September 5, 2013

Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen's Best in Two Decades

Jasmine Francis lives a gorgeous perfect Park Avenue existence. Weekend retreats to the Hamptons. A handsome, millionaire husband Hal Frances, who guest lectures at their son’s Harvard business class. Diamond bracelets.

But that’s all surface. Hal is as fraudulent as Bernie Madoff and sleeps around behind her back. Jasmine appears oblivious…but is she really, or is she choosing to look the other way?

Her husband is jailed for fraud and, in a snap, it’s all gone. The properties. The diamonds. “Everything I worked for.” Though of course she never worked. She didn’t even finish college. This leaves her without any options except to move in with her grocery-bagging sister Ginger in a crammed apartment in San Francisco. She refuses to abandon her Park Avenue self-image and resolves to somehow restore its foundation, but can only acknowledge her current reality with a Xanex, vodka cocktail.

In a sense, Jasmine Frances is the anti-Leonard Zelig, Woody Allen’s fascinating social chameleon in his oft-forgotten Zelig. Zelig could and would emulate the likeness of all types –bankers or janitors, politicians or baseball players, rabbis or Nazis – to the point where he lost all personal identity. For Jasmine, maintaining personal identity comes at the cost of reality.

Her arrival in San Francisco ruins the plans of Chili, Ginger’s boyfriend, who was planning to move in. Played wonderfully by Bobby Cannavale, Chili is warm but explosive with a blue-collar grasp of human nature. He sees through Jasmine, but is big enough to keep his mouth shut.

To Jasmine, he’s an auto mechanic. To Jasmine, he’s no better than Augie, Ginger’s affable, good-natured failure of an ex-husband (never mind that Jasmine was responsible for losing all his money). To Jasmine, Ginger can do better. It seems ludicrous – Ginger’s relationship is the fullest in the film - but Allen takes no easy outs. Ginger has felt like the lesser sister her entire life. With an endorsement from someone of Jasmine’s stature, why not listen?

But then…does Jasmine have stature? Did she ever?

Jasmine’s delusion is infectious, and we as the audience aren’t immune. We laugh when Chili sets her up with one of his guido friends…but should we? Might he actually be the better catch of the two? We accept when Jasmine falls into the arms of Dwight Westlake, a handsome, wealthy politician she meets during her rebound. He’s a genuine human being, who fell on hard times, who loves Jasmine deeply - but isn’t it interesting how he drones on about the campaign trail, how he seems fixated on her elegance…

Of course, it’s far easier to sell mistruths to others than it is to delude yourself. And as the film progresses and the gap between Jasmine’s self-image and reality widens, her grip on that fa├žade tightens, and we see just what she’s willing to sacrifice to maintain that image.

This is perhaps Allen’s deepest, well-written film since Hannah and Her Sisters. The story is ingeniously told, intercutting between San Francisco and her past in New York. The transitional cues at first feel arbitrary, but grow increasingly meticulous, adding to the depths of the film’s tortured character.

Reaching such depths would be impossible without Cate Blanchett, who somehow tightropes self-denial and integrity, pain and composure, mental anguish and beauty. It’s a character that could easily alienate an audience but we're clued into Jasmine's inner torture. Blanchett will receive awards for her work and she deserves them all.

April 4, 2012

Scrapt Writing #1: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Written by Quentin Tarantino

THE SCREENPLAY

Even three years after its release, I still find Tarantino’s boldness admirable and refreshing. He’s true to history while unapologetically changing it. Small liberties capture the time period, like the German propaganda film Nation’s Pride
or the “Jew hunter” Hans Landa. The greatest changes are so implausible they can’t be taken literally. Of course no pack of American Jews parachuted into France to be Nazis to the Nazis. Nor did they assassinate the regime in a Parisian film house. Nazis were the closest things to cartoonishly evil villains that existed in real life. And yet, few of their henchmen faced those they persecuted. Tarantino isn’t fashioning a history lesson, but a tale of revenge. He therefore serves Hitler and Goebbels up on a platter.

I personally think it’s Tarantino’s strongest, well-crafted film.

And that’s why Inglourious Basterds
is such a fascinating read. Not even a script by Quentin Tarantino - a maestro director with final cut – remains fully intact on screen. Moreover, not even Quentin Tarantino – one of the strongest writers around – gets it fully right on the page.

Here are the biggest changes between the script and the final product. All, I think, for the better.

4. Madame Mimieux

In the film, Mimieux is the name Shosanna uses in Paris to mask her Jewish identity. But in the screenplay, Madame Mimieux is the original theatre owner who catches the newly orphaned Shosanna sleeping in her theatre (page 37 in the link above) and takes her under her wing. It’s a ten-page sequence spanning four years in which Mimieux teaches Shosanna about film. How it’s handled, how it’s projected, and how sensitive it is to heat. We also see a relationship develop with Marcel and Shosanna assuming Mimieux’s identity after she dies (her death is unexplained).

Why was it cut?

Because less is more. The audience can fill the gaps in Shosanna’s rebound by cutting to the present, figuring out how she went from the woods to theatre owner. Additionally, no essential set-ups occur in the sequence. Yes, it’s more effective when an apprenticing Shosanna has a cigarette slapped from her hand when she lights up around nitrate film, but the later narration educates the audience just as well.


Scenes were actually filmed with Maggie Cheung as Mimeux, which means the choice was made in post with Tarantino’s late great editor, Sally Menke. I think aside from maybe being non-essential, the sequence stalls the beginning of the final thrust of the narrative. They were rightfully cut.


3. Operation Kino

There’s one big change in the Nation’s Pride
premiere. In the script, Donny uses the bathroom and catches the eye of a swastika-scarred Gestapo officer. A gunfight ensues which ends in his death (page 156). Why did this change? Because Tarantino had a better idea in one of the more memorable scenes of 2009: Donny mowing down Hitler and Goebbels with a machine gun. It’s aggressive and cinematic, Hitler’s plastic face chewed apart by bullets. In the script, they are blown up like everyone else.

2. The History of Donny’s Bat

Just before Donny bludgeons his first Nazi (at least, on screen), we’re taken back a year or so to his time in Boston. He buys the bat then takes it to an elderly Jewish woman (played by Cloris Leachman). He tells her he plans to “make things right” in Europe with his bat, then asks her to write the names of anyone whose life she fears for. Though initially put-off by his crass behavior, she eagerly obliges (page 34).


The scene reads quite well. It’s a struggle for Donny to get her to hear him out, much less take part in his quest, but by the end of the scene she realizes his passion and commends his strength. So why was it cut?

The sequence occurs as a flashback from the scene with The Basterds in the woods. THAT scene is another flashback from Hitler interrogating Private Butz (the surviving German soldier). Going from Hitler to The Basterds to Butz might be one tangent too many. And however effective and compelling the bat scene was, the sequence as a whole is sturdy without it.

1.) Landa’s Explanation

This was Tarantino and Menke’s wisest cut.

After her family is murdered, Shosanna flees her hiding place and takes off towards the woods. Landa steadies his Luger, pulls back the hammer, and... lowers his weapon? “Au revoir, Shosanna!” It’s a great scene on film.


In the script, the next scene is Landa driving away from the farm. He explains to his driver the many reasons he allowed an enemy of the state to flee (page 17): she’s harmless, weak, alone, has no hiding place, no one nearby will want to offer her shelter...

I can almost see why Tarantino had Landa explain himself. Reading Landa on the page is different than seeing and hearing Christoph Waltz’s Landa. On the page, perhaps you need some sort of rationale behind Landa’s action. But having Landa explain himself sort of weakens a great character both on the page and on the screen.

Again, though, Waltz’s performance removes the need for a rationale. We’re meant to always be questioning him, wondering what he really has up his sleeve with each question and action. But with a lesser actor, would the rationale have remained? Let’s hope not...

March 29, 2012

New Series: "Scrapt Writing"

I enjoy reading screenplays for movies I’ve already seen. First off, I mostly read scripts for stories I particularly enjoy, expecting to learn from the writer. So when I’m laboring over my own script, it helps to see a scene with complex staging on the page, to see what is or isn’t described. Or how great lines read on the page. How action reads on the page. But the most interesting parts of produced screenplays are the differences.

Few films exactly follow their screenplays. Woody Allen, for both
Hannah and Her Sisters and Match Point, is the closest I’ve seen. He notoriously demands line-to-line precision from his actors, but even Annie Hall departs from his script. And not just in the lines. The script had an assortment of comedic scenes that, I believe, were scrapped to fashion and emphasize a love story. In 9 of 10 scripts, scenes are cut or rearranged. Endings change. Dialogue always changes. Characters do completely different things on screen.

Why?

Perhaps scenes are cut for pacing or because they feel redundant. Or maybe the writer and director weren’t on the same page. Maybe an actor thinks up a better action to enhance a character’s arc. Or maybe he fears being perceived in a negative light and demands a change. The “why’s” are often explained on DVD commentaries or in Hollywood gossip books. But as an aspiring screenwriter, it’s both interesting and educational to speculate on why the filmmakers decided on these changes.

I’m not sure if this will be a weekly or bi-weekly thing, but “Scrapt Writing” will analyze scripts with pronounced changes on film. Each script will come from a known movie. Scripts for films like Apocalypse Now or The Thin Red Line will not be analyzed. I love these films, but the exercise is pointless for scripts that really only serve as a blueprint, scripts with little in the final product.

First up...Inglourious Basterds

March 9, 2012

Adapting The Hunger Games

On the surface, Hunger Games shouldn’t be difficult to adapt. It’s a well-plotted story that easily falls into three acts. The protagonist, Katniss, has a clear objective with consequences, facing hurdles and moral dilemmas to keep her from her goal. What’s more, dystopian stories are filmic, as would-be obligatory shots provide detail and texture to foreign lands. Plus, it’s a blood sport.

The story really hits its stride during the Games. The opening charge to the Cornucopia, the fireballs, the wasp nest, and others will make great action scenes. But you can get action anywhere. It’s most engaging in tracing her logic through each hurdle, watching her make firm choices, knowing what a misstep could yield. Like when she hesitates to saw through a branch, waiting for the anthem to dull the noise. Or when she figures out a way to communicate with Haymitch. Yeah, she’s great with a bow and arrow, but she’s a great character for her calculations.


And that’s the biggest challenge in this adaptation: how do you film a thought process?

Answer 1.) You can’t, don’t try.
Right, she can be badass with a bow and a crush. This isn’t Shakespeare. Just make it an action movie. Why overcomplicate things?

You shouldn’t, unless you have a great character. Katniss is a great character. It's worth a try.

2.) A friend.
She can be less solitary and has someone to talk to, someone to present a good idea, only to be rebuffed by her intelligence. Perhaps Rue enters closer to the start of the Games?

The thing is, much of Katniss’ internal monologue is devoted to outsmarting the audience for sponsorship. Even in rare instances she has the chance to speak her dialogue is subverting; we know because her thoughts provide the context. The story’s convention prohibits her cunning from being verbalized. That won’t work.

3.) Voice Over.
Narration isn’t necessarily sloppy, nor will it weaken a character if it’s well-written (Sin City). The key to voice over is consistency, be it every ten minutes in Shawshank, the beginning and end of Annie Hall, or throughout Goodfellas. Here, it’s only needed in the middle. Story elements would need to be changed to prevent it from being clunky. Still, it’s an option.

4.) Haymitch.
He’s strong in the novel, but omnipresent during the games. Katniss knows he watches over her with good intentions and uses that to her advantage. In the movie, Haymitch could be more in the frame. It could play like this:

Katniss falls to the ground, pleading for water, and then we cut to Haymitch shaking his head; we cut back to her, confused, then back to him saying, “C’mon…”; then, we see a realization on her face; she springs up, moves forward and finds a lake; then we cut back to him, a proud mentor.

In that sense, he’s the narrator. Like Ben Kingsley in Searching for Bobby Fischer
, translating for us what an eight-year-old chess prodigy is really doing with his moves. Haymitch could be a post we lean on without taking any credit away from Katniss.

Haymitch doesn’t need to be restricted to that role. He can even have his own subplot, something to cut away to during lulls in action. After all, he, not unlike Katniss, is underappreciated with something to prove.

I vote 4. (I'm mainly lobbying for more Woody Harrelson...not really)

Even if the filmmakers go another direction, I expect Haymitch to be more present in the film. I actually expect all major characters NOT in the Games to have a stronger presence.

Because the next issue is that the action and tension decrease in the second half of the Games. It works fine on paper but won’t translate on screen, no matter how much chemistry the leads have. The obvious solution is to write more action scenes, which will happen.

But losing the novel’s first-person perspective allows the possibility of subplots. The most important non-tribute characters are Katniss’ father, mother, and sister, Gale, and Haymitch. Each serves an important function while existing (for the most part) in her head. We can get flashbacks of Katniss learning to hunt with her father (which are sort of in the novel anyway). Perhaps after Katniss is taken away, her mother breaks down again, only to regain her strength when she becomes a contender (thus increasing the stakes). Katniss wonders when she kisses Peeta what Gale is thinking. Now we can see his reaction.

I write that having not read the second or third installments. Perhaps the integrity of the trilogy demands certain things remain off screen. Fair enough.

Still, the filmmakers had options. Gary Ross is a talented filmmaker who has penned some great scripts (Big
, Dave, and Pleasantville being my favorites). He recruited the author (and fellow NYU Dramatic Writing alum) Suzanne Collins for the screenplay. It’s an asset, provided she was willing to kill her babies (given the subject matter, that shouldn’t be a problem).

A few other thoughts on the adaptation:

- The novel did a poor job establishing the populations of the districts. The film should clear this up rather easily.

- The irony of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship is a credit to the author. Katniss starts out questioning his
motives which prove genuine, but her actions end up being more calculated and therefore less genuine... and she doesn’t even realize it. Bravo! I hope it’s as well done in the film.

- The more she gets in touch with her feelings, the more human she becomes, the more it weakens her. They could throw more threats at her to strengthen the theme especially since, again, the second half needs action.

- The antagonism will need more of a face. Cato seems the likely candidate. Part of me wonders if they’ll change his sidekick? Foxface was one of the more interesting tributes though barely explored.

- Lenny Kravitz?

SPOILERS... (more than before, anyway)

- There’s really only one big problem I had with the novel: Katniss is let off the hook too easily. I felt that her biggest moral dilemma would be to kill one of her friends. Two are killed by other tributes. Fine. But when the voice of the Games announced that two tributes from the same district could win - that Katniss and Peeta are in effect on the same team – I rolled my eyes.

Yeah, OK, the logic holds up: the star-crossed lover story entertained the Capitol, and District 2 also had both tributes remaining. But the machinery is too apparent. Collins doesn’t start the Games with that stipulation because at that point we’re still questioning Peeta’s motives; we wouldn’t have to with he and Katniss on the same team. After he saves her and the tension is alleviated, she knows the amendment won’t spoil the tension.

Perhaps the filmmakers won’t find Peeta’s ambiguity that important. They really should, given the twist previously mentioned. No, Katniss shouldn’t slaughter Rue. I don’t know the right choice. I’m also not being paid millions to figure it out.

- Oh, one other problem: the character names. They don’t read well, God knows how they’ll sound coming from a tween. A quick IMDB search shows that the names will remain.

Damn it.

Maybe post-introduction, the leads will be referred to as Lover Boy and Girl on Fire? (I almost typed ‘Flaming Girl’ but it’s probably not the effect the filmmakers are looking for.)

March 6, 2012

FINISHED: My Occupation on Wall Street

This should have happened a year ago. Probably even sooner. How many other screenwriting grads work on Wall Street? Maybe more than I think. I mean, when student loan debt meets weak job prospects, something’s gotta give. At least that’s what I told myself when I took the job. But even after paying off my loans, I stayed on. “To survive a weak economy”; “to build up capital”; “to fund a move to Las Angeles”... It was a tired script.

The truth is, I worked on Wall Street for the same reason anyone works on Wall Street: it’s safe.


The life of an average financier is not difficult to plot. It usually starts at a decent state school and a summer internship in Manhattan. They move to the city after graduation, Upper East Side or Murray Hill. They rake in 60-90K (before bonus) through their mid-twenties, extending the party-school lifestyle to midtown. That is, until meeting someone “cool”... not someone they love, just someone moderately attractive and ready to settle down. They marry and relocate to the suburbs, commuting daily for a low/mid-six paycheck. Portfolio managers make headlines, but this is Wall Street.


Michael Lewis observed in Liar’s Poker, "Never before have so many unskilled 24-year-olds made so much money in so little time." That was 1989, before the MIT geeks at Long-Term Capital Management gave skilled mathematicians a permanent seat at the table (never mind that the firm failed in 1998). In 1960, a top MIT grad would have worked for NASA. Today, it’s Goldman Sachs. If back-office minions start at high five-figure salaries, a top mind from MIT will pull in anywhere from a quarter- to half-a-mil. NASA can’t compete with that. That cash isn’t in cancer research. Being an entrepreneur? You only live once. Where’s the sure income? The incentive?

An industry designed to profit on the ingenuity and creativity of others can rarely foster its own. And it steers the best and brightest away from industries with greater societal benefits.


I discussed this with a former coworker. I try to simplify it: the guy who runs and operates the best pizza joint in New York (DiFara’s) makes 300K tops; my boss, a very average MD, makes close to a mil. How is that fair? My former coworker argues you can’t just look at dollars and cents. The owner of DiFara’s could expand his store and/or franchise. Income clearly isn’t his biggest priority.

And then there’s bossman. Let me start by saying that he’s one of the more intelligent people I know. He sees through the bullshit and has a good worldview. But the guy drinks. He works four-day weeks, Fridays spent in bars. Even though he admits he’s overpaid, his sole day-to-day motivation is maintaining his lifestyle. He claims he lost his passion.

I wonder if the owner of DiFara’s would still lead a richer life if he quantified it like a financier. I wonder if I resent my boss for wasting his talents with booze. Or is that what I’ve been doing the past four years.

That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate what the job offered. Aside from clearing student loan debt, it enabled me to produce a film. Not just in contributing and raising equity, but in creating and managing an LLC. I learned some invaluable tax skills, which sound boring but are insanely practical. I mastered Excel – which is boring and impractical, but, y’know, it gave me a sense of satisfaction. I ran the NYC Marathon for a partner’s charity, and it helped fulfill my 2012 New Year's resolution.

I understand the role of finance in society. More than hedge funders benefit from it: small businesses, bars, entrepreneurs... I couldn’t have gone to NYU without loans from a bank. Finance can cultivate good ideas, support talent, and stimulate growth. But it’s failing at that task right now, and sucking up resources.
Everyone’s pissed about it... but no one knows what to do. Not my former coworker, my boss, or the Occupy movement.

I wonder if financiers need to be braver on a personal level. In addition to my prior Wall Street stereotypes, almost all financiers at one point had non-finance aspirations. Doctors, vets, journalists. I trained for the marathon with a portfolio manager who lived in Jersey with his wife and kid; he also rented an apartment in midtown where he’d play squash. A pretty envious lifestyle. But he wished he’d done something that was meaningful. He said after saving a few paychecks, he wouldn’t mind teaching high school and coaching cross country.

But after getting accustomed to a high finance lifestyle, having such a realization at 37 is less realistic than a pipe dream at 20. Luckily, I learned finance wasn’t for me relatively early.

In September 2008, coworkers and I huddled around the Bloomberg watching the market collapse in real time. About a month earlier, I was approached by an exec about the firm possibly paying for me to get my MBA. It was an interesting proposition. But as we stood there watching the world collapse, my mind wasn’t on business school.

I got a text from my father. My brother scored a touchdown in freshman football, his first ever. I decided to fly back to Ohio for a rare Saturday game. He only had a carry for ten yards, but he played a great game. 500 miles east, a bunch of things you can’t eat, chew, or even hold in your hands were losing value. But that sunny afternoon, the world wasn’t collapsing. I knew finance wasn’t for me.

Nothing is guaranteed. Not an MBA salary, or the idea that such a salary would make me happy. A pretty wife and a Manhattan townhouse sound nice, but not rationalizing my life on a daily basis. I’ve had to do that for four years. The time wasn’t all bad. I made good friends, we had some good times. It was my first post-collegiate job.

But it’s time to do what I love. For the first time in my life, I have money. I’m grateful for the current flexibility. But I know that my journey - and those who dream to open a restaurant or to be the next Steve Jobs - would be less difficult if the wealth of a nation were funneled to more than one street.

February 25, 2012

Oscar Thoughts and Predictions


I get why the 2011 nominations are considered boring. It’s a field dominated by household-name directors; a usually-controversial Scorsese churned out a kid’s movie; no one likes one of the Best Picture nominees. But while I disagree with the consensus (more later), there are two “risky” films the Academy failed to highlight (though I understand why)...

Martha Marcy May Marlene
We know little about Martha. From her inability to socialize to her bizarre behavior and random panics, we think she’s crazy. But flashbacks to her time in a cult provide (possible) explanations for her quirks. I went from observing her to observing life through her eyes... and I’ve rarely felt more terrified.

The dramatic but gradual shift in perception is headed by writer/director Sean Durkin. In a plot driven by curiosity, he understands the power of information: when to give it, what to give, when to stop. His characters are either quiet or cryptic, giving each scene an underlying tension. His editor knows a wide shot with a gun aimed at someone’s chest is considerably less powerful than a medium with the gun off camera. His DP leaves empty space in the frame, allowing the possibility of it being occupied. Of course, there’s Elizabeth Olsen, who led the picture’s slim Oscar hopes. As Martha she never tips her hand, acting neutral in bizarre scenarios, allowing context to dictate the arc.

It might be the most well-crafted film I saw in 2011.


So why zero nominations? A lack of exposure is the obvious answer, but more than that... The title. Martha Marcy May Marlene. I understand why this is the title, but damn... I forget the order of the names. I sometimes say Marsha. Or Mary. Titles are important. This one isn’t even bad, it’s just... confusing.

Melancholia
It isn't until Part II of Melancholia that the rogue planet threatening to crash into Earth is mentioned, but in a way, both parts are disaster movies. Part II, entitled "Claire", observes the titular character's fear of this planet destroying her life and her family and her eventual loneliness when disaster becomes inevitable. It's pretty conventional as far as disaster movies go. 

Part I is less obvious. Entitled "Justine", the story focuses on Justine at her lavish wedding reception with perfect-looking people, all having a great time... except for the fact that Justine is miserable. No one knows or cares to know. Her sister, Claire, can't understand why either. She's beautiful, her husband is handsome... she should be happy. But the reception is Justine's worst nightmare.


A therapist told Lars Von Trier that people with depression are more equipped for heavy pressure because they face it in their day-to-day lives. Von Trier dishes a lot at Justine. A cold mother. A careless father. Guests with veiled agendas. Her seemingly caring groom only wants to get her to bed. Even the vanity of the reception seems to force happiness upon her. Von Trier wisely presents these as triggers, not the cause of her depression. For her, the reception is a planet crashing into Earth. Claire tries to will her into happiness, but can only later grasp her fear and loneliness.

Kirsten Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes for portraying Justine, and both she and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire) deserved recognition. It could have also garnered attention for writing, directing, and a slew of artistic awards but... well...

Perhaps an industry exists where you can succeed while calling yourself a Nazi while admiring the work of Hitler and Speer... I’ve just never been there. I have been to Hollywood. They don’t much care for that.

(Also, I felt the red herrings were distracting.)

The complete omission of these two films is my biggest gripe with the nominations. Imaginative and creative, they could have filled the void in an average year. But it is indeed average, not poor. Though the Best Picture field is too generous, three nominees have the imagination and skill to contend any given year. Hopefully these are made clear by my predictions:

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Who should win: John Logan, Hugo
Who will: Alexander Payne, The Descendants

Descendants was disappointing. The script is uneven and clunky, the plots don’t mesh, and conflict gets resolved too easily. The dialogue lacks the texture of Payne’s prior scripts, and the voice over is a bad choice. It wins more on subject matter than quality. Moneyball was a tough adaptation (no fewer than 3 Oscar winners tried to crack it). Statistics and calculations are tough to film, and Sorkin and Zaillian were properly recognized for the amount of content in the final product. But this can sometimes become cumbersome. The writers never tapped into the book’s subtext, the je ne sais quoi of baseball that inspired Bill James to write his books or Hatteberg’s wife to hit him grounders in the rain. Still, it's a solid script from a tough adaptation. Hugo is well-imagined and has a lot of heart. It flows sequence to sequence, and each turn is fresh and surprising. Every character has dreams, fears, and personalities, and even the villain is well-rounded. Logan will lose to Descendants because his script is not emo.

"You mean, he does nothing but mope
for two hours?"  "Nope."  "Magical!"

BEST SCREENPLAY
Who should win: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Who will: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Part of me wants Michel Hazanavicius to win for The Artist. Too often, people identify good writing with snappy dialogue over structure and plot. Both are solid in The Artist, which relies on visual storytelling. The parallel action sequences are done well. His fall from grace and her rise to stardom is clear and natural, and their cause is quite clever. And it ends on a good note. The story might be a little too thin to warrant a victory over strong opposition. Props to Bridesmaids for scoring the nomination that eluded Mean Girls and 40-Year-Old Virgin before it. There are sight gags and mean observations, and all setups have payoffs. The characters are funny and likeable, none of whom distract from the universal themes. For a comedy, the nomination is a victory. Woody should get his first statue since Hannah and Her Sisters. The premise is recycled from Purple Rose of Cairo, but this is a fun movie. And you don’t require expert knowledge of ‘20s Parisian ex-pats to appreciate it. The story is less-cynical than most of his work, and he strikes a variety of notes in a thin plot. And few writers could turn a story with a single word.

BEST ACTRESS
Who should win: I…don’t know
Who will: Viola Davis, The Help

The category suffers because the movies represented are, by all accounts, sub par. I can say that Roony Mara in Girl With a Dragon Tattoo killed it. More than a physical transformation, she inhabits this tortured character. She’s quiet and aggressive; her stare and monotone voice mask any rare slip of sentiment; and her stone cold expression makes any smile chilling. I wish I’d seen the other noms to determine whether she should win. I have lukewarm interest in The Help and will probably avoid My Week With Marilyn and The Iron Lady. For the latter, Meryl Streep is said to be the best thing in a bad movie. But as leads are partly responsible for overall quality, I wish a great performance in a bad film were omitted for a great performance in a great film (Olsen, Gainsbourg, Dunst). I hear Michelle Williams and Glenn Close were deserving. It sounds like this is Viola Davis’ year.

BEST ACTOR
Who should win: NOT George Clooney, The Descendants
Who will: George Clooney, The Descandents

He just wasn’t that good. There are stronger ways to evoke internal conflict than walking around with your head hung low, looking off in the distance. Take Paul Newman in The Verdict, or Eastwood in Unforgiven. Granted, those screenplays gave more for their leads to build on, but little about his performance feels inspired (I’m fairly certain his “we’re Hawaiians” monologue is lifted from his Fantastic Mr. Fox speech, Hawaiians in place of foxes). Everyone in the category was better. Brad Pitt was the perfect choice to play Billy Beane. He’s temperamental but fun; a handsome jock with deceptive intelligence; good-natured but knows how to play the managerial chess match. With more to work with in the first hour, Pitt would have been a shoe-in. 
"Can I do something awesome yet?"

The Artist lives and dies on its performers. Jean Dujardin’s memorable scenes are of him dancing and those with the dog, but the story is told on his face. It’s so expressive and malleable that rare instances of stillness command attention. He could score the gold, but I wonder if not speaking hurts his odds. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Gary Oldman keeps those around him (and us) guessing through a difficult story. His expressions and speech remain unchanged, regardless of context. A difficult monologue at the midpoint would have fallen flat with a lesser actor.

BEST DIRECTOR
Who should win: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Who will: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

The intro to Midnight in Paris is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. If the latter is his love letter to New York, in many ways, Midnight in Paris is a more strongly-worded letter to the city of lights. The present scenes are full of life and promise, the past is warm, inviting, and nostalgic. You get the feeling that while his lead yearns for the old days, Allen begs him to just look around. He could win this year. So could Martin Scorsese. Hugo has so many great ideas that you don’t know whether to credit Scorsese or Logan or the source material. We’re told that in the early days of film, a film with an approaching train caused the audience to jump out their seats in fear that it would charge off the screen. Later, during a chase sequence, Scorsese takes advantage of 3D as a train literally jumps out the screen at the audience. It’s an interesting choice, using 3D to tell a story of early film. Traditionalists frown upon the new medium, but Scorsese – as great a film historian as he is a filmmaker - seems open to the ever-evolving art form. Still, I think this goes to Hazanavicius for The Artist. Directing is a balancing act to begin with, but to omit a key component of modern film requires extreme precision in every other element. The story works and doesn’t need dialogue to cover any lapses in logic. The performances – from everyone to Desjardin to the dog – are spot on. And everything looks perfect.

BEST PICTURE
Who should win: Hugo
Who will: The Artist

Midnight in Paris would be my choice if not for one glaring flaw: Rachel McAdams, as Owen Wilson’s wife. For Wilson's character to yearn for the past, the present cannot be inspiring, and that includes his wife. I get it. But she has absolutely no redeemable qualities. None. It's partially Allen's fault, but McAdams is way too aggressive. At some point, I was annoyed at him for tolerating her.

"Quit it! When you kiss me I can't yell at you!"

In a two-race horse between Hugo and The Artist, I choose Hugo. There’s not much else to say to support my pick, I guess I just... still love being a kid at the movies.

Other Oscarvations (sorry about that...):

- Supporting Actor will go to Christopher Plummer; for Actress, Octavia Spencer. I'd vote for Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. She finds a good balance in a role that’s tougher than meets the eye.

- I saw the animated shorts this week at IFC. There were some great ideas in both the nominees and honorees. My favorite was Wild Life, about an Englishman who moves to Canada to become a rancher. It had the most impressive animation and was the first animated mockumentary I've seen of any length. The Stroll was also clever and well-executed. The Pixar entry La Luna left something to be desired.

- People cite Jessica Chastain, but Jonah Hill also had a better performance in 2011...


- John Logan not only penned a Best Picture contender, but the front-runner for Best Animated Feature. The most underrated writer in Hollywood.

- Drive is overrated, but count me among those who feel Albert Brooks was robbed. The thing is, he doesn't play against type; his comedic persona is what makes his acts so sinister. Very clever.

- I'm surprised Bennett Miller was ignored for Moneyball. He's a big reason the difficult subject matter works, and the baseball scenes are very well shot.

- War Horse. There, I acknowledge it.

February 13, 2012

Kyrie Irving, I’ll Never Buy Your Jersey. You’re Welcome.


Looking back, it’s no wonder Kyrie Irving began the year with such low expectations. As the Cavaliers’ questionable #1 pick over Derrick Williams, Irving was the face of a draft without a superstar. Experts projected him as a poor man's Chris Paul. And a city needing a successor to LeBron got a soft-spoken kid NOT from Akron, Ohio, who doesn’t have “Chosen One” tattooed across his back. He couldn’t even attract ESPN or TNT to cover one game.

And he's been outstanding.

It's not just that he's averaged 18.0 points on 49.2% shooting (41.3% on 3's), but that he's done it while only playing 29.8 minutes a game. He creates shots for himself and for those around him (5.1 assists per game). He already has wins over Boston, Rubio in Minnesota, and the defending champion Mavs. In a rookie season that's so far better than LeBron's, some feel he was snubbed an All-Star selection, even though no rookie point guard has made the team since 1982. But instead of complaining, he's excited to be in the Rising Stars game. Cleveland loves him. And so do I.

So much so, that I refuse to buy his jersey.

No, really, it's no sweat. See, I get how injuries plagued him at Duke, and after sitting out the last three games with a concussion, the last thing he needs is a curse. And I refuse to subject him to the torture that befell every player whose jersey I've ever owned.


Derek Anderson

A Google search of "Cleveland Derek Anderson" will yield photos of the Browns' canon-armed slinger of 2007.

But this Derek Anderson was the Cavs' 1997 lottery pick. While most fans gravitated toward newly-acquired Shawn Kemp, I preferred the swingman with Ray Allen's skill-set. The former "Untouchable" from Kentucky was of a select few to sign with Jordan's brand, and was permitted the number 23.

No one knew of him when I got his jersey for my 13th birthday. By then, the Cavs were midway through a 47 win season with Anderson posting a promising 11.8 points and 3.4 assists. In April, I wore his jersey to Gund Arena to watch the Cavs vanquish Jordan's Bulls for the second time that year. It was only a matter of time before he became the first home-grown star in a decade.

Except... the lockout happened. Shawn Kemp gained 70 pounds of marbling, Z went down for the year, and the Cavs finished 6 games under .500. And Anderson... well, he didn't regress, he just never eclipsed his rookie numbers. He was eventually traded, then kicked around the league for a few years, fading into further obscurity.

Admittedly, tame results for Anderson. But they got worse...

Jamir Miller
You might ask, who is Jamir Miller?

The 2001 Browns rebounded from two disastrous first years in the NFL to post a respectable 7-9 record, highlighted by two victories over the defending Super Bowl champ Ravens. Had they closed winnable games against Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville, rookie coach Butch Davis would have had his team in the playoffs. As consolation, outside 'backer Jamir Miller made the Pro Bowl, the team's first representative since their return. 


A few months after the season, I bought his jersey. A few months later, he tore his Achilles tendon. He would never play again...

Tim Couch
To this day, the Browns have never faced a more difficult schedule than 2002. With 7 games against playoff teams - including the eventual Super Bowl champs - they still managed 9 wins. The man under center, Tim Couch, led come-from-behind victories over the Jets, Titans, and Ravens en route to the team's first playoff appearance since 1994.

Unfortunately, a broken leg in the final game of the season (a clinching win vs. Michael Vick's Falcons) sidelined Couch for the playoff game in Pittsburgh. Enter Kelly Holcomb, whose 429 passing yards staked the Browns to a 17-point, second-half lead...only for the Browns' prevent defense to prevent a victory.

The performance created a quarterback controversy, championed by the fans and media who never really liked Couch. And there were whispers that the receiving corps also preferred Holcomb. But I bought my orange Couch jersey anyway. Why not? I mean, a good coach like Butch Davis wouldn't abandon a playoff quarterback for a career journeyman...could he?

He could. And did. And the Browns went 5-11 in 2003, the lone highlight coming when Couch - subbing for an injured Holcomb - embarrassed the rival Steelers 33-13 on Sunday Night Football.

Couch was sick of Cleveland. He bounced around the league a bit - backing up Favre in Green Bay, a stay in Jacksonville - before calling it quits. He now coaches high school in Kentucky.

"Why, Shawn? Why..."

The brilliant Butch Davis was forced out in 2004 after a 3-8 start. He coached college at North Carolina, but was fired prior to the 2011 season.

But I shouldn't deflect responsibility. The fault lies with me, and me alone.

Travis Hafner
In August 2005, my grandfather and I went to Jacobs Field to watch the Indians play the Rangers. We sat in right field with Travis Hafner at the plate. The lefty turned on a fastball and nearly tore the cover off the ball as it screamed past the first baseman. My grandfather remarked that he'd never seen a ball hit so hard. I bought Hafner's tee-shirt jersey a few weeks later.


The 2005 Indians dropped 6 of their last 7 games, narrowly missing the playoffs. "Pronk" came 5th in MVP voting. 2006 was even better for Hafner, who hit .308 with 42 HRs (including a record-tying 6 grand slams) and 117 RBIs. He got on base at a .439 clip and had a 1.097 OPS. Had the Tribe not struggled, Hafner would have been MVP. So...the curse was broken? Not quite.


The Indians had two marquee contracts due to expire in 2008: Travis Hafner and CC Sabathia. Mid-market teams can't afford to chew up payroll with two contracts, so the Indians had to choose one. They went with Hafner, paying him a $58 million extension over 4 years.


And the 2007 Indians were brilliant. Sabathia won the AL Cy Young, #2 starter Carmona (Heredia?) was the ERA champ, the offense clicked, and Kenny Lofton's return sparked the Tribe to its first division title since 2001. The Indians blitzed the Yankees 3-1 in divisional series and led the Red Sox 
3-1 in the ALCS, one win from the World Series.


But what about Hafner? It was 2006 in reverse, Pronk fading as the team excelled. In the regular season, he hit .266 with 26 HRs. Maybe he'd turn it on in the playoffs? Against the Yanks, 4 hits in 4 games; versus the Sox, 4 hits in 7 games (and a dreadful .503 OPS). The Indians blew the series to Boston, who of course would dismantle the Rockies in the World Series. Sabathia was traded and eventually signed with the Yankees, leading them to a World Series title.


Meanwhile Pronk has been a shell of his former self. 42 homers in 2006, he's had 42 in the last three years combined. He and the Indians began strong in 2011, and hopes are high for 2012.


But, man, had I not bought that jersey...


Grady Sizemore
I never owned a proper Indians jersey. Not even from the star-driven '90s teams of Ramirez, Thome, Lofton, Alomar, and Vizquel (had I, would they have been stars?). In 2009, Grady Sizemore seemed a logical choice. He struck out a lot for a leadoff hitter, sure, but he was a five-tool player with the potential to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases. He was a three-time All Star coming off his second Gold Glove. Hard-nosed, scrappy, a fan-favorite. The 26-year-old was never hurt, missing 21 games in 4 years, one of the most durable guys in baseball. I purchased his jersey in January 2009.


His career would never recover...


2009 was shortened by surgeries to his elbow and groin. In 2010, he logged 33 games before injuring his left knee. In 2011, it was his right knee. Over that time, he played 174 games out of a possible 495. When not under the knife, his speed, mobility, and power disappeared. A guy with 30-30 potential has hit 28 homers the last three years combined and had ZERO stolen bases in 2011. To top it off, some candid pictures intended for his girlfriend were intercepted and posted online (though for an athlete with sex appeal, maybe that's a positive?).


Like Hafner, 2011 had promise. Perhaps 2012 will offer a resurgence. But let's be real: his fate was sealed in January 2009...


Peyton Hillis
By 2010, yes, I'd learned my lesson. But listen... When my mother asks what I want for Christmas, she hates when I say money. Hates it. It's not even that I want money from her it's just...what else do I ask for? Paid time off? Box sets for TV shows I have no interest in? In November 2010, Peyton Hillis had just bulldozed through the Patriots and Saints en route to 1,177 rushing yards, another 477 receiving, and 13 TDs. When mom asked on Thanksgiving, I said the first thing on my mind: a Peyton Hillis jersey.

Instant regret.


Then, a Christmas miracle: every store in northeast Ohio was sold-out of Hillis jerseys! It shouldn't have come as a surprise. Because they are so few, a successful pro athlete in Cleveland can magically separate cash from wallets. The 24-year-old bruiser looked to carry the offense for a long, long time, and Clevelanders wanted on the bandwagon. And for once, I wouldn't be the one to derail him!


Cut to summer 2011, and a surprise package: a beautiful, white "Hillis" jersey with a note: "Better late than never!" Oh crap...



I accept that a player's performance and well-being will inevitably suffer through my selfishness. I just never thought it would affect their psyche. NFL players play through sprains, pulls, concussions, broken bones...you name it. In week 3 of 2011, Hillis sat out against Miami with...strep throat? No way. Was it a ploy? A byproduct of contract negotiations? Were the Browns concealing a knee injury? Nope. Strep throat. The humble Arkansas boy would later flake out on a charity event, and his frequent mental lapses would prompt eight veterans to stage an intervention. He missed another five games with a hamstring injury and only scored 3 TDs all season.


Those who cite Hillis as another victim of the Madden curse can't begin to know the truth. My bad, dude...



Anyway, Kyrie, if you're reading this, you can rest easy. I fully understand how draping that veritable voodoo doll over my shoulders will bestow pain, suffering, and mediocrity upon the name scrolled across the back. Take your time with your recovery, please. Because if you become the first player to suffer a serious injury in the Rising Stars game, I'll consider myself vindicated and your jersey fair game.

Best,

Shawn