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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

P2 (dir. Franck Khalfoun)


Since the earliest days of cinema, the woman in jeopardy has been a narrative staple. From the perils experienced by Pauline to the quid pro quo of Clarice Starling’s interaction with a certain serial killer, the seemingly helpless female has been perfect thriller protagonist fodder since nitrate was first silvered. They get the audience interested, tweaking both the paternal and maternal instincts among viewers. Some have even suggested a much meaner, misogynistic explanation for such story structures. Ever since the slasher film in the ‘80s, gals have been garroted for reasons that have remained insular and disturbing. Even when eventually empowered, there tends to be a viciousness toward our heroine that’s almost inexcusable. Even in cases like P2, where our lead is obviously much smarter and more controlled than our craven psychopath, there’s a backwards blame game being played that just doesn’t seem fair.


It’s Christmas Eve, and go getting executive Angela Bridges is stuck smoothing out the wrinkles of an important client contract. In constant contact with her eager to celebrate family, and warding off the wounded pride of office lothario Bob, all she wants to do is get finished, get home, and get partying. Unfortunately, when she finally makes it to the parking garage and her car, the darn thing won’t start. Even worse, the creepy facility security guard, a guy named Thomas, keeps asking her to stay for his own personal holiday dinner. Without warning, she is suddenly kidnapped and confined. Apparently, Thomas is far from harmless. In fact, he apparently wants to be “friends” with his longtime obsession, and he’s not about to take “No” for an answer. It will take cunning and courage to escape this unhinged villain, and to make matters worse, the entire building is locked down tight. It’s just Angela, Thomas, his vicious Rottweiler, and any unfortunate bystander that gets in their way.


P2 is the perfect example of a thermostat style thriller. It keeps its superficial suspense percolating at just the right level throughout its entire 96 minutes of its running time, only stopping on occasion to let the dread’s temperature ebb and subside a few empty degrees now and then. It doesn’t go the rollercoaster route, and it’s unsure about the proper ratio of goofiness to gore. But when you’ve sat through a wealth of grade-Z genre schlock, films that wouldn’t know thrills and/or chills if they rose up from the grave and bit them in their lofty ambitions, this first time feature from Alexandre Aja protégé Franck Khalfoun is an authentic attempt at terror. Certainly it stumbles along the way, and someone needed to inform bad guy Wes Bentley that juvenilia and joking doesn’t really equal insanity, but for the most part, this by the book boo fest serves up some engaging shivers.


As they did with the fabulous slice and dice Haute Tension—Aja, producing pal Grégory Levasseur, and Khalfoun all contributed to this script—these French film geeks are out to prove that they know movie macabre. They’ve studied it, absorbed the many fright flick nuances, and found a way to tweak them just enough to bring the standard stereotypes and formulas into the cynical contemporary era. There is nothing really new here, no attempt at rewriting the rules or deconstructing the format. But sometimes a hoary old cliché can come bubbling back to life if handled in a respectful and direct manner—and this describes P2 perfectly. It’s all creepy cat and mouse for about an hour and a half, a by the numbers knuckle biter that delivers the fake shocks, the ineffectual rescues, and the last act beat down we’ve come to expect.


Part of the reason why P2 doesn’t aim (or reach) higher is its less than impressive cast. Don’t get the wrong impression—Rachel Nichols’ Angela and Bentley’s Thomas are professional and far from distracting. Each tries to bring something new to what are basically cardboard cutouts (overworked type-A corporate pawn, insane lowlife stalker), and without much success in that category, still keep us quite interested. It could have something to do with Khalfoun’s direction. There is a purposeful pace to P2, a story structure that moves determinedly through each and every marker on the horror horizon. Getting there may be half the fun, but what happens once we arrive is guaranteed to give you only the most minor amount of goosebumps.


If you’re expecting Haute Tension 2, however, or another dose of overdone gorno (got to love the studios’ bandwagon tendency with even the most mindless of movie trends) P2 will leave you rather disenchanted. What Aja did with his revisionist slasher (and what he managed in the otherwise perfunctory Hills Have Eyes remake) is clarify the potency of certain fear factors. From an unseen force of pure evil that is only glimpsed in small doses to a last act twist that was both predictable and prescient, we were guided through a geek’s official terror talking points. The difference here is that Khalfoun is clearly locked in apprentice mode. He can get away with some solid setpieces (like the fate of the aforementioned Bob), but there are times when the film appears to fade away. And since he’s not trying to bring anything new to the discussion, there’s no novelty to keep things focused and fresh.


Still, in a genre that stumbles more than it soars, where your average camcorder creator can’t figure out a way to properly dredge up the dread, P2 is perfectly reasonable. It doesn’t demand much and gives just slightly more than same in return. It does argue for Aja’s growing status as a horror maestro, and that his sphere of influence is capable, if still a bit basic. Don’t let other macabre marginalizing critics convince you that there are not some solid scarefest pleasures to be had here. They are viewing said subject through some decidedly biased eyes. Take the word of a fellow aficionado of fright—P2 is pretty decent. Not the most glowing of recommendations, but then again, this isn’t the most original of woman in peril plotlines—or motion pictures.


 



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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

FRED CLAUS (dir. David Dobkin)


Christmas is a mess. It’s not sacrilegious to say it. Between the remaining religious significance, the retail desire to cram the celebration down our throats earlier and earlier, and the ‘ME! ME! ME!’ sense of materialization and entitlement, it’s hard to figure out a proper yuletide reaction. There is still a lot of inherent magic in the holiday, but there’s an ever increasing amount of grief, gratuity, and groveling too. Alt-rock darlings Low provide the perfect analogy to the season with their Gap Ad special—a cover version of the classic “Little Drummer Boy”. Applying a shoe-gazing slowness to the track, and amplifying the angst by using a single sample from Goblin’s soundtrack for the George Romero zombie stomp Dawn of the Dead, they captured the sullied season in a nutshell. Oddly enough, David Dobkin’s Fred Claus is a similarly styled mixed message. It takes the standard Noel and gives it a good old tweak in the tinsel.


Ever since he was a boy, Fred had to live in the sainted shadow of his practically perfect younger sibling Nicholas. As they aged, the constant doting of their mother and the growing gregarious nature of little “Santa” finally got to his big brother. Irritation turned to ire, and when a prized possession is suddenly destroyed, Fred decides he no longer needs the Claus clan. He winds up in the Windy City, playing repo man. While his woman Wanda puts up with his issues, it’s street kid Slam that really appreciates his cynical poses. After getting arrested in a charity scam, Fred looks for someone to bail him out. Sadly, only Santa is available. He agrees to help his distant relative on one condition—he must come to the North Pole and work in his little brother’s toy concern. Initially reluctant, Fred signs on, and it’s a good thing too, since evil Efficiency Expert Clyde Northcutt has just arrived—and he’s looking to put the jolly old elf out of business.


Fred Claus is the perfect post-millennial holiday film. It’s funny, smart, wicked, warm, and above all, completely clued-in to our growing crass commercialization of Christmas. It’s a movie steeped in mythos, overflowing with heart, and devilishly deceptive about its contrasting seasonal dichotomy. On the one hand, the narrative wants to champion a theme of “no bad children”, arguing that Santa’s outdated “naughty or nice” judgment misses the much bigger picture. Yet there’s an equally effective subtext which hints that such touchy feely pronouncements have ruined the real spirit of the holiday, a time when giving was based on your approach to life the other 364 days out of the year, not just your status as an annual gift machine. While it may not have been the intention of director David Dobkin, Fred Claus exposes the layers of fake sentiment that tends to destroy every celebration. Instead, he boils Christmas down to its iconic basics—snow, Santa, smiling faces—and then encloses it all in a veil of dysfunction which wants to mirror everyday existence. 


Oddly enough, it’s not Vince Vaughn’s Fred who’s the main culprit. He’s supposed to corrupt our silent night. Capable of playing both way big and too small, he’s just right here—angry but approachable, selfish but not completely self-centered. And Kevin Spacey’s Nortcutt is not the killjoy either. Granted, he’s the stereotypical bureaucrat that manages to stamp out the joy of such a season (he could kill a kitten’s inherent cuteness), but he’s nothing but a bully, a plot point waiting for its comeuppance. Other potential suspects include Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson), the very definition of a silent shrew, and the perplexed parents (Kathy Bates and Brit Trevor Peacock) who dote on their gift giving offspring without once considering Fred’s feelings. So who’s the biggest baddy of them all in this film filled with potential problem makers? Why Santa of course.


Fred Claus’s single genius stroke is to make Paul Giamatti’s interpretation of the Christmas fixture a flailing, neurotic mess. Old St. Nick is a walking disaster, a stressed out soul who’s eating away his troubles. As a child, we see how, sometimes, Santa was misguided in his decisions. He believes he can gift issues away, and as he grows older, he keeps toys away from deserving kids because he won’t make quota if everyone gets a present. While it’s very sly and almost too subtle, Dobkin delivers a red suited symbol who’s at the end of his rope. He’s just a single bad business report from going postal—and Fred may be the fuel to start such a shooting spree. Of course, Fred Claus never careens that far over into bleak black comedy, but a great many of the gags here are definitely based in anger, desperation, and interpersonal shame.


Certainly this is not a perfect film. A tiny elf character named Willy, essayed by Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins, is about as convincing as the CGI used to render his miniature status. We know he lusts after the human sized Charlene, but his motives are really unclear. Similarly, there’s a lot of unexplored potential in the tiny DJ played by rapper Ludicris. The talented artist is more or less wasted in what amounts to an uncreative cameo. There are scenes that don’t really go anywhere (an intervention with Fred falls flat) and Oscar winning actress Rachel Weisz is a weird choice for a Chicago meter maid. Her relationship with Fred is fine, but her presence in the US is never explained. Some could argue that for a funny business fantasy that intends to do nothing more than make you laugh and enliven your spirit, Fred Claus need not be flawless. But when there’s so much good material surrounding them, the miscues are more than evident.


Still, it’s hard to hate a Christmas movie that allows Roger Clinton, Stephen Baldwin, and Frank Stallone to riff on and rip on their far more famous siblings, and there is a wonderful montage toward the end that effortlessly captures the reasons for the season. And thanks to the bifurcated back and forth, the constant countermanding of wholesomeness with hackwork, tradition with the tainted and the tasteless, we wind up with a reflection of post-millennial holiday cheer. Some will come in expecting Bad Santa meshed with Wedding Crashers, but Fred Claus is friendlier, more away in a manger manageable than such a hard R conceit would create. This is truly a family film, albeit it one that acknowledges that you too hate the annual ridiculousness of such forced reunions. If Xmas has become a royal pain in the credit, this highly enjoyable romp knows the reasons why. Somewhere along the line, we lost the true meaning of decking the halls. Fred Claus won’t help you rediscover the significance, but it will make forgetting a whole lot more understandable.




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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

SLEUTH (dir. Kenneth Branagh)


The true star of Sleuth, the remake of the 1970’s cat and mouse thriller, isn’t its up to date A-list cast. Michael Caine, playing the role originally essayed by Sir Laurence Olivier, is a decent enough heavy, and Jude Law, inhabiting Caine’s old part, is an equally adept dandy. Together, they forge a unique performance unit that literally grabs the screen. Nor is it the work of playwright/literary lord Harold Pinter. While off his typical linguistic game by a few disadvantage points (he is adapting another’s work, after all), his exchanges percolate with the type of tongue twisting that makes theater types gush. Nor is it the sterile modernity of Tim Harvey’s production design. It may look like Caine’s Andrew Wyke lives in a funhouse version of Hitler’s bunker, but it’s really a contemporary ruse, a way of making the conventional seem unreal and daunting.


No, the real featured performer here is a typically unsung hero known as Kenneth Branagh’s camera. It zips and zings, floating around large spaces and creeping around corners. It stays stoic and stationary when needed, and flips itself over like a puppy wanting attention when the narrative needs a creative spark. Constantly upstaging the rest of the cast, and reminding us over and over that we are watching a stogy, old fashioned stage play, Branagh’s loopy lens is indeed the best part of Sleuth. Everything else is just plain pointless. While it’s hard to imagine a battle of wits between war horse Caine and stud muffin Law to be anything other than kinetic, this exceedingly uninspired update of the 1972 original provides the perfect argument for leaving old cinema well enough alone. While the previous incarnation was far from perfect, this adaptation makes it look like a classic from the Old Vic.


When our sticky narrative begins, we meet Andrew Wyke, a successful crime author. Having learned that his wife is cuckolding him with a two bit actor/ hairdresser named Milo Tindle, he invites the bloke over for a sit down. Our young stud is glad to have the confrontation. He wants the Missus all to himself. But Wyke won’t give up without a fight, and he stages an elaborate trick in which he threatens the young man. The fatal results spell doom for this rich writer’s freedom—or do they? Perhaps this too is part of another elaborate ruse meant to scare Wyke into admitting the adultery and losing his wife forever. Whatever the case, it’s clear that these two men don’t like each other. The victor will most likely be the individual that has the gumption to go all the way—even as far as prison.


There are three basic things wrong with this remake (or as Branagh has noted, ‘reimagining’). The first is the decision to dump most of Anthony Schaffer’s original plotting. Sure, the set-up is the same, the cheated on husband, the dashing if slightly dumb lover, the surreal sense of one-upmanship between the two, the elaborate plot twists and interconnect charade. But where Pinter and Branagh break from tradition is as profound as it is perplexing. First off, most of Wyke’s infidelity is out. There is a hint, but we really sense he adores his trophy spouse. Second, there’s a last act turn toward talky desperation. It’s as if, after delivering two tripwire segments, everyone decided on something hackneyed and senseless for a finale. It really reeks of a massive screenplay stumble and practically destroys all that came before. 


Next is the Act II twist. Of course, in order to discuss it, we need to include a SPOILER ALERT. When Jude Law shows up in disguise as the gruff and smelly cop, he’s about as convincing as a high schooler embodying Willy Loman. There is just too much of the charismatic actor under all the greasepaint and fake features for us to buy the flim flam. And the back and forth between Wyke and this bogus bobby seems to ‘drag’ on forever. Long before our characters uncover the gag, we are bored waiting for said shoe to drop. The final facet that fails to connect is the homosexual angle. Again, another SPOILER is mandatory. In this version of the play, Wyke invites Tindle to be his “traveling companion” around the world, describing all the non-erotic male bonding they can experience while living together and sharing a bed. Apart from sounding like a Hays Code version of same sex innuendo, the veiled references aimed at maximizing intrigue end up resulting in unsettled aggravation. 


It clearly can’t be a matter of cinematic courage. We’ve grown up a lot in the last 50 years, and Caine even engaged in an eyebrow raising liplock with a male costar before, in the like minded motion picture puzzle box Death Trap. But just like everything else in Sleuth, even the most scandalous material is measured and antiseptic. In fact, most of the movie is as devoid of color and character as Wyke’s warship gray homestead. Branagh braves a lot of possible criticism for tampering with what ended up being Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s last film. The director, noted for such Tinsel Town treasures as All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, and Suddenly, Last Summer, would have never sold his story out this way. Instead, he would have challenged convention and deconstructed the essence of Schaeffer’s opus. Branagh, instead, simply guts the beast and sets it up in a new, high tech trench for all to see.


And the view isn’t very viable at all. While some of the scenes crackle with the kind of thespian fireworks we expect from such bright British lights, Sleuth is claustrophobic and cold, more a mausoleum than an actual movie—and it’s equally strewn with the corpses of the past and their unfriendly ghosts. Perhaps if Law had been replaced with someone sturdier, say Daniel Day Lewis or Ewan McGregor. Maybe if Pinter had polished the knotty narrative to the point of a high, histrionic strewn gloss. It could be that Branagh has made the very opposite of a thriller—a movie that doesn’t fray the nerves as much as recognize their biological importance and then politely moves on. There is great tension here, but also great tediousness. During the days when Dame Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap was the longest running show in theater history, this kind of heavy handed antagonist byplay found favor with an audience. But in a Saw born environment, to be obvious is to be obsolete.


Still, that camera carries on. It gets in close to see Law’s fake teeth and Caine’s conniving eyes. It follows action from various surveillance set-ups, giving the movements a video game like quality. It reveals secrets and hinders clues. But most of all, it announces itself as easily the best element of what is otherwise a magnificent misfire. As mysteries go, it’s mindless and quite inconsequential. As a lesson in applying lenses, Sleuth manages a bit of relevancy—if only a bit. 



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Wednesday, Nov 7, 2007


It’s hard to ignore it, especially if you’re a student of the medium. Film, while still the number one format for most fledgling auteurs, is losing ground. Slowly but surely, at the fringes of the industry and within the outsider dominion, celluloid is being replaced by the binary. Thanks to DVD, advances in computer technology, the shrinking cost of moviemaking equipment, and an eager pipeline of cinephiles desperate for something different, a punk-like DIY spirit has gripped the wannabe Welles of the artform and has turned everyone – from the most accomplished visionary to the most horrifying hack – into their own determined De Mille. While some would argue that the art form is undergoing one of the most important revolutions since sound sunk the silents, the camcorder has a long way to go before it can claim a coup.


As an example of truly independent filmmaking, the current breed of homemade artisans isn’t really achieving anything novel. For decades, individuals with Super 8 cameras, friends in local universities or rental outlets, or perhaps a basic videotape set up, have been crafting cinema – or something close to it. They’ve relied on imagination, determination, and a collective ideal that sees the like minded gang up to give the format an infusion of necessary new blood. While the cost could be controlled, there were other prohibited measures that kept many from making their stand. With the death of exploitation (a genre where almost anyone could get a week long run at some Podunk passion pit) and prior to the birth of the affordable VCR, there were very few ways to get a film distributed. Even worse, if you were lucky enough to find an acquiescing shill, months (or even years) of hard work could be marginalized, and then MIA, in the breech of a contract.


The growing popularity of the VHS format changed some of this. Suddenly, the creation of a crude, movie-like entertainment could be achieved. Though aesthetically limited, the beginner could simulate cinema without having to jump through the nepotistic hoops and technical specifications of an actual career in the industry. Even better, the cost was commiserate to what many would-be directors could afford. While the equipment was bulky and hard to maintain, and the end results paled in comparison to even the most poorly shot stag film, the first volley in the soon to be salvo against the Hollywood mainstream mentality was in place. Even better, home video opened up an important public perception. It let the everyday individual, someone not possessed of their own projector or screening room, determine when and how they were to be entertained.


The VCR indeed began the democratization of film. It removed the “see it now or never again” sense that surrounded most Tinsel Town fare. Granted, the result of such a surge in retail revivalism meant that the medium was simultaneously celebrated and diluted. The ability to revisit an old favorite in the comfort of one’s home led to a greater appreciation of the classics. But with studios slow to embrace the change (based in nothing but money, naturally) and the independent’s seeing a legitimizing light at the end of their travails tunnel, the entertainment equilibrium was destroyed. From the moment you could buy a copy of Star Wars for $120 at some high end New York specialty emporium, people outside the business felt empowered. In the war for the art form, magnetic tape was the Gatling gun.


In that regard, the digital versatile disc became a multi-megaton nuclear bomb. An offshoot of the CD and the growing Asian fascination with the video version – or VCD – of same, the purpose of the new format was simple: use the increased storage space and clarity of the analog-less transfer and deliver theater quality images to a hibernating home theater crowd. When DVD came along, VHS sales were flat. Laserdisc had proven that there was an audience (albeit it a rather elitist and picky demographic) for replicating the big screen experience. Almost instantaneously, film fans dumped their clunky collection of fading, glitch-ridden tapes and embraced the sleek, sci-fi like system. Within 10 years, the VCR was officially a dinosaur and even the most cinematically stunted was celebrating the little aluminum disc’s wealth of wonders.


The importance of DVD cannot be overstated. It arrived on the heals of home computing’s power, a strength supported by the MP3, the introduction of localized broadband and cable Internet access, and the ever, extending scope of a PC’s internal power. Where once, memory was measured in mega-bite, the gig was becoming the norm, and as the think tanks tricked out their desktops, finding ways of turning their tunes portable, the focus slowly shifted to film. Once again, the digitization of information in combination with a drop in price made technology more accessible than ever. And once you have the ability to use a new toy, you naturally want to expand its range of realization. Thus laptop editing and other post-production software started cropping up. The stage was set for a Bastille storming celebration.


Of course, there was a significant factor missing from the discussion – talent. There are many who believe, rightly or wrongly, that access hinders the gifted, that if only given a chance, almost anyone could succeed within the proper symbolic support. On the other hand, there is another argument that states, rather succinctly, that skill and acumen always win out. Call it the proverbial cream rising, but without a gift, mainstreaming of any art leads to mediocrity. When filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Lloyd Kaufman argued that technology would save cinema, they had a very valid point. But without actual artists behind the newfangled lens, the same old junk would end up in the DVD-R drive.


That’s why, so far, the digital revolution has been one of quantity, not quality. Since anyone can buy a computer, a camcorder, and a rack of recordable medium, the movie monopoly middleman is no longer necessary. Yet one of the functions that the unenlightened suits regularly performed was the mandatory thinning of the ranks. While DVD lets anyone who wants it access to the corridors of creative power, the sad fact is that many making their way down said hall have no business being there. In fact, with very few exceptions, the art form’s digital dissidents have failed to make much of a splash on the big stage. Instead, they have so far only managed the most middling of victories.


If compartmentalizing genres into their easily micromanaged basics and preaching to a purposefully determined demographic (horror fan, sex farce aficionado) can be considered a triumph, then this neo-revolution can claim a minor sense of accomplishment. Unless you consider that famous Hollywood filmmakers like Michael Mann and David Lynch have embraced the sleek, ambient look of millennial medium, digital has been so far reduced to a delivery system. Filmmakers like George Lucas and Robert Zemekis have stated that, until theaters are equipped with special projectors that replicate the celluloid experience without the need for analog transfer, celluloid will remain the moviemaking model for decades to come. And this is from men who fully believe in the new guard.


Ability, however, will be the definitive deciding factor. The public will determine digital’s viability, and right now, the pickings are slim to say the least. Currently, most outsider artists tend to replicate their favorite film style – horror, comedy, horror, drama, horror… - and do so in a way that simply substitutes handheld cinematography for a big screen sense of scope. They’re not out to set trends or buck the system so much as make a name for themselves and get a window seat on the plane ride to fame and fortune. Distributors are more than happy to help them along said rose-colored path. A company like Lionsgate will buy up almost any hackneyed camcorder macabre, re-title it, slap a snappy bit of cover art on the case, and advertise it as the “new face of terror”. Of course, once the poor sucker who bought/rented sees what’s inside, that overwhelming sense of being conned creeps in.


The problem is obvious. For every Giuseppe Andrews, actor turned auteur who is deconstructing cinema in a manner similar to Godard and Truffaut, there’s a billion Blair Witch wannabes who think that moviemaking is as simple as playing the lottery – and DVD and its technical ease of access have rigged the results in their favor. Sadly, the truth is far more telling. Even avant-garde antagonist Lynch was raked over the coals when his INLAND EMPIRE proved to be nothing more than a director’s home movies strung out for nearly three hours (at least, that’s how some saw it). If innovation and imagination can’t accompany access, then there is no hope for real change. Audiences will grow antsy no matter the format – overstuffed celluloid blockbuster or naval gazing camcorder crudity.


So it looks like the revolution will be digitized, if and when the rebels catch up to their ambitions and intentions. There are some marvelous examples of the medium out there, movies like The Legend of God’s Gun and The Blood Shed that really capture the daunting DIY spirit and channel it into something truly astounding. These are films that find their insurgence in ideas, the new tech specs are just a way of delivering their creative conceits to the masses. It’s not the medium that’s making the change, it’s the minds behind it. It was true a half century ago, and it’s true now. CDs didn’t make popular music better, or more culturally relevant. They just gave greater entrance to those outside the cocooned conglomerates. Whenever a new voice is finally heard, it is rarely judged on its entrance. The power to change is inherent in art. Getting into the gallery and access to paints are only the beginning of the battle.


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Tuesday, Nov 6, 2007


Upon reflection, it’s interesting that the WGA – the Writers Guild of America – has decided to go on strike. It’s not that these studio scribes don’t have their rights, and the ability to properly execute them, in order to protect their Union and their honor. And no one would argue that the new media – the Internet, downloads, DVDs, and future formats – need their residual and fee structures reviewed and settled. But there’s a bewildering lack of vision here, something that goes to the very heart of what’s happening to cinema in general. While it may seem harsh to say it, somebody needs to – screenwriters are screwing up the artform.


Now part of this is proactive. Mediocrity can be found all over the movies, from journeyman directors who wouldn’t know creativity if it bit them in the Rob Schneider cameo, to underage actors who lack the life experience to successfully tap into their supposed sense memory. But even the most accomplished and rewarded A-List performer can be paralyzed by directionless dialogue, pointless plot twists, and incomplete thematic elements. The late, great Gene Siskel once said that a vast majority of the bad film he experienced failed in the script stage – and by the look of many in 2007’s underachieving cinematic class, it’s the reason large entertainment ambitions have resulted in such mediocre motion picture product.


First, a clarification. Only the most naïve of film fan believes that a writer’s words arrive onscreen unscathed. Between studio input, director vision, actor interpretation, pre-production doctoring and punch-ups, onset skirmishes, focus group fine tuning, test screening comments, last minute reshoots, and MPAA mandated cuts, it’s hard to imagine how anything someone puts on paper makes it to celluloid unaltered. Insider stats have illustrated that approximately 40% of what the author of a screenplay creates lasts until the final phases of moviemaking. And while that number might seem high, the truth is that it takes into consideration the writer/director combo that uses such a status to protect their work. Without them, the number is rumored to be closer to 20%.


So, sometimes, it’s not all the scripts fault. But let’s take a look at the notion of film writing from a bigger perspective. When a political thriller like Rendition is greenlit, someone obviously sees the potential in the project. They read the words of an untried, unproven Kelley Sane, and start to do some immediate mental casting. Two years later, Reese Witherspoon is carrying her post-Oscar baggage as your lead, Jake Gyllenhaal is your hunky CIA scrub, and the entire Arab world is a group of flash paper fanatics just waiting for the right religious rationale to suicide bomb the planet. Toss in some gratuitous torture, a subpar subplot involving star-crossed Muslim lovers, and the pitch meeting prose practically creates itself.


Too bad Sane didn’t let the screenplay do the same thing. While the jumbled narrative approach taken by director Gavin Hood couldn’t have helped matters much, one senses it was part of this scribe’s original intent. After all, when we learn the truth at the end, and realize the actual time frame of the events we’ve been watching, there’s supposed to be some manner of emotional and intellectual epiphany. Unfortunately, it all ends up playing like one giant joke, a gratuitous gag that treats the audience as children. Apparently, viewers can’t handle a straightforward story of Middle East policy failures and citizen torture. The tale has to be gussied up with unimportant tangents to keep the pea-brained viewer in constant check.


It’s a similar situation with the sappy and stupendously maudlin Things We Lost in the Fire. Foreign filmmaker Susanne Bier took the scattered script by feature first-timer Alan Loeb and tried to distill as much meaning and emotion from it as she could. But there is no doubt that when looking at the reality of a widow and her late husband’s heroin addicted best friend shacking up under one overpriced roof, the mind behind Fox’s one hour drama New Amsterdam failed to fully grasp the psychological or logistical flaws in such a set up. Disconnected, overflowing with pointless flashbacks, and dizzying in the number of motivational inconsistencies, it was as if Loeb looked up the worst facets of melodrama and decided to incorporate each and every one – and do a piss poor job in the process.


From El Cantante, which took the biopic format and then stupidly shifted the focus away from the central subject (salsa superstar Hector LaVoe) to Feast of Love, where big picture pronouncements about love and life were weirdly wedged into a Terms of Endearment tearjerker, scripts undermined many a Hollywood heavyweight. But there are also incidents where a screenplay suffers from the opposite problem. Instead of being insufficient indicators of a story’s true intent, they are overwritten maelstroms that fail to make their point in profound – or even an appreciable – manner. In the case of these purposefully pompous efforts, the more words and ideas on the page, the less success the end result.


Take the upcoming Lions for Lambs. If polemics were pastries, every attending audience member would be in danger of instantaneous obesity. Robert Redford directed this dopey debate like the stagiest play in the history of one set theater, and then made it even more bombastic by turning a liberal leaning eye on the entire Iraq/Middle East equation. Of course, The Kingdom scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan apparently decided to reverse the fine work he did on said Peter Berg directed action thriller. Instead of enlivening his preachy monologues with some manner of movement, he simply wrote his screeds and let the filmmakers find a way to make it sizzle. In Redford’s mind, this meant keeping everything inert and absolutely sedentary. Even our army men spend the majority of their screen time supine.   


Sadly, something that could have been a significant anti-war statement comes off like Vietnam for the easily impressed. Toss out a few figures, give the characters enough personal history to soften their manipulative moralizing, pepper it all with “We Hate Bush” blame, and the end result should look like Platoon from the politician’s point of view. Instead, it’s a horrible unfocused mess – just like the deconstructionist Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In a genre that’s seen more reinvention than Madonna in mid midlife crisis, this adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel by Australian Andrew Dominik is like a mini-series micromanaged down to John Jakes sized scribblings. It’s so desperate to capture every facet of the book upon which it was based, and the era when it is set, that it ends up marginalizing the myth it is hoping to create.


It’s not that the movie doesn’t have its moments, it simply has far too many of them. When we realize that Dominik’s take on the material will be more 19th century fame whoring and stalking than hammy horse operatics, our heart leaps. But then we are bogged down with side characters, ancillary subplots, tangents that never pay off, and an ending that literally forgets the meaning of that word. While some have championed this effort as a thoughtful, expressive look at the celebrity of the day, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is fifteen films all vying for cinematic relevance. Only half of one manages to maintain its position.


Certainly each example described can be argued over and supported. There are critics who claim that Lions for Lambs is a pointed and balanced presentation of the War on Terror, while Things We Lost in the Fire is an amazingly deep and affecting story of hope. Yes, that voice you hear in the background is indeed the late Jim Jones, and he’s got a supersized Kool-Aid Slurpee with your name on it. The truth is, ever since Akiva Goldsman became the bearer of Oscar Gold, when Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were given the same Academy consideration, when Paul Haggis can pull 47 intertwined clichés out of his tuckus and still be considered the cream of the crop, there is something wrong with this print picture.


Perhaps if the writers were striking over aesthetics instead of cash, they’d gain more sympathy. The industrial unions figured this out in the ‘80s. Now, when they go to the mat during negotiations, it’s over USA friendly facets like job security, trade protection, imports and tariffs, and the scourge of outsourcing. If a few extras greenbacks result from such bait and switch strategies, all the better. Honestly, if a spokesman for the WGA got up and said something like “we demand that management recognize the autonomy of the author”, if they went on to whine, “We want failed SNL comics to stop adlibbing their own lame lines. We seek redress for every instance when a clueless bunch of demographically specific viewers alter our narrative arch. We want a halt to all script doctoring and authorship by committee. We will except nothing less than the same respect and creative control you give your best directors, your superstar performers, and your high profile producers.”, they’d have our hearts and minds. Currently, it’s pennies for DVDs. 


Writers have always been the third class citizens of the creative conspiracy known as film. Harlan Ellison often argued that the reason he stayed away from all forms of visual media was that, the minute you signed the contract, the studios saw the exchange of cash as the end of the writer’s worth. Even in arenas (Star Trek, Babylon 5) where his input was appreciated, he was viewed as a pushy, persistent pariah. While their paychecks might not reflect it, at least not since the rightly named Greed Decade made the screenwriter as marketable as the movie itself (Joe Eszterhas! Shane Black!), what the members of the WGA really need is a boost of artistic integrity. As long as they keep churning out chum, any call for more moolah will seem like the blind leading the avaricious. And they control the core of the artform. Maybe it’s the audience that should stage a walkout.


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