Friday, 29 February 2008

Woe Canada 3: The Piper Rule

Well, it looks like the dream is over. The Canadian government has just announced that if you want to make a film with Canadian government tax credits, you can't do anything that's considered offencive.

The ink wasn't even dry on the budget before Canada's (really Toronto's) cinematic elite were crying that dreaded word censor
ship.

Now while I find the rules considering what's offencive vague, and that's unsettling, they aren't forcing anyone to stop making films. The Canadian government just doesn't want to hand out tax credits to pay for another Canadian film that manages to make full-frontal nudity and explicit sexuality boring.

You see there's a little something that the folks in the Canadian film industry do not know.

It's what I call the "Piper Rule."

Basically, who pays the piper, calls the tune.

Which means that if you're going to depend on government bureaucrats to finance your film, bureaucrats are going to interfere with you.

No one has a right to free funding without any responsibility to the people with the money. And the people with the money have no responsibility to pay for something they don't want to see.

This is not a new argument. In the 1970s David Cronenberg made the film SHIVERS a tale of apartment dwellers turned into sex-mad loonies by mutant parasites with some cash from Canada's fledgling film funding agencies. It's, for then, graphic sex and violence caused a sensation among certain circles, with many calling for the cancellation of the whole film funding program.

The program wasn't cancelled, and because of the controversy, the film actually made money and Cronenberg was eventually able to finance his big breakthrough films using private tax-shelter money.

Now I don't care for any regulation of content, but the government aren't saying what can and can't be made, that would actually be censorship, just what they're going to pay for.

Of course that exposes a problem that lies at the heart of the Canadian film industry. English language Canadian films need governments to pay for them, because audiences won't.

The entire Canadian film industry is geared toward an elite group of film festivals and the elite cinema crowd that attends them. And they don't even make films that even they would like to see, but films that they think they should want to see. They think Canadian films are "challenging" or "button pushing" but are just repetitive and tedious exercises in what I call masturbatory cinema that are really made for no one.

So I have a radical suggestion for the Canadian film industry.

Make movies people want to see.

Quebec's French language industry knows that. They make movies that actually make money from audiences and can make the "art" films too. Hell, their entire system is a lean mean production machine that any industry, even Hollywood, can learn from.

Yep, if folks want to see them, you can get them into theatres, and you can actually make money. And once you have your own money, free of any meddling, you can make that musical about voyeurism and incest on the Prairie that you want to make in Toronto set to the mellifluous tones of German industrial music.

And if the government tries to ban you from theatres, then I'll raise the black flag and start kicking ass, but until then quit crying censorship.


But why do something productive, when whining is a national pastime?

On Comedy: What a BEEP-in' Post!

Now there's a couple of videos that are floating around the internet from the Jimmy Kimmel show... you know what I'm talking about. Well here they are.





Now what makes those videos funny, outside of the celebrities in absurd positions and not-so-latent homoeroticism?

It's the BEEP.

Yep, that innocuous little tone that is used to cover up that magical old Anglo-Saxon word so as not to offend the br
oadcast TV audience is what makes that video.

Now I can go on and on about the history of "offencive" language and open up the floor to debate on whether or not words can be considered offencive at all... but that's not what I'm here to talk about.

I'm here to talk about the beep.

Without the beep the sketches would lose something. They would just be songs about f*cking Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It's the beep that takes the sketches over that line from amusing to funny.

The beep has a lot of weight for a simple noise. Buried in it are undertones about censorship, social mores, and the hypocrisy of the media; who rush to the lowest common denominator, while condemning it at the
same time. It also has a giggle inducing sense of child-like naughtiness, while showing just how absurd the whole concept of "offencive language" really is.

Now there are those who say that censorship is bad for comedy, and yet, those sketches used censorship to boost the laugh quotient. It's a double edged sword, sure you want to push buttons in a direct and open
way, but there's also a wealth of material to be had by subverting the modes of censorship to make comedy as well.

But there's another use for the beep.

As that grand theoretician of comedy, Krusty the Clown, said comedy is not just dirty words.

It's words that sound dirty.

Humour comes from issues that are often uncomfortable to discuss in polite conversation. Sex, death, politics, and various and sundry bodily functions.

Using the conventions of censorship, as personified by the beep, you can turn something as innocuous as a song from Sesame Street about counting and turn it into a raunchy, button pushing little video, without actually adding anything dirty.

Don't take my word for it, watch it...



Do you see my point?

Good.

So in closing, BLEEP.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On... #57: The End of the New Line?

Well, it's official.

Time Warner has announced that it will absorb New Line Cinema and make it a unit of the parent company. (Read the details here)

Now they're saying that the company will retain its domestic distribution, marketing and production cap
abilities, and will "coordinate" with the parent studio.

Basically, it means that it will be making fewer movies, so as not to compete with Warner Brothers.

I personally would have preferred to see the company spun off as an independent company with Time-Warner as a major shareholder with first look when it comes to internationa
l distribution, (traditionally New Line's Achilles Heel) and for release through Time Warner's non-theatrical outlets (broadcast/cable TV, downloads, etc...).

But as just a unit of a large company, I think it's been handed a death sentence.

As time goes by its budgets will shrin
k, as will its production slate, and then pieces of New Line will be closed down or folded even further into the corporate blubber of Time-Warner.

And then it's just a name on the credits of old videos, and the people who run the Time-Warner TV outlets are wondering why they have to air Austin Powers: Goldmember 12 times a we
ek on everyone of their channels.

But all is not lost.

What New Line needs to be a successful unit of Warner Bros. is the sort of skilled enlightened leader to take it, and the rest of Hollywood into the 21st Century and beyond.

And that person, naturally, is me.

So remember...
You can't blame me for trying...

This Writing Life... : Flash For Fantasy

I entered a flash fiction contest today.

Literally, I wrote my under 500 word entry, did rewrites and sent it in to a new horror / dark-speculative fiction magazine called Shroud.

All thanks to the internet.

I met the magazine, so to speak, at MySpace, and yesterday they posted a bulletin calling for entries for flash-fiction (under 500 words) inspired by photos of the editor's cabin and the surrounding forest under a blanket of fresh snow.

I took the photos and this morning, I sat down at the keyboard and ground out a little tale of a man, a lot of snow, something in the woods, and a shovel as a weapon.

I hope it wins. I think it's a pretty nice piece for its brevity and has a pretty good atmosphere. I might post it here depending on the results of the contest.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Fun & Games: The Ending Game...

Okay, ever watched a movie and thought the ending should have been waaaay different. Ever thought of how the films should have ended?

Well now it's your turn to entertain me with your ideas for how famous films should have ended!

I'll get the ball rolling:
THE MATRIX TRILOGY- My version would have ended with Neo discovering that Morpheus's bosses are in fact a doomsday cult descended from the same people who started the war that made the surface uninhabitable. The machines have been fighting them in order to save the human race, who they've kept alive in the Matrix while they rebuilt the surface world. Neo then has to join the machines and destroy his former allies. It ends with Neo fusing his brain with the Matrix, protecting humanity from new iterations of the doomsday cult until the reconstruction of the surface is completed.
I thought of that ending because I thought Morpheus' story about using people as batteries as pretty damn lame and having it turn out to be a big fat lie would be a nice twist.

So, what new endings would you have preferred to see?

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On... #56: Looking Back @ a Show I Didn't See...

Yep, it's time for me to pass judgement on the Academy Awards show, even though I, like the majority of the world, didn't see it.

How can I judge a show I didn't see? you may ask.

I'm a blogger, I can do whatever the hell I want.

Besides, who needs to actually watch the show when you can look at recaps written by the handful of people who actually put themselves through the actual event.

Most agree that John Stewart's turn as host was better than his first go round. He seemed less nervous and uncertain and got better as the show went on, sadly, the ratings kept going down as the show went on. In fact, the ratings were the worst in the history of the Academy Awards.

My problem with John Stewart is that he's the media's comedian, and not the general public's. Yes, The Daily Show does do well as a cable show with certain demographics, but its actual viewer-ship isn't all that big when compared to many network shows.

Plus, Stewart's shtick is all about attitude. He doesn't necessarily tell jokes, but dispenses statements with that oh-so 90s detached irony. He's hipper than thou, gives off a smug air that declares that he belongs among the A-List stars and wants everyone to know it.

Now Bob Hope, who set the standard for top-flight Oscar hosting, took a different tack. Sure, he was a bigger star in movies, radio, and later TV, than most of the nominees.

Hope wisely presented himself as the avatar for the audience at home. He transformed himself into the Everyman who stumbled into the strange land of the beautiful people. And in reaction to all the glamour around him he told jokes that gently ribbed the nominees, and made light of his own lack of Oscar success.

"It's Oscar time," said Hope, "or as my family calls it, Passover."

Billy Crystal followed a similar plan as Hope, taking great joy in the work that only a big movie fan can muster. Crystal looked like he was having fun while he was hosting the Oscars, and that fun infected the presenters, the nominees, and most importantly the audience.

I just don't get any joy from Stewart. It's as if being a movie fan was just too "geeky" for him and might cost him his invite to Elton John's party.

The awards themselves held few surprises, except for Marion Cotillard winning over front-runner Julie Christie. And with so few "hits" among the nominees, the audience didn't have much interest invested in the show.

One thing the Academy seemed very good at was ticking people off.

Many people were annoyed that actor Brad Renfro was left out of the annual Memorial Reel, even though he died shortly before Heath Ledger, the last one presented on the list. Now the Oscar producers say it was an editing decision, but I find that hard to believe since the show is a litany of overlong segments, one more face in the Memorial Reel wasn't that much of a burden.

I think there were two reasons, probably subliminal for the oversight.

First, poor Renfro was symbolic of everything wrong with modern Hollywood. He was a child actor whose early success working alongside big name actors in big name movies, who ended up living a life of drugs and despair that ultimately killed him. Heath Ledger's death, also an overdose, could be spun as an accident, instead of a symptom of one of Hollywood's most prevalent problems.

Second, Renfro wasn't on the A-List. He was too young to be one of the Golden Age stars, and his tragic death was overshadowed by the prominent Ledger's. They don't want their tear-jerking A-List tragedy being muddied by its similarities to a poor working stiff actor.

Now take a look at this quote from John Stewart's monologue:
"The films that were made about the Iraq war, let's face it, did not do as well. But I'm telling you, if we stay the course and keep these movies in the theaters we can turn this around. I don't care if it takes 100 years. Withdrawing the Iraq movies would only embolden the audience. We cannot let the audience win."
Now on the surface it's a political joke blending the rhetoric of the US government juxtaposed with the disastrous political grandstanding of Hollywood's elite.

But out of the mouth of clowns come truths that go beyond the surface.

It illustrates the prime reason Hollywood, and the Oscars in particular, are suffering. The elite of Hollywood have made the audience their enemy.

They don't give the audience the respect it deserves as the ultimate arbiter of success and failure, instead they look down on the audience with contempt. The attitude of Hollywood is that if the opinions of the great unwashed mattered, they'd all be on the A-List.

And no one likes to be insulted.

Hollywood Babble On & On... #55: Decision Day Loometh...

Well, the eerily accurate Nikki Finke is reporting that the final decision on the fate of New Line co-founders Robert Shaye and Michael Lynne is coming very soon.

Now anyone who has read this site, even the people know that I have put my name forward a couple of months ago to replace Robert Shaye as CEO of New Line Cinema.

I don't have any actual experience running a studio, but when you look at how most of Hollywood is run these days, experience isn't everything.

So I'm going to propose to the powers that be at Time-Warner, to not shut down the company and fold it into thei
r own operations. I'm going to suggest that they spin it off as an independent company, with myself, as CEO.

Here's what I will do:
  1. Bring production costs and star salaries under control.
  2. Reconnect with audiences. Give them what they want not what Hollywood wants.
  3. Simplify the business plan to "Make movies that make money."
  4. Cost half as much as Robert Shaye. (With bonuses if I deliver on real profits)
  5. Make decisions based on the good of the company, and not my own ego.
Here's what I will not do:
  1. Turn successful films into legal and accounting nightmares because of greed and mismanagement.
  2. Alienate commercially successful filmmakers and actors out of greed, ego and a hunger for power.
  3. Alienate the audience by giving them what Hollywood wants, because the average person is our audience, not the celebrities, who see movies for free at premieres and on Academy screeners. It's the people who pay for tickets that matter.
And that's it.

So, and this is for the board of Time Warner, remember this simple message:

Monday, 25 February 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On... #54: The Declaration of Independents

Once, a long time ago, I was part of an indie-film forum and we were doing a light-hearted roast for the forum's founder on his birthday. I made the joke that he "didn't know the difference between being independent and being unwanted."

I didn't know how prescient I was being back then, in my naive youth.

But first, a little history.

The big studios that we know and love today, were
founded by the original independent filmmakers.

Yep, that's true.

The massive conglomerates that crush all who challenge their dominance, were once a collection of small, hard-scrabble indie filmmakers fighting against a massive conglomerate that dominated the fledgling movie industry.

Thomas Edison, not only invented the light bulb, but patented some of the first modern motion picture cameras and projectors. Now most people would think that they're patent, gave them the right to manufacture the cameras and projectors.

Edison saw it differently.

He believed that owning the patent on the means of making films, gave him ownership of the films themselves. So all motion pictures had to be produced by the member companies of the Motion Picture Patent Company (AKA MPPC or The Edison Trust).

Anyone who tried to make their own films could face lawsuits, injunctions, and sometimes vandalism by MPPC operatives.

Some folks didn'
t much care for this and started heading away from the original film centres of New York and New Jersey, and went west. The founders of what would become Paramount Pictures, were planning to set up their operations in New Mexico, but changed their mind en-route and chose a little town in southern California named Hollywood. Soon others followed suit, and a new film community was born.

These tough little indies soon defeated the MPPC. Partially through anti-trust legal arguments, but mostly by beating them at their own game.

One of the MPPC's favourite tactics wa
s to use uncredited actors. They feared that anyone who became popular would naturally become more expensive. Now that is a reasonable concern, but a real star who put bums in seats could also be a worthwhile investment. The upstarts in Hollywood started giving credit to their actors and using the image and charisma of their more popular stars to promote films.

Another way they defeated the beast was by catering to popular tastes. The companies of the MPPC had quickly grown arrogant and thought that their monopoly meant that people would like what they tell them to like.

The independents in Hollywood based their business plan on looking for what made audiences hap
py and then running with it.

Soon, the old trust companies of the MPPC had crumbled into bankruptcy, and the Hollywood companies were at the top of the game.

In the 1920s the Hollywood studios had grown large, and a tad
drunk on their own power. This sparked the creation of United Artists, a company founded by actors and filmmakers to produce and distribute their own films, as well as distribute the films of big name independent producers like Samuel Goldwyn, and David O. Selznick.

During the classic studio era, most independent producers were generally relegated to making low budget films for various Poverty Row companies. The Poverty Row studios specialized in "filler" material: cheap
, short movies designed to fill screen time for the handful of independent cinemas that dotted the country. The main reason their market was so small was because the major studios also owned almost all the movie theatres during this era.

However, Poverty Row enjoyed a renaissance thanks to
the 1949 federal consent decree that forced the studios to sell their theatres. Soon after that came the explosion of television, and studios began to cut back a lot on making their usual slate of program "filler" movies, aiming for grander and more "important" Technicolour wide-screen "A" pictures.

The newly freed theatres needed movies to show, and thanks to the post-war baby boom these films had to appeal to kids and teenagers. New companies like American International sprung up to fill this gap in the market.

Like the studios did against the MPPC, these new companies made their success by giving the public what the studios weren't. Pure entertainment that didn't claim to be important or anything else.

This system progressed through the 1960s. But things be
gan to change. The prevalence of TV meant that movies didn't have to be everything for everybody. And the arrival of the ratings system gave filmmakers the wiggle room to push the boundaries when it came to material.

Now it was the independents that first started this. One of the most influential producer/directors of this era was Roger Corman. Seeing that the youth
market was interested in edgier themes, he leaped in with both feet, making films that exploited these themes to the hilt.

The "Exploitation" Era had begun.

During its heyday in the late 60s and early 70s Corman, first through American International, and later through his own New World Company, acted as a mentor for the young filmmakers coming out of California's relatively new Film Schools. He hired them at first because they were a great source of cheap labour, but then he saw that they connected better with the youth market he sought to entertain.

Eventually, the studios, many facing bankruptcy, started to see the success of these young whippersnappers and began bringing them into t
he studio system.

By bringing their exploitation film mentality and marrying it with bigger studio budgets they created the era of the $100 million dollar plus Blockbuster Movie.

Now these big studio blockbusters started to squeeze the independents out of the theatres, who in the meantime were mostly swallowed up by big cinema chains. These chains only wanted big movies to attract big crowds to their new multiplex theatres.

But all was not lost.

Because home video had come along.

Home video was new, and in the early 80s small independent video stores had literally spread worse than Starbucks. These stores needed to fill their shelves with anything they could get their hands on, and the studios were a tad slow, sometimes taking years to get films out on VHS.

Independent companies saw an opportunity and moved fast to exploit it. Filling video-store shelves with hundreds of low budget sci-fi, action, horror, and comedy films. Since these films needed a hook to make themselves stand out the sci-fi flicks had lots of (usually hokey) special FX, action films were more violent, the hor
ror films had buckets of gore, and the comedies were usually low-brow sex-farces complete with topless girls and genital jokes.

Among the new crop of companies to grow in the fertile fie
lds of VHS and begin to use their clout to get better releases for their films in theatres were New Line, New World (under new owners), Embassy Pictures, Cannon Films, Live Entertainment, and Vestron.

While Cannon dominated the low budget exploitation, producing and/or releasing hundreds of films during their run, other companies like Goldcrest, and the fledgling Miramax, sought new opportunities.

The teen market was over saturated in theatres and in video stores by both the big studios and the smaller "mini-majors." Leaving mature urban professionals under-stimulated when it came to movies.


Goldcrest and Miramax started to fill this gap. Goldcrest, sadly got overextended, and sank under its own success in the mid 1980s, but Miramax chugged along specializing in distributing foreign and "art" films to the upscale urban audience.

It was around this time also that Robert Redford started the Sundance Film Festival as a place for independent filmmakers to network with distributors and promote their films.


Then the boom hit.

New technology made film-making cheaper and a new generation of movie brats burst onto the scene. They made films they wanted to see, and they did it faster, cheaper, and more creatively than the big studios and the ageing first generation of film school kids.

Sundance gave them a place to premiere their films, and companies like Miramax had the means to get them into theatres. And when these films started making money, well the race was on.

Soon the movie world was filled with Tarantino imitators and wannabe Weinsteins, and things got even worse when Tarantino's Pulp Fiction won Oscars and made over $100 million domestic gross at the box-office with a tiny budget of $8 million.

Miramax's domination of the Oscars had begun. Part of this came from shrewdly marketed quality films, but a good chunk of it came from very aggressive Academy Award campaigns that were often bigger, budget wise, than the films they were promoting.

This was when things started to go wrong.

Indie films forgot about the audiences, and aimed for Oscar wins. The big studios started buying up independent distributors. Others, hurt financially from trying to compete with the majors, went under. And Sundance became a massive corporate media-whore fest.

There was also a change in attitude. With the "indie" distributors now small cogs in massive corporate machines, the need to make films that actually appeal to audiences, even small ones, dwindled. They didn't need to make money, since their existence was to attract awards, and give the parent companies a tax-write-off.

Soon what was once challenging, became insulting, daring became offencive, and artistic became an excuse for being incoherent and obscure. Indie films went from giving the people what mainstream Hollywood wouldn't give them, to giving Hollywood what the people don't want.

And that pretty much sums it up.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Fictional Freakouts: The Old Timer's Table

Ian Marshall fidgeted. He couldn't help it. He hated being in the tuxedo, the bow-tie was strangling him, and the cummerbund was loose, and he wondered what the hell was he doing here.

He had been invited, nay ordered, to attend this little soirée by his supervisor, the man everyone in The Service called Control. The old man said it was just a request, but Marshall knew, Control didn't make requests.

Now Marshall was clad in an ill-fitting tuxedo, waiting at the bar at the Zero-Zero, a club in the Mayfair district. It had been a fairly posh establishment in its day, which Marshall tagged at somewhere in the late 1960s, but it had failed to follow fashion.

"Glad you can make it my lad," said Control, a cigar in one hand, and a gold plated lighter in the other. Control lit the cigar and took a long, drag, savouring the tumour growing goodness of the smoke. "Would you like one, it's a Cuban?"

"No, thank you," replied Marshall. Control was being strangely social this evening. Usually he just passed judgements from behind his desk in the bland little red-brick building behind Whitehall, and wasn't much for chumminess.

"Come along lad," said Control taking Marshall by the arm, "there are some people I'd like you to meet. "We'll have martinis at our table," Control said to the bartender.

Control led Marshall across the main bar of the club to a pair of broad doors lined with leather padding. Control opened the door and nodded at Marshall to go in.

"So," said a man with greying red hair and black framed glasses in a tuxedo that was even more ill fitting than Marshall's. "Is he the new pigeon?" The man's accent was pure cockney.

"Behave Harry," said Control. "This is Ian, he's new to the service, so I thought he should meet some of the old boys." Control then went around the table, introducing Marshall to men referred to only as Harry, Jim, and George.

Jim was devilishly handsome, his hair not going grey like ordinary men, but transforming into spun silver. He looked like his tuxedo was a natural part of his body, and he spoke with an elegant and cultured accent.

George was a short, chubby fellow, with round spectacles, a spherical bald head with a wispy fringe of white hair, and spoke with the gentle tones of the sort of man who taught classes about obscure German writers at some mossy university.

A deck of cards lay in the centre of the green baize table.

"What's the game?" asked Marshall.

"We used to play baccarat," said Jim.

"And he used to always win," said Harry, lighting his own cigar.

"But poker seems to be all the rage these days," said George. "It's just a friendly game."

"The buy in's a fiver," said Harry. "Winner buys everyone a curry."

Marshall plopped a five pound note on the table, and was handed a stack of chips by George.

Jim started shuffling the deck with quick, expert hands.

"So," said Marshall, "are you all in The Service."

"Retired," said Harry, "we were found to be redundant to needs."

"The game isn't the same anymore," said Jim.

"I thought this was Texas Hold'em," said Marshall.

"Nice lad," said Harry, "but dim."

"Ignore Harry," said George, "he's bitter."

"I got a bloody right to be bitter," said Harry. "I worked my arse off and never did get the respect you other two had."

"You did dirty jobs," said George. "They were necessary, but lacking in glory."

"Nothing to feel bad about old boy," said Jim.

"Yeah," said Harry, "just deal the damn cards."

As the game went on, the old men told stories. They left out most of the names, and anything still too classified to talk about among friends. Each one had a different style.

Jim's tales were loaded with high adventure in exotic locations with beautiful women. They were heavy on action and laughs, and always ended with some treacherous plotter meeting his doom. They also all ended with Jim alone.

"You just don't see those kinds of men anymore," said Jim, a note of wistfulness in his voice, almost as if he missed them.

"Yes," said George, "no one could afford to run those kinds of operations anymore. The health insurance for the manpower would be most prohibitive."

Then it was Harry's turn. His stories were darker. Dealing with grubby people in grubby places, usually betraying each other with mad abandon. And somehow Harry always managed to wade through the convoluted mess and come out on top, usually by being the sneakiest one around.

"Dirty jobs done dirt cheap," said Harry, stubbing out his cigar into a cut glass ashtray. "All guts, no glory."

It was George's turn next. His stories were sad by their nature. Betrayal was everywhere. Betrayal of friends, spouses and country. George had to plod through these disasters, both personal and professional, if not to save the day, but at least to keep things from falling apart completely.

The game ended, and Harry won the pot. Then came the curry, which Marshall enjoyed, as well as more stories. Control sat their, savouring his cigars in watchful silence.

It was still dark, even though it was technically morning, when Marshall and control left the club.

"So," said Control. "Did you have a good time?"

"Yes," said Marshall. "The Service has had a lot characters in it."

Control nodded. "They're very different men, but they share one thing in common. They are all alone, and they will die alone. It's a sacrifice men like us make. You're new, so you should ask yourself a question: Are you willing to make that sacrifice?"

Marshall froze.

"You don't have to answer now," said Control as he sauntered down the steps of the clubhouse. "Sleep on it. I'll see you at the office on Monday."

THE END...

Why I won't be watching the Oscars this year....

5. The show is 90 minutes of crackerjack entertainment, in a 4 1/2 hour show.

4. I haven't seen any of the nominees, and with the exception of Juno and No Country for Old Men, neither has most of the movie going public.

3. I just know that someone is going to make a lame political statement during their speech.

2. John Stewart bores me. The only reason he got the gig is because he's the least likely host to give Sean Penn a conniption fit.

1. My 2 year old TV blew out last night.
(It really did I'll never buy a P.O.S. Sanyo again)


I'm running another caption game. Click here and leave a caption.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Fun & Games: Caption Time

Gotta caption for this picture?

Leave it in the comments.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On... #53: The Lost Last Movie Star?

A big sloppy tip of the proverbial chapeau to conservative film site Libertas for the link to this story where Time Magazine dubs actor George Clooney "The Last Movie Star."

They didn't bestow this honour upon him for his box-office performance (h/p Libertas for the link) which, when compared to the fact that they cost on average over $100-$150 million each to make and need to make a minimum of 2-3 times the production budget in ticket sales to profit, looks pretty dismal.

Apparently they've given him this dubious honour because of his image. His bland good looks coupled with the bland righteousness of his characters, supposedly hearken to a bygone era of Hollywood leading men.

Now this is very telling, not only about the state of Hollywood, but of the media in general.

There are actors, some of them considered leading men, who are far more popular than Clooney when you look at the ticket sales stats, but it's always Clooney who gets the stamp of approval from the media.

Why?

Well, it's all about what audience any given actor is playing for.

The other more bankable stars choose their projects by what they think the audience would like to see them in.

George Clooney picks his projects on how it will play for his peers in Hollywood and the media.

And that's basically it.

Clooney is not a Hollywood star, he's Hollywood's star.

As I've said before, so many times, a "star" is an aspirational figure, one with whom the audience both identifies with, and wishes to be more like.

The average moviegoer doesn't aspire to Clooney, but Hollywood's media industry certainly does. He says what they want to hear, does what they want him to do, and follows the Hollywood herd when it comes to trends and politics, and is called "courageous" for doing it, even though it doesn't harm anything but his box-office appeal.

Clooney's movies under-perform at the box-office yet his salary keeps going up, and he keeps getting nominated for films hardly anyone has seen.

Of course Hollywood could claim that George Clooney has great "name recognition" which is true, he's on the entertainment shows and magazines 24/7. But a lot of people know who Paris Hilton is, but how many of those people will pay money to see her in a movie?

This is a product of Hollywood's increasing isolation from the rest of us. In the glory days stars were designed to appeal to the public, now all the stars have to do, is appeal to each other.

It's like cinematic inbreeding.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On... #52: Duelling Thespians

WWMD?

What Would Machiavelli Do?

That's a question I've raised before in the context of the Writer's Strike, and now it's popped up again in the context of divisions that have popped up as the Screen Actor's Guild prepare to start negotiations on their contract with the AMPTP.

Now on the surface, the fighting over "qualified voting" and the very public pressure to start negotiations early and to rush to a deal would seem to be the sort of strategic blunder that Machiavelli would frown on.

Or is it?

By provoking these issues the "A-List" and their allies have effectively split the union, making it weak in the face of the united AMPTP.

Now on the surface this is a major league pooch-screw. You never go into battle, and negotiations are battles, with folks that are supposed to be allies at each other's throats.

However, this is just on the surface.

I've always said that the A-List has divorced itself from the great unwashed of the general public, and now it seems that they've split from the fellow actors, especially the ones who don't make millions of dollars a year. I've also discussed the reason. Any radical rethink of how Hollywood does business, especially with actors threatens their position, which owes mostly to the clout of their agents and publicists than their box-office appeal.

But what about the non-A-listers who are supporting the divisive measures?

There's a saying that if you want loyalty in Hollywood, get a dog. Almost all relationships in Hollywood are based on who can get you your next job, whether you like them or agree with them. So there's no doubt that many will sign on with the A-List against the rest as some sort of protection or promotion for their own careers.

Hollywood is a cutthroat town, and it looks like the big money actors are quite willing to cut the throats of their own union.

Now is that properly Machiavellian?

Possibly, it is ruthless and geared toward preserving their own power.

However, there's an element of self-destruction in it that Machiavelli would not approve of. Because stardom is fickle, no one stays on top forever, and when you're down, and the union that's supposed to protect you has been neutered by you, it's not good.

While Machiavelli believed in getting and maintaining power, he learnt the hard way that you should always have a plan for when things don't work out.

So I guess what we have here, are a bunch of people who think they're being clever, but are really shooting themselves in the foot.

Monday, 18 February 2008

This Writing Life...: Where Do You Get Your Ideas...

That's a question a lot of writers get.

Where do you get your ideas?

Well, mine seem to pop up everywhere, and sometimes in the strangest places.

One of my favourite places where I find ideas is the remainder bin at bookstores.

No I'm not talking about plagiarism. Go wash your brain out with soap for even thinking about it.

I'm a rabid reader. Fiction, non-fiction I consume it all voraciously. I especially like reading history. Especially books about relatively obscure corners of history that usually end up in the remainder bin or at your local library's clearance sale.

One such book I found was called The Mummy Congress by Heather Pringle. At face value it seems to be a fairly straightforward book about a conference of scientists who meet periodically to talk about mummies of all shapes, sizes, and varieties.

Reading about how the ancient and more modern cultures viewed and treated the dead gave me ideas for two very different short stories, one a straight horror tale of revenge and death, and another one a more lighthearted and humorous fantasy adventure. Now both are works in progress, but they're shaping up pretty well.

Which is why I'm so adamant that before anyone can think they can write, they have to read, a lot.

And that's why I just can't walk past a remainder bin without taking a look, because you never know what you'll find, or what it could lead to.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Cinemaniacal #2: Aim for the Brain...

George A. Romero just doesn't seem to want to let sleeping zombies lie.

After Land of the Dead, Romero has followed up with Diary of the Dead, and has announced that his next project will be either Diamond Dead, or a sequel to Diary.

In my opinion, I think the whole zombie genre is dead.

At least for now.


The modern "Zombie" sub-genre really began with George A. Romero's landmark horror film Night of the
Living Dead. It set what became the standard tropes of the sub-genre: A small band of survivors, hordes of flesh eating ghouls* trying to make the living into their lunch, and problems arising among the survivors (resulting from ego, greed, or stupidity) that threaten their survival. It then ladled on the blood (according to legend, chocolate syrup) some improvised gore, and served.

Many critics saw a great deal of social commentary, possibly unintended, in the original Night of the Living Dead seeing the zombies as a metaphor for conformity and consumerism, and the film's black hero Ben (played by Duane Jones) as more than just a brave and resourceful human being, but a symbol.

Romero jumped on those concepts almost 10 years later when he began
production on what many consider his best film Dawn of the Dead. According to some sources the concept was born by pressure from European producers eager for a sequel to Night, and from a visit to the Monroeville Mall and saw that it had a civil defence shelter in it.

In my opinion the film's biggest flaw was it's constant hammering of the "Zombie as mindless consumer" motif. It's supposed to be a film, not a lecture, at least in my opinion. What I believe was the film's greatest strength was its unsettling portrayal of social decay brought about by people being more concerned with their own agendas.

No one in the film, outside of small gangs of people, bothers to coordinate, cooperate, or do anything outside of preserving their own butts, or interests. When faced with a world where the dead get up and kill, thus creating more undead, what do the majority of people do? They loot stores for cigarettes, liquor, and useless luxuries, not really giving much thought to how useful they would be in such a crisis, but then again, no one seems to be thinking all that well.

It's sort of like the entire world being as poorly managed as New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Which pretty much describes America in the 1970s that I remember.

Romero followed Dawn with Day of the Dead in 1985. I haven't seen the film in literally almost 20 years, but I do remember that it was much grimmer than Dawn, unrelentingly so, lacking the moments of humour, but heavier on the sense of crumbling order and the message of military as being more dangerous than the gut munching undead.

I also remember that the "military" characters had haircuts that didn't seem all that military to me, but that may have been intentional on Romero's part as a symptom of social decay.

I skipped Land of the Dead. Mostly when it presented Dennis Hopper as the "real villain" of the sinister capitalist ruling his little fortress like a cross between Donald Trump, Donald Rumsfeld, and Benito Mussolini. I've always figured that any man who claimed to be "in charge" because he has a lot of money, when the state that backs currency was long gone and things have gone back to strength and barter, would probably be tossed out by the people with guns to become zombie chow.


Of course, the generation Romero belongs to, would never let such a thing as logical premise get in the way of making a point.

And now he's got Diary of the Dead, or as I like to call it, Flogging a Dead Zombie, a faux documentary about the beginning of the zombie uprising as seen through the cameras of a bunch of film students.

I'm not exactly excited about it the way sooo many zombie fans are, mostly because it seems to be relying on a seemingly endless stream of horror celebrity cameos (usually as newsreaders) and by a description I read in a review of one scene.

The scene I read about had "rednecks" tying zombies to trees and such, and then pumping them full of lead for kicks while a voice-over lectures about man's inhumanity to man. Gone are the jovial beer swilling zombie hunters of Dawn of the Dead who seemed the only folks capable of surviving the crisis, replaced by drooling stereotypes from flyover country concerned more with sadism than survival.

Having encountered many people who could easily be described as "rednecks" I've always figured they'd be way more practical and sparing with their ammunition when faced with a growing horde of the living dead.

And word is that Romero is going to follow it up with yet another zombie film. Either a direct sequel to Diary, or his long fermenting Diamond Dead. Diamond Dead is about a rock band consisting of flesh eating zombies, and how their living manager tries to keep the band together in the face of sinister religious fundamentalists, and their own unnatural appetites.

And in the film, the fundamentalists, are reported as the villains, not the flesh eating zombies.

I'd rather live next door to a pair of bible thumping Baptists who tell me that I'm going to hell, than a pack of zombies. Because while the Baptists may annoy me, the odds are that they aren't going to eat me.

The whole concept seems like a relic of the 1960s, and thanks to the continued dominance of baby-boomers in positions of authority in the media companies, we have had to many relics of that "shrill pointless decade" tossed at us.

I think it's time for Romero and the other zombie filmmakers to give the whole sub-genre a rest for a while. I'm not talking about a permanent, shot to the brain double-kill, but a moratorium till someone comes up with a fresh idea or at least a fresh metaphor.

Because the dead are starting to smell up the joint.

Now who is willing to bet that I'm going to be royally flamed by a horde of angry gore-hounds?
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*Traditionally zombies are mindless undead slaves in the service of some sinister wizard, while ghouls are more like the movie "zombies" being hungry undead creatures that eat the dead and the living alike. (Ghoul coming from Ghul, an Arabic word for demon)

Friday, 15 February 2008

On Comedy: Canadians Can Be Funny, Honest...

One of the best kept secrets in the comedy world is the presence of Canadians in just about every facet of North American comedy. This is especially true with television, with many Canadian writers and performers being responsible for everything from the corny hokum of Hee Haw to Saturday Night Live's glory days and beyond.

Now some, the more intelligent among you, are probably wondering why?

Well the answer is simple.

Canadians are funny.

But there's more to it, but it's where you can begin.

Canada is a nation of watchers. We're wedged between the big cultural juggernauts of Britain and the USA, and traditionally we've been liberally bombarded by both cultures while being uncertain of our own culture. This uncertainty, this lack of cultural confidence, can lead to a certain amount of lashing out. And since it's culture we're lashing out at, parody and satire are the natural results.

In the mid-1970s Second City's Toronto troupe was a major centre of such satire and parody, which led many of its cast members to be poached to work for Canadian expat Lorne Michaels' little show Saturday Night Live. The poaching was getting so aggressive that Second City Toronto's management started their own TV show to keep their performers in the fold. That show was called SCTV.

It was a TV show about TV, that used the language of TV to create laughs. Take for example these commercial parodies, which made the show both timely, yet timeless...

Stairways to heaven


Yellowbelly


During the 80s, after the passing of SCTV's last incarnation, Canadian comedy went on to the middle class social satire of Kids In The Hall, and the skewering of regional identities by Newfoundland's CODCO.

The 90s saw the rise of more news related satire, with This Hour Has 22 Minutes. From their phony news-desk they'd skewer politicians and their political parties as well as pop-culture figures in the news like Oscar winner turned documentarian James Cameron:



Former 22 Minutes alum turned solo-act Rick Mercer also does his own satire, like this piece where he makes fun of Canada's rather stiff taxes and a popular bank commercial.



But one of their strengths is interacting with others, from the rich and powerful, to average people in everyday situations...





Now another reason Canadians are so funny, is that Canada has some of the toughest audiences that you will ever encounter. If you can make a Canadian audience laugh, you are on your way. This is especially true of Newfoundlanders, one comedian once remarked that he secretly hated playing in Newfoundland because he knew that everyone in the audience was funnier than he was.

This makes the Canadian comedy scene the comedic equivalent of Parris Island Boot camp, creating lean, mean comedy machines. So a lot of Canadian performers and writers end up in New York or Los Angeles working American sitcoms and sketch comedy shows.

In fact, American comedy without Canadians does seem to lack something.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On... #51: SAGa of the Divided Union

Things are getting heated inside the Screen Actor's Guild with one faction trying to push the union to get negotiations with the AMPTP over with before the contract's due date gets too close.

Now there's even talk of "Qualified Voting," where the right to vote of SAG members will depend entirely on the amount of money they make during the previous year.

Actor Ron Livingston gives his view here. (Hat tip Nikki Finke)

Have you read it?

Good, now we can continue...

Now I'm the last person to be a "union or death" kind of labour activist type, having a grandfather who was screwed out of his job and left unemplo
yed by a union during the Depression with 12 kids to feed, but I have to admit that Livingston makes good points.

What's the good of a union when 65% to 80% of the rank and file are disqualified from having a voice in union matters simply because they don't make enough money. Qualifying for SAG membership alone is hard enough, giving it a caste system stricter than medieval India based on income is an abomination to the very idea of a union.

The role of a union, and for minimum basic agreements are not for the top tier money makers, who have others looking out for their interests but for the rank and file character actors who will never see their name on a star on Hollywood Blvd.

Although their motives may be entirely pure, this move has the faint whiff of institutional putrefaction to it. Like those old time crooked elections where only landowning white males could vote, and they usually sold theirs to the highest bidder.

I've already expressed why I think the A-List has been avoiding getting involved in these contract disputes. They think that any re-evaluation of how business is done in Hollywood could threaten their huge sala
ries, since the bulk of today's "stars" fail at any real box-office appeal.

So here's a new thought.

I say bring in qualified voting, but change the qualifications.

If an actor makes more than $1,000,000 in the past year, they don't get to vote on union business. They have agents, lawyers, managers, accountants, and others to look after their interests, they don't really need the union.

Let those who need SAG run SAG.

(That's what you call a trial balloon, please leave your outrage in my comments section so I can see if I can get away with tossing this particular fox into the SAG henhouse)
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CLICK HERE & JOIN THE CAPTION GAME

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On... #50: What the Zucker?

Just when I thought that the inevitable exit of Bob Shaye from New Line was going to cause me to lose material for this blog, but as always, something bubbles up to the top.

Nikki Finke reports that NBC-Universal and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association are considering suing the WGA over the cancellation of the Golden Globes broadcast.

If this story turns out to be true, things will get ugly, and not for the WGA.

If the lawsuit goes forward NBC and it's many cable outlets can look forward to not only souring relations even more with the WGA membership (which includes show-runners the people who create and produce TV shows) but will probably get the federal government involved.

It will also cast the spotlight on Zucker's business record, which some folks more in tune with showbiz says is a marked ability to land a promotion just before all his plans implode. Many of these same folks put the blame on him for the NBC network's dismal showings in the ratings as well as losing around $1 billion.

And then there's the legal arguments.

1. The WGA did not cancel the Golden Globes, NBC did. All the WGA could do in relation to the Golden Globes was picket, which they were legally allowed to do. NBC and the HFPA cancelled it of their own free will because the unionized actors weren't going to cross the picket line, which they were legally allowed to do.

2. A corporation that sues a union for engaging in legal strike actions is automatically considered as engaging in labour intimidation, and will be investigated by Local, State, and Federal labour relations agencies, and any judge will throw their suit out of court.

If this story is true, it's like where five countries go to war with one country. The war is costly, and all five make a peace agreement, then, before the ink is even dry, one five allies leaves the others and re-declares war.

I'm torn in my own way about this story. If it's accurate, and NBC goes through with the lawsuit, it will do nothing but open old wounds, but I will have lots of material to talk about.

But I really don't want anyone to take Bob Shaye's place as my cautionary example. Hollywood is toxic enough, especially to itself.

I'm still the cock-eyed optimist that hopes that common sense, and not petty ego will somehow win the day.


UPDATE:

I'm not all that cock-eyed.

Reports are now coming out that none of the parties (NBC, HFPA & Dick Clark Prod.) involved intended to sue the WGA. Read the details here.

Now some may say that folks like me just overreacted to a false rumour, but I think I'm just part of a larger process.

I think the lawsuit story was a trial balloon.

Government agencies in Canada do it all the time, and I'm sure businesses do it to.

Here's a brief explanation for the uninitiated:

Say you're running a business, and you have a plan that could work out, or it could make you the heel of the month.

So to test the waters you have someone leak out bits and pieces of that plan and see the level of outrage it generates.

If the level is too much, you simply deny that such a plan ever existed.

So I'm not at all troubled by commenting on a rumour that is denied. Just because the lawsuit plan doesn't exist now, doesn't mean that it never existed, even if it was only in the fever-swamp of executive minds.

I'm not a dupe. I'm an agent of outrage that keeps things on an even keel.
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Hollywood Babble On & On... #49: SAGging Fortunes

A big sloppy hat-tip to the inestimable Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood Daily for this story.

It appears that Hollywood's A-List celebrities, led by George Clooney are pressuring the Screen Actor's Guild, or SAG to begin negotiations with the AMPTP early in order to stem a potential strike in June. This comes with reports of a lot of posturing by the A-List to make the SAG leadership look militant and unreasonable.

Now a lot of folks are wondering why actors would try to pressure their own union to rush to a deal, no matter the consequences instead of putting that same pressure on the corporations.

Well, there's a pretty good reason.

Money.

Hollywood's A-List pretty much get everything they want from the corporations. Massive up-front pay cheques, first dollar gross points that sometimes actually get paid, control over their own projects and extras and special treatment that go beyond simple decadence into the realm of the ridiculous.

The A-List has it better now than any actors have had in the history of movies.

But there's a catch.

Most of the A-List don't deserve to be there.

The majority of A-List "Stars" owe their positions more to the tenacity of their agents and publicists than to their audience appeal or commercial success.

Take for example George Clooney, and Nicole Kidman.

According to the press they are two of the biggest stars in the world. They've won Oscars, and get almost non-stop press coverage that treats their every gas-passage as glorious works of genius.

But ask yourself: How many times have you paid money to see them?

Not many folks can answer that question. George Clooney's box-office record is dismal for anything that doesn't have the word Ocean's in the title, and the last one failed to turn a decent profit because it cost too damn much.

Nicole Kidman's record is even worse. She's a beautiful woman but has never had the luck of getting a modestly successful franchise like Clooney, and most records say that she's never had a starring film make over $100 million.

Yet both are each paid over $15-$20 million per picture.

Why?

The key element that makes a real movie star isn't the ability to get on Entertainment Tonight eight times in a week, or to land on People Magazine's Most Beautiful People list it's the ability to put bums on seats.

And most of today's A-List couldn't sell a movie ticket if the theatre was in the only bunker during a nuclear war. A SAG strike, or a radically rethought agreement between studios and actors might force the studios and networks to look beyond the haze laid out by publicists, agents, and the media, and pay the A-List based on their actual worth.

And that ain't much.

And now you know.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Fun & Games: Caption Contraption

Do you have a caption for this picture.
Click for full view...

Leave your caption in the comments.

The Strike is over...

So it's time to party like it's on sale for $19.99.



Plus, with the end of the strike comes the end of my boycott of DVDs.

I picked up a classic film at my local discount bin. If you can guess what film it is by this picture...

You win an extra special prize.*
*Extra special as in non-existent.