Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Moving On Up

I know I haven't updated the blog in about a month, but that's because I've been readying a move to another site. Though it's not quite done yet, I do have another post.

So if you've been reading here or just now stumbled upon it, feel free to check out my new site:


Thursday, August 21, 2008

(Be)Rate a Movie, Vol. 1

"Man, I wish we were over there. Those people are watching Rear Window!"

Every now and then I see a movie that I hate more than I probably should. When I first saw the previews for Disturbia, I was angered that someone had the audacity to basically remake Rear Window with a bunch of unknowns without giving the original movie any credit. (At the time I didn't know who Shia was. Now I know he's a guy that likes to say, "No.")

Then the film got some good reviews. It's still only a 67% on Rotten Tomatoes, but that's more than it deserves. I couldn't help but dwell on all of the stupid things that I noticed: either lacks of logic or elements that were totally unnecessary.

To name a "few":


The film opens with Shia's father being killed in a car accident. It's actually done really well to start with. An erratic SUV pulls ahead of them on a two lane road. They're following for a bit when it suddenly swerves out of the way, revealing a stalled car right in front of us.

Shia hits it, and his car goes flying, flipping upside-down. The problem comes when both father and son seem alright only to have another truck plow into the passenger side, killing the dad.

The truck showed no signs of even hitting its brakes. There's no reason this truck wouldn't have been able to see the wreck in time to at least slow down. Even if the stalled car had been around a blind curve (it wasn't), Shia's car flew a few hundred feet past it.

Also, the people standing on the side of the road next to their stalled car never make an appearance, apparently unconcerned with either checking on the crash victims or stopping the speeding truck.

#2: Killing the father was totally unnecessary in the first place. They wanted to make us feel bad for Shia and sympathize with his bad behavior. Do they really think I'm not going to be on the side of a guy who's trying to catch a killer and no one believes him? Just give him a dead-beat dad if you're that worried about it.

#3: A year later, Shia is acting up in Spanish class. That is, he's asleep, and when he's asked to answer a question, it's clear he knows hardly any Spanish. But it's supposed to be the week before summer. If he didn't know more Spanish than this, he wouldn't have made it this far in the class.

#4: The teacher tries to be understanding with Shia and mentions something about his father, causing him to punch the guy. This, along with three priors that remain unexplained, results in Shia being placed under house arrest for three months.

The only reason they set it during the summer was so he wouldn't have to miss school while he's under house arrest.

So you're telling me that a movie that opens with killing off the father, has a kid punch out his teacher, and features a serial killer living next door decides to play it safe by not making the kid miss school?

#5: Shia is fitted with an anklet that will alert police if he strays beyond a certain distance from the house. He meets the cop that's assigned to him, who just happens to be the cousin of the teacher he punched.

While it's mildly addressed later, wouldn't this be a HUGE conflict of interests? Also, he is apparently the only cop that ever responds to the anklet going off (either with other cops or alone). He must be hanging out around the place just waiting for Shia to screw up.

#6: Shia tries to kill some time by playing XBOX online, but he's suddenly thrown off because his account is no longer active. (His mother canceled it.) He'd still have no trouble playing a game the normal way, but he abandons all hope and moves on to other things.

#7: His mother returns home to find him lazily watching TV in his room. When he accuses her of being dramatic, it's clear she's going to do something drastic. Thankfully they spared me by not having her smash the TV. Instead, she cuts the power cord.

Considering she's canceled his XBOX Live and iTunes subscription in order to pay the incarceration fee, you'd think she'd consider selling his TV for some cash.

Also, we've already seen him watching an even bigger TV in the living room, so it doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

#8: Shia answers his doorbell to find a flaming bag of poop that he stomps out with his sock-covered feet. A guy that's gotten in trouble with the law four times doesn't know this old trick?

#9: While out in his yard, he hides when he sees the new hot next-door neighbor (Ashley) driving down the street and into her driveway. But she already saw him get handcuffed on his front lawn when his anklet brought the police. How could any interaction with her possibly embarrass him further?

#10: Shia is awoken to his neighbor (the killer) coming home late at night, driving a shiny blue rare classic car with a dented left fender, which exactly matches the description mentioned on TV earlier that a kidnapper may have been driving.

But Shia doesn't call the police or even mention any of this to his mother. It would be perfectly reasonable to do so. In fact, having the police investigate at this point and find nothing would increase the stakes by making him reluctant to contact them again.

#11: Shia lets his Asian friend (Ronnie) in on his hunch, and they do some research. Turns out police suspect the recent disappearances are related to a similar thing that happened in Texas a few years prior, where, after the killer moved out, dead bodies were found hidden in the house.

They didn't track him down because he used a fake name. So apparently he left no fingerprints, no neighbors could describe him, and none of the local businesses that he frequented had video surveillance footage. Because based on how the killer lives in this new neighborhood, the police would have no trouble tracking him down once he moved away.

#12: Shia, Ronnie, and Ashley stake out the killer but find no evidence of foul play, other than his taste in redheaded club-going women.

Later that night while alone, Shia notices the woman running around the killer's house in a panic, trying to get out. He tries to film it, when suddenly his camcorder flashes.

Yes, many camcorders have flashes, but I know from experience that they are a pain to activate. Having one go off by accident is ridiculous.

#13: Shia never shows this footage of a woman in distress to anyone because moments later, after hiding for a bit, he sees her getting into her car and leaving. But as we later find out, she didn't leave. She's dead. So why doesn't she show up as a missing person? Because then Shia would have been able to show that footage to someone and get the killer arrested, that's why.

#14: Ashley throws a party, which Shia obviously can't attend. He accuses her of trying to conform. That is, not punch teachers in the face, I guess.

#15: Shia tries to ruin her party by playing loud annoying music. She storms over and threatens to throw his iPod off the balcony. When he's forced to admit that he's been spying on her, he mentions a number of cute things he's witnessed, including how she reads real books and not magazines.

This is coming from a guy who's played videogames, spied on people, and built a tower of Twinkies instead of cracking open one of the hundreds of books in his dead father's library. Why the hell would he be impressed with someone reading?

#16: Later that night while at Shia's place, Ashley spots the killer dragging a bloody bag into his garage. The next day, they make Ronnie sneak into the killer's car while he's gone. He's at a hardware store, where Ashley is spying on him to make sure he's still away from home.

She insists on sending pictures through her phone to prove that the killer is still in the store. What's the freaking point? You can just tell him that.

Plus, why even spy on the guy? She could acknowledge that she sees him and act like she's having a normal phone conversation. Ask his opinion on the shovels he's looking at. Anything to make sure he doesn't leave her sight. Instead, she hides from him and then loses track of him.

#17: That is, until he pops up in front of her car in the parking lot. And leans in through the open(?) passenger window, lets himself in, locks the door, and says creepy vaguely threatening things implying that they should stay out of his business, while occasionally touching her in inappropriate ways.

She could have easily mentioned this incident to anyone of authority which might possibly have led to an investigation of this guy. He could have told her to stop spying on him without seeming like he was about to rape her.

#18: Shia gets the blueprints to the killer's house so easily, I have to assume he Googled "blueprint to the killer's house." And that he has the capability of printing them on blueprint paper straight from his computer at home.

#19: He then rigs a home security system so that Ronnie can sneak in with a video camera that will transit its image to his computer screen. When did he suddenly become MacGuyver? And where did he get the money for this thing?

#20: Shia is supposed to keep an eye out while Ronnie sneaks into the garage and checks the bloody bag, but instead he insists on watching the live feed, putting his friend in intense peril.

#21: When Ronnie goes missing, Shia runs over to save him, which of course causes the police to show up. He tells them Ronnie is in the house and that the killer has a bag with a body in it. (Ronnie confirmed the bag had blood and hair in it.) They pull it out, but it contains a deer carcass.

Still..wtf? No one questions why the hell the killer is keeping a rotting deer carcass? And WHY does he have it? Did he know Shia would call the police over and needed a cover? Is it always in his garage to mask the smell of the other dead bodies?

#22: Shia's mom wants to go talk to the killer to hopefully get him not to press charges. Shia obviously doesn't want her to because he thinks the guy is a killer, but he gives in to her demands pretty easily considering his friend is MISSING and perhaps DEAD.

#23: Ronnie plays a practical joke by sending Shia a text that says to check his TV which shows Ronnie in a closet which turns out to be Shia's closet and when Shia opens it he yells and scares him. Not only is this overly elaborate but also it's incredibly inappropriate.

#24: Shia zooms in on an image from footage taken inside the house to reveal a body wrapped in plastic hidden behind an air vent. But he zooms in impossibly far and makes the image clearer than it originally was.

#25: Around the same time that Shia discovers this, the killer slams his mother's face against a wall, then appears seconds later in Shia's house to hit Ronnie across the face with a bat. But later Shia finds his mom tied up down in a weird basement/well thing which would have taken about ten minutes to accomplish.

#26: The killer attacks Shia, who tries to unplug the monitor for his anklet so the police will show up. But each time the killer gets closer, he lets go of it instead of just ripping it from the wall.

#27: He runs outside, trying to go beyond the radius and set off the anklet. The killer grabs him, struggling to keep him back until he finally knocks Shia out. This entire time, Shia doesn't scream in an attempt to alert the neighbors.

#28: The killer ties up Shia and explains that he's going to kill his mother and Ronnie and then Shia himself, making it look like a murder-suicide. Good plan, I guess, but not sure how he was going to accomplish that if he has bashed in Shia's brain with a baseball bat as he was trying to do earlier.

#29: In fact, why is the killer even bothering to kill them in the first place? He doesn't know that Shia has any concrete evidence. And even if he feels that he's been compromised, it's not like he can kill them and just stay in his place without being investigated. He'd have to leave town anyway, so why chance getting caught while attempting to kill three people?

#30: Ashley shows up and saves Shia for the time being. They barricade themselves in his room. The phone doesn't work. But Shia never attempts to sabotage his anklet, which as we were told point blank earlier in the film, would send the police his way.

#31: When the killer starts to bust down the door, they jump from his room to her swimming pool, and he goes after his mom. But Ashley doesn't bother calling the police and explaining everything that's just happened. Just because the police are on their way doesn't mean they shouldn't know what the hell is going on.

#32: The dispatcher calls the cousin cop to report the anklet violation even though his shift is over. He says he'll take it but waits to finish his meal first.

I don't buy this for a minute. This cop has loved busting Shia's balls, and now he wants to sit around and wait? Totally unrealistic. This was the time they were going to haul Shia off to jail. The guy should be running red lights to get there.

#33: While looking for his mom, Shia crawls into vents and rarely checks behind himself even though he knows the killer wasn't incapacitated in any way and could appear behind him at any moment.

#34: During his search, Shia finds a redheaded wig and the valuables that belonged to the club girl. So this can only mean that she's dead and the killer PUT ON A WIG before driving her car away.

Are you freaking kidding me? If Shia (or anyone else) had gotten more than a glance at him, it would have looked ridiculous. David Morse (who plays the killer) is 6 feet, 4 inches tall! He's supposed to pass for a woman?!

#35: Shia hears his mom's muffled murmuring from what turns out to be hundreds of feet away but can't hear the cop calling out to ask if anyone is home. Oh, but the cop can hear when Shia slides open a door.

#36: The killer breaks the cop's neck. Nothing wrong with this, technically, but I felt bad for him.

#37: After killing the killer, Shia and the mother emerge from the garage to the flashing lights of cops that have showed up. The scene fades out before anything really happens, but shouldn't the cops be converging on Shia, especially since the officer they sent to arrest HIM is no longer responding?

#38: When Shia gets his anklet taken off, he walks outside to find the hot girl standing right past the edge of what used to be his limits. So...she was just standing right there waiting on him? For how long?

It could have been cool if he had surprised her at her house, perhaps at her pool which had been a recurring location while he spied on her.

That's 38 negative points for Disturbia. But I liked the cast and the performances. So 36 negative points. (But actually there were other stupid things I didn't bother to mention, so it's more like 50.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Not Just A Pretty Face

Don't judge a book by its cover. It's a common maxim, passed down from generation to generation. And like any good rule, it deserves to be broken from time to time. For instance, I would never read this book. Whereas I would read this book in a heartbeat despite the large chance that it's unreadable.

A rule should exist that says don't judge an actor by his dreamy eyes, electric smile, chiseled chin, and exquisite nose. Of course, even if that rule existed, I still would have broken it. Because I've definitely written a number of actors off as "pretty boys" only to later be forced to alter my opinion.

The most recent example would be Ryan Gosling. In the space of just a few days, I watched both Lars & the Real Girl and Half Nelson. While he gave a quiet, subtle performance in both films, the characters are quite different. Sure, they're both broken and trying to solve their problem in the wrong way, but if they ever met I doubt they'd like each other.

And the roles are especially different from his star-making performance in The Notebook, where the hardest thing he had to do was make-out in the rain with Rachel McAdams. (Admittedly a bit difficult because he was obliged to restrain himself until he could deliver some lines.)

To be fair to Gosling, he had good chemistry with her, and his performance had nothing to do with the many, many reasons I hated about that movie. But I figured he would be just another pretty face who would appear in a bunch of romantic comedies that Matthew McConaughey passed on because of age issues or shirts being required.

Instead, he followed them up with the aforementioned roles. So he is not only a gifted actor but also a man who chooses his films with care. (I'll give him a pass on Stay, since all the theater-goers did as well.)

The problem is that for every Ryan Gosling, there's five Ashton Kutchers. That is, guys who get roles based simply on their looks and never progress beyond what first got them recognition. Kutcher is physically appealing in that jerky frat boy kind of way. Unfortunately, his comedy is appealing in a similar way, only in very short increments and generally only if you've not actually been through college yet. (Or if you are a jerk frat boy. You always laugh at what you know.)

I would write Gosling off as an anomaly if this was the first time this had happened, but there have been other success stories. George Clooney is one of my favorite people lately, much less actors. But for awhile he was just a guy that got a few movie deals because he was the cute doctor on ER.

Even in films of his that I enjoyed, such as Out of Sight, I felt that he was getting by more on charisma than acting. (Only later did I realize that his charisma was part of his acting, a fact that he figured out earlier on and has used to perfection.)

It wasn't until Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? that I began to give him some credit. His association with the Coen Brothers made him infinitely cooler. He's taken on a lot of different things since then and proved his chops as an actor. He was beyond fantastic in Michael Clayton, a point driven home by the fact that my favorite moment of the film is his silent taxi ride during the credits. The entire film plays over in your mind as you watch him contemplating everything that's happened.

Probably the ultimate example of facial judging was my experience with Brad Pitt. I'm not sure when he first popped onto my radar, but for awhile there (A Rivers Runs Through It, Interview with a Vampire, Legends of the Fall, Seven Years in Tibet) it seemed that he was just testing out how many hairstyles he could pull off. (Seriously?)

Even his role in the incredibly dark Seven commented on his "pretty face," as John Doe apologized for having to bash it in.

Once he tried to sell death as sexy in Meet Joe Black, I was pretty much fed up. So when what I thought was an excuse for him to show off his abs hit theaters, I didn't bother to see it.

But I was so wrong about Fight Club. I don't love the movie now as much as I did back then, but I still love Pitt's crazy laugh. Probably my favorite laugh ever. I wish I could do it.

Since then, he's still done some roles that required little more than for him to look good. (Really, what is Ocean's Eleven other than an experiment to show how cool it looks when a bunch of hots guys walk together in slow motion?) But he's taken on some dramatic roles, and, more importantly, had some fun, whether it's voicing Boomhauer's brother on King of the Hill or playing a dirty, incomprehensible boxer in Snatch.

So I want to apologize to these people, and any other "pretty boys" that I forgot about. Being exceptionally good-looking and using that to get a few lead roles isn't a crime as long as you don't squander your talent. (If hotness is your only talent, then I guess I can't blame you for continuing to do it, but it doesn't mean I have to like you either.)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Category Five: 5 Actresses Who I Can't Believe Haven't Been Nominated For An Oscar

Awhile back I wrote about five actors who I couldn’t believe had never been nominated for an Oscar. Now it’s the ladies’ turn.

It was much harder to compose this list. That can be blamed on the lack of good roles for women. Because of their scarcity, when a great role does come along and it’s performed well, the actress is generally recognized with a nomination. This isn’t to say that some great performances haven't fallen through the cracks over the years, but generally an actress with at least two exceptional roles under her belt will find herself with at least a nomination.

Therefore, it was much harder to find women with quality work that hadn’t gotten one. Of course, I’m sure they’d much rather have the problem of too many great roles to recognize them all.

#5: Blythe Danner

Notable Performances in: The Last Kiss, The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini

Finding five women was so difficult that I had to cheat a little bit with this one. While I’ve heard great things about the latter two movies (and Danner in particular), I haven’t personally seen them. In other words, I’m more or less putting her on this list because of one movie.

While that movie got heavily criticized by a number of people, I enjoyed it immensely and thought Danner was the best part of it. She plays an older woman with real problems, and that alone is enough to make her stand out. But the fact that she balances both independence and brokenness into one character makes her really stand out. If her scene on the treadmill doesn't get you, then something's wrong.

#4: Jamie Lee Curtis

Notable Performances in: Freaky Friday, A Fish Called Wanda, Trading Places

One of the biggest criticisms of the Academy is that it’s reluctant to give well-made comedies the same respect as well-made dramas. If it’s funny and doesn’t have Woody Allen’s name on it, it’s in trouble. So it should be no surprise that one of the most consistently funny actresses (whether she's being high-brow, low-brow, or somewhere in between) has never been recognized for her great work.

Kevin Kline was brilliantly hilarious in A Fish Called Wanda, as evidenced by the fact that he managed to WIN an Oscar for the role. But Curtis' performance is what held it all together. It’s her character that sets everything into motion. And its her allure that causes the other characters to do the brave, stupid, hilarious things that they do. Without her, it all falls apart.

#3: Allison Janney

Notable Performances in: Juno, Hairspray, Winter Solstice, The Hours, American Beauty

I was honestly surprised to find that Janney hadn't been nominated for an Oscar because I'm always so excited when she pops up in a film, and she steals scenes without you even knowing it, like a charming British lad pickpocket.

While she's typically more light-hearted, she can play depressed like nobody's business. Sure she didn't say much in American Beauty, but she didn't have to. She said with her eyes what Annette Bening's character had to say with a gun.

And let's not forget her great success on The West Wing. She's a pedigreed actress with exceptional talent, and given the right leading role, I've no doubt she'd get a nomination. But considering she has four Emmys sitting at home, I doubt she's too worried about it.

#2: Parker Posey

Notable Performances in: For Your Consideration, A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, The House of Yes, Waiting for Guffman

Yes, all but one of the mentioned films are directed by Christopher Guest. But if you know anything about the way he directs, that makes the performances all the more remarkable.

While she's not the only actress to give a memorable performance in his films, she got the most acclaim and was talked about around the water-cooler as the new "indie queen." Unfortunately, that never translated into an Oscar nomination.

But thanks to her performance in Best in Show, I now know the difference between a bee and a bear in a bee costume.

#1: Scarlett Johansson

Notable Performances in: The Prestige, Match Point, In Good Company, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Lost in Translation, Ghost World, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Horse Whisperer

I had a few films in mind before I checked her credits on IMDB. Now after seeing all of her great roles, her lack of a nomination is especially surprising. Combine all of her great work with the fact that she's the type of star right out of Hollywood "golden days," (That is, a beautiful, popular woman who also happens to be a great actress.) and you'd think the Academy would eat it up.

I've no doubt that she'll get her nomination one day. Judging from her previous work, she'll continue to put out good performances. And she's just reaching the age to be able to play the most interestingly written female characters, be they original or based on actual people.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Meeting Pam Beesly

Wednesday morning while at work, I got a call from my roommate. She said, "Guess who's on campus."

Now, the previous evening, she had been talking about the start of fall football camp, so I figured she was talking about some player, or maybe a past Trojan visiting. Heck, maybe even an NFLer.

I was definitely not expecting her to say "Jenna Fischer." I will be eternally grateful for that call.

You see, there have been plenty of celebrities on USC's campus, and not once have I felt compelled to seek them out. But this was different. I named my car Pam Beesly for crying out loud.

As it turns out, two work studies in our office have been catching up on "The Office," so I told the only one who was in what I had just heard. We ventured out and staked out the set for about twenty minutes with no luck.

Later that day the third work study joined us as we went back and stayed for more like an hour this time. At one point, we saw the back of John Krasinski's head as he was walking to his trailer.

And then, someone noticed Jenna Fischer at the craft services table. At first none of us did anything, and then we decided to approach.

She was talking to someone else getting snacks, so we awkwardly stood there waiting for a chance to say hello.

I'd say we talked for about a minute and a half to two minutes. She shook our hands. She asked us where we were from, and since the work studies were both from California, I got to stand out when I said "Alabama." I told her that I love her blog, and she seemed genuinely happy about that. (I forgot, however, to tell her about my car.)

And she mentioned that she has a friend who works on campus, so she visits here sometimes. Awesome.

She was just as cute in person. Shorter than I expected, but that's a common thing. And she was incredibly sweet and nice.

Obviously I can't say I know her, but from reading her blog and the brief interaction I had with her, I'll say this. It's not more celebrities that should be like Jenna Fischer. It's more people that should be like Jenna Fischer.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Paris For President

See more Paris Hilton videos at Funny or Die

The responses I've heard to this video have ranged from declaring that this is actually McCain's energy plan to wondering what effect it will have on twenty-somethings that Paris called him "a wrinkly old white guy." But everyone is missing the biggest story to come out of this: Paris Hilton can act.

Believe me, I never thought I'd write that sentence. But for full disclosure, and to be fair to her, I've never seen any of her performances other than her short cameo on The O.C. (Well, I was a fervent watcher of The Simple Life during its first season, and I suppose it could be argued that this was also a performance.)

So while I might not be able to have a truly informed opinion, reading the reviews from her films, combined with watching her host SNL, left me feeling that she couldn't act to save her life.

But maybe they just couldn't find the right material for her because this video is legitimately funny. In fact, I think she actually out-acts the material. The punchline is Maui? Not exactly brilliant writing, but she does everything she can with it.

Of course, a lot of the humor comes from the old joke of having a character everyone thinks is an idiot (or actually IS an idiot) suddenly say something incredibly intelligent. In this case, the character happens to be a real live person.

Sure, it's good for an easy joke, but give credit where credit is due. Not every girl can pull it off and sound convincing. Here, it works.

One can't keep doing this character over and over, so this might be the end of Paris' true acting career. But I have to give credit where credit is due.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Just Add Money: Stupid 911 Calls

Two days in a row, there have been news stories about stupid people calling 911 for idiotic reasons.

One man became belligerent at a Subway when they didn’t put the spicy sauce on his Italian sub. They locked him out of the store when he went outside to call the police, via 911. Why this malady couldn’t easily be corrected I don’t know, but the fact that the man called 911 lets me know he wasn’t exactly rational. My favorite part is that he called a second time because police weren’t arriving quickly enough.

In the second story, a man called to report that a slot machine in a Hard Rock Hotel & Casino stole his money. He also called twice, so the “heat of the moment” argument is busted.

It just so happens that both of these calls happened in Florida. Not to say anything negative about a whole state based on just two people, but it must be full of idiots.

Anyway, I’m curious to hear more about these incidents, as there are a lot of questions left unanswered. Did these men later realize the error of their ways, or are they still insisting they were in the right? How exactly do the police handle such things when they show up? Why are people still eating at Subway? (Was there not a Quizno’s nearby?)

But there’s something more urgent than getting the answers to these questions. I want to hear more of these stories. Everyone loves a dumb criminal story, but these are even better. (The ultimate would be criminals calling 911, which I’m sure has happened numerous times.)

This could easily be a TV show. It’s like something Fox would have done in the 90’s. Which means it’s something pretty much any network would do now.

Title: I’ve thought about it, and honestly, there’s nothing that beats Idiot 911!

Format: Obviously you’d need to present the story, but there are a number of ways you could expand it. Interviews with the police or other people involved. If you could get interviews with the person that called, even better, especially if they still don’t think they did anything wrong.

You could even do a sort of parody of the old Rescue 911! and have badly staged reenactments. I might feel bad about myself afterwards, but I’d watch that show at least once.

Tone: No one would ever go for this, but I think it would be hilarious if it was played seriously, sort of like The Colbert Report. But let’s be honest and say that it would be snarky to the max. Actually, you should try to get Perez Hilton to host. At least these people deserve to be mocked.

Story: Well that’s up to the American people to be stupid. I’m sure we won’t be disappointed.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ode to an Ad: "Little Children" Trailer


After rewatching this trailer, I was surprised to find that it did in fact contain some, though very little, dialogue. In my memory, the only sound was the train. This means that the train motif, combined with the other visuals, was powerful enough to make a lasting impression. The dialogue certainly doesn’t detract from it and lets you know outright that the film is about an affair, but I believe you’d get most of that without any words at all.

I didn’t have any strong desire to see this film, but the trailer hooked me. Obviously the pairing of Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly helped, though the latter is criminally underused in the film, especially considering how prominently she’s featured in the preview. But all I knew about Patrick Wilson was that he was the guy from Hard Candy, a film I hadn’t seen at the time. (Actually, that’s still pretty much all I know about him.)

The idea of a train suggests a number of things: movement, change, speed, and most importantly, inevitability. Things are going to continue to barrel forward, and they only have one path to take. If another’s path happens to be headed towards your own, a collision is unavoidable.

That goes for both the film’s two lovers and their respective spouses (more so Connelly, since Winslet’s husband isn’t shown in the preview.) At some point Winslet and Wilson are going to unite in something that, while horrible and painful and destructive, couldn’t really be avoided. And together, they will create a new path, one that will eventually lead to an even worse crash with more consequences.

The fact that you do not SEE a train for much of the time adds an ominous tone, especially when the sounds are featured over shots of such quiet moments as a family meal and poolside lounging. It hints at some energy lying right under the surface, which in the film manifests itself first as a desire to give into temptation, and then as a secret that desperately needs to be kept.

I agree with the sentiment of unfortunate destiny up to a point, or rather, after a point. Perhaps after reaching a certain moment in the relationship, their affair is unavoidable, but they made the initial choices to reach that point in the first place.

Regardless of your opinions on the central theme, it’s a great way to hook you and leave you wanting to know more. After all, everyone loves watching a train wreck.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Impressive Impressions

The other night I caught an episode of My Name Is Earl that I hadn't seen before. Burt Reynolds guest starred as the mean owner of the strip club. His character had just died, and everyone had gathered for the funeral when a limo arrived. When the person got out, at first I thought it was Reynolds having played a trick, but this character turned out to be his son. And he was played by Norm MacDonald.

To the people in charge of casting for this show, I have only three words to say to you:


Since the show is absurd humor, this type of casting totally worked. But it got me thinking...has this ever happened before? Has someone's impression of a particular actor later lead to their working together or playing relatives?

The only other project that comes to mind is one that might never come to fruition. Ben Stiller and Tom Cruise have talked about making a Hardy Boys film. Stiller played Tom Cruise once (again, on SNL's Celebrity Jeopardy) and Tom Crooze once (on a fake "behind-the-scenes" look at Mission: Impossible II).

I'd love to see them together in a comedy. They play well off each other, and Cruise is one of the few major stars who hasn't appeared in a lighthearted comedy. (Cocktail has a suicide and Risky Business deals with sex too realistically to be considered lighthearted.)

This project is more a result of Cruise and Stiller's friendship than anything else, and it's also that friendship that led to the impressions in the first place. So the Reynolds/MacDonald casting is more interesting because they weren't friends before MacDonald impersonated him. (Not to say that they are friends now, but Reynolds at least agreed to work with him.)

Can anyone else think of any other times when great impressions have lead to unique casting?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"E" for Effort?

As good as it was, everyone pretty much knew that Iron Man was just something to hold people over until The Dark Knight finally showed up. Even Robert Downey Jr. was willing to make fun of this fact. But it’s only one point behind The Dark Knight on Rotten Tomatoes. Is it just as good?

Immediately after seeing The Dark Knight, I had a short conversation with some friends about which of the films I enjoyed more. While I ultimately sided with the latter due to Heath Ledger’s captivating performance, the enjoyment level was negligible.

One was obviously much darker (It’s even in the title.), but actually keeping a film light-hearted makes it easier to enjoy. A screenwriting professor one told me “don’t take the audience through hell unless you’re going to bring them back out of it.” I don’t necessarily agree with that because I have enjoyed some films with extremely bleak endings. For me, quality of filmmaking matters much more than the tone.

This isn’t to say that I would have necessarily disliked Iron Man had it been more serious. One of the critiques I’ve heard is that Tony Stark never really felt any consequences for his involvement with the weapons corporation. It was addressed but not really focused on. Speculation is that the sequel might delve into this more as well as focus on his alcoholism, which was a major storyline in the comics. (Hopefully they don’t let the somewhat similar theme in Hancock scare them off because, as good as Will Smith’s performance was, I’d still love to see Downey play such a character.)

So while it could have been more dramatic, I don’t mind that it wasn’t. In fact, there’s nothing worse than a dramatic moment that doesn’t work in an otherwise entertaining but not serious film.

That said, I also find it annoying when a film tries so hard to be dramatic that it becomes tedious. Even if it has some great moments, that desire to be taken as higher art and not quite achieving it might even be worse than never striving for it in the first place.

The question is: Should films be judged solely on what they are or on what they aim to be? If a film tries to explore an important issue but comes across heavy-handed, should it be given more credit than a crude sex comedy that makes you laugh over and over again?

I base how good I consider a film by how well it achieves (or how close it comes to achieving) what it sets out to do. Dumb & Dumber couldn’t be a better version of what it is. Yet I probably wouldn’t discuss it on the same plain as Rain Man or Ghandi. That’s not to say it couldn’t be argued, but it’s not an argument you’re likely to win.

This does not, however, mean I wouldn’t vehemently defend it if someone tried to pass it off as just a stupid comedy. (For one thing, the two actors in it have shown that they are AMAZING performers, which just makes them that much more entertaining to watch.)

Can goofy comedies and rousing dramas be judged against each other, or is that comparing apples and oranges?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Last Laugh

Hopefully we can all agree on two things.

1. It’s sad that Heath Ledger is no longer with us, both because of the entertainment he brought us as an actor and more so because of the tragedy of dying so young, leaving behind a grieving family and a young child who will have to grow up without a father.

2. His performance as the Joker is nothing short of mesmerizing, making it nearly impossible to see the actor behind the character.

But after that, the camps are divided. In one corner you have those that have happily jumped on the “definitely deserves an Oscar nomination” train.

On the other side are those that, while perhaps impressed with what Ledger did with the role, are saying that the word Oscar is only being tossed around because of his unfortunate passing.

The first group is accused of joining in with the massive hype, declaring it “Oscar worthy” simply because it's the popular thing to do right now. The second group is immediately called "a bunch of haters," having taken the opposite view JUST to take the opposite view.

I think there would be a similar division if Ledger was still alive. Those that didn’t think he deserved the nomination would be accused of being against comic book movies. Meanwhile, Batman fans clamoring for an Oscar nom would be considered less discerning film critics, having latched onto an above average performance in an average, awkwardly put together film. (Though you can be in a horribly structured film and still win an Oscar.)

Obviously it’s VERY early in the year to be talking about Oscars, so we’ll have to wait and see. After I’ve seen some other good supporting actor roles, I’ll make up my mind about whether or not Ledger belongs with them. And if he should be nominated, I’ll decide whether I’d vote for him over the other nominees.

The only two complaints I’ve heard about his role are that there was nothing to the character and that he had no arc. I’d like to address both of these things.

As far as the depth of the character is concerned, an actor can only do so much with what he’s given. He can add layers, but he can’t add actual backstory. That's where the writing comes in.

Now in this case, I actually LOVED how the Joker was written. You can’t really explain him, so leaving it a mystery makes it that much more frightening. But even though the Joker is fairly one-dimensional, that doesn’t make him boring. I was particularly impressed with how much depth Ledger gave to a character that really has nothing underneath the surface.

Look at two other Oscar-winning performances: Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector. We know that Anton is out to collect the money and drugs, but we never learn why he’s the way he is. And the same is mostly true for Lector. Yes, the fact that he was a psychiatrist adds a bit of backstory, but his motivations and transformation is never fully explained. (This is pretending, as we should, that Hannibal Rising doesn’t exist.)

As far as an arc goes, Anton has none. I initially thought that Lector didn’t have one either, but a friend pointed out his relationship with Clarice. And this made me realize that the Joker has a similar relationship with Batman.

The Joker’s feelings for Batman grow throughout the film. Initially he just wants to kill him, but then he realizes that Batman gives him a purpose, something to fight against. This change is actually much more significant than Lector’s. Though Lector’s affection for Clarice grows along with their relationship, he knows from his first meeting that he would never want to kill her.

In addition, the Joker’s plan does escalate. Though some see this as pounding the message of the movie into the ground, I see it as the Joker’s revelation of what he is to do with his life: create chaos with as little interference as possible to show just how close the world was to going there on its own.

Though these are worthy criteria, I’m more inclined to judge a great performance by how much it affects me and by how much the actor ceases to be an actor and becomes the character. I’m dying to see the movie again simply to watch the Joker, since I can’t get some of his lines out of my head. While they were great lines for the most part, I can't imagine reading them on paper would have anywhere near the same effect as hearing Ledger speak them.

Add to that the aura of mystery that will forever surround this character since he’s not around to answer endless questions about his technique. While it doesn’t make Lector any less engaging, it is comical to learn that Hopkins created the voice by combining Truman Capote and Katherine Hepburn. We know Ledger dug deep (too deep, it seems) to form this character, but never knowing the full extent of that does make it more appealing, at least to me.

And I only realized the full transformation that Ledger made the other night. I was picturing the scene where his makeup is thinnest, which I believe is the interrogation scene. I tried to imagine wiping that makeup away to reveal the real Ledger underneath. And finally, it hit me. I was looking at the poster for A Knight’s Tale, and the true transformation that Ledger made really hit home.

The Joker isn’t Heath Ledger with makeup. Heath Ledger is the Joker WITHOUT makeup.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight Always Triumphs

The Dark Knight currently holds two pretty impressive #1 spots. (Well, actually it holds quite a few, but I'm only going to talk about two of them.) While I thought the darker tone of the film would prevent it from reaching anything higher than #3 for all-time biggest opening weekend box office, it reached #1 with approximately $155 million dollars. Judging from my own screening and several comments I've read online, young children weren't present for the most part, which makes the feat even more impressive.

It is also, according to votes to date, the #1 rated film on IMDb, the ultimate source of movie knowledge. In other words, going by the votes there, it's the best movie of all time.

Does the film deserve either of these recognitions? While I'm not here to be a hater, I would like to shed some light on the issue.

I'm sure there are many people who saw the movie who would have no qualms declaring it the "best movie of all time." Though I admire their enthusiasm, I have to question their logic. True, the idea of saying that ANY movie is the best of all time is a fruitless, pointless effort, but if the majority of the world could come to a consensus, it surely wouldn't be The Dark Knight that got chosen.

Other new releases have hit similar peaks on the site, and I have no doubt that this one will eventually move down in the rankings, if for no other reason than haters voting it down simply because they can. (The Joker would love IMDb because it shows humanity at its worst.)

The film definitely raises some moral issues/questions and has some fantastic performances. I think Ledger's goes without saying at this point, but that won't stop me from writing a whole post about it later.

But I had two major issues with the film, and they sort of tie into each other.

1. It was WAY too heavy-handed. While this played into specific scenes, it was especially evident in the ending voice-over by Commissioner Gordon. He said lines VERBATIM that Lucius, Alfred, and Dent had said earlier in the film. I got the point of Batman having to be a martyr, and I liked it. But I didn't need it pounded into my skull.

2. In such a gritty realistic film with such great acting, bad acting or unnecessary comical moments really hurt it. The kids shooting and then the cars blowing up was straight out of the Michael Bay rejected script spoof. The passenger of the van carrying Dent had the worst reactions ever.

And the way things played out on the ferries was not believable to me. I liked the set up, and I actually liked what happened with the convicts. But the "innocent" people did not feel natural. No one mentioned the fact that not EVERYONE on the other ferry was a convict. There were guards and officials and crew. And there were just not enough people talking in general. And no one tried to get off only to be stopped by other people.

Putting it to a vote was pointless. Obviously "YES" is going to win. And there's no possibly way they counted over 500 votes that quickly. No one wanted to turn the key at first because they didn't discuss never revealing who actually did it or all lying and saying that the Joker blew it up.

Finally, I didn't believe for a second that that guy WOULDN'T have blown up the other ferry. He seemed like the type of guy that would totally justify it. Maybe I couldn't believe his change because I didn't think he was a very good actor.

While I didn't have a problem with the length, I can see how others did. It seemed to wrap itself up numerous times only to keep going. The stuff featuring the Joker was the most riveting, so it might not have been a bad idea to focus solely on that.

And I totally agree with a friend who said the first time we met the Joker should have been the "pencil scene." (I cringe just thinking about that.) The bank stuff was there to establish that he was stealing from the mob and that he had a total disregard for the people working for him.

We got the latter message plenty of times in the film, and the former could have been setup another way, even within the mob meeting before the Joker shows up. That's the first moment that everyone remembers, so it should have started his character with that and saved us some time.

Despite these criticisms, I highly enjoyed the film. And I am more than happy that it took the number one weekend box office spot away from Spiderman 3. While I haven't seen it, I've heard about the "emo Spiderman" stuff, and that's enough to knock it significantly down from the status of The Dark Knight. Any scene with the Joker gives you more to dwell on afterwards than the whole of the Spiderman movie.

Who knows how long it will hold onto the top spot, what with insane marketing and ticket prices ever increasing. But as long as it's there, I'm satisfied.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Changing Horses In Midstream

I watched Hancock earlier this week, and while it had its moments and solidified my high regard for Will Smith as an actor, I did not like the film. It had a lot of potential. Perhaps too much, as by the end it seemed to be pulling in multiple directions.

In fact, halfway through it complete shifts both plot AND tone. Initially, I thought this was its major fault. And while that definitely let to my dissatisfaction, I later realized the mere fact it changed so quickly and so significantly wasn't the problem.

Million Dollar Baby does a very similar thing, as its plot and tone take, if not a complete 180, still enough of a turn to throw you off. But I liked it. A lot.

In trying to analyze the differences in how the films handle these changes, I was surprised at the similarities I found.

Obviously to discuss these I'll need to go into some detail about both films' plots, so here's a warning: THERE BE SPOILERS!

Both films begin with a plot that is exactly what you'd expect from watching the previews. Hancock follows a superhero who's kind of an asshole as he tries to rebuild his image. Million Dollar Baby follows a tough female boxer as she convinces a retired boxing coach to train her, leading to the formation of a very loving, father-daughter sort of bond.

The latter film's tone during its first half is pretty easy to define. It's a realistic, gritty, yet upbeat mood of yearning for the underdog to make it. Basically, Rocky with a girl.

Hancock is a little harder to define, which is what kept me interested for awhile. While it's definitely comedic, there's a sense of sadness permeating from the title character; you can feel his loneliness and desire to be loved. And the humor itself, while slipping into over-the-top country a couple of times, stays fairly tongue-in-cheek. There are elaborate special effects, but they aren't meant to inspire awe. They essentially say, "Yeah, I'm a superhero. Here's the kind of shit I can do."

Even as Hancock tries to reinvent himself, the film avoids being too sappy (for awhile). It has a bit of fun with the idea that he can still be an asshole as long as he's a lovable asshole. (But don't get my started on how much I hated the "call me an asshole one more time" motif.)

I would hardly call the revelation that Mary (Charlize Theron), the wife of the PR agent (Jason Bateman) helping Hancock change his image, also has superpowers a plot twist. From the first moment she and Hancock see each other, it's annoyingly, painfully obvious that they share some kind of secret. Then it just becomes a matter of how long the film drags on before finally getting to it.

Though it turned out to be too good to be true, I loved Hancock's simple explanation for why he was the way he was. He didn't know. He woke up in an emergency room in Miami eighty years ago (He doesn't age.) with a crushed skull and amnesia. The skull miraculously healed itself, and he discovered he was invincible.

Wham, bam, thank you ma'am. Since this wasn't an origin story, I didn't care to know all of the intricate details about how he got his powers. (Actually, I generally don't care to know them even when it IS an origin story because they tend to focus on them too much.)

But after Mary reveals her secret, we're treated to some of the most convoluted backstory possible. I've tried to sort out the details to make it easier, but believe me when I say it wasn't explained nearly as concisely as I've done here.

1. Thousands of years ago, a number of "things" like Hancock were put on Earth to protect the people and watch over them.
2. For some reason, they were created in pairs, which meant they were forever linked and predisposed to being together. Whenever they're apart, they are drawn to each other, sometimes without knowing it (like when one has amnesia).
3. This is an especially bad idea because when the pairs are together for two long, they start to become mortal. This leaves them vulnerable to attacks and death by old age, which is how all the others died.
4. Distance is the only thing that helps them keep their powers, so Mary has tried to stay away, but Hancock keeps being drawn to her .
5. They were together a number of times in the past, but since they were vulnerable, they were attacked. I'm assuming that they were then apart for long stretches of time, otherwise they'd be much older.

Before all of this came out, I thought the revelation was going to be that Mary was actually a super villain, and that she and Hancock would have to fight. That ain't great, but it's a lot more straight-forward than what they went with.

A bit of a side note: My initial guess was that Mary had gotten her powers from sleeping with Hancock in the past. But perhaps the implications of that are beyond the bounds of PG-13 territory.

This isn't to say that I don't want a complicated story-line. It just don't want a convoluted one. There is something incredibly tragic in the idea of a couple that is separated for hundreds of years at a time in order to keep the other one safe. That reminds me of The Time Traveler's Wife in a way. But having Mary simply talk about it wasn't enough to get me emotionally invested.

The biggest problem was all of the explanation that became necessary after the plot changed. It went from a movie that didn't need to explain anything to a movie that still didn't make sense after seemingly endless discussions.

While Million Dollar Baby dramatically shifts plots as well, we know exactly what's going on. One of Maggie's (Hilary Swank) opponents fights dirty and punches her after the round ending bell has sounded, catching her off-guard. She's knocked down and lands on her stool in such a way that she becomes completely paralyzed, save for above the neck.

It definitely grabs you from out of nowhere, pulling you into the depths of hell. But even though it's a surprise turn, you know exactly what's going on. The only questions that need to be asked are moral ones, and the film doesn't really ask them for you, much less attempt to answer them.

While they still would have needed to cut down on all of the exposition, Hancock would have been a lot more interesting if the story had changed to something we were familiar with, such as an affair between Hancock and Mary. At least that would have thrown us off of the real secret for awhile.

The tonal shift in Million Dollar Baby isn't significant, but it's there. While the film stays gritty and realistic, it loses that uplifting hope that it starts with when you think you're going to watch Maggie rise to greatness. Instead, you're filled with agony and despair.

Hancock's tonal shift is much more pronounced, and the really unfortunate thing about it is that while the plot gets more serious and dramatic (or at least attempts to), the tone becomes campier and more cookie-cutter blockbuster action movie.

Mary doesn't want Hancock to expose her secret. When he flies off to do so, they have a huge chase, destroying everything in their path and eventually fighting in front of Mann's Chinese Theater, which is kind of a stupid move on her part if she wants to keep her powers a secret. In addition, the special effects are now meant to dazzle us, including a tornado and snow that shows up for some reason.

This could have been really powerful and dramatic. A woman desperate to keep her secret hidden in order to keep the man she loves. Instead it becomes a pointless action sequence.

The real twist of the plot (that is, the only thing that really surprised me) comes soon after this when Hancock is injured. For some reason, Mary told him everything except how them being together makes them slowly become mortal.

This scene is done pretty brilliantly, as it seems to be about Hancock slipping back into his alcoholism. He stops by a convenience store to buy some drinks and winds up thwarting a robbery. He gets shot in the process, and the bullets actually wound him. (Though to what degree is never clear. He's not entirely mortal because he gets shot A LOT later and doesn't die.)

So as you see, both films feature serious injuries that take you by complete surprise. And afterwards, the majority of the film takes place in a hospital.

In Hancock's case, the hospital serves as an action set piece when some "villains" return to settle the score after a prison break. While I'll admit that Hancock is more vulnerable now, these bad guys were previously NO THREAT WHATSOEVER, so it's hard to be worried for him. Add that to the fact that they have no plan except to show up at the hospital with guns. Considering that they don't know why Hancock was injured (for all they know it was a special kind of bullet that they don't have), this is really stupid.

Both films end with the main character making a decision to do what he thinks is best for the female lead. In Million Dollar Baby, Frankie (Clint Wastwood) euthanizes Maggie, and though this has lead to a lot of debate, it's definitely what her character wants.

The decision in Hancock isn't nearly as tough to make. He leaves. It's supposed to seem tough because Hancock has been shot and has to stagger away, leap out a window, and get further and further away so that he and Mary can become immortal again. (As he's attacked by the bad guys she suffers the pain right along with him, so by the end they are both on the brink of death.)

That is, I think they are. But it's never clear exactly how close he is to dying or how much he even feels the pain. Granted, I didn't want more explanation. But it would have been nice to have had some idea of how heroic his actions were.

With both of these films, I knew there was a "twist" before I saw the movie. No one called the turn of events in Million Dollar Baby by the name "plot twist" though, perhaps because it was a freak occurrence and not a revelation that had been true all along. And I wouldn't call the first reveal in Hancock a twist simply because it was so inevitable from the very beginning.

One I loved. One I didn't like. Obviously other things in the films besides how they handle the major change affected those decisions, but I'm sure not having to listen to countless questions be answered helped me become much more engrossed with the drama in Million Dollar Baby.

Can anyone else think of any other films that shift so dramatically in either plot, tone, or both? And what did you think of them?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

This Was Your Life

The other night my roommate and I attended a screening of the soon to be released film American Teen. It’s your typical high school film. There’s comedy and drama. People are mean. There’s a nerd who wants to find a girlfriend. There are relationships that start and end. There’s a subplot about the basketball team. More or less everything you’d expect.

One major difference though: it’s all real. Nanette Burstein, director of the documentary The Kid Stays In The Picture, followed a group of high schoolers in Warsaw, Indiana for their senior year. While the film isn’t anything groundbreaking, it is an interesting look back into the whole high school experience, a nostalgic jaunt down memory lane.[1]

It’s interesting how closely some of the storylines resemble Hollywood films. There’s a group of popular girls who take down one of their own, a la Mean Girls, though what they do is infinitely crueler. There’s a jock who dates the free-flowing artistic girl only to break her heart. Though Freddie Prinze Jr. isn’t a jock[2], it reminded me of She’s All That, minus the happy ending.

After the screening, four of the featured teens (now two years older[3]) answered questions about their experience with the film, including what it was like to look back on documented evidence of their senior year. That is, eight months of their lives.

This got me thinking about what a strange experience this would be. It’s not reality TV, where years down the line you could see how you acted in a certain competition. It’s not even a documentary about a specific event, like Spellbound or The King of Kong. It’s merely following their normal everyday lives, much like the show “This American Life” focuses on a particular aspect of someone’s daily life that, while normal to them, might seem strange to outsiders.[4]

Most of us look back on our teenage years and laugh at certain aspects and feel bad about others. But they can literally watch themselves. It’s as if they had a crazy documentarian for a Dad.[5]

All of the people involved with American Teen have changed significantly, which is to be expected, but they each found it fascinating to look back on themselves. While I wouldn’t relish having a camera crew follow me around, I can’t deny how much I’d love to see movies scrapped together from previous years of my life.

What about you? Do you think you’d learn anything from it? Would you enjoy it? Or do you want to leave the past in the past?

[1] I actually identified most with a friend character that was barely featured. I didn’t really learn enough about him to know if we were alike, but I have a feeling.

[2] Summer Catch doesn’t count.

[3] So probably not teens anymore, for the most part.

[4] But even this is more specific than American Teen. No one would call anything in the lives of those teens out of the ordinary.

[5] I bet there is years’ worth of footage of Werner Herzog’s kids.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Women Wear Pants Too: The Ladies of "Man Stroke Woman"

From time to time, I'll highlight a lady that gets to do more in Hollywood than just play the wife/girlfriend/romantic interest.


Amanda Abbington

Daisy Haggard

Meredith MacNeill

First, let me clarify that this show isn’t as risqué as the title makes it sound.[1] It airs on BBC, and in American terminology it would more accurately be described as “Man Slash Woman,” that is, men & women and their various interactions. It’s a sketch comedy show featuring the three women above plus three men. The most famous of the bunch is Nick Frost, costar to Simon Pegg in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.[2]

The show has a number of things going for it, all of which have to do with keeping things small. Each episode is only a half hour long, so you can race through a few episodes (or the entire disc) without feeling too guilty. The first series (as “seasons” are called in the UK) is only six episodes, so while all of the sketches might not be hilarious, it never feels as if they ran out of ideas. And perhaps most importantly, the sketches are only as long as they need to be. Some are only a few seconds, while others are longer, but rarely does one go past two minutes.[3] No one can accuse the Brits of overstaying their welcome.[4]

I rented it from Netflix and promptly went through it in two sittings. Though my roommate and I repeat some of the lines from time to time, and I would love to show many of the sketches to other friends, I can’t advocate buying it because I felt it was a bit uneven.

Still, it’s an impressive feat for a cast of six, another aspect that makes the show so interesting. Only when it’s essential to the sketch do any of the performers change appearances, so sometimes it’s fun when a recurring character makes a surprise appearance in a sketch that you thought was going to be about something else entirely.[5]

Having such a small cast could be a negative factor if there was a performer you just couldn’t stand, but I seriously doubt that will be the case, as each person more than pulls his or her own weight. Since I’ve talked before about how a number of people think women aren’t funny, let me just say that the women on this show are INCREDIBLY funny. Each one is equally adept at playing the “straight man” or the comical centerpiece. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a pair, the three ladies, or the whole group on screen…no one gets pushed to the background.

There are a number of sketches to be found on Youtube if you care to peruse. In fact, many of my favorites from online turned out to be from series two, which already aired in Britain but has yet to come out on DVD. I’m eagerly anticipating its release.

Every episode of the first series ends with the same sketch, the three women playing rude, annoying workers at a make-up counter in a department store. Each features a customer that grows impatient with the juvenile antics of the two workers and asks to speak to their manager. The third woman comes over and pretends to show a real interest in the complaint before then engaging in the same child-like behavior.

Though they all follow the same pattern, each one is unique and produces a great deal of laughs. (At least from me.) So I’ll leave you with my favorite of the six (the moment 44 seconds in kills me every time):

[1] That said, since it’s from the BBC, it does use language and discuss topics you aren’t going to see on “SNL.”

[2] One of my favorite comedies ever. If you don’t have a problem with the occasional gory death played for laughs, check it out immediately.

[3] It’s a benefit to being a single camera show filmed on location. No skits that are beaten to death, buried, dug back up, and beaten some more.

[4] If you ignore British Colonialism, that is.

[5] Some sketches/characters appear just throughout a single episodes, while some appear throughout a few (or all).

Friends On TV

Last Sunday some friends and I staged a reading of an episode of “30 Rock” that I wrote for a contest.[1] Based on their feedback and comments I’ve gotten from people who read it later, I did a good job capturing the voice of the show. And I have to say: it was easy.

That doesn't mean it didn't take a lot of effort. I spent countless time outlining, struggled through a first draft that I knew wasn’t great, and then spent three or four late nights rewriting scene by scene.

But compared to writing my own material, it was a breeze. And I believe that ease comes down to one simple fact: Once you know the characters, the story almost tells itself.

Two years ago, I wrote an episode of “My Name Is Earl.” It was my first time writing something not completely original, something I hadn’t created every aspect of. The first season had just ended, and I had only seen one or two episodes. But it was hot and fresh, plus the concept easily lent itself to creating scenarios. Combining that with the fact that a friend had given me a good idea for something Earl could complete for his list, I decided to write an episode.

While I could have read plot descriptions online to make sure I wasn’t repeating anything, I wanted to see more of the show to get a feel for the characters.

So I downloaded[2] the first season and began to watch it. I wound up watching the ENTIRE first season in one day. Perhaps not the healthiest exercise, but it gave me a great advantage. I now felt like these characters were my friends. I felt like we had hung out, so I knew what they were like and how they talked and how they acted.[3]

From there, I was easily able to create a detailed outline that allowed me to write the entire 30+ page script in one day. And, unlike the one for “30 Rock,” I didn’t have to change that much.[4]

I later did the same thing for “Heroes.” And when I say “the same thing,” I mean it as literally as I can.

This was during the long break of the first season, after the 12th episode or so. I now needed a drama show to write an episode of, and a number of friends had told me I would probably like "Heroes". So I downloaded all of the episodes, and watched the pilot while vacationing with a friend. Upon returning home, I spent the next day watching the rest of the episodes.[5]

Based on that I created an even more detailed outline, and once again I was able to write the entire draft in one day, meaning 50+ pages this time. I did have to go back and rewrite it, but I never made any major changes to it.

While I didn’t connect with the “Heroes” characters on as deep of a level, (We weren’t “bestest buddies.”) I was able to get a flow for how the show worked and what sorts of things to expect each episode. Still, the action wouldn’t be as interesting if not for the characters, and though I didn’t like all of them, there were a number I was quite fond of.

I’ve only had the luxury of feeling intimately connected with my OWN characters two times that I can recall. One was while doing the third (or maybe fourth) rewrite of a sitcom pilot that I wrote a year ago. I was getting pretty frustrated because it was close but not quite there, and a friend sat me down and asked me questions about my characters. He also had me compare and contrast different characters from various shows, which highlighted the fact that even characters that could be lumped together with simple descriptions (jerk, sweet, depressed, etc.) are actually very different. That difference comes from what’s underneath their personalities (Why are they acting that way? What’s their ultimate agenda?), and how they manifest that personality (their actions).

Once I was able to pinpoint the personalities of my characters, the writing was much easier.

The second time, which actually happened earlier chronologically, is when I was rewriting a comedy script I had written along with the friend mentioned above. Granted, there were only three main characters, but we knew them so well that dialogue would just roll out of us.[6]

I want to reiterate that I’m in no way saying that writing for TV is easy. If the episode I wrote was actually being written for the show, it would have had to be completed much faster.[7] But when it comes to writing things on spec, existing shows are much easier for me to dive into because I already know the characters so well.

Still, the ultimate goal is to always reach that point with the characters from my original work, no matter how long it takes to get there.

[1] Well, actually it's for the ABC Writing Fellowship, but it’s quicker to just say “contest.” (Unless you then explain it in a footnote.

[2] Back then you couldn’t view them online, and the DVD hadn’t come out yet. Since it was for “research,” I felt justified.

[3] Yes, this was a little freaky.

[4] Of course, it’s not nearly as good as the “30 Rock” one either.

[5] A little math shows that the “Earl” watching actually took more time, but "Heroes" felt worse because each episode was such a commitment. Plus the fact that, in retrospect, it wasn’t as good.

[6] Which is why we spent countless hours debating about this line versus that line.

[7] Maybe twice as fast. Or maybe even more than that.