Thursday, June 28, 2007

On the Lot: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

ON THE LOT was more "fun" when it was a train wreck. Now that it's just merely bad than spectactularly bad, it's lost the gawker appeal. Wretched is as wretched does.

A new week means more changes, but first, what's the point of the show being live? I don't recall them making an issue of it in prior weeks, but the live nature of Tuesday's show was stressed. If ever there was a show that could use some fine-tuning in the editing room, this is it.

Once again, the results were delivered differently. Rather than make Jessica suffer for a week awaiting the result that might as well have been given right after she showed her horror short from a tree's perspective, Adrianna Costa and Garry Marshall stopped by the directors' living quarters to dismiss her. I missed if they claimed to have done this the day after the show, not that it matters.

When it comes to contestant interaction in their free time, producer Mark Burnett must have felt he learned his lesson on ROCK STAR: INXS. (The non-performance episodes got shuffled from CBS to VH-1, which indicates the ratings were dreadful.) Such content is practically non-existent on ON THE LOT, although we get maybe a minute of it each week to show the directors' reactions to the judges' comments. Big whoop.

Adrianna reminded us that the six comedies we would be seeing were made in five days. Because nothing guarantees original and quality ideas than rushing a creative project. Documentarian Shalini kicked things off with DR. IN-LAW. A son-in-law accompanies his non-English speaking Chinese father-in-law to the doctor's office. Naturally, the whole time the guy is berated for not being good enough for the old man's daughter. The son-in-law exacts revenge by telling the doctor that his relative needs a rectal exam. The intro package played up how comedy is not in Shalini's comfort zone, but compared to the night's other shorts, hers was not bad. She made good use of perspective and paced it well. Standard operating procedure for ON THE LOT is to employ an easy, vulgar joke when in doubt, and Shalini did not disappoint.

Next was Adam, who never looks comfortable in front of the camera. DISCOVERING THE WHEELS used that old standby of cavemen encountering unfamiliar technology. In this case it was a car. And not just any car but a Ford Mustang. Seriously, this was nothing more than an in-show commercial--and not a particularly good one--for one of the sponsor's vehicles. I shouldn't be surprised that ON THE LOT is attuned to finding the best 30-second advertisement director than a feature filmmaker. Burnett's THE APPRENTICE was oriented for those with marketing savvy more than business skills. All the better to flog the goods in the product placement-laden challenges. Adam's short ultimately didn't make narrative sense, but it probably has enough polish--he tried special effects!--to keep him around another week.

Adam took a page from Will's book and made a short without any dialogue. Will continued to stick with what has worked for him: minimal words for a putative silent film. His NERVE ENDINGS was a darker, grosser comedy about a surgeon who accidentally nicks a guy's brain with his scalpel and then leaves his assistant alone with patient. With the brain exposed, the assistant has fun pressing different parts of the organ to operate the man like a puppet. I didn't think it was funny at all, although there was a good final joke when the head doctor does the same thing to give his second-in-command a remote slap. I don't think that Will reused classical music from one of his other shorts, but I swear that someone in the competition used the exact same selection.

Hilary's deeply unfunny UNDER THE GUN yukked it up over a mother and daughter robbing a sperm bank. They want to make a withdrawal. Ha! Or maybe not. Lin Shaye, best known for her bit parts in the Farrelly brothers' films, played the mom. Hilary's first short showed that she's not exactly fit for humor of discomfort, but I think this one was worse than the short about the woman having to pee on the bus.

David's sex comedy short HOW TO HAVE A GIRL was pretty awful too. The conceit is that the man reads that to have a boy, he should be on top. The woman reads that she should be on top if she's to have a girl. Thus a wrestling match/fight ensues from the bed to the floor. Aside from not being funny, it was disconcertingly violent. That was THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR'S Tatyana Ali in this, right? The short's title doesn't exactly describe it. Come to think of it, neither did Shalini's.

The last director was the all-but-coronated Zach. He keeps talking about wanting to branch out and not be pegged as the special effects guy. Shaking things up for DIE HARDLY WORKING, he became the sound effects guy. The clever title and solid execution of office drones pretending to battle among the cubicles was more than enough to get the judges slobbering over his talent. I'm not saying he's without ability, but there's a big step from pulling off effects and small concepts on the cheap and making a feature film.

Moviemaking and watching are supposed to be fun activities, but ON THE LOT sucks all of the excitement out of it. The title of the show would lead us to believe that we might see the directors working behind the scenes. There's precious little of that. What we did get from the sets tended to be the non-working contestants criticizing the opponents' choices. Burnett, who typically does a good job of building his "characters", has failed miserably in establishing who these people are. The judges often have nothing worthwhile to say and instead opt for sub-American Idol wit or effusive praise.

The game's structure seems to require generating a new short in five days. Bor-ing, at least if they're not going to show us the struggle. Plus, they've hamstrung those directors who aren't writers. That likely accounts for the one-note ideas in these shorts. There's also an implied preference for directors who can do any genre, as if versatility is the most prized attribute. Look at the directors they've had judging the contestants. Most of them, like this week's guest Mark Waters, make the same kinds of films over and over. They don't jump from horror to comedy to costume drama.

Not that anyone with ON THE LOT is listening to me, but to jazz it up, how about having every director make a short from the same script? That would be more revealing of their talents. OK, so that could make repetitive TV. Since they're doing for-hire work anyway, why not provide a pool of scripts for them to select from? Maybe there would be a slight uptick in the base quality, and it would remove their writing skills, or lack thereof, from the equation.

Or ON THE LOT could go THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS route. I'm of a mind that these directors have too much freedom. They'd never get Lars von Trier to do a guest spot on the show, but wouldn't it be great to have him lay down strict rules regarding what the directors can and can't do? Even if he weren't cracking the whip, some limitations might force them to make more creative choices. As it stands, the group as a whole is making the easiest, laziest, and crudest decisions.

Next week brings horror shorts from the other six directors. The horror... As bad as the comedies were, the horror genre sounds like a uniquely terrible idea for two minute shorts.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

On the Lot: nowhere to go but up

Could it be that the producers of ON THE LOT are taking heed of the criticisms being lobbed at the show? No, they didn't replace host Adrianna Costa or suddenly find brilliant filmmakers. They've gotta dance with the ones that brung them to this point. Fortunately someone behind the scenes had the good sense to dispense with the protracted "drama" of declaring some directors safe and withholding the dismissal until the end of the program. There was no "_____, you are safe" and "the person going home is...going to find out after the break" nonsense. The show starts, Marty is told to pack his bags--good riddance--and on we go to the final five directors and their "new" films.

ON THE LOT still has loads of problems, but compared to the awful other episodes, the June 19 edition deserves accolades for an evaluation of "poor" or, if one's feeling generous, "mediocre". The show's pacing continues to sag, but it was tightened up some. There was less beating around the bush of which director might debut his or her film next. (Really, though, why should there be any? It's not like the order matters.) This week's entries were marginally better, although don't hold your breath waiting to see the feature credit "un film de ON THE LOT champion".

First up was family man Will Bigham, whose GLASS EYE was in the same silent film vein as his first short. I pegged him as one of the favorites, and I stick by that prediction. Unlike some of his competition, he knows where to put the camera and should get a lot of mileage out of his modest personality. His story of a man who gets a new way of seeing things when his glass eye falls out takes awhile to get going, but it's sort of cute and a cut above most of what we've seen from the other directors. Will is adept at delivering live action Pixar-lite shorts. I didn't find this to be all that funny. The story doesn't exactly add up either. At least I can see why he was cast...but careful with the aw-shucks demeanor, buddy. It's going to wear thin.

In his intro package Jason Epperson, the sideways ball cap-wearing Kentuckian, testified to his faith and a desire to not make films glorifying sex and violence. Naturally, BLOOD BORN was about a drug addict and frequent blood donor who likely gets killed in a drive-by shooting. He rightfully took some heat from the judges for saying one thing and doing the other, but I'll give him some benefit of the doubt since he was trying to use the elements to tell a redemptive story. (The guy's blood heals the sick.) That's the only pass I'll give him, though. The "edgy" style--color processing of the shots and aggressive, handheld camerawork--was distracting, and the confused narrative earned laughs from the studio audience when the shooter drives up at the end. What I would give for the directors to do something in locked down master shots and tell stories they know from their lives...

Zach Liposvky's SUNSHINE GIRL found him wowing the judges again with his technical skills. Zach introduced his film as being about a little girl who is afraid of the dark, which you don't quite get from the finished product. He has an eye for composing shots and pulls off some neat special effects. The girl's herky-jerky moves when she's plucked the sun from the sky lead me to believe that whatever equipment he's using has its limitations. Visually Zach has manipulated the images so they're excessively glossy. With so many tools at their disposal via computer editing, new filmmakers tend to use them all regardless of if it's merited. Shortcoming aside, like Will, he's one I projected as a favorite out of the gate. That won't be changing.

Mateen Kemet led into his short LOST by talking about how his work is more mature. By mature he must have meant boring because the restaurant conversation between a formerly dating man and woman was boilerplate romantic drama through and through. The way it was cut doesn't work, and the lack of tripod use was just annoying. It was slow moving and, in the grand scheme, didn't follow narrative logic. This way lies thousands of indie relationship movies that no one ever sees but festival programmers. I'd say he's the most likely to go except...

Jessica Brillhart's THE ORCHARD, a horror short from a tree's perspective, was strictly dullsville. As with Zach's film, if the director hadn't told us what it was about in the introduction, there's a good chance we'd be confused by what we're seeing. Jessica captured better images than Mateen, and I'll go out on a limb and guess that she might make more interesting failures than him. She's flopped spectacularly whereas Mateen's missteps are pedestrian.

As they've done in previous weeks, the judges mostly pulled their punches or prefaced their criticisms with "I liked your film". To no one's surprise, Jessica took the most lumps. The guest judges have usually been more forthcoming with their appraisals, but Wes Craven held back. Whether he knows anything about filmmaking or not, ON THE LOT needs Gordon Ramsay of HELL'S KITCHEN to stop by and read the riot act to these directors. There's nothing wrong with trying to be encouraging. Maybe the producers hope that the judges' muted positivity will convince the audience that these films aren't that bad. But come on. Even the best of these shorts hardly seem like top notch thesis films, and none of them would earn viral video status on YouTube.

I finally figured out what's so bothersome about host Adrianna Costa. Speaking loudly and opening her mouth as widely as possible, it's as though she thinks we have impaired hearing.

The producers and director continue to block the cameras in ways that don't work. Why have the host looking straight ahead and then take a shot from her side? Even worse, Adrianna and the director on the spot stand side by side, yet she is supposed to look forward while the contestants must face their left. Every time both are on camera together, the directors are looking another direction. Please, enough of the close-ups of the directors and their frozen grins as Adrianna rattles off the phone number for voting. Those shots are really unnerving.

Next week should bring another format change. Six directors are supposed to present comedy shorts, with the following week promising horror shorts from the other six. Oh boy!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

OCEAN'S THIRTEEN (Steven Soderbergh, 2007)

Danny Ocean (George Clooney) pulls together the old gang again to help one of their own in OCEAN'S THIRTEEN. Willy Bank (Al Pacino) stiffs Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) on the contract for a lavish new Las Vegas casino that the Ocean pal thought he was building as a partner with the oily owner. Reuben stands to lose untold millions from Bank cutting him out of the deal. The news triggers a heart attack and rallies Ocean and crew around their old friend.

Rather than rob Bank's casino, they plot to do something far more ruinous: destroy his reputation and make winners of everyone playing the tables and slots. Rigging the games--and sending Virgil (Casey Affleck) to Mexico to tamper with the casino's dice at the production plant--takes time. Despite their elaborate plans, there's still the small problem of getting the gamblers to leave with their winnings instead of continuing to play. With the kind of hot streaks they'll be riding, no one will want to head for the exits. The solution is to simulate an earthquake that will send the crowd scattering and Bank broken.

Like the other OCEAN'S movies, OCEAN'S THIRTEEN is an excuse for director Steven Soderbergh, Clooney, and friends to have a good time and transmit that Hollywood fun and stylishness to ticket-buying audiences. Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Don Cheadle, among others, return for an all-star romp that appears to be as much fun for the participants as it is for the viewers. Old Hollywood still holds fascination today because of the glamour on screen and off. In our age of 24-hour tabloid media, which commonly feature some of this film's players, OCEAN'S THIRTEEN returns the sparkle in the glitter that entertainment reporting can tarnish. This breezy two-hour glimpse at movie stars and the lush life used to be what the studios did best.

The story is incredibly (and intentionally) convoluted and patently absurd, but that's what makes it such a rollick. Whether or not you can follow the operation details--and chances are you can't entirely--the pleasure is found in the winking tone of it all. The nonstop chatter about the plan builds a rhythm of verbal sparring that becomes funnier the more confusing it becomes.

It's hard to call the best jokes in OCEAN'S THIRTEEN throwaway since that tag could apply to the entire film. Effortless disposability amid gaudiness defines it. Yet the humor derives from scenes that might have hit the cutting room floor in tighter films. Virgil's fomenting of a worker strike, in part from seeing that Mexican revolutionary Zapata's image has been relegated to slinging tequila, has little to do with pushing the action forward, but those scenes are the film's funniest. Also indulgent and amusing is seeing Clooney and Pitt tear up at an episode of OPRAH, a joke that succeeds on the surface and a self-reflexive level.

OCEAN'S THIRTEEN shows that summer movies and their attendant presumption of needing to turn one's brain off can still be executed with style and wit. Hurry back, boys. You've got these filmed parties down to a science, and I for one can't wait to be invited to the next.

Grade: B

Saturday, June 16, 2007

DOA: Dead or Alive

DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE (Corey Yuen, 2006)

Ninja princess Kasumi (Devon Aoki), professional wrestler Tina (Jaime Pressly), and assassin/master thief Christie (Holly Valance) are among the elite fighters chosen to participate in a martial arts competition in DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE. Contrary to the title, fighting continues until one combatant concedes defeat or is knocked out. A $10 million prize awaits the ultimate warrior.

The butt-kicking babes have more than a title and big payday on their minds. Kasumi has left her clan to search for her brother Hayate (Collin Chou), who was reportedly killed in the previous fight festival on DOA Island. His body was never found, and she believes he is still alive. For abandoning her people, Kasumi is pursued by Ayane (Natassia Malthe), a former servant and Hayate's vengeful lover. Hayabusa (Kane Kosugi), Hayate's best friend, follows to protect the princess and demonstrate his skills among the world's top martial artists.

Christie and her boyfriend Max (Matthew Marsden) have their eyes on the prize money, but they're also scheming to rob the vault. Since everyone knows that pro wrestling is fake--spoiler--Tina wants to prove her abilities by beating the best of the best, including her muscle-bound daddy Bass (Kevin Nash).

If junior high school boys wrote a cheesecake syndicated TV show and spun it off into a movie, the result would be DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE. When in doubt of what to do next, the camera ogles and caresses taut bodies and then turns to the umpteenth uninteresting fight scene with poor wire work. The preponderance of bad CGI and virtual sets does as much to highlight the film's tackiness as the fake tans and gallons of peroxide used to make up the actors.

Acclaimed fight choreographer Corey Yuen sits in the director's chair, but unlike his work helming THE TRANSPORTER and SO CLOSE (CHIK YEUNG TIN SI), DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE lacks outlandish stunts or trashy thrills. The fights are maddeningly dull and nowhere as memorable as the kelly green shark's fin coiffure and facial hair of one fighter.

Eric Roberts, who plays DOA Island mastermind Donovan, adds a delicious side of ham to accompany the moldy cheese of this Z-grade film. Stiff performances and stock dialogue characterize DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE'S cheapo vibe. At times the lines sound like they were written and delivered by people for whom English is a second or third language.

Grade: F

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On the Lot: How Low Can You Go?

The sinking ship that is ON THE LOT continues its slow descent to the bottom, but there is some good news. No format change this week!

America has been holding its collective breath for the past week wondering which of last week's five directors will get voted off, and the producers made sure that we'd get a little bluer in the face by keeping the mystery until the end of the show. The "loser" was Trever, whose montage of nightmare blind dates was as unoriginal as possible. I use the scare quotes because at this point the winners are those who don't have to stick around each week and witness the show's death throes firsthand.

While we waited for the results to be announced in the most drawn-out fashion, there were "new" movies to watch. Remember how NBC tried to sell its reruns as "it's new to you" for old episodes you might have missed? Rumors spread last week that these so-called new films were the contestants' submission entries. If true, the films are new in the sense that the general public hasn't seen them. The suspicions were essentially confirmed with the first filmmaker intro.

Toque-wearing Andrew Hunt talked about the challenge of making his film while planning his wedding. He's been one busy guy in the last week if he made a short, planned the wedding, and got married in the last seven days. Of course he didn't. Unless I missed it--and it's possible as my attention drifted a lot during the show--they've dropped the conceit of saying the films were made in five days. Hunt's POLISHED is a decent but unremarkable comedy in the silent film style about a janitor who exacts his revenge on messy office workers. Guest judge David Frankel (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA) hit the nail on the head when he said that it would have been more effective as a 30-second commercial.

The analysis could have been repeated for the night's other entries. Time and again the shorts took ideas that merited half a minute at best and sextupled the length. These films crawled along with no sense of rhythm, especially LOVE AT FIRST SHOT. Does this sound familiar? A nerdy, clueless guy drones on about science fiction to his lunch companion and enlists the help of Cupid to make the date go smoother. The acting leaves a lot to be desired, and the clunky editing does it no favors.

The only film with a remote notion of comedy pacing was BEELINE. Shira-Lee Shalit specializes in crass sex humor, this time having a son (played by her own boy) grilling his divorced mother if she's had sex since she split with his dad. Har har. She runs around the city telling her recent lovers not to talk to her again lest the kid find out. The film kept its pace well, but there was weird sequencing in how the second guy she talks to is the doorman at her building. Wouldn't she have confronted him first before leaving the building, coming back, and racing somewhere else? I guess this short, dubbed SLUT MOM by the judges, is what Garry Marshall was looking for when he said that we need more women filmmakers sharing their perspectives.

The resident bad boy directors were next. Marty Martin, who couldn't be fuller of himself, presented another short that functioned as a fake trailer just like his first film, THE BIG BAD HEIST. DANCE WITH THE DEVIL was all flash from the Tony Scott school of filmmaking. Dialogue is subtitled in various fonts, sizes, and location, something Scott experimented with a lot in MAN ON FIRE. Or maybe he's lifting from CRANK. Whatever the case, the guy already has a bloated sense of his talent. From what we've seen, he's nothing more than an empty style mimic.

Proving that ON THE LOT wasn't saving the best for last, Kenny Luby's EDGE ON THE END showed that he knows how to use all the effects on Avid or Final Cut Pro. His short about boozing to deal with a loved one's death was more coherent than WACK ALLEY CAB, but he's a poor man's Marty Martin. With computer editing's bag of tricks available on a wide scale, all he's done is slather on some fancy effects to gussy up an amateur music video.

We've now seen ten of the final fifteen's presumed submission films. This was the best the producers could find? I realize that not everyone trying to break into the industry would consider a reality TV show to be the ideal avenue, but color me seriously underwhelmed with what we've seen. These films may demonstrate a degree of professional competency, but they're also trite and bloated. I found myself looking away to do other things during the shorts, and they're only three minutes maximum.

If some of the directors were cast on the program based on personality and backstory, ON THE LOT hasn't done anything with it. Since it's mostly a studio show (for now), there's very little behind-the-scenes content that would show directors melting down on set or clashing with one another.

Although host Adrianna Costa was as terrible as ever, her performance was more polished than the flub-heavy previous shows. Overall, though, ON THE LOT has found a way to become even less interesting. The films are bad copies of clich├ęd scenarios, and the banter among the judges, directors, and host lacks snap. The show can't be salvaged--I'll be surprised if it completes its full run--but for those of us gaping at its awfulness, it would be nice for ON THE LOT to go down fighting by chucking its current set-up for something more dynamic.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The downward spiral of On the Lot

Could ON THE LOT be a bigger disaster?

I could have sworn that my DVR was set to record a two-hour episode Monday night, and then magically *poof* it was no longer in the list. Odd. Yet unexplained disappearances are par for the course for this program. From the first week to the second week the show changed hosts, lost a challenge, and six finalists mysteriously vanished. (There were 24 contestants after the audition episodes, but only 18 directors were present for last week's comedy short challenge.) At this rate ON THE LOT won't even air next week, which might be what all involved with it would prefer.

This week's big shake-up was a format change. Rather than each of the remaining fifteen directors making a short to present, only five unspooled films for the audience and judges. Three minutes to work with didn't mean we got anything more original than the derivative pieces shown last week.

BROKEN PIPE DREAMS had some moderately clever direction but points off for replicating the famous shot from THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. TERI redid that bit from countless romantic comedies in which there's a montage of someone meeting all sorts of "wacky" blind dates. Perhaps the big twist on it is to make it a fantasy sequence? This is what the best undiscovered talent comes up with? At least THE FIRST TIME I MET THE FINKELSTEINS had a couple decent lines in its moldy premise of a woman meeting her boyfriend's boorish parents. The handheld DV style, a la InDigEnt films, didn't work at all, though.

DOUGH: THE MUSICAL looked good in comparison, if only because it gave the impression that it took some creativity to develop the idea in the five days the filmmakers were supposedly given. (More on that later.) LAUGHING OUT LOUD: A COMIC JOURNEY, a documentary short about a gay Indian comedian, showed some visual style but featured banal content. Obviously this made it guest judge Michael Bay's favorite of the bunch.

ON THE LOT message boards contain rumors that this week's films were what the contestants submitted to be cast on the show or made during earlier, non-televised eliminations. I wouldn't be surprised if this is recycled content of some kind because the directors made unusual statements when describing their work. They talked about making the films at home and scrounging for equipment. Surely the producers don't send them back to their hometowns and make them acquire the equipment they need, right?

Then again, this is a terribly produced show. Host Adrianna Costa butchers her lines, which might be understandable if it were live. (It isn't, as far as I know.) Umm, anybody heard of multiple takes if she's screwing up the copy on the teleprompter? The contestants don't know where to stand or what camera to look at, and Costa doesn't always seem certain either. It feels like they're making it up as they go along.

Truly bad TV is almost always funnier than sketches or movies that try to be intentionally bad for laughs. ON THE LOT has reached that lowly level of wretchedness. God bless Garry Marshall. The guy's movies stink, but his rah-rah boosterism is hysterical. If only GEORGIA RULE had been as funny as this gem from Tuesday's show: "Ring a ding ding, you lost the bling. You had a fish. You had a dog." (It loses some effect without his Catskills comedian delivery.)

Believe it or not, Michael Bay had the most cogent, if vague, advice for the aspiring filmmakers. (In all fairness to the critical whipping boy, I've liked some of his films.)

It's beyond idiotic that there will be a week's wait for the results, but like I said, who knows if Fox will continue to send this over the airwaves? At least we're spared a repeat of last week's rack torture known as the hour-long results show.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Gracie

GRACIE (Davis Guggenheim, 2007)

High school soccer star Johnny Bowen (Jesse Lee Soffer) is the pride and joy of his family. His younger siblings, two brothers and sister Gracie (Carly Schroeder), idolize him. Dad Bryan (Dermot Mulroney) seemingly devotes every free minute after work at the moving company to helping Johnny reach his potential.

While the loss of a child will rattle any family, Johnny's accidental death in a car crash threatens to ruin the Bowens. Gracie is especially vulnerable. She lost her best friend and biggest supporter. In GRACIE she decides that the best way to honor the memory of her brother is to earn a spot on the boys' soccer team and help defeat their rival.

GRACIE is set in 1978 South Orange, New Jersey, a time and place where the local school district didn't have an organized girls' team nor the open attitude about a female being tough enough to play with the boys without getting seriously injured. Her father is opposed to the idea. He refuses to train her, but when Bryan and her mother Lindsay (Elisabeth Shue) notice Gracie heading toward trouble, he relents, helps with the petition to the school board, and puts her through the same paces he did with Johnny.

The inspirational sports movie formula is so well known anymore that it is almost beside the point whether or not such films are based on true stories. Begin with an underdog base. Add a couple rounded tablespoons of social and familial doubt, a generous pinch of grit, and a ribbon of period rock and roll. Top with a sprinkling of fortuitous coincidence to align events just so for maximum emotional effect. Serve warm with tissues on the side for damp eyes.

In the case of GRACIE, the film is inspired by real events from Elisabeth Shue's life. GRACIE is a family affair, with her brother Andrew playing a small part as an assistant coach and getting a story credit and huband Davis Guggenheim directing. It's dedicated to her brother William, who died in an accident, although not in the kind of timeline employed to increase the film's heart-tugging appeals.

GRACIE sticks rigorously to the sports movie recipe, which is somewhat disappointing considering that the bulk of the story is fictionalized. There's a reassuring quality in anticipating every step Gracie will take until she makes her goal--literally, in this case--but it drains the film of surprises.

Fortunately, the training session montages and appeals to skeptical coaches and school board members are kept at bay until GRACIE'S second half. The stronger first half explores the unraveling of the Bowen family, specifically Gracie's slide from the bright, cheerful girl she was before her brother died. Certainly the film is about her athletic accomplishment, but moreover GRACIE deals with a broken father-daughter relationship in a way that is more uplifting than anything achieved on the field. Bryan says some terrible things, what he believes to be hard truths rather than putdowns, and fails to see how Gracie is desperately reaching out to him at this painful time.

Making the team and playing in the big game grab the headlines, but the repaired relationship at the heart of GRACIE shows that there are bigger prizes than kicking a ball around a field.

Grade: B-

Knocked Up

KNOCKED UP (Judd Apatow, 2007)

A one night stand turns into a potentially longer term commitment for Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) in KNOCKED UP. Ben's scruffy charm and a copious amount of alcohol find the mismatched pair between the sheets late at night and wondering what happened the next morning.

In the light of day they are not a couple anyone would expect to see, something that is immediately apparent to them. Alison's polished appearance and hard work at E! has finally earned her an on-air reporting assignment. The closest thing Ben has to employment is the nude celebrity movie appearances archive he and his stoner friends are developing as a website.

They go their separate ways never expecting to see one another again, but eight weeks later Alison learns that she is pregnant. Ben vows to help her in whatever way he can, so the two try to establish a relationship under the circumstances.

Writer-director Judd Apatow's previous comedy, THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, found humor in the main character's inexperience with dating and sex. With equal measures of raunch and sentimentality, KNOCKED UP explores the minefield of imminent parenthood for two people who don't know each other very well. Both films exaggerate their scenarios for comic effect, perhaps to put audiences at ease for the emotional truths and fears Apatow explores.

Depending on your point of view, KNOCKED UP could just as well be a horror film as a comedy. While Ben and Alison try to make the best of the unplanned pregnancy, terror underlines the situation. Apatow spots the humor in this discomfort, be it visiting the obstetrician (or finding the right one in the first place), being forced to mature, making a lifelong commitment to someone, and figuring out how to prepare for a baby when there's an avalanche of literature to sort through.

Rogen and Heigl's appealing performances anchor the film. Rogen's bear growl of a voice and frizzy mop of curls make him endearing while he consistently fails to provide the kind of support Alison asks of Ben. KNOCKED UP pushes the well-worn movie and TV conception of men as overgrown boys--witness Paul Rudd's funny turn as Alison's brother-in-law in addition to Ben's immaturity--but does so in a more sensitive manner. Heigl's Alison isn't as fully drawn as the male characters, but the actress exhibits her wonderful comic timing to make her pregnant career woman sympathetic and rational.

While Apatow has a good feel for putting familiar and relatable people on screen, he can overdo the coarse language that occasionally seems that it's been inserted for shock value rather than staying true to his characters. His penchant for too much extends to the robust running time--129 minutes, long for a comedy--that allows for some amusing diversions with secondary characters but stretches out the film.

A pregnancy from a one night stand isn't a laughing matter, yet in KNOCKED UP it is. This sweet, funny movie delivers depth not commonly found in comedies. There's an arrival worth celebrating.

Grade: B

Bug

BUG (William Friedkin, 2006)

Gulf War veteran Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) acknowledges that he is a little unusual and can make others uncomfortable, but waitress Agnes White (Ashley Judd) finds herself strangely drawn to him all the same in BUG. Holed up in a grimy Oklahoma hotel room where she medicates herself with tumblers of booze and lines of coke, Agnes is in desperate need of some human contact to ease the pain she feels from her missing son and her paranoia over the recent prison release of her abusive ex Goss (Harry Connick Jr.). Peter also harbors beliefs that someone is out to get him. He's convinced that the military is monitoring his every move and waiting for the right moment to scoop him up.

One night in bed Peter cries out that he's been bitten by an aphid and roots through the sheets to find them teeming with the bugs. Agnes can't see them, but Peter's insistence of the infestation and the red sores on his body are suitably convincing. Before long the room has been sprayed and is covered in traps and fly strips, but the bug bites worsen, covering their scratched torsos and limbs in swollen patches. Could the bugs be coming from egg sacs implanted in Peter by the people who are after him?

BUG director William Friedkin builds the paranoia to a crescendo and makes the audience feel like creepy-crawlies are marching across our skin too. Tracy Letts' screenplay, an adaptation of his stage production, enhances this quality by refusing to commit to what is real and what is in the minds of the characters. The inclination is to believe that Peter and Agnes are diving headlong into madness, but just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you.

The uncertainty about the truth of the situation captivates for awhile; however, as the characters descend into further derangement, their rantings and ravings sound more and more like existential twaddle. BUG straddles the lines of genre seediness and high art pretension, but it's not enough of a cheap thrill or mindbender to succeed at either.

Although most often associated with glossy thrillers, Judd can be at her best in deglamorized, salt of the earth roles, particularly her breakthrough part in RUBY IN PARADISE. She tries her best to provide a believable guide into BUG'S psychological horror, but she's undermined by a plot and direction that invest the unhinged proceedings with far more gravitas than they can withstand.

Judd and Shannon deliver the dialogue with conviction even as it becomes increasingly purple. For a time there's the hope that the relentless talking might lead to a substantial revelation, but BUG'S aim is elsewhere. This is a well-dressed technical exercise, a filmed workshop that provides flattering moments for all involved but leaves viewers on the outside looking in.

Grade: C

Monday, June 04, 2007

Mr. Brooks

MR. BROOKS (Bruce A. Evans, 2007)

Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a devoted husband, doting father, and the Portland Chamber of Commerce's Man of the Year. He commands so much respect that he is unfailingly referred to as Mr. Brooks. Underneath this veneer of family values and civic responsibility is the heart and mind of a serial killer in MR. BROOKS.

Mr. Brooks' murderous side is manifested in the form of Marshall (William Hurt), his bloodthirsty id who begs for him to kill again. Mr. Brooks has been able to smother that impulse for two years, but all that pent-up energy has to escape. He kills a dance couple in the throes of love-making and follows his meticulous cleaning plan to remove any trace of his presence in their home. What he doesn't notice in time is that his victims were exhibitionists who left the curtains open.

Detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore) may not have any leads on The Thumbprint Killer, as Mr. Brooks is tagged in the press, but an amateur photographer who lives in the apartment building by the dancers has him dead to rights. The man calls himself Mr. Smith (Dane Cook). He shows Mr. Brooks the pictures he snapped that fateful night. Mr. Smith doesn't want to extort money, though. He got such a charge from seeing the killings that he wants Mr. Brooks to take him the next time he murders someone.

Unlike other serial killer films, which portray their anti-heroes as elegant monsters and are seduced by their evil actions, MR. BROOKS makes no bones about the corrosive effect that murder has on the character's soul. Mr. Brooks refers to his need to kill as an addiction. Costner carries the burden in a glum performance that is lightened only with the climaxes Mr. Brooks gets from taking the lives of others. Similarly, the film takes a matter of fact approach to the murders, depicting them as a means to an end and not something intrinsically pleasurable except for the character. The modicum of restraint used to show the killings is welcome at a time when the trend in horror is to wallow in the vilest depictions of violence, often for humor.

Like its title figure, MR. BROOKS' internal conflict leads to messy results. Where the character cannot maintain well-adjusted behavior over sociopathic indulgences, the film fails to strike a balance between the serious and outlandish. The tortured Mr. Brooks doesn't mesh with Hurt's scenery chewing or the woefully miscast Cook. At times director Bruce A. Evans reaches for dark comedy--Marshall is like the child begging the parent for something at the grocery store--but it's out of tune with the film's grave tone. Mr. Smith is supposed to be nervous and incompetent, but with his eager to please demeanor, Cook is hard to take seriously.

The same goes for the ridiculous plot points bursting from this overstuffed film. Evans races to join the dangling threads, but he would have been better off cutting them. Moore's multi-millionaire detective is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce and being stalked by a serial killer who broke out of jail. The subplot with Mr. Brooks' college dropout daughter has some potential but is more the stuff of sequels.

Mr. Brooks conducts himself with precision and care, yet the film has a decidedly ragged feel, most noticeably at the end. What appears to be a jolting conclusion in keeping with the film's cold-blooded nature is ripped away with a cop-out ending bearing fingerprints that suggest test marketing is to blame. The last scene isn't the time for a dark movie to opt for the comparatively lighter alternative.

Grade: C-