Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Release Date: July 1969

Starring: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson

Screenwriters: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Terry Southern

Pitch: Inhale. Brush off long hair putdowns. Rev the Harley. Look at the pretty scenery. Inhale.

Rating: **

What works: This movie presents a snapshot of hippie culture in the late ’60s. It highlights drug culture, freedom as a mindset, communal living and anti-hippie sentiment. I added the second star on account of the awesome movie soundtrack (“Born to be Wild”; “The Weight”) and an amusing tagalong parade scene.

Where it fumbles: Sorry, I didn’t get it. It’s a much lauded “iconic” film that I’m supposed to find pretty trippy. My reaction when the end credits rolled: “That’s it?!”, combined with “Thank God that’s over.” Character development? Forget it! Plot? Forget it! It feels like Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, who each received “writing” credits, had a general idea—road trip to New Orleans, meet hippies, meet hippie haters—and winged it. Smoking pot and popping some potent pills, I suppose they felt they had something groovy and rad. Watching it while drinking a glass of wine, I didn’t feel the vibe. The scene in which Jack Nicholson’s lawyer character pretends he doesn’t know what to do with a joint is unintentionally comical. Even Jack Nicholson at his Oscar-caliber best can’t be convincing in that situation!

Was there an actual screenplay or just an outline prior to filming? The dialogue seems like it was improvised and rehearsed once or twice before each scene was filmed. In the hands of Mike Leigh, it might have meant something. Capturing a mood or a time is one thing, but a film still has to tell a story. As it is, it’s one Why Bother shoulder shrug.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Release Date: December 2009

Starring: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga

Screenwriters: Sheldon Turner, Jason Reitman

Pitch: If you keep moving, life may never catch you. “Firing” squad specialist reconsiders his ways as two women shake his personal and professional worlds.

Rating: ****

What works:
- First, it’s an unusual job that is featured: a contract guy who flies around the U.S. terminating corporate employees. Not only is it unusual, the position is highly relevant in the current recession economy.

- The character is odd. A fortysomething who actually likes the fact his has no real home, no roots, no longterm relationships. And it’s the perfect role for Clooney, a suave A-list movie star who has never settled down to marriage and a family.

- The two female characters play extremely well off Clooney’s Ryan. One mirrors his no-strings-attached way of life, the other (Natalie) questions it. Ryan, in turn, spars with Natalie over her Internet-driven, impersonal plan for firing people more expeditiously. Ryan and Natalie are walking contradictions: each professing to care or not care when a large part of their lives defies this.

- There is sharp dialog throughout. Wish I could remember some of it now, but there were many WOW writing moments, especially the scenes between Ryan and Natalie as they pushed each other’s buttons.

Where it fumbles:
- The fact that Ryan would be summoned to save his sister’s wedding when the groom gets cold feet is a wonderful plot point for Ryan, a man who sees no value in marriage. His having to convince the groom actually leads to Ryan viewing commitment differently. Beautiful from a screenwriter’s perspective. Unfortunately, it is too contrived. Why is the groom sitting all alone as he thinks of bowing out of his wedding on the wedding day? Where are the best man and his family members? It is completely unrealistic that the long lost brother of the bride would be the one called in to give the pivotal pep talk.

- It was an unforeseen twist to have the woman Ryan has an affair with end up being not only married but a parent of young children. Methinks too unforeseen. One of those Gotcha screenwriting moments that is a letdown. How is this female character to be believed as being a mother who cares about her kids, given her extensive job traveling and her ballsy personality?

- This leads to an odd ending. Ryan at first seems not to care about reaching his ten million air miles goal. It seems he awakens inside to realize there is no heart in that achievement, not like what could have been achieved by being more involved with his sisters’ lives or by striving for something more than a carefree relationship with a woman. But no, in the end, he goes back to the air, continuing to travel the country firing people and apparently satisfied in doing so. Are we to really believe that, after a couple of epiphanies, he is just going back to life as he knows it? Ryan hasn’t changed and it’s not at all satisfying. This is particularly frustrating because, up until the last ten or fifteen minutes, the movie was brilliant.

Sunday, April 25, 2010



Release Date: June 2009

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds

Screenwriter: Pete Chiarelli

Pitch: A tyrant of a book editor attempts to avoid deportation to (shiver in your parkas) Canada by proposing to marry her long suffering assistant.

Rating: **

What works: Yes, what does work? I’ve been struggling with this. As a romantic comedy, it left my funny bone feeling like it was broken. And yet somehow I cared about the hokey final scene. I don’t think I ever bought that Sandra Bullock’s character was the monster that the email alerts warning of her arrival told us she was several times in the opening frames. Show, don’t tell. Sure, she fires a guy, but he’s apparently a lazy guy who doesn’t even bother to call a client about an Oprah appearance and, worse, is an adulterer. We’re supposed to find Bullock ruthless? She does require the Ryan Reynolds character to work the weekend and miss granny’s 90th birthday and she’s apparently quite demanding about having her specialty coffee ready. It just doesn’t seem enough. Miranda Priestly lite. There was nothing wrong with the beginning scenes in establishing character, but they just weren’t enough in and of themselves. She has to say some horrendous things to Ryan’s character and that never seems to occur.

So things start flawed. As in so many romantic comedies, the lovers are supposed to loathe one another in the beginning. Ryan hates Sandra. Got it. Sandra rolls over Ryan? Maybe.

And then we get to the humor or lack thereof. Betty White! I was ready for her to spar with Sandra. The affable granny bearing her dentures when no one else sees it. But no! Betty is more Rose Nylund than Sue Ann Nivens. A shame. Even in Rose mode, it isn’t enough. She does an aboriginal dance. That’s supposed to be wacky?! And poor Mary Steenburgen. This is the same actress who one an Oscar for her role in 1980’s “Melvin and Howard” and played such a fully formed, compelling character in 1983’s “Cross Creek”. It’s been a painful decline ever since. Here she has nothing to do but be happy for her son and annoyed with Craig T. Nelson (playing a typical Craig T. Nelson character). These recognizable actors don’t get to stand out in any way.

There’s the eagle-takes-dog scene that probably generated some laughs in the theater. (Later, when Bullock finds herself in the woods, I worried there was going to be a groaner of a scene with a bear. I upped my rating by a half star, thanking the film for not going there.) The male stripper? Shrug. The naked collision between Sandra and Ryan? Maybe. If anything, that much talked about scene only surprised and distracted me in that Bullock’s belly seemed fleshier than I’d expected. I think this scene, more than anything about the writing, brought viewers to the movie. To be more specific, Ryan Reynolds’ buff body brought the Box Office.

Where it fumbles: Oops. I think I talked about fumbles above. Couldn’t help myself. I think it comes down to Bullock’s character not being fully established. I’ll admit I’ve never thought Bullock has acting chops and here she fails to convey enough ruthlessness and self-absorption to make her ultimate change that much of a transformation. It’s not just Bullock’s fault. It feels as if some opening scenes were cut—as if producers (and Bullock is one of them) didn’t want beloved Sandra to come off as TOO unlikable. (Odd. Her best role was in “Crash” when she was thoroughly unlikable.) If you don’t set the tone right in the beginning and your supporting characters have little to do except repeatedly say, “Come on, dear. We’re taking you out. Just the ladies”, then there isn’t much to see.

Well, except for Ryan Reynolds’ abs.