Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Longest Running Superhero TV Show in History Is...

...Smallville.

Derided back in 2001 as Kal-El's Creek (or Clark's Creek, or Dawson's Cape), Smallville -- this sturdy re-imagination of the Superboy mythos - has certainly established itself as a real survivor.

After all, Smallville was one of the few network shows to successfully make the jump from the now defunct WB to the CW. It has also survived the competition: a big-budget movie resurrection of its main character in 2006's Superman Returns.

Smallville has even survived -- and flourished -- after the departure of main characters/actors, like Michael Rosenbaum's Lex Luthor and Kristin Kreuk's Lana Lang.

Now renewed for a landmark ninth season, Smallville has lasted an impressive duration, one greater than Batman (1966-1969), Lois and Clark (1992-1996), The Adventures of Superman (1951-1958), or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).

The only bailiwick in which the series hasn't witnessed much good luck is in the creation of a spin-off to replace it. Mercy Reef, the Aquaman re-imagination...sunk without a trace.

In all, this is a surprising turn of events for a superhero TV series that The Washington Post derided as "pandering to the WB''s adolescent audience" and Variety termed "one more semi-soap opera about beautiful teens with self- esteem problems."

And don't forget, the series was even criticized/protested early on for the fact that images in the pilot (of Clark Kent strung up in a Kansas corn field...) reminded some people of the Matt Shepard murder that occurred in October of 1998.

My opinion of Smallville? Well, the ubiquitous Dawson meme simply isn't true...it just happens to be a good (and really easy...) joke. I suspect most of the people who make that particular complaint haven't actually watched the show. At least not lately. Sure, the first season was a weak, "Freak of the Week" circus that seemed more like a (bad) knock-off of The X-Files than Superman.

However, by the third season, the series had established its own identity, and established it well. Which doesn't mean there aren't still some really terrible episodes you have to contend with (particularly one with a vampire sorority, and another with Lana unexpectedly possessed by a 17th century witch...) But these ridiculous moments are often mitigated by great, portentous ones (like the apocalyptic vision of Lex Luthor in the Oval Office, in "Hour Glass.")

It's also difficult to accuse this durable series of disrespecting Superman lore since it has lovingly paid tribute to the actors who made the character and his universe so memorable on film and television (with guest stars including Terence Stamp, Margot Kidder, Dean Cain, the late Christopher Reeve, and Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter).

Smallville also creatively incorporates many aspects of the mythos, from Zod and Jor-El to The Fortress of Solitude, to the Phantom Zone, and the larger DC universe (including Cyborg, The Flash, Green Arrow and Aquaman).

I suppose my bottom line is this: I can (usually...) view Smallville without pain and suffering, which I honestly can't say for any iteration of the popular Stargate SG:1, which I find truly cringe-worthy. I'll take Smallville over Stargate any day. I feel the same way about Smallville over Supernatural. Or Ghost Whisperer.

Although that's like being voted the nicest inmate in prison, as I am wont to say.

Regardless, I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and so without snark, I congratulate Smallville for its great success and longevity on network television.

And I can't help but wonder: does this mean my Smallville action figures are actually worth something?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week


There are three basic types, Mr. Pizer: The Wills, the Won'ts, and the Can'ts. The Wills accomplish everything, the Won'ts oppose everything, and the Can'ts won't try anything.

-V.I.N.Cent (Roddy McDowall) in The Black Hole (1979)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned, and Controversial Films

The history of the motion picture is not merely one of a technological art form's ascendancy to global prominence. It is also a history of censorship and attempted censorship.

Author Stephen Tropiano has written a detailed, informative and involving account of this dark legacy in his new reference book, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned and Controversial Films (Limelight Editions; 2009).

Tropiano's discourse commences in the year 1896 with Thomas Edison's technological marvel, the Vitascope.

In particular, one eighteen-second film produced for that format quickly proved both titillating and controversial. It was called The May Irwin Kiss and the short film (consisting of just one shot...) apparently scandalized as many viewers as it enthralled.

However, one prominent New York critic not only disliked the new technology and its early product, but went dramatically further. He termed the Vitascope and The May Irwin Kiss horrific things that called "for police interference."

This call for law enforcement action against a work of art represents, perhaps, the very genesis of film censorship. Accordingly, Tropiano's first chapter details this incident and other early attempts to suppress, ban or destroy films in the Silent Cinema Era. Among other things, he notes the 1909 creation of a "National Board" of censorship (a coalition of progressives, educators and Churchgoers...). An early Moral Majority, perhaps?

Tropiano's purpose in this text is to examine how the medium of film has contended with such institutions and censors, with organizations and individuals who believe (even, to this day...) that it is their "God-given" duty to determine what movies can and cannot say and show. Tropiano names names too, profiling such fascinating personalities as Miss Emma Viets of Kansas, who ruled over a state censorship board from 1920-1930. She considered it her duty, apparently, to protect the people from "displays of nude human figures," "passionate love scenes," and "loose conduct."

But importantly, Viets didn't simply suppress films she didn't like...she re-cut them according to her own sensibilities and belief system. She even re-cut the ending of an Academy Award nominated film, 1927's Sorrell and Son. She objected to an ending which involved euthanasia, and re-edited the film's climax to remove it. She did so with the excuse that the movie played too long and could stand cutting. Everybody's a film critic...

If Tropiano's book merely gazed at censored films and the personalities of censors over the last century, it would make for an interesting read, all right, but Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive is much more than that. Never one to ascribe matters to black-and-white interpretations, Tropiano devotes considerable time and space raising the question if censorship is ever acceptable or justified. Before you say "no," consider some of the examples that he provides.

Take Leni Riefenstahl, a German filmmaker who created a documentary "love letter" to Adolf Hitler called Triumph of the Will (1935). By all accounts, it was a film of brilliant, pioneering technique...and utterly loathsome content: an "aesthetic expression of fascist ideology and the grandeur, order and power of the Third Reich." So...are censors justified in banning this particular film (one that, by the way, has occasionally been viewed as an inspiration for the final scene of Star Wars [1977])?

Well then, how about D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation? It's another landmark film in terms of history, specifically in regards to technical acumen. Yet it is plainly racist in narrative and even pro-KKK. So is censorship the answer? Do viewers deserve the chance to see these films for themselves and decide their value (or lack thereof?) Or does the simple act of viewing Triumph of the Will or Birth of a Nation poison, debauch and corrupt the innocent?

Interesting questions, and Tropiano doesn't lecture or force his conclusions on us. He's a historian, not a moralist, and the stories are so intriguing, so bizarre so...messy...that it isn't necessary to editorialize (at least not often). Tropiano remembers in detail, for instance, the protests that surrounded The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). He points out that many of the "devout" people so actively picketing showings of the Scorsese film had not even seen the film they were protesting, and this raises another point. Don't censors have a duty to first actually watch things that might be considered objectionable before condemning them?

Scorsese's deeply spiritual film was hated by the religious right-- hypocritically -- while Mel Gibson's "torture porn" epic, Passion of the Christ (2004) , which was more violent and gratuitously gruesome than any horror film ever could hope to be, was applauded by the same crowd. Again, Tropiano doesn't shout "hypocrites," he simply compares the response to the two religious films.

Meticulously researched, impeccably written, and original in conception and execution. Tropiano makes for a studied -- and often very droll - tour guide through this material. He examines specific films and controversies (such as the one surrounding Clerks), the development of the ratings systems (PG-13, NC-17, etc.) and movie-oriented legal/crime scandals (there was a period in the 1970s when it seems Kubrick's Clockwork Orange was blamed for every violent crime committed in England...).

Obscene, Indecent, Immoral, and Offensive is thought-provoking, well-researched and broadly inclusive. It's a splendid chronicle of some of the biggest scandals and battles over "free speech" in our nation's popular culture. You can purchase the book at Applause/Limelight or through Amazon.com, and do so with my highest recommendation.

Theme Song of the Week: Flash Gordon (1980)


Monday, March 02, 2009

MOVIE REVIEW: Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

In 2002, I wrote a film book that ended up as one of my most praised (not to mention best-selling...) director studies.

In An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith, I described how the New Jersey-born filmmaker serves as Generation X's Woody Allen; a writer/director obsessed with the holy comedy trifecta of love, romance and sex...and not necessarily in that order.

As a filmmaker, Kevin Smith is a Grade A intellect who deploys a grade school sense of humor -- a predilection for what he calls "dick and fart" jokes -- to make trenchant points about the universal verities of human nature. Smith's unique creative formula consists of canny Generation X touchstones or allusions, plus a focus on the nitty-gritty of romantic relationships (with a heavy focus on realism...) and more than a dash of absolutely raunchy, potty-mouth humor.

In the right proportions, and under the right circumstances, this can prove a magical equation. Accordingly, Smith's approach served him well with critics and audiences in the 1990s with films such as Clerks (1994), Chasing Amy (1997), and, to a lesser degree, Dogma (1999).

The 21st century hasn't been as kind to Smith or his cinematic work.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) is indeed hysterically funny -- a gift to fans -- but perhaps too insular a product for the average movie-goer. Jersey Girl (2004) was accused of blunting Smith's delightfully raw edges...even if the film's heart was in the right place. And Clerks 2 (2006) -- regardless of the film's nostalgia factor and overall good humor -- was perceived by some as career retreat; a sanctuary where the filmmaker could weather the storm over the failure of Jersey Girl.

All this history, however, is but prologue leading up to the arrival of Kevin Smith's latest movie, Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008). To my delight, it's Smith's authentic return to top form. In fact,
Zack and Miri finds the writer-director at his bawdiest and most clever.

I'll be more specific even than that: this comedy is likely Smith's finest cinematic outing since Chasing Amy, and perhaps the funniest since Clerks. I usually mock critics who declare that movies are laugh-out loud funny, but -- hell -- I laughed out loud in Zack and Miri. A lot.

Only Smith, an unrepentant X'er, could marry the syrupy romantic-comedy formula with the bracing, ridiculous nature of X-rated adult films and emerge with a movie that is not simply sweet, not merely compassionate, but actually life-affirming.

And surely only Smith could pepper his genre-bending comedy with so many off-the-wall-references to pop culture history. For instance, he gives Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) a shout-out with a reference to Twiki and Dr. Theopolis, but in a sexual context (!) And then Smith gives 1980s action-television a nod with an allusion to one character being something akin to a "filthy MacGyver."

Smith doesn't stop there, either. He sets his entire movie in the very burb where George A. Romero shot Dawn of the Dead (1979), called Monroeville. He even takes his cameras to the very mall (interior and exterior) where most of that movie's horrific action took place...and it looks exactly the same, thirty years later. Given that fact, there's some ironic subtext here about Zack and Miri being distinctly un-zombie-like in a town and world that seem to encourage conformity, consumption and zombie-ism.

And surely, only Kevin Smith could get away with Zack and Miri's first effort at a porno film. It's a film called Star Whores and it features characters including Darth Vibrator, Hung Solo, Luke Skybanger, and R2-T-Bag.

And did I mentioned the Phallus-shaped Dia-Noga?
In terms of story, Zack and Miri Make A Porno is the tale of two lovable losers, Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks). They have been best friends since high school and now, nearing thirty years old, they share an apartment together. Still, they've put up force fields in their personal life; careful never to stray into the dangers of a romantic (or sexual...) relationship. This is despite the fact that they argue, debate and laugh like an old married couple.

Zack and Miri can't make the rent for their shitty apartment, and their power and water gets turned off the very night of their ten-year high school reunion. At that event, Zack comes up with a brilliant money-making scheme after an encounter with two gay porn stars (Justin Long and Brandon Routh). He decides that he and Miri should make a porno film.

So, with an entourage of crazy characters in tow -- from money man Delaney (Craig Robinson) and videographer Deacon (Jeff Anderson), to a porno wannabe named Lester (Jason Mewes) and an industry veteran named Bubbles (Traci Lords). -- Miri and Zack are set to emerge Porn Stars for the Internet Age. Much of the film's tension (and comedy) arises from the fact that Miri and Zack -- "just friends" -- will finally have sex together...but on camera. The film's final act deals with the repercussions of their decision to do just that.

Given this set up, the first half of the film is a raunchy extravaganza, and the last half is something a bit more touching. Sometimes a good director knows how to get out of the way of his story and characters...and just let things unfold in front of the camera. That's what a trusting, confident and mellow Smith does with dynamic effect in the third act here. As Zack and Miri prepare to take center stage and film their sex scene together, all the outrageous comedy bells and whistles drop away. The audience is left with a painfully earnest, clumsy, raw, honest sequence that acknowledges the deep friendship between this "couple," and the gentleness, irritation and love with which they treat each other. In typical Smith fashion, the awkward scene unfolds and Zack and Miri never stop talking, never stop bickering, never stop being...in love.

I often decry the state of American film comedy in the 21st century. I hate how disposable studio comedies pretend to be brutal but serve only to reinforce the status quo in their third acts. I'm reminded, for example, of the abominable Wedding Crashers...which I fucking hated. That movie introduced two great scoundrels in Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn's characters, gave them some truly wicked comedic business to vet..but then spent the entire over-long film on reforming them both and proving that wedding crashing is, you know, bad.

The 40-Year Old Virgin is the same story. It starts out wicked and wonderful but ends up all smug happiness, hugs and puppies. It doesn't live up to the brutality of its title, and a comedy without brutality isn't worth a pot of spit.

What I enjoyed so much about Zack and Miri Make a Porno is that neither the characters -- nor Smith himself --back away from the premise, or ever stand in judgment of it. Zack and Miri do have sex on camera, in a porno, in this movie, and they don't flagellate, torture or punish themselves over that fact. Even better, the movie doesn't ask us to judge them or their illicit activities as immoral, bad or worthy of condemnation. Good comedy is observation, not judgment. Where movies like Wedding Crashers of 40-Year Old Virgin forget or ignore that important fact, Zack and Miri remembers. We don't go see a comedy to laugh a little, and then get a sermon. We see a comedy to laugh, and -- if we're lucky - connect with a unique world view or experience.

Also, Smith doesn't trade in stereotypes. Indeed, his characters are sometimes slightly-exaggerated (or larger than life, perhaps), but they're also -- miraculously -- very true to life. As with Holden and Alyssa in Chasing Amy, you'll detect something of yourself and your mate, spouse, or significant other in the tribulations, victories and pettiness of Zack and Miri. You'll recognize their fears, insecurities and dreams... and become invested in them and their success. I guarantee it.

That Smith can forge so strong a sense of identification amidst ridiculous humor (including a bubble gag with Traci Lords, and the best constipation joke in years...), is a testament to his talent...at observation. At listening.

Kevin Smith's movies are simultaneously forthright and without guile...and he's made a lot of enemies on all sides of the political spectrum by simply telling things like they are. From the right, Catholics went to war with Smith (one of their own...) over Dogma, and Smith had to contend with bomb threats against his family on a daily basis. From the left, Smith was bombarded by the Gestapo-like tactics of GLAAD for his use of the word "gay" as a playground pejorative in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Like that never happened before Kevin Smith...

And, true to form, Zack and Miri Make a Porno also proved highly controversial to moral watchdogs last year. Because it has the word...porno...in the title. Apparently many theater chains wouldn't screen the film, and Smith had to wrestle with the MPAA to avoid an X-rating. A result of such controversy is that the movie didn't make nearly as much money as it should have, or would have.

Which kind of sucks. So if you're inclined, give Zack and Miri Make a Porno a whirl on the old DVD player. If you're in tune with Smith's style and world-view, the film may remind you why you fell in love with your significant other. If not, at least you'll get a lot of really good laughs.

The 2008 Cyber Horror Awards Announced!


The "first-ever horror film awards decided by the online horror-blogging/writing community" have been unveiled by the Vault of Horror this morning. I'm honored to say I was one of the participating voters in this inaugural year. The results are fascinating too. It looks like a clean sweep for one particular contemporary horror effort; and I'll be reviewing that award-winning movie here on the blog soon. Hopefully these awards will become a tradition...

Anyway, check out all the 2008 award winners
right here.