The TV Set (2006, directed by Jake Kasdan)

Mike Klein (David Duchovny) is a scriptwriter who suffers from chronic backpain and whose wife (Justine Bateman) is pregnant.  Mike has developed an autobiographical TV dramedy about a young man trying to come to terms with the suicide of his brother.  He’s sold it to one of the networks but, when he tries to shoot the pilot, he watches as his original concept is continually compromised and diluted by Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), the president of the network.  After rejecting Mike’s choice for the lead role because the actor had a beard, Lenny forces him to cast Zack Harper (Fran Kranz), a mugging young actor who lets pre-stardom go to his head.  Lenny continues to change Mike’s concept until he can barely even recognize his pilot.  Will Mike be able to retain his vision or will network TV continue to be dominated by shows like Slut Wars?

Occasionally, you’ll see a film that was obviously made by a writer/director who was obviously looking to settle some old scores with the studio execs that he had to deal with in the past.  Christopher Guest’s first film as a director was The Big Picture, a sharp and clever satire with Kevin Bacon as a film student who discovers there’s little he won’t compromise on to get his film made.  Before Guest’s film, Blake Edwards lost a fortune making a film called S.O.B. because he wanted to get back at the people who he blamed for ruining Darling Lili.  Continuing the tradition of those films but moving the action to the networks, The TV Set was directed by Jake Kasdan, the son of Lawrence Kasdan.  Jake worked on a number of TV shows with Judd Apatow (most famously, Freaks and Geeks) and The TV Set feels like his chance to get revenge on any number of real-life studio execs.  It’s an insider’s view of what’s wrong with television but sometimes it becomes such an insider’s view that it becomes hard to relate to Mike and or really care about his show, which sounded pretty bad even before the network suits got involved.  Too often, it feels like the movie itself is more about settling personal grudges than saying anything about the state of television.

The TV Set has got a large cast, some of whom manage to create an interesting character despite Kasdan’s overstuffed script.  I especially liked Judy Greer, who played Mike’s always-positive agent.  I got the feeling that we were supposed to be as annoyed with Greer’s character as Mike often was but Greer gives such an energetic performance that it’s impossible to dislike her, no matter how far she went in her attempts to always put a positive spin on the bad news coming from the set of Mike’s pilot.  I also like Fran Kranz and Lindsay Sloane, who played the two actors forced on Mike by the studio.  Indeed, probably one of the film’s biggest problems is that all of the characters that we’re supposed to find annoying are played such likable actors that it’s hard to really sympathize with Mike when he starts complaining about them.  David Duchovny sleepwalks through the role of Mike but he’s not helped by a script that can never seem to decide if Mike’s supposed to be a visionary or just a hopeless naïve victim of the industry.

The TV Set, which was made a few years before the start of the streaming revolution, ends with a warning that television will soon be full of shows like Slut Wars and there won’t be any room for artists like Mike Klein.  The TV Set wasn’t wrong but what it failed to predict was that there would soon be other platforms on which the Mike Kleins of the word could broadcast their shows.

Film Review: Mass (dir by Fran Kranz)

As we all know, this year’s Sundance Film Festival started tonight.

To me, Sundance has always signified the official start of a new cinematic year.  Not only is it the first of the major festivals but it’s also when we first learn about the films that we’ll be looking forward to seeing all year.  It seems like every year, there’s at least one successful (or nearly successful) Oscar campaign that gets it start at Sundance.  Last year, for instance, Minari took Sundance by storm and it was able to ride that momentum all the way to a Best Picture nomination.  Before that, nominees like Manchester By The Sea and Brooklyn got their starts at Sundance.

And, even if their films weren’t nominated for best picture, some of the most important filmmakers of the past few decades got their first exposure at Sundance.  The Coen Brothers first won notice with Blood Simple.  Years later, Quentin Tarantino took the festival by storm with Reservoir Dogs.  Though an argument can be made that Sundance is now just as corporate as the Hollywood system to which it’s supposed to providing an alternative, one can’t deny the importance of the Festival.

For the next few days, I’m going to taking a look at a few films that made their initial splash at Sundance.  Some of these films went on to become award winners and some did not.  But they’re all worth your attention, one way or another.

Take for instance, Mass.

The first directorial effort of actor Fran Kranz (you may remember him as the clever and genre-savvy stoner from The Cabin In The Woods), Mass made its debut at least year’s Sundance Film Festival.  It was one of the more critically acclaimed films of the festival and, in a perfect world, it would currently be an Oscar front runner.  And who knows?  There’s always a chance that Mass could pick up a nomination or two.  Ann Dowd is apparently running a very energetic campaign for Best Supporting Actress and she’s said to be well-liked in the industry.  It’s probably a bit too much to expect the film to be nominated for Best Picture, though it certainly deserves some consideration.  It’s perhaps a bit too low-key for a year that’s full of bombast and big emotional moments.  It’s a film that raises interesting questions but refuses to provide easy answers.  In short, it’s the type of film that, ten years from now, people will watch it and say, “How did this not get nominated?”  Even if it’s not a Sundance film that’s destined for the Oscars, it is a Sundance film that will be remembered for heralding the arrival of a vibrant new directorial talent.

Playing out in almost real time, Mass is a film about two couples having a very emotional conversation.  Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) are the parents of Hayden.  Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) are the parents of Evan.  Hayden and Evan went to the same high school.  Years ago, Evan was killed in a school shooting.  Hayden was the shooter.  After killing ten students, Hayden killed himself.

The two couples are meeting in a room in the back of a church.  It’s a part of therapy.  They meet and they talk about their children and the events that led to the shooting.  Jay and Gail demand answers.  Richard and Linda can’t provide them.  At first, Gail is angry and Jay is the one who tries to keep things civil but, as the conversation continues, it becomes obvious that Jay is in fact angrier than Gail. Even when Richard and Linda express obviously sincere remorse for what Hayden did, Jay cannot accept it because, in a way, he needs them to be evil or ignorant or both.  Linda and Richard struggles to reconcile their love for their son with their hatred over what he did.  Gail and Jay feel that their son was unfairly taken from them and they’re right.  Richard and Linda feel that they’re being blamed for something they couldn’t control and they’re also right.  There are no easy villains or heroes in this film.  Instead, there are just four unique and interesting characters, all trying to understand something that makes no sense.

Almost everything we learn about the characters comes from listening to them speak.  Almost the entire film takes place in that one room.  By the end of the film, not a single character is who you originally believed them to be.  Jay’s search for meaning has led to him becoming a political activist.  He insists that there has to be some sort of identifiable reason to explain why his son is dead, even though he secretly realizes that there isn’t.  Gail, who starts out as the angriest person in the room, reveals herself to be the most empathetic.  At the start of the film, Jay accuses Richard of not having any emotions but, by the end, we see that Richard’s emotions are very real.  Finally, Linda seems meek but quickly reveals herself to be perhaps the strongest and most honest person in the room.

It may sound a bit stagey, this film that takes place in one room and which is basically just four characters having a conversation.  But director Fran Kranz does a wonderful job keeping the story moving and the conversation within the room never seems to drag.  Indeed, the room itself is almost as fascinating as any of the people inside of it.  At the start the film, we watch two church employees and social worker going out of their way to make the room as safe and non-confrontational as possible.  However, their efforts have the opposite effect.  The room is so friendly that it makes it impossible not to compare its pleasantness with the issues being discussed behind the room’s closed doors.  The room itself tries so hard to avoid confrontation that it has the opposite effect.

In the end, the film suggests that there are no neat answers.  Even though the two couples come to an understanding and even a sort of peace, there’s no guarantee that peace will last more than a day.  Indeed, as soon as they leave the room, their initial awkwardness returns, a reminder that we can understand pain but we can’t necessarily vanquish it.  It’s not a film about easy answers but there’s something liberating about the film’s willingness to acknowledge that life can be difficult but that life also goes on.

The film is a masterclass of good acting, with Dowd and Isaacs getting the biggest dramatic moments while Birney and Plimpton offer fantastic support.  In a perfect Oscar world, all four of them would be nominated and so would the film itself.  Unfortunately, one of the lessons of Mass is that there is no such thing as a perfect world.

Here Are the 2021 Nominations of the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics!

The Washington D.C. Area Film Critics have announced their nominees for the best of 2021!  The winners will be announced tomorrow so that means you have exactly one day to see all the nominees.  GET TO IT!

Best Film
The Green Knight
The Power of the Dog
tick, tick…BOOM!
West Side Story

Best Director
Kenneth Branagh – Belfast
Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog
David Lowery – The Green Knight
Steven Spielberg – West Side Story
Denis Villeneuve – Dune

Best Actor
Nicolas Cage – Pig
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog
Andrew Garfield – tick, tick…BOOM!
Will Smith – King Richard
Denzel Washington – The Tragedy of Macbeth

Best Actress
Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter
Nicole Kidman – Being the Ricardos
Lady Gaga – House of Gucci
Kristen Stewart – Spencer
Tessa Thompson – Passing

Best Supporting Actor
Jamie Dornan – Belfast
Ciarán Hinds – Belfast
Troy Kotsur – CODA
Jesse Plemons – The Power of the Dog
Kodi Smit-McPhee – The Power of the Dog

Best Supporting Actress
Caitríona Balfe – Belfast
Ariana DeBose – West Side Story
Ann Dowd – Mass
Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog
Aunjanue Ellis – King Richard

Best Acting Ensemble
The French Dispatch
The Harder They Fall
The Power of the Dog

Best Youth Performance
Jude Hill – Belfast
Emilia Jones – CODA
Woody Norman – C’mon, C’mon
Saniyya Sidney – King Richard
Rachel Zegler – West Side Story

Best Voice Performance
Awkwafina – Raya and the Last Dragon
Stephanie Beatriz – Encanto
Abbi Jacobson – The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Kelly Marie Tran – Raya and the Last Dragon
Jacob Tremblay – Luca

Best Original Screenplay
Kenneth Branagh – Belfast
Mike Mills – C’mon, C’mon
Zach Baylin – King Richard
Paul Thomas Anderson – Licorice Pizza
Fran Kranz – Mass

Best Adapted Screenplay
Siân Heder – CODA
Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth – Dune
Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog
Steven Levenson – tick, tick…BOOM!
Tony Kushner – West Side Story

Best Animated Feature
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Raya and the Last Dragon

Best Documentary
The First Wave
The Rescue
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Best International/Foreign Language Film
Drive My Car
A Hero
The Worst Person in the World

Best Production Design
Jim Clay, Production Designer; Claire Nia Richards, Set Decorator – Belfast
Patrice Vermette, Production Designer; Richard Roberts and Zsuzsanna Sipos, Set Decorators – Dune
Adam Stockhausen, Production Designer; Rena DeAngelo, Set Decorator – The French Dispatch
Tamara Deverell, Production Designer; Shane Vieau, Set Decorator – Nightmare Alley
Adam Stockhausen, Production Designer; Rena DeAngelo, Set Decorator – West Side Story

Best Cinematography
Haris Zambarloukos – Belfast
Greig Fraser – Dune
Andrew Droz Palermo – The Green Knight
Ari Wegner – The Power of the Dog
Bruno Delbonnel – The Tragedy of Macbeth

Best Editing
Úna Ní Dhonghaíle – Belfast
Joe Walker – Dune
Andrew Weisblum – The French Dispatch
Peter Sciberras – The Power of the Dog
Myron Kerstein & Andrew Weisblum – tick, tick…BOOM!

Best Original Score
Bryce Dessner & Aaron Dessner – Cyrano
Hans Zimmer – Dune
Alexandre Desplat – The French Dispatch
Jonny Greenwood – The Power of the Dog
Jonny Greenwood – Spencer

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: The Dark Tower (dir by Nikolaj Arcel)

What the Hell was The Dark Tower about, anyway?

It’s a legitimate question.  I know that the film was technically a continuation of Stephen King’s overrated Dark Tower books.  Matthew McConaughey was Walter, the Man in the Black, the man who is kidnapping psychic children so that he can weaponize their powers and destroy The Dark Tower.  Idris Elba was Roland, the last of the gunslingers, who is obsessed with killing Walter because Walter killed his father.  And Tom Taylor is Jake, an eleven year-old boy who lives in New York City and who keeps having visions of the Tower, Walter, and Roland.  Walter wants Jake.  Roland wants Walter.  Jake wants to understand it all…

And that’s pretty much the entire movie.  Jake switches back and forth between his world and Roland’s world.  Walter occasionally pops up in New York so that he can kill Jake’s family and assure that Jake won’t have any reason not to continue traveling with Roland at the end of the movie.  It all basically feels like the pilot for a television series and, to be honest, it probably wouldn’t be that bad of a show.  For one thing, if The Dark Tower was a tv show, there would be more of an opportunity to develop the characters of Roland, Walter, and Tom.  The Dark Tower movie only last 95 minutes and the majority of those minutes feel very rushed.

Obviously, if you’ve read Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, this film will be easier for you to follow than it will be for people who have never had to suffer through them.  I know I’m in the minority as far as this is concerned but I find The Dark Tower series to be King at his most pretentious.  Interestingly enough, a little bit of pretension probably would have helped the film version of The Dark Tower.  As it is, The Dark Tower is almost too workmanlike and straight-forward.  It could have really used a pointless Stephen King-style soliloquy about faith, innocence, and horror.  At the very least, they could have had someone in the background, droning on about politics in a Maine accent.

I have to admit that I really, really, really wanted to like The Dark Tower.  I love Idris Elba.  I love Matthew McConaughey.  Even more importantly, I love being a contrarian.  Whenever a film gets as many negative reviews as The Dark Tower, my natural instinct is always to assume that it has to be a secret masterpiece.  I mean, seriously, who trusts critics?  I really wanted to watch The Dark Tower and then write a 1,000-word defense of it.  I was hoping that, much like The Counselor, it would turn out to be a masterpiece that only I could recognize.

Sadly, that didn’t turn out to be the case.  I will say that Matthew McConaughey seemed to be having a sincerely good time playing the bad guy.  And Idris Elba had just the right mix of weariness and compassion to play Roland.  But otherwise, the movie just felt so pointless.

Overall, this has been a pretty good year for Stephen King film adaptations.  It deserves to be nominated for an Oscar, though it won’t be.  Gerald’s Game made people thankful for Netflix.  The Dark Tower, though, will be quickly forgotten.

Music Video of the Day: The Golden Path by The Chemical Brothers, featuring The Flaming Lips (2003, dir by Chris Milk)

The Golden Path is one of my favorite songs of all time.

I’ve been listening to it a lot this weekend, while thinking about friends and loved ones who left this world far too early.  On a normal day, the combination of Wayne Coyne’s sincere delivery of “How and why did I die?” and the song’s closing chorus of “Please forgive me, I never meant to hurt you!” makes me emotional.  This weekend, it’s literally brought tears to my eyes.

(Interestingly enough, in an interview with the Guardian, Coyne said the following about recording the vocals for The Golden Path:  “We recorded our part very quickly, almost flippantly, like we’d get a second chance. Then Tom and Ed left a message within 20 minutes of receiving the tape. You could hear them jumping up and down in the background, shouting ‘We’re ecstatic.'”)

As for the video, it’s actually pretty simple.  An office drone fantasizes of a colorful world beyond his gray existence.  The dreamer is played by Fran Kranz, who you might recognize as the stoner from The Cabin In The Woods.  This video was the first to be directed by Chris Milk.


(Val should be back tomorrow!)

Trailer: Much Ado About Nothing

There’s finally a trailer out about the little film that Joss Whedon made while doing post on his previous little film called The Avengers.

Much Ado About Nothing is a modern and Whedon’s own interpretation of the classic William Shakespeare comedic play. Filmed over the span of 12 days in Whedon’s own Santa Monica home, the film has a cast of Whedom alumni who either has worked with the writer-director on one of his tv series or in his films. The trailer itself has a coolness factor that has to be part jazz used in the trailer and half seeing all the familiar faces Whedon fans have come to know and love through the years like Amy Acker, Alex Denisof, Nathan Fillion and, more recently, Clark Gregg.

Much Ado About Nothing premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival  and will make it’s North American wide release on the date of June 7, 2013.

**Spoilers** Review of The Cabin In The Woods

Originally I wasn’t going watch this because of pathological hatred of Zucking Fombies. Fortunately, Arleigh told me that it was more than those wretched Zucking Fombies. The Cabin In The Woods is sheer brilliance because Whedon and Goddard turned the tired and cliched horror formula on its ear. Their collaboration freed us from the oppression of torture porn and loathsome gore for the sake of gory credo.

**Spoilers begin here**

In this film world, every horror film nightmare creature from the shambling zombies to snarling werewolf to a Cenobite analogue to Lovecraftian elder gods exist.  As a fan of Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer series, I couldn’t help but see similarities between the TCITW’s world and the world of the Slayer.  So the description, “It’s like an episode of Buffy with gore, cussing, and naughty bits, but no Buffy Summers” is pretty accurate. The presence of Amy Acker (Winifred “Fred” Burkle) from Angel fame cemented this opinion. The film cast could easily be stand-ins for the Scoobies with Marty playing Xander Harris, David as Riley, Dana as Willow, etc. The mysterious shadow organization could easily be division of Wolfram & Hart and the slumbering elder gods could replace the Senior Partners as well as Buffy’s Big Bad. I found it interesting and clever that the token victims served as the required sacrifice to appease slumbering boogie men because it explained why the fool, the virgin, the scholar, the jock, and the party girl are always the victims of horror movies. I also loved that the grumpy old man that cryptically warns the kids also served a purpose.

The film is also reminiscent of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe in the sense that the evil and violence had a higher purpose.  The nightmare creatures could easily be Ogrdu Hem carrying out the will of their parents, the Ogdru Jahad. The secret organization had the dual role of the BPRD and Rasputin.  They were like the BPRD in the sense they prevented the end of the world and captured/contained/employed the things that go bump in the night. They were like Rasputin because they reverenced the elder beings and paid them annual tribute.

Found the following things interesting:

  1. The plot to keep the elder gods happy was a global one (other nations like Japan were involved).
  2. The wide range of monsters that the organization captured (made me wonder how they were able to capture the most lethal ones like the Cenobite wannabe, werewolf, soul stealing ghost, etc).
  3. The causal office vibe the organization had despite their morbid mission.
  4. The elder gods represented the audience/horror audience (an interesting point brought to my attention by a friend)

Quickie Review: The Cabin in The Woods (dir. by Drew Goddard)

“If you hear a strange sound outside… have sex.”

If there was one thing the meltdown and subsequent bankruptcy of MGM ended doing it was shelving the Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon horror film The Cabin in The Woods for almost three years. The film was directed by Goddard who also helped co-write the screenplay with Joss Whedon and what we get is one of the smartest and most innovative horror films to come in over a decade. For fans of the tv shows Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel (not to mention Dollhouse) this horror film just reinforces the notion that Joss Whedon knows how to write smart dialogue and premises without ever getting too self-referential and deconstructionist (I’m looking at you Kevin Williamson) or too smart-talky (a stank-eye at you Aaron Sorkin).

There’s really no way to properly review The Cabin in The Woods without spoiling the films many different surprises and twists and turns. I will say that the film does a peculiar opening that focuses not on the five college students headed to the cabin in the woods of the film’s title, but on two men (Richard  Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in your typical office attire doing the walk and talk about family home life and the like. We see that they’re technicians in an unnamed industrial facility that wouldn’t look out of place in one of the many governmental facilities we often see in film. The film will return to these two men and their facilities and other people working within often in addition to telling the story of the five college students and the growing danger they find themselves in as night falls in the woods.

To say anymore would definitely be a spoiler.

I will continue on and say that for a horror film written to self-reference other horror film conventions and tropes what Goddard and Whedon have ultimately done was celebrate the genre itself and how much of an impact it has had in society. Unlike films like the Scream franchise, The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t knowingly wink at the audience about how cool it is for pointing out all the horror cliches and stereotypes we’ve come to expect in the horror genre. Instead the film actually treats its audience to be smart enough to see the homage to past horror films both good and bad without ever drawing attention to the fact that they’re pointed out.

Another thing which makes this film so fun to watch is how much every character in the film comes across as fully realized individuals. Even the college students who we first think of as your typical horror film stereotypes (the jock, the slut, the virgin, the brain and the stoner) end up being more than we’re led to believe. All of this actually occurs right in the beginning and this helps the audience join in on the fun that both Goddard and Whedon are having in turning the horror genre on its head right up to it’s surprising conclusion. It helps that the cast did quite a great job realizing their characters. As the film progresses we even begin to get a sense that who the villains in the film may or may not be who we think.

There’s a sense of fun and the darkly comic to the film as well. Every one-liner and comedic beats we get throughout the film doesn’t have a sense of the cynical to them. It comes across through dialogue and actions by both groups in the film in such a natural way that they never make those saying the lines break the fourth wall. Most films that try to deconstruct genre films tend to get too cutesy with the breaking the fourth wall gimmick that the audience can’t help but be pulled out of the suspension of disbelief they’ve put themselves in. This has a way of making such genre films less fun and celebratory and more of making fun of the people who enjoy such things.

The Cabin in The Woods manages that rare accomplishment of being a horror film that retains not just the horrific aspect of the genre but also add such a darkly comic sense to the whole proceeding with such a deft touch from Goddard and Whedon that we don’t know whether to call it straight horror or a horror-comedy. Some might even see the film as an entertaining treatise on the nature of the horror film genre of the last quarter-century. Both Goddard and Whedon have already called this film as their answer to the current trend of the “torture porn” that was popularized with the help of such recent horror franchises like Hostel, Saw and those made by Rob Zombie. Where those films celebrated the concept of inflicting pain not just on the characters on the screen but those who watch them with The Cabin in The Woods we finally get a reminder why we love the horror films of the past. It’s through the sense of that adrenaline rush that a tension build-up leading to a horror money shot but without becoming overly gratuitious and reveling in the pain of the horror.

Some have said that The Cabin in The Woods is the best horror film of 2012. I won’t even argue with that statement since it is true. I will put it out there that Cabin in The Woods might just be one of the best films of 2012. The film is just that fun, smart and, overall, just plain awesome.

[I usually attach a trailer to reviews but this time doing it could spoil some of the surprises in the film]