Friday, March 30, 2007


Starring Magnús Scheving, Stefán Karl Stefánsson, Julianna Rose Mauriello, with the voices of Gudmundur Thor, Jodi Eichelberger, Sarah Burgess, Kobie Powell, David Matthew Feldman, Julie Westwood.

Created by Magnus Scheving.

Before I write anything else, I’m going to wager a guess: this is not a US production. Instinctually, I’d have to say Canada, and not just because the hero resembles what I imagine a Canadian lifeguard of the 1930s would have looked like. But this will all be addressed before the end of the review.

So let us take a look at this quaint little burg, this LazyTown. LazyTown is a place of vaguely Seussian design, seemingly populated by nine people, all but three of whom are puppets. (Puppets of the rubber variety at that, a fact that my colleague Kodos has fervently protested, maintaining that puppets should only be made of wood or felt.) I’m not even sure two of these people can be considered residents, since one lives in a cave below the surface and the other in a dirigible that floats way up in the sky. Suffice to say I’d hate to be in charge of regulating this place’s tax codes.

First we have Stephanie (Mauriello), a young human adolescent. She dresses predominantly in fluorescent pink, including her hair. She has come to LazyTown to live with her uncle, the doddering Mayor Milford Meanswell (Feldman). The Mayor, by the way, is a puppet. Clearly the genetic science of this world would have much to teach us.

Stephanie has a gaggle of friends, all puppets and all with their individual hooks. There’s Pixel (Powell), the cyber-nerd with cherry-colored dreadlocks (I think that’s what they’re supposed to be); Stingy (Eichelberger), the bowtie and vest-wearing rich kid who covets everything he sees, including, occasionally, the intangible; Trixie (Burgess), who, true to her name, likes playing practical jokes, although the only evidence of this in the episodes I’ve seen has been her moment drawing a mustache on a poster of the Mayor in the opening credits; and Ziggy (Thor), a sugar junkie who comes off as the most childlike of the characters (simple would be another way of putting it, but I’m trying to be nice). There’s also an adult woman puppet, Bessie Busybody (Westwood). She serves as the Mayor’s love interest and the town’s ersatz Margaret Dumont. (There are scattered references to there being other residents, but as far as I can tell they are never, ever seen.)

Then there are the other two humans, the ones of dubious residence. The designated bad guy, Robbie Rotten (Stefánsson), lives in an underground lair and has all kinds of devices and disguises that help him screw with the surface people. His visage is frequently contorted, and looks all the more odd because of the prosthetics with which his face is outfitted. He wears a body-hugging suit that seems to be designed to look like a pinstripe onesie. His demeanor careens between sour, fey and melancholy with remarkable speed, and while there’s nothing specific to indicate that he’s German, he’s still vaguely Germanic in manner, which, coupled with his unusual appearance, makes him a bit like an Otto Dix portrait come to life. Shellshock would be as good an explanation as any for his behavior.

Or not, and this goes a little bit towards one of the questions I originally had about the show: whether the title is intended to be ironic. Certainly the hyperactivity displayed by the characters would indicate so, but it turns out there is some degree of backstory involved. Apparently, there once was a time when the populace was indeed quite lazy, but all of that changed one day, much to Robbie’s chagrin. He has since devoted a lot of time to foiling the architect of that change, his archrival, Sportacus (Scheving).

If there’s one thing Sportacus ain’t, it’s lazy. He might even be classified as a special kind of black hole into which all lazy in the immediate vicinity is sucked and banished. Sportacus is the afore-mentioned guy who looks like what I imagine a Canadian lifeguard of the 1930s might have (in fact, he bears a slight resemblance to Saved by the Bell’s Dustin Diamond, meaning he may be what Screech would have looked like if he had been a Canadian lifeguard of the 1930s, but now we’re treading dangerously close to a whole other level of madness). Each episode begins with a brief prelude in his steam-punky aircraft, where, true to form as the hyper-athlete he is, he can’t even walk a few feet from one spot to another without bouncing off of a wall or three. Presumably such behavior would quickly become tiresome to be around, and yet the character himself, with his friendly demeanor and his gravity-defying pencil mustache, is so utterly guileless – in fact, for the “superhero” his young admirers continually peg him as, he almost seems oblivious to the concept of people behaving badly – that it feels like the pinnacle of grumpishness to dislike the guy.

Sportacus wears a number 10 on his outfit. At one point it is explained that there was a number 9 before him. One can only assume that means there were eight before that. Exactly what the hell happened to all these other guys? You can’t tell me that Robbie, who’s like Wile E. Coyote without the subtlety, has conquered that many opponents. He’s about as threatening as the cream cakes upon which he regularly gorges. And after all, the conflict basically arises from Sportacus trying to make sure the kids stay active, eat vegetables and fruit (he likes to call the latter “sports candy”), brush their teeth, etc., while Robbie tries to make sure that they, well, don’t. As menaces go, he doesn’t strike you as somebody who would need ten separate heroes to defeat him. On the other hand, he does manage to repeatedly convince the others that he’s someone else using disguises that make Clark Kent’s glasses look like the ultimate in fakery, so perhaps these people truly are in special need of protection.

That about sums up the gist of the show, so I might as well go back to that ‘not a US production’ thing. As it turns out, I’m only partially right. It is a US production, but it didn’t start out that way. Magnús Scheving, the show’s creator, director, story-writer and Sportacus himself, is a celebrated gymnast from Iceland and this all began as a stageshow there, eventually being developed into a series. This explains both Sportacus and Robbie’s accents, and possibly even the hint of Germanicism I detected in Robbie. (My initial guess of Canada was probably just a knee-jerk American reaction to anything that has the appearance of being American and yet somewhat not at the same time.)

I’m trying to remember now if the fictional television worlds of my early childhood – Sesame Street, The Magic Garden, The Land of Make Believe, wherever the hell the New Zoo Revue took place (the New Zoo, perhaps?) – were as odd as LazyTown. As memory serves, they were not, even keeping in mind that I’m viewing this through older, jaded, and not infrequently bloodshot eyes. They certainly weren’t as hyperactive. There’s just so much activity in the roughly twenty-four minutes of a single episode, including at least two musical numbers led by Mauriello, who has a lot of on-camera presence for her age. She reminds me of someone, but I can’t think of who it is. If I had to guess, it would probably be a movie personality from the ‘80s, entirely appropriate since the songs have a very ‘80s music video/fitness tape sensibility to them, with Stephanie doing a kind of cheerleader routine-inspired dance with Sportacus. All of that gets a bit exhausting after a while, although I have yet to determine if it was the exhaustion that led me to conclude that in certain instances the show can actually be quite funny.

I have begun to suspect that I could spend a considerable amount of time going over the assorted odd details of the LazyTown world, but thay would be for another day. Ultimately, I have to say that any show that encourages kids to stay active and eat well and like that, hey, that’s not such a bad thing. The very fact that it’s not encouraging five-year-olds to behave as if they were twenty-five-year-olds is a big plus these days. Given all that, it is a supreme irony how many college students are likely enjoying this show’s baroque oddness from the comfort of their couches after taking some “party medicine.” Hey, if Sportacus can call apples, “sports candy”…
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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The 27th Day

(1957, 75 min.)

Starring Gene Barry, Valerie French, George Voskovec, Stefan Schnabel, Azemat Janti, Friedrich von Ledebur, Ralph Clanton, Paul Birch, Arnold Moss, Marie Tsien,

Written by John Mantley and Robert M. Fresco (uncredited) from the novel by Mantley.

Directed by William Asher.

Five people suddenly find themselves aboard a spaceship, having been abducted from their various corners of the world by a looming shadow. These are Jonathan Clark (Barry), an LA newspaperman; Eve Wingate (French), a young Englishwoman; Su Han (Tsien), a young Chinese woman, who, when we first see her, is bending over the body of either her father or husband who has just been shot by soldiers; Professor Bechner (Voskovec), a German professor who is about to travel to the US to oversee an experiment in satellite technology that represents humankind’s best opportunity to communicate with extraterrestrial life forms (ironic, no?); and Ivan Godofsky (Janti), a private in the Red Army.

On the ship they meet The Alien (Moss). He tells them that his universe is dying and that his race needs a new planet. However, their moral code forbids them from the invasion or destruction of intelligent life. Instead, they have decided to gamble on the human race’s penchant for self-destruction. Each of the five individuals is to be given a devastating weapon, devices that look kind of like a compact, but instead of vibrantly colored powders essential for making your look extra kicky, these contain three capsules with the power to destroy all human life – and nothing else – within a three thousand mile radius. Between the five of them, they have enough combined power to wipe all human life from the face of the Earth. Each compact can only be opened by the mental powers of the individual to which it has been given, although once opened, anyone can use the capsules, which are activated merely by speaking the coordinates of the desired ground zero. Additionally, if one of the five were to die, those particular capsules would be rendered useless. The alien race has only thirty-five days before their world expires. They are giving humanity twenty-seven days to live with the weapon, at the end of which, if it has not been used, it will automatically be deactivated. Humanity will survive, and the aliens will accept their own demise.

The five are then transported right back to the exact place and time from which they were abducted. Eve immediately chucks her device into the sea. Su Han decides on something more dramatic- she places hers in front of a Buddha and then runs herself through with a sword. The Alien broadcasts a worldwide message indicating what has occurred and Jonathan, not knowing what else to do, goes into hiding, along with Eve who has joined him from across the pond for no better reason than romantic convenience. Ivan is reluctant to tell his superiors what has happened, although after the broadcast they’re quite eager to tortu- I mean, talk to him, and Professor Bechner can only think of studying the device to learn more about it…along with an abiding feeling that there was a hidden message in what the Alien told them that they haven’t yet grasped, and that may be the key to the whole dilemma.

As far as entertainment value goes, this is a decent little story, good even; interesting in its moral trappings, provided you don’t examine things too closely. I have no problem recommending it, but, having gotten that out of the way, I’d like to talk about an aspect of the film that cannot be discussed without serious spoilers, so anyone who wants to go in cold better hit that Back button now.

I don’t believe it was necessarily intentional, but one could, if one wanted to, detect a certain streak of conservatism at work here. There’s the fact that the two women given the device immediately relinquish the responsibility of being a holder (menfolk being more suited to such non-domestic matters and all). There’s a scene with Jonathan and Eve in a taxi where he turns on a portable radio so the driver can’t hear what they’re saying. When she screws up her nose and asks him what the music is he tells her with equal distaste that it’s rock‘n’roll…despite the fact that what’s actually playing is about as inoffensive a swing tune as you’re ever likely to hear. (I don’t know if this was a screw-up on the part of the sound department, or if they were actually dissing big band or what.) And then, of course, there’s the stereotypically evil portrayal of most of the Russians, although given the time period and Hollywood’s history this isn’t necessarily a right wing thing.

But then there’s the climax. Hoo-boy, the climax. It turns out that the Professor was, of course, correct. There was something to the aliens’ message and the devices themselves that wasn’t immediately apparent. There’s a message engraved on the cylinders that lets him know what it is, and he subsequently launches an entire compact of cylinders effectively blanketing the entire populated world (which seems to contradict the earlier assertion that all five compacts would be needed to do this, but never mind). Except that the only people eliminated are, and I quote, “every person throughout the world known to have been a confirmed enemy of human freedom.” Yes, that’s right. The device somehow had the ability to detect who was good and who was evil, and took out the latter. Thank god, um, I mean God there are no such things as gray areas, huh? It is the utterly simplistic, intellectually-challenged neo-con world philosophical dream come true. Minus the international corporate plunder, of course.

But hold on there buckaroos- we still have a coda to get through, and those conservatives whose little heads were exploding over the climax may find their big heads exploding over what comes next. Having realized that the aliens intended to bring peace to the world all along, the humans decide there’s only one decent thing to do- save them from their own imminent doom by inviting them to come and live on our planet! That’s right. MASSIVE INTERPLANETARY IMMIGRATION!

Given that the neo-cons didn’t even exist when this film was made, there is, of course, zero chance that this was a deliberately-designed bait and switch, which makes it all the more deliciously coincidental when the killing blow is delivered in the form of the final shot: the UN building standing tall and proud over the East River.

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