Thursday, February 24, 2011

Culture Shock 02.24.11: Catching up with the in-box — Rand, X-Men, notable deaths

I'm going to catch up this week with some odds and ends from my in-box.

First, the trailer for "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1," adapting the first third of Ayn Rand's best-selling novel, hit the Internet a couple of weeks ago. That was a surprise to those of us who thought the movie might never be released.

With a budget of just $5 million and a cast of TV actors — some very good, but none household names — "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1" looked like a movie rushed into production just so the producer could retain the film rights, which were to expire the week cameras rolled.

Whether or not that was entirely the case, we now have a movie, and it's not going straight into a vault to gather dust.

Based on the preview trailer, "Atlas Shrugged" doesn't look as cheap as I'd feared, but it still looks more like a TV movie than a big-screen epic. And by focusing on scenes in which characters talk about steel mills and railroads, the trailer is not going to appeal to anyone who isn't familiar with Rand's story, which pits heroic entrepreneurs against big government.

You can see the trailer for yourself at www.atlasshruggedpart1 .com.

The movie is scheduled for limited release on, appropriately, April 15.

Another trailer that has defied my expectations is the one for "X-Men: First Class," the prequel to the movie series based on Marvel Comics' "Uncanny X-Men."

Marvel Studios has two movies of its own due out this summer, "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger." But so far, "X-Men: First Class" — produced by 20th Century Fox under a deal that predates Marvel making its own films — looks more interesting than either of them.

Many longtime fans are not going to be happy. "X-Men: First Class" plays loose with established "X-Men" lore. And despite being a prequel to the three previous "X-Men" films, it doesn't really maintain continuity with them, either.

But I'm prepared to let "X-Men: First Class" be its own thing. And it looks like a groovy, 1960s period piece with lots of mod fashions. Now that's something you don't get out of most superhero movies.

The past two weeks have also brought three deaths of note.

Staying in the world of superheroes, writer Dwayne McDuffie died unexpectedly Monday. He was just 49.

McDuffie was the founder of Milestone Comics, an African-American-owned comic-book publisher, distributed and later absorbed by DC Comics. Later, he went to work for Cartoon Network, writing and producing shows like "Justice League Unlimited" — my pick for greatest superhero cartoon ever — and "Ben 10: Alien Force."

David F. Friedman died on Valentine's Day at age 87. A native of Birmingham who had retired to Anniston, Friedman was a groundbreaking low-budget movie producer. He is often credited with producing the first "gore" film, 1963's "Blood Feast," which earned $4 million on a budget of about $25,000.

He produced nearly 50 films, from "Two Thousand Maniacs" to "Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS" (under a pseudonym) to, finally, 2010's "2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams."

Finally, British actor Nicholas Courtney died Tuesday at 81.

In a career that included playing many authority figures, none was more authoritative than Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, commanding officer of UNIT during the original 1963-1989 run of "Doctor Who."

Although he didn't travel with The Doctor through space and time, he spent more time with The Doctor than any other of the Time Lord's many companions. Through most of the 1970s, he was as much a part of the show as The Doctor himself, and he returned to the role of the Brigadier one last time in 2008, on an episode of the "Doctor Who" spin-off "The Sarah Jane Adventures."

All three will be missed.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Culture Shock 02.17.11: Angry Bieber fans strike back after Grammys

The Internet contracted an acute case of Tourette syndrome Sunday night as fans of Justin Bieber — more than 7 million of them, based on his number of Twitter followers, and mostly 12-year-olds, judging by their spelling and grammar — tweeted their outrage after their Canadian idol lost the best new artist Grammy award.

Not only did the world's most annoying pop star go home empty-handed, but his even-more-annoying fans — called, more annoying still, "Beliebers" — took it really, really hard. Best of all, Bieber lost to a relatively unknown jazz performer, Esperanza Spalding, whose self-titled CD was on my iPod long before the true Beliebers were shouting, "Who is Esperanza Spalding?"

Who is Esperanza Spalding? She's the woman who stopped the motor of Bieber's world. A talented vocalist, bassist and composer, she's the first jazz artist ever to win the best new artist Grammy.

So, an artist I like, who performs my favorite style of music, emerged to beat Bieber and become the walking nightmare for daydream Beliebers everywhere.

That's what I call schadenfreude.

Your word of the day: Schadenfreude, noun: from the German, meaning enjoyment obtained from the misfortunes of others.

And, man, the Bieber fans were troubled. Their rage-filled, all-caps tweets made news nationwide.

They tried to deface Spalding's Wikipedia page. And 24 hours after the Grammys ended, "Esperanza Spalding" was still a trending topic on Twitter as Bieber fans still pretended not to know who she was.

Grammy voters are often quick to snub a popular but overrated artist in favor of rewarding a performer with real talent. This year, bless their hearts, they did it twice.

For the third time, Eminem was up for album of the year. And for the third time, someone totally unexpected snatched it away from him. In 2001, it was old-timers Steely Dan. In 2003, it was newcomer Norah Jones. And this year it was the Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire.

Although lacking the passion of the Bieber brigades, the Twitter hacks were back at it, this time tweeting, "Arcade who???"

I realize musical audiences are more fragmented than ever. I'd never heard of Lady Antebellum until Sunday. But Arcade Fire isn't that obscure.

Yet even Twitter's semi-famous were perplexed.

"OK, Im not THAT old but whos Arcade Fire?" tweeted Tawny Kitaen, best known for appearing in music videos for the band Whitesnake in the 1980s and appearing on "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew" a few years ago.

Tweeted Rosie O'Donnell: "album of the year? never heard of them ever."

Oh, if only I could say the same of you, Rosie.

Even A&E "reality" star Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman — apparently a closet Belieber, too — weighed in with his ignorance, which I imagine happens a lot.

This makes three times the Grammys have rewarded performers I love — especially Steely Dan — while denying Eminem. Each time, the rest of the world has run around screaming "Eminem was robbed!" This time, it was instantly, and ungrammatically, on Twitter.

Meanwhile, I just sit back and listen to the new Esperanza Spalding CD, "Chamber Music Society."

Now that's worth writing about.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Culture Shock 02.10.11: Reading is about to change forever

A few years ago, I spent most every weekend rummaging through the upstairs stacks at this used bookshop in downtown Athens, across the street from the Limestone County Courthouse.

After a few months, I'd assembled a complete set of old "Conan: The Barbarian" paperbacks containing the original stories by Robert E. Howard. I also found most, but not all, of the then out-of-print "John Carter: Warlord of Mars" novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The hunt was almost as important as the prize, as I imagine collectors who thumb through boxes at flea markets and yard sales for rare LPs and overlooked baseball cards would agree. But that bookshop is now gone, and the experience of hunting for used books may not be far behind.

Now I can find all of those John Carter stories for my Kindle, and they cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to free. Click, and it's done. It's convenient, but it lacks the romance of upsetting your allergies as you blow dust off a brittle, yellowed paperback someone else bought for 75 cents in 1972. announced last month that it sold more Kindle books than either paperbacks or hardcover books in the fourth quarter of 2010.

That's not counting the public-domain e-books Amazon offers free of charge.

Brick-and-mortar bookseller Barnes & Noble's quick adoption of its own e-book reader, the Nook, has helped it avoid the fate of longtime rival, Borders. (Birmingham-based Books-A-Million has thrown in with B&N and now offers the Nook.)

Borders, meanwhile, is likely bound for bankruptcy. While Amazon raked in $200 million more in 2010 than it did in 2009 — no recession here — Borders was hard at work losing $74.4 million in just the fourth quarter.

It's easy to get nostalgic about books. I get nostalgic about lots of things, like the orange-and-brown earth tones of 1970s kitchen appliances. But like it or not, the electronic book is making dog-eared pages and creased spines obsolete. And I can think of some reasons why that's for the better., a blog that follows Kindle news, directed me to a Tampa Tribune story about a Florida school district that spent $400,000 to buy Kindles for its students. The district will get some of that back in savings; electronic textbooks run $15 less than traditional ones. Plus, there's the bonus of Clearwater High's students getting to carry slim, lightweight electronic readers instead of lugging around heavy backpacks.

But probably the greatest long-term advantage is an e-book gives students instant — and often free — access to thousands of works that are in the public domain. That includes most of what students read in their high-school literature classes, from Shakespeare to "Moby Dick."

It's a lot of free material that can replace students buying books with their own money, which is what I did when I was in high school. (I certainly wouldn't pay for "Moby Dick" if I didn't have to.)

E-books will also radically change libraries. The New York Public Library's website features e-books for iPads, PCs, Sony Readers and Android-powered devices. Companies like Cleveland-based OverDrive offer software allowing library patrons to check out e-books for a limited time. The Jefferson County Library Cooperative uses OverDrive's system.

The world is full of free and inexpensive e-books. And devices like the Nook and Kindle are about to put them into more hands than ever.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Culture Shock 02.03.11: Poe's life is even stranger as fiction

More than 200 years after his birth, and more than 160 years after his still-mysterious death, Edgar Allan Poe is alive and well — as a fictional character.

A movie starring America’s most iconic literary figure is now in post-production. Meanwhile, ABC has ordered a pilot episode for what could become a prime-time series with Poe as the main character.

Poe’s life certainly has all the elements of a good story: The troubled relationship with his family, especially his foster father; The tortured poet who struggled with alcoholism and despair following the premature death of his young wife (who was also his first cousin); The artist who was better known and more widely respected during his lifetime for his criticism than his verse; The death at age 40, often attributed to alcoholism, after Poe was discovered disheveled and incoherent on the streets of Baltimore.

But it seems even that tale is not fantastical enough — not for Poe, the man whose own fantastical tales are among the most popular and influential in American letters.

The movie, titled "The Raven" after Poe’s most famous poem, is directed by James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") and stars John Cusack ("High Fidelity") as our good author, who must track down a serial killer inspired by his works.

The TV pilot, "Poe," follows a similar formula, envisioning Poe as a detective. ABC describes the show as a "crime procedural following Edgar Allan Poe as the world’s very first detective, using unconventional methods to investigate dark mysteries in 1840s Boston."

An unconventional detective? Now there’s a novel idea.

The Boston locale has some in Poe’s final resting place of Baltimore feeling slighted. One, The Baltimore Sun’s Michael Sragow, retaliated by citing the historically frosty relationship between Poe and his birthplace: "Poe had such a contentious relationship with the scribes of his native city that it took until 2009 for Boston to designate ‘Poe Square’ near the writer’s birthplace."

To complicate matters, Poe was raised in Virginia and "sometimes posed as the Southern gentleman," writes J. Lasley Dameron in "The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture."

Perhaps someday there will be a "Young Edgar Allan Poe Adventures" set in Richmond.

But whether or not Boston is the appropriate setting, Poe as a detective isn’t a new idea — it’s been around since at least the 1940s — and it’s not totally off the mark. Poe may not have been the world’s first detective, but he did invent him: C. Auguste Dupin, who appeared in three of Poe’s stories, including the classic "Murders in the Rue Morgue," credited as the first detective story and published more than four decades before Sherlock Holmes’ debut.

The fictional Poe has had a career almost as noteworthy as his real-life inspiration’s. Apart from being a detective, he’s been a Confederate general in a story by Walter Jon Williams ("No Spot of Ground") and a vampire with a chronic case of writer’s block.

In Kim Newman’s "Anno Dracula" novels, Poe survives into the 20th century after becoming a vampire in the 1840s. He first appears in the second book "The Bloody Red Baron," a retelling of World War I with Germany led by Dracula and a cast of both historical figures and fictional characters from works of the period. It’s like "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," only no one has made a terrible movie based on it yet.

By the third novel, "Dracula Cha Cha Cha" (aka "Judgment of Tears"), set in 1959, Poe is calling himself Eddie Poe and is in Italy working as a screenwriter.

Here’s an idea: Edgar Allan Poe as a Hollywood screenwriter writing TV shows about himself as a vampire detective. I’d watch that.