Warner Bros. Pictures via Everett Collection
Blended is not the worst thing Adam Sandler has ever done. For my money, that superlative goes to Grown Ups 2, though I've heard dutiful cases for Jack & Jill and That's My Boy as well. But beyond any of these travesties is Blended utterly unworthy of anybody's time. A morbid fascination with what might pass for outsider art in the form of uniquely bad movies like the ones listed above could be enough driving force to check them out. As much as I hated Grown Ups 2, I have to give it credit for at least sending me careening down a valley of explosive ideas. But Blended is wholly uninteresting in its badness. Nothing about it boasts originality, imagination, weirdness, or even the hint that anybody thought about what they were making. It's dumb, it's thick, it's careless. It's bad in all the most useless of ways.
If you must know, the "story" sees Sandler and Drew Barrymore, a widower and a divorcee who shared a catastrophic blind date (thanks entirely to the follies of the "lovable" male character), bumping into each other on an African vacation with their respective litters. I won't bother getting into the contrivance that led them to such a profound coincidence, since I'm already agitated over having relived the basic premise. Although they are indelibly incompatible, Sandler and Barrymore gradually bond over a mutual love for their children, and begin to fill the roles of absent parent for each other's kids. Barrymore has two boys, so naturally Sandler needs to teach them how to box and swing a bat. That's what boys do, right? And Sandler's oldest daughter needs Barrymore to teach her how to be girly. Because up until now, she's been into sports, and that just won't do.
Warner Bros. Pictures via Everett Collection
Seriously, that's a lesson that Sandler learns in this debacle: his daughter, a 15-year-old girl, shouldn't be filling her flighty head with pipe dreams about athletic prowess. She should be dressing up and chasing boys. That's what Barrymore insists, anyway. And never mind what the daughter herself, played by Bella Thorne, has to say about it. The movie doesn't ever bother to get her opinion on the matter.
Throughout all its misguided aggressive heteronormativity, Blended forgets that comedy exists in a realm beyond middle-aged men getting hit by parachutes and ostriches. Its only laughs come from fellow vacationer Kevin Nealon — not because his material is any good, just because Kevin Nealon is a naturally funny dude — and Terry Crews as the head of a functional Greek chorus. Admittedly offensive in its depiction of Africans (as is the movie on the whole), the device does manage a few chuckles thanks largely to Crews' physical moxy.
But four or five smirks aside, Blended is a wholly humorless, witless, charmless dullard. Something too forgettable to truly hate, but too misguided to shrug off. And even with that logical paradox, it remains bafflingly uninteresting.
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It's the beginning of the summer, which means it's time for Hollywood's biggest and brightest stars to make their way to the French Riviera for the Cannes Film Festival, while the rest of us look on with jealousy. But just because you didn't snag a ticket to the most glamorous film event of the year, that doesn't mean you can't keep up with all of the big films premiering over the next two weeks. To help you stay on top of things, we're running down the biggest films that premiered in competition at the festival, including the latest from David Cronenberg, Steve Carell's potential Oscar vehicle and the high-profile movie that opened to worse reviews than Grace of Monaco.
Lost RiverActor Ryan Gosling's dreamy and feverish directorial debut follows Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her son Bones (Ian De Caestecker) as they struggle to survive the economically devastated Detroit-like city of Lost River. Billy goes to desperate lengths to keep her childhood home while Bones resorts to scavenging from local abandoned houses, but a local madman named Bully (Matt Smith) has claimed the entire neighborhood for himself. Lost River screened in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes and was met with mostly boos from the audience. Many critics have cited Gosling's ambition, but have accused the first time director of being derivative of other, more seasoned filmmakers.
“'Lost' is indeed the operative word for this violent fairy tale about a fractured family trying to survive among the ruins of a city overrun by thugs, sexual predators and other demons, nearly all of them cribbed from the surreal cinematic imaginations of other, vastly more intuitive filmmakers. It’s perversely admirable to the extent that Gosling has certainly put himself out there, sans shame or apology, but train-wreck fascination will go only so far to turn this misguided passion project into an item of even remote commercial interest." - Justin Chang, Variety
"The visuals are undeniably dreamy, but they mostly seem borrowed from other filmmakers’ dreams. There’s a Twin Peaks feel of an alternate, off-kilter world to the whole thing, one in which arbitrary, quasi-surrealistic images barge in, sometimes for symbolic reasons, at other times arbitrarily. Many of them relate to ruin and decay—civic, environmental, bodily—and there is a sense of the ghosts who occupy both the ruined homes and the underwater town. As beautifully presented as the imagery is, however, none of it registers deeply because it all seems like borrowed goods. It’s flashy enough to engage the eye, but the experience is akin to flipping through a gorgeous art photography book featuring an assortment of artists rather than one. " - Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
Maps to the Stars David Cronenberg’s latest film follows Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman who was disfigured in a fire, and moves to LA in an attempt to reconnect with her family… even if they don’t want to reconnect with her. Along the way she befriends a limo driver (Robert Pattinson) and gets a job working for a washed-up movie star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is attempting to land the lead role in a remake of a film that once starred her mother (Sarah Gadon). Meanwhile, Havana's shrink (John Cusack) is raising tween megastar Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), who at 13 is fresh out of rehab and whose fame allows him to get away with just about anything.
“If Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve and Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon took a bunch of prescription medication, had a two-day three-way and conceived a child, nine months later the child would look something like "Map To The Stars. […] Hollywood's seemed pretty rotten from the off in the film, but as Cronenberg exposes its stinking maggoty core of ghosts, sexual deviancy and cover-ups, the film takes on a nightmarish K-hole tone of its own, while remaining darkly, bitterly funny to the last. LA's rarely seemed as unappealing on screen, which is quite the feat.” – Oliver Lyttelton, The Playlist
“David Cronenberg's new film here at Cannes is a gripping and exquisitely horrible movie about contemporary Hollywood – positively vivisectional in its sadism and scorn. It is twisted, twisty, and very far from all the predictable outsider platitudes about celebrity culture. The status-anxiety, fame-vertigo, sexual satiety and that all-encompassing fear of failure which poisons every triumph are displayed here with an icy new connoisseurship, a kind of extremism which faces down the traditional objection that films like this are secretly infatuated with their subject.” – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Foxcatcher Based on the true story of the murder of wrestler Dave Schultz, Foxcatcher has emerged from the festival as a major player in next year's Oscars race. Channing Tatum stars as Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler who has long lived in the shadow of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). When Mark gets an invitation from multimillionaire John E. duPont (Steve Carell) to move into his home and train at his facilities, his relationship with his new benefactor turns out ot have dangerous consequences.
"Despite its hefty 134-minute running time, “Foxcatcher” doesn’t have an ounce of the proverbial narrative fat [...] Crucially, this meticulously researched picture feels as authentic in its understanding of character as it does in its unvarnished re-creation of the world of Olympic sports in the late ’80s; rarely onscreen has the art of wrestling, centered around the violent yet intimate spectacle of men’s bodies in furious collision, provided so transfixing a metaphor for the emotional undercurrents raging beneath the surface." - Justin Chang, Variety
"Centered on an astonishing and utterly unexpected serious turn by Steve Carell, this beautifully modulated work has a great deal on its mind about America's privileged class, usurious relationships, men's ways of proving themselves, brotherly bonds and how deeply sublimated urges can assert themselves in the most unsavory ways." - Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
Saint LaurentFocused on the life and career of Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel), the film charts the designer's rise to fame and his relationship with his lover and business partner, Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier). Written and directed by Bertrand Bonello, it's one of several high-profile biopics in contention at Cannes this year, although similarities to another recent Saint Laurent movie may have been its downfall with critics, as it only earned mixed reviews.
"The point could be to show what it all cost Saint Laurent - and yet it doesn't actually seem to have cost him that much: he grows to a pampered old age, not very conspicuously interested in anyone or anything but his dog. Perhaps it is that they are entirely without affect, like a tableau by Warhol, who writes Saint Laurent a fan letter here. Finally, Saint Laurent is a well made but bafflingly airless and claustrophobic film, like being with fashion's very own Tutenkhamen , living and dying inside his own richly appointed tomb - and sentimentally indulged to the last." - Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Perhaps through time this hallucinatory quasi-dream of a biopic will grow in stature, but as first impressions go, the film loves itself so much it renders itself beautiful, but utterly shallow. The messy structure, which includes further time jumps in the future – a random introduction of an older Saint Laurent, the Pierre Berge-handling business affairs at irregular intermissions between exploration of a bored genius, and animal cruelty in the form of a pug OD’ing on pills – doesn’t do the film any favors." - Nikola Grozdanovic, The Playlist
Ego Film Arts/The Film Farm
The Captive Atom Egoyan's latest film centers on the kidnapping of a teenage girl, and the torture that her captor puts her parents through. Eight years after Cass (Alexia Fast) disappeared, her parents (Ryan Reynolds and Mireille Enos) discover disturbing new evidence that leads them to believe that she's still alive, and they desperately attempt to get the police to take their case seriously. The film, which was perceived by many to be a comeback vehicle for both Reynolds and Eyogan, premiered to largely negative reviews, putting it up against Grace of Monaco and Lost River for the biggest disappointment of the festival.
"The plotting here is so hopelessly tangled, clichéd, and bereft of psychological complexity that it's difficult to care what happens to any of these people. That goes even for poor Cass, who seems at times to have a touch of Stockholm syndrome but otherwise just looks bored sitting around on the pink princess bed she's outgrown. As Mika's antics become more bizarre and her distraught dad out of nowhere starts outsmarting her tormentors, the movie goes from uninvolving to risible." - David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter
"Any other year, in any other context, The Captive would simply be another overcooked rote thriller that, like so many other films in this genre, totally loses the run of itself in the final act (seriously, Kevin Durand goes so Bond villain that he even has a female henchperson sidekick). [...] Instead, right down to the nearly synonymous title we get a lurid, silly Prisoners me-too (and that film itself was far from flawless) in which the only additions are a flashback-and-forward structure that never works, the kind of contrivance in which a laptop camera accidentally left transmitting records a crucial conversation (perfectly framed) and a crude, distastefully regressive subtheme which suggests that well, of course that this is what happens to girls and to women (even successful, intelligent, independent women) when they are left alone even for a moment by their menfolk." - Jessica Kiang, The Playlist
The Homesman Co-written, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman follows a claim jumper and a pioneer woman (Hilary Swank), who accompany three insane women - played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter - across the border into Iowa. Like several other Cannes contenders, the film has already been receiving awards buzz, thanks to Jones' direction and a powerhouse lead performance from Swank.
"Unlike other actor-directors, Jones never seems to indulge excess on the part of his cast. Though the characters are strong, the performances are understated. Even the three ladies settle into a state of near-catatonia after awhile, rather than indulging their various “hysterias.” In the past, people have whispered about Jones’ attitudes toward women; with this film, he says a thing or two on the subject with a sensitivity that comes as a welcome surprise." - Peter Debruge, Variety
"This is a frontier tale with something of the classic style of Stagecoach or 3:10 to Yuma, but also the consciously grimmer, austerer feel of Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff and indeed Lee Jones's own The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada. And it is a frontier tale which is swimming against the generic current: most stories like these are about heading west. This is about a trudge in the opposite direction." - Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Walt Disney Studios via Everett Collection
Million Dollar Arm takes a lot for granted when it comes to its audience. It assumes that anyone paying to see this film must care about baseball. Odds are it's right — you've got to have some motivating factor beyond Jon Hamm's jawline. But it assumes you care enough that it doesn't matter how little its characters seem to. We see so few instances involving any carnal appreciation for the game throughout the bulk of the picture, least of all from cranky and materialistic sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Hamm), that when the final act treats us to its coup de grâce tearjerkers we can't help but feel like we're being thrown one hell of a curveball.
But that isn't the worst of the film's assumptions. As a last ditch effort to find a ringer both talented and bankable enough to save his career, J.B. throws caution to the wind and high tails it to India on a scouting mission for strong-armed cricket bowlers. So casually racist that you'd think this film takes place long before 2008, J.B. hates everything about cricket (...why?) and India on the whole, submitting immediately to the idea that he's in a third-rate wasteland where nothing can get done, nobody knows anything, and any young boy would be elated to get out of dodge. And Million Dollar Arm has no interest in proving him wrong: The film never second-guesses (and assumes we won't either) the notion that Big Leagues hopefuls Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma) would be happier and better off in America. It assumes we won't take any issue with the idea that two boys from India must have never seen an elevator, a television, or a moment of good fortune. Sure, they might not have... but it's as if Million Dollar Arm expects us to believe there is no other option when a wide-eyed Sharma wanders through a Californian hotel like Wall-E exploring the starliner.
Walt Disney Studios via Everett Collection
The film gives itself so much regrettable leeway while carting through the necessary points of its true story, jumping from the laughable inception of J.B.'s plan to move his search overseas to the languid introduction of the two boys (neither of whom is given any backstory) and their entry into the MLB's consideration. But scattered throughout are beats and scenes that seem ripped from a different script entirely — J.B.'s gradual appreciation of Dinesh, Rinku, and much bemoaned translator, documentarian, and aspiring baseball coach Amit (Pitobash Tripathy) as his surrogate family. Of course the vast majority of his emotional realizations come at the behest of his beautiful, kooky tenant Brenda (Lake Bell), but the kids are usually at least nearby.
It's shocking how much the personal material does to salvage Million Dollar Arm, though. J.B.'s relationship with Dinesh, Rinku, and Amit, and — perhaps more importantly — the relationships between Dinesh, Rinku, and Amit themselves are funny, warm, and flavorful enough to give this otherwise faceless movie some real character. Secondary players Bill Paxton and Alan Arkin do little to surprise, playing disgruntled and unconscious respectively, but there's a reason these guys are always called on to do the same thing. And if that's not enough for you, Aasif Mandvi's kids keep throwing up. It plays both like an extended metaphor about the hidden joys in family life and a non sequitur gag from Tomcats. Take your pick.
Million Dollar Arm's charming points are strong enough to distract at times from its boisterous misgivings, but they peer through in the end. Not every baseball movie needs hair-tustling and eye-welling. Not every baseball movie warrants a Pride of the Yankees elegy about the glories of the diamond. But Million Dollar Arm wishes it was one of these movies (so much so that it actually rips the Lou Gehrig speech right out of Gary Cooper's mouth). Still, instead of building a story about the love of baseball or even about the magic of this story, Million Dollar Arm keeps all its genuine energy on a bunt: the story of some jackass who warms up to a couple of kids after a while. Not a bad play, but hardly the grand slam it was going for.
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Summit Entertainment via Everett Collection
When a movie opts to play inside baseball with a particular industry, it runs two risks: alienating the people outside looking in ("What the hell is all this mumbo jumbo?"), or alienating the people tightly connected to the underworld on display ("They got it all wrong!"). On special occasions, you have a film like Draft Day, which strikes out in both areas, somehow feigning expertise with such vigor as to befuddle strangers to behind-the-scenes football and frustrate those with an inborn knowledge of the underworld. As a member of the former community, I was bored stiff by the nonstop industry jabber. I was surprised to find, after our viewing of the movie, that a sports-savvy friend was even more aggravated with the film for everything they got so very, very wrong.
But really, neither of these is the true crime of Draft Day. Even on the promise of delivering a bona fide curtain pull on the NFL, all the film really owes us is a good story. Instead, Draft Day banks on the appeal of its would-be authenticity — this is how football people talk, act, eat, do business, grimace, throw laptops on draft day! — as a stand-in for any material we might otherwise be able to care about. The film slaps Kevin Costner's Sonny Weaver Jr., beleaguered general manager of the Cleveland Browns, with just about every go-to leading man conflict in the book (problems at work, problems with his girlfriend, problems with his family) in hopes that something will land in the neighborhood of emotional legitimacy... or, more plausibly, in hopes that it'll play enough like an attempt at a screenplay to warrant all the stats talk he's really there to spout.
His supporting cast has even less to do — Jennifer Garner is his all smiles romantic partner whose vehement love for football is supposed to make her interesting to us (What?! But she's a girl!). Ellen Burstyn is Sonny's disapproving mother, who has a penchant for wistful staring. Denis Leary is a coach who yells a lot.
Summit Entertainment via Everett Collection
The one vein of character work that stands out as a near success comes attached to the line of potential drafts. Josh Pence plays draft frontrunner Bo Callahan who Sonny has a bad feeling about. Chadwick Boseman is the underdog linebacker who we know we're supposed to like because he takes his nephews to gymnastics. In a post-Moneyball world, Sonny is accessing the humanity in the boys he's considering for a career on his field. Hell, he's even willing to overlook the troubled past of Arian Foster because he trusts the boy's dad (I think Terry Crews is contractually obligated to appear in any movie about football). It's thin material that amounts to a disjointed explosion, but it rings as the movie's most interesting stuff. Unfortunately, it's couriered through Sonny, a character who we're barely allowed to meet.
The tragedy of this conclusion is that most of the cast members, Costner included, are giving moreover enjoyable performances — accolades in particular to 25-year-old Griffin Newman as fish-out-of-water intern Rick, suffering through the worst first day of work imaginable. The small comedy offered by Newman and a few others (bullpen fixtures like Wade Williams and Veep's Timothy Simons) is treated like an occasional garnish, but amounts to much-craved sustenance when it pervades the tasteless and stale football blather.
Blather that will detract anybody just hoping to catch a fun sports movie, and blather that will turn off the most high-minded of football fans craving some degree of industrial accuracy. In either case, the blather exists in absence of much otherwise. Without any real characters operating in this dense, hectic, ostensibly colorful world of the NFL, it feels as vacant as Sun Life Stadium on opening weekend. (Right?)
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Earlier this year, Leonardo DiCaprio told press during his tour for Django Unchained that after a busy 2013 — which includes this week's The Great Gatsby and this Martin Scorsese's Nov. 15 release The Wolf of Wall Street— he was looking forward to taking a break from the acting scene. Seems fair for an actor who has managed three Oscar nominations and a position at the top of the A-lister ladder at the ripe, young age of 38.
Gatsby marks another incredible performance from DiCaprio, a subversion of his natural good looks that turned him into a heartthrob in his in early days (would Tiger Beat have survived the '90s without the Growing Pains star?). Unlike a Hollywood titan like Brad Pitt, whose preferences draw him to "character actor" parts that require a chameleon's touch, DiCaprio is the rare performer who can deliver natural drama without simply playing himself over and over again. His roles don't need big twists or exaggerations, just an added layer for DiCaprio to unearth over the course of the film.
Hollywood honored DiCaprio when he was only 20 years old, for his work as the mentally challenged Arnie in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. He's fully immersed, but the part has the most to hide behind. He's more vibrant when a role demands nuance. Think 1996's Romeo + Juliet, DiCaprio's previous collaboration with Gatsby director Baz Luhrmann, his downward spiraling character in Danny Boyle's The Beach, a cop holding back secrets in Scorsese's The Departed or a slowly unraveling suburbanite in Revolutionary Road. He's even found a way to challenge himself amidst blockbuster-sized action: wavering confidence is at the heart of DiCaprio's work in Christopher Nolan's Inception and if you write off Titanic as pure Hollywood schmaltz, you're too busy rolling your eyes when you should be taking in the glow of its leading man.
That's not to say DiCaprio is incapable of the extravagant. Gatsby sees the actor dabble with moments of physical comedy; the period settings of The Man in the Iron Mask and Gangs of New York open the door for broader characters; and his Oscar-nominated work as the eccentric Howard Hughes in The Aviator and the diabolical slave owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained see DiCaprio erupt out of his shell.
For me, the all-encompassing DiCaprio role is that of Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can. Growing up with the con-artist over the course of Steven Spielberg's zippy drama is like witnessing every milestone in DiCaprio's career. He starts young and naive, makes a discovery that challenges him to develop characters and improvise on his toes, then unravels to become a madman. When Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) finds Abagnale towards the end of the film, DiCaprio sports straggly hair and oppressive paranoia. It's a dark side that DiCaprio rarely shows, but we know he's capable of.
What is Leonardo DiCaprio's best movie? Now you can decide by voting in our poll and sound off with your thoughts in the comments.
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Universal’s Oblivion starring Tom Cruise topped the weekend chart with a better-than-expected $38.2 million. The PG-13 science-fiction film, which also stars Morgan Freeman, was expected to earn in the $30 to $35 million range and with nearly $40 million this weekend easily took the top spot. It was also the number one film in the world this weekend with total worldwide estimated grosses reaching $150.2 million and had a solid hold overseas (-42%) where it is No.1 for the second weekend in a row and grossed $33.7 million in 60 territories.
Notably, this is the second highest domestic opening for Cruise outside of the Mission: Impossible franchise. IMAX was also strong taking in 14.4% of the weekend gross in North America opening on 323 domestic screens to a healthy $5.5 mil this April weekend, internationally, Oblivion in IMAX held in nicely on its second weekend, generating $1.6 mil; this bringing the international total to $6.0+ mil. Warner Bros.’ Jackie Robinson true-life sports biopic 42 holds strong as it continues to capitalize on terrific word-of-mouth dropping just 34% in its second weekend and swings hard for $18 million and a second place finish this weekend. The film has earned $54 million after just 10 days in release. Third place goes to the Fox’s The Croods which remains the number one family film in the marketplace in its fifth weekend of release as it generates an impressive $9.5 million, $154.9 million to date in North America and a whopping $274.5 million internationally. Weinstein Co.’s horror entry Scary Movie V dropped 56% in its second weekend but managed to scare up another $6.3 million and $22.9 million through Sunday night. Rounding out the Top 5 is the action hit G.I. Joe: Retaliation with $5.8 million in its fourth weekend and an impressive $111.2 million to date in North America. Just outside of the Top 5 Focus Features’ first wide release of The Place Beyond the Pines added 1,028 theaters and took an impressive $4,745,888 in nationwide release and a total take of $11.5 million. Two impressive limited releases made their mark with IDP/Samuel Goldwyn’s Home Run in just 381 theaters posting an impressive $1,623,032 and a per theater average of $4,260 (good enough for a twelfth place finish) and Lionsgate’s Pantelion Films Filly Brown with an equally notable thirteenth place finish generating $1.363 million in just 381 theaters and the second best per-theater average of any film in the Top 20 of $7,250. Despite a solid showing by Cruise, the overall weekend was down about 19% vs. the same weekend a year ago when Think Like a Man opened with $33.6 million and The Lucky One had a $22.5 million debut. YTD box office stand at $2.764 million (down 11.21% vs. 2012), but luckily Iron Man 3 is less than two weeks away and should start the summer movie season with a bang!
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Last fall NBC introduced Go On, an ostensible comedy banking its identity on the half-hour format, its Friends alum starring player Matthew Perry, and some snark-inspiring likenesses to the network's own Community. The series, which concluded its freshman season on Thursday night, can indeed boast a terrific sense of humor. It's goofy, it's sunny, it's fast-paced, it's clever — at its second best, it's one of the funniest shows on television.
At its very best, it's one of the saddest.
Go On flew out the gate with a pilot stuffed with genuine heartbreak. The premise, which places Perry's sports radio show host Ryan King in group therapy following the death of his wife, does not have to reach far for some tearful material. But instead of opting simply for dark comedy, Go On actually seemed intent on achieving legitimate drama. Ryan and his fellow group members — another widow, a divorcee, a woman left at the altar, a middle-aged woman separated from her husband and son, an elderly man battling several debilitating illnesses, a woman grieving the loss of her cat, a young man whose brother has slipped into a permanent coma, and the group question mark Mr. K — exhibit substantial sorrow, unlike much of what you'd find in a half-hour NBC comedy. Sure, Parks and Recreation has its sentimental side, but more often than not pads the sweet moments with a joke. The show never traverses the full-on tragic. With the willingness to do so, the early episodes of Go On exhibited something brave and new.
But the season finale, which sees Ryan finally striving to spread his dead wife's ashes, is not a terrific testament to the show's young courage. In fact, over the course of the year, Go On strayed a bit from its tragedy in favor of the more traditional comedy. It never lost its bite altogether, keeping the substance behind the characters' stories in its pocket, but the show began to drape itself in wit.
We ended early episodes on somber notes; a memorable scene had blind, ailing George (Bill Cobbs) imploring Ryan to let go of his compulsion to fill every moment with a comment, a snap, a joke, and just soak in the world around him. There was no punchline to this — the episode ended on this sweet, tear-inducing (when you consider the context of the man's wife having just passed) note. But the finale seems to prove that Go On has abandoned this practice; instead, the show is more concerned with keeping things upbeat in the face of the characters' tragedies.
And maybe that's a good thing — maybe it's a testament to the importance of moving on and returning to life's joys. Go On is, in fact, a hilarious program. But we're hoping that Season 2, if it does indeed come to be, decides to employ some of the old magic that separated the show from its contemporaries.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
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For generations now, the world has looked at the Ivy League as a Mecca for the narrow framed intellectuals who didn't fare too well in gym class. The sort of folk who'd pray for fire drills during hockey season, who'd repeatedly shuffle to the back of the batting lineup to avoid ever stepping onto the field (I say this with affection... and far too much familiarity). But you just have to have everything, don't you, Harvard? You're not satisfied with an academic reverence so high that whenever one of your almumni so much as mentions his or her alma mater, the listener is immediately entrenched in a diminished sense of self-worth. Nope — being smart wasn't enough for the Crimson. They're actually good at sports now.
In case you didn't hear the guys in the apartment next to yours screaming vociferous "Are you kidding me?!"s on Thursday night, Harvard managed a huge upset by beating out the University of New Mexico's Lobos in their first ever NCAA victory. But fear not, fellow safety schoolers — there are still plenty of things Cambridge's sweatervest-laden institution is bad at...
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The OscarsWhile many people might have championed the Harvard-set The Social Network as the cream of the crop of 2010's cinematic output, the Academy felt it more appropriate to honor The King's Speech. Thirteen years prior, Good Will Hunting (which featured Harvard, MIT, and the spiritual academia of Casey Affleck) suffered the same fate to some movie about a big boat that nobody can even remember. And was Legally Blonde even nominated?! Harvard's no Oscar fave, that's for sure.
Mental HealthWe're sure there's a lot going on upstairs as far as Harvard grads go... perhaps a bit too much. Cinema and real life alike have treated us to one too many horror stories about Crimson alums turning violently nuts: American Psycho's Patrick Bateman? Harvard. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski? Harvard. "LSD Killer" Stephen Kessler? ... Okay, this is just getting depressing.
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HairTom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code. Conan O'Brien in actual life. These are all people with Harvard educations. These are all people without combs or mirrors.
Pleasant Ballet MoviesRemember Black Swan? Of course you do — you still wake up in tremors because of it. Well, you'll be happy to know that both director Darren Aronofsky and star Natalie Portman were Harvard folk. Thought you were in for a sophisticated movie show about the ups and downs of the dance, eh? Didn't think you'd be haunted years later with dreams of knife-wielding Winona Ryders, did ya? And Portman's Golden Globes speech... that's where the nightmares got really bad.
HonestyOh, Harv (can I call you Harv?). Less than a day has gone by since your big NCAA win, and you're already coming out with Quiz Bowl cheating scandals — National Academic Quiz Tournaments, LCC has publicized that the school's team members had improperly accessed information that might have helped them win the recent competition. Maybe that's how they won the basketball game, too...
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The Office CharactersOkay, okay, this one's kind of a stretch... but Ryan Howard and Karen Filippelli, two of the least favorable characters in the NBC sitcom's run, came from Harvard alum actors: B.J. Novak and Rashida Jones. Maybe series creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, Harvard grads themselves, didn't take kindly to the rest of their student body...
Not Letting James Franco Teach ThereJames Franco taught there.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
[Photo Credit: Lionsgate; Cait Oppermann/flickr; Columbia Pictures (2); NBC]
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Charlie Hartsock, Steve Carell, and Vance DeGeneres of Carousel Productions
Halfway through the movie, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone sports a cameo that will have longtime Daily Show fans flashing back 10 years. After giving up on magic, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) dedicates himself to helping the less fortunate around the world, using the uplifting power of magic to raise their spirits. It's presented like a news segment and hosted by Vance DeGeneres — former correspondent to The Daily Show.
DeGeneres is rarely found in front of the camera (his credits including a few episodes of his sister Ellen's '90s sitcom). He's mostly a writer and producer — so how did he wind up in Incredible Burt Wonderstone?
Turns out, after he and Steve Carell left The Daily Show around 2003, their comedic collaborations only continued to grow. When DeGeneres moved to Los Angeles after his run on The Daily Show, Carell introduced him to one of his lifelong friends, Charlie Hartsock (who has his own TV roots: he's an Arrested Development alum). Hartsock and Carell were buddies from their days at Denison University, the two continuing to work together at Chicago's Second City. After connecting the two, DeGeneres and Hartsock worked together on a TV pilot. While it didn't take off, they continued to work together, becoming the logical pair to assist Carell in his biggest career move to date.
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"About five years ago, Steve got the offer from Warner Bros. for a production deal and he called both of us and said, 'meet me for dinner,'" DeGeneres says. "And at dinner he said, 'How would you guys like to run my production company?' We hemmed and hawed."
"We just started a pool boy business!" Hartsock jokes.
So not only are DeGeneres and Hartsock bit players in Burt Wonderstone (Hartsock can be seen marveling at the street illusions of Jim Carrey's Steve Grey early in the movie), they're also producers of the film and the backbone of Carousel Productions, a factory for comedic projects and anything that might fit the "Carell sensibility." They couldn't have been happier to take the job. "We were really excited by the prospect of the three of us starting a production company," DeGeneres says. "It's kind of a dream come true. Who gets that kind of opportunity?"
"Steve and I, through our improv days in college and then in Chicago, have very much had the same sense of humor and storytelling," Hartsock says. "[He] trusts us to read a script, and read it with an ear and eye to find the same things funny [and to judge] good storytelling in a way that he would."
"And hopefully not embarrass him too much," DeGeneres adds.
Both men note that their shift to working behind-the-scenes at Carousel isn't a terribly big change from writing or acting; the pair engages the development of project the same way they would if they were playing opposite of Carell or penning a scene for the actor. The only real difference is sometimes they have to say "no," even after months or years of working on a project.
"Comedy is so hard, so subjective," DeGeneres says. "The reason that Steve felt he could trust us is because he's worked with both of us for years and we share similar sensibilities. We gravitate towards the same things. The same things make us laugh. Whether it's a script like Crazy, Stupid, Love or Burt Wonderstone, we read them and it's something that might appeal to Steve. We read so much stuff, and unfortunately, most of it is just not right for us. Not only does it have to be right for Steve, it has to be right for Warner Bros. as well. We're trying to thread a fine needle."
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Hartsock says when Warner Bros. approached Carell to form a company within their studio, it was a move to bring the "Steve Carell comedy" brand to the company. DeGeneres suggests that line of thinking has evolved, and Carousel develops a variety of projects — big and small, comedic and dramatic. Often with Carell planned for the driver's seat, but occasionally not. Warner Bros. has a first look deal that allows them to take on a movie — like in the case of Burt Wonderstone — or pass on one, in which case DeGeneres and Hartsock can find other means of bringing the film to production.
The key to which movies make it through the obstacle course of production is all about timing. In the case of Burt Wonderstone, the stars aligned. "Drew Worobow, our director of development, had lunch with someone at New Line, and he mentioned they had this script Burt Wonderstone, and would we want to take a look at it," DeGeneres says. "Anchorman 2 had fallen apart and Steve was really in the mood to do a big funny comedy. We had just done Crazy, Stupid, Love, and it's much more a grounded, not a straight up comedy."
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein's (Horrible Bosses) script for Burt Wonderstone had been floating around for a number of years. With the help of Carell, the project finally came to fruition. "What John and Jonathan did, that appealed to Steve, was they created a new and different world in this world of Las Vegas magic," Hartsock says. "It hadn't been done before. It's so ripe for being big and broad, but in a real sense." According to Hartsock, Carell would walk around the Vegas casino set his giant wig, makeup, a velour jump suit, and knee-high riding boots with rhinestones and go completely unnoticed. "No one batted an eye," he says. "Because that world exists. I think the character inside that world appealed to Steve."
For DeGeneres and Hartsock, the work at Carousel Productions ranges from detail-oriented tweaking to big picture development. They'll work on honing a script, making sure a movie like Burt Wonderstone has a great arc for Carell, while giving him new opportunities. DeGeneres says one of the reasons Carell was keen on doing the movie was for the chance to play a jerk — against type for the humble actor. "He's such a nice guy," Hartsock says. "And Burt is in a jerk zone of his life."
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Then there's the job of diversifying their development slate so that Carell isn't saddled with the same type of movie time and time again. "Steve is an actor first, and then a comedian. A funny actor, on top of that," Hartsock says. "But Steve wants to be challenged by a role, by a character, by a director, by a film. And doesn't always want to play it, 'This one, you're the 40-year-old Virgin on a bus!'"
"That's in development," DeGeneres jokes.
Hartsock: "'In this one, you're the 40-year-old Virgin in the White House!"
DeGeneres: "'Mr President, your prostitute is here!'"
Looking ahead, the producing duo are developing scripts for Carell across the spectrum. The actor just completed the Jon du Pont drama Foxcatcher (a non-Carousel production) and is readying to head to Atlanta on March 18 to spend a few weeks shooting the resurrected Anchorman 2. Then in July, he'll shoot Mail-Order Groom, starring alongside Tina Fey. DeGeneres and Hartsock will co-produce through Carousel with Fey's own company, Little Stranger.
"I've known Steve for 35 years," Hartsock says. "He's an incredibly talented actor. To be able to find or develop projects that allow him to use all of his tools is fun. To have someone say, 'Wow, you're doing dramas right next to the comedies.' That's fun to do."
One anticipated project that we won't see in the future is Of All the Things, a feature version of a musical documentary centering on Dennis Lambert. "Of All the Things, unfortunately, is a project that we spent several years developing, and it's not going forward," DeGeneres says. "You hit a bump in the road, and it doesn't line up with the direction you wanted to continue in," Harsock adds.
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But where one script ends, another handful of others continues to percolate. DeGeneres and Hartsock will continue producing their comedy TV show Inside Comedy for Showtime, currently in its second season. And they'll always have various feature projects in the works — even a few they hope will attract Carell as a director. One film they're particularly excited for is Magic Kingdom for Sale, an adaptation of the Terry Brooks novel that would see Carell as a widower who purchases a magical land for $1 million.
"We're currently anticipating a the producer's draft of the first draft," Hartsock says. "That's one of those films that has much more of a dramatic real man in it, in an extraordinary situation. It isn't going to be a flat out comedy. It'll be funny, it'll have moments of fun. But there's a guy going through an awful internal struggle in that film."
"We want to make the world as real as possible," Vance adds. "Let Steve exist in that world. Share the absurdity of it. Of a man from this world, what would happen if you found yourself in that world."
Carousel Productions is still in its infancy, DeGeneres and Harsock dedicating 100% of their attention to the company and its growing slate. Still, they have their priorities. They quickly have to find what parts they're going to take in any script that comes their way. Harsock's motto: "When I read a script, I look for the worst Hawaiian shirt character and plant my flag in that guy."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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Michael Strahan is having a wardrobe malfunction. He’s backstage at the set of Live! With Kelly & Michael a week before Christmas, and the ex-NFL star, three months into his gig as co-host of the chat show, is struggling to slip on a pair of “meggings.” That is, leggings designed for men. “I’m not so spindly!” he says. But he eventually succeeds, pulls them on, and trots on set looking like a defensive end who’s been forced into becoming an understudy for Mikhail Baryshnikov. Needless to say, the audience loves it.
This is about as chaotic as it ever gets at Live! Entering its 25th year of nationwide broadcast, it’s about the only daytime talk show currently on-air that qualifies as an institution, an irreplaceable part of the morning TV landscape. Watching from backstage, there’s a streamlined effortlessness that belies the hard work and dedication of its behind-the-scenes crew, like senior talent booker Kelly Burkhard. She’s largely responsible for maintaining the best ongoing lineup of celebrity talent of any daytime show, the crucial component that keeps the well-oiled machine that is the production of Live! functioning on all cylinders.
“We pretty much have gotten everyone,” Burkhard says, when asked about their roster of A-List guests. Even Robert De Niro, who remained elusive for years, finally appeared on the show a couple years back. “I work really hard at that. To me, a ‘no’ is never a permanent ‘no.’ It’s just a ‘no’ for right that minute. But if you remain persistent, if you keep pressing it, that ‘no’ will become a ‘yes’ eventually.” It’s because of the efforts of Burkhard that a backstage struggle with meggings is the biggest issue the ‘Live!’ production ever typically has to face—and not, say, having to fill dead air because a celebrity dropped out at the last minute.
Hosts Strahan and Kelly Ripa are grateful for that. “Kelly is one of the hearts and souls of our show,” Ripa says of Burkhard. “It cannot be undervalued what she does. Not only does she get the big celebrities to come on, they do it willingly because she has such a great rapport with everyone behind the scenes.”
Burkhard took us behind the scenes of Live! to show us what a typical day is like when you’re the senior talent booker for the No. 1 show on daytime TV.
Going Live! Is Just the Beginning
If there’s one word that sums up the business of being a talent booker it’s this: relationships. It’s a matter of acquiring contacts, then deepening and developing those connections, something Burkhard began when she was the assistant to a prominent talent manager at 3 Arts Entertainment in Los Angeles. “20 years ago all the huge names I met are still huge names,” she says. “And also, the people I came up with have become huge. So those relationships from all those years ago still help me tremendously.” She moved back to New York to take a booking gig with The Charlie Rose Show, then, in 1997, Live! came a calling.
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On average, Burkhard arrives at Live!’s Upper West Side studio about an hour before the start of the show to greet the celebrity guests and their publicists. With her blond hair and small frame, she could easily be mistaken for Kelly Ripa’s sister. Not to mention she shares with Ripa an enviable skill: to be perky and energetic at an ungodly hour. That’s something Burkhard needs in abundance, because possibly the most important part of her job takes place during the show. Or rather, during its commercial breaks. She watches the show backstage with the publicists for whatever actors, reality TV personalities, or musical artists she’s booked to appear that day. And during the commercial breaks Burkhard discusses with the publicists what other clients of theirs could be available for future bookings.
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The entertainment industry is actually a pretty small world. The publicist for one actor or musician could represent a couple dozen other celebrities. The day of my visit, Seth Rogen is the guest, and his publicist also represents Jack Black, Judd Apatow, Jason Segel, Steve Carell, and Jon Stewart, among others. “You have to keep those relationships very strong, because each rep has twenty other people that you want on your show.” And the Live! studio is a homey enough environment—one flight of stairs is even called “The Brady Bunch Staircase”—that the puzzle-piece planning of matching talent availability with open guest slots can feel like building a relationship rather than just businesslike wheeling and dealing.
One Show Ends, but Planning for Future Eps Never Does
Immediately after the broadcast wraps, longtime executive producer Michael Gelman convenes Live!’s daily production meeting. They discuss the schedule for the next day’s show and start planning ahead for some of their hugely popular themed and holiday episodes. The annual Halloween extravaganza, involving multiple guests and many costume changes for Kelly & Michael, requires particular planning. Not to mention that talent availability for some of the biggest tentpole movies needs to be lined up fast.
NEXT: How far in advance does Burkhard book Kelly & Michael’s guests? And what happens when a guest drops out at the last minute?
After the meeting, the day really begins. Which means Burkhard hits the phone. She likes to book Live! as far in advance as she can, based on what she knows about the hottest upcoming films and TV shows and who’s being buzzed about as a possible breakout star. Burkhard wants to make one thing very clear. “I never ever wait for my phone to ring,” she says. “I like to be way ahead. I’m on the phone constantly. I never sit back. Even though we’ve been the top show for so many years. You have to be on top of everything, ahead of the curve, researching and calling.” And that means doing a lot of research first: reading trade publications and entertainment websites, talking to insiders, attending screenings. “The minute the last Twilight film wrapped production I reached out about booking the cast,” she says. “That was in May of 2012, and we knew the movie wouldn’t be coming out until November.” For a movie that big with talent that in demand, a six-month lead time on booking Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Taylor Lautner would be typical. “Six months in advance is really just to talk dates, though. As soon as we had the cast on when the first film debuted, I immediately arranged to have them return to promote the second, third, and fourth movies. Six months out for Breaking Dawn was just a matter of getting timing set.” In fact, she tries to stay in touch with each of her publicity and talent management contacts at least once a week to maintain the strength of those relationships. “I like to do most of my job by phone, because I think you can better further a relationship by actually speaking. Things can get misconstrued so very easily when you’re communicating by email. Over the phone, everything’s much more clear.”
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Though Burkhard never waits for her phone to ring, it still does. A lot. And her Inbox fills up fast. In fact, she estimates that she gets up to a thousand pitches a week for talent bookings, and sometimes more. She’ll review some of those with Gelman, who has final sign-off on her proposed lineup of guests.
Crisis Time: What Happens When a Guest Drops Out Last Minute?
“It rarely happens,” Burkhard says. “But if it does, we have several back-up plans.” To start with, they can extend the segment of the guest who’s still booked. Or they extend the opening host chat. (“Host chat can go on forever!”) They can also throw together a last-minute audience participation segment. But Burkhard also keeps a stable of backups, of alternate guests, in case they get word about a scheduled guest backing out with at least a day to spare. “These are actors or musicians who we know are in town promoting a project and who had wanted to be on the show, and who we really wanted to have on the show but couldn’t because we were already booked. Now they have an opening and can make an appearance. ‘Great, we can get you in!’”
The week of Hurricane Sandy represents a perfect example. Reba McEntire had been scheduled for Monday October 29, the day the storm hit, to promote her new sitcom Malibu Country. Her flight was cancelled, and she couldn’t make it to New York. Luckily, Jimmy Kimmel was already in the city, because he had brought his late night show to Brooklyn. He was scheduled to appear on Live! that Tuesday but was able to make his appearance a day early. Tuesday, with much of the city lacking power, saw the show cancelled outright. Wednesday, the show resumed, but again, its guests weren’t able to make it. So on Tuesday Burkhard reached out to Diane Sawyer, who was known to be in New York, and who could talk about the storm. But, considering how far in advance the show is booked, it can be difficult to reschedule a guest who was unexpectedly bumped. Reba wasn’t able to appear on Live! after her Sandy-related cancellation until Feb. 6.
The Cycle Continues
But those kinds of emergencies are pretty rare. A typical day continues with Kelly reaching out to her contacts throughout the afternoon. She leaves the studio in the early evening, and keeps checking her blackberry and cell until her head hits the pillow. “They stay right by my bed all night long.”
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: David Steele/ABC, Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC]
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