Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Dying Of The Light
(By Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, May 24, 2011)

Do you remember what a movie should look like? Do you notice when one doesn't look right? Do you feel the vague sense that something is missing? I do. I know in my bones how a movie should look. I have been trained by the best projection in the world, at film festivals and in expert screening rooms. When I see a film that looks wrong, I want to get up and complain to the manager and ask that the projectionist be informed. But these days the projectionist is tending a dozen digital projectors, and I will be told, "That's how it's supposed to look. It came that way from the studio." The most common flaw is that the picture is not bright enough. I've been seeing that for a long time. In the years before digital projectors, the problem was often that tight-fisted theater owners weren't setting the Xenon bulbs in their projectors at the correct wattage, in the mistaken belief that dialing them down would extend the life of the expensive bulbs. Not true. If you ran a 3000W bulb at 2000W, you'd extend its life by all of 2.3 percent. Yet when Martin Scorsese used people around the country to actually check theater brightness, he found most of the theaters involved were showing an underlit image. An Eastman Kodak spokesman told me in the late 1990s: "The irony is that their only real achievement is to cheat the customers."

That was then. This is now. Driven by a mania to abandon celluloid in favor of digital, increasing numbers of chains are installing 3D-ready digital projectors. As everyone can tell simply by taking off their 3D glasses, the process noticeably reduces the visible light from the screen. I got emails from readers saying the night scenes in "Pirates of the Caribbean" were so dim they were annoying. Ah, but what if you saw the movie in 2D? As it happens, a lot of people did; Gitesh Pandya of reported: "less than half of the Pirates weekend gross came from 3D screens, with more opting for the 2D version." He attributes that to moviegoers being "cautious with their dollars." After the weekend, David Poland of ran the numbers and determined 60% of sales were in 2D and 40% in 3D: "Not only is this a clear rejection of 3D on a major movie, but given how distribution is currently designed, it makes you wonder whether Disney cost themselves a lot of gross by putting their film on too high a percentage of 3D screens."

There may have been a reason consumers shied away from 3D. An expertly written article by Ty Burr in the Boston Globe reports that some 3D projectors, particularly those made by Sony, produce "gloomy, underlit" images of 2D films. His article must have hit a nerve; and I've seen it posted and referred to all over the web. The newspaper found dark images on eight of the 19 screens at the high-end AMC Loews Boston Common on Tremont Street. Burr wrote: "This particular night 'Limitless,' 'Win Win,' and 'Source Code' all seemed strikingly dim and drained of colors. 'Jane Eyre,' a film shot using candles and other available light, appeared to be playing in a crypt. A visit to the Regal Fenway two weeks later turned up similar issues: 'Water for Elephants' and 'Madea's Big Happy Family' were playing in brightly lit 35mm prints and, across the hall, in drastically darker digital versions." His observations indicated the problems centered on Sony projectors: "Digital projection can look excellent when presented correctly. Go into Theater 14 at the Common, newly outfitted with a Christie 4K projector, and you'll see a picture that is bright and crisp, if somewhat colder than celluloid."

He says there is a reason for this: "Many theater managers have made a practice of leaving the 3D lenses on the projectors when playing a 2D film." The result is explained by an anonymous projectionist: "For 3D showings a special lens is installed in front of a Sony digital projector that rapidly alternates the two polarized images needed for the 3D effect to work. When you're running a 2D film, that polarization device has to be taken out of the image path. If they're not doing that, it's crazy, because you've got a big polarizer that absorbs 50 percent of the light.'' Fifty percent! It can be worse than that. I quote: "Chapin Cutler, a cofounder of the high-end specialty projection company Boston Light & Sound, estimates that a film projected through a Sony with the 3D lens in place and other adjustments not made can be as much as 85 percent darker than a properly projected film." Your best bet is apparently to (1) find a theater that doesn't use digital at all, (2) doesn't use Sony projectors, or (3) still projects light through celluloid the traditional way.

Digital projectors have been force-fed to theaters by an industry hungry for the premium prices it can charge for 3D films. As I've been arguing for a long time, this amounts to charging you more for an inferior picture. The winners are the manufacturers of the expensive machines, and the film distributors. The hapless theaters still depend on concession sales to such a degree that a modern American theater can be described as a value-added popcorn stand. I have an email from a Hollywood professional who writes me: "During the last awards season, I went to an Industry screening of 'The Social Network' at Sony Studios, in their James Stewart facility -- what they said was their best screening room. The movie looked dark and muddy; truly awful. Then I looked back and saw that the picture was emanating from a twin-lens rig. After the show, I complained to the projectionist about the image. He explained that the process of shifting both the lens and changing the silver screen to a white matter screen, which they were equipped to do, was too time-consuming. So he told me that his supervisor authorized showing the movie to Academy voters through the 3D lens, which looked like shit. And this is at Sony Studios. Just imagine how bad it is in the real world. It is as if the Industry is courting self-destruction."

Sony refused to comment on the Boston Globe article. At my recent Ebertfest, one seasoned director called the projection in the 90-year old Virginia Theater in Urbana-Champaign "the best I've ever seen." That's because we use two of the best projectionists in the nation, James Bond, who consults on high-level projection facilities, and Steve Kraus, of Chicago's Lake Street Screening Room. Ty Burr writes: "So why aren't theater personnel simply removing the 3-D lenses? The answer is that it takes time, it costs money, and it requires technical know-how above the level of the average multiplex employee. James Bond, a Chicago-based projection guru who serves as technical expert for Roger Ebert's Ebertfest, said issues with the Sonys are more than mechanical. Opening the projector alone involves security clearances and Internet passwords, 'and if you don't do it right, the machine will shut down on you.' The result, in his view, is that 'often the lens change isn't made and audiences are getting shortchanged'."

The problem isn't with all digital projectors, and seems most common with the new Sony 4K projectors, which has lenses too difficult to adjust for most of the (semi-skilled) multiplex projectionists. It is possible to project a high-quality digital image, and I've often seen that done. But only if theaters insist on it, and manufacturers like Sony make changes allowing their lenses to be changed as needed. The movie industry feels under threat these days from DVDs, cable movies on demand, a dozen streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Fandor and Mubi, and competition from video games. Decades ago, it felt a similar danger from radio (it introduced talkies) and television (it introduced wide-screen). The irony today is that it hopes to rescue itself with 3D, which is not an improvement but a step back in quality. The fact that more people wanted to see "Pirates" in 2D than 3D is stunning. The fact that 3D projectors in some theaters are producing murky and dim 2D pictures makes me very unhappy.

I began by asking if you notice, really notice, what a movie looks like. I have a feeling many people don't. They buy their ticket, they get their popcorn and they obediently watch what is shown to them. But at some level there is a difference. They feel it in their guts. The film should have a brightness, a crispness and sparkle that makes an impact. It should look like a movie! -- not a mediocre big-screen television. When people don't have a good time at the movies, they're slower to come back. I can't tell you how many comments on my blog have informed me that the writers enjoy a "better picture" at home on their big-screen TVs with Blu-ray discs. This should not be true. Nobody at Ebertfest confused the experience with sitting at home and watching a video. A movie should leap out and zap you, not recede into itself and get lost in dimness. I despair. This is a case of Hollywood selling its birthright for a message of pottage. If as much attention were paid to exhibition as to marketing, that would be an investment in the future. People would fall back in love with the movies. Short-sighted, technically illiterate penny-pinchers are wounding a great art form.

What can you personally do to be sure you see an ideal picture? Matthew Humpries at writes:
• The title of the movie listed by the theater will have a "D" after it if it is being shown on a digital projector
• If you are in a D movie, look at the projector window when seated. If you see two stacked beams of light it is a Sony projector with the 3D lens still on.
• A single beam of light means no 3D lens, or a different make of projector that doesn't have the issue
• If you see the two beams, then get up and go complain. You paid good money to see the movie, so make a fuss until they either give you back that money or remove the lens. Seeing as that's an involved and time-consuming process, expect a refund.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Robert B. Parker Passes Away Working At His Desk

Crime Novelist, Spenser Creator Robert B. Parker Dies At 77
(By Patricia Sullivan, Washington Post, Jan 20, 2010)

Robert B. Parker, 77, a popular and prolific author of hard-boiled American crime fiction who was best known for the 37-book Spenser series, which became an ABC television show in the 1980s, died Jan. 18 at his writing desk at home in Cambridge, Mass. The cause of death was not known, but his longtime agent, Helen Brann, said it appeared to have been a heart attack.

Mr. Parker helped revive the detective fiction genre with Spenser (no first name), a wise-cracking, street-smart and surprisingly literate Boston private eye. The character -- a former boxer and former state police officer -- is a gourmet cook who grapples with complex relationships with a witty female companion, an African American alter ego and a foster son. Named for Edmund Spenser, a Shakespeare contemporary, the character and series became favorites of literati who enjoyed crisp, witty prose. Mr. Parker's work was notable for its quick pace, evocative descriptions, sharp dialogue and focus on themes such as women in contemporary society and the troubled status of adolescents. His protagonists were tough guys -- prone to violence but true to a moral code as they protected a lesbian writer in "Looking for Rachel Wallace" (1980) and investigated drug smuggling in "Pale Kings and Princes" (1987) and "Pastime" (1991).

Mr. Parker wrote 65 books in 37 years and was among the top 10 best-selling authors in the world, Brann said, with 6 million to 8 million books sold. He received the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for best novel (1977) and its Grand Master Award (2002) and Mystery Ink's Gumshoe Award for Lifetime Achievement (2007). In addition to the "Spenser: For Hire" TV series, which starred Robert Urich, Mr. Parker's Jesse Stone novels became CBS TV movies starring Tom Selleck in 2005. "Appaloosa," his 2005 Western, was made into a 2008 movie directed by and starring Ed Harris. Mr. Parker created a third fictional private eye, Sunny Randall, at the request of Academy Award-winning actress Helen Hunt, who asked him to write a novel with a female investigator. The first book in the series did not become a feature film, but it was a bestseller. His prodigious output was the result of a disciplined work ethic: He wrote five pages a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year. "I started writing the Jesse Stone novels because I realized that at this point in my career it takes me three to four months to write a Spenser novel and as a result I have a lot of time on my hands," he told in 2000. His next book, "Split Image," a Jesse Stone book, is due out next month. He had turned in several books that have not been published, including some in the Spenser series, Brann said.

Robert Brown Parker was born Sept. 17, 1932, in Springfield, Mass., and graduated in 1954 from Colby College in Maine. He went into the Army for the next two years. He received a master's degree in 1957 and a doctorate in 1971, both in English from Boston University. His doctoral dissertation was a study of the private eye in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Mr. Parker earned his living as a technical writer at Raytheon and in the advertising department of Prudential Insurance until the doctoral degree got him a full professorship at Northeastern University in Boston, where he began to write seriously. His first novel, "The Godwulf Manuscript," sold within three weeks of completion. Over the next five years, Mr. Parker wrote four more Spenser novels, each increasingly successful. In 1979, he was able to quit teaching and devote himself full time to writing.

So clearly and consciously did Mr. Parker consider himself an heir of Chandler's that the Chandler estate in 1988 asked him to complete a 30-page manuscript left uncompleted at Chandler's death. The result was "Poodle Springs," a novel that carries both authors' names on its title page. It was panned by the New York Times Book Review as "a chaos of tawdry shortcuts." Mr. Parker, who claimed not to read reviews of his work, nevertheless wrote a sequel to Chandler's classic "The Big Sleep," calling it "Perchance to Dream." Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, Joan Parker of Cambridge, and two sons. In interview after interview, Mr. Parker refused the opportunity to make the idea of writing detective fiction seem mysterious. "The art of writing a mystery is just the art of writing fiction," he told the Boston Globe magazine in 2007. "You create interesting characters and put them into interesting circumstances and figure out how to get them out of them. No one is usually surprised at the outcome of my books."

'Spenser' Novelist Robert B. Parker, 77, Dies In Mass.
(By Carol Memmott, USA TODAY)

Robert B. Parker, the celebrated writer of more than 50 books, the best known of which were his Spenser novels about a wisecracking ex-boxer turned Boston private eye, died today in Cambridge, Mass. He was 77. "This is a man who had an enormous following," says Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York and a friend of the prolific writer for 30 years. "He was extremely successful. People just loved his books." The Associated Press reported an ambulance was sent to Parker's Cambridge home Monday morning on a report of a sudden death. The death was of natural causes and was not considered suspicious, says Alexa Manocchio, spokeswoman for the Cambridge police department.

Parker will be sorely missed. "People just loved Spenser," Penzler says. "They loved the other books, too, and they sold nearly as well as the Spensers. Let's face it. Sunny Randall (the lead character in six novels) sounded very much like Spenser, and so did Jesse Stone." Split Image, the ninth novel featuring police chief Stone, will be published by Putnam on Feb. 23. Spenser's popularity surged with the TV show Spenser: For Hire, which premiered in 1985 starring Robert Urich as Spenser and Barbara Block as love interest Susan Silverman. It ran for three seasons. Urich also starred as Spenser in four TV movies. Joe Mantegna played Spenser in three subsequent made-for-TV films. Stone Cold was one of about a half-dozen Jesse Stone novels made into TV films starring Tom Selleck.

Chris Pepe, Parker's editor at Putnam for more than 20 years, says Parker "was an absolute straight shooter, completely charming. What you saw was what you got. He was just totally professional. He was the best person to work with. He made my job really easy, and it will probably never happen again." Parker's books about the irreverent tough-talking Spenser — 37 were published — will be what he's most remembered for. "The Spenser character was a lot like Bob himself," Penzler says. "Very funny and smart-alecky. He had that kind of a mouth. He was honorable and loyal. Those are characteristics that are not as ubiquitous as we might like." On Parker's writing style was spare and razor-sharp: "It was absolutely pitch-perfect dialogue," Penzler says. "Most of his books were dialogue, anyway. It's the way Bob thought, the way he spoke, in funny short bursts. Other people would take four paragraphs, and he in one sentence could sum up a situation in a humorous way with perception and intelligence." In addition to the February publication of Split Image, Blue-Eyed Devil, a Western, will be released in May. And, luckily for his fans, there are some Spenser novels in the production pipeline, according to Pepe. "We don't have hard dates yet, but there are more on the way. You haven't seen the last of him. That's for sure."

Monday, May 2, 2011

Kylie Minogue Comes To See Me, Sort Of

After more than 20 years of listening to Kylie Minogue’s albums, I’ve finally seen her in concert. It’s not that I’ve been passing on the chance until now- it’s just that she never toured the United States until 2009 and she’s never been anywhere close to this area until last weekend. When her second U.S. tour was announced this year, there were about a dozen U.S. venues such as New York City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Houston, LA, Atlanta and Fairfax, Virginia- about 8 miles from my house. How could I not go see her? I think the venue was picked simply to make me happy because I can’t figure out any other reason for her to appear there. Okay, maybe her shows require a certain type of auditorium because of the sets and that factored into things but still, eight miles from my house! So Saturday night found me at the Patriot Center at George Mason waiting for her to take the stage. I left work a little early and met John at my place around 5:30 and then we headed over a bit later, after talking poker and playing Angry Birds for a bit. Hey, the original plan was to meet our friend Trevor and his partner Matt for drinks or something but he blew us off, at least pre-show, so that he could go eat with other friends of his that were also going to the show.

John and I walked around the concourse for a bit and checked out the merchandise for sale but there was nothing either of us was eager to buy because A) it would be too embarrassing to walk out of the house wearing it and B) it was pretty pricey, like the $100 coffee table book or the $25 program. The crowd was pretty glamorous but there were a few straight people there- I saw at least nine of them, including me, John, Daniel (John’s brother) and Daniel’s fiancĂ©e. I wasn’t too sure about the security guard wearing red suede shoes though. I overheard one person saying to his friend “This crowd makes Cher’s audience look butch.” After going up to see Daniel and Hannah, we met up with Trevor after he texted me where he was sitting. John hadn’t seen Trevor for a decade or more so we chatted for a bit, particularly about music like Chicago, The Beautiful South and Huey Lewis- acts that Trevor liked back in college but now he was mostly into the Pet Shop Boys. When the show was about to start or at least until it sounded like the opening act, er… the DJ, was finishing up, we headed back to our seats. Fourth row up from the floor seats, with two empty seats just to our left so we had a great view, even with people standing up in front of us. The show was a spectacle, an event, a triumph, and it made me like the Aphrodite album even though I’d been kind of lukewarm to it prior to hearing the revamped, amplified versions of the songs they played at the show. Here’s the Washington Post’s review of the concert along with the setlist I texted myself throughout the show.

Australia’s Kylie Minogue Dazzles In Her Second Stateside Tour(By Megan Buerger, Washington Post, May 1, 2011)

It was a show of epic proportions. With Cirque du Soleil-style dancers, eight costume changes and a stage fit for a disco queen, Kylie Minogue’s Saturday night concert at the Patriot Center was an escape to another world. Another world, that is, where svelte Greek warriors wear feathers, the law of gravity is defied and calories (apparently) don’t exist. For her mythology-themed “Aphrodite — Les Folies” tour, Minogue pulled out all the stops. Given that the Australian starlet has been high on international pop charts for 20 years but has never quite won over the United States — this is her second stateside tour — the grandeur is entertaining, if a bit overdue.

And grand it was. The $25 million tour boasts three sprawling staircases, aerial acrobatics and a series of larger-than-life props including a Pegasus statue set among mighty Grecian columns. For Minogue, 42 and fit as ever, the stage was also a runway. Drawing as much attention as the special effects were her staggering Dolce & Gabbana custom gowns and elaborate headdresses. Opening with the title track from her 11th album, “Aphrodite” (2010), Minogue emerged from beneath the stage in a large shell a la Botticelli’s Venus. In keeping with the theatrical theme, she circled the stage in a chariot pulled by men in leather loincloths, sang a rock rendition of her U.S. hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (2001) and, for the encore, layered her crew on a three-tiered cake stage for “All the Lovers” before sinking out of sight.

Minogue is proof that it pays to know your audience. A nod to her legion of gay fans, the evening was largely a homage to the male figure. Scantily clad dancers paraded the stage in gold armor while homoerotic images reminiscent of Abercrombie & Fitch ads flashed on video screens behind them. It takes a secure soul to throw caution to the wind and join this shimmying collective, but Minogue’s audience leapt aboard. The stadium was only half full, yet there wasn’t a still body in the house. It could be argued that the show was not particularly meaningful, and it wasn’t, but that was hardly the point. Where Minogue differs from American pop divas such as Lady Gaga and Madonna is that she takes herself less seriously. She, like her audience, was there to promote only one agenda: having a good time. Perhaps this explains her spirited gay following. Free from political statement or hidden message, Minogue is unapologetically true to herself.

Kylie Minoque- Aphrodite Tour
May 1, 2011 ($60.00- Patriot Center)

Songs From Album:

Carnival of the Animals intro (By Camille Saint-Saens)
1 Aphrodite Aphrodite
2 The One X
3 Wow X
4 Illusion Aphrodite
5 I Believe In You Ultimate Kylie
6 Cupid Boy Aphrodite
7 Spinning Around Light Years
8 Get Outta My Way Aphrodite
9 What Do I Have To Do Rhythm Of Love
10 Everything Is Beautiful Aphrodite
11 Slow Body Language
12 Confide In Me Kylie Minogue
13 Can't Get You Out Of My Head Fever
14 In My Arms X
15 Looking For An Angel & There Must Be An Angel (Eurthymics cover) Aphrodite
---- Band and dancers intro -------
16 Love At First Sight and Can't Beat This Feeling (Mashup) Fever
17 If You Don't Love Me (solo) Hits + (Prefab Sprouts cover)
18 Better The Devil You Know Rhythm Of Love
19 Come Into My World (snippet) Fever
20 Better Than Today Aphrodite
21 Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love) Aphrodite

22 On A Night Like This Light Years
23 All The Lovers Aphrodite