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Posts Tagged ‘screenwriting’

Doubt: Titans Clash Over Sheer Intensity

Posted by goldwriting on January 16, 2009

doubt I was told by a reliable source that black is the new black this year.

Rating: 7 out of 10

There are numerous ways to tell a story. You can paint a picture which conveys one image, but a library worth of emotion. You can write a piece of music which seeps in behind the eyes and speaks even more directly to the heart. Hell, some people can even tell a story through the presentation of a seven course meal with a well thought out menu. Yet two of the most popular ways to tell a story are on stage and on screen and every now and again one story takes that perilous walk from one to the other. Sometimes the results can be fascinating, like opening up a whole new way to think about the characters and the story as a whole, but on other occasions all you do is sit back and wish you’d seen it in its original form. Sometimes, just sometimes, where you’re born is where you’re meant to stay.

As you might guess, that is how I feel about Doubt.

Doubt is a story about a power struggle between Sister Aloysius Beauvier, an overbearing, discipline-driven nun and Father Brendan Flynn, a younger, more socially-forward pastor that the Sister unwillingly works for. Sister Aloysius is alerted to a possible inappropriate situation going on between Father Flynn and a young boy in the church and she goes on a hell-bent tirade to root him out, no matter what the cost or the complete lack of proof she has. With conviction and passion on her side and logic and the absence of proof on his side, these two deeply entrenched personalities battle over truth, what you are allowed to do to get it and finally, if you really need it at all.

The story originated as a play written by John Patrick Shanley and he went on to write the screenplay and direct the film himself. In most cases you don’t get that lucky, to have the original creator still in such control over the new permutation, but Shanley made sure he kept the tone and power of the story intact during its newest transformation. In a certain respect that might be part of the problem. In the original play only four characters were in it: the nun, the father, the younger nun and the mother of the boy in question. With the film, many more people had to be created to fill out the world they lived in and on occasion it worked perfectly, creating fluid movement between the scenes with the major characters, but every now and again you could feel the presence of a band-aid type of moment, only there to hold things together while we got to something actually important. Also, I haven’t read the play or ever seen it on stage, but the character of the boy’s mother only has one scene in the film, albeit an incredibly powerful one, and it feels like she could have been made much more integral to the film. The dialogue is intense, pointed and incredibly crisp, but that much is to be expected coming from such an accomplished playwright as Shanely. As a play, Doubt had already taken home the 2005 Drama Desk Award, a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Not too shabby.

In some of the transfers from stage to screen, the studios and directors will reach out to those actors already familiar with the material and bring in the original cast members (as was done with Frost/Nixon with Langella and Sheen), but Shanely made a specific choice to not invite his stage cast into the film project because he knew with the growth of the world he had to create for the film, those actors would have a harder time adapting to the new version of the story and they would feel out of place with the rest of the cast. So he brought in new blood to the project and I can truly say he chose incredibly well. Philip Seymour Hoffman took on the role of Father Flynn and he attacked it with the passion and sensitivity we have all come to know and expect from him. There is an honesty about him, even when he is playing a villain, that makes the audience side with him on nearly anything. Standing across the religious ring from him was Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius. She channeled every child’s worst nightmare of their Catholic school upbringing into this devout and devious despot. From the moment she lets her brain lock onto the possibility of Father Flynn’s misdeed, she tenaciously grabs hold, sets her head down and barrels over anyone and everything in her path. Like most movies born on the stage, this has some truly amazing scenes and one particular fight between Hoffman and Streep is stunning in the level of intensity, power and outrage they both escalate to. Shyly trying to not impede on the performances of her cast mates is Amy Adams as the young and innocent Sister James. She has the unwanted joy of lighting the match which burns through this entire piece and the second she lights it her face and heart drops knowing it will lead to something awful. Adams is still climbing the ladder of her already illustrious career and few are doing it with such variety and skill as her. It’s understandable that she would feel somewhat intimidated by tangling with Hoffman and Streep, but her talent holds up quite well in such company. Rounding out the original four characters is Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller. Davis only gets one scene in the entire film, so maybe it was the knowledge of that which made her decide to knock it completely out of the park. She shared time in that scene only with Streep, but instead of letting the audience revel in Streep’s already well-known talent, Davis injects herself with bravado, self-righteousness and gives Streep her only ass-whooping of the film. With only words, Streep looks like she has been bowled over by a cement truck by the end of a scene where the two characters simply walk down a small path. Davis went along to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama and it was well deserved.

In the end my reason for thinking it most likely works better on stage is due to the rest of the world feeling somewhat forced. The original four are still the only truly interesting characters and when we are away from them, we just end up wondering where they are. Also the tone and pacing is still very much that of a play and the film runs incredibly fast, so the ending feels a touch abrupt in my book. Shanely also mentioned in an interview that he wanted to make sure the audience left with a sense of doubt about whether the alleged event of Father Flynn ever really took place. Unfortunately for me, Hoffman’s performance never gave me too much feeling on his guilt and Streep’s inability to see any logic outside of her own made her seem too oblivious and misguided to be on the right side of the argument. There were some quick shots later referred to in an effort to shed a cracked light on Father Flynn, but it was too little too late for me.

Recommendation: This particular film with lose nothing in the shift from big screen to TV, so feel free to wait on that account. If you are a connoisseur of acting, this is a great example of some true pros at work, but if you’re looking for a more well-rounded plot, this might not fit the bill.

Reviews Coming Soon: Seven Pounds, Yes Man, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and many more…

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Revolutionary Road: Could Lead to Oscar Blvd.

Posted by goldwriting on December 23, 2008

revolutionaryroad “Let’s take a cruise together.”

“Umm…actually, I have this thing about boats. They’re not really my thing.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Throughout movie history there has been a wide variety of classic couples, people you yearned to see on screen together again and again: Bogart and Bergman, Gable and Leigh, and Lancaster and Kerr to name only a few. But in 1997 another young couple cemented their right to being included on that list, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, in James Cameron‘s  record breaking film, Titanic. Even though the pair were one of the very few things in Titanic not awarded with Oscars or Golden Globes that year, they still lived on inside the hearts of the audience members who went back to see the romantic duo lean over that railing and declare their reign over the world. It only took eleven years for them to find a project to work on together again, but DiCaprio and Winslet have proven it was worth the wait.

Revolutionary Road is the story of a young passionate couple who meet, connect and yearn to spend their lives striving for the limits of experience. The story takes a only a brief look into their initial introduction to each other, instead opting to quickly jump years forward into their marriage only to find the passion has dissipated and their struggle now is against their suburban mundane existence. The couple, once wild and free, now find themselves deciding whether to stay in their current situation and try to make the best of it or to risk it all and run away to Paris in hopes of rekindling their love of life and their love for each other. It’s a war of contentment and  security versus passion and fulfillment and both sides fight dirty.

There was always one big threat looming over this film, that we, the audience, would look up at the screen and only see the Leo and Kate we remember from Titanic. The love struck duo fated to be together, but torn apart. All we would see would be longing glances full of love and hope and the rest of this new story would be lost in those memories. So, with that looming in front of director Sam Mendes, Mendes made a brilliant choice to jump very quickly into the deeply troubled marriage, nearly opening the film in a vicious fight on the side of the road. The anger and vitriol spilled on each other in that opening argument is more than enough to wipe away all previous visions of wistful gazes and romantic cuddling. DiCaprio rages against the self-imposed cage he’s stuck in, giving us the intensity and raw aggression we’ve come to expect from him (from performances such as The Basketball Diaries, Gangs of New York, The Departed, etc.). Now tie that aggression with the always impressive strength and surety of Kate Winslet and you’re locked and loaded for a true battle of the wills. Only actors who are completely trusting of each other could reach the fever pitch Leo and Kate achieve, which allows not only for touching moments of love, but also incredibly sharp attacks that cut deeper than any knife ever could.

Behind the dynamic duo there is a bevy of talented actors, including Kathy Bates, Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour, and heading into this film they had to know they were only bringing the trimmings and decorations to a party made for Leo and Kate, but one person decided to crash the party and steal some of the spotlight for himself. Michael Shannon plays John Givings, Kathy Bates’ son who happens to be on a short term visit from the local insane asylum. Now he doesn’t bash into the scenes ranting and raving, but his particular type of craziness allows him to cut through the bull and call people out on what is really going on underneath their shiny plastic veneer. Shannon has only three scenes in the film, but during each one of them you can’t take your eyes away from him. He is not only the spark-plug for those moments, but he becomes the lightning rod for the entire movie during a dinner scene which will go on my list as one of the best scenes on film in the last five years. The only shame in Michael Shannon’s performance is that he didn’t get a nomination for it. Here’s hoping the Academy voters are smarter than the Hollywood Foreign Press.

As much as I can rave about the wonderful acting on display in this film, those jewels are only achievable through the eyes and sensitivity of a talented director like Sam Mendes. Mendes keeps his tradition from American Beauty alive of painting picturesque communities of sterility and perfection, but all the while hinting and flashing light on the cracks growing underneath. There is always a deeper truth underneath the veil his characters show to the world and that’s where his real talent lies, making those people remove the masks in a believable and truthful fashion. I was on the lookout for subtle preferential treatment for Kate since she’s married to Mendes in real life, but both parties refused to pull any punches, once again proving the entire team’s commitment to powerful and honest filmmaking. Also proving that point is the completely anti-Hollywood ending, which I obviously won’t go into, but according to screenwriter Justin Haythe there was some push for it to be softened or changed, but Sam locked arms with him and demanded that it stay true to the original novel it is based on. If more people showed even half as much commitment to all the other film projects out there, the quality level we would reach would be unimaginable.

Recommendation: I’ll put this as plainly as I can: Before seeing this I was a locked in vote for Slumdog Millionaire for Best Picture of the Year, now I’m not so sure. My new fear is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is going to make this choice even harder, but for the moment I am blissfully unaware of that option.

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Frost/Nixon: Bringing the Fight to the People

Posted by goldwriting on December 7, 2008

frostnixonmovie Did I have your phone tapped? Your voice sounds so familiar…

Rating: 9 out of 10

There are few things in life as exciting or exhilarating as watching a good fight. Maybe it’s the primate in us, a deep evolutionary need to see two people beat the piss out of each other in order to prove dominance. Maybe it’s the need to see a champion, someone we can look up to and model our own lives after. Or, on a slight chance, it’s the glimmer of hope we huddle around to keep us warm and keep our dreams from fading away, the dream that one day someone will topple the champ and change the world forever. Now you might think those emotions only get woken up during a purely physical battle, but if so, you are truly missing out on some of the best battles in human history. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated seven times in 1858 for control of the Illinois legislature and those verbal fencing matches were a preview of the power and eloquence with which Lincoln would bring to bear in his time as President. Almost exactly one hundred years later, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon took to the airwaves for the first ever televised debate between Presidential candidates. Those four on-air matches drew numerous comparisons to their predecessors of nearly a century before. Even in our latest election a highlight truly arrived during our one and only debate between Vice-Presidential candidates, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. While it might not have been the intelligence and skill in the fight we were all watching for, it still made for captivating television.

Yet one thing all those previous moments lacked was the dark cloud of obvious guilt and shame hanging over the head of Richard Nixon after he resigned the Presidency in disgrace over the Watergate scandal. A man who achieved amazing and brilliant things during his time in office was forced to step down and hang his head for something he was arguably not the first to do, just the first to get caught red-handed. I’m not defending Nixon, but in the context of political history, including any number of the documented and undocumented crimes committed by our still reigning President, Nixon was a lightweight. But for the American people of the 1960’s, his betrayal of the public office was the lowest they had seen a President stoop to and they demanded action. After newly sworn-in President Ford issued a complete and unequivocal pardon of Nixon, it seemed as though the American people were going to have to drink and eat whatever they could get their hands on to cover up the bad taste. But then one man stepped up to the plate, determined to give the people exactly what they wanted.

This is not just a history lesson; this is the premise and plot of Ron Howard‘s new film, Frost/Nixon. David Frost was a British talk show host who came up with the idea of interviewing Nixon after his resignation, but his original motives were not entirely altruistic. Mainly, he was a master of television audiences and he could feel the ratings he would get for such an interview would be outrageous. Once he locked the interview in place however, it became a monster he almost couldn’t control. The film is incredibly small in scale, beginning the year where Frost came up with the idea and ending within days after the interview was concluded. We get to see the build up to the big interview, but the actual recorded and tastefully lit chat between the two characters is really the lynch-pin on which the whole film rests. Thinking about the premise beforehand, it’s hard to imagine there being an incredible amount of tension in the movie-going audience, especially since we know what happens, but quality filmmaking and intelligent storytelling can make any old story seem new once again. By the time Frost and Nixon sit across from each other, microphones pinned to their lapels, handkerchiefs folded and makeup invisibly applied, the intensity is palpable. It was akin to watching a heavyweight boxing match, except one contender had never really felt the blow of a well-landed punch before. Once he does, the fear in his eyes truly brings the audience into his mindset. Luckily for us, both in the theater and in history, fear that might make some men run will make others fight all that much harder.

Ron Howard has been making movies for a number of years now and won a number of accolades and critical acclaim, but Frost/Nixon might end up topping them all. With a very simple story he found a way to display two very non-simple people. There is tension, anticipation and weight all brought to bear on a simple interview which ended up changing the lives of not only the people in the chairs, but the worldwide audience as well. Howard also got his two lead actors gift-wrapped, Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. Both actors originally played their roles on stage to massive acclaim, so heading into the movie, they had these characters down cold. There is definitely a difference between playing a role on stage and playing it on film, but the internal work and preparation by these actors is a virtual treasure chest in comparison to what you get on most film sets. The moment they appear on screen, you can feel the depth and skill both actors gained from all their time put in. Frank Langella disappears into Nixon, truly embodying Nixon’s confident walk and sweeping movements of his arms, his imposing intrusion into people’s personal space, and finally the stoop — which on anyone else would have made them look old, but with Nixon is just made him look dangerous and determined. On the other side of the ring, we have Michael Sheen, who shined as David Frost, the plucky and charming television talk show host. There are some moments where Sheen is just listening to Langella rant on and on and Sheen displays an amazing level of intensity, fear and nearly overwhelming nervousness just by using his eyes. He doesn’t even have to move to show the wave after wave of emotional turmoil this man goes through while trying to go toe-to-toe with “Tricky Dick”. Both actors are strong contenders for nominations in the award season.

Beyond the powerhouse duo in front, there is a wealth of strong supporting cast. Sam Rockwell, one of Hollywood’s best go-to character actors, delivers an impassioned performance as James Reston Jr., one of the researchers on Frost’s team. He is the emotional anchor for the team, representing the anger, fury and bitter disappointment of the American people, and if there is one thing Rockwell does better than anything else, it’s playing disappointment and disdain (try poking your head into almost any scene in Choke). Right alongside Rockwell is another amazing talent, Oliver Platt, who plays Bob Zelnick, the more political structure based portion of Frost’s team. Platt continues to do his thing with great talent and shine without ever stealing scenes or trying to make the moment about him. He can be the star of the show if cast that way, but his true talent is blending into an ensemble and making everyone around him better for it. If you’ve never really experienced Platt, I would happily and heartily suggest Casanova and The Three Musketeers, both brilliant comedic performances. A little on the lesser-known side is Matthew Macfadyen, who plays John Birt, Frost’s manager, who continually rallies the troops and sticks by his side even when things are at their most bleak. Macfadyen brought a great sense of strength and loyalty that kept the audience in check and never giving up on Frost and his ultimate goal. As if we needed another name to add to the list, this will benefit all those addicts of the “Six Degrees” game, Kevin Bacon plays Jack Brennan, Nixon’s Chief of Staff and most devoted servant. Bacon lays it on thick, the dogged determination and defense of Nixon, even in the final moments when it all is slipping away. A solid job from an incredibly consistent actor.

Recommendation: If you like movies about important moments in American History, you should like this. If you like Ron Howard films, you should like this. If you like purely character pieces, you should like this. If you are looking for sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, you might wanna move on by. Lastly, if you are like me and try to watch everything on the Oscar nominated list, I’m putting good money this film will end up on there somewhere, whether for acting, directing or writing. Save yourself the rush of trying to track it down during awards season and catch it now.
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Bolt: Some Sizzle, Yet No Spark

Posted by goldwriting on December 1, 2008

bolt Do you know how close that place is to the ocean? Do you realize how much water that is?!

Rating: 6 out of 10

We sometimes cast a wistful gaze back into history and remember all the purely magical moments of our childhoods: learning to ride a bike, dumping out the first bag of Halloween candy after a monster haul, or playing with the first new family pet. All of these things hold a special place in our hearts and right alongside those for most of us is the memory of watching our first Disney film. Whether it was Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Steamboat Wille or Aladdin (had to mention it since it is still my reigning favorite from ‘The House of Mouse’), those magical cartoons had a profound effect on several generations and for that, Disney deserves a certain amount of credit. Yet, today things are slightly different. In the world of animated cinema Disney is scratching for third place on the totem pole, underneath the powerhouse studios of Pixar and Dreamworks Animation. It’s true, it can be argued Disney is on top of the pole since they own Pixar, but Pixar operates very much as a separate company and they gained their early success and prestige before Disney made the purchase. Disney is merely the distribution chain for the wonderment emanating from the minds and dreams of the Pixar creative staff. So the question becomes, does Disney still have the chops to compete in the animation circuit?

Yes, they do, as long as they are satisfied with coming in third.

Disney’s latest contribution is Bolt, the story of a dog who doesn’t know he’s an actor on a television show and ends up lost in the real world trying to find his owner, who was fake-kidnapped on the show. Along the way Bolt captures an alley cat in an effort to force her to lead him to the Green-eyed Man (his TV arch-nemesis) and also picks up a hamster that happens to be a fanatical fan named Rhino. Their cross country journey is full of adventures and mishaps, all in an effort to lead Bolt home and back to his owner. The journey is also an internal one for Bolt as he struggles with the realization that he is a normal, non-superhero type dog.

Bolt is a charming movie and should be enjoyable to most young kids out there, but the modern day marker for true success in this genre is how many adults can you attract without their children in tow? For that crowd, Bolt doesn’t offer a whole lot. The trailer was incredibly well-designed and caught a good deal of the highlights in the film, mainly showcasing the role of Rhino the hamster, who stole most of his scenes and felt light in the overall scope of the film. Boosting up his role might not have fit in the structure of the story, but it certainly would have brought up the laughs. Another point in which I think the movie fared really well was the depiction of the pigeons, both in New York and in Los Angeles. The movements and seemingly spastic thought processes in those birds were amusing no matter what they were talking about. Those animators really captured a brilliant idea of what it could be like to listen to their thoughts. The Los Angeles based pigeons…well, those were hilarious for a whole different reason, which I won’t go into for the sake of not ruining the scene. (The only pitfall here is it might only be funny to people who live out here and work in the entertainment industry. Even so, I’m lucky because I do live here and I did think they were the high point of the flick.) As for the main characters, Bolt made sense throughout the film and always stayed on a strong motivated course, but I just wasn’t endeared to him. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was, but something lacked in making Bolt stand out amongst the cadre of side characters and he ended up being only a lynch pin instead of driving force for the story. The alley cat, Mittens, played well off Bolt and acted more like the Chorus in Greek and Roman theatre, providing the reactions of the common audience member, since Bolt’s own worldview was so skewed. Mittens continually reminded us that what was happening was more-or-less insane, but in the end also showed us what was most important. Surprising to me, Mittens felt more like the heart or emotional center of the film over Bolt.

With animated features another big hurdle is to find a cast of voices that not only fits the characters, but also doesn’t overshadow the movie itself. John Travolta provided the voice of Bolt and admittedly when the movie began I felt his voice was too old for the character and too aware of himself, but as it went on I felt Travolta settled into it more and became more attuned with the character. On the other hand, Miley Cyrus was not a terribly good choice as the voice of Penny, Bolt’s real life and on-screen owner. She was certainly picked for star power and to further connect the movie to the teen-and-under audience, but Miley’s voice is raspy, bordering on smoky at times and while that might work for her pop star image, it didn’t play coming from the mouth of a young, innocent looking girl.

One last interesting tidbit is Bolt was actually executive produced by John Lasseter, one of Pixar’s creators who now works for both companies. He was brought onto Disney Animation to help bring them back into the forefront of the animation world, but I can’t say I really felt that Pixar spark inside this movie. I have no doubt Disney will continue to move forward and fight their way onwards and upwards, but so far it has been a slow crawl for them.

Recommendation: If you have young children, jump on in, but if you’re heading out on your own, you better be a die-hard fan of children’s movies. Also, this is being offered in 3-D at some theaters, but feel free to skip that option. I saw the 3-D version and there wasn’t anything really worth the hassle of wearing those glasses and possibly fighting off the resulting headache.
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Twilight: Tween Daydream Turns Into Nightmare

Posted by goldwriting on November 24, 2008

twilight

My eyes are shut. Please, please tell me when the crazed fans are gone.

Rating: 2 out of 10

There is not a person in the world who hasn’t heard the rags to riches story of J.K. Rowling and the legendary Harry Potter series of books. Those books, of course, led us to the movie franchise, which has generated so far over a billion dollars with three more movies to go (one for book six, while book seven will be split into two pieces). Yet as quickly as one legend is chiseled into stone, another one comes along, shaking the pedestal to knock down the reigning champion. Stephanie Meyer wrote the first book in her Twilight saga only 3 years ago and she is already hot on the trail of Harry Potter’s coffers. With the release of the fourth book, Breaking Dawn, the series as a whole has sold over 17 million copies and been translated into 20 different languages. So, with the literary world groveling at the feet of the Twilight series, begging for more, it was inevitable the movie world would come knocking. Does such a massive fan base guarantee success for the feature film adaptation?

Financially it always helps, but critically it doesn’t mean a thing. With an opening weekend of over $70 million dollars, Twilight is already a blockbuster and I’m guessing will finish up somewhere in the $400 million dollar range. This will mainly be due to the hordes of tween girls who will go see this repeatedly, like they did with Titanic, driving the box office receipts way past any critical value. Once you look beyond the dollar signs and the pre-pubescent obsession, the reality is this movie is barely watchable.

From the very beginning of the film it is terribly paced, trying to drain each and every sigh and wistful gaze from the moments on screen, which causes it to take over an hour to get to anywhere the least bit interesting. Finally, when that moment comes, it is over incredibly fast and done with such broad, clumsy strokes that banging your head against the chair in front of you begins to seem like a viable option to make yourself feel better. The whole thing drips with teenage melodrama, admittedly perfect for their direct audience, but to make a truly successful film it has to play to more than just a fraction of the populace. I’ve never had a problem appreciating a good movie, whether I was the correct demographic or not (look back on my review of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 if you need proof). The fact remains Twilight drags itself from scene to scene, on top of being badly performed. This is a shame to be added to the resume of normally skilled director Catherine Hardwicke, who I have personally raved to many people about her previous films, Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown.

Rob Pattinson, who plays Edward Cullen, the lovelorn vampire, has already ascended to fill the void left by Orlando Bloom from his Lord of the Rings days, but he has far from grasped what it takes to be an on-screen heartthrob. There is an art to the longing gaze, an inherent skill to the penetrating looks across the room, neither of which he possesses. He ends up coming off more like a borderline sociopath who might be suffering from any number of vitamin deficiencies. He also proves numerous times that opening your eyes incredibly wide doesn’t always emote intensity, some times it just comes off looking like you’re in pain. There are rare occasions when the lead actor can be propped up by the performance of his co-star, but this is not one of those times. Kristen Stewart, taking on the role of the lovestruck Bella, who although powerfully cute and physically perfect for the role, plays way too much with the awkwardness of meeting a boy you like before taking an enormous leap into the deepest love in the world. There is virtually no arc for her romanticism, it just appears instantaneously and is never doubted by either side. Also, without giving away any spoilers, there is something special about her character which draws her to her new vampire boyfriend, but yet again it is never explained or even explored. For the next film, which has already been signed and contracted, it would behoove whichever director it might be to watch Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist to see the correct way how to show two incredibly awkward teenagers fall in love without making the audience want to gouge out their own eyes. The painful and repetitive scenes between Rob and Kristen completely washed away James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes from Dawson’s Creek, America’s previous winners for “Most Time Taken by a Fictional Couple to Just Get the Hell on with It!”

Not having read the book, and I pray it is better than the adaptation, there are also a number of things changed or altered from the vampire mythos. I’m all for new storytellers taking creative license and trying to make something traditional into their own, but the changes made here just ripped out the heart and soul of these maligned and tragic characters. From their over-romanticized reaction to direct sunlight to the absence of a single pairs of fangs in the film, all the creative team of Twilight succeeded in doing is making these characters the weakest and most pathetic vampires in movie history. I would make a comment about Buffy being able to take care of these poor specimens, but I honestly don’t think she would bother. She’d probably send Xander.

It was glaringly obvious that the movie was made with only one group in mind, the 12-14 year old girls, and if you were not a member of this group, you honestly didn’t matter. This tactic might make for a financially successful film, but the franchise will begin to suffer once its audience grows up between films and they start to be able to do more than just gape at a mysteriously gaunt boy on the big screen. My only hope is the studio learns from the Harry Potter series, which has gotten better and better as the films have gone on and they continue to satisfy the young fans of the books along with their parents and older siblings.

Recommendation: If your hair isn’t currently in pigtails, move along.

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Changeling: Truth and Passion without Power.

Posted by goldwriting on October 26, 2008

“Oh my, ummm…this is awkward. Can I return this one for something a little more, i don’t know, related to me?”

Ranking: 7.5/10

Some people refer to it as the “Oscar curse”, others mention it as “setting the bar too high”, but they all refer to the same phenomenon, once great success is achieved everything from that point forward is compared against it. Few directors still working today know this as well as Clint Eastwood. After winning a number of awards previously, he finally snagged the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture for his 1992 return to the Western, Unforgiven. Twelve years later he reached that height once more in both categories for Million Dollar Baby. With that amount of popularity and acclaim in your wake, critics and audiences begin to develop a particular impression of where your movies will take them. Each time Clint returns to the screen, it is another contest against himself to try and outdo his previous visions. Did it happen this time? Were new peaks reached in power and passion? Let’s find out.

Changeling is based on a true story about a young woman named Christine Collins whose young son was kidnapped in late 1920’s Los Angeles. This took place during a time of great scrutiny and negative press for the police department in LA, so her tragic situation was given an overwhelming amount of news coverage and spotlight. Desperate to garner anything in the form of positive press, the LAPD snatched up any attempt to find her boy, but in that desperate vein they returned to her a young boy who was not her son. Whether it was an honest mistake or collusion on the part of the police force, it didn’t matter, there was no way for them to back out. What followed was a closely guarded cabal of high ranking officers and elected officials who did everything in their power to silence the willful and impassioned young mother still crying for her real son to be brought home.

The story is a powerful one and at times you have remind yourself that it actually took place. The sheer audacity and corruption depicted nearly ruins any suspension of disbelief, but it’s because we live in a different time, a different society. Back then, women still had very few rights and a great deal could still be swept away with a back handed comment about them being “too emotional”. In the past we were still bearing witness to the classic adage of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, which we can still see today if we look closely enough. Clint did a fantastic job translating this desperate tale to the screen, bringing every minuscule detail of the 1920’s – 1930’s Los Angeles back to life. He also continues to handle brutal levels of violence in a sensitive and classic manner, moving the camera away or playing with shadows just enough to let the audience fill in the darkness.

Yet, what a director is truly there for is to direct the actors and bring forth the most honest and pure performances possible. This is where Clint Eastwood is a living, breathing masterpiece. Angelina Jolie brings forth the tremors and troubles of the young mother, Christine Collins. There is no doubt playing this role was incredibly intense for her since she most likely drew from her own much publicized experiences as a mother. She once again glides from reserved, to frantic, to forlorn and lastly to resolute with the grace of an actress much older than her years. The only problem for her was she spent a good deal of the movie emotionally troubled, so there wasn’t very far she could still go by the time of the third act climax. In the end there was a sense of caring for her, but I felt the lack of a distinct moment of undenied connection from the audience. John Malkovich lays the heavy hand of responsibility on the LAPD in his performance as Reverend Gustav Briegleb, a local pastor who made it his main goal in life to bring to light all the criminal and despicable acts the police had committed under the guise of justice. John achieves the powerful and sometimes frightening level of surety and devout belief in his own actions, which is usually the signature of highly influential religious officials. Jeffery Donovan gets the part people either love or hate to play, the character left holding all the blame. As Capt. J.J. Jones, Jeffery scrambles erratically to cover up Christine Collins in any way possible, including having her committed to an insane asylum until she agrees to sign a document absolving the LAPD of any wrongdoing in her case. He definitely reaches deep into this character to bring out the desperation which accompanies his actions, but the one failure here is we can never tell how much he knew from the beginning, exactly how complicit was he, which affects how much the audience can blame him. Yet, with all these big names and accomplished actors in the film, scene after scene is stolen by Jason Butler Harner in the role of Gordon Northcott, a frighteningly imbalanced monster with a penchant for young boys. No matter who he was on screen with, Jason drew all eyes to him and punched his way off the screen into the guts and underbelly of the audience. When nominations are announced next year, I’m not going to be surprised to see some of these names in lights, but Jason is certainly one of the most deserving.

While there are times we complain something on screen is unbelievable or that it could never happen in real life, this film suffers slightly from the opposite effect, what we witness is based on real life, during a particular moment in time. The level of mental, physical and emotional abuse laid upon this woman is not only baffling, but shocking to the idea that it ever took place. The film follows a common structure of your underdog story, one against the many, but in the end I’m not sure whether there was enough retribution to balance out the agony she had been put through. Without that equality between protagonist and antagonist, the film can sometimes feel unfulfilled.

Bottom Line: Fans of Clint Eastwood will like the film, but possibly not love it. It still fails to reach the level of his previous works, but certain performances, specifically from Jason Butler Harner, are truly worth experiencing.

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Body of Lies: Political Punch Without a Point

Posted by goldwriting on October 12, 2008

You mean to tell me the hidden Harry Potter novel is NOT in this folder?

There are certain things a country does when it goes to war, the economy usually booms into action, the populace rally behind the sitting President and Hollywood starts production on films portraying America as the patriotic force of good against whatever evil it is we are currently fighting with. And so it went during the early years of the Iraq War, but as time dragged on everything started to slip away. The economy slid into one of the worst depressions on record, the general populace turned on the sitting President with such vitriol and distaste it is a wonder he’s still in office, and lastly Hollywood began to show another side of the conflict, one where we were not cast in the best of lights. The movie going public usually eats this all up with a popcorn flavored spoon, but eventually there is a line crossed where the audience just doesn’t care anymore. We’ve moved on, the war has become old news and we don’t want to be reminded anymore about how badly we screwed the pooch. But films take a long time to go from start to finish, so this weekend we were graced with one more wartime vision, Body of Lies, this one from greatly acclaimed director Ridley Scott and powerhouse actors Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Russell plays Ed Hoffman, an arrogant, egotistical CIA operative constantly wired to the cell phone in his pocket and somehow managing to pillage information from halfway around the world while still attending his daughter’s soccer game. Leo takes the role of Roger Ferris, the rough edged man on the ground who provides Ed with his intel and carries out whatever orders flow through those encrypted phone lines. As with anyone who stays in those situations for too long, Roger is getting strung out and he starts to wonder if these secret missions and assassinations are really the correct course of action. Ed does what he can to talk sense into him, make him see the bigger picture, but Roger begins to think the two of them are picturing different things. Old loyalties are tested and broken, while new ones are forged in the heat of a silent war. Once again, it’s shown that every man must choose his own destiny and find out what he truly believes.

The main thing getting in the way of this film’s success is the timing. No matter how much action you put in, no matter how much drama you layer over it, the fact remains this is yet another Iraq War movie and the audience just isn’t there anymore. We have grown weary of seeing our enemies, the ones fighting against us and the ones claiming to be fighting for us. There will always be a place for war movies in the annals of cinema, but the market right now has become glutted with them, especially with the extra helping on documentaries on the subject. Deep down we all go to the movie theater to be momentarily distracted from what we see on the news every night and right now the voice of the people is speaking loud and clear on that point.

Yet, even if this movie had been released earlier by three or four years, I’m not sure it would have done much better. Ridley does his best here to set up tension and a good sense of paced action, but with only an hour gone from the opening shot I was already beginning to wonder how long we had left. The film seems to drag itself towards an end, which when it finally arrives has little to no impact. The story lacks a sense of closure, which possible stems from the reality of the situation in Iraq. There is certainly a ride to be had by watching this, but I’m not sure you finish the ride feeling any different than when you got on.

The excitement surrounding Russell and Leo getting to work together was palpable when the casting was first announced, but they both deliver only during certain scenes. Russell relaxes into the skin of Ed Hoffman, a man who can’t be bothered to think about the humanity of his actions because he has the safety of the world on his mind. Yet barely underneath that is his own desire to be recognized as the one who saved it. In particular moments of the film, Russell really flowed with the brimming confidence of Ed, but in other scenes he came off rather uncaring and unmotivated. Leo got a touch luckier in his role because all the drama and conflict really resides in him. He showed some good chops while playing the political game between Ed and the local contacts, but it never came up to the power of Leo’s earlier stuff, like The Basketball Diaries, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or most recently The Departed, which he will forever be measured against. The one person who actually stepped out of the film and truly gave a measure of weight when on screen was Mark Strong, who played Hani the head of the Jordanian Secret Service. His cool demeanor was a translucent mask over an intimidating and unremorseful nature. Hani saw the world very plainly, those who were with him and those who were against him, and you knew which side you wanted to be on.

Recommendation: I can’t honestly say there is much here we haven’t already seen in the last couple of years with films like The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs. If you really want power and performance inside a war story, Ridley is still your man, just go rent Black Hawk Down instead.

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Here are links for two of the posters for the movies I mentioned in this review:

Buy at Art.com
Buy at Art.com

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Burn After Reading: Coen’s Bring Imperfect Wackiness

Posted by goldwriting on September 24, 2008

You mean I can only be nominated for one Oscar at a time? But whyyyyyy???

As September crosses into the present, film critics and aficionados everywhere begin grinning and twitching in excitement. Oscar movies are officially on their way to the nearest silver screen. With the ribbon of quality content being cut, the first expected contender came from the brotherly duo not unfamiliar with the Oscar machine, the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. Fresh off the heels of their Best Directing, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars last year for No Country for Old Men, the cinematic brothers brought us a new chapter in their visual memoirs, Burn After Reading, a throwback to the darkly humorous days of Fargo, which also won them a Best Original Screenplay statue. Into the mix of directorial style and writing finesse we gained the acting skills of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton. Frances McDormand is also along for the ride, but she’s a Coen staple (and also married to half the duo, Joel Coen). This movie had Oscar potential written all over it, so the only question going in was would it live up to the expectations?

Swing…the ball connects…it’s going deep…almost there…awww. Ground rule double.

This is not an Academy award winning film and certainly not one of their best, but still a nice way to slide into the season of quality content over box office boffo. Burn After Reading is a quirky, silly tale following a disc of information thought to contain CIA secrets from a disgraced and angry analyst (Malkovich), which is found in a local gym and tightly grasped by the hands of a woman (McDormand) desperate for money to cover her plastic surgeries. Mostly what the Coen brothers are known for is the depth and creativity of their characters and this film does well to cover the bases on that point. Frances McDormand plays Linda, a terribly pathetic woman so deathly afraid of aging and the current state of her body that she has blinders on to the rest of the world and the happiness it can offer. She brings the solid level of commitment and shine we’ve come to know her for. Brad Pitt joins in with what has to be his silliest and least intelligent character to date, Chad, a constantly hyper-active, exercise fanatic who works with Linda at a gym called Hardbodies. I have to imagine this was a fun role for him to play since he hardly gets to let loose like this anymore, not since 12 Monkeys. He provided a lot of the early humor in the film, but also drops one of the biggest plot twists halfway through. Clooney brings to life Harry, a ex-personal bodygaurd with a penchant for compulsive lying and an addiction to sex. George only gets to be this wacky under the tutelage of the Coen brothers, so even while it’s not his best work by any means, it’s a fun reminder that he can indeed get goofy with the rest of the gang. Tilda plays the ice queen wife of Malkovich, while also having an affair with Clooney. Watching her in this role, along with some others, I wonder when her picture will be included in the dictionary next to “emasculating”. Not to be left out of any discussion about over-the-top characters, Malkovich plays his part to the hilt, but I honestly feel his best moments are in the opening scene. There’s not much of an arc for him, so only seeing him come to life early on really provides any surprise and unseen moments.

Burn plays inside the footprints of Fargo, but never quite catches up to it. The Coens obviously know their craft and continue to put material out there with their own voice and character stamp, but this film felt a little like a step back for them. Maybe it was just a way to resettle into the dark comedy they are known for after their detour into heavy drama with No Country. Also running parallel to this is the question of the marketing campaign. Again the trailer was cut in a fashion to show one type of movie, but once you were in the theater it became something different, not wildly so, but still there is a distinct shift in tone from wacky comedy to dark comedy, and sometimes those audiences don’t mix well. It’s like seeing a trailer for Police Academy and getting Rushmore. Two great tastes that taste awful together.

Recommendation: If you’re a devout fan, you’ve already seen it anyway. If you’re on the fence, wait until video. If you’re completely on the other side of the fence, you still read this far anyway? I’ll take that as a compliment. Thanks. 🙂

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Step Brothers: Kids laughing, Kids crying, Kids getting beat up by adults.

Posted by goldwriting on July 29, 2008

I don’t know why or how, but Ryan Seacrest has totally hypnotized me.

Another weekend came along and you know what that means? Of course you do, it’s another comedy somehow associated with Judd Apatow. Within the last two to three years it is an inescapable fact; 65% of all laughter is attributed to this one man, along with 47% of newly coined sex jokes. He is the reigning golden boy of the comedy world and his latest stab at the laugh track to hit the screens is Step Brothers. Judd Apatow did reel himself back to only a producing credit, but we can all rest assured that even his name being attached got the greenlight to glow just a tad bit brighter.

Step Brothers is the story of Dale and Brennan, two grown men still living with their respective parents and forced to live together when their parents get remarried. Picture the Brady Bunch, but only one boy on each side who just happens to be 40-ish years old. Not the most original idea in the world, but this movie doesn’t rely on the plot to get people into those theater seats. It relies solely on the comedic talents of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, who play Brennan and Dale respectively. Will also co-wrote the story with John and director Adam McKay, while Will and Adam finished out the actual screenplay. Usually I’m not a huge fan of the actors having such a big part of the writing process, unless it was something they wrote years before, but in this case what you get is an extra sense of camaraderie from our two bumbling heroes. John and Will play off each other to such an amazing extent you might begin to feel the whole film is done in improv. Everything comes off as an instant reaction, exactly the way a twelve-year-old boy would react, which just happens to be where their emotional maturity is in this film. Both actors hit home runs on a number of the comedic beats and it was especially nice to see Will Ferrell hitting on all cylinders once again, after some heavy missteps in Kicking and Screaming, Bewitched and Semi-Pro. As for Jon, he proved once again why so many love working with him, because he commits to every little second he is on screen.

Now, sad to say, the strength of their characters is also the one problem in the movie. The first half-hour is fun, watching these grown men talk and act like pre-teens, but that trick gets a little dry mid-way through the film and it starts to stretch the disbelief a touch too far. The characters of the parents have a tough situation since they have to ride the line between showing love and compassion for their children and yet treating them like grown men. That dicotimy proved not only tough for the actors, but also for the audience. Eventually it just felt too unbelievable that these two characters could exist, not only in the world of this film, but anywhere.

The writing is strong and a good portion of the film is clever, humorous and in a few places surprisingly hilarious, but it never reached the level of the comedies we have been graced with over the past few years, like Anchorman, 40-Year-Old Virgin or Superbad. Apatow has mined diamonds from the creative caves in his head, but it is possible by becoming the golden boy of comedy, he might be the one man glut for laughers in the coming years. Does the bar still get set too high if you’re the one that set it? I guess we shall see soon enough. He’s got seven movies under his production skills for next year alone, even one more this year as well. Although that does sound like a lot, just remember, he’s bound to hit you with a really good dick joke somewhere. That should be enough to get at least one viewing.

Recommendation: Great performances, not necessarily a “rush to see in the theater” flick. Netflix + your buddies + drinks, that should be a good formula for this.

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