Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Support Christine Boylan's HOSS and the AFI Directing Workshop for Women

I don't know if we can yet call this the Year of the Female Director, but this is certainly shaping up to be the year where the cultural conversation is finally making a lot of noise about doing something about the massive gender imbalance in that area of the entertainment industry.

One program I recently became aware of is the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. As their site explains, their objectives are:

The AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women is committed to educating and mentoring directors to increase the number of women working professionally in screen directing.

Selected women will receive guided instruction and eventually produce a project — either a short film or series for the web or streaming services. All completed projects will be showcased the following year.


Short film participants will work towards completing a short, narrative project with the intended outcome of playing at film festivals and acquiring distribution deals.


Episodic participants will work towards completing three or more episodes (no more than 25 pages) to premiere online or via a streaming service.

Film and TV director Jill Soloway gave a fist-pumping speech at the introduction to this year's program. I can't reprint it all here, but go to this transcript of it and read it. Here's a taste:

"You gotta go for it. Just do me a favor and F*CK SOME SH*T UP. Surprise yourself, wake up your actors, get wild with your performances, try sh*t, put in that funky dialogue you’re embarrassed of, in fact, rub your f*cked-up-ness all over your scripts, add some shame and embarrassment and glee, and then dare yourself to shoot it, SERIOUSLY, go big or go home -- be a creature unlike any other."

They have selected ten talented women as part of this year's program. I happen to be acquainted with one of them, Christine Boylan. You may have seen her short film when it was featured earlier this year on Go Into The Story. She's been a tv writer for several years, having worked on shows like Once Upon a Time and Castle. Most recently she was a co-executive producer on Constantine.

Christine's project is a contemporary western called HOSS. The story takes place after a disaster has crippled the sea-level areas of the west coast, turning the hills of Los Angeles into a Lawless Territory. It's based off of a story she wrote on Popcorn Fiction, available here. The lead of the film is Lyndsy Fonseca, a talented actress who should be familiar to viewers of AGENT CARTER, NIKITA, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, and KICK-ASS.  A full breakdown of cast and crew can be found on the Hoss website.

Right now, Christine needs some help in making this film a reality and they're seeking donations. If you have some money to spare for this great project, please go to this donation portal and select "Christine Boylan - HOSS" from the drop-down menu.



I'd really like for Christine to be able to make the best movie possible and any support you can lend, even if it's just raising awareness of her project and the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, would mean a lot. The project goes before the cameras in a matter of weeks so now is the time to show your support!

Follow Christine Boylan on Twitter: @KitMoxie

Monday, June 15, 2015

JURASSIC WORLD: After careful consideration, I've decided NOT to endorse your park.

Jurassic World made $204.6 million at the domestic box office this weekend and $511.8 million worldwide, which means that anything I have to say in a review is mostly meaningless. It appears that if you had any interest in the film, you saw it this weekend.

My expectations were all over the place with this film. The first trailer didn't inspire much confidence with its in-progress CGI and the promise of a relatively simple story about a genetically-engineered dinosaur on the loose. That seemed to set the tone for the first several months of anticipation, so much that when early reviews came back, it was a surprise so many people were enthusiastic about it. That stoked my hope that this could actually be pretty good.

Jurassic Park is probably one of my most-rewatched films. It's certainly a favorite from my childhood and one that still holds up strong for me even after some 20 or 30 viewings. It's also one that - like Jaws - I've always believed didn't lend itself well to franchising. Could there really be a second story with those characters that was as compelling as the first? The Lost World and Jurassic Park III seemed to answer "no" to that question, even if you grade on the curve of "there's no way this can match the original, but can we at least have fun here?"

No movie is flawless, but there's always a distinction between weak elements that detract from a film, and weak elements that end up neutral in the final analysis. I can overlook a few pimples if other parts of the picture are stellar. For that matter, if something is totally out there, but still WORKS, we don't need to hold the film accountable.

I'm thinking here of how the ending of Jaws - with Brody blowing up the shark - is completely implausible, but it somehow feels both earned and RIGHT. When Jaws author Peter Benchley complained about the climax, Spielberg supposedly told him, "If I've got them in the palm of my hand for two hours, I can do anything in the last five minutes."  He's totally right, but that formula requires a flawless build-up.

Jurassic World does not have a flawless build-up. There are some moments early on that I really liked that end up juxtaposed with some moments that really didn't work for me. I'm glad that this is the first movie to return to the original island. I never liked the Lost World retcon of "Site B." It's an addition to the backstory that mostly came about because in Michael Crichton's original novel, the island is bombed to all hell at the end. Thus, when it came time for him to write a sequel novel, he had to invent this backstory, despite the fact that Spielberg left the island intact in the first film.

And then weirdly, Jurassic Park III returns to the island from the second film. Right from the start, Jurassic World has me on board just by going to the real island and showing us Hammond's vision fulfilled. Had this story been done as the first sequel, it probably would have felt cheap to go back to the park just three years later as chaos breaks out. 22 years later, and after two less engaging voyages, we can finally see an operational Jurassic World. As a core concept, this isn't bad.

There are also a few "subtle" plot points about how twenty years ago, audiences were impressed by the mere achievement of bringing dinosaurs back, but now they're so jaded by those achievements that it requires bigger and bigger thrills to keep attendance up. It's a pretty unsubtle comment on the state of blockbuster filmmaking, particularly how the CGI of Jurassic Park led us down a path where it's really hard to impress audiences with any kind of VFX since the once-impossible is now routine. The subtext is a little too on-the-nose to be as clever as it seems to think it is, but I'm glad it's included.

The plot ends up being pretty straight-forward. To up the "wow" factor, the park owners have commissioned a genetically-spliced hybrid - a new species of dinosaur. Naturally it's part T-Rex and part... other dinosaurs which the scientists refuse to disclose. Turns out this "Indominus Rex" can camouflage, control its body temperature (so it can evade heat detection) and is smart enough to mastermind a trap that lets it break out of containment.

The human characters this time include Chris Pratt as a raptor trainer who's managed to be seen as the alpha of that pack; the park operations manager, played by Bryce Dallas Howard; and Howard's two teenage nephews. You can imagine how this goes: the stiff corporate priss played by Howard clashes with Pratt's more rugged manliness, in what feels like an homage to whatever Romancing the Stone was homaging. There's probably a version of this that could work, but due to some weak writing (and possibly acting) with regard to Howard's character, it doesn't work. That's not a dealbreaker, though.

The best I can say about the two teen boys is that they aren't the worst kids in the franchise. Ian Malcolm's gymnast daughter from The Lost World and Plot Device Eric from the third film. The older kid's a pretty unsympathetic jerk, but maybe the attitude comes from him realizing he's stuck in a pretty pointless subplot about his parents getting divorced.

Honestly, I'm not sure what the divorce subplot is supposed to add to anything at all. I suppose we're missing some scenes that gave it some resonance, but it feels like it'd be pretty easy to cut out all the references to divorce entirely. To put it another way, if they cut out other scenes to minimize that plot, why not go all the way and take it out entirely? But again, this isn't a dealbreaker, as awkwardly handled as it is.

Less inoffensive is the subplot about InGen scheming to turn dinosaurs into soldiers. You're never gonna have the military treated with any subtlety in a sci-fi movie like this (see: AVATAR), but the depection here barely tries to give nuance to the position. It doesn't help that the two advocates are Vincent D'Onofrio as InGen security head and B.D. Wong returning as Dr. Henry Wu. Neither one is cast in a light that seems anything other than shady and slimy. There's probably a better version of this film where they seem to have a legitimate stance, but Jurassic World makes sure we know from the get-go, these are the Bad Guys, capital B, capital G.

But still, we're not in dealbreaker territory. Even as we entered into the final act, I remember thinking, "It's no Spielberg, but I'm having fun despite the bumps."

There's one scene about midway through the film that really gave me hope. The I-Rex has been tearing through other habitats. Pratt and Howard's characters come upon a dying brachiosaur. It's one of the rare moments of the film that treats these creatures as empathetic animals rather than monsters or predators. This beast wasn't hurting anyone. It subsists entirely on plants, and now it lies wounded and dying in terror, unable to understand the inhumanity of it all. Pratt's character gently touches it, doing what he can to stave off the beast's terror in its final seconds.

For a moment, Howard's character is forced to see her exhibitions as something more than some science project that's there to draw crowds. An innocent creature dies in pain because of something she's responsible for. It's a death more affecting than any of the human deaths in this film.

Regrettably, that moment proved to be more the execption than the rule. The problem is the climax, which has the characters throw out all common sense just to get to a crowd-pleasing twist cribbed from the original. Spoilers ahead.

Security decides to unleash the raptors on the I-Rex. It's a spectacularly bad idea because the I-Rex turns out to be part-raptor. That makes him the new alpha, and within seconds, the raptors turn on the humans to do their new leader's bidding. It's all very How to Train Your Dragon 2.

Pratt, Howard and the two kids are chased into the visitor's center, where the raptors and the I-Rex both seem poised to close in on them. Howard gets an idea and orders the park to open up a specific paddock. She's there to greet the dinosaur inside when it's released.

It's a T-Rex, and not just any T-Rex, but the same T-Rex from the first one. Much like Ian Malcolm, she uses a flare to lead it back to the others, somehow running faster (in heels, I believe) than a beast once clocked at 32 miles per hour. It's brilliant, right? Use the T-Rex to stop the I-Rex.

Uh, wait. Didn't we just go through a whole scene about how dinosaurs yield to the alphas of their species? And now we're sending a T-Rex after an alpha that's part T-Rex? That seems risky, right?

Also, once you have the massive Dino-Battle 2015, why aren't you getting the hell out of there? These guys stick around to watch the fight like they have money on it!

I like dinosaurs fighting as much as the next guy. I just wish the film found a better way to get there.

Also, having watched Jurassic Park the night before, I gained a new appreciation for how deftly Spielberg shifted tone from comedy to tension. He gets laughs right before a scare that avoid stepping on the scare and somehow enhance it. Seconds before the lawyer is eaten on the toilet, there's a tension-releasing joke about how, "When you've gotta go, you've gotta go."

Jurassic World has a really nasty prolonged kill where Howard's assistant is snatched up by pterodactyls, taken high, dropped, snatched by another one, tossed back and forth before being dropped in the water, where at least two or three dinos make a meal of her at once. It's an ugly death, particularly for a side character who we've not seen do anything terrible. Usually a film will give that kind of painful end to someone the audience hates. It works as a cathartic moment. I wouldn't have been shocked for D'Onofrio's character or Dr. Wu to die that way, but it's jarring to see the movie take a perverse sort of glee in how this innocent side character is toyed with before a gruesome end.

Another tonal misfire is a scene between Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus's technician characters as they are told to evacuate. Johnson says he's staying behind. The music swells, and he moves in for a kiss goodbye, but the spell is broken when she's all "Whoa! What's going on here!" The swelling music literally stops. I'm shocked we didn't get a needle scratch on the soundtrack, to be honest. And then the scene gets more awkward. It feels like they wanted to do a Joss Whedon-like subversion of a trope with some jokey humor, but didn't stick the landing. It's a weird place to stop the movie and suddenly decide to toss in some self-aware moments.

I don't know if those two beats count as self-indulgent, but they both felt out of place.

I definitely found entertainment in the film. It's the best of the three sequels and its high points outdo the high parts of the previous two films. Honestly, if you try not to focus too much on the InGen silliness, you can probably get through 2/3 of the film without many serious issues. It's the utter silliness of the ending that kills all goodwill and makes it impossible to give the InGen stuff a pass.

Still, I can see how some people walked out of there feeling like they got their money's worth, even as I understand people walking out really, really hating this film. Chris Pratt is a lot of fun, and if they'd fixed Bryce Dallas Howard's character, maybe this thing would have worked enough to make that ending more satisfying.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

If you're in L.A. and you're not going to Black List Live, what's wrong with you?

This is a post aimed specifically at my local L.A. readers. If you're in town this weekend, I highly urge you to attend the latest Black List Live Read. Every few months, The Black List picks an unproduced screenplay that landed somewhere on a previous year-end list, gets a cast of talented and recognizable stars, and brings them together for an incredibly entertaining evening at The Montalban Theater in Hollywood.

I have attended three of the four previous L.A. readings and can attest that whether the screenplay is dramatic or comedic, it's a lot of fun to see actors like Nathan Filion, Seth Green, and Gina Rodriguez bring their characters to life. The star of the GIFTED reading was 8 year-old Mckenna Grace, who stole the show from actors like Armie Hammer and Francis Fisher. Mckenna was a real find, and after the show, everyone in attendance seemed to agree we'd seen a star in the making.

This weekend's live read continues the tradition of strong casting, with as great an assemblage of talented women as you could hope to find anywhere:

Felicia Day from The Guild and Supernatural!
Gillian Jacobs from Community!
Chelsea Peretti from Brooklyn Nine-Nine!
Kristen Schaal from The Daily Show and Last Man on Earth!
Rachael Harris from The Hangover!
Ginger Gonzaga from Mixology!

and also Adam Pally from The Mindy Project!

With a cast like that, they could be doing a gender-swapped reading of the ENTOURAGE movie and I'd be on board. As it turns out, they'll be reading Jac Schaeffer's THE SHOWER!


A meteor (and baby) shower gone very, very wrong... Meteorites are crashing down on suburban Oak Valley, turning backyards and golf courses into craters and crushing people in cars and strip clubs as they try to escape. There's nowhere to hide. Nobody is safe. All is chaos. So what happens when the fumes from the explosions start turning the men into woman-eating alien monsters...!?

How do you say no to a synopsis like that? When it was first announced, my wife and I had tentative plans that would have taken us out of town that weekend. Once I read that hook, not only did I know that I had to see this one, but my wife agreed we'd make every effort to change our plans. She's not even a screenwriter and she's become as big a fan of this event as I am.

Tickets can be purchased here for $25.

Date: Saturday, June 13
Time: 7:30pm Doors, 8:00pm Show
Place: The Montalban Theater
1615 Vine Street in Hollywood, CA

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Get $50 off a badge for the Austin Film Festival!

I got an offer this week from the Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference, which this year will be going on from October 29-Novemeber 5, and they have already confirmed panelists such as Norman Lear, Shane Black, Jack Burditt, David Wain, Kelly Marcel and Terry Rossio. Their website has a full list of panelists: http://www.austinfilmfestival.com/festivalandconference/conference/2015-panelists/

The Austin Film Festival has reached out to me as their early badge price deadline is fast approaches on June 15th! $300 for a Conference Badge that is normally $350 early and $400 regular. This sale ends at 11:59pm on Sunday, June 14th.

Get your badge here: http://www.austinfilmfestival.com/shop/badges/#bitterscriptreader

Use the Discount Code: CON300

Monday, June 8, 2015

Entourage: the same old menu. What else did you expect?

If I walk into a McDonald's, order a Quarter Pounder and Fries and then take a bite, is it at all fair to wince and say, "This isn't even in the same ballpark as the Umami Burger I had last week!"

Probably not. McDonald's exists specifically because you know what you're getting when you order, because it's fast, it's cheap and it occupies space in your stomach until you again require sustenance. You can go anywhere in the country and be assured that the burger you order at one McDonald's is exactly the same mass-produced meal you'd get at any other McDonald's. It's not a place you go to expand your pallate. If you're gonna get picky about taste, what the hell are you doing going to a place with a drive-thru?

Entourage is the McDonald's of TV and film. Every episode has pretty much the same ingredients:

- Ari screams
- some vague conflicts and deal-making related to the film business, but not so detailed you ever get a sense the people making the show understand the business of producing and selling content.
- bikinis
- babes
- asses
- sexist remarks from Drama
- constipated looks from Eric
- short jokes about Eric
- asses
- references to banging
- weed
- Lloyd is mocked
- Vince is sure it'll all work out
- Drama worries about his career
- Drama embarrasses himself at an audition
- asses
- E's has relationship drama that couldn't be compelling if both parties were double agents for the KGB
- Despite being an abusive sexist boor, Ari has a heart of gold.

And honestly, that's exactly what you're getting with this movie. There's nothing you'll find in this movie that hasn't been done already in some form on the series. Sure, there are a few cosmetic changes. Vince's movie that's causing all the drama this time happens to be his directorial debut rather than merely a starring vehicle. Ari is also doing his screaming from his office as a studio head rather than an agency but it's all the same dynamics as before. Like the Mike Love-fronted Beach Boys, this reunion tour plays the hits, never approaching anything from "the new album."

Reviewing Entourage would be kind of a pointless exercise. On a relative scale, it's better than the final two seasons of the show were, but it doesn't approach the heights of season 2.

As always, a big part of the problem is Vince, who's written and performed uncompellingly. But if you watched the series, this is nothing new. After a few seasons it became hard to ignore that Adrian Grenier lacked the sort of charisma you'd find in a star of Vince's supposed stature. (He's spoken of as if he's somewhere between a Wahlberg and a DiCaprio... which writes a check that Grenier simply can't cash.) I took to imagining what other TV-level actors might have made more compelling Vinces, and ended up pondering how Revenge's Nick Wechsler and The Vampire Diaries Paul Wesley might have embodied the character.

I know it's fruitless to complain about this, but the film skips over the one golden chance it had to really take a risk. Early on, Vince declares he wants to direct his next movie. Flash-forward eight months and the film's in the can and Vince is overdue to show it to Ari. (Yes, that's lighting-speed for a $100 million film to go from pre-production to wrapping up post in that time, but just go with it.)

Those are the eight months we should have seen! Entourage has done the whole "will this movie kill Vince's career?" storyline before. We've seen Vince and crew in these kinds of situations. But seeing Vince behind the camera is totally new territory. The character has never been depicted as a big picture sort of guy, so it would have been interesting to see him deal with the weight of an entire movie on his shoulders as he stars in it. I want to see him setting up shots with his DP, directing other actors, and keeping this massive film on schedule.

It would have been a golden opportunity to really challenge Vince and maybe break the guy down enough to really show what makes him tick. The film ends up leaning on the idea that Vince made a brilliant movie and given what we know of Vince, I wouldn't have thought him capable of that. There's so much conflict that the movie skips over just so it can stay within the bounds of the familiar.

I know, I know. As soon as I walked into McDonald's I forfeited the right to complain about the menu.

Can we at least agree that it's weird that two Sports Illustrated Swimsuit models (Emily Ratajkowski and Alyssa Miller) play themselves in this film, but that an SI cover model (Nina Agdal) shows up as just a random hottie on Vince's yacht? It's a little like casting Ringo Starr as himself, but having Paul McCartney play a roadie.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Dustin Hoffman's online Master Class in acting is a treat for actors and directors alike

I get a fair amount of offers and requests in my inbox. It's not often between emails from someone asking me to promote their new podcast, or their new blog, or to push some screenwriting service they have. To be straight with you, I decline most of these. Sometimes it's because it's readily apparent this person is just spamming EVERYONE they can find connected to screenwriting and has read maybe half a post of mine.

I also am often reluctant to plug new podcast and blogs because I've seen too many people give up after a matter of weeks when their audience fails to show up. I also take my endorsements pretty seriously, so I'd hate to plug someone and then have them turn out to be a total nutcase. On top of that, it's a time commitment. If you're reaching out asking me to promote your screenwriting book, I'm probably going to politely decline unless you've got some serious credibility or there's a really unique angle. I've wasted enough of my life reading screenwriting books, so unless it's something I'd HAVE to read upon seeing it at Barnes & Noble, I'm probably not going to read it.

All this is preamble to saying that when I first got an invitation to check out a new online Master Class on acting, my impulse was to decline. Then I saw it featured none other than Dustin Hoffman. Consider my curiosity piqued. I have zero interest in Joe Schmoe's online acting class, but a two-time Oscar Winner? That's a different story.



Here's the nuts and bolts. The class costs $90 for 24 videos. Most of those videos are in the 12-15 minute range, though there are a couple closer to 7 and 8 minutes long. Just for the sake of argument, let's say it averages out to 12 minutes a video. That's giving you close to five hours of instruction. You also have lifetime access to all the videos and materials.

The videos are generally broken into two categories: 14 of them are essentially Dustin Hoffman speaking to the camera and the students directly. This is more or less the lecture series part of the class. He tells a lot of personal stories, but relates them to both the technique of acting and the profession of acting.

A running theme through many of these concerns honesty in performing. One of the first things Dustin says is that he doesn't want to see someone on-screen "being a prick," he wants that actor to "show the prick in them." His method is less about pretending and more about harnessing an emotion within you, the actor, and imbuing the scene with it. He's a big proponent of real emotion in a scene rather than "recalling" emotion. Multiple videos discuss how to achieve this, and often from different angles.

As someone who has never taken an acting class, I found it compelling. Also, I've read and seen interviews with Hoffman over the years, but I can't consider myself an expert on his anecdotes. Most of the stories he related were new to me. If you're a Hoffman fanatic, I can't say how many you'd know already.

(The reason I bring this up is that when dealing with artists I've studied closely, read their memoirs, seen their interviews and such, I find I know most of the anecdotes they'll tell. As a massive Billy Joel fan, I've gotten to the point where I could probably accurately anticipate the answer to any question Billy is asked, even in deeper-dives like the James Lipton interview. But then again, if you're that much of a fan, you're probably paying $90 bucks for the class anyway.)

As a non-actor and someone who's more interested in directing, the highlight of the course for me was the other 10 videos, which encompass two scene workshops. Each of these scenes evolves over five videos with Hoffman directing two actors. The first scene is the break-up scene from Jerry Maguire, and to my mind, it's the more successful of the two both from an instructional standpoint and a performance standpoint.

It's fascinating to watch Dustin guide the actors as they go from performing what they've prepared to really tapping into the scene. You can tell that the young actress in the scene, Molly, knows it cold and seems to have even her smallest reactions and movements down. I noticed this because later, as Dustin takes them further and further off-book, you can spot moments where she reincorporates a specific head-nod or gesture back into the scene. (This isn't a critique of the actress, as it doesn't feel like she goes the extra step into having over-rehearsed.) Her companion, Nick, seems to be looser and maybe a little less connected to the material at the start. It benefits the scene because he seems more pliable to Dustin's techniques and you can feel their chemistry working from early on as he initially reacts to her.

I've directed a few things, and I've even visited a couple sets of TV shows during production, but I've never really had the opportunity to watch a director work with actors. In TV, not only does time not afford such a thing, but on longer-running shows, the actors tend to know their characters inside and out. Mr. Hoffman's videos introduced me to a different sort of language in talking to the actors.

At one point, he tells them to just run the lines, no performance. It appears what he's doing is essentially pushing a reset button, trying to get them to unlearn what they think they know about the scene. He moves on to asking them about themselves, and it gradually becomes clear he's trying to get them in an emotional state of mind that will be appropriate for the scene. The process is geared towards entering that particular state of mind. He even tells them "Text is the last fucking thing." He's less concerned with them getting every syllable, comma and period right than he is with them building a emotionally true performance.

My film school education was more about the technical directing and the writing side of filmmaking than it was about interacting with actors. I've been lucky to cast actors who have given me what I wanted and often gone beyond it. I've rarely had an actor who needed a lot of help to find what worked for those scenes in question. Dustin's videos were a revelation, a light bulb that went off that said, "Oh, this is how the give-and-take works when your actor isn't starting on the same page as you."

A second scene workshop uses a scene from Good Will Hunting and that was equally effective even though to my mind, the actors weren't as connected with each other and the material for long parts of it. It's an opportunity to see Mr. Hoffman try the same techniques and get more varied results. The Jerry Maguire scene resulted in a lot of interesting variations that each had their own merits. The GWH sequence feels like more of a struggle and that ultimately is at least as instructive as the more successful sequence is.

The Master Class also has an interactive element that goes beyond the comment section of each video. Dustin has "Office Hours," where students can record a video question for him and eventually get a video response from Dustin personally. These tend to be pretty comprehensive and thought-out answers too.

On top of that, actors can film themselves performing some of the provided scenes and submit them for critique. It doesn't appear that Dustin critiques all the scenes (the submission period only just closed this weekend), but seeing him offer feedback on any performance would probably be valuable to most actors.

I asked a couple actor friends of mine what they thought of this program, explaining to them the basics of it and the cost. They said that most acting classes are $50 for each class and that you generally take an 8-week class. To put it another way, that's an investment of $400 over 2 months. These actors were quick to note that they felt direct feedback on their own performances was one of the more valuable aspects of a normal acting class, and that's one thing Mr. Hoffman can't precisely offer.

However, the cost for this is less than 25% of what an actor might spend on such a class and at that rate, they felt that everything Master Class said it offered would be worth it from their point of view. I believe one of them straight up said, "They're gonna make a lot of money with this." I might not be able to speak about this as an actor, but the people who could, felt that the course as I described it had value.

And as I already said, speaking as a director, this got me thinking about actors in a different way. It made me want to direct another short soon just so I could apply some of what I saw Dustin doing. As far as I'm concerned, Dustin Hoffman and his Master Class team have put together a very informative series of videos that cover a great breadth of essential information.

You can find the Dustin Hoffman Master Class here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

PITCH PERFECT 2's vestigial tails send this picture out of tune

I saw PITCH PERFECT 2 this past weekend, and let me say that as a fan of the first one, the sequel made me grateful we never got a true sequel to BRING IT ON.

I'll unpack that a little bit more. This script is a perfect example of why comedy sequels are really hard to get right, and specifically why these sort of team ensemble scripts are especially hard to nail.

Everyone loved the characters in the first film and it helps that they had such a deep bench of types to draw from: the grounded Beca, the uptight Aubrey, the blunt Fat Amy, the slutty girl who's name I can't remember, the guy with the very punchable face... you get the picture. Despite having a large ensemble of women and a decent-sized number of dudes, the film didn't feel crowded because everyone had a reason for being there. That's the beauty of not writing for a franchise. If a piece doesn't fit, it gets written out and no one ever has to know it was there.

There are really two macro conflicts in the first one: Beca vs. the Bellas and then The Bellas vs The Treblemakers. The conflicts are pretty well-defined early on. Beca's issues with the Bellas stems from the leadership being too staid and tied to tradition, which results in a setlist that doesn't list any songs written in this century. So every scene with just the Bellas is often driven by this tension. It also gives purpose to the disparate personalities of the women, because it makes it harder for them to get out of their own way. That doesn't get resolved until current leaders Aubrey and Chloe relent and have Beca take the reigns in practice. The result is a wonderful scene where Beca directs the girls in a mash-up performance, bringing them together in harmony. (Writer Kay Kay Cannon is clever, isn't she?)

With that resolve, the remaining conflict is "The Big Competition," the national a cappella competition where the Bellas face the Treblemakers for the top spot. The Treblemakers, being from the same college, have crossed paths with the women repeatedly, and each time have proven to be formidable. Every taunt, every snide remark between the two groups has purpose. Bumper's douchiness Their lead-off performance is just as strong as their previous work, which means that for the Bellas's victory to be credible, they have to raise their game too. And they do. (Though Bumper is weirdly written out of the finals, every other scene where he's an unlikable ass has actual purpose.

The problem with PITCH PERFECT 2 flows from the fact that even though those conflicts are resolved, characters who have no story left to play out are still invited back for the encore, which clutters up a film that now needs to accommodate those on top of the actual conflicts driving the new story. PP2 is a perfect cast study in why most comedy sequels tend to jettison the love interests from the first film. Once the couple has gotten together, it's a lot harder to use their relationship to drive the story unless you're willing to introduce a new major conflict. In the first film, Beca's love interest Jesse is on the rival team, which allows that subplot to have ramifications for Beca's dynamic with the group.

The Treblemakers have no reason to appear in PITCH PERFECT 2 at all. There are moments where it's not implausible for them to be involved, such as when they are groups invited to some kind of underground a capella competition, but the fact is you can slice Jesse, Benji and Bumper out of every scene in which they appear and nothing of consequence is impacted. Jesse shows up to add a couple songs to the soundtrack and kiss Beca goodbye on her first day of work and that's about it. It's like he's just there to assure us that he and Beca are still a couple. Benji is given about three half-scenes that all revolve around him falling at first sight for new Bella member Emily. It's not a relationship that informs anything about Emily, nor does it demand any growth of her, the way Beca's did in the first film. It really feels like this was the quick solution to "We want to add Benji to the film, but we only have him for a few days starting TOMORROW!"

You get the same feeling about Bumper's scenes. He's basically there so that Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy has her own subplot about realizing her feelings for him are more than just as a hook-up buddy. Not only is this an uninteresting use of Bumper, but it's a pretty awful use of Fat Amy. It never really circles back to make any impact on the A-story, which again leaves this feeling like a collection of should-have-been-deleted scenes. It's really perplexing and disappointing that this was the best they could do for arguably the biggest breakout character from the first film. It's even more inexplicable when you realize that her abrasive personality would make it very easy to craft some kind of Amy vs. Bellas or Amy vs. Beca conflict.

With so much time allotted to these vestigial tails from the first film, the rest of the Bellas feel like rare-speaking extras. Cynthia-Rose, Stacie, and Lily get MAYBE a dozen lines each. There are two girls who I'm sure never spoke, and Hailee Steinfeld is wasted as Emily. The villains this time around - a German team that's more "Sprockets" than "Fourth Reich" as German stereotypes go - don't get developed much. I'll give them points for landing solid zingers every time they show up, but once you get past that and their well-arranged numbers, there's not much to them. It might have been more interesting if there had eventually been some real dynamic between their leader Komissiar and Beca, much in the way BRING IT ON had its two rival leaders come to some kind of understanding in the end.

It's a crowded film that doesn't have time to let its characters be much more than stereotypes. A rare exception might be Keegan-Michael Key as a producer Beca's interning for. There are moments it feels like Key could have tipped the character just a little bit further into "Ari Gold evil boss" stereotype-land, but he actually creates a character who stands on the precipice of being a tyrant while still being credible as a producer and thoughtful as a leader. This guy could have easily been a cartoon, but by the time his brief story is over, you really believe he knows what he's talking about and you understand why this guy is successful. There's a reality to him that too many of the other characters lack.

The music is fun, boasting some clever arrangements. I'm sure the soundtrack will find its way onto my iPhone. Regrettably, the movie that spawned it won't have the same replay-ability.