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Secondhand Lions

Had I not known that “The Iron Giant” and New Line’s forthcoming “Secondhand Lions” shared the same screenwriter in Tim McCanlies, I most likely would have written off Lions as the work of a first-time screenwriter still in the process of honing his craft.

But, as much as it pains me to say after enjoying his past works, his next endeavor is more of a step back than anything resembling forward motion. “Secondhand Lions” feels like familiar ground already written, and, this time, McCanlies has been given the added pressure to also direct this live-action feature. For someone who showed a true gift in “The Iron Giant,” this script is disappointing.

Still, McCanlies is still able to craft an interesting story here. “Lions” looks at the relationship that blossoms between a young boy named Walter and his two great-uncles, Bud and Garth McCaan, in the early 1960’s. It might be derivative of other (and better) films, but there are several points in the script that crackle— oddly enough, the best involving a running gag about traveling salesmen.

After a quick introduction to an older Bud and Garth in the present day as they sail their biplane into the sunset, viewers are introduced to Walter (to be played by Haley Joel Osment) being driven to his great-uncle’s home. McCanlies describes his characters well; here, Walter is described as “pale, quiet, one of life’s wallflowers,” while his mother, Mae (in a part uncast as of this writing), is described as “deeper into her desperate thirties than she ever admits.”

Mae is indeed desperate— each season, she drops off her son with a different charge so she can pursue the pleasures in life that one might not be able to enjoy as much with a child in tow. This particular year she tells Walter she is going to be enrolling in the Fort Worth College of Court Reporting, where she will have her pick of “good jobs and…good husband material,” but she instead makes her way to Las Vegas for her predatory hunting. For Walter’s destination, she has decided to stick him with her mother’s two brothers, much to their displeasure. What’s more, the brothers are said to be filthy rich (although how they achieved all this money is much speculated about by other family members), and Mae wants for Walter to make a good impression on them.

It is initially a difficult dynamic on the brothers McCaan’s Texas farm: soft-spoken, 10-year-old Walter living with two irascible characters that are leveling shotguns at catfish swimming in their lake when the boy first meets them. Garth (Michael Caine) is the more paternal of the two, while Hub (Robert Duvall) is more of a physical force—but they both fear getting older. Walter soon helps to change their viewpoint on a number of items, including salesmen.

Before Walter’s arrival, Garth and Hub used to gleefully summon salesmen to their home via ticking off the then-common “Please have a salesman call” option found in promotional mailings. When the doomed arrived, the brothers level shotguns at them until the salesmen leave (they usually get the idea pretty quickly, to their credit). A quick aside here: This is one of the better parts of the script, and one that audiences will readily identify with in today’s age of relentless telemarketers; hopefully McCanlies can translate the parts of the “Smiling Salesman,” “Grinning Salesman,” “Gleeful Salesman,” “Smart Salesman” and the rest of their ilk onto the screen as well as they come out on the page here.

Walter soon has them buying, in short order, a skeet machine, corn seeds for their fields and, ultimately, a lion. The brothers make these purchases in great part to horrify other relatives who make frequent house calls— when Walter asks them “But what good is having all that money if you never spend anyr,” the script depicts a relative ready to strangle him as the rest of the family gags in disbelief.

These purchases, in a variety of ways, help bring the trio together as a unit. It also opens the door for Walter to find out more about the brother’s mysterious past (are they bank robbers or were they in Africar) and the picture of a beautiful woman found buried in sand in the farm’s tower, all of which comes to a head in the third act. This is all triggered when Mae comes back with a new fiance in tow and looking for Walter to point them in the direction of the hidden fortune, promising the boy a family and house will result if they tell him where the money is. The ending is a good one, if McCanlies can pull it off— the words which begin this script review above are misleading to the final scenes in the script. This is the most I can say without spoiling the surprise there—but don’t expect anything on the level of Osment’s The Sixth Sense.

Judging by the script’s tone, the film will vary wildly between the sweet, the saccharine and the zany. At some points the three do not inter-mesh well on the page and from the scene changes.

Also, the addition of CGI to a dozen-plus fantasy sequences depicting Walter’s imagination has me worried. As a device in television, we’ve seen this trick has failed a great recently (the recently deceased ‘Ally McBeal,’ for starters), and I’m not so sure McCanlies has the directing chops to make it work within the constraints of the script. Casting calls for the fantasy sequences (which show younger versions of the brothers) have just gone out, so a great deal depends on who is cast here, most likely unknowns.

More than anything, I like the title, which can be defined a number of ways— there is only a single lion in the script (the title is plural, natch), and Jasmine doesn’t have much of an impact as it is, although a lion stalking a cornfield should make for an intriguing visual. Is Walter a secondhand lion as well, perhapsr

I’m less skeptical about the leads that have been cast, although Osment may look a little older than the age indicated of the character in the script. The trio should be able to make this film work, despite the ordinariness of the script and a somewhat-green director (he also directed 1998’s Dancer, Texas Pop. 81).

This film bears watching as it begins its trek to theaters, most likely in late 2003 or early 2004. As of this writing, filming is set to begin in mid-September, while the film looks to target a PG rating. Keep an eye out for this film, I have a feeling the end product will be better than the base material here.

Rating: B-

25th Hour, The

For my column on “The Rules of Attraction,” the question was how Lions Gate could market such a difficult film with its tricky narrative style, as well as the casting choice of wholesome WB stars as leads being counter-intuitive to the randy characters found in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. In my look at Mike McAlary’s source material for “City by the Sea,” I focused on the major changes the film made from the real-life case, deciphering what was based in reality and what was not. But for the adaptation of “The 25th Hour” to the screen, what conflict arises when you have a rookie screenwriter, David Benioff, being given the task to adapt his own novelr Obviously, there isn’t a second or third party directly injecting new blood in the transfer to a new medium via the screenplay. So it was a shock to no one that when the trailer was released on October 11th, it confirmed that the film would stick extremely close to the novel originally published two years ago, even with wildcard Spike Lee at the helm.

So rather than directly comparing product A to product B, let’s take a different approach here in looking at David Benioff’s “The 25th Hour.”

The Novel/Film’s Premise
In 24 hours, drug dealer Montgomery “Monty” Brogan will lose his freedom and begin a seven-year stint in federal prison for dealing drugs and possession of cocaine. While he had long dreamed of becoming a firefighter when he was growing up in Brooklyn, he instead chose the path of a drug dealer catering to the rich and famous. For Brogan, it was always about acquiring “sway.”

Sway, as Benioff writes, “helps make your money and money helps make your sway, but sway is not money. Sway is walking into a clothes shop and knowing you can buy anything on the shelves, true, but sway is also the clerk opening the shop after hours so you can walk through the aisles along with your girlfriend,” as an example. And his being enamored with this concept is his undoing— Due primarily to his good looks and sly demeanor, Monty has always had an easy course and knows that the next chapter will be far more challenging than his first 27 years.

While Brogan is clearly the focus of the story, the novel also pivots on the stories of his two close childhood friends, extrovert investment banker Frank Slattery and shy teacher Jakob Elinsky, and Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle Rosario. Early in the novel, Elinsky asks Slattery before they go to meet with Brogan to say farewell, “I’m nervous about seeing him. I really am; I’m scared. It’s like visiting a friend in the hospital with cancer. What do you sayr He’s going to be living in a cell for seven years. What do you say to himr”

Only Slattery realizes that this will be the “end of an era” for the group, having had a cousin in the famed prison of Sing Sing. As he tells Elinsky, “There’s not going to be a happy ending here…You think you’re still going to be friendsr You think you’ll kick back with a couple beers and reminiscer Forget it, Jake. It’s all over after tonight.”

On a secondary, and less successful, level, the novel looks at others affected by Brogan’s conviction—his father who has used his bar for collateral for Monty to be out on bond and who urges his son to run rather than face time in prison. His drug-lord boss, Uncle Blue knows that Brogan was ratted out by someone close to him and is determined to find out if Brogan in turn, will betray him for reduced time.

All of these weaving plotlines come together in Brogan’s final hours as his friends and well-wishers converge at VelVet to say goodbye. The novel is a study in transformation— best evidenced in the novel’s shocking final act, where Brogan asks his two childhood friends to destroy his face. When we last see Monty, his father is driving him to prison and he dreams of the better life had he made a run for it.

The novel is a riveting, taut attempt for a first-timer, and has an amazing ear for dialogue that should translate well to the film. As The New York Times wrote in an altogether glowing review in 2000, “novels like “The 25th Hour” don’t fall out of trees too everyday. The tone is dark and intense; its elegant style is cut on the raw side and the characters come from places we’ve all been.”

While this may work for the novel, I’m not so sure that it’ll work with general audiences. Disney, which is distributing the film through its Touchstone banner, will have to work hard to market it to audiences looking for a challenging, difficult film that is more in the vein of a hard-boiled “American History X” than “The Score.” Given the talent involved with the production, this should be a relatively easy task, although it is a very narrow niche.

Benioff, who grew up in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, graduated with a BA from Dartmouth College and an MA from Trinity College in Dublin– and has now been on a hot streak as of late with his writing efforts. He has not been focusing his follow-up endeavors in the publishing world, but in the far more lucrative world of script-writing. In October 2001, he sold the supernatural thriller spec script “Stay,” which focuses on an Ivy League psychologist trying to stop a student from attempting suicide, to Regency Enterprises. That same month he also sold the script that’s now known as “The Trojan War,” to Warner Bros. In January, he hit the hat trick, selling yet another pitch in a fierce bidding war, this time to DreamWorks. The studio, however, won’t divulge details of the latter film’s title or plot, calling it only a 2003 tentpole feature. Marc Foster, who helmed “Monster’s Ball,” is currently attached to direct. All told, industry observers estimate that he made about $4.5 million in the space of three months for his story pitches. Not bad, not bad at all, for the 32 year-old novelist.

There is an interesting note here, though: The novel is most compared to Richard Price’s celebrated “Clockers,” which was also directed by Lee. Unfortunately, that film saw only a $13 million domestic gross.

The Characters

As this novel and the resulting film is a character study, let’s look at the individual characters of the novel and the actors who will portray each part. In an article in the Boston Herald, producer Tobey Maguire reveals that after he ultimately chose not to take the role of Brogan so he could promote “Spider-Man” internationally, he drew up a list of wish list of actors who he wanted to take part in the film; surprisingly, he was able to coerce many to take their roles, although each had to trim down their salaries to be a part of the $5 million-budgeted film.

Monty Brogan, as played by Ed Norton: When the reader first meets Monty, he is deep in thought in a park overlooking the East River with his faithful dog Doyle, thinking of what the future holds. As Benioff later notes, when he is sleeping with Naturelle, “thinking about her tomorrow makes him lonely—the idea of her laughing and talking with friends, walking down the sidewalks and glancing into shop windows, eating dinner at a restaurant.” He is seriously re-examining his life, thinking of where he is currently setting course for.

As much as I enjoy Maguire’s acting, I don’t feel this part would have as been as good a fit for the actor had he taken it— Norton is a far better fit here.

Frank Slattery, as played by Barry Pepper: A gifted, yet extremely cynical, banker, Slattery lives by himself in a tremendous, vastly under-furnished apartment. “At night he often dreams of avenging slanders real or imagined, wak[ing] with a feeling of satisfaction, of justice, only to realize that the vindication is mere fantasy, the wrongs still unrighted. All the men he has not fought but should have.” While he first shows concern for who will take care of Doyle, Brogan’s dog, we soon see he has a stronger concern for Naturelle, who he lusts for. Ultimately, we see that he falls on his own sword in that matter in a way that is appropriate for his personality. Other than these two plot points, he doesn’t have a strong storyline in the novel, although he gets some good mileage with his theory on the 99th percentile. The character is very analytical, but sometimes he lets himself fall victim to his temper.

This is a great role for the Canadian, who has done his best work with characters not set in the present day, be they fictional (the sniper in “Saving Private Ryan” or the guard in “The Green Mile”) or a historical character (Roger Maris in HBO’s “*61”). In preparation for the role, he spent three weeks in New York with a former stockbroker, who showed him the ropes of the city.

Jakob Elinsky, as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman: This is by far the most meaty of the three male leads. Elinsky is “an old pervert at the age of 26,” a confused English teacher who comes to realize that he lusts after an artsy schoolgirl. Goaded on by his gay mentor, Elinsky acts on it in the novel’s final act when the girl finds herself at Brogan’s farewell party. Whereas Brogan and Slattery had hard childhoods growing up in Brooklyn, he grew up in Manhattan’s Central Park West; they all seem to have switched social strata as they hit adulthood. Elinsky, at one point, is even written as an honorary member of the clique.

Hoffman as Elinsky fits well with the actor’s constant choices of taking the parts of cinema’s more difficult characters, although I would have liked to see he and Barry Pepper switch roles for the film. I would actually buy a ticket to see the fellow walk down the street, and the novel fulfills this in part by describing him as “one of New York’s finest pedestrians.” As Benioff writes, “He angles through the crowd, slipping the jabs and hooks of oncoming walkers, ducking below tree branches, tiptoeing along the curb’s edge, dodging the scattered piles of dogsh**, waiting for an opening and then darting into the clear.” Provided that Hoffman doesn’t sleepwalk through a role that is familiar to him (it’s shades of his work in “Happiness” and “Boogie Nights”), I can see him earning the heap of critic’s praise here and quite possibly a supporting Oscar nod.

Naturelle Rivera (renamed from Naturelle Rosario in the novel), as played by Rosario Dawson: At a few points in the novel Benioff makes sure to point out the lingering doubt Brogan has of Rosario, be if for that he is thinking it was she who turned him in to the cops or of the preternatural doubts of the life she will lead after he goes up the river. Save for a few scenes, she is more of a passive character in the novel. It is my hope that Benioff corrects this mistake in the film adaptation to make her more multi-dimensional. As reported in a June edition of USA Today, the name change was prompted because of the similarity from the character name to the actress’ name.

Originally the role was to have gone to singer Alicia Keys, who was forced to drop out of the film because of touring commitments. I’m not a big fan of Dawson’s acting choices, and the sight of her still stings from her terrible choices of roles in “Josie and the Pussycats” and “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.” She is surrounded by a terrific cast, so hopefully she can receive better notices than she did in her works with Tara Reid and Eddie Murphy.

Among the other members of the cast, Anna Paquin plays Mary D’Annunzio, the student that Elinsky desires, and Brian Cox plays Brogan’s father. The novel portrays the fascination that Elinsky has for the former character as being somewhat of a mystery— a girl into punk rock and tattoos, who is still an adolescent. As many people of Elinsky’s age would tell you, Paquin, of course, is not. Also integral to the plot is mob boss Uncle Blue and Brogan’s partner Kostya Novotny, of whom I have been unable to find who they are portrayed by.

Box Office Speculation

As with most character studies, I’m guessing that this film will be greeted with audience and critical response similar to this month’s adaptation of “The Rules of Attraction,” which focuses on college life—either you are a fan of the film or you will leave the theater scratching your head. But like the latter film, this film has the push of Touchstone, rather than the threadbare Lions Gate, who was unable to support such a challenging film.

First, let’s look at what has already been said about the film, which has not been much. In his extremely negative script review for the film, Darwin Mayflower of Corona’s Coming Attractions made some good points about the commercial viability of the film. While he likes its overall concept, calling it “a great idea for a movie,” he concludes that it is a “totally empty experience,” squandering a winning set-up with a poor follow-through. Despite my disagreeing on several points of his review (I think he focuses too hard on Spike Lee’s past projects), I find Mayflower’s script analyses to be dead-on on how films will be received in the marketplace by general audience—he has a valid point here. It’ll connect with a select audience, but won’t be a hit with mainstream viewers.

So, Touchstone is doing the best thing here, opening this as a platform release on December 20th, with the hope that positive critical reaction and talk of Oscars for those involved will help to propel this film to connect with a wide general release in January. But the problem is the film’s competition that opening weekend—it could very easily get lost, as it competes for attention with two wide releases, Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (which opens two days before then) and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” both of which are gunning for a slew of Oscar notices themselves.

What Touchstone needs to do at this point is increase awareness of the film among potential viewers; it’s very much lacking at even a base level. The trailer arrived far too late, uncoiling only 71 days before the film opens— at a time when others opening in the same timeframe saw trailers appear months ago.

The studio’s marketing efforts should also be concentrating on coordinating advance reviews among general audiences and the literati (all it got was a one-line mention in Book Magazine’s preview of fall movies based on literature) to help drive word-of-mouth, as well as ramping up its television exposure. Running television 15-second teasers during “Monday Night Football” and “Alias” would be a good fit for the studio and the audience it is trying to seek, a strategy that should be at the forefront of their media strategy seeing as how the ABC network is part of the Disney media conglomerate. They should also be cordoning off time in the lead actors schedules to properly promote this film in the normal avenues as well, which could be a problem with each of the three leads heavy filming other projects.

The more I look at “The 25th Hour,” I see how difficult marketing this film can be despite its interesting premise. Touchstone needs to treat this film very tenderly in its marketing strategy, it requires a deft hand. They need to stay focused on hitting the different niches and not going for a very general audience who will dismiss this film as too hard-boiled without a second thought. If need be, the studio should swallow its pride and look to the production companies involved for expertise, as both Industry Entertainment (“Requiem for a Dream”) and 40 Acres and a Mule (Spike Lee’s production house) have great expertise in targeting these types of audiences.

All told, with the right marketing and positive critical and audience reviews, “The 25th Hour” should gross somewhere in the $20 – 40 million dollar range in the end. Given its budget, this is makes for a very profitable venture. Benioff has found an adoring critical and book-reading audience with his novel and now Touchstone needs to capitalize on it, and begin the momentum.

Rating: A