Posts in Category: Columns

Breakin’ (1984)

Breakin’, released in 1984, was Cannon’s first significant hit. Part of this may have had to do with MGM’s influence as U.S. distributor. They, quite possibly, ponied up a bit more for promotion than the notoriously shoestring Cannon Group could. Or maybe people were just really into break-dancing at the time. Whatever the case, Breakin’ grossed a staggering $39 million domestically on a budget that couldn’t have been higher than $2 million (if it was, something went seriously awry). Compare that to Death Wish II, which netted less than half that amount despite having a bigger star and a built-in audience.

Breakin’ has all the hallmarks of a Golan-Globus production: bad performances, awful sets, bizarre turns of plot, low stakes, occasionally surreal mise-en-scène. Why, then, did I watch all 86 minutes with a goofy smile on my face? I attribute it to the heady combination of breezy badness and the clear sense of fun from the actors. The stars (Lucinda Dickey, Adolfo Quinones, Michael Chambers) were clearly hired for their dancing ability above all, but they’re obviously having a great time making this movie—because they’re not good enough actors to fake that sense of fun and camaraderie.

The story follows the trials and tribulations of Kelly (Dickey), a jazz dancer whose career has stalled because she won’t sleep with the influential people who could put her on top (so to speak). After a dance-class friend coaxes her into driving him to Venice Beach, Kelly witnesses the exuberant break-dancing team of Ozone (Quinones) and Turbo (Chambers). Shortly thereafter, two improbable events change her life: Kelly has a slew of terrible auditions, and the Ozone/Turbo team are trumped by the “Electro-Rockers,” who dare to trump the male-male dance partnership by throwing—gasp!—a girl into the mix. Even though their girl doesn’t do much beyond rhythmically aiming accusatory fingers at Ozone and Turbo, they feel they’ve lost. Kelly decides she’d rather team up with them than continue struggling to make ends meet as a professional jazz dancer.

Christopher McDonald, who’s made a career out of playing snobby pricks, plays Kelly’s agent. He delivers a really nice, surprising performance as a guy who’s dubious yet supportive of Kelly’s choices, and willing to risk his professional career for her and her dance team. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but he plays a genuinely warm, compassionate person. He’s also the only one in the entire cast who can act worth a damn, which lends credibility to the goofy story. His actions pretty much drive the second half: after witnessing a “street” performance by “TKO,” he becomes consumed with getting them a prestigious audition with a bunch of stuffed-shirt professionals.

The plot exists primarily to string together break-dancing sequences. Everything about it is silly and—well, I’d call it melodramatic, but none of the performers (McDonald included) seem to take the generic conflicts seriously enough for there to be any real drama. Oddly, this is beneficial to the film. If any amount of pathos, legitimate conflict, or reality had seeped into this movie, it would have obliterated the overwhelming sense of joy permeating every frame. Absurd moments like Kelly’s audition montage, during which she auditions for one part that calls for a tall blonde (even though the producers are clearly holding a photo depicting her brown hair and short stature) before donning a wig to unsuccessfully audition for another part that calls for a short brunette (even though, again, they’re holding the same photo of her brown hair and short stature), would cause me to quiver with rage in a movie that took itself seriously. Here, it’s just one part of the goofy, grin-inducing package.

Ultimately, nothing matters but the dancing. If you like break-dancing (I don’t), you’ll love this movie. The choreography is great, the dance sequences are well-shot (especially compared to the amateurish blocking during normal scenes), and the soundtrack is annoyingly toe-tapping.

Because break-dancing, Jheri curls, wispy mustaches, and half-shirts have passed out of mainstream popularity, Breakin’ exists mainly as a colorful snapshot of pop culture phenomena lost to the passage of time. The sunny depiction of “street thugs” and dance competitions make it a pleasant, nostalgia-saturated way to pass a couple of hours. Those looking for substance need not apply.

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Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1985)

Sequels are all about raising the stakes, and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo does exactly that. In fact, it’s virtually identical to the first Breakin’, only with a sillier plot and crazier dance sequences. It also retains its predecessor’s sense of pure glee, preventing the movie from feeling like the crass cash-in it actually is.

The story hits all the same beats of the original: Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) struggles as a professional dancer but pines for the days of fun, dancing in the streets with Turbo and Ozone (Adolfo Quinones and Michael Chambers, respectively). Turbo continues to yearn for Kelly’s affections, but his jealousy over her blossoming career inadvertently pushes Kelly away. He wants her to volunteer at a colorful (literally—the building has a paint job you wouldn’t believe) neighborhood community center, Miracles. Unfortunately, a sinister developer (Peter MacLean) wants to tear down Miracles and replace it with a shopping mall. Will the power of break-dancing change the minds of City Council?

Although it mostly treads familiar territory, the screenwriters throw a couple of new peppers into the Breakin’ gumbo: this time around, Ozone develops a crush on an attractive dancer, which gives him more to do than act like a weirdo. Also, Kelly’s wealthy parents (Jo De Winter, John Christy Ewing) are introduced to act as the “haves” to the Turbo/Ozone “have-nots,” splitting Kelly’s loyalties. In a rewrite of a scene from the first film, Turbo and Ozone have dinner at Kelly’s house, and their brash/goofball sensibilities alienate her parents. Needless to say, Kelly rejoins “TKO” in defiance of her snooty parents.

In perhaps this sequel’s most interesting development, it introduces a little bit of darkness around the sunny edges of the Breakin’ universe: the film contains numerous disparaging references to street youths as either drug dealers or drug addicts, and Kelly’s parents raise legitimate (unanswered) questions as to how the seemingly unemployed Turbo manages to afford such stylish clothes.

Overall, Breakin’ 2 is about the joy of dance. This time around, the dance sequences are more elaborate and densely populated with rhythmic extras. They range from exuberant (dancing through the streets to protest the closing of Miracles) to surreal (Ozone dancing on the walls and ceiling of a rotating room either borrowed from A Nightmare on Elm Street or Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” video) to creepy as hell (Ozone and Turbo fighting over a female dummy they both “see” as their respective love interests—it’s a well-choreographed, deftly edited sequence that is nevertheless a little disturbing). The dance numbers reach their silliness apex when an energetic dance sequence breaks out among handicapped patients in a hospital ward, complete with “sexy nurses” (straight out of a 976 ad) and surgeons popping and locking shortly after losing a patient (who quickly returns to life and starts dancing himself).

As a dance film, it never lacks for imagination. As a story, it’s goofy and predictable. As a viewing experience, it’s a hell of a lot of fun—more fun, even, than the first one. Even people who dislike break-dancing (like me) will derive at least some pleasure from the sense of offbeat fun contained within Breakin’ 2.

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[Five] Killers (2010) by Bob DeRosa and Ted Griffin

Everything that went wrong with Killers can be traced to the title change: from the fairly specific (or, at least, enigmatically intriguing) Five Killers to the generic, not-at-all-compelling Killers. On the page, Five Killers spins an entertaining, occasionally thrilling tale that blends Mission: Impossible-esque espionage with good-natured romantic comedy. On the screen, it seems the filmmakers decided to scale way back on the espionage in favor of the romantic comedy angle. The result is uneven, to put it mildly.

Let’s start with the screenplay’s storyline, which I will eventually contrast with the differences in the film. Spencer (Ashton Kutcher) is essentially portrayed as a low-grade Ethan Hunt, a young but masterful spy. The early scenes do a great job of setting the tone: while Spencer lurks around Corsica, tracking and ultimately bombing a mysterious, supervillain known as “Leveneux,” he has a goofy Meet-Cute with Jen (Katherine Heigl), who’s vacationing with her overbearing, intrusive parents. They share a cute, slightly awkward moment, at which point Spencer asks Jen out. Gleeful, evidently lonely Jen prepares for a date with Spencer, while he plants a bomb on Leveneux’s escape helicopter. They both dash to an outdoor caf&eacute, overlooking the Mediterranean, just in time to see the chopper explode.

A montage follows, depicting their whirlwind courtship and marriage. During this montage, Spencer quits working as a spy and opens a small design firm in the suburbs. The script then jumps ahead three years, to a much more complacent Jen and Spencer. They’re still in love, but they’re decidedly a settled married couple. Spencer has some issues with the amount of time Jen spends with her parents. Jen has some issues with how much time he spends at work. After the script introduces a cavalcade of suburban stereotypes with outsized personalities, Spencer gets a call from his old handler, who has a line on “The Leopard,” the mysterious, Blofeld-like boss of Leveneux. He’s not dead. The handler wants to meet, but Spencer refuses. That night, Jen throws a surprise party in anticipation of Spencer’s birthday. The following morning, Spencer finds his best friend, Henry, trying to kill him.

From there, Jen learns of Spencer’s secret past as a spy, and Spencer learns (from Henry) that he has a $20 million bounty on his head. Henry knows more assassins will be hot on Spencer’s trail, but he doesn’t know how many, who put the bounty on Spencer, or why they were paid to “sleep” in Spencer’s subdivision for three years before activation. Spencer assumes it has something to do with his handler. The remainder of the story focuses on two major plot threads: Spencer and Jen uncovering information about who hired the assassins (Spencer assumes it’s The Leopard, who realizes Spencer and his handler have gotten too close, so his main goal is to use information about the assassins to find out The Leopard’s true identity), and the couple attempting to elude and/or fight various assassins. With all this happening, Jen struggles to deal with Spencer’s deception, and Spencer struggles with the idea that he may be a father (yes, the pregnancy subplot rears its ugly head midway through the script).

Overall, the script is a fun read. The spy material is engaging but not overwrought, and the writers do a solid job of balancing the tonal shifts. They also mine a lot of suspense and a sense of paranoia from the idea that literally anybody could be an assassin. The ending, which I’ll be nice and not ruin, is inevitable but not at all predictable. It’s not without its flaws, however. In particular, Jen is a one-note character. She doesn’t really have any traits beyond “overly dependent on her parents.” The attempt to give her a conflict of her own—anxiety over when and how to tell Spencer about her pregnancy—doesn’t add as much dimension to her as the writers seem to think. They also don’t play enough with the idea of Spencer deceiving Jen on an epic scale, making her pregnancy secret a relatively minor offense.

The portrayal of the assassins constitutes another big flaw of the screenplay. The writers lay it out pretty simply: shortly after their marriage, an unknown boss hired five killers (hence the title) to befriend or work with Spencer and/or Jen. The assassins had two conditions: they’d have to wait an unknown length of time before the boss activated them, and they’d be dueling with each other for the $20 million bounty. Here’s the main problem: once revealed as assassins, the killers don’t break character. They remain wacky suburban stereotypes, preoccupied with fishing trips and property lines despite the fact that they’re in the middle of car chases and shootouts. The incongruity is amusing on a basic comedic level, but it doesn’t make any actual sense.

Another, more minor problem with them is how easily Spencer dispatches them. He kills four of the five assassins with relative ease, leading to a third-act block party filled with paranoid dread as Spencer and Jen try to identify the final killer. The fix for these two issues is sheer elegance in its simplicity: make the assassins go soft. They’ve spent three years assuming the cover of a dull suburbanite, a UPS driver, or an intern. The way these characters describe the torture of suburbia left me with the impression that they’re not used to “sleeping” in these covers identities for so long. Humans—even sociopathic assassins—are very adaptable creatures. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising or unreasonable to think they’d put on a little weight and got a little more invested in fishing than in keeping up with target practice or the latest in bombing technology. It kills two birds with one stone, explaining why Spencer has such an easy time killing them and why they remain fixated on their bland suburban lives as they spray machine-gun fire in Spencer’s direction.

Did the film rectify any of these problems? Sort of…but it makes a lot of new, more debilitating mistakes. This is the rare film that is wildly divergent from its screenplay. Usually, some things change in production, but only a few scenes and the (very) basic storyline remain intact in Killers.

On the positive side, the film gives Jen and her parents much more personality—so much so that it no longer makes much sense when she and Spencer argue about her dependence on her parents. As the Kornfelds, Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara mine some of the biggest laughs, but the characters are totally different. Gone are the overbearing perfectionists; in their stead, Selleck is a cold, constantly disapproving bully, and O’Hara is an over-the-top lush (the sort of woman who makes a pitcher of Bloody Marys for breakfast and drinks the whole thing as if it’s a giant glass). Jen treats them more with annoyance than dependence.

Jen, herself, has much more going on. When we first meet her, she’s a sentient bundle of anxiety, in constant fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Heigl does a nice job of showing the change “three years later”—she’s much more relaxed and subdued now that she’s found her soulmate. However, the groundwork is there for her to panic and overreact when the assassins come calling. The script eventually attributes this to mood swings associated with pregnancy, which is sort of a lame explanation that attempts to make the character less interesting.

However, the assassins remain the same, warts and all. The entire supporting cast is populated by comedic ringers like Rob Riggle (The Daily Show), Alex Borstein (Mad TV), and Martin Mull (Fernwood 2 Night). That they’re all recognizable makes it harder to identify whom the assassins might be. That they’re all comedians forces them to go a few hundred shades over the top, compounding the problems with the assassins’ portrayal in the script. (However, Mull gives an impressively restrained performance, but he’s in the movie for a total of about 38 seconds.)

The film’s plot is a curiosity. Whereas the screenplay combines the romantic-comedy elements with the legitimate sense of a thriller, the changes to the story and characters reflect a definite “rom-com first, thriller seventh” attitude. The film strips away the majority of spy material, making those delicately balanced tonal shifts jarring and weird. Shootouts and car chases are inexplicably punctuated with music left over from the Under the Tuscan Sun scoring sessions. The lack of suspense and simplification of the plot present serious problems because they make the characters’ movement from location to location meaningless. It feels like they’re just traveling to a different place to vary the action sequences. Admittedly, that’s the script’s ultimate goal—but it gives the characters palpable purpose for going to the places they go.

I have one question, to which I have no definitive answer: what the hell happened? How did a reasonably good (if slightly problematic) script turn into such a wildly uneven, borderline incoherent movie? Is this another example of too many cooks spoiling the broth? Director Robert Luketic bears at least some of the blame. The film de-emphasizes the thriller aspects, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely gone. It is, after all, still a film about a couple trying to get away from assassins. He’s responsible for the total lack of suspense and poorly staged action sequences.

Worse than that, though, the film feels like a bunch of ill-fitting pieces jammed together. Some scenes—notably, Jen and Spencer’s meeting and the “they buy a pregnancy test” scene—are identical to what’s in the script. Everything surrounding these scenes changed, but they don’t quite sync up anymore. It’s almost like they started shooting with the draft of the script I read, but the writers were forced to rewrite the script on-set to accommodate both what they’d already shot and what the director or producers or actors or agents or executives decided the movie now “needed.” For instance, the pregnancy is a major subplot in the screenplay, but in the finished film it’s an unnecessary distraction. Now that Jen’s character has totally changed, for the better, why not just cut it altogether?

It’s always a shame when a good script goes bad. Five Killers had its share of problems, but it would have turned out a lot better than Killers did.

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Special Contributors: MacGruber (2010) by Ted Bertram

Remember when action movies were tough? Back before the Clinton liberals convinced everyone that a sensitive, ponytail-wearing, environment-loving “action hero” like Steven Seagal or a Frenchy like Jean-Claude Van Damme were worth watching, we had real heroes like Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nowadays, we have a lot less ass-kicking and a lot more wistful stares and “tough guys” whining about how they don’t want to have to do what’s necessary to catch the bad guys. “It’s too hard!” they whimper. “I don’t want to kill people, even if they did slaughter my entire family and kidnap the President of the United States.”

I’ve long thought this type of prissy “hero” needed to go, and it would appear the makers of MacGruber agree with me. It’s no surprise, then, that the elites in Hollywood torpedoed any possibility of success with an embarrassingly low budget ($10 million) and a low-key, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ad campaign.

Sometimes, Hollywood doesn’t know what it’s getting into. As with David O. Russell’s terrorist-loving “war film” Three Kings (1999), the makers of MacGruber clearly sold their studio a bill of goods—the story of a liberal action hero forced out of retirement to work for the big bad “jingoistic” military. What they delivered was a sly, winking satire, and clearly the studio didn’t know what to do with it.

Rife with homages to classics like Predator (1987) and Road House (1989), first-time director Jorma Taccone (who co-wrote with John Solomon and star Will Forte) has a clear affinity for the world of Reagan-era action films. The narrative structure and action sequences are a deliberate, satisfying throwback.

It tells a straightforward story: when German terrorist Dieter Von Cunth (a deliciously sinister Val Kilmer) steals a Russian nuclear warhead, MacGruber is called out of retirement by heroic Army Colonel James Faith (Powers Boothe) and paired with steely rookie Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) and doe-eyed vixen Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig). Their task: find Von Cunth and get the passcodes that will launch the missile. The film is loaded with bombastic action sequences that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

What separates MacGruber from both contemporary action movies and classics from the 1980s is the titular lead character. As MacGruber, Will Forte is a preening, simpering crybaby. His performance, and the way the character is written, mark a satirical masterstroke that’s surprising coming from former hippie haven Saturday Night Live. Evidently, the White House isn’t the only home to “change you can believe in.”

Forte (along with Taccone and Solomon) brilliantly subvert the clichés of the modern liberal action hero. When faced with imminent danger, MacGruber starts to scream, cry, and offer homosexual favors to anyone who might listen. Every word he says to his tough-as-nails military cohorts has the smug air of condescension, all the while taking credit for their heroics. MacGruber spends so much time explaining what he’s going to do, the Germans easily and frequently get the drop on him. He’s overly emotional, self-absorbed, and obsessively focused on petty revenge and jealousy, distracting him from the mission at hand. Heck, he doesn’t even know how to use a gun.

Perhaps the filmmakers’ strongest indictment of MacGruber is contained in his tangled backstory with Von Cunth: years ago, after impregnating his mulatto girlfriend (Maya Rudolph), Von Cunth intended to do the right thing and marry her. However, during the engagement, MacGruber repeatedly slept with her, then forced her to call off the engagement and terminate the pregnancy. Most appallingly, it never occurs to MacGruber that his actions and blasé attitude could have something to do with why Von Cunth hates him so much.

The film’s sole weak spot comes toward the end. After a wonderful moment where Dixon Piper finally stands up to his foolhardy superior, the film does a complete 180. Instead of fully committing to the idea of MacGruber as a shrill, incompetent symbol of what happens when the peacenik left tries to act tough, the filmmakers allow MacGruber to save the day—twice!

The writers try to salvage this misguided turn of events by acknowledging MacGruber only saves the day because of things he learned from Dixon. However, it remains patently obvious that a focus group filled with granola-eating Orange County teens forced the filmmakers to shoot a new ending that doesn’t quite fit the merciless satire of liberalism and the conservative values the film generally reinforces.

Despite its ending, MacGruber is a perfect date movie for any couple who loves the visceral thrills and right-thinking no longer found in today’s action spectacles.

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A Single Man (2009) by Tom Ford and David Searce

When I first read the script for A Single Man in 2008, I hated it. I generally react to scripts I dislike with a mixture of disappointment and indifference. It’s very rare that something’s so bland and devoid of apparent meaning that I actively hate it. A Single Man managed to accomplish that difficult feat.

Why? From page one, it fails to answer the most basic, screenwriting 101 question a writer should ask before starting a project: “Why does this story need to be told?” That’s not much more than a polite way of asking, “Who cares?” Either way, if the writer can’t answer the question, he or she probably should find something else to write about. Co-writers Tom Ford (the fashion designer) and David Scearce never attempt to answer that question. Obviously, Ford felt some sort of connection to Christopher Isherwood’s novel: in addition to co-writing, he produced, directed, and financed the project. However, any connection he may have to the material is neither present on the page nor on film. It’s like a museum: very cold, and very beautiful. Technical beauty is simply not enough.

Although this column is not called “Novel to Screen,” it can’t hurt to examine how the novel form compares to a screenplay. In a novel, a writer can have a character who sits around doing nothing, passing through a single uninteresting day, without getting into any conflict with others—without even interacting with others—and it can be fascinating, if the character is compelling and his worldview is unique and interesting. The same cannot be said for a film, no matter how good everything surrounding its story is. Films are works of drama, and the foundation of drama is conflict. Internal conflict is a tricky thing to pull off in film, because the audience has to understand the conflict, and pained silence only goes so far. Eventually, a writer has to start relying on more dangerous tricks of the medium—voiceovers, flashbacks, monologues. Great filmmakers can pull this off (see Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters for brilliant uses of all three techniques).

Ford, to put it bluntly, is neither a great filmmaker nor a great screenwriter, and A Single Man suffers from its dearth of conflict. I hated the screenplay because nothing interesting happens, and whenever something interesting comes close to happening, Ford and Scearce cut away to another flashback.. The redundant story, set in 1962, follows George (played by Colin Firth in the movie), a British college professor living in Los Angeles. An opening flashback makes it abundantly clear that George’s longtime lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), died in a car accident one year earlier. George still grieves for him. The movie rinses and repeats three basic scene types: (1) a mournful-looking George preparing to commit suicide, (2) a mournful-looking George going through the motions during what he intends to be his last day on Earth, and (3) a slightly-less-mournful flashback to George’s life with Jim.

Ford might as well have titled it We Get It: The Movie. After the opening flashback, we understand the source of George’s internal conflict. To some extent, we even understand why he’s intending to commit suicide. Do we need a half-dozen more flashbacks showing George and Jim in happier times? In terms of the narrative: no—please God, no! In terms of practicality: well, the script runs a scant 87 pages, and the bulk of that consists of moody descriptions of George’s facial expressions and other characters’ wardrobe and makeup. The shorthand of the medium is “1 page = 1 minute,” making 87 pages barely feature length.

We understand George’s internal conflict—fine. Pretend the script doesn’t feature tons of other redundant flashbacks. What’s left? George goes through the motions of a typical day, and he seems oddly disconnected from other people. This fits: George considers Jim his one true love, so Jim’s death has made him turn his back on the outside world. It fits, but it’s not dramatically interesting. George meanders through a day, but he doesn’t seem terribly interested in any of it. This could have become a source of external conflict—George’s apathy frustrating his colleagues, neighbors, and friends, perhaps increasing his suicidal tendencies. Instead, George’s nonplussed reactions and polite, if terse, dialogue does nothing to build suspense, intrigue, or even further develop his character.

Opportunities for real dramatic tension creep into the third act, but it’s too little, too late. First, George has dinner with Charley (Julianne Moore), a boozehound friend who has spent much of her life disappointed that George won’t go straight and marry her. Later, one of George’s students (Kenny, played by Nicholas Hoult) arrives unexpectedly at the same seaside bar where George met Jim 16 years earlier. (In reality, Kenny found out where George lived, staked out his place, and followed him to the bar to engineer the “chance meeting.”) George quickly finds himself smitten by Kenny. They go for an erotic late-night swim, after which George seems to realize how silly his suicidal plans are. And so, shortly after putting away the gun he’s spent most of the script staring at wistfully, George dies of a heart attack. The end.

It struck me as odd that George could be so easily pulled from the brink by a guy who, really, isn’t terribly interesting. Aside from looking good and being gay, he doesn’t offer much that should interest George, regurgitating pop psychology and talking about how great marijuana is. I did a little research on the source novel (without actually reading it myself, so pardon my ignorance if what I learned was incorrect) and discovered the suicide angle is an invention of the screenwriters. In the novel, George is just moderately depressed and unable to overcome his grief. Making George suicidal raises the stakes but instantly makes everything else harder to believe. He seems too disinterested in his life to really want to end it—apathy should never be confused for soul-crushing misery.

Even if they made the suicide angle believable, they have a much bigger challenge in making Kenny resonate enough to make George’s change of heart (no pun intended) convincing. Excising the suicide angle altogether wouldn’t make this a brilliant script, but at least the Kenny development would work. Hell, maybe the rest of the script would benefit from such a change. George’s fastidious preparations for suicide don’t match his laissez-faire approach to life in the rest of the script. Firth does his best to make the dichotomy work, but the burden is really on the writer. The flashbacks don’t illuminate enough about him to show a marked change in personality—they never suggest that meticulousness to the point of obnoxiousness once defined George, before grief and despair caused him to stop caring. At the end of it all, from page one to page 87, nothing in this screenplay really works, but maybe it could have in the hands of better adaptors.

A year later, long after I’d forgotten the existence of A Single Man, reviews trickled out during its limited theatrical release. Nearly all of them were positive. Huh, I thought, maybe this is one of the rare screenplays that doesn’t accurately reflect the film it would become.

So I watched the movie, and… Well… The acting is really good, almost in spite of Tom Ford. As producer/director, Ford assembled an ace cast, absorbed Mad Men‘s excellent production team to create the same early-’60s look, and trotted out every single trick in the “flashy director” playbook: weird jump cuts; variable-speed shots; super-slow motion; a rapidly transforming color palette; mise-en-scène more reminiscent of a photograph than a film; inundating the soundtrack with ambiance instead of dialogue. I’m sure I’m leaving something out.

All this excess detracts from the performances. Firth somehow manages to turn in a great performance in an emotionally hollow film. He works his ass off trying to serve as the emotional center, but every step of the way, Ford tosses in obnoxious flourishes that make Firth’s read on the character needlessly confusing. For instance, when George leaves for work in the morning, Ford shoots his drive down the street in super-slow-motion, lingering on George’s neighbors as he passes them, watching, playfully “shooting” the son dressed like an Indian. What the hell is the point of that? Neither Firth nor the script give a sense that, perhaps, George is missing something by not having a “normal” family, but that’s the only conclusion to be drawn from such unnecessary lingering on a scene any other writer/director would cut long before production.

It tempts me to say, “Well, Tom Ford is an artist, not a filmmaker.” That way, I could excuse the unnecessary stylistic showiness, chalking it up to inexperience and lack of confidence. It doesn’t feel like inexperience, though. It feels like distraction—from the fact that there’s no real story here, no matter what Firth does to prevent George from feeling as bland and dickish as he comes across on the page. In short: A Single Man is a small group of excellent performances in a terrible film that tries to gussy up its dullness with impeccably overwrought technical craftsmanship. It’s wonderful to look at and nothing else.

All of that started on the page, though. The script started out bad. The film makes many attempts to hide the flaws, but ultimately a work of drama can’t succeed when its characters are mostly inert. Potential for real drama exists within the script, particularly in George’s difficult relationship with Charley, but Ford fails to capitalize on these opportunities. The result is a frustrating, dramatically inert film. If this is Ford’s passion project, why does it feel so passionless?

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The Book of Eli (2010) by Gary Whitta and Anthony Peckham

Note: Gary Whitta is the only credited writer in the finished movie, but the screenplay used for this column also listed Anthony Peckham’s name.

This might sound like a strange statement, but here it goes: screenplays, on the whole, aren’t meant to be read. By anyone. Over the course of 100 years, everyone in Hollywood who isn’t a writer but must—for one reason or another—read a screenplay has beaten the literature out of screenwriters. (If you don’t believe me, search online for screenplays for films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Sunset Boulevard and compare the prose to something like Avatar, and you’ll understand what I mean.) This does not mean writers don’t write great scripts despite the constraints of the medium; it just means that they operate differently from literature. They serve as a blueprint for a film yet to come, not something that should be consumed for pleasure.

There are many schools of thought as to why this evolution has occurred. Many attribute it to the egos involved in making a film. If one makes scene descriptions too vivid and/or filled with camera jargon, the director may feel like he or she can’t make a creative contribution. If one fills scenes with dialogue inflection notes, descriptions of facial expressions, or “business” for the characters, the actors don’t feel like they can make creative contributions. And so on and so forth, until screenplays are worn down to nubs that mostly rely on robotic dialogue and clipped, turgid descriptions of action to tell the story. Legitimately great writing stands out because it’s so rare in an industry where the hallmark of a great screenwriter is the ability to condense lofty (and not-so-lofty) ideas into a haiku.

(I know that last paragraph sounds like I’m denigrating the entire screenwriting community. I’m not; it actually is, in its own way, exceptionally challenging and rewarding to write a screenplay that “gets away” with creating imagery that’s vivid enough to be interpreted correctly by the filmmakers but not so vivid that they feel as if the writer is “directing on the page.” But that still doesn’t mean a screenplay should be mistaken for literature, or even an accurate depiction of the finished film.)

The Book of Eli, on the other hand, throws caution to the wind and attempts to operate as a work of literature unto itself. It tells a fairly basic neo-western story set in a post-Apocalyptic wasteland a few decades in the future. Writers Gary Whitta and Anthony Peckham pack the screenplay with dense, disturbing imagery, building a decaying world that rivals only Philip K. Dick’s nightmarish Dr. Bloodmoney in its portrait of survival. It opens with three solid pages describing the horrors of this world, peppered with stark reminders of how things used to be. It’s a breathtaking opening that tosses aside pretty much every modern screenwriting convention in the book (Screenplay by Robert McKee) in favor of telling a really good story.

The opening pages of The Book of Eli effectively absorbed me into its universe, and it hooked me all the way. I even remained onboard in its goofier moments, because even when the story got a little shaky, the writing was just too good to dismiss.

Here’s how the story goes: Eli is a professional badass. He knows all the tricks of the nomadic scavengers who steal, rape, and kill to survive. He knows his way around swords, guns, and arrows. He can hunt and forage and take advantage of what little shelter still remains. In short, he knows how to survive. And he’s walking through a mysterious desert on an unknown destination. He carries with him a thick, leather-bound, gold-leafed King James Bible, with a big lock to keep it safe. He reads from it nightly. This, for those who don’t understand how titles work, is The Book…of Eli.

The Bible becomes the MacGuffin in this western story, which pits Eastwood-esque antihero Eli (played by Denzel Washington in the movie) against raving maniac Hawthorne (for reasons unknown, his name became Carnegie in the movie, and Gary Oldman played him). Eli is on some sort of unknown quest that has to do with keeping the Bible safe. Hawthorne (I’ll just call him Carnegie from now on, to avoid confusion) wants the Bible for himself, because although he doesn’t exactly remember its content, he remembers the power its words wielded over the world. He wants that power for himself. Right now, he controls a small California town from the luxury of an abandoned movie theatre. He wants more for himself, and he sees the Bible as the way to get it. Even before Eli’s arrival, he sends his crew of illiterate bikers out to scavenge for books. Nobody’s found one.

When Eli arrives in town to get a battery recharged (he uses a car battery to charge a worse-for-wear iPod, which is great product placement for Apple, but the condition of my well-maintained four-year-old iPod suggests to me that it wouldn’t actually weather 30+ years and an Apocalypse), Carnegie is intrigued by his presence. In stark contrast to the rest of the survivors, Eli and Carnegie remain able-bodied and mentally intact. They can both read, and they both know how to stay alive in this world.

Carnegie’s interest in Eli increases when Eli dispatches several of Carnegie’s toadies, who tussle with him in a bar fight. In an attempt to curry favor, Carnegie offers Eli food, lodging, and the “company” of a young barmaid, Solara (played by Mila Kunis). Eli has no sexual interest in the girl, but Solara finds him fascinating. She wants to know about the way things used to be, and neither Carnegie nor Solara’s blind mother will satisfy her curiosity. The next morning, when she says grace before breakfast, Carnegie realizes what Eli has. This sets up the conflict that drives the rest of the script: Carnegie will stop at nothing to get what he wants, but Eli’s the only man in 100-mile radius who won’t play by Carnegie’s rules.

The script takes its time establishing the world and the characters before descending into an orgy of well-written, deeply satisfying violence. While on the run from Carnegie, Eli and Solara develop a sweet, father-daughter relationship. The writers wisely keep this far, far away from anything romantic, a refreshing change of pace. It builds to a twist-filled third act that satisfies because the writers manage to make the twists rely on the characters’ perceptions of each other, not on some weird mindfuck for the audience.

The familiar elements of the story—it’s pretty much a classic western structure, right down to the shootout on Main Street—are energized by the harrowing post-Apocalyptic backdrop and the writers’ impressive attention to detail. They never take for granted the way the priorities in this world have changed (after spending the night in the home of a man who, at some time in the distant past, hanged himself in a closet, Eli trades his beaten-down walking shoes for the dead man’s pristine pair) or the fact that the younger characters, notably Solara, have never experienced the way things used to be. All they’ve ever known is this hellhole, and the writers never hit a false note in portraying that. Even when Eli, late in the script, describes his “religious quest” to Solara—the idea that, after a year of wandering the ruins of his planet, “a voice” began speaking to him, led him to the last remaining Bible, and told him exactly where he needs to take it—the writers never say, “He really did hear God talk to him,” which leaves some impression that he could just be crazy. The script has ample opportunity to get stupid, but the writers never overplay their hand.

The finished film is a different story. Remember all that talk earlier about not “over-writing” a screenplay for fear of “directing on the page”? Well, the Hughes Brothers don’t fear directing on the page, because there’s not a scene description that’s been written that they can’t over-direct. The Hughes Brothers have style to spare, and they direct The Book of Eli with a flare that frequently detracts from the drama at hand. Their artistic tricks can be very effective, particularly during action sequences (the siege on the cannibals’ house in the second half of the film is staggeringly impressive). The quieter moments don’t fare so well, lending a glossy, comic-book feel to a script that’s about as gritty and depraved as The Road, just with a lot more ass-kicking and a nice spiritual message.

The Book of Eli‘s overt message—that the Christian Bible is the most important thing in all of civilization—doesn’t have much to do with why I liked the script. Call me a heathen, but I don’t have a religious bone in my body. However, as someone who’s paid attention to human history, I’d be an idiot not to acknowledge that—whether I agree with it or not—the Christian Bible is, at the very least, one of the most important things in all of civilization. The script is remarkably secular, however. It preaches the importance of the Bible as a tool for enlightenment and understanding. That’s really all it is: a book of fables designed to help people understand the world in which they live. There have always been people like Carnegie using it as a weapon of exploitation, which is one of the great strengths of the script. Neither Eli nor Carnegie seems to have found religion—they’re just two men who understand the Bible’s role in shaping human history.

This subtlety gets lost in the finished film, in which Washington plays Eli like a stoic apostle whose function is to spread the word on behalf of a God he really does have a personal relationship with. Meanwhile, Oldman plays Carnegie as a greasy, simpering asshole. Both of these guys are typically fine actors—among the best of their generation—but their performances here lack the shades of gray that exist on the page to the film’s great detriment.

Speaking of performances that miss the mark: Mila Kunis. She impressed the hell out of me in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but she plays Solara as too tough and streetwise to make her interest in Eli ring true. In the script, she’s timid and sort of mousy, naïve and gleeful about anybody who can connect her to a past she missed on account of not yet being born. This characterization makes some of her stupider decisions—such as saying grace in front of Carnegie and following Eli out of town—pretty believable, but that believability gets lost in Kunis’s glowering read on the character.

A perfect example of the Solara problem comes early in the film, when Eli reads a Biblical passage to her. Keep in mind, this is the King James Version, which is full of “thees” and “thous” and other Elizabethan words Solara would never have heard before. Solara responds with, “That’s beautiful—did you make that up?” Although that moment in the movie does not exist in the draft of the script I read, it’s the sort of response that would have fit with the wide-eyed naïveté of Solara on the page. However, it rings false when Kunis says it—a more believable reaction for her take on the character would be along the lines of, “What the hell does ‘maketh’ mean?”

Worse than that—I hate to get shallow, but she looks like she just walked off a Vanity Fair shoot. Washington, Oldman, and even Jennifer Beals as the blind mother are all dressed down and grimy. To paraphrase Mystery Science Theater 3000: “In the future, survivors rub themselves with old oil filters.” Kunis sticks out like a lovely, lovely thumb in this universe. She’s clearly wearing makeup (especially evident on Bluray), which it’s hard to believe exists in a world where hotel-sized shampoo bottles are a novelty, and she even makes post-Apocalyptic fashions look stylish. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to make her look that good and that different, but every second she’s on screen is bound to take viewers out of the moment. It just doesn’t fit.

Although the performances aren’t necessarily bad, the story loses much of its impact as a result of the actors’ handling of the characters. Moments that worked beautifully on the page just don’t hold up.

Maybe the direction is to blame for the performances, in addition to the comic-book sheen. After all, what the script describes as rusted-out junkers rumbling through abandoned streets becomes, in the film, Mad Max knockoffs plated with so much armor it’s amazing the suspension doesn’t just collapse. A sequence of nail-biting suspense, in which Eli and Solara unwittingly enter a house occupied by cannibals, is played like a bad Three’s Company episode. Finally, the finished film leaves audiences with no choice but to accept that Eli is, indeed, a shepherd of God’s word, led by the Big Man Himself on his quest. Eli literally gets shot in the neck in that Main Street shootout, but nothing happens—not a scratch on him. This moment does not exist in the script, nor should it.

I know this article has sounded like relentless hostility, but that’s more tricky gray area: I didn’t dislike the movie. It’s passable entertainment. I have an issue with it because it could have been great, a well-written, multifaceted exploration of the positive and negative effects of religion on society, with tons of ass-kicking. Not as emotionally draining as The Road, but a movie that’s nonetheless filled with smart ideas and a complex point of view. Whatever the reasons, the finished film robs the script of its subtlety and complexity, which makes it a disappointment despite its merits.

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Special Contributors: The Proposal (2009) by Linda Mears

I sometimes wonder if my life would have turned out differently if I’d been a professional. Now, I had and still have a career as a homemaker. But aside from working two summers at Lebo’s Shoe store in high school, I never had a professional job. I was never a book editor like Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock), so it’s not easy to relate to a character like that. I’d call her unrealistic—I certainly don’t know any women like her—but I can’t imagine a strong woman like Sandra Bullock not just starring in this movie but executive producing if she thought the main character didn’t accurately represent a certain kind of woman.

Margaret has an assistant, Andrew (Ryan Reynolds), who she dumps all over for no reason. The movie tries to tell us she’s stressed out because it’s hard to be a woman in a man’s world. Maybe that’s true, but it’s no excuse to be so nasty. Poor Andrew is so scared of his boss, he orders the same fancy coffee drink as she does, even though he doesn’t like it, just on the off-chance that she spills hers. This is not a woman who’s easy to relate to, let me tell you. I had a much easier time relating to Andrew, even though he’s a man, because, well… Look, my Gary’s not a monster, but he does like his dinner on time. He also likes to have control of the remote. When things go wrong, he can be hard to live with.

Not like Andrew, who’s selfless and compassionate throughout. When he discovers Margaret is a Canadian citizen about to be deported, he graciously pretends to be her fiancé. But he’s smart, too—he only agrees to help her if she helps him by getting him a promotion. Maybe that sounds slimy and self-serving, but you haven’t seen Margaret! She got off easy with this deal, believe me. But things go awry—the immigration enforcer says he’ll give them a test to see if they’re really engaged. Andrew the sweetheart already knows the answers to the questions on the test, but Margaret hasn’t bothered to learn a thing about her assistant. In order to get to know him better, they take a trip to his hometown—in Alaska!

Margaret is impressed to find out Andrew comes from a wealthy family, but I was impressed that Andrew is so down-to-earth. Still, despite their wealth, Margaret has to adjust to the isolation and small-town customs found in Alaska. The locals are eccentric, but not nearly as eccentric as the wacky gang surrounding Dr. Joel Fleischmann in Northern Exposure. They’re actually sort of boring, except for the Hispanic guy from The Office (Oscar Nuñez) as a manservant/stripper. Can you believe it?!

Andrew has some problems with his dad, played by Coach himself, Craig T. Nelson. They have a history together; a bad history, and they don’t get along. Coach is a real man’s-man type, but Andrew is very sensitive and sweet. He doesn’t want to take over the family business. He’s artistic and thoughtful, not serious and business-minded. Andrew gets so flustered by his dad that he announces a fake engagement to Margaret, surprising everyone. Suddenly, the whole family gets involved, including Andrew’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and grandma (Betty White, still the greatest!).

Over the course of the next few days, Margaret and Andrew really do get to know each other and seem to fall in love. Ironically, by the time they’re truly in love, Coach has discovered it’s all a sham and tries to bribe the immigration enforcer. I won’t tell you what happens at the end, but suffice it to say, Andrew keeps up his charm and adorableness, and he manages to melt the “ice princess” known as Margaret Tate.

This movie made me wonder what would have happened to me if I had kept working at Lebo’s. Maybe I could have hired an employee like Andrew. Of course, I’d never be the type to manipulate and threaten him into marrying me, but what if we had fallen in love? He seems like the type of man who would treat me right and call when he’s working late or going out drinking with “the boys.” Actually, he seems like the type who wouldn’t go drinking with the boys—his boys would probably just want to watch TV, like I do. I’ll bet they would even like Grey’s Anatomy.

I watched this movie over the weekend with my son, Nicky. Nancy, his little sister, was out with her friends. She’s at that age where doing anything with Mom is considered “uncool.” You know how it is. But Nicky was home, so he sat down and watched it with me. He seemed to like it, but when I asked him about it, all he said was, “Andrew’s too good for her.” And you know what? He really is. We’re supposed to like Margaret. She’s the big star and the main character of the movie, but she’s shrill and mean for no reason. The movie strains to make us like her, telling us a lot about her past to make us feel sorry for her and relate to why she’s such a bad person. But in the end, it’s not really happy. Maybe it is for Margaret, but not for Andrew. Margaret gets the good guy, but what does Andrew get? I’d like to see them make a sequel that shows Andrew standing up for himself and breaking away from Margaret for a nice woman who will treat him right.

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Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Heaven’s Gate fails so completely, you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the devil has just come around to collect.—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

…the fact is the picture does not have one good scene, or one good character, and it goes on for several hours. I think it’s very interesting visually, but there is nothing that can carry it with an audience.—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (in a 1982 interview with Jean-Luc Godard)

A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.
 But Cimino’s in deeper trouble still.—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Has a more notorious film than Heaven’s Gate ever been made? Michael Cimino’s follow-up to a masterpiece, 1978’s The Deer Hunter, was plagued by budget overruns and negative press from day one. A disastrous early screening at an unwieldy 330 minutes was so reviled by those who screened it, Cimino himself begged for more time to edit it to a manageable length. The 150-minute cut released into theatres several weeks later received some of the worst reviews any movie has ever received in the history of the medium.

In fact, this movie—and, to a lesser extent, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Scorsese’s New York, New York, Allen’s Stardust Memories, Landis’s The Blues Brothers, and Spielberg’s 1941—effectively killed the 1970s auteur movement. Hollywood studios started to realize giving artists free reign with tens of millions of dollars yielded major flops. Even though some of the movies made money (like Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers), the whole idea of letting the inmates run the asylum seemed to frighten executives.

Virtually every story about the production of a great film starts with studios fighting tooth and nail with every decision filmmakers want to make. For a long time, I asked myself why the studios didn’t just step out of the way. I’ve come to realize it’s effectively a system of checks and balances. Great art requires constraints to overcome. When filmmakers no longer need to worry about budgets or meddling studio executives, they end up making movies like the ones mentioned above. It’s not an airtight rule—after all, Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers are legitimately great movies; then again, both films had bigger problems to overcome than studio pressures—but it holds true more often than not. Given carte blanche, most filmmakers will turn out shitty movies. A filmmaker doing everything the studio says unquestioningly will also lead to shitty movies. A balance needs to exist, and that balance was lost briefly in Hollywood in the late ’70s, with almost comically disastrous results.

All of this and more is covered in Steven Bach’s great book Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists (which you should all read if you have any interest in the clusterfuck known as the movie business), so I feel no reason to rehash it here. If you don’t know the story, read Bach’s book and find out. I’m here not to retell the struggles to make and market the film. I’m here to determine whether or not all the negative publicity had anything to do with Heaven’s Gate being a bad film.

Even after watching the four-hour “director’s cut” (as opposed to the gutted theatrical cut that garnered so much hostility), I can understand why people might hate Heaven’s Gate. It has one very big problem that a film this long has an impossible time overcoming: it’s disjointed. Not quite as disjointed as Jonah Hex, another revisionist western that flopped big-time, but it nevertheless feels like Heaven’s Gate has numerous connective scenes missing. But, you know, it does have roughly 90 minutes still missing. The director’s cut restores what footage remained years after its release, but that original 330-minute cut—maybe it could have used some trimming, but I fear Cimino cut material necessary for this story to flow. Maybe he didn’t, though. That’d be a kick in the balls.

Whatever the case, the Heaven’s Gate available doesn’t cohere quite as effectively as more traditional films. This sometimes makes Heaven’s Gate a difficult film to watch, but it also lends a lived-in quality to the story and characters. Rather than moving from beat to beat like a more straightforward movie, it unfolds more like a novel, with long scenes that don’t seem to have anything to do with anything and don’t appear to lead anywhere. Often, these seemingly disconnected scenes pay off much later in the film, rewarding the viewer’s patience. Sometimes, they don’t. Maybe they serve as isolated moments of character development. It’s hard to say how the movie would fare without them.

Before I go on, maybe I should talk a little about the plot. It’s loosely based on the Johnson County War, a land war in 1890s Wyoming in which wealthy American land barons allegedly convinced the federal government to allow soldiers to slaughter land-owning immigrants, so that the barons could take over the newly available spreads. Many conflicting stories of this war and its circumstances exist. Cimino’s interpretation of the story has what I believe (with no evidence to back me up) are indelible roots in Vietnam and the hippie movement of the ’60s. It opens with Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) as clean-cut, hilariously middle-aged-looking Harvard graduates, portraying them as footloose and fancy-free even as the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) gives a prophetic but somewhat condescending speech underscoring the need for people to live together harmoniously.

Twenty years later, Jim has eschewed his education and life of privilege to maintain law and order as sheriff of Johnson County. Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), the wealthy head of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, has what is always referred to in the film as a “death list”—a list of local immigrants the ranchers want taken out. They allege these ranchers have stolen cattle from more successful ranchers to pay for prostitutes. Unsettled by the idea of the death list, Jim doesn’t take any immediate action, even when a team of hired killers led by Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) ride into the county. He talks it over with his friend, John (Jeff Bridges), and lover, Ella (Isabelle Huppert, a successful bordello madam). He even discusses it with Billy Irvine, who is now a drunken member of the WSGA. Billy knows everything about the list, but he’s not going to even pretend to do a thing about it.

When Jim finally gets a copy of the list, he gathers all the townspeople and reads its names. From there, the immigrants are left to figure out what to do to save themselves. Although John’s ready to fight on behalf of the immigrants, Jim takes a very low-key, hands-off approach. He disapproves of the list and the corruption of the WSGA, but he’s a passive observer. He urges the immigrants to take matters into their own hands instead of leading them to fight back. Things get complicated from here, so I won’t talk much more about the story in the hope that I actually convince some of you to check this movie out.

You might be wondering at this point what a western about a land dispute has to do with hippies and Vietnam. Maybe nothing, but consider the archetypes: Jim and Billy are introduced as men of great privilege and education. They give up their privilege because neither feels he deserves all that he has. When the going gets tough, Jim responds by making urgent pleas and protestations against the vicious acts of the WSGA, but he doesn’t really do anything about it for much of the movie. When he finally does take action, it’s both too late and largely ineffective. Billy’s an even worse case, crawling into the bottle to numb that big brain of his. I took some symbolic cues from these characters. Jim represents the well-meaning but ultimately ineffective political activist—a smart person who is only powerless because he denied his birthright. Had he used the advantages of his upbringing, perhaps he could have effected real change, but he didn’t, so he didn’t. Billy is a more obvious symbol of the many, many, many hippies who turned to drugs and failed to accomplish anything greater than making their own LSD. This, then, makes the WSGA a symbol of the war profiteers, and the immigrants and assassins all become the hapless pawns of an unnecessary war.

Maybe I’m reading too much into the metaphoric nature of the story, but let’s face it: Cimino made The Deer Hunter, so it’s not like he’s an apathetic or apolitical bystander, and honestly, I can’t figure out any other reason why John Hurt’s character needs to be in this movie. Only when I started to ponder what purpose his character served did I start to realize the undercurrent running through the film. I may have gotten it all wrong, but the fact that the film is so sprawling and poetic leaves it open to interpretation, the cinematic equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot. This is my take on it, and while I suspect it may have also been Cimino’s, who knows? He refuses to speak about the film. Still, I think a lot of evidence exists in the bleak-as-hell epilogue to support my take on the deeper meaning of Heaven’s Gate.

Despite the disjointed nature of the film, I have to disagree with Ms. Kael’s assertion that Heaven’s Gate contains no good scenes or characters. It’s a challenging film, to be sure, but there’s a whole lot to love here, especially if you can make it through the first hour. Once Cimino sets up the dominoes and starts knocking them down, the film has a number of spectacular moments—epic battle scenes, vivid and well-acted characters, ever-deepening relationships (including an extremely well-executed “love” triangle between Jim, Ella, and Nate), and a tricky-gray-area portrayal of a complex situation. Cimino took the idea of a “revisionist western”—the sort from the ultra-violent Peckinpah and ultra-mythologized Leone—and stripped it to the bone. This film does not have white hats or black hats. It just has dusty brown hats and a lot of unpleasant but memorable people. Cimino makes nothing in this film easy for anyone, and that partially includes the viewer, but in the end, the film rewards those watching. It just makes them endure a little bit of punishment for foolishly thinking the Old West contained nothing but altruistic heroes and mustache-twirling villains.

Virtually every frame of this film looks like a dingy oil painting. In his review, Roger Ebert calls the aesthetic of the film “so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen.” He’s not entirely wrong, but there’s a hard-edged beauty to this unromantic portrayal of the Old West. In fact, the beloved HBO series Deadwood owes a whole hell of a lot to Cimino, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and production designer Tambri Larsen. Ironically, the aesthetic of Heaven’s Gate underscores the messy narrative and thematic elements at play by making each image simultaneously ugly and beautiful. Maybe critics and audiences will never appreciate this, but it made me like the film even more.

With the cast Cimino has assembled (which includes small but key supporting roles from actors who would go on to better things: Terry O’Quinn, Mickey Rourke, Richard Masur, Brad Dourif, Geoffrey Lewis, and Willem Dafoe), it probably won’t shock anyone to hear that the performances don’t contain a single false note. More than anyone, Kristofferson impressed me. He has never struck me as a great actor—never bad, but more suited to the villain in Fire Down Below (no, he really is the villain in that movie, and he’s awesome) than the lead character in a sprawling, artsy-fartsy western. However, he does a wonderful job as Jim Averill. He brings to the role an air of palpable defeat that reinforces my interpretation of what Heaven’s Gate Really Means. Although the film doesn’t spell it (or anything else) out, it’s made plain just from the things Jim does and the way Kristofferson carries himself that the twenty years between graduation and the Johnson County War beat him down.

It’s time to get down to brass tacks: Heaven’s Gate is a good film. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s also not even close to one of the worst movies ever made. In a world where such detritus as Jonah Hex and Howard the Duck exist, Heaven’s Gate doesn’t even fall into the bottom 500. My biggest problem with it is that, when it ended, I wished I’d been able to see more of these characters and this story. Knowing another 90 minutes once existed is just salt in the wound. Anyone who considers themselves a cinephile should check this film out. You may not love it, but you won’t feel like you wasted your time.

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Hot Tub Time Machine (2009) by Josh Heald and Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel & Steve Pink

Note: The script reviewed credits different writers than those credited in the finished film.

Let’s talk for a minute about bodily fluids. They aren’t funny. In movies, they exist to provide the shock value. The audience laughs not because of a funny sight gag, but because the sight of shit chunks in a motion picture they have paid money to see has startled them. There’s a word for that: cheap. Similarly cheap are bodily functions. Now, as a male, I have to admit the dark truth we men try to hide from the fairer sex unless we’re drunk enough or generally obnoxious enough: farts are hilarious. Nothing is funnier than the fart smell, the moments anticipating the smell, and sharing the horror of the stench itself. Nothing. In a movie, though, it’s still cheap. If it’s the only way the writers can get a laugh, they’re in trouble.

That’s the pathetic thing about Hot Tub Time Machine: it doesn’t need those jokes, but the movie has them anyway. It’s as if somebody said, “Well, we’re gonna get an R rating, anyway, so we might as well graphically feature every possible human excretion and add some fart sound effects because comedy legend Chevy Chase just isn’t funny enough.”

Before I get ahead of myself, let me say this: I liked the movie. It’s a testament to the script itself, the cast, and director Steve Pink that the movie works despite the occasional super-cheap gag. In many ways, I think I actually prefer it to the script. I like the script, but the ending felt too happy and unearned. Somehow, without many significant changes (aside from the addition of shit/piss/vomit/semen/fart jokes) to the overall story, Pink and his cast made it feel appropriate. That’s impressive.

The screenplay’s story doesn’t deviate much from the film: Adam, Lou, and Nick (played in the film by, respectively, John Cusack, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson) are best friends who have drifted apart over the past 25 years. Lou’s attempted suicide (“Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe plays on his car stereo, so he listens to it until the end, even though his running car is in his closed garage) brings the trio back together. Adam and Nick vow to take Lou’s mind off his many failures by bringing him back to Kodiak Valley, a ski resort where they spent some great times in the ’80s. Adam brings along Jacob (Clark Duke), his 23-year-old nephew, because he thinks Jacob needs to get out of the house and away from his video games. This does not make Lou happy.

Kodiak Valley has changed since the mid-’80s. What was once a thriving, fun-filled resort community has turned into a depressed town full of shuttered storefronts. The grungy resort is dilapidated and populated primarily by elderly people waiting to die. A surly, one-armed bellhop (hilariously portrayed by Crispin Glover in the film) just adds to the creepy, tragic atmosphere. Undaunted, the group decides to get in their room’s hot tub and get hammered on some of the imported, outdated Soviet beer Lou brought. When it gets spilled on the electronics, the hot tub becomes a time machine, sending the group back to 1986.

This, naturally, leads to the core of the story. After their hilariously horrified realization that they’ve gone back in time, the group discusses the various complexities of time travel, primarily informed by movies on the subject. Jacob convinces them that they must relive their lives exactly as they did in 1986 to prevent a butterfly effect. Naturally, things go awry almost immediately, especially when Adam realizes this is the weekend he broke up with his teenage girlfriend, Jennie (Lyndsy Fonseca), which he considers the worst mistake of his life. He leads the rebellion against Jacob’s nagging insistence that they don’t stray from the original timeline.

I don’t want to step up to the pulpit for my half-assed brand of Comedy Theory, but I will say this: the best comedies are about something. Pure laughs are great, but it always works better if some semblance of meaning exists beneath the surface. That’s part of the reason Hot Tub Time Machine makes such an effective script. They could have lazily relied on ’80s joke after ’80s joke, but the script focuses more on the tragic undercurrent of failure. Adam, Nick, and especially Lou are all deeply unhappy about the way their lives have turned out, and that they’ve drifted apart. They’ve even grown to hate the ’80s, even though they simultaneously consider it the best time of their lives. It’s a satisfying, deceptively complex midlife crisis metaphor masquerading as homage to the dumb teen-sex comedies of the ’80s.

One consistent problem in both the script and the movie is the character of Jacob. His presence serves as little more than an ironically detached Greek chorus, commenting on the other characters, the storyline, and the setting without adding much to it himself. It would have been nice if the writers had taken the time to either integrate him more fully into the story or just given him a more interesting character than the stereotypical nerdy hermit. I understand why he’s in the script—the movie wants to have its cake and eat it, too, by appealing to a more youthful audience who may not appreciate the sadness of the older characters’ stories—but that doesn’t mean it works. Unlike Rob Corddry—who takes another fairly stereotypical character and breathes surprising life and nuance into him—Clark Duke isn’t up to the challenge of making Jacob more interesting than the way he reads on the page. Which is to say, not very.

On the other hand, Pink addresses and corrects a number of the script’s flaws as director. The second act of the script lags quite a bit, a consequence of redundant scenes (designed to give each character roughly equal time, without taking the time to think of more things for them to do) and an unneeded subplot involving ski-patrol members Blaine (Sebastian Stan) and Chaz (Charlie McDermott) suspecting Lou of being a commie spy. The finished film excises a number of the redundant scenes altogether. What remains, Pink directs with a high energy level that keeps the pace keyed up.

Based on its title, Hot Tub Time Machine might easily be mistaken for a cheesy, mindless comedy. It’s much more than that, though. It’s a terrific script that made an even better movie. I just wish it didn’t have all bodily fluids.

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Sorority Row (2009) by Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger

In a lengthy but effective sequence, the screenplay by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger establishes the characters and the stakes. It starts with a not-so-harmless prank: to get revenge on Chugs’s (Margo Harshman) date-rapist brother, Garret (Matt O’Leary), the sisters of Theta Pi give him some pills to slip to Megan (Audrina Partridge), which will simulate an apparent drug overdose. Our heroine, Cassidy (Briana Evigan), looks on with disdain as Chugs follows along with queen-bitch Jessica (Leah Pipes), geek Ellie (Rumer Willis), and token Asian sister Claire (Jamie Chung) as they terrorize her deserving brother. They drive out to the middle of nowhere. Jessica pretends to get lost, and they end up near an abandoned mineshaft. While the sisters fake an argument about whether or not to take Megan to the hospital or drop her down the shaft, nobody notices Garret flip out and plunge a tire iron through Megan’s torso. Now she really is dead, and Jessica realizes everything uttered in their scripted argument remains true. Cassidy insists she won’t go along with it, so Jessica wraps Cassidy’s jacket around Megan’s body and dumps her down the shaft. Despite Cassidy’s reluctance, she’s left with no choice but to keep their secret.

Nine months later, at a graduation party, people involved in the murder start dying in grotesque ways. A slasher movie is born.

When I originally had to read the script for this remake of Mark Rosman’s 1983 slasher film The House on Sorority Row, I dreaded it. Although slasher fans have revised history and turned the original into a Golden Age classic of the genre, it’s a terrible film. Cheap, cheesy, exploitative—okay, it’s actually not much different from many slasher movies, but it lacks the scares and depraved psychological insight of true classics like Halloween or Black Christmas. However, Hollywood has run out of good slasher movies to ruin with unneeded remakes. They’re scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point.

Yet, Sorority Row has a lively, winning screenplay. Maybe my lowered expectations colored my reaction, but I enjoyed it for a number of reasons. It has a great setup, a set of characters who rise above their stereotypical roots, and a surprise-filled third act that doesn’t suffer from the M. Night Shyamalan movie-ruining twist. Even better, Stolberg and Goldfinger understand the slasher genre. The screenplay has a lot of fun twisting genre conventions and audience expectations, starting with a tone-setting opening sequence in which the traditional sights and sounds of a horror film—a slow tracking shot to a dark, gloomy, old house, accompanied by the sounds of crashing glass and a screaming girl—gives way to the revelation that this is a wild sorority party in full swing. Okay, so it’s not art, but it’s fun and funny.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex. The rating changed from PG-13 (the draft I read contains numerous specific references for keeping the sorority sisters’ bras on and violent acts just out of frame) to R, and the filmmakers used this change as license for silly exploitation, instead of something ironically commenting on the silly exploitation of classic slasher films. The reasonably believable description of the opening party in the screenplay becomes a music-video slow-motion pillow fight featuring sexy girls in underwear and a ridiculous snowstorm of feathers. Garret goes from a cheerfully sociopathic asshole to a twitchy, skittish basket case (even before his accidental murder). A miscast Briana Evigan’s attempt at a sultry alto (which alternately sounds like a bad case of laryngitis and a trucker with an 18-pack-a-day habit) seems more befitting of bad-girl Jessica than good-girl Cassidy.

On the surface, none of these changes seem significant, but they speak to larger problems. What reads like believable human behavior in the script is played by all the actors as incredibly arch, robbing the characters of the surprising nuance and subtlety on the page. The same goes for the overall story: on paper, the only thing that felt over-the-top is the eleventh-hour James Bond villain speech from the unmasked killer. For most of the script, these characters feel like real people leading normal lives that get shaken up by abnormal murders. That really impressed me, and I looked forward to seeing a movie that would go back to the straightforward slasher classics instead of the cartoonish crapfest they became.

Then I saw the movie. Cough.

As one might expect, the script faces twin problems from style-over-substance director Stewart Hendler (proving yet again that not every director who starts in commercials and music videos will turn into Spike Jonze or David Fincher) and hammy performances. It’s as if everyone but Stolberg and Goldfinger thought this was a straight-up comedy. The writers do insert some intentional laughs and some winking references to previous slasher movies, but overall it’s not a comedic script. Approaching every scene with a comedic tone robs the movie of any sort of suspense or sympathy, and by design the script doesn’t have the laughs to sustain the total lack of intrigue. To quote Rainier Wolfcastle, “It’s not a comedy.” It frustrates me to know that a good script got ruined primarily by a tone-deaf director who spent more time setting up variable-speed tracking shots and too little time keeping the actors’ performances grounded.

Sorority Row is a bad film, but it didn’t have to be. It’s a textbook example that cinema is not a director’s medium—it’s collaborative, and if everyone’s not on the same page (no pun intended, I swear), a good script can easily turn into a flaming turd.

(Ironically, Stolberg and Goldfinger went on to write the Piranha remake, much loathed by Matt, in part because of its tone-deaf director.)

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