Saturday, October 31, 2015

More Random Trivia Items

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

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

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

Friday, October 23, 2015

Interview with "Obama Girl" Producer Ben Relles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 09, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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