Thursday, June 30, 2011

Will Smith and the Anatomy of Hollywood's Biggest Star.

Bill Simmons wrote an interesting article today (if you haven’t visited his new Grantland site, there is some good material) regarding the anatomy of the Hollywood star, while attempting to quantify the value of a movie star’s success, much as we would an athlete’s through statistics, while claiming that Hollywood’s one acting giant, Will Smith, earned his success because of a pre-determined decision to study movie trends that suggested the public liked creature blockbusters that involved love stories.  Simmons postulates that because Smith involved himself in these mostly safe blockbusters, where he gets to play the hero, he may have figured out the secret to Hollywood.  And while Simmons brings up some great and true points, he ignores many of the variables that make Will Smith a unique case.  Though Smith’s decision making process played an undeniable role in his success, his background, and maybe more importantly, his timing, is what vaulted him to his current lofty status.

In 1985, when rap music was first finding its footing in American culture, Will Smith (along with DJ Jazzy Jeff) helped pioneer the genre to the mainstream with catchy, radio-friendly singles like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime.”  These hits, along with his albums, made him an instant success that stood apart from essentially everything else on the radio.  More importantly, Smith’s music was humorous, non political, and played to the younger generation that would one day spearhead his film fanbase, and most importantly, his music bridged a possible racial divide. His style was charming, catchy, safe, and could be appreciated by any young audience looking to differentiate themselves from older generations, even if only by the music they purchased.  This made Smith, perhaps unintentionally, a symbol of “cool” for this younger generation. And, of course, Smith’s music career was spawned long before the internet, when all we had was the radio to learn our new music, so he enjoyed much greater exposure than a similar act would today.  

But, of course, this was only the beginning.

After a debilitating bout with the IRS, Smith was given yet a second opportunity to become a likable pioneer when NBC greenlit the soon-to-be hit sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Like his music, this show brought the world of rap to the mainstream, and given prime network real estate on NBC’s slate of highly popular comedies.  And, just like his music, Smith portrayed himself as relatable, lovable, and most of all, “cool.”  I can still remember it being the most talked about show in my elementary school, while all the kids tried to perfect the secret handshake used by Jazzy Jeff and Smith in the show.  And, of course, ANYONE in my generation can sing you the entire theme song.  The show premiered in 1990, again before the internet, with a 13.6 rating…which is unheard of by today’s standards (to give you an idea, any episode of Two and a Half Men this year hovered around the 9’s.  Of course, the Fresh Prince didn’t have to deal with multiple digital cable/satellite channels or the internet. Again, he had maximum exposure due to limited availability of other forms of entertainment)  Because of the above, Will Smith quickly became a household name, a household name that managed to combine “street” culture and “white” culture.  Essentially, his show appealed to everyone without even a semblance of controversy.  Think Bill Cosby, if Cosby also pioneered a musical genre for an entire, young generation that would one day soon be the first to embrace every single thing that is popular today. 

But it gets even better. 

Though Smith proved himself capable in the 1995 hit “Bad Boys” with Martin Lawrence, he headlined an ensemble for what would become the pioneer (there's that word again!) for the modern day blockbuster that has completely taken over the movie industry today: Independence Day.  Again, Smith played the likable, cool air force pilot who saves the day.   And again, Smith had direct involvement in ushering in the “cool,” family, action blockbuster that would define a generation of moviegoers.

But also, Smith never forgot what brought him to the public’s eye in the first place.  And that, of course, is his music.  Much more memorable than mediocre, yet successful movies Men In Black or Wild Wild West were, was the fact that he also created hit songs for both those movies.  And, this just in, America likes multi-dimensional talent (just ask Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson, etc).   At this point, he had now hit a trifecta with unquestioned, and most of all original, success in music, television, and film.  

And, somehow, Smith did this all with humility and a self-deprecating sense of humor.  He never seemed arrogant (in interviews or in his roles/music), and always appeared to be even keeled.  Calming even.  He proved himself a guy in control, a guy who could be trusted.  And Smith continued to live a wholesome lifestyle off camera.  Never was in the tabloids, stayed married to Jada Pinkett, had his now famous kids, and didn’t over expose himself much like Ben Affleck (a guy who had a similar movie career trajectory) did.  Simply put, because of ALL the above, every new Will Smith movie became an event.  And, till this day, this thought has been grandfathered into our new way of viewing and understanding entertainment. 

My major point is that Will Smith, unlike many of today’s actors, became a brand.   And he became a brand for an entire generation that grew up with him and watched him become an icon in three different mediums.  And, luckily for Smith, he resonated with the first real generation that consumed the entertainment that is still popular today, and also probably the same generation that yearned for a post racial society and willingly searched for "street" culture and entertainment.  Though Smith’s talent always shined, and he is a unique likable talent, his strengths were aided by the movement of society.  Essentially, he was the right guy at the right time and became a Jackie Robinson of sorts (not even in the racial sense) for Generation Y. 

So, sorry, just simply putting yourself in successful blockbusters won’t make you a Will Smith-esque star.  Just as Sam Worthington.  Ask Elijah Wood.  The list goes on and on. Smith is an exceptional case...and not one that was created just because he and his manager studied movie trends.  

Denmark, Sweden - Vacation!

A few days before I left for my European vacation, my neighbor excitedly asked me which part I’d be visiting.  Upon telling her, her first response wasn’t “ooh, cool!” or “OMG SO AWSUM HAVE SOOOO MUCH FUN.”  It was a simple crinkle of the brow accompanied by a judgmental “why?” 
Why indeed.  Especially when I was only there 2 years ago.
If your idea of a perfect European vacation is visiting multiple cities, for a couple of days each, only to hit all their tourist attractions, then Denmark and Sweden might bore you, as their capital cities are probably low on tourist destinations (in fact, locals may echo this, and have to me on more than one occasion).  There’s no Eiffel Tower, there’s no Big Ben, no Louvre.  Neither country is generally high on the list of places where a college graduate would visit during that epic Euro backpacking trip where they hope to find themselves in a Venetian cafĂ©, or at the old site of the Berlin Wall. 
But I will say this about Denmark and Sweden.  They are fucking awesome.  And that’s why I went back.
In my humble opinion, the beauty of these two countries exists, not only in their cities and countryside, but mostly within their people (not their appearances, though they are a good looking group, for sure).  As an American, I’ve grown used to jaded communities that somehow co-exist despite people’s complete lack of trust for each other.  Seriously, we leave nothing to chance when it involves trusting strangers with our possessions, as we just assume the other is up to no good, not to mention our general political attitude has slid sharply towards policy that supports a “what’s yours is yours, what’s mine is mine” attitude.  And while I’m sure some of this exists in Denmark and Sweden, there is plenty of proof that they have a greater understanding of community than we do. (No, this post won’t deal with Scandinavian socialist democratic tax rates, healthcare, attitudes towards environmental issues, childcare, etc etc).  This is just about what you see on the ground. 
In Copenhagen, everyone rides a friggin’ bike.  If you haven’t seen this for yourself, even my simple comment doesn’t do it justice.  It’s actually flat bizarre to see so many people biking around the city, but even more shocking to see parking lots full of bicycles without locks on them.  And I don’t know the theft rate of these unlocked bikes, but I assume it’s fairly low considering the lack of locks used.  Also, I probably used the subway 6 or 7 times, and was not asked for my ticket once.  I took a 30-40 minute commuter train ride from Copenhagen to Malmo, Sweden, and also was not asked to produce a ticket, let alone provide any sort of passport identification even though I crossed into another country.   My hotel featured a huge breakfast buffet that they charged around 20 USD for.  But did they charge me on the spot or even take my room number for reference?  Nope.  They just told me to let them know how many times I ate at the end of my stay.  A breakfast buffet on the honor system!  Can you imagine this ever happening in America?  All of the above does echo the general laid back nature of Copenhagen, which feels quite dressed down compared to the cleaner, stuffier (yet prettier IMO) Stockholm, yet Stockholm featured a custom that floored me:
In America, it’s not all that uncommon to see a dog tied up to a post outside of a shop or restaurant.  But how about a baby?  Now, I’m not sure how widespread this practice is in Stockholm, but I saw it enough times where it seems to be somewhat commonplace.  Yes, you read that right, a mother will leave a sleeping baby outside of a store while she goes in to shop, have coffee, whatever.  Unattended.  I’m not sure what the laws are in America regarding such a practice, but I can only imagine it would lead to an arrest.  Regardless of whether or not this is smart, it’s obviously ingrained in their psyche that no one will take their baby because of the trust they have for the community.   It’s fucking weird, but it’s also a beautiful thing if it can exist at all. 
(Again, the above is just my general observation, so I could be way off since my sample size is small.  But judging from their politics and general behavior, I’m sure there’s a lot of truth.)
The relationship between Danes and Swedes kind of reminded me of the one between New Yorkers and people from Jersey (New Jerseyites? What the hell do you call someone from Jersey?  Well, for now, Jerseyites).   I even saw a series of humor books that explained how different Scandinavian countries view each other.   If you’re a New Yorker spending time on the Jersey Shore, you’re generally viewed as some sort of intruder.  If you ask a New Yorker about Jersey, it’s generally answered with a short laugh, an eye roll, and some snide comment about turnpikes and malls.  But if a New Yorker ran into a New Jerseyite in, say, Buenos Aires, there would be a kinship based on commonality.  I assume the same could be said for Danes and Swedes, who have a big brother/little brother kind of relationship, though each would probably argue which is which.  That said, the two cultures are fairly different, but there seems to be enough commonality where it makes sense that they are neighbors. 
Some tidbits…with pics!
What’s interesting about this pic?  Nothing really.  Other than it was taken at about 10:30 PM.  That whole 20 hours of daylight thing is no joke and fucks with your sense of time, completely.  It also might explain why people don’t really start their evenings until midnight.  Though I’m not sure if there’s any correlation there.
Excuse the fact that I choked and couldn’t get my video to work properly to capture this annoying custom, but apparently Danish high school grads don’t have prom, and instead wear funny hats, hop in the back of army trucks that blare music, drive around town screaming like a bunch of twats, and occasionally stop to run around like imbeciles (featured in my one second video…I’m like Scorsese, I tell ya).  You would think this is annoying (it is), yet it seemed everyone throughout the city was pretty supportive of it.  This happened pretty much all weekend long, regardless of time.  I’d like for Los Angeles to try this JUST once.  How long before the first murder?
I’m very curious as to how this company harnesses their energy. 
OK, well that isn't exactly the sum total of my Swedish/Danish experience, but well ... its a taste. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

COMPLETE Thoughts On AMC's "The Killing"

It's been quite a Danish week for me.  I've spent the majority of it in Copenhagen, ate my first danish, in years, at the airport, and watched the finale of the Danish turned American television series, The Killing, that aired last Sunday on AMC. 

All spring my Sunday nights revolved around three questions: 1) What should I order for dinner? (usually Japanese) 2) How cool is Game Of Thrones? (really fucking cool) and 3) Who killed Rosie Larson?  (WOULDN'T I LIKE TO KNOW.)

Admittedly, I probably have too many pet peeves.  But my biggest one, without question, is when someone informs me that they have juicy information and then, in the same breath, withholds it with some BS excuse about being sworn to secrecy.  Seriously, if you want a quick punch in the face, just say "OMG I HAVE TO TELLZ YOU ABOUT SOMETHING, BUT I'S CAN'T!"   Well, thank you AMC for greenlighting a show that was a thirteen week long version of that annoying pet peeve.  So don't hold it against me when I say I'd like to throttle the entire production team behind this show with Mirielle Enos's entire enormous sweater collection. 

The Killing was essentially a 13 week long procedural show (think a reallllllly long version of CSI) that used the extra time to provide an intimate look into the lives of the cops, victim's family, and suspects so we can further empathize (or hate) the characters once the show has ended, and the killer revealed.  I can't say this enough...THE KILLER REVEALED

The Killing, though compelling at times, was not the strongest show on television (unless you like pointless ancillary characters and dead ends) and featured a fundamental flaw within its concept.  When designing a murder mystery, the creative team obviously tries to throw the audience for loops and curveballs by goading us into believing innocent characters may have committed the crime.  But since this is a 13 week mystery, we already know that suspects in episodes 1-3 (Rosie's classmates) didn't do it, and we even are fairly certain later suspects (like Bennett Ahmed) were also innocent because, if they were guilty, what would the show do for the final five episodes? But we, as viewers, roll with the punches because, even though we are aware those characters won't factor into the conclusion, we are invested enough in the story to find out who did.  And AMC's marketing plan fully catered itself to this desire.  After all, their entire campaign centered around the question: WHO KILLED ROSIE LARSON? They even featured a "suspect tracker" on their website that encouraged guessing.  When discussing the show with friends, the first question I always was asked was "who do you think did it?"  And I generally answered, "I don't even really care, I just want to know already." Why?  Well, because, the entire fucking show was designed to scratch that itch.

Which is why its 100 percent, wholly unacceptable (not to mention annoying) that they DIDN'T REVEAL THE MURDERER IN THEIR MURDER MYSTERY.  Seriously, after episode 4 or 5, there was only one reason to even watch this show: I was invested enough where I wanted to know the killer and really didn't care much about the main character's love life, or the fact that it never stops raining in Seattle.  The Danish version (kudos to them) did reveal the killer in their final episode (it was the Belko character I believe), so I can confidently call the masterminds behind the American version a bunch of a-holes for toying with the formula. 

Now, I'll safely assume they will reveal the killer next season, but if I have to honestly wait another 13 weeks to figure out the murder in the already convoluted mystery, I'd rather not bother.  

Monday, June 13, 2011

What the Hell Happened to LeBron James?

It’s not often that public perception of a person can completely change in one simple moment. But on July, 8th 2010, when the once revered LeBron James publically told the world he’d be “taking his talents to South Beach,” he subsequently (and immediately) became public enemy number one.  And if skyrocketing NBA ratings are any indication, the public came out in full force hoping to see both he and then new superstar teammate, Dwayne Wade, fail.  And not only fail, but fail epically.  The role of villain was not one either Wade or LeBron were accustomed to, but one they grew to accept as a tradeoff in their quest for an NBA championship.  LeBron was tired of carrying a mediocre Cleveland team on his back, and after seeing the success of the Boston Celtics, and probably the Bulls of the 90’s, he felt he needed a superstar teammate to lead him to the elusive championship.  It all made sense, really, who would stop a team with arguably 2 of the 3 top players in the NBA?  Well, after watching LeBron’s horrendous collapse in the NBA finals, I assume they never thought their biggest enemy would be themselves. 
Though they may have used those Celtics or Bulls teams as models, they failed to investigate (or just ignored) the concept of “player roles,” and how much effect that had on both a player’s individual performance, as well as team success. 
For the most part, with the exception of the Houston Rockets in the mid-90’s (and maybe even Dallas this year), champions are built on the backs of two (or more) stars.  Jordan had Pippen, Magic had Kareem and Worthy, Kobe had Shaq and later Gasol, but in each of those instances, roles were predetermined before they even got on the court.  Even though Pippen became a top five player in the mid 90’s, he was raised to be Jordan’s sidekick, accepted the role, and always deferred to Michael in just about every situation.  This formula not only enabled team success, but it allowed Michael to continue to be great.  Because not only was Scottie’s presence there to support Michael’s game first and foremost, but Scottie’s inferior role on the team allowed Michael to always be in control.  During days when Michael didn’t bring his A-game, he could shoot and figure his way out of it with no criticism or questioning.  Because he was the one true star, the one true leader of the team, he was given infinite opportunity to succeed behind 100 percent support.  At no point did he ever think he shouldn’t be the number one option because that’s not the role of a team leader.  And this worked perfectly for the Bulls because Jordan had that ability and confidence to always find a way to succeed.
So, why did LeBron James, who I believe to be the most talented player in the game (and who lead the league in PER the past four seasons) completely shrink in this past final?  Look no further than the concept of roles, and in this instance, his teammate, Dwayne Wade.  The difference between LeBron and Wade, as opposed to Scottie and Michael, is the fact that both had been alpha dogs virtually their entire careers.  Both were used to getting the superstar leeway, both were used to shooting themselves out of slumps, and both were used to being the unquestioned leader of their respective teams.  But on this 2011 Heat team, if LeBron struggled out of the gate (which happened in virtually every game of the Finals), he never tried to feel his way out of it, and instead deferred to Wade during most big moments, limiting his ability to relax and figure out the stingy Dallas defense through trial and error, volume, and sheer will (a trademark of any superstar).  Simply put, this option never allowed him to find rhythm.  As any kid who isn’t even the 8th best player on a playground court can tell you, the less opportunity you have, the more you press during said opportunity, and the more this shatters your confidence.  In your quest for perfection, you aim your jump shot too much, you think more than you should, and as a result, your confidence wanes and your play suffers.  And before you give me that crap about “killer instinct,” no human is immune to this. 
And this is exactly what happened to James.  Now, one can argue that James just doesn’t have that kind of demeanor on the court that a Jordan had, but I’m not sure the evidence suggests that.  After all, this is the guy who once scored 25 straight points against Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals to lead an otherwise crappy Cavs team to the final round.  Even if LeBron was red hot during this past Final against Dallas, do you think the presence of Dwayne Wade would allow for LeBron to score and dominate in that kind of volume? 
He understands that if he tries to play his way out of a slump and continues to struggle, the world may wonder why he didn’t use his superstar teammate more often.  When he was on Cleveland, he was afforded the superstar leeway and the perpetual confidence that comes along with it. On Cleveland, since he was the only superstar, he didn’t have a choice but to force the issue.  He had a completely different type of mindset that suggested if he couldn't do it, no one could.  And it worked.  On Miami?  If he doesn’t bring his A-game, he has an option that he never had on his past teams: the ability to sit back and defer.  And that option is the biggest detriment to both him as a player and Miami as a team.
All the above aside, I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ve heard from the Miami Heat, but as I said many times back in July, this was the wrong decision and the wrong fit.   I wonder if he realizes that now.