Monday, September 29, 2014

Evolution of a Criminal deserves a wide theatrical release. You can help make that happen.

A former student of mine named Darius Clark Monroe premiered his exceptional documentary, Evolution of a Criminal, at SXSW a few months back. I wish I could take full credit for inspiring him as a filmmaker, but I kinda-sorta think he learned a lot more from one of his teachers at NYU, a dude named Spike Lee. But never mind: I'll settle for being among the first to hype Monroe's Kickstarter project to fund the theatrical release that his project deserves. You can learn more about it here

Trailer Park: Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice

From the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia -- two of my favorite films of the late 20th century -- comes something new that seems, based on what this trailer promises, can't-miss wild and crazy. I am unreasonably stoked to see this one -- and not just because I discovered Paul Thomas Anderson. (No joke: I reviewed Sydney long before it was re-titled Hard Eight.) I'm also glad to see that, in a welcome switch from normalcy, an A-list director has offered gainful employment to Eric Roberts. (Yes, I know he was in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Trouble is, he wasn't in it long enough.) Don't get me wrong: I've enjoyed some of Roberts' made-for-video potboilers over the past two decades or so as guilty pleasures. And he cracked me up as a campy bad guy a few years back in D.O.A.: Dead or Alive. But, hey, the dude's overdue for a career boost. Here's hoping Inherent Vice does more for him than, say, Hansel & Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Yes, I saw James Franco's Saturday Night documentary. And now, so can you.

Since, like all the other cool people, I regularly attend the SXSW Film Festival, I was able to see James Franco's Saturday Night, a behind-the-scenes documentary about the long-running NBC sketch-comedy show, back when it screened at the 2010 edition of the Austin event.

At the time, I wrote for Variety:

Neither as inside-baseballish as one might have feared nor as revelatory as one might have hoped, Saturday Night sustains interest as a semi-anthropological view of the weeklong creative frenzy that results in a single 90-minute episode of Saturday Night Live. Best suited for fest, homevid and niche-cable venues, it may prove even more satisfying when released in a DVD package that also would enable viewers to watch the actual episode prepared during the docu. Such a double feature could be an invaluable teaching tool for would-be comic writers and performers, and producers of live telecasts.

The story behind the story: Actor (and NYU cinema studies student) James Franco was inspired to direct the docu after hosting SNL in September 2008, and approached longtime producer Lorne Michaels for permission to trace the development of an episode — showing everything from the initial pitching of sketches through construction of sets to live broadcast — in a cinema-verite format. Michaels gave his OK.

It’s worth noting, however, that in the course of an interview included in the docu, the producer casually notes that, because many of the SNL cast members are used to performing on camera, Franco shouldn’t be surprised if they perform for his camera as well. Franco can’t say he wasn’t warned. 

Time and again during Saturday Night, one gets the sense that, for all their off-the-cuff remarks and occasional admissions of insecurity, SNL headliners such as Bill Hader, Will Forte and Andy Samberg are playing to a friendly audience more than they’re opening up for an objective interviewer. Even the behind-the-scenes personnel sound less than fully spontaneous, although their comments — like those of the show’s stars — are often amusing and/or insightful. 

It’s especially interesting, albeit unsurprising, to hear that almost everyone currently involved with SNL — even, to a certain degree, Michaels — fully realizes they are competing with the audience’s nostalgic memories of favorite stars and sketches from past seasons.

For assorted reasons not connected to the quality of Franco's enterprise, his documentary -- or "docu," as we say in Variety-speak -- more or less vanished from the face of the earth after its SXSW screening. But now, at long last, Saturday Night is kinda-sorta widely available: Franco has announced it will premiere Friday on 

Is it worth watching? Let me put it like this: When asked years ago if his latest movie was worth seeing, the late, great Robert Mitchum reportedly replied, "If it's a hot night, and the theater's air-conditioned, what the hell?" In a similar fashion, I would answer: If you already have access to Hulu, and you're the least bit curious about Franco and/or Saturday Night Live -- why not?

To again quote my 2010 review:

Franco follows the production of the Dec. 6, 2008, episode with guest host John Malkovich. Many of the regulars agree that Malkovich is a great choice and a good sport. But that makes the competition among the writers and writer-performers — particularly those whose sketch proposals haven’t been greenlit lately — all the more intense...

There are a few twists along the way, particularly when a sketch about a jingle singer for a carpet dealership — which looks rather promising during development — is unceremoniously dropped after failing to sufficiently impress the audience at the final dress rehearsal. Ultimately, it’s very easy to share the cast and crew‘s palpable relief when the show concludes without apparent mishap. But the docu dutifully emphasizes that any sense of satisfaction will be short-lived: In two days, the whole process will have to begin again.

By the way: If you subscribe to Hulu Plus, you can view the original Saturday Night Live telecast here.

Monday, September 22, 2014

How I have always wanted to quit a job

Mind you, I would never have the audacity to say this during an actual live broadcast. (For one thing, I doubt I could handle the FCC fine.) But maybe on my way out the office door...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Before there was Left Behind there was... Left Behind

While watching The Remaining -- a fitfully exciting indie thriller best described as a Christian horror flick -- I couldn't help thinking about Left Behind. No, not the upcoming Nicolas Cage movie due in theaters Oct. 3. Rather, I mean an earlier film drawn from the same source material -- a series of popular books by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins -- but produced on a significantly smaller budget.

As I wrote in my original 2001 review:

Kirk Cameron, all grown up since his days on TV’s Growing Pains, plays Buck Williams, a TV news reporter who always manages to be where the action is. In the opening scenes, he just happens to be in Israel, interviewing a scientist who has found a way to grow food in arid land, when Iraqi fighter jets suddenly darken the sky.

Fortunately – well, OK, miraculously – the invaders are blasted to kingdom come even before the Israeli air force can launch a counterattack. Later, our hero is aboard a commercial airliner piloted by workaholic captain Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) when the long-awaited, Biblically-prophesized “rapture” occurs. Dozens of passengers (including every child on board) simply vanish from the plane, leaving behind clothing, frantic parents and discombobulated fellow flyers. Tens of millions of similar vanishings occur throughout the world, though Left Behind -- obviously hampered by budgetary restraints -– can offer only fleeting glimpses of the collateral damage caused by this phenomenon.

Steele returns to his Chicago home to find his deeply religious wife and their young son are among the missing, and his college-age daughter, Chloe (Janaya Stephens), is terribly upset. Slowly, reluctantly, Steele begins to suspect that his wife, their son and millions of other folks have been brought to heaven by God to avoid the horrors of “end days.” (Not to be confused with End of Days, which millions of people managed to avoid without God’s help.) Williams takes a different route to solving the mystery of the missing millions. But he reaches the same conclusion after he links a couple of international bankers and a possible Antichrist to that notorious hotbed of ungodly and one-worldly activity, the United Nations.

Aimed squarely at that segment of the Christian community that eagerly (perhaps impatiently) awaits the Final Judgment, Left Behind is a pulpy melodrama that does a reasonably efficient job of preaching to the converted. (To damn it with faint praise: It’s much better crafted than The Omega Code, a similar doomsday drama about the emergence of the Antichrist.) Trouble is, it’s no great shakes as secular entertainment.

As it turned out, the 2001 Left Behind proved to be a career game-changer for Cameron, who has gone on to star in several other Christian-skewing dramas -- including Fireproof, which, no joke, was one of the highest-grossing indie releases of 2008. Will the new Left Behind have a similarly salutary effect on Nicholas Cage's career? Well, the Lord does work in mysterious ways...

Here's what The Rapture looked like back in the 2001 Left Behind:

And here's a glimpse at what the new Left Behind has in store for us: