Friday, November 17, 2017

MasterClass series adds six new classes, including Ron Howard and Steph Curry AND an incredible deal!

I hate doing posts that sound like commercials, but I feel a little less like a shill when I know I'm promoting something that you all would enjoy. If you've followed the blog for a while, you might recall I've done some reviews of the MasterClass video series. Specifically, these offerings:

Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (My review here.)
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (My review here.)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (My review here)

I found value in each of the classes. Though the Hoffman one was geared for actors, it gave me a lot of really useful insight from a directing standpoint. The highlight of the Sorkin one was seeing how he ran a writers' room and interacted with students playing the part of staff writers. The Mamet one was less revelatory for me but would have been more than adequate as a Screenwriting 101 course.

Earlier this week, MasterClass made two announcements. First, they've added six new classes and one of them is Ron Howard Teaches Directing.

Ron Howard? THE Ron Howard is doing one of these? The Academy Award-winning director of A Beautiful Mind? The director who SHOULD have won for Apollo 13? Ransom, Frost/Nixon, Drive, Willow, and the upcoming Star Wars Story Solo?

This is the part where I usually say "Shut up and take my money!" With the other classes, the cost was $90 a class. MasterClass has introduced what they call the All-Access Pass. If you purchase that, you have unlimited access to ALL of their classes at the cost of $180 a year. They have a total of 27 classes, so if you watched all the classes, it works out to about $7 a class. (That likely would require you to binge the classes and not follow the weekly schedule - which is doable.

For me, there's probably about 10 classes I'd be into so that comes out to $18/class. Maybe the best way to look at it is that for the cost of two classes, you can check out all of them, so if there are more than two that appeal to you, I'd go with the All-Access Pass.

My one regret is that I won't have the time to check the Ron Howard class out and review it for you before the holidays because I would love to be able to tell you that it's worth it or would make a good gift. If it's up to the standard of the three classes I have seen, I don't think you have anything to worry about.
Also included in the new classes are:

Stephen Curry Teaches Basketball
Helen Mirren Teaches Acting
Wolfgang Puck Teaches Cooking
Marc Jacobs Teaches Fashion Design

(They're big on cooking classes at MasterClass. You'll find a few more on the website.)

The remaining roster of classes includes:

Martin Scorsese Teaches Filmmaking (SCORSESE has one of these?! How did I miss that?)
Christina Aguilera's MasterClass
deadmau5's MasterClass
Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation
Garry Kasparov Teaches Chess
Herbie Hancock Teaches Jazz
Shonda Rhimes teaches writing for TV
Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking
Steve Martin teaches comedy
Hans Zimmer teaches film scoring
Reba McEntire teaches country music
Werner Herzog teaches filmmaking
Serena Williams teaches tennis 
Usher teaches performance

With the holidays coming up, maybe one - or all of these - would make a good gift for someone you know.

If I get around to watching the Ron Howard class, I will absolutely review it here at a later date. That's my promise to you. I don't think ANY amount of mentoring from Christina Aguilera will make my singing voice tolerable, though.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

If you want to work in TV, you should be following this ONE TREE HILL story

For the last month, there's been an increased awareness of sexual harassment in the industry, fallout from the numerous victims of sexual assault who've come forward against Harvey Weinstein. The domino effect has been astounding.

Late last week, Variety published a story where 19 former and current employees of Warner Bros alleged misconduct from Andrew Kreisberg, the executive producer of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. Warner Bros has suspended Kreisberg pending an investigation, and Variety's article went on to discuss numerous instances of abuse and disrespect Kreisberg had shown his staff. It represents the worst kind of experiences one can have working in TV.

This abuse had gone on for so long in part because the staffers who endured it believed there was no way to come forward without risking not just their jobs on the show, but their careers in general. Given that, it's remarkable that NINETEEN people spoke up, even with the protection of going unnamed.

It was that bravery that motivated Audrey Wauchope to speak up on Twitter over the weekend. In a series of tweets you can find here, she detailed the sexism and harassment she endured from the showrunner on her first staff job. Though she didn't name the series, it was evident to anyone who looked up her IMDb page that she was talking about One Tree Hill and its showrunner Mark Schwahn.

Monday, Variety published a statement from 18 women who worked on the show, including original stars Hilarie Burton, Sophia Bush, Bethany Joy Lenz, almost all the other female regulars and several writers and crew. Their statement read, in part:


All of the female cast members of One Tree Hill have chosen this forum to stand together in support of Audrey Wauchope and one another. To use terminology that has become familiar as thesystemic reality of sexual harassment and assault has come more and more to light, Mark Schwahn’s behavior over the duration of the filming of One Tree Hill was something of an “open secret.” Many of us were, to varying degrees, manipulated psychologically and emotionally. More than one of us is still in treatment for post-traumatic stress. 

Many of us were put in uncomfortable positions and had to swiftly learn to fight back, sometimes physically, because it was made clear to us that the supervisors in the room were not the protectors they were supposed to be. Many of us were spoken to in ways that ran the spectrum from deeply upsetting, to traumatizing, to downright illegal. And a few of us were put in positions where we felt physically unsafe. More than one woman on our show had her career trajectory threatened.

All of this is preamble to the post I really want to bring to your attention. All of the previous stories played out in the trades (or, like Wauchope's tweets, were republished on one of the trade sites) and were easily discoverable. This blog post from former One Tree Hill writer David Handelman is probably going to have fewer eyes on it. Handelman wrote for the show in season six and he elaborates a little bit about the toxic work environment that Wauchope described:


So it was very hard to go up against him. And most of the other writers in the room were in similar positions -- they'd started out as assistants and been promoted over the years, and owed him everything. Writers were sequestered from set, unlike most shows, so they had no relationship with the cast and crew, and at the end of each season he told the writers there was no guarantee they'd be back, creating a culture where you were anxious to keep your job. Same thing with the cast, who were plucked from relative obscurity (except for Chad Michael Murray) and suddenly had that most elusive thing for an actor -- a steady gig.

To be clear, the room was hardly a daily terror -- we shared a lot of laughs, exchanged Christmas gifts, and socialized. Schwahn at times could be funny and kind and even self-deprecating, cared deeply about the show and liked mentoring people, and actually let them write a lot of their scripts -- not as common as you might think.

But that whole ethos -- "I can do what I want, and you all owe me" - had its dark side. One of the writers began dating a guest actress, and soon lost favor with Schwahn. When the lead actors were in L.A., they'd stop by the office to meet the staff, but the actresses never did. There was lewd talk, requests for backrubs. One writer kept her private life super private from all of us for fear it would diminish her currency with Schwahn.

It was horrible for women, but created a bad work environment for everyone. You never knew when The Boss would be angry. 

It's an unusually candid look at the darker side of writing for TV, especially when taken in conjunction with Wauchope's account. One detail that jumped out at me was the mention that the writers weren't allowed to go to set. That's a red flag for an insecure boss. On most shows, the writer goes to set for the production of their episode. (Or at the least, a member of the writing staff is sent to "cover set" for the episode, whether or not they wrote it.) A good showrunner wants their staff to learn how to produce. A bad showrunner is threatened by them.

The solidarity shown by the One Tree Hill team is inspiring, and gives hope that it's the start of a wave that'll wipe out some bad behavior in this town. Until then, aspiring writers would do well to know the kinds of sharks that await them, and posts like Handelman's are a must read.

Monday, November 6, 2017

THOR: RAGNAROK - the bumblebee that shouldn't be able to fly

There used to be an urban legend that scientists had proven that, scientifically, the bumblebee's wings were too small to support its body. Essentially, the claim was that everything about science said that it shouldn't be able to fly and yet somehow it did. (It's since been debunked.)

I thought about that myth upon leaving THOR: RAGNAROK, which is a perfect illustration of that mythology. I enjoyed it a lot, which was rather surprising because I thought the previous entry in the series might have been the worst Marvel film ever, and even the first THOR film didn't get much above a lukewarm reaction from me. At least on first reaction, I found this more fun than either GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY feature.

But when you look at this movie analytically, you'll see that it really shouldn't work. The plot has a couple false starts and detours, including a second act that's almost wholly removed from the rest of the picture. In the hands of a lesser director an cast, this would feel like a mess. Instead, the breezy tone keeps things moving and takes the audience along for the ride, and Chris Hemsworth's hilarious performance as Thor manages to unify this patchwork film.

At the conclusion of the previous THOR movie, Thor's evil brother Loki (who was believed to have perish) was revealed to the audience as having impersonated their father Odin and usurped his throne in Asgard. As RAGNAROK begins, this switcharoo still hasn't been discovered and the audience could be forgiven for expecting that the main conflict of the film will revolve around Thor trying to defeat Loki and rescue his father.

Instead, here's the progression of events:

- In the first ten minutes of the film, Thor gets wise to the deception and exposes Loki. It seems in the three or so years he's been on the throne, Loki hasn't done anything more nefarious that producing a play that recasts Loki as the hero, and lie around having grapes fed to him.

- Thor forces Loki to take him to their father, whom Loki dumped in a nursing home on Earth. The building has been torn down, though, making this a dead end. Don't assume this means we're in for a hunt for Odin because...

- Loki gets snatched by Dr. Strange [GRATUITOUS MARVEL CAMEO ALERT], who magically sends both him and Thor to Odin. Strange is so delightfully in-character that it's not until the scene is over that we realize "Wait... did we just get deus ex machina'd?"

This all happens in about 20 minutes. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of amusing stuff along the way, but Loki's defeat and the quest for Odin both are resolved incredibly easily. Try this in an original spec and you're gonna get hit. HARD.

- Odin tells his sons he's dying, with no explanation other than it's his time. So it's not even a consequence of what Loki did. It just happens because the script needs it to happen. He warns that with his death, his evil firstborn Hela will at last be able to return to take vengeance on Asgard. (I actually don't have a problem with this seeming contrivance, but the convenience of his death happening now, with little motivation, feels like a first draft issue.)

- Hela shows up, kicks Thor and Loki's asses and disrupts their transport back to Asgard, getting both of them lost along the way. She conquers the undefended kingdom easily.

- Meanwhile Thor is captured and sold as a gladiator to the Grandmaster on Sakaar. He spends the entire second act here, eventually teaming up with a rediscovered Hulk (now Grandmaster's champion) and Valkyrie, a former Asgardian warrior in exile.

There's a lot of fun stuff on Sakaar as Thor has to convince both Hulk and Valkyrie to help him, but the Grandmaster storyline and the Hela storylines never intersect. It feels like Hela spends the second act spinning her wheels on a slow takeover of Asgard while Thor deals with his unrelated problems. Every moment Cate Blanchett is on-screen is a delight. It's a major step-up from Evil Guy Whose Name I Can't Remember from THOR: THE DARK WORLD, but there's not enough story momentum for her while Thor is stranded elsewhere.

It's a problem one barely notices since the Thor stuff is amusing. For a while, it's almost as if Hela was just a vehicle to facilitate the Thor/Hulk buddy movie. Naturally, Thor eventually convinces his friends to help him take on Hela and liberate Asgard, but beyond that there's nothing for the Grandmaster to do in the third act. What's more, what Thor needs to ultimately defeat Hela was planted in the first scene of the film, so it's not even truly something he gained through his experience.

The film tries to bind the second and third acts via some character work with Hulk and Valkyrie and it works well enough that you leave the theater with great affection for both characters. Director Taika Waititi has a wonderful sense of pace and everyone's comic timing is on point here. It's a rare joke that doesn't land and this film is packed with jokes. What can you say about a sci-fi movie where Jeff Goldblum shows up to play an alien ruler basically AS Jeff Goldblum and it doesn't feel out of place in the slightest?

This is a film that embraces the weird and the quirky but does it without self-consciously winking at the audience. (Okay, maybe the Stan Lee cameo lands with a bit of a thud, but that's it.)

Hell, they get away with a Hulk dick joke. A year ago, would you have put money on a THOR movie being able to do that and not make it cringeworthy?

A movie can get away with a lot if it leaves the audience feeling good. RAGNAROK avoids the morose pomposity that has hobbled other superhero films and gives us two hours or a rollicking good time with some of our favorite action figures, while adding some new toys to the box. (This had better not be the last time we see either Valkyrie or The Grandmaster.)

And you know what? As much as the Dr. Strange cameo shouldn't work, considering this is the 17th film in the Marvel series, it feels a lot less inexplicable to use him for plot convenience than it might have to pull something like this three or four films in. Is it an indulgence? Yes, but it feels earned to the audience because of all the time we've spent in this continuity.

Like I said, it's the bumblebee that flies when it shouldn't. It's impressive to come away really enjoying a film that quickly ditches a set-up that promises tension and takes shortcuts to put the real major conflict in play. A steady diet of these would probably lead to diminishing returns, but this is just so damn pleasant it's impossible not to get swept away by its infectious charm.