Saturday, June 30, 2012

TAKE 5: One Movie, One Room

Perhaps the single greatest challenge for both actors and directors, aside from financing a film without studio interference, is to make an interesting film out of one single setting; one confined space or room. The story, the performances, the cinematography need to to both keep the viewers in that room while expanding its scope to something much larger and gripping. It's the ultimate irony: spending 90 minutes sitting in a small room watching a movie that takes place in a small room. Either you tap the viewer's imagination and psyche, or you come off as a a pr*ck who waste people's time and money.

Here's my pick of 5 films that pulled it off majestically. 


5- EXAM (2009)

Stuart Hazeldine's debut feature centers on a group of candidates applying for a rare high-level position in a world we learn to have been devastated by an outbreak. For these candidates, getting the job is do or die, which is exacerbated by the fact that none of them, left to their own devise in the room, know what the exam actually is. A beautifully filmed low-budgeter that looks -and is- way better than it would've if studio suits had been involved.

4- TAPE (2001)

What Happened to Rinchard Linklater? He used to make such compelling movies on no money. Like this one (and of course Dazed and Confused, one of my all-time favorites). The no-budget, seedy motel setting allows for something unusual and unexpected: proving once and for all that Uma Thurman is an actual, bona fide good actress. Perhpas helped by the fact she was flanked by two very strong (and often underrated) actors themselves, Ex-Mr. Thurman Ethan Hawk and his Dead Poets classmate Robert Sean "Wilson" Leonard, who chew on their many confrontations with great gusto.


3- 12 ANGRY MEN (1957)

Sidney Lumet's thriller set the tone and paved the way for small films in small confinements to be regarded in a big way. An extroardinary example of a film where tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue and body language, not action. Not to mention one of Henry Fonda's most subtle and compelling performances this side of Once Upon a Time in the West.
(yes, it's the entire movie, you're welcome!)


Granted some of the scenes, compared to the other entries in this list, do take place outside the one room (though all of them are flashbacks) but you have to admit the priceless dialogues, instant-classic characters and killer soundtrack blow the walls right off the confined little warehouse that shelters the "color" crew. And if anything if gave birth to the "Tarantinesque" filmmaking style. 
Has any other director in history seen his name so quickly become an adjective?


1- Rope (1948)

Some will argue I should've chosen Hitch's other single-setting masterpiece, Rear Window, but this granddaddy of all procedurals truly shines for it's tour-de-force cinematography of being filmed in only 10 cuts. Meaning for each take actors had to stay focused for up to 10 minutes without fail or else the entire 10-minute take had to be redone from scratch. The fact that the grand master made an edge-o'- your-seat thriller ouf of that is itself a commendable feat worth the watch. Oh, and it's based on a real-life murder case, just to sweeten the pot.


Monday, June 25, 2012

TV REVIEW: HBO's The Newsroom

Critics have been unusually harsh on Aaron Sorkin before his new show could even hit the air -even Liberal critics that is- and I have to admit I was inclined to follow their lead. Sorkin dropped the ball with the pretentious-yet-empty Studio 60, then easily swept Oscar Gold with The Socialist Network. Shouldn't he stay with movies instead of (yet again) repeating himsef?

The promos for The Newsroom made a lot of eyes roll. Sorkin's a fnatsatic writer especially when it comes to dialogues, but he's stuck with a disastrous case of white-page anxiety at the start of a new project. So for a TV pillot, he usually breaks the ice the same way. First you have the mediatic figure who has a very public meltdown; on Sports Night it was Peter Krause's disillusioned sports anchor, on The West Wing it was Bradley Whitford's DCOS taking a (well deserved) jab at the hypocrisy of right-wing religious fundamentalists, and on Studio 60 it was Judd Hirsh's Executive Producer sick of how TV has become little more than a constant marketing machine. Among a slew of familiar Sorkin, that one stands out themost because he's always the one to get the ball rolling. Here it's Jeff Daniels as a news anchor sick of narrating the sinking of a once great ship.

Familiar, yes. The dilalogues, rhytms, themes, impossibly liberal -and downright impossible- ideologies that we,re used to from all of Sorkin's media-centric TV shows are here. Does that make it bad? Absolutely not. The harsh criticisms received from early reviewers probably simple stems from Sorkin fatigue (of COURSE the central character is a huge sports fan, and I put my money on no more than 3 episodes before someone mentions Senator Stackhouse or Joshua Malina shows up) but the things he has to say, even though naive and overly liberal, are not wrong. And the debate he wishes to incur is NOT out of place.

The one strength in all this familiarity is to have gone with not only players new to the Sorkin-verse, but also ones little seen on television, making an old concept feel fresh. And even more kudos for letting the Brits -all 2 of them- keep their OWN accent; DEv Patel has a beautifully diffident character to play and his voice brings just the right pitch. Lesson learned: only Hugh Laurie can cross the pond and do a Yank accent. All others should keep their slang oir stay home. You here me, Stephen Moyer?!? Your painful attempt at a southern accent is NOT charming!

The Newsroom is a new show and has ways to go before being a GREAT one, like any news series looking for it's own voice. But I do feel that HBO is a great home for Aaron Sorkin to take is tried&tested TV formula and take it to the next step. As long as he's not imposed the usual HBO credo of The More Sex the Better. Don't get me wrong, I like sex as much as the next guy, but come on - you can't watch True Blood without being subjected with EVERY character's bare bum or sexual prowess a few times every show. WE KNOW you can do it on cable, get over it already!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

To Be Discovered: THE LIZZIE BENNET DIARIES (2012)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune MUST be in want of a wife. 
You might think that line to be the opening to Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, but it's actually something that Mrs. Bennet, 2.5 WPF (White Picket Fenced) suburbanite neurotic housewife, printed on t-shirts for her 3 daughters Jane, Lizzie, and Lydia. Because in 2012, suburbanite moms (especially the ones voting for Rick Santorum in the presidential primaries) still aim above all to marry their daughters to a rich doctor. Especially in this financial climate where a family like the Bennets have a hard time making ends meet. Thus begins the new web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

I admit I have quite an aversion for "modern adaptations" just as I do for unnecessary remakes. And that is the spirit with which I checked out the first episode of, thinking it would be so homemade-dreadful I'd get a good laugh at it. And admit again I do, I instantly fell in love with it. The producers of this thing (yes, producers, because this looks way too professional to be made in an actual student's bedroom) managed to keep the wit and the bite of Austen's social class commentaries within the confine of a three-character, 3-minute-a-week play. 

Jane Austen: All About the Style

The series concerns "Lizzie", aka Ashley Clements, a college student who's been coaxed by her lifelong friend Charlotte Liu (yes, Charlotte's Asian, Political correctness and all that, get over it) into doing a video diary for Charlotte's film class project. All she has to do is talk about her life, and at the moment it means her mom's shenanigans for her daughters to meet the new med student neighbor, Bing Lee (I mean really, get over it). Lizzie illustrates the players in her life through her witty impressions (I particularly coughed my lungs laughing at her take on a drunken jock that hit on her at a bar) and with the sometimes-unwanted help of her 2 sisters (yes 2, I mean come...). 

Episodes are short but full, easy to watch and very well written. To all purists out there, get a life. To all others, get some free time and catch up while you can. Series is already 22 episodes in (again, 3 minutes each, easy to watch) and has so far covered about maybe a third of the book. And since I'm such a good guy (no snarking, I am, ask my mom), here's the first episode right down here. 

And you can catch the rest of the episodes Right Here.

Monday, June 04, 2012

TV REVIEW: A&E's Longmire

TV Networks have been struggling a while to produce a western as good as Deadwood was but with ratings that won't force the former's kind of early demise. The solution, it seems, is to a) modernize the setting, and b) base it on a successful book (or series of). CBS nailed it with the Jesse Stone TV movies, while F/X surpassed that with the wildly addictive Justified. Was there any doubt others would give it a shot? The thing that has to be said right off the bat is that even though it isn't as original as the two previous examples,Longmire is just as darn-tootin' good. 

A&E's new offering (by the way, I haven't fogiven them for canceling Breakout Kings) comes from Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire novels and introduces Australian thesp Robert Taylor as the titular Malboro man. Alhtough the net publicized him as "The Matrix's Robert Taylor", be not fooled, this man is pretty much an unknown in these here North American parts, and may God brand me like steer if it isn't what works best about the whole thing. This character doesn't come with the ator's baggage, it introduces its own right off the bat. Of course we know what to expect -a gruff, broken, no-nonsense lawman- but this one knows he's out of touch with his time. He picks up litter right off the sidewalk (with his hands...), brushes off his shoes when walking into a house, and believes that The Hound of the Baskervilles should be law-enforcement required reading. THIS guy is on my watchlist as potentially the most interesting new character this year. 

Backing him are deputee Katee Sackoff whom I can't believe has such a hard time finding a job after being so brilliant in Battlestar Galactica, and eternal try-out Lou Diamind Phillips who's in his 3rd decade of trying to find a niche on TV (why DID Wolf Lake fail? it was pretty good!). Both characters present a puzzle to the viewer: starting out as clich├ęd and expandable but slowly being given all sorts of twists that make you feel they could be just as interesting as the headliner himself IF A&E remembered to hire the caliber of writers that made The Beast such a refreshing oddity a few years back (DAMN that was a good show...).

Perhaps the weak point if the show is the procedural aspect that we've SO much of thanks to CBS and the new wave they started with their uber-successful CSI franchise. If the producers of this new entry remember to keep the focus on their characters instead of trying to find a more clever weekly mystery than the shows that pioneered the current infection, than maybe Walt Longmire will stay long enough to give Raylan Givens a run for his money at the Emmys. If not, I will seriously question A&E's very reason for being.