Thursday, December 20, 2007
Since this is something I'm doing in my free time and in association with the TV show, the blog has its ups and downs, inconsistencies of posting that I'd like to improve upon and usually vow to do about this time of year. I have hot streaks, when it seems like the writing comes forth as though all I have to do is connect a USB cable to my brain and press the "publish post" button. I have cold streaks too, most notably when the show's production went on hiatus this summer and fall due to the station's move.
Everyone hates deadlines, but I acknowledge their importance in spurring work. Not having those deadlines, save for the throbbing internal pressure of self-expectations, made it really hard to stay on the task of writing while the show was dormant. We still aren't quite back on a normal schedule but should be soon. That should lead to a pick up in activity, or a flurry of it every two weeks at the minimum.
I have new ideas of what I'd like to do in the coming year. They may require more time than I probably have, but we'll see how it goes. If I can commit myself to a schedule, there's a greater likelihood of it happening. (Witness my weekly blogging about ON THE LOT.) The best I can offer is to say that I'll try.
If you're a regular visitor--and I have no clue who you may be or if you exist--thanks for sticking by this site. I write for myself, but I also write to be read in the hope that I have something to add to the conversation. In my mind film criticism has essentially migrated to the internet. No slag intended of my print brethren, but online is where the the best and most vital work is being done.
Fingers crossed, I'm hoping to finish my write-ups of the year's best and worst before the calendar turns to 2008. Top ten lists, even the reviews themselves, are not carved in stone. They are snapshots of moments in time and the fleeting emotions and observations tied to them. As much as I might want to hold off publishing my lists because I haven't seen this film or that film, in truth there is always one more film. It's that kind of optimism about what unviewed films are out there and still to come that gets this critic through the duds and mediocrities and eager to see what's next.
Monday, December 17, 2007
How can someone truly know us as individuals? We are who we say we are. We are who others want and believe us to be. We are more and less than the sum of our dreams, failures, contradictions, consistencies, genetic predispositions, and environmental imprintings. We are our families, friends, and acquaintances. We are our work.
How can we truly know someone else, especially if the person is famous? That question is at the center of I'M NOT THERE. Todd Haynes' masterful portrait of Bob Dylan scrutinizes the musician-poet-actor-artist-husband-father-outlaw and leaves him at once as mysterious as ever and yet somehow knowable.
Jung wrote of archetypes within us all, universal parts of the personality that reside deep inside regardless of if they are visibly manifested. In presenting Dylan the character--none using his name, incidentally--Haynes makes the Jungian concept tangible. Dylan's film biography doesn't put him forward as just a Jewish singer-songwriter from Minnesota. Played by six actors to correspond to different periods of his career, he's also an African-American child, a woman, and Billy the Kid.
It isn't necessary to be steeped in Dylan lore to keep up with the shapeshifting I'M NOT THERE , but let's be honest, it helps to know at least a few things about the man's history. Haynes' challenging film sets out to see how the disparate pieces of Dylan's persona fit together, if they're even part of the same puzzle. Edited like a puzzle worker's trial-and-error method of searching for what goes where, I'M NOT THERE juxtaposes eras in a structure that suggests chronology but avoids hewing to it.
Haynes demands patience from the viewer. Through his bold directorial choices and the film's technical prowess--Edward Lachman's striking cinematography, most notably--it becomes easier to grant it to him. The complex and opaque nature of I'M NOT THERE is in keeping with its subject's body of work. While renowned as a top notch lyricist, Dylan's songs also have a reputation for being difficult to penetrate.
The actors smooth the path through the rough landscape of metaphor. Christian Bale impresses with his earnest and impassioned work as protest singer Jack Rollins turned born-again Pastor John. Heath Ledger lends destructive magnetism to brooding screen idol Robbie Clark. It's Cate Blanchett, though, who outshines everyone as DON'T LOOK BACK Dylan, Jude Quinn. Playing the wisecracking rebel to the hilt, Blanchett has a merry time staggering through the mid-'60s as though the world is his (hers?) for the taking. Like the infamous moment when Dylan went electric, I'M NOT THERE gets an unexpected charge from Blanchett's chameleon-like transformation.
After looking at the many faces of Dylan and failing to pin him down, I'M NOT THERE leaves us with his songs. Perhaps that's the driving factor behind his reinventions. In obscuring who the author or the singer is, the focus turns to the art he creates. Isn't that the point in the first place?
Sunday, December 16, 2007
For ENCHANTED beauty Giselle (Amy Adams), life truly is a Disney cartoon. The fairy tale's introductory section is realized in the lush, hand-drawn animation that helped build the studio into a trusted name in family entertainment. Like so many Disney heroines before her, Giselle frolics with the creatures of the forest and sings of her prince and their happily ever after.
For every princess-in-waiting, there is also a witch conniving to spoil the beautiful life within reach. Rather than let Giselle marry her son, Prince Edward (James Marsden), Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) tricks the girl and pushes her down a well. Giselle lands in New York City, a place about as far removed from her Andalasian home as possible, and sheds her ink-drawn figure for one of flesh.
Giselle takes the turn of events in good humor and guilelessly wanders around Times Square before Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) comes to her rescue. The single father thinks the pretty redhead is cracked but agrees to put the damsel in distress up for the night. Despite their differences in sensibility--she believes in true love, he's a divorce lawyer--Giselle slowly wins him over. Good thing, too. She needs him to survive. The queen has dispatched her servant Nathaniel (a wonderfully cast Timothy Spall) to kill Giselle. Prince Edward's pursuit of his love brings him to the land of three dimensions, but the dimwitted hunk is clearly out of his element.
ENCHANTED bubbles over with good cheer, due in large part to Adams for the wide-eyed optimism and innocence she brings to her irony-free performance. It's a delight to watch her clean up Robert's apartment with the assistance of rats and cockroaches as she sings "Happy Working Song", Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's affectionate tweak of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. To Giselle these pests are just as beautiful as her woodland Andalasian friends. The purity of heart and soul with which Adams imbues Giselle can't help but be infectious.
When even children's movies tend to favor the crass, it's startling to see someone on screen capable of convincing us that every day really is filled with sunshine and rainbows. Adams may not get as much credit for her acting in ENCHANTED because it appears effortless, but I'd wager that this is a taller order than awards bait roles that call for portraying inner torment. And she's funny too. Adams parlays Giselle's blissful ignorance of contemporary cynicism into several laughs.
ENCHANTED is a rarity among today's movies: a film for the whole family. Whether you're taking a little one to the theater for the first time or accompanying a grandparent, it offers good, clean enterainment that shouldn't lead to embarrassment for anyone. There is one scatological joke that probably could have been left out, but it seems that no matter what the age, everyone loves poop humor.
A cynic might look at ENCHANTED as little more than a recycling of Disney's princess stories into a tidy package readymade for Broadway and touring companies. I don't think anyone attuned to the industry at all would be surprised if a stage musical is in the works. OK, the film flags as the fish out of water concept treads water until the conclusion, and the subplot with Robert's girlfriend flatlines from the first moment. Regardless, ENCHANTED provides a pleasing blend of humor and music anchored by a winning lead performance. See, Giselle's sunniness really does rub off on those who come in contact with her.
243-year-old toy store owner Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) announces that the time has come for him to leave this earthly existence and turn over the business to his protégé Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). Naturally, the news of his departure is met with less enthusiasm than the eccentric proprietor anticipated.
Molly has been happy to manage the store as a diversion from struggling to find herself as a composer, but she doesn't feel ready to assume control of the shop. Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills), a friendless boy who spends his free time at the emporium, can't imagine the place without him. Even the building and toys go into a funk over the thought of Mr. Magorium leaving. The only one untroubled by the development is Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), a decidely unplayful accountant summoned to determine the worth of the soon-to-be bequeathed business.
MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM jumps headfirst into the tale with the full-blown whimsy its title suggests. Unfortunately writer-director Zach Helm mistakes busyness and unfettered zaniness for the breezy and magical tone he wants to establish, obliterating it from the screen in the process. The aggressive pitching of unbridled joy seems forced, as if everyone is trying too hard.
Broken into storybook-like chapters and narrated by Eric, the film implies that it possesses literary roots; however, MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM comes across as a quickie knockoff attempting to capitalize on a more popular title's success. Roald Dahl's influence is undeniable, especially in the Wonka-esque title character. Helm hasn't stolen ideas but mimicked them, and not in a terribly convincing voice. He's borrowed materials from classic kid lit--no harm in that--but not the spark that brings them to life.
The film even begins as though there are a few books (or cinematic prequels) that precede this particular story. This narrative technique makes for a jagged start and, more critically, undermines the importance of Mr. Magorium's going. Without sufficient time to cotton to the character, his planned exit fails to affect the audience just introduced to him.
For all of its shortcomings--and there are many--it's nice to see a G-rated movie determined to approach young viewers with respect and aspire to cover deep subjects while entertaining. (MR. MAGORIUM'S message is about fulfilling one's purpose in life and how in doing so death is not sorrowful. Heavy stuff, to be sure.) Hopefully next time Helm will make a film more worthy of his ambitions.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
In 2012, three years removed from the devastation wreaked by a man-made virus that may have left him the planet's lone human survivor, scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) continues to search for a cure. The basement laboratory experiments give purpose to his days even if there may be no one for him to save except his pet dog Sam. (Canines are immune to airborne strains but susceptible to the virus via contact.) Of course, Sam is a desperately needed companion in I AM LEGEND'S cripplingly lonely New York City. If Robert were to lose her, one senses his will to live would end.
Robert follows a regimented routine of exercise, research, hunting and gathering, and waiting at a post for potential fellow survivors. When the sun sets, he barricades himself in his Washington Square home to keep out the monsters. The dogs and humans not killed by the virus have mutated into bloodthirsty creatures vulnerable to light.
I AM LEGEND is set in a world undone by Babylonian-like folly. The collective human knowledge in science has made practically nothing impossible--even cancer is curable--but such wisdom can also bring about terrible, unintended consequences. Since I AM LEGEND is primarily an atmospheric action film than an exploration of contemporary scientific ethics, the questions it introduces tend to be mere set dressing for the commotion in the foreground. When the climax forces taking a position on the faith versus science debate, the film lays claim to a safe middle ground that would make Presidential candidates proud.
Despite not fulfilling its thematic potential, I AM LEGEND is effective escapist entertainment, albeit something of a somber piece. A desolate and overgrown New York City looks pretty cool if you can put aside the fact that all but one man may be dead. The film boasts four solid action sequences. Director Francis Lawrence manages the obligatory trip into the dark chamber where the beasts live with strong composition and spare use of light to heighten the tension. Robert's race against the setting sun to get to his vehicle crackles with nervous energy as the shadows disintegrate.
As good as the action scenes are, the humanity in Smith's performance is most responsible for I AM LEGEND'S success. Likable as ever, he conveys Robert's deep pain in believing he has outlived everyone else yet still needs to save the lost. His fatherly banter with the dog and shyness in introducing himself to a female mannequin express a longing for human interaction that can't help but break one's heart. Being a savior is all well and good, but what difference does it make if there's no one to rescue?
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Free enterprise and old-fashioned hard work carry Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) from a low but trusted spot as a crime boss's driver to the pinnacle of the 1970s New York drug empire in AMERICAN GANGSTER. Frank molds himself into a respected and feared Harlem entrepreneur who gives customers higher quality heroin at a lower price than the competition. He also prefers to maintain a small profile to avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement.
Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is the cop leading a task force to bust up the drug underground, but everywhere he turns, he approaches another dead end. Tracing the familiar organized crime players doesn't lead to the kingpin ruling the market. Richie's rigid code of ethics concerning work places him on the outside of a police community riddled with corruption. He has more in common with Frank, another highly principled man, although Richie is the only one on the right side of the law.
As a showcase for Washington and Crowe, AMERICAN GANGSTER does not disappoint. Washington gives Frank an elegant malevolence while never idealizing his vicious core. Depending on the venue, he can be ruthless or respectable, a combination that makes him more dangerous than his thuggish competitors. With a gleam in his eyes, Washington relishes the opportunity to play the smooth criminal.
Alternately, Crowe's Richie is a frayed bundle of turmoil and integrity, an imperfect man rubbed raw by the standards he observes and fails to meet. Combining bookish sensibility and physicality is one of Crowe's strengths as an actor. In Richie he finds an ideal character who must be capable of outfoxing his opponents in the investigation office and courtroom and outhitting them on the inner city's mean streets.
Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steve Zaillian lay out AMERICAN GANGSTER like dual case studies of the drug trade and narcotics investigation. Frank operates with the brutal efficiency and market awareness that could have made him a tycoon examined in business schools if he had put his energy into legitimate endeavors. It's fascinating to follow the ingenuity responsible for his ascension to and residency at the top. Likewise, the labyrinthine nature of Richie's probe makes for compelling viewing. While tough guy posturing is critical and produces exciting chases and shootouts, sifting through mountains of evidence is where the most important work is accomplished.
The meticulous depiction of the ins and outs of the protagonists' chosen professions tends to squeeze out the human side. Richie's family problems are given short shrift. Frank's domestic situation isn't explained enough to understand why his clan would follow him unquestioningly. Filling in these empty corners would have made this a richer film, but AMERICAN GANGSTER is solely concerned with the promise in pulling oneself up by the bootstraps in dogged pursuit of the American dream. Everything else is secondary. After all, it's just business.
In LARS AND THE REAL GIRL shy, unassuming Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) creates quite a stir around his Wisconsin town when he introduces his new girlfriend to family, friends, and co-workers. The wheelchair-bound Bianca had been doing work for the church in Brazil when she and Lars met online. Folks are happy that Lars has found someone, at least until they learn that Bianca is a life-size sex doll--or a real doll, as the film refers to her.
By all appearances, Lars isn't pulling an elaborate joke. He dotes on Bianca, acting as though she is a living, breathing human being and insisting that everyone else do likewise. Naturally this distresses his older brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) a great deal. How do they explain the rubber gal accompanying Lars to their fellow congregants on Sundays?
A trip to Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), the local doctor, doesn't produce the quick remedy that Gus wants for his brother. She encourages indulging Lars' fantasy. In her opinion, when he is ready to let go of it, he will. Before long the community has accepted Bianca as though she is flesh and blood. Her calendar is so thoroughly booked that Lars begins to get upset at not having enough time to see her.
LARS AND THE REAL GIRL isn't as outrageous as it sounds in concept. Actually, it's a sweet and funny film invested with midwestern values. Family ties and community obligation to one of their own anchor the movie. It's touching how everyone rallies around Lars even if they think what he's doing is weird.
Gosling's career is built on eccentric characters, like the Jewish neo-Nazi in THE BELIEVER and inspirational, cocaine-addicted teacher in HALF NELSON. Although Lars follows in that offbeat tradition, he is a decidedly less flashy role because the character is so bottled up. This is a performance of enormous control. Gosling regulates Lars' growth like a slow tire leak. The strength of his acting is found in how he makes a person of limited expression open up in tiny increments until he is a transformed man.
There's also a lot to be said for how Gosling, the other actors, and director Craig Gillespie are able to pull off the film's conceit convincingly. For all the silliness of its premise, it is counterbalanced with substantial exploration of loneliness, introversion and grief. LARS AND THE REAL GIRL could have felt overly precious, like a cheap stunt or joke, but the emotional depth and warmth make this quirky regional character study anything but plastic.
Monday, November 12, 2007
After Steven Burke (David Duchovny) is killed while intervening during a domestic dispute between strangers, his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) invites his childhood friend Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro) to live with them. Still grappling with the loss of her husband and the ordeal of raising a ten-year-old daughter and six-year-old son alone, she's obviously in pain and in need of someone nearby. Her reaching out to Jerry wouldn't seem so unusual except that he is a recovering heroin addict and someone she took pains not to associate with until this moment.
In THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE Jerry moves into the garage next to the spacious Seattle home that couldn't feel any emptier to Audrey. The garage, like Jerry, is a work in progress. It has gone unrepaired for years after an electrical fire destroyed many precious family items housed in it. Jerry, on the other hand, has suffered from self-neglect and the junk he can't seem to break himself of.
Damaged individuals healing one another is a serviceable idea for a film, but THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is missing an essential component: plausibility. People do funny things out of grief. Offering to let an unrehabilitated junkie move in and become part of the family is a big stretch, especially when the addict in question has been repelled for a long time.
Even so, the new arrangement might have been believable if the characters didn't feel as though they were being forced through the gears of Allan Loeb's screenplay. Each person in the film seems predisposed to connect instantly with everyone else, a matter exaggerated through truncated scenes that rush toward the inevitable resolution while failing to establish a foundation.
It isn't fair to characterize Jerry as a "magical junkie"--Del Toro plays the part free of excess sympathy and uncommon wisdom--but the fact remains that the film treats him like a redemptive talisman. Jerry might know how to induce slumber quickly, but the method he knows best doesn't come from cuddling and earlobe stroking but at the tip of a needle.
It's especially surprising that THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is such a miss since director Susanne Bier has excelled in transforming soap opera material into the stuff of high drama in her Danish films. Volatile feelings fueled the blazing melodrama of BROTHERS and AFTER THE WEDDING, yet it was the universal truths underneath those outsized emotions that kept the films relatable. Conversely, THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE feels dishonest and cool to the touch. Forget about fires. This film couldn't produce a puff of smoke from tinder.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
A term paper isn't due when the end credits roll for LIONS FOR LAMBS, but don't feel bad if you leave thinking you spent an hour and a half doing research for an end of the semester assignment. This well-meaning talkathon about the war on terror, contemporary politics, journalistic integrity, and civic engagement has enlightenment more than entertainment as its goal. LIONS FOR LAMBS aims to eliminate apathetic attitudes and inspire action in our democracy. It's a noble effort that seems like homework.
A war drama in which the big guns are the above-the-title talent instead of on-screen artillery, LIONS FOR LAMBS alternates among three concurrent storylines. Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) offers cable TV news reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) exclusive information about a pivotal shift in U.S. military stategy in Afghanistan that's being carried out as they speak. Meanwhile, soldiers Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) are on the front line in this mission. In the third thread, California university professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) attempts to shake promising but lazy student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) of his cynicism about the political machine.
Redford, who also directs, and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, who penned this fall's action-intensive Iraq drama THE KINGDOM as well, utilize the measured tone of weekly periodical reporting to deliver arguments littering hundreds of comments sections in the blogosphere. This tempered rhetoric may make LIONS FOR LAMBS more palatable for those who wouldn't dream of reading Daily Kos, but it's hard to believe that the film will hold the slightest interest for anyone outside of the choir it's preaching to. Even those sympathetic to the film's viewpoint are likely to find LIONS FOR LAMBS to be earnest and hopelessly stiff.
The characters are as much nameless chess pieces to be moved around for the purposes that suit Redford and Carnahan as the troops are for the chickenhawk officeholders the film condemns. The individuals populating the film are trusty op-ed types--ambitious neoconservative warmonger, honorable servicemen, conscientious veteran journalist, idealistic professor, jaded young adult--spouting think tank studies in the form of dialogue. LIONS FOR LAMBS isn't objectionable because of its message but for how dully it is imparted.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
I don't slow down to look when passing accidents on the side of the road, but CAVEMEN was one disaster I couldn't wait to relish in its sure-to-be brief but spectacular ignominy. I set the cable company DVR to record the series and settled in to watch the first episode. Some of the GEICO Cavemen commercials were mildly amusing, so I was willing to give it a chance.
After all the advance fuss the show created and knives that were out, I was disappointed to encounter a mediocre single camera sitcom instead of the supernova of suckitude I'd been expecting and, to be honest, wanting. New episodes keep appearing on the DVR, so I've continued watching with the hope that it will get much, much worse. It hasn't.
Sure, CAVEMEN won't be mistaken for good television, and I can't imagine it will be long for this world. The caveman makeup isn't particularly good, and most of the characters are annoying more than anything. Nevertheless, I will concede that it has drawn a few laughs from me, mostly from the secondary character (and original ad caveman) Maurice, played by Jeff Daniel Phillips. Unlike the neurotic primaries, Maurice is more unrefined, uninhibited, and, well, caveman-like.
The show haphazardly walks the fine line between biting social commentary and bad taste, more often lapsing into the latter. The fourth episode had an inspired storyline about an offensive high school nickname ("Savages") and grossly caricatured mascot. Coming on the heels of a mini brouhaha over how some Cleveland Indians fans were outfitted, it even had some timeliness. CAVEMEN deals out way too many lame and potentially problematic jokes steeped in racial stereotypes to get sufficient credit for taking the high ground, although it has discovered one hate-worthy group that won't stir up letter-writing protesters: those scurrilous hipsters.
My DVR informs me that another episode awaits viewing tonight. I guess there's nothing to do but not enjoy it while it lasts.
Friday, November 02, 2007
I realized that my compulsion to see as many of the films that open commercially in town, not to mention the arty and repertory offerings at the Wexner Center, is not always the best expenditure of time and energy even if it costs nothing to get in the door. Is it really essential that I see BRATZ? No, although that doesn't explain why I blew a couple hours on a perfectly nice Saturday morning at a press screening of DADDY DAY CAMP. Seeing more than three hundred films theatrically in a calendar year is a badge of honor and a pathology, even if it is something you can define as work.
While I still see the lion's share of new films that flicker on the multitude of screens in this city, I have cut back in the past year. Life is not less complete because I missed WHO'S YOUR CADDY? or the rare theatrical exhibition of SATANTANGO, although I'm sure a reasonably compelling argument could be made in the case of the latter film.
Even with my modest reduction in films attended--a number that is likely higher than what a family might tally in a year--I still like going. It almost doesn't matter what is playing. I've been enjoying taking advantage of AMC Theatres' A.M. Cinema on Saturdays to catch up with something I missed or watching a film that didn't screen for the media.
Usually it's meant some crap horror film or other disreputable genre release, but the act of going to the theater and the possibility of being surprised, however unlikely that might be, endures. Don't get me wrong. I'd prefer to see something good, but if not, being able to pay four bucks, bring in a coffee, and watch film projected through celluloid still holds an allure undiminished by the hundreds (or thousands) of other times I've taken a seat in an auditorium to do just that.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
The show began in March 1997 and taped every two weeks until June 19 this year. I've been writing movie reviews, good, bad, and otherwise, on a regular basis until this recent extended blip of non-activity. (I'm still seeing the movies, though.) While I wasn't looking to take a break from the writing, it has been nice to enjoy a breather. I've intended to write about some of the films I've seen. My blog dashboard shows draft entries for a couple non-starter reviews, including what I thought was the beginning of an interesting take on the unsuccessful curiosity THE INVASION. Whatever the reason, I couldn't manage to finish anything. Everyone hates the deadline, but without a pressing need to finish the reviews, I lost the motivation to complete pieces.
In the long run, I think the time off will serve me and my readers well. I'm not looking at movies differently, but I do feel somewhat rejuvenated in being loosed from the obligation of writing about them all the time. (I suppose it's ironic, and natural, that this fallow period follows a very productive early part of the year.)
I'm not going to commit yet, but to kickstart my return to maintaining this site on a regular basis, I may participate in National Blog Posting Month (or NaBloPoMo, as all the cool kids call it). Baby steps...
Anyway, thanks to however few of you have been visiting and wondering what in the world was up with the static you got when tuning in here. I didn't fall of the edge of the earth. Rather, I was dangling over it.
Friday, September 14, 2007
Now I'm not the best when it comes to remembering lines from movies, but off the top of my head, I can't think of any single word quotes that have caught the public's imagination, let alone one comprised of an unremarkable word. Yes, I know that many of these movie trivia questions are often thinly veiled attempts to promote current releases, but this has to set a baseline for Worst Quotation Ever.
Have you figured it out? This witticism was uttered by Abigail Breslin in NO RESERVATIONS. Remember it well. It's destined to be one of the great lines in cinema's history.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Host Adrianna Costa idenifies this as the season finale, but who are her writers trying to fool? This has to be the series finale, right? RIGHT? Anyway, the red carpet and the shade of Adrianna's dress are a perfect match. Nice job!
After a very brief Q&A with the eliminated contestants expressing their gratitude for being on the show, it's time for some bloopers that aren't funny.
Adrianna gives props to the show theme's composers. Their work earned an Emmy nomination. Here's an abject lesson in why award nominations and wins trumpeted in ads don't mean a thing. Now this is the Emmy-nominated ON THE LOT. No disrespect to the composers, but God forbid this becomes the Emmy-winning ON THE LOT. No statuette can make this show golden.
The final three are asked to name their favorite films from the knocked out finalists. Poor Zach gets dragged on stage to talk about the short Adam picked. Zach certainly seemed like a favorite on the show, and it has to be eating him to be in this position. Will cites Hilary's writing in selecting her sperm bank heist comedy. Have mercy. That ought to get him eliminated on the spot.
Ugh, not quite halfway through this... Jason picks Mateen's action film as his favorite. Then we get a package about the actors, except it's really about them kissing up to the directors. The show kept them working through the summer, so who can begrudge them some professional sycophancy?
You have to love the way ON THE LOT has worked to spin every negative development as a positive for this tailspinning series. Adrianna informs us that internet voting wasn't able to take place last week because of a "severe technical issue", but toll-free and text voting increased 60% over their previous record-breaking week. If so, tens of people made their opinions known!
All right, enough with all the funny business...who won? Adam?! Oh wait, it's that infuriating AMERICAN IDOL trick of "so-and-so...you are not the winner". They have to drag this out another seventeen minutes minus commercials, so what else can they do? OK, seriously, the million dollar movie deal at DreamWorks goes to...one of these guys after the break. It doesn't look like Spielberg will be there to congratulate the winner, though. Why would he want to distance himself from this?
Oh wait, maybe something's changed. We're back from the break with the announcer solemnly telling us the winner will be revealed by...the host of the show. Blah, blah, blah. Cut to the chase. Will wins! The puppy doesn't die, America! Oops, I must have imagined he threatened that last week. It's just his dream that would have been killed if he lost.
I find it hysterically funny how Adrianna called Will the winner of ON THE LOT 2007, as though there will be a successor next year. You know, I'm starting to get scared that Fox might bring this back next summer.
Following the final commercial break Will talks on the ride to the DreamWorks lot to meet Steven Spielberg. This show is supposed to be live, but they wouldn't have shot this portion ahead of time, would they? (It would appear so. In the end credits: "portions of the program not affecting the outcome of the competition have been pre-recorded and edited". I don't think they're talking about the recap packages.) And then the moment we've all been waiting for...the show is over. I mean, Spielberg strolls out the front gate to greet Will.
And that, dedicated readers, is that. As dreadful as this show was, I've enjoyed blogging about it each week...most of the time. Perhaps I'll try to do the same thing for one series when the new TV season begins. I'm also kicking around some other ideas to up the content on this blog, something which took a hit the last couple months with my TV show being on hiatus while the station gets set up at a new location.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
The August 7 show's opening tease gives away who will be eliminated. Which director do we not see prepping a film for tonight's episode? The result: previously presumed favorite Zach, who came close to being knocked out the week before, is sent packing. The other directors try to look sad about him leaving, but you know they're jumping up and down on the inside since Zach was the one they thought would win.
Tonight's films are based on the winning entry in America's logline challenge: a man wakes up and finds himself in a dress but can't remember what happened the night before. Apparently the creativity of those watching the show matches that of those on it.
Will's THE YES MEN is a major departure for him. Dialogue! In the intro package he compares it to the Coen brothers. You can see the influence, although the film only pulled a couple chuckles from me. Since I'm not cheating by looking at tonight's currently airing episode, I'm going to bet this will be good enough to advance him.
Sam admits beforehand that he believes either he or Adam will go home from their efforts this week. His DRESS FOR SUCCESS is a SAW parody/female revenge comedy. Umm. Err. Uh. It's different. If he wanted to stick around, he should have made something funnier. He never finds a tone that makes it work, probably because he works far too hard and long to set it up.
Those musical bumpers are going longer and longer. As the directors dwindle the producers struggle to fill an hour. Oh, here's a package that reveals--surprise!--the remaining contestants want to win. Also, kittens and puppies are cute.
Adam's ARMY GUY has some David Lynch flourishes with it's lack of context for why the soldier in the dress keeps having the women asking to marry him while he chases his Russian nemesis. Does America like surreal? The twist isn't half bad, but like so many of the films on this show, I've lost my patience and interest by the time it arrives. If it is between him and Sam, I'm certain Adam will be back.
Jason's OH, BOY. sort of uses a SAW-like premise, except the man dressed as a ballerina has a bomb strapped to him and is in someone's front yard. Most weeks I haven't liked his films, and this one is no exception. That being said, he has an identifiable viewpoint in his films, something Adam and Sam don't have. Will's chameleon-like ability is what amounts to a distinct style.
Adam's film wins the top approval of all three judges, so I expect to see him advancing when I begin watching tonight's episode in a few minutes. Unless I missed something, there was no pseudo-car commercial film tonight. Did Ford decide their ad dollars could be better spent elsewhere?
Ugh, what a bad show.
All right, it's time for tonight's show. Adrianna Costa is dressed less provocatively than she's been the last couple weeks. Apparently cleavage isn't classy for the two-part season finale. Speaking of clothes, Kentucky boy Jason is wearing an Ale-8-One t-shirt. I'm mildly obsessed with "Kentucky's soft drink", so this is pretty wild to see.
OK, down to business... Sam is the director going home, which comes as a shock to no one. The judges had the harshest criticism for his film last week.
Adrianna explains the challenge for the final week...which is that they should pick their two best films to show and be judged on them?! Can ON THE LOT get any dumber? Look, one more new film isn't likely to change the opinion of anyone who cares enough to vote, but why bother having them select from their body of work? The show's website has all the films, so it's not like the viewing public can't take them into account. If anything, it makes this episode even more irrelevant. Could this be a sign that there was no desire to sink more cash into this money pit?
Maybe I should be thankful. With no new films, I can fly through this episode. For me the only drama left in ON THE LOT is whether Steven Spielberg will show up to congratulate the winner next week. This reality TV show is not his proudest moment.
Jason drew first for tonight's screening order. Blah, blah, blah. Does it matter? Jason picked ETERNAL WATERS and SWEET to represent him. He chose wisely. SWEET was easily his best film and probably one of the best during the show's run. It's heartfelt and relatable, qualities lacking from most of what the directors have churned out. He's playing the aw-shucks-I'm-just-a-simple-guy-from-Kentucky card. Will is probably grinding his teeth into dust since that's his ploy. Never fear, though. I'm sure he'll work the angle about having to give up on his dream and support his family if he doesn't win.
Will selects his bookend films. GLASS EYE, which sounds as though it was made before the show, and THE YES MEN, his last short for ON THE LOT, are plucked from his oeuvre for the masses determining his fate.
Adam goes the same route with his pre-show submission, DOUGH: THE MUSICAL, and his last, ARMY GUY. Adam essentially confirmed what was suspected. We did get films made outside of the show's process.
Of the three finalists, Will is most likely to turn out a feature I might want to see. Jason is most likely to be an auteur with supporters and detractors. Adam could be the anonymous career director. Carrie picks Will as her favorite. Garry sides with Jason. Considering my surprise at him not only surviving the first voting elimination but earning the most votes, I expect Jason will win. What do you think?
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Now back to your regularly scheduled programming...
Thursday, August 02, 2007
If you can make judgments by what little we know of the results, Jason should be the odds-on favorite to win. (His GETTA RHOOM mystifyingly landed in the top three in the show's early days.) Then again, there's no way of knowing who the public likes because typically all we've learned is who is voted off. For as much dead time structured in the show, you'd think that they would announce who got the most votes and give that director's film an encore.
I expected Zach's short to play well, but since everyone else is utilizing special effects, maybe he's lost his early edge. Computers have democratized FX work to a certain extent--anybody can do it with a little knowledge--meaning that Zach's output doesn't stand out like it did when their submission films were airing.
But enough theorizing...
Adam's DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE features a car radio that makes people dance against their will. So he got the embedded ad assignment this week. He's done this musical/dance thing before, and it feels like been there-done that. It ends on an off note, mainly because I don't think he knew where to end it. Ambitious? I suppose. Interesting? Eh.
Wow, they're really showcasing host Adrianna Costa's breasts tonight. (Sorry searchers, I still can't direct you to any dirty videos you're looking for. Apparently I have the right combination of words to fool the search engines and bring you here.)
Sam's BACKSEAT DRIVING TEST gets points for having a novel concept, which is about the best thing that can be said for these films every week. That was true for his last film, his wedding invitation stamps comedy, although the execution wasn't that hot. Here a backseat driver mother gets her comeuppance. It's not bad. Lin Shaye, part of the show's repertory cast, plays the nagging mother, so he paired the role and actor well. That begs the question of how the directors choose their actors. Is it a fantasy sports-like draft? The behind-the-scenes aspect of this show has to be more interesting than the films.
Zach's BONUS FEATURE TWO is a sequel to the film that almost got him eliminated, and it's a weird effort. The guy has talent, but I'm not sure his strength is screenwriting. His young lovers end up among pirates, a bad sword fight ensues, he gets all meta in his humor with a joke about the soundtrack, and he ends on a CASABLANCA quote. The judges, including Penny Marshall filling in for brother Garry, seem to like it better than his previous film. I don't get it.
Jason keeps the motivation hidden in THE MOVE until the very end. I actually sort of liked it even if it doesn't make the most sense. If we're giving credit for originality and somewhat relatable material--hey, I'm grasping at straws--then I'll pass him. I can't say that Jerry O'Connell gave him any advantage unless people remember the film because of his presence.
Will's ROAD RAGE 101 about a car that gets revenge on its abusive driver has some nice touches. I particularly liked the angry car's stereo display turning red. The car doesn't "fight back" as much as I expected or was needed, but it's hard to dislike the film or the mugging-for-the-camera director. Or maybe I'm a sucker for anything with Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1.
The winning entry in America's logline challenge is about a man who wakes up in a dress but can't remember what happened the night before. The remaining directors will have to use this as the basis for their next films. Oh boy.
Hey, wait a minute! What's this about the finale being on a new day--August 21? I thought we only had to suffer through two more of these? Maybe they're skipping a week. Knowing this show's haphazard production, someone didn't do their math properly.
The ON THE LOT site now hosts full episodes, which means that it's possible for me to keep up with the show while I'm on the road next week. Don't count on it happening, especially since installing a plug-in is required.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Anyway, Kenny and Mateen were eliminated. Then there was some description about the rest of the competition and when it will end, but I zoned out while typing this and don't really feel it's necessary to go back and check. Adrianna Costa just mentioned that there are three weeks left before the show is put down. Mark it on your calendars.
Really, though, you have to give props to ON THE LOT for completing its run. CBS unceremoniously pulled the plug on Mark Burnett's PIRATE MASTER and is replaying the remaining episodes on the internet. And here's how much I was invested in that show: I won't be checking out what's left. Neither Burnett production was destination TV; they were background TV, white noise to accompany other activities while deposited on the couch.
On to comedy with a hint of romance night!
Zach's THE BONUS FEATURE references other movies, including the work of Lucas, Spielberg, and Zemeckis. Nice bit of sycophancy in paying homage to the show's executive producer and pals. There is one cut where I thought he crossed the line--in other words, edited to a shot that didn't match with the direction the characters were looking--but it turned out to be a confusing edit rather than a "wrong" one. Zach has appeared to be a Spielberg-in-training from day one, and this cements that impression. Good job bud in keeping the product placement less blatant.
Adam gets outdone in the sucking up, inserting just a DreamWorks homage in GIRL TROUBLE. He references the studio's AMERICAN BEAUTY in addition to going old school with THE GRADUATE. It's so nice to see originality at work. < /sarcasm>
Will finds his way around dialogue again with UNPLUGGED, a romance between two desk lamps. I've mentioned before that he seems like someone who would be home at Pixar, and this has a LUXO JR. vibe all over it. Still, it's cute and clever. How can I argue with that?
Andrew's KEEP OFF GRASS is as bad as the wrecked lawn in it. It's supposed to be about a protective lawn caretaker discovering that two superheroes have destroyed his yard and garden. The problem is that most of it is the superheroes bickering while he obliviously tends to a flower. The judges seem impressed, though.
Sam's AMERICAN HOE has a title that someone else ought to recycle, but that's about all that should see the light of day again. The story is about a guy who gets the wrong stamps for the wedding invitations. (He gets a farming series rather than the love stamps.) There's one good joke in it, but the rest of it is pretty dire. The couple is unpleasant and unfunny. FYI to those on the coasts: while "nipple" may be interchangeable with "teat", I don't think I've ever heard the n word in relation to milking a cow.
Jason's OLD HOME BOYZ leads to a breakdance-off at a fifty year reunion, but there's more build-up than payoff. The most notable element may be Lin Shaye cast as an object of desire, which runs counter to the comedically grotesque women she's most recognizably played in the Farrelly brothers' films.
Ooh, the winner will get to feature Jerry O'Connell in his film for tonight's episode. Just think what an advantage it will be to have the star of TOMCATS and KANGAROO JACK!
For all one of you awaiting these recaps, I'll get to tonight's show faster. Only three left!
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Business first: we bid adieu to Shalini and Hilary. And there go the last of the ladies...
Is it me or do the accommodations for the filmmakers look like budget housing, especially in comparison to the fancy digs Mark Burnett put his ROCK STAR strivers in?
Tonight's theme is action. Before taking a look at these I have the feeling that we'll get more technically proficient but artistically empty shorts. The judges will gripe about storytelling, but here's the thing: with the amount of time they're given, how much story can you really deliver?
Sure enough, Sam's KEY WITNESS is more like a scene from a movie than self-contained piece. It's as slick and nutritious as olestra-laden snack foods whose consumption may result in, umm, unexpected passage.
Jason's SWEET, an action-comedy about a husband who rushes at the last minute to get anniversary flowers for his wife, does what perhaps no other short has done on the show's entire run. It succeeds as a standalone piece and might actually be something people would watch. I've been pretty critical of his past work, but tonight he strikes the right tone, develops the situation and character (as much as can be done in the alloted time), and draws laughs. Jason made a smart choice in telling a story that he and plenty others can identify with. His other shorts have been well received on the ON THE LOT message boards. Now I think he might have a shot at winning this silly competition.
I haven't been paying attention to who's sponsoring the show--God bless DVRs and the time-shifting viewing they permit--but Andrew's ZERO2SIXTY confirms that Ford is one of the major companies involved with it. Previous episodes had shorts that functioned like car commercials and featured prominent shots of the product, but this film is a Ford ad through and through. I wonder if someone gets assigned the pseudo-advertisement short each week. It didn't do Andrew any favors. You don't feel the speed in the car chase.
Kenny really wanted to do a stunt in his skateboard movie THE LOSERS, but the supervisor wouldn't let him. Like what he does or not, Kenny knows who he is. (The same goes for Jason.) His adrenalized, off the wall style earns him points for creativity. He didn't do a very good job of communicating where his skating racers are in relation to one another and the finish line, but again, I'm beginning to see what got him to this point. Garry Marshall, who must work all week on one-liners for his evaluations, quoted Camus in response to Kenny's short. That's the sort of weirdness that makes ON THE LOT tolerable.
Mateen's CATCH takes forever to set up a foot chase and then ends on a reversal that we've seen a few hundred times. Yawn.
A montage of the stunts and some behind-the-scenes work help pad out a show that's already mostly padding. Carrie picks Andrew's as her favorite while Garry and guest judge Antoine Fuqua pick Jason's. Next week the six remaining directors will present comedies with a hint of romance. (You mean romantic comedies?) I'm betting that Sam and Mateen are out, but tune in next week to find out.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Laugh if you will about old movie hucksters who tried to drum up business for their horror films through such schemes as requiring moviegoers to sign waivers releasing the studio from any liability in case the picture literally scared them to death. We might possess more media savvy today, but marketers still know how to sell the illusion of danger. The makers of CAPTIVITY, purportedly one of the most deplorable entries in the torture porn genre, have been relentless in courting controversy in the build-up to its opening
The Motion Picture Association of America reprimanded the distributor for billboards with graphic images that the ratings board did not approve, and producer Courtney Solomon promised a depraved premiere party. Any showman worth his salt knows that you sell the sizzle instead of the steak (if the latter even exists), so CAPTIVITY wasn't screened in advance for the press, leading potential gorehounds and scolds to wonder how repugnant the film might be.
Elisha Cuthbert stars as Jennifer, an actress-model who takes one sip from a drugged appletini and awakens to find herself held hostage in a darkened cell. When not playing with his victim, her black-cloaked captor sips wine and assembles his torture instructional in graphic novel form. Drug, abuse, rest, repeat. Eventually Jennifer discovers that she is not alone. Gary (Daniel Gillies) is in the chamber next to hers, and together they hope to find a way out of their worst nightmare.
For its first half CAPTIVITY buzzes by as a SAW clone that flirts with the prospect of ghastly things being done to Jennifer. Seen predominantly from the villain's view, the unpleasantness is portrayed as though it is a lover's pursuit. Unsurprisingly, this portion of the film has a misogynistic tone that suggests she deserves these punishments because of her beauty.
The horror is mostly psychological to this point, but there's an impending sense that CAPTIVITY could go to a very ugly place. Instead, it ventures into more conventional horror film territory. The first half isn't poetry, but it looks like it when compared to the second half's hoary clichés that even the laziest screenwriters should avoid. The only creativity on display is finding a way to include a sex scene in the most unlikely of circumstances.
But lighten up, right? Suspending disbelief is integral to films like CAPTIVITY. After all, the bad guy must possess phenomenal wealth and technical wizardry to create his death trap, but I will roll with it. (For all the outlandish fictional characters like this murderer, one real life example, the serial killer in the non-fiction novel THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, has yet to get the cinematic treatment.) The problem is that everything rings false or unbelievably convenient, including a key bit of old film shown in CAPTIVITY that simply could not exist.
The economy of characters limits the narrative twists, and lack of characterization fails to produce empathy for Jennifer beyond what would normally be felt for someone in her situation. Cuthbert is a limited actress, but she proved herself deserving of a scream queen crown in HOUSE OF WAX. In CAPTIVITY she's given nothing to work with to the extent that her moment of vindication comes off as perfunctory.
Reported revisions upped the gore from director Roland Joffé's original cut of the film. The pre-opening credits sequence is CAPTIVITY'S most violent scene and presumably something grafted on to make it more palatable to the HOSTEL crowd. In retrospect it's not only superfluous from everything that follows; it doesn't even line up with the evil perpetrator's motivation. But who needs consistency when the carnival barker's aim is to get people into the tent?
CAPTIVITY doesn't live up to the manufactured pre-release hysteria or approach the disreputable nature of other torture porn films. It's just the same old same old repackaged as the new worst offender.
Monday, July 09, 2007
8:00 p.m. In the show's opening tease we see a Universal Studios tour group going by while the guide says that they can see "a lot of filming" for the TV series. And I thought it was too bad that the only film shooting when I went on a Paramount Studios tour was LUCKY NUMBERS.
8:03 p.m. Mateen basically calls Adrianna The Angel of Death. Heh heh.
8:04 p.m. Shira-Lee gets the heave-ho. Not a surprise considering she essentially said that she didn't know the genre she had to work in last week.
8:05 p.m. Adrianna informs the directors that their theme for this week is "when two worlds collide" and *gasp* two directors will be eliminated. This must be Fox's way of getting in an MLB tie-in. Now that the stakes are higher, it's for real, kind of like how the All-Star game stupidly determines home field advantage for the World Series.
8:06 p.m. This week's guest judge is who? Luke Greenfield, director of THE ANIMAL and THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, accepts the call. If this show had any traction, they'd be pulling better guests than this.
8:07 p.m. Zach's TIME UPON A ONCE sounds like it's going to be all about his special effects background. He's directing his actors to do everything backwards. Lin Shaye is back for more, and isn't that Reginald VelJohnson (you know, the FAMILY MATTERS dad)? (I think he was the head doctor in Will's comedy piece two weeks ago, but we didn't get a long enough look at him.) The conceit is that the new neighbors do everything backwards, and the effect he pulls off is convincing. The judges and voters are going to eat this up.
8:17 p.m. Hilary gives us THE LEGEND OF DONKEY-TAIL WILLIE. With her track record of lowbrow humor, that title portends all sorts of bad things but it's cute. She shot this like an old-timey western and employs a gauzy filter because nothing says fairy tale than having glaucoma. It's her best effort on the show, although I think part of it is the better production values. She's gone with the no glasses look this week. That's not important; I just don't have anything else to say.
8:27 p.m. Next week is action movies. Anything that spares us dialogue is a good thing. Speaking of which, here's Will. Hus SPAGHETTI has a present day couple finding themselves in a spaghetti western and has some spoken words. When two worlds collide! Or because Univeral Studios has an old west backlot set. Will's definitely seen a Sergio Leone movie, but keep this guy doing his silent movie thing. It's fine but zzzzzzz..... Like some other ON THE LOT shorts, it could have been a commercial with a tweak here or there.
8:37 p.m. Shalini's FIRST SIGHT definitely looks like it is shot on a studio backlot. The large building in the background looks two-dimensional. Her inspirational movie about a special pair of sunglasses that allows Tatyana Ali to see the true spirit inside people is heavyhanded but generally well exectued. Carrie Fisher rips it by saying that in Hollywood "if you want a message, leave it at the beep." Greenfield is similarly harsh. Leave it to that ol' softie Garry Marshall to stand up for it and defend the charge of lack of subtlety by saying, "Subtle is what they play in Connecticut when nobody goes."
8:47 p.m. An hour for five short films is way too much time.
8:48 p.m. Adam's WORLDLY POSSESSIONS has a military package accidentally delivered to a wealthy suburban couple. He's employed a lot of visual effects, most of them practical by the look of things. It's funny how Shalini just got hammered for a message movie, yet Adam just did the same thing. The difference, of course, is degree. It's a little too on the nose as well, but this features the best storytelling of all the shorts tonight.
8:56 p.m. A shocking elimination on HELL'S KITCHEN tonight. When isn't there? Last week, I guess.
8:57 p.m. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Adam couldn't look more uncomfortable on camera.
8:58 p.m. Favorite films? Carrie votes for Adam, Luke for Zack, and Garry picks Hilary. Adrianna says she'll see us next Tuesday. Sounds like a threat.
Now that we're a little deeper into the show we can see that the directors have professional competency, but I'd like to draw your attention to what Donna had to say about this in last week's comments:
I think that's why the show has become more boring, if that were possible, as the shorts have improved technically. We're getting more emphasis on visual effects, but assuming that all of these filmmakers have talented professionals assisting them--and who knows how much help they are getting--what does that tell us about their abilities? Rather than go for bigger and "better", I'd really like to see what the directors could do with just a conversation scene. It'd be a truer gauge of their directorial visions.
"...the polish you speak of bothers me more week by week. It's like somebody taught these people a bag of tricks -- filters, angles, cuts, music beats -- and they pour it all over whatever the assignment is, every week. Kenny may be incompetent, but I'll take his rough-edged ignorance over the other directors' chrome sheen. At least it feels like his vision, not a Frankenstein monster stitched together out of the ultra-commercial surfaces that represent these contestants' highest aspirations."
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
8:00 p.m. What, no Adrianna Costa intro? Voiceover announcer: "It's horror film night on the lot." Dude, that's every week.
8:03 p.m. And David gets eliminated, but pervy uncle Garry Marshall reassures him that he got to meet girls.
8:04 p.m. Adrianna informs us who will be directing horror films. What a surprise, it's the contestants who didn't direct last week!
8:06 p.m. Eli Roth is the guest judge. Terrific. You know how much I loved HOSTEL.
8:07 p.m. Kenny's THE MALIBU MYTH kicks off horror night. Looks like Tatyana Ali, who was in David's film last week, is back again. The guy relies heavily on transitional effects, but I have a feeling his aggressive direction will go over well with whoever's watching this show. The film has something to do with missing teens turned into bloodthirsty monsters. Essentially it's a pre-credits sequence to JEEPERS CREEPERS but jokier. The woman in the car talks about what a blog says, but it doesn't appear she has a computer. Continuity is for suckers, though, right? Considering that I don't think the directors have sufficient time to make something scary, I'll give Kenny credit for putting together a short with more polish than most of what we've seen in ON THE LOT'S run. Roth namechecks three horror films to prove how cool he is. Somebody punch him, please.
8:16 p.m. The success of Sam's ANKLEBITERS is going to rely on a puppet. Umm, OK. Actually, it is convincing enough, but is there anything to this other than it being a clip from a feature film? Roth throws out a comparison to DEAD ALIVE, but I have to agree with him that the prologue essentially makes what follows irrelevant. We already know that a new creature "will change everything". Then again, the time limitations pretty much guarantee we won't be surprised.
8:24 p.m. We're two for two with prologues for these shorts. Will Andrew's MIDNIGHT SNACK make it three for three? Nope. Hey, Lin Shaye is back too. Wisely he's not bothered with much dialogue, and he does OK building atmosphere. Still, this isn't going to scare anyone. Sure enough, a joke is the exclamation point on the short. Roth compares it unfavorably to a "got milk?" commercial. Sadly, I can't disagree with what the guy's saying.
8:31 p.m. I expected horror night to be a catastrophe, but I'll grudgingly grant that these films have been better than what we've seen in previous weeks. There's nothing in them that would make people pull them up on any of the numerous online content providers, but they have a sheen of professionalism that helps explain why these people were chosen.
8:34 p.m. They have people make one-sheets for these shorts? Why? I guess it's a nice souvenir for the contestants.
8:35 p.m. Jason's ETERNAL WATERS is up. Boy does that guy like that dream-like, fractured editing style. A boy is drowning in a pool. Now he's underwater in a coffin. Watch out! There's an Asian man with a knife in the house! I guess this is supposed to be redemptive or something, but I'm not seeing it. Roth isn't buying the actress cast as the mother. "You dressed her up like a teenager. She's this blonde with, you know, the big breasts, and she's in a tight t-shirt. It's hard to take her seriously as a mother." Surely he's just taken Garry's lines.
8:38 p.m. Garry Marshall has two words for Jason: "Sen-sational." Oh Garry.
8:43 p.m. Shira-Lee claims to have known almost nothing about horror films before this. For real? Her OPEN HOUSE has an expecting couple wandering into a home for sale. There's no real estate agent...but there is a ghost or something warning the woman to get out. Yawn.
8:46 p.m. Good point, Carrie. Ghosts during the day aren't scary. Roth likes the tag, which is the man suggesting that a name has come to him. It's the name of the ghost woman's dead son. OOOOOOOOOO! C'mon, that was lame. Garry nails it: no conflict.
8:49 p.m. I'll say this for liveblogging the show. It's made ON THE LOT pass much faster.
8:50 p.m. Fox is advertising DON'T FORGET THE LYRICS. Isn't this the same thing as NBC's THE SINGING BEE?
8:51 p.m. The challenge for next week's show, airing on Monday due to Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, is based on the well-worn trailer phrase "when two worlds collide". Yeah, that ought to stretch their creative muscles.
8:52 p.m. Mateen's PROFILE strives for everyday horror. A white police officer pulls over a black driver. Flash forward to the cops giving him a beating in the station bathroom. Of all the directors, he fulfills the task at hand, which is to make the viewers uncomfortable. (One part draws an audible gasp from the studio audience.) Granted, with material this charged, it isn't hard to shake people up, but I'll give him credit for making something that actually could horrify those watching. None of the other films did that. He does make a really odd choice in closing it with an aerial shot of the area that then becomes a view of the planet. Roth: "And then it's the point of view of the moon or something." Ha.
The judges are especially critical, maybe because it gets under their skin? Hitchcock's childhood fear of the police informed much of what happened in his films, and it's that fear of authority with a racial angle that makes the film somewhat effective. (The perspective shifts are correctly identified as a problem.)
I've agreed with Roth, a director I find awfully smug and whose last two films I think are reprehensible, so it's nice that he gives me a rich comment to dine on here. Says the guy whose HOSTEL PART II has a naked woman hanging by her feet getting gutted by another naked woman who showers in her blood, "With subject matter that's this volatile, it's easy to put a shocking image up, but it's tough to relate that horror to the audience." Did I mention that Roth plays scenes like that for laughs?
8:59 p.m. The judges are split on their favorites. Carrie goes for Andrew, Roth for Kenny, and Garry for Jason.
9:25 p.m. Speaking of horrors, my longest entry of the whole liveblogging experience gets chomped in an attempt to publish while the wireless connection is interrupted.
I expected tonight's show to have the directors flailing, but they acquitted themselves better than they have at any other time during the show. OK, so only Mateen's film had a glimmer of frightening images/scenarios, but I was prepared for much worse. I think Shira-Lee's a goner out of this group, but if Mateen succeeds only at making people feel bad, he could be susceptible.
Perhaps the pressure of writing during the show made it feel like the time went quickly, but stepping out of the comfort zone for these filmmakers did produce a smidgen of the creative spark missing in their other films and more entertaining TV. All but Shira-Lee relied on what we've seen from them before, but it didn't seem as tired. (Did anyone catch the mention in the opening tease that they use professional writers? Interesting...) Was it me, or was this show tighter? The judges could still be tougher. As usual, the guest judge made the most valuable feedback.
And so goes this experiment in liveblogging. Thoughts?
When the links for the films are available, I'll update the entry for those who want easy access to them.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
A new week means more changes, but first, what's the point of the show being live? I don't recall them making an issue of it in prior weeks, but the live nature of Tuesday's show was stressed. If ever there was a show that could use some fine-tuning in the editing room, this is it.
Once again, the results were delivered differently. Rather than make Jessica suffer for a week awaiting the result that might as well have been given right after she showed her horror short from a tree's perspective, Adrianna Costa and Garry Marshall stopped by the directors' living quarters to dismiss her. I missed if they claimed to have done this the day after the show, not that it matters.
When it comes to contestant interaction in their free time, producer Mark Burnett must have felt he learned his lesson on ROCK STAR: INXS. (The non-performance episodes got shuffled from CBS to VH-1, which indicates the ratings were dreadful.) Such content is practically non-existent on ON THE LOT, although we get maybe a minute of it each week to show the directors' reactions to the judges' comments. Big whoop.
Adrianna reminded us that the six comedies we would be seeing were made in five days. Because nothing guarantees original and quality ideas than rushing a creative project. Documentarian Shalini kicked things off with DR. IN-LAW. A son-in-law accompanies his non-English speaking Chinese father-in-law to the doctor's office. Naturally, the whole time the guy is berated for not being good enough for the old man's daughter. The son-in-law exacts revenge by telling the doctor that his relative needs a rectal exam. The intro package played up how comedy is not in Shalini's comfort zone, but compared to the night's other shorts, hers was not bad. She made good use of perspective and paced it well. Standard operating procedure for ON THE LOT is to employ an easy, vulgar joke when in doubt, and Shalini did not disappoint.
Next was Adam, who never looks comfortable in front of the camera. DISCOVERING THE WHEELS used that old standby of cavemen encountering unfamiliar technology. In this case it was a car. And not just any car but a Ford Mustang. Seriously, this was nothing more than an in-show commercial--and not a particularly good one--for one of the sponsor's vehicles. I shouldn't be surprised that ON THE LOT is attuned to finding the best 30-second advertisement director than a feature filmmaker. Burnett's THE APPRENTICE was oriented for those with marketing savvy more than business skills. All the better to flog the goods in the product placement-laden challenges. Adam's short ultimately didn't make narrative sense, but it probably has enough polish--he tried special effects!--to keep him around another week.
Adam took a page from Will's book and made a short without any dialogue. Will continued to stick with what has worked for him: minimal words for a putative silent film. His NERVE ENDINGS was a darker, grosser comedy about a surgeon who accidentally nicks a guy's brain with his scalpel and then leaves his assistant alone with patient. With the brain exposed, the assistant has fun pressing different parts of the organ to operate the man like a puppet. I didn't think it was funny at all, although there was a good final joke when the head doctor does the same thing to give his second-in-command a remote slap. I don't think that Will reused classical music from one of his other shorts, but I swear that someone in the competition used the exact same selection.
Hilary's deeply unfunny UNDER THE GUN yukked it up over a mother and daughter robbing a sperm bank. They want to make a withdrawal. Ha! Or maybe not. Lin Shaye, best known for her bit parts in the Farrelly brothers' films, played the mom. Hilary's first short showed that she's not exactly fit for humor of discomfort, but I think this one was worse than the short about the woman having to pee on the bus.
David's sex comedy short HOW TO HAVE A GIRL was pretty awful too. The conceit is that the man reads that to have a boy, he should be on top. The woman reads that she should be on top if she's to have a girl. Thus a wrestling match/fight ensues from the bed to the floor. Aside from not being funny, it was disconcertingly violent. That was THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR'S Tatyana Ali in this, right? The short's title doesn't exactly describe it. Come to think of it, neither did Shalini's.
The last director was the all-but-coronated Zach. He keeps talking about wanting to branch out and not be pegged as the special effects guy. Shaking things up for DIE HARDLY WORKING, he became the sound effects guy. The clever title and solid execution of office drones pretending to battle among the cubicles was more than enough to get the judges slobbering over his talent. I'm not saying he's without ability, but there's a big step from pulling off effects and small concepts on the cheap and making a feature film.
Moviemaking and watching are supposed to be fun activities, but ON THE LOT sucks all of the excitement out of it. The title of the show would lead us to believe that we might see the directors working behind the scenes. There's precious little of that. What we did get from the sets tended to be the non-working contestants criticizing the opponents' choices. Burnett, who typically does a good job of building his "characters", has failed miserably in establishing who these people are. The judges often have nothing worthwhile to say and instead opt for sub-American Idol wit or effusive praise.
The game's structure seems to require generating a new short in five days. Bor-ing, at least if they're not going to show us the struggle. Plus, they've hamstrung those directors who aren't writers. That likely accounts for the one-note ideas in these shorts. There's also an implied preference for directors who can do any genre, as if versatility is the most prized attribute. Look at the directors they've had judging the contestants. Most of them, like this week's guest Mark Waters, make the same kinds of films over and over. They don't jump from horror to comedy to costume drama.
Not that anyone with ON THE LOT is listening to me, but to jazz it up, how about having every director make a short from the same script? That would be more revealing of their talents. OK, so that could make repetitive TV. Since they're doing for-hire work anyway, why not provide a pool of scripts for them to select from? Maybe there would be a slight uptick in the base quality, and it would remove their writing skills, or lack thereof, from the equation.
Or ON THE LOT could go THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS route. I'm of a mind that these directors have too much freedom. They'd never get Lars von Trier to do a guest spot on the show, but wouldn't it be great to have him lay down strict rules regarding what the directors can and can't do? Even if he weren't cracking the whip, some limitations might force them to make more creative choices. As it stands, the group as a whole is making the easiest, laziest, and crudest decisions.
Next week brings horror shorts from the other six directors. The horror... As bad as the comedies were, the horror genre sounds like a uniquely terrible idea for two minute shorts.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
ON THE LOT still has loads of problems, but compared to the awful other episodes, the June 19 edition deserves accolades for an evaluation of "poor" or, if one's feeling generous, "mediocre". The show's pacing continues to sag, but it was tightened up some. There was less beating around the bush of which director might debut his or her film next. (Really, though, why should there be any? It's not like the order matters.) This week's entries were marginally better, although don't hold your breath waiting to see the feature credit "un film de ON THE LOT champion".
First up was family man Will Bigham, whose GLASS EYE was in the same silent film vein as his first short. I pegged him as one of the favorites, and I stick by that prediction. Unlike some of his competition, he knows where to put the camera and should get a lot of mileage out of his modest personality. His story of a man who gets a new way of seeing things when his glass eye falls out takes awhile to get going, but it's sort of cute and a cut above most of what we've seen from the other directors. Will is adept at delivering live action Pixar-lite shorts. I didn't find this to be all that funny. The story doesn't exactly add up either. At least I can see why he was cast...but careful with the aw-shucks demeanor, buddy. It's going to wear thin.
In his intro package Jason Epperson, the sideways ball cap-wearing Kentuckian, testified to his faith and a desire to not make films glorifying sex and violence. Naturally, BLOOD BORN was about a drug addict and frequent blood donor who likely gets killed in a drive-by shooting. He rightfully took some heat from the judges for saying one thing and doing the other, but I'll give him some benefit of the doubt since he was trying to use the elements to tell a redemptive story. (The guy's blood heals the sick.) That's the only pass I'll give him, though. The "edgy" style--color processing of the shots and aggressive, handheld camerawork--was distracting, and the confused narrative earned laughs from the studio audience when the shooter drives up at the end. What I would give for the directors to do something in locked down master shots and tell stories they know from their lives...
Zach Liposvky's SUNSHINE GIRL found him wowing the judges again with his technical skills. Zach introduced his film as being about a little girl who is afraid of the dark, which you don't quite get from the finished product. He has an eye for composing shots and pulls off some neat special effects. The girl's herky-jerky moves when she's plucked the sun from the sky lead me to believe that whatever equipment he's using has its limitations. Visually Zach has manipulated the images so they're excessively glossy. With so many tools at their disposal via computer editing, new filmmakers tend to use them all regardless of if it's merited. Shortcoming aside, like Will, he's one I projected as a favorite out of the gate. That won't be changing.
Mateen Kemet led into his short LOST by talking about how his work is more mature. By mature he must have meant boring because the restaurant conversation between a formerly dating man and woman was boilerplate romantic drama through and through. The way it was cut doesn't work, and the lack of tripod use was just annoying. It was slow moving and, in the grand scheme, didn't follow narrative logic. This way lies thousands of indie relationship movies that no one ever sees but festival programmers. I'd say he's the most likely to go except...
Jessica Brillhart's THE ORCHARD, a horror short from a tree's perspective, was strictly dullsville. As with Zach's film, if the director hadn't told us what it was about in the introduction, there's a good chance we'd be confused by what we're seeing. Jessica captured better images than Mateen, and I'll go out on a limb and guess that she might make more interesting failures than him. She's flopped spectacularly whereas Mateen's missteps are pedestrian.
As they've done in previous weeks, the judges mostly pulled their punches or prefaced their criticisms with "I liked your film". To no one's surprise, Jessica took the most lumps. The guest judges have usually been more forthcoming with their appraisals, but Wes Craven held back. Whether he knows anything about filmmaking or not, ON THE LOT needs Gordon Ramsay of HELL'S KITCHEN to stop by and read the riot act to these directors. There's nothing wrong with trying to be encouraging. Maybe the producers hope that the judges' muted positivity will convince the audience that these films aren't that bad. But come on. Even the best of these shorts hardly seem like top notch thesis films, and none of them would earn viral video status on YouTube.
I finally figured out what's so bothersome about host Adrianna Costa. Speaking loudly and opening her mouth as widely as possible, it's as though she thinks we have impaired hearing.
The producers and director continue to block the cameras in ways that don't work. Why have the host looking straight ahead and then take a shot from her side? Even worse, Adrianna and the director on the spot stand side by side, yet she is supposed to look forward while the contestants must face their left. Every time both are on camera together, the directors are looking another direction. Please, enough of the close-ups of the directors and their frozen grins as Adrianna rattles off the phone number for voting. Those shots are really unnerving.
Next week should bring another format change. Six directors are supposed to present comedy shorts, with the following week promising horror shorts from the other six. Oh boy!
Monday, June 18, 2007
Danny Ocean (George Clooney) pulls together the old gang again to help one of their own in OCEAN'S THIRTEEN. Willy Bank (Al Pacino) stiffs Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) on the contract for a lavish new Las Vegas casino that the Ocean pal thought he was building as a partner with the oily owner. Reuben stands to lose untold millions from Bank cutting him out of the deal. The news triggers a heart attack and rallies Ocean and crew around their old friend.
Rather than rob Bank's casino, they plot to do something far more ruinous: destroy his reputation and make winners of everyone playing the tables and slots. Rigging the games--and sending Virgil (Casey Affleck) to Mexico to tamper with the casino's dice at the production plant--takes time. Despite their elaborate plans, there's still the small problem of getting the gamblers to leave with their winnings instead of continuing to play. With the kind of hot streaks they'll be riding, no one will want to head for the exits. The solution is to simulate an earthquake that will send the crowd scattering and Bank broken.
Like the other OCEAN'S movies, OCEAN'S THIRTEEN is an excuse for director Steven Soderbergh, Clooney, and friends to have a good time and transmit that Hollywood fun and stylishness to ticket-buying audiences. Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Don Cheadle, among others, return for an all-star romp that appears to be as much fun for the participants as it is for the viewers. Old Hollywood still holds fascination today because of the glamour on screen and off. In our age of 24-hour tabloid media, which commonly feature some of this film's players, OCEAN'S THIRTEEN returns the sparkle in the glitter that entertainment reporting can tarnish. This breezy two-hour glimpse at movie stars and the lush life used to be what the studios did best.
The story is incredibly (and intentionally) convoluted and patently absurd, but that's what makes it such a rollick. Whether or not you can follow the operation details--and chances are you can't entirely--the pleasure is found in the winking tone of it all. The nonstop chatter about the plan builds a rhythm of verbal sparring that becomes funnier the more confusing it becomes.
It's hard to call the best jokes in OCEAN'S THIRTEEN throwaway since that tag could apply to the entire film. Effortless disposability amid gaudiness defines it. Yet the humor derives from scenes that might have hit the cutting room floor in tighter films. Virgil's fomenting of a worker strike, in part from seeing that Mexican revolutionary Zapata's image has been relegated to slinging tequila, has little to do with pushing the action forward, but those scenes are the film's funniest. Also indulgent and amusing is seeing Clooney and Pitt tear up at an episode of OPRAH, a joke that succeeds on the surface and a self-reflexive level.
OCEAN'S THIRTEEN shows that summer movies and their attendant presumption of needing to turn one's brain off can still be executed with style and wit. Hurry back, boys. You've got these filmed parties down to a science, and I for one can't wait to be invited to the next.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Ninja princess Kasumi (Devon Aoki), professional wrestler Tina (Jaime Pressly), and assassin/master thief Christie (Holly Valance) are among the elite fighters chosen to participate in a martial arts competition in DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE. Contrary to the title, fighting continues until one combatant concedes defeat or is knocked out. A $10 million prize awaits the ultimate warrior.
The butt-kicking babes have more than a title and big payday on their minds. Kasumi has left her clan to search for her brother Hayate (Collin Chou), who was reportedly killed in the previous fight festival on DOA Island. His body was never found, and she believes he is still alive. For abandoning her people, Kasumi is pursued by Ayane (Natassia Malthe), a former servant and Hayate's vengeful lover. Hayabusa (Kane Kosugi), Hayate's best friend, follows to protect the princess and demonstrate his skills among the world's top martial artists.
Christie and her boyfriend Max (Matthew Marsden) have their eyes on the prize money, but they're also scheming to rob the vault. Since everyone knows that pro wrestling is fake--spoiler--Tina wants to prove her abilities by beating the best of the best, including her muscle-bound daddy Bass (Kevin Nash).
If junior high school boys wrote a cheesecake syndicated TV show and spun it off into a movie, the result would be DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE. When in doubt of what to do next, the camera ogles and caresses taut bodies and then turns to the umpteenth uninteresting fight scene with poor wire work. The preponderance of bad CGI and virtual sets does as much to highlight the film's tackiness as the fake tans and gallons of peroxide used to make up the actors.
Acclaimed fight choreographer Corey Yuen sits in the director's chair, but unlike his work helming THE TRANSPORTER and SO CLOSE (CHIK YEUNG TIN SI), DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE lacks outlandish stunts or trashy thrills. The fights are maddeningly dull and nowhere as memorable as the kelly green shark's fin coiffure and facial hair of one fighter.
Eric Roberts, who plays DOA Island mastermind Donovan, adds a delicious side of ham to accompany the moldy cheese of this Z-grade film. Stiff performances and stock dialogue characterize DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE'S cheapo vibe. At times the lines sound like they were written and delivered by people for whom English is a second or third language.