Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, October 07, 2005
      ( 10/07/2005 02:45:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"SO MANY WAYS TO BE FAT" – Sometime collaborator and full-time fat admirer Wilson Barbers provides a take on Bravo's "Great Things About Being Fat" countdown show. I caught that entry and the next night's "Great Things About Being Gay," and I personally found 'em more amusing than the usual cable net countdown program – perhaps because neither one featured Hal Sparks doin' in-studio commentary? One thing I do know: I wish Frank DeCaro (a celeb commentator for both the Fat and Gay shows) was still doing movie pieces for The Daily Show.
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Thursday, October 06, 2005
      ( 10/06/2005 01:34:00 PM ) Bill S.  

ACONITUM LYCOCTONUM – Though I'm generally as wary of the High Concept as AiT publisher Larry Young is enamored with it, I've gotta admit that there are some HCs that are well nigh irresistible. Among 'em – for this monster-adoring reader, at least – is the selling point for Joe Casey, Caleb Gerard & Damian Couceiro's Full Moon Fever (AiT/Planet Lar). Werewolves on the moon? Okay, you've gotta really screw things up to completely lose me on that 'un . . .

So, let's this out of the way first: Casey & company don't screw things up.

The story revolves around an Off-World Waste Disposal Crew (cousins to the intergalactic garbagemen of John Carpenter's Dark Star or the bickersome working stiffs of Ridley Scott's Alien) sent on the shuttle Deliverance to a research station moon base to work on the plumbing. Comprised of two "jarhead" pilots and a quartet of "paycheck players" who actually do the dirty work, the crew is more than a little contemptuous of the scientist types they're being sent across space to aid: "These eggheads can't figure out their own waste disposal systems," one of 'em grouses. But the seemingly mundane work order quickly goes bad. First sign that something is Just Not Right: nobody from the base answers when Deliverance gets ready to land. It's up to technician Zeke Kirby (we can tell he's the hero since he's the only one given a family back on Earth) to get them into the moon base safely.

It's not giving much away to note that not long after our sextet has disembarked from their shuttle, they start getting picked off by a pack of lycanthropes. Casey builds the unveiling of his menace with full attention to the basics of monster story tease-&-reveal (first we just see "something sticky" on the floor, then a swishing claw, then a back shot of something chewing on a body, 'til we finally get to see the creature - familiar stuff, but it still works) and artist Gerard & Couciero efficiently present the lonely moon base as an isolated place where you're shit out of luck once the monsters come. The only moment where the artists stumble is a scene where the story cuts between several repairmen wandering through the base and Kirby still working on a pipe – when the panels jump from a horrified face shot of two workers seeing somp'n grisly to a back shot of Kirby huddled over some pipes, the first reaction we have is that we're seeing a hunched-over corpse. It took me a couple more panels and some back-tracking before I could scan how that sequence actually worked.

Scripter Casey is economical (perhaps a trace too much so) in parsing out story info – when someone points out a working microwave oven as they first walk through the moon base, you just known it'll later be used (same goes for an item given to Kirby as a birthday present) – while characterization barely goes above rudimentary. Those familiar with Hollywood werewolf lore ("Even a man who's pure at heart and says his prayers at night . . .") will also suss out where the beasts come from long before the hero does. But as a plain ol' Trapped in A Bad Place horror tale, Full Moon Fever is enthusiastically and honestly told – even if the surprises are as spare as Casey's character details. (I prefer the noiry embellishments of his earlier Codeflesh.) But still . . . werewolves on the moon? I kin dig it . . .
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Tuesday, October 04, 2005
      ( 10/04/2005 11:38:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"I DRIVE AT NIGHT" – Like many horror fans, I've had mixed feelings about the idea of an updated version of The Night Stalker: the original Dan Curtis production is one of those nostalgic touchstones that you hate to see defaced by a slipshod re-imagining. But to a certain extent Hollywood has always been about cannibalizing and remaking itself, and the practice hasn't always yielded disastrous re-takes. (The Maltese Falcon, for example, was lensed twice before John Huston's definitive Bogey version, with much less time elapsing between remakes.) Still, in an era where revisionism seems to've surpassed fresh creativity and the shocks of my youth keep getting retold in slicker forms (I'm dreading the remake of The Fog), I was feeling pretty unsure about Frank Spotnitz's new take on rumpled ol' Carl Kolchak.

But any discussion of the original Kolchak should probably begin with an essential distinction: between the first permutation played by Darren McGavin in two TV-movies (The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler) and the "Brilliant But Cancelled" teleseries that followed in their wake. As scripted by Richard Matheson and directed by Curtis, the movie-length Kolchak adventures are fairly straightforward horror adventures. The subsequent series, though still starring McGavin, was frequently a more tongue-in-cheek affair: the actor remained unsurpassed as the anything-for-a-story hard-luck free-lancer, but some of the scripts could be pretty damn silly – like an early Bob Gale & Bob Zemeckis offering about a headless motorcyclist.

Since the new Stalker is being overseen by a writer who'd worked on the Kolchak-indebted X-Files, I was pretty certain from the onset that the model they'd be working from would owe more to the movies than the series. And from the opening segment (our hero driving through the darkly ominous L.A. streets, telling us in voiceover about "stories of strange deaths, endless suffering, and horrors" beyond imagining), it was obvious that this was the tone the show was striving for. Hired by old buddy Tony Vincenzo (Cotter Smith) to be a night reporter for the L.A. Beacon, Kolchak (Stuart Townsend) drives around the city, listening to his police scanner with a particular ear for anything that's out of the ordinary. The first crime our hero happens upon takes place in a half-finished housing development named Sunrise Vista: there, a young-&-pregnant housewife has been brutally murdered by something not quite human, though, of course, the police immediately start suspecting the woman's husband.

Carl knows different, of course, but unlike the original series, he keeps his theories close to his chest. Turns out our hero has his own dark secrets – which connect to the unsolved murder of his wife back in Las Vegas (setting for the original Night Stalker movie) and a mysterious mark that appeared on her wrist – which has made him the object of F.B.I. scrutiny. His new colleague Perri Reed (the trés statuesque Gabrielle Union) isn't sure how to take this man who seemingly knows too much too quickly, and since they're competing for the same stories, we can understand her ambivalence. (To the F.B.I., he's still a murder suspect.) Young Jimmy Olsen-esque photog Jain (Eric Jungmann) doesn't share her qualms, though.

The murderous somethings, which could be either dogs or wolves (we're never given a definitive answer), turn out to be held up in a cave not too far from the housing development. After they carry off the murder victim's young niece (a nicely developed sequence that steals a visual joke from Joe Dante's The Howling), our journalistic trio ultimately winds up descending into that cave. By now, most of the savvier parts of the audience are going, "Didn't I see this scene umpteen times on X-Files?" To which all the sleazy males in the audience reply, "Yeah, but Gabrielle Union shows more leg than Gillian Anderson!"

And, make no mistake, the biggest difference between today's Stalker and the original is a cosmetic one. Where the original Carl Kolchak was a middle-aged sartorial disaster, barely scraping by in a dead-end job, this new version fits the standard unshaven male eye candy mold. On the first teleseries, the only women we saw working the night shift were plump and frumpy, nowhere near the late-nite Brenda Starr played by Union. Heck, even Tony V., the editor who hires Kolchak in spite of the man's past, looks nuthin' like the fat 'n' dyspeptic editor first played by Simon Oakland. When even the grumpy editors are required to look handsome, you have to wonder whether our capacity to fantasize isn't being thoughtlessly curtailed. Too much emphasis on looks-for-looks-sake works against the scares – if the only ones to put themselves in danger are a bunch of Hollywood glamour-pusses, then what've I got the worry about, after all? And how does a recently hired night reporter get a house in L.A. with a pool, anyway?

In the end, I wound up neither feeling incensed by Night Stalker's remake nor all that enthused by it either. If the Spotniz Version lacks the campiness of the monster-a-week Dan Curtis teleseries, it also misses the hard-boiled cheekiness that McGavin brought to the character. Where the original movies and teleseries were narrated to us by Kolchak – the reporter telling his Strange and Unusual Stories to anyone who would listen – the new version saves the voiceovers for the opening alone. Now our hero is really more concerned with finding out the truth behind the forces responsible for his wife's death than with writing about Dark Secrets that They Don't Want You to Know. Perhaps it's easier these days for audiences to believe in a reporter with a hidden personal agenda than in one committed to pursuing the truth at all cost?

Now that's truly scary.
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Monday, October 03, 2005
      ( 10/03/2005 12:10:00 PM ) Bill S.  

GOT THE MUSIC IN ME – A few small bits of music bizness to note this Monday:
  • Put up a new Lyric of the Month yesterday and only afterwards remembered that Johnny Barcardi has made ongoing reference to said song in the right hand column of his blog. But, hey, it's one of Harrison's best songs, and it sure as heck still seems pertinent in these days of I've Got Mine. So let's keep it up until it gets closer to Halloween, okay?

  • Have been reworking and revising my Rhino Records tribute section off and on during the past month, and I reinstated the first two pages over the weekend. Third page is in the works, with more to hopefuly come.

  • Had one of those songs stuck in my head for most of the morning today: Supertramp's "Hide in Your Shell." I'm not a big Supertramp buff, but somehow that song always manages to pull me in, especially in the last minute when the unidentified chorus swoops in asking Roger Hodgson "So whatcha gonna take him to?" (Or somp'n like that.) In self-defense, I wound up going out at lunch and finally getting the New Pornographers' disc (about which, more later) to cleanse my ears. As I type this, it seems to be doing the trick.

  • Spouse Becky and I had a bet going at the showing of Serenity as to where they'd place the theme song from the mini-series. I held that we wouldn't hear it until the last roll of the credits, and though they play a few games with variations on the theme before that, I contend that I won the bet. Only got the instrumental version, which isn't necessarily a bad thing . . .
More later.
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Sunday, October 02, 2005
      ( 10/02/2005 09:24:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"MOMMY, YOU SMELL DIFFERENT!" – Of all the "They're Comin' to Get Ya" programs out this season, ABC's Invasion sets its premise closest to home. Placed in a small Florida town, the Shaun Cassidy-created series follows the travails of a family of small-town Floridians in the midst of an as-yet-undefined invasion begun under cover of a hurricane. (The hurricane, which takes up much of the first episode, reportedly forced the network to retool some of its early promo ads in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and it's still kinda odd in the second episode to hear a character compare the storm to Hurricane Andrew when we have a much more current measuring comp to be made.)

Where many dark 'n' creepy series focus on isolated outsiders (Wasn't it Charles Grant who observed that much horror fiction is about loneliness?) a lá Night Stalker and Supernatural or elite brainy types operating under the auspices of the government (Threshold and, to a certain extent, Surface), the concerns in Invasion are deliberately more localized and familial. Nearly all the major characters we meet in the first two episodes have a messy family connection with each: stalwart park ranger Russell (Eddie Cibrion) is married to local teevee reporter Larkin (Liz Sheridan), but shares his kids with his doctor ex-wife Mariel (Kari Matchett) who is now married to local sheriff Tom Underlay (William Fichtner). Russell's two kids, teenaged Jesse (Evan Peters) & seven-year-old Rose (Ariel Grace) primarily live with the Underlays, while Jesse has the hots for his step-sister Kira (Alexis Dziena). "Temporarily" staying with Russell & Larken is the latter's goofus brother Dave Groves (Tyler Labine), a boozy UFO nut who is first to start slinging around theories of alien invasion the moment strange things start happening.

Of course, it's the little girl Rose who catches on ahead of everyone else that something's a-comin'. Running off in pursuit of her cat Carlita in the midst of the storm, she sees an array of flashing lights descending from the sky into the marshy waters, and as the series progresses we learn that she's not the only one acquainted these mysterious lights. Both Russell and Mariel freak out when they learn that the little girl is out in the storm, and they head out separately in search of her. The latter herself disappears and ultimately found floating in the marshland waters. Once she's revived, we immediately start getting hints that she somehow changed. "That's not my mommy," the recovered Rose states, and we're pretty certain the kid is right.

Cassidy uses his divided and extended family situation as a means of ratcheting up the parental anxiety: specifically, the nervousness a divorced couple can feel when their kids are with the other former spouse. When the hurricane strikes, the two kids are staying with Russell, which causes Mariel to freak and demand to see 'em to make sure they're safe. Once they return to the inexplicably different ex-wife, Russell starts to feel anxiety. It's all about wanting to protect your family, he notes in the second episode, and, sure enough, the first night the kids are with their biological mom she leaves 'em at home all night without once calling to check in. Doc Underlay is changing, alright, but she clearly hasn't gone all the way since she has the wherewithal to be upset by her seeming lapse in parental vigilance. The same can't be said for her second hubby Sheriff Tom, however, who spends most of the first two eps looking way too ominously knowing. He, it turns out, has also seen the lights.

Much of the first two eps garner most of their creeps from this Invasion of the Body Snatcher type scenario, though we do get a few clues about the nature of the forces behind the titular Invasion. Coerced by his comically conspiratorial brother-in-law into venturing out into the marshes once again, Russell comes across a glowing light in the water – which sucks his brother in and leaves strange marks all over him. The duo discover a strange mutated skeleton with all sorts of strange bones sticking out in unfamiliar places, but before they can examine it more closely, it's stolen from the trunk of Dave's car, with only Mariel's missing wedding ring left behind. So is that skeleton the real Mariel, we're left to ponder – or the remains of whatever apparently has inserted itself into Mariel? Way too soon in the season to tell . . .

As dark 'n' creepy teledrama, Invasion makes atmospheric use of its hemmed-in (by the second episode, the government has come in to quarantine the town) swampy setting, though whether the series' writers'll be able to maintain an involving story over the long haul in this restricted space is still up for grabs. While Lost, to be sure, is equally as bound to place, its regular use of flashbacks has given the series plenty of room to open things up; Invasion's more limited focus makes it more incumbent for us to get at least a smidgeon of an idea of what Cassidy's Tommyknockers are up to, else we give up on the show by mid-October in frustration. The first two episodes delivered a couple of nice jolts and have done a fairly good job in establishing the unease (credit Fitchner's sinister mien for much of the latter), but, on the basis of what we've seen to date, I have to wonder whether Invasion isn't a potentially good mini-series in danger of being stretched beyond its effectiveness . . .
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Saturday, October 01, 2005
      ( 10/01/2005 10:48:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"HERE'S US . . . ON THE RAGGEDY EDGE" – Took us months to make it to the theater for the final Star Wars – and we won't be seeing any of the year's big comic book flicks 'til they show on television. But both my wife and I had to be at the first public showing of Serenity, the movie follow-up to Joss Whedon's short-lived teleseries Firefly. We'd fallen for the sci-fi western when it first ran on Fox and were in the midst of revisiting it for the second time (along with those four unaired episodes) on the Firefly boxed set. So we definitely wanted to see how Whedon resolved one of the show's biggest hanging plotlines.

Well, now we've seen it, and we're both agreeing that the Big Story – the abduction and neurological transformation of River Tam (Summer Glau), the seventeen-year-old psychically gifted/half psychotic girl who is pursued by the story’s evil Alliance – has been handled well indeed. An additional cherry on the sundae: the way River's story ties into another running Firefly plotline, the presence of an army of face-peeling cannibalistic space-dwellers called the Reavers.

To those unfamiliar with the original series, Firefly concerned the flights of a ragtag crew of futuristic felons, living on the edge of colonized space in the 26th Century. The leader of the ship, Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillian), is one of two survivors on the losing side of the last great battle against the Alliance, the political force overriding the planets. (His second-in-command, Gina Torres' Zoe, is the other one to've come out intact from the fight.) Using a rattletrap ship which Mal's named after that fateful battle, Mal and his crew work as criminal free-lancers (first time we see 'em in the movie, they're robbing the payroll of an Alliance-connected security company), while also periodically taking on passengers like the regal professional companion Inara (Morena Baccarin) and mysterious man of the cloth, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass). But the real complication comes from young Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who has smuggled his sister River on board (a moment not shown in the movie, though it's alluded to).

Serenity opens with a holographic flashback to Simon's rescue of his sister from the Alliance biomedical compound, as it's being witnessed by The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an elegantly menacing figure who's been assigned to retrieve River. It's a nice way of pulling newcomers into the basic story, and for those familiar with the series, we also learn that Simon has long been hiding some significant info from Mal and company. We're eight months after the girl's escape, so not too far along from events in the show, though two of the series regulars – Inara and Shepherd Book – are not on the ship when the story begins. Whedon brings both characters into the story, though aside from a lengthy sequence where Mal meets the Operative for the first time in Inara's quarters, neither one gets to do much. Me, I was hoping that we'd also learn a little about Book's mysterious past, but from the way things play, it looks like we won't even be getting that in a sequel either.

Inara's role on the ship is perhaps the most sketchily retold in the movie: where most of the characters' back-stories and interrelationships are quickly and succinctly limned for newcomers, hers feels the most sketchy – perhaps because we don't really meet the woman until after we've already watched the rest of Mal's crew in action. (Book has always been at root unknowable, Inara not.) The rest of the cast and crew are given their moments – ship's engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite, who for my money out-sexes both Torres and Baccarin, even with grease on her face); goofball pilot and "leaf-on-the-wind" Wash (Alan Tudyk), who bedecks his flight panel with plastic dinosaurs; and comically surly mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), who'd rather dump River in a shuttle and send her off the ship than unnecessarily place 'em under too much Alliance scrutiny. The cast, honed from fourteen episodes of series television, play off each other beautifully, and you can particularly see it in the scenes where crew and passengers gather in the ship's mess to worry and grouse about what's gonna happen next.

As writer and director of the film, Whedon ratchets up the action a smidgeon from the teleseries, which by and large works, though there were times I found myself yearning for the more deliberate pace that series television demands. Whedon makes fine use of the larger canvas the movie screen affords him – the ratchety nature of Serenity is felt more strongly on the big screen, where even the wooden handrails look like a cat's been using 'em as a scratching post – but I could've done with a few more intimate moments, too. Married couple Zoe & Wash really only get one good scene to establish their enjoyably passionate relationship, while a line where Mal notes that he knows a two-way communiqué from Inara is a trap because they didn't get into an argument falls flat unless you know the duo's volatile ups-&-downs from the show.

Still, as a sci-fi adventure, Serenity has more emotional heft than anything else that's come out this year – and will likely kick the ass of anything released next year, too. The concept of a sci-fi western is nuthin' new (lest we forget, Star Trek was first sold to network execs as "Wagon Train in space," while the teleseries Planet of the Apes had more than its share of western elements), but to date no one has made this concept as tonally consistent as Whedon and his company (it's no accident that Whedon enlisted one of Sam Peckinpah's cameramen to lense this baby): listening to Fillian deliver his simultaneously arcane and futuristic dialog is as much a delight as the film's tough and sacrificial action scenes. (If the shot of River holding two dripping weapons and standing in Frazetta-esque pose encircled by a pile of dead Reavers doesn't make it onto a poster within the next six months, then someone is missing an opportunity.) Now, both Becky and I are looking forward to the DVD – and a hopefully longer Director's Cut, if only so we can get a good scene of Wash playing with his dinosaurs . . .
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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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