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Saturday, Dec 1, 2007


When Fox finally put Futurama out of its constantly pre-empted prime time misery, fans were flush with recognizable disgust. The network had never done right by Matt Groening’s brilliant Simpsons follow-up, and the constant schedule changes had left audiences little room to grasp the intricacies and details of the sublime sci-fi series. Almost instantly, the rumors began. With the DVD season sets selling so well, would the studio salvage the show ala Family Guy, hoping the retail popularity would translate into ratings? Or better yet, would another company come along and take over completely. Oddly enough, neither occurred. Out of production since 2003, Comedy Central recently announced it would bring back the award winning animated sitcom - but on some intriguing new terms. Groening and the gang would produce four direct to DVD “movies”. After their release, the cable network would chop each one up into four individual ‘episodes’, thereby bringing back 16 new installments to impatient devotees everywhere.


Now, the first one is here and it was well worth the wait. Subtitled Bender’s Big Score, and featuring the return of all the original characters (including some you thought the show was through with), this revamped version of the Futurama premise remains true to its tenets. For those unfamiliar with the show, a lonely 21st century pizza boy named Philip J. Fry accidentally winds up cryogenically frozen. A thousand years go by before he’s revived. Looking up his only living relative - Professor Hubert Farnsworth, a senile old scientist who’s his distant nephew, 30 times removed - Fry gets a job with the scientist’s interstellar delivery service. He works with Turanga Leila, the one-eyed ship captain, who along with Bender Rodriguez, an automated bending unit, spoiled rich intern Amy Wong, stumbling staff doctor John D. Zoidberg, and resident bureaucrat Hermes Conrad try to keep the company afloat. Living in New New York, Fry has a hard time adjusting. Luckily, his friends are around to keep his spirits up.


After leaving viewers hanging at the end of Season 4, this unusual update is a classic reminder of the show’s cartoon chaos theory. When intergalactic Internet scammers managed to undermine the entire economy of Earth - including the recently revived Planet Express crew - lovable robot Bender becomes a time traveling agent of theft for the aliens. By using an encrypted code found on Fry’s butt, the automaton can open up continuum voids and walk right into them. From there, it’s just a matter of heading into the past and grabbing as much loot as possible. Of course, this creates a paradox - two identical beings cannot occupy the same time and space as each other. We soon learn that the duplicate is doomed. As everyone on the planet is rendered penniless, comely Cyclops Leila falls for Head Museum worker Lars. He seems like the perfect guy for her, much to Fry’s chagrin.

While purists may balk at another time travel tale (the creators have often commented on how the obsessives typically whine about the various physical and metaphysical contradictions involved) the use of such a setup, in conjunction with the masterful explanation of the staff’s return, lead to one of the best Futurama outings ever. The initial jabs at the mindless “Box Company” that ‘cancelled’ Planet Express’s contract is priceless, and the effortless manner in which the series reintroduces and reincorporates characters back into the mix is amazing. Even quite cult faves like Scruffy the Janitor, Hermes’ wife LaBarbara, and the all powerful Hypnotoad find their way into the narrative. While it seems rather odd that this seamless cinematic presentation will eventually be divvied up into four self-contained episodes (Groening has promised to preserve the overall arcs as well), the fact remains that, as with previous works by these animated anarchists, when this show sizzles, it burns hotter than a distant sun.


The ability to juggle several stories has often been a Futurama trademark, and the main ones here are all wonderfully realized. There is real emotion in Leila finally finding love, and the resolution is both heart-rending and lifting. Similarly, Bender’s transformation into a totally compliant time thief results in some stellar moments of satire (he brings the Mona Lisa back half finished, claiming that Da Vinci might not make it to “The Last Supper”). Hermes’ accident gives this often forgotten paper pusher a wonderful dilemma to overcome. Toss in the aliens, the last act space battle, the constant references to other sci-fi signposts, and the solid voice acting (Billy West, John DiMaggio, and Katie Segal remain a masterful comic trio) and you’ve got a flawless stand alone package that perfectly preserves everything that made the series a woefully unappreciated gem.


Bringing the series back via DVD is also a genius move, since it allows for all the context and concerns voiced by Groening over the years to finally be addressed. The full length audio commentary is a delicious dirt dishing overview of the entire Fox debacle as well as the production problems the renewed episodes had to overcome. Several of the cast members are on hand, and they lend a level of geniality and wit to what is already a very funny discussion. The various featurettes and bonus elements also add to our enjoyment. We get more Al Gore (always a welcome reference riff), an actual scholarly lecture on the numerous math based in-jokes and ideas used in the series, a collection of character designs and sketch galleries, some delightful deleted scenes (including a visit from the Robot Mafia), and an actual episode of the wildly successful 31st Century sitcom, Everyone Loves Hypnotoad. After viewing it, you’ll see why it’s so popular.


With three more films on the way, and the entire company back for however long the haul remains, it’s a safe bet that Futurama will finally find the notoriety (and niche) it deserved before Fox buried it for more and more football. Reruns on Adult Swim/Cartoon Network have done fabulously well, and when that contract expires, Comedy Central can be counted on to amplify the show’s already impressive profile. It’s just a shame that we had to wait four long years before Fry and his fellow futurists could make a return. It’s clear that creativity was not a significant factor in the final determination to end the show. When someone doesn’t appreciate your efforts, why waste time trying to impress them. The fans wanted more Futurama, and the DVD movie Bender’s Big Score delivers exactly that. And as Professor Farnsworth would say, that’s “good news” indeed.


 


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Friday, Nov 30, 2007

Consumerism tends to drive us to want more and more culture (more is always better) and thus it requires an apparatus that foists new options on us and strenuously tries to encourage these new and improved options will give us more than what we’ve already got, and probably haven’t exhausted—can one ever really exhaust works of art, after all? The nature of that appartus is changing, though, as the old monolithic culture industry—empowered by economies of scale, driven by profit-seeking, and hewing to the lowest common denominator among the large audiences it hoped to muster and hold together—is falling apart under the stress of new ad hoc distributional networks made possible by digitization of works and the internet hooking together consumers who love to share. Part of this sharing is sheer generosity, part of it is an aggrieved feeling that the really good stuff needs to be heard by more people and that filesharing is a way to strike a blow against the industry that has made its money stifling or neutering independent voices.


The temptation to tell people what they should like is always strong. And people often like to be told—that’s why there are so many services supplying cultural criticism. I remember how seriously I took the album reviews I read in Rolling Stone or even in the local newspaper—now, having had some exposure to what such reviewers are actually like, I can’t even believe that I ever paid any attention to what they thought. Consequently I’m driven even further toward the unfortunate egomaniacal position that I probably know more than many of the people writing these things; then there’s the problem also that I’m starting to have decades more experience listening to music on many of them, leaving me in a position where I have nothing to learn from them that’s not wrong or superseded by something that I already learned about years ago. And then there’s the fact that so much highly recommended new music is rehashed old music that is best appreciated when you don’t know the antecedents. It makes me feel very old, as though I have outgrown the opportunity to enjoy contemporary culture, and have become instead one of those relics, living in the past and arguing how everything was so much better before. This still seems preferable to being one of those old guys trying desperately to stay young and “relevant,” as if what teenagers determine that relevance for anyone other than marketers looking to tap a lucrative demographic segment.


Those advocating legislating taste in various ways, whether through censorship or some form of sumptuary laws, typically believe that when individuals are left to their own devices, they are too easily influenced by advertising or by other parties who are in bad faith in making their suggestions. Those who oppose top-down culture believe that individuals should be free to choose to enjoy whatever they want, and that their authentic wishes supersede any attempts at influencing or shaping their choices. Of course, everyone likes freedom in the abstract, and everyone likes to believe that they know their own mind and know what they like without having to be told. But in practice, people tend to seek out opinions, because they may enjoy the suggestion of human company in opinions more than the works of art in themselves. People look to culture to invest them with a sense of belonging, and sharing opinions or liking something that is liked in general is a way of simulating that feeling of inclusion. So a work’s reception can be more significant than the work itself, which makes the dogma about individuals following their own tastes and a work’s popularity reflecting its intrinsic quality suspect.


If people aren’t really following their own hearts in choosing what culture to consume, the question becomes, who should they follow? People want to follow the tastes of people they like and want to count themselves among, absent that, they’ll go along with who seems to be liking the same sorts of things—an impression that can be created either by advertising or by the opinion-making media or by both in conjunction. The alternative would be to mandate popular culture through state-funded educational systems—this would provide a much more uniform harmony of tastes, but would discourage variety. It would restore much of the meaning to the currently meaningless terms independent and alternative, however.


But there isn’t really enough at stake to warrant state intervention, unless you believe that culture is primarily didactic, teaching people how to behave and interact with one another. Those who want censorship usually invoke this argument, that the loose morals on display in commercial culture—the sexual objectification of anything beautiful to turn it into a lure, the promotion of giving in to temptation always (how else to keep consumerism rolling in the face of economic crisis?) —warrants a clampdown. Snobs, on the other hand, claim that commercial culture is vulgar, playing to the tastes of the most ignorant, and encouraging everyone else to become stupid too, as in Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy. But snobs are in bad faith when they argue that culture should be subjected to top-down control (presumably by wise people like themselves) because their sense of esteem comes from the superiority they feel to common tastes, which would vanish if their wish for power over culture was granted.


This is meandering a bit, but the reason I started thinking about this was because of the questions I was trying to get at in the previous entry, about what will be lost if commercial culture truly gives way to some new form of cultural participation enabled by technology. The culture industry, that Frankfort school boogeyman, was one way of controlling culture in the name of a popular taste gauging and tested by functionaries and agents and middlemen who just wanted to make money off other people’s talents. In some ways, this is a pure, paradoxically selfless motive—they weren’t trying to foist their own talents on the world or skew what culture was produced with their own idiosyncratic vision. They just worked as conduits, trying to find the easiest way to please people. Sometimes that meant trying to brainwash them and feed them shit that was already on hand, sometimes that meant responding to an unexpected turn, a sea change in demography or popular expectation. Absent a culture industry, these people are out of jobs, but they may be replaced by strict opinion makers, who filter the mass of what artists make available directly to audiences to pick out stuff worthy of attention. A&R men will work after the fact rather than before, and will deal directly with the public. They will perhaps be like stock pickers, marketing their track record. But in order for this to happen, they will need to set their opinions off from the mass of freely offered (and easily aggregated) opinion that’s already available on the internet. Opinions would have to become scarce in order to have any value, and that seems unlikely. What is scarce is people who put money behind their opinions, who have “skin in the game”. Perhaps what is needed is a futures market in culture to replace the signal investments made by the culture industry.


So instead, tastes will perhaps be formed by aggregators, who collect data on what different groups are actually doing—so you can tailor your choices to who you want to fit in with. You can have a Muzak like service supply culture for Brand You the same way they do for retail stores. More likely, the data about what stuff individuals should be getting into to belong to a specific set will be aggregated within social networks on social networking sites. It is up to clever marketers to figure out how to infiltrate these networks or co-opt the opinion leaders within these networks, the sort of people Malcolm Gladwell profiles in The Tipping Point. Social networking sites should make these people easier to track down, and will yield them opportunities to reap rewards for their natural proselytizing talents. So these folks will have the opportunity to become the new A&R people. And groups of friends will come to be organized as mini-culture industry firms.


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Friday, Nov 30, 2007

It’s not even December yet and already I’ve been asked to submit year-end best of lists to four different places.  Scary, ain’t it?  Not just that they’d ask for my opinion but that all these publications, zines and newspapers are so enthrall to this idea.  Not that it’s unique to music either as witnessed by this PR Week article.  Obviously, we can’t get enough of ‘em but that doesn’t mean that these kind of lists don’t have problems.


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Friday, Nov 30, 2007

The San Diego Union-Tribune on The Graduate, novel vs. screenplay:


Charles Webb’s novella has no soul and no style. Mike Nichols’ generation-influencing film, which introduced the world to Dustin Hoffman and gave Anne Bancroft the role of a lifetime, had both.


Harsh, right? I don’t know if I agree, but then it’s been a while since I read Webb’s book. Telling, however, might be how many times I’ve revisited the movie. It’s age-old, really, the Book vs. Movie debate; how one stacks up against the other. But is such a debate even valid considering the clear and vast differences between storytelling on paper and on screen? I’ve decided the phrase “the book was better” simply means the book was better detailed, because isn’t the argument against the movie always that someone was left out or something wasn’t explained enough? It doesn’t make the movie bad, it just makes it, well, a movie—shorter, faster, reliant on a particular structure.


Still, it’s a debate we can’t get away from, especially lately with so many adaptations hitting cinemas. I have, I think, six movie tie-ins on my to-read shelf at the moment —No Country for Old Men, Reservation Road, Into the Wild, Gone, Baby, Gone, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Oil!. I may rate the mediums on their own merit, but I’m very much a victim of the “book is better” deal simply because I strive to read the source material of each and every film I’m more than just vaguely interested in (and somehow the books become more appealing, and race to the top of the to-read pile because the film is on its way). It’s a weird thing. And, weirder, I never read a book after I’ve seen the film. I somehow feel plagued by the filmic shorthand, and, consequently, have put off seeing movies for years (The Godfather, House of Sand and Fog, Patty Hearst) out of a determination to get the full story first.


The Union-Tribune steers clear of any investigation into reasons behind our fascination with comparing movies to books, and instead provides a list of ten movies writer David L. Coddon believes surpass the source material. His selections are diverse and interesting, though mostly way off the mark. Like I said—you just can’t compare the two, right?


The Brandeis Hoot rates comic book adaptations here, while James Hebert, also at the Union-Tribune, looks at adaptations that worked. Betsy Burton at the King’s English bookstore in Salt Lake City is on my side in this article in yesterday’s Cincinnati Post:


Books leave a lot more to your imagination, obviously. I think, in the end, they can be more powerful, because you have all the time in the world to let your imagination work ... Movies can draw you out of yourself in a very different way. (A movie) can just pull you completely out of your own existence.


And, judging from the multitude of titles about the hit theatres mention in that piece, I really need to get reading.


 


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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007


For the weekend beginning 30 November, here are the films in focus:


The Orphanage [rating: 8]


Bolstered by cinematic atmosphere so ripe you can practically pick it and eat it, The Orphanage is a deliriously delicious creep out.


It’s safe to say that, before Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish horror (and its Mexican counterpart) were reserved for the famed Paul Naschy and his old school ilk. It was all religious symbolism and mannered moralizing. But thanks to the bigger picture boos presented by this cinematic NeoWave (which includes Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu), a whole new world of artistic innovation has opened. It’s been a real entertainment epiphany. Del Toro has even moved into the role of mentor, guiding the work of others into the movie mainstream. Thanks to his vision and approach, we now have the magnificent movie The Orphanage. Combining classic haunted house motifs with a real sense of sentiment, filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona has delivered a stunning work of wonder. It signals the continued influence of the Hispanic aesthetic on the frequently failing fright flick.  read full review…


Midnight Eagle [rating: 6]


Like a series of subplot ships slowly meandering downstream to a final narrative focal point, Midnight Eagle has to be one of the most languid political thrillers ever conceived.


It’s curious to note the continuing influence of Western filmmaking on the usually idiosyncratic foreign cinema. Instead of incorporating or exploiting Hollywood’s hackneyed entertainment principles, some countries simply embrace them without exception. Japan has maintained a wonderfully oblivious take on American moviemaking over the last few decades. They still enjoy the power of giant monsters and an amplified level of acting. Over the last 20 years, thanks to the advances in technology, more cross culture cooperation has, sadly, led to more and more Eastern films feeling like warmed over Tinsel Town junk. Take Midnight Eagle. This two hour plus work of international intrigue wants to emulate the overproduced popcorn product that clogs up the summer Cineplex. Luckily, it’s much better than most of the malarkey considered marketable by our own studio suits. Sadly, it also suffers from some unusual aesthetic choices.  read full review…


Redacted [rating: 4]


So obvious in its intentions that it screams ‘teenager scamming for the car keys’, Redacted fails to fully embrace the proposed genius of its premise.


Yes, we’re still at war. No, the apparently addled Congress, given a midterm mandate to end the military presence in Iraq as soon as possible, has been so far unable to make a single significant stride in that direction. Democracy both here and abroad is failing, lost in a fog of formless opinion, uninspired protest, and a collection of calculated talking points (like ‘fighting them there so we don’t have to here’). And what is Hollywood’s answer to all this acknowledged atrophy? Why, they come up with one lame ‘war is unnecessary Hell’ workout after another. The latest to line up and take its critical lumps is Brian DePalma’s wildly mediocre Redacted. Instead of returning the also-ran auteur to his glory days, this mean-spirited mess is destined to further his already substantial fall from cinematic grace. read full review…


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