn't tarnish fond childhood memories.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Culture Shock 10.22.09: Gap between art, science no longer so wide

If I'd been better at math in high school, I probably would have become a scientist.

When I was young, I was obsessed with cosmology and paleontology, which is a fancy way of saying I was really into dinosaurs and outer space. While all of my classmates were reading "Where the Wild Things Are," I was reading elementary-level books about biology and astronomy.

I taught myself to spell by memorizing dinosaur names and the nine (now eight) planets of the solar system.

In any case, my math skills were less than stellar, so eventually I gravitated from science geek to art geek. Still, I've tried to maintain something more than a layman's knowledge of science.

The conventional wisdom is that art and science are incompatible ways of looking at the world, separated by a Grand Canyon of misunderstanding, distrust and outright hostility.

Certainly that's the impression one gets from 19th century poet John Keats, who lamented that Isaac Newton had "destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism."

The Romantic movement, to which Keats belonged, was a reaction to the scientific, rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment, which had taken hold in Europe and America a century earlier. Today, in some circles, it's still fashionable to badmouth the Enlightenment, which, besides the scientific method, gave us the Declaration of Independence.

Newton, however, is getting his revenge. Neuroscientists and biologists are increasingly close to having a scientific understanding of why we make art in the first place.

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has speculated that some people are capable of creating great art because their brains are better wired than most for metaphorical thinking.

They may have more neural pathways, for example, between the part of the brain used for speech and the part used for identifying color. That could lead to a better ability to make associations between things that don't seem all that related, which is what poets do all the time.

The membrane separating science and art is not quite as impermeable as most people think, and it allows travel in both directions.

Albert Einstein was arguably engaged in artistic thinking when he imagined himself on a beam of light and thereby unlocked the door to a new understanding of space and time. The metaphor came first, the equations later.

More to the point, science could become as much an inspiration to artists as religion and mythology have been.

There is some evidence of that already. John Boswell has begun a project he calls Symphony of Science, online at So far, he has created two music videos spliced together from clips of Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman and other scientists. It's art for the Information Age, inspired by science.

Who knows? Boswell's work could end up inspiring a new generation of artists. Or even scientists, depending on their math scores.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Culture Shock 10.15.09: Want a good scare? Send in the clowns this Halloween

If you're still trying to come up with the perfect Halloween costume — something that will strike fear into even the hardest hearts — here is a suggestion.

Be a clown.

Sure, clowns claim they only want to make you laugh and cheer you up. But that's a ruse to lull you into a false sense of security. Clowns are creepy, and I'm not the only person who thinks so. Just ask Batman.

While in a costume shop Saturday, I saw a young woman nearly have a panic attack at the mere thought of stumbling upon an empty clown costume. Imagine how she might have freaked out had she encountered a clown costume with someone inside it.

Look closely. You can sense the evil lurking behind those beady little clown eyes. They try to distract you with those big, red, bulbous noses. But I know better. Look into their eyes, and you'll see. Pure evil, I tell you.

Like the fear of spiders, heights and enclosed spaces, the fear of clowns has a technical name. It's called coulrophobia. If you want some real nightmares, think long and hard about being trapped in a free-falling elevator with a clown and his pet tarantula.

None of this has been lost on writers and filmmakers, who have long exploited the creepiness of clowns. There's the Joker, obviously. And in Stephen King's "It," the title character appears in many sinister guises, but It most often takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. King has dreamed up a lot of scary things, but few compare to the image of a clown-faced Tim Curry grinning from a storm drain.

Scary clowns dot the Hollywood landscape, from "Clownhouse" and the extraterrestrial clowns of "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" to "Shakes the Clown" and "Patch Adams."

I know what you're going to say. "Shakes the Clown" was a comedy vehicle for Bobcat Goldthwait, while "Patch Adams" was a shameless, if unsuccessful, attempt to snare Robin Williams an Oscar. But watch them again. These movies reek of unmitigated evil. And "Patch Adams" is by far the more insidious of the two. It's pure propaganda for the Clown Industrial Complex.

How pervasive is this clown propaganda? It's everywhere. No matter where you live, you're probably no more than a few blocks from the clowns' most successful attempt at gaining your trust.

Yes, McDonald's seems like such a happy place, with its Happy Meals and such. But what is Ronald McDonald really up to? Why is his best friend named Grimace, which means a facial expression usually of disgust, disapproval or pain? And why do his Fry Goblin pals now call themselves Fry Guys? Was "goblin" giving too much away?

Burger King knows what's really going on. That's why after many years and millions spent on research and development, the No. 2 hamburger chain finally came up with a mascot who is even more sinister than Ronald — The Burger King.

Why are the two top fast-food restaurants in an arms race to determine which one has the scariest mascot, anyway?

And while I don't want to say all clowns are serial killers, there is the example of John Wayne Gacy, aka Pogo the Clown.

Think of that when you go to bed tonight. As for me, I can't sleep. Clowns will eat me.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Culture Shock 10.08.09: Phenix City man launches Rock-afire tour

People in Alabama understand obsessions, but most people’s obsessions here involve football.

Some dedicate entire rooms to their favorite football teams. They build shrines to the Auburn Tigers or the Alabama Crimson Tide. A few heretics even worship at the altar of the Tennessee Volunteers — and may soon resort to human sacrifices.

But in Phenix City, population 30,000, just west of the Georgia state line, one man has an obsession that is almost all his own.

Chris Thrash is obsessed with Showbiz Pizza, a family restaurant chain that, in the early 1980s, was the backbone of America's arcade culture.

Showbiz Pizza offered its customers — mostly pre-teens and their parents — pizza, video games and rides. But more importantly, Showbiz Pizza was the home of an animatronic band called The Rock-afire Explosion.

Now Thrash's obsession is the subject of an affectionate, bittersweet and thoroughly engaging documentary by Brett Whitcomb and Jason Connell. "The Rock-afire Explosion" is now available on DVD after a tour of film festivals nationwide, including last year's Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham.

From a stage overlooking Showbiz Pizza's main dining room, The Rock-afire Explosion sang songs, cracked jokes, delighted children and annoyed parents. The band's members included the restaurant's mascot Billy Bob (a bear), Fatz Geronimo (a gorilla) and Mitzi Mozzarella (a mouse). All were given life by an elaborate network of gears, electronics and air pumps.

As a boy, Thrash told himself he'd someday have his own Rock-afire Explosion. Now 33 years old and married, he finally does. And he is sharing it with the world.

He purchased one of the last remaining Rock-afire Explosion sets from Orlando-based Creative Engineering, assembled it inside a building in his backyard and filmed the band's reunion performance for YouTube.

It turned out Thrash wasn't alone. Before long, his videos of The Rock-afire Explosion were an Internet sensation among thirtysomethings nostalgic for their long-lost youth.

Yet, as much as Whitcomb and Connell's film is about Thrash, it's also about Aaron Fechter, the founder of Creative Engineering, inventor of Whac-A-Mole and creator of The Rock-afire Explosion.

Creative Engineering's fortunes fell along with Showbiz Pizza, which purchased bankrupt rival Chuck E. Cheese, took on the Chuck E. Cheese name and then phased out The Rock-afire Explosion when Fechter refused to relinquish his Rock-afire trademarks and copyrights.

In the old Creative Engineering factory, tools and equipment gather dust, untouched for 20 years. The last Rock-afire Explosion ever made sits in crates, waiting for some nostalgic buyer to come along.

Meanwhile, in Phenix City, Thrash and his wife have opened The Showbiz Pizza Zone, where a new generation of children and their thirtysomething parents come for pizza and arcade games. And the Rock-afire Explosion still plays.

This time, I bet, the parents are less annoyed.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Culture Shock 10.01.09: If lying didn't exist, we'd have to invent it

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

As my favorite TV doctor is fond of saying, everybody lies. But what if everybody didn't lie?

Take that a step further. What if nobody ever lied? That's the premise of a film opening this weekend.

"The Invention of Lying" is set in a world that's exactly like ours — except that everyone always tells the truth. No one even knows what a lie is. But that changes when Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais, creator and star of the British version of "The Office") invents lying.

Mark quickly realizes the advantage his discovery gives him. If nobody ever suspects that you're telling them something less than the unblemished truth, you can get away with anything.

But our world doesn't work that way. Here, despite injunctions religious and otherwise, everybody lies some of the time. And if there's one problem I see with "The Invention of Lying," it's that a world without lying almost certainly wouldn't look anything like ours. It might look like Vulcan, but even Mr. Spock has been known to exaggerate from time to time.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that people should never lie. He was all about sticking to rules that could apply to everyone at all times — categorical imperatives, he called them. Lying all the time wouldn't work because for a lie to be effective, people must usually tell the truth. (This is why no one trusts used-car salesmen and politicians.) Therefore, Kant said, we should tell the truth all the time.

Some subsequent philosophers have tried to finesse this so Kant doesn't appear to be saying, for example, that it's wrong to lie even to protect someone from a murderer. Then again, other people might simply conclude that Kant was a rule-obsessed sociopath.

Anyway, Kant's bizarre fetish for sticking to rules regardless of consequences — "even if the heavens fall," he said — is why he is best known today, outside of academic philosophy, as Friedrich Nietzsche's favorite whipping boy.

Without lying, our ancestors never would have made it past the Stone Age. Lying is the axle grease that makes civilization run smoothly. Think of all the "white lies" we tell to avoid hurting people's feelings or getting punched in the face: "Your baby is so adorable." "No, those jeans don't make you look fat." "That was the best sex ever."

Sometimes, people just can't handle the truth.

A world without lies is unthinkable. Fortunately, lying is a skill we pick up early. By age 5, a child understands the difference between what he believes to be true and what others believe to be true. And that's when children start blaming siblings, or the family cat, for things like broken vases and flooded bathrooms.

But parents are hardly blameless. When telling their children how to behave, parents act like dear old Kant. But in practice, parents are no more truthful than their offspring. A study published in the September issue of the Journal of Moral Education found that parents lie to their children all the time, particularly when it comes to the existence of magical creatures like the Tooth Fairy and a certain "jolly old elf."

All magic is lying. Magicians Penn and Teller admit as much; it's part of their act. That's why they have little patience for flimflam artists who try to pass off magic tricks as something supernatural. In such cases, I'm with Penn and Teller. I'm all for the truth coming out.

But lying has its place, too, and we couldn't get by without it. That's the honest truth.

Would I lie to you?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Culture Shock 09.24.09: After four bad sequels, 'Highlander' gets the reboot

What part of "There can be only one" is so difficult to understand?

I'm guessing it's the "only one" part, otherwise I wouldn't have read a press release Tuesday announcing a remake of "Highlander."

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. Just about every other movie series of the past 30 years has undergone some sort of reboot. Starting over from scratch is the next step after the sequels — and prequels — stop making money.

The studios behind the "Halloween," "Friday the 13th," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Star Trek" franchises cranked out movies until no one cared anymore. Then they hit the reset switch, with varying levels of success. A remake of the original "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is set to join the extreme makeover crowd next year, and Fox is looking to restart its "Fantastic Four" franchise after just two films, the first of which is only four years old. And I'm not even counting Universal's "Hulk" reboot, because the original version didn't spawn any sequels.

Granted, not all reboots turn out badly. "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" are an improvement on the Joel Schumacher "Batman" films. And on television, the new "Battlestar Galactica" beats the frak out of the original. But when you remake a movie that has attained the status of cult classic, you're just asking for trouble. Rob Zombie's "Halloween" remake comes to mind.

The original "Highlander" is just the sort of cult classic that filmmakers would do well to leave alone. It's a film that shouldn't have worked in the first place. Yet, amazingly, it does.

And now, the plot of "Highlander" in 30 seconds: Connor MacLeod, a 450-year-old Immortal from Scotland, must battle other Immortals for a vaguely defined "Prize." Whatever the Prize is, it must not fall into the wrong hands. Immortals have been dueling with each other for the Prize since the dawn of time, and the only way to kill an Immortal is to cut off his head. Ultimately, when only a few Immortals remain, they will come together for a final battle called "The Gathering." As Sean Connery's character says, "In the end, there can be only one."

"Highlander" director Russell Mulcahy hasn't made a decent movie since, while the film's star, Christopher Lambert, has spent most of his post-"Highlander" career in one dreadful direct-to-video movie after another. Yet for one golden moment, Mulcahy seemed like a visual genius and Lambert was a rising star. It was a kind of magic. "Highlander" was perfect. Too perfect.

Even though "Highlander" didn't leave room for sequels, its unexpected success made them unavoidable. The first — and worst — was "Highlander 2: The Quickening."

The subsequent films ignore "Highlander 2" entirely, which is for the best. And as soon as the Food and Drug Administration approves the memory-erasing technology of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," the rest of us will finally be able to forget "Highlander 2," too.

So, after a total of five movies, two television series, an animated cartoon and other sequels and tie-ins that I'm leaving out, "Highlander" has finally reached the reboot stage.

Like Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, the "Highlander" franchise is immortal — at least until it loses its head.

Who wants to live forever, anyway?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Culture Shock 09.17.09: Swayze leaves behind legacy of classic movie moments

I learned a lot from Patrick Swayze, like "It's my way or the highway," "Pain don't hurt," "Be nice until it's time to not be nice" and, most importantly, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner."

During a career that spanned 30 years, Swayze did one of the best things any actor can do for an audience. He made a lot of otherwise unwatchable movies watchable. From "Red Dawn" and "Road House" to "Next of Kin" and "Point Break," Swayze did a lot of heavy lifting that too often went unappreciated.

He died Monday after a nearly two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 57.

The question wasn't if, but when. Swayze had hoped for maybe five more years. He got just less than two. The one-year survival rate for the most common form of pancreatic cancer is just 20 percent, while the five-year survival rate is only 4 percent.

Yet Swayze faced his fate with courage and grace. He continued to work almost until the end, starring in the AMC television drama "The Beast" and appearing in the independent film "Powder Blue" opposite Jessica Biel and Forest Whitaker.

While his brave fight with cancer shouldn't be forgotten, Swayze will always be remembered most as a 1980s movie icon. I admit, I'm not much of a "Ghost" fan — it's the ultimate chick flick, with all that entails. But even I will concede that "Dirty Dancing" is a pretty good movie, carried largely by Swayze's performance as both an actor and a dancer.

Yes, in case you forgot, Swayze was a dancer before he was a movie star, and it was his skill on the dance floor that helped land him his first movie role as bad boy Ace in 1979's now all-but-forgotten disco flick "Skatetown, U.S.A."

By 1983, Swayze was appearing in major motion pictures like "The Outsiders," director Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of S.E. Hinton's novel.

The next year, Swayze starred in the film that would help cement his presence on cable television for the next decade, "Red Dawn," writer/director John Milius' tale of teenagers fending off a Soviet invasion.

"Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost" made Swayze a romantic lead (and People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive"), while "Road House" — another cable-TV mainstay — made Swayze an action star, a role he followed up with 1991's "Point Break."

And just when you thought you had seen everything, he played a drag queen in "To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar."

Swayze never won any acting awards, although he did receive Golden Globe nominations for "Dirty Dancing," "Ghost" and "To Wong Foo." But along the way, he left behind plenty of classic moments, from his "Unchained Melody" scene at the pottery wheel with Demi Moore in "Ghost" to his Chippendales dance number with Chris Farley on "Saturday Night Live."

That's a legacy most entertainers would kill for.

Some of Patrick Swayze's most memorable moments:
His first film, "Skatetown, U.S.A."
"It's my way or the highway" speech from "Road House."
Final dance from "Dirty Dancing."
"Patrick Swayze Christmas" sketch from "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
"Saturday Night Live" Chippendales sketch.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Culture Shock 09.10.09: Stuntman meets rock band, band does magic tricks, things go boom

You can't get better truth in labeling than "Stunt Rock."

An Australian stuntman comes to Los Angeles and meets a rock band. Lots of stunts and rock ensue. And yes, things blow up.

In a way, "Stunt Rock" seems like the perfect summer blockbuster, except unlike "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," "Stunt Rock" doesn't annoy you with a plot.

But "Stunt Rock" is about as far from a blockbuster as you can get. When it originally opened in 1978, you were lucky if you could catch it playing at the local drive-in or at one of the seedy 24-hour theaters that then lined New York City's infamous 42nd Street.

Since then, however, "Stunt Rock" has gained a cult following, fueled by the film's death-defying stunts and cheesy '70s metal soundtrack, which ranges from entertainingly addictive (the title song, "Stuntrocker") to addictively awful.

The man behind "Stunt Rock" is rogue Australian filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith, who came up with the idea while in the shower. Trenchard-Smith also directed "The Man from Hong Kong," featuring temperamental Hong Kong star Yu Wang and George Lazenby, otherwise known as the James Bond whom time forgot ("On Her Majesty's Secret Service"). Unsurprisingly, Trenchard-Smith is a favorite of exploitation auteur Quentin Tarantino.

A DVD release of "Stunt Rock" was long overdue, and fortunately Code Red DVD has obliged with an extras-packed, two-disc edition that gives this film the sort of love and respect usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters.

"Stunt Rock" is seat-of-your-pants filmmaking. In order to obtain financing, Trenchard-Smith had to appease his Dutch backers by casting rising Dutch actress Monique van de Ven, who made her film debut in 1973 opposite Rutger Hauer ("Blade Runner") in one of Paul Verhoeven's early films, "Turkish Delight." Needless to say, it's obvious that English isn't her first language.

Then, when he couldn't get known musicians, Trenchard-Smith had to find a band within five days or else his backers would shut the film down.

As Trenchard-Smith recalls, Sorcery is the type of band you find within five days. Yet despite being unknown and, frankly, not particularly good, Sorcery was perfect for "Stunt Rock." Sorcery's theatrical stage show included two magicians, one dressed in an outlandish wizard costume, who performed during the songs. The magicians' pyrotechnics, fire tricks and escape artistry couldn't have been a better fit.

But the real star of the film is Australian stuntman Grant Page, who set himself on fire and jumped backward off a cliff in "Mad Dog Morgan" starring Dennis Hopper, played an assassin in "The Man from Hong Kong" and later served as stunt coordinator and Mel Gibson's stunt double in "Mad Max."

Yes, he's the unknown stuntman who makes Gibson look so fine.

Page climbs buildings, sets himself on fire, bursts through windshields, rides on top of speeding cars and catapults himself across a bay on the Australian coast. He can even act a little — well enough, at least, not to embarrass himself, which can't be said of the rest of the cast.

The plot is virtually nonexistent, which is a plus, actually, and what little there is exists merely to link the stunts and concert footage. The dialogue is terrible. The acting is worse. And the music is what it is. But the stunts are fun to watch and a pleasant reminder of what filmmaking was like before computers took the danger out of it.

As a whole, "Stunt Rock" is — often despite itself — an entertaining artifact of an era when men of questionable sanity, armed with more imagination than money, gave teenagers something to watch at the drive-in when they needed a breather from making out.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Culture Shock 09.03.09: Meet Spider-Man's new boss: Mickey Mouse

I awakened Monday morning to a great disturbance, as if millions of fanboys cried out in terror and were suddenly making their displeasure known on a thousand Internet message boards.

That's when I went online and saw the news: Disney had purchased Marvel Entertainment, the parent company of Marvel Comics, for $4 billion.

No, it's not a dream, and it's not an imaginary story. The company that gave the world Spider-Man, Iron Man and the X-Men is, pending the obligatory paperwork, now a part of Uncle Walt's multimedia empire. Doomsday has arrived, but Doctor Doom isn't responsible. Mickey Mouse is.

The nightmare scenarios are endless. Tony Stark retires and gives his armor to Mickey, who becomes the invincible Iron Mouse. Goofy turns out to be a mutant (I knew it!) and joins the X-Men. Donald Duck and Howard the Duck are revealed to be long-lost brothers. Hannah Montana develops super powers and becomes an Avenger. And Wolverine takes singing lessons and joins the cast of "X-Men Origins: High School Musical."

Sure, you laugh, but remember that Hugh Jackman got his start singing in a stage production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." That's synergy, and no corporation on Earth can resist synergy.

Actually, the Disney/Marvel merger probably won't be as bad as all that. But it's too soon to tell how it will actually play out. Disney's other acquisitions, however, have had somewhat mixed results.

When The Walt Disney Co. purchased Pixar Animation Studios in 2006, Disney gave Pixar Chief Executive Officer John Lasseter the keys to the Magic Kingdom. Now Lasseter doesn't just run Pixar, he runs Disney's in-house animation unit, too, and helps design Disney's theme park attractions.

Pixar had the advantage of having produced, at the time, four of Disney's most successful animated films, including "Toy Story." That gave Pixar the upper hand in negotiations.

Disney has also had a good run with its prestige film unit, Miramax. But the road here has, at times, been a little bumpy. After several high-profile disputes with former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein left to form The Weinstein Co., taking with them Miramax's Dimension Films label. Dimension primarily produces horror and action films.

Quentin Tarantino, whose previous films were all Miramax releases, followed the Weinsteins, and The Weinstein Co. released his latest hit, "Inglourious Basterds."

Still, even without Bob and Harvey, Miramax has continued to produce award-winning films, including "There Will Be Blood" and "Doubt."

Disney's experience with the Muppets, however, has been far less successful. Disney purchased the Muppets from The Jim Henson Co. in 2004, but so far Disney hasn't figured out what to do with Kermit the Frog and friends. But to be fair, no one has really known what to do with the Muppets since Jim Henson died in 1990.

The upsides for both Disney and Marvel are obvious. As Marvel's existing licensing agreements expire, Disney will gain access to Marvel's characters for everything from movies and video games to toys and theme-park attractions. Marvel, meanwhile, gets greater exposure and easier access to funding for its in-house movie productions.

Another bonus for Marvel is that Disney's current CEO, Bob Iger, is not the micromanager Eisner was.

And that increases the likelihood that Marvel will enjoy something more akin to Pixar's semi-autonomy than Miramax's public feuds. Hopefully, Iger knows that with great power comes great responsibility.

But for better or worse, Marvel Comics has come a long way from its anarchic early days, when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the rest toiled in the publisher's famous bullpen.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Culture Shock 08.27.09: Creepy movie merchandise watches while you shower

Not at all creepy.

As "Star Wars" creator George Lucas proved 30 years ago, the real money from making movies comes from merchandising.

Never mind the toys and video games. That's just the obvious stuff. There's also money to be made from bed sheets, T-shirts, pajamas, underwear, dinnerware, scented candles, unscented candles, Pez dispensers, wallpaper, drapes, velvet paintings, Halloween costumes, Halloween costumes for your dog, Halloween costumes your cat will refuse to wear, lunchboxes, lunch meats, breakfast cereals, cereal bowls, jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, colas, candy, cardboard stand-ups and even glow-in-the-dark light-switch covers.

A movie that fails to turn a profit at the box office can still make money if the licensing deals are right.

Yet with all of the merchandising opportunities movie studios routinely exploit, there are some they miss. And that's when fans have to take matters into their own hands.

Until they sold out, one Internet artisan was offering — by request — shower curtains featuring Edward Cullen, as played by Robert Pattinson in the "Twilight" movies.

Yes, as if Edward were not creepy enough, given all of his stalkerish behavior and the fact he's a 100-year-old vampire obsessed with a teenage girl, his disembodied head can watch you while you shower or sit on the toilet. (Actually, there's probably a scene just like that in the "Twilight" novels.)

Lucas built his Lucasfilm empire, in large part, with the proceeds from merchandising his original "Star Wars" trilogy. Back in 1977, no one knew just how much of a cash bonanza movie merchandising could be. Nobody got rich off of "Planet of the Apes" action figures. So, 20th Century Fox agreed to let Lucas keep 100 percent of the "Star Wars" merchandising rights. Now, Lucas has a net worth of about $3 billion. Sure, he lost $900 million in the recession, but he still has a larger GDP than some countries.

But not even Lucas can think of every merchandising possibility.

Earlier this year, online retailer unveiled its tauntaun sleeping bag, based on the creatures Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are seen riding at the beginning of "The Empire Strikes Back." In the movie, Han slices open a dead tauntaun and stuffs Luke inside the creature's carcass to protect him from the cold.

Needless to say, the prospect of being able to zip open a tauntaun-shaped sleeping bag and stuff oneself inside it appealed to a lot of "Star Wars" fans, who thought this was the greatest piece of "Star Wars" merchandising ever. There was just one problem — the tauntaun sleeping bag was an April Fools' joke.

But demand for the fictitious product was so great that ThinkGeek is now trying to figure out how to make them for real. I'm sure Lucas won't mind, as long as he receives his cut of the profits. Besides, it's not as if a sleeping bag that simulates being inside a dead fantasy creature is the most bizarre licensed product ever made.

And it's not as bad as the new line of "Star Trek"-inspired fragrances, which include Tiberius, Red Shirt and, last but not least, Pon Farr, named after the Vulcan mating ritual.

Still, there is some merchandise that is so risqué that no major movie studio would officially license it. For example, there are no official "Twilight" sex toys. But there are sex toys that just happen to be marketed to people who would love to have an undead stalker/boyfriend.

Use your imagination.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Culture Shock 08.20.09: Copyright laws are Superman's true Kryptonite

According to his public relations handlers, Superman is supposed to fight a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way. But the only battle Superman is fighting nowadays is in court.

The latest skirmish went public last week with the news that Warner Bros., owner of DC Comics, which, in turn, owns Superman, had lost some of its rights to the character. The heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel gained rights to key elements of the Man of Steel's mythos, including Lois Lane, Krypton, his costume design, The Daily Planet and his alter-ego, Clark Kent.

Basically, they got everything that Siegel and his partner, Joe Shuster, came up with before the two sold their Superman copyright to National Publications, the company that would eventually become DC Comics.

Warner Bros. retained elements that came later, including Lex Luthor, the term "Kryptonite" and Superman's ability to fly. Originally, as you'll recall, Superman merely could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Flying takes practice.

Putting the best possible spin on the situation, Warner Bros. issued a statement: "Warner and DC Comics are pleased that the court has affirmed that the vast majority of key elements associated with the Superman character that were developed after Action Comics No. 1 are not part of the copyrights that the plaintiffs have recaptured and therefore remain solely owned by DC Comics."

But all of that may not mean a lot as long as ownership of Superman himself is still an issue.

These legal wranglings have been going on for years — and, in some cases, decades. Siegel and Shuster sold Superman for a string of beads and soon regretted it. They spent years trying to get more money out of DC Comics, eventually having to settle for modest pensions. Unlike Bob Kane, Batman's creator of record, Superman's dads didn't have a lawyer when they sold the rights to their creation. Kane died wealthy. Siegel and Shuster did not.

The latest battle stems from a change in law allowing original copyright holders, or their heirs, to reclaim copyrights transferred before 1978. Siegel's widow and their daughter filed a copyright termination notice 10 years ago, and the fight has been raging, more or less, ever since.

As it currently stands, Warner Bros. and DC will lose their rights to Superman in their entirety in 2013, putting pressure on Warner to get a new Superman movie into development by 2011. Judge Stephen Larson ruled last month that if a new film isn't in the works by then, Siegel's heirs can sue for damages.

Warner's problems are the result of Superman still being under copyright in the first place, which, ironically, is partly Warner's fault. The copyright on Superman, who was created in 1938, should have run out years ago. But media giants like Warner and Disney have successfully lobbied Congress for repeated extensions, without which Superman, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and other characters created in the 1930s would already have lapsed into the public domain.

In Disney's case, the hypocrisy is particularly rank. The Disney empire is built on public-domain characters, from Snow White to the Little Mermaid.

In any event, Warner Bros. will eventually pay whatever it takes to make Siegel's heirs go away, leaving Superman in Warner's stable of marketable intellectual property. Then Warner and Disney will lobby for — and probably get — more copyright extensions from Congress.

And the pubic, which should own Superman by now, will remain forgotten in the legal shenanigans.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Culture Shock 08.13.09: The summer's best 'G.I. Joe' movie isn't in theaters

The most entertaining "G.I. Joe" movie I saw last week wasn't the bloated Hollywood blockbuster currently assaulting multiplexes. Instead, it was the affectionate, five-minute video I discovered online.

"The Ballad of G.I. Joe" is a music video written and performed by Kevin Umbricht and Daniel Strange for the Web site

Give a Hollywood director $175 million to play with, and chances are he won't even get the costumes right.

Yes, I'm looking at you, Stephen Sommers. For that kind of money, I could at least have given Cobra Commander a proper chrome helmet.

But give a couple of musically inclined comedians a shoestring budget, and they'll come up with something special — in this case, "The Ballad of G.I. Joe," which, much like a Don McLean song, tells the story of what our beloved 1980s action figures do when they're not busy shooting at one another.

It doesn't hurt that "The Ballad of G.I. Joe" has a better cast than "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra."

"The Rise of Cobra" stars Marlon Wayans and Channing Tatum. Meanwhile, "The Ballad of G.I. Joe" features Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup ("Watchmen") and musician/actor Henry Rollins. Sure, "The Rise of Cobra" does have Sienna Miller, who is a fetching Baroness. But "Ballad" has Olivia Wilde ("House"). They both look great in that tight, vinyl costume, but Wilde doesn't need a wig for the role.

Did I mention that "The Ballad of G.I. Joe" also gets the costumes right? Cobra Commander actually looks like Cobra Commander. Snake-Eyes, the Joe team's resident ninja, actually looks like Snake-Eyes. Zartan looks like Zartan. It's amazing what not having a lot of money to spend — or waste — can do.

If it had been up to me, I would have let the "Ballad of G.I. Joe" guys make "The Rise of Cobra" instead of hiring the director responsible for "Van Helsing."

Sorry, Stephen. I know "The Mummy" was fun, but what have you done for me lately?

And this isn't the first time the Internet has beaten the Hollywood studios at their own game. For example, "Troops," a short film that mashes up "Star Wars" and the television series "Cops," is far and away more entertaining than George Lucas' prequel trilogy.

The Internet has become a kind of Wild West where talented filmmakers and actors can get noticed, hopefully without getting sued in the process. (To his credit, Lucas is supportive of his fans, even when they make better "Star Wars" movies than he does.)

So, it's no surprise that some of Hollywood's brightest talent is using the Internet to escape small-minded studio and network executives. Joss Whedon's latest Fox TV series, "Dollhouse," didn't find its footing until halfway through its first season, mostly because of network interference. But last year, during the Writers Guild of America strike, he created an Internet sensation with "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," an independent project he and his friends produced. Somehow, "Dr. Horrible" is now nominated for an Emmy award, even though it isn't a TV show.

What these Internet productions sometimes lack in polish, they make up with passion, even if it's in the form of fond memories for toys people played with 25 years ago. A smart studio executive might give these Internet filmmakers some bigger toys to play with — and then get out of the way.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Culture Shock 08.06.09: I, for one, welcome our android overlords

Technology that would just as soon kill you.

Is the day coming when your toaster might try to kill you?

That may depend on how smart the toaster is. One day, it makes your breakfast, and the next it decides it wants to sleep in, or else.

Do toasters dream of electric sheep?

At two conferences held recently in California, researchers in computing and artificial intelligence speculated about a future in which our computers are as smart as we are — or possibly much smarter.

"These are powerful technologies that could be used in good ways or scary ways," said Eric Horvitz, quoted in The Sunday Times of London. Horvitz should know all about scary technologies. He's a principal researcher at Microsoft, which gave us Windows Vista.

We can't say we weren't warned. From HAL 9000 to the replicants of "Blade Runner" to the Cylons to Skynet, science fiction is full of super-intelligent computers, robots and androids who rebel against their human creators.

Then there is the 1970 film "Colossus: The Forbin Project," in which a supercomputer decides to take over the world, for humanity's own good, naturally.

"In time," Colossus says, "you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love."

With computers becoming faster and more complex, maybe such doomsday fantasies could become real. According to Moore's law, named for Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, the processing power of computers doubles about every two years. Whether that trend will continue is a subject of debate, but some futurists think it will.

Ray Kurzweil believes we are about 30 years away from creating a human-level artificial intelligence, a computer just as smart as we are.

If both Kurzweil and Moore are correct, things could get interesting, and soon. In his 2008 book "Future Imperfect: Technology and Freedom in an Uncertain World," David D. Friedman writes, "In forty years, that makes them (computers) something like 100 times as smart as we are. We are now chimpanzees — perhaps gerbils — and had better hope that our new masters like pets."

Science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge coined a name for it: the singularity. That's the point at which superhuman intelligences, rather than humans, are driving technological advancement. Each generation of machines creates another that's even smarter.

In a 1993 article, Vinge writes, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

That's all well and good if the future's super-intelligent robots look like Tricia Helfer, Grace Park and Lucy Lawless — the "Battlestar Galactica" scenario — but there's still the danger they'll decide to nuke us from orbit (because it's the only way to be sure).

Kurzweil is an optimist. He thinks we can beat the robots at their own game. Find a way for human brains to connect to machines, and humanity can take advantage of Moore's law, too.

Yes, mankind's fate may hinge on us becoming cyborgs. But why stop there? We could, as science-fiction author Ken MacLeod has speculated, upload our minds into cyberspace, leaving our flesh to go the way of all flesh, while achieving technological immortality, at least until the universe reaches heat death. Then the lights go out permanently.

Stopping technological advancement isn't an option, but if becoming a cyborg seems too extreme, we could try to build something like Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics into our super-intelligent machines.

The only problem with that, as anyone who has read Asimov's stories knows, is the Three Laws often cause as many problems as they solve.

Maybe it's best just to hope we end up ruled by androids who look like Lucy Lawless. I, for one, welcome our new Cylon overlords.