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Happy 240th July 4, 2016

Posted by David Card in Media.
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This year’s patriotic plug.  The U.S. Army learns how to fight, and Eisenhower – even though he’s not a Virginian – learns how to lead. And that flag is a shout-out to the home state of my niece’s alma mater, who just won the College World Series. Go, Chants!

Happy Fourth. Throw another hot dog on the grill for me. As usual, I’ll bring Mom’s potato salad (never tastes the same twice, but always good).


Best of 2015: Movies February 24, 2016

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Regular readers know I like to preface my list of faves with some box office stats, courtesy of the indispensable Box Office Mojo. A casual observer might think Hollywood had a good year in the U.S., with ticket sales a record, and up 7% from 2014. But two colossal hits, the Star Wars and Jurassic Park reboots, did not represent a tide that lifted leakier boats.


Photo credit: flickr user Hans Splinter

While their success hammers home the message that hits rule – does anyone mis-interpret the long tail phenomenon any more? – as my colleague Paul Sweeting writes, movies outside of the Top Five performed relatively poorly. Click through on his analysis; it’s worth a read. Studios can’t rely on the inertia of their old release and marketing tactics.

Meanwhile, in 2015:

  • Star Wars, practically a remake rather than just a re-start, collected nearly $1 billion in domestic box office, making it the biggest hit ever in current dollars. Gone with the Wind and the original Star Wars did better by other accounting. The $650 million that the dinos raked in was way, way better than recent years’ top-performers, which were lucky to crack $300 million. The disappointing Avengers 2 was the only pure superhero Top 10 flick, and wonder of wonders, an original property, The Martian, made it onto that list. Too bad it’s not particularly sequel-friendly.
  • Disney’s acquisitiveness paid off: it scored with Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar. Universal was a more surprising star via the fairly risky Jurassic move and the demographics-friendly continued success of the Fast ‘n Furious franchise, as well as those still-kicking Minions. There were just under 30 $100+ movies this year, which is about par for recent history. What really matters is how much one spends to make and market ’em.

I saw – and enjoyed – about half of the Top 20 movies last year. But only The Martian made my “best of” list. What else did? Proving I’m not a complete snob, but also not much of a reflector of popularity if a fair-to-middling predictor of Oscar-nom worthiness, last year I saw three 3.5-star movies. That was half as many as 2014. Here’s my take from my Rotten Tomato/Flixster reviews, Best Picture nominations in bold:

  • Spotlight. Shamelessly hits all the newsroom cliches and features some mannered performances – I’m looking at you Ruffalo and Keaton – but the riveting script builds to a big, emotional payoff. Makes the case why we’d better save a few #$%@ newspapers.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – Oh yeah, Miller still has it. Totally metal.
  • Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – This TV-funded documentary makes creative and enlightening use of rich archival material, and should be seen on a big screen with the volume turned up. God, I miss troubled-genius rockstars.

To round out my Top 10, these are my favorite  3-star movies:

  • The Big Short – So close. Righteous anger and daring approach just falls short of satirically nailing the greedy b@stards properly.
  • The Martian – Science heroes FTW! Go, NASA!
  • Creed – It’s probably a bad idea to do a feel-good boxing movie in 2015, but what the hey, this is a really good one. Sly is amazing – touchingly so – and Jordan should be a huge movie star based on charisma alone. And then there’s the shadow boxing with YouTube scene and the the mid-movie single-take fight scene….
  • Jauja – Remember I have a very high tolerance for slow-moving, so naturalistic they’re surreal, trippy head movies that take place on the Edge of the Great Unknown, where Civilization Loses its Way.
  • Steve Jobs – In Hollywood, genius @ssholes get happy endings. Sorkin’s three-act structure is daring but not completely successful: it’s stagey and a bit static, and Fassbender is the slightly too-cold center of a stellar cast. Way better than Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs at least has a theory of why he was who he was.
  • Sicario – Until the script loses its cojones and the third act turns it into just another revenge thriller, this is a tense, visually stunning, action flick that also has something serious to say about the ambiguity and futility of the War on Drugs. The slightly over-the-top score heightens the sense of dread, Del Toro and Brolin are solid, but Blunt is underwritten and wasted.
  • Mr. Holmes – Yes, the pace is stately, but Sir Ian adds a marvelous interpretation to the Canon. True fans will be forgiven for getting a little weepy.

I did like Pixar’s Inside Out, that deftly blends gags and themes for grownups and for kids. But its animation is fairly uninspired, except for one art-gag that will be waaaayyy over the heads of the target audience. The Revenant was a cold, Epic Folly without any real meaning that certainly was no Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, let alone Apocalypse Now. Bridge of Spies was classy but suspense-free. I haven’t seen Brooklyn or Room yet.

I’m still working on my Oscars hypotheses, but I don’t think they’ll give it to Iñárritu two years in a row.



Best of 2015: Music December 23, 2015

Posted by David Card in Media, Uncategorized.
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Slipping in this post in case you need stocking stuffers.


Photo credit: flickr user Ryan Atkins 

Here they are, my 10 favorite new releases of 2015:

  • Sleater-Kinney “No Cities to Love” – like they never went away. Still ferocious
  • Titus Andronicus “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” – we all need a 2-disc punkish concept album about manic depression sometimes. And it’s got the best punk song in years (Dimed Out)
  • Courtney Barnett “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” – remember how fresh Liz Phair’s first album sounded? It’s kinda like that
  • The Decemberists “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” – though I’m not sold on the horns, the whole thing is maddeningly catchy
  • Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp a Butterfly” – justifiably on everybody’s Best of 2015 lists, I love its jazziness
  • Alabama Shakes “Sound + Color” – soulful ear-worms
  • Blur “The Magic Whip” – does this qualify as my usual “geezers who’ve still go it” nomination?
  • Dead Weather “Dodge and Burn” – swampy. The best thing Jack White’s done in years, though it’s really Alison Mossheart’s band now
  • The Libertines “Anthems for Doomed Youth” – see Blur, above. Plus they’ve finally added some polished songwriting around the very British english-major lyrics
  • Grimes “Art Angels” – just one of the weirdest, most eclectic pop albums you’ll hear

Honorable mention to Wilco’s surprisingly rockin’ freebie “Star Wars”, and two more double albums – what? in the age of streaming? – Tenement’s garage-y something or other “Predatory Headlights” and Killing Joke’s ponderous but pounding “Pylon.” Kamasi Washington’s, gulp, 3-disc jazz album, “The Epic” is absolutely worth a listen, but not to my 50s jazz/bop tastes.

I bought 29 albums this year, about 6 or 7 of which were back catalog. That seems to be my pace these days. I still buy downloads, because that’s what I load on my phone. I stream on-demand for discovery, variety, and try-before-you-buy. That’s probably not mainstream behavior, but neither is streaming at $10+ per month. See Mark Mulligan for actual data-backed analysis.

Happy 239th July 4, 2015

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This year’s patriotic plug. Though its star is one of those anarchist New Englanders, rather than a more reasoned and rational Virginian, big chunks of the miniseries were filmed in Williamsburg.

Happy Fourth. Throw another burger on the grill for me. As always, I’ll bring Mom’s potato salad (never tastes the same twice, but always good). And I think I’ll keep adding the extra pickles.


Best of 2014: Movies March 13, 2015

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After my humiliating defeat at the hands of my sister in the family Oscars pool, it’s finally time for this post. But first, the usual stats, courtesy of Box Office Mojo.

  • Last year’s domestic box office gross was down 5 percent, after two pretty good years in a row. And Box Office Mojo is counting sales from Number One film American Sniper as 2014, even though most occurred in January 2015 and beyond. Last year, nothing cracked $400 million; three movies have $300+ million so far: Sniper, Hunger Games 3A, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Recent big years had multiple $400-million releases, topped by a monster like The Avengers with $600 million or Avatar at $750 million.
  • As usual, almost all of last year’s Top 10 were either cartoons or superheroes. Katniss and Chris Kyle pretty much qualify as superheroes, and the phenomenally crappy Transformers movie might as well be a cartoon. Guardians and The LEGO Movie did just fine as as franchise-starters at over $330 million and $250 million, respectively. Disney and Warners are in good shape, and while Fox may be gnashing its teeth over fading franchises, no studio had a huge-budget flop.

Among those big hits, Sniper was solid, but Guardians got more critical love than it deserved, because it felt fresher than most played-straight superheroics. But come on, who makes a mix tape with “Pina Colada” and “Cherry Bomb?” Most of my favorites of the year fell well below the Top 10 earners.

Source: flickr user Llaunes i cel·luloide 03

Source: flickr user Llaunes i cel·luloide 03

Which is not to say I’m a complete snob. I go to the movies weekly, and love blockbusters as well as indies. I’m a hard grader who reserves 5 stars in Rotten Tomatoes or Flixster for true classics. Last year I saw seven 3.5-star movies – not a bad tally. My personal Top 10 were:

  • Boyhood – This exercise in Texas slackerealism is a stunt, but an effective one. Just about the entire cast is so good – esp. the chemistry between Hawke and Coltrane – you actually care what happens to them. Why is that so rare?
  • Only Lovers Left Alive – Hiddleston and SWINTON are the coolest vampire couple since Bowie and Deneuve.
  • Whiplash – DI meets the drummer. The two leads are terrific, it’s superbly shot and edited, exciting, and will actually provoke discussion. Whiplash has little to do with jazz – it’s more like a corny sports movie – but I love corny sports movies.
  • The Babadook – The best classic horror movie in years. Two great performances (Davis and Wiseman), a good look and sound design, and just as scary thematically as “literally.” Can’t wait to see what Jennifer Kent does next.
  • Stalingrad – Old-fashioned, sentimental, propagandistic? But also epic. Great Russian cast overcomes under-written parts and matches the 3D spectacle.
  • Mr. Turner – One wonders if the eccentric bloke really grunted that much, but some of the vignettes are brilliant, most of the cast is very, very good, and the cinematography really does hint at the sublime.
  • American Sniper – Largely apolitical and super-patriotic, it’s still gripping and troubling. Cooper’s superb, un-flashy performance wasn’t completely ignored by the major awards nominators. Glad he was on our side – hoohyah!

To get to 10, the 3-star movies that will hold up best included:

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel – For once, Anderson’s fussy art direction works wonders, Fiennes is a marvel, and there’s even a hint of heart. A sad and nostalgic one.
  • Fury – Old-fashioned nearly to the point of cliche, but delivers some powerful scenes. Pitt is charismatic and the tanks look authentic, even if the tracers don’t. Three good war movies in one year?
  • John Wick – Lean and mean. Exciting choreographed violence shot coherently FTW.

In the based-on-a-true-story category, I liked Get on Up a little better than Foxcatcher, which was a little too cold, and far more than Selma, which had some effective scenes but was really only a few cuts above Movie-of-the-Week material. The best animated movie I saw was Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (I didn’t see LEGO yet). It felt three dimensional with no need for 3D glasses. Birdman was overheated and thematically shallow.

Possibly that affected my Oscar picks, though I try to predict, not cheer. I had Keaton for Best Actor, but only went 14 for 24, my worst in a few years, with only three of the big six. Boyhood was robbed.

Best of 2014: Music February 1, 2015

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media.
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I’m awfully late posting my “best of,” so I’ll get right to it. More or less in order, the following were my favorite new releases of 2014:

  • D’Angelo “Black Messiah” – smooooove
  • Wovenhand “Refractory Obdurate” – my favorite quasi-Christian rocker is still full of fire and brimstone
  • St. Vincent “St. Vincent” – doesn’t sound like anything else, esp. when she plays guitar
  • The Choir of Gonvill & Caius College, Cambridge “In Praise of St. Columba” – if Celtic monks didn’t sound like this, they should have
  • Sturgill Simpson “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” – ignore the title: he’s got some Hank Williams in him
  • TV on the Radio “Seeds” – my obligatory “catchy, quirky alterna-pop” for this year
  • Run the Jewels “Run the Jewels 2” – actually makes some political points
  • Prince’s twin releases: “Art Official Age” and “Plectrumelectrum” (with 3rdeyegirl) – he’ll always be the best funk rocker
  • Robert Plant “Lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar” – obligatory “old geezer who hasn’t lost it”

There were 3 or 4 good singles on the Pixie’s two EPs, Lucinda Williams’ double album was about one-album’s worth of solid, and everybody should listen to “Primus and the Chocolate Factory” at least once.

I bought 29 albums or EPs — 7 from the back catalog. That’s about the same as in 2013, and half of what I bought before streaming caught on. I don’t think I’m the industry’s worst nightmare, i.e., a former heavy-album buyer who switches over to $10/month. No, that would be the never-buyers who get all their music from YouTube. Mark Mulligan is right: though $10/month is a fabulous deal for fans,we’re going to need another price point before it’s mainstream. And Aram Sinnreich seems to have been on to something back in the Jupiter days: it took mobile streaming to take adoption beyond the niche aficionados.

Pals who work in and around the industry and I agreed it was pretty mediocre year. When I look back at what I liked best over the last few years, I’m struck by the relative lack of sure-to-be-standards. I won’t fall back on the “no unifying cross-audience genre” argument, nor the idea that YouTube, iTunes, and Spotify have killed the album. (Singles are the native format for popular music; albums were an unnatural phenomenon of the ’70s.)

I’ll just say that, compared with the last 5 years, I didn’t hear any breakthroughs in my favorite genre to match Parquet Courts, Japandroids, Titus Andronicus, Surfer Blood, Black Keys, or Savages. “RTJ2” is no “Yeezus,” “1989” can’t touch “Pure Heroine” or “Bangerz,” The War on Drugs is a poor man’s The National, and please, FKA twigs vs. M.I.A? no comparison.


Happy 238th July 4, 2014

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This year’s patriotic plug. The Americans – though I don’t remember a Virginian among them – give our heroes a bit of a bloody nose.

Happy Fourth. Throw another hot dog – or burger – on the grill for me. As always, I’ll bring Mom’s potato salad (never tastes the same twice, but always good).

Best of 2013: Movies February 17, 2014

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I like to kick these posts off with some box office stats, courtesy Box Office Mojo.

  • The money spent in U.S. movie theaters was flat versus last year (and tickets sold down), when The Avengers set some records with over $600 million in sales at the same time that Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises broke $400 million. This year, only the Hunger Games sequel and Iron Man 3 cracked the $400 million mark.
  • The top 10, as usual, comprised sequels, cartoons, and superheroes, sometimes in combination. How did Gravity sneak in? By being a really good movie that was also a crowd-pleaser, and worth seeing in Imax or 3D. I’m still baffled by the Oz movie (which I didn’t see). Does it qualify as a franchise? Pixar made it into the top 10, but didn’t get an Oscar nomination. Can we blame Disney?

Let me disagree with the critics who say it was a good year. I go to the movies in theaters just about once a week. I like blockbusters and genre films as much as serious movies for grown-ups, and I’m a hard grader. I reserve the 5s on a 5-star scale for all-time classics like Casablanca, Chinatown, and Duck Soup. I rated fewer 3s this year than in 2011 and 2012. I saw a lot of 2.5-star movies this year.

My two favorites of the year earned 3.5 stars each:

  • Gravity – It’s uncharitable to wish Gravity were actually about something. Its visuals inspire awe and panic, its physics is totally convincing, it’s superbly cast, and the creators apparently invented some new movie technology.
  • Inside Llewyn Davis – The rare Coen Brothers movie with a heart, and all the better for it. Is it a little depressing? So is trying to make a living while making art.

To round out a top ten list, here are the best of the 3-star movies I saw this year:

  • Mud – An endearing, meandering, Southern shaggy dog story. Tremendous cast and atmosphere. It’s a “triple-six real-deal.”
  • The Great Gatsby –  Leo nailed it, even if Carey Mulligan was mis-cast. The hip hop worked, and everyone looked fabulous.
  • American Hustle – Audacious, but only partly successful. You’ve got to be Scorsese to pull off voice-over narration, the pacing’s inconsistent, and the comedy and satire are, uh, uneven. Lots of great performances, but what is Russell’s point? American Bullsh!t was the original title…
  • Rush – Cliched? Macho? Hans Zimmer? Well, yeah, it’s a Formula 1 movie. And it was the funnest summer flick. The leads radiate charisma and it’s got a great ’70s look. See it on a big screen.
  • Fruitvale Station – I wanted more outrage, but in the long run maybe its almost too low-key approach was the way to go. Superb cast empowered by the very assured first-time director and screenwriter.
  • Captain Phillips – Taut and thoughtful. Hanks and Abdi are terrific and I’ll forgive the shakycam because Greengrass is one of the few active directors that shoot action scenes where you always know what’s going on. Ends with a real kick in the chest.
  • All Is Lost – Truly harrowing, and I only saw it on an airplane’s small screen.
  • The Grandmaster – Kung fu isn’t better in rain, smoke, snow, or slowmo, but it sure is prettier. This one actually takes off when it turns into a romance, but, oh, man, that fight scene by the train…

As for some of the other big movies of the year? While Luhrmann was seduced by – and seductive on – the romance of Amuhrican capitalism, I’m pretty sure Scorsese was not. But consider the source material. Wolf of Wall Street was at least a half an hour too long to justify its 2-3 great scenes. While the romance in Her worked, the dialogue did not. 12 Years a Slave was beautifully shot, and mostly well-acted, but it’s about as subtle and thoughtful as Mandingo. Worse, it’s oddly unfeeling. In Blue Jasmine, Blanchett out-Blanches Blanche, but the class and wealth commentary loses its sting because it’s set in some timeless, out-of-touch Woodyland where Brooklyn is an undesirable place to live, people take computer classes to learn about “operating systems,” and mooks from Queens comprise the San Francisco working class.

Best of 2013: Music December 21, 2013

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media.
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My favorites of 2013 line up better with Rolling Stone’s than with Pitchfork’s. Must be getting old.

This year I bought about 30 albums, all digital downloads. I don’t go for singles often, even if that is the natural medium for pop music.  (The modern version of the EP is appealing.) That number is a little less than last year, and again this year, almost all new, rather than back catalogue. I’ve got to discover some new “old” favorites.

My downloading may be down due to my use of music streaming services, just like Mark Mulligan and the ex-Jups and I have been forecasting for so long. I still like Rhapsody’s curation and info, but Spotify’s catalogue is starting to be noticeably better. I like Spotify’s apps, especially the ones that link me to reviews from professionals at media like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. I wish This Is My Jam were better integrated, and I usually forget that Facebook aggregates a lot of music info.

Anyway, roughly in order, the following were my favorite new releases of 2013:

  • Parquet Courts “Light up Gold” – easily – predictably? – my most-played. Incredibly catchy stoner punks from Austin via Brooklyn
  • Kanye West “Yeezus” – hurry up with my damn croissants. Pushes a lot of envelopes
  • The National “Trouble Will Find Me” – drones engagingly, and with some feeling
  • Lorde “Pure Heroine” and Miley Cyrus “Bangerz” – two pop divas craft some great singles. Miley might bear more listens; Lorde has more promise
  • Queens of the Stone Age “….Like Clockwork” – heavy-ish rock, not too many power ballads
  • Robyn Hitchcock “Love from London” and David Bowie “The Next Day” and Richard Thompson “Electric” – a trio of old geezers deliver the goods: near-Beatles, near-“Scary Monsters,” and near-guitar god
  • Savages “Silence Yourself” – stunning debut even if we’ve heard it before from Erase Errata
  • Steve Earle “The Low Highway” – one song’s called “21st Century Blues.” That about sums it up
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Push the Sky Away” – minor-key Cave still pulses and throbs
  • M.I.A. “Matangi” – the only kind of world music you should listen to

Huge ad merger’s scale argument doesn’t hold up July 29, 2013

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Two of the biggest advertising holding companies, Omnicom and Publicis, would combine to make the biggest mega-agency ever. But is that a good thing? I’m skeptical.

As Om points out, all companies have to be tech companies these days, and advertising powers the business of two of the most important forces in tech, Google and Facebook. Even mainstream media thinks the merger is a big data play. Big tech players like Oracle, Salesforce, and Adobe are bulking up on marketing and advertising technologies through acquisition, and maybe we are heading for a showdown between advertising “art and science.

I’m not going to dwell on how hard it is to pull off mergers of equals, or that client overlap and conflict will open up competition from other agencies. But think of what ad agencies do for their clients. They’re creative consultancies who buy media efficiently in order to reach specific audiences.

I’m hard-pressed to see how getting bigger is going to make the combo more creative. Nor will sheer mass help it respond to one of the key opportunities in marketing: i.e., figuring out how to really use social media for something other than cheap inventory.

The combo may have more buying heft when negotiating media buys – but that’s in television. With the proliferation of ad networks and analytics, buying specific digital audiences is a pretty level playing field, if not a commoditized skill. In theory, the merged company could look at the data from all of its campaigns, digital and traditional, to better understand buying patterns and audience interest, and properly asses the impact of branding campaigns on purchases. That would be huge.

But do you really think a massive organization with all of its fiefdoms and differing “religions” on market analysis – let alone different platforms and tools – is going to pull that off?