September 27, 2011

Will the Ultra-Cool The Playboy Club Find Its Audience?

The new fall TV season is here and we're watching a bunch of new shows like Whitney, Two Broke Girls, How To Be A Gentleman, Pan Am, and probably our favorite debuting series, The Playboy Club.

In a nutshell, it's Mad Men, meets American Dreams with a smattering of The House Bunny.

Like Mad Men, The Playboy Club features an ensemble cast, and is set in the early sixties in a workplace where all of the male characters are unapologetically misogynistic. The lead character, Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian) channels the cool, suave persona of Don Draper and like Draper, has a mysterious and shady past.

The American Dreams comparison refers to the plotlines of that show (which also took place during the 1960s) being set against the backdrop of real life events. American Dreams, for those who don't remember the overlooked but critically acclaimed series, traced the lives of a Philadelphia family as they experienced the tumultuous culture shifts of the 1960s. The JFK assassination, 1964 Philadelphia riots, Vietnam War, and American Bandstand TV show (produced in Philadelphia at the time) were just a few of the many real-life events incorporated into show episodes.

The Playboy Club is set to travel this same historically accurate route, teasing storylines that incorporate the infamous Chicago mob, the Civil Rights Movement, and even the Mattachine Society, one one of the country's earliest pro-homosexual organizations.

And there's a lot more going on with The Playboy Club, like the ongoing murder/coverup/investigation of a mafia kingpin, and (also like American Dreams) spot-on recreations of actual musical performances. (The premiere episode featured Ike and Tina Turner performing at both The Playboy Club and at Hugh Hefner's Chicago Playboy Mansion.) There's also a healthy dose of workplace romance, and lots of sexual tension between Cibrian and Laura Benanti who plays Carol, the club's resident den mother (hence, the "House Bunny" comparison.)

But if the primary reason you think you might be interested in this show is for the titillation factor, then you won't be dissapointed. There are plenty of sexy, bunny-eared, cotton-tailed bunnies flitting around. (Hey, you know you've got a sexy show when Jenna Dewan is only the third most attractive female cast member.) The clear standout, however, is the gorgeous Amber Heard as Maureen.

We first noticed Heard in Never Back Down back in 2008 and since then, she has taken on a series of curious roles in a number of offbeat films (Pineapple Express, Zombieland, The Joneses) presumably waiting for that breakthrough role that will make her a household name. Maybe the upcoming The Rum Diary, in which she co-stars with Johnny Depp, will serve that purpose. But on the other hand, maybe television is where she'll wind up -- at least for awhile.

In any case, there's an awful lot to like about The Playboy Club, but you have to wonder if it will
last. As a period piece with a large cast, it's an expensive show and will need to garner good ratings in order to survive. How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men have helped CBS own
Mondays for years, making it more difficult for The Playboy Club to draw the viewers it
needs to stay afloat. The debut scored a disappointing 1.6 rating (in the key demographic of 18-49 year olds) and yesterday's episode did slightly worse. Clearly, the show is being hurt by WWE Raw and (on the east coast) Monday Night Football, which combine to siphon off a huge share of male viewers.

Too bad, because The Playboy Club is a quality show. Guess we'll enjoy it for as long as we can.

September 23, 2011

The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s: Part 1

Came across an article on Rolling Stone's website titled "The Worst Songs of the 90s" and it triggered two thoughts:

First, the list is full of songs that were MONSTER hits, including "Achy Breaky Heart", "Ice Ice Baby" and "My Heart Will Go On". Regardless of how you feel about Billy Ray Cyrus, Vanilla Ice or Celine Dion, it's important to remember that these songs (and the others on the list) weren't popular for nothing people. Radio stations were playing them, people were buying them, and folks all over the country were jamming to them whenever they were played on the radio, at clubs or at parties -- WHICH WAS ALL THE TIME!

So I guess what this list tells us is that for a 10 year span twenty years ago, the majority of us were complete idiots.

Either that, or just maybe, when we look back at our musical (and other pop culture) choices, we sometimes turn into hyper-critical revisionists. (But that's a blog post for another time.)

The other thing this article tells me is that maybe 80s nostalgia is finally winding down and is being displaced by 90s nostalgia.

So with that in mind, let's jump on board with a list of:

The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s:

20. Higher Learning
Written and Directed by John Singleton
Starring: Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Michael Rappaport, Ice Cube, Tyra Banks

Director John Singleton’s follow-up to his fine but overly praised Boyz N The Hood is far more ambitious and more technically sound than his previous work, as the tensions created by racial conflict mount, and eventually wreak havoc on the campus of a large California university. Singleton’s interesting camera work, the broader scope of his story, and the performances he elicits from his ensemble cast (particularly within the storyline depicting how Michael Rappaport, as a freshman misfit, falls in with a band of local skinheads) are all evidence of his growth as a filmmaker. An extremely engaging and realistic examination of race relations among college students and the ingredients that can sometimes lead to conflict.

Killer Sequence: The disturbing climax where Rappaport goes on a killing spree at the school is (sadly) all too familiar these days.

19. Happy Gilmour
Directed by Dennis Dugan
Written by Tim Herlihy, Adam Sandler
Starring: Adam Sandler, Carl Weathers, Christopher MacDonald, Julie Bowen

Adam Sandler plays the title character, a golf phenom whose sensibilities and demeanor are more suited to the hockey rink than the PGA Tour. Reminiscent of Caddyshack (not only in subject matter but also theme and characterizations) this film has a broader appeal than Sandler’s quirkier, earlier effort, Billy Madison. A home video classic and the picture that kicked Sandler’s movie career into high gear.

Killer Sequence: Hard to top that fight scene with The Price is Right’s Bob Barker.

18. Friday
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Written by Ice Cube, D.J. Pooh
Starring: Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, John Witherspoon, Anna Maria Horsford, Nia Long

Twenty-five year old director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator, The Italian Job) capitalized on the growing popularity of urban, inner city dramas (Boyz N The Hood, Menace to Society, Juice) by showing us a fun side of life in the hood. Ice Cube, as Craig, proves that he can do more than just scowl into the camera, but the breakout star here is Chris Tucker as Craig’s drug peddling friend Smokey, who expertly jives, whines and connives his way through a film that traces a lazy Friday afternoon in the lives of the two slackers. Tucker creates one of the funniest and most memorable film characters of the decade and Friday's success on home video led to two sequels.

Killer Sequence: Craig settles the score and shows what it really means to be a man in his final confrontation with the neighborhood bully Deebo.

17. Armageddon
Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh, Robert Roy Pool
Starring: Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton

Director Michael Bay (of the Transformers movies) proved that he is master of the action genre with this sci-fi thrill-ride. It’s a familiar storyline: Gaggle of oil drilling miscreants fly into outer space, crash land on an asteroid that’s hurdling towards earth, and somehow manage to blow it up and save the world... (Okay, so the story’s not so familiar...)

This was the second of two runaway asteroid movies in less than a year (Deep Impact was the other) but producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Carribbean, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Top Gun) and star Bruce Willis know their way around an action movie like no one else. Throw in some killer special effects and a little comic relief courtesy of Steve Buscemi, and this movie scores big time as thrilling, edge of your seat, pass the popcorn entertainment.

Killer Sequence: The opening CGI scenes of midtown Manhattan being decimated by a meteor storm.

16. Schindler's List
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Thomas Keneally, Steve Zaillian (Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley

Steven Spielberg has perhaps enjoyed more success than any other filmmaker in history. In the 90s, his films grossed over $1.2 billion at US box offices. Though many of his pictures have also been critically acclaimed (Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun), Schindler's List is still considered Spielberg's masterpiece. Disturbing, heartrending and uplifting all at once, the film tells the then little-known story of Czech business magnate Oscar Schindler, and how the morally bankrupt war profiteer finds his heart and saves his soul by orchestrating the escape of hundreds of his Jewish workers from the clutches of Third Reich. It’s impossible not to be moved by this film or the performance of a commanding Liam Neeson in the title role. Filmed mostly in black and white, the movie has an almost documentary type feel, particularly during those scenes depicting the atrocities committed by the Nazis. This film solidified Spielberg as not only the world’s most popular and successful directors, but also one of its’ most important and enduring.

Killer Sequence: The once callous Schindler breaks down in front of his workers, openly and inconsolably weeping as he tells them, “I didn't do enough.”

Related Posts:

The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s: Part 2
The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s: Part 3
The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s: Part 4
Defining Films of the Decades

September 15, 2011

What's Old is New Again: Contagion

The new film Contagion looks like a pretty darn good thriller.

But doesn't it look EXACTLY like the movie Outbreak from back in 1995?

For starters, as you can plainly see, the colors used in the two movie posters are almost identical. They're so close in fact, that it makes me wonder whether this was some kind of conscious choice made by Contagion's marketing and publicity team.

Next, check out this description of Outbreak found on Rotten Tomatoes:
A handful of scientists struggle to prevent the destruction of a small town -- and possibly the entire country. In the mid-1960s, a deadly virus is discovered in Zaire that wipes out an entire village in 24 hours. Government researchers are brought in to investigate, but the military opts to destroy the village rather than risk further infection. Thirty years later, Sam Daniels, an expert on contagious diseases, is called in when the virus re-emerges.
Now here's the description of Contagion:
Contagion follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself.

And besides the obvious story similarities, consider this:

  • Each movie was helmed by a highly acclaimed director. Wolfgang Peterson (Das Boot, Troy, In the Line of Fire) directed Outbreak, while Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Girlfriend Experience) handled Contagion.
  • Both films feature very strong ensemble casts. Outbreak stars Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr. Contagion has Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, and Marion Cotillard.

  • At the time of their release, both casts brought strong Oscar credentials to the screen. Hoffman had already won two (Kramer vs Kramer and Rain Man), Freeman one (Driving Miss Daisy), and Spacey and Gooding Jr. would go on to win (for American Beauty and Jerry Maguire, respectively) by the end of the decade.

    matches that with Winslet, Paltrow, and Cotillard all having taken home the golden statuette. (Fishburne and Law were both nominated but lost.) Damon did earn an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, but won it for screenwriting.

Finally, take a look at the Contagion and Outbreak trailers. Pay particularly close attention to the common plot points and also the scenes with Sutherland, Hoffman and Law as they present the data and projection for how quickly the virus will spread. The clips and the dialog are awfully close.

September 7, 2011

Where is Popular Music Going?

In the wake of the recent MTV Video Music Awards, I was left pondering the question, "Where is pop music going this millenium?"

These days, instead of having to really contemplate what type of music and which artists you're going to invest your time and money into, most people simply go to the iTunes or Amazon Music Store and cherry pick individual songs without investing too much time, energy or effort. It seems one of the results of this, is that experiencing music today is a lot like ordering the sampler at Red Lobster. A few shrimp, a few scallops, some crab cake, and so on. You're continuously moving on to the next thing on the plate and nothing is really any more lasting, memorable (or palatable) than anything else.

Maybe today's music companies and pop artists have figured this out and have consciously chosen NOT to invest in or encourage creation and development of any new musical styles, genres or "sounds". Maybe that's why modern popular music seems to no longer be evolving and expanding -- certainly not the way that it has in the past.

For example, I was kid during the 70s and 80s and I witnessed firsthand, the birth of several new music styles. Back then, were so many different musical paths to explore, and almost all of them were vital, and edgy and impactful, and lasting. Daring stuff that broke the mold, took music off in new directions, and sounded so different from everything else, that it was immediately placed in its own new genre or subgenre.

Conversely, among today's popular music, I see very few artists attempting to break new ground and very little music that comes anywhere close to being "revolutionary" the way it was during the 70s, 80s, and other previous decades. What I'm lamenting I guess, is that as I survey the contemporary pop music scene,
there’s doesn't seem to be a single definitive (or even discernible) movement taking place. When I compare that with what was going on when I was growing up, it’s startling.

For example, when I was twelve, it was 1978, and the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” had just been released. Now granted, this wasn’t the first rap record, but probably the one most responsible for the mainstream’s initial recognition of this style of music. At the time, rap was fresh and new. It was music in a completely different form, presented and recorded in a completely different style. From these roots, rap would evolve and go on to become the dominant genre it remains to this day.

But besides rap, there were a number of other major musical styles emerging during the 70s. The punk movement is probably the single greatest example of how quickly a new musical genre can reach huge levels of worldwide popularity and influence. Punk, once dismissed as merely anarchic noise, reached its high point in the 70s and now, forty years later, it's not only still going strong, but is well-respected. (The Clash’s hugely London Calling was released in 1979 and is now widely judged by critics as not just the best punk album of all-time, but among the ten best of the modern (aka "rock") era.

Also in the late 70s, new wave music, a more layered, synthesized, danceable, and radio-friendly spin-off of punk, was on the rise, and soon-to-be major artists like Blondie, The Cars, Talking Heads, Devo, Elvis Costello, and The Police were defining the movement.

And of course the 70s also saw the arrival of disco.

My point is, the musical landscape during the seventies had all these important movements taking place at the same time. Can anyone tell me what’s happening that’s comparable in today’s music scene?

Don’t get me wrong; there are a TON of talented artists (ones that have come up since say, the year 2000) out there making great music today. (Alicia Keys, Thompson Square, Colbie Caillat, Beyonce, John Legend, Michael Buble, Pink, Rihanna, Keri Hilson, Maroon 5, Adele, Black Eyed Peas, Katy Perry, Ne-Yo, Coldplay, and Nickelback, to name just a handful.) But from a 10,000 foot view, it just doesn’t seem that collectively today’s music is carving out any kind of enduring legacy for itself. Rather than coalescing and spurring any new movements in music, more than ever, contemporary artists seem to be contently operating within their own artistic spheres, and their work -- as great (or as lousy) as it may be -- seems to have no context.

Now, those that frown on music being put into specific categories will say that's a good thing. But it's not about categorization. It's about the fact that the evolution and expansion of popular music into new directions has slowed dramatically. Even those considered today’s most popular and "cutting-edge" artists (Lil’ Wayne, Kanye West, Jay Z, Eminem, Lady GaGa, etc.) despite the fact that they continue to produce top-selling, enduring hits; aren’t really breaking any new ground.

For perhaps the first time since the mid-50s, there seems to be no style of music and no artists that are either single-handedly (like The Beatles) or as part of a movement (like punk) challenging, or otherwise changing the landscape of popular music. To put this statement in context, consider what's taken place in music during the last sixty years:

The 50s saw the birth of rock and roll and many of its subcategories -- rockabilly, doo-wop, etc.

The sixties gave us the British Invasion, a new wave of folk artists (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter Paul & Mary, Joni Mitchell); the California surf sound (epitomized by groups like the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and The Rivieras); Motown; the rise of girl groups (Shirelles, Chiffons, Crystals, Ronettes, etc.) and a slew of hugely influential artists out of the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, including The Byrds, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Janis Joplin, Crosby Stills & Nash, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead. The 60s also saw the development of what might very well be music’s biggest technological innovation -- multitrack recording -- which instantly and dramatically changed the way nearly every style of produced music would sound from that point on.

The 70s saw the geneses of the previously discussed punk, new wave, rap and disco movements, along with funk, Philly soul, and the golden-age of singer/songwriters (Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Carly Simon, etc.)

In the 80s, new wave and rap entered the main stream; we got the Michael Jackson phenomenon (which rivaled those of Elvis and The Beatles), and what amounted to a second British invasion led by synth pop artists like Thompson Twins, Eurythmics, Human League, and Pet Shop Boys. College radio gave us The Replacements, R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, Violent Femmes, and other "alternative" rock.

And of course the biggest mark made during the 80s came courtesy of the music video -- which helped transform several (what were then considered) somewhat marginal talents into bonafide music superstars. (I’m talking to you Madonna and Duran Duran!)

In the 90s, there was grunge, gangsta-rap, and the high point of the previous decade’s alt-rock (
Juliana Hatfield, Liz Phair, Radiohead, et. al.) And on the other end of the spectrum, dance music was redefined and began to heavily influence pop. In the process, techno and electronica artists (Moby, William Orbit, The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim) finally gained recognition. Dance beats creeped into rap music too, energizing it, and helping convert it into the modern hip-hop we know today.

Put this all together and you can see there was
one hell of a lot going on from 1955 to the year 2000...

But that’s where it all kind of ends. Past 1999, there seems to be a void -- certainly when you compare it to the volume of twists and turns pop music had taken in the decades prior. What did the first decade of the new millineum give us?… The boy band craze comes immediately to mind. What else?… Britney, was kind of a mini-phenomenon, I guess…

But can anyone offer a new and significant musical style or genre that’s come up over the past decade?…