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Posts in Category: The Parallax Review

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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Armed and Dangerous (1986)

Armed and Dangerous opens with two very funny sequences that it never quite lives up to. In the first, beat cop Frank Dooley (John Candy) catches some LAPD detectives robbing an electronics store. When he refuses to cooperate with the theft, they arrest him as the fall guy for their crimes. In the second, inept public defender Norman Kane (Eugene Levy) tries to get out of defending a Manson-like psychopath with the world’s worst plea bargain (“In exchange for a guilty plea, we will accept a life sentence with no opportunity for parole”).

As a result of these opening scenes, Dooley and Kane end up working as security guards, turning the movie into a standard mismatched-buddy story that never lives up to its early potential. Dooley and Kane spend the bulk of the movie trying to stop and/or expose a security guard crime ring supported by their corrupt union. From this barebones story, screenwriters Harold Ramis and Peter Torokvei attempt to craft numerous comedic situations that never take off. When Dooley and Kane try to fight the union, they’re reassigned to a toxic-waste dump. When Dooley and Kane attempt to gather evidence of a criminal conspiracy, they’re forced to elude sinister union cronies by ducking into a porn shop and “borrowing” clothes from a cross-dresser and a leather boy. In most cases, the writers use these wacky sight gags as the punchline. Maybe these sight gags were clever in 1986, but they don’t hold up the way a well-written script would.

They should have spent more time crafting the banter between Dooley and Kane. Candy and Levy have an undeniable chemistry, on top of being very funny individuals. The script just doesn’t do a great job of exploiting the chemistry, relying too much on the aforementioned tepid sight gags instead of strengthening the dialogue. It’s no surprise that the funniest scene after the opening is simply Dooley and Kane in a peepshow booth, trying to figure out the conspiracy while Dooley leers at a stripper (“It helps me think!” he shouts to a disgusted Kane, who quickly becomes engrossed in the show himself).

As expected, the movie devolves into a series of cliché-ridden gunfights, explosions, and car chases. Again, the writers expect to mine lazy laughs from the mere fact that two well-known comedians (not action stars) have gotten themselves into these situations. They never do the heavy lifting of actually making these action sequences funny beyond that fish-out-of-water disparity.

Ultimately, the movie is a combination of elements that should work but don’t: Candy and Levy work well together, the villains (headed by Robert Loggia and Jonathan Banks) are comically hostile, and the serviceable plot provides ample opportunity for amusing, memorable gags. The lazy script doesn’t help much, but perhaps director Mark L. Lester bears some of the blame. Mostly known for action movies (prior to this, he directed Commando and Firestarter), Lester’s work here is competent, but it’s possible he didn’t bring enough comedic energy or invention to the set.

You could do worse to while away the hours than Armed and Dangerous, but you’re better off investing in SCTV DVDs if you want to see John Candy and Eugene Levy at their best.

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SnakeEater (1989)

SnakeEater is a schlocky action movie gone bad. Great examples of the genre (Die Hard, Speed) manage to combine genuine, visceral thrills permeated by an overall sense of fun, despite the terrorist acts, murder, and rampant disregard for police protocol. Even middling examples of the genre usually retain the sense of fun, creating forgettable but eminently watchable movies. So what happens when the whimsy is creepily misguided, the action sequences are inept, and the acting is comically awful? SnakeEater.

A solid revenge story exists within the awful screenplay, but this movie is so full of incoherent distractions, the narrative verges on surreal. It opens with our hero, “Soldier” (a smug yet surprisingly affable Lorenzo Lamas), working undercover on a drug bust. After spouting some on-the-nose dialogue explaining his backstory (once part of a special Marine task force known as “the SnakeEaters,” now annoyed that he’s a cop), Soldier does three things meant to endear that actually repel: first, he convinces an attractive drug peddler to strip naked; second, he has sex with her while his superiors listen on the wire; and third, he rigs the floor with a latch that causes a bed of spikes to shoot up from the floorboards, pinning two other drug peddlers. Soldier smirks while they shriek in pain and try to clutch their bleeding feet. I know drugs are bad and all, but this is a few notches over-the-top, even for an action hero.

Now that we know our hero, it’s time for the plot to kick in. The action cuts to a totally unknown elderly couple boating down a river in an unnamed, hillbilly-infested state. A group of those hillbillies, led by Junior (Robert Scott, delivering easily the worst performance in the history of cheesy action movies, and believe me, that’s saying something), descend on the boat. The camera leers as Junior and his cronies torment the husband and wife, and it leers even more when Junior discovers their attractive daughter (Cheryl Jeans) and claims her as his own. He kills the couple, sets the boat on fire, and chains the daughter inside a shack near his broken-down home.

Turns out, the slain couple were Soldier’s parents, which obviously makes the kidnapped daughter his sister. When Soldier learns of the mysterious accident, he travels to investigate. In pretty much the only unique turn, Soldier encounters the hillbilly platoon almost immediately after arriving, and they kick his ass. Actually, the script has some other surprises in store, but they’re more inexplicable than inventive: Soldier is nursed back to health by father-daughter marina attendants (Ronnie Hawkins and Josie Bell), who first convert Soldier’s motorcycle into a jet ski (I wish I could make up something like that), then decide to help him take down Junior and his gang.

Lamas never reached the heights of Schwarzenegger or Stallone (or even Seagal), but he’s a solid, charismatic action star. The flaws in the performances rest less with him than with the uniformly terrible supporting cast (which includes Ron “Horshack” Palillo in one of the weirdest cameos in film history), ranging from “dull-eyed stare” to “cartoonishly over-the-top.” In addition to its bizarre, borderline-Kafkaesque storyline, the screenplay boasts more rape-based comedy than Yellowbeard. I know it’s a bold position to take, but I don’t find rape hijinks funny.

This leads to a larger question: are we supposed to laugh? The film portrays the hillbilly characters with all the sensitivity and nuance of The Hills Have Eyes, which is fine for an action movie, but their scenes are off-putting and tonally questionable. One could argue the scenes in which Junior repeatedly threatens to rape Jennifer, only to get interrupted, should maybe be a little suspenseful. Instead, it’s directed like a sitcom gag. You know the one: all Jack Tripper wants to do is sit down and have a sandwich, and just when he’s about to, everyone in the cast interrupts him, to increasingly hilarious effect.

George Erschbamer directs with all the flash and artistry of a snuff film, leaving the movie to be defined by the disjointed screenplay and incredibly silly actors. Erschbamer brings nothing to the table—nothing to build suspense, nothing to rein in the actors, not even anything to tie one strange scene to the next. His total lack of directorial style has a dire effect on the action sequences, as well. It’s not every director who can make raucous shootouts and barfights watch-checkingly tedious.

With most action movies, I’d shrug and say, “It’s a fun way to pass an hour and a half.” Not so with SnakeEater—it’s the sort of movie that audiences should avoid at all costs. How it managed to spawn two sequels, I’ll never know. (I’ll also never see the sequels.)

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Liberty Heights (1999)

Barry Levinson never gets better than his slice-of-life Baltimore films. Don’t get me wrong—he’s made some amazing studio films (Sleepers, The Natural) and some ambitious misfires that suggest a born filmmaker (Toys, Jimmy Hollywood), but nobody does wry, observational slice-of-life like he does. Liberty Heights stands out from his other work (Diner, Tin Men, and Avalon) because it brings the race component into it. It finally shows the darkness brimming under the typically idealized façade of Levinson’s other Baltimore films.

The three intersecting storylines follow the Kurtzman family as they attempt to expand beyond their Jewish neighborhood into the world of gentiles and African-Americans. High schooler Ben (Ben Foster) develops a crush on black classmate Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), who attends his school now that it’s integrated; 20-something Van (Adrien Brody) chases a gorgeous gentile blonde (Carolyn Murphy); and patriarch Nate (Joe Mantegna), who runs a failing burlesque house as a front for a numbers racket, has some trouble when Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) hits the number and expects a prompt $100,000 payout.

Like life, the story ambles and takes a variety of unexpected turns. In fact, what starts as a peppy, laugh-out-loud slice-of-life quickly turns into a grim yet powerful drama. Levinson presents a large ensemble of deeply flawed characters but doesn’t preach or pass judgment. They’re all bigoted, but once the characters are thrust together, they find a new understanding of the people they once feared and distrusted. If there’s a sermon to take away, it’s the notion that forced interaction is the best way to overcome bigotry and see others for what they are: people. Wisely, Levinson doesn’t spell this out.

Slice-of-life films can sometimes be a gamble. The filmmakers essentially say, “Any audience would love to watch these characters simply hang out.” Levinson has always been a master of deceptively complex plotting, giving his films the feel of characters just hanging out while a legitimately compelling story unfolds. His screenplay does a wonderful job of vividly rendering these characters.

The excellent cast aids Levinson’s screenplay enormously. Ben Foster and Adrien Brody have never been better (not even Brody’s Oscar-winning turn in The Pianist), and the veteran supporting cast (including Bebe Neuwirth, David Krumholtz, and James Pickens, Jr.) create fully realized characters despite their limited screen time. However, the real finds here are Johnson and Murphy. They both do a fantastic job with difficult, nuanced characters. It surprised me to discover neither of them did much acting before or after Liberty Heights.

Simply put, Liberty Heights is a great film. It may not be as flashy as Spike Lee’s similar (but angrier) Do the Right Thing, or as harrowing as the class warfare in something like City of God, but it’s both a great exploration of 1950s race relations and a great slice-of-life.

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Talk Radio (1988)

Why does Talk Radio feel so bland and lifeless? Eric Bogosian anchors the film with a great performance as Barry Champlain, a Tom Leykis/Howard Stern-style shock jock. Oliver Stone, an energetic filmmaker who never shies away from going a few hundred degrees over the top, directed. Yet the film itself is oddly hollow.

Could it be that time has not been kind to Talk Radio, that the nature of the callers and Barry’s reaction to them no longer hold any shock value? This will undoubtedly sound strange, but I have a sense that the main problem with the movie stems from opening it up beyond its stage roots. The film is actually at its best when it focuses on Barry and the callers, and the backstage melodrama surrounding a media conglomerate (represented by the intriguingly ineffectual John Pankow) syndicating Barry’s Dallas-based show nationally. Whenever it strays away from that, attempting to turn into a study of Barry’s many character flaws, it becomes watch-checkingly tedious.

The grueling “character study” portion of the film revolves mainly around Barry’s relationships with two women: Laura (Leslie Hope), the attractive producer he’s currently sleeping with, and Ellen (Ellen Greene), his ex-wife. Once Ellen arrives on the scene, the film grinds to a screeching halt for an extended flashback, contrasting Barry’s rise to radio prominence with the collapse of his marriage. Even though a few moments tied to these flashbacks occur in the third act—notably program director Dan (Alec Baldwin) dismissing Barry as a disposable “suit salesman” (a reference to his pre-radio job) and Ellen trying to liven up the show by calling in, resulting in caustic Barry verbally abusing her—the sequence is very long and adds little to the story beyond seeing Bogosian in a somewhat hilarious Howard Stern wig.

Similarly, the film centers on recurring threats from various redneck callers, many of who are involved in neo-Nazi organizations and have big problems with Barry’s Jewish heritage. Barry reveals himself as surprisingly well-versed in their propaganda, able to easily poke holes in their arguments and dismiss their threats as silly hoaxes. The conversations themselves are lively and engaging, but they have the unfortunate side effect of turning Talk Radio into a “message movie,” leading to an obvious, over-the-top ending that’s frustratingly unearned. The movie’s over 20 years old, but I still have reservations about ruining the ending. Let’s just say the last five minutes could have used the disinterested restraint of latter-day Oliver Stone, not the frothy melodrama of his heyday. With a more subdued ending, the bigotry subplot could have succeeded in tackling its issues subtly.

Although the film spans several days, Bogosian’s stage play takes place over the course of a single night of Barry’s show. Film and theatre are, obviously, different media, and generally straight-up “let’s just film the play”-style adaptations don’t translate well. However, Stone’s directorial style lends itself to a more straightforward adaptation, as evidenced by his skillful handling of the call-in segments that do appear in the film. (Although, on a boring technical note, Stone’s abuse of the split diopter, instead of taking the time to set up proper deep-focus shots, gets distracting—certain shots make it appear as if the background characters have paid a visit from Heaven.) Stone could have easily taken a cue from the play and made a visually compelling, emotionally energetic slice-of-life showing the inner workings of a late-night radio show. Instead, the film breaks up the radio-show scenes, surrounding them with the aforementioned redundant flashbacks, as well as scenes bluntly foreshadowing the ending.

Talk Radio has a number of great moments, and it may be worth seeing for Bogosian’s performance alone. However, the film itself is a disappointment. Fans of Bogosian would do better to check out Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (that’s not sarcasm—he’s really great in that movie).

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The Package (1989)

Andrew Davis, director of one surprisingly great Chuck Norris film (Code of Silence) and two of Steven Seagal’s best efforts (Above the Law and Under Siege), made two films that contained the story beats of a typical ’80s action flick in a much more subdued, realistic fashion. One is probably his most well-regarded work, 1993’s The Fugitive. The other is the much less well-known The Package, a Cold War relic that packs a satisfying punch despite its relative lack of action.

Gene Hackman stars as Johnny Gallagher, a Green Beret tasked with transporting a soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) back to the U.S. for a court martial. The soldier escapes, and Gallagher quickly discovers the soldier assumed the identity of a different man. However, Gallagher himself gets arrested for losing his “package,” which hinders his quest to track down the soldier and learn his true agenda. With the help of his lieutenant colonel ex-wife, Eileen (Joanna Cassidy), Gallagher escapes from military custody and tracks the unknown soldier to Chicago and quickly unravels the plan: he’s a hired assassin who needed to get into the U.S. without a passport to carry out his mission—the assassination of the President.

Here’s where the Cold War politics enter into it: the President and the Soviet General Secretary intend to sign a treaty at the site of the first nuclear reaction, the University of Chicago. The treaty will ultimately lead to total nuclear disarmament on both sides. Mysterious forces within both the U.S. and Soviet militaries don’t want this treaty to happen. Gallagher, Eileen, and ex-Green Beret-turned-Chicago cop Delich (Dennis Franz) work together to unravel this conspiracy and find the soldier—eventually identified as Boyette—before he can carry out his plan.

Like Above the Law, The Package seeks to expose corruption within the U.S. military. This puts it at odds with the majority of thrillers at this time, which painted our military as unstoppable badasses. Portraying the Army as a vast, complex organization that contains some heroes, some villains, and a hell of a lot of people occupying a tricky gray area instantly makes the film more compelling than one might expect from a Cold War thriller. Obviously, because it’s a movie, the heroes prevail, but Davis and screenwriter John Bishop never make the story as black-and-white as, say, The Delta Force.

Davis’s directorial restraint is the film’s biggest strength. From a story standpoint, The Package could have easily starred Seagal and featured long gunfights, big explosions, and trademark aikido beatings. Everything about the story screams, “Big, ballsy action movie.” Instead, Davis eschews the big spectacle in favor of quiet character moments. For instance, an early scene in which Gallagher and Eileen reflect on their divorce casts a strain over their relationship throughout the rest of the movie. Moments like these lend credibility to the outlandish conspiracy plot, giving it almost a Day of the Jackal docudrama feel.

That’s not to say the movie lacks for action. It’s fairly subdued, but it does have some well-choreographed stunt sequences—car chases, shootouts, a few explosions here and there. However, the focus on characters over squibs lends authenticity even to these sequences. In addition to that, Davis—a Chicago native—has a keen eye for the details of our miserable winters. The streets and alleys are not thoroughly plowed, causing the cars to fishtail awkwardly on turns and fail to stop. It lends the action sequences a believable sloppiness.

Davis takes full advantage of his superior cast. Hackman and Cassidy do great work at creating their uneasy relationship. Hackman plays a tough guy with more conviction than Stallone or Schwarzenegger. His menacing glare can strike more fear than all the chiseled biceps in the world. Cassidy manages to find the vulnerability in a stoic, career military woman. Although everyone in the cast does a solid job, the most noteworthy supporting players are Franz as a cheerful family man and John Heard playing a huge douche-nozzle (who, not surprisingly, plays a key role in the conspiracy).

The Package may seem like an artifact of a forgotten war against a forgotten enemy, but the skillful direction and great acting allow it to transcend its era. It remains a suspenseful, well-crafted thriller.

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Three O’Clock High (1987)

Three O’Clock High seeks to answer a question that has plagued moviegoers for generations: what would happen if John Hughes made a movie out of Franz Kafka’s The Trial? The answer is alternately funny, surreal, surprising, and suspenseful. It could have easily come apart at the seams, but director Phil Joanou and star Casey Siemaszko maintain an air of emotional honesty throughout. No matter how strange the circumstances get, it’s easy to relate to the increasing anxiety of Siemaszko’s character, Jerry Mitchell.

Jerry is pretty much a high school Everyman. He edges toward nerdy (he writes for the student paper and runs the school store), but one of the nice surprises of Three O’Clock High is its willingness to eschew the obvious high school stereotypes. Jerry never faces relentless mockery or bullying. He merely has the misfortune of crossing paths with a genuine psychopath, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson).

Buddy has just transferred to Weaver High, after expulsion from various other local schools. Rumors swirl immediately. Buddy is most notorious for hospitalizing a dean who dared to touch him. Buddy, you see, does not like to be touched. At all. By anyone. When Jerry is tasked with interviewing him for the newspaper, he makes the mistake of playfully clapping a hand against Buddy’s shoulder. It doesn’t go over well: the comically menacing Buddy challenges Jerry to a fight after school.
 Terrified, Jerry spends the rest of the day trying to get out of it, but none of his plans work. Buddy makes short work of the hulking jock Jerry hires to fight on his behalf. He also tears the alternator out of Jerry’s car. Even Jerry’s bizarre attempt to get detention—thus preventing the showdown “honestly”—fails, for hilarious reasons I won’t spoil.

As the day drags on, Weaver High School becomes a playground for strange, colorful characters (which include Mitch Pileggi as a security guard who takes his job very seriously and Anne Ryan as Jerry’s off-kilter, psychic-obsessed girlfriend). The quirkiness of the characters contributes to the gradual fever-dream feeling that permeates the second half of the film. Everyone feels a few ticks off-center, including Jerry, and the heightened reality lends a strangely epic quality to the fight itself.

Tonally, Joanou pulls off quite a feat in portraying high school as both horrifically nightmarish and patently absurd. He trots out every trick in the slick, stylish director’s book—long Steadicam takes, perfect match cuts, super-low angles, camera movements that defy description. Flashiness like Joanou’s can get annoying when it feels like it’s overcompensating for a shallow story, but Joanou manages to make his stylistic abuse both match the action and enhance the dreamy feel of the narrative.

The story combines deft satire with an encapsulation of the average high school experience: fear, confusion, and anxiety intermingling with increasingly serious interactions with the foreign world of adults. Jerry is a kid in over his head, and Three O’Clock High ultimately reveals itself as a goofy coming-of-age story, with his decision to fight instead of run away symbolizing his ascent into manhood. Its aversion to stereotypes reveals the strange characters as deceptively complex, which again underscores the coming-of-age themes: Jerry starts to realize the cracks in the façade of the adults around him, and he realizes his classmates—and even Buddy—aren’t as boring and predictable as they may seem.

Like many ’80s high school movies, the hair, fashions, and Tangerine Dream soundtrack may seem a little dated. However, the story and characters hold up remarkably well. This is the sort of movie any teen can enjoy and relate to, but it also manages to capture the alternately fond and frustrating memories most adults feel when looking back on their high school experience. Why Three O’Clock High isn’t held in the same regard as the John Hughes oeuvre, and why the bulk of its teen cast didn’t move on to bigger and better things, mystifies me.

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Shortcut to Happiness (2001/2004/2007?)

When I saw Shortcut to Happiness in this month’s cable listings, I thought, What? A comedy with Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, and I’ve never even heard of it? I figured, at the bare minimum, I would have seen a couple of reviews when it was released in 2004. How could a movie with such well-known actors, produced and directed by star Alec Baldwin, slip through the cracks?

It’s impossible to review this movie without acknowledging its troubled production history. After all, its most significant problems—editing and music—are rooted in post-production, and Baldwin had left the project and removed his name from the director credit long before post-production was completed. So here it is in brief: principal photography was completed in 2001, but the investors lied about having enough money to make the film. Consequently, according to Baldwin, the investors were investigated for bank fraud and “the Feds” took the film away from him. Once the Feds released the film, a rough, incomplete cut was screened at film festivals in 2004, in the hopes of securing funds to complete it. When that didn’t work, Baldwin left the project. It languished because, in the midst of the chaos, the film’s production company had gone through all sorts of splitting, merging, and absorbing, so half a dozen companies claimed ownership, each cutting their own versions of the film. Thanks, one assumes, to Baldwin’s high-profile, Emmy-winning role in 30 Rock, producer Bob Yari picked the film up in 2007 and sold one of the many cuts to Starz, sandwiched between more well-known movies like The Illusionist and Find Me Guilty. There it remains, playing regularly on Starz, unavailable on DVD.

Buried within the mediocre end result is a fairly compelling comedy about the meaning of success—should one sell out for money and fame or commit to a more spiritually rewarding but less lucrative path? Baldwin plays Jabez Stone, a struggling New York writer who believes he’s finally writing something worthwhile. Unfortunately, nobody will read his first novel, much less his incomplete second novel. Desperate, he sends the first manuscript directly to high-profile editor Daniel Webster (Anthony Hopkins). To Stone’s surprise, Webster actually reads it, but he does not like it. One fateful night, muggers steal Stone’s laptop—which contains the only copy of his new novel—and his typewriter breaks. Enraged, Stone hurls his typewriter out the window of his apartment and kills an elderly woman.

This is the film’s crossroads. It could have developed into a much more interesting movie had they continued down this path. However, Jennifer Love Hewitt shows up as a variation on the Devil, and it starts to adhere rigidly to the basic plot of “The Devil and Daniel Webster”: Stone trades his soul for 10 years of fame and fortune but quickly finds the price—loss of friends (both literally and figuratively), loss of time, and loss of dignity—is too high. Stone is forced into the position of hired hack, pumping out beach reads quickly and efficiently. In one of the funniest running gags, the titles of Stone’s novels suggest the vacuous redundancy within its pages: A Loss of Feeling, Remembrance of a Loss of Feeling, and (my personal favorite) A Certain Numbness of the Extremities.

As expected, the third act revolves around a trial for Stone’s soul, with Webster arguing on his behalf in front of a jury populated by famous authors and presided over by Stone’s successful former friend (Dan Aykroyd), who was killed in order for Stone to achieve his success. In a film that contains many sharp jokes aimed at the entertainment industry, and strong performances by everyone (including, surprisingly, Hewitt, who is cute but generally the weak link in every film she’s in), this third act feels like a bit of a cop-out. Since its 1937 publication, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” has had so many spoofs, homages, and adaptations, the trial for Stone’s soul lacks suspense and emotional punch through sheer overuse. The screenwriters have multiple opportunities to stray off the beaten path of their source material, but every time it seems like the story will head in a more interesting direction, it snaps back to a story that has, unfortunately, become a cliché.

Although the third act can be blamed on Baldwin and his screenwriters, it’s not the film’s biggest problem. The film’s stilted editing causes each shot to hang a half-beat too long, which is the death knell for a comedy. The dialogue has a vaguely screwball patter that sort of works when both actors are in the same shot. Whenever the film cuts back and forth between two or more characters, the timing gets thrown off. Compounding the problem are the ill-fitting musical selections, which seem haphazard and almost never fit the tone of the scene. It feels like somebody involved in the production owned the rights to a handful of pop songs and tossed them in because it was cheaper than composing original music.

Better choices may have salvaged this film, but it’s a moot point. What matters is how the film turned out, and the answer is, unfortunately, “Not well.” I can lament the wasted cast or the troubled production destroying the possibilities of a good film, but that doesn’t change what it is: a mediocre curiosity that’s ultimately not worth seeing.

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The Last Airbender (2010)

For most of its runtime, The Last Airbender suffers from the problem that has plagued the last few Harry Potter movies: familiarity with its source material is required to understand the movie itself. As a critic, the fact that I know nothing about the Nickelodeon cartoon that inspired this film (“Book One” in a proposed trilogy that will probably never see completion) is a boon—I don’t have to worry about high expectations souring my opinion or familiarity obscuring the fact that the story doesn’t make any sense. However, as a moviegoer, my ignorance is a constant source of annoyance.

The plot is overly convoluted from the moment its opening crawl explains the movie’s world to the audience. See, it takes place on a pseudo-Earth world divided into four kingdoms, each guided by one of the four natural elements (water, fire, earth, and air). For millennia, a Chosen One became “the Avatar,” someone with the ability to harness all four of these elements. This Avatar, apparently, kept the peace between the four kingdoms by virtue of being a total badass. However, 100 years before the start of the film, the last Avatar (a child) disappeared without a trace, leading to a long war perpetrated by the Fire Kingdom.

Purely by coincidence, the action opens with Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her older brother/protector, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), uncovering Aang (Noah Ringer) in a Water Kingdom iceberg. Aang was the Avatar, and now that he’s thawed out and back to normal, the Fire Kingdom wants him…well, not dead, exactly. It’s sort of unclear what they actually want from him. Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) repeatedly says that killing him will just cause a new Avatar to be born, but he never takes the time to say why he wants the Avatar. Maybe he just wants to keep Aang prisoner so he can continue his war effort.

The crux of the conflict revolves around Aang’s inability to master other elements. See, he’s an “airbender,” someone with power over air, but he fled from his Avatar calling before he could master the others. Katara offers to teach him to harness water. She starts out as “the last waterbender,” although she’s not terribly good at bending water, and later in the movie other members of the Water Kingdom have an unexplained good grasp of waterbending. See what I mean when I said the plot doesn’t make much sense?

At any rate, the survival of the remaining kingdoms hinges on Aang’s ability to master water, which (as anyone who’s played a Final Fantasy game knows) is the only element that can defeat fire. Aang has a hard time learning, in part because he keeps getting kidnapped by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), a reluctant agent of Zhao whose father (played by Cliff Curtis) rules the Fire Kingdom. Later, Zuko has a change of heart and releases Aang, but then he’s backed into a corner and must bring Aang back to his father. Like I said, convoluted.

The third act consists of an orgy of violence and special effects on par with a kiddie version of 300 or Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I won’t spoil it for those of you brave enough to see this movie, but I’ll describe its most basic problem: writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan refuses to lay out the mythology in advance. This issue causes problems throughout the film (in addition to the confusion about who can and can’t bend the water, Aang has the ability to resurrect the dead and shouts that the oppressed citizens of an Earth Kingdom village should use their powers, even though earlier it’s established that only a select few have these powers), but never more than in the third act. Rather than packing the last half hour with revelations that deepen the audience’s understanding of how this world works, it feels like Shyamalan is making things up as he goes along. It builds to a laughable deus ex machina that’s followed by a smash cut to a scene that sets up the sequel by introducing a never-before-seen character who receives one passing mention earlier in the film.

Audiences who have seen the cartoon may cheer these nonsensical moments, but they exist to alienate the uninitiated portion of the audience simply looking for entertaining, thought-provoking fantasy. The Last Airbender feels incomplete, but not disjointed. It’s like the Reader’s Digest condensed book version of the cartoon series. The story has an assured flow from one scene to the next—it just lacks any concrete reason for these scenes to follow one another, for these characters to take the actions they do, and for the convoluted mythology to rear its ugly head and save the day.

The older actors—notably Patel, Mandvi, and Shaun Toub—do their best to bring a certain level of vitality and emotion to their characters. Patel has easily the most complex and interesting character, but he’s hindered by the screenplay’s insistence on forcing Zuko to do things that don’t really make any sense. Still, he does a fine job with an unenviable role. The same can’t be said for the younger actors. I feel mean for bashing kids, but Ringer makes Jake Lloyd look like Jackie Coogan (look it up). Peltz is a little better, but not much. Their characters anchor the story, but the actors themselves can’t convey the necessary emotions to make the audience feel any empathy or enthusiasm for their struggles. Coming from Shyamalan, this is a big surprise. In the past, pretty much the only reason to watch his movies was to marvel at his ability to coax great performances out of so-so actors.

The film also lacks Shyamalan’s trademark suspense. Even at his worst, Shyamalan had the rare ability to create an atmosphere of dread and a sense of suspense rivaled only by Hitchcock. Why didn’t he bring any of that to this story? This feels like a by-the-numbers big-budget kids’ movie. Instead of suspense or mystery, the film has an air of, “Hey, kids, you already know the story, so kick back and have fun.” This is par for the course for most recent kids’ movies, but it doesn’t make for gripping cinema.

Like Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, this movie spends more time trying to create a franchise than trying to develop a single satisfying film. Changing some elements—a stronger screenplay, better casting—could have made it a decent movie, but it’s too late for that now. There’s no kinder way to say it: The Last Airbender is both a failure and a mess.

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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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