Thursday, December 26, 2013

Culture Shock 12.26.13: Something is still wrong on 'Saturn 3'

For a time she was everywhere. From television to magazine covers to that legendary swimsuit poster, Farrah Fawcett was the sex symbol whose gleaming smile and feathered hair defined the '70s.

It was only a matter of time before she made the jump to the big screen in a big way.

The film was a 1980 sci-fi thriller called "Saturn 3," which gave Fawcett top billing over Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel. While critical triumphs like "The Burning Bed" still lay ahead, "Saturn 3" bombed, signaling the beginning of the end of Fawcett's reign as America's Sex Icon.

"Saturn 3," newly released as a Blu-ray/DVD combo from Shout! Factory, is a strange and uneven little movie. Some things about it work, but for every success there are two or three (maybe four) failures. Yet because of its star and, more importantly, how it treats her, "Saturn 3" is more intriguing than ever.

It begins promisingly, with an inventively nasty murder. Keitel's mentally unstable Capt. Benson kills another pilot and assumes his identity and mission. The mission is to deliver a robot to an agricultural research station on Saturn's third moon. (Why would anyone build a glorified greenhouse in such a remote place? Best not to dwell on it.)

The research station, carved into the rock beneath the moon's surface, is a paradise. There, Adam (Douglas) and his "Eve," Alex (Fawcett), live a life of leisure while occasionally tending their "garden." For Adam, this is a green and beautiful Eden, far away from an overpopulated and polluted Earth. For Alex, who was born in space, Earth remains a tempting prospect. All that's missing is a snake. When Benson arrives, his Earth speech patterns and Earth habits remind Adam of why he left, while to Alex they're an odd fascination.

Benson is even stranger because director Stanley Donen ("Singin' in the Rain") brought in British actor Roy Dotrice to overdub Keitel's voice. Dotrice gives Benson a generic mid-Atlantic accent and mechanically precise diction. It's a controversial choice, but it makes Benson even more of an outsider.

Still, the real space oddity is Hector. He is a towering, lumbering robot with a tiny, ridiculous Erector Set of a head and a hard drive made of real brain tissue. Hector is programmed through direct input from a human brain. Unfortunately, when the brain in question belongs to a madman, well, you can guess where this is going.

To make matters worse, Benson is infatuated with Alex and frustrated that Alex and Adam don't share his free-loving ways. He is incredulous when he learns Alex is "for the Major's consumption only."

A jealous maniac who passes his jealousy on to a hulking robot? What could go wrong?

For her part, Alex is merely an object to be possessed, which in futuristic Earth slang amounts to being "consumed." Alex is protected by Adam, lusted after by Benson and threatened by Hector. She  makes no decisions of her own and might as well be a poster on the wall.

But even passive objects can have power, and Alex/Farrah has the power to drive both man and machine to destruction. She is Helen of Troy as well as Eve, which perhaps explains Hector's name.

The screenplay is by British writer Martin Amis, who later used the experience in his novel "Money." Whether deliberate or not, he makes "Saturn 3" into a commentary on Fawcett's role in popular culture at the time. She is the object of our gaze. Men want her. Women want her hairdresser.

Otherwise, much of "Saturn 3" is a rehash of other films of the period. Adam and Alex's cat-and-mouse routine with Hector takes us back to the dark corridors and service shafts of "Alien."

The Shout! Factory disc is a major improvement over ITC's out-of-print DVD, even if the laughably dated special effects come out worse for the improved color and resolution.

If "Saturn 3" has taught us anything, it's that no one is looking at the spaceship models anyway.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Culture Shock 12.19.13: 'Big Gundown' is a Western gem rescued from obscurity

Fewer and fewer vintage films are finding their way to DVD, much less to the high-definition glory of Blu-ray. Too many still languish, in need of restoration and preservation, in the vaults of indifferent studios.

So, give indie distributor Grindhouse Releasing all due credit not only for rescuing "The Big Gundown" from obscurity, but for giving it a release worthy of "Citizen Kane," or "Vertigo," if Hitchcock is more your flavor.

Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin says "The Big Gundown" is the best spaghetti Western not directed by Sergio Leone, and if that isn't true, it's not far off the mark.

Leone set the standard for the genre with his Clint Eastwood-starring "Man with No Name" trilogy and his operatic "Once Upon a Time in the West," which turned everyman Henry Fonda into one of the screen's great villains. His success spurred many imitators, most famously Sergio Corbucci's "Django." But director Sergio Sollima's "The Big Gundown" (1966) is the cream of the crop.

Lee Van Cleef, who upstaged Eastwood in Leone's "For a Few Dollars More," stars as John Corbett, a bounty hunter looking to turn his reputation for cleaning up Texas into a political career. But Senate campaigns don't come cheap, even in the 1800s. So, when a rich businessman (Walter Barnes) offers his backing in exchange for help getting a railroad through his property, Corbett accepts. After all, the railroad is good for all of Texas, Corbett figures.

They've barely sealed the deal when news comes of a 12-year-old girl's rape and murder, and the lone suspect is a knife-throwing Mexican outlaw called Cuchillo (Tomas Milian). What better campaign publicity could you ask than bringing in a notorious child rapist and murderer to face justice? It's all so convenient. Too convenient, as it turns out.

Finding Cuchillo is surprisingly easy, but keeping him is another matter. Corbett may have cleaned up Texas, but he has never faced anyone quite as wily as Cuchillo, who tricks his way to freedom time and again, and charms beautiful women with raw machismo.

Milian plays Cuchillo with charisma to spare. He may be a rogue, but we don't believe for a minute he's really guilty. For once Van Cleef is the one getting upstaged, and that's by design.

Van Cleef delivers a measured performance that pays off when we get to the "big gundown" the title promises. The inevitable showdown pits Corbett against the businessman's personal hired gun, a monocled Prussian baron (Gérard Herter) who left a pile of dead duelists back in Europe.

Cuchillo starts out disillusioned with both the Mexican government and the revolutionaries looking to overthrow it. By the end, Corbett is left wondering if politics north of the border is any better.

Like other Italian-made Westerns, "The Big Gundown" is filmed on location in Spain, and Sollima and cinematographer Carlo Carlini make the most of the desolate yet gorgeous Mediterranean locale. This is an Old West that's deadly yet seductive, especially as reproduced on Blu-ray by Grindhouse Releasing.

It has been a banner year for Grindhouse, coming off last year's tragic death of company co-founder Sage Stallone (son of Sylvester Stallone) at age 36. First there was Grindhouse's Blu-ray/DVD combo of the little-seen Peter Cushing horror flick "Corruption," marking the 100th anniversary of Cushing's birth.

Now there's "The Big Gundown" ($39.95 suggested retail), a four-disc release that belongs on every cinephile's shelf. The set includes two Blu-ray discs (the English-language version and a longer Italian cut with English subtitles), the English-language version on DVD and a CD of revered film composer Ennio Morricone's energetic score.

It's a lavish presentation of the sort more films deserve.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Culture Shock 12.12.13: 'Canyons' is jilted director's Dear John letter

With "The Canyons," director Paul Schrader has concocted a fable about the death of film, and given audiences reason to wonder if it isn't so much a death as a mercy killing.

But the death rattle you hear isn't cinema's. It's the last gasp of Lindsay Lohan's career. The once-talented starlet both stars in "The Canyons" and claims a co-producer credit. Despite her diva-ish refusal to promote it, Lohan owns this car crash.

Now that it's on DVD and Blu-ray, and playing at a Redbox near you, we can all have a gawk.

The opening and closing credits play over images of abandoned movie theaters, wastelands of the multiplex's heyday. It's nostalgia for something that, during its time, old fogies thought was a symbol of decline from an earlier heyday, the heyday of art deco movie palaces.

Now Schrader is the old fogey, shaking his fist at a Hollywood that has not only abandoned godlike studio moguls such as Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer, but the young rebels of the early '70s, too. In the Hollywood of "The Canyons," making movies is the pastime of oversexed dilettantes.

Christian, played by adult-film star James Deen, wears his trust fund entitlement like an Armani suit. Producing movies is something he does to relieve the boredom, and so he produces the sort of movie that makes money nowadays: a brainless horror flick. When he isn't doing that, he makes cellphone movies of his girlfriend, Tara (Lohan), having sex with other men, and other women.

This is what making movies has become: spectacle for teenagers and the Internet. "The Canyons" couldn't be more obvious if it showed us a studio boss addicted to cat videos. For Schrader, who long ago wrote the screenplays for "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver" and directed an underrated remake of "Cat People," this Newest Hollywood has become the kind of cesspit that unhinges the Travis Bickles of the old New Hollywood.

Aging enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis ("American Psycho"), who wrote the screenplay, seems to be in self-parody mode, although you wonder if he is in on the joke. Schrader certainly isn't. Nor is the cast, who recite their dialogue as if through a Xanax haze.

It's all so tedious you might doze off and miss the plot, which involves Christian going about his spoiled-brat ways and mid-afternoon quickies while obsessing over Tara's possible infidelity.

As it happens, Tara did have a fling with wannabe actor Ryan (Nolan Funk), who is now the lead in Christian's horror flick, thanks to her recommendation. Now Ryan wants to rekindle their romance, but Tara is conflicted, having grown a bit high-maintenance as Christian's kept woman.

"The Canyons" eventually unravels into jealousy, accusations, blackmail and murder, all of which is set dressing for the film's central sex scene, a four-way that would have been transgressive 20 years ago, but comes across as a plea for attention now. "The Canyons" is like a middle child pooping his pants to get noticed when he thinks Mommy and Daddy are doting too much on the new baby.

No one acquits themselves well. Ellis seems to be cribbing from his previous work, including a murder scene that will have you thinking of Patrick Bateman. Schrader's direction is perfunctory. And Deen isn't up to the challenge of playing a sociopath, coming off as wooden when he should be steely.

But it's Lohan, diminished by her own excesses, who emerges worst for wear. Still in her 20s, she looks in her 30s, and her performance, while varying in volume, is constant in its indifference. Hidden behind a plaster of mascara, she looks like she might have stumbled in from the set of a John Waters film.

If only she had. With his gift for kitsch and camp, Waters might have made something out of "The Canyons." Instead, all we have is a scorned filmmaker's Dear John letter to Tinseltown.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Culture Shock 12.05.13: TV embraces your inner psychopath

James Spader in "The Blacklist."
The breakout series of this fall's TV season is NBC's "The Blacklist."

As a drama, it's a bit far-fetched, relying on coincidences, improbable twists and characters stubbornly keeping to themselves information that would resolve the plot. In other words, it's indistinguishable from most other TV dramas. But none of that matters, because what makes "The Blacklist" so addictive is James Spader's performance as globetrotting super-criminal and, when it suits him, FBI informant Raymond "Red" Reddington.

Spader has made a career of playing characters who earn the overused label "quirky," and he won three Emmys portraying windmill-tilting attorney Alan Shore. Now he has the role every actor dreams of. He has his own psychopath.

Well, maybe Red isn't quite a psychopath, but he's close enough. He has most of the same traits as the other antisocial protagonists who have become some of television's most popular characters. It's a pantheon so shady some of its members don't even qualify as anti-heroes, yet few of them are entirely villains, either. They go up to the line, cross the line, erase the line, and pick up the line and skip rope with it. They operate outside the system, live by their own moral codes and get things done when no one else can.

They're throwbacks to Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" Callahan and Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey, who embodied 1970s outrage at runaway crime and a justice system seen as coddling criminals. Liberals recoiled, seeing "Dirty Harry" and "Death Wish" as fascist wish fulfillment. Conservatives looked at Callahan and Kersey and saw the last sane men in a world gone mad.

Since then, violent crime has declined to near-historic lows, but you couldn't tell from the way people still worry about it. Yet on top of that, now there is the perception white-collar crime is out of control, that Wall Street can wreck an economy, leave taxpayers to clean up and get away with barely a public shaming.

The political system is in thrall to the powerful and well-connected, government spy agencies spend most of their time spying on their own citizens, and now you can't even keep your health care no matter how much you like it. Every institution in America seems broken or corrupt or both.

No wonder we turn to characters like Red, who exist outside the system. The Miami police are so incompetent and politically compromised, they miss the serial killer in their ranks. Good thing Dexter Morgan goes after only other serial killers, armed with his own moral code, "The Code of Harry."

Hannibal Lecter isn't quite as nice, but he still rationalizes his actions by claiming to eat only the rude. Who hasn't wanted to deal out just desserts to a cad or 200?

Now NBC has turned Dracula, usually a villain and sometimes a tragic hero, into an anti-establishment crusader, pretending to be an American industrialist whose anachronistic, steampunk, green technology will bring down his hated enemies, who happen to be Victorian oil barons.

Yet Dracula is still Dracula. He acts without remorse, sacrifices pawns and leaves a trail of blood-drained corpses in his wake. He's no hero. He just has an agenda people nowadays kinda like.

The stakes today are much higher than they were in the 1970s, and our vigilantes have grown larger to match. No doubt, as liberals fretted, they are a kind of wish fulfillment, but liberals make wishes just as conservatives do. As H.L. Mencken wrote, "Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats."

We still turn to rule-breaking heroes: Dr. Gregory House, the two modern-day Sherlocks of CBS and the BBC, even Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man. They all break the rules to get their way.

But sometimes the threats are so bad, we want heroes who aren't heroes at all, really. Guys who will get their hands dirty and not lose a wink of sleep over it. In a world gone mad, it's the ultimate wish fulfillment.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Culture Shock 11.28.13: Lucas' 1974 'Star Wars' draft reveals what could have been

There is something a little bit different about Dark Horse Comics' latest "Star Wars" series, "The Star Wars."

Many of the names are the same, but they belong to different characters. Some of the places are familiar, but they go by different names. A few of the characters look like the ones we know and love, but as Obi-Wan Kenobi once said, "Your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them."

And what is the deal with that extra "The" in front of "Star Wars," anyway?

"The Star Wars" isn't just any tale from George Lucas' sprawling space saga. It's the original, the "Star Wars" that could have been. It's Lucas' rough draft dated 1974, and despite some half-baked ideas and a lot of clunky dialogue (even by Lucas' standards), it's a fascinating glimpse at what was going through Lucas' head during the early stages of what evolved into his 1977 blockbuster.

Writer J.W. Rinzler and artist Mike Mayhew have adapted "The Star Wars" into an eight-issue miniseries, using Lucas' draft screenplay and some of the original concept designs by Ralph McQuarrie. (Those are the same designs Lucas used to sell 20th Century Fox on making what would become "Star Wars.") The first three issues are now on sale at comic book retailers and via the Dark Horse Comics app for Android and iPad.

In the '74 draft, "Star Wars" isn't yet its own thing. Lucas' influences are still too obvious, and "The Star Wars" reads like a patchwork. The debts to Akira Kurosawa's 1958 movie "The Hidden Fortress" — still apparent in "Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope" and more so in "The Phantom Menace" — are glaring. The heroes' hideout is even called "the hidden fortress," making "The Star Wars" seem like almost a remake of Kurosawa's film.

The influence of Frank Herbert's "Dune" novels is also pronounced. In this draft, the Jedi are called the "Jedi-Bendu," a name that recalls Herbert's Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, who, like the Jedi, train from childhood to master superhuman abilities. The Bene Gesserit have "the voice," and the Jedi have their "mind trick."

As for the characters' costumes, with their flowing capes and headpieces, they look like they could have come from the set of an old "Flash Gordon" serial.

The most interesting thing about "The Star Wars," however, is it's as much like the prequels as it is the original trilogy. "A New Hope" and its sequels are the outgrowth of Lucas' best ideas, while the prequels sprang from the leftovers, the stuff that didn't make the cut the first time around. It's no wonder the prequels are so disappointing.

Luke Skywalker is still at the center of the action, but in the form of an older, wiser General Skywalker, who is more Obi-Wan Kenobi prototype than restless farmboy. That fits because he ends up paired with a brash, reckless young padawan named Annikin Starkiller, setting up the Obi-Wan/Anakin Skywalker pairing of the prequels.

The Death Star appears, although it isn't called that, as a launching pad for a planetary invasion rather than as a planet killer. Darth Vader is a battle-scarred warlord in a black suit, but not yet a cyborg Sith lord. The resident Sith is Prince Valorum, whose name Lucas would reuse in the prequels. And Han Solo? Well, he's a lizard-like alien who looks like he might have gone a couple of rounds with Capt. Kirk on Cestus III. (Oops. Sorry. Wrong franchise.)

At least Princess Leia is mostly her spunky self, and Lucas has the bickering between Artoo and Threepio — proof he can do good dialogue when he really tries — nailed from the start.

Because it's a mix of ideas from both the original and prequel trilogies, "The Star Wars" feels more like "Star Wars" than the prequels do. All we need now are some action figures.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Culture Shock 11.21.13: 'Doctor Who's' prescription for longevity

Matt Smith, left, David Tennant and John Hurt are the Doctor.
The idea when it began in 1963 was that "Doctor Who" would be an educational program, using a time-travel premise to impart a little historical knowledge to its young viewers.

Yet it was never entirely just that, and had it been, it's likely no one would be talking about "Doctor Who" today, and far less likely that it would still be on the air in order to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

The BBC's venerable sci-fi series celebrates in grand fashion this week, with repeat airings daily on BBC America, a docudrama about the show's early years ("An Adventure in Time and Space") airing Friday night at 8 and 10, and the much-anticipated 50th anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor," airing Saturday at 1:50 p.m., 6 and 10.

The special teams up the current Doctor (Matt Smith) and his immediate predecessor, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), with a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor (Oscar nominee John Hurt) who fought in the Time War, a major plot point to which the show has little more than alluded since it returned to the air in 2005 following a 16-year hiatus.

As the Doctor says, travel through time as much as he does and you're bound to run into yourself sooner or later.

"Doctor Who" now occupies so much television history, it's only natural the program has become, to a large degree, about itself rather than about visiting new places and new (and olden) times. Fan-favorite villains return again and again, more of the Doctor's mysterious backstory unfolds, and the Doctor's (normally) human companions become more than simply the audience's point of view.

The Doctor's current traveling companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), is a metaphor for the audience throughout the program's history. In the most recent season finale, "The Name of the Doctor," Clara ends up split into an infinite number of fragments along the Doctor's time stream. She's there at every moment of his life — or lives, as the Doctor's case may be. She is invisible to him but always there, worrying about him, warning him and cheering him on, just like the audience does.

Critics who complain Clara is a bit of a cipher are missing that that's the point. She must be in order to be the audience, to stand in for millions of fans. Granted, now that she has fulfilled that anniversary-inspired function, she does need a bit more personality of her own.

The ingenious trick of having a lead character who can regenerate into a new body, portrayed by a new actor, has made the show's longevity possible in more ways than one. Apart from allowing "Doctor Who" to carry on when the actor playing the Doctor decides to depart, it has made possible the show's constant evolution, from the mod '60s though the moribund '70s into the stiff-upper-lip '80s and on to today. Every Doctor has his day: same man, same memories but changing with the times.

Long a British institution, "Doctor Who" at 50 is globally recognized, even in the U.S., which was late to the party. In America, "Doctor Who" has gone from Public Television curiosity and jokes about wobbly sets to gracing the covers of Entertainment Weekly (twice) and TV Guide. Getting "Doctor Who" references has replaced getting "Monty Python" references as a mark of Brit pop culture literacy.

It's a long way from the dark days of the late '80s, when "Doctor Who" was in a creative funk, stuck with an increasingly controversial producer and hostile BBC executives who wanted the show dead. Even the few good stories of the period often lapsed into tedious anti-Margaret Thatcher ax-grinding, and the worst story, "The Happiness Patrol," was nothing but.

Which brings us to now. This is not only a historically momentous anniversary year for "Doctor Who" but a year of change. At Christmas, Matt Smith will depart and Peter Capaldi ("The Thick of It") will take up residence as the latest madman in the blue box.

Gone will be Smith's manic Doctor with his bow ties and fezzes, and in his place will be — who knows?

But whoever Capaldi's Doctor turns out to be, he will be the Doctor.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Culture Shock 11.14.13: Marvel looks to revolutionize storytelling

Marvel Comics didn't invent serialized storytelling, but it may have perfected it.

During the publisher's formative years, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the rest of the Marvel "bullpen" created a unified world, in which characters from one comic book might pop up in another, if only for a cameo, with little or no fanfare. Just a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man dropping by to say hello.

While DC Comics' superheroes inhabited a unified world, too, theirs was neither as cohesive nor as seemingly effortless as Marvel's. (It still isn't.) DC was selling individual characters: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Marvel was selling the Mighty Marvel Universe, and Marvel's readership eagerly embraced the label "Marvel zombies."

With Lee's carnival-barker routine in overdrive, 1960s Marvel became a hip brand.

Fifty years later, the comics publisher turned Disney-owned entertainment juggernaut looks to revolutionize serialized storytelling in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

When Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury appears following the end credits of 2008's "Iron Man" and tells Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark, "You've become part of a bigger universe. You just don't know it yet," it's aimed more at us than at the character onscreen. Fury is telling the audience there is much more to come, beyond the obligatory "Iron Man" sequels. Sure enough, when we next see Stark, it's at the end of "The Incredible Hulk."

When "Iron Man 2" rolled around, Marvel's grand plan was in full swing. There were visual nods to Captain America and the Hulk, and the post-credits scene segued supporting character Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) into the next big Marvel movie, "Thor."

After "The Avengers," "Iron Man 3" and, most recently, "Thor: The Dark World," going to the movies is more than just going to the movies. It's like watching television. Each film is appointment viewing, as each is merely an "episode" in a larger, ongoing superhero soap opera. And you can count on an average of two new episodes a year, one in the spring and another in the fall.

For the first time, the movies are like Marvel Comics. Yes, you can follow just one character, but if you do that, you'll miss out on the larger story. "Iron Man" (and "Iron Man 2" and "Iron Man 3") is, like Fury said, "part of a bigger universe." And that universe is getting bigger, by which I don't mean just next year's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Agent Coulson now headlines the television series "Agents of SHIELD," which, despite a steady decline in viewership, has secured a full-season order and seems finally to be getting a narrative footing. Apart from expanding the Marvel mythology, episodes so far have dealt with the aftermath of the Battle of New York (as seen in "The Avengers") and the "extremis" bio-weapon first seen in "Iron Man 3." This week's episode is a direct tie-in to "Thor: The Dark World."

Last week, Marvel announced a deal with Netflix that, starting in 2015, will bring four 13-episode series plus a "miniseries event" to the video streaming service. Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and superhero private eye Jessica Jones will each fly solo before teaming up as "The Defenders."

Disney clearly likes what it sees in the Marvel approach. When Disney purchased the "Star Wars" franchise, company execs promised not only a new "Star Wars" trilogy starting in 2015, but also "standalone" films taking place outside the main saga.

In this environment, DC and its corporate parent, Warner Bros., can't sit idle. They hope to spin-off a Flash TV series from The CW's "Arrow," and the "Man of Steel" sequel, also set for 2015, may feature Wonder Woman and other heroes as well as Superman and Ben Affleck's Batman.

By 2015, movie theaters could be home to three sprawling fictional universes, each as involved and time-demanding as an entire season of your favorite TV show is now.

Welcome to the brave new world of serialized storytelling.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Culture Shock 11.07.13: How 'Smokey and the Bandit' ended Reconstruction

Jackie Gleason's portrayal of Sheriff Buford T. Justice in "Smokey and the Bandit" is so ridiculously endearing, you almost forget what a backward, bigoted, bullying character Sheriff Justice is: Archie Bunker with a badge.

The coyote to the Bandit's road runner, Justice is the Old South reduced to a subject of ridicule. His dogged pursuit of Burt Reynolds' Bandit is the "lost cause" of the Confederacy, and by the film's end, there's not much left of it. Like the sheriff's patrol car, it's gone to pieces. To the extent Sheriff Justice is a lovable curmudgeon, it's because he's also a lovable loser. He's harmless and destined to keep losing ground both to the Bandit and to the New South that the Bandit represents.

Memphis-born stuntman/director Hal Needham, who died last month at 82, probably didn't set out to make anything more ambitious than a car chase movie, but "Smokey and the Bandit" is something far more. It is a quintessentially Southern movie and also a quintessentially American movie, and no film before or since has so excelled at being both.

It was America's No. 4-grossing film of 1977, behind "Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Saturday Night Fever." Like those films, it touched a nerve. On playgrounds across the nation, when not reenacting adventures from a galaxy far, far away, kids imagined what it would be like behind the wheel of a black Trans Am. Answer: pretty cool, actually.

Jerry Reed's infectious song, "East Bound and Down," tidily sums up the plot: "The boys are thirsty in Atlanta / and there's beer in Texarkana / and we'll bring it back no matter what it takes."

To win an $80,000 bet and buy a new rig, Bo "Bandit" Darville and his truck-driving friend Cledus "Snowman" Snow (Reed) have to pick up 400 cases of Coors and deliver them back to Atlanta within 28 hours. Never mind that's bootlegging, which is illegal, it's never been done. So why even try?

"For the good old American life," the Bandit says. "For the money, for the glory and for the fun. Mostly for the money."

"Smokey and the Bandit" hit at just the right time, the year after America's bicentennial celebration and the election of America's first president from the former Confederacy who hadn't first assumed office following an assassination. The history books say Reconstruction ended in 1876, but the South's cultural reintegration into the Union wasn't confirmed until Needham told us it was.

While Needham's South is still home to racist sheriffs, his everyday folks are able to get along regardless of race, gender or creed. They're united by a cause and by the Bandit's larger-than-life reputation.

To stay ahead of the law during his high-speed tour of the Deep South, the Bandit relies on the kindness of friends and strangers alike, whether it's an African American hearse driver who helpfully pulls his funeral procession in front of Sheriff Justice's car or a Japanese truck driver who slices off Justice's driver's side door.

Needham's most meticulously choreographed scene occurs when the Bandit hides from an Alabama state trooper by joining a convoy. The truck drivers who come to his rescue are a cross section of the nation, male and female, young and old. "This isn't a convoy. It's a dream," the Bandit says, and he's right: It's the American Dream.

In this light, the Bandit's "opposites attract" romance with Carrie (Sally Field), a wannabe Broadway dancer who prefers Stephen Sondheim to Tammy Wynette, takes on deeper importance. They don't just come from different worlds, their coming together represents the healing of the nation.

That it's accomplished by fun-loving outlaws and their friends in defiance of official authority seals the deal. Needham brings the nation back together in the same manner it first came together 200 years earlier: thumbing its nose at The Man.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Culture Shock 10.31.13: Corman's 'Frankenstein Unbound' gets bargain treatment

John Hurt, left, and Nick Brimble in "Frankenstein Unbound."
While he continues to churn out movies as a producer — "Dinocroc vs. Supergator," anyone? — B-movie king Roger Corman hasn't directed a film in more than two decades.

His swan song behind the camera was 1990's "Frankenstein Unbound," based on the novel by Brian Aldiss, who also wrote the short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," which became Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence." And given how "A.I." falls apart at the end, it's arguable that Corman delivered the more successful Aldiss adaptation.

Now that Starz/Anchor Bay has reissued "Frankenstein Unbound" on DVD, we can revisit Corman's final (so far) directorial effort.

In the near future, scientist Joe Buchanan (John Hurt of "Alien" and "The Elephant Man") is developing a new kind of ultimate weapon, a death ray that disintegrates armies without causing the indiscriminate destruction of nuclear weapons. It's an improvement, as far as weapons of mass destruction go, but even that thin justification for Buchanan's experiments falls apart when the side effects start.

Buchanan's not-quite-doomsday device inadvertently causes "time slips" to appear and, just as suddenly, disappear. And as the time slips become more frequent, it might be doomsday after all.

That's when Buchanan falls victim to one of the time slips, and he and his computerized car (think KITT from "Knight Rider") travel back to 19th-century Switzerland, where Buchanan encounters the future Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda), Lord Byron (Jason Patric) and their fellow British expats on the shore of Lake Geneva.

More unexpectedly, Buchanan meets Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia of "The Addams Family"), who is very much flesh and blood, as is his creature (Nick Brimble).

Buchanan is lousy at traveling incognito, and Frankenstein quickly realizes Buchanan has scientific knowledge that could be useful to him. Meanwhile, Buchanan pursues Mary Shelley like a starstruck groupie, only to find she reciprocates. Byron preaches free love, she says, but she practices it.

Like all adaptations and semi-adaptations of Shelley's novel, "Frankenstein Unbound" spends a lot of time taking shots at the hubris of scientists and science, which is a shallow reading of Shelley's book. "Frankenstein" is more about the responsibility of creator to creation. If the creature is legitimately angry about his abandonment, then what about humanity and its seemingly absent creator?

These philosophical concerns never vanish entirely. When Brimble's anguished creature demands to know who made Buchanan, Buchanan replies, "I don't know. God, maybe."

"Who is ‘God Maybe?' " the creature then asks, his misunderstanding ironically getting to the heart of the theological question.

With its Gothic setting and psychedelic dream sequences, "Frankenstein Unbound" is almost a continuation of the Poe-inspired horror films Corman made with Vincent Price in the 1960s. But while Corman was able to hide some of his cost-cutting tricks back then, that is impossible here. When "futuristic" sets are decorated with plasma balls from Spencer's Gifts, it shows, and Buchanan's futuristic car is even less convincing.

Fortunately, Corman has Hurt and Julia, two great actors giving their all, and he has a creature whose appearance is both original and menacing.

The DVD isn't much to speak of. Bargain-priced at under $10, you get what you pay for. There are no extras, not even a chapter menu, which should be the bare minimum. The film itself, however, is more than presentable, with sharp, vivid colors that bring out Corman's trippy visual sensibilities.

"Frankenstein Unbound" is far from Corman's best film but even farther from his worst. It's one fans of classic B-movies shouldn't overlook.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Culture Shock 10.24.13: 'I Come In Peace' is 'Lethal Weapon' meets 'Predator'

"I Come in Peace," also known as "Dark Angel," is far more entertaining than it has a right to be.

It's a star vehicle for Dolph Lundgren, but this 1990 action flick is probably best remembered for its trailer. It features the film's bad guy, a 7-foot extraterrestrial with a raspy voice, milky-white eyes and long white hair, slashing people left and right while repeating his ironic catchphrase, "I come in peace." To which Lundgren quips, "And you go in pieces."

It's a simple idea, coming at the tail end of the 1980s action movie cycle: "Lethal Weapon" meets "Predator." Mismatched cops must come to terms with each other while tracking down the bad guy, who in this case just happens to be an unstoppable drug dealer from outer space.

The sci-fi twist keeps this from being a generic buddy-cop movie, and with the talent behind the camera, it's more than enough to keep things interesting. "I Come in Peace" is fun and surprisingly well made, with action scenes and cinematography well served by Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray release, issued under the film's boring alternate title, "Dark Angel."

Lundgren ("Rocky IV") is Houston police Detective Jack Caine, a loose-cannon cop who goes with his gut and delivers a mean roundhouse kick. After a drug bust goes wrong, leaving his partner dead and a briefcase full of heroin missing, Caine partners with FBI Special Agent Smith, portrayed by Brian Benben ("Private Practice"). Smith is officious, irritating and strictly by-the-book. So we all know how this is going to play out: The odd couple will eventually become best buddies.

Their quarry is an alien — "not from Mexico" — played by 6-foot-5 German track-and-field athlete Matthias Hues. As the "Bad Alien" — there's also a Good Alien pursuing him — Hues attacks drug dealers and steals their heroin, which he injects into random victims, who then produce a mother load of endorphins, which the Bad Alien extracts, with fatal consequences.

Where the Bad Alien hails from, endorphins are the drug of choice.

By 1990, the drug war was just about played out as far as the movies and TV were concerned. "Miami Vice" had been canceled, "Just Say No" was a punchline, and not even James Bond could make the drug war interesting. Drug pushers from space was about the only card yet to be played.

It turns out to be an ace in the hole. Hues' Bad Alien steals the show, mercilessly killing drug dealers with what is essentially a razor-sharp compact disc, which flies around like a heat-seeking missile. Sure, it sounds silly, but it looks cool onscreen, with a camera's eye view following the spinning disc on its murderous flight.

The Bad Alien is usually one step ahead of the Good Alien (Jay Bilas) and two steps ahead of Caine and Smith. But when they do cross paths, mayhem and explosions ensue.

Director Craig R. Baxley knows a thing or two about mayhem and explosions, having served as stunt coordinator on "Predator" and TV's "The A-Team," and the showdown between the Bad Alien and the Good Alien in a parking garage is one of the film's highlights. The scene requires Hues to hurdle over one car after another as each blows up behind him — no stunt double and no CGI.

These are real stunts, with real explosions going off just a few yards away from the actors, and cinematographer Mark Irwin (David Cronenberg's "The Fly") captures it beautifully. I'm sure actors today appreciate green screens and CGI, but explosions put together in a computer are still no substitute for the real thing captured live in camera.

Shout! Factory's "Dark Angel" Blu-ray ($19.97) includes a trailer and a documentary featurette with Lundgren, Benben and Baxley. "I Come in Peace" is even more impressive when you know Baxley had a budget of less than $7 million to work with. Michael Bay can't blow up a go-cart for that little money.

Whether you call it "Dark Angel" or "I Come In Peace," it's a job well done.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Culture Shock 10.17.13: Gillian Anderson rises to the challenge of 'The Fall'

Americans may be forgiven for thinking Gillian Anderson has kept a low profile since "The X-Files." Actually, she's kept busy, living and working in the United Kingdom, and picking up, through osmosis, a British accent that at least is more convincing than Madonna's.

Her gripping new five-episode BBC television drama, however, should have audiences on both sides of the pond taking notice.

In series 1 of "The Fall" (Netflix instant, DVD), Anderson stars as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, a member of the London Metropolitan Police sent to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to get a result in a murder case the locals can't close. As both an outsider and a woman of authority in a male-dominated field, Gibson arrives to a situation primed for tension.

The tension only ratchets up when she begins to suspect there is more to the unsolved murder than just one unsolved murder. There is a serial killer at large, honing his skills, developing his technique and preparing to strike again.

Unfortunately, she's right, and the audience knows who the killer is even if Gibson doesn't.

Paul Spector (an unnerving Jamie Dornan of "Once Upon a Time") is a family man and a grief counselor. He works with couples who have lost children. He also stalks and kills woman, and he's getting better at it.

Female avengers pitted against male serial killers are nothing new. The metaphor of men who literally objectify women is too easy to pass up. "The Silence of the Lambs" perfected the genre, which is feminist while also a target of criticism from feminists. It just goes to show, you can tell a feminist story yet get zero credit if you don't tell the "right kind" of feminist story.

In "The Fall," the heroine isn't a rookie like Clarice Starling of "Silence," but a veteran who has dealt with serial killers before. The power dynamic is different. Gibson, whom Anderson plays with world-weary confidence, has power, and the men around her don't, or they don't have as much.

As a pattern emerges among the killer's victims — young, attractive, up-and-coming professionals — Gibson deduces a motive. The killer is targeting women who have some measure of power and success, or at least more of it than he does. It's garden variety misogyny.

So far, little of that strays beyond the standard feminist critique of society's gender roles, but what makes "The Fall" interesting is where its sexual politics do diverge from the politically correct.

Gibson is completely comfortable with her sexuality and with using it, on occasion, to get what she wants. She has what British sociologist Catherine Hakim calls "erotic capital," and she knows how to spend it.

The day she arrives in Belfast, she picks up a fellow officer for a one night stand. Later, when the secret gets out, she confronts another officer about the double standard. No one thinks twice about a one night stand when the man is the instigator, she says. Then when told her fling is married, she responds she didn't know that and, in any case, that's his business, not hers.

For Gibson, embracing her own sexuality gives her a "male" outlook on sexual relations. Men are subject to her female gaze, and all is fair game. So, is that feminism or not?

All of this, however, is subtext for Gibson's pursuit of Spector, who at heart is an arrested adolescent who fancies himself beyond good and evil. It's a delusion that stands in stark contrast to the bleak landscape of Belfast, a working-class wasteland still not far removed from decades of sectarian religious conflict. Everyone there has seen too much, and everyone there, newcomer Gibson included, is compromised.

This is no paradise of Eden. This is the world after the Fall.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Culture Shock 10.10.13: Argento's decline continues with 'Dracula'

Dario Argento's longtime musical collaborator, Claudio Simonetti of the group Goblin, leaves little doubt what kind of movie "Dario Argento's Dracula" is.

As soon as the falsetto warble of a theremin wafts into the opening titles, "Dracula" begins to feel more like an Edward D. Wood movie than an Argento movie. Is this how far Italy's reigning maestro of the macabre has fallen?

But I exaggerate. It's not really as bad as that. Unfortunately it's not as good as that, either. An Ed Wood film can be so bad it's good. Argento's "Dracula," playing on demand and in limited 3-D theatrical release, is merely bad in the uninteresting way.

Like fellow horror auteur John Carpenter, Argento is a filmmaker who has lost his moorings. His filmography, built on early masterpieces such as "Deep Red," "Suspiria" and "Tenebre," is now more misses than hits. Nowadays when he makes a good film, it is by accident. "Mother of Tears" (2007) works only because it is so ridiculously excessive it plays like a middle finger aimed at critics who thought Argento's previous films were excessive, a kind of "you haven't seen anything yet."

Argento's "Dracula" doesn't have that going for it, and period costume dramas have never been his strength. Before "Dracula," he had directed one period piece, 1998's "The Phantom of the Opera," and even his staunchest defenders throw up their hands at that one.

As "Dracula" opens, Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli ("Suspiria") tease us with visual reminders of Argento's earlier films, but what Argento really seems to be going for is the look of Hammer's "Dracula" films starring Christopher Lee. It's more than coincidental that Argento's version of Jonathan Harker, like the one in Hammer's "Horror of Dracula," is a librarian rather than a solicitor.

Yet Hammer's Dracula isn't the only one to which Argento turns for ideas. Dracula, played by Thomas Kretschmann, looks like Jack Palance in Dan Curtis' 1972 TV movie "Dracula," and the film's final act takes a romantic turn borrowed from Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula," although without bothering to set up the twist properly.

Argento is counting on our having seen these earlier movies so that we'll accept Kretschmann's dour, unlikable Dracula as a romantic antihero and won't think twice about the sudden revelation that Mina Harker (Marta Gastini) is the reincarnation of Dracula's long lost love.

As portrayed by Kretschmann, Dracula is so stiff and uncharismatic you'd think he's still in rigor mortis. He doesn't seem capable of mesmerizing anyone. Ironically, Kretschmann is cast as Dracula's nemesis, Van Helsing, in NBC's upcoming "Dracula" TV series. Here, however, Van Helsing shows up in the tired form of Rutger Hauer ("Blade Runner"), who knows he's on a sinking ship and seems resigned to go down with it.

Argento's daughter, Asia Argento ("The Last Mistress"), is wasted in the thankless role of Lucy, and would have been better suited for the meatier (pun intended) role of Tania, the peasant girl Dracula turns during the film's opening.

The most unfortunate performance is Unax Ugalde as Jonathan Harker, who will leave you wistful for Keanu Reeves. Only Gastini, who looks eerily like a young Meg Tilly, escapes with her dignity intact.

Lazy scripting and questionable casting aside, where "Dario Argento's Dracula" really falls flat is with its cheap, cartoonish CGI effects, which include the least convincing wolf since Lon Chaney Jr. and CGI blood where practical effects would do just fine.

Still, maybe Argento's "Dracula" is worth seeing for one thing: just so you can say you saw a movie in which Dracula transforms into a giant, CGI praying mantis.

As Jack Palance used to say, "Believe it, or not."

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Culture Shock 10.03.13: Much ado about Shakespeare

Roger Allam, left, as Sir John Falstaff and Jamie Parker as Prince Hal
in William Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part 1."
The future is difficult to predict. Will there be interstellar travel? Will robots learn to think?

So many unanswerable questions. But one thing no one questions is whether William Shakespeare will still be relevant. "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country," set 300 years in our future, which puts it 700 years after Shakespeare, takes its title from "Hamlet" (Act 3, Scene 1) and features a wonderful scene in which a Klingon portrayed by David Warner, no stranger to playing Shakespeare on the stage, says, "You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon."

The joke is itself a callback to novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who has a character say Shakespeare is better in the "original Russian." Everyone wants to appropriate the man so synonymous with the English language that we call him "the Bard." After 400 years, he hasn't lost a step.

Indeed, he seems more with us than ever. PBS is airing "The Hollow Crown," a four-part series that adapts one of Shakespeare's most neglected histories, "Richard II," and three of his best, "Henry IV, Part 1," "Henry IV, Part 2" and "Henry V." "The Hollow Crown" stars Ben Whishaw ("Skyfall"), Jeremy Irons ("The Borgias") and Tom Hiddleston ("The Avengers").

A restored Globe Theatre in London, called Shakespeare's Globe, stages Shakespeare's plays, and those of some of his contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe, in the original style, including musical interludes. The performances are both thrilling and enlightening, and they are — educators take note — available on DVD from Kultur International Films (

Shakespeare boring? Well you just haven't seen Falstaff performed with Olivier Award-winning panache by Roger Allam ("The Thick of It") in "Henry IV, Part 1" and "Part 2."

Still, the real proof of Shakespeare's vitality isn't found in historically accurate costume dramas, but in the way his works continue to inform contemporary arts and artists.

As soon as he wrapped production on "The Avengers," Joss Whedon got together at his house with his actor friends and shot "Much Ado About Nothing," a glossy, sexy adaptation of Shakespeare's greatest comedy, transported to present day. Shakespeare not hip? The creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" begs to differ. The Bard is hip, relevant and everywhere, whether you've noticed or not.

As the literary critic Harold Bloom argues, Shakespeare invented our conception of human nature. He also invented much of our language. We quote him without even thinking about it.

So why does reading Shakespeare remain, for most of us, such a chore? Equal to his power to inspire is his power to intimidate, and intimidate not just students, but teachers, too. Speaking from experience, there are few things sadder than a classroom full of high school sophomores stumbling aloud through "Julius Caesar" and wondering how much of it will be on the test.

That's no way to experience Shakespeare.

Watching the movie version of a classic literary work is usually a cheat, but with Shakespeare it's the next best thing to seeing him performed live. Shakespeare wrote plays, not novels. He isn't meant to be read, although that has its own pleasures. He's meant to be experienced.

The recent book "Living with Shakespeare," edited by Susannah Carson, collects essays by actors, writers and directors explaining how they have approached Shakespeare and what they have learned from him. (Another note for educators: This book is an excellent secondary text for your class.)

All these trained professionals struggle with Shakespeare just as we do. Yet as actor Ben Kingsley ("Iron Man 3") writes, "A lot of Shakespeare's audience were illiterate. Now the plays have become quartered into some kind of elitist literature exercise. It's stupid."

It's a fair warning. Shakespeare is important, but we lose something by treating him as above us, rather than as one of us. The expounder of human nature was only human.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Culture Shock 09.26.13: 'Hangar 18' puts all the pieces of UFO mania together

The 1970s were a high point of UFO sightings, alternative history, New Age mysticism and paranoid conspiracies, as well as a few not-so-paranoid conspiracies. As the decade ended, one movie in particular weaved all of those threads together.

"Hangar 18" betrays its low-budget pedigree from the opening shot: a spaceship filling the screen above a planet. It's a shot that explicitly recalls the opening of "Star Wars," except in this case the spaceship is a NASA space shuttle, the planet is Earth and the special effects look more suited to a TV movie than to anything playing on a big screen. But any movie that would so eagerly invite an unfavorable "Star Wars" comparison deserves our attention.

Released in 1980 and quickly forgotten, "Hangar 18" is back, issued on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films ( and looking better than it probably did during its theatrical run.

The film wastes no time getting started. The shuttle we see in the opening is on a mission to launch a top-secret military satellite. But before the launch can occur, the shuttle astronauts spot what looks like an alien spacecraft hovering above them. When the satellite launches as scheduled, it slams right into the UFO, sending the alien craft crashing to Earth and killing one of the astronauts.

From there, the film branches off into three overlapping story lines.

The first follows the team of NASA scientists assigned to study the UFO, which the government has secreted away at the titular Hangar 18. The second involves the politicians trying to keep the UFO crash secret until after the presidential election. And the third follows the two surviving shuttle astronauts trying to prove they saw what they saw and clear their names after they're blamed for their fellow astronaut's death.

If "Hangar 18" were a modern TV show, that would be enough plot for a season-long story arc, but as it is, "Hangar 18" breezes along and clocks in at a bit more than 90 minutes.

"Hangar 18" seems a bit low-rent for a theatrical release, but it would have made for a pretty impressive TV movie of the week. Director James L. Conway ("The Boogens"), who would go on to direct episodes of the various "Star Trek" spin-offs, makes the most of what he has, which includes a solid cast of television veterans, led by Darren McGavin ("Kolchak: The Night Stalker") as the NASA director tasked with leading the investigation.

McGavin's Harry Forbes is a lot like his Carl Kolchak, only Forbes gets to investigate the paranormal with the assistance of the best minds NASA has to offer, while Kolchak has only his trusty tape recorder. Forbes is the most entertaining part of the movie.

Heading up all the president's men are Robert Vaughn ("The Man from UNCLE") as Chief of Staff Gordon Cain and ubiquitous character actor Joseph Campanella as Cain's right-hand man.

The last of the heavy lifting falls to the two astronauts, played by wisecracking James Hampton ("Sling Blade") opposite wooden straight man and future "Hour Magazine" host Gary Collins.

Other recognizable faces include Pamela Bellwood ("Dynasty"), Stuart Pankin ("Not Necessarily the News") and William Schallert ("The Patty Duke Show").

Everything about the movie seems perfunctory. "Hangar 18" covers a lot of ground, so everything is plot, plot, plot with little time for anything else.

As for the plot, it's a crash course in UFO lore, drawing on ideas that became popular in the '70s: alien abductions, government cover-ups and the idea popularized in Erich Von Daniken's book "Chariots of the Gods?" that extraterrestrials visited Earth long ago and influenced humanity's development. There are even "men in black," long before MIBs became a big deal.

"Hangar 18" is entertaining enough in a disposable, Saturday matinee way, but it's truly fascinating as an artifact of UFO mania. This is where all the pieces first came together.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Culture Shock 09.19.13: 'Dirk Gently' brings Douglas Adams' holistic detective to life

Darren Boyd, left, Stephen Mangan, and Helen Baxendale.
In screenwriting, you have what are called the "A story" and the "B story."

The A story is the main narrative. The B story is secondary, often dealing with supporting characters. While the two parallel stories may be linked thematically, they otherwise don't usually have a lot to do with one another.

For instance, an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" might focus on Capt. Picard averting a diplomatic crisis between water-breathing fish people and a race of sentient sea sponges. Meanwhile, the B plot involves Data humorously failing to stop his cat Spot from marking territory in the transporter room.

Yet, in other instances, the A and B stories collide. There is that occasional "CSI" episode in which the primary case and the secondary case intersect, and the lead CSIs have that eureka moment where they realize they're working the same case.

Enter Dirk Gently. Dirk is a holistic detective. For him, every case is the same case because everything — and he means everything — is fundamentally connected. That's why he has no problem billing a client for a new refrigerator; everything is relevant to the case, so everything is a business expense. Also, Dirk is a bit of a jerk.

"Dirk Gently" is one of those shows that was just too good for television. It was too good even for British television. So, it ran only for four brilliant episodes, but now all four are on DVD.

The show is loosely based on two novels by "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" author Douglas Adams, "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and "The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul." It doesn't adapt either of them so much as mine them for ideas.

Dirk (Stephen Mangan of Showtime's "Episodes") is slovenly, insolvent and abrasive. He refuses to pay his secretary on the theory that if he does, she'll stop showing up for work in hopes of getting paid.

He also is locked in a battle of wills with his cleaning lady.

While working on a case involving an old lady's lost cat, Dirk chances upon university acquaintance Richard MacDuff (Darren Boyd of "Spy"). Except Dirk doesn't believe in chance because everything is interconnected, just as the beating wings of a butterfly in the Amazon can influence the path of a hurricane in the Atlantic. Convinced it could be the key to the missing cat, Dirk takes on the case of MacDuff's girlfriend (Lisa Jackson), who may or may not be having an affair.

Needless to say, the cases are related, in improbable if not impossible ways, and by the first episode's conclusion, MacDuff has signed on as Dirk's partner/assistant/human ATM.

With cases that involve time travel, conspiracies, robots and computers with artificial intelligence, "Dirk Gently" treads ground between sci-fi and detective series, and it plays cleverly with the cliches and conventions of both. Series creator Howard Overman ("Misfits") does an excellent job of turning Adams' novels into a TV show that stands on its own.

Mangan brings manic intensity to the role of Dirk, who is at his most likable when he's being his most horrid. Conning people comes second nature to him, but as MacDuff grudgingly admits, Dirk is a brilliant detective.

Boyd's MacDuff is the perfect straight man for Dirk. Exasperated, resigned and abused, MacDuff sticks with Dirk only because he thinks, somehow, in ways that aren't entirely obvious, that he and Dirk are doing good.

Yet ironically, because everything is connected, the cases Dirk solves are usually his fault somehow in the first place. That's the show's ultimate commentary on the detective genre: Cases exist solely for detectives to solve. That's Dirk's greatest con of all, and it's on us, but it's fun to watch.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Culture Shock 09.12.13: In America it's 'In no one we trust'

For more reasons than you may suspect, 1776 was a momentous year.

The United States declared independence from Great Britain. Several signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock, were Freemasons. In Scotland, Adam Smith published "The Wealth of Nations," which posited an economy guided as if by "an invisible hand." And in Bavaria, Adam Weishaupt formed a secret society called the Illuminati, which, by some accounts, sought to promote reason over superstition and liberty over despotism.

All of that is true, as far as it goes.

By other accounts, the Illuminati sought to rule the world and, although outlawed and supposedly disbanded, were responsible for the French Revolution and the Terror that followed. Some say the Illuminati infiltrated Masonic societies, like the ones to which many Founding Fathers belonged, and now the Illuminati's symbol, the All-Seeing Eye, is hiding in plain sight, on the dollar bill. On the dollar's other side is a picture of George Washington, or maybe an impostor, Adam Weishaupt, who some say looked a lot like Washington and took his place.

It's a conspiracy theory rooted in the nation's founding, with branches that spread, according to some, from the New York offices of the Council on Foreign Relations to California's Bohemian Grove.

America has no shortage of conspiracy theories. Whenever some pundit tells you the Arab world is rife with conspiratorial thinking, the proper response is, "Yes, well so is America," and it has been since Colonial days.

That's one point of Jesse Walker's — dare I say it? — illuminating and entertaining new book, "The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory." Another point is conspiracy theories are not the province just of the lunatic fringe: Birthers and Birchers and Truthers, oh my! Some conspiracy theories are so widely believed as to qualify as conventional wisdom.

The public, talk shows, network news programs and law enforcement across the country fell for the 1980s Satanic cult conspiracy, which speculated that a network of devil worshipers was active nationwide, abusing children and performing ritual sacrifices. There was nothing to it.

Conspiracy theories are built on paranoia, but as They say, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean They aren't out to get you. (They got JFK, didn't They? Or did They?)

Some conspiracy theories are undeniably true, such as the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln. Every day, a new story details more incidents of National Security Agency snooping. Worrying about the NSA got you branded as a kook as recently as last month. But now if you're not worried about the NSA, you're either dangerously naïve or an apologist for the system. Or maybe on the NSA's payroll.

While the truth or falsehood of conspiracy theories is of interest to journalists and historians, Walker approaches the subject as an anthropologist: What do conspiracy theories say about American culture at different times in history?

Sometimes the fear is the Enemy Without: communists, fascists or, as in the nation's earliest days, Indians. Sometimes it's the Enemy Within, such as your neighbors who are secret satanists. Sometimes it's the Enemy Below, as when Southerners worried about slave rebellions. Usually, however, it's the Enemy Above, the cabal of bankers and politicians who meet in secret to rule the world. And the paranoia runs both ways. If militia groups can be paranoid about the government, the government can be equally paranoid about militias, Walker shows. No one is immune.

And sometimes it's all just a put on, as Walker details in a fascinating chapter about ironic conspiracy theorists such as "Illuminatus!" co-author Robert Anton Wilson.

"Trust no one" was the motto of "The X-Files." America's could be "In no one we trust."

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Culture Shock 09.05.13: 'On the Road' is jazz without soul

"Dean Moriarty. Dean Moriarty. Dean Moriarty."

The name repeats, hypnotic like a blues lyric, before be-bopping off on some extended jazz improvisation, à la Charlie Parker. It's the rat, tat, tat of the beat, of the Beat generation, of Jack Kerouac and of his novel "On the Road."

In "On the Road," Kerouac captured a moment in time, both describing the post-World War II counterculture and helping create it. It was the Beats, and it created the Beats. It gave birth to those hangers on who called themselves "beatniks," a term and movement, if it could be called that, that the politically conservative Kerouac couldn't stand. For Kerouac, Beat meant blessed. Beatnik was something else, a corruption.

Postwar writers of a rightward bent, from Robert Heinlein to Ayn Rand, had a habit of unwittingly spawning counterculture movements they didn't like, and sometimes didn't even grok.

Add another to the list of things Kerouac inspired but would probably denounce.

Director Walter Salles is no stranger to "road" pictures, having previously made "The Motorcycle Diaries," a sanitized account of the young Che Guevara's bohemian travels, from the days before Guevara became just another revolutionary butcher with his face emblazoned on T-shirts.

Now Salles gives us "On the Road" (Blu-ray, DVD), a too-literal adaptation of Kerouac's novel that plays all the notes but loses the beat.

Sam Riley stars as Sal Paradise, Kerouac's stand-in and our window into his semi-autobiographical adventures.

After his father's death, Sal decides to hit the road, hoping to find himself, and inspiration to cure his stalled literary career. What he needs is experience, and he soon finds it when he is introduced to Dean Moriarty, ex-con, womanizer and all-around bad example, based on one of Kerouac's Beat associates, Neal Cassady.

Garrett Hedlund ("Tron: Legacy") makes a convincing Moriarty, an infuriating and lovable rogue who is a ladies' man and, in more ways than one, a man's man. Sexuality among the Beats was more fluid than polar.

When Sal and Dean meet, Dean is freshly married to his 15-year-old child bride Marylou (Kristen Stewart). It's not long before Dean and Marylou divorce, but she's still around and still his girl, even after he marries Camille (Kirsten Dunst), a level-headed, no-nonsense woman who leaves you wondering why she ever thought marrying Dean was a good idea. It's all part of Moriarty's mysterious charm, which keeps everyone coming back until they're burned out by the experience.

Sal travels the country, but his travels always circle back to Dean. Either they're on the road together or one is traveling to meet the other.

The tale has resonances with one set in an earlier jazz age, "The Great Gatsby." Think of Dean as a ne'er-do-well Jay Gatsby and Sal as a more likable Nick Carraway. Sal and Nick are drawn to Moriarty and Gatsby, both of whom prove, ultimately, to be hollow figures.

And "On the Road" proves to be a hollow movie. Sam Riley is likable as Sal, but the character is never more than a cipher, and Stewart delivers yet another listless performance, although at least this time her character has a pulse. Only Dunst really makes an impression, briefly, but her character is little more than one of Dean's many castoffs.

Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera give us an "On the Road" that lacks the poetry of Kerouac's prose. It's a dull, repetitive, forgettable travelogue that fails even as a travelogue.

After watching "On the Road," the only trip you'll be inspired to make is back to the rental kiosk.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Culture Shock 08.29.13: Don't feel compelled to rent 'Compulsion'

With a title like "Compulsion," a film is bound to elicit unfair comparisons to Roman Polanski's "Repulsion."

Apart from their near-homonym titles, each centers on a mentally unstable woman trapped in her apartment, and both hint at traumatic childhood abuse. But there the similarities end.

Where Polanski's film is a disturbing thriller, "Compulsion," directed by Egidio Coccimiglio from a screenplay by Floyd Byars, strives to be a dark comedy. Unfortunately, it is only intermittently dark and in no way comedic. Or maybe it isn't supposed to be comedic, in which case it doesn't know what it's supposed to be. Perhaps a cooking show.

The other comparison is to the movie on which "Compulsion" is based, director Cheol-su Park's 1995 film "301/302," which is dark, but intentionally not comedic. At least I don't think so, unless something was lost in the translation from Korean.

Instead of "301/302," the American remake's producers opted for a generic and overused title, which is our first warning sign.

Heather Graham ("The Hangover") is Amy, an aspiring TV chef for whom food is love. Amy looks like she walked out of a 1950s advertisement for the home of the future. She wears sunny floral dresses, her hair is always perfectly shaped, and she always smiles.

She also has a well-off boyfriend, who pays to outfit her kitchen with all the latest culinary toys. But it's clear she isn't getting what she needs from him emotionally. So, she retreats to her cooking and her fantasy life, where she is a famous TV chef, telling a million housewives how to whip up a meal that will spice up not only the their dinner tables but their love lives, too.

Perhaps she did walk out of an advertisement.

Amy lives in Apt. 301, and across the hall in 302 lives Saffron, played by Carrie-Anne Moss ("The Matrix"). Saffron is a former child actress who has aged out of stardom and now finds it almost impossible to get work. Instead she writes a column about sex and relationships, secretly using Amy and her boyfriend for material. But that plot element goes nowhere, and it seems just a vestigial remainder from the South Korean original, where the woman in 302 is a writer, not an actress.

When Amy discovers who Saffron is, Saffron becomes another of her obsessions. Amy, coincidentally, has been a fan for a long time, and she tries to win Saffron's affection with food.

There is just one problem: While Amy seems merely delusional, Saffron has darker demons running around her head, and they manifest as an eating disorder. Saffron literally cannot eat anything without her body rejecting it.

The film misses the opportunity to say something meaningful, while keeping with its foodie theme, by not juxtaposing Saffron's anorexia to Hollywood's obsession with near-skeletal thinness. It's the one thing that could justify transforming the character from writer to actress.

The woman who substitutes food for love and the woman traumatized into starvation are locked in a battle of wills, in which Amy's lifelong obsession with the child star seems an unnecessary distraction. The two function better as equals, which Amy can't be when she reverts to a schoolgirl with a crush.

Graham delivers a performance that winks at the audience. In her kitchen fantasies, she talks to no one and to us at the same time, making us complicit in her delusion. But Moss plays her character straight, as written. She seems to be in a different movie, an actress out of place in a world populated by fakes. Too bad this film doesn't explore that either.

Perhaps the film Saffron is in is a better one.

"Compulsion" (R) is available on DVD (currently at Redbox) and video on demand.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Culture Shock 08.22.13: New Blu-ray, DVD give 'Lifeforce' new life

How to describe "Lifeforce"?

For years, when anyone asked, I summed up Tobe Hooper's 1985 science fiction/horror film as a "Doctor Who" story where the Doctor never shows up to set things right. That summation is especially true if you have in mind early-1970s "Doctor Who," with Jon Pertwee's Doctor stranded on 20th century Earth and a full-time supporting cast of UNIT soldiers and scientists.

"Lifeforce" has all the same trappings, only, as I said, minus the Doctor: an English setting, an extinction-level menace from outer space, and principals who include a guilt-ridden astronaut, an eccentric scientist who specializes in the study of death and a no-nonsense Special Air Service officer.

Then there is the other, more blunt way "Lifeforce" may be summarized: It's the movie with the naked space vampire.

I'm not entirely sure "Lifeforce" is a good movie, but it never fails to entertain, which is the only measure that really counts, and say what you will about it, "Lifeforce" isn't a movie that does anything halfway. That is why it has earned a small but devoted following, and why Shout! Factory has given it a stunning combo Blu-ray/DVD re-release.

The film opens in 1986 with a joint U.S./British mission to Halley's Comet that unexpectedly encounters an alien spacecraft hiding in the comet's tail. Before you can say, "I don't think this is such a great idea," the astronauts, led by Col. Carlsen (Steve Railsback, aka Charles Manson in the 1976 TV movie "Helter Skelter"), are exploring the alien ship, where they find and retrieve three apparently human bodies.

The alien humanoids make it to Earth, but most of the astronauts don't, and before long, one of the aliens — the aforementioned naked space girl, played by French actress and dancer Mathilda May — is on the loose and racking up a body count as she feeds on the life force of unwary humans, who easily fall under her vampiric sway.

Mathilda May as the Space Girl.
As one scientist who narrowly escapes her says, "She was the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I have ever encountered." She is the vampire as succubus, reducing her mostly male victims to ravenous husks that must themselves feed or die. And while the special effects that bring the victims back to life are dated, the results remain startling. It's a deadly battle of the sexes, where feminine erotic power reigns supreme.

They don't make movies quite like this anymore, and it's amazing "Lifeforce" was made in the first place, but no one ever accused producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of subtlety.

On the space girl's trail are Carlsen, the mission's lone survivor, and SAS Col. Caine, portrayed with scene-stealing intensity by Peter Firth ("MI-5," "Equus"), who track her across Britain while "thanatology" expert Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) tries to discover her weakness.

Fallada shares a name with the real-life author of "Every Man Dies Alone." Take that for what you will.

"Lifeforce" culminates in a deliriously chaotic final act, with hapless Londoners attacked by cadaverous vampires while the space girl, having finally put on some clothes, prepares to zap everyone's life energies up to her orbiting spaceship.

The new Blu-ray/DVD combo set from Shout! Factory is a marked improvement on the non-anamorphic DVD released by MGM in 1998 and worth the upgrade, and not just for experiencing Ms. May in high definition.

At times absurd, at times thrilling, propelled by an energetic Henry Mancini score and featuring an early supporting performance by Patrick Stewart, "Lifeforce" is the sort of film you must see once just to know such things exist.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Culture Shock 08.08.13: TV and movies experience reversal of fortunes

Two new books, taken together, perfectly illustrate the divergent fortunes of television and the movies.

The first is "Difficult Men" by GQ correspondent Brett Martin. In this case, the (overly long) subtitle — "Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad' " — says it all. Television is no longer mostly just sitcoms and episodic police procedurals, although both are still around and doing fine. Now there are complex shows with ongoing stories that attract some of the best actors in the business, the sort of actors who used to do only movies and looked down on TV work.

Driven by writer-creators rather than by directors, television has become the go-to platform for long-form, narrative storytelling.

At the other, seedier end of the street is Lynda Obst's "Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business." Obst is a producer who has a hard time producing movies nowadays, even though her credits include hits like "Adventures in Babysitting" and "Sleepless in Seattle."

The reason is Hollywood doesn't make the kind of modestly budgeted films she makes anymore, unless they're horror films or star-driven comedies. Everything is either low-budget indie films, on the one hand, or grotesquely budgeted effects-driven extravaganzas based on brands with built-in audience appeal. That's why everything Hollywood produces seems to be a remake, a sequel or based on a book, comic book or old TV show.

They're not all bad, but for every "Iron Man" there are a dozen "Man of Steels," crowding out other types of movies. Once, these big-budget would-be blockbusters were tentpoles around which studios built their release schedules. Now, Obst complains, just about every studio movie is a tentpole.

Even a big-name director like Steven Spielberg has to scrape together funding when he wants to make a non-tentpole like his Oscar-bait biopic "Lincoln."

That prompted Spielberg and George Lucas, jointly credited/blamed with creating the "summer blockbuster," to warn that Hollywood's big tent is on the verge of collapsing.

The common denominator behind both TV's and films' fortunes is DVD sales.

The rise of DVDs (and video on demand) in the past 15 or so years made movies more available, a development that was one thing driving pay-TV channels like HBO into original programming as a way to differentiate themselves. The subsequent decline in DVD sales, however, broke all of the Hollywood studios' financial models, leading to the tentpole-dominated model that prevails now.

The decline of DVDs is in part the work of Netflix, which is also credited with helping change TV for the better by encouraging "binge viewing" and producing its own shows like the Emmy-nominated "House of Cards," a fourth season of "Arrested Development" and the latest critical darling, "Orange is the New Black." It's not too much of an exaggeration to say Netflix changed everything.

So, is everything roses for TV and curtains for the movies? Not necessarily.

Television still falls prey to formula. For all the talk of a "creative revolution," how many of these daring new shows can be summed up as "family man (or woman) with a secret criminal life"?

And Hollywood has been here before, when big-budget disasters like 1963's "Cleopatra" nearly sank studios and cleared the way for a new generation of filmmakers who made smaller, more personal films. After a decade of bloated epics, we got the generation of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and, yes, George Lucas.

Lest we forget, the original "Star Wars" was also a modestly budgeted film, by today's standards.