Sunday, November 22, 2015

Modern Family: Phil's Sexy Sexy House

Though it's still reliably watchable and well-made, it's hard to make the case that Modern Family is still innovating enough in its seventh season to call itself great TV. It's not a knock because the show is doing exactly what it was designed to do:  Produce consistent and interchangeable episodes so that it can make a killing in syndication. 

At this point, it's rare for Modern Family to surprise us but this was certainly one such episode for a couple reasons: 1) The show's deft handling of Hailey and Andy and 2) the classic comedy of errors plot that was elevated by a very game Phil Dumphy at its center.

Steve Levitan and company smartly decided in the first season not to shoehorn the extended Dumphy-Pritchett-Delgado-Tucker clan into every plot because it wasn't realistic, but the advantage of numbers can make a comedy of errors like "Phil's Sexy Sexy House" stronger.

Make no mistake: "Phil's Sexy Sexy House" isn't really a team effort. Mitch and Cam are acting as typical as ever, Sexy Claire has been done in this exact capacity before, Luke (hallelujah: the writers have given him a beer plot rather than a girl plot) is forgettable, and Alex's plot is such an afterthought we never even see them sneak into the house.

Instead, all these characters just add to the absurdity of Phil's aloofness. Seven seasons in, Phil Dunphy is an extremely durable comic character. Ty Burrell's commitment to the character's aloofness and his endless pursuit of dork-related activity rachets his presence up to eleven. 

As far as Andy and Hailey were concerned, Adam Divine is underappreciated for the convincingly endearing brand of dorkiness with which he infuses Andy. For Hailey, it's a creepy case of "like father like love interest" but for a popular girl who was started out on the shallower end of adolescent TV characters, her relationship with Andy has been a tangible source of growth which is why their relationship has had a surprising amount of meat and bones.

Hailey and Andy make a "mistake" here but the episode provides enough wiggle room to make it a lapse in judgment as far as the future is concerned. The show has so far managed to portray a missed connection here with real-world grounding. The emotional and logistical costs of cancelling an engagement already in progress is portrayed through Andy's explanation that his love has strengthened for Beth once he decided he was engaged to her. It sounds like an open doorway to a runaway groom scenario but it's also a sensible explanation and one hopes that the show doesn't abandon that practical middle ground. 

The other ploys didn't really do much. I really had no idea what Jay and Gloria were doing and I didnt care. Manny has had so many love interests at this point, he's cycling through girls with the speed of a Seinfeld character and he's not even halfway through high school. Just think: There must be a well over a dozen girls at his high school who can form a club based on romantic contact with Manny. Considering he's not the dreamily guy in his class, how many romantic options can there be left for the guy? Can we at least get one of the old girls back?

Is Arrested Development a Show Where the Chracters are Meant to Grow

This is an article I originally wrote in 2013 upon completing the 4th season of "Arrested Development":

The fact that "Arrested Development" is still on the air at all is a gift so I'd have trouble complaining about the fourth season whether it fell below my expectations or not but there was plenty to like about it.

What was generally lacking in the humor department was what I call the medium range jokes. The long-term jokes-- running gags, jokes emanating from serial arcs (generally called brick jokes), and character beats-- short-range jokes (witty lines of dialogue) were both there in fine form, but "Arrested Development" had little interest in form-fitting any of its Season 4 episodes into a Seinfeldesque plot.

The show chose instead to tell one large arc and while the payoffs were satisfying throughout, the anticlimactic nature of the season finale felt a little disappointing and brings me to two big questions: Is the Bluth clan going to move in any direction along the success-failure dichotomy? Does the show need its characters to grow or does it work best when they're in purgatory?

I earlier referenced "Seinfeld" which had another famously anticlimactic finale that placed its protagonists squarely in purgatory. It's interesting to note that the sudden death of George's fiance (the closest anyone came to a major life change) was more a result of actress Heidi Swedberg's lack of behind-the-scenes chemistry with the cast and that co-creator Larry David later said in a roundtable discussion that he might have reconsidered the finale. Still, happenstance circumstances that changed a plot point or two has not erased the fact that the show revolves around static people and their static nature was synonymous with their being seen as terrible.

"Seinfeld" is famously a "show about nothing" which is obviously a misnomer. Of course the characters do things! One explanation is that, as the Cougartown name fiasco demonstrated, showrunners are pressured to create a gimmick to sell the show and the "show about nothing" catch phrase mostly came about through the show-within-a-show and laughs. The SAN catchphrase is also self-referencing the hoops that writers have to jump through in the pitching stage. Larry David had been through the ringer as a show runner and writer for at least a couple decades by the time that show-within-a-show arc hit the airwaves.

Another explanation, however, is that "being about nothing" refers to the lack of substance in the characters or  the lack of moral development within the four main characters which the finale confirms.

I've always felt that "Arrested Development" is a far superior show to Seinfeld to the degree that the two could be compared. What I might not have realized until Season 4 was that Mitch Hurwitz might see the end game of the show in the same vein as "Seinfeld."

One key difference is AD has more pathos The show borrows some of its conventions from family sitcoms which have a long tradition of tugging at your heart strings. I'd also make the case that the actors are so on top of their game and their chemistry off-screen is so famously good that it carries over to a love of their characters themselves. It makes it that much easier for AD to pull the wool over our eyes and think that our favorite real estate family is headed for self-improvement.

At the same time, the characters' fates go up and down so much, they're almost like live-action Looney Tunes. Anyone who's watched more than one Road Runner cartoon is desensitized to the site of Wile-E-Coyote falling off a cliff because we know he'll get back up again. There's a saying that comedy is watching someone get hurt but that when pain is involved it's no longer comedy. If we saw a shot of the coyote's innards being crushed courtesy of 16 feet per second per second of gravity, we probably would be taken out of that comic mood pretty quickly.

The combination of non-sequitur "On the next arrested development" end sequences and the slight gaps in the timeline have desensitized us to the bad endings of AD. In episodes like "The One Where They Build a House" or "Public Relations" the Bluth Company's plans backfire 100% and the family suffers horrible publicity but the exact damage is never revealed. It also helps to curb excessive empathy for the Bluths when one considers that they were much richer than the average American before suffering a great loss. The equivalent to the coyote analogy above is that ultimately we never know how much the Bluths lose or win in exact dollars or consequences of any nature.

The greatest series on TV today-- "Breaking Bad", "The Americans", "Damages", "Homeland", "Nurse Jackie", even "American Horror Story" -- derive much of their awesomeness from taking the downfall of a person, town or organization and stretching it from what might normally be an episode on a procedural to several episodes or seasons. With a drama, it works wonderfully because it creates lots of suspense. At any given point, it makes complete sense for Walter White or Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings to be caught, murdered, or slowly mutilated in a horrific way dreamed up by a James Bond villain.

"Arrested Development" has a similar sense of suspense, especially in Season 4, where the arcs of characters were stretched over several episodes. What do we as viewers expect at the end of those episodes? Suspense for the sake of suspense is great in drama, but in comedy, does it need to work towards a satisfying payoff?

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Story "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" Wanted to Tell

"Secret Life of Walter Mitty" seems like a standard romcom about a guy (Ben Stiller) with a run-of-the-mill personality/physical defect (constant daydreaming) that he has to overcome in order to catch the girl of his dreams (Kristen Wiig) but there's a lot of depth that the tagline and initial marketing presentations of the film curiously ignored.

If I had to make an educated guess, I'd wager that (director/star) Ben Stiller and company considered the daydreaming angle as an afterthought that needed to be packaged into the pitch.

Hollywood today runs on pre-existing properties and the daydreaming angle is the baggage the film came with in order to get the requisite buzz. By adding daydreaming scenes, the film can properly bill itself as a remake or reboot of a live screen adaptation of a TV show/live comic strip/children's book or whatever it is (technically, it's a remake of a 1947 film adaptation of a short story if you were curious). The daydreaming concept also lends itself to fantasy and action sequences that look good in a trailer.

The story that I suspect Stiller really wanted to tell is that of an office drone reexamining the choices in his life that put him there (although it's definitely curious and slightly counter-thematic that the story gives him what seems like a pretty artsy job in a magazine's photo department). Sure, he might be courting a girl in the process, but "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a story about a man freeing himself from the conventions of adulthood.

Within this thematic thread, worldly photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) is Stiller's true prize. O'Connell is a man who has successfully absolved himself of adult responsibility. While his being impossible to track down makes for a great plot McGuffin, he can be a pain to work with for those in the real world but that's if you judge him through a real-world lens. The film does not.

Stiller's quest to track down one of O'Connell's lost negatives in order to save his real-world job (Adam Scott deserves credit here for reaching heights in obnoxiousness not reached since "Step Brothers") is where much of the film's screen time lies.

It's along this journey that we get a sense that Walter Mitty (at least this version of him) wasn't always so square. One of the opening scenes clues us into Mitty being familiar with a skateboard, but one of the key character tenets of Mitty is that he was once a punk (with a full mohawk to boot) who was pushed into adulthood too quickly as a teenager after the death of his father. Whether this version of Mitty exists from the original isn't something I can say for sure, but it certainly supports the thesis.

It's also worth noting that the film's technical wizardry is impressively used towards both of the disparate storylines. One of the film's most technically memorable scenes is when a game of soccer against a setting Himalayan backdrop segues into a scene of a man being frisked as seen through an x-ray camera. Until we learn that Mitty has been stopped by airport security, fantasy and reality are fantastically blurred here. Simultaneously, the thematic idea of being in a transitory space between conventional adulthood and childhood is all over this shot.

As for which story is the better one and how this affects the finished product, Stiller gets credit for splitting the middle between the standard fantasy-adventure-romcom and the more meditative angle, There's no short shrift to the relationship between Stiller and the love interest and nothing disappointing about the fantasy sequences.

Thumbs up! 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Project Greenlight and the Liesure Class

"Project Greenlight" wrapped up its fourth season this past month.

If we assume that the other nine "Project Greenlight" finalists (whether team or individual) had at least 95% of the talent of Mann, better people skills and a measurable level of enthusiasm for the project, than wouldn't it have been a better logistical choice to suggest one of them? The answer is an emphatic no: A cooperative director would not have given the show the requisite amount of drama to make the show interesting or even remotely watchable.

Ultimately, Mann being chosen was a good thing from not just an entertainment perspective but from an educational one as well. "Project Greenlight" taught me quite a bit about film and keep in mind: It will soon be approaching nine years that I have been blogging on here; I have interviewed people who have created TV shows and starred in films; and I minored in film in college. None of those things tell me where exactly a director stands during filming, how many people work in an editing room, or how a director spends his time before the production starts. It is through "Project Greenlight" that you learn the ins-and-outs of what filmmaking is like on a tangible visual level.

On top of the film making narratives of art verse commerce and conflicting artistic visions, the show allows us to see the more mundane battles being waged like getting another shot vs. upsetting neighborhood ordinances, or on  Hollywood stand-in vs. tax-break-friendly Georgia vs. authentic Connecticut on the location front.

The film had two veritable villains in the form of line producer Effie T. Brown (another thing the show does well is answering the casual film fan's number one head scratcher, "What does a producer do?") and Mann himself which led to plenty of debate fodder on the internet over who was really "ruining" the movie. Of course, Mann provides pretty reasonable evidence in a Washington Post interview that many of his villainous traits (i.e. taking forever to choose a location) were exaggerated by the cameras so any TV show viewer familiar with reality show conventions should know better than to truly condemn Mann or (considering we have no reason to assume the camera weren't as drama-hungry for his counterpart) Brown.

The curious thing about the condemnations in online reviews and on message boards was the constant floating around in association with Mann of the most overused word of the year in TV criticism: "Privilege." Mann is a white, male and came off as petulant but that doesn't mean there's a correlation between those things or any on-screen evidence that he grew up pampered with wealth. It was even referenced in the season's second episode that Mann lived somewhat of an ascetic lifestyle to fund his projects. Some comments also surmised Mann was of unreasonable wealth because he went to film school, which I found disturbing for that criticism's undercurrents that taking the time to subjugate yourself to professors in an academic environment isn't something to be admired (and for ignoring the possibility that a person talented enough to win Project Greenlight wouldn't also be able to win an academic scholarship).

I suspect reviewers had difficulty divorcing their impressions of Jason and his overblown aspirations from the final product. If the job of a reviewer is to meet a film on its own terms and to discern what those terms are, the second part of that process is made extremely easy since Jason's obsessions with lighting and the fine details are well-documented.

Personally, I found plenty to like in "The Leisure Class." The HBO film (screened a night after the finale) was an admirable stab at a genre (a comedy of manners) that doesn't exist today outside of stage plays and period pieces set in Britain. By transplanting that style to an American setting, the film has something relevant to say about class in America and that's a pretty decent baseline for a comedic film. The film mostly succeeds at throwing twists and turns at each character to heighten the intensity of the hijinks as the night goes on.

The most interesting part of the viewing experience is deciding for yourself if each of the dramatic episodes behind the scenes made a difference in the final product. For example, there was a car crash that Mann and crew missed out on capturing the way he wanted due to logistical issues. Watching the film made me learn first-hand that I couldn't have cared less about the magnitude of the car crash. On the other hand, the last-minute decision to change rollerblading to pillow fighting in one of the film's later scenes did make a noticeable difference in my viewing experience. In that case, it would have given me a stronger visual image of two people running amok.

The chemistry between leads Ed Weeks and Tom Bell (something Jason Mann had to fight for) was also tangibly noticeable. The characters needed slightly better motivation, but acting salvaged quite a bit in my opinion.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Top 25 Acting Performances of 2009

I'm sure most readers can't distinguish between a 2009 and a 2010 film, but when you write about movies as often as I do you become kind of geeky about those things. Here's a random list of my 25 favorite performances of 2009 I wrote up in order to fill a slow day.

To review:
Oscar Best Picture nominees I saw: Avatar, Up in the Air, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, Blind Side, Up

Other award-worthy films I saw: Invcitus, Julie and Julia, Star Trek, In the Loop, 500 Days of Summer, Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes, Public Enemies, Hangover, Informant!, Me and Orson Welles

Award-worthy films I didn't see:
BP Nominees: Precious, Hurt Locker, An Education, Single Man
Also: Single Man, It's Complicated, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Messenger, Brothers, Young Victoria, Bright Star, Taking Woodstock, Nine, Last Station, Lovely Bones, Princess and the Frog, Moon
And the list:

1. Robert Downey Jr, Sherlock Holmes-There's certainly some genre bias in why he didn't go further in the Oscar race but if you take Downey's performance on its own terms, it's an incomparable performance of an iconic character. And, yes, there is a lot of comparison. Along with the Sherlock influenced characters on TV (House and Monk), there have been at least 3 great performances (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, and recently Ian McKellen) to come along based on Sherlock since, yet this is the performance I remember. Robert Downey Jr. won a Golden Globe for his performance in the comedy category which is pretty fraudulent but it highlights the fact that performances in action figures don't really fit into any box when evaluating a performance.

2. Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air-What I imagine when I think of a supporting role: Someone
interesting enough that you could imagine a whole movie being made about them. To the frequent-flyer protagonist, Farmiga's character is alluring. She speaks his language and could even be considered a perfect match. Underneath the veneer, however, her life is fraught with complications.

3. Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds-In this film, he has an obvious presence and this was just as a universally great performance for good reason. I like that he's not just pure evil but takes a deal at the end. His mastery of all the different languages as a weapon obviously helps his cause to be shot towards the top of this list.

4. Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds-Although Inglourious Basterds claims to be an ensemble
film, it could easily be read as Shoshanna's journey. Laurent has a very quiet presence but a strong survival instinct and so many shades of her presence are visible in her journey: In particular, the fear of concealment is prevalent in every moment on screen.

5. Rachel Weisz, The Brothers Bloom-Trying my best to distinguish between a bad movie and a good performance, I have to vault Weisz towards the top for a standout role in a film that failed to be memorable. Aside from learning all those skills for the purpose of that montage (ping pong, unicycling, rapping, what more could you want?), her character is so interesting in that she's socially stunted but so capable of socialization if given the right push. In this case, the reclusive character is given an introduction point to society that couldn't be worse (a trio of con artists) which makes her even more interesting.

6. Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia-Not a particularly eventful movie (Plot summary: If I remember correctly, the film's two plots are: a) one girl learns to blog and b) Meryl Streep imitates a historical figure for an easy Oscar nod), but it's Meryl Streep and she rarely does anything less than amazing.

7. Edgar Flores, Sin Nombre-I'm not one to spout on foreign films others haven't heard of as I average less than one foreign film a year, but I did happen to see this one and I can't deny the powerful performances here. Flores takes you on a journey of guilt, pragmatic redemption, and a hesitant survival instinct. He's a man born in Hell who sees the light late in life.

8. Sandra Bullock, Blind Side-I didn't mind the Oscar win here over Streep because this is a transformative role for Bullock that makes or breaks the movie. Bullock is a Southern belle of sorts but never dumbs herself down for the role. Bullock was always a popular box office draw but 2009 marked a year in which she suddenly began to be taken seriously as an actress. The Proposal was another film that showed her maturity in comedic roles this year.

9. Quentin Aaron, Blind Side-Bullock doesn't deserve sole credit. It's a two-part movie. Aaron's Michael Oher possesses a quiet gentleness that gets you on his side fast. There was a challenge here to portray the character as uneducated but not necessarily devoid of intellectual potential and Oher resistd temptation to simplify that dichotomy.

10. Robert Downey Jr., Soloist-Whereas some saw this is a standard feel-good filler on the movie calendar of 2009, this was my third favorite movie of the year so I thought pretty highly of the film already. While it seems logical that Foxx (who played a mentally ill artist) should be rated higher for the more flamboyant part, Downey Jr.'s typical persona- gruff exterior, good with words, internal demons hidden deep down- is used perfectly here and his arc was no less cathartic even if it was quieter than his counterpart. You also got the sense that he did his research into the life of a beat reporter.

11. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 500 Days of Summer-This was Gordon-Levitt's breakout role as a star
and shows off his grandiose theatricality even in its quieter moments. Gordon-Levitt is so infectious here with his youthful optimism that you forget that his views on love (at least with regard to Summer) are misguided and self-destructive (by JGL's own admission).

12. Zoe Saldana, Star Trek-The entire ensemble of Star Trek deserves a lot of credit for creating wholly original dramatic struggles while retaining the essence of the characters they're modeled after. I could pick any one of the seven leads from the film and put them in my top 25 but I'll limit myself to one and just go with Saldana who took what was originally thankless part (saved from being forgettable solely by the performance of Nichelle Nicholls) and made it a star attraction. Shipping her in a relationship with an emotionless half-alien didn't hurt in raising the degree of difficulty either.

13. Jamie Foxx, Soloist-Foxx is one of the most consistently on actors in my opinion and he always seems to make my Oscar wishlists for even minor performances (Dream Girls and Jarhead). His performance is Oscar-baity here but I give it points for being very close to his real-life counterpart (I've seen documentary footage on Nathaniel Ayres).

14. Ed Asner, Up-I generally don't believe that a voice-over performance is comparable to a live action role and should not be considered for awards buzz. Scarlett Johansson was someone who made me consider that rule of mine with Her. However, I realized when making this list that Johansson isn't my favorite voice performance of all-time but this is. Asner's role in this film was make-or-break and the emotional ride you felt from this movie can only be attributed to him.

15. Daniel Bruhl, Inglourious Basterds-Creepy is generally an overused word, but it's definitely apt for this character here who's underhanded bragging and dogged pursuit of Shoshanna makes him
someone you're hoping will be shot down (in the literal sense) sooner or later.

16. Tom Hollander, In the Loop-Peter Capaldi was the man who generated the most Oscar-buzz from this awesome film but I prefer Hollander because he's the straight man in the middle of this circus of snide insults and brown-nowsing. His look of defeat at the end of the film says so much.

17. George Clooney, Up in the Air-I've had a long-standing belief that George Clooney is not only overrated but over-celebrated to the point where I want to pull my hair out whenever I see a softball interview with the man. However, of his four Oscar nominations, I'll maintain that he most definitely deserves two of them. Although he repeats a lot of the same beats (world-weariness, graying charm), he really sold the hell out of them on an emotional level and bought something new here. Jason Reitman did more with Clooney than Alexander Payne did in my opinion.

18. Matt Damon, Informant-For a long time, I adored Matt Damon in this film until I realized it's the genius of the character and not the actor that makes the film great. The film stands out because of its unreliable narrator at the center. His speech inside his head and the world outside his head do not align and that's something. However, I don't know if that takes a great performance of a schizophrenic to pull this off. I'd imagine it's substantially easier to just voice a character of different temperament in the recording booth after acting out your scenes as a different character.

19. Paulina Gaitan, Sin Nombre-Another wonderful performance from a film whose director, Cary Fukunaga, might soon become a bigger name with the buzz for Beasts of No Nation. Gaitan plays a teenager being smuggled across the US/Mexico border who makes a seemingly fatal mistake by drifting away from her family and following an ex-gangster. It's a massive twist in the story and Gaitan pulls it off with a lot of consistency.

20. Tilda Swinton, Julia-I would not call this a watchable film by any means. It's a dreary trip about a troubled woman. But how can you (reluctantly) deny that playing a troubled woman like Julia takes a lot of work.

21. Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air-I love Anna Kendrick and the best I can say about this part is that this film made me a fan of her. However, I don't think her arc was particularly complex.

22. Amy Adams, Night at the Museum 2-Great performances can be found in popcorn films. If Cate Blanchett can win for an imitation of Katherine Hepburn, why can't Amy Adams at least receive a little bit of recognition in channeling her so perfectly for this fun romp?

23. Sharlto Copley, District 9-I might be grading on the curve here but this guy deserves a lot of praise for what is essentially a debut performance with minimal acting background. In this movie, he spends most of his screentime opposite a crudely-costumed giant squid-mouthed insect, and plays those moments with complete seriousness and even leaves an emotional residue. That's not easy to pull off.

24. Melanie Lynskey, Up in the Air-I've always admired Melanie Lynskey in a number of her roles.
As Ryan Bingham's sister, she possesses that kind of quiet reserve that she does best. 

25. Saul Rubineck, Julia-Again, this is not a very entertaining film and I don't recommend people see it, but if you DO see it, you will notice that Rubineck (the guy who played Daphne's boyfriend on Frasier) plays well of Tilda Swinton with a lot off tension and spark.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

More Random Trivia Items

Whenever I hear some interesting about a film, I often add it to the trivia section on IMDB. Over the years, I've accumulated quite a few contributions and since they are my own property, I occasionally post a few here. Give a thumbs up if you find any interesting:
  • The season finale to the first season was shot with the intention that the show would not be renewed.
  • Andy Daly said in a Reddit AMA that the writers decided that Forest should get divorced early on so he could go on sex adventures.

Back to the Future II
  • The motivation for writing a scene with an automatically hydrating oven in the future was due to product placement needs with Pizza Hut's sponsorship.
    Pizza Hut provided a professional food stylist and pizza kitchen to be at the set of the future McFly house to make hot, attractive pizzas for each take.
  • The plot line of George McFly dying in 1985 was based entirely on Crispin Glover's refusal to do the sequel.
  • Screenwriter Bob Gale was inspired to write science fiction by the George Powell version of The Time Machine that he watched as a kid and subsequently gobbled up a lot of time travel novels thereafter.
  • One of the conceptions of the 2015 universe that didn't make it on screen because of the budget cuts was a sport called "Slam Ball" that would be played in an anti-gravity chamber and combine Jai Alai, handball, and roller derby.

The Brink
  • Not only are the translations accurate when characters are speaking in Hebrew, Urdu, or German but the dialects are as well.
  • The show was screened for Ex-President George HW Bush who is friends with Executive Producer  Jerry Weintraub 
School Daze
  • Thanks to Columbia Pictures exec David Pickler, Spike Lee got final cut rights for the film which was pretty rare for any director at the time.
  • "Straight and Nappy" was written by Spike Lee's father Bill Lee. His sister, Joie Lee, who would play a more prominent role in "Do the Right Thing" also got a small part in this film as well.
  • Despite mixed reviews, the film cost $6.5 million to make and grossed $15 million making it one of Columbia Studio's most profitable films of 1988.
  • To the degree that the film is considered a musical, it is the first studio-funded musical to be directed by an African-American. 
Key Largo
  • In honor of its connection to Humphrey Bogart with this film, Key Largo, FL hosts a Humphrey Bogart film festival every year. 
  • Rocco's character was modeled after Al Capone who retired to South Florida shortly after the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
  • An urban legend has sprouted from a misquoted line of Rocco's dialogue that this film predicted the recount battle in the 2000 presidential election.
  • Claire Trevor didn't want to do the singing scene and was tricked by the director, John Huston, into doing a take that ended up winning her an Oscar
X-Men (Cartoon Series)
  • The voice actors were largely cast from the Toronto theater scene
  • Fox initially had a lot of resistance to the cartoon series before it became a success. They felt that the target audiences, kids under 10, wouldn't be interested in a romantic love triangle between Cyclops, Jean, and Wolverine. They also thought kids wouldn't keep up with a show that was serialized
  • Story editor and writer Eric Lewald liked the "Nightcrawler" episode best because he felt that the religious themes made the episode weightier than the network usually permitted
  • Stan Lee was not creatively active with Marvel comics at the time the series was being produced so his involvement wasn't particularly big on the series. He gave some producers notes on the first thirteen episodes
The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 (2009 remake)
  •  The production team worked closely with the MTA and was given access to the MTA control room for research
  • The actor who plays Bashkim was an ex-convict, just released from prison, who was originally hired as a consultant for the film. 
Charlie Wilson's War
  •  Charlie Wilson's aides in his Senate office were all beautiful well-endowed women nicknamed "Charlie's Angels." In real life, his chief aide, played by Amy Adams in the film, was often played by a man.
  • Former New York City mayor and presidential candidate is referenced in the film. Rudy Guiliani was never able to find enough evidence that Wilson had done cocaine, though Wilson hasn't flatly denied it either.
  • In addition to the deviant lifestyle being portrayed on screen, Charlie Wilson also had a DUI Hit-and-Run Charge outside Georgetown on the Key Bridge. If indicted, he would have been far less successful in securing money for his project in Afghanistan, but thankfully he got away. The History Channel documentary about his life suggests that he drank that night and other nights to ease the pain he felt for the Afghan people.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Interview with "Obama Girl" Producer Ben Relles

When I worked for ReelSEO, I scored this interview with then-Barely Political head Ben Relles in early 2013. Unfortunately, Relles has changed positions so this interview is no longer relevant to what Relles does or what Barely Political currently is. However, Relles was so kind to lend his time to me and what he said was so insightful that it should be published somewhere. So here you all go:

The 2008 election, featuring a ready-made caricature in Sarah Palin, was the first Presidential Election in which YouTube was part of the cultural ethos, and by most standards Barely Political emerged as the biggest buzz generator of that election cycle with Amber Lee Ettinger AKA Obama Girl, who made appearances on SNL and Bill O'Reilly after her hit "I Got a Crush in Obama" (ironically, made in 2007 when he was still a Senator) became one of the internet's most viral videos with 25.8 million views and 100 million overall channel views in 2008.

While Ettinger played the role of Obama Girl, it was Ben Relles who recruited the talent, co-wrote the music, and invested $2,000 of his own money to create the video series that would go on to revolutionize the way YouTube would eventually influence political elections.

Relles, a Pennsylvania native, is a 1997 graduate of the University of Wisconsin with a degree in journalism and a certificate in business administration, and started his first online marketing company his senior year of college. A decade later, Barely Political, would be his second venture as he foresaw that internet video would be the new frontier.

Six years later, Barely Political is currently the 40th most subscribed channel on youtube at 2.35 million subscribers and ranks 23rd in page views with 1.6 billion. The site has expanded to an in-house team of writers, performers, producers and the channel's director/editor in Tom Small. The content has also expanded to music video parodies (known as the "Key of Awesome" series) as well as parodies of comic book characters among other series.

Additionally, Ben Relles served as VP of programming and content development for Next New Networks which helps YouTube artists increase the visibility of their channel. Next New Networks was bought out directly by YouTube and in March of 2012, Relles was named head of creative development for YouTube's Next Lab.

Q. Who are the comedy influences of you and the crew at Barely Political?A: For me personally, my dad.  He just cracks me up and it was fun when we were launching the Barely Political channel that I was able to get his advice on all that early decisions..  Aside from him, I'd say sketch comedy shows I grew up watching -- Saturday Night Live and Mr. Show being the biggest two.

I think the crew at Barely Political (the writers are Mark Douglas, Todd Womack, and Bryan Olsen) all have different influences but that's part of what keeps our videos unique.  We have writers with years of experience with sketch, improv and stand up and that serves us well for a YouTube channel. 

Q:  What inspired you to go in the field of comedy?
A: I always loved comedy and tried my best to find project where I could try and be funny.  I middle school I made short silly movies at home.  In college I wrote a humor column.  After college I tried doing stand up for a few years.  But I really felt like I landed on a something when I found YouTube.  With YouTube you can make a short funny video, and if it hits on something really funny then a few days later millions of people are sharing it with their friends. That never gets old to me so I want to stay connected to that.

Q. How do you think the landscape for politically oriented comedy is different these days (in terms of both making comedy and watching comedy) then it was 15 years ago before the widespread use of the internet and how is it the same?
A: I think it's different in that the internet democratized political comedy -- especially that's the case with what YouTube did.  A lot of that started with Jib Jab in the 2004 election when their videos were being seen as much as Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show or any other mainstream political comedy channel.  And then recently you see hundreds of funny sketches on YouTube being done by people all over the world that are funny and really original.  Bad Lip Reading, Alphacat, and Sarah Silverman all come to mind.  I also think individuals have a chance to shape people's perception of candidates through YouTube in ways you couldn't before.  Gaffes do become more costly when they are being remixed and spoofed within 12 hours.

On the other hand in some ways the fundamentals of what makes for great political comedy are very similar.  People love seeing politicians get called out on their BS, and I think the best political comedy does that.

Q: Most rewarding part of your job for you and the crew at Barely Political?
A: For me it's getting to work with the Barely Political team.  I started the site but had no idea I'd get to work with such hilarious people who would build the channel to over 2 billion views.  I love that they have built such a huge, loyal fan base.

Q: What would you say to newcomers who aren't familiar to your brand about what Barely Political is today and why should they check it out?
A: We started as a political comedy channel, but that's not our channel any more.  We have different comedy videos for different people.  Comic book fans should check out our series "Super Therapy."  Pop music fans should check out "The Key of Awesome".  Everyone should check out our recent sketch "Deck Maintenance".  I thought it was pretty hilarious.

Q: Is it fair to say that you didn't do as much in the 2012 Cycle with politics? How much ambition on the part of your site was there to replicate the magic of Obama girl.
I made the observation that you are more focused on comic book geeks than political wonks in your demographic?
A: That is fair to say.  I wouldn't say its comic book geeks as main audience.  Key of Awesome is nearly half our views, and that's more aimed at music fans.  

Obama Girl was a unique thing.  A lot of people think that character genuinely shaped people's opinions of Obama and the video is in textbooks, museums, was on SNL, GMA, etc.  But in terms of audience, our channel still is more geared toward pop culture than politics. Obama Girl is at about 100 million total views across the series. Key of Awesome is closer to 1 billion.

Q: So in the last four years, you've moved away from political humor. Was that a conscious decision at some point to decide to move in a different direction or did you simply watch the traffic and follow it?
A: Right, during the 2008 election we were doing mostly political sketches.  We made a lot of Obama Girl videos, and we were working with the Gregory Brothers on the Autotune the News videos.  Then we wanted to start a new channel for non-political sketches, but we already had so many subscribers on the Barely Political channel we figured we'd just put everything in the same place. 

Q: Was rebranding your site from Barely Political to Key of Awesome a difficult move? 
A: The Key of Awesome took off and became popular so quickly it made the decision easy to have the Key of Awesome series on our Barely Political channel.  But I'd say it was tricky in 2009 trying to balance the Obama Girl videos with the Key of Awesome with some of the remixes Michael Stevens (now the host of Vsauce) was writing which I thought were brilliant, but were tricky to have all on one channel.  I think we have about 2 billion views so far on the channel, and over 1 billion of them are from the Key of Awesome so we've made it work.
Q: You're current position is to promote people's channels and help people promote their channels better. Do you think that the success of one channel on YouTube happens at the expense of another person's channel (in other words, is it a zero sum game?), or that in your position, you can help competing channels each get more views?

A: No I don't think the success of one one channel happens at the expense of another channel, there are always new audiences coming to YouTube and spending more time on the site. 

Q: On an appearance on Anderson Live, you helped a girl follow her passion of making videos for her own YouTube channel. How often do you get the opportunity to directly reach out to someone like that and help them?
A: I love working with people who are brand new to making videos YouTube.  My usual advice to people is to just get started and posting videos and not over think the first one.  Make videos about something you love and see how it goes.  When they make that leap and then become a regular YouTube creator I love it.

Q. According to UW-Madison News You invested $2,000 into the Obama Girl video when you created it. Did you expect to recoup your investment monetarily? YouTube lowers the barrier for entry significantly, but for the people that invest money into making a better product, do you advise them to invest that money with the mindset that they'll be able to make it back if the video is good enough?
A: I did think we'd make the money back.  I thought the video would be popular and we were ready to go with iTunes, T-Shirts and ring tones and all that.  But creators certainly don't need $2000 to make great content on YouTube.  In most cases I think YouTube creators first build an audience, then once they do they start putting more of the adsense towards more ambitious videos.

Q. Could you elaborate on the music making process at Key of Awesome? If I'm not mistaken, you have some people do the singing beforehand and everyone on screen is lip-synching. Why do you do it this way? Also, why do you only have a couple people sing rather than some of the actors singing themselves?
A: The actors definitely do the singing usually.  They just record it in advance to make sure they get a version that sounds great.  Mark Douglas writes the lyrics.  And often he also sings the lyrics and stars in the video.

Q: Is Kristen Brancaccio of The Intern Diaries really still an intern [Ed Note: Kristen Branaccio was just featured on Project Greenlight as a finalist], or is she like the Tonight Show's Ross the intern, where she was originally an intern, and then kept the title after graduating the internship. 
A: Right the latter.  She started as an intern, and now helps with all aspects of the channel.  She's awesome.

Q: Key of Awesome is very interactive with the Comment Videos, is that part of some strategy to pull people in or is that just fun to make?
A: I would say they are fun to make, but end up being a great way to interact with fans.

Q: You've hired more than a couple people at Barely Political to help write. Is that helpful to have different people write one parody song or does it tend to clutter up the process. Does one person write one parody song or is a Key of Awesome song written by committee?
A: I would say with these guys it helps.  Everything is written by Mark Douglas, Todd Womack and Bryan Olsen.  Those guys work really well together and I think most videos at this point the writing is collaborative in one way or another.

Q: You, Ben, are fairly anonymous to Key of Awesome/Barely Political subscribers which is ironic because even the director shows up in the videos here and there. Is that by design?
A: I wouldn't say it's by design.  I started the channel 6 years ago, and I love the whole team and the channel, but day to day I don't get involved in the production process of the videos.  And I can't keep a straight face on camera for some reason.

Q: How much are you a music studio? Is it easy to reproduce the music (do you just use a pre-recorded track like karaoke?) for the Key of Awesome, or do you make the music from scratch?
A: Not a music studio, but do make music from scratch.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Every Film I've Seen in 2014: Ranked 1-29

1. Gone Girl-Everything I look for in a great film: David Fincher's latest work is challenging, thought-provoking, engaging and novel. It asked profound questions about our presumptions and biases in the media age with one of the most gut-wrenching twists in moviedom and a wonderful coming out performance for frosty Bond Girl Rosamund Pike. Ben Affleck, Casey Wilson, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, and *gasp* even Tyler Perry deliver great supporting performances for one of the year's most unlikely ensembles.

2. Grand Budapest Hotel-Wes Anderson never fails to deliver on his quirky style but this was one of his more translatable and universally profound films. The comical performance by Ralph Fiennes and the relationship between Gustav and Tony were two things that made the film timeless outside of the Wes Anderson fan contingent. On top of that, the picturesque setting of a posh hotel in bizarro Central Europe lends itself well to some of Anderson's best visuals.

3. Interstellar-To call this film ambitious is an understatement. To translate a realistic look at space travel with black holes and relativistic jumps in time is a tall order but Christopher Nolan's up for the challenge and did not hold back on his intricately crafted style of storytelling. Some found the story ridiculous with "love" saving the day but I went along for the ride.  

4. Whiplash-Like the first three entries on this list, this film is thought-provoking and novel. It's kinetic, it takes you deep into a world you never knew existed before, and it has some of the most memorable scenes of the year. A fully-realized film thematically, no scene is really wasted here.

5. Wild-A masterful adventure film based on the true-life story of a woman's journey along the Pacific Coast Trail. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee of "Dallas Buyer's Club," the film enables the viewer to really experience the physical strife and isolation of Cheryl Strayed's journey. It's like "Cast Away" or "127 Hours" but it also works well when it features the protagonist making connections with other people.

6. Calvary-The film is an exploration of grief, sin, unhappiness, faith, and the emptiness that comes with wealth. In spite of all that, the journey of the priest (played brilliantly by Brendan Gleeson) is one of hope despite the fact that this could possibly be his last week on Earth.

7. Pride-A feel-good film that balances a large ensemble incredibly well. It's a little sugary but it's based on a sugary historical moment, so oh well. 

8. Birdman-Films about actors and filmmakers can become a little vain. This is the third time in four years that a film about making a film (or a play) won Best Picture and that's slightly problematic. Alejandro Inarritu unapolagetically wears his heart on his sleeve when he makes pictures and that human touch ties so many disparate projects of his. In this case, the performances are great and the merging of story, technological innovation (which some might call trickery), and a wicked score merge to make something that's awards worthy on some level.

9. Into the Woods-The film is adapted from a Stephen Sondheim play which presents some near-impossible challenges when it comes to deciding how to intermingle the light-hearted humor and Gothic angles. It's hard to say whether director Rob Marshall nailed the transitions. On top of that, the film's tone is incredibly jarring as "Happy Ever After" turns into six different levels of weird in the second half. In spite of all that, the film was really memorable in a twisted way. Moreover, the musical element adds something: The song's aren't particularly hummable but the cast displays their theatricality with the numbers. 

10. A Million Ways to Die in the West-With the exception of one scene (Neil Patrick Harris's shoot-off) Seth McFarlane stays clear of overly crass and low ball humor in this extremely hilarious parody that makes great use of McFarlane's hyper familiarity with pop culture. Although it's definitely a popcorn film more than an ambitious comedy (by Jason Reitman, Edgar Wright or Christopher Guest), few comedies can deliver such a strong rhythm of laughs like this and that deserves credit. The film's also better looking than a comedy has any right to be.

11. Still Alice-Better known as the film that won Julianne Moore an Oscar but no one saw (this happens nearly every year in the Best Actress category and occasionally the Best Actor category too). The film is a bit devoid of momentum at times but the film is visceral and Julianne Moore's performance is a great example of an actress winning an Oscar for the right role. Alec Baldwin is great here as well.

12. Imitation Game-The way this biopic screams out for Oscar is mildly off putting if you're conscious of Oscarbait. The the story's insistence on cutting back to Turing's childhood is unnecessary, but the historic personalities portrayed here are very strong and memorable. Math isn't a very sexy topic and this film doesn't make it wholly interesting but it comes close.

13. Chef-Not a particularly ambitious film but a thematically coherent and well-paced one with a clear passion for its subject. 

14. X-Men Days of Future Past-The first couple X-Mens would probably have made my top 10 of their respective years and this one doesn't provoke that level of amazement from me but it's not really a flawed film either (except for the fact that actors like Anna Paquin, Halle Berry and the rest of the older X-Men are pretty much wasted in cameos). The film could have used some more focus on some of the other characters but the small scale focus on Beast-Wolverine-Magneto-X-Mystique is an interesting change and I like that it transitions decades rather seemleesly.

15. Begin Again-The narrative didn't really have that high of a high (Knightley's character anticlimactically decides to release the music herself anyway and the marriage reconciliation is equally forgettable) but it has some memorable moments and is made with a certain amount of passion for its subject. As a mood piece, it's very inviting and a worthy follow-up for Jay Carney for Once.

16. The Judge-Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) is such a dislikeable character that he turns this film into a downer pretty quickly. The argument scenes are almost like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, for example. At the same time, there's a lot to respect the film's ambition and there are a lot of thought-provoking moments here and there. Certain characters like Dax Shepherd's dim-witted lawyer and Vera Farmiga's Sam shine. The courtroom drama underneath it all is pretty decent too.

17. Boxtrolls-The only animated film I saw this year. It was interesting visually and I admired it's slightly darker themes. 

18. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit-This film certainly came in under the radar (I didn't hear about it until I took a chance on it at the Redbox) but I liked the idea of a hero who was essentially an analyst ("Get Smart" tried this on a comic level) with brains. Even his fighting style (I'd go so far as to say my two my favorite action scenes of the year were in this film) were fought using not just Jack Ryan's reflexes but his smarts. The score and visual look were also somewhat inviting.

19. Horrible Bosses 2-This is not a film with anything original to offer as a sequel. It's last act is too confusing to follow and I get the sense I'm not supposed to care. That said, it was more or less what I paid for: The familiar rapport between three solid comic actors with winning chemistry and some memorable set pieces. The addition of  Chris Pine and Christophe Waltz into the cast didn't hurt. Besides, the part of me that quit "House of Cards" because Frank Underwood never got his comeuppance, enjoyed seeing him in the slammer here.

20. Top Five-I love Chris Rock as a stand-up and I applaud him for making a personal film but I don't know if he's actually saying anything here. When given the opportunity to create, Rock's messages are somewhat pessimistic and a downer (His conception of Everybody Hates Chris is a loving family that's always threatening disciplinary measures on him). While the film worked thematically, I didn't feel like even the allure of Rosario Dawson could fill the holes of emptiness created by the protagonist's wealth. 

21. Long Way Down-Pretty much a by-the-book adaptation of a pretty unique story. A couple of the changes worked (making Toni Collette's character's son slighty able, softening Pierce Brosnan's character) while others didn't (shipping the two younger characters, the lack of resolution from the journalist spy/lover incident).

22. Cantinflas-A middling biopic with a few bright spots. It's specific to a setting but I was a little disappoint by how Mexican it felt beyond the subtitles.  The best part perhaps was seeing the guy's creative process in a trial-and-error kind of way.

23. Bad Words-Like "The Judge," it's main character was too dark to be uplifting or rootable. At the same time, I admire Bateman's decision to try something a little darker (whereas for Downey Jr., it's just routine). The movie would have been better if it had some interest in recapturing the spelling bee and recreating that drama. This could have been an opportunity to go specific. .

24. Snowpiercer-The premise for the film is novel and sets up some cool visuals and could go deeper into some sort of mythology if it held up under any level of scrutiny. Why are humanity's last survivors convinced that cramming into close quarters with people who want to oppress/murder them on a never-ending train is a good idea? The steps in the plot (someone dies, someone else gets shot in revenge) were repetitive and the ending was muddled.

25. Lucy-The film set up some cool action scenes and special effects. Moments like Lucy ignoring flight safety or chatting with her roommate while using 20,000 times more brainpower had a funny catharsis. I got behind the story of the character (and like what ScarJo did with Lucy) but a cool concept became more and more outlandish to the point of stupidity. The Morgan Freeman narration trope is getting strained at this point.

26. Foxcatcher-I'm sure I'm in the minority here but this film was as dull and as a Hallmark movie-of-the-week. So the creepy-acting guy with an inordinate amount of time to pursue his interest of a sport where young males touch and tumble with each other and barely acceptable ways, turns out to be a pedophile. That's a surprise? The film's scarce musical score is also annoying.

27. Captain America 2-A couple of the action scenes were great but I found myself caring so little about these characters that it felt like I was dropped into a long-running procedural midway through the season. Why do I care about Captain America as someone who didn't see the Avengers or the first Captain America film? Maybe I wasn't the target audience?

28. Mazerunner-I thought this was going to be about people trapped in a maze like what Ariadne would have designed in "Inception." And maybe they would have been running instead of walking. So much for reading too much into the title. It turns out they were trapped in a village without adults like "Kid Nation" with a more dramatic score and desperate ambitions to be a tentpole film. But, hey it was nice to see Patricia Clarkson for a few minutes.

29. Camp Takota-I was intrigued by the backstory of three YouTube stars crowdfunding their way to a film, but if this is what new media has to offer, I'm fine with the old studio system. This had no edge and barely even had a grasp of what summer camp is like. I wouldn't say Hannah Hart, Mamrie Hart and Grace Helbig are necessarily bad actors or that there personalities didn't shine through but it was a lazy attempt to fit their comic persona into a story.