Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why I Blog About Pop Culture

It has been exactly two years since I created my current blog, City of Kik.  Since that first post on April 12, 2009, I have written (counting this one) 734 blog entries!  Now it is time for me to answer two questions that people have asked (and I have contemplated about as well).  "Why blog?" and more specifically "Why blog about popular culture?"

I write an online journal because it provides me a forum for my ideas.  I write about popular culture because that "category" encompasses many of the topics I love -- movies, television, theater, science fiction, fantasy, comics, baseball, music, celebrities, and on and on.  I have defended Pop Culture before and do not feel the need to enumerate its merits or counter its detractors again.  All I can do is describe how it has impacted me.

Drew Grant has kicked off a big essay series on Salon.com called "Saved by Pop Culture," and Emily Holleman, one of the awesome editors at Open Salon, has asked us to contribute our thoughts on how pop culture changed our lives.  Some might think such a statement is hyperbole, but looking at my own personal experience it is not that far of a stretch.

Those who remember me growing up can confirm that I was a painfully bashful child.  I was much more comfortable reading, watching TV, going to movies, listening to music, than engaging with my peers.  Writing and drawing were my forms of expression, and the things I would write and draw were often inspired by the fantastical stories I embraced. 

When they had time, my dad would watch reruns of Star Trek with me and my mom would watch Sanford and Son, All in the Family, Gilligan's Island, Happy Days, Diff'rent Strokes, or The Jeffersons with me.  Even though my grandmother didn't speak a word of English, she would never miss an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard or the Adam West Batman series -- and I would watch them with her, right by her side! 

Then my dad took me to see Star Wars in the movie theater and I fell in love with cinema.  I grew up writing my own scripts, shooting my own short movies, and wanting to perform on stage in front of an audience.  I started coming out of my shell and it was all thanks to pop culture.  I remember listening to Michael Jackson's Thriller album with my sisters and impressing them all with my perfected moonwalk. We would stay up late on weekends and watch Saturday Night Live and then videotape our own skits with our cousins.  I remember creating comic books with my classmates and selling them to other students during recess. 

Without pop culture, without memories of The Six Million Dollar Man or Back to the Future or The Incredible Hulk, I might still be a sad, introverted little boy at heart.  Instead, the doors of imagination have been opened and I have embraced the social power of entertainment.  Pop culture unites us all more so than high art ever could. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Films of the Hughes Brothers

When movie buffs think of brothers who are great directors, they might think of the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) who gave us Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and other modern classics, or they might even think of the Wachowski Brothers (Larry and Andy) who created Matrix, Bound, V for Vendetta, and Speed Racer.  But one sibling filmmaking team that I have great respect for is the Hughes Brothers (Allen and Albert).

Some words used to describe their movies are "gritty," "raw," "real," and "heartwrenching."  All of them pack an emotional wallop with believable, edgy characters.  Most importantly, all of their films are entertaining, pulling the viewer into the story and not letting go until the final credits.

They started out with Menace II Society about a street hustler trying to leave his dangerous, violent life behind, striving for something better.  The cast was excellent, with fabulous unknown actors (especially Tyrin Turner in the lead role of Caine) and big names before they became big names like Samuel L. Jackson and Jada Pinkett.  This is powerful filmmaking at its finest.

They followed up with another great movie, Dead Presidents, about a war veteran trying to restart his civilian life but drawn into a world of crime and violence.  The cast again was superb with Larenz Tate, Keith David, Chris Tucker, and a bunch of others.

Next came a documentary called American Pimp, an unflinching look at a shady but flamboyant underworld.  The real life people in the film are more outrageous than any fictional characters could be and the Hughes Brothers let the camera capture it all as only they can.  The result is compelling cinema from beginning to end.

After a short hiatus, during which they worked on individual projects, they reunited to direct a mainstream flick, From Hell, an adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel about Jack the Ripper.  It underperformed at the box office, but it was still an interesting film, worthy of a look.  Johnny Depp as always was terrific and so was his supporting cast: Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, and the rest.

Finally, their last project, The Book of Eli, was much better than I expected.  In a post-apocalyptic world, a lone wanderer (played wonderfully by Denzel Washington) carries a sacred book and tries to keep it out of the hands of those who wish to misuse it (such as the wicked Carnegie played by Gary Oldman).  Great performances abound, especially by Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, and Tom Waits.

The Hughes Brothers are young and talented, and I can't wait to see what future films they have in store for us.

Key Horror Movies in Film History

With Scream 4 about to open soon at a movie theater near you, continuing Wes Craven's hit franchise that attempts to turn all the cliches of the horror genre on their head, I started thinking about the key scary movies throughout motion picture history. 

Here are the ones that I think had the biggest impact on audiences.

The House of the Devil (1896) -- Allegedly, this film directed my pioneer moviemaker Georges Melies was the very first horror flick ever made.

Frankenstein (1910) -- This long-lost silent movie version (a print of which was eventually discovered) was apparently the first adaptation of the Mary Shelley classic novel.

Nosferatu (1922) -- While there were other vampire movies before this (such as The Kiss of a Vampire in 1916), the legendary F.W. Murnau film is the one that had the biggest impact and still holds up today for its frightening imagery.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) -- This was one of many iconic performances by the man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney.

Dracula (1931) -- Tod Browning's atmospheric rendition of Bram Stoker's book and the stage play adaptation brought to the screen, starring Bela Lugosi, basically set the standard for practically every other vampire movie that would ever follow.

Frankenstein (1931) -- This was a great year for horror movies, the beginning of the golden age.  Director James Whale created the definitive version of Shelley's tale, starring Boris Karloff.

The Invisible Man (1933) -- Director James Whale did it again with this fantastic retelling of the H.G. Wells classic.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) -- James Whale proved that he could make awesome sequels too, topping the original.

The Wolf Man (1941) -- Lon Chaney, Jr., follows in his dad's horror footsteps in the movie that established all the rules for countless werewolf stories to follow.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) -- Universal Pictures started putting its classic monster characters in the same films, to the delight of fans everywhere, laying the groundwork for many horror crossovers in the decades ahead.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) -- This supernatural shocker proved that a story didn't need monsters to scare the wits out of audiences.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) -- Comedy and horror together at last.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) -- Giant monsters attack!  And Ray Harryhausen provides the wonderful stop-motion special effects.

House of Wax (1953) -- Starring Vincent Price, this was the first 3D color feature from an American studio.

The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) -- Another 3D classic, this is one of my all-time guilty pleasures.  The Gill Man is one of the most underrated and under-utilized monsters in horror movie history. 

Godzilla (1954) -- Japan makes the best giant monster horror movie ever (since I wouldn't really call King Kong a horror movie.)

Them! (1954) -- Giant ants attack!  Yet another metaphor about the dangers of nuclear weapons testing.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) -- Hammer Films begins re-imagining all the classic horror monsters.

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) -- Starring Michael Landon, this was the best of the trend of flicks targeting the emerging teen market.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) -- Science fiction and horror at its best, this is another one of my favorites.

The Fly (1958) -- Vincent Price stars in another great horror classic.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) -- I had to list Ed Wood's infamous horror flick because it's still arguably the worst movie ever made.

Psycho (1960) -- This Alfred Hitchcock classic is still considered by many to be the greatest horror movie ever made.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) -- Roger Corman was known for low-budget schlock, but his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price weren't half bad.

The Birds (1963) -- This was one of many Alfred Hitchcock horror masterpieces.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) -- We have George Romero to blame for the zombie movie trend.

Rosemary's Baby (1968) -- Roman Polansky starts the trend of movies about demonic children.

Blacula (1972) -- Blaxpoitation films creep into the horror genre.

The Thing With Two Heads (1972) -- Without a doubt, this is one of the freakiest movies ever made, starring Rosey Grier and Ray Milland.

The Exorcist (1973) -- One of my favorite horror movies ever made, this became a blockbuster that put horror movies on the map, spawning countless ripoffs trying to capture a bit of its success.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) -- This was arguably the first slasher horror film.

Jaws (1975) -- Yes, the Steven Spielberg favorite which became one of the first summer blockbusters was a horror movie.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) -- For its cult status alone, I must include this film on this list.

The Omen (1976) -- Though much maligned by critics at the time, this Richard Donner classic is still one of my all-time favorites.

Carrie (1976) -- Brian De Palma directed one of the first and still one of the best Stephen King adaptations.

Halloween (1978) -- John Carpenter perfected the slasher movie, and he didn't need a big budget to do it.

Alien (1979) -- Ridley Scott's science fiction gem is really a horror movie set in space.

The Amityville Horror (1979) -- This is one of the best haunted house movies ever made.

Dracula (1979) -- The Frank Langella version of Bram Stoker's classic tale was flawed, but it was one of the first to turn the vampire into an unabashed sex symbol.

Friday the 13th (1980) -- This was a decent scary movie that eventually morphed into a Halloween ripoff, epitomizing the slasher-film-peak of the 1980s.

The Howling (1981) -- Joe Dante's werewolf flick is still one of my guilty faves.

Wolfen (1982) -- Released the same year as The Howling, I liked this one too.

Gremlins (1984) -- The anti-E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.  Cute, cuddly little creatures turn into blood-thirsty monsters.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) -- How could I not include Freddy Krueger on this list?

The Fly (1986) -- This great, scary flick proved that remakes can be a million times better than the original.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) -- The horror genre finally gains some respectability as this fantastic movie becomes a box office hit and wins five Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) -- Francis Ford Coppola tries to reinvent the classic as a big-budget motion picture, to mixed results.

Species (1995) -- Horror movie as erotic thriller.

Scream (1996) -- Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson revitalize the horror genre.

Ringu (1998) -- Asian horror movies become the latest moneymaking trend, sparking a bunch of American remakes.  This one became The Ring.

Blade (1998) -- A blend of horror and superhero, this arguably was the film that kickstarted Marvel Comics movie adaptation dominance.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) -- The best of the low budget mockumentary horror films.

Saw (2004) -- The peak of the horrible "torture porn" trend.

Of course I've left out many, but for me those are the biggies.  What say you?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Turning Good Movies Into Great Musicals

Catch Me If You Can opens on Broadway Sunday, April 10, 2011.  My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing one of the final preview performances, the Saturday matinee.  We loved it so much; we think it will have a terrific run.  Many musicals have been turned into successful motion pictures (West Side Story, Chicago, Grease, Dreamgirls, and Little Shop of Horrors, just to name a few), but it takes tremendous skill and lots of luck to transform a movie into a stage musical.  Playwright Terrance McNally, who wrote the book for one of my favorites, The Full Monty, has done it again with this witty, touching, totally entertaining adaptation of the Steven Spielberg film which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, Christopher Walken, and Martin Sheen.

The Broadway show is a traditional crowd pleaser with a wonderful story, great tunes (like "Live in Living Color" and "Butter Outta Cream" which will likely be stuck in your head for a while), and remarkable performances, especially by Norbert Leo Butz who practically steals the show as Agent Carl Hanratty.  His showstopping number "Don't Break the Rules" is one for the ages.  He should definitely be on the shortlist of contenders for award season.  That takes nothing away from the rest of the energetic and capable cast, especially Aaron Tveit as the charismatic young con-man Frank Abagnale, Jr.  For those who may still remember Tom Wopat as "just a good old boy" from the original Dukes of Hazzard, they will not be disappointed by his turn as Frank Abagnale, Sr., his finest role yet.  Kerry Butler also impresses as the love interest, Brenda Strong, wowing the audience with her rendition of "Fly, Fly Away."

Will Catch Me If You Can join the ranks of other blockbuster musicals inspired by movies, like The Producers and Hairspray?  It certainly deserves to be.  Catch it if you can.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Look at the Musical AMERICAN IDIOT

On Thursday night, I went to see American Idiot on Broadway.  I definitely wanted to see it before it ended its run on the Great White Way, and especially one of the final performances featuring Billy Joe Armstrong in the role of St. Jimmy.  It has one of my favorite musical scores of any show I've seen lately, and it's sad to see another good production close. 

Some people lump American Idiot with the jukebox musical trend, but I don't think it fits that categorization.  The show was based on a concept album by Green Day, and while it can certainly be called a rock opera based on that album (and a few other Green Day songs), its basic premise flows from the shared theme of all the tunes from that album.  Armstrong, who wrote the lyrics and the musical's book, did not have to stretch far to patch together a plot -- the songs already tell the story.  American Idiot is more like Jesus Christ Superstar or The Who's Tommy, which were also based on concept albums, rather than the jukebox musicals based on a wide collection of unrelated songs from musicans' catalogs like Billy Joel, Elvis Presley, ABBA, etc.

The simplistic plot is probably the greatest flaw in American Idiot.  The music certainly carries the show, but the story is weak.  The tone is fine, starting with a strong punk rock sensibility that questions authority, whether parental or governmental, and rejects mainstream media saturation.  It follows the lives of three suburban friends: Johnny, Tunny, and Will (played respectively by Van Hughes, David Larsen, and Justin Guarini, he of first season American Idol fame -- all fantastic.)  One leaves for the big city with dreams of becoming a songwriter, falls in love, but gets tempted by the vices of excess, personified by the temptations of St. Jimmy. One joins the military and is wounded in battle.  One stays behind after learning that his girlfriend is pregnant. 

Their three stories progress simultaneously, as their lives spiral out of control, sometimes with powerful effect, such as the scene in which Will is getting stoned in his living room while Tunny and his fellow soldiers are fighting for their lives in Iraq, leading to their eventual reunion back home.  The final morals of the play are nothing really new (media are vapid, suburbia is dull and shallow, drugs are dangerous, war is bad, home is where the heart is), but the wonderful music and Armstrong's lyrics are what elevate the production to new levels.

The set, with its multiple video monitors and visual projections, is outstanding.  The lighting is great, and the choreography has moments of brilliance (a stunning aerial dance comes to mind -- maybe the producers of Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark could get an idea or two from American Idiot).  The cast has some truly amazing voices, and Billie Joe Armstrong holds his own with the Broadway cast, showcasing incredible stage presence and theatrical instincts.

From the loud, catchy, moving anthems of "American Idiot," "Holiday," and "21 Guns" to the lyrical magnificence of "Jesus of Suburbia," "St. Jimmy," and "Homecoming," to the emotional ballads of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Give Me Novacaine," and "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," the songs are all memorable.  I have always been a fan of Green Day, so maybe I'm biased and enjoyed the familiarity of the show, but nonetheless, I would love to see it again.  I wish more people had a chance to experience it.

If you have a chance, get tickets to see American Idiot before it comes to an end on April 24, 2011.  The music will stay with you for a long time.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Places of Legend

The National Geographic Channel is airing a special called Finding Atlantis, so it inspired me to think about all the mythic places throughout history that may or may not have actually existed.  Are they locations of myth only, or are the legends about them based on some reality?  Did they stem purely from the imaginations of the people who originally thought them up as works of fiction, or do they have some grounding in fact, embellished but still based on some truth?

The ones that come to mind are:

The Garden of Eden -- The biblical paradise on Earth was the oasis where Adam and Eve frolicked innocently until that darn serpent tempted them to taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Four rivers were mentioned, giving readers tantalizing clues of an actual location -- Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Euphrates. 

Atlantis -- Plato described some interesting details about the lost continent, but he was paraphrasing Socrates who was carrying on an oral tradition of communication -- basically a game of telephone over a thousand years after the rumored city was allegedly destroyed.  Did it ever really exist?  Check out the National Geographic special to learn the latest developments in the age-old mystery.

El Dorado -- Ahh, the "Lost City of Gold," people still want to find it.  Famous explorers risked their lives to search for any clue about its whereabouts.  Is it just a fable or might remnants of it be hidden someplace in the forests of the Amazon or on some otherwise unremarkable tropical island?  Or is it just the stuff of movies and tall tales?

Camelot and Avalon -- They say all myths have some basis in fact.  If so, what can we say about the legend of King Arthur?  Was his kingdom of Camelot real?  Is he buried in a place that was called Avalon?

Shangri-La -- This is a fictional place invented by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon, but is it any less real than any of the other locations I mentioned above?

Utopia -- Then there is the place synonymous with perfection -- the ideal society as described by Sir Thomas More.  Can it ever exist, or could it have actually at one time existed but is now lost to history?  How many civilations may have come and gone, only to fade away, their achievements never recorded, their footprints erased by the winds of time?

I didn't mention legendary places that we know were real, like Machu Picchu in Peru or Xanadu (Shangdu) in China.  Any other mythic places that might have actually existed?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

More Adaptations I Would Like to See

I've written before about adaptations of books and graphic novels that I would like to see, but an article by Bob Calhoun about "Science Fiction and Horror Stories That Need Adapting" inspired me to think of others.  So here's my list.

Time Enough For Love by Robert A. Heinlein -- Some argue that this novel is too dull and some criticize it for being hopelessly dated, but I think it would make a really interesting movie or mini-series.  Part of a series of stories about the seemingly immortal Lazarus Long, this particular one is my favorite.  In it, Lazarus is suicidal and tells stories of his millennia-long, planet-hopping life.  It's a complex work with many thought-provoking (and some controversial) ideas.  Although many fans prefer Heinlein's Future History series or his World as Myth saga, I lean toward this.  In the right hands, it would make a great sci-fi show.

Magic Kingdom For Sale -- Sold! by Terry Brooks -- Yes, Brook's Shannara series is much more famous, but let's face it, it's pretty much a Lord of the Rings rip-off.  His Landover saga, on the other hand, is something a little different, and for me at least, much more compelling.  It's about a depressed lawyer named Ben Holiday who finds himself in a fantasy world full of magic, danger, and wonderous characters. 

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville -- All of Mieville's novels, novellas, and shortstories are excellent, but this one in particular still resonates with its magic and steampunk technology. I would love to see Guillermo del Toro or Tim Burton take a stab at directing a movie version.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury -- Not your typical fantasy or science fiction tale, this is a tender story of growing up.  As Bradbury's site describes it, the story is a "priceless distillation of all that is eternal about boyhood and summer." If any filmmaker could bring Bradbury's incredible words to life, I wish they would.

Mefisto in Onyx by Harlan Ellison -- Any of Ellison's tales would be great to see on the silver screen, but this one could be really interesting, dealing with a psychic getting into the mind of a psychopath on death row.  Publishers Weekly writes, "Ellison's in-your-face story about telepathy and a serial killer is his most substantial piece in years."  Is Samuel L. Jackson too old for the lead role of Rudy Pairis?

Otherland by Tad Williams -- The multi-part sci-fi book series about adventures in a deadly cyber reality is tailor-made for a television series.  Great characters, amazing ideas, the story is open-ended enough to allow any film-maker or TV producer to stretch his or her imagination in any direction he or she chooses. 

If you have any favorites that deserve to be made into movies or television series that are not on this list, please let me know.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Are Reality Competitions the New Spectator Sport?

It is time once again to talk about one of my guilty pleasures, reality television.  Wait!  Before you click away, take a moment to read the topic of my blog entry today.  I am convinced that reality show competitions are fast becoming the globe's new spectator sports fad.  Still with me?  Great, allow me to explain.

As I sit here now, typing this while watching the New York Yankees versus the Minnesotta Twins (the game is now tied, 4-4, and I'm a little disgusted because the Yanks blew a 4-0 lead in the 8th inning), my mind wanders and I am reminded that some of the best parts of shows like Survivor, Amazing Race, Big Brother, and others, are the physical challenges.  Sure, we watch those programs for the human drama on display, for the soap-opera-ish storylines, for the voyeuristic aspects of seeing allegedly real people showing allegedly real emotions, but I have come to realize that it is the competitive games within these shows that ultimately keeps me coming back for more.

Just like watching baseball, basketball, hockey, football, or soccer, I root for certain reality show contestants to win.  I boo for the villains just as much as I would for a rival professional sports team.  I cheer for the underdog the same way I would when watching the Olympics. 

The games on Reality TV are a constantly changing variety of endurance, speed, strength, dexterity, intellect, and creativity.  I sit back and watch contestants sweat it out, sometimes pushing themselves to the limit to reach their goal until the last one is standing. Even the puzzles, the ones that require more brain than brawn, are often thrilling to watch, like viewing a brilliant game of chess or strategizing which pitch will be thrown next with a no-hitter on the line. I often wonder how these folks could leave their real lives behind to appear on these shows for a chance at fame and fortune.  I certainly couldn't do it, but then again I couldn't play shortstop for the Bronx Bombers either, but I still watch.

Will the future of reality shows merge with sports, becoming twisted gladiator-style televised events, like in The Running Man or The Hunger Games or Death Race?  Those science fiction stories seem less and less farfetched as time goes by.

The Yankees are now in extra innings, so I'll log off my computer and watch the rest of the game without any further distractions.  At least I don't have to worry about Snooki crawling onto the field in a drunken stupor or Meatloaf having an insane meltdown while watching the National Pastime. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Adaptations as Graphic Novels

Original graphic novels are a fantastic storytelling medium,serving as the inspiration for a number of successful movie adaptations.  Comic books are natural storyboards, a visual presentation that shows the reader what might appear on the big screen, limited only by the creator's imagination.  Some books have been adapted into graphic novel form before making the leap to cinema. 

Here are some:

Artemis Fowl and The Arctic Incident -- Although Eoin Colfer's novels are bestsellers for a reason, it wasn't until I saw the graphic novel adaptations that I realized what a cool movie series his stories could be.  Adapted for the comic book form along with co-writer Andrew Donkin, the tale is compelling from the first frame until the end, and the art by Giovanni Rigano and Paolo Lamanna is superb.  These comics retell the first two books, and they're so good that I hope the others in the series become graphic novels too: The Eternity Code, The Opal Deception, The Lost Colony, The Time Paradox, and The Atlantis Complex.

Double the Odd -- Fans of Dean Koontz's phenomenal hit Odd Thomas series, about a teenaged short-order cook who can communicate with the dead, will be thrilled to read not one, but two, new adventures of the beloved character in this single volume, written by Koontz, Fred Lente, and artist Queenie Chan. The only downside is that the manga-style artwork is black-and-white, but it's still fun to read.  The two stories in this graphic novel combo, "In Odd We Trust" and "Odd Is On Our Side," fit nicely with the Koontz's books, the original Odd Thomas and all of its follow-ups: Forever Odd, Brother Odd, and Odd Hours.

The Dresden Files: Welcome to the Jungle -- Jim Butcher's novels about a wizard who happens to be a paranormal investigator have captivated readers, and the live-action Syfy series adaptation was a minor hit, but to be honest the graphic novel better captures what I envisioned the look and tone of what I imagined the characters and storylines to be.  For some reason I have an easier time suspending disbelief when reading prose fiction or when looking at illustrations, no matter how far-fetched the plots, than most live-action television series.  Ardian Syaf's art is at times whimsical and chilling, and always fun and action-packed.  If you enjoy any of the Dresden tales (Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, Blood Rites, Dead Beat, Proven Guilty, White Night, Side Jobs, Small Favor, Turn Coat, Changes, and Ghost Story),  you'll definitely like Welcome to the Jungle.

Killing the Cobra: Chinatown Trollop -- Writer Mario Acevedo is an amazing pulp fiction writer whose novels have been guilty pleasure bestsellers with terrific titles (The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, X-Rated Bloodsuckers, The Undead Kama Sutra, Jailbait Zombie, and Werewolf Smackdown).  His hero, Felix Gomez, is an Iraq war veteran and a vampire private detective, hunting zombies, aliens, and bloodthirsty shapeshifters.  His graphic novel is a nice new adventure with simple but fine artwork by Alberto Dose.

Maximum Ride: The Manga -- I haven't read everything that James Patterson has written, but I do enjoy his Maximum Ride series (The Angel Experiment, School's Out Forever, Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports, The Final Warning, Max, Fang, and Angel).  The manga-style adaptation by NaRae Lee is well done, with a lot of whimsical moments amid the intense action and plot twists.
Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Lightning Thief -- This comic adaptation of Rick Riordan's kids' book is in many ways better than the live-action movie version that did mediocre business at the box office.  Maybe owner Disney is hoping the graphic novel makes people crave more motion pictures based on the other books, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan's Curse, The Battle of the Labyrinth, and The Last Olympian.  The graphic novel, written by Robert Venditti, flows a lot better than the movie and the art by Attila Futaki and Jose Villarrubia actually makes the fantastical elements of the story of mythological deities and creatures seem more grounded and, dare I say, believable than the special effects-heavy film.

Phoenix Without Ashes -- This is without a doubt my favorite and the best evidence of graphic novels' vast potential.  It is a retelling of Harlan Ellison's disastrous The Starlost TV series from the 1970s and through Ellison's brilliant words and Alan Robinson's amazing art, it brings to life in multi-color illustrated glory what could have been.

True Blood: All Together Now -- I'm cheating by adding this graphic novel to this list.  It's more inspired by the television series than the original Charlaine Harris "Sookie Stackhouse" novels, but it's really, really good.  Written by Alan Ball, David Tischman, and Mariah Huehner, and drawn to perfection by David Messina, it's page after page of good stuff.  If the HBO series doesn't do it, maybe the graphic novel will inspire True Blood fans to hunt down and read the books: Dead Until Dark, Living Dead in Dallas, Club Dead, Dead to the World, Dead as a Doornail, Definitely Dead, All Together Dead, From Dead to Worse, Dead and Gone, Dead in the Family, and the upcoming Dead Reckoning.

Witch and Wizard: Battle for Shadowland and Witch and Wizard: Operation Zero -- James Patterson has become a fiction-writing factory, churning out bestsellers as fast as the publisher can print them.  He gets some help from his co-writers, in this case Dara Naraghi, who contributes a decent couple of tales about Patterson's magical sibling characters, Whit and Wisty, who travel the world ruled by the evil dictator called "The One."  The art by Victor Santos is colorful and cinematic, if a bit cartoony.  If you like Patterson's novels, including the original Witch & Wizard and its sequel, The Gift, then you'll probably get a kick out of these adrenaline-fueled new chapters, set in-between the two.

These graphic novels are an excellent sneak peek at what live action adaptations of these properties might look like.  For fans of the original books on which they're based, they're worth checking out.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Trend in TV Mini-Series

I must preface this blog entry by affirming how much I love short-form television series.  The so-called "mini-series" is an excellent way to tell a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Sometimes you don't need the usual 20-plus-hour seasons of episodic tales with no ending in sight -- eight hours or so are often more than enough.  Some interesting mini-series are airing right now (or are scheduled to air soon), and their themes and tone seem oddly familiar despite their divergent subject matter.

The following mini-series have drawn my attention for various reasons, but they seem to share certain common elements --powerful families, surrounded by political intrigue and scandal.  This could just be a trend as cable networks try to create a Sopranos-style hit, or it could just be the result of producers relying on those familiar soap-opera-ish stereotypes that never fail to lead to good drama (or, more accurately, melo-drama.)

The Borgias -- Showtime presents a no-holds-barred dramatization of one of history's most notorious families, with Rodrigo Borgia (played to chilling perfection by Jeremy Irons) as the corrupt patriarch who becomes the infamous Pope Alexander.  He and his children (including daughter Lucrezia, played by Holliday Grainger), whether through real crimes or through scandalous gossip and innuendo, tainted the legacy of the Church, and their story is tempting fodder for Hollywood myth-makers attracted to tabloid-worthy storylines, whether contemporary or centuries old.

The Kennedys -- Even before it aired, this latest retelling of one of America's most legendary political family sagas attracted controversy when its original home, the History Channel, decided not to air it.  It is now being broadcast on the ReelzChannel.  The casting is actually quite good -- Greg Kinnear as John F. Kennedy, Barry Pepper as Robert F. Kennedy, Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy, and Tom Wilkinson as the head of the clan, Joe Kennedy, Sr.  Critics are already claiming that the style of this newest adaptation of the historic figures' public lives takes many liberties in an attempt to be more like The Godfather than reality.

Camelot -- The story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table has been told and retold countless times, and this latest version on the Starz network tries to amp up the sex and violence amid the action and sorcery.  This isn't the musical version, that's for sure.  The talented Joseph Fiennes plays Merlin and the stunning Eva Green portrays Morgan le Fay.  I'm always a fan of the fantasy saga, with Excaliber, Guinevere, and Lancelot, but can any rendition add anything new to the story?

Game of Thrones -- I don't know if I should really lump HBO's eagerly awaited adaptation of George R.R. Martin's epic to this list, but it does fit the mold of treacherous power plays and family drama.  If it stays true to its source material, this mini-series will rise above the rest and become a classic for the ages.

Although I'm calling this a current trend, this type of storytelling is nothing new.  Similar stories have captivated people since the biblical tales of King David and King Solomon, or William Shakespeare's tragedies, Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and the rest.  Needless to say, the latest crop of mini-series will not be the last, whether they succeed or fail.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Year of the Wedding

Today's blog entry will be brief because I have to get ready and go to my cousin's wedding.  The media are abuzz with the pending royal nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton, a frenzy unseen since the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.  But weddings, big or small, are an opportunity for everyone, regal or common, to experience and celebrate a little bit of the fantasy world of fairy tale romance.

My wife and I were married in 2005 and we enjoy going to other wedding ceremonies and receptions, seeing how each one combines traditional moments with unique elements suited to the personalities of the bride and groom.  This year seems loaded with weddings -- one of my sisters is getting married in June, as well as a number of my cousins and some close friends getting married throughout the year too. 

It should be a wonderful festive 2011, and I wish them all lifetimes of love and happiness.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bits and Pieces: More Things That Make Me Go Hmmmm...

Here is another edition of my "Bits and Pieces" column which I started almost two weeks ago to compile tidbits of information that might not warrant a full blog entry, but nevertheless grabbed my interest.

1.  Arnold Schwarzenegger will be transformed into a superhero cartoon in the new show, The Governator.  Other real life people who deserve the animated, fictionalized treatment -- William Shatner, Tim Burton, Britney Spears (with Lindsay Lohan as her sidekick), and of course Charlie Sheen.  Comic book legend Stan Lee is involved in the project.  He already achieved some notoriety by turning Pamela Anderson into a cartoon superhero in Stripperella

2.  Although we have to wait until the fall to see Steven Spielberg's highly anticipated dinosaur TV show Terra Nova, we soon will be able to feast our eyes on Spielberg's less hyped but equally intriguing science fiction series (on TNT), Falling Skies, starring Noah Wyle. It will debut on June 19.  I've posted one of the promotional images above -- it looks like a cross between War of the Worlds and V.  I hope it's great.

3.  At first I thought this was a weak April Fool's joke, but if Variety reports it, then it must be true, no?  Apparently, there are plans to remake Terry Gilliam's classic movie, Time Bandits.  I love that film, and I even thought it would be worthy of a sequel, a la Tron.  But a remake?  I certainly hope they don't botch it up. 

4.  There are so many fairy tale projects in the works, I could probably write dozens of blog entries about them, but suffice it to say that it's making my head explode.  There are a bunch of Peter Pan stories being developed and a string of Snow White adaptations, not to mention variations of the Wizard of Oz.  Personally, if they're all done well, I don't mind.

5.  The casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the upcoming movie adaptation of the bestselling Hunger Games books has received mixed reaction.  She certainly is a wonderful actress, as evidenced by her critically acclaimed performance in Winter's Bone.  But might a younger actress, like Chloe Moretz or Hailee Steinfeld have been a more appropriate choice to play the 16-year-old character?  Moretz is 14 years old, Steinfeld is 15, and Lawrence is 20.  I'm sure Jennifer will be fine in the first film, but will it be tough to play the teenager in the next two sequels?

Discuss among yourselves, or better yet, leave a comment and discuss with me.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Never Trust a Pop Culture Story on April Fool's Day

April 1 is a weird little aberration on the calendar -- April Fools' Day.  Some would-be comedians look forward to it as an annual opportunity to showcase their humor, but most normal human beings just want it to quickly come and go, escaping its onslaught of weak jokes and pranks without any harm or embarrassment. 

It's a global phenomenon, spanning countries, cultures, and customs.  The earliest known referrence to April Fools' Day is in the classic Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century.  If it hasn't faded away by now, I fear civilization will never tire of this frivolous tradition.  Besides being afraid of having an annoying gag pulled on me, almost no news headlines can be trusted on April 1.  As a pop culture addict who thrives on the latest entertainment buzz, I become flustered every year on that day as my naive nature is tested time and again. 

Businesses, marketers, publicists, celebrities, journalists, all become infected with the goofy bug on April Fools' Day and start making false announcements to celebrate the occasion.  I suspect the real rationale is to acquire attention, and gullible fools like me tend to fall for their shenanigans.

Nevertheless, if we must endure lame April Fools' tricks, here are some that might actually be worth it.

George Lucas should announce that he is accepting submissions from fans for ideas for Episode VII, the first long-awaited part of a new Star Wars trilogy (to be helmed by another director and scripted by another screenwriter).  After six months or so, after a million fan-made YouTube clips are gathered, Lucas can announce that it was all a gag, but at least we'll have some new, non-Prequel material to enjoy, even if they are non-canonical and created by amateurs.  There are bound to be some diamonds in the rough, and even the dreck would likely have some value for audiences starving for new adventures in that galaxy far, far away that progresses the story rather than dwells in the saga's past.

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker should have the talented cast of their critically acclaimed musical The Book of Mormon perform an improvised version of Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark. It would likely be better, more creative, more fun, and more faithful to the comic book source, than the much maligned real Broadway fiasco. 

The producers of So You Think You Can Dance should announce that, in an homage to (i.e., rip-off of) Dancing with the Stars, their new season will be a Celebrity Edition, featuring John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Jim Carrey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and the Jennifer Beals body-double from Flashdance.

Those are just a few ideas from my comedy-challenged brain.  I'm sure many of you have even wittier suggestions.  Feel free to share!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Underrated Movies

Not every movie is a timeless classic and not every film is a forgettable flop.  Cinema doesn't have to fall into the either/or classification.  There are plenty of flicks inbetween, mostly mediocre, not brilliant yet not unwatchable either, stuck in the middle of cinematic history.  Yet, among those seemingly average movies, there are some true gems that many folks may not have seen. 

I have already written about some of them: Carlito's Way, The Iron Giant, Gattaca, Beautiful Girls, Sunshine.  These are movies that may not have broken box office records, they may not have garnered mainstream attention from a string of awards, but they still managed to become some of my favorite films.

Here are some more under-rated movies I recommend.  Although I wouldn't label them "the best of all time," I still enjoy watching them whenever I have the chance.

Cop Land - Sylvester Stallone gives one of his finest (and most under-stated) performances as a suburban New Jersey sheriff who uncovers a cover-up by corrupt city cops and reluctantly decides to bring them to justice.  The super cast includes Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Patrick, Michael Rapaport, Annabella Sciorra, Noah Emmerich, Cathy Moriarty, and others.  It has action, suspense, drama, and some really great tender moments.  

Desperado - This is one of the best films Robert Rodriguez has directed.  I don't care what anyone says, this is an awesome movie from beginning to end.  The cast is terrific, from Antonio Banderas as the vengeance-seeking El Mariachi, Salma Hayek as the lovely Carolina, Joaquim de Almeida as the villainous Bucho, Cheech Marin as the bartender (one of his finest roles), and a nice bunch of cameos by Steve Buscemi, Quentin Tarantino, Danny Trejo, and others.  It's all here: great cinematography, great music, fun script, and solid performances.

Doc Hollywood - This little fish-of-water comedy about a city boy physician (played perfectly by Michael J. Fox) who gets stranded in a seemingly ho-hum hick town, has a lot of heart.  I love the opening title sequence and the supporting cast is magnificent: Julie Warner, Woody Harrelson, David Ogden Stiers, George Hamilton, and Bridget Fonda.

Flatliners - Joel Schumacher's little thriller is definitely a guilty pleasure.  It's silly premise deals with medical school students conducting dangerous experiments to research near-death experiences, but it is executed nicely, delivering some good chills and thrills from the fine actors and actresses on the screen: Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, Oliver Platt, and William Baldwin.  Good stuff!

In the Line of Fire - A Secret Service agent (the always awesome Clint Eastwood), still guilt-ridden all these decades later by the death of John F. Kennedy, finally redeems himself by stopping another would-be presidential assassin, played chillingly by John Malkovich.  The rest of the cast isn't too shabby either: Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, Gary Cole, Fred Thompson, and John Mahoney.

Jacob's Ladder - I appreciate this quirky film more and more every time I see it. Tim Robbin plays a traumatized Vietnam War veteran who starts hallucinating and thinks that the government conducted some kind of experiment on him and other vets. Others in the movie include Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven, Macauley Culkin, Jason Alexander, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames, and others. I don't want to give anything away -- just watch it and judge for yourself. 

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - Okay, this has some laughable moments, including star Kevin Costner's elusive and eventually abandoned British accent, but it's still compellingly watchable, especially the scenes with Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham.  The movie also boasts the star power of Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Christian Slater.

Sleepy Hollow - Tim Burton is one of my favorite living directors and even though this is considered one of the lesser films in his filmography, I still love it.  Johnny Depp plays Ichobod Crane and Christina Ricci plays the love interest.  The film also stars Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken (as the Headless Horseman), Lisa Marie, and the brilliant Christopher Lee.

We're No Angels - Robert De Niro and Sean Penn play convicts on the lam who hide out in a church where they are mistaken for two priests.  It has some excellent moments and fine appearances by Demi Moore, Bruno Kirby, Ray McAnally, Wallace Shawn, John C. Reilly, and others.  Catch it if you can.

Those are some of many.  Which under-rated film holds a special place in your heart and memory?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Winter-Weary New Yorkers Defy Cold Weather

The calendar says Spring is officially here, but this year's brutal Winter still seems to want to play one last April Fool's joke on us as the unseasonably cold weather continues to linger with possible snowfall threatening to once again come our way here in New York.  But with Major League Baseball ready to begin, (the Yankees start on Thursday, March 31, 2011, and the Mets start on Friday, April 1, 2011), warmer weather is guaranteed to be right around the corner.  One way to escape the stubborn cold is to experience Orchid Evenings at The New York Botanical Garden for the next few Saturday nights during remaining weeks of The Orchid Show: On Broadway (which ends April 25) -- Non-Member (Adults 21 and over) $30, Members $10, advance tickets recommended; includes one free specialty cocktail.

Above is a picture of my wife and me there last weekend.  The photo was snapped by the talented photographer Talisman Brolin

Each weekend offers ticketholders a complimentary specialty cocktail.  Last Saturday it was the delicious Satyr Punch and this weekend it will be the New Raspberry Orchid-tini.  Additional cocktails, wine, beer, or softdrinks are available for purchase.  It's a beautiful setting, only in New York.  Afterwards we had a wonderful dinner at Zero Otto Nove on Arthur Avenue. Your ticket also entitles you to special offers at participating restaurants, including Almond, Asia de Cuba, B. Smith's Restaurant Row, Bistro Rollin, China Grill, The Four Seasons Restaurant, HENRY's, Inside Park @ St. Bart's, Le Perigord, Palm One, Peking Duck House, Sardi's, and X20. 

There's plenty to do in New York to make us all forget the cold weather.  The signs of the Spring season have arrived!

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Allure of All-Star Casts

Amy Adams has won the coveted role of Lois Lane in the upcoming Superman: The Man of Steel movie.  The casting has really intrigued me: Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, Kevin Costner as Pa Kent, and Diane Lane as Ma Kent.  I have been similarly impressed with the announced cast of the adaptation of Game Change -- Juliane Moore as Sarah Palin, Ed Harris as John McCain, and Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt.  Star power is a tried and true gimmick to draw attention to a project -- people gravitate toward the names sometimes more than to the story.  When we watch a film or TV show or a stage performance and a familiar face appears, we tend to react positively (when the casting is right, of course) as if seeing an old friend.

Some movies and shows come to mind because of their all-star casts.  Here are a few:

The Magnificent Seven - This classic Western featured Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Brad Dexter.

The Greatest Story Ever Told - The cast of thousands included Max von Sydow, Victor Buono, Jose Ferrer, Charlton Heston, Martin Landau, Angela Lansbury, David McCallum, Roddy McDowell, Donald Pleasence, Sydney Poitier, Claude Rains, Pat Boone, Telly Savalas, John Wayne, Shelley Winters, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia, Jamie Farr, etc. etc. etc.

Ocean's Eleven - The original 1960 version starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Angie Dickinson, Cesar Romero, and Joey Bishop.  The remake included George Clooney, Bernie Mac, Brad Pitt, Elliott Gould, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, Wayne Newton, Topher Grace, Joshua Jackson, and others.  The sequels introduced more big names to the cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Eddie Izzard, Cherry Jones, Al Pacino, and Ellen Barkin.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World - This is the classic all-star comedy with Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Jim Backus, Peter Falk, Norman Fell, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, Jimmy Durante, Moe Howard, Jerry Lewis, and even Buster Keaton!

Murder By Death - This is one of those guilty pleasures of mine, a silly little mystery spoof with a terrific cast: Peter Falk, Truman Capote, Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, James Cromwell, and the screaming voice of Fay Wray!

Murder Can Hurt You - Here's another crime spoof that I remember fondly, even if it wasn't exactly an all time classic. It starred Victor Buono, Tony Danza, Jamie Farr, John Byner, Gavin MacLeod, Connie Stevens, Jimmie Walker, Burt Young, and the voices of Don Adams and Mel Blanc.

The Expendables - Check my past blog entry about this recent all-star action flick.

The Usual Suspects - When Pete Postlethwaite passed away, I wrote about him and his stellar cast in this awesome movie.

The Godfather - Who can beat the cast of arguably the greatest movie ever made: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, John Cazale, and in the rest of the trilogy Robert De Niro, Lee Strasberg, Bruno Kirby, Danny Aiello, Harry Dean Stanton, Roger Corman, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Bridget Fonda, John Savage, and (unfortunately) Sofia Coppola.

GoodFellas - Mobster movies always seem to have terrific casts.  Get a load of this: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Vincent, Gina Mastrogiacomo, Debi Mazar, MIchael Imperioli, Samuel L. Jackson, and more!

There are so many more, but those are some of my favorites.  What are yours?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Some Kids Aren't Scared of Deadly Cobras

If you happened to watch ABC's World News Tonight on Sunday, you may have seen my little nephew Danny crying.  He was at the Bronx Zoo, one of his favorite places, where an Egyptian cobra has gone missing.  He was crying not out of fear that the venomous creature is on the loose, but because the awesome Reptile House where it dwells has been closed until further notice while staff play a frantic game of hide-and-seek with the elusive snake whose escape-artist skills would make Harry Houdini proud. 

Another brave child on the newscast expressed the same sentiments as Danny, nodding her head "yes" when asked if she loved snakes and shaking her head "no" when asked if she was afraid of them. My nephews adore serpents -- they have a pet ball python named Percy (yes, they're big fans of Harry Potter.)  My sister told me that when the ABC reporter asked James, Danny's older brother, to name his favorite snake, he didn't miss a beat and quickly answered, "Burmese python!"

While the children's fearlessness is admirable, the Egyptian cobra's venom is deadly, so the Bronx Zoo is taking no chances, even though the missing snake is still most likely secure in a section of the Reptile House that is not accessible to the public.  A statement from the Zoo's director Jim Breheny said: "After learning the snake was missing yesterday afternoon, we immediately closed and secured the building as we took steps throughout the evening to recover the snake...We are informing the public out of an abundance of caution and will continue to take whatever steps necessary to ensure public safety...We are confident that the snake is secure within the Reptile House. To understand the situation, you have to understand snakes. Upon leaving its enclosure, the snake would feel vulnerable and seek out a place to hide and feel safe. When the snake gets hungry or thirsty it will start to move around the building. Once that happens, it will be our best opportunity to recover it."

Since the cobra is cold-blooded, and since the weather in the Bronx is rather frigid and will continue to be cold throughout the week, even if the snake somehow had the chance to escape the Reptile House, it would not go far.  It is likely curled up in a warm little nook and will soon be discovered by Zoo staff who have the site secured. 

My brave little nephews, and countless other kids (and older visitors to the Zoo who are kids at heart) are hoping that the elusive Egyptian cobra is found soon so the Reptile House can re-open, allowing snake fans to see their favorite scaly animals, learn all about them, and continue to support the Bronx Zoo's mission of saving wildlife and wild places.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Park Avenue Elevator Operator Play

My short play, Wise Man, which was originally part of my Dream Fragments anthology, was performed Friday night as part of Darknight Productions NYC 4x4 presentation of four short plays "about New York and New Yorkers."  It was an interesting variety of genres, both comedy and drama. 

The first play, Only in New York, written and directed by Jay Fink, was a hilarious examination of modern dating in NYC, where people meet online and where next door neighbors rarely see each other.  The story was a humorous look at how technology (from the Internet to cellphones) brings us together in ways unimagined, but also often keeps us more apart than ever. The talented cast included Evan Greene as Joey, Amber Bloom as Joy, James Basile as Sal, and Lucy Apicello as Maria.

Priviliged Information, written by Kevin Clancy and directed by Adrienne Makowski, both of whom performed as the characters in the play, takes plays in an interrogation room as a jaded Federal agent tries to get information from an uncooperative school teacher about one of her friends, an Arab-American who has been detained for associating with a suspected terrorist.  The storyline does a fine job of depicting the paranoid mood of New York after the tragic events of 9/11.

My play, directed by Thomas Patrick Clancy, Wise Man, is a fragment of a tale, a slice of life scene in the basement of a ritzy Park Avenue building, about Boris, an older elevator operator (played wonderfully by James M. Ernest) trying to teach the ropes to a young kid, Jerry, who is working as summer relief but has dreams of being a baseball player with the New York Yankees.

Interspersed inbetween those one-acts were three monologue scenes from The Prism, written and directed by Ed Friedman.  These snippets depicted some fascinating and diverse New Yorkers, whose common bond was their reaction to the care of the infirm and how it impacted their lives.  The first was a heartwrenching performance by Danielle Nichole Tyler as Doris, a New York nurse, recording a message to her dad who is living down South.  The second was a brilliant performance by Yosvany Reyes as Ricardo, a doctor on a New York golf course with an elderly mom at home.  The final piece showcased Traci Timmons as Gloria, a stressed out New York waitress, feeling guilty about her responsibility having to care for an ill parent.

There is one more performance of NYC 4x4 on Saturday night, March 26, 2011, 8 p.m., The Bridge Theater at Shetler Studios, 12th Floor, 244 West 54th Street, in Manhattan.  All seats are $12.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Some Celebrities Only Need One Name

According to the New York Post, Lyndsay Lohan is trying to legally drop her last name, so she will just be known as Lindsay.  This is not the first time (nor the last) that pop superstars have embraced a single-word monicker by which to identify themselves. 

Here is a list of some single-named divas and celebrities, followed by their real birth names, lest we forget that they started out like us mere multi-part-named mortals.  (I did not include stars who are known by only their first name but still officially use their full names, such as Britney Spears, Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, etc.)

Bono - Paul David Hewson

Cher - Cherilyn Sarkisian

Fergie (of the Black Eyed Peas) - Stacy Ann Ferguson

Madonna - Madonna Louise Ciccone

Moby - Richard Melville Hall

Pink - Alecia Beth Moore

Prince - Prince Rogers Nelson

Rihanna - Robyn Rihanna Fenty

Shakira - Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll

Sinbad - David Adkins

Sting - Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner

Any others that come to mind?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Finally, 3D Without the Glasses

Gamers are excited about the new handheld videogame system Nintendo 3DS which offers three-dimensional effects without the need for those annoying glasses.  That's right, with nothing more your own naked eyeballs, you can now see 3D on an electronic screen.  I have written before about the backlash to the 3D trend, the move toward 3D in television and film, my prediction that big screen 3D theaters might be the future of the gaming industry, my explanation of why the entertainment industry will possibly never stop experimenting with 3D, and, my favorite, a letter to George Lucas to abandon his plan to re-release the Star Wars saga in 3D.  One of my pet-peeves has always been the necessity to wear those uncomfortable glasses.  Now, Nintendo has solved that problem by developing a system that aims two separate images, one to each eye, generating the illusion of realistic three dimensions.

It's still not a perfect solution -- the viewer needs to be positioned precisely to experience the 3D effect, but it is a step in the right direction.  Future innovations might actually alleviate my qualms about the 3D gimmick and make the depth illusion much more natural and less artificial from any viewing angle -- and did I mention no glasses?  The key to mainstream media implementation, of course, is overcoming that last hurdle, the need to look at the screen in a precise spot for the effect to work.  If Nintendo or some other company or inventor can figure out how to achieve that, the pot of gold will be at hand, with unlimited potential for home theater systems, giant screen movie theaters, advertising billboards, and more.

Nintendo 3DS is, thankfully, also backwards compatible, so owners of Nintendo DS and Nintendo DSi who choose to upgrade will still be able to play their old software on the new device.  Yet, they will also have a plethora of new 3D games to choose:
  • Animal Crossing
  • Animal Resort
  • Asphalt 3D
  • Bomberman 3DS
  • Bust-a-Move Universe
  • Combat of Giants: Dinosaurs 3D
  • Cubic Ninja
  • Dead or Alive Dimensions
  • Deca Sports Extreme
  • Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights
  • Driver Renegade
  • Dual Pen Sports
  • Fish On
  • Kid Icarus: Uprising
  • Kingdom Hearts 3D
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
  • Madden NFL Football
  • Mario Kart
  • Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D: The Naked Sample
  • Nikoli's Pencil Puzzle
  • Nintendogs and Cats
  • Paper Mario
  • Pilotwings Resort
  • Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D
  • Rabbids Travel in Time
  • Resident Evil: Revelations
  • Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D
  • Ridge Racer 3D
  • Samurai Warriors Chronicles
  • The Sims 3
  • Star Fox 64 3D
  • Steel Driver
  • Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition
  • Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Shadow Wars
  • Tom Clancy's Ninja Cell 3D
  • And my favorite, Super Monkey Ball 3D (Come on, don't laugh.)
Will Nintendo 3DS revolutionize not just the gaming industry, but the entire entertainment industry as well?  For now, gamers just hope it will live up to the hype and provide a new immersive experience for the games they play and the videos they watch.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Farewell to a True Movie Star

Elizabeth Taylor led a long, interesting life in the spotlight.  Her passing reminds me that today's starlets and celebrities just don't measure up to the ones from yesteryear. 

She showed star quality with her violet eyes and rich emotion from her earliest films as a child, Lassie Come Home and her breakout role in National Velvet.  Her career was filled with memorable performances -- Little Women, Father of the Bride, Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cleopatra, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and The Taming of the Shrew.  She even had a noteworthy recurring role on the television soap opera General Hospital.

Her off-screen life fed the gossip-starved masses, from her multiple marriages to her friendship with Michael Jackson (whom she herself dubbed "the King of Pop," a monicker that would stick.  What I will remember most is her courage in the 1980s to be the first well-known celebrity to use her voice to bring attention to the AIDS crisis after the death of her long-time friend Rock Hudson.

My mom has told me often of the time she saw Liz Taylor in person and, even though she was shorter and frailer than she had imagined, she still resonated superstardom.  She will be missed.

Apparently, her long-time friend Zsa Zsa Gabor, who has been dealing with health issues of her own lately, was hosptilized after growing hysterical at the news of Taylor's death, allegedly commenting that "celebrities die in threes and I'm next."  Hopefully, there will be a long pause before the Grim Reaper claims another well-known name.  May Elizabeth Taylor rest in peace.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bits and Pieces: Things That Make Me Go Hmmmm...

One of my favorite duties when I worked at DLT Entertainment was editing the company newsletter, Bits 'n' Pieces.  It was a compilation of items about our organization, tidbits about our employees, and news coverage about some of the television shows we were syndicating.  Periodically over the years as part of my City of Kik entertainment newsgroup, I've written essays dubbed "Things That Make Me Go Hmmm..." (yes, I pilfered the title from an Arsenio Hall monologue routine) -- I basically wrote bulletpoints about minor pop culture stories that grabbed my attention.  Now, I've decided to merge the two titles for a segment that I hope will be a recurring feature on my blog.

The goal is to express my opinions on a few media current events that might not be worthy of a full blog entry, but stir my interest enough to jot down a comment or two.  "Bits and Pieces" will be an occassional column that compiles those blurbs.  Rather than just a filler entry, I hope it will have enough fragmentary fun to spur some rumination of your own as you read it.

Here's the inaugural "Bits and Pieces."

1.  A picture was released of the new Wonder Woman costume from David E. Kelley's television reboot.  At first glance, I actually thought it was artwork from the comic book.  Although I'm glad they stayed faithful to the classic look (or the modified modern look), I wish it weren't so...shiny.  Adrianne Palicki definitely looks good in latex, but the photograph looks like one of those novelty Halloween costume advertisements or a picture of fan cosplay from a science fiction convention.  Let's hope it looks better on screen when we see the actual show.

2.  Actor Michael Gough passed away at the ripe old age of 94.  I enjoyed his depiction of Alfred Pennyworth in four Batman movies, but I felt guilty that my main memory of such a fine actor was his supporting role in a comic book adaptation.  Let's face it, he didn't have much to do in those films.  His most meaty storyline was in the worst chapter in the series, Batman and Robin.  The guy had an amazing career, working in movies and TV since the 1940s!  Yet, I remember him best as the Dark Knight's butler. 

3.  The New York Times finally announced its long-rumored new business model for its popular NYTimes.com, setting up a digital subscription plan that the newspaper industry hopes will be a successful revenue generator.  Others have pointed out its apparent loopholes, but even if it's a winner, can it be replicated by others?  After all, can small market, local newspapers compete with the global New York Times brand? 

4.  As a fan of Stephen King, I'm glad that talk of his retirement seems to finally be forgotten as he dishes out entertaining new novel after entertaining new novel.  But even I, faithful reader that I am, rolled my eyes a bit at the announcement a while ago that King is writing yet another Dark Tower book.  Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't mind seeing the return of the Gunslinger, but the series concluded in satisfying fashion after seven novels, and King himself obviously realizes that there isn't anyplace left to go -- except backwards.  The new tome will take place between his previous novels, after Wizard and Glass and before Wolves of the Calla.  King has rarely let me down, so I hope The Wind Through the Keyhole, which is what the new book is called, will prove all his doubters wrong when it's released in 2012.

5.  Kevin Costner has been cast as Jonathan Kent in the upcoming new Superman movie, joining the lovely Diane Lane as Martha Kent.  Some of my friends commented that it made them feel old seeing them as Clark's adoptive parents, but I felt older when John Schneider of The Dukes of Hazzard and Annette O'Toole (Lana Lang from Superman III) won the same roles in Smallville.  Although Costner's career has been hit or miss for me, I think he will be perfect in Zack Snyder's remake.  The casting so far seems very interesting.  Let's hope the movie lives up to the expectations.

Let me know if you have an other thoughts to flesh out these topics or if you have any other nuggets of info to add to a future blog article.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Enjoying Restaurant Week

My wife and I love going out to eat.  We have our favorite restaurants but we also love trying out new places.  It can get pricey, so when an opportunity like the Hudson Valley Restaurant Week comes around, we jump at the chance to expose ourselves to some new cuisine in a new setting.  The concept is great -- a week during which various restaurants in the area offer affordable prix-fixe menus, attracting new customers and giving repeat clients an option for discounted meals.  New York City's Restaurant Week is the original "celebration of dining," the first one in the country, offering three courses for a fraction of the regular cost, and it has been highly successful since it debuted in 1992. The next one in NYC will be in the summer, click here to get a notification about the dates and all the details. 

The Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is now in full swing until March 27, 2011 -- three courses at participating eateries for $20 for lunch or $28 for dinner per person.  Even though that does not include drinks, tax, or gratuity, it is still a bargain for many of these upscale New York establishments. 

My wife and I gave Bistro Z in Tarrytown a try.  Juliana started off with one of her favorites, French Onion Soup (Gratinee of Gruyure Cheese), and I had the Roasted Butternut Squash and Baby Arugula Salad with candied walnuts and shaved ricotta salata cheese (the blend of flavors was very tasty).  Next, we both had the Pumpkin and Sage Ravioli as our main course.  It was served with shaved asiago cheese, dried cranberries, and toasted pumpkin seeds.  We concluded with the Cookie Crumb Bread Pudding for dessert.

Other cities are picking up on the idea and having Restaurant Weeks of their own -- Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, San Diego, etc.  If your town does it, support your local restaurants and give a new place a try.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Meet the New Charlie's Angels

The first image of the three stars of the new Charlie's Angels television series together on the set the first day of shooting began spreading around the Internet on such sites as PopEater and others.  ABC's reboot of the classic has a good trio of actresses playing the good-looking crimefighters: Annie Ilonzeh (with previous roles in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Melrose Place, Entourage, and General Hospital) , Minka Kelly (one of the stars of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood), and Rachael Taylor (from Grey's Anatomy).

The premise of this new version seems to owe as much to Mod Squad as it does to Charlie's Angels -- unlike the original in which the undercover private investigators were police cadets recruited by the mysterious Charlie Townsend, the new show has them as ex-convicts given a second chance at redemption (according to EW.com's Inside TV blog).

The original was a huge pop culture hit in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Farrah Fawcett-Majors as Jill Munroe, Kate Jackson as Sabrina Duncan, and (my favorite) Jaclyn Smith as Kelly Garrett became overnight sensations. David Doyle played John Bosley and John Forsythe supplied the voice of Charlie.  Farrah left the show after the first season, replaced by Cheryl Ladd as Kris Munroe.  Shelley Hack later joined the cast as Tiffany Welles, and by the time Tanya Roberts became the newest Angel, Julie Rogers, everyone was just going through the motions. 

But its impact on popular culture lived on, revitalized by two motion pictures.  The first Charlie's Angels movie, directed by McG, starring Cameron Diaz as Natalie Cook, Drew Barrymore as Dylan Sanders, and Lucy Lui as Alex Munday, was a blockbuster hit.  The sequel, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, featured Demi Moore as the villainous Madison Lee, an Angel gone rogue.  Bill Murray played John Bosley in the first film and Bernie Mac played Jimmy Bosley in the second.  John Forsythe returned as the familiar voice of Charlie in both movies.

In the new TV show, the role of Bosley will be played by Ramon Rodriguez (Day Break, The Wire, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Battle: Los Angeles).  Robert Wagner (Hart to Hart, Austin Powers) steps in to fill the iconic voice of Charlie for the late John Forsythe.

Produced by Drew Barrymore, will the new show be able to once again capture lightning in a bottle?  Or have they tapped the Charlie's Angels well once too often? 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Is Detroit 1-8-7 a Tamer Version of NYPD Blue?

Sunday night, ABC will air the season finale of Detroit 1-8-7, and since there is no word yet about whether or not it will return next season, this might be your last chance to see a new episode.  I have always enjoyed gritty police dramas, and this show is a fine example of the genre, well worth watching.  Hopefully it will survive the cancellation ax and live to return again. 

In many ways it is similar to one of my favorite TV series of all time, NYPD Blue.  Its on-location realism and shaky-camera-movement style add a sense of rawness and believability to the scenes, just as in the Steven Bochco classic, but with less of the risque "blue" factor (profanity, nudity, etc.) that made the Dennis Franz cop show so infamous (and a ratings winner).  It is definitely an example of tamer episodic television, but since its stories deal with murder in the Motor City, there are still some gruesome elements and some shocking plot twists.

But while NYPD Blue was completely faithful to its Big Apple roots, from the accents to the iconic "only in New York" details that drove its storylines, Detroit 1-8-7 sometimes seems like its setting was selected randomly. I have never been to Detroit, so if I get that impression, then I'm pretty sure natives probably feel it too.  Its title alone provides evidence that it was written by outsiders.  The number "1-8-7" is the penal code for homicide -- in Los Angeles.  (In Detroit it's 750, in New York it's 150, etc.)  There was also a big furor when one of the characters made a reference to "soda" -- in Detroit, the preferred word for carbonated beverages is "pop."  That all sounds trivial, but it all adds up to the believability of the premise, especially for a drama striving for realism.

All of that aside, the pluses outweigh the negatives.  In a TV landscape dominated by procedurals that focus on forensic investigations, it is refreshing to see a show that depicts detectives hunting down murderers without having to rely on high-tech gadgets to do so. 

The cast is outstanding -- Michael Imperioli (from The Sopranos) as Louis Fitch, a moody detective from New York (of course); Jon Michael Hill (from the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago) as his rookie partner Damon Washington; and Aisha Hinds (who has appeared in The Shield, Invasion, Dollhouse, True Blood, Hawthorne, and Weeds) as the tough-as-nails Lt. Maureen Mason. The best parts of the show are the storylines centering on the sexual dynamics between Detectives Ariana Sanchez and John Stone (played nicely by Natalie Martinez and D.J. Cotrona, respectively) and the dramedy scenes with Detective Vikram Mahajan (played by Shaun Majumder) and Sergeant Jesse Longford (played by NYPD Blue's James McDaniel).

Don't let this show die.  It has grown progressively better throughout its season, and it deserves to come back again.  Tune in to the finale and judge for yourself.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Guilty Confession: I Like Ke$ha

Why do so many people seem to hate Ke$ha?  Her songs are catchy, her lyrics stick in your head.  Yes, her personality is brash and at times vulgar, and she tries too hard to be outrageous, as if she were trying to be a second-rate (or maybe a fifth-rate) Lady Gaga.  But is she really as bad as her critics say?  There are far worse recording stars to mock. 

I confess, I like her songs.  "Tik Tok," "Your Love Is My Drug," "We R Who We R," "Take It Off," and "Blow" are all fun to listen to when in the mood for a tune that's energetic, brash, and playful.  She doesn't seem to take herself too seriously, so why do her detractors?  Despite her on-camera persona, she seems rather smart, contributing to the writing of a lot of her discography and actually planning to study psychology at Columbia University before her singing career took off. 

How can you not like such profound lyrics as "Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy" or "And now my heart is broken like the bottles on the floor."

So maybe she deserves a second listen.  It's silly, escapist pop music.  Come on, show Ke$ha some love.  :)