Thursday, January 27, 2011

Culture Shock 01.27.11: Death isn't really even trying anymore

Ever since "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" proved you couldn't keep an iconic sci-fi/fantasy character down, death has pretty much been a revolving door.

So, I wasn't too upset when The Associated Press spoiled the week's big superhero news by revealing — a day before the comic book hit the shelves — which member of the Fantastic Four was fated to die this week.

Spoilers: The Human Torch has flamed out.

OK, it wasn't too big a surprise, anyway. It was his turn. By my count, every other member of the Fantastic Four has either died or been presumed dead at least once. Most recently, the Thing died only for his teammates to break into heaven and convince God himself — who looks suspiciously like Fantastic Four co-creator Jack Kirby — to bring the Thing back to life.

Johnny Storm's hot-headed alter ego was the only FF member who hadn't yet danced with the Grim Reaper. Now he has. So it goes.

Rest assured, however, that Johnny will be back. They almost always come back, even characters who are supposedly dead for good.

An old joke among comic-book fans is that no one in comics stays dead except Captain America's WWII sidekick Bucky, Batman's second sidekick Jason Todd and Spider-Man's Uncle Ben. At least that was the joke until Bucky and Jason both returned — and the less said about how Jason returned, the better. Only poor Uncle Ben remains a stiff, just to make sure Spider-Man never forgets that with great power comes great responsibility.

Bucky's return was especially fortuitous. He came back just in time to become the new Captain America when the original, Steve Rogers, died.

And not too long after Jason Todd returned, Batman kicked the bucket, too. But everyone still hates Jason — his death two decades ago was a contract hit ordered by readers who called a 900 number — so the original Robin, Dick Grayson, took Bruce Wayne's place instead.

Not that any of that matters, because Steve Rogers and Bruce Wayne are both back from the grave, and currently there are two Captain Americas (although Steve isn't using the name or costume) and two Batmans running around. And that probably means somebody else is going to have to die soon.

This all started in 1992, when DC Comics discovered it could sell a lot of books by somehow convincing people that it was really and truly killing off its flagship character. "The Death of Superman" was a big hit for DC and generated lots of free publicity.

Superman returned a year later, but since then, more characters than I can possibly recall have died and gotten better. Here's a sample:

Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), the Flash (Barry Allen), Kid Flash, Superboy, Wonder Woman, and — from just among the X-Men — Colossus, Cyclops, Psylocke and Magneto.

At least two major X-Men characters, Nightcrawler and Jean Grey, are currently dead. But Jean is the Phoenix, and it's a running joke that she keeps coming back no matter how many times she dies. It's implied right there in her codename. It's her super power. (If only she had the superhuman ability to make the third X-Men movie watchable.)

DC Comics is even in the middle of a miniseries, "Brightest Day," that is specifically about characters who have died and come back: Aquaman, the Martian Manhunter, Hawkman and Hawkgirl, etc. It's really becoming ridiculous, and there are lots of characters I'm leaving out.

It's even spilling over to television. Just a week ago, the proposed Wonder Woman TV series from producer David E. Kelley was dead, having been rejected by every network. This week, it's alive and well at NBC.

So, yeah. The Human Torch died. And that was news — for a day.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Culture Shock 01.20.11: Voice-over announcers are unsung heroes (it's harder than it sounds)

Long after he alienated almost every producer in Hollywood, Orson Welles became even more infamous for taking almost any acting job that came along.

Welles was hoping to funnel some extra cash into his growing list of unfinished movies. He never did. But he did leave behind some interesting artifacts, among them his hammy TV commercials for winemaker Paul Masson. Outtakes from one ad surviving on YouTube feature an obviously inebriated Welles fumbling his lines, when he remembers to say them at all. Had he been sampling the Paul Masson on set? Maybe not. As the story goes, the company later fired Welles, but only after he announced on television that he never drank their product.

Yet Welles could make just as much of an impression without appearing on camera. In his later years, he was an in-demand voice-over performer, lending his authoritative baritone to everything from commercials for frozen peas and documentaries about Nostradamus, to his final role as the planet-sized robot Unicron in 1986's animated "Transformers: The Movie."

Welles, who died before the film's release, described his "Transformers: The Movie" role as "a big toy who attacks a bunch of smaller toys."

Meanwhile, outtakes from Welles' commercials for frozen peas, frozen fish sticks and frozen hamburgers are making the rounds. And if there is one thing I've learned about voice-over artists, it's that they're never happy with the writing.

"This is a very wearying one to read — unrewarding," Welles complains in one outtake after having given his director a long dissertation on the impossibility of beginning an English sentence with the word "in" and emphasizing it.

And later in the same outtake: "But you can't expect me to emphasize the word ‘beef!' That's like wanting me to emphasize ‘in' before ‘July!' Come on, fellas, you're losing your heads!"

Few voice-over announcers, however, have Welles' notoriety. They're unsung heroes whose voices surround us, but their names and faces are anonymous except to a few devoted fans, like the ones who successfully lobbied for Peter Cullen to reprise the role of Optimus Prime, which he originated in the 1980s "Transformers" TV cartoon, in Michael Bay's live-action movies.

And as easy as it may seem to sit in a sound booth and read from a script for a living, the voice-over outtakes you find on the Internet make it seem anything but. It's not all Morgan Freeman calmly discussing the habits of penguins, that's for sure.

Even before there was a YouTube, outtakes from the cartoon series "Thundercats" were causing a minor storm, if for no other reason than it was odd to hear the voices of familiar cartoon characters flubbing their lines and wondering what the bleeping bleep they were talking about.

Which brings me to the outtake that inspired this column in the first place.

The late Ernie Anderson, who died in 1997, was one of the greats. He started out on local TV in Cleveland, where he also was the influential horror-movie host Ghoulardi. But in the late 1960s, he moved to Hollywood, where he eventually became the voice of ABC, including serving as announcer for "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "America's Funniest People."

So it came to pass that "America's Funniest People" gave birth to the greatest voice-over outtake ever.

Apparently confronted with the worst script he has ever read, Anderson struggles to slog through, argues with his director and lets loose the most blistering stream of profanity ever caught on tape.

The YouTube video is titled "Ernie Anderson Out Takes ABC." But be warned: It's not safe for children, pets, small woodland creatures or people who think "The Lawrence Welk Show" is a bit racy.

Doing voice-overs is hard work — something to remember when next an anonymous voice reminds you about that very special episode of "90210."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Culture Shock 01.13.11: Can Bill Murray save us from 'Ghostbusters 3'?

Every few weeks or so, a rumor about the possibility of a "Ghostbusters 3" coming to pass hits the Internet, only to be slapped down the next day by a second rumor saying Bill Murray is holding out, and the studio won't make the movie without him.

That last part about the studio, Sony Pictures, being unwilling to make "Ghostbusters 3" without Murray is almost certainly true.

Deadline Hollywood cites an unnamed insider as saying, "The studio won't even think about forward on a $150 million film unless Bill has a closed deal and a commitment. It's too huge a risk to do any meaningful prep, hoping he shows up."

Now, Ivan Reitman, director of the previous two "Ghostbusters" films, says a script for a third installment is indeed ready. And Murray has a copy. Reitman is just waiting for Murray to read it.

There's just one problem: Murray doesn't seem like he wants to make a third "Ghostbusters."

Who can blame him? He has moved on. He's become a respected actor. He even snagged a Oscar nomination for 2003's "Lost in Translation." He doesn't need "Ghostbusters 3." Maybe Reitman and Murray's co-star Dan Aykroyd — whose best recent work has been a brand of vodka in a skull-shaped bottle — do need a new "Ghostbusters," but Murray definitely does not.

Or maybe Murray just remembers how bad "Ghostbusters 2" was. To be fair, in the annals of botched sequels, "Ghostbusters 2" is nowhere near the worst. It's no "Highlander 2: The Quickening" or "Jaws 4: The Revenge," but it does tend to elicit a halfhearted "meh" — sort of like "Cannonball Run 2," which did nothing, really, but teach us Shirley MacLaine is a poor substitute for Farrah Fawcett.

Nevertheless, if Internet comment threads mean anything — and they do, but no one is sure what — there are still a lot of fans who want their "Ghostbusters 3" more than Dire Straits wanted their MTV. And they're turning their fury on Bill.

One commenter at writes, "This could make me hate Mr. Murray for the rest of eternity."

At least there was no profanity.

But some fans agree with me, like the one who writes, "The last thing in the world that needs to happen is Ghostbusters going the same ... path of Indiana Jones."

If experience teaches anything, it's that you don't want to go down the path of Indiana Jones, and not just because it's filled with snakes and booby traps. And we have lots of experience with dormant franchises returning with sequels so awful they do nothing but taint our childhood memories.

"Tron: Legacy" was an OK sequel to an OK — but fondly remembered — original. It's the exception.

The "Star Wars" prequels get worse with each viewing because there's always more bad writing, bad directing or bad acting to discover. And watching "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is like looking directly at the Ark of the Covenant without protective glasses.

What are the odds "Ghostbusters 3" will beat the odds?

Here's a hint: Reitman told USA Today he is considering making the movie in 3-D.

A 3-D movie based on a franchise that's nearly 30 years old? "Tron: Legacy" may have used up all the magic pixie dust on that — and "Tron: Legacy" is merely OK.

I may be in the minority, but if I ever find out Murray single-handedly prevented another "Ghostbusters" movie, I'll be thrilled. I might even send him flowers, or at least a nice gift certificate. (Do you think he likes Bed, Bath & Beyond?)

Because if they make "Ghostbusters 3," I will have to see it, just like I saw the "Star Wars" prequels and "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

Hollywood never learns. I never learn. Nobody ever learns.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Culture Shock 01.06.11: Being a geek isn't just about being obscure

Geeks worldwide hammered away at their keyboards last week. Something terrible had happened, and a response was mandatory. To quote a punch line from the webcomic "xkcd," someone was wrong on the Internet.

That someone was comedian Patton Oswalt, who unleashed a manifesto at entitled, "Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die."

The title is a movie reference. If you don't know the movie, you're not a geek. But if you're not a geek, you're not Oswalt's target.

For nearly 3,000 words, Oswalt complains that geek culture has become diluted. With DVDs and the Internet, it's too easy to become a geek. And that, he says, is bad. It breeds what he calls "weak otakus," using the Japanese term for obsessive fans.

"I'm not a nerd," he begins, using the terms nerd and geek interchangeably, which alone is enough to drive some geeks crazy. "I used to be one, back 30 years ago when nerd meant something."

Now, he says, it doesn't, because anyone can become a geek with little effort. It used to take long, hard work, back when you couldn't just look something up on Wikipedia or rent geek-favorite movies from Netflix.

"Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun," he continues. " ‘The Lord of the Rings' used to be ours and only ours because of the sheer ... thickness of the books. Twenty years later, the entire cast and crew would be trooping onstage at the Oscars to collect their statuettes, and replicas of the One Ring would be sold as bling."

So, Oswalt calls for a cleansing. Away with the old geek obsessions and on to new ones, more obscure ones, ones most people have never heard of and which can't be digested by going to the movies or using Google.

"Dark Shadows" and "Dungeons & Dragons" are no longer nerdy enough. They, like so much of geek culture since the dawn of the 21st century, got — gasp! — popular.

But since many geeks have invested countless hours and spent the equivalent of a small country's Gross Domestic Product on favorites like "Star Trek" and the works of H.P. Lovecraft, not everyone took Oswalt's declaration well.

To me his essay seems all too familiar. It's like what I hear from hipsters who get upset when their favorite musicians become too popular. And Oswalt's call for geeks to delve into ever more inaccessible realms of pop culture reminds me of a hipster joke: "I don't listen to albums, only demo tapes." It's obscurity for the sake of being obscure.

Maybe Oswalt never was a geek — or nerd or otaku. He misses the real point of geekdom, which isn't about being obscure. That many geek obsessions were once obscure but are now popular is an accident of history. Being a geek is nothing more than not being ashamed of the things you love.

In the past, that meant defending yourself from jocks, who, paradoxically, never have had to justify their obsessive love of sports. Now it means defending yourself against Patton Oswalt, a comedian who probably benefits from the mainstreaming of geek culture. His routine includes lots of geek humor, and I'm sure he appreciates an audience getting his jokes.

Ray Bradbury, the science fiction and fantasy author and a godfather to all geeks, spoke at the University of North Alabama in 2000. His advice to us in the audience was to never give up the things we love.

That sounds a lot better than Oswalt's broadside.