Thursday, January 11, 2007

Eight Tracks by Throwback Suburbia

For many years it seemed as if power pop, and rock 'n' roll for that matter, may well be a dying art. Fortunately, the past two years has not only seen a revival in traditional rock music, but in power pop as well. And in the vanguard of the revival of power pop is the band Throwback Suburbia.

Thowback Suburbia was formed by songwriters Mike Collins and Jimi Evans, who purposefully sought to create a group that would blend the best of power pop of the past with the best of modern day rock. Listening to their EP Eight Tracks, it is safe to say that they succeeded. In the songs one can hear the influences from nearly every era of power pop history. Quite simply, they combine the rawness of The Kinks, Cheap Trick, and The Knack with the melodic sensibilities of The Raspberries, The Posies, and Jellyfish. True, the melodies are catchy, but the guitar and drums are aggressive--they have effectively put the power back in pop.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the opening songs from Eight Tracks. Both "Lonely With You" and "The Ride" possess guitar driven hooks and appealing vocals that make the songs instantly memorable, and instantly recognisable as the work of Throwback Suburbia. It would be a mistake, however, to think of Throwback Suburbia as simply a guitar group with great melodies. They have remembered what too many rock artists of late have forgotten--that truly great songs also have truly great lyrics. The songs on Eight Tracks aren't simple pop tunes by any stretch of the imagination.

If you often find yourself thinking that the best rock music has to offer all lies in the past, then I seriously recommend that you give Throwback Suburbia a look. You can hear samples of the songs and buy the EP at CD Baby.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Yvonne De Carlo Passes On

Yvonne De Carlo died Monday at the age of 84. Although probably best known for playing Lily Munster on the Sixties Sitcom The Munsters, she also had a long film career.

De Carlo was born Peggy Yvonne Middleton in Vancouver, British Columbia on September 1, 1922. At the age of 22 they moved to California. In 1939 De Carlo was named "Miss Venice Beach." After moving back to Canada, they returned to California in 1940. De Carlo earned a living working in the chorus. In 1941 she made her first screen appearance in the Soundie (musical shorts played on a special jukebox and shown in theatres) "I Look at You." That same year she appeared in a bit part in Harvard, Here I Come. For the next several years De Carlo played small roles in various films, until being cast in Salome, Where She Danced in 1945. For the next several years she would appear in desert oriented programmers (probably because they gave her a chance to show her figure off in harem costumes) such as Slave Girl and Casbah, and various Westerns such as Calamity Jane and Sam Bass and Silver City.

The Fifties saw De Carlo make her biggest screen appearance, as the wife of Moses, Sephora, in The Ten Commandments in 1956. She would later appear as Mrs. Warren in the John Wayne Western comedy McLintock in 1963. Throughout the Fifties and into the Sixties, however, much of her work would be done on television. She first appeared on the small screen in 1953 on an episode of Ford Television Theatre. She appeared on other anthology series, such as Schlitz Playhouse of Stars and Playhouse 90. She made guest appearances on such shows as Bonanza, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Virginian, and The Name of the Game. Of course, her biggest claim to fame on the small screen would be the role of Lily on The Munsters. The part introduced her to a entire new generation of fans.

Following The Munsters, De Carlo continued to have a film career, although it was largely in B movies such as Blazing Stewardesses, Nocturna, and American Gothic. She also appeared in a television version of The Mark of Zorro and the movie Oscar. On Broadway she appeared in Stephen Sondheim's Follies in 1971.

While she is probably best known as Lily Munster, I actually remember her better from her two major roles, Sephora in The Ten Commandments and Mrs. Warren in McLintock. While she was often utilised as window dressing in many films, these two movies proved that De Carlo was actually capable of acting. Indeed, McLintock displayed the gift for comedy that came to good use in The Munsters (a show which in my mind had a great cast, but lousy scripts). I find it regrettable that many casting directors and studio directors simply failed to see beyond her undoubtedly beautiful looks. At any rate, while she will be remembered as Lily Munster, I rather suspect that she will also be remembered for the few good parts she managed to receive.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Age of the Digital Backlot?

Every decade since the invention of motion pictures has seen advances in the technology behind them. In the case of the Seventies, one of those advances was in computer graphics imagery or, more simply CGI. CGI first appeared in Westworld. It would also play a role in that movie's sequel, Futureworld and, more significantly, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. In 1982 Tron would make the first significant use of computer animation (although it is less than many have supposed). As the decade passed, CGI advanced. Pixar would create the first character generated by CGI in Young Sherlock Holmes, released in 1985. The Abyss, released in 1989, featured the first photorealstic CGI in the form of the water creature.

By the Nineties several major motion pictures included significant use of CGI and to a degree computer graphics imagery even became commonplace. Indeed, 1995 would mark the release of the first completely computer animated feature--Pixar's Toy Story. It was only a matter of time before live action movies would be made in which the sets were entirely generated on a computer. The age of the digital backlot or virtual backlot had at last arrived.

Quite simply, the term "digital backlot" describes productions in which the shooting occurs entirely against a greenscreen or other blank background, with the "sets" later added through CGI. It is difficult to say what was the first film shot on a digital backlot actually was, as three such movies were all released in 2004. The first to be released was Immortel (Ad Vitam), a French film based on the comic books La Foire aux immortels and La Femme piege. It debuted at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Films on March 13, 2004. The second was the Japanese film Casshern, which was based on an earlier anime of the same name. It was premiered on April 24, 2004. The third film to be shot on a digital backlot was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was released on September 24, 2004. Of course, which film was released first does not solve the problem of determining which was shot first or, worse yet, who came up with the idea first. That having been said, that honour should perhaps go to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow--director Kerry Conran had set to work on making his own film. The concept Conran developed would become Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Regardless, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was not a great success at the box office (although it is a very good movie in my opinion), which may well have left many with the question of how viable films shot on virtual backlots really were. That question would be answered in 2005 with the release of Sin City. Based on Frank Miller's series of graphic novels, Sin City was shot entirely against a greenscreen using CineAlta high definition cameras. The movie proved very successful, making a total of $158.7 million worldwide. It proved once and for all that films shot on digital backlots could be successful. Mirrormask, a production of the Jim Henson Company, was also released in 2005. Its screenplay was written by Neil Gaiman of Sandman fame and directed by comic book illustrator Dave McKean. Although it only received limited release, it has become a bit of a cult film. It seems that the digital backlot is here to stay.

Indeed, at least one film shot on a digital backlot is being released this year. 300 is based on Frank Miller's graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae and directed by Zack Snyder. It debuts March 9 of this year. Two more films to be shot on digital backlots have also been announced. Madman, based on Mike Allred's comic book, is to be co-directed by Allred and George Huang. The Spirit, based on comic book legend Will Eisner's most famous creation, is going to be directed by Frank Miller (of Sin City and 300 fame).

I think it is safe to say that there will be even more films shot on a digital backlot released in the coming years. While I doubt that there will ever come a time when movies will be shot entirely on a digital backlot (there will always be movies shot on physical sets in the real world), I think it is safe to say that there are many that will be. After all, digital backlots offer certain advantages over shooting on a physical set. Not only does the director have nearly total control over the environment, he or she can also create sets that could not possibly exist on planet Earth. It seems to me, then, that the digital backlot could be an absolute boon for science fiction and fantasy films. Landscapes that do not exist on Earth and would be difficult even to create with miniatures could easily be done so through computer generated imagery. It's for that reason I rather suspect that as time goes by we will see more and more films produced using digital backlots.