Thursday, December 27, 2012

Culture Shock 12.27.12: Criterion's new Blu-ray returns us to 'Brazil'

Has any filmmaker, besides Orson Welles, faced as much misfortune as Terry Gilliam has in bringing his movies to the screen?

Gilliam's attempt to put his stamp on the story of Don Quixote is the stuff of legend. He began filming "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" more than a decade ago, and after fits and starts and changes of leading men, the movie still isn't made, although it has spawned Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's engrossing documentary about Gilliam's futile efforts, "Lost in La Mancha." More recently (and tragically) Gilliam's 2009 film "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" lost its star when Heath Ledger died in the middle of production. Gilliam salvaged the footage he'd shot with a plot twist that allowed other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) to step into Ledger's role. But the resulting film was a disappointment on almost every level.

Gilliam's most famous struggle involved his 1985 masterpiece "Brazil" — one of my all-time top 10 films — which faced trials of a more typically Hollywood sort.

Initially, the studio butchered "Brazil," hacking 48 minutes from its running time and turning what was left into a love-conquers-all romance, complete with studio-issue happy ending. Gilliam had to wage a publicity campaign to shame Universal Studios into releasing something closer to his original 142-minute cut.

Somehow that all seems ironic for a film about the frustrating, dehumanizing and ultimately soul-crushing effects of bureaucracy.

Gilliam's preferred version of "Brazil" (the European cut) has been available on DVD for years as part of the Criterion Collection, but this month Criterion released it on Blu-ray, giving "Brazil" its most definitive and eye-popping release to date.

Unlike most dystopian tales, "Brazil" isn't set in the future but in a dystopian anytime, "somewhere in the 20th century," as the opening titles tell us. It's not so much science fiction as it is a surreal reflection of what American and European societies have already become: governments that resort to police-state tactics with alarming and increasing regularity, a looming threat of terrorism both real and imagined, and endless, mind-numbing paperwork. You can't even get your air conditioning fixed without a proper form 27B-6, a sly reference to George Orwell's apartment number.

It's the sort of world where one clerical error could get a man killed, just as in ours it can land you on a "no fly" list. So, a competent but feckless button-pusher like Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is just a hapless cog in the machinery of government, and the unlikely hero is the mysterious Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a freelance repairman who became fed up with all the red tape and struck out on his own. Now Tuttle is an enemy of the state, a man named Buttle is a victim of mistaken identity, and Sam is mixed up in it all because the literal woman of his dreams (Kim Greist) is Buttle's upstairs neighbor.

Apart from being Gilliam's most visually striking film, with production design by Norman Garwood ("The Princess Bride") and cinematography by Roger Pratt (Tim Burton's "Batman"), "Brazil" is his strongest narrative. No surprise there, as the screenplay is by Gilliam, his frequent collaborator Charles McKeown and playwright Tom Stoppard ("Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"). And Stoppard's fingerprints are all over the finished result. If there is a reason why Gilliam has never exceeded the artistic triumph of "Brazil" in his subsequent films, I suspect it's the lack of Stoppard's input. Once again, the auteur theory runs into the reality that screenwriters do matter, as much as some critics still like to ignore them.

Stoppard aside, "Brazil" is still very much a Terry Gilliam film, with some scenes coming across as live-action recreations of some of his old Monty Python cartoons. "Brazil" is personal filmmaking that very nearly fell victim to the same impulses it so expertly criticizes.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Culture Shock 12.20.12: It's the end of the world (again)

When even George Noory, the host of the radio program "Coast to Coast A.M." — a nightly tour of the paranormal and just plain paranoid — thinks he'll still be on the air, broadcasting as usual, after Dec. 21, it's probably safe to say there is nothing to the Mayan apocalypse.

Nothing for us, anyway. For the Mayan civilization, the end was centuries ago.

Yes, like a joke too long in the telling, Friday is finally the day, the day "preppers" have been prepping for. (Can you believe they have a name, like "truthers" and "birthers?") Although how you prepare for the end of the world is a mystery to me. If the world is over, where are you going to live? As the Rocket Man said, "Mars ain't the kind of place to raise a kid."

By now it seems like the world is ending every other year or so. In fact, it was just last year that Harold Camping's prediction that the Rapture would take place on May 21, 2011, went unfulfilled.

And who can forget the year 2000? Y2K was the secular answer to the Christian End Times. On Jan. 1, 2000, computers would malfunction, airplanes would fall from the sky, the power grid would fail, nuclear power plants would melt down and all of humanity's works would would lie in ruins — a Luddite's paradise.

Now here it is, 12 years later, and my computer is actually running a reasonably stable version of Windows. Winning!

But at least in the case of Y2K there was a real technological problem. The doomsayers weren't entirely delusional. They just greatly overestimated the extent of the challenge and greatly underestimated our ability to meet it. They were done in by what social scientists call "pessimistic bias." Other doomsday enthusiasts don't have that excuse.

Calendars, however useful, are human inventions, and their start dates and end dates — when they recycle back to the beginning — are largely arbitrary. For example, the next Chinese New Year is Feb. 10, by which time most Americans will have long gotten over their New Year's Eve hangovers.

So why the Mayans and their infamous "long count" calendar? What's so special about them? To hazard a guess, it's because the Mayans play into two popular but misguided ways of thinking about ancient civilizations. The first is to regard them as keepers of lost spiritual wisdom that the modern world needs to rediscover. As such, the Mayans, like the Egyptians, have much to teach us, or so the story goes. The other is that civilizations like the Mayans and Egyptians were so advanced they must have had help from aliens from outer space. And that extraterrestrial boost is what gave them access to secret wisdom we must now recover if we are ever to reach our true potential.

The first view is cartoonish, and the second is condescending. The Mayans, like other ancient peoples, were people. They created an advanced civilization, especially for its time, and were pretty good with things like astronomy (a necessity for an agricultural society) and math. But they don't seem to have had access to otherworldly insights.

Still, some people entertain the possibility that super-secret knowledge is to be gained from the Mayans. It's enough people to fuel a cottage industry of books, movies and TV shows.

Syfy, History and Discovery are just three cable channels airing Mayan doomsday specials this week. And the 2009 movie "2012," which got an early start on this year's apocalypse, not only expected us to take doomsday seriously, it expected us to accept John Cusack as an action hero.

Oh, and by the way: That picture of the Mayan calendar you've seen on the Internet? You know, the stone disk with the face in the middle sticking its tongue out at you. That's not the Mayan long count calendar. It's the Aztec Sun Stone.

That's the punchline.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Culture Shock: 12.13.12: 'Glittering Images' is art for your sake

Camille Paglia is nothing if not provocative.

Since she burst on the national scene in 1990 with her magnum opus, "Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson," she has defended the Western canon from the left, post-structuralists and second-wave feminists, while also defending the decadent and avant-garde from attacks by the political and cultural right. One of her virtues — from my perspective — is she needles (mostly) the right people and makes (mostly) the right enemies. (There are exceptions.)

Her other virtues perhaps have more widespread appeal: She is passionate about the arts and about ideas, writes with limitless energy and isn't afraid to stake out a position in the face of ridicule.

All of those virtues — including the first — are on display in Paglia's book "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars" (Pantheon, $30, hardcover). What she did for poetry in her literary survey "Break, Blow, Burn," Paglia now attempts for the visual arts, starting, as in "Sexual Personae," with Egypt during the late Bronze Age and working her way to present day.

It's a long journey, represented by just 29 works, some well known and some, in Paglia's view, deserving a wider audience. The book is a freshman-level art history course, Paglia's attempt to make up for the dismal state of arts education in the U.S., and it is difficult to fault her appraisal.

Arts funding is attacked by conservatives who see the arts as either impractical or a haven for their political enemies. Meanwhile, the left degrades artistic standards by defending anything that offends the sensibilities of the hicks in the sticks. "Nothing is more hackneyed," Paglia writes in her introduction, "than the liberal dogma that shock value confers automatic importance on an artwork." Not that Paglia shies away from the shocking, but there must be more to it than that. To cite two names from the 1990s culture wars, she defends Robert Mapplethorpe while deriding as "third rate" the works of Andres Serrano. Not all that is transgressive is created equal.

The book's throat-clearing political broadsides are nothing new from Paglia, although her pox-on-both-houses attitude may prove instructive for novice readers trained to see the world in red and blue. But we're paying admission for what Paglia has to say about her 29 chosen works, and here she rarely disappoints. Her subjects include undisputed masterpieces like the statue "Laocoön and His Sons" from the first century B.C. It was Laocoön who, in myth, warned the Trojans against Greeks bearing gifts and was killed for his trouble, along with his sons, by the vengeful goddess Minerva, a Greek partisan. For Paglia this is representative of the question facing every religion: "Are the gods' codes and demands fair or arbitrary?" If you have an answer, a fellow named Job would like to know.

Yet Paglia is at her best when discussing works that have become fashionable to dismiss, for example anything Art Deco, which, despite a recent revival is "still underrepresented in museums and minimized or ignored by many art historians." Here, she turns to the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, a woman arguably more interesting than her works, known for their heroic poses and bold outlines. (Paglia misses an opportunity by not mentioning the stunning Art Deco "Superman" cartoons of animators Max and David Fleischer, possibly the pinnacle of Art Deco design.)

That brings us to Paglia's boldest claim, the one hinted at in the book's subtitle, that "Star Wars" creator George Lucas is the "greatest artist of our time." She is right on one count: "No one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas." But in terms of pure images, has Lucas even the influence of Marvel Comics auteur Jack Kirby? And is Lucas' most indelible image really, as Paglia says, the volcano planet of "Revenge of the Sith"? Surely it's the image of the star destroyer filling the screen in the opening shot of "Star Wars: Episode IV ­— A New Hope."

"Glittering Images" is a marvelous work, but not all that glitters is gold.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Culture Shock 12.06.12: Congratulations, royal watchers, it's a Windsor!

The announcement of a royal pregnancy in the House of Windsor comes at an auspicious time for a realm in the grip of fiscal austerity.

This is not exactly the way it happened.
However indulgent British "austerity" may be — government spending cuts have been trivial while taxes have been hiked, repeating the fairytale of virtually every nation enacting "austerity" measures — austerity is largely a state of mind. And what can lift the spirits of Her Royal Majesty's subjects more than the prospect of a new heir?

Yes, the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, and her husband Prince William are expecting. This is particularly good news for British tourism. The royal family and its royal residences are among Great Britain's major tourist attractions, to the princely sum of more than $800 million a year, while the cost of running the royal household last year was a mere pittance by comparison, roughly $52 million, according to figures from The Telegraph and Monday's exchange rate.

Tourism is big business in the U.K., so this is all very important. And as anyone who has ever run a tourist attraction knows, you have to keep the attraction fresh to keep the visitors and their gift-shop purchases rolling in. Those souvenir replicas of Big Ben and Union Jack T-shirts don't sell themselves.

A British royal baby is the equivalent of Six Flags adding a new roller coaster. You have to install new attractions to keep the tourists coming.

And most of the English-speaking world is entranced. First a royal wedding complete with ridiculous hats out of a rejected Monty Python sketch, now a baby! It's almost enough to make up for Kate's revealing run-in with the paparazzi just a few months ago. The way large numbers of us latch onto celebrity — any celebrity — it's clearly part of human nature. And say what you will about Elizabeth II and her sprawling family, at least they do typically display some measure of class, that heir-do-well Prince Harry excepted. Yet even his tawdry tabloid trysts are to be preferred to the antics of the houses of Hilton, Lohan and Kardashian.

Poor Harry. Baby makes third in line for the throne, pushing him to fourth, for which there is no payout. (This also applies to the other game of thrones, the queue for the royal washroom.)

Now I understand many of you are fed up with your fellow Americans' obsession with royal watching. You're thinking, "Didn't we have a revolution so we wouldn't have royalty?"

Simply put, no. We had a revolution over taxes that were less than what Englishmen in England were paying at the time to subsidize our defense. The real financial burden of empire is always born by the imperial power, not the colonies, as economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has observed.

Besides, constitutional monarchy has its advantages. Chiefly, under constitutional monarchy the offices of head of state and head of government are separate. You have a head of state, the monarch, in whom you can invest your national sense of worth, then you have a head of government, a president or prime minister who runs the place, if not all that well. That allows you to freely ridicule your head of government when he deserves it — which is pretty much all the time — while not running down the personage who is the face of the nation.

In America, our head of state and head of government are combined in one office, the presidency. So no matter how much the president might deserve to be tarred and feathered, we're always told we must "show respect for the office." This, I submit, is unhealthy for democracy.

Certainly I've never heard anyone from Britain say we must show respect for the office of prime minister. And who'd take it seriously if they did? Tony Blair held the post, for Pete's sake.

So, welcome Britain's new blue-blooded baby. One day he or she will help the British people take their minds off the clown occupying Number 10. It is an honorable fate.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Culture Shock 11.22.12: Choosy lexicographers choose gif

The keepers of the Queen’s English have spoken, and the American word of the year is "gif."

Yes, gif. Short for graphic interchange format. The gif has been around for 25 years. It’s one of the oldest image formats still in use on the Internet. And during the early days of the World Wide Web, the humble gif was the bane of self-respecting web designers everywhere.

Now gif is the Oxford American Dictionary’s choice for word of the year, beating out candidates of more recent coinage like "YOLO," an acronym for "you only live once" and doubtless the final word uttered by more than one Darwin Award recipient.

I had to double check my calendar. Indeed, the year is 2012 and not 1995 — as I originally supposed when I first learned gif was the Oxford editors’ choice.

The source of gif’s fame is also the reason for its infamy. The gif image format can contain many stills compressed into one file, meaning gif images can be animated into brief, looping movies. This is a feature MySpace users used and abused with abandon back when MySpace was still something people talked about.

How many times during the 1990s did you stumble across a website only to find that it was still "under construction," complete with a tiny, animated image of a stick-figure man in a hard hat? That was the gif hard at work. In some dark corners of the Internet, some of those never-finished web pages still exist, still under construction and never to be completed, just like your route to and from the office.

So, why is gif the word of the year now?

According to Katherine Martin, head of the U.S. Dictionaries Program at Oxford University Press USA, it’s in part because gif is no longer just a noun. It’s also a verb. As the philosophers Calvin and Hobbes once observed, verbing words is fun. Consider the sentence, "I giffed my cat, uploaded the gif to I Can Has Cheezeburger, tweeted the link, and now it has 200 likes on Facebook. LOL."

As for the raging debate regarding the proper pronunciation of gif, the Oxford American Dictionary remains agnostic. Its lexicographers maintain that both the hard g (as in "graphic") and the soft g (as in "Choosy mothers choose Jif") are equally correct. I vaguely recall being adamant that one pronunciation was to be preferred over the other, but I can’t recall which. That was a long time ago.

Over in the United Kingdom, the UK word of the year is the altogether more impressive "omnishambles."

Coined by the writers of the political comedy series "The Thick of It," omnishambles, noun, denotes "a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations." For instance, if you are a British skeptic of the European Union, you might describe the EU’s current financial state as an omnishambles. Then you might laugh and say, "I told you so."

But the great thing about the word omnishambles is its flexibility. Say, for example, that the Republican Party’s presidential nominee comes to London in the run-up to the Olympics and behaves like a total jerk. You might call that a "Romneyshambles," as did virtually every British newspaper.

Say you didn’t buy enough liquor for your party. The night could end in a "Bacardishambles." If your sandwich tastes a little funny, you may be a victim of "salamishambles." Maybe you think the new season of AMC’s "The Walking Dead" is a bit rubbish? You might call that a "zombieshambles." And if you’re a baseball player who admits to taking performance-enhancing drugs, you could find your career in a "Jason Giambishambles."

Unfortunately, calling the Oxford American Dictionary’s choice of gif a "gifshambles" just doesn’t work, regardless of which way you pronounce "gif."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Culture Shock 11.15.12: James Bond at 50 comes full circle in 'Skyfall'

Fifty years after James Bond first appeared on the big screen in "Dr. No," the Bond franchise is showing its age.

This isn't 007's first midlife crisis. The Bond films turned to amiable self-parody during the Roger Moore years, then drifted aimlessly without the Cold War as background or motivation. Timothy Dalton's Bond is underrated, but the drug war plot of "License to Kill" is the series at its most lifeless. And the less said about the Pierce Brosnan era — it went off the rails after the promising "GoldenEye" — the better.

By the time Daniel Craig became the sixth "official" James Bond, more than a new actor was required. The franchise underwent a near-complete reboot, with Judi Dench's spy chief M as the only holdover. "Casino Royale," based on Ian Fleming's first 007 novel, took the character back to basics. Here was a stripped-down, only-the-essentials James Bond, free of the gimmicks and the gadgets.

The average person on the street now carries a telephone so sophisticated you'd think Q invented it, while Bond now gets by with just a pistol and a radio.

Exploding pens are out; elegant simplicity is in. In the tech-savvy 21st century, 007 distinguishes himself from the rest of us mere mortals by being a lo-fi spy. How things have changed.

The new 007's second outing was "Quantum of Solace," the most typically Bondian of all Craig's Bond films, yet the least satisfying. It's a middling entry at best.

And now we have "Skyfall," and it turns out the franchise reboot that started with "Casino Royale" didn't end there. Only now is it obvious that Craig's three Bond films form a proper trilogy, to the extent it's instructive to compare them to Christopher Nolan's Batman films. The final film in each series is a meditation on death and rebirth, right down to the contrasting titles, with "The Dark Knight Rises" putting the emphasis on the rise and "Skyfall" on the fall. Fortunately, "Skyfall" director Sam Mendes does what Nolan couldn't — bring the story to a rousing conclusion.

Like "The Dark Knight Rises," "Skyfall" gives us a hero whose greatest enemy isn't really a disfigured super-villain with a personal score to settle (be he Tom Hardy's Bane or Javier Bardem's Silva) but time. And time can be denied for only so long.

"Skyfall" is all about the past catching up with you, which can be especially dangerous if you are a trained killer like Bond or a long-serving MI6 chief like M. That becomes obvious when Silva, a former MI6 agent cut loose by M before Bond got his 00 rank, steals a list of undercover agents and uses it to get his revenge on M. (Dench meets the challenge by giving what may be her best screen performance.)

In a film full of surprising contrasts, Silva is one of the biggest. Played by Bardem as a lip-smacking, over-the-top psychopath, he's among the most memorable and extravagant of Bond villains, even as he has the most realistic motivation.

At the same time, "Skyfall" is both uncharted territory for Bond and the closing of the circle. Never before has 007 had a story so personal and faced a threat that hits so close to home. The death of his wife in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" is the only thing that comes close. Yet by the end, it's telling how little has really changed. The franchise is back where it started.

Throughout "Skyfall," Bond and M tell their more modern colleagues that there's no substitute for the old-fashioned ways. You can't replace field agents, entrusted with the power of life and death, with computers and drones. By the time the credits roll, the old ways have won out. Even the old, leather-lined door to M's office is back.

Bond's future seems bright, and the Bond of the future seems a lot like the Bond of 1962.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Culture Shock 11.08.12: Is 'Star Wars' without Lucas still 'Star Wars?'

It has become cliché to note the thread that unites events like the JFK assassination, the Challenger explosion and 9/11.

Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard about them.

But it's also the case that each of these world-stopping events is tragic. It's seldom that good news has even remotely the same impact. Until now.

I was sitting in a coffee shop reading a book when I glanced at my Twitter feed — as I now do habitually between chapters — and saw the news: "Disney buys Lucasfilm for $4B." Followed by "New Star Wars movie due in 2015."

Within 20 minutes, I was at a local gaming shop — a den of geek culture — sharing the news. Jaws dropped. Everyone was sure I was kidding. But in these days of ubiquitous smartphones, it doesn't take long for everyone to see for themselves.

"Remember where you were when you heard the news," I told them. "One day you'll tell your grandkids about this moment."

To some this may seem like an overreaction to the trivial, but to my generation and those that came after, it is almost impossible to overstate the cultural impact of "Star Wars." Believe me, those of us who were disappointed in the prequels weren't disappointed because we hate "Star Wars" or are ambivalent toward it. The crushing disappointment of Jar Jar Binks and wooden acting and child Anakin comes from love.

And now "Star Wars" is back — a new trilogy taking the story forward rather than backward, only this time George Lucas' involvement will be minimal. He's providing the story outline, but the heavy lifting of the screenplay and the direction will fall to others. "Star Wars" is Disney's baby now.

Not long ago, that prospect would have terrified me, but Disney has so far made all the right moves with its other recent acquisition, Marvel Comics, including placing Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") in charge of the Marvel movie universe. Disney would do well to find someone similar, with a similar background running TV shows with complex mythologies, to shepherd the "Star Wars" franchise. My free advice is to hire Ronald D. Moore ("Battlestar Galactica") for the overseer role, then bring in an experienced director to helm Episode VII, the first film of the new trilogy. My pick would be Kenneth Branagh, whose experience with both genre movies ("Thor") and Shakespeare is exactly the mix a sprawling space opera needs.

The prospect of new blood taking over the "Star Wars" saga made even some of the most jaded fans curious. Can a "Star Wars" free of Lucas' increasingly absurd dialogue and disinterested approach to his actors recapture the magic of the original trilogy?

We will know more when we know who is writing and directing the new films, but putting aside any lingering disappointment with the prequels, it's important to remember that this is Lucas' universe. Without him overseeing the franchise, it's possible Episodes VII, VIII and IX may lack something — an ineffable Star Warsness.

It's a bold proclamation even I would dispute, but there is a reason why Camille Paglia, in her new book "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars," says Lucas is the greatest artist of our time. Lucas grasps the timeless stories and myths that drive Western culture as few others do. As Paglia writes, he has "created characters who have entered the dream lives of millions."

Now Lucas has entrusted those characters to others.

We may get movies that finally erase the bad memories of the prequels. They may even be great movies. But will they feel like "Star Wars?"

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Culture Shock 10.25.12: Party favors for your Halloween viewing

With Halloween mere days away, the sidewalks will soon be filled with costumed revelers young and old. And it's an election year, so some costumes will he scarier than usual.

No doubt, there will be a few Women in Binders and some Big Birds wielding bayonets.

But if your plans involve something less topical and more traditional — say, staying in to hand out treats or hosting a party for a few of your fiends, er, friends — perhaps a scary movie is more your speed.

You're in luck. For here are chills of all sorts.

The best Halloween party films are the ones that combine plenty of scares with a healthy dose of dark humor, and three meet that standard perfectly.

"The Cabin in the Woods" (available on DVD and Blu-ray, and currently at Redbox) is from writer/producer Joss Whedon ("The Avengers") and writer/director Drew Goddard, and it's one of the year's best films, period. This time, our college-student heroes/victims aren't just the unlucky targets of evil, pain-worshiping redneck zombies. They serve a higher purpose — and that's where the real fun comes in.

"Cabin" owes a lot to an earlier film, Sam Raimi's classic from 1987, "Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn" (DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant) starring Bruce Campbell ("Burn Notice"). The ultimate horror comedy, "Evil Dead 2" pulls no punches.

After taking time out for the "Spider-Man" films, Raimi returned with another slapstick horror movie, 2009's "Drag Me to Hell" (DVD, Blu-Ray, Redbox) which pits Alison Lohman against a Gypsy curse and the same physical-comedy terrors that plagued Campbell 25 years ago.

Now, if you prefer your scary movies straight, no chaser, then give a look to "Halloween III: Season of the Witch" (DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant).

Unfairly derided because it doesn't feature Michael Myers, "Halloween III" (1982) was an attempt to turn the "Halloween" franchise into an anthology series. The film sees a sinister cult using science rather than magic to target the nation's children on Halloween night. It's like one of those Halloween conspiracy theories come true.

No Halloween is complete without a trip into the mind of one of America's greatest writers of dark fantasy and horror, H.P. Lovecraft.

"The Resurrected" (DVD, Netflix Instant) from 1992 is a reasonably faithful update of Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," about a man (Chris Sarandon) delving into the supernatural in order to resurrect his sorcerer ancestor. This is a surprisingly scary effort by the late director Dan O'Bannon, and it'll have you thinking twice about going into basements.

Not every Lovecraft adaptation is so respectful, and 1970's "The Dunwich Horror" (DVD, Netflix Instant) starring Dean Stockwell is more fun for its cheese value than its shock value.

Speaking of cheesy horror movies, they don't come much cheesier than 1975's "The Devil Within Her" (DVD, Netflix Instant) starring a pre-"Dynasty" Joan Collins as a woman who gives birth to a demonic child, which proceeds to terrorize her for the rest of the film. This one also stars Donald Pleasence ("Halloween").

If you can't get enough cheese, Hulu features 20 episodes of "Elvira's Movie Macabre," and, on a more serious note, all three seasons of Rod Serling's "Night Gallery" TV series.

Lastly, for lovers of the classics, there is Mario Bava's "Black Sabbath" (DVD, Netflix Instant) from 1963, starring Boris Karloff. It's two masters of horror giving one masterful performance.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Culture Shock 10.18.12: 'Atlas Shrugged: Part II' and so will you

"Atlas Shrugged: Part II" is a success on at least one level. It's a marked improvement on "Part I."

With a stronger cast, a more experienced director and a larger budget, it almost couldn't help but be a step up from the first attempt to bring Ayn Rand's epic, 1100-page novel to the screen. Unfortunately, "Atlas Shrugged: Part I" set a low standard to surpass. So while "Part II" is better, that's like saying a SyFy original movie is better than a Lifetime original movie. They're both bad made-for-TV movies, and that's what "Part II" looks like, too.

We're left still waiting for an adaptation that can do justice to the sweep of Rand's tale.

Picking up where the second third of Rand's novel starts, our heroes, Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden — now played by Samantha Mathis and Jason Beghe — have thwarted both the government and their jealous, bailout-seeking competitors. Together, Dagny and Henry have opened the John Galt Line, the latest addition to the Taggart rail service, made with rails of light, durable Rearden Metal. They've also discovered, in an abandoned auto plant, an engine that promises access to near limitless energy, if they can find anyone who can figure out how it works.

That's the hard part, because the very sort of talented, creative people who might be able to unlock the secrets of the mystery motor are disappearing one by one, abandoning everything they worked years to build.

This is the second of three acts, and the situation is about to deteriorate, and fast.

Energy prices are soaring, making travel by car and plane too expensive for all but the very rich, which is why trains have re-emerged as a vital mode of transport. And as the economy crumbles, businesses rush to the government seeking favors, while the government, led by Head of State Thompson (Ray Wise), passes more edicts and restrictions each day. The same government science board that once said Rearden's metal was dangerous now says it's a vital resource that must be shared equally among all who want it.

It's an America where getting ahead in business, in art, in anything has become more a matter of political pull than achievement.

One thing "Atlas Shrugged: Part II" does surprisingly well is bring viewers up to speed with a minimum of plot exposition. You don't need to have seen "Part I" to know what's going on. But Rand's own exposition — especially her characters' lengthy speeches — is the film's undoing. Everything stops cold during the repetitive scenes where characters complain about the government or taxes or their spineless rivals. We get the point.

I'm a fan of the book, but even I admit its speech-making can go too far. And what barely works in the novel is a disaster in the movie. Only Esai Morales as the underused Francisco d'Anconia comes close to pulling it off.

Samantha Mathis as Dagny Taggart appears in a
scene from "Atlas Shrugged: Part II," the second
film in a planned trilogy adapting Ayn Rand's novel.
An airplane chase that opens and closes the film is its most thrilling set piece, despite the shoddy special effects. It's the one time the film truly embraces the pulp-fiction sensibility that runs through and ultimately drives Rand's book.

The way to approach "Atlas Shrugged" the novel is to recognize that it's essentially a pulp-magazine sci-fi story — complete with sci-fi tropes like a cloaking device and a motor that runs on ambient static electricity — presented as a talky, philosophical Russian epic. Films are primarily a visual medium, so to make "Atlas Shrugged" work as a movie, it has to be more pulp and less talk.

If the producers make "Part III," maybe they'll finally get the formula right. But with two box-office duds in a row, "Part III" seems unlikely. So far, the only ones doing much shrugging are the audience.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Culture Shock 10.11.12: Bloody Bava bows on Blu-ray

Only in the past decade has Italy's "maestro of the macabre" begun to get the recognition he is due.

Throughout the 1960s and into the mid-'70s, Mario Bava's atmospheric films — mostly in the horror genre — played in drive-ins and other disreputable venues. Sometimes they were part of double or ever triple features of terror, dismissed by their distributors as disposable schlock.

That's the fate of a working director, which Bava was, grinding out movies on minuscule budgets. He was as much a craftsman as an artist. Bava often was his own cinematographer, and he always handled the bulk of his films' special effects. But he brought artistry to his craft, and that dedication has won him admirers as diverse as Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.
As Bava's movies began to appear on DVD in their original, uncut versions in the 2000s — two decades after his death in 1980 at age 65 — he began to attract a new audience and renewed appreciation. Most of his best films have been released in two DVD box sets, The Mario Bava Collection Vols. 1 and 2. Now Kino Lorber, which released a brilliantly restored version of Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece "Metropolis," is turning its attention to Bava, bringing three of his newly remastered films to Blu-ray for the first time.

Kino's releases include Bava's breakthrough film "Black Sunday" (1960) starring Barbara Steele; his most troubled, yet most personal film, "Lisa and the Devil" (1973) with Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer and Italian screen legend Alida Valli; and his 1970 thriller "Hatchet for the Honeymoon." Kino has released "Black Sunday" and "Lisa and the Devil" under its Kino Classics label, while opting to release "Hatchet" under its Redemption horror label. That's understandable because while all are worthwhile, only the first two are true classics.

"Black Sunday" is Bava's best known and most influential work, the one you're most likely to see on late-night television, especially at this time of year. It's also the film that made a horror icon out of Steele, whose large, hypnotic eyes convey malice as easily as they elicit sympathy, which led to her more than once playing good and evil twins, including here.

On the disc's audio commentary, Bava expert Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog magazine draws our attention to an exterior shot that highlights Bava's attention to detail. The shot lasts a just a few seconds, but it is almost absurdly complex, involving a partial model, matte paintings, forced perspective and in-camera lighting tricks, all engineered by Bava himself.

But for me, Bava's masterpiece is "Lisa and the Devil," which I rate as one of the best films ever produced. Yet this is a film that couldn't even find a distributor when it was made. Bava's producer, Alfredo Leone, commissioned new scenes and released "Lisa" a year later as "The House of Exorcism," successfully cashing in on "The Exorcist" mania, but sacrificing Bava's most heartfelt work in the process. (Kino's Blu-ray includes both versions, so you can judge for yourself.)

By turns creepy and whimsical, "Lisa and the Devil" is part murder mystery and part ghost story, with a dreamlike plot involving characters who may be dead or may be department store dummies or may be figment's of Lisa's imagination. The story, like the village in which Lisa (Sommer) gets lost, is like an M.C. Escher painting, folding in on itself.

And at the center of the proceedings is Savalas, clearly having a ball as the butler Leandro, bemoaning his menial fate while bearing a not-at-all-coincidental resemblance to a fresco of the devil in the village square.

This is how Bava's greatest films were meant to be seen, in high-definition glory and looking better than when they were first shown. Sit back, and let the maestro conduct.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Culture Shock 10.04.12: 'The Master' searches for the simple truth

When "The Master" begins, Freddie Quell is already a broken man.

It's the end of World War II, and Freddie (a gangly Joaquin Phoenix) is getting ready to reenter civilian life. Along with a room full of fellow vets, he's told he can do whatever he wants — start a business, go to college, become a farmer, whatever. But his true prospects don't seem as inviting as all that.

Freddie appears to suffer from what we today would call post-traumatic stress disorder. Back then it was just shell shock, and if you had it, some people thought that made you less of a man.
Directionless and prone to violent outbursts, Freddie is looking for something, but he doesn't know what. Then he meets a man who promises to show him a better way, to free him of the doubts, fears and uncertainties that prevent Freddie from being happy.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has said "The Master" has nothing really to do with Scientology, and that's true. While Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd looks and sounds the part of L. Ron Hubbard, and while his ideas seem a lot like Scientology, especially in its earlier iterations, "The Master" isn't really about any of that. It could be almost any new religion or upstart movement.

Dwell on the Scientology similarities, and you miss the real story, Freddie's story. And his story is easy to miss, getting lost as it does in the film's 2 hour, 17 minute running time. It's a simple tale of one psychologically damaged man's ill-fated quest to find meaning in all the wrong places. But the epic length of the movie combined with Anderson's undeniable skill as a director are a temptation to over analyze "The Master." The film is so good in parts, you don't want to admit that maybe Anderson the screenwriter doesn't have as much to say as Anderson the director thinks he does, which becomes obvious as the final third drags slowly to a close.

"The Master" is less than the sum of its parts. It's filled with beautiful scenes, first and foremost a long and complex tracking shot of Freddie as he walks along a pier to Lancaster's boat, with Lancaster and company visible dancing on the upper deck. And the acting is superb, especially from Hoffman, who can go ahead and clear his schedule for the Oscars.

For anyone who wonders how some people can fall so thoroughly for seemingly obvious con men and snake oil salesmen, Hoffman has the answer. Lancaster Dodd is egotistical and can't tolerate being challenged, but he's also charismatic and genuinely cares about helping others, even if that's mostly because he regards their failures as his own, which he can't abide. What Lancaster isn't is a caricature, and Hoffman never lets him become one. Some of Lancaster's early auditing sessions even seem to help Freddie — for a while, anyway.

Equally good is Amy Adams as Lancaster's wife Peggy, whom Anderson has cast in what amounts to a Lady Macbeth role. Where Lancaster is sentimental, Peggy is practical and in control. When Freddie's presence becomes a distraction, she's the first to say he needs to go.

As for Freddie, Phoenix plays him broken physically as well as emotionally. We're never told he was injured during the war, but Freddie moves like he's pieced together out of other bodies' parts, a kind of Frankenstein monster demanding answers from a father figure who has no answers to give.

The acting and direction are enough to recommend "The Master," but if you're looking for great truths and insights, you, like Freddie, are looking in the wrong place. That seems to be the punchline; there's no more meaning here than there is in Lancaster Dodd's books.

Maybe that is the only point Anderson is trying to make.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Culture Shock 09.27.12: Prescription for 'Hysteria?' Give it a rest

For a film inspired by actual events, there is surprisingly little about "Hysteria" that rings true.

Director Tanya Wexler’s third and most ambitious movie is a romantic comedy set in the 1880s, when Queen Victoria reigned and Victorian values ruled. Unfortunately the romance is painfully obvious and the comedy is sorely lacking.

And that’s a shame, because a movie about the invention of the vibrator should be ripe for exploitation. You could even build a great advertising campaign around it, with "Banned in Alabama!" emblazoned across the posters.

But what we get with "Hysteria," new to DVD and Blu-ray, is yet another uninspired entry in the genre I like to call "Making Fun of the Victorians."

It goes like this: "Oh, those silly Victorians and their silly ideas about sex and medicine and politics. It’s all so laughable, but thank goodness we’re far more sophisticated now."

Well, yes, people in Victorian times did believe lots of things that turned out to be wrong, and sometimes laughable, just as people who lived before them did. And, one day, 100 years from now — or sooner — people will look back at us, and they’ll point and laugh, too. It’s the way of things. But I’m not sure I’d try to build a movie around it.

Perhaps if the screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, from an original story by Howard Gensler, had stuck closer to the actual events rather than merely being inspired by them, then going off on the rom-com tangent, "Hysteria" wouldn’t be a limp, cliched snoozer that wastes the considerable talents of its cast.

We begin by meeting a young, idealistic doctor named Mortimer Granville, based on the real-life inventor of the electric vibrator and played by Hugh Dancy (the forthcoming "Hannibal" TV series). He has some crazy, new ideas about diseases being caused by germs and can’t keep a steady job at any of the local hospitals, where leeching patients is still the default treatment. So he takes a job assisting Dr. Robert Dalrymple (the always wonderful Jonathan Pryce), who has a lucrative practice treating wealthy women for the most ubiquitous disease of the Victorian age: hysteria.

Hysteria is a catch-all diagnosis, purportedly explaining everything from unladylike temperaments to thoughts of sex. And the treatment?

Manual stimulation. Unsurprisingly, the handsome Dr. Granville quickly becomes popular with Dr. Dalrymple’s patients. And soon, Dalrymple is eager to keep his medical practice in the family by marrying off his younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) to his protege.

Yet where there’s a younger daughter there must be an older one, and that’s the idealistic, headstrong Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who may be suffering from hysteria herself, what with all her outlandish notions of helping the poor. And already you can guess where things are going.

Gyllenhaal does her best, but there’s no escaping the fact that as a character Charlotte is a cheat. Every time she goes off about how the world should be or will be, she’s speaking with the anachronistic knowledge of the screenwriters’ 130 years of hindsight. After a while, it doesn’t matter if she’s right; the whole exercise is tedious.

As for Granville, he’s so popular his hand can’t take the abuse. So with the help of a conveniently rich and technology-obsessed friend (Rupert Everett, playing a bored aristocrat all too convincingly), he invents the vibrator. The rest is not exactly history — the real-life Granville didn’t intend his muscle relaxer to become the Hitachi Magic Wand — but you have seen it before, in a hundred other romantic comedies.

My prescription: Give "Hysteria" a rest.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Culture Shock 09.20.12: 'Heathers' is an overlooked masterpiece

Dear diary,

My favorite 1980s teen angst comedy with a body count is being turned into a TV show. And no one — not the CIA, not the FCC, not the PTA — can stop it.

OK, it's not exactly a sure thing — yet. But Bravo announced last week that it is developing a TV series based on the 1988 movie "Heathers" starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannen Doherty.

The series would pick up 20 years after the original, with Ryder's character, Veronica, returning to Sherwood, Ohio, with her daughter only to encounter a new, all-powerful high school clique, the Ashleys, who happen to be the daughters of the surviving Heathers, Veronica's frenemies from the original film.

The question is, has someone at Bravo had a brain tumor for breakfast?

You don't mess with perfection. And "Heathers" is pretty close to perfection.

Recently, "Sight & Sound" magazine asked more than 800 critics, filmmakers, academics and others to name the greatest movies of all time. The results created a stir when, after a 50-year reign, Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" was deposed as the No. 1 movie by Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

The "Sight & Sound" list was outrageous for two reasons. First, neither "Vertigo" nor "Citizen Kane" is even its respective director's best film, much less best overall.

Second, I was not one of the 846 people asked to participate. So, I crafted my own top 10 list. And before you question my choices, just be aware that two critics who were part of the poll submitted "Zoolander." So there.

Anyway, my top 10 films of all time, in no particular order, are Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, Sergio Leone's epic "Once Upon a Time in the West," Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," Welles' semi-documentary "F for Fake," Hitchcock's "Psycho," Milos Forman's Mozart biopic "Amadeus," Mario Bava's sublime ghost story "Lisa and the Devil" starring Telly Savalas and Elke Sommer, and Michael Lehmann's "Heathers."

All, naturally, are debatable, and I'm told it's scandalous that I don't share the rest of the world's fawning appreciation for the first two "Godfather" films. (They're not even my favorite mob films. That's the Coen brothers' "Miller's Crossing.")

But my only admittedly oddball picks are "Lisa and the Devil," which I'll leave for another time, and "Heathers."

While Lehmann's borderline surreal direction is not to be underestimated, it's Daniel Waters' screenplay that makes the movie.

He delivers a world-weary broadside against the absurdities and hypocrisies of class, fashion, pop psychology and the education establishment. It's Generation X's manifesto, and it has inspired lesser imitators, from 1999's "Jawbreaker" starring Rose McGowan to 2004's Millennial Generation knock-off "Mean Girls" with a pre-meltdown Lindsay Lohan.

Change the clothes and hairstyles, and "Heathers" could be made today, which is probably one reason Bravo sees this as fertile territory to revisit. The social divisions of high school more and more seep into the world of allegedly responsible adults. The accessories change — I don't think Swatches are still in fashion, although I could be wrong — but the show goes on.

If you've never seen "Heathers" or you just haven't seen it lately, it's available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix instant. And, if Bravo's TV sequel goes forward, at least it'll have the side effect of getting this masterful film a larger audience. As Heather No. 1 might say, that would be very.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Culture Shock 09.13.12: 'Thick of It' is back with some more bite

After spending the previous season as a supporting player — and in the opposition — it is Peter Mannion's time to shine.

Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in "The Thick of It."
And if you believe that, you're alone because not even Peter, the new minister for the fictitious Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, believes that.

The parties change, but the challenges and humiliations of government remain the same as the wickedly brilliant British political satire "The Thick of It" returns for a fourth season, following a three-year hiatus. And this year, for the first time, it's also airing in the U.S.

New episodes appear on Hulu on Sundays, and if you want to catch up with previous seasons, Hulu, which is co-producing the new season along with BBC Two, has those as well.

Stuck leading a worthless department staffed with civil servants who would just as soon be laid off, and having to share power with a junior minister from another party, Peter (Roger Allam) has been put out to pasture. He's a relic of the 1980s, with '80s suits, '80s hair and '80s ideas.

That especially puts Peter at odds with the prime minister's modern, tie-hating, chai-drinking PR man, Stewart (Vincent Franklin), whose chipper Zen exterior conceals a cutthroat political operative.

In the previous season, Peter was about the closest thing "The Thick of It" had to a sympathetic character, but now that he's in power — such as it is — he's more bitter than ever.

The political situation echoes the current real-life climate in Great Britain, where the government is composed of an increasingly fractious coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats, while Labour labors in opposition.

That means Peter also must deal with Fergus (Geoffrey Streatfield), a junior minister from the coalition party. And their rivalry gets even more heated when Peter is instructed to launch Fergus' new initiative, which requires Peter going to a school.

"I hate schoolchildren," is Peter's response. "They're volatile and stupid and they don't have the vote." That's Peter: ever practical.

It goes without saying that things go disastrously wrong from there, with fantastic results for us.

Shot in documentary style, "The Thick of It" is a cross between "The Office" and the 1980s British comedy "Yes, Prime Minister," and it relies as heavily on improvisation as it does the snappy scripted dialogue of series creator Armando Iannucci (HBO's "Veep") and his writing team.

Allam, who as others have noted seems to be channeling the late Christopher Hitchens with his performance, is in particularly top form.

Now if you've already been following "The Thick of It," or you've seen the equally hilarious spin-off film "In the Loop" (available on Netflix instant) you'll notice one character has been conspicuously absent so far — the foul-mouthed political shark Malcolm Tucker.

That's because Malcolm (Peter Capaldi) is conspicuously absent from the season four debut. But just because the former prime minister's public-relations mastermind and party-line enforcer is out of power doesn't mean he's out of mind. And the preview for this weekend's second episode shows us that Malcolm is scheming to get back into Number 10. But first he must deal with the opposition's new, unlikely party leader, Nicola (Rebecca Front), whom we last saw as the previous head of the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship.

If Nicola was in over her head as minister of a minor department, then as party leader — well, you can guess. And sharks prey on the weak.

Besides, it wouldn't really be "The Thick of It" without Malcolm calling people names I can't repeat here.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Culture Shock 09.06.12: 'Twins of Evil' has risen from grave

By the early 1970s, the old-fashioned gothic horror that was Hammer Films' stock-in-trade for nearly 15 years was looking dated. Period pieces about vampires and mad scientists' monsters were out.

Contemporary films about joining a satanic cult and having the devil's baby were in.

Hammer tried, unsuccessfully, to get in on the act with 1976's "To the Devil a Daughter," which is best known today for it's revealing final scene featuring a young Nastassja Kinski.

But in 1971, Hammer took one of its last stabs at the period vampire story, and the result was one of the best films of Hammer's late period: "Twins of Evil."

Long unavailable in the U.S., "Twins of Evil" has been brilliantly restored by cult-film distributor Synapse Films and released as a Blu-ray/DVD combo. It's a fair bet the finished product looks as good if not better than when "Twins of Evil" was originally released.

"Twins of Evil" is the third and final installment in Hammer's loosely connected "Karnstein trilogy," three films all based, to one degree or another, on Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla."

His tale of a female vampire stalking female victims, with its strong sexual themes lurking just below the surface, was perfect for Hammer, which was looking for stronger, sexier content in the face of lessened censorship and increased competition.

Yet, ironically, given it's Playboy Playmate leads, "Twins of Evil" is the tamest of the trilogy.

The story begins with orphaned twins Frieda and Maria (Madeleine and Mary Collinson, Playboy's first twin Playmates) arriving to live with relatives in 19th century Central Europe. But their uncle Gustav (Hammer mainstay Peter Cushing) is the leader of a Puritan sect seeking to rid the land of all forms of vice. And that doesn't sit well with the more adventurous twin, Frieda, who is quickly drawn to ribald tales of the local nobleman, the debauched Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas).

Unknown to the villagers, Karnstein is a vampire, and he easily entices Frieda with the promise of an eternal life away from her strict uncle, setting up the inevitable conflict with her virginal sister, who, we must not forget, is also her twin. So you know where this is going.

What sets "Twins of Evil" apart is its rejection of simple, either/or dichotomies. Earlier vampire films, including Hammer's, paint vampires as a threat to good and decent Victorian morality. Many of Dracula's female victims only come alive, metaphorically speaking, as vampires — Barbara Shelley's Helen in "Dracula: Prince of Darkness" is a prime example. But then it is up to strong, heroic, Victorian menfolk to put stakes through their hearts and save their souls.

For much of "Twins of Evil," however, it's hard to tell who is the real villain, the moralist Gustav Weil or the immoralist Count Karnstein. Fortunately, this time they don't represent the only options.

Although overshadowed by Cushing's other Hammer roles, notably Baron Frankenstein and Professor Van Helsing, Weil is a brilliant performance. Cushing plays him with unquestionable conviction. Even if he is a misguided crusader with a simplistic view of what is righteous, one thing Weil is not is a hypocrite. And he is never such a caricature that it's impossible to feel sympathy for him. For fans of the horror master, this is an essential performance.

For fans of classic horror, Synapse's restored "Twins of Evil" is an essential release, not the least for the bonus documentary feature "The Flesh and the Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil." At 84 minutes, it's nearly as long as the film itself, and it covers everything from Le Fanu's original story, to the first two Karnstein films, "The Vampire Lovers" and "Lust for a Vampire," to the final days of the original Hammer Films.

"Twins of Evil" is one vampire movie that has been left in the crypt far too long.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Culture Shock 08.30.12: '2016' more D'Souza's fantasy than Obama's America

"2016: Obama's America" is a bizarre movie, starting with the title.

It is only in the final minutes that co-director and tour guide, conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, bothers to lay out exactly what he thinks the country will look like in 2016 if President Barack Obama should win a second term. His forecast for Obama's America? Nearing broke and increasingly disarmed in a dangerous world.

It takes so long to get to what the title promises because D'Souza is busy outlining his Great Big Theory, which he takes whole cloth from his 2010 book "The Roots of Obama's Rage." In it D'Souza claims Obama is an anti-colonial zealot determined to bring down rich, capitalist, "colonial" powers like the United States while transferring their wealth to former colonies.

This theory, upon which D'Souza rests his entire case, has met with — to put it charitably — a mixed reaction. Andrew Ferguson's review in "The Weekly Standard," a conservative magazine, is one especially damning example.

D'Souza is engaging in armchair psychology. Drawing heavily from passages in Obama's 1995 memoir "Dreams from My Father," he argues Obama is trying to live up to an idealized vision of his radical Marxist father, whom he barely knew. D'Souza even enlists a psychologist, Paul Vitz of New York University, to help make the case.

D'Souza's long-distance diagnosis seems to be that Obama has a reverse Oedipus complex. Instead of wanting, subconsciously, to kill his distant and unloving father, he wants to keep alive the mythical father his mother told him about.

This is all fascinating stuff, and some of it might even be true, but D'Souza never brings any compelling evidence to the table.

There is, arguably, a good case to be made against both the president's economic policies — which some believe have prolonged the country's economic downturn by creating uncertainty and propping up failed businesses — and his foreign policy. But D'Souza is too enamored of his Great Big Theory to spend time with the relevant facts.

Early in the film, D'Souza shows footage of Occupy protesters disillusioned with Obama's performance in office, but D'Souza doesn't say why these protesters are disillusioned. Could it be Obama's health plan, which subsidizes the health insurance industry that helped write it? Could it be his escalation of the war in Afghanistan and launching of drone strikes throughout the Middle East? Could it be that military spending through 2021 is set to increase 18 percent even if the "draconian cuts" of sequestration take place?

Contrary to D'Souza, this doesn't look like the record of an anti-colonial extremist. It looks like the record of President George W. Bush.

But the oddities of "2016" don't end there. The first 15 minutes or so are more about D'Souza than Obama. And D'Souza begins by claiming he has some insight into Obama's mindset because of their shared colonial experience, never mind that Obama grew up mostly in the U.S. while D'Souza stayed in his native India until he came to the U.S. for college.

Even the stylistic choices D'Souza and co-director John Sullivan make are inexplicable: D'Souza conducts interviews by cellphone even though both parties are on camera. Some closeup shots are so extreme they're distracting. The shaky camerawork makes "The Blair Witch Project" look like a Stanley Kubrick film. And the subtitles used for interviewees with thick accents are so stylized they are nearly impossible to read.

I could go on. "2016: Obama's America" is a misguided film at almost every level.

It must be seen to be disbelieved.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Culture Shock 08.23.12: No redemption for 'The Raid'

If I wanted to review "The Raid: Redemption" in one sentence, I could do no better than quote George Orwell: "Imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever."

Even the most avid fans of martial arts films may find this one to be too much of a good thing.

An Indonesian film written and directed by a Welshman, Gareth Evans, "The Raid: Redemption" has a pedigree that seems tailor made for the exploitation-flick connoisseur. But beyond that, it delivers just what its intended audience expects, with all the authority and repetition of a jackhammer.

The English-language title — colon and all — sounds more like the name of a video game than of a movie, although that's a bit unfair because the average 21st century video game has a more robust plot. Storywise, "The Raid" is more like Donkey Kong in terms of complexity. The good guys, a police tactical unit, must raid an apartment building and fight their way to the top floor, past an army of goons, to apprehend a crime boss named Tama (Ray Sahetapy).

However, things quickly go south, and the police find themselves trapped inside the building with no support, no way to contact backup and surrounded by a building full of hostile tenants who are more loyal to Tama and his money than to the law.

As attrition takes its bloody toll, it falls to one officer, Rama — Iko Uwais, who also served as fight choreographer — to get out with as many of his fellow officers alive as he can, while also completing the mission.

That's the plot. The rest of the movie is a string of action sequences with occasional lulls for backstory. And what action sequences they are.

If brutal, bone-cracking, acrobatic martial arts fights are your thing, "The Raid" — new to DVD and Blu-ray — doesn't disappoint. It's amazing the actors didn't come out of principal photography maimed or worse. I felt a little roughed up just from watching them in action.

Apart from Uwais, we see stunning work from Joe Taslim as Jaka, one of Rama's fellow policemen, and from Doni Alamsyah and Yayan Ruhian as Tama's top two henchmen, Andi and Mad Dog.

While the backstory dribbled out does add some welcome complications — corrupt cops, family secrets, etc. — "The Raid" is mostly about the raid. It's as close to the Platonic ideal of an action movie as you can get, a pure action movie, with almost nothing to distract you from the fisticuffs at hand.

Now I've seen and loved lots of martial arts movies in my time. From the Shaw Brothers and "The Streetfighter" (Sonny Chiba, not Jean-Claude Van Damme) to Jackie Chan and Jet Li to Bruce Lee and "Ong-Bak," but I've never seen anything that looked quite as painful as the fight scenes in "The Raid." Not even Chan's blooper reels.

The fights, while brutal, do sometimes achieve a kind of fluid beauty. But as each scene piles on another, it gets to be too much, an extra slice of cheesecake that doesn't seem as good an idea after the fact as it did before. And the sometimes antiseptic cinematography, reminiscent of a "CSI" autopsy, doesn't help.

There are martial arts fans who like their martial arts stars to be real martial artists, like Bruce Lee or Uwais. But I've always preferred the Peking Opera-style of theatricality that people like Chan bring to the screen. It's more dancing than fighting, but it's more fun to watch.

Without that kind of stylistic flourish and with barely a story to speak of, "The Raid: Redemption" doesn't have anything going for it but its fights. If 100 minutes of that is what you want, go for it. You won't be let down.

Just don't expect anything more.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Culture Shock 08.09.12: 'Jiro' dreams of perfection

The first time I had sushi, it was from a vendor booth at a Birmingham, Alabama, street fair. So began our torrid affair.

Since then, I've become a bit of an amateur sushi snob, scowling at dinner companions who can't properly use chopsticks or — worse — stir wasabi into their soy sauce.

But that's all petty grumblings in the grand scheme of things. A world away, working from his restaurant in the basement of a Tokyo office building — a 10-seat affair only slightly less unassuming than that Birmingham booth — Jiro Ono is in search of perfection.

In the world of sushi, his restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, with its coveted three-star Michelin rating and months-long waiting list, is as close to perfect as there is.

It has won the praise of critics, foodies and revered French chef Joël Robuchon, who told The Wall Street Journal, "This is the restaurant that showed me sushi could be a great dish. Before that time, to me, sushi was just a piece of raw fish on rice, but there it becomes art."

Jiro's art, his obsession, and his relationship with the two sons who live in his long shadow, is the subject of David Gelb's engaging documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," on Blu-ray, DVD, iTunes and Amazon Instant.

On one level, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" operates as a great example of the regrettably named genre known as "food porn." Even the most jaded foodie is likely to be in awe of Jiro's sushi creations and the few preparation secrets he lets slip. If you think octopus is too chewy, Jiro agrees, and the octopus he uses has been massaged into tender submission during the course of hours by apprentice chefs not yet allowed to touch a knife.

From the lean and fatty tuna to eel to shrimp, this is a film made for high definition, each dish captured in colorful, mouth-watering detail by Gelb, who acts as his own cinematographer.

At 85 years old and with no desire to retire, Jiro's life revolves around sushi. He hates having to close the restaurant for holidays and takes off only for funerals. He literally dreams about sushi, sometimes awaking with a new idea.

Like a character from an Ayn Rand novel, he is uncompromising. For him there is only the work and its result, and if perfection isn't possible that's no excuse for not trying harder.

In a culture where reverence for one's ancestors is a serious obligation, Jiro is an oddity. He barely knew his parents and was on his own almost from childhood. Visiting their grave, he wonders why he should honor them when they didn't even raise him. At that, Jiro's eldest son, Yoshikazu, warns he shouldn't risk offending his ancestors like that.

Yoshikazu is possibly just as capable a chef as his father, but as the oldest son he is obligated by tradition to wait until Jiro dies or retires to take over the family business.

His younger brother, meanwhile, not burdened with the family legacy, has the luxury of opening his own restaurant.

Unlike his sons, the parentless Jiro was able to become his own man and indulge his own needs, honing his craft to the edge of perfection.

Jiro dreams of sushi, but whatever dreams his sons may have had that didn't involve sushi are lost. We do know that Yoshikazu has one hobby outside the restaurant. He likes fast cars. Whatever else he may daydream of as he rides his bicycle to and from the fish market each morning he keeps to himself.

He's living the dream, but it's the dream of his father.

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi" is a beautiful film about art and obsession and the sacrifices they demand.

Whether those sacrifices are worth it, who is to say?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Culture Shock 08.02.12: The British are here, and they brought their telly with them

Even as the rest of the world descends upon Great Britain for the 2012 Olympics, The U.K.'s most visible export is reaching new heights of popularity in the United States.

Nowhere is that more obvious than this week's cover of America's most prominent entertainment magazine, Entertainment Weekly, which for the first time ever is given over to a British television show. And not just any British television show, but the long-running sci-fi series "Doctor Who," which is rapidly approaching its 50th anniversary.

Long a staple of British Saturday-evening viewing, "Doctor Who" has, in the past few years, grown beyond its American cult following to become mainstream viewing. It's BBC America's No. 1 show.

"Doctor Who" previously aired in America on Syfy, which seemed embarrassed by the show and didn't know what to do with it. Syfy also ran episodes a year after they aired in the U.K., and by then all the most tech-savvy "Doctor Who" fans had downloaded the series online.

BBC America, however, made "Doctor Who" the centerpiece of its schedule and began airing episodes the same day they aired in Britain.

That's faster turnaround in some cases than NBC can manage for its tape-delayed coverage of the London Olympics.

Then there's the personal touch. The cast of "Doctor Who" has become a regular fixture in the U.S., speaking to packed convention halls at San Diego's annual Comic-Con International.

Add to that the fact BBC America exists in the first place — an American television channel devoted to British television — and it's Paul Revere's worst nightmare.

The British aren't just coming, they're already here, neither by land nor by sea but by the air.

PBS has for decades relied on British television for many of its most acclaimed shows, but now it has certified hits in the form of two British imports, the BBC's "Sherlock" and ITV's "Downton Abbey," which netted 19 Emmy nominations between them, including Best Drama for the latter.

We've come a long way from late-night reruns of "Benny Hill" and "Are You Being Served?" No doubt much of this is a matter of necessity.

Cable and satellite services have more channels than they can fill with programming, and apparently there is actually a limit to how many hours of "Law & Order" marathons you can expect viewers to tolerate.

The U.K., meanwhile, is a reliable source of programming — much of it very good — in a language vaguely similar to the one most Americans speak.

And nowhere is the demand for programming more acute than online, where video-streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are looking for their own must-see TV.

Hulu, for instance, just picked up the exclusive U.S. rights to seasons 1, 2 and 3 of the blistering political satire "The Thick of It," which stars the brilliant Peter Capaldi as the prime minister's vicious enforcer Malcolm Tucker, who, as the late Jean Shepherd would say, works in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.

Hulu will also stream the upcoming fourth season this fall, providing a welcome change from what passes for political TV in the U.S. — the sanctimonious, hackwork fantasies of Aaron Sorkin.

Netflix, for its part, has built an impressive library of British television for its on-demand offerings, from the geeky comedy "The IT Crowd," to the superb spy drama "MI-5" to classics like "Doctor Who" (new and original) and "Blackadder," and finally to sleeper gems like "The Last Detective" starring Peter Davison.

Still, as long as Matt Lauer doesn't know who Mr. Bean is, there is work for this British invasion yet to do.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Culture Shock 07.26.12: Christopher Nolan's Batman ends

The credits have rolled on the final act of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, and at least one thing seems clear: Nolan doesn't really get Batman.

Not to say Nolan's Batman films are bad. "Batman Begins" is a good movie, while "The Dark Knight" borders on being a great one — and it is without doubt a great Joker film, mostly thanks to Heath Ledger.

But neither is a particularly good Batman film.

That brings us to the grand finale, "The Dark Knight Rises," which is uneven, with slightly more faults than virtues, and a mess as a Batman movie, despite cribbing most of its plot straight from three Batman comic books: "Knightfall," "No Man's Land" and "The Dark Knight Returns." Two of those, "Knightfall" and "No Man's Land," weren't especially good to begin with, and none of them really goes with the others.

Throw in superfluous references to Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" — to "elevate the material," as they say, above a "mere" superhero story — and you have an overly ambitious closing chapter that takes forever to get going and, when it does, glosses over characters and events that could use more development. But the problems here are more fundamental than poor pacing and plot holes.

The problems start with Batman. Nolan sees him as a reluctant hero, looking to escape having to be Batman. We see signs of that in "The Dark Knight," with Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) looking to Harvey Dent to take over the war on Gotham's underworld. That fails, but Batman takes the blame for Dent's crimes in order to preserve his legacy.

"The Dark Knight Rises" opens eight years later. Organized crime in Gotham has been defeated by a tough-on-crime law called the Dent Act — talk about having to suspend your disbelief when it comes to superhero movies! — and Batman is in seclusion. But not only is Batman retired, so is Wayne. He has even lost track of the charities his foundation supports. And why? Mostly because he has spent eight years mourning the death of Maggie Gyllenhaal. (Or was it Katie Holmes?) It's as if Superman left Earth unprotected for five years and then finally returned only to become a deadbeat dad. Wait, I've seen that movie. It was terrible.

Nolan's Batman doesn't have the obsessive drive it would actually take to become Batman. You don't become Batman unless you're sure that's who you are in the first place. It isn't like getting bitten by a radioactive spider. So, by attempting to humanize Batman and make him more "realistic," Nolan has come up with an emotionally conflicted Batman who is less believable. That is not "elevating the material."

Nolan makes things worse by using Bane, one of Batman's least-inspired adversaries, as the main heavy. Poor Tom Hardy, try as he might, can't make Bane seem to be anything more than an absurdly pretentious masked wrestler. But at least Bane's most over-the-top line, "Your punishment must be more severe," will probably become an Internet meme.

Also wasted is Michael Caine as Bruce's loyal butler, Alfred. He gives the movie's best performance, but he gets far too little screen time.

The one saving grace of "The Dark Knight Rises" is Anne Hathaway, who dominates her every scene. She seems like the only actor having fun, and her Selina Kyle is the only character who has a believable, consistent agenda. It's no wonder there is talk about giving Selina — who is never actually called Catwoman — her own movie.

Unlike the French Revolution it re-enacts in the streets of Gotham, "The Dark Knight Rises" is neither the best nor worst of times. It's just a middling conclusion to a trilogy and a character that needed and deserved better.