“Middle Men” Coverage

Through my dealings with CBR, I occasionally get to do cool stuff like fly to San Francisco and review the new Transformers video game, or mess around with a free Flip video camera. Over the past week I had the chance to go to a screening of Paramount’s new movie “Middle Men,” which opens in theatre’s today, and do roundtable interviews with the cast, producer and director. I haven’t really stretched my journalistic legs since my high school canceled the newspaper after my 9th grade year (right after I was named Editor-In-Chief, go figure), so it’s nice to get a chance to work on that skill set again. I’m nowhere near the journalist (or writer) I want to be,but working in various avenues definitely keeps me a bit more limber.

Here are my interviews and review of the film, all posted on CBR’s SpinOff Online:

Director and Producer Talk Middle Men

Talking with the Middle Men

Middle Men Rises Above the Pack


Justified, based on a short story/character from master novelist Elmore Leonard and developed for TV by Graham (Speed, Boomtown) Yost, was a show I got excited about as I do nearly everything on FX.  That interest grew when I found out it was based on Leonard and they showed the first trailer.  The same happened again when the posters started to hit, and gave just the right vibe (along with smart design) for my taste.

I really enjoyed the pilot, but it stopped short of great.  It had all the elements needed to create a proper show engine: likable and iconic protagonist, Timothy Olyphant in that role, great introduction to him, great title sequence and theme song, and a very interesting antagonist with a complexity not often seen on television in the form of Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder.  It just didn’t reach the levels I was expecting from the trailer.  And then the second episode rolled around…

The structure wasn’t what I was expecting from the show, or had come to expect from the 13-episode seasons of other FX shows.  Bryan Hill went all Tony Stark and built a paradigm for the elite television shows, and for the most part it’s the model on which all of FX’s shows are structured.  Justified went a different way.  It was more episodic, so that anyone could tune in at any time and understand what was going on, and even if they didn’t could still enjoy Raylan catching the “villain of the week.”

For lack of a better description, I feared Justified was turning into a USA show.  There’s nothing wrong with them – they are infinitely watchable – but they don’t possess the same depth as what outlets like FX, AMC, HBO, and Showtime are putting out.  FX is all about characters in increasingly convoluted situations and gravitas and darkness, yet Justified felt light(er).

I stuck with the show because it was enjoyable and this is the off-season for most TV; I couldn’t be happier that I did.  It got better just about every week, and the overarching story grew incrementally until it felt like there were minimal episodic elements and the creators had been building to an intense finale from the opening scene of the pilot.  They had pulled a bait-and-switch, and a welcome one at that.

The first season finale aired last night and was a thing of beauty.  I can’t get into much for fear of spoilers – I know way too many of you didn’t watch this show – but if you want payoffs it has them.  If you want to know what Season 2 will feel like and still be not at all sure… they’ve planted the seeds to keep you wondering.

I mentioned this on twitter previously, but I’ll go into it again with a bit more space.  Justified has hands-down the best character introductions and economical character development of anything in recent memory.  No one is built by talking about them when they’re offscreen.  Characters do.  One of the first lessons I learned about dramatic writing is that action is character.  When a character shows up on Justified, they do things that actually define.  Things that are true to their character and let you know exactly who you’re dealing with.  It’s not a world inhabited by stereotypes or even archetypes; these are living, breathing, believable characters.  I’ve known for a few weeks that I’ll rewatch the show to figure out exactly how they pull this off.  It’s a rare concoction of clever writing and excellent casting and performances, I’d imagine.

To sum up, Justified is an excellent show. It spends most of the first season in watchable/good mode, but as it ramps up to its end approaching greatness.  It certainly seems poised to make that leap next season, especially with… Sorry, almost tossed out a spoiler there.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.  It’s got the goods.

You can see the promo trailer HERE.

And here’s a quick look from New York Magazine about building a better hero, using the show as a case study.

2009’s Best Film Posters

I’m a big design and typography guy. I can’t design for the life of me, but I know what’s great when I see it, and great design speaks to me as much as stunning imagery. Here’s one man’s list of the Best Film Posters of 2009. Not saying he didn’t miss anything, but it’s a good list.
Here are a few samples for you to make sure you click:

TGIM – Mamet

I didn’t know what to watch yesterday, but knew I wanted to get through at least one movie. Redbelt was among the choices, and David Atchison was the first to respond via twitter so it got the nod. I’m a huge fan of David Mamet, so I’m not really sure how I missed Redbelt in theaters. I’m surprised more people aren’t still talking about the movie given the continued proliferation and success of UFC/MMA in the mainstream. And the fact that’s it’s amazing, and stars the always excellent but perhaps always improperly pronounced
Mamet kills me. He really does. There’s always something I can take away from his movies that makes me want to get a thousand times better. I’ve decided that rather than calling him a writer-director, he’ll now be referred to as a Master Dramatist. No other way to describe him.
Most people credit him with having distinct dialogue. It’s realistic, unique, and often perfectly delivered. He’s well-known for rehearsing actors with metronomes to get the timing down right. His background is as a playwright, but he’s been writing films since ’81 and directing since ’87. There’s a difference between his work when directed by others and directed by himself. Something just feels much more authentic when he’s the one getting the performance. Not to say he hasn’t written some amazing work for others (The Verdict, The Untouchables, and Pulitzer Prize winner Glengarry, Glen Ross), but for a truly Mametian experience I recommend letting the man do his thing.
One of the many things of his I’d like to integrate more into my own work is his use of repetition. Oleanna is an early film, based on one of his plays (one room, two actors) that for all intents and purposes isn’t a good film. It’s just not visual enough for film and I didn’t particularly like the girl in it, but as a dramatic exercise it really works. There’s a scene (or more than one, I only watched it once on LaserDisc) where William H. Macy keeps repeating the words, “What would you have me do?” And somehow, they manage to take on new meeting the more he says them. Same thing in Spartan, when Derek Luke keeps telling Val Kilmer, “I saw the sign.”
In Redbelt, we have the following exchange, which is a better representative example because it shows how each character in the scene has a different dramatic need, and they’re pretty much unwavering. It’s not really communication in the typical film/scripted sense, but it’s how people talk and makes for something much more interesting.

Gini Collins: Joe still inside?
Mike Terry: No, he just left.
Gini Collins: Left?
Mike Terry: Yeah, maybe he went to the club.
Gini Collins: What happened to the window?
Mike Terry: Isn’t he on at the club?
Gini Collins: Um, that’s funny.
Mike Terry: Weren’t you going to the mountains?
Gini Collins: Why would he go to the club?
Mike Terry: Isn’t he working tonight?
Gini Collins: The club? No. No, no, no. He hasn’t worked at the club in months. Listen, uh, I have to tell him something. Okay? Tell him.
Mike Terry: Why?
Gini Collins: Why what?
Mike Terry: Why hasn’t he been working there?

Gini Collins: Yeah, I know. Listen, I gotta get home.

Mamet does much more than great dialogue though. His plots aren’t always 100% what you would expect structurally (probably due to the difference in act structure in plays), but he always seeds and pays off properly. I think his tightest script might be The Spanish Prisoner, criminally out of print on DVD. It’s pretty much perfectly executed, with the twists and turns never stopping until the end credits roll. I haven’t really been studying him of late so I can’t talk more, but thematically he often deals with duplicity, seedy underworld stuff, and magic/deception. Somehow his stuff, despite being very plot heavy, is always character-driven. He’s great that way.

I have reason to believe he probably has a hard time trusting most people. It’s because he gets them so well in his writing, and their often duplicitous nature. He’s spent enough time in the underbelly and dealing with magic and trickery that it must be hard to ever just look at the surface of things. And while I just made that up based on the content of his work, I did find this in an article he wrote:

And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

I highly recommend his book, On Directing Film, based on a series of lectures he gave at Columbia. I’ve read it twice, and will probably read again this week (only 107 pages) since I’m on a Mamet kick. It’s really interesting the way he lays out questions, has the students toss answers, and then gives simple, much more effective solutions to problems. Like I said, he’s a Master Dramatist (pretension inherent in such a statement, of course), and learning from him is something more people should do.
His films do have one downside, though. His wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, is a frustrating actress. Sometimes she’s perfectly cast, and other times she feels like the only amateur in an otherwise flawlessly cast picture. Obviously he’s not just giving her the work as he could just cast her on stage, but I just think he overestimates her type on screen. There’s something about her delivery that does it. It might be perfectly Mametian (how many writers get their own adjective), but it’s often frustrating.
I highly recommend his whole catalog, as even his lesser works have great things in them. Disclaimer – I have yet to see quite a few of his written by only films, like The Edge. And he also doctored and made Ronin good, under a pseudonym.
Interesting Mametian semi-trivia, my copy of Spartan broke, snapped in half, the first time I pulled the DVD out of the case. I later mentioned this to Troy, who had the exact same thing happen with his. Crazy.

American Original

On a day when nothing seems to make sense, and everyone is acting foolish, stupid, or ridiculous, Jeff Katz seems to be the only guy making any sense. Starting with the announcement of his new company, American Original, and the follow-up interview on CBR, he’s got my ear.
Very curious to see what this leads to, and I wish him and his company a lot of success. It’s making me feel better about life on a strange day. That’s invaluable.

TGIM – ‘Star Trek’

I’m not a Trekkie. Sure, I had my phase where I rented all the movies (on VHS) from the now defunct Versatile Video. I liked them well enough (well, the second one anyway) and I liked when the now defunct SciTrek museum hosted an exhibit and we spent the night there in elementary school, but I never really got super into it. That’s because JJ Abrams and company weren’t involved then.
Star Trek on the whole has some excellent thematic stuff going for it, but it always rang a little hollow for me. It was built like a TV show confined to a set. Because it was. It had its moments, but I wasn’t really willing to discover them. I was more of a Star Wars guy, but I wasn’t one of those either. In all honesty, I’m not big on sci-fi. Too many trappings often prevent solid storytelling and then I check out. I like isolated projects, but as a genre it’s not my thing.
Trevor Roth who runs Roddenberry Productions was nice enough to invite me to a screening of the new movie last night on the Paramount lot. I had high hopes, as the trailer is amazing and early buzz was stellar. It met or exceeded all of them. It’s a re-invention (not a re-imagining) of the mythos, and I can’t imagine that anyone between the ages of 6 and 30 won’t become instant, life-long fans. It’s that good. Action I expected to be on point, but I was a little bit worried about the script. I shouldn’t have been. Kurtzman and Orci did their thing with style. It’s everything I want in a movie as a casual fan at best of the original IP. If you’re a fan, it’s got all the fan service nods you need to keep you from even bothering to say, “That’s not how it was in the original.” Everyone really did their thing across the board. It’s not perfect, but it delivers everything you’re likely to want and more.
The casting is damn near perfect. One or two slightly iffy but not bad supporting characters (and when I mean support, I mean sub-5 minutes of screen time), and the rest is awesome. Chris Pine is the next Harrison Ford. He’s totally charismatic, and amazing in the role. Even with the monkey that is Shatner on his back, he moves effortlessly through the film in stride. Really happy JJ decided to go with an ‘unknown,’ as I’m a big fan of guys without baggage inhabiting a role. Everyone else is good, but it’s his show. Quinto does his best to steal some of the limelight, and he’s damn good, but everyone plays second fiddle to James T. Kirk. Which is exactly how some wannabe ‘blockbuster’ directors will be feeling about JJ Abrams in no time at all.
I’m not going to post any spoilers, save to let you know that Star Trek is a great film. Easily the one to beat this summer, and all indications point to that not being much of a problem. And this coming from a guy who didn’t care about the property at all.