Monday, November 26, 2007

Done Deal?

Has the Writers Guild of America's strike been settled? Deadline Hollywood seems to be willing to at least suggest such a possibility.

Stay tuned!

(And no, there's no truth to the rumour that I'm heading to California tomorrow to personally intervene in the matter. But don't let that stop you from spreading it!)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Speechless Campaign

If you haven't seen it already, head over to the Deadline Hollywood Daily blog over the US turkey holiday and watch the speechless set of shorts (soon to be on Speechless Without Writers) in support of the WGA strike - that's guild and not guide as some might confuse it ;)

I recall hearing somewhere that it would just take the likes of someone like Tom Hanks to come out and say that he won't make another movie until this strike is averted for the AMPTP to quickly settle. Maybe this is a first step in that direction...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Baby, if you've ever wondered...

What better way could there be to follow a double review of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima than by mentioning one of the best "office" sitcoms in the history of television: WKRP in Cincinnati?

Ken Levine, who's currently on strike with the rest of his WGA colleagues, has nevertheless been keeping up his blogging activities. As noted here previously, he's written some interesting—and funny!—articles on the strike; in the last two days, though, he's also posted two items from opposite ends of the WKRP spectrum: the best-known scene from the show (albeit not the one that has the best-known line, which appears over the end of the credits of that episode) and a true rarity: a full-length version of the theme song, as performed by Steve Carlisle.

I don't really have much else to say about the show—former co-worker John is the real expert—but I'll shamelessly solicit comments by asking the same question as this Jan Smithers fan: Jennifer or Bailey?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Review(s): Flags Of Our Fathers & Letters From Iwo Jima

These two movies should always be watched together, if at all possible. They just should be!

For those who don't know, Clint Eastwood directed both films around the same time (maybe even at the same time!) and they depict the World War II battle for the island of Iwo Jima, from both the American perspective (Flags) and the Japanese (Letters). At several key points, it's actually quite eerie to see some of the same scenes from two different POVs. For example, when a member of the US Army goes after a Japanese entrenchment with a flamethrower, his actions are likely to evoke a reaction of "Yeah!" during Flags on the one hand, and an inescapable sense of revulsion when it shows up again in Letters, once you've started to identify with the people on the receiving end of it! This is a truly masterful accomplishment by Eastwood and the screenwriters, and made it a movie-watching experience unlike anything I'd been through before.

The more mainstream of the two productions - Flags Of Our Fathers, with its American cast, straight-forward story and relatively minor culture-shock value - is the lightweight of the two films, though that's hardly a damning comparison. It's still quite good, but never quite achieves its own level of greatness. Certainly if it hadn't been preceded by Saving Private Ryan and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, it would've delivered a much bigger punch with its battle scenes on the island itself. The majority of it, though, is spent detailing the plight of three of the servicemen who took part in the raising of the American flag at the top of a high hill on Iwo Jima. It turns out that there'd actually been two flags raised there, as the first one was taken down when word arrived that some politician wanted the flag for his own purposes, inspiring the military honchos to substitute a new flag so that they could hold on to the original. (Especially poignant was the American mother who saw the famous photo in her newspaper and identified her son by his derriere, only to be told by the US military that she was wrong... all created by the confusion over there being two flags, and exacerbated by the sad fact that her son was killed in action shortly thereafter, leaving her with nothing where she might've at least had that.) That's somewhat interesting - if true - and definitely something I didn't know before watching the movie.

Nor did I have any idea how much of a big deal was made of that scene back Stateside, as support for the War Effort was failing and War Bond drives were coming up miserably short. Though the terms probably didn't exist back then, this was a textbook case of the Hype Machine kicking into overdrive, as a trio of flag-raising soldiers were sent home and out on tour, traveling from city to city as "the heroes of Iwo Jima," and even sometimes being asked to recreate their achievement on paper mache hills in football stadiums! Among the three are an American Indian who still can't get served in some redneck bars while on this journey, a reluctant hero of a medic who can't forget that most of the actual people involved died shortly after the flag-raising, and an opportunist who's more than happy to take advantage of every new door that's being opened to him. His equally-eager girlfriend is portrayed by Melanie Lynskey, familiar to the wife and I as the somewhat-crazed new mom on the short-lived Drive TV show, as well as being the co-star, along with Kate Winslet, in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures movie of many years ago. But I digress!

Letters From Iwo Jima, on the other hand, is a much more complex tale, and not simply because it involves reading subtitles! I shudder to think, though, of all the people who'll never see this film because of that one (apparently, limiting) fact. Among the many things they'll miss are yet another great performance by Ken Watanabe and some gut-wrenching scenes within the caves and hills of Iwo Jima. While not necessarily of the same calibre as a Kurasawa classic, Letters nonetheless echoes some of Akira's trademark touches: there's the pair of characters who slowly transform from clowns into objects of great pathos and emotional depth, tyrannical leaders who dominate the common man in petty ways, and no easy answers to any of the complicated questions.

For example, why are the Japanese still fighting, so late in the war? Because they've been told to, because they've been lead to believe that they're winning, or possibly because the savage Americans will destroy their homeland if they don't fight! At one point, late in the film, a contingent of the Japanese soldiers, who've carried on the fight despite their food, water and ammunition all running out, are confronted with a wounded American prisoner of the type they've spent years vilifying from afar. After he dies from his wounds, a member of the group who speaks English reads a letter the dead man was carrying, from his mother. Much to their shock and horror, they discover that she, like their own parents, had exhorted her son to do what was right and just, not for God or country, but simply because it's the right thing to do. In a later scene, though, two American soldiers decide to kill a couple of Japanese POWs rather than be saddled with them, possibly justifying the 'savage' label after all. Definitely no easy answers here.

Clint Eastwood has directed many movies in his career, but the two that had stood out for me before seeing this pair were Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. In the former, he got me to love a Western; in the latter, to at least really enjoy and admire a boxing movie. Both of those were firsts, and unexpected. I wasn't as surprised by my reaction to these bookends on the story of Iwo Jima, but it was a thrilling ride all the same!

Flags Of Our Fathers Rating: *** 1/2
Letters From Iwo Jima Rating: ****

How to predict the Oscar nominations*

*Presuming you have nothing better to do.

I really enjoyed this article as an insight into how the Academy works. (Not just trying to add to the NCFOM hype, I swear!),,20161177,00.html

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Promise Of A Review

I want to post a review of Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers but I:

a) haven't had the time yet, and
b) would like to combine it with a review of Letters from Iwo Jima (which we haven't watched yet, but soon will).

So consider this the promise of a review... soon! And in the meantime, maybe some other people will actually post some stuff (hey, stranger things have happened!)

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Lack of Review

Sunday at 3pm I very excitedly made plans with my Dad and Step-Mom to see my most anticipated film of 2007 (the Coen's No Country for Old Men). I was to meet them in an hour at a cinema at Bay and Bloor. I proceeded to shower (yes, at 3pm) and get ready when I got a phone call saying that Step-Mom had already started making dinner, unbeknown to Father, and that I had to go over there to eat and we would see the 7pm show. Ok, that's fine. I can wait a few more hours.

When I arrive, Father is passed out (an exhausting week at work, apparently) and I am informed he will not be leaving the house that evening, but that we can see the movie on Monday night. Hmph, annoying, but whatever - I can wait a day, I'm adaptable.

However, upon waking, Father informs me that he is actually leaving on a business trip (that Step-Mom had forgotten about) in the morning and will not be back until NEXT WEEKEND. Gah!

It is at times like these that I miss my other parents, who do not change plans. Ever.

*Yes I could go by myself or with friends, but then I'd have to PAY!
**Was this my least relevant entry ever?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Random Musings On The Writers Guild Strike

I've been reading a lot of articles about the Writers Guild of America strike that started a week ago, partially because I'm interested, and partially because it keeps intersecting with another topic that's near and dear to my heart (eg. Brian K Vaughan, writer of the excellent Ex Machina comic book, as well as the incomparable Lost TV show, opining on the strike; an article on whether the comic industry could, should or ever would unionize; and ruminations on how the WGA strike may affect comics). So let's just say it's been getting a fair share of my mind lately (and the strike is all about fair share, after all!)

Having started off my professional career as a computer programmer, I've had many occasions to consider how life in that industry would be different if we all received residuals. In other words, imagine if we not only got paid for the initial writing of the code, but also received some fractionally small slice of all the money that was subsequently made (or saved) by its use! Think of all those lines of Cobol, Java, C, C++ or _____ that we've each sweated over during our careers, often in no less a creative fashion than that of the folks who write TV shows or movies. While at the bank, I worked on a small team that built and maintained the Common System Function libraries. Those were the ubiquitous modules that all of the product teams used in order to avoid re-inventing the wheel themselves: various and sundry date calculations, common structure setups, communication protocol implementations, and so on. On that team, we used to joke that we'd all be millionaires within a month if they simply paid us 1% of a penny every time one of our modules got executed (after all, CSF programs were being run hundreds of millions of times each day). Imagine that paycheque...

From reading about the WGA strike, it's clear that many professional writers live off of residuals. Most of them have hot and cold periods, and they get through the latter by receiving payments from what they produced during the former. That's so different than the existence that I've known (to date, anyway) that it almost seems wrong to me, at first blush. I mean, I was brought up to believe that you earn money by working, and if you're smart (and disciplined) enough with your money then you'll eventually have saved up enough to retire. In over 21 years so far, I haven't been unemployed for even a single day, meaning that (as a salaried worker) I've been earning money continually for over two straight decades. Where do these writers get off, having long periods of non-work during which they still manage to draw an income? How's that fair?

But of course it is fair, because that's the way their industry works. The product of their imagination gets used - and then re-used over and over again - to make money, and the deal is: they're entitled to a little bit of the pie anytime money's being made from their creativity. The WGA fought bitter battles in the past to win that setup, and now they're fighting once again to extend that principle into a new medium, among other things. And I'm not entirely sure from what I've read whether the producers/studios are trying to make us believe that the principle shouldn't apply to the Internet (for example), or that there's simply no money to share.

Which brings me to creative accounting. As the parent of a freshly-employed accountant, I can't be too hard on that occupation for fear of retribution from within! But it always amazes me that the answer to such seemingly straight-forward questions as "How much money did that money make?" or "How much revenue did those ads generate?" can be so easily manipulated and twisted to suit someone's purpose. Isn't it just book-keeping? Why does it end up being so full of greys? And how do people get away with telling one story to those they want to impress ("Our movie's doing boffo box office and will be one of the most profitable of the year!") and a complete contradiction to anyone with a stake in it ("Yes, I know that you're entitled to a slice of the profits, Mr Clooney, but as our books will clearly demonstrate, we're well in the red on this production...")? Where's an auditor when you really need one?

Anyway, Entertainment Weekly has a good pro-WGA article that I found interesting. Maybe you will, too.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Is This Really A Firesale In Disguise?

I loved this entry on the United Hollywood blog today. Basically, one of the bloggers suggests that someone contact Google and cut out the middlemen (the studios): just have Google contract the WGA, en masse, to start writing for the Internet... but under terms that reflect its value (and who'd know that better than Google?)

Obviously it's written very tongue-in-cheek but it certainly afforded the author many opportunities to vent his frustrations with the writers' current situation. I particularly liked:
"If Google wanted, they could scoop up THE ENTIRE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY. We are all available."

When the love will end

A handy chart to know when your favorite programs will hit reruns due to the WGA strike:,0,7606966.htmlstory?coll=la-home-center

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

24: Season 7 Trailer

Hey Fox: give it a break already!

PeterJ recently posted about putting shows on notice. 24 has been on my notice list for the last two seasons - I think the only reason I finished watching the last season was because I didn't cancel the PVR schedule. After watching the trailer for this season, I'm not sure I even want to give the premiere a chance.

They should have stopped after season 3, before the show really started to go downhill. On the other hand, after watching that trailer I feel the sudden urge to order me some DirecTV for their 100 channels of HD!

Heroes' Tim Kring Is Listening (And Apologizing)

Entertainment Weekly has a lovely little exchange with Heroes creator Tim Kring, on the topic of Season Two. In the sort of move that's becoming increasingly common in this audience-participation age, Kring acknowledges - and agrees with - some of the complaints he's been hearing directed toward his show. He then goes on to say he's sorry and assures us that it's going to get better.

We went through something similar with Lost and that turned out OK, so I guess it's a good thing. On the other hand, I can't help thinking that it's more like pandering and less like creativity. But am I being too harsh?

Understanding The WGA Strike

"On Strike! Shut It Down! Hollywood's A Union Town!"

Interested in what the Writers Guild is striking about? I encourage you to check out the United Hollywood blog and decide for yourself what side you are on.

Here's a nice little clip from The Office folks on the picket line...

I started digging deeper into this after reading this post on Jenna Fischer's blog - I didn't realize how the networks are screwing folks over with online distribution... to quote,
The big issue in this negotiation involves the internet. If you go to right now, you can watch an episode The Office for free. The network runs advertisements while you're watching it, which gives them an extra source of revenue. The actors, writers, producers and director, the people who created the content you are watching, are not compensated in any way for this.

The Writers Guild has taken the position that the writers should receive residuals if the show re-airs on the internet just like they receive residuals if it re-airs on television since in both cases the studios are making money. The issue is a huge deal, because the internet is clearly where the future of entertainment lies.

Right now, a number of successful shows (like Lost for one) have stopped showing repeat episodes on TV at all, and have replaced them with ad-supported streaming video on their websites. If you're a Lost writer, or actor, or director, or a teamster that's no residuals at all for that show, and that's a big pay cut.

I totally agree - the internet *is* where the future of entertainment lies. My TV viewing is probably about 30% from online content, 70% from cable - and the online portion has only been growing.

Heh - how appropriate is it that I resurface from my recent blogging hiatus to comment on the Writers Guild strike? I guess timing is everything. The WGA picked a fairly reasonable time to strike - just as the fall shows are starting to pick up (ie: Heroes), winter shows are on the horizon (ie: Lost) and US Thanksgiving is right around the corner.

Canadian content could be the short term winner in this strike, as people are going to be turning somewhere in the primetime hours to fill the rerun void.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Remake Bad Movies, Not Great Ones

I seem to recall either Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert saying, years ago, that he believed film makers should only do remakes of lousy-to-average movies, and leave the classics be. The rationale was pretty simple: a great motion picture is already there; it's achieved its potential. So take the crappy ones, or the blah ones, and remake them into something special! That actually accomplishes something.

If you wonder what made me think of this, Variety was reporting today that Jennifer Connelly and Keanu Reeves are slated to appear in a new version of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Need I say more?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Escape from Prison Break

Well, that's it. A few minutes ago I removed Prison Break from the list of shows I have programmed into my PVR. I'd like to claim it was because of some particular objection (like deleting 24 was) or because it had gotten bad (which it has, but not that much worse than when it started) or because it had "jumped the shark"... and while those are certainly factors, it's more that I just find the whole thing boring and repetitive. It's not a great sign when I can't even name the characters introduced this season, or remember what it is that each is supposed to be bringing to the table. I can't even be bothered to find an appropriately illustrative picture to drop into this post, so feel free to use the one a few posts back if you're jonesing for imagery.

On notice: Bionic Woman, Chuck, and Smallville. Smallville deserves a whole post of its own; has it always been this bad?

Season rating: blah
Series rating: **

Review: Babel

I'm finding Babel a tough movie to review, which doesn't happen very often to me. It was thoroughly engaging, and yet still frustrating at times. It was thought-provoking, to be sure, but I'm not really sure what it set out to say, beyond the obvious.

The film tells four inter-related stories: an American couple are traveling through Morocco on a bus tour and wearing their marital problems on their sleeves; a family of goat farmers in Morocco are dealing with their own issues, from jackals who deplete their flock to a young brother spying on an unashamed older sister as she undresses; another brother-sister pair, this time American and at home in southern California, have been left in the care of their Mexican nanny who desperately wants to go home to attend her son's wedding; and a deaf-mute Japanese teenager (played by 25-year-old Rinko Kikuchi, shown above) tries to find some degree of acceptance in a culture that she believes finds her monstrous, due to her handicap. What I loved about Babel was how well fleshed out each of these characters, and their situations, felt as the movie progressed. What I didn't love were the contrivances that tied them all together. Not terribly surprising was the revelation that the American couple are the parents of the California kids; unexplained was how the nanny ever expected them to be home in time for her to get to the wedding, since the pivotal event which stopped their tour dead in its tracks didn't seem to last all that long, making one wonder just how they'd have been able to return in that timeframe anyway. By the same token, the idea that both the parents and the children would go through such life-changing traumas at the same time, thousands of miles apart, stretched my credulity past the breaking point.

Making up for the improbable synchronicities of the plot, though, were the insights into Japanese, North African and Mexican culture provided by each of the threads. At times the immersive quality of those scenes rivaled the best of John Sayles, which of course is high praise coming from me. As the title suggests, part of the context for Babel is that of language, and the barriers we erect by having so many of them. (And all because those ancient ninnies were building their tower up to Heaven, or however that fable goes.) I expected more to be made of that angle, though. Perhaps a key turning point where one character has to find a way to be understood by another to save a life, or alternatively some misunderstanding that sends the story in an unexpected direction? Instead, I was rather disappointed in that regard, as not that much was made of it. There were some subtle examples, like the struggle of the Japanese girl to express herself without the power of speech, or the fact that the Mexican au pere had provided her charges with such flawless comprehension of Spanish that she could speak it exclusively around them with no loss of communication whatsoever. But in the end I was left scratching my head as to why the choice had been made for that particular title. (On the other hand, kudos to the film-makers for using the original languages, with sub-titles, instead of having everyone speak English!)

All of the acting is top-notch, although Cate Blanchett wasn't given much to work with. As the victim of a thoughtless and meaningless crime, she's incapacitated for much of the time, providing a flashpoint to the proceedings but very little in the way of character development. She's lost a baby recently, and she's mad at her husband, but that's about all we know. Her situation actually highlights one of the understated - but clearly felt - commentaries of Babel, which is the inequity between the cultures shown. Blanchett's character is shot and taken to a nearby village in search of a doctor, any doctor. While there, the abject poverty all around them doesn't seem to penetrate Brad Pitt's frantic husband character, as he attempts to move Heaven and Earth to save this white woman of his in a town where locals undoubtedly die routinely from the harshness of the lifestyle. What makes her life more important than theirs? The fact that she's American, apparently.

Some of the questions left unanswered bother me, which is either a bad sign or a good one. What did the deaf-mute Chieko write in her note to the detective? At one point it seemed like it was a suicide note, and yet she didn't kill herself. Why did her mother end her own life? What was it that the American wife was never going to forgive her husband for? The lack of closure with these and other topics left me unsatisfied, at least a little.

I liked Babel but couldn't quite love it. Vicki commented that she dreamed about the movie last night, and woke up thinking about it. I think it's the sort of film that will grow on me over time, and possibly sit better with me on a second viewing. For now, though, it's only earning a 3-star result.

Rating: ***

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Review: Torchwood: Small Worlds (Season One, Episode 5)

Sometimes a fumble has to be congratulated, if only for the effort put forth. This is the case with Small Worlds, the fifth episode in the love it or hate it Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood.

The idea that Torchwood not only deals with alien nasties but more terrestial--but still unearthly threats--is an interesting idea. Falling into the trap of 'The Alien of The Week!' is to revisit one of the reasons The X-Files ran itself into the ground. The choice of using faeries as a threat is actually both very bold--('What? You mean fairies? Gimme a frickin' break!') and very apt.

Even a cursory knowledge of folklore will show you that faerie stories are rarely comforting. This approach is one that Susannah Moore takes with her excellent novel Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, and it's one apparently shared by Small World's writer, Peter J. Hammond.

Hammond knows strange, being the creator of Sapphire and Steel, easily one of the strangest series to grace British television. Yet still Small Worlds falls a little flat.

The story centres around faeries attempting to recruit a new member, called the 'Chosen One': a young school age girl. Torchwood gets wind of this when an child molester attempts to kidnap her, which leads the faeries to deliver their own brand of judgment. The rest of the episode deals with Jack explaining the power of faeries to both the other Torchwood members and the viewers, while attempting to find this 'Chosen One'.

Small Worlds, while doing its best, doesn't build up the threat of the faeries enough. Sure, I know how bad things can get, but I'm a geek: the average viewer will just wonder what all the fuss is about. Jack's fear and resignation in dealing with them comes across as a bit hollow--even his dramatic moments of helplessness come across empty, courtesy of some bad sound recording. In the end, we're left with an episode that satisfies neither the geek nor the casual yob who'se tuned in to see the sexy bits. It tries, bless it's Torchwood soul, but ultimately drops the narrative ball. But oh, did it try.

Still, there are some nice bits, other than Gwen's sweater. The final shot of the 'Chosen One' being integrated into the famous Cottingly fairy photos was nice. But I'm a geek--I adore things like that.

Rating: *** (three stars for effort, lads!)

Crossovers, Subtle And Otherwise

(Hey, how about a toast for reaching Post # 100 on this collaborative blog in less than three months?)

At a time when CBS is promoting a major crossover event between CSI and Without a Trace (this Thursday, 9:00 to 11:00... set your PVRs!), a much smaller example went largely unnoticed a few weeks ago. You probably have to be a fan of both ER (NBC) and Men in Trees (ABC) to even appreciate this, but it was still pretty funny.

Actor Abraham Benrubi was a semi-regular on ER, off and on for about a dozen years, playing oversized orderly Jerry Markovic. He was a bit of a gentle giant character, and typically only had (at most) a minute or less of face time per episode as the show focused on the doctors, nurses and transitory patients who passed through the place every week. Jerry went missing sometime last season, as not-coincidentally Benrubi joined the cast of nascent try-out show Men in Trees, which shot 13 episodes for the 2006/07 TV season. With MiT now well now into its second season (a full one, this time), Benrubi's fully off the medical drama thanks to his recurring role as Ben Jackson, a tavern owner in Elmo, Alaska, on the ABC romantic comedy. This lead to an exchange on ER recently in which one of the regulars asked, "Where's Jerry?" to which another responded, "Didn't you hear? He moved to Alaska. I think he's slinging beers there" (or words to that effect).

As I say, it was pretty subtle, and probably went over many heads, but we certainly enjoyed it in our household.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Joss Not 'Whedon' Off TV Just Yet!

How does Joss Whedon, Eliza "Faith" Dushku and a science fiction concept, all wrapped up in the form of a TV show, sound to you? It might just happen, if you believe this report. Not sure about Dollhouse as a title, though.

I'm also a little leary of watching any new show on Fox these days (Drive, anyone?) but I suppose the prospect of once again being able to glom ol' Faith might just trump that fear.

No Heroes Spinoff For You!

So much for the Heroes spinoff mini-series, Heroes: Origins, according to this Variety article.

This impending writers' strike is really threatening to interfere with my ability to find suitable levels of escapism!!

Tim Minear on a potential writers strike:

Strike. Sigh. I keep telling everyone I want to picket with a blank sign. Hundred of writers with blank signs -- says a thing, doesn't it?