Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Finding Inspiration: Alexander Payne

I'm writing a TV series with a friend and former colleague. It's going to be great. It's actually going to be Canada's next great series.

Only one problem: I have no idea what I'm doing.

I was tasked with writing the first draft of the first episode. Oh god. How do I structure? How many pages is each act? What are my plot points? How do you communicate anything in 23 pages? How do you write dialogue. Someone fucking help!

And with that desperate plea, someone did: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor.

Not psychically. I don't personally know Payne or Taylor. But watching their entire body of work (save for Citizen Ruth) starting with Election and on down through The Descendants (which Payne wrote and directed and Taylor executive produced) was all the inspiration anyone could need.

While watching, laid up on the couch for the majority of last week with an ear infection, I paid close attention to the writing of the characters. I imagined the work, not as finished films, but as scripts that had been acted out and photographed. It was like having the curtain pulled back. These guys know how to write great fucking characters. 

Payne is often tagged with being a great satirist, a reputation he got off his first two high concept comedies Citizen Ruth and Election. The description fits. At the end of Election when we come to the conclusion that asshole Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) and raging cunt Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) very rightfully deserve one another, you can almost picture the shit eating grin Payne sports while taking a steaming dump on these horrible people.

But then Payne went on to reveal a great humanist lurking below the razor sharp satire and has started making thoughtful films about flawed American everymen just trying to get by with doing the right thing, whatever the fuck that is.

In About Schmidt which is, let's face it, a loose remake of Bergman's Wild Strawberries, the title character retires only to find he hasn't really done anything meaningful with his life; spent every day in an office only to be instantly replaced; hasn't seen anything; has a daughter that doesn't like him and a wife that he shares nothing but a marriage with.

Finding out that his wife was having an affair after she suddenly dies, Schmidt has the  urge to break out of the confines of his monotonous existence and takes a road trip towards his daughter's wedding, which he hopes to break up. She's getting married to a man he personally thinks she could do a lot better than. He's probably right.

Along the way he writes his life story to a young boy who he is sponsoring. He comes into contact with the opportunity to seduce a woman, meets his son-in-law-to-be's eccentric family (including a priceless Kathy Bates as the mother), and, in one of the film's best scenes, has a conversation with his late wife under the stars. All of this leads towards that final fatal moment in which Schmidt is faced with an important life decision. He must determine whether or not his daughter's happiness is more important than his own. In the end he fears he's done the wrong thing and his journey has all been in vain. But Payne the humanist let's his light shine down on Schmidt, even if the final scene feels a little contrite.

In Sideways Payne sends a McAllister type and a Schmidt type on a road trip the weekend before one of them is to be married. It sees Payne maturing as a dramatist. Writer Miles (Paul Giamatti) is awkward, horribly insecure, on the verge of alcoholism and knows everything about wine but nothing about people. He's constantly standing outside the world, looking in on it. Actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is shallow and vain but a people person. He's the kind of guy that hasn't met a challenge he couldn't talk his way into or out of. He wants to get laid one last time before tying the knot. He has a hard time stopping at just one. He thinks it wouldn't hurt if Miles got a little bit of the same. 

As per the basic rule of drama, if you put two opposite personalities in a room together for a conversation, they will end up learning something from one another. Jack realizes Miles is a pussy, Miles realizes Jack is a douchebag and neither have the insight or goodness inside themselves to tell the other the truth. 

The heart of Sideways is Miles. We feel for him because, despite his incessant drinking, his failed attempts at getting a book published, the way he obsesses over his ex, and his uptight academic approach to wine, he's a lover at heart. If only he could channel that love away from wine and towards Maya, the angel that's been sent to save him.

This leads to the famous wine monologue which single-handedly won Virginia Madsen an Oscar nomination. He asks her why she likes wine and she looks him right in the eye and delivers a response that must be the single most poetic thing he's ever heard a woman say on the subject before adding, for good measure, "Plus, it tastes so fucking good." Amen. That he doesn't ask her to marry him right there is unfortunate. That he excuses himself instead of making the move she so clearly wants him to is his personal tragedy. But Payne is not cruel and steers Miles down the same path to redemption as Schmidt. Not before he hits rock bottom though.

The Descendants beautifully weaves a tale of not one or two, but several broken people, all trying to deal with their trials and tribulations under the Hawaiian sun. The first image is the only one we see of Elizabeth King conscious before a boating accident leaves her in a coma that she will never wake up from. It's the only one we need of her. Her smile beams as she cuts through the water. She is, in the only instance we'll ever get to know her, happy.

Her husband is Matt King (George Clooney, better than he's ever been) who ponders, in typical Payne voice-over, what it is that makes all the women in his life go a little crazy? The sad irony is that it's probably, in part at least, him. He's a lawyer, travels a lot for work, pinches all his pennies and, as the descendant of one of the first white land owners in Hawaii, is the sole trustee for a large piece of property that, if sold, will make him and his numerous cousins rich men. Talk about pressure.

Together they had two daughters. The oldest is Alex (Shailene Woodley). She is sprung from a boarding school by Matt after he receives the news that her mother will never wake up. She was sent there so that she wouldn't be able to get into drugs and alcohol or fight with her mother who she harbors resentment for. The younger one, Scottie, is acting out at school. With an absent father that doesn't know how to talk to her and a thrill seeking mother, can you blame her? They're not bad kids, just the product of what one can only imagine was a troubled upbringing.

Alex has a secret. The reason she didn't like Elizabeth was because she was having an affair. When Matt finds out it leads to one of those great Payne scenes that skirt a thin line between comedy and pathos. He runs. Not valiantly or with dignity, but desperately, down the street, around the bend and to the neighbor's house. He wants answers. They, quite rightly, don't know how many they should give him.

Also in the picture, before a subplot that finds the Kings taking a trip to track down the man Elizabeth was having an affair with adds another bitter and ironic twist to the tale, is Elizabeth's father. He only has two scenes but is played by Robert Forester with such subtly and depth that one gets to seeing how Payne could have easily fashioned the entire film around him. He's a stubborn man. He's his own kind of man. He thinks the world of his daughter; that she would never hurt anyone; didn't have a selfish bone in her body. If only Matt had maybe just been a little more attentive, given her maybe just a bit more money, and if Alex and Scottie had maybe just been better daughters, than maybe his little girl would still be alive. Payne leads Matt to the same kind of moral decision that he led Schmidt to. In a hospital room with Forester, Matt, finally starting to realize the man he needs to be, does what he thinks is, quite simply, the right thing, even when the wrong thing would have been much easier and more instantly satisfying.

The Descendants is, for me, Payne's most inspiring film. It dismisses almost all hints of the still present satirist that was lurking below the surface of About Schmidt and Sideways and instead focuses solely on the heavy morale decisions that a man must face and how they effect all those surrounding him.

Payne graciously gives every character their due. All are flawed but sympathetic. Even when he has a chance to reduce someone to mere punching bag, he doesn't. Look at Sid, Alex's stoned, moron of a boyfriend. Yes, he looks dumb and has a tendency to say things in moments where he'd be better served to just keep his mouth shut. But then he's given a beautiful moment in which King asks him, if the tables were turned, what he would do and Payne gives the kid the kind of monologue that got Virginia Madsen her Oscar nod. At the end of the day, this kid isn't without pain and heavy decisions as well. The bond between them during this moment is never spoken but you can see, Matt is, whether he realizes it or not, a changed man because of it. In a way, aren't we all?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Pre-Predicting Gold: Naomi Watts in Diana

Naomi Watts has been trying to get an Oscar since forever. And you have to admit, she's come a long way.

And as an actress, she's gone through a lot on her quest to the top:


But based on the trailer for Diana, unless the film throws a huge left turn to reveal that Diana was actually suffering from a debilitating heroin addiction and days away from death anyway when she was run off the road by paparazzi on the fateful eve of her passing, there's nothing to believe that it will be anything more than another generic biopic with a hyped performance to prop it up.

Then again, that didn't get in Meryl's way.

But considering that the film has no other discernible stars or director, no mention of the Prince Charles or The Queen side of Diana (if the cast list on IMDB is correct), and not a single fucking bar of Candle in the Wind in the trailer; Watts is going to either need to be flawless or it's going to need to be a pretty bad year for female performances to walk away with a win for this one.

But who knows, anything's possible right?


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Coming to a Theatre Near You: The Wolf of Wall Street

November 15th is marked on my calendar.

That's the day Martin Scorsese's newest Leonard DiCaprio colab The Wolf of Wall Street hits theatres.

The film is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by bad boy turned writer and executive producer of not one, but two Hulk Hogan masterpieces, Jordan Belfort.

IMDB just posted the trailer:

And it looks...kind of... okay...no?

My initial excitement, besides that of knowing a new Scorsese movie is coming, is because I read the script for coverage earlier in the year. I thought it jumped off the page with the same sort of insider-knowledge-of-dirty-people-getting-away-with-their-dirty-deeds-excitement as Goodfellas.

I imagined cameras flying down tracks. I imagined shots crashing into one another. I expected Roman Catholic guilt. I expected redemption. I expected The Stones. I expected the brilliant work of a brilliant man.

So I praised the script, said it lept off the page with electricity and whatever other adjective of praise that came to mind. I said it kept my eyes glued on it right until the last page.

And between you and me, my script coverage usually doesn't miss the mark by too much. Want samples?

But is it just me, or does this trailer seem all a little to...meh? And why play up a lot of comedy aspects instead of the core drama? What's with Matthew McCanaughey making weird noises?

But whatever, even in the absence of great material, Scrosese always manages to deliver something worth seeing. Can anyone think of a better movie with a terrible ending than Shutter Island or a more thoroughly entertaining cops and robbers saga than The Departed?

So what do you think: is The Wolf on Wall Street going to be Scorsese entertaining us or are the trailers misleading us into thinking we're going to see a different movie than the less funny and more brilliant one I hope I'll be paying for? I'm still holding out hope for the latter.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Big Friday News: Arnold Schwarzenegger to Return for Terminator 5

Whether you like it or not, Terminator 5 is coming.

And whether you want it or not, Empire Online is reporting that Arnold Schwarzenegger will reprise his iconic role as the title character of the franchise that made him into a superstar.

Excellent News! I was worried after all, since Terminator Salvation essentially just reinforced that robots blowing shit up isn't nearly as entertaining in the absence of an Austrian accent.

And really, doesn't a little piece in us all pine for the glory days of 2003 when Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines elevated the franchise to the pantheons of American Art?

Of course Schwarzenegger will be back as The Terminator. The Last Stand, his first starring role since returning to acting several years ago, didn't even manage to gross back half of it's thirty million dollar budget.

And besides, Schwarzenegger has:

Love children to support,

Oopps; wrong picture....

Private jets to maintain,

And, Hummers with tanks that need to be filled.

In other Didn't See it Coming From A Mile Away News, Schwarenegger will also be returning as Conan in 2014's The Legend of Conan.


The sequel to his 80s smash hit Twins, titled, brilliantly: Triplets.

Based on how the cast is shaping up so far, Schwarzenegger's involvement will only be the second most desperate attempt at a career revival:

Also, today /Film  reported that James Cameron, due to changes in copywrite law, will regain the rights to the Terminator franchise in 2019.

Just saying...

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Matt Damon's Five Best Films...Period...No Arguments...

Geeks around the world, are you excited about August 9th?

That's the date when Matt Damon gets all "teched up" in order to wage war, and generally go all-out ape shit, upon rich corporate assholes who have formed a new, awesome life for themselves on a man-made space station, while the poor suffer back on Earth, which, by the year 2154, is a raging shithole, in director Neil Blomkamp's follow-up to Elysium.

Wait a minute, I've seen this one before.

Truth be told, the trailer looks to be about on the same level of entertainment and quality as the nominated-for-an-Oscar-so-more-geeks-would-watch District 9, no?

And so, in early anticipation of the film, I am counting down Matt Damon's five best films.

5. Good Will Hunting

The movie that put both Matt Damon and best bud Ben Affleck on the map and won both their first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay as well as snagging Robin Williams a win for Best Supporting Actor. Good Will Hunting is a compelling human drama about a man who is faced with his own genius and needs to make a decision on what he is to do with it. High on compelling drama and low on visual excess, this is a writer's movie and working with his own words, Damon proved himself an instant movie star.

4. The Talented Mr. Ripley

A compelling character drama based on the Patricia Highsmith book, Damon continues to solidify himself as a leading man (although he was ignored by the Academy for this one). A taught and thrilling period piece revolving around sex, lies, murder and stolen identity. The film itself moves away from some of the dark humour that is evident in other Tom Ripley adaptations (namely 2002's direct-to-video Ripley's Game) but that makes the suspense no less compelling.

3. The Bourne Ultimatum

You can't really go wrong with any of the Bourne films but Ultimatum was the one that took the frantic hand-held visual aesthetic that was employed in The Bourne Supremacy and made it even better. This is a film that hits the ground running and never lets up. It is, quite simply, white knuckle thrilling from beginning to end. But it's not just the action that keeps the suspense pumping (although the scene in which the camera jumps across a divide and through a window is still a staple in action filmmaking) it's also the procedure. No one, after all, makes people doing their jobs more exciting than director Paul Greengrass.

2. Rounders

You could easily write Rounders off as just a over-stylized look into the world of poker playing, but the film has continued to live on through the admiration of poker players and fans everywhere citing it's influence. Don't believe me? Just have a look at what the people over at Poker Junkie are saying.

1. Team America World Police 

Wait, what? It has to be movies Matt Damon has physically starred in? You're fucking kidding me?...Okay, fine.

1. The Informant

The Informant is Matt Damon's best performance. And it's not just because it's an I-got-fat-to-get-an-Oscar-role.

It's because Damon is able to perfectly capture both the strange humor of it's title character Mark Whitacre, but also the inherent tragedy that the film ultimately becomes about halfway through. Leave it to Damon to give a performance that is as equally subdued as it is intentionally hammy.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Few Words on writer/director/artist/genius Alejandro Jodorowsky

Have you ever seen an Alejandro Jodorowsky film?

How about Fando y Lis?

What about El Topo?

Holy Mountain anyone?

If you have, consider yourself lucky. If not, stop what you are doing, go out, and find one. Jodorowsky, after all is in the same business as Andrei Trakovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, Terrance Malick, David Lynch, etc. which is to say the art business. The masterpiece business.

Jodorowsky is maybe the most influential filmmaker whose influence has gone mostly unsung. His 1970 film El Topo essentially invented the American Midnight Movie phenomenon and then quickly disappeared until 2007 when a box set of his best work was released.

The three second version of why this was: John Lennon saw and loved El Topo, convinced his man Allen Klein to distribute that flick and foot the bill for it's follow-up Holy Mountain. However, a falling out resulted in the films being yanked from distribution and basically locked away.

But you've seen Jodorowsky's influence everywhere. Nary has a Marilyn Manson video not provided at least some kind of wink and nod to Jordorwosky (his Shia LaBeouf-directed video for Born Villain even directly quotes Holy Mountain)

I should probably throw out that this video is very NSFW.

And what do you know, the new Ryan Gosling/Nicholas Winding Refn pretentious art-film piece of shit collaboration Only God Forgives is dedicated to Jodorowsky.

But now, I'm poking fun and getting off track.

Okay sure, Jodorwosky's films are violent:


And blasphemous:

And boy, you thought the iguana's in Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans were weird?

Well how about the Conquest of Mexico reenacted with frogs and lizards?

But now I'm reducing Jordowosky to no more than a weirdo whose films should be shared with a group and a bong.

Well, ya, but anyone who has read this space on a regular basis knows that I also believe in art, especially trash art, and art Jodorowsky most defiantly is.

What's my definition of art? I think film becomes art when it meets two sets of criteria:

1) It fully utilizes the power of film as a visual medium:

And 2) it transcends the filmic medium. What the fuck does that mean? When you take the film away, you're still left with ideas, ways of thinking, emotions, whatever, that exist outside of the running time of the film. The ideas are what's important, the film is simply the medium which brings them to life.

But alas, what Ryan Gosling going on a violent killing spree or Marilyn Manson finding eyeballs in vaginas, etc lacks is that the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, if you can brave them, are also beautiful, spiritual and leave you feeling fully empowered. 

Jodorowsky, who, besides being a madman, is also an academic, writes books and conducts sessions in which he acts as a spiritual healer of sorts, is always pushing his viewers to find enlightenment. In El Topo his gunfighter is on a quest to kill four other master gunfighters, who each first deliver a powerful lesson to him, and in Holy Mountain, a group of people descend a mountain in hopes of finding enlightenment.

Being a visual artist, this is all hard to take in upon first view, especially for those not accustomed to stories being told almost solely through images. But it all really dates back to a performance that Jodorowsky wrote for famous French mime Marcel Maceau when he apprentices under him.

To paraphrase, the mime encounters three people along his journey, each of which he kills and tries to eat their heart. The third is a child. Once the child's heart is eaten, the mime is so overcome with guilt from what he has done that he kills himself and offers his heart back to the child so it can live again. A positive through negative; beauty through violence; enlightenment through knowledge; redemption through self sacrifice. We could go on all day.

So what's Jodorowsky's purpose? To find balance in life. That's where enlightenment is. To come to grips with oneself by destroying one's past self and being reborn from the ashes. Jodorowsky's teaching asks it's subjects to look back through their family tree, pinpoint the moment in life where some sort of negative force arose, and to give away all the baggage that has been building up over the years as a result of that action/situation/relationship/whatever it is that is holding you back. With nothing in one's past and with complete knowledge of oneself one can move forward facing outwards, looking ahead to new experience instead of back at old ones. Or something like that. 

If that's not a good definition of enlightenment, what is?

And, look, I didn't even need to drop any acid!

Side Note - The Dance of Reality, an autobiographical look at Jodorowsky's life in Chile and first film since 1990, is currently making the festival rounds and looks like it will be one to keep an eye out for.