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Press Conference for “Schmucks”

For those of us who enjoy contemplating the historical and political currents that run through film history, it’s tempting to look at the latest comedy from director Jay Roach (“Austin Powers,” “Meet the Parents,” “Recount”) as a possible reflection of American discomfort at the brutal nature of business and the growing disparities between the wealthy and the increasingly lumpen middle-class. However, when you’re talking about a movie that ends with a confrontation between a good idiot (Steve Carell) who designs amazing dioramas using dead mice and an evil idiot (Zach Galifianakis) with the power of mind control, but only over other idiots, that may be taking things a little seriously.

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Opening this Friday, “Dinner for Schmucks” borrows its premise and some of its plot from Frances Veber’s 1998 “The Dinner Game.” Paul Rudd co-stars as Barry, a rising L.A. executive who finds that entering his company’s upper echelon will mean participating in a competitive Dinner for Winners. All the guests are to bring an extraordinary person who has been unrecognized by society — in other words, a dithering idiot. The winner of the nasty game is the one whose guest is the most amusingly stupid.

Barry is initially appalled by the idea and assures Julie (Stephanie Szostak), his horrified art curator girlfriend, he’ll have nothing to do with it. On the other hand, he needs to pay for his Porsche and his absurdly large apartment at West Hollywood’s Sunset Tower Hotel (in real life, you’d need a billionaire’s wealth to afford that). It’s a choice between being nice and being unemployed and in debt. Then the fates seem to reward him when, driving through a quainted-up version of Westwood Village, he nearly runs over Tim Wagner (Carell), a clueless IRS employee and ultra-naive artist committed to his “mousterpieces.” Wagner, of course, turns out to be a goodhearted type whose attempts to help his new friend backfire in increasingly absurd ways. Fortunately, most of them are funny, particularly thanks to some outstanding and often completely unhinged supporting performances from Zach Galifianakis and Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” as an absurdly pretentious and untalented, but hugely successful, artist on the make for Barry’s increasingly angry girlfriend and all other attractive women on the planet.

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“Dinner for Schmucks” isn’t going to electrify cinephiles or become a staple of screenwriting seminars, but a couple of weeks back it had proven itself to be a very effective laugh-getting machine at a West L.A. screening. Therefore, full of a free breakfast, a selection of journos were in a pretty good mood for a morning press conference at the Beverly Hilton with a number of funny and/or talented people, including stars Carell and Rudd, supporting bad guys Bruce Greenwood (“Star Trek“) and Ron Livingston (“Office Space“) as well as director Roach and writers David Guion and Michael Handelman, who are about to become directors themselves with the film version of the BBC comedy, “Cruise of the Gods.”

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Breakfast for schmucks

It’s been a slightly less than stellar 24 hours here in movie-land, at least as far as it regards managing ‘net access, which is why you’re not now looking at my usual box office preview. I’ll try to at least allude to this week’s very interest box office derby in a later post.

Though I’m embargoed from reviewing it before it’s 7/30 opening, and not sure how much opining I’m even allowed to do here, I can say that I attended a screening last night for the upcoming Jay Roach comedy starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, “Dinner for Schmucks” and that the brief scene below, while amusing in that humiliating way fans of “The Office” know so well, isn’t even close to being the funniest or best scene in a movie with a lot impressive comic set pieces — which is not saying it doesn’t have some significant faults, too, but you can wait to hear about those as well.

The movie’s real strength here is a strong supporting cast and, as oddly funny as Lucy Davenport and David Walliams of “Little Britain” are as a wackily pretentious Swiss billionaire and his wife, the comic stylings of Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” as a wackily pretentious artist (a lot of wackiness and pretense going on in this film) and Zach Galifianakis of every-comedy-made-in-the-last-two-years as a dickie-wearing master of mind control are something to behold. Until you get a chance to see that, you’ll have to make do with this.

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Friday movie news dump: the first Salinger movie, the Sundance beat goes on, etc.

Hey folks. I’ve got a relatively limited amount of time today and, just to add to the drama, the usually excellent free wi-fi at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf slowed down today to a relative crawl for a time while I was researching this. Let’s see how much I can cover.

* Just as I was ready to wrap things up, we have a breaking story. As I sorta alluded to yesterday regarding J.D. Salinger, it’s inevitable his death will pave the way for some new films. It turns out I was, if anything, way behind the curve. Working screenwriter Shane Salerno — whose work, like the planned James Cameron-produced “Fantastic Voyage” remake, bends toward the geek — has been working on a documentary about the writer who became almost as famous for his escape from the public eye as for his actual work, and it’s apparently nearly completed. Mike Fleming has not only broken the news of the formerly under-wraps project, he’s seen most of the movie

* Of course, Sundance continues slogging away, and word of acquisitions by film distributors have been making their way round the usual spots. Indiewire’s Eugene Hernandez has news on the well-regarded “Blue Valentine” with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. He also gives a quick nod to such other highish profile films as “The Tilman Story” (a documentary about the late Pat Tilman), “The Kids Are Alright” (not to be confused with the old rock-doc about the Who) and “Hesher,” a not very appealing sounding film that nevertheless has Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead. The “Valentine” sale is of particular interesting as it was the troubled Weinstein Company that picked it up. Coincidentally, the company named for Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s parents, Mira and Max, has gone on the block.

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“Flight of the Conchords” bows after two seasons

“Flight of the Conchords,” one of the most inventive comedies of the past decade, is not coming back for a third season. The reason why remains unclear. While the duo’s website suggests exhuastion, Variety reports that HBO cancelled the series. I remember reading a while back that the network was willing to give Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, and co-creator James Bobin an indefinite amount to produce another season. Considering its rabid fan base, the final decision likely came from the “Conchords” camp.

One can understand their creative fatigue. Besides constructing the story and script, the pair also wrote two complete songs per episode. And these songs aren’t just throwaways — they’re actually quite good. Although the total product of “Flight of the Conchords” only amounts to 11 hours (22 episodes), I’ve enjoyed every minute.

Of course, a movie is already rumored, but I’d expect a concert tour before they hit the big screen.

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The Film Formerly Known As “The Boat That Rocked”…

…has been given a new name for its U.S. release: “Pirate Radio.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the motion picture in question (which lets out most of our UK readership, as the film was released across the pond back in April), here’s the official synopsis from Focus Features:

“Pirate Radio” is the high-spirited story of how 8 DJs’ love affair with Rock ‘n’ Roll changed the world forever. In the 1960s, this group of rogue DJs, on a boat in the middle of the Northern Atlantic, played rock records and broke the law, all for the love of music. The songs they played united and defined an entire generation and drove the British government crazy. By playing Rock ‘n’ Roll, they were standing up against the British government who did everything in their power to shut them down. The band of rebels is led by The Count, played by the Academy Award-winning Philip Seymour Hoffman, Quentin (Bill Nighy), the boss of Radio Rock, Gavin (Rhys Ifans), the greatest DJ in Britain, Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom), Doctor Dave (Nick Frost), and Young Carl (Tom Sturridge), who comes of age amidst the chaos of sex, drugs and rock n roll. The film features an unbelievable selection of music including The Beatles, The Stones, Beach Boys, Dusty Springfield, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Smokey Robinson, David Bowie, Otis Redding, Cat Stevens just to name a few. The film is laugh out loud funny and speaks to the rock n roll rebel in all of us.

A few other bits which might interest you: it also stars Kenneth Branagh, Rhys Darby (“Flight of the Conchords”), Chris O’Dowd (“The I.T. Crowd”), Ralph Brown (“Meadowlands”), January Jones (“Mad Men”), and Jack Davenport (“Coupling,” “Swingtown”), and it was written and directed by the always-enjoyable Richard Curtis, the man behind “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Love, Actually,” and the “Bridget Jones” films.

Here’s the trailer for your viewing enjoyment:

In a turn of events which obviously leaves me pleased as punch, I have been invited to participate in the press junket for the U.S. release of the film, so stay tuned to Bullz-Eye and Premium Hollywood for further coverage, including discussions with Mr. Curtis and some of the stars of “Pirate Radio.” Rest assured, my first question will be, “Who decided that Americans couldn’t appreciate a title like ‘The Boat That Rocked’?” (I’m guessing I’ll learn that some higher-up decided, “Hey, the kids love the pirates, so maybe we can trick ‘em into thinking this is actually about pirates!”)

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TCA Tour, Day 2: “The InBetweeners”

If your name is Will, you wear glasses, and you occasionally had a rough time of it in high school when it came to fitting in, then you will likely find that it’s quite easy to enjoy the new BBC America sitcom, “The InBetweeners.”

Actually, I guess that’s a pretty tiny demographic, so let’s try this: if the idea of an amalgam of “Freaks and Geeks” and “American Pie” delivered in a British accent fills you with joy, then, boy, do Iain Morris and Damon Beesley have a show for you.

Their best-known American credits…okay, fair enough, it’s really their only one…are as the writers of a couple of “Flight of the Conchords” episodes, but with “The InBetweeners,” they’ve put together a raunchy look at teenage life that, at least based on the episodes I’ve seen, is a bit like “Skins” without all the depressing bits…which is to say that the teenagers here are committing the sort of debauchery that you’d like to think that your own teenagers wouldn’t indulge in, even if you’re pretty sure they do, anyway.

“It’s not in any way, I think, really heavy,” said Joe Thomas, who plays Simon on the show. “I suppose it’s heavy in the sense that it’s sort of about inadequacy and expectations not being met and teenager years being sort of perpetually disappointing to a degree you wouldn’t even have thought possible given the last disappointment. But ‘Skins’ has, like, death in it and big themes, whereas we have…”

At this, Morris interrupted his star. “The best example is probably that, in the first series, you might see Joe’s naked bottom. In the second, you’ll see his penis in a wet sock. That’s how we moved it on. That’s how we’ve tried to develop the show and try and just get those themes going through. Of humiliating Joe Thomas.”

“Yeah,” confirmed Thomas, “that’s one of the themes.”

Regarding comparisons to the work of Judd Apatow, Morris is more than happy to consider his work part of the tradition of comedy humiliation. “It’s those things like ‘American Pie’ and ‘Animal House’ and ‘Swingers’ and things that were sort of character stays of men in a way that had humorous content. And in one of the episodes, the last episode, there’s a sort of homage to ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ by which I mean a joke we stole wholeheartedly. Do mention it to Judd if you see him.”

Now, there’s one thing for Americans to keep in mind (as if we’d ever forget): our television standards are more stringent than those of the Brits. This necessitates certain changes in various episodes that air on BBC America, and you can bet that “The InBetweeners” is a series which will require a bit of tweaking.

“We actually do bleep certain words,” said Garth Ancier, President of BBC Worldwide America, then backpedaled slightly and clarified, “We don’t bleep them. We do audio deletes, which is actually a different way of dealing with it. But we do do audio deletes on certain words that start with ‘F,’ and we do pixilate occasional nudity and things like that. Look, we have to live within the U.S. system. These are shows that are airing on free over-the-air television in the UK on E4 and Channel 4, but the U.S. audience is a little tamer, and so we have to calibrate where it should be, and we do. We do it with ‘Skins,’ too.”

“Sounds like bad news for Joe Thomas bottom fans,” said Morris.

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TCA Update: HBO Executive Session

The HBO executive session with Michael Lombardo (President, Programming Group and West Coast Operations) and Richard Plelpler (Co-President) just wrapped up, and here were the highlights:

* Before Plepler and Lombardo took the stage, we were treated to the trailer for the network’s new 10-hour miniseries, “The Pacific,” produced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Gary Goetzman. Let’s just go ahead and give the Emmy now, shall we?

* “True Blood,” “Hung,” and “Entourage” will all be coming back for new seasons next summer.

* Conversations are underway to potentially bring back “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.”

* Neither was willing to offer up any information about how Evan Rachel Wood would look as the vampire queen at the end of the second season of “True Blood,” for fear that they would suffer some horrible fate at the hand of Alan Ball. They did, however, assure us that surprises are in store, and that it totally delivers.

* “Little Britain USA” is not coming back, but they’re talking about bringing creators Matt Lucas and David Walliams back for some specials. It’s still in the development stage, but the intent is to come back with a whole new cast of characters and a whole new approach to their television appearance. In short, they will be back on HBO, though whether it will be at the end of next year or later remains to be seen.

* Season 2 of “Eastbound and Down” will begin shooting it sometime at the end of winter or the beginning of spring, and it will air next year.

* David Simon’s new series, “Treme,” will be on the air next April, fingers crossed. The current intention is for “The Pacific” to premiere mid-March, and, at the end of its run, ‘”Treme” will begin.

* The pilot just wrapped for Martin Scorcese’s “Boardwalk Empire,” and they are anxiously awaiting a cut from Marty so that the series can receive a green light. Provided it’s as good as they’re presuming it will be…and, thus far, “everything we’ve seen is fantastic, big, everything we hoped it could be”…their fingers are crossed that a pick-up is imminent.

* As for Season 3 of “Flight of the Conchords,” the official word is, “When they’re ready, we’re ready.”

* They have begun receiving episodes for Season 2 of “The Life & Times of Tim,” and they describe them as “funnier than the first,” but they haven’t yet figured out where they want schedule the show. They do, however, have an upcoming series that could fit the bill nicely…

* They’ve ordered an animated show from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, based on their long-running series of podcasts. I’m saying it right here: the time is right for Karl Pilkington mania to grip the States!

* Although the histrionics of Jerry Rice probably didn’t help things any, the big reason that the Bengals are the focus of this season of “Hard Knocks” rather than the Cowboys is that the network wanted to open up a new team to the audience and show a different organization and the habits and attitude of that team.

* Season 4 of “Big Love” is scheduled to kick off in January.

* Season 3 of “In Treatment” is something they’re trying to put together, but given that the show was adapted from an Israeli series that only ran for two seasons, they’d have to create all-new scripts for a third season. Still, it’s a good sign that Gabriel Byrne is “very interested” in returning.

* And, lastly, they are forever trying to figure out a way to extend the length of Bill Maher’s seasons, in order to give him more time on the air. Whether that’s a good thing or not, you be the judge.

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“Lost” time warps its way to #1 spot on Bullz-Eye’s TV Power Rankings

With the writers’ strike finally behind us, the television industry has sprung back remarkably well. Granted, it isn’t all puppy dogs and ice cream for all of our favorite shows, but after the strike forced us to cancel the spring edition of our semi-annual TV Power Rankings, it’s nice to be able to show some love for those series that had been gone for far too long. A quick look at our Winter 2008 list may suggest that a major shakeup has occurred in our new Top 20 below, but seven of the shows from last November are either on hiatus or cancelled. Likewise, nearly every eligible show previously on hiatus has snuck its way back into the Top 20, while five new shows have also cracked the list. Most of these are experiencing some of their best seasons ever, and though “Heroes” continues its mighty fall, the return of “24″ only further cements the notion that TV is back and better than ever.

Below you’ll find a few entries, but be sure to check out the full list, where we’ve also included links to DVD reviews and interviews, as well as a host of Honorable Mentions and our list of favorite shows currently on hiatus.

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“Flight of the Conchords” picks up where it left off

Judging by the first two episodes of the second season of “Flight of the Conchords,” there will be no sophomore slump from the New Zealand folk duo struggling to make it big in New York City. In the second-season premiere, “A Good Opportunity,” Bret and Jemaine fire their manager, Murray, because he’s too busy dealing with another (more successful) band. They immediately get a gig writing a jingle for a commercial and hilarity ensues. Literally.

The second episode — “New Cup” — might have been the best yet. It focuses on all the repercussions of Bret’s decision to purchase a $2.79 mug so that the duo could both have a cup of tea at the same time.

Thus far, it appears that there is a bigger focus on the writing and less of a focus on the music in the second season. The humor was always there, but the writing seems sharper and more directed. While in the first season the musical interludes were quite memorable, they’ve been sort of an afterthought this season. Murray seems to be getting more screen time, and given the hilarious dynamic between he and the duo, it’s definitely not a bad thing. Hell, I chuckle whenever he says the word “Bret.”

If you haven’t checked out “Flight of the Conchords,” the first season is available on DVD. To me, it just may be creeping up on “The Office” as the best comedy on TV.

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It’s time to set your TiVos…

There are a number of new (and returning) shows making their season debuts this month. Here is a list of the scripted shows that premiere in the next two weeks (through 1/19):

SCRUBS (ABC)
1/6/09 at 9:00 PM & 9:30 PM
8th season premiere

NIP/TUCK (FX)
1/6/09 at 10:00 PM
5th season winter premiere

10 ITEMS OR LESS (TBS)
1/6/09 at 11:00 PM
3rd season premiere

DAMAGES (FX)
1/7/09 at 10:00 PM
2nd season premiere


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