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Moriarty Rumbles! M. Night's In The WOODS, SECOND HAND LIONS, And LOST IN TRANSLATION!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

Y’know what? It’s no goddamn fun writing a negative review. No fun at all.

But, wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let me start by saying it’s been a wonderful and extended weekend. My co-writer went out of town, giving me several days off. I almost didn’t know what to do with the freedom. It was a great recharge filled with a chance to see a few friends, eat out a few times, and, hell, I even got away to San Diego on Saturday, where I took my girl to Sea World, something she’s wanted to do for a while. Saw several movies, and even managed something that’s increasingly rare these days: a face-to-face with Harry. Honestly, I don’t think he’s been in LA since the AICN pilot, and I’ve only been to Austin a few times in the interim. Breaking bread with him and Father Geek and a few other friends was loads of fun.

As I said, I’ve managed to get out to see a few things, and I thought three of those occasions deserved some degree of discussion before we get down to today’s main event...

SECONDHAND LIONS

The harshest thing I can say about the second directorial effort by Tim McCanlies (DANCER, TX, POP. 81) is that it’s overly sweet at times and occasionally seems too sincere for its own good. McCanlies isn’t the most visually adventurous director, and it’s sort of a shame. There are some sections of the film that were begging for a richer visual palette, flights of storytelling fancy that never quite take wing. Even so, he does seem to have created a nice rapport with his cast, and there’s a lot about the movie that is charming and affecting as a result. If you don’t mind sorting through a mixed bag, you’ll be rewarded with some real gems here, worth the time.

First, the question must be asked: how is Haley Joel Osment as he crosses from little boy to awkward teen?

The answer? Appropriately awkward. Walter’s a kid who doesn’t really fit in, thanks in large part to the way his mother Mae (Kyra Sedgwick) keeps moving him around, desperately searching for something or someone to make her feel safe. The film opens with Mae driving Walter through rural Texas. Cinematographer Jack Green (UNFORGIVEN) knows dry and dusty, and the best thing he does is quickly etch in just how desolate this place is. You really feel for Walter when his mother drives him up to the front of a ramshackle old house in the middle of nowhere.

Turns out, this is the home of Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth (Michael Caine), his infamously eccentric and allegedly rich old uncles, only recently returned from a 40 year disappearance. The truth about their time away and the source of all that money they’re supposedly sitting on are the film’s primary mysteries, the things that draw Walter in. Garth’s the one who opens up to Walter first, and he starts to tell the story of their past together.

And here’s where I’m conflicted. See, I like the stories that Garth tells, but I don’t really like the way those stories are told. The bookends for the film involve Walter as an adult, played by Josh Lucas. It’s nice work, even if it’s only for a few scenes. He’s evidently a cartoonist now, and we get a glimpse of his studio, of the artwork on his desk and the walls. We see it at the start of the film, and then the closing credits actually bring that comic strip art to animated life. Berkley Breathed, creator of the great BLOOM COUNTY, contributes the artwork here, and it made me wish that the film had been the great version of Peter Care’s THE SECRET LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS. That film, another coming-of-age story, used Todd McFarlane’s animated sequences to fill out the imagination of the protagonists. I didn’t think the device paid off in that film, but with Breathed aboard, I think it would have been amazing here. McCanlies did, after all, write the screenplay for THE IRON GIANT, one of the best animated films of the last 20 years. By showing us Walter’s work as an adult, McCanlies introduces the idea that Walter’s creative spirit was first sparked by that summer with his uncles. Everything he draws has its start there.

If Breathed had perhaps shown us Hub’s adventures with Garth and the mysterious Jasmine (Emmanuelle Vaugier), it might have been that one additional step into the fantasy that I needed. I don’t fault McCanlies or Green for my reaction. Heightened, fantastic, tall-tale reality is a tricky thing, even for a seasoned filmmaker. Breathed’s work, even the little bit we see, is so good that it made me nostalgic for a comic strip that has never existed.

Duvall and Caine have a nice, easy chemistry with one another, and they bring very different types of charisma to play. Duvall plays tough as nails here. Hub’s made of chiseled rock, even at this age, and he can fight five men a quarter of his age at once and walk away without a scratch. He’s the kind of impossibly strong that you remember from childhood looking up at your father or an uncle or some other strong male figure. He’s the natural leader, the rough rider, the one unbent by age. Hub’s wounded, but he’s not weak. And as he looks age in the eye, he refuses to blink, refuses to just settle in and take root. Garth’s the sidekick, the voice of reason, crafty in his own right. He’s got a sense of humor about everything they’ve experienced, and Caine’s got a twinkle in his eye all the way through. Osment handles himself well opposite both of them. He seems a little intimidated by the older actors, but that’s appropriate. Walter starts out overwhelmed, a “weenie,” as Hub puts it, and only gradually gains the strength that allows him to claim this place as his home. There’s also some nice supporting work by Christian Kane (nice to see him away from TV’s ANGEL for once), Nicky Katt (always good at sleazy and threatening), and Eric Balfour (soon to be seen in New Line’s TEXAS CHAINSAW remake) in a great last-reel appearance. Now I’m anxious to see BIG FISH, so I can see what Tim Burton does with similar thematic material. A big part of the weight on Burton’s shoulders is giving visual life to the tall tales that Albert Finney’s character tells in that film. No matter what, I’d say anyone who is up for some sincere sentiment without an overabundance of schmaltz should take a chance on SECONDHAND LIONS.

And, as I understand it, New Line’s releasing the RETURN OF THE KING trailer this coming weekend, so it’s a good bet it’ll play in front of SECONDHAND LIONS. I haven’t seen the new trailer. I hear there’s a lot of new footage, though, including a rumored first glimpse of... her...

LOST IN TRANSLATION

A lot’s been written about this film already, and I can see why people were falling over themselves to strike just the right pose in reaction to Sofia Coppola’s lovely, lyrical little film. It’s very slight, a gossamer creation that stands resolutely outside genre, and a further affirmation of the potency of her voice as a filmmaker. I’m so impressed by the two films she’s made and the way she seems to be carving a niche for herself that’s totally different than either the work of her father (Francis Ford Coppola) or her husband (Spike Jonze). Not to say that she hasn’t learned from being around them. Her life must have been all about soaking up lessons from every set, watching and filing things away. As a result, she’s got an impressive command of film language, assisted ably by her cinematographer Lance Acord (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION), and what she’s crafted is the kind of confection that perfectly cleanses the palette from the blockbusters of summer and prepares us for the more serious, adult films of the fall ahead.

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are both deceptively good in the film. They don’t seem to be acting at all. It’s as if Coppola just introduced the two of them and stranded them in Tokyo to see what would happen. She brings out a wonderful sweetness to Bill, and as a result, his sense of humor isn’t as blistering or withering here as it can be. If Bill wants to make someone hurt, he can, but this is the opposite. Something about this girl seems to reach him and make him feel in a way he hasn’t felt in a long time. And, yeah, in the film they’re called Charlotte and Bob, but reality gets a little fuzzy at the edges of this film. At one point, Bob/Bill is flipping through the channels and he finds a broadcast of himself from the ‘70s. It’s pretty apparently SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE footage, but it’s not supposed to be SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. There has been a lot of ink wasted wondering if Sofia based the characters played by Anna Faris and Giovanni Ribisi on Cameron Diaz or Spike Jonze, but it seems like pointless effort. All artists use their lives and the people around them or things they observe, and they mix it up and invent and rewrite and invert, and by the time you see or read or hear something, it’s not about “real” or “fake” anymore. It’s just art. This film is definitely something honest and heartfelt, something genuinely meant.

Tokyo is quite beautiful here, even if it does feel claustrophobic at times. An early morning shot of Bob golfing in the shadow of Mt. Fiji is quite haunting. Coppola seems to have included a lot of found moments, happy accidents, and it makes the film feel spontaneous and alive. Beyond that, I don’t know what to tell you to persuade you to go see it. It’s not like any sort of recitation of the events of the film are going to help. That’s not what it’s about. It’s a mood, an atmosphere, a stolen moment. It is a special film, and one that will linger, and I hope you get the chance to see and enjoy it for yourselves.

SCARFACE

For some reason, it made me laugh out loud when the first title at the end of the movie came up this time. “This film is dedicated to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht,” the director and the writer of the 1932 original. I can’t help but think that Hecht, one of the most clever and rapid-fire dialogue writers in the business back then, would have heart failure when he heard lines like, “Miami is like a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked.” What Hawks would think of a set piece like the infamous chainsaw scene or Pacino’s last stand against the guys invading his mansion is also a source of great amusement. One thing’s for certain... Brian De Palma’s demented rollercoaster ride hasn’t lost any of its ability to shock or offend in the 20 years since its first release, and if anything, Oliver Stone’s screenplay feels more intentionally funny now than it did when the film first came out.

The reason to see this film is simple: Al Pacino is staggeringly entertaining in every single frame of the movie, chewing the edges of the frame as he brings Cuban immigrant Tony Montana to snarling, venal life. He is so hungry at the start of the film, so determined to have America, all of it, all at once, and to jam it into his eyes, his ears, his mouth, his nose, as fast as he can. Tony’s rise to power is never a question. It’s only a matter of time. He brings along Manny (Steven Bauer) as the one person he can trust, and he starts to climb over anybody he has to in order to become one of Miami’s biggest drug lords. “THE WORLD IS YOURS” is a phrase that shows up a number of times in the film, and it’s always meant with a bitter, cutting, ironic edge.

Seeing this on the other side of MIAMI VICE and gangsta rap and any number of homages and thefts and tributes, it would be easy to view this as a museum piece, all the life long since squeezed out of it, but that’s not the case at all. Oliver Stone was at his most manic and excessive when he wrote this, and De Palma just took the script and ran with it. He piled the style onto the script, and the result is surprisingly sleek, despite the nearly three hour running time. The cast is full of people just ripping it up, relishing every bit of Stone’s script. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio with her giant disco afro, Michelle Pfeiffer as the ice queen, Robert Loggia as Frank, Tony’s first big boss, F. Murray Abraham as the oily Omar who has a particularly memorable finish, the late Paul Shenar (the voice of Jenner in THE SECRET OF NIMH) as Sosa, Tony’s South American connection, and on and on. This film was profoundly influential on pop culture, even as it was critically reviled upon release. It deserved better then, and Focus Features did a good thing putting it out in theaters. I think they should have gone wider with it, really pushed it as a major re-release, and the e-mail I’ve gotten on the subject suggests that they’re missing a lot of box-office by not having it on more screens. The audience we saw it with on Friday night was enthusiastic, and many of them seemed to know the movie word-for-word. When it hits DVD later this month, I look forward to comparing the picture quality there to seeing it on one of the Arclight’s screens. I wish I’d known to wait for the 11:00 show, when it’s playing in the Cinerama Dome. Would’ve been a trip. At any rate, if you’re near a theater playing it and you don’t mind a bit of wallowing in the profane, it’s every bit as great as it’s ever been.

THE WOODS (Screenplay Review)

And now, at last, we come to the reason for today’s column, and I’ll confess... I’ve been dragging my feet. I’ve been trying to get a handle on how to approach this script, since no one likes being the bearer of bad news, especially when you’re dealing with a cult of adoration as blindly forgiving as that of M. Night Shyamalan, both in terms of audiences and studio executives. No matter what I say here, I’m going to get personally attacked for saying it, and that’s a shame. It’s easy to kill the messenger. It’s harder to really hear the message.

Some part of me actually hopes that the screenplay that has obviously leaked (despite Nina Jacobsen’s assurance that the only copy was locked in her office, impossible to reach) is a fake. That would make me feel so much better, and it would be a fitting way to throw people off the trail. It would also probably make Shyamalan laugh as he read reviews where people tried to tiptoe around how miserably bad THE WOODS is as a read if he knew that what they were reading was just hogwash. Keep in mind, I’ve been talking about M. Night’s work online since well before the theatrical release of THE SIXTH SENSE, and one of the things that made me an early fan of his work was the nearly-surgical precision of how he composed his pages. There was an economy to his writing that was intimidating. I read LABOR OF LOVE, STUART LITTLE (his lovely early draft), and SIXTH SENSE over one long weekend, and by the end, I was convinced he was the Next Big Thing.

I wasn’t alone. After SIXTH SENSE exploded at the box office, he signed a deal with Disney that gives him a fairly unprecedented level of freedom. He got burned early on with his experiences working on LABOR OF LOVE over at Fox, and as a result, he has managed to form a protective wall around himself to prevent anyone from giving him notes or suggesting revisions. He’s insulated himself from other people’s decisions, and as much as that sounds like exactly what every writer/director wants or needs, it can be a trap, and just as destructive as being involved in filmmaking by committee. There’s a balance to it, as with everything, that must be struck, and the more insulated you are, the more you become vulnerable to your own worst instincts. A hit the size of THE SIXTH SENSE buys you a lot of “Fuck You” clout in this town, and despite the fact that UNBREAKABLE was much more modest at the box office, SIGNS marked a return to form as far as money earned, and Shyamalan is still treated with kid gloves in hopes that he’s going to come up with another sensation. But it’s not THE WOODS. Not unless, as I said, this is a completely fake screenplay designed to throw FilmJerk and Darwin Mayflower and Creature Corner off the scent.

After all, isn’t it more comforting to think that someone’s taken the time to write a completely fake draft of a script to throw off Internet rumor sites, rather than thinking that someone as talented as Shyamalan could believe their own hype enough to vanish completely up their own ass? Right away, the first thing that struck me upon reading the script is how sloppy it is. It’s filled with misspellings and goofy grammar errors, and even though the language is the same as the Shyamalan work I’ve read before, there’s a hurried, haphazard quality here that was never in his earlier work. Silly stuff that anyone would catch and correct. Now, if you’re writing a fake script, something you’re just going to leak and that you’re not really going to shoot, I can see that sort of sloppiness. Not with a real script, though. I mean, $5 million a draft should buy at least one run though spell-check, right?

Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced. This can’t be it. He’s putting together a good cast so far, filled with character actors like Adrien Brody and Brendan Gleeson and Judy Greer and Joaquin Phoenix and Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt and Michael Pitt and Cherry Jones, and he wouldn't sign all those people to do a third-rate community theater version of THE CRUCIBLE, filled with cornball dialogue and stiff characters that are more type than anything else. Nobody’s drawn convincingly. Not Lucius Hunt (Phoenix), the shy and introverted young man who wants to challenge the traditional teachings of his village elders. Not Edward Walker (Hurt), the gruff unyielding head of the community. Not August Nicholson, whose son’s funeral opens the film. Not Ivy (Bryce Howard) or Kitty (Greer) Walker, daughters to Edward. Not Alice Hunt (Weaver), withdrawn mother to Lucius, so desperate to understand her son. The language of the script is going to prove more than a mouthful, as in a moment where Kitty speaks her heart to Lucius for the first time. Try not to wince during her breathless, “I love you, Lucius. I love you like the day is long. I love you more than the sun and the moon together. And if you feel the same way, we should not hide it any longer. It’s a gift, love is. We should be thankful. We should bellow it with all the breath in our lungs, ‘Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!’” Lucius and his mother have a dreary relationship designed largely to demonstrate that the community elders all have secrets. Like you need to be told that. This is an M. Night Shyamalan film, after all. There must be a twist, right? There must be some massive surprise everything is building to...

... and here’s where we get into the really tricky stuff. Because this is the giveaway, the thing that reveals this script as a total mockery. There is no way Disney is going to bet on THE WOODS as their big summer movie if the script is built on a two page twist ending so cheap and ridiculous that it would have been laughed out of a pitch meeting at the most obnoxious of the dozens of direct-to-syndication TWILIGHT ZONE/OUTER LIMITS ripoffs on TV over the years. There is no way the punchline to the new M. Night Shyamalan film is some guy shaking his head and saying, “Crazy fucking white people” before getting in a truck and driving away. I refuse to believe it.

Of course, I still haven’t covered the basic premise. We start in 1897, at the aforementioned funeral of a child. We see his headstone, the inscription, the date of death. And then we see the village, and we meet the villagers, and we see them at dinner, gathered all together, interrupted by the sound of inhuman screams from the nearby woods. The only person not terrified by the sound is Noah (Brody), a retarded boy who seems delighted. Shyamalan introduces the rules of the village to us quickly. Red is the “bad color,” the color that attracts “Those We Don’t Speak Of.” You can’t pick a red flower or wear a red garment or own anything red at all. It’s forbidden. Likewise, yellow is the “safety color.” The border of the woods is painted with yellow. When someone finally is sent into the woods, they’re told to wear yellow. Now, Ivy is a blind girl who sees auras, colors around people. You would think that might pay off with the red and yellow motif of the film, that she would be able to ascertain something based on those colors and the clues we’re given. And if this really was the work of someone who gave a shit, then I’m sure that would be the case. But if it is fake, then it doesn’t really matter if things add up, does it? The worst thing about this is that the build-up to the twist endings (yes, that’s right, there are actually THREE big twists in the last twenty pages or so) is fairly dull and routine stuff. SIGNS frustrated me because I didn’t think the ending of the film lived up to the rest of it. For the most part, I think SIGNS is effective, and there are some great moments along the way. Here, there’s no character to hold onto at the center of the film.

For a while, Lucius appears to be the lead, then when something happens to him, Ivy seems to become the lead. It’s also just plain overwritten, like it’s striving for meaning in the mundane. If he uses Tak Fujimoto as his director of photography again, I have no doubt the film will be spectacular to look at. It’s a pastoral setting, with stylized costumes and sets, and Fujimoto will make it luminous. That compared with the long shadows and the browns and greens of the deep woods should provide plenty of opportunity to make this thing beautiful. But that is just the icing on a cake, and if you’re starting with a turd instead of baker’s flour, you’re going to end up with a turd cake. Not a terribly appealing prospect.

But rest assured... that can’t be the case. Shyamalan wouldn’t pull one twist ending only to try to convince us of the same thing a second time, and then do the exact same twist again. He would realize how incredibly insulting that is, and he would come up with something far more clever. He wouldn’t turn the last act into something as lame as a blind girl being stalked for cheap thrills, especially with a payoff as lame as the one here. He wouldn't turn his entire film into a rather pedantic and obvious attack on the notion of a society based on capitalism, especially not if sending the mixed message that modern science might be worth such minor inconveniences as greed, the dissolution of the family, and murder. Nope. I have faith. I have faith that this is all an elaborate prank, played on the Internet, by a storyteller who has something fun and original up his sleeve that he doesn’t want to see spoiled.

At least, that’s what I’d be praying if I had money in this thing. Because if I’m wrong... if by some chance this is the actual script that’s going to be used... then a few things are apparent. One, everybody who’s reviewed it so far has been polite, overly respectful, when the script deserves open scorn. Two, this will be this director’s BATTLEFIELD EARTH or SHOWGIRLS, an epic miscalculation that gets stuck in the audience’s craw for a while, and it will take something really special to buy his way out of the cinematic doghouse this will earn him. Three, this will infuriate audiences across the board. They’ll feel cheated, and they’ll be right.

But like I said... can’t be. It just can’t.

And, yeah, I know the film technically isn't called THE WOODS anymore because Lucky McKee registered the title first. Tell you what I'll do... I'll read Lucky's script and review it later this week, by way of comparison. At the moment, though, I’ve got some friends coming over, and then I’ll be back with my DVD column for the morning, as well as some more updates. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.





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