Thursday, February 25, 2010


[ This is a repost of an item originally published April 5, 2006. ]

Yesterday, a bag of Doritos informed me that it wanted to send me on a trip somewhere in the contiguous United States. It occured to me that "contiguous" is a fantastic word, and should be used more often. I commented to anyone within earshot that we should change the name of the country to the Contiguous States of America.

"But then we'd lose Alaska and Hawaii," said coworker Carrie.

"Good," I replied. "Who needs them?"

People who know me know that I am very anti-Alaska. That's not true at all, actually. The truth is that I don't feel strongly one way or the other about Alaska. Which is precisely why I wouldn't mind donating Alaska to Canada. In exchange for Alaska, we get Ontario.

How great would it be to have Ontario?! We'd have both sides of Niagara Falls, Marine Land, Canada's Wonderland, and we'd get Toronto! Who wouldn't love all that? Of course, when offering this trade to Canada, we have to remain poker-faced. We don't want them to know how much we want Ontario.

To sweeten the deal for Canada, our government would pay to build a brand new Hockey Hall of Fame, perhaps in Juneau or Nome. The Toronto Maple Leafs would also be relocated to same. And there would be no more hockey in the new America.

Ottawa, Canada's capital city, happens to be in Ontario. I propose Vancouver become the new capital of Canada. I don't know what they were getting at in the first place, having their capital so close to Washington, D.C. Shout your independence, Canada! Go Vancouver!

Now, taking Ontario would cause Canada to be split. Canada is already used to being contiguous, and they might not like being split up like that. So, I propose that Canada finally cave in and allow Quebec to become its own independent country. Those snobby jackholes always wanted to be independent; and if the rest of Canada is perfectly honest with itself, they hate Quebec. In fact, the whole world hates Quebec! So, let the chumps have their own country. They'll be sorry...

As part of the deal, the New America will begin an embargo against the sovereign nation of Quebec. The New Canada can do the same. And I'm sure Canada could convince the E.U. to do likewise. The E.U. wouldn't do it for us. They hate us. But they'd do it for Canada.

Now, here's where things get sticky. That only leaves us with 49 states. And once you have 50 states, there's no way you're going back to 49. But there are a few wild cards. Their names are New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland.

Canada should give Newfoundland to Quebec. This won't be an easy transition, as people from Newfoundland hate Quebec as much as the rest of us. The people of Newfoundland must be given the option: remain Canadian citizens, become American citizens, or stay where they are and allow themselves to become Quebecois. Any Newfoundlander who chooses one of the first two options will have all moving expenses covered by the government of the chosen country. Furthermore, said Newfoundlander will be given a government job at equal compensation to the lifestyle to which he or she was previously accustomed.

As for the remaining territories... we get those. New Brunswick will become part of Maine, the total territory of which will be renamed New Maine. Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island will be combined into one state. It will be renamed; the new name is yet to be determined. It cannot retain the name Nova Scotia, as this sounds too Canadiany. The name Prince Edward Island can be left alone; P.E.I. will be the name of a city covering the same geographic area, within the yet-to-be-renamed 50th state.

At this point, it becomes obvious that Canada is getting the short end of the stick. They're losing a lot of land in this whole geopolitical realignment. That is why the newly rechristened Contiguous States of America will volunteer its forces to help Canada conquer Eastern Siberia in the name of Canada. Russia is very weak right now, and Siberia would be easily conquered.

Also, don't forget that Alaska is a LOT of land for Canada to gain. And we're just GIVING it to them. They might not even WANT Siberia after getting their hands on Alaska. Regardless, the offer stands.

Furthermore, if Canada wants Hawaii, they can have it, so long as they realize that they would cease to be contiguous. Frankly, I think it would be perfectly fine with Americans, Canadians, AND Hawaiians if we just left them out there to float around in the Pacific. They could surf, eat macadamia nuts and somehow insert tiny bubbles into their wine.

To sum up:
  • The new contiguous Canada would stretch either from Siberia to Manitoba, or from the Yukon to Manitoba. That's up to the Canadians. Our firepower is at their disposal.
  • The Contiguous States of America would look a lot like the United States of America, but would include Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.
  • Quebec would be an independent nation, and would include in its borders the territory now known as Newfoundland. Quebec would be a notoriously poor, starving nation, due to the embargoes imposed by the CSA, Contiguous Canada, and the E.U. But they'll have fish!
Man... I really can't wait to get Ontario.

(*Additional contributions for this post by Stephanie Zeitlin, who is marrying a Canadian.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: Battleship Pretension

Genre: Film Analysis/Criticism

What It's About: Former film students and longtime friends David Bax and Tyler Smith introduce a new topic every week, and discuss films that fit into said topic. They are frequently joined by actor or comedian guests. Every tenth episode, they profile a filmmaker's career.

Why You Should Care: If you don't immediately get the play on words of the show's title, you probably shouldn't care. If you do get it, welcome aboard! Although David and Tyler are relative unknowns, their breadth of knowledge about the history of world cinema lends itself to fascinating coverage of each topic they address. Film enthusiasts will find themselves always engaged in the hosts' conversations, and scrambling for pen and paper to jot down recommendations.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: Roughly an hour

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Monday, February 15, 2010

2010 Oscar Predictions

A confession up front: I actually didn't see too many movies in the theater this year. Maybe I'm in the minority here, but there wasn't much that motivated me to rush out to the picturehouse on opening weekend. In these tough economic times, I found it best to stay home and give my Netflix Instant Streaming a heavy workout.

Regardless, I assure you that my Oscar predictions will be as reliable as ever. I may not have seen all the movies this year, but I've been as close an observer of the critical winds as ever, and I have a pretty good idea which way those winds are blowing... to torture a metaphor. In fact, many of the categories this year are such a solid lock, it almost feels like a waste of time to wager my guesses. But waste my time I will. So let's dive in!

Best Sound Editing
  • Avatar
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • Star Trek
  • Up
Best Sound Mixing
  • Avatar
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • Star Trek
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Just a refresher course: sound mixing is recording the practical sound at the time of shooting; sound editing is gathering all the audio (dialogue, foley, library sounds, music, etc.) and cutting it to synch with picture. These categories are not my strong suit, I admit. But my slightly-educated guesses would be Avatar for Editing, and Hurt Locker for Mixing.

Best Visual Effects
  • Avatar
  • District 9
  • Star Trek
I'd love to see District 9 win this. The effects in that movie were handled subtly, and integrated extremely well with the live actors. But who are we kidding? The effects in Avatar represent a significant leap forward in performance capture and rendering. Avatar is sure to win this one.

Best Score
  • Avatar
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Up
Might as well broach this topic now - the big contenders this year are Avatar and The Hurt Locker, and I think general momentum for each movie will help them pick up additional awards. In other words, don't expect Sherlock Holmes to pick up random prizes like this one. Avatar's score came off a little routine to me. I'd expect The Hurt Locker to win Best Score.

Best Song
  • “Almost There,” The Princess and the Frog, Randy Newman
  • “Down in New Orleans,” The Princess and the Frog, Randy Newman
  • “Loin de Paname,” Paris 36, Reinhardt Wagner & Frank Thomas
  • “Take It All,” Nine, Maury Weston
  • “The Weary Kind,” Crazy Heart, T-Bone Burnett & Ryan Bingham
The clear standout here is Crazy Heart. The Academy will be all too happy to award T-Bone Burnett for his efforts in supporting Jeff Bridges' soon-to-be award-winning role.

Best Art Direction
  • Avatar
  • The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
  • Nine
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • The Young Victoria
I'm looking at Nine or The Young Victoria -- movies that didn't lean too heavily on computer-aided production design -- to win in this category. And out of the two, I'd expect the Academy to look more favorably on The Young Victoria.

Best Cinematography
  • Avatar
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • The White Ribbon
A prejudice against the mostly-computer generated world of Avatar will prevent it from winning here. That gives odds to The Hurt Locker. However, I'm expecting the stark black & white cinematography of The White Ribbon to sneak in and take this prize.

Best Costume Design
  • Bright Star
  • Coco Before Chanel
  • The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
  • Nine
  • The Young Victoria
I usually place odds on the period piece in this category; but the Academy is playing a cruel joke on me this year - every single one of these is a period piece. I'd expect the Academy's love affair with queens to put The Young Victoria over the edge.

Best Documentary
  • Burma VJ
  • The Cove
  • Food, Inc.
  • The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
  • Which Way Home
Although Food, Inc. is probably the documentary with the most buzz this year in the general public, I think The Cove pushes more Academy buttons.

Best Editing
  • Avatar
  • District 9
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • Precious
I'm going to play long odds here and place my bet on Sally Menke for Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino's longtime editor has been an integral part of his critically vaunted career, and I think she'll get her due this year.

Best Animated Film
  • Coraline
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • The Princess and the Frog
  • The Secret of Kells
  • Up
Although I'm no fan, critical darling Pixar is sure to take the prize yet again with Up. But if I were an Academy voter, I'd cast my ballot for Coraline, an extremely well-crafted and enjoyable movie.

Best Original Screenplay
  • Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
  • Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman, The Messenger
  • Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
  • Pete Docter, Bob Peterson & Tom McCarthy, Up
  • Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
A very strong category! I'd put The Messenger and Up down as least likely to win. I loved A Serious Man, but it won't win. And while Inglourious Basterds was footloose and fun, I think this is the category where we'll see The Hurt Locker take the lead for the night.

Best Adapted Screenplay
  • Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci & Tony Roche, In the Loop
  • Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell, District 9
  • Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious
  • Nick Hornby, An Education
  • Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
Also strong. I don't think the Academy is ready to lavish awards upon Jason Reitman yet, although you can count on him being an Oscar mainstay for years to come. And while they'd love an opportunity to give Nick Hornby a statuette, I actually think the writers of In the Loop will take it home.

Best Foreign Language Film
  • El Secreto do Sus Ojos (Argentina)
  • Un Prophete (France)
  • The White Ribbon (Germany)
  • Ajami (Israel)
  • The Milk of Sorrow (Peru)
This is one of those solid locks. The White Ribbon will win.

Best Live-Action Short
  • The Door
  • Instead of Abracadabra
  • Kavi
  • Miracle Fish
  • The New Tenants
I don't usually comment on this race, since I usually don't have the opportunity to see or hear much about the nominees in the short film categories. (*UPDATE: I found a screening of the short films here in Los Angeles; but so far, I've only seen the animated shorts. See below.) But this year, I have a horse in the race! I heard an extended interview with the director of Kavi, Gregg Helvey. That's as much coverage of any short film nominee as I've ever been exposed to. So I'm all for that guy winning. And some day, maybe I'll see the movie. It sounds great.

Best Animated Short*
  • French Roast
  • Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty
  • The Lady and the Reaper
  • Logorama
  • A Matter of Loaf and Death
Each of these nominees are worthy competitors. French Roast is enjoyable, but has a particular logic error in the story that knocks it down a peg. Logorama is the most freewheelin' fun of them all, but is ultimately just a one-joke premise with no idea of where the story should go. Granny O'Grimm and The Lady and the Reaper were both highlights for me. But A Matter of Loaf and Death -- the latest installment in the fantastic Wallace & Gromit series -- is the clear standout and will win this category. (NOTE: This website claims to have found video clips of all the nominees for online viewing.)

Best Supporting Actor
  • Matt Damon, Invictus
  • Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
  • Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
  • Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
  • Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
This is a lock. Christoph Waltz will win for Inglourious Basterds.

Best Actor
  • Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
  • George Clooney, Up in the Air
  • Colin Firth, A Single Man
  • Morgan Freeman, Invictus
  • Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
This is a lock. Jeff Bridges will finally win a much-deserved Oscar for this highly-regarded role.

Best Supporting Actress
  • Penélope Cruz, Nine
  • Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
  • Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
  • Mo’Nique, Precious
This is a lock. Mo'Nique will win for her impressive dramatic turn in Precious.

Best Actress
  • Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
  • Helen Mirren, The Last Station
  • Carey Mulligan, An Education
  • Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
  • Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
This one is not a lock, so let's discuss. For once, I don't think it's a freebie for Meryl Streep. While Gabourey Sidibe made an impressive debut, I have a feeling the Academy will want to award the current most successful and powerful producer-star in Hollywood, Sandra Bullock.

Best Director
  • Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
  • James Cameron, Avatar
  • Lee Daniels, Precious
  • Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
  • Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
James Cameron spent more money to produce a movie than has ever been spent on a single production before. But he's got the goods. He made a movie that was a huge hit with audiences, as well as most critics, and is the current record holder for highest-grossing movie of all time.

Sound familiar? It sounds familiar to Academy voters, too, which is why they won't bestow the win on him as they did with Titanic. The best director this year is Kathryn Bigelow. She'll be the first woman ever to win best director, and she won't make a Halle Berry moment out of it.

Best Picture
  • Avatar
  • The Blind Side
  • District 9
  • An Education
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • Precious
  • A Serious Man
  • Up
  • Up in the Air
So, it's moment-of-truth time for the big "ten Best Picture nominees" experiment. Did it work?

The Academy says the decision to have ten Best Picture nominees is to expand the celebration of movies. It's a pleasant notion, and I'm sure it's true on one level. But on another level, it's also an attempt to find room to nominate more popular movies. The most watched Oscar telecasts are the ones wherein popular movies are nominated - Titanic, Gladiator, Lord of the Rings. The thing is, even if this year had remained a five-nominee year, Avatar would've made the cut; so they would've been covered on the popular movie front. (District 9 is the true beneficiary of the ten Best Picture model.) Even so, I have to say that the ten nominees they put together make for a pretty nice list this year. Well done, Academy.

Okay, enough with the pleasantries. Who's going to win?

A Serious Man - Again, I loved it, but there's no way it's going to win.

Up - It's very impressive that an animated film was nominated for Best Picture (this is only the second time that's ever happened), but it will win in its own category and won't be considered here.

Inglourious Basterds and District 9 - You're great, fun movies, and it was nice of them to invite you to the party, but it's not happening.

The Blind Side and An Education - You're good for what you are, but not strong enough to be serious Best Picture contenders.

Precious and Up in the Air - You're top picks, and a lot of voters would love for you to win it. I hope you feel honored just to be nominated. It is an honor, and the Academy will look forward to future endeavors by your makers. It's just not in the cards this year.

That leaves - Avatar and The Hurt Locker.

There's enough Avatar backlash, and enough of the "silly fantasy movie" vibe to give Academy voters a feeling of disconnect. Nobody is denying that James Cameron achieved something amazing in Avatar. Personally, I love it. But it's not a "best picture."

The Hurt Locker will win Best Picture.

Agree? Disagree? Don't care? Let me know in the comments.

On Oscar night, I'll be live blogging during the ceremony via Twitter. Click here to follow me. The 82nd Academy Awards ceremony will air on March 7, 2010 at 8pm eastern/5pm pacific on ABC.

*Updated on February 21, 2010 to include the Best Animated Shorts category.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Everybody Hates Logging

[ Today's article was originally posted on MySpace, January 27, 2006. ]

Today brings to a close my first four weeks in my new position here at "The Amazing Race." A full month. So I figured it was high time to collect my thoughts and evaluate where I am in life.

I don't think I've written much about my new job, so I should probably take a moment to describe it. My job title is Associate Producer. Now, lest that sound impressive to the uninitiated, allow me to knock myself down a few pegs. In most instances throughout the entire entertainment industry, associate producer is a bullshit title. It's a job title without a job description. Associate producer is what they call you when they don't know what to call you. You've contributed in some way to a production, but you did not perform a series of tasks that fall in line with any other job title. Congratulations, you're an AP.

I know it can sound impressive. It has the word "producer" in it. "Producer" is the top guy, isn't he? The man in charge. Pull the strings! Right? Take it from me, the answer is no. People hear "producer" and they think you're a millionaire. They think you know all the ins and outs of Hollywood. This is an unfair prejudice. I don't know shit.

All right, I know a little. And my knowledge and experience grows every day. But, in the meantime, no, I am not running the place. Not even close. If anyone ever tells you that he or she is an associate producer, I encourage you to fold your arms, lean back, put a smirk on your face, and ask that person, "So, then, what do you actually do?"

My associate producership finds me in the story department, which is a fine place to be. I'm basically a writer's assistant... except they're not allowed to credit me that way.

The next questions that pop into people's minds after hearing all this are usually along the lines of, Hey! Wait a minute! I thought this was a "reality" show. How can "reality" have writers? Aren't you just supposed to tape what people do, and then put it up on screen? See! I knew it! It's all fake! It's all bullshit! How can you live with yourself? How do you sleep at night?

Okay, here's the way it works. Yes, reality shows have writers. No, that doesn't necessarily mean they hire actors or coach the contestants on how to act. Some of them do, to varying levels of intrusiveness. Most critics and critical viewers consider "The Amazing Race" to be among the classier reality shows. That's because the show does, honestly, keep the intrusions to a minimum. In planning, shooting and editing, things are kept much more straight-forward on this show than they are on most reality shows.

So how do "writers" figure into the equation on a reality show? Well, we receive about 11 hours worth of footage per team per episode for this show. For the first episode alone, that's 110 hours (not counting additional b-roll footage, such as landscape shots, as well as footage of the host doin' his thang). Over 110 hours has to be whittled down into about 1 hour and 26 minutes for the two-hour premiere episode. That's what a "writer" does on a reality show. He keeps track of all that footage, keeps track of all those teams, figures out what everybody says and does (and in what order they do it), and then has the monumentally stressful job of figuring out how to make an intelligible story out of what is, to be honest, a bunch of random, meaningless events. That's an abbreviated version of how it works, anyway. There are multiple writers and multiple assistants, and then all sorts of supervisors and show runners and whatnot. But you get the idea.

So, what do I do? Well, you know those hundreds of hours of tape that we were talking about? My primary job is to go through all of those minute-by-minute, second-by-second, and type it into a transcript on the computer. Every inane little utterance made by the people on the show, every thoughtless word that trips out of their mouths, I have to write it down.

At least, that's what the first month has been. I'm told that, in the future, once we get past the intensive logging stages, I'll be more involved in helping to shape the story. You know, actually working on individual episodes. Doing work that you can directly see on your TV screen. In the meantime, I have a little VCR/TV combo, and a computer. I listen to people who I don't usually like, and I write down the things that they say.

You can imagine how tedious it is to log and transcribe these tapes. (Almost as tedious as reading this, I'm sure.) And it takes FOREVER! (Again, like reading this.) The average output expected for all of us APs is one 60-minute tape per day. In a 9- or 10-hour work day, they only expect us to get through 60 minutes worth of footage. Most of us can top that, but still... you get a sense for how slow and dull this can be.

Now, I'm not complaining. (Well, maybe I'm complaining a little. But who doesn't like to complain about their job? It's fun. Anyway...) I'm just explaining how it is. And, slow and dull pretty much sums it up.

But the real sickness is this: we secretly love it. It's all part of the process, all part of climbing the ladder. We're happy to have gotten as far as we have. And we know that we're learning a lot, and being groomed to climb even further. Ideally, doing the work we're doing, we're all on our way to becoming story producers ourselves. Only time will tell where we all end up. But this is probably an important step for most of us.

So, am I happy? Sure. Happy enough for now. I wouldn't want to be doing this for too long. But, then again, nobody would. Everybody hates logging. But I'm happy with what I'm doing. Again, it's all part of the process. I'm happy that I'm being processed. And I'm happy that people who don't know any better are impressed with my job title.
"We were going to hire chimps to do your job, but they wouldn't accept associate producer credits."
--My former boss, Chad.

Monday, February 8, 2010

When "Good Enough" is Good Enough

Avatar is an excellent movie.

There, I said it.

I've heard all the nays that the nay-sayers have had to say. I get it. The characters could've been stronger. The story could've been more original. These things are true. But I say that the movie, as it exists, is excellent.

And it's not just because of the special effects and the 3-D. Oh, how I resent the people who preface their anti-Avatar rants with, "I'm not saying the special effects and the 3-D aren't great. They are. But I need more than that out of a movie." Ah, yes, and my puny little bird brain doesn't need more out of a movie than special effects. Right. Thank you.

Sorry, but I know how to distinguish between special effects and a good movie, and Avatar is a good movie. When I rent it on home video, stripped away of its 3-D, I'll still enjoy it. Avatar exceeded expectations because the story and the characters are better than they needed to be, which is much better than not good at all.

That's right. I'm here to make an argument for "good enough."

Let's take a look at some of the other big special effects movies from 2009: Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe. Transformers 2 has a few defenders, but most reasonable people acknowledge that it sucked. G.I. Joe, as far as I can tell, has no defenders. It just sucked.

The first Transformers movie sucked as well. Other than its special effects, there was nothing satisfying about it. And at nearly two and a half hours, even the special effects outstayed their welcome. But people went to see it -- mostly out of a sense of nostalgia, I suspect -- so a sequel was inevitable. "But people are going to have learned their lesson after getting burnt the first time, right?" I asked myself. "No way it's gonna do well." Wrong! It did even better than the first one. Most people hated it, but they went to see it anyway.

And then G.I. Joe came out only a couple months later, and I thought to myself, "Well, after getting burnt twice on Transformers, there's no way people will get suckered into G.I. Joe, right?" Wrong! Big hit.

Avatar gives us more than just the hollow, cynical pile-on of special effects. The story may be routine, and the characters broadly-drawn archetypes, but that's more than most studios are willing to put into their tentpole movies and it's more, apparently, than most audiences are willing to demand. For that, I'm grateful to James Cameron.

That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I assure you I mean it sincerely. Cameron has a knack for finding the right story to complement his interests. When he made Titanic -- a movie that received pretty much the same criticisms as Avatar -- he was interested in the boat itself. He was interested in the rich and brief history of the Titanic. The boat's construction, the prominent historical figures who sailed on its only voyage, the class distinctions, the hows and whys of its sinking. He went down in a submarine himself to visit the wreckage.

These are the things he wanted to recreate in his film. He wanted to create the experience of being on the Titanic. The Jack and Rose story was exactly what it needed to be - a simple love story, with simple but interesting characters caught up in standard movie conflicts. The point was to feel what it felt like to be on the ship, to see what it looked liked when you were on board, to get a sense of how it operated... and then to feel the sheer helplessness of slowly sinking out in the middle of nowhere; to have enough time to realize you're about to lose everything. People have complained about the story and characters in Titanic, but I think they were exactly what we needed to usher us through the experience.

And if you don't believe Titanic did a good job with its characters and story, then watch Michael Bay's atrocious Pearl Harbor. They thought they had the formula figured out - simple characters and a simple love story set amidst an overwhelming historical catastrophe. It didn't work. It was boring and emotionless. It was cynical. It was insulting. Titanic worked. It was involving and emotionally stirring. Say what you want about the "unoriginal" stories Cameron frequently falls back on - the guy believes in his stories, and that makes all the difference.

Back in the '90s, as you may recall, the big thing was independent cinema. There was an explosion of quality movies made outside of the studio system, and they became accepted and mainstreamed (largely through the efforts of the Weinsteins). Many great movies came out of that period. But if you look back now, outside of "the moment," it's easier to pick out common flaws in those movies. Typically, they were of low visual quality, adequate-at-best audio quality, borderline inept editing. They were often made by amateurs, and they looked like it.

A lot of allowances were made by critics and audiences. If the material was strong -- solid characters and an interesting story -- then we could overlook the artless camerawork and the lack of production design and frequent bad acting. We admired them simply for getting it done, and for getting it done on the cheap.

In other words, good enough was good enough.

Avatar is a movie I really enjoyed. If the story and characters weren't the best, I still found them very enjoyable. You're not wrong if you disagree; if you weren't entertained, you weren't entertained. But let's agree on one thing: we've seen much, much worse. This movie was more than just a technical achievement. It's a good movie. It's interesting and engaging in a way that movies like Transformers and G.I. Joe are not. Cameron deserves more credit for that than he's getting.

Oh, but it's not the Best Picture of 2009...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: I Love Movies

Genre: Comedy

What It's About: Comedian Doug Benson shares his humorous slant on current releases and other entertainment topics. A revolving slate of guests (usually fellow comedians) are brought in to join the conversation and play the Leonard Maltin Game.

Why You Should Care: Thanks in no small part to years of practice on such VH1 shows as "I Love the '90s" and "Best Week Ever," Benson has a well-honed eye for the absurdities of popular culture. In short, he's funny! Whether you're a casual movie fan or a TMZ junkie, Benson and his guests keep the laughs coming. And the Leonard Maltin game is a fun, challenging way to finish up each episode.

Frequency: Twice monthly

Average Length: 45 minutes

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Personal History with 'Lost' [ NO SPOILERS ]

Due to an archaic business model that no longer holds any real bearing, the television networks assault us with dozens of brand new shows every September. And since no one actually has the time to watch every single premiere episode of every single show, we often make our viewing decisions based on pre-release intel: do the previews look good? does it have any actors we like? is it from the makers of a show we already like? what are the critics saying?

Having such filters in place is a necessity, but it can lead to a certain amount of cynicism. Which is what I was experiencing in late summer 2004, as I started seeing an increasing number of commercials, print and bus ads, and overall critical hype for this new show "Lost." First of all, it was from that guy who created "Felicity;" no thanks! Second, what was this; some sort of dramatic version of "Gilligan's Island"? Try again, ABC!

"Guys, where are we?" said the dude from Lord of the Rings. Over and over again. Plane crash evoking 9/11; people trying to survive on a tropical island, evoking "Survivor;" and "Guys, where are we?"

"It'll last four episodes," I thought to myself, determined to never watch it.

What I didn't take into account was that, at the time, I didn't have cable, Netflix, or very much money for the movie theater. My options limited, I had to accept what little was being offered me through the rabbit ear antennas on a lonely Saturday night.

Let me take a moment to lament the sad state of weekend television. Back when I was a kid -- God, how old am I? -- they used to run original shows on Fridays and Saturdays. Not necessarily good shows, but original scripted programming nonetheless. ABC had their TGIF family shows. NBC had their Miami-set sitcom block ("Golden Girls," "Empty Nest," "Nurses," etc.) CBS had their "Dr. Quinn" and "Walker, Texas Ranger." And let's not forget that "The X-Files" started as a Friday show, before Fox realized it was great and moved it to Sunday. By the time "Lost" debuted in 2004, the networks had pretty much given up on Fridays and Saturdays. "The kids are all out partying, not home watching TV," the thinking went; so Fridays and Saturdays were relinquished to airing crappy movies, cheap news shows, and re-airings of original programming from earlier in the week. And that's how I ended up catching "Lost."*

If you ask "Lost" fans what hooked them into the series, most will tell you it was the fourth episode, "Walkabout." Not only is that the episode that hooked me, it was actually the first episode I ever saw (in one of those Saturday re-airings). I clicked the TV on to find a show not about people on an island, but about some guy who works a crappy office job but apparently fancies himself some sort of nature-man survivalist. Then I saw the island, and realized I was watching "that 'Lost' show." But at that point, I was already intrigued. I didn't know "Lost" was going to have all these flashbacks and stuff; I thought it was going to be "Dramatic Gilligan's Island" (though probably without the Globe Trotters).

Then came the big reveal. In the flashback, we see John Locke pull away from a desk... and he's wheelchair-bound. Wait a minute! That doesn't make sense! On the island, he's walking around like it's nothing. And then we see a shot of him wiggling his toes after the plane crash. And then we see him burning his wheelchair. And... what?!

(And if you think it was a spoiler for me to mention the big John Locke reveal, then brother, you don't know "Lost." I've spoiled 0.01% of all the secrets this show has in store for you if you haven't started watching it yet. Watch it in good faith.)

They followed that re-airing up with another. This episode was about pregnant girl Claire. In her flashbacks, a psychic goes batty over how important/dangerous Claire's child will be.

...What?! That's what this show is about? A metaphysical island where the formerly lame can walk and psychics predict ambiguously Earth-shattering things about the unborn? Let me tell you, I completely misjudged this show. In my defense, the "Guys, where are we?" marketing campaign did not indicate what the show was really about. I'm guessing ABC thought a mass audience would be scared off by the paranormal elements of the show... which is a strange thing to think, given the precedent set by the afore-mentioned "X-Files." Whatever the case, they worked it out. The show reached a wide audience, and I was now one of them.

I was there through the frustrating, far-too-many reruns phase of season two. I waited patiently through the "split season" phase of season three. I cheered when the producers reached a deal with the network to commit to an end date. I teared up for "The Constant." I was surprised to meet LaFleur and his wife.

It's been a heck of a ride. I've had a great time discussing episodes with coworkers and friends. I've enjoyed reading what that crazy man Doc Jensen has to say about each episode. But mostly, I've just enjoyed the show.

Tomorrow, the final season begins. 16 more episodes, and then it's all over. Needless to say, it's exciting to find out how it's all going to end, but bittersweet because there won't be any more. "Lost" was a one-of-a-kind show; the right show at the right time, as some have said. Shows like that are rare. I plan on fully appreciating what's left of this one.

And if you haven't been watching "Lost," now is a great time to start. By the time you finish watching the five previous seasons, the sixth (and final) will be available for you to complete.

*The trend of filling weekends with cheap programming seems to be passing, as CBS in particular has found modest success with its original Friday shows "Ghost Whisperer," "Medium," and "Numb3rs."