Thursday, February 27, 2014

Culture Shock 02.27.14: 'Witchboard' returns but the chill is gone

The best movie based on a board game is "Clue." The worst is "Battleship." Somewhere in between is "Witchboard," based on the popular Parker Brothers game Ouija, in which players pretend to communicate with the dead.

Think of Ouija as the home version of such television shows as "Crossing Over with John Edward" or "Ghost Hunters." It's a lovely parting gift for the dearly departed.

Some people will believe anything, including that a $19.99 novelty item available at Toys R Us is a good way to carry on conversations with ghosts. In my experience, Ouija boards are mostly a good way for tipsy partygoers to get a shriek out of their more gullible, more inebriated friends.

When it comes to shrieks, Ouija boards are more successful than 1986's "Witchboard," which is disappointingly timid when it comes to delivering the goods. Chalk it up as another movie that was better when I was a teenager. Twenty-eight years later, the chill is gone. But "Witchboard" is back, new to Blu-ray and DVD from Shout Factory as part of the label's deep dive into 1980s horror.

"Witchboard" opens at (where else?) a party, where we meet our three leads. There's Jim (Todd Allen), his girlfriend Linda (Tawny Kitaen, of Whitesnake music video fame and "Celebrity Rehab" infamy) and her ex, Brandon (soap star Stephen Nichols of "Days of Our Lives").

"Jim, His Girlfriend and Her Ex" almost sounds like an Italian sex comedy, or a sitcom set in a pizza parlor, maybe. But I digress.

Jim and Brandon are also former friends, and there's so much simmering resentment in the room you wonder how Brandon got invited to the party in the first place.

That's when Brandon breaks out his Ouija board, because demonstrating one's occult prowess is always a good way to prove that your ex picked the wrong guy. Anyway, Brandon makes contact with the spirit of a 10-year-old boy, which Jim immediately ticks off by asking stupid questions.

Linda, however, is impressed. The next morning she starts fooling around with the Ouija board on her own, which, as it turns out, is something you should never, never do. (Don't board games come with instructions?) Before long, she's exhibiting strange behavior, such as using profanity. As "The Exorcist" taught us, talking dirty is a sure sign of a woman possessed.

It comes down to a race against time. Can Linda's boyfriend and her ex put aside their differences before she ends up the host of an evil spirit? More importantly, why would she date either of these jerks in the first place? (Spoiler: They eventually act less like jerks, but the question stands.)

Writer/director Kevin Tenney hit pay dirt with "Witchboard," which was popular enough to spawn two sequels, one of which he directed. Tenney is currently seeking to finance a remake.

But nostalgic fondness aside, the film has not aged well. It's not suspenseful, the jump scenes barely register and the comic relief falls flat.

The comedy mostly comes from Zarabeth (Kathleen Wilhoite), a psychic whom Brandon enlists to exorcise Linda's apartment. Imagine if Steve Urkel died and was reincarnated as a white woman. That's Zarabeth. After she awakes from her exorcism trance, you expect her to look around the room, see the resulting mess and ask, "Did I do that?" Now that's scary.

Even the unintentional humor doesn't go far. At best, we get to snicker at the '80s hair. There are so many mullets in "Witchboard" you might think you're at a hockey game in Manitoba.

But on to what you really want to know: Does Kitaen take her clothes off? Yes, yes she does, in a shower scene that exists just for that purpose. But if a topless Tawny is what you want, you're better served tracking down a copy of 1984's "Gwendoline," with Kitaen in the titular role. Believe me, in "Gwendoline" she can hardly Kitaen herself.

I apologize for the previous paragraph. I was briefly possessed by the spirit of Gene Shalit.

What do you mean Gene Shalit isn't dead?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Culture Shock 02.20.14: How fan fiction took over entertainment

At this moment, someone is probably writing "Sherlock"
fan fiction, which makes it fan fiction about fan fiction.
As production gears up for the next "Star Wars" film, the first under the Disney banner, experts are combing the vast expanse of "Star Wars" novels, comic books, video games and cartoons. They're deciding what to keep and what to discard.

What survives will be the official "Star Wars" canon — official in the sense it has Disney's OK. The remainder will be out of continuity and taking on, for practical purposes, the same unofficial status as the fan-written stories on the Internet.

Yet the new "Star Wars" trilogy will be fan fiction, too, in the dictionary sense. Disney has handed Lucasfilm's centerpiece to J.J. Abrams, a fan of "Star Wars" since childhood. Many of us Abrams' age have imagined the "Star Wars" sequels we'd like to see. He gets to make his.

It's a fine line between fiction and fan fiction. It's so fine that major entertainment companies have turned an amateur's hobby into a business model. And almost no one lining up for movie tickets or queuing up Netflix gives it a second thought.

Fan fiction has a poor reputation, and anyone who has read much of it knows why. When he was at the website Topless Robot,'s Rob Bricken had a feature called Fan Fiction Friday. It was a weekly mocking of the worst of the worst. He took the column with him to io9, but it didn't last long there. Some things are too awful even for a Gawker Media-owned site.

But amateur-produced fan fiction is just the start. Look at the term "fan fiction" and what it literally means: fiction written by fans. That describes much of our entertainment.

Sherlock Holmes is the perfect example. Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, yet the Great Detective's adventures continue. Fans of the character have come up with their own takes, usually with the blessing of the Doyle estate, which demands only respect and a piece of the action. That has led to Nicholas Meyer's "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" (Holmes meets Sigmund Freud), films that turn Holmes into an action hero, and two television programs that reimagine Sherlock in the present day.

The entertainment giants who stride the present landscape will turn almost any intellectual property into a franchise. They prize name recognition above all else. And long-lived franchises are bound to fall into the hands of people who grew up with them.

Most comics published by Marvel and DC since the 1980s qualify as fan fiction, and that has had a stultifying effect on the art. Marvel Comics wished away Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane Watson because the publisher's then editor-in-chief wanted Spider-Man to remain the young, bachelor Spider-Man he grew up with.

That happens when fans call the shots: Nostalgia beats growth almost every time. Yet if the fan happens to be Alan Moore, then he might write a couple of the best Superman stories ever, which is exactly what Moore did in the 1980s.

Moore made a career of fan fiction. His "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is based on characters from Victorian novels that have fallen into the public domain. And Moore is neither the first nor last to raid Victorian literature. Kim Newman's "Anno Dracula" novels do it.

So, too, does Showtime's upcoming series "Penny Dreadful." The nice thing about public domain characters is you don't need anyone's permission to use them in your fan fiction.

That said, permission is getting easier to come by. has struck deals allowing writers of fanfics set in certain fictional worlds to sell their stories, with the rights-holders getting a cut. Want to write and sell your own "Vampire Diaries" stories? Now you can, if that's your thing.

There's a temptation to point to the rise of fan fiction as a sign of artistic decline or even the death of originality. But fanfic has been around thousands of years. The ancient Greeks may have invented it.

Consider a story that lumps together all your favorite heroes and sends them on a perilous voyage. You might call it fan fiction. The Greeks called it "Jason and the Argonauts."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Culture Shock 02.13.14: 'Lego Movie' fast, fun and deeper than you imagine

Judging by the children who shared the theater with me, "The Lego Movie" is a perfectly entertaining and enthralling hour and 40 minutes.

It's fast-paced, colorful and funny on multiple levels, which should satisfy both kids and their parents. But it's more than a movie. For children, Lego is the hottest toy of the age, inspiring clubs, camps and competitions. For parents, Lego plays to our nostalgia. Lego has been around since 1949, yet it has never been as popular, as omnipresent as it is now.

At first glance, "The Lego Movie" is only a slightly better idea than making a movie out of the game Battleship. Consider me a skeptic won over. The only thing "The Lego Movie" and "Battleship" have in common is Liam Neeson, who voices Bad Cop, a henchman who can spin his head to become Good Cop, providing one of the movie's best running gags.

Just as Lego blocks are what you make of them — the message at the heart of the movie — "The Lego Movie" is what you make of it. Produced by Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures, it's reminiscent of another deeply layered Warner/Village Roadshow production: Lana and Andy Wachowski's "The Matrix," plus a bit of Disney's "Tron."

The difference is "The Lego Movie" knows what "The Matrix," with its highfalutin pseudo-philosophy of raging against the machine, can't dare admit: It's more fun inside the matrix than outside. Live in a world where you can defy gravity and learn kung fu in an instant, or live in the post-apocalypse? Is that even a question? Like Willy Wonka, I'll take the world of pure imagination.

Chris Pratt ("Parks and Recreation") is Emmet, a construction worker. Like any good construction worker, he always follows the blueprints, but he takes that philosophy to the extreme. From breakfast to bedtime, everything he does is according to "the instructions," a kind of self-help manual read and followed by just about all of the Lego people in their shiny, orderly Legoland.

Emmet is more into following the instructions than most, until he spots an unfamiliar person lurking around a Lego debris pile, falls down a hole and unwittingly discovers the Piece of Resistance.

Suddenly, Emmet finds he is the chosen one, prophesied to save the world from Lord Business (Will Ferrell), an evil overlord scheming to eliminate all change from the world.

Lord Business wants everything just so, so that it will be perfect and according to plan. And once it is that way, he intends to keep it that way.

Naturally, a resistance group seeks to stop him, because, ironically, that's the plan in these sorts of movies. There's the beautiful, spunky heroine with the trying-too-hard-to-be-cool name Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). There's the wise, old Merlin/Obi-Wan/Morpheus figure Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). And there's Batman.

Yes, Batman, voiced by a scene-stealing Will Arnett ("Arrested Development"). Only this Batman has a bigger secret than the fact he's also Bruce Wayne, which everyone knows anyway. And it turns out Batman and his fellow DC Comics superheroes aren't the only pop-culture characters who appear, but saying more would ruin one of the film's best and funniest surprises.

It's unusual for a Hollywood product — and movies are products — to admit it's possible for corporate brands to coexist with creativity and spontaneity, much less admit a corporate brand can aid and abet creativity and spontaneity. But ask the kids playing with their Legos. They know it's true.

"The Lego Movie" satirizes bland corporate music and vacuous corporate "self-help" programs, but like Bad Cop and Good Cop, there's another side to the story.

Is "The Lego Movie" a 100-minute commercial? Obviously, but just weeks removed from the Super Bowl, where the commercials were, as usual, more entertaining than the marquee event, why is that a concern? Commercial art has been a thing since before Andy Warhol conned his way into art galleries.

If "The Lego Movie" teaches us anything, it's that commercialism doesn't have to be the bad guy.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Culture Shock 02.06.14: 'Watchmen' remains 'Man of Steel' director's best

Who re-watches "Watchmen"?

Zack Snyder's ambitious adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' landmark graphic novel is now an afterthought. It's lost in the hype that separates Snyder's most recent blockbuster, "Man of Steel," from its pending sequel, unofficially known as "Batman vs. Superman," now delayed until May 2016.

As a filmmaker, Snyder is a perfectly good video game developer. Theaters showing his films could charge an extra $10 if they provided joysticks.

"Man of Steel" contains some good ideas but is structurally and thematically a mess, the story serving merely as a way to get from one overwrought action scene to the next. His adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel "300" turned Miller's already tedious ode to the manly virtues of war and nationalism into a slow-motion blitzkrieg of blood and boasting. "This is Sparta!" No, this is boring.

For the "300" sequel, "300: Rise of an Empire," opening March 7, Snyder turns over the director's chair to Noam Murro. Snyder nevertheless has a hand in the screenplay, and audiences will likely not notice any difference.

Yet in the midst of this, Snyder made what remains his best film, the now largely overlooked and underrated superhero epic "Watchmen."

That's not exactly praise. "Watchmen" works while Snyder's other films don't because there is so little of Snyder in the finished result. Snyder's slavish devotion to the source material and overly literal approach to his adaptation turn Moore and Gibbons into the movie's de facto directors.

Despite the cinematic qualities of Gibbon's art and layouts, "Watchmen" is unfilmable in any strict sense, but its central murder mystery and the grandiose plot behind it are straightforward enough. So, Snyder doesn't so much adapt them as simply transfer them to the screen, using the graphic novel as his storyboard. He is almost the 21st century equivalent of a medieval scribe, painstakingly copying an earlier manuscript to the best of his ability, mistakes and all, because the writing itself is considered sacred.

"Almost," however, is the key. For better and for worse, some of Snyder's own sensibilities still manage to slip through, no matter how worshipful he tries to be.

"Watchmen" is already a graphic, graphic novel, but its violence is never gratuitous. That isn't enough, however, for the blood-soaked director of "300." During Rorschach's prison escape, Snyder ramps up the blood, broken bones and dismemberments. There's no real purpose to it; he does it because he can.

Other times, Snyder seems to succeed despite himself. He sets the love scene between Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and not the late Jeff Buckley's desperately sincere cover, which has become nearly ubiquitous in TV dramas, but Cohen's syrupy original. The lyrics, including a verse about the depowering of Samson at the scissor-wielding hands of Delilah, are in contrast to the onscreen action, which sees Nite Owl overcoming his impotence after resuming his costumed identity. Taken in context, Snyder seems to be going for sincerity, but Cohen's lounge act turns the whole thing into parody, which is closer to what Moore had in mind in the first place.

But his biggest misstep is when he alters Ozymandias' master plan. Moore meant it to be silly, borrowing the scheme from an episode of "The Outer Limits." When Moore has Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) say, "I'm not a Republic serial villain," it's ironic because that's exactly what Ozymandias is. Snyder, ever literal, doesn't get the joke.

Fortunately, Snyder's deviations from the graphic novel are few. Despite Snyder's name in the credits, "Watchmen" isn't really his movie. That's why it's the best Zack Snyder film, and the one most demanding repeat viewings. That is the joke.