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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Newsroom Fades to Black

Written by Jon Williams

The third and final season of The Newsroom concluded this past season, bringing an end to HBO’s series about the perils and challenges of trying to do serious TV journalism in an era of reality TV and the endless quest for ratings. The lead role of passionate newsman Will McAvoy was ably handled by Jeff Daniels (in quite a departure from his other recent appearance as Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber To), heading an ensemble cast that also included Sam Waterston, Jane Fonda, Emily Mortimer, and Olivia Munn, among others.

The Newsroom was created by Aaron Sorkin, who also served as the primary writer for all 25 episodes. Sorkin started his career as a playwright, and got his start in Hollywood by writing the play A Few Good Men, adapting it himself for the movie starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. With its famous “You can’t handle the truth!” line thundered by Nicholson’s character, Sorkin’s reputation as a writer of smart, snappy dialogue was born. He would then go on to write the films Malice (currently unavailable) and The American President.

From there, Sorkin would make his first foray into the television world—in more ways than one. His first series, Sports Night (also unavailable), was, like The Newsroom, a show about doing television. Inspired by ESPN’s SportsCenter, the show focused on a group of people putting together a nightly sports show. The comedy was well received by critics but scored low ratings (perhaps inspiring one of the conflicts at the heart of The Newsroom) and was only on for two seasons. It led, however, directly into The West Wing, the breakthrough drama starring Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet and focusing on his staff and administration.

The West Wing ran for seven seasons, ending in 2006, which saw the debut of Sorkin’s next series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. With it, he returned to the world of television production, this time looking at a sketch comedy series. However, it garnered much the same reaction as Sports Night, and only lasted one season. At that point, Sorkin returned to working for the big screen, adapting books into screenplays for the hit movies Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network (for which he won an Academy Award), and Moneyball.

With The Newsroom heading into the sunset, one of the projects on Sorkin’s horizon is another adaptation for the silver screen, this time of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. He has said recently that he is unlikely to write again for television; if that’s true, he’s certainly left viewers with some great shows and memorable moments. Make sure you have his acclaimed work on your shelves for patrons to explore and enjoy.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Grammys More Than Just Music

Written by Jon Williams

In case you missed it somehow, the Grammy Award nominations were announced last week in an all-day event that culminated in a concert special that came with the Album of the Year nominees. The artists and albums up for that coveted award are Beck’s Morning Phase, Beyonce’s self-titled surprise, Pharrell’s GIRL, Ed Sheeran’s X, and Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour. You can find these CDs, along with all the others up for awards in all categories, in our collection of 2015 Grammy nominees.

When you hear about the Grammys, your mind automatically turns to music—which is only natural, as the awards honour the best and brightest in the music industry, and at the ceremony the awards themselves take a backseat to some of the most notable performances of the year. With that in mind, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that not all Grammy Awards are given out for music. One such award is that for comedy album, which has a stellar lineup this year. Here are the nominees for this year:

Louis C.K. – Oh My God: Even if you don’t know Louis C.K. by sight, chances are excellent that you know his work. In addition to his standup, he has a long and successful comedy writing career, including for Letterman and Saturday Night Live. He has been nominated for several Emmy Awards, winning in 1999 for The Chris Rock Show, and again just last year for his own show, the acclaimed FX series Louie.

Jim Gaffigan – Obsessed: If there’s one overarching theme in Jim Gaffigan’s comedy, it’s that he likes to talk about food. A lot. He has authored two books of humour: Dad Is Fat and Food: A Love Story; the titles should give you some idea. As such, his humour is generally pretty clean and family-appropriate. Although he doesn’t maintain a steady presence in Hollywood, it’s certainly not out of the ordinary to see him on film or TV, with roles in Super Troopers and That ‘70s Show, to name just a couple.

Patton Oswalt – Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time: Patton Oswalt, on the other hand, is all over the place. Performing as a comedian for over twenty years, he has also gotten regular Hollywood work. He does a fair amount of voice work, most notably starring as Remy the Rat in Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille. Most recently he’s had a recurring role on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He’s also frequently found on Twitter, where he’s been known to experiment with the form as a method of delivering comedy.

Sarah Silverman – We Are Miracles: Like Louis C.K., one of Sarah Silverman’s first jobs was writing for SNL, although she had little success and was fired after one season. Obviously, that hasn’t deterred her, as she has gone on to become one of the biggest names in comedy. She, like Patton Oswalt, has done some voiceover work, such as in Wreck-It Ralph, and plenty of other acting work besides. She has appeared on Louie, and most recently was in the Seth MacFarlane comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West.

Weird Al Yankovic – Mandatory Fun: Okay, so this one actually is musical in nature, as well as being hilarious. Al took the Internet by storm earlier this year with the release of this, his fourteenth album, releasing a video per day for a week, including parodies of Pharrell’s “Happy” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” We wrote about him and his career at the time, but one thing we failed to mention (specifically) is that he won a previous Grammy for Best Comedy Album in 2003 for Poodle Hat.

All of the nominees have plenty of hilarious material available; SmartBrowse each of their names on our website for their films, audiobooks, and standup specials on DVD and CD. Who do you think is the funniest of the bunch?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

True Detective Season 2 Cast Announced

Written by Jon Williams

Early in 2014, HBO continued its string of buzzworthy hit shows with the original series True Detective. The first season of the show featured Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as the detectives in question, and its eight episodes followed their 17-year hunt for a serial killer in southern Louisiana. The series was received well by audiences and critics alike, garnering ten Emmy nominations and five wins, including Outstanding Casting.

That outstanding casting is on display once again as the stars for Season 2 have been confirmed. As an anthology series, each individual season will tell an entirely new story, and so McConaughey and Harrelson will not return in their roles. Instead, a completely different cast of characters will focus on another case, set this time somewhere in California.

One of the early casting announcements, and one that raised some eyebrows, was Vince Vaughn as a criminal kingpin. Vaughn, of course, is known primarily for screwball comedies like Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball, which are at odds with True Detective’s dark, gritty tone. Despite this perception, he’s no stranger to dramatic (and often dark) roles, having starred in such films as Clay Pigeons and Domestic Disturbance—not to mention his portrayal of one of the most iconic villains of all time, Norman Bates, in the 1998 remake of Psycho.

Playing Vaughn’s character’s wife in True Detective will be Kelly Reilly, who was just confirmed earlier this week. This English actress has had quite a variety of roles in a career that dates back to the mid-1990s. Most prominent among them might be as Mary Morstan, paramour of Dr. John Watson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and its 2011 sequel. She also starred as detective Anna Travis in three seasons of the British television Above Suspicion, and has been seen recently in films like Cavalry and Heaven Is for Real.

Another early announcement, confirmed in September at the same time as Vaughn, was Colin Farrell. Farrell will play one of the cops, but one that also owes allegiance to Vaughn’s criminal mastermind. First and foremost a movie star, Farrell actually got his start in television, appearing in Series 4 and 5 of the BBC’s Ballykissangel. Shortly thereafter he made his way to Hollywood with roles in films like Hart’s War with Bruce Willis and Minority Report with Tom Cruise. He’s been involved in several high-profile remakes, including Miami Vice, Fright Night, and Total Recall, and he won a Golden Globe for In Bruges.

Playing another troubled cop will be Taylor Kitsch, who burst onto the scene playing Tim Riggins, the much-loved high school football player at the heart of the Friday Night Lights TV series. From there he jumped into effects-laden blockbusters, starring in Disney’s adaptation of John Carter and as part of the Battleship group. Toning down the bombast, he recently appeared in another HBO production, the critically acclaimed drama The Normal Heart, whose ensemble cast drew rave reviews across the board.

And finally we come to the last member of True Detective’s main cast for Season 2. Rachel McAdams, like Reilly and Kitsch, was just confirmed this week, signing up to play a straight-laced detective (some descriptions list her character as a sheriff) in charge of the investigation. Also like Reilly, McAdams is an alumna of Sherlock Holmes, although she is probably most recognized for earlier roles in Mean Girls and The Notebook. McAdams has a bit of television background, with a role in the Canadian series Slings & Arrows among her first acting jobs.

With a cast like this, it’s easy to assume that the second season of True Detective will be just as big a hit as the first. Make sure you have that first season on your shelves for patrons who may have missed it on TV, and don’t forget all these other great movies and TV shows from these talented actors.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Looking at the Mockingjay Soundtrack

Written by Jon Williams

The third movie in the Hunger Games series, Mockingjay Part 1, releases into theatres this Friday, and is already projected to be one of the biggest films of 2014. The soundtrack for the film came out earlier this week, and chances are good that you already have it on your shelves (or, more likely, you don’t have it on your shelves, as zealous patrons have already nabbed it). The artists who provide the music on the soundtrack are likely to become in-demand as they’re discovered by new listeners, so let’s take a look at a few of them.

It was announced months ago that the soundtrack would be curated by singer Lorde, best known for her hit “Royals,” which appears on her debut album Pure Heroine. Having just turned 18, you’d think that putting together a soundtrack for a movie in an established blockbuster series might prove a daunting task, but Lorde knocked it out of the park. She provided the lead single, “Yellow Flicker Beat” (a Kanye West rework of the track appears as well), as well as another track, “Ladder Song,” in addition to co-writing four other songs and performing on one of them.

The track she performs on is the opener, “Meltdown” by Stromae, which also features Pusha T, Q-Tip, and Haim. Stromae is the stage name of Paul Van Haver, a Belgian hip-hop/electronic musician. Very popular in Europe, Stromae is just beginning to find an American audience, having been featured over the summer on Late Night with Seth Meyers and NPR.

Two of the songs co-written by Lorde feature collaborations between artists with more familiar names. The fifth track, “All My Love,” is by Major Lazer, the electronic music project of Diplo, and it includes vocals by Ariana Grande, the gold-selling pop sensation whose second album, My Everything, was released in August. The penultimate song on the album is “This Is Not a Game” by the Grammy-winning Chemical Brothers, another electronic duo, in collaboration with R&B artist Miguel, a fellow Grammy recipient for his song “Adorn” from his 2012 Kaleidoscope Dream album.

Collaborations are definitely a strength of the soundtrack, with another coming in the form of “Kingdom,” a song credited to Charli XCX. Known for co-writing and performing on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” her own debut album, Sucker, will be released in December and feature the hit single “Boom Clap.” On the Mockingjay soundtrack, she works with Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran fame.

And there are plenty of non-collaborative songs on the soundtrack as well. One of the singles released for the album is “Dead Air” by Chvrches, an electronic band whose work has been featured in several TV shows. One of the more familiar names on the album is multitalented musician and actress Grace Jones, who contributes “Original Beast.” Other musicians and bands featured include Tove Lo, Tinashe, and Bat for Lashes.

As patrons get a chance to spend some time with this soundtrack—or if they have a hard time getting their hands on it—they’ll be looking for music by these artists. Help fuel their passion by having their CDs on your shelves.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What Is the Criterion Collection?

Written by Jon Williams

If you use our monthly DVD/Blu-ray Buyer’s Guide, you know that each month we feature a selection of movies offered by the Criterion Collection. In the upcoming December catalog, there will be a full page dedicated to them. But have you ever wondered exactly what the Criterion Collection is?

The simple answer, of course, is that it’s a video distribution company. The “About Us” page on Criterion’s website describes their collection as “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films,” as well as “the greatest films from around the world…in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.” What Criterion does is restore (if necessary) and remaster films for a crisp and clear presentation on DVD and high-definition Blu-ray, and then complement that film with such materials as audio commentary, deleted scenes, ‘making-of’ documentaries, and more. This wealth of esoterica allows the viewer to see the film in the context in which it was made, and has led to Criterion versions being referred to as “film school in a box.” In addition, Criterion was also the innovator of the “letterbox” format, using black bars at the top and bottom of the screen to present movies in a widescreen format, preserving their original aspect ratio (generally 2.35:1) when televisions were designed for a 4:3 display.

The Criterion Collection began in 1984, when VHS was still fighting with Betamax to become to dominant home video system of the day. Not content with the quality offered by either of these formats, though, Criterion in the beginning transferred films onto laserdisc. Although that format never became widespread, it remained Criterion’s sole format until 1998, when it made the switch to the burgeoning DVD format. Ten years later, in 2008, Criterion added Blu-ray to its repertoire, allowing for even better presentation than had previously been available. Currently, Criterion still distributes its films in both DVD and Blu-ray formats.

In the laserdisc days, Criterion would release mainstream movies, but their focus has narrowed mainly down to art, world, and classic films and documentaries. Although it no longer distributes them, the first two films issued by the Criterion Collection were Citizen Kane and the 1933 version of King Kong (and in both cases, the editions currently available are obviously inspired by the Criterion versions, boasting HD transfers and a full range of special features). It was with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (also no longer available from Criterion) that they introduced letterboxing.

Recent Criterion releases include such films as The Great Beauty (2014 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film), Babette’s Feast, Eraserhead, and the Beatles classic A Hard Day’s Night, while upcoming releases are scheduled for L’Avventura, Time Bandits (an update of their 1999 release), and Tootsie. This, however, is a mere sampling of a vast collection that includes more than 800 titles. For the full list of DVDs and Blu-rays available from Midwest Tape, SmartBrowse ‘Criterion Collection’ on our website.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Keaton Fits Right into Birdman

Written by Jon Williams

You’ve heard about all the films hovering near the top of the box office—highly publicized films like John Wick, Fury, Ouija, and Gone Girl. But there’s another film out right now that you may not have heard much about, which is garnering critical acclaim and doing quite well for itself in a limited theatrical release. That film is Birdman, about an actor whose career goes off the rails after a successful turn starring as a wildly popular superhero.

That actor is Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton. It’s not hard to see the parallel between the plot of Birdman and Keaton’s own career. Keaton went through a period of immense popularity in the mid to late 1980s, culminating with his portrayal of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, the Caped Crusader, in 1989’s Batman and its 1992 follow-up, Batman Returns. He was originally set to play Batman a third time, but he opted to drop out of the production when director Tim Burton did.

Batman has done fine since Keaton’s departure, with the cape and cowl being taken up by Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Christian Bale, with Ben Affleck on deck to wear it next. Keaton, on the other hand, has been relegated, for the most part, to Hollywood’s background. While his IMDb page will show you that he has remained active, he has certainly not had the same degree of prominence he did prior to his stint as Batman.

Keaton’s birth name is actually Michael Douglas; as he began working in show business in the late ‘70s, he took an alternate name to avoid confusion with the other Michael Douglas, who was already well known. After a couple of one-shots on sitcoms like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Maude, he got a chance to show off his comedy chops against Jim Belushi in the show Working Stiffs. That then led to a role in the 1982 Ron Howard comedy feature Night Shift, and the rest is history. From there he became a sought-after comedic actor, starring in such films as Mr. Mom and Johnny Dangerously, and topping it off with a transcendent performance in the classic Tim Burton film Beetlejuice.

From Night Shift to Batman Returns was a period of ten years, with a number of notable starring roles for Keaton in that timespan. In the 22 years since, they’ve been fewer and further between, but there are definitely some gems. In 1994, he re-teamed with Ron Howard for The Paper, and in 1996 he played several versions of the same character in Multiplicity, directed by the late, great Harold Ramis. He starred in the 1998 holiday film Jack Frost and the 2005 horror movie White Noise. He’s also done some voice acting for Disney/Pixar, voicing characters in Cars and Toy Story 3. More recently, he appeared as the sinister OmniCorp CEO in the RoboCop reboot, bringing a sinister energy to the role.

Birdman features an all-star cast that includes Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone, but the movie undoubtedly belongs to Michael Keaton. We’ll have info on its upcoming DVD/Blu-ray release as soon as it becomes available; in the meantime, make sure you have plenty of other Keaton movies on your shelves for your patrons to enjoy. SmartBrowse his name on our website to see everything we have to offer.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Beyond Gone Girl

Written by Jon Williams

After being released into theatres on October 3, Gone Girl has won the domestic box office for two consecutive weekends. The story of a wife who disappears on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary and the possible guilt or innocence of her husband, the film has struck a chord with moviegoers, who have spent upwards of $80 million to see it so far. When it is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the coming months, it will no doubt prove to be just as popular with library patrons as its source material, the book by Gillian Flynn.

Flynn adapted the screenplay of Gone Girl from her own novel, which was then brought to the screen by acclaimed director David Fincher, known for Seven and The Social Network, among many others. The ill-fated husband and wife are played by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Everyone knows all about Affleck, of course; Pike is probably best known for her role as a villain in the 2002 Bond film Die Another Day, and has also appeared in such movies as Pride and Prejudice and The World’s End. The cast of Gone Girl also benefits from performances by such well-known actors as Neil Patrick Harris (who recently published his autobiography) and Tyler Perry (of Madea fame).

While Gone Girl is Flynn’s third and most recent novel, it is the only one of her works to be adapted for film so far. That will not be the case for long, however. Coming to theatres in 2015 will be Dark Places, adapted from Flynn’s second novel by writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (who also adapted Tatiana de Rosney’s Sarah’s Key). It tells the story of Libby Day, who survives a massacre and testifies against her younger brother, and then, years later, must face suspicion that he wasn’t the culprit after all. Charlize Theron will star as Libby in this dark thriller.

Flynn’s first novel, published in 2006, was Sharp Objects, the tale of a troubled journalist charged with covering a series of brutal murders in her old hometown, and then must deal with ghosts from her own past. Previous attempts to adapt this novel have not panned out, but it was announced recently that it is being turned into a limited TV series. Not many details have been announced, such as casting or networks, but the showrunner will be Marti Noxon, who has worked on such series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Glee.

Make sure you have all three of Gillian Flynn’s audiobooks on your shelves for your patrons as they wait for Gone Girl and her other adaptations. In the meantime, what have you been recommending to patrons who enjoyed Gone Girl and are looking for something similar? Let us know in the comments section.