Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Originally written September 3, 2009
"OBSESSED" Directed by Steve Shill
** (two stars)
I have a confession to make. If I am at home flipping through channels and discover that a certain movie is playing, I will ALWAYS stop on said channel and watch to my heart's content. Now, I must inform you that this is not a good movie in the least. It is actually fairly negligible but I cannot turn away, and it never gets old. Brace yourselves...The movie is: "Friends 'Til The End," a television movie starring Shannon Doherty as a college student trapped within a "single white female" scenario with some blond rival who wants to steal all aspects of her life, including her role as a lead singer in a college 10,000 Maniacs styled band. Doherty handles her own singing in the movie's many musical numbers and I have to report that the songs aren't half bad and a music video sequence set in a desert with a phone booth is a high point. But the story contains every possible cliche you could think of within the "...from hell" genre (i.e. The Teacher From Hell, The Stepmother From Hell, The Neighbor From Hell, etc...) and the entertainment value is priceless!
While I have to again state that "Friends 'Til The End" is not a good movie in the least, sometimes the very best thing in the world is a good bad movie. One where the laughs are completely unintentional and you cannot believe that at any point during the filmmaking process all parties involved felt they were onto something tremendous. I have had quite a few guilty pleasures in my life and I am always on the lookout for something new. I have to say that I had high hopes when I first saw the trailer for "Obsessed," a new thriller starring Beyonce Knowles but sadly, aside from the climax (more on that later), it did not deliver the goods.
"Obsessed" begins with happily married couple, Sharon and Derek Charles' (Knowles and Idris Elba from HBO's astonishing series "The Wire") arrival in their new home. With an infant son in tow, they marvel at this lovely next step in their lives together as Derek has just received a massive promotion within his company as an assets manager (Their happiness is an act christened with a PG-13 lovemaking sequence on the bedroom floor with a ceiling mirror to boot!). The very next day, Derek meets Lisa Sheridan (Ali Larter from "Heroes"), a vampish new temporary secretary who makes it quite clear of her carnal intentions. Lisa's seemingly harmless flirtation turns to stalking and when Derek rebuffs her charms at an office party and later when she slides into his car wearing little more than flashy undergarments, she becomes OBSESSED with her pursuit, thus placing Derek's career and marriage in jeopardy.
All of this has the marking of a hilariously passable "Fatal Attraction" knock off at best but with it's turgid pacing, weak characterizations, and anemic motivations, the movie doesn't spring to life until its inevitable and almost screamingly funny climax where Knowles and Larter finally face off--in high heels inside of a not-too sturdy attic. Watch your step!
The biggest problem for me is that it was a movie that was solely designed to reach a certain ending (Knowles beats the tar out of Larter). Unfortunately, it forgot to place anything else of note in the entirely of the film up to that point and that makes the whole thing a slog. A favorite guilty pleasure of mine happens to be the "dramatic thriller" about wife abuse, "Enough" starring Jennifer Lopez. Now that was also a film solely designed to have a certain ending (J Lo beats the tar out of her violent husband) but from the very beginning, "Enough" had more than enough preposterous and extremely (and again unintentionally) comic situations. The melodrama was cranked to 11. The absolute omnipotence of her husband was outrageous. The presence of a hysterically whiny child, Noah Wyle as a villain and once Fred Ward arrived as J Lo.'s long-lost absentee father, it just couldn't get any more laughable. And THEN J Lo. goes through combat training. "Enough" never knew when to quit and that's what made it a terrific example of the good bad movie.
Couldn't the filmmakers behind "Obsessed," do anything to serve their actors better? Knowles is truly wasted in a part that really required her to do little more than sit at home glamorously with her baby. Idris Elba, so compelling, ruthless, and deeply charismatic as the swaggering drug lord Stringer Bell on "The Wire" has been completely stripped of all of his attributes and transformed into a strikingly bland hero. Only Larter seems to be having any fun and she's not doing anything much different than her typical performances anyway.
So, ultimately, I did not get my wish for a new guilty pleasure to be added to my personal archives but I'm happily waiting for the next time "Friends 'Til The End" shows up on cable.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Originally written November 5, 2009
“ORPHAN” Directed by Juame Collet-Serra
** (two stars)
Be careful of what you wish for…
The very day after I wrote my previous review, in which I decried the lack of creativity and even honest attempt at making strong films through formula movies, I happened along “Orphan,” a new horror/psychological thriller featuring the demonic wrath of an orphaned 9-year-old girl, which she unleashes upon an unsuspecting family. While this was indeed an above average entry in the “…From Hell” genre, its beastly unpleasantness made for an ugly enterprise that ceased it from becoming truly memorable as a horror film I would ever want to re-visit.
The plot is simple and pure formula as “Orphan” contains ingredients familiar to anyone who has ever watched “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle,” “The Omen,” or any one of a host of Lifetime movies. Kate and John (attractively played by Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgard) are in the process of seeking to adopt a child. While they are already the proud parents of pre-teen Daniel (Jimmy Bennet) and deaf kindergartner Max (the absolutely cherubic Aryanna Engineer), the couple is hoping to alleviate their grief over a recent miscarriage. Enter Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), the aforementioned 9 year-old girl who hails from a Russian orphanage, dresses in archaic clothing styles (including ever-present odd bands around both wrists and neck) and possesses a prodigious artistic talent…as well as a mean streak only Satan could appreciate fully. Esther instantly bonds with John, quickly makes herself at home with the family, starts school and then things begin to spiral murderously downwards and will, of course, lead to a final confrontation between Esther and Mother Kate.
All of the familiar elements are present to ensure the “…From Hell” formula clicks along properly. The Mother is the suspicious heroine that no one believes, the secret of Esther’s violent tendencies are known only to helpless victims (in this case, both of Kate and John’s children), and the heroine’s sanity is called into question, most notably for this story by her husband, as the story builds in intensity. Esther always remains angelic-TOO angelic-which indubitably belies her escalating rage which is released upon school bullies, defenseless animals, and to the people who would reveal her secret in the story’s final twist—which I have to say I never saw coming but unlike the brilliance of the twist in “The Sixth Sense,” this twist is a gargantuan howler.
Yet, what sets this film apart from most films in the genre is that there is not an ounce of laziness to the proceedings. It is as if the filmmakers are exclaiming to the potential audience, “You want a “Bad Seed” movie, well…HERE’S a “Bad Seed” movie!!!” Director Juame Collet-Serra and the screenwriters are out to deliver on their intent and the care they placed within the story’s pacing, editing, casting and performances is evident. Farmiga and Sarsgard give very strong performances as the married couple. Farmiga, with her long face and sorrowful eyes, certainly gives you a heroine to wring your hands over while Sarsgard, given the thankless role of being perhaps the most clueless husband in the history of this film genre, a certain believability. Young Isabella Fuhrman completely embodies the role of this demon child. With a Russian accent that always remains unsettlingly creepy and her cold, hollow eyes, she makes for a strong villain-one you would hope to never cross paths with on any playground anywhere. Most successful is the atmosphere created by the cinematography, which is engulfed in dark shadows and the shrouds of nightmares. The feeling of dread throughout the film reminded me very much of David Fincher’s relentlessly grim serial killer masterpiece “Se7en.”
However, it is that very effective grimness that hurts the film overall. It’s not necessarily a matter of tone though. For this film, it is a matter of violence in general and violence towards children in particular. After enduring the film’s opening and grisly dream sequence (a sequence I HIGHLY recommend my pregnant readers or more sensitive Mommies to skip over—perhaps the film’s first five minutes), we are subjected to acts of Esther’s formidable cruelty in a gratuitous degree. Yes, this is an R Rated film and a certain amount of gore is to be expected but why show us several close-up blows to the head with a hammer when only one or two would’ve sufficed? Why many stab wounds, complete with squishy sound effects, when just one or two would’ve been enough? You get the picture, I am certain.
But then, there is the entire production of placing young children in jeopardy, always a cinematic cheap trick and one that has to be handled with a certain delicacy to as not be wholly offensive. It is also a matter of context, as well. Think of the terrorized children in Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s classic “Poltergeist,” the young hero of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense,” the small child in James Cameron’s equally classic “Aliens” or even Linda Blair in the granddaddy of them all, “The Exorcist.” Perhaps the fantastical settings of science fiction and the supernatural allow the viewer to be a tad removed from the concept of a child in mortal peril. Even more real world entries have typically shown a fair amount of restraint when it comes to how much danger to place a child into. With “Orphan,” the gloves are off and the effect slides the film over the line into bad taste. Is there any real reason why Esther must prove her threatening malevolence by holding a gun in the face of the small deaf child, and even suggest they play a round of Russian Roulette to boot? Is there any reason why she must place the older child into a coma and THEN try to smother him? And then, there are the acts of violence the two children are forced to endure and view, including that fateful stabbing I previously mentioned.
A friend of mine, who runs a local video store, expressed it best to me as we discussed this movie amongst ourselves. He said, “I think this film is really designed for that fraction of the viewing audience that actually doesn’t particularly care for children and in fact, might even hate them. But, what about the larger fraction of the audience who actually loves children and just wants to see a good horror movie?” Great point and while I do not chastise the filmmakers for going this far, especially as I chose to see this film on my own volition, I do have to put into account the feelings I had while watching. I simply wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I couldn’t continue to subscribe to the fantasy placed in front of me and the film began to feel hideous and I could not escape this revolting feeling inside.
I have this theory when it comes to my relationship with television and movie violence. It is a bit difficult to explain but please bear with me. I feel that there is an unwritten contract placed into effect between the viewer and the filmmakers each time a ticket is purchased or the channel has been turned to a specific program. I feel that I am placing my trust into the hands of the filmmakers to just tell me a good story. If there is an amount of violence, it will be handled within the context of the genre or story. It will also be handled to solely serve the story and not entirely rely on shock value—although some shock value is necessary (i.e. Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” or even that final shot in Tarantino's “Inglourious Basterds” for instance). When images become gratuitous (a perception that lies within the heads and hearts of every individual viewer), I feel that the contract has been broken to an extent…or at least, I just don’t want to buy what they’re selling anymore. That’s what happened for me with this particular film. As I said before, I know the film’s rating, I understand the characteristics of the genre and knew full well that any violence would be pitched to a certain degree. Yet, as I watched a child, nearly burned to death and dangling from a nearby tree screaming for his Mother to save him while Esther coldly looks on anticipating his death, any entertainment value had been lost on me. The contract had been effectively broken.
“Orphan” certainly delivers on its promises. That cannot be denied. But, I just didn’t want what they were selling after a while.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
* (one star)
When I first wrote and published my review of “Twilight,” I was politely chided by a few friends for possibly being too soft on the material. I respect and understand the critique yet I will stand by that original review as I thought the movie as a whole—while I didn’t care for it-- was not all that bad. In many ways, I stand by those same sentiments when it comes to “New Moon,” the second installment of Stephanie Meyer’s blockbuster series, now directed by Chris Weitz (“American Pie,” “About A Boy,” “The Golden Compass”) taking over for Catherine Hardwicke. I know fully well that I am not the audience for this particular film, characters or genre. I know there is a certain shallowness and emotional fantasy that is part of this romance novel experience, which ultimately does not appeal to me. I know this whole enterprise is a sexual cautionary tale, a plea for teenage abstinence, which can allow a safe avenue for young female followers to explore their own budding sexuality. I know that this film knows exactly what its audience wants and is more than happy to deliver accordingly. But, does that mean that I cannot critique it? Well, I am going to try my best to be fair. Because while I thought its visual presentation was a marked improvement over the first film, my overall feelings towards “New Moon” are indeed of a much harsher variety.
As our next episode begins, it is Bella Swan’s (again played by Kristen Stewart) 18th birthday, a day which almost concludes in tragedy as her blood, drawn from a paper cut, inadvertently ignites the passions of Jasper Cullen, the vampire family member of her true love, savior and protector, Edward Cullen (reprised by Robert Pattinson), also a vampire. Yet, for Bella, the near miss with death is a source of disappointment as all she wants for her birthday is to become a vampire and be together with Edward for eternity. Edward, however, resists Bella’s urges-as well as his own-and for the protection and purity of her soul, decides that it is best to break up with her and move away with his family from the dreary landscape of Forks, Washington.
After Edward’s departure, Bella becomes submerged into a dangerously deep three month depression, during which she makes near suicidal choices and is continuously plagued with nightmares. Eventually, she re-ignites a friendship with the newly buffed out Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who is, unbeknownst to her, a werewolf...who of course, carries his own passionate feelings for her.
A love triangle is born yet that is not all that sits on Bella’s plate. She is still being pursued by renegade vampires led by Victoria, out for Bella’s blood in revenge for the death of Victoria’s love in the first film. A treaty between the vampires and werewolves in nearing dissolution. And then, there’s even a creepy ancient aristocratic vampire secret society housed in Italy called the Volturi to deal with, which may also bring about Bella’s long awaited reunion with Edward…but will it be too late?
Now, I have to admit, once this story got going, I thought to myself that this series is finally beginning to go places and then, I was somewhat surprised to discover that it didn’t. The shallow nature of the first film sadly remained and for a series that is now proclaiming itself to be a “saga,” the lack of development is a more than a little disappointing.
A saga, by its very nature, tends to promise a broadening and deepening of its plot and characters to create a richer environment and experience for the audience. Think of the “Harry Potter” series, either the films or especially the wonderful books written by J.K. Rowling. That seven-part saga lives up to its intentions by creating a collective of characters who do indeed grow and change over the course of seven years. Even Harry Potter himself is forced to confront even the most unpleasant aspects of his nature in order to fully realize his destiny. If he had stayed the exact same character he was in the first novel and film, I would be hard pressed to say that anyone would have cared a whit about the outcome.
With “New Moon,” the situations and landscape are developing, with the addition of new characters, locations, and complications. Yet the characters remain unchanged from the first film and the way everything is handled and presented is painfully simplistic and superficial. It’s difficult to build tension concerning characters’ outcomes when the storytellers don’t seem to be that engaged themselves. Every moment is painted with the largest of brush strokes and (figuratively, of course) only in primary colors. There is no subtlety or shading which means that the depth necessary for a building narrative is non-existent, therefore severing any chances for a real emotional connection.
As I stated earlier, the production values, cinematography and special effects are much improved over the first film. A chase through a forest set to a brooding and electronic Thom Yorke song selection is effective. However, the film is sluggishly paced and feels lifeless for a story that is supposed to contain so much to wring your hands over. When Anna Kendrick shows up for a couple of brief scenes as Bella’s “frenemy” Jessica, her comic energy and snappiness brought the film instantly to life. I almost would love to see this story with her as the lead instead!
Again, I will concede that perhaps this series is not even meant to go any deeper than the surface as I have been told the film version is very faithful to the plot and tone of Meyer’s book. The clumsy allusions and parallels to “Romeo and Juliet” from the first film return in even more awkward presentations. All of those shirtless werewolves running around purely to make the ladies in the audience whoop and holler feels like a nearly feature length version of the volleyball game scene from “Top Gun.” (And I did have to wonder what happens to their cargo shorts and pants when they become SO HOT and transform…but, hey, that’s a whole ‘nother movie!)Pitifully, sequences meant to have passion or pain are unfortunately and unintentionally comic enough to become laugh out loud howlers.
Take the break-up sequence for instance. Here was a section I thought, before it actually began, that just may begin to give the story a taste of the depth that has been lacking from the start. But no. It was torturous to watch, with swelling strings of the background score providing additional commentary over the emotionless dialogue spoken with a shocking slowness by Stewart and Pattinson. Honestly, folks, feigned dramatic pauses and so-called meaningful glances into each other’s eyes or into the distant skies do not instantly create passion, yearning, romantic longing and sexual heat. Beyond the writing and directorial pacing, the major sins of those sequences come from the horrid acting, which is decidedly worse than the first film.
In the role of Edward, Robert Pattinson does what he can when walking in slow-motion towards Bella through the school parking lot, but I have to say that he is acting solely by hairstyle and pasty makeup for the entire movie. Thankfully, he gets off easy as he is not on display that much past the opening sequences, the climax and a few intermittent “Obi-Wan Kenobi” appearances.
The biggest problem(s) of “New Moon,” happen to be so intertwined that I am not certain where to begin first. It is a chicken and the egg conundrum and the elephant in the room. What I am about to confront are the largest obstacles of “New Moon”: the performance of Kristen Stewart and the character of Bella Swan.
Kristen Stewart is a very curious actress. She has been rightly cast in the roles she has previously been given and she performs quite well in them. She has never stricken a false note and she is served well by her material. Her performances in Sean Penn’s “Into The Wild” and especially in last year’s wonderful “Adventureland” have been career high points. The problem for her is that every character she has portrayed has been cut from the same cloth, therefore displaying Stewart’s complete lack of dramatic range. Stewart has been relegated to playing a collective of sullen, sour, self-consciously dark girls with hair in their faces for so long now that it seemed perfect casting that she ultimately landed the part of Bella Swan. Yet, in “New Moon” this part may be her undoing as this film showcased a flat-out terrible piece of acting. Unlike Pattinson, Kristen Stewart is in nearly every scene of this film and the cracks in her talent are blindingly shown. She has no emotional range whatsoever, playing every moment in the same, flat, monotone meant to depict some intense stage of teenage misery yet she comes off as someone who had just rolled out of bed, stumbled onto a set, didn’t know or understand her lines and wasn’t terribly motivated being there in the first place. It is not arrogance I witnessed, just uninterested detachment which made it impossible to find a way into this character.
The depression sequence is the film’s key aforementioned howler. It is a spectacular failure of a sequence, designed to try and enter more into Bella’s inner world and endless sadness due to Edward’s absence. The camera circles around her as she sends 6000 e-mails into the void and we are hysterically given the winter of Bella’s discontent…all set to Kristen Stewart’s completely unengaged and unchanging expression. Having a pouty face just isn’t enough yet that was all she was able to muster. That said, I again have to express that I have been told that this is essentially the character of Bella Swan and this is faithful to her.
In the first film, it was obvious that Bella was an audience stand-in, the conduit for the wish-fulfillment fantasy being set in motion. In this film, I just cannot see her appeal and am actually quite confused by it and the messages she seems to be putting forth, especially to that legion of young girls in love with this series. Bella Swan is a profoundly insufferable leading character! She is completely selfish, self-indulgent, horrifically narcissistic, entirely unable to see past her own needs and desires and completely willing to draw any and everyone into her cauldron of self-pity. Yet…EVERYONE is obsessed by her. She gets to have not one but two boys falling all over her, plus all manner of vampires and werewolves hunting for her and does she honestly deserve all of this attention anyway?
In the film’s first few sequences where we are endlessly presented with the knowledge of Bella’s 18th birthday. It feels as if the entire town of Forks was given a Facebook alert to which she can morosely feign discomfort and shun each present and birthday wish. But, later, she cruelly pulls out the “birthday card” towards Edward as she inflicts sexual pressure upon him for her own gain. It was as if she said, "If you really loved me, you would just make me a vampire!"
Bella Swan is an emotional infant. She wants what she wants when she wants it without any regard for the people and consequences that surround her. Her treatment of Jacob is awful, as she completely uses him and toys with his feelings, simply because her other plaything is not there. Some would argue that this is representative of some teenage girls and their experiences but folks, this is not a docudrama. This is a romantic fantasy interested in only the surface of things, and I do not believe that "New Moon" is that savvy or insightful.
For some reason, it really disturbed me once the film reached its climax when Bella races to Italy to save Edward from the Volturi because there was not an inch of concern for her Father, Charlie and the potential amount of anguish her disappearance would put him through. When Edward initially leaves Bella, he urges her to not do anything reckless and to essentially not commit suicide, if not for herself but for Charlie. Her rescue attempt blatantly showed how well Charlie ranks within her heart. Look, having not read the books, maybe I am missing Bella's positive attributes. But, this is what is on screen and she is being served cinematically by Kristen Stewart who is seemingly unable to hit certain notes and in the case of this film, it wasn't working even for one minute.
For a series that contains so many parallels to "Romeo and Juliet," I actually have one of my own to share. In one of my high school English classes, after we had completed our own study of "Romeo and Juliet," our teacher quietly asked the class what we had thought of the play. The classroom remained uncomfortably silent for what seemed to be eons until one girl raised her hand sheepishly and offered the following opinion: "It was stupid!"
The silence that had already existed in the classroom became frigidly silent as if we all felt that this one girl's statement would eventually sound the death knell for us all. But, we were proven wrong when our teacher plainly asked her, "Why?"
"Well...it was just so stupid!" she began. "I mean--they're just kids and what do they even know about love! And anyway, I don't even think Romeo even loved her at all. He liked that one girl at the beginning and then suddenly he's all in love with Juliet?! That's so dumb. I think he's just in love with being in love! And then...they just die! It was just such a waste!"
"And that's why it's a tragedy," our teacher said succinctly.
When I think of the love story between Edward and Bella thus far, and certainly after this film, this is essentially how I am feeling. It all seems so...stupid. Bella Swan is not virtuous. She is not heroic. She's just the next contestant on MTV's "My Super Sweet 16." And frankly, I am actually wondering if she even loves Edward at all. I think Bella Swan is in love with Bella Swan and her self-imposed misery. She seems to want Edward just because she wants him. When she cannot have him, she wants him more, no matter the costs to herself, to him and in regards to this story, the fate of the vampire and werewolf worlds. She possesses all of the toys in the game and if it is not played her way, she will take her bat and ball and go home to presumably sit stone faced in a chair writing 6000 more e-mails into the void.
If this is the great love story of the 21st century then I want no part of it.
Friday, March 19, 2010
"Twilight" Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
** (two stars)
I will openly admit that I am not the audience for this film. I have never read the book series either so beating up on it would be too easy and more than a little unfair. In knowing that, I can really try to compose an honest review that can criticize without being mean-spirited.
As we all know by now, "Twilight" is the film adaptation of the wildly successful teenage vampire love story series conceived and written by Stephanie Meyer. The story essentially concerns itself with the star crossed romance between average teenage girl Bella and brooding teenage vampire boy Edward and after having seen this movie, I can honestly see the appeal and mass affection that the large teen female audience (and equally large adult female audience) has for this conceit, while also understanding how its successes may also be its trappings.
First of all, it is a wish fulfillment fantasy. How an average, everyday girl, who was unimpressive and possibly ignored in her current surroundings, can have a transformative experience by moving to a new environment. Now she can become more mysterious as well as the object of EVERYONE's affection and interest and of course, capture the attention of the beauticious, translucent, seemingly fragile, high cheek-boned, soulfully wounded looking boy that no other girl had ever had the courage to speak to. Finally, she would undoubtedly be the one girl he would open his heart to, the one and only boy to understand her completely and love her to absolute pieces forever. It's a foundation for all romantic fairy tales and the film accomplishes this feat very easily in its early scenes and Edward's grand entrance is completely designed to make those young ladies in the audience swoon. But, I could not help but to wonder, what happens when the fantasy becomes real?
In the criminally short-lived 90's television series "My So-Called Life" for instance, the love story between average moody teenage girl Angela Chase and the fragile brooding beauty of Jordan Catalano exquisitely showed what happens when the fantasy fades into a real person with issues, foibles and faults. This discovery made for a screen romance that was willing to delve into the darker corners and painful, messy territories of teenage love.
John Hughes' "Pretty In Pink" from 1986 (tenderly directed by Howard Deutch) tossed in real issues of class, trust, loyalty, peer pressure and heartbreak to deepen its ancient "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" formula and to this day, that film's magic remains as Hughes gave equal empathy and understanding to Blaine's failings, the pain of Duckie's unrequited crush and Andie's perseverance.
Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything..." is a teen romance masterpiece. A highly perceptive, layered and knowing entry in the genre as evidenced by its opening scene where Lloyd Dobler addresses his two female friends (including the great Lily Taylor as Corey Flood) about his titanic crush on the illustrious Diane Court. Flood, knowing full well the dangers of heartbreak as she is herself recovering from a suicide attempt after being dumped by her ex, gently warns Dobler about his intentions and pursuit, adding that she just doesn't want to see him get hurt. Dobler proudly announces, "I WANT to get hurt!" The eventual break-up scene ("I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen."), is still almost too painful to watch because the hurt is true and Flood knows it from the start.
Unfortunately for "Twilight," the emotions never reach that depth or even approach it and therefore, I was not emotionally caught up in this romance for even one moment.
But in its defense, I can understand that this film is designed to remain in fantasy. Yes, we are dealing with vampires of course, and the romance between Bella and Edward consists of many long meaningful glances with cheesy music-video backdrop lighting effects but I think the story is meant to give its target audience a tale to lose themselves in, to approximate the beginning fascinations and obsessions with any first love. What we experience is basically a feature length diary entry, complete with "i"s dotted with hearts covered in sheets of rain. "Twilight" is a depiction of the very first steps of love, its intentions are seemingly pure and that is no reason to fault it for not being more than what it is for its specialized audience. It unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve but still upon closer inspection, it is apparent there is nothing underneath the clothes. Which leads me to sex...
Let's face it folks, "Twilight" is also a two hour ode to abstinence. Bella wants to die for Edward so they will be together for eternity while Edward struggles with his natural vampiric urges to overtake Bella, suck her blood, release his venom into her and...you get the picture and it is as subtle as a frying pan to the forehead. There's really not much else thematically going on in the film other than Edward trying over and over again to suppress his urges. I also found it to be quite shallow in its clumsy and blatant re-enactment of "Romeo and Juliet." The equivalent of the balcony scene, set in a forest with Edward swooping from tree branch to tree branch is laughable and the dialogue is painful. The overwrought sex=death metaphors are also quite tiresome. But again, this film is not meant to be anything more than what it is, a 21st century Harlequin romance where especially younger fans can explore their own emerging issues with sexuality in a relatively safe context.
And even with all of my criticisms, the movie isn't that bad. It's not great but I have definitely seen much, much worse. I can appreciate the fact that Meyer and the film's Director Catherine Hardwicke know, understand and respect their story and audience enough to deliver exactly what the story needs and exactly what the fans want. "Twilight" does not, in any way, transcend its genre but detractors, including myself, have to understand that it is not meant to. It is what it is and proudly so.
My wife happened upon the series last summer and tore through all four books within the span of one week. I asked her if she thought I would like it and she kind of squirmed, shrugged her shoulders a bit and said, "I don't think so. It's really...girly." After watching this film, I asked her what is was that she enjoyed so much. She acknowledged that while she felt the books are not well written at all, the story pulled her in and she truly loved the character of Edward because, in her words, "He is Bella's savior, her protector and he just loves her so much!!" She nearly gushed when she said that to me. Such is the effect of "Twilight." Once again, I know this story is not meant for me at all. It doesn't match with my sensibilities whatsoever as I like my love stories to have more weight to them.
But how can I complain that much when the sentiment my wife expressed is what she, and I would believe millions of fans have taken away from it...and keep returning to?
Thursday, March 18, 2010
* (one star)
”The studios have found comfort in these enormous movies. The big-budget blockbuster is becoming one of the most dependable forms of filmmaking. It was only three or four years ago when there was a significant risk with that kind of film. Now, especially last summer, we saw blockbuster after blockbuster be released, and they all had significant budgets and they're all doing fine. It almost doesn't matter if the film is a good film or a bad film, they're all doing OK.”
-Director Peter Jackson
from the Newsweek magazine interview, “It’s The Story, Stupid” with Peter Jackson and James Cameron originally published December 21, 2009
Extremely perceptive and prophetic words from Peter Jackson, as I feel we are all existing in a strange and possibly dangerous time in modern American cinema. Now, this is not meant to be hyperbolic. But, I do tend to worry as we are living in a “Transformers” world. With the unbelievable quantum leaps made in film technology and special effects, I have been pondering for a few years if the art of filmmaking is becoming increasingly devalued while the glossy sheen of new, shiny tricks that serve to lure mass audiences back into the movie theaters grows stronger…or at least, more lucrative. For instance, I have stated several times that I am more than a little skeptical over the groundbreaking new 3D technology, as I am not convinced it is anything more than a gimmick, with no guarantees that enhanced visuals will create enhanced storytelling. Also, CGI technology has become a terrible crutch over modern day filmmakers who mindlessly resort to showstopping visual bells and whistles simply because they can and not because they should.
As Peter Jackson questioned the current state of technological advances in conjunction with good old fashioned storytelling in the same Newsweek interview, he stated, “I think we've dropped the ball a little bit on stories for the sake of the amazing toys that we've played with.” This could not even be more of the case these days as I have already taken several swings at the massively underwhelming “Avatar,” James Cameron’s two billion dollar box-office behemoth. But now with Director Tim Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland,” a bloated and miserable new adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, the gloves are coming off. In addition to easily being his worst film since his disastrous 2001 “re-imagining” of “Planet Of the Apes,” it is one of the worst films of 2010.
The film begins with 6 year old Alice waking up from yet another recurring nightmare starring waistcoat wearing rabbits and cheshire cats. After asking her kindly dreamer of a father if she is indeed going around the bend, he gently reassures her that she is…because the best people he has ever known have all been mad.
When we next meet Alice (now played throughout the remainder of the film by Mia Wasikowska), it is after her beloved father has passed away. She is 19 and trapped within the high society pressures and expectations that completely go against the grain of her naturally impulsive and imaginative personality. Arriving at a garden party, which turns out to be a surprise engagement party for herself and the stuffy Hamish (Leo Bill), Alice is overcome. She then spots that waistcoat wearing rabbit scurrying through bushes, follows it and falls through the rabbit hole, emerging into Underland. All of the major players are here from the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), The March Hare (voiced by Paul Whitehouse), the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), that mysterious smoking caterpiller (voiced by Alan Rickman, apparently still channeling Severus Snape), and of course, The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).
After travelling through this dreamy landscape and enduring many stages of becoming either too small or too large due to those “Eat Me/Drink Me” pastries and beverages, Alice discovers that it is her fate is to save Underland from the tyranny of the large–headed Red Queen (Helana Bonham Carter) and her minions which include her right hand man Stayne (Crispin Glover) and the fearsome Jabberwocky (voiced by Christopher Lee).
Even if you have never read the Carroll books (as I have not), the characters and situations are inherently familiar. Everything you would expect to see in this film is here and on lavish display. Yet the titanic problem is that the movie has no opinion or feeling about anything as it only seems to care about how many ways it can wow an audience solely through display of CGI special effects. The Mad Hatter expresses to Alice at one point that she has “lost her muchness.” For me, this film was a loud, joyless boor that depended, with too much muchness, on flatly presented visual splendor. But, without a story to hang that splendor upon, there is nothing and I mean, NOTHING.
“Alice In Wonderland” is impersonal big budget filmmaking at its most depressing, which is shocking considering it is helmed by Tim Burton, one of our most original visionaries. When I think of most of Burton’s past work or even films from George Lucas, the Wachowski brothers, Terry Gilliam and of course, Cameron and Jackson, we have true artists that know fully well that special effects exist as nothing more than a tool and to treat them as anything more would be creative suicide. At their very best, it is as if we have purchased tickets for a front row seat into their wildest dreams and no matter how many gifted computer wizards are involved, their personal stamp is placed upon each frame. It is as if you can see their fingerprints on every image.
Yet, Burton is nowhere to be found with this new film. Perhaps it is because “Alice In Wonderland” was created in partnership with Walt Disney and I certainly do not mean Disney as a collaborative artist. I mean Disney as the faceless monolithic conglomerate hoping to create a film solely for mass appeal and massive box office by making it as bland and inoffensive as possible by draining out every stitch of uniqueness and creativity. Burton the artist is not to be seen as he has effectively become another cog in the wheel. I cannot help but to wonder if this film would have been different if he had made it without Disney’s participation. Alas, we’ll never know. In the battle of art vs. commerce, art has profoundly lost and we are left with a film that is emotionless and soulless. It contain no sense of awe, wonder, fear, excitement, terror or anything connected to the source material other than the names of characters and situations we all know. There is nothing resembling any human emotion other than tedium and boredom. Do you remember that amazingly surreal “Alice” themed music video from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”? More was accomplished and representative of the source material in four minutes and thirty six seconds of that video than the nearly two hours of this movie!
Another major problem is Alice herself. Unlike “The Wizard Of Oz,” where Dorothy’s inner journey carries equal weight (if not even more) than her outer, fantastical travels, Alice is inanely, and again impersonally, hurtled from one set piece to the next. She is a cipher within her own story, a hapless pawn who pathetically continues to proclaim that her adventures are nothing but a dream…so much longer past the point where anyone else would have known better. While we gather the seeds of Alice’s inner journey in the opening sequences, there are all but forgotten once she reaches Underland. I found myself becoming less interested as the film continued and my heart sank when I realized that all this movie ultimately cared about was giving us another generic good vs. evil battle culminating in another tiresome digital war sequence. I just sat there, mouth agape and wondering like Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?
This is not the fault of Mia Wasikowska, who does what she can, but is ultimately lost in the wonderland of green screen special effects and what a shame that is. Wasikowska is a young actress to watch for certain. Her difficult and heartbreakingly ferocious performance as a teen gymnast on the excellent HBO series “In Treatment” shows that she is a gift to any Director who wishes to work with her. Yet, Burton wastes her talent. In fact, aside from Helena Bonham Carter, who somehow punches her way through the digital haze with a performance of real energy, character and humor, all of the actors fail to make lasting impressions.
Even Burton’s greatest collaborator and conduit Johnny Depp was unable to score points in this CGI wasteland. While his Mad Hatter, complete with fright wig, colored eyes and a vocal lisp merged with an Irish brogue (as well as a dash of a certain pirate from the Caribbean) is a new entry into Depp’s arsenal of oddballs and eccentrics, he is mostly forgettable. And to make someone of Johnny Depp’s endless skills, versatility and talents forgettable is a cinematic crime.
Now please understand dear readers, that I have nothing against special effects as a rule. In fact, most of my favorite movies of all time contain some level or another of groundbreaking visuals. I want to be blown away by the sights and sounds like anybody else. But, for me, there always has to be a strong story to tell, to engage me and involve me and when it doesn’t happen, all of the effects in the world don’t mean a thing to me. “I think we're going to enter a phase where there's less interest in the CGI and there's a demand for story again,” Jackson stated in the Newsweek interview. I do hope that he is correct. Of course, there is a place for all kinds of films but when this much money is being spent and this much talent is at work, I feel that they owe it to the theater patrons to just try and create the best film they can possibly create. There are bound to be failures as well as successes…perhaps even more so. But, just make the honest full-blooded attempt because when you solely chase the money with hopes of gathering box-office domination (which this film certainly has accomplished), you lose your artistry completely.
Tim Burton, you’ve made your money. So now, please come back.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
The shadow of M. Night Shyamalan’s stunningly well orchestrated surprise twist ending of his 1999 breakthrough film “The Sixth Sense” continues to loom large over cinema (as well as serving somewhat unfairly as an albatross around the neck of its creator) and deservedly so. I will not forget the feeling I had on my initial viewing of that film: a gradual exaltation of newfound knowledge and realization. My perceptions of all that had arrived before those final moments had been decidedly altered and what made it so wonderful was that the ending was earned honestly through uncanny and staggeringly strong storytelling as well as containing a rich emotional resonance. And best of all, I NEVER saw it coming…not even for one moment.
Subsequent viewings of “The Sixth Sense” have held up with a brilliant magic because of that level of storytelling, which is not easy to pull off successfully as it has to be a trick without appearing to be a trick. The storytelling has to be strong enough where upon re-examination, the threads will not unravel as any surprises have to be completely organic thus making the story as a whole non-existent if that ending were to be changed.
With Director Martin Scorsese, we have one of the greatest gifts cinema can offer any viewer who enjoys movies. He is one of our most formidable filmmakers, a storyteller of the highest order whose talents cannot be praised enough. When Scorsese won his criminally long-overdue Oscar for 2006’s “The Departed,” it was not only a celebration of that extraordinary and intricately plotted film. It was also the esteemed recognition for a career that includes works no less than “Taxi Driver” (1976), “The Last Waltz” (1978), and “Raging Bull” (1980) among so many great films. Furthermore, if Martin Scorsese had only made “Goodfellas” (1990), he would still be one of the best filmmakers to ever hold a camera…and all other filmmakers would sit at his feet. After a four-year absence, Scorsese returns with the gothic psychological thriller, “Shutter Island,” his fourth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio. For the first time, Scorsese utilizes his tremendous gifts to weave a disturbing tapestry that leads to a huge reveal and while he certainly works up a frenzy and holds you in the mighty palms of his cinematic hands, I am not convinced the entire proceedings ultimately added up to much.
Set in Boston 1954, DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a United States Marshall who, along with his partner Chuck Aule (played by Mark Ruffalo), is sent to investigate the disappearance of a murderess who apparently has escaped from the titular island, an asylum for the criminally insane. The search introduces them to the graciously enigmatic head of Shutter Island, Dr. Cawley (the inimitable Ben Kinglsey, he of the sleek, powerful cranium and officious bow tie), as well as shady psychotherapist Dr. Nehring (played by the always sinister Max Von Sydow). Their questionable and unethical tactics and treatments make Daniels wonder if there is an overall conspiracy that led him to the island in the first place. Yet, the investigation also provides a slow unraveling of Daniels’ own psyche as each step closer to the truth presents him with a continuous barrage of grim memories from his stint as a World War II soldier at a Dachau death camp and endless nightmares starring his deceased wife (Michelle Williams) and the drowned children of the asylum’s escaped patient. Once the arrival of a hurricane cuts off communication with the mainland as well as Daniels’ means of leaving the island, the abyss, which Daniels continues to stare into ultimately begins to stare back, threatening to swallow him whole.
To say much more would ruin any surprises and revelations for you. I will say that “Shutter Island” is not staged as a modern horror film or an exercise in torture porn. It is a film whose roots are in classic (and even possibly B level) horror films. “Shutter Island,” however, is displayed with A level production values and directorial skill. It is more on the order of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980), or even aspects of Milos Forman’s ”One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) or Terry Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys” (1995) with its heightened sense of reality and asylum sequences that truly climb up the walls. Even the physical landscape of the island, with its three increasingly isolated and perilous “hospitals” that culminate in the forbiddingly grim lighthouse presents a creeping claustrophobic doom where even the darkest corners of the mind offer no refuge.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives an effectively tortured and increasingly unhinged performance and he remains a fascinating actor to regard as he consistently surprises me with his abilities. Moreover, watching the efforts of Martin Scorsese along with his frequent legendary collaborators (cinematographer Robert Richardson, production designer Dante Ferretti, music supervisor Robbie Robertson and the brilliant editor Thelma Schoonmaker), is akin to perhaps viewing a great jazz quintet-on the level of Miles Davis’ great groups-while being seated in the front row. “Shutter Island” is a mastery of tone, mood and psychological descent and the film’s concluding shot is a blast of quiet and inevitable horror. Despite all of that praise, these attributes, no matter their great artistry, are all superficial enhancements to the story and source material, which is based upon Dennis Lehane’s original novel. There is that final surprise twist we have to confront, an ending that I would not dream to spoil but it is one that would otherwise seal or break the deal Scorsese has placed in front of us.
I have to return for a moment to “The Sixth Sense” to truly illustrate my point about perhaps why certain surprise twists work more than others. As I continue to ruminate over the magic of Shyamalan’s storytelling, I think what made me happiest was how effectively he had fooled me as his ending provided deeper thematic layers, thus transcending the standard ghost story. Shyamalan had a way to giving the audience completely all of the necessary information from the very beginning. Yet, how he presented it and when he presented it was key. Think of the now iconic “I see dead people” sequence. In that scene, Shyamalan has essentially given away the entire film but our focus remains riveted on the boy and his trauma and decidedly not Bruce Willis. The ending was so strictly interwoven into the entire tapestry, it never felt like a cheat. When Shyamalan returned in 2000 with his highly underrated “Unbreakable,” he pulled it off again and in my mind, it was even better. I am also thinking of films like Alan Parker’s “Angel Heart” (1987) or even more so, David Fincher’s “The Game” (1997) or especially, “Fight Club” (1999), where the reveal is an essential piece of the story’s overall fabric. Those films are simply unable to unravel and all of the techniques serve the story as a whole.
When it was all said and done, “Shutter Island” felt very shallow and artificial. For all of the sound and fury, it signified very little and once the surprise had been revealed, I have to say it was simultaneously the most obvious conclusion yet it was somehow completely unconvincing and somewhat of a cheat. It reminded me of the Jodie Foster psychological thriller “Flightplan” (2005), a film I enjoyed very much as I watched it but once it was over, I had to think to myself, “Wait a minute…”
Another film that came to mind was the mostly terrific “Sphere” (1998) from Director Barry Levinson and based upon the Michael Crichton novel. This was a mind-warp of a movie and I was caught in its underwater grip for the entirely of its running time until the extremely silly and unconvincing ending, which seemed to arrive for no other reason than the filmmakers had written themselves into a hole they could not get out of.
“Shutter Island” felt like that to me. It seemed that it was a story fully designed to arrive at a pre-conceived destination…even if that destination didn’t entirely make any overall sense whatsoever. Without going into the crucial details, it seemed that for the twist of “Shutter Island” to work fully, a host of characters, from doctors to patients, would have to be privy to certain levels of information about Teddy Daniels at certain—or all—times and I just cannot wrap my head around those possibilities and it just felt false. Perhaps I need to make a second trip to the island and piece it all together again but therein lies the problem. It shouldn’t have to take two viewings to fully comprehend the conclusion. An ending like this needs to work completely the first time and for me, it didn’t.
“Shutter Island” is not a bad film in the least as I feel that a filmmaker of Martin Scorsese’s immense skills couldn’t make a definitively bad film even if he made the attempt. Nothing was fully derailed, and overall, it was not a crushing disappointment but this was definitely not one of the masterful Scorsese’s great films, as it does not rattle the cages, alter the senses or stick to the ribs in any way.
In fact, Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley may best describe my feelings, when he initially describes the escape of the mental patient as if she “evaporated straight through the walls.” Unfortunately, the same can almost be said for this film as it has slowly yet surely evaporated from my memory.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
"LIFE IN ONE DAY" 22 YEARS LATER:
THE MEMORIES & EXPERIENCES BEHIND THE WRITING, SHOOTING AND PRESENTATION OF MY VERY FIRST MOVIE
Very recently, a dear friend from childhood informed me that she had unearthed a copy of a high school artifact that despite my role in its creation, I had never owned a copy of it myself. The artifact in question is a film entitled "Life In One Day," and it was written and directed by myself, produced by my friend and classmate Micah Jackson and starring friends and classmates Kathy Markham (formerly Shymanski), Ben Abella and Keith Thomas in the main roles. It made its premiere during the University Of Chicago Lab School's Arts Week in the Spring of 1987. On the morning of February 24, 2009, an excerpt premiered on You Tube and while the prospect of seeing this again was absolutely terrifying--no joke--I watched the nearly ten minute section and surprisingly found myself enjoying it and at points laughing out loud. Trust me folks, this is not some deep arrogance at work. Some unending pride at my comedic prowess. Oh no. Not at all. It was just honest enjoyment plus the basking in the high school memories that led to what has remained my happiest moment in high school.
O R I G I N
The origin of "Life In One Day," came from a few sources. The title, obviously from the Howard Jones song. But, the reason for its existence is something else. First of all, as many of you have known, movies are a passion and filmmaker John Hughes was my hero during my teen years. I have no idea if his movies meant nearly as much to anyone else in school, if my obsession was unbearably irritating (it did drive my Dad crazy) or even misguided. All I know was that after I saw "Sixteen Candles" for the first time, my life had been forever changed and after seeing "The Breakfast Club," it was profoundly altered.
I think I had always wanted to write but just didn't really know how or what to write about. The seed was planted after seeing "The Big Chill," (written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan) a film I obsessively watched for quite some time back then. Of course, I had NOTHING in common with those particular characters but there was something about the presentation that gripped me. I knew that if I wrote anything or made any movies, I could never be Lucas or Spielberg--I just didn't have that kind of an imagination and I think it takes a certain talent to be able to pull those kinds of stories off well...and that wasn't my talent whatsoever. But, the idea of people sitting around and just talking...I thought I could do that but I didn't really know how to do it for my age group. I loved "Risky Business" and "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" and even "Valley Girl," but when John Hughes came along and it pointed me in the right direction. I looked to the everyday and tried to see how people related to each other. I tried to observe situations and see how could things be appreciated and exaggerated to find the humor in them. I wanted to BE Hughes. I wanted to write like him--lightning fast, great dialogue, screenplay after screenplay (legend has it that "The Breakfast Club" was written in one weekend and most of his scripts were written that quickly--unfortunately his later films really showed that) and I found out quickly, that wasn't going to happen. It took me quite bit to get going and I tended to write in bursts. But, once I was committed to an idea, I stuck with it for as long as I could.
Before "L.I.O.D.," I wrote two scripts and neither of them were any good. The first was called "Bizarre Love Triangle," after the name of the New Order song and trust me, there was nothing bizarre about it. It was a conventional teen-romance love triangle and there was nothing special about it at all...but, there was a scene or two that maybe showed me that I didn't need to give up on myself. The second was called "Better Days Ahead," which was never finished and it was just a mish-mash of ideas from summer camp hijinks, teenage loneliness, surreal touches, the obligatory teen romance and so on. It was so much of a mess, I tossed it away. Then, I began to worry. I didn't know what to do next and my confidence, not the strongest on any regular day, had taken a hit and I was unsure of so many things. Then, one day at school, Micah approached me, told me about Arts Week and how we should make a film and then he announced," YOU are going to write and direct it." I honestly have no idea why Micah had this idea or why he thought that I should do it (I mean-why didn't he want to write and direct something himself?) but I have to say that moment led to the second and maybe most important reason this film exists.
School, especially high school, was not easy for me. Granted it was not a tortured existence or anything like that but it wasn't a happy time by any means as I was dealing with the standard teenage woes and I just wasn't comfortable in my own skin. I never thought myself to be particularly very good at much. I did have the drums but at that time, my band Ground Zero was long in the past and there was nothing new musically on the horizons for me. I was an average student and had some trouble academically (especially in Science and sometimes Math depending on who the teacher was) and that created an unending stress in me that was compounded by my parents' RELENTLESS pressure to succeed and complete intolerance for failure of any sort. One painful memory in particular was a time when my parents were ready to pull me from Lab School because I had failed a Science test. The only thing that saved me was the fact that the school they were going to put me into was on the semester system and not Lab's quarter system and there wouldn't have been any realistic way for me to catch up. So, they relented. I didn't tell many people about it then because I was humiliated and embarrassed but somehow, in that Lab School way, news traveled.
By the time Senior Year approached, I was looking through a yearbook and I became morbidly frightened at the idea that I would graduate and there would be nothing next to my Senior picture. There would be nothing to announce that while I attended Lab School, I had made some sort of a mark--no matter how small-in some area. I had simply ATTENDED and that would 've been it. As anyone who had Mr. Fowler knows only too well, fear can be a great motivator and the fear of leaving Lab School with apparently nothing to show for it pushed me to challenge myself a bit. I joined the Film Club. I played drums for the 1987 Rites Of May production, the rock opera version of "As You Like It" (along with Adam Moore on guitar). I decided to take Journalism with Mr. Brasler and that was a challenge I truly loved as it showed me that I could actually be good at something as Brasler made me a page editor after writing only two stories (whether it was due to talent or because I was soon to graduate I will never know but it was a confidence booster). I did over-extend myself at points but I was determined. And then...Micah showed up that day and then it all changed and I was REALLY challenged.
T H E S C R I P T
"Take a position for or against the truth and prove the validity of your position."
-Mr. Bell's make-up project to Chris Woods
"Life In One Day" screenplay
I secretly hoped that Micah would forget about the whole thing. That perhaps it was just one of those "lightning in a bottle" ideas that would wisp away into the ether, never to be thought of again. But was I wrong. Micah was cheerfully aggressive with his cinematic desires and my place in them and he wasn't about to give it up. So, I relented, geared myself up and began to write.
"Life In One Day" was written in longhand during three bursts of creative energy between October and December 1986 inside of a Chemistry notebook, I think. When the words came, I wrote whenever and wherever I was able, and that included a few stints in Mr. Gardner's English class (and that was even between some note passing between myself and Natalie Pejovic)! I do not remember if the title was Micah's idea or mine but it did come from the Howard Jones song and once I began thinking about the story, it did sound very "Hughes-ish" and that fulfilled a certain fantasy. The concept of a story taking place over the course of one day definitely was not a John Hughes invention by any means, but the idea of a story occurring over such a short period of time was a convention of several of his stories. I thought it would help me keep the story contained and it really did help me to keep a focus and use our school as a character.
"Chris Woods" was designed to be a sort of "everyteen," an almost non-descript student that an audience member could easily identify with and place themselves into his shoes. I do not remember how Ben Abella was cast or why he agreed to do it but when we were shooting it and even as I watch it now, I really think he is just perfect! There is something so affable about him that you root for him even when you laugh at his tribulations. He is really someone worth following and that is a testament to his own personality. He really brought Chris to life.
"Maryann" is not a name I would typically give to a female character. It's a bit too "Pollyana" for my sensibilities but I will admit that the reasons that Ben was perfect for "Chris Woods" are the same reasons why Kathy Shymanski worked so well for this character. She brought what is essentially the prize at the end of Chris' awful day to life. Ever since we were kids, I always felt that Kathy possessed a certain sunny quality. She had a great smile and warm enthusiasm that fleshed "Maryann" out a bit. And even during the filming, I just remember her always being in good spirits and laughing a lot. It was always great to be around her and I think for an audience, they could easily see why Chris was in love with her. I readily admit that "Maryann" is a really underwritten character but it is Chris' story and I tried to give her some humanity in her struggles with her boyfriend Eric. I do remember that this character's name was Micah's idea and it--I think--was based on the Marshall Crenshaw song of the same name (I have this vague memory of Micah singing that song to me when he informed me of this idea) and he may have even wanted it in the final movie but that may have been just forgotten. (By the way, it's a gorgeous and just perfect power-pop song and it would've fit her beautifully!)
There really isn't much to say about "Eric." He is the bad boyfriend and Chris' nemesis and that's really it. Once again, I do not remember how Keith Thomas became involved but he is absolutely BRILLIANT, BRILLIANT, BRILLIANT in this role. His delivery of the classic line in the climactic party sequence may have been an ad-lib and I think even with all of my "Hughes-desires," it is probably the best line in the whole film and I remember it got the BIGGEST LAUGH of all. Keith was unstoppable!!
Well, during the two month writing period, Micah, as I said, was cheerfully aggressive. During any stalls in writing, and times when I quietly wished that he wouldn't remember, I would get a phone call from him asking me how it was coming along. I tended to arrive to school really early every morning due to my parent's commitments and Micah was also an early arrival, so there was no getting away from his gentle and persistent inquisitions.
When I finally finished it, I handed it over to him and felt as if the world would cave in. I seriously thought he wouldn't like it at all and I would have to endure the wave of failure. Quite the contrary, he told me how much he liked it and he was ready to get going with production. Now, Lab School being Lab School and Micah being such a producer and master of self-promotion, he used the "Lab School Communication System" to (what I now think) create a "buzz." People were coming up to me left and right for quite some time, exclaiming that they had read the script and they LOVED it! I was just mortified because I just didn't want anyone to really know what we were up to and even if we did actually get this thing made, I wanted it to be a surprise. Micah, however, had other ideas and used our system to its advantage flawlessly. And even now as I think of it, I cannot help but to wonder if Micah even had the foresight to orchestrate the public positive approval of the script just to help keep me going. (You see? I tend to over-think and cannot accept when good things are happening. I've got to rationalize it somehow but you know, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.)
T H E F I L M I N G
"Life In One Day" was filmed between January and February 1987. We shot in and all around Lab School, Ben Abella's house, Regenstein Library and bits of glorious Hyde Park. For this section, I know I will definitely want and emphatically request the input of all parties involved because my actual memories of this part of the process are a bit hazy. I actually do not even remember how parts were cast or why anyone would ever agree to be involved with this pursuit. Whitney Potter was very crucial to the filming process as he was our Director Of Photography, Editor (with Ben) and he even designed the opening and closing credits for us. The Production Company name of "Raven Cinema" may have been a Potter idea or it was a joint idea between him and Micah (and perhaps Ben as well).
What I remember most is the relative ease with which things came together--from casting roles, shooting between classes and everyone's schedules, to obtaining support from the teaching and administrative staff and even getting permission to have that Lower School class plow over Ben! I remember all of us laughing a lot. I remember all of us were really committed to seeing this thing through. And yes, I do remember and have to mention a bit of a real life romance that occurred between our film's stars either during or immediately after the shooting!
I remember that no one ever seemed to NOT believe in it--and while throughout this whole procedure, I kept hoping it would fall through so I wouldn't potentially embarrass myself forever, I had a GREAT time. I loved the idea that we were all making something and we were taking it seriously. No, we weren't making "Apocalypse Now" and we knew that but we weren't just screwing around with a camera and telling dirty jokes either. Everybody contributed something of value and I have to take the time to publicly give Kathy another "shout-out" as she was the one who came up with the tag-line for the poster: "Ferris never had a day like this." She came up with that line between shots and it was so perfect and brilliant that it HAD to stay.
My memory tells me that the filming went very smoothly. There were a few points where I wasn't able to be "on-set," as I didn't live in Hyde Park and as I was keeping the filming somewhat on the "down-low" from my parents. I strongly felt they would object to driving me across town to do something that would appear to be extremely frivolous so it was through trust and commitment that Micah, Whitney and Ben all saw this through and I am forever in their debt. Once bits without me were completed, they always happily informed me that certain scenes had been shot and they were ready to get going onto the next one. Ultimately, I wanted to make something entertaining and it seemed that everyone else wanted it to be good too. Maybe the ease in which things happened was an entire series of well-wishes and good omens. Maybe it was meant to be...but I wasn't about to subscribe to that theory just yet.
T H E P R E M I E R E
Arts Week was upon us and we were getting ready. Micah, Whitney and Ben were all involved with the editing...and I think it was a task performed between two VCRs, so please chime in Micah! Posters were designed and displayed throughout the school. There was even a story about us in The Midway. And then, the day arrived where Micah approached me to tell me that the movie was finished and would I like to see it. We obtained a VCR from Mr. Poole and we watched it in the AV Supply Room.
Once the movie was finished, my spirit took a severe nose-dive. I'm not joking. It really did. You see, while shooting, we had no monitors, no pre-visualization or anything to show us as we were zooming along how the film looked. I guess what I saw didn't match the movie in my mind and my spirit went directly to failure mode. Micah asked me what I thought and I think I feebly said, "Keith is really GREAT!!" Micah proudly agreed and then I think, he proceeded to tell me what was going to happen next. I have a feeling he sensed my trepidation and he just kept on smiling that confidant smile, assuring me it would be just fine. I, on the other hand, thought my life, or my life at Lab, would soon be over and I felt that I needed to find a travel agent and book a flight to a far away planet.
I remained on pins and needles for the entire period leading up to Arts Week but I have to admit to a silly bit of superstition...John Hughes' final ode to the teen years, "Some Kind Of Wonderful" was due to be released (I think) the week "Life In One Day" was to have its premiere. I tried to take it as a good omen and decided to let the chips fall.
We arrived in Room 203 for the WORLD PREMIERE and in a state of combined shock and terror, the room began to fill, fill, fill and fill some more. I didn't think it was possible to fit that many people into such a small space to watch a small TV with VCR. I was stunned that anyone would have even wanted to come. That anyone would be interested in anything we were up to but they were all there ready to be entertained. (I looked for an escape route and there was no way for me to leave without making a scene...)
And then...the movie began and there was laughter. Laughter in the right places. Laughter that only grew and then, my spirit began to rise and ultimately soar. I could not believe what I was hearing and when it was all over, there was applause. Micah made me stand up to bow to folks and I was just on a high. That successful showing led to an encore showing later that week, I think and there was maybe even one more encore showing after that. People kept saying nice things to me afterwards. People that I had never spoken to took the time to say something kind about the movie. People that I was no longer friends with also took the time to give congratulations. Teachers even expressed their pleasure--I remember Mr. Hoffenkamp and Mr. Gardner especially taking the time to really talk about what they saw and how it made them feel. I was an remain eternally thankful for every single kind word anybody said to me about that movie. Every single compliment was fuel for me to keep going forwards. I am not one to treasure my successes. I tend to see the future pressure after something goes well. ("Now I have to do it again and it has to be even BETTER!") But, as I said, this was my happiest high school moment because I basked in my success for a little bit, it gave me an inner confidence that helped me finish high school and move onwards to college. (I even found out later that my Mom found an extra copy of the poster at home and then took it to her office--that was a shocker!) It helped me to keep writing, which is something I still do in my extremely rare spare time. It was a time when I did something that I loved and it all panned out in the most positive way. It was atime where I proved to myself that I could be good at something...and it was during a time when I needed to see, hear and feel that in a serious way.
Now that it has resurfaced and people are watching it again on-line, I realize even more how much everyone who ever found something to like in that movie made that experience what it was. Thank you to all of you who are watching it now and still finding something to laugh about. If you get some pleasure watching this silly, little movie, then that is the very best thing I could hope for. The fact that we are even talking about it at all is a great thing. It didn't change the world by any means, but it and all of you changed my world in the most postive way. Thank you--all of you!!
If there was an "unsung hero" for this whole process, that person is Micah Jackson--without whom this entire experience would have NEVER HAPPENED. His excitement, humor, tenacity, endlessly good spirits and showmanship made me do things I didn't think I could do and made a movie that would otherwise not exist. THANK YOU!!!!
THE CONTROVERSIAL ALTERNATE ENDING...
Yes, we did have a different ending and I do believe it was Micah's idea. It was to end things on a darkly comic tone that was reminiscient of Marin Scorcese's "After Hours." We never even shot it but the original ending had Chris and Maryann, after their very lovely kiss at the party, walking into the clear and crisp Hyde Park evening only to be run down by a car...cue the Howard Jones song and roll the credits! It was really funny on the page but I have to say now that I am so happy that we didn't shoot that. That kiss which ends the movie, set to "Run, Run, Run" by The Psychedelic Furs was my most "Hughesian"moment for certain but it was also the most pure. It couldn't have ended any other way and Chris needed a happy ending.
F I N A L T H O U G H T S
As I watch it now, I am so amused at what a totalitarian environment I made this fun-house version of Lab School to be. Trust me, I never felt that way about Lab School. I am so thankful, more than ever, to have attended that school at that time with those people--despite any unhappiness I felt during some of those years. It was the environment I needed and I realize how lucky I was to go to that school and have that experience. The fact that we were in an environment that would support an endeavor like this movie, with the full additional support of the staff is amazing. I am not certain of how many high school in our country would do that or not. But, I am thankful for this one.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
It was in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay, a category I had hoped Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner would claim their potentially sole victory of the night for the magnificent "Up In the Air." While that hope for a win was not to be, I was indeed thrilled when Geoffrey Fletcher, the screenwriter for the adaptation of Precious was awarded the golden statuette instead. It was a deeply deserved win as it provided the structure, the words, the tone and the humanity desperately needed for Director Lee Daniels' vision to work successfully. Fletcher's win was a surprising one as I don't think anyone had even really expected that film to earn any more awards than Mo'Nique's for Best Supporting Actress.
As with so many millions of television viewers, I watched Fletcher arrive at the podium and through waves of excitement and disbelief, he breathlessly (literally) gave a soft-spoken and deeply felt acceptance speech and then, he left the stage.
While the historical victory of the night had been achieved by Kathryn Bigelow for her justified win as Best Director, I had completely overlooked the other and equally historic event of the night, as Geoffrey Fletcher became the very first African-American to win for Screenwriting.
This historic win is significant to me for reasons in addition to the obvious. Fletcher truly represented exactly what composer Michael Giacchino was speaking of during his own acceptance speech when he encouraged so many hopefuls watching to just follow their creative spirits no matter what anyone else may proclaim.
After performing some brief Internet digging, I discovered that Fletcher was born October 4, 1970 in Connecticut to Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. and Bettye R. Fletcher. He is one of three brothers; he attended a series of public and private schools growing up and ultimately attended Harvard University where he obtained psychology. He later attended NYU's celebrated Tisch School of the Arts and received an MFA. He wrote and directed a student film entitled "Magic Marker," which caught the attention of Director John Singleton ("Boyz In The Hood," "Rosewood," "Baby Boy"). And then...
...Hollywood did not come calling.
But, Fletcher persevered while working a series of temporary staff positions as he continued write and direct. He eventually became an adjunct professor of film studies at Columbia University and the Tisch School of the Arts. Eventually Director Lee Daniels viewed "Magic markers," and asked Fletcher to adapt the original novel written by Sapphire.
The rest, as they always say, is history.
The trajectory of Fletcher's life has not been extraordinary in the sense that it is dramatically different than other creative souls hoping to express their art to the world. And it is that aspect of the ordinary that makes Fletcher's historical win that much sweeter to me. While so many talented people in the world may never walk up those particular steps and hold an Oscar statuette to the world, we all have the greater opportunity to become part of the artistic process and add our voices.
I sincerely wish that Fletcher's win can shine light on others, and even African-Americans in particular, the strength to express themselves creatively and to potentially share whatever gifts they may posses to the world around them.
When I was much younger, I definitely entertained my own Oscar dreams and maybe, somewhere in my soul I still do. But, for me, at my current age and for the remainder of my life, I hope, with "Savage Cinema" and my own creative writing pursuits, to remain a part of this overall process.
Congratulations to Geoffrey Fletcher. While I am anxious to see what he may write next, I am even more excited with the fact that he has now opened a new door.
May we all have the opportunity to walk through it.
Monday, March 8, 2010
1. LONG, LONG, LONG
Poor Adam Shankman. I don't know but I have this feeling that choreographer/filmmaker/judge on "So You Think You Can Dance" may have been escorted quietly out of the theater last night as his production of the 2010 Academy Awards felt awkward, unfunny and of course, just too damn long. I really have no idea of what the folks behind the scenes can do to improve the pace of this historically epic television program, but something needs to be done and maybe not falling in love with its own reverence would be a good thing. I was thrilled that all of the Best Song performance sequences were cut from the program and while the show did seem to move from one category to another quickly enough, the show, as a whole, had no life to it. It just laid there glowingly to be admired just like that weird moment at the start of the show where all of the Best Actor and Actress nominees just stood there, to be admired once more in a manner that felt as immobile as the statuette.
2. REMOVED TEETH
I really thought the pairing of Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin would have been just brilliant but they too felt somewhat stiff, awkward and lifeless and unless their whole shtick was laced in irony, it felt so flat! They just weren't funny--as they were beholden to the program's sorry script. Now I have to say that the appearances of Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller's arrival in full "Avatar" regalia were just sprinklings of moments were the weak jokes were transcended and the program perked up and came to life.
3. THE AWARDS AND MY PREDICTIONS
Well, I have to admit I didn't do too terribly and believe me, I was so happy that big box office did not rule the day last night as "The Hurt Locker" was crowned Best Picture. While not my favorite film of the year (that would, of course, be "Up In The Air" and I'm sad that it won absolutely nothing), I do feel that this was an extremely worthy winner. And I was so happy for Kathryn Bigelow! She made history with a work that showcased her blisteringly intense direction and her graciousness was touching as it has been a long time coming for her. But then, why did they follow her initial win with a music cue of "I Am Woman"?! Cheesy!
I think the only award of the night that made me upset was Quentin Tarantino's loss for Best Original Screenplay. I'm sorry but as good as the script for "The Hurt Locker" is, the script for "Inglourious Basterds" was unlike any other in the past year. Tarantino was robbed and like I said in the previous post, Oscar had better watch it's back!
All of the acting awards went as I, and many, had predicted and I enjoyed hearing their speeches very much--especially Jeff Bridges', who is making me wonder if his iconic role in "The Big Lebowski" was much of a performance to begin with...man!
4. THE TRIBUTE
Once I had learned that the Academy Awards would be featuring a tribute to my hero and late filmmaker John Hughes, I had to pinch myself. Could it possibly be true that they would honor a man whose work was not the least bit honored when he was alive? Could they really sprinkle Oscar fairy dust and give credibility to works that had been routinely maligned solely due to their subject matter? Well, they did and what a lovely tribute it was. I felt vindicated to a degree because like the very best filmmakers, John Hughes created his own niche and it has not been repeated since and I seriously doubt it ever could be. I was especially moved to see Hughes' family, as he was such a private figure. Seeing Hughes' stable of actors, with whom he was so very close for periods of his life, along with his own treasured family was an emotional moment for all involved, I would think. And for someone who valued family as much as he did, it was like witnessing a certain reunion on stage. Classy tribute!
Speaking of class, I think of the acceptance speeches of Christoph Waltz and especially Mo'Nique and even Sandra Bullock were high points of the night. But, I also really loved the speech by Best Original Score winner Michael Giacchino (for "Up") who advised all watching to "just do it." Great advice, sir and deeply inspirational in its simplicity.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Even the quality of the show itself--as far as the nominees are concerned--is essentially a cinematic horse race where the behind the scenes politics almost rule the day. And yet, every year, I am excited and watch the proceedings from beginning to end and I could never even conceive of ever missing it. My love of the movies and I would suppose the fantasy of Hollywood that has enticed so many shines brightly over even the seediest aspects.
For the very first time, I am going to toss out some predictions of what may occur tomorrow evening in the major categories. Afterwards, I'll have a post-show installment!
So, without any further hesitations...
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Up in the Air
Up in the Air
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
SHOULD WIN: Mo'Nique
I really think that this is her award to lose as she is the favorite and out of the five (and even thought I have not seen "Nine,") it is the performance that rattled me in my seat the most as it was the most unexpected. I have called her performance volcanic and humane and within a few short sequences, said to myself, "Just give her the Oscar right now!" I LOVED Fermiga and Kendrick in "Up In The Air" and found Gyllenhaal to be Jeff Bridges' equal in "Crazy Heart" but Mo'Nique is the one who truly deserves the statuette the most in my eyes.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
The Last Station
The Lovely Bones
PREDICTION: CHRISTOPH WALTZ
SHOULD WIN: CHRISTOPH WALTZ
Like the previous category, Waltz is the favorite and it is his category to lose. Again, I have not seen all of the nominated performances so I cannot judge entirely at the best level. That said, it is difficult for me to imagine any of the other performances coming even close to what Waltz achieved in Tarantino's film and in a seamless display of four languages no less.
The Blind Side
The Last Station
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
Julie & Julia
PREDICTION: SANDRA BULLOCK
SHOULD WIN: GABOURNEY SIDIBE
This is the weakest category typically and that is certainly not the fault of the actresses nominated but the overall weakness of Hollywood to provide strong leading roles for woman in the hundreds of films released each year. Also, this category has a huge problem and that is Meryl Streep, who seems to be nominated just because she is who she is and not necessarily if the performance itself deserves Oscar gold. As much as I enjoyed "Julie and Julia," and how good Streep was in humanizing an iconic figure, I am not certain if it deserves that statuette. This is Bullock's year, this is her coronation ceremony and I will stunned silent if she does not win. I have not seen "The Blind Side" and for so many reasons I just cannot get myself to sit through that one. Who knows if she even deserves that award in the first place. It seems as if this is a chance for Hollywood to award an extremely popular person who starred in the "little movie that could" as it earned an unbelievable $200 million plus at the box office.
For me, if I could wave my magic wand, I would award Sidibe for her work in "Precious" as it was the most unique, most original, most heartbreaking and most unlike anything I have seen Oscar nominate before.
Up in the Air
A Single Man
The Hurt Locker
PREDICTION: JEFF BRIDGES
SHOULD WIN: JEFF BRIDGES
I think this category is quite possibly the strongest, and with all due respect to Colin Firth as I have not had the chance to see his film and George Clooney, who I feel gave the best performance of his career so far, I think it is Jeff Bridges' time, as he has inexplicably not won an Oscar ever before. Yes, there is a sentimentality at work here but I really believe that Bridges' performance was the most complete and invisible as I saw more of a transformation and less of a "performance" as he tricked me into thinking that country singer Bad Blake was real. if he is to win, this is the performance that earns it.
The Hurt Locker
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
Up in the Air
PREDICTION: KATHRYN BIGELOW
SHOULD WIN: JASON REITMAN
This is a tricky category because in my mind, whichever film received the award of Best Picture, the director of that film should be honored with the Best Director award. However, that is not how Oscar works for some unexplained reason. Anyhow, the big story here is the contest between James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow. Cameron, of course, is one of the most popular and profitable directors of all time while Bigelow has shown her unquestionable skills for many years without much recognition. the fact that they were once married adds to the story Oscar and the press care spinning.
Anyhow, the contest has seemingly been boiled down to "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker" and I think Oscar will give them each some love with Bigelow winning in this category. I will definitely be pleased with that outcome, as she definitely delivered with her blistering work on "The Hurt Locker," but for me, I would jump in the air if Reitman were to win. He made my favorite film of the year and for that, he deserves the prize the most.
The Blind Side
The Hurt Locker
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
SHOULD WIN: "UP IN THE AIR"
Now that the Academy has increased their list of nominated films from 5 to 10, I do have to say that overall, this is a fine list as it includes everything from critical favorites, box office smashes and indie darlings. As I stated in the last section, the race has pretty much come down to "Avatar" and "the Hurt Locker," and if they do award Bigelow for her direction of "The Hurt Locker" then James Cameron's 3D science-fiction epic will take away the big prize. I realize that the heat has been turning towards 'The Hurt Locker" in recent weeks and since Cameron has already won for "Titanic" twelve years ago and "Avatar" has taken in even more money than that film, there just may be an upset as many feel Cameron has been awarded so much already.
Now, as you all know, I do not think "Avatar" deserves to win at all, let alone be nominated but I guess I'd rather have that take the prize than "The Blind Side"! Even so, if it does win, I just feel that it would be a sad showing and glorification of box office over cinematic art and it would be the weakest win since the likes of "Gladiator." With "The Hurt Locker," as impressive as it is, it just didn't build into a full experience for me. The film that accomplished that feat the most was "Up In The Air" and if I had that magic wand again, I would give that film the grand prize.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Screenplay by Nick Hornby
In the Loop
Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher
Up in the Air
Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
PREDICTION: JASON REITMAN AND SHELDON TURNER
SHOULD WIN: JASON REITMAN AND SHELDON TURNER
This category leaves me uncertain but I'm going to make the guess that "Up In The Air" will win here as it will not win in the major categories of Best Picture, Actor, Actress and Director. If it does win, it will be a richly deserved one as Reitman adapted the novel wonderfully, with equal measure of wit and pathos. And his additions of the Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick characters were just brilliant.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The Hurt Locker
Written by Mark Boal
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman
A Serious Man
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter. Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy
PREDICTION: QUENTIN TARANTINO
SHOULD WIN: QUENTIN TARANTINO
The key word for this section is "Original" and there was no screenplay this year more original that this one from one of the most original writers working today. It is just a blessing to hear Tarantino's peerless dialogue set to sequences written with the detail of an accomplished novelist. If he doesn't win, it would be an unforgivable Oscar crime and with all of Tarantino's tales of revenge, they had better watch their collective backs!
There you have it, dear readers! My predictions and magic wand wishes. Enjoy the show and I'll check back once the glitter has faded.