Sunday, November 22, 2015

Is Arrested Development a Show Where the Chracters are Meant to Grow

This article now appears at ScreenPrism. 

The fact that "Arrested Development" is still on the air at all is a gift so I'd have trouble complaining about the fourth season whether it fell below my expectations or not but there was plenty to like about it.

What was generally lacking in the humor department was what I call the medium range jokes. The long-term jokes-- running gags, jokes emanating from serial arcs (generally called brick jokes), and character beats-- short-range jokes (witty lines of dialogue) were both there in fine form, but "Arrested Development" had little interest in form-fitting any of its Season 4 episodes into a Seinfeldesque plot.

The show chose instead to tell one large arc and while the payoffs were satisfying throughout, the anticlimactic nature of the season finale felt a little disappointing and brings me to two big questions: Is the Bluth clan going to move in any direction along the success-failure dichotomy? Does the show need its characters to grow or does it work best when they're in purgatory?

See the rest of the article at Screen Prism

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Story "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" Wanted to Tell

"Secret Life of Walter Mitty" seems like a standard romcom about a guy (Ben Stiller) with a run-of-the-mill personality/physical defect (constant daydreaming) that he has to overcome in order to catch the girl of his dreams (Kristen Wiig) but there's a lot of depth that the tagline and initial marketing presentations of the film curiously ignored.

If I had to make an educated guess, I'd wager that (director/star) Ben Stiller and company considered the daydreaming angle as an afterthought that needed to be packaged into the pitch.

Hollywood today runs on pre-existing properties and the daydreaming angle is the baggage the film came with in order to get the requisite buzz. By adding daydreaming scenes, the film can properly bill itself as a remake or reboot of a live screen adaptation of a TV show/live comic strip/children's book or whatever it is (technically, it's a remake of a 1947 film adaptation of a short story if you were curious). The daydreaming concept also lends itself to fantasy and action sequences that look good in a trailer.

The story that I suspect Stiller really wanted to tell is that of an office drone reexamining the choices in his life that put him there (although it's definitely curious and slightly counter-thematic that the story gives him what seems like a pretty artsy job in a magazine's photo department). Sure, he might be courting a girl in the process, but "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a story about a man freeing himself from the conventions of adulthood.

Within this thematic thread, worldly photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) is Stiller's true prize. O'Connell is a man who has successfully absolved himself of adult responsibility. While his being impossible to track down makes for a great plot McGuffin, he can be a pain to work with for those in the real world but that's if you judge him through a real-world lens. The film does not.

Stiller's quest to track down one of O'Connell's lost negatives in order to save his real-world job (Adam Scott deserves credit here for reaching heights in obnoxiousness not reached since "Step Brothers") is where much of the film's screen time lies.

It's along this journey that we get a sense that Walter Mitty (at least this version of him) wasn't always so square. One of the opening scenes clues us into Mitty being familiar with a skateboard, but one of the key character tenets of Mitty is that he was once a punk (with a full mohawk to boot) who was pushed into adulthood too quickly as a teenager after the death of his father. Whether this version of Mitty exists from the original isn't something I can say for sure, but it certainly supports the thesis.

It's also worth noting that the film's technical wizardry is impressively used towards both of the disparate storylines. One of the film's most technically memorable scenes is when a game of soccer against a setting Himalayan backdrop segues into a scene of a man being frisked as seen through an x-ray camera. Until we learn that Mitty has been stopped by airport security, fantasy and reality are fantastically blurred here. Simultaneously, the thematic idea of being in a transitory space between conventional adulthood and childhood is all over this shot.

As for which story is the better one and how this affects the finished product, Stiller gets credit for splitting the middle between the standard fantasy-adventure-romcom and the more meditative angle, There's no short shrift to the relationship between Stiller and the love interest and nothing disappointing about the fantasy sequences.

Thumbs up! 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Project Greenlight and the Liesure Class

"Project Greenlight" wrapped up its fourth season this past month.

If we assume that the other nine "Project Greenlight" finalists (whether team or individual) had at least 95% of the talent of Mann, better people skills and a measurable level of enthusiasm for the project, than wouldn't it have been a better logistical choice to suggest one of them? The answer is an emphatic no: A cooperative director would not have given the show the requisite amount of drama to make the show interesting or even remotely watchable.

Ultimately, Mann being chosen was a good thing from not just an entertainment perspective but from an educational one as well. "Project Greenlight" taught me quite a bit about film and keep in mind: It will soon be approaching nine years that I have been blogging on here; I have interviewed people who have created TV shows and starred in films; and I minored in film in college. None of those things tell me where exactly a director stands during filming, how many people work in an editing room, or how a director spends his time before the production starts. It is through "Project Greenlight" that you learn the ins-and-outs of what filmmaking is like on a tangible visual level.

On top of the film making narratives of art verse commerce and conflicting artistic visions, the show allows us to see the more mundane battles being waged like getting another shot vs. upsetting neighborhood ordinances, or on  Hollywood stand-in vs. tax-break-friendly Georgia vs. authentic Connecticut on the location front.

The film had two veritable villains in the form of line producer Effie T. Brown (another thing the show does well is answering the casual film fan's number one head scratcher, "What does a producer do?") and Mann himself which led to plenty of debate fodder on the internet over who was really "ruining" the movie. Of course, Mann provides pretty reasonable evidence in a Washington Post interview that many of his villainous traits (i.e. taking forever to choose a location) were exaggerated by the cameras so any TV show viewer familiar with reality show conventions should know better than to truly condemn Mann or (considering we have no reason to assume the camera weren't as drama-hungry for his counterpart) Brown.

The curious thing about the condemnations in online reviews and on message boards was the constant floating around in association with Mann of the most overused word of the year in TV criticism: "Privilege." Mann is a white, male and came off as petulant but that doesn't mean there's a correlation between those things or any on-screen evidence that he grew up pampered with wealth. It was even referenced in the season's second episode that Mann lived somewhat of an ascetic lifestyle to fund his projects. Some comments also surmised Mann was of unreasonable wealth because he went to film school, which I found disturbing for that criticism's undercurrents that taking the time to subjugate yourself to professors in an academic environment isn't something to be admired (and for ignoring the possibility that a person talented enough to win Project Greenlight wouldn't also be able to win an academic scholarship).

I suspect reviewers had difficulty divorcing their impressions of Jason and his overblown aspirations from the final product. If the job of a reviewer is to meet a film on its own terms and to discern what those terms are, the second part of that process is made extremely easy since Jason's obsessions with lighting and the fine details are well-documented.

Personally, I found plenty to like in "The Leisure Class." The HBO film (screened a night after the finale) was an admirable stab at a genre (a comedy of manners) that doesn't exist today outside of stage plays and period pieces set in Britain. By transplanting that style to an American setting, the film has something relevant to say about class in America and that's a pretty decent baseline for a comedic film. The film mostly succeeds at throwing twists and turns at each character to heighten the intensity of the hijinks as the night goes on.

The most interesting part of the viewing experience is deciding for yourself if each of the dramatic episodes behind the scenes made a difference in the final product. For example, there was a car crash that Mann and crew missed out on capturing the way he wanted due to logistical issues. Watching the film made me learn first-hand that I couldn't have cared less about the magnitude of the car crash. On the other hand, the last-minute decision to change rollerblading to pillow fighting in one of the film's later scenes did make a noticeable difference in my viewing experience. In that case, it would have given me a stronger visual image of two people running amok.

The chemistry between leads Ed Weeks and Tom Bell (something Jason Mann had to fight for) was also tangibly noticeable. The characters needed slightly better motivation, but acting salvaged quite a bit in my opinion.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Top 25 Acting Performances of 2009

I'm sure most readers can't distinguish between a 2009 and a 2010 film, but when you write about movies as often as I do you become kind of geeky about those things. Here's a random list of my 25 favorite performances of 2009 I wrote up in order to fill a slow day.

To review:
Oscar Best Picture nominees I saw: Avatar, Up in the Air, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, Blind Side, Up

Other award-worthy films I saw: Invcitus, Julie and Julia, Star Trek, In the Loop, 500 Days of Summer, Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes, Public Enemies, Hangover, Informant!, Me and Orson Welles

Award-worthy films I didn't see:
BP Nominees: Precious, Hurt Locker, An Education, Single Man
Also: Single Man, It's Complicated, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Messenger, Brothers, Young Victoria, Bright Star, Taking Woodstock, Nine, Last Station, Lovely Bones, Princess and the Frog, Moon
And the list:

1. Robert Downey Jr, Sherlock Holmes-There's certainly some genre bias in why he didn't go further in the Oscar race but if you take Downey's performance on its own terms, it's an incomparable performance of an iconic character. And, yes, there is a lot of comparison. Along with the Sherlock-influenced characters on TV (House and Monk) to come before, there have been at least three great performances (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, and recently Ian McKellen) since, yet this is the performance I remember. Robert Downey Jr. won a Golden Globe for his performance in the comedy category which is pretty fraudulent but it highlights the fact that performances in action features don't really fit into any box when evaluating a performance.

2. Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air-What I imagine when I think of a supporting role: Someone
interesting enough that you could imagine a whole movie being made about them. To the frequent-flyer protagonist, Farmiga's character is alluring. She speaks his language and could even be considered a perfect match. Underneath the veneer, however, her life is fraught with complications.

3. Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds-In this film, he has an obvious presence and this was just as a universally great performance for good reason. I like that he's not just pure evil but [SPOILER ALERT] takes a deal at the end. His mastery of all the different languages as a weapon obviously helps his cause to be shot towards the top of this list. Since this performance, he has been pigeonholed as a villain of uncharacteristic eloquence but he's a strong enough actor to deliver it with so many variations.

4. Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds-Although Inglourious Basterds claims to be an ensemble
film, it could easily be read as Shoshanna's journey. Laurent has a very quiet presence but a strong survival instinct and so many shades of her presence are visible in her journey: In particular, the fear of concealment is prevalent in her every moment on screen.

5. Rachel Weisz, The Brothers Bloom-Trying my best to distinguish between a bad movie and a good performance, I have to vault Weisz towards the top for a standout role in a film that failed to be memorable. Aside from learning all those skills for the purpose of that montage (ping pong, unicycling, rapping, what more could you want?), her character is so interesting in that she's socially stunted but so capable of socialization if given the right push. In this case, the reclusive character is given an introduction point to society that couldn't be worse (a trio of con artists) which makes her even more interesting.

6. Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia-Not a particularly eventful movie (Plot summary: If I remember correctly, the film's two plots are: a) one girl learns to blog and b) Meryl Streep imitates a historical figure for an easy Oscar nod), but it's Meryl Streep and she rarely does anything less than amazing.

7. Edgar Flores, Sin Nombre-I'm not one to spout on foreign films others haven't heard of as I average less than one foreign film a year, but I did happen to see this one and I can't deny the powerful performances here. Flores takes you on a journey of guilt, pragmatic redemption, and a hesitant survival instinct. He's a man born in Hell who sees the light late in life.

8. Sandra Bullock, Blind Side-I didn't mind the Oscar win here over Streep because this is a transformative role for Bullock that makes or breaks the movie. Bullock is a Southern belle of sorts but never dumbs herself down for the role. Bullock was always a popular box office draw but 2009 marked a year in which she suddenly began to be taken seriously as an actress. The Proposal was another film that showed her maturity in comedic roles this year.

9. Quinton Aaron, Blind Side-Bullock doesn't deserve sole credit. It's a two-part movie. Aaron's Michael Oher possesses a quiet gentleness that gets you on his side fast. There was a challenge here to portray the character as uneducated but not necessarily devoid of intellectual potential and Oher resistd temptation to simplify that dichotomy.

10. Robert Downey Jr., Soloist-Whereas some saw this is a standard feel-good filler on the movie calendar of 2009, this was my third favorite movie of the year so I thought pretty highly of the film already. While it seems logical that Foxx (who played a mentally ill artist) should be rated higher for the more flamboyant part, Downey Jr.'s typical persona- gruff exterior, good with words, internal demons hidden deep down- is used perfectly here and his arc was no less cathartic even if it was quieter than his counterpart. You also got the sense that he did his research into the life of a beat reporter.

11. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 500 Days of Summer-This was Gordon-Levitt's breakout role as a star
and shows off his grandiose theatricality even in its quieter moments. Gordon-Levitt is so infectious here with his youthful optimism that you forget that his views on love (at least with regard to Summer) are misguided and self-destructive (by JGL's own admission).

12. Zoe Saldana, Star Trek-The entire ensemble of Star Trek deserves a lot of credit for creating wholly original dramatic struggles while retaining the essence of the characters they're modeled after. I could pick any one of the seven leads from the film and put them in my top 25 but I'll limit myself to one and just go with Saldana who took what was originally thankless part (saved from being forgettable solely by the performance of Nichelle Nicholls) and made it a star attraction. Shipping her in a relationship with an emotionless half-alien didn't hurt in raising the degree of difficulty either.

13. Jamie Foxx, Soloist-Foxx is one of the most consistently on actors in my opinion and he always seems to make my Oscar wishlists for even minor performances (Dream Girls and Jarhead). His performance is Oscar-baity here but I give it points for being very close to his real-life counterpart (I've seen documentary footage on Nathaniel Ayres).

14. Ed Asner, Up-I generally don't believe that a voice-over performance is comparable to a live action role and should not be considered for awards buzz. Scarlett Johansson was someone who made me consider that rule of mine with Her. However, I realized when making this list that Johansson isn't my favorite voice performance of all-time but this is. Asner's role in this film was make-or-break and the emotional ride you felt from this movie can only be attributed to him.

15. Daniel Bruhl, Inglourious Basterds-Creepy is generally an overused word, but it's definitely apt for this character here who's underhanded bragging and dogged pursuit of Shoshanna makes him
someone you're hoping will be shot down (in the literal sense) sooner or later.

16. Tom Hollander, In the Loop-Peter Capaldi was the man who generated the most Oscar-buzz from this awesome film but I prefer Hollander because he's the straight man in the middle of this circus of snide insults and brown-nosing. His look of defeat at the end of the film says so much.

17. George Clooney, Up in the Air-I've had a long-standing belief that George Clooney is not only overrated but over-celebrated to the point where I want to pull my hair out whenever I see a softball interview with the man. However, of his four Oscar nominations, I'll maintain that he most definitely deserves two of them. Although he repeats a lot of the same beats (world-weariness, graying charm), he really sold the hell out of them on an emotional level and bought something new here. Jason Reitman did more with Clooney than Alexander Payne did in my opinion.

18. Matt Damon, Informant-For a long time, I adored Matt Damon in this film until I realized it's the genius of the character and not the actor that makes the film great. The film stands out because of its unreliable narrator at the center. His speech inside his head and the world outside his head do not align and that's something. However, I don't know if that takes a great performance of a schizophrenic to pull this off. I'd imagine it's substantially easier to just voice a character of different temperament in the recording booth after acting out your scenes as a different character.

19. Paulina Gaitan, Sin Nombre-Another wonderful performance from a film whose director, Cary Fukunaga, might soon become a bigger name with the buzz for Beasts of No Nation. Gaitan plays a teenager being smuggled across the US/Mexico border who makes a seemingly fatal mistake by drifting away from her family and following an ex-gangster. It's a massive twist in the story and Gaitan pulls it off with a lot of consistency.

20. Tilda Swinton, Julia-I would not call this a watchable film by any means. It's a dreary trip about a troubled woman. But how can you (reluctantly) deny that playing a troubled woman like Julia takes a lot of work.

21. Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air-I love Anna Kendrick and the best I can say about this part is that this film made me a fan of her. However, I don't think her arc was particularly complex.

22. Amy Adams, Night at the Museum 2-Great performances can be found in popcorn films. If Cate Blanchett can win for an imitation of Katherine Hepburn, why can't Amy Adams at least receive a little bit of recognition in channeling her so perfectly for this fun romp?

23. Sharlto Copley, District 9-I might be grading on the curve here but this guy deserves a lot of praise for what is essentially a debut performance with minimal acting background. In this movie, he spends most of his screentime opposite a crudely-costumed giant squid-mouthed insect, and plays those moments with complete seriousness and even leaves an emotional residue. That's not easy to pull off.

24. Melanie Lynskey, Up in the Air-I've always admired Melanie Lynskey in a number of her roles.
As Ryan Bingham's sister, she possesses that kind of quiet reserve that she does best. 

25. Saul Rubineck, Julia-Again, this is not a very entertaining film and I don't recommend people see it, but if you DO see it, you will notice that Rubineck (the guy who played Daphne's boyfriend on Frasier) plays well of Tilda Swinton with a lot off tension and spark.