Thursday, August 28, 2008

‘Dark Knight’ success ushers in dark days for all

Memo to Warner Bros.: You’re doing it wrong.

As the parent company of DC Comics, Warner is increasingly desperate for superhero franchises that can match those of Marvel Studios, the corporate sibling of DC’s longtime rival, Marvel Comics.
But apart from the Batman series — ably resurrected by director Christopher Nolan — Warner hasn’t had much luck. “Superman Returns” was a bloated, expensive bore, and the only thing epic about “Catwoman” was how much of a disaster it was. “Catwoman” managed to rack up Razzie awards for worst picture, worst actress, worst screenplay and worst director. Who lets someone named Pitof direct a movie, anyway?

Warner has batted around movies based on other DC characters for years, but none has gotten past the script stage. Most recently, Warner shelved a Wonder Woman film written by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon.

Another memo to Warner Bros.: You’re not going to do better than a Whedon-scripted “Wonder Woman,” so stop trying.

Never fear, though. Warner has a plan to finally bring DC’s stable of superheroes to the big screen. First, Warner has scrapped its troubled “Justice League” movie for the foreseeable future. Instead it will focus on solo adventures for Justice League members like Wonder Woman, the Flash and, of course, Superman.

The move echoes Marvel’s strategy of establishing Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America separately before having them team up for “The Avengers” in 2011.

So far, so good.

Next, Warner will reboot the Superman franchise and hope we all forget how dire “Superman Returns” is.

Again, this is following Marvel’s example. After director Ang Lee’s “Hulk” disappointed Marvel executives, they opted to start from scratch with this year’s “The Incredible Hulk.”

Now, I could nitpick and point out that “Hulk” cost less to make and will probably earn more (adjusted for inflation) than “The Incredible Hulk,” but for some reason, everyone in Hollywood thinks Lee’s film was a flop while the new one is a success. And in Hollywood, perception is all that matters.

Again, so far, so good. Director Bryan Singer, who did a great job of bringing Marvel’s “X-Men” to the screen, made such a mess of “Superman Returns” that it’s difficult to imagine where a straightforward sequel could go. Just take a mulligan.

But after that, Warner’s plan begins to reek. The studio has learned all of the right lessons from its competition — but all the wrong lessons from its own success.

To understand Warner’s mistake, you first need to think like a studio executive. So, I’ll give you a few minutes to take some tequila shots and bang your head into a brick wall.

Ready? Here goes.

The thinking at Warner Bros. goes like this: “The Dark Knight” was a “dark” movie. It made a lot of money. Hey! All of our other superhero movies should be dark, too!

Really, wasn’t the last Superman movie dark, moody and angst-ridden enough? Singer even darkened the colors of Superman’s costume to fit the mood of his gloomy picture.

See, Batman is a dark character. He’s named for a bloodthirsty, nocturnal mammal. So, his movies should be dark. Superman, however, is not a dark character. Neither is Wonder Woman, nor the Flash. Green Lantern? He’s not dark, either.

Meanwhile, none of Marvel’s most successful movies is dark, and the best of them — “Iron Man,” “Spider-Man” and the second “X-Men” — all have a pretty good sense of humor.

Last memo to Warner Bros.: You want a successful superhero movie? Just stay true to the spirit of the characters. Marvel does that. “The Dark Knight” and “Batman Begins” did it. A “dark” Superman movie does not.

I predict dark days ahead for Warner Bros. — in more than one sense of the term.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Beware: When celebrities attack — each other!

MTV’s “Celebrity Deathmatch” used to be a guilty pleasure of mine. What could be better than watching Claymation facsimiles of celebrities fight each other to the death?

Actually, one thing would be better: watching the actual celebrities fight to the death. Unfortunately, that’s probably illegal. I’ll have to check with my attorney. So, when it comes to real celebrities settling scores, I have to settle for a war of words.

Since sparing us the sight of her on network TV, Roseanne Barr has retreated to her Web site, where her blog functions as a virtual shotgun aimed at people who can still find work.

First, Barr fired a volley at Angelina Jolie, Jolie’s oft-estranged father Jon Voight and her boyfriend Brad Pitt. Voight had committed the unpardonable sin of campaigning for Sen. John McCain for president, while Jolie has had the temerity not to make up her mind yet between McCain and Sen. Barack Obama. And what’s Barr’s problem with Pitt, you ask?

Oh, why not just let Barr speak for herself, typos and all: “jon voight your evil spawn angelina jolie and her vacuous hubby brad pitt make about forty million dollars a year in violent psychopathic movies and give away three of it to starving children trying to look as if they give a crap about humanity as they spit out more dunces that will consume more than their fair share and wreck the earth even more.”

Ah, Rosanne, such class. It’s just like when you sang the national anthem.

But lest you think Barr is just carrying water for the Obama campaign, she’s not exactly thrilled he’s the Democratic presidential nominee. And whom does she blame for Obama’s rise? One guess: Oprah Winfrey.

Barr writes, “It is estimated that her endorsement of Obama swung over one million women's votes from Hillary, who remains the only candidate who polls to win against mccain. Oprah can rest well now knowing that her dogs will not have to pay inheritance tax over the next four years if she dies.”
Now, I could spend the rest of this column pointing out Barr’s factual errors and explaining the rules of capitalization. But there’s no fun in that, and it would be beside the point. Who cares what any of these Hollywood types think about McCain, Obama or inheritance taxes?

If celebrity political endorsements mattered, the Republicans wouldn’t have elected a president since Abraham Lincoln. And even Lincoln wasn’t beloved by all actors of his day. Just ask John Wilkes Booth.

But really, as far as celebrity smackdowns go, this isn’t a big one. Compared to the heavyweight couple of Jolie and Pitt, Barr is a mere featherweight, and her career has already suffered a TKO. It’s Bambi meets Godzilla, and, ironically, Roseanne isn’t Godzilla.

The movie and music industries have much better match-ups to offer. In fact, there is a Web site devoted to celebrity feuds, the aptly named

Many are obvious, like the ongoing hostilities between former couples Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin or Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson. Others are legendary, like the titanic struggle between screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Others still are just bizarre: There’s a feud between Tina Turner and Elton John? Really?

Still, rivalries involving actors and musicians are comparatively lame. If it’s a war of words you want, then you want people who really know how to use their weapons. That’s why literary feuds are the best.

Ernest Hemingway vs. Gertrude Stein, Tom Wolfe vs. John Updike, Gore Vidal vs. Truman Capote — to say nothing of Gore Vidal vs. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal vs. William F. Buckley Jr. — those were some epic battles.

Yes, dear Gore — so many enemies, and you’ve outlived them all. That’s how you win, you see, by getting the last word.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What’s left for us when our bad girls go good?

What are we supposed to gossip about now? It’s been weeks, months even, since America’s reigning bad girls have caused trouble. How can the nation survive?

It may be a minor miracle, but Paris Hilton and Britney Spears have cleaned up their acts. And while Lindsay Lohan’s troubles seem to go deeper than the merely embarrassing, she has managed to avoid making headlines, too. This may be a threat to the republic as we know it. I can imagine celebrity gossip Web sites going dark, tabloid newspapers closing shop, even entire cable TV channels going out of business. Isn’t the economy in enough trouble already?

Granted, the situation could change between the time I write this column and when you read it, but as of right now, the three arrested adolescents seem to have given up their hard-partying ways and are — gasp! — behaving like responsible adults.

Without their favorite targets, Hollywood’s packs of celebrity-stalking photographers are apparently suffering, which is just fine as far as some people are concerned.

“If you notice, since Britney started wearing clothes and behaving; Paris is out of town not bothering anybody anymore — thank God — and evidently, Lindsay Lohan has gone gay, we don’t seem to have much of an issue” with the paparazzi, Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton told a Los Angeles television station.

A quick Google search of the headlines doesn’t turn up much. Lindsay makes the news for saying she is avoiding the paparazzi. Well, that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it? Meanwhile, a British publication goes gaga for her model of BlackBerry. That’s nothing to excite the masses. The most salacious gossip to be found is about whether she is romantically linked with a female DJ named Samantha Ronson. But Lindsay isn’t talking.

Paris, of course, has been in the news a lot during the past week. But it wasn’t her fault. There she was, minding her own business, and all of the sudden, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, was on her case.

The McCain campaign used images of Paris and Britney in an advertisement attacking McCain’s Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, as just a “celebrity” candidate. Paris responded with an Internet video that had both gossips and political pundits talking for days.

Now, I used to be involved in politics, so take it from me: When you lose a debate with Paris Hilton, your campaign is having a bad week. Yes, I know Paris didn’t write her own material — please! — but, frankly, her energy plan makes more sense than either McCain’s or Obama’s. What does it mean when Paris is serving up better copy for The Economist magazine than for The National Enquirer? It means the end of Western Civilization, that’s what!

Just when you think maybe Britney can save us, she lets us down, too. New photos of the former pop princess appeared last week showing her once again in fit condition. If she’s lost weight, that means she has managed to work up discipline of some kind, and that’s no good if you’re a tabloid editor desperate for Britney’s next hair-shaving meltdown.

What about Britney’s younger sister, notorious teen mom Jamie Lynn? She and her new baby are doing just fine, thank you. And Jamie Lynn seems to have learned from Britney’s mistakes. So far, she hasn’t been photographed driving around with her infant precariously perched in her lap. She’s no help at all.

The same goes for Paris’ former “Simple Life” co-star, Nicole Richie, who after a rash of legal problems and rumors of an eating disorder, has settled into a — ahem! — simple life of domestic bliss with boyfriend Joel Madden and daughter Harlow.

Efforts to turn Disney star Miley Cyrus to the Dark Side are mixed. Despite attempts to manufacture a scandal out of her Vanity Fair photos, Miley remains on the straight and narrow.

These are indeed dark days for us all. Never mind what the bobbleheads(cq)  on the E! channel will talk about. What will I write about on slow news days?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

After 25 years, Return to Forever returns for more

They’ve gotten the band back together.

Twenty-five years after their first, brief reunion and 32 years after their last album, Return to Forever’s classic lineup is back and touring the country.

The revived jazz fusion band performed Saturday in front of a capacity crowd of about 2,750 at Atlanta’s plush Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, which opened last fall. It was the 50th stop on the Return to Forever summer reunion tour.

Now, I’ve been to my fair share of concerts, but I’d never before been to one where every song earned a standing ovation. (Standing-room-only shows don’t count.) The years since Return to Forever’s break-up have only increased fans’ enthusiasm. Some on the front row handed their old, vinyl RTF albums to the roadies for the band to sign. Others paid hundreds of dollars extra for VIP packages that included meeting the band backstage.

Led by keyboardist Chick Corea and featuring guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White, Return to Forever was one of three bands during the 1970s that defined jazz fusion. Along with Weather Report and guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever mixed jazz improvisation with electric instruments and Motown-inspired rhythms, creating a sound that has influenced a generation of both jazz and rock artists.

Jazz fusion was the flipside of progressive rock, which saw bands like Pink Floyd and Yes blend rock music with elements of jazz and classical.

In conjunction with the tour, Return to Forever has released “The Anthology,” a two-disc set featuring remastered tracks from the group’s four best albums: “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy,” “Where Have I Known You Before,” “No Mystery” and “Romantic Warrior.”

In the years following RTF’s breakup, Di Meola and Clarke launched successful solo careers. Di Meola’s lightning-paced, “shred” guitar style probably influenced even more heavy metal guitarists than jazz players. Clarke, meanwhile, divided his efforts between solo albums and scoring Hollywood movies, including “Boyz n the Hood”(cq)  and “The Transporter.”

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Corea continued with both solo projects and his new group, the Chick Corea Elektric Band.

But to see and hear Return to Forever on Saturday, you’d think the quartet had never been apart. With Clarke taking center stage, the four launched into their classic catalog, deftly trading solos and playfully trying to one-up one another.

The first set featured the group’s spacey, sci-fi influenced tracks like “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy,” “Vulcan Worlds” and “The Sorceress.”

But RTF really shined in the second set, with Di Meola and Clarke switching to acoustic. Di Meola launched into a medley of his solo pieces, including covers of Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla’s compositions and his signature song, “Mediterranean Sundance,” which elicited an enthusiastic response from the audience.

Di Meola may not be as fast as the 19-year-old prodigy who wowed critics and audiences alike in the ’70s, but he makes up for it with even better technique and the sort of emotional depth that comes with time. And he’s still plenty fast with his fingers.

Corea followed with a keyboard solo, setting up Clarke, whose virtuoso, marathon solo on upright bass had people in the balcony calling out, “I love you, Stanley!”

For the encore, RTF returned to its electric bread and butter for one of my favorite of the band’s tunes, “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant.”

Three decades may have passed since RTF’s last recording, but those old songs seem timeless. But what else should you expect from a band named Return to Forever?