Tuesday, December 29, 2009

AVATAR: See it now.

James Cameron's epic AVATAR is a must-see this season. Cameron began the prep for this huge film in 1994 with a script treatment. The principle photography began in 2007 with a $280-$310 million dollar price tag. The cost is due to the CGI and motion-capture technology used. Then the movie is also in 3-D. To be honest, it is a totally new and ground-breaking technological feat. I have NEVER seen a movie like it. You MUST see it in theaters to fully appreciate the film.

Roger Ebert says AVATAR is "extraordinary" and gave it four stars out of four. "Watching Avatar, I felt sort of the same as when I saw Star Wars in 1977. That was another movie I walked into with uncertain expectations," he said. "Avatar is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It's a technical breakthrough."

The domestic gross (as of 12/29/09) is $232,129,323 and foreign is $410,864,537 for a grand total of $642,993,860 worldwide.

This 2 hour 40 minute huge epic film follows a wheel-chair bound marine, Jake Sully as he enters in to the Na'vi world on the Pandora Planet. He battles an inner conscious as to whether or not he should side with the military that plans on destroying the spiritual land of Pandora or help the natives keep there home. It has definite imperialism themes, environmental sympathies, and what it means to be tolerant.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS: George Clooney Silly Again.

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS is a fun, dry and ridiculous movie. It stars Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. Stand out performances by Clooney and Spacey dominate the film. The story is about a reporter traveling to Iraq trying to find the next big article, once the reporter (McGregor) meets up with an ex-special forces soldier (Clooney), chaos ensues.

Sure, the film is creative, laugh-out-loud funny, but does it seem familiar? Yes, yes, it does. It's very similar to Coen brothers' 2008 absurdist comedy with dark humor undertones, BURN AFTER READING. And the lead in that quirky comedy? Clooney, too. In a way, the characters that Clooney plays are very different, yet he acts them the exact same way. Sure, the dialogue is new, the character's story is new, but it's still Clooney playing the goofy, dark-humored man. Is it worth seeing? Sure, it's enjoyable and is not the typical comedy. But just be aware that BURN AFTER READING is the much better try at the absurdity and the humor (and nominated for Golden Globes and WGA awards). But nonetheless, worth the time to see Clooney and THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Tuesdays and Thursdays have been invaded by LOST wannabes. V and FLASHFORWARD are two new shows that air on these two nights (respectively) on ABC. There are some major similarities between these new shows and the mega-hit LOST (which will end it's sixth and last season this May). Here is the breakdown for how these shows rip-off LOST and other major sci-fi shows.

1) CASTING. A major grievance of mine is the casting. In both of the new shows, casting directors pulled from LOST. Elizabeth Mitchell plays Juliet on LOST and now is the lead FBI agent in V. This could just be a coincidence, but then comes Dominic Monaghan who was Charlie on LOST playing the bad-guy scientist in FLASHFORWARD. We get it, ABC, you want the success of LOST to carry over to these two series. We get it. And you are using actors from LOST to make the connection for the audience. It's a bit overkill.

2) PLOT SIMILARITIES. Sure there is no magical island as in LOST on the two new shows, but there are some serious similarities between the three shows. Both FLASHFORWARD and LOST are about normal human beings dealing with magical, unexplainable forces that change their lives. For LOST it is the island, for FLASHFORWARD it is the seeing the future part. However, LOST comes with a bible courtesy of J.J. Abrams the show's creator. And with that bible comes numerous seasons each richer than the last. As for FLASHFORWARD, it seems hard to see it coming into its 5th or 6th season with the expiration date that is the entire focus for the show's first season, unless it changes dramatically. Cause what happens when we get to that date in April? Then, for V it so clearly rips off BATTLE STAR GALACTICA (BSG). The idea of aliens coming to Earth, disguised as humans who befriend humanity and then pillage the Earth has been done. Not only has it been done, ABC, but its been done better. Sorry ABC, you're too late.

3) CINEMATICALLY SIMILAR. While I am all for cinematically interesting television shows that elevate the level of taste for a network series, these new shows are just too similar. I watched V and FLASHFORWARD back to back and the cinematic style between the two are just way too similar. I even wonder if they aren't using the same sets, just dressing them differently. If I didn't know any better and muted them, I might think they were the same show. This is especially upsetting since these are the shows slated to replace the multi-Emmy winning LOST. LOST's cinematic look is due to a few things. 1) It's shot on location in Hawaii, that's right FLASHFORWARD and V, on a real island. 2) It has a cinematic point of view. It is not the typical three camera set-up from age-old television. The camera is in the action, making it feel more like an hour film. 3) It has a distinct look. Unlike V and FLASHFORWARD (which are insanely similar in looks), LOST looks like nothing else on television.

4) TITLE CARDS. V is totally ripping of the famous LOST title card that happens before the first major commercial break. However, LOST is still superior in this strategy as it has major cliffhangers before the title card appears. Also the ominous LOST sign is absolutely terrifying with its creepy music and spiraling motion. Not only does V lose here as it is clearly a rip-off on LOST, but it doesn't even beat LOST's epic title card. Sorry, V.

5) V's OTHER RIP-OFFs. V rips from more than just BSG and LOST. The name V with its blood-stained look comes from a few other entertainment mediums. V is trying to get audience members by having a similar name as the movie V FOR VENDETTA. ABC execs are not dumb. They are using the times (harsh economy, political unrest etc...) to stir audiences into a revolutionary minded show. In the show, a revolution is about to begin between the visitors and the humans-in-the-know (total rip-off of BSG!). And one way to do this is to reference to revolutions is use iconography from a movie about social unrest. Enter V FOR VENDETTA which had an eerily similar V symbol. Hmm. Also, let's not forget about the new craze for vampires everywhere. ABC wanted to capitalize on this without actually making a vampire series (and thus joining the bandwagon). Anyone watch TRUE BLOOD on HBO? Well the vampires' blood on that show is called (unsurprisingly) V. Of course since the show is about vampires and blood is in the title of show AND since the noun "V" means blood in the contextof the show, why shouldn't blood be associated with TRUE BLOOD's V? That's right ABC'S V, TRUE BLOOD was there first, too.

Now in all fairness, both of these new shows are interesting. However, I think V has more staying power since it can take off in many directions. Unfortunately I find this to be the weaker of the two. FLASHFORWARD deals with issues of fate v. free choice, past v. present v. future, and what Time means. Most interesting, FLASHFORWARD has found a way to incorporate the ideas like if reading a horoscope before your day happens, will it influence you and your choices? Far more interesting then V's alien landing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

THIS IS IT! (oh yes it is!)

THIS IS IT is the Michael Jackson documentary that was supposed to be a limited engagement, but has had an extended theatrical release due to great audience attendance. On its opening weekend (10/28/09) it ranked #1 making $23,234,394 (box office mojo). Domestically, the major documentary made $59,348,197 and worldwide $188,475,839 as of this writing (box office mojo). Clearly, the King of Pop reigned at the box office.

Overall if you are a MJ fan, you MUST see this film. It shows a behind the scenes look of the superstar. We see the rehearsal process plus some of the dress rehearsal numbers. You can totally tell how the show would take us to new heights as an audience. The special effects were gonna be huge. The sets? Even bigger. MJ never did things small and his "final curtain call" would have been no different.

All the major hits are in (Thriller, Beat It, Billie Jean, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal). The only two noticeably missing songs are Bad and We are the World. Bad is a particular loss since the original music video was so amazing with its leather and choreography (directed by Martin Scorsese). Then the We are the World song is sadly absent. The song was one of the highlights of MJ's philanthropic career as it benefitted poor in the US and Africa. Plus, it united the music industry together, under the quiet conductor, the King of Pop.

While the dancing is incredible and MJ clearly kept up (and showed up) those 20-somethings, the best part of the documentary is seeing Michael's personality. We saw him laughing, playing and having a good time with his dancers, producers, and musicians: his friends. For once, we saw him relaxed, confident, and...more human?...while not on stage. We see him laughing and joking around when the producer makes him try out the cherry-picker for safety. His child-like playfulness is so enigmatic. Then the music begins and he is a different person altogether. He's a superstar.

Yet, the most poignant moment in the documentary that sums up his entire being is the moment when his head is lowered, fedora covering his eyes, and the spotlight encases him as the darkness around him falls away. And then. He smirks.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Rethinking Kennedy: An Interpretive Biography

RETHINKING KENNEDY: AN INTERPRETIVE BIOGRAPHY by Michael O'Brien is a fantastic read for anyone interested in the most charismatic president. O'Brien is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Fox Valley along with being a Kennedy expert. He wrote a book previously to this one, a more comprehensive (read: less accessible?) biography on the same subject entitled: JOHN F. KENNEDY.

O'Brien makes a sincere effort to make history totally accessible and readable. His biography gives a terrifically balanced point of view while traveling from Kennedy's youth, through his elections, to his death. While the author is clearly on Kennedy's side, O'Brien shows both sides of the aisle equally, while proving points. He covers major issues from Vietnam to the Bay of Pigs. O'Brien shows the strengths and weaknesses of these major events, controlled by the young president. Even more interesting, are the chapters about JFK's life with Jackie, his childhood, and his sexual life. O'Brien does not shy away from the tough questions about Castro and possible assassination attempts on the Cuban leader or relations with Marilyn Monroe and Mob leaders. Then the concluding chapter describes the president's final morning alive. I highly recommend this biography where O'Brien serves great justice to a well-loved president, while still pointing out some flaws and some controversies.

The critics agree:

"What you need to know about modern history's most compelling and complicated president is delivered in Michael O'Brien's compressed, highly readable package gleaned from his own deep knowledge and the volumes of scholarship, some of it quite critical, spawned by the nation's 35th president."
-Charles M. Madigan, Presidential Writer in Residence, Roosevelt University

"Based on recent scholarship, this lucid, interpretive summary of John Kennedy's life should appeal to the general reader and university undergraduates alike."
-James N. Giglio, author of The Presidency of John F. Kennedy

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Twyla Tharp: Speaks Candidly on Creativity and Boxes.

On Tuesday October 13th, Twyla Tharp spoke to a group of USC students, professors, and other members of the USC community at the Bing Theatre on USC's campus through the Visions and Voices Arts & Humanities Initiative. She was promoting her new book, THE CREATIVE HABIT. (Which I will review my signed copy after reading it, look for the review here!) Tharp discussed her long career of dance and choreography. Some highlights include MOVIN' OUT, BARYSHNIKOV by THARP, AMADEUS, and RAGTIME. Tharp has received Emmy's and Tony's and enough "Best Choreography" awards to last a lifetime. Yet she continues on.

She spoke most memorably about how she works alone, and yet with dancers. Tharp must push herself creatively so as to not repeat herself. Even the notion of repeating her works in repertoire is repulsive to her.

Mostly, Tharp's wit and wisdom came through in her speech. She discussed the well-being of American arts as less than stellar. When referring to DANCING WITH THE STARS, Tharp explained that brining the art of ballroom dancing to the masses was great, but the way it is being done, is well, tasteless. She stated sarcastically, "I'm glad!" It seems she fought here with what she is supposed to say: that bringing dance to masses who are otherwise oblivious, is always a good idea. Instead she hints that DWTS is perhaps the wrong way to do this, and maybe even a disservice to the masses and an insult to the dance professionals and the dance world.

Again, Tharp criticizes the pop culture world with reference to Twitter. She describes the need for keeping unfinished work a secret. She claims secrets give the creator energy and spark. If the secret is divulged, it no longer belongs to the creator, but can be misinterpreted, misused, and misguided. Tharp says that Twitter is just a way to divulge secrets, which is counterproductive to the creative process.

Lastly, while Tharp prides herself on being original and never accepting works as they have been done before (for instance, not re-interpreting old, classic musicals, but merely repeating what others have done) she does remind us that we must have a context from which to jump. We must know what has been done before to make something new. We must have an appreciation for the artists, musicians, and historians who have come before us. Tharp, the legendary choreography reminds us that, "to think outside the box, we must start with a box."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

REAL TIME LIVE: Improvised Cinema.

So last night the University of Southern California (in Los Angeles), through their Visions and Voices Arts and Humanities Initiative, presented Finnish auteur Mia Makela's (aka Solu) piece entitled REAL TIME LIVE. Makela has been to many festivals including: Sonic Acts in Amsterdam, Sonar in Barcelona, Transmediale in Berlin and Transitio_MX in Mexico City. Her narratives are often dream-like with minimal abstractions. This genre of performance is named "live cinema." She has written and lectured on this emerging art form.

Basically Makela mixes sound and moving images live in a semi-improvised experience that develops in real time. It's sorta like watching her create a short film in front of us, with only one shot at it. Its interesting. The problems lie in the apparent: there is no story line. Well none that is concrete. You can argue that her images of a woman standing in a field has a plot, but it lacks tangibility. Another issue is the lack of collaboration that makes arts (and especially film) fascinating. The bringing together of many ideas for one product. Also, when one considers improvisation, one finds the first rule (to always say "yes") to be of the utmost importance. And without an ensemble, the improvisation is one-sided and lacking alternative impulses other than the one auteur. While I personally find multimedia experiences to be poignant and unique, this was very high-brow and lacked accessibility.

The key moment (and frankly the most interesting part of the whole evening, in my opinion) was when she wrote the credits (yes wrote, because the film was all made in front of us). She misspelled the word, "audio" and had to go back and change it. Like I said, it certainly is interesting and a valid choice for filmic expression, however the missing collaborative collective really made the evening one sided and even a tad dull. Is there a place for this art in our future? Sure, but it still needs some tweaking to make it collaborative and a bit more accessible.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Museums: Getty Villa in Malibu, California.

The Getty Villa (a second location, not to be confused with the Getty Museum in LA) is a palatial estate that houses Greek and Roman art and artifacts. The museum requires a reservation (though its free) which is great because it limits the amount of visitors so its never over-crowded. The works range from Greek red-figured pottery to famous heads of Alexander The Great. However, the one of the most interesting aspects is the villa its self. The grounds have cafes, restaurants, stores, an outdoor theatre, herb gardens, fountains, alcoves and beautiful promenades. The roman-inspired estate was recently reopened in 2006. While I visited the property in October, I can only presume the spring brings the gardens into full-bloom. If you ever have some time in the LA area, visit the Getty Villa and tour the amazing artwork and incredibly detailed gardens and fountains.

Friday, October 2, 2009

FlashForward: The Ironically Unknown Future

FLASHFORWARD aired its second episode last night (October 1st, 2009) on ABC. This new hit television drama stars Joseph Fiennes (recognizable from Oscar winning SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE). It follows Fiennes character as he (and the rest of the world) try to piece together why a massive, worldwide blackout occurred causing everyone to lose consciousness and see their futures.

This plot is very innovative and falls under the unreal tv genre. This genre is for the supernatural aspects of television shows. To be honest, it seems as though ABC is preparing for the end of LOST (their major, and established unreal television show at present, which premieres its final season early 2010). The two shows share similar qualities, beyond the supernatural realm of their narratives. Both shows select a core group of individuals who are "destined" to solve the mystery. In LOST its the Oceanic 6 survivors, and in FLASHFORWARD its the FBI team, particularly the Fiennes character who saw the investigation in his own vision.

Secondly, the two television shows are aimed at the same demographic: the under 35 year-olds. With their sci-fi and conspiracy theory styles, this key audience is satisfied. This is a crucial demographic to win over because they are often the ones who spend more freely. If they spend more freely, the ad execs will raise their prices for ads during the show due to the high demand for this captive audience.

Thirdly, this audience is more likely to investigate alternative ways to access the show's "bible." They will take advantage of conventions, webisodes, fanfiction, message boards, facebook groups, twitter tweets, watching episodes online and the like. These will provide extra information that will give a more in-depth look at the episodes. These alternative ways to surround an audience with the show, which proved very successful for LOST, is just another way to earn more revenue from ad sales and other ancillary products.

And lastly, and most importantly perhaps, just like LOST, FLASHFORWARD has a definite expiration date. ABC chose not to bestow the curse of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND on LOST and have the Oceanic 6 live forever on the island, they knew they need (in order to make the most money through rise of anticipation of the final season) to kill the show at its peak. Similarly, FLASHFORWARD has already proven one major point at which it could be killed: once the mystery is solved, when the characters reach the day they envisioned in the blackout. This is a major concern for the execs up at ABC. Perhaps there will be curve balls to throw this off a bit, but regardless of whether that is in fact the end point or not, there is definitely going to be an endpoint for this new drama.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

On My Own: Fox's GLEE Brings The Musical Back.

Fox's September 30th episode of the new hit show GLEE, entitled The Rhodes Not Taken, proves to be just as bubbly as the first episodes. Plus the cast welcomes brilliant Tony and Emmy award winning performer, Kristin Chenoweth as a guest star. Chenoweth plays a very "super" senior who had previously left high school, but has now returned to finish her requirements for her diploma, but also help the Glee Club.

Chenoweth's combined austere as broadway royalty with her incredibly diverse covers on the show illustrate a trend that GLEE is leading. This trend is bringing back the musical to the masses and Chenoweth is the perfect guest star for this. She encompasses all that is stage broadway but mixed with the covers she relates to the teen audience who, as a whole, are not broadway's main demographic. This musical revival is only present now because musicals were dormant for mainstream audiences for so long. For years the musicals were major blockbuster hits like Gene Kelly's SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and Fred Astaire's SWING TIME. And then the musical was lost for a period with only a few stand alone hits like GREASE or WEST SIDE STORY. And now the musical is trying to make a comeback.

After the unprecedented success of the High School Musical franchise and then the subsequent triumph of HAIRSPRAY, GLEE takes the musical to a bit more of an adult level with more adult content for the teen audience. It borderlines on a teen soap opera with its over dramatic musical sequences that combine the over-the-top qualities of soaps with a smartly and artistically satisfying production value like modern day music videos. This teen audience is, for now, fully satisfied with the hunky guys, the scandal of unplanned pregnancies, the mix of drama with music video styling but will it last? The adults who view the show see the quirky, stylized world and conjure images of the surreal environment of PUSHING DAISIES, with smart, spunky characters. However, my biggest concern for GLEE is that it is too quirky, too stylized, and will end up like PUSHING DAISIES, with a core following that won't see it through a third season, let's hope I'm wrong.