Thursday, January 28, 2010

Culture Shock 01.28.10: Who wants to be a paranormal investigator?

Night vision is scary.
If you have a pair of night-vision goggles and like stumbling around in the dark, maybe you can be a ghost hunter.

It's all the rage. At least three cable channels currently air shows devoted to "paranormal investigations." And ghost hunting doesn't take any special skills. The hosts of Syfy's "Ghost Hunters" are plumbers, which I guess can be useful if your toilet is haunted. And who hasn't seen something scary in a toilet?

Airing since 2004, "Ghost Hunters" — the granddaddy of the current crop of paranormal TV shows — has spawned two spin-offs, "Ghost Hunters Academy," where aspiring paranormal investigators learn the tricks of the trade, and "Ghost Hunters International."

Again, these are not difficult skills to master. Mainly, it amounts to wandering around creepy, abandoned, decrepit buildings and attributing every creaking floorboard and drafty room to a ghostly presence.

It's so easy, college students can do it, which they do on A&E's "Paranormal State." The show follows members of the Paranormal Research Society at Penn State University as they try to bust ghosts and cast out evil spirits.

I've seen about a half dozen episodes of "Paranormal State," and two of those led the Paranormal Research Society to Alabama. Make of that what you will, but I blame Kathryn Tucker Windham, whose "13 Alabama Ghosts" books used to have half of my elementary-school classmates believing their houses were haunted.

Earlier this month, A&E launched a new series, "Paranormal Cops," about four Chicago police officers who arrest the living by day and confront the dead by night. I hope they're better at catching crooks than they are at catching ghosts.

Not to be left out, Travel Channel airs my favorite show of the bunch, "Ghost Adventures."

As a Travel Channel show, "Ghost Adventures" goes to the some of best locations — places that are downright creepy whether or not they're haunted. But apart from that, "Ghost Adventures" has the most entertaining cast of ghost busters.

Zak Bagans is the team's leader. With his spiked hair and tight, Ed Hardy-like T-shirts, he is a stereotypical alpha male. His main investigative technique is to yell at any ghosts who may be present and dare them to attack him.

If any ghosts have ever taken Zak up on that offer, I missed that episode, unfortunately.

Next is Nick Groff, Zak's second in command. Nick tries to copy Zak's alpha-male routine, but he's nowhere near as good at it. He'll always be just a wingman.

And then there's Aaron Goodwin, the team's equipment technician.

Alas, poor Aaron. He's the one the ghosts supposedly always pick on, to the point that Zak and Nick often use him as bait to lure ill-tempered spirits into showing themselves.

Again, if this trick has ever worked, I've not seen convincing proof of it.

I'm not a scientist, but I'm amazed at what counts for evidence during these so-called investigations.

Motes of dust filmed on night vision are "spectral orbs," and low-frequency ambient noises caught on tape are voices from beyond.

I don't blame the average person for not knowing that our brains are wired to detect patterns, sometimes even where no pattern exists. That's cutting-edge neuroscience. But you'd think expert paranormal investigators would be familiar with the concept. Then they'd be more skeptical about what they see and hear.

Or maybe critical thinking is a special skill.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Culture Shock 01.21.10: 'Avatar' mania opens a window of opportunity

I must be the only person on Earth who hasn't seen "Avatar," and I blame the movie's fans.

When even people who like James Cameron's latest opus admit the story is Disney's "Pocahontas" meets "Thundercats," no 3-D special effects — no matter how "game changing" — are enough to lure me to the theater.

If I want to watch a 3-D movie, I have a DVD of "The Stewardesses" at home. Personally, I think topless stewardesses are a better use of 3-D technology than a planet populated by blue-skinned cat people. But maybe that's just me.

No matter how much money "Avatar" makes or how many awards it wins, it's hard to take a film seriously when half the Internet calls it "Dances with Smurfs."

Still, I'm trying to look on the bright side. With people saying "Avatar" will change the way Hollywood movies are made just like "Star Wars" did, we just might be in for a few years of movies that really are risky and experimental.

After "Star Wars" revolutionized filmmaking in 1977, every studio in Hollywood tried to replicate George Lucas' success. Studio executives threw money at almost every sci-fi project they saw. If you were an aspiring filmmaker with a pitch that involved spaceships or robots or lasers, it was your moment.

Just think: In the wake of "Star Wars," a major Hollywood studio was willing to let David Lynch — the king of weird movies — direct a film version of Frank Herbert's classic science-fiction novel "Dune." No one in his right mind would have done that without visions of Death Star-sized profits dancing in his head.

Disney financed the sci-fi thriller "The Black Hole" and Steven Lisberger's visually groundbreaking "Tron."

Then, in 1984, Universal Studios released "The Last Starfighter," the first film to use computer-generated imagery to create semi-realistic space battles. And that same year, "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension" — a movie I'm still amazed was ever greenlit — hit theaters across the nation.

There was just one small problem: Most of those movies were either box-office disappointments or outright bombs. And when it became obvious that nobody was going to make the next "Star Wars" trilogy, the money dried up, unless your name was James Cameron. Then you got to make "Aliens" and the "Terminator" movies.

But most of those also-rans eventually gained respectable cult followings. That's why Disney is working on a remake of "The Black Hole" and has its "Tron" sequel, "Tron Legacy," set to debut in IMAX 3-D late this year.

I don't know what hopes Disney's executives have for "The Black Hole," but I imagine they're praying "Tron Legacy" is the next "Avatar" — minus the Thundersmurfs.

This will probably be a narrow window of opportunity. Right now, everyone wants to unleash the next "Avatar," complete with all of the fancy and expensive 3-D effects. Studios will gamble hundreds of millions of dollars to do it. But when the next "Avatar" fails to materialize, the money will disappear again.

So, who wants to hear the pitch for my groundbreaking 3-D movie, "Kung-Fu Biker Zombies vs. the Vampire Strippers from Hell in 3-D"?

I figure I've got all of Hollywood's latest fads covered.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Culture Shock 01.14.10: 'Spider-Man 4' gets boot in favor of reboot

If anyone ever wanted to deliberately sabotage a successful movie franchise, they probably could do worse than take notes on Sony Pictures' handling of the Spider-Man films.

On Monday, Sony announced it is shelving "Spider-Man 4," ending a series that has grossed more than $1 billion in the U.S. and Canada alone. In its place, Sony will start over with a new Spider-Man movie that takes the web-headed, wall-crawling superhero back to high school.

Sony is going forward without "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi and star Tobey Maguire, which is no surprise. Raimi spent most of the past year apologizing for "Spider-Man 3," which critics and fans alike had greeted with widespread disappointment.

Raimi had promised "Spider-Man 4" would have a better script that would emphasize the characters and not try to shoehorn too many supervillains into the mix. Unfortunately, the script Sony had in hand didn't meet Raimi's expectations. The word from Deadline Hollywood's Nikki Finke and Mike Fleming was that Raimi "hated it."

So, he walked away for that most Hollywood of reasons — "creative differences" — and Sony is rebooting with a new director and a new cast.

All of that must have come as a surprise to John Malkovich, who, as recently as earlier in the day Monday, was reportedly set to play The Vulture in "Spider-Man 4."

Meanwhile, early rumors about Sony's revised plan aren't encouraging. I've already seen the words "dark" and "gritty" floating around, and Spider-Man doesn't really do dark and gritty. He's not Batman.

Still, while it looks like Sony has made a huge blunder, I can see why the studio's executives are looking to start again. Every successful superhero franchise since the 1980s has started to fall apart with its third installment. Remember "Superman 3," the sequel that tried to make us believe Richard Pryor could fly? 'Nuff said.

Other third-movie clunkers include "Batman Forever" and "X-Men: The Last Stand."

Given that track record, it's probably just as well that Christopher Nolan isn't in any hurry to follow up "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight."

Maybe the suits at Sony thought they were pressing their luck by going forward with a fourth Raimi-helmed Spider-Man movie, especially since "Spider-Man 3" had followed the trend of starting the franchise on a downward spiral.

But reboots are risky business, too. Nolan's Batman revival was a huge success, effectively fumigating the stench left behind by "Batman Forever" and "Batman and Robin." But Marvel Entertainment's 2008 revamp of the Hulk didn't fare much better at the box office than Ang Lee's 2003 film. Adjusted for inflation, it was pretty much a wash.

And after two modestly successful Fantastic Four movies, the most recent of which came out in 2007, Fox is already looking to reboot the series and bypass the third-movie letdown entirely. That's just fine for those of us who thought the Fantastic Four movies were lousy, anyway.

As for Spider-Man, it just gets worse. On Tuesday, news broke that the troubled Spider-Man musical is back on track for a Broadway run, thanks to backing by Marvel's new owner, Disney. Directed by Julie Taymor, for whom nothing is too over-the-top, and with music by the most pretentious duo on the planet, Bono and The Edge, it's sure to make "Spider-Man 3" look good.

I certainly know my disaster sense is tingling.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Culture Shock 01.07.10: Say goodbye and good riddance to awful Aughts

Everyone seems happy to be done with the Aughts. But are the Aughts really, as some claim, the worst decade ever?

They certainly have the worst name. "Aught" means "zero," which should have been an early warning that the Aughts were trouble.

Still, despite 9/11, the war in Iraq and the late-decade economic collapse, the Zero Decade doesn't have anything on the 1930s and '40s, which gave us World War II, the Great Depression and the Holocaust.

The 1960s were pretty bad, too. We had riots, presidential assassinations, the Vietnam War and, worst of all, hippies — dirty, stinking hippies.

Yet when I consider just the four decades I've experienced personally, the past 10 years are definitely a contender for the worst of the lot.

In retrospect, the 1980s and '90s seem pretty boring. But the momentous events that did occur during those 20 years were, for the most part, all for the best. At the top of the list, communism collapsed, freeing millions of people from tyranny and forcing alleged stand-up comedian Yakov Smirnoff into exile in Branson, Mo.

Those were good times.

But how do the Aughts stack up against the most maligned decade of my lifetime — the 1970s?

In most respects, even the '70s look good in comparison. And that's taking into account stagflation, long gasoline lines, the Iran hostage crisis and Watergate.

And just when you thought nothing could surpass the awfulness of '70s fashions, the Aughts stepped up to the challenge. The '70s gave us leisure suits, but the Aughts gave us Crocs. And while we may have worn bell-bottoms in the '70s, at least we didn't wear them low enough to show off our boxers. (Hardly anyone wore boxers back then, anyway. It was briefs or nothing.) Also, we all knew back then how to wear a baseball cap. (Hint: the brim faces forward.)

So, no matter how badly people dressed in the '70s, at least nobody dressed like the cast of "Jersey Shore."

The '70s also used to be the target of bipartisan contempt. Republicans hated them because they're when 1960s values went mainstream. Democrats hated them because they're when 1960s values "sold out" to the Establishment.

But I prefer to think of the '70s as the last decade before sex could kill you. Love was in the air, but AIDS wasn't. Not yet. It was a simpler, sexier time when Playboy Playmates didn't all have breast implants and you could still smoke indoors. We didn't realize how good we had it.

Comparing the '70s to the Aughts, the '70s come out on top just about every time. Just compare the music: Southern rock beats "new country," rhythm and blues beats hip-hop, and disco beats techno. These are facts.

As for movies, the '70s compare favorably to every decade, not just the Aughts. Name three movies from any other era, and I'll raise you a "Godfather," a "Jaws" and a "Star Wars."

The one thing the Aughts have in their favor is television. TV during the past 10 years was better than ever before — and that's true even after you deduct points for the glut of mindless "reality" shows. During the Aughts, all of the cable channels that popped up during the '80s and '90s started to pay off, from "The Wire" and "Battlestar Galactica" to "Dexter" and "The Shield."

Technology also plays in the Aughts' favor. When the decade began, I was using a huge desktop computer with a dial-up modem. Now I carry around a broadband connection in my pocket.

But, overall, the Aughts sucked. There's no getting around it.

So, to the Aughts I say, "Goodbye and good riddance."

Bring on the Teens.