Rat Race

This film follows the same pattern that many other comedies are taking as of late; it seems they work hard developing around fifteen to twenty minutes of scenes that are quite funny. Mix in another forty minutes of mildly funny scenes, then add another thirty-five minutes of awful filler and weak plot development. Put all that together and you have “Rat Race,” as well as a number of other recent comedies.

There were a number of entertaining performances in this film lead by Jon Lovitz (of course), John Cleese, Vince Vieluf and Dave Thomas (of Strange Brew “fame”). But, just as there were a couple of very entertaining actors their were also some on the opposite end of the spectrum. Whoopie Goldberg, Rowan Atkinson, Wayne Knight and a bus full of Lucy impersonators were downright awful. Not once were they funny and more often than not they were less entertaining than watching paint dry. The scenes with the Lucy impersonators were so repulsively bad I considered walking out of the theater and waiting until the scene was over.

I hate to see such a large cast of (arguably) respectable actors and actresses waste away in a mediocre comedy. But, waste away they did and this film makes me wonder again and again why if one can put together a half dozen good jokes, why can’t they spend the time and stretch it throughout the whole film. This could have been a very funny film with more effort to fill the gaps between the big gags, but it didn’t and the film suffered because of it.

Rating: C-
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Changing Lanes

1. The forms given at the end of the screening are by no means sufficient to state my views of this film.

2. I want to make VERY clear to Paramount that while this movie needs fixing, it does NOT need the sort of fixing I suspect tonight’s screening will be taken to suggest.

3. The print looked complete. There was a temp score (that actually worked pretty well), temp opening titles, and no closing credits, but aside from thatr This was a finished film.

“Changing Lanes” starts with a simple premise. A yuppie lawyer (Ben Affleck) gets into a wreck with a middle-class insurance broker (Samuel L. Jackson). The lawyer doesn’t want to give the insurance broker his insurance information, tries to give him a blank check, which is refused, and he scurries off to court. Unfortunately, he’s dropped a file, and Jackson’s character doesn’t want to give it back. That’s a superficial story outline, but there’s A LOT of storylines beneath it. Jackson’s character is going through a nasty divorce and is a recovering alcoholic. Affleck’s character had been having an affair with another lawyer (Toni Collette) and is worried that he may be on the wrong side of the case.

The fundamental premise and the lead cast led me to believe that we were going to get a mainstream Hollywood thriller, but that’s not what we get at all. Instead, we get an explanation of right and wrong. Both of the lead characters constantly try to do what’s “right” by their moral code, but wind up fucking up their good intentions. There are a LOT of long speeches about right and wrong, mostly delivered by Sydney Pollack as the Senior Partner of Affleck’s firm, and by William Hurt, in a nice cameo turn as Jackson’s AA sponsor. This is a drama, folks, about two men at the breaking point—it’s not a thriller, and it need not try to be. What I saw tonight was far better than the execrable Tomb Raider, and contained solid performances pretty much across the board, with the exception of the actress who plays Jackson’s wife, who is too hysterical for her own good and winds up hurting what could have been a powerful scene between her and Jackson in a jail cell.

So, my suggestions for how to recut the film:

1. Action Should Be Abrupt: There are “action sequences” in the movie. The car wreck that starts the film, another car wreck about midway through the film, and a couple of fist fights. These sequences need to be recut to be more jarring and sudden. Right now, they’re shot simultaneously too lyrically, with slow mo, and too jarringly, with quick cuts all over the place. Give us the incident in one take, from one wide angle, and it’ll be more effective.

2. Expand the Supporting Characters: Toni Collette and Ben Affleck’s characters OBVIOUSLY have history together. In fact, it’s made clear at one point that they were having an affair that is now over. Unfortunately, Collette’s character doesn’t have a back story, or any real development. Collette’s a talented actress! Use her! Additionally, William Hurt’s part should be expanded a little more. If we knew a bit more about the ties between him and Jackson, a scene at the jail would really come alive.

3. Cut Down The Cinema Verite: There are, especially early in the movie, a lot of documentary-style shots that establish setting. Those are all well and good, but they linger a bit too long. The film feels long as it is, and it runs only about 100 minutes. Basically, the film needs to be tightened throughout… little cuts, though… nothing big.

4. Emphasize The Themes More: The whole movie takes place on one day, Good Friday. There’s obviously some religious imagery going on. Hell, Affleck’s character even spends some time in a church. But if there’s a religious parallel going on, draw it out a little more. You don’t need to hit us over the head with it, but make it clear. It’s too fuzzy as it currently stands.

5. Rework The Ending—The ending, as it stands, is abrupt and silly.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

After a day of battling, Jackson shows up at Affleck’s offices to give him the file. Affleck and Jackson first talk, and Affleck has a nice speech about right and wrong. Here’s where we veer substantially off-track. They get into an argument about whose “fault” the accident that morning was, and get into a fist fight, which spills out onto the balcony. The folder drops to the floor of the balcony, and the file begins to blow away. Jackson saves the file, but Affleck takes it from him, lets it blow into the breeze and they laugh together. Fade to credits.

END MAJOR SPOILER

How about ending it this wayr Jackson shows up at Affleck’s office and gives him the file (thereby doing the right thing), they discuss right and wrong (it turns out the file is actually a fraud designed to funnel money into the firm’s hands), then Affleck disposes of the file, preferably by burning or shredding it. The end. More satisfying, less unbelievable, and lends more closure to both characters. You don’t need the fistfight. All you need is closure to the characters.

6. Don’t Fuck It Up: What already exists here is a decent movie. I suspect it test screened poorly. Scenes that I found effectively dramatic drew laughter from chunks of the audience. However, don’t feel compelled to turn this into a taut thriller. That’s not what Roger Michell (the director, who previously made Notting Hill) made, and not what Michael Tolkin and his co-writer wrote. They created a story about two people facing crossroads in life on the very same day whose paths happen to intersect. THAT’S the movie! Not an action thriller or an Affleck/Jackson showdown, but two stories that happen to intersect. Some touch-up will help… a new score (might I suggest Thomas Newman, whose music would fit nicely) will make sure the right emotional buttons get pressed, and tightening will help, but this isn’t a movie that needs to be completely reworked.

The film is slated for a Christmas-time release, it looks like, and it can make it. The changes I’ve suggested are far from gigantic, and would make the film a better film. In fact, Jackson and Pollack’s performances are both potentially award-worthy, and Affleck yet again does above-average work in a role he’s started to make his trademark when he’s doing real acting… that of a young shark who’s trying to keep it together in the wake of tragedy and change. The current film commits a cardinal sin: it’s uncommercial. However, it has a virtue even stronger than that. It’s a good film already, and it can be an excellent one with a little bit of tweaking. Paramount, take the risk and give us a movie closer to the cut I saw tonight, a drama about lives intersecting, than the cut I fear, which turns the film into “a taut thriller about men at the edge!”

Rating: B-
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Pride

Tojo attempts suicide by shooting himself in the gut, but his life is saved by the Allieds, and soon is put on trail along with 27 other top Japanese ministers in front of the newly convened International Military Tribunal for the Far East around the time the Nazi war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg were undertaken.

A vengeful American prosecutor wants to destroy Tojo’s reputation in his homeland, successfully censoring the Japanese press reports about the trials to the point where he own children must flee to another part of the country and take their mother’s maiden name to hide from the shame the name Tojo has within the public, after Tojo’s grandson is mercilessly taunted by his teacher for being related to a man who is “worse than a thief”. The defense argues the war criminals are being unfairly tried by a form of “victor’s justice” group for acts which had not been criminal at the time they were committed, and could not be held responsible for what they had done as government officials. The 28 Japanese officials are, after a long trial, all found guilty and sentenced to die by hanging.

This is the structure in which Pride (Puraido, unmei no toki) investigates the real life story to a mostly satisfying resolution.

On a technical level, Pride is mostly masterful. The cinematography and musical score are profound, finding that necessary but usually neglected composure of power and grace. The acting amongst the lead actors is top notch. Masahiko Tsugawa, best known to American foreign film fans as the male lead in Juzo Itami’s A Taxing Woman films, stars as Tojo, bringing to the character a quiet honor to a man who acted out of responsibility and conviction, even if it wasn’t the best within the eyes of the world. Scott Wilson, who can ironically be seen on American screens this summer as General Marshall in Pearl Harbor, brings a strong presence to his role as Joseph B. Keenan, the lead prosecutor on the tribunal who is under orders from Douglas MacArthur to secure convictions. The great character actor Ronny Cox adopts an Australian accent to play Sir William Webb, the head Justice of the tribunal who tries often in vain to keep a balanced opinion within himself and the court he must lead, and Cox shows once again why he is one of America’s best vastly underused actors.

My main complaint about the film is within its editing. There are several subplots, most notably looks into the personal life of Tribunal Judge Radhabinod Pal, India’s representative to the multinational court, which could have been excised without losing anything relevant to the story. There are also several strange jumps back and forth through time (the tribunals took place in 1947 and 1948) into these unneeded subplots. Along with a restructuring to tell the story in a linear timeframe, removing several of these sequences would trim a good twenty minutes out of the two and a half hour film. making a good film into a haunting cinematic tour de force.

Made on a 1.5B yen budget (approx. $11M US, or three times the average budget for a Japanese film), Pride‘s 1998 release in Japan saw the film become a sensation, becoming one of the biggest homegrown hits of the decade with over 2.4B yen worth of ticket sales and causing a firestorm of controversy concerning liberties writer/director Shunya Ito and co-writer Hiro Matsuda took with historical accuracy. At one theatre where Pride played outside Tokyo, a screen was slashed by a group of protestors angered at the positive portrayal of Tojo in the film.

After fifty-something years, General Tojo’s place in history is still being argued, with as many people respectful of what Tojo wanted for his homeland as those who canonize him as a monster. For history buffs and those who enjoy good dramas, Pride is a film they will want to keep an eye out for when distributor Cargo Films rolls the film out through exclusive regional releases during the fall, starting with three playdates in Los Angeles, Pasadena and Riverside August 24th.

Rating: B
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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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Planet of the Apes

Mark Walhberg was enjoyable to watch throughout the film like he has been in all of his recent films. He is quickly becoming one of the best young mainstream actors. Other characters such as Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth and Michael Clarke Duncan made notably good apes, though none even compared to the energy from Charlton Heston’s brief role. The human characters were rather disappointing; Kris Kristofferson was wasted to a small and somewhat unnecessary part. Estella Warren played the usual role of a supermodel turned actress, to stand around and look good. The rest of the humans had very little personality if any, and for the most part they were just walking zombies. This could be explained by being prisoners of the apes, but I still would have like to see some personality in them, even when their ‘hero’ came they didn’t even talk.

I had a problem with the ape’s having the ability to defy all laws of gravity and physics. Some of them could amazingly fly back and forth from wall to wall, and leap some 25-30 feet in the air similar to the abilities of Chow Yun Fat in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” But even with these slightly improbable feats I was able to put aside these superpowers and forgive Burton due to the interest it helped caused.

Up to the last twenty-five minutes or so it was an enjoyable movie then it began its big twist ending. Now generally I like big twists at the end when they are done properly such as in “Seven,” “Fight Club” or even “The Score,” but this twist was just there for the sake of confusing everyone. The last few minutes just went crazy, almost to the point of absurdity. While after much discussion after the film with my friends I believe I figured out the ending, I found it to be unnecessary for the most part. The ending was intriguing as Burton was surely attempting it to be, but it is nearly unexplainable and will definitely be over the heads of 99.9% of the audience. The ending itself begs for a sequel to explain itself, which is likely something executives at Fox demanded so they could have another franchise. This is the sort of movie you might have to see multiple times to truly comprehend whether the ending was a mess or brilliant on a much higher intelligence level than the rest of the film. Either way it merits discussion, more so than any other action movie released this year.

Rating: B+
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Ebony and Ivory

So I stole a pile of them. Some blowjob princess wearing a so-last-season headset in the reception area asked me where I was going. I immediately made myself look ambitious and sleep-deprived so I could pass as a mail room troll and replied, “I have to get these scripts to Hal Ashby right away.” “Whor” “Hal Ashby, the director. His last movie was with Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette. God, don’t you read the tradesr” She masked the embarrassment born of her ignorance quickly, “Oh! See, I thought you said Al Ashby. You better get going.” As I left I saw her type “Hal Ashby” into her computer and by the time she figured out that he hasn’t made a movie since “8 Million Ways To Die” with Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette in 1985 because he is fucking dead, I was back in my valley shithole reading “Ebony & Ivory” by Stuart Blumberg.

I tell you about this script because out of the ones I read it seems like this one has the best chance to get made and subsequently marketed down our throats. The draft I took a gander at was dated May 14, 2001 and tattooed 123pages. If you want to know about the writer, but are too fucking lazy to go to the IMDB, don’t worry, I did it for you. Senor Blumberg roomied with genius actor (and current Hayek dipstick) Ed Norton at Yale, wrote and produced his buddy’s movie “Keeping the Faith” and did a funny turn as the Car Salesman in “Fight Club.”

I’m sure his script will be changed when/if it is made by Imagine Entertainment and Universal Pictures, but I’m a lousy bastard, so I’ll review it anyway while trying to keep the spoilers to a minimum. “Ebony & Ivory” is a high-concept comedy about a wealthy, white plastic surgeon named Ted Pickford who has a lot of preconceived notions about his neighbor, a wealthy, black rapper named Master Peace. Master Peace, who also happens to have a lot of preconceived notions about Ted, has been cheating on his woman. To get revenge, she enlists her grandmother, an overweight voodoo priestess who farts a lot (did I mention already this will be from the producers of “The Nutty Professorr”) to cast a spell that will cause Ted and Peace to switch bodies.

The two live through each other’s skin, learn it isn’t easy to be a white surgeon or a black rapper and that they’re not all that different after all and become great friends at the end. It’s a feel good race relations satire. And since it’s written by a Yalie there are some good points made;particularly about the hypocrisy behind the business of hip hop and how the form has degenerated from the social commentary made by Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy in the 80’s to the booties and Bentleys grandstanding of today. Blumberg’s ear for dialogue is very good and the characters are all nicely drawn with a few exceptions: the hyperactive, street slanging Asian intern at Peace’s record company who is a cheap plot deivce, offensive and, even worse, ripped off from Trey Parker’s “Orgazmo.” Ted Pickford is supposed to be very superficial and only attracted to the Barbie-ized bimbos he does boob jobs on, but I think that aspect of him wasn’t developed sufficiently enough to pay off at the end when he reconciles with his put-upon wife. And then there were the black racists.

Blumberg has the gonads to explore racism as a two way street. It’s not a very safe and popular choice–particularly in a movie that I’m sure will be heavily marketed to African-American audiences–to show how black people can be racist, but I’ve met Spike Lee and I gotta tell you, they can. Blumberg shows us these cracker hating people, but unlike the white racists who get their well deserved come-uppances, the black racists get off scott free and I’m sure it’s because Blumberg is afraid of offending somebody. White people don’t get offended when they see movies about the Klan, why should black people get bent out of shape seeing a narrow minded African-American learn that white people aren’t all badr

Blumberg comes dangerously close to saying that for a black rapper to be racist is not only socially acceptable, but justified. Growing up as an ethnic and religious minority in the Rocky Mountain bible belt, I have a problem with all forms of racism no matter who it’s coming from and I think that a script of this nature has an obligation to play it fair from all sides.

Now I’ll step off my soap box and tell you that the plotting of the script seemed pretty episodic and not very sharp, but that can be fixed through subsequent drafts. There were a lot of typos in the script, suggesting Blumberg was in a time crunch to get this thing handed in. Given the time, I bet he can fix the holes and maybe replace the fart jokes with material a little more befitting for one with an Ivy League education.

But look, the real appeal of this script to me was the examination of race relations in America. I hope Blumberg is allowed to explore these themes further and give some director somewhere the chance to shoot a comedy that is not also funny, but really thought provoking. There’s a chance here to make a 21st century “Blazing Saddles” and from what I’ve seen here, Blumberg has the talent to pull it off. But I’ve been in this fucking town too long and I am almost certain that Blumberg’s bosses–the people who raped the memory of Dr. Seuss and contributed to the castration of Eddie Murphy–will probably tell him to scale it back, make it safer, less potentially offensive, but with more jokes like the one where the pit bull fucks the toy terrier. I mean, Christ man, these people don’t even remember who Hal Ashby was…

Rating: B-
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