Monday, November 20

Thanks, G-man

From Garrison Keillor's The Writers' Almanac and in turn from "Helicopter Shots (for Malene)" by Louise Vale.
I love helicopter shots.
Slooping over early-morning Washington
in a drink-tilt...
For the entire, entertaining poem, click the title of this post, and find Monday, November 20, 2006.

Monday, November 13

Little Children: Throat-grabbing catharsis

After reading Tom Perotta's Little Children eighteen months ago, nothing about it made me think "movie." This is why the gods gave us Todd Field and his producers. In fact, there was a lot of interest in the book as a property before it swam onto the popular sonar. But, according to Field, things heated up after that. Perotta's Election made a terrific cult movie and he has written for the screen before.

My excuse for not spotting the potential in Little Children is, well, doctrine. The central pair of characters do not know what they want. This is the idiot's first lesson of what's wrong with your screenplay: character has no desire; goal is not concrete. I can hear the complaints already. I'll stipulate that in a brainy parsing of character motivation - alright, fine - you could argue that the set of obscure desires that Brad and Sara pursue are real, but submerged and purused subconsciously. Novels excel at this kind of story. Perotta's is one. But this is not a story made for Hollywood.

But in the third act, which is far from happy, characters are startled from their psychic sleep by emotional or physical violence. Each of them wades back into the mess of their lives, not better but no longer fleeing its limitations. Having heard interviews with Todd Field about the movie, he has given us what the book gives us: characters who are admirable and compromised. And that's what makes the end of the story so compelling. Brad, Sara, Larry, and Ronald are headed toward a bad end. But when they arrive, they do their level best, which turns out to be enough to keep them from ruining others' lives and their own.

Here is a fine pair of bookend moments. Early in the movie, Brad joins a late-night football league as the quarterback of the local policemen's team, the Guardians. They face off against CPAs for Brad's first game. The clobbering is a foregone conclusion. We only see the aftermath.

If we had seen the Guardians beaten (putting aside considerations of length for now), we would have been forced to see two things: Brad's relationship with the team, and the significance of the loss. Without these, we see a bruised Brad among teammates, but as isolated as before the game. Without the game, we were spared learning that together they were comic, pathetic, courageous, good-humored. They these would have compelled us to judge Brad, to take his part or build a case against him. Afterward, Brad is invigorated and stunned by the competition, regardless of the loss. Terrific choice.

In the bookend scene when the team finally wins, weeks after he's started an affair with Sara, she launches from the stands as his sole cheerleader. The fizzy fantasy of high school is recapitulated in a way that perfectly dramatizes his self-delusion and vanity. When he asks Sara to run away with him, even she says, "This isn't real."

Throughout, speaking as a guy, watching another guy in the midst of a believable, low-boil crisis, I found few qualities in Brad to admire. But I could not help but recognize the guy, and so identify with his temptations. The way he sidled into what he wanted and hoped for, namely Sara. The way he edged away from his wife and home responsibilities. The way he longed for the skateboarders' ability to defy gravity.

So when Brad makes the choice, even as he leaves his house, not to leave his wife, you feel a tremendous sense of relief. Life does not run downward from stupid mistakes to tragedy. It apparently leaves hope on its way to distress through false hope and then takes a steady uphill grade build of limitations and unalterable fact.

Friday, November 3

I think I've got it! Or 30 Rock hasn't got it, that is.

In case you check regularly for cool opinions here, I know I'm disappointing you. And then, when I do post... well, let's not get all humble. The thing is I'm planning my wedding which, though ten months off, promises to be the most complex and expensive project I've ever done. I can't wait. And then there's work and writing. You know?

Funny? Who Needs Funny?

Every week 30 Rock sits there like ingredients for chocolate chip cookies - the simplest no-fail sweet treat. Alec Baldwin, for cripes sake! And what comes out is mud. I'm with Rob Long (Listen to the Zoom Up episode of Martini Shot) when he complains that today's comedy isn't funny much. I'm getting used to those bits that make you turn and say, "Wasn't that funny?" The question is rhetorical;you're not laughing. And that's TV comedy today.

But where's the subtext? Does Jack (Alec Baldwin) really like Liz Lemon (Tina Faye)? And what would distinguish one of the guys in the writers room from another? Uh huh. A not-quite hidden agenda, which we could see screwing with the others, getting in the way of Liz's success. As if she needs any obstacles that her own dithering doesn't create.

Okay, I know there are other problems with this show, but none of the characters seems to know anything. None of them is smart and selfish enough to be creating havoc. Tracy Jordan (Morgan) is clueless, which is a deep vein of situational gags. But he's never going to be conniving or conflicted. He'll never know himself well enough for that.

Why am I piling on? This is not my golden age of television!

Thursday, October 19

Simple subtraction at NBC


Plus this:

Equals "Layoffs loom at NBC Uni".

I concede. Mostly they're killing off news ops and shooting reporters in the back of the neck, figuratively.

But these two shows seemed so promising and, well: Ick.

Wednesday, October 11

Disappointed and still waiting

Maybe I shouldn't have praised the first date so much. You know what happens when the first date goes well.

Studio 60's post-pilot episode was solid and interesting, though it consisted largely of follow-on exposition. Damned good character exposition at that, but not bracing TV. So when Monday's episode slogged through soap opera - damned good soap opera - and the writerly standoff between Matty and Mr. Clean and his partner Dumber, I began to think pretty deeply ... that the Cheez-Its I was eating were the most satisfying part of the evening. I was forced to reflect on other bloggers who are saying that the inside-baseball of TV comedy can't sustain an audience. No matter how apolitical you are, when the estimable Mr. Sorkin writes that the president or his people and principles are in jeopardy, you feel it. You get it. In fact, you get cheesy salt on your fingers....zzzz. Was I nodding affirmation with those doubting bloggers or nodding off?

But the plagarism story line snapped me upright again. For the first time since the opening pilot scenes, the show raised stakes that everyone understood and cared about because they threatened Matt and Danny. They sowed the seeds of a gun-slinging showdown betwen Matty and the head writers. But then at the door, just before saying goodnight, did we get a kiss? A hand lingering low on the hip? No. We got a deus ex filing cabinet. "We own it." The material had been written by a staffer years ago. What a tease.

And is it just me, or were those 90 seconds of material just not funny? I'm not a hilarious guy, but I say, they were not funny. But Matty thought so. So, he went soft on Clean and Dumber to offer a sign of forgiveness? It seems thoroughly out of character to risk "not funny" on his show. So now I have to live with the fact that he's lost his judgment, either about comedy or people.

I'm keeping my options open. I mean, I have it on solid word from people know me well that this could be the one. You know, the real thing. But I can't tell whether Studio 60 is hot or if all that handwashing should make me wary.

Wednesday, September 20

Studio 60 on Sunset Strip - I'm in love again

You don't need me to tell you what's great about Sorokin's Studio 60. It's got everything we love about movies and more. But the complex and morally inconsistent characters, beautiful camera work, broad scope in sets and setting, and glimpses into the social anthropology of a world where few of us ever go (though we can hope, we strivers) promise to go on for years to come.

Here's the storytelling technique I found so simple and effective. For nearly three quarters of the show we learn that Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) and Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) had a bad breakup. The cover story is about Harriet singing the National Anthem and Matt not showing up to support her. It smells funny. A couple of WGA awards-dinner guests say so. Harriet's still angry and maybe hung up on Matt. He's at least as angry and hurt, and angry about being forced out of the SNL look-alike. So when they finally run into each other back stage, we're ready for fireworks.

The scene stands out for it's talkiness, but it's full of drama for the thinking viewer. Matt thinks Harriet used her singing appearance on Pat Robertson's 700 Club to pander to a market of Christian-music buyers whose politics she disagrees with. Politics that Matt violently disagrees with. His view: her Christianity allows her to see fundamentalist spiritual depth without seeing fundamentalist moral paranoia and political mercilessness. Harriet has a soft spot for the dignity Christians find in faith: "That moves me." And neither of them is going give an inch.

What's makes the scene so strong is that it gives us exposition and numerous character beats: Matt and Harriet's allegiances, hard-headedness, passion, and manner of thinking. And what's infinitely refreshing to see on TV is that what characters think does matter. But what stands between these two is belief about the effect of our actions, not on PR, but on the balance of morality in the public sphere. So far at least, Matt has the last pragmatic word: "Be funny for us on Friday night, and we won't have any problems." Then he bounds upstairs, taking the high road, before meeting his partner Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and addressing the entire cast.

The scene paid off as fireworks between Harriet and Matt, not by being big and loud, but by being about something so important to both characters that neither of them can budge. And it sets our expectations for much more to come: religion, philosophy, logical and moral inconsistency and their consequences, striving to produce great work, and discovering what you'll do for love. That's what's coming, people. Thank god for the internet. Otherwise, you'd see me drooling.

The crap factor on TV is way way down. The biggest challenge for the show is to find fresh new antagonists beyond the network suits to keep Studio 60 relevant in the new golden age of television. Anyway, I hope it's an age and not just a golden season.

Thursday, September 14

Justice (TV), or, the full Bruckheimer.

I like this show the way I like Las Vegas (the show, not the place) - I guiltily linger over the gleaming surfaces. Not that the writers are any help. The thing moves at rat-on-a-wheel pace.

Last night, thirty five minutes of Justice was all I could take. I realized that it's a great bad dialog instructor. Characters announce their intentions in two modes: angry confrontation, and fleeting, reluctant vulnerability. They blurt out conflict-telegraphing lines. And, scene! There are so many effects to fit in, so many low-angle shots, so many threatening-looking blocking crosses. Let's keep it moving, you writers!

I'm betting the show will last the season, distracting viewers by its pace and good-looking bad leads (It's House in a defense law firm; thank you, Rob Long.). And because the cynicism about the trail and jury system is turned all the way up, the moral and ethical questions of Law and Order are completely off the table. Maybe we're seeing a distilled reality show specimen, the compressed version of those haphazard entries that use 'real' people. But 0nce the eye candy reaches the brain, eyes will glaze over.

Does anyone remember when The Full Cleveland meant white shoes, white belt, and plaid pants? I have been delighted by Jerry Bruckheimer's shows and movies (The Rock, Black Hawk Down, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, I could go on). The man knows how to blow things up in the most entertaining way. But the Full Bruckheimer - hard, cold, computerized, cynical, seductive, relentless and overwhelming - hey, get that stuff out of my living room.

Thursday, August 3


The general absence of opinion here comes from having read many only-okay screenplays recently. And writing a new at-least okay story of my own. I respect the contribution of the stories below, so my apologies if these limited comments sound unjustly sour.

Friends With Money
Jane (Frances McDormand) belatedly tells us that she's angry that life is going to go on more or less, well, like this. That story alone would have been fascinating to follow for 90 minutes. How satisfying it would be to watch a successful and happy woman look for an answer to her free-floating rage that everything disappoints. What I found most distasteful, when looked at as a story, is that Olivia (Jennifer Aniston; way too good looking for the role) gets something like what she sought. But everything she did should have had the opposite effect. It's a strange moral world when people get what they don't deserve.

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest
The pleasure of the last Pirates was so great and unexpected that my hopes were high. Hopes dashed. It was difficult to follow the emotional lives of all the main characters and those of new ones. The truly fascinating relationship, the unwelcome love Elizabeth (Kiera Knightly) feels for Jack Sparrow, is slapped across our faces like a flounder. And the action, which was so clever and organic to the story in Curse, certainly got contrived. When they bound onshore and climb the ruin of a church to swordfight atop the crumbling buttresses, rather than worry more, I napped.

I know that other reviewers were not kind to Adam Sandler's foray into Bruce Almighty territory, but a lot of people will see this movie. Watch and learn, I says to myself. Setting aside all the Hollywoodism - smoking hot wife who clearly has not given birth, and the very broadly sketched work and family pressures - three groaners in one movie are too many. The magical figure Morty (Christopher Walken) who gives Michael Newman (Sandler) the solution to his problems because "good guys deserve a break." Morty is the deus ex machina. Repeatedly. Okay, I concede that the answer to Michael's problems, in good story form, is his downfall, but see number 3. Number 2: New rules about how the remote works generate new complications. Enter Morty to explain. Number 3: Michael wakes up from a dream the end of the second act. Cheaters.

Nacho Libre
Can I draw a generational analogy without sounding old? This enjoyable movie reminds me of a lot of hip music I hear these days. Short of propulsion, but beautiful in passages. The movie was very attractive, shots nicely composed, and action sequences perfectly executed. I've almost forgotten what happens because it's not a story of what happens, it's a series of droll tableaus. I enjoyed all of them, including the moment when Nacho steps off the bus and looks for all the world like a b-movie hero from the 70s. Keep making movies, man.

Miami Vice

I loved Collateral, but like Heat, if I had not been sitting in a theater, I don't know if I'd have waited for it to unspool to its ending. You get the impression that what the filmmaker knows about man-woman relationships is that they are supercharged with sexual power and an obstacle to getting work done. Even if he's right - lots of us have known transport and tragedy - I didn't get any feeling about the love affair between the leads. As for the breathtaking composition of the filming, the New York Times review says it better than I can.

Wednesday, June 21

NFF: Coffee with... Saturday

Left to right (apologies for the photo quality)
Mark Levin, festival juror
Alan Berliner. Entry: Wide Awake
Henry-Alex Rubin, festival juror, director Murderball
Steven Cantor. Entries: What Remains; loudQUIETloud.
Freida Lee Mock. Entry: Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner

Saturday morning's discussion was another filmmaker free-for-all: how they did it, why chose/how they approached the subject, and a variety of other project-specific questions and answers. But the most interesting discussion followed Danny Schechter's comment (thinly disguised as a question), what are we going to do about the way we're not getting the facts from any media anymore? Schechter's In Debt We Trust showed at the festival.

For some filmmakers, the first answer was "nothing." And I agreed with them. If you choose a story, the politics are implied. The story, the shots, the editing, the music; that's the politics. Cantor's movie about the Pixie's reunion, sort-of, tour is about something else. Even Mock's movie of Tony Kushner, a loud political playwright, is a movie about Kushner the artist. But Schechter point, and Schechter, wouldn't go away.

Schechter said, for instance, that he and his partners get a lot of letters saying that their movies are good, but "not for us." If news media and government are not reliable source of fact, and movies that expose the facts are "not for" lots of distributors, what will we do as filmmakers to address the structural deafness in the populace? The old dichotomy between art and reporting poked into view almost immediately. Art's view is deep, particular, and sensual. Reporting's view is short, cold, hard, and oppositional.

Alan Berliner challenged Schechter to start a Not For Us festival to get artistic reporting into the open. Schechter in turn challenged filmmakers and viewers to take responsibility for their piece of the film making/media-making industry. Levin and Schechter agreed that the internet pay-for-priority legislation being considered now may screw filmmakers and that it is a responsibility to act. Here's an example of the effect: ABC shows could download like water over Niagra (if they paid for priority data traffic); Fred's Films movie trailer download could take all morning (if Fred didn't pay for fast data traffic).

I'm getting ahead of myself, but Jay Craven said, (not quoting but interpreting the ideas I digested), When you write the story, the theme perks out of behavior, action, juxtaposition, and spoken words. But the writer is responsible. He's got to watch theme emerge, compare it with his goals, deepen it where it's what he means, adjust where it doesn't. So many entertaining movies aren't about anything (my strong impression). It's just interesting people doing interesting things. I like many of them. But there's more.

Schechter seemed to be urging filmmakers to go beyond treating film as a commodity - artistic or otherwise. During the Friday Coffee with... event, two documentary filmmakers were very reluctant to hope or insist that their movies could change the structure of the way turtles or autistic people, respectively, might be treated. Okay, so they had just locked the festival edit, they didn't set out to make a movie about political change, they were unprepared to organize for the cause. Forgiven. But their movies are about people with problems that demand a response. Schechter was right at least this far. Stand up. Say that you want the movie to move society toward a better tomorrow. We're Davids in a Goliath kind of world - hard, cold, competitive Davids. This art should kick some ass.

Thanks, Danny.

Tuesday, June 20

NFF: It's the People

The whole weekend at the Nantucket Film Festival would not have been possible without the generosity of The Producer (one of my bosses at the Boston Production Company where I'm a story analyst) and the publisher of Imagine, Carol Patton. The Producer put in a call and soon I was talking to Carol, who offered me an available room at the Imagine house.

Carol is the longtime, tenacious promoter of film and production in Boston. It's thanks to her hard work and organizing, along with an army of supporters, actors, directors, and state politicians that the Massachusetts legislature voted a film production tax credit into law at the end of 2005. Sandy Goetz wrote a good summary of its effect in Imagine this month (it will be online after publication of the next issue). Thanks for your patient in-person explanation, Sandy. After years of industry struggle in the region, there's an air of hopefulness now that financial incentives help draw movies to Massachusetts and New England.

I also met Mick Hoegen, Jessica Hansen, and Fran. Mick worked on Mystic River. Jessica has appeared on stage and screen; I'd be surprised if you did not see her in something big soon. Fran, a hard-helmet deep sea diver, electrician, and SAG actor described his most recent role as "an Irish thug" on The Brotherhood (Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco's latest TV venture). Do you want to hear about the producer who's just hung out his shingle? The policitical gadabout? The conversation was always entertaining. Fran and Mick kept me out late. Thanks, men.

Here's my favorite chance encounter. While I was studying screenwriting at Emerson College, John Stimson came to describe his writing and filmmaking process using The Legend of Lucy Keyes as a model and example. Young Lucy Keyes is played by a terrific young actress who appeared on stage after the New England premiere at the Independent Film Festival of Boston this spring. Calendar pages fly in the wind to the weekend past: Before the screening of Half Nelson, at NFF I saw a captivating short called The Braggart. The young woman in the lead was extraordinary but to my memory, unknown. Then, standing in line to enter Late Night Storytelling with Bobby Farrelly and Anne Meara (I'll say more about later), I turned first left as Joe Pantoliano cut through the line leading his kids back to the car before he went in to the event the back way. Then I turned right and there stood my new favorite star: Anna Friedman. I should have recognized her as The Braggart, but the filming style and her characterization transformed her. She's a sweet, ambitious kid who has great parents. I got Anna's autograph and hoped out loud that someday she'd be in a movie I wrote. I often hear about the superficiality of this business, so it's a thrill to recognize people in this business to whom you can confidently say, "I sincerely respect what you do."

Monday, June 19

Friday 'Coffee with...' panel at Nantucket Film Festival (NFF)

What a great time this festival is. An emphasis on screenwriting, plenty of A-listers, good parties, and room for the small production companies and even screenwriters like me. Watch for more entries, in particular one on theme from a panel discussion on which Jay Craven said some very cogent things on the subject.

Aubrey Nealon. Entry: A Simple Curve.
Lizzie Gottlieb. Entry: Today's Man
Eric Daniel Metzgar. Entry: The Chances of the World Changing
Jason Matzner. Entry: Dreamland

The wide ranging discussion on Friday morning covered how the movies got made, how Canadian public funds affect production (Nealon is a Canadian), the personal and the political, and some tart, realistic comments on Indie vs. Studio. Here are some of the highlights as seen from an aspiring screenwriter's P.O.V. (me), despite having slept little the night before.

Matzner observed that there is no Indie vs. Studio, per se. There are various degrees of Indie and Studio. As you move up (or down) the scale toward Studio, you have more resources. And you relinquish control. The opposite is true at the Indie end of the scale. It was a pleasure to hear him state this as a matter of fact rather than outrage. Matzner admitted - his day job is in the story department at Universal - good projects get lost, betrayed, or abandoned.

Gottlieb candidly admitted that by making her first feature about her brother, she'd set herself bigger challenge than she'd imagined. It took her six years to film and edit, including interruptions. Material was no challenge, but finding the story she'd tell and her role in it required Solomonic decision-making. Narrative screenwriters can sympathize. After finding the story idea, what demands does this story make that bends convention to particulars? In response to a question about what her brother, the documentary subject, thought of the movie, she said, "He told me, 'It should have a montage. Many films have montages.' and the other thing he was said was, 'It should be much longer.'" And we think the A-listers like to see themselves on film.

Eric Metzgar told the kind of "I love life" stories that I relish. He and his producer met the documentary subject Richard Ogust at the airport to pick up rescued turtles. Because they are in bad shape when the turtles arrive, the men immediately left for Ohio where the turtles would be treated, driving all night. In the middle of the morning, conversation waned. The camera was off. The producer was asleep. Metzgar reported a sense of peace falling over him. He looked up and thought, "I can't think of anything better in the world." That's why any of us do this.

Tuesday, June 13

Nantucket Film Festival Sleigh Ride

When you're a movie story fan and an autodidact, here's what happens. Fortune smiles and you get an internship reading scripts, which is great. Everything you learn - read "teach yourself" - about story is Invaluable, but Confidential. And though it's given that the bloggers' standard editorial policy is to drop trou, I'm old fashioned in the trou department. Hence my silence.

Finding Funny Man
But that's all changing now, thanks to the Nantucket Film Festival, which opens Wednesday night. Thanks to many friends, I have a mission and a place to lay my head. I'm going to try to deliver a package to a writer/director/producer - the Funny Man - on behalf of a certain Producer.

Nantucket Rush Line
Along the way, I'll interview whomever I can find. Maybe you. Or if time, stamina, and internet connections permit, you'll find updates in a couple days.

Sleigh Ride
This is the ride you get when you harpoon the big one. You hang on and hope for death before it dives hard and fast with you tangled in its lines. A perfect comment on the filmmaking experience. But it turns out, its also a lesser known sexual position obviously first imagined by the "harpooner." As for the third definition, the less said the better.

Tuesday, April 18

It's not easy being green

I mean that every project reveals something you thought you'd learned but have to learn again. Okay, so I'm new. When you've rewritten a screenplay at least a dozen times, you've answered all the questions about characters. You see them pointed at the inevitable conclusion. So when the second or the tenth idea for the scene - you know dead-on how characters behave.

The new screenplay, despite your preparation, planning, and outlining stumps you. The guy behaves like that, sure. So what? The guy (i.e., gal) isn't funny or anything like a man (ibid.) worthy of drama. But he was interesting when you started. You're stomach does one of those empty-bottom rolls, though you just vacuumed ounces of Smartfood. Whatever you thought you were doing, you don't get it. What was that interesting thing? You dig it out from under the dialogue.

Then again, the experience of other projects you finished tells you, yes, you're right. The guy needs to know more about his world, his fears, what binds him to others, and what is driving him away from them. You see the flaws sooner. There. You learned something after all. Something on the order of, "Yes, that is a longbow arrow sticking through my chest. Hmm? Break it or drive it through?"

You don't want to spend months rewriting a story that you could have planned beforehand. You also don't want to pretend that writing long briefs about characters is going to answer all the questions that will come up in writing. You want to be efficient. And you don't want to plan the life out of characters because experience shows that what you think they'll do when you're sketching is nothing compared to what they'll do when you write the scene. And there goes the damn plan.

As I have said elsewhere, "The trouble with being an autodidact is that you're learning from someone who doesn't know anything."

And these are the reasons - or the tail-chasing from which - I haven't posted in a while.

Let me get back to work.

Coming...Reviews and inside poop from the Independent Film Festival of Boston, which starts Wednesday (4/19).

Sunday, March 26

Tromeo and Juliet

Little did I know that Tromeo and Juliet is the festering petri dish of more than a few careers. It looks like a mad, mad, flatulent, raunchy, frayed retelling of Shakespeare's love story for all time. With a great extended nude scene. And a nipple piercing on camera. And a happy incestuous ending. Murder and car wrecks, yes, but strangley, no cannibalism.

So I'm out of touch. James Gunn wrote the script for $150 and according to the guy, it was juicier and fouler in early drafts. Gunn has gone on to kick the Man in the nuts with the Scooby Doo projects and the soon-to-be-released Slither. If you have seen Tromeo, you'll see where Gunn got the idea to use a curling iron to exterminate a vampire slug. Besides my retired mother, does anyone use curling irons anymore? As I said, I'm out of touch.

Tromeo, namely Will Keenan, has gone on to a hyphenate career that includes a performance in The Enternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jane Jenson, who turns in a creditable performance without clothes, has become a musician. Lloyd Kaufman, still producing and directing, is also distributing Jenna Fischer's (The Office, wife of James Gunn) Lollilove, the trailer for which looks hilarious. Lloyd is the oft-cited crazy ass of this post. Keep on rockin' in the free world, L!

1. Really good, talented people also work on crazy-ass movies.
2. Free your mind and the rest will follow. Or, making a movie does you more good than not making one that's a wierd, crazy-ass, brainfart.

Saturday, March 25

"That was awesome, dude," he lied

There's a small and fiercely independent festival in Boston. So small I often miss it. Not this year. It runs through tomorrow night.

What it is: it's about getting films made. It's about encouraging film makers. It's about giving some spotlight to the little, the credit-card funded, the erstwhile next master of gore/horror/broad satire.

What I learned: That if you're going to make crazy-ass movies to showcase you and your abilities, you're going to work with some brilliant people and some crazy ass nut jobs. Here's an example. Today, I went to a frowsy, abbreviated version of Lloyd Kaufman's 'Make Your Own Damn Movie' Seminar. The key topics came as stories and making-of shorts and stand-up riffing on the Axis of Evil formed by corporations and, well, money, which produces, he says, "babyfood" from Hollywood.

Kaufman - this is all news to me - has been making Troma films for 35 years. His new title in postproduction? Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. He wanted freedom, not money, he said in refrain. He got exactly what he wanted. But Oliver Stone, Trey Parker, and James Gunn have worked for him. Tonight I'm going to see the anniversary showing of Tromeo and Juliet. More anon, dear reader.

While Stone, Parker, and Gunn have given up 'freedom,' going to work for the Axis of Evil, they now make movies that millions see. They make movies that wouldn't be possible for a half mil, the figure Kaufman gave as typical of recent Troma budgets. "Independent" is an approach, but also an attitude, politics, and eventually a self-limiting choice. "Doesn't play well with others" becomes "doesn't get to play." No wonder Kaufman's set up his own game his own way. I just don't get all the complaining about studios. They make a damn fine product. Nobody eats babyfood forever.

And that brings me to a program of shorts. Many of these were very solid efforts. Some great filming, editing, or acting. Good storytelling in few. Again I say, "You got your movie made! That was awesome, dude." Because you can probably get another at-bat. But I attended the shorts with TWIL, who loves me, not film. She was not entertained, delighted, fightened, or provoked to thought. She was bored and often confused. "Awesome," I lied.

So raise a light beer to everyone who made an okay movie. Because I'm glad you learned the thousand things you taught yourself. But the product. Dude! I'm totally lying. I'm thinking about the leftover Indian food in my refrigerator. Get back to work, damn it! And when you see my short, tell me the friggin' truth.

Thursday, March 16

Falling in love again, never thought I would

No excuses here for not posting, but after being underemployed, a few appointments feels like a full schedule.

I love a serial killer. Do you?

Or the genre, at least. I've been doing a little research, which shows that this well-mined vein is full of great successes and failures. The obvious high point is Silence of the Lambs. I'm working on a post that extracts some of the story elements that audiences seem to enjoy and will share it after watching some more examples.

Join the fun by suggesting your favorite serial-killer thrillers. Here's the selective filmography I'm using:

  • Silence of the Lambs

  • Se7en

  • Sea of Love

  • Bloodwork

  • Yet to see
  • Murder by Numbers

  • Tightrope

  • Ted Bundy
  • Obviously, serial-killer thriller is a sub-genre of the thriller. Feel free to expand my horizons, keeping in mind that life is short. Don't even tell me you don't have opinions!

    Monday, March 6

    Bobby Moresco, we love your story

    Read this story: The Long March, then the Countdown to Oscar Glory

    Highlights: Bobby takes acting lessons in NYC, stinks, wants like a hungry man wants food a different future than construction, longshoreman, so he goes to L.A. His brother is murdered, so Bobby goes back to NYC, works, and writes a play about his brother's murder. Producer sees the play, Bobby goes back to L.A., works, meets Paul Haggis, then doesn't work, goes sort of broke, and writes Crash with Haggis. No one wants to make it. They make it. Now he's working. He's 54. All this because he didn't want to work construction and his wife didn't make him stop with the crazy writing thing.

    Bobby, we salute you!

    Quick Oscar Takes

    Best remarks about why movies matter without sentimental gushing: George Clooney for best actor in a supporting role. Who is having a better time with his celebrity and making more of it in Hollywood than George Clooney? He's our Frank Sinatra with a conscience.

    Best restrained comments about what movies can do for peace: Paul Haggis, right before they slammed the door on Bobby Moresco's comments about the writing of Crash.

    Best Gag: Ben Stiller in green pajamas. Delivered in very Stiller manner, gambling that longer is funnier.

    Best strategy for doing the job again next year: John Stewart

    BEST PICTURE: "Crash" A great surprise and don't we all love a surprise at the end. Whatever else it means, it endorses spare movie making and strong storytelling. But one thing it doesn't say is that the Academy is uncomfortable with a gay love story. Please.

    DIRECTOR: Ang Lee, "Brokeback Mountain" Deserved and predicted. Consider "The Hulk" buried.

    ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Capote" Justice! There is justice in the system!

    ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Reese Witherspoon, "Walk the Line" The choice of Witherspoon is a crowd pleaser, but frankly right down the middle of the definition of "moderate."

    ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: George Clooney, "Syriana" This is the first role in years in which Clooney worked hard and succeeded as an actor. I was pulling for Dillon, but if you subscribe to the conservation of Oscars theory - that the universe knows that it can't grant awards to cast members if it's going to crown the movie best of the year - then, well, Universe to Matt: Sorry. He'll get the heat from nomination anyway. Screw you, Universe.

    ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Rachel Weisz, "The Constant Gardener" No comment. Great performance in a frayed movie, which I couldn't see past. Heath: I love Michelle. Also, she was great opposite you in the gay cowboy movie. Keep an eye on her or you'll lose her to me.

    ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, "Crash" Deserved: complex, clever, and weighty, even if the movie felt a little too cleverly contrived to maintain the illusion of reality.

    ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, "Brokeback Mountain" I'm profoundly biased on this one. The story is so strong that the biggest challenge of the screenwriting (I'll live to regret saying this) lay in not messing up. These two did a great job. But Dan Futterman started with no story, built it, wrote it, and broke the biopic law (start at subject's death and flash back), and succeeded wildly. I think Capote should have one. Maybe that's just me.

    ORIGINAL SONG: "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from "Hustle & Flow" While the best song was Dolly Parton's (didn't she appear in Corpse Bride), the winner in this category serves the story more than either of the others. And it's "hookie" in a way that leaves those of us who only use hip-hop in a sentence to describe what Easter bunnies do singing the refrain as we walk to our cars after the movie.

    Sunday, March 5

    Life itself as antagonist: Spanglish*

    When it comes to comic dramas about marriage, it's hard to think of one with more realistic, adult sensibility than Spanglish. I was inspired by some of the writing in As Good As It Gets, and because I'm outlining a marriage-centered comedy myself, I watched Spanglish again. Like the other script, I found that I loved scenes and Brooks' insight into love and need. He follows characters' crises rather than stamping them into a boilerplate genre structure.

    Here's what's great and strange about Spanglish: no antagonist. John Clasky, superstar chef, fights himself and wins. Review with me: John's brilliantly neurotic wife Deborah? Obstacle, distraction, disappointment: yes. Not an antagonist. His success? His restaurant manager? His sous-chef? Obstacles, yes. What about Flor, the breathtakingly beautiful Mexican house help? No. He falls for her, steps right up to the temptation to break his marriage wide open, totters on the verge, and disappointed, turns back by force of will.

    John fights his heroic battle with daily life - to have time with his family, to keep peace at home, to encourage his kids, to support and forgive his deeply needy wife. No surprise, I should have known, from the man who shaped the Simpson's, where family is a bulwark against the madness of impersonal forces like work, school, money, media, etc. From time to time John Clasky takes great joy in his daily life. In one scene, he forgoes the perfect fried egg sandwich to take a dressing down by Flor. (Throughout, the edgy sense that he's comfortable at home but may be called to account at any moment is palpable.) He takes is medicine, turns a more biting accusation on Flor, and takes up that sandwich.

    I have to say, I'm not sure I like it, but it's damn well done. I mean that it's easier to write and follow a story when the antagonist is clear. But that's not typical; you and me, we're not heroes. But I think Brooks thinks we are: we want to be loved, we want to be good, we want a little joy. And John Clasky takes up Thor's hammer every day and fights for it. Just like us.

    Best line of the movie: "Right now, dear, your low self esteem is just good common sense."

    - Evelyn Wright (Cloris Leachman) to her daughter Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni).

    * John's Critique Rubric: For educational purposes only. It's hard to make a great movie: Respek, bro! Or as the yogi says, Namaste.

    Sunday, February 26

    'As Good As It Gets': The Second Act Stall *

    Thanks to Karl Igelsias (See Our Craft, here), I took on a close reading of this script to look at characterization. The first forty pages demonstrate great characterization of complex and nearly impossible people. Melvin Udall first among them. So, thanks Karl. I think your Creative Screenwriting story is as good as self-instruction gets.

    The movie left me disappointed, but I couldn't remember why. There's a nagging suspicion that the reluctant romance between Carol (Helen Hunt) and Melvin (Jack Nicholson) repelled me. So why bother with this exercise? Because the script is not the movie.

    Reading it, I was damned impressed with comedy writing that avoids slam-bang of the kind of movies that make huge money fast. Incidentally, this James J. Brooks and Mark Andrus script is the seventh top grossing rom-com since 1978 (Box Office Mojo). Instead, I found clever, situational, and low-decibel stories about the timeless question: what is true love?

    The opening scene is a perfect example of character exposition demonstrating the protagonist's flaws and strengths, and announcing Melvin Udall's need: this romance writer doesn't know what love is. His desire is to control his environment, and the more he stumbles into comically anarchic relationships with his neighbor and waitress, the more his world comes apart, letting real love in. (Sigh)

    But the story stalled when Melvin engineers a trip to Baltimore with Carol and Simon, his neighbor. You'll remember that Simon was beaten by thieves in his own home. His treatment bankrupts him. He capitulates to his friend Frank's plan to ask his parents for money. Since Melvin made arrangements to get a good doctor on the case, Carol finally feels a bit of ease about her very sick son Spencer. Melvin volunteers to drive Simon to Baltimore so that he can give Carol a day off and try to impress her as a love interest.

    During the drive to Baltimore, the script slows down. No, it pulls onto the shoulder and turns off the radio. Melvin and Carol temporarily move to the background, Simon moves to the fore with a long explanation of why his father threw him out, why he has no relationship with his mother, and why they cannot speak. It's exposition and it's late and it's all reported by Simon. Weirdly, Carol pulls over - stops the forward motion of the story - to hear Simon pull the painful threads of his life-story sweater.

    It was a deliberate choice. I concede that the writers needed the information and the moment to contrast with Simon's decision not to beg for cash and instead turn for home. But Simon's confessional doesn't reveal enough about any of the main characters to have spun down the story momentum. While it puts pressure on Melvin to get Carol to pay attention to him, not Simon, Melvin doesn't reveal new traits or resources to do so. And the script doesn't regain its stride until the three return to New York.

    As a side note, "things happen" to Simon, but it is Melvin's story. Simon's dog incites Melvin to dump it down the trash chute. Simon is beaten nearly to death, but Melvin calls 911. Simon is driven to financial ruin, but Melvin drives him to Baltimore. Simon loses his friends. Simon travels to Baltimore. Melvin responds, or is trapped into responding, to each of these. Dramatically, they are dependent. There's no story without Simon. There's no inner conflict without Melvin. It turns out that the movie left me cold because these two characters together make one man, but they don't form the kind of bond that shows us they recognize it.

    I'm going to subject myself to the movie again, but in the meantime, fans of the script or movie should get out your flensing knives. Agree or disagree?

    * John's Critique Rubric: For educational purposes only. It's hard to make a great movie: Respek, bro! Or as my friend the yogi says it, Namaste.

    Wednesday, February 22

    When Software Works, You Just Want to Kiss Someone

    Can I kiss someone at Sage? Okay, frankly, not just anyone, but maybe a cute developer who looks something like Diablo Cody, more or less?

    I used to use Pluck, the newsreader plug in, in Internet Explorer. It was light, clean, versatile, and gave me lots of control over how I displayed, read, and deleted new feed entries. Then I discovered Firefox. Totally turned my life around. Well, things were slow just then.

    Pluck for Firefox is a different animal. You may like it. Good. Feh. I gave up the control I so love and have been bereft until last week. Enter Sage, which is everything I loved about Pluck, but made for Firefox. Easy to use, lots of control, easier than ever feed detection. Me likey!

    And it's great with shallots and white wine as a marinade for chicken.

    Taking it Outdoors

    The Banff Mountain Film Festival annually brings two nights of adventure movies to nearly 185 locations around the US. It's a crunchy, boho pair of nights that allow you to see, for example, a guy ski off nutty vertical drops and land in deep snow, more or less on his tale. Last year a pair of German climbers scaled Eiger using equipment identical to that of the first successful climber to reach the summit. And before that, extreme trampers, who filmed themselves hopping fences and doing stunts on backyard trampolines.

    The stories often stink. Which is liberating, really. The movies focus on, say, experts doing their near-death-defying thing, or carving vertical powder where no ski as ever broken the surface. Last night an eighty-year-old Pole paraglided into the valleys outside Grappa in Italy. Is he mad or is he mugging? The footage just isn't there to show us . And since their feats can't be our feats, the story could answer the question, "Why?" But few do.

    A long "mountain culture" documentary, The Magic Mountain, fails to show us, after 50 minutes, who the sacrificing subject of the movie is. She started an NGO in the Lahdak province of India after seeing the poverty during a mountaineering trip. And you know, it's up to the audience to decide. I thought she was running from family, from Western society, from any conception of competition and success. And if the footage is any indication, for all the good she plainly does, she has no clue who she is either. I'm grateful this saintly promo showed us that she may also be nuts.

    Tuesday, February 14

    Happy Valentine's Day in Production

    Love is like this: You do it for free, but it costs you plenty. You lose your innocence and learn things you will be glad of, but first you feel creepy and you feel glad much much later. You think you'll never be good enough. Then you accept that you're not good enough. Then it's not you, it's her (or whatever). You're right. But you can't help yourself because it's good and getting better, better than anything so far. So you show up one more time, feeling tenative but hoping to feel that bouyant, this-could-be-perfect, "we could see the clouds separate" again and actually touch the ineffable. Yeah, love is like that.

    Turns out, so is having an internship at a small production company, which I've recently landed. Folks asked me not to say much about what goes on there, so I won't. I'm reading and commenting on scripts, though this falls short of coverage - very informal place.

    I'm encouraged. Because now that I see other scripts in development, I think that my work doesn't suck. Is good ever good enough? Now I know the answer: No. And I understand how important, crucial it is to love and champion your work. I haven't sat in full gale of a screenwriter on a mission. But I can see how "good" can be transformed into "potentially great" with a big ration of love and umph behind it. But great should still be great on the page. I don't think I've seen it yet. Deep, fresh, and bubbly; I'm looking forward to seeing that. Okay, so I haven't lost my innocence entirely, have I?

    Thursday, February 9

    Mysterious Skin

    The answer to the question, "Why make this movie?" is, I think, because you're not coming from or going to the places these boys know. Thank god. The movie is the stories of Neal, a charismatic and desperate boy prostitute and Brian, a desperately certain believer that he was visited by aliens. Each follows a path that leads them to each other, and the truth of what happened when they last knew each other as Little League teammates.

    This movie was hell to watch. It begins with cinematic flourishes that disappear too early, exposing the audience to Neal's descent into increasingly threatening, ultimately brutal, encounters with johns. The audience's anxiety comes from a real fear of brutality they'll see in Neal's next scene. Sadly, a distant second fear arises over what might happen to Neal. Flip the importance of these fears and we'd have had a much better movie.

    Decisions reveal the character and story in a moment, so when they're squandered, cripes but your heart sinks. At a crucial turning point in the second act, Neal, who is looking forward to going home for Christmas (it's not clear why), does one last john on his way to the airport. This rough trade nearly kills him. Then he appears at his mother's house, claiming he was mugged. Neal had already taken a stand-up job and seemed to stick with it. His whole conception of sex and affection was blown open through an evening with an HIV-positive john who simply wanted him to rub his back. Neal was just turning into a human being. Why this last trick? Habit, self destructiveness? This decision should have told us everything about Neal. It only shows us that his best friend Wendy was right all along. And that's too little.

    When Neal and Brian finally meet, they return to the scene of the transforming moment of their lives. Neal narrates as Brian loses his alien abduction alibi and acknowledges that he was sexually molested. But the emotional payoff falls short: Neal's return is vaguely motivated; Brian's immediate trust in Neal seems impossible to believe; Wendy Peterson is the voice of concern, but a character who doesn't act on that concern, a Cassandra with too much mascara; Eric, and friend and the intermediary, appears not to have a point of view despite of his affection for Brian and his love for Neal. After the brutality of the story, the story owed us tragedy. Or comedy. Or philosophy. The two boys collapsed in grief in the dark from a high POV is too little of any of these.

    Monday, February 6

    Reducing Well-Intentioned Mistakes by One

    Thanks to all of you have gave me online and offline advice about whether to try acting in a community theater play. I wish you could have seen the auditions. When I announced that I'd do a few minutes from the second act monologue of Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild, the director said, "Oh good!"” He laughed and said "Excellent," at the end. That'’s good, right?

    Here's a lesson from the audition. A giant blind woman (I mean, 5' 11", 200 lbs) declaimed the Dolly Levy speech from Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker in which she asks her dead husband permission to wed Mr. Vandergelder. It's a long monologue. Oh, long! At one point she chopped the air with both hands like the robot on Lost in Space (Warning! Warning!).

    I don't know the speech well, but it calls for landing on the word "shattered," which through her very slight speech impediment came out as "sshhlattered." We forgave her, looking away. The second time around I was "“sshhlaken." But the third time, I thought I'd "sshhlatter" with laughter.

    I was sure there was a role for this Venus of Willendorf, maybe as an armoire or hat tree. But the director tried her in the role of the countess. She was as broad and blousy an aristocrat as one could ever want. I hope she gets the role. She'’ll be sshhlplectacular.

    Two or three people who've appeared in earlier productions by this company auditioned that night. They are good: bright and uniform on stage. I'm not sure I can even offer that. But I was looking for a way to learn about funny, not just by delivery but by revealing the desperation underneath. Because that's hard to write. So I'll wait for another production and another cast to learn what I'm looking for.

    Thursday, February 2

    The Soundtrack, or Tell Me How I Should Feel When Writing Checks

    Click on the title of the post to find a new discovery of mine: I suppose I have to thank iTunes for loading this link in the latest release (See Radio/Eclectic).

    I started listening to this donation- and community-supported shuffle service the other day while writing. I was completely distracted by the changes in mood and tone and the nagging question, "What the heck movie was that from?"

    If, to be reductive, film music tells us how to feel about what we see, I've found the perfect streaming music for bill paying, lurching as it does from pathos to elation, from comedy to horror.

    Should Screenwriters Act? I mean, try to, for educational purposes

    Because I have my doubts. I tried out for a play yesterday. Namely You Can't Take It With You (Kaufman and Hart). And having seen this company's previous productions, I know that the right combination of material and amateurs comes off. Note my dubiousness.

    A year or so ago a film guy said to me that acting was good for screenwriters. And actors I talk to tell me something similar. They want complex, shifting emotion and range within a role. They want admirable action. Of course, they want screen time, short of anything else.

    So the logic runs that a screenwriter playing a high-strung IRS agent or an exiled Czarist Russian dance master (and professional remorrah) gets to see and feel what it takes to serve up characters who are as interesting to play as they are interesting to watch. Of course, this spec monkey wants to be the romantic lead. And that's because I'm not an actor. Daffy Ed, bombastic Boris, sense-itself Grandpa are the best parts. If I were an actor, I'd know that as well as I know when it's time to go in for a tanning tune-up.

    So, how many of you have performed in shows or film?

    Did you learn something valuable?

    Or did you just find yourself drinking beer after rehearsals with the stunning (and impossible) actresses (...hoping and trying not too hard - maybe, definitely tonight, no, no, definitely only a maybe still...)?


    In a clever double-meaning, Transamerica is a picaresque in which Bree, the transgender woman in process, crosses the nation in a beat-up station wagon. She turns the American family trip upside down. This is no vacation, but a trial that tests her desire to become the woman she knows she was meant to be.

    Spoilers follow! Just one week from the transforming surgery that will complete the process to make her a woman, Bree learns that she'd fathered a son years ago when she was Stanley and married. She gets a call from a NYC juvenile lockup where a kid named Toby is being held for prostitution.

    Bree believes it's a scam. But haunted nevertheless, she reports the strange call to her supportive therapist, Margaret. Bree's adjustment to becoming a woman must have been rocky over the three years of therapy and cosmetic surgery. Margaret insists that Bree see the boy before she approves Bree's final operation, "So you're not sorry about leaving anything behind." (Or a similar sentiment; the quote is an approximation.)

    With the clock ticking on her surgery date, she flies out to meet the boy, Toby, and bail him out. She tries to drop him, giving him 100 bucks, and then when she takes pity on him, drives him to his stepfather's house. A bitter history emerges, violence breaks out, and she agrees to take Toby to L.A.

    What's great about this movie is it's second half. From the point she meets the Indian who develops a discrete crush on her to the moment Alex runs away from Bree's parents' Phoenix house to the very end. The metaphor and sometimes shifting tone of the movie drop away and we see the new woman, flirting and adored. The story stays aloft throughout the visit (or siege) with her parents, not because of the evident comedy and tragedy of the sequence, but because all but one of her emotions is laid bare. That last one - the pain of loss shot through the moment she's achieved her goal - she saves her return home.

    Other reasons to admire Transamerica:

    • Kick-ass performance by Felicity Huffman, not to mention that Bree is well-hung.

    • The overhanging suspense of what will happen if and when people around her discover she is, for now, a hermaphrodite.

    • Periodic wittiness of the script: In response to Bree's sister offering her mother's feathered pink wrap to wear, Bree says, "I'm a transexual, not a transvestite."

    John's Critique Rubric: Darkness Visible's critiques are for educational purposes only. It's hard to make a good movie. Respek, bro!

    Tuesday, January 31

    Visceral, yes, but...

    "Sometimes you're so beautiful it just gags me."

    - Tony Kirby to Alice Sycamore in You Can't Take it With You (1938)

    Sunday, January 29

    And another thing to blame on the brain

    Like everyone who has an inferiority complex about comprehending the science of our times, I'm fascinated by the drumbeat of insights - of varying significance - about what happens in the brain. Two recent articles in the New York Times have me reflecting on what to pay attention to when writing stories.

    Recently, a study showed that we don't want to know, and that we fight against knowing, facts that contradict our closely held opinions. A Shocker: Partisan Thought is Unconscious tells how political partisan thinking "is often predominantly emotional." The rational brain was quiet - dark on the MRI - when confronted with facts the listeners didn't like. It reminds me of a friend who couldn't remember that Miles (Paul Giamatti) in Sideways was pathetically flawed. There was, if nothing else, his stealing money from his mother. "Oh, I forgot about that," she said. Once he's redeemed himself and reached out for love, he's transformed from pathetic creep. Which is another way of saying that my friend had forgiven him, forgetting the facts that no longer apply.

    In other words, it doesn't matter much what they say. It matters what they do. Once we fall for a character, we're going to sort what we don't want to believe and follow our emotions.

    Yes, they're telling you how you feel

    Mirror neurons, that is. These are a relatively new function of particular neurons and related complex structures that may explain why movies have the power to move us as few other art forms do. Empathy, it turns out, is not just an unconscious emotional capacity, it's built into our cells and molecules.

    In a story in the New York Times, Sandra Blakeslee reports that recent research shows mirror neurons may account for such things as recognizing behavior and anticipating what happens next, and social emotions - shame, rejection, loss - which register directly in viewers who see others suffer such emotions.

    And get this:
    "The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others, but their intentions, the social meaning of the behavior and their emotions."
    "Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the mind of others simulation, by feeling...."

    We feel what others feel, apparently, for the long-term survival and growth of the species. So folks, what we're handling when we write stories is the power to touch the spark and tinder of the thing we have in common, beneath all our differences. It's why we hate the feeling of being manipulated by stories, but cry anyway. It's why we back movies that come at us like an emotional tracheotomy going for the throat. And it's why we love the success of a great movie that's true. Not just the correct facts, but true feelings, telling us exactly our mirror neurons tell us with the power to keeping us alive and thriving.

    Saturday, January 21

    The Constant Gardener

    I thought it had its heart in the right place, this movie. But where it should have a heart, it had a camera. Now, the editing, color, and overpowering framing of a bright, blank Kenya in early scenes offer so much promise. I’ll leave it to others to identify what went wrong in the choices of the DP and director. But the story cheated viewers out of nearly every moment of identification with human feeling.

    First, expectations. The Constant Gardener could have been a thriller, a who-dunnit, a tragedy, a David v. Goliath crusade. Director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine could have woven together exciting combinations of these. The look and feel gives the impression that was their aim. But they repeatedly show and then steal questions we want answered: Is Justin’s wife really the dead woman found on the road? Answered. How is her death connected with her investigation into Three Bees corporation and its clinical trails? Answered. Did the British government play in a role? Answered. The Kenyan government? Answered. My friends? Liars and betrayers. By the midpoint when Justin is convinced that Tessa is a casualty of big pharma geopolitical profiteering, the viewer no longer knows what question matters. Justin gets on a train to Amsterdam without a plan, and so does the movie.

    Why do Tessa, Justin, Arnold, and Sandy do, well, what they do? Love. But we do not see this, we hear it. It comes by conversation and incidental action. In a scene rife with possibility, Tessa lays in a hospital bed nursing a black newborn. The movie toys with us – is this the crusading Kenyan doctor’s child after all? – and then points us to the baby’s teen mother, who is dying nearby. Tessa is moved with compassion and outrage for the woman. But sharing the feeling demands knee-jerk sentimentalizing from the audience. We know nothing about the teenager or others like her. The filmmakers treat her death as an emblem not a person, much they way Tessa accuses the drug corporations of treating Africans as statistics. We do not feel because the moment is not particular.

    Justin’s surrender to his own murder is the moment when I wanted to start throwing Milk Duds. Even if we had watching him face his assassins and drop the clip from his pistol, we could have called him oddly courageous because we saw his choice. It remains unclear why he felt so trapped that he should volunteer to be killed.

    To cap the disappointments, at Justin’s funeral we learn that the late-appearing hero is – ta da! – Tessa’s cousin and lawyer, Ham. Justin made sure that Ham held the crucial evidence to would bring down the British senior diplomat Sir Bernard Pellegrin. While it was Justin’s unseen hand at work, the dramatic action belongs to a secondary character. And if this outing had been the first in a series of stylish third act revelations prepared and planned by the dead Justin, we would have cheered him as the avenging martyr. As it played, he wasn't clever, impassioned, good, or wise. And his company makes for a long two hours.

    John’s critique rubric: Darkness Visible's critiques are for educational purposes only. It's hard to make a good movie. Respek, bro!

    Tuesday, January 17

    Biting and quoting, from 'Some Came Running'

    "A little talent to a writer means as much as a little talent to a brain surgeon."

    - Dave Hirsh. Hard drinking, passionate misanthrope. Sometime writer.

    Monday, January 16

    Inflation, Two Much, and Just Because They Are That Way

    The New Yorker's Anthony Lane (January 16, 2006) barnstorms the 2005 cinematic year and as you might expect, found it de trop and le moins. But he left me second-guessing my hard earned instincts, one about length, the other about character motivation. I think he may be right.

    I've gotten used to two-hour movies. And I've given up my knee-jerk complaint that two is too much. I only complain about the dull parts. Recent two-plussers gain fresh wind despite the doldrums: Syriana, Munich, Brokeback Mountain, King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia spring to mind. But that means more Montana, more crashing dinosaurs, more characters and subplots, more incrementally revealing scenes, more Christian myth. If you trimmed the dull parts, all except Kong would be less than two hours. Two is too much.

    But instead of ruthlessly disciplined story and film editing, Lane complains that what we get from greater length is more explaining. "...This want of resolution - of the will to believe that a movie, like a poem, can deliver a person or a predicament straight into our hands - ... leads to a bummer like 'Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.'" And he goes on to complain about Willy's backstory of malicious parenting. Watching A Fistful of Dollars recently, I noticed that more than two thirds of the movie pass before Clint Eastwood's character offers a single sentence about why: "Saw this once before and wasn't able to help." Whatever. He just does it. Wedding Crashers, the same. They make love and commitment a game until... They are what they do.

    As screenwriters, it's our job to bear the burden of characters' psychological profiles, and shut the hell up. (The most superfluous line in Kong is the theater manager's speech to tell Anne Darrow - okay, us - that people leave her when she trusts them. There's ten seconds Jackson could have put back on our lifetime clock.) We're all inexplicable, especially to ourselves. I'm resolved to believe again that a movie can deliver a person or predicament straight into other's hands. Resolved do that this year.

    Saturday, January 14

    Brokeback Mountain

    As I settled into my gay cowboy movie seat trying I was trying to smooth my hackles. They always stand on end when a vocal majority noisily loves a movie or is afraid to criticize it. Hackles down, I found Brokeback Mountain is a great, well-made movie. I even forgave it it's two-hour topping length.

    But as I meditated on unbristling, a question replaced my hackles: How will screenwriters Larry McMurtry, Diane Ossana, and director Ang Lee make the love affair of Jack and Ennis recognizable to all of us. How will they convince us all to identify with these two?

    Many of the scenes that were added to the movie reveal who Ennis and Jack are with their families. I read Annie Proulx’s New Yorker short story before seeing the movie. It’s trimmed to the bone. In scenes added to the movie, we watch them make hard tough choices, and respect many of them.

    At a fourth of July fireworks display, Ennis beats up a biker who’s intruding his family’s good time. At a Thanksgiving dinner, Jack challenges his father in law for control over his home. His outburst earns our respect, but his wife’s sly admiration shows us the man of house. Jack guides his son behind the wheel of a big tractor, genuinely delighted. Even Jack’s affair with another man, though nothing like his love for Ennis, shows us Jack’s desperation. These scenes bridge the gap between what's different about these two and what they have in common with any breathing human being: loyalty, love, family feeling, dedication, passion.

    And at the end, after all their suffering, Ennis still believes in love and wishes it for his oldest daughter. Each of these scenes shows us men who live up to the choices they’ve made, and hard boundaries implied. They transform the cowboy code from stoic nobility, to stoic noble loyalty, commitment, endurance even in the closet. And because we all suffer silently with limits, we sympathize with their hard decisions, even though we’ll never be beaten to death because of who we are.

    Saturday, January 7

    The Machinist

    I loved the way this movie takes us to the land of Memento, but I felt disappointed by the revelation that Trevor Reznik (the sepulchral Christian Bale) worked so hard to uncover. The plotting is clever and the storytelling that reveals Trevor's madness, paranoia, and murderousness is deftly handled. Much of the movie is starkly beautiful. And they must have saved $$ on craft services.

    The Machinist (Brad Anderson, director; Scott Kosar, screenwriter) follows Trevor as he pursues and is pursued by a man who may or may not be a ghost. As Trevor's madness blooms, I gave the movie the benefit of the doubt. We're headed into a metaphysical territory. Soon it will be clear that the man's identity has been stripped away by existential isolation. He's modern man in a cell of his own making. He's the figure of terminal narcissism. Whatever was coming, it would leave him, and us, feeling the emptiness of a philosophical void, or the kind of moral chasm that's revealed at Memento's final coda. When was the last time you saw a movie like that? Bring it on.

    When the horrible revelation finally comes, it is particular and concrete in a way that is disappointing. Trevor's personality is split apart by the horror of his actions and he exiles the man he was. But the Terrible Thing that precipitated it was an accident. While his self-revulsion might be real, viewers (this one for sure) do not feel that he should literally disintegrate over an accident. Would we? Probably not. Even if he was speeding toward a despicable goal. Even if Trevor is identified with the innocent Nicholas, making the accident a figurative self-murder. I'm talking about stakes here. The feeling of unforgivability, of abject moral emptiness that he has lived with is not paid off in the final scenes.

    New for the new year: Darkness Visible's critiques are for educational purposes only. It's hard to make a good movie. Respek, bro!

    Wednesday, January 4

    Walk the Line

    This Johnny Cash story gives us its two stars working at the top of their form, channeling the celebrities they're playing. So many reviews and coverage of the film focus on this, but few people have said the obvious: the story runs in historical sequence in the most conventional way.

    Walk the Line is a great success. But Capote comes to mind. It was the best movie I saw last year. More important, Capote's moviemakers perfectly chose the period that could entail his story, from reading about the multiple-murder to the execution of Perry Smith. That choice provides the focus, the theme, and our identification with his story goal.

    The Johnny Cash story in Walk the Line is his public and private passion for June Carter. Imagine how the movie would have gained focus by starting the story with their meeting. After all, it ends with their wedding. The middle, like all good romances, sees them separated by various forces. While Cash's father's alcoholic meanness is an obvious influence on the man in black, all of his adult decisions move him toward playing music and June Carter. Nearly everything else is reaction. As portrayed in Walk, the turnaround concert at Folsom Prison is motivated by a desire to do good and redeem himself in June's eyes.

    I'm not taking pot shots. But what's clear is that Cash really leans into the wind and trudges forward against internal and external storms after meeting June. Once they've met, viewers want what he wants. Despite his marriage, philandering, drunkenness, and addictions, we feel for him once it's clear how bad they've got it for the other.

    Every character's life is encapsulated by any slice of time. But while life has a beginning, middle, and an end, that doesn't it make a good story. The selection of a slice of the subject's life that is that man or the woman reflects the screenwriter's skill and intelligence.

    Tuesday, January 3

    That's why they call him Fun

    Fun Joel proposes trying really hard - without resolving anything - tracking the movies you see in a year. A good idea, since some sear the memory and some are lime Jell-o.

    I'm going to try to keep my list in the sidebar in reverse chronological order, just for the sake of experiment. Darkness Visible reviews will keep coming, but you'll also see the movies I didn't review. I'm finding that some movies yield nothing after shaking and banging them to see how they work.

    Monday, January 2

    Neanderthal TV: Kick Ass, Take Names, and Suffer

    In a New York Times article, Warren St. John scratches the surface of a trend toward "Neanderthal TV" and finds that what men want is models of moral certainty who live toward good ends by any means. Murder, revenge? As Stewart Smalley used to say, "“That's... Okay!" My first reaction: Oh, hell yeah! I knew that.

    But when my brother in law Jack (not his real name) said, "I love this guy," while watching House during a cozy Christmas en famille, I heard the other note St. John avoided in the story: that people look for the release of entertainment in their real lives. Jack's a good guy. Don't get me wrong. But the guy lives under constraint: a big family, a challenging business in a low-demand market, and wishes, which sharpen limits and more solid. He's a committed Becker viewer; he wants to be House; he tries to be both, with some John McClane thrown in for spice.

    In the Times article, president of Fox Entertainment and creator of FX's The Shield and Over There Peter Ligouri reports that TV producers look at strong male protagonists as aspirational characters. So what do we aspire to?
    - Super-competence
    - Unconditional respect regardless our behavior
    - To be ninety-nine percent right one hundred percent of the time
    - Openly antagonistic to authority, convention, and manners

    My other brother in law - call him Norm - loves to tell stories about how he's reclaimed a plasma television or computer from a rental client who hasn't paid in two months. He'’s a terrible story-teller and a compulsive exaggerator. But he live the desires of TV characters. They want to dominate their enviornment. They aren't thinking about the cause or the cost of their motivations, the wound that festers with defensiveness, fear, and self-loathing.

    At the Screenwriting Expo I heard Lawrence Kaplow, a House producer, discuss the development and structure of episodes. I was struck by his description of the show as a procedural that turns on the character moments, adding that Hugh Laurie's range made it possible for them to deepen the character opportunities. Recently a smoldering, frustrated love is complicating House's life. Who knew anyone could get close enough? And when Stacy Warner (Sela Ward) does get close, House is going to suffer. Really suffer. That's not what men aspire to. But it's pretty damned true if we are aspiring to that list above.

    If men want Neanderthal TV, then they're seeing and not seeing the shows I'm watching. If not this week, then next week, the emotional slapdown is a'comin'. Because we're not Neanderthals. Some of the biggest missing links were bagged in the Enrons/Adelphias/MCIs of the past ten years. And nobody wants to be them. Not anymore.

    ...more to come on this.