Thursday, July 31, 2014

Culture Shock 07.31.14: Wonder Woman plays hard to get

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in "Batman V. Superman:
Dawn of Justice."
For some inexplicable reason, Wonder Woman is a hard sell.

A movie that features a talking raccoon and Vin Diesel portraying a tree? Piece of cake. It's called "Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy," and it opens Friday at a theater near you. But a movie starring an iconic character known the world over? Yeah, I don't know about that. That's a tough nut to crack.

Superman has his own movies. Batman has his own movies. Even Iron Man, who was second-tier at best until Marvel Entertainment took a gamble on Robert Downey Jr., has his own movies.

But Wonder Woman? Too risky. So, Warner Bros. is giving Wonder Woman her big-screen debut as a supporting character in "Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice," currently scheduled for release May 6, 2016, depending on who blinks first, WB or Disney. (Disney has staked out the same date for Marvel's third "Captain America" installment. If I were Warner, I'd blink.)

Gal Gadot (of the "Fast & Furious" franchise) won the role, and the first image of Gadot in her Wonder Woman getup debuted this past weekend at Comic-Con in San Diego.

With all the color leached from her costume and a sword in her hand, this is a Wonder Woman who looks more like Xena, Warrior Princess than she does Wonder Woman. Too bad she arrives 15 years too late for Lucy Lawless to play the part.

Is it really so difficult to give us a Wonder Woman who looks and behaves like Wonder Woman? Does she have to look like she just stumbled in from the set of "300"? Given "300" director Zack Snyder is also directing "Batman V. Superman," that's probably a yes. But bringing Wonder Woman to life is something that has baffled Warner Bros. executives for years. They managed to drop the ball even when they had a Joss Whedon script.

The all-around cluelessness when it comes to Wonder Woman extends all the way down WB's corporate pyramid to DC Comics. Apart from William Moulton Marston (her creator) and George Perez (who revamped her in the 1980s), no one seems to have an inkling how to handle Wonder Woman. Recent portrayals in print depict her as a fierce Amazon warrior, which is clearly the direction Snyder's version is headed, too.

This Wonder Woman is more soldier than superhero. Unlike Superman and Batman, she has no rule against killing. It's all far removed from the Wonder Woman most of us grew up with.

If any character should have a moral code prohibiting the taking of human life, it's Wonder Woman. It makes more sense for her than it does even for Superman and Batman.

Although raised among Amazons, Wonder Woman's mission to "Man's World" — her whole reason for being Wonder Woman — is to embody a message of peace. That's explicit from her earliest stories in the 1940s on through most of the '80s. It's one reason why, through most of her comic book adventures, the only "weapon" Wonder Woman carries is her golden Lasso of Truth, which isn't a weapon at all.

I don't think anyone expects Wonder Woman to go back to her roots entirely. And no one — almost no one, anyway — suggests Wonder Woman go back to Marston's risque obsessions with spankings and female supremacy. It's a much simpler request: that Wonder Woman go back to being an optimistic, inspirational figure.

Wonder Woman left her home on Paradise Island, giving up her Amazon sisters and her immortality, to be an example of hope and peace in a war-torn world.

That was relevant during World War II, and it remains relevant today.

But if DC Comics can't figure Wonder Woman out, and if Warner Bros. can't figure her out, maybe it's just as well she isn't starring in a movie of her own. Do audiences more familiar with the heroic icon than the blood-soaked warrior want Warner's dark Wonder Woman? A Wonder Woman movie like that might just flop. (Or not. Who can figure out audiences, anyway?) And Wonder Woman would get the blame, even though the character onscreen wasn't really Wonder Woman.

And the naysayers would say, "See? I told you Wonder Woman was a hard sell."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Culture Shock 07.24.14: Love claims its '10th Victim'

Early in "The 10th Victim," we see a person gunned down in broad daylight. The shooter, caught red-handed, gets only a parking ticket. Murder may be legal, but mind where you leave your car.

Long before "The Purge" and its sequel slapped audiences with heavy-handed political allegory, director Elio Petri applied a lighter touch in his delightful 1965 satire "The 10th Victim," based on a story by science fiction writer Robert Sheckley and starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress.

"The 10th Victim" is available on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as on video on demand from Amazon.

In the near future, psychopaths have a legal outlet for their violent tendencies. That outlet is the Big Hunt, a globe-spanning contest pitting some of the world's most dangerous people against one another in a game of kill or be killed. At stake are the thrill of the hunt and cash prizes. But, alas, there are no parting gifts, not even a home version of the game.

The object is to survive 10 hunts, half as hunter and half as hunted. The hunters know all about their intended victims, but the victims know nothing about who is after them. They must be on constant alert if they hope to survive. And if either hunter or hunted kills an innocent person by mistake, that's an automatic 30 years in prison.

There are other rules, too. In Italy there's no hunting in churches, restaurants, hospitals or orphanages. For veteran hunter Caroline Meredith (Andress) those rules are just a nuisance.

"In America we don't have such restrictions," she says.

Only 15 players have survived 10 hunts, and Caroline is looking to become the 16th. Her target is Italian contestant Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni).

All that remains is for Caroline to lure Marcello to his doom, which, naturally, is more complicated than it seems. But if all goes according to plan, their destination is Rome's Temple of Venus, where Caroline's final kill — if she's successful — is to be broadcast on live television, sponsored by Ming Tea.

"Ming Tea makes better lovers!" as their slogan goes, and all is fair in love and you know what.

Caroline is a killer with few qualms about what she does, but Marcello is by turns fatalistic, morose and neurotic, although he prefers to think of himself as a romantic.

Still, when the penniless Marcello, who plays the Big Hunt for the money, begins to suspect that not only is Caroline his hunter but that she has a commercial endorsement, he arranges an endorsement deal of his own. It is a diabolically good idea, after all.

"The 10th Victim" has more in its sights than just contemporary society's blasé attitude toward violence. The elderly are shipped off to the Center for the Aged so they won't get in the way of everyone else's fun. And the only books anyone reads are comic books. Vintage titles like "The Phantom" are "the classics."

At the height of 1960s youth culture, "The 10th Victim" stands athwart history and tells those noisy kids to get off its lawn. There's more to life than kids' stuff.

Forty years later, hardly anyone reads comic books. But just about the only movies anyone sees are based on comic book characters. And like those superhero movies, "The 10th Victim" is about a timeless battle. Not good vs. evil, though, but the battle of the sexes.

It's Marcello vs. Caroline or, if you prefer, Marcello vs. Ursula.

Mastroianni, as he did on several other occasions, including Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," portrays a character who shares his name, blurring the line between character and actor.

The same goes for Andress, who first achieved fame as the original Bond girl. The sex goddess who arose from the surf in "Dr. No" is as strong a metaphor for the love goddess Venus as you're likely to see. No wonder their showdown is destined for the Temple of Venus. Anywhere else would be sacrilegious — and would ruin the joke.

In the end, the line between love and death is no clearer than the line between Marcello and Marcello, or between Venus and Venus.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Culture Shock 07.17.14: 'Death Spa' membership costs an arm and a leg

Some of you younger folks may have a difficult time believing this, but there once was a time when gyms and health clubs weren't all over town making you feel guilty about not going to them.

Then the 1980s came along, and before any of us realized what had happened, we were wearing spandex and sweatbands, Jane Fonda had a second act selling workout tapes, and "jazzercise" became a normal word normal people used in normal conversation. It was terrifying.

Ironically, we were all thinner then, too, which leads me to wonder if science really has worked out the causal relationship between exercise and being fat. But I digress.

If ever there were a craze ripe for treatment in a horror movie, the '80s aerobics craze is it. David A. Prior's 1987 slasher flick "Killer Workout" got to theaters first, but Michael Fischa's "Death Spa" (1989) is the first to stage a comeback on Blu-ray.

Gorgon Video, best known for releasing the infamous "Faces of Death" series back in VHS's heyday, has resurrected "Death Spa" in glorious high definition. Gorgon's Blu-ray/DVD combo set  presents "Death Spa" with all the eye-popping color that made the '80s either gnarly or nightmarish, depending on your point of view. It comes topped with bonus features that include the director's audio commentary, a making-of featurette and trailers. (Amazon offers a movie-only "Death Spa" for purchase or rental on video on demand.)

Fischa knows his stuff. He kicks things off with a tracking shot that might remind horror aficionados of the one that opens John Carpenter's "Halloween." But that's where the similarities end. "Halloween" seems pretty tame in retrospect, but "Death Spa" comes across just as splattery and excessive as ever.

The premise is too much to pass up. Take a bunch of narcissistic, body-obsessed yuppie types (the forerunners of today's dude-bros and woo-girls) and put them in a haunted health spa where the equipment tries to kill them in increasingly gruesome ways. It's body horror for people who listen to Huey Lewis and the News' "Hip to Be Square" unironically. Imagine Patrick Bateman of "American Psycho" torn apart by a possessed elliptical machine, and you'll get the idea.

But to get to all of this death and dismemberment, we have to have a plot of some sort.

Our hero is Michael, played by William Bumiller, who's probably best known for a late-'90s stint on "Guiding Light." Michael is the spa's manager and part-owner. He's also dating one of his employees, the lovely Laura (the underrated Brenda Bakke of "Hot Shots! Part Deux"). And that doesn't sit well with his ex-brother-in-law, David, played by the late Merritt Butrick of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" in his final role. It's "ex-brother-in-law" because David's sister, Catherine, committed suicide.

David blames Michael for Catherine's death. Yet despite that simmering hostility, David sticks around the spa because he is the only person who can run its state-of-the-art computer system, which controls everything from the temperature in the steam rooms to the resistance of the weight machines.

You know, it would be a catastrophe if Catherine (Shari Shattuck, who was the replacement Ashley Abbott on "The Young and the Restless" in the '90s) returned as a vengeful spirit, possessed David's computer and then proceeded to maim and kill Michael's customers left and right.

If only Michael could close the spa until he figures out what's up. But the spa's other owners insist on keeping it open for a big Mardi Gras celebration, because that's something health clubs do.

Everyone plays it straight, except for well-traveled character actor Frank McCarthy in the time-honored role of Comic Relief Police Officer. But Fischa cranks up the gore — fake blood, rubber body parts and what looks like ground chuck — to absurdist levels. It's as ridiculous as it is grotesque, but it never fails to be entertaining.

Fischa is having a joke at the expense of every overly macho mullet-head who ever pumped iron. When Michael feeds Laura — temporarily blinded by a spa mishap — a limp stalk of asparagus during a "romantic" dinner, it says it all so obviously you don't even need Sigmund Freud to explain it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Culture Shock 07.10.14: Ed Wood's 'Plan 9' rewards revisiting

Edward D. Wood Jr.'s reputation again needs rehabilitation. Once enshrined as the worst filmmaker of all time, Wood's place atop the auteurs of awful is in jeopardy.

It's an unexpected turn for the man who wrote and directed standouts of shlock such as "Bride of the Monster" (1955) and the semi-autobiographical "Glen or Glenda" (1953).

"Mystery Science Theater 3000," home video and the Syfy channel have exposed audiences to horrors poor Ed could scarcely have imagined. Compared to the films of Coleman Francis ("Skydivers" and "Red Zone Cuba"), rediscovered obscurities such as "Manos: The Hands of Fate" and "Death Bed: The Bed That Eats," and Syfy originals such as "Mansquito," Wood's films barely stand out anymore. They seem almost ordinary, common, unremarkable.

Wood's tin star has dimmed since Michael and Harry Medved first spit on it in their 1980 book "The Golden Turkey Awards," giving Wood a notoriety in death he never had in life. Even Tim Burton's Oscar-winning 1994 biopic "Ed Wood" seems just a distant and sad memory of when Burton and Johnny Depp still made great movies. It's more about them now than it is Wood.

Perhaps we've been looking at Wood's films the wrong way. Maybe they're more than just bad movies. Can your heart stand the shocking facts, my friends?

The obvious place to start digging is Wood's 1959 magnum opus, "Plan 9 from Outer Space."

For decades "Plan 9" has fooled everyone, critics and fans alike. At first glance, it seems like a movie about extraterrestrials coming to Earth and raising the dead. The aliens' plan (their ninth) is to stop humanity from developing a weapon that could destroy the entire universe. (Wood never does anything halfway.) In other words, "Plan 9" looks like a technically inept, dollar store remake of 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still." But despite itself, "Plan 9" is much more than that.

The addition of zombies to the plot is a commercial consideration. It plays to the Cold War fears of the drive-in frequenting youth audience, inculcated since grade school with a dread for the mindless, conformist Red Menace. Yet Wood mines this for an ironic comment on America's Red Scare paranoia. One of his alien visitors, named Eros after the Greek god of love, says, "It's an interesting thing when you consider, the Earth people, who can think, are so frightened by those who cannot: the dead."

Whether intentional or not, Wood both deflates the dead ideology of communism and lampoons a nervous America's dangerous overreaction to it. Only with hindsight and the collapse of the Soviet Union does it become clear.

Tor Johnson, left, and Vampira in "Plan 9 from Outer Space."
Wood's eye toward his teen audience also provides the film with its star power. TV horror movie host Vampira, pro wrestler Tor Johnson and the late Bela Lugosi (plus his stand-in) are the closest "Plan 9" comes to stars, yet all portray the resurrected undead. By accident, Wood gives us a sly take on how the old Hollywood studio system treated its contract players. It brings to mind the quote attributed to Alfred Hitchcock: "Actors are cattle." Here they are less than cattle; they're dead, especially Lugosi, who really is dead and appears only in stock footage Wood clumsily works into the final film.

In the end "Plan 9" is ahead of its time. It plays as a movie about the artifice of Hollywood. From the rickety sets and unspeakable dialogue to the non-acting actors and disregard for basic continuity from one shot to the next, "Plan 9" practically screams, "I am not real! I am only a movie!"

Perhaps "Plan 9" belongs in a different pantheon, among the great movies about movie-making: "Singin' in the Rain," Robert Altman's "The Player," and Federico Fellini's "8½." (OK. Maybe not.)

Wood didn't just make bad, incompetent, baffling films. He made bad, incompetent, baffling films that strove for deeper meaning. When he failed as a filmmaker, which was almost always, he failed magnificently. By a strange combination of delusional ambition and fortunate accident, he made terrible movies that not only are fun to watch but that surprise us with something new every time we revisit them. That is why Wood remains the Orson Welles of ineptitude.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Culture Shock 07.03.14: America still ambivalent about soccer

I harbor no illusions. Every four years, the World Cup rolls around. Americans suddenly show a modicum of interest in the world's most popular sport. And people wonder if this, at long last, is the breakthrough year for soccer in the U.S. of A.

Then Team USA gets knocked out of the tournament, and everything goes back to the way it was.

Well, almost. Soccer emerges ever so slightly more popular than it was, getting a tiny boost in its slow, yet inexorable climb. It's not a lot, but it's something. And a few more kids who would have gone out for football or basketball try soccer instead. Critical mass is just around the corner.

Still, if ever there were a World Cup to ignite Americans' passion for the sport, it's this one. The U.S. team survived the "group of death" only to lose a heartbreaker to Belgium despite goalkeeper Tim Howard's heroics. But scoring is up and even the draws have been exciting. Normally there is nothing worse than a game decided by a tie-breaking penalty shootout. But in the first match of the knockout round, Brazil and Chile managed to make even that outcome compelling.

This World Cup also gives us heroes and villains. Everyone loves Argentina's reserved Lionel Messi. Everyone hates Portugal's prima donna Cristiano Ronaldo. Everyone just shakes their heads at Uruguay’s serial biter Luis Suarez. It's almost like professional wrestling, except not scripted, although there's just enough dodgy officiating to make one wonder. (Thanks, FIFA!)

Team USA is led by Clint Dempsey, who goes by the nickname Captain America. Meanwhile, host team Brazil has a Hulk, aka Givanildo Vieira de Souza. Somehow Disney, which owns both ESPN and Marvel Comics, dropped the ball on this marketing tie-in opportunity. But it's just one more bit of flourish for the fans. (Hulk's goal disallowed on a bogus hand ball? Hulk smash!)

It's all much too much for America's steadfast anti-soccer faction, which views soccer as foreign, slightly sinister and undoubtedly a threat to American Exceptionalism.

American Exceptionalism has always been something of a myth. Most of the things that supposedly make America unique were invented elsewhere. Capitalism? Representative government? Individualism? Sorry, but the English, Scots and Dutch all got there first. We invented jazz, but only the Europeans and the Japanese ever appreciated it. But soccer apathy? That does set us apart.

For the soccer fan in America, that apathy is a mixed bag. If you want to follow top-notch soccer, Major League Soccer isn't there yet. Following the best of the best means following the English Premier League.

England's national team may be a source of constant disappointment, but the Premier League is anything but, largely because its teams are loaded with foreigners. If you're watching the World Cup, you've seen them. Suarez may play for Uruguay's national team, but he plays his club ball for Liverpool, or he will as soon as he completes his four-month suspension.

I upgraded my cable mainly so I can watch Premier League matches — specifically Manchester City — on NBCSN. This is not an inexpensive habit. You can't count on the local sports bar's telly being tuned to soccer, except during the World Cup. The rest of the time, you have better luck finding soccer on TV at a Mexican restaurant, and then it's likely a Spanish-language broadcast. (Unfortunately, I studied German rather than Spanish in school. Not one of my wiser decisions, all said. Dummkopf!)

There is, however, a sunny side to this. American soccer apathy means you can escape soccer when you want. One might complain of "too much" World Cup hype, but that's one month every four years. Try escaping college football in America, to say nothing of in Alabama. It's impossible. It's all some people talk about. And while I'm not a mental health professional, I am worried about some of you. If your vehicle has more than two bumper stickers proclaiming your preferred college football team, you probably have too much of your self esteem wrapped up in the team's success.

But that's just one layman's assessment. Regardless, I've no delusions about soccer's place in America's sportsball pecking order. But where it sits isn't all bad.