Thursday, December 25, 2014

Culture Shock 12.25.14: The accidental Christmas song

The hills are alive with the sound of Christmas.
"My Favorite Things" originated in 1959 as part of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music." By the time the film version of "The Sound of Music" premiered six years later, the song was well on its way to becoming a Christmas standard.

The funny thing is, "My Favorite Things" isn't really a Christmas song.

Yes, the song uses lots of wintertime imagery, such as sleigh bells and snowflakes. It also invokes ponies, kittens and bees. No matter how you look at it, "My Favorite Things" doesn't have anything to do with Christmas. Nor, for that matter, does it have anything to do with Hanukkah, the solstice or Kwanzaa. It has no part in a Festivus for the rest of us.

To this day, the best version of "My Favorite Things" remains the 13-minute tour de force of modal jazz improvisation that John Coltrane released in 1961. No one mistakes it for a Christmas song.

None of that, however, has kept other versions out of the annual Christmas rotation.

It's not unlike how "Die Hard" has become a Christmas movie, even though the only part of the plot that's Christmas related is the office Christmas party. A good screenwriter could easily come up with a plausible substitute, and a bad screenwriter could come up with a dozen implausible ones.

For the why of it all, I turned to Wikipedia, which as everyone knows is a wholly reliable source of information and not just a convenient way to settle bar bets.

There I learned Julie Andrews performed "My Favorite Things" during the 1961 Christmas episode of "The Garry Moore Show," a variety program today best remembered for helping give Carol Burnett her start in television. Evidently, "The Garry Moore Show" also gave "My Favorite Things" its start as a Christmas song.

Soon afterward, the song began appearing on Christmas albums, and it has been doing so ever since. The earliest example Wikipedia cites is 1964's "The Jack Jones Christmas Album," where it is performed by "Love Boat Theme" crooner Jack Jones.

A year later, it was everywhere, and by "everywhere" I mean it appeared on a Diana Ross and the Supremes album titled "Merry Christmas," an Andy Williams album titled "Merry Christmas," and an Eddie Fisher album titled, for a change of pace, "Mary Christmas."

So, when it comes to stamping the label "Christmas music" on "My Favorite Things," there is a lot of credit — or blame, depending on your point of view — to go around. Like Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, I put most of the blame for everything bad on Eddie Fisher.

He was a real piece of work.

Not that "My Favorite Things" is a bad Christmas song, despite its not being a Christmas song at all. There certainly are worse Christmas songs, most of which get a lot more airplay.

Despite their best efforts, not even the unlikely pair of Bing Crosby and David Bowie can do much with the soul-crushing monotony of "The Little Drummer Boy." And when it comes to maddening repetition, it's hard to top José Feliciano's novelty hit "Feliz Navidad."

Still, neither of those songs is the worst. When it comes to bad Christmas songs, ex-Beatles are experts. No one could turn noble sentiments into saccharine sentimentality faster than John Lennon during his Plastic Ono Band phase, and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" is Exhibit A, co-produced by convicted murder Phil Spector, who currently is serving 19 to life. But worse still is Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," which isn't so much a song as it is the sound of joy dying.

Yet even John and Paul can't top the sheer awfulness and condescension of Bob Geldof and Midge Ure's patronizing famine-relief fundraiser "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

The answer, Bob, is "yes." People in Africa might be starving, but they're not stupid. They know when it's Christmas. I suspect some even know when it's Boxing Day.

Compared to all that rot, "My Favorite Things" isn't bad at all, even if it's a Christmas song that's not really a Christmas song.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Culture Shock 12.18.14: 2014 was the year of 'Weird Al'

Who would have thought going into it that 2014 would turn out to be the year of one Alfred Matthew "Weird Al" Yankovic?

Weird Al burst onto the music scene in the 1980s with a string of hits, from "Eat It" and "Fat," which parodied the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, to "Like a Surgeon," inspired by the Material Girl, Madonna. But as the age of music videos faded into the past, so too, it seemed, did Weird Al.

Now the King is dead, and whenever Madonna tries to be naughty and outrageous, her longtime fans beg her to stop.

Through it all, though, Weird Al was still out there, parodying everything from grunge to hip hop, and quietly producing albums, some of which charted in Billboard's top 10. We just weren't paying as much attention. Now we are.

Promoted with a batch of music videos released online, "Mandatory Fun," Yankovic's 14th studio album, peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It became the first Weird Al album to take the chart's top spot and the first comedy album to do so since Allan Sherman's "My Son, the Nut" in 1963. (Hey, hipster! Now there's an album that's probably missing from your vinyl collection.)

Creatively, Yankovic still has it. "Mandatory Fun" is his cleverest, most listenable album since those halcyon days when MTV still played music.

As is his habit, Weird Al doesn't satirize the songs he parodies but uses them instead to poke fun at other things going on in the culture.

"Tacky," Weird Al's parody of Pharrell Williams' inescapable mega-hit "Happy," takes the prize as the track you're most likely to listen to on an infinite loop until your roommate goes insane or smashes your speakers. As the name implies, "Tacky" targets people with the bad taste to wear socks with sandals or twerk in public.

Robin Thicke's controversial "Blurred Lines" becomes Weird Al's wickedly funny "Word Crimes," which lists in detail all the grammatical sins of which you are no doubt guilty. And "Foil," performed to the tune — what there is of it — of "Royals" by Lorde, starts out as a simple ode to the freshness-preserving properties of aluminum foil before taking a sinister turn into the necessities of wearing a tinfoil-lined hat to protect oneself from the Illuminati's mind-control rays.

Other targets of Yankovic's wit include corporate jargon and people who gripe about their "First World Problems." But Weird Al's most biting satire is also his most subtle.

"Now That's What I Call Polka!" is a polka-style medley of pop songs with their lyrics largely unchanged. It segues through Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball," One Direction's "Best Song Ever" and "Thrift Shop" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, among others. Stripping them of their catchy hooks and dope beats, and leaving only their banal lyrics, Weird Al — deliberately or otherwise — exposes the extent to which pop music has regressed to the naïve bubblegum infantilism of the late '50s and early '60s. The lyrics are often raunchier but just as trite. They amount to sub-Monkees gibberish.

As if delivering the biggest album of Weird Al's career weren't enough, 2014 also delivered an anniversary. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Weird Al's cult-favorite movie "UHF," which makes its Blu-ray debut for the occasion. And, in conjunction, making its DVD debut is Weird Al's 1985 straight-to-video mockumentary "The Compleat Al."

It's all a reminder that, ironically, Yankovic's career has gone on longer and stronger than many of the acts he has satirized. Most pop stars are here today, gone tomorrow. Parody is immortal.

By year's end, floundering electronics retailer RadioShack — whose latest last-ditch strategy to remain solvent bizarrely entails capitalizing on 1980s nostalgia while telling everyone the company is hip and modern — was putting Yankovic in its TV commercials.

I guess if anyone combines hip and modern with '80s nostalgia, it's Weird Al.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Marvel celebrates return of 'Star Wars' license by ruining original books

One bit of fallout from Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm is the return of the "Star Wars" license to Marvel Comics, which published the original "Star Wars" movie adaptation back in 1977.

To celebrate, Marvel is reprinting those original "Star Wars" comics in a collection to be released in May. That's the good news. The bad news is Marvel is giving those comics the "special edition" treatment.

From Marvel's press release: "Written by Roy Thomas with art by Howard Chaykin, this iconic story has been remastered for the modern age [with] all-new coloring by Chris Sotomayor."

As you can see from the before-and-after sample Marvel provided, the re-coloring is a disaster. It's as if George Lucas went back and inserted a lot of new CGI characters for no good reason. Wait. That happened, too. Anyway, here's a look. The re-colored version is on the left (click to enlarge):

I bet "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams appreciates the addition of the gratuitous lens flare in the first panel. Note that in addition to the re-coloring, which completely and anachronistically distorts the original art, the first panel has been partially redrawn and the text box removed. It's not exactly Greedo getting off a shot, but still.

I thought Lucas stepping away from the saga was supposed to put an end to these needless revisions. Guess not.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Culture Shock 12.11.14: Nolan's 'Interstellar' doesn't trust its audience

Christopher Nolan aims so high, and does so with such skill, that often it's only as we're leaving the theater that we realize he's pulled another fast one on us.

Yet as Nolan becomes more confident in his craft, he becomes less confident in his audience. He is a smart filmmaker who treats his audience as if we're a bunch of dummies. More and more, his movies condescend to us. And the more they do so, the more they spoil the illusions essential to moviemaking.

Nolan's latest film, "Interstellar," is mesmerizing in every sense of the word. It's visually and emotionally gripping as it deals with Great Big Ideas. It wants very much to be the kind of science fiction that went out of vogue after "Star Wars," and which is seeing a kind of mini-renaissance now. Ideally, given how its plot unfolds, a better title for "Interstellar" would have been "Gravity." But that name was taken.

I've argued that "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" is underrated because almost no one sees it for what it is: a humanist retort to "2001: A Space Odyssey." But there is no mistaking the fact Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother, Jonathan, mean to boldly go down the same path. "Interstellar" is about humanity taking the next step in its evolution, yet while retaining its essential humanity. It is anti-"2001" even as it updates that film's aesthetic for the 21st century.

When it comes to inspiration, Nolan looks not just to Stanley Kubrick's sterile masterpiece but also to its overlooked sequel, Peter Hyams' "2010," borrowing a few of its ideas and one of its stars, the reliable and reassuring John Lithgow.

"Interstellar" begins in our near future, where a blight is wiping out grain crops one by one, threatening the world with starvation and worse. Much of the population is implied to have died already, and all resources are marshaled toward food production, to the point that even the world's armies have been disbanded, which seems the opposite of likely. Otherwise, apart from a jab at American science education, the Nolans are deliberately vague about the political and economic circumstances of their near-future America, which is for the best. It saves them further embarrassment, and it's all merely the backdrop for the premise: The Earth is dying, and humanity needs a new home.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an astronaut-turned-farmer, ends up in the pilot seat for the mission to save humanity, which involves a breathtaking trip through a wormhole to another galaxy, where three planets orbiting the same star are the best candidates for a new world.

The trip, however, means leaving behind his children, son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), who, thanks to the laws of physics, age into Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain while Cooper stays the same age. (One suspects the irony would be lost on McConaughey's "Dazed and Confused" character.)

Rounding out the cast are Anne Hathaway (Audrey Hepburn in space), Michael Caine (her scientist father), David Gyasi (another astronaut) and Topher Grace (adult Murph's colleague).

As the movie goes on, the Nolans begin to over-explain everything. To the movie's detriment, the characters start to sound like Wikipedia articles on general relativity and evolutionary psychology.

On a practical level, "Interstellar" is a plea for more NASA funding to safeguard mankind's future. But such pleadings seem myopic when we're on the cusp of an explosion in space travel. NASA and the Soviets no longer monopolize space. It's open to all, from the European Space Agency to the Japanese to too many private concerns to name. People are already making space happen.

On a deeper level, "Interstellar" is about the resilience of the human spirit and the enduring power of love, even against the cold equations of relativity and the savage demands of Darwinian survival. Love, it turns out, is also a survival instinct.

Unfortunately, the Nolans don't trust us to figure this out on our own. Instead, they reduce everything to New Age gibberish no actor can portray convincingly and no one but Deepak Chopra can take seriously. "Interstellar" suffers for it, and so do we.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Culture Shock 12.04.14: 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' turns 35

Kirk inspects the newly remodeled Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." Director Robert Wise added the reflected Enterprise to this shot for his 2001 "director's edition" of the film.
Kirk inspects the newly remodeled Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."
Director Robert Wise added the reflected Enterprise to this shot for his 2001
"director's edition" of the film.
Thirty-five years on, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" remains one of the Trek franchise's most under-appreciated and misunderstood entries.

That's understandable. "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" — or "TMP," from here on out — was rushed into production, with a script that rehashes Season 2's "The Changeling." As released in theaters and aired on television, TMP seems only partly finished. In truth, that's because it was only partly finished.

Robert Wise's "director's edition," released on DVD in 2001, improves the pacing and completes some effects shots that remained rough in the race to meet TMP's locked-in Dec. 7, 1979, release date.

Yet with or without Wise's touch-ups, TMP deserves reappraisal.

Wise's operatic approach to "Star Trek" makes Alan Dean Foster's story more than "The Changeling, Part 2." In Wise's hands, TMP becomes a humanistic retort to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

In "2001" humanity has lost its sense of wonder, and in the process, its humanity. The most fully realized character is HAL (Douglas Rain), a self-aware computer, who becomes neurotic, then murderous. Emotions, when combined with big brains, are bad news.

While HAL is excited by the prospect of scientific discovery, the humans in "2001" are bored by space. It's simply where they work, as mundane and uninteresting to them as an office cubicle is to us.

Wise's TMP, building on Gene Roddenberry's hopeful vision of the future, flips Kubrick on his head. Harold Michelson's production design has much the same cool, antiseptic look as the production design of "2001," but here it's a setting where humans are still human, even when they're extraterrestrials.

In "2001," Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) naps during his trip to the moon. In TMP, the Enterprise crew stare wide-eyed and mouths agape at the immense living starship V'Ger. Wise drives his point home with an extended scene of the Enterprise flying through the energy cloud that surrounds V'Ger, our point of view shifting between the breathtakingly rendered alien craft and the crew's awestruck faces.

Eventually, the crew learn the ship is, like HAL, a living machine. But unlike HAL, V'Ger is cold, emotionless and searching. Without feelings, V'Ger can find no meaning, even after having traveled the length and breadth of the known universe.

Emotion is at the heart of TMP. The first familiar character we see is Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who has returned to his home on Vulcan to undergo a ritual that purges all remaining emotions. But he forgoes the ritual in order to join the Enterprise for its rendezvous with V'Ger, whose powerful consciousness Spock senses across the light years. Later on, Spock, having learned to accept his human half, weeps for the barren V'Ger as he would for a lost brother.

Decker and Ilia finally unite, and in a literal sense, when Decker becomes one with the living machine V'Ger.
Decker and Ilia finally unite, and in a literal sense, when Decker becomes one
with the living machine V'Ger.
When Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) first sees the newly refurbished USS Enterprise, it's like lovers spying one another from across a crowded room. Everyone and everything else disappears.

The scene depicting Kirk's approach to the Enterprise is the film's emotional high point, and Wise milks every second of it, accented by Jerry Goldsmith's sweeping score, making it the science fiction equivalent of the Bernard Herrmann-scored love scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

For Kirk, TMP is a love story that sees him reunited with his one true love. For two new characters, however, TMP is a slightly more conventional romance.

Decker (Stephen Collins) and Ilia (Persis Khambatta) are star-crossed lovers who come together at the end only when Decker volunteers to join with V'Ger, giving V'Ger the emotional capacity it lacks. V'Ger, Decker and Ilia become one, and the emotions that were HAL's undoing become V'Ger's salvation. Love conquers all, and humanity prevails because of its humanity.

V'Ger, like Spock, learns to feel, and the crew of the Enterprise help give birth to a new life form, one that seems far more hopeful than the creepy, ambiguous "star child" at the end of "2001."

Thanks to some "foolish human emotions," the human adventure is still just beginning.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Culture Shock 11.27.14: 'The Flash' hits the ground running

"The Flash" season 1 poster
This is the fall TV season when the superheroes took over.

Superheroes already rule the box office, but now they're making a play for your television. Four of the five broadcast networks already air at least one series based on a comic book. The fifth, CBS, has one in development based on Superman's cousin, Supergirl.

Fox's Batman prequel "Gotham" and NBC's "Constantine" join The CW's "Arrow" and ABC's "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD" on the increasingly crowded airwaves, with ABC's "Agent Carter" and The CW's "iZombie" yet to come.

But the breakaway star of this year's pack is The CW's "The Flash." The series based on DC Comics' "fastest man alive" hit the ground running and quickly earned a full-season pickup after scoring the also-ran network's best ratings ever. (Sorry, folks, but there will be more "running" jokes.)

The most surprising thing about "The Flash," though, is how good it is. Coming up on its mid-season break, "The Flash" easily outdistances most of its competition, with the exception of "Agents of SHIELD," which, now in its second season, has upped its game to the point of becoming one of the best things on TV, regardless of genre.

What sets "The Flash" apart, not only from other DC Comics-inspired TV shows but also from DC's movies, is it's actually fun. It feels a lot more like a Marvel/Disney production than it does a typical, ponderous DC/Warner Bros. production.

A lot of that comes down to star Grant Gustin. His dorky-but-likable Barry Allen is closer to Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker than he is to the square-jawed stiff Barry Allen who first appeared in "Showcase" No. 4 back in 1956.

Unlike "Gotham," which has struggled to settle on a tone, or "Arrow," which after three seasons still can't bring itself to call its main character Green Arrow, "The Flash" never takes itself too seriously and eagerly embraces its comic book origins.

Sure there's a lot of science jargon and hand-waving exposition, but "The Flash" doesn't back away from being about a guy who became super-fast after he was struck by lightning and doused with chemicals during a particle accelerator malfunction. I mean, how else is a guy supposed to get super powers? Space aliens don't hand magic rings to just anyone, you know.

You get the feeling watching "The Flash" that this is a show that just might have the Flash face off against a talking, super-intelligent, telepathic gorilla. Then the show rewards you by teasing just that.

Am I the only one who nearly fell out of his chair when the show gave us a glimpse of a caged gorilla named Grodd just a few episodes back?

Like Marvel's movies, "The Flash," itself a spin-off of "Arrow," is seeding a larger superhero universe. Casual viewers won't get all the references, but for longtime readers of DC Comics, every episode of "The Flash" brings a new Easter egg.

The show has so far slipped in the alter ego (one of them, anyway) of the superhero Firestorm, and it built an entire story around two Captain Atom antagonists, Plastique and Gen. Wade Eiling. The same story even name-dropped one of Captain Atom's civilian identities, Cameron Scott.

All these nods to other superheroes, as well as to decades of comic book stories, come across a lot more naturally than they do in "Gotham," with its winking references to future Batman villains. (OK, we get it already. Edward Nygma is going to become the Riddler one day. Did you really have to give him a coffee mug with a question mark on it?)

Yet one thing all these superhero shows have in common is standout supporting players. "The Flash" has two of the best: ex-"Law & Order" star Jesse L. Martin as Barry's childhood guardian and Tom Cavanagh as the mysterious Dr. Wells.

If it can keep up the pace, "The Flash" looks to be in for a long and entertaining run.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Culture Shock 11.20.14: Bullying spoils science achievement

And then the shirt hit the fan....
And then the shirt hit the fan....
The perpetually aggrieved are why we can't have nice things.

Last week, the European Space Agency did something incredible. It landed an unmanned spacecraft, launched more than 10 years ago, on a comet roughly 300 million miles away.

To give you a ballpark idea how far that is, the average distance from Earth to the moon is 238,900 miles. From the Earth to Mars is 140 million miles. And from here to Jupiter is 484 million miles.

It was an amazing feat of science and engineering, and for a little while, those of us who weren't alive for the Apollo moon missions got just a little taste of what it must have been like to watch Neil Armstrong take his "one small step" into the history books.

It isn't likely a lot of people will recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard a probe had touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. With a name like that, it isn't likely many people will remember 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at all. But in the annals of space exploration, the Rosetta mission is a pretty big deal.

That's why it's so frustrating that all some people could talk about afterward was one rocket scientist's bowling shirt. Matt Taylor, the lead mission scientist, made the mistake of thinking he could wear a shirt, made by a friend and given to him for his birthday, during the live Internet feed for the Philae lander's touchdown. Little did he suspect that doing so would make him a target for people who search for reasons to be offended.

The shirt wasn't stereotypical "rocket scientist" gear. It was covered with cartoon images of sexy women holding guns and posing provocatively, the sort of thing you used to see painted on the side of vans. Suddenly, Taylor's accomplishment wasn't the story; his "sexist" shirt was.

The most shrill response came from The Verge, which went after Taylor and the ESA in an article headlined "I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing." ("Ostracizing"? Really?) The article, by Chris Plante and Arielle Duhaime-Ross, goes on to say, "This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields."

That sentiment was echoed by other bloggers and on Twitter. It didn't matter that the friend who made the shirt for him, Elly Prizeman, is a woman, who took to her own blog to defend Taylor and thank him for the "sweet gesture" of wearing it on one of the most important days of his life.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I was taught that women could do any job men could do, that women were just as tough as men, that they didn't need knights in shining armor to protect them and should be just as free with their sexuality as men have always been. That was feminism.

What passes for feminism now, however, says women are afraid to go into science-related fields because male co-workers might wear loud bowling shirts sewn by their female friends. It says those female friends are mindless dupes of the patriarchy. And because I'm a male, this strain of feminism says I need to shut up, "check my privilege" and stop "mansplaining." I'm especially not supposed to have an opinion about what feminism is, nor cite any female scholars or writers who agree with me.

Bloomberg View columnist Virginia Postrel coined a wonderful term for this feminism of constant outrage: "link-bait feminism." Find any slight, real or imagined, no matter how small, and take offense. Blog about it, attach a sensational headline, and watch the outrage go viral. Rarely is the outrage even genuine.

This sort of cynical offense-stoking cheapens feminism and renders it increasingly irrelevant. Only 23 percent of U.S. women identify as feminists, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll. The brand is tainted, because link-bait feminism isn't really about equal rights, equal pay or reproductive rights. It's about a right not to be offended, even if you're only pretending to be offended. That's not feminism; it's Puritanism.

The link-bait feminists won the battle. They bullied Taylor into a tearful apology. But with any luck, this is the overreach that will cost them the war, allowing feminism to become relevant again.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Culture Shock 11.13.14: 'Twin Peaks' is happening again

I'll see you again in 25 years.
True to her word, it looks like Laura Palmer will indeed see FBI Agent Dale Cooper again in 25 years. Whether that's exactly what "Twin Peaks" creators David Lynch and Mark Frost had in mind back in 1990 is another matter.

Laura's prediction, in Agent Cooper's dream at the end of the first season's third episode, was just one of the many cryptic clues dropped during the show's brief, yet groundbreaking run.

When Lynch and Frost announced last month that "Twin Peaks" would return in 2016 for nine new episodes to air on Showtime, the news lit up the Internet like nothing short of announcing a new pope or a new "Star Wars" trilogy. As the giant told Agent Cooper, "It is happening again."

"Twin Peaks" returns to a television landscape radically changed from the one it shook up back in 1990 and '91. Back then, "Twin Peaks" was unique. Now, quirky shows with oddball characters and serialized storytelling that once was reserved for soap operas are virtually the norm.

"Twin Peaks" is in large part responsible for that.

When Lynch brought "Twin Peaks" to ABC in 1990, it was almost unheard of for respected filmmakers to slum in the television ghetto. Now that's common, too, and no one but the most obnoxious art-film snobs looks down on TV.

Yet that's not all that's changed about television in the intervening quarter century.
"Twin Peaks" is many things. It mixes comedy, melodrama, horror, science fiction, urban legends, bleeding-edge physics and Buddhist philosophy into the most compelling murder mystery since Jack the Ripper. "Who killed Laura Palmer" was the second coming of "Who shot J.R.?"

Yet structurally, "Twin Peaks" is deceptively simple. It's a parody of soap operas, and not the nighttime variety such as "Dallas" and "Dynasty," which reigned over the 1980s, but the daytime kind.

Like virtually every daytime soap ever aired, "Twin Peaks" is set in a fictional town with a sordid underbelly. A logging/resort community near the Canadian border, Twin Peaks falls into the long tradition of made-up burghs, from Salem to Genoa City, that attract more than their share of drama.

The show's mood music, courtesy of composer Angelo Badalamenti, swells with overwrought intensity at every romantic interlude. And the multi-generational cast reflects the storytelling necessities of daytime soaps, which traditionally shift their plots toward younger cast members in the summer to take advantage of teens being out of school.

"It is happening again. It is happening again."
"It is happening again. It is happening again."
Beyond that, "Twin Peaks" trades in all of the familiar tropes of daytime drama.

Infidelity? Aplenty. Convenient cases of amnesia? Nadine coming out of a coma thinking she's a teenager and back in high school qualifies. Characters presumed dead who turn out to have faked their deaths? That runs in the Packard family. A shady businessman who owns most of the town and schemes to gobble up or destroy everything he doesn't? Well, of course. "Twin Peaks" even has that most soapy of soap opera tropes, the identical twin who appears out of the blue.

James, a lovesick teen with resting pout face, seems to have just arrived from daytime TV. He goes through soul mates faster than most men do TV channels. He starts as Laura's "secret boyfriend" and moves on to her best friend Donna before the corpse is cold. Next he's on to Laura's identical cousin, then back to Donna and finally into the arms of an older woman, who so obviously plans to Double Indemnity him that we realize it faster than James can say Barbara Stanwyck.

In case all that doesn't clue us in, almost everyone in Twin Peaks is hooked on a soap opera within the soap opera, the amusingly overwrought "Invitation to Love": a parody within a parody.

But can "Twin Peaks" return as the same soap parody it was? In 1990 ABC, CBS and NBC each aired between three and four hours of soap opera programming each weekday. Today they air 3½ hours total between them. The daytime soap is a dead format, wrapped in plastic.

How the soap opera's demise will play into what Lynch and Frost have planned is, for now, just another of their unsolved mysteries. It could even involve a long lost twin.

"Would you like to play with fire? Would you like to play with Bob?"
"Would you like to play with fire? Would you like to play with Bob?"

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Culture Shock 11.06.14: Book reveals Wonder Woman's secrets

"The Secret History of Wonder Woman"
The past year has seen a surprising surge in Wonder Woman scholarship, with about a half dozen books, at least, delving into one or another aspect of the character's rich history. And with Wonder Woman's 75th anniversary still two years away, more are in the offing.

The highest profile entry so far is Jill Lepore's "The Secret History of Wonder Woman" (Knopf, $29.95). Lepore, a Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer, offers what is the most detailed and compelling look to date at Wonder Woman's fascinating and controversial creator, William Moulton Marston, and the women who shaped his life, from his childhood until his death in 1947.

The basics are already common knowledge to anyone with an interest in Wonder Woman and access to Google. Marston, who wrote his Wonder Woman stories under the name Charles Moulton, was a Harvard-educated psychologist and author credited with helping develop the lie detector. In 1941, he turned to comic books as a way of reaching young readers, especially girls, with his vision of a strong, independent woman. And so Wonder Woman was born, appearing first in "All-Star Comics" No. 8 and immediately graduating to the main feature in "Sensation Comics" No.1.

Marston was also a practicing polyamorist with an interest in bondage and discipline. He lived with both his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and assistant, Olive Byrne. He had children by both, and both were instrumental in Wonder Woman's origin. His Wonder Woman stories are filled with episodes of bondage and spankings. Wonder Woman courted controversy from the outset, but especially after Marston's death, when her adventures became Exhibit A in Fredric Wertham's brief against comics.

Lepore takes us beyond the Wikipedia summary of Marston by delving into his private letters and journals, which previously had been seen only by members of his family. The Marston that emerges is more con man than scholar, a shameless self-promoter never above exaggerating his accomplishments in a usually futile effort to get ahead. His lie detector experiments were more pseudoscience than science, and until he created Wonder Woman, his career trajectory was one of downward mobility. Each university post was less prestigious and secure than the last.

Jill Lepore
Photo by Dari Michele
His inability to advance in academia is what led him to popular entertainment as an outlet for his radical ideas, first in the movies and later in comics, aided by the opening provided by Byrne's brother, Jack Byrne, an editor for the pulp magazine publisher Fiction House, which published comics starring one of the most popular pre-Wonder Woman heroines, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

For all his failings as a scientist, Marston was a successful and manipulative showman, with a remarkable capacity to lure the media to his dog and pony demonstrations. He brought hucksterism to comics long before Stan Lee created his carnival barker persona to promote Marvel Comics.

The deceit that permeated Marston's professional life extended to his family life. The polyamorous relationship at the heart of the family would have scandalized Depression era society, and it appears to have included a fourth member, Marjorie Huntley, whom the Marstons met before they met Byrne.  Secrecy was inevitable, but even the children, at Byrne's insistence, were kept in the dark.

Lepore also places Wonder Woman within the context of competing strains of feminism, finding in her the influence of both 19th century female supremacists and birth control activist Margaret Sanger, who founded what would become Planned Parenthood. Sanger was also Byrne's aunt.

Yet the Amazon heroine herself appears in Lepore's narrative mostly to show how Marston's ideas and home life informed his stories. Lepore's account falls short when she gets to the comics industry. She downplays other female comic characters, such as Sheena, and misses obvious connections. For instance, during a brief stint advising Universal Studios, Marston consulted on "The Man Who Laughs." That film's title character would directly inspire the Joker, but Lepore passes over the opportunity to even mention Marston's connection, however minor, to Batman's arch foe.

That aside, Lepore gives both fans and scholars a lot to digest. This is the start of a reexamination of Wonder Woman and her creator, not the last word.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Culture Shock 10.30.14: '30s horror possessed of timeless glamour

Zita Johann, left, and Boris Karloff in 1932's "The Mummy."
One typically doesn't think of horror films as glamorous. Quite the opposite.

Glamour is enchantment. It appeals to our dreams and desires. It's something we want to escape to. Glamour is Louis Vuitton's "L’Invitation Au Voyage" ads, featuring model Arizona Muse, who in one ad dashes through the Louvre in Paris and hops aboard a hot air balloon, and in a subsequent ad lands her balloon in Venice just in time for an elegant fancy dress ball hosted by a regal David Bowie.

Horror is anti-glamour. It's something we seek to escape from, whether it's something as subtle as a prickling sensation of foreboding or something as blatant as a machete-swinging maniac.

When horror becomes glamorous, it ceases to be horror. The "Twilight" films are soap opera fantasies that happen to involve vampires and werewolves. They're someone's wish fulfillment.

The exceptions to the rule are the horror films of the early 1930s, especially those produced by Universal Pictures. And it is the paradoxical glamour of the these early, archetypal horror films that helps explain why they are so enduring, long after they lost their ability to startle jaded audiences.

As some of the first horror pictures of the sound era, "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" set a benchmark other filmmakers have rarely approached. In terms of cultural impact, only Britain's Hammer Films comes close to equaling what Universal and its early imitators accomplished 80 years ago. And Hammer went about it in an altogether different way, emphasizing shocks and "Kensington Gore" over mood and atmosphere. When film historians speak of "Hammer glamour," they refer to the studio's curvaceous leading ladies, with their pin-up looks and plunging necklines, rather than to the films themselves. It's an altogether different type of glamour.

What makes the horror films of the 1930s different is just that: They're of the 1930s.

In her paradigm-setting 2013 book "The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion," Bloomberg View columnist and former Reason magazine editor Virginia Postrel zeroes in on the '30s as the decade of glamour.

Postrel writes that the films of the '30s created a visual shorthand for glamour that extends across the decades to the present day. They introduced Middle America to "the high-contrast surfaces and streamlined forms of American art deco, the satin gowns and dramatically lit portraits of screen goddesses, the distant shots of the New York skyline, the sleek nightclubs and penthouse apartments, the languorous cigarette smoke."

Universal's horror films transport Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, creatures of Victorian times and earlier, to what was then the present day, or a vague facsimile. Unmoored from their history, they become intruders in a chrome-plated world that evokes an imagined and desired future.

Bela Lugosi, left, and Helen Chandler in 1931's "Dracula."
The title credits of Tod Browning's "Dracula" (1931) play over a stylized bat symbol that's all art deco curves and none of the sharp, Gothic angles you'd expect. The contemporary setting liberates the women from their Victorian layers and corsets, allowing them to float freely inside elegant gowns that barely cling to their shoulders. Even Bela Lugosi's Dracula manages to blend in with style, looking equally at ease in a top hat and tails as he does in a cape. Only his accent gives him away.

In Karl Freund's "The Mummy" (1932), modern Cairo blends old and new into a glamorously exotic locale, where the city's 20th century lights pinprick the skyline beneath the pyramids. And absorbing the view from her balcony is Zita Johann's Helen, named for antiquity's most beautiful woman yet wearing a modern dress and smoking a cigarette. Like all 1930s glamour, Helen is modern yet timeless.

The real menace of the early Universal monsters is the threat they bring to the glamorous world to which we'd like to escape. That is what makes them so compelling to this day.

But the 1930s didn't last, and neither did horror's glamour. "The Wolf Man" (1941), with its doomed, aristocratic hero taking the blue collar form of Lon Chaney Jr., was the beginning of the end.

Abbott and Costello lay just ahead.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Culture Shock 10.23.14: 'The Great Pumpkin' is a test of faith

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" may be the first and most celebrated "Peanuts" TV special, but "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is the best by almost any standard.

The animation is smoother, the writing and acting are more assured, and the entire production seems more fully formed, which it is, given that CBS wasn't entirely sold on "A Charlie Brown Christmas" until after it aired and the ratings came in. In particular, CBS wasn't sold on using children as voice actors or the jazz score by West Coast pianist Vince Guaraldi and his trio. But the special's ratings triumph led the network to go all in on two "Peanuts" specials the following year: the seldom-aired "Charlie Brown's All-Stars" and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."

"The Great Pumpkin" has more than snazzier production values going for it. It better captures the melancholy spirit of the comic strip. Of all the "Charlie Brown" specials in the world, it's the Charlie Browniest.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas," which first aired in 1965, is "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz at his most hopeful. Linus gives a soliloquy on the true meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown gives a ragged little Christmas tree a chance, and at the end even Lucy gives Charlie Brown a break, admitting he did pick a good tree after all. Everyone sings carols, and the special fades out with a happy ending — a merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. God bless us, every one.

Premiering Oct. 26, 1966, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is Schulz at his most cynical. The Christmas special reaffirms his faith, but the Halloween special tears it back down. It isn't just happenstance that Linus, for once, ends up with his hopes dashed.

Charlie Brown is the receptacle of all of Schulz's insecurities, but Linus is his philosophical mouthpiece. "It's the Great Pumpkin" shows Schulz is keenly aware Linus can, at times, be more than a little overbearing.

Linus, who proselytized for Christmas a year earlier, is a prophet for the Great Pumpkin, who according to official doctrine, rises each year from the most sincere pumpkin patch and flies through the air with toys for all the good little children. Linus has little regard for the Great Pumpkin's more high-profile rival, "that fellow with the red suit and white beard who goes, 'Ho, ho, ho!' " He leaves Charlie Brown to sigh about how they are separated by "denominational differences."

Halloween becomes a test of faith for both Linus and Charlie Brown.

Linus, naturally, never sees the Great Pumpkin. But rather than question the object of his faith, he blames a momentary lapse. Even a little slip, he says, can cause the Great Pumpkin to pass you by.

The Great Pumpkin is a jealous squash, and he leaves Linus literally out in the cold.

Charlie Brown fares even worse. He first puts his faith in Lucy (and a signed document) when he goes to kick the football she so temptingly holds for him. And once again, Charlie Brown is done in, this time not just by his faith in humanity, but by a legal technicality: the document wasn't notarized.

Yet the worst is to come. Charlie Brown goes trick-or-treating Halloween night and ends up with nothing but a bag of rocks. It's probably the funniest joke in all the "Peanuts" specials, yet it's also the most mean-spirited. We thought it was just his fellow kids who gave Charlie Brown a hard time, but no. Apparently the whole town hates him.

Audiences, however, still love the blockhead, and they love to see him miserable. ABC's Oct. 15 broadcast of "It's the Great Pumpkin" scored 6.3 million viewers and a 2.1 rating among adults 18-49, according to Entertainment Weekly, topping most of the other network shows that aired that night.

In all the gloom and doom of "The Great Pumpkin," one ray of hope cuts the darkness. Schulz eases up just long enough for Lucy to go outside in the early morning and bring her shivering brother to bed.

Sisterly love doesn't conquer all, but if even Lucy has a heart, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.

Subsequent "Peanuts" specials don't go as dark, and by 1973's "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," Schulz is doing happy endings again. Staring into the abyss once a year is enough.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Culture Shock 10.16.14: Cosplay isn't a sign of stagnation

Thinkstock photo
I've never been one for cosplay. Putting together a good costume takes a lot of time and money, to say nothing of sewing skills I'm sadly lacking, as my high school home economics teacher would attest.

The most dressed up I ever get for comic book or sci-fi conventions is a T-shirt emblazoned with some obscure pop-culture reference. But I've always envied people who have the time, patience and know-how to pull off a really great costume. Little did I suspect they were an indicator of economic stagnation and poor job prospects. Who'd a thunk it? So, imagine my surprise when I read an article at The Week headlined "Why the rise of cosplay is a bad sign for the U.S. economy."

The author, James Pethokoukis, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, makes a bold and, it seems to me, wrongheaded claim. It goes like this: More and more Americans, especially millennials, are into cosplay, short for "costume play." And this is because dressing up as fantasy characters is an escape from dead-end jobs and economic malaise.

But maybe I should let Pethokoukis speak for himself: "When you're disillusioned with the reality of your early adult life, dressing up like Doctor Who starts looking better and better."

Pethokoukis argues by way of analogy, noting that Japan has lots of young cosplayers, lots of underemployed young people and an economy that's been no better than anemic for the past 20 years. This, I gather, adds up to something, but I have no idea what.

Despite the nagging feeling there must be something more to what Pethokoukis is saying, if there is I can't find it. Taken as is, Pethokoukis' argument is so wrong I barely know where to begin, but I'll start with dollars and cents.

Cosplaying isn't for the poor of spirit or bank account. It costs a lot of money to make a good costume. Some cosplayers spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on their wardrobes. Some wear multiple costumes during the course of a weekend convention. Some even call upon the services of professional makeup artists. And none of that accounts for travel and hotel costs. Attending a sci-fi or comic convention isn't cheap, whether you're in costume or not.

Pethokoukis knows this and even refers to the "big bucks" cosplayers invest in their costumes.

Now maybe he assumes they all live with and sponge off their parents to supplement whatever money they make from their menial jobs. Regardless, it takes a wealthy society to be able to afford such pastimes. Cosplay isn't a sign of economic trouble, but a reminder of how rich we are, even after the Great Recession. But the problems with his argument don't end there.

It's hard to calculate how many cosplayers there are in the U.S., but we can at least get an idea of attendance at the conventions cosplayers frequent. Attendance at one of the largest, San Diego's Comic-Con International, has been growing for years, since well before the Great Recession. The fastest growth was from 2001 to 2005, when attendance doubled and reached 100,000 for the first time. Since the recession, attendance has hovered between 125,000 and just over 130,000.

That doesn't look like a post-recession flight from reality to me. It looks more like a trend line flatting out. But enough foreplay. Time to get to the crux of Pethokoukis' article, such as it is.

Though unstated, Pethokoukis makes a common but unwarranted assumption: that there is something special about cosplay. But the fact is, people escape mundane reality in lots of ways, and dressing up like fantasy characters is just one of them, albeit the one that's most easily ridiculed.

What if we applied the same illogic to jock pastimes that Pethokoukis applies to geek pastimes? Maybe we should be looking at the increasing popularity of fantasy football and baseball? Maybe the real indicators of a lousy economy are guys who turn their dens into shrines to their favorite college or pro football teams? Yes, these are expensive hobbies, too, but why let that stop us?

If Pethokoukis' argument describes reality, then cosplaying millennials aren't the only ones trying to escape it. Fortunately, they aren't the ones I think have taken a flight from reality.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Culture Shock 10.09.14: It's the end of Saturday morning as we knew it

Print advertisement for NBC's 1983 Saturday morning cartoon lineup. It was the
debut season for "Mr. T" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks," while "Thundarr the
Barbarian" moved to NBC from ABC, where it had aired the previous two seasons.
For as long as I can remember, "children's advocates" have hated children's television.

They always said the same thing: Children's television was too violent, too dumb and too commercial. And because kids watched "too much" of it, it was, by implication, too entertaining.

Not anymore. Mark your calendar, for this is a date that shall live in infamy: Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014, was the first Saturday since the 1960s when there were no Saturday morning cartoons on broadcast network television. For those of us who were kids during the Golden Age of Saturday morning cartoons, in the 1970s and '80s, it's Saturday mourning in America.

At last, the self-appointed children's advocates have slain their dragon.

In place of the animated cartoons that Generation X and the millennials grew up with are a bunch of live-action "educational and informational" programs. They're designated by the little "E/I" logo on the screen, which means the broadcaster is counting every second of them toward its government-mandated quota of E/I programming. It doesn't matter if anyone watches; it just matters that it's there and that it's "quality," as defined by the children's advocates.

Kids, meanwhile, have responded just as you'd expect. Those who can have flocked to cable TV and the children's section of Netflix, both of which operate blessedly free of the dictates of the Federal Communications Commission, for the most part. For now, anyway.

How did this happen? How did children wake up in a world with no Saturday morning cartoons?

It started 24 years ago when Congress passed the Children's Television Act of 1990. The act was the culmination of 20 years of agitation by activist groups such as Action for Children's Television, founded by Peggy Charren, who became the go-to talking head whenever the national news media needed someone to pontificate about kiddie TV, because why would you ever ask a kid?

The Children's Television Act limited advertising during both cable and broadcast children's programming and mandated that broadcasters devote a set amount of airtime each week to E/I shows.

The act's first victims were the cartoons that aired after school each weekday. The ad restrictions made them less profitable, which was the kiss of death in the highly competitive broadcast syndication market. Stations quickly dropped cartoons and added more talk shows and TV judges. Indirectly, we have the CTA to blame for Judge Judy and her ilk.

The CTA's full impact didn't hit Saturday mornings until later, as the FCC "clarified" the act and spelled out exactly what "educational and informational" meant, always tightening the screws.

NBC was the first to fall. The proud peacock that once had aired "The Smurfs" and "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" farmed out its Saturday morning airtime to corporate sibling NatGeo.

Print advertisement for CBS's 1982 Saturday morning cartoon lineup.
CBS and ABC were next, followed by Fox. When the end came, only The CW was still airing cartoons, all of them Japanese imports. It was a painful, lingering death. Saturdays deserved better.

The image of children getting out of bed at the crack of dawn to watch Saturday morning cartoons along with a sugary cereal chaser has become a cliché. But it's no less true. My generation looked ahead to Saturday mornings — filled with Superfriends and Snorks — as if each were a mini Christmas. The networks trumpeted their new Saturday morning lineups each fall with preview specials in prime time. It was a big freaking deal.

Sure, kids still have Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and the Disney channels, but Saturday morning's passing matters. Maybe those old cartoons weren't "educational" in the approved sense, but they were a springboard for our imaginations. More than that sugary cereal, those cartoons fueled us, not just for the rest of the day but for life.

"Scooby-Doo," for one, taught us real-life lessons. We learned not to worry about scary-looking ghosts, because the odds were those ghosts were just con men trying to pull a fast one.

With cartoons teaching lessons like that, it's no wonder Congress was so eager to replace them with FCC-approved boredom.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Culture Shock 10.02.14: Elvira buries herself in her 'Coffin Collection'

Trigger warning: Some of the puns and alliterations in this column are particularly pungent and may produce prolonged paralysis. The author regrets nothing.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, on the sofa of her 2010-11 series.
This time every year, the historic Knott's Berry Farm theme park in Buena Park, California, undergoes a transformation, becoming Knott's Scary Farm. It's one of the nation's most storied haunted attractions.

Returning to Knott's Scary Farm's 1,800-seat Charles M. Schultz Theatre this year "by overwhelming demand," is that horror hostess with the mostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. It turns out you can't keep a good ghoul down. So, Elvira is dying on stage twice nightly in a Vegas-style variety show. That's about the only way nowadays you can catch her live — or even dead.

Elvira's alter ego, Cassandra Peterson, retired a while back from doing the convention circuit in character. And who can blame her? She's been donning her black, bouffant wig and pouring herself into that low-cut Morticia Addams dress for more than 30 years.

Who could have guessed Elvira would become a long-term gig or that the character, which Peterson created for local Los Angeles television, would go national, even international, like pancakes?

Elvira's original "Movie Macabre" show aired from 1981 to 1986 and featured Peterson's undead Valley girl persona hosting horrible horror flicks ranging from "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" to "Night of the Zombies." From there, Elvira branched out into merchandising, comic books, two feature films (1988's "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark" and 2001's "Elvira's Haunted Hills") and a seasonal Coors Light ad campaign. You know you've hit the big time when you're shilling for the Silver Bullet.

More than almost any other horror host, Elvira has endured. But it was still a pleasant surprise when she returned to television for the 2010-11 season with a resurrected "Elvira's Movie Macabre."

Now all 26 episodes of Elvira's latest spell (including several never aired) are in one box set, "Elvira's Movie Macabre: The Coffin Collection," from Entertainment One.

At the height of her notoriety, Elvira became the
four-color hostess of DC Comics' "House of Mystery."
At a suggested retail price of $99.98, the 13-disc set isn't cheap, but the movies are. (If you're cheap, a few episodes are available at Elvira sticks with films that have fallen into the public domain. That used to happen when a production company went bankrupt and nobody renewed the copyright, or nobody bothered in the first place. Thus, Elvira serves up a bewitching buffet that includes classics such as "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" and "Night of the Living Dead," and not-so-classics such as "Attack of the Giant Leeches" and director William "One Shot" Beaudine's "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter." (Note: "Frankenstein's Daughter" is not to be confused with "Lady Frankenstein," which is also included in this set. #TheMoreYouKnow)

But don't think there's no star power here. The Coffin Collection conjures up a lot of name actors with bills to pay, including Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joanna Lumley, Dean Stockwell, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Jack Nicholson and Joseph Cotton.

Still, let's not kid ourselves here. The real star attraction is Elvira, draped across her red velvet sofa and letting it all hang out. Well, not all. This is a show that ran in broadcast syndication. This isn't HBO's "Same Old Gnomes," or whatever. For that matter, some of the movies are censored, too, to meet broadcast standards. (I'll pause while we all laugh at the idea of broadcast TV having standards.)

Under normal circumstances, I don't approve of watching movies that have been chopped up for TV, but in this case some of the alterations, such as the fogged-out "naughty bits" in "Lady Frankenstein," are entertaining on their own merits. And so is Elvira.

With skills honed as part of LA's Groundlings comedy troupe, Peterson makes even the lamest jokes get up and walk. Sure, it's kind of a slow, shambling, zombie-like walk, but fast zombies are an abomination, and don't you forget it!

Inviting a horror host into your living room is like serving comfort food to your brain, and Elvira is the chocolate-covered cheesecake of horror hosts.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Culture Shock 09.25.14: Scarlett Johansson is a different black widow

It's Cold War paranoia distilled into one feverish scene: Actor Kevin McCarthy running through the streets — stopping traffic, banging on windows, yelling at anyone who will listen, as well as those who won't.

"They're not human! They're here already! You're next!"

But no one ever listens, not until it's too late. And it's always too late.

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956) appeared at the height of the Red Scare, with aliens as stand-ins for communist infiltrators. But the fear of being subverted and replaced by outsiders is universal. Few political issues ignite passions like immigration does, because immigration strikes at things more primal than mere pocketbook concerns. People fear waking up to find they're suddenly in a culture not their own. Every new ethnic restaurant becomes a beachhead for the "invasion."

No wonder "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" has spawned three remakes so far: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978), "Body Snatchers" (1993) and "The Invasion" (2007). And that's not counting thematically similar movies, such as 1994's "The Puppet Masters," based on Robert A. Heinlein's 1951 novel, or 1998's "The Faculty."

With "Under the Skin," now on Blu-ray and DVD, director Jonathan Glazer ("Sexy Beast") flips the invasion narrative on its head, telling it from the invader's viewpoint.

The invader is question is Scarlett Johansson, taking time out from playing the Marvel franchise's Black Widow, but still acting out the black widow role by luring unwary young men to their doom.

She's the spearhead of what seems to be an alien invasion, although we're never entirely sure. "Under the Skin" is not exactly upfront about its intentions, rather like what you'd expect of a stealth operation.

Johansson's femme fatale tools around Scotland in a minivan, giving her as unthreatening a cover as one can imagine. She goes from the streets of Glasgow to the cloud-covered, picture postcard Highlands, pretending to be lost and asking young, lonely-seeming men for directions. She strikes up conversations, flatters her would-be rescuers, and so it goes. How many red-blooded, heterosexual males can resist an invitation from a woman who looks like Scarlett Johansson?

Back at her place, these men enter a world that can appropriately be called alien. Then they disappear, never to be seen again — not as themselves, anyway. As the title implies, it's what's under the skin that counts.

McCarthy's voice echoes across the decades: "They're here already! You're next!"

Soon enough, Johansson is back on the road, looking for the next lonely guy.

Without leaving her front seat, Scarlett has a good view of humanity: people walking, people in traffic, men, women, children, families. She sees people living, loving and laughing. She sees us at our best and our worst. One wonders what she was told to expect, if anything.

Are we people to her or cattle? Or are we as much a mystery to her as she is to us?

Glazer makes "Under the Skin" deliberately disorienting, aided and abetted by the menacing drone of Mica Levi's ambient score. When Johansson's alien crosses into our world or her victims cross into hers, there is a sense that they've crossed barriers not meant to be breached.

Neither side is hospitable to inhabitants of the other.

It's not an optimistic assessment, whether you think of it in terms of immigrants getting along with natives, men getting along with women, or simply people getting along with one another.

Glazer entrusts his film to Johansson, and she rewards him with a performance that's subtle and beguiling. This is Johansson at her best.

Her performance is as enigmatic as the movie. We're not sure what "Under the Skin" is all about. As in life, we're left to make up our own meaning.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Culture Shock 09.18.14: Hipster vampires make immortality a drag

At first it seems as though we're meant to identify with Adam and Eve, the couple at the center of Jim Jarmusch's latest film, "Only Lovers Left Alive," new to DVD and Blu-ray.

If nothing else, we're to envy their glamorous lifestyle. They're beautiful, civilized and have impeccable taste. They've traveled the world, met famous people and done things the rest of us can only dream of. And their love is eternal.

Adam and Eve, you see, are vampires.

Many movies tell us immortality is boring, but Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive" is the first to make the audience really experience it. Putting up with Adam and Eve, played by Tom Hiddleston ("Thor") and Tilda Swinton ("Snowpiercer"), is enough to test anyone's patience.

The movies have given us goth vampires and punk vampires. They've even — heaven help us — given us WASP vampires. But Adam and Eve may be the first hipster vampires.

Eve is the literary type. When packing for a trip, she fills her luggage with a little light reading, such as the late David Foster Wallace's critically lauded doorstop, "Infinite Jest."

Adam is a musician, and a good one, too, with a growing following on the underground music scene, nurtured by his reclusiveness and refusal to perform live. Not that he wants to be popular. Far from it. Adam regards popularity as a "drag." He was a fan of himself before he was cool.

He'd much rather hole up in his home, surrounded by analog technology and vintage recordings of musicians you've probably never heard of.

Adam is also a fan of scientists, which gives him cause to vent about how humanity keeps ignoring or persecuting them. He grumbles that people still haven't come to grips with Charles Darwin, and he powers his off-the-grid house, located in an especially bleak part of bleakest Detroit, with one of Nikola Tesla's "free energy" generators. Just when you think our hipster vampire can't be any more cliché, he dabbles in steampunk.

Both Adam and Eve have plenty of money, although neither seems to have a way of earning it. Maybe they have rich vampire parents somewhere? But money means nothing to them, except when it buys vintage musical instruments or the best all-natural, free-range, organically farmed, preservative-free blood. Eve's connection for the "good stuff" is Elizabethan playwright-turned-vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who claims to have written the works attributed to Shakespeare, although I'm not sure he's trustworthy. Adam's source is a Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), if that is his real name.

Stalking victims and sucking them dry is played out. After all, you don't know where they've been or what they've been eating.

Eva and Adam, we're told, are passionately in love, but passion seems the farthest thing from either of them. What they are is comfortable, like Adam's centuries-old dressing gown.

The film finally livens up when Eve's wild-child sister, Ava (a marvelous Mia Wasikowska), drops in and makes things uncomfortable. Ava is a mess, but she is the only one who sees Adam and Eve for what they are: "condescending snobs."

As far as Adam and Eve are concerned, we're the problem: you, me and the rest of humanity, whom they dismiss as "zombies." It recalls the words of the original hipster, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Adam and Eve read the right books and listen to the right music, always on vinyl. When Ava asks if she can have a download of one of Adam's songs, his contempt is palpable.

Jarmusch fills the screen with pretty pictures, and Swinton and Hiddleston are charismatic enough to command our attention, even if their characters do nothing to deserve it. It's only at the end, the final shot, that we see Jarmusch has played a joke on his lovers, and perhaps, unintentionally, himself.

Driven by hunger and desperation, Adam and Eve revert to the old ways. Their masks of refinement drop, and the vampires are just zombies, too. It's a good punch line, but it's not worth the set-up.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Culture Shock 09.11.14: 'Without Warning' pits alien against Oscar winners

Future Oscar winner Jack Palance and future Oscar winner Martin Landau probably weren't thinking Academy Awards when they agreed to appear in "Without Warning." But I'll take "Without Warning" over "Ordinary People" any day.

Released the same year that "Friday the 13th" kicked the slasher genre into high gear, "Without Warning" wastes no time putting a different spin on the soon-to-be-cliched formula of teenagers venturing into the woods where an unstoppable killer awaits to pick them off one by one.

This time, the killer is not of this Earth.

Greydon Clark directs this pre-"Predator" sci-fi movie about an eggplant-headed alien who comes to Earth to hunt "the most dangerous game." Only instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers, the alien targets Palance, Landau and a young David Caruso (in his first role, unless you count an uncredited bellboy in an episode of "Ryan's Hope," and who does?).

Cult movie label Shout! Factory brings this 1980 drive-in classic to home video with a shiny Blu-ray/DVD combo set that includes interviews with the crew and an audio commentary with the director.

The movie starts with two young couples (including Caruso) heading to the woods for a day of fun and relaxation, probably because it's 1980 and YouTube cat videos haven't been invented yet.

Surprisingly, they think this whole going-to-the-woods thing is a good idea despite the scary warning they get from the creepy taxidermy enthusiast who runs the gas station (Palance) and the foreboding graffiti scrawled on the station's restroom walls.

Technically, that makes the movie's title a lie. Clearly there is a warning. Just because you ignore the warning doesn't mean there isn't one. That's just logic, plain and simple.

Anyway, by the time our young victims get to the crystal-clear lake in the middle of the woods, our extraterrestrial Elmer Fudd has already declared hunting season on Golden Age TV actors.

Cameron Mitchell ("The High Chaparral") plays a hunter, Darby Hinton (Daniel Boone's son on "Daniel Boone") plays his son, and Larry Storch ("F Troop") plays the world's worst scoutmaster.

Maybe Clark has a fetish for typecasting actors based on their most famous roles.

Ralph Meeker, who portrayed Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich's brilliant 1955 film noir "Kiss Me Deadly," has a small role as a bar patron.

Classic television informs more than just Clark's casting choices. The alien (Kevin Hall), looks like he just walked in from the set of "The Outer Limits." And speaking of typecasting, Hall went on to portray the extraterrestrial big game hunters in "Predator" and "Predator 2."

The alien's preferred method of attack it to throw small, star-shaped aliens — blood-sucking little critters that vaguely resemble the face-huggers from "Alien" — at his intended victims. This makes for some pretty cool and squishy kill scenes.

But the real stars of the show are Landau and Palance. Both still more than a decade away from their Oscar triumphs, these old pros can chew scenery with the best of them, and they do.

Landau plays a Vietnam vet who came back from the war a little funny in the head. He's been convinced aliens are invading for years, so when they actually are, no one believes him. Not that they would have believed him anyway, what with him being funny in the head.

Meanwhile, Palance's trophy-hunter character naturally is the first to realize what the alien's game is and think up a way to fight back. Palance delivers the gasping, wheezing, snarling performance that always made him a terrifying bad guy and, on rare occasions, an even more terrifying hero.

Clark helmed two movies that ended up targets of a good-natured "Mystery Science Theater 3000" ribbing: "Angels Revenge" (aka "Angels' Brigade") and the Joe Don Baker vehicle "Final Justice." But "Without Warning" — like some other Clark movies, such as "Satan's Cheerleaders" and the arcade-culture sex comedy "Joysticks" — is plenty of fun without anyone talking over it.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Culture Shock 09.04.14: Every duck has his day

After 1986's "Howard the Duck," the film's titular star was about the last character anyone expected to see return to the big screen. "Howard the Duck" was the flop that launched 1,000 turkey puns.

Yet there he was: Howard the Duck, still trapped in a world he never made.

If, like me, you tortured your bladder and stuck around through the end credits of "Guardians of the Galaxy," you were rewarded with a brief cameo appearance by Marvel Comics' most oddball character this side of Fin Fang Foom.

In the '86 movie, Howard was portrayed by actor Ed Gale wearing an unconvincing duck costume, plus seven other actors credited with providing Howard's voice (Chip Zien) and otherwise bringing the anthropomorphized fowl to some semblance of life. In "Guardians" Howard is a far more realistic CGI creation voiced by an uncredited Seth Green ("Family Guy"), who coincidentally voiced Rocket Raccoon in the "Avengers Assemble" animated series.

It was just a few seconds of screen time, but Howard the Duck can now lay claim to appearing in the year's No. 1 movie. Heading into the Labor Day weekend, "Guardians of the Galaxy" had grossed $274.6 million in North America, moving it ahead of "Captain America: The Winter Solder" and "The Lego Movie." OK, all that green has a lot more to do with the talking raccoon and the dancing tree than it does the wisecracking waterfowl, but still. For Howard, it's quite a comeback.

Before Jar Jar Binks, "Howard the Duck" was pretty much universally regarded as George Lucas' greatest failure. And Lucas just produced the movie. It wasn't as if he'd written and directed it.

Even today, the '86 "Howard the Duck" film is more Lucas' albatross than Marvel's.

At a showing of "Guardians of the Galaxy," I overheard someone speculate that Howard's post-credit cameo had come about because Disney owns both Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm. He didn't know Howard is a Marvel character, although one who has appeared only sporadically since his comic book's original 31-issue run from 1976 to 1979.

Howard was created by the late Steve Gerber, who brought the counterculture sensibilities of underground comics into the Marvel mainstream, and artist Val Mayerik. But it was the late Gene Colan who drew most of the "Howard the Duck" series, and he was the perfect complement to Gerber.

Gerber's stories were satirical with a tendency toward absurdism. But Colan kept Howard grounded with gritty, street-level illustrations. No matter how weird Howard's adventures were, you never forgot he was just a poor, schlubby duck out of water who happened to fall into a world run by "hairless apes." Even worse, he'd landed in Cleveland, and he wasn't getting out any time soon.

"Howard the Duck" was, briefly, something of a breakout hit for Marvel, which tried Howard out in a newspaper strip that ran 16 months and promoted him with a fake 1976 presidential campaign.

Unfortunately, Howard's hard luck extended from the printed page to the real world. Disney didn't like that Howard somewhat resembled Donald Duck, forcing Marvel to tweak Howard's design, including putting pants on him. Now Disney owns Howard, but he still wears pants.

Worse still, Gerber and Marvel clashed over creative control, which led to Marvel kicking Gerber off the book. That was the beginning of Howard's slide into obscurity, broken temporarily only by the Lucas movie, from which Howard is still recovering.

Marvel already has a full slate of films on its schedule, and no one thinks Howard is getting one of his own again anytime soon. Still, Marvel has made the 1976-79 "Howard the Duck" series available again as digital comics, on sale through ComiXology and

Most tellingly, Howard the Duck merchandise is starting to crop up again, spurred by the demand Howard's "Guardians" appearance has generated. First a bobblehead, and then the sky is the limit.

"Guardians" director James Gunn says Howard's cameo is just a bit of fun. It doesn't portend anything. But with the world as screwy as it has ever been, maybe it's time for the duck to again have his day.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Culture Shock 08.28.14: Something borrowed, something 'Who'

Peter Capaldi, left, is the Doctor and Jenna Coleman is Clara in the 2014
season of the BBC's "Doctor Who," airing on BBC America.
"Don't look in that mirror," the Doctor barks while still in the throes of post-regeneration delirium. "It's absolutely furious!"

The only constant in the universe is change, and "Doctor Who" (Saturday nights, BBC America) has seen plenty of that in its 50-plus years. This time, it's a biggie. Matt Smith's manic, absentminded professor is gone, but not forgotten. In his place is a more mature and cantankerous Time Lord portrayed with gusto by 56-year-old Scottish actor Peter Capaldi.

If Capaldi's visage is anything, it's furious. Showrunner Steven Moffat, now in his fourth year at the helm, turns that into an asset. Even Capaldi's eyebrows, which "Doctor Who" fans glimpsed to near universal delight in last year's 50th anniversary special, are potentially lethal weapons.

"They're attack eyebrows," the Doctor says after studying his new face. "You could take bottle tops off with these!"

One thing we know about the new Doctor: He has a gift for dialogue. His one-liners can kill.

The Doctor is always dangerous, but he usually plays the fool, lulling unwary opponents into a false sense of security. "My dear, no one could be as stupid as he seems," a villain once said of Tom Baker's Doctor, the iconic one with the endearingly ridiculous scarf. But Capaldi's Doctor seems ready to dispense with the pretense, and the scarf.

"I've moved on from that," he says. "It'd look stupid."

He's dangerous, and you should bloody well be terrified, especially if you're an old foe such as the Daleks or the Cybermen or, as in the season opener, "rubbish robots from the dawn of time."

But no one is more frightened than the Doctor's current traveling companion, Clara (Jenna Coleman), who is finally coming into her own as a character, even as the Doctor undergoes his most jarring regeneration since the show's classic era. Going from personable to prickly isn't an easy transition, as poor Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor) learned. Although, in all fairness, poor scripts and tacky production during Six's tenure were the far bigger issues.

If anyone can make such a character compelling, it's Capaldi, whose Doctor has already displayed little flourishes reminiscent of Capaldi's wickedly brilliant Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed political enforcer of "In the Loop" and "The Thick of It," only without the swearing.

The combination is something like another TV doctor: Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House. In a preview for Capaldi's second episode, the Doctor even finds himself playing doctor to "a Dalek so damaged it's turned good. Morality as malfunction. How do I resist?"

But back to Capaldi's first outing, "Deep Breath." Moffat slows the pace and allows the story and characters to — forgive the pun — breathe. "Deep Breath" is a character study, a meditation on the nature of identity. That's a deep subject for a character who's had a dozen of them.

"Deep Breath" is structured around an ancient Greek thought experiment. Say your name is Theseus, and say you have a ship. Over time, the ship's planks become worn, and you replace them one by one until one day, finally, you've replaced them all. Is it the same ship you started with? Now say you saved all the worn planks and reassembled them. Now you have two ships. So, which is the true ship of Theseus?

The Greeks came up with many possible answers, and so does "Deep Breath." The Doctor's cyborg foes have rebuilt themselves so many times there's nothing of the originals left. For Clara, the question is whether the new Doctor is still the man she knew.

To ease the transition, Moffat brings back the Doctor's Victorian gang of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax. The Doctor changes, but some things remain the same.

And sometimes one of those old, worn planks washes up ready to set sail again. An older, more temperamental Doctor gallivanting around time and space in a blue box with a schoolteacher who feels out of her depth? That seems familiar.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Culture Shock 08.21.14: Aronofsky's 'Noah' sails Bible's subtext

If he'd stuck to the text, Darren Aronofsky might have gotten a 30-minute short subject out of Noah's ark. So, like other filmmakers, from Cecil B. DeMille to Mel Gibson, he embellished.

If nothing else, it's a daring experiment, and after months to mull it over, I'm still undecided as to whether Aronofsky's "Noah" — now on Blu-ray and DVD — is a success or merely an ambitious failure.

Perhaps the fact I'm still thinking about it answers the question.

Aronofsky takes the story of Noah and uses it to hammer away at a subtext that runs throughout the book of Genesis: Cities are bad news.

From the start, cities in the Bible are a source of evil and violence. The first city, we're told, was built by the first murderer, Cain. Cain also is a "tiller of the earth," and we know from archeology that the agricultural revolution of the Late Stone Age made possible the rise of cities, displacing nomadic shepherds such as Cain's victim, Abel.

A few generations later, the lineage of Cain produces his namesake, Tubal-Cain. The first man credited with forging tools of bronze, Tubal-Cain makes possible the first great armies, based in fortified city-states and armed with bronze weapons. With the Bronze Age comes the first arms race.

Later still, Abraham would leave the city-state Ur and become a wilderness nomad, returning to the old ways, yet always running into trouble whenever he comes upon a city, whether in Egypt or the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah.

Adam and Eve's fall may have brought sin into the world, but it's Cain's sin, the first murder, that drives "Noah." We meet the teenage Noah just before he witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of the aforementioned Tubal-Cain. This is one of Aronofsky's embellishments — using figures who appear in the Bible solely for the purpose of genealogy — but it allows him to kick off the story with what amounts to a reenactment of Cain killing Abel. Noah is descended from Cain's other brother, Seth, so the tale retains the brother-against-brother conflict.

Noah (Russell Crowe) is portrayed as a shepherd, like Abel before him. He, his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons, including rebellious middle son Ham (Logan Lerman), live among the windswept hills, far from the temptations of the city, where a battle-scarred Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) rules and all life is cheap.

By "all life" I mean all animal life — people and critters. It's here that Aronofsky is most likely to rub his audience the wrong way. Noah is a devout vegetarian, which kind of makes sense if you think about who you want to captain a boat full of the last breeding pairs on Earth. Tubal-Cain and the other children of Cain, however, obsess over eating meat, which they say keeps them strong and ready for battle. Again, this is Aronofsky compressing all of Genesis into Noah's story: The world before the Fall, the world Noah still represents, was a world without death. But Aronofsky isn't subtle about it.

As for the sin that leads the Creator — the only name "Noah" uses for God — to flood the world and start over, here Aronofsky and the Bible agree, as the only sin Genesis specifically mentions to explain the flood is violence.

"Noah" starts strong, aided by Aronofsky's often quirky choices. Anthony Hopkins hams it up as Methuselah, played as an ancient wizard, and Noah gets help building the ark from rock-encrusted angels who vaguely resemble the golems of medieval Jewish folklore. "Noah" is the Bible as Hollywood fantasy film. But once the rain starts, the movie stops, and we spend what feels like 40 days and nights watching Noah's mental collapse. Savior is too big a job for a mere human.

Noah and Tubal-Cain are both zealots, and Tubal-Cain can twist scripture as well as anyone. As Shakespeare said, "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose."

Aronofsky is neither devil nor angel. He's just a man who made a movie that will make you think. That is its own justification — and just maybe its own reward.