Monday, May 28, 2007

007 in '007: Moonraker

Is there an installment of the James Bond series with a less flattering reputation than 1979’s Moonraker? Frequently labeled the worst of the worst, it’s time for another look at the popcorn bonanza that launched Bond into outer space and Roger Moore into camp infamy.

Any talk of Moonraker must begin with the pre-credits sequence, which features the most magnificently jaw(s)-dropping stunt ever performed in a 007 outing: Aboard a private jet, Bond’s busy puttin’ the moves on some babe who quickly reveals herself to be less than charmed by pulling a gun on him. The pilot emerges from the cockpit decked out in skydiving gear. Taking the gun from the girl, he hands her a parachute and proceeds to blast the navigation equipment to pieces.

Evil Pilot: “This is where we leave you, Mr. Bond.”

Bond: “A little premature, isn't it?”

Bond and Evil Pilot scuffle, the door opens…and Bond pushes Evil Pilot out of the plane. 007’s victory is short-lived, however, as he too is pushed out the door by the previously unseen Evil Co-Pilot -- Jaws (Richard Kiel)! And that’s when the sequence really begins…

Bond navigates his way sans ‘chute towards Evil Pilot. The pair scuffle for considerably longer this time, in mid-air, as Bond relentlessly fights to remove Evil Pilot’s parachute. (Does the bizarre shot of Bond’s nose nestled in Evil Pilot’s crotch tell us more about James than we ever wanted to know?) This entire fight is a beauty to behold and the jewel in the Bond stunt crown.

Once Bond snags the chute, Evil Pilot trails away into the atmosphere to meet his maker (clenching his fists at 007 all the way), Round Two begins. Jaws shows up behind James and attempts to sink his tinfoil teeth into Bond's leg, but not before James activates his chute, pulling him to safety. Jaws discovers his chute doesn’t work and crashes to safety through a circus tent on the ground below. (Despite the fact she was seen being given a parachute, we never really find out what happened to the girl.)

While this skydiving sequence has a few problems (i.e. the obvious stuntmen and the goggles Bond is magically wearing), the sheer thrill and spectacle make up for any minor shortcomings. It’s the kind of stuff that cemented Moore’s era as its own.

Tuneage and Credits Sequence: Maurice Binder’s work on the various ‘70s Moore movies is collectively my favorite. He was getting away with showcasing loads of sexy, silhouetted flesh – often dancing with R-rated imagery - and Moonraker is no different (though it does seem a mild attempt to duplicate the perfection of The Spy Who Loved Me’s credits). There’s a bit of dated animation in the mix, but the plethora of bouncing babes makes up for it.

Given the film’s sci-fi premise, the title tune feels too retro due to the recognizable presence of Shirley Bassey’s vocals. Her style is much more at home with her two Connery numbers and this feels like a case of “trying to go home”. The song was apparently offered to Kate Bush before Bassey and she supposedly turned it down (argh!). Kate’s vocal style would have been an inspired match for John Barry’s songwriting and Hal David's lyrics and as a Kate fanatic, I’m incapable of hearing "Moonraker" without dreaming of what might have been. The disco spin on the tune that plays over the end credits seems totally out of place with the rest of Barry’s score, which is pleasingly lush, accentuating the scope of Moonraker’s locations and the vastness of its premise. Interesting to note the movies that bookend Moonraker were not scored by Barry. (It bears worth repeating The Rued Morgue Disclaimer #1: Ross is lousy at writing about music.)

Zee Villain: French actor Michael Lonsdale’s Sir Hugo Drax is unengagingly realized, lifelessly stock and blandly cut from the most common slab of cardboard. The sum total of Drax is his villainy, his technology and his plans. With its focus on spectacle, the Moore era featured some of the least interesting villains and Drax is the weakest of the weak. He's a forgettable bad guy brought to non-life by a phoned-in performance....yet it doesn’t really hurt the film; Moonraker isn't about characterization nor does it even aspire to be.

While Drax the man may be a minus for Moonraker, his scheme – which seems inspired by one too many viewings of 2001 and the maddening thinking that might occur from the inability to figure it all out -- is a big plus. Drax is Hitler without the appreciation for art & history: Wipe out the flawed human race and start over in space. It’s through this comic book conceit that Moonraker scales memorable heights, both thematically and literally.

Zee Henchman: While Moore’s era may not have fared well in the Villain Department, it created some pretty memorable henchmen. Richard Kiel’s Jaws was the only villainous lackey who lived to see another movie (having hounded 007 in the previous film, The Spy Who Loved Me). Here, Jaws is played more for laughs than in the previous outing, but given the comic book feel of the proceedings, its never obtrusive and his continual hounding of Bond from one scene to the next is one of the film’s most successful aspects (the cable car fight is undeniably a highlight). In the finale, Jaws realizes Drax’s master plan wouldn’t include the freakish ilk of either he or his new love, Dolly (Blanche Ravalec), so he turns and helps James win the day. In his last scene, he pops open a champagne bottle with his teeth, toasts the future with Dolly, and speaks his only line of dialogue in either movie: “Well, here’s to us.”

Les Girls: Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) is the central Bond babe, but the producers cast Corinne Clery in the smaller part of Drax’s assistant Corinne Dufour. As one of the truly sexy babes of erotic cinema -- due mostly to The Story of O -- Clery’s mere presence overshadows Chiles, despite having a fraction of the screentime and a dubbed performance. If only the actresses’ roles had been reversed! (Granted, that's a wholly subjective observation and subsequent wish.)

Before Moonraker, Chiles was supposedly considered for Anya Amasova in The Spy Who Loved Me, but was otherwise engaged. Lucky for the actress she got a second chance. Although Goodhead is something of a cold fish with a bland demeanor it doesn't feel out of place due to her being a scientist and a CIA agent. Chiles is quite striking and from a looks standpoint it's easy to see why she was cast, yet every time she speaks Holly becomes a little less captivating.

Bond, James Bond: One of the most refreshing aspects of Roger Moore’s commentary tracks on the Ultimate Edition DVDs is his self-deprecating approach. He never stands on ceremony and doesn’t pretend to be some great actor. Moonraker is the outing in which Moore has the least to do from a character standpoint, and James spends the movie hopping from one outlandish situation to the next. (At one point he even ends up improbably disguised as Eastwood’s Man With No Name with the theme from The Magnificent Seven offering accompaniment.)

While writing this piece, it began to feel like a rehash of the Tomorrow Never Dies overview, yet a major difference between the films is the two leads: Brosnan is a great actor capable of heights he was rarely allowed to scale; Moore was the opposite – an actor of limitations, ideally suited to take on even the most shallow of scripts (where Moonraker easily lands). His double takes, line delivery and attitude make it work. Whatever misgivings people may have about Roger Moore, Moonraker proves he was the right Bond for his time and why he lasted so long in the part.

The Bond series has over the years learned to compete in a marketplace that’s learned how to successfully rip off Bond. Spurred on by the success of 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me, Albert Broccoli seemingly decided to do some shameless ripping of his own with Moonraker (including the structure of Spy's script). The industry was changing. Star Wars and Close Encounters were all the rage and The Empire Strikes Back was only a year away. Merchandising had become a major component of blockbuster filmmaking. Although the end of Spy announced “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only”, a decision was made to put Eyes on the backburner and have 007 engage in a star war of his own. Moonraker’s budget was astronomical for 1979 -- $34,000,000! By comparison Spy was only $14,000,000, Empire’s was a paltry $18,000,000 and in ‘83 Jedi was still only $32,000,000.

Moonraker’s goal was to take Bond into space, which it more than delivers. The space finale is Star Wars meets 2001 – an epic battle replete with ships, astronauts, laser guns and just about every single cliché imaginable thrown into such a scenario, including having Drax dispatched via an airlock. As my blogger bud Jeffrey pointed out, Moonraker’s really a parody – it parodies the previous Bond films and the finale parodies sci-fi. But any parody worth doing also loves and respects the material it exploits, and Moonraker's third act is drunk on popcorn science fiction. There’s a majestic beauty on display in between the laser beams and it somehow manages to echo the Lucas and Kubrick epics without ever even aspiring to those films' heights.

It isn’t hard to see why Moonraker is so often ridiculed; if the previous Moore movies had already hammered in a few nails, this one sealed the coffin on Connery’s golden age. By the time it reaches its finale, you’ve either submitted to its charms or lost all interest. The key to “getting” the movie is the same as appreciating any comic book -- basking in the pictures…and Moonraker overflows with sumptuous imagery. If one were deprived of the film's dialogue & plot mechanics and only listened to its score and wallowed in the photography, effects and locations, one might wonder exactly why so much derision surrounds the piece.

Sir Frederick Gray: “My God, what's Bond doing?”

Q: “I think he's attempting re-entry, sir.”

Some interesting trivia:

* Moonraker was filmed on three continents, in four studios, and across seven countries.

* To build the gigantic three level Space Station set interiors at France's Epinay Studios, the production utilized two tons of nails, one hundred tons of metal, two hundred and twenty technicians and ten thousand feet of set construction woodwork.

* Vehicles featured included NASA / Rockwell International Shuttle Spacecraft designs as the six Moonraker Space Shuttles; a Venezian Gondola that can turn into a hovercraft known as the Hovercraft Gondola or 'Bondola'; Q's Hydrofoil Boat, a Glastron speedboat with attached hang-glider; a white MP Roadster; a Rio de Janeiro Ambulance; a blue Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith II which takes Bond to his Rio hotel; a Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter; a Hispano-Suiza; and a Handley Page Jetstream Turboprop plane in the opening sequence.

* The film had the largest number of actors in weightlessness (on wires) ever filmed.

* For the fight between James Bond and Chang, the film had the largest amount of break-away sugar glass used in a single scene.

* The film utilized the largest set ever built in France.

* The final Bond film to feature Bernard Lee as M. He’d played the part in every entry since Dr. No.

Major kudos to fellow Bondphile Jeffrey of Liverputty and House Next Door fame for helping me out with all the great screen captures for this piece.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Seven Souls of The Sopranos

Way back when Season 6 of The Sopranos kicked off with Episode 66, "Members Only" (ooohhh...three sixes!), the creative minds presented an opening character montage set to Material's "Seven Souls", a groovy piece of tuneage narrated by William S. Burroughs. Hazy recollections? Surely you remember the sequence's most memorable moment: Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) dancing around in her underwear for then-beau Finn. (If, on the other hand, the image of Janice breastfeeding shines more vividly, your love for the Stones is out of control.)

An interpretation/theory of that sequence claims the characters which it showcased will all die by the end of the series. So far, three have moved on: Gene Pontecorvo, Vito Spatafore and either Carmine Lupertazzi or Ray Curto (too many actors on this show look alike -- which one was it?; either way, they're both dead now). If this theory's got any merit, it's worth considering that those three were the least "important" of the bunch.

Not counting Agents Harris and Goddard -- who appeared at the montage's start -- the remaining characters were Janice, Bobby, Meadow, A.J. and Carmela. Is it even remotely possible that this roll call could all end up six feet under within the last two hours? They've all got one very noticable factor in common...and the action cut to him when the song ended.

Material is one of many banner projects/bands spearheaded by prolific modern funk producer Bill Laswell. "Seven Souls" originated on the now out-of-print album of the same name. Another outstanding Material CD that is still in print is Hallucination Engine, which also features Burroughs rambling on the cynical track "Words of Advice". Speaking of, altered states of mind are highly advisable when partaking in a Material experience.

Here for your perusal is the complete text of Burroughs' "Seven Souls" meditation. The italicized lyrics were edited out of The Sopranos montage -- whether that was for time, pacing, content or dramatic effect I do not know.

The ancient Egyptians postulated Seven Souls.

Top soul, and the first to leave at the moment of death, is Ren, the Secret Name. This corresponds to my Director. He directs the film of your life from conception to death. The Secret Name is the title of your film. When you die, that's where Ren came in.

Second soul, and second one off the sinking ship, is Sekem: Energy, Power, Light. The Director gives the orders, Sekem presses the right buttons.

Number three is Khu, the Guardian Angel. He, she, or it is third man out...depicted as flying away across a full moon, a bird with luminous wings and head of light. Sort of thing you might see on a screen in an Indian restaurant in Panama. The Khu is responsible for the subject and can be injured in his defense -- but not permanently, since the first three souls are eternal. They go back to Heaven for another vessel.

The four remaining souls must take their chances with the subject in the Land of the Dead.

Number four is Ba, the heart -- often treacherous. This is a hawk's body with your face on it, shrunk down to the size of a fist. Many a hero has been brought down, like Samson, by a perfidious Ba.

Number five is Ka, the Double, most closely associated with the subject. The Ka, which usually reaches adolescence at the time of bodily death, is the only reliable guide through the Land of the Dead to the Western Lands.

Number six is Khaibit, the Shadow, Memory, your whole past conditioning from this and other lives.

Number seven is Sekhu, the Remains.

My friend Chris, who's far more knowledgable about these matters (yet doesn't watch The Sopranos), threw the following info my way in reference to Number Four, Ba, the heart:

When a person dies they are led to the West by Anubis, to the halls of double Ma'at or truth. In the Halls of the double Ma'at are many gods and everything is overseen by Osiris, his wife Isis and his sister Nebet Het. Thoth the scribe, who writes down what is happening, is also present. The weighing of the heart begins.

Anubis takes the person's heart and weighs it against the feather of Ma'at (order, truth, justice) which is an ostrich feather. If the heart is lighter than or as light as the feather the person's soul can go to the West. If the person's heart is heavier than the feather the person's soul is eaten by a demon called Ammit.

To not exist was the worst punishment for the Ancient Egyptians and Ammit eating your soul was just that: Non-existence.

What does it all mean in relation to the series? Fuck if I know...but since first hearing the theory about the sequence, I've been unable to shake it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Life Imitating [Bad] Art?

Man with 700 snakes arrested at airport

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Customs officers at Cairo's airport have detained a man bound for Saudi Arabia who was trying to smuggle 700 live snakes on a plane, airport authorities said.

The officers were stunned when a passenger, identified as Yahia Rahim Tulba, told them his carryon bag contained live snakes after he was asked to open it.

Tulba opened his bag to show the snakes to the police and asked the officers, who held a safe distance, not to come close. Among the various snakes, hidden in small cloth sacks, were two poisonous cobras, authorities said.

The Egyptian said he had hoped to sell the snakes in Saudi Arabia. Police confiscated the snakes and turned Tulba over to the prosecutor's office, accusing him of violating export laws and endangering the lives of other passengers.

According to the customs officials, Tulba claimed the snakes are wanted by Saudis who display them in glass jars in shops, keep them as pets or sell them to research centers.

The value of the snakes was not immediately known.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Surely I am not alone in not caring about the Transformers movie? Had it been a Micronauts feature, I mighta' been there, but this is a toy I never cared about. Didn't care about the old animated movie with Orson Welles either. Heck, I'd have had more interest in a Gobot movie just because they were the Beta to the Transformers' VHS. (More interest, yes...but would I go see it? Hell no!)

Somebody wrote the following on YouTube as a reaction to the trailer:

"This really looks crappy compared to what it could have been. No Soundwave, Megatron looks like crap, and bumblebee looks like a cross between Johnny 5 from short circut, Kain from robocop 2, and a lemon. But i have to admit, they did good work making optimus prime and scorpinok. Lots of lost potential making this, but it could have been worse."


The idea that the Transformers movie "could have been" so much more leaves me amused. The idea that it "could have been worse" leaves me speechless. (Or maybe it's the other way around...or maybe it doesn't matter which way it is.)

Now lest these thoughts be mistaken for snobbery, I will be there for He-Man and the Masters of the long as Evil-Lyn figures into the proceedings.

Tracey Thorn - Raise the Roof

The latest video from that groovy babe whose sounds have made my month:

Be sure and check out the Morgue piece "Everything but the Guy" for more gushing about Tracey Thorn's new album "Out of the Woods".

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Who? Kylie Minogue, Woody Allen & Paul McGann. What?!

Last month rumors abounded that Kylie Minogue was set to appear in the 2007 Doctor Who Christmas special. Russell T Davies quickly came along and said "No. How can she be appearing in something I haven't even written yet?". A few weeks went by and somebody asked Kylie herself and she replied "Yes. My gay husband [her stylist, William Baker], is so excited about it! But I'm not going to play a villain." Will she or won't she (be in the special that is)? Davies doesn't seem averse to throwing in oddball guest stars that appeal to the masses. To wit: Catherine Tate, Simon Pegg, Simon Callow, Anne Robinson, the What Not to Wear dames...the list could go on.

Indeed, Davies made it publicly known some time ago that he really wanted Britney Spears to appear on the show, but given Brit's bumpy track record as of late I wouldn't be surprised if he shifted his game plan to another pop icon: Minogue would certainly fit the bill.

Now The Sun (and The Sun, when it come to Who rumors, has been more hit than miss) is reporting that none other than Woody Allen is lined up for the Christmas special as well -- playing Albert Einstein! Normally I'd call balderdash on this, but given the sheer amount of time the Woodman has spent in England as of late (filming three UK-based movies in a row), why not? He's surely been exposed to the show repeatedly over the past three years (if not on TV, then certainly through the press). Outpost Gallifrey suggests the whole idea could be a mangled version of facts concerning actress Rebecca Hall's appearances in both Woody's next film and a movie with David Tennant called Einstein and Eddington (although she isn't listed in the latter's IMDB credits).

Confused? I sure as hell am...but man I'd love to see Woody on Doctor Who, even in a 10 second cameo. Something like that would top my list of "Things I Never Thought I'd See 'Cuz I Never Thought of 'Em To Begin With".

And yet as cool as the notion of Woody on Who may be, an even cooler Who rumor came courtesy of Michael Hinman at SyFyPortal: Talk of a Doctor Who theatrical movie --unrelated to the current series-- starring none other than Doctor #8, Paul McGann. Now this is something that even in theory blows me away, but is probably less likely than Kylie, Britney and Alvy Singer all appearing together in the same frame as David Tennant...if for no other reason than it'd be too sweet of a wish to come true.

No other actor that's portrayed the Doctor deserves another chance to strut his wares more than Paul McGann. Even though his sole outing, the 1996 TV Movie co-produced by the BBC, Fox and Universal, was pretty weak in the script arena, McGann's performance carried the entire affair and elevated it from forgettable to canonical (and that script threw out a fair amount of crap that's got no business being part of the Who canon). When he wasn't even offered the chance to star in the new series it was a massive disappointment to a lot of fans, yet it's understandable that Davies wanted a clean slate with which to work.

McGann, who was once quoted as fearing the label "The George Lazenby of Doctor Who", proved quite the trooper and has since starred in several season's worth of 8th Doctor audio dramas for Big Finish Productions. From a live action visual standpoint, yes, Paul could be called the Who equivalent of Lazenby...but from a performance standpoint he's logged far more Time Lord hours than Christopher Eccleston. More importantly, unlike Lazenby as Bond, McGann positively rocked as the Doctor...and would no doubt rock the Doctor even harder today.

The other noteworthy factor in Hinman's article (oddly published on the TV movie's 11th anniversary) is the TV movie's director Geoffrey Sax, who over the years has amassed a bit of a resume, including White Noise and Stormbreaker. Whether or not Sax has the clout to get this off the ground I've no idea, but if the BBC's behind him I don't see how his clout would be an issue. And it's hard to imagine McGann saying no to the Doctor in a theatrical outing.

Is Doctor Who a big enough brand name at this point? In the UK, no doubt. Elsewhere? If Firefly warranted a feature, there's no question Who does.

Would audiences want to see someone other than David Tennant in the role? Before Tennant, Eccleston's shoes seemed an awfully tough fill.

Is Paul McGann a big enough name to stake a movie series on? Well he had sizable roles in Alien3, The Three Musketeers and Queen of the Damned. Of course, Withnail & I remains his triumphant, definitive big screen outing. This much I do believe: McGann trumps the casting of yet another actor as the Doctor (unless perhaps that actor is Hugh Grant). Pair him up with a name companion (say..Kate Winslet?) and/or against a name bad guy (say...Bill Nighy?) and it'd be gold. Back in the '60s while William Hartnell was playing the Doctor on TV, Peter Cushing brought "Dr. Who" to life on two different occasions in Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. This wouldn't be the first time movie and TV incarnations of Doctor Who existed simultaneously.

But will Who even be on the air after Season/Series Four? Nobody's said anything concrete, but I get the vibe Davies is itching to leave, and I bet he and Tennant will time their exits in unison. (It's hard to imagine Davies casting yet another TV Doctor). Will the TV series - at least temporarily - close up shop? If it did, it'd be the perfect time to kick start a movie franchise. Maybe the BBC is thinking ahead?

Russell T Davies recently said something like "I certainly won't be around for Series Seven", which came across not as a confirmation of a sixth season, but that he was tiring of the whole process. This is the guy who was unsure the new Who would make it past the first season! He cut his teeth and honed his skills on British television, and before Who his concepts were either standalones or a couple seasons at most...and now he's juggling multiple seasons of Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures! Please, someone...let the guy hibernate fer christssakes.

A big part of my love for the idea of a McGann movie dovetails nicely with my uneasiness over someone taking over for Russell when he exits (unless that someone is Steven Moffat). Sure, Doctor Who has thrived on change and many producers have guided it since 1963, but none with as a bold a vision as Russell T Davies. Not to imply his has been the ideal vision, but it's unquestionably been a smart vision. He solved the equation for resurrecting a seemingly dead concept into something fresh and relatable to modern audiences.

I'm fascinated by the notion that Geoffrey Sax has thought about this for years, and he's no doubt kept track of what's transpired through the current TV version. What went down with the TV movie was subject to the demands of so many parties that Sax's direction should be hailed (along with McGann's Doctor) as one of the few elements that made it worthwhile. Doctor Who belongs to no singular vision. It's a concept endlessly open to new interpretations. Something tells me Sax could deliver a Doctor who is universal.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Friday, May 11, 2007

Slinging Webs at Spider-Man 3

What currently fascinates me most about Spider-Man 3 is the diversity of the reactions to it. I’ve yet to read a single review that praises it to the hilt, and the ones that trash it seem hell bent on proving there's nothing good about it at all.

The stuff I’ve enjoyed reading most has resided somewhere in the middle -- and each of these pieces offers up some new viewpoint that hadn’t occurred to me. Try Damian's reaction. Or Matt's excellent breakdown. Edward's is interesting because he felt the Sandman storyline should have been cut (to me it would have been the perfect central conflict had it been written somewhat differently). If you're so inclined Lazy Eye Theatre offers up some thoughts and don't miss Rob Humanick's great insights as well.

But I gotta admit that Harry Knowles' take really worked for me . It gave the whole affair a sort of logical fanboyish perspective -- which is probably what's required for an appreciation of this film.

I still have no idea where I stand in regard to Spidey 3, other than I never shed a tear (unlike the other two flicks) and it left me not really wanting more. I love the first two flicks so much that I'm not even sure I needed another Spider-Man movie. My feelings about 3 remain incomplete aside from maybe these few bullet points:

* I went in expecting the worst based on the handful of things I’d read. The first hour or so charmed me in a big way (the Harry getting amnesia thing aside, which seemed a huge waste of time). During the second hour, the charm began wearing thin -- although the cheesy disco stuff and Peter’s dance were, quite possibly, my favorite moments in the entire thing. The last 15 or so minutes were a big, loud mess.

* The movie seems like a classic example of Studio Vs. Talent. (Un?)fortunately Sam Raimi is such a team player and pro, he probably didn’t have the will to fight after all Sony’s done for him -- and frankly I can’t blame the guy.

* I’m not sure how much more angst can be drawn from the Peter/Mary Jane dynamic. Either keep ‘em together or split ‘em up -- but make a decision and stick with it. Give them both character and motivation that exists outside of reacting to one another's faults. What provided a solid center for Spidey 2 felt old and tired in Spidey 3. The wad was shot at the end of 2: They were together and it was good and right. Exploring the intricacies of their current relationship isn't working out; it'd be great fodder for a TV show, but a movie series delivering entries every few years is tedious.

* Harry was never given enough to do in the previous two films to warrant what happened to him in this film. Biggest transgressor? I really wanted to groove on Peter and Harry pooling their talents in the finale, but it didn’t work because their friendship’s never had enough depth for such a climax to resonate. Likewise, my eyes glazed when Harry died. This sucks because Franco’s done the best he can with the character and he deserved a much better exit. (Is he actually dead, by the way?)

* The Venom stuff sucked while the Sandman stuff rocked...'cept for the Uncle Ben angle. Can we please stop using his death as a dramatic "cliff" from which to jump? (Sorry Charly, I know it’s a nice paycheck for you at this point, but really…) It's become as tiresome as the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents.

Everything above may be void after I see the film again. The whole thing was such a sensory overload -- which is odd, because I'm sure the talk to action ratio weighs far heavier on the "talk" side. I gotta see it again before forming a real opinion. In any case, Spider-Man 3 may well be the most misunderstood movie of the year.

However the following very likely won’t change: After the first Spider-Man, I realized the biggest problem with bringing Spidey to the big screen: His face is static. This was amplified in any conversation scene between Spidey and the Goblin (especially the meeting on the roof), which featured NO facial movement from either character. (Maybe Hugo Weaving should play Peter?). What isn’t an issue for a comic book panel was hugely distracting on the silver screen (even Batman has a mouth and eyes).

Obviously Raimi hooked into similar thinking after completing the film and found some clever ways of getting around it in Spidey 2. But Spidey is without his mask for far too much of Spidey 3 and yet I don’t know how the issue should be handled at this point.

The bottom line: Both the static face and the removing of the mask cause big problems and it’s hard to say which is worse. The former makes a less engaging superhero; the latter makes a less believable film. It’s probably the most fucked conundrum in the history of comic book filmmaking.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

WKRP in Cincinnati on DVD – The Verdict

Well it had to happen sooner or later, right? I had to weigh in, especially given my mildly schizophrenic attitude toward the DVD release, which is somewhat inaccurately labeled “The Complete First Season”. It is not, but it's more complete than the WKRP in Cincinnati I owned before, which was nothing.

The internet’s run rampant for weeks now with all the painful details of the many song cuts and in the weeks leading up to the release, a lot of people posted to Amazon about intentions of canceling preorders and so forth – which they were perfectly entitled to do. Since I never preordered the set I wasn’t one of them, but neither did I rush out on day one and pick up the set as planned. I wonder how many of those people still haven’t picked up the set, and if so, I also wonder if they’d react to it as I have?:

It’s a fantastic collection that comes very close to preserving the bulk of what made the series so special.

This whole music-tied-to-classic-moments stuff is rooted in either nostalgia or familiarity. It’s easy to say WKRP was/is as much about the music as everything else (I know because I’ve said it), but this DVD set for the most part proves that the songs were actually a pretty small part of a bigger, crazier and more rewarding picture. Admittedly, there are some exceptions – the biggest one being a scene between Carlson and Johnny in “Turkeys Away” in which Pink Floyd’s Dogs was originally used and Floyd was central to the dialogue. Not only is the song gone on the DVD, but so is most of the scene and what remains is mostly just a sight gag. It’s a huge shame that such a major cut was made to the episode that’s considered one the greatest half hours of TV ever created. (It's worth noting that my love of Floyd undoubtedly plays into my feelings about that particular cut.)

Fox, however, has done a bang up job of finding replacement material that mostly conveys the vibes of the original tunes for the majority of the DVD set and it seems there was more thought put into this release than many are saying. I can picture a release that would be both far less satisfying and far more offensive. (Indeed, I’d pictured it before viewing this set.)

Probably the most bemoaned replacement is the classic “Les puts on a wig to Foreigner” scene in “A Date with Jennifer”. Of course Foreigner is missed, and the tune taking its place desperately wants to be Hot Blooded -- yet the tone of the gag remains blissfully intact. (Has the omission of Foreigner from anything ever aroused this much contempt?) What used to be Johnny spinning James Taylor’s Your Smiling Face at the close of “I Want to Keep My Baby” plays similarly. My hat really goes off to Fox for doing their best with a bad situation and I’d be interested to find out how the replacement music came to be. Where did it come from? Who recorded it? Was it made especially for this set? It doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before and yet it’s clearly inspired by the music it replaces.

A friend loaned me a set of WKRP bootlegs a few months ago. I watched a handful of those and was disheartened by the fact they were the syndicated versions with 22 minute running times, but even more so by the video and sound quality. Sure, the new set's never going to snag a THX seal of approval, but it's 25 years old and shot on video; all things considered, the sound and vid quality are perfectly acceptable. Despite Floyd, Foreigner and James Taylor all being intact, the problems with the bootlegs outweigh the few positives -- I can't imagine any fan finding them preferable, not to mention the difficulty most would have in obtaining them in the first place. Overall, the Fox set comes up far superior and certainly anyone previously unfamiliar with this material would be hard-pressed to notice anything’s “wrong” with the new DVD at all. Indeed, if certain fans already have their minds made up, then perhaps I'm speaking to the uninitiated.

WKRP is such landmark television that the DVD set’s problems can’t keep it from shining. I was reminded of its strengths when watching the infamous turkey drop. The sequence violates one of the cardinal rules of filmed drama: Don’t tell me, show me. All the scene does is tell. Amazing is that never do we once see a turkey onscreen. Or a helicopter…or a banner waving behind it reading WKRP…or a parking lot bombed by live turkeys. Regardless, those images are burned into our memories forever.

All we see is Les (Richard Sanders), standing outside a store with a microphone, looking past the invisible camera in front of him and up into the sky as some extras walk past him now and then. As the scene -- and Sanders' performance -- crescendos, the extras move a little bit faster. Back at the station, Johnny, Andy, Bailey and Venus add another layer by reacting to Les’ report. It’s a glorious example of the sitcom format at its finest – an ideal dance of acting, writing, editing, directing and above all else, perfect comedic timing from Sanders. Sans his inexplicably “believable” performance, the entire thing would’ve crashed like those imaginary turkeys.

One of Les’ great lines in that scene is “Oh the humanity!” which could be the tagline for WKRP itself. Probably the only other sitcom that ever managed to blend farce and drama as successfully as WKRP was Soap (another 4 season series), however the Soap dynamic crumbled beneath its own weight early in its third season. WKRP trumped it by delivering four full seasons of great television – it never ceased to amuse and/or move and never went bad.

WKRP’s First Season features many classic episodes. Aside from “Turkeys Away”, “Fish Story”, “Hoodlum Rock”, “Tornado”, and the season ender “The Preacher” all rank as highlights (other fans would no doubt pick other standouts). But this stuff was only the beginning of the ‘KRP line. A handful of samplings from the later seasons:

“Baseball” (2.3) -- Les’ childhood fears of inadequacy rear their ugly head at a softball game against WPIG. For a guy who hated team sports as a kid, this one always meant something to me.

“In Concert” (2.19) – A Who concert ticket giveaway by the station leaves the staff feeling guilty after the show’s general seating arrangement results in the trampling and death of 11 fans. This one was inspired by and centered around a true incident that occurred at a Who concert in Cincinnati in 1979.

“Real Families” (3.3) – A bizarre satire of reality TV long before it was central to our viewing habits. Herb and his family agree to have their lives documented by the series Real Families, hosted by Peter Marshall(!). The show was more interested in picking apart the Tarleks and exposing their weaknesses than showing anything positive or nice. Mostly shot in a documentary style and without a laugh track, this ranks amongst WKRP’s bravest -- and strangest -- installments.

“Bah Humbug” (3.7) – Carlson eats one of Johnny’s “special” brownies at a holiday Christmas party and has a Dickensian dream where three ghosts visit him. In the future, Herb Tarlek remains the sole employee of a cold, automated WKRP. (Again, automated radio wasn’t nearly as rampant in the early '80s as it is today.)

“The Consultant” (4.9) – Mama Carlson (Carol Bruce) hires a consultant for the station. The staff joins forces to pull a fast one on him to hilarious effect. This episode also features some priceless moments with Ian Wolfe, who played Mama Carlson’s aged butler Hirsch.

Mama: “Hirsch, where have you been?”
Hirsch: “Mardi Gras, Madam.”

“Fire” (4.17) – A fire in the building traps Herb and Jennifer in an elevator together in what was a defining episode for both characters.

There's almost no way to do justice to the series without running through nearly every installment and pointing out each priceless gem after another. It's one of the few sitcoms that warrants such a dissection and hopefully someday someone will do just that. (Hell, I should write the book about WKRP.)

I said before and I reiterate: Fans should pick up this set regardless of any misgivings. Fox needs to know there’s interest and that money will be spent on future seasons. Given the problematic nature of this material, they already put more care into rejiggering it into something much tighter than expected. I doubt Fox foresaw the blowup that would ensue over this release or exactly how outraged people would be over some of the changes – and many of the outraged have yet to even see the finished product.

My hope is that it sells well, and Fox puts even more care and thought into the following seasons. Even though it’d be far off, it’s also possible that if the series as a whole sells well, Fox might decide a “double-dip” is in order and re-release the First Season in something closer to its original form. This was a big test for a TV on DVD release and I applaud those involved for just getting the damn thing out there and letting people decide for themselves, which less than a year ago seemed an impossibility.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

O-Blog-atory "My Cat Died" Entry

Given the title of this piece, you probably already know if you care to invest a few minutes into these words...

Every cat means a little something different - and that's part of the charm of owning cats.

Two days ago one of our cats, Babygirl - whom we’d raised and had for four years - was killed by a reckless driver on our street. We know this thanks to a witness. (For the purposes of this piece, from here on out “I/me/my/etc.” frequently means “we/us/our/etc.”)

Babygirl was undeniably the sweetest cat I’d ever owned. So dainty that she’d even somehow, over the years, gotten to the point where she refused to crap in her litter box and always demanded to go outside. This was my fault for having trained her to be an indoor/outdoor cat from kittenhood. My house has three streets surrounding it as well as a high school a stone’s throw away. I live in a bad place to have outdoor cats.

But Babygirl was living on borrowed time anyway, and I’d always reckoned she’d made ample use of her 9 lives. I lost her on three different occasions and managed to get her back each time (the first was even on a Christmas Eve). Her premature passing was something I’d pretty much come to view as inevitable.

Before Babygirl, I lost Inuyasha - also thanks to a car! He rocked and was the least problematic cat I’d ever owned. And he looked like Batman, which I always thought was kinda cool. When he passed, Babygirl seemed lonely, so I wanted her to have a new friend – only any hypothetical new cat would not be allowed outside.

Enter Scorpius, who is not only the biggest pain in the ass of a cat you can imagine, but he’s strictly indoors and clearly doesn’t want to be. Tough titty, kitty -- I’m in charge. Luckily he makes up for his shortcomings with ample amounts of personality, which in the cat world is pretty valuable. Scorpy was chosen from the many at the pound because he was black and took an instant liking to me. I've reminded him time and again that without my intervention he'd likely have been gassed or offered up as a sacrifice by some lame Goth cult. This doesn't appear to matter much to His Highness.

But back to my beloved Babygirl. I had to clean up her remains, which, as you pet lovers might guess, wasn’t easy. I wanted to bury her in our backyard. Sounds simple, right? Not so. The spot I picked was so heavy with roots and rock that before getting less than a foot in I gave up. We also have rampant raccoon and possum problems, and the idea of something digging her up due to an inept burial didn’t set well with me. So I call animal control - an apparently miniscule division of the Alamo Heights police department. Guess what? “Animal control has the week off.”

“We usually tell people to double or triple bag the pet so a feral animal won’t get to it, and then just put it out in the garbage”, the voice said. That was on Tuesday and I quite frankly didn't have another reasonable solution. I was, however, insistent that nothing else other than she be placed in that can before pickup day.

This morning I woke up extra early so I could meet the garbage truck. If I didn’t feel like a total shitbag at this point, presiding over my little Babygirl's unceremonious dumping into a truck with used tampons and half-eaten burritos certainly sent me over the edge – or at least sent me far enough to write a “dead cat” entry, which two days ago smacked of improbability.

So I run out to the garbage truck when it pulls up. Goddamn these guys are pros! He’s already got her bag in his hands when I get out there, and I – like an idiot – say, “That’s my cat in there! She was killed a couple days ago and I just…” The words pretty much trailed off after that. I said something about the animal control call and what I was instructed to do. He calls over a supervisor. I tell him the same thing and he gives me a blank stare. There are like four of these guys, each handling some different aspect of the job[!?] and all speaking Spanish. They just wanna do what they have to do, dead cat or not – and I can’t really blame them. Are they supposed to hold a fucking funeral every time some suburbanite runs out waving his arms? I explained to him that yeah, I know how stupid I sound, but I just kinda wanted to be here. He says nothing, but his eyes call me a fucking pussy. Into the garbage truck my Babygirl went and I wondered exactly what the point was of me getting up to put myself through all this.

So here I am, sharing with you dear reader the goriest of details. There is no concrete end to this tale, and certainly no moral. I hope that I do not sound heartless, as I did my best by my Babygirl, who once upon a time - when she was tiny - shit in various corners of our house. I loved her regardless. I loved her even though, unlike my other cats, I was allergic to her. I loved her even when she woke me up at 5 in the morning wanting to go outside. I loved her immensely when I got her back that Christmas Eve.

And I believe, as much as a cat can, she loved me. Even though she was probably allergic to me, too.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Spidey Up Against the Wall

Damian at Windmills of my Mind recently discussed the nearly forgotten live action Spider-Man series from the '70s. This took me back to my first exposure to he of all things webbed, The Electric Company. For people of a certain age group, The Electric Company hammered into our psyches the cheesiest of spins on the iconic superhero, yet it somehow registered and paved the way for comics, cartoons and eventually the ultimate Spidey experiences, the Sam Raimi movies. For your perusal -- and guest-starring Morgan Freeman -- Spidey Up Against the Wall:

Coolest. Goldfinger. Screening. Ever.

One of Austin, TX's greatest contributions to film is the Alamo Drafthouse movie theatre chain...for too many reasons to list. Over the past two summers the Drafthouse has sponsored the Rolling Roadshow, where they travel around the country and play movies in the unlikeliest -- and yet most appropriate -- of locations. One of last year's highlights was a screening of Close Encounters at the Devil's Tower in Wyoming.

Drafthouse owner Tim League has unveiled the 2007 Rolling Roadshow tour schedule and lo and behold - amidst the numerous cool moviegoing opportunities - is the chance to see none other than Goldfinger at Fort Knox, on Friday Aug. 3rd. Talk about 007 in '007!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Everything but the Guy

The great mystery of my weekend was how Tracey Thorn managed to release a CD that I didn't find out about until a month later.

Don’t know Tracey? Maybe you’ve heard of Everything but the Girl (“EBTG” for short), the duo of which she's half; Ben Watt, the other 50%, is also Tracey’s husband. Their biggest hit, Missing (“And I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain”), was a massive club track back in the mid-‘90s[1]. If you still don’t know who they are, you’ve been denied one of the great singer/songwriter duos of the past 25 years. Since first discovering “The Language of Life” -- their 1990 album which yielded the minor VH-1 hit, Driving -- EBTG became my "getting-in-touch-with-my-feminine-side" drug of choice. It's been my experience that the band remains largely unknown in the U.S., which, over the years, has allowed me to turn people on to them right and left.

EBTG are the smoothest rollercoaster you'll ever ride, yet you never quite know which loop they’ll spin you around next. They’ve deceptively continued to adapt their style and sound to flow with the times, while always remaining true to an emotionally resonant core. How two people who’ve been together for so long can evoke such precise heartbreak remains another great mystery. 1994’s “Amplified Heart” -- arguably the jewel in the EBTG crown -- is so ideally crafted that surrendering to its dagger-through-the-heart charms is the best musical substitute for a real breakup. I once heard it compared to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”, which is apt, although it lacks Buckingham’s anger. Nobody can make breakup and loss sound as wistfully sweet as EBTG. Though the two albums couldn’t sound less alike, “Amplified Heart” deserves a pop iconic “Rumours”-like status it’ll probably never attain.

Which brings me to “Out of the Woods”, Thorn’s first solo recording since 1982. I don’t mean to either diminish Watt or glamorize Thorn in relation to the partnership -- which has always seemed very equal -- but if you’re looking for that EBTG sound, “Out of the Woods” isn’t to be missed simply because the brand name isn’t emblazoned across the cover. (It’d be like passing on a Lindsey Buckingham effort because it doesn’t say Fleetwood Mac.) Do I dare name “Woods” the best EBTG record since “Amplified Heart”? I dare, and it is. A big part of this is simply because Thorn’s vocals have always dominated EBTG’s output. While the pair pretty much split the songwriting duties down the middle, Ben rarely sings lead vocals (which is a bit of shame, because he’s got a haunting voice of which I’m quite fond). Thorn’s unique vocals are so central to EBTG, that even when she lends her talents to a band like Massive Attack, the result still sounds like EBTG.

I’ve listened to “Out of the Woods” non-stop over the past four days. It’s in turns sweet, heartrending, uplifting, flirtatious, philosophical and, of course, rhythmically groovy. Thorn never shies away from dropping English colloquialisms and words into her lyrics (another EBTG staple) -- for example on the song A-Z, she pronounces "Z" as "Zed". Some of the tunes are perfect for a Sunday afternoon and others will complement your Saturday night. It’s basically everything one could want or expect from an EBTG album minus Ben Watt -- although an argument could be made that Watt’s presence hovers above the proceedings like a phantom of inspiration. When two people are as seemingly joined at the hip and heart -- both professionally and personally -- as Thorn and Watt have been for the past 25 years, it’s impossible to believe his influence wouldn’t make its way onto her record in some fashion.

By the time I found Everything but the Girl back in ‘90, the career they’d already had in their native England allowed me to dive into everything I’d missed (1986’s “Baby the Stars Shine Bright” is another gem) and I followed them diligently from then on. Their last full album was in 1999 (“Temperamental”), and as the years kept passing, I’d pretty much given up hope for a new one -- yet EBTG’s output was so rich and rewarding for so long that it didn’t matter. They’re artists who do it when the time feels right, not on some record company’s schedule. EBTG need never make another album as what they’ve already amassed is worth the discographies of 10 other bands.

I was elated to discover Tracey decided to share some new work with the public and before even hearing it I knew I’d fall in love with her all over again. “Out of the Woods” is like a late Christmas gift from a friend you haven’t seen in years, showing up in the mailbox when you’re least expecting it. Maybe I won’t get another gift for quite some time, but I’ll treasure this one for the meaningful rarity it is.

Check out the video for the new single, It's All True. One never knows quite what to expect from an EBTG video, and solo Tracey is no different. It's artsy and strange and I don't how it relates to the tune, but EBTG's videos rarely offer visual interpretations that corrupt the music. In 2004 they released the DVD video collection "Like the Deserts Miss the Rain", which spans their entire career and introduced me to their outstanding cover of Paul Simon's The Only Living Boy in New York.

[1] My kid just informed me that Missing is included on Dance Dance Revolution. Perhaps that's an even greater legacy than being compared to Fleetwood Mac?