Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Try Forgiving the Franklins, Won't You?
The biggest problem with Forgiving the Franklins is its promotional campaign, which describes it as “part morality tale, part sex romp.” It’s not titillating or puerile enough to fall into the latter category, and it lacks the subtle nuances that would elevate it to the status of the former. More accurately, Forgiving the Franklins is a none too subtle indictment against repression and hypocrisy in Fundamentalist religion.

To make his point, writer/director/producer Jay Floyd paints the movie in broad strokes of bright suburban landscapes and cartoonish characters. At the film’s beginning, the Franklins are stalwart members of their small, religious community—Dad Frank (Robertson Dean) is a lawyer, mom Betty (Teresa Willis) a doting housewife, son Brian (Vince Pavia) a high school football hero and daughter Caroline (Aviva) a star cheerleader. They’re a Norman Rockwall picture perfect family, conservative even by their neighbors’ standards. It’s all a façade, though, masking lives of deep-seeded repression.

Their lives take an abrupt turn en route to a church bake sale when the family car is broadsided by a truck, propelling all but Caroline into a collective three-day coma and an encounter with Jesus himself. In the netherworld they find themselves in, Jesus (Pop Padilla) is nothing like what they imagined him to be. He’s rough-hewn and cynical, spending his time chopping down crosses. The cross is a bad marketing ploy that actually represents the worst day of his life, not the version of salvation the Franklins embrace. Frustrated (or inspired) by their judgmental attitude, he literally plucks Original Sin from their heads, and sends them back to this mortal coil to live their lives. Ominously, three crosses appear on the horizon as they are sent back to Earth. “Those things pop up like weeds,” Jesus shrugs.

Awakening from their coma, (simultaneously, oddly enough) Frank, Betty and Brian return to their suburban home with a new outlook on life. They’re completely uninhibited and happy, which immediately puts them at odds with Caroline, who emerged from the wreck with a bum hip, forcing her to walk with a cane, and ruining her dream of being the perfect cheerleader. The neighbors also find their behavior peculiar, but at first dismiss it as lingering disorientation as the result of their collective coma.

It’s at this point that Forgiving the Franklins morphs from a contemporary send-up of fifties sitcoms to a stab at social commentary. Unfettered from the constraints of religious repression, the Franklins unwittingly challenge the mores of their tight-knit community, merely by being open about themselves and the world around them. This puts them on a collision course with their neighbors, and culminates with insidious, tragic results. Caroline serves as the center-weight in the subtle conflict, and ultimately proves to be the film’s last bastion of hope.Forgiving the Franklins, in

What with its inherently controversial themes, Forgiving the Franklins is the sort of movie that’s the darling of film festivals. It’s also the sort of first time effort that explores its themes gallantly, albeit clumsily, in many spots. That being said, Joe Floyd’s directorial debut also works for the most part. His pacing is unflagging, and his understanding of the psychological use of color signals the coming of a director destined to go places.

When all is said and done, Forgiving the Franklins is a movie worth seeing. It’s a little film exploring big issues, peeking into the contradictions between religion and spirituality. More importantly, it holds up those conflicts to the light, and forces us to laugh at ourselves in the process.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Our First Giveaway Is In Plain Sight

Every day convinces me more that whatever the future holds for television, it's going to premiere first on basic cable. The USA cable network just solidifies that belief. USA is the home to some of the more offbeat versions of the standard cop show. Brilliant detectives with OCD or con man cops posing as psychics were too quirky to pitch to mainstream networks, but Monk and Psych proved themselves on USA. Now, they're enjoying success in the mainstream, albeit in reruns, on NBC.

In Plain Sight is USA's newest entry into the genre the network does so well.

Catch the new series premiere on Sunday, June 1st on USA NETWORK, 10pm/9c. USA Network's newest original series stars Mary McCormack (Private Parts and The West Wing) as Mary Shannon. Her friends and family think she's just a glorified courier, but she's actually a U.S. Marshal, working for the highly secretive Witness Protection Program. Her job is to help relocate federal witnesses. Whether they're career criminals, or just people who had he misfortune to witness a crime, they all share one thing in common – somebody wants them dead. Co-starring Frederick Weller and Lesley Ann Warren.

I'm not given to hyperbole, but the pilot for this series is good-- I mean, really good. I'm so excited about it, I'm offering you a chance to be the first and only kid on your block to own an official USA branded gift bag commemorating the debut:

Enter to Win an IN PLAIN SIGHT GIFT BAG filled with -

In Plain Sight t-shirt -

In Plain Sight tank top -

TSA Approved Travel Kit (with 4 plastic toiletry bottles) -

In Plain Sight Luggage Tag


Pretty cool, don't you think? Here's the best part. To be in the running, all you have to do is leave a comment below. You don't even have to say anything beyond "RE: In Plain Sight.

The contest runs from 26 May to 26 June.

Good luck!

Don't forget-- In Plain Sight debuts on USA Sunday, 1 June, 9P, 10 P CDT. I'll have a review posted before then, but here's a little something to whet your appetite in the meantime. .

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Andromeda Strain Revisited

Don't mourn the end of the TV season just yet. The Big Four networks may be taking a breather after subjecting us to one of the worst debut seasons in history, but summer is the time when cable networks flex their increasingly impressive muscle. While the Fox, the Mouse, the Peacock and the Eyeball are pretty much content to loll in reruns, reality and game shows in the lazy days of summer, cable trots out significant documentaries and big budget dramas. In the process, they garner a lot of critical attention and Emmy buzz.

A&E leads the charge this year, teaming up with Ridley Scott (Bladerunner, Gladiator) and Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Top Gun) to recreate the Michael Crichton best-selling debut novel The Andromeda Strain. The four-hour TV event, directed by two-time Academy Award nominee Mikael Saloman (Backdraft, The Abyss) and starring Benjamin Bratt, Eric McCormack, Rick Schroder, Christa Miller and Daniel Dae Kim, will air in High Definition on Memorial Day, 26 May and Tuesday, 27 May at 9pm EST on A&E.

In The Andromeda Strain, a U.S. military satellite crashes in a small town and unleashes a deadly plague, killing all but two survivors. As the military quarantines the area, a team of highly specialized scientists is assembled to find a cure to the pathogen code-named “Andromeda,” and a reporter investigates a government conspiracy only to discover what he is chasing wants him silenced.
From the clips I've seen, this latest version of The Andromeda Strain looks to be an ideal way to cap off the Memorial Day weekend. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Juiced on Joost
It’s not that I hate TV—to the contrary, it’s the most effective means of mass communication on the planet. Anyway, it could be, if the currency of communication wasn’t devalued from the outset by pandering to the lowest possible common denominator. See, TV was never about entertainment or education—it was about advertising, and it still is. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that— from earliest times, commerce and culture have always worked in tandem in one way or another. Nobody ever did art purely for art’s sake and lived to tell about it.

The problem with network TV is that its content is largely controlled by advertisers who, understandably, prefer not to offend any potential customer. Art takes a backseat to the whims of the Great Unwashed as a result, and American Idol and Deal or No Deal become ratings juggernauts while offbeat scripted series like Life and Pushing Daisies struggle vainly to find an audience. It’s no coincidence that The Sopranos and Dexter garnered praise galore during their cable runs. Unfettered by advertising whims, premium cable is free to explore a full range of human emotion.

Now that broadband connections are more the norm than the oddity, TV is poised to enter into the next phase of its evolution. YouTube was a pioneer in this evolution, and its amazing growth forced the traditional outlets to take note. All the major networks offer next day reruns of their current shows on their respective websites, albeit with the obligatory “limited commercial interruptions.” There have been independent attempts at making Internet TV a reality, such as Hulu, but they tend to get swallowed up by the conglomerates before they can spread their wings.

The Internet, being the refuge of renegades and chancers of every stripe, continues to reinvent itself, and the promise of TV on demand is a battlefield rife with upstart entrepeneurs intent on reshaping cyberspace in their own vision. Of the current combatants, Joost , (created by Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, founders of Skype and Kazaa), holds the most promise in terms of shaking up the rules of television. Here’s a brief introduction:

Online Videos by Veoh.com

What Joost brings to the table is a refreshing irreverence towards the entire concept of television as culture. That’s not to say Joost dismisses TV as we know it-- it is, after all, a commercial venture—but it offers a dizzying array of viewing options, from international news to classic cartoons to scantily clad supermodels to cult TV classics, and its channels grow almost daily.

I’ve been exploring Joost for a couple of weeks now, and I have to admit I’ve only skimmed the surface of its content. With over 400 channels, that’s understandable. Even at that, I’m impressed. I’ve seen the original Star Trek. I’ve seen a beautiful presentation of the 2008 Geneva Auto Show. I’ve watched newscasts from a European perspective. I’ve seen sporting events, classic cartoons, cult movies, those aforementioned scantily clad swimsuit models, nonsensical video clips, cooking shows. lifestyle programs—the list goes on. For instance, the site has recently added the complete run of Jericho and the first three seasons of Beverly Hills 90210 to its roster. Clearly, there’s nothing elitist about Joost.

Joost isn’t perfect. It’s not web-based (yet, though rumor has it there may be a web-based version in the offing), relying instead on P2P technology. It does require a download and a subscription to access its content, but that’s a miniscule price to pay considering the wealth of content here. Yeah, you have to deal with an occasional ad because bills have to be paid. On the plus side, the ads are tiny pop-ups that occasionally appear in the corner of the screen, not full-blown adverts. Beyond that, I haven’t been bothered by video skips or jaggies—the video quality of any content I’ve viewed is at least equal to a conventional cable broadcast. Granted, my DSL connection offers me an average of 6mbs, but I don’t see any broadband connection faring much worse.

Television as we know it isn’t going away anytime soon (unless you count the Federally mandated all-digital transmission conversion in early 2009), and the Internet isn’t going to be the preferred method of viewing TV within months, or even the next few years. What is foreseeable, though, is a gradual convergence of the two platforms. That’s not news—Steve Jobs and Bill Gates envisioned the computer as innocuous appliance years ago. What we have now is a realization of those prophecies, However you slice it, Joost is a pioneering step in that convergence. Besides a remarkable llibrary that’s constantly expanding, it’s taking baby steps to that convergence, with forums, tech support and even user-based chat. In short, Joost has the potential to make TV fun again.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Perception of the Doors

It’s easy to make a case that the Doors were one of the greatest bands in the history of rock. They were, after all, one of the first bands to top the charts by exploring the darker side of the flower power generation. It’s an equally simple matter to claim the Doors as the godfathers of pretension in rock. It takes a bit more than leather pants and concho belts to signal a death knoll to love power.

The one thing that can’t be argued is that the Doors’ eponymously titled debut remains, over forty years after its release, one of the most auspicious debuts in the annals of rock. As part of its continuing series, Classic Albums: The Doors explores the making of the album, as seen mostly through the memories of the survivors of those sessions. It’s equal parts retrospective and a fond remembrance, as seen primarily through the reminiscences of Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore, as well as recording engineer/ Bruce Botnick.

Love them or hate them, when their debut was released in January 1967, there was no band quite like the Doors. The members were educated—film school refugees (Morrison and Manzarek) and accomplished music theorists (Krieger and Densmore) who, consciously or not, would rewrite the rules of rock. They weren’t really interested in teen angst or Utopian visions of love—the Doors looked at what lay beyond those paths, and explored the more shadowy aspects of a world in the midst of a cultural revolution.

Classic Albums: The Doors touches on that mystique, but doesn’t waste a lot of time dwelling on it. Instead, it focuses mostly on the process of making the album. Much of it is anecdotal, of course, largely paced by the perpetually animated Manzarek, who often comes across with a Vegas veneer with his reminisces about the band’s origins. Botnick balances that vaguely schmaltzy exuberance with an engineer’s love of how the songs broke down technically.

Densmore and Krieger provide the greatest insights into how the band achieved its unique sound. Between the two of them, they managed to meld blues, bossa nova, flamenco guitar and funk in a single riff. With Manzarek, whose keyboard bass and soul and jazz inclinations cemented the Doors’ sound, they emerged as a band that sounded lie no other.

Despite all that, it’s impossible to discuss the Doors without placing Jim Morrison in the center of the context—not just of the album, but of the shift in American culture as a whole. The spectre of the Vietnam war would fragment the hippie movement, and Morrison’s lyrics, while not overtly political, reflected the gnawing restlessness of American society at the time. The Doors weren’t about love and peace so much as they were about inner turmoil.

The people involved in the album recognize that, as do such current personalities as Perry Ferrell and Henry Rollins, who provide a contemporary take on the legacy of the Doors. Sadly, aging Beat poet Michael McClure’s recitations of “Break On Through” only serve to diminish the impact of the song. His attempt to elevate the lyrics to the level of high poetry come off more as a Steve Allen routine than serious dissemination of the work.

All in all, Classic Albums: The Doors is an erstwhile addition to a series that is in itself proving to be an important chronicler of important pop music. As with the rest of the series, the Doors entry sidesteps hype in favor of focusing on how the album came to be, and what makes it an enduring classic. In the Doors’ case, this DVD focuses not on the decline and fall of a seminal band, but on the efforts that made them a seminal band. It’s objective reportage, laced with live footage and outtakes (notably the evolution of “Moonlight Ride”). Itdoesn’t shed any new light on the Doors mythos, but it does open a new perspective on the band. It’s been over forty years since The Doors was released, yet it remains a major influence on music today. By anybody’s standards, that constitutes a “classic” album.

Monday, May 12, 2008

This Day in History

We go through our day to day lives, blissfully unaware that every day has some small, sometimes major significance. We're so caught up in our present that we forget that every second of the past shaped us. With that in mind, I've decided to add a new feature to the sidebar, courtesy of the History Channel. Every day, you'll be able to see what happened on that date in history. Some days may be trivial, others, world-changing. Either way, it's guaranteed to broaden your perspective.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Contraband Considered As Video Angst
You can pretty much lay that “fifteen minutes of fame” theory to rest. We move way too fast for that. You have fifteen seconds—and that’s if you’re very lucky. Our cell phone culture makes everybody and everything newsworthy for at least a blip on the cyberspace network. The most miniscule moment, whether it’s a clip of a skateboarding dog or an impassioned plea to save Britney, can garner rave reviews and a gazillion hits in a matter of hours. And it falls into oblivion even more quickly.

The graphic novel Contraband, by TJ Behe & Phil Elliott, attempts to look at the consequences of such homegrown media endeavors. It’s a day after tomorrow scenario in which a youth subculture records, and in some cases, manufactures events for fun and profit in hopes for a slot on the cell phone video network Contraband. It’s a concept not far removed from our current culture, replete with references to mercenaries in Afghanistan, club culture and YouTube-style “citizen journalism.”

has all the ingredients for a near-future cautionary tale, a noir-drenched mystery or a twisting and turning action story. Unfortunately, it never really settles on one point of view. Yeah, it’s serpentine, but the twists it takes are more convulsive than constructive.

A large part of the problem with Contraband is Behe’s propensity to talking a point to death. According to his bio, he’s spent the last few years “developing compelling mobile content for global entertainment companies including BBC, SkySports, Playboy, MTV, and O2.” It’s a pity he never learned to master the art of the graphic novel, even sadder that he doesn’t recognize the most basic rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell.

Graphic novels, by definition, are visual storytelling. They’re like cinema, letting imagery flow as the narrative device. When they succeed, graphic novels are beautiful things, with illustrations and words merging as a seamless whole. When they fail, they’re jarring, a cacophony of pictures sparring with exposition. Contraband falls into the latter category.

Despite UK illustrator Phil Elliott’s best efforts, the art in Contraband is overshadowed by ponderous soliloquies by the characters, most of which serve only to make the novel read more like a manifesto than an actual story. Word balloons, arranged haphazardly, crowd out the art in too many panels, resulting in a jumbled mess that’s at best confusing, and at worst, seriously challenges the reader’s attention span.

Elliot’s art doesn’t really mesh with Behe’s story—rather, it comes off more as hurried sketches more suited to storyboards than an actual graphic novel. His style is somewhere between R. Crumb and Herge, sans the subtle intricacies of either artist. Thus, the reader feels disconnected from the characters, despite Elliots keen sense of establishing shots and perspective. Behe’s story, with its arbitrary flashbacks and flash-forwards, grows tiresome quickly as it is, and Eliot’s simple drawings of the characters, devoid of any outstanding features, make the story all the more difficult to follow.

It’s all presented in black and white wash, presumably to give it a noir feel, but it only serves to make the characters less discernible, and the contrived story even more murky. Contraband might work as a B-movie, and perhaps that was the intention of the creators. As a graphic novel, however, it comes across as a poor adaptation of a movie yet to be made.