Sunday, April 27, 2008

Happy (belated) endings

The fall TV season of 2006 was a grim one for me. First, there was the abrupt cancellation of "Kidnapped," a serial starring Jeremy Sisto -- an actor who could outbrood Joaquin Phoenix -- as a private-eye type who specializes in retrieving abductees using methods you won't find in a FBI training manual. Rounding out the stellar cast for a story full of conspiratorial intrigue was Delroy Lindo, Timothy Hutton, and Dana Delaney.

Then, a few months later, "Day Break," starring Taye Diggs as a policeman who finds himself trapped inside a "Groundhog Day" in which he's falsely accused of murder, was pulled off the air after just 6 episodes. The brilliantly plotted show, which makes "24" seem as fast paced as "The Waltons," left its meager viewership wondering how he'd solve the case and escape his Mobius loop of a day.

Usually, in these cases, the faithful few are left to wonder in vain how the story ends, fretting that, in some alternate universe, the "Freaks and Geeks" are still living a miserable high school existence and the denizens of "Jericho" will forever be left stranded in a postnuclear landscape. Very occasionally, though, a showrunner will post a script or a synopsis online so that viewers can find out how the story ends. Fortunately, in the case of both "Kidnapped" and "Day Break," something incredibly rare happened: both shows were able to shoot complete seasons before they were canceled. Now, they've both just been released to DVD. So, if you're one of the original viewers left wondering how these thrillers ended, or if you're just looking for a terrific addition to your Netflix list, check 'em out.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Who is this woman?

Now in the pages of entertainment magazines and pop-ups on the Web: The words "Scarlet: The hit new TV series 02/28/09" accompanied by a close-up of a sultry brunette, half-shrouded in darkness, with a come-hither look. Problem is, no one seems to know exactly where hither is. Neither the ads, nor the website, nor the trailer say anything about where this TV series is airing.

According to the official website, it is directed by David Nutter ("The Sarah Connor Chronicles," "Smallville") and stars Natassia Malthe ("BloodRayne II: Deliverance," "Alone in the Dark 2") and A.J. Buckley ("CSI"). It even has an imdb entry.
This "Alias" wannabe could be a Web-only series, but that would mean that it had a budget 3000 times that of "Quarterlife." My guess is that it's really some sort of sneaky viral ad campaign.
UPDATE: My guess was correct. The ads were for a line of televisions. As in "TV series" - geddit?

Monday, April 21, 2008

A great album in the Nick of time...

Not many artists bother to include lyrics in CD booklets these days, mainly, I suspect, because they're too embarrassed by their moon/June rhyming schemes or non-sensical string of irrelevant non sequiturs. Refreshingly, Nick Cave's "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!" -- one of 2008's best albums -- comes with a 56-page booklet consisting of lyrics (there are also a few pics of the rather ripe Bad Seeds and Cave, himself, growing facial hair seemingly inspired by Morgan Spurlock).

The art of lyric writing seems to be a dying art, alas, probably because many popular musicians spend their high-school years behind their instruments rather than books. But Cave's words are literary and, a rarity in rock, witty. In stand-out track "We Call Upon the Author to Explain," for example, Cave sings, "Bukowski was a jerk/ Berryman was best/ He wrote like wet papier mache/went the Hemming-way..."

Whereas the previous Bad Seeds album, a glorious double titled "The Lyre of Orpheus/Abbatoir Blues," had a rootsy, acoustic, and gospel sound, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!" is all hard edges; Cave bellows like the Devil's preacher over primal rhythms, tribal chants, snarling organ, and guitar-playing more anarchic than Neil Young's "Weld." Catchy tunes abound. Check out excerpts here.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Celluloid film, R.I.P.

About 10 years ago, I took a brief film-school course in London during which my fellow students and I learned how to use a camera and cut film on an editing machine. How archaic that all seems now. When I attended a screening of shorts competing in Boston's 48 Film Festival, none of the 70-odd entries were shot on film and I got to wondering if, less than a decade from now, celluloid will be largely left on the cutting-room floor, relegated to the scrap-heap of cinema history.

Does film still have a place in a world where all things analogue are being replaced by algorithmic strings of ones and zeroes? Many filmmakers have already made the switch to digital cameras and editing on a computer because its cheaper, quicker, and for Hollywood helmers, lensing films in a digital format allows for digital manipulation and easier insertion of special effects. In the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, the director of "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D," raves that James Cameron's next-gen high-tech digital cameras allow him to view footage in 3-D in the dailies. "Visitors to the set could watch the footage in 3-D as I was filming. This is definitely moviemaking of the future," says Eric Brevig.

That cavalcade of upcoming 3-D presentations is one reason there's a big push now for cinema owners to buy digital projectors. Disney, Fox, Paramount, and Universal are even offering a hefty carrot by way of a subsidy to spur theaters to upgrade. (You'd think the success of "Hannah Montana 3-D" would be incentive enough to spur theaters to invest in non-reel projectors.) For the studios, digital movies offer several advantages, not the least of which is not having to pay for more prints for wide releases. Most of all, studios are banking on 3-D films to lure people out of the living rooms they've transformed into mini cinemas with their albatross-size high-def televisions.

A younger generation of viewers may prefer the look of high-def digital images. Watch a regular DVD and you, too, may find yourself wondering why a movie can't look as crisp as a high-definition TV program on an HD-TV. But what will we lose? Sure, celluloid doesn't allow or the more-real-than-real quality of digital film, but it does have a unique, slightly grainy quality that has a beauty all of its own. So I'm glad Steven Spielberg has the attitude that you'll have to pry his Panavision from his cold, dead hands. Spielberg tells the same issue of EW, "Eventually, I'll have to shoot [and edit] movies digitally, when there is no more film -- and I'm willing to accept that. But I will be the last person to shoot and cut on film, y'know?"

Thursday, April 10, 2008

If you're a guy, skip this entry...

Boston has a new boom industry: chick flicks. After shooting the romantic comedy "My Best Friend's Girl" in the Hub late last year, Kate Hudson (below) is back in town opposite on-screen rival Anne Hathaway (r.) in "Bride Wars." Amazingly, neither movie stars Hudson's regular rom-com paramour, Matthew McConaughey, who was also just in Boston to shoot "The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past."

None of these films were mentioned in a Times article this week about the future of romantic comedies, but they may give credence to the story's assertion that Hollywood is rolling out a greater number of chick flicks -- despite the genre having little appeal to the lucrative "300" crowd.

For studios, a chick flick's success often hinges on having a marquee star -- think past queens Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock and current throne holder, Reese Witherspoon. (In her rear-view mirror is the H gang: Hudson, Hathaway, and Heigl.) Even then, there's no guarantee of success, as Witherspoon discovered with "Just Like Heaven." Moreover, star-driven chick flicks tend to fall into the mid-budget range, the area where studios struggle most to turn a profit.

As anyone who has to grit their way through "27 Dresses" can attest, the traditional Hollywood chick flick is in bad shape. Apart from the occasional delight such as the sadly overlooked "Definitely Maybe," most of the films struggle with a) a lack of chemistry between the leads, and b) scripts that fail to mix up the formula of boy-meets-girl; boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl.

But the chick flick may have an unlikely savior: Judd Apatow. Personally, I felt "Knocked Up" to have a misogynistic undertone. (Katherine Heigl, who would never cut it as a State Department spokesperson because she's just too candidly outspoken, famously complained to "Vanity Fair," “It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as goofy, fun-loving guys. … It was hard for me to love the movie.”) But Apatow's latest production, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," manages to make the rom-com seem fresh, and it does so with great parts for women. Refreshingly, it's not mean to any of its characters, either. It also accomplishes the impossible: It appeals to guys, too, thanks to bawdy humor and oodles of sexual innuendo. Such explicit fare doesn't seem to turn off Gen Y girls, perhaps because of their changing attitudes to porn and frank talk about sex.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Superman's returns

Now on eBay, one of those legendary items that seldom ever comes up for auction: a copy of Action Comics #1, the 1939 comic that introduced Superman to the world. While Bill Gates wouldn't have to mortgage his mansion to afford a copy, the seller can certainly afford to take a year or two off work with the proceeds since a mint edition copy fetches at least $1 million.

This sale comes the same week as the heirs of Clark Kent co-creator Jerome Siegel won a federal lawsuit for a stake in Warner Bros.' franchise. (Variety reports that the ruling may jeopardize a sequel to "Superman Returns" as well as "Justice League.") Turns out that Siegel sold the rights to Superman for $130 and, though DC Comics later gave him $35,000 per year, he was forever miffed at losing out on all money from the franchise.

Now, I don't know anything about the circumstances of Siegel's original sale -- I really must get around to reading "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" -- but I disagree with this lawsuit ruling. Consider this analogy: If I sold my house and then it greatly appreciated in value, I wouldn't sue the current owner for my lack of foresight in not holding on to the property. Granted, it's not quite the same thing as intellectual property, but you get the idea. That said, Warner could have potentially averted all this a long time ago if they had thought to pony up some of that lucrative lucre to the family. They might wanna cozy up to the heirs of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster now...

Will the last film critic please turn off the projector?

Forget the polar bear, it's time to add movie critics to the Endangered Species List. At least, the professional kind that writes for old media. Newsday, Newsweek, and The Village Voice are the latest publications to lay off critics like Detroit autoworkers. I think, in large part, newspapers and news magazines feel they can afford to shed film scribes because there's often a huge disconnect between reviewer and reader anyway. Not even Michael Bay's ego could fill the gap between the tastes and views of ordinary viewers and the rarefied, discerning opinions of professional reviewers who, let's face it, might strike readers as jaded or distant or haughty in their critiques.

That gulf may be a lot narrower at, say, cosmopolitan metropolitan institutions such as The New Yorker and NYT, publications where movie critics seem to have a brighter future. In the meantime, amateur critics will continue to proliferate on the Web where, Variety's Anne Thompson notes, peer-to-peer recommendations are more relevant to younger auds.

But I wonder how many of those younger blog critics can provide the sort of context that comes from a deep encyclopedic knowledge of film that encompasses bygone eras and international cinema? They may know their Luketic, but do they know their Lubitsch? Professional film critics skew older in age and have the advantage of decades of cinema-going to draw upon, whereas a younger set of critics will struggle to keep up with the hundreds of releases in any given year, let alone keep up with Netflixing films that fall beyond the scope of a good film-course curriculum. Quentin Tarantino once said he learned everything he knows about cinema from reading Pauline Kael. Can any up-and-coming director make the same claim about Harry Knowles?

I like what Ty Burr, formerly of EW, is doing over at the Boston Globe. Burr is astonishingly good as a critic and if he doesn't net a Pulitzer one day then the committee isn't paying attention. (Oh, and talking of encyclopedic knowledge: there's a reason why EW picks up the phone to call Burr every time it needs a historial obit piece.) Not only is Burr's writing a witty and literary delight in every piece – even if the movie is a non-hazard-pay assignment such as "Bratz" – he's also able to offer really thoughtful critiques that make one see each work in a fresh perspective. Take, for example, his clear-eyed critiques of "Junebug" and "Anatomy of Hell."

He clearly understands where the average Globe reader is coming from and engages the reader by making him or her feel as if he's talking to them, not above them, as a critic. He's educating his audience about film, but gently doing so in a way that the reader feels part of a colloquial conversation. It's the difference between the kind of professor that holds a seminar with his students on the college lawn and the bow-tied one that dictates to a class from behind an auditorium podium.

The Globe's movie site has a nice video feature in which Burr and talented second critic Wesley Morris do an Ebert 'n' Roeper routine each week – always nicely done. And I really like their blog, too. It's the model of what critics, if they're to survive, will need to do to form a personal relationship with their community of readers.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

I don't subscribe to this music model

Sony BMG and Warner are hoping to achieve something that the post Shawn Fanning Napster couldn't: Convince people to sign up for a music subscription service.

The hook? Access to unlimited music from the companies' vast archives. The catch? It's a loan, not an own. In his Monday column, Times media writer David Carr notes that such a digital library makes sense in an age when it makes little sense to hold on to physical media. After all, people are dispensing with CDRs and storage sticks in favor of today's virtual equivalent of a U-Haul storage facility: And, rather than own a vast DVD library of my own, I opt to use Netflix which is a subscription service.

But would it work for music? I don't see why such a model couldn't find a viable market given an attractive pricing policy and compatibility with a full-range of MP3 players. But here's the rub. People who are into music -- and the biggest consumers of music -- are every bit as obsessive as Nicky Hornby paints us out to be. Unlike those who merely snack on music and view it as a small, but wholly inconsequential nicety in life, music lovers don't just listen to music, we collect it.

We've channeled our long-lost hunter-gatherer instincts into our record collections. Many a music lover gazes upon his vinyl racks or CD wall with pride, the way a butterfly collector gazes at glass cabinet of pinned Lepidoptera. Simply, the idea of having to ransom a favorite song or album for a continuous fee doesn't gibe with our acquisitional instincts. Music is such a core part of our beings that we want it to be tangible and visible to us. It's an outward manifestation of the deep meaning music has to us. At least, it is to me.