Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Doves take flight at last

Doves, the aurally adventuresome trio from Manchester, have yet to crack the big time that they deserve. They should have broken through with their 2000 record, "Lost Souls," one of the great debuts of all time. When I interviewed the band back then, guitarist Jez Williams summed up the ambition and scope of "Lost Souls" as "a little bit more subversive than a straightforward rock album. Sonically, we've made sure that it has quite a lot of depth to it."

The two excellent followups, "The Last Broadcast"and "Some Cities," have stayed true to the band's quest for to pursue new musical frontiers. But, despite garnering rave reviews and a healthy fanbase, the big time has remained elusive. The band adjourned for a lengthy hiatus to top up its creative batteries and are finally ready to release a fourth album, "Kingdom of Rust," in early April. It's preceded by a free download of a new song called "Jetstream." (Visit and sign up to get it.) The track, which the band describe as an imaginary composition for the movie "Blade Runner," harks back to their earliest incarnation as the electronic-oriented band Sub Sub. You'll have to listen to the track with a stethoscope to detect Jez Williams's guitar buried under the throbbing synths. It's pretty damn groovy and typically catchy.

In a recent piece in The Guardian about the best musical prospects for 2009, Fraser Kennedy, producer of Live At Abbey Road, says, "I also think the Doves will make a comeback. They're getting up that big head of steam that's going make them ... well, not the next Coldplay, but they're going to step up like Elbow have. I've heard the new record, and it's fantastic."

Less variety at Variety

Today's layoffs at Variety -- including the flabbergasting decision to "ankle" columnist and reporter Anne Thompson -- may have hinged on Thursday's Oscar nominations, according to a convincing analysis by The Hot Blog's David Poland.

A few months ago, Peter Bart wrote a column bemoaning the lack of Oscar-related ads in Variety. But despite a late burst of spending activity -- including 7 full-page ads for "Revolutionary Road" in one issue of The New York Times -- spending is down this year, and the 2009 nominations didn't help things. Apart from Paramount's "Benjamin Button," the Academy largely locked out big studio fare such as "The Dark Knight" and "Wall-E" in favor of smaller releases by specialty wings and independents.

As previously noted, Warner Bros. may have been secretly relieved. Last week, WB laid off more than 800 employees. It would have been impolitik for the studio to have devoted millions more to "The Dark Knight" campaign when that cash could have saved a few jobs. At any rate, Heath Ledger is already a certain winner for Best Supporting Actor. Similarly, Disney knows that its dark horse, "Wall-E," may have lost the Best Picture derby but is a sure bet in the Animated category.

Despite today's cutbacks, Variety will weather the severe economic downturn. Its rival, The Hollywood Reporter, is in freefall. Even if no buyer steps forward to purchase Variety -- which recently moved into flashy new digs -- Reed Business Information is cleverly consolidating its trade publications into market-based divisions. But Variety is rumored to be shuttering its weekly edition, which I always valued for its stand-back perspectives from the daily news. And I wonder whether the trade will ultimately regret pink slipping Thompson given her encyclopedic film knowledge, her deep sources in the Hollywood community, and her uncanny ability to pinpoint unknown up and comers in the industry. Much of her success, I think, comes not only from her undiminished enthusiasm for all types of cinema, but because I've always found her to be warm and genial. No wonder she gets the best out of her interviewees. The good news is that Anne herself reports that her blog will live on and that she has other exciting ventures in the works.

Monday, January 26, 2009

'Big Bang' has laughs down to a science

My wife and I recently attended a taping of "The Big Bang Theory" to do some reporting for a story I've written about the real scientists who consult for TV shows about science. We've followed this CBS sitcom since the pilot and over the past year it's found its voice by repositioning the character of Sheldon -- a fastidious and neurotic physicist -- from an orbiting role to the show's nucleus.

It's truly an ensemble show, though, and that team spirit was very much evident over the three hours it took to film 22 minutes of comedy. (The studio employs a great comedian to keep the crowd energy up -- the show doesn't use a laugh track -- and they hand out pizza and chocolates.) What impressed me the most was how much fun the cast and crew were having despite the intense pressure of shooting live comedy. You could see the cameraderie of everyone from the makeup lady to the boom operator to the cameramen. In fact, the crew seemed to delight in turning around to the audience during moments of downtime to watch the comedian. The show's coproducer and head writer, Bill Prady, even ambled over to say "hello" to me several times, and my wife reports that head producer Chuck Lorre (creator of megahit "Two and a Half Men") was quite the gentleman when he was right behind her in the security line to enter the soundstage.

It was great to watch the cast interact. Kaley Cuoco, the actress who plays Penny, a blonde waitress who wouldn't know the difference between Bill Nye and Bill Nighy, is a ball of energy and gets along really well with Jim Parsons (Sheldon). Johnny Galecki (Leonard) seems a little more intense in his devotion to his craft but took time to crack a joke with the clapper-board girl. The actors obviously love what they do. Some hilarious moments of people flubbing their lines, too. Jim Parsons had a line that goes, "Leonard helps me fold my sheets when they come out of the drier" but he ended up saying,
"Leonard helps me fold my sheets when I get out of the shower!"

Friday, January 23, 2009

Mission to 'Mars'

Showrunner Rob Thomas is doing a Joss Whedon by taking his prematurely canceled "Veronica Mars" to the big screen, reports "Watch with Kristin." Let's hope that this movie fares better than "Serenity," the cinematic continuation of Whedon's "Firefly." It'll certainly be cheaper, which makes it a more attractive proposition to monied producer Joel Silver. (Note to Joel: please, no cameo roles for your friends. It's no coincidence that the worst episode of "Veronica Mars" starred Paris Hilton.)

Thomas tells E! that his schedule has opened up now that his remake of his own "Cupid" has been curtailed by ABC. And the "90210" reboot didn't work out too well for Thomas, either.

Oscar nominations: What went wrong

Today's Oscar nominations at least had one or two more surprises that no one saw coming. The multiple nominations for "The Reader" are a reminder that you should never underestimate a Holocaust movie. Or Harvey Weinstein. The michelin-man mogul may be in a slump at the box office -- at least until the arrival of August's "Inglorious Basterds"-- but he's not lost his touch when it comes to procuring Academy Award nominations. Kate Winslet is guaranteed to win for her role in "The Reader." In case it's escape your notice, the Oscar apparently means an awful lot to the actress and her fellow British countrymen are still mortified at her Golden Globes acceptance speech. (Note to Oscar producer Gil Cates: Have a mop in the wings so that no one slips on Kate's puddle of tears at the podium).

"The Reader" nominations mean that "The Dark Knight" was shut out. Since Warner Bros is laying off hundreds of employees, the studio can at least save money but not having to spend a penny more on a campaign for "The Dark Knight." After all, Heath Ledger is 101% guaranteed to win a posthumous Best Supporting Actor.

The omission of "The Dark Knight" and "Wall-E" in the "Best Picture" category reveals a lot about the perplexing nature of the Oscars these days. The Academy's choices tend to fall in a peculiar no-man's land. On the one hand, they tend to ignore the film-aficionado selections of the various movie critic circles. And they tend to shun the type of films that the average moviegoer gets enthused about.

The cowled crimefighter and binocular-eyed robot were embraced by audiences and critics alike. But they were relegated to lesser categories (Best Supporting Actor; Best Animated Picture) by the Academy. It wasn't always this way. In the past, the Academy has nominated blockbusters such as "Jaws"and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Nowadays, I'm not sure that a "Titanic" or a "Lord of the Rings" would even make it to a Best Picture nomination. "Wall-E" seems to have been deemed a lesser film by virtue of being an animated film even though critics and audiences seem to agree that the mostly silent film was unique for saying so much by saying very little at all. A true "show, don't tell" message film. And "The Dark Knight" may have hauled in the sort of box office that had James Cameron nervously looking over his shoulder, but it would be foolish to dismiss Christopher Nolan's film as a mere superhero movie. Equating "The Dark Knight" to "The Fantastic Four" is akin to comparing "Bladerunner" to "Battlefield Earth." What other film in recent years (other than "Children of Men") tapped into the zeitgeist of the Patriot Act era?

In short, those Best Picture nominations underscore why the Academy Awards play to ever diminishing television audiences. The presence of Brangelina on the red carpet won't give the ceremony much more than a bump in the ratings, either. Several decades ago, the Oscars gave audiences a rare opportunity to gawk at the stars. In the TMZ era, stars are so overexposed that they've lost any mystery and novelty they once possessed. It doesn't help that, Will Smith aside, actors don't have the box-office clout they once had. Nowadays high-concept story is more important than the actor in front of the green screen.

While I'm ragging on the Academy, let's add a WTF? about the Best Original Song category for coming up with a mere three nominees and somehow omitting Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" or Jenny Lewis's "Barking at the Moon" from "Bolt." Thank goodness Clint Eastwood wasn't nominated for his singing in "Gran Torino." For a minute there, I thought he'd been taking vocal lessons from William Hung.

Also, the Best Foreign Language Picture list overlooked "Gomorra," just as it ignored "Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days" last year.

Final complaint: All the nominations for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Really? Like Brad Pitt's other Oscar bait films -- "Babel" and that Jesse James movie with the awfully long title -- it's puffed up with self importance but utterly hollow. Mark my words, the film will age less well than its titular character.

But let's say this about the Academy. At least it had the good sense to shut out "Revolutionary Road" with its tired myths about the suburbs of the 1950s. And kudos for all the nods for "Slumdog Millionaire."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

U2 straps on 'Sexy Boots'

I still remember the radio premiere of U2's "The Fly" on Radio 1 in England back in 1991. At that point, I liked them just fine but I wasn't a huge fan. But "The Fly" was very different from anything else on the radio at the time. The single ushered in a thrilling period of successful experimentation over the course of three albums (four, if you count The Passengers side project).

Unfortunately, the relatively poor selling "Pop" -- a hugely underrated record --- made them more musically conservative in their silly quest to maintain their status as "the biggest band in the world." The past two albums each featured a clutch of great songs (among them, "New York," "Kite," "Vertigo," "Crumbs from My Table," "City of Blinding Lights") but there was a lot of filler, too, and the Eno-vation of the 1990s had evaporated.

But I get a sense that they're rediscovered their creative fire once again. In a December 2007 interview, Bono hinted that the new album would include "trance influences" and a "dancefloor shock," but also stated that "...there's some very hardcore guitar coming out of The Edge. Real molten metal. It's not like anything we've ever done before, and we don't think it sounds like anything anyone else has done either."

In November, The Edge said: "It sounds like a U2 album but it doesn't sound like anything we've done before and it doesn't really sound like anything that's happening at the moment."

The latest Rolling Stone, which includes a track-by-track guide to "No Line on the Horizon," says the album has the loudest and fastest songs U2 has ever done and it says that some of the songs reclaim the experimentation of their "Achtung Baby" through "Pop" albums. Hoorah!

So, all these years later, comes the first single, "Get on Your Boots." Much like "The Fly" it seems to be a statement of intent (a similar strategy to Coldplay's recent "Violet Hill" and Keane's "Spiralling") than an attempt to showcase the album's most crowd-pleasing tune. If I were to compare it to past U2 songs, I'd say it's "Vertigo" meets "Fast Car" meets "Discotechque." Strange, yet catchier with each listen. Hear it here.