Saturday, October 16, 2010

Triggered Times: Remembering "Pearl"

An October 4 New York Times story revealed that Janis Joplin – gone at that point for exactly 40 years – is on the verge of a comeback. Although she has remained a music icon since overdosing on heroin in the fall of 1970, her family never groomed the singer’s legacy the way relatives of other rock stars have. But now a “professional estate manager,” who already has done wonders for the equally deceased Jim Morrison, Peter Tosh and Gram Parsons, intends to relaunch her image. There’ll be new books, vinyl collector editions of her albums, a line of Janis-like clothing and jewelry called Made for Pearl (her nickname and the title of her posthumous record). Plus, he’s planning a feature-length documentary that will include rarely seen footage shot by her road manager John Byrne Cooke.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Boxed In: Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried

In Rodrigo Cortés’s modest thriller Buried, Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver in Iraq who is hijacked and buried alive. The drama takes place entirely within the confines of his wooden coffin. When I first heard about the picture last summer, my instincts told me that while this formal exercise in claustrophobia would likely be effective (after all, who isn’t afraid of being buried alive?), where could it possibly go dramatically? But then I started reading all the critical praise it received when it premiered at TIFF in September. So I decided to check it out when it opened.

I should have trusted my first instincts.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Life After Dr. Horrible: A Rough Guide to Original Web Programming

The story goes like this: it was late December 2007 in Hollywood, and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) was walking the picket line during the 100-day WGA writers’ strike when he began to think about how he could bypass the studios and networks altogether and self-produce a TV show which could be delivered directly to his fans. Walking the line with him was Felicia Day, an actor/writer who Joss knew from the 7th season of Buffy. At the time she was halfway through the first season of her own web series, The Guild, which had become particularly successful. Inspired by her experience, Joss’ little idea grew more and more ambitious. And thus the world’s first Internet musical, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, was born.

Together with his younger brothers, screenwriters Zack (now writing Rubicon) and Jed, and Jed’s then-fiancée (and now wife) Maurissa Tancharoen, the musical and the acting talents of Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle), Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory), and Felicia Day herself, Whedon filmed Dr. Horrible in just four days, with its cast and many of its crew working for free. With no marketing budget to speak of, originally posted online (in three, 14-minute acts) for free download and subsequently going on sale on iTunes and as a DVD, Dr. Horrible was a critical and commercial success by any standard. For media gurus, the summer of 2008 was indeed the season of Dr. Horrible. That fall, despite never having been broadcast on any network, it would go on to win an Emmy, and the “Direct-to-Web Supervillain Musical” was even named #15 in Time Magazine’s ‘Top 50 Inventions of 2008’. Television, it seemed, would never be the same. Here’s how the story was being told: before Dr. Horrible, the major studios and networks could only see the Internet either as a vast delivery mechanism for their large and growing back catalogue of previously produced content or for web tie-ins for established series. The idea of studios producing new, original content for the web simply wasn’t on the table—more than enough money could be made by offering older and recent shows on sites like Hulu, Youtube, and on network websites. (In fact, this lucrative money stream—the majority of which never made its way back to these shows’ writers and creators—was one of the main sticking points leading to WGA strike in 2007.) But now, with Dr. Horrible leading the way, the Internet was suddenly revealed to be a wide-open landscape rich in creative and commercial potential.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Off The Shelf: The Cup (1999)

The Cup, which I first saw at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1999, has a deceptively simple plot. Based on a true story, the film focuses on a couple of teenaged monks training at a monastery in India who become completely obsessed with the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament. While desperately trying to hatch plots to rent a TV and a satellite dish, they also have to convince the monastery abbot to give them permission to watch the final match. Drawing much of his influence from Iranian cinema, writer and director Khyentse Norbu creates an unassuming parable where within it hides an assortment of rich and provocative ideas.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Melancholy Prequel: Caprica

During the production of the last season of Battlestar: Galatica (2002-2009), they announced that a new series, a prequel, called Caprica, set 58 years before the Cylon rebellion depicted in BS:G, would be broadcast. Generally, I've always hated prequels because they lack surprise, innovation or imagination. Each effort comes across like a huge cash grab (hello, George Lucas). And in 98% of cases, that's all they are (hi there, George). Their worst crime is that they tend to be pretty boring because the prequel usually tells us things that – if we've been paying attention to the original TV show or movie – have already been revealed. So, though I loved the reconfigured BS:G, I must admit I had some reluctance about watching Caprica for the reasons stated above. The first eight episodes of Season One ran last year; the next nine just started broadcast on Space last Tuesday.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Vintage: Clapton

Now at the age of 65, Eric Clapton has nothing left to prove as a singer, guitarist and icon of rock music. So it may come as a surprise to learn that he's finally let go of all the pressure from the so-called rock press and die-hard "Layla" fans to live up to his icon status. This record, simply entitled Clapton, is more of a vintage work: balanced, laid-back and sentimental. Surrounded by musical friends such as J.J. Cale, Jim Keltner, Willie Weeks and producer Doyle Bramhall II, what you'll find here is a musical mix of blues, gospel and jazz standards (that's right, Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is The Ocean" and "Autumn Leaves" make the cut). Clapton also went to New Orleans and added Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty and Allen Toussaint to the band for a swinging version of "My Very Good Friend The Milkman" and "When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful." These tracks stand out on the album because Clapton, the great imitator in some people’s minds, has reverently captured the flavours and street feel of New Orleans.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Playing War: The Wooden Gun (1979)

Part coming of age drama, part political allegory, and part social commentary, Ilan Moshenson’s The Wooden Gun (Roveh Huliot in Hebrew) is a small gem. Set in Tel Aviv in 1950, it tells the story of a juvenile gang war between two small groups of adolescent boys. Against the backdrop of Israel’s first years, the story it tells is far vaster and much richer than it may first appear. With a small budget and primarily adolescent casts, this 1979 Israeli feature also dramatizes the striking differences between these young first-generation Israelis and their European-born parents, most of whom are still living in the shadow of the Holocaust. Raised on the glories of war, soldiers’ honour, and nationalism, the boys have little sympathy for or understanding of the world that their families left behind in coming to the newly-created State of Israel. Between the distracted silence of parents and the unthinking (and often confusing) idealism of educators, the children don’t appreciate the dangers of real violence. The boys' world is no larger than the battlefields of the schoolyards and streets of their small neighbourhood, and the impotent efforts of their parents and teachers to contain their escalating violent activities only serve to isolate the boys all the more from the older generation. An early scene in the film offers a perfect snapshot of this confusion of values: their teacher, a war veteran himself, pauses to briefly admonish Yoni for his continued fighting with his peers, then turns without a beat and leads the rest of the students on a charge up the hill of a former battlefield, rat-tat-tatting imaginary machine guns at an invisible enemy.