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Monthly Archives: June 2011
There is one interesting visual image in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (hereafter simply referred to as Transformers 3) that briefly stands out in a sea of robot characters based on toys and human characters who might as well be robots. A writhing and rampant robot-reptile devourer, a hydra made of hardware, a sinuous and snarling buzzsaw-beast occasionally shows up, and it is a vision of such power and freshness that even the weariest moviegoer — and by the time director Michael Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger are done with you, you will be weary — will sit up in their seat and take note with awe.
That, however, is five to ten minutes of Transformers 3‘s 2 hour and 20 minute gargantuan length; the rest of it is a jumble of something like characters in something like a plot that apparently has a beginning, middle and end. Again, tribes of warring robots, the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons, continue their endless war against each other in their place of exile, Earth, as established by the two previous films and the cartoons, comics and toys that inspired them.
Stating that Transformers 3 is better than Transformers 2 is something akin to stating being stabbed is better than being shot. The decision to gimmick up Transformers 3 into 3D means that, for technical reasons and to attain some kind of continuity of motion in the dimensional projection, Bay’s usual microsecond cuts are expanded to seconds; it’s still wham-bam-thank-you-whoever-you-are film-cutting, but it’s Dogme-style slow editing compared to the previous Transformers films. (The 3D doesn’t just slow down the editing; like Avatar and Green Lantern, the use of 3D helps films that would otherwise look waxen and immobile with CGI overload seem even vaguely like film and less like the very large cartoons they in fact are.)
Michael Bay himself knocked Transformers 2 on-the-record — we were rushed by the strike, we know critics didn’t like it — but this film makes you feel like the parolee you just saw repented lifted your wallet. Bay still has no interest in what makes a story — character, plot, action — preferring instead to create set-pieces and fill the time around them. It’s bad enough that the comedy relief invariably is not funny (or is offensive, like when Ken Jeong’s quick supporting moment combines both racism and homophobia), but what’s worse is when Bay fills interjects comedic relief into scenes that are already intended as comedic relief.
Bay has no interest in character: For all the sheen and slow-mo director Michael Bay drapes on every scene of Rosie Huntington-Whitley, her curves and planes are visually more in keeping with automotive engineering as opposed to anything like human sensuality. Shia La Beouf’s Sam Witwicky is, as ever, the appendix of this rotten corpse — small and vestigial, dangling off the colon of the enterprise to yell “Optimus!” or “Bumblebee!” in slowed-down footage. Bay also cares not one whit for plot; after an armada of evil robots is teleported to Washington D.C, they then decamp to Chicago — a 12-hour drive, even for robots — for no stated reason whatsoever to unleash a world-ending plot they could have begun anywhere. I half expected series nemesis Megatron to state that Chicago would be the Decepticon throne because they, like Bay, were offered tax breaks and city managers agreeable to their needs.
But it’s not just the ineptitude of Transformers 3 that baffles; it’s the contradictions. We’re clearly expected to know, or care, about these characters from the backstory of the cartoons — but then the films skip fan-service mythology like a culmination to the leadership clash between Megatron and Starscream. These are at heart films for children, with their robotic clashes and toy-based pedigree — so why is the script loaded with vulgarities like ‘shit’ and ‘bitch’ and, worse, images like a bus full of corpses and civilians having the flesh blasted off their bones by sci-fi weapons until their bony skulls clatter in the gutter? And if these films were intended for adults — and I would argue that seeing Bay do a hard sci-fi saga of high-tech war could, in theory, be interesting — then why is it based on a line of robots that become cars and change back to lecture the audience on human rights? Why do huge, hulking metallic robots spin-kick and tumble with the speed, grace and agility of pre-teen gymnasts? I can swallow the idea of robots the size of trucks and planes clashing clumsily like sumo, but not the idea of them fighting flowing fast like Bruce Lee.
It’s also hard to overlook the politics of the Transformers films. When Optimus Prime (voiced, as ever, by Peter Cullen) says “Now … we take the battle to them!”, it’s hard to not blink at the bizarreness of the lies of the Bush administration’s rationale for the war in Iraq ringing out in baritone from a talking truck with a sword. (Before anyone yells about the idea that there could be nothing less political than the Transformers films, note the number of military agencies thanked for the use of personnel and material in the end credits — I don’t know about you, but I don’t like my tax dollars being used to help Michael Bay make what is essentially propaganda for profit.)
Bay’s directorial style — where the fights and stunts and explosions get bigger and bigger and bigger — has been called “Bay-hem,” a name-brand promise of might and muscle on-screen, splendor and spectacle. And you could argue that by synching 80s nostalgia with millennial effects, the Transformers films are in their way an American institution. But, like many American institutions — Wall Street, the War on Drugs, the Armed Forces — the might and the money and the muscle has become brainless and bloated, forgetting what it was originally intended for in the wasteful pursuit of self-perpetuation. Bay’s a talented director — but no director can make up for not having a script, or for not caring the script he has is horrible and senseless. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a little Bay-hem on the big screen in Transformers 3; aside from one memorable image that livened up battles I didn’t care about between characters I barely knew, all I got was idiocy, tedium and expense in the pursuit of Bay-nality.
Asked if it’s a nice change to open up a script and know from the outset that the film makers are unabashedly shooting for an ‘R’ rating, Cameron Diaz — who plays self-absorbed, self-medicating and selfish Elizabeth Halsey in the hilarious, no-holds-barred “Bad Teacher” — leaned forward, eyes lit up. “This is a beautiful thing, because it does not happen that often. It’s usually the other way around. You open a script, you start to read, and you’re like, ‘They could just go a little further.’ Then they promise you that they will… or they say they will, and then you show up to the set and supposed to be able to be an ‘R,’ and they keep cutting down and keep cutting you down; they pull you back and they pull you back and they say, ‘You’ve got a PG-13.’ You’re like, ‘That’s not the movie I wanted to make.’ This movie, on the other hand, was all about the ‘R,’ and they let us go for it.”
For all of “Bad Teacher”‘s reveling in a new-school set of three ‘R”s — rough language, raunchy sexuality and recreational substance abuse — it’s worth noting that the whole film’s also driven by a great sense of character. As Diaz’s Elizabeth connives to win a teacher of the year award — so she can use the bonus to pay for surgically-enhanced cleavage — she manipulates fellow faculty like Justin Timberlake‘s uptight, uncool but well-to-do substitute teacher Scott Delacorte. Timberlake gets to play the fool in “Bad Teacher” — including a fully-clothed awkward thrust-and-grope session that may be, I suggested, the worst sex scene of 2011.
Timberlake laughed: “I’m hoping to shoot for a higher — for All-Time Worst Sex Scene. It’s pretty bad. All I remember from that was our director Jake (Kasdan) laughing behind a monitor in another room, shouting out, ‘Uglier face!’ — right on my close-up — ‘Uglier face! Uglier face! Strain your neck more! I need to see veins popping out of your head.’”
Jason Segel, who plays relaxed gym teacher Russell Gettis — who may be the only person who sees through Elizabeth’s perverse plans and faked feelings — cut in on Timberlake with a little self-mockery: “I would just be doing regular scenes, and (Kasdan would) be yelling out, ‘Better-looking face! Better-looking face!’ I’d be like, ‘There’s nothing I can do, dude. This is my face; this is my human face.’”
For Timberlake, playing Delacorte — a strange, strained man — was perhaps too much fun. Timberlake joked about how he prepared to play a substitute teacher: “Yeah, I did substituting —different substituting. I would show up and bag groceries. I’d be like, ‘Hey bro, take a break. I’ll take over at Whole Foods for a half hour.’ Then I’d show up, ‘Hey man, what’s up with this? I’ll pump the gas. Let me substitute for you.’ I walked around town, walked around L.A. doing things … I substituted myself, which got weird.” Timberlake laughed, recalling his character’s bland surface — and deep flaws: “Scott Delacourt is a weird dude.”
That kind of joking apparently kept up on the set; according to actress Lucy Punch, who plays too-perfect teacher Amy Squirrel, it was very difficult to not crack up in the face of Diaz’s dead-eyed, dead-souled deadpan as Elizabeth: “It is hard. She was absolutely hilarious and very professional. She wasn’t cracking up at all. She’d laugh at the end; you’d say ‘cut’ and she’d dissolve into giggles. I find it hard with Justin: I had a lot of scenes with Justin, and I had difficulty keeping it together. He made me laugh a lot. I’d say most of the time we were fairly professional.” Punch paused and pondered. “Professional-ish.”
Diaz, for her part, claimed just as brutal a struggle with the giggles as her co-stars: “It’s really hard, because I’m the worst at that as well. They were so frickin’ funny. Between Jason and Justin — singularly, just the two of them by themselves, but then combined. And then Phyllis (Smith) and then Lucy — it took everything that I had for us to even get one good take without me laughing over what they were doing. They’re hilarious; it’s like the highest pedigree of comedians.”
Diaz didn’t exactly experience any flashbacks to her own adolescence, as her character Elizabeth’s style of education was, fortunately, something she never experienced. “I never had a teacher like her — thank God. The funny thing is what I love about this, how this is about the lives of teachers. You always had teachers and you never knew — you just thought that’s all they did. They only existed in the classroom. It’s fun to see these characters as human beings, on the outside — which is really fun because it still exists in a bubble, it still lives inside of this microcosm that they’ve created. It’s still a lot of fun to see that.”
It’s also fun to see Diaz, Timberlake and the other teachers of “Bad Teacher” as grownups trapped in school’s more childish modes of behavior — from tattling to cheating, from rumor-mongering to the violence of dodgeball. So, I asked Segel, did he enjoy dodgeball in his youth — or was he more often hit than not? “I certainly played dodgeball, but I was actually very good at it. I’m lithe — agile as a gazelle.” Not to be outdone, Timberlake tried to one-up his co-star: “I was pretty awesome at dodgeball, which is something to be extremely proud of. When it comes to dodgeball?” Timberlake indicated himself with his thumbs: “King.” Segel, not to be outdone, kept the ‘rivalry’ going. “When it comes to dodgeball?” He indicated himself, two thumbs aloft: “Prime Minister. So that makes me more relevant.”
As Elizabeth is driven to more and more extreme acts in pursuit of happiness in the sealed world of the John Adams Middle School, the film ramps up the comedy. How, I asked Diaz, did she shake off being such a horrible human being the next day? Diaz’s laughing answer also explained director Jake Kasdan’s fast-and-loose directing style: “You roll into it the next day. The great thing about Elizabeth is she says the truth, she says it how she sees it. There’s great wisdom in what she says, in fact. It’s how she delivers it, which I’m sure would be more effective or more appreciated if she delivered it in a less cutting way — but that’s not who she is. The fun thing is that she ends up understanding herself better, knowing her truth and realizing what she has to offer. I appreciate that she chooses not to change how she delivers it.”
Diaz also praised Jake Kasdan for keeping the film light on its feet — and screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky for sticking to their guns. “Lee and Gene did an amazing job at creating these characters, and there was really nothing (changed) — they would come to set and throw out some alternative lines, and that was it. That was all. They’d be, ‘Ah, say this!’ during the middle of the take, and we’d start laughing and go, ‘Okay, I’ll try to get it out without laughing.’ That was about it. It was really such a pleasure to do it. We did this movie very quickly. We were hauling ass; we went non-stop. There was not a moment of downtime. I knew that going in, that there’s not very many takes, — we all had to come hit the ground running every day, we packed a lot in every day. It was a small film. We made it work because that’s the luxury of having a great script. Oftentimes on bigger budget films where scripts are not working, they have the money to go, ‘We’ll fix it as we go.’ You spend a lot of time on set trying to figure it out and unravel the mystery of the characters and the plot, as you’re filming. We’re really lucky. We went, ‘Let’s just take this as is and shoot it.’”
Finally, Diaz tried to sum up exactly why she loved being a “bad Teacher” — and why she had to agree to play a horrible human being without predictable Hollywood sentiment and soft-eyed redemption tacked on to the end of the film. “That was the beauty of this script. Reading it 30 pages in, I was like, ‘This character … I can’t … because how can I redeem this person from all the horrible things she’s doing?’ By the end, I was like, ‘Yes! No redemption whatsoever. I don’t have to apologize. How genius is that?’ Usually you’re apologizing, (in) the last 20 minutes of the movie, for the first hour and a half of the movie. We don’t have to do that with this. There’s a very minimal character arc.” Diaz beamed with the joy of an upstart student eager to enjoy their detention: “So it’s beautiful.”
With the new documentary “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” director Andrew Rossi captures one of journalism’s most venerable institutions in what may be the field’s most complex hour. The New York Times has to face a unsettled landscape where the online revolution has changed the speed, sourcing and very nature of stories — and also the more salient and ugly question of how exactly news institutions are supposed to pay for a business model that’s being literally nickel-and-dimed out of existence by both general economic recession and also the internet’s quick-link, re-blogged ‘culture’ where writing is far more easily re-purposed than paid for.
Talking with Rossi in Los Angeles, the documentarian explains that his film may capture 14 months in the life of the Times, but it’s hardly a document written in stone; Rossi’s been adjusting the film ever since its Sundance debut. “In fact, we just locked 2 weeks ago. We premiered at Sundance in January, but we actually had 3 or 4 different versions since then in which we’ve been tweaking it. For example, the last (text) card now in the film says that The New York Times is charging for access to the full web site and that readers and publishers are still debating how journalism can sustain itself. It’s an open question.”
An open question, but not an easy one; David Carr, Times media columnist — and on-screen subject who provides some of “Page One”‘s most memorable moments — explained how challenging the terrain of the web can be. “It’s both secular and cyclical, in that the newspapering business, as it is, is indexed into manufacturing in a deep way because of trucks and print. People say, ‘If you could only slice that off, then everything would be hunky dory …’ — except we put the white paper out to get the green paper back. That’s the business we’re in. The economics of the Web, because content in advertising doubles each year? Pricing is built on scarcity, and there’s no scarcity on the Web. We’ve had Tiffany’s operate in our paper for 120 years on page 3. We don’t have an equivalent on the Web.”
While “Page One” looks at many universal challenges facing any newspaper, Rossi also took care to look at the unique challenges faced by the Times — including reporter Judith Miller’s role in the Wilson/Plame affair in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, as well as the paper’s unprecedented collaboration with rogue information source Wikileaks and its controversial founder Julian Assange. For Rossi, strange times for the Times meant great material. “There were certain moments (where) I was feeling goosebumps, so when I was covering Brian Stelter’s story about WikiLeaks — his first story about the video that they put out on YouTube, ‘Collateral Damage’ — I instantly knew that that was going to be a huge part of the film.
Little did I know that The New York Times would actually be collaborating with WikiLeaks in a few months with the Afghan war logs and later with state secrets. I don’t know that I necessarily was rubbing my hands together, but I definitely had a visceral reaction.”
One of Rossi’s other challenges is the fact that often, reporters would rather report the story than be it. As Rossi explained, fading into the background with a camera crew took time. “There were several hours spent sitting on the low filing cabinets by people’s cubicles, watching them do nothing.” The director cracked a smile: “Very fascinating. But it was all part of a process of establishing a relationship of trust with them. Then in the moments when there was a lot happening, when things flared up, there was a comfort level that we could tap into.”
Carr, for his part, acknowledged that the journalists of the Times may have had different reasons for — or different ways of — appearing on-camera. “I think it’s part of the reason why you see more men in the film than women. I think men are trained both through the tropes of nature and nurture to being more of a bantam rooster strutting about, displaying plumage. I have female colleagues in the media department who are probably far more interesting — for certain, more articulate — than I am, that chose not to participate in (‘Page One’). That would be the more traditional journalistic pose. That also would be more of the Times thing, which is people work hard at fitting in at the Times as opposed to sticking out. I think it’s a tribute to Andrew’s willingness to stay.”
Rossi also got to examine the power of the Times — namely, its stature as a brand in and of itself. “I think 99 percent of their power is about that brand promise of producing quality journalism and all of the authority that goes along with that and the credibility. Sam Zell, running the Tribune company, is a great villain in this narrative because he’s somebody who we see talking to his employees saying he doesn’t care about the war in Iraq.” In ‘Page One,’ Zell is seen responding to a Tribune reporter’s concern that readers want pictures of kittens more than hard news. Rossi quotes Zell’s on-camera reply: ‘”Then give them that … then, if we can manage to be solvent, then we’ll give them Iraq, also.’” Rossi shook his head. “The New York Times is the complete reverse. There the priority is reporting, having boots on the ground in far-flung places like Baghdad … and providing that original reporting. They’d rather stick by that than make tons of money. That being said, they’re doing incredible things to make the company a multimedia producer of content more than just a newspaper in the traditional sense. I do think that’s part of the solution in the future.”
That story still had to make it to the screen in a way that made sense to an audience — and the idea of using Times media columnist David Carr as a focal point worked surprisingly well, as Carr faces down young iconoclasts like the editors of Vice and would-be “New Media” titans like Michael Wollf on-screen. In fact, the person most surprised by how well that focus worked was … David Carr. “It was a weird thing, because originally he was going to make the movie about me, and I couldn’t really abide having (Rossi) around all the time, so he broadened out to my other colleagues. It widened out, and I think that it’s great for the film, ended up with different characters. The final cut and then in post, it narrowed back in on me. I was a little taken aback; it’s partly because I don’t view what I do as intrinsically interesting or heroic. You’re just doing what you do. By the time you got done with making the movie, I looked like an action figure or something. It’s like, ‘Wow, I’m really cool — except I’m not.’”
Much as a newspaper distills a concise story out of thousands of facts, Rossi had 14 months at the Times — that he transformed to a 90 minute film. I asked how he cut the film down, and if his eyes ever glazed over turning days into moments; Rossi, interestingly, cited fiction-film screenwriting and story guru Robert McKee. “McKee says after 90 minutes is that natural moment when you want to go to the restroom — like a restroom break. In addition to other things that he professes, I believe in that, too. I think 90 minutes is typically the right length, and when we have over 250 hours of footage, there were definitely glazing moments.”
Carr, for his part, is aware of the cinematic tradition where journalism looks more exciting on-film in fiction than it may in reality — and, at the same time, thinks that Rossi’s found a real-but-riveting level of excitement in “Page One” I like ‘All the President’s Men’ because it combines a very high tempo with stakes and exquisite performances. The one thing I adore about (‘Page One’) is when (media reporter Brian) Stelter punches into a phone because ‘My sources are coming out’ — you start to feel a little bit of that crackle, a little bit of that excitement. It’s not like ‘The Insider’ where cell phones become weaponized; it’s not fake, it’s real. Honest to God, I like the movie a lot. I think this movie is going to go into the Pantheon; I think it’s a great journalism film, most definitely because it’s one film that gets out the role of editors in an age (where) editors are supposedly so unimportant — what is our value at this institution? We have some great writers, but we have these really smart women and men. I have a lot of ideas; some of them are good. They help me figure out which ones.”
Carr is looking forward to getting off the publicity trail for “Page One,” where he’s part of the story of the Times — and back to telling the story at the Times. “I don’t want to be somebody who’s standing on top of a hill that I didn’t make — I didn’t build this — and be there. People come and say, ‘Congratulations.’ Really, though, for what? I do want to support the film, I want to look after it …but I want to be able to sit where you sit soon enough and get back to work.”
If “Buck” simply presented the life, times and techniques of Buck Brannaman — one of America’s best-known horse trainers, and one of the inspirations for Robert Redford‘s “The Horse Whisperer” — through setting Brannaman’s folksy, homespun charm against a backdrop of the vistas of the American West, it would just be beautiful, thoughtful and a look inside a world few of us know. But director Cindy Meehl — and Brannaman — give us far more than that, and far more than we might have expected, until “Buck” works less as a discussion of how to ride and more as a discussion of how to live. Buck himself says, early on, “A lot of the time, instead of helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.” And you scoff, until you see how Buck is also helping people with people problems. Including himself.
We learn — mostly from other people — that Buck was a product of a brutally abusive home. In ’70s-era TV clips of Buck and his older brother Smokey doing rope tricks — Buck and Smokey joined the Rodeo Cowboys Association at age 4 and 6, respectively — we can see their father’s hand snaking out to clutch at his children as they do tricks that, we can sense, will never quite be good enough. Buck and Smokey were taken from their father Ace after a football coach made Buck strip down to shower after gym class — and saw whip marks and scars on his back and thighs.
If “Buck” were just a slog through Brannaman’s wounded past, it would evoke sympathy; instead, showing us Brannaman at work, Meehl creates something distinct from and superior to a simple pageant of pain, perseverance and pity. But as Buck travels America for 9 months a year, conducting 4-day long horse-riding clinics, we instead get a portrait of a man who has turned pain into understanding, and, through that, into peace. Other people call Brannaman “the horse whisperer” — there’s lengthy asides from Redford about how Brannaman saved the day several times on the set of the film of the same name with his ability to communicate with horses; but what the doc shows is that if anything, Brannaman does as much listening as he does speaking, and spends more time communicating than commanding.
This makes the film sound like the documentary equivalent of broccoli or sensitivity training, but the film is actually surprisingly funny, and Buck himself is clearly amused by being followed by a crew — and a canny enough showman to give the camera good stuff. (Explaining how he heard that the sight of a man working a vacuum was an aphrodisiac for women, Buck notes “I was watching ‘Oprah’ … I don’t know if I should admit that …”) And Buck also clearly takes his work a lot more seriously than he takes himself, ending a strenuous day of horse training with some post-diner rope tricks like he used to do as a child.
But Buck is also a teacher, and part of a community of teachers; we see how Buck learned from Ray Hunt, who learned from Tom Dorrance, and Buck will be the first to admit he’s still learning. (A lot of the time at the movies, we see effortless mastery and certain swagger in fiction films; what a welcome change to see hard work and humility on the big screen) And an extensive sequence with a woman who brings a nearly feral, untrained, un-gelded stallion who was oxygen deprived at birth to one of Buck’s clinics — as close to a predator as you can get,” as Buck notes — keeps the film from being mere horsey homilies and cowboy-hat cleverness by brutally demonstrating the potential for disaster involved with caring for any living being, and the pain of when compassion and kindness simply aren’t enough.
Meehl was inspired to make “Buck” after taking one of Brannaman’s clinics nearly a decade ago, but the craftsmanship and care here suggest she’s hardly a (ahem) one-trick pony. While Buck’s charisma and understated craftsmanship and care make it readily apparent that almost anyone could point a camera at him and get a good film, it’s also readily apparent that Meehl has shot with skill and structure to make an extraordinary one. (Much credit goes to cinematographers Guy Mossman and Luke Geissbuhler — Geissbuhler being a veteran of docs and pseudo-docs like “Helvetica” and “Borat” — and editor Toby Shimin.) “Buck” isn’t about saddles and bridles and rope; it’s about patience and compassion and listening, and how little of those things it takes to make a difference. If, as it is said, wisdom is where you find it, then “Buck” is an unexpected Zen journey in chaps and plaid, and the rare documentary as intellectually and philosophically rewarding as it is emotionally moving.
While Green Lantern opens this week, please note that I could be writing pretty much the exact same general thoughts about X-Men First Class or Thor or Fantastic Four or Batman Returns or Spider-Man 3 … Also, this is not a blanket dismissal of the sub-genre delivered with a snob’s condescension; the first two Raimi Spider-Man films, The Incredibles, Nolan’s Batman films, Singer’s X-Men … these are well-made super-hero films, and indeed, well-made action films and often well-made science fiction films. But Green Lantern in many ways exemplifies all of the problems of the bad current comic book adaptation, as if it were the tip of an iceberg made of rancid water. These problems also blur into each other — they’re interlinked and interdependent — but like the blind men circling the elephant, every slightly differently-perceived part is connected to the same diseased money-bloated beast.
1) Too Much History, Too Little Story
Like many comic book characters and mythologies, Green Lantern represents over 50 years of comic-book history. The problem is trying to get it all into one film. Do we need to see all 3600 members of the Corps? Do we need to see the Guardians, who would work far better as an absence spoken of in legend than as little blue men and women? Do we need to see the fantastic planet of Oa? Every minute you spend on detailing a universe, and a history, is time you spend away from creating a clear line of character, plot and consequence — the basic storytelling trinity of “Who are these people? What do they want? What happens if they don’t get it?” And if you don’t have that, no amount of world-building or continuity connecting to a fictional pop-culture history can make up for it.
This will be a torturous analogy, but bear with me. A great burger is not one loaded and festooned with toppings until it is a huge, dripping moist mass; a great burger is one with not merely clean flavors but, more importantly, one which you can lift, hold and get in your mouth. Super-hero films, like science-fiction films, are so full of concepts that the audience has to swallow — a ring that creates objects from the user’s will, a corps of galactic cops, alien civilizations — that giving the audience too much makes it impossible to get their minds cleanly and pleasantly around the world. If you weren’t motivated by over-eager greed and insecurity — “Oh, my God, we have to give the audience everything instead of leaving anything in the chamber for later …” — you could do a version of Green Lantern where the hero, as part of a simpler and more cleanly constructed plot, doesn’t leave Earth until the last shot. But instead of building clean storytelling foundations, the modern superhero film looks at an empty plot of storytelling real estate and wastes time thinking of the wallpaper and placemats of the franchise-to-be.
3) Too Many Characters
I know that fans of Green Lantern ostensibly want to see members of the Green Lantern corps; I cannot, on the other hand, think that they want that more than they want a good movie. Again, there’s redundancy here — too many characters representing both over-stuffing and the over-reliance on comic-book history — but let us look at one example. When the villainous Hector Hammond reads Amanda Waller’s past telepathically, we see her tragic circumstance flash before our eyes. But the better question is as follows: What purpose does that moment serve in the film? Do we need to know that information about that character for the plot? No. Do we need to establish Hammond’s abilities? We already have. It’s an unnecessary moment, and an unnecessary moment in any script is like a hole in a boat, with disastrous cumulative effects.
4) Throat-Clearing World-Building
Of course, you want to set up Waller’s back story if she’ll figure in other DC-comics adapted films, but audiences by and large do not care about setting up films number two, three and four; they care about the film they are watching. Iron Man 2 was a chore because it felt like throat-clearing for future Marvel films; the Jeremy Renner/Hawkeye cameo in Thor is a lovely nod to fans, but it makes no sense and in many ways is an inadvisable theft — stealing from the limited time you have to tell a simple, clean story in your film for the benefit of hypothetical future films that don’t exist.
5) Too Much Money For Effects
To quote a movie-loving friend of mine, “Special effects often show you where the state-of-the-art isn’t.” Modern special effects are all too often thrown into a film to be ‘awesome’ or ‘cool’ — and not, bluntly, to be good. Why show us thousands of aliens if they look like nonsense? Why force the audience to try to swallow a CGI energy-costume when a simple suit made of real fabric would not only be cheaper but look better — or at the very least, not be distracting? (It should be noted that Green Lantern also suffers from dubious taste — not just the decision to do the CGI suits but, just as embarrassing, the decision to give the film’s energy-being villain a face. I hate to extend any credit to Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, but that film’s handling of Galactus — not the comics version of a huge humanoid but rather as a more abstract force — was a smart play.) Putting an image from a comic book on film is not the same as making a viable, interesting or compelling film image, and a version of Green Lantern that cost 2/3 as much but was better thought-out — giving us some things that look great rather than a bunch of things that do not — would have been far more interesting.
6) The Generic Over the Unique
Too much of Green Lantern feels cobbled together from other films in the genre, as if the script were a series of Madlibs: (HERO) meets (GIRLFRIEND) on balcony in his costume. (HERO) stops (VILLIAN) at event held at (CORPORATION/LANDMARK). We have seen these scenes in Superman, we have seen these scenes in Spiderman, and they are familiar. Which is deadly. There’s one simple thing you can say about any and all great superhero characters that a film has to support — Superman is the ultimate immigrant, Spiderman the ultimate metaphor for the challenges of teen life turning to adulthood, the X-Men identity politics with eye-lasers — and Green Lantern doesn’t really dig into its ‘space cop’ trappings, preferring instead to repaint other iconic scenes from other films with a light shade of green. Thor may be over-stuffed and a clear whiffleball set-up for other Marvel films, but it tried to get the unique Wagner-meets-Warhol feel of the material right, and that helped a lot.
7) Over-Written and Under-Written
A lot of people are credited on the scripts of these films, which is how movie studios say that they don’t want to trust the very film they’re making, turning interesting or simple films into featureless McKee-style machines that slide onto 3,000 screens in their opening weekend and drip off as a friction-free mess of blandness. If studios were to hire one writer (or writing team) for these things, they’d make more interesting movies — but they almost never do that, primarily because they really don’t want to be making these $200-million dollar films at all, and hedge every story decision that can be made by one writer with a counter decision or embellishment from another writer so they can make a safer, boring bet. And the people who write these films don’t know how to tell the basic story of these films — how a group of distinct characters comes together and shares in a struggle towards what is gradually seen as a common aim. A Bridge Too Far, The Great Escape, Silverado, Army of Shadows — these stories of adventure take large groups of characters and put them in big circumstances with high stakes while always conveying, as said above, who these people are, what they want and what happens if they don’t get it. Green Lantern is just the emblem of the general problem with the comic-book sub-genre, but it does seem ironic that a film about the need for individual willpower and the force of imagination winds up being dragged down by corporate group-think and completely unimaginative.
After 10 young adult and early-reader books revolving around title heroine Judy Moody, children’s author Megan McDonald wasn’t just excited to see her creation come to the big screen. More importantly, it was a chance to create a brand new set of adventures as Judy was brought to life by Australian actress Jordana Beatty. “I think we wanted to please readers but also … give them a new adventure. We had a lot of freedom to develop a whole new story, but then we have so many elements. Judy Moody is so spunky and such a do-er that we really wanted to get her having adventures — adventures of the kind like ‘I’m going to try to ride the highest roller coaster’ or ‘I’m going to try to form this club with my friends’ or ‘I’m going to try to surf a wave.’ I think we were aware that we wanted a strong girl character who would be active.”
And Jordana Beatty relished the chance to bring the zip and zing of McDonald’s heroine to life — working with animals, wearing costumes, learning to surf, dancing with co-star Heather Graham and generally having a ball. “It was so much fun. Every scene was fun to film, and none of them were like, ‘I don’t want to do this again.’ They were all really good scenes, and the character herself, she’s always having fun, so I had to act like I was having fun — (and) I really was having fun.”
For director John Schultz (“Aliens in the Attic,” “Like Mike,”), even with his experience making kid’s entertainment, the world of “Judy Moody” was undiscovered country — until his eyes were opened to the popularity of McDonald’s creation: “I went to a bookstore and said, ‘Do you have any books called ‘Judy Moody?” The guy looks at me like, ‘Yeah’ — there’s a whole wall of them.
That was good; that got me. I was like, ‘Oh, good, okay.’ I read the books — I read them quickly, but they were engaging, because there was something to them that was very pure and very right and spoke to a lot of different ages. My take on making the movie was ‘Let’s stick to the books as close as we can.’ The production design was all based on the illustrations from the books; the character looks are based on that. The (screen) writing comes from the creator of the book series, so it didn’t seem like it needed to be tweaked or messed with. We made a conscious decision: Let’s make the movie for the fans of those books, and hopefully it will reach a broader audience than that. There’s a significant fan base, but let’s do the best version of that and see what we get.”
Among McDonald’s legion of fans, it turns out, is star Beatty — long before the film was even an idea: “I’d read some of the books already when I was younger … before I auditioned … and I read the rest after. During the filming I also read them, so I’ve read them all twice. That was pretty cool to get back into the character, because I love Judy Moody. I love her personality and her attitude towards things.”
That active attitude — which, in the film, sees Judy trying to have the most fun summer ever, racing around Virginia in pursuit of ‘Thrill Points’ she can keep score of in a friendly competition with her pals — was, for producer Sarah Siegel-Magness, a big part of the reason to bring Judy Moody’s world to the big screen. “That’s why I liked the book series. My kids don’t play Xbox, and I want kids to go back to doing things like going in the backyard. What I really was hoping to do is be able to inspire kids to do other things: Go outside, breathe air, be involved with the environment, take action, do fun things like we all used to do when we were younger. It was very deliberate. There just aren’t that many kids movies, even, that care to encourage kids to go out and do things other than sit in their rooms and play on their computer.”
Part of Judy’s activities included Beatty being hung on stunt-rigging so she could fake walking a tightrope. “That was really fun. That was one of my favorite scenes to film because that’s something I’ve done before — but of course I wasn’t on wires and it was higher up, so I was scared. This time was really good because it was over the water, and the wires couldn’t fall off, but you could still lose your balance and then you dangle in the air. That happened a few times at first, and then you get used to it and you can fly around, which is really cool. Even jumping off the top of the bunk bed was fun — stuff like that that, that you don’t normally get to do at home, was one of my favorite things.”
Also upping the cool quotient? Actress Heather Graham (“The Hangover,” ‘Boogie Nights”) as Aunt Opal, who has to take care of Judy and her little brother Stink (Parris Mosteller) while mom and dad Moody help an ill relative. A globe-trotting ‘guerilla artist,’ Aunt Opal gave Graham the perfect change to have all the fun of a summer with kids … without any of the obligations of parenting. “You don’t have the responsibilities, so it’s nice. You get to be there when everyone’s having fun, but then if people are crying and stuff, it’s like, ‘Okay, you can deal with that.’”
Graham explained how being on-screen with Beatty and Mosteller was easily the best part of the job: “My character has a child still in her — it’s really fun to be around kids and feel that side of yourself that just wants to have fun. You’re not thinking and worrying about adult things; you’re just in the moment and having fun. I think that’s a good thing to remind yourself as an adult. It was fun to remind myself that everything is so fun and simple if you let it be that way.” Also part of the fun for Graham? Raiding her character’s closet after falling in love with costume designer Mary Jane Fort’s work. “Everything she had … I felt like I was going crazy. I was going, ‘I want this so bad when the movie’s over.’ It’s like if I could really dress but I had the amazing style of a stylist. She was getting (clothes from) very different countries and having this really cool vibe. I kept a lot of it, and I’ve been wearing it.”
For Beatty, creating Judy’s distinctive look was a matter not just of costume — “I have my own ‘I Ate a Shark’ t-shirt, because that’s (Judy’s) signature outfit” — but also of hairstyle. And that wasn’t nearly as simple as it sounds; to recreate the signature front-curl Judy has in the books required, as Beatty explained, not simply daily effort but a multiplicity of fake hair add-ons. “Because Judy’s hair is very messy, I would come to set with neat hair, and then I would go into the hair and makeup trailer, and they would mess it all up. The curl — because they had to get my hair cut for the role, they used that hair to put on wire, and they sprayed it and put it in every day. There’s 20 of them: There’s a water curl, a stunt curl, a normal curl, extra large curl — there’s so many of them.”
Director John Schultz enjoyed the fashion and fun of bringing McDonald’s world from the books to life. “At the opening of the movie, where (Judy) has a cat that high-fives with her, I think we’re showing the reality of the world is heightened a bit — it’s a little heightened, but the audience seems to like it. That’s really at the heart of the book series, that Judy has this world she creates and makes her own fun and her own adventure. She isn’t a slave to technology and passive entertainment. For Megan and myself, there’s a little bit of nostalgia for how it was when we were kids in the summer. Parents seem to respond to that, and to kids, it feels really natural: ‘Oh, we could be doing that.’ It’s very idealistic, her world and her neighborhood with the backyard and the woods and everything. (Judy) makes the most of what they have there.”
And Jordana Beatty’s making the most of a starring role based on a popular book series — even if that involves seeing her face plastered on posters and billboards. “It’s a bit weird. I’m still getting used to it, but it seems like before we went on the press tour, there weren’t as many (posters) as there are now. They keep cropping up everywhere, and I’m like, ‘Was that there before?’ It’s still weird to see myself, but I’m getting used to it.” And if the audience is pleased, and the film is a success, does Beatty think that Judy might be back for more adventures? “I hope so. That would be great if I got to do another one. I hope we do. … it would be cool if (Judy) did some world traveling, and also if she did a mystery thing. That would be fun.” “Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer” opens nationwide this week.
Based on a series of children’s stories by Megan McDonald, “Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer” will probably amuse kids with the zip and zing and zest of the story and its shooting style. For accompanying adults, the constant stimulus will be entirely overwhelming, as if you were trying to drink from a fire hose pumping out high-fructose corn syrup with the force of a typhoon.
This is a film where events as normally calm and common as someone turning their head at the dinner table to talk — not a shocked whip-around, or a spring-loaded double-take — are accompanied by sound effects, one where the score constantly purrs and pumps under the action. Actions as everyday as bicycling down the street have to be goosed with fast-forward action and blurred post-production speed trails. Perhaps this is what it takes to get through to kids in today’s fast-paced media landscape, but after watching “Judy Moody,” I felt like I wanted to drink some caffeinated soda and play video games for a few hours to bring my heart rate down after its mix of sharing and shouting.
Exclaiming how summer is normally “extra snoresville,” Judy (Jordana Beatty) is trying to plan the best summer ever with her pals — handsome Rocky (Garrett Ryan), friendly Frank (Preston Bailey) and bright Amy (Taylar Hender) — where they’ll each earn “thrill points” for activities, and the kid with the highest score at the end of the season will be the winner. But Rocky’s off to circus camp, and Amy’s off to Borneo, leaving Judy and Frank (along with Judy’s Bigfoot-obsessed little brother, Stink (Parris Mosteller), to earn thrill points in boring suburbia. Judy’s mom and dad have to go help a sick relative, as well, meaning that fun, bubbly Aunt Opal (Heather Graham, a wide-eyed world-traveler whose flowing wardrobe is clearly cinematic shorthand for “artsy free spirit”) is in charge in loco parentis, although clearly much more loco than parentis.
While part of me admires the movie’s depiction of fun activity with friends as the best thing to do with a childhood summer — in our sedentary age, a message worth getting to kids — it’s also a bit frustrating how much the film focuses on Judy turning enjoyment into a competition, something you can beat your friends at. Judy’s obsession with “thrill points” makes her, bluntly, into a little bit of a fun fascist and drama princess, and no fun whatsoever to hang out with, despite Beatty’s charm.
Like the recent — and better — “Ramona and Beezus” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” this film intersperses the action here with animated fantasies, where we see Judy’s imagination manifested in rounded, pastel, computer-generated animation. Graham is charming and breezy and bright, and escapes with a modicum of dignity. But for every laugh in the film, there’s a note of concern — the fact Aunt Opal can’t drive is presented as hilarious while she plows across suburban lawns, even with Judy and Stink in the car, for just one. (There’s also a lot of poop-and-pee jokes, but those are now, seemingly, part and parcel of kids movies — like men not wearing hats indoors or Ed Hardy clothing anywhere, that battle was lost long ago.)
“Judy Moody” is less a summer-fun story than it is the kid-film equivalent of “shock and awe,” a bombardment so brutal that it leaves you cowed and crumpled in the force of its full-frontal assault. Watching the revved-up kids bouncing and bubbling out of the press screening I attended, I couldn’t help but think that “Judy Moody” works as the entertainment equivalent of giving your kids a meal of nothing but junk food: They’ll love it in the moment, and you’ll get a little peace and quiet, but dealing with the aftereffects of the sensory sugar high isn’t going to be fun for anyone.
Considering that she and Michael Sheen play the parents of school shooter Kyle Gallner in the bracing drama “Beautiful Boy,” Maria Bello’s surprisingly light and brisk while conducting press in Los Angeles. The feature-film debut of Shawn Ku, “Beautiful Boy” happened thanks to the passion of the actors — and happened fast. “Michael and I basically paid them so we could do the movie. We didn’t have to be talked into it. I read the script the year before, and my gut said, ‘You have to do this.’ We shot it in 18 days in downtown LA. Michael and I and Shawn just played the whole time. It was like being kids in a candy store, being able to play with all of the great stuff on the page.”
For Sheen — taking on an American accent as well as the role — the challenge of the material’s uncommercial nature was made up for by the opportunity to work opposite Bello, cast nearly a year and a half before he was. “It doesn’t have a safety net, because it’s difficult material; it’s not necessarily the most commercial material, it’s hard to act, you’re so dependent on the other actor — in this case, Maria. I really thought it was a beautiful script, very surprising script, about something that I hadn’t seen from that angle before. I thought it was very human and respectful and not sensationalist. It wasn’t sentimental, and yet it was still moving. Then when I met Maria — and I knew Maria’s work, obviously; I was a big fan of her work — (and) I spoke to Shawn on the telephone, I instantly felt like this is something that I think would be worthwhile doing. I liked his attitude toward it, and then meeting Maria was an extension of that.”
Despite the tension involved in playing a couple in crisis, Bello and Sheen had a much different relationship in real life. When I praise Sheen’s effortlessly natural American accent, Bello lights up: “He has such a great accent, doesn’t he? I tell him he has a better American accent that I do.” The Wales-born Sheen waves off any such claims — but, at the same time, as he noted, “In some ways, doing an accent of someone that is from a different country is simpler than doing someone from your own country who speaks differently from you, because it’s hard to hear the differences to hear when they’re much closer. It’s much easier to hear the differences when they’re a bit further away.”
Sheen and Bello got along — but that wasn’t the case with Kyle Gallner, the actor who played the son to Bello and Sheen’s married couple, as both Sheen and Bello maintained a certain distance to keep the on-screen relationship real. As Bello noted, “We met him once but decided to stay away from that to really create and have an understanding of that emotional distance. We wanted to make sure the movie wasn’t about the shooting; it’s about these two disparate people and having this extreme tragedy in their life who come together through it.”
That drama, for Sheen, involved some exhausting choreography — including a tight-squeeze day of filming where the two actors performed a raging argument in a real hotel room — with four crew members in the room with them filming the scene as two 8-minute long takes. “That was pretty exhausting, yeah. You’re not aware of how exhausting it is until you’ve stopped, so to speak, because you get on the ride and you get off and it finishes. It wasn’t stop-start: We started at the beginning of the scene and ended at the end of the scene, so you go straight through. Once you’re in the scene, it keeps you going, and it’s quite exhilarating. It sustains you in that way, but then you get to the end of it and then you go, ‘Wow, that was quite full-on. Now we’re going to do it again.’”
For Bello, that scene was the highlight of the film: “It was a hotel room, so we couldn’t remove any walls — nothing. Do you know, except for that one cutaway in the bathroom, it’s all one take? Technically, it was so difficult, I don’t know how they did it still. There were four guys in the room following us with the camera. They practiced it for hours and hours. We just went to our marks, we did four takes for eight minutes each, and it was like doing a play. It was so fun and exhilarating. I loved that scene.”
The love was necessary; Bello explained that “The emotional stuff was definitely exhausting. Even though we laughed a lot between takes, to be crying and raging all day and then go home and cook dinner for my kid and do homework … it was very challenging.” For Sheen, “Beautiful Boy” was about more than just two parents put through the modern media machine after their identities are leaked. “It’s also about how grief affects you. We did a lot of work and research on the different manifestations of grief, and how that can work, and loss. There’s various forms of denial and bargaining and all those things. For my character Bill, I felt that he was someone at the beginning of the film is someone who had got used to disconnecting from his feelings. He’s been unhappy for a long time and hasn’t felt able to address that particularly. He’s come up with his own justifications for it, and as we all do, we create our own myth, we create this story that we’re the hero of, and we can somehow be trapped by that. I think he has been trapped by the myth, that he has only stayed in this relationship because of his son, because of the child that he’s had. Therefore he’s come to resent that child and wishes that he hadn’t been born and is scared that he doesn’t love him and all those things. That’s the story that he built up; it’s not the truth, but the story’s built up.”
Bello didn’t research much, but she did look at some background material — even if she waves half of it off with a hearty laugh: “I just go with what’s on the page. Actually, for this I read a book on the stages of grief, which I thought were really interesting, because after losing a child they say the grief process takes years and years and years. You go through the levels — I forget what they are — anger, frustration, denial, aggression. … I wanted to be sure, because this took place in a 2-week period, to play all those stages, so I’m not in denial and grief the whole movie, because that would be boring.”
“Beautiful Boy” will be a tough sell in a summer of superheroes and pirates; Bello waxed poetic about the film’s festival roll-out and debut at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, and sounded eager to recreate that intimacy. “I really liked our experience in Toronto. It was really intimate to be able to sit there with people, especially people who really love film, to be able to talk about it and get people’s different points of view. I would like to be a fly on the wall; maybe I’ll sneak into one of the opening nights here and see how people are reacting.”
When asked about the cultural differences between Britain and America — and, bluntly, how America seems to have school shootings while Britain does not — Sheen gently stayed the course to explain that “Beautiful Boy” springs from a murderous act, it isn’t about a murderous act. “In a way, the film is not about the school shooting. That’s the catalyst of the events, and that was obviously the more headline-type aspect of this film, but it’s not really about that. For me, it’s about two people who have come to the end of the road together — then something happens that calls everything into question. It’s so extreme that it plunges them on a journey where everything that has been buried and hidden comes out, and somehow that gets rid of the obstacle between them, and they’re able to meet each other again.”
“In a way, doing the research on the school shooting aspect I didn’t feel was as necessary as knowing who these people were and what their relationship was and what was in the way for them and all that stuff. We see these two people who suddenly find themselves in this situation that they are completely lost in, they have no map, they have no rulebook, they don’t know what they should be feeling or thinking or anything. The less I knew about it, the better I felt. It’s not as frequent an occurrence (in Britain) as it is in America, but I’ve been in the US now for about 8 years, and sadly there’s been a lot of those events that have happened.” Sheen gave a slightly rueful smile: “It’s not that I am unfamiliar with the phenomenon … but I felt like not knowing too much about what it would be like for people to go through this situation was actually probably a good thing.”