Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The As-Yet-Untitled Boxing Project Lurches On

The boxing film is almost done. Which is to say it isn't really done at all. I'll explain.

At 5:00 PM Pacific Time Thursday - exactly 24 hours from now - the picture must be locked. We can't change a frame of it. From there we have until Monday at 5:00 PM to lock the sound on the picture.

"Well, if you're 24 hours away from locking the picture, you must be pretty close to done," you say. To which I reply, "maybe." You see, I have no idea what the film looks like. I don't know if we're close to done or if we're way far behind. I can only trust that my editor has the film pretty close to done.

After a disasterous rough-cut screening yesterday, we got together and determined that with less than 48 hours until deadline, we had barely half the picture done and - worst of all - none of the boxing cut whatsoever. The film, which we've started refering to as "a chick flick with boxing," became a chick flick sans boxing. It was so messy that I don't know if we could even call it a flick.

An emergency meeting was called. Tempers flared. Harsh words were spoken. One of our producers became so frustrated she started to break out in hives. If I had a professional career, it would have been the low point in it.* The session ended with one member storming out of the room in a fury.

And suddenly, unexpectantly, everything was fixed. The editor picked up the piece and started cutting it together efficiently. She's been working non-stop for 24 hours, and has called for direction on it several times, which I've been ecstatic to give her. No one is breaking out in hives anymore. Most members of the crew are getting sleep. It is, on the whole, an entirely healthier situation.

What we've all learned here is that when things aren't going right, tell the person who's bothering you everything you don't like about them. The situation will probably improve immediately.

* Though it did give me a new definition of "business:"
Business -
a place where you are given the opportunity to say, face to face, all the terrible things you ever wanted to personally tell someone. This is known as "feedback," or "constructive criticism." If they try to defend themself, they are clearly "self-centered" and "not a team player." Let's never say again that the business world has never given us anything of value.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Review: Elizabethtown (2005)

Directed By: Cameron Crowe
Written By: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Paul Schneider, and Alec Baldwin
Synopsis: A failed young exec on the verge of killing himself returns to Elizabethtown, KY, to take care of the details of his estranged father's funeral.

Most reviews of Elizabethtown so far have dealt with its relation to Cameron Crowe: after all, if there's any modern-day director who defines the auteur theory, Crowe is it, and Elizabethtown is no exception. But the unlikely facts of the matter are that this review may end up being mostly about Orlando Bloom.

I've reviewed Bloom's work before: the troubled and mediocre Kingdom of Heaven, the abhorrent Ned Kelly. And I'm no stranger to putting the man in a box, he's spent most of his short career on one-note performances. Outside of Cruise, he's bashed more than any man in Hollywood. But the honest fact is that Bloom delivers a performance in Elizabethtown of the most sublime, subtle power.

Oh, snicker if you must. But I was paying pretty close attention on this one, and I'll stand by that statement. Let me try to convince you:

Elizabethtown is a complete mess. There's no way around it. Even those who truly loved the movie (I have a pretty fond impression myself) have to admit that it is, in many ways, a trainwreck of a movie. It's a structural wasteland, based, as far as I could tell, on some private, four-act structure that Crowe invented just for this picture. The music is turned up loud and often, usually at the expense of dialogue, story, and, indeed, logical sense.

But through it all, there is Bloom, creating space for himself as Crowe's whirlwind love letter to family, Ketucky, and timelessly rootsy pop tunes spins out of control. As each scene crashes around him, Bloom does what great actors do: he acts as if he believes so much what he's doing that the viewer can't help believe, too. It's tough to imagine, but Bloom is carrying, truly carrying, a picture.

In one extended sequence, as Elizabethtown's omnipresent voiceover wanders through some off-subject background info, Bloom stares curiously at his father's casket. He wanders around the casket, brow furrowed, and there's no narrative reason for us to care, or even wonder at his thoughts. But we do, simply because, somewhere in that strange, awkward, effeminate delivery, Bloom made me buy it, he sold me that he's a troubled man with deep pain floating just below the surface. It's something terrible and suicide-worthy, we feel, but nothing a little Tom Petty couldn't fix. Bloom's character is mostly an empty nothing of a person, but somehow I became convinced perhaps this is a man with a story that deserved to be told.

Oh, yes, the story. I always forget. Elizabethtown is the tale of Drew Baylor, a young business exec at a monstrous shoe corporation whose brilliant career-making shoe design manages to lose his company a billion dollars. Frustrated and angry in that self-righteous way leading men always are at the beginning of cheerful romantic comedies, he builds an unbelievably appalling suicide machine out of an exercise bike and is on the verge of killing himself when the phone rings (this is the first, and only, plot point in Elizabethtown). His father has died on a trip to meet family in Kentucky, and the family needs him to go to Elizabethtown to take care of the details. Baylor goes because, hey, families stick together, and he can totally commit suicide whenever, so there's no rush.

On the way, he meets an amazingly cheerful flight attendant (Dunst), and the strange and estranged extended Baylor family (Schneider, Bruce McGill, plus a lot of pleasant chubby people), a collection of cheerfully redneck Kentucky down-home boys.* It's at this point that the pop music really starts rolling.

I'll lay my cards on the table at this point: I love Cameron Crowe. Diss Vanilla Sky all you want, I'll stand behind it forever - not to mention the '70's-nostalgia perfection of Almost Famous. But the first hour and a half of Elizabethtown almost feels like someone's been imitating Crowe. It's got all the elements there: the music, the trip-down-memory-lane vibe, the solid acting - but it's too heavy-handed. There's no frothy dialogue, no memorable lines, few standout performances. It's jumpy and awkward and not fully fleshed-out. It's all just sort of... mediocre.

But, in the same way that Bloom's performance slowly grows and and grows, so does Crowe's film. It just gets there in an awkward way - though, to me, a particularly funny one, because in my mind, Crowe has made a textbook student film. I can just see him sitting in some Hollywood office, talking to his producer: "okay, so I had this idea where I see Orlando Bloom drinking Ale-8, and Susan Sarandon dancing through the spotlight, and Kirsten Dunst smiling a lot, so I wrote this story around it, but I don't want it to follow a typical 'three-act' structure. See, it's about this guy, and he's all torn up, he's gonna commit suicide, but then he meets this girl, who just comes up to him from nowhere and she's amazing, and his life starts to turns around - and then he goes to meet his family, and they're all crazy, but you really like them, and the story never really resolves itself, but there's great music, and a great vibe, and at the end everyone just feels good." And since his producer is Tom Cruise, he gets the green light.

I pitch that same idea every week to my professors, and they always give the thumbs down. I'm beginning to see why. But the fact is that by the time the credits are rolling, Crowe has made it work. The pop music that was so frustrating and overbearing throughout suddenly seems to pull the images together. The story finds narrative flow. You start to care about the characters. And suddenly, without any idea why, you're happy. Elton John is pounding through "My Father's Gun" again, and you're watching Kentucky fences fly by, and Dunst is still smiling her heart out, and Bloom is now wandering through America's heartland talking to his father's ashes in the passenger seat, and yet... it just all seems right. Kudos, Cameron. I don't know how you did it.

Breakdown: Lessee here, Cameron, you get two stars for getting such an excellent performance out of Bloom, two stars for a fantastic soundtrack, and one for beautifully evocative cinematography. Since I completely sympathize with all of your mistakes on the film, we'll only take off half a star for having no structure whatsoever, and half a star for trying to jam too much music into the flick. We'll follow that up with another half-star off for disappointing subplots featuring Paul Schneider and Susan Sarandon, among others, and another half-star for occasionally resorting to pointless slapstick. We'll let that cover it - keep in mind I didn't mention dialogue, Cameron, you're getting off easy. Three Stars.

* Most reviewers have discounted the realism of the peppy Kentucky family as mere blue-state opinioning on red-state values, which simply reveals these reviewers as hapless blue-staters. They may, indeed, have "their finger on the pulse of the nation," but have probably never sat in a Waffle House at three in the morning, ordered steak and grits, and put Conway Twitty's "Red Necking, Love Making Night" on the jukebox (not that I'm condoning such behavior). I'm not claiming to be a native, but to someone who dearly loves the people of the Bluegrass State, Crowe makes Baylor's family feel like home.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Updates, Predictions, and Reviews

In recent news:

Filming for the Untitled Boxing Project started on Saturday and continued for 12 hours Sunday, during which time we shot the first of the boxing sequences. It was incredible. Dino, one of our stars, correographed the fight. He's done a lot of fight sequences (he's been Antonio Banderas' stunt double since... From Dusk 'Til Dawn, I think. Or maybe Desperado) and he's done correography on films like Fight Club and Tomb Raider. So, unsurprisingly, the fight sequence was great. Next Sunday comes the real challenge. The big fight, with two boxers who have never fought for the camera before, in a boxing gym covered in windows. By far, my biggest challenge ever.

Casablanca, eventually retitled Excerpts From a Michael Bay Interview, was barely completed on time but received with tremendous fanfare, mostly because roughly half of the students in the LAFSC program were in it in one form or another. So it didn't bomb, after all. Plus, I still love it, so it's a win-win in all regards. I'll re-edit a final cut in a few weeks.

In other news, I've discovered a new movie review site: Pajiba: Scathing Reviews for Bitchy People. Quite good.

In other news, being in and around Hollywood, one catches a certain buzz about pictures and box office, and ultimately forms their own inaccurate opinion. So here's mine:

Hollywood's fast-declining box-office take will rise somewhat with the releases of Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, and King Kong. However, since all three will at least mildly disappoint, all likely being good, but not great, Hollywood will still likely be left in the lurch. Fortunately, the surprising success of Walk the Line and Just Friends will manage to stave off suicide in Burbank.

And finally, Jack-In-The-Box's piping-hot, tasty, and cheap Egg Rolls get 10-4GB's first ever 5 out of 5 star review. They're a dollar each, or 3 for 2.99 (that's really how they're advertised), and you wouldn't even realize how good they are, hidden amid J-I-T-B's mediocre burgers and disgusting 2-for-a-buck tacos. But they are that good. It's fantastic.

Review: Jarhead (2005)

Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Anthony Swofford, William Broyles Jr.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhall, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black, and Chris Cooper
Synopsis: A young Marine (Gyllenhall) in the Gulf War is frustrated at the fact that though he's on the front line, he never gets to fight.

I'm not, as you might have guessed, a Marine. I can neither verify nor deny the accuracy of the information put forth by Mendes in his harrowing documentary-style war-free war flick based on Swofford's Jarhead. I have no intentions of talking knowledgeably about the nature of war, of the killing of innocent citizens, or the homoerotic behavior of thousands of men trapped in the desert with nothing to do. If you scroll around online for a minute, you'll get varying opinions on the realism of Jarhead from military personnel, spanning a range from "stunningly exact" to "absurd," which leaves me in the lurch if I have any intention of congratulating Jarhead on its accuracy - or, conversely, debunking its falseness. And if there's anything that ticks a military man off, it's the false camraderie that comes from faking military knowledge when "we" went to war.

I didn't go to war. I don't know what it looks like to walk through burning oil fields. And I don't want to pretend I do. So I'm going to take this carefully.

Maybe you find this introduction completely unnecessary. "Show some nuts and write the review, kid," you say. But:
a) If I'm going to make a perhaps erroneous statement: "Jarhead is full of unconvincing, war-movie hokum that merely creates an unfair mythology to an already overly-mystified military branch" (and I am), I don't want to have any ex-Marine come and break a bottle over my head for any inaccuracies I might make. After all, Swofford was a Marine. Broyles was a Marine. What do I know?
b) Mendes works as a commercial director for RSA Films, a joint company of Scott Free, whose building conjoins this one. You've seen his work, I'm sure: the Ebay commercials that suddenly erupt into song-and-dance routines, or those Allstate commercials where Dennis Haybert tells you how Allstate will still be there, providing car insurance, even when aliens come and do awful things to your children, as the camera slowly pulls up to his face. I'm just afraid that if I rag on the flick too much, one thing might lead to another, some phone calls will get made, and Ridley'll come down here and break the bottle of Glen Elgin single malt I just delivered to his office over my head (am I a name-dropper? Yes I am)

I'll list out my complaints in an orderly fashion, so that if Mendes has a problem with anything, he can drop in* and correct the error of my ways.

Counting down from least ridiculous, the Top Five Unrealistic Metaphors:
5. At the end of official hostilities, yelling "we won't need this anymore," the soldiers and officers burn their uniforms and fire several clips from their automatic whatevers into the air. I'm sure none of them realized that they might have to stay in the Middle East a touch longer, though in Mendes' version, they seem to fly home the next day.
4. After spending several months together in a desert with nothing to do, I imagine a good deal of homoerotic banter goes on between the Marines. But simulating acts of fellatio in the middle of the desert for the TV cameras, regardless of its documentation in Swofford's narrative, is just ham-handed story-telling. And frankly, I don't buy it.
3. When Gyllenhall and Sarsgaard, a crack sniper team, are about to take a shot, a commanding officer (Dennis Haybert, again) comes in and overrules, making them move out for an airstrike. In frustration, Sarsgaard attacks Haybert and takes out his aggression on him. No one makes a big deal out of this. No discipline action is taken
2. In an early scene, Swofford's commander (Jamie Foxx) accidently kills one of his own men in training when the inexperienced soldier panics and stands up into the live fire Foxx is shooting over his head. Foxx stays in command of the unit. No discipline action is taken.
1. And, finally, the ultimate nonsensical piece of metaphorical tom-foolery ever foisted on a war movie: As Gyllenhall wanders through Kuwait's burning oil fields (like the burning of his own unrequited passion for war), a riderless Arabian horse (as lost as the war's own purpose), covered in oil (the currency of the war), appears from the darkness (like the bleakness of war) and comes and nuzzles Gyllenhall (like the affection he lacks from being away from his girlfriend because of the war), who rubs its neck and talks to it for a moment (like he can't talk to anyone because he's alone on a battlefield because of the war) before it disappears across the sands (like the sands of... um... war. I was doing great until then).

But let's be fair. For each moment of heartbreaking lunacy, there are two of breathtaking imagery. Mendes (American Beauty) appreciates the small things, and it's the tinier moments that land like grenades in the minds of viewers (that's a war metaphor. I can do it, too). When Gyllenhall tries and fails to masturbate to a picture of his possibly unfaithful girlfriend, it's a heart-in-throat sort of emotion that grips the viewer - in the hands of any other director, it would drive us from the character; here we just feel the pain. Kudos for truly unique direction.

Plus, in a story of bleak, empty warfare, Mendes' never lets his desert be an barren wasteland. Instead, the characters (and therefore the audience) always seem to feel strongly that the enemy is waiting just over that shimmery horizon, or in the shadow of burning oil wells (but no, it's just an Arabian horse covered in oil). There's lyricism to his urgency, you feel the sweep of the landscape, but there's always a deep gut feeling that you're among the action. If there was any action.

Plus, characteristically strong performances from Sarsgaard, Foxx, and Cooper manage to carry an incredibly difficult piece, while Gyllenhall simply shines as a tightly-wound, closed-off individual in a world of solidarity. But for all Gyllenhall's energy, the audience is never really let inside. We feel for him, but we never feel with him. It's the same distance we get from, say, Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List or The Constant Gardener. We appreciate the flawlessness of the acting, since it lets us feel the tension and power of each event. But we're still on the outside looking in.

In the end, it's a collection of pieces that never really gels into anything unified, but instead wanders through the desert endlessly (like an Arabian horse, covered in oil).

The Rundown: Lessee, Jarhead gets one star for fantastic direction by Mendes, one for fantastic cinematography by Roger Deakins, one for fantastic performances by all concerned. Gyllenhall also get a star for having the sheer bravado to be willing to run through a good ten, fifteen minutes of the film wearing only a Santa hat around his groin, but the star gets taken away for actually letting him. I also give a star for the sheer power of the images, but I'll take that one back, too, 'cause I'm still ticked about the horse. That's three stars.

Oh, another half a star for the horse. That really was ridiculous. Two and a half stars.

* I'm in the library, Sam. Stop by anytime.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Review: Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise, and Frank Langella

To say that Clooney's directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, lacked subtlety is... a bit... understated. Quite a bit of an understated, actually. One reviewer referred to it as "a movie dressed up in a camouflage shirt and pink polka-dotted pants in the middle of a surprise summer snowstorm." Colorful imagery, that. I don't think I could have come up with that myself.

I bring this up because Clooney's second picture is so much the antithesis to this. Good Night, and Good Luck bristles with tension, but the tone and style of the picture is, well, understated. Quite a bit understated, actually.

Inspired by the simplicity of Jean-Luc Godard's films (most notably, Breathless - Clooney wanted to use the same lenses so badly that when they didn't fit, he tried to scotch tape them to the camera), Clooney's film is sparse, subdued. He couldn't be any more deliberate. For almost every shot in the film, he let his actors pick out where they wanted to be, then moved the camera around to film them. It's a smart choice - in a story of such slow, careful change, the audience constantly feels like a fly on the wall, observing action that flows organically around the camera. In an utter rarity in recent filmmaking, every piece of the film's style - from its European cinematography to its silky 1950's black-and-white styling to its modern sensibilities - enhances the story.

Oh, right, the story. I forgot. Good Night is the true-to-life tale of how famed journalist Edward R. Murrow (it's okay, I hadn't heard of him either) turned the tables on red-scare ringleader Senator Joe McCarthy through a series of accusatory pieces on the mildly-groundbreaking CBS news show See It Now.

I wasn't particularly familiar with the story before seeing the film (alright, fine, I didn't know a damn thing about it), but Clooney's got newsman in his blood and his script - co-written with Grant Heslov, another actor-cum-writer - lays the facts out with a surprising journalistic clarity. In fact, Clooney's might even be too careful in covering all his bases: afraid that any deviation would let the press cut his film to ribbons, Clooney triple-checks his facts, leaning on actual recorded dialogue or stock footage whenever possible. Most surprisingly, rather than having someone play McCarthy, he only uses what footage of the senator is available. It's simultaneously refreshing and a cheap filmmaking crutch for the story to lean on.

Still, I'm all for it. Clooney dearly wants his film to change a viewer's perspective, and I find Good Night's earnestness deeply endearing. Each actor's performance is entrancingly personal and natural - particularly Strathairn, who gives Murrow a subtle humanity covered over by a steely public persona. It's one of the many little-noted performances this year (along with Damian Lewis in Keane) that probably won't scare up any Best Actor buzz this spring, but really should.

The problem with Good Night, though, is that the message of the film is that once upon a time, newsmen gave a damn - but those days are gone now. The film bookends with clips of Strathairn performing Murrow's landmark keynote address at the Radio and Television News Directors Convention (Not to toot my intellectual horn, but I had actually heard about this speech. Admittedly, I'd heard about it in the promotional articles for Good Night, and Good Luck) about how news reporting was being replaced by mere entertainment, and the time has come for television journalists to stand up and use the medium for good. "
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire," Murrow notes. "But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

I agree. I do. I truly believe that if television reporting does nothing more than keep the viewer occupied for a moment, if it inspires nothing more than water-cooler talk, then it's wasted breath. And Lord knows I'm tired of: "Big news today in the Middle East - we'll keep you updated on the events as they unfold. But first - Kelly Ripa!"

But I'm not convinced that modern-day journalists have truly lost their belief in the power of the press. Consider the general reaction to Katrina: in the wake of tragedy, the press sprang into action faster than essentially every government office, and spent the next two weeks holding the government's feet to the fire on their lackadasical response. Admittedly, they didn't show a whole lot of disgression in understanding exactly whose feet should be held to which fire ("Hey, Benedict XVI! How could you just stand by and let the U.S. government develop no emergency flooding strategy?"), but no one's arguing that they didn't feel strongly about the issue. As a field reporter for the Daily Show gently lampooned: "I've been in New Orleans for six hours now and I still haven't gotten to publicly berate an official." I think Clooney can rest easy in that regard.

Furthermore, Clooney falls prey to one of the classic blunders (the most famous of which being never, ever give Michael Bay a camera): in striving to drive home a blistering lesson, he becomes the very evil he's fighting. Yes, entertainment shouldn't trump true news reporting in the hearts of television producers - but if that's the case, shouldn't Good Night hold the same tone? Instead, Clooney seems perfectly willing to deviate from his story in order to work in some comic relief: Murrow's interview with Liberace, a highlight of the film, helps loosen up a story becoming too wound up in its own careful pacing and weighty pauses; in the same way, modern newscasting breaks up the fiery crashes and confusing foreign policy with speculation on whether Paris has stolen Mary-Kate's boy toy. Watching Murrow try to hold on to his deadpan interview style across from the most flamboyant of all subjects humanizes his character, just as entertainment news helps humanize a medium that flourishes on destruction and pain.

I'm not saying that Clooney is wrong. I just feel that if you're so willing to film something in black-and-white, you better be ready to deal with the fact that it might be a gray area

Rating: Lessee here - one star for Strathairn's performance and one for everyone else's, one star for making something as anachronistic as black-and-white movie, one star for making history interesting without adding any homosexuality (in case Oliver Stone ever reads this), minus one star for writing a movie that occasionally borders on propaganda but plus half a star for actually having the balls to make it. Comes out to three and half stars out of five.