Thursday, June 27, 2013

Culture Shock 06.27.13: Richard Matheson is legend

There is only one word that truly describes Richard Matheson. He was a storyteller.

There are writers and novelists and dramatists and screenwriters. But there are precious few storytellers, people who can weave tapestries of words and magic regardless of the medium. Writers for whom the story is everything, who turn out perfectly polished gems that make other writers weep with envious love-rage, and who glide between form — screenplay, short story, novel — as easily as others might change shoes. Or so they make it seem.

We lost one last year when we lost Ray Bradbury. Another, Harlan Ellison, as marvelous as he is often maddening, is still plugging away, despite poor health and a convention appearance "farewell" three years ago, bless his mischievous heart. And now we've lost Matheson, who died Monday at age 87, leaving behind a lifetime of stories.

These are stories you know. The harrowing vampire apocalypse of "I Am Legend," which has been adapted for the big screen three times, with Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and, most recently, Will Smith. His haunting tale "The Shrinking Man," which became the equally haunting film "The Incredible Shrinking Man." The supernatural nail-biter "Hell House," which he later turned into the movie "The Legend of Hell House." The screenplay for "Duel," which set into motion the career of its director, a talented lad by the name of Steven Spielberg.

It's an honorable calling, the calling of storyteller.

But the inevitable is inevitable. The grand old men of storytelling are getting older, their typewriters growing silent. And few have risen to the challenge of succeeding them. Neil Gaiman, perhaps, scribbling away with pen and pad, a master of comic books, fantasy novels and "Doctor Who" episodes, comes closest.

Before television became all about season-spanning story arcs, there was an art to crafting a self-contained story that fit comfortably in an hour or half-hour time slot.

No TV show is more synonymous with the finely honed short story than "The Twilight Zone," and no one is more synonymous with "The Twilight Zone" than its creator and head writer Rod Serling. But another writer was just as responsible as Serling for making the show what it was.

You guessed it: Richard Matheson.

Both he and Serling adapted his short stories for the show. Soon, Matheson began contributing original scripts as well.

Matheson's stories are among the best of the series' run. They include "The Invaders," which pits Agnes Moorehead ("Bewitched") against doll-sized visitors from another world, and "Little Girl Lost."

His two most memorable "Twilight Zone" stories, however, have one thing in common: William Shatner. The first was season 2's "Nick of Time," in which Shatner and Patricia Breslin portray a young couple who become obsessed with a cafe's fortune-telling machine and its uncanny predictions. The second was season 5's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

"Nightmare" is the definitive "Twilight Zone" story, never mind that Matheson adapted it from one of his previous short stories. From Shatner's performance as a man struggling to retain his sanity to the grotesque gremlin clinging to the airplane's wing, so much about the story is now iconic.

But it all sprang from Matheson's typewriter.

Through the decades, Matheson remained versatile. His fantasies ran from the terrifying ("The Night Stalker" with Darren McGavin) to the comic ("The Raven" with Vincent Price) to the romantic ("Somewhere in Time" and "What Dreams May Come"). The form and the style didn't matter.

All that matters to the storyteller is the story.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Culture Shock 06.20.13: Enter the ninja — in leg warmers

When you think about it, the 1980s were all about two things: dancing and ninjas.

The decade was defined by dance movies, from "Flashdance" to "Footloose" to "Dirty Dancing." And despite their reputation for stealth, you couldn't turn anywhere without glimpsing a ninja. Italian tough guy Franco Nero ("Django") portrayed one in "Enter the Ninja," and American tough guy Lee Van Cleef ("The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly") played one in the forgotten TV series "The Master." G.I. Joe faced off against toy ninjas, and comic book auteur Frank Miller ("Sin City") pitted Daredevil against a magical ninja army called The Hand.

If you could somehow combine dancing and ninjas, you'd have the most '80s movie ever.

As it happens, someone already did, and it's called "Ninja III: The Domination," now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.

To find a more bonkers movie, you'd have to go to '80s or '90s Hong Kong, and even then the madness of Hong Kong's most insane films is largely a matter of cultural differences and dodgy subtitles. "Ninja III: The Domination," however, even with its partly Japanese cast and Israeli producers — the infamous Cannon Films duo of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — is possessed of a uniquely American madness, which makes it a fine way to spend a late night with friends and whatever intoxicants are legal in your jurisdiction. (You crazy kids in Colorado and Washington have fun.)

The action starts when a ninja (David Chung) kills a yuppie businessman on a sunny, Arizona golf course, because that's what assassins known for their stealth do. The murder attracts the police who, being police officers of the '80s, are just itching to shoot someone, which they do — repeatedly — after a prolonged chase, during which the ninja performs such feats as stabbing a cop through the roof of his squad car.

The ninja, filled with more lead than ancient Roman pottery, collapses near where a young technician named Christie is repairing telephone lines. The next thing you know, his soul had jumped into her body, where it awaits the right moment to strike.

Christie, played by Lucinda Dickey, star of "Breakin'" and its punch line of a sequel, "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo," is the dance-movie part of the equation. When she's not working for the phone company, Christie is dancercising at the local gym. With her blue-collar, stereotypically male job and her fondness for spandex and leg warmers, she's the reincarnation of Jennifer Beals' Alex in "Flashdance."

The ninja asserts himself slowly, and at first it just seems like Christie has become more aggressive, along with picking up some mad skills. But when she embarrasses some local street toughs, she catches the interest of the cops, one of whom — unfortunately for us — is determined to become the movie's love interest. Before long, the ninja is taking Christie's body out for a test drive, using it to assassinate random guys playing pool in their underwear.

To illustrate just how perfectly '80s "Ninja III" is, you could probably duplicate all of its special effects with one trip to the nearest mall's Spencer Gifts. To recreate a ninja possessing someone, all you need are a strobe light, dry ice, smoke machine and miniature laser show.

Shô Kosugi ("Enter the Ninja," "The Master") co-stars as the "good ninja" and choreographs the fights, which are more like Capt. Kirk vs. the Gorn than what you'd see in contemporaneous martial arts flicks from China and Japan.

Apart from an intentionally funny scene where a mystic played by the reliable James Hong ("Big Trouble in Little China") tries to exorcise the ninja, nothing in "Ninja III" quite works. But most of it at least fails in the spectacularly entertaining fashion for which the 1980s were known.

If you're going to fail, fail big. Go full savings and loan.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Culture Shock 06.13.13: Return to 'Astro City' is long overdue

"Astro City" No. 1 (2013).
After such a long time away, the signpost is still familiar and reassuring.

"Welcome to Astro City.”

Three years is too long, but with industry upheavals and "Astro City” creator/writer Kurt Busiek's health issues finally in the rearview mirror, one of the most beloved superhero comics on the stands is back, with a new No. 1 issue — never mind this is the 60th issue overall — that picks up where the series left off and serves as a jumping-on point for new readers.

If you're new, not to worry. There's a tour guide, a fellow called the Broken Man, who looks like a blue-skinned, 1970s David Bowie and connects the dots like a deranged Fox Mulder. But the clue he may know what he's talking about is he seems aware he's a fictional character in a book, and it doesn't trouble him in the least. Not when there are other things to worry about, like the gigantic inter-dimensional doorway that has suddenly appeared, tall and proud among the futuristic skyscrapers of Astro City's gleaming skyline.

Just another day in Astro City, where superheroes are as common as pennies on a sidewalk and Earth-shaking events as frequent as government holidays.

Busiek and artist collaborator Brent Eric Anderson waste no time introducing new characters and reintroducing old friends. Making a madcap debut is American Chibi, whose appearance and perky personality appear to have sprung from a Japanese cartoon. And returning is the Samaritan, Busiek's version of Superman written properly.

But where Busiek is always best, where he works real magic and metaphorical heroics, is with the ordinary, average people who just happen to live in a world of the extraordinary.

One of the greatest superhero tales ever told is Busiek's "Astro City” story "The Nearness of You” (collected in the "Astro City: Confession” trade paperback), which focuses on an ordinary man haunted by dreams of a woman he never met. An ordinary woman. Not too beautiful. Not even his type, really. But the dreams leave him with an ache, a sense of something missing. It turns out they are memories of a wife he had in another timeline – a timeline rewritten during one of those reality-rebooting events superheroes deal with every few years.

"The Nearness of You” is not only a beautiful story with a perfect ending, which I won't spoil, and it's not only a look at the "collateral damage” superheroes cause, it's a gentle critique of the comics industry, which has fallen into an endless cycle of huge events, multi-book crossovers, and reboots that lead writers to retell the same old stories again and again.

DC Comics is more guilty of this than Marvel, and it shows. How many times has Superman's origin story been retold, with a few minor alterations here and there?

Published under DC's semi-autonomous Vertigo banner, "Astro City” is mercifully free of DC's regular continuity-rewriting antics. Also, despite his use of Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman analogues in the guise of the Samaritan, Winged Victory and the Confessor, Busiek's writing has always seemed more Marvel than DC.

So it is with the new "Astro City,” which kicks off with a story that puts Busiek's spin on a typical 1960s Stan Lee/Jack Kirby tale for Marvel, complete with a character who could have been designed by "King” Kirby himself. Busiek's "spin,” naturally, is to link this all-powerful, cosmic being's story to that of an ordinary man on the street. Humanity and the problems and hopes of everyday people, even in the face of literally larger-than-life events, are what interest Busiek.

And they are why "Astro City” remains a cut above all those other superhero comics.

"Astro City” No. 1 is currently available in comic book specialty shops and on the ComiXology app for Android and iPad.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Culture Shock 06.06.13: Season 4 is our 'Arrested Development'

A funny thing happened after "Arrested Development" was canceled in 2006.

The housing bubble burst.

"Hey, that's not funny!" you say? Not on its own, no, but who could have suspected a sitcom about a bankrupt family forced to live in a model house in an unfinished subdivision could prove so prophetic?

Yet as the old economy stagnated, the new economy kept on keeping on. Canceled by Fox, "Arrested Development" was resurrected by Netflix, which has released the entire fourth season all at once, because the way Americans watch television has also kept on keeping on.

Thanks to Netflix and its streaming service, supported by a growing library of TV programs, binge viewing is rapidly becoming the norm.

Who hasn't lost an entire day to a "Battlestar Galactica" marathon?

But enough about my problems. This is about the Bluth family's problems, which are as numerous and ridiculous as ever.

Michael (Jason Bateman), the son who passes for the responsible member of the Bluth family, has cut ties with the rest of his family. Again. No, this time he means it. He has sold his stock in the family company and finally finished, on his own, that subdivision. Just in time for the housing crash.

So, broke and homeless, Michael has moved in with his son, George-Michael (Michael Cera). Unfortunately, George-Michael is at college and lives in a dorm.

Meanwhile, family matriarch Lucille (Jessica Walter) is preparing for her trial for hijacking the Queen Mary in an attempt to flee from the Securities and Exchange Commission. (See the end of season 3.) The rest of the family is strangely ambivalent.

And while all of that is going on, the family patriarch, George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), is hatching a scheme involving his twin brother Oscar (also Jeffrey Tambor), a sweat lodge, gullible corporate CEOs, cheap desert real estate, and a plan to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

The rest of the Bluth family is also on hand, including youngest brother Buster (Tony Hale), who still has a hook for a hand. Eldest brother G.O.B. is still trying to find the ultimate magic trick. Adopted sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) is still trying to find herself. And brother-in-law Tobias (David Cross) is still trying to find a clue. All unsuccessfully.

Old supporting characters are back, too, like Henry Winkler's crooked lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn and Liza Minnelli's unbalanced Lucille 2. But the heart of the story belongs to Michael and George Sr.

Michael finds himself in Hollywood, trying to turn his family's story into a movie for Ron Howard, which adds a new wrinkle to Howard being the show's narrator. And while Michael is caught up in the entertainment economy, George Sr. is caught up in his old ways: shady real estate deals and corrupt government contracts. It's just like old times. It's how the Bluths got into this mess to start with.

Unlike the original run of "Arrested Development," each episode of the fourth season focuses on a particular member of the Bluth clan. That's probably owing to scheduling conflicts. Everyone in the cast has moved on to other projects since 2006. But series creator Mitchell Hurwitz makes that work for him. Each character's story arc ends up crossing the others' arcs in surprising and funny ways.

In a way, the entire season is one very long episode that, for reasons of custom, is split into 15 segments. It's the first TV show meant specifically for binge viewing. If you don't watch at least the first six episodes in one sitting, you're not doing it right.

So, a television show that began as the story of a dysfunctional family is now equally as much the story of a dysfunctional economy, but delivered in a format best suited to the new economy.

This is our arrested development.