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P3 Update Magazine Blog

P3 Update Magazine Blog (146)

P3 Production Update Magazine

The Gizmo Guy - There's a New Transmedia Sheriff in Town (maybe)

By Gordon Meyer
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According several wire service reports, Dish Network, the satellite based Pay TV operator that acquired Blockbuster Video a few years ago, has now put in a $25.5 billion bid to purchase controlling interest in Sprint Nexel, the nation’s third largest wireless phone company.  Sprint is in the process of replacing its WiMax-based 4G data network with the more widely supported LTE technology.  At a recent press event, company executives emphasized the importance of the move to 4G LTE because not only does it potentially provide greater upload and download data speed for its subscribers, it also enables the company to make much more efficient use of a broader spectrum of bandwidth. 

Pending final government approval, Sprint is also in the process of completing its acquisition of Clearwire, a company that also provides mobile broadband service not only here in the United States, but also in Belgium and Spain.  Although Sprint is already the majority owner of Clearwire, completing the acquisition will give the telecommunications company to expand its coverage thanks to the latter company’s position as the second largest holder of 2.5 GHz spectrum in the country.

Both Sprint’s pending acquisition of Clearwire and Dish Network’s desire to acquire Sprint is important because the number of consumers who use wireless devices like tablets and smartphones to view media content continues to grow exponentially.  Further, as data speeds continue to increase, the use of wireless devices will become an increasingly important production tool for things like sharing dailies and test footage. 

Just as more and more people are dropping their land lines in favor of cell phones as their main phone connection, so too, with the growth of technologies like 4G LTE, more and more people are replacing their DSL lines with wireless internet.  As an example, several friends of mine live in places using entry level DSL connections that run on average between 2 and 3 Mbit/s.  But my WiMax based 4G phone has an average download speed of between 8 and 10 Mbit/s and I can even use it as a mobile hot spot for an extra $10 a month.   A couple of years ago, when I was testing Sprint’s first generation 4G tablet, I took it with me to Las Vegas and CES.  Not only did I use it quite effectively as a mobile hot spot for my laptop computer in my hotel, I also ended up doing the lion’s share of my email and web browsing with that device because I could pick up Sprint’s 4G signal pretty much wherever I went in Vegas and the tablet was compact enough to slip in my jacket pocket.

Dish, of course, wants to be the preferred conduit for consumers to acquire their entertainment media, whether it’s through their satellite delivery system, via Blockbuster or, assuming their successful in acquiring Sprint, through a high speed wireless network, especially as wireless broadband technology continues to offer increasingly large data pipes to consumers.  And since Dish is also a content distributor through both Blockbuster and its satellite network, I think it’s safe to say that in a post-Sprint acquisition, it’s likely to be just a matter of time before you’ll be able to subscribe to special mobile versions of popular cable networks like HBO and Showtime and quite possibly special mobile-only content channels on your tablet or smartphone as part of a Dish branded subscription model.

For content creators, the advances in wireless broadband and alliances like the proposed Sprint/Dish acquisition mean both new production tools, especially for location shoots, and new distribution options for content, especially if that content has been specifically produced for optimal viewing on smaller screens.  In many ways it’s a similar learning curve to visual storytellers accustomed to 40 foot wide screens adapting to the realities of 20” black and white screens in the first couple of decades of television and creating a TV-friendly visual language.  There are definitely opportunities for those with the vision and foresight to see the possibilities.

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The Gizmo Guy Salutes "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" on its 25th Anniversary

By Gordon Meyer
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Last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted a special 25th Anniversary celebration of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” featuring Disney’s newly minted digital restoration and a followed by panel that included director Robert Zemeckis, associate producers Don Hahn and Steve Starkey (now Zemeckis’ producing partner), writers Peter S. Seaman and Jeffrey Price, cast members Joanna Cassidy and Charlie Fleischer and animator Andreas Deja.  The post-screening panel was moderated by Rich Moore, director of last fall’s “Wreck-It Ralph.”

It must have been at least 10 years since I last saw “Roger Rabbit” and I have to say the movie holds up very well.  For those who have never seen it, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is set in a Hollywood in 1947 where cartoon characters (aka “toons”) live, work and interact with live people.  Roger is a contract star for Maroon Cartoons who’s been framed for the murder of his boss, R.K. Maroon.  The plot has all sorts of fun twists and turns and a wonderful gallery of both live and animated characters, including not only Disney stars like Dumbo, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, but also animated stars from other studios, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam and Betty Boop.

There’s no question that “Roger Rabbit” is a loving tribute to the classic style and pacing of the 1940s vintage Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons, especially cartoons directed by Tex Avery, who had a unique, over the top, outrageous style of cartoon comedy that included lightning fast pacing, exaggerated takes and building one gag on another. Plus, if any single person could be credited with creating Bugs Bunny, it would be Avery.

 The movie was a relatively early post-“Star Wars” project for visual effects house Industrial Light and Magic and they truly made magic happen.  This was hardly the first film which combined live action and animation.  Years before the introduction of Mickey Mouse, when Walt Disney was still based in Kansas City, he produced a series of silent shorts called “Alice in Cartoonland” which featured a live action little girl in an animated world.  Some 20 years later, Disney’s “Song of the South” featured segments which combined live action and animation, as did the 1945 Gene Kelly musical “Anchors Away” which paired Kelly with Jerry the Mouse from the MGM “Tom & Jerry” cartoon franchise.  20 years prior to “Roger Rabbit,” Walt did it again with “Mary Poppins.”  But “Roger Rabbit” took the concept of combining live action with animation to a whole new level and at a time when computer generated visual effects weren’t even a blip on anyone’s radar.

This was Zemeckis’ first foray into the animated medium and he decided to treat it exactly as he would a live action film, right down to directing the animators as if they were actors and creating the same kind of dynamic camera moves for the live action/animation sequences that he would have used for movies like “Back to the Future” and “Romancing the Stone.” Of course all the so-called “experts” told him that he needed to lock down his camera for these shots, as director Robert Stevenson had during “Mary Poppins.”  But animation director Richard Williams assured Zemeckis that the animated camera moves could absolutely be done.  They’d just require more work.

In the world of Roger Rabbit, animated characters not only interact with live actors, they often physically do so.  For example Roger’s wife is a human looking toon named Jessica Rabbit. Jessica is an incredibly hot redhead clearly inspired by the nameless woman masterfully animated by Preston Blair in Tex Avery’s classic short “Red Hot Riding Hood.”  When we first meet her performing at the Ink and Paint Club, a humans-only nightclub with toon waiters and performers, Jessica pinches actor Stubby Kaye’s cheeks, removes his handkerchief from his coat pocket and rubs it across Kaye’s bald head. How the hell did they do that?

It turns out that much of that interaction was accomplished using a combination of puppetry and robotics.  Much of this was illustrated in the bonus section of the recently released 25th Anniversary Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of “Roger Rabbit.”  The bonus features, all taken from the original 2002 DVD release, shows robotic arms, vintage pistols moved around on fishing lines and the actors rehearsing with life sized rubber mockups of their animated co-stars so that not only would the animators have useful guides for character sizing, lighting and perspective; of equal importance, the actors would have a kinesthetic feel for where to focus their eyes and how to believably pantomime their interactions.  Seeing this behind the scenes footage gave me a much greater appreciation for the huge challenges human star Bob Hoskins had in order to make his interactions with Roger and the other toon characters believable.

At the Academy, the panelists all told great stories about working on “Roger Rabbit,” including the sight of actor Charlie Fleischer on the set dressed in a giant rabbit costume to help him get more into the role. In addition, there were over 70 members of the cast and crew in the audience, including legendary voice actor June Foray, who, at the age of 95 is still working and very much in demand.

             If “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” were made today, it would be filled to the brim with digitally generated effects.  But I don’t know that it would have made the movie any better.  Using nothing but a combination of analog effects including hand drawn animation, robotics, puppetry and pantomime, last week’s event at the Academy and Disney’s recent Blu-ray release are a reminder of just how magic a dedicated group of artists can create when they put their minds and talents to it. As Zemeckis commented at the Academy event, “No sane person would do this.  It was really a labor of love.” 

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The Gizmo Guy - Technology Upgrade Time – Part 2

By Gordon Meyer
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Now that I’ve decided on what CPU to use for my upgrade, the next thing to decide on was the motherboard.  Here, like just about everything else in this system, it’s about balancing price and performance.  Performance also includes durability and reliability.  A few months ago, I had a horrible customer service experience with MSI, the company who made my original motherboard, which fried out without warning.  Between the hoops I had to jump through in order to get them to do the right thing and replace the motherboard under warranty and how many weeks it took to get matters resolved, I decided to look for a different manufacturer. 

Companies like MSI tend to focus on the consumer market.  Under the circumstances, I felt it would be best to turn to a company that specializes in the corporate IT market because in that world, an IT manager can’t afford to be down at all.  Supermicro has been active in that world for 20 years.  I used to write about their products on a regular basis when I was at PC World writing capsule reviews of desktop computers, adding my subjective observations to the high end performance evaluations conducted by the magazine’s test lab and remember those performance scores as being consistently high.

I wanted a motherboard that would be reliable, handle as much RAM as possible since I was about to switch over from 16GB of RAM to 32GB, and of course it would have to fully support the Intel i7 3770K CPU.  This led me to Supermicro’s X9SAE motherboard.   Although I wouldn’t need it initially, the X9SAE supports a variety of Intel CPUs, including not only the i7, but also several higher end CPUs from their Xeon line.  It also has 4 SATA2 connectors running at 3Gbps and 2 SATA3 connectors running at double that speed.  The SATA connector is the current standard to connect hard drives, optical drives and other memory devices.  Having 2 SATA3 connectors is important because when it comes to sending high bandwidth video data back and forth between the computer and hard drive, the faster the transfer rate the better, especially when working with HD and UltraHD footage.

Likewise, I like the fact that the X9SAE supports 4 USB 3.0 ports on top of the 8 USB 2.0 ports that I’d want to use to connect most USB devices.  Like SATA3, USB 3.0 offers a much faster data transfer rate than the previous iteration and in fact is required for devices like certain models of high capacity external backup drives.

Since I was moving my NVIDIA GeForce 480 graphics board over to the new system, I really didn’t need either the dual HDMI ports or the VGA connector which would have allowed me to use an older monitor.  But it was nice to know I had them just in case.  This represents the one minor compromise I accepted in choosing this particular motherboard.  It only has a single full sized PCI-E expansion slot. 

A few years ago, this would have been a major problem because you needed separate expansion slots for graphics, sound and Ethernet connectivity.  But since these capabilities are already built into the motherboard, the need for PCI-E slots is greatly reduced.  The only thing I need it for is my GeForce graphics board, which already can power two monitors side by side.  So unless I want to have three or more monitors running off my computer, I’m fine.  If and when I have the need for that many screens running at the same time, I’ll probably be upgrading to a much more powerful system anyway.

Getting back to the built-in graphics capabilities, the HDMI ports double as USB 2.0 connectors, so that space is being put to good use.  Speaking of multimedia, the X9SAE also supports 7.1 audio processing and, like more and more motherboards, sports an optical SPDIF connector to use with an external surround sound system which pumps out both DTS Master Audio and Dolby Digital audio streams. 

While I was initially planning to simply swap out motherboards and use the X9SAE in my Antec case, Supermicro offers a bare bones system, the SuperWorkstation 5037A-IL, which bundles the X9SAE with their CSE-732D4-500B mid-size chassis and has the motherboard pre-installed. Although this case uses a smaller power supply than I had in my Antec case (500 watts vs. 850 watts), even 500 watts is more than enough power to handle my computing needs.  Aside from the fact that using a pre-assembled bare bones system saves me a tremendous amount of time and hassle over swapping out motherboards in the same case, the 500B has some features in it that I really like, beginning with 4 USB connectors on the front of the case, 2 of which are the faster USB 3.0 flavor. 

cpu1

The other thing that sold me was the way the 500B was designed to make it easy to install drives of all kinds. The dual 5.25” external drive bays for my DVD and BD drives are easy to access.  Installing both optical drives took maybe 10 minutes combined.  As you can see from the picture above, both the standard 3.5” drive cage and optional 2.5” drive cage have easy to slide out trays to mount both regular sized hard drives and physically smaller drives like the Kingston 125 GB SSD drive that I use for short term storage.  There are no screws needed to mount drives in the trays.  A hard drive snaps into the tray in about a second and the tray itself quickly and easily slides into place in the cage.

As an example of how useful this feature is, when editing a project that’s as brief as an hour, I sometimes want to dedicate either a regular 3.5” hard drive or a superfast SSD drive to store both my raw footage and the edited result.  Between this very user friendly cage design and the fact that all I need to do is remove two screws to get at the guts of the case, I can easily install or swap out data drives in a matter of minutes.  


cpu2

Now, I’m putting this new system through its paces.  When using Adobe Premiere from the Creative Suite 5, I’m already subjectively noticing some pretty good performance boosts over my AMD system.  Actually, one of the ways I’ve confirmed the faster performance is by how quickly my cursor moves back and forth when I hold down the arrow key on my keyboard.  While cursor speed was never a problem for me, it’s now noticeably faster, which serves as a simple way to confirm performance boost.

As I continue to live with this technology upgrade, I’ll be sharing more details on the performance boosts I’m getting.  Meanwhile, I’ve got some HD footage that needs to be cut together so it’s back to Edit Mode.

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Blu-ray review: Lincoln

By Gordon Meyer
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In a different year, there’s no doubt that LINCOLN would have cleaned up at the Oscars.  For whatever reason, even though historically, Academy members have tended to flock towards the kind of magnificently realized historical dramas that LINCOLN represents, for whatever reason, this year once the momentum went to ARGO, it was largely a done deal.  That’s a pity because LINCOLN truly is a magnificent achievement and one that I liked more and more with each subsequent viewing.

The film focuses on a period towards the end of Lincoln’s life as the end of the Civil War was in sight.  Although Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in this country, as a lawyer, Lincoln knew that, once the war ended, it was quite possible the courts would declare that proclamation unconstitutional and an overreach of Presidential powers, which is probably true.  Part of the problem Lincoln faced, is that from his perspective, this was not a war between two nations, but rather an internal rebellion.  The United States government did not officially recognize the sovereignty of the Confederate States of America, which meant that the confiscation of property in the form of freeing the slaves would prove to be a big legal no-no because it was based on Presidential war powers.  The Proclamation neither freed slaves in border states, nor did it actually outlaw slavery.  For that, Lincoln and his fellow Republicans (then a relatively new political party devoted in large part to the abolition of slavery) needed a constitutional amendment. This is an aspect of Civil War history that I was never taught in school.

For Lincoln the lawyer, the only way to make sure the slaves remained free once the war ended was to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery.  It is the often passionate politics of that quest that the film focuses on as Lincoln and his supporters do everything they can to get the 13th Amendment passed by a reluctant House of Representatives before the war ends.  The amendment had already passed in the Senate in April of the previous year.

The screenplay by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, uses Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” as its primary source.   While Kearns’ book covers not only the entire history of Lincoln’s presidency and the years leading up to it, Kushner and Spielberg made the decision partway through the development process to focus solely on these final critical months in Lincoln’s presidency and life. 

There’s no question in my mind that Daniel Day-Lewis completely became Abraham Lincoln.  His Oscar is well deserved.  In fact, everyone in the cast did remarkable jobs, especially Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader in a small, but juicy role as William Bilbo, an operative discreetly hired by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to trade patronage jobs for votes from lame duck Congressmen in order to secure the margin needed to pass the amendment.   All three roles were bigger than life characters in their own ways.  Jones and Field both received well-earned Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Actress.

Since the movie has been out for some time, let’s focus now on the Blu-ray itself.  First, the transfer is gorgeous; showcasing both the Oscar nominated cinematography by longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski and the Oscar winning production design by Rick Carter and Jim Erickson.  As is fairly standard for Disney combo-pack releases, there are four discs – the feature itself on Blu-ray, a BD that is all bonus content, a DVD and a digital version.  The feature disc contains bonus material as well.

The bonus content has some fascinating inside looks into how LINCOLN was made.  One of my favorite features depicts the surprising detail that Carter and Erickson went to in order to accurately recreate life in 1865, right down to studying antique photos so they could reproduce some of the wallpaper patterns used in the White House at the time.  Props included meticulously reproduced letters to and from Congressmen that were seen on desks.  While the audience rarely if ever was able to observe anything about these pieces of paper other than there was writing on them, because they were reproductions of actual letters, that devotion to detail helped the actors more deeply get into the time period and their characters.

I always like it when writers are in the spotlight since, without them, there would be no movie to begin with, so it was a pleasure to see writer Tony Kushner prominently featured in one of the bonus features dedicated to the development of the script and how it evolved from a faithful adaptation of Kearns’ entire book to the decision to focus in on a relatively brief period of time.  LINCOLN marks a stylistic departure for Spielberg in that this movie is much more dependent on literate (and as much as possible, historically accurate) dialog than it is on action.  As someone who sees himself as primarily a visual filmmaker, this led to creative challenges for Spielberg, also documented in the bonus section.

With LINCOLN, Steven Spielberg and his collaborators created a cinematic time machine, taking us back to a critical moment in American history and showing us real, three dimensional people, struggling with the political realities of the day and the history many of them knew they were making.  It is a fitting testament to them all.

LINCOLN is available now on DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo packs.

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The Gizmo Guy - Technology Upgrade Time - Part 1

By Gordon Meyer
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               The time has finally come.  Three years ago, I decided to custom build a personal computer optimized for video editing and DVD/BD authoring.  It’s worked well for the most part.  But one of the glories of technology is that there are always advances in speed and performance.   I used to sell computers in the early MS-DOS days.  Even then, I used to tell clients that if they got 3-5 years of good productive use out of their computers before deciding to upgrade them, then they got more than their money’s worth.   These days, the window is shorter.  Because of the geometric advances in raw processing technology, for many people, it may well be time to consider an upgrade much sooner.  For me, it was just under three years.

               There are many who will claim that a computer is obsolete as soon as it’s sold because there’s always something newer, faster, and more powerful just around the corner.  In their mind, if something is no longer state of the art, it’s obsolete.  To me, that’s nonsense.  A computer system is only obsolete if it no longer does the job you want it to do the way you want it to perform.   For example, a few years ago, I inherited a nearly ten year old MacBook Pro.  In some ways, it really is an obsolete computer because it uses the long discontinued PowerPC CPU.  Ever since Apple switched over to Intel CPUs, there are a growing number of programs out there that simply aren’t compatible with the PowerPC and won’t run on my MacBook.  But I can still use it to go online, either via its built in WiFi antenna or a hardwired connection to a router.  I can watch DVDs on it.  And I can use word processors like Microsoft Office, or the no-cost alternative, Open Office.  Is this decade old laptop obsolete?  Depends on what I want to use it for.

               For things like web browsing , word processing, basic spreadsheet use and even the occasional Power Point presentation, truth be told, my old AMD Phenom II based computer was fine.  But HD video editing and rendering requires a tremendous amount of horsepower, especially for rendering.  Otherwise, you may end up spending an inordinate amount of time twiddling your thumbs while your computer renders your cyber work prints into digital release prints.  As for any kind of even remotely sophisticated graphics, you could easily work your way through half of “War and Peace” while waiting for everything to render.  OK, I exaggerate.  But even with AMD’s quad core Phenom II X4 CPU, which is a pretty good CPU, there were times when doing basic editing and authoring did take quite a while.

               Before going further, let me also give a brief explanation of what having multiple “cores” in a CPU means.  For a quad core processor like the Phenom II X4, It basically means that AMD has squeezed four different processors into a single chip in order to let each core share the burden of heavy duty processing.  These days, there are CPUs with as many as eight cores.  But that only translates into better performance if your software is designed to take advantage of multi-core processors. 

               With that in mind, I began my search.  Since I’ve had good experiences with AMD, I considered using one of their newest generation of CPUS, coincidentally an eight core processor.  Then I did some homework.    There are people out there who have the equipment and software to do some pretty in-depth performance tests when it comes to CPUs, including CPUBoss.com.   I wanted to see how AMD stacked up against Intel.  Even though I’ve been using AMD processors for probably over 15 years and gotten good service from them, there’s no question that Intel largely sets the standard.   The Intel chip I was especially interested in was their i7 3770 CPU.  While the upfront cost is at least 3X what my Phenom II CPU sells for, the real question for me was one of long term performance.  I figure, the more horsepower I can get up front, the longer it will take before I feel the need to upgrade again.  So investing a few hundred dollars more now would ultimately save me money long term due to both the increased productivity and the fact that I can productively use my system longer before upgrading.

               I checked several sites in addition to CPUBoss.com.  The consensus was clear.  Although on the surface the specs for the Intel and AMD chips were similar in terms of clock speed and the number of cores they had, the i7 ran rings around the Phenom, both in terms of overall performance where all four cores were engaged and in single core performance.   Based on the research I had done, I anticipated that not only would an Intel i7 based PC give me the performance boost I wanted, odds are pretty good that it would give me the performance level I wanted for several years to come.

               Now that I decided on the CPU, the next step was to decide on what motherboard I’d use to support the i7 and how many of my existing components I would move over to the new system.

               Stay tuned….

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Live Theatre Review: "End of the Rainbow"

 

 

By Gordon Meyer
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“End of the Rainbow,” the latest production in the Ahmanson Theatre’s 2012/13 season, is the often searing and tragic story of an iconic and legendary superstar destroyed by drugs and alcohol.  That performer is Judy Garland, whose life long addiction to drugs and alcohol ultimately led to her death by barbiturate overdose at the age of 47. 

Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland has a doubly tough role, both because of the emotional intensity of the play and the fact that she’s playing such a well known icon whose decades of on screen performances can be so easily seen (and compared).  The play takes place in London, about a year before Garland’s death during what prove to be her final come back engagement, a five week stint at a swank nightclub called The Talk of The Town housed in London’s historic Hippodrome.  Garland, now in her mid-40s, suffers from a long-standing reputation for being temperamental and unreliable due to her lifelong addiction to alcohol and various drugs.  She’s nearly broke and desperately needs this engagement to be successful so she can tour again.  She’s accompanied by her fiancé, Mickey Deans, a New York based club manager who vows to keep her clean and sober for this engagement.  It’s an uphill and ultimately futile battle.   

Although the play originally premiered in 2005 at the Sydney Opera House, the current production is based on the 2011 London version and its subsequent transfer to the famed Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and subsequent Broadway run. Bennett starred in all three productions earning a well deserved Tony nomination for her searing performance as did Michael Cumpsty who, like Bennett, recreates his Tony nominated performance as Garland’s close friend and pianist, Anthony. In addition to Bennett and Cumpsty, the cast features only two other performers, Eric Heger as Deans and Miles Anderson in a trio of supporting roles.  There’s also a hot live jazz band for the scenes taking place at the Talk of the Town.

The tragedy of Garland’s life makes compelling, though difficult to watch drama.  Here was one of the most talented and beloved performers of the mid-20th Century, and yet an incredibly self-destructive person lost in her own drug-clouded world.  I found it painful to watch, yet had a hard time keeping my eyes away.

As stated earlier, Bennett has the near impossible job of bringing this iconic performer back to life, showing us the vulnerable and screwed up persona that was generally hidden from the public.  When she sang, she knocked it out of the park. Bennett performs many of Garland’s signature songs, either as snippets or more or less intact and she is spot on with those singing renditions. When she spoke, although for the most part, her performance was mesmerizing, there were times when I felt I was watching a broad caricature of Garland rather than a three dimensional woman. But the way the story was crafted by playwright Peter Quilter and director Terry Johnson, even at its weakest moments, the story of this sad woman and her struggles was riveting.

I really liked Cumpsty’s performance as Anthony, an out of the closet gay man in an era (the late 1960s) where that kind of openness about sexual orientation was still generally hidden.  Anthony is candid about both his homosexuality and the gay community’s long standing admiration and support for Garland – something Garland herself acknowledges.  As talented a musician Anthony is, he’s portrayed here as a deeply devoted friend who thinks Deans is pushing Garland too far and has his own agenda.  He serves as a great foil for Bennett.

Heger has a different challenge.  While the role of Anthony is very sympathetically written and portrayed throughout the entire play, Deans is a tougher nut.  In the beginning, he comes off as very loving, dedicated and supportive.  But as Garland’s shenanigans continue to create problems for the couple, his patience wears thin and we, like Anthony, begin to question his real motivations.  Heger does a good job in a role that’s inherently difficult to play in terms of generating any kind of audience empathy.  It’s not that Deans is any kind of villain. But he’s also often not very compassionate. 

Most of the time, the play takes place in the living room of the Hotel Ritz suite occupied by Garland and Deans.  It’s a sumptuous set designed by William Dudley that at time instantly transports us to the Talk of the Town nightclub.  Johnson’s staging simply and effectively moves us from one location to another while keeping the dramatic tension building.  He also helps his cast, especially Bennett and Cumpsty, deliver memorable performances. 

Because of the emotional intensity, there were times when I found “End of the Rainbow” difficult to sit through.  But at the end of the performance, I was glad I did.  It was a striking piece of live theatre.

“End of the Rainbow” is at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Los Angeles Music Center through April 21.  For ticket information, go to www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

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The End of a Tradition

By Gordon Meyer
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Today, March 20, 2013, marks the end of a tradition that dates back 80 years.  I’m speaking, of course, of Variety as a daily publication.  For decades, Variety was considered the “Showbiz Bible.”  It was THE publication of record for the entertainment industry, especially in the above the line and executive ranks.  When I was a kid in St. Louis, my dad got me a subscription one year as a birthday present, knowing how much I wanted a Hollywood career of my own.  But to quote a popular cliché, time marches on. With the growing dominance of the Internet, print media is no longer our primary news source.  It just takes too long to get the information out there when, between websites and emailed newsletters, online media can be virtually instantaneous.

Like all just about every other media outlet, Daily Variety paid its bills largely though advertising revenue, which kept shrinking, along with its page count and subscriber base.  The Hollywood Reporter, its long time cross town rival, went through a similar transition a few years ago following an ownership change.  THR began by doing a cosmetic makeover, including replacing its own iconic logo with something bland and almost girly. Not long after, it dropped its daily edition in favor of a glossy weekly designed to appeal as much to Hollywood fans as Hollywood professionals.  THR is still around, but it’s hardly the same.  Some of my friends are veterans of this publication and lament its demise as a serious business publication, as do I.

Survival is not about who’s the strongest or smartest, though these qualities help.  It’s about who’s the most nimble when it comes to adapting to a changing environment. Variety’s parent company, Reed Business Publications, sold the iconic publication to the Penske Media Group last fall, owners of Nikki Finke’s uber popular Deadline.com news and industry snarking site. 

I first discovered Deadline during the lead up to the WGA strike a few years ago as had thousands of others.  Deadline began as a blog site, so Finke’s daily postings often combined opinion with news.  Her own pieces still do.  And her industry sources often enabled her to scoop everyone else, including Variety and THR.  That combination of often strongly worded opinion with news is a very different animal from old school journalism.  But Deadline.com got lots of traffic and subsequent ad revenues, leading Penske Media to make Finke a multimillion dollar offer that she obviously couldn’t refuse.  That site continues to thrive.

Penske essentially snapped up Variety at fire sale pricing. But to give credit where credit is due, he and his team seem to be committed to keeping Variety’s editorial focus and integrity as the venerable publication goes through this transition.  They know it’s all about the eyeballs and the ad revenue that those eyeballs can generate.  So now, the pay wall, which had prevented anyone not a Variety subscriber from accessing more than a snippet of Variety content is gone. 

Reports are that the about to debut weekly version of Variety is both well designed and will contain content with much more in depth industry news analysis.  That’s a good thing in my eyes.  As for Variety.com, I think it’s safe to say that this is where the spirit of the daily print publication has moved – except like other online publications, you’ll find its editorial honchos taking advantage of their ability to publish news as it breaks, with email alerts when important stories hit.  That’s also a good thing.

So Daily Variety is now gone – in its print form.  Today’s LA Times features an article that includes a snippet about how CBS Chairman Les Moonves and thousands of others will no longer be able to scan the increasingly skimpy publication with their morning coffee.  Could somebody please get Moonves a tablet so he can read the 21st Century version of Variety wherever and whenever he wants, including when he first gets up in the morning?

Yes, the final publication of Variety as a daily print publication does mark the end of an era.  But apparently the heart and spirit of Variety are still very much alive as the publication adapts to the realities of the marketplace in a world in which more and more industry professionals get their news online.  As for the weekly edition, if the reports are accurate, that’s the perfect outlet for the kind of in depth news analysis that is much better suited to print than online anyway.  Variety is dead.  Long live Variety!

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Movie Review: "Oz the Great and Powerful"

By Gordon Meyer
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“Oz The Great and Powerful” is both a fun prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” it’s also a loving homage to both the original L. Frank Baum novel and the 1939 MGM classic.  It tells the story of Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a two bit carny magician and con artist plying his trade at a traveling circus making its way through Kansas in 1905 when, just as Dorothy Gale experiences many years later, a tornado magically transports him to the land of Oz, where all those assume he is this great wizard described in a prophesy by the late king.  It seems that a wicked witch poisoned her own father to take over the magical country and Oz (which coincidentally is also Oscar Diggs’ nickname) is thought to be the only one to defeat the wicked witch and liberate the land. 

Like the 1939 movie, “Oz The Great and Powerful” begins in a black and white world.  Director Sam Raimi goes a step further by using an old fashioned 1.33:1 aspect ratio for the Kansas segment, though every once in a while some 3D object will pop out of frame.  While Oscar is a reasonably competent magician, he’s also a ladies’ man, regularly seducing beautiful women who he encounters as the circus makes its way through Kansas and giving them the same bogus stories every time.  When the over-sized circus strong man turns out to be the brother of one of his conquests, Oscar escapes in a balloon which ultimately lands him in Oz thanks to the afore-mentioned twister where the movie goes full widescreen and glorious Technicolor.

The first person he meets is Theadora (Mila Kunis) the beautiful witch who tells him about the prophesy. She immediately falls in love with him and assumes that he will ultimately make her his queen when he takes the throne, much to the chagrin of her cynical sister Evanora (a deliciously nasty Rachel Weisz).  Oscar also saves the life of a flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff, who also plays Oscar’s assistant in Kansas) who takes a vow of service in gratitude for his rescue.  Yes, Oscar performs bits of “magic” to impress both Theadora and Finley and even get them out of jams using his standard parlor tricks.  But since nobody in Oz has ever seen anything like Oscar’s illusions, they all assume he is truly the great, powerful wizard they had been expecting.

Raimi and screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner take their inspiration and story elements from both Baum’s original Oz books and the MGM movie. So Oscar ends up traveling through portions of Oz that people who’ve read the books will know, but are likely to be new worlds to those who only know Oz through the 1939 movie. 

Although this Oz owes much of its imagery to the older film, when Raimi and company do give a tip of the hat, they do so stylishly and creatively.  For example since Glinda (Michelle Williams) arrives in both Munchkin Land and the Emerald City in a giant bubble in the earlier film, the filmmakers give their own take on this magical mode of transportation that manages to pay loving tribute to the older film while working well within the context of this version of Oz.  I won’t spoil how Glinda’s bubble shows up, but when it happened, it triggered fond laughter from me and the rest of the audience.

One of the themes that Lindsay-Abaire and Kapner emphasize in their screenplay is the idea that while Oscar knows he’s a fraud, he still wants to be a great man.  He just doesn’t know how.  As Act 3 begins, he realizes what the very skills that make him such a fraudulent rascal in Kansas can actually enable him to be the hero that Glinda and the people of Oz need him to be in their pending battle against the wicked witches.  Lindsay-Abaire and Kapner’s screenplay let us know that there will be trickery and illusion, but hide what those illusions will be until Oscar and the people of Oz actually pull them off.

As much as I enjoyed the movie, there’s a certain lack of subtlety in the moral lessons being taught, but I attribute that to targeting the movie at a young audience perhaps not able to handle more nuanced story points. Here I think that Raimi and his writers may be underestimating their audience, but since the movie is so much fun overall, I’m willing to let that slide.  Though I firmly believe it would be an even better movie without so much “on the nose” dialog.

You can say a lot of things about “Oz the Great and Powerful,” but this isn’t a movie about subtlety and nuance.  It’s joyously melodramatic, especially Kunis’ broad performance as the lovesick witch.  While you won’t see any Oscar nominations for acting in this film, if you allow the kid in you to come out and play, you’re likely to have a fun time. “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a fantasy trip into another world that’s intended to be a fun theme park ride powered by a good story.  In spite of how on the nose much of the movie is, Raimi, Lindsay-Abaire and Kapner do a fine job of showing us how that lovable fraud played by Frank Morgan evolved from a carny magician into the ethereal wizard as well as how the three witches of Oz grew into their respective roles, especially the Wicked Witch of the West, played so memorably by Margaret Hamilton in the earlier film.  It manages to pull off a delicate balancing act of paying tribute to an iconic and much loved movie while being true to its own nature and is just plain fun in the process.

Visually, the movie is a treat.  Clearly Raimi is having fun with both the story itself and the 3D medium, beginning with the highly theatrical opening credits that let us know in no uncertain terms, we’re seeing a 3D movie.  At various conferences in the past, Jon Landau, James Cameron’s long time producing partner, has espoused the concept that 3D should be “window on another world, not things coming out of a window.”  Raimi clearly disagrees – at least for this movie.  While much of the time, the use of 3D is, in fact, that “window onto another world,” that Landau preaches, he’s far from bashful about shooting objects out into audience space, ranging from small snowflake like objects to hurled projectiles.  But that’s all part of the ride.  Needless to say, audiences seeing the movie in 3D are likely to enjoy the film much more than 2D audiences.  If you’re going to see “Oz the Great and Powerful,” do see it in 3D. 

While it could have been an even better movie, my friend and I had a lot of fun watching it, even though this isn’t even normally the kind of movie he goes to see.  Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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The Gizmo Guy's Blu-Ray Review: "Wreck-It Ralph"

By Gordon Meyer
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Whenever I watch an animated feature, especially one produced by Disney, I almost always end up asking myself, “What would Walt have thought of this?” I’m not sure how he would have felt about “Wreck It Ralph,” the latest animated feature produced by Disney.  While it’s very good in its way, unlike just about every other Disney animated feature that I’ve watched, this one requires a certain cultural context in order to just get the premise.  In this case, it’s that the world of arcade video games is both real and interconnected so that characters from one game can interact with characters from other games, once the arcade is closed.  It’s actually a variation of the concepts behind both the “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.” series, if you think about it.  While anyone familiar with arcade games is likely to get a kick out of “Wreck It Ralph,” if that world is foreign to you, you may have a challenge getting into the story. 

Like “Toy Story,” the film also features cameos by characters from a number of popular video games from the past 30 years, including Pac Man and Q-Bert and lots of product placement, especially in the fictitious “Sugar Rush” game where lots of brand named candies and other types of sweet snacks are prominently on display.  It’s enough to make both dentists and dieticians gag.

Here’s the setup.  There’s this 30 year old arcade game called “Fix It Felix, Jr.” that’s kind of a “Donkey Kong” knock off. A Big angry guy named Wreck It Ralph uses his fists in an attempt to demolish a large apartment building while the game’s hero and title character, Fix It Felix, Jr. has this magic hammer which enables him to fix all the damage that Ralph does.  As the movie opens, Ralph gives his back story to a 12 step group of video game bad guys who try to help Ralph accept who he is as a bad guy.  But Ralph is tired of being hated for simply doing his job.  When the residents of the apartment building he attacks every day hold a party to celebrate the game’s 30th Anniversary and don’t invite Ralph, his feelings are deeply hurt.  For once, he’d like to be a hero and win a medal like Felix so he’ll finally earn the friendship and respect of his fellow game characters. 

With that in mind, he sneaks into a brand new futuristic shooter combat game where players who make their way to the top of a tower win a medal.  Ralph gets his medal, but accidentally unleashes a cyber bug (a literal bug) that threatens the existence of the entire arcade if it makes its way into any other game.  Using an escape craft to get out of the shooter game, Ralph ends up in a car race game for little girls set in a sugary world where he ultimately makes friends with a bratty would-be racer girl who is accused of being a glitch.  Pretty simple, isn’t it?

If you’re familiar enough with the world of video games to get both the premise and some of the rules of this world, “Wreck It Ralph” is actually very clever in its story telling, beginning with the way the design of each game’s world reflects the state of the art of video game graphics at the time that game was introduced.  Since “Fix It Felix, Jr.” dates back to the 1980s and 8 bit graphics, its characters and the objects within that world tend to be very square in design and their movement crude and jumpy – just like video game animation of the 80s. 

As usual, Disney did an excellent job with the transfer in both 2D and 3D incarnations.  Director Rich Moore’s (“Futurama” and “The Simpsons”) use of 3D space is spot on – alternately subtle and dramatically immersive when need be.  The bonus content on this collection seems a little sparse, though what’s there is very good.  There’s no commentary track, which I usually look forward to.  But there is a pretty good “making of” feature that goes into both the story’s evolution and the mix of visual styles the filmmakers used to emulate the different styles of 30 plus years worth of video games.  For example, the filmmakers talk about how characters from the older, eight bit games had to have simpler, more square-like designs and movements, while characters from the newer generations of games, especially the action shooter, “Hero’s Duty,” are much more fluid and cinematic.  The disc also includes this year’s Oscar winner for Best Animated Short, “Paperman,” a charming, dialog-free romantic fantasy about how a young couple first meet.

“Wreck It Ralph” is absolutely a product of its generation.  While it’s a well-crafted and executed story, anyone not familiar with both the world of video games in particular and the types of games showcased may lack the context to fully get what’s going on.  But for those who grew up on video games, especially the popular arcade games from the 1980s, it’s a fun story.

 "Wreck-It Ralph" is available now on DVD, Blu-ray combo pack and 3D Blu-ray/DVD combo pack

Movie *** ½ out of 5     Transfer ****   Bonus Content *** ½   3D Wow Factor ***

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