The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Full review behind the jump


: Zack Snyder
: Screenplay by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, and Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley
: Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Bernie Goldman, Jeffrey Silver
: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro

First a “comic book movie” was
Superman – fighting big evil in bold colors. It’s taken more than a generation, but the state of graphic novel adaptations today is rather extraordinary, as filmmakers and the technology at their disposal gradually evolve to meet the fevered visual imaginations of comic artists on their own level. Now Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, and Sin City are “comic book movies”, and they have expanded the story possibilities of that label enough to splinter it as a genre. It now speaks more to a style of filmmaking than to any kind of pre-conceived notion of plot.

300, based on a lesser-known book by Sin City’s Frank Miller (with Lynn Varley), is still, admittedly, about fighting big evil in bold colors. The heroes even wear capes. In this case, though, it’s about the real-life Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., when King Leonidas of Sparta, along with his personal bodyguard of 300 soldiers, fended off an invading army of tens, possibly hundreds of thousands for a few crucial days to allow the rest of Greece to ready itself for war. Think of it as The Alamo with 10 times worse odds and the free world at stake.

It was a battle fought with Sparta’s legendarily brutal militaristic ethos, and Snyder’s dynamic style makes
300 an initially-bracing experience. Cameras zoom, blood squirts and sprays, epigrams are roared; that Snyder, his cast, and his designers maintain such a unity of volume and posture is itself admirable, and appropriate tribute to its source material. This looks in every detail like one of those hyper-emotive, lovingly-grotesque ink operas. Snyder (who also helmed the better-than-expected Dawn of the Dead remake) knows what movie he wants to make and delivers it to us stirringly and with innovative flair. But his visual gifts do not permanently divert attention from the thin emotional content.

Leonidas (Gerard Butler), we learn, is a kind of first among equals, royally-born and the best product of the punishing education every young Spartan receives. It seems from the moment they are allowed to live (physically-imperfect infants are tossed off a cliff), they are fighting. Constant physical testing is considered the way to purity in word and action; and eventually, a glorious death in battle. As a result, all the adult Spartans we see are superhuman physical specimens, the actors look like they spent their time between takes having their torsos massaged like Kobe beef cattle. You could grind rocks on their abs.

The Persian god-emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is on the march, intent on bringing the world under his dominion. He’s as fixated on having people kneel before him as General Zod, and he rides on a golden throne, speaks in an androgynous purr, and looks about eight feet tall.

Leonidas refuses to yield, yet the mystics whose approval he must have to march to war deny him. They are secretly allied with a treacherous Senator, Theron (Dominic West), who subverts their ancient religion with money and sex. There is no psychological motive to be found anywhere, those who stand against the Spartan cause in this movie do so either because of a naked woman or a bag of gold coins – let it not be said that the filmmakers don’t know their target audience. Many a teen or preteen boy will glimpse their first naked woman in 300, they’ll also learn something about the history of Western Civilization; so, fair reward. A few might even learn something about themselves from gazing on all those heaving Spartan pectorals.

As a way of threading the ethical needle, Leonidas leaves the Spartan army behind and takes only the force of 300, banking on their ability to hold a narrow pass near the sea called “The Hot Gates”. Since the pass itself is scarcely thirty bodies wide, and there are steep cliffs on the approach, it does quite a bit to neutralize the ominous numerical imbalance.

The action begins quite smashingly well. The picture is shot on film but with primarily digital sets, and a through-and-through color adjustment that gives the whole thing a bronze-by-firelight amber glow. It’s got the look of ancient and awesome down, and when the spears start chucking and the swords start clanging, Snyder unveils a fascinating technique. Intermittent ramps of film speed take the place of straight edits; so long, seemingly unbroken shots can zip around a scene of battle capturing one piece of choreography after another from the most advantageous position. For awhile, shallow emotional content aside, it really does look as if Snyder is going to pull off a movie that can float on its groundbreaking merits.

Sadly, it instead turns exhausting. Although Xerxes has many waves of different types of killer to send forth, it eventually amounts to little more than changes in costume and more limbs to be hacked. In spite of the Spartans’ warrior spirits, and in spite of the efforts of Leonidas’ wife Gorgon (Lena Headey), who is going above and beyond the call of duty to rally the Senate, the outcome seems inevitable.

The movie wheels out a wealth of characters – fathers and sons, friendly rivals, treasonous hunchbacks, iron-clawed giants, and one Spartan, Dilios (David Wenham), who is prized because he can produce sentences more complex than grunty catchphrases, and serves as unofficial tribe storyteller and our narrator. But it’s only Leonidas, whose burden it is to serve his country while essentially defying it, who feels himself destined for this moment like a younger, buffer, crazier General Patton, whose soul resonates with us at all. Much depends on Gerard Butler’s ability to keep his character at the necessary high blaze of intensity while still revealing a little of the torment of a man figuring out what a Spartan would do in a situation where Spartans are very much needed. Truly, it’s difficult to imagine any other actor faring better.

300 is clearly having an effect on audiences, both in terms of the box office and some rather silly attempts to find allegory within the story of an alien and long-dead culture. Those who admire and want to emulate the Spartan way are probably ignoring the heaving-babies-off-cliffs part, and discounting that it arose out of the necessity of facing constant military peril. They should ignore the wish-fulfillment and focus on the great things that are present in this picture.

Then again, too long spent considering the objectives and urges of its characters makes it look, well, juvenile. Like kid’s stuff. “Comic book movies” are allowed to be better than that now.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Black Snake Moan

Black Snake Moan
: Craig Brewer
: Craig Brewer
: John Singleton, Stephanie Allain
: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran, David Banner, Michael Raymond-James

Most movies are made like fish sticks – all the ingredients are mashed into one shape, and to have more than one flavor in it is anathema. Craig Brewer’s
Black Snake Moan is like the blues music that fills its soundtrack – messy, raw, and full of conflicting tones and emotions. Suffering sometimes turns funny. Love turns murderously angry. Ache is not an enemy to be purged but family to be bound to.

Sometimes it seems too pretty or clean with its bright photography and squared-off dialogue scenes. The characters’ costumes are iconic, overtly-designed, none of them look like they’ve been worn before. Themes and imagery are whipped around in the most improbable orientations, then left unaddressed. The whole experience is loud and impolite.

After awhile you become grateful for it, because what look like blemishes or poses are part of the point. It does not want easy sympathy. It does not want to iron out the kinks. And, most of all, it does not want every bite to taste like fish stick.
Black Snake Moan is a blues movie, it’s submerging itself in hurt to look for that one perfect pop of guitar that reminds you you’re alive. If you’re ready for it, you’ll find it.

The story is about two people who are in a lot of pain. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a farmer and blues musician who hung up his guitar, is in a fury over his wife leaving him for another, and who the other is just hurts more. And Rae (Christina Ricci) is trying to be faithful to Ronnie (singer Justin Timberlake, not up to all the challenges but better than you’d predict), a young man she truly loves who’s shipping out to Iraq. But there is some agonizing noise inside her (we hear it as the roaring drone of cicadas) she quiets with sex, and seemingly within minutes of his departure she’s up to her old tricks.

These are people you don’t see often in American movies; which prefer, if people must suffer at all, that they do it in pretty ways. Black Snake Moan is about people whose lives may never pass beyond the boundaries of their small Southern town, whose livelihood depends on how many bushels they sold today, and whose ambitions might not be larger than getting the truck fixed next month. There is a lot of despair in a life like this, a lot of pain; but contrary to fearful assumption, that’s not all that’s there. There are homemade dinners, and the friends we can choose. And on those nights when the hardness is too much, or it feels like the Devil’s out there walking in the dark (a harrowing sensation this movie knows and evokes), you’ve always got the blues to save you.

Rae’s self-annihilation eventually puts her in Lazarus’ path, and in his need to find an answer to his own suffering, he decides he can cure this girl. And so he chains her to the radiator.

This is a movie that cares enough to be specific to its characters. It is not prescribing bondage and biscuit-making lessons as a universal cure for sex addiction. It wants to know what Rae needs, and how what Lazarus needs informs his attempts to help her. It also has the curiosity to let the situation evolve, to show us how other characters perceive it, and let us take surprise and sorrow from their own decisions. In short – it wants to go somewhere, and will do so recklessly at times, because that makes the trip more spicy.

Samuel L. Jackson, who is 58, does not often play up to his age. For a man gifted with his natural vigor and cool this is no crime, but it often conceals his true talents. The naked magnetism, the almost fearsome charisma he showed in 1997’s Eve’s Bayou often gets veiled by his self-effacing embrace of his legacy from Pulp Fiction, Shaft and the like. Here, he picks up a guitar, sings about blood and heartache, his head looms large in the frame and you remember just what an electrifying presence he has. His eyes look like they could punch holes through you.

Ricci, too, is a revelation. It’s a cliché to say actresses who play while underdressed are being “brave”, what is truly brave about her treatment of Rae is her refusal to judge Rae’s weakness, or to excuse it. This is a hard girl to like, with her temper, her foul mouth, and the way her mania flips on like a switch. But Ronnie adores her, she loves him, and he has his own secret flaws she wants to devote herself to. That’s what a rounded character looks like.

As an actress she’s demonstrated intelligence and a flair with dialogue back to her days in the Addams Family pictures and the wicked The Opposite of Sex. But here she shows something deeper; an abandonment to the material, a trust in the story and her abilities. It is the same thing that allows musicians to jam together, because it is beyond knowing what notes to play, it’s about being able to feel what’s true in the moment.

She and Jackson bond in a way I don’t see often enough in film – based not in any of the customary tropes it could have fallen into: Father-Daughter, Teacher-Student, May-December Romantics, but on a blend that seems crafted just for them. These two people, of all the people on the planet, are equipped to help each other right now, and some force puts them together.

Writer-Director Brewer broke out of Tennessee and achieved Hollywood success with Hustle & Flow, but he has not abandoned his regional roots. He cares about applying the language of cinema to them so we can all taste a bit of his home. I feel confident he’s met people like the ones in Black Snake Moan, that he grew up understanding their wants. And in this messy, wonderful movie, crafted with careful attention to every detail, he whips those memories into something that really cooks.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Back inventory: One Less Monkey

I think I've been blogging a little more personably these days, and those of you with access to where I post that stuff seem to be responding. I guess there are times I take on more magazine-y or soap box-y aspects and the conversation level drops. I haven't even posted a movie review in awhile, and I've been to two (Black Snake Moan and 300, both of which I have sufficient things to say about).

This could be graduate-level narcissism but I'm constantly taking stock of what I'm writing and in what amounts. I like to think that it's a study geared towards better harnessing my productivity. I'm more accepting now that there will be streaks where I go four or five days with no bigger private accomplishment than clearing some more Expert-level songs on
Guitar Hero II. I won't say that's admirable but mental decompression is inevitable in any life, and those days are handy for the little essentials like laundry and homework and vaccuuming out my filthy car (oh, Samwise, I've been neglectful. We'll get to do some real driving tomorrow.)

But I have devoted a lot of headspace for the past two weeks to the re-write on my screenplay, which is now finished. The draft has gone from 115 pages to 111. Since I wrote probably four pages' worth of new material, it means I cut a total of eight, which pleases me. Once you embrace it, cutting feels really good, like a ritual sweat. Not a major re-write as these things go, but the feedback I've received so far has generally agreed that the first draft was damned solid for a first draft.

Now we get to start the machinery. This isn't one of those high-concept specs you just fling out to the studios and wait for the millions to roll in. This will take some TLC, some packaging. This will take my agent and I marrying our Rolodexes and doing a little fantasy casting. I don't know if I'll make money from this script (always my first rule of Hollywood: nothing is real until the check clears), but as of today I get to move one step closer towards finding out.

And, my projects list has one big item off it for the time being. Back to that treatment.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I get angry at my quantum selves

I'm working on the re-write of my new screenplay, and I've come to a line of dialogue that doesn't work. Here, in the present, I know it doesn't work, because I can read. My past self, who scribbled notes on this page a week or two ago, knew it too. I know because he drew an arrow towards that line of dialogue and wrote "Make Better".

I don't know if I should be more angry at the Me from a year ago who wrote this lousy line, or the Me from last week who couldn't be bothered to provide a better line. Always leaving me holding the damn bag...

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007


: David Fincher
: James Vanderbilt, based on the books by Robert Graysmith
: Ceán Chaffin, Brad Fischer, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, James Vanderbilt
: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey, Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, Dermot Mulroney, Philip Baker Hall

I walked it.

I tell my screenwriting students that great dialogue often isn’t really great dialogue, it’s great
context. You can’t look at the three words above and think that there’s any poetry to them, and yet when they arrive near the end of David Fincher’s Zodiac, they are absolutely as perfect a three words as you could conceive for a character to sum up his experiences. It comes as a throwaway – he’s simply talking about the distance between two houses in a neighborhood. But what he’s really talking about is ten years of obsession; the journey of which, finally, demanded that he walk it.

I’ve seen 90-minute movies that bored me to the point of suffering. Yet here is a 160-minute movie that consists almost entirely of conversations, phone calls, digging through paperwork, distracted meals, and scribbling, and it is absolutely mesmerizing. It’s a movie that knows answers can be disappointing but questions are always tantalizing – such as the question of why a political cartoonist would become fixated on the hunt for a serial killer.

David Fincher is a director known for dynamic visuals in the dark range of the color spectrum, and stories that venture into the equally-dark areas of the psyche. In this, his most restrained, meticulous, and mature film, he lets the material take prominence like never before. We don’t need to have a simple answer, because he has bent all his talent to making us believe the question. When Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) says he walked it, we feel the truth of it. He, and others like him, have been walking it for years.

The Zodiac killings of the late 60’s and early 70’s, in which an unhinged stalker struck seemingly random targets all over Northern California with guns and knives, then wrote about it in lurid, prideful detail, captured the public’s imagination, in part because the killer himself saw that it did. The letters and ciphers he sends to newspapers reveal an ego begging for recognition – he threatens to kill if he doesn’t get front page coverage. This makes him more human, and more frighteningly unpredictable. He messes up. Some of his victims get away. He lets his needs goad him into stupid mistakes.

But he is smart enough, and lucky enough, to confound his pursuers. This is the story of a serial killer who was never officially brought to justice; and yet this movie, piggybacking off the research of Graysmith’s two books, mounts a compelling case against one of the suspects. By the end you will believe you have looked into the eyes of a killer, one who wants to mock your incompetence even as he begs for recognition of his deeds.

Graysmith works at the San Francisco Chronicle, in a big open newsroom filled with sloppy desks, giant typewriters, and reporters who smoke together, drink together, and would probably live together if they didn’t turn the lights out at night. He’s fascinated by codes and puzzles, so when the Zodiac’s ciphers start arriving, he sidles over to the desk of crime beat reporter Paul Avery and finds himself hungry for details.

Avery, played with narcissistic flair by Robert Downey, Jr., is a substance-abusing, half-mad provocateur, but also a dogged reporter. He’s on a downward trajectory, but his perceptiveness – perhaps one petty ego recognizing another’s landscape – draws Zodiac’s attention.

And meanwhile, dedicated SFPD Detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) pursues lead after lead after lead after lead. Crimefighting is no easy business in Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s encyclopedic narrative. It reminds me of maybe the best police procedural ever made, Kurosawa’s kidnapping thriller High and Low, in which arriving at the solution involves exploring every one of thousands of false possibilities. Time, legwork, and the accurate filling-out of forms trump intuition just about any day.

Many breaks in the case are simply a matter of one police department finally noticing what another police department has had in its file room for years. In one scene so mundane as to be comically macabre, we watch Toschi’s partner Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) make one phone call after another to sheriff’s departments in different counties, trying to get straight who got killed where, who needs what paperwork, how to barter it so everyone feels like they’re in the lead on the case, and who’s sticking what in the mail since not all the offices have a “telefax”.

This is how police work gets done; and by acknowledging the slow, steady toll of frustration and disappointment it takes on people who try to do it well, Fincher depicts it as downright heroic. In a scene so precious it’s probably true, Toschi gets invited to a special screening of the thriller Dirty Harry, itself inspired by the Zodiac killings and, probably, the public’s latent wish for resolution. He watches the due-process-be-damned fantasy with fascinated disgust.

But Graysmith is the central character, because for reasons he can’t even see himself, he just cannot let go of this case – long after the trail has gone cold, long after the killings have stopped, after Paul Avery’s career is in its final disassembly and Toschi has exhausted nearly all his energy for what has become a one-cop crusade. Graysmith, to the detriment of his relationship with his second wife (Chloë Sevigny) and their children, at the risk of even his own personal safety, simply must find Zodiac. When he interviews a victim’s sister (Clea DuVall), she figures out his intentions immediately: “You have the look” she says, and it’s all she needs to say.

Part of it is about fear. In the Vietnam era, when a generation of draftees abroad were learning that death could come from everywhere, in San Francisco the prospect of it was suddenly everywhere on the homefront as well. Zodiac was threatening to shoot out the tires of a school bus and pick off the “little darlings” as they came out.

Maybe this was just the first time a fear that raw hit Graysmith where he lived (he’s a dedicated father who puts his kids on the bus every day), and it catalyzed him into discovering untapped capabilities. Gyllenhaal calibrates this evolving obsession with consummate patience – it’s a long movie he’s starring in, and we have to be with him every step of the way.

It’s an exhilarating experience, and the more admirable for how often it avoids sensationalism. We see some of the Zodiac’s handiwork early on, but Fincher focuses less on the violence than whipping up anxiety around how our bubbles of innocence and trust can be brutally violated. Fincher’s opening shots are of a serene suburbia on the 4th of July, families playing in the streets. I couldn’t help but assume the doors were unlocked.

In Zodiac, he charts through one man’s quest, with the confidence of a great filmmaker working at the peak of his powers, how people progress to the mindset where the doors are locked, and we worry about our neighbors. It is about how that violation can never be undone. And we understand it completely by the end, because we’ve walked it.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Now that you've safely forgotten all about them....THE OSCARS!

Full post behind the jump

Pre-requisite catty dress joke
: Nicole Kidman looked like a Christmas present that got returned.

Now that that’s out of the way…

The Academy Awards were very writer-centric this year. Passages from the nominated scripts were read aloud by beautiful actors, and graphics flashed throughout the evening that included famous movie quotes gliding in the background. Some were the expected burnished-in-stone one-liners: “
Here’s looking at you, kid.” and all that, but closer inspection revealed stranger choices. Like “Nobody puts baby in the corner.” Really, Oscars? Isn’t this the one night of the year Dirty Dancing and its ilk are supposed to be denied entrance, the night where the whole industry pats itself on the back for failing to kill off these prestigious projects they never wanted to make in the first place

As has become an increasingly worrisome trend, the Best Picture nominees represented the type of picture movie studios wanted nothing to do with. None were fully-financed by a lone studio – Little Miss Sunshine was a festival acquisition, Babel was cobbled together from international sources, The Queen from the BBC, and Letters From Iwo Jima’s relatively slender sub-$20 Million budget was split between Warner Brothers and Dreamworks. Even star-laden genre picture The Departed was heavily-underwritten by producer Graham King’s Initial Entertainment Group. The studios have concluded that it’s simply too much of a risk to make movies where success hinges on whether or not they’re good.

So on the surface, you might guess that Hollywood was determined to be very, very nice to writers this year, perhaps because the Writers Guild Agreement is set to expire, so the town is looking down the barrel of a writer’s strike with the most aggressive board elected in a number of years. But this was just a diversion, a fruit basket. I think the immortal image for writers remains the one Nancy Meyers slipped into her very funny montage about the writer as movie character – Joe Gillis getting shot by Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. Sure, Hollywood will let you cavort around the mansion for awhile if you play nice, but try and grow a spine, and POW.

I wonder if it was intentional on Billy Wilder’s part that we never confirm if Gillis died from drowning in the pool or bleeding to death. It’s almost like, since he was a writer, no one really cared. As the studio executive played by Tony Shaloub in Barton Fink perfectly said – “Jesus, throw a rock in here, you'll hit one. And do me a favor, Fink: throw it hard.


The Oscars were long, as always – they’ve given up on making three hours, but even letting out their waist-band to three-and-a-half, and getting things underway at a brisk tempo, they failed to fit it all in. Those old devils – montage overkill and interpretive dance – once again take the blame.

Some of the montages had unconventional snap and wit to them – especially Errol Morris’ opening segment that allowed nominees from every category a few gloriously-eccentric seconds of air in his Interrotron interview box. Once again it allowed Eddie Murphy to prove the true depths of his talent, as he scored the first big laugh of the night just by staring.

The show saved a few seconds by taking less time to introduce things which, by now, we accept as conventions of the show – like clips from each of the Best Picture nominees. They also found extra crannies to shove human interest in, like those strange factoids about the winners that the announcers would bellow during the triumphant walk to the stage. With further tweaking I think both devices will serve Oscar well in the coming years – if only they can develop montage restraint, we might just get this thing in the pen on time for once.

In fact, I think the Academy Awards don’t often get enough credit, because they genuinely try to shake things up every year. And for a ceremony almost eighty years old, that they are still cooking up new little ideas is, in itself, commendable, even if we sometimes get oddities like that year the orchestra pit had Burt Bacharach and a set of DJ turntables in it.

I don’t mind the Oscars trying to have a bit of the variety show element to them, especially when you get a piece like the Will Ferrell-Jack Black-John C. Reilly musical number A Comedian at the Oscars. It was a funny bit that riffed on a smart idea and kept the inspiration coming briskly. This is the 2nd time Ferrell and Black have been seized by melody during the broadcast, and I would encourage this to happen at least one or two more times.

It’s especially effective for a show hosted by Ellen DeGeneres – she has a way of bringing any spectacle back to a people-sized enjoyment. Perhaps it’s because her delivery – well-supported by the show’s writing – is so dependent on our ability to recognize the thoughts that flash between the words. While her re-think/re-start process prevents her from ever building to a real high, it’s humor built on what we have in common, which is a useful contrast when you’re bringing out a choir filled with sound effects impersonators. She was, thus, perfect for her allotted stage time.

Although I won’t lie and say she dressed up for the occasion, she brought an air of gentle kidding to the affair, that elbow dig Billy Crystal used to do well before it calcified into shtick. She also knew which celebrities would be able to play along, as evidenced by a couple of seemingly-spontaneous laugh moments that came out as she accosted the likes of Scorsese and Eastwood and Spielberg in their chairs. If it was rehearsed, these directors gave more natural performances than most of the stars, and I’m looking in your direction, Cameron “I can’t sell a punchline live” Diaz.

These Oscars were so respectful, so eager to please – they even featured winners saluting our Men and Women In Uniform, and tips to lower your electric bill! And even with that blink-and-you’d-miss-it lesbian kiss Melissa Etheridge laid on her wife after winning, even though four of the five documentary feature nominees boiled down to being about how much George Bush and his cronies have loused up the world, Hollywood seemed on the brink of winning genuine Heartland Hearts and Minds.

That is, until that deviant genius Michael Mann decided to set off a stink bomb. His montage was introduced as “America – through its movies”. And what “The Movies” apparently tell us about America is that it is where the little guy is stepped on and exploited, people are always getting shot, and the whole works from sea to shining sea is filled with racists, warmongers, and sh*t-crazy God people. The crowd, which had already applauded Robert Downey, Jr making a crack about his own drug addiction, was just as stunned as could be, and I’m sure some of them were considering the drastic consequences of ordering up just one montage too many.

My pet peeve every year about the Oscars is that they fatten the running time with montages then put the winners under terrible pressure to keep their speeches short. And given the choice between trying to say something eloquent that could get you laughed at, and simply thanking as many people as you can remember, most will choose the latter. Their joy of winning is immediately eradicated by their fear of The Baton.

With those thank yous, The Oscars are now about taking the moment that will be the highlight of some peoples’ lives, and requiring them to use it to soothe other peoples’ egos. For Hollywood I would see that as poetic justice, except that it usually falls on the little guy. You don’t see the orchestra cueing up to play Scorsese off-stage; no, it’s the sound mixer whose glory we don’t really care about.


As for Scorsese being welcomed into the winners’ fold by his Film Brat Generation chums Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas, I do agree it’s well past time, even if The Departed wasn’t my favorite movie of the year. I don’t know that I could say any other picture or directing job was so drastically superior to it that I feel any sense of injustice.

I save that feeling for elsewhere, when Pan’s Labyrinth can win three Oscars but lose the Foreign-Language Film Award – a fluke of the voting process, since for that particular category only a select group that’s proven they’ve seen all five nominees can vote. Or Jennifer Hudson, with an acting performance that doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny when she isn’t singing, winning for Dreamgirls.

Forest Whitaker’s win was not only deserved, but was a welcome milestone because he was a black actor winning an Oscar, and for the first time I can remember, his race was not the chief topic in discussion. It was about how amazing his performance was. This is when you know we’ve really gotten over the hump, because it’s no longer barrier-shattering; after recent wins by Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx the playing field is looking a lot closer to level these days. And about damned time.

My only regret is watching the face of Peter O’Toole, who has quite visibly withered in the last 2-3 years, and realizing he may have had his last crack at competitive gold. I don’t think he doubts his own legacy, he’s got too much class and cheek to worry about nonsense like that. Still, it would be grand if he had just one more in him – not just for Oscar, but because there are generations growing up not knowing the volcanic talent behind those pale eyes. The classiest moment of the evening came when O’Toole was first mentioned by Ellen DeGeneres, and Leonardo DiCaprio put his fingers to his lips and whistled. Even though on that night O’Toole was the competition, DiCaprio had to show respect, and the gesture had sincerity to it. DiCaprio’s at the forefront of his generation of stars, it’s good to see him knowing who from earlier generations deserves props.

Speaking of earlier generations, Alan Arkin won the equivalent of the Character Actor Lifetime Achievement Award, an autumnal Supporting Actor Oscar which is as much about his prior decades of excellent work as his performance in Little Miss Sunshine. It’s a fine excuse to revisit his early years in Hollywood, where with his background in music and sketch comedy (he was a founding member of Second City) he provided an earnest weirdness that played like a dissonant virtuoso saxophone over his studio-schooled co-stars. In the dated and overwrought comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, he drops a quiet and worried straight man right into the middle of the flailing and looks all the better. In the still-handsome thriller Wait Until Dark he’s so mannered he’s practically alien, one can only imagine how his dark-spectacled beatnik thug unsettled audiences of the time.

But by far the biggest star of the night was former Vice President Al Gore, who the Academy audience treated like he was the new Roberto Benigni. We also learned he’s a more natural comedian than DiCaprio. Who knew?

Ellen’s first reference to him led to a camera cutaway that caught something priceless – Al Gore, squinting, body hunched up, doing what only a fellow traveler could recognize as the Nerd Laugh. You know, the snorty one you learn to keep to yourself from all the times growing up that no one else could understand what you thought was so amusing. In a way I hope Gore doesn’t run for President, he seems too happy that he gets to just be a slightly-plumped-out, globe-saving Nerd now. Instead of the traditional unbooked starlet (Maggie Gyllenhaal this year), he should have been tapped to host the Sci-Tech Award Ceremony, and he could have introduced himself by saying “I am your GOD!


P.S. Has anyone else noticed that Hugh Jackman is turning into Jeremy Hawke, Jay Sherman’s hunky Australian friend from The Critic? Just asking.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - The Number 23

Full review behind the jump

The Number 23

: Joel Schumacher
: Fernley Phillips
: Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson
: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Logan Lerman, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins, Rhona Mitra

Growing up I was the math whiz of Springmyer Elementary. As fast as I could write the answer to one problem, I was solving the next one. By sixth grade the curriculum of fractions and times tables had nothing left to teach me, so my teacher gave me a problem to work on. An unsolvable math problem. It would take too long to explain here but it dealt with palindromic numbers – numbers that were the same forwards and backwards.

I spent months on this problem – adding numbers, flipping them around, checking their momentum towards palindrome status, a scrawny near-sighted eleven-year-old breaking pencils and filling up pages and pages with sums. I never found a solution, and believe me when I say it still bothers me sometimes. The point of this problem was that there was no end, but it would keep me occupied. She was a smart teacher to recognize that.

There’s a brain type out there that is irresistibly drawn to the manipulation of numbers, and it’s a fair bet that Fernley Phillips, the writer of
The Number 23, shares that brain type with me. I wasn’t familiar with the conspiratorial lore attached to the number, but I immediately saw its appeal – 2 and 3 are the smallest prime numbers, the building blocks to everything, so if someone with one of these whirligig brains really set themselves to crunching, flipping or condensing just about any number or combination of numbers, they could probably find their way to a “23”.

But what serves well as a story hook carries with it a fatal curse – there’s nowhere it can go. As with Darren Aronovsky’s arresting debut film
Pi, another thriller about a number with a touch of infinity and madness attached to it, there’s no solution that can satisfy the anxiety. Getting there is all the fun, because there’s nowhere to arrive. Rather than follow that film’s mesmerizing march off the cliff, the filmmakers responsible for The Number 23 consciously decide to make their movie much less interesting. At some point, instead of the ends of paranoia, it settles for the most dreadful literalness. I give Phillips credit for imagining a scenario that explains what is going on with only a few medium-to-large-sized plot holes, but he has not figured out how to make it cinematically engrossing, and even the promising lures of his set-up are smushed by director Joel Schumacher’s depthless approach.

Schumacher got his start in the movie industry as a costume designer, and I’ve always found that informative in watching his pictures. He can’t pull himself away from glamour even at the most inappropriate times – there’s a dead woman’s body on screen and I find myself wondering how long he spent picking out that dazzling shade of lipstick. Surfaces are all he knows how to work with – instead of using the insidious appeal of numerology to take us down the rabbit hole with Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey), he just daubs “23” all over the scenery like rhinestones. It’s psycho chic; to Joel Schumacher, fear is best represented by really bad wallpaper. I ought to be digging my fingers into the armrests, worried about the characters; instead I’m adding up the digits on streets signs.

Sparrow is an animal control officer whose life is stable and satisfying, until February 3rd (2/3), when his wife (Virginia Madsen) finds a strange little book called The Number 23 and insists he read it. Sparrow immediately sees some rather unnerving parallels with his own past, like a death that happens on the 8th birthday (2 to the 3rd power). The main character of the book ends up doing some very nasty things, and Sparrow doesn’t want to believe he’s like that guy; but like that guy, he’s starting to see that wretched number, well, everywhere. And we do, too, since Schumacher has never believed in putting something on screen that we can’t see and understand immediately. In a climactic scene I ought to be trapped in fearful uncertainty of what will happen next; instead, I notice that the musical score has already told me.

Carrey and Madsen each play dual roles in the picture, starring in Sparrow’s mental projection of the book he reads. Within the book he is Fingerling, a police detective who finds that this number has been moving from victim to victim like a curse, and it’s getting a grip on him, too. Madsen is his exotic girlfriend Fabrizia, who picks the wrong time in their relationship to start suggesting certain S&M fantasies.

While Madsen, a recent Academy Award nominee from Sideways, is exquisitely grounded and natural considering what is demanded of her, you can see Carrey straining. He’s capable of reining himself in for sympathetic performances like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; but here, you can see that some impulse inside him knows this whole thing is cockamamie, and is desperate to acknowledge it. Every time he says the word “Fingerling” you hear his lips forcing themselves away from a pun. He’s just not hard-boiled, so as mellow a parody as he’s presenting us, it’s still a parody.

While the movie takes pains to intellectualy dot all of its i’s, emotionally it just throws up its hands. We’re not here to watch where these characters are going, we’re here to have revealed to us why they are there to begin with. Back when I was the math whiz of Springmyer Elementary I loved the kid detective books – The Three Investigators were my favorite although Encyclopedia Brown was worth my time, too. The problem with Encyclopedia Brown was that every story ran into a brick wall, stopped dead in its tracks so you could have the solution explained to you.

These were short stories designed to train our ability to pull relevant details from chaff, so you can forgive the form; The Number 23 gets no such free pass but tries to pull the same trick anyway, without even knowing how to provide enough relevant details for us to piece things together on our own. Our reward for this often-too-close-to-silly journey is a long, disappointing flashback and the tying up of a few loose ends. You could say it takes commitment to go truly mad, this movie lacks it.

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