Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Extra, Extra!

When it comes to buying movies and TV shows on DVD, some people want to know as much as possible about the film or program. They want making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, commentaries, trailers and Easter eggs. They want the bells. They want the whistles. Other people, however, could not possible care less what the director's intention was in this scene or actor's motivation was in that scene. They want the movie or show and you can keep the rest, thanx.

For a while, most studios would rush a bare-bones DVD onto the market to satisfy the immediate wants/needs/desires of home video buyers, only to issue a "special edition" a year or so later, thus forcing some consumers to buy the same movie a second time--and thus mightily pissing off large chunks of the DVD-buying public.

The studios, to their credit, seem to have figured this out. Now, they generally put out two editions of individual movies at the same time. Example: Tim Burton's big-screen adaptation of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, comes in two flavors: Vanilla (the movie, a commentary track and a couple of extras) and Mint Chocolate Chip (a second disc loaded with mini-documentaries on various aspects of the history of the character, the stage musical and the movie itself). I was (and am) a huge fan of the musical--my DVD of the version aired on PBS in the '80s with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn is one of my forever faves, even if it has no bells and no whistles--and was downright apprehensive about the movie, which cast mostly non-singers in lead roles. Johnny Depp may not have a great voice, but he uses his acting skills to compensate admirably. Helena Bonham Carter? Not so much. She seems so focused on singing that she forgets to act and consequently gives a flat, tone-deaf performance in the musical numbers (she acquits herself much better in the dramatic scenes).

So when I bought the DVD, I picked up the two-disc Special Edition. I wanted the bells. I wanted the whistles. I'm greedy like that.

Increasingly, though, it's not just a matter of choosing between standard and special editions--it's a matter of where to buy your special edition.

For a while now, different stores have offered different, exclusive versions of CDs, usually with additional/alternate tracks. Now, this concept has been applied to DVDs, with different stores offering different, exclusive add-ons and accessories. Example: Juno is not only available in regular and Extra Crispy, but you can also get a pen that looks just like a pregnancy test if you buy the special edition at F.Y.E. And at Target, you can snag a small, paperback copy of the Oscar-winning screenplay (while supplies last, of course). I already had a copy of the Juno screenplay, but my neighborhood Target only had one Special Edition left, and it was the Extra Special Edition with the screenplay, so...I didn't really need to buy that first copy off of eBay, now did I?

Then, there's Cloverfield, the mash-up of The Blair Witch Project and Godzilla told from a perspective of the unfortunate souls running away from the giant building-stomping monster. The movie holds up pretty well on DVD, though those of you vulnerable to motion sickness or vertigo might want to premedicate--the "shaky-cam" effect looks even worse on the small screen. The DVD itself is pretty much the same wherever you go, with loads of extras, but the store incentives vary from extra video footage (meh) to "collectible packaging" (something that I generally don't care about, though I did buy my copy of The Evil Dead because the DVD box was shaped like the Necronomicon--at least until the rubber started to degrade and crumble into dust) to the one I wound up with: A CD featuring music from the movie.

Cloverfield doesn't have a soundtrack, properly speaking, but music is heard at various points, especially at a going-away party early on, before the enormous reptile/bat/grasshopper/what-the-fuck-ever shows up to trash Manhattan. The songs are an eclectic mix, running from OK GO to The Vapors to Parliament. Unfortunately, the CD doesn't include the coolest song in the whole movie: "Roar!", the suite by Michael Giacchino that plays over the lengthy end credits, written in obvious, affectionate tribute to Akira Ifukube, the Japanese composer who scored the original Godzilla and many of its sequels.

And don't even get me started on the extras only included on Blu-ray discs--I'm not buying a whole new DVD system just to see footage from the Juno premiere. In fact, I'm putting off buying a Blu-ray player as long as possible. I've spent too much money on my vast DVD collection to pitch the whole thing for a new format. (And yes, I know there are Blu-ray players that also play standard DVDs--Target has one for about $400. Doesn't mean I want or need to drop $400 on that.)

I'm also not going to run all over town trying to find the coolest DVD version. I bought the versions I did because of where i was when I bought them--I happened to be in Target already, so Target exclusives are what I walked away with. If I'd been in Best Buy or Wal-Mart or Circuit City instead, I'd have walked away with their exclusives. When you get down to it, it's not about the CD or T-shirt or poster or book that comes with the movie--it's the movie and the cool stories about it on the DVD that matter.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Spring in Chicago

If you've lived in this city for any decent length of time, the first line of today's weather forecast should not surprise you:

"Chance of thunderstorms and snow showers."

At least the next line--"No snow accumulation"--is somewhat reassuring, as are the little blue flowers pushing their way through the greening lawns along my route to the train station this morning.

It's almost here for real. Good things come to those who wait. Patience is genius.

(Can you tell I'm really straining to believe this?)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Enough Already

For days after Chicago police shot a cougar to death in Roscoe Village, the websites for our two remaining major newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, kept running the same photos for the big cat's body lying on the concrete, blood running down its fur, over and over and over again.

And now that it's been decided that the cougar's remains will be archived at the Field Museum of Natural History--a place I found creepy as a child, because of all of the preserved animals there, including Bushman the gorilla (who lived at the Lincoln Park Zoo until his death in 1950 and has been on display at the Field ever since) and the man-eating lions known as the Ghost and the Darkness (the same ones whose story was told in that crappy Michael Douglas/Val Kilmer movie)--the two newspaper's websites are running the same photo of the big cat's pelt sitting on a table over and over and over again.

Please, Trib and Times. Stop it. This story is sad enough. The animal should never have come anywhere near this city. Why keep shoving its bullet-riddled corpse in our figurative faces?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Historical Perspective

This morning, the chirpy sportscaster on my radio announced with pride that the Cubs' 14-6 start was "their best since 1975."

Sounds great...except the chirpy sportscaster neglected to mention that in 1975, the Cubs finished 75-87, tied for last in what was then the Eastern Division of the National League with the the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals).

Hi. I'm Johnny Buzzkill. Nice to meet you.

Friday, April 18, 2008

I Feel the Earth Move...or Not

Apparently, there was an earthquake last night in Illinois (most specifically West Salem, near the Illinois/Indiana border) that was felt up here in Chicago.

I say "apparently" because I slept right through it.

It's the topic of the morning at work, where it seems like an even split between those who felt it (some thought their dogs had just jumped into bed or that a particularly large, noisy truck was going by) while others didn't hear about it until they got up and turned on the news. I fall into the latter category--when the first words I heard out of my radio this morning were "We'll give you an update on the earthquake in a few minutes," I thought I'd need to shoot an email to my peeps on the Left Coast to make sure they're OK. (Instead, some of them might be shooting emails to me this morning.)

Superbadfriend said the earthquake woke her up, that her kitty, Ernie, was acting weird just before it happened, that at abround 4:38 a.m. the apartment shook for about 40 seconds.

Me? I was in the middle of a pleasant-for-a-change dream in which I was a mouse locked in a warehouse full of cheese--just me and wheels of New York white cheddar and crates of grated Parmesan. For once, I was awakened by the alarm clock, and I felt like I'd gotten an actual night's sleep.

After the report on the radio, I took a quick tour of La Casa del Terror. The photos of Vampira and Bettie Page were still on the walls, all the DVDs and books on their respective shelves. Even the precarious stacks of various "things" on the coffee table were still in place, ready for my ass to knock them over as I brush by on my way in from work.

The only thing in the whole place that seemed out of place was the Mego-style Eddie Munster figure on the shelf in the dining room--he had tipped over to his right and was now resting comfortably on the ass of the Abraham Lincoln figure next to him.

Did the earthquake knock Eddie over? Or did ms. Olivia reach up and swat him in the head? Guess I'll never know.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Trailer Park

Movie trailers have been used since the silent era to entice viewers to flock to their local cinema to watch the latest releases. (Ironically, some of these trailers, like the ones for American Venus starring Louise Brooks or The Patriot, which won an Oscar for Best Screenwriting Achievement, are all that remain of the movies they advertised.)

Of course, these previews sometimes have the opposite effect, warning viewers away from movies that will likely cause more pain than the trailers subject them to.

Here are a few that I've seen recently that have screamed "STAY AWAY!":

Doomsday. At first glance, this looked like a bad, uncredited remake of The Road Warrior. Then I found out it was written and directed by Neil Marshall, whose Dog Soldiers kicks serious amounts of ass and The Descent makes me want to never, ever go spelunking. So I almost disregarded my initial reaction to the trailer ("The fuck?") and went to see it. Then the reviews came out, most of them pegging it as (surprise!) a a bad, uncredited remake of The Road Warrior. It left theaters quickly, which means it'll be on DVD shortly. Maybe it'll be worth a rental. maybe.

Prom Night. Damn, we're scrapping the bottom of the barrel now. After remakes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hills Have Eyes and Halloween, lazy, stupid filmmakers without a creative cell in the grayish lumps of meat they call brains have clearly run out of ideas if they're now recycling movies that were themselves ripoffs of better, scarier movies. I was slated to review this Prom Night redux before my gig at FilmMonthly.com imploded. Now I'm glad I didn't have to waste the nine bucks.

Shine a Light. Really, Martin Scorsese--a Rolling Stones documentary? Much as I love the music from Mick and Keith, at least from their glory years--you could choose any Stones album between Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main Street as the greatest rock album ever and not be far from wrong--but there have already been several movies covering their career, including Gimme Shelter, which is not only one of the best documentaries ever made, but one of the best movies of any kind, period. (Then again, you already know that, don't you, Marty? After all, you hired Albert Maysles, who co-directed Gimme Shelter, as one of your cameramen on Shine a Light.) Even if there weren't already such a perfect cinematic document in existence, though, would I really want to see Mick and Keith in high-def at my local IMAX? Dried lake beds have fewer cracks and crevaces than those well-worn faces.

Sex and the City. Okay, I wasn't the biggest fan of the TV series, but the few episodes I've seen beginning to end at least got a laugh or two out of me. The trailer? Not one. And it's not just me. I first saw the SatC preview before The Other Boleyn Girl with three friends, and we all hadpretty much the same reaction: Isn't a trailer for a comedy--especially a comedy based on a long-running, highly successful sitcom--supposed to be, y'know, funny? Don't they usually put some of the best gags in the trailer? What, then, does this say about the movie to come? And why is Jennifer Hudson, who's won an Oscar, playing a personal assistant in this thing? And why is she only in the trailer for, like, five seconds? Seeing the trailer a second time (before Smart People (a decent movie helped by good performances from the likes of Thomas Hayden Church, Ellen Page and, yes, Sarah Jessica Parker) didn't help--it looks like a bad idea delivered several years too late.

I want trailers to be good. I want to be enticed. The preview for Iron Man has me seriously jazzed (guess what we're doing my birthday weekend, kids?), and even though The Dark Knight doesn't come out until this summer, the trailer looks awesome. But when a coming attraction ad, which is supposed to feature the choice cuts from a feature looks rancid, I'm not too likely to peer past the surface and give the full film a chance.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Cougar in the Alley

The rumors had been padding through the Chicago suburbs for a few weeks: There was a cougar in the area. Tracks had been found in the snow. Fleeting glimpses had been caught out of the corners of fretful eyes.

Maybe it was just overactive imagination. Maybe it was like those stories about the kangaroo hopping around the city in the '70s, even though no escaped marsupial was ever found. Or the rumor of a panther-like cat prowling the parks and alleys of the West Side; I know one guy who says he saw the cat stalking across a garage roof, and maybe saw what he saw when he saw it--or maybe he didn't.

Then again, maybe it was like the occasional reports of coyotes straying into the city, sometimes making it all the way downtown before being corraled by Animal Control. Last year, a coyote ran through the open door of a Quizno's on Adams and ducked behind the counter. Maybe it wanted some mm mm mm mm mm, toasty. What it got instead was a tranq dart, a muzzle and a trip out of Dodge.

Last weekend, the alleged big cat was said to be in the northern 'burb of Wilmette. The rumors were still just that, but they were growing in number--and growing closer to the city itself.

Yesterday morning, all ceased to be rumor and became fact: Neighbors in Roscoe Village, on the North Side, had spotted the cougar prowling the streets, jumping fences, probably looking for food. Police began combing the neighborhood.

Around 6 p.m., gunshots were heard throughout Roscoe Village. Ordinarily, this might have meant gang activity--maybe yet another child caught in the crossfire of stupid, evil men--or a domestic dispute that had gotten well out of hand. Instead, it was the CPD, putting the big cat down.

Department spokesmen say that there was nothing the police could do, that the cougar was threatening to charge them and they fired in self defense. I don't doubt it. The big cat was probably tired and hungry and more than a little scared. It was cornered and surrounded. No one knows where it came from--it had no tags to indicate that some knothead had taken it as a pet, and only an autopsy can show whether it had any kind of chip or tracking device on its body--or why it came into the city (more food than in Wilmette?). And, of course, some are wondering why no one from Animal Control was standing by to give the cougar a taste of what Mr. Coyote got: A dart, a nap, a trip to somewhere far away. Those same people probably wouldn't be asking such questions if the cougar had snagged someone's chiuahua or child or elderly parent; they'd probably have pulled the trigger themselves.

Instead, we get photo after photo on the news of the cougar's body lying in an alley, blood running from beneath it, life long gone from a place the big cat should never have been.

Maybe it could have ended another way. But it didn't.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Patron Saint

Not long after the turn of the last century, a Eastern European couple (he from Germany, she from Poland) living in the Chicago neighborhood of Bucktown (so named, apparently, for the large number of goats that roamed there in the 19th century) had tried for years to raise a family, but found themselves sadly unable to do so--they'd had several children, but all had died young, most not even making it out of infancy.

When they had their last child, a girl, they decided to, in a way, seek divine intervention, by naming her Jadwiga, the Polish version of the name on the large, recently built Catholic church a short walk away from their home--St. Hedwig, the patron saint of orphans.

Their plea to St. Hedwig must have been heard--their daughter, whose name was later anglicized to Harriet, lived to a ripe old age, passing away peacefully a couple of weeks after her 85th birthday. During that long life, she had a child of her own--a daughter, who has lived to a ripe old age herself. She had three children, two of whom lived to adulthood. One of them was me.

I've always retained a warm spot in what passes for my heart for St. Hedwig in general, and that church in Bucktown in particular--odd things for a self-professed agnostic to say, I know, but I'm a fairly odd agnostic. Still, with Grandma gone nearly 20 years now and her little cottage long since razed, St. Hedwig's Church has a family connection for me.

So yesterday, when I read on the Chicago Tribune's website that there was an extra-alarm fire at a church in Bucktown, I somehow knew that it was St. Hedwig's.

Fortunately, it didn't burn to the ground, as so many older churches have in this city (like the Louis Sullivan-designed Pilgrim Baptist Church, the birthplace of gospel, did a couple of years ago--only the walls remain, and restoration is still years and millions of dollars away). Turns out it was an electrical fire that started in the basement and badly damaged the alter, but left the rest of the building more or less intact.

I'm glad. I'd like to go down to Bucktown to see St. Hedwig's again, even on this rainy, cold April afternoon, to take its picture (maybe I have before, but I can't remember, so better to do it while I know I still can). Or to say hello to the church and the saint it's named for. Or just to say thanks for whatever help or comfort may have been given to that sad couple from Eastern Europe all those years ago.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Trip Up the Amazon

I admit it--I'm not the easiest person to buy gifts for.

It's not that my friends and family don't know my interests, likes, dislikes, etc. They know them well. I love watching and reading about movies. I love action figures and lunchboxes. I love Bettie Page.

So there are plenty of things I might actually like or want. The real question my friends and family must ask? "Does he have [insert potential gift here] already?"

This is not an unreasonable question. I probably have more DVDs than your neighborhood Blockbuster (no, really...just ask anybody who's ever been to my apartment) and enough books to populate a small, eclectic library. I'm very much a Taurus--I like to collect shiny objects around me in abundance--and more than once in the recent past, friends have bought birthday or Christmas presents for me, only to find that DVD or book already in my collection.

The solution to this problem? My Amazon wishlist.

I can't claim that I thought of this all by myself; several friends have had wishlists on Amazon for years. It's an interesting peek into the likes/dislikes of someone you know, or presume to know. What, for instance, does it say about me that my wishlist includes The Seven Samurai, Enchanted, Olivier's Hamlet, Attack of 50 Ft. Woman, Do the Right Thing, several episodes of the original Doctor Who series (as well as seasons two and three of the current series) and a book about Mego action figures? I don't know. That's for any individual reader of the list to decide.

Even though such a list would seem to limit the choices my friends can make and would seem to limit the amount of surprise I can have--even if the wishlist has, as of this writing, 80 items on it--it gives them plenty of options. Still, I must admit feeling self-conscious about dropping that link in an email and sending it to those most likely to buy me something, or about even mentioning its existence here, much less linking to it.

The wishlist--and the direction of my friends to it--is preferable, though, to the alternative: dear friend gives shiny gifty, hoping to delight; dear friend finds out that I already have whatever they took the time and consideration to give me; dear friend winds up keeping gift or searching for receipt.

It's happened before. I don't want it to happen again.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April Fools

I'm sure everybody on the Brown Line train, which sat on the curve that feeds into the Belmont station for at least ten minutes without an announcement from the conductor (who'd previously been quite vocal, calling out to already harried commuters to "use the first available door!") explaining or apologizing for the delay, felt that they were fools, April or otherwise. I know I did, though I knew the delay was due to the latest phase of the Brown Line Reconstruction Project, which has reduced the number of southbound tracks between Belmont and Fullerton from two to one.

I was running late anyway, regardless of CTA's determined (and rather successful) efforts to complicate my commute, almost entirely due to my own stupidity.

Last night, I decided to set my alarm back by 15 minutes to compensate for CTA's machinations. Good plan. Bad execution--even if you reset your alarm to wake yourself up earlier, you still have to flip the switch to activate that alarm. Otherwise, you wake up about 45 later than you would have anyway, wondering why it's so bright outside.