Thursday, October 27, 2011

Podcast Rollcall: Story Worthy

Genre: Storytelling

What It's About: Not unlike The Moth, Story Worthy is a venue for various people (mostly entertainers, and mostly friends of show creator Christine Blackburn) to share interesting true stories from their lives with an audience.  Unlike The Moth, guests on Story Worthy can prepare notes or read their stories from the page.  The guest brings the subject, and the host usually shares her own story on the same topic.  Story time is followed by an interview between the host and the guest.

Why You Should Care: A good story is always welcome.  If you like The Moth, you'll like Story Worthy.  (In fact, even the name "Story Worthy" seems to be borrowed from The Moth's sign-off, "We hope you have a story-worthy week.")

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 30 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.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Podcast Rollcall: Reasonable Discussions

The very first podcast I ever profiled under the "podcast rollcall" banner was A.V. Talk, the original podcast from The A.V. Club website.  Over the summer, the A.V. Club revamped and re-branded their podcast, so I figured it was time to revisit.

Genre: Pop culture review/analysis

What It's About: Writers from The A.V. Club get together in various combinations for roundtable discussions of current pop culture topics.  Each episode includes the "Extracurricular Activities" segment, where the staff gets to address a topic or make a recommendation for something that was not in the episode's agenda.

Why You Should Care: While I enjoyed the previous incarnation of "A.V. Talk" well enough, it was certainly meandering and scattershot.  Episodes were posted irregularly, and were of varying length dependent on how many topics they felt like addressing and how long the conversation carried on.  In other words, it was underproduced.  "Reasonable Discussion" is more reliable.  You can expect three topics per episode, each with a sense of purpose and direction.  Episodes are posted weekly, and clock in around the 45 minute mark.  And, of course, you still get the informative, insightful fun and wit that we've come to expect from the top notch journalists at The A.V. Club.

Frequency: Weekly

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, August 8, 2011

The Best Comedian of All Time

"Don't you think it's weird that Christians wear crosses?" my sister asked me one day after school.

"Why?" I wondered.

"Because that's how Jesus was executed," she responded.  "If Jesus lived today, we'd all be wearing electric chair necklaces instead."

I guess I'd never thought of that before; but I was only 10 at the time.  My sister was in high school -- high school! -- and told me that this is what they'd been talking about in one of her classes.  Is this what I had to look forward to in high school?  Philosophical discourse?!  Those aren't the words I would have used when I was 10, but it was a concept I grasped and was looking forward to engaging in when, someday, I'd reach the magical age where I too would be a high schooler.

As it turned out, the experience of high school was significantly different than what I'd extrapolated from my sister's anecdote.  College, if anything, would more closely resemble what I'd imagined; but even then, not so much.  As far as philosophical discourse goes, it was during college -- but outside of the college classroom -- that I met with the single biggest influence on my perception and comprehension of the world around me.

One night after classes were finished, I was hanging out with my friend Paul and his girlfriend (at the time).  My memory of how the night began is a bit hazy.  I think we'd been at a restaurant, made a stop at a liquor store, and were on our way back to his apartment.  I don't remember the CD beginning.  I don't remember Paul mentioning he was going to start a CD.  And I can't remember the definitive beginning of the standup routine.  It just faded slowly into my consciousness, like it had always been there.  I gradually became aware that I was listening to a comedian.  I really wish I could remember it better.  Because, as it turned out, these were my introductory moments to the best comedian of all time.  And you only get to have that once.

"Paul, who is this?"

"His name is Bill Hicks."

Bill Hicks.  I'd never heard of him before.  Granted, I wasn't the closest observer of the standup comedy scene at the time; but someone this good, how had I never heard of him before?

"I guess he's been dead for a long time now," Paul mentioned.  That explained why most of his references and premises were a bit dated -- Operation Desert Storm, the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Rodney King riots.  But I'd been alive during those events, so I had the background knowledge I needed to get the jokes.  And despite the expiration date of the references, I was amazed at how fresh the material felt.  It didn't matter that he was talking about events that were almost a decade old (at the time); what I was hearing was a new, original take on those incidents that I'd never heard before.

Which is incredible, if you think about it.  When something cultural -- a painting, a movie, a novel, a song -- is so profoundly good, its influence and imitators are so widespread that the original tends to lose its power.  (Think of how every single frame of Pulp Fiction has been strip mined of all its originality.)  I hadn't been exposed to any watered-down, third-hand dissemination of Hicks' material.  It was all so thoroughly new and potent to me.

Until the CD spun to this point...

"You have to admit that beliefs are odd.  A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks.  You think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a fuckin' cross?"

On hearing this, my reflex reaction was: "Oh, rip off!  That's been done before."

Then I stopped to think about where exactly I'd heard it.  From my sister.  When she was in high school.  That may not have been the point of origin for this thought.

A teacher of hers had said that to her.  Granted, he'd tamed it down, and he'd added his own tag to it -- the thing about electric chair necklaces.  But Bill Hicks had managed to reach me before I'd "officially" heard of him.

That night began a Bill Hicks obsession in me and Paul that lasted through the remainder of college and beyond.  Paul bought up every Hicks album he could find and burned copies for me.  We read everything about him.  Learned about how he was bigger in England than he'd ever been in his homeland.  (Paul first heard of Hicks via a reference in the comic book series "Preacher," written by U.K. author Garth Ennis.)  Found the video of his breakthrough London performance, which was paired on a VHS tape with a documentary about him called "Just a Ride."  Learned about his beef with Denis Leary.  Learned about his final appearance on Letterman getting cut (more on that below).  Learned about his tragically early death at the age of 32 from pancreatic cancer.  We sought out everything.

What remains so appealing to me about Hicks' comedy is that it seemed to go a step beyond.  He wasn't just making points; most standups are out to make points.  While there was a solid strain of misanthropy throughout his work, it came from a genuine confidence in humanity's ability to improve itself.  With Hicks, there was an implied call to arms, a belief that every single one of us has the power to effect change.  He seemed to be able to point the way to change.

"The reason our institutions ... are all crumbling is because they're no longer relevant.  So it's time for us to create a new philosophy and perhaps even a new religion, you see?  And that's okay cause that's our right cause we're free children of God with minds who can imagine anything."

The fact that this sentiment could be couched in the middle of a standup routine and performed in front of drunken nightclub patrons is astounding.  Hicks was a master of balancing heartfelt ideology with perfectly timed self-subversion.  "By the way, there are more dick jokes coming.  Please relax."

Hicks' early death is sad not only in and of itself, but also because it leaves us with a limited amount of material.  One is tempted to imagine what Hicks would say about some of the current issues we're facing.  But then again, he pretty much already said it.  In his time, Hicks was addressing an economic recession, war in the middle east, blustering talk radio hosts, and a strain of anti-intellectualism that seemed to be creeping into the culture.  It's sort of depressing how little has changed in the nearly 20 years since he died.

But occasionally, we get treated to new Hicks material.  (Or perhaps I should say new packaging of the old material with a bit of previously unseen footage added in.)  The latest is the documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story, which is currently streaming on Netflix and serves as a solid introduction if you don't know much about him.  The strength of this particular documentary is that it eschews the obvious route of interviewing other comedians and sticks with interviewing his family and closest friends.  If you want to hear other comedians talk about Hicks, there are numerous sources for that.  This documentary made a smart move in going a different direction.

The other recent unearthing of "lost" Hicks footage was the fantastic January 30, 2009 episode of "The Late Show" wherein David Letterman took personal responsibility for cutting what would have been Hicks' final television appearance from his show.  Letterman invited Hicks' mother onto the show to make a moving in-person apology for his "error of judgment" from 1993.

But for those of you interested in going straight to the source -- the unfiltered works of Bill Hicks -- the trifecta (in my opinion) would be the following comedy albums: Dangerous, Relentless, and Arizona Bay.  There are also several videos of his standup, including an HBO special; but it's all variations of the material in those three albums.

If you're a newcomer to Bill Hicks, I envy you.  You have ahead of you the opportunity to hear his stuff for the first time.  You may not agree that he's the best comedian of all time, but I hope you'll enjoy his work half as much as I do.

And now, I'll close the same way Bill so often did...

"The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it's real because that's how powerful our minds are.  The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it's very brightly colored, and it's very loud, and it's fun for a while.  Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, 'Hey, is this real, or is it just a ride?' ... It's just a ride. ... And we can change it any time we want.  It's only a choice.  No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money.  Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Comic-Con 2011: Jim Henson's "Tale of Sand"


One of the great things about Comic Con is how the grand and the modest can gracefully co-mingle. There's room for the most massive of Hollywood spectacles, and the most microscopic of independent publishing. But one of the frustrating things about Comic Con is when the organizers confuse the two.

For example, a 45th anniversary panel of the 1960's "Batman" TV series was booked in a mid-sized ballroom.  Hundreds of people were turned away for lack of seating.  Did they not think that Adam West could fill a larger room?

Likewise, The Jim Henson Company was squeezed into a far-too-tiny room for a nice last-day presentation. This should have been a much larger and more-prominently featured event.

Henson Co. archivist Karen Falk (pictured above) presented clips of very early Jim Henson work from the '60s, including experimental animation, TV commercials, and his Oscar-nominated short film "Time Piece." She also elaborated on Jim Henson personally, characterizing him as a man who was restlessly creative and wouldn't let any idea go to waste. She demonstrated through clips how an idea birthed in a personal experimental project went on to be used in a national marketing campaign.

But the centerpiece of the presentation was the upcoming graphic novel, "A Tale of Sand." Based on a long lost 1968 screenplay by Jim Henson and his frequent writing partner Jerry Juhl, "A Tale of Sand" is described by Archaia Entertainment's Stephen Christy (pictured above) as a paranoia piece about the future of technology -- a subject that was very much in vogue at the time Henson and Juhl were working on the script.

Ramon Perez

The graphic novel adaptation is by Ramon Perez, and is published by Archaia. It will be released this fall.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Comic-Con 2011: Marvel TV Development

Marvel held a presentation announcing a line of television projects currently in development. Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel TV (and noted TV and comic book writer), stressed that the following projects are strictly in development and shouldn't be considered certain until "you hear it from Marvel." Due to Disney's acquisition of Marvel a couple years ago, these shows are being groomed for various ABC and Disney networks.
Jeph Loeb

In Development

Marvel TV is developing "A.K.A. Jessica Jones" for ABC. Based on the 2001-2004 comic book series "Alias" (a name which has since been co-opted by a certain other TV series), the Jessica Jones character occupies a niche somewhere between superhero and private detective.

Also in the works for ABC is a new live-action version of "Hulk," a character who hasn't been on TV since 1982. This series will focus on the span of time just after Bruce Banner is exposed to gamma radiation, before the world learns of his horrible secret.

"Cloak and Dagger" would center on a pair of teenage runaways in post-Katrina New Orleans who are abducted and used as human test subjects by a chemist. This awakens their superpowers, which bear a striking resemblance to the Maya y Alejandro storyline on "Heroes" (of which Loeb was a staff writer).

Finally, "Mockingbird" is in development for ABC Family. This series would follow Barbara Morse, a biologist and agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who discovers corruption within the organization and is forced to flee for her life. She then makes it her personal mission to expose and eliminate the corruption in S.H.I.E.L.D., perhaps saving the world in the process.

Coming Soon

As for shows that are in production and heading to your living room soon, Marvel TV is of course moving forward with their flagship character, Spider-Man. Pulling out the big guns, the show runner for Disney XD's animated "Ultimate Spider-Man" is none other than Paul Dini (Emmy winner "Batman: The Animated Series"), the creative consultant is Brian Michael Bendis, and the writing staff is rounded out by a collective known as "Man of Action" (creators of "Ben 10" and "Generator Rex") - Joe Kelly, Joe Casey, Duncan Rouleau and Steve Seagle. "I'm extraordinarily proud of the writing talent that we've managed to bring into this," says Loeb. "It speaks to the absolute love for this character and also for Marvel animation as a whole."
Drake Bell voices Peter Parker/Spider-Man

"Marvel Animation isn't just the stuff that we're gonna be doing with XD," says Loeb. Marvel has been running an animated division to create and distribute digital content called Marvel Knights Animation. A hybrid of comic book-style art and 2-D cell animation, Knights converts existing comic book storylines and "bring[s] them to life ... in a way that we've never really seen before" on digital platforms such as iTunes and X-Box Live.

The next project for Knights is the full 25-issue run of Joss Whedon & John Cassaday's "The Astonishing X-Men," out in 2012.

Finally, Loeb announced pre-production of another animated series for Disney XD: "Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H." Spearheaded again by Dini, the series will be loaded with "as much Hulk testosterone" as possible, including Red Hulk, Skaar, A-Bomb and She-Hulk.

With the summer movie season already dominated by comic book superhero adaptations, Marvel is moving full-steam ahead to dominate television as well. These projects represent a smart strategy aimed at varying demographics which, if successful, could keep numerous Marvel properties alive at one time without over-saturating any single group of viewers.

Comic-Con 2011: Zombie Walk

On July 23rd, around 5:30 PM (PDT), a Comic-Con zombie walk broke out in the Gaslamp District across from the convention center. I hadn't heard about it in advance, so I was lucky to stumble upon it.

Most folks dressed up as ordinary zombies, while some were zombie versions of super heroes or various celebrity zombies. There was one Ash, which was a nice touch.

(Click to enlarge.)*

A few people dressed up in military gear to contain the outbreak. When I told them they were doing a terrible job since there were zombies everywhere, they shot back, "Have you been bit?" How did I not see that one coming?

Here's the full (and way too long) video.

*Pictures courtesy of Helby

Friday, July 15, 2011

Chris Columbus Was a Great "Harry Potter" Director

When Home Alone hit theaters, I was a 10-year-old white boy living in a small, heartland-America city.  To put it in business terms, I was what's known as the "target demographic."  I was the type of wide-eyed youngster who could most directly relate to young Kevin McCallister.  Relate, hell!  I was Kevin McCallister, as far as I was concerned.  I believed in nothing less than my ability to fend off a couple of hiss-worthy thieves with nothing more than my wiles and a bit of low-tech equipment.

Home Alone was a children's fantasy story, told simply and straightforwardly.  That's all it aspired to be, and that's all it was.

In a recent article praising the overall artistic accomplishments of the Harry Potter film series, Slate's Dan Kois does something that countless critics before him have done: he dismisses the first two films entirely, and he takes extra care to bash their director, Chris Columbus.  This puts me in an uncomfortable position.  I'm not a fan, per se, of Chris Columbus; and I certainly don't think a successful, multi-millionaire (billionaire?) filmmaker needs my defense.  But as a fan of Harry Potter -- both book and film -- I'm apparently one of the few people who thinks Chris Columbus was exactly what the Potter series needed to get off to the right start.  And my conviction in that belief is what I feel the need to defend.

"Artistic duds" is how Kois characterizes Columbus's Potter movies (his being The Sorcerer's (Philosopher's) Stone and The Chamber of Secrets).  That's reasonable, but short-sighted.  "Art" has never been what Chris Columbus was known for, and it's not really fair to hold him up to expectations he was never meant to fulfill.

Columbus is now and has always been a populist film director.  We're talking about the guy who brought us Gremlins, The Goonies, Adventures in Babysitting, Mrs. Doubtfire and, yes, the first two Home Alone movies.  Clearly it's never been his mission to challenge an audience's intellectual or moral beliefs.  He's out to give us a good time, take it or leave it.  And there's a place for that, and it's completely legitimate.  That's why I have a tough time allowing the Koises of the world to get away with saying things like, "Would [Warner Bros.] choose someone who could make a real movie?" or, "A real director could make something lasting" (emphasis mine).  Columbus is a real director making real movies.  If they're not to your taste, that's fine.  Just move on.  No need to invalidate his entire existence first.

To say that Columbus is a "safe" directorial choice is an understatement.  If that guy has any personal demons, he's never let them within a mile of his camera.  His idea of "dark and dangerous" is the occasional dutch angle in Chamber of Secrets.  His idea of a seedy, impoverished artistic community in New York is the rather pristine cityscape of Rent.  Was he ever going to create a sense of real danger for Harry Potter?  Were we ever going to think that Harry and his friends were actually in peril?  No, and that's the way it should be!  Let's not forget, Harry Potter started out as children's books.  They grew dark and forbidding and more adult later.

The fact of the matter is, the first two Harry Potter films needed a director exactly like Chris Columbus.  They needed someone with a broad approach and, more importantly, a broad appeal.  Would he bring subtext?  Would he bring complexity?  Would he bring deeper meaning that the more sophisticated members of the audience would walk away from the theater pondering?  No.  Nor should he!  He need only tell the simple, straightforward story of an orphan boy who discovers that his life is much more interesting than he'd previously known.  That's the fantasy of Harry Potter.  What kid can't relate to that; the belief -- the hope -- that you're something special, something different than the rest of the crowd?  That you possess a "magic" that puts you above everybody else?  (Hell, what adult can't relate to that?)

Simplicity, straightforwardness, and a lack of nuance are the hallmarks of a Chris Columbus film, and he delivered these things magnificently in the first two Harry Potter films.

The genius of J. K. Rowling's novels is that their depth and complexity grows with each book.  The maturity level ages in conjunction with Harry himself, and therefor ages in conjunction with the book's primary audience -- the kids who are roughly Harry's age, and who can relate to him most directly.

Let's try to remember, my fellow adults, how simple and straightforward the world seemed when we were kids.  Even those of us who suffered tragedies in our youths did not have the cognitive skills to fully comprehend what we were experiencing.  We were sad, yes, but our world was still filled with color.

That's what Chris Columbus brought to the Potter films.  A childlike comprehension of the highs and lows, the mysteries and the status quo of life.  This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I mean it sincerely: possibly more than any other filmmaker, Chris Columbus is in touch with the simpleness of childhood.

When I was a kid swept up in the fantasy of outwitting a couple of grown-up burglars, should cultural critics have lamented the fact that Scorsese would have made a more artistic movie out of the same material?  Is that what my 10-year-old brain needed?  I contend that the Potter movies very deliberately grew with their audience.  Chris Columbus eased his young viewers into the series.  If the movies became more captivating for an adult audience after Columbus left, don't hold that against him.  Applaud him for it.  He gave the series exactly what it needed in its early days: a welcoming doormat for its child viewers.  That he stepped aside and allowed other directors to take over when things became more dangerous is also to his credit.  He knew his limits, and he prevented them from interfering.  Perhaps Chris Columbus is a more savvy filmmaker than most critics are willing to give him credit for.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Podcast Rollcall: Comedy Film Nerds

Genre: Comedy / Movies

What It's About: Cross-pollinating filmmaking and standup. The show centers on reviews of upcoming movies, as well as guest interviews and general pop culture conversations.

Why You Should Care: Founders/hosts Graham Elwood and Chris Mancini are both standup comedians who started out as (and continue to work as) filmmakers. Their insights and reviews are elevated by their film school educations and their personal experience as filmmakers. And of course, given that they're comedians, the show is always funny. If a statement like "Han shot first" has a special meaning in your nerdy little heart, this show is for you.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 1 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, June 27, 2011

Why "Avatar 2" Will Look Better Than "Avatar"

It's good to know I'm not the only one who's bored with 3-D movies.

Just like everyone else, I was delighted by the gimmick when it returned to prominence a decade ago.  In those days, there were only one or two major 3-D releases per year.  It was a fun little bonus to see a movie in 3-D; especially, I told myself, if that's the way the filmmaker intended me to see it.  And why not shell out a little extra to see a 3-D conversion of The Nightmare Before Christmas?  I'd already seen it dozens of times the normal way.

But it didn't take long for movie studios to abuse the trust and goodwill of their 3-D-adoring audiences.  The number of 3-D movies released per year grew rapidly.  Movies that were never intended for 3-D were lily-gilded with sloppy last-minute conversions (infamous offender: Clash of the Titans).  Increased ticket prices for drecky movies started to leave a bad taste in audiences' mouths, especially during a down economy.  Degraded picture quality and clunky plastic glasses became less tolerable.  And let's face it, the 3-D wasn't adding much to the moviegoing experience anyway.  So why bother?

At least that's the conclusion I reached a few years ago.  With very few exceptions, I've avoided 3-D like the plague.  And it's looking like the majority of audiences is starting to do the same.  This year, ticket sales for 2-D versions of movies are outpacing ticket sales for 3-D versions, casting doubts on the future of the format and pushing filmmakers to step their game up.  And the first to rise to the challenge appears to be James Cameron.

James Cameron has a history of pushing filmmaking technology past its limits.  He was an early adopter of computer animation, making then-jaw dropping use of it in The Abyss and Terminator 2.  He helped develop deep-sea cameras that could take better pictures under more extreme underwater conditions.  And whatever your opinion of Cameron's Avatar (I liked it), you have to admit that he did 3-D better than anyone before and pretty much since (although I've heard great things about Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams; and Pixar's "Day & Night" short was a smart use of the format).  Now, he's got his sights set on increasing the frame rate.  And this has me much more excited than 3-D ever did.

A quick, remedial film lesson: The standard number of frames per second since synchronized sound was introduced to movies has been 24.  24 fps is the lowest number you can have that allows enough physical space on a film strip for a synchronized audio track.  And, of course, you always want the lowest number of frames possible because the less film you use, the cheaper it is to make a movie.

But a lower frame rate also means compromised quality.  The more individual photographs you can squeeze into one second of real time -- the more visual information you're giving your eyes -- the more convinced your brain is going to be that it's observing reality.

Over the years, many improvements have been made to film itself.  Clearer, higher-fidelity pictures with more vibrant colors can be taken at faster speeds and with lower measures of light.  This has improved picture quality in movies.  But through it all, the frame rate has remained standard at 24 fps.  Now, James Cameron has said he "fully intends" to shoot the next Avatar at a higher frame rate -- either 48 or 60 fps -- taking the next step to add a sense of reality to the movie.

Now this is something I'm looking forward to.  This is something I'll pay extra for.  Roger Ebert once described a demonstration of a 60 fps movie as so clear, it was like looking out a window.  Cameron has taken it a step further, saying it "takes the glass out of the window.  In fact, it is just reality.  It is really stunning."

As someone who has never been stunned by 3-D, this is a movie experience I can't wait to have.  Mr. Cameron, let's get those cameras rolling!

(Originally appeared on Canon-McMillan Patch)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Michael Scott Made a Good Movie

One of my biggest pet peeves in movies and TV shows is when a video is supposed to look amateurish or technically simplistic, but it ends up looking better than anything the average person could create.  You've probably noticed it yourself, just never bothered to linger on it.  But linger you should.  Because, of all the common shortcuts filmmakers use to get a point across, this is the one that filmmakers themselves should find the most egregious.

Here's the routine: an amateur of some sort -- very often a child -- picks up a video camera and decides to start making a movie.  Or perhaps it's someone documenting some important event, like a wedding or a party.  We, the audience, are watching the end result of this non-professional documentation.  (It's a whole different scenario when episodes or sequences are structured around the conceit of a professional film crew coming to town.  In that case, we expect them to create a professional-looking product.)

In order to sell us on the amateurism of what we're seeing, the cameras will be placed at unusual angles; shots are overly shaky and framed oddly; focus will be in and out; important people or objects will fall off screen.  On an acting level, everyone becomes stiff and self-conscious; they ham it up for the camera; they use stilted line delivery.  The dialogue itself is horrible, the story is intentionally clunky and obvious, every moment is a cliche.  The point is loud and clear: we're watching something made by amateurs.

So why is it that the lighting and the editing always remain at the highest level of excellence?

Editing and cinematography are notorious for never getting their due.  Editing is frequently referred to as "the invisible art" - if the editing of a movie or TV show stands out to you, then it was done wrong.  Even in attention-grabbing cases when a movie is intentionally choppy -- Tarantino-style time fragmentation; Aronofsky-style hip hop montage -- most people don't understand what goes into truly excellent editing (myself included).

Likewise with cinematography.  Extreme camera movements or unusual lighting will stand out to the general audience and provoke them say, "the lighting in that movie is really incredible."  But you're still missing the complexity and, frankly, even the basic elements of what cinematography needs to accomplish.  We take it for granted that we'll just be able to see everything we're supposed to see, the way we're supposed to see it.  But it takes a great deal of skill and knowledge to make film "see" things the way our eyes do.

Which is why, even when an episode or sequence is supposed to have been made by an amateur, the cinematography and editing will always remain 100% professional.  Anything less would be unwatchable.  Which is a testament to how important they are.

One of the most recent examples is the "Threat Level Midnight" episode of "The Office."  As fans of "The Office" know, Michael Scott is a well-meaning fool who occasionally dabbled in amateur screenwriting.  "Threat Level Midnight" was devoted to the end result of all that dabbling: Michael's homemade spy thriller, starring himself and all his coworkers.

The episode has all the hallmarks of this conceit noted above.  Stiff acting, bad camerawork, childish storytelling.  But throughout the whole thing, the lighting is perfect - there are no hard shadows on anyone's faces, backgrounds never drop off to blackness.  And the editing is snappy and sophisticated - cutting on the action, matching eyelines, great pacing.

On top of that, Michael did a great job recording and editing the audio.  That's one of the first things to go wrong with amateur productions.  He also did a great job shooting coverage and reverse angles, two things missing from most amateur productions.

Overall, Michael Scott made a good movie.

Look, folks, I get it.  The joke is that Michael Scott is inept as a filmmaker (as most people are), and we're supposed to laugh at the obvious shortcomings of his movie.  I'm not saying that "The Office" failed at delivering exactly what it set out to deliver in that episode.  I'm just saying that the creative and technical professionals responsible for making "The Office" know better: true amateurism looks much worse than the movie Michael Scott made.  And thanks to YouTube, we all know how dreadful amateurism can be.

"The Office" did what it needed to do to get the point across the Michael Scott made a ridiculously bad movie.  But I think they should have done more, taken in it further.  In this day and age of the pervasive amateur, professionals need to work much harder if they want us to believe they don't know what they're doing.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Podcast Rollcall: Mr. Deity

Genre: Comedy/Satire

What It's About: An unspecified (but clearly Judeo-Christian) deity deals with the hassles of managing Earth and all the life forms on it.  Constantly nagged and questioned by his ex-wife Lucy, his son Jesse, and his assistant Larry, Mr. Deity eventually makes the decisions that will dictate how life on Earth ought to be lived -- how nature sustains, why humans treat each other the way they do, and why he needs to be worshipped a certain way.

Why You Should Care: Because it questions the commonly-accepted notions of religion that are truly strange when you stop to think about them.  Creator and writer Brian Dalton is clearly bemused by the tenets of Christianity and sets out to demonstrate the more absurd points by framing "god's" decision-making process as a series of bickering conversations between a deity and those closest to him.

Frequency: Bi-weekly

Average Length: Less than 10 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, March 14, 2011

How 'Californication' Should End

"Californication" hasn't always had the clearest sense of direction.  As with most shows these days, it's always had season-long story arcs -- one season is about writing a music producer's biography, another season is about taking a teaching position at a university, etc. -- that act as clotheslines upon which smaller stories can be hung.  But the show has typically been short-sighted, more concerned with the smaller day-to-day adventures of the main character rather than the broader scope of his life.  Until the current season...

For those of you unfamiliar, "Californication" is a guilty pleasure series whose primary objective is to get as many up-and-coming young actresses as possible to take their clothes off for the camera.  David Duchovny stars as novelist and sometime-screenwriter Hank Moody.  The quintessential "bad boy with a heart of gold," Hank juggles more women than James Bond would know what to do with while always pining for the domestic-life-that-could-have-been with his teenage daughter, Becca, and her mother, Karen.

"Californication" is also a prime example of a growing sub-genre of cable series that manage to be good enough to keep you watching, but bad enough to make you question why you do.  It crosses into unbelievable territory far too often... which would be fine, except that in other moments it wants you to confront heartbreaking realities.  The tone is, let's say, inconsistent.

The downfall of many of these "Good Enough/Bad Enough" cable series is that they're bogged down by dull characters that can't be gotten rid of.  In the case of "Californication," it's the afore-mentioned Karen and Becca, who bring the show to a screeching halt whenever they're on screen.  It's hardly the fault of the actresses (although I won't argue the complaints about Madeleine Martin's acting) -- Karen and Becca are, unfortunately, symbols and plot devices more than characters.  They serve as Hank's ultimate goal (happy family life) and moral compass (regret for his bad behavior).

At least some attempt is made to realize Becca as a fully developed character, with actual goals and motivations of her own.  Somewhere along the line she started playing guitar and has since set herself on a path to become a rock star.  Best of luck to her; but we, the audience, don't care.  Her dad is doing far more interesting things, and that's the show we signed up for.

Karen has no such goals and motivations.  In the first season, she had gotten engaged to an upstanding businessman.  This, of course, rankled Hank, and he set out to prevent the wedding.  That wasn't much characterization for Karen in the first place, but she's had even less to do ever since.  By now, she shows up just to harangue Hank for two to ten minutes every episode and then move on.  This makes her immensely unlikable, and makes us wonder why Hank is so enthralled by her.  Having unconditional love for your own offspring is understandable.  But why does Hank want Karen around?  We've seen what his life is like when she's out of the picture, and it's far more noteworthy.

But it's a catch-22.  The catalyst for the entire series was Hank's determination to win back his ex-girlfriend and his daughter, despite his compulsive self-sabotaging via sex and drugs and anti-authoritarian behavior.  From an audience perspective, the sex and drugs and anti-authoritarian behavior are way more interesting.  We want to spend all our time on those, and as little time as possible with the ex and the daughter.  But if the writers were to get rid of the ex and daughter, then Hank has no hope of achieving his personal goals.  So there's no choice but to keep those characters around, and to keep Hank perpetually pining for their affections.  Hank keeps trying to make things right with them, screwing it up, but managing to keep them just happy enough to allow him into their lives.  It's a perpetual motion machine.  And it could literally go on this way as long as the network and the writers want it to.

But then this season (its fourth), the writers pushed something forward that's been more damaging to Hank Moody than anything that's come before.  It's been brought to light that Hank slept with an underaged girl, and he's been formally charged with statutory rape.  This has been handled remarkably well by the writers, especially considering the show's proclivity for "Bad Enough" territory.  It would have been easy to get bogged down in heavy drama, and to lose the character of Hank.  But no, Hank has remained Hank -- sleeping around, drugging around, running up debt -- even while he's on the verge of being convicted of one of the most serious crimes against civilized society.

In other words, this season has been the best yet in finding that balance between the unbelievable and the heartbreaking.  As of yet, our hearts haven't been broken.  But there's a lot of very subtle tension building up, and I'm loving it.  Hank Moody is on the verge of a total meltdown -- one that is absolutely true to the character and has been earned by the show.  And in order to truly deliver on all this potential, Hank Moody needs to become the fictionalized Charlie Sheen.

Yes, this is a Charlie Sheen article!  Sorry if this feels like a sneak attack.  Frankly, I was reluctant to say it, but there it is.

Look, Charlie Sheen is a real person who needs real help.  He's been really abusive to real people.  He is not beyond redemption, but he has a lot of work to do.  I'm not making light of his situation, and I'm not pretending to have any sort of valuable insight into it.  I'm talking about a TV show that has never had anything to do with any real people (except maybe Rick Springfield), which now finds itself in a position to shed a little light on the destructive nature of addiction.

And incidentally, if the makers of "Californication" had gone into the series with the explicit intention of making a fictional version of Charlie Sheen, I would have considered that crass exploitation.  But they've always been doing their own thing.  It just so happens that this moment of reality has converged in such a way that, through no design of their own, they've found themselves in a position to bring a bit of enlightenment to their audience.  And believe me, that's more ambition than a guilty pleasure show such as "Californication" ever desired.

Granted, Charlie Sheen has never been accused of statutory rape.  But other than that, there are more similarities than dissimilarities between him and Hank Moody.  The excesses, the wild child extravagances; the looks and the charm and the cleverness to pretty much have the world in the palm of your hands, yet the destructive tendencies to be able to lose it all in a heartbeat.  (Maybe I'm just a jealous troll.)  And through the anguish and the sympathy of the otherwise extraneous Karen and Becca, we could get a sense of the impact such behavior has on loved ones.  Those characters would finally serve a greater purpose to the audience, rather than just a thin purpose for Hank's motivations.  It's all there.

I'm not saying the producers of "Californication" should go all "ripped-from-the headlines" with Sheen.  I'm saying they've already done it without even meaning to.  If they commit to what they've already set up -- that Hank has sewn the seeds of his own destruction, and that he may not be able to handle the consequences -- then I think "Californication" is in a better position to illuminate the Charlie Sheen situation than any Johnny-come-lately biographer who's looking to cash in on a celebrity's downfall.  And that's the way I'd rather see it unfold.

Monday, March 7, 2011

2011 Oscar Wrap Up

Loose Thoughts

Before writing about this year's Oscar ceremony, I thought I should take a moment to review what I said last year.  As it turns out, I came out pretty negatively about last year's show.  Which is strange because while I was watching this year, I kept wishing it were as good as last year.  Lesson learned.  Despite my overall negative feelings about the Oscars this year, the passage of time will probably leave me with a better feeling about it.  In that spirit, I'd like to focus on the positive.

Shorter.  Last year's telecast rolled straight to 9 o'clock Pacific, midnight Eastern.  That's never necessary.  This year's show weighed in 20 minutes lighter, despite the strange addition of a lip synching children's choir at the end.  Remember, Academy, less is more.  Let's see if we can wrap it up by 8 next year.

Kirk Douglas.  Look, I couldn't understand half of what the guy was saying.  But he still seems really sharp despite being a post-stroke 94-year-old.  Once he got on a roll, he provided one of the few moments of spontaneity the whole night.  We could have used a few more Kirk Douglas moments.

Melissa Leo.  Another one of the more spontaneous moments.  She and Kirk Douglas were the only people to get bleeped during the night.  Thanks for giving us something to talk about.

Christian Bale.  Somehow didn't get bleeped, but still gave us something to talk about by delivering one of the most heartfelt -- but not blubbering -- speeches of the night.  He gave due respect to the man his role was based on, and then got choked up when he thanked his wife.  "I didn't think I was like this," he said.  We didn't either, Christian, but it's nice to see that you are.

The Writers.  Both of the screenplay writers gave excellent speeches.  And while you might expect writers to be apparently good with words, speaking in front of one of the world's biggest crowds isn't always the most comfortable place for them.  Aaron Sorkin and David Seidler both came through.

Best live-action short.  "God of Love" wasn't my prediction to win, but it's easy to see why it did - it's probably the most casually entertaining of the five nominees.  Luke Matheny's acceptance speech demonstrated exactly that.  Funny and relaxed while still respectful and appreciative (and short!), it's what every awards speech should aspire to be.

Randy Newman.  Not bogging down his speech with countless thank yous, Newman riffed humorously on his history with the Oscars (20 nominations and only two wins) and poked fun at the whole Oscar process.

In Memoriam.  This may have been the single most respectful year for the In Memoriam segment.  The audience was asked to hold all applause until the end, so the historically crass "popularity contest" aspect was removed.  Furthermore, unlike last year, the camera only cut to the singer a couple of time, and this was obviously planned around moments when the video roll for the deceased was put on hold so that the home viewer wouldn't miss anything.

Spielberg.  Not just because he's Spielberg, but because of the introduction he gave before he announced the Best Picture winner.  "One of these ten movies will join a list that includes On the Waterfront, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather and The Deer Hunter.  The other nine will join a list that includes The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, The Graduate and Raging Bull.  Either way, congratulations.  You're all in very good company."  Well said.  With all the griping that follows the Academy Awards every year, it's best to remember that it's ultimately meaningless.  We love the movies that we love, and we'll keep watching them for decades to come.

And now, the griping.  Come on, you didn't think I'd let this whole thing pass without complaining, did you?

You'll notice I didn't have much to say about the hosts in the "positives" section.  They were sort of a void in the evening's proceedings.  Some commentators have come out in favor of one over the other, but no, they were both pretty bad.  I've always liked Franco and Hathaway (well, post-Princess Diaries), and I don't blame them.  They shouldn't have been asked to host.  I think we, the viewing audience, would do best to forgive and, especially, forget.

Tom Hooper.  In his acceptance speech, he told the story of how his mom saw the stage version of "The King's Speech" and told him he should make it a movie.  "The moral of the story is to listen to your mother," he said.  Cell phones across Los Angeles lit up, as mothers told their aspiring-filmmaker children that they should heed Hooper's advice.  Well, mom, as soon as you start delivering me Oscar-worthy material, we'll talk.

The stage.  Apparently a lot of people liked it.  I found it distracting.  It brought the show to a dead halt when the presenters pointed out that it was changing in front of our eyes.  And then those magma colors would pulsate in the background during the acceptance speeches.  No good.

Lifetime achievements.  One of the most venerated directors of the last 40 years, one of the hardest working character actors of the last 60 years, and one of the biggest figures in silent film restoration and preservation won distinguished awards this year.  And they were allowed onto the stage, as a group, for about five seconds to give a quick wave and then were sent on their way.  If the Oscar stage isn't the place for people like these to be recognized, then where is?

I'll leave it at that.  I could go -- and on -- but we're trying to keep it positive.

My Score Sheet

This year, I made predictions in 24 categories.  I got 14 right.  It's more than half, but still not a great average.  I'll have to try harder next year.

In Summary

While some news organization were citing this year as the first official Twitter Oscars, I already made that call last year... and I still agree with myself on that.  Last year, people taking their real-time Oscar commentary to the Twitter-verse seemed inspired, and their giddiness showed.  This year, it felt like most people were doing it out of obligation.  Not particularly inspired, going through the motions, doing it simply because they thought they were supposed to.

And that pretty much describes the Oscars overall this year.  Oh well; still happy to have them around.  And let's just be optimistic that next year's ceremony will be better. Grade: D-

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

2011 Oscar Liveblog

This is an archive of the comments I made on Twitter during the February 27, 2011 Oscar telecast, enhanced with a timeline of the televised ceremony, in Pacific time.

3:00 PM - Oscar pre-show coverage has already started on E! and locally.  It's best to avoid watching it.

5:12 PM - Settle in for a long night in front of the TV.  Am immediately greeted by horrible red carpet questions.  Host Robin Roberts asks Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban who picked the music in the limo on their way to the show.  Ugh.

5:25 PM - They give a brief glimpse inside the production trailer, with the director and others sitting in front of 20 monitors.  This sort of thing might be interesting to viewers for more than three seconds.

5:30 PM - The show opens with a montage of Best Picture nominees.
  • I was told they were doing away with montages this year. Instead, they open with a big one.
5:33 PM - For the opening, pre-filmed bit with the hosts, the broadcast falls back on the old trope of inserting the hosts into recognizable scenes from the year's movies.
5:38 PM - The clip finishes, and the hosts take the stage in the flesh.  James Franco comes out with phone in hand - Twitter has made its official stage debut at the Oscars.

- The jokey banter between Franco and Anne Hathaway lands with a resounding thud.  Mercifully, it's short.

5:42 PM - Tom Hanks arrives to hand out the first awards.  He draws attention to the fact that the stage is surrounded by several arced video screens that transition into a Gone with the Wind theme background.  I remember hearing that the Oscar producers planned to "bring us inside the movies" or something like that.  This is apparently what they meant.

5:44 PM - The first award of the night, Best Art Direction, goes to Alice in Wonderland's Robert Stromberg and Karen O'Hara.

5:46 PM - Hanks also presents the Best Cinematography award to Wally Pfister for Inception.  Then the telecast goes to the first commercial, having handed out awards to older, unfamous people in categories that few people care about.  On the way to the commercial, the announcer runs through a list of upcoming categories and presenters.
  • That bumper out might as well have said, "We promise young famous people when we come back"
5:51 PM - 94-year-old, post-stroke Kirk Douglas takes the stage; so, not so much with the youthfulness the Oscars are angling for.  He hands out the award for Best Supporting Actress.  He teases the nominees by delaying the winner announcement as long as possible.
- Finally, he announces Melissa Leo as the winner.  Somewhere in her speech, she says "fuck."

6:01 PM - Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake start talking animation.  Once again, they draw attention to the video screens surrounding the stage which "take us into" an animated backdrop.
  • The changing backgrounds are as annoying as I imagined them when reading the pre-show coverage
- Timberlake makes "an app for that" joke and pulls out his phone.  We're going to be seeing more and more phones on stage in years to come.

- "The Lost Thing" wins Best Animated Short.

- Toy Story 3 wins Best Animated Feature.
6:11 PM - Anne Hathaway gives a quick tribute to the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.

6:13 PM - Javier Bardem and James Brolin hand out the Screenplay awards.  Social Network wins Best Adapted.  Aaron Sorkin's speech goes longer than writers are allowed to go.
  • Did you really think the cue off music would work for Aaron Sorkin? You've heard his dialogue, right?

- Original Screenplay goes to King's Speech.
6:23 PM - Hathaway sings a parody of "On My Own" from Les Miserables, jokingly lamenting that Hugh Jackman refused to sing with her... which couldn't possibly be true.
6:26 PM - Russell Brand and Helen Mirren do a comedic bit which has Mirren speaking French and Brand mistranslating.  The Best Foreign Film goes to In a Better World.
  • Just noticed they went back to "the Oscar goes to..." Last year, it was "the winner is..."
6:29 PM - Reese Witherspoon hands out the Best Actor award to Christian Bale.
6:38 PM - Academy president Tom Sherak and Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney essentially talk about renewing their contract with each other.

6:40 PM
- Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman award the Best Original Score to Social Network's Trent Reznor.  The telecast repeatedly cuts to David Fincher, sitting with who I assume is his daughter.
6:46 PM - Scarlett Johansson and Matthew McConaughey do the Sound awards.  Mixing and Editing both go to Inception.

6:53 PM - Marisa Tomei gives a quick mention to the sci-tech Oscars, which were presented at a different ceremony so as not to nerd up the joint.

6:55 PM - Cate Blanchett hands out the award for Best Makeup to The Wolfman, then Best Costume Design to Alice in Wonderland.  Colleen Atwood gives a lengthy acceptance speech from a single index card.
7:00 PM - They play a video where people on the street are asked to name their favorite Best Original Song winner.  Obama is the last person to name a song.  Yes, that Obama.

7:02 PM - Kevin Spacey introduces performances for two of the Best Song nominees.  Randy Newman performs his song from Toy Story 3, followed by Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi from Tangled.

7:11 PM - Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal present the Short Film nominees.  Gyllenhaal notes that these can be vital tools in winning your Oscar pool, so everyone should strive to see the nominees.  True, but it didn't help me.  The Best Documentary Short winner was Strangers No More.  Best Live-Action Short was God of Love.
7:18 PM - In an amusing bit, some movie scenes are remixed into music videos using auto-tune and fancy editing.

7:20 PM - Oprah hands out the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.  Inside Job wins.

7:26 PM - Billy Crystal honors Bob Hope and introduces a clip reel of Hope's Oscar-hosting highlights.
- The end of the Hope clip reel is doctored to make it sound like Hope is introducing the next presenters - Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr.  They give Best Visual Effects to Inception and Best Editing to Social Network.
7:41 PM - The remaining two Best Song nominees do their performances.  First AR Rahman and Florence Welch for 127 Hours.
7:43 PM - Then Gwyneth Paltrow sings her song from Country Strong.
7:45 PM - Finally they award the winner for Best Original Song.  It goes to Randy Newman for Toy Story 3.  He frets that his speech will slow the show down.
7:52 PM - The telecast comes straight out of commercials into the In Memoriam clip reel, with Celine Dion singing live underneath it.  The audience was clearly instructed to hold their applause until the end, and the camera did not pull away from clip reel in favor of the performer as it did last year.
7:56 PM - Halle Berry gives a special tribute to Lena Horne at the end of the In Memoriam reel.
8:01 PM - Hilary Swank and Kathryn Bigelow present the Best Diretor award.  It goes to Tom Hooper.

8:06 PM - Annette Bening introduces Governors Awards winners - Kevin Brownlow, Eli Wallach, and Francis Ford Coppola.

8:10 PM - Jeff Bridges singles out each of the Best Actress nominees for individual love, then announces the winner - Natalie Portman.
  • Did any of the perverts drooling over 13-year-old Natalie Portman in -The Professional- ever think they'd see this moment?

8:20 PM
- Sandra Bullock gives the individual love treatment to the Best Actor nominees, then announces the winner - Colin Firth.
8:31 PM - Steven Spielberg takes the stage to announce the Best Picture winner - King's Speech.

8:39 PM - As if the show hasn't already gone on too long, some sort of children's choir is trotted out on stage to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."  Kind of strange, but hey, good for them.
So those are the minutes for this year's Oscars.  Check back in a couple days for my final summary, and then we can put this awards season to rest.  See you then!