Sunday, May 31, 2009

If only the recession was a mass hallucination ...

Last fall, financial experts retroactively proclaimed December 2007 to be the official beginning of the recession that's, well, still receding. But guess who predicted the financial crash right as it was starting? Weirdo musicians, of course!

In the December '07 issue of Spin magazine, David Marchese profiled psych-pop band MGMT. "Last winter," he wrote, "MGMT began to think the world might end. So Andrew Vanwyngarden and Ben Goldwasser did what any reasonable neo-hippie music majors would do: They decamped to a desolate sliver of Brooklyn and concocted some seriously freaky songs. 'Something’s about to go down,' explains Goldwasser.... 'Things are going to change in a way nobody will be able to fix.' Vanwyngarden concurs. 'The apocalypse is in the zeitgeist,' he says.... 'But it doesn’t have to be about death and destruction; it could be the shattering of a mass hallucination ... where the human race realizes its true potential!'"

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sam Worthington has a terrific agent.

Who's Sam Worthington, you ask? Exactly. I'm pretty sure I've never heard of him before, but his name’s above the title, right next to Christian Bale's, on posters and billboards for Terminator: Salvation. I haven't seen a single TV ad yet that links his name to a face, but make no mistake—Sam Worthington's agent is the best agent in the whole wide world, and later this year the Australian actor will appear in Avatar, James Cameron's first feature film since Titanic 12 years ago. (Cameron also directed the first two Terminator films.)

Most publications are spelling the new Terminator movie's name without a colon before the word "salvation," but I refuse. Call me a punctuation maverick if you want (seriously—I need some sort of notoriety), but without that colon in the middle I start getting my hopes up about a sci-fi epic that centers on deadly cyborgs attending church together. Sounds like fun, but I know I'll be disappointed once I take my seat in the theater, because despite the contrast of religion and science that's implicit in Terminator: Salvation's name, I doubt any robots will be baptized, unless you count "by fire."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

handsome people being funny, funny people being serious

In the April 24-26 edition of USA Weekend, actor Seth Rogen (Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, Monsters Vs. Aliens) was asked, "If you were the opposite sex but had the same gifts and qualities, how would things be different?" He replied, "I would've had a much more difficult time being an unconventional-looking woman. I think being an unconventional-looking man is fine. Most of my favorite comedians have been weird-looking: Bill Murray, John Candy, Buster Keaton. It's almost embraced in the male world. People don't want their comedy from a real handsome guy."

In the May 1-3 edition of USA Weekend, actor Eric Bana (Hulk, Munich, Star Trek) was interviewed. He started out as a stand-up and sketch comedian in Australia in the '90s before making the leap to dramatic roles with the 2000 film Chopper. Bana is not an unconventional-looking man. He is a handsome man. And up until Funny People, which comes out July 31, he hadn't been cast in any comedies.

Bana uses his native Australian accent in Funny People, which has him competing with Adam Sandler for the affections of Leslie Mann, because handsome men are funny men's enemies. Sandler stars in the film as a famous actor and former stand-up comedian who's dying of a rare blood disorder.

Sandler himself is a famous actor who, like Bana, started out as a stand-up and sketch comedian. But Sandler is not a conventionally handsome man. Which is why he mostly makes comedies. But, like all clowns who cry on the inside, he wants to be taken seriously, so he continues to make dramas like Reign Over Me (2007) and comedy-dramas such as Spanglish (2004) even though his juvenile-comedy fans tend to skip those films in theaters. You can't blame him for wanting to stretch and not do the same movie again and again, but he won't know until August if his fans find Funny People to be too much drama, not enough comedy. Same for Judd Apatow, the film's writer-director, who's also trying to stretch.

In Funny People Bana and Sandler costar with Rogen, also a former stand-up, who recently slimmed down for his role in a remake of the 1960s TV series The Green Hornet. Rogen's character is supposed to be vain, hence the weight loss, but some fans and critics see it as a betrayal of the actor's everyman "schlub" persona. Slimming down is a healthy move for anyone who's overweight, but in the world of comedy, unfortunately, it can be viewed as a highly conventional move.

You can't kill a good series. Not the first time, anyway.

It was announced last week that NBC's fall lineup will include a one-hour series based on the 1989 Ron Howard film Parenthood, which centered on the extended Buckman family and its many problems. Some of those problems were comical, while others weren't—the film is fondly remembered by fans like myself for mixing comedy and drama with ease, leading to quietly devastating moments like the one in which Jason Robards, as the Buckman patriarch, lets his biracial grandson "Cool" know that his gambling-addict father, played by Tom Hulce, isn't coming back for him.

Steve Martin headed up the film's large cast, which also included Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Rick Moranis, and a young Joaquin Phoenix, back when he was being billed as "Leaf Phoenix." The new series is headed up by Peter Krause, the star of previous series like Sports Night, Six Feet Under, and Dirty Sexy Money, but the Buckmans are now the Bravermans, and Gil (Martin) is now Adam (Krause).

Parenthood has already been converted into a TV show once before, though it met with little success: debuting in August 1990, also on NBC, the half-hour version was canceled after 12 episodes. Ed Begley Jr. played Gil Buckman, and a 15-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio played Phoenix's part. (NBC also debuted a small-screen version of Ferris Bueller's Day Off that fall, costarring Jennifer Aniston. It too was quickly canceled.)

Remakes of movies are common—and expected by audiences—and TV-series adaptations of hit movies aren't uncommon either (M*A*S*H and Clueless, for example, though Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a series was much more popular than the film it was based on). But when a series that was canceled after a handful of episodes is brought back years later by its creator, albeit with a new cast playing the original characters, that's not so common.

A recent example is Cupid, which aired on ABC during the 1998-'99 season and was canceled after 14 episodes. It starred Jeremy Piven (Entourage) as a man convinced he's the god of love, and Paula Marshall (Gary Unmarried) as his therapist. The series' short life was profiled in David Wild's 1999 book The Showrunners.

In March the new version of Cupid debuted, also on ABC, with Bobby Cannavale (Will & Grace) and Sarah Paulson (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) playing the leads created 11 years earlier by executive producer Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars). The new Cupid airs its sixth episode tonight, but it's not expected to be renewed for next season due to low ratings, so the series' second coming will most likely end next week with episode number seven.

Cupid's revival reminded me that back in 2000 the David Frankel-created series Grapevine was dusted off and given a new cast on CBS, which originally ran it as a summer replacement series in the summer of '92; in fact I still have one of those episodes on tape. Grapevine 1.0 was fun, breezy summer entertainment, with Frankel, a New Yorker, channeling Woody Allen's wit but setting his stories about modern romance in Miami rather than the Big Apple. Three main characters would talk to an offscreen interviewer in each episode about their various friends' love lives, with the narration setting up scenes of the friends—Paula Marshall guest-starred in one episode—flirting, dating, going to bed with each other, cheating on each other, etc. (Frankel must really like Miami: his feature-film directorial debut was 1995's Miami Rhapsody, and he filmed parts of his most recent film, last December's Marley & Me, in the area.)

It's probably for the best that Grapevine only lasted six episodes in '92; its half-sitcom, half-anthology hybrid format had its charms, but it may have grown tiresome over an entire 22-episode season, with viewers wondering "Who are these people, and why are they so eager to gossip about their friends' love lives in front of a camera?" But in the spring of 2000 was revived, possibly because Frankel missed Miami, or maybe because CBS wanted a show like Friends that featured lots of good-looking twenty- and thirtysomethings cracking jokes and hooking up. (In this version Steven Eckholdt played the character of David, whereas eight years prior he played Thumper, David's younger brother. Only on TV will you ever meet a man named Thumper—twice.) I remember seeing only one episode of Grapevine 2.0, but the original version's charms were gone. The second coming lasted only five episodes.

Parenthood, Cupid, and Grapevine are rare examples of TV writer-producers getting another chance to rework an old idea that either didn't live up to its full potential the first time around, was the victim of a bad time slot—Cupid 1.0 aired on Saturday nights—or didn't have the right casting. The temptation to revisit a good idea that could've become a great show must be strong, even if 19 years have passed, as is the case with Parenthood. But are there even more regrets for the shows' creators the second time around if the idea still doesn't court favor with the public? Grapevine is long gone and Cupid is almost gone. Time will tell if Parenthood's "do-over" on TV gets a similar reaction, but it's doubtful any of them will receive a green light for another go-round based on their creators' pitch to the networks that "the third time's the charm."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

running bravely from momentum-killing minutiae

I love facts and figures, but they often get in the way of the point I'm trying to make when I'm writing. (Their fault, not mine, of course. Hmm ... these parentheticals tend to get in the way too, don't they?) Here are the "deleted scenes" from my recent Popdose post about gay marriage and the 1986 action-comedy Running Scared.

(1) Chicago's James R. Thompson Center, formerly the State of Illinois Center, is located one block down from the Cook County Building, where the climax of The Blues Brothers was shot 30 years ago.

(2) Running Scared's narrative is supposed to take place in November and December, so fake snow is sprayed on trees, cars, and street surfaces in some scenes. But because filming began in mid-September, a week before summer was officially over, green leaves are still visible on some of those trees, which generally isn't the case in Chicago by the end of the calendar year.

(3) The screenplay is credited to Gary DeVore and Jimmy Huston, with DeVore receiving an additional "story by" credit. Because he did uncredited rewrite work on Timecop, Sudden Death (both starred "the Muscles from Brussels," Jean-Claude Van Damme), and The Relic, three of Peter Hyams's films from the '90s, I'm going to guess he's the one who worked with the director to rewrite Huston's original script, instead of the other way around. The rules the Writers Guild of America uses to determine final screen credit and whose name goes where are complicated, to say the least. DeVore died in a car accident in 1997, but because of the mysterious nature of the accident, his body wasn't found until more than a year later. Entertainment Weekly described the action-film screenwriter as having "a bit of a cowboy streak."

(4) I had completely forgotten about the Rod Temperton Beat Wagon's existence as a "band"—it performs "Never Too Late to Start," which is played over the closing credits—until I watched Running Scared again. When I was 16 I wrote and recorded a novelty song called "Mr. Sporangiophore" with a friend, and I convinced him to call our "band" the Jonathan Vance Beat Wagon for the sake of our one-off project. Temperton must've been racing to complete all the songs in time for the film's final edit when an assistant asked him, "Who do you want the song Tommy Funderburk sings to be credited to?" As an ambulance wailed in the distance, he responded, "Uh ... the Rod Temperton Meat Wagon. No, wait—Beat Wagon. Yeah, that sounds more musical.")

Temperton had a good quote about songwriting in the Yorkshire Post three years ago: "You have to please yourself first. Once you feel the hairs stand up on the back of your hand—you can go for the world. Writing a song is the biggest moment of all. Yesterday it didn't exist. Today it does."

(5) After watching the film again, I wondered if a sequel was ever commissioned. Well, for one thing, Running Scared made $38 million in the summer of ‘86, which wasn’t boffo B.O. even then. (The number-one film that summer was Top Gun, which grossed $176 million, or $340 million when adjusted for today’s ticket prices.) But Lethal Weapon made $65 million at theaters the following spring and then became a huge hit on video and cable, paving the way for Lethal Weapon 2 to rake in $147 million in the summer of ‘89.

Was Running Scared a hit on video? I can’t find any figures, but IMDB and Wikipedia claim that one was developed, with Hines and Crystal chasing criminals in Paris. Gay Paree? Oui. (Wikipedia states: “Around the time of the original home video release of Running Scared … MGM announced that there definitely was a sequel forthcoming for the following year, taking the characters to Europe. A promotional photo showed Hines and Crystal in front of the Eiffel Tower.”) “Still Running” never came to fruition, though, supposedly because its stars didn’t like the scripts they read that placed Ray and Danny in the City of Lights. Coincidentally, Rush Hour 3, the 2007 installment of Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan’s buddy-cop franchise, was set in Paris; previous installments took place in Los Angeles and Hong Kong.

(6) Hyams has doubled as cinematographer on every movie he's directed since 1984's 2010. The only other mainstream director I can think of who's taken a similar route with the cinematography of his films is Steven Soderbergh, who's doubled as DP on every film he's directed since 2000's Traffic, though he uses the pseudonym "Peter Andrews" instead of his own.

(7) This has nothing to do with Running Scared, but I don't care since I'm already indulging in random thoughts: The Paper, a newspaper movie I wrote about at Popdose back in November, was cowritten by David Koepp, who's also penned blockbusters like Jurassic Park,
Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the upcoming Angels & Demons. But he's also directed four of his own scripts over the past 13 years, including 1996's The Trigger Effect, which didn't hold up when I saw it a second time a few years ago, but the opening sequence is still an impressive distillation of the negative energy that can course through a movie theater on any given night.

None of the films Koepp's directed have been hits, including last fall's supernatural comedy Ghost Town, but he is skilled as a director, at least based on the two films of his that I've seen; he's clearly learned some tricks from collaborators like Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma. He had the misfortune of following The Sixth Sense (1999) a month after it debuted with his own supernatural thriller, Stir of Echoes; I remember it as being pretty suspenseful in its own right, but it didn't stand a chance once M. Night Shyamalan's film became a surprise hit that inspired repeat viewings. I didn't see Secret Window (2004), which starred Johnny Depp and was based on a Stephen King novella, but it was another supernatural thriller. Koepp has proven that he's intrigued by the great beyond. If he can just put ghosts or angels together with dinosaurs, a masked superhero, and an archaeologist who are on a dangerous mission, he might be able to come up with a blockbuster directing project of his own.