Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, December 03, 2005
      ( 12/03/2005 10:08:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"BRAIN-DEAD ZOMBIE DISSIDENTS!" – "Homecoming," director Joe Dante and screenwriter Sam Hamm's pissed-off political pie-in-the-face aired on Showtime's Masters of Horror last night (and is available this a.m. as a part of the Video on Demand option). A proudly angry sledgehammer anti-war satire, the story concerns a high-priced political consultant named David Murch (Jon Tenney) who publicly wishes on a cable news show to a grieving Cindy Sheehan type that her son would come back "because I know he would tell us all how important the struggle is. . ." At the urging of a Karl Roveian figure named Kurt Rand (Dante regular Robert Picardo, basically doing the same heartless suit he played in Gremlins 2), the unseen Texas-voiced president incorporates Murch's "wish" into his re-election campaign speeches. Within forty-eight hours, the fallen soldiers from this unnamed overseas war start crawling out of their their coffins – not to eat brains, but to vote.

The script (based on a story by Dale Bailey) is proudly unsubtle, but that's largely what makes it work. In a media world where even the broadcast of soldiers' coffins is considered a transgressive act, bringing 'em back as articulate zombies is an act of gonzo polemics, pure and simple. Focusing on a trio of conservative political figures only marginally less cartoonish than their real-life counterparts' public personas (Thea Gill's leggy right wing pundit, Jane Cleaver, is the stand-out here), Dante & Hamm are commendably merciless railing against the cynicism and hypocrisy of the political class. When asked if she believes all the hard-line b.s. that she includes in her anti-liberal diatribes, Cleaver's character notes that, "You say whatever it takes to win." To Cleaver and Rand, what they do for a living is a competition void of any heartfelt human consequences – when Murch and the president attempt to put on a mask of genuine concern, it rightly blows up in everyone's faces.

But to hell with the show's political themes, the big question is: is it scary? Not particularly, though Dante (who wrote criticism for horror fanzines before he started out writing and directing for the Corman Factory) has always been more a horror parodist than a straight-out shockmeister. (The Howling is his one exception, though even that had its winking moments.) "Homecoming" contains some of Dante's trademark homages – a scene in a cemetery designed to recall the opening to Night of the Living Dead, the names of well-known zombie directors appearing on tombstones – though they aren't as plentiful as you might expect. Compared to some of the other MoH entries ("Jennifer," for instance), the gore is fairly minimal, though we do get to see some severed zombie limbs and rotting faces. The violent comeuppance that Picardo's Rand receives is appropriately brutal, however.

Still, the moments you remember from "Homecoming" are the grimly comic ones: Rand/Rove looking at a captured zombie and blandly stating, "Not to be premature, but I'm thinking supernatural;" the administration's opportunistic attempts to politically take advantage of the rising soldiers (when they first start appearing, they're treated as divine signs of support for the war; later they're demonized by the same religio/political pundits); Cleaver/Coulter noting that "I always liked guys in uniform, but with, like, some skin." When the zombies first appear, it's in a hangar at Dover Air Force Base and you can practically feel Dante's fierce joy at being able to show a facsimile of the war dead coffins that our "responsible" news media has kept from sight. If horror is about anything, it's about imagining those things that we're told to ignore. In that sense, then perhaps "Homecoming" is as much a horror story as any of the entries in Masters of Horror.

UPDATE: Steve Bissette has a thoughtful critical post on Dante's offering at his blog, which he follows with an extended consideration of a film that appears to've been an influence on "Homecoming": Abel Gance's J'accuse.
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Friday, December 02, 2005
      ( 12/02/2005 03:26:00 PM ) Bill S.  

NOTHING DISAPPEARS ON THE INTERNET – Looking at my counter stats this afternoon, I see that a comment to one of Atrios' posts about the histrionically-concocted War on Christmas has sent some blog readers to my 2002 list of Top Ten List of Christmas Song (with a follow-up post here.) Just pulled the CDs out this afternoon, so I'll probably be playing all these songs over the weekend. Not a one of 'em has let me down yet . . .

As for the so-called "War" on Christmas, I think it's a load of hooey. But, then, I rather favor the thoughts of that loony leftie Tom Jefferson on the matter – who believed that religion is "solely a matter between a man and his God" and that "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." – so clearly my judgment is thoroughly suspect on this matter . . .
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      ( 12/02/2005 02:12:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"CAN YOU PICK A FAVORITE COLOR FROM A THOUSAND SHADES OF GRAY?" – Gotta tell ya if I wasn't already attuned to the pop glory and splendor that's the Pernice Brothers, I probably would've taken a pass on the band's newest release based on its title. Discover A Lovelier You? Sounds like the theme song to a convocation of Avon salesladies . . .

Sappy title or not (it, thankfully, goes to an instrumental), Discover is the kind of sparkly disc pop-rock junkies like meself crave beyond all reasonable measure – and don’t get near enough to suit us. A melodic blend of Pet Sounds Beach Boys (that title instrumental is firmly in the tradition of "Let's Go Away for A While") and Black Vinyl Shoes, the album features guitar-based pop at its most effervescently melancholy. In his ability to blend gorgeous music with succinct evocations of an often angst-y life, singer/songwriter Joe Pernice is the creator you'd always hoped Morrissey would be if the guy could, you know, actually sing and mebbe read a book or two.

Like the Go-Betweens' Forster & McLennan – or New Pornographer A.C. Newman – Joe P. is the kinda pop savvy smarty-boots capable of composing a song about one of Michelangelo Antonioni's early movies (or a waltz tempo love song that name-checks Scolley Square whores and O. Henry) and making 'em so dropdead lovely that even a listener who doesn't know their Red Desert from their L'Avventura is enraptured by the sonic beauty. Why "Dumb It Down"? Joe asks in a song that could almost be an anti-declaration of intent – and an army of happy pop-nerds loudly cheers the sentiment.

Pernice's merry band of New Englanders – hidden brother Bob, guitarist Penton Pinkeron, bassist Thom Monahan, and newcomers Patrick Berkeley and James Walbourne – are adept at keeping their leader's subdued and lovely songcraft vibrant. Whether it's the waltz-tempoed "Sell Your Hair" (the "Gift of the Magi" indebted track);r the Latin-tinged "Say Goodnight to the Lady;" a country-fied "Subject Drop" done in duet with Beantown songstress Blake Hazard or a more Bongos-styled exercise like "There Goes the Sun," these guys couple craft and spark so smoothly that it's easy to miss what Pernice is singing about: death on an icy Massachusetts road, the difficulty of maintaining a relationship in these color-coded times, the even more insurmountable task of "trying to be a better person." Add Pernice's Brother Records croon to the package, and it's pure Power-Pop Paradise.

This has been a darn fine year for new pop-rock releases, and Discover A Lovelier You is one of its high points. In a holiday season besmirched by kitschy country pop and AmerIdol teevee spectaculars, a disc like this is even more of an emotional life-saver. "My faith in life's unbroken," Pernice sings in "Saddest Quo," one of the album's splendiferous highlights. Keep comin' out with albums as wonderful as this, Joe, and my faith in pop will stay intact as well . . .
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      ( 12/02/2005 07:37:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC – Ziggy Stardust eyes Xander Cat as the latter picks some hand-scattered Whiskas off the living roomcarpet. In less than five seconds, the dog'll chase the cat out of the room . . .

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

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Thursday, December 01, 2005
      ( 12/01/2005 06:51:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"YOU CAN TAKE A PICTURE OF SOMETHING YOU SEE" – As part of our ongoing half-assed annotation of Coldplay sonic TV guest shots, we have to note last night's C.S.I.: New York, which in addition to featuring the band's "Talk" in its concluding montage also snuck the song's sparkling guitar hook onto Detective Danny Messer's cell phone. Way to blend the tunery and Xmas-time product placement, Bruckheimer Productions!
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      ( 12/01/2005 06:03:00 AM ) Bill S.  

S'LONG, MAXINE – Was saddened this a.m. to read of the death of comic actress Wendie Jo Sperber after years of battling breast cancer. Best known as the real-female buddy who kept Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari's secret in the TV show Bosom Buddies, she was an appealing plus-sized performer who frequently was miles above her material (Bachelor Party, Moving Violations, the lamentable Fox fat chick sitcom Babes). When given something worthy of her talents, Sperber made it more than her own. Times when the material was up to her level: Buddies, the Beatlemania comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand and as the jitterbugging Maxine in 1941 (her scenes are among the best in that variable big-budget comedy). She also had a limited part as Marty McFly's sister in the Back to the Future franchise even if she wasn't given much of anything to do. One of the last roles I remember seeing her in was memorably as a cancer patient on Murphy Brown, though I see from the IMDB that she appears to've been a recurring character on 8 Simple Rules. . . for Dating My Teenage Daughter.

Like Conchata Ferrell and Lesley Boone (among others), Wendy Jo was a BBW actress whose size frequently relegated her to secondary player role. But for those of us who loved her, she was often the only reason to watch some otherwise dismal movie or teevee comedy. I'll miss being charmed by her unexpected presence in some pretty darn dismal teevee & movie comedies . . .
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Wednesday, November 30, 2005
      ( 11/30/2005 02:04:00 PM ) Bill S.  

BUT DOES DICK MILLER HAVE A ROLE IN IT? – As a longtime fan of the unquestionably erratic work of Joe Dante (fave movies: The Howling, both Gremlins, Innerspace and Matinee – plus he also had a role in the making of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School), I've been taking note of the advance buzz on his upcoming Masters of Horror entry entitled "Homecoming." An overtly political zombie tale that eschews metaphor for a bald-faced denunciation of all that's opportunistic and heartless about our Great Iraq Adventure? I'm itching to see what Dante (in collaboration with scripter Sam Hamm) can do . . .
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      ( 11/30/2005 09:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"A LOVE SONG FOR THE WHOLE UNITED STATES!" – Mark Evanier has been posting on the new Rhino/Handmade Allan Sherman six-disc collection, a project I once fantasized about, though it currently is beyond my means. Discussing the collected Sherman, Mark notes that when the parodist was straining for material, he increasingly padded his albums with "laundry list" songs: parodies that primarily consist of itemizing foodstuff or body parts or – my favorite – all fifty of the United States. That last, "Holiday for States," is a parody of the David Rose instrumental "Holiday for Strings" that featured the comedian bellowing all fifty state names to the tune of this well-known Easy Listening classic. When I was a young fan, I memorized this particular list song (and kept foolishly hoping that family members would spontaneously ask me to name all fifty states!) and this a.m., while I was getting myself pounded awake in the shower, I thought I'd check and see if I could still sing the song's lyrics. Got through the song on the first try, but I think I mentioned Oregon twice . . .
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      ( 11/30/2005 05:34:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"I WAS IRON MAN!" – So Johnny B. is cheered by the news that Black Sabbath are finally getting inducted into the Hall of Fame: me, I could've sworn the Sex Pistols had been inducted years ago (or at least, should've been), though I'm pleasantly surprised to see still-extant Blondie makin' the cut. Perhaps the secret is to get yer catalog in as many commercials as humanly possible? I jest: Parallel Lines remains one of my all-time favorite pop-rock albums. Never was one for the Sab, though I love the Dickies' cover of "Paranoid."
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Monday, November 28, 2005
      ( 11/28/2005 03:34:00 PM ) Bill S.  

BLOOD SIMPLICITY – Late Saturday a.m., while most of the rest of Central Illinois were pushing and prodding their way through the aisles of Wal-Mart, yours truly was squeezing his way through a cramped Red Cross Bloodmobile in the services of Giving Blood. Though I'm a fairly regular donor, this was the first time I'd actually gotten it done in a for-real Bloodmobile, but since Papa Murphy's Pizza was offering a free "take-&-bake" pizza (one topping only, please!) to anyone who donated there, I was only too glad to oblige. Free pizza? Long as it isn't Domino's, I'm there, Jack!

The Bloodmobile had four beds, plus two extremely teeny rooms where they do the obligatory pre-stick interview wherein a nurse gets to stick your middle finger and ask you ten different ways if you're HIV positive, have ever had sex with a, y'know, same sex partner or ever been paid for sex. (One of these days I'd love to ask back, "Does barter count?") Blood pressure was lookin' okay (104/78); I wasn't running a fever; so I was good to go. With the sound of a local radio station broadcasting what would only be the first of a Top Fifty Christmas Song Countdown, I was led by a youngish nurse to a bed behind the driver's seat. In the background, José Feliciano was singing, "Felice Navidad."

"Trivia contest!" one of the nurses shouted. "Who's singin' this song?" I shouted out the answer, then to be popgeek obnoxious, added that Feliciano's first big hit was a cover of "Light My Fire."

"He wasn't the first one to do that song, though?" my nurse asked. Oh, please, don't encourage me . . .

Didn't take long for me to make my donation (one time – I think it was a full moon – it took forever to fill the blood bag). Like I say, the quarters were constricted and the goodies offered afterwards were strictly from hunger – but while I was sipping my water and eating my package of Keebler peanut butter and crackers, I mindlessly filled out an entry form for a gas card drawing. Today at work, wife Becky phoned me to say that a Doug from the Red Cross wanted me to call. Turns out I'd won the card, good for fifty bucks worth of gas, though I foolishly forgot to ask where the card will be redeemable.*

Still, winning it was cool, and I really can't think of a better way to begin the holiday season than to simply give blood. Felice navidad, indeed . . .

*UPDATE: For the record, it was a Shell gas card. . .
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Sunday, November 27, 2005
      ( 11/27/2005 09:23:00 AM ) Bill S.  

Image hosted by Photobucket.com"MERRY AM I, HAPPY AM I, IF PEOPLE ONLY KNEW!" – With the holiday season now officially upon us and a slew of awful teevee specials now airing for our edification, what better time to consider another long-forgotten kiddie matinee flick? Namely Herschell Gordon Lewis' The Magic Land of Mother Goose (1967), which is a.k.a. Santa Claus Visits the Magic Land of Mother Goose thanx to a cobbled-on prologue and epilogue starring the right jolly old elf himself. The second of the exploitation filmmaker Lewis' children's matinee features (after Jimmy, the Boy Wonder), Magic Land has been so thoroughly buried in the annals of movie history that attempting to get a full cast list off the Internet is damn near impossible. The umpteenth generation tape (courtesy, once more, of good ol' Aaron Neathery) that I watched is so blurry that the credits were unreadable: only actor's name that you can find elsewhere in relation to this disaster is Roy Huston, who also appeared in Lewis' splatter flick, The Wizard of Gore. (Now that'd make a heckuva double-feature!) So is The Man keeping an undiscovered gem of imaginative moviemaking obscured from the eyes of the Movieloving Masses? Not this time, baby! Magic Land of Mother Goose is thoroughly dreadful.

It opens with Santa Claus sitting in his easy chair, reading Stories of Mother Goose; suddenly noticing the presence of the boys & girls in the audience, he takes off his horn rims and addresses the camera. Whenever he's tired, St. Nick sez, punctuating each line with a series of uneasy chortles, he likes to read about his "old friend Mother Goose." He falls asleep with the book in his lap, and the movie properly begins with those unreadable opening credits. If I were a kid expecting to see the man in a red suit in a more prominent role, I'd be thoroughly cheesed since the actual movie is supposed to be Santa's dream. What a rip.

Once the credits end, the movie drops us on a theater stage, where we see a giant-sized version of Claus' Mother Goose book and a few other stage props. The book opens and out steps Old King Cole, who starts complaining to the camera about how dreary it is to be the King. From the cavernous sound of his voice, it's obvious the film is being shot live on-stage, and Lewis doesn't leave this setting once throughout the performance. Cole does some business pretending to talk to a balloon, then continues whining about how miserable he is. "I think it would take a magician to make me happy!" he declares, and – can-ya-believe-it? – at that very moment a magician appears. It's Merlin (Huston), who has shown up to perform a series of magic tricks for Cole and all the kids in the audience.

Unlike Jimmy, which had the semblance of a plot, Magic Land is basically a limply stitched together patchwork of familiar stage magic done with assistants ("All my friends from fantasyland," Cole tells us) dressed in storybook costumes instead of sequins and leggy showgirl outfits. Merlin's primary assistant is a grotesque looking Raggedy Ann figure that acts like some demented blend of Clarabelle the Clown and the Bride of Chucky. As Merlin silently performs his illusions (basket of swords, vanishing cabinet, levitating Sleeping Beauty, etc.), King Cole engages in a non-stop line of chatter, explaining what is happening for the attention deficit in the audience. (The only time we inexplicably hear the magician speak, it's through a poorly synced pre-recording on the stage's sound system.) Twenty minutes into this hour-long extravaganza, you begin to feel like the hapless principal of South Park Elementary, forced to sit through another 4th grade production of The Miracle Worker, while Lewis displays all the visual sophistication of a South Park dad using his newly purchased videocam for the first time.

Per Aaron, Magic Land had its origins in a traveling stage show for kids produced by Jack Baker (Could he be playing King Cole? He has the air of an m-c about him), who was better known in his day for Midnight Magic Shows. There are only a few moments where Lewis takes advantage of film to "enhance" the magic – using jerky edits to make a few props suddenly appear onstage, coloring the footage red when an evil witch appears to frighten all the kiddies, freeze all of the storybook characters and wage an ineffectual duel against the sorcerer Merlin. This sequence ends with the witch being "magically" burned alive and turned into a skeleton, but lest any of the young ones get too frightened by this illusion, Mother Goose suddenly appears in the giant book – and it's the same actress who played the witch. "Look," you can imagine some quick-thinking kindergarten teacher telling a bawling moppet, "Merlin turned that bad lady into kindly Mother Goose!"

Though at least one review of this film has laid much of the witch's sour dialog ("Everybody is happy! That makes me un-happy!") at the feet of the misanthropic Lewis, my own theory is that the director had as little to do with the "creative" part of this endeavor as possible. All he does is uninspiringly shoot a ramshackle magic show that, even at an hour, must've made the kids' restless when it was performed live (especially when they pad the proceedings with a tenor Prince Charming stepping upstage to sing, "Never before and never again will I be in love," after kissing the formerly levitated Beauty) and probably had 'em chewing up the seats when it was unreeled in a movie theater.

Magic Land ends much as you expect it to: with all the storybook characters, even those who have nuthin' to with Mother Goose, returning into the big book and Merlin delivering a taped prerecorded message about the importance of love and imagination. After a big "The End," we're back with Santa (Don't you wish your dreams came with end credits instead of cutting off in the middle of the really distressing part?) who stammers to the audience, "I-I-I must've been sleeping!" His hour-long nap is apparently enough to re-charge him, though, since he tells the audience he must be getting back to work. "I have a busy time ahead for a better Christmas ahead," he sez before initiating a plethora of "ho-ho-ho's" that sound increasingly more maniacal the longer that Lewis holds the camera on him. The movie cuts off, leaving the adult viewer to wonder if this is the same St. Nick who later appeared in all those slasher Santa flicks in the 1970's.

If dreams are a mirror into the human soul, then you can't help worrying about the ol' boy . . .

NOTE: Those lookin' for just a small flavor of Magic Land of Mother Goose will be happy to know that a 32-minute abridged version of the flick is included as a "bonus" on Something Weird's DVD of Barry Mahon's Wonderful Land of Oz along with Mahon's short Jack And the Beanstalk. Don't know what parts of this film were pared off, though I'm guessing the Kringle intro/outro got the big snip.

UPDATE: Spurred by the above piece, Aaron rhapsodizes over the Magic Land viewing experience:
Devoid of any of the signposts of traditional film language or narrative, your brain is forced to fill in the gaps, and suddenly your windows of perception are blown wide open! You may even deduce the very nature of God while watching Santa Visits the Magic Land of Mother Goose, but don't bother writing it down; it'll all just seem like gibberish after the movie is over.
I think that pretty much sez it all. . .
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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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