"SNL" flounders again

Apparently, it doesn't suffice to have "Saturday Night Live" book a great host. The show also needs humorous material.

From the moment of Jon Hamm's lame monolog tonight, it was clear that this gifted actor was being stranded. A couple sketches were OK -- a Vincent Price horror special, a take-off on a "CHiPS"-type show; "Weekend Update" and the digital short were excellent, as usual. Mostly, however, there was weak material, with or without Hamm.

The final bit -- a nightclub duo that forever said "Or is it?" -- proved three things:

1) No matter how often you repeat a line, it doesn't turn funny.

2) Kristen Wiig doesn't have to be the only female performing. There are other women on the show. Really; we've seen the credits.

3) It's fortunate that a good episode (hosted by Jane Lynch) will be rerun next week. That gives writers two weeks to think of something humorous for Scarlett Johansson. 

Final days of this year's film festival

If you live near Lansing, Mich., you still have a few more days to catch the East Lansing Film Festival. That continues through Wednesday at the Hannah Community Center and through Thursday at Celebration Cinema; see www.elff.com.

Please read a couple of my other blogs about the festival -- including the previous one, about filmmaking in Michigan. For now, however, I want to make sure you know which shows are left:

-- Shorts programs: There are two, at 8:30 p.m. tonight (Tuesday) and Thursday at Celebration. I'm fond of the Tuesday one, because it includes some offbeat delights. Two -- "Horn Dog" and "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" -- are by cartoon master Bill Plympton. Then there's a non-cartoon, "Black Obs Arabesque"; it's filmed with style and gives you the rare chance to see some former quarterbacks at East Lansing High and college (Nathaniel Eyde, who came up with the idea, and his brother Matt) showing some real dance moves. There's more, including a longer cartoon (a long short, if you will), the 21-minute "The Adjustable Cosmos."

-- Show-business documentaries: There are two coming to Celebration. One is on the rock group Rush (8:30 p.m. Wednesday), the other on comedian Joan Rivers (6:30 p.m. Thursday).

-- A small feature: "The Happy Poet" (6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Celebration) may be the driest film in history. Paul Gordon wrote it, directed it and stars as a poet who wants to start a vegetarian food stand. This poet exhibits no strong feelings or emotions about anything, which is where the odd humor comes from. Much of it is way too slow, but I thought one scene -- in which he finally reads one of his poems to a potential girlfriend -- was hilarious.

-- Large features: There are three left. "North Face" (7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Hannah) is the true story of two climbers who were forced to make a dangerous Alps climb in 1936, planned by the Nazi government to prove German superiority. "The Maid" (6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Celebration) was an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film; it's in Spanish, with English sub-titles. Then there's "Spartacus," sprawling across the Hannah screen at 7 p.m. Wednesday. You could always rent it at home, but it deserves this kind of theater screening. It made history in 1958 by introducing a then-obscure director, Stanley Kubrick, and by finally busting the blacklist, refusing to hide the name of screenwriter Drumbo. This is being shown here because the crowd scenes were recorded at Michigan State University's Spartan Stadium. Ironically, two MSU alumni are currently producing a cable series based around that same Spartacus character. 



State film incentives: The little films get their turn

As Michigan's once-wobbly movie business builds, key questions emerge: Does the 42-per-cent state kickback help? Is it worth it?

That was the key subject when the East Lansing Film Festival had its forum. In a moment, I'll relate what filmmakers said.

Remember that there's still plenty of the festival to catch -- through Wednesday at the Hannah Community Center, through Thursday at Celebration Cinema. (Details are at www.elff.com.) But the portion of the festival focusing on state filmmakers has passed; here's my account of the forum:

After two years of going Hollywood, how
is Michigan doing?

Bad or good, depending on whom you ask.
“We're such a negative state in general,” filmmaker Amy Weber
said at the East Lansing Film Festival. “Anything positive, it gets
twisted around.”

She's heard the arguments: Michigan
dishes out more in incentives than it gets back in taxes; the program
loses money.

“The whole premise got a little
confused,” Weber insisted. The idea was never to instantly break
even, she said. “It was always to build another industry in

By that standard, filmmakers said, the
program has become a quick success. “This summer, there were eight
films going at once” in Michigan, said Jeffery Schultz, who makes
short Detroit films.

That compares to – well, close to
zero some summers. “We've gone from $2 million (annual impact) to
$600 million,” Weber said. “What other industry can do that?”

A movie industry arrives quickly, but
there's a catch: “It can leave just as fast,” said Scott Magie.

He made films in Mississippi and North
Carolina, before moving to East Lansing for his wife's grad-school.
Hollywood can fall in love with one state, he said, then switch to
one with a better deal.

The worst-case scenario has Hollywood
bringing all its own people into Michigan, taking the incentives (up
to 42 per cent of the budget) and leaving nothing behind. That
happens sometimes, Weber granted. “They bring in their (directors
of photography) and gaffers.”

But gradually, filmmakers say,
Hollywood is filling jobs in-state. “There are people I used to
hire all the time (for documentaries),” said Carrie Lezotte. “But
they're working on bigger features now.”

So she hires new people or ones fresh
from bigger jobs. Little films build and sustain a talent pool, Weber
said. “I don't think the Michigan Film Office cares if it's $50,000
or $50 million.”

The $50,000 figure is the minimum
budget for getting incentives. Film-festival examples include:

– Lezotte submitted a $107,000 budget
for “Regional Roots,” a Detroit documentary. Most of that
qualified and she got about $35,000 in state incentives. She was able
to hire top technical talent – and hire herself. “Now I'm
actually able to make a living and pay my interns.”

– Weber budgeted $92,000, got about
$34,000 in incentives and hired heavily. “My crew was humongous,”
she said.

After years of making commercials and
industrial films in Royal Oak, she created “Annabelle & Bear,”
with a hulking, tattooed biker suddenly in charge of a 2-year-old
daughter he barely knows. Sometimes gritty, often charming, the film
has drawn applause and awards at festivals.

Part of the appeal involves Olivia
Walby, who was 2 when this was filmed. In movie history, Weber said,
this is “the youngest film actor to make a feature-film debut in a
starring role.”

Part has involved the movie's rich
music score, with 12 Michigan acts. “It's just beautiful,” she

And much of it involves the production
quality. Talent worked for the minimum, but with the possibility of
deferred payments. If everything clicks, Weber said, the budget
reaches $850.000.

She's talking to distributors and
insisting that “Annabelle” get at least a token moment in
theaters. “If you work so hard, you should go (see it in) a movie

In the independent-movie world,
however, that's just a fringe. “With the Internet and downloading,
it's an industry that's completely been revamped,” Schultz said.

Movies are sold directly, Magie said.
“The niche market is the future of independent filming.”

It allows people to keep making small
movies – and maybe to perpetuate a Michigan movie industry.


Shouldn't "SNL" at least start well?

This is clearly a change of "Saturday Night Live" tradition.

There was a steady pattern: A few funny sketches early and then (except for "Weekend Update" and the digital short) things go bad.

Tonight, "SNL" altered that. The opening sketch -- Obama campaigining in Nevada -- was remarkably humorless; for a comedy show, that's not a good sign. The next sketch consisted mostly of Kristen Wiig screaming and jumping around; we've been there way too often. A later sketch, set in "The View," was almost as bad.

Somehow, in the midst of this, there was a hilarious sketch, satirizing all those news reports claiming to tell us about dangerous teen trends. And "Weekend Update" was terrific, as usual.

How can one show be simultaneously this clever and this witless? I'm not sure; host Emma Stone -- who was born after "SNL" had soared, died and recovered -- did her best, often with weak material.

Incidentally, if you're reading this in the Lansing area Sunday morning, two things:

-- "Boo at the Zoo" -- noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at Potter Park -- is great fun. On Saturday, I went to it with 1-year-old Ezra; he endorses it hardily.

-- And remember that Sunday is the last full day of the East Lansing Film Festival. (See a couple of the previous blogs, plus elff.com.) In particular, catch the free forum by filmmakers, at noon Sunday, on the second floor of the Hannah Community Center. Also, the festival's two cartoon movies at Celebration Cinema -- "The Secret of Kells" at 1 p.m., "Sita Sings the Blues" at 3:30 -- are fresh and terrific.


Film festival: Remember the forum

After opening night of the East Lansing Film Festival, I prattled on a bit. Please check out those comments (two blogs ago), including some recommendations for films to see.

I also wanted to add a note: To me, the annual highlight is the filmmakers' forum; this year, that's at noon Sunday, in the "hospitality room" on the second floor of the Hannah Community Center.

In one place (and with no admission fee), we see people who have pulled off a semi-miracle -- making full-scale movies without full-scale money. This year, they can also discuss the state incentives, which can kick back as much as 42 per cent of the budget for movies ($50,000 and over) made in Michigan.

One of this year's directors (Amy Weber) has already used that, emerging with a well-made and popular film ("Annabelle & Bear"); the others may do the same in the future. It should be an interesting session; I'll see you there and blog about it later.