Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscar Wrap

As I did two years ago, I weighed doing another Academy Awards live blog last night, but honestly I don't think my hands have the stamina -- nor did I really have the interest -- to pull it off, so I let my DVR do the heavy lifting. That way, I could watch the entire three hours in hop-skip-jump mode in just under an hour-and-a-half. First, as far as the winners, this year marked one of the rare times when I watched a whole two of the ten Best Picture nominees -- Inception and The Fighter -- and since neither really had a shot at the top prize, I didn't have much invested in whether it would be The King's Speech or The Social Network (FYI, it was the former). I was glad to see Colin Firth take home the Actor prize, and also Christian Bale for his transformative (if a bit showy) Fighter role.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

More Sharia Shenanigans

Back in September, I wrote a piece (subsequently re-posted at Huffington) wherein I chided certain Republican luminaries for their scaremongering vis-à-vis the supposed threat of "encroaching Sharia." Now, Sharia, a.k.a. Islamic jurisprudence (of which my labeling as "benign" lead to a hit piece against me by this guy -- fun stuff), has long been a boogieman on the right, less because of any actual threat it poses to our American way of life (it doesn't) or even any actual knowledge they may have about it (they don't) but rather because certain electioneering politicos (not to mention increasingly-crazed pundits) have found the "button" issue with which to excite the dullards and dimwits within their base.

And thus, rather than putting forth substantive solutions to serious issues, we get nonsense like this from Tennessee this past week, wherein two state officials advanced a bill that would make it -- wait for it -- treason to practice Sharia in Tenn. In other words, treason to pray, treason to give charity, treason to live as a Muslim. Subtle, no? There's so much stupid going on there -- just on a constitutional level, forget all the other stuff -- that it's hard to imagine this thing getting very far. Then again, whenever I think that, I'm reminded of Henry Mencken's truism -- of which this anti-Sharia wave sweeping the far-right fringe is surely an exemplar -- about no one going broke underestimating intelligence of the American public.

What these folks seem unable to grasp (or, more likely, willfully ignore) is that there is no be-all, end-all concept of Sharia. It's far too broad a concept, encompassing far too many subtleties, with far too much room for human interpretation -- both for good and for ill -- to ever be easily quantified. Still, a little knowledge in the right hands can be a very useful thing, and while Congressman Judd Matheny, one of the authors of the Tenn. anti-Sharia bill, has admitted he doesn't even know much about what he's railing against, Salon's Justin Elliot took the opportunity to track down an actual expert on Sharia law, NJ attorney Abed Awad, who provides a very useful FAQ about its whys-and-wherefores. Very worthy of a read.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

No, Joe. No. No. NO.

Last month, when I noted that director Stephen Sommers had departed from the planned follow-up to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I held out hope that Paramount and Hasbro might bring in a unique choice to replace Sommers and get the franchise back on the rails. While my pie-in-the-sky choice was someone like The A-Team's Joe Carnahan, I was heartened to hear that F. Gary Gray, who directed one of my fave underrated actioners from the '90s, The Negotiator (and also the not-bad Law Abiding Citizen two years ago), was one of the finalists. Gray's main competition for the gig was the guy who behind the Justin Bieber movie Never Say Never, but c'mon, no way they'd pick him, right? Right?

I'm sure you can guess where this is headed.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Nostalgia Theater: GoBots Edition

The last time I did a Nostalgia Theater was back in September, despite my very best efforts to keep up with the feature regularly. Still, new digs, new year, and a fresh commitment, so let's see how we do this time. For this installment, I present the GoBots. Those of you with long memories may remember the toyline, inaugurated by Tonka in 1983 but perpetual second fiddle to that other line of transforming robot toys that debuted from Hasbro a year later. And it's not hard to see why. Cheaper (both price-wise and quality-wise), simpler, and dumber, GoBots was inferior in every way to Transformers, which was armed with a higher caliber of product and a richer mythology to draw from (as dreamed up by the folks at Marvel Comics).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Predatory Pipes

Last year I linked you to the hilarious videos by Jon and Al Kaplan in which they took some of Arnold Schwarzenegger's most beloved cinematic sojourns and re-envisioned them as Broadway musicals. Now it appears that our walk through the Ah-nuld catalogue is complete, with the Kaplans presenting what's ostensibly their final homage/parody, this time focused on Predator. While it's difficult to top their Conan and Commando riffs for sheer madcap ingenuity (and catchiness!) this one surely gives it a go:

"It's, like, y'know..."

One of the perpetual banes of my existence as a speech instructor is those filler words that dot our day-to-day interactions.  Things like "like" and "um" and "uh" and "y'know." We all use them -- even me, and even the president -- as ways to fill the gap while we compose our next thought, but they have the cumulative effect of diminishing our intelligibility. Clark Whelton reflects on the omnipresence of "like" and other verbal flotsam in our discourse:
By autumn 1987, the job interviews revealed that “like” was no longer a mere slang usage. It had mutated from hip preposition into the verbal milfoil that still clogs spoken English today. Vagueness was on the march. Double-clutching (“What I said was, I said...”) sprang into the arena. Playbacks, in which a speaker re-creates past events by narrating both sides of a conversation (“So I’m like, ‘Want to, like, see a movie?’ And he goes, ‘No way.’ And I go...”), made their entrance.
One person who's taken a very positive step to help reduce the phenomenon of the phantom filler in our vocabulary is my friend and former teacher Marco Benassi, professor of speech at College of DuPage (one of my alma maters), who created the terrific "Um Counter" app for the iPhone which I can't recommend enough as a way to increase our collective ability to speak clearly and filler-free. Anyone know how to get this to President Obama?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Recommended Reading

It's been touch-and-go blogging-wise for the past week, mainly because I've been attempting to navigate my way through a gauntlet of commitments both personal and professional (including getting my family and I moved into some new digs -- the end result of which is great, the process of getting there not so much). I expect to be posting regularly relatively soon, but I didn't want too much time to elapse before I linked to this piece, another gem from the dependably-erudite George Lakoff. In examining the currently-unfolding budgetary showdown in Wisconsin, with Democratic senators on the lam in order to stall a Republican governor seemingly hellbent on eliminating collective bargaining rights for public employees, Lakoff argues that we've been given a clear window into the true conservative agenda for America. Much of it we know already, but instructive nonetheless.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

DEVELOPMENT Hell

Mitch Hurwitz, creator of cult fave Fox sitcom Arrested Development, which lasted for two-and-a-half low-rated seasons before limping to cancellation in '06, and whose newest series Running Wilde didn't even have that long before getting axed, offers some tips for all you creative types out there to ensure that your sitcoms can follow in his example and get cancelled prematurely.

The CPAC Follies

Jon Stewart gives his take on last weekend's CPAC festivities, which saw the usual hit parade of conservative luminaries traipsing across the stage and taking their requisite pot shots at the POTUS:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Recommended Reading

Slate's William Saletan on the campaign in far right circles to sow uncertainty -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- about President Obama's faith and citizenship, and the inability (or unwillingness) of the Republican leadership to put the issues to bed once and for all lest they risk alienating the fringiest fringes of their base.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Simply Amazing

Exactly one month ago I posted the first pic Andrew Garfield all duded up in his Spider-Man finest for Sony's upcoming reboot film, minus the trademark mask. While we waited for that key element, a whole mess of paparazzi shots made their way online depicting either Garfield or a stunt double in various stages of derring-do during the Spider-Man filming. I didn't want to post any of those here, as I figured I'd wait it out until another official pic was released, and that patience has been rewarded with this terrific shot of (one assumes) Garfield posed in appropriate Spidey fashion:
I really like it. I've been keeping somewhat abreast of various comments in fanboy circles, including some frustration about tweaks to the traditional costume, as well as the bewildering complaint that the pattern on the suit is too symmetrical and not "webby" enough -- talk about there being no pleasing some people! -- but I just don't see enough here to make a stink about it. For the average person on the street, it's still very distinctively Spider-Man, and honestly that's good enough for me as well.

Also of note, Sony revealed the flick's official title today: The Amazing Spider-Man.

Again, I like it. A nice way to signal that this stands apart from the Sam Raimi trilogy while also indicating a back-to-basics approach to the material. As of now, I'm definitely a lot more interested in catching this one when it hits theaters in July of '12 than I was back when it was first announced.

Recommended Reading

If you followed the news coming out of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) convention this past weekend (you know, the one I previously talked about here), you could be forgiven for thinking our country is about two steps away from sinking into the ocean thanks to a social and political agenda that, to hear it from speaker after speaker after speaker, has been nefariously -- and purposely -- engineered by President Obama to achieve just that end.

Crazy? Maybe, but the idea that "the other side damaging the country on purpose!" is a political trope that's been deployed with increasing frequency and ease lately (by both sides), and its no longer the exclusive domain of the cranks and crazies. Conservative commentator Michael Medved, with whom my disagreements are legion but who tends to offer thoughtful arguments defending his positions, agrees with me that this is a bad place for our discourse to be, and also makes his case why it's a bad idea for Republicans to stake their political future there:
On his radio show last July 2, the most influential conservative commentator of them all reaffirmed his frequent charge that the president seeks economic suffering "on purpose." Rush Limbaugh explained: "I think we face something we've never faced before in the country—and that is, we're now governed by people who do not like the country." In his view, this hostility to the United States relates to a grudge connected to Mr. Obama's black identity. "There's no question that payback is what this administration is all about, presiding over the decline of the United States of America, and doing so happily." 
Regardless of the questionable pop psychology of this analysis, as a political strategy it qualifies as almost perfectly imbecilic. Republicans already face a formidable challenge in convincing a closely divided electorate that the president pursues wrong-headed policies. They will never succeed in arguing that those initiatives have been cunningly and purposefully designed to wound the republic. In Mr. Obama's case, it's particularly unhelpful to focus on alleged bad intentions and rotten character when every survey shows more favorable views of his personality than his policies.
More from Medved at the link.

TREK's Ex

For the eighteen year stretch from 1987 to 2005, the onscreen destiny of the Star Trek franchise was guided almost entirely by one man, executive producer Rick Berman, who initially worked with Gene Roddenberry in bringing Star Trek: The Next Generation to television and eventually took over fully as the Trek creator's health declined. As Paramount's point man on their crown jewel franchise, Berman co-created the TV spin-offs Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, and also shepherded the four films featuring the Next Generation crew. During the nearly twenty years that Berman was captain of the Trek ship, he oversaw some of the franchise's highest highs and lowest lows.

While Berman has taken much grief over the years from the more vociferous quarters of Trek fandom, with many (perhaps rightly) blaming him for the franchise's precipitous qualitative decline, that's to be expected given that he was the most visible man on the totem pole for so long. Still, despite the fact that his Star Trek tenure ended inauspiciously with Nemesis bombing pretty spectacularly back in 2002 and Enterprise getting the axe shortly thereafter, the sheer longevity of his time in the center chair, overseeing all aspects of all a billion dollar franchise, means that he has no shortage of anecdotes and opinions to offer, some of which he's now begun to share, thanks to a lengthy three-part chat he conducted with StarTrek.com last week. Click past the jump for some of the highlights:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Classy.

Here's the first trailer for this summer's X-Men: First Class, the prequel project we last discussed here.

I love the cast, I love the '60s setting, and I have to say, while I may just be asking for it after getting burned with the last two X-flicks, this one looks pretty darn solid.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Olbermann's Current Gig

Well, the big question everyone was asking about where Keith Olbermann would end up next following his abrupt departure from his nightly MSNBC perch has been answered. The ex-Countdown host announced this morning that his new role will be as a talker and "chief news officer" for Al Gore's progressive-leaning media venture Current TV. While this is somewhat unexpected, one thing that's for certain is that it's fabulous news for Gore and his investors, who just saw their meager startup -- five years old with nary a ripple in the media pond -- instantly go from a trivia question to mainstream player that will likely see its nationwide coverage increase substantially as a result of this signing.

Less certain -- for now -- is whether Olbermann's brand, built steadily for the past seven years, is strong enough to survive apart from the platform he created for himself on MSNBC, and whether sacrificing the news net's greater visibility for greater control with no corporate oversight will be a worthwhile trade-off in the longterm. I for one am looking forward to seeing what he does with his new role once his several-months exile from TV (negotiated in his MSBNC exit deal) is concluded. There's still no word on how Current TV's identity will morph around Olbermann, but I'd say it's a virtual guarantee that it will, and we should learn how very soon.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Captain America in Action!

As promised on Friday, and fresh from its debut mere moments ago, here's the very sweet Captain America Super Bowl spot. In addition to revealing the process that transforms scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) into the musclebound embodiment of the American Dream (as overseen by Scientist Stanley Tucci and General Tommy Lee Jones) and seeing "The First Avenger" in action with his trademark shield, we also get our first very brief glimpse of Hugo Weaving as Cap's eternal nemesis The Red Skull. Nice.


And for a look at the Super Bowl spots for Thor and Cowboys & Aliens (the latter of which got the jump on the competition by hitting the web just before the game), click past the jump. Both build nicely on the promise of what we've already seen, and signal what'll (hopefully!) be a fun summer movie season.

Recommended Reading

The fallacy that the Egyptian uprising has been propelled on the backs of Facebook and Twitter, even as Internet access in the country was being cut off, gained traction so quickly in the mainstream media that it became the conventional wisdom almost instantly. According to Frank Rich, hitching this revolution to our social media amounts to little more than "simplistic Western chauvinism," allowing us to claim credit for a democratic groundswell that all evidence seems to point to us being on the wrong side of. More importantly, as Rich highlights, it's another indicator of our long held cultural antipathy towards the Middle East, which has been manifesting in increasingly stark terms of late:
The consequence of a decade’s worth of indiscriminate demonization of Arabs in America — and of the low quotient of comprehensive adult news coverage that might have helped counter it — is the steady rise in Islamophobia. The “Ground Zero” mosque melee has given way to battles over mosques as far removed from Lower Manhattan as California. Soon to come is a national witch hunt — Congressional hearings called by Representative Peter King of New York — into the “radicalization of the American Muslim community.” Given the disconnect between America and the Arab world, it’s no wonder that Americans are invested in the fights for freedom in Egypt and its neighboring dictatorships only up to a point. We’ve been inculcated to assume that whoever comes out on top is ipso facto a jihadist.
The rest at the link.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Caged Hate

After recently suffering through Nicolas Cage's last box office blunder, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, this College Humor vid from last fall does as good a job as any of answering the "Why? Why? Dear God, Why?" that arises more and more frequently when examining the Leaving Las Vegas Oscar winner's curious career choices.


(Some of the language is a little salty, so it may not be safe for work. Thanks to Parvez for passing this along.)

Friday, February 04, 2011

STAR WARS Still in Force

I suppose it's a testament to how bulletproof of a property George Lucas managed to create in Star Wars that no matter how much fanboys (and girls) may enjoy pissing and moaning over the many paths the franchise has gone down in the post-prequel era, it continues to rake in money by the boatload. Heck, for all my whining about how much I dislike the various nips and tucks made to the original three films via the Special Editions (and really, really I do), I've still got my 9-disc Blu-ray set pre-ordered and ready to go. I'm not the only one with this Star Wars-sized blindspot though, as evidenced in this report in The Hollywood Reporter that the thirty-four year old brand brought in a staggering $510 million in merchandising revenue last year (and that's just from toys, games, and publishing, not even including all the other crap on the market with a Star Wars logo plastered on it).

510 mil is an impressive figure whichever way you slice it, but it's made even more so when you realize that the last time Star Wars was at anything close to a cultural saturation point was with the release of Episode III a whole five years ago (notwithstanding Cartoon Network's surprisingly good Clone Wars animated show, now in its third season). Five years is an eternity in pop culture terms, especially when you consider that we're two years yet from the Lucas Merchandising Monolith kicking into gear for the saga's impending annual 3D theatrical re-release (in number order instead of release order...yecch). Still, if $510 is what this franchise is able to take in during an off-year, they're really not kidding when they call it an "evergreen." I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm in the wrong racket.

Recommended Reading

Noam Chomsky offers some of his trademark measured insight into the Egyptian uprising, including a pretty thorough dismantling of the usual "Radical Islam vs. Secular Democracy" dichotomy, simplistic to a fault, that never fails to come up whenever situations like this arise.  From Chomsky:
A common refrain among pundits is that fear of radical Islam requires (reluctant) opposition to democracy on pragmatic grounds. While not without some merit, the formulation is misleading. The general threat has always been independence. The US and its allies have regularly supported radical Islamists, sometimes to prevent the threat of secular nationalism. 
A familiar example is Saudi Arabia, the ideological centre of radical Islam (and of Islamic terror). Another in a long list is Zia ul-Haq, the most brutal of Pakistan's dictators and President Reagan's favorite, who carried out a programme of radical Islamisation (with Saudi funding). 
"The traditional argument put forward in and out of the Arab world is that there is nothing wrong, everything is under control," says Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian official and now director of Middle East research for the Carnegie Endowment. "With this line of thinking, entrenched forces argue that opponents and outsiders calling for reform are exaggerating the conditions on the ground." 
Therefore the public can be dismissed. The doctrine traces far back and generalises worldwide, to US home territory as well. In the event of unrest, tactical shifts may be necessary, but always with an eye to reasserting control.
So much more at the link.

America First

Last month we got our first official glimpse at the star-spangled superhero for next summer's Captain America: The First Avenger, and we can expect our first look at actual footage with this weekend's promised Super Bowl spot. While we wait for that though, let's admire this teaser poster, released today via Marvel. I've liked just about everything I've seen of this one so far, and this is no exception. Very nice.
Also, for some hints on the role that Cap's sidekick Bucky Barnes (who was dead in the comics for about forty-five years, but recently got better) will play in the film, check out Geoff Boucher's chat with director Joe Johnston over at "Hero Complex."

Zinn Memoriam

While we're on the subject of remembrances, it was just over a year ago that famed (and -- in some circles -- infamous) cultural critic and A People's History of the United States writer Howard Zinn passed away, leaving behind him a lifetime of scholarship and commentary that we'll continue to benefit from for a long time to come. Now, on the anniversary of his death, actor and Zinn friend Josh Brolin (yes, that Josh Brolin) offers his own fond recollections of the late author.

John Barry, RIP

With the passing of John Barry earlier this week at age 77 from a heart attack, the world of cinema lost one of its most creative and influential musical scenarists. I don't think it's an overstatement to say that Barry's contributions to movie music over the last fifty years reshaped our conception of the sweep and majesty with which the orchestral component can imbue a film.  Nominated for five Academy Awards and winner of five (his last for Dances With Wolves in 1990), and composer of two of my fave scores for underrated movies, the 1977 remake of King Kong and Disney's 1980 spectacle The Black Hole, Barry's most lasting contribution to cinema may well be his work as arranger and composer on the vast majority of James Bond movies from the series' birth in 1962's Dr. No to his last hurrah with 1987's The Living Daylights.

For a quarter-century, Barry guided 007's musical identity, seamlessly navigating changing tastes and styles while still keeping Bond uniquely Bond. And though he didn't create the signature theme that identifies the character (that honor goes to musician Monty Norman), he did imbue the jazzy riff with a life of its own, weaving it into the musical fiber of his twelve Bond contributions and inextricably linking it with Ian Fleming's famous creation. Indeed, Barry shaped the series' identity in so fundamental a way that whenever it veered too far from the template he introduced (whether with Marvin Hamlisch's disco-pop The Spy Who Loved Me score, or Eric Serra's failed synth score for GoldenEye), it just felt...off. The lasting impact of Barry's contribution to the 007 canon can be heard in every note from current Bond composer David Arnold (in a post he's held since 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies).

Here's a medley of some (though nowhere near all) of his most memorable compositions, a wonderful tribute to a true genius:


Thursday, February 03, 2011

Egypt and Obama Derangement Syndrome

One of the amusing sideshows of the not-at-all amusing situation currently unfolding in Egypt is the way folks on the far-right fringe have twisted themselves into a contortionist's knot to place President Obama at the center of the whole thing, pulling the strings of an entire country's population and displaying both sinister cunning and utter incompetence in equal measure. To what end? Who knows. After all, it's not like this stuff ever needs logic or common sense to keep from propagating.

I have to say, while the left had plenty of instances of so-called "Bush Derangement Syndrome" (as coined by Charles Krauthammer to describe any criticism of the then-president) during the W years that were as embarrassing then as they are now, the right's comparable "Obama Derangement" has it beat all over the room.  To wit, check out Gawker's handy-dandy compilation of the wackiest "Obama + Egypt = Mwah-ha-ha" conspiracies worming their way through Right Wing World. I especially like Rush Limbaugh's "Muslim Pharaoh" thing, which I can't make heads or tails of, and I'm pretty sure didn't even make sense to him when he said it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Cavill's Caped Competition

Once his Super-casting was announced last weekend, Henry Cavill went from little known British thesp to one of the most searched names on Google faster than a speeding bullet.  While much of the conversation thus far has focused on Cavill's actorly bona fides (which are considerable), another interesting story that's emerged is how close the actor came to donning the cape and tights once before, back when director McG was attached to helm a script by JJ Abrams (yep, that JJ Abrams). This was just after Brett Ratner departed (along with his choice, White Collar's Matt Bomer), and well before Bryan Singer came aboard and reshaped the movie in Richard Donner's image -- to less-than-soaring results.

The Next Degradation

Back when I went through and did my retro reviews of the Star Trek flicks, when I got to movie number seven, Star Trek Generations, I made the argument that the franchise lost something fundamental when it shifted its focus from the '60s-era crew of Kirk, Spock, et al, to the cast of syndicated sequel The Next Generation.  I took some flack for that assertion (which I reiterated here) given how much success the show achieved and how long a shadow it cast over Trek's long history, but it's an argument that seems to have gained a lot more traction recently, especially in light of the considerable success achieved by JJ Abrams' reboot, and it's echoed by SpinOff's Graeme McMillan, who lists "Ten Things To Hate About Star Trek: The Next Generation." Don't agree with all of 'em (and I certainly don't hate the show), but a lot of the criticism, like the show clearly being a product of its time, or being "offensively inoffensive," is pretty spot-on.