Friday, December 08, 2006
In praise of the Grammys
Criticizing the Grammys isn't even like shooting fish in a barrel -- it's more like shooting fish sticks in a supermarket freezer.

That said, the awards occasionally get it right: Naming "Sgt. Pepper" the best album of 1967, for example, or all the deserved honors Stevie Wonder received during the '70s.

Yesterday's nominations also picked out some winners among the usual OK works, big-selling mediocrities and inoffensive ballads. To wit:
  • Gnarls Barkley picked up a nomination for album of the year, which "St. Elsewhere" may actually be.
  • The producer of the year category includes Rick Rubin (Dixie Chicks, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Diamond), Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley) and T Bone Burnett.
  • Death Cab for Cutie and the Fray earned nominations.
  • James Hunter's "People Gonna Talk" received a nomination. (For best traditional blues album -- it's really more R&B -- but what the heck.)
  • Rhino's brilliant packaging of "A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box" (a box set complete with leather corset) and "One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Groups Lost and Found" were selected.
None of them will win, of course, but hey -- it's an honor just to be nominated.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Not even Santa can get ahold of these
"St. Elsewhere" finally made it onto DVD. So did Richard Donner's version of "Superman II."

But many worthwhile movies and shows languish in a video netherworld, available in some countries and not others, or issued on VHS but not DVD, or not available at all.

The reasons (or excuses) are many. Archival rights stifled even a re-broadcast of the landmark PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize" until a couple months ago; the program is still not out on DVD. In other cases, music rights have gotten in the way, or the legal and financial status of the studio that owns the work.

And, of course, there's the matter of whether a DVD release can turn a profit. Even TV completists might shudder at shelling out 10 bucks for a DVD of the only telecast of 1969's flop "Turn-On" (though the commentary could be really interesting).

With that in mind, here are some DVDs I'd like to see:

  • "If ...." and "O Lucky Man." Director Lindsay Anderson's films -- one a 1968 film about a student uprising, the other a 1973 work featuring the same lead character (played, in both films, by Malcolm McDowell) -- are considered two of the great works of British cinema. Criterion could do a terrific job with them.
  • "Let It Be." The Beatles' 1970 documentary is available on VHS and laserdisc, but a DVD edition -- though long promised -- is still elusive.
  • "Cold Turkey." Norman Lear's 1971 film, about an Iowa town trying to give up smoking, featured a number of actors who would soon dominate 1970s TV, including Bob Newhart, Tom Poston, Jean Stapleton and Paul Benedict, as well as Dick Van Dyke, Bob and Ray and Vincent Gardenia. It also has a tremendous Randy Newman score.
  • "Shoot the Moon." Alan Parker's 1982 film, written by Bo Goldman and starring Albert Finney and Diane Keaton as a husband and wife going through a divorce, is often considered his best work.
  • "thirtysomething." The 1987-91 TV series, still seen in reruns, was initially attacked for its overly self-conscious portrait of yuppiedom, but affecting plotlines (a mother's cancer, the addition of the Machiavellian ad exec Miles Drentell) made it into one of TV's best. Creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick have since made "My So-Called Life" and "Once and Again"; Zwick is also a noted film director ("Legends of the Fall," "The Last Samurai," the soon-to-be released "Blood Diamond"). Bonus: The pair's gripping 1983 TV movie, "Special Bulletin" -- about terrorists holding a nuclear bomb in Charleston, South Carolina -- also deserves a DVD release.
What are some of the movies and TV shows you'd like to see on DVD?
Monday, December 04, 2006
Beyond the end of the world
The apocalypse, and the attempt to cope with what remains of the world, has often been fodder for storytelling -- particularly in recent years.

In the late '50s and early '60s, there was Nevil Shute's "On the Beach," about a group of Australians waiting for a radioactive cloud to reach them; the northern hemisphere had already been destroyed by nuclear war. Walter M. Miller Jr.'s "A Canticle for Leibowitz" was about a world awakening from the dark ages long after a nuclear conflagration.

In the early '80s, "The Day After" -- which showed the effects of a nuclear explosion in graphic detail -- became the highest-rated TV movie of all time. In the theaters, there was "Testament," in which Jane Alexander tried to keep her family together after, yes, a nuclear war. "The Quiet Earth" (1985) showed Bruno Lawrence as, perhaps, the last man on earth.

This decade, we've already seen "The Day After Tomorrow," which showed the disastrous effects of a new ice age, and "A.I.," which takes place in a world afflicted by global warming. The TV series "Jericho" shows a Plains town coping with a nuclear war's aftereffects. And, of course, there's the whole "Left Behind" series, an expansive version of the Book of Revelation.

But probably the bleakest of the bunch is Cormac McCarthy's new novel, "The Road." In McCarthy's telling, a father and son struggle to make it to the Gulf Coast after a presumed nuclear war has decimated the country. Animals and birds are practically non-existent. So are humans: Anyone who remains could be somebody else's dinner. It's always cold, it's always gray, and a layer of ash covers everything that hasn't been washed away.

It's tough stuff, and yet the book is as gripping as a ghost story told around a campfire. It's even moving at times, with the warmth coming from the father's obvious love for his boy and his determination to survive.

Still, if reading the book is worth it, one wonders if a post-apocalyptic life would be. I'm reminded of an old science fiction story about some people who send a message into the far future. But by then, humanity is long gone. What's left? Insects. And they can't hear.
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