WHERE HAVE ALL THE STRONG WOMEN GONE (Apparently to TV, though not to the AFI)


Two interesting articles in the LA Times.
One is an excellent article by Mary McNamara as to the different ways women characters are portrayed in movies as opposed to television (deftly called the Shrew versus Shrewd). I know what she means. I often read romantic comedies for contests and a production company and instead of sympathizing with them, I often want to say, isn’t it time for you to get a life rather than revolving your whole existence around the lack of a man in it. McNamara also does a good job of historical perspective by reminding people that knocking women off their pedestal is nothing new. This brought Katherine Hepburn back from being box office poison with The Philadelphia Story and was especially a common theme about women in film after WWII in which society wanted women to stop working and go back to being barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.
Patrick Goldstein in The Big Picture wrote an article about the AFI which seems to be spot on. I remember when the AFI annual award began and I always used to look forward to it. It was one of the most intelligent awards show on television recognizing some of the most remarkable people in show business. But it lost its lustre as the honorees got younger and seemed to be chosen for ratings sake. Goldstein has a great point: if the purpose of the AFI award is to honor those who have contributed to the art of cinema in significant ways, then why haven’t any artists other than directors and actors been singled out: where are the awards that should go to writers, cinematographers and composers. And while we’re on the subject, costume and set designers, editors, etc. The Oscars often aren’t much better, but they have given special awards to editors and set designers (and in their defense, most of the people mentioned by Goldstein that are overlooked by AFI have already won an Oscar). However, he fails to mention that women are rarely rewarded by the AFI which has been heavily skewed toward men.

LOOK AT ME: Why are the Europeans better at making films about writers


In continuing on my Netflix viewing, I came across a recent French film Look at Me about a writer/publisher and his relationship with his insecure overweight daughter whom he constantly demeans in a subtle yet ruthless manner. The excellent screenplay is by the writing team of Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui who also wrote The Taste of Others. The two also starred in both films and Jaoui also directed both.

What struck me about the movie though is that it is about the writing world, a story about a writer and his daughter and his dealings with another writer and that writer’s wife. It’s intelligent and engrossing. And unlike any film in the U.S. on the subject of writers.

What I would like to know is why, when Europe makes movies about writers, we get this and movies like Reprise and Late August, Early April, among others, and in the U.S. we get The Shining and other movies about horror novelists with writer’s block?

I once read, I believe in the New Yorker, though it was so long ago I can’t be sure I’m right, that when a book in France wins one of their writing awards, it instantly becomes a best selle; one can’t find the book stocked in bookstores; and everyone starts talking about it. I have never read the same about a book that wins the Pullitzer Prize or National Book Award. So is this why the Europeans can take writers in movies so much more seriously? Because they take writers so much more seriously in every day life?

I read and do coverage for a production company and contests (where many screenplays, especially the good ones, are not written with commerciality in mind or whether there is an audience for their subject matter) and in thinking about it, I can’t really remember anybody even writing a screenplay about this subject much, if at all. Why is that? Could it be because screenwriters don’t know very much about the writing world outside screenwriting? Are we that insular? How many screenwriters in the U.S. even have novelists and short story writers, much less poets, as friends? How many screenwriters have even had a novel published or even written one (unless it’s to try and get their screenplay purchased)? Could it be that in the U.S., there is such a complete lack of interaction between these two worlds that it would never even occur to screenwriters to write about this subjec matter? After all, if one doesn’t even know a novelist, how can one write about them?

Of course, I’m not any better. I’ve never written a screenplay about a novelist or the literary world. I don’t really have any novelist friends. I am that insular, perhaps. And I don’t live in Europe, so the reality could be totally different than what I’m describing here. But I do think America has developed an attitue toward novelists and poets in which we don’t really consider them that important to society.

It’s not that we don’t read in the U.S. Book sales are up and though the economy has affected publishing like all other businesses, people can still be seen looking at novels in coffee shops and on busses (except that I’m writing this in L.A. and according to Joan Didion no one takes the bus here).

TOYS ‘R US: Reviews of Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince


A Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian is more fun than a barrel of monkeys (not an easy feat since there are only two in the movie). It’s a sequel and one of those sequels that is better than the original. This is mainly due to a brilliant performance by Hank Azaria as an even more fey Boris Karloff (if that’s possible) with a lisp so pronounced it’s like he has a tea kettle in his mouth. There is also crack comic timing from Ben Stiller (especially demonstrated in scenes with Jonah Hill and Ricky Gervais) and a performance from Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart that screams star turn. Much of the success has to be attributed to the silly, but would you have it any other way, script by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (you know, the gay guy from I Love You, Man; Garant also acts, the two play, appropriately enough, Orville and Wilbur Wright—if they can write a silly script, they can play people who designed a silly looking airplane). The downside of the film is that the two characters played by Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan have nothing to do and proceed not to do it (there are times when they even seem to be reciting their lines like they’re embarrassed to be in a movie that only seems to be including them because they had such an indelible presence in the first one, but this is L.A. after all where the only thing more unforgivable than failure is success).

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is entertaining enough, though the most entertaining aspects of it are the characters showing they have more problems controlling their hormones than controlling their wands (I would say pun intended, but this is a family movie and the hormones never go below the neck). The three heroes who do little but fight off the evil Voldomor must now fight off puberty; they find both a losing battle. The Harry Potter franchise has never been that exciting to me, so my views are probably irrelevant. But I always felt the plots were sort of clunky, almost as if the author J.K. Rowling was kind of winging it, making it all up as she went along and hoping nobody would notice (and based on ticket receipts, most people haven’t, so what does that say about me). It doesn’t have the controlled and well thought out mythology of The Lord of the Rings, say. There is a wonderful performance (almost a redundant statement) by Jim Broadbent as a quirky professor straight out of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Tom Brown’s School Days. He first appears as an overstuffed armchair and even when he becomes human again, he still seems like an overstuffed armchair. His appearance is accompanied by a wonderful sequence in which a destroyed house gets put back together again, with one little bobble from a chandelier trying desperately to get out from under Harry Potter’s iconic tennis shoe to rejoin his mates. And two fun scenes: one in a shop where Ron Weasley’s twin brothers have become wizard capitalists (in both senses of the word) and still won’t show their brother any respect (I guess, it’s not always who you know after all) and a kind of soccer game played on broomsticks (though they become unfortunately phallic at the worse times—but this is puberty after all, so it may be appropriate). The music by Nicholas Hooper is exciting and moving, especially over the end credits.

Exiles, Nightwatch, Party Down, Torchwood


Still doing the netflix things and avoiding the high prices at the movie theaters, though I did take in Harry Potter, which hopefully I’ll have a full review of soon. And Departures is going to open at the Fairfax, thank god. I’ve been wanting to see that for ages.
I watched Exiles, written and directed by Tony Gatlif and starring the hot young French star Romain (full frontal) Duris known for such movies as The Beat That My Heart Skipped and L’auberge espagnole. He plays one half of a couple on the road to Algiers because Romain’s grandfather used to live there but had to leave for political reasons (Hope and Crosby it ain’t). The two make their way there on foot, possibly for political reasons, you know, to show that they are one with the lower classes (if you’ve seen Sullivan’s Travels, you get the gist). Whether one likes the film will probably depend on whether one finds the young lovers cute, adorable and full of life. I found them somewhat annoying as well as disingenuous; no matter how sincere they acted, they just seemed like tourists who were playacting at mingling with the working class (see the aforementioned Sullivan’s Travels, though in the Preston Sturgess comedy, that was the whole point). As a result, the most interesting part of the movie was not the two hot young French leads who’s only real worry is their next film role, but everything around them. I’m being cruel. Everybody’s heart is in the right place, it just didn’t connect for me like The Motorcycle Diaries did.
I then saw Nightwatch, which was written and directed by Danish writer/director Ole Bornedal, apparently based on his earlier movie of the same name (though in Danish). It manages to get some scares going by the end and one wants to know how the whole thing turns out, but it really doesn’t work. The main problem, at least for me, is that Ewan McGregor’s character was simply not interesting (and Patricia Arquette didn’t fair much better). Which was too bad because they were surrounded by characters that were, played by Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte and Brad Dourif. I talked to someone who met Brad Dourif . Dourif said that it originally was a good script, but that it didn’t end up that way (I think the word “abortion” was used, but the original source is so distant, that might not be anywhere near the truth). Steven Soderbergh worked on the script, and it might be interesting to see if that’s what went wrong or if that’s why what worked in it worked. However, I am now interested in seeing the original. It looks like Bornedal went back to Denmark to make movies, so maybe it was a good thing the movie turned out so badly.
I am also engrossed in two TV series. The first is Party Down on Starz, about a group of Hollywood wannabees working as caterers. The central character Adam Scott is a once promising actor who is only now known for a line he made famous in a beer commercial, but whose career didn’t even crash and burned, it just ran out of gas, and now he no longer wants to act. It also has Jane Lynch in it which is reason enough to see it. It’s very funny and addicting even if the characters are so incompetent as caterers it’s hard to believe they can get hired (even Maxwell Smart and Inspector Clouseau maintained their status quo because, as incompetent as they were, they always got the bad guy).
The other series is the five part Torchwood, Children of Earth, starring everyone’s favorite universal traveler who will sleep with any species and any sex (take that Captain Kirk). To say I’m hooked is an understatement. The characters are so exciting and vivid and the story so suspenseful, I can’t wait until tonight to see Part III.

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME: GRAPHIC NOVELS: THE NEW PULP FICTION SOURCE FOR MOVIES?


There was an interesting article in the L.A. Times on Monday, July 20th about the author Donald E. Westlake, who wrote detective novels and pulp fiction. He is also noted for being the screenwriter of or his books being the basis of such movies as Point Blank, The Hot Rock, The Stepfather, The Grifters and Payback. The article was about a series of graphic novels being adapted from his novels with a hero by the name of Parker, Westlake’s signature character. When it come to Hollywood, though, Westlake would let a novel with Parker be adapted to the screen, but only if they changed the name (Point Blank and Payback). I guess he didn’t trust Hollywood–go figure.
But now he has allowed an illustrator Darwyn Cooke and a book editor Scott Dumbier to adapt his books into graphic novels, and allowing them to use Parker’s name instead of changing it.
What interested me here is that I have a friend who noticed that in the 1930’s and up to and especially in the 1950’s, Hollywood (as well as France) would often base movies on pulp fiction stories and novels (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain to name but a bare few). In fact, this was a prime source of movie stories and it eventually gave rise to what is now called Film Noir (it still is, especially in France). My friend believes that graphic novels are replacing these pulp writers as a source for movies and that they will have the same impact as the pulp fiction did. And it’s not just superhero graphic novels like Batman and Spiderman. Movies such as A History of Violence, Persopolis and Road to Perdition are all adapted from Graphic Novels.
So for those who look down on graphic novels, remember, people like you looked down on pulp fiction 1950’s and see what it gained you.

ORIGINAL CASTING FOR FRENCH CONNECTION


I love to hear about who was originally cast or wanted for different movies. I was watching an interview with William Friedkin who was talking about the French Connection. He first wanted Jimmy Breslin as Popeye Doyle because of the resemblance. When that didn’t work out, he went with Peter Boyle, who had just completed Joe, but Boyle wanted to now play romantic leads (that may have been a little facetious on Friedkin’s part, but the point is clear). Then Paul Newman, who would cost too much. The producer then told Friedkin just to cast someone good who would meet the budget. Friedkan said he didn’t think of Gene Hackman, that he was suggested by his agent. Friedkin said that the producer of Everybody Loves Raymond told him that every day Boyle would say what an awful mistake he had made in turning down The French Connection.

WHATEVER WORKS AND WHATEVER DOESN’T: Reviews of Whatever Works and Surveillance


Whatever Works is the latest film (though it was written something like forty years ago) from the near legendary writer/director Woody Allen; i.e., screenwriters, never throw out your old scripts, you never know when they might come in handy. I went with a friend who pretty much summarized my feeling for the movie when she said, “I didn’t like it, but I didn’t hate it”. There’s probably no way I can improve on that. Though the movie doesn’t really work, by the time it’s all over, one actually is moved by the all these different people finding love and relationships that actually work for them. The central problem I had is Larry David who at first would seem the perfect person to cast as a misanthrope. But he tends to say all his lines on the same yelling, boisterous level that he becomes tiring and actually misses most of the comedy (it was originally written for Zero Mostel and you can almost hear these lines drip off his tart tongue). The rest of the cast are perfectly fine, but the story never really comes alive until Ed Begley, Jr. shows up and gives the bravura performance. Here Allen does something I never thought I’d see him do: give a sympathetic portrait of a gay man (though he’s still a bit too squeamish to actually have them kiss).

Surveillance was written by Keith Harper and co-written by director Jennifer Chambers Lynch (who is David Lynch’s daughter—there, I said it, now we don’t have to refer to it again, because it really should be irrelevant). It’s about two FBI agents called to a small town that is the victim of a serial killer. It’s a first script by Harper, who also plays a policeman in the movie. The movie has one incredible sequence when two sadistic cops, who tend to stop miscellaneous out of town drivers and psychologically fuck with them, target two cars, one with a family and one with two hopped up druggies, and then everyone is attacked by two serial killers. This sequence shows what the movie could have been, but wasn’t. Bill Pullman, one of the agents, has his partner Julia Ormond set up three rooms with three video cameras so three witnesses can be interrogated at once. One would think that such a set up would cut the time in telling the story by a third—one would be wrong. Everything slows to a crawl and it takes forever to get the full plot. The big twist, though it makes enough acceptable sense, is silly. The climax isn’t helped by a poor performance by Bill Pullman and an evil lesbian straight out of the 1970’s (note to Harper and Lynch, even Woody Allen isn’t this stuck in the past and his script is 40 years old).

WHAT JUST HAPPENED?


I just picked up and started reading the book What Just Happened?, the memoirs of Art Linson, the producer of such movies as Fight Club, Heat and Into the Wild.
I haven’t gotten very far, but I did find one thing interesting. He left one place and went to another to start producing films. His first step was to come up with product. What I thought was odd was that instead of finding a screenplay he liked, he called David Mamet and asked him to come up with an idea, to write a screenplay from scratch (which eventually became The Edge). What immediately came to mind is no wonder Hollywood is in such a pickle. They waist time creating product rather than finding it. Why spend all that money on developing something from scratch, when one can find plenty of quality screenplays already written.

ADULT DRAMAS WHERE ART THOU


I’m continuing on with my Netflix/On Demand movie watching (still trying to conserve money) and last night I watched Olivier Assayas’s Late August, Early September and Blindness. I had seen Late August… before, but though I remember liking it, I couldn’t quite remember it. But seeing it again, all the pleasure came rushing back. This is a type of film I usually only see coming out of Europe, mainly France. It’s not about anything but people relating to one another, strong character driven stories, non-genre, what’s often called adult dramas in the U.S.

What I find frustrating in watching films like this, is that I don’t usually see the same sort of films being made in the U.S. or if I do, they just don’t seem to be anywhere near as good or insightful (of course, there are exceptions and the French also make their fair share of bad movies, so I am talking in generalities and personal feelings that could be seen as prejudiced). Woody Allen is probably our foremost practitioner here, God bless him.

All Late August… is about is a man who is struggling with three relationships, actually four if you can’t the character himself. He’s someone involved in the writing biz, but doesn’t really write himself, but does odd jobs connected to writing (like encyclopedia articles on living writers or ghost writing a politician’s biography). The three relationships he caroms among is his ex-wife who still loves him, his new lover who he doesn’t love enough, and a writer who has never written a successful book and is considered a difficult read who can’t connect with the audience. The writer is especially someone who causes the hero consternation because the hero feels that that is the life he should have lead, but didn’t. But in the end, that’s all the story is about.

Why don’t we make such stories in the U.S.? Or if we do, why aren’t they as good or ambitious as the French?

Some theories, which will have to remain theories because I don’t know for sure, and these are just coming off the top of my head, improvisationally without a lot of forethought:

There must be an audience for them in France.

Perhaps the way French movies are financed, maybe not all of them have to deliver a considerable profit. There may be a part of the French film industry in which huge profits are not the primary motivator.

This may also mean they don’t have to be pitched the same way here. After all, the way movies are made and sold here, it seems to be easier to get a movie based on the pitch line “a man is bitten by a radioactive spider and turns into a superhero” over a pitch line of “a man struggles with his relationships with an ex-wife, a new girlfriend and a failed writer the man is jealous of”.

French morality may allow for a more open expression of sex and relationships and allows the writers/directors to take more chances (I’m sometimes amazed in writing groups and in talking with people who do coverage how prudish Americans still are).

There could be plenty of other reasons, but when I want adult drama, I rarely look for it in the U.S.

I also saw Blindness, which didn’t get very good reviews and it’s one of those movies where one can tell exactly where it stops working and that is when Danny Glover has to explain a lot of the plot via exposition. The characters, which were not that interesting in the first place (with the exception of a thief played by Don McKellar–who also wrote, go figure), never quite recover after this.

The project is the odd combination of the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (who did the wonderful City of Men and The Constant Gardener) and the Canadian Don McKellar, who I remember from the incredible Last Night (which he also wrote and directed) and the incredible series Slings and Arrows.

The idea is brilliant. People, one by one, start going blind. But as interesting as I found the first part, I never bought it. I had no problem with the idea of the government panicking enough to round up people and put them in quarantine–what I couldn’t buy is the way the quarantine prison was run–it made regular prisons seem like gardens of Eden. But this is not what happened during the flu epidemic of 1917, during the AIDS epidemic, during Legionnaire’s Disease. People may have been quarantined, but except in a few cases, they were not treated like animals. None of this made a lot of sense or was believable, which meant that a lot that happened afterwards was quite believable.

However, the idea was so strong, it does sort of carry one through to the end.