Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Despite being known as a character actor before landing “The Sopranos,” it is very easy to imagine Gandolfini casting his lot with a role that loyal viewers will see as mirroring his television work in an attempt to win respectability after his previous misses at the box office. God knows many others have gone this route in their attempt to transfer to a new medium, even if this film is only a small-budgeted independent picture. But I was hoping more from the actor…so I was pleased to find out a few days later that the part of Andy will be played by Dermot Mulroney (“About Schmidt”). Gandolfini plays second fiddle here, but still has a plum part.

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Rating: B+
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Catch That Kid

This is a remake of a small Norwegian film that had a very limited release in early 2002. Nevertheless, I read through “Catch that Kid” (formerly “Catch that Girl,” based on the 2002 Danish film “Klatretosen”) because I figured anything about bankrobbing kids had to be cool.

I was so right.

From the rush of a beginning to the last page, this script was total enjoyment. The kids will like this, the parents will love it, and bank managers will give every kid who walks into their bank second and third glances. And the best partr It’s not one of those evil movies where after seeing it the kiddies will demand to go to Toys R Us and get all the toys from the movie, and then demand to go to McDonalds and get the Happy Meal with another cheap plastic toy from the movie. This film will be all about the story. And it will probably do crappy at the box office because of it.

Our plucky heroine is 12 year old Maddy, who loves two things in life: climbing, and her dad. Both related, since her father used to climb, but after a nasty accident when Maddy was a baby, he now runs a go-kart track. (Are you beginning to see why she loves her dadr) On top of running go-karts, and announcing the races, her dad plays video games, and hangs out with all the local kids. He’s the dad we all wanted as kids, instead of the drunken dopefiends we ended up with. Err, I digress.

On top of the cool dad, she has 2 boys who completely worship her. And who wouldn’tr She’s confident, responsible, caring, and smart as hell. A far cry from most of the young girls in this world. Insecure, weak-willed and eager to please any boy who will look at them twice.

Maddy’s groovy life is turned upside down when her father’s long time back injury resurfaces, putting him into the hospital, completely paralyzed and on the brink of death. The only thing that can save him is experimental treatment in Denmark. Unfortunately, their insurance won’t cover the $200,000 medical bills.

Of course, Maddy is devastated, and when her career-woman mom can’t find the money, she takes things into her own hands. It doesn’t take much for Maddy to figure out the answer. Her mom works for a large bank, installing a new security system that isn’t fully operational yet. So she decides to enlist her two groupies and rob the bank to save her father’s life. Wackiness ensues.

I was worried they would cast someone completely lame for Maddy, and did a little dance when I found out they got Kristen “Panic Room” Stewart. The rest of the kids are played by unknowns, so I won’t bother listing their names. You can check IMDb if you really want to know. Notably, Jennifer Beals plays Molly, Maddy’s career-oriented suit of a mother, and Sam Robards plays Tom, her father.

Like I said, this flick will be funny. Maddy and her adoring fans have great scenes, great lines, and I was giggling like a 12 year old throughout the whole thing. The only place it was lacking in is the conflict. Yes, we know her dad is going to die, but we don’t doubt for a second that Maddy will fail.

The Scorecard
Director: Bart Freundlich
Producers: Mikkel Bondesen, James Dodson, Jeffrey Graup, Andrew Lazar, Damien Saccani, Uwe Schott
Screenwriters: Nicolai Arcel, Michael Brandt, Marianne Dellinger, Bart Freundlich, Derek Haas, Erlend Leo, Hans Fabian Wullenweber
Casting Directors: Douglas Aibel, Michael Hothorn, and Donna Isaacson
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Locations: Glendale, Los Angeles, and Santa Clarita (California, USA)

Rating: A-
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Fifty First Kisses

Now, that’s not a negative statement. Sandler has a defined persona and he’s very good at that persona, and as long as he doesn’t venture too far from his place he is rather enjoyable to watch. From “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore” to “Big Daddy” and “Mr. Deeds,” his quick-witted everyman has a master of reaction.

In “Fifty First Kisses,” Sandler plays Henry Roth, a veterinarian at a Hawaiian aquarium who enjoys short-term affairs with visitors to the island. In a highly amusing opening sequence, several women tell their friends about this man they had met while on vacation. When we do finally meet Henry, he is at the airport, trying to convince his latest conquest that he is a secret agent, which is why she cannot call him once she returns to the mainland.

Henry’s real life isn’t that glamorous. He spends most of his time at work (where he apparently lives in his office), stitching up his tan native Hawaiian surfer buddy Ula (to be played by Rob Schneider), avoiding the advances of his fat angry Russian coworker Alexa and playing around with Jocko, a walrus at the aquarium. It is Henry’s dream to head up to Alaska to study the effects of global warming on ocean mammals, but his plans change when he meets Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) at Miss Pearl’s, a local breakfast nook, impressing him with her ability to create a teepee out of her waffles, complete with ridgepoles, smoke hole and triangular entrance. He debates with himself whether he should go over there and talk to her, eventually deciding not to. Regretting his decision later, Henry goes back to Miss Pearl’s the next day, where he finds Lucy sitting in the same booth, wearing the same clothes and reading the same book she was the day before. Spotting his moment to make a move when she has trouble making a log cabin out of her waffles, Henry finds himself instantly smitten with Lucy. But when Henry sees Lucy again the next day at the eatery and tries to strike up a conversation with her, she finds his directness offensive and seems to have no remembrance of the day before. This is when Henry learns from Sue, the proprietor of Miss Pearl’s, that Lucy was involved in a car accident the year before and has problems with short-term memory loss (much like Leonard’s anterograde amnesia form “Memento,” although in this script it’s called Finkel’s syndrome), remembering nothing past, and reliving the moments up to, the day of the accident.

If you’ve seen a Sandler romantic comedy, you can pretty much guess what happens the rest of the way. Which again is not to say that is a bad thing. “Fifty First Kisses” is like a pair of comfortable slippers you wear around the house. Warm and fuzzy, and making you feel really good all over. And while many jokes are made at Lucy’s expense because of her condition, the treatment of the condition itself is handled with care and dignity, if not dealt with in a medically appropriate way. One slight change the filmmakers might want to consider is changing the name of Lucy’s condition, as Finkel syndrome is a very real disease, although it has to do with late adult spinal muscular atrophy with autosomal dominant inheritance. Whatever that means, it doesn’t sound like anterograde amnesia to me.

Additional characters include Lucy’s father Marlin and her steroid abusing brother Doug, Dr. Keats, the head of the Institute where Lucy was cared for after her accident, and Ten Second Tom, another patient at the Keats Institute.

With its breezy screenplay, exotic settings and winning leads, ”Fifty First Kisses” should be another major winner for Sandler and company. I give the screenplay a

B+ for effort and an A for execution.

The Scorecard
Director: Peter Segal
Producers: Jack Giarraputo, Steve Golin, Larry Kennar, Adam Sandler
Screenwriters: Allen Covert, Lowell Ganz, Tim Herlihy, Babaloo Mandel, Adam Sandler, George Wing
Casting Director: Roger Mussenden
Production Companies: Anonymous Content, Happy Madison
Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures
Shooting Start Date: Mid March 2003
Locations: Los Angeles, Hawaii

Rating: A-
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Raising Helen

Even with two other efforts set for 2003 that look to be a step up from the dreck above (a romantic comedy and an ensemble piece), Hudson still needs to find a good vehicle that she can call her own. One which will showcase the charm, knack of loose comedy and vibrant energy she revealed in “Famous.” One where the picture rests on her willowy shoulders, rather than where she is part of an ensemble production. Based on the script of “Raising Helen,” the character of Helen Bradley is a better-than-average effort that is sure to highlight Hudson’s multiple skills as an actress.

“Raising Helen” begins with the camera capturing Helen’s legs striding confidently down an endless New York City sidewalk as she meets up with friends at some of the city’s hottest clubs. The velvet ropes blocking entry to such establishments do not exist for her; one quick, well-placed call to the large doormen has her in the door in a flash. Her single life is a good one, one that many would envy. She has a marvelous job at a modeling agency as an executive assistant/booker, good friends, a close-knit relationship with her two married sisters, a great apartment, and a quasi-boyfriend who shows up knocking on her door when she needs him most. Maybe I understated the above- in short, her life is perfect. But all this is about to change when she finds that her oldest sister Lindsay and her husband (Helen’s brother-in-law) Paul have died in an automobile accident.

Before the viewer learns of this tragedy, though, they are first introduced to Helen’s extended family at a birthday party in upstate Connecticut. Here we meet the tragic birthday girl Lindsay, Paul, Helen’s other sister Jenny and her husband Ed, as well as their broods of children- most importantly, Lindsay’s daughters Audrey (15 years old) and Sarah (5) and son Kenny (10). We quickly find out that she has a great rapport with all of the children, naturally; they refer to her as “cool Aunt Helen” and sharing with her a love of dancing to Devo’s “Whip It.” These scenes serve mostly as a set up to what we will learn a little bit later. Here, the scriptwriters are almost effective in conveying what a tight-knit clan the family is, and that Lindsay is the conduit to all this familial happiness, serving as the matriarch and mediator of the family. What’s more, she balances out perfectly the relationship between the buttoned-up Supermom Jenny and the spontaneous Helen.

The family is then thrown into chaos as they receive this tragic news of Lindsay and Paul’s deaths. When Helen is given the news, the screenplay writes “the look on Helen’s face changes to a look of horror…she starts shaking as life goes on blithely around her.” We fast-forward to the funeral and then to the lawyer reading Lindsay and Paul’s will; to the surprise of all, Helen is made the guardian of her nieces and nephew. When the children find out, we witness a genuinely touching interchange between Sarah and Helen that should translate well to the big screen:

Sarah: Who’s going to take me to schoolr

Helen: I guess I am.

Sarah: And make me chicken fingersr

Helen: Me.

Sarah: And give me a bathr

Helen: Me.

Sarah: And play basketball with Kennyr And do my braidr And tell us to brush our teethr And check my nose boogies for infectionr

Helen: Me. Me. Me. And we’ll find someone else to do that last thing with the nose boogies.

She pulls up her charges’ stakes in Connecticut, moving them to a dilapidated apartment in Queens. Her relationship with her friends becomes torn- with one of the best scenes in the screenplay showing the culture shock of her model friends coming to visit her in their new apartment. Their gift to Helen of a Prada handbag is quickly used by Kenny to kill a wandering cockroach. They tell her that her new life is fabulous when they leave, but as soon as they are out of earshot, they mumble to each other that what they just laid eyes on was a disaster.

Before she knows it, she is slinging pancakes in an “Uncle Buck” fashion, having helped to child-proof her windows, attempting to replace a pet turtle that has died before its time and enrolls the children at a local Lutheran school, with the pastor becoming Helen’s eventual love interest. The life Helen once knew is most definitely through as she knows it, but she is happy in some ways with these three little bundles of id and energy. These scenes show a great deal of poignancy as they are written on the page, especially with such a difficult subject matter that has to be balanced in its humor.

Even her job prospects suffer, as she can no longer be the single-minded, super-organized person she once was as she juggles the three kids’ problems. And her relationship with Devon, her gentleman caller, is definitely out the window as well.

Things take an even bleaker turn, though, as we begin the third act. Trying to juggle life and family, she brings a model to the school on their way to a photo shoot, after a panicked teacher orders them to come immediately with Sarah not feeling well. The kids become overjoyed at playing dress-up with the real-life model and putting make-up on her face…until one child uses a permanent marker to ill effect. Whoops. Helen is quickly called onto the carpet at the modeling agency and the best she can do afterwards is getting work at a car dealership.

Home life is also becoming difficult, with Audrey falling for an older rebel student and Kenny losing interest in sports, instead questioning religion. When Audrey’s boyfriend brings her to a hotel at the prom, Helen is scared to act because she knows Audrey will hate her for being uncool. Jenny, who happens to be in town, drags Audrey out of there and takes custody of the kids.

Now alone in her Queens apartment and being unable to participate in the inane conversation she has with friends, Helen finds that her previous life was lacking in a number of ways-she knows something is deeply missing. And, in the final scenes, she confronts her sister to get them back. Being that this is being looked at as a family film, as well as who gets top billing, I think you and I both know what it to happen in the final scenes. What makes the moments especially poignant is Jenny’s reading the note her older sister has left her (and then switching to a voice-over by Lindsay), with the reasons why Lindsay left the children to Helen. A very touching ending that will no doubt have viewers thinking about the status of their own relationships.

My Thoughts
While this is not the type of film I normally would see either in theaters or on video, I found the script to be clipping along at a good pace and extremely zippy in dialogue despite its bulky 144 pages. There are both some humorous scenes, as well as some genuinely touching moments, to be found here, and they even out nicely. With children’s dialogues and mannerisms perhaps one of the most difficult part of screenwriting to capture in scripts, one can certainly feel the gentle retouching done by a deft hand by those who have handled television shows (Jack Amiel with “Malcolm in the Middle”) and films (“Disney’s The Kid” was Audrey Wells’ doing, for better or worse) appropriate to this genre in the past.

It doesn’t get away scot-free, however, as there are some problems with the screenplay in its current draft. There are some things missing to me as I read this, with the re-touching needed most in its introduction to the children in the first act at Lindsay’s birthday and those scenes involving Devon, as they feel out of place. Also needing work is the transitions between disparate scenes, where it sometimes lags-particularly where the stop-start patch where the lan makes the decision to move to New York City.

Kate Hudson is a pitch-perfect choice to play Helen, but a great deal of this film’s success lies in casting the children, as well as coaxing good performances out of them. Also key will be appropriately marketing this film, as its melancholy tone will present itself as a challenge much in the same way that the 2001 film “Riding in Cars with Boys” did, a film that managed to do less than $30 million at the box office. If packaged properly, this could even be considered for Oscar nominations- but it all comes down to how much Buena Vista gets behind this production.

The bottom-line is that this is an enjoyable read and should do well in its trip from the page to the screen, with some minor changes. This is a perfect vehicle for Hudson and should help her establish herself further as a contender for the A list.

Screenplay written by Patrick Clifton and Beth Rigazio, with revisions by Jack Amiel and Michael Belger (two draft revisions by the pair, including the current script) and Audrey Wells. Script dated October 18th, 2002

Rating: B
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Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights

So begins one of the penultimate scenes in “Havana Nights: Dirty Dancing 2,” currently scheduled to begin lensing in February 2003 and hit theaters a scant 9 months later. When I first was provided with this script, I was loathe to read it- I thought it would be a regurgitation of the 1987 original film served with a spritz of 2001’s “Save the Last Dance.” For the most part, it is indeed, yes. But somehow this script seems to click.

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Rating: B+
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The Girl Next Door

The film centers on high school senior Matthew Goodman, who dreams of one day being president of the United States. As leader of the student council, the 18-year old focuses his efforts on earning a “moral fiber” scholarship to Georgetown University and, much to the amusement of the school’s jocks, raising $25,000 to help bring over an exchange student from Cambodia. He, like his friends Eli and Tim Klitz, spend most of their time talking instead of doing; they are the observers of the high school scene. That single-mindedness for Matthew soon changes when he first glimpses Danielle, who is housesitting next door.

As the screenwriters describes, “Suddenly, he sees her. The most beautiful girl in the world, 19, walking up his neighbor’s driveway… All at once, Matthew is overwhelmed with butterflies. He stares at her in wondrous shock. Seeing the look on his face makes the girl smile… and that’s it. Matthew is done for.” Danielle soon catches him watching her as she undresses and soon after they become fast friends. Although she gives every hint that she is interested in him as well, pinpointing him as needing someone who will challenge him, Matthew is hesitant to make the first move. It isn’t until after she has him running around in his neighborhood in his skivvies, swimming in the principal’s pool and doing body shots at a raucous party that he finally summons the courage to kiss her.

And then the discovery comes– Eli finds out that she used to be a porn star.

At this point, the script changes its tempo drastically. At the urging of Eli, Matthew attempts to get her drunk and bring her to a motel room to bring out “the true porn star” in her, as Eli puts it. His awkward attempt at a seduction is met by her spurning him. Matthew is then forced to risk everything to maintain his relationship with her, as her former manager/producer Kelly pays a visit to bring her back to the world she once knew. Upset at the way things have turned out with Matthew and still owing one film on her contract, she goes to Las Vegas for the AVN/Adult Film Convention. Matthew, with Eli and Klitz in tow, follows.

There, he woos her back. But things have been complicated with Kelly getting his hands on the money meant for the Cambodian math genius. Matthew figures out how to solve the problem-by staging a film on safe sex with both porn actresses and students at the senior prom.

There are a few genuinely amusing scenes in the film- the best can be found in the third act, where Matthew has to give a speech to the scholarship foundation, while high on Ecstasy and bruised from a fight with Kelly. The scene is highly derivative of “Risky Business” (Matthew chucks the prepared speech with the words “I’m just gonna let go,” and proceeds to tell a stunned audience his candid thoughts on the subject of moral fiber), but it somehow works. The transition scenes between Kelly and Matthew also seem to work. But, for a comedy, there needs to be more scenes like these here.

The latter two acts need some major tweaking. Also needing work are those involving Eli, a despicable and annoying character with every word he utters in the script. Eli needs to be toned down quite a bit- His character feels vastly out of place with the core group of three friends. If I were Matthew and Klitz, I would cut him loose from their circle.

Hopefully, despite it being stamped as the final product, this script is far from being a completed product- I would recommend another screenwriter be brought in to polish this effort before filming begins in early January.

Other Thoughts on the Film
This film’s success will hinge largely on successful casting. Elisha Cuthbert (“24”) takes on the role of Danielle, while Emile Hirsch (“The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys”) takes on the role of Matthew. I’m not certain Cuthbert can pull off this role, her recent photo spread in Maxim notwithstanding. She is a known commodity from “24,” but her character’s arcs are always named as among the series’ weak points- hopefully, she can climb beyond those expectations. Hirsch showed a great deal of promise in “The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys,” as well as good advance word for his role in “The Emperor’s Club.” This part doesn’t feel like a good fit for him; is this the best he could dor

As of this writing, the secondary leads have not yet been cast. In the cases of Eli and Kelly, these roles are just as important as the leads, if not even more tricky. The director for the picture is Luke Greenfield, who also helmed Rob Schneider’s “The Animal.”

As I had mentioned above, the high school/college comedy has performed poorly in 2002- the combined domestic box office of “Orange County,” “Slackers,” “Sorority Boys,” “Van Wilder,” “The New Guy,” “Swimfan,” “Stealing Harvard” and “The Rules of Attraction” has barely eked past the $150 million mark. As it is written right now, this is an R-rated film with the nudity, the amount of profane language and some drug use. From a marketability standpoint, I would not expect it to top out over the average dollar gross of these 2002 pictures, as Fox 2000 (the distributing partner, with Regency Enterprises the producing company) stands to alienate a good number of the audience they are targeting with this rating. All this said, it’s hard to tell how this would do in theaters at this vantage point-this could just as easily be headed for a straight-to-video release if the shooting doesn’t go well.

Overall, this script really didn’t do anything for me, other than think of how Cuthbert would look in some of the get-ups described in the script. This reminds me of something along the lines of Comedy Central’s first effort at a film for their channel, “Porn & Chicken,” or the Keri Russell-led bomb “Eight Days a Week.” It needs some major work, along with a good couple of casting choices for the remaining roles, for this one to capture an audience. The screenplay, dated August 26th, 2002, is written by Luke Greenfield and Chris McKenna and based on a story by David Wagner and Brent Goldberg. Additional revisions have done by Stuart Blumberg. The script is listed as “Final Draft”.

Rating: D+
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