Baseball Toaster Screen Jam
Monthly archives: June 2007


Strong Writing
2007-06-22 07:48
by Jon Weisman

Variety published a "10 Screenwriters To Watch" special section today. Two of them, Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen, you might already know about – aside from Rogen's on-camera stardom in "Knocked Up," they're the folks behind this summer's "Superbad."

But when stories were being assigned, the most intriguing name for me was Danny Strong, whom I'm guessing a good number of you would recognize as Jonathan, one of the geekily nefarious Trio from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Strong has written what looks to be the definitive film version of the 2000 presidential election. I've read the first draft, and in contrast to most screenplays, it's a real page-turner. Here's my short profile on Strong:

Certainly, the controversial 2000 U.S. presidential election is ripe for film treatment.

And just as certainly, an actor best known as the ultimately villainous schoolmate of a vampire slayer named Buffy isn't anyone you'd expect to write it.

"It was kind of a miracle," says Strong. "No one expected me to set this up. I actually turned to my producer when we were in the lobby of HBO and said, 'I don't believe I am sitting here.'

"He said, 'You know, this is a better story if you sell it.' " …

Surf's Down on HBO
2007-06-21 08:04
by Jon Weisman

If Sparky from Cincinnati could get fired at the end of a season, why not John?

Following something of a marketing blitz, John From Cincinnati premiered on HBO on June 10 following the series finale of The Sopranos. But with 11.9 million Sopranos watchers as its leadin, JFC drew only 3.4 million for its premiere.

Even more foreboding, its second episode last Sunday took in 1.2 million viewers – 10 percent of the Sopranos finale audience. By comparison, Flight of the Conchords, which got next-to-no promotion, drew the same 1.2 million viewers for its Sunday series premiere.

Now, that figure is not out of line with typical HBO audiences. Constantly hyped Entourage on Sunday got 2.2 million viewers, and Big Love, now the network's drama mainstay, also drew 2.2 million Monday.

However, the half-hour musical-comedy Conchords is the kind of show that can pick up word-of-mouth steam as it goes on. Given that JFC is a show that will have trouble attracting new viewers – even the easiest-to-follow serials fight audience resistance if they've missed the premiere – that show's longterm prospects look grim.

HBO would never cancel JFC midway through its season, but we're possibly in a Studio 60 situation here, where incentives to renew JFC for a second wave probably boil down to not pissing off revered creator David Milch or his most devoted fans. Either that, or he's going to have to come up with an episode that absolutely commands people's attention, like the season finale of Lost.

Big Ego on Big Love
2007-06-19 14:17
by Jon Weisman

Pride has become the prime story on Big Love, without a doubt - and it's sort of getting in my way. As interested as I am in the many relationships on the show, I'm disturbed to see Bill Hendrickson nonsensically slap his huge mug on billboards across his city, begging for a high profile and all the baggage that comes with it.

Keeping his secret does not need to conflict with his overflowing ambition, but Big Love is going out of its way to make it so. Though Bill may well navigate the family out of its latest crises, it's getting to the point where I'm rooting for Bill to get a major comeuppance.

Word of Mouth for Once
2007-06-18 07:49
by Jon Weisman

Years ago, I remember walking out of Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do thinking, "Wow, so that's what it would be like to make a professional-quality film where nothing in the plot goes wrong for the protagonists."

That was a slight exaggeration – there is the breakup of the band and all – but overall, Thing was the definitive feel-good film. And I'll cop to it as a guilty pleasure – if it pops up on cable, I'm usually lured into sitting through a good chunk of it. I suppose I should be ashamed to admit this, but I actually like the music.

In some respects, the new indie release Once can take over the feel-good crown. The plot couldn't be simpler: Guy and Girl meet, like each other and play instruments (no double entendre there). Though it's not without its melancholy, the film is as close to a happily-ever-during picture as I've seen in a while.

But filmed on a much more intimate scale – for a reported $175,000, I've read - Once comes across with much more power than the cotton-candy experience of Thing. This might be a lazy comparison, but there's a Jim-and-Pam sophistication to the lead characters that is quite touching. The characters aren't flawless, but they have mix great integrity with humanity, which is a winning combination. I enjoyed this film quite a bit, and I'd love for others to see it.

A big part of it is that I also like the music, most of which was co-written by lead actors Glen Hansard (of Irish band The Frames) and Marketa Irglova (who is only 19), and I don't think I need to be ashamed to admit it.

Update: From the New York Times review:

It seems silly and grandiose to lavish praise on a movie whose dramatic crux is the recording of a demo tape, and there is some danger that the critical love showered on "Once" will come to seem a bit disproportionate. It is not a film with any great ambitions to declare, or any knotty themes to articulate. It celebrates doggedness, good-humored discipline and desire — the desire not only to write a song or make a recording, but the deeper longing for communication that underlies any worthwhile artistic effort.

The special poignancy of the movie, the happy-sad feeling it leaves in its wake, comes from its acknowledgment that the satisfaction of these aspirations is usually transient, even as it can sometimes be transcendent.

* * *

Speaking of combos, I saw most of two mockumentaries over the weekend: animated penguin surfer Surf's Up and the season premiere of Entourage.

Up was cleverly written and, from what I can tell, well-told, although I had to leave for about 25 minutes in the middle when my 2-year-old got super-antsy.

In Entourage, for some reason, the motif didn't work for me. It seemed self-conscious. I'm not sure I can explain why, but it may just be that when a show uses mockumentary as a departure from its conventional style, it stands out too much.

Decades ago, M*A*S*H sort of did the same thing when it did an episode in the eyes of a feature report by real-life journalist Clete Roberts, but it was such a sober tale that it didn't go wrong.

That's not to say that there weren't some good lines in the show, with Rhys Coiro eating up the screen as the director you would hate to have working for you, Billy Walsh, but all in all, I'll be looking forward to Entourage returning to its usual overhyped but otherwise winning style.

* * *

I'm not as baffled by John from Cincinnati as others seem to be. There's a core generational story here about three surfers, colored by a mystery involving some people who speak really strangely, in particular the title character. Because it's a mystery, you don't need to understand it all right away, which is something some reviewers seem to have forgotten. The setup is something I'm perfectly ready to watch.

Where I'm on the fence after two episodes is deciding whether its worth enduring how annoying the strange-speaking characters are. I don't need to know what their story is yet, but if their dialogue is just going more and more approach nails on a chalkboard, I'm not sure it's going to be worth the effort.

In fact, the only really likable characters on the show are young surfer Shaun, played by Greyson Fletcher (whose acting I liked much more in the pilot than Episode 2) and motel manager Ramon, played by the unshakable Luis Guzman. Maybe Willie Garson as Meyer Dickstein, too. However, Shaun's father (Brian Van Holt) and grandfather (Bruce Greenwood) are such losers from a personality standpoint that even though they speak comprehensibly, it's not really helping.

I'll be back for the third episode, but it's going to be a week-to-week thing.

In the meantime, I'll definitely be back for the second episode of the new HBO series that airs after Entourage: Flight of the Conchords. Though the pacing could be improved, I found myself laughing out loud several times, particularly at the songs by Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement.

The show is anything but HBO-style and kind of a weird post-Entourage shift, but unlike John, the kind of quirky in Conchords was easy on the ears.

Potable Quotables
2007-06-15 14:00
by Jon Weisman

What film is the most fun to quote from?

No Sudden End to Sopranos Debate
2007-06-14 15:20
by Jon Weisman

As a prime defender of the ending, I'm still not ready to shut the door on The Sopranos. Neither is San Francisco Chronicle writer Tim Goodman at his blog, The Bastard Machine - not quite yet, anyway:

Well it's been quite a few days of post-"Sopranos" speculation and chat. I did five radio interviews on Monday including 40 minutes on "Talk of the Nation" and that finale was, indeed, the talk of the nation. No doubt the finale will live on in pop culture history as a great debate. Did Tony live or die? I love that it has prompted so much discus-sion and creative (insane?) deconstruction. And now I'm on the verge of being very much over the whole thing. Time to move on. But before I do, a few final thoughts and a debunking of some "Sopranos" myths:

  • I still believe, as I wrote, that it was a brilliant ending. As the days go by, it only gets better. For those people who felt cheated and/or betrayed by the ending, well, it could be you were watching the wrong series the entire time. Remember the good times and move on.

  • I also still believe Tony's alive and that the camera simply stopped - our glimpse into the machinations of both Soprano families is over. I think the ending leaves room for precisely one other theory: That Tony was killed. It's certainly valid and if you choose to believe it, good for you. David Chase has allowed reasonable people to disagree. Now, onto debunking some popular theories …

  • Sopranos, Idol-style
    2007-06-13 09:55
    by Jon Weisman

    Comedy writer Ken Levine ponders how the finale of The Sopranos would have gone had it aired on a major network:

    The finale would be at least two hours.

    There would be a one hour clip show hosted by Bob Costas preceding it.

    There would be live coverage of the cast party on the network's local 11:00 news. It would be the lead story even if Hurricane Katrina hit that day.

    There would be a little animated promo swooshing across the bottom of the screen after every commercial break of every other prime time show on that network for two weeks. A little gun would shoot a little mobster. The blood would spell out SOPRANOS. ...

    Sopranos Finale Chat
    2007-06-10 15:11
    by Jon Weisman

    For one final night, these are the Jersey Boys.

    Road to the Emmys: The Actress
    2007-06-08 08:57
    by Jon Weisman

    More Emmy Preview coverage from Variety:

    This link goes to our lead story on decreasing comedy opportunities for actresses (The Office being a notable exception). You can go from there to our other actress-related stories, including top contenders for the Emmy and profiles on the top newcomers.

    Road to the Emmys: The Writer
    2007-06-06 10:07
    by Jon Weisman

    Today's Emmy preview section at Variety focuses on writers, with the lead story on writers who per-form on screen, such as Tina Fey of 30 Rock and the crew from The Office. I chip in a piece on how writers get typecast:

    A few years back, Ronald D. Moore was eyeing his next career move after a successful decade writing and producing for the "Star Trek" television franchise.

    But as far as his chances of finding work outside the sci-fi genre were concerned, he might as well have plied his trade at Astro Burger.

    "When I left 'Star Trek,' it was kind of a rude awakening," recalls Moore, now a "Battlestar Galactica" executive producer. "It turned out that my agent said, 'Would you mind specing something?' I said, 'Huh?' He said, 'No one will read a "Star Trek.'"

    To this day, writer typecasting remains alive and well in Hollywood, and the burden rests on scribes to find their way out. ...

    Fischer's Difficult Recovery
    2007-06-04 12:36
    by Jon Weisman

    For better or worse, Jenna Fischer has got time for the pain.

    Recently, the actress talked to USA Today about her struggles since she took an unfortunate step at the Buddakan club in New York last month, right at the start of a well-earned vacation.

    Jenna Fischer, who plays lovable receptionist Pam on NBC's The Office, is in pain. A lot of pain. But she wants her fans to know that she is on the mend after breaking four bones in her back in a nasty fall May 14 at an NBC party.

    "I had a rough night last night," Fischer says from the Central Park-area hotel where she has been recuperating. "I'm mostly off the meds, but I did take some last night because sleeping is probably the most uncomfortable thing right now. I just can't get comfortable."

    Two weeks ago, Fischer, 33, came to New York to speak with advertisers about NBC's fall lineup. She was looking forward to letting loose with her co-stars. "It's one of my favorite parts of the year. My (summer) vacation starts then. I was ready for a lovely break — no pun intended."

    At around 11 p.m., one of The Office's writers encouraged her to hit the dance floor at the trendy Buddakan club. "I was going to do one dance and then get out of there," Fischer says. "The dance floor was down a long set of marble stairs. I linked arms with my friend and just missed a step. All I know is I was suddenly not on the ground anymore. My legs flipped out from underneath me, and while I was in the air, I had the thought, 'This isn't going to end well.' "

    It didn't. Fischer landed hard on the stairs. The pain, she says, "was consuming and immediate. I've never felt anything like it. I was horribly nauseous and dizzy." ...

    Sunday Night Open Chat
    2007-06-03 22:00
    by Jon Weisman

    Guest Post: I Know I Hate This, But I Don't Know Why
    2007-06-02 08:48
    by Jon Weisman

    By Joseph Cox

    Everytime I watch a movie, I mull where in the grand hierarchy of cinema it belongs. This process is supposedly ongoing, but I often revisit an old favorite (say: American Beauty) and wonder what I was thinking when I liked it in the first place. Today, my top five favorite movies might be something like The Big Lebowski, The Royal Tenenbaums, Stevie, The New World and The Decalogue, but tomorrow only Lebowski and Tenenbaums would remain.

    It isn't that I don't have any criteria to judge movies, but after film classes, theory books, hours reading film criticism and enough movie watching to make me permanently allergic to sunshine (read: pasty), I have too many yardsticks to judge a movie with. Should I worry about auteur theory (Altman!), genre subversion (The Host!), thematic complexity (Angels in America!) or just simple entertainment value (Monty Python!)? So during a movie I either over-intellectualize ("Was that the plot point? Can someone make a movie about Africa that doesn't star a white guy?") or completely non-intellectualize, and simply live in the moment. It is probably more important to think about the movie afterwards anyway, though I end up forgetting a lot of the best parts and taking notes would be the ultimate mood killer.

    I would like to think that just playing it by ear would work. I probably shouldn't go through back issues of Cahiers du cinema before watching Rush Hour 3 and I shouldn't watch Abbas Kiarostami movies with a hangover, but I don't want to buy into the "subtle bigotry of lower expectations," because it is obvious is that there is a caste system in the evaluation of movies. Certain movies (comedies, horror films) are seen as inherently lowbrow, while hoity toity schlock seemingly gets a free pass to a higher plane (Finding Neverland). Sure, not every movie released in December is an Oscar contender, but, as Sasha Baron Cohen found out, nothing released to box office success during the dog days of summer is regarded as more than bread and circuses for the great unwashed. Why can't a movie be all things to all people?

    So ultimately, what makes a movie good? At the very least, a good movie should illicit strong emotional reactions, while middlebrow (or worse) leave no impression whatsoever. True art is a search for something authentic and telling about the human experience, and as such it should resonate. No matter how slick and clever a movie is, if it never taps into real emotion then it won't have any staying power in the mind's eye. Everything else is negotiable, but that is the bedrock. At least for me. So what do you look for in a movie?

    (Editor's response: The Shifty System)