Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Talentless Actors, The Horror of "Hulk", and HBO's Greatness!

Editor's Note: A few Facebook "notes" ago, I stated that I'd be "sporadically writing about certain memories that have influenced and encouraged my writing career". However, I decided against spending my next few Facebook "notes" writing about those influencial writing moments for two main reasons. First, who really wants to spend ten to fifteen minutes reading about my life? As we English majors discuss at length in our classes, Americans lack patience. Nowadays, when people attend events that contain pockets of time completely devoid of action (baseball games, church sermons), we immediately start getting antsy, sigh, and send a mass text on our cell phones to maximize entertainment value. ESPN's Bill Simmons would call this phenomenon the 150 Minute Rule (scroll to Number #1). To ask you, my faithful readers, to listen to my diatribes about writing would be an arduous task. At this moment, people are constantly vying for your attention. While you sit here to read this paragraph, I guarantee that you've received a text message, gained another Facebook friend, and hunted for the nearest dictionary/thesaurus to look up the word "diatribe" to see if I used it correctly. Honestly, I'd have an easier time asking Keanu Reeves to take classes at Juillard to become a better actor than convincing you guys to sit and read these postings. (Plus, I need to save those writing stories for dates and my future autobiography "The Audacity of Hope (Remix): A Barack Obama Michael Benjamin Story.")

Since I'm starting to get wistful about my time at college, I've decided to take some time to get nostalgic about the university experience in general. Since I waxed poetic about the 5th floor of Howard University's Drew Hall a few weeks back, I'll begin today by talking about the greatness of the Home Box Office channel. Enjoy.

Things I'll Miss About College #2: HBO
When a new movie comes out and hits the box office, I pride myself in being the last possible person to see the flick. My propensity for laziness in regards to watching movies stems from a terrible experience that occured back in the summer of 2003 that can be summarized in three words: The. Incredible. Hulk.

Honestly, I should have done my research before agreeing to venture to the movie theater with my friends that summer. First off, when a movie is headlined by a guy with no real acting experience other than a show that bears his name (Eric Bana) and can be tossed around in discussions as the "unknown actor" or the "I've never heard of that guy" actor, you can immediately color me nervous. I believe that every actor/actress has to go through the gauntlet of accompanying roles and TV appearances before landing a leading role in any feature-length film. This allows the actor/actress an opportunity to foster their acting potential, experiment with a bevy of different styles (due to the variety of storylines within a sitcom), which helps them to gain necessary experience and curry favor with the viewing audience. Most importantly, the actor doesn't get overexposed. Allowing an actor/actress to get overexposed before they've honed their acting talent is like allowing an one-dimensional basketball player to become the face of your NBA franchise. That's just a recipe for disaster. (Yes, I'm talking to you, Gilbert Arenas (owner of an egregiously large salary) and the ownership group of the Washington Wizards.)

Let's look at Cuba Gooding's acting career, for example. In the meaning-making 1991 film Boys N the Hood, John Singleton did a great job of surrounding the talented but raw Cuba Gooding, Jr., an actor fresh off of a minor role in the classic Eddie Murphy comedy "Coming to America" with a solid foundation of actors to learn from (Lawrence Fishburne and Angela Bassett), other young emerging actors (Nia Long, Morris Chestnut) and characters that were destined to become typecast as soon as the movie hit the cineplex (Regina King). In many ways, this movie was dually a life-training course for young Tre in the 'hood of Compton, LA and an opportunity for young Cuba Gooding to experience the Hollywood limelight in a significant role. After nailing the role of Rod Tidwell in the chick flick (ahem, sports film) Jerry Maguire, Cuba Gooding expanded his motion picture catalogue (Men of Honor, Boat Trip, Radio) with the understanding that he can act in any movie without concern for his reputation because the audience has already embraced his abilities and acting candor.

To me, putting together a spectacular movie cast is similar to the process of creating a solid basketball team. You need your franchise guys to bring the pain (Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) and your supporting, one-dimensional guys to compliment your superstars and fill your team's needs (Ray Allen, James Posey, Kendrick Perkins). That's why last year's Kevin Garnett trade to Boston was so pivotal. The Celtics lacked an inspiring superstar, and KG lacked a solid supporting cast, because, well...a superstar can't do everything.

When Crash came out and won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2004, it laid out the ultimate blueprint for success in Hollywood. If a group of talented actors can merge their skills (a la Captain Planet and the Planeteers) and agree to put aside top billing in order to forward a common goal (money and an overarching message), then ultimate success can be achieved. The 2003-2004 Los Angeles Lakers tried this strategy, which ultimately backfired. Gary Payton lacked the maturity to concede his superstar status to Kobe and Shaq (and the understanding to realize that his best days were behind him), Shaquille's earning potential was in doubt (Kobe Bryant had just resigned for a huge deal) and hung over the team throughout the entire season, Kobe didn't fully buy into the system (as he was trying to stay out of jail), and Karl Malone was injured and couldn't fulfill his obligatory one-dimensional duty - court toughness. To win a championship, players must set aside their individual concerns for the benefit of the team, which, in the case of the 2003-2004 Los Angeles Lakers, wasn't possible.

That's why the Wilson Brothers, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, and Jack Black are the hottest collection of comedy actors in the movies right now. These guys (along with director/writer Judd Apatow) hold the components and understand the formula for on-screen success. Plus, all of these guys (minus Luke Wilson) are living in their prime, but don't overexpose themselves too much. The "Frat Pack" all act in one another's movies, bring the perfect amount of physical/sarcastic/slapstick humor to the table, and incorporate other pieces (Seth Rogen) to their team in order to reciprocate their talents. The reason guys like Robin Williams eventually fell out of favor with America was because we saw Robin in every movie with a comedic twist for a 4 to 6 year stretch (Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumaji, Jack). Plus, Robin's attempt at true acting (see: the Final Cut) rather than the "comedic faciliator" role that most SNL frontmen enjoy probably slid his career from A-list to B-list. Sure, he's still putting out quality films (Night at the Museum), but the "Frat Pack" has officially usurped his status as comedy film king.

Of course, as a 16 year-old kid, I payed cursory attention to detail. I felt (Mistake #1) that "Hulk" HAD to be good, only thinking about the simple equation of (cartoon hero + action + accompanying girls = awesome). Without considering the proper research, my companions and I hustled to the movie theater and waited for three hours to see Hollywood's first attempt at "The Incredible Hulk". If you haven't seen it, don't even consider putting yourself through this inhumane torture. You'll probably start sobbing uncontrollably and yelling "WHY!!!!" by the end of the third scene.

Nowadays, I always wait for some stooge (usually a buddy trying to hook up with a girl) to spend his cash on a half-decent movie and report back his findings. If the movie's bad, I can save my cash (or buy a rack of Nabisco's Nutter Butter cookies), chill out, and commence to beating the crap out of Glass Joe in Mike Tyson's Punch Out!. If the movie's good, I then stroll in the following weekend at my convenience (right before the trailers begin), own up the best possible seat (middle-top, mid row), stretch my body across the entire row, and laugh aloud to my heart's content.

After receiving the HBO network after our school decided to upgrade our network package in 2007 - an underrated but spectacular move by HU's administration, by the way - was dually a blessing and a curse. Although the student body's GPA was destined to free fall like Tom Petty, HBO gave me an opportunity to see all the movies that I deemed unworthy to receive my movie dollar. Last week, I watched "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" twice and laughed equally hard both times as Wanda Sykes stated her insignificant lines. Plus, I caught a replay of "Transformers" (with Louis from "Even Stevens") and decided to add Shia LeBeouf next to Deon Richmond to my mental canon of "actors I must watch an episode of Dragonball Z with someday". (By the way, does anybody know what the heck happened to Ren?) The only problem with HBO's programming is their unprecedented bad timing in regards to the "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" broadcast. This show is an awesome sports program, but needs to be couched in a back-to-back time slot with "Costas Now" to assuage the pain and call it a day. HBO executives, when I expect to see a mediocre movie in the middle of a dull weekday afternoon, there's no worse feeling than flipping to your channel and seeing reruns of a "Real Sports" episode from mid-July. If you're going to call your channel the Home Box Office network, let's stick to the script and show some movies. Or, at least an Entourage marathon. Now, the ball's in your court. Do the right thing. Thanks.

Since I'll probably just start a Netflix account once I get my own pad, this will be the last time in my life that I watch this heavy of a dose of HBO before graduating. I love the channel, but not enough to warrant tossing down that $10-a-month subscription fee.

Well, unless HBO starts showing films that fall under my earlier characteristics. Then...we'll see.

Michael Benjamin, II

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