Monday, August 28, 2006

Short cuts

Current heavy rotation, in no particular order:

1. Richard Hawley

On the shortlist for this year's Mercury Prize with his album Coles Corner, Sheffield's Richard Hawley sounds like a dead ringer for Sinatra. If Sinatra had followed Dylan's lead in the 60s and become a serious folk singer instead of trying to impose his Vegas lounge aesthetic on the popular songs of the day (many of which weren't very good as-is). The title track is the sound of fall coming on. "Like The Rain" is the best Nilsson song he never wrote. Videos for all his tracks can be found at the Mute label's UK site -- check out "Born Under A Bad Sign" for sure.

2. Camera Obscura

Further north, Glasgow's Camera Obscura melds Wall of Sound-ish guitar pop with lead singer Tracyanne Campbell's wistful lyrics and Scottish brogue. The single "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken" is an answer of sorts to Lloyd Cole's "Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?" Yes, Lloyd. Tracyanne *is* ready to be heartbroken. Even better is the title track to the album, Let's Get Out of This Country. Retro yet completely fresh at the same time.

3. The Submarines

Closer to home, the story behind this L.A. duo is almost as good as the music itself, which is great. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl record some songs and tour together. Boy and girl break up and each write more songs about the breakup and how much they miss each other. Boy and girl get back together and (maybe) live happily ever after. The resulting album, Declare a New State!, gives both sides of the story through the couple's proto-folk tunes, with some crunchy beats thrown underneath. And I know I heard the opening riff from "How Soon Is Now?" sampled in there too.

4. Lucky Soul

Although only a band of singles thus far, London's Lucky Soul have also been mining the mod sound to great effect. "Lips Are Unhappy" maybe the best song I've heard this year, a shimmering perfect piece of Motown girl-group pop. Take a listen at their MySpace page if you have any doubts. The others there are a bit more downtempo but always soulful and evocative of the Carnaby Street era. Groovy, baby.

5. Lily Allen

Same city, different century, Lily Allen is the real future sound of London. Dub(step), rap, pop, and ska all get mashed up proper, topped off by Lilly's most decidedly not posh accent. Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" was the song of the summer here in the states but "LDN" was it across the pond. Where else are you going to hear some one rhyme "alfresco" and "bags from Tesco"? Equally good is "Smile." Cheeky fun.

6. Ladytron

Bit behind the times on this one (Witching Hour came out last fall apparently) but "Destroy Everything You Touch" is this Liverpool band at their icy electro best.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The gift that keeps on giving

Prefaced by apologies to my former colleague in Baltimore, Stuart Levine, who blogs about tax law far more competently than I could ever aspire to, I did want to comment on this week's IRS announcement that Hollywood's ubiquitous "gift bags" are indeed subject to federal income tax. The agreement between the IRS and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences arose out of the ever-increasing amounts of free swag that presenters received from the Academy for doling out Oscars each March. Styled as an "outreach" to the entertainment industry, never let it be said that the Service does not have a sense of humor. For celebrities conditioned to getting freebies worth more than the average person makes in an entire year in consideration for about two minutes worth of teleprompter reading and envelope ripping, the biscuit wheels might be coming off the gravy train. For the rest of us, well somehow we'll have to soldier on.

On the off chance that there are any prospective Oscar presenters who regularly read this blog (the taxation will only apply to future gift bag offerings), I'll try and explain why the sudden change. After all, they're gift bags, right, so what gives with the tax? In the eyes of the Commissioner (the only ones that really count for tax purposes), income by any other name would still smell as taxable:

Q: If these are gifts, why do they have to be treated as income?

A: These gift bags are not gifts for federal income tax purposes because the organizations and merchants who participate in giving the gifts bags do not do so solely out of affection, respect, or similar impulses for the recipients of the gift bags.

In other words, the quid pro quo of stars filling the stage of the Oscars ceremony in exchange for a small token of appreciation from the Academy didn't quite fit the IRS's definition of a gift. And by "small token of appreciation," the Academy in 2006 meant:

stays at the Opus Hotel in Vancouver and the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino

dinner at five restaurants: Elixir, West, Coast, Pointe, Shelter

yoga sessions, spa treatments

kayaking in Clayoquot Sound, a scenic flight to a remote lake

two Oxia Oxygen Personal Canisters

Gaiam Gift Certificate ($500)

Signature Days Gift Certificate ($500)

Krups XP4050 Premium Pump Espresso Machine and illy's Limited Edition Pistoletto Foundation Espresso Cup Collection (Value: $600)

Vonage, The VTech Expandable Broadband Phone System. (Value: $550)

Two Night Stay in a Suite at The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel in New York (Value: $2,300)

Frette cashmere leather trimmed Voyage travel blanket (Value: $1,495)

Firefly mobile phone for kids

The Cheese Impresario at-home artisanal cheese experience for six.

Moonstruck Chocolates: Twelve truffles within a custom hand-crafted Thai silk and teak wood box. (Value: $100+)

The Loved Dog: Personal Training gift card, 3-night stay at Doggie Daycare, and a Luxury Dog Bed.

Tara & Sons pearl and diamond necklace

Mr. Handyman gift certificate for one day of service

Four-night stay in the Vera Wang Suite at Halekulani Hotel, Waikiki Beach, a signature treatment at the famed SpaHalekulani, dinner for two at La Mer at Halekulani

Cornelia Day Resort "Unlimited Card" (worth $2,500), includes a $500 facial, massages, a whole range of beauty products and an entire day of beauty treatments

Dinner party in Morton's Private Boardroom at any of their 69 restaurants (Value: $1500)

Kay Unger vintage silk kimono ($500)

year’s supply of Manni olive oil

two nights (plus surfing lessons) at St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach, CA ($5,700)

two nights (plus wine tasting) at Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley, CA ($2,500)

three nights at one of five Fairmont Hotel & Resorts ($2500)

A BRUGO Travel Mug (featuring the Perfect Temperature Zone)

I can't imagine what it was that tipped the revenuers off that the gift rules might be being taken advantage of.

Although the Academy is discontinuing their Oscars bag, other ceremonies plan to keep them for now. Many presenters, having drunk deeply from the gift bag well for far too long now, will likely just pay the taxes and keep the swag rolling in, though one hopes that some would follow George Clooney's lead and auction or donate them to charity. Not necessarily out of any overriding sense of altruism, although that may play a part, but the value of the charitable donation would then be tax deductible. Gift bags, we hardly knew ye.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


With a bit of a lull in the writing currently (I'm outlining what I hope to be a quick-n-dirty horror exploitation spec before jumping back into something more substantial), it's as good a time as any to post my latest first-round piece for The Writer's Arc. Again, the deal is they give you the elements of: (1) two characters; (2) setting; and (3) a prop. The rest is up to you, the only limits being 5-10 pages.

The elements were:

Alex Mackenzie & Parker Lam
a yard
a card

"Prime Minister" is what I came up with.

I knew that with this exercise I wanted to vary it up in terms of scenes, dialog, and story, compared to the one continuous encounter between the two characters that I had done the first time around. For whatever reason, the first thing that the "yard" setting brought to my mind was Scotland Yard. I guess London is in my comfort zone for these things. So with that as my location I decided to make it a sort of political thriller, set against the backdrop of an assassination plot against the prime minister. And I liked the idea of the ringleader walking right through the front door of Scotland Yard to retrieve one of the plotters who had been picked up by the police. That would allow for enough of a dramatic situation to get ten pages out of anyway.

The next issue was who the characters were going to be. Alex Mackenzie I envisioned as the protagonist, a top antiterrorist detective with the city's force. Sort of a younger Helen Mirren's DCI Jane Tennison in the excellent Prime Suspect series. But with just a little bit more touch of Jack Bauer. Parker Lam would be the Jackal-esque assassin who must go into the belly of the beast to deal with the problem of an associate who has been taken into custody.

The prop -- a card -- allowed me to make Parker's associate a master forger who was picked up in the middle of delivering a fake security card that would get Lam into 10 Downing Street. Of course, Parker isn't really going in to rescue his partner as much as to find out how much information about the plot has been revealed and, ultimately, ensure that no more is discovered by Mackenzie. And then it's all just some exposition, interrogation, and Cockney rhyming slang.

Although I did some research, it was just enough to know that there are the Special Branch and SO13 anti-terrorism divisions of the Metropolitan Police. I have no idea if they actually detain suspects in the New Scotland Yard building or where the various divisons are located in relation to each other. If it had been an actual feature-length script, I would have done much more digging but I'm not an adherent to the Tom Clancy school of minutae. And especially for this short sample, plausibility and reasonableness were sufficient.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Steal my sunshine

The hits just keep on coming this week on the fellowship front. Unlike the last go round with Amy & Ami, this time I didn't make the final round of The Writer's Arc. I'm not sure if things were simply more competitive as awareness of the program has grown or if this script just didn't connect with them but there it is. I took a risk in not re-submitting the political drama (now having taken another pass at it) that I sent in last fall. This script, a romantic comedy, was more personal and with a tone and point of view that I understand might not necessarily click with others on a broader level. Assuming there is a next time -- their e-mail indicated that there will be, so keep watching the site -- I will probably try a more conventional story in a different genre. Strangely, I had a dream last night about receiving the bad news e-mail, so take heart: your dreams really do come true in Hollywood!

Apropos of clinging to one's delusions in the face of all available evidence to the contrary, I caught Sundance festival fave, Little Miss Sunshine, this weekend. Sort of a post-modern, indie Vacation, "Sunshine" follows the Hoover family on the road from New Mexico to a child beauty pageant in California (and their collective collapses along the way). The first half is about as darkly funny as one could ask for. The family members' dysfunctional fault lines make for great comic tension as the group threatens to come apart at the seams at every turn. Unfortunately, that edge disappears somewhere around Scottsdale and the Hoovers end up just another happy family, albeit learning to love and accept their quirks rather than conquer them. But given how well the first act established the film's "unpretty" tone, its feel-good resolution without many reasons in the story for the characters' changes of heart left me flat. Overall, however, many laughs and word of mouth is likely to be very good as it rolls out slowly over the next few weeks into more and more markets.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Get me rewrite!

The dreaded envelope from the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting arrived in the mail today. Unfortunately, of the 245 scripts out of 4899 entries moving on to the quarterfinals, mine will not be one of them. A little disappointing but not entirely unexpected. There are no doubt hundreds, if not thousands, of entrants who have been at this far longer than me. And although I liked some things more about this draft of the script, there is still work to be done. Which would have had to be done in any event, whether I advanced or not. Congrats to Scott the Reader, who did have one of his two submissions make the first cut. For the rest of us, there's always next year so get polishing.