Archive

Archive for the ‘Rant’ Category

David Fincher must hate Harvey Weinstein…

November 30th, 2011 No comments

Stylish Cinema or Marketing Campaign?

Poor David Fincher. He must feel as though Harvey Weinstein has it in for him. This is the second year in a row in which Fincher is releasing a much-heralded movie adaptation, timed for year-end impact – in this case “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and Harvey Weinstein’s The Weinstein Company is releasing a counter-programming one-two punch of “The Artist,” a stylized black & white ‘silent’ film, along with “The Iron Lady,” a biopic of Margaret Thatcher featuring the latest incredible transformation of star Meryl Streep. Last year, Fincher’s “The Social Network” was an Oscar frontrunner even before its October 1st release, but at year’s end The Weinstein Company released “The King’s Speech” along with a savvy blitz for industry recognition, eventually walking off with Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay Academy statuettes. Fincher and company had to settle for Best Editing, Best Score and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars, despite 5 other nominations for directing, actor Jesse Eisenberg, best picture, sound and cinematography.

Haven’t I seen this before?

Based on the first of the late Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salandar trilogy, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a demanding tale of dark urges and violent retribution, and perfectly suited for Fincher’s cool, detached directing style. The original film adaptation was made in Sweden in 2009, and followed quickly by “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” all of which feature disgraced journalist Mikail Blomkvist and emotionally-scarred (and pierced and tattooed) computer hacker Lisbeth Salandar. Fincher’s English-language adaptation (by “Schindler’s List” Oscar-winning scribe Steve Zaillian) is likewise set in Sweden, ostensibly to convey the bleakness of the story’s tone and setting. Set to open on December 21, 2012, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is considered Sony’s prestige year-end film, and this marks the second time in two years that the studio has gone head-to-head with The Weinstein Company’s Academy Award ‘For Your Consideration’ publicity machine.

So, if bleak simply isn’t your thing…

The Weinstein Company’s “The Artist,” starring Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, is a mostly-silent, black and white romantic comedy about the early days of Hollywood and the advent of ‘talkies.’ An extended homage to the ‘magic’ of the silver screen, “The Artist” has received a textbook Weinstein release: opening over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in only 4 U.S. theaters, the film is benefitting from the numerous appearances Harvey Weinstein has made thumping the project, one of several his company is rolling out during year’s end. Enthusiastic word of mouth and a platform release is the hallmark of a traditional Weinstein Academy Award campaign.  Another well-touted Weinstein Company release is Michelle Williams’ transformative turn as Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn,” based on the journal of a young man assigned to help her during the filming of 1957’s “The Prince and the Showgirl.” So The Weinstein Company seems to be working a ‘zone defense’ on Fincher, using three of their releases to siphon off industry acclaim. (And box office bucks; although to be fair, the audiences for the films seem markedly dissimilar).

How will it end? The suspense is… familiar.

There’s no way of telling whether Fincher’s dark drama will be a hit – although Larsson’s novels’ remarkable international popularity and the successes of the orginal films in Sweden suggest a built-in audience. What seems certain, however, is this: the Weinstein-Fincher rivalry won’t be going anywhere soon. After all, there are two more Larsson books waiting for Fincher, if he chooses – and another year-end award season coming in 2012 for Harvey to contest. So I guess it’s safe to bet you haven’t heard the last of this competition.

Billy and Oscar: Like Crystal & Gold

November 11th, 2011 No comments

 

Apparently, the 9th is the ‘Crystal appearance…’

It didn’t take long for the Motion Picture Academy and newly-minted Oscarcast co-producer Brian Grazer to announce their choice to replace Eddie Murphy, who stepped down in support of disgraced producer Brett Ratner. Once again, the Academy has dipped into the past (although admittedly the more recent – and seasoned host – past) to find their next show host: Billy Crystal will host the February 26, 2012 telecast, his ninth outing as MC. Crystal is a solid choice for host, and a personal favorite. Still and all, I personally had hoped this shake-up would give the Academy to make an out-of-the-box choice, but the Motion Picture Academy is so slow to change it’s a wonder they have gotten it together to reduce the number of Best Picture nominees from 10 to a more realistic number this year.

Despite all this ‘last minute’ change occurring more than three months before the Oscarcast, it’s hoped that Crystal will retain his faux movie appearances at the start of the show, but perhaps lose (or at least update) his satirical ‘musical salute’ to the nominees. Much has been made of the telecast’s ratings slide in recent years, and returning to an old template for the show may be a mistake. We’ll find out together, on February 26th, when Billy Crystal returns to host the 84th Annual Academy Awards.

Billy Crystal\’s 2004 Oscarcast opening 

 

Oscar: ‘Slurs are for jerks’

November 10th, 2011 No comments

Is Gervais Golden?

It’s the start of awards season, so Hollywood is gearing up to pat itself on the back. The Golden Globes are just a couple of months away, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is still debating whether or not to ask Ricky Gervais to host again. His edgy, ‘knock ’em down a peg’ style of humor last year was equally hailed as a breath of fresh air and reviled as thinly-veiled contempt. Frankly, I thought he was hilarious, but, then, he never made fun of me.

Academy to Ratner: slurs are for jerks

After Brett Ratner made a homophobic slur at a “Tower Heist” Q&A last weekend, calls for his resignation as an Academy Awards producer resulted in Ratner’s quitting the post on Tuesday. This was rapidly followed by the exit of Eddie Murphy, who had been named host shortly after Ratner was made a producer. Academy President Tom Sherak made a statement saying Ratner’s stepping down was “the right thing.” Privately, the Academy was livid at Ratner’s insensitive remarks. (When asked whether he rehearsed his actors before filming, Ratner flippantly responded “Rehearsing’s for fags.”) Since, Ratner has issued a letter of apology, but his recent interview with Howard Stern in which he graphically described his sex life proves that Ratner is still not ready for prime time. To add financial injury to homophobic insult, “Tower Heist” opened very soft this weekend, pulling in only $24 million; B.O. prognosticators had expected at least $25 million, so the film’s opening was weak, and isn’t helping the Ratner ‘brand.’

Bring in a fresh Producer…

Since there are only about 3 months until the Oscar telecast on Sunday, February 26, 2012, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has jumped to replace Ratner. They didn’t have to look far, naming Ratner’s “Tower Heist” producer Brian Grazer as Oscarcast co-producer, along with the previously-named Oscar producing vet Don Mischer.  It’s clear, from the naming of Ratner and his hosting choice Murphy, and now with Hollywood titan Grazer (his “A Beautiful Mind” won the 2001 Best Picture Oscar) that the Academy is looking to ‘jazz up’ its annual spectacle, since recent years have seen a real dip in the famous ceremony’s ratings. Last year’s pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway was widely criticized as a transparent move to inject ‘young blood’ into the show – and it proved a real disappointment. It remains to be seen who Grazer will tap to host the awards ceremony, but he has strong ties to a number of comic (and dramatic) stars. Some names already mentioned are Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks. Stay tuned!

Murphy to Oscar: “Oh-Tay!”

September 8th, 2011 No comments

  

I read the news today. Oh boy.

I smell a Ratner…

Still stinging from criticism of the less-than-stellar 2010 Oscars telecast last February which paired actors Anne Hathaway and James Franco as show hosts, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has announced that Eddie Murphy will host the 2011 Oscarcast. That’s right: Eddie Murphy, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member turned 80s and 90s box-office powerhouse. While still a recognizeable figure, Murphy’s star has faded substantially in the past decade, despite maintaining a lucrative job voicing the character of Donkey in the “Shrek” films, as well as receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Dreamgirls” in 2006. Even still, Murphy, whose last film was box office dud “Imagine That,” will be seen in the upcoming “Tower Heist,” opposite Ben Stiller and Casey Affleck, directed by Oscar co-producer Brett Ratner (who works alongside seasoned Oscar producer Don Mischer).

Can “Pluto Nash 3D” or “Re-Meet Dave” be far behind?

Ratner has expressed a desire to resurrect the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise with Murphy; the 3-film series made nearly a billion dollars in box office receipts from 1984 to 1994. Still only 50, Murphy broke-out in stand-up comedy and was made a cast member of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” at the age of 19. Two years later, he made his feature film debut in Walter Hill’s successful “48 Hrs.”, then cemented his box office stature with 1983’s “Trading Places,” a bona fide blockbuster hit. A number of hit films followed (“Coming to America,” “The Nutty Professor”), but by 2002 Murphy’s film roles grew increasingly formulaic, and he was saddled with a series of high-profile flops, including “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,”  “Norbit” and “Meet Dave.” Clearly both Murphy and Ratner believe that “Tower Heist,” in which Murphy plays a thief recruited to help steal $20 million believed hidden by a Bernie Madoff-like con man, will revitalize his career. Early buzz on ‘Heist,’ which features a supporting cast filled with the likes of Alan Alda, Gabourey Sidibe and Matthew Broderick, is strong.

Have I seen this one before?

The Academy has drawn on comedians to host the Oscarcast many times before: Bob Hope was considered the show’s ‘unofficial host’ for years. Johnny Carson hosted the show numerous times, and Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and even David Letterman have hosted (although Letterman was a one-shot wonder, as were subsequent ‘edgy’ comic hosts Jon Stewart and Chris Rock). It’s hoped that Murphy’s stand-up experience and career longevity will restore the Academy Awards telecast’s steadily declining ratings, but that a tough bet to make, given that Murphy’s dated appeal and R-rated humor may not  translate to a network awards show.

In other Brett Ratner-related news…

Whether by coincidence or design, another Ratner crony re-surfaced this week: Chris Tucker, of “Rush Hour” fame, announced he was set to join director David O. Russell’s comedy “The Silver Linings Playbook,” the director’s follow-up to last year’s box office hit “The Fighter.” Tucker hasn’t been in a film since “Rush Hour 3” in 2007, after hemming and hawing 6 years to make that film. Although he was (and remains) attached to a crime script at Warner Brothers called “The Rabbit,” it seems likely that Tucker’s next two projects will be Russell’s  ‘Silver Linings,’ as well as “Neighborhood Watch,” opposite Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill. Tucker is a mercurial figure who has worked with visionary directors like Quentin Tarantino (“Jackie Brown,”) and Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”) before finding financial and career stability with Ratner, with whom Tucker has made 4 films: the 3 “Rush Hour” films, as well as “Money Talks,” Ratner’s debut feature. Presently, Tucker is performing a standup comedy tour, set to end in November.

Beverly Hills Cop-out?

Eddie Murphy’s hosting gig at the 2011 Oscars next February probably won’t change much in terms of the show’s ratings decline. Despite Murphy’s $7 billion (with a b) in career box office earnings, what needs to be changed at the Oscars is the show, not its host. The Academy has already decreed that the number of Best Picture nominees will not be the 10-title phone-book list of recent years, itself a promising start. It’s clear the different producers of the last few years have taken stabs at originality, but the Academy Awards telecast remains a real relic of old Hollywood. Like the movie business itself, which is declining in the numbers of ticket buyers, the Academy Awards TV broadcast is going to have to find a new, sustainable model if it wishes to enjoy continued ratings – or relevancy.

That Does Not Compute!

August 19th, 2011 No comments

One of the perils of being a writer in the digital age is the prevalence of high-tech gadgets and newfangled gizmos we depend on to get our messages across that are far more complicated than either of those old standbys the pencil or (if you remember back far enough) the typewriter. Sure, some writers still trust in the ‘old ways,’ but most writers these days have surrendered to the digital revolution. As such, we have grown increasingly dependent on these electronic tools. When they work well, they make our lives easier. When they stop working – well, that’s a horse of a different color, to use an anachronistic metaphor.

Presently I find myself bedeviled by computer problems: my stalwart laptop is little more than a shelf for papers and assorted bits of detritus on my desk, since it chose to stop working after a recent software update. And my old workhorse PC is fighting for life after a botched hardware upgrade; using intuition, accumulated past fix-it knowledge and a lot of wishful thinking, I have managed to resurrect the PC with an archaic version of its operating system. That’s the bad news. The good news? I can still write and post, which is something I rely on to maintain my sanity. And that ain’t nothin’, as the expression goes…

But even without digital devices, one can – and should (if you consider yourself a writer, that is) write. It’s been said that artists are compelled to create, and that is especially true of writers. Without a medium and a message, a writer is just another featherless biped (with apologies to writers who have either feathers or a different number of legs). Having a story to tell, even if it is just about your battles with bits and bytes, is life’s blood to creative writers. So a computer malfunction shouldn’t stop you: after all, who tops the food chain when it comes to electrical productivity devices? YOU. Your brain, the most complicated and powerful processor there is, runs on electrical impulses. And, if you play your cards right and behave, it should never present you with ‘the blue screen of death.’ Let’s hope not, anyway!

So is there a moral to this story? Of course. There’s always a moral – or a point. And here, it’s this: you can write anywhere, on anything. The concept for the hit ’80s TV show “Miami Vice” was was two words scrawled on a cocktail napkin: “MTV Cops.” And it made NBC and Michael Mann millions. But I’m not suggesting using serviettes as your writer’s medium of choice. A pad of paper or a notebook along with a pen or pencil will do just fine. Quill pen and parchment? Sure. Even crayons and wrapping paper, if that’s your thing. In short, it doesn’t matter what you write on. It simply matters that you write.

Therefore, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald from his masterpiece “The Great Gatsby,” “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” At least that’s what it feels like writing on a computer that has seen better days, using an outdated operating system and browser. But it gets the job done, and that’s good enough for me. Because the secret isn’t writing efficiently – it’s writing well. And using old equipment to accomplish that? Well, it doesn’t diminish the pleasure I get from creating. Stated another way, I’ll allude to Hugh Hudson’s Oscar-winning 1981 film “Chariots of Fire,” which garnered 4 Academy Awards out of 7 nominations (including a win for Colin Welland’s original screenplay). In the film, which outlines the competition at the 1924 Olympics between runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, Liddell, son of missionaries and a devout Christian, explains that when he runs, he “feels God’s pleasure.” I can relate, because when I write, I feel the unmitigated joy at the opportunity to express myself. I own a couple of computers because I just do. But I write because I feel I must.

 

Homework during summer? BUMMER!

July 27th, 2011 No comments

 

 

Dude, hope you’re havin’ a bitchin summer!

OK… you’re a screenwriter. So where’s your homework?

HOMEWORK?! Nobody said anything about homework…!

WHAT Unwritten Rules?

Aha! Homework is another of the unwritten rules of screenwriting. (As the saying goes, “There are no rules to sure success in the movie business – but you break them at your own peril.”) And everyone has to do homework – even if they’re the teacher.

Homework, but no Phys Ed, right?

No Physical Education, but you should get off the couch, your movie theater seat or desk chair every once in a while. In the case of screenwriting, homework really consists of knowing your business. Literally. The more movies you have seen, the more scripts you have read, the better your chances of writing a strong, original screenplay. Although it may seem illogical, being original is really a matter of knowing what’s gone before – so you can avoid the same territory. As a story analyst, I can usually tell a writer’s formative film and scripting influences as soon as I read their work. It’s human nature to emulate writing which we think is ‘quality,’ even if it involves unconscious borrowing or, in the worst cases, plagiarizing. It’s helpful to know if you’re unwittingly channeling a story that’s already been told (and which you saw and didn’t remember) before you submit your script – afterwards is too late, particularly for that script opportunity or your reputation.

Homework was never this fun

Cheer up. Screenwriting homework, like the ‘work’ of writing, isn’t too tough. In fact, screenwriting homework  is easier than writing. Basically, it involves two things: your mind and subject matter. The instructions go something like this: combine the two, ponder, and repeat. That’s about all there is to it. In other words, stimulate your mind with a film or film script, absorb the story elements, note the tone and pacing, appreciate the characters and plot. Above all, remember. Remember the general story and structure, recall the overall theme. This can all be done from the comfort of your couch – or a movie theater seat – at your leisure. But it needs to be done. Otherwise you may end up writing “Casablanca” due to the fact that you had a great idea for a ‘retro love-triangle story’ because you failed to remember that ‘arthouse movie’ an old girlfriend dragged you to years before…

Look at the blueprints, visit the building

As a story analyst, I have read thousands of screenplays, plays and teleplays (along with treatments, manuscripts, you name it…). And I have seen more than several people’s shares of films and television. While I may lack the zeitgeist sophistication of my youthful nephews and nieces, I could beat the tar out of any one of them when it came to ‘movie trivia,’ (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘knowledge’) or story precedents. And, while I intend to learn the entire Lady Gaga canon some day, knowing whether someone’s script is perilously close to “Blade Runner” comes in a lot handier right now, for me and my clients.

In terms of actual homework, a great exercise is to read the film script, then see the movie. There are a lot of film script sites allowing you to read scripts for free, among them The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb). Once you’ve read the script, it’s time to see the film. Apart from heading to theaters for current releases, multitudes of films are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with streaming titles and on-demand titles, so there shouldn’t be much of a barrier to find the film you are looking for. Ideally, you’ll hang on to the script and make notes if you notice anything that is meaningful to you – but in any case you will have developed a greater understanding of how screenplays are ‘stitched together,’ and what Hollywood looks for in a finished script.

Cheer up – there’s extra credit

Doing your ‘screenwriting homework’ during the summer isn’t so bad. It gets you inside from the blazing heat that seems to be everywhere, and hopefully it’s entertaining. But if it isn’t, that’s where the real work starts: why was it slow? Which character was weak? Did you spot the plot hole? It’s sometimes easier to find the seams in a bad movie than a good one, usually because they’re so obvious – and it’s the same with the script that went before. While reading a script, be aware of the flow and pace, its overall story and characters. Does the dialogue sound right? If any aspect of the script seems questionable, pay extra attention to that when you watch the film – sometimes it really was ‘fixed in editing,’ but often the same deficiencies persist from script to finished product.

The Lone Exception

Of course there’s one screenplay that is simply perfect just the way it is: yours. Or so you hope. Unless you’ve done your homework, you may only find out you’re not ‘completely correct’ when your script gets sent back to you. So do your homework – or benefit from the services of someone who’s helped writers like you by offering constructive criticism. But whatever you do, always put your best effort forward.

Movies (not) by the numbers…

June 4th, 2011 No comments

 

OK, let’s face it: unless you’re a fan of: A). Gross-out comedies; B). Superhero/Robot/Alien action films; C). Sequels, or D). All of the above, there’s not a lot to see at the movies this summer. Rarely have there been so few ‘original’ films in the marketplace. Despite this, there are films for people who have never cracked a graphic novel in their life, aren’t into anthropomorphic machines or don’t care for numerical film titles. (And, for good measure, we’ve added a trio of ‘guilty pleasures’ that straddle the line between originality and nostalgia.)

Rare, Crafted Original

How do you like your original movies? Arty? Packed with A-list talent? How about an examination of the origins of the cosmos? Well, in Terrence Malick’s demanding “The Tree of Life,” alternately an epic tale of a Texas family and a tone poem about the creation of the universe, you get all three. Brad Pitt and Sean Penn play father and son roles alongside relative newcomer Jessica Chastain; the film opened last week in only 4 theaters and grossed $631,000. Undoubtedly Malick’s reputation as a perfectionist (he reportedly spent 3 years laboriously completing the film) has brought in Malick enthusiasts (he has only directed 5 features in 38 years, with another on the way – if you believe Malick), but the overall box office prospects of “The Tree of Life” aren’t such a sure bet. However, if you like your films evocative and discussion-worthy (not to mention hand-crafted), give Malick’s latest a try – just don’t complain that it made you think too much…

Lasting Impressions

Director Mike Mills doesn’t make movies that are easy to logline. His last feature, 2005’s “Thumbsucker,” was a film festival darling, nominated at the Berlin Film Festival, The Independent Spirit Awards and the Sundance Film Festival. At all three, Mike Mills didn’t win – but his lead actor, Lou Taylor Pucci, took home the Silver Bear in Berlin and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Now Mills’ second feature, “Beginners,” starring Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor, opens this weekend and is equally difficult to describe: an aimless son contends with his 75 year old dad’s announcement that he is gay, as the film touches on issues of acceptance, death and responsibility for one’s life. Mills based the film on his own life experiences, and early critical response suggests McGregor and Plummer both turn in award-worthy performances.

Old Fashioned Romance

Coming closest to a ‘tentpole’ picture as any on this alternative list, director Tom Hanks’ second theatrical feature (although he has logged serious directing time on his production company’s several HBO mini-series, including “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific”) “Larry Crowne” stars Hanks and Julia Roberts as a downsized worker and local college professor, respectively. In an attempt to reinvent himself, Hanks attends college and reignites the passion Roberts had lost for teaching (and for love, apparently). The script is co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos, whose surprise hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was produced by Hanks’ Playtone. Don’t expect much beyond ‘boy meets girl, etc…’ from “Larry Crowne.” But if you liked the easy chemistry between Hanks and Roberts in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” expect much more of that here…

Love in a Day? Crazy Life?

Two very different films open on July 29: “Life in a Day,” from National Geographic Films, edits together footage from thousands of contributors to tell the story of life on earth in 24 hours; and “Crazy, Stupid Love,” starring Steve Carell as a suddenly-single man accepting romantic advice from playboy pal Ryan Gosling. The ‘Life’ project has been seen on YouTube (which co-produced), but makes its big-screen debut domestically. Carell’s film is a big investment by Warner Brothers in Dan Fogelman’s script ($2.5 million), but the studio apparently has great plans for the writer, having recently bought Fogelman’s pitch for a Tom Cruise vehicle for $2 million (with an additional $3 million due at completion). Either 7/29 film should prove a cure to the sequel-mania sweeping cinemas by this time of the summer. And – an added plus – neither film is in 3-D!

Everything Old is New Again! – Guilty Pleasures…

Of course, one does not live by original films alone – commercial films can be enjoyed like a palate cleanser between original movies. But they’re only necessary in small doses – the following films emulate the current trend towards remakes and sequels, but still offer something new.

Reel Suspense

Looking an awful lot like an early Steven Spielberg film (in more ways than one), J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” is a coming-of-age tale whose plot is still shrouded in secrecy, although the film opens in one week. But Abrams is open about the effect his film’s co-producer has had on him, citing Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jaws,” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” as primary influences. Given Abrams’ film’s youthful cast, suspenseful action and government conspiracy overtones, “Super 8” looks to have the potential to be a breakout hit worthy of early Spielberg – depending on what is on that crashed train…

Naughty Cameron?

Just when you were beginning to think you imagined “There’s Something About Mary,” Cameron Diaz returns in the R-rated comedy “Bad Teacher,” in which she plays a foul-mouthed junior high school teacher who, after being dumped by a sugar daddy, proceeds to pit two colleagues against one another in her effort to pay for breast implants. Co-starring Justin Timberlake and Jason Segel and directed by Jake Kasdan, this dark comedy offers a real alternative to robot movies.

Hey, it’s the last one…

On the rare chance you’ve been out of touch for the last 13 years, there’s been a phenomenon called ‘Harry Potter,’ first in the publishing world, and soon after in the movies. Now, after 10 years, and 8 movies from 7 books, the series is coming to a finale with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” in 3-D, on July 15th, 2011. It will be the first ‘Potter’ feature in 3-D ( last year’s ‘Hallows Part 1’ simply didn’t have time for the complicated 3-D re-tooling process and make its preset distribution date); as a result, expect enormous numbers for the final Harry Potter film. That is, unless series creator J.K. Rowling decides to pull another wizard out of a hat, so to speak…

So there is hope for fans of original cinema this summer. Just remember – diamonds are hard to find, too.  And, as with any good movie, they’re always formed under pressure…

Style? …or Substance?

May 10th, 2011 No comments

It’s been a little while, but the victory of “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” at the Academy Awards in February for Best Picture and Best Director has gotten us thinking: is there such a thing as a ‘style over substance’ bias at the Oscars?

The Academy Award Best Picture victory of “The King’s Speech” (along with Best Director, Tom Hooper, as well as best original screenplay by David Seidler) over its notable competitor “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher (although “The Social Network”‘s screenplay, adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s book, also won), says a lot about Academy voters. They like an underdog, it seems, even when the Directors’ Guild or the Writers’ Guild feel otherwise. Stylish films (or films which emphasize direction over story) from first-time directors have scuttled Oscar hopes for master director Martin Scorsesetwice. And other great directors (ever heard of Steven Spielberg? Stanley Kubrick?) have had their hopes dashed by ‘flashy’ entrants in the Oscar race.

 

This Year’s Model

It’s not hard to see why “The King’s Speech” won the Best Picture Oscar over “The Social Network,” since Toby Hooper’s ‘Speech’ is playful, studied and gimmicky. Audiences love that in a movie, and the Academy, despite their above-average member age, usually loves audience favorites. Besides, the story behind David Seidler’s truth-based script is practically a movie on its own: a stutterer himself, Seideler got the Queen Mother’s permission to write her husband’s story, on the condition that he wait until after her death to sell it – and she then proceeded to live to the ripe old age of 101! (In the process, Seidler became the oldest winning screenwriter in Academy Award history.)  Sorkin’s adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” served as the basis of Sorkin’s adaptation, “The Social Network,” under David Fincher’s direction. Although both pictures were nominated for Best Picture, screenplay and director, Fincher’s coolly calculated, challenging evocation of the Silicon Valley start-up explosion and birth of Facebook lost out to Hooper’s frenetic and occasionally slapstick historical tale. Although both pictures did well at the box office, it’s a good bet that 20 years from now more people will be citing the influence of Fincher’s work in “The Social Network” (or his previous film “Zodiac,” which similarly evoked a recent period setting with astonishing effect) than will be pointing to “The King’s Speech” and its effect on film. 

Freshman curse?

It sure seems like veteran film director Martin Scorsese has been the victim of this Academy ‘Style vs. Substance’  bias. Multiple times. He finally got his Best Director Oscar in 2007 for “The Departed,” but was nominated (and, of course, lost) 6 times previously. I was at the Academy Awards in 1981 when Scorsese lost to the first of three first-time directors, Robert Redford, who won for “Ordinary People” over Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (argued by many cinephiles to be the best film of the 80s). Scorsese would go on to lose (with “Goodfellas”) to Kevin Costner and “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, and again to first-time feature director Rob Marshall, whose “Chicago” beat “The Aviator” in 2005. It was only after his 7th nomination, for “The Departed,” that Scorsese defeated this ‘freshman curse.’ Even still, his ‘loser’ films like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Raging Bull” and “Gangs of New York” are considered ‘winners’ in the pages of film history.

Always the Bridesmaid…

 Martin Scorsese isn’t alone in terms of being a powerhouse director with an empty shelf full of near-misses at the Oscar ceremony. Steven Spielberg has been nominated 9 times, and won three of those Oscars (he won for Best Picture and Best Director in 1994 for “Schindler’s List,” but in 1998 had to settle for Best Director only for “Saving Private Ryan”). The Oscar for Best Picture of 1998 went to John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” which many in Hollywood attributed to a savvy “For Your Consideration” Academy Award trade publication advertising campaign. Again, regardless of “Shakespeare in Love”‘s wit and frothiness, its importance to film history is bound to be overshadowed by its losing Best Picture competitor “Saving Private Ryan.”

How about Light versus Dark?

Although 2010’s Best Picture battle underscored the ‘style versus substance’ debate in Hollywood, it’s really nothing new. The Academy has been choosing between light entertainment and heavy drama since its inception. In 1951, Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” lost to “An American in Paris” at the box office. Vincente Minnelli’s popular musical film beat Kazan’s gritty drama that year (although Kazan – and ‘Streetcar’ star Marlon Brando – would win golden statuettes a few years later for their work together on “On the Waterfront” ). A similar situation would arise 14 years later when “My Fair Lady” faced down “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” as Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1965. Despite its vaunted place in film history (and multiple Oscar nominations), Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic black comedy lost to George Cukor’s refined adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe classic, which practically swept the 1965 Oscar ceremony. Even still, I don’t know of many people whose ‘desert island movie collection’ would leave out ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Can’t say I know a lot of people who would include ‘My Fair Lady,’ either, but that’s just me…

Doesn’t visionary count? 

Finally, one of the more obvious ‘style over substance’ choices for Best Picture has to come from 1976, in which heavyweight Hollywood dramas “All the President’s Men,” “Bound for Glory,” “Taxi Driver” (there’s that hapless Scorsese again!) and the late Sidney Lumet’s classic “Network” (from Paddy Chayefsky’s original Oscar-winning screenplay) all lost to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which clealy struck a chord with underdog-lovers everywhere. A tremendously-successful independent film, “Rocky” spawned five sequels.  “Network,” on the other hand, predicted the rise of reality TV, ratings wars and global media, not to mention airwave-hogging ideologues. So there is that

Who says it’s just style or substance?

While discussing the subject of style versus substance, a friend asked an intriguing question: “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?”

So – coming up next: ‘Nature versus Nurture: Creativy or Experience?’ 

Who ARE you People?!

February 25th, 2011 No comments

For Bards blog has reached a milestone of sorts – it’s turned the page on its first year, and is moving full-speed ahead into its second.

Some Numbers

During the last year, I have written 79 blog posts which have been read by thousands of readers from 65 countries. Not surprisingly, English language-speaking countries account for a substantial share of this traffic, especially since I have relatives (and many close friends) in the United States and the United Kingdom. But that can’t explain why For Bards blog is popular in Australia or New Zealand, where I am delighted to have discovered a loyal readership.

 

It has been fun as well as educational to write For Bards blog during the last year. Many of the posts dealt with the business end of show business, discussing weekend box office numbers or the changing of the guard at one studio or another. Other posts discuss the creative process, or writing in general. But some of my favorite posts have been more personal, like the series of posts I wrote about “My Favorite Week,” when I was lucky enough to hang out with horror movie icon Vincent Price, or relating the ongoing drama of MGM in “Dyin’ Lion?,” which gave me a chance to reminisce about the studio in earlier troubled times. But when the public speaks, its voice must be heard: the #1 most-read post on For Bards blog the last year? It was a relatively innocuous post about big budget releases – but its title must’ve been irresistable to search engines: “Is that a Tentpole in your pocket? (Or are you just shoring up your slate?)” It certainly proves one thing – Madison Ave. is right: (implied) sex sells! From here on in, I’ll try to work something smarmy into every title…

I Hear You

Many readers have been kind enough to leave comments on For Bards blog – and I am always happy to hear from fellow writers and/or film fans. I’ve also learned a great deal about spam: it’s a tool used by some to direct ‘hits’ to their own websites (or sites they advertise on). I’ve learned how to deal with industrial spam while continuing to offer readers a chance to comment. So don’t hesitate to share your opinion (or movie suggestions) – just don’t be surprised if a spam-laden ‘posting’ never appears… I have my ways!

Shameless Plug

My contributions to For Bards blog are linked to my website Forbard Story Services, and both sites have received a good deal of cross-traffic over the past year. As a result, Forbard Story Services has been fortunate enough to help a number of writers with their screenplays, stage plays, teleplays, treatments and other writing projects.  It is always exciting to offer perspective and constructive analysis to writers, and the coming year holds a great deal of promise for more of the same. I encourage writers to keep up the hard work, since Forbard Story Services is ready, willing and able to help.

So, who ARE you people?

Who are For Bards blog readers? They’re writers, they’re movie fans, they’re my voluminous family… They’re also residents of the Maldives, Ivory Coast, Denmark, Slovenia, South Africa, Argentina, Burma, China, Brazil, Russia, and 55 other countries… In other words, they’re lovers of film and writing from around the world. And I look forward to continuing to write about those subjects as For Bards blog moves from its infancy into toddlerdom. In the meantime, thanks to ALL of you for reading For Bards blog!

Are Movies Getting BIGGER?

February 3rd, 2011 1 comment

In the 1950 classic “Sunset Blvd.,” when down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) meets faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), he says “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.” Norma’s response: “I am big. It was the pictures that got small.”

“Sunset Blvd.”‘s script won Academy Awards for screenplay and story for writers Billy Wilder (who was also nominated for Best Director), writing partner Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.. It’s one of many memorable lines in a classic Hollywood film about Hollywood that garnered 11 nominations, including Best Picture, winning the coveted statuettes for Screenplay/Story, Art/Set direction and Best Score (by Franz Waxman). Seen at the time by movie stars and studio heads as an indictment of Hollywood, “Sunset Blvd.” has gone on to become a beloved drama often quoted by cinephiles. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille” is another classic line, having worked its way into the popular lexicon as an alternative way of saying “I’m prepared.”

But Norma Desmond’s biting response about Hollywood raises an interesting point. Fewer studio films are being made (110 in 2010 versus 121 in 2009), and the cost of most of those fewer films have risen. Since box office figures represent a drop in attendance in 2010 of 8%, and the total domestic box office return dropped 4%, it’s clear that fewer people are going to the movies – and they are paying more. Premium 3-D ticket prices are the reason the box office take hasn’t shrunk as much as attendance, but the fact remains that the movie business is undergoing a paradigm shift. Are pictures getting smaller? Quite the opposite: they’re getting BIGGER.  

A quick look at the upcoming slate of pictures for 2011 makes one thing very obvious: for better or worse, consider 2011 ‘the year of the numeral.’ Sequels, prequels and remakes rule the roost in the coming year, with titles like “The Hangover 2,” “Transformers 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean 4,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Cars 2,” “Scream 4,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Planet of the Apes” prequel “Rise of the Apes,” “Shrek” spin-off “Puss in Boots,” a remake of “Arthur,” another Tyler Perry ‘Madea’ film – “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” along with a new Muppet movie, as well as “Mission Impossible 4,” “Sherlock Holmes II,” another remake of “The Lone Ranger,” (due in 2012) and an American version of Sweden’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” directed by “The Social Network”‘s David Fincher. And that doesn’t even count the veritable flood of superhero movies coming our way: “Captain America,” “Thor,” and “The Green Lantern,” to name a few.

So – are the pictures getting small? No way. Studios and moviemakers depend on recognizeable ‘properties’ to stoke their B.O. furnaces, and just about every film listed above will have a budget equal to (or more than) the previous film in its series. After all, ‘bigger is better,’ right? At least that’s what Hollywood is counting on. The studios are also readying ‘familiar’ projects (many of them in 3-D to optimize profits) like “Dark Shadows,” an adult-themed “Red Riding Hood,” “The Smurfs,” “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” a 3-D motion capture film by Steven Spielberg (and ostensibly the first of a series), in addition to “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” based on the beloved 1938 kids book.

So – pictures are getting bigger. TV and movie maven J.J. Abrams has his super-secret “Super 8” project coming out in early June – it’s a nod to the early sci-fi films of Steven Spielberg. And things are really going to get loud and in-your-face when Michael Bay opens his next “Transformers” film on July 1st. In addition, “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau has his hybrid western/action/sci-fi graphic novel adaptation “Cowboys & Aliens” opening at the end of July. Even Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) has another action film opening with “Sucker Punch,” opening on March 25th. If you didn’t get enough titan clashing in 2010, Mickey Rourke and the next Superman, Henry Cavill, will become “Immortals” in a Grecian epic opening in November.

So – unless you are a denizen of indie arthouse fare, depend on one thing: movies are getting bigger. Running times often underscore this, making some action/adventure films feel like an extended assault on your senses. It’s all part of the ‘magic of the movies,’ although the coming glut of pre-packaged entertainment might leave one wondering whether it’s dark magic – or merely time-worn tricks being utilized to, as Harry Cohn famously said, ‘put fannies in seats.’

Next: Hold On – aren’t movies getting smaller?