So I'm getting these Ultimate Film Fanatic commentaries posted later and later, but whatever. Tonight's semifinal is the last regional, and the final finale is next week. Since the show has been consistently annoying in its mediocrity, I'm happy that at least this first series or "tournament" or whatever-you-want-to-call-it is almost over.
With that said, from start to finish, the West Coast regional that aired last Friday was the best episode of the show so far.
Still, as expected, the writing continues to suck: this week's password was "bloodshed," as in, "I promised you bloodshed, and I think we delivered," and the contestants' "knowledge" continues to "scare" host Chris Gore. In fact, there's another terrible scripted moment which I've noticed each week but neglected to harp on. Before Gore introduces the contestants, he always says some blurb about how there are six finalists but can be only one winner. As I tie in to the already-proven oh-so-clever writing of something like "I promised you bloodshed," this pre-intro preamble usually includes a line that starts with "and since we can't do sword-fighting," and concludes by explaining that the show will test their knowledge, attitude and obsessions. Blah fucking blah. But do you see how "sword-fighting" ties together with the later "bloodshed" comment? Yeah, it's pure genius. I don't remember the previous weeks' version of "sword-fighting," but I'm pretty sure one involved a steel cage match. Seriously, these people are so lazy they must have sat in an office and brainstormed the pairs of words to fill in for each of those sentences and laughed their asses off at how clever they were being. It just gives me a headache.
But I said I didn't have too much to rant about, and that's true. The right guy absolutely won this week, and for the first time, he was somebody who actually lost the first debate, making it to the finals by winning his second. It's actually difficult for me to say that Ryan should have won because of his topic in that first debate, but I'll give him a break since he lost it. (More on that in a sec.)
The questions in the first round may still lack the full indie film promise of the audition
infomercial special, but at least they were somewhat interesting and actually did increase in difficulty. The first match ended on the fourth question which was, Name the character and real-life author Ben Stiller portrayed in Permanent Midnight. I knew "Jerry Stahll," but I can see people missing that since nobody saw the film. Jenny didn't do it, and this week's sole female contestant was sent packing. In the second match, Mike lost by not knowing that Martha Coolidge directed Valley Girl and Real Genius, which also means he absolutely deserved to lose. And in the final face-off, Matt lost because he couldn't remember that Scott Turow wrote the novel upon which the movie Presumed Innocent was based.
So Ryan, Brandon and Russ moved on to "The Great Debate," and if you don't think I've ever given a compliment to this show or it's contestants ... well, I'll give a slightly tempered one here. This was the first time in six episodes that the debate was actually pretty great. All three guys had at least one moment of actually being articulate. The rebuttals weren't so hot, but they each actually managed to state a succinct and valid, even if disagreeable, argument in their individual 20 second time limits. It showed that this segment can actually work, but the screening process just needs to be that much tougher.
The first debate between Ryan and Brandon was over the most absurd subject matter possible because it's actually impossible to argue that Michael Bay is anything but a hack director. Ryan did his best to argue the opposite, but in any just world, it would have been impossible for him to win, and thankfully, Brandon was able to make the very simple arguments to refute Ryan. Seriously, if your whole statement in favor of Bay starts by saying that you shouldn't count Pearl Harbor because of how much it sucked, you're already in trouble. Ryan used the predictable (but bogus) argument that his movies are "great fun," but he spent too much time apologizing for Bay's flaws. Even so, he actually tried to make points which is more than we've seen from just about everybody else. Brandon's best comment was his opener: "If I can't win this one, I should go home." So true. So true. It was easily the best initial debate of the entire series.
The rebuttal sequence was pretty good too, even though Ryan messed up, asked to start again, and just stood there while his time clicked down. Eventually he got going with something that, aside from the subject matter itself, wasn't too annoying. But Brandon came back with a tangible, thoughtful, and informed comment about how Bay simply throws everything on the screen, and doesn't know how to pick, choose and edit. Overall, the debate was actually a debate, as opposed to someone saying, "No it's not."
Ryan then had to face off with Russ. Ryan obviously being the most positive of all the contestants this time had to argue the virtues of Tom Cruise, while Russ had to explain why he hates him. Again, their initial arguments were really good and well thought out. Ryan explained that Cruise may not always be a "great actor," but that he is a "great movie star," and in his book, that's important. Movie stars contribute to audiences enjoyment of the movies. Ryan also mentioned that Cruise doesn't always take the easy way out, and he has consistently "gone out of his way to work with the best directors," which is absolutely true. If you examine the names of the directors with whom Tom has worked, it's basically a list of all the most important filmmakers of his era. It's actually quite remarkable: Francis Ford Coppola (The Outsiders), Ridley Scott (Legend ), Martin Scorsese (The Color of Money), Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July), Neil Jordan (Interview With a Vampire), Brian De Palma (Mission: Impossible), Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky), Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia) and Steven Spielberg (Minority Report and the upcoming The War of the Worlds). (And yes, I know I left a few big names out.)
Well, Russ used his 20 second to, in part, try to rebut Ryan's argument. He said that Cruise's being simply a movie star is the problem. He's "all wink and a smile. He's not an actor. He's always Tom Cruise." Agree or disagree, there's truth in all those statements. If that had been it, I would have found it very hard to pick a winner.
The 10 second rebuttals were actually kind of lame, but at least Ryan's was in fact a "rebuttal" of what Russ had just said. Ryan asked if Russ simply "hated all movie stars." It's an interesting question, but all Ryan could do then was start listing names of classic stars from the history of film. But Russ's rebuttal managed to be even dumber. He simply shouted, "I want the truth," and then said, "Tom, you can't act. That's the truth." That's basically a "no, you're wrong" argument, and those annoy the crap out of me. It would have been very easy to throw some of the names Ryan used back at him and say that the truly great movie stars were also fantastic actors. The judges were split, but by a 2-1 vote, Ryan moved on to the final round.
And boy was he lucky to do so because he kicked Brandon's ass. Here comes my one other big gripe about this episode, and once again it has to do with the utter lack of logic on the part of the "celebrity judges," whether they're forced to vote the way they are by the producers or not. In the first "obsession war," Brandon pulled out his log of every film he's seen since Fall 1999. I have now twice mentioned how lame this is. It's just not unique. I keep the same kind of notebook. That certainly doesn't make me the "ultimate film fanatic," unless someone has changed the definition of "ultimate." And since I criticized week 1's winner Jordan, I have to be fair and say that at least in his film log he actually writes a sentence or two about the film and his thoughts on it. Brandon's pathetic notebook was just a list of film names, and maybe something else (a rating? I don't know -- couldn't read his scribble).
What did Ryan show and tell? He brought in his all-region, code free DVD player and explained that this piece of equipment allowed him to see DVDs that would otherwise not be watchable in the United States. You know, I don't have an all region player, but I'd like one. I know that Filmbrain considers it one of his most important possessions. If you ever wondered how he sees all these Asian films that you can't get anywhere in this country, it's because he buys other region coded DVDs and can watch them. If you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, that's an even more important point in favor of Ryan's item. Someone who would make a point to have home video equipment to allow him to see any film available in the world to me is much more film geeky and fanatical than some schlub who simply writes down every film he sees, and I include myself in that latter description. Obviously, the idiot judges don't understand that important nuance because they called Ryan's item a "nice gadget," and gave the round to Brandon. I'm not sure whether the brain trust of Traci Lords, Richard Roundtree and Jason Mewes was just stupid or if the producers knew how lame Brandon's other two items were going to be and they wanted to stretch the segment. Either way, Ryan got robbed.
In the second round, Ryan just started pulling out film books. Ryan falls into the semi-soft spoken, slightly shy group of film geeks as opposed to the freakishly awkward hyperactive family. He doesn't quite stutter, but you can tell he has stage fright. That comes out big time hear until he really starts going and you can literally see his passion for learning about movies come out. He mentions that he is not just obsessed with films but also with reading film books. He makes special mention of what is probably one of the most important books of film criticism ever, Andrew Sarris' "The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968." He rightly states that it is a "great guidebook for the uninitiated."
Brandon's item/story was pretty cool, but it seemed more narcissistic than really representative of his passion with film. First he showed a picture of himself with author James Ellroy. Apparently, he's a big Ellroy fan (no problem there; I am as well), and he had the opportunity to interview Ellroy a few times and actually formulate a relationship with him. (I actually know this to be very possible. When I was at UCLA and writing for and editing the Arts & Entertainment section of the Daily Bruin, I was fanatical about Ellroy. I reviewed his novel White Jazz, and my friend Greg interviewed him by phone. He and Greg bonded over a common fascination with the famous Black Dahlia murder case, Ellroy's inspiration for one of my all time favorite books and an upcoming film adaptation which I still can't bring myself to really talk about because it's director and casting depress me too much. And, in fact, he would stay in touch and correspond with my friend for a short time afterward.) Sidetracked ... sorry. So Brandon pulls out this script signed by Ellroy. Apparently it is an unproduced original screenplay also written by the author. And on page 88, there's a character -- a suspect in "the crime" -- who Ellroy named after Brandon.
As I said ... that's kind of cool, but it's also a bit circumstantial. I mean, I could hate movies, but have a writer friend who sticks my name in a script and gives me a signed copy. That doesn't make me all that film geeky. If anything, Brandon's story just makes him look like a bit of a starfucker, and not even to stars that the mainstream public would care about. The judges rightfully gave this round to Ryan.
In the final round, Brandon totally came up empty. Apparently, he went to grad school at UCLA, and he must have also written for The Daily Bruin. I'm guessing this was some time after my time there (although I suppose it could have also been before) because I know we weren't there together. Why? Because if a Bernardo Bertolucci interview had come up during my time, you bet your ass I would have done it. And that was his third item: the interview. But he didn't even show the piece he wrote or play a recording of the conversation. He had these black and white photos of Bertolucci and him sitting in some hotel suite. What the hell was that about? On the very few occasions where a photographer was even allowed to come with me to take pictures of an interview subject, they didn't take pictures of me. You want candids and poses of the person I'm interviewing. There's no reason for some sort of informal Oval Office-like look-at-them-talking shot. But fine, he wanted that for his own collection of starfucking proof. Again, there's nothing film fanatical about that; again, it's purely circumstantial. Anybody writing film for the Daily Bruin, at least while I was there, had the opportunity to go to major press junkets and interview big name celebrities and artists, just like I did, and plenty of writers were simply fans, not fanatics.
Ryan bitch-slapped Brandon's photos aside with his next batch of items that make it even dumber that his all region DVD player didn't win it for him earlier. He pulled out a stack of DVDs from his collection that have never been released in the United States, which likely means they're only playable on his all region player. He made special notes of two Orson Welles DVDs, that he thinks are only available in Spain, but definitely can't be found in this country. One of them was an unfinished version of Don Quixote, which Welles tried to make for a long time. (That story is mentioned in the very interesting documentary Lost in La Mancha about Terry Gilliam's disastrous attempt to make a Quixote film with Johnny Depp.)
Thankfully, the win was handed to Ryan, and he certainly deserved it. He is absolutely a film fanatic and movie geek, and he will do my West Coast roots proud in the finals. Meanwhile, I think the show was better to me solely because of the debate section. It is obviously the most difficult segment to get right, but when it hums, it's really entertaining. I'd love to see them focus next season more on finding contestants who can handle themselves and actually verbalize an argument.
That's it for last week. Only two more to go, and then IFC, I would be happy to come on board as a consultant and help you fix this puppy so that next go around, you have a much better show. Just give me a ring.