Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

On the Lot, Off the Rails: Reality TV Makes an Even Bigger Joke Out of Hollywood

Posted by CinemaPsycho on June 16, 2007

Some of you may be aware of my complete and utter disdain for reality TV. Basically, I think it’s a pox on the entertainment industry and the main contributor to the general “dumbing down” of our culture. I like to say that if I want reality, I’ll look out the window. I don’t watch American Idol, Survivor, The Bachelor, Wife Swap, Supernanny, Flavor of Love, America’s Got Talent, Last Comic Standing, America’s Next Top Model or any of the other retarded excuses for entertainment currently clogging up the network schedules. I may be the last holdout, but I don’t care. I just won’t do it. When I turn on my TV during prime time, I want to see great dramatic stories told by writers, actors and directors. If I want to watch a bunch of unlikable morons screwing each other over, I’ll go to my high-school reunion. I get enough “reality” in real life, thank you very much.

However, because of my interest in (obsession with) films and filmmakers, I have had to make two exceptions to this general rule. The first was Project Greenlight, which first aired on HBO and then Bravo in its final season. I didn’t have HBO at the time when the first season aired, but I did watch the second and third seasons religiously. In my book, Greenlight was a cautionary tale frightening enough to make any would-be filmmaker seriously consider selling insurance instead. Watching these poor aspiring auteurs try to navigate the absurdly controlling and hellish process of making a movie for Miramax should have been enough to send all those little Tarantino wanna-bes running for the hills. Any concept of creative autonomy within the studio system was effectively destroyed once and for all. Anyone who would still want that job after watching that show would have to be a serious masochist.

Well, apparently there are plenty of masochists left, because now Fox has brought us On the Lot, in which a group of aspiring filmmakers compete for a contract with Dreamworks (last place gets a contract with 20th Century Fox – just kidding). The idea is to find “the next great Hollywood director”. Apparently the contestants submitted short films online and were chosen based on the quality of their work. This is already contrary to the reality-show paradigm, in which only the superficial attributes really matter in the long run, so already there’s a serious problem. Anyway, the budding Spielbergs make their little films and each week at least one person is eliminated. It’s like the film school version of musical chairs.

On paper, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea for a show. In actual practice, however, On the Lot is mostly an embarrassment, albeit one that I find increasingly hilarious as time goes on. It’s like the proverbial train wreck that one can’t look away from. The fact that it’s dying in the ratings, even in the barren summer schedule, suggests that apparently people can look away, and they’re probably right to do so. But I find it to be the funniest thing on the air currently, although the humor is mainly the bizarre and unintentional kind.

First off, no one involved with the show seems to have thought through what exactly it’s supposed to be. The early episodes showed the filmmakers completing “challenges” such as making a short film within 24 hours. What exactly these challenges were supposed to prove, I’m not really sure – what Hollywood director has ever had to make a short in one day? But these little hoop-jumping exercises actually provided some fascinating, if ridiculous and exasperating, events. At one point, the filmmakers were divided up into groups of three to make short films. Each person was to direct one scene, with the others serving as DP and editor (basically, trading jobs for each scene). Well, one guy did a lousy job as DP, but the judges erroneously blamed the director of that scene, and she was tossed off the show because of his crappy work that she had no control over. Meanwhile, the guy who messed up got to move on to the next stage of the competition, because his scene looked just fine (he didn’t shoot it, after all). This kind of behind-the-scenes intrigue provided what little interest the show generated, but the producers seem to have abandoned this part of the format altogether. Instead, the show has become strictly a competition, with the filmmakers divided into seemingly random groups of five and the entire hour is devoted to them showing their films and eliminating last week’s least favorite. This process could take us up to Halloween, if anyone is still watching by then. Somebody at the show or the network apparently realized early on that the filmmaking process is simply too complex for the fickle reality-TV audience to follow week after week, and turned it into the closest thing to a game show they possibly could. I guess it’s more effective as a reality show, but less interesting as a show about making films.

Another problem is that there are simply too many damn contestants for us to follow and care about. I think they started out with 48, and after six weeks there are maybe 25 left? Who the fuck knows? I actually think they’re gaining contestants, as every week there seems to be somebody who doesn’t look familiar. If it’s difficult for me to keep track (someone who actually pays attention to what they’re watching), imagine how the average viewer must react. Even if you have developed a favorite, it’s now likely that you won’t see that person’s films for several weeks. The audience is supposed to vote for their favorites online, but who remembers the damn website? I’ve tried “on the lot.com”, “fox.com/on the lot” and even the Fox home page for a link, and I can’t find it! Did it not occur to them that a 1-800 number (or 1-888, more typical these days) might be easier for people to remember? Is it worth all the trouble? They can repeat it 10 million times on the show, but let’s face it, anyone who would vote for this is checking out the hot Latina host’s cleavage every second she’s on screen. (OK, I finally found it, if anyone cares, it’s “the lot.com”. Never mind that’s not the title of the show.) Even though it’s a weekly show, we’re only given a limited time to vote, which I don’t really understand. The show now airs on Tuesday, why not give us until Monday or at least Friday? Some of us have other things to do.

The biggest and most egregious problem with On the Lot, however, can be summed up in two words: the judges. Given that the audience makes the final decisions about who stays and who goes, I don’t see why the judges are even necessary or why the directors should care what they think (another problem with the basic concept of the show). But regular judges Carrie Fisher and Garry Marshall seem to take every opportunity they can to embarrass themselves. These two “showbiz veterans” seem completely out of touch with today’s audiences, and their opinions are often ridiculous and frustratingly off the mark. The former Princess Leia and the King of Hacky Schmaltz may not have been the best candidates to help decide the fates of a group of up-and-comers. Has Fisher even made a film (not counting cameos) since the movie adaptation of her novel Postcards From the Edge came out in 1990? Has Marshall made anything watchable since The Flamingo Kid? Not to call them out or anything, but come on. Their names haven’t really mattered to modern audiences in at least a decade, maybe more. Fisher’s career high point was the slave-bikini scene in Jedi, nearly 25 years ago now. That may sound cruel, but seriously, mention her name and that’s what people think of most. Marshall’s last (only?) big hit as a director was 17 years ago. Are they really that high up in the Hollywood food chain?

Their comments are often staggeringly ridiculous, to the point of naïvete or even delusion. Fisher’s latest jaw-dropper this past week was “if you’re going to be derivative, you have to be original”! Huh? Say what, lady? I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if she were popping Vicodins during the commercial breaks. Marshall floored me with his comment that “we need more female directors”. Hmmm, this from the guy who turned prostitution into a Cinderella story (thanks for that one, Paul). Actually, what Hollywood needs are more good directors, regardless of gender. We don’t need more Nora Ephrons or Nancy Meyers’. But, let’s say they do need more female directors. Is Marshall willing to give up his production deals, connections and office to make room for a young female director? Doubt it. (I know it doesn’t really work that way, but hypothetically, you just know he wouldn’t do that.)

Not surprisingly, both of them seem to favor jokey schmaltz over anything truly unique or original. Which isn’t much of a problem, since most of the films are “cute” bordering on funny. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when 99% of the shorts are like that, it gets a bit much. Whenever someone tries something different (you know, something a modern audience would actually want to watch), they treat it like an atheist showed up in Salt Lake City. One contestant by the hard-to-forget name of Marty Martin actually shows some chops, albeit of the slick, commercial variety. They don’t care for his style, but guess what – that’s what sells in Hollywood today! That’s exactly what the studios are looking for. So he’s closer to Michael Bay than Jean-Luc Godard – isn’t that what they’re supposed to be searching for, the next big Hollywood director? Martin’s comment that he “wants to work with Spielberg and make Spielberg-sized movies” is exactly on target. Wasn’t that the whole mission statement behind this show in the first place? Most of the directors seem more inspired by quirky comedies like Napoleon Dynamite than by anything Spielberg ever did. That’s fine, but it’s not likely to get you hired by a major studio. Let’s get real here.

Originally Brett Ratner was the third judge, but he seems to have bailed out (quite possibly the wisest career move he’s ever made). I’m not a big fan of Ratner’s films personally (the only one I really liked was After the Sunset, coincidentally his least financially successful film), and he seems like an arrogant dick on the show. Having said that, he was the one judge who seemed to have any kind of idea of what sells in Hollywood today (he would know, after all). Sadly, Ratner’s the kind of person who’s most likely to make it in the business, and as much as we outsiders may disapprove of his “style over substance” sensibilities, you can’t ignore the fact that he’s got what sells. He’s the cinema equivalent of the empty-headed jock who always gets the hot girl. That’s just the way it is. Same goes for guest judge Michael Bay (although those constant Transformers plugs were a bit ridiculous). These guys are basically “shooters”, all flash and whiz-bang, and their films make money more often than not. Like it or not, they are what Hollywood wants, because they are what audiences want. Fisher and Marshall are like the ancient elders who still listen to big band music on vinyl and long for the days of Ida Lupino and static shots. If they were really honest with themselves, they would admit that guys like Marty Martin have a better shot of “making it” in the business than the nice housewife who makes cute little movies about flatulence and promiscuity.

And that’s ultimately why On the Lot fails – as much as they try to claim otherwise, it’s not really about Hollywood. Not the real Hollywood, anyway. It’s a shame, because a lot of the filmmakers seem to have real talent, and most of them are going to get screwed out of any chance they might have to succeed by this lousy excuse for a program. But if the producers really wanted to find the next big Hollywood director, here’s what they would do: narrow it down to three people, and let each of them direct a low-budget film. Let them deal with studio execs constantly breathing down their necks and threatening to replace them, overprivileged big-name actors who refuse to come out of their trailers for vague and somewhat insane reasons, and veteran crew guys twice their age who roll their eyes at every command. Then take the film out of their hands, have scenes reshot by a hack who happens to be the producer’s son-in-law, have the film cut down to 80 minutes, then put it on the shelf for 2 years until you finally release it in 3 theaters in Tennessee before sending it to DVD. Then show them the reviews that blame them for the disaster that they had no control over in the first place. The one who isn’t doing coke and stopping traffic on the PCH by screaming obscenities in drag wins. That’s how you become a Hollywood director, ladies and gentlemen.

But until they do that, I’m rooting for Zach. He’s obviously the most talented overall – and because it’s reality TV, he most likely won’t be the winner. Choosing a winner based purely on skill and merit just isn’t good for ratings.

Now let’s wrap this up with some brief reviews, shall we? Lot to catch up on:

Reign Over Me – wow, did Mike Binder completely whiff this one. Yikes! Since the movie bombed anyway, it’s not worth getting into. But let’s just say this has to be the most ridiculous and inconsistent portrayal of mental illness I’ve ever seen – even worse than the previous record holder, James L. Brooks’ hugely overrated As Good As It Gets. Sandler’s Charlie is obviously suffering from a condition much worse than “a broken heart” – you don’t try to commit “suicide by cop” because of a broken heart. Yet the film constantly fights the notion that he may actually need professional help or even a stay in an institution, despite the fact that it might be for his own good. Charlie vacillates from a near-catatonic state to “rocking out” to Springsteen in his apartment, and back again – give me a break. And I guarantee you that if a patient ever told their shrink that they had “nice tits”, they’d be immediately transferred to another therapist! I don’t claim to be an expert on this stuff, but there are so many come on moments in this thing that it’s just laughable. By the time Charlie starts wailing The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” in the courtroom at his competency hearing, I was truly embarrassed for everyone involved. It really amazes me that this movie got some good reviews, because it’s just atrocious. Great soundtrack though, I’ll give you that. Otherwise, a total disaster. * 1/2

Inland Empire – finally got to see David Lynch’s latest film, and 2 months later I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. Somehow I was expecting Mulholland Drive 2, and what I got was definitely not that. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but it’s definitely an experience unlike any other. It’s hard to describe it or even give it a solid rating – this is truly a film you have to see for yourself and make up your own mind about. But it is absolutely worthwhile, and Lynch definitely still has the capacity to surprise even those who think they’ve got him pegged. ***1/2 (for now)

Vacancy – surprisingly good little B-thriller, the kind of movie that they always claim is “Hitchockian” but it’s more like Edgar G. Ulmer on crack. Not the most original film you’ll ever see, but exceptionally well done for what it is. ***

Hot Fuzz – the Shaun of the Dead team top themselves with this incredibly smart and clever action-comedy that’s good enough to bring back the genre (and it’s about damn time). I thought it was the year’s best comedy when I saw it, and I still think so. My only question though: do the British really think Point Break and Bad Boys II are the best American action movies? Or are those just the biggest ones they could get the rights to? Because seriously, those wouldn’t even be in my Top 50. Hilarious movie though, the most genuine fun I’ve had at the cineplex all year. ****

Spider-Man 3 – this year’s Superman Returns, a film that only partially works and is mostly disappointing (but some people let it slide). The first 2 movies worked because they kept it simple. This time there are too many characters, too many subplots, and Raimi lets some of the plates drop. Maybe it’s time to move on? I liked the Sandman stuff, even if it seemed lifted from an old Bowery Boys movie. I half expected him to fight Bela Lugosi at some point. Venom was just “eh” to me, but then I never cared for the character to begin with. Emo Spidey and Saturday Night Fever Spidey were just laughable (this is Raimi’s idea of dark now?) and boy, did they screw up the Gwen Stacey story! Bryce Dallas Howard was very appealing though, certainly more so than Dunst’s morose and whiny Mary Jane. I’ve said from the beginning that they screwed up the Mary Jane character, and it seems people are finally starting to agree. MJ in the comics was sexy, flirtatious and fun with a zest for life. MJ in the movies is mostly a big drag, a self-centered pain in the ass with a dour expression and the wardrobe of a Polish immigrant. Awww, too bad Peter was too busy stopping crimes and saving lives to come to your play! I’ve never understood why Raimi and company chose to portray her this way. I don’t think it’s Dunst’s fault, as I’ve found her sexy and appealing in other films (check out the underrated Elizabethtown to see how she should play Mary Jane), I think this is all Raimi and the writers. She’s the exact opposite of what the character is supposed to be, and it’s always baffled me. Where the first two films got so much right, she’s always seemed “off” to me, and never more so than this one. But this time the whole thing seems “off” – it never builds up any sense of dramatic momentum, instead shifting gears abruptly and never quite finding its groove. I wanted to like it more than I did, but ultimately it left me cold. Maybe a new team can revitalize the series? ** 1/2

28 Weeks Later – better than it had any right to be, but still not the equal of Danny Boyle’s terrific original. It’s almost a little too chaotic at times, to the point where it’s hard to tell who’s doing what to whom and you’re left to figure it out for yourself. Still, it’s mostly an effective shocker on its own terms – they just had a tough act to follow. ***

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End – I liked it overall, but why did this have to be such a downer? Jesus, you don’t start a rousing little PG-13 adventure movie with a kid being hanged, for cryin’ out loud. The rest of the movie wasn’t much more uplifting. Did Verbinski watch too much Bergman recently? It’s as if they ended the trilogy with Empire instead of Jedi. Sure, the former’s easily the better movie, but you don’t end the freakin’ series that way! There were some fun parts, but the feeling of “a rollicking good time” was seriously diminished. Despite what the critics say, the last thing these movies should ever be is serious. No one wants doom and gloom for their pirate adventure movies. Sure, there’s plenty to like here, but it’s mostly from the performances – Depp adding new shades of crazy to Captain Jack, Geoffrey Rush chewing scenery, Keira looking gorgeous as always, the supercool additions of Chow Yun-Fat and Keith Richards (never thought I’d see those two people in the same movie). I thought it could have been better and more fun, but maybe in the future, if I ever watch these movies again, I’ll have more appreciation for it. We’ll see. ***

Bug – holy shit, why isn’t anybody talking about this fucking movie? Everyone I know who has seen this loves it, and it seems like the film community has pretty much ignored it. I thought it was fucking great, and a real comeback for master William Friedkin (easily his best film in years). Obviously not for everybody, but I think it will become a real cult film. Brilliant writing, excellent acting (Ashley Judd is incredible, and I never thought I’d ever say that), the film just wraps you up in its atmosphere of claustrophobic paranoia. I guess that’s not an experience many people want to have, or know they want to have. But I left the theater exhilarated, the way you do when you’ve really seen something. I’m stunned that this got a wide release at all, much less in the early summer, but despite the lack of box office, I’m really glad it did. Bug is a real masterpiece, the kind we really don’t see too often anymore. And that’s a real shame. ****

Hostel: Part II – you know what disturbs me? It disturbs me that the same critics who championed the empty-headed Neanderthal wargasm 300 have condemned Eli Roth’s smart, subversive and satirical (yeah, I said it) sequel for its violence alone. Roth is not exactly a subtle filmmaker, so how is it that supposedly intelligent people can’t see the subtext in what he’s doing? Unbelievable. They stupidly confuse the filmmaker with the characters on screen, as if Roth himself is committing the heinous acts that so offend them. Dude…it’s a fucking horror movie! It ain’t supposed to be nice, and it ain’t supposed to be pretty. Roth has created a scenario in which human lives are a commodity to be bought and sold by sick fucks. Does anyone really think this is that far from the world we live in now? If so, I envy your naivete. As for the misogynist charge, do they really think that under those circumstances, women would somehow be exempt from the violence? Give me a fucking break. As far as Roth being “vicious” and ‘inhuman”… again, it’s a fucking horror movie! The fact that we like these people is what makes their fates all the more horrifying. If it disturbs or upsets you, that means the movie is WORKING. Seriously, should I really have to explain how horror movies work? Or is it that most horror films of the last decade have been so tame and watered-down that this feels “extreme” to people who have never seen the good stuff? Roth isn’t trying to “get you off” with the violence here. He’s trying to horrify you, which is what a horror film is supposed to do. He’s clearly not on the side of the torturers, and if you think he is, you’re seriously misreading the film. The whole point is that it’s fucked up. These are people who have lost their humanity and are behaving at the absolute worst level a human being possibly can. Got it? He goes out of his way to show that this is a scummy business run by scummy people. He shows one person who gains his humanity by not being able to follow through with it, and one person who loses his humanity by finding his inner twisted fuck. Honestly, did you people even watch this movie? Have you all completely lost any critical faculties you once had? God damn! For those of us whose minds aren’t blinded by screen violence, anyway, Hostel: Part II is excellent work, a better film than the original and one that has more to do with the world we live in than anything else out there. ***1/2

That about covers it for now. Talk to you later.

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