Thursday, January 27, 2011

Podcast Rollcall: The Pod F. Tompkast

Genre: Variety show

What It's About: Sheer entertainment. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins has locked down a format that allows for sketches, live performances, impressions, and stream-of-consciousness monologues, and music. With both recurring bits and original one-offs, each edition is a grab bag of comedic segments. Tompkins' distinct style never wavers, making this one of the most strongly authorial podcasts available.

Why You Should Care: This is one of the rare podcasts that veers from the talk show format. Tompkins dares to step away from the familiar one or two people talking to the listeners, and actually writes, produces, and performs original bits, making this podcast more like an audio "Saturday Night Live." Needless to say, Tompkins is hilarious in both delivery and content. And at a rate of only one per month, this podcast is also easy to keep up with.

Frequency: Monthly

Average Length: 1 hour

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

That Old Sundance Feeling

In its second season, "Entourage" -- the male fantasy-fulfillment series centered around fictional young actor Vincent Chase -- aired an episode where Vince and his, well, entourage pay a visit to the renowned Sundance Film Festival. That episode got me thinking about the state of that particular fest; specifically how it was no longer as exciting and central to American cinema as it had once been.

That "Entourage" episode aired in 2005. In the ensuing five years, Sundance has not significantly turned its fortunes around. It remains a largely uneventful annual gathering in which filmmakers, film enthusiasts and the entertainment news media participate out of sheer habit.

When Sundance rose to prominence in the early '90s, it shone a light on the kind of movies that a weary public had been missing. For some 20 years, Hollywood had been seemingly incapable of making simple human dramas. Even the quaintest little concept would bloat into some $80 million star vehicle, boring critics and leaving audiences apathetic to mildly satisfied.

Sundance changed all that. Sundance showed us what could be done with just a few thousand dollars, some clever innovation, and an irrational amount of determination.

It was a truly exciting time to be a film lover -- a latter generation's version of the '70s New Wave. With impossibly small budgets, filmmakers were forced to do away with exotic locations and eye-popping special effects. The films instead relied on clever concepts, strong characters, deeper psychology, unique pacing, interesting stories. This is how we got sex, lies, and videotape, Reservoir Dogs, Do the Right Thing, The Crying Game, The Piano, Sling Blade, Swingers, The Blair Witch Project, Memento... and I'm barely scratching the surface.

It gave us new stars. James Spader, John Turturro, Chloe Sevigny, Benicio Del Toro... again, just scratching the surface.

And of course, it gave us the superstar directors; often writer-directors. The Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Bryan Singer, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino; the list goes on...

And then there was Kevin Smith.

Kevin Smith became an instant hero to a generation of wannabe filmmakers by self-financing his first feature, Clerks, with a dozen maxed-out credit cards, and eventually selling the picture to a hesitant Miramax. The film became controversial when its original NC-17 rating was appealed down to an R without any changes being made.

Smith's hero status has seen its shares of ups and downs through years, but he's always maintained an enthusiastic fan base bolstered primarily by his early adoption of new media. He was a blogger before the word "blog" existed. He opened comic book stores and staffed them with friends who have appeared in his movies, basically so that fans could interact with the Askewniverse. He became a popular public speaker on the college circuit and beyond. He was among the first celebrity podcasters. He's currently one of the most popular Twitter users.

Through it all, Smith has maintained a public persona of being "one of us." He's nothing but a big fan of movies, just like the rest of us. But since he's on the inside, he's delighted to show us what it's like. His success is our success. He kicked the door down so we could get a glimpse of how the other side lives.

While Smith was busy exploring other avenues in his career, independent cinema busied itself with getting bought up or otherwise co-opted by the Hollywood establishment. "Independent film" came to be understood as a genre -- characterized by its quirkiness and low-budget aesthetic (if not always an actual low budget) -- rather than what it's supposed to mean: a movie produced without the financial or institutional resources of a studio. Think Little Miss Sunshine -- low budget and quirky, but still produced under the umbrella of 20th Century Fox. How is that independent?

The Sundance Film Festival used to be a place of discovery. Films and filmmakers and actors that nobody had ever heard of now had a forum to prove their mettle. And if their projects were deemed good enough, studios would buy them in contentious bidding wars, launching the blessed few to overnight fame and fortune, and delivering to the masses a film unlike any they'd seen before. After independent cinema got eaten up by the studios, Sundance lost its meaning. Now it was a place where "independent films" produced by specialty branches of the major studios were merely premiered and given their first dose of publicity, to be built upon later by massive amounts of marketing dollars. In other words, Sundance became little more than one big advanced marketing convention.

Oh sure, some people are still out there making truly independent films, and those films are still getting screened at Sundance. But nobody talks about them because the studios and distribution companies aren't seeking them out anymore. Any possible noise the true indies might make gets drowned out by the publicity machine of the big studios debuting their low budget efforts.

So when news started trickling out of Sundance this past weekend that Kevin Smith was making waves, I was skeptical. When was the last time anything truly surprising happened at Sundance?

To bring everyone up to speed, Smith has had a pet project in a holding pattern for a good three years or more called Red State. By all accounts, it's not his usual buddy comedy-style movie. It's a suspense/horror film, with political undertones. Smith showed the script to the Weinsteins -- his champions since the beginning -- fully expecting them to turn it down... which they did. So he went back to his independent roots, producing the movie without any studio support. Then he took the movie to Sundance, just as he did 17 years ago with Clerks. And just like the good old days, he planned to auction distribution rights for the movie there.

At least, that's what he said.

Turns out it was all a publicity stunt. Just as the "auction" was getting underway, Smith told the crowd gathered at the screening that he would self-distribute the film. He'll be taking it on the road for a 15-city tour, with hopes of ultimately opening the movie nationwide -- through his own company -- this October.

The whole auction hoax was a little obnoxious, and has garnered some backlash. There were people there from studios and distribution companies with a mandate to buy films, and Smith robbed them of time they may have better spent watching films that were actually for sale. Would he not have attracted just as much attention if, instead of tricking people into thinking there'd be an auction, he'd simply said that he had a big announcement? People actually listen to Kevin Smith. Use that!

(Smith responds to that criticism.)

But that aside, Smith is doing something innovative and laudable, and it's reminding me of the good old days of Sundance. (Keep in mind that I've never been to the actual festival myself. I'm referring just to the echoes of exciting news and, of course, the films themselves that would roll out from Park City every year when I was a teenager.) Granted, Smith is taking a low-stakes gamble. He's already made his name, already made his fortune, and he can afford to fail if that's what happens. That being said, many filmmakers -- and, hell, many people of any profession -- would not be making such a career overhaul at this stage in their lives. Smith is going on 41, has a wife and a kid, and has firmly established himself in his dream career. Most of us would gladly coast on that for the rest of our lives.

Instead, Smith has found something new to be passionate about, and he's pursuing it with the drive of a 20-year-old dreamer working a shitty job at a convenience store in New Jersey. There's no reason for him to do this except that he really wants to. And that's something I can get behind, cynicism be damned.

(Smith also announced that his next movie, a passion project about hockey, would be his last. But I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up Brett Favre-ing that decision. I wouldn't hold that against him. He's young yet.)

For the first time in a good decade, there's interesting, exciting, unexpected news coming out of Sundance instead of the typical boring promotional routine. And I, for one, am thankful for that.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Favorite New TV Show of 2010

Television continued its impressively long-lasting winning streak in 2010. As has been the case for the last decade or so, the cable networks led the way with innovative series premises and storytelling techniques. While there were many excellent new shows that debuted in 2010, one stood out for me above the others.

My favorite new show of 2010 is...


Rarely is a television series capable of executing such a unified, auteurist vision; rarer still for such a thing to be a comedy. Created by, written by, produced by, directed by, edited by and starring stand-up comedian Louis C.K., "Louie" is nothing short of one of the most impressive television achievements of the past decade.

If you're not already familiar with Louis C.K. as a stand-up, do yourself a favor and get familiar. He is roundly recognized as one of, if not the, best stand-up comedians working today. (On any given day, one or more of his stand-up specials are usually available for instant streaming on Netflix. If not, you can always rent the DVDs.)

"Louie" is raw and rough around the edges, and consequently uneven. Some episodes work, and some don't. But that's one of the things I love most about it: it's trying to do something new, something original, something you haven't seen on TV before. It's willing to take chances. If it sometimes doesn't pan out, at least the show is trying harder than most series do. And when it does succeed -- which it more often does -- you're seeing television at its finest.

Each episode has the feel of an independent short film. Early episodes were split into one act stories, a new story starting after each commercial break. In later episodes, stories grew to fit the full 22 minute length (half hour time slot).

The show is willing to be not funny. It delves into social discomfort that rivals "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the original "The Office." Take, for example, the episode titled "Bully." While Louis is out on a date, he gets threatened by a high schooler, effectively deflating his masculinity. After the incident, Louis starts to follow the kid with uncertain intentions, eventually tracking him all the way to his home. What he finds there is no easy resolution, and the episode ends on a spectacularly ambiguous note. It's not chock-full of laughs, but it's one of the best half hours of television I saw all year.

Louis is willing to let the show step away from himself as well. In the episode "God," an incident in the first couple minutes leads Louis to a childhood memory - a flashback that lasts the remainder of the episode. Once again, the priority of the episode is not getting laughs so much as genuinely exploring a story premise and following it wherever it may go. This is a brave thing to do in a show that's branded as a sitcom.

"Louie" is always engaging, and always worth poring over. It's a strong statement from an eclectic talent working at the top of his game. And -- great news -- the entire series is currently available for streaming on Hulu and Netflix. Get caught up now, and be ready for season two this summer.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Negative Reflection

[ NOTE: Originally posted September 7, 2006 on MySpace ]

Rob and Roberto may have similar names, but they're easy to tell apart, fortunately for me. I was due to meet with them one night at a Panera in Santa Monica to discuss the possibility of shooting a short movie project.

Talking about shooting a movie draws a certain amount of attention in a crowded restaurant. (I think it might have been finals week, as the place was teeming with college students, laptops, and text books -- I don't miss those days.) It draws even more attention when a certain member of your party is using his "outside voice." (You talk loud, Rob.) We eventually drew the very specific attention of an elderly gentleman a few tables away.

I had noticed this man earlier in the evening. He was ancient, withered. His face was a deflated balloon. He was fragile and crisp, ready to break apart. His white hair was rejecting the obvious attempt of a dye job, a reddish-brown coloring that was now drained to almost pink. He was dressed in numerous layers of khaki and white. In front of him was a laptop from the late-80s/early-90s -- that period when "portable" computers, well, really weren't. It was clunky and rigid, heavy and thick, depressing. Although I didn't get close enough to read the words on the screen, the format was recognizable from across the room: he was working on a screenplay.

When he overheard us talking about shooting a movie, he took it as an open invitation to strike up a conversation. And so he did, sidling slowly past our table as if he had business to attend to at the sandwich counter and just so happened to hear us.

I prepared myself to feel bad, to feel sorry for him. But Rob stepped up and did most of the talking with this man, leaving Roberto and me to ignore the situation and stare into the monitor of a more youthful computer.

Later that night, after the meeting came to an end, Rob and I stood around in the parking lot discussing the planned project and the night in general. Eventually, we got to talking about the old man.

"What did you guys talk about for so long?" I asked Rob.

Rob informed me that the guy was kind of a jerk. This was something of a relief to me; now I wouldn't have to feel bad for him.

It turns out that the screenplay on the old man's monitor had been a work in progress for some 12 years. He claimed to have some connections, people who were interested in what he was writing. Rob smelled bullshit. Rob also got the impression that the old man was trying to put us down. He kept making comments about how tough it is, you better know what you're doing, if you don't have connections, you're worthless, etc. Common knowledge, frankly, but there was hostility there.

Gore Vidal is credited with the quote: "It's not enough to succeed. Others must fail." I think we all slip into that mentality every once in a while. I think we were on the receiving end of it that night.

I was back to feeling bad for the old man. But beyond that, I think I was feeling bad for myself. Scared, really. We all have our dreams and ambitions. We all pursue them to a certain degree, or sometimes not at all. Some people succeed, others don't.

There we were, Roberto, Rob and me, in a restaurant. Hopeful, eager. And there he was, on the other side of the room: our negative reflection. Still hopeful after all these years, but ultimately hopeless. Who was going to read his screenplay? Who was going to take him seriously in a meeting? Who was going to meet with him at all?

What separates us from him? Anything? We presumed we would be making a movie. Did he gather with some friends in a cafe and make the same presumptions back when he was our age?

Not knowing the first thing about the life this man has lived, I can only speculate about what would have prevented him from fulfilling his ambition to sell that screenplay. Whatever it was, will it happen to me? Will I be able to identify it? Will I be able to avoid it? Or will I one day look up from my laptop, notice that I'm the oldest person in the room times three, and realize that it just never happened?

Monday, January 10, 2011

My Favorite Movie of 2010

To be clear, this isn't a movie that I think will -- or even should -- be nominated for Best Picture by any organization. It's not the type of movie that will make most critics' top ten lists. But it's the most fun I had at a movie theater in 2010, and it's one of the most original visions I've seen on the big screen in years. And I'd put my money on its longevity; expect to see it at midnight screenings and in constant cable reruns in the decades to come.

My favorite movie of 2010 is (as if you haven't already noticed the picture)...

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

For those of you who missed it -- and based on its box office performance, that's most of you -- Scott Pilgrim is about a guy who meets the girl of his dreams and must come to terms with her baggage and his own personal issues in order to stay with her. Standard romantic dramedy stuff... until the movie reveals that Scott's metaphorical struggle will unfold literally. He's forced to defeat the girl's seven evil exes in order to stay with her.

What you end up with is a clever blend of elements from manga/anime and video games. Fights begin in the classic fighting game style, with contenders on opposite sides of the screen with a "vs." in the middle. They conjure gigantic weapons from behind their backs. They execute super moves. They can take a massive pummeling before they feel any real effects. And the loser of each fight explodes into a pile of coins, which makes perfect sense in that video game logic way.

For good measure, underground rock, film noir, and Bollywood also play a part; and I'm just scratching the surface of all the influences and references in this movie.

Scott Pilgrim is as fast-paced, energetic, humorous and stylish as you'd expect from Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright. Tirelessly attentive to detail, Wright nails the look and feel of everything he's referencing. Notice the flashing lights and contrasting shadows when characters land punches. Notice the pixelization as characters brandish their weapons. Notice the motion lines as characters whoosh toward each other. And that's not to mention all the old school sound effects in the audio mix.

Having underperformed in theaters, Scott Pilgrim seems to be getting its due on home video. But if you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and buy or rent the freshest, most original, innovative and enjoyable movie of 2010.

Runner up: The Social Network