Saturday, June 30, 2007

Ode to Quality Television

Last Thursday saw the airing of the final episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The series lasted only this one season, falling under the axe due to poor ratings. But, what a show!

I stumbled upon it by chance. I knew the gist - from the creator of The West Wing, a series about the behind-the-scenes lives of actors, writers, and execs, producing a Saturday Night Live-esque weekly show. But, that wasn't enough for me. Since my early twenties, TV and I have had a shaky relationship; I only spent time with it when it had something of true quality to offer. However, I'm only now realizing that by cocooning myself so, I may well have missed some shows with actual character and courage simply by being out of the loop. So, as luck would have it, I saw my first episode of Studio 60 while staying with my mom following my dad's passing. I was enamoured. I was hooked.

I never watched The West Wing. Despite the scoops of praised heaped atop the show, I simply wrote it off as something pandering to the desperate leftwingers, forced to live in the Republican 21st century. Now, having fallen under the spell of creator Aaron Sorkin's dialogue and characterization, I'll not only add that show to my Netflix cue, but also his earlier Sports Night, rumoured by some to be the best of the three.

So, on this occasion, I've decided to not simply pay tribute to Studio 60, but make a list of the shows that have mattered to me over the years, knowing now full well that there are some I have missed - and looking forward to discovering them down the road. Therefore, in no real order....

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: I've already written plenty. Let me add that - on top of everything else - it's a visual textbook for writing high quality dialogue. If you aspire to write anything, this is a must.

Millennium: While X-Files is what creator Chris Carter will be remembered for, this show didn't push the envelope - it eviscerated it. Dismissed as violent and gory in its first season, Millennium's second season delved into faith, family, metaphysics, trust, and friendship. If I didn't know better, I'd swear it was produced post-9/11. Also, season two comprises the ultimate post-modern conspiracy thriller. Everything produced after is a pale shadow at best. Furthermore, for those of you who prefer some of the more popular, current shows, take note that this was the first series to have a hero who "sees what the killer sees", as well as subjective recreations of crimes. (See also, Medium, all versions of CSI, etc.)

Twin Peaks: Weird, witty, cutting edge - and that's just in the first five minutes of the pilot. This show was once branded by Bravo as "TV Too Good For TV", and it's true. At the time, there was absolutely nothing else like it. Very, very few shows have even come close. I'd like to see someone - anyone - push for a series that details the corruption of a small town, with a main plotline that involves the rape and murder of the most popular girl in school by her own father. HBO? Hello? (Another X-Files note: David Duchovny played a transvestite FBI agent in a couple episodes. Also, his Fox Mulder is clearly an artistic decendent of Twin Peaks' own Special Agent Dale Cooper.)

Star Trek
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
: The original series redefined science fiction for decades to come. The Next Generation broadened Gene Roddenberry's universe, introduced the concept of storyline arcs, and showed audiences that sci-fi shows could have complex characters. Deep Space Nine stepped away from the norm - a starship on a mission - and created arguably the best genre series ever. (You might have noticed I left a couple series from the franchise off this list. That's not by accident.)

Battlestar Galactica: Yes, that would be the 21st century reboot, courtesy of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine veteran Ronald D. Moore. I don't think I need to reprint too much praise here. I'm sure you know about it. More than likely, you're one of those who didn't watch to begin with, then figured you'd give it a try, and ultimately couldn't believe it was really that good. In years to come, this will be one of those shows people look back upon and realize that it was a trendsetter for the genre and the medium.

Rome: HBO's classic series folded after two seasons, reputedly due to skyrocketing production costs. Pity. Fantastic across the board. It's all here: political intrigue, fierce combat, romance, adventure, comedy - sometimes all in the same scene. I look forward to the future accomplishments of all involved.

The Simpsons
South Park
Family Guy
: I lump them all together for two reasons. One, I was a later comer to each show. Two, they each upped the ante by redefining both comedy and animation. And none of them show any signs of going off the air anytime soon. They must be doing something right.

M*A*S*H: I watched this religiously in my teens. I was one of the umpteen million who tuned in for the final episode back in '83 - still the highest rated single broadcast in history. Much of my own sense of humor comes from this show. I imagine plenty of you - whether you're aware of it or not - can say the same.

Friends: Yes, Friends. I poo-poo'd this show for it's entire run, discovering it only within days of its final episode, thanks to my girlfriend at the time. Watching it with her via the magic of DVD, I was free from all the hoopla - good and bad - surrounding the episodes when they first aired. It's a comedy staple, and - like it or not - a pretty sound reflection of what it was to be young, white, and middleclass at the turn of the century.

Justice League
Justice League Unlimited
: Learned a few things from this animated series. Cartoon superheroes could be complex and interesting. Shows focusing on cartoon superheroes could handle storyline arcs with the best of them. A tight, compelling, complex story could be told in 24 minutes. A truly rare breed: An animated series geared towards adults that was neither goofy comedy nor Japanese manga crap.

The Prisoner: You know all those shows I listed above? None of them would have existed without this one. Don't believe me? Check it out.

I know there are more, but this list is plenty long already.

Studio 60 will be released in October on DVD.

*steps off soapbox*

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Name That Film (by its Middle Frame)!

Okay, I wanted to have a post that had nothing to do with either youtube or Harrison Ford. Success!

Movie Midpoints is a game, a challenge for those of you who think you've seen a lot of movies. It shows you a frame from the middle of 45 different films. You type in what movie you think it's from. At the end, you press a button to see the answers. Fun, challenging, and surprising. There's no real ranking at the game's end, though they do tell you how certain folks fared. Takes only a couple minutes. You might be surprised how easily you can spot some of these. I knew the single frame of Ellen Barkin immediately. That was worth a smile. My score? 22. What's yours?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Just So Long As There's Harrison Ford's Disinterested Voiceover

After a few years of rumors, the powers-that-be are finally releasing what is being touted as Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Now, to the best of my knowledge there have been at least three cuts over the years, two of which were supposedly "director's cuts". While details about this latest are not forthcoming in this one minute teaser, the aforementioned rumors have suggested that this 25th anniversary edition will include all of the versions previously released, including the long unavailable theatrical cut, which includes a voiceover that director Ridley Scott had no hand in and that Harrison Ford reportedly loathed. The funny thing is that his clear disdain for these monologues actually adds to the feel of the film. I've seen the movie a couple dozen times, but only twice without the voiceover - and I missed it. In fact, its absence has always pulled me out of the movie. So, here's hoping that it is present this time around.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

It's Not the Years, It's the Mileage

It seems a silly thing to comment on, but it's getting late and I'm kinda tired....

The next installment of the Indiana Jones series is currently in production. This photo - straight from the official site - suggests that our hero will once again don his trademark duds. However, this immediately brought a nagging question to my noggin: Does it really make any sense that he'd still be wearing the same attire? While the first three films were all set within roughly the same five year period, this next ostensibly* takes place more than ten years later. I don't know about you, but I tend to upgrade even my most favorite clothes within the course of a decade, and I don't have a tendency to jump of cliffs, dive through cobwebs, or fall into chasms.

I don't know. Like I said, it's a silly thing to comment on. Truthfully, I understand and respect the iconic image. And I imagine I would have bemoaned any substantial changes to the outfit had they decided to go that way, so there's no way they could have won.

Perhaps someone in the film will just comment on it. That would be nice.

*secret shout-out to Darth Jer!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Cover Browser

Friend of the blog CDJ sent me this via Yes, there is a high inherent geek factor associated with a website devoted to cataloging all comic book covers, but I'm willing to embrace that in myself. For you visual artists out there, this should be an invaluable reference. For us writers - and you other artistic folk - the inspirational and free association value is still there. There's everything from obvious choices like Superman and X-Men to the more obscure, like Doom Patrol and Sad Sack. Honestly, I've never heard of a few of these, but that makes the site all the more interesting.

And there's a bit more to it. There's the Cover Tagger Game, where "you write down keywords of what you see on the cover, and you score points if others entered the same." (Google has a similar game.) You'll also find Top Ten Lists, a Comic Con Gallery of random people in costumes, the Cover Gadget, and more. That's for those of you who really want to get your geek on. I myself am comfortable with just the general site. But, more power to you - and to those behind Cover Browser.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Spirits In the Material World

Much to my surprise, I was able to score tickets to this show. Craigslist - and a young lady named Lisa - came through for me.

When I first heard that The Police were touring in celebration of their thirtieth anniversary, I was eager to attend. Then I saw the ticket prices. For the disposable income crowd, I suppose $100 and up per seat is no big deal. I am not a part of that crowd. Strangely, I felt that I would still attend - somehow - but didn't make a big deal out of it. When I started checking craigslist a couple days before the show, I found a fair amount of people parting with tickets for 50% of face value. And then I was in.

What can I say? They were good, but I foolishly expected them to play with the same gusto and vitality exhibited on albums they produced a quarter century ago. Again, silly me. While they were able to summon similar energies for the likes of "King of Pain" and "Truth Hits Everybody", more often than not their tastes turned to more downtempo revisions. Nothing drastic, but enough to suggest that they may find their respective tastes more refined than when they played these songs while in their twenties.

Big points to them for touring as a straight-up trio. They had no back-up singers, no extra guitarist, no keyboardist. While some keyboard intros were replaced with Andy Summers' guitar licks - such as on "Synchronicity II" - Stewart Copeland reminded me why he's remained my favorite member of the band. When required to fill in for an '80's synth - as on the show highpoint, "Wrapped Around Your Finger" - Copeland left his drum kit, climbed back to an assortment of chimes and percussive instruments from around the world, and created a thing of beauty. (EDIT: Here's a link to this performance.) Also, he's always seemed like the one who was having the most fun - even back in the day. This night, he was all smiles, doing what he clearly loves to do. When the show wrapped after three encores, and Summers and Sting headed for backstage, it was Copeland who stepped to the fore, exuberantly thanking everyone for coming out and expressing his joy.

I suspect one of two things will happen. Either the trio will barely make it through this tour and - once again - wall themselves up in their own personal fortress. Or, they'll enjoy it enough to continue. While I'd certainly applaud the latter, experience has shown me that - when I present myself with only one of two options - a third typically seems to manifest. I will be interested to see The Police's third option.

No Country for Old Men Trailer

Just watched this trailer, and it has left me the most optimistic about a forthcoming Coen Brothers movie as I've been in a long time. If the trailer can be trusted - and I admit that's a mighty big IF these days - the film looks to harken back to their early days. I see a lot of Blood Simple in there. Anyway, judge for thyself:

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sinbad, Jason, and Me

A little over a week ago, I caught a double bill at the Castro Theatre: Jason and the Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. (Actually, it was a triple bill, but I didn't have the time/stamina for Mysterious Island.) As you may have deduced, all three feature the amazing stop-motion animation work of Ray Harryhausen, whose films such as these drew me into the world of filmmaking and cinephilia.

I hadn't seen Jason and the Argonauts for years. I found myself pleasantly surprised that it holds up as a damn fine fantasy film. (Points for alliteration, please.) My only real gripe is the ending. The climax - Jason finally getting that Golden Fleece - is bracketed by two battles, each of which left me with a shrug.

First, he goes mano a cabezas with the Hydra. All this really consists of is his dodging the seven heads long enough to land one good thrust and take it out. I suppose I had for years wished he'd hacked off a head or two before finishing it off. Later, as Jason and cohorts race their booty to the Argo, they must face off with a half dozen skeleton warriors. Now, this is still an amazing sequence, probably the one Harryhausen will be remembered for, however with maybe two exceptions, Jason dispatches them all en masse - by tricking them off the edge of a cliff. Kinda weak. (In fact, it echoes something Harryhausen did in the earlier Seventh Voyage.) But what actually bugs me most about the end is that it's the wrong ending. We see Jason escape with the Fleece on his boat and the gods on Olympus muse about his future adventures - and that's it. The problem is the movie set up this premise that Jason would steal the Fleece, return it to his homeland, and kill the usurper who slew his father two decades before. The very first scene sets this up, when the usurper is told by his sage that he will be killed by a vengeful son. We do not get this conclusion. Maybe they ran out of money. I don't know. However, it's still such a good time that I feel somewhat ashamed for even pointing it out.

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad has always been a personal favorite. I believe it was the scenes with the Cyclops that made me wonder just how they did that - and who they were. For the first time in years, I'd actually watched all three of the Harryhausen Sinbad films over the last year. In order, they are Seventh Voyage, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger - and I watched them in this order. I was saddened by how "wretched" I found Seventh Voyage. Apparently, years of nostalgia had colored my memory. Then, I watched the other two. Oh, boy. They went down hill fast. Golden Voyage, despite having arguably the best Sinbad actor in John Phillip Law, was this side of an MST3K movie. And Eye of the Tiger suffered from poor pacing, an afro'd Sinbad, and the absolute waste of one of Harryhausen's coolest creations, the golden golem Minoton. And don't get me started on the sorceress....

Now, after all that bashing I have good news: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is actually quite good. Though I'd already determined it wasn't half-bad after seeing the two sequels, I hadn't seen it since. This time, nothing bothered me in the least. Certain tropes - white guys playing Arabs, the de facto romance - came with the era and can be forgiven as such. What remains is another fun adventure movie geared at children.

Which brings me to ... the children. There were plenty in attendance at these screenings. While there were some parents who brought their kids, there were more solo dads with children in tow, seemingly passing the torch. I had four kids seated in front of me, two each from two families, all boys. Each set had one kid who got bored and restless, and one who was - literally - on the edge of his seat through the whole picture. Glad to see these films can still inspire and that there are children out there who can still be dazzled by something less than rapid cutting, CGI, and explosions. May these kids and others like them become the cinephiles of tomorrow.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Ocean's Adrift

I am an admirer of Steven Soderbergh. I've seen everything he's put out except for Bubble - which I own and have yet to watch - and The Good German, which is in my Netflix cue. I feel his Ocean's Eleven is one of those films I'll watch for the rest of my life if for no reason than because everyone seems to be having so much fun. I saw Ocean's Twelve once and - like many folks - found it so different in tone that it put me off. That said, I've been wanting to watch it again, precisely because this time I'll know it's going to be different.

Which, in a weird way, brings me to Ocean's Thirteen.

On the one hand, the movie feels like Soderbergh, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, etc. are keen to regain the feel of the first picture, setting the characters again in Vegas, focusing on another massive casino heist (of sorts). However, the joy and fun that was palpable in Ocean's Eleven is almost nowhere to be felt. At some times it feels as though everyone is trying too hard, none moreso than Ellen Barkin. As casino magnate Al Pacino's right-hand-woman, she starts off steely - firing a girl for having too high a body mass index - but quickly becomes a befuddled joke, stammering in Pacino's presence instead of standing toe-to-toe, which would have made for a much more appealing character. Also, the fact that Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones are MIA don't help matters; to throw in some level of femininity for the boys, we have a running Oprah gag. Finally, the methods with which the team executes its plan strained my suspension of disbelief. While the first film had "the pinch" - a massive EMP emitter that blacks out Vegas for a few seconds - this movie employs not one but both massive drills that dug the Chunnel, a myriad of electronic devices that would do James Bond proud, and the surgical removal of part of the roof of a skyscraping casino.

Frankly, I left the theatre feeling that this sequel was totally unnecessary. What would I have preferred? Again, a sense of fun amongst the actors. I don't doubt that they enjoyed being together again; it just didn't translate to the screen this time.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

A Rocket, A Dragon, Two Elfmen, David Banner, and A CIA Hitman

I'm using Youtube to supply me with music this morning and found this lovely oddity.

Before Danny Elfman wrote snazzy scores for movies and The Simpsons, there was his '80s band Oingo Boingo. Before Oingo Boingo, there was The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo - possibly best described as post-modern surrealist vaudeville. The guy in the rocket is Richard Elfman, Danny's brother, who not only founded the Mystic Knights, but also directed their single feature, Forbidden Zone.

So, where's Danny? He's one of the guys in blue facepaint. He's actually visible over Chuck Barris' shoulder at the end of the clip.

Kurt Vonnegut is The Resident's People

I suppose an alternate title for this post could be "A Cute Girl Reads Vonnegut". I stumbled upon this on the front page of Youtube. Actually, it was the word "Vonnegut" that caught my eye, not the young lady. Honest.

This actually comes from a New York City talk show vlog The Resident, who is in fact a young lady named Lori Harfenist. Never seen it, never heard of it, but she does a good, simple, straight-forward job with presenting and praising Vonnegut's last book, A Man Without a Country.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Brothers of Mercy

Okay, maybe I'm stretching the bounds of Mediacopia with this one, but.... Song is a medium, last I checked. A couple days ago I heard about The Conspiracy of Beards, "a 30 member a capella male choir [based in San Francisco] performing exclusively the songs of Leonard Cohen." If you're a fan of Mr. Cohen, as I am, you can't help but think that this is pretty dang cool. I only wish I'd heard of this sooner; their "finale of the season" is this Friday, June 8, at Amnesia in San Francisco. Forthcoming plans seem to include a CD and a US tour.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Here Lies the Blog of Abe Sapien!

Jeez! Lagging behind. Busy week on my end, I guess. Well, here's a find....

Doug Jones - who's done some masterful work as otherworldly creatures in films like Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth - recently started a blog about his part in the just-about-to-shoot production of Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. He only started the blog two weeks ago, but says the shoot will keep him in Budapest for six months, so expect plenty of stuff to come. Check it out here!