Thursday, April 28, 2011

Culture Shock 04.28.11: 'Birdemic' terrible, but not shocking

“Birdemic: Shock and Terror” wasn't going to be a good movie. I knew that going in. But I had hoped it would be at least an entertainingly bad film — such as “The Room,” “Troll 2” or “Robot Monster.”

And why not? “Birdemic” had been playing to seemingly enthusiastic crowds at various screenings all across the country for over a year before it arrived on DVD and, subsequently, in my mailbox.

I was all set for a good time. I was wrong.

“Birdemic” is so ineptly directed, poorly acted and generally ill-conceived that it only rarely rises to the level of “so bad it's good.”

Half of the movie is just people driving or walking. Where are they going? Who knows? Like Hedley Lamarr, they're probably just trying to find a way off this picture.

So, there's this guy named Rod, played by some other guy named Alan Bagh.

Rod is a software salesman, which isn't important in the slightest, making you wonder why the first third of the movie is devoted to this trivial fact. Bagh is an actor, which also isn't important because he doesn't act. Sometimes he barely reads his lines.

Flubbed dialogue? No problem! Not for writer/producer/director James Nguyen, the man I hold personally responsible for this mess, because he is the man who's personally responsible for this mess. Nguyen is the guy who thought “Birdemic” was a good idea.

Anyway, Rod is in love with Nathalie, played by Whitney Moore, whose forced smiles give away the game. The only “shock and terror” around here is in Moore's eyes, probably when she remembers she's in this movie.

Nathalie is a world-famous lingerie model. (That's their story, and they're sticking to it.) Yet like Rod's career as a software salesman, the modeling gig dominates the plot for no discernible reason, while little things such as Rod's creepy, stalker-like behavior slide right on by.

Rod strikes it rich when he cashes in his company's stock options. He then goes into the solar energy business, which is when you realize Nguyen intends “Birdemic” to be an environmental message movie.


As far as the plot is concerned, none of this is important. One thing you may have noticed by now is I haven't mentioned birds.

The movie's title is “Birdemic.” Doesn't this film have something to do with crazed birds attacking and killing people?

Well, after 40 minutes or so, the birds finally do attack. And by attack I mean they just sort of flap their wings and float aimlessly, because these birds look like the video game characters my Atari rendered in stunning, 8-bit glory in 1981.

The birds also sometimes explode. No, I don't know why.

So, the birds “attack,” and our couple tries to escape, meets another couple and rescues some kids. This is followed by more driving and lots of walking in open areas, just to make it easy for the birds.

Along the way, a scientist and a bad Emo Philips impressionist, identified only as “Tree Hugger,” arrive to give environmentalist speeches before vanishing, never to return. Just like the dodo.

In case you were wondering, the birds are ticked off about global warming. And now so am I, because global warming seems to be the reason Nguyen made this stupid movie.

“Birdemic” does have its moments, such as when the birds suddenly kill people with acidic bird poop and when normal California highway traffic intrudes on what's supposedly an apocalyptic wasteland. But they're not enough.

Or are they? After writing all of this, I suddenly feel better. It's as if “Birdemic” has released all of my pent-up anger and frustration.

Maybe you should see it. Or not. I don't know anymore. But I do know this: Like Rod's sales job, it doesn't matter anyway.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Culture Shock 04.21.11: 'Doctor Who' starts new season without best friend

I own a "Doctor Who" T-shirt emblazoned with the caption, "You never forget your first Doctor."

It's a reference to the 11 different actors who have portrayed the Doctor over the decades and how fans of the show usually will tell you their first Doctor is their favorite.

For me, that was Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor. Although he had already moved on by the time I first saw "Doctor Who" on public television in the mid-'80s, I caught him in reruns.

At the time, the Doctor's latest traveling companion in his journeys through time and space was Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen. And maybe it's also true that you never forget your first Doctor's companion, because all of these years and companions later, Sarah Jane is still my favorite.

That made the news even more of a shock when Sladen died Monday at age 63.

Sladen reportedly had been battling cancer for a while but had kept her illness secret from all but her family and closest friends. When her name started trending Tuesday afternoon on Twitter, fans hoped it was just another silly rumor of the sort that goes around Twitter at least once a week.

Then, Doctor Who Magazine and the BBC confirmed the news.

Later, word had spread to Entertainment Weekly's website, which demonstrates just how much of a foothold a formerly obscure British sci-fi series has gained in the often provincial United States.

Sladen's death came not long after the passing of her fellow "Doctor Who" co-star Nicholas Courtney, who died in February at age 81.

Throughout the 48-year history of "Doctor Who," the Doctor's companions have played a vital role. They're our window into the Doctor's wonderful and often inexplicable world. It's hard to relate to a 900-year-old alien who flits about in amazing blue box — called a TARDIS — that's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. But we can relate to those lucky Earthlings he deems worthy or interesting enough to invite along on his travels.

And Sarah Jane was arguably the best of the lot, which puts her ahead of some pretty tough competition, from the feisty 18th century Scottish Highlander Jamie McCrimmon in the 1960s to, coincidentally, a feisty 21st century Scot, Amy Pond, today.

Traveling first with the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and then Baker during 3½ seasons from 1973 to 1976, Sarah Jane was more than just someone the Doctor explained the plot to. She was smart, capable and able to take care of herself, although she did play the screaming damsel in distress on occasion — an unavoidable occupational hazard.

On screen, there was a special chemistry between Sladen and Baker. Of all the Doctor's companions, only Sarah Jane was his "best friend," and her departure from the TARDIS at the end of "The Hand of Fear" is one of the series' most powerful moments.

While most other companions leave never to return, "Doctor Who" keeps coming back to Sarah Jane. The first time, in 1981, was a pilot for a rejected spin-off series, "K9 and Company," in which Sarah Jane was the "company" to K9, a robotic dog who was another of the Doctor's former companions. Next, when "Doctor Who" returned to television in 2005 after a 16-year hiatus, so did Sarah Jane, appearing in the 2006 episode "School Reunion."

A new generation of "Doctor Who" fans was just as taken with Sarah Jane as the old one had been, and soon she was finally starring in her own spin-off, "The Sarah Jane Adventures," which has aired for four seasons. A fifth season was reportedly half filmed at the time of Sladen's death.

Before Tuesday, "Doctor Who" fans were eagerly anticipating the show's new season, which begins Saturday night at 8 on BBC America. Now, however, the occasion will be a little somber.

For a lot of Whovians, it feels like we've lost our best friend, too.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Culture Shock 04.14.11: Now for our regularly scheduled UFO sightings

Fifty years ago, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, an event celebrated this week with parties all across the globe and in orbit aboard the International Space Station.

That's what history says, anyway. But there are those who believe otherwise. They'd say the first humans in space were unwilling passengers abducted by aliens and spirited away to orbiting mother ships, where they were probed in a very uncomfortable place. That's because highly advanced life forms capable of interstellar travel have nothing better to do than journey millions of light years to play proctologist while passing along touchy-feely messages about how we all need to be nice to each other and take care of our planet.

Or, in the words of Michael Rennie, "Klaatu barada nikto."

No, I don't put much stock in reports of UFOs. Sure, there are "unidentified flying objects" in the strict sense of the term. But there is little evidence that any such objects reported over the decades are actually spaceships from other planets. And UFO sightings from astronomers, the people who spend the most time looking up at the sky, are virtually unheard of. Why? Because astronomers — not to be confused with astrologers — are trained professionals who know what they're looking at. So, they're rarely going to run across anything they can't identify, such as an aircraft, a meteor or a planet.

Venus, which is very bright in the evening sky and orbits much closer to the sun than Earth — so that it appears to change position relatively quickly — is commonly mistaken for a UFO. Just ask President Carter.

But as the saying goes, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and if the pattern holds, we're due for a new peak in UFO sightings.

The first wave of UFO sightings occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and it spilled over into entertainment in the form of popular movies like "Earth vs. The Flying Saucers" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still," as well as unpopular movies like "Plan 9 from Outer Space."

Things seemed to calm down in the 1960s, but by the '70s, there was another peak of UFO interest, which coincided, interestingly enough, with the release of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

The '80s were relatively quiet again, but the '90s saw another rise in sightings, in conjunction, as it happens, with the debut of "The X-Files," "news" programs like "Sightings" and "Encounters," and "alien autopsy" specials on network television.

Since "The X-Files" left the air, UFO reports have declined again.

So, I have a not-so-out-of-this-world theory to explain all of that.

Kids who grew up with the first UFO mania of the 1950s became Hollywood producers in the '70s. They made movies and TV shows about alien visitors, which in turn got people interested in UFOs again.

Suddenly, lots of people were back to mistaking mundane things for alien spacecraft. Then, in the 1990s, a new generation of TV and film producers that grew up in the 1970s repeated the cycle. And now we're reaching the time when the kids of the '90s, feeling nostalgic for Mulder and Scully, will start the cycle anew.

In fact, it may have already started. In the past week, the Internet and certain media outlets have hyped a 1950 FBI memo that allegedly supports the story of a UFO crashing in Roswell, N.M., in 1947.

There's just one small problem: It doesn't. The memo isn't new, it wasn't secret and it doesn't have anything to do with the purported Roswell incident, according to Benjamin Radford writing for

So, why is it creating such a stir now? Probably it's just a coincidence. But, maybe, it's just that time again.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Culture Shock 04.07.11: Revisiting 'The Hitchhiker's Guide'

I'm going to revisit a film this week that I think is in serious need of a critical reappraisal — 2005's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is based on the first volume of the late Douglas Adams' numerically challenged Hitchhiker's Trilogy, which is comprised of five novels, themselves based on Adams' BBC Radio 4 series, first broadcast in 1978, which he also adapted as a six-part BBC Two television series in 1981. (That BBC Two miniseries is currently streaming online at both Netfix and, and it's well worth your time, despite its having special effects on a par with "Doctor Who" episodes of the same period. Or, actually, maybe because of that.)

As one might suppose given all these adaptations, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is never exactly the same story twice, owing to the requirements of the different mediums, quantum indeterminacy and the sheer, crushing boredom of telling the same story over and over.

But Adams purists — certainly one of the most improbable species ever to have evolved on this small, blue-green world in the unfashionable western spiral arm of the Milky Way — were particularly upset by some of the deviations in the 2005 film, which has not helped its reputation.

This is all despite Adams having had a hand in writing the screenplay before his untimely death in 2001 at age 49.

So, what's wrong with the 2005 movie? Well, it does have a romantic subplot that does rather seem like an unwarranted concession to the Standard Hollywood Playbook. The SHP, for short, dictates that all action/adventure movies, including those in the sub-genre of the sci-fi comedy, have a romantic subplot. If you want to see a "Transformers" movie for the spectacle of CGI robots wailing on each other, you'll also have to put up with the tedious details of Shia LaBeouf's love life. Even "Galaxy Quest," easily the best sci-fi comedy since the original "Back to the Future," ended with Tim "The Toolman" Taylor and Ellen Ripley hooking up.

But apart from that, the 2005 version gets virtually everything right, including when it introduces, for no real reason, a new sci-fi prop — in this case, a gun that makes the target empathize with the shooter's feelings. In the wrong hands, say an ex-girlfriend, that's a truly devastating weapon.

Mainly, however, "The Hitchhiker's Guide" has two things going for it.

The first is that most of the aliens are not CGI constructs modeled in a computer. Rather, they're living, breathing foam-and-latex creatures spawned in the late Jim Henson's workshop. You can claim they're not as realistic as CGI characters — and you'd be wrong — but you can't say they're not more alive. I'll take a finely sculpted Vogon bureaucrat over a computer-animated Jar Jar Binks any day, and not just for the obvious reason that Jar Jar sucks.

The second reason is the excellent cast, led by Martin Freeman (The BBC's "The Office" and upcoming in "The Hobbit"), Sam Rockwell, Mos Def, Bill Nighy, and the voices of Stephen Fry as "The Guide" and Alan Rickman as Marvin, the perpetually depressed android with a brain the size of a planet.

Rockwell and Rickman also starred in "Galaxy Quest," so if you're making a sci-fi comedy, casting them is probably a good move.

Is the 2005 "Hitchhiker's Guide" perfect? No. But it is a fun movie that knows where its towel is at, which is enough to earn it a spot on my personal list of the Top 5 Sci-Fi Comedies I've Actually Seen, which goes something like this: "Ghostbusters," "Back to the Future," "Galaxy Quest," "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Battlefield Earth."

(I've just been informed that "Battlefield Earth" is, in fact, not a comedy at all but is intended as a serious science-fiction film. Oh, dear.)