Thursday, March 31, 2011

Culture Shock 03.31.11: Technology dominance is fleeting

In the past week, has quietly released two new products that are likely to significantly escalate the ongoing cold war between the technology world's three major superpowers.

Last week, Amazon opened an app store, offering free and paid applications for devices that run on Google's Android operating system and becoming the first direct challenger to Google's own Android Market.

That also fed rumors that Amazon is working on its own Android version of its already popular Kindle e-reader, which might just finally be the device that mounts a serious challenge to Apple's iPad.

Then, Monday night, Amazon rolled out its Amazon Cloud Player, which allows users to upload music and videos, which they can then play from any desktop or notebook computer's Web browser or, using Amazon's Cloud Player app, from any Android-powered smartphone or tablet device. Imagine accessing your entire MP3 collection from your work computer or your phone. You'll probably have to buy extra storage space to do it, even though Amazon offers 5 gigs free and another 20 GB with the purchase of any CD download. But now you can do just that.

And as the sun rose Tuesday morning, some tech pundits were wondering if Amazon's Cloud was about to rain all over Apple's iTunes.

Both Apple and Google are reportedly working on systems similar to the Amazon Cloud, but now they're playing catch-up. And Apple in particular isn't used to playing from behind.

Notice something interesting yet?

We're talking about the major players in consumer technology in 2011: a book retailer that branched out into digital media, a computer manufacturer that revived its fortunes by selling music and a company that started out with just a website that helped you find other websites. But who's missing from this list?


Yes, Microsoft — the software giant that dominated personal computing for most of the past 20 years. The company that became so large and so powerful that its competitors accused it of being a monopoly. (How can you be a monopoly if you have competitors?) The Evil Empire targeted by lawsuits and justice departments in both the U.S. and Europe.

That Microsoft. You know, the one that barely seems relevant anymore.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced it had discontinued its Zune music player. Launched in 2006, Zune was Microsoft's attempt to challenge Apple's iPod, but it came along far too late to make a dent in the market.

Microsoft just recently launched its own Windows 7 smartphone system, and from what I've seen it's not bad. But, once again, it's a bit late to Apple and Google's party.

Even if Microsoft still controls the lion's share of desktop operating systems, that's not a safe place to be when the future of computing looks a lot more like something you carry around in a backpack or purse.

In the end, the lawsuits and antitrust cases didn't really hurt Microsoft, but an inability to adapt did, which makes all that hand wringing about Microsoft's dominance back in the 1990s seem more than a little silly now. Dominance is fleeting.

Just ask Rupert Murdoch, who bought MySpace for $580 million in 2005 and then proceeded to mismanage the website into oblivion, allowing Facebook, which is not without its own annoyances, to become the social networking site of record. Now Murdoch's Newscorp is in talks with the music-video site Vevo for some kind of deal that might salvage something from Murdoch's investment.

MySpace and Microsoft became complacent, which is why they're no longer of any real consequence.

Meanwhile, Amazon, Google and Apple should consider themselves lucky they have each other to keep them all thinking about the future.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Culture Shock 03.17.11: Some jokes just aren't funny

There is a saying in showbiz: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." But when people really are dying and suffering, comedy is even harder.

Stand-up comedian Gilbert Gottfried learned that this week after he tweeted several jokes about Japan's disastrous 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which killed thousands of people, with thousands more still missing and nearly half a million homeless.

Gottfried had been the voice of the Aflac duck. That ended Monday, when the insurance company fired him because of his weekend remarks on Twitter. Aflac does 75 percent of its business in Japan, but I suspect the company would have fired him regardless. He not only crossed the line of good taste, he left it receding in his rear-view mirror.

One of Gottfried's least offensive tweets was, "Japan is really advanced. They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them," so you can imagine how bad the rest were.

Gottfried has since apologized and removed the offending "jokes" from his Twitter feed.

"I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my attempt at humor regarding the tragedy in Japan," he tweeted Tuesday. "I meant no disrespect, and my thoughts are with the victims and their families."

A few hours later, Gottfried was back in form, tweeting from the Friars Club roast of Donald Trump.

"Thank God Marlee Matlin can't hear any of this," he tweeted.

Now that's funny. The joke depends on Matlin's being deaf, which isn't funny, but the joke's target isn't her, rather it's the comedians at the roast. That makes all the difference between an "offensive" joke that's still funny and an offensive joke — without the scare quotes — that isn't.

Audiences expect comedians to walk that fine line. We expect them to say what some of us only think. And what we think sometimes isn't pretty.

Gottfried is one of stand-up comedy's brightest stars, and I've been a fan since he hosted "USA Up All Night" from 1986 to 1998, where, during commercial breaks, he got laughs at the expense of movies like "Hell Comes to Frogtown" and "Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama." Also, for what it's worth, he ranks 59th on Comedy Central's list of the 100 greatest stand-ups, placing him one spot ahead of Jeff Foxworthy.

Most people, however, probably know him as the voice of Iago in Disney's "Aladdin."

But his stage act almost always flirts with bad taste. His latest comedy CD and DVD, "Dirty Jokes," delivers exactly what the title promises.

And last weekend's incident isn't the first time Gottfried has gone too far.

Just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Gottfried opened his routine at the Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner with a 9/11 joke. That was too much even for jaded roast attendees, eliciting boos and a shout of "too soon."

Gottfried recalled that incident last month in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun: "When I figured I had completely lost them, there was nowhere to go but further down, I started telling ‘The Aristocrats,' and that just exploded. The whole place was cheering."

The Aristocrats is the filthiest joke in the world. It doesn't really have a punchline. It's all set-up — an escalating orgy of disgusting bodily functions and descriptions of sexual acts that would get you arrested in every state of the Union. The joke has a long history among stand-ups, and it seems like just about every comic has his own version. Bob Saget — yes, the dad from "Full House" — tells one of the more infamous ones. It is, as far as I know, the only joke to inspire a documentary film.

Gottfried's "Dirty Jokes" includes his 10-minute rendition of The Aristocrats.

The Aristocrats is obscene, but it doesn't really hurt anyone.

Gottfried's Japan jokes did.

If I were in charge at Aflac, I'd probably have fired Gottfried, too.

Yet this is, generally speaking, what we ask of comedians. We demand that they play with fire. And, usually, we're better off when they can say what no one else can — until they say what no one should.

Then we punish them for going too, too far.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Culture Shock 03.10.11: 'Mockbuster' movies aren't what you think they are

This has probably happened to you. You go to the video store — back when there were video stores — and search the shelves for something worth renting, plus pay the late fee for when you forget to return it on time.

Something catches your eye. A glossy DVD cover staring back at you, emblazoned with a familiar name. Is it "Transformers," directed by the auteur of the explosion Michael Bay? No, that's still in theaters.

Instead, it's a low-budget knock-off titled "Transmorphers." Probably you chuckle, shake your head and move on. You're sure "Weekend at Bernie's 2" is around here somewhere.

But sometimes you pick the doppelganger DVD up, read the back cover and say to yourself, "Maybe this will be fun." And the next thing you know, you're home with a pizza, a six-pack of beer and the latest movie from Hollywood's most infamous studio, The Asylum.

Other movie studios make blockbusters. The Asylum makes what the entertainment press has dubbed "mockbusters" — thinly veiled knock-offs of major Hollywood movies, usually featuring no-name casts and not-at-all-special effects.

The Asylum's latest mockbuster release is "Almighty Thor," scheduled for DVD release May 10, just four days after Marvel Studios' big-budget "Thor," based on the long-running Marvel Comics superhero, hits theaters.

I tried to find the trailer for "Almighty Thor" online, but all I found was an interview the star, Cody Deal, gave to what looked like a public-access TV show in Kansas. Deal's previous roles include an uncredited Roman soldier at Caesar's Palace in "The Hangover." (Hey, you have to start somewhere, unless you're Charlie Sheen.)

Jack Kirby may have created Marvel's version of Thor, but the character has his roots in Norse mythology, making him up for grabs. Characters that have fallen into the public domain feature in several Asylum films. When Paramount released "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," The Asylum cashed in with "Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls." When Robert Downey Jr. starred in "Sherlock Holmes," The Asylum released its own "Sherlock Holmes." The Asylum didn't have Downey, but it did have CGI dinosaurs rampaging through Victorian London (don't ask).

The Asylum, founded in 1997, has been riding the coattails of blockbuster releases since 2005. That's when the studio's version of "War of the Worlds," released at the same time as Steven Spielberg's version, received an order of 100,000 copies from Blockbuster Video, about eight times the typical order Blockbuster placed for other Asylum releases, according to the New York Times.

That led the company's owners, who until then had focused on horror flicks, to reconsider their business model.

Studio founder David Michael Latt put it this way in his interview with the Times: "I'm not trying to dupe anybody. … Other people do tie-ins all the time; they're just better at being subtle about it."

Sometimes other studios aren't subtle either. Remember when for every Disney cartoon based on some old fairytale character there was a poorly animated, direct-to-video imitator? You couldn't go into a video store in the 1990s without running into them.

The Asylum also runs Faith Films, a label devoted to movies "that honestly portray subjects, themes and people of faith." But even some of the Faith Films releases tread into mockbuster territory, like "Sunday School Musical," which sounds a lot like "High School Musical."

"Almighty Thor" isn't the only mockbuster on The Asylum's schedule this year. The company will release "Battle of Los Angeles" later this month to coincide with the release of "Battle: Los Angeles," which already looks as dumb as the typical Asylum release, only way more expensive.

It's easy to mock Asylum's mockbusters. They lack the charm of past B movies where up-and-coming filmmakers often displayed genuine craftsmanship that propelled them to big-time careers. (Think of some of the people who worked for B-movie king Roger Corman.) But if The Asylum ever pits its Thor against its "Mega Shark" franchise, that'll probably be fun to watch.

And I'd rather watch a bad movie that cost less than $1 million to make than a bad movie Michael Bay spent $200 million making.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Culture Shock 03.03.11: 'Fringe' surviving (for now) the Friday death slot

Fox has a long history of canceling my favorite TV shows, strangling some newborn in the cradle and cutting others short just as they start to reach their prime.

No. I'm still not over the cancellations of "Firefly" and "Arrested Development." Thanks for asking. Although I am amazed "Arrested Development" got a whole 2½ seasons from the notoriously trigger-happy network. And that second season of "Dollhouse" was a pleasant surprise, especially since a lot of series creator Joss Whedon's fans even had trouble warming up to it.

But it may be about to happen again, so I want to be on the record in advance.

If Fox cancels "Fringe," it will be canceling the best show on television and, apart from "House" — now there's one show Fox isn't threatening to ax — my only must-see TV this season.

As a science-fiction series on Fox, "Fringe" has already beaten the odds. It's now in its third season. But in January, Fox moved "Fringe" to Friday nights, otherwise known as the "Friday night death slot," which, according to its Wikipedia entry, has been killing TV shows since the original "Star Trek."

In the 1980s, Friday nights were the domain of ratings juggernauts like "Dallas" and "Miami Vice," which dispatched all would-be competitors the way Crockett and Tubbs dispatched speedboats full of cocaine — explosively and without remorse. Another groundbreaking sci-fi series, "Max Headroom," fell prey to the death slot in 1988, lasting only 14 episodes.

Now, however, Friday night is a virtual death sentence for any show, simply because not enough people are home to watch, and the major broadcast networks still give less weight to viewers who watch later on DVR. (They know we fast-forward through the commercials.)

For now, "Fringe" is holding its own, drawing 4 million viewers and a 1.5 rating among adults age 18 to 49 for its most recent episode.

That's down from the 1.9 rating the series earned during its first two weeks on Friday nights, but up from a couple of weeks ago. So, with any luck, "Fringe" will trend back up as it nears its season finale.

Yet even that may not be enough.

"Fringe" is fighting for dwindling space on Fox's fall lineup. Bill Gorman of has run the numbers, and with all of the pilots it has ordered and plus returning shows, Fox is quickly running out of room on its schedule, leaving "Fringe" competing with freshman cop drama "The Chicago Code" for what could be the last seat in the lifeboat.

Personally, I'd just as soon see "The Chicago Code" sent to the morgue. That's the Chicago way. Besides, who is going to miss yet another cop show?

Science fiction television, meanwhile, is an endangered species. Sure, you can find fantasy and paranormal romance aplenty across the dial, but you have to search to find real, honest SF, even on the cable channel — which shall remain nameless — formerly devoted to it. Hint: The channel's name is still pronounced sci-fi.

Admittedly, "Fringe" demands a lot of its viewers, which is exactly why it's such great television. The show frequently shifts its focus to an alternate Earth, where we're confronted with different versions of familiar characters — versions who are not necessarily nice. That alternate universe also has given us a love triangle involving two versions of the same character. And if two Earths aren't enough, Fringe sometimes shifts in time. Last week's episode was a flashback set in 1985, and the two lead actors didn't even appear.

It's great storytelling, but it's anything but typical, comfortable TV viewing. So, I should probably just be happy "Fringe" has had three good seasons.

But I'd rather know how the story ends.