MYSTERIES BOTH SECULAR AND DIVINE: Reviews of Angels and Demons and State of Play

The producers, director, and writers would have you believe that the intended audience for Angels & Demons are those who find religious issues to be of interest. But in reality, the actual audience for this movie are people who like crossword puzzles, anagrams and other word games. The real theme of the movie is not whether science and religion can be reconciled (in fact, whenever the dialog drifts to rel v. sci it all gets pretty silly), it’s what does this clue; that word hideously branded into a cardinal’s chest; that dead body mutilated and murdered in that way mean, and how will it lead Tom Hanks to what obscure bit of art history that will lead him to the bad guy. Angels and Demons is a perfectly acceptable suspense thriller that is actually very entertaining until the ending whereupon we are blessed (blessed, get it?, get it?) with one of those twists that renders everything that has come before it ridiculously unbelievable. The acting is perfectly fine with Stellan Skarsgard taking the honors. However, the real standout performance is the incredible recreation of the Vatican. The low point of the film is Armin Mueller-Stahl’s last line which is a paraphrase of Deborah Kerr’s final words in Tea and Sympathy (where she tells a teenager she is about to deflower “Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will…be kind”). It’s simply too close not to believe that someone didn’t know.

I consider the original version of State of Play to be one of the great mini series in TV history. So I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie version. The main reason it worked as well as it did for me was that the authors (screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gillroy and Billy Ray) found an absolutely brilliant American parallel scandal to put at the heart of the drama, an attempt by a Big Brother type company to win a government contract to take over domestic spying. And whenever the movie focuses on the central mystery of how two apparently unrelated deaths are intrinsically linked, it’s riveting (the direction by Kevin McDonald is quite satisfactory). It falters when it comes to characterization. Russell Crowe plays one of those scruffy reporters who always looks like he just got out of bed; you know, the kind who don’t play by the rules, but we forgive him because he brings down people like Nixon? The character’s a cliché and if he’s not a stereotype, he should be. The up and coming blogger is played by Rachel McAdams and she has no real character whatsoever; she’s a less developed version of one of those Dirty Harry sidekicks, though in this movie she’s allowed a better fate. The little tete a tetes the two have over the old journalism versus the new journalism never catch fire because the dialogue is the same paint by numbers argument that comes up whenever any new technology is introduced, the old “mark my words, the introduction of sound will be the death of the movies” type stuff. The acting honors are taken by Helen Mirren as the hard as nails editor and Justin Bateman as a slimy bisexual lobbyist. Ben Affleck is becoming more and more interesting as he seems to be taking a page from the Matt Damon play book: be an ensemble player rather than a star. All in all, a fun ride.

Son of Miscellany


The LA Times had an article today about the opening of the musical The Producers in Germany. Nobody had dared to do it before and the producer, Falke Walter, had to dip into his own pocket when he couldn’t find a backer. But it’s a hit and has been extended for four weeks.


Michael Ross, who wrote for All in the Family (winning an Emmy for the episode The Bunkers and the Swingers) and helped bring Three’s Company to the U.S. by adapting the British TV series Man About the House, has died.


I finished the biography, Bloody Sam, by Marshall Fine. What a sad and pathetic life. Someone who could have given us years of great films in many ways threw away his life through alcohol and cocaine.

I remember seeing his film The Osterman Weekend, not liking it partly because I never really understood the plot. It was nice to know that even Robert Ludlam, who wrote the book, knew the plot never made sense. Sam wanted to rewrite the script, but his version was not accepted by the producers, but a lot of people thought it didn’t matter, that there was no way anyone could have made the script make sense.


OUTRAGE! ??? Eh, not so much.

James Rainey had a column in the LA Times today about the movie Outrage and the idea of outing politicians and others who are closeted homosexuals. It didn’t really have much to add to the debate and was so bland one wonders why he wrote the article in the first place. Actually, the fact that this article appeared once the movie had left the theaters kind of shows that the filmmaker Kirby Dick might be right.


Marc Rocco, son of Alex Rocco, and producer and director of Where The Day Takes You has died.

Edward J. Lasko who wrote for such TV series as The Big Valley, Mission: Impossible, The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels has died.


I just found out through my best friend that Jimmy Stewart was first offered the Ben Johnson part in The Last Picture Show, but turned it down. I loved Ben Johnson in the movie, but how good would Stewart have been. Stewart was also offered the lead in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a part that went to Jason Robards–Stewart would have been great in that as well.

Is This Any Way to Sell A Screenplay Deux

In following up on my entry about how to get a screenplay sold, I asked the other authors on the screenwriting yahoo group to provide a list of screenwriters who had made it by looking at the trades, deciding what was being sold and then writing a screenplay that fit those categories. He didn’t. I in turn then provided a list of screenwriters (Woody Allen, John Sayles, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Schraeder, Robert Benton) who did not make it as screenwriters using the studying the trades method.
In the end, my conclusion is that there is more than one way to skin a cat and one has to do what works best for oneself. My observation is that most make it based on who they meet or the connections they make and that as a writer, it’s best to write something you want to write, and then try to find the market for it. But there are other ways and one is not necessarily any better than the other.
Whenever anybody says there’s only one way to get into heaven, my red flag goes up.



Yesterday I went up to the Royal to see O’Horten (highly recommend, review to come in the future) and had trouble crossing the street to get to the theater because it had all been blocked off because the President was heading our way. I actually got to see him wave as he went by.


For a list of recommended movies from Cannes:


LACMA is having an incredible series of French film noir and crime films. I’ve seen most of them and they are all must sees for anyone serious about movies.


Jane Randolph, who provided two of the scariest moments in film in the 1940’s (the walk to a bus and a swimming pool scene in the movie The Cat People) has passed on.

Rolf K. McPherson, son of Aimee Semple McPherson, has also passed on.


Live drama is returning to the U.K. Sky Arts Theater Live is planning to air six new one act plays.


Last night I was watching The Professionals, the western directed and written by Richard Brooks about a group of anti-heroes hired by a millionaire to rescue his kidnapped wife from a Mexican revolutionary. About a third of the way through I figured out that the whole thing, though adapted from a book by Frank O’Rourke, is just a western version of the Trojan War. A pretty good idea that worked well.

Is this any way to sell a screenplay?

Over the last week, I got into a tit for tat e-mail dialog in one of those yahoo groups about how to make it as a screenwriter. One person posted an entry that posited that if a screenwriter was serious about earning a living in the biz, a writer needed to read the Trades (such as Variety), see what studios and productions companies were buying and write a screenplay to fit what they were looking for. At first there seemed something logical about it all, but I was troubled. I couldn’t really argue against it, but I did mention a few things that I thought was wrong with his approach: such that once the Trades figure out what everyone is buying, that usually means the buying spree for that type of film is over and people are moving on to something new; that it’s not just that easy to right something to fit a predetermined category (I mentioned the scene in Sunset Boulevard where the screenwriter was writing something he thought was what everyone was looking for and it was just that approach that doomed his writing–and see what happened to him); and that in actuality, wouldn’t it be much more logical not to write what the Trades said producers were looking for now, but to write what the next big thing was, which is no easy feat. I let the matter drop at this point.

But then I started thinking more about it. I started going over all the bios I had read of writers; the interviews I had read; the articles; etc. and I just couldn’t come up with any writer who had sold screenplays or got them done on the basis of studying the Trades and then writing a screenplay based on what the studios and other producers were buying. I decided to e-mail the group and ask if the original person who suggested this method of marketing one’s work could come up with a list of writers who actually did it this way. I shall update the blog as I hear.

BAD GIRLS: Movie reviews of Julia and Easy Virtue

What do you do with a problem like Julia? Half the time I found myself screaming at the screen at how ridiculous and inexcusably stupid the seemingly never ending plot turns were. The other half I was riveted to my seat just having to know how the whole damn thing was going to turn out. Julia is an alcoholic barfly (what my father once called a good time girl) with the sociopathic tendency to lie and manipulate people into getting what she wants. The irony is that she’s so successful at it, fascinatingly so at times, it just keeps digging her in deeper where she has to lie to fix the problems caused by her previous lies (just like that great sociopathic liar Craig’s Wife played by Rosalind Russell). Whatever one may think of the plot, the real driving force of the movie is the magnificent Tilda Swinton. She does one of those Bette Davis, go for broke, I don’t give a damn what I look like, performances. It’s written by Michael Collins, Camille Natta, Aude Py and Erick Zonca (maybe the number of writers is why there are so many plot turns) and directed by Zonca (who directed the beautiful The Dreamlife of Angels). In the end, one has no choice but to admit it is highly entertaining in spite of the questionable plot runs and an ending that seems too curt, as if the authors had just gotten too exhausted to fully resolve things.

Easy Virtue is based on a play by the witty Noel Coward, though the movie doesn’t seem to have that much wit to it. Whether this is Coward’s fault or the adaptor’s (Sheridan Jobbins and Stephan Elliot) is unclear since I’m not familiar with the source material. In the end, one spends most of the movie watching a young woman try to ingratiate herself into a family when she is so obviously so out of their league. There’s no suspense because you want the character to fail and it can be a little annoying spending an hour and a half waiting for someone to realize the obvious. The acting is fine, with Colin Firth (as a shell shocked war veteran that does a wicked tango); Jim McManus (as a dipsomaniac butler); and Kirsten Scott Thomas (as the “there’ll always be an England” aristocrat) taking the honors. Jessica Biel, somewhat ironically, is a bit out of her league, but she has such luscious lips and is so wonderfully American, you know she’s going to win the battle.

May 26, 2009, Cannes, Regent, Coverage, Peckinpah and Scrabble

I haven’t updated things in a while, so thought I just let my mind and fingers wander and try to come up with something to say.

I was excited to hear that Michael Haneke, who along with Pedro Almodovar, are my favorite filmmakers working today, won the Palme d’Or for his film The White Handkerchief.

For a complete list of Cannes winners

I had a meeting with a director this week who is excited about my script Rough Trade and wants to start promoting it as his next project. The meeting was great and very ego building. Of course, all of us in the industry know that this is a who knows situation, but keep your fingers crossed for me. The main thing we’re looking for is a producer who loves the script and knows how to raise money. Hey, we can dream, can’t we?

I’m been inundated with scripts to read from Here! Networks/Regent, Final Draft and it looks like Slamdance is about to start up with coverage work. It’s great, though daunting at the same time. Regent had a great article in the LA Times last week about how they are increasing their distribution of foreign, independent and art house movies even in this day of difficult economics.

I was involved in a wicket Scrabble Game on Monday. I started out with the word Swollen, using all my letters and on a triple word score (76 points). I only mention this to show you have desparate I am to come up with something to put in my blog.

I’m almost through with the biography of Sam Peckinpah. He’s about to direct the Osterman Weekend. As I’ve been saying, I also just read a book on the making of Rebel Without a Cause and on Orson Welles and I no longer feel as sorry for these directors as I do for the studios, producers, writers and actors who had to put up with them. One interesting bit of trivia: the actor who played Mapache, Emilio Fernandez, is one of Mexico’s most important filmmakers and was the model for the Oscar statuette.

Three Gays in May: Reviews of Outrage, Little Ashes and The New Twenty

Outrage is a conspiracy thriller disguised as a documentary. Powerful and ultimately moving and a movie whose main thesis was proven the day it opened. According to writer/director Kirby Dick, the main stream media is in a conspiracy to not cover the sex lives of closeted gay politicians (actually, a better semantic choice of words would be “gentlemen’s agreement”, but that doesn’t have the same “zing goes the strings of my heart” ring to it). One of the main politicians covered is Charlie Crist, the Governor of Florida, who has always managed to dodge the gay bullet over the years by growing beards (get it? get it?). A few days after Outrage opened, Crist announced he would not run for Governor again, but would run for the Senate in 2010 (with the implication that he might run for President in 2016). In spite of that announcement, not even the biased liberal press mentioned this movie.

Little Ashes is a fascinating study of serendipity and zeitgeist, a moment in time when fate, luck, coincidence, etc. brings together a group of people that change the world. In this case, the people are the great painter Salvador Dali; the great movie director Luis Bunuel; and the great playwright and poet Frederico Garcia Lorca and the world they changed is the world of art. The structure of the story is the love triangle—Bunuel discovers Dali and has a bromance with him, but it’s Garcia Lorca who wins Dali’s heart (though Dali’s heart tends to resemble one of those melted watches that later appeared in his painting). The result is that Bunuel throws a hissy fit and tries to get a man to suck his dick (it sounds silly, but it works). But when Dali can’t bring himself to take it up the ass, he and Bunuel run off to Paris together and make the movie Un chien andalou, which the writer and director (Phillippa Goslett and Paul Morrison respectively) make a convincing case that it was meant to ridicule Garcia Lorca. Dali then has a mental breakdown and gets married (as so often happens, of course). It’s a lovely, lyrical film just to look at with exquisite period detail (very reminiscent of the opening scenes of Brideshead Revisited). The acting, especially that of Matthew McNulty as Bunuel and Javier Beltran as Garcia Lorca, is excellent. But the movie eventually loses some steam. Dali and Garcia Lorca’s chaste love affair grows as annoying as the ones in Another Country and Maurice (it’s one of these odd gay films in which the only real sex is between a man and woman—what’s up with that?). And when Dali has his breakdown, neither Goslett or Morrison seem to know what to do with him. It’s a good film, but in the end, it might actually have worked better as a television mini-series.

I saw the New Twenty at the Outfest Film Festival in 2008. I saw it right after I saw the film Antarctica, the Israeli film by Yari Hochner. Both are ensembles films and as much as I appreciate that Ishmael Chawla, who co-wrote it, and Chris Mason Johnson, who co-wrote and directed it, poured their hearts and souls into it, I have to be honest and say that all I could really think is how fascinating it is that one filmmaker can get it so right (Antarctica) and one filmmaker can get it so wrong (The New Twenty). The New Twenty is about a group of friends from college who for some reason that is never quite convincing, are still friends seven years later. Not only is it hard to buy that they’d still be hanging out together, the fact that they still are actually made me think much, much less of them (“get a life” was the phrase I kept wanting to yell at them). The group is so insular that one character has a bachelor party in which the only people who attend are members of the group. The most unbelievable character is Colin Fickes, a rolly polly gay man with an inferiority complex. Not only is it hard to believe he’s still included in the group, it’s impossible to believe he would have been part of it in college. There’s also a romance between an HIV negative and HIV positive man that seems twenty years out of date and which consists mainly of the two staring at each other through clinched teeth (I give them a month at the most). It’s heartfelt and sincere, and though I didn’t care for it, there’s nothing to suggest that Chawla and Johnson lack talent. It’s more that the whole project seems so far behind what other writers and directors are doing at the moment.

Reviews of Rudo y Cursi and Revanche

Rudo y Cursi: Rudo and Cursi are the nicknames (Rough and Vulgar) of two brothers from the sticks in Mexico who are discovered by a freelance scout and end up on opposite soccer (excuse me, football) teams. It’s very amusing with lots of laughs. The brothers are played by Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, from Y tu mamá también, and they don’t kiss this time except in a brotherly way (which is a wise decision since they do play brothers, after all). The two actors seem to be having a whale of a good time playing these roles, as well as just being in a movie together, and their enjoyment is infectious. But in the end, it’s unclear what the audience is supposed to take away with them. The structure, plot outline and character development screams out that the brothers are going to have character arcs that are going to make them realize something about something; but in the end, they don’t seem to realize anything about anything. So when all is said and done, it’s a fun time, but it ends up being little more than a shaggy dog story without a punch line. Written by Carlos (Y tu mamá también) Cuarόn, who also directed.

Revanche: As the film Scream pointed out, when someone says “I’ll be right back” in a horror movie, that means they are the next do die. In the same way, in a bank robbery movie when someone says “Nothing can go wrong”, something really, really, really bad is going to happen. Alex works in a whorehouse (but not as a pimp) and falls in love with Tamara, a prostitute and illegal alien. When push comes to shove and they have to run away from the cathouse owner, Alex robs and bank and a policeman unintentionally shoots and kills Tamara. It then becomes a story of a group of people (the bank robber, the policeman who killed his girlfriend, the policeman’s wife), all trying to find meaning and salvation in a world where they’re not sure God exists (no one deals with religion and Christianity in movies as seriously as the worldly, secular Europeans do). A powerful and moving story of redemption with an empathetic screenplay by Gőtz Spielman, who also directed.