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Posts in: October 2010

The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972)

The Culpepper Cattle Company is a cinematic curiosity that I’m not sure has occurred before or since: a coming-of-age revisionist western. It seems like an odd combination of genres, but it’s not so surprising, especially considering the time of its making. As directors like Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn started to demythologize the genre, the audience’s veil lifted just as Ben Mockridge’s (Gary Grimes) does.

Let me explain: Ben is a young farm boy who yearns to be a cowboy. He gets his chance when Frank Culpepper (Billy “Green” Bush) and his men pass through his family farm on a cattle drive from California to Colorado. Ben’s wide-eyed enthusiasm amuses Culpepper, so he gets hired as the crew’s “Little Mary,” the cook’s assistant. Through an episodic storyline, the romance and heroism of cowboy life is stripped away, for both Ben and the audience.

This is a movie full of dust, blood, sweat, and anger—a perfect breeding ground for a boy to become a man. That’s the crux of Ben’s journey, and I think it’s why the film is (unjustly) remembered mainly as a footnote in Jerry Bruckheimer’s career (he served as “associate producer,” his first on-screen credit) instead of an impressive but depressing work. The narrative simply isn’t very strong, focusing as it does on its main character’s emotional growth into reluctant adulthood rather than having a tight plot that leads to the inevitable shootout on Main Street.

Unlike the mildly similar Little Big Man, Ben’s story covers a shorter period of time and lacks epic grandeur and humor. However, this seems to be by design. It has a few well-timed laughs, but director Dick Richards wants this to serve as an intensely focused, dramatic study of one man. It doesn’t use Ben as a metaphor for the entire Wild West experience, nor does it want to portray the time and place as anything but bleak. It portrays a few vital experiences in Ben’s life in a way that’s a bit more realistic than the westerns popular throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

Some might complain about the use of brief vignettes (many of which mine the clichés of the genre, in order to turn them on their ear) to tell the story, but oddly, it worked for me. The lack of a strong central narrative to counterpoint Ben’s transformation makes the story less and less predictable as the minutes pass. With only five minutes left, I couldn’t imagine how it would end, but the conclusion is stark, emotional and explains why Gary Grimes was cast in the role. He plays the bright-eyed rube so effectively, he seems like an actor who’s mediocre at best. However, he plays Ben’s slowly altering emotional state so well in the last half hour that I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.

Bush does a decent job as Culpepper, a hardworking but mostly bland character whose most well defined trait is his bushy, black beard. It’s Geoffrey Lewis who adds another dimension of unpredictability to the film as Russ, an experienced cattleman Culpepper hires early in the film. Along with cronies Dixie (Bo Hopkins) and Luke (Luke Askew), Russ brings an offbeat menace and a sense of dread to the drive. They’re clearly insane, possibly psychopathic, and whenever they enter a saloon, it’s anyone’s guess who will make it out alive. This trio, always instigated by Russ, leads the Culpepper Cattle Company into the dangerous situations that test Ben and force him into maturity.

The Culpepper Cattle Company is a good but not outstanding film that should be more firmly entrenched in the public consciousness than it is. A lot of infinitely worse westerns are more well-known (The Oklahoma Kid, anybody?). Despite the excessive violence (its PG rating reflects the time before the 1985 invention of PG-13, so it’s loaded with early-’70s red tempera paint blood), it’s the sort of film I could imagine watching and enjoying as a family, assuming you have “tween” kids who have open enough minds not to scoff at anything not branded with the Hannah Montana logo.

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The Box (2009) by Richard Kelly

Name-checking philosophers and/or philosophical works is too easy, and that’s exactly why The Box annoyed me when I read it last year. Those of you who have seen the movie—and hopefully that’s all of you, since this article will be loaded with spoilers—will know exactly what I’m talking about: No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play that’s either about a ménage à trois gone horribly awry, or purgatory. In the finished film, Norma (Cameron Diaz) is shown teaching this to a class and having some sort of indistinct involvement in a school production of a play. It’s shifted much more to the background in the film than in the screenplay, which introduces it in the most random possible way and then turns it into the lynchpin of the entire story.

Doing that is lazy and obvious, the equivalent of shrugging shoulders and muttering, “I have absolutely nothing to say thematically, so I’ll let a 65-year-old play do the legwork for me.” It was a disappointingly hackneyed move from a writer who’s better than that.

Let me backtrack, though. The differences between the script I read and the finished film are many, and the use of No Exit is only one of the things Kelly changed at some point during the development process.

In the script, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) is a cipher. We don’t learn his baffling, somewhat laughable backstory until nearly the end of the story (as opposed to the film opening with a series of hints about who he is and what happened to him). The script also shifts the button-pushing from the first act to the midpoint. The first half of the script, apart from the weirdness of Steward’s offer, is surprisingly normal and mundane. It’s simply the story of a family extended beyond its means, with Kelly hammering away at points about social climbing, status symbols, and greed before Norma finally feels backed into a corner and pushes the button. It also explores the deep flaws in both Norma and her NASA engineer husband, Arthur (James Marsden), whose motivations revolve around a combination of greed, vanity, and self-aggrandizement. More than anything else—more than the desperation to keep her son in private school or keep their home (the latter of which is a subplot excised completely from the film)—Norma pushes the button because she cares more about a fancy shoe to hide her foot deformity than the life of another human being.

This differs quite significantly from Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story “Button, Button,” on which the film is very loosely based. “Button, Button” is a pretty simple morality play, similar to Matheson’s Twilight Zone scripts (indeed, Matheson adapted the story for the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone). When Norma pushes the button, it’s Arthur who dies—because, you see, the agreement is that she’ll receive $50,000 but someone she doesn’t know will die, and she never really knew her husband. Get it?! It’s kind of pat, but I did like that the $50,000 comes as the result of her husband’s life insurance payout instead of Steward arriving with a briefcase full of cash.

My knowledge of philosophy doesn’t extend much beyond the 100-level college course I took, so I defer to a much more educated (and much more anonymous) friend who holds a degree in the subject. He tells me the original short story fits the existential philosophy espoused by Sartre quite neatly.

In both the movie and the script, the button-pushing is intercut with an unknown man murdering his wife for unknown reasons, a disturbing scene that is all but dropped until much later. Once Norma and Arthur get the money, the second half of the script starts by focusing on the couple’s confusion and paranoia. Arthur, who had the foresight to write down Steward’s license plate number, asks Norma’s father (a police sergeant) to run the plates. He calls back with a name and phone number. They call the number, and on the other end an old woman rambles inaccurately about the Prometheus myth before reciting a Dewey decimal number. Anybody who’s seen a Richard Kelly movie would not bat an eyelash when Arthur and Norma make the decision to go to the public library and find the book.

It’s No Exit, and in the script, this is the first reference to it. Norma (who’s a science teacher here) has a vague recollection of reading it, but neither understands the significance. However, a date is written in the book. They find the newspaper for that date and find the headline is all about photos downloaded from the Martian probe Arthur worked on. This makes him remember Arlington Steward, a low-level NASA employee who got hit by lightning (and allegedly died) the day the photos downloaded.

They split up, and Arthur’s cornered by a librarian who turns out to be Steward’s mother (and the woman on the other end of their earlier phone call) while Steward approaches Norma. This is followed by a long, bizarre, somewhat tedious dream/hallucination sequence in which Norma and Arthur find themselves in No Exit, before arbitrarily waking up in their beds, at home, shortly before the wedding of Norma’s sister.

The presence of No Exit is an enormous problem in this incarnation of the script. “Button, Button” fits with existential philosophy. The Box‘s third act speculates on whether or not Arthur and Norma are trapped in purgatory, a la No Exit. However, The Box itself doesn’t really jibe with existential philosophy. At least, not on the surface. My friend shrugged off existential parallels, but something intrigued him.

In the script, more than in the movie, a strong emphasis is put on Norma rationalizing pushing the button by saying it’s all for her son, Walter. She’s about to lose her faculty tuition discount, which means her son may have to—gasp!—attend public school. If the real core of the story revolves around the decision to finance Walter’s formal education, that’s right in line with Nietzsche’s observation that Socrates deserved his fate—a death sentence for “corrupting” children (i.e., providing them a secular education that opposed their religious education). Since the script, more than the film, makes a small point of pitting science against faith, the fact that Norma’s a science teacher and Arthur works for NASA is right in line with Nietzsche’s strange parable.

The foundation of existentialism revolves around self-delusion and the creation of one’s own morality. This ties quite deftly into pretty much everything The Box is about—Norma justifying her greed and vanity and deciding to eschew any hope of being a good person because she wants (more than needs) the money. Because existentialism isn’t nihilism—Nietzsche believed that Christianity had developed an outdated morality that people followed out of obligation and fear rather than the legitimate desire to be a good person. Kierkegaard used the example of God forcing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac: if Abraham believes in a good, just God, then he’s just going through the motions. He knows God’s just fucking with him, that he’ll never really have to kill his son. In that context, Abraham’s actions are as fraudulent as God’s test.

For all its scatterbrained insanity, The Box started to seem like the same sort of fractured morality tale, only about secular characters whose actions aren’t tied to a belief in God. To extend the Abraham mentality, Norma and Arthur are the equivalent of Abraham feeling a strong compulsion to kill Isaac. Not hearing the voice of God—just that nagging voice inside him, telling him to kill. Part of him knows it’s wrong, but he falls into that trap of self-delusion, justifying it as a righteous action. If God exists and is testing Abraham—without revealing himself, and without Abraham believing God is there at all—then He will punish Abraham if Abraham can’t stop himself from killing Isaac.

So, then, does that make Steward God, or an agent of God? Is the button Isaac, and Norma failed? These are the questions the script rushes through in its last few pages, never giving a clear indication of what’s truly going on. But if it is purgatory, and if this is a test of their worth to enter heaven after an undisclosed period in purgatory, this means they failed the test. So the ending, in which Arthur sacrifices Norma to save Walter, fits in a demented way. Arthur “passed” his portion of the test, but Norma failed. One can only assume getting shot in the face while in purgatory does not cause a person to ascend to heaven.

All of these thoughts are largely rendered moot by the finished film, which downplays the existential concepts but ups the weird/sci-fi/conspiracy quotient by a huge degree. Take, for instance, a scene not present in the script, in which Arthur drives home babysitter Dana (Gillian Jacobs). On the ride home, she starts saying many strange things. Then, she gets a nosebleed and passes out. Arthur examines her driver’s license and finds (1) it’s from Massachusetts, and (2) her name is listed as Sarah. When he finally gets her home, she walks down the narrow, dimly lit hallway of her apartment. Every single resident steps out into the hall to glare at her while she shuffles, terrified, toward her dingy place. Inside, she stares at walls covered with maps and photos that hint at some sort of pattern.

Dana/Sarah is never seen again, and this pattern/conspiracy never comes up in any overt way. Is it a red herring, foreshadowing Steward’s apparent mind-control powers (an element not present in the screenplay), or another layer of symbolism that ties into the three free-standing cubes of water Arthur must choose to enter in the film’s version of the library scene? To put it another way: What the hell is going on?

Therein lies the problem with the film. I enjoyed many aspects of it: The surprisingly strong performances from Diaz and Marsden, the pitch-perfect mid-’70s aesthetic, the apparent homages to the conspiracy thrillers popular during the film’s timeframe, and the Donnie Darko-esque combination of domestic satire and unrelenting mindfuckery. I don’t feel like I wasted my time watching it, and I would probably take the time to watch it again to try to unpack whatever the hell is happening in Kelly’s twisted mind. I’m just pretty sure it has little to do with existential themes—in the film, No Exit itself has become the red herring, a source of foreshadowing and nothing more.

It’s strange to say that I didn’t like the script, because at this point it sounds like I’m championing it over the film. I grew to appreciate the script—even though I still didn’t like it much—once I started to see the odd, existential throughlines buried in its seeming aimlessness. They gave The Box a cohesiveness that Kelly lacked in both Donnie Darko and especially Southland Tales. The film abandoned that, which leads me to the only probable conclusion: I read way too much into the script. That’s not to say what I read into it wasn’t there, but I can’t imagine Kelly had any conscious intent to make the script this coherent. That’s just not his style.

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Loose Cannons (1990)

What the hell happened? I’ve never seen a movie so full of fresh comedic ideas so poorly rendered. A buddy-cop comedy written by legendary writer Richard Matheson and his not-so-legendary son, with Bob Clark (a criminally underrated director) at the helm? Pairing up Gene Hackman, one of the best actors of his generation, and Dan Aykroyd, one of the most gifted comic minds of his generation? Taking the idea of the “straitlaced cop/crazy cop” pairing to its illogical comedic extreme? Centering the mystery around a porno film featuring Adolf Hitler? Why does this movie lay like a shameful post-Taco Bell turd, a thick pile of disappointment and wasted potential?

Here’s the answer: Ellis Fielding (Aykroyd) suffers from multiple personality disorder. That’s right—the movie’s hook is also its central liability. It didn’t have to be, but Clark and the Mathesons choose to do nothing even close to interesting with a potentially hilarious conceit. They use the multiple personalities as a cheap gimmick that allows Aykroyd to show off his gift for impersonations and not much else. Ellis doesn’t have distinct personalities so much as an encyclopedic knowledge of TV, cartoon, and movie characters. He slips into a cavalcade of wacky voices and cartoon mannerisms whenever the script decides it’s necessary; otherwise, Ellis reverts to his “normal” personality, a deeply fearful but clearly brilliant detective. Aykroyd shines in this mode and doesn’t do anything offensively wrong in the “wacky” mode—it’s just that the screenplay lets him down by not giving Ellis a more creative way to manifest different personalities.

The plot is almost indescribably insane, which is a plus in a comedy mystery. It opens with German militants chasing a group of sexual fetishists, led by Harry Gutterman (Dom DeLuise), dressed like characters from Alice in Wonderland. No, really. When one of the fetishists gets killed, brash detective Macarthur Stern (Hackman) is put on the case and gets saddled with Ellis, who has just returned to the force after a lengthy stay at a mental hospital. The crime scene quickly leads them to Gutterman, who reveals he saw a porno film involving Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials. The Germans are willing to kill anyone who sees the film. Stern and Ellis find themselves teaming up with Gutterman and Riva (Nancy Travis), an undercover Mossad agent, to recover the film and foil the Germans.

Unfortunately, the movie never bothers to make the villains threatening or interesting. They simply appear with machine guns whenever the screenplay decides it’s time for another wacky action sequence. It obviously uses Lethal Weapon as the basis for its formula, but it forgets that Lethal Weapon had colorful bad guys in addition to the central conflict between Murtaugh and Riggs. It’s yet another comedy that fails to reach its potential because everyone involved shrugs and says, “Eh, it’s a comedy. It doesn’t have to have a satisfying story or compelling characters. It just has to be funny.”

Except it’s also not very funny. Clark tries to give the film a manic energy to create the illusion it’s much more entertaining and inventive than it really is. Neither him nor Aykroyd have the power to overcome the script’s inherent shortcomings. Most of the best comedic material goes to Hackman, a straight man with a short fuse and enough dyspeptic one-liners to remain engaging despite the film’s numerous problems.

I can’t stress my disappointment enough. Everyone involved—all people I admire for their various gifts—failed spectacularly. It’s a real shame, because two great comedic ideas (a cop with multiple personalities and a Nazi porno) go to waste.

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Life as We Know It (2010)

When a romantic comedy’s biggest liability is its central romance, it’s time to rethink the genre. Life as We Know It spends its first hour in a shallow exploration of some pretty interesting ideas about the way priorities shift when a child enters the picture. Then, it abandons those ideas for routine rom-com pablum (pardon the pun) that’s almost saved by the two lead actors. Almost.

After an opening “blind date from hell” sequence establishes Holly (Katherine Heigl) as an uptight neurotic and the unsubtly named Messer (Josh Duhamel) as a brash manchild, we understand pretty firmly that these two characters do not get along. They try to make it work because their respective best friends (Hayes MacArthur, Christina Hendricks) are married, but they simply can’t stand one another. What wacky rom-com circumstances will bring this couple together? Death. Huh.

That’s where Life as We Know It starts to get interesting. The married couple die in a car accident, and their will states that guardianship of their 15-month-old, Sophie (played by triplets Alexis, Brynn, and Brooke Clagett), goes to Holly and Messer. We never get to know the deceased well enough to understand why they would make such a terrible decision, but the movie isn’t really interested in that. It focuses primarily on two conflicts: the struggle to maintain their blossoming careers despite having a baby to take care of, and Holly and Messer’s struggle against each other.

Messer is the technical director for Atlanta Hawks games. As he describes his job, the director announces the camera number, and Messer pushes the button for that camera. It’s unglamorous, but he works hard, has good instincts, and wants to sit in the director’s chair someday. He doesn’t want to give it up for a baby that’s not even his. On the other hand, Holly wants this life and is more than willing to sacrifice her bakery’s restaurant expansion because she can’t afford the time or money it would take to achieve it. Still, Holly seems disappointed about the whole thing—she has the life she thinks she wants, but not in the way she wanted to get it, and not at the expense of her thriving business.

When Life as We Know It loses interest in the characters’ lives and occupations, it loses momentum and becomes far too one-sided. Initially portrayed as ambitious and self-absorbed, the screenplay eventually decides to have Holly start sacrificing as much as possible to make Messer look like a villain. Unfortunately, it only serves to make Holly seem extremely self-righteous. She never really exhibits any of the warmth or compassion necessary to sell this idea that she wants to raise Sophie. Like Messer, she merely ends up not doing a lot of things she would have otherwise done (like the business expansion) and doesn’t seem particularly happy about it. She’s doing it out of obligation, not love—just like Messer. The film could have made this more balanced, bringing them together romantically out of this shared sense of frustrated obligation. It may not be the stuff of treacly rom-coms, but at least it’s sort of interesting.

The movie treads a lot of the same ground covered in 2007’s Knocked Up, and having Heigl in one of the central roles makes the comparison unavoidable. Knocked Up explored its characters in fairly nuanced, unexpected ways that made it rise above what could have been a sappy romantic comedy. Life as We Know It starts out on the same path but loses interest in the characters as people. It forces a relationship that never feels natural, turning them into plot devices that do a disservice to all the good material in the first hour. Also, it contains an unending number of vomit and poop jokes. Sorry, filmmakers—that’s just never going to be funny.

All in all, Life as We Know It has a decent first half that’s undermined to the point of self-destruction by its second half. It’s too bad nobody involved was brave enough to risk a more interesting exploration of the characters—this really could have been something special.

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Golden Slumber [Goruden suranba] (2010)

Two men see each other across a busy street. They were once the best of friends, but they haven’t seen each other much since college. They share a meal, catch up on old times, and park a few blocks away from where the Prime Minister’s motorcade will be heading down the main street of Sendai. That’s when Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka) reluctantly explains to Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) all of the following: he impregnated a slot jockey, fell into massive debt, and went to the yakuza to bail him out. His final assignment: bring Aoyagi to the site of the Prime Minister’s assassination, to let him be this plot’s Lee Harvey Oswald.

Before Aoyagi can ask any follow-up questions, a bomb explodes (both literally and figuratively), and he’s on the run. The propulsive opening scenes of Golden Slumber introduce a film that’s unwilling to pigeonhole itself in any genre. Part conspiracy thriller, part action, part comedy, and part romantic drama, writer/director Yoshihiro Nakamura does a great job balancing tonal shifts that would have seemed jarring or unearned in less skilled hands.

Why Aoyagi? As characters frequently point out throughout the film, it’s all about image. Two years earlier, the mild-mannered deliveryman became a minor celebrity when he rescued pop star Rinka (Shihori Kanjiya) from a burglar. Aoyagi eventually theorizes that people like it when a hero falls from grace. Suddenly, Aoyagi finds himself teaming up with a mobster (Yasushi Hodogaya) and a serial killer (Gaku Hamada) in order to elude authorities and attempt to clear his name.

In the midst of the chaos is a much more complex story about friendships in decay. Years ago, in college, Aoyagi and Morita formed the Food Culture Research Club with friends Haruko (Yuko Takeuchi) and Kazu (Gekidan Hitori). Well-utilized flashbacks explore the closeness of their past and contrast it—quite starkly, at times—with their present-day fragmentation. Although they all remain in Sendai, their lives have pushed them away from each other. The assassination conspiracy forces Aoyagi to return to Haruko and Kazu for help. Nakamura shows no fear in portraying this as a difficult, awkward experience for all involved. This is a group with many unresolved issues, which need to be confronted head-on in order for Aoyagi to survive. For the characters, this dynamic serves as a wonderful core that instantly makes them more interesting than they would be otherwise.

Mostly, though, the film is a fast-paced thriller with some great comedic moments. Take, for instance, the moment a terrified Aoyagi returns to his apartment to watch news coverage of the assassination. He learns the Prime Minister was killed by a bomb planted inside a radio-controlled helicopter. “The assassin,” the newsreader declares, “must be very experienced with RC helicopters.” The film then cuts to Aoyagi’s reaction, and for the first time we discover a wall filled with RC helicopters. They, of course, belong to his girlfriend (Saki Aibu), whom Morita has warned him not to trust. “Has she ever told you to hand out flyers?” he asked Aoyagi, deftly referencing Lee Harvey Oswald’s alleged activism.

The film also includes one of the most novel character traits I’ve ever seen in a chase-filled thriller: the main character is a deliveryman, with unparalleled knowledge of Sendai’s nooks and crannies. As a criminal, Aoyagi’s inept—because he’s not one—but a deliveryman is probably the only “citizen” who could flee the authorities with such resourcefulness.

Golden Slumber, for all its charms, is just a tad overstuffed with subplots and characters. It overstays its welcome at 140 minutes, but not by much. Moments and even entire characters could be cut without impacting the story, but it’s still a tremendously entertaining film. Even the extraneous material form pieces in a large, eminently satisfying puzzle.

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Asleep in the Sun [Dormir al Sol] (2010)

Surrealism is a tricky thing. There’s an incredibly fine line that an artist must walk in order to achieve an end product that combines dream-like logic with heady, symbolic imagery. Play things too “weird for weird’s sake,” and you risk alienating the audience. Play things too real, and you risk a film that’s filled with an assortment of inexplicable character changes and plot twists that are explained away with the shrug of dream-like strangeness. Asleep in the Sun, for all its ambition and beautiful imagery, walks the line but stumbles a little too much to fully achieve its goals.

The film tells the story of Lucio (Luis Machín), a loving husband and unemployed watchmaker in 1930s Argentina. His wife, Diana (Esther Goris), is suffering from something unknown. By description, it sounds like bipolar disorder, but nobody ever describes her problem in clinical terms—not even the doctors. Her growing obsession with dogs—specifically, dogs that Diana believes can talk to her—leads Lucio to reluctantly confine her to a “phrenopathic institute” run by the shadowy Dr. Reger Samaniego (Carlos Belloso).

It’s around this time that the word “Kafkaesque” comes into play. What first seems like an ordinary sanitarium starts to seem like a labyrinthine prison. Lucio starts to get a sense that Diana is trapped there, held against her will by a doctor who refuses to see him. Samaniego’s assistant, Dr. Campolongo (Héctor Díaz), talks in circles eerily reminiscent of The Trial, which confuses and frustrates Lucio. When he finally meets Samaniego, the good doctor subtly implies mental illness is a contagious disease, and that Lucio is likely infected and should voluntarily commit himself, as well. Just when Lucio is prepared to sue the institute, he receives the call that Diana will be released.

When she returns home, Diana seems subtly different. She confuses the names of family members, her cooking isn’t up to par, she grows increasingly obsessed with reading her old diaries, and—most tellingly for Lucio—she suddenly enjoys fellatio. Lucio’s fear and suspicion mounts. He returns to the hospital to confront Samaniego, and that’s when things get really weird.

Unfortunately, writer/director Alejandro Chomski makes two grave miscalculations that undermine the film’s dream-like qualities: too much foreshadowing, and too much “realism.” The film has a few echoes of Pan’s Labyrinth in its attempts to ground a fantastical story in a brutal reality, but it doesn’t pay dividends here. It simply makes Lucio’s actions in the third act seem really out of character and boneheaded. The inconsistency is pretty much chalked up to, “It’s surreal—it doesn’t have to make sense.”

However, it’s stuck in the center of a precarious plot that’s not surreal enough to betray the characters’ previous behavior, yet isn’t grounded enough in believability to be accepted as some sort of convoluted science-fiction. Numerous twists pile up in the last 20 minutes, but they’re too predictable (because of all the foreshadowing) and/or too inconceivable to make the film satisfying as a whole. The end result is a bit of a disappointing mess.

Despite the big problems with the third act, the film is loaded with elements worth admiring. It boasts great performances all around, anchored by Machín, whose doleful eyes create palpable despair that make him easy to root for even when he’s acting like an inexplicable idiot. Chomski and cinematographer Sol Lopatin create gorgeous images that make the film easy on the eyes even when it’s hard on the logic centers. Several early dialogue scenes impressively evoke the absurd, circular illogic of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. Lots to admire, but ultimately it doesn’t hold together.

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Sword of Desperation [Hisshiken torisashi] (2010)

If you love Yasujirô Ozu, Sword of Desperation may impress you. The film pays such attentive homage to Ozu’s style that it could easily be mistaken for one of his films. On that level, it’s an impressive work. However, it’s a work that’s all borrowed style and no substance.

The film opens with a murder. Kanemi Sanzaemon (Etsushi Toyokawa), a highly regarded swordsman, approaches concubine Renko (Megumi Seki) after a domain-sponsored Noh performance and stabs her, seemingly in cold blood. Instead of having him killed, the domain council strips him of his rank and reduces his rice salary.

Flashbacks surround Kanemi’s self-imposed exile, illuminating the reasons for his murder. It seems Renko’s growing influence on Tabu Ukyou (Jun Murakami), the domain’s lord, upset the balance. Her insistence on wasting domain money on decadence while the peasants starved frustrated the councilmen. Kanemi, fully aware of the dishonor of his actions, felt compelled to act for the good of the domain.

Sword of Destiny loses interest in the story of a flawed but (somewhat) just antihero about halfway through. It seems like fireworks will go off when Kanemi is called from his exile to work as a servant for Tabu, but that never happens. The film, instead, gets distracted with a fairly ridiculous, vaguely mystical swordfight between Kanemi and Lord Obiya (Koji Kikkawa), who opposes Tabu’s policies and plans a coup. Kanemi is warned early on what Obiya has planned, and it’s strongly hinted that he can regain his honor by picking up the sword and saving Tabu’s life.

The entire third act descends into an orgy of violence that not only loses sight of its characters and the initial, compelling conflicts of the film—it loses sight of story and theme. The first half has virtually nothing to do with the second, aside from extending an odd romantic subplot involving Kanemi and his niece-in-law, Rio (Chizuru Ikewaki), whose husband rejected her. However, this subplot takes a backseat to the wanton, unearned violence and ends in an abrupt, unsatisfying scene.

Aping Ozu’s style doesn’t exactly help the film’s cause. Every moment of the film is slow and methodical, attempting to mine suspense—as Ozu did—through the intense focus on mundane action and ominous shots of nature (gloomy skies and windblown trees). The almost obsessive attention to detail makes the raucous violence of the last half hour feel like a cheap way to end what started as a sober, reflective film. It’s tonally jarring in a way that’s more frustrating than a compelling defiance of convention.

The film’s style also undermines the fact that the screenplay does not have nearly the same laser-like focus as director Hideyuki Hirayama. Perhaps if more time had been spent giving the story a more natural arc instead of lingering on shots of servants opening and closing rice-paper doors, the film would have worked better overall.

Ultimately, the best part of Sword of Desperation is Toyokawa’s intense performance. I just wish a performance that good could have found a place in a better movie.

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Tones of Home (Screenplay)

Title: Tones of Home (Screenplay)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Draft: Third

Length: 111 pages

Logline: Tired of fighting the pressure from family and friends, insurance adjustor Robin Kelley has reluctantly agreed to settle down and marry her longtime boyfriend, a successful CPA. When her high school sweetheart, washed-up rock star Girth McDürchstein, learns of Robin’s upcoming nuptials, he races from Los Angeles to the little town of Cedar Point, Iowa, intending to stop her. Once he arrives, Girth starts to see the virtues of a “boring” small-town life—but all Robin sees is the excitement and glamour she passed up.

Will Robin abandon a stable but predictable future to live out her own rock-star dreams?

History:

First Draft—5/12/05

Second Draft—10/30/07

Third Draft—10/10/10

Click the image to download the complete screenplay for just $2.99.

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Strange Invaders (1983)

Strange Invaders tries to serve up something resembling an homage to the cheesy, low-budget sci-fi films playing at 1950s drive-ins. On that level, it’s hard to judge if it was a conscious choice on director Michael Laughlin’s part to make nearly every scene much longer than it needs to be and give it the lugubrious pace of a Bert I. Gordon film. Whether conscious or unconscious, the film doesn’t work as a result. It lacks the wit and absurdity of a Zucker brothers spoof, it lacks the satirical edge of something like Night of the Creeps or Gremlins, so what’s left is a straight-up homage to ’50s B-movies that’s equally as bad as its predecessors.

Paul Le Mat is game as Charles Bigelow, a Columbia University entomology professor whose ex-wife (Diana Scarwid) disappeared while on a routine trip to her hometown. So Charles travels to rural Centerville, Illinois, a seemingly idyllic community with a dark secret: aliens invaded in 1958. Other than making the town feel like a Rod Serling creation, it’s unclear what impact the aliens had on the town. However, Charles soon realizes its creepy citizens don’t want him to leave, either. He narrowly escapes, and while on his way out of town, he sees one of the aliens.

Terrified, Charles returns to New York. He teams up with Betty Walker (Nancy Allen), a cynical reporter for a National Enquirer-like tabloid. She nearly laughs him out of the room when he approaches her about the aliens, but a series of strange happenings change her mind. It seems the aliens have followed Charles back to New York and want him dead—and now Betty, too, because she Knows Too Much. While on the run, they dig up information about what may have happened in Centerville, and they find themselves with no choice but to return and face the alien menace.

That probably sounds like a compelling story. It should be—it has all the elements of good/goofy sci-fi. Really, the only thing that kills this move is its glacial pace. Clearly shot on a low budget, Laughlin had to make some choices. It’s obviously not going to be as action-packed or effects-heavy as, say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which is parodied briefly in the opening scene), because the money’s not there. He wastes Le Mat and Allen, though. Both seem to be having fun, but this movie lacks the fast-paced, ratatat dialogue usually employed by producers like Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff to give a sense that something interesting is happening. Instead, it seems like everyone took a few Quaaludes before cameras started rolling. They speak very slowly, and long stretches of silence fill gaps between conversations. Le Mat and Allen try, in vain, to bring some energy to their scenes together, but they’re inhibited by a combination of poor editing and the dullness surrounding them.

This movie’s low budget and bizarre story sensibilities reminded me of filmmakers like John Carpenter and Larry Cohen. However, those directors did a much better job of working with actors and had a much clearer vision of what they wanted to accomplish cinematically. Laughlin’s adrift here, and Strange Invaders suffers as he tries to figure out not only what he wants his film to say, but how he should say it. This script and these actors would have been better served by someone more competent at the helm. Then again, Laughlin produced Two-Lane Blacktop, so maybe stilted conversations punctuated by long stretches of silence is his artistic vision. That’s fine for a bleak, existential road movie, but it doesn’t work here.

Don’t waste your time seeking out Strange Invaders. Other filmmakers have covered the same ground with much better results. It’s disappointing that the film wastes so much talent and potential.

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Love Life of a Gentle Coward [Ljubavni život domobrana] (2009)

Love Life of a Gentle Coward finds the source of its comedy through a deft exploration of gender roles in the modern world. It benefits from a strong screenplay by Pavo Marinković (who also directed) that, in some ways, feels like the sort of comedy Woody Allen would make if he were still in his prime. Aside from its neurotic examination of romance, the film works as a fairly deep rumination on the way social expectations have muddied the relationship waters.

The titular gentle coward, Saša (Nenad Cvetko), works as a meek culinary critic for a struggling newspaper. He’s a divorced father, intimidated by his ex-wife’s new beau, uncertain of how to act around anyone—especially women. His love interest, Ines (Dijana Vidušin), once played professional volleyball. A career-ending injury has left her unhappily working as a no-nonsense jack-of-all-trades in an all-male athletic club. After a particularly stressful week, Saša goes for a massage at the club. Ines is the masseuse.

A relationship starts to develop. Saša feels inferior not just to the men Ines has been involved with, but to Ines herself. Cvetko’s scrawny frame and sunken, sad eyes resemble a Croatian Steve Buscemi, which aids the character. He’s intimidated physically by nearly every character in the film, but Ines gives him some confidence. “Your balls are different,” she states after Saša’s self-pitying rant about his inability to stand up to the men threatening her at the club.

It’s a somewhat crude statement of theme. Saša spends most of his time thinking about how he lacks balls, but he’s ballsy in a brainy way. During their awkward first date—at an empty five-star restaurant he’s reviewing—Ines’s reaction (“I’d like a kebob from the stand across the street”) inspires a hostile screed against the snobbery and exclusionary tactics of fancy restaurants. It’s the sort of thing Saša’s editor has clamored for (“You keep writing essays. People want opinions. Badmouth, like a real journalist!”), but it’s too aggressive. Especially in light of the fact that the restaurateur is related to a vicious political candidate.

Politics play a role in the film that’s largely unnecessary to the story, but vitally important to its contribution to Croatian cinema. As you may know, Croats have had some…trouble. Marinković wisely relegates the political chicanery to the story’s background, but the upcoming election casts a long shadow over all the characters, no matter how seemingly apolitical.

Before long, Saša’s inferiority complex and somewhat pathetic attempts to both impress and protect Ines put the relationship in jeopardy. It’s here that Love Life of a Gentle Coward has ample opportunity to plunder bland American romantic-comedy clichés, but Marinković defies clichés at every turn. The end result is a film that’s rewarding for anyone who appreciates the odd mixed messages each gender receives about its role in society and relationships, yet it remains distinctly Croatian.

If you like your romantic comedies dark and male-focused, Love Life of a Gentle Coward is the best recent example that doesn’t have Judd Apatow’s name on it.

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