Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Get Smart

By Elise Nakhnikian

By the time I caught the Get Smart series in reruns, the suave misogyny of spy movies and the casual xenophobia of the Cold War already seemed ludicrous on the face of it, too laughable to need spoofing. To me, secret agent Maxwell Smart’s struggle to appear urbane while stumbling from one pratfall to the next was not so much satire as slapstick, more Inspector Clouseau than “Bond, James Bond.”

So I’m not arguing for the TV show as some kind of brilliant and inviolable text, yet it stuck in my craw to see Smart defeat the bad guys, unmask a double agent, and scoop up the girl (Ann Hathaway’s appealingly tart Agent 99) in the movie version that opened last week. This time around, the ironically named Smart actually lives up to his name. It’s as if the hapless idiot had commandeered the script, turning himself into the kind of can-do action hero he had always tried so hard – and failed so utterly – to be.

True, Smart 2.0 still needs to be rescued every so often by 99, and he makes some pretty boneheaded moves along the way. But somewhere in its transition from an intentionally cheesy TV spoof to a glossy tentpole summer movie, Get Smart morphed from a quirky, borscht-flavored spoof to a standard-issue comic spy caper with some slapstick salted in.

Well, why not? It’s not as if we’re talking about defacing the Dead Sea Scrolls here. Besides, if Mel Brooks, who created the series with Buck Henry, says he likes the movie, who am I to quibble?

Besides, there’s a lot to like here, starting with the cast. Steve Carrell was an inspired choice to play Max. More vulnerable than stiff-necked Don Adams and harder to resist than a house-trained puppy, he gets major mileage here from his gift for making humiliation simultaneously funny and poignant. Alan Arkin’s warmth and his talent for revving up from 0 to 60 emotionally in under a second make him ideal as Max’s perpetually beleaguered mentor, the chief of Control. Terence Stamp is icily elegant as the head of Control’s evil counterpart, Kaos, Dwayne Johnson (the artist formerly known as The Rock) is endearingly light-footed as the self-infatuated jock at the top of Control’s high school-ish pecking order, and there’s a tasty Bill Murray cameo.

The actors all spar well with one another, yet the movie’s timing is often off. It’s kind of funny at first when the “cone of silence,” one of the many absurd Bond-like gadgets introduced in the show, malfunctions. But the scene goes on too long, and it just peters out rather than building to a climax. Another sequence, which involved jumping from a plane, lasts way too long, and a bit that precedes it, in which Max is mistaken for a terrorist on the plane, was done a lot better in the Harold and Kumar sequel. Probably as a result, the whole thing feels overlong at just under two hours.

Writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, who moved from TV to Failure to Launch before writing Get Smart, salt in plenty of catch phrases and familiar characters for fans of the original. Just hearing “Sorry about that, chief,” “missed by THAT much,” and “would you believe…?” will give a lot of baby boomers a lot of pleasure, as will cameo appearances by Hymie the Robot (played here by Patrick Warburton) and Bernie Koppell, the original Siegfried.

There are a few funny bits anyone can enjoy, even kids who’ve never heard of Max, let alone Hymie. But a lot of the jokes just don't work. The flabby scenes shot in an ineffectural, embattled Homeland Security department only made me nostalgic for that great “No fighting in the war room, gentlemen!” scene in Dr. Strangelove.

There are way too many gunfights, fist fights, explosions, adrenaline-pumping music, and chase scenes. And what is the deal with comedies that that depict our president as a sweet, harmless party boy, a pawn of the powerful v-p without a shred of responsibility for what’s done in his name?

If would be annoying enough if one movie let the president off the hook so easily, but I can think of three: Harold and Kumar Go to Guantanamo Bay, American Dreamz, and now Get Smart. Ah, yes, the old trying-to-pass-off-flattery-as-satire trick.

Pretty lame.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Making It was the Easy Part: Marketing an Indie Documentary

By Elise Nakhnikian

Sara Taksler and Naomi Greenfield are an inspiration for aspiring indie filmmakers. Or are they a cautionary tale?

The two good friends, who met as students at Washington University in St. Louis, co-directed Twisted, a warmhearted charmer of a documentary about people who twist balloons into animals and other shapes. Their “balloonamentary” played film festivals for almost a year, starting with South by Southwest (SXSW) 2007, where it played to sold-out, smitten crowds and was nominated for the best first feature award.

A lot of distributors came sniffing around—but none of them picked it up.

So Taksler, an associate producer at The Daily Show, and Greenfield, a creative producer at FableVision Studios, which produces educational animation and other media, took the marketing skills they’d honed on the festival into turbo drive. They got a DVD distributor and an international distributor. And one by one, they booked Twisted in nine theaters.

When we talked last month, Taksler and Greenfield were coming off a good week—a successful first showing in St. Louis and a piece in The New York Times.

EN: Were you surprised it’s been this hard to get into theaters?

Naomi: I guess I had no clue about whether it would be hard or easy. Right after SXSW, a few big distributors voiced interest, so we thought it was going to happen then, and we were a little surprised that it didn’t.

Sara: It’s been a hard year for independent films, so I think a lot of the distributors are a little wary about trying films that are different. And we’re a little hard to place. We’re a documentary about a kind of quirky subculture, but we’re not a competition film, like most of the documentaries that got distributors recently.

Naomi: We fit into the niche of quirky documentaries. There’s an audience of people that are interested in that, but there are also people who are tired of it. Then again, our documentary doesn’t totally fit into that niche because we really focus on a few people and their stories, so it’s not about ‘Look at these crazy twisters.’ The best way to explain what it’s about is just to have people watch the film.

Sara: Yeah. Even with distributors and theater owners, the trick has been getting them to watch it. Once people see it, they generally really like it.

EN: Now that the technology has made it relatively easy and cheap to make a movie, so there are so many good movies out there, do you think it’s getting to be essential for new filmmakers to be almost as good at marketing as they are at filmmaking?

Naomi: When we were in Boston (http://www.iffboston.org/past/filmlist.php?year=2007), they created an award just for us: the best marketing award. And they’ve continued that award this year, in recognition of the fact that, if you want to get an independent film seen, you do have to market it.

EN: What did you do to market Twisted?

Naomi: We made a big marketing plan for SXSW that we started there and carried out in every city we’ve been to: Build a big balloon sculpture, have lots of people making balloon animals and wearing balloon T shirts, have pumps [to inflate balloons] and balloons everywhere, distribute flyers and postcards.

Sara: We mail postcards and 11x17 posters to friends in each city where we'll be playing. They form a street team and put up posters in popular spots and hand out postcards on the street. We also send postcards, posters, balloons, and pumps to the theaters in advance to put out. The balloons and pumps are provided by Qualatex, a balloon company that’s helping sponsor the theatrical run. We look up every newspaper, radio station, and TV station in each city and email them. We send advance screeners to any interested press. We're on YouTube – in fact, somehow we became the site's featured video this weekend and have 200,000 hits so far!

Naomi: We’re lucky in that we have things that we can market – we can make the balloon animals and sculptures and hats. There are a lot of documentaries right now about the Iraq war or Afghanistan, and even if your Iraq war documentary is totally amazing, it’s going to get lumped in with the other ones.

Sara: Yeah, it’s hard to make a fun sculpture of the Iraq war.

How did you get into all these theaters that are giving you limited runs?
Sara: Several months ago, when we realized we weren’t going to get a distributor, we compiled a list of independent theaters that other festival films had gotten into and started calling and emailing them. We didn’t hear back for a while, and then we got a lot of rejections.

For a little while, we didn’t think it was going to happen because we’d already gotten our DVD producer. A lot of people weren’t interested in screening a movie that was already on DVD and didn’t have a distributor.

But finally a few said yes, and then it started to snowball. Once a few theaters were willing to stand by us, others were willing to take a chance.

EN: It sounds like your first theatrical showing was a success.

Naomi: We did really well in St. Louis. We outsold all the films that were being shown in the theater that weekend.

Sara: We had four screenings a day, and we didn’t have the support of a festival behind us, so we had no idea what to expect. But the balloon twisters in St Louis were fantastic. They arranged four spots on a local show for us, so a lot of people came because they’d seen us on the morning show or read the review in the paper. And a local place donated pumps and balloons for the theater.

It was great to have our first showing in St. Louis, because we met in there and talked about doing some kind of creative process together some day.

Naomi: I remember sitting in our dorm brainstorming. It was a “What do you want to be when you grow up?” kind of conversation.

Sara: We probably first discussed that in 1999. And now, in 2008, we got to go to the coolest in theater in town and have this experience. It was really fun to see our names on the marquee. We had a really good time hearing all those people laughing and crying and enjoying the film.

Also, the guy who made the popcorn told us he had just gotten off the phone with his girlfriend in Thailand, and when he told her what was playing in the theater she said she had just seen our movie on TV. We had no idea we were on TV in Thailand.

EN: How have you managed to make and market a movie while holding down full-time jobs?

Sara: The movie is like a nights and weekend job. And we’ve always taken all of our vacation time for our movie.

Naomi: Actually, this year each of us did take one non-movie-related vacation. It felt funny to not be consulting each other before our vacations.

For a while, we weren’t doing much with it, but right now we’re in the same routine we were in during the hardcore part of making the film: We go to our jobs during the day, and then we each have a long list of things to do at night. Sometimes at 1 in the morning I’ll be sending an email to Sara and she’ll write right back.

EN: When I saw you at SXSW, you seemed to genuinely enjoy talking up your movie, which is probably part of what makes you so good at it. How much of the marketing you’ve done is pure drudgery and how much do you actually enjoy?

Naomi: For me, this week was really fun when the New York Times article came out and random people saw it, and it got picked up by a lot of blogs that our friends know about. Our trailer on YouTube, which had about 1,000 hits at the beginning of the week, all of a sudden had, like, 8,000 views. It was fun to know that 8,000 people who aren’t all our family are genuinely intrigued by it.

And it still is fun to talk about the film, even though we’ve had so many Q and As, because people ask good questions and it’s interesting to see the things people ask about.

But there is a lot of work with putting together the lists and getting ready -- especially now, since there are nine cities at once to prepare for.

I’m intrigued by your partnership. Is it easier to easier to deal with the rejection and indifference you get when you’re making an independent film if you have a partner?
Sara: I don’t exercise, but I think it’s like having a running buddy, where you have someone you have to answer to, who helps you stay motivated. And just to have someone else to share it all with. There were so many things to do, so many ups and downs. It was great to have someone else who knew exactly what you were going through.

EN: How do you work together? Do you divide everything down the middle or play different roles?

Naomi: We started out both doing everything, but in the process of making the film, we naturally started going in two different directions. I got more interested in doing the camera work, and Sara got more interested in doing the interviews. Now Sara’s been doing all the press contacts and I’ve been putting together the marketing materials and getting new stuff printed. We have an email system, which is that one of us will write something and the other will check it and then we’ll send it out. It’s amazing how many emails go between us during the day.

Sara: We both have a say in everything. We consult each other every day on what we’re doing for the film.

Naomi: We try to do all our interviews together too. There was one radio interview I did where they had just one line, so I did it on my own, and it felt weird. There are certain questions that I’m used to Sara answering.

EN: It's also unusual that you’re both women. Most of the moviemaking pairs I can think of involve two brothers or two male friends: the Coens, the Wachowskis, the Duplass brothers, the Farrellys. Do you think being women made your work any harder -- or easier?

Naomi: I worked for a weekend on audio for another filmmaker’s documentary. There was a great moment in the interview, and he asked a question that felt really shallow. And I thought, “If he was a woman, he would have asked a smarter question.” I do think we were very sensitive to our subjects, and very careful to develop relationships with them so that we were able to get good information out of them.

Sara: I think it made the interviewing easier. In our culture, people might be a little more comfortable being emotional with women. It might be a little less intimidating for two women with a camera to come up and talk to you. And I do think we had an interest in making sure that people felt comfortable.

Also, we’re both pretty young-looking. A lot of people thought we just had a school project. We were just, like, two little girls making a movie.

Naomi: I think people were more inclined to be nice to us than if we were two older guys.

Sara: And in editing, our process was to show the film to focus groups, which was all about being open to other people’s ideas.

How long have you been working on this movie?
Sara: We started filming summer of 2003 and finished just before we premiered at SXSW in March 2007, so three and a half years of filming and editing, then about a year on the festival circuit.

EN: What kept you going?

Naomi: Initially, we made the movie after Sara and I got entry-level jobs in TV and film. They were in the industry we wanted, but we were kind of creatively stifled. So we were ready to work on something where we could use our creative energies.

Sara: And then it became partially that we owed it to ourselves to see where we could take it. It was something we’d put so much into.

Naomi: Sara’s just doing it because she wants to get on Oprah. [they laugh]

Sara: The article about us in the New York Times was right under an article about Oprah. I was almost as excited about that as I was about being in the Times.

EN: What would you do differently if you made another movie now?

Sara: If I did another documentary that looked like it would be a long-term project, I would probably want to find an executive producer at the beginning, because it takes a long time and a lot of money to make a movie. I would go in with more of a plan before I started it. I’m more interested in the director role than the producer role, so I like the idea of moving away from organizing things and figuring out money and the details of camera equipment and all those sorts of things and just being the filmmaker, planning out story lines and asking questions and that sort of thing.

Naomi: We did everything at first. We learned so much from the shoots we went out on when it was just the two of us, but we could have used an extra hand. The two of us were figuring out the shots and how to set things up, and also figuring out where we were going to eat and how to get places. That’s why you have production assistants and a crew.

Sara: We had a running joke at the beginning about a fictional PA. When we would forget something or leave something behind, we would blame the PA.

Naomi: We had two other people when we shot the conventions – an extra camera person and an extra sound person – because we knew how much work that would be. And it was amazing how much more creatively we could interview people when we had other people helping out.

EN: What surprised you about this process of getting your movie seen?

Naomi: We were surprised by how hard it was at first to get it seen in festivals. We got how many rejections before SXSW?

Sara: Oh, I forget. A lot.

Naomi: There are so many movies, it’s hard to stand out, and you need the seal of approval by a quote unquote good festival for others to take a chance. SXSW opened a lot of doors. It was a great fit for us.

Sara: Some festivals had an artsier, more serious air that we just weren’t going to fit into. But we surprised by how much people got into the balloon animals and the balloon hats everywhere. We went to the festival in Newport, and we went to a very fancy party at one of those mansions. Around midnight, nobody was dancing, so we thought, oh, we’re just going to have fun. We started dancing and someone made balloon hats. Suddenly everyone there was dancing, in their tuxedos and formal dresses, with balloon hats on.

Monday, June 9, 2008

War, Inc.

By Elise Nakhnikian

Nobody plays slightly cynical sincerity better than John Cusack. But just because he does wry self-awareness so well doesn’t mean he can handle any kind of comedy. And judging by War, Inc., he should stay away from satire.

Cusack has called this antiwar farce a kind of unofficial sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank. There are certainly plenty of similarities between the two black comedies, starting with the fact that Cusack shares the writing credit (High Fidelity is the only other movie he cowrote.) In both, Cusack plays a mercenary who has lost his taste for killing but is too depressed to stop – until falling in love jars him out of his funk. But Blank is a tangy little sweet tart of a movie, an offbeat tale of redemption and love, while War, Inc. is one of those movies whose gears you hear loudly grinding away as it tries to do too many things, doing none of them well.

War, Inc. takes place in the fictional country of Turaqistan – or what’s left of it. Tamerlane, a fictional conglomerate that has made the US government into a mere corporate “subdivision,” has nearly pulverized the place, waging “the first war ever to be 100 percent outsourced to private enterprise.”

Brand Hauser (a dead-eyed Cusack), who works for the corporation, has been sent to dispatch a local politician. His cover is to pose as the director of a huge trade show, Brand USA, that’s being staged in Turaqistan’s capital to sell the locals on the American way.

It’s a ripe subject for satire, and I was rooting for Cusack to nail it, but the timing is off in this tone-deaf story. Cusack told one interviewer that his inspirations included Dr. Strangelove and the Marx Brothers. Films like this remind us how delicate a balance of anarchy, outrage, and pure silliness is needed to make an antiwar masterpiece like Strangelove or Duck Soup.

A bit in War, Inc. involving a chorus line of amputees, for instance, feels more creepy than funny, thanks to the heavy-handed narration that accompanies it, a chirpy paen to the wonders of the corporation whose bombs blew off the limbs and whose prosthetics replaced them. And another clever concept, the glorified screening room where journalists “experience” the war every morning by watching videos accompanied by Disney-like special effects, soon degenerates into slapstick as one particularly gung-ho participant gets way too far into her daily dose of virtual reality.

The filmmakers don’t seem to trust their audience to get anything unless they write it out in caps and underline it. Signs and other set dressing that might be funny if they were left in the background for us to discover in passing are hauled out front and center, the action stopping while the camera zooms in on them. And a nightmarish father-daughter dilemma that Soapdish managed to make painfully funny lacks all subtlety here, playing out as simply mawkish and icky.

The filmmakers also seem to lack faith that audiences would come out for an anti-war farce that wasn’t wrapped in yet another tale of a lost man who finds himself through love. That’s too bad, since the dissolute Hauser’s pursuit and conquest of Marisa Tomei’s Natalie, a hard-hitting and (self-)righteous journalist, is improbable and hackneyed.

The actors are badly directed, too. Ben Kingsley, who should have been able to play the heavy in his sleep, is laughably unthreatening with his badly faked Southern accent and his conveniently timed on-camera confession. Cusack’s sister Joan, one of her generation’s most gifted comediennes, seems to have been airlifted in from some alternate universe – and pumped full of amphetamines en route – to play his assistant, popping her eyes and straining her neck like a refugee from a minstrel show. Tomei is simply miscast as Natalie, though the real problem is in how the role was written.

Somebody’s wet dream of liberal-lefty investigative reporter, Natalie is a doe-eyed young thing so luscious and pure that men fall for her like dominoes. Lining up an interview? No problem. Just give the girl a stick to beat off all those would-be sources.

Hillary Duff comes off better than most of her elders, but even her shaded performance and innate likeability couldn’t get me to give a damn about her poor-little-rich-girl character, a grossly oversexed teenage pop princess named Yonica Babyyeah. Yes, even the names in War, Inc. try too hard.

After a while, the whole thing starts to feel like a spoof cooked up by a couple of talented middle school kids in their backyard. Even the story’s internal logic sometimes gets muddled. Dude! you want to ask. What happened to that cobra Hauser was milking when Yonica comes in his office? When Hauser’s pretending to be a customer at that Popeye’s that’s a front for his boss, why does he blow his cover by leaping over the counter after going through all the trouble of placing an order? And when he shoots those guys at a bar, why does everyone just ignore him while he walks out, as if nothing had happened?

Then again, never mind. I really don’t care.