Review: Last Vegas

poster last vegasAbout half way through the movie I leaned over to my wife and whispered, “This is so good.”  It’s not unconventional, or provocative, per se.  it is predictable, but only because it’s perfect.  Last Vegas has tons of diverse talent that syncs up instantly for a symphony of comic wit and sincerity that is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end.  While I say it is predictable, that is only because it turns the only way I think it can be truly satisfying.  That is not to say that the movie is not full of fun surprises and misdirection that truly pays off.  I can only describe the experience as gleeful.

The story is of four old friends– plaid by actors in roles designed to accentuate what makes them great: Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, and Robert DeNiro– who grow apart and get the gang back together 58 years after its inauguration for an unlikely bachelor party in Las Vegas.  Imagine a classy, soulful, sharply comedic, heartfelt spin on the Wolf Pack that may well be superior to even the fist Hangover film.  The roster for the crazy Vegas weekend includes a Florida retiree who isn’t ready to be a Florida retiree, a grandfather who’s family fusses endlessly about his health, a successful businessman in Malibu eulogizing his mentor, and his old best friend, a widower and recluse who no longer speaks to him.

The movie is about all kinds of relationships, but it’s just fun to see the guys cut loose, judge a bikini contest, go clubbing, meet celebrity look-a-likes in drag, rediscover what they mean to each other and what they appreciate about their lives.  I really think this film is a home run.  It seems effortless the way the highs and lows come together to make a fully developed and satisfying movie experience that can be repeated.  The performances are all fantastic, including Mary Steenburgen, who plays a Las Vegas lounge singer the boys become smitten with.

It hits all of the tones that it should.  It’s a Bachelor Party movie and what’s more, it’s set in Vegas and the scene is captured really well and the cast deftly maneuvers it with style, cunning and hilarity.  I also like that much of it feature The Aria, vs. Caesar’s Palace, which is the usual.   Much of the comedy of the film comes from the fantastic direction of Jon Turteltaub, who I’m sure not only informed the actors, but got some of his own jokes in from his perspective as a storyteller.  I recently saw another Turteltaub film, The Kid, which stars Bruce Willis.  It was a lot of fun too and Jon really knows how to direct.  Writer Dan Fogelman (The Guilt Trip) is no slouch himself and these guys are in top form and collaborating with the crème de la crème of acting.

The bottom line is, Last Vegas is a well paced, disarming comedy that is deceptively heartfelt and delivers in all genres it touches on with lightning fast speed and dexterity.

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Adaptation

book enders game

Orson Scott Card– Author

The object of adaptation is to change the subject in order to make it better suited for a new, or alternative purpose.  Adapting a book into a movie, is not so much about faithful representation of the text as it is about capturing the subtext in away that makes better sense within a whole new system of parameters.  The film Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, explores the meaning of the word and its application to screenwriting in a beautifully profound way.

Historically, the movie version has been scorned, or at least widely accepted as the inferior of the pair when evaluated against it’s source material.  The sad truth of it is that the requisite of a film adaptation is putting at least one, more likely about a dozen or more middlemen between the author and his audience.  When you read a book, you are free to interpret and envision the story as you like with no one else weighing in.  you cast your characters and direct your own movie.  You get to have your own way all the time, no questions asked.  Of course it will be infuriating for you, when you go see a movie based on your favorite book and some guy you’ve never heard of is making knock-offs of the “real” characters give an inaccurate account with all of the important parts missing and an agenda that never before existed.

I wonder if Warner Brothers ever considered giving Clooney another crack at the cape and cowel before going to Affleck.

I wonder if Warner Brothers ever considered giving Clooney another crack at the cape and cowel before going to Affleck.

It used to be, that when something like that happened, it was your one chance to see this story portrayed in your lifetime.  Now, even the word remake has been adapted to the point where one take on a property can be run into the ground and “rebooted” in only a couple of years time.  It’s an exciting thing to see, like the countless versions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” you are likely to see crop up year after year, new interpretations of popular literature have the potential to inspire and inform not just a brand new audience, but also the same old one in different and even more powerful ways.

A book has its own properties, as a book.  It can tell a story in a way that is impossible for film.  That’s why it has to be adapted.  But when a person with vision sees a way to tell the story visually, they have the opportunity to exhibit the version of the book that means something to them, and a responsibility to be true to that vision.  A good adaptation will lose some things from the book, but replace them with scenes that contribute to the story in a similar capacity, and will hopefully include little to no narration.

A book faithfully adapted into a film is a tightrope walk that is also extremely subjective.  The less a filmmaker is willing to make changes to the source material, the more danger there is of making a terrible movie.  When you adapt a book to film, you must ask yourself if you are tying to replace, the book, or supplement it, discuss it, or explain it.  There is a good approach and a bad one.  The book will not be replaced.  More people may see the movie, but it is not a substitute for the original and with luck, a more artistically gutsy version will hit theaters within a decade that will replace your forgotten experiment, while the book in question is still selling.  The new film may have less in common with the book, with various omissions and gender changes, a reworking of the story’s end, but it will succeed in sharing a vision that perhaps the book only alludes to for some, and it will be a far superior movie, because it was skillfully adapted to accomplish the goal, not of making a movie version of such and such, but of telling a great story.

Of course this is all hypothetical.  The bold, aggressive interpretation could be terrible as well.  So what is the right way and the wrong way to adapt a book into a movie.  Why did Jurassic Park work when Congo Didn’t?  Why makes Jaws such an effective retelling of Peter Benchley’s story.  Why is Lord of the Rings so beloved?  and is it appropriate to take the trilogy approach in adapting The Hobbit?

"Amy want green drop drink."

“Amy want green drop drink.”

Jurassic Park, seems like it’s easy to explain, by the fact that Crichton is a credited writer of the screenplay.  He was not only a novelist, but had real screenwriting experience and was quite good at both forms.  he also wrote his books in a way that sort of lent themselves nicely to becoming movies, yet, even his own script departed from the source material in order to better tell his story through a new medium.  When he wrote the sequel, but did not return as a screenwriter, the adaptation suffered horribly, despite his quite obvious intentions when writing the novel of seeing it come to life on the big screen.  For example, Ian Malcom clearly died at the end of the novel Jurassic Park, yet he lives in the movie and is made the most popular character, by Jeff Goldblum’s portrayal, so he is written in as the lead in the new story, despite his apparent demise.  His foresight and obvious intentions were missed however when David Koeppe took a stab ad the adaptation himself.  He kept Ian Malcom, of course, but managed to take the story in a bizarrely inappropriate tangent, rendering the film the worst of the three films even though it focused on the world’s most popular chaotician and the third one didn’t even have a book as its basis.  Congo, on the other hand was something I was anticipating like it was Christmas.  After Jurassic Park turned me on to Crichton I read Congo and saw the trailer as nothing short of an epic and very literal translation of the book.  I just didn’t know that translation would come through a computerized voice in the hi-tech gloves of a signing gorilla.  Amy is a gorilla who communicates with her owner Peter through sign language.  For some reason it was decided that it would be best for her to sport an accessory that would translate the signs to English.  The gambit did not work.  Arbitrary changes also were made, such as the nightmares about Zinj that Amy would have and the name of the company.  The gray gorillas   rather than being trained guard dogs with stone paddles, somehow became marshal artists with excessively silly choreography in what should have been brutally horrifying attacks.  In the book, Amy helps the research team to decipher the new species’ language and use it against them.  In the movie, they use the diamonds they are after in Zinj to make laser guns.  Almost all of the changes made in Congo, either senselessly deviated from the book or deliberately detracted from the stories original intent with no apparent merit.  Jurassic Park had its deviations, but only when it was essential to the strength of the story.

gi jaws brody

“That’s some bad hat, Harry.”

Jaws is based on the novel by Peter Benchley but the film is a drastic departure from the source material, mostly due to all that is left out of the final story.  By virtue of such omissions, the characters are freed up a little from their interpersonal conflicts and a more satisfying Casablanca ending is allowed to replace the novels finale.  The movie version is streamlined and purposeful, which allows extensive subplots to be disposed of.  Just enough information is used to support the spine of the story and keep it paced appropriately.  The threat of losing tourism money by closing down the beach is enough of a problem to work with, pitting the sheriff against the mayor and setting up the need to hunt down the shark.  Once Brody, Hooper, and Quint leave the port they remain out at sea until the deadly show down with the killer shark.  It makes for a much needed act break that would be less effective if the boys returned home night after night.  The journey toward respect between Hooper and Quint, who start off as rivals is enough of a sub-current to the main plot to fill out the story without overcomplicating it with the jealousy that originally plagues sheriff Brody in the book.  In addition to the narrow focus of the adaptation, improv between the characters, added a sense of realism and charm to the movie that nonchalantly juxtaposes a casual atmosphere with a tense drama.

I'm trying to suspend my disbelief and desire for an escalating plot with the promise of some sort of resolution, but you gotta work with me a little, here.

I’m trying to suspend my disbelief and desire for an escalating plot with the promise of some sort of resolution, but you gotta work with me a little, here.

Lord of the Rings is a trilogy that aims to be faithful to the beloved classics and spares no running time in capturing as much of the original stories as possible in the beautiful New Zealand locations that realize Middle Earth in a way that it never before could be.  The work must have been painstaking but the goal was clear.  The goal of The Hobbit, however, is much less noble and the adaptation suffers greatly.  Rather than truly adapt the story for film, a single book is broken down into episodes.  It is a grab for more box office dollars that pretends to be an aesthetic choice to match the original trilogy.  While the second installment The Desolation of Smaug may have enough content to be an entertaining movie it is merely a second act without a beginning or an end.  Compared to the first Star Wars trilogy it may that the story becomes a favorite of the fans and due to the third film having an obvious conclusion, fans may argue over which one is best, just as fans argue about Empire vs. Jedi.  But the similarities end rather abruptly at that point.  Empire is part of an ongoing saga and The Desolation of Smaug will literally be the middle section of a full story.  A New Hope is smaller in scope than the others, and while it mainly just introduces the characters, it does have a definite beginning middle and end that tells a complete heroes journey.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fills its running time awkwardly and fails to portray the reverence of the trilogy before it.  Instead, the ultra-fantastic hyper-colorful scenery takes away from the initial world that was created for middle Earth, and with little urgency for most of the film’s running time, the characters are made to wallow in artificial splendor that stretches the prowess of their acting capabilities uncomfortably thin.  There is a self awareness that bleeds through the performances, as they try all too hard to believe it’s working.

Gavin Hood-- Writer/Director

Gavin Hood– Writer/Director

An adaptation should always be about what will make the book translate to screen in the best way.  Sometimes you have to strip it down, dress it up, make it more accessible, more satisfying, more entertaining, but always in the name of story.  A faithful adaptation that does not make the necessary steps to change for it’s audience is not doing justice to the author.  Jackie Brown is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch.  Leonard is a frequently adapted author and while more artistic liberties were taken with Tarantino’s film than any other, the author himself considered it to be the most faithful.

Influential Directors: Quentin Tarantino

QT image

“I’m all about my filmography, and one bad film f—s up three good ones.”

When I was a young movie obsessed teen my passion for learning how movies are made continued to push me behind the scenes, even as my love for the spotlight took full bloom.  The thrill of the stage was all I cared about and the prospect of stepping into any number of characters and situations and exploring the possibilities was too exciting for me.  I loved saying things I wouldn’t normally say.  I loved making people believe I was who I said I was.  Mostly though, I loved making people laugh and I was always thinking up ways to squeeze out another reaction from the crowd.  No one had to tell me there are no small parts.  Those were the ones that always intrigued me the most, but the responsibility to carry a show as the lead was also something I thankfully got to have a taste of.  When I wasn’t in reheasals I spent a lot of time on my family’s brand new Gateway computer, playing a game called Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair.  I learned so much about the process by experimenting with the game, which lets you make a movie from script writing to production, editing, foley, scoring, and finally screening.  The game was also my very first introduction to an actor whose work in film would change me forever.  He was the funny, charismatic, and brilliant Quentin Tarantino.

I can’t say enough great things about Quentin Tarantino.  I love to hear the man speak.  He is so positive and almost always has something constructive to say.  He is a champion of the art of directing and also of screenwriting.  He has an uplifting and productive attitude about what others are trying to accomplish.  Meanwhile, he can take the most basic formula and elevate it to its most extravagant form.  Tarantino is a man who understands potential and taps into the simplest truths that flow throughout the most complicated compositions.  His work is art, a feat quite difficult in the entertainment industry, especially in regards to such consistency of quality and value.  Quentin Tarantino is an incredibly talented writer and a remarkably skilled director.  His latest film Django Unchained shows seasoning on a filmmaker whose directorial debut Reservoir Dogs helped to begin a revival of independent film, and whose award winning sophomore effort Pulp Fiction became an instant classic.

The man can be a bit awkward.  There is a sense of something sort of alien about him– Like he studied everything about our planet by watching movies– and yet he seems so warm and enthusiastic and has genuinely interesting things to say.  I love to hear Tarantino talk about anything.  Whether he is defending his movie against ignorant, ratings hungry vultures, talking simply about what interests him, or threatening paparazzi, a youtube search always gives me the fix I need.  Tarantino belongs in the spotlight.  He provides terrific interviews and deserves to be a star.  He can do just about any thing he wants and yet has not lost his way as a filmmaker.  Success is a killer.  You either get your way all the time and lose track of what works, or you become paralyzed at the thought of making a false step and do only what you think will be accepted.  Tarantino has shown himself to be neither timid, nor arrogant in his pursuit to make beautiful, smart and enjoyable films.

Even Hitchcock, “Master of Suspense” has his duds.  He’s really only known for about three movies.  If you really like him you know of three more.  Even great film makers who always turn out really good movies, rarely achieve the timelessness and sophistication that Tarantino always brings to the table.  Whether he’s really great at listening to the right people, or just a naturally exceptional self editor.  He manages to always make his movie, the way he wants to see it, and it always comes out a hit.  Lots of names will draw me to a theater, many with high expectations: But not only am I never disappointed with the work Tarantino puts out, I savor it with joy.

Before I even appreciated him as a director I was drawn to him as a writer.  The whole idea of Tarantino as this defiant screenwriter out to change the way movies were written didn’t quite match up with my perception.  When I was first studying screenwriting it seemed like everyone around me was determined to learn nothing in an attempt to be original.  When we got an assignment to examine structure in one of our favorite movies I chose Reservoir Dogs, just to show how textbook it was when viewed through the right lens.  Like every other assignment in the course, I passed with flying colors.  It was one of the few situations I found myself in where my odd way of looking at things finally paid off.  I once had a writing teacher, who tried to say Longfellow was wrong to use the metaphor of footprints in sand for A Psalm of Life to symbolize leaving ones mark in history, because sand gets washed away and has no permanence.  I was the quiet kid who (let’s face it) usually wasn’t paying any attention, but I couldn’t let it go uncontested.  I explained “my take” on the poem, to which she quite seriously replied that I had given the author too much credit.  She was the embodiment of the minds over the years that I refused to let shape me.  If Tarantino had taken any college courses in writing, I wonder if he would have been discouraged,  But that defiance, that rebelliousness so readily attributed to a high school drop out serves only to undermine the genius of an artist who has seriously done his homework.  A true student of film from all over the world, Tarantino jeopardized a possible acting career by taking a steady job at Video Archives, a rental store in Manhattan Beach, California.  There his expertise grew and flourished as he soaked up inspiration that would fuel one of the brightest burning talents the film industry would ever know.  It’s also where he met the Co-writer of Pulp Fiction, Roger Avery.

My first introduction to Tarantino as a writer, was From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, directed by his friend Robert Rodriguez.  If Hitchcock is the Master of Suspense, I strongly believe Tarantino should go down in history as the master of Tension.  It may not go noticed because he has so many strengths in structure, dialogue, visual style… but take key scenes from Inglorious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.  Even if it’s just two people talking, you know something is going to happen.  You may not know what, but something big is about to go down, and Tarantino knows, more than anything else, how to build on that until the perfect moment.  In the first scene of my first movie written by tarantino I was scared.  It’s just a Sherriff chewing the fat with a convenience store clerk, but it’s eerie as hell and before anything even happens you know something is going down.  The prologue to Reservoir Dogs is the same way.  It’s uneasy.  All these guys sitting around the table, they’re bad guys and they don’t really know each other, when Mr. Blonde playfully shoots Mr. White, you get the distinct impression he might actually do it for realsies.  It sets a remarkable tone for the rest of the film.

Prior to his meteoric rise to stardom and international acclaim he penned the scripts for True Romance (which came out the year after Reservoir Dogs with a star studded cast featuring appearances by Christopher Walken, Bradd Pitt, Dennis Hopper, Samuel L Jackson, Gary Oldman and Balki from Mypos) and Natural Born Killers.  both were reworked but the first (directed by Tony Scott) was truer to Tarantino’s vision than the latter.

Still an actor at heart, Tarantino wrote the part of Mr. Pink for himself, even warned Buscemi that his audition better be “really good”  In the end, Buscemi is just pasty skinned awesome sauce and Tarantino had to admit defeat, he still got a part, though, and still likes to give himself those little cameos which endears him to me even more than if he had subtle appearances as an extra or withdrew from the stage altogether.  As a director, he is able to effectively translate his own writing for the audience, better than anyone else could.  He pushes boundaries, fuses genres and is very visually dynamic, which compliments his vast content and well defined characters.  His one adaptation, Jackie Brown, came hot on the heels of Pulp Fiction and though it was different from Pulp Fiction in the sense that Unbreakable was different from The Sixth Sense, It is was considered by Elmore Leonard to be the best adaptation of his work out of 26 films.  A fan of Leonard, Tarantino was able to be true to the author’s work and make it undoubtedly his own in the process.

Clearly He has fun at his work and at the same time, takes it seriously and wants it done right.  I don’t know how he strikes that magical balance of whimsy and restraint.  There has been a lot of talk about his retirement, partially, due to the rise of digital projection.  So dedicated is he to film that he bought a building housing the New Beverly Cinema to save it from redevelopment and ensure the theater will continue to use traditional projectors.  He has said he plans to retire from film and become an author after the age of sixty, which would give us ten years and possibly two more films; But he also said he could stop at any time, though he thinks ten films provides a nice aesthetic for his filmography.  He’s very dedicated to his own resume and doesn’t want to make a film that doesn’t belong there.  You have to respect that.  He seems to believe a director ages like wine– in terms of vinegar.   I value that insight, except Django Unchained really showed off the fact that Tarantino has not only still got it, he’s better than ever.  I can see how that sort of diligence and commitment to making an exceptional film would lead someone to thoughts of retirement, especially in interviews immediately following the film’s release.  I know the Kill Bill films were something Quentin kind of thought of as a book and he has been interested in making a Volume 3, though he eventually said another film in the series is unlikely.  Perhaps, when he does make the transition to author it will take the form of a novel.  Since Michael Crichton passed, I have been on the lookout for a new author.  I can’t say I won’t be sorry for the loss as far as film is concerned, but I will always celebrate his contributions with much enthusiasm and I view Quentin Tarantino as the greatest inspiration and his career the height of cinematic achievement.

Influential Directors: Robert Zemeckis

zemeckis

“I could never… do only one kind of movie. Anything that’s good is worthwhile.”

If I’m going to give credit to the directors that have influenced me throughout my life, I would be remiss to neglect one of the most influencial filmmakers of my young years. Randal Graves once said there is “only one trilogy,” but it isn’t Star Wars 4-6 and it isn’t Lord of the Rings. It’s not even Indiana Jones, though it is a tight race (maybe even a coin flip’s difference). The trilogy above all trilogies is Back to the Future and the director in question is none other than Robert Zemeckis.

To be honest, I tuned out when Zemeckis got into all of that mo-cap stuff. I just hate that style of filmmaking. It’s an incredible tool when used well to create realism and believability in films like King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Lord of the Rings, but when stretched beyond its strengths the technology destroys the cinematic experience.  In an animated film, one of the key challenges is finding that balance between over and under-defining characters.  A Pixar artist will add just enough detail to be breathtaking without going too far and making an awkward, eerie, too real representation.  When a film relies entirely on mo-cap technology the composition becomes muddled and it makes the job of the director so much harder than it should be, because ultimately he has to decide when it looks right and it almost never will.

Motion capture has the potential to be ultra realistic and yet it is the job of the artists to create a balanced look, or the contrast between realistic and cartoonish features clash on screen and can be impossible to adjust to.  Some films have to be animated.  Some are better as a live action feature.  No film ever needs to be mo-cap in it’s entirety.  However, despite his apparent over reliance on cutting edge technology, nobody incorporates state of the art tech into brilliant storytelling quite like Zemeckis.  I think of him as an efficient Spielberg/Cameron hybrid.  Take A Christmas Carol.  Though it failed to work as a whole in my opinion, there is some really great stuff in there that I think only could have been pulled off by Zemeckis.

Zemeckis made the riveting thriller What Lies Beneath and Forrest Gump, which I happen to just have been listening to Alan Silvestri’s score from.  but what really sets him up as one of my favorites is that he made Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Another massive technological achievement, Who Framed Roger Rabbit combines China Town with a wacky world in which animated characters interract with humans.  It’s one of my favorite movies as I love detective stories and film noir and I think the collaboration between the major animation studios is an achievement in itself (Daffy Duck and Donald dueling pianos!).  This film captured my imagination unlike any other.  I had seen Pete’s Dragon of course and portions of Song of the South, but for the first time the combination of live action and animation felt real to me and Toon Town, became a destination within my fantasies.

This was all happening in the midst of my obsession with Back to the Future which further cemented Zemeckis in my mind as a force to be reckoned with.  Though I was only 8 when Back to the Future part 2 came out (I desperately wanted a hoverboard) Robert Zemeckis next to Steven Spielberg is the first director I was actually aware of in a time when I was still learning to distinguish actors names from the characters they played.  Incidentally, Michael J Fox was my childhood hero on the strength of his roles as Alex P. Keaton, Teen Wolf, and of course Marty McFly.  I’m still immensely fond of him.  So, Zemeckis gets bonus points for being responsible for part of that trifecta.

Back to the future is one of the greatest films of all time.  I think it speaks volumes that it has survived so many other time travel and special effects movies of the decade, but I hope it will remain forever considered a classic.  Every generation should know and love the film.  It’s just so fun and clever and polished.  The characters are brilliantly developed.  The story is deftly plotted, piling set-up upon set-up for a lineup of the most amazing pay-offs.  It’s so thought out and thematically supercharged,  yet so whimsical and light and full of terrific dialogue.  While it carries itself like an average teen comedy it is so exceptional it is truly next to nothing in terms of its inherent value.  And if you want to talk about influece, lets talk about the torment I went through waiting for the third installment of the trilogy after Marty came back to 1955 and scared the hell out of Doc Brown.  The “To Be Continued” card was devastationg!  There is also something brilliant in the seemlessness of parts two and three, because they are a seperate story yet they have a momentum to them that makes the three part set feel like a whole.

Zemeckis has range, too.  From the wacky dark comedy of Death Becomes Her, to the Science fiction drama of Contact, to the solitary and desolate feature Cast Away, Zemeckis has revealed himself to be one of the industry’s top storytellers. What Lies Beneath, without the Z factor could have been shuffled away as just another Ghost story, but if you weary of the same tired concepts, Zemeckis’s creativity is a breathe of fresh air for the genre.  Another one of my favorites is Romancing the Stone, which I watched often as a kid. It had everything I wanted in a movie and I never tired of watching it. Now, I see it and I’m not exactly sure why I was so into the film, but at the time it was one of my favorites and certainly served to influence my tastes and expectations at an early age.

At home in Chicago, Zemeckis found creative freedom in an artless home through the family’s super 8 camera and became impassioned when he learned about film school on an airing of The Tonight Show. Though his parents strongly cautioned him, he applied for USC and though originally not accepted, he made a phone call to the admissions office and begged for a place. It was at USC that Zemeckis met Bob Gale, the co-writer of Back to the Future. The fact that he does a good deal of screenwriting and directing I think goes a long way toward making him one of the most effective and influencial storytellers of the last thirty years.

It was his expertise in incorporating special effects that imbued me with a thirst and excitement for knowledge about how films are made.  By addressing my belief in what I saw on screen, and learning a bit about behind the scenes planning, I began to piece together how to make the unreal appear real and put that skill to work for the first time, using forced perspective to create a monstrous giant in a student film of David and Goliath when I was twelve.  Though my dream was to become an actor, Zemeckis had opened a window that would eventually push me behind the stage and onto a computer which introduced concepts and production aspects I never dreamed of and eventually lead me to screenwriting.

Review: Monsters University 3D

postermuWhen I think of Pixar, I think of some of the finest storytelling to ever grace a movie screen.  I think of the studio not as an animation studio, but as a movie studio that happens to practice animation.  The distinction for me is that the focus is more about the writing first, and as it turns out, these fantastic yarns are best illustrated by the abundant talents of the finest visual artists in the field wielding the best of the best of the best technology.

Pixar has always pushed the envelope in one way or another.  They have always dared to captivate adult audiences as well as children, arguably sometimes favoring the former.  They have pushed the boundaries of how much story a film can contain, how many subplots can be shuffled in between, and how fleshed out and human a character can be, even winning you over by the end after being so unlikeable.

The films of Pixar carry with them a high level of expectations to even the most aloof moviegoer and even ardent fans such as myself are quick to criticize when we feel that threshold has not been met.  Even with such a fearless, focused and dedicated staff of artists an element can sometimes go missing.  Cars 2 was a tremendous experiment in pushing the genre, making it more “spy movie” than “kids movie”, but it did not reach it’s potential to capture the many different settings in a way that would bring as much intrigue to the look of the film as there was in it’s plot.  Brave was the studio’s first foray into folklore, a decidedly more predictable and therefore less interesting form of storytelling without making some key break-throughs and turning points near the end of the script.  Wall-e For all of it’s visual glory and attempt at heart could not really seduce an audience into empathy and really just became an unintentional environmental tale.

If these films had more heart and dimension in their characters, more exciting and daring turns and more ambiance they would easily be among my favorites.  Monsters University is one that has the complete package.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, and while it’s stars already had one hit Pixar film, Monsters University stands alone as a great feature.

The movie is about Mike and Sully’s college days, before they became friends.  First off, I want to address how perfectly college life was depicted while remaining kid friendly.  You won’t see John Belushi chugging a bottle of Jack, but the parties and the cliques, the classroom lectures… well, it’s fun when you don’t have to do it.  The campus is amazing and the rendering really shows off some terrific lighting effects, giving it a very romantic visual appeal.  Don’t think it’s just about frat houses and old buildings, though.  Monsters University is an adventure that takes you to the unexpected.  Dean Hardscrabble is appropriately terrifying, and– true to Pixar tradition– defies the standard good guy bad guy dichotomy, appealing to the notion that however distasteful a character is, there is always potential to go the other way (and vice versa), just like real life people (go figure).

The heart of the story is Mike.  As a wide eyed kid on a field trip, he becomes enamored with the idea of becoming a scarer and devotes his life to that end, working exceptionally hard and finally enrolling in the school of scaring at MU.  Here is where Mike meets all kinds of challenges due to his disadvantage of not being Scary.  At one point he tells Sully he’s worked harder than anyone to get there to which Sully replies “That’s because you don’t belong here.”  Sully, a natural Beast, rides on his fathers name and fails to learn anything.  Of course these two have to work together and when they do, it’s tremendous.  Aside from that the supporting cast of characters are some of the finest and most enjoyable to watch.

Lots of hard work and long computer hours were put into the creation of this monster of a movie, think about all the fur and textures and the massive number of on screen characters at one time.  Think about the hues in the sky and the streetlights, the reflections and the shadows, all working together to create the perfect mood for each scene.  Monsters University didn’t make me cry, but it has it’s touching moments. It is unique, original, entertaining, provocative, cutting edge, state of the art… In short:  It’s a Pixar film.

Simplicity=Complexity>Complicated

gi amazing 2I like to figure out what makes things work.  I don’t have a work desk cluttered with vacuum cleaner parts or anything, and I still think televisions are magic, but complicated things are like complicated ideas, which then become complicated movies.  I like to build things without the instructions before I realize I made a huge mistake and start over.  One thing that I find interesting about both movies and anything material that requires assembly is that the simpler it is, the fewer the parts and those parts tend to serve a dual purpose, functionality and style.  The more complicated, once you crack open the hood you find a big ugly mess of raw function.

I think that films are the same way.  Small films can be great fun.  A really enjoyable, but simple movie is never unimpressive.  Big, movies with lots of moving parts are very ambitious projects that not many can handle. It’s a problem that tends to be very unique to large properties, such as those based on comics, or blockbusters like Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean.  Spider Man 3, was pretty disliked and one of the biggest, but also most vague complaints about it was that “they” tried to do too much.  TDKR also got criticism for being overly complicated.  Every X Men movie, even  First Class, is notorious for jamming more characters than necessary into the picture.  Jon Favreau turned down returning to Iron Man 3 as director for various official reasons, but word early on was he was concerned about flooding the film with too many characters.  The pressure to overcomplicate these films comes from the studios who want to be able to market more action figures.  Joel Schumacher was under a lot of pressure from Warner Bros. to turn the Batman franchise into basically a feature-length commercial for Batman toys.

But what makes a movie go from a solid, provocative, and even admirable complexity to an overcomplicated tangled mess?  Iron Man 2 had dangerous potential to be convoluted and dizzying, but they had good mechanics.  The Dark Knight was the epitome of the kind of masterfully woven tapestry of story that Chris Nolan has become known for.  I think the key is functionality.

The Dark Knight had a theme that was continuously reiterated by the story’s central characters.  The theme was choice.  It was full of dichotomies:  Dark Knight/White Knight, Chaos/Order, Bruce Wayne’s inner dichotomy, Two Faces outer dichotomy, Batman’s struggle to reconcile freedom and justice, and Harvey’s resignation to chance determining his actions.  For all that is going on in the movie, everything taps into the same theme and reinforces the body as a whole.  In Iron Man 2 the theme was legacy.  It’s like a home base you can return to if things are getting out of hand.

If a movie is particularly large and hosts a number of sub-plots and a wide cast of characters you need to determine above all else, what the heart of the story is.  It can’t just be a simple heroes journey.  It must be thought about as a thesis, with each separate plot supporting it.  When you make a movie about a flawed hero overcoming obstacles and saving the day, it’s best to give him one nemesis for a tight well-rounded effective and exciting story.   You don’t want him facing a thief with superpowers, who’s trying to save his daughter, a former BFF dead set on vengeance, and a work rival who gets his hands on your symbiont costume and becomes the worst ever representation of Venom.  Spiderman 3 had three major villains and no heart.  Peter Parker’s struggle is explored to death and yet it still works in small doses.  It isn’t enough, however to support so many adversaries without a central theme that they can plug into.  It’s also a terrible waste of great villains.

The easier the movie can be summed up in one idea (better yet, one word), the easier it is to connect all of the characters to that idea so that they serve a unique function in telling your masterpiece.  If you try to give each character their own separate objective that does not reinforce the theme of the primary storyline the film becomes fragmented and crushed under its own weight.

The Amazing Spiderman was a great movie.  It’s a brilliant retelling of the origin story with terrific new vision.  It was also a pretty standard hero movie.  The upcoming sequel, following in the tradition of pretty much all hero movie sequels, has a cast list that looks like an unfinished brainstorm.  The talent is stellar and it isn’t necessarily bad news, but it isn’t looking great either.  Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, and Chris Cooper have all been cast in villains roles.  Foxx plays Electro (guess what he does) and Giamatti will be Rhino, which is an interesting choice, but I have no problem going with it.  Now as far as I can tell, Cooper is signed on to play Norman Osborn, who becomes the Green Goblin, but where Foxx and Giamatti are credited with characters names AND their supervillain names i see nothing actually saying Green Goblin will make an appearance.  That would be good.

It makes perfect sense to set Norman Osborn up as a main character as he runs Oscorp and likely has something to do with the mystery that Parker continues to unravel about his parents.  The Incredible Hulk pits Banner against the Abomination making his defeat the resolution while his real nemesis, General Ross, lives to fight another day.  Similarly, Loki conjures up the The Destroyer for Thor to battle and saves his best stuff for later.  Allowing a character to be introduced without giving them their own storyline to finish is like a delicious glass of Sam Adams, always a good decision.

Norman probably enlists Electro and/or Rhino as thugs.  that would be typical and raises no alarms to my mind.  Since there is no way such great talent is going to be squandered on roles like Toad and Sabortooth in the original X Men, I think it’s a good chance we are in for a nice ride.  Marc Webb is still directing, The Kurtzman/Ortiz writing team are big hitters scripting the story by James Vanderbilt who penned The Amazing Spiderman.  I would not expect a big thematically interwoven monument of a film, but provided Norman Osborn stays out of the green suit this could be a fascinating sequel.

Review: Amazing Spiderman

Giving Up and Walking Out: How to Press Eject Before it’s Too Late

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Highly anticipated: Even higher pay-off

I haven’t written a review in a while.  Mostly because a lot of the films I’ve seen have really disappointed me (some of which were highly anticipated and from directors I typically hold in high regard) and I don’t like writing negative reviews.  I feel more energized and excited and better all around when I can say a bunch of positive stuff, I also love being able to share the experience and say, “Hey, you should see this.”  I find it much more valuable than finding out which movies to steer clear of.  Also, if someone likes a movie I don’t, that’s fine.  I’m much more inclined to argue my point if someone doesn’t like a film I am particularly fond of.  I haven’t only seen bad films, but nothing lately has really compelled me to write about it.  Not long ago I saw Django Unchained.  I had an absolute blast.  Tarantino is just a master and so full of passion and fun and whimsy in addition to being able to create such polished and consistent drama.  It tires me out thinking of all the great things I can say about QT and his work and his work really transcends anything I can say about it at this point.  At least that’s how I feel.  Sure, he has his detractors, but he can handle them.

gi django waltzThe last thing I wanted to do after I saw Django was review it.  I just wanted to see it again and maybe write Tarantino a thank you letter.  I still might.  Instead, I called my best friend to tell him what I did;  That I had seen the film in Portland’s Cinetopia and that I watched it with Dechutes Chain Breaker Ale (chosen for both theme and deliciousity).  Well, he hadn’t seen it yet, but we got to talking about other films including The Dark Knight Rises, which I had finally gotten around to renting.  I told him the sad truth.  I didn’t finish it.  I turned it off  and replaced it with my DVD copy of 1989’s Batman (Robert Wuhl FTW!).  I wanted a real Batman movie, not whatever that was.  And I had plenty of complaints, but mostly it was just boring, convoluted, and ultimately lacked style.  It may work for some, but not for me.  I expected something consistent with The Dark Knight and TDKR is really just, passionless and overreaching in my opinion.

So, then began our dispute about whether, or not it is okay to judge a movie before watching it in its entirety.  He believes that a movie is meant to be seen as a whole and only after the entire story is allowed to play out should you be allowed to criticise.  I understand that point of view.  It’s wrong, but I understand it.  The truth is, short of walking out of the theater and demanding a refund, you absolutely can and should be able to determine within minutes of the film’s opening if it is going to be worth the investment of your time.

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Corny

We do it with trailers all the time.  They are supposed to hook us and make us want to see the film, but it’s also part of a screening process.  You are given a few glimpses of images designed to sell you on the movie, but they still have to  use their movie to do it, so you can speculate from just a 30 second spot just how much potential the film has to be good.  You can hypothesise whether all of the good shots from the movie were used in the trailer, whether you’ve been there and seen that, and whether there is enough depth, originality, humor, or vision to set it apart from its competitors.  When I saw the trailer for TDKR my enthusiasm, already deflated by the Bane prologue I had seen, sank into complete disinterest.  We as consumers have to weigh out the options just as production companies determine their next investments.

gi tv setIf you want to write a screenplay, you can.  Nobody can stop you.  If you want to write a movie, you suddenly have a ton of opposition to overcome.  The least of which is selling your vision to someone who thinks they can profit off of it, and that’s only after you’ve proven you can be taken seriously as a writer.  That means you have to get the right contacts, you have to sell what people are buying, you have to compromise, you have to deliver.  In short, you have to abandon the notion of “your movie” and give your investors the product they are after.  Now, I’m not down on the system.  It’s a business and it’s no better or worse than any other industry.  In fact, I think it’s wonderful that art finds a way in the industry and you can find great work in studio productions as well as independent ones.  What I’m saying is it is hard, rigorous work to get in and establish a foothold in the business.  You have to meet the approval of many and pass a series of trials to succeed, but that doesn’t guarantee a good product.  For as much history that we have to refer to and as many how to guides that point out the basics of the craft of telling a good story it would seem that the ones who do the financing, still don’t understand how to differentiate between good solid entertainment and garbage.  Millions of movies come out of the woodwork and we the consumers who drive the industry are left to determine what’s good and bad as though there were no screening process at all and anyone is free to just make and distribute a bad movie, no matter the cost.

gi schlockIn most cases, it’s the indie films that really let me down.  For one, they don’t have quite as much publicity, so I am usually going into it blind, whereas if they had been marketed by a big distribution company I would have been exposed enough to the film to determine if I thought it would be right for me.  They also lack in production value and often are not directed with much finesse.  It’s hard to say exactly where an indie film goes wrong because usually the whole cast and crew is somewhat inexperienced.  You can’t always pinpoint if the writing is bad or if the actor just didn’t land it, or if better photography or more interesting coverage could save a scene that is flat.  Still, I find the same problems in big budget actioners or comedies that I just find unwatchable.  So indie films are no more likely a source of great art than “Big Hollywood” can be blamed for all mindless schlock.

gi netflix instantHere’s the thing: There are so many movies out there mainstream or not, and with several digital media platforms streaming an endless supply of potential entertainment, “consumer me” expects “film you” to get my attention and not let go, lest I find something much, much better out there to occupy my time.  For as hard as it is for a good writer to get noticed, it is an insult to see much of the turds deemed worthy to polish and exhibit because of some x factor that might incite just enough interest to raise a profit.  It becomes necessary, with such a saturated marketplace, to become a little more aware of the quality of product we are offered, especially when we pay to view such content.

gi promoMy first step in personally determining what movies I choose to watch was ignoring the stars.  They are the easiest way to push a bad movie on an audience and they often have least to do with whether, or not the film is any good.  They don’t even know how the movie is going to turn out, yet they are saddled with the task of mustering up enthusiasm in appearances on talk shows.  The things I look to are the writer– because the script is the backbone of the film– and the director, because ultimately they determine the most of what the finished product will be.  The better the track record the more the likelihood that a movie will be worth the ticket price.   It’s unfortunate then that actors work so much more than writers and directors and your trusted handful of artists make so few appearances.

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Screenwriter Drew Pearce’s only feature film credits are all still in production.

It’s also remarkable how often a high-profile tent pole, or other highly anticipated property is entrusted to writers whose IMDB profile credits them with only commercials and a short or two, or some relatively unknown television series.  As a consumer, it’s hard to trust these resume’s when it’s obvious the studios are banking on the appeal and recognition of the property itself, such as the recent slew of Hasbro related films.  Sometimes the producer has directing or writing clout that he uses while giving some young hotshot a chance.  That’s very cool, but also a little tricky and not always reliable.  In the case of TDKR, Chris Nolan is the director who elevated both the franchise and the genre.  He has a fantastic track record, but I also took a cue from the lack of willingness I perceived in regards to making a third installment.  I felt as though he did not want to make the film, but either the money was too good or he was already under contract for a third.

The role of the critic remains essential for helping to sift through all of the options.  They watch it and tell you what you can expect.  You find one of those that you trust and you are golden.  When TDKR finally came out, the critics I read gave reluctant mixed reviews, indicating that the movie had indeed fallen short of the glory of its predecessor. I again opted to hold off on watching the film which continued to show signs of disappointment.  But the critic is just a guide, and if the movie in question isn’t high-profile enough it may go unnoticed by many.  If you want entertainment now, as so many distributors promise, you have to trailblaze a little bit.  This is where it helps to recognize quickly whether or not you may have stumbled on the wrong path.

Again, it starts with scriptwriting and the process that so many readers at production companies and agencies go through just to pick that one promising gem out of the thousands of submissions.  Some people may only request the first ten or thirty pages.  That’s enough to see where the story is going or even if you have a story.  My screenwriting mentor Jonathan O’Brien stated that he could tell in ten pages if a script was going to work, and usually his instinct would be right after the first page.  If a page translates to a minute on-screen as it is supposed to then the same time frame should theoretically apply.  About ten to thirty minutes in, you usually have enough of an idea where this movie is going to determine if you want to continue watching.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you give up on it though and there are several reasons to continue to give it a chance.

gi fight club nortonFor one, the film may be very good at eluding your perceptions and preconceptions.  It is entirely possible that a film is exceptionally good and you don’t know it until you reflect on it later.  These movies you may downright loathe, but that feeling is rooted in uncertainty over what is being conveyed rather than the overall quality of the piece.  I remember the first time I saw Fight Club, I was very uncomfortable and found it tedious at times to the point of near torture.  I had empathized so much with Edward Norton’s character that it really put me through the wringer and only near the end did I get the chance to appreciate one of the most rewatchable and influential films of my lifetime, certainly a personal favorite.  If I had turned it off I’m sure I would be likely to catch it at some point years later and maybe have an entirely different experience.  So judgement should not be considered final even if it is swift and harsh.  Still, this is not the type of movie I am referring to when I talk about “giving up” on a movie.

gi poster bottlerocketYou may have even a more passive experience that leads closer to boredom than anguish, just out of the uncertainty of whether there is indeed a story.  Wes Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, but I have to be honest that I rarely “get it” the first time around.  His movies are so subtle with such a slow burn.  If you aren’t the stop and smell the roses type, it can be difficult to appreciate right off, but the craft is certainly there, buried among layers of atmosphere and keen observation.  Only after I’ve finished watching one of his films am I really able to start processing all that I have seen in a manageable context.  On the flip side, there are sometimes terrible movies, that are also at least good enough with craft, that even though you know it’s a mind numbing waste of time they manage to bait you into watching a littler longer and a littler longer until finally you reach the climax and before you know it your whole afternoon is gone.  They tricked you.  Because they had a basic understanding of formula, they were able to tell their mediocre story just well enough to keep you from looking for something else to do.

Popular opinion is the basic model we are expected to follow on sites like Netflix and amazon.com.  Other viewers’ scoring based on a five star system indicates the average rating given to a particular movie.  Unfortunately, right out the gate you can see a problem with the type of streaming options that are available.  The large majority of instant options get one and two star ratings.  Redbox offers cheap rentals, but mostly the same kind of sub par offerings with the exception of possibly a couple of good new releases and an occasional pleasant surprise.  When you are streaming entertainment that is part of a monthly service fee, giving up on a movie is as easy as changing the channel.  It’s harder if you’ve paid a buck twenty or up to four dollars to rent it.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t do it.  I’m serious about this.  A two star rating might make you feel better about not liking a film, but by chosing to give it a chance you showed that you are capable of ignoring public opinion.  If you turn that ability the other way and ignore high ratings as well it can be very freeing.  Like critics, rating systems based on public opinion can be great clues, but they are not fool-proof.  You decide what you want to see, but that power of decision doesn’t begin and end with pressing play.

I would never write a review for a movie that I haven’t seen from start to finish.  That is absolutely messed up.  But I have judged several, movies often within the first ten minutes, thereby adding days to my life.  I take the idea that a film should be judged in its entirety from a different perspective.  Even if a film miraculously has a terrific ending that is massively inconsistent with its beginning, the beginning is still decisively bad.  Even after finishing the movie on a good note there will still be that one thing–that it being horrible thing– that ruins it.  So if you’re bored and no longer care how the movie ends, that’s a good indication that it not only is a bad film for failing to hold your attention, but there is really no need to continue devoting your time to it.  After all, it’s there for your entertainment, and unlike a boring party guest, you can just shut it off and look the other way.  Why would you continue to watch something that you already know is not working.  Your rental money is already spent and will be waisted either way, might as well redeem what time you still can.

gi batmanI gave  about an hour to TDKR before pulling the plug shortly after Batman makes his unimpressive first appearance.  I had been shuffling scenes and rewriting the film in my mind, from the very beginning.  This was not the Batman I wanted to see and I yearned for a better adaptation, which is why I pulled out my copy of Batman and saved the evening with moody atmosphere, wonderful toys and one of film’s most quotable goofballs, Alexander Knox.

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“Lieutenant, is there a six foot bat in Gotham City? And if so, is he on the police payroll? And if so, what’s he pulling down… after taxes?”

People say that I missed most of the movie and that it all comes together, but most of them also agree that it doesn’t come together very well.  I certainly didn’t want to see another two hours of what I had been watching and one hour is way too much time to hold off an audience before allowing a film to become acceptable, especially in the wake of TDK.

Cutting your losses and saying goodbye to that rental money is the hardest thing.  Judging a film you only partially watched is easy.  It’s already been determined that it failed to entertain you.  You paid your money and went in with good intentions.  The movie started and set everything up and at some point you realized “this is really bad.”  Why should you have to sit idly through the entire production just to feel justified in your feelings of betrayal?  You shouldn’t.  To me, that bad, used portion of the movie and the lack of motivation to continue watching is evidence enough.  If you don’t like your Starbucks latte, you don’t drink the whole thing before complaining.  It’s better to say,” it was so bad I stopped drinking it,” than to hand them an empty cup and shrug.

Movie Review: These Amazing Shadows

These Amazing Shadows is a tantalizing title.  Just the provocation of thought it initiates is worthy of praise.  I readily grasped the concept that films are sort of shadows of the past, but it never had occurred to me that movies literally are shadows.  The documentary is an introduction to the Library of Congress’s initiative to salvage and preserve films that a board of directors deems worthy of induction into the National Film Registry.

It’s easy to dismiss this film as just another list production, like the stuff you find and watch on TV when nothing else is on.  At times it feels like that sort of show just by its nature, but even though it looks like a bunch of people rattling off anecdotes to clips of popular and nostalgic films, it does run deeper than that.  First of all, the clips (like it or not) are evocative.  There is some powerful stuff that plays on our connections to the film’s portrayed, the films we grew up on.  Secondly there is the bigger story of the National Film Registry and why it exists.

It all started with the debate over the preservation of film as artwork when black and whites became colorized, which met with controversy.  Film came to be identified as an art form, but also a crucial medium, a uniting force and a neglected diminishing archive of American history.  So, the National Film Registry was Born and dedicated to the preservation of film, specifically those that have historical, cultural or aesthetic significance.  The mission is interesting, but what happens when the highlight reel element meets the testimonies of board members and film makers is an examination of history led by the presence and awareness of all kinds of films that really shaped human thought and created history, as much as reflected it.

t’s not a flashy movie, or the in-your-face science and logic defying “documentary” that has become so prevalent.  It doesn’t dare you to watch or entice you with anything really, besides a slight manipulation near the end where it goes into the destructive power of film and if “bad” films should be protected.  This documentary is made for those who are interested in the place of film in American history.  If you are, then These Amazing Shadows is worth watching.  If you aren’t, you really should be.

Movie Review: Changing Lanes

Changing Lanes is one of those films where the two protagonists duke it out under escalating circumstances that threaten to completely ruin their lives.  One man (Samuel Jackson) is an is a divorced alcoholic fighting for custody of his kids.  The other is a blissfully unaware lawyer (Ben Affleck) who wakes up to some dark truths about his business and how greedy people succeed.

These characters struggle with their conditions in thought provoking ways that raise philosophical questions without overduing it or neglecting the momentum of the story.  By not pushing too hard on the philosophy aspect, it becomes a very philosophical movie, one with a real resolution that brings a proper end to the drama of the film.

It all starts with a freeway accident between two strangers with important court dates.  Gavin leaves Doyle high and dry and as a result Doyle misses a custody hearing.  Gavin’s day gets worse when he realizes a crucial file for his case was left with Doyle at the scene of the accident.  The two then irrationally, but understandably, try to bully/get back at each other as Gavin attempts to get his file back.

The rising conflict is a little harder to watch.  On the other hand the film does a terrific job of making you care about the characters and still understand that they are bringing all of this trouble onto themselves and that they deserve each other.  For this reason their constant unraveling is endurable and the depth of thought beneath the tumult makes it worth watching and investing in.

It’s a delicate sort of film and this movie was handled by a surgeon.  The story and screenplay credit goes to Chap Taylor, although Michael Tolkin gets screenplay credit as well and may have been the surgical hands involved. A