Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Trumpism

By Franklin Harris

Trumpism is bullshit. That is to say Donald Trump, his bombastic proclamations, his haphazard policy pronouncements, and his supporters are bullshit.

I don’t mean bullshit in the usual sense of a crude insult. Nor do I mean it in the sense of magicians Penn and Teller, who on their Showtime television series referred to frauds and hucksters as peddling “bullshit,” rather than in terms that might lead to lawsuits, no matter how frivolous.

Rather, I mean bullshit in a precise, technical sense.

Ten years ago, Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton, published a slim little book called On Bullshit. Surprisingly, this philosophical essay became a best-seller. Frankfurt was on to something. He surveyed the landscape and saw bullshit.

The best way to summarize Frankfurt’s analysis is through his distinction between a bullshitter and a plain old everyday liar. They have different relationships with the truth.

A liar knows and cares what the truth is, because the truth is something to avoid. The bullshitter, however, doesn’t care about the truth. He is indifferent to it. For the bullshitter, the truth literally doesn’t matter. Sometimes he may even tell the truth, and that’s fine, too. But most of the time, he doesn’t. When you speak or write without regard to the truth, the odds are against being truthful.

Talk radio, website comment sections, and cable television are fertile ground for bullshitters. But bullshit on Trump’s scale is new to presidential politics. We’re used to politicians who simply lie.

Richard Nixon lied. Bill Clinton lied. George W. Bush either lied or was lied to and passed it on. Hillary Clinton is intimately acquainted with the truth and wants no part of it.

President Barack Obama lies, but sometimes he bullshits. Is “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” really a lie? President Obama would have said whatever he thought people wanted to hear regardless of its truth value. The only important thing was enacting the government program that would be his legacy. Regardless, Obama is not in Trump’s league when it comes to bullshitting. Compared to Trump, Obama is — as he himself might say — junior varsity.

Trump bullshits all the time, no matter the subject. Does he still believe thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11? Who knows? He said it, and he’s sticking with it. The truth isn’t something to avoid or embrace; it just doesn’t matter.

The same goes for illegal immigration. Trump speaks off the top of his head, calling upon half-remembered headlines and something he may have seen on TV. The details are unimportant because the truth is unimportant. All that matters is Trump says what he says with gusto, that he convinces his supporters he’s the fighter they longed for.

The news media can fact-check Trump and proclaim his pants on fire, but for Trump that’s just another baseless attack. Truth is irrelevant to the bullshitter. Trump gets that, so why can’t those losers at The Associated Press and The Washington Post?

If the polls showing Trump extending his national lead are to be believed, Trump has found a constituency eager for bullshit. He also has found room to operate. If a candidate isn’t beholden to the truth or trapped in a lie, he has true freedom. He becomes the uber-candidate, a candidate beyond mere truth and falsehood. The old rules don’t apply to him.

Trump supporters display the same lack of regard for truth. Olivia Nuzzi of The Daily Beast interviewed Trump donors and found people like “the man who believes Trump has great intellect and his bold pronouncements are just showbiz.” They know Trump is bullshitting, and it’s part of his appeal. It may even be the key to his appeal. If so, it’s the answer to the question pundits and pollsters have asked themselves since Trump entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination in June and immediately claimed front-runner status, which he has yet to relinquish.

Trump is a bullshit candidate with bullshit ideas and bullshit supporters. As those of us not under Trump’s spell have feared, this presidential campaign is going to shit.

Franklin Harris is an editor and writer based in Alabama. His website is, and he tweets at @FranklinH3000.

Friday, July 31, 2015

'Rowdy' Roddy Piper, RIP

Roddy Piper as Nada in John Carpenter's "They Live."
The passing of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper at the too-young age of 61 strikes surprisingly hard. Unlike others who have died this year — Leonard Nimoy and Christopher Lee among them — “Hot Rod” died too soon. It’s a fate he shares with too many stars and former stars of professional wrestling.

The matches may be scripted, but wrestling takes a physical toll, none more brutal than what wrestlers do to themselves to make it to the top of their profession.

Still, Piper’s sudden death was a shock. Just hours earlier he was tweeting away on his frequently ungrammatical but always entertaining Twitter account. For a guy who spent the peak of his wrestling career as a heel, Piper always seemed to be the nicest of guys when it came to his fans. And Piper had lots of fans, both in and out of wrestling.

While other wrestlers have come out of the ring to try their luck in movies, few have done it so memorably as Piper did. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson may have racked up more lead roles and a lot more money at the box office, but Piper will always have John Carpenter’s “They Live.”

As a wrestler, Piper was known as much for his mic talent as for his moves in the squared circle. The man had charisma to spare, and that came through just as well on the movie screen.

For me, personally, Piper came along at just the right time. One’s teens are the perfect time to fall in love with wrestling and cheesy movies, and Hot Rod was there for both.

Back in the dark ages of cable TV, when USA Network was really worth watching, a kid could watch Rowdy Roddy ham it up in prime time during WWF (not yet WWE) matches from Madison Square Garden. Then he could tune in late on the weekend to watch Gilbert Gottfried host Piper’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick “Hell Comes to Frogtown” on “USA Up All Night.”

That, my friends, was quality television.

Piper’s death hits my inner teenager pretty hard. Piper was comfort viewing. He played the bad guy, but he was like a best friend. He had your back.

Now the curtain comes down on Piper’s Pit one last time. Cue the bagpipes.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

‘Doctor Who’ survives the wilderness

Paul McGann continues his adventures as the Eighth Doctor
in one of Big Finish Productions' audio dramas.
There was no real official theme, beyond the obvious, to this year’s Con Kasterborous, north Alabama’s annual “Doctor Who” convention. Yet had the convention’s organizers only thought of it, the theme could well have been “Doctor Who: The Wilderness Years.”

Four of this year’s celebrity guests played roles in keeping “Doctor Who” alive during the dark days between the classic series’ cancellation in 1989 and the revived series’ debut in 2005.

The guest of honor for the fourth Con Kasterborous, held earlier this month at The Westin Huntsville at Bridge Street Towne Center, was Paul McGann. McGann starred in the ill-fated 1996 “Doctor Who” TV movie, whose producers had hoped it would restart the series.

Two other con guests also appeared in the 1996 movie: Eric Roberts — as the Doctor’s arch foe, the Master — and Roberts’ real-life wife, Eliza, who played a supporting role.

McGann was arguably the most talented and accomplished actor to portray the Doctor up to that point (or possibly even since), and that’s no slight against his predecessors. McGann had previously played Anton in director Ken Russell’s 1989 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rainbow” (available streaming on Amazon Prime) and starred opposite Richard E. Grant in Bruce Robinson’s wry, must-see cult comedy “Withnail & I” (find a copy if you can).

Alas, the 1996 pilot was neither a critical nor a ratings triumph. Fans would have to wait another nine years for a successful reboot.

No one, however, blamed McGann. Maybe the script wasn’t up to snuff, maybe Eric Roberts overacted a bit — OK, more than a bit — and maybe the whole enterprise, being a U.S. co-production, was too “American” and not enough “British.” But McGann acquitted himself flawlessly. In just 90 minutes, he showed the world he could be an excellent Doctor if given a real chance.

As it would happen, that chance would come, just not in front of a camera.

That brings us to Con Kasterborous’ fourth crucial guest. Jason Haigh-Ellery founded Big Finish Productions in 1996, and it was Big Finish’s full-cast audio plays, along with novels from Virgin Publishing, that kept new “Doctor Who” stories coming during the wilderness years.

McGann returned to appear in many of Big Finish’s new “Doctor Who” stories, along with a series of new traveling companions, some of whom have themselves become fan favorites. And it was in the Big Finish audio plays that McGann’s Doctor — the Eighth Doctor — really came into his own.

Now that the revived “Doctor Who” has been around for 10 years and seen four new Doctors, it’s easy to forget what it was like not to have a new season of “Doctor Who” on television every year, much as the dark decade between the cancellation of the original “Star Trek” and the release of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is now just a dim memory.

Not only did McGann’s Doctor get to have via the Big Finish audios all the adventures he never got to have on television, previous Doctors got in on the act as well. Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, who was never served well by the quality of scripts during his too-brief tenure, finally got to shine in the Big Finish stories, proving that Six wasn’t such a bad Doctor after all.

The Big Finish audios and Virgin novels were also a training ground for writers who would go on to work on the revived TV series. “Doctor Who” writers who cut their teeth on either the audios, the novels or both included Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and “Doctor Who” producer Russell T Davies.

Between McGann, Eric and Eliza Roberts, and Haigh-Ellery on the one hand and the 1,623 fans who came out to see them on the other, Con Kasterborous 2015 was a commemoration of those years when the fans kept “Doctor Who” alive, in spite of the BBC’s indifference.

“Doctor Who” is back on television now and more popular than ever, but Big Finish keeps putting out its excellent audio dramas and McGann keeps appearing in them, even though his Doctor finally did get a proper sendoff in a 2013 “Doctor Who” 50th anniversary short, “The Night of the Doctor.”

For the Doctor and his fans, those wilderness years paid off.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Forget ‘Genisys’; we need ‘Terminator: Exodus’

By all rights, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” should have been the end of the line. The machine apocalypse had been averted, the loop in time had been closed and the audience was left, quite unexpectedly, with a happy ending.

But if there’s one thing the Hollywood studios hate more than reasonable copyright laws, it’s happy endings. Leaving the audience wanting more is the same as leaving money on the table, and that just won’t do. So we got seven “Saw” movies in as many years. Hollywood will dish it out until you’re sick of it, and then some.

That’s why, despite the fact “Terminator 2” left no room for a sequel, 2003 brought us director Jonathan Mostow’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” which was all about that thing “Terminator 2” prevented happening. And that was just where the trouble started.

You might think Arnold Schwarzenegger taking time away to play the Governator of California would spare us yet another unnecessary “Terminator” installment, but you’d be wrong. The franchise hit its lowest point yet in 2009 with “Terminator: Salvation,” directed by “Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle’s” McG and starring “Avatar’s” charisma-challenged leading man Sam Worthington at the height of his inexplicable rise to fame.

With Schwarzenegger back to making movies, yet another “Terminator” sequel was inevitable. So we now have “Terminator: Genisys,” directed by Alan Taylor, whose other credits include “Game of Thrones” and Marvel’s most disappointing movie to date, “Thor: The Dark World.”

The good news is “Terminator: Genisys” is better than its two immediate predecessors. The bad news is that’s still not nearly good enough to justify its existence.

“Genisys” starts with the events leading up to James Cameron’s original “The Terminator.” That means we get to see John Conner (Jason Clarke) send his father Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to save his mother Sarah Conner (“Game of Thrones’ ” Emilia Clarke) from Schwarzenegger’s T-800 so that John can be born and lead humanity to victory over the machines.

Only this time when Reese arrives in 1984 Los Angeles, he doesn’t find the past we know. Instead he finds a Sarah who is prepared for both him and the T-800, as well as a second T-800 that was sent back to an even earlier point in time and programmed to protect Sarah. And that’s before the shape-shifting T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee) from “Terminator 2” arrives — 11 years ahead of schedule.

It’s a premise that requires a lot of mostly nonsensical plot exposition. Unfortunately, there are few things more awkward than Schwarzenegger portraying a robot tasked by the script with explaining quantum physics and temporal paradoxes. Such things are better left to eccentric Time Lords.

Speaking of which, Matt Smith (“Doctor Who”) has what amounts to a cameo, no doubt meant to set up a larger role for his character in future unnecessary sequels.

Basically, humans and Terminators have jumped through time so many times they’ve managed to break time itself, which is as good a metaphor as any for what all this time hopping has done to the “Terminator” franchise. In other hands, “Terminator: Genisys” could have been a sly, tongue-in-cheek commentary on Hollywood’s financial dependence on sequels and remakes, always repeating itself with minor variations. But screenwriters Patrick Lussier and Laeta Kalogridis play it all depressingly straight, littering their script with callbacks to the other “Terminator” entries without a hint of irony.

The result is “Terminator: Genisys” plays like a greatest hits album, only the hits are all performed by cover bands. We’ve heard them before, and they were better the first time. Nothing in “Genisys” tops “Terminator 2’s” stunts, while Clarke and Courtney have the impossible task of following in the footsteps of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, and doing so with inferior material.

The lesson here is if time travel ever is invented, it’s probably too dangerous to use. But if we do use it, we should send someone to the past to stop all these unnecessary “Terminator” sequels. With any luck, the Terminator won’t be back.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mockingbird sequel kills a Finch

Flannery O’Connor famously dismissed Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a “children’s book,” which it is, obviously. But that’s only the half of it.

Many children’s books do their young readers a service, dispelling the illusions in which adults attempt to disguise their follies. Think of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Children who read those books come away with a healthy skepticism for the adult world’s duplicity. That’s a valuable lesson.

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” however, reads like warm, fuzzy nostalgia for a childhood that is more fantasy than reality, in which a beloved father figure comes across as something just short of a saint.

The movie version, in which the upright country lawyer Atticus Finch is played by Gregory Peck, only adds to Atticus’ larger-than-life allure. It won Peck an Academy Award, which should have been a warning, given Hollywood’s tendency to reward fantasies disguised as reality.

Lee’s novel doesn’t dispel illusions; it is the illusion. It sets up its readers for either crushing disappointment or imprisonment in a nostalgic fantasy world of their own making.

Thus came the shock and disillusion that greeted Lee’s accidental sequel — if we can call a book that was written first and then locked away a “sequel” — “Go Set a Watchman.”

In “Go Set a Watchman,” Jean Louise — “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” Scout, now all grown up — returns home to 1950s Alabama and a now aged Atticus, who we come to find out is a racist and none too happy with the new stirrings for integration and equal rights.

The Atticus Finch who was the perfect father and moral conscience of his community turns out to be just a man after all — a man of his time, and all the more flawed for it, looking back from Jean Louise’s now enlightened vantage point.

With all the suddenness and finality of Toto pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, “Go Set a Watchman” breaks “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” spell. Jean Louise’s younger self, the tomboy Scout, turns out to be an unreliable narrator, and once you realize that, there is no going back.

This is where trusting in a child’s naïveté has brought us. So, if we feel misled, we have only ourselves to blame.

No doubt many readers who grew up admiring Atticus Finch will tell themselves “Go Set a Watchman” doesn’t count. I sympathize. In some ways, it’s a lot like all the movie sequels I pretend don’t exist: the “Matrix” sequels, the “Highlander” sequels, the “Jaws” sequels, everything after “Terminator 2,” “Ghostbusters 2” and so on.

But in the case of “Go Set a Watchman,” there is one crucial difference: It’s not really a sequel. It’s the story Lee wrote first, even if it saw daylight last. In a way, its Atticus is the original, the genuine article, while the venerated Atticus of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the impostor.

“Go Set a Watchman” is the story Lee originally wanted to tell, the demon the first-time novelist had to exorcise. We got “To Kill a Mockingbird” only because her editor convinced her to put the demon back in the bottle. Thus, “Go Set a Watchman’s” flashbacks become Scout’s idealized childhood, which became Lee’s best-seller.

Lee wrote the truth, but her publisher convinced her to sell the lie, and generations of schoolkids have been taught it in class ever since.

Maybe in that lies the answer to the mystery of why Lee never, of her own initiative, published another book. She wrote two and saw readers fall in love with the story she originally had envisioned just as Scout’s falsified memories. Given the choice of the truth or the legend, she printed the legend, and everyone took it to be truth. That is a powerful and dangerous gift to discover one has.

None of that makes “Go Set a Watchman” the better book, the one that will now occupy space on all the required reading lists. But it is the more honest one.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Are the Dukes’ days numbered?

How you reckon them Duke boys are gonna get out of this one?
Well, them Duke boys have got themselves in a real heap o’trouble this time. How do you reckon they’re gonna get outta this one? They’re just spending their days the only way they know how, but that’s just a little bit more than Hollywood will allow.

“The Dukes of Hazzard,” long ago a staple of family television viewing, is now collateral damage in the culture war, and it’s all on account of that Confederate battle flag on the top of the series’ iconic 1969 Dodge Charger, the General Lee. After all, why react when you can overreact?

First, the consumer division of Warner Bros., which owns the series, said it would no longer license merchandise emblazoned with the Confederate flag, which means no more General Lee models and toys. Then TV Land abruptly dropped reruns of “The Dukes of Hazzard” from its schedule, drawing the ire of one of the show’s stars, John Schneider.

We should have seen it coming. Although it appears in a recent commercial, the General Lee is shot entirely from low angles, so the spot where the flag should be is never visible.

This all comes as the Confederate flag in particular and reminders of the Confederacy in general are becoming as endangered as photos of Leon Trotsky in Stalinist Russia.

Even NASCAR, once a uniquely Southern sport, has turned on the battle flag, going so far as to ask spectators not to fly the Confederate flag at NASCAR races and offering to accept used Confederate flags in trade for the Stars and Stripes.

That went over about as well as you might expect. At Daytona, for the first race after NASCAR boss Brian France told fans to leave their Confederate flags at home, the infield was full of pickups and RVs decked out in Confederate colors. Tell some Southerners they can’t fly the battle flag and they might do it just to show you they darn well can — even if they might not do it otherwise.

Whenever the issue of the Confederate flag is raised, we go around in circles with the same old arguments about what the flag means. Is it a symbol of heritage, as its defenders say, or a symbol of hate, as just about everyone else says? If only it were that simple.

The problem with symbols is they don’t mean anything in and of themselves. They mean different things to different people at different times. The battle flag is no exception. If someone tells you the Confederate flag means heritage, he’s right. If someone else tells you it means hate, he’s right, too. And heritage and hate don’t even begin to exhaust all the possibilities.

That brings us back to “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Running for seven seasons from 1979 to 1985, the series came at the tail end of a period when the South embraced the romance of the outlaw. Movies such as “Smokey and the Bandit” and “White Lightning” turned bootleggers and moonshiners into heroes. A lesser-known entry in the cycle is 1975’s “Moonrunners.”

“Moonrunners” became the basis for “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which toned down the lawbreaking for family viewing, but just the same was an outgrowth of the outlaw South, which pitted honest outlaws just out to make an honest, if illegal, living against the same corrupt authority figures who in real life were the villains of the civil rights era.

Confederate flags atop Southern state capitols are a relic of 1960s Southern intransigence on civil rights. But the Confederate flag atop the General Lee is a symbol of something else — opposition to corrupt politicians who use the law to keep honest folks down, regardless of their race.

The Confederate flag is as complicated as the South itself. The South likes to think of itself as the Bandit, but it keeps voting for Sheriff Buford T. Justice. And while we Southerners love the backwoods glamour of bootleggers and moonshiners, Southern prisons — just as Northern ones — are filled with pot dealers, a disproportionate number of them black.

Maybe the period when the Confederate flag was an outlaw symbol was a brief window, one that has since closed. So, maybe we can’t do “The Dukes of Hazzard” today; even the movie version was 10 years ago. But that doesn’t seem like a good reason to consign the reruns to the memory hole.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Are you paranoid enough?

It seems appropriate that “The X-Files” will soon be returning to our TV screens, even if only for a limited engagement.

If you believe your eyes, recently released production photos showing Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) back in action confirm the six-episode “miniseries event,” scheduled to air in January, is really happening. Before you know it, Mulder and Scully will be back to chasing ghosts and unraveling conspiracies.

When “The X-Files’ ” original run limped to an end in 2002, the war on terror was just beginning. The idea that the government might have surveillance programs capable of spying on the phone calls and emails of every American seemed like just another of Mulder’s wild conspiracy theories.

That was before WikiLeaks, before Chelsea Manning and, most importantly, before Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents detailing the NSA’s sweeping domestic surveillance agenda.

Reading journalist Glenn Greenwald’s account of the Snowden revelations, contained in Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide,” is almost like getting caught up in an “X-Files” plot, only without the extraterrestrials. That there are no hints of extraterrestrial encounters in Snowden’s treasure-trove of incriminating NSA documents is probably a good indication that if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, it has better things to do than visit us.

“The X-Files” returns to a landscape where large-scale wrongdoing and coverups by secretive government agencies are pretty much accepted as a given.

It is a landscape eerily similar to that of the 1970s, when revelations of government misconduct, especially by intelligence and law enforcement agencies, forged a golden age of Hollywood thrillers.

If you weren’t paranoid, you weren’t paying attention. This was the age of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. It was also when the public first learned of COINTELPRO, an unwieldy acronym for Counter Intelligence Program. Via COINTELPRO the FBI waged a sometimes illegal campaign against domestic political organizations it deemed subversive — organizations both on the left and on the right. The FBI’s tactics involved infiltration, surveillance and, most worryingly, disinformation.

COINTELPRO came to light only when the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI office, took more than 1,000 classified documents and turned them over to the media. It was the Snowden leaks but with analog technology.

As far as Hollywood was concerned, this landscape was fertile ground for a decade of political thrillers, from “The Parallax View” to “Three Days of the Condor.”

Now the ripped-from-the-headlines conspiracy thrillers are in bloom again. They sprout even among superhero movies, where “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” deals in secret governments within secret governments and spy networks that can be turned on innocent people with the flip of a switch.

It’s no surprise that Sydney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor” is in the early stages of being dusted off and updated for the 21st century by Skydance Productions, which is looking to adapt the story for television. Nor is it a surprise that “The X-Files” isn’t alone in bringing back the combustible mix of conspiracies and the otherworldly.

Netflix is prepping a series based on the “Montauk Project,” which is half science fiction and half urban legend, and takes in everything from secret experiments and time travel to aliens from space and Nikola Tesla. It’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to paranormal conspiracies. And the strangest thing about it is it’s set to star Generation X “it girl” Winona Ryder.

A true conspiracy theorist might well wonder if the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex is churning out truly outlandish conspiracies just to make a buck off the public’s renewed interest or to make people more skeptical of the real conspiracies.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The KLF, the universe and everything

Depending how you look at it, JMR Higgs’ book “KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money” is either a book about the British pop band The KLF or it’s a book about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. Or maybe it’s a book about how something may appear to be one thing while also appearing to be something else entirely.

It’s a story that begins in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and ends Aug. 23, 1994, on the Scottish island of Jura, where The KLF, then known as The K Foundation, burned their last 1 million pounds. According to an online exchange rate calculator I found, that amounted to more than $1.5 million at the time.

These two incidents — the death of a president and the burning of 1 million pounds — either have nothing in common or everything. The complex web of relations linking them are either the product of coincidence or something more or possibly both — again, depending on how you look at it.

Both incidents are mysteries. Theories about the Kennedy assassination are endless. Theories about why The KLF burned 1 million pounds are less so but usually amount to “because they’re A-holes.”

Needless to say, Higgs has not written a typical music biography. But The KLF were not your typical band. “KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money” is a detective story in search of a motivation for something The KLF themselves cannot explain.

The KLF were Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, and while they were far more popular in the United Kingdom than in the United States, they greatly influenced music on both sides of the Atlantic, making contributions to hip hop, dance and techno, and helping invent chill out.

The KLF recorded under other names, too. Sometimes they were the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. At other times they were simply the JAMs. They had their biggest hit while as the Timelords.

Here we see the first clues. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu leads us to “The Illuminatus! Trilogy” by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, a cult sci-fi novel that mixes occultism, conspiracy theories, joke religions and cutting edge physics into one of the most mind-bending works of fiction ever conceived. The Timelords is a reference to “Doctor Who,” and the Timelords’ hit single, “Doctorin’ the Tardis,” is a novelty cover of the “Doctor Who” theme.

Wilson and his ideas about how we perceive the world are central to Higgs’ story. So, too, is modern neuroscience, which sees the human brain as mainly occupied with finding patterns, even where they may not exist. Higgs’ pattern brings in acclaimed comic book writer Alan Moore and Discordianism, a parody religion co-created by Kerry Thornley. It also features a cameo appearance by “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” author Douglas Adams, by way of Adams having written episodes of “Doctor Who.” Discordianism is a major factor in “Illuminatus!” and Thornley knew Lee Harvey Oswald, which leads to the JFK connection. JFK was killed on Nov. 22, 1963, and “Doctor Who” first aired the next day, Nov. 23, 1963. The number 23 is a holy number in Discordianism, and Wilson plays up the significance of 23 in “Illuminatus!” What does this have to do with The KLF? Nothing. Or everything.

As I said, Higgs has not written a typical music biography. But what he has written is fascinating and consistently funny. It may be the first music bio where knowing or caring about the band isn’t necessary, or even relevant. Higgs’ method is like that of a Douglas Adams character whom Higgs doesn’t mention: Dirk Gently, a “holistic detective” who investigates cases by first assuming that everything in the universe is connected. To solve the KLF mystery, you start with the JFK mystery.

Is it coincidence KLF and JFK share two letters while J and L are mirror images of each other?

But there are traps along the way. Once someone tells you the number 23 is everywhere, you start seeing it everywhere. It’s a glitch in our brains’ pattern recognition software. It could have been any number. For Adams, the number was 42, his nonsense answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. Still, was Adams’ choice of 42 mere chance?

Forty-two and 23 are related: 4 plus 2 equals 6, while 2 times 3 also equals 6. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, as they say. But don’t panic. It probably means nothing.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Good night, Sweet Prince (of Darkness)

Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in 1973's "The Wicker Man."
When you live to the ripe old age of 93, you collect a lot of stories — both the ones you tell and the ones others tell about you.

In the week since news of his death became public, people who knew him, and many who didn’t, have told a lot of stories about Sir Christopher Lee. Lee appeared in roughly 250 films yet never quite escaped his earliest starring role as Dracula in Hammer Films’ 1958 movie “Horror of Dracula.”

My favorite Christopher Lee story goes like this: Asked by an interviewer about his still-classified exploits during World War II, Lee sat forward conspiratorially and asked, “Can you keep a secret?”

Excitedly, the interviewer said, “Yes,” to which Lee, sitting back in his chair and smiling as only he could, with a combination of menace and charm, replied, “So can I.”

Lee’s wartime exploits, some reportedly involving Winston Churchill’s clandestine special ops force, nicknamed “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” and his postwar Nazi-hunting activities would be enough for most men. You could call that a job well done, a life well lived, and write your memoirs. But Lee was only in his early 20s when the war ended. He was just getting started.

It’s for his second act — as an actor — that we will remember him. It’s not the stories he told — no matter how well — nor the war stories he lived that will endure, but the stories he helped bring to life on the screen. In a movie career that spanned nearly 70 years, he went from “uncredited spear carrier” in Sir Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” to Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies. In between he was Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and Fu Manchu (all roles also played by Boris Karloff), as well as Bond villain Scaramanga in “The Man with the Golden Gun,” “Three Musketeers” antagonist Rochefort, lecherous Russian holy man Rasputin, and countless other silver screen adversaries.

While somewhat resenting his villainous typecasting, Lee also realized early on that the bad guys got all the good lines — except when they didn’t get any lines at all.

Lee claimed he played the part of Dracula mute in the 1966 sequel “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” because the lines he was given were terrible. (For his part, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster claimed not to recall having written Dracula any lines in the first place.)

The true mark of a great actor isn’t how good he is with great material, or even good material, but how good he is with lousy material. By that standard, Lee was one of the greatest who ever lived.

Even without lines in “Dracula: Princess of Darkness,” Lee hisses and snarls and dominates the screen. Just as his dear friend and frequent co-star Peter Cushing did for the original “Star Wars,” Lee brings menace and gravitas to its prequels, which need all the menace and gravitas they can get. He took his roles, however outlandish, seriously, and when he is on-screen, so do audiences.

Occasionally, Lee’s perseverance paid off and he’d get a great role, such as his own favorite, Lord Summerisle in the 1973 version of “The Wicker Man,” or Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.” But great role or not, he was a professional, bringing to his craft the same discipline that must have kept him alive during World War II.

Lee may not have won any Oscars, but he racked up the Guinness world records: most screen credits for a living actor (in 2007), tallest actor in a leading role (tied with Vince Vaughn), actor in most films featuring a sword fight, oldest video game voice actor, and most connected living actor (meaning Six Degrees of Christopher Lee is a lot easier to play than Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon).

The man of many roles was also a man of many contrasts. He was a British aristocrat often cast as the shadowy foreigner. He was prickly and reserved, yet warm and generous with those who got to know him. He sang opera, then later, in his 80s, recorded a heavy metal concept album. And he was a serious man who could become a babbling fanboy upon meeting his hero, J.R.R. Tolkien.

For most of the world, though, Christopher Lee was an unforgettable actor who often made even the most forgettable movies worth watching. And for an actor, there’s probably no better life story.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

‘Hannibal’ becomes a fairy tale

NBC’s “Hannibal” is many things: a horror story, a police procedural, a dark comedy, even a cooking show — albeit a cooking show where sometimes the main ingredient puts up a fight.

I, for one, approve of the entrée getting a fighting chance. That’s something we couch potato foodies haven’t seen since Food Network stopped showing reruns of the original — and vastly superior — Japanese version of “Iron Chef.”

Who, having seen it, can forget Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai’s battle to the death with an octopus?   There is something primal about a chef literally wrestling with his main course and, in the end, producing a dish that looks, as the cliché goes, too good to eat. Sakai, nicknamed “the Delacroix of French Cuisine,” after the French painter, often produced just such dishes.

So does Dr. Hannibal Lecter, portrayed with sinister serenity by Mads Mikkelsen (“Casino Royale”). Maybe there is a warning in that. On “Hannibal,” you never know whom you might be having for dinner. Then again, when has “looks too good to eat” ever stopped anyone?

The best — and best looking — show on television opens its third season with Hannibal and his former therapist and colleague (now accomplice?) Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) having escaped to Europe and assumed new identities.

When last we saw FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Hannibal had left them all for dead, and the first episode keeps their fates simmering in suspense. Showrunner Bryan Fuller has elected instead for a palate cleanser, setting up Hannibal and Bedelia’s new status quo.

With the change of setting, “Hannibal” becomes something new, too. Now it’s a fairy tale, in addition to everything else it is. Eddie Izzard’s wonderfully batty Dr. Abel Gideon, whom Hannibal ate last season, one severed limb at a time, tells Hannibal as much during a flashback.

“Let it be a fairy tale,” Hannibal replies as he pulls back a curtain to rejoin the story in the present, where the fairy tale is a grim twist on “Beauty and the Beast.”

After a brief sojourn in Paris, Hannibal and Bedelia land in Florence, Italy, where Hannibal assumes the identity of a Dr. Fell, as well the late doctor’s position as a resident scholar of Renaissance Italy.

But Hannibal is becoming restless and Bedelia increasingly apprehensive. Hannibal has barely killed anyone since arriving in Florence, but clearly that is about to change. One of his jealous colleagues is practically begging for a dinner invitation. Hannibal now kills for aesthetic reasons.

As Bedelia, Anderson is doing her best work to date, and her elevation to series regular — at least as long as her character survives — makes a great show even greater. As for Mikkelsen, he is simply the definitive Hannibal Lecter, which is the highest praise I can summon.

Fuller’s breaking of the fourth wall with Hannibal’s curtain reveal shows he is confident and fully in control of his story. It also shows him playing with themes that run through Thomas Harris’ Lecter novels. The idea of becoming something else is central to both “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Red Dragon.” As “Hannibal” the series reenacts “Hannibal” the novel, in all of its over-the-top, Grand Guignol glee, some sort of transformation is inevitable.

In Florence, everything is bright and colorful. The show reserves the clinical, desaturated look — so prevalent at times in the previous seasons — for the flashbacks. Fuller is painting in broader strokes.

Thanks to the quirks of intellectual property, “Hannibal’s” producers have the rights to all of the Lecter novels except “The Silence of the Lambs.” That means no Clarice Starling. Fuller has adapted by moving up the Italy story line and creating characters to fill the Clarice-shaped voids. Anna Chlumsky’s Miriam Lass is Clarice as trainee. Bedelia is Clarice at the end of “Hannibal” the novel. Fans dissatisfied by where Harris left things are finally getting a resolution, of sorts.

So far, it has all come together beautifully. That almost qualifies as a fairy tale ending.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Victorians cast a long shadow

The cast of Showtime's Victorian horror series "Penny Dreadful" season 1.
They lived more than 100 years ago, but our Victorian forebearers cast long shadows.

Every so often, we get a TV show set in a recent decade, say the 1960s, and TV critics go mad for it. But the Victorian era (1837-1901), especially the latter half of it, seems quietly ubiquitous on our screens of late, much as it was 50 years ago, when Westerns dominated the airwaves.

This, however, is a proper Victorianism, a Victorianism of the city and not of its frontier periphery.

Last month, Showtime’s excellent horror series “Penny Dreadful” returned for its second season. “Penny Dreadful” is the latest from the sub-genre of Victorian literary mash-ups, which include Kim Newman’s recently reissued “Anno Dracula” novels and Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics.

(Fox turned “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” into a movie so bad it drove Sean Connery into retirement, and just last week news leaked that Fox wants a mulligan on the property. If at first you don’t succeed, and so on.)

Like its predecessors, “Penny Dreadful” weaves its narrative out of threads of late-Victorian fact and fantasy: “Dracula,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Jack the Ripper — and some pre-Victorian “Frankenstein” just for a bit of Romantic contrast.

But this would be trivia if “Penny Dreadful” were an isolated incident. It isn’t. BBC America has “Ripper Street.” NBC recently tried to give Dracula a makeover by turning him into Nikola Tesla. And Sherlock Holmes is always with us — doubly so at present, with the BBC’s “Sherlock” and CBS’s “Elementary,” which both transport the Great Detective from gaslit streets to Internet cafes.

When Holmes first met Dr. Watson, he greeted the doctor with, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” and indeed Watson had just returned from a war in Afghanistan. No wonder Sherlock Holmes adapts so easily to the 21st century; even the historical particulars are still current.

Holmes isn’t alone. Whenever Hollywood returns to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” or some other Victorian best-seller, it’s as likely to bring the story forward to the present as leave it where it was. Wells’ Martians have invaded Earth three centuries straight, and may well do so again in the next.

You don’t usually see this with works and characters from other periods, excepting the occasional updated fairytale or gimmicky out-of-time, out-of-place stagings of Shakespeare. (“Richard III” set in a thinly veiled Nazi Germany? Why not?)

The human condition hasn’t changed much throughout history, although we’re slightly less violent nowadays, arguably. But the Victorians were the first people really like us — and by “us” I mean 21st century inhabitants of the small-l liberal, small-d democratic, small-c capitalist West.

Caricatured as pearl-clutching prudes both by those who like to feel superior and by those who’d like society to “go back” to the caricature, the Victorians were the first moderns.

The Victorians, both in England and the United States, had the first sizable middle class. They had the first mass-produced popular culture in the form of novels and magazines. They ordered from catalogs. They were wooed by advertisers. They consumed lots of pornography, then felt guilty about it and took cold baths. Their doctors turned every bad mood into a disease, especially when it came to women patients. They invented our modern notions of childhood and the serial killer.

It all seems familiar because it’s so like us. We have Netflix and iTunes instead of plays and the opera, but apart from the new wrinkle of mobile phones and instant communication, we’re little changed from the Victorians. They struggled with war and peace, science and faith, sex and family,  race and ethnicity much as we do.

With “Penny Dreadful” and the like, we continue to mine the Victorian era. It’s as far back as we can go and still feel we’re with people we really get. The main difference is the value of the penny.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mad Max goes to Frogtown

With its minimal plot and intricately staged mayhem, George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an action movie made into a Las Vegas hotel’s resident show. Think of it as Cirque du Apocalypse.

Cars, motorcycles and tanker trucks — all outfitted for war — spin, jump and collide as they speed across a landscape rendered cinematic by nuclear holocaust. This goes on for roughly two hours.

Miller’s return to the world he last visited in 1985’s “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” is a feature-length car chase executed with uncommon visual flair. At age 70, Miller retains his sense of style.

Also, an estimated budget of $150 million will buy you a lot of crashes and explosions.

The lavish praise most critics have heaped upon “Fury Road” is understandable, as is the moviegoing public’s relative indifference. Any action movie that isn’t in the style of Michael Bay’s poorly shot, badly edited and generally incoherent mode of filmmaking is a welcome respite. Critics have rewarded Miller accordingly, with a 98 percent fresh score on the Rotten Tomatoes meter.

Most moviegoers, however, seem content with the usual Bayhem, and they aren’t much interested in a film franchise that went dormant before most of them were born.

That doesn’t bode well for those of us who’d rather Hollywood bankroll a better class of action movie, which is what “Mad Max: Fury Road” is — a better class of action movie.

It isn’t just that Miller is a better action director than virtually anyone else handed a $150 million budget nowadays. It’s that his deceptively simple story leaves us with a lot of ideas to unpack.

Max, played by Tom Hardy, is a supporting character in his own film. With his story already told in the three previous installments starring Mel Gibson, Max is now our entry point for other characters’ stories. In “Fury Road,” those other characters are Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and the women she is helping to escape lives as sex slaves and broodmares to monstrous cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).

“Fury Road” will seem familiar to aficionados of post-apocalyptic cinema. The film’s plot is a reworking of 1987’s “Hell Comes to Frogtown,” starring pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper (“They Live”). Both movies feature a reluctant hero forced by circumstance to help women escape from a hideous mutant’s harem, and both wear their sexual politics on their sleeves.

While “Hell Comes to Frogtown” plays the war between the sexes for laughs, “Fury Road” plays it straight, which can be jarring for a movie in which so much else is deliberately absurd.

Immortan Joe and his followers are cartoon characters. Wearing a face mask that renders his speech a bellowing mumble, Immortan Joe might well be a parody of Hardy’s Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Joe and his “war pups” ride into battle spurred on by thundering drums and a screaming electric guitar — a leather-and-chains update of the fife and snare that led 18th century armies into battle. It’s a send-up of hyper-masculinity, contrasted with the earnest feminism of Furiosa and the other escapees.

“Fury Road’s” feminism is unavoidable. It’s in the title and in Furiosa’s name, which both recall the Furies of Greek myth — female spirits of vengeance.

Yet the feminism of “Fury Road” isn’t the feminism currently in fashion in academia or at websites such as Jezebel. “Fury Road” takes as given innate differences between men and woman that can’t be explained by alleged patriarchal social conditioning. In “Fury Road,” men are naturally more aggressive and women naturally more nurturing. Furiosa has shaved her head and become more physically masculine to survive, but she seeks to escape to the matriarchal paradise of her childhood, where women safeguard seeds and hope to restore life to the barren wasteland.

The movie’s climax then adds another wrinkle. Matriarchy ends up being just as much an illusion as patriarchy. In the end, men and women work together, and women redeem the civilization men have already started to rebuild from the rubble of the one they destroyed.

Action movies this simple yet this layered are rare. “Fury Road” is a film to be emulated, not a road less traveled.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Miyazaki rises for his final bow

An apocryphal story about Wernher von Braun claims that when the first of his V-2s struck London, the pioneering German rocket scientist said to his colleagues, “The rocket worked perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet.”

Whether true or not, two things are not in doubt. The first is the strength of von Braun’s obsession with building rockets that one day could reach the stars. The second is the price others — mostly civilians — paid for his wartime work. Americans may be forgiving, given that von Braun helped us win the space race. But Londoners who survived the Nazis’ hundreds of V-2s are probably less inclined to forgive and forget.

Von Braun comes to mind when watching “The Wind Rises” the final film — assuming his latest pledge of retirement sticks — of 74-year-old Oscar-winning animator Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”). 

“The Wind Rises” (Blu-ray and DVD) is a fictionalized biography of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi (1903-1982), who dreamed of making beautiful aircraft and who, like von Braun, saw his dreams perverted by war. The film follows Horikoshi from his youth, surviving the great earthquake of 1923, through marriage and on through World War II.

Horikoshi’s planes were marvels of design. When introduced, his Mitsubishi A6M Zero was unmatched in the skies above the Pacific. It was just made for the wrong purpose.

The dreamer whose dreams become the stuff of others’ nightmares is just the sort of dramatic tension that moves Miyazaki to do his best work. In his earlier movies, Miyazaki often focused on the tension between civilization and the natural world, between urban and rural. Such themes run beneath the surface of Miyazaki’s most beloved film, “My Neighbor Totoro,” and swell to the fore in his more mature work, such as “Princess Mononoke.”

In “Princess Mononoke,” Miyazaki’s heart clearly is with nature and the magical creatures lurking in its shadows. Yet he is aware enough and honest enough to show the smoke-belching factories of the city helping the poor and the outcast better their lives. Life is trade-offs.

In his more recent works, Miyazaki has turned from questions of ecology to matters of war and peace. A product of Japan’s postwar pacifism, Miyazaki now finds himself in a Japan more willing to use its military than at any time since World War II, and not just for self defense but for multinational operations abroad.

For Miyazaki, who was born in 1941, this must seem the slippery slope leading back to the Imperial Japan that ended in cities filled with death and ruin. One wonders if that’s why he finds it so difficult to stay retired. It’s not just his art calling to him, but fear of what Japan could again become. Miyazaki has spoken out against attempts to remove the anti-war Article 9 of Japan’s constitution.

In Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the hero, Howl, is a magician who is, to put it bluntly, a draft dodger, going from place to place in his moving castle to avoid being caught up in other people’s wars.

In “The Wind Rises’ ” Horikoshi, Miyazaki finds a kindred spirit — an artist and a dreamer. Some of the most beautiful scenes in “The Wind Rises” — a film full of gorgeous images —  take place in Horikoshi’s dreams, where he meets his idol, Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caproni, who also saw the planes he designed sent off to war, most never to return.

Disney’s English-language dubbing, as usual, takes advantage of name actors, some of whom seem stiff behind the microphone. But there are a few pleasant surprises, Stanley Tucci’s Caproni among them. But it’s German director Werner Herzog as a German pacifist who steals the show.

Like all of Miyazaki’s works, “The Wind Rises” is a visual symphony, where the silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. While not his greatest film, it is a great film and a fitting capstone to a career touched by genius.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

‘Ultron’ criticism highlights feminism’s fissure

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."
When Joss Whedon is getting slammed as an enemy of women, there's something wrong with the world. Where once there was the planet Earth, there is now Bizarro World.

This is the Joss Whedon we're talking about — the guy who created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the guy who is famous for writing Strong Female Characters (trademark pending). But given some of the criticism of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” you'd think he wanted to repeal the 19th Amendment.

From The Daily Beast, filed under “Sexism,” we get the headline “ ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’s’ Black Widow Disgrace.” From there’s “Black Widow: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” At Indiewire we find “An Open Letter to Joss Whedon from a Disappointed Feminist Fan After Watching ‘Age of Ultron.’ ”

And the source of this outrage and disappointment? Whedon committed what is, according to some but not all strains of feminism, the ultimate sin. He wrote a female character, in this case the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who wants to have children but can’t. Worse, her infertility actually upsets her, and she seeks a surrogate form of maternal fulfillment in playing aunt to Hawkeye’s kids.

Because of this, The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern reduces Black Widow’s contribution in “Age of Ultron” to doing nothing but “flirt and whine about being barren.”

This line of criticism has two problems. The first is it overstates the importance the Black Widow places on infertility as part of her identity. When the Widow thinks of herself as a “monster,” it’s about everything she gave up by becoming a Russian spy. She sacrificed family, yes, but also part of her humanity. Whedon practically spells it out with a flashback to the Black Widow killing her first victim.

The second, more significant problem is it belittles the fact that some — indeed most — women do find quite a bit of fulfillment in having children.

This is where the war brewing within modern feminism comes into play.

There’s liberal feminism, which is about empowering women, women having the same opportunities as men, and expanding the range of choice available to women. Then there’s the feminism that leads people to send hate tweets Whedon’s way, at least until he left Twitter.

The latter is the feminism of “social justice,” summed up by video game critic Anita Sarkeesian (a friend of Whedon’s, ironically enough) when she tweeted recently, “Feminism is about the collective liberation of women as a social class. Feminism is not about personal choice.”

A feminism that isn’t about personal choice is a perverse thing indeed. It’s no surprise that it didn’t start with women. The anti-choice, social justice feminism of Whedon’s critics originated with a dead white male. And not just any dead white male, but the wrongest of dead white males, Karl Marx — as passed down by another dead white male, Marxist cultural theorist Theodor Adorno.

All social justice feminism does is replace class with gender. So, just as orthodox Marxism has its “class traitors,” anti-choice feminism has its gender traitors. All a woman need do is make the wrong choice, one that doesn’t further the cause of feminism as anti-choice feminists define it.

By liberal feminism’s standards, the Black Widow as portrayed in “Age of Ultron” is a feminist hero. She kicks butt, embraces her sexuality and can hang with some of the most powerful men (and gods) on the planet. Yet by anti-choice standards she’s a gender traitor, and Whedon is a traitor for writing her that way, as well as for giving Tony Stark a “rape joke” when Stark cracks wise about re-instituting primae noctis if he lifts Thor’s hammer.

This is not just bad feminism. This is a terrible way to go about critiquing popular culture. It’s an immature criticism that acts as if artists agree with everything their characters say, and as if fictional heroes can’t sometimes behave improperly, say by telling off-color jokes.

If writers and filmmakers actually paid attention to their social justice critics, we’d end up with art and entertainment about as inspiring as the old boy-meets-tractor morality plays of Soviet realism.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Artificial intelligence: threat or menace?

The great thing about the British tabloids is they never let a strict adherence to the truth get in the way of a headline. Take this one from The Daily Mail: "Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk sign open letter warning of a robot uprising." Pretty ominous, huh?

Artificial intelligence has loomed as a threat to humanity ever since Victor Frankenstein reanimated his first corpse. A.I. dooms us all, whether on Earth ("Terminator" and its sequels) or out in space ("Battlestar Galactica"). If we're lucky, we'll just end up ruled by a despotic supercomputer, as in Joseph Sargent's 1970 thriller "Colossus: The Forbin Project." If we're not lucky — boom.

Two movies now in theaters take different approaches to the A.I. menace. In "Avengers: Age of Ultron," A.I. is the latest threat confronting Marvel's cinematic superheroes. "Ex Machina," meanwhile, confronts us with just how thin the line between intelligence and artificial intelligence really is.

The curious thing about Marvel's movies is they're action movies where the action is typically the least interesting part. The Shaw Brothers, Marvel is not. And "Avengers: Age of Ultron" has a lot of action. It starts with a raid on a Hydra base — Hydra being the bad guys from the Captain America movies and TV's "Agents of SHIELD" — and ends, like the first "Avengers" movie, with a huge battle involving our heroes vs. an army of disposable drones. And no, that's not a metaphor for the United States' preferred form of modern warfare. In his second outing for Marvel, Joss Whedon still directs action scenes as if they bore him, and they probably do. They're just this thing he has to do because they're expected, and his disinterest is contagious.

The one action set piece that isn't a snooze is the much-promoted heavyweight bout between the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo's CGI stand-in) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) wearing his just-for-the-occasion "Hulkbuster" Iron Man suit. One-on-one combat, punctuated by clever quips, beats Michael Bay-style melees every time.

The big bad is an insane robot named Ultron, voiced with malevolent glee by James Spader. Spader needs only his voice to rank with Tom Hiddleston's Loki among Marvel's best villains.

One of Stark's science projects gone awry, Ultron is supposed to protect humanity. Then Ultron decides the best way to do that is by making humanity evolve, and nothing speeds along evolution better than a global extinction event. Oops.

It makes one long for the more modest aims of Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor, plotting to dump California's coastline into the Pacific to further a real estate scheme.

Whedon, who also wrote the script, is on more comfortable turf dealing with characters, and "Age of Ultron" gives him plenty. Joining the previous film's team are "Godzilla's" Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, while Paul Bettany, Stark's helpful A.I. Jarvis in four earlier movies, finally shows up in the flesh as the Vision.

The verbal sparring between Stark, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), along with the budding romance between Ruffalo's Banner and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, keep lively what otherwise, like "Iron Man 2," feels more like a warm-up than the main act.

"Ex Machina" is definitely a main act, and it's a brilliant one. Screenwriter Alex Garland ("28 Days Later") steps behind the camera for an impressive directorial debut.

Billionaire tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites one of his programmers, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to his secluded home for an experiment. The experiment is to test whether Nathan's android Ava (Alicia Vikander) has achieved artificial intelligence. But when Ava tells Caleb that Nathan cannot be trusted, it kicks off a battle of wits that leaves us to ponder not only what it means to be human, but whether the real danger of artificial intelligence isn't a lack of humanity, but too much of it.

Garland has crafted a first-class sci-fi thriller, with so many twists and red herrings that the ones you see blind you to the ones you don't.

"Ex Machina" may be the smaller film about A.I., but it leaves the bigger impression.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

'The Babadook' doesn't live up to the hype

"The Babadook" arrives on home video riding an outsized wave of hype. This small, Australian movie, partly funded via a Kickstarter campaign, has been dubbed the next big thing in horror. "Exorcist" director William Friedkin has proclaimed it even scarier than his seminal work.

That leaves one to wonder: When was the last time Friedkin saw "The Exorcist," anyway?

As a depiction of a family's trauma, "The Babadook" almost works, but as a horror movie it's a major letdown.

Arriving simultaneously on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix streaming, "The Babadook" is another spin on that tried and true horror trope, the haunted object. In this case, the object is a children's pop-up book with no author and no publication information, just a title — "The Babadook."

Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis of"Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries") is surrounded by death. She works in a nursing home, tending to the aged and running their weekly bingo game, not that many of them seem to notice. Most of her charges have already passed on, mentally if not physically. It's the sort of work that can sap the life out of you, if you're not careful.

At the end of the day, Amelia comes home to her 6-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). And Samuel, as they say, is a handful. He is always in trouble at school, where the administrators are inclined to drug him, ship him off to therapy, or preferably both.

Samuel is also without a male role model, his dad having died in an auto accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to him. So, if you think Amelia sees in Samuel a subconscious reminder of her husband's death, you got it in one.

Precocious but over-imaginative, Samuel insists his mother check the closet and peek under the bed for monsters each night. He constructs "Home Alone"-style booby traps for any boogeymen she might miss. You can bet that's the sort of detail that will be important later.

After yet another parent/teacher conference, Amelia yanks Samuel out of class until she can find a school that will treat him as something more than a problem to be managed. In the meantime, mother and son have an opportunity for quality time at home. This cannot possibly go wrong.

One night, Samuel asks to pick the book for his nightly bedtime story, and he picks one Amelia has never seen before. It's "The Babadook," and it's about a boogeyman.

There's little here we haven't seen before. The Babadook comes to life to torment Samuel and Amelia, the book returns no matter how many times Amelia disposes of it, the usual stuff.

While the plot isn't compelling, the family dynamics are. One need not be Sigmund Freud to see the Babadook as representing Amelia's suppressed resentments, and the ambivalent way the movie deals with them is a nice surprise. Without giving it away, the ending is the one thing about "The Babadook" that works beautifully. It's just that getting there is a slog.

Writer/director Jennifer Kent, helming her first feature, doesn't yet have the knack for horror. "The Babadook" is lacking in both atmosphere and suspense. It doesn't help that the book within the movie telegraphs almost every potential fright. Even the most experienced horror directors have trouble ginning up terror when the audience knows what's coming next.

Making matters worse, it's hard to care about either Amelia or Samuel. Both are shrill and unlikable, although not without cause. And while that may work in a different context, here it's a nearly fatal flaw. We should care whether Amelia and Samuel live or die, but we don't. There's only so much high-pitched screaming you can endure before you want it silenced. As most of Kent's screen credits are for acting, I can only guess these are the performances she wanted.

"The Babadook" is not a total loss. The ending becomes more unsettling the more you think about it, and the little nod to Italian horror director Mario Bava shows Kent's heart is in the right place. With more experience, she probably has a good horror movie in her. "The Babadook" just isn't it.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Culture Shock 04.23.15: Documentary digs up Atari's past

Before Xbox, PlayStation and Wii, there was Atari, once America's dominant video game maker.

Today, Atari is a logo on retro-styled T-shirts but little else, and Atari's rise and fall are the subjects of Zak Penn's documentary "Atari: Game Over," now streaming on Netflix.

Full disclosure: The only home video game console I've ever owned is the Atari 2600, released in 1977. My time as a gamer ended around 1983. But for a while, I was obsessed: playing video games, reading magazines about video games, calling telephone hot lines to get the latest news and release dates for video games — you name it.

Two of my favorite Atari 2600 games, "Yar's Revenge" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," were designed by the same programmer, Howard Scott Warshaw. When I finally beat "Raiders," I chalked it up as a significant accomplishment. Warshaw's games were tough but fair. Little did I — or anyone else  — suspect that Warshaw and his next game were destined to become scapegoats for the collapse of not only Atari but the entire first wave of home video gaming.

Warshaw's next game was "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," based on the movie, obviously. Rushed into stores for Christmas 1982, "E.T." sold roughly 1.5 million units, but it failed to meet Atari's stratospheric expectations. Millions more cartridges remained unsold.

In 1983, the home video game market crashed, doing in Atari and most of its rivals. "E.T.," which would go on to earn an unfair reputation as the "worst video game ever," took a lot of the blame. And from that, an urban legend arose: that Atari, in the dead of night, buried its millions of unsold "E.T." cartridges in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

The landfill legend is the hook for Penn's documentary. Penn introduces us to Joe Lewandowski, waste disposal expert and amateur archaeologist. Lewandowski believes the legend is true, and he has a good idea where in the landfill the lost "E.T." games are buried.

So the question is, is this "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with a prize waiting at the end, or is this Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's "vault" and finding only a couple of broken bottles?

While large earth movers excavate a trash heap in search of Atari's shame, Penn takes us back to the glory days of Atari, interviewing Warshaw and company executives. On the campus of what was once Atari's headquarters, Warshaw describes a high-tech Shangri-La. Ideas and pot smoke were heavy in the air, dress codes were lax and met sales quotas were rewarded with keggers. Atari was every Silicon Valley stereotype turned up to 11.

The business side of the story is the most interesting and deserves more time and attention than Penn devotes. He digs deep into the New Mexico desert, but he barely scratches the surface of the 1980s home console bust. Going by Penn's account, one would think Atari existed in a vacuum. He gives us no hint of the other consoles on the market at the time, such as ColecoVision, Intellivision and Atari's designated 2600 successor, the Atari 5200. The crash of 1983 left a dark age of video gaming, the scale of which Penn loses with his myopic focus on the 2600. For two years, it seemed as if home video games had been just a fad. Then the Nintendo Entertainment System arrived in the U.S., and America has been a nation of gamers ever since.

Penn is far more interested in the New Mexico dig, and that's no surprise. He previously directed a mockumentary about another legend, "Incident at Loch Ness," aided and abetted by — of all people — Werner Herzog. Unfortunately, the off-putting persona Penn showcased in "Incident" is still on display. He interrupts the workers digging in the landfill to ask stupid questions just so he can film their incredulous responses. Whether staged or real, it adds nothing but irritation.

Yet for all the missteps and wasted opportunities, "Atari: Game Over" has its moments. Warshaw is a fascinating figure who has never gotten his due, and we get to watch as he comes to terms with seeing his past unearthed in a landfill. It's a powerful scene, and one that deserves a better movie.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Culture Shock 04.16.15: 'Daredevil' brings Marvel back down to Earth

One particular scene marks when Marvel's "Daredevil" goes from being merely good TV to being something special.

At the end of the second episode, Daredevil — although he isn't yet called that — fights his way through a gang of Russian mobsters in order to rescue a kidnapped boy. The entire fight plays out in one long take, no cuts and no trickery. With its bare-knuckle brutality and seemingly effortless cinematography, it immediately draws comparisons to the extraordinary hallway fight in Chan-wook Park's 2003 film "Oldboy." One rarely sees such compelling fight scenes in movies nowadays, and never on television. If anything, "Daredevil's" fight surpasses "Oldboy's."

If there's one thing "Daredevil" does well, it's fight scenes, but the show does a lot of other things well, too.

All 13 episodes of "Daredevil's" first season debuted on Netflix last Friday to near unanimous raves. Count this review among them. The first of Marvel's five planned Netflix series, "Daredevil" brings the far-flung Marvel Cinematic Universe, which took off into deepest space with "Guardians of the Galaxy," back down to street level, specifically New York City's Hell's Kitchen.

This is a New York still rebuilding following the events of "The Avengers," and one man wants to see the city rebuilt according to his own grand design, and heaven help anyone who stands in his way.

Wilson Fisk (a perfectly cast Vincent D'Onofrio) may lack the Red Skull's Cosmic Cube or Loki's godlike powers, but he more than makes up that deficit with sheer physical menace. He's Marvel's most fully realized villain to date, in large part thanks to D'Onofrio's mercurial performance.

A man-mountain barely concealing both volcanic rage and childlike insecurities, Fisk has never truly grown up. But he has grown powerful, and from Hell's Kitchen's shadows he runs the most fearsome criminal organization in the city. He owns the cops, the courts and even members of the media. And he's looking to expand.

That places Fisk on a collision course with Hell's Kitchen's self-appointed defender, a masked vigilante dressed in black who is chipping away at Fisk's empire.

When he was 9 years old, young Matthew Murdock (Skylar Gaertner) was blinded while saving a man from being run over by a truck carrying chemicals. The chemicals took Matt's sight, but they heightened his other senses to superhuman levels. He can hear cries for help across town, tell when you're lying by your heartbeat, and smell a hit man’s aftershave two floors down.

He's also an expert in martial arts, thanks to being recruited and trained by a blind martial arts master and all-around jerk named Stick, made likable by Scott Glenn's endearing portrayal.

Yes, that sounds a lot like the old TV show "Kung Fu," a fact the show acknowledges with a sly grin, proving you can do gritty street-level superheroics without losing your sense of humor.

Now an adult, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) fights for the innocent by day as a lawyer and by night as the "man in the mask." Like I said, he's not Daredevil yet, but he is on the path.

As not-quite-Daredevil, Matt has one ally, Rosario Dawson as the nurse who patches him back together. As Matt Murdock he has a few more: his law partner Foggy (Elden Henson), their client-turned-secretary Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) and investigative reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall).

Cox's Matt Murdock makes us forget Ben Affleck was ever miscast in the same role. Cox brings humor and drive to the character, and endows him with charisma to spare.

Show runner Steven S. DeKnight, taking over for Drew Goddard, who dropped out early into production, ably treads the fine line between genres. By the time Matt finally puts on his red costume with the horns, it feels natural. The Marvel Cinematic Universe happily accommodates the spectacle of the movies, the family-friendly adventure of ABC's "Agents of SHIELD" and the adult crime drama of "Daredevil." But those of us who grew up reading the comics already knew that.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Culture Shock 04.09.15: 'It Follows' is relentlessly suspenseful

It's rare in this era of blockbusters and Oscar pretenders, but sometimes a movie can still sneak up and surprise you. "It Follows" does exactly that.

"It Follows" is a nearly flawless horror movie. But more, it's the best movie of 2015 thus far. With his second feature, writer/director David Robert Mitchell ("The Myth of the American Sleepover") has made what likely will be a career-defining film. "It Follows" is relentlessly suspenseful, even for jaded horror fans. You're relieved when the end credits roll, but you're soon ready to see it again. "It Follows" is that good. It hooks us with its opening scene — a single long take of a girl who appears to be running from nothing — and never lets go.

There's a bit of John Carpenter's "Halloween" in its DNA. The Carpenter vibe comes through especially in Mike Gioulakis' fluid cinematography and the unnerving electronic score by Rich Vreeland (credited as Disasterpeace).

Yet "It Follows" is not another winking, nostalgia-fueled love letter to horror flicks of decades past. Drew Goddard's "Cabin in the Woods" has taken that approach as far as it can go — for now, anyway. Instead, "It Follows" plays it straight, and the result is refreshingly modern.

What most sets "It Follows" apart is the extent to which Mitchell leaves events and motivations open to interpretation. We piece together the mystery just as his characters do. Mitchell's confidence in his audience makes the experience more rewarding and, strangely, more unsettling.

Mitchell starts with a clichéd premise and makes it seem new. A group of young friends find themselves stalked by a supernatural force passed around through sex. One could describe most "Friday the 13th" movies the same way. But from there, Mitchell plays off the greatest fears of youth, which are anything but supernatural: isolation and rejection.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is a pretty college student whose date with the new guy in the neighborhood (Jake Weary) goes wrong when he tells her he's given her a curse: a creature only she can see. The creature can appear to her either as a stranger or as someone she knows. Regardless, it will pursue her as far and as long as it takes to kill her — unless she passes it on by having sex with someone else. No matter how much distance she puts between herself and the monster, it will always follow her.

Jay turns to her sister and friends for help, and while they are naturally skeptical, they become her Scooby gang, helping her stay one step ahead of the creature while trying to find a permanent solution, if there is one to be found.

Mitchell has an ear for how teens speak. Jay and her friends sound like real young people, not hip thirty-somethings steeped in pop trivia and skilled in snarky comebacks. It helps, too, that they're played by a talented cast of relative unknowns, the most familiar of whom is Keir Gilchrist ("United States of Tara") as Paul, the awkward guy nursing an unrequited crush on Jay. (In this case, the "friend zone" is the safest place to be.) Mitchell's naturalistic approach makes the characters' predicament seem more real, too, which ratchets up the tension even more.

Monroe delivers a star-making performance. She hits all the high notes that come with being a "scream queen" then gives Jay a depth that pulls us close and makes us feel for her. By the time she considers passing the curse to an unsuspecting stranger, we're invested. We sympathize even if we don't approve because we suspect we'd act similarly.

Mitchell shot "It Follows" in the hollowed-out ruins of post-industrial Detroit. Parents, the police and other authority figures are mostly absent. Jay and her friends can stay on their folks' health insurance until they're 26, but otherwise they're on their own. No one is looking out for them.

It happens to everyone. Eventually, you have to grow up and face the world — a world that includes bad sex, bad decisions and the realization death is slowly creeping up on you. One day you're young and invincible, the next you're an adult and everything aches. The real horror is knowing it's coming.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Culture Shock 04.02.15: 'iZombie' brings life to the undead

Rose McIver as Liv Moore in "iZombie." (Photo courtesy The CW.)
I believe it was the late philosopher of teenage angst Jason Dean, as played by Christian Slater in the 1988 movie "Heathers," who asked, "Now that you're dead, what are you gonna do with your life?"

Ah, that is the question — or at least it is for Liv Moore, who is not feeling quite herself these days.

Liv (Rose McIver, late of "Once Upon a Time" and "Masters of Sex") puts the lower-case "i" in The CW's latest comic-to-screen adaptation, "iZombie." The show is loosely based on writer Chris Roberson and artist Michael Allred's 28-issue series published by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint.

On paper, Liv seems to have it all. She has a loving and not-too-embarrassing family, a handsome and caring fiancé, and a promising career as a doctor in her future. Until, that is, against all her usual instincts, Liv accepts an invitation to a party, held at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe it's the right place at the right time, if a zombie outbreak is your idea of a happening scene.

So, Liv Moore — the name is a pun; get it? — wakes up the next morning dead, or rather undead, and with an occasional craving for brains with hot sauce, but otherwise just a little worse for wear.

Liv's new undead look — unruly white hair and a deathly pallor — even works for her. Put her in a hoodie, and she totally rocks shoegazer chic, which I read is making a comeback. It's a style that'll probably be all the rage among cosplayers on this year's sci-fi convention circuit.

Mind you, being a zombie entails some serious lifestyle changes. Liv abandons her hospital internship and gets a job as a medical examiner's assistant. Not counting state legislatures, morgues have the best stash of fresh brains just going to waste. Also, Liv dumps her boyfriend (Robert Buckley's equally punny Major Lilywhite) so as to avoid accidentally zombifying him.

With a regular diet of microwaved brains keeping her from going "full-on zombie" and frequent applications of bronzer, Liv passes for alive — emo, but alive. The only living person in on Liv's secret so far is Ravi the M.E. (Rahul Kohli), who thinks he might be able to cure her, but in the meantime, her condition makes for fascinating study.

Speaking of her condition, when Liv eats a person's brain, she also absorbs fragments of the person's memories and personality traits. Say Liv eats the brain of a kleptomaniac, she might find herself unconsciously stealing things. Say also the kelpto was murdered. Liv might have some insights into who done it.

In the comic book, Liv (named Gwen instead) works as a gravedigger so as to satisfy her hunger for gray matter. The TV's show's change of setting allows "iZombie" to double as a police procedural.

Enter newbie police detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin), who could use a little assist making his way past the department's old boys club. A zombie assistant M.E. could help with that, only better not let on she's a zombie. Just tell Clive she's psychic instead. Cops really go for that "psychic detective" stuff, just like USA's "Psych."

There you have it. The perfect setup for a story about a woman who comes to find out only after she's dead that she rushed through life so fast she never stopped to smell the roses. So she uses her second chance to have a life worth living. If it seems a bit trite, it is, but Liv and her supporting cast are endearing enough to make it work. McIver's Liv is a pleasant change from the tedious slow-walkers over on AMC's "The Walking Dead" (and I'm not talking about that show's zombies). She's adorably morbid, and her banter with Ravi makes the show.

The recurring baddie, David Anders' dealer-turned-zombie Blaine, is also a blast, with his fatalistic plan to make the most of his situation by turning more people into zombies and then acting as their hook-up for prime-cut brains. The first lobe is free, but then you've got to pay.

It's Blaine who, briefly speaking as the voice of the show's producers, wonders aloud if zombies are past their sell-by date. I wonder the same, but if shows like "iZombie" can think up new twists, there may be some life in this genre yet.