Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, March 14, 2009
      ( 3/14/2009 09:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"YOU'RE ALL SET FOR A CANNIBAL FEAST." Though its title has spent decades lodged in my brain, I only recently had the opportunity to view Jack Hill's 1968 exploitation classic Spider Baby (a.k.a. The Maddest Story Ever Told). A low-budget horror camp fest starring a very down-on-his-luck Lon Chaney (who clearly struggles to put a game face on it all), Baby concerns a family of wealthy in-breds who suffer from a syndrome that has them growing more infantile as they age. The three youngest -- sisters Virginia and Marilyn Merrye, plus imbecile brother Ralph Merrye (the inimitable Sid Haig, overacting to the hilt here) -- dress in children's clothes and are shielded from the world by former family chauffeur Bruno (Chaney). "They're what you might call retarded," Bruno explains at one point, though in actuality their affliction is much worse. Deep within the decaying mansion's basement, the elder family Merryes have all devolved into hairy cannibalistic pre-humans, though we're never really given too clear a look at 'em.

This idyllic family scene is disrupted when a pair of relatives arrives, angling for a piece of the Merrye moneys. Peter (soap regular Quinn Redeker) appears to be the nice half of the duo, though he's not averse to taking any of the family fortune he can get, while his sister Emily (shapely Carol Ohmart, who gets to dance in front of a mirror in some sexy lingerie) is more mean-spiritedly avaricious. Also accompanying them: a sleazy lawyer with an Oliver Hardy mustache and his legal secretary Anne, the requisite good girl in peril.

We also get to see an aging Mantan Moreland (Birmingham from the Charlie Chan features) as an unfortunate deliveryman stabbed to death by the spider-obsessed Virginia, who also slices off an ear and places it in a matchbox. Moreland's called to do his trademark fraidy cat skittishness, and that anyone would think to have him recreate this type of role in the mid-sixties (though released in '68, the movie actually was filmed four years earlier) is pretty amazing. Too bad he's gone after the first ten minutes.

Hill (also responsible for such law-budget gems as Coffy, Switchblade Sisters and Swinging Cheerleaders) wrote and directed this odd little feature as a horror comedy. The broadest comic sequence is a dinner scene when our interloping visitors get to dine at the Merrye table: told that the three "children" all are vegetarians (since meat, apparently, speeds up the degenerative process), the four guests are fed a neighborhood cat that Ralph has caught in the yard. It's an effectively awkward moment.

The movie's horror scenes are filmed with gusto, even if the extremely low budget keeps the director from showing us too much. There's a way-too-long sequence where the sleazy lawyer makes his way through the house, and the explosive climax definitely shows its budgetary limitations. But the family's climactic attack on Anne -- with Virginia pulling out a hacksaw to cut off the girl's foot so she can't get away -- actually had me worried for a few moments, even though I knew from the jolly introduction provided by hero Peter at the movie's beginning that she'd probably survive her visit to the Merrye Mansion intact.

Probably not the "Maddest Story Ever Told," but a diverting slice of period cheese. Reportedly, a remake is in the works. Bet they blow it.


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Friday, March 13, 2009
      ( 3/13/2009 07:51:00 AM ) Bill S.  

UP NEXT: A 200,000-WORD POSTING ON WHY BEING NICE TO PEOPLE IS A BAD IDEA So, hey, I'm not working and I'm out living in the middle of nowhere. Have I Gone Galt? Just askin'.
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Thursday, March 12, 2009
      ( 3/12/2009 05:50:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"A GREAT CRIME AGAINST SOME UNKNOWN GOD" Unlike the recently revamped Graphic Classics devoted to the works of Ambrose Bierce, Tom Pomplun's newest anthology of modern "Classics Illustrated" comics skips the short stuff in favor of four longish adaptations. Featuring graphic versions of Wilde's only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, "The Canterville Ghost," "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime" and the play Salome, the sixteenth volume in this series does a bang-up job capturing the Victorian author's distinct voice. In this, it is perhaps one of the most successful entries in Graphic Classics series to date.

The book opens with its cover story, Alex Burrows and Lisa K. Weber's version of Dorian Gray. The densest of the four works adapted, it's a tale that's already sparked more than comic book adaptation (including one produced by Marvel Comics). Burrows and Weber's take doesn't stint on the original work's upper class-based decadence -- the artist captures the title character's sleepy-eyed beauty convincingly, while Burrow's script has just enough loaded innuendo to make the book's gay subtext sufficiently clear-cut. (Wilde himself famously tamped down the homoerotic aspects of his story between first and second editions of its publication.) If the comic version doesn't fully convey the original's moody gothic elements, it smartly nails Wilde's trenchant critiques of the aesthete's elevation of artistry over humanity.

Even more successful are the adaptations of "Ghost" and "Crime." The former, done by Antonello Caputo and Nick Miller is the most overly funnybookish -- artist Miller even draws two twin boys to resemble the Katzenjammer Kids -- while the latter utilizes heavy-handed brush strokes (courtesy of Stan Shaw) to emphasize the source's darker comedy. "Ghost," which describes the clash between an old-fashioned British haunt and a very "republican" American family, seems particularly current, though the unpunished antihero Lord Savile demonstrates just how ahead of his time Wilde could be.

The book concludes with editor Pomplun and Molly Kiely's adaptation of the Biblical tragedy "Salome." Pomplun relies heavily on the play's original dialog, but in this case the decision has mixed results as Wilde's attempt at dramatizing the events leading up to the beheading of John the Baptist has more than its share of wooden lines. Kiely's graphics recall Beardsley (who famously illustrated the play on its English publication) in her use of blacks and whites, though they're by no means as explicit as the Beardsley's original art nouveau illos. The final pages, where the villainous Salome holds and kisses the severed head of the martyr, are agreeably horrific, if not as memorable as Beardsley's famous illustration of the dancer holding John's head on a blood-drenched table. I can't help wondering whether Wilde the Aesthete would've sniffed that the artist's panel-to-panel depiction of character was a trace too loose, though.

Still, the adaptation remains true to Wilde's tone and outlook as do the other three pieces in this solid collection. Next announced title in the series is a genre-based collection of Science-Fiction Classics set for June release. Just the thing to read between volumes of the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.


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Wednesday, March 11, 2009
      ( 3/11/2009 06:17:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MID-WEEK MUSIC VIDEO: After viewing the debut episode of Ashes to Ashes, yours truly has been pulling out the old New Wave synth pop this week. Here's the vid for OMD's "Electricity." I originally went looking for the promo vid for the Bowie song that inspires the teleseries title, but all I found were YouTube entries with "imbedding disabled by request." Bastards.

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Monday, March 09, 2009
      ( 3/09/2009 05:54:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"IF YOU DON'T MOVE, NOTHING WILL CHANGE." For those who mainly think of anime as a vehicle for boyish action fantasy and/or children's adventures, the upcoming DVD release of I"s could prove a revelation. Adapted from a 15-volume manga series by Masakazu Katsura, I"s is a "Mature"-rated romantic serial devoted to a teenage love triangle. The American DVD release, courtesy of Viz Media, contains two OVA (original video animation) features, From I"s and Pure I"s. The first is a two-episode original story featuring I"s characters: the second is a six-episode adaptation/summation of Katsura's original fifteen-volume manga.

The set-up of the series is fairly basic. Ichitaka Seto (English voice: Darrel Guilbeau) is a wishy-washy high school senior with a major crush on Iori Hazuki (Erika Weinstein), a would-be actress and model. Ichitaki struggles to reveal his feelings for his classmate, but his own uncertainties and a series of complications and misunderstandings keep delaying that moment. Adding to the confusion: his perky childhood friend Itsuki Akiba (Carrie Savage), who clearly has feelings for Ichi herself.

The six-episode Pure I"s tells much of its story through flashbacks -- as Ichi and his bespectacled chum Teratani window shop on Christmas Eve and our man thinks back to all the opportunities he's missed. We see how our hero first hooks up with Iori, exposing a voyeuristic fellow student who's been videotaping the young actress as she changes for a photo shoot, then watch the comic complications that arise when Itsuki temporarily stays at Ichi's place after a fire has rendered her homeless. Our hero, feeling an understandable attraction towards his shapely childhood friend, ping-pongs between Iori and Itsuki, much to Teratini's comic irritation. Being unfamiliar with the source manga, I wasn't certain which girl Ichitaki would ultimately gravitate toward, though there are times in the series when you can't help thinking that the big dope doesn't deserve either one of 'em.

Pure's final third discards flashbacks to the present where Ichi is a high school grad struggling to get into college and Iori's acting career is on the verge of blossoming. The actress is being stalked by a not-so-mysterious figure named the "Marionette King," while Ichi comes up against a hostile agent and theatrical producer, who see the boy as a pernicious influence on their property's acting career. The final episode pulls in some seriously melodramatic moments -- a fight between hero and stalker, a hospital coma scene -- that I suspect were more successfully presented in the original manga. Forced to collapse the events of fifteen tankobon into six thirty-minute cartoons, Pure I"s can come across scattered in it storytelling, a little too sketchy. On more than one occasion I also found myself getting more befuddled by flashbacks than I suspect the storytellers intended.

More effective is the hour-long feature From I"s, which is subtitled "Another Summer Day." Set in the middle of the series' continuity, it depicts a perilous day in the country wherein Itsuki is menaced by a murderous gang of bikers and Iori nearly drowns on a flooded island during a torrential rainfall. Ichi arrives on both scenes, of course, to aid both damsels in distress, though one of their friends (unseen, as far as I can tell, in Pure I"s) isn't so lucky.

Viz Media's two-disc set is frills-free: just the two series, which you can watch in English or Japanese, with or without subtitles. Though the set is packaged to present the two-episode side story first, I'd recommend that newcomers follow the fuller six-episode Pure first, since the shorter tale works best if you already know its back-story. First time I played From I"s, I initially thought my cranky DVD player was acting wonky. The opening moments, which are meant to cue familiar fans where we are in the continuity, are dialog-free, just music and background sounds -- so I half wondered whether the disc was missing an overlay. Once the dialog proper started up, though, my worries were banished.

Both I"S features contain a few bloody moments, but what earns the DVD set its "Mature" rating is the series' relative boldness regarding teenaged horniness. The anime regularly provides lingering looks at both Iori and Itsuka's curvy bodies and even features some hints of nudity (most notably in a bath house scene). At the end of Pure I"s' first five episodes, there's even an appended feature entitled "Ichitaka's Delusional Diary," comprised of one-minute depictions of the adolescent's sexual fantasies. Though clearly comic in tone, they also display a level of frankness that some newcomers may find disconcerting. We're a long way from Pokemon here, folks . . .

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Sunday, March 08, 2009
      ( 3/08/2009 01:45:00 PM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC: Here's a shot of Kyan and Boo on the living room couch. Missed a shot of Kyan Pup licking the kitten's head by about fifteen seconds.

THE USUAL NOTE: For more cool pics of companion animals, please check out Modulator's "Friday Ark."
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      ( 3/08/2009 06:42:00 AM ) Bill S.  

FUNK TO FUNKY: Last night, as a lead-in to the premiere of the series sequel, BBC America ran the final episode of the original Life on Mars. Watching it again, I couldn't help thinking that the just cancelled Americanized remake is gonna have to really work to match its source's darkly ambiguous conclusion. (Somehow, I just don't see 'em doing it.) As for the sequel, Ashes to Ashes, the first episode comes down pretty hard toward accepting the view that Mars hero Sam Tyler was in a coma throughout the entire series. His audiotaped memories of his adventures back in 1973 are even transcribed in a file carried by police profiler Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), who obviously has studied Tyler well enough to be familiar with all the main players in his "past life."

Thus, when Alex is herself shot and sent back to 1981, she quickly recognizes the crew of coppers now wearing flare-free duds: Philip Glenister's Gene Hunt continues to rousingly run roughshod over the regs in his brutal pursuit of justice, while his underlings Ray and Chris also appear unchanged. (Only character from the original that we don't see: Liz White's appealing policewoman Annie.) Because she had just been discussing Sam Tyler's file just before her "travel back in time," Alex is convinced that these characters are all just part of a consensual hallucination. Every time she talks to Gene and says his name, she uses air quotes to demonstrate that she's not falling for it all.

Our heroine's consistent skepticism can grow a little wearisome over an entire episode, though. Part of what made the original Mars so addictive was its hero's desperate confusion over what exactly was happening to him, a question that the show never conclusively answered for either him or us. We can only hope that the next few weeks will work toward knocking out some of Alex's buzz-killing certainty. The only time DCI Hunt needs quotes around his name is when he calls himself the "Jean Genie."
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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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