Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On the Lot: better late than never

OK, so I'm seriously lagging on my weekly ON THE LOT recap. Just now I'm sitting down to watch last Tuesday's episode. Waiting seven days should tell you that the thrill is gone, not that it ever really was there. Last week delivered several press screenings, and I simply didn't feel like watching it. There you have it.

Anyway, Kenny and Mateen were eliminated. Then there was some description about the rest of the competition and when it will end, but I zoned out while typing this and don't really feel it's necessary to go back and check. Adrianna Costa just mentioned that there are three weeks left before the show is put down. Mark it on your calendars.

Really, though, you have to give props to ON THE LOT for completing its run. CBS unceremoniously pulled the plug on Mark Burnett's PIRATE MASTER and is replaying the remaining episodes on the internet. And here's how much I was invested in that show: I won't be checking out what's left. Neither Burnett production was destination TV; they were background TV, white noise to accompany other activities while deposited on the couch.

On to comedy with a hint of romance night!

Zach's THE BONUS FEATURE references other movies, including the work of Lucas, Spielberg, and Zemeckis. Nice bit of sycophancy in paying homage to the show's executive producer and pals. There is one cut where I thought he crossed the line--in other words, edited to a shot that didn't match with the direction the characters were looking--but it turned out to be a confusing edit rather than a "wrong" one. Zach has appeared to be a Spielberg-in-training from day one, and this cements that impression. Good job bud in keeping the product placement less blatant.

Adam gets outdone in the sucking up, inserting just a DreamWorks homage in GIRL TROUBLE. He references the studio's AMERICAN BEAUTY in addition to going old school with THE GRADUATE. It's so nice to see originality at work. < /sarcasm>

Will finds his way around dialogue again with UNPLUGGED, a romance between two desk lamps. I've mentioned before that he seems like someone who would be home at Pixar, and this has a LUXO JR. vibe all over it. Still, it's cute and clever. How can I argue with that?

Andrew's KEEP OFF GRASS is as bad as the wrecked lawn in it. It's supposed to be about a protective lawn caretaker discovering that two superheroes have destroyed his yard and garden. The problem is that most of it is the superheroes bickering while he obliviously tends to a flower. The judges seem impressed, though.

Sam's AMERICAN HOE has a title that someone else ought to recycle, but that's about all that should see the light of day again. The story is about a guy who gets the wrong stamps for the wedding invitations. (He gets a farming series rather than the love stamps.) There's one good joke in it, but the rest of it is pretty dire. The couple is unpleasant and unfunny. FYI to those on the coasts: while "nipple" may be interchangeable with "teat", I don't think I've ever heard the n word in relation to milking a cow.

Jason's OLD HOME BOYZ leads to a breakdance-off at a fifty year reunion, but there's more build-up than payoff. The most notable element may be Lin Shaye cast as an object of desire, which runs counter to the comedically grotesque women she's most recognizably played in the Farrelly brothers' films.

Ooh, the winner will get to feature Jerry O'Connell in his film for tonight's episode. Just think what an advantage it will be to have the star of TOMCATS and KANGAROO JACK!

For all one of you awaiting these recaps, I'll get to tonight's show faster. Only three left!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

On the Lot: Lights, camera, action

It's time for another edition of WHO WANTS TO BE A HACK MOVIE DIRECTOR?, err, ON THE LOT. Sorry, no liveblogging this week as I was busy seeing I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY. Dennis Dugan's sensibility isn't all that different from these contestants, so it's not like I had to defer my consumption of soulless cinema at that time on Tuesday night. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't sure if I'd have much to say about the show this week. You can only say that the films stink but have some polish so many ways.

Business first: we bid adieu to Shalini and Hilary. And there go the last of the ladies...

Is it me or do the accommodations for the filmmakers look like budget housing, especially in comparison to the fancy digs Mark Burnett put his ROCK STAR strivers in?

Tonight's theme is action. Before taking a look at these I have the feeling that we'll get more technically proficient but artistically empty shorts. The judges will gripe about storytelling, but here's the thing: with the amount of time they're given, how much story can you really deliver?

Sure enough, Sam's KEY WITNESS is more like a scene from a movie than self-contained piece. It's as slick and nutritious as olestra-laden snack foods whose consumption may result in, umm, unexpected passage.

Jason's SWEET, an action-comedy about a husband who rushes at the last minute to get anniversary flowers for his wife, does what perhaps no other short has done on the show's entire run. It succeeds as a standalone piece and might actually be something people would watch. I've been pretty critical of his past work, but tonight he strikes the right tone, develops the situation and character (as much as can be done in the alloted time), and draws laughs. Jason made a smart choice in telling a story that he and plenty others can identify with. His other shorts have been well received on the ON THE LOT message boards. Now I think he might have a shot at winning this silly competition.

I haven't been paying attention to who's sponsoring the show--God bless DVRs and the time-shifting viewing they permit--but Andrew's ZERO2SIXTY confirms that Ford is one of the major companies involved with it. Previous episodes had shorts that functioned like car commercials and featured prominent shots of the product, but this film is a Ford ad through and through. I wonder if someone gets assigned the pseudo-advertisement short each week. It didn't do Andrew any favors. You don't feel the speed in the car chase.

Kenny really wanted to do a stunt in his skateboard movie THE LOSERS, but the supervisor wouldn't let him. Like what he does or not, Kenny knows who he is. (The same goes for Jason.) His adrenalized, off the wall style earns him points for creativity. He didn't do a very good job of communicating where his skating racers are in relation to one another and the finish line, but again, I'm beginning to see what got him to this point. Garry Marshall, who must work all week on one-liners for his evaluations, quoted Camus in response to Kenny's short. That's the sort of weirdness that makes ON THE LOT tolerable.

Mateen's CATCH takes forever to set up a foot chase and then ends on a reversal that we've seen a few hundred times. Yawn.

A montage of the stunts and some behind-the-scenes work help pad out a show that's already mostly padding. Carrie picks Andrew's as her favorite while Garry and guest judge Antoine Fuqua pick Jason's. Next week the six remaining directors will present comedies with a hint of romance. (You mean romantic comedies?) I'm betting that Sam and Mateen are out, but tune in next week to find out.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


CAPTIVITY (Roland Joffé, 2007)

Laugh if you will about old movie hucksters who tried to drum up business for their horror films through such schemes as requiring moviegoers to sign waivers releasing the studio from any liability in case the picture literally scared them to death. We might possess more media savvy today, but marketers still know how to sell the illusion of danger. The makers of CAPTIVITY, purportedly one of the most deplorable entries in the torture porn genre, have been relentless in courting controversy in the build-up to its opening

The Motion Picture Association of America reprimanded the distributor for billboards with graphic images that the ratings board did not approve, and producer Courtney Solomon promised a depraved premiere party. Any showman worth his salt knows that you sell the sizzle instead of the steak (if the latter even exists), so CAPTIVITY wasn't screened in advance for the press, leading potential gorehounds and scolds to wonder how repugnant the film might be.

Elisha Cuthbert stars as Jennifer, an actress-model who takes one sip from a drugged appletini and awakens to find herself held hostage in a darkened cell. When not playing with his victim, her black-cloaked captor sips wine and assembles his torture instructional in graphic novel form. Drug, abuse, rest, repeat. Eventually Jennifer discovers that she is not alone. Gary (Daniel Gillies) is in the chamber next to hers, and together they hope to find a way out of their worst nightmare.

For its first half CAPTIVITY buzzes by as a SAW clone that flirts with the prospect of ghastly things being done to Jennifer. Seen predominantly from the villain's view, the unpleasantness is portrayed as though it is a lover's pursuit. Unsurprisingly, this portion of the film has a misogynistic tone that suggests she deserves these punishments because of her beauty.

The horror is mostly psychological to this point, but there's an impending sense that CAPTIVITY could go to a very ugly place. Instead, it ventures into more conventional horror film territory. The first half isn't poetry, but it looks like it when compared to the second half's hoary clichés that even the laziest screenwriters should avoid. The only creativity on display is finding a way to include a sex scene in the most unlikely of circumstances.

But lighten up, right? Suspending disbelief is integral to films like CAPTIVITY. After all, the bad guy must possess phenomenal wealth and technical wizardry to create his death trap, but I will roll with it. (For all the outlandish fictional characters like this murderer, one real life example, the serial killer in the non-fiction novel THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, has yet to get the cinematic treatment.) The problem is that everything rings false or unbelievably convenient, including a key bit of old film shown in CAPTIVITY that simply could not exist.

The economy of characters limits the narrative twists, and lack of characterization fails to produce empathy for Jennifer beyond what would normally be felt for someone in her situation. Cuthbert is a limited actress, but she proved herself deserving of a scream queen crown in HOUSE OF WAX. In CAPTIVITY she's given nothing to work with to the extent that her moment of vindication comes off as perfunctory.

Reported revisions upped the gore from director Roland Joffé's original cut of the film. The pre-opening credits sequence is CAPTIVITY'S most violent scene and presumably something grafted on to make it more palatable to the HOSTEL crowd. In retrospect it's not only superfluous from everything that follows; it doesn't even line up with the evil perpetrator's motivation. But who needs consistency when the carnival barker's aim is to get people into the tent?

CAPTIVITY doesn't live up to the manufactured pre-release hysteria or approach the disreputable nature of other torture porn films. It's just the same old same old repackaged as the new worst offender.

Grade: D

Monday, July 09, 2007

On the Lot: more liveblogging folly

OK, so you're probably not watching Fox's director search ON THE LOT. If you are, you probably forgot that it's on tonight because of the All-Star game. (That's what digital video recorders are for.) Anyway, I'm home, the show is on, so following last week's attempt, let's do some liveblogging.

8:00 p.m. In the show's opening tease we see a Universal Studios tour group going by while the guide says that they can see "a lot of filming" for the TV series. And I thought it was too bad that the only film shooting when I went on a Paramount Studios tour was LUCKY NUMBERS.

8:03 p.m. Mateen basically calls Adrianna The Angel of Death. Heh heh.

8:04 p.m. Shira-Lee gets the heave-ho. Not a surprise considering she essentially said that she didn't know the genre she had to work in last week.

8:05 p.m. Adrianna informs the directors that their theme for this week is "when two worlds collide" and *gasp* two directors will be eliminated. This must be Fox's way of getting in an MLB tie-in. Now that the stakes are higher, it's for real, kind of like how the All-Star game stupidly determines home field advantage for the World Series.

8:06 p.m. This week's guest judge is who? Luke Greenfield, director of THE ANIMAL and THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, accepts the call. If this show had any traction, they'd be pulling better guests than this.

8:07 p.m. Zach's TIME UPON A ONCE sounds like it's going to be all about his special effects background. He's directing his actors to do everything backwards. Lin Shaye is back for more, and isn't that Reginald VelJohnson (you know, the FAMILY MATTERS dad)? (I think he was the head doctor in Will's comedy piece two weeks ago, but we didn't get a long enough look at him.) The conceit is that the new neighbors do everything backwards, and the effect he pulls off is convincing. The judges and voters are going to eat this up.

8:17 p.m. Hilary gives us THE LEGEND OF DONKEY-TAIL WILLIE. With her track record of lowbrow humor, that title portends all sorts of bad things but it's cute. She shot this like an old-timey western and employs a gauzy filter because nothing says fairy tale than having glaucoma. It's her best effort on the show, although I think part of it is the better production values. She's gone with the no glasses look this week. That's not important; I just don't have anything else to say.

8:27 p.m. Next week is action movies. Anything that spares us dialogue is a good thing. Speaking of which, here's Will. Hus SPAGHETTI has a present day couple finding themselves in a spaghetti western and has some spoken words. When two worlds collide! Or because Univeral Studios has an old west backlot set. Will's definitely seen a Sergio Leone movie, but keep this guy doing his silent movie thing. It's fine but zzzzzzz..... Like some other ON THE LOT shorts, it could have been a commercial with a tweak here or there.

8:37 p.m. Shalini's FIRST SIGHT definitely looks like it is shot on a studio backlot. The large building in the background looks two-dimensional. Her inspirational movie about a special pair of sunglasses that allows Tatyana Ali to see the true spirit inside people is heavyhanded but generally well exectued. Carrie Fisher rips it by saying that in Hollywood "if you want a message, leave it at the beep." Greenfield is similarly harsh. Leave it to that ol' softie Garry Marshall to stand up for it and defend the charge of lack of subtlety by saying, "Subtle is what they play in Connecticut when nobody goes."

8:47 p.m. An hour for five short films is way too much time.

8:48 p.m. Adam's WORLDLY POSSESSIONS has a military package accidentally delivered to a wealthy suburban couple. He's employed a lot of visual effects, most of them practical by the look of things. It's funny how Shalini just got hammered for a message movie, yet Adam just did the same thing. The difference, of course, is degree. It's a little too on the nose as well, but this features the best storytelling of all the shorts tonight.

8:56 p.m. A shocking elimination on HELL'S KITCHEN tonight. When isn't there? Last week, I guess.

8:57 p.m. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Adam couldn't look more uncomfortable on camera.

8:58 p.m. Favorite films? Carrie votes for Adam, Luke for Zack, and Garry picks Hilary. Adrianna says she'll see us next Tuesday. Sounds like a threat.

Now that we're a little deeper into the show we can see that the directors have professional competency, but I'd like to draw your attention to what Donna had to say about this in last week's comments:

"...the polish you speak of bothers me more week by week. It's like somebody taught these people a bag of tricks -- filters, angles, cuts, music beats -- and they pour it all over whatever the assignment is, every week. Kenny may be incompetent, but I'll take his rough-edged ignorance over the other directors' chrome sheen. At least it feels like his vision, not a Frankenstein monster stitched together out of the ultra-commercial surfaces that represent these contestants' highest aspirations."

I think that's why the show has become more boring, if that were possible, as the shorts have improved technically. We're getting more emphasis on visual effects, but assuming that all of these filmmakers have talented professionals assisting them--and who knows how much help they are getting--what does that tell us about their abilities? Rather than go for bigger and "better", I'd really like to see what the directors could do with just a conversation scene. It'd be a truer gauge of their directorial visions.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Liveblogging On the Lot

All right, let's give this liveblogging thing a shot. Tonight's episode of ON THE LOT is on the air. Here goes nothing...

8:00 p.m. What, no Adrianna Costa intro? Voiceover announcer: "It's horror film night on the lot." Dude, that's every week.

8:03 p.m. And David gets eliminated, but pervy uncle Garry Marshall reassures him that he got to meet girls.

8:04 p.m. Adrianna informs us who will be directing horror films. What a surprise, it's the contestants who didn't direct last week!

8:06 p.m. Eli Roth is the guest judge. Terrific. You know how much I loved HOSTEL.

8:07 p.m. Kenny's THE MALIBU MYTH kicks off horror night. Looks like Tatyana Ali, who was in David's film last week, is back again. The guy relies heavily on transitional effects, but I have a feeling his aggressive direction will go over well with whoever's watching this show. The film has something to do with missing teens turned into bloodthirsty monsters. Essentially it's a pre-credits sequence to JEEPERS CREEPERS but jokier. The woman in the car talks about what a blog says, but it doesn't appear she has a computer. Continuity is for suckers, though, right? Considering that I don't think the directors have sufficient time to make something scary, I'll give Kenny credit for putting together a short with more polish than most of what we've seen in ON THE LOT'S run. Roth namechecks three horror films to prove how cool he is. Somebody punch him, please.

8:16 p.m. The success of Sam's ANKLEBITERS is going to rely on a puppet. Umm, OK. Actually, it is convincing enough, but is there anything to this other than it being a clip from a feature film? Roth throws out a comparison to DEAD ALIVE, but I have to agree with him that the prologue essentially makes what follows irrelevant. We already know that a new creature "will change everything". Then again, the time limitations pretty much guarantee we won't be surprised.

8:24 p.m. We're two for two with prologues for these shorts. Will Andrew's MIDNIGHT SNACK make it three for three? Nope. Hey, Lin Shaye is back too. Wisely he's not bothered with much dialogue, and he does OK building atmosphere. Still, this isn't going to scare anyone. Sure enough, a joke is the exclamation point on the short. Roth compares it unfavorably to a "got milk?" commercial. Sadly, I can't disagree with what the guy's saying.

8:31 p.m. I expected horror night to be a catastrophe, but I'll grudgingly grant that these films have been better than what we've seen in previous weeks. There's nothing in them that would make people pull them up on any of the numerous online content providers, but they have a sheen of professionalism that helps explain why these people were chosen.

8:34 p.m. They have people make one-sheets for these shorts? Why? I guess it's a nice souvenir for the contestants.

8:35 p.m. Jason's ETERNAL WATERS is up. Boy does that guy like that dream-like, fractured editing style. A boy is drowning in a pool. Now he's underwater in a coffin. Watch out! There's an Asian man with a knife in the house! I guess this is supposed to be redemptive or something, but I'm not seeing it. Roth isn't buying the actress cast as the mother. "You dressed her up like a teenager. She's this blonde with, you know, the big breasts, and she's in a tight t-shirt. It's hard to take her seriously as a mother." Surely he's just taken Garry's lines.

8:38 p.m. Garry Marshall has two words for Jason: "Sen-sational." Oh Garry.

8:43 p.m. Shira-Lee claims to have known almost nothing about horror films before this. For real? Her OPEN HOUSE has an expecting couple wandering into a home for sale. There's no real estate agent...but there is a ghost or something warning the woman to get out. Yawn.

8:46 p.m. Good point, Carrie. Ghosts during the day aren't scary. Roth likes the tag, which is the man suggesting that a name has come to him. It's the name of the ghost woman's dead son. OOOOOOOOOO! C'mon, that was lame. Garry nails it: no conflict.

8:49 p.m. I'll say this for liveblogging the show. It's made ON THE LOT pass much faster.

8:50 p.m. Fox is advertising DON'T FORGET THE LYRICS. Isn't this the same thing as NBC's THE SINGING BEE?

8:51 p.m. The challenge for next week's show, airing on Monday due to Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, is based on the well-worn trailer phrase "when two worlds collide". Yeah, that ought to stretch their creative muscles.

8:52 p.m. Mateen's PROFILE strives for everyday horror. A white police officer pulls over a black driver. Flash forward to the cops giving him a beating in the station bathroom. Of all the directors, he fulfills the task at hand, which is to make the viewers uncomfortable. (One part draws an audible gasp from the studio audience.) Granted, with material this charged, it isn't hard to shake people up, but I'll give him credit for making something that actually could horrify those watching. None of the other films did that. He does make a really odd choice in closing it with an aerial shot of the area that then becomes a view of the planet. Roth: "And then it's the point of view of the moon or something." Ha.

The judges are especially critical, maybe because it gets under their skin? Hitchcock's childhood fear of the police informed much of what happened in his films, and it's that fear of authority with a racial angle that makes the film somewhat effective. (The perspective shifts are correctly identified as a problem.)

I've agreed with Roth, a director I find awfully smug and whose last two films I think are reprehensible, so it's nice that he gives me a rich comment to dine on here. Says the guy whose HOSTEL PART II has a naked woman hanging by her feet getting gutted by another naked woman who showers in her blood, "With subject matter that's this volatile, it's easy to put a shocking image up, but it's tough to relate that horror to the audience." Did I mention that Roth plays scenes like that for laughs?

8:59 p.m. The judges are split on their favorites. Carrie goes for Andrew, Roth for Kenny, and Garry for Jason.

9:25 p.m. Speaking of horrors, my longest entry of the whole liveblogging experience gets chomped in an attempt to publish while the wireless connection is interrupted.

I expected tonight's show to have the directors flailing, but they acquitted themselves better than they have at any other time during the show. OK, so only Mateen's film had a glimmer of frightening images/scenarios, but I was prepared for much worse. I think Shira-Lee's a goner out of this group, but if Mateen succeeds only at making people feel bad, he could be susceptible.

Perhaps the pressure of writing during the show made it feel like the time went quickly, but stepping out of the comfort zone for these filmmakers did produce a smidgen of the creative spark missing in their other films and more entertaining TV. All but Shira-Lee relied on what we've seen from them before, but it didn't seem as tired. (Did anyone catch the mention in the opening tease that they use professional writers? Interesting...) Was it me, or was this show tighter? The judges could still be tougher. As usual, the guest judge made the most valuable feedback.

And so goes this experiment in liveblogging. Thoughts?

When the links for the films are available, I'll update the entry for those who want easy access to them.

Site news

As a recent notebook computer purchaser, how about I try my hand at some liveblogging tonight? There's a new, sure to be awful episode of ON THE LOT at 8 p.m. Eastern. Come back for more then.