Greg Stacy’s FAT LOT OF GOOD

December 29, 2006

My last film column for OC WEEKLY

Filed under: News and politics,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 2:11 am

Due to the Village Voice chain deciding to stop employing freelancers, I will no longer be covering film for OC Weekly. You can read my last Special Screenings column, featuring some of my musings on getting fired from the gig I’d had for almost 12 years, by clicking here.

The story of my getting axed has also been picked up by Mediabistro.

And it’s on LA Observed.

If you can offer an ongoing, paying writing gig, of any sort, send me a line at gregstacy at earthlink dot net. I will be ridiculously happy to hear from you.

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December 28, 2006

Holiday Leftovers

Filed under: Movies,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 5:12 am

(Printed in OC WEEKLY, January 13, 2005)

Come the New Year, we are inevitably left with those forlorn holiday leftovers. No, I’m not talking about the fruitcake turning green at the back of your fridge—although you really should do something about that—but about those holiday movies that are even now still being projected in mostly empty theaters across the land.

Funny thing about Christmas movies: the ones that really linger in the public imagination usually don’t do too well at the box office when they first come out. Either they barely make their costs back or they are career-destroying bombs. It’s a Wonderful Life is only the most famous example of this phenomenon: when first released, it lost money and didn’t win a single Oscar. By 1974, the picture was so obscure that RKO let the copyright lapse and the film entered the public domain. It took years of endless TV reruns to make the film the Yuletide tradition it is today. A Christmas Story was only a modest success in 1983, but now it airs ’round the clock on TV every December and half the people you work with can probably quote the thing from beginning to end. Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas hardly set the box office aflame in 1993, but nowadays Nightmare characters are merchandised to the point of absurdity, turning up on lunch boxes, T-shirts, watches, snow globes, cookie jars, condoms (okay, I made that one up), key chains, panties (I didn’t make that one up), etc. Every winter, Disneyland even gives the Haunted Mansion an elaborate Nightmare makeover, one of the few things the park’s done in recent years you could call an actual success.

Another funny thing about Christmas movies: the ones to hit it big on their initial release are usually stupid and obnoxious, and while they make a big splash to start with, they’re quickly forgotten once they leave the multiplexes. Do you think anybody is going to be watching Jingle All the Way 20 years from now? Or The Santa Clause, parts 1 or 2? Or that truly reprehensible Jim Carrey version of The Grinch? We all knew these movies were crap even before we saw them, but somehow we made them into hits anyway. What was wrong with us, anyhow? It’s as if in the midst of all the stress and misery and general hullabaloo of the holidays, we flock to these awful, boorish movies hoping they’ll be loud enough to crowd all the thoughts out of our heads. And then, when we want to actually feel something, we go home and watch the genuinely affecting holiday stuff on DVD, either with our loved ones or all by ourselves with a box of hankies nearby.

This holiday season, Christmas With the Kranks faced off against The Polar Express, and analysts were amazed when Kranks turned out to be a hit and the much-hyped Polar Express fizzled. On paper, Polar Express seemed like such a sure thing (this was Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks, remember) that when it opened well below expectations, many observers chalked up the problems to the film’s animation style. The characters looked too creepy, it was said; they were like marionettes made of meat or corpses brought back to a shambling semblance of life through some dark magic. In truth, the film did look a little freaky sometimes, but it was hardly the problem critics made it out to be, and it had little if anything to do with why the expected crowds failed to materialize on opening day.

You could see from miles away that The Polar Express was no Grinch or Jingle All the Way; it wasn’t out to hustle 10 bucks from your pocket and then dump you back on the pavement with nothing to show for your time but greasy popcorn fingers. This was a Christmas movie with ambitions: it wanted to awe you, to spook you, to warm your heart and make you think, too. It wanted to be the next It’s a Wonderful Life. In other words, it was offering more than a nation of frantic, distracted holiday shoppers were interested in, especially when the infinitely less challenging Kranks was playing right next door.

But while Kranks opened big and put that goddamn Tim Allen back on Hollywood’s A-list, by December 2006, it’ll be a dusty obscurity on the shelves of your neighborhood Blockbuster (assuming, of course, we still have Blockbusters by then). Polar Express, meanwhile, had a respectable, if unspectacular, opening and then chugged along at that same respectable, if unspectacular, rate for weeks and weeks like the little engine that could. It now looks likely to cross $160 million in total domestic sales without ever having reached No. 1 at the box office. Not exactly a Christmas miracle on par with George Bailey’s Bedford Falls neighbors saving him from ruin in the final reel of It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s still very impressive.

As we settle into adulthood, the Christmas spirit becomes an increasingly elusive thing. We get lost in the stress and misery and general hullabaloo of the holidays, and sometimes we awake Dec. 26 with the feeling we’ve spent weeks going through the motions and missed the entire party. If that’s what happened to you this year and you’re still yearning for that old Christmas feeling, you still have a chance to catch The Polar Express. Or you could always catch it next year. I’ve a feeling this one’s going to be around for a while.

The Man Behind the Eightball: Dan Clowes dares to keep clowns off drugs

Filed under: Art,Geekery,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 2:00 am

(Published in OC WEEKLY… uh, sometime in the ’90s. Probably ’97 or so, around the same time that Clowes had one of the Ghost World girls declare that they hated anybody who could ever write for an alternative newsweekly. Sigh… I still love you, ladies!)

Picture this: A strange invader – part human, part mid-’50s tin-toy – has just parked his rocketship above the streets of a gray urban metropolis and climbed down a rope ladder. Clearly, he does not come in peace. With one metal claw he beats upon a little war-drum mounted to his belly, with his other claw he brandishes a pistol firing thick spurts of a pink, mutagenic goo vaguely resembling Pepto Bismol. This slimy stuff has already transformed much of the city’s population into grotesque, unhappy-looking freaks, and the homely, inexplicably naked nuclear family cowering in the scene’s foreground are clearly the next in line for transmogrification. All would be lost, but a green ray has just blasted a hole in the stunned spaceman’s groin. The ray is being fired from outside the scene, from just about exactly where we’re standing. The fate of the world, it would seem, rests in our hands. A mysterious apparition hovering over the action complicates things still further: it’s the bland face of a bald, bearded, bespectacled older gentleman who bears a striking resemblance to Sigmund Freud. He holds something in his hands that looks like a remote-control device. Does he control the killer spaceman? Or is he us, firing the ray that saves the day?

This scene of cartoon carnage graces the cover of Eightball #18, the latest issue of an amazing periodical from cartoonist Dan Clowes, and it serves as an interesting contrast to Clowes’ earlier work. Clowes first made a splash on the comics scene in the late ’80s with the debut of Lloyd Llewellen, a campy, seriously retro comic that chronicled the adventures of the book’s titular character, an early ’60s swinger who was constantly getting entangled in ginchy sci-fi adventures involving aliens and beatniks and curvy dames with big, B-52-style bouffants. The book was one long, snide, adolescent giggle, and when it folded in 1988 Clowes’ small cult of fans must have assumed he’d soon be back with more of the same.

But with the publication of the first issue of Eightball in 1989, it was immediately clear Clowes’ work had undergone a major evolution. Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, the saga Clowes began in issue #1, had a truly nightmarish quality. Velvet Glove began just as Twin Peaks was hitting it big, and the articles comparing Velvet Glove to Lynch’s work were endless. Indeed, there were parallels to be drawn – Clay Loudermilk, Velvet Gloves’ feckless protagonist, lives in an irrational, violent, vaguely Eraserhead-like America where monster births and dismemberment are treated as little more than creepy inconveniences – but while the Lynch of the early ’90s was an artist in rapid decline, Clowes’ talent was just beginning to fully blossom.

Early issues of Eightball featured entertaining but relatively lightweight satirical pieces that might have been more at home in the pages of Lloyd Llewellen. In fact, Lloyd actually starred in a couple of them before Clowes dropped the character for good. The best of these pieces was probably the Dan Pussey stories, which took a long, unblinking look at the absurdities of the comic book industry and its artistic domination by books about super-powered guys in their underwear. (In an interview, Clowes once noted that there’s hardly anything “natural” about the marriage of superheroes and comic books: “What if every novel or film was about clowns who took drugs? It would be just about as strange.”) Clowes later admitted that poor Dan Pussey, the terminally repressed superhero artist who starred in these stories, was a nightmare projection of the geeky hack that he himself nearly became, which perhaps explains the passion, almost hysteria, of these strips’ attacks on the comics industry’s stagnant and polluted “mainstream”.

Once Velvet Glove and the Dan Pussey stories were completed, Clowes’ work underwent yet another startling evolution, as the artist ditched most of the wise-guy attitude that had made his name. Caricature, the main story in Eightball #15, tells the heartbreaking tale of Mal Rosen, a self-deluding soul who travels the land, eking out a meager existence drawing caricatures at county fairs. He’s managed to get by for years without realizing just how desperately lonely and unfulfilled he is, until one day when he meets Theda, a troubled teenaged girl with whom he strikes up an ambiguous friendship. As a recovering caricature artist myself I can say that Clowes gets every miserable detail of the profession exactly right, right down to those awful, all-too-frequent moments when a family plops their literally deformed, developmentally disabled child in your chair and expects you to make the kid look “funny”. The relationship between Mal and Theda feels just as true. Few stories in any medium, and none that I can think of in the tragically underused medium of comics, have handled loneliness and narrowly missed connections with such depth and grace.

As good as Caricature was, it was merely a dry run for Ghost World, a series of interrelated but not exactly serial stories that draws to a close in Eightball #18. Ghost World follows Becky and Enid, two bright, aimless, would-be hipster teens who may or may not be in love with each other. They spend their days watching crappy TV, rummaging through boxes of junk in thrift-store bargain basements and imagining elaborate biographies for the various weirdoes they spot on the street, until the day comes when Enid has to decide whether or not she’s going away to college. This new development puts their friendship to the test, and the fear of losing each other eventually drives both girls to desperate, alarmingly petty behavior.

In Ghost World, Clowes displays such skill that he makes a good case for the argument he puts forth in the Modern Cartoonist booklet included in Eightball #18: “(Comics) are in a sense the ultimate domain of the artist who seeks to wield absolute control over his imagery. Novels are the work of one individual but they require visual collaboration on the part of the reader. Film is by its nature a collaborative endeavor. Comics offer the creator a chance to control the specifics of his world in both abstract and literal terms.”

The pity of it is that so few comics creators take advantage of this absolute control. Clowes does, and in the pages of Eightball he creates work that is the equal of art being done in any medium today.

To Infinity and Beyond!: The Naked Cosmos

Filed under: Art,Geekery,OC Weekly,TV,Weird — gregstacy @ 1:53 am

(Printed in OC WEEKLY, June 23, 2005)

Once in a great while, usually when it’s very late at night and you’ve been restlessly flipping around the more disreputable end of the TV dial, you come across a show of perfect, transcendent strangeness. It could be Dr. Gene Scott’s mix of fierce televangelism and dancing bimbos. Or Dr. Franklin Ruehl at his desk in outer space, discoursing on the Phantom Army of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Or some forgotten Spanish-language B-picture where fat guys in wrestling masks battle vampire babes. Or even (you lucky dog) your first Ed Wood movie. Whatever it is, you wake up the next morning wondering if it was real, or if you dreamed the whole thing.

Gilbert Hernandez’s new, straight-to-DVD TV series, The Naked Cosmos, is like all of those shows put together into one mind-frying package; this is concentrated public access weirdness and should not be taken without first consulting a physician. Hernandez, the justly acclaimed cartoonist who co-creates the Love and Rockets comic book series with his brother Jaime, made his name crafting bittersweet stories of life in the fictional South American town of Palomar, stories that are often compared to the works of such writers as Carson Mccullers and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But with The Naked Cosmos, Hernandez lets a different side of himself out to play, cutting loose with a wild parody of/homage to all the kitschy TV he grew up loving as a dorky Oxnard kid.

The Naked Cosmos is a kind of surreal kiddie show hosted by Quintas (Hernandez), a Beatle-wigged, pop-eyed, psychic dandy who takes us on an unforgettable journey through inner and outer space accompanied by the lovely Mistress Velda (Hernandez’s wife, Carol Kovinick) and Ego (Hernandez again), a mellow hippie boozer with the power of teleportation. Quintas faces opposition at every turn from his masked clone, the seethingly envious Kalisto (Hernandez yet again), and both are rivals for the affections of the cheerfully oblivious Velda. All of them report to the Chief (Kovinick), a lady who wears a bondage cat hood and issues her orders over the phone in Spanish. Every now and again the action stops cold for a short film presented by Zansky, a jolly expatriate from another dimension. Hernandez portrays Zansky via the old summer camp trick of drawing a face on your chin and standing on your head, a perfect example of the show’s nutty, low-budget ingenuity. The budget for this thing is so low, in fact, that Hernandez doesn’t even use split screen effects when he holds conversations with himself: the camera just cuts back and forth between Hernandez in different costumes, emoting with hammy gusto and clearly having the time of his life.

The DVD features four 22-minute episodes, bloopers, portraits of the characters by Hernandez and other artists, and an original, 20-page comic book, making this an absolute steal at $15.95. Issued in a limited edition of 2,000, The Naked Cosmos is only available for purchase online (at http://www.brightredrocket.com/nakedcosmos) or at America’s very hippest comics shops. The next time you’re restlessly flipping the TV dial in the dead of night, fire up this thing and you’ll go to sleep a few hours later confused but happy.

Attack of the 50-ft. Commercials!

Filed under: Humor,Movies,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 1:42 am

(Printed in OC WEEKLY, August 4, 2005)

You arrive at the theater a few minutes after the movie’s scheduled start time, hoping to miss some of the endless ads before the show. But no such luck: First, there are the previews for a bunch of crappy-looking movies. (Ashton Kutcher, Bernie Mac, etc.) Then there’s the ad where they try to convince you to visit the theater’s snack counter and buy some Raisinettes. Then some more previews for some more crappy-looking movies. (Kate Hudson, Jimmy Fallon, etc.) Then there are the commercials for SUVs or Tartar Control Crest or whatever. Then the plug for the LA Times. Then some more previews, for another bunch of crappy-looking movies. (Martin Lawrence, Paris Hilton, etc.) And then, about 20 minutes after the movie was supposed to start and just when you’re ready to fling your Raisinettes at the screen, the movie begins at last. You lean back in your seat and heave a great sigh of relief: all that advertising is finally over!

Except, it’s not. Because now there are ads in the movie, too. The film’s plot is constantly grinding to a dead stop while the characters prattle on about their favorite sneakers or fast food. The camera zooms in for lingering, loving close-ups of their Apple computers, their Gillette razors, their Discover credit cards. You’re watching a scene where the hero speeds through the rain-slicked streets of the city in his flashy car, and you feel an overpowering sense of deja-vu: then you realize that you’ve already seen this exact sequence half a dozen times on TV, recycled into a BMW commercial. (“When you’re the world’s greatest secret agent, you can’t drive just any car . . .”) You can’t hit the fast-forward button on your TiVo remote, and you can’t change the channel. Hell, you’ve paid nine bucks to see these ads on the big screen.

Why have product placements become so appallingly commonplace at the movies? Well, you could say it’s all Steven Spielberg’s fault. In 1982, when Spielberg was directing E.T., the original plan was for Elliot to lure E.T. out of hiding with a trail of M&Ms. It was just a minor plot detail, hardly intended as a plug for the candy. But when the M&Ms people balked at their product appearing onscreen, the candy was changed to the less popular Reese’s Pieces. That short scene turned Reese’s Pieces into a sensational hit, a lesson that was not lost on corporate America. After that, companies began to sneak more product placements into the movies, becoming more brazen over the years until we eventually reached the current situation, where many movies are basically a long series of commercials with the “plot” (such as it is) serving as the grout that holds the whole lopsided mess together.

Of course it’s annoying that movie product placements exist at all, but it’s even more annoying that most of them are so random and inept. Herbie: Fully Loaded, for instance, was a kid’s picture loaded to the bursting point with plugs for such kid-friendly products as Dupont, Nextel and Viagra. (Heh. “Poor Herbie wasn’t feeling so fully loaded, until his doctor told him about a little blue pill . . .”) Companies scheme up ways to force their products into the most seemingly unlikely movies, whether they’re set in the distant past (check out the big NBC logo on the ringside announcer’s microphone in Cinderella Man), the future (such as the endless tennis shoe plugs in I, Robot) or even, as was the case with The Longest Yard remake, in prison. The producers of that film ingeniously managed to work seven mentions of McDonalds into the script—a feat which is the one and only time that the word “ingenious” could possibly be used in connection to The Longest Yard.

What is to be done about this deplorable practice? Well, you could write outraged letters to Hollywood producers, letters that will meet a receptive audience in the studio’s mailroom interns, who will read them aloud to each other in funny voices. Or you could protest by not going to the movies anymore. But then what are you supposed to do, spend the rest of the summer at home with your sweaty ass stuck to your recliner? No, there’s really not much that you can do, you poor, anonymous troglodyte, you. But as a member of the media, I plan to get in on some of this product placement action, myself.

So the next time you’re disgusted by the wretched state of modern movie-going, don’t fling just any candy at the screen: fling Raisinettes! Delicious, milk chocolate covered raisins, low in carbs and with no artificial ingredients! At home or at the movies, nothing beats Raisinettes for ridding your mouth of that acrid taste of bile.

Attack of the Big Heads Floating in the Sky

Filed under: Art,Movies,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 1:38 am

(Printed in OC WEEKLY, August 18, 2005)

One of my earliest memories involves standing on the sidewalk outside the Fox Theater in Long Beach and staring, slack-jawed, at the poster for the original Star Wars. Painted in a lushly pulpy, retro style, the poster featured the then-unfamiliar images of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, etc., all beneath a zippy, Flash Gordon-ish logo. But this poster, which was already enough to stop me in my tracks, had a strange, arty, postmodern touch that left me baffled: it was painted so that it resembled a faded, posted bill, with another bill beneath it featuring the movie’s credits and rips along the left-hand side showing a plywood construction site wall underneath. This was obviously a brand-new movie, with ray guns and robots and weird little hooded guys with glowing eyes, yet the poster looked like a tattered relic from a bygone era. It was, in retrospect, absolutely the perfect poster for a movie that took elements from a lot of other, older movies and scrambled them together to create something new. But all I knew at that tender age was that this was a movie I had to see.

Even today, after all these years and those sad, wretched prequels, that poster (co-painted by noted poster illustrators Drew Struzan and Charles White III) still has the power to remind you of what you loved about the original Star Wars trilogy. This was an unforgettable poster in a decade of unforgettable posters. It was impossible not to feel a shiver of real fear when you first saw the poster for Jaws, with that nightmare shark approaching the unsuspecting swimmer from below, his monstrous head the size of a semi-truck and his mouth overflowing with a million dagger-sharp teeth. And who could resist the goofy charm of the original Bad News Bears poster, with telling caricatures of Walter Matthau and the rest of the cast provided by the great Mad Magazine artist Jack Davis? When I grew older, I also learned to appreciate the movie posters of earlier decades: the snazzy deco of the silent era; the towering, stone logos of the ‘50s biblical epics; the fluorescent, psychedelic insanity of the ’60s.

But sometime in the late ’80s, movie posters all started to look alike. It was one poster after another featuring blandly flattering photos of the stars, almost invariably looking straight at you and surrounded above and below by type. This look was employed for comedies, dramas, indie pictures, historical epics, whatever, and movie marketing people had a name for it that really said it all: Big Heads Floating in the Sky. The Big Heads poster evolved because of something called equal likeness, a newly developed contractual feature specifying that if one star appeared on a poster, his co-star (or co-stars) were guaranteed to appear on the poster atexactly the same size. The poster for 1992’s A Few Good Men, for instance, features exactly half of Tom Cruise’s face on the left-hand side and exactly half of Jack Nicholson’s on the right, with the resulting design being as blandly symmetrical as a discount-brand package of frozen peas. The MPAA also began to wield increasing control over posters, arbitrarily vetoing anything they deemed objectionable. The original poster for Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, for instance, featured a spooky painting of the Headless Horseman carrying his own head; the MPAA rejected the image as “too graphic,” so it was replaced with a forgettable poster featuring the Big Heads of Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci.

There were a few potent deviations from the artless norm, such as the wonderfully unnerving Silence of the Lambs poster that featured a death’s head moth over Jodie Foster’s mouth—a moth that, when you looked really closely, actually featured an image of seven naked ladies from Salvador Dali’s painting Female Bodies as a Skull. But mostly it was all Big Heads, all the time. Pretty much the only thing you had to look forward to were the holidays, when those blandly flattering star photos suddenly sported ridiculous Santa hats for Christmas or party hats and noisemakers for New Year’s Eve.

It’s tempting to declare that the movie poster is a dead art, but in recent months there have been some encouraging developments. The poster for the indie picture A Good Woman features the kind of art deco illustration rarely seen since the days of Fred and Ginger, while the poster for the Bad News Bears remake was a clumsy but obviously heartfelt shout out to the Jack Davis original. Revenge of the Sith may have disappointed on almost all counts, but at least its poster featured some strikingly old-fashioned design by none other than Drew Struzan.

It’s been a very long time since I stood outside a theater and stared, slack-jawed, at a movie poster. But if the movies have taught me anything, it’s that no matter how bleak things look, there’s always the chance for a happy ending.

December 21, 2006

Unbroken Bond: Looking back with Your Eyes Only

Filed under: Geekery,Humor,Movies,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 11:21 am

(Printed in OC WEEKLY, October 4, 2006)

I’ve noticed, in the cast and crew interviews for the upcoming James Bond prequel Casino Royale, how everybody concerned seems a little embarrassed by, or at least dismissive of, recent Bond pictures. There’s a lot of talk of starting the whole thing over and making Bond vital and dangerous again. “We know,” they seem to be saying, “we screwed up. We let our plots get too silly and gimmicky and Pierce Brosnan was tired and old, but we’ve fixed all that now. We’re ditching all the confusing, bullshit continuity, the ridiculous gadgets and all of that crap, and we’re rebooting this mother. We’re taking Bond back to where he once belonged!”

It’s a little puzzling where this attitude comes from, given that 2002’s Die Another Day was the highest-grossing Bond picture to date. It doesn’t seem as if the public was fed up with the silly, gimmicky plots, or tired old Brosnan, or the confusing, bullshit continuity, or the ridiculous gadgets. I think Bond’s producers have made the mistake of listening to the critics, who have been hung up on Sean Connery for way too long and keep insisting that James Bond should be more “relevant.” Don’t these guys get that James Bond is pop trash? He’s a superhero stud in a tux, unbeatable by any man, irresistible to any woman, with a boss car and a watch that fires rockets. Basically, we’re talking about Austin Powers played straight.

The Bond franchise, like the smirky sociopath at its center, seems to be just about unkillable. Since its birth in the early ’60s, it has survived endless parodies, including the original, 1967 version of Casino Royale, a peculiar and often incoherent affair featuring a cavalcade of Bonds, including David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen and a seal (please, don’t even ask). Bond has been sent up on The Simpsons, in the Cannonball Run pictures, even on Deep Space Nine—and Jesus, you know you’re an easy target when Star Trek is gunning for your ass. There have been entire TV series featuring Bond-ish chimps, Bond-ish cartoon mice, and even (would you believe?) Mel Brooks’ and Buck Henry’s long-running Get Smart. For a while there, Austin Powers eclipsed Bond’s popularity, but when a new Bond movie came out, the crowds dutifully lined up to see it. Critics be damned: the public just does not get tired of this crap, ever.

The critics famously despised Roger Moore as Bond. They said his acting was wooden, they said he was too old for the part, and all agreed that his movies were by far the silliest of the series (we’ll admit that his Venetian gondola car from Moonraker was the kind of gag that even Mike Myers wouldn’t have stooped to). The public, on the other hand, adored Moore’s Bond, and Moonraker, which many critics still hold up as the worst of the entire franchise, was a massive success in 1979. It was the first movie in the series that I saw, and when I hear critics moaning about how they want their surly ol’ Connery back, I just do not get it at all. Moore is my James Bond, damn it, and he set the smirky standard all other Bonds must be compared to.

1981’s For Your Eyes Only, which enjoys a rare big-screen outing this week, was a bit of a franchise reboot in its own right. After the critical drubbing that Moonraker took, the producers decided to scale things back with a more earthbound, vastly less campy Bond adventure. Personally, I thought it could’ve used a few more gondola cars, and I still remember my childish disappointment that Richard Kiel never showed up as the metal-mouthed goliath Jaws. But seen with adult eyes, this entry has much to recommend it. The opening sequence alone is great fun, featuring the final fate of longtime Bond baddie Ernst Blofeld (although, due to legal issues, he is never named as such). The film is also a fascinating time capsule, from the bracingly ugly fashions to Sheena Easton’s cheesetastic title tune, and it boasts impressive quantities of the violence, sex and sexism that make old school Bond such fun. This is also the movie where you can play spot the tranny—the transsexual model Tula can be glimpsed somewhere amongst the film’s gallery of lovelies—and c’mon, that’s just neat.

Through the film, Moore’s Bond is pursued by an underage cutie with one of the most unfortunate “sexy” names in the entire Bond canon, Bibi Dahl. Dahl is rather emphatically portrayed by Lynn-Holly Johnson, a pro figure skater turned actress, who is perhaps best known today for the 1978 chick flick Ice Castles. Johnson will appear at this screening, so you can ask her what she thinks of all this 007 reboot business. And just think: you’ll always be able to say you spent a lovely Saturday night with a Bond girl.

Yeah, Baby, Yeah!: Thunderball rolls into town

Filed under: Movies,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 11:19 am

(Printed in OC WEEKLY, July 25, 2002)

It has been said that you know a genre is dead (or at least gravely ill) when the parodies start coming along. Mel Brooks has made a long career out of satirically kicking the last breath of life out of timeworn genres: the Western has never quite recovered from Blazing Saddles; the Hitchcockian thriller was already coughing up blood when Brooks went after it in High Anxiety; and the bloated, Star Wars-ian space opera was so ripe for parody that it’s a shame Brooks botched it so badly with Spaceballs. Sometimes a genre can recover from the parody treatment, but a really popular and deftly executed parody is quite capable of taking out a genre for good.

What, then, are we to make of the seemingly deathless power of the James Bond franchise? Since its inception in the early ’60s, it has endured legions of parodies, including an assault by Mel Brooks in the form of the ’60s series Get Smart. Bond has been endlessly sent up on The Simpsons, in the Cannonball Run pictures, even on Deep Space Nine, for heaven’s sake. TV has given us entire series featuring James Bond-ian chimps and James Bond-ian cartoon mice. And through it all, the Bond franchise has somehow prospered.

But if anything would have seemed likely to ring the death knell for the Bond pictures, it would have been the Austin Powers films, a parody that briefly surpassed its source in popularity. Say what you will about Mike Myers’ sometimes iffy skills as a writer, but the man has an absolute genius for devising catch phrases that worm their way deep into the world’s workaday vocabulary. “Yeah, baby, yeah!” “Oh, behave.” “Shagadelic!” Throw in lines taken from his various Saturday Night Live characters, and Myers could fill half of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations all by himself. And now yet another installment of the Austin Powers series is about to crash down on America in a great tsunami of hype, and Meyers will rake in a few bazillion dollars making cheeky fun of the Bond franchise one more time.

And yet when the next Bond adventure hits the big screen, people will cheerfully line up to see it as they have for decades past and probably will for decades more. Even Timothy Dalton couldn’t kill Bond. Superman’s appeal waxes and wanes over the years. Batman is in a slump. Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and the Lone Ranger are all hurting for work. But Bond is as big as ever.

And how can this be? After you’ve seen Maxwell Smart chatting on his shoe phone, or Doctor Evil griping about the sharks with laser beams on their heads, how can anybody take James Bond seriously again?

Well, maybe the secret is that nobody took Bond that seriously to begin with. For all the violence and sex of the Bond films, they have always been irresistibly campy affairs at their core, with a streak of self-parody that is sometimes as silly as anything in Get Smart. The chief difference between Bond and Powers is not so much in the circumstances they confront—the rocket cars, the mountain lairs, the improbably buxom ladies and vaguely European villains are all pretty much interchangeable in both series—but in their reactions to said circumstances. For while Bond strides through it all with an aloof smirk, Powers gushes with dorky enthusiasm. His reaction is not so different from the way most of us would respond if we found ourselves living the adventuresome, sexed-up, consequence-free life of an international man of mystery: “Yeah, baby, yeah!” This of course makes Powers far less cool than James Bond but a great deal more recognizably human. He’s a wish-fulfillment character who recognizes how lucky he is.

This week offers you an interesting chance to compare and contrast the greatest Bond parody with the original article, for just as Goldmember hits the multiplexes, Cerritos Park is wrapping up its Bond film series with a rare public screening of Thunderball. This adventure sees Bond attempting to thwart the detonation of a pair of nuclear weapons while . . . ah, it’s pretty much the same nonsense he’s always up to, really. And we would have it no other way.

Uh-Oh, It’s Magic: Harry Potter and the muggle hordes

Filed under: Geekery,Humor,Movies,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 11:17 am

(Printed in OC WEEKLY, November 21, 2002)

As a lifelong geek, it has always puzzled me why “normals” (as some geekfolk like to call non-geekfolk) can be so stubbornly confused by the success of things like Star Trek or the Star Wars pictures. A normal person will spend three minutes in front of an episode of Deep Space Nine and then crinkle up their nose in distaste, griping, “I can’t keep all that Romulan and Klingon nonsense straight. How can adults waste their time with that shit?!” Then they’ll change the channel and spend the next three hours in a happy daze watching tall men in shorts dribble a ball up a court and down a court and up the court again, complete with copious, slow-mo instant replays. I had no sympathy for this sort of behavior at all until a friend dragged me to The Fellowship of the Ring, and suddenly there I was, wrinkling my nose, muttering in the dark about all of these orcs and elves and Boromirs and Doromirs and Aerwyns and Arwyns and Morgors and Trogors and the quest that just went on for-freakin’-ever. If this is what Star Trek is like for you people, jeez, you have my complete sympathy.

The Harry Potter books, films, etc., have over a very short time become a Star Trek-sized phenomenon, and like other geeky delights, Potter-land comes complete with its own elaborate mythologies, insider terms and other mumbo-jumbo, all of which is surely as baffling to outsiders as warp drive and wookiees were to non-geeks in generations past. There are a multitude of intelligent adults out there who simply can’t abide the Harry Potter phenomenon—and for a multitude of loudly stated reasons. We hear from such people every time a new Potter book or film is released: they sound off in outraged articles, at the bus stop, from the very rooftops. Post-Sept. 11, more than a few pundits screeched that by letting our kids play with wands and broomsticks instead of forcing them to run around with pellet guns, we were raising a generation of wussies ill-equipped to face the horrors of war. Of course, just as many pundits were griping that the Potter books are far too dark and frightening for kids and were sure to transform our little darlings into a generation of Satanist psychopaths.

But while plenty of pundits and parents have their reasons for hating how popular Potter is with kids, I’m not a kid and I don’t have kids, so I can tune them out without much effort. It’s the snobs who really drive me nuts, people who can’t abide seeing other adults enjoying Harry Potter stuff; seriously, the next time anybody, in print or in person, dares to suggest that I am an idiot for enjoying the work of J.K. Rowling, I plan to take a Nimbus 2000 broom (now available at Toys ’R Us) and shove it someplace unwholesome.

Is the Potter universe great art? Probably not. It hits the marks it’s aiming for and does it well; it’s scary when it’s supposed to be scary and funny when it’s supposed to be funny, but I see no great depths beneath the surface of Rowling’s work. What it is, simply, is cracking fun, the kind of stuff that actually makes adults and kids alike pick up books and savor them as humans probably haven’t since the age of Dickens, no mean feat in our post-literate age. The films are a perhaps too-faithful translation of Rowling’s words, but they’re produced with showmanship and flair, and they deserve to rake in the millions of zillions that they do. If you’re looking for proof that civilization is crashing down around our ankles, go look at Eminem’s bank account.

In the end, what it comes down to is that if you detest all things Harry Potter, you probably either haven’t read one of the books, you went into one of the films determined to hate it, or you are an uptight and unimaginative jackass. You are excused from puzzling out the difference between a phaser and a lightsaber, but take my word for it, if you never trouble yourself to learn the difference between a muggle and a house elf, it’s your loss.

Ashes to Ashton: Kicking Kutcher to the curb

Filed under: Humor,Movies,OC Weekly,TV — gregstacy @ 11:13 am

There he was, staring at me with those dead, stuffed-animal eyes from the cover of every magazine at the supermarket that didn’t have a pretty, undernourished girl on the cover, from every channel on TV that wasn’t busy trying to show me reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond, from bus benches and newspaper pages, from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam: Ashton freaking Kutcher. Oh, how I loathe him. Now, there’s nothing odd in and of itself about disliking the star of such fare as That ’70s Show and Dude, Where’s My Car? Such persons are to be despised as a matter of course, and to do otherwise is no doubt evidence of some potentially dangerous psychological disorder. But my feelings for Kutcher were not simply the reflexive distaste typically earned by his ilk; no, mine was an actual hate, seeing his detestably pretty face made my fists clench and my spleen twist up like a balloon animal. But why? Why does Kutcher inspire my loathing where most of his Hollywood, himbo compatriots inspire a vague disdain at most?

Certainly, the fact that he is younger, better-looking and wealthier than I shall ever be does play a part; it’s no fun to see the ladies swooning over a guy whose talent and intelligence could by all evidence fit in an aspirin bottle without taking out the aspirin (or the cotton). But it’s not like the sight of Freddie Prinze Jr. makes me double over with barely suppressed rage. Besides, while I wouldn’t weep if Ashton’s face suffered an untimely run-in with a belt sander, in some ways, it’s kind of nice to see the ladies swooning over a guy who is obviously and inarguably not ugly; after watching women go ga-ga for Russell Crowe, Benicio Del Toro, Vin Diesel and other surly guys who look like they’re made of mashed potatoes, it’s reassuring to know America’s women are not, in fact, suffering from an epidemic of early-onset glaucoma. I respect women less for thinking a lunk like Kutcher is hot, but I suppose I can’t begrudge them their lust when I’m working on my seventh scrapbook of Jennifer Connelly photos. (I have her covered through Dark City, and my source in Tokyo says he has a lead on a cache of Rocketeer pics.) I wouldn’t bother to cross the street to spit on the shoes of most wealthy young stars, yet I’m working on a loogie right now just in case Kutcher crosses my path. And why?

Well, I’m tempted to simply cross my arms and churlishly pronounce that I don’t like what he stands for, but it’s no simple matter to figure out what Kutcher does stand for. The man is simply a void. It is my custom to watch TV in the tub (I’m practicing in the event that I ever become an eccentric millionaire), and recently, I was midway through a prolonged sitz when The Simpsons ended, and I got stuck with the opening 20 minutes of That ’70s Show. Flipping channels would have been a soggy and potentially electrifying ordeal, so I had little option but to sit back and take in the horror of Kutcher in action. My lord. He calls to mind something Family Ties director Gary David Goldberg once said about the casting of Michael J. Fox, back when Fox was just some anonymous Canadian little person: Goldberg said that Fox could take a script page with two laughs and give you five. Kutcher does not give you five; he gives you exactly two, and he wouldn’t give you any without the laugh track. As meager as That ’70s Show’s scripts are (I’ve recently subjected myself to a few more episodes for the purposes of this article), Kutcher’s talent is not up to them. He plays stupid convincingly (assuming he is in fact “playing”), but it’s hardly the beguiling stupid of a young Suzanne Somers or even a Keanu Reeves. No, Kutcher’s is the true witlessness of some third- or fourth-billed horny dork in a Porky’s movie, and yet through some ghastly quirk of fate, he has been elevated to leading-man status. And given the heartbreaking success of Just Married, odds are we’re stuck with him.

Sometimes I get the feeling that I was born in the wrong universe, that I’ve somehow traded places with another me, and at this moment, the opposite Greg Stacy – a hip-hop fan in a backward ballcap and a Hard Rock Café T-shirt – is wandering around an America where people like Kutcher pump the gas and Steve Buscemi is a national treasure. I hope that other me has a better time in that universe than I’ve had in this one.

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