Thursday, March 26, 2015

Culture Shock 03.26.15: Tommy Wiseau trades his 'Room' for 'Neighbors'

Oh, hai neighbors!
"Oh, hai neighbors!"
The enigmatic director of the cult-favorite bad movie "The Room" is back, and this time he's made a television show.

Everyone who has met Tommy Wiseau has a theory about him — where he's from, where he got his money, what's up with that unplaceable accent of his, and so on. My theory, not from having met Wiseau but from having conducted a cursory study, is he's an extraterrestrial, an alien wearing an off-the-rack human suit and trying — mostly failing — to pass as a native of the planet Sol 3, aka Earth.

My theory makes as much sense as any. How best can one describe the man — if indeed he is a man and not a Reptilian from Zeta Reticuli — responsible for what is widely considered the worst movie ever committed to film, "The Room"?

Wiseau wrote, directed, produced, financed and starred in "The Room," apparently imagining it as a serious drama about love, friendship and betrayal. You know, the usual things, only filtered through Wiseau's alien-from-another-planet understanding of them.

Unintentionally, Wiseau created a hilarious comedy of errors. "The Room" is less a film and more a stream of non sequiturs. Characters come and go. Plot threads disappear. And no one reacts to anything the way a normal human would.

One of Wiseau's co-stars, Greg Sestero, recounted the bizarre behind-the-scenes story of "The Room" in his funny, often jaw-dropping book "The Disaster Artist," itself now set to become a movie.

So, when you've made one of the worst movies ever and spawned a cult following around both it and yourself, what do you do for an encore? If you're Wiseau, you do what all of Hollywood's big-name talent is doing these days: You take your game to the small screen.

Thus Wiseau now gifts us with 12 episodes of a half-hour comedy series he calls "The Neighbors." Not that any TV channel — not even E! — would touch this. So, "The Neighbors" is debuting on the streaming site Hulu, which made the first four episodes available last week.

"Seinfeld" was billed as a show about nothing, but "The Neighbors" really is a show about nothing. It contains no real plots and no real characters, just people wandering aimlessly. Wiseau seems to grasp that audiences love "The Room" because of its badness, so he has set out to make a deliberately bad sitcom, peppered with callbacks to fan-favorite lines and scenes in "The Room."

Characters in "The Room" idly toss a football for no reason, so characters in "The Neighbors" idly toss a basketball for no reason. It's Wiseau's idea of a crowd-pleaser.

Wiseau, once again acting as writer, director and star, plays two characters, because one just isn't enough to showcase his talents. The main character is Charlie, the apartment manager. The other, Ricky Rick, is (I think) one of the tenants. We can tell them apart because one is obviously Wiseau in an ill-fitting black wig, while the other is clearly Wiseau in an ill-fitting blond wig.

Other tenants include Ricky Rick's psychic girlfriend, a guy who always has a basketball and loves ice cream, a woman named Philadelphia who never wears more than a bikini, several ethnic stereotypes (one of whom owns a pet chicken) and Troy, a high-strung pothead and part-time arms dealer.

I don't think Wiseau has ever met a real pothead. I mean, I know of some who are arms dealers, but none who are high strung.

There's also a visiting British royal named Princess Penelope, who shows up in episode 2 because that's something British royals do, I guess. Did I mention there are 12 episodes of this?

By trying to make a show that's deliberately bad, Wiseau has succeeded only in making a show that's painfully unwatchable. When the actors blow their lines, miss their marks and fumble their props, it isn't funny, merely tedious. The only laughs come from the cast, and even those are forced.

Yet I've no doubt this is exactly the show Wiseau wanted to make. So, maybe this is Wiseau's way of getting revenge on the audience that laughed at his supposed drama "The Room." If so, maybe he's human after all. And if that's the case, well played, Tommy. Well played.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Culture Shock 03.19.15: 'Vampire's Kiss' brings us peak Nicolas Cage

Nicolas Cage in "Vampire's Kiss."
If you've ever seen a YouTube montage of Nicolas Cage's most over-the-top performances, you've already seen many of the choice cuts from "Vampire's Kiss," Cage's 1988 dark comedy directed by Robert Bierman and written by Joseph Minion.

Stripped from its context, Cage's performance is unreal. In context, it's almost equally so.

With any other actor in the lead role, Bierman and Minion's film likely would be, at best, forgettable or, at worst, a confused misfire. With Cage at his most bug-eyed and manic, "Vampire's Kiss" is impossible to turn off. Like the vampires of myth, it's almost hypnotic.

Shout Factory now brings "Vampire's Kiss" to Blu-ray as part of a comic horror double feature, paired with Neil Jordan's 1988 supernatural rom-com "High Spirits," starring the equally '80s pairing of Steve Guttenberg and Daryl Hannah.

In "Vampire's Kiss," Cage plays Peter Loew, a womanizing publishing executive who spends his nights cruising clubs and his afternoons confessing his feelings of ennui to his therapist (Elizabeth Ashley). In between he spends most of his time at the office making life miserable for his put-upon secretary, Alva ("The Running Man's" Maria Conchita Alonso).

During one night of carousing, Peter picks up a gorgeous woman named Rachel (Jennifer Beals of "Flashdance") who, in the middle of their passionate encounter, bites him on the neck.

From there, Peter, who already was an eccentric, becomes more and more unhinged as he comes to the conclusion that he is turning into a vampire.

At first we think Rachel might really be a vampire and Peter might really be her victim, slowly transforming into a creature of the night. But it's soon clear all this is Peter's delusion and he is descending into madness. And madness is where Cage excels.

In Victorian vampire literature, such as Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla," vampirism represents a release from one's inhibitions. The proper Victorian heroines of Stoker's novel become depraved temptresses after they're bitten by Dracula. In "Carmilla," virginal women succumb to lesbianism. Vampirism in 19th century literature is, more than anything else, an assault on propriety.

When we meet Peter, he's already a jerk and more than a little odd. Even before the  "transformation," Cage gives Peter a strange, unplaceable accent. But after Rachel bites him, Peter ascends to a whole new level of weird. Cage breaks free of his inhibitions and any sense of propriety, and the audience comes out the winner.

Cage's Peter rants, he moans, he twitches — all the while, his mood swings between existential despair and a kind of malevolent glee. When the "vampirized" Peter really gets his freak on, he resembles a comic version of Max Schreck's ratlike Count Orlok in the 1922 version of "Nosferatu." We laugh at Peter, but we wouldn't want to run into him alone in a dark alley.

Vampires in folk tales display obsessive behavior, and so does Peter. He becomes obsessed with a client's contract, which has disappeared from the office files. The notion that something could simply be misfiled makes no sense to him: You put the contract in the file where it belongs. Simple, right?

The missing contract leads to two of Cage's most delirious rants, one to Peter's therapist and the other to Alva, who by this time has become the primary target of Peter's now overt hostility.

Alonso is Cage's perfect foil. Her Alva is every bit as grounded as his Peter is extravagant. Seen from her point of view, "Vampire's Kiss" isn't a dark comedy at all, but a straight-up horror movie about a woman terrorized by a boss whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic until he finally becomes a danger to her. Alva's perspective keeps us grounded, too, lest we buy into Peter's fantasy.

Cage's filmography is filled with off-the-wall roles, from Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" to the 2006 remake of "The Wicker Man." But none of them is quite as outrageous as Cage is in "Vampire's Kiss." This is where we reach peak Nicolas Cage.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Culture Shock 03.12.15: 'Whiplash' is a horror story

A famous tale in jazz circles involves a young Charlie Parker screwing up during a performance with Count Basie Orchestra drummer Jo Jones and Jones becoming so incensed he throws a cymbal at him. In the more flamboyant versions of the story, Jones "nearly decapitates" the young saxophonist.

It is a transformative moment for Parker. Afterward, he practices. He hones his skills. A few years later, the legend of Charlie "Bird" Parker, one of the greatest sax players ever, is born.

It's a good, strong story, and one we hear repeated throughout writer/director Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash." Yet even within jazz, Bird's story is an outlier, a kind of origin myth.

Bird's story isn't Thelonious Monk's story nor John Coltrane's story nor Miles Davis' story.

Before long, we realize Bird's is the only story Chazelle knows, and "Whiplash," for all its virtuosity, is simply variations on a theme. Chazelle turns it into a campfire tale to frighten children.

One supposes Chazelle thinks he's making a movie about music, drive and the correct ratio of inspiration to perspiration needed to create an artistic genius. What he has made is something more primal — a monster movie for performing arts school students.

Watching "Whiplash" is an intense, even harrowing experience, insofar as watching any movie can be said to be "harrowing." It's an experience I'm happy to have had but not one I'm eager to repeat, and it all comes down to the monster that Chazelle and J.K. Simmons create, for which Simmons claimed a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

And there is no doubt Simmons' jazz instructor Terence Fletcher is a monster. He stalks his prey like a vampire, seduces with manufactured charm and sweet lies, then destroys. To say Simmons delivers a literally mesmerizing performance is only a minor abuse of the world "literally." There is a bit of Svengali here in both the Fletcher character and Simmons' portrayal.

Seen another way, Fletcher is an abusive spouse, although he never claims he will change or do better. He is too subtle for that. With a smile, a laugh and that Charlie Parker story, he lures his victims into giving him just one more chance without ever asking for it. It's seduction at its most insidious.

Fletcher's perfect mark arrives in the form of first-year student Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), a green recruit with more ambition than sense, aspiring to be the next Buddy Rich and to avoid the fate of his father (Paul Reiser), a failed writer who has settled into a life of domesticated mediocrity.

Neimann's instrument of choice is the drums, and his quest to master jazz drumming reduces to more speed and greater technique. You can't get soul out of the drums the way a talented musician conjures the soul of a trumpet or sax or piano. The drums seem like a lark, or, at most, Neimann's all-too-blunt method of taking out his frustrations. That makes it all the more difficult to believe Neimann's motives are pure. Does he want to be a great drummer, or does he want just not to be his father? Fletcher probably senses what we do when he quizzes Neimann early on and learns no one else in Neimann's family has any musical inclinations. But for Fletcher's purposes, any motivation will do as long as it becomes an obsession. Taunting Neimann about his dad is just one of Fletcher's strategies. Fletcher doles out psychological and physical abuse so extreme it's impossible to believe it could fly under the radar today at any real fine arts school.

But we must remember: "Whiplash" is a fantasy, and the school is the monster's hunting ground.

One can't overstate what an imposing presence Simmons is. The 60-year-old actor makes Fletcher  all muscle and sinew, powered by rage. Neimann never stands a chance. Each time he seems to take initiative or notch a victory, Fletcher is there to end it. Even when we finally reach the Screenwriting 101 happy ending, we can't take it at face value.

Thanks to Simmons, Chazelle has made a great if hard-to-watch movie, just probably not the one he thought he was making. If there were still video stores, "Whiplash" would belong in the horror aisle.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Culture Shock 03.05.15: We are all Spock

In a season 5 episode of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Trials and Tribble-ations," the crew of Deep Space Nine travels back in time to the events depicted in one of the original series' most beloved episodes, "The Trouble with Tribbles."

Seeing Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock walking down an Enterprise corridor, DS9's Dax (Terry Farrell) says, "I had no idea. ... He's so much more handsome in person. Those eyes!"

Avery Brooks' Capt. Sisko says, "Kirk had quite the reputation as a ladies' man."

To which Dax replies, "Not him. Spock!"

Three decades after the fact, "Star Trek" acknowledged what fans had long known: Kirk may have been the "ladies' man," but Leonard Nimoy's Spock was "Star Trek's" real sex symbol.

Nimoy died last week of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at age 83. The emotional outpouring that followed from fans worldwide was swift and overwhelming. No doubt Mr. Spock would have found the reaction fascinating but also logical.

Like most of his "Star Trek" co-stars, Nimoy was a working actor, paying the bills by taking guest roles in some of the 1960s' most popular TV shows before "Star Trek" came along. Mr. Spock was both a regular paycheck — every working actor's dream — and just another character role.

By the decade's end, Spock was on his way to becoming a cultural icon.

For a certain audience, Mr. Spock made being a geek cool decades before being a geek actually became cool. William Shatner's Kirk was for many of us a fantasy, the guy we'd like to be but knew we never could. He wasn't just a ladies' man. Kirk could go toe-to-claw with a Gorn and still trick a computer into self-destruction. The rest of the Enterprise crew were a multicultural collection of aspirational role models. Yet it was Spock — half-Vulcan, half-human — who most spoke to viewers.

Spock was aspirational, too. He was the smartest member of the Enterprise crew, famously logical, meticulous and curious. Yet he was also an outsider. He was the lone Vulcan on a ship crewed by Earthlings, but as half-human, he was also an outsider even on his home planet. His relationship with his father was strained, his love life was complicated and while he claimed to be in control of his emotions, it's more accurate to say Spock was emotionally repressed by choice.

Spock went beyond being a role model for aspiring science nerds. Here was an adult who embodied all of the fears and insecurities of adolescence, no matter how well he hid them.

It was a role Nimoy embraced. Google "Nimoy fan letter" and you'll find his response to a fan letter he received in 1968 from a biracial girl who couldn't fit in among either whites or blacks. Nimoy speaks for his fictional character, but he could easily be drawing on some of his own experiences, growing up the Jewish kid in an Irish Catholic neighborhood.

He titled his 1975 memoir "I Am Not Spock" in part to show the distance between himself and the character he and many talented writers, especially D.C. Fontana and Theodore Sturgeon, had worked over three seasons to create. But Nimoy and Spock proved inseparable.

Nimoy returned to play Spock in eight movies (counting the two J.J. Abrams-directed reboot films) and in a couple of episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Even killing off Spock in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" didn't last. Nimoy also directed two Trek movies as well as the comedy "Three Men and a Baby." He took up writing and photography, and he took on other roles, from Paris in "Mission: Impossible" to, most recently, the enigmatic William Bell in "Fringe." He eventually wrote a second volume of memoirs, this time titled, "I Am Spock."

On Twitter, he invited us to think of him as our grandfather and dispensed grandfatherly advice, always concluding with Spock's Vulcan salutation, "LLAP" — "live long and prosper."

In the end, there is perhaps no better epitaph for Nimoy than the one Kirk provided Nimoy's alter ego in "Star Trek II": "Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most — human."