Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, September 07, 2006
      ( 9/07/2006 03:39:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"THE WORLD IS NOT BEAUTIFUL; THEREFORE, IT IS." – Me, I've gotta wonder what Tokyopop is specifically talking about when they refer to "the beauty in life's imperfections," but this contest over at ADD's blog for what looks to be T-Pop’s new line of teen fantasy novels is worth noting . . .
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      ( 9/07/2006 02:34:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"SUMMER IT'S GONE, AND I DON'T KNOW" – Time was summertime used to be the suckiest season for teevee viewers. But ever since teevee execs realized that plenty of us lazyass Americans didn't want to leave the house at night even when it's still light outside (Man, I've already taken off my shoes! And, besides, there are mosquitoes with West Nile out there!), that dire situation has happily changed. With new packages of original programming popping up to fill the basic cable dog days, there plenty of stuff equal to (and some cases, superior to) the fare offering during the prime television season. In many cases, the compact nature of the summer bloc (12-13 eps to the traditional 22) works to these show's benefit: less filler, more great taste. And now that summer has unofficially passed with the Labor Day Weekend, let's consider five series that I found indispensable this year.
  • Deadwood (HBO): Man, will I miss this show, though it's a miracle even HBO allowed it to stay on for as long as it did. I'd argue that the series' third and final season was its strongest to date – which is really saying something: tough and poetic and surprising and heartbreakingly human. Where many westerns purport to show us how the wild west was tamed, Deadwood actually gets a the story by detailing the awkward and rocky process of community building, showing us characters who more traditionally would've been shoved into the villain role as vital components of the "civilizing" process. Bonus points for the best written dialog and use of canny character actors on television. Oh yeah, and Ian McShane was fuckin' robbed by Emmy once again . . .

  • Eureka (Sci-Fi): Hard to follow David Milch's creation with anything of comparable stature, so let's not even try – and instead take note of an utterly frivolous sci-fi comedy set in a mythical Pacific Northwestern small town packed with mad brainiacs. As the regular guy sheriff dropped into Eureka to keep things orderly, Colin Ferguson has an appealing way with a quip – plus any show which gives Matt Frewer free range to chaw the scenery is okay by me. To this viewer, much more fun than the sturm & drang of Battlestar Galactica, but then you probably disagree, right? I like that they paired it up with reruns of Dead Like Me, too.

  • Life on Mars (BBC America): We know hero Sam Tyler won't make it out of 1973 by the end of the season (hey, what about that kidnapped ex-?) But our hero's plight – smart modern cop stuck in an era when even the chase music was tacky – is colored with enough comedy and angst to make me wanna sit though another season of his travails. Points go to the rest of the cast (snarly Philip Glenister, in particular), playing Sam's (possibly imaginary) peers without a trace of winking condescension. Great use of Sweet and Alex Harvey songs on the soundtrack, too – the most left field delight of the summer season.

  • Psych (USA): And then there's Psych, which plays to the already established comedy/mystery audience USA built with Monk (which has all but abandoned mystery in favor of one or two admittedly-funny comic set-pieces per episode). Lightweight fun, with great interplay between James Roday's fake psychic Shawn and his foil Gus (Dulé Hill). Thumbs up for setting the season's last mystery at a comic book con: if the nerd jokes were obvious, many of the pop culture ones weren't – and, unlike his recent appearance on Bill Shatner's Comedy Central Roast, George Takei was actually funny!

  • Weeds (Showtime): When you consider that Showtime's last half-hour sitcom was Fat Actress, Weeds' accomplishment is, well, like following Arliss with The Larry Sanders Show. Second season of this pot-dealing housewife series started in mid-August and has already taken two startling but believable plot turns. The key is Mary Louise Parker's believably frazzled bourgeois dope peddler: as appealing and exasperating a sitcom lead as you could hope to find. Both generous and appropriately mean-spirited when it needs to be, Weeds is not just the best cable sitcom currently running, it's one of the best, period. How good is this comedy? Good enough to make Kevin frickin' Nealon a comedian!
(Nearly added to the above list, but left off due to sheer impulsiveness on my part: TNT's The Closer and BBC America's Hex.)

Summer also had its share of total suckiness, of course, but I tried to steer clear of it, focusing on House and The Wire reruns when the going got really bad. I honestly wanted to like ABC Family's Three Moons Over Milford – we could do with a decent whimsical small-town dramedy, I thought – but the show's writing and acting proved so far from convincing, it was like watching the community theater troupe from Waiting for Guffman put on their own syndicated series. Caught five minutes of Sci-Fi's Who Wants to Be A Superhero while recording the 11:05 showing of Eureka one night – and found just that small dose excruciating. Has any man pissed on his legacy as thoroughly as Stan Lee? Watching "The Man" ask the self-titled Fat Mama if her plus-sized self made an appropriate role model for the kids, I could only sigh and think back to Tracy Turnblad's Council interview in the movie Hairspray, where a variation on the same question was put in the mouth of Amber Van Tussle, the movie's spoiled brat teenaged bitch. Just damn sad, sez I, sadder than the end of summer . . .
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      ( 9/07/2006 04:40:00 AM ) Bill S.  

NETWORK PRACTICES – While I don't consider it kosher to comment on a telemovie that I haven't seen (and don't really plan on watching, for that matter), I do find it telling that ABC – after letting a bunch of conservapundits into an advanced screening of The Path to 9/11 – refused to offer the same courtesy to Bill Clinton or any other Clinton Administration officials who are reportedly targeted in the flick.
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      ( 9/07/2006 04:14:00 AM ) Bill S.  

A DONATION PLEA – Though everybody else in the comics blogosphere has already written about it, I figured it can't hurt to add mention of comic artist Lea Hernandez's devastating house fire here. Donations through PayPal (to divalea@gmail.com) to help Lea and her family get through this have been set up, while Lea herself has written about the aftershock on her LiveJournal blog, Dangerous Beauty. And, while you're thinking about it, why not do a double-check on your smoke detector batteries?
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Wednesday, September 06, 2006
      ( 9/06/2006 02:38:00 PM ) Bill S.  

BOTTOMS UP – A question from last night's season premiere: okay, we accepted young Matt's temporary(?) conversion into a skin-headed gay basher in last season's nip/tuck, but isn't Christian Troy a little bit old to start in with the adolescent homosexual panic? (I liked how writer/director Ryan Murphy messed w./ the character's long-established positional preference, though. . .)
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      ( 9/06/2006 07:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

ONE LESS ANIMAL ON THE PLANET – I'm mainly with Sean when it comes to considering the cut-short life and works of "Croc Hunter" Steve Irwin – though I personally found his Animal Planet show and persona quickly grew wearisome. If a good chunk of his teevee shtick was nothing more than an updating of the big top putting-yer-head-in-a-lion's-mouth act, he surrounded it with enough edumacation to make the sugar go down. Wonder which cable net'll first be showing that goofy movie of his?
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Tuesday, September 05, 2006
      ( 9/05/2006 01:51:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"BUT YOU'RE NOT EVEN SURE WHAT IT IS" – To go alongside the recent release of Modern Times, here's a YouTube vid from Have Mercy's deservedly best-known track:

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      ( 9/05/2006 11:55:00 AM ) Bill S.  

TUMBLIN' & ROLLIN' – Though I've very much enjoyed the two Bob Dylan studio releases that preceded his newest, Modern Times, neither one of 'em really managed to grab me by the ears and shout, "Pay attention, Bub!" the way my favorite Dylan elpees did. Yet listening to his latest disc, I found myself getting pulled into the music in a way I haven't been since – oh, Blood on the Tracks, maybe? Stylistically, it doesn't sound much different from Time Out of Mind or Love And Theft: our man's still singing his blend of country blues, old-styled r-&-r and Tin Pan Alley in the leisurely croak he's adopted in his later years, while his band largely stays dutifully behind him. The secret lies in the words – of which there are once more many – which Dylan slings onto his basic musical constructions with dogged faith in his audience's willingness to follow 'em wherever they might circuitously lead. Results: a freakin' great Dylan album!
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Monday, September 04, 2006
      ( 9/04/2006 08:16:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SIXTY MINUTE MANGA – (This Month's Episode: School is in.)

Blame Jog (of the Blog fame) for this 'un. It was his review that sparked my interest in Kazuo Umezu's The Drifting Classroom (Viz Signature), a "Mature" horror manga originally (as the helpful selected bibliography tells us in the back of the book) run in 1972-4. Like Tokyopop's Dragon Head, Umezu's series tells the story of a group of schoolchildren who suddenly and inexplicably find themselves trapped in a space far from home. But while Mochizuki's Dragon Head works hard at deliberately conveying a believable sense of doom and dread, Classroom bounds into energetic outlandish melodrama. This difference in approach is suited to the ages of each series' leads: where the hero of Dragon is a teenager, Umezu's Sho is a somewhat hyperactive sixth grader. But my suspicion, based on just one volume of this series, is that Umezu is by nature a much louder cartoonist than Mochizuki.

The first book opens with a series of boisterous arguments between our hero Sho Takamatsu and his overly serious mother: Sho rushes off to school with the fight (in part spurred by the fact that his mother has tossed away a drawer full of childish toys) unresolved. "If it weren't for what happened next," Sho tells us in narration, "the whole fight would have been quickly forgotten . . . just another part of our daily lives." But, instead, catastrophe strikes. With a large sonic boom, the entire Yamoto Elementary School grounds disappear, leaving nothing but a large gaping hole. (We're shown this from the perspective of one of Sho's schoolmates, who is late for class.) Sho, the rest of the student body and their teachers have likewise disappeared with the school, gone to who-knows-where, an object lesson in why you should never leave your loved ones on a harsh note.

Yamoto Elementary has, mysteriously, shifted to a dark and desolate alien landscape. Cut off from family and the rest of the outside world, Sho and his classmates are on the verge of panicking. Their adult teachers don't seem to be faring much better, struggling to maintain order over a group of children that run the gamut from first through sixth grade. In one memorable moment, a teacher grabs his own son and cuts him on the arm with a piece of broken glass in order to shock a group of freaked-out kids into calming down. When once the lines 'tween teacher and student were more routinely friendly and forgiving (just before the catastrophe, we see the sixth grade teacher excuse those students who didn't bring their lunch money to class), the school setting has immediately become more polarized.

To make matters worse, our unwilling castaways seem to be stranded inside the school: when one of the students makes a dash across the foreboding landscape, he collapses just out of sight and doesn't appear to get up. There's only a limited amount of food since lunches are delivered daily, and Sho – who raced to school after an unresolved fight with his mother, remember – didn't even have breakfast. Desperate to reach his mom, he attempts to reach her by phone (a thought that doesn't appear to have occurred to any of the adults yet); he runrunruns to the teacher's lounge but to no avail since the phones are out of order. To keep the rest of the school from panicking, Sho's teacher convinces him to act as if he was able to get through to his mother. But the rest of his classmates don't buy it, in part because reluctant liar Sho does such a poor job lying. In this you can see the seeds of a conflict between students and teachers already brewing: the adults are willing to say and do anything to maintain even the semblance of order – even if it doesn't really help the situation – even if it's at the expense of one or more of their charges.

While the American publication is rated for a "Mature" audience, Umezu's art is beautifully keyed into capturing a pre-teen point-of-view. Though relatively realistic in his figures, cartoonish expressions and physical movements are largely the order of the day. Even during the violent moments (and there are several of 'em), I found myself thinking of the sardonic horror art of Jack Davis & Johnny Craig. (There's a two-page panel of the school principal holding his bleeding head that looks like it could've been a cover to The Vault of Horror.) Just the sort of comics that a sixth grader like Sho would've dug, I bet . . .

A promising horror series, methinks: between this and Monster, Viz's older readers Signature series looks to be one to watch . . .

NOTE: This entry was originally supposed to be about Atsushi Kaneko's Bambi And Her Pink Gun, but as I note down below, that ultra-vi comic hitgirl series has reportedly been snuffed by its American publisher DMP after a mere two volumes . . .


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Sunday, September 03, 2006
      ( 9/03/2006 08:50:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LABOR DAY WEEKEND PET PIC – A Kyan Pup head shot:

NOTE: If you wanna see more dogg blogging, check out the weekly "Carnival of the Dogs" at Mickey's Musings. And for a broader array of companion animals, there's Modulator's "Friday Ark."
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      ( 9/03/2006 06:24:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"A PSYCHIC FREAK-OUT IN TRANS-ETHERIC VISION" – Some flicks – as most devotees of psychotronic cinema know and love – are so removed from mundane constraints like competent moviemaking that to watch 'em is like hotwiring yourself into someone's 18th nervous breakdown. One such inadvertent postcard from the edge is the 1972 horror sexfilm, Psyched by the 4D Witch, a startling piece of cut-&-paste psychedelic ineptitude that can presently be seen as the bottom half of a DVD double bill with Herschel Gordon Lewis & William Rebane's MST3000 fodder Monster A-Go Go courtesy the obsessive cheeseheads at Something Weird Video. The sole feature credited to the clearly pseudonymous Victor Luminera, Psyched tells the non-story of a pimply-nosed junior college student named Cindy (Margo), who accidentally conjures up the spirit of a vengeful witch named Abigail (the delightfully named Esoterica) by basically sitting on the floor of her apartment nekkid and waving a couple candles around.

Abigail, who was once put to death in Salem for engaging in "sexual witchcraft," utilizes Cindy as a vessel for her own gratification. Inhabiting the fourth dimension with a "host of astral demons" who look like they wandered in from a Kenneth Anger short, the witch prods the virginal (so virginal, she’s never even had an orgasm while masturbating) Cindy into a series of sexual fantasy adventures that grow progressively more debauched (her mystic incantation: "Let's fantasy fuck now!") Duped Cindy agrees to indulge in these dream adventures because Abigail assures her she'll remain pure (our heroine's response – "I'll still remain a virgin for my daddy!" – is profoundly disturbing), but it soon becomes clear that these sexual adventures are also having an effect on the real world. Her best friend Jan (Sandra Lane), forced to copulate with a snake on the astral plane [insert not-so-topical joke here] while Cindy helplessly watches, ends up in a coma. When our heroine fights back against the mind-controlling sorceress, Abigail retaliates by turning the girl's brother Mark (Tom Yerian) into a "sex vampire" with awkwardly protruding fangs.

Told entirely in voiceover by a trio of non-actors (poor Margo stumbles over her lines more than once), Psyched combines city travelogue footage, scenes from soft-core sex flick (all you see are head shots of characters in the throes of poorly acted sexual ecstasy and a lotta bare breasts) with shots and overlays that look like a student attempt at recreating a sixties era underground feature. Sinisterly masked creatures regularly loom into the camera like they were auditioning for the orgy scenes in Eyes Wide Shut; a snake puppet bobbles in and out of the frame; scratched film and solarized light shows are used to suggest sexual arousal and mind-blowing climax – all very faux trippy. (More than one character makes reference to this being "just like an LSD trip.") Stock classical music like "Bolero" and "Night on Bald Mountain" is frequently used to clumsily ratchet up the drama – at one point, we hear ominous orchestration as the camera shows a dog watching ducks in a pond – like some Music Appreciation Class from Hell. Even cooler is the movie's garagey theme song, which gets repeated so often that it's impossible to get out of your head afterwards. (Why haven't the Cramps ever recorded this baby?)

Like H.G. Lewis' Jimmy, the Boy Wonder, Victor Luminera's masterwork appears to have been sloppily pasted together from several uncompleted movies: the tacked-on "sex vampire" subplot in the film's final third has no real connection to what we've seen before – and is so poorly night-filmed that we can barely see what's taking place, anyway. The voiceover dialog used to limply tie things together is hysterically clunky ("My heart pounded even faster as I watched what ensued," chirpy voiced Cindy tells us as her sex vamp brother starts foaming at the mouth) and the music so raggedly inserted that it often cuts off mid-note. "Could this really be happening?" a voiceover asks in full Shatnerian mode. "Or is it all a nightmare . . . I'm dreaming?" I'm guessing the movie theater audience had pretty much the same question back in 1972 . . .

Astral slut Cindy ultimately escapes the 4D Witch (or does she?) by experiencing a "real flesh-and-blood climax" (or does she?) at hands of her best friend's psychiatrist father, who perishes (or, etc.?) as the two come together (or do they?) Lady Chatterley-style. "If my daddy could only see me now!" Cindy squeaks in voiceover, making us all really wonder about the never-seen old man. The movie ends with an ominous warning from Abby. The etheric dimension is real, she states, and you out there in the audience might be her next victim. "Not me," most of the audience thinks, "I've had an orgasm once!"

UPDATE: Psyched fan Aaron Neathery, writing in email about Something Weird's decision to release the film beneath Monster A-Go Go, sez:
I find it amazing that something so off the wall and unique takes a backseat to Bill "Giant Spider Invasion" Rebane's nearly unwatchable Monster A-Go Go on the SW DVD. The big question in my mind is whether or not a film can be deemed inept if the filmmakers weren't trying to achieve "ept" in the first place. PBT4DW knows no laws of filmmaking and seems perfectly happy with that.
Considering that SWV got its company name from a Herschel Gordon Lewis film, it's not surprising to see 'em pushing A-Go Go up front, even if Lewis' involvement in the film was reportedly rather limited. Me, I'm glad to see Something Weird packed its DVD with so much psychotronic goodness: in addition to the two features, there are three horror shorts of plus a gallery of drive-in movie trailers. I can only hope those Fangoria readers who bought the disc to complete their collection of Lewis marginalia had their minds totally blown by the 4D Witch . . .
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Friday, September 01, 2006
      ( 9/01/2006 01:35:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THIS CITY?" – Packaged under the meant-to-be-evocative title "Dark Moon Rising," writer/artist Matt Wagner's Batman mini-series, Batman & the Monster Men and Batman & the Mad Monk, look to the character's early years a lá Frank Miller's Batman: Year One. But where Miller's sensitivity in his considering of Young Batman took from hard-boiled cheeseballs like Mickey Spillane, Wagner is akin to Edgar Rice Burroughs or Lester Dent, more proudly boyish in his treatment – even if we do get to see Bruce Wayne's latest ladyfriend in a moment of post-coital bliss. If the results lack the "significance" of Miller's over-elevated Dark Knight books, in their own way they're even more fun: comic book versions of forties Monogram B-pictures.

Both Monster Men (currently released as a trade pb collecting all six issues of the limited run title) and Mad Monk (just beginning its six ish run) focus on a Bruce Wayne still so new to the crimefighting biz (in the first series, we get the first appearance of a Batmobile) that he's actually optimistic about the fact that he has a "girlfriend." Said object of his doomed affection is one Julie Madison (a briefly-seen player from early Detective Comics), whose father is on the hook to shady underworld types. (This is Gotham City, after all.) Though Bruce and Julie are going at it hot and heavy, it's clear Dad's gonna eventually gum things up as we watch him deteriorate into full-blown alcoholism over the series.

The heavy in mini-series one is Dr. Hugo Strange, who gets to play mad scientist to the hilt – genetically manipulating criminally insane inmates of Arkham Asylum into knobby, cannibalistic giants. Strange is abetted by a sinister Hindu named Sanjay who hopes that the professor's unconventional researches will help his invalid brother. (What? Strange couldn't find a hunchback for his second-in-command?) To finance his researches, the mad doctor is in debt to the same gangsters holding a leash on Julie’s father. Gotham City's just one big small town.

As written by Wagner, Strange is the type of arrogant, insecure baddie whose response to a rich bitch's sneering put-down is to toss her and her drunk boyfriend into a cell with his flesh-eating creations. Kind puts a lie to the guy's assertions that he's doing his vile researches for the good of humanity, but, then, long-time Bat readers knew that was a crock, anyway. Besides, it's no different from what George Zucco would've done. As the various players – Strange, Julie's Dad, gangster Sal Maroni – dance around the subplot of illicit loans and i.o.u.s, we the readers mainly look forward to a final confrontation 'tween Batman and Strange's monster men.

This finally happens, though the results are dampened by artist Wagner's seeming inability to get a handle on just how big his gigantic-ized monster men are (a captionless cover showing our hero dangling by the cape from a MMan's grip doesn't help matters here either.) All of a sudden, we've moved from Monogram Pictures to Bert I. Gordon, and the results ain't pretty. Too, a bit where one of the creatures appears to have died, only to pop up later in true horrorflick fashion, is seriously bobbled. Wavering giants aside, however, Wagner's art has a rough edge to it that is appealing, even if he does occasionally make his ingénue heroine look like a sharp-chinned harpy. In a perverse way, it hearkens back to comics' Golden Age, when city boys with only a smidgeon of art training could become comic artists – and their kid audience was completely satisfied with every undue body construct.

Still, Wagner has fun working with the World of Early Batman. Though much of the action in Monster Men is set indoors (as if further replicating the soundstage look of B-movies), he still manages to convey a believably retro Gotham City. His caped crusader is not as hard-cased as he'll later become under the presentday Dark Knight rubric – and is more interesting for it. Bruce even commits a clear strategic blunder by calling Julie's father by his first name, while wearing the costume – an act that you know will impact on future episodes of "Dark Moon Rising."

Mad Monk follows not long after the events in Monster Men: Bruce is still dating Julie Madison, while her father is descending even further into pathetic alcoholism. Future Commissioner Jim Gordon – seen for brief bits in the first Wagner graphic novel – has more a prominent role in this second outing, facing off a trio of corrupt policemen on a station rooftop while waiting for the Bat to make an appearance, escorting the costumed crimefighter into the city morgue. Monk's primary heavy doesn't make an appearance in the first chapter (though Golden Age afficianados and readers of DC's Batman Archives might understandably start wondering if he's connected to the werewolf Monk who appeared in Detective Comics #31 & 32), but the villain who does – an exotically tattooed, leather-clad seductress – proves sufficiently pulpish to pique our interests. (Newly borne Catwoman also makes an appearance in the first ish opening, but it's unclear whether she'll have a more prominent role in the storyline.) If the horror tone in this second outing is a trace more modern than it was in MMen – there's a hint of C.S.I.work in the coroner scene – it's still agreeably B-pic. (Howling 2 perhaps?) Works for me . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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