Wednesday, April 22, 2009

paper play

I've been beaten to the punch by a real journalist. That's how it should be, of course.

I didn't realize until a couple weeks ago that The Soloist, the based-on-a-true-story drama about a schizophrenic, homeless musical prodigy (Jamie Foxx) and the newspaper columnist (Robert Downey Jr.) who writes about him, was set to open one week after State of Play, the political thriller starring Russell Crowe as a D.C. newspaper reporter. The Soloist was originally set to be released last November; I'm not sure why it was moved from awards season to April 24, the week before X-Men Origins: Wolverine kicks off the summer season and drowns out all the remaining spring releases, though it's never a good sign when a film's release date is pushed back nearly six months. (It was advertised during the Oscar telecast in February rather than being Oscar bait awarded during the telecast.)

Two high-profile movies in two weeks starring A-list actors as newspaper reporters! And at a time when newspapers are struggling, yet for many of us they're still the most trusted source of news, and the people who bring us that news remain fascinating characters who are well suited to dramas, thrillers, comedies, and romance—whatever genre provides a good story, just as they try to provide good stories, as long as those stories don't get in the way of the truth ... Okay, sometimes we like to watch fictional reporters discard the truth for a good story, but in real life we tend to look down on the Jayson Blairs of the business.

Back to what I was saying to begin with—David Denby of The New Yorker has already published his dual review of State of Play and The Soloist, and he notes the closeness of their release dates in his opening paragraph:

Sometimes a mere coincidence in Hollywood’s haphazard release schedule crystallizes a national moment—a gathering mood, a twinge of longing. Two ambitious new movies, “The Soloist” and “State of Play,” both offer the stirring sight of a daily newspaper being reported, printed, and delivered—loaded into trucks and flung onto front lawns before dawn. And that’s not all: in “State of Play,” the deadline for an important investigative piece is repeatedly pushed back until the reporter can get the full story; in “The Soloist,” a series of newspaper articles causes a mayor to change a city’s social policies. Each movie features, at its center, the kind of scruffy urban hero whom Raymond Chandler canonized long ago (“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean”)—in this case, not a private eye but a print journalist, slovenly and sleepless, hounded by editors, comfortable only in a banged-up Saab. He may be disorganized and inadequate in his personal life, but his professional instincts are superb. He knows how the city works; there’s no door he can’t open. Are the two movies simply sentimental? No, they deal directly with the economic threat to news coverage. Both newspapers in question—the Los Angeles Times, in “The Soloist,” and a Washington daily clearly modelled on the Post, in “State of Play”—are struggling to cut costs and stay in business, a difficult situation in which a talented reporter who takes his time is both a nuisance and a blessing. However else these movies succeed or fail, they tout the daily newspaper as guardian of a city’s integrity and soul.

Denby adds near the end of the review that in State of Play "Rachel McAdams is a cocky blogger who has to learn how much work goes into actual reporting," and "Crowe has an animal quickness and sensitivity, a threatening way of penetrating what someone is up to, a feeling for weakness in friends as well as opponents. He seems every inch a great journalist; it’s not his fault that the filmmakers let the big story slip through their fingers."

Brad Pitt was originally supposed to play Cal McAffrey, the role that Crowe inherited, but the filmmakers seem to have caught a lucky break by getting Crowe at the last minute: even though he'll always look like a movie star, he's put on some weight in the last few years, adding to his already burly frame and making him look like the kind of reporter who should probably get his personal life in order and start jogging. Maybe that's one reason why Crowe took the part, i.e. "You mean I don't have to take off the weight I gained for Body of Evidence? Good, because this body of carbs is harder to slim down than I thought." Even though Crowe looks like a movie star no matter what he plays—a problem every movie star has—Pitt looks nothing like any reporter I've ever seen in person. Then again, his previous-generation cinematic doppelganger, Robert Redford, looks nothing like a reporter either, and he worked out just fine as Bob Woodward in All the President's Men (1976), one of the best newspaper movies Hollywood has produced.

Roger Ebert's review of State of Play last Friday in the Chicago Sun-Times adds a funny observation about reality in movies versus the way things work at an actual newspaper: "When Cal and his sidekick the perky blogger solve the mystery and are back in the office and it is noted 'Cameron [the fictional Washington Globe's editor] has been holding the presses four hours!'—I think her new corporate bosses will want to have a long, sad talk with her, after which she will discover if the company still offers severance packages."

Cameron is played by Helen Mirren, and Ebert notes that the Globe's new owners are "on her neck to cut costs, redesign the venerable front page, get more scoops and go for the gossip today"—hence bloggers like McAdams's character—"instead of waiting for the Pulitzer tomorrow." Ebert refuses to believe that movies like State of Play represent the last stand of newspaper movies, "because no matter what happens to newspapers, the newspaper movie is a durable genre. Shouting 'stop the presses!' is ever so much more exciting than shouting 'stop the upload!'" I agree, and it's similar to how I'll feel if I ever hear a contemporary song that contains a line like "When you texted me this morning" or "My baby, she wrote me an e-mail." It just don't sound right. (At Popdose last fall I wrote about The Paper, a newspaper movie that takes great pride in the tradition of newspaper movies with its own “Stop the presses!” moment.)

In an interview with The Decider back in February, Ebert was asked what he thought of all the "regular people" writing their own movie reviews on blogs or posting video reviews on YouTube. He replied, "Some are really gifted, some should hang it up. [But] the flaw in the theory that the Net will replace newspapers is that the Net borrows, directly or indirectly, most of its content from newspapers. Today you can cite the New York Times. Would you rather cite a blogger in East Jesus, Iowa?"

Of course not. And even though I quote directly from newspapers all the time, you can cite me if you want. I'm a blogger who's neither perky nor cocky, and I do a great job of disguising my movie-star handsomeness.

Our comedic freedom will help you gain financial freedom.

Q: What about bloggers who post YouTube videos in lieu of original content?
A: Yes, as long as they wrote the videos themselves.
Q: Cool.
A: That wasn't a question.

Friday, April 10, 2009

"No, my brother—you've got to buy your own."

I noticed the other day that the Gmail "chat" status update for Scott Malchus, a writer at Popdose (and a current employee of Cartoon Network, where I used to work), was a reference to a line of dialogue from a commercial that was popular in the '80s: "No, my brother—you've got to buy your own."

At least I assume the ad for the Hey Love soul-ballad compilation ("the classic sounds of sexy soul") was popular. I don't remember seeing it until the summer of '91, when I first saw House Party (1990), which featured the commercial in a scene where some of the adult characters are watching TV. Even then I wasn't sure if it was a real commercial or something concocted by writer-director Reginald Hudlin for a quick laugh.

Scott, it turns out, was cribbing the "No, my brother" line from Cameron Crowe's Say Anything ... (1989), and had no idea it originated in a commercial in the first place.

Speaking of origins (I'm the king of smooth segues), I recently walked past a 7-11 with a cardboard cutout of Hugh Jackman promoting X-Men Origins: Wolverine, "only in theaters" May 1. That made me laugh, seeing as how a work print of the film was leaked online March 31.

That's unfortunate for 20th Century Fox, which hasn't had a huge blockbuster in a while (Marley & Me helped a bit last Christmas), but the bad karma seems to have spread to Fox News, another division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation: Two days after the Wolverine work print was leaked,'s entertainment columnist, Roger Friedman, downloaded a copy and reviewed it for the website. Four days after that, he was fired.

Friedman wrote that Wolverine, even in its unfinished state, "exceeds expectations at every turn," and he appeared to give a thumbs-up to online piracy by saying that watching the movie on his computer a month before it hits theaters is "so much easier than going out in the rain."

But he did like the movie, so cut him some slack, Rupert. Friedman's the only one trying to turn this ship around!

On the Los Angeles Times's website, entertainment writer Geoff Boucher wrote, "The review was an audacious thing to do (or maybe just stupid) considering that 20th Century Fox, a corporate relative, had gone to the FBI to fight back against the theft and mass piracy."

Oh yeah.

And now that I think about it, what were you thinking when you reviewed a pirated copy of your sister company's tentpole summer blockbuster, Friedman? There has to be a better way to earn Brownie points around that place.

But according to, "Michael Wolff, author of the controversial Rupert Murdoch biography The Man Who Owns the News, has suggested that ... Friedman was fired not because he reviewed a pirated workprint of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but because he exposed how easy it was to watch it. On his blog, Wolff suggests that Friedman's case exposes how oblivious top media executives are to common behavior by young people using the Internet. 'They think of [watching pirated movies] as exceptional behavior, while everybody else knows it's trivial stuff. Actually Murdoch tends to think that almost everything that happens on the Internet involves dubious, if not outrageous, behavior,' Wolff wrote.

"On the Los Angeles Times blog, columnist Patrick Goldstein chimed in: 'Friedman took the fall for his own starry-eyed approach to piracy, but if media tycoons like Murdoch believe they can hang on to their old business model forever, they will soon be taking a much bigger fall than Friedman did.'"

I've never watched a pirated movie online, mostly because I don't like watching anything on my computer—even music videos from the '80s on YouTube—if it'd be better viewed on a bigger screen, but especially not an unfinished movie or one that's been recorded with a video camera (and a shaky hand) in a theater.

I doubt I'll end up seeing Wolverine in the theater, but even if I did have a pirated copy right now, I wouldn't share it. Instead I'd answer all requests with "No, my brother—you've got to buy your own ticket on May 1." (I'm also the king of callbacks.)

Monday, April 6, 2009

It's hard to forget what you never memorized in the first place.

In yesterday's Chicago Sun-Times there was a short Associated Press interview with John Mahoney, who played Kelsey Grammer's dad on Frasier for 11 seasons. But before that he was already known as a terrific stage and film actor, having started his acting career at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in the late '70s, when he was in his late 30s.

I thought I'd read long ago that he was selling insurance before he started doing plays, but according to the All Movie Guide, "Mahoney worked at different careers including college professor and medical journal editor in Chicago. Though he had appeared on-stage in his teens, Mahoney did not again become interested in acting until he was 37 and decided to enroll in classes at the St. Nicholas Theater, a Chicago institution co-founded by playwright/screenwriter David Mamet. After performing in one of Mamet's plays, Mahoney quit his latest job. Later, at the invitation of distinguished actor and classmate John Malkovich, Mahoney joined Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, where he appeared in about 30 productions."

I also didn't know until I read the AP interview that Mahoney was born in England. Again, according to the All Movie Guide, he "emigrated to the U.S. at age 19 in the 1950s and joined the Army. One of the first things he worked on was losing his British accent, something he succeeded at doing. Once out of the service, Mahoney earned a B.A. from Quincy College and then graduated from Western Illinois University with a master's in English." His most high-profile role outside of Frasier, at least as far as my generation is concerned, is in Cameron Crowe's directorial debut, Say Anything... (1989), where he plays Ione Skye's adoring but misguided father.

There was a quote in the AP interview, which was tied to Mahoney's role in the new season of HBO's In Treatment, that I agree with 100 percent: "You have to be respectful of your script, and I try not to change a word ... I just like to learn the lines and then see what happens with the other actors. I listen to what's being said, and then respond to how it's said. I like to surprise myself." I want to find Mr. Mahoney in nearby Oak Park and ask him if he'll shout that quote at improvisers who often treat sketch comedy as an opportunity to expand improv comedy, also known as "the laziest art form," into the area of scripted material.

Many actors have cold-sweat anxiety dreams about getting onstage and not knowing a single line of dialogue, and when you do forget a line and "go up," three seconds of silence can feel like three minutes. Improvisers, generally speaking, don't have that anxiety since every line of dialogue springs from their own minds, but you can become speechless onstage nonetheless.

With scripted material, you have to memorize your lines and repeat them over and over until they're second nature and you've forgotten them, in a sense, so that all you're doing once you get onstage is listening and reacting to the other actors. Improvising with scripted material can work if each actor knows where the script begins and ends and is comfortable expanding on it or doing away with it entirely—with the blessing of the director and writer, of course—but I've had trouble reaching and maintaining that level of trust in a sketch show. (For many improvisers the "brass ring" is Saturday Night Live, the long-running TV sketch show that involves no improvising whatsoever. Go figure.)

Of course, if the script is constantly changing (if you're also the writer of a sketch that's a work in progress until opening night of your show, then you're changing it yourself), having enough time to memorize and forget can be difficult. But what's more difficult is when the actors change the lines themselves each time they perform a scene or sketch because they never memorized the lines correctly in the first place. Sometimes I've read scenes with improviser-actors for the first time and been stunned to see that they're changing every other word in the script as they read. Do we have different scripts? Or is it arrogance? Or ignorance? Or arrogantly ignored dyslexia that needs to be retroactively diagnosed and immediately treated?

The world may be a stage, but since people who can't read tend to get left behind in the modern world, the theatre world shouldn't be forgiving of actors and improvisers who've decided to leave behind one of the most important things they learned in kindergarten. (This is a rant. I know. And I realize I could try to be more forgiving, but I believe I have a legitimate complaint, Your Honor.)

Friday, April 3, 2009

catching up

Now that I've alleviated some carpal tunnel cramping at my desk at home, I'm catching up on posting some things I wrote a while ago, or things I hadn't completed yet, or things that I "bookmarked" to write about a while ago but kept putting off, like the post about Fast & Furious from March 9, which wasn't written on March 9.

I've said too much. Now I must flee before the procrastination police arrive.

1/1: Let it be, but don't let it end.
2/6: once underfoot, now six feet under (This one isn't new, but I added a bit more to it.)
2/6: Blart No Blunder: B.O. Boffo! (Hire me, Variety.)
2/28: Black History Month is almost over. I'd better make this quick.

I'm back—I always forget my wallet, keys, and cell phone when I'm on the run. Now I'm leaving, and to accompany my exit, here's a Christopher Cross hit that was used to great comic effect in one of SCTV's most memorable sketches.