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Short Takes – December 2007


by Andrew Dowd


Television
The big news in TV this month and last month—and what will probably continue to be big news in the months to come—is the WGA strike. The Writer’s Guild officially went on strike on November 5th, citing the studios’ stringent policies on negotiating contracts and their continual refusal to cut writers in on residual and “new media” grosses. The Strike will certainly have a long-term effect on the motion picture business—studio slates are looking pretty sparse nine months from now—but it’s having an immediate effect on network television. With most regular programs written six or seven episodes in advance, the major networks are looking at no new shows after this month—and late night’s been off the air since the strike began. Some of the related stories and repercussions:

Studios sat down with union representations late last month to negotiate a peace settlement, but after days of talking, the negotiations abruptly ended. The strike continues unabated.

Ellen Degeneres has caught heat for crossing the picket lines and filming new episodes of her daytime talk show. She has insisted that she “loves her writers” and supports the Guild, but her refusal to show that support through an actual on-air boycott has made her a figure of scorn among Hollywood writers.

Conan O’Brien was the first late night talk show host to begin paying his writing staff during the strike. David Letterman quickly coughed up a running salary, too, as did most late night and daytime hosts. Jay Leno resisted following suit for awhile, but under pressure from the WGA and his own writing team, he eventually relented and is now paying them to show his support.

Without the time to build an audience proper or the support of network heads, most of the freshman TV shows will probably not survive to see a second season. Those that have been renewed and will return after the strike has been resolved: Chuck, Life, Pushing Daisies, and Dirty Sexy Money.

Tim Kring has used the strike as an opportunity to publicly apologize for the less-than-stellar sophomore season of his Heroes. The show wrapped up its unpopular second-season story arc recently, and Kring promises that when the show picks up again, it will begin a new, more fan-friendly arc. In related news, the planned Heroes spin-off, Origins, has officially been scrapped. (Sorry, Eli Roth.)

Evil Knievel died of terminal lung cancer on November 30th at his home in Florida. The daredevil, motorcycle stuntman—a fixture of the 1970s talk-show circuit—was 69. News of his death came just two days after he settled out of court his lawsuit against Kanye West for use of his “image” and “public persona” without permission for his “Touch the Sky” video.

ABC’s Shrek the Halls, a half-hour Christmas special starring the cast and characters of the popular animated film series, drew a whopping 21.06 million viewers when it first aired on November 28th. It may already be the single highest-rated Christmas TV special of all time. Look for more of these in the near future, not to mention the inevitable fourth, fifth, and sixth entries in the shameless cash-cow series. Ironic for a movie franchise that began by lampooning the greed and excess of Disney.

And in the strangest story this month, TV personality Bill Nye—he of personal childhood staple Bill Nye, The Science Guy—has filed a restraining order against his ex-fiancée for allegedly trying to poison him (!). In related news, Beakman of Beakman’s World has sued his old landlord for leaving bear traps in his front lawn. (Not really, though.)

Music
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers will headline this coming year’s Superbowl Halftime Show. Prince can be a tough act to follow, boys. Good luck.

Led Zeppelin rescheduled their highly anticipated reunion one-off in London from mid-November to this past Monday, the 10th. No word on a set-list yet, but I bet it rocked this planet.

Dr. Rhonda West, mother of hip-hop superstar Kanye West, died this past month. A fixture of the Chicago school district, West became actively involved in her son’s career when he started to hit it big a few years ago. The two remained personally and professionally close up until her death. Her cause of death remains unknown, though some are speculating now that it may have been complications related to a surgical operation.

And, in the coolest bit of news to come this reporter’s way all month, alt-rock-funk-country-hip-hop extraordinaire Beck will join forces with fellow genre experimenters The White Stripes for a group of B-sides to be attached to the latter’s new single, “Conquest.” Beck produced all four tunes, and allegedly appears on two of them. The last time Mr. Hansen and Mr. White collaborated it produced the killer “Go It Alone,” for Beck’s 2005 Guero LP. Here’s hoping this crop of surely-strange hybrids lives up to the respective pedigree of those involved.

Movies
The 2007-2008 award season has officially commenced with the announcement of several major Oscar precursors. The increasingly relevant Indie Spirit Awards were first out the gate, dropping their slate of nominees late last month; Todd Haynes’ dazzling biopic experiment I’m Not There led the pack with four nods—including one for the remarkable, dead-ringer-for-Dylan Cate Blanchett—followed closely by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Savages. Cementing its status as a Best Picture frontrunner, the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men took home the top prize from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics, while L.A. critics rallied around There Will Be Blood, giving the unseen-by-the-public historical epic Picture, Directing (Paul Thomas Anderson), and Acting (Daniel Day-Lewis) trophies. Next up: more awards from more critics’ groups, and a slew of personal top ten lists start coming in. Then it’s Globes in January and Oscars in February. It’s going to be a strange season.

Lots of casting news from the Dream Factory this month:

J.J. Abrams has largely finalized his cast for the forthcoming Star Trek movie re-launch, a prequel of sorts that will focus on the first mission of the Starship Enterprise. Joining the previously announced Zachary Quinto (Heroes) as the young Spock are Chris Pine (Just My Luck) as a dashing, twentysomething Captain Kirk and Karl Urban (Lord of the Rings) as the skeptical Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead alum Simon Pegg will play a younger, thinner Scotty, Harold and Kumar’s John Cho is filling in as Sulu, and Joely Saldana (Guess Who?) has landed the role of Uhura. Rounding out the cast is Eric Bana as the villain, Ben Cross (Chariots of Fire) as Spock’s father, and (say what?) Winona Ryder as his mother. Quite a high-profile lot of actors. Sounds promising. Beam me up, Abrams. (Sorry. No, really, I am.)

Leonardo DiCaprio will join forces yet again with Martin Scorsese for Shutter Island, based on a novel by Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone author Dennis Lehane. Also featured in prominent roles: Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, and Sir Ben Kingsley. Expect this one to drop in 2009, after Rolling Stones doc Shine a Light, but likely before either Silence or the DiCaprio-headlining The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

Christian Bale is trading in his cape and cowl for combat fatigues. After next summer’s The Dark Knight, he’ll take over for Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl as the full-grown John Conner in Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins. That’s the good news. The bad news? No Arnold and no James Cameron. Charlie’s Angels director McG is helming this one. Forgive me if my enthusiasm is waning. Look for this totally, completely necessary sequel in 2009.

Johnny Depp will star as John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, slated for release in 2009. In completely unrelated news, Anthony Hopkins will play Alfred Hitchcock in a forthcoming biopic about the revered director. He will also play Benicio del Toro’s father in The Wolf Man, which is kind of awesome, if a little confusing.

Paranoid Park isn’t opening until March, but Gus Van Sant already has his follow-up project ready to roll. Milk, which stars Sean Penn as slain gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, will begin production in January. Dan Jinks and Bruce Ruben, the team behind the Oscar-winning American Beauty, are producing. Focus Features will distribute the film. Segway alert: in semi-related news, Focus has also acquired Jim Jarmusch’s latest, The Limits of Control, which begins shooting in Spain early next year.

Following in the footsteps of friend and fellow class act George Clooney, Matt Damon was named the Sexiest Man Alive by People Magazine—this after he attempted to turn down the honor, the modest guy he!

And in the wake of the successful (though vastly overrated) Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, 81-year-old Sidney Lumet has signed a three-picture deal with producer Michael Cerenzie. Production on the first of these films—Getting Out, which Lumet also wrote—will begin in January.

Most information is derived from IMDB's daily news, the Chicago dailies (Tribune and Sun Times), Entertainment Weekly, MSN.com, various sources as listed, and by just paying attention.

Andrew Dowd is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.



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