The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Progression towards senility update

So, as some of you may know, I turn 29 today. The white flag signals surrender on the battlefield, the last lap in a race. My 20’s are entering their final lap, and they are surrendering. They’ve certainly been action-packed.

I was 20 when I wrote my first substantial script, a 45-minute play called
Between 3 and 4. In the near decade since then, between scripts and script coverages and development notes and blog posts I’ve set down well over 1,000,000 words that needed to be good enough for someone to read. Not all of them have been, some have been better than just good enough. Some have earned me money – some may yet earn me money.

Last night I was in the sweat of anxiety, I didn’t fall into real sleep until around 5 am. Because I’m in a business where there is almost no middle class, no sustainable average. Either you’ve made it, and you have money in the bank and can afford the LA real estate, or you’re just part of the paycheck-to-paycheck horde – taking the odd jobs and watching your peers in other fields make that steady climb up the tax brackets. When I was 22 I would have been glad to have my current monthly take-home, if I still have it at 32 it ought to be pretty damned embarrassing.

The decisions I’ve made clearly reveal to me that I’m not putting a lot of stock in making money. I’ve blown thousands of dollars on bad relationships and ill-informed uses for credit cards. I’ve turned down higher-paying opportunities to stick by a boss who ultimately fired me and left me with no reward for my loyalty, even when it was my creative work that kept the company afloat. I took a big studio idea and deliberately made it dark and eccentric, so when my script sale moment arrived I got paid indie wages. I’ve persisted in writing genres outside my comfort zone to the consternation of my agent, who wishes I’d write another teen comedy already.

It’s nice to have principles, they’ve kept me largely doing work that I find satisfying, but they’ve also brought me to my present circumstances, which are not satisfying. And with every Earth orbit that ticks by, it becomes clearer and clearer that it’s not Hollywood’s ignorance of me that has me here, it’s not my lack of effort or ambition…

It’s your talent, stupid.

You accrue debt each day that you convince yourself that you’re good enough to keep at it for another day. It needs to be repaid, and I hate to say it, but there comes a point where the approbation of friends and family just doesn’t knock the principal down any. I need that gig. I need to stage another play. I need a greenlight. I need
something, because I’m 29 now, damn it.

So that’s what kept me up, I’m pretty certain. But once I exiled my cat from the bedroom and shut the door, once I had a glass of water and tossed my balled-up sheets aside, I slept, I dreamt, and five hours later felt invigorated. Birthday cards popped up in my Inbox, I made an omelet, the lovely Monkeygirl phoned in from her current adventure to the Hawaiian Islands. And later I’ll have presents, and Chinese food, and cake. And tomorrow I’ll have drinks with friends in LA. And Saturday we will party.

And I intend to be happy about all that.

Last Movie I Saw
: World Trade Center. The review is in the works.

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MOVIE REVIEW - Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Full review behind the jump

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
: Adam McKay
: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
: Jimmy Miller, Judd Apatow
: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Leslie Bibb, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Cole, Jane Lynch, Greg Germann, Amy Adams, Houston Tumlin, Grayson Russell, Molly Shannon

Vanishingly few people in Hollywood actually write comedy these days, if by comedy you mean something that from the time of conception to delivery made a few people laugh. We get a lot of “comedy-esque” in film and television, but it’s sort of like grape-flavoring : deep down we know it’s a chemical that was birthed in a lab from an equation, and truth be told it doesn’t taste like a grape at all, but somewhere along the way we all just agreed to accept it as grape and react accordingly. We recognize things that are designed to resemble comedy, and thus conclude we were entertained. There’s always a laugh track to tell us it’s our own fault for not finding it funny.

But Will Ferrell and co-writer/director Adam McKay still write comedy, bless them: rough, impolite, imperfect, confounding comedy that when you’re not labeling it shamefully stupid, you’re laughing at it in spite of yourself. Because they write the kind of humor that truly catches you off-guard and triggers an organic
reaction, rather than signaling you like a trained porpoise. In Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, there’s a kind of love that accompanies each gag and dimwitted dialogue curlicue, an optimistic hope that they can jab a real laugh out of you. Even when they don’t succeed, and they don’t as often as they did in their more thoroughly-realized previous collaboration, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy, they earn affection because they respect us enough to try and not just retread old formulas.

Formulas, in fact, are the source of most of their fun. They get much mileage out of how thoroughly, even willingly, American audiences absorb clichés – as if every event we experience from sports to news to life itself should be crammed into a 3-Act shoebox complete with Early Success, Betrayal and Tragedy, Hitting Rock Bottom, and Healing Old Wounds/Rediscovery of the Self. In this movie, champion NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) suffers a car accident and subsequently starts acting like a cripple. He’s not actually crippled in any medical sense, but what good is a setback like that without the inspiring learning-to-walk-again sequence?

Ricky is born for speed, literally he’s born at speed: his shiftless pot-dealing father (Gary Cole) is so thrilled that his muscle car hits 100mph on the way to the hospital that he drives right by it. He then more or less vanishes from young Ricky’s life, but shows up just enough to imprint on the single-minded boy that finishing first is all that matters in life.

And as a grown-up he’s very good at it, with a little help from his best friend Cal (John C. Reilly), who provides drafting cover during races and does what he can to accept always coming in second. Their relationship is the most amusing one in the movie, based on a mutual appreciation of things that are cool, that bond is stronger than any trial they’ll go through. He even sits at Ricky’s right hand at the dinner table, while Ricky thanks baby Jesus and “the good folks at Powerade” for his mansion, his photogenic family, and the bounty of brand name junk food provided by contractual obligation. The downright ridiculous product sponsorship in NASCAR provides a ripe target – at one point Ricky plasters a decal right across his windshield, obscuring his view of the track, because there’s no room left on the car itself.

Somehow the filmmakers know just what real-life brand names, deployed in the right place, can earn a laugh. There’s a scene where the characters eat at Appleby’s. Why is that funny before they’ve even made a joke within that environment? I think it’s partially because, watching most film and television, you’d never imagine the writers even know what Appleby’s is, nor the place it holds in the dining repertoire of the average American family. Here, they show that they get it, and invite us to poke fun at our own eager embrace of slickly-packaged mediocrity.

But Ricky Bobby’s ride on the honey wagon of corporate underwriting and a hot blonde spouse (Leslie Bibb) is severely threatened by the arrival of Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G), a gifted but smarmy French driver from the “Formula Un” circuit. Jean delights in violating the comfort zones of the NASCAR drivers, flaunting his loving husband Gregory (Andy Richter) and tirelessly listing all of France’s contributions to modern civilization (challenged to name an American contribution in response, the drivers’ first idea is “Chinese Food”). Ferrell’s stolid dunderhead Ricky, who borrows much of his clipped drawl from his George W. Bush impersonation, finds its perfect foil in Cohen, who seems in his dialogue to be inventing new vowels on the fly.

Which begs the question of why Greg Germann, playing the racing team’s venal owner Larry Dennit, Jr., is even in the movie. Every time the movie cuts back to him plotting against Ricky Bobby just reminds us that he’s a straight man in a movie that doesn’t need one. Ferrell and McKay’s style of humor is more in the vein of free volleying nonsense that anyone can participate in – when at any point any character has the right to stop the narrative and comment on something’s ridiculousness, it injects a little challenge into each scene. Characters, even minor ones, can follow a tangent into the quirkiest corner of their brain to find a non sequiter gem.

Sometimes this doesn’t work, like with just about everything said by Ricky’s junior mechanic Glen (Jack McBrayer). Other times it achieves a priceless perfection, like the ever-worsening ideas Cal and pit crew chief Lucius (Michael Clarke Duncan) come up with for getting a knife out of Ricky’s leg. And then there’s Amy Adams, an Academy Award-nominee last year for Junebug, who must create in one long stretch of dialogue a gathering storm of passion that in its own bizarre, unforgettable way is comparable to when Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for a single five-minute scene in Network.

Ultimately Talladega Nights is not willing to march so deep into the country of the surreal as Anchorman did, and anyone coming to see racing action is likely to be disappointed by the vague zooming around on-screen here. I didn’t laugh at everything but I laughed a lot, and whether or not you share that response I think the critical judgment must be to praise the filmmakers. As with the simpleton Ricky Bobby himself, their pure desire to excel is winning on its own.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

What I've decided tonight

Act I, Scene I of my play is dreadful

Act I, Scene II of my play is tolerable, but only because of how it ends

Act I, Scene III of my play is solid

It should come with a disclaimer:
Please be patient while this play gets better.

Honestly, I love re-writing.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Snakes on a Plane

Full review behind the jump

Snakes on a Plane

: David R. Ellis
: story by John Heffernan and David Dalessandro, screenplay by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez
: Don Granger, Gary Levinsohn, Craig Berenson
: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard, Flex Alexander, Kenan Thompson, Keith “Blackman” Dallas, Lin Shaye, Bruce James, Sunny Mabrey, David Koechner, Bobby Canavale, Todd Louiso

Snakes on a Plane-

I know how difficult living up to high expectations can be. A cult movie is a precious thing to its admirers, a found fusion of eccentricity and verve that burrows messily into our hearts like no heavy-footed mainstream Hollywood product ever could. You’re in the unique position of having built a cult following before anyone even saw you, and in fact history might regard you, with your deliciously blatant title, as being Hollywood’s first example of a cult advertising campaign.

But now here you are, with fans lusting to be satisfied, and I can see what this has done to you. I don’t know if you know anymore what kind of movie you want to be. Do you want to be a bloody thriller? A violent dark comedy? Blaxploitation meets Snakesploitation? I think the reason you have been so anticipated is because of peoples’ abiding hope that you could somehow be all three. And from time to time you show glimpses of fulfilling that promise – but let’s face it, there are only a few mad geniuses out of there who, with the force of their deviant love, could have willed such alchemy into being. Sam Raimi would have known how to make you. George Romero. But that’s the thing – they would have recognized that you didn’t belong in the studio sausage factory. And here you are, unable to escape the bloat of the system that made you, and you do not fly so gloriously and geekily as was hoped.

Still, you deserve praise: your screenplay by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez (story by Heffernan and David Dalessandro) does demonstrate a deep well of inspiration when it comes to the terrible consequences of your titular beasts being unleashed in your titular enclosed space.

Your plot, well, let’s be accurate, it’s less a plot than it is an excuse, concerns Stock Red Bull-Drinking Extreme Sports Enthusiast Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips), who witnesses a murder committed by Stock Hot-Headed Asian Gangster Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). This is the tricky point I’m trying to get at, Snakes on a Plane: you hope by hamming up stereotyped personalities to win my favor, but you’re working with professionals here. It’s no accident that many cult films are made by amateurs (or are the spectacular failures of supposed professionals), it’s their misguided enthusiasm and lack of polish which makes their rough performing such a charm. Here you’ve just got competent actors trying to play bad characters, and none of them are in agreement about just how this is to be done. My pick for the best effort goes to Flex Alexander in the role of rap superstar Three-G’s, I like how he tries always to be unflappably cool even though his primary motivations are a throbbing sex drive and an inconvenient hygiene fetish. I also enjoyed David Koechner as the ill-fated plane’s co-pilot Rick – he of the indomitable sense of humor and strong poison resistance.

Anyway, Jones embraces the protective custody of FBI Agent Nelville Flynn, the Stock Samuel L. Jackson Foul-Mouthed Badass Role. And Flynn escorts Jones aboard a red-eye flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles, so Jones can testify against Kim. Kim has a fiendish and, frankly, fruit loops plan to see to it the plane never lands. And that’s where you come in.

I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but when people die painful and bloody deaths, it is not automatically funny or entertaining. Sometimes it’s scary, and you do make use of that, but sometimes it’s just uselessly sad and no fun at all, and you suffer from rather too much of that. You go out of your way to paint many of the characters as loathsome or stupid – or guilty of other high crimes like being overweight or having allergies. I think you’re trying to help us be okay with what happens when dozens of deadly snakes in the grips of a pheromone-induced rage are released mid-flight to slither hither and yon, chomping control wires and sensitive bodily organs as they become available. Sometimes I get a laugh out of it, but sometimes I liked the characters in spite of your efforts to pigeonhole them, and thus found the thorough witnessing of their execution cruel and without purpose.

I also can’t understand why you felt it necessary to devote long minutes of screen time to Flynn’s landbound partner in LA (Bobby Canavale). It does create space for Todd Louiso to tickle us a bit as an irritable brainy misfit of a snake expert, but what use trapping our characters in a plane if you’re going to let us get out for a breather so often? It thoroughly deflates the atmosphere of cuckoo mayhem everytime you and Jackson get close to locking it in

As much Samuel L. Jackson as you’ve got, there’s never enough – so much of what’s good about you flows from him. Like Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” in Pulp Fiction, his job is to shepherd the mentally-challenged through an odd crisis, and he knows just how to let his appreciation of its absurdity leak through from time to time. Watching him clamber across seat tops, zapping snakes with a taser, or hearing that his master survival plan is to stack luggage between the passengers and the snakes, is a joy because it embraces what possibilities the warped internal logic has made available.

See, most of the time, I don’t know if you’re trying to be smarter than you actually are or dumber. In moments like that, I no longer care. Like when, apropos of nothing, you introduce a professional kickboxer into the scenario. You and I both know how inspiringly batty that is, even if we can’t articulate it.

This letter is meant in kindness, Snakes on a Plane. I can tell you want to entertain us. Frequently you did. But you’re a product of a system that, when it wants to make good movies, makes bad ones. With you it tried to make an entertaining bad movie on purpose, and somehow missed again. Most cult films are accidents, and you’re a good test case for why. I’ll always remember you, but I'm afraid I'm Just Not That Into You.

Yours (on a plane),
Nicholas Thurkettle

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Baby Steps

This big thank-you goes out to Monkeygirl. Recently her new chiropractor made a startlingly practical suggestion for dealing with the pain in her arm. Knowing that I’ve been in various stages of distress and agony along my right arm for at least a year, Monkeygirl passed it along to me.

It’s as simple as this: don’t spend more than twenty minutes at a pop on the computer. Work in small chunks and take breaks. It’s not a cure, but it does reduce the stress.

I’ve spent a couple of days practicing this and it’s an honest blessing, not just for keeping the arm out of its worst state, but for focusing my brain on writing. I already knew that I work best in 20-minute chunks, before my thoughts disperse too widely and my mind turns into a cloud again. Having a physically-based excuse to pull myself away turns out to be just enough to overpower that guilt motivator that keeps me shackled to the desk for hours, unproductively web-surfing and hoping that any minute I’ll summon the willpower to open the damned script file already.

It’s no coinkydink that this is my third consecutive day with a journal post up.

So I work a chunk, then divert myself. Do laundry, fix a snack, watch TV. Pre-recorded half-hour shows are ideal. I don’t play video games, I’ve come to the conclusion that they do something to my brain waves that isn’t conducive to writing. I save the games for when I know I won’t have another session for awhile.

And the words are coming – I’m closing in on finishing a re-write I’ve been meaning to do for years. I finish the day with a sense of accomplishment and I waste less time.

Now if only I didn’t have to shuffle off to the old day job.

Last Movie I Saw
: Let’s give this feature a try. On any entry that’s not a dedicated feature (a movie review or travel blog or the like), I’ll mention the last movie I watched that I’d never seen before. You’ll tell me if you like it, won’t you Jimmy?

The Last Movie I Saw was
Killer’s Kiss, legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s second feature film and the first to receive significant national distribution. Shot guerilla-style with no permits on the streets of New York for about $75,000, it’s a minimalist B-Noir thriller about a boxer who intervenes when a dance hall girl’s abusive boss develops a psychotic fixation on her. It’s the last time Kubrick shot a movie based on an original story, and you can almost see why, it’s pretty threadbare and has a tendency to wander off down tangents. During the climax, where the two men brawl in a mannequin factory with a wildly swinging ax, Kubrick is either padding his running time (the movie clocks an anorexic 67 minutes), or this is the first whisper of the misanthropic streak that would come to dominate his aesthetic. The fight goes on so sweatingly, desperately, uselessly long that you can’t help but imagine the old nut laughing at the spectacle of it.

And while the photography (he shot and edited it himself) is starkly beautiful, his inability at the time to set up shots to conceal microphones meant that the entire film had to be dubbed in post-production, which takes the already amateur acting back a further notch or two. I’m glad I watched it for curiosity’s sake, and it helps to remember that even a genius takes a misstep or two early on. Plus, its poster has an all-time corker in the history of breathless matinee come-ons: “
Her Soft Mouth Was the Road to Sin-Smeared Violence!

They don’t pitch ‘em like that anymore.

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Monday, August 14, 2006


Full review behind the jump

Miami Vice

: Michael Mann
: Michael Mann, based on the television series created by Anthony Yerkovich
: Michael Mann, Pieter Jan Brugge
: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li, Naomie Harris, Ciarán Hinds, Justin Theroux, Luis Tosar, Barry Shabaka Henley, John Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Domenick Lombardozzi

Producer/writer/director Michael Mann’s camera always seems to be catching up with the action in
Miami Vice, jerking over or rushing off to follow the latest development. The dialogue feels simultaneously mumbled and sped-up, moving at the heedless speed of street patter and not slowing down to explain the context to the uninitiated. There’s method to this dynamic style in his modernized upgrade of the seminal 80’s drug-cops-in-pastels TV series, and more sign of his continued evolution as a champion of digital filmmaking. Everything feels immediate, unprotected and exciting – this is the war zone hidden behind the neon paradise and it demands our attention to understand. It’s a tonic to heal us from the slick and over-choreographed fake mayhem of other thrillers; what ends up within the frame lines here feels like a dreadful accident artfully-captured.

Mann’s walked the crime beat long enough to know that there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to illegal behavior – drugs still flow across the oceans into Florida and the crooks always seem better armed and financed than the cops pursuing them. No one ever shows you all the angles in their agenda and it’s never as simple as getting the bad guy, because there’s another one right behind him. Assignments come, change with the revelations of the moment, true progress always seems just out of reach and you end up calling it a good day when no one you care about got killed.

Those are the gritty realities facing undercover police in this world, and Mann knows that what distinguishes this story will be the atmosphere, rhythm and posture he can inject while rendering those realities to us. Rather than just sleepwalk through a checklist of the clichés its progenitor forced into the zeitgeist back in the day, this
Vice fairly crackles with fresh urgency. You might not recognize what you’re tasting at first, but relish it – here for once is a summer movie that’s not pre-digested.

The plot is slender, and common – a jazz standard, if you will. It starts when a police informant (John Hawkes) gets smoked out and places a tearful call to his only protectors, undercover Vice Squad detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx). Gone is the television-imposed odd couple partnership, where Crockett was the grizzled elder to Tubbs’ hothead newcomer, Tubbs the New York City native to Crockett’s swamp-dweller. Here Crockett and Tubbs, explosive and smooth, respectively, never have to talk about their partnership – it’s an unspoken promise between two men who’ve shared proximity with death.

Mann wastes no time discarding black-and-white morality and swirling the colors together. An informant is in many ways the lowest form of carrion – a criminal who is allowed to keep committing crime and avoid prison by betraying his comrades, and profit further by that betrayal. But Mann has always been among the canniest of directors when it comes to casting – he knows the power of a face. And the gaunt panic of John Hawkes (Deadwood, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and Identity) combines with the grim fate dealt him and instantly wins our sympathies. You feel Crockett and Tubbs’ rage that a mole in the FBI fingered him – he was a stoolie, but he was a stoolie they were responsible for.

Their supervisor Castillo – another beautifully-haggard face belonging to Barry Shabaka Henley – arranges a two-fold assignment: flush out the mole, and find out how the white supremacist gang that made such bloody use of his information got their military-grade weaponry. Their path lies in infiltrating a South American smuggling ring posing as transpo experts – thrill junkies who use planes or speedboats to ferry contraband across the oceans into Miami.

The kingpin of this ring is Montoya (Luis Tosar), whose temperature is at a permanent absolute zero. He doesn’t blink nearly often enough for anyone’s ease of mind, and he has an unsettlingly polite way of suddenly saying: “I extend my best wishes to your families.” At his side is Isabella (Chinese superstar Gong Li), who sweats the financial details and is painfully sexy. Some might find what eventually unfolds between her and Crockett to be excessive – I found the helpless mutual consumption to be absolutely believable, in the midst of death a life hunger that transcends sense.

Montoya has a point man, José Yero (John Ortiz) whose job is precisely to worry about people like Crockett and Tubbs, suspiciously perfect independent contractors who arrive with references exactly when needed. We see the operation is a giant bluff on both sides – Yero must convince them he is too crazy and paranoid to be tricked, they must convince him that they are too crazy and paranoid to be cops. And you even sort of empathize with Yero as Crockett and Tubbs solidify their position in the operation, because he’s the only one who sees what’s actually going on and it pains him not to be believed.

There are only a few sequences of real violence in this movie, and they are thrillingly staged and jarring in how clinically they report the effects of various caliber bullets on a human body. But the threat of it, the sense of ever-encroaching danger, of living just a heartbeat away from being a stain on the pavement because that’s the job, propels Miami Vice. We move from shiny nightclubs to slums with child gunmen manning the rooftops. Beyond the sense of jittery documentary vérité provided by Dion Beebe’s digital photography and brilliantly augmented by Victor Kempster’s near-invisible production design, it also radically alters the color scheme, enhancing the pale skin and the deep bleeding orange-reds of tail lights under the moon. By day the rich predators of Miami sip liquor in beach houses that out-gleam the sand they sit on, and by night there always seems to be a storm putting fire into the sky behind distant clouds.

Modern cinematography is so often calculated to pour brightness and false cheer into every corner, and thrust the handsomeness of movie stars into the back rows of the theater. Miami Vice, which stands proudly with Michael Mann’s best and richest work, coaxes us in, seduces us, finds its own style and compels us to follow it behind the velvet rope into Sodom. That, he remembers, is what turned people on to the TV show to begin with. Not the silk blazers.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006


Full review behind the jump


: Woody Allen
: Woody Allen
: Gareth Wiley, Letty Aronson
: Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen, Hugh Jackman, Ian McShane, Charles Dance, Romola Garai

Our culture has so internalized Woody Allen’s screen persona by now that we do a little too much of the work for him. If he’s the brilliant nerd consumed by worry and hormonal impetus who can’t catch a break, we oblige him by not giving him a break. When he makes a serious picture like last year’s
Match Point, he’s derided as pretentious for not making the enjoyable comedies of his early career. And when he makes a movie like Scoop which has no higher ambition than to make us laugh, he’s piled on for slumming it and not making more substantive movies like Match Point.

Few filmmakers can claim anywhere near the tonal and stylistic range, not to mention the sheer productivity, that Allen has demonstrated across a four decade career, and yet each new project is typically greeted by two reflexive criticisms: 1) “Woody always plays the same character”, and 2) “He should be making a (insert comedy or drama) instead of this (insert the other term here)”. Neither is substantively fair – did anyone ever pick on Bob Hope or Groucho Marx for playing “the same character” in every movie? And though his voice as a filmmaker and performer is consistent, the expanse of moods and facets of life he projects through that voice, the sheer number of stories he’s found the means to tell, deserves more respect than it gets.

He’s made great films, and
Scoop is not one of them. But he’s also made limp and wayward films, and Scoop is not one of them, either. It’s a pleasant diversion, a light workout for a writer/director still mindful of how to catch a laugh yet still willing to take a goofy chance or two.

It’s his second consecutive film to star the versatile young Scarlett Johansson and it’s clear that the filmmaker is infatuated. She’s an unschooled though eager enough participant in the shtick – she doesn’t come to the timing of a punchline naturally but charisma goes a long way. She plays Sondra Pransky, an American student with journalistic ambitions, a questionable grasp of investigative methods and an effortless sexual allure. She seems to have a pattern of missing the story but landing in bed. I think this is one of Allen’s methods of celebrating her classic beauty, it reminds me of one of cheesecake cinema’s best titles: the Jayne Mansfield vehicle The Girl Can’t Help It.

She goes with a friend to see a show put on by “Splendini” (Woody Allen), aka Sid Waterman, a hokey prestidigitator with a box full of fifty-year-old illusions and jokes that are older still. He invites Sondra to step into his Dematerializing Cabinet, and while she’s inside she receives a most supernatural career boost. The ghost of Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), a real journalist in the classic drunken bloodhound mold, appears to her with a hot tip. It seems while biding his time on the ferry across the river Styx, he struck up a conversation with a woman who believes she was a victim of the feared Tarot Card Killer – a serial strangler stalking the young women of London. Her story has Strombel convinced that the killer is Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), the wealthy playboy son of Lord Lymon (Julian Glover). And a story like that is worth trying to put off the afterlife for a few days, even if he could have chosen better when it came to the vessel receiving his insight.

Not many would attempt such a deliberately odd marriage as fading specters and lowbrow card tricks meshing with a tale of murder in the upper class. And in the age of terrorists and torturers, the notion of a populace living in fear of a strangler is practically nostalgic. Despite that, and despite the blatant storytelling prop of Strombel, who can fade in and out whenever the plot needs goosing along, the whole contraption is somehow seaworthy, caulked together by Allen’s wit.

“Splendini” volunteers himself as a partner in the investigation, and poses as Sondra’s wealthy and eccentric father so they can infiltrate Lyman’s world. This affords Allen the opportunity to share his other new infatuation – the city of London – and to milk laughs from the sight of his miserable old entertainer self trying to fake respectability among the landed set. Inevitably, he turns to his deck of cards.

Johansson is in a tricky position, trying to portray artificially the warmly-daffy persona that early Allen heroines like Diane Keaton or (let’s go way back now) Louise Lasser possessed organically within themselves. I think with another movie she might just get it right. Allen himself is in full cranky bloom and can still score with his technique of finding no issue too minute to be worth talking obsessively around. In spite of past May-December flings in his films, in Scoop he’s never presented as a viable suitor for young Sondra; but he is, if you pay attention, actually a better investigator.

There I go again – it’s too, too easy to steer any discussion of a Woody Allen film into a discussion of Woody Allen. It’s as if we, the moviegoers, are acting as a therapist and he is our oldest and most bedeviling patient, forever spilling a bottomless imagination on us. It distracts me from mentioning the subtly-fine photography of Remi Adefarasin, Hugh Jackman’s performance as a most handsome and droll enigma, the way people familiar with Dreiser’s An American Tragedy will find themselves chuckling inappropriately when the scene takes us to a rowboat dock. Scoop presents much that is charming even as it’s hampered by much that is flawed. But consider the content I’ve described to you above, and ask yourself, just how many people out there are telling stories like this?

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

You move your fingers to look for feeling

I wanted to post this evening exulting the return of the NFL, at least in pre-season form. That's enough for me, it will help me survive until the real thing in September. And that post's coming to, with all the usual snark.

But tonight a young man named Bruce Perry was knocked down and didn't get up, and that made me think about a few things. See, Bruce Perry was drafted in the 7th round, the last round. The player chosen at the end of this round is annually awarded the title "Mr. Irrelevant" - because no one expects much from you. He barely made it into the league he'd probably spent half his life preparing for. The average NFL career is something like four years, and he's starting his second, having seen sporadic action last year only because injuries to players above him on the depth chart pressed him onto the field.

Four years isn't really much of a career, especially when you haven't spent any time preparing to have another one. And for all the hype, the mansions and the diamond earrings most of these guys never become millionaires. For some of them, their NFL dream might be their family's best chance to live in a real house. And to get there, they play hundreds of games, thousands of downs, thousands of hours of practice. And they always live with the possibility that, in this minute, they might be crippled. In this minute, like Korey Stringer, they might die. And even if they don't, their body will remember the punishment for the reat of their lives.

Something about the way Perry landed didn't look right. The way his legs splayed in one direction while his torso went another. But in the seconds after he landed he was moving his hands, flexing his fingers. That's the first relief - movement in any extremity. But I didn't see the legs move. While trainers surrounded him, immobilized him, called for a stretcher, I thought it was his spine. I thought that his dream had lasted one year, and now, with less than two minutes left in a meaningless pre-season game, he'd run with the ball and those were the last steps he'd ever take. What do you learn about yourself in those minutes on your back, wondering what has happened to your body?

The players on both teams bent to their knees. One player, a rookie taking the field for professional competition for the first time in his life, put his head in the grass and wept. Was it his heart going out to his teammate, or was he suddenly just not ready for it to cost this much?

As they wheeled him past the bleachers towards an ambulance, he gave a wavering thumbs-up to the crowd. They cheered. Minutes later the report came in - a concussion. A shock to the brain - one that can have lasting effects, but you can walk. You can think. You can shake out the cobwebs and play again. He might well be out on the field next week.

How strange to be relieved - it was "only" a concussion.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006


Full review behind the jump

Clerks II
: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Producers: Scott Mosier, Kevin Smith
Stars: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Rosario Dawson, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Trevor Fehrman, Jennifer Schwalbach

It’s a rut,” filmmaker Kevin Smith is saying in Clerks II, “but it’s my rut”. Whether you view this sequel to his breakthrough 1994 independent film as ultimately despairing and pathetic or satisfied and optimistic may depend on what stage of life you’re in. For his part Smith determines to present both sides of the issue, making a comedy that argues that we find our way to the life we want no matter how it looks to outsiders. It rises to his own comfortably lowered expectations along the way – it’s not a great movie, but you know what you’re in for by now, and if you feel about that like you do about a friend of long standing, you’ll enjoy yourself enough.

The door to the back alley of Mooby’s Fast Food Restaurant has a sign on it reading “No Exit”. The minimum wage plight of Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) has always had a whiff of the existential to it – they are smart and educated people in a world that doesn’t need them to be, and so they must fill the void of their days with pop culture trivia and vulgar distractions. For over a decade their home for this was the Quick Stop convenience store where Dante worked – now it’s burned down, so they’ve made the lateral career move to Mooby’s.

Dante is perpetually unsatisfied, convinced he should be bettering himself but without any idea how one goes about that. Randall has no ambition in the traditional capitalistic sense of the word and thinks Dante doesn’t need bettering. The visual shock of seeing the young men from Clerks with baggy, pocked skin and no wage hike is the movie’s first challenge to us – why aren’t they further along? And why should it upset us that they aren’t?

Between these two and the ever-adventuring pot dealers Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself, respectively), newly converted to Jesus but otherwise back in their proper home propped up against the wall with their boom box, Smith has a clear passion for the concept of the best friend as “hetero life-mate”. But if you don’t feel comfortable with that, he provides you all the insinuating jokes about repressed homosexuality that you need. He’s full-service that way, and his embrace of all things reproductive, scatological and racially-insensitive as conversational fodder, when it works, has a way of reflecting back a certain harmless playfulness. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words, and the overqualified burger-flippers using them, cannot truly hurt us.

Smith the filmmaker prefers the company of friends to professionals, and from the acting to the production values the results feel slapped-together in a way that’s sometimes appealing. Once again we experience a long day in the world of customer service, which once again Dante is plotting to escape. He’s all set to leave the Garden State for the warmer climes of Florida, where he will marry his beloved Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach), whose parents will then give him a house and a car wash to manage. This would seem to meet every definition of what he’s claimed to want all these years, and yet the restlessness persists. Does he want the girl who’s so ready to dismiss the life he’s lead and the people that populate it? Does he secretly prefer Mooby’s spunky manager Becky (Rosario Dawson), who relates to him as a buddy should but also has breasts?

Smith either can’t or doesn’t feel like wiping the mold off that old plot, and it shuffles along without many surprises or real pleasures, save one that begins on a rooftop with a Jackson 5 song. More interesting is studying the tragic effect Dante’s pending departure has on Randall. He’s got a fresh young whipping boy in Lord of the Rings devotee Elias (a very funny Trevor Fehrman), who, when pressed, probably couldn’t decide who he loves more, Jesus or The Transformers. Randall tortures the little dweeb but, almost despite himself, admits that with Dante gone, Elias is fated to be his new best friend, which is potentially worse than whipping boy.

Cross-generational arguments about whether Rings or Star Wars is the “true trilogy” are the kind of Main Event geek brawls you want to see Smith’s characters engaging in, but after a few shots fired across the bow the movie never seems able to relax and develop them to the obsessively microscopic extremes of before. It keeps yearning to be about something, to convince us that the small and quiet lives of these men who are not as young as they used to be are important and worthy of our emotional engagement. You expect that from John Irving, from Kevin Smith you question whether he’s actually worked hard enough to earn it.

He’s great at diversions, at tangents, at making wasted time into good time. There’s Randall’s one-man attempt to mainstream a racial slur, and Jay’s devotion to an infamous scene from Silence of the Lambs, and the performance of Zak Knutson as a character who calls himself “Sexy Stud”, which deserves some kind of award that should only be given once and never spoken of again. Kevin Smith appears, after the hysterics of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and the poorly-received attempt to leave the slackers behind with Jersey Girl, to accept those talents for what they are. Clerks II, at its best, is the most easy and natural expression of his voice, the most Kevin Smith-y Kevin Smith movie we’ve had in awhile. It’s the Portrait of the Artist as a Happily Immature Man. But it’s made the commitment he, with those limp and lingering efforts at a plot, can’t quite make yet.

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