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.