Thursday, November 23, 2006

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Avenging The Avengers

In the midst of all the Bond-age going around, it seemed like a good time to mount a defense for a true underdog: the oft-maligned and unjustly scorned 1998 film version of The Avengers. Make no mistake, The Avengers is not a great movie, but it’s far from the train wreck it was painted upon release -- and since it’s never shaken that stench, nor stirred up a massive cult following, the Morgue aims to set matters straight.

I’m a huge fan of The Avengers TV series – well, let me rephrase that…I’m a huge fan of the Diana Rigg / Emma Peel-era[1]. If anyone might’ve been a harsh critic of this redux it was going to be me, but upon seeing the film’s trailer, it became a must-see movie. The style, the vibe, the look – everything about that 2 minutes smacked of slavish faithfulness to the series. There was no other popcorn flick I was looking forward to that summer as much as this one. So you can imagine how my heart and hopes sank when the buzz started mounting. Word from across the pond following the British premiere was dire; Warner Bros. opted to not screen it for U.S. critics, so reviews were scarce upon its U.S. opening.

Regardless, I went to an early screening on opening day and was weirdly entertained by what I viewed. It wasn’t the masterpiece of which I’d dreamed -- nor was it the steaming pile I’d been hearing about. Were people seeing the same film as me? A quote I distinctly recall reading after the Brit premiere: “I don’t know what that was, but it certainly wasn’t The Avengers”. Um, yes it was…and there’s no way it could ever be mistaken for anything other than The Avengers. Of the many who were so quick to trash the movie, I wondered who’d even seen an episode in at least 20 years. Maybe that person meant, “It wasn’t Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg”. If so, fair enough - it’s not, nor could it have been unless the movie was set in a nursing home for retired secret agents...bringing me to the film’s problematic conundrums, which I’ll address before moving on to my likes.

Screenwriter Don MacPherson undoubtedly wrote the script with Macnee and Rigg’s characterizations of John Steed and Emma Peel at the forefront of the concept. And really, how else would one write such clearly defined, iconic characters? Remove stars Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, and it isn’t a huge stretch to picture Macnee and Rigg playing the parts. It’d be blasphemous to write them any other way and still call the movie The Avengers.

Let’s get Mrs. Peel out of the way first. No actress could’ve done justice to Rigg’s definitive performance. Rigg as Peel is like James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon. Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. Bob Denver as Gilligan. I’m hardly an Uma devotee and despite my pre-release enthusiasm (ahem…that sounds filthy), never harbored illusions that she’d live up to Rigg. She is probably miscast, but what actress wouldn’t have been? All that said, she’s surprisingly watchable and most importantly, wears leather like a second skin and catsuits with confidence. Her British accent is consistent, even if a tad flat. She plays Peel with a light, flirty coolness, paying homage to Rigg’s legacy without xeroxing the past. For every complaint one might have about Thurman’s take, there are kudos to be given – to be sure, this was an odd job.

Fiennes is a bit more complicated. He’s far more even than Thurman, but his biggest problem is in choosing to make the role his own, rather than play it with the carefree demeanor Macnee infused into Steed, as it appears to be written. Fiennes instead wants his Steed to be serious, never minding that the material doesn’t really call for it. He plays Steed as Bond minus the sex and violence – the equation totaling an emasculated secret agent of sorts. Forgive Fiennes this transgression -- had he invoked Macnee, he likely would’ve come across as a dandified homosexual. For once the famous Seinfeld quote can be corrupted: “And everything would have been wrong with that”. Macnee straddled the fence in this area due to the naïveté of ‘60s TV audiences and the ongoing conviction of his performance…but whittle the Steed basics down to a 100-page script, and you might as well cast Rupert Everett (which, now that I think about it, would have rocked).

So at this point you might wonder what exactly it is that I like about this movie (even I’m having a tough time getting there). Outside of its conceptual devotion to the original, I like The Avengers for the sheer scale of its out-of-time-and-place imagination (which again, is what the series was always about). The plot revolves around the megalomaniacal Sir August de Wynter’s (played to the robust hilt by Sean Connery) plan to control the weather and sell it to world leaders. Audacious! Clima-terrorism!! Control the weather and you control the world!!! Few screen villains concoct such ideal schemes. Blowing up the world is a hell of a lot less fun than making it snow in San Antonio. It’s nearly impossible to tell where Connery’s heart is throughout the proceedings. Is he phoning it in? Is he hamming it up? Does it even matter? When the granddaddy of all super spies channels Goldfinger, Largo and Blofeld into one deliciously camp creation, it’s best not to ponder the how’s and why’s. Accept that this is unique film history, whether you like it or not.

The film exists in an idealized ‘60s pop limbo where normal rules of spy fare simply don’t apply. Nor does it look anything like our reality. It exists in one place only -- the hyperreal world of John Steed and Emma Peel, which is a wholly distinctive universe. It's a world where deadly, remote-controlled mechanical bees attack our heroes. Where villains gather together dressed in rainbow-coloured teddy bear costumes. Where Eddie Izzard plays a mute henchman and Shaun Ryder is one of his lackeys. It feels like a greatest hits package of the TV series. Scene after set piece echoes many an Avengers episode of days gone by – it’s difficult to believe any true fan wouldn’t find themselves intoxicated by the attention paid to detail.

Borderline amazing is the film working at all. Early test screenings led to hasty, massive recutting. I’ve read that the original cut ran anywhere from 115 minutes to 2 and half hours – its final running time is a measly 89 minutes; imagine if literally more than a third of the film is missing! Despite the cuts, and perhaps due to the film’s somewhat compartmentalized structure and fairly simple plot, it miraculously moves along with an amiable stride. Aside from a few minor continuity glitches, one wouldn’t guess it was such a rape victim. And yet I cannot help but think of what might have been, what director Jeremiah S. Chechick and MacPherson envisioned.

Bits of the excised material can be glimpsed in the trailer (the only real “extra” on the DVD); IMDB also provides a list of numerous cut scenes. It’s a travesty that the stink still surrounding The Avengers is likely the only thing keeping a Director’s Cut DVD from happening. IMDB users rate (at the time of writing) the film a paltry 3.3/10. In comparison, IMDB users currently rate A View to a Kill (which coincidentally co-stars Patrick Macnee) a whopping 6/10. I’d put Moore’s swansong up against The Avengers and challenge anyone to prove Bond's superiority. Same for Moonraker. Heck, I’d even put it up against The World Is Not Enough, which came out a year after The Avengers, and is as bloated a misfire as anything the Moore era produced (which is not to bag on Moore's Bond, who is, strangely enough, my favorite).

When it comes right down to it, The Avengers should probably never have been turned into a film. The whimsical, flirtatious, non-cynical nature of the concept is rooted in a time and place that bears no resemblance to today. Surely there’re a surplus of Avengers fans that abhor the piece, but they’re missing out on the filmmakers' affectionate attempt to do right by the show’s spirit, rather than modernize it into something rooted in the present. Do that and you end up with movies like The Saint or the Mission: Implausible flicks. Maybe these are better films than The Avengers, but do they embody the spirit of their source material? I can picture such an Avengers film and it would be anything but The Avengers.

Lest anyone believe I've got beefs with Bond, that's not the case. Here are my Top Five Favorite Bond Theme Tunes:

1. "Nobody Does It Better" by Carly Simon
2. "Live and Let Die" by Paul McCartney and Wings
3. "Tomorrow Never Dies" by Sheryl Crow
4. "For Your Eyes Only" by Sheena Easton
5. "Licence to Kill" by Gladys Knight

[1] I’ve seen bits and pieces of the Honor Blackman/Cathy Gale era, but the videotape quality is pretty rough and they lack that Avengers feel. Seen most of the Linda Thorson/Tara King period, but it's too camp even for my tastes. Never seen even a single episode of The New Avengers. So why the indulgent qualifiers? Maybe I’m no more of an Avengers authority than the Doctor Who viewer that’s only ever seen Tom Baker.

Friday, November 17, 2006

We Must Feed

Consider the notion that three types of viewers partake in the new series of Doctor Who:

1) Classic series viewers who prefer safe, dramatic territory that doesn’t rock the nostalgia boat.
2) Classic series viewers who enjoy seeing Who’s boundaries pushed in as many different directions as possible.
3) Viewers who never watched the classic series and are only familiar with this version.

“The Impossible Planet” and its second half, “The Satan Pit”, satiates all three types with writer Matt Jones’ engaging concoction of science fiction, horror, religion, myth, chaos, H. P. Lovecraft, Alien, and several doses of classic Who itself. Yet the story feels anything but recycled--ideal fodder even for the uninitiated. Never seen Doctor Who? Tonight would be an excellent opportunity to dip your toe in the pool.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here to worship at The House Next Door.


The AP is reporting numerous incidents of violence surrounding today's release of Sony's PlayStation 3 - and in Connecticut, no less. This is the sort of thing I'd expect in Texas, New York or California...but Connecticut? (The previous statement assumes I'd expect to hear about it all, which I actually would not.)

Isn't this the kind of thing we normally associate with drug addiction and dealing? Is that what's going on here? Are these acts committed out of a need for the money to be gained from selling the machines, or are these people who genuinely must own this technology at any cost?

If it's the former, then I guess I can wrap my brain around these atrocities, although there are still some major issues that need to be addressed concerning the release of this type of technology.

But if it's the latter, then there's something far more wrong with a certain sector of the country than I'd previously suspected. Of the two scenarios I proposed, the first one leapt to mind after a bit of thought. My gut reaction to reading this was that the desire for these machines was so intense, that people would kill to own one. I've seen the way my kid and his friends hypnotically react to their video games, and while I sincerely hope they'd never go as far as what's being reported, it wasn't a stretch for me to imagine that certain types could and would.

I believe the late, great Timothy Leary was the first to suppose that computers and related technology would be the drugs of the future. At the time, it seemed odd coming from Mr. LSD himself, but it's looking more and more like he may well have been onto something. And regardless of which of the two scenarios I proposed (could well be both as there were already several incidents) is correct, this technology is as dangerous as crystal meth, cocaine, nicotine and alcohol all wrapped into one shiny, boxlike corporate package.

Worst of all, there's no regulation going on here. Anybody with $400 can get one if they'd waited in line for days on end. But the supply is low and the demand is high. If they don't have $400 or the supply has run out, then is this where we end up?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Barry Does Bacharach (...& Many More!)

Earlier this year when Barry Manilow released "The Greatest Songs of the Fifties" and it became his first #1 album since 1977's "Live", I was more than a tad disheartened. I wanted such an event to be centered around an album of Barry originals, not a bunch of covers. A case of having shit in one hand and wishin' in the other? Possibly. Only I didn't have that, because I didn't buy the "Fifties" disc. Why? I only liked maybe two of the songs he chose for the album. Hence the "shit" joke; there's very little music from that decade I care for (maybe if it had been an album full of Jerry Lee Lewis covers...which, quite frankly, would be tres cool...or a total disaster...ahem...).

Moving on. I've got no beef with Barry doing cover tunes as a means to an audience - heck, I did the same thing with Barry's songs when I wrote my play "New York City Rhythms" - so it'd be hypocritical for me to condemn this strategy.

Last week the Barrister released the followup "The Greatest Songs of the Sixties", which from a track listing standpoint was the flip side of the last album per my tastes. There is in fact only one tune on here I never cared for (You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'); the rest is all stuff I really, really dig - and Manilow does way right by the material. This time around he didn't come out of the gate at #1 - but instead #2 (beaten only by the soundtrack for the TV series Hannah Montana...go figure)! Still, props to my man for scoring big two times in a row.

He covers three Burt Bacharach tunes - Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, This Guy's In Love With You, & What the World Needs Now is Love. The latter two are outstanding versions; Raindrops seems just slightly lacking, although I can't quite put my finger on what's missing. It might just be because B. J. Thomas' version is just so friggin' definitive, and then Ben Folds Five's live cover redefined it, and there probably isn't a lot of room in my head for a third version.

I remember when he announced the album some months back, he jokingly said something along the lines of "Don't expect a bunch of Beatles songs - this is me after all". Well he did see fit to include one Lennon/McCartney tune, And I Love Her, which is just as syrupy sweet as it oughtta be.

But the real Coup for Ruediger here is Barry singing Blue Velvet. Now here's the song that my favorite movie of all time is named after, and indeed the song is so inextricably tied to David Lynch's masterpiece at this point, it seems clear to me that Barry has as sick a sense of humor as I've always suspected. It may not quite top Bobby Vinton's version, but it is superior to Isabella's take.

Thank you Mr. M! I'd ponder whether or not you're going to do "The Greatest Songs of the Seventies", but you already have - back in the '70s when you released all those great albums.

And if you ever read this, hopefully you are amused by...

Frank Booth: "Baby wants to fuck! Baby wants to fuck Blue Velvet!"

(Special thanks to my dearest JJ for giving me the CD for my birthday!)

Friday, November 10, 2006

More Faceless Ones (Not a Sequel)

“The Idiot’s Lantern” is the halfway point of the second season of Doctor Who, and as such there’s a transitional feel to the proceedings. With Mickey out of the picture, the Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose (Billie Piper) are left traveling on their own once again, and they seem to have moved past some of their earlier-in-the-season push and pull antics. Appearing more connected due to recent events, team spirit has returned to the TARDIS and Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show is their target destination. Of course it goes without saying the Doctor’s unable to get them to New York and instead they end up in 1953 London, the day before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. (Just once I’d like to see him miss and end up in Mozambique -- anywhere but the British Isles.)

Meanwhile, something sinister brews at Magpie’s Electricals -- the woman on Mr. Magpie’s (Ron Cook) TV is talking to him. How is his shop’s overnight success connected to the missing faces of the many who’ve spent just a tad too much time in front of their new tellys? And how do the Connolly’s, the family down the street, tie into everything? And why is nobody allowed to visit dear old Gran, who’s been locked away upstairs?

To read the rest of this article, click here and tune in to The House Next Door.

Friday, November 03, 2006

In the Steel of the Night

The cliffhanger was a staple component of classic Doctor Who, and many a fan has bemoaned the new series’ self-contained storylines eroding this old standby. Two-parters seek to bring that thrill back to the forefront a few times each season, and “Rise of the Cybermen” ended on a wonderfully tense hanging from the cliff: Our heroes surrounded by Cybermen, and the Doctor shouting, “We surrender!!!” -- only to be greeted by a chorus of “Deletes!!!” from the steely automatons.

“The Age of Steel” picks up right where we left off, and the Doctor whips out the precious TARDIS power cell and miraculously obliterates the oncoming force. Something of a letdown, eh? I thought it was anyway, but then I remembered the countless weak cliffhanger resolutions from the original series, which gave some perspective. With Doctor Who, the cliffhanger must be properly executed; the strength of its resolution should be secondary. (Perhaps this applies to cliffhangers in general?)

Read the rest of this article by steeling away over to The House Next Door.