Hot Button Archive for November, 2008
It has been a year of much turmoil in this country and in both industries of filmed entertainment and journalism. So much so that a list of my film pleasure thanks seems insanely indulgent. And unfortunately, in this year, far too limited. But it has been a tradition for a long time and one that gives me some perspective and no small amount of pleasure. And so…
Things I Am Thankful For – Episode 11: 2008
I Am Thankful For the regular reminders that this industry is not just business or just show, but a place for artists to aspire to greatness… or at least, to the search. More and more I find that those of us covering the industry have become the cynical, art-hating group and that the artists (Bob Koehler would hate that I use that term, but I believe that artistry is in the effort of expression not the judgment of the result), often overpampered indeed, have become the ones trapped by “our” expectations and not the boundaries of their own skills and efforts.
I Thank Roger Ebert for not only fighting the good fight and getting back to work, but for continuing to use his illness and the career setbacks that came with it as an opportunity to become even more creative and aggressive about using the printed (or e-printed) word.
My Thanks Go Out To The Wachowskis for doing what they do and clearly not worrying too much about the response. They made a minor masterpiece in Speed Racer that was either going to be the game changer of the summer or get crushed on the rocks by the media and indeed, the box office. But I have no doubt that the next time they make a film, it too will push the envelope of creativity in a way that wigs out the over-40 media. Huzzah.
I Am Thankful for and to my wife.
I Thank The World for indulging a piece of junk like Mamma Mia! not because it is of an enduring quality, but because it is, simply, fun. There is something to be said for stupid pleasures. And I watched Mamma Mia! on a plane recently – my second viewing – and was reminded of just how bad it is and just how incredible it really is. They put a show on in the barn, got one of the world’s greatest actresses ever to ham it up, pulled every bit of vaudeville schtick out of their collective tuchus, made Pierce Brosnan sing embarrassingly, objectified both sexes, and just plain had the kind of party that leads to embarrassing stories… that you tell every time you get together for decades to come. Those of us in the business of public judging need to be reminded – often – that stupid pleasures count and that people who love them are not stupid, just willing and vulnerable to that particular kind of stupid.
I Couldn’t Be More Thankful that Hancock, abused as it was, is currently the fourth highest grossing film of the year, both domestically and across the globe. This sophisticatedly unsophisticated take on the superhero genre came up against expectations of critics and the urge of pundits to seek the destruction of a box office hero at the top of his career. It also started the inevitable move – tipped in a small way by Iron Man – towards the next wave of the genre, deconstruction. As with so many great thirds acts in genre-shifting movies, critics found themselves unable to make the adjustment from watching the genre messed with for two acts prior. And Hancock is not a perfect movie. But audiences seem to have gotten it, making this the second highest grossing film of Will Smith’s career. And the greatest beneficiary of this? Watchmen, most likely. That is looking to be the film that the media understands because they went through the training at the hands of Peter Berg, et al.
I Thank President-Elect Obama for reminding us all about hope… regardless of whether we believe he represents the best hope for our country. We are the ones we have been waiting for. And I truly believe that he believes that and that it and wil be reflected in his efforts. More than that I cannot expect from a president.
I Am Thankful For Pixar, which has not only continued to make movies that are as ambitious as they are beautiful, but has also made real inroads into bringing Disney’s internal culture on that side of the company back to greatness. Disney is, hands down, the most effectively run studio in this industry, as led by Bob Iger, Dick Cook, John Lasseter and Oren Aviv. I kept The Flashy One in that group – and I think that the fact there really is only one flashy one says volumes – because his ability to thrive in the quiet family culture over there shows their strength. They will flame out at Disney in some years. They have their flops. But they also have a core as a studio that no other studio currently has. And that core will bring them through the bad times. But none of that might be true without the extremely expensive (overpriced on paper) purchase of Pixar and the successful integration of the companies. The only years in this young millennium in which Pixar did not deliver a $200 million+ movie that was on of the top two grosser for the company in that year were the two years without a Pixar movie. Remarkable.
I Thank myself for not making me go to every crap movie that gets released by the studios throughout the year. It has made making my “Worst of” list harder and harder. There are only 2 junkers in the year’s box office Top 30 that I allowed myself to miss, but after that, I count 18 in the next 30 that I skipped out on, 21 of the next 30, and so on. Part of me really wants to be embarrassed and feel like I am not working hard enough… but my soul is comforted.
I Am Thankful For Blu-ray and the unquestionable pleasure it brings to me in the home entertainment experience. Sure, I still watch movies on the satellite (though watching anything not in HD has become less attractive) and I watch movies on my iPhone and I watch movies on little screens and big screens and well, anywhere. Films can be great in any format. But there is a real opening night thrill that often comes in a Blu-ray viewing. Great films are being seen in a way they have never been seen before, with the visual limitations of a TV screen, but with the visual density much closer to film. Not every film rises to that standard… not most. But The Godfather and Sleeping Beauty and Wall-E and Hancock and The Kubrick films and Across The Universe and so many others just blow the walls out.
I Thank the industry for embracing the 30 minute interview format, which is a gift to me every time we shoot a Lunch with David or 30 Minutes With… or DP/30 or whatever it will be called soon and forever. Sometimes I am better than other times. Sometimes the guests deliver more than other times (which is surely my fault in 90% of the cases when it isn’t great). But I find that the talent wants to talk about the work that they love and the world in which they live and that there is something refreshing about someone just wanting to talk with them, directly, sincerely, with preparation, but without the constraints of simply selling the movie they are out selling. It is, more often than not, a profound pleasure to do that part of my job. And I hope the pleasure that I feel translates to the viewers.
I Am Thankful to everyone who tells the truth. I know of very few people in this industry who are at liberty to always tell the truth… not even me. But there are people – even publicists – who are truth tellers. And as truth tellers, they more often than not have perspective even on the bullshit they truly believe. I cannot really express how thankful I am that these people exist and continue to drive forward in spite of daily ass kickings. Every year, my work narrows, and my circles narrow and it is the straight shooters who keep me from giving up on all of this organized insanity. It is often the case that I cannot share their truths with you, as readers. And I used to suffer with that burden more. But I have come to understand that having people in positions of knowledge who trust me and whom I trust is not a burden, but a layer of support that allows everything that is public to go on… hopefully without anyone but us knowing the difference. In a time when inside baseball trust has sunk about as low as possible between the industry and the media, I am proud and thankful to be trusted and trusting.
I Thank Heaven that extreme ego has this amazing tendency to attract insane choices that almost invariably will crush that ego… or at least make it a lot less fundable over time. Yeah, there are the cheese purveyors like Roland Emmerich and Brett Ratner who somehow manage to talk studios into doing amazingly dumb things, but who keep surviving because somehow, in the end, their crappiest crap is commercial. (And now and again… they show some real talent.) They have that gift. But crap will out. All you need to know from my side of it is that it all must be watched from the perspective of time, not the heat of the momentary hype.
I Am Thankful to the entire team at Movie City News, which by the grace of some kind of journalistic god, continues to grow. This project started with a couple of core ideas. One, it gave me a place for my stuff, which used to be a lot more stuff. But more so, it was a place for ideas to be supported and grow. The headlines were, from the start, intended to give readers a sense of the greater perspective on stories and to try to separate the press releases from the actual news… the great writers from the daily grinders… and the things that might mean something more than the cover of weekly tabloids, or the trades. We have succeeded in some of that and failed in other ways. There is not enough diversity in our headlines, but that it not for a lack of effort. We probably have not launched enough new writers from other sites out of this space and we have probably indulged established outlets too much. We don’t always have the time to go through every version of every story to find the ones with the most compelling angles. And there are, no doubt, many areas of the industry we still do not cover enough. We don’t have the infrastructure that, say, the trades have. But we don’t have the weight of that financial machine either. We are trying. Every day. And the only reason that Laura and I can keep making that effort is that we have the support and good works of the staff of writers who crank it out – Doug, Gary, Kim, Len, Michael, Noah, and Ray – delivering daily and weekly. And when you get contributions like the 48 Hrs. Diaries from guys like Larry Gross, or cartoons from RJ Matson, you’re just that much more thankful.
As always, I Thank Scot Safon and the late Andy Jones for dragging me onto the internet all those years ago and giving me a home and – particularly Scot – indulging me in ways that a multi-nation media conglomerate doesn’t normally indulge a loudmoth writer. Between the EW and roughcut.com experiences, I learned about how power works in the entertainment media, for better and for worse. This old dog may not learn many new tricks, but the old ones still get me through a lot.
I Am Thankful to still be in business in this media climate. Too many good people are losing their jobs these days. And too many hacks are not because they can saber rattle their way to a crowd. The distinction between the two must be maintained, for the sake of what comes out at the end. This is a time when all of us who have not suffered jobus interruptus must remember to be very thankful indeed. The line is thin. And much of the Traditional Media still can’t tell “us on the web” apart. We all read the same to them. But as Pogo (written by Walt Kelly) would remind, “”We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us.” As we move forward, the greatest distinction between professionals on the web and the vast majority of Traditional Media is that only one side uses the name of the other medium as a pejorative intended to keep a distance from the “other side.” Greatness requires seeing past these self-indulgent biases. And it is greatness we all seek, right?
Finally, I Thank all of you, the readers… to use a phrase of the late, great Dusty Cohl, my co-conspirators… my enablers… the proof that the woods are not empty when I saw down the trees. Everything I do is built, in no small way, on your indulgence of me and your willingness to come out and play, day after day, year after year. I have not had cover, in these last 11 years, the cover of a major media outlet to keep me going. I have had the support of all the people I work with… and of you (some of whom are both). I am not the same man or the same writer that I was those 11 years ago. Maybe for better. Maybe for worse. Some of you have stayed… some left… some wandered away and then came back. You have seen my worst and my best. And you keep coming back. So I thank you for my life and my livelihood. And I thank you in the name of those I work with. Great days in the past, but better days ahead… for us all…
Reviewing Doubt really requires two different bits of discussion. First, there is the movie and its overall structure, skill level, etc. Then there is the question of what the movie is actually telling the audience… which is a matter of no small controversy.
First things first…
Doubt is an adaptation of the stage play, written by John Patrick Shanley, and here, adapted for the screen and directed by Shanley as well. I saw the film twice as a concession to the producer’s concern about launching prematurely in a last minute fill-in as opening night for Los Angeles’ AFI Fest. And while the two viewings will be more relevant to the second half of this review – the arguments about content – they did change my perspective on the filmmaking as well.
The film stars Meryl Streep in a rather brilliant performance, if too subtle for those who love something a more stage-y. The performance grew on me the second time around as the accent played less of a role and her cautiousness about where the boundaries as a nun became more pronounced for me. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a performance that could not have been any better.
But the truth follows both performances… different actors will deliver different interpretations. I never saw the stage show, but it is easy to imagine Bryan F. O’Byrne as a less rheumy, slightly more International Male: Irish Edition priest. And it is easy to imagine Cherry Jones tearing through the Sister Aloysius part and doing her thing, going both smaller and bigger with the role. But the stage was the stage and the movie is the movie.
The film sets up the proposition of the entire film crisply with an opening sermon about doubt. From the get-go, it is offered that doubt, in spite of the discomfort that it attends it for the individual, is not a weakness, but a much-needed strength. It is the lack of doubt that is truly dangerous. Part of the challenge for the audience – especially the first time around – is to remember that point… and if you are not inclined to agree, then to challenge yourself to learn the truth in its wisdom.
The second big sermon is about gossip and how it is irretrievable once let loose in the world. This too seems to me to be an irrefutable part of Shanley’s dramatic lesson plan.
Story structure becomes clearer, regardless of what you feel about the philosophies espoused, on multiple viewings. Shanley has a few subtextual tricks up his sleeve, which may or may not be more pronounced by his choices as a director. For instance, there are, it seems to me, parallel children at the school to both of the main characters. There is also the opportunity to sow seeds of doubt with a glance or an edit that allow audience members to imprint some of their own ideas on the story.
The weakest element in the writing is the third character in the central triangle, Sister James, here played by Amy Adams. The real life Sister James has a dedication at the end of the movie, so I assume that one of her personal stories was the inspiration for the whole thing. In any case, she is The Innocent in this battle of wills and in her lack of definition, in the ambiguity of her feelings about the truth, lies a big dramatic weakness… although ambiguity, I am told, is just what Shanley was after. Still, it’s not whether she really knows or comes down 100% firmly on one side that I see as trouble. The problem is that wherever she lands – and I’ll let you see the movie rather than argue hew position here – the motivations for her choices to feel this way or that are not half as clear as what drives the two leads. Even not knowing how she feels is a dramatic choice that could have been better exploited. As a result, she often seems a tool of the dramatist more than a central character in this drama.
The strongest secondary character is Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy who may or may not be a victim at school… but who lives his whole life in dangerous territory and seems to be destined to continue to do so for years to come. Unlike Sister Aloysius and father Flynn, she cannot afford the indulgence of doubt or certainty. She lives outside the bubble of the church (or any relatively cushy existence), where practicality overwhelms severe moral judgment, of herself or others.
The power in this piece of drama, in whatever medium, is its ambiguity and the demand made of the audience not just to think, but to really explore. The weakness is right there in Mrs. Muller, though more so in Sister James. These characters, even more so in the literal light of film than on the stage, are real breathing characters, not just the representation of abstract ideas. Aside from the children, they are practically the only characters with more than 5 lines of dialogue or 2 minutes of screen time in the film. Shanley has decided, fairly enough, that children have nothing on significance to say on morality… they are simply acting instinctually or being acted upon. But the gaping hole filled by the silence of Mrs. Muller, who turns up again late in the picture, and the inability to focus of Sister James seem more unfinished than simply human. The great “missing” scene is between Mrs. Muller and Father Flynn. But the real key is Sister James. While I feel that Sister Aloysius has a breakthrough, of sorts, in the film, Sister James does not. She is, simply, soiled. And that was not quite enough in the light of the projector’s bulb.