Category Archives: J. Fortune

Close up Pandora’s Box

pandora1  The Music Genome Project was supposed to change the way we listen to music online, or at least how music is organized. According to the founders, “the project was an effort to capture the essence of music at the fundamental level using almost 400 attributes to describe songs and a complex mathematical algorithm to organize them.” Under the direction of Nolan Gasser, the musical structure and implementation of the Music Genome Project, made up of 5 Genomes (Pop/Rock, Hip-Hop/Electronica, Jazz, World Music, and Classical), was advanced and codified.

The Music Genome Project is the backbone of the popular online radio service known as Pandora. Pandora utilizes the genome as a jumping off point toward something called a “distance function.” In essence, when you input a band, song or basic genre, a station is built using the above attributes. The distance function includes songs and groups that may not include all of the attributes of your original entry. Basically it moves you from your comfort zone toward new music you may enjoy.

When I first stumbled onto Pandora in 2004, it was a breath of fresh air. I enjoy a wide variety of artists and genres, so having access to such a vast quantity of songs was fantastic. I enjoyed being challenged by some of the selections on my stations. I spent a fair amount of time adding artists and songs to my established stations and using the “thumbs” to indicate my likes and dislikes. Pandora was a big part of my Internet time. This has continued as Pandora has grown and has been included on most devices. I now play my custom stations in my car, on my TV, and on my and phone.

My very first Pandora station is still active. It has over 900 adjustments and includes almost everything I can think to add. Over the past 9 years my tastes have changed slightly, they have grown in ways that I must attribute in part to Pandora. However I am considering shutting the whole thing down over the following 3 points:

How many times must I tell Pandora I don’t like Bryan Adams?:

You tell Pandora what you like or don’t like by hitting the thumbs up or thumbs down icon attached to each song. These ratingsbryan-adams sort of work…in a way…sometimes. If you “thumbs down” an artist (Say Bryan Adams) and that artist was ever part of another band or appeared on a film soundtrack etc. then you will have to “thumbs down” each individual entry (All For One, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves sound track etc.) Also as you create additional stations you must go through this process each time. The ratings do not carry over to other stations.

There is no way to eliminate an entire genre or era:

I am a lover of classic rock, though I feel the word classic is kicked around with little criteria to define it. Say you want to eliminate the 80s or 90s from a straight forward rock station. You can’t. Let alone get specific enough to remove, say, ’80s ballad heavy roots rock from Canadians. Canadians named Bryan, for instance.

How many times must I hear the same commercials?:

In the beginning, Pandora was ad free. When they began adding commercials the frequency of ad play was as predictable as traditional radio. Now I cannot determine the sequence. At times I can hear 10 songs with zero ads, others I get an ad every 3rd song. This would not be a big deal except they only appear to have 5 ads. These are played completely at random, so you wind up hearing the same ad three times in the same 30-minute period. Imagine if that ad were for a Bryan Adams’ greatest hits package or tour; it would be unbearable.

So I find my time on Pandora more and more limited in an effort to avoid frustration. These few complaints are causing the music to have the opposite of its desired effect. Also Bryan Adams sucks!

 

 

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Repo Men: You Can Try it; Come on Buy it. You Can Pay Me Next Week

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A few years ago, I saw trailer for what looked like a fantastic sci-fi-action-thriller. It boasted a solid cast headed by Jude Law, Forest Whitaker and Liev Schreiber. The plot seemed engrossing and exciting. Set in a dystopian future after an unnamed war, a company called The Union has found a  way to extend and improve people’s lives with artificial organs called “artiforgs.” The artiforgs are a true wonder of science and very expensive. If after a 90 day grace period you cannot make the payments, then the Union is forced to send in the repo men. Jude Law and Forest Whitaker will cut you open and remove the artiforg leaving you to die.

The existence of Repo Men, the movie I just described, was quickly forgotten until I came across it in a bargain bin this last week. $5 Bluray combo pack should have served as a warning, but I was actually excited. I made the purchase and ran home to finally see the movie that eluded me like a hack past due on his artificial Repo-Men3pancreas. From the opening scene, I was disappointed. Jude law’s character Remy sits at a typewriter (in the future?) and recants the details of the ‘Schroedinger’s Cat’ experiment. I had to look it up, but the conclusions drawn by the character have little basis within the experiment or logic for that matter. “That if something isn’t definably dead or alive, then it must be both”; this only foreshadows the poor experience to follow.

The reference to an experiment few have heard of is only the first attempt to make this film seem intelligent–sadly it is anything but.

We get to watch our stars out making the rounds, cutting people open and retrieving the artiforgs of those who have fallen behind on their payments. We learn that Jude and Forest (James) were soldiers in some unnamed war that seems to have claimed some portion of their humanity, making them perfect for this type of work. The return their items to the smarmy Frank (Leiv Schriber) who, because of their success, offers them their own unit to search out large communities of past due individuals called hives. Remy, however, turns down the promotion at the behest of his wife. Remy goes on a late night repo by himself and is injured by a piece of equipment when he wakes in the hospital he has an artiforg heart and a payment due every 30 days. Despite his attempts, he can no longer carve people up and retrieve their artiforgs, which in turn means he cannot make money, which in turn means he cannot make his payments and ultimately must go on the run (like every Jude Law sci-fi picture). Then the huge shock… Wait for it… James is forced to track Remy down and retrieve the heart.

The plot from here becomes tragically predictable. A couple of crude attempts to make you believe you missed something, and that the film has some depth, fall flat. I began to wish someone had repossessed my eyes and given me a good excuse not to continue to the final frame.

repo 4The film starts with a decent concept and then derails itself in execution…or lack thereof. The failed attempt at social commentary is made almost laughable by a scene in which our main characters utilize a scanner and drive around shouting at people who are nearing repossession. The dehumanizing war is barely mentioned. An awkward sex/surgery scene borders on experimental cinema but seems to come out of nowhere and does nothing to advance the plot.

Bottom line- for all the things Repo Men tries to be, it misses by a mile. It comes off as Robocop with better acting but less plot. To quote Frank as he closes the deal in each artiforg sale, “You owe it to your family, and you owe it to yourself” not to watch this movie.

 

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R.I.P. James Gandolfini

 

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James Gandolfini passed away last week while vacationing with his son in Italy. The New Jersey born actor and star of the ground breaking cable drama The Sopranos was only 51 years old. It is seems strange to even think of The Sopranos as “ground breaking”, but in many ways Gandolfini’s approach to the character of family patriarch Tony Soprano is responsible for the recent boom in cable television dramas.

From the pilot episode, Gandolfini showed us a tough talking and quick tempered mob boss with a panic disorder. Gandolfini dared to allow us the insight into a character we didn’t want to like. His unflinching and open portrayal of the self serving Tony as a bad husband, failed father and poor leader hearkened back to his early days on the stage. Tony is cunning, shrewd and controlling. His interior life is rich and thoughtful, though his exterior seemed to be shallow. Gandolfini gave us all of this and more in all 86 episodes of the Emmy-award-wining series.

The purity of his anger was often captured in his performances. Gandolfini, said that he would focus his anger and incorporate it into a scene. In an interview for the television series Inside the Actors Studio, he said he would deliberately hit himself on the head or stay up all night to evoke the desired reaction. “If you are tired, every single thing that somebody does makes you mad”, Gandolfini said in the interview. “Drink six cups of coffee. Or just walk around with a rock in your shoe. It’s silly, but it works.”

We have Tony Soprano to thank for all of the many splendid ways TV doesn’t suck.  If not for the Sopranos, there would have been no The Shield, Rescue Me, or House. Feature film actors would not have given the tired medium of television a try. Writers pushed the limit of what a television  show could be; basic cable followed suit, and the rest is history. Tony Angry

The Sopranos came to what seemed like an abrupt end in 2007. After much build up to what seems like a hit on Tony, while he is having dinner in a restaurant with his family the screen simply goes black. The viewer is left with many unanswered questions. In many ways James Gandolfini’s life ended in the same fashion. Questions about what might have been always abound when someone dies so young. Gandolfini said he was okay with being typecast of Tony Soprano, and that he was being offered different kinds of roles as he aged.

“Mostly it’s not a lot of that stuff anymore with shooting and killing and dying and blood,” he said. “I’m getting a little older, you know. The running and the jumping and killing, it’s a little past me.”

 

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Science be Damned: Fringe is Awesome

Science is what makes posting this little article possible. It allows you to access my ramblings on your phone and read them at your desk, break room, or in the restroom (I’m sure I’m the only one who reads The Cool Ship in the bathroom.).  Recently an article was posted to The Cool Ship about the faulty science behind the Fox television series Fringe. The well-written and truthful piece points out all of the flaws in the sci-fi procedural staring Joshua Jackson, John Nobel and Anna Torv. In case you missed it you can check it out here.

Since the Third Doctor said “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”(which even I know would be an impossibility because neutrons are neutral and polarity refers to  3rd doctorcharge… ) and probably long before, there has been an effort point out the flaws in the reality of our fiction.

I say now for all to hear! “Who cares!?”

Who cares that the concepts upon which the show is based (alternate reality, shape shifting, etc.) aren’t possible and many are disproven on their face by simple principles of physics. I say  “who cares because Fringe is awesome!”

The show centers on FBI agent Olivia Dunham; after her partner/lover is injured in an inexplicable and incurable fashion, she seeks the help of  institutionalized scientist Walter Bishop.

In order to spring him from the loony bin Dunham requires the permission of Peter Bishop, the con man son of Walter. Walter worked for a the government studying what is referred to as “Fringe” or “Psuedo Science.”  His experiments, most of which he seems to have forgotten, are now being utilized by someone for nefarious purposes. Walter’s former partner William Bell went on to found a multi billion dollar company called Massive Dynamic,  whose reach seems to be infinite and tied to everything that is going on in the universe. Walter Bishop was institutionalized for 17 years over the death of one of his test subjects.

Though the experiments in question do not qualify as science, most of them have at some point been the subject of government funded research. From the Nazis to the Russians even to the United States, governments have dabbled in these scientific grey areas. A television series called Dark Matters: Twisted but True (based on the book series of same name) produced for the Science channel and starring John Nobel, who plays Walter Bishop, takes a twilight zone approach to recanting the results of some of these experiments. The docu-drama approach is a bit much, but the concept of the series is sound.

Two things make Fringe infinitely watchable and addictive. First, John Nobel as Walter Bishop is brilliant, playing the mad scientist who is more fringe_noble“Hatter” than “Frankenstein.” The more insight we get into Walter Bishop, the more we should dislike him. His methods were deplorable and self serving.

Completely dismissive of others in pursuit of truth, his work has caused quite a bit of damage both in our universe-and in the alternate world with which we are headed toward a war. Yet he comes off as a sweet grandfather type with an adoration of 70s rock and Red Vines.

The second  is the way the stories are paced. The long plots that stretch across an entire season are usually rolled out slowly. Though the coming storm is foreshadowed in the prior episode, each time the build up is subtle. Just when I think I can give up and go to sleep something happens in the last 5 minutes that requires me to watch 8 or so additional episodes (thanks, Netflix!).

My biggest complaint is one I have with most American fiction, especially on television; the unnecessary and unrealistic love story. This tired device feels particularly forced in Fringe. I fail to see how the writers did not realize the damage this would do to their strong female lead. The “will they, won’t they?” moments are often more than I can bear.

Still, Fringe is a potent supernatural/sci-fi procedural in the vein of The X-files. It is without a doubt more fiction than science, and I don’t mind at all.

 

 

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Live Long and Nitpick (Infinite Star Trek Spoilers)

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn was released 31 years ago this week. Courtesy of social media and our overly connected society, it feels like Star Trek: Into Darkness has been out about that long. So, if you haven’t seen the latter yet this is your only spoiler warning. Walk away, and check out this spoiler free version. By the way Norman Bates is his own mother and Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.

The rest of you already know Sherlock is the rebooted Kahn and Robocop is a rogue Starfleet admiral. What exactly is the vetting process for becoming an admiral in Starfleet? Like 1/3 of them wind up baddies. It is rarely even a surprise anymore. I start sizing them up as soon as they are introduced, like the first person Columbo interviews.

I digress. Several things have been nagging at me since viewing Into Darkness:

Did the event that rebooted the universe have retroactive effects? spock

In 2009’s Star Trek a Romulan Ship from the 24th century (TNG era) destroys the USS Kelvin in the year 2233 and  creates a divergent point from the Trek universe we know to a new continuity. This device is what allowed J.J. Abrams to reboot Star Trek continuity. When Kahn is introduced in the 1967 episode Space Seed  Kirk, Scotty and Bones all admit to having a certain admiration for the 1990s-era tyrant, at least through the filter of history.

In Star Trek Into Darkness no one has ever heard of the guy. Spock  has to call up Spock Prime to ask who he is. It’s too bad that Cumberbatch’s line “I am Khan” is pretty much rendered uneventful by the lack of knowledge . I guess the destruction of the Kelvin demolished all the history PADDs as well? Perhaps they all learned of him during their time at the academy which was cut short by the events of the previous film.

Where is the civilian authority of the Federation?

Admiral Marcus is convinced that war with the Klingons is inevitable. He commissions a Starfleet warship which he names the Vengeance, then manufactures the need to use it. Where are the checks and balances of the Federation/Starfleet relationship? In an early scene we see series of model ships on Marcus’ desk the last of which is the largest, and it’s black so you know it is bad. Where did he get the commission? “Uh… Yes enlightened outer space United Nations, I would like to build a ship called The Vengeance” (named after the fallen “Captain Vengeance,” I’m sure; definitely not after the dish best served cold.”

 

The Klingons wear helmets and Starfleet officers wear caps:  dress uniform

The Starfleet uniform has changed with such frequency during each series that it has been difficult to keep up. The drab and unadorned officer’s dress uniform is in stark contrast to the exaggerated stars and odd chest piece centered uniforms worn by the admirals. Seeing our heroes with salutes affixed to the bill of a uniform cap like an intergalactic air force was ridiculous.

On the other hand or head I guess,  the introduction of Klingons in this era was made all the more interesting by their protective head wear. In a society where social interaction is based on hand to hand combat, how have we never seen a Klingon in a helmet? This timeline also allows the writers to avoid the Klingon head ridge discussion altogether by showing them intact, as it were, from their first appearance.

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I am sick of Spock Prime:                                                                                                                                                   

It is no secret that Abrams has a certain adoration for Leonard Nimoy; however, if they keep finding ways to make him relevant in this continuity, then I’m not sure what the point is. I would be just as happy watching the further adventures of Mister Spock staring the aging Leonard Nimoy. His inclusion here seems forced as his only purpose is to impart knowledge that the crew should have already had (see point 1).

 

These are just a few thoughts I’ve had since watching Star Trek: Into Darkness. Some of these may seem a bit petty, but not to worry JJ, most Star Trek fans aren’t the type to be obsessive. ;-{)}

 

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Arrested Development: 7 Years Later

At the point when FOX finally canceled Arrested Development, its ratings were pretty bad. In the Nielson cycle that sealed its fate, the doomedskate comedy lost out to long forgotten quality programs like Skating with Celebrities and Apprentice: Martha Stewart. There has never been a program quite like Arrested Development. It can be difficult explain the show’s multi-camera  mock-umentary style. The jokes are subtle just as often as they are completely overt. Arrested did the heavy lifting for several more successful shows that followed  30 Rock, Community, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have benefited from the game changer that no one watched.

Something interesting happened,  however, when Arrested Development was released on DVD; the infinitely rewatchable series developed a massive following. The new lovers of the show found each other online and created a community that brought relevance back to the dysfunctional Orange County family and their off color antics.

Arrested Development, the last four episodes of which FOX aired back to back on a Friday night in February, launched the careers of several cast members while rejuvenating those of others. So when Netflix agreed to produce 15 new episodes of the series ahead of a feature film due out next year, coordinating the schedules of Michael Cera, Will Arnett and Jason Bateman became pretty difficult.

Getting the nine actors who portray the main characters together in one location was often impossible. This posed quite a problem for writer/series’ creator Mitch Hurwitz. The solution was a combination of creative writing and modern technology. The episodes of the fourth season of this ensemble comedy  are written to focus on just one character. Green screen is utilized to bring some of the other main characters into subplots within them. Some of the actors only shared the screen in one episode yet appear together often throughout the run.

Despite losing seven years, Arrested Development has not lost a step. The unfolding serialized comedic scenarios that run through this entire season howardare just as uproarious as in previous seasons. The inside jokes are supplemented with new ones. Fantastic in this season is the role of actor/director/narrator Ron Howard. Though serving as narrator since the show began, Howard appears in several episodes and plays a hilarious parody of himself. Howard pokes fun at  his acting past, baldness and early projects (Fantastic Four anyone?)

The show has a good time with itself and its unsuccessful past. It’s a great way to blow 7.5 hours. Or 15 if you have already watched it twice… Like I have.

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Keep Calm and Trek on

Star Trek Into Darkness opens with a perfect original series scenario. The Enterprise crew has been monitoring a class m planet (Earth-like) and its pre warp (pre wheel) society. Captain James T. Kirk for some unknown reason has picked up a sacred relic and is being chased by the paper mache people through a red forest. Spock is stranded inside an active volcano, and though he has a device that can stop it from erupting, he will not survive its use. The only way to save his stranded first officer is for Kirk to order the Enterprise, which is concealed on the bottom of an oceastar-trek-into-darkness-red-worldn, to fly above the volcano and transport Spock to safety.

The only problem? Just a tiny thing called the prime directive, a policy of non- interference into the activities of indigenous species. Kirk does exactly what we expect him to do and saves Spock despite his protest of violating this sacred rule. These events are omitted from the captain’s log, but recounted with excruciating detail in Spock’s report. Though, if Spock was so opposed to interfering in the development of this society by allowing them to see the Enterprise why was he willing to alter the course of their existence by stopping a volcanic eruption?

This pre-credits scene, which has little to do with the plot of this film, sums up my feelings on the current direction of the Star Trek film series. After J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the long running franchise, all old things were new again. Courtesy of a time travel plot device the entire Star Trek continuity was nullified. Most of the same events take place just out of order and not in exactly the same way they happened in the prime universe. This allows Abrams to make slight changes and updates. (Don’t get me started on the uniform hats.)

Since the Star Trek saga began, time travel has been a staple of the series. Often the crews of the various starships are forced to go back in time to prevent an antagonist from altering the future. The only difference is this time no one put the universe back together again. The altered timeline is allowed to run and in a sense becomes the “prime”– at least for now.

Given the incredible license that the altered timeline provides, I fail to understand why a director of Abrams caliber would not want to break some new ground. Instead the film is littered with a-ha moments and retreads of tired characters. The villains in this film are redundant, we have seen them before and while we enjoy feeling as though we are in on the big reveal, the series cannot be sustained in this fashion.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the film. Pine’s Kirk is a pleasure to watch. He is cocky but insightful. Justabrams as likely as Shatner’s interpretation to simply shoot the brain slug as it crawls from Chechov’s ear than attempt to determine its origin. He’s just as willing to lay it all on the line to protect every member of his crew.

Quinto has Spock down to a frightening T. Urban’s Bones is perfect if tragically under-utilized. Uhura is finally a three dimensional character after existing for 50 or so years.

What makes it worth watching? Do we look for all the things we already know about, then pat ourselves on the back for noticing them? Perhaps we are meant to focus on the subtle differences. Star Trek: Into Darkness is a great thrill ride, a fine action film, and a send up to previous movies. It’s Trek, and it’s not all at the same time. It’s better than Star Trek: the Motion Picture or Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but it’s no Wrath of Kahn–and that’s okay.

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H. Jon Benjamin is Everywhere

Seth Macfarlane is the undisputed king of network television animated comedy. The guy has three animated sitcoms on the air–on Fox. If that weren’t enough, the success of Ted has led to two more film projects. He voices multiple characters on each of his shows and even hosted the Oscars this year.

I am so completely bored of Seth MacFarlane and his inability to shock me any further with his envelope pushing brand of gross out humor.

Now imagine Seth MacFarlane without all of the notoriety. Imagine if he were still just a voice actor/writer whose show got cancelled by Fox after one season(and without the resurrection). Strip away the levels of success and fame brought about by the resurgence of Family Guy. Remove the carte blanche he has enjoyed as the network indulged his lesser ideas The Cleveland Show and American Dad (Or Family Guy : Part Deux and Peter Griffin Has a Gun as I like to call them).

If you can even imagine the version of Seth Macfarlane I have described, the image probably looks a lot like H. Jon Benjamin…Well, that is if anyone really knows what H. Jon Benjamin looks like. Here I will save you the Google search.

 

Jon

 

 

 

 

 

Still fuzzy? Well how about this?

ARCHER: "Sterling Archer" as voiced by Jon Benjamin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or this?

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Truth is if you have ever watched an animated sitcom or adult themed cartoon on basic cable then you have probably heard H. Jon Benjamin pour his special brand of baritone into your earhole. With voice credits like Home Movies, Lucy the Daughter of the Devil, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Venture Brothers, it is unlikely you have missed him. He has even appeared on all of Macfarlane’s shows, including 12 appearances on Family Guy.

What I find most interesting about Benjamin’s work is his lack of variation. In nearly all of the shows listed above Benjamin uses basically the same voice. In fact for Archer and Bob’s Burgers an identical delivery is used despite the major differences in both tone and subject in each series. The characters are very different, but sound alike. He saves the real departures from his own voice for the supporting players, many of whom like Macfarlane, Benjamin voices himself.

Benjamin’s has voiced dozens of characters in various series, and has appeared in a few movies. He was a member of The Upright Citizen’s Brigade and the star of Jon Benjamin Has a Van. What I am trying to say is that this guy is everywhere.  Why don’t you know who he is?

I suppose whoever is the king of the mountain is just luck of the draw. Currently Seth Macfarlane rules the airwaves, but I would keep my eye on H. Jon Benjamin. The guy is everywhere.

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Take Me to your Leader: Indulging Celebrity and Looking For Richard

When and if aliens finally make themselves known to the people of our planet, they will make the assumption that we are ruled by film actors. Can we blame them? If they peruse our periodicals and check out the things we actually do with the Internet, it would be the only logical conclusion. Aliens are pretty logical. The way that we value the opinions of film actors affects everything from commerce to politics.

When an actor reaches a certain level of celebrity, they are able to dictate the market…to a degree.

Most of us have seen a movie simply becauseLooking-For-Richard a particular actor had a role in it. The movies produced by actors who have reached this level of notoriety often involve a departure from the genre that made them famous. These projects are often produced or directed by the actor. My favorite example of this concept is the 1996 Al Pacino film Looking for Richard.

Though he began his career on the stage, Al Pacino made his name playing gangsters and cops in some of the most popular films in those genre. After a run of successes leading to the mid 90s, Pacino decided to pay tribute to his first love. He made a documentary about the work of William Shakespeare and its relevance in the modern world. Pacino produced and directed this pet project over the course of four years. Working around his shooting schedule for larger projects (evident because of hair and facial hair changes), Pacino and his famous friends set out to produce scenes from Richard III on a grand scale, shooting crucial scenes on location in The Cloisters and the church of St. John The Divine with actors like Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey working for scale ($40 per day).

Early in production, Pacino had a revelation: Filming a straight version of the play would never top the 1955 Sir Laurence Olivier version. Rather than shut the film down, Pacino went to the streets. Interviewing average people about their thoughts on Shakespeare, Pacino inter-spliced these with scenes from the play.

What makes this movie fun to watch is the lack of indulgence that usually accompanies a project like this. The conversations that erupt during read-throughs, the comparison of British-born actors verses American-born ones in explaining their ability to perform the Bard.

Once shooting had wrapped, 80 hours worth of film was  whittled down to the 112-minute release.

The film was destined to lose money, and without volunteer cast and crew, it never would have been completed. The passion for Shakespeare thatspacey each of the actors displays goes a long way in showing why his work is still so prominent today. A list of movies that borrowed from or modernized a Shakespeare plot would far exceed the space allotted.

So if aliens come looking for understanding about the human race, I hope the look past our current obsession with celebrity. I hope they somehow stumble onto the works of William Shakespeare, or failing that, Al Pacino’s film would also suffice.

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2,000 minus 500 plus 1 (Taste the Happy)

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Happy May Day everyone! A sort of holiday celebrated on college campuses the way most things are celebrated on college campuses-with binge drinking. Think of it as New Year’s Day but in the spring. Netflix is celebrating by removing over 2,000 titles from its ever shrinking movie rolls. Classic titles like Cleopatra and less classic ones like Barb Wire will already be gone by the time you log in today. You can check out the whole list here.

In a statement for the online magazine Mashable, Netflix communication director Joris Evers explained:

“Netflix is a dynamic service, we constantly update the TV shows and movies that  are available to our members. We will add more than 500 titles May 1, but we  also have titles expiring, this ebb and flow happens all the time. We are selective about what’s available to watch on Netflix. We often license  TV shows and movies on an exclusive basis, so we can provide a unique  experience. We’ll forego, or choose not renew, titles that aren’t watched  enough. We always use our knowledge about what our members love to watch to  decide what’s available on Netflix. Our goal is to be an expert programmer,  offering a mix that delights our members, rather than trying to be a broad  distributor.”

Though I often complain about what is available to watch instantly on Netflix, I am not that upset over the departure of a portion of their content. It should help to clean out my bloated Instant Queue. At the beginning of each month I search through the recently added section to fill my instant queue with a large selection of things I “may” watch: documentaries I never got to see, feature films I was unwilling to pay for or rent but I would watch for free if beamed directly into my home. The Instant Queue taunts me and shines a light on two things: first, that I believe I will enjoy far more programs than I will, and second, that I would actually have time to view all of these programs without breaking my leg or catching the flu.

On May 24th, Netflix will silence many critics when it launches all 13 episodes of the triumphant return of Arrested Development. The show thatarrested1 broadcast television could not wait to cancel returns after a seven year hiatus. Finally someone was able to SOB and I can taste the happy already! It  seems only fitting that the show that made me believe in television again will help many believe in Netflix once more. So fire up the Cornballer, put on your cut offs and eat a whole thing of candy beans!

 

 

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The Times They are a Changin: Two Bob Dylan Shows 12 years apart

Bob Dylan is the most prolific songwriter in American music history. The Country, Folk, and Rock and Roll genres have all felt his influence. Over the course of 35 studio albums, several live recordings, and countless compilations, Bob Dylan’s genre jumping and reinventing has been well documented. With such a huge catalog and a career spanning 50 plus years, I feel a little foolish trying to explain who Bob Dylan is to you.

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Touring in 2001 in support of Love and Theft

I discovered Bob Dylan much the same way as most people in my generation did; through someone he had influenced. I heard a couple of Dylan tracks, thought he sounded a little like Tom Petty and bought the greatest hits CD. I enjoyed his more popular songs and began to dig a little deeper, picking up Highway 61 revisited and Blood on the Tracks. In 2001, when Bob Dylan and his band brought their show to Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, I was in the front row… Of the third tier.

For many, the first time you hear Bob Dylan live–whether on a recording or in person–can be a tad confusing. In a world where live means “greatest hits, faster” Dylan takes some getting used to. His live renditions seldom have the same phrasing, tempo or meter seen in the studio recordings. Dylan plays fast and loose with every aspect of a song to the degree that it could find you uncertain of which song he is singing. I knew this going into seeing him live, but had no idea how little of his variation is captured on record.

While  running between feelings of being ripped off and questioning whether the performer had some type of stroke, I suddenly just fell into his performance. I experienced a moment where Dylan’s delivery and my understanding of the music met head on. It was beautiful. Last week I saw Bob Dylan live for the second time and found a few interesting differences in the performances.

At age 71 Bob Dylan is now using an opening act again: Opening for a legend is a great way to earn a listener-ship and gain an album purchasing fan base. This is very true of Bob Dylan openers. Ryan Adams, Amos Lee and many others have filled this role in recent years and gone on to have their own successes. However in 2001 Dylan had no opener. In 2013 the opener was a group called Dawes whom I highly recommend.

The hits were harder to find: With a such a vast body of work, Bob Dylan could play a show every night for the next year and never sing a song twice. The 2013 performance really hit the deep album cuts and steered clear of most of the hits. His reading of “All Along the Watchtower” was among the best I have ever heard. Pure folk and hard blues edged rock fusion was achieved.

The man is on the move: In 2001 Dylan walked to center stage and stayed put for the entire show. Even during the encore he walked to the same spot. Dylan was never in one place twice during the 2013 show. He moved all around the stage and even sang from behind the band during one number.

Dylan 2013

Touring in 2013 in support of Tempest

The marathon is over: I was spoiled by the 2001 show. The band played for well over 2hrs then gave a 45min encore. I heard nearly every song I had wanted to and learned a few new ones. 2013 Was 16 songs about one hour thirty minutes and a one song encore.

Is anybody out there: It has long been established that Bob Dylan does not like to talk to the crowd between songs. Still, in 2001, he at least took a moment during “Rainy Day Women” to introduce his band. Not so in 2013. No crowd interaction, no introductions.

Bob Dylan’s approach to live performance has been compared to that of a jazz musician in its pure variation and avoidance of repetition. On what is now jokingly called “The End of Life Tour,” he is still playing over 200 dates every year. It makes sense that in some ways the man is bound to slow and settle down. Still in others he is speeding up and delivering every night. I count myself fortunate to have witnessed his genius twice separated by 12 years. He has changed a bit, and so have I.

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You Ever Undress In Front of a Dog? Why Jonathan Winters is the King

Jonathan Winters was, in my opinion, the funniest man who ever lived. This is a pretty serious declaration given that there have been a lot of living men over the course of history. We can assume that, at least, some of them were funny. Some were probably even very funny. Still, of all the funny men over all of the millennia, I submit Jonathan Harshman Winters is the funniest.

I am not alone in bestowing this level of Praise on Mr. Winters. A veritable who’s who of the comedic world counted Winters as an major influence. Frank Calendo, Patton Oswalt, and Lewis Black rank among his biggest fans. Bill Cosby and George Carlin both looked to this elder statesman when putting together comedy albums, at which Winters excelled. Robin Williams and Jim Carey have both spoken of the debt of gratitude they owe Jonathan Winters.

From his earliest appearances on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar, Winters proved himself as an improvisational comic. Improv is as old as vaudeville, but before Winters it had never really been showcased on television. Paar would often give Winters a prop such as a stick or a pen and pencil set, which Winters would use in whatever way his mind could think of. Often stretching the boundaries of reality. Every use of every item was accompanied by a change in voice, accent and demeanor. He took on the role of whomever was describing or using the item in question. His rubber face could mimic any expression.

If reading that last paragraph was confusing, it is because I am attempting to describe the indescribable; watch this.

Winter’s act did not translate very well to film or the sitcom driven network television scene. Outside of a very memorable, Emmy-winning performance on the 70s sitcom Mork and Mindy and a two season run of his own show in the 90s, Winters mostly spent his time in bit parts. Winters did a large amount of voice work for animated features throughout his career. Scooby Doo, Frosty Returns and The Smurfs were among some of the more prominent. His final role is as the voice of Papa Smurf in the upcoming Smurfs 2 winters

So what makes him the very best? Scope of influence? Contributions to improv, television, and the comedy album? All of these things are true of Winters, but I believe his greatness transcends his resume. What sets Winters apart is the way in which his mind worked, and the speed at which his mind could bring those thoughts to life. In an era of live television, Winters never stumbles, never falters. He doesn’t catch himself up in laughter or break character. He commits to the bit much in a way best described by his most brilliant devotee in a 2009 interview for Comedy Central:

“I just do this for a living; Jonathan is actually crazy”- Robin Williams

R I P

Jonathan Harshman Winters

1925-2013

Funniest Man Who Ever Lived

 

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Trek Nation: Fatherhood and The Final Frontier

image property of Paramount pictures

image property of Paramount pictures

 

My name is J. Fortune and I am addicted to Star Trek. There I said it. From my first exposure to The Next Generation at  the age of 13, I have been completely, hopelessly hooked. Through 5 TV series, 10 movies and hundreds of novels, I followed the adventures of various Starfleet personnel from any number of timelines and alternate timelines in their exploration of the final frontier.

In degrees of fandom, I guess my interest would be considered passing by a great many. I have never attempted to bring my adoration of the escape that the Star Trek universe provides into the plane of reality. I have never been to a convention or worn a Starfleet uniform (though I did own one for a while. Oh, the many things one can find in a thrift store). I have never written a piece of fan fiction, nor read one for that matter, but I think I would be open to it.

Recently a crop of documentaries about Star Trek have been produced. These films are varied in their focus and subject matter. Two documentaries by Star Trek elder statesman William Shatner fixate on…well William Shatner. The Captains follows Shatner as he interviews the lead actors from each of the series and even a few from the movies. In Get a Life Shatner tries, often in vane, to understand Star Trek fandom. Like the Trekies films of the late 90s and early 2000s, Get a Life is a bit exploitative and often does not give a good representation of Star Trek fans.

Gene Roddenberry with Next generation cast

The most interesting of the recent documentaries is 2010’s Trek Nation. In the film, Eugene Roddenberry , the son of Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry  tries to understand the impact his father and the universe he created has had on science fiction and society as a whole. From the first frames of the film, we understand that Eugene was not a Star Trek fan. The younger Roddenberry begins on a path to understanding his father and his father’s choices. Sounds like a Worf storyline from TNG.Through interviews with writers, directors and producers who worked closely with him, Eugene is given a more complete picture of who his father really was and what his legacy is. The information is not always favorable. Eugene seems to listen to each participant and take in all of what they have to say.

Roddenberry even get the opportunity to sit down with Star Wars creator George Lucas. Lucas makes time while filming Episode 3 to explain that in some ways without Star Trek there would have been no reception for something like Star Wars. Star Wars was a phenomena that even Roddenberry  Jr. was swept up in as a lad. A picture from one of Eugene’s birthday parties shows him in a Star Wars t-shirt cutting a cake decorated with the Millennium Falcon.

Eugene Roddenberry JRIn the end the story of Trek Nation was a perplexing one.  A lot of fathers don’t communicate their thoughts on their work or their life with their sons. Too often this leads to unanswered questions after the passing of a family patriarch. Eugene Roddenberry has the unique perspective of someone with a famous father. He resents characters and father-son relationships his dad has written, but then wonders if the idealized interactions were what his father wished he could have provided to him.

In Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry created an ideal future: one in which the societies, of not just one planet, but of the entire galaxy, could put aside their differences for a greater good. Trek Nation left me wishing that this father and son could have done the same. Still, it is without a doubt that Eugene Roddenberry has come to better understand his father’s role in history

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Beware the Idle Drugery of March

March-2013-Calendar-500x417

March is one of my least favorite months. Professional football ends in early February leaving my sports landscape barren. Sure, there is the free agency, but it is simply not enough to keep me focused ahead of the draft in April. With the summer movie season still months away, the anorexic offerings at my local theater do not hold my attention. Daylight savings time guarantees that until mid April I will be forced to drive to and from work under the cover of darkness.

I hate weather in transition. I detest wearing a coat as I leave for the office in the morning only to be forced to carry it around all afternoon. The feeling of sinus pressure in my head as I receive my yearly sinus infection is dulled only by the knowledge that March will soon meet its end as we move toward better days.

A great deal of my time in this terrible month is spent seeking some sort of distraction. A great many find a balm for their spring souls in the willing arms of the NCAA basketball tournament (or March Madness as it is often referred to). Basketball has always been just beyond my grasp as a sports fan. I simply cannot find the time to keep up with that many games. Despite my lack of interest in basketball, I have on many occasions filled out an NCAA bracket. Making my best guess at the progression of the tournament and attempting to select the winner of each contest can be a challenge when you have not paid attention during the regular season. While sifting through the Internet for some scrap of entertainment to pass the time, I came across a story combining two of my interests.

Vulture.com has taken the bracket and filled it with something I can get excited about–situation comedies! With their Ultimate Sitcom Smackdown ,Vulture.com is pitting all of your favorites against one another for the title of Ultimate Sitcom of the Past 30 Years.

According to the official rules:

Each day, a different top writer (judges include authors A.J. Jacobs, Heather Havrilesky, and Steve Almond, The Shield and Terriers creator Shawn Ryan, and critic Ken Tucker) will determine the winner of one bracket battle, deliberating between two powerfully hilarious modern TV comedies that have reinvented the form in some way. The field will narrow until only two finalists remain on March 18, and New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz will determine the ultimate winner.

image property of CBS distributionAny great ranking system is flawed by its belief that it is flawless. There must, in my opinion, always be just enough wrong to touch off a great discussion. Since so many of my personal favorites were eliminated in the bracketing stage I found my sticking point pretty quickly. Though explanations were given for the elimination of most of them (Frasier, NewsRadio, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) their elimination before the first bout is a tad hard to swallow.

Since Frasier was a spinoff of Cheers (arguably the most successful spinoff ever) Vulture feels that the fate of Cheers will speak for Frasier. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is in many ways the basic cable version of Seinfeld, if a bit more nihilistic. The Office>Parks and Recreation (though I have never seen the Micheal Scott Pyramid of greatness)swanson-pyramid-1024x640

You get the idea. We are currently at the quarter final stage, and it is in many ways still anyone’s game.

Given the amount of match-ups still to come the contest should carry us through until April and out of this God forsaken month–a month in which Caesar met his doom at the hands of his own subjects and St. Patrick invented puking in the street…or something like that.  You can view the Bracket and get caught up on previous match-ups here

Follow Vulture.com on Twitter @Vulture and like their Facebook page here

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The Oscar goes to…Oh Yeah, That Guy Again

 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

 

Last month’s 85th annual Academy Awards really have me thinking. First, I’ve been thinking about all of the hilarious reaction to Seth Macfarlane being Seth Macfarlane, and doing a song about actresses going topless in various films. Come on folks, Macfarlane does gross out, irreverent humor in various media for millions of dollars. His work is now so prevalent and commonplace that he lacks the ability to surprise us by offending our delicate sensibilities. The hat is old, and I think we should move on.

While I enjoyed Macfarlane, the second thing the Oscars brought to mind was the current group of directors in Hollywood. I know that for years we have all griped about the hashing and rehashing of the same tired plots starring the same actors. We complain of over grown budgets and undergrown stories. When the best director award passed over Steven Spielberg in favor of Ang Lee much in the same fashion as it did in 2006, I could not help but wonder “are there only 6 directors in Hollywood?”

What seems more likely is of the highest profile directors there are only 6 types:

Disclaimer  The people on this list would probably fall into many of the other categories, and I am certain I skipped a great many in each group. If I snubbed your favorite, I apologize.

The Old Guard:

Once upon a time, each of these now-famous film makers were outsiders; now each is a  tried and true trophy winner. Directors who can take any chunk of coal and produce a diamond simply by attaching their weighty name. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola etc.  These are the guys on the wishlist of every writer, and many actors. It seems that every year one of the numerous people on this list are either nominated for best director or receiving some type of lifetime achievement award.

I was an okay actor, but am a much better director:Ron Howard

Meathead, Laverne, and Opie are among the greatest directors of a generation. Ron Howard is probably the most successful of this group, and his position is aided by the fact that he was a child actor who worked very little as an adult. Rob Reiner, Penny Marshal, and recent addition Ben Affleck are great examples of people who did less than meaningful work as actors but have turned in stellar work from behind the camera.

Freaks and Geeks:

Movie and comic book geeks seem to make the best directors to head up recent film adaptations of some of our beloved childhood properties. Because of their special connection to the material and their dedication to making movies they as fans would want to see these directors deliver time and again to some of the most difficult fan bases: Sam Raimi,  Brian Singer, Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams. Just hearing their names attached to a project can bring a sigh of relief to most hardcore  fans.

The Epics:

Sometimes these are at odds with the group immediately above. Directors in this group sometimes forgo the subtleties and nuances of  the source material to produce a script with a, how should I put this? A bit more BOOOOOOOM: Joel Schumacher, the man who almost killed Batman; Ridley Scott, whose work runs the gamut between indecipherable and gut checking action; and James Cameron. They are the successors to famous Hollywood archetypes like Cecil B. Demille. The king of them all is Michael Bay, who has managed on more than one occasion to combine his love of  ‘splosions and his dedication to making a film fans can enjoy.

The Writer Directors:

Quentin Tarantino, M. Night Shyamalan, Steven Soderbergh, Ang Lee, Woody Allen. Most directors have tried their hand at writing, and a lot of writers would rather direct their own work. While many of those listed above and many others that fit this category have directed works written by others, the majority of their success comes from directing their own scripts. Much like singer-songwriters, this is often the perfect marriage of concept and director.

The Trilogy Makers:

Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas. Ever try to tell a story? Ever have to stop one-third of the way through due to time constraints, then pick it back up later? This is how I imagine the mind of the Trilogy Makers. Whenever a story is too big to tell in one film these are the guys to call. Often it means slow playing the first film, overdoing the action in the second, and cramming a resolution into the third.

 

Sure, some of these directors fall into more than one category, but the point is pretty solid. Hollywood is in desperate need of new blood. Not just for directors, but in many other aspects of the group mosaic that is a well-made film. The only answer is to stop going to see tired plots and worn out concepts from the  same directors and actors. Right? I mean if we do not respect the position we hold as consumers how can we expect the film makers to do so?  And furthermore… Sorry, I lost track of time…I will finish this later. I am catching a matinee of the new Die Hard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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REB007T, or I Promise to Stop Writing About Skyfall

bonds

I just completed my fifth viewing of Skyfall. I have written about it and James Bond movies in general a few times Here, Here, and Here. As a lifelong James Bond fan, I am always excited by the release of a new film in this hallowed series, but Skyfall is something more. The 23rd film represents a turning point in the reboot series. The third film for a James Bond actor has always been the sink or swim moment. Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, even The World is Not Enough were showcases for the moment when the writers hit a  stride with the actor portraying 007. The stories in these films are written to showcase the unique attributes of each actor.

When it was announced that 2006’s Casino Royale would not only bring us a new Bond in Daniel Craig but also a reboot of the long running series, I had my doubts. Casino Royale and Craig were a pleasure to watch, but I was left wondering “where do we go from here?” The film had such momentum and excitement that it took repeat viewings to realize its flaws. The following film Quantum of Solace suffered none of the same issues; its flaws were right up front. Skyfall with its dark and humanizing storyline is something more. It seeks to re-reinvent not just the character, but the world in which he resides. It is a reboot within the reboot continuity.

This got me thinking about reboots in general. Unless you have made your home deep within a cave for the last 10 years you may be aware of the vast number of rebooted series showing up in our theaters of late. The list of films getting the reboot treatment in the coming year is staggering. Movies based on a prior film either in the form of sequels or reboots is staggering. Based on no particular fact or statistic,reboots account for all 98% of all  movies worth seeing this year.

Turning my thoughts back to the James Bond films, I wondered if Casino Royale was the only reboot. In examining the movies and comparing them to one another, it is evident that many of these 23 films could be considered reboots.

Take On Her Majesties Secret Service as an example. The only film in the series to star Australian actor George Lazenby was arguably the first reboot.

The sixth film was the first without Sean Connery in the role of Ian Fleming’s master spy. It begins as more of an “anti-reboot” showing us all things Bond to ensure we don’t think this is a different character but the same one simply played by a different actor. Various movie props from the previous films are pulled from the desk as a sub theme from Dr. No is played. The credits sequence is simply a martini glass on which are shown key action scenes from previous bond movies, though the producers are careful not show Connery’s face.

This never happened to the other fellow Property of Eon productions

This never happened to the other fellow
Property of Eon productions

Roger Moore’s first outing, Live and Let Die, is a complete 180. Several minor aspects seen in each film are removed. Bond does not go to MI6 headquarters, Q is absent, Bond smokes cigars instead of cigarettes, drinks bourbon instead of martinis. Moore had a gift for comedy far beyond Connery’s one liners. He could deliver a joke with a straight face and react as straight man to anything he observed, and this was written into all of Moore’s scripts going forward.

Reboot number three came after Moore’s 7th and final film A View to a Kill. The film, like many of Moore’s later endeavors, suffers for two things: Moore was so old at the time of filming that his hair had to be thickened every day and the comedy is over the top. Somewhere halfway through Roger Moore’s run as Bond the slapstick got out of control. Enter Timothy Dalton.

Dalton was a Shakespearean actor by trade. His interpretation of the character ran away from the Montypythonesque (that’s a word, right?) to his core–his dark, brooding core. Dalton saw Bond as troubled by the life he has chosen to lead and the sacrifices he has made for queen and country. Dalton also brought the literary version of Bond to the big screen, focusing more on Fleming’s work as apposed to simply doing an impression of his predecessor. Dalton’s films were not critically received, and at the end of his two film run, the series went on hiatus for 6 years.

When Pierce Brosnan took up the mantle for 1995’s Goldeneye, the fourth reboot, he had an advantage. The writers had taken all of the aspects that made a great Bond movie and placed them in a modern world. The audience-pleasing special effects and the return of the gadget-a-minute approach made the Brosnan era visually stimulating. Still, by the time Bond surfed a tsunami and drove an invisible car, it was time for another reboot.

Bringing us back to Casino Royale. Rebooting this long running series over the last 50 years has been more than simply swapping out leading men. Each time James Bond seems to preserve his core while responding to audience demand. With a reboot every six films or so, we have to wonder where they might go next.

Maybe to space?

No, they did that already.

Maybe the bottom of the ocean?

No, they did that… twice.

Where ever James Bond may be headed next, you can bet I will be along for the ride.

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Stop the World Wide Web and Let Me Off

 

Sometimes the Internet really freaks me out. Not in that “anyone who has an opinion is suddenly given the forum to express it no matter how dangerous it terminatormay be” sort of way. I mean in a general fashion. In the “oh my God, Skynet is self-aware” sort of way. Sure the Internet is amazing. I mean without the world wide web it is very unlikely you would be reading this at all. All corners of the world have been accounted for, photographed and stitched together on Google Earth.

The wealth of human knowledge has been cataloged, stamped and stored in a central location, and that location can be accessed through a device that most of us carry in our pockets (and what I hope are a shrinking few carry in a holster on their belts). Fantastic and exciting technology is now a part of our everyday lives. Gone are the days when a bar bet about a sports statistic or the name of a movie would wear on for hours. It takes only seconds to silence a barroom with the perfect recipe for a mint julep, or a correct recalling of the last five  Nobel laureates (I know. I drink in a weird bar).

The acquisition of information is not what concerns me. Well, at least not my acquiring knowledge. It occurs to me that in order for this crazy machine to work information must be collected about us and all of our habits. The Internet is like a big tape recorder that is always running. In order to fully assimilate the information that is out there, we must give up small bits about ourselves.

Perhaps the vastness of our modern Library at Alexandria is a bit exaggerated. According to The Royal Society , a scientific organization established in 1660, despite the billions of pages on  the Web, you can get from one page to any other in about 19 clicks. (or the number of clicks I preform at rapid fire when my laptop locks up) Think of that, any two items on the Internet are only 19 clicks away. You are only 19 clicks away from your worst enemy or best friend. Peanut Butter 19 clicks away from jelly or pickles. Ron Swanson is only 19 clicks away from the IRS.  R6qrD

So as we examine the whole of human knowledge, think of its size in relative terms. Keeping in mind its applications, we have access to everything that everyone has ever known. We use that knowledge in the only way possible: to gamble, post pictures of cats, and steal music. The only question that matters is have you backed up your files on the iCloud? The network in the sky? BETTER KNOWN AS Skynet?!

The Internet is scary. We are all a little too connected for my taste. Yet, I use it every single day. Even if I see the Internet as predator lying in wait…I still need my IMDB…and Facebook…and Twitter…Oh, who am I kidding; I love you Internet!!

 

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Box Office, TV, Direct to DVD: Some Works of Elmore Leonard

photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Elmore Leonard is the author of some 80 books. The majority of his early works were in the western genre. With titles like 3:10 to Yuma, Last Stand at Saber River, Valdez Is Coming, and more, Leonard is second only to Louis L’amour in western output and rivals the old master in quality.

Leonard’s fame, however, comes from his crime fiction works. Leonard’s ability to write dialogue in a realistic manner and use that dialogue to advance the story, makes his work particularly easy to adapt for the screen.. Sometimes. His characters are often quirky, relatable, and deep. Leonard has set the bar for plot twists and double crosses in a thriller.

image property of MGMThough his first television adaptation came in 1956, Leonard ruled the made for TV movie market in the 1980s. Eleven of his stories were adapted for the small screen in that decade, none of which were notable, most of which starred no one of weight, and are virtually unwatchable.

It wasn’t until the 1995 film adaptation of Get Shorty that the run of box office hits began. The film was a humorous look at the similarities between the work of a Shylock (loan shark) and a movie producer.

The biggest smash based on a Leonard work was the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Out of Sight which also starred George Clooney. It also spawned the failed TV series  Karen Sisco which lasted about 10 episodes.

The current success of the FX drama Justified, now in its third season, has made Leonard relevant again. Justified began life as a short story entitled Fire in The Hole. It is the story of Deputy United States Marshal Raylan Givens.  After baiting a criminal in Miami into pulling his weapon so he would be “Justified” in shooting him (get it?) Givens is sent back to his home state of Kentucky. The past that Raylan has been running from is now his present as he deals with old friends from his coal mining days, his criminal father, and the girl that got away…even if she is a federal witness.

The Raylan of Justified is more an amalgamation of several Leonard characters. He is the quintessential lawman. He shoots now and shoots later, then asks questions. Raylan is quick talking and full of wit. His interactions with his ex-wife (who works in the same building ) are dripping with the type of cynicism and brilliance for which Leonard is famous.      

Quentin Tarantino chose Leonard’s Rum Punch as the basis for his third film titled Jackie Brown. Tarantino held the option on two additional Leonard titles but ceded them in 2002 after failing to bring them to the screen. Killshot starred Joseph Gordon- Levitt and Mickey Rourke as a two-man hit team looking to extort money from a real estate agent. After spending two years in development hell and another two in editing hell, this movies was released direct to DVD and was awful.

The fate of the second, Freaky Deaky, remains to be seen.  Since filming began nearly 18 months ago, most of the more prominent cast members have dropped out. The theatrical release has been pushed back twice, It seems to be destined to receive a direct to DVD release. I try not to let that bother me as two lesser Elmore Leonard titles have been optioned for theatrical release next year, though they have yet to been cast. freaky-deaky-poster01

 

It takes a certain caliber of director and production company to do Elmore Leonard’s work justice. We have seen what happens when his work is carefully adapted and shepherded through the film making process. It does not work often as a TV one-shot or a straight to DVD feature. Still, given his vast body of work we have only scratched the surface, there is still plenty of content to adapt. Also, it is important to note that “Dutch,” as the 88-year-old Leonard prefers to be called, still cranks out a book or two each year, giving Hollywood plenty more chances to get it wrong and a few more to get it right.

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Shuffle up and Deal: House of Cards

 

 

image property of netflix

image property of netflix

 

When Netflix announced it was nearly doubling its rates by separating its by mail DVD service from the instant streaming,  they claimed the additional revenue would be used for two purposes. The first purpose was to purchase better content (I’m still waiting on that one to come to fruition). The second was to venture into creating original material. Lilyhammer, the first such attempt, was mostly a flop. It was a story about a mobster in witness protection played by Steven Van Zandt. Van Zandt played basically the same character he played on the Sopranos and the six episodes set Netflix, and probably original streaming content, back about two years.

Netflix has become something of a misleading name for the company as almost 60% of its available content and the vast majority of its new content comes from broadcast television. Currently, the provider is producing a return of the ground-breaking situation comedy Arrested Development. Much to the delight of its die-hard fan base, new episodes of the show FOX seemed determined to cancel  will begin airing this spring (though, I guess “airing” is an outdated phrase now). Netflix will make a full season of content available on the first day.

It has done the same with the new drama House of Cards.

image property of Netflix

House of Cards, based on the BBC series of same name, is a political thriller that opens with a new president taking office. It’s obviously fiction, because the new prez is moderate.

The president-elect is expected to nominate Majority Whip Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, for secretary of state… but, he doesn’t. Considering himself  “in the know,” Underwood is shocked to learn he won’t be nominated to the post.

Underwood sets out to destroy the secretary of state nominee by drudging up a less than flattering story written for his college newspaper. The senator then uses a young contact from the press named Zoe Barnes (played by the lackluster Kate Mara) to push the story beyond a single news cycle.  In doing so, Underwood ensures the nominee will be forced to decline the post. This allows Underwood to place someone loyal to him within striking distance of the president.

Underwood is a borderline sociopath who has his hands in everything in Washington. People are simply assets to him in his gradually unfurling quest for the White House.

While glad-handing and schmoozing with everyone he encounters, Spacey’s Underwood tells us his true feelings and ambitions by way of asides with the audience. Underwood uses Barnes, the reporter mentioned above, to exploit the 24-hour news cycle and Twitter-verse to serve his purpose. He makes use of the congressional gridlock and partisanship to shame dissenters.

 

image property of Netflix

image property of Netflix

The dynamic between Underwood and his wife, Claire (played by Robin Wright), is by far the most interesting part of the series. They have an open marriage — provided they are honest with one another. Though, it’s interesting to note that this is one of the few areas that they are actually honest about. She uses his connections on the Hill (do real people ever call it that?) to further the efforts of her nonprofit. When their ambitions are at odds, the sparks really begin to fly.

House of Cards is a murky depiction of our current situation in Washington. Everyone is dirty or waiting for the opportunity to be dirty. The scenery is dark and dreary. In the fictional DC, it is always raining or about to. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the show is aptly titled and far more functional than Netflix’s recommendations algorithm.

Seriously, how do they get that? Just because I enjoyed Ken Burns’ Baseball, they think that I would enjoy Jackass 3? Is there a place where I can input my IQ in order to stop them from suggesting professional wrestling titles? Sorry, I just got a little off topic…

House of Cards is a solid B+. Watch it if you love politics or Kevin Spacey.

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Under the Boardwalk

image property of HBO

image property of HBO

As far back as I can remember, I have been enamored with racketeers. My love affair with gangsters began when I read Mario Puzo’s definitive work on the subject, The Godfather, when I was about 13 years old. Since that time I’ve read numerous biographies of real life gangsters (The 3 piece suit kind, not the baggy-pants-shouting-over-slow-techno kind)and just about every work of fiction on the subject. I have whiled away many hours absorbing feature films and documentaries on the lives and actions of syndicate men–both real and imagined.

Though I really enjoyed HBO’s The Sopranos, I felt that it became forced toward the end of its six-season run. My dwindling interest in this sort of pay cable stretch-play storytelling was the main reason I have only recently begun watching HBO’s Prohibition-era gangster story Boardwalk Empire. In many ways, the Atlantic City based show feels like Sopranos: Episode 1, but it  achieves so much more.

Boardwalk Empire weaves its fictional characters into a boozy tapestry with real historical figures and events. It utilizes everything from women’s suffrage and the election of President Warren Harding to the striking by underpaid black workers in the “Plantation by the Sea affair” as backdrops for the rampant political corruption with which the program is concerned. The show is produced and sometimes directed by Martin Scorsese, the architect of the modern gangster picture. Scorsese’s attention to detail has created a mobster series that feels more like The Great Gatsby than The Godfather.Gangster Summit image property of HBO

The main character is Atlantic County Treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. Nucky is based on a real Atlantic County politician who ran the crime syndicate on the boardwalk in the 20s and 30s.  He manages to keep his hands clean while receiving a cut of every dollar made in his city; he does so by installing those loyal to him in positions of power. His election fixing and gerrymandering are called into question–as is his lavish lifestyle on a country treasurer’s salary.

Thompson moves in circles with people you may have heard of. He has dealings with John Torrio, the up-and-coming Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.

Steve Buscemi brilliantly plays Nucky Thompson. Does anyone remember when Buscemi was a comedic actor showing up in all those Adam Sandler pictures? Why is it that all I can think of when I see him is Mr. Pink? Remember the wood chipper in Fargo?

This role does little to rectify that image. He’s clad in the best suits, riding in his  chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, and drinking in his fiefdom. He also portrays Nucky as quiet, brooding and troubled when he’s behind closed doors. His odd personal life, and his detachment, make Nucky someone you want to succeed.

Through the thick tobacco smoke and the sound of clinking glasses filled with illegal hooch, Boardwalk Empire shines. It is a flawed period piece that does the history justice, while taking artistic license with some of the plots. The show is a delightful ride in a Model A Ford–a boozy, bloody, violent and engrossing ride.

 

 

 

 

 

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