Seduced and Abandoned is not to be confused with the classic Italian film directed by Pietro Germi that came out in 1964, but I doubt you’ll be fooled after five minutes into the picture.  No, this 2013 release is a movie that purports to make a statement on the state of filmmaking today.  At the same time, it’s also one of those movies where the filmmakers don’t realize that the statement they are making may not actually be the statement they are making.
The basic premise of this semi-documentary revolves around director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin taking an idea they have for a movie to the Cannes Film Festival and seeing if they can get someone to fork over $40 to $50 million to make it (and no, before you ask, they are not punking anyone; they are quite serious).  When they don’t get the support they think they deserve, they then suggest that this is what is wrong with film financing today—no one is willing to take a chance and produce a work of art; they are only interested in the bottom line.
But let’s take a closer look at what is going on here.  A director with a small cult following, but who really isn’t that impressive a filmmaker (for anyone who wants proof of this, watch Toback’s movie Fingers and then watch Jacque Audiard’s French remake of it, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, and one can immediately see what I mean), takes an idea (not even a completed script, but the barest of bones of a gleam in a father’s eye) that is to star Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell (Neve Campbell?  Really?) and pitches said idea to seasoned producers.  The idea? (And please try not to chortle and disrupt the audience members around you as I did):  Last Tango in Baghdad (I told you, no chortling), the story of two people, a war haunted U.S. agent and a liberal journalist, who meet for a series of sexual encounters in a hotel room in the war torn city.
No, I am not making this up—that’s the idea.  Actually, I’m being a bit harder on it that it deserves.  There’s nothing that wrong with the premise.  It’s perfectly serviceable and with the right screenwriter, there’s no reason it couldn’t be a good movie.  But for me, things start going off the road a bit the second they started pitching it as a Last Tango rip off.  In fact, the moments with the most humor in this faux-doc are the scenes Toback shows from that once, but no longer, scandalous movie—like Brando asking Maria Schneider to stick her fingers up his ass (at least they didn’t do the “pass the butter” scene); it’s unfortunate for Toback that Last Tango… hasn’t, unlike cheese, aged that well. 
The other issue is that Toback and Baldwin pitch this idea as if it were the most original and daring idea in the world, that they are going to break new sexual ground and create something really scandalous; a statement that could only be made by people who have never seen a movie like 9 Songs where you actually see, in pornographic detail, a man and woman have sex, including cum shots.  Now, are Baldwin and Campbell going to break new ground here by pulling a James Deen (no, not the actor, the porn star—notice the spelling of the name) and Joanna Angel?  Why do I suspect not?
So what do we have?  We have a second rate filmmaker, with barely an idea for a movie (and hasn’t been written yet), and an idea that’s not that original and with a lousy pitch, to star two non-bankable actors; and yet, Toback and Baldwin are shocked, shocked (in their very best Captain Louis Renault manner) that they can’t get $40 to $50 million in financing.  Hence, their conclusion that something is rotten in the state of moviemaking.  Meanwhile, I’m in the audience going, Uh, guys, you do realize that the only thing you’ve proven is that the guys out there financing films can smell a lemon a mile away?  In fact, rather than demonstrate that something’s gone wrong in France’s version of tinsel town, Seduced and Abandoned ironically suggests that the future of movies is in sound hands.
Which is too bad.  Because I actually think that Tobac and Baldwin are right.  In many ways, I agree with the basic premise presented here.  I do think that producers are too interested in the bottom line with little to no regard for the art of film (a huge change since the growth of independent film in the 1990’s).   It is just unfortunate that Toback and Baldwin have chosen a less than stellar example to prove it.
And they seem so behind the times.  They don’t explore how many contemporary filmmakers are finding money to make their films.  In fact, there are no contemporary filmmakers in the movie.  They interview Francis Ford Coppola, but not his daughter Sofia, who is one of the most exciting directors in film today (and seems to have less problems finding backing for her film than her father, or Toback).  They talk to Martin Scorcese, but not such up and comers as Shane Carruth, Benh Zeitlin or Martin McDonough, all of whom are making some incredible films.  The only contemporary artists they talk to are actors like Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain, all of whom have insightful things to say about what it’s like to be an actor today, but nothing about how to get a movie made.
There’s just something so false about the whole thing.  Not only does the movie they are promoting never seem quite real (it’s all so vague, one wonders how they ever got the time of day from any financier to pitch it), it starts out with Toback telling Campbell that she is in the movie and nothing will stop that from happening.  You know this scene is there for only one reason: so that at the first opportunity, Toback can make a satirical point by telling just about the first person he negotiates with that he will gladly jettison Neve for Jessica if they can agree upon a price.  But again, it feels so fake, it’s hard to take seriously. 
There is one other aspect of the film that gives a lie to Toback’s premise.  When they decide to scale back the film and make it about these two people meeting in New York after both have left the war zone, yet are still scarred by their experiences, and meeting for sex at that point, they suddenly get offers left and right for a $4 to $5 million dollar film.  Not only does the film now sound more interesting, Toback has found a way to finance his movie.  It’s not his original vision, no; but then again, his original vision wasn’t worth $40 to $50 million in the first place. 
Toback may be saying that these money men know how to make a profit, but nothing about art, but to be ruthlessly honest, I think he kind of unintentionally proved they knew both.


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A Touch of Sin, the new movie written and directed by film and troublemaker (not necessarily in that order) Zhangke Jia, has more than a touch of a touch in it.  It’s a portmanteau film revolving around four different people who end up doing violence in modern day China, all driven by the corruption and greed that is oozing its way past the Communist idealism, and all inspired by true events.  
In this post-Mao China, men with axes stop motorists on lonely roads for money; local enforcers extort bribes from truck drivers who want to drive through their city; and prostitution is commonplace (it has one of the most extravagant whorehouses you’re going to see on film in some time–the ladies of the evening kinkily marching out to patriotic military music in red army uniforms with short shorts and midriff revealing shirts is one of the highlights of the movie).
The film is a riveting look at how power corrupts and money corrupts even more.   It’s uncompromising and shocking.  Jia shows his characters great empathy, no matter how horrifying their actions, while the bleak landscape offers no sympathy for any of them (beautifully shot, if that’s the word for it, by Yu Likwai).   It paints a very dark picture of Jia’s country and is apparently being released in China, but how is anybody’s guess.
Also based on true events is Rush, but oh, what a difference an ocean can make.  In fact, while I was watching this movie about rival race car drivers, all I could think was, Do writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard realize just how bad, how really terrible, their movie is?  And then I checked out the critic conglomerate called and saw that it received a 92% rating.  92%.  From the top critics, the ones with jobs at places like the Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic and The New Yorker (that earthquake you just felt was Pauline Kael turning in her grave).
So I suspect the answer to my question is, no, they don’t.  But at least they have an excuse.  But for the life of me, I have no idea what possible apology the critics could come up with.  Rush is a big, over the top, studio type film that falls resoundingly flat, runs out of gas almost immediately, crashes and burns from the opening shot,  as well as any other number of puns one can come up with to describe just how appallingly dreadful it all is (it’s a real drag, in other words).
The story revolves around a 1970’s rivalry between James Hunt (a blond-haired, blue eyed satyr) and Niki Lauda (an emotionless, stoic Austrian), Formula One drivers lusting to be world champion.  To be fair, Morgan and Howard have set themselves a high bar.  They have given us in these central characters two of the most unlikable people one has met on film in some time.   Worse, they have given us two of the most boring people one has met on film in some time.  They also give these two a rivalry based upon reasons that are so petty, it’s almost impossible to take it seriously, much less become emotionally involved in the stakes.   In fact, there were times when I wondered why Morgan and Howard hadn’t made it a dark comedy; the basis of the story almost seems to demand it at times.
I don’t know how anybody can drain all excitement and interest out of a movie about racing, but Howard has somehow managed to do just that.   He does little to dramatize what the races are like (the camera is more often than not kept at a distance, like a spectator who couldn’t get a good seat).  He seems to have almost no interest in the thrill and passion of the racing experience or in seeing it through the eyes of the characters; instead he only seems to care about who wins what race—the exact opposite of what is interesting the audience.
He does try his best, though.  Most of the time he keeps that camera moving, never letting it stop to smell the roses, with frantic tracking shots and quick edits.  It does imbue the movie with some tension at times, but more often than not it just feels like a desperate attempt to hide the fact that there is no there there on the screen. 
Morgan’s dialog is basically everyone explaining to everyone else how they feel and why they act the way they do.  And there’s just so much of it.  Even more enervating are the taunting back and forths between Hunt and Lauda that never rise about the basic “Oh, yeah?”, “Yeah”, “Oh, yeah?”, “Yeah”, “Well…yeah”.  I doubt Wilde could have put it any better.  And the actors (a bland, as usual, Chris Helmsworth as Hunt and a buck toothed Daniel Bruhl as Lauda) can’t seem to do much with the material either. 
I’m not sure why this movie made me so angry.  It certainly isn’t Morgan and Howard.  They’ve both created solid and successful entertainment in the past and everybody has a failure at some point.  No, I think my real anger is toward the critics who should know better.   People, this movie doesn’t work and you have no excuse for not knowing that.  You really need to get your act together.


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Birth of the Living Dead is a rather delightful little documentary about a subject that is in many ways not quite so delightful: how the classic horror film Night of the Living Dead came about.  It’s tight, to the point, and has at its center the grand old man himself, George A. Romero, who comes across more like a youthful imp pulling a prank rather than the maker of a movie that reached into the core of our beings and found something new and original that scared the hell out of us.  
The movie has two major through lines.  One is how to make an independent film.  The other is how a low budget, second rate horror film that, in a perfect world, would never have found its way out of the bottom half of a double bill at drive-ins and dive movie theaters managed to become one of the most important horror films of all time (let’s face it, from a strictly objective viewpoint, Vincent Canby of the New York Times was right at the time: it’s “a grainy little movie acted by what appear to be nonprofessional actors, who are besieged in a farm house by some other nonprofessional actors who stagger around, stiff-legged, pretending to be flesh-eating ghouls.”).  
But both through lines are significant life lessons for up and coming filmmakers.  As a DIY project, Romero and his fellow producers were incredibly resourceful: everybody did double duty (producers, make-up artists, even Romero himself doubled as actors and sometimes redoubled as zombies); they asked all their commercial clients to play the living dead; they knew someone who owned a meat packing plant, so they used him in the movie so they could have entrails for ghouls to feast upon; they had a local newscaster play a newscaster in the movie with the result that he wrote his own copy and got them permission to use the station helicopter to do aerial shots; they cast the host of the local, late night scare fest movie program, and he gave them free plugs and the audience weekly updates.  It’s amazing and even inspiring just how resourceful Romero and the others were in taking advantage of whatever they could in order to get the film made.
But they were also very lucky.  Though Romero does admit that there was always something of the movie that is a reflection of the political unrest of the time (especially the news footage of the Viet Nam War), they cast Duane Jones, a black actor, in the lead, a character that was never specifically stated to be black; they cast him because he was a strong actor.  And that accidental stroke of color blind casting suddenly gave the film a much deeper resonance: now it was not just a movie that grew out of attitudes toward the war, but also out of attitudes toward the Civil Rights movement.  And the fact that the movie was never rewritten to accommodate Jones’ race just made the racial aspect of it stronger. 
And it’s the amateurish, non-professionalism that makes the movie rise above what it is.  It’s a bad movie in which the factors that make it bad make it not just a good movie, but a classic.  The flat acting, the black and white shaky cinematography, the graininess, everything that makes it something that a studio wouldn’t touch, make it seem so realistic, it really gets under your skin and makes it very difficult to forget.
And all the while, Romero is just sitting there laughing and laughing and laughing about the absurdity of the whole enterprise.
Kill Your  Darlings is a movie about a group of people who hate everything pretentious, pompous and conceited, yet whose every action and whose every utterance that  pours forth from their mouth is pretentiousness, pomposity and conceitedness incarnate.  The problem is that I’m not quite sure that writers Austin Burn and John Krokidas, who also directed, intended this.
The film is based upon the true story of the murder of David Kammerer by one Lucien Carr while Carr and other beat darlings Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac tried to craft a new literary vision in 1944 at Columbia College in New York City.  It’s a great subject and the movie is certainly not without interest.  But it also never really comes together in a very satisfactory way either.  At times it feels like it’s going for the painfully nostalgic feel of the early scenes in the movie and TV mini-series Brideshead Revisited, scenes that reveled in the halcyon days of Cambridge in the 1930’s.  But Burn and Krokidas can’t seem to get that tone, or even any tone, quite right.  The ingredients all seem to be there (the late nights in Harlem at jazz clubs; the benzydrine and drug induced rebellions; war time New York in the overcast fall and winter; the wonderful costumes and set design; the fear of being found out gay), but Krokidas can’t quite seem to find the right rhythms and style. 
Neither can Dane DeHaan in the key role as Carr.  DeHaan is just never convincing enough as someone who seems to think he’s the heir to Oscar Wilde (except in the boudoir, which is, in many ways, his fatal flaw).   His performance seems forced for too much of the film.  And without a strong Carr, there’s little for the movie to hang itself onto.
Everyone else does a credible to excellent job.  Harry Potter has put a lot of effort these last few years in making us forget he’s Harry Potter.  Daniel Radcliff gives a very solid and often empathetic performance of a budding genius.  There are some marvelous supporting turns here (David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg’s parents; Broadway legend John Cullum as a curmudgeon professor who recognizes talent even when he doesn’t want to see it; Michael C. Hall as the desperate and doomed Kammerer; and Jack Huston as a Jack Kerouac with eyes that have sparks coming out of them).   In the end, though, it’s Ben Foster who wins the acting honors in a witty and spot on performance as the future novelist William Burroughs. 
The movie does do one interesting thing.  It starts off making one character seem to be the sociopathic predator and then reveals that no, that person is really no more than a sad, pathetic wreck of a human being, while the apparently sad, pathetic wreck turns out to be the true sociopath.   It’s a neat little trick and it helps make the last third of the movie the strongest and most riveting section.  But in the end, it’s not really enough and the movie falls short of what it might have been.
15 Years and One Day is Spain’s entry in the 2014 Foreign Language Film Oscar category.  Ostensibly it’s one of those old warhorses about an older person and a younger person finding their lives intertwined with the result that both are inevitably and forever changed.  Ostensibly, I say, because if that is the point, the movie has one of the more unusual structures for such a sub-genre.   The grandfather isn’t even introduced until after a third of the movie has gone by and the grandson subsequently ends up in a coma for about a third of the remainder.  So just when they were supposed to have interacted in order to change each other is a bit of a mystery.  There’s also some subplot about the death of a teenage bully, homophobe and sociopath in the making (an immigrant, the bad guy du jour, natch), which is never quite convincing.  In other words, the film, written by Santos Mercero and Gracia Querejeta, who also directed, is what we call a bit all over the place and can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be about.  With newcomer Aron Piper as the grandson; Maribel (Y Tu Mama Tambien) Verdu as the mother; a strong Tito Valverde as the grandfather.   Also with Belen Lopez as a police officer who, for some puzzling reason, keeps shrugging off the grandson’s actions with a boys-will-be-boys attitude when the grandson is so obviously a teenage Dexter.  She also seems to suggest that a gay youth who killed someone in self defense while being physically assaulted and gay bashed (and threatened with rape) is in deep do-do; that perhaps is the scariest part of the movie.


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Captain Phillips, the new, inspired by real events, film written by Billy Ray, directed by Paul Greengrass, and starring Tom Hanks, is a big-budget, studio type blockbuster (though technically an indie, but tomayto, tomahto) version of the Danish film A Hijacking.  And god damn it if the sons of bitches don’t get away with it.
I’m not prepared to say that Captain Phillips is the better film of the two.  I’m also not prepared to say it’s not.  But it’s a fine film in its own right and one that will grip you by the gonads (or whatever you have that you don’t find comfortable having gripped) and will not let go.  The basic plot concerns Hanks, as the title character (natch, I mean, it is Tom Hanks, so c’mon, you know), at the helm of an American cargo ship when they are taken over by Somali pirates and then what happens when the Navy SEALS are called in to resolve the situation.  And resolve it they do; hell hath no fury like an America scorned.
Everyone contributes more than their fare share to the gritty, down to earth, yet still over the top, effectiveness of the film.  This is perhaps Hanks finest performance in quite some time (possibly because it’s his most interesting character in quite some time).  His Captain Phillips is an excellent leader that defines grace under pressure.  But he’s also rigid, a stickler and a bit of a prick (well, according to the crew members who are suing the owner of the cargo ship, he was much more than a bit of one).  Though people have complained of his faux Boston accent, in the end, it doesn’t get in the way of his losing himself in this character and completely disappearing at times (or is it that Phillips loses himself in Hanks; again, tomayto, tomahto).  And those harrowing final scenes of Hanks trying to hold himself together as a medical practitioner calmly, very calmly, very, very calmly tries to help him are quite haunting (improvised on the spot with Corpsman Danielle Albert).
The screenplay by Ray does start out a bit wibbly-wobbly with some dull, flat and on the nose conversation between Phillips and his wife (played by Catherine Keener for some unknown reason; I know the economy is rough, but there wasn’t any lesser known actor who couldn’t have spared a day or two for the shoot?) on the way to the airport.  But once Phillips boards the ship, the dialog is tight, to the point, with a strong feeling of verisimilitude.  Ray does an equally amazing job of creating very real, three dimensional characters in the Somali pirates, not just making them the enemy de jour, but trying to understand why they do the things they do without making them innocent.
Greenglass, however, is the perfect director for a film like this.  His trademarked hand held camera that shakes and his constant, jagged cutting give the whole procedure the feeling of a documentary.   And he never allows the forward momentum to stop.  Whether his camera sores through the heavens or focuses in close up on the characters, everything keeps going someplace.   The whole things feels as if the editor is on meth, or at the least has ADD (BTW, that’s a compliment).
Special note, though, must be taken of Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, the “look at me, look at me, I’m the captain now” head of the pirates.  He’s not a professional; he was discovered driving a limo in Minneapolis, though he spent his first seven years in Somali.  But every once in awhile a movie finds a non-professional who, by being a non-professional, can bring something to a role no actor can.  This happened with Harold Russell for The Best Years of Our Lives and Hang S. Ngor for The Killing Fields.  Abdi gives a powerful realization of his character and his scenes with Hanks are riveting.
There is one aspect of the film that I must say I found myself becoming quite unnerved by.  Though the movie is filled with human beings, everything is so controlled by machines and computers.  Everything.  The helm of the cargo ship is filled with the latest, up to date IT toys; and so, it almost seems, is the Somali ship.  Both play a cat and mouse game using computers and radar alone for awhile.  And then at the end, the SEALS arrive, with the calm determination, the lack of emotion, the steely focus of the Roman soldiers in Spartacus.  In many ways, they seem half human, half machine, like a troop of Robocops.  At this point, the drama takes a rather curious emotional turn as Phillips and Muse’s humanity is squashed by technology.   Is this really the only way we can resolve our differences?  Maybe so, but I was still left feeling somewhat uncomfortable at this brave new world that hath such creatures in it.
What is there to say about Machete Kills?  Well, I realize that it is very difficult to make a good movie that is suppose to be a bad one, but still, this is the best director Robert Rodriguez and writer Kyle Ward can do?  It certainly starts out well enough with a fun preview of the next Machete movie, Michete Kills…in Space (kill me now, Machete, kill me now) and the preposterous opening scenes achieve the tone that Rodriguez is going for.  But from the moment Carlos Estevez (it’s hard to tell from the filming whether he’s out of house arrest yet) as the POTUS without the mostus shows up, it’s all downhill from there.  The whole thing is both too clever, yet not clever enough.  And the casual and cavalier killing of people as a joke is almost never funny, just dispiriting.  Only Demian Bicher (as a Mexican revolutionary with a multiple personality disorder), Sofia Vergara (as a madam with mammaries that can kill), and William Sadler (as a quite funny parody of Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night) get away with the ridiculousness.  Mel Gibson shows up, but he’s no Auric Goldfinger; even worse, he’s no Doctor Evil.  In the end, it’s a movie that doesn’t seem to have a reason for having been made.  With Danny Trejo as Machete.


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I’m not convinced the new indie, OMG why isn’t Disney suing already, film, Escape from Tomorrow, ultimately works or even holds together in any sort of satisfying manner.  If truth be told, it tends to lose its way in the last third, as if the writer/director Randy Moore hadn’t quite made up his mind what he wanted to say or what it was all about, or even what the basic plot was.  It just doesn’t quite feel fully thought out. 
At the same time, this is the sort of film one wants to see from indie filmmakers, especially a first film, which this is.  It’s clever, unique, edgy.  It tries to do something different and push the envelope.  It is very definitely its own thing.  The filmmaker at least attempts to have a vision here, even it’s less than 20/20 some of the time.
For those of you who haven’t been watching the news lately, i.e., are not on facebook or twitter, Escape from Tomorrow is the movie filmed semi-guerilla style at Walt Disney World in Florida and the Disneyland Park in Anaheim (I say semi- because I did catch some green screen shots and some others that tried to pretend they were taking place at one of the theme parks, but obviously weren’t).   Everything that was actually shot at the park was done furtively, using the regular crowds as backdrop.  Because of this, though the plot is a bit of a fantasia, the movie at times achieves the realistic feeling of such movies as Rome: Open City and Little Fugitive, though not the transcendence.
The basic story revolves around a typical middle class family, about as Donna Reed/Robert Young as you can get: the father is the breadwinner with a nymphet fixation; his wife a stay at home mother and full time Xanthippe; their young son has an Oedipus Complex; and the even younger daughter has an Electra one. 
When the father, Jim, gets a phone call out of the blue and is informed that he is fired for reasons that are somewhat mysterious (though possibly with a hint that Jim really should have some idea as to why), he keeps it to himself, and his family spends their last day of vacation at Disney’s Magic Kingdom.  But Jim quickly becomes obsessed with two Lolitaish French teens (oh, those French; ever since we saved their asses in WWII, they just screw up everything, don’t they) and begins to suffer hallucinations that become more and more bizarre, to say the least.
Roy Abramsohn plays Jim and Elana Schuber plays wife Emily.   Both give solid, down to earth performances (though they do have one scene where they both seem to seriously flounder as they argue over whether to stay at the park or return to the hotel).   However, the real standout may be Jack Dalton as their son; he has deep black pools of eyes that seriously creep you out (I mean, seriously, bro), as if he was auditioning for a remake of The Omen.  
In the end, it’s the technical aspects of the film that draw you in.  Shot in bright black and white by cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham and smartly directed by Moore, there are some remarkably staged scenes, especially one that takes place in race cars that must have required a number of trips around on that ride alone.  Each scene at the theme parks had to be a single take since one couldn’t film multiple times and edit it all together, not with a constant changing background.  From a directing standpoint, Moore has acquitted himself well.
But as a writer, he may have a way to go.  The structure is a bit clunky at times (Jim’s first hallucination is not finessed well at all).  Though the suggestion is that the whole story is suppose to be from Jim’s POV and that the hallucinatory aspects are only what he is experiencing, the screenplay does something odd at times, like have a scene with a nurse that ends with Jim out of the room (so he couldn’t possibly have seen her final breakdown) and then have his wife have an hallucinatory moment herself.  And there’s a jump in time shot where Jim blacks out and wakes up in a woman’s hotel room that really doesn’t make much sense either.   At first, these oddities are intriguing.  But as the movie gets more and more fantastic, the whole thing starts crumbling.  And the movie takes too long to end, probably because the plot seems to stop going anywhere clear as Moore seems to lose control of the story.


Gravity, the new outer space movie written by Jonas and Alfonso Cuaron and directed by the latter, is a movie that is driven by plot and not characterizations (the film may be 3D, but the personas on screen are a mite less) and gets away with it (sort of like Star Wars, though I can understand if that might seem a stretch of a comparison).   Three people are floating around in the void repairing a space station when some debris zooms by and kills one, strands two (don’t you just hate when that happens).   They’re not particularly interesting people, per se, but they are still people, so it would be heartless not to care, no matter how slight in personality they may seem.
And when a plot is this focused and tight and when the circumstances are so dire and the solution to their problem so clearly stated (it requires the use of both a Russian and Chinese space station, possibly symbolic of the death of the Cold War, though the Chinese station ultimately saves the situation, possibly demonstrating where movie money is coming from these days—after all, this is a 3D IMAX movie and those are just about the only kinds of theaters they are building over there; or it could be mere coincidence), it would also be a bit cavalier, not to mention just plain impolite, to not sit on the edge of your seat, pulse raising, heart pounding, dying to know how it all turns out.
Gravity, if nothing else, is a thrill ride enriched by some of the most amazing CGI effects you’ll see in some time.  Though there are many who have now leaped upon the bandwagon and pointed out all the unrealistic aspects of the film (and I also did wonder why the heroine’s hair didn’t float around in zero G, but assumed that poetic license was employed so it wouldn’t distract by looking like Cameron Diaz’s coiffure in There’s Something About Mary), at the same time, whether it is or not, Gravity feels like one of the most realistic fictional movies about space I’ve ever seen. 
In fact, the real question might be: it’s riveting, but is it sci-fi?  It’s not a commentary on modern times through the smoke screen of a fake future or anything like that.  It’s a pretty straight forward thriller that seems incredibly factual.  But then again, does it matter?  Well, probably only to the producers who might be able to use the it’s-a-non-sci-fi/sci-fi movie in order to get it the Oscar for Best Pic this year.
But as was pointed out, it’s by no means a perfect movie.  While one gladly sits through all the beautiful SFX while biting ones nails through all the near death climaxes, there is that dialog.  Uninteresting, cutesy, forced, it doesn’t really add much to the situation, and it does at time fall on cringed ears (there’s also an odd reaction at one point when they are told that a missile destroyed a satellite and everyone treated it as if it were an everyday occurrence—I was freaking, a bit, myself). 
At the same time, it’s no Harrison Ford, “You can type this shit, but you can’t say it” screenplay either.  It gets the job done.  And the stars, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, both excellent and just the sort of people you would want to get stuck with in outer space if you were facing imminent death (Clooney can charm the panic out of a herd of rogue elephants), play against the banal talky talk by giving somewhat flat, down to earth (oh, the irony) line readings to it all.
Gravity isn’t about much.  It tries to drum up some sort of character arc silliness of Bullock being symbolically reborn after having lost her child (yeah, I didn’t buy it either and it all sounded a bit too cheesy Save the Cat to take seriously), but in the end, it’s probably best to look at Gravity as one of those movies that doesn’t really do anything, but does it very, very well.  And with Clooney’s blue eyes and Bullock in her short shorts to cap it off.
Meanwhile, back on terra firma, in the film The Dirties, Matt and Owen (played by Matthew Wilson and Owen Williams—get it, get it, they’re using their real names) are having their own life and death struggles.   They are high school students who are being bullied, often ruthlessly so (the strongest scenes in the movie are the viciousness of the various attacks).  The basic idea is that, for a class project, they make a film about getting revenge on the group that is harassing them (the title characters), but then one of them starts taking the idea a bit too seriously.
I wanted to like this film more than I did.  I actually just wanted to like it, but it wasn’t until the second half that I felt something was going on that was intriguing and new.  But since the first half is filled with Matt and Owen, two of the most obnoxious and annoying people one could hope to avoid, but can’t, since they are the stars of the movie, it was more than a bit of hard going.  And the scenes about bullying are pretty much the same scenes you’ve seen about bullying since bullying began being dramatized.   The movie offers little new and takes so long not to offer it, that it’s a real chore to get through these early sections.
The second half then takes a turn that brings new life to this sub-genre.  Owen discovers that he might actually be able to get accepted into the popular group, mainly because he was once friends with one of the alpha-females who hangs out with the Dirties and who may still have some lingering feelings for him.  At this point, Matt begins to freak out as he sees his delicate relationship with Owen being threatened (it even leads to an odd scene that basically blames Matt for all the bullying—Owen tells him that he’s such a freak, he invites what happens to him).  And so Matt’s joking-but-not-really desire to take revenge on the bullies becomes a really-no-I-mean-really actuality.  If this complication had happened thirty minutes early, then the movie might have been more interesting and involving.
The film was written by Johnson and Evan Morgan and directed by Johnson; it’s a first feature for both, I believe.  Everybody tries hard and there’s a ton of energy here.  And for a low budget film, it has a lot of solid production values.  
But it also has more than it’s share of clichés.  It’s filmed with that ultimate of recent movie and TV conceits—we see it all unfold through the eyes of a third party who films everything with a hand held camera.  Like the first half of the film, this doesn’t bring anything new to the story and feels, well, just so unimaginative, somewhat of a letdown. 

And it also raises more questions than it answers: not only is this person never identified (we only know whoever he or she is, they aren’t a student because Matt has to sneak him into the building at the climax), this person doesn’t try to stop Matt from his horrifying crime.  And since this camera operator has so carefully filmed so many of the acts of bullying, has recorded events that any ambulance chaser would salivate over, it waters down the effectiveness of Matt’s actions—makes them seem less like something his character would do, rather than a neat way for the writer/director to end the story. 


When providing coverage or script consultation, I am a firm believer in not providing feedback based on a set of rules one gets from a popular book on screenwriting. All coverage should be based on the idea of trying to make a script work on its own terms. I don’t care if a character is active, passive, or reactive, but only if the story works. I don’t care if there is a three act structure and the first act ends on page 30, but only if the story works. I don’t care if the central character has a character arc, but only if the story works. I am a great advocate of writers trying to break the rules and find new ways of communicating their visions.

My charge for script consultation is $150.00 and consists of doing three to four pages of detailed notes, making notes on the script (if a hard copy is provided) and a one hour in person consultation. Turn around time is one week or less.

I also provide four to five pages of notes alone (no notes on script, no in person consultation) for $50.00.

I began doing script consultation in 2003 for the Slamdance Screenplay Competition. That year and for the next three years I discovered the first place winner. I quickly became one of their top readers and my coverage is used as the sample on their web site. In addition, I have read for the Slamdance Teleplay Competition (where I discovered the first place winner the first year) and the Horror Screenplay Competition. Also through Slamdance, I originated and co-produced the Slamdance on Stage reading series in which the winners of the competitions were provided staged readings of their scripts at different legitimate theaters around town.

At the present time, I provide coverage and am a reader for the Slamdance Screenplay Competition and the Big Break Final Draft Screenplay Competition. I have also read for Here! Networks/Regent Entertainment, Creative World Awards, the African Film Commission Screenplay Competition and been a judge for the Great Gay Screenplay Contest.


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I feel as if I must begin this review with an apology.  I recently saw two movies that for some reason I kept putting off and which have now left the theaters (at least in L.A.).  And I feel that both are far more worthy of seeing than many of the more praised films that have opened as of late (Prisoners, Short Term 12, In A World…, etc.), movies whose popularity and good reviews have totally and completely escaped me.  
The first, Out in the Dark, is a new Israeli drama written by Yael Shafrir and Michael Myer and directed by Myer.  It covers the same basic premise of Gale Uchovsky and Eytan Fox’s The Bubble, a story about two men who become romantically involved with each other, one a Palestinian man trying to avoid the consequences of his family’s terrorist connections, the other an Israeli man just out of the army.  
But in spite of having some plot similarities, Out in the Dark has it’s own voice and approach to the subject matter.   While The Bubble is a powerful and ambitious updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (perhaps one of the most brilliant of such updatings of classic works), Out in the Dark is an espionage thriller that would be worthy of John Le Carré.     
Shafrir and Myer’s drama is about a young male Palestinian, Nimr, who is given a student visa to study at Tel Aviv.  He strives to be apolitical long enough to get out of the area altogether and study at someplace like Cambridge.  But he also begins an affair with a male Israeli lawyer, Roy.  Things take a nasty turn when the Israeli secret service approach Nimr and tell him that if he won’t spy for them and infiltrate various campus organizations, and on top of that, betray his brother who they suspect (correctly) of being involved with terrorist activities, they will cancel his student visa and tell his family that he is gay, which in this context is a death sentence.  Nimr refuses.
The screenplay is first rate, a taught and emotionally fraught thriller.   The story is riveting and cleverly done.  The direction keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.  The acting, especially by Nicholas Jacob as Nimr (his first film role) and Michael Aloni as Roy, is subtle and sincerely felt.  And the ambiguous ending is deeply moving.
The reason I’m so late with a review of Out in the Dark is because it played for a shamefully short period of time.  I put off seeing Shane Salerno’s documentary Salinger because it was severely trashed by the critics.  But after seeing it, I have to say, I have no idea what it was that made everyone hate this movie so.  I found it gripping and quite emotionally involving. 
I even went to to see what I could find out and though I didn’t read in detail all the reviews there, the basic consensus was that the movie was shallow, didn’t dig deep enough into its subject matter, and was as “phony” as the hero of Salinger’s greatest work, The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, thought the world to be.  But when I walked out, I had to double check and make sure we hadn’t seen two totally different movies.   In fact, in thinking back on it, I really can’t figure out what more the critics could possibly have wanted from the film (except actual appearances and interviews with J.D. himself, which he never gave, so that’s sort of that).
First, I must participate in full disclosure (actually, I don’t think this exactly counts as the ole FD, but it’s kind of the same thing).  I read The Catcher in the Rye in high school.  I enjoyed the book and thought the prose was lovely.  I was always entertained by it.  At the same time, when I finished reading it, my first thought was, “Wow, Holden has some serious mental issues”. 
This echoes an anecdote in the movie that tells of the first publisher that offered to take on the, now, ubiquitous book.  An editor told Caulfield his company wanted to publish it, but the editor hadn’t shown it to the firm’s owner yet.  When the owner read it, he called in Salinger and told him they would have to do extensive rewrites because the central character was obviously mentally ill.  Salinger ran fleeing from the building, devastated at the reaction.  And after watching this documentary, I’m not so sure that I and the owner were that far off.
At any rate, I offer all that to suggest that I am not as enamored of the book as others, all of whom have found it to have had a profound affected on their lives.
But I still found the documentary to be quite riveting, for the most part.  There were some slow moments and I still have issues at times with using documentary footage that feels taken from archives and have little or nothing to do with the topic at hand, but more seems like it’s there as filler, to give the audience something, anything to look at as people talk, as if the subject matter wasn’t interesting enough in itself.   And for some reason I can’t quite explain, I never could take seriously the appearance of celebrities like Edward Norton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen (they’re not experts on the book, just on how they felt about it upon reading it; but how they felt seemed at times like they were reading political talking points instead of really telling us what it meant to them).
But I suggest that this faux background material wasn’t that necessary and that the material was strong enough to stand on its own.   The most riveting moments are the extensive monologues people give who encountered Salinger, not just, but especially, Jean Miller and Joyce Maynard, both of whom were romantically involved with this recluse.  Here the camera does little but focus on the faces of these people and let them speak; and what tales they tell, stories of a troubled soul with demons they could never understand and Salinger wouldn’t share.
The documentary feels incredibly well researched and is filled with rich detail.  I knew nothing about Salinger’s life before this, but I feel as if I know just about everything I need to know now about this somewhat oddball character (though Jewish, he married an ex-member of the Nazi party in Germany just before his return—the marriage was annulled not longer after).  The film is well written, well told and well directed.  If anyone wants to know about Salinger, this is the movie for it. 
And it ends on a powerful and upbeat note.  Though Salinger is no longer with us, his writings still are.  And not just the books already published.  Apparently there is a large body of writing that he set up to be published after his death, starting in 2015.  That means more of the Glass family and more of Holden Caulfield as well. 

Coverage Recommendation from Charles Pisaeno, author of Byer’s Bog

I recently sent a script to Howard for coverage and I had a short deadline. He responded with promptness and professionalism. I received the coverage in three days and he was spot with many of his notes. He provided ideas to improve the script all tidied up in an 8 page report. We also spoke by phone for about an hour. Very responsive. I am currently implementing 3 or 4 of those ideas and hope to submit the script in the next couple of days. I will use and recommend Howard for future coverage. Thanks Howard.
 Charles Pisaeno
Byer’s Bog