Wednesday, May 30, 2007

On the Lot results

Why, America, why?

In retrospect, it shouldn't come as any surprise that the makers of the three worst shorts survived last night's ON THE LOT elimination. There's plenty of garbage that does well at the box office, so it follows that those tastes would translate to the offerings on a reality TV show. It may not be a coincidence that the filmmakers in question also received a substantial amount of air time in prior shows. Familiarity may have been enough to get them through, although if the message boards and voters putting it in the top three are any indication, people genuinely liked the loathsome GETTA RHOOM. Seriously, people, rent THE RINGER instead. It's a lot funnier and not offensive.

Taking several pages from the AMERICAN IDOL results show book, ON THE LOT drew out the proceedings to a painful length. Other than finding out who was getting the boot and showing a couple minutes of the contestants mingling after the show at their Hollywood bungalow, there was nothing new in the hour-long program. Even thirty minutes is more time than is needed for the results. This is what digital video recorders are made for. Why bother watching sixty minutes of filler when you can fast forward to the thirty seconds of essential material? Still, that might be more effort than necessary. A quick check on the web will yield the results.

While I'm bagging on the show, how about losing host Adrianna Costa? The animated Disney heroine come to life struggled mightily doing her duties on the results show, not to mention that there's something highly unappealing about her. She would make kindergarteners feel like they were being condescended to, let alone the adults watching the show. A quick check of her IMDB page provides the expected. Among several entertainment reporter/anchor jobs, she has worked for E! News and Access Hollywood. That's where she got the tacky, phony delivery.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On the Lot

As a movie fan who indulges a taste for some reality TV (primarily THE AMAZING RACE, SURVIVOR, and AMERICAN IDOL), it was imperative that I check out ON THE LOT. The Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett produced Fox show is searching for an undiscovered director to receive a million dollar development deal at DreamWorks.

ON THE LOT started culling the field by giving the contestants one of five loglines and having them pitch their ideas to actress/screenwriter Carrie Fisher and directors Garry Marshall and Brett Ratner. In other words, it was as though the now defunct Query Letters I Love blog had been brought to life in televised form. This was a decent enough way to test these aspiring filmmakers' ability to sell their visions. Those who survived this initial cut were grouped in threes and sent out to shoot one scene each for a short film. Again, the directors were pared down to the final 18. (Another task, in which each was supposed to direct a scene on a pre-arranged set in an hour, seems to have disappeared from the competition as nothing with it was involved with last night's program.)

On Monday's episode, each filmmaker presented a one-minute comedy short that they were given a week to prepare. In the comments to his insightful piece about the show, Noel Murray summed up the resulting films as equivalent to the Coca-Cola refreshing filmmakers' shorts that are part of the "pre-show entertainment" at multiplexes. Even the better entries were highly derivative. Many relied on toilet humor: flatulence blame diverting across time and borders, a woman on a bus has to pee, intoxicated aliens projectile vomiting. (No disrespect meant to the woman who made the bus short, but when it comes to thwarted urinary relief, nothing can top the scene in BUFFALO '66.)

Most were OK on some level. The exceptions were WACK ALLEY CAB, which made no sense visually or narratively, and GETTA RHOOM, which was supposedly centered on a nerd making an ill-timed exclamation. When Garry Marshall, the director of the horribly offensive THE OTHER SISTER, takes you to task for making fun of the, how to say it, mentally challenged, you've got a problem. THE BIG BAD HEIST missed the point of the exercise, opting instead to be a mock trailer.

In an improvement over another Burnett production, ON THE LOT appears to be giving the contestants tasks that apply to what they are seeking to do for a living. On THE APPRENTICE, in which Type A business professionals sought employment with Donald Trump, the contestants were evaluated more for marketing savvy than for the nuts and bolts business skills the job presumably entailed. If ON THE LOT asks the filmmakers to make shorts each week, it's about as fair of a test as possible...for a competition like this.

But is it really about finding the best unknown director? Of course not. Writer-directors have an advantage since they are forced to generate their own content, not just shoot scripts. Genre versatility, a treasured trait of some directors but not an implicit measurement of greatness, will be an advantage. More than anything, though, the ability to go safely and competently down the middle will be the trump card. ON THE LOT isn't about artistic expression but predigesting the conventions of mainstream films and aping them. In other words, they're looking for Ratners and Marshalls.

Maybe some of these filmmakers will surprise us, but my best guess is that we won't see anything too out there. Like AMERICAN IDOL'S opinionated three, the judges talk about taking risks, but that's the fastest ticket to get the voting public to look elsewhere to cast their ballots. The surest way to advance is to make something flashy and familiar. That's why the prohibitive frontrunner should be Zach Lipovsky. The special effects wiz is likely to produce the most dazzling films. Toque-wearing Minnesotan Andrew Hunt, the puking aliens guy, also looks to be a strong contender because he seems more experienced and aware of what it takes. Family man Will Bigham might be in it for the long haul, especially if the producers play up how this might be his last chance to pursue his filmmaking dream.

It will be interesting to see how many contestants stick around because of secondary factors (looks, playing the villain role, heart-tugging back stories). To be sure, talents beyond what can be put on screen have kept other careers afloat, so who's to say it won't be accurately reflected in ON THE LOT'S results?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

After the Wedding (Efter brylluppet)


Faced with an enormous budgetary crisis, Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) departs for Copenhagen to secure funding for the orphanage he manages in India. His potential benefactor is Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), a man whose opulent lifestyle Jacob finds disgusting. Rather than immediately approve or dismiss Jacob's proposal, Jørgen invites him to attend his daughter's wedding. Although he puts up with the businessman's delayed decision, he bristles at being obligated to Jørgen's whims. Nevertheless, in AFTER THE WEDDING Jacob does what he believes will allow him to help the orphans.

But is there a larger game at work? It's uncommon for a stranger--and a visibly hostile one at that--to be invited to a business associate's lavish wedding. Jacob begins to think something is amiss when he recognizes someone. Jørgen's wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a lover from Jacob's tormented past, and there's the strong possibility that the bride, Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), might be his biological daughter. The fallout of any potential revelations could ruin everyone's lives.

Like her 2004 film about love and war (BROTHERS), director Susanne Bier takes a soap opera plot and wrings every last ounce of human emotion out of it. AFTER THE WEDDING'S anguished portrait of family, charity, and mortality peels back layers in the characters that defy their easy categorization. At face value Jacob would appear to be noble and compassionate while Jørgen is manipulative and uncaring, but as plot strands unwind, it becomes harder to tell whose heart is larger.

AFTER THE WEDDING explores what it means to sacrifice for those you love and those who need you. Jacob feels almost nothing but contempt for the privileged in Denmark, especially since he is acquainted with the basic struggles of people in India, yet is he acting out of selfishness or self-righteousness by resisting to provide comfort in his homeland? Films about inspirational figures, particularly those focused on classroom saviors, invariably present rose-colored visions of supreme goodness without detailing the toll on personal lives. What good is charity to others if none exists for those who are closest? The invitation to look closer, expressed through recurring close-ups of eyes, doesn't challenge what's on the surface so much as it searches for core truths.

Mikkelsen and Lassgård's performances command this potent drama. Mikkelsen's dour appearance and cheekbones that could cut glass give him a severe look in contrast to his deep emotional reservoir. The film derives much satisfaction from the softening of his hard exterior. Lassgård owns AFTER THE WEDDING'S most affecting scene. His momentary breakdown about his future is as searing as anything in an Ingmar Bergman film. The existential despair is painful to watch as Lassgård wails to his wife and the universe.

The journey in AFTER THE WEDDING may not lead to a honeymoon, but Bier's unflinching and incisive observations about human connection are rewarding all the same.

Grade: A-

28 Weeks Later

28 WEEKS LATER (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007)

The rage virus that ravaged England in 28 DAYS LATER is believed to have been eradicated in the sequel 28 WEEKS LATER. The United States military is leading a UN mission to begin the repopulation of London, although with corpses still littering some neighborhoods, movement about the city is limited to the green zone.

Brother and sister Andy and Tammy (Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots) were out of the country on a school trip when the virus arrived. They are the first children permitted to return. Andy and Tammy are reunited with their father Don (Robert Carlyle) but not with their mother. Alice (Catherine McCormack) is believed to have met an unfortunate end at the hands and teeth of the bloodthirsty infectees. Don has no reason to expect she survived, but rather than stick around for definitive proof, he ran for his life.

The guilt torments him. It doesn't diminish when Alice is discovered cowering in an abandoned section of London. Medical officer Scarlet (Rose Byrne) examines Alice and finds that she is carrying the virus but not exhibiting its symptoms. This makes her vital for developing a cure that isn't total extermination by military force.; however, her presence means that inevitably the rage virus will be transmitted and wreak havoc in the safe area.

A tense and terrifying trip through urban chaos, 28 WEEKS LATER is Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's respectable follow-up to Danny's Boyle's original. Using urgent camerawork, a flurry of cuts, and John Murphy's pulsing rock score to convey the jittery mood, Fresnadillo opens the film with a fierce attack on a country house that culminates in a stunning chase through an open field and into the river. (The aerial shot of a zombie fleet pursuing Don gives a frightening sense of scope.) He's equally adept at milking slower scenes for all their suspense, be it the eerie shots of a desolate London or the creeping silence in tight quarters.

The strength of 28 DAYS LATER and 28 WEEKS LATER is their insistence on living in the moment. Since characters must often operate on instinct, they and the audience have little time to consider the best course of action. Fresnadillo forces both into reactive mode when faced with sensory bombardment and thus creates palpable fear.

It would then seem to be no coincidence that 28 WEEKS LATER'S two biggest narrative conveniences occur when there's a pause for deliberate choices. Andy and Tammy's excursion outside the green zone and Don's visit to Alice strain the suspension of disbelief test, but they're to be excused considering that the film explores how people react irrationally under adverse conditions.

With bored soldiers patrolling a supposed safe zone and upper military commanders eager to kill everything in sight when quick distinctions can't be made between the uninfected and zombies, it's obvious that 28 WEEKS LATER is dipping its toes into political allegory. Fresnadillo and his co-screenwriters don't go much below the surface in trying to add some social commentary, but such content adds a little heft. Mostly, though, 28 WEEKS LATER glides on a barrage of gore and visceral shocks.

Grade: B+

Monday, May 21, 2007

Georgia Rule

GEORGIA RULE (Garry Marshall, 2007)

If teenage wild child Rachel (Lindsay Lohan) thinks she's going to do as she pleases while living with her grandmother Georgia (Jane Fonda) for the summer, she has another thing coming. Whether working to earn her stay or sucking on a bar of soap for muttering a blasphemy, Georgia expects her granddaughter to follow her house rules to the letter. For Rachel's mother Lilly (Felicity Huffman) the arrangement is a last ditch effort to straighten out the lying and reckless girl--or just ditch her. Lilly is more concerned about her marriage and what's at the bottom of the bottle than helping her daughter.

The Idaho town in GEORGIA RULE might as well be the end of the earth for Rachel, but it doesn't take long for her to spot the local stud and try to seduce him. Harlan (Garrett Hedlund) isn't like the other boys Rachel knows back home. The devout Mormon farmhand has a conscience and tries to behave in an upstanding manner. Harlan isn't the only guy to catch her eye. Rachel also works on enticing her employer, the hunky but morose veterinarian Simon (Dermot Mulroney).

Strange as it may sound, GEORGIA RULE is like a chick flick version of BLACK SNAKE MOAN, except Georgia doesn't chain Rachel to a radiator to cure her of her slutty, self-destructive ways. Georgia and Lazarus administer heaping doses of moral authority and compassion to help these wayward girls and bring about their own redemption. While BLACK SNAKE MOAN has the more outrageous premise, the exploitation film with heart feels more emotionally honest and believable than GEORGIA RULE'S rancid syrup.

The subject matter in GEORGIA RULE--sexual abuse and alcoholism, for starters--lends itself to drama, but Garry Marshall's tone deaf direction and Mark Andrus' sloppy script play it as comedy. This major miscalculation is compounded by keeping the truth about Rachel's allegations of paternal molestation shrouded in lies and jokes for much of the film. If she's being honest, then there's nothing funny about her confession. If she's lying, then she's even more repellent than she already seems.

In keeping with the image she's buffed in the tabloids (and during the production of this film), Lohan's Rachel comes across as an obnoxious brat with a rasp seasoned from whiskey-guzzling and chain-smoking. To be sure, her party girl isn't supposed to be appealing at first, but the film builds up so much ill will toward her that sympathy is hard to come by when it might be deserved.

For a film that is supposed to be generous to its characters, GEORGIA RULE contains a paucity of warmth for these damaged souls. Huffman's skittery performance as Lilly plays as the cartoonish bad mother with a drinking problem. Armchair psychology might explain how her daughter is following in her path, but it doesn't make either any more pleasant to be around or care about. At first the Mormon characters look to be the film's moral compasses, but Marshall mocks them, whether through the slow-witted Harlan or the gossipy clique clucking about Rachel's wickedness. Fonda emerges generally unscathed, perhaps because she plays the one person with any bearings. GEORGIA RULE sets out to save these women, but it sure has a funny way of doing it.

Grade: D-

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Lucky You

LUCKY YOU (Curtis Hanson, 2007)

LUCKY YOU has a gem of an opening scene. Career poker player Huck Cheever (Eric Bana) enters a pawnshop to sell a digital camera. The pawnbroker (Phyllis Somerville) makes an unsatisfactory offer, in part because she already has three other cameras in stock. Not one to be easily deterred, Huck explains how purchasing his camera will increase the sale price of the others. The pawnbroker parries his arguments, but his entertaining persuasion eventually wears her down, even if he must concede more in the transaction than he desired. The scene wonderfully illustrates the calculated risks, observational skills, and sacrifices required of the professional gambler. Unfortunately, director Curtis Hanson plays all his cards in the introduction to LUCKY YOU.

Huck dwells in the shadow of his father L.C. (Robert Duvall), a two-time World Series of Poker champion he's still unable to forgive for cheating on his mother. Although he can't beat his dad, Huck's a pretty good player in his own right but one with a weakness for being impulsive when he should play it safe. He prowls the casinos each night trying to rustle up the $10,000 entry fee or win a seat in the famed tournament. When it appears he's turned a corner toward his goal, a bad decision or a bad break pulls him back. Huck trusts his own abilities and denies the existence of luck even if his propensity for self-sabotage and run-ins with misfortune ought to change his mind.

Along the way he hooks up with Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore), a naïve singer new to Las Vegas. She possesses little comprehension of what drives professional card players like Huck, but it doesn't take long for her to get educated in the dangers of dating a compulsive gambler.

Like Huck, LUCKY YOU is sure of itself yet in need of direction. Hanson goes all in believing that the subject of high stakes poker is riveting, but with undue emphasis placed on the cards instead of the characters, LUCKY YOU is holding a losing hand by the time it reaches the river.

TV sports producers have decided that if they want to snag casual viewers, they need to stress storylines. Strangely, Hanson takes the opposite tactic. He sketches Huck in a few simple strokes and hopes the meager outline is sufficient for capturing our attention. Rather than dig into the complicated history between father and son, LUCKY YOU prefers to follow several more hands in which Huck holds suited connectors or big slick. It's a fatal mistake. Although televised poker lacks some surprises--the World Series of Poker airs on tape delay after the results are public knowledge--it holds the potential for shocking results that a fictional film can't pull off. Viewers know that nothing is at stake because of the predetermined way in which the story must unfold.

The romance is with Vegas and poker than with Billie, which may be just as well. Barrymore is out of her element in an underwritten part. She and Bana have a nice flirtatious meeting, but beyond that there isn't any reason to believe these two people are fascinated with one another. No, the romance is with gambling. While LUCKY YOU consistently demonstrates that this lifestyle leads to a sad and lonely existence, it's enthralled with it all the same. Huck occupies a barren home and owes money all over town, but nonetheless, the movie gets caught up with the glamour. Perhaps unwittingly LUCKY YOU has more to say about addiction than was intended.

Grade: C

Kickin' It Old Skool

KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL (Harvey Glazer, 2007)

Remember "The Chris Farley Show" segments on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE? He would interview celebrities, ask if they remembered something, and follow up with the declaration "that was awesome". KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL plies the same joke by asking its viewers if they recall things from the 80s. The difference is that it isn't awesome.

Twelve-year-old Justin Schumacher (Alexander Calvert) hits his head executing a breakdancing move during a 1986 talent show and slips into a coma for twenty years in KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL. On his 32nd birthday he emerges from two decades of unconsciousness when the strains of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" waft from a hospital janitor's radio into his ears. Good thing, too. His parents were about to disconnect his life support.

The adult Justin (Jamie Kennedy) finds the new world confusing. MTV doesn't play videos, and toy stores carry unfamiliar STAR WARS figures. Things are just as mixed up at home. His parents are in danger of losing everything because of his medical care costs. Determined to pay them back, Justin sets out to reunite his old grade school breakdancing crew and win a dance contest with a $100,000 payout.

His friends resist at first, but it's not as though they have anything to lose by donning b-boy gear and busting some moves again. They lost their pride a long time ago. Darnell (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.) needs money to kickstart one of his many novelty toy ideas into production. Hector (Aris Alvarado), who has packed on the pounds in the intervening years, could use an image makeover from his job as a meter maid. Aki (Bobby Lee), the most successful of the bunch, learns that being a breakdancer might give him a slim chance to impress a woman in the office.

Justin also has a woman to impress. First love Jennifer Stone (Maria Menounos) is engaged to marry his childhood rival Kip (Michael Rosenbaum), who is behind the televised dance showdown.

KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL equates making incalculable 80s pop culture references with joke telling. The three credited screenwriters cram as many allusions as possible into the dialogue and hope the spark of nostalgia will ignite laughs. Those who grew up wearing Diadora clothes, hearing Mister Mister on the radio, and trading Garbage Pail Kids may find a smidgen of humor in their youth fad reminders, but there's nothing inherently funny about any of it. KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL is essentially VH-1's I LOVE THE 80s with a negligible plot than a series of snarky talking heads.

KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL goes step by step through the dance contest bracket as if the audience cares or will be surprised by the outcome. The dancing isn't good enough to hold interest or silly enough to be funny. It's never a good sign when the main character can disappear for most of the film's final third and not be missed, yet that's exactly what happens when Justin is put on Ritalin. Plus, what sense does it make to have the protagonist not participate in all but one of the lengthy dance-off scenes?

Kennedy must have pulled this script off of Adam Sandler's reject pile. The adult Justin's child-like quality is straight from Sandler's playbook, although Kennedy fails to make him memorable at all. Like what he does or not, Sandler puts his stamp on his roles. Kennedy's inability to make an impression more easily reveals KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL for the collection of played out Me Decade reminiscing that it is.

Grade: D-