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by Jason Gross

19 Oct 2008

According to a recent L.A. times article, Howard Stern has lost most of his audience.  Even if you’re not a fan of him (like me), it’s still significant ‘cause if the self-proclaimed ‘king of all media’ can’t make it on satellite, what kinda hope is there for the other shows out there?  Granted, he still has a relatively big audience but it’s still a fraction of what he had on traditional radio.  Verdict: satellite still ain’t a standard yet and has a ways to go.  Even the merger between Sirius and XM might not seal that deal.

Next up is a Guardian article that says politics and music can be a mismatch, citing the most obvious example of Reagan (mis)using Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” for his campaign.  It also made me think of poor ol’ John McCain who’s been slapped around by a number of artists who don’t want their songs used by his campaign- the list now includes Heart, Jackson Browne, Foo Fighters and Van Halen.  Didn’t it occur to his handlers to ask before they did this and then get embarrassed? Did they just figure that they’d get turned down anyway?  And if so, did they think the bands would just shut up and not say anything?  Add this to the long list of blunders that have plagued McCain’s campaign and yet another cautionary example that it provides.

And finally, there’s yet another study linking music loss to MP3 players.  I know, I know… we’ve heard this before but it bears repeating because we’re gonna have several generations with tinnitus soon ‘cause they don’t know better than to turn their players down.  Eventually, you’ll see public service announcements about this, warning iPod owners to cool it but why wait?  We should have Apple sponsoring these commercials NOW, with artists participating to drive home the point.  I’ll even write the damn spot for you “Hi, this is…. and I want you to hear my music and keep hearing it so please don’t blast your ears out.  All you have to do is turn it down a little and you’ll keep hearing my songs for years to come.  Hearing damage is a serious problem that can lead to hearing loss.  So play it smart.”  How’s that?  I’ll even waive my writer’s fee on that, OK?

by Bill Gibron

18 Oct 2008

Just like other fine arts - of conversation, of letter writing, of human compassion - debate has been downplayed and demonized by modern society. We don’t like dissent. Instead, we enforce compromise, or even worse, claim that disagreement is something unfair or “Un-American”. Even our political candidates shun the once important intellectual exercise, instead opting for prepared questions and talking point laden speech/statements. Television, the great wasteland of McLuhan fame, has become the last bastion of anything remotely resembling discourse, and even then, it’s usually reduced to punditry vs. perturbing on the idea scale. Lewis Black’s newest TV venue, Comedy Central’s Root of All Evil, wants to advance the cause of discourse, and within its limited purview, it definitely does.

Using a mock trial format, Black introduces two famed ‘advocates’ (read: noted comics from the world of stand-up) who argue over which is worse - Oprah or the Catholic Church, Beer or Weed, for example. Like extended onstage riffs, the talent takes their position, and using quips, jabs, and other humor-based briefs, they try to convince the judge (the host) and the jury (a studio audience) of their position. Black asks questions to trip up the speakers, and something called “The Ripple of Evil” is also discussed. The attending crowd is asked to vote, Black reads their opinion, renders his verdict, and sentences the loser. Among the already mentioned conflicts featured on this Season 1 DVD (from Paramount Home Video) are YouTube vs. Porn, Donald Trump vs. Viagra, Las Vegas vs. The Human Body, Kim Jong-IL vs. Tila Tequila, American Idol vs. High School, and Paris Hilton vs. Dick Cheney. 

For a long time now, Comedy Central has tried to come up with a successful comedian clash format. The most interesting was Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, a proposed companion piece of sorts to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. During its run, four stand-ups would battle it out over current issues of the day. Quite contentious - and entertaining - the show didn’t last long, mostly because of problems with production and topicality. Now we get Root of All Evil, and in some ways, it’s even less successful. Not that the show isn’t funny, engaging, irreverent, or controversial. In fact, it’s one of the best examples of the format. But with the focus on popular culture, and some clear interference from the network, Black and company are missing a golden opportunity to become the McLaughlin Group of mirth.

Frankly, for all his current stature, Black should be bigger. Outside of his Comedy Central co-star Stewart, and his slightly less exacerbated twin Bill Maher (whose Real Time has a hand in Evil‘s production) he’s one of the rare voices on the meaningful issues of the world. He’s like Mort Sahl stricken with Tourettes, a clever political satirist who never seems to get the respect he deserves. Granted, his attacks sound more like rants than reasoned arguments, but when you cut out all the curse words and sideways references, he’s right on target. If anything, Root of All Evil gives him a half hour platform to magnify his popularity. But when the company paying your bills nixes certain ideas (Comedy Central rejected a first season showdown between Scientology vs. Disney), your ability for an individual showcase is limited.

Still, the show is very good at taking down its intended marks. Highlights include Patton Oswalt’s flawless deconstruction of Dick Cheney (“He’s the leader of the free world, and the world has never been less free.”), Andy Kindler’s vivisection of American Idol (“calling it a ‘guilty pleasure’ is just another way of saying ‘I’m dead inside…’”) and Oswalt, again, on YouTube (”…and while we were all laughing (at online videos), we invaded Iran!”). Sometimes, the takes are rather obvious (beer = bad judgment) or overdone (“At least when you hang out with cokeheads, they only have one theory…what if we could get some more coke.”). Yet within the context of the show, almost all of it works. And you’ll be surprised at how serious the comedians take their charge.

Indeed, one of the show’s more compelling elements is the adherence to the format and the desire to be persuasive. Sure, this is really nothing more than well-prepared comedy bits strung out over a legal theme, but there are times when you can tell that the performers have forgotten about being funny and are really trying to make a salient point. Black sets the tone, opening the show with a patented screed and statement, and throughout the proceedings he drops in little bilious bon mots. It helps that his first season cast is so capable. Along with Kindler, and Oswalt, Greg Giraldo, Paul F. Thompkins, Andrew Daly (the series’ unsung hero) and Kathleen Madigan manage to make the most of their time. Still, there is an inherent flaw in the overall presentation. Sometimes, a subject is so ripe for ridicule that we, the home audience, can come up with equally clever insights. When the comics don’t completely deliver, Root of All Evil appears to underachieve.

Still, for what it manages to accomplish in the name of entertainment, Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil is an intriguing, often insightful offering. It dares to challenge conventional wisdoms while dragging spurious social topics through the satirically-slung mud. It may not be the best situation to platform the talent involved, and the areas of interest tend to stay within the easily recognizable. Yet with real debate a dead proficiency, and the media’s desire to make everything a clash - of cultures, of concerns, of commerce - there is something quite satisfying about Black and his buddies. While they may not be able to resurrect the artform, they always make us laugh. And in today’s troubled times, that might be what matters most.

by Jason Gross

18 Oct 2008

This NY Times article points out the simple equation of what happens to cute electronic toys in tough times- less money means less gadgets, not just for yourself but also as presents for friends and loved ones for b-days, holidays, etc..  That also means less of a chance for manufacturers to try out their new licensing deals on any new phone or music player and so they’re have to produce less of them or cut the prices way back.  It also means that the phone and MP3 players will be more frugal and cautious about the deals they make, meaning that they might also fall behind with making headway with consumers in getting them to buy more authorized songs as sound files or ringtones.  It’s kind of a vicious spiral downwards…

by Bill Gibron

18 Oct 2008

The verdict is in and the decision is, to say the least, confusing. When Ang Lee’s interpretation of the classic green-skinned Marvel character arrived in 2003, it was considered a massive failure, not only commercially but critically. Fans of the anger-inspired behemoth were not pleased with all the psychological mumbo jumbo, and the father/son issues explored seemed to take a back seat to any kind of recognizable action or spectacle. A mere $140 million at the box office and a marginal 61% “freshness” rating at Rotten Tomatoes remains its unfairly marginalized legacy.

So when it was announced that the comic book company itself was “reimagining” the potential franchise, righting the graphic novel geek wrongs attempted by Lee, the fanbase celebrated. After all, anything had to be better than an excessively dramatic take on the radioactive rage-aholic Dr. Bruce Banner and his oversized inner demon, right? Well, not exactly. With a very similar sounding $140 million in revenue and a 67% “freshness” assessment at RT, it looks like once a Hulk, always a Hulk. Of course, we might have had a monster movie version of The Dark Knight had star Edward Norton and director Louis Leterrier had their way. On the recent DVD release of the summer smash from Universal, the filmmaker discusses the ambitious version of the narrative that was shot down by a studio that wanted more bang and less brooding.

It’s been several years since Bruce Banner accidentally overdosed on gamma radiation, changing the entire genetic make-up of his body. Now, whenever he gets too excited, or angry, he turns into a monstrous behemoth, a creature capable of unbelievable strength and unconscionable violence. Just when he thinks he’s stumbled upon a possible cure, Army General Thaddeus Ross reenters his life. The man in charge of Banner’s initial experiments, he lost more than a potential weapon the day his subject went haywire. His daughter, the dedicated scientist Betty Ross, refuses to forgive him for what happened, and she’s now disowned him. When a Russian/English mercenary named Emil Blonsky decides to undergo a similar procedure, he doesn’t become the “ultimate solider”. Instead, he becomes an ‘abomination” that the ‘hulk’ must battle. 

Again, it has to be said that one of the most “incredible” things about this so-called reinvention of the Hulk is how close it is to Ang Lee’s vision. Those who claim it far surpasses the 2003 original are merely applying their own form of aesthetic selective memory. Though Louis Leterrier has a limited pedigree as the creator of big time blockbuster fare, at least his time taking the Transporter franchise through the action genre motions means this version of the Marvel monster can really kick some butt. Sure, our French filmmaker is still enamored with a chaotic, quick cut style of cinema that renders carefully choreographed battles a blur, but there are moments in this movie where his constantly moving lens add authenticity to the otherwise fantastical elements. There is one sequence in particular where Hulk battles the military among the trees and grounds of a college campus. Here, Leterrier’s style clearly complements the ballistics.

The Incredible Hulk also gets an upgrade when it comes to casting. Norton may not be everyone’s idea of a solid superhero, but he brings the right amount of humanity to the role. He manages to enrich even the most routine lines, and he’s a clear step above the rather sedate Eric Bana. Similarly, Liv Tyler trumps the zombie like zero that was Jennifer Connelly in Lee’s version. Sure, Betty is still reduced to emotional eye candy, standing by her shapeshifting man through thick…and thicker. But Tyler retains her dignity. Tim Roth’s arrival as the main villain, Emil Blonsky is okay, if nothing truly spectacular. After an opening sequence where he slaughters anything that moves, we never really experience his true evil. It’s just a given, considering the lengths he will go through to get to the Hulk. With William Hurt hilarious in a wry, smirk supporting moustache and Tim Blake Nelson as a helpful scientist with a secret agenda, this is a capable company of performers.

Still, there are parts of the script that can’t help but get in the way. If Banner says it once, he says the “weapons” line about 20 times. It’s as if Norton loved the idea of playing on the “military industrial complex” nature of the character and went overboard. Also, there’s no real backstory built in. The opening credits feature a recreated montage of material straight out of the old TV intro, but we never discover why Banner is in exile, how he has battled the armed forces to maintain his privacy, why Betty would be against his attempts at curing/helping his affliction, and how our hero could continue his research in what looks like one of the more squalid slums in Brazil. Between the initial encounter/take down with the factory worker bullies to the eventual arrival of superbeast Abomination, there’s a lot of interpersonal padding, material that seems mandated by Norton’s desire to tread as close to Ang territory without pissing off that other important Lee - Stan.

Of course, this was not always the case. As we learn countless times during the DVD presentation, there was almost an hour of material cut from the original Incredible Hulk release. Per distributor mandate - and over the fiery objections of Leterrier and Norton - the character complexity and darker nature of the narrative was undermined so there would be an emphasis on popcorn pyrotechnics and the usual Summer season bombast. Prior to the films opening, the filmmaker had hinted at a Special Edition release of his longer, more involved “director’s cut”. Sadly, as of now, this is not included as part of any Incredible Hulk digital package. The one disc set has a small selection of deleted scene. Multi-DVD collections have some more (including a sneak peek at Captain America), but nothing else.

All of which begs the question of intent. If Marvel took back the control of its characters to make sure another Ang Lee experiment wouldn’t occur, why did they allow Universal to destroy that conceit? Why make a new Hulk if you were simply going to improve the cast and yet walk down the same mental/emotional path? Norton does give things more gravitas, and when he turns into the title creature, the CGI is smoother and more striking, but that’s about all. Unfortunately, no one is comfortable enough with the technology to allow for that all important full blown head on transformation money shot. There is an “almost” moment when Banner is undergoing the experimental treatment that may cure him, but Leterrier’s cutting countermands any awe. In fact, there is so much down to editorial earth control over the context that the cautiousness grows aggravating.

There are those who have likened The Incredible Hulk to Marvel’s other Summer stunner, Iron Man and argued for the company’s retention of creative control. Granted, the comic company made many of the right decisions, especially when it came to allowing real actors and capable directors to helm their efforts. Yet before the accolades get too bulky, one thing is certain - this reimagining of the big green beast with unfathomable brute strength is not the success of his metal suited brethren. Historically, both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk will be viewed as decent, dependable hits, with the latter satisfying the all important nerd contingent. In that regard and that regard alone, it was a success. All other aspects demand a draw.

by tjmHolden

17 Oct 2008

Rob Horning’s contribution, The Pejorative Gay, yesterday drew attention to one word (“gay”) and the (negative) traction it has gained in (English-speaking) society. As he observed, it has come to be associated with a particular (pejorative) meaning, with attendant implications (and negative outcomes). His discussion was interesting as far as it went—a consideration of the power of a particular word in a society—but as I read it, my first thought ran to origins. Whereas Rob’s point of departure was how “gay” once mean “lame” (to him), my first association (and the one I tend generally to employ) was of “merriment” or “mirth-full”; and in Pop-cultural terms, the first voice I heard was Dylan’s: his (intentional) choice in Standing in a Doorway to croon: “I’m strummin’ on my gay guitar”—a very different use of the word, and one which hues more closely to its original intended meaning and accepted understanding. Reminding us that language is organic and what words become—the life that they take on—may differ greatly from what they were, where and how they began.

I would have left it there—a one-off thought flitting through the (hopelessly unchartable) labyrinth of my mind—had it not been for John McCain’s coincidental appearance on Letterman last night. For those who didn’t catch it, or wish a refresher, you can find it here:

 


 

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