Big Bounce, The

Once in a while, people need a hand… I also said — out loud — this guy’s a smart ass, and as long as it’s not turned on me, there’s something good, too.”
— Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman) On Jack Ryan (Owen Wilson)

Even though the name Jack Ryan is a familiar one to most filmgoers, clear from your head of the hero you had met in “The Hunt for Red October” and “Clear & Present Danger.” The antihero protagonist of “The Big Bounce” shares only the name of Tom Clancy’s most well-known character and, beyond that, little else.

This Jack Ryan traces his roots to Elmore Leonard’s first crime novel in 1969 (before then, the author had only done Westerns), some time before Clancy’s Ryan made his first appearance in 1985’s “The Hunt for Red October.” This Jack Ryan is a surfer, a drifter, and a con man. This Jack Ryan will break into your house and rob you blind if he thinks he can get away with it. This Jack Ryan, at the behest of a comely young woman, will steal your car in order to feel “the bounce,” or the rush. “The Big Bounce” is not the next film in the Clancy canon, by any means– but it fits perfectly with other recent adaptations made of Leonard novels.

In too many ways to count, Ryan is the classic protagonist of an Elmore Leonard novel- someone who holds a troubled past but yet is still ruled by a base set of morals, however skewed. Also holding true to form here is that like any of Leonard’s works– and here reflected through two screenwriters polishing his work for this medium– he imbues his characters with little more than physical descriptions. His focus has always been more on dialogue and personal dynamics to get you into a scene; the reader gets their best sense of Ryan when he is surfing, as many of the moves he makes in the choppy waters are the same ones he uses himself in his interactions with those around him. He doesn’t speak during these vignettes, but somehow these scenes still manage to instill in the viewer a great understanding of the man Jack Ryan is.

Set in present day Hawaii, viewers first meet Ryan as he is fired from his temporary job as a construction worker at Ritchie’s Kawela Bay Beach Hotel. After deciding not to pursue a breaking and entering gig with a friend (he cases the joint, grabbing some wallets and cash from the house), Ryan soon turns to his friend Walter Crewes for help. A justice of the peace, Jack originally goes to him when he is hassled by his former work sitemates; Crewes soon offers Ryan a job at the hotel he owns on the island.

It is there that he becomes infatuated with Nancy Hayes, the mistress of Ray Ritchie, the owner of the hotel site Ryan once worked for. Partly intrigued by Hayes’ beauty, as well as by her standing with Ritchie, he breaks into Ritchie’s house in order to meet the 20-year-old ingenuine. He finds her fascinating, especially in her everyday demeanor of “What’s life without screwing aroundr,” as she asks Ryan at one pint (almost rhetorically). He soon finds himself carjacking a Thunderbird with her, as well as hatching a greater plan to steal $200,000 from Ritchie. Particularly amusing during this area in the script is Hayes’ seduction scene of Ryan, as she is continually interrupted by another gentleman caller visiting the house.

Of course, like any Leonard novel, the scheme gets more complicated as the heist draws nearer, with the main impetus here being Ritchie’s alcoholic wife, Alison, visiting the island. From there, the scheme to steal Ritchie’s money unravels to include lost alibis, two unplanned dead bodies coming into the plot and a whole batch of double-crossings in the script’s final 15 pages.

From the first page, it seems, Ryan has been a pawn in a plan to gain an inheritance to bypass a pre-nuptual agreement. Repeat viewers will catch some of the earlier talk of the double-cross early in the first act.

The script crackles in a number of areas, but a Leonard fan could easily sense what came from the film’s source material and what has been altered by the screenwriters. Still, though, major polishings and tweakings are needed before this begins production on October 28th. There are plot strands that are altogether abandoned (What was the significance of Number Nine at Crewes’ hotelr Was it Hayes that was breaking the storefronts’ windowsr), some spots that need to be dropped (the frequent intercut scenes where Crewes relates Ryan’s actions to two Hawaiian officials, a device that never pans out) and areas that need clarification, such as a better explanation of the link between Ritchie and Crewes. When Hayes explains to Ryan what just transpired at the end, Armitage writes that the character is “having a hard time following” – such is the case with the current version of the script. As currently constructed, viewers will leave the theater not knowing what hit them as well.

The good news is that there is still ample time to make changes for the better, as this script doesn’t look to be locked in as the final production draft. This is a great story, but aside from the plot points mentioned above, there are some pacing problems as well: it is weighted towards the end a great deal– it takes a while to get started– and is in need of some more meat. It should only run 90 -100 minutes as it is written right now, so there is room for this to be bulked up in areas, perhaps with some time devoted to better backstories on the lead characters.

This is the second attempt at a film adaptation of this Leonard novel, with the former film being released the same year as the book hit shelves. Starring Ryan O’Neal in that version, Elmore Leonard has written on his online site that he considers the original to be an awful movie and relates his experience of being in a New York theater for the first time, only to see the trio of filmgoers sitting in front of him walk out. The current film should be met with better critical and audience reaction, if one were to judge from the mainly positive marks given to Leonard’s other recent adapted works, such as “Out of Sight,” “Get Shorty” and “Rum Punch” (which Quentin Tarantino refashioned into “Jackie Brown”).

Much like October’s “Red Dragon,” the producers have asserted that this is a closer retelling of the book, rather than a remake of the earlier film. The script seems very close to the book, save for one difference- the book was originally set in a Michigan resort town, not against the Hawaii backdrop that it has been blessed with here. But it is still closer to the source material than the 1969 film, which had Ryan as a corrupted farmer and the object of affection by two women.

The film can best distinguish itself in theaters with the gifted actors signing on to the project; I’m guessing that a Hawaii location shoot is helping them sign on talent easier than if it were in a more sedate climate of Vancouver, for example.

Ryan will be played by Owen Wilson, who seems to be a perfect fit for the role here. He has both the charisma and the sneakiness required for the role, a role similar to others he has played-perhaps they can also let him take a pass at the current script as well with his writing gifts as well.

Walter Crewes will be played by Morgan Freeman, also a good fit, while Gary Sinese is slated to play the relatively minor role of Ray Ritchie. Still to be cast are a great deal of the supporting roles. Out of Sight offered rising stars Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener, Luis Guzman and Isaiah Washington, and there are a number of roles here that should catapault a minor star into something more, if cast properly. I would love to see Scott William Winters be considered for the role of Bob Rogers Jr., for example.

Of all the people involved up to this date, the one to keep a close eye on is Sara Foster, who was announced to have won the role of Nancy Hayes this past week. She is the key to this film working. Formerly the host of ET on MTV, I have a feeling she can break out with this role if she hits her marks correctly that the script has left for her-this role is more showy than what “Out of Sight” provided for Jennifer Lopez and “Get Shorty” did for Rene Russo.

But this character is a little more randy than the pair above, she is a true sexpot. When viewers are first introduced to her, she is sunning herself au naturel and she later tells Ryan that her grandmother tells her that the best way to please a man is to “sit on their face.” Her casting is the wild card here– If she can pull these scenes off, then the film works; if Foster does the role too over-the-top, then the film will fail. Her casting is the wild card here.

I’ve long been a fan of Leonard’s works, I’m hoping Armitage does the novel more justice than the 1969 film did. With a few changes to the current script and good luck in Hawaii as they shoot the film, we may be looking at one of 2003’s best audience-received films.

Rating: B
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The Rules of Attraction

I have always found Bret Easton Ellis novels difficult to read and digest, as the subject matter tends to touch a nerve that few other modern writers hit.

In Ellis’ best-known and most controversial work, 1991’s “American Psycho,” readers squirmed as they were planted into the mind of Patrick Bateman, a mass murderer whose acts of sadism were matched only by the blind materialism, greed and name-dropping he employed as an Wall Street investment banker. He has two facades, like a common-day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – by day he focuses on mergers and acquisitions; at night, he performs murders and executions, to rephrase Ellis’ work.

Utilizing a detached writing style in his works, Ellis is able to get the reader both into the scene that he writes of and cut to the bone of the characters’ psyches, almost to an uncanny degree. In “Psycho,” Ellis has Bateman utter this memorable line: “There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed, and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful eradication. I was simply imitating reality Ellis — endows this self-awareness in most of his works’ protagonists. Sometimes this takes the place of good personalization.

I remember queasily battling my way through “Psycho” just so I could be done with it, an experience I expect to have shared with other readers. At the same time, though, I couldn’t put it down if I had willed myself to. “The Rules of Attraction,” Ellis’ take on college life, is no different with the feeling it leaves the reader, akin to viewing a train wreck. And it is not a pretty one.

This is the second book Ellis had written, published four years before “American Psycho” was released on bookshelves alongside some cries of censorship. Although “Attraction” utilizes characters from Ellis’ first novel, “Less than Zero,” it also serves as the introductory point for several people who become the focus of his later works, like the aforementioned Patrick Bateman.

The Book
Beginning in the fall of 1985, “The Rules of Attraction” focuses on the love triangle between three students at Camden College. Like Ellis’ other works, it’s told in narrative form, as well as from multiple points of view, including several selections in French. There is no discernable beginning and end- this is emphasized by the book beginning in mid-sentence.

Readers are first introduced to Lauren Hynde in a flashback, as she loses her virginity her freshman year to two men after a Dressed to Get Screwed Party, and her understandable horror the morning after. A bit of a dreamer who is battling bouts of depression, she is a late-year student who still has not chosen a major. Another character makes the comment that “it seems to me that Lauren was just writing one long poem and I told her honestly one night- that a lot of it didn’t make sense to me.” What holds true for her non-proficiency at poetry is also true of Lauren. Ultimately, she yearns for Victor Ward (who would become the focus of Ellis’ “Glamorama”), who is backpacking across Europe without a thought in her direction.

The other two central characters aren’t given as interesting an introduction, and are more cookie-cutter characters. Sean Bateman (yep, this is Patrick’s younger brother) is built from the same mold as Lauren in his idiosyncrasies. He is also something of the campus Lothario– although many seem to qualify for this title– and deals drugs on the side. The last character readers are introduced to is Paul Denton. An intelligent and easily-irritated fellow, he used to go out with Lauren, but now has eyes for Sean. After a little build-up, Sean and Paul become involved with each other.

From this relationship emanates an odd twist: Paul is the one who talks about the day-to-day relationship while Sean almost completely avoids the subject; it seems he’s somewhat in denial. When he does talk about it on a peripheral level, there is a great deal that doesn’t synch. As Lauren says at one point in the novel, “Life is like a typographical error: we’re constantly writing and rewriting things over each other–that is true of this relationship. Though this is an interesting approach by Ellis, especially given that he came out of the closet himself right before the release of “Glamorama” (not that there’s anything wrong with it, of course), this is perhaps something that could have been expanded. It could have been met with some interesting results. This was what I found most interesting in the novel- how people perceive each other and how those perceptions are sometimes dead wrong. But, I digress.

The relationship between Sean and Paul quickly falls apart when Paul is forced to travel to Boston to meet with his mother “to talk” about his parents’ forthcoming divorce. Paul is missing a Dressed to Get Screwed party, where Sean quickly moves on to Lauren. Sean is being stalked throughout the first part of the novel, and he assumes through several rational coincidences, that Lauren is incredibly infatuated with him. She goes along with this and they wind up in bed together; she won’t look at him and begins to cry. Somehow through this they begin a relationship that ends in an aborted pregnancy and Sean leaving college for parts unknown.

Paul’s journey to Boston and the subsequent dinner he has with his mother and their family’s friends, the Jareds, is probably the most resonant of the novel. After going to Sarah Lawrence and through a punk phase, Richard Jared has an incredible falling out with his mother during dinner. If there’s any moment in the book that is the train wreck’s point of impact, it is here. It makes you wince. We have all borne witness to moments like these. And this quick intersection doesn’t even take place on the Camden College campus.

I wish I could say that Bret Easton Ellis used the book as a character study of the stereotypes that exist in college or the death of romance (as the trade paperback’s back cover implies), but that would be too kind. Ellis is mostly sowing wild oats here. I’m not a fan of Ellis’ narrative style, and I wouldn’t recommend it to those looking for a challenging book. Most notable is that you can see the jumping-off point for “American Psycho” here, just as you can glean the beginnings of “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy” from Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch.”

I don’t think you can pretend that the novel is anything more than shlock. But it’s interesting shlock. “Dead Poet’s Society” it is not, nor does it aspire to be.

The Film and its Players

Perusing the filmmaking journal found on Roger Avary’s site (linked below), I have come to believe that the director of “The Rules of Attraction” is really a strange chap. This makes him a superb choice. Most know him from his directorial work on the twisted but well-made “Killing Zoe.”

The first thing that worries me about this adaptation, however, is that he also takes a screenplay credit for this project. Based on what the script Avary has supplied to Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News, it sounds like he has chosen to amplify the novel’s carnal aspects. This is unfortunate. On the other side of the coin, Avary has assembled an intriguing cast for the pic, with most of the roles going to well-known actors and actresses who have become perhaps too closely associated with some of their past characters.

As Knowles wrote in July 2001, “[Avary’s] biggest problem to date is finding the people that embody the characters in Bret Easton Ellis’ insanely pitch black heartless evil book, and then have those people agree to play characters that completely slap everything that those actors and actresses have been portrayed as being in film thus far. This is the film for when the beautiful people are skinned alive and shown for being the shallow hateful spiteful asses that they can be.” He had said in an earlier report that the film will help “destroy those sugary fat free rice cakes of cinema.”

James Van Der Beek has the most at stake with his difficult role as Sean Bateman, after the long-delayed “Texas Rangers” flopped at box office amid horrible critical reviews. In addition, it was recently announced that he was entirely edited out of Todd Solondz’s upcoming “Storytelling.” I have doubts as to how effective he can be here as Bateman- the common viewer is going to see him as Dawson Leary of “Dawson’s Creek,” and I don’t think he will be able to get past that, in terms of acting ability. Will viewers, though, buy into him in this brutal roler This is the biggest question mark for the pic, and the thought process that begins from there brings only additional questions.

Shannyn Sossamon plays the role of Lauren- an interesting choice for her to make after her prudish role in Brian Helgeland’s “A Knight’s Tale.” A virtually-unknown lad by the name of Ian Somerhalder plays Paul. Thomas Ian Nicholas, Kevin Myers in “American Pie,” plays a secondary character named Mitchell, while Claire Kramer plays the role of his girlfriend Candice. Kramer is best known as the past season’s villain Glory on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Kip Pardue of “Driven” plays Victor, a part that sounds as if it has been vastly expanded from the novel.

Another question mark is Jessica Biel’s Lara, apparently a renumeration of roommate Judy in the book. Ain’t It Cool News describes the roll as “an absolute f*** doll in the film.” This is an odd move by Biel, who entered the public consciousness as the daughter Mary Camden in “7th Heaven,” then was heavily criticized for a scantily-clad spread she had done in Gear Magazine. She apologized for the shoot six months ago, right before she signed on to do this role. I guess there’s going to be another apology coming this spring from her once this film hits theater.

With the members of the cast already mentioned, Avary has done a great bit of conceptual casting here, as these are all actors that are known for their specific roles- mostly in teen-oriented product. The rest of the cast is also impressive, with Eric Stoltz, Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway. Fred Savage also has a part, for whatever that’s worth.

All this said, who the audience is for this filmr

“The Rules of Attraction” is going to be a tough sell for audiences, no matter how distributor Lion’s Gate Films looks at it.

Here are some questions I’ve been asking myself over the past month as I played with this column:

Has Lion’s Gate shot themselves in the foot by using actors best known for their wholesome roles, rather than going with unknownsr

How many of Van Der Beek’s fans will be old enough to pay for an opening-weekend ticket to this film, much less be interested in seeing him in this wayr

Does Lion’s Gate have the muscle to get this film on more than 1,250 screensr That was the largest amount of screens the distributor was able to muster for “American Psycho,” although that number quickly fell to three digits after the first two weeks.

Lions Gate will be forced to target the late teen/twenty-something market for this release, eschewing the WB audience that would be the most receptive audience. Unfortunately, they’re not going to have much of a choice on this. From reading the various AICN pieces (including Quint’s recent set-visit puff piece here) and Avary’s Journal, the film is certainly not going to receive a PG-13 rating, although I doubt Avary was shooting for this when he started playing with the script.

To the other extreme, I have a feeling Lion’s Gate and Avary is going to be butting heads with Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America on even getting that R rating. They’ll probably have to re-cut some scenes. Even the R-rating is not insignificant in and of itself; there are now tighter restrictions on where their distributors can advertise. MTV’s Total Request Live is out for sure, as an example. Some of the ad buys that make the most sense cannot happen.

I have gotten some e-mail already saying how awful the casting is; in some ways, I think it’s brilliant—the art of conceptual casting is a tough one, and can often work against a studio in the bottom line. Not sure if it’s going to work in this scenario, but I like the chances Avary is taking.

I think we’ll have a better idea of how this film will be positioned once the first official trailer is released for this September film; these unanswerable questions have to lie dormant for now. I have racheted up my expectations for the film, though, based on the great image Lion’s Gate has released of Van Der Beek (linked above in the AICN article), which was released right before Christmas. With this picture, Van Der Beek truly does look like Bateman/Bale’s sibling.

But let’s set the bar for success, because I have a tendency to put the cart before the horse: I don’t see this doing much better than the $15 million “American Psycho” made in its three months at the box office. This number mostly has to do with the number of screens Lions Gate can secure for the film, not a reflection of being able to market edgy fare, as they have shown a great aptitude with the recent “Monster’s Ball.” But when films from major distributors often open on close to 3,000 screens or more, it’s harder for pictures from smaller studios (like Lion’s Gate) to secure screens and, consequently, box office.

Not that $15 million is an insignificant sum, as I think it’s important to note that “American Psycho” was a success in it’s own right. In some ways, “American Psycho” is a brilliant movie because of its focus on the peripheral levels of the novel (ie. the satire rather than the violence). This movie might bring in the same type of crowd that “Psycho” did, but it’s going to be tough to get the level of attention that “Psycho” achieved in the press—which is where Lion’s Gate does its best work, rather than as paid advertising. Their media relations team is going to have to work hard to help the studio bring in moviegoers.

My gut instinct on achieving more than a sum of $15 – 20 million, though, is this: No way, no how; though I reserve the right to change this view. The ghosts of “crazy/beautiful” and “O” tell me that much.

Whatever happens, though, it’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out in the months ahead.

Rating: B+
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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-
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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
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Lymelife

But if Blonde looks like too much of a chick flick to you then why the hell haven’t you seen “The Others” yetr It’s well-acted, great to look at and has some of the scariest set-pieces since “The Changeling.” What’s that you sayr You don’t like going to a theater full of chattering monkey fucks to see a movie where the silent scenes are just as important as the loud onesr Well, brother, I agree with you, but that heavyset Korean-American gentleman who sat behind me during the 2:00 screening of “The Others” at the Northridge 10 last Saturday certainly does not.

Motherfucker was yammering away throughout the entire film, the most insightful of his comments being, “I wouldn’t go in there if I were her” or “This kind of reminds me of The Sixth Sense.” I shushed the fat ass twice and when I finally turned around and yelled “shut the fuck up!” he seemed to think I meant “please be quiet for the next fifteen minutes, but feel free to resume talking during the climax.” Seriously, that was the third fucking time I asked the cunt wart to zip it and by then…well, it’s either murder the guy or vent about it on the Jerk. Anyway, see “The Others” at a mid-week matinee or on video so you won’t be bothered by these shoulda-been abortions. And bring an extra pair of pants. It’s that scary.

Gosh. Look at that. I’ve written over 500 words on “Legally Blonde” and “The Others” in what was supposed to be a script review for “Lymelife.” Probably because I enjoy writing about movies I like over ones I don’t. “Lymelife” is written by Derick and Steven Martini. The draft I snatched was dated May 15, 2001 and went 113 pages. The Martini brothers, one may recall, got some heat from a movie they co-wrote and starred in called “Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire.” It was a big hit at the Toronto Film Festival and won something called the Discovery Award. Some critics and filmgoers really enjoyed the film. Others described it as warmed-over “Brothers McMullen.” I myself never saw the film because the trailer was shite even for an indie trailer and that’s saying something. Anyway, this new script of theirs (apparently it was workshopped at Sundance over the summer) is best described as plodding “Ice Storm.”

It’s a coming-of-age story about Scott Bartlett, a 14 year-old boy living in 1981 Long Island. Scott loves “Star Wars,” his older brother Jimmy who is in the Army and his father Mickey, a successful real estate developer. Scott is also attracted to his blossoming 15 year-old neighbor, Adrianna who–in the script’s most clever description–“is at that ‘come here, go away’ stage.” She’s a constant tease to poor Scott. Getting him drunk and kissing him then telling him he’s like a brother to her and that she only likes older guys. So as Scott starts to learn exactly what those erections are there for, his parents deal with some marital problems. Mickey, it turns out, likes to fuck around. Right now he’s fucking Adrianna’s mother, partly because Adrianna’s father was bitten by a tick during last year’s deer hunt and has contracted lyme disease. Apparently this makes him lie about going to his job in the city and then sneaking down into the basement to smoke weed all day. I think his lyme disease is supposed to be a metaphor for suburban malaise and the decay of the social fabric being depicted which is a good theme and one that’s never been touched on in film before. Except for the aforementioned “Ice Storm.” Oh, and “American Beauty.” And last year’s “Virgin Suicides.” But other than that, no other film–oh wait, I think “Ordinary People” may have dealt with this subject as well. Same with “Happiness” and on a more fantastical level “Edward Scissorhands.” See where I’m going with thisr And that’s just major American films in the past few years.

It’s not merely the familiar territory being explored that turned me off. It’s that nothing in the movie really happens. “Lymelife” is supposed to be Scott’s story, but…he doesn’t do anything. He gets beaten up by a bully, but lets his older brother kick the bully’s ass. He wants to sleep with Adrianna, but never makes a move for her. Does he want to keep his family her togetherr There are some allusions to that, but he never attempts to soothe his parents’ relationship. Does he want to kick his father out of the house for sleeping aroundr Maybe, but he doesn’t move toward that either. Now, I don’t want to sound like some buzzword spouting suit, but if Scott were a little more “pro-active” then at least maybe something would happen in this script. Scott just kind of stands around and watches other people do shit…and the shit they do ain’t so interesting. It should be interesting: infidelity, madness and first love should all be interesting…but it’s presented so coldly and off-handed here that is just becomes fucking blah. This is one of those slice-of-life movies like “You Can Count On Me” which I deeply disliked–but if Lonnergan’s saga was your cup o’ tea then maybe you would like this script. Come to think of it, I bet “The Ice Storm” looked pretty vanilla on paper, but that movie was shot gorgeously, had a to-die-for cast and some very good direction. Maybe that’s all “Lymelife” needs to be good. Or maybe the workshop process will improve the script. But in its current incarnation, I can’t recommend it.

Rating: D
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Monsters Ball and Adaptation

What upcoming productions have been announcedr A remake of the best zombie movie of all time and a remake of the best movie of a guy screaming “Caaaaaaaaaaannn you dig iiiiiiiiiiitt!!” of all time. It’s so bad, Guy Ritchie can’t even remake his own movie for a third fucking time, he has to go and remake somebody else’s. And sometimes these fuckwits don’t even know what movie they’re remaking. THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER just reported on a spec sale, the title of which I’ve mercifully forgotten, but the following description from the REPORTER will be seared on my mind forever: “A throwback to such thrillers as “Body Heat” and “Dead Calm” the film features a murder on a boat that is then retold from three different points of view.” That’s it. No mention of some old black-and-white Japanese film or some non-animated guy named Akira. Dipshits.

Looking for originality–not to mention brains–in Hollywood is like looking for cock in a convent.

However, like the time Sister Donna whipped out her Polish surprise for me one day after confession, the town that glitters can pull back its robes and reveal what you had always hoped was there: ass-kickingly great and unique screenplays. And even better: ones that have actually been shot and will be released before year’s end.

I finally got my hands on Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation.” I won’t bore you with a plot description because McWeeny and others have done so better than I could already. But rest assured, it is every bit as good as they say it is. Definitely one of the five best scripts that I have ever read. Even better than “Being John Malkovich” (which I thought took forever to get going). “Adaptation” is complex, thoughtful and funny as hell. The third act is a humdinger (as mandated by Robert McKee who makes an appearance) and also surprisingly heartfelt and emotional.

Two caveats, though: “Adaptation” is about a screenwriter (Kaufman) who has to adapt an unfilmable book into a viable script. People who are not screenwriters or in the picture business may not be as enamored with the story as the rest of us. I’m also a little afraid of the casting of Nicolas Cage. He will be Kaufman whose first lines in the script are “I am old. I am bald. I am fat. I am repulsive.” Kaufman is supposed to be a pitiable self-loathing, self-doubting creature who spends most of his time masturbating. At one time you Cage could nail this role in his sleep, but that was before Fuckheimer sunk his claws and turned the former Coppola into a pretty boy hack. Thank God for Spike Jonze. If there’s anybody that can get Cage back to his old demented self, it’s Spike. Remember, he’s made the only Cameron Diaz movie in history where I didn’t want to fuck Cameron Diaz.

I also got to read “Monsters Ball” by Milo Addica & Will Rokos. It will star Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry and Heath Ledger. Billy Bob will play Hank Grotowski, a prison guard in charge of executions who is the antithesis of Tom Hanks in “The Green Mile.” Hank is ugly, mean and a racist. Living with his even nastier prick of a father, Hank has driven his first wife to an early death and when he’s not chasing black kids off his property with a shotgun Hank is berating his son (Heath Ledger) whom he loathes. Halle Berry’s charcter is named Leticia, a struggling single mom whose husband is on death row. When not working as a waitress in a trashy diner, she berates her artistically talented son for being so fat.

Hank and Leticia both lose someone close to them. They are emotionally damaged, fragile and both know their lives need to change. They hook up and at first it seems just to be some form of self-medication. They drink and fuck to dull the pain (yes, cinema screens across the nation will once again be blessed by the presence of Halle’s tats). Soon, however, Hank and Leticia start opening up to each other, see each other more and more often. Hank gives Leticia his car since hers broke down. Holy shit, Hank wonders, am I falling in love with this woman–and a black woman, to bootr

Yeah, it sounds like a cheesy romantic melodrama about a narrow minded bigot who learns to change his ways, but I gotta tell you this movie is gonna be totally fucking dark. The scripts takes every chance it has to kick you in the stomach. There is some brutal shit in here which means all of the tender uplifting moments will be earned. I think Hank will be the best role for Billy Bob in a long time and when Halle Berry gives a shit about the person she’s playing (like she did in, say, “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge”) versus the times she doesn’t (as in “X-Men”) she can be really, really good. I have a feeling Leticia will receive Halle’s full attention. She’s a real person with depth who goes through some profound life changes. It’ll be fun to see what she does with it.

Now, I noticed when Garth over at Dark Horizons linked up to my script review of “Ebony & Ivory” the other week he said it was a “positive” look on the script. Really, it should have been “mixed.” That script is still in a rough form, has a long way to go and could get fucked in a thousand different ways. “Adaptation” and “Monsters Ball,” though, are works of genius, have been filmed and they can’t come soon enough for me.

Rating: A
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