Monday, August 31, 2009

Disaster Threatens My Entertainment Options

Attention terrorists: did you know that most broadcasting towers in the Los Angeles area are located high atop Mt. Wilson? Which is, at the moment, on fire?

The "Station fire" had already consumed 42,500 acres of the Angeles National Forest, destroyed at least 18 homes and led to the death of two firefighters. Attention then turned to Mt. Wilson, where a historic observatory stands -- as well as the transmitting towers for the majority of Los Angeles' TV stations.

A Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesperson told KCAL-TV that fire retardant had been spread around the transmission equipment and that brush had been cleared around the area -- but he expected fire to nonetheless hit the site in the near future.

"There's nothing we can do to stop that fire from going up Mt. Wilson," he told the station.

Every major L.A. TV station transmits from Mt. Wilson.

Stations advised viewers that they may lose their over-the-air signal, and noted that most cable and satellite customers would still continue to receive the stations (which are fed directly to those services rather than over the air).
So again, the guy without the cable is gettin' screwed. *Sigh* Time to fire up Hulu!

By the way note to my Mom, who always assumes when she reads about stuff like this that I might be on fire - it's thirty miles away, mom.

Iron Mouse

In NY Times cover worthy news, Disney has bought Marvel for $4 billion in stock and cash.

On the face of it, it's an obvious and rather smart move for Disney. They can extend their patented relentless Disney synergy to over 5,000 Marvel characters-- From Aardwolf (A mutant bad guy from Night Thrasher, who sounds like a superhero with restless leg syndrome: Read the breathless fanboy description here) to Zzzax (A high-voltage Hulk nemesis). Marvel comics, at least the directly branded ones, tend to keep to a PG rating: a fairly decent fit for Disney's audience.

I'm not so sure hardcore Marvel Comics fans are going to like the fact the likes of Clarabelle Cow and Goofy are more central to Marvel's new owners than Spider-Man and Thor. They may not be relishing the idea that there is nothing to prevent an Iron Man-"Jonas Brothers" or X-Men-"Wizards of Waverly Place" mashup. Might be interesting the other way: I'd like to see what Marvel could do in the Duckburg universe.

It may not come to that. It was Marvel Entertainment's tendency to shop their properties to a number of different studios: Spider-Man to Columbia/Sony, Iron Man to Paramount, X-Men to Fox, etc. These deals are staying firmly in place. I wonder if Disney is holding something of a pig in a poke, at least in terms of movie rights. With all the easily recognized, big-name franchises tied up elsewhere, they may have to be content with films featuring second-string characters. So look for news of new Disney dev deals for Dead Girl, Collective Man, Flatman, Obnoxio the Clown, and Captain Britain. But hey-- I can suddenly see Howard The Duck actually working!

Friday, August 28, 2009

You Think YOUR Marriage is Troubled

Treated myself to a movie last night - it's hot in my crackerbox and there's nothing on TV. I chose something I've been waiting four years to see, the movie adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE. Even since I read the book (okay, had it read to me by professionals at I've been dying to see how they would streamline such a complicated, difficult narrative.

They made it look easy.

Let's face it, this movie is a conventional romance about two people who love each other very, very much. But a boy-meets-girl story stops being simple when the boy is unable to stop randomly travelling through time. Obviously. For example, he meets her in a library when they're both in their early twenties, but she meets him in a meadow on her family estate when she is 8 and he's around 35.

What Bruce Joel (GHOST) Rubin's screenplay does best is taking this weirdo story element and turning it into a metaphor. Is suddenly disappearing and reappearing two weeks later looking years older due to time travel any different than it would be due to an alcoholic binge? Henry DeTamble is like a lot of bad husbands, well-meaning but at the mercy of his own body chemistry. This metaphor is so effective that last night the audience of around 30 chicks was weeping loudly by the closing credits. I think if I'd been a little further along in recovering from the flu and was willing to put in the effort, I could have gotten lucky in a big way.

So, it's an effective weepie and recommended. I missed a lot of the book in the movie, of course. In my mind I had cast Ed Norton in the lead role, because he's quirkier; but Eric Bana is one of those surprising hunks who actually has talent, and he did just fine. In fact, everyone in the movie was too good-looking (Rachel McAdams is so beautiful that I'm crying now just envisioning her face) but I'm willing to accept that as necessary visual shorthand in a romance. Screen time is precious. You gotta fall in love with these people quick.

Ron Livingston has the thankless part of Gomez, a third wheel who was a character in the novel but somehow barely exists in the movie. Come to think of it, he'd have made a pretty good Henry too.

The movie in my mind was awful, by the way. I had cut everything from Henry's point of view, and I used CGI to age him instead of the more sensible device employed by our cash-starved friends at New Line - Henry himself doesn't age, just his hair. It's long, it's short; it's black, it's grey. Works just fine. So good job New Line - I couldn't have done it better myself. And I NEVER think that.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Mad Men:" An Advert For Your Rights

I was tempted not to join in all the general noise about "Mad Men," AMC's excellent alternate to their usual fare of Chuck Norris and John Wayne movies. It's so good I can't help myself.

If you're not watching this show, grab the DVDs for seasons 1 and 2 and catch up now. You will not find such excellent televised storytelling anywhere else-- basic, broadcast or premium. There is a specific aspect of "Mad Men" I find fascinating and unique. It seems to be somewhat under-reported, so here I am.

"Mad Men" lovingly recreates the world of America in the early 1960s. But it goes much further than the visual, skinny ties and Herman Miller chairs and extremely complicated women's underwear. It sends us a message about us, and what we, as a society, have lost.

Every period film or TV show is a reflection of the era when it's made. For instance World War II films have evolved over the years from propaganda (30 Seconds Over Tokyo, 1944) to nostalgic comedy (What Did You Do in The War, Daddy?, 1966) to sober moral equivalence (Letters from Iwo Jima, 2006). In Rio Bravo (1959), Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson rode the wild West sporting sticky-looking Elvis pompadors.

The characters in "Mad Men" live in a world that is, in the details, quite different from our present. Everyone smokes and drinks. There were no warning labels on anything. Raw eggs are cracked into caesar salads. Kids play with dry-cleaning bags and romp freely in moving cars. If some of these little bits of Kennedy-era life were seen enacted out in the open in 2009, they could lead from anything to meddling to outrage to actual arrest.

I've noticed that when reviewers or online commenters note these details, they tend to look at these 1960s foibles with amusement, bordering on horror. I think they're missing the point "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner is trying to make. The characters on this show live in this unregulated world and do things we would consider unhealthy and dangerous-- but there are never any consequences. Sure, Roger Sterling has a heart attack in Season Two, but he rather righteously claimed he was scrupulously following medical advice-- advice current in 1962 (i.e. A rich diet can ward off high blood pressure). "Mad Men" makes a point of showing normal people with what we now consider unhealthy and dangerous personal habits-- and thriving nonetheless.

The social mores on display show an American society without helicopter parenting, nanny government, NIMBYism, or class-action lawsuits. It shows a well-functioning (if still wildly unequal) society that values individual liberty and personal decision making.

Every time we pass a Megan's Law or ban smoking outdoors or require children be strapped into seats until they are high schoolers we surrender a small bit of our freedom for collective safety. Sometimes the act of yielding is benign: other times, these little impositions cut little pieces out of our constitutional rights. Think about this the next time you take your shoes off at the airport or a strobe on a robotic traffic camera goes off as you cruise through an intersection.

Daniel related a recent incident on his other blog about being pulled over on suspicion of DUI. (His headlights were off. There was a cute German girl in the car with him, so I can see why.) He beat it, of course, but If he decided to have a second Rob Roy he would have wished he lived in 1962. Back then, a DUI first offense was a simple moving violation. Now, that first-time DUI can lose you your car and your license, make insurance unavailable, wreck your credit rating (!), cost thousands, and generally ruin your life. I'm not saying we should repeal DUI laws, but I am saying it's the overly enthusiastic enforcement of those "motherhood" issues-- DUIs, child safety, anything that makes people go all Maude Flanders and wail, "What about the children?" -- that creates a creeping effect on every other personal right we hold dear.

Like I said, movies and TV shows are contemporary reflections, regardless of period setting. "Mad Men" makes a point of showing, by raw comparison, how unfree we have become in 2009, and maybe that will make us more aware of just how important it is to defend our dwindling right to be left to our own ends.

--Skot C.

Controversy Involving 2 Things You Thought You'd Never Hear From Again

Madonna booed in Bucharest for defending Gypsies

BUCHAREST, Romania – At first, fans politely applauded the Roma performers sharing a stage with Madonna. Then the pop star condemned widespread discrimination against Roma, or Gypsies — and the cheers gave way to jeers.

The sharp mood change that swept the crowd of 60,000, who had packed a park for Wednesday night's concert, underscores how prejudice against Gypsies remains deeply entrenched across Eastern Europe.

Despite long-standing efforts to stamp out rampant bias, human rights advocates say Roma probably suffer more humiliation and endure more discrimination than any other people group on the continent.
What's next? Gabe Kaplan disses button-hooks? Grace Slick comes out in favor of leeching?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Broadcast Television, Digitized and Compressed to Practically Nothing

I love digital television. I'm crazy about it. Snow annoys me so much I'd rather have nothing than a compromised signal. Which, as it turns out, is what I'm getting lately.

I live in the West San Fernando Valley, just a few miles from the porn capital of the world, Reseda. And as a single guy who doesn't watch a lot of television, I refuse to shell out a $100 per month for cable. I just refuse! Thus I'm gettin' all my hi-def TV terrestrial-style. However, since the official switch date when nearly everybody in LA went digital, channels I used to receive have vanished.

Let's be specific. As of early June, I no longer receive Fox. Which is a shame, because the only show I ever took the trouble to watch was HOUSE.

I don't get Fox 11, I don't get MYTV 13 (which is owned by Fox and presumably using the same transmission infrastructure), so this leaves me with the other 3 major networks. Though if it's hot, I also can't get ABC 7. So major-network-wise, I can reliably watch CBS or NBC; minor network-wise The CW 5 comes in like a champ, so my hunger for TWO AND HALF MEN reruns need never go unsatisfied. PBS is great too, but I'm not even sure what PBS is.

What it amounts to is that the digital changover has forced me to become a less passive viewer. If I want to watch House I have to turn to HULU or Bittorrent (the season finale was pretty interesting with French subtitles). If I want movies, I can bring in a Blu-Ray from Netflix. I have hooked up my iMac to the TV (I live in a studio apartment, and it's all pretty close together) so if it comes down to it, I can watch a whole evening of YouTube.

This is bad for the commercial televsion industry.

Everything I do to substitute for broadcast TV has this in common - vastly reduced commercial sales. I'm getting plenty of entertainment, but the providers are getting practically nothin'. My recommendation to Fox 11 in Los Angeles - look into that transmitter. Once the advertisers learn that a huge chunk of the city can't watch, they are taking their reality show money back to SURVIVOR. Which I will never, ever, EVER watch.

The Contributors' Obsessions

If you can't blog about things that have bugged you all your life, why blog?

One day, I'm going to take on WHERE'S POPPA. Maybe George Segal's entire ouvre, all the way up to THE ZANY ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. But not today.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wizards who don't age well

I didn't mean to parallel Daniel's 1970s-film reassessment, honest: I had this entry prepped a few days ago. I see it as proof of positive zeitgeist.

Got home late on Saturday, surfed the premium channels for a semblance of entertainment. Found something that I used to consider very entertaining. Not sure what changed.

The film in question is Wizards, Ralph Bakshi's animated fantasy from 1977, released four months before Star Wars. I thought this film was the absolute apocalypse when it came out, the best animated film ever. So did all my friends. It was a staple at midnight screenings, and I must have seen it (and, as I worked the midnights sometimes, screened it) a dozen times.

So I let Wizards unspool and I settled in. In ten minutes, I was exasperated. By the time a half-hour had gone by, I was aghast. After 80 mercifully short minutes, I was questioning my sanity.

This film, which I loved so much in younger days, was absolutely terrible.

Thirty-two years after it's release, I was seeing Wizards for what it was: A unique sort of failure. Mr. Bakshi had set out to make an animated fantasy-comedy: He objectively failed on all three fronts.

Fantasy: The story concerns the struggle between twin wizard brothers-- one good, one evil-- in a far-off future Earth. The good one (a cross between Gandalf and underground cartoon character Cheech Wizard) lives in a realm full of magic, elves, dwarves, etc., while the evil one rules a land full of technology, orcs, and mutants. The McGuffin is unearthed Nazi propaganda: The bad, Sauron-like wizard uses it to motivate his mutant underlings to take over the world. A quest is then organized by the agents of good to travel to the blah blah blah to defeat the blizblaz of the himham. Alright, it's Lord of the Rings: Details are lifted numerously and wholesale from Tolkien. But it's more of a mash-up: Fantasy vs. Sci-Fi, magic versus technology, fairies versus radioactive Nazi mutants. Bakshi sort of squishes it all together, and it's so ridiculously overdone it's hard to care what happens at the end.

The final stroke of the story-- exactly HOW good Avatar bests his evil brother Blackwolf, is a •••spoiler•••, so I won't reveal it. But I will say it completely negates Bakshi's carefully lifted-- er, carefully built premise.

Comedy: The funny parts are painful. Bakshi's way of lightening the mood in Wizards is to stop the story cold for borscht-belt schtick. Not to geek out, but it's sort of hard to get into the D&D mood when the lead character sounds like Peter Falk and rich New York accents come out of half the character's mouths.

Animation: If you see a cool sequence once in Wizards, you'll see it two more times at least. Bakshi reuses his cels more than Hanna-Barbera ever did. A 12-cel action cycle (for instance, Nekron 99 galumphing along on his two-legged whatever) will be spun out for minutes at a time. The battle royale at the end is thickly padded with rotoscoped (i.e. xeroxed) battle scenes from Zulu, Patton and El Cid.

I know hand-drawn animation is an expensive, labor-intensive endeavor, and Bakshi and Disney were the only ones putting out feature animation in the 1970s. But sheesh.

Seen anew, it is easy to figure out why I liked Wizards so much when it first came out: There was literally nothing else like it out there. It had a hip, cynical sensibility, and it aligned with late-hippie core beliefs: magic good, technology bad. (Apparently, the concept for the film was hatched in late 60s, which explains things a little.)

But between 1977 and 2009-- from Star Wars through the Rings trilogy to Pixar and Harry Potter-- the bottom bar for fantasy films has been raised to the very apex of Hollywood. Wizards is a representative of a time when American animation was dying out, and fantasy films were scrubbing around the margins for studio financing. These may be factors in the film's many shortcomings, but I can't help but feel we all gave it a pass back then because it was the only game in town.

--Skot C.

Weekend Box Office

See chart here.

It's a little surprising to see Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS opening at $38 million. Yes it's one of only two new movies in the top ten, but after DEATH PROOF you'd think people are through with the big QT. The other new movie? SHORTS, from Tarantino's partner in Grind House crime Robert Rodriguez. Which only made $6 million. It's family entertainment! What the hell is wrong with the world?

(Note to self - THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE is out already? I'm getting out to see this. Ever since I read the novel I've been wondering how much they'd have to cut out to simplify it to movie size).

-daniel k

An Aesthetic Reconsideration of TOMMY (1975)



Entry #1

This is the first entry of HANG A LANTERN ON IT, the transplanted version of Box Office Weekly, the long-running showbiz news podcast formerly on The Podcast Network.

In this forum, you can expect though-provoking articles on movies, show business (that is, the extremely weird business of making entertainment), television, and what have you.

The original was started in early 2006 by Dan K., who is something of a blogging powerhouse: He runs Keepin' It Real, Yo (, where he hones his left-coast political sensibilities in various verbal cage matches against ultra-right bloggers in his weight class. I was invited to guest-write for Box Office Weekly the next summer, and a fruitful collaboration was hatched.

Box Office Weekly was quite successful: It was well-read and popular, came up near the top of search engine lists, and was syndicated with regularity. (It's awesome to tell people my articles were carried by Reuters and USA Today.) But the blog articles were more popular than the podcasts, and we were camped on a podcasting network. Sort of a poor fit. This Google deal removes the onerous requirement of recording a weekly radio show, which leaves more room for pithy articles.

More fun to come-- Stay tuned!

--Skot C.