Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Adaptation

In the film Get Shorty, Delroy Lindo's character
describes a screenwriter as merely someone you hire to fill in "all the
commas and shit." And in Robert Altman's The Player, a studio
executive ponders the need for screenwriters altogether, while another
executive kills a writer and no one notices. Despite being the foundation for
just about everything seen on a movie screen, writers are down on the far end
of the totem pole in Hollywood. With this rampant lack of respect, is it any
wonder that so much of the work turned out by Hollywood screenwriters is the
same old dreck? I mean, why waste your time, energy, and emotions creating a
truly original work of art when it's just going to get crapped on by some
producer trying to appeal to the masses? Isn't it easier just to photocopy
what everyone else is doing, just the way Syd Field tells you, and hand in
your 117 pages and be done with it?

When Charlie Kaufman, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter
of Being John Malkovich, was given the assignment to adapt Susan
Orlean's The Orchid Thief into a major motion picture, the battle
between his desire to stay true to Orlean's prose and Hollywood's desire for
a commercially viable star vehicle nearly drove him to the point of madness.
After struggling and fighting with it, Kaufman, out of desperation, turned
his own internal battle into his script. Suddenly, the film became Adaptation,
a chronicle of his own effort to adapt The Orchid Thief, featuring
himself as the main character (portrayed by Nicholas Cage, in the best
performance of his career).

It's an out-there concept, and not an easy one to pull
off, but it works. The feeling one gets is that the film is creating itself
right in front of us: the film's false-start opening is later revealed to be
Charlie's desperate attempt to find a starting point for his script. We're
also shown scenes from The Orchid Thief, with Orlean (Meryl Streep)
and her subject, John LaRoche (the always excellent Chris Cooper); they're
given to us completely out of any sort of context, and seem to be Charlie's
aborted attempts to get his script moving.

Making things worse for Charlie, his twin brother
Donald (also Cage) has decided to become a screenwriter himself. He
immediately goes the Syd Field approach, attending seminars and breezing
through his script (a hilariously clich├ęd story about a serial killer with
multiple personalities -- "The only device more overdone than serial killers
is multiple personalities," Charlie moans). While Donald is getting raves
from the industry, Charlie is stuck staring at the blank page in his
typewriter.

Charlie begins to fixate on the photo of Orlean on her
book jacket, in a way that neatly mirrors Orlean's own fixation with LaRoche.
He wants to talk to her -- maybe a conversation with her can free up the
mental blockade he's erected for himself -- but his own insecurities hold him
back. And when he does attempt to make a connection with someone -- a waitress
at a coffee shop -- it ends in disaster. His feelings of shame and
self-loathing escalate, his deadline approaches, and his pages become no less
blank.

The performances are all-around spectacular, especially
from Cage. After years of snoring through Gone in 60 Seconds and Con
Air
, it's amazing to remember just how good an actor he was -- and still is,
I suppose this shows. Chris Cooper is getting heavy Oscar buzz for his job as
John LaRoche, and deservedly so.

If Adaptation falters, it's in the last act,
when it just seems to run out of steam. Completely lost for an ending,
Charlie gives the script to Donald, who gives it the Hollywood touch: drugs,
sex, and car crashes (there are two car crashes in this film, and they are
among the most incredible I've ever seen; kudos to Spike Jonze). The joke is
certainly funny, and even a little touching in its own way, but it's a tad
too jarring up against the rest of the film.

I do have one question: who in their right mind thought
Charlie Kaufman would be a good choice to adapt The Orchid Thief in
the first place? No matter -- at least we get something good out of the deal.

Rating: ****

Friday, January 03, 2003

Training Day

What is justice? How far are we willing to go to see it? Is it all right for an overworked, underpaid cop to stick a quarter of a million ill-gotten dollars under his coat, so long as the criminals are brought down? Can we accept the notion of a narcotics officer consuming large amounts of the very substances he tries to remove from the streets, if it helps him infiltrate the bad guys? And just who are the "bad guys," and are they really that bad? Training Day asks these questions and more, resulting in what is almost a truly thought-provoking masterpiece. Unfortunately, the climax sees fit to answer all those questions, replacing the shades-of-gray brilliance of the first two acts with cliched fisticuffs and coincidental plot machinations.

Meet Detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), a street thug with a badge, prowling the streets of South Central in his Monte Carlo, beating up college kids and using fake search warrants to obtain evidence. You're horrified, and so is his trainee, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), until Alonzo points out the unavoidable fact that he gets the job done. His methods may not be completely on the level, but they work. Even the street gangs respect him, letting him roam their "jungle" unheeded. Not to mention that Alonzo is a pretty cool guy himself -- his wit and charm make his already persuasive argument pretty easy to swallow. At first, Jake resists, clinging to his innocent beliefs, but soon finds himself toking up on PCP-laced marijuana and drinking on duty at Alonzo's insistence.

The majority of the film is comprised of Alonzo and Jake cruising in "the office" (Alonzo's car) and discussing the merits of the street justice approach. "To protect the sheep," Alonzo says, "you've got to catch a wolf...and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf." As the day progresses, Jake finds himself deeper and deeper in the web of the L.A. drug world, and Alonzo's ideas seem like a pretty good idea after all. But as more of that web is revealed, and Jake is involved in high-tension shootouts with bandana-wearing gangstas, he begins to wonder just where the line should be drawn. And that's where Training Day goes off the rails. Too bad.

The performances are incredible. This may not be the best work of Denzel's career, but it is a stunning, against-type performance. Alonzo is just dripping with confidence and charisma, turning into blind rage on a dime. It's totally credible, and completely unforgettable, more than worthy of the long-overdue Best Actor Oscar. Hawke brings a genuine sense of wide-eyed innocence to Jake, but it's not a stupid innocence -- he's got a good head on his shoulders, but he's wholly unprepared for what Alonzo shows him. The supporters are good all around, with special attention to be given to rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg as a wheelchair-bound crack dealer and Dr. Dre as one of Alonzo's thugs. Actual gang members appear as extras in the film, and the gangs allowed the filmmakers to actually enter their territory for use in the movie -- the end result being an unending sense of realism. You can feel the grit of L.A.'s drug zones pouring from the screen in every scene. It makes me glad I don't live in Los Angeles anymore.

The realism holds up until the aforementioned third-act climax, anyway, which turns Training Day into a joke of coincidental storytelling. In describing the events, you would have to use the phrase "just happens" a lot -- "This guy just happens to find this over here, which just happens to do this, and so he just happens..." and so on. When the sun goes down in the film, the characters jump from thought-provoking cinema into Lethal Weapon 5. It's disheartening, and downright depressing.

But the first 100 minutes are electrifying, and only point toward the masterpiece that may have been. I still like it enough to give it a full recommendation, but be prepared for some eye rolling as the last reel kicks in. Training Day definitely passes, but it could have been so much more.

Rating: ***1/2

Panic Room

There are few filmmakers who use computers as creatively as David Fincher. Sure, both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have used digital effects to develop vast, imaginative worlds, and Robert Zemeckis showed in What Lies Beneath how CGI could be harnessed in lame attempts to create suspense. But in Panic Room, Fincher repairs what Zemeckis screwed up and creates a true Hitchcock film of the modern era. If Hitch was around today, and had a few contacts at Industrial Lights and Magic, his films would probably look a hell of a lot like this.

Each of Finch's previous films seemed to have been more about atmosphere and theme than plot. Se7en featured several extraneous scenes designed to develop the desired message, as did Fight Club. But those philosophical (and, some might argue, pretentious) diversions have been gleefully tossed over the side here -- Panic Room is 100 percent story, and once it starts, it never lets up for an instant. Many may mourn the loss of those thought-provoking diversions, but Fincher makes up for it by piling on the suspense to almost unbearable levels.

Jodie Foster is Meg Altman, a recent divorcee searching for a new place for her and her teenage daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart). They luck into a showing of a home not yet on the market -- a spacious mansion on the west side, complete with a yard and a working elevator. But the home's most intriguing feature is the panic room: a bomb shelter-like cubbyhole tucked into one of the bedrooms. It features its own ventilation shafts, its own phone lines, emergency supplies, and surveillance monitors revealing every room in the house. The room is surrounded on all sides by three inches of steel, and once the door is locked from the inside, it can only be unlocked from the inside. It's designed as a shelter, should someone break in.

Meg -- who suffers from mild claustrophobia -- isn't too wild about the room, but Sarah's impressed, and the house is the right price, so they take it. But on their very first night, they are forced to take cover in the room when (surprise!) a trio of burglars break in. The panic room seems to be the safest course of action, until a complication arises: the robbers don't want high-tech electronics or jewelry, they're after something else -- and it's inside the panic room.

Thus begins a battle of wits between those within and those without. The thieves make a move; Meg and Sarah countermove. It's fascinating to watch, and screenwriter David Koepp (Snake Eyes, Mission: Impossible) should be commended for keeping everyone on an even playing field -- there is no stupidity in this house. The girls are razor-sharp, and their quick thinking saves their lives on numerous occasions. And the robbers -- the security expert Burnham (Forrest Whitaker), the jumpy Junior (Jared Leto), and the masked psycho Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) -- are just as smart, pulling brilliant schemes out of thin air. There are a few MacGyver wisecracks thrown around, but they're accurate -- everyday household objects are used to create elaborate traps. It's a blast to watch these people think.

Actually, it's a blast to watch everything in this movie, thanks to David Fincher and his pair of cinematographers, Darius Khondji and Conrad W. Hall (son of Oscar-winning DP Conrad L. Hall). Not content to merely photograph the proceedings, Fincher's computer-assisted camera zooms around the house, through floorboards, cracks in the wall, and even a keyhole as the evening's events unfold. This fly-on-the-wall style is incredible -- it pulls you out of your normal role as audience member and throws you into the action. It's easy to forget that you're just watching a movie up there. A pair of sequences in particular (one as the thieves arrive in the rain, the other a slow-motion scene shot almost entirely without sound) are especially noteworthy in this regard. It's a breathtaking experience; I found myself (literally) on the edge of my seat, my $4.00 soda forgotten about in the cupholder beside me. It's absolutely riveting.

Fans of Fincher's work may be a tad disappointed in this movie's apparent lack of weight. Unlike Se7en, Fight Club, or The Game, there aren't any heady topics for discussion after the film present here. Oh, you can see Finch toying with some ideas, like the horrors of intrusion and violation, and the power of the will in defense, but they seem peripheral to the point. Fincher has called Panic Room his "popcorn movie" -- the easy-to-digest blockbuster for the mainstream audience. Don't let that fool you, though -- he is definitely at the top of his form in this one.

If the film has a flaw, it's only a minor one. There's a lack of character resolution at the end; something feels missing from the final scene. But as I said, it's a minor problem. Panic Room is a near-perfect suspense thrill-machine, and a worthy heir to the title of the Hitchcock Film of the Twenty-First Century. I hope Robert Zemeckis is watching.

Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, January 02, 2003

Changing Lanes

A woman sitting near me during Changing Lanes would not shut up. At every plot twist, she would murmur, "Uh-oh!" She laughed inexplicably throughout, though no one else in the theater found anything remotely amusing in the action onscreen. And with every screamed shout of indignation by the characters, she would cry out in agreement: "Yeah!!" No matter how people asked her to quiet herself, she kept it up, all the way until the credits. As I walked out, I overheard the couple sitting in front of me openly voicing their wish to throttle the annoying patron. I mean, they were pissed.


It's more than mildly ironic that such an encounter would occur during a screening of Changing Lanes, because the film's main focus is our implied "social contract" -- the unspoken agreement between us all that says we won't be rude or mean (or loud in the movie theater) and that we'll always try to help if we can. If one person violates that contract, dire consequences are likely to follow. The trailers have done this film a great disservice -- trailers seem to depict it as a hot-blooded, suspense-filled human chess match, ala Panic Room, but it's actually nothing of the kind. It's still not any good, mind you, not by any means, but it's not as shallow as the advertisements seem determined to make it out to be. It is, however, just as boring and preachy as you think it is.

The concept here is actually pretty good, and man oh man, Changing Lanes can't wait to get there. Our main characters are introduced very simply, cutting back-and-forth between them every twenty seconds or so for about five minutes. We get the basics, but nothing of consequence. Ben Affleck is Gavin Banek, your typical Big Shot Lawyer who cruises around in his fancy car, cheating on his wife (Amanda Peet) with his secretary (Toni Collette). He's about to seal the deal on a huge case that will make his firm millions -- he just needs to deliver some very important documents to the courthouse. Meanwhile, across town, we find Samuel L. Jackson as Doyle Gibson, your typical Estranged But Loving Father, putting the finishing touches on a loan so he can buy his ex-wife a house in a last-ditch attempt to keep his children near him. Oh, and he's a recovering alcoholic, too, for no good reason other than to give William Hurt something to do as his AA sponsor. Doyle is going to unveil the new house at his custody hearing -- this morning at the courthouse. All of the above (and more) is covered in about four minutes, with the action swinging back and forth, crosscutting between the two of them. It's almost dizzying, and not in a good way.

But fate strikes: as both are headed to the courtroom, Gavin and Doyle are involved in some kind of car accident on the FDR. I wish I could tell you what happened, but I'm not entirely sure myself -- this scene, like much of the film, is edited in such a shoddy, pedestrian manner that it's impossible to discern the events. Gavin's car is just scratched up, but Doyle's is disabled. In a hurry to get to court, Gavin leaves Doyle stranded, without even given him an insurance card. He does, however, leave something more important -- the crucial file he was on his to court to deliver is dropped on the road. Doyle picks it up, and heads on his way, only to show up too late to make a difference at his custody hearing. When Gavin shows up sans file in the courtroom, he's given until the end of the day to find it. And so it begins.

From there, Changing Lanes always feels like it's just getting ready to take off. Every beat of the film seems to contain a masterpiece just waiting to get out, but it never gets around to doing it. Lying in the cold, wet murk of this film is a classic somewhere, but director Roger Mitchell (the auteur behind Notting Hill...yuck) doesn't know how to find it. He seems to have an almost fetishistic obsession with glass -- what felt like fifty percent of the film is shot through glass, be it windows, windshields, or glass doors. All of the offices in Gavin's law building are built from glass, and many scenes within them are photographed from the outside. Why? No reason I can discern. Add this to the choppy, Bruckheimer-like editing, and Changing Lanes becomes a very hard film to sit through. Half of your time is spent just trying to figure out what's going on.

The script is at turns both compelling and frustrating. One very notable aspect is its refusal to call sides -- neither Gavin nor Doyle are the "bad guys" here. Each resorts to hideous (and illegal) tactics to get at the other, so much so that the point of all this is lost (to them, not the audience) beneath macho posturing and "How do you like that, motherfucker!" showdowns. They alternate roles as the film progresses: one will be sad and regretful of the events, the other pissed as hell and working for vengeance. The first will decide to end it and call a truce, but just before they get a chance, the other's next heinous plan will enact, and the two will switch sides for the next fifteen minutes. It quickly becomes obvious and predictable. And this is all before the film commits its major sin in the final act: I hoped, somewhere in the back of my mind, that Mitchell or the screenwriters would have the guts to steer this movie into truly reproachful territory, driving the point home with a shocking climax; I was disappointed. The finish is the safe way to go, never mind the fact that it's completely preposterous, even compared to the rest of the film.

If there's anything in this film to give high praise to, it's the cast. I'm a big fan of both Jackson and Affleck, and they are stellar here. Both Gavin and Doyle go through lots of emotional turmoil, and the two actors (Jackson especially) give excellent performances. Dylan Baker only appears in two scenes as one of those Hollywood "guys who knows how to make people do things they don't want to do" (who wields "computer voodoo"), but he's instantly memorable -- the unrestrained glee he exudes while destroying someone's life made me shudder.

All in all, I can't say that I really hated Changing Lanes, but I can say I was sorely let down. The film's message is a good one, even if it is handed down a little heavy. I'm going to go ahead and give it my standard "Maybe you'll like this more than I did" score, and I mean it -- this movie deserves a lot of credit for not being what I was afraid it would be...even if it's not much of anything else.

Rating: **

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Hunter episode guide

Season 1 - The Truth/It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Episode 2 recap contains introductory information. Episodes 9-13 are recapped on one page.
  1. The End [not recapped]
  2. Corpses
  3. Sunday
  4. You're No Fun Anymore
  5. The Sting
  6. Your Fairy Fucking Godmother
  7. Green
  8. Gimme Shelter
  9. The Big Red Number
  10. Name That Tune
  11. The Map
  12. The Labyrinth
  13. The Minotaur
Season 2 - Trust No One/Nightswimming

All episodes recapped on one page. Titles for episodes 5-8 are unavailable thanks to shoddy notes-taking by the Storyteller.
  1. Lovesick
  2. Anonymous Liberty
  3. Under Cover of Afternoon
  4. The Top of the Eighth
  5. ?
  6. ?
  7. ?
  8. ?
  9. Bad Things Are Happening All the Time
  10. Not Guilty
  11. 1
  12. Schadenfreude
  13. The Clearing
Season 3 - Things Are Gonna Get Worse Before They Get Better/Everybody Hurts
  1. The Black Hand, Part 1: No Surprises
  2. The Black Hand, Part 2: In Limbo
  3. The Black Hand, Part 3: Knives Out
  4. House of Leaves
  5. The Chamber of 32 Doors
  6. Nothing Bad Happened Today
  7. We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Program
  8. Not Dark Yet
  9. [title to be determined]
  10. [title to be determined]
  11. [title to be determined]
  12. [title to be determined]
  13. [title to be determined]
Season 4
  1. [title to be determined]
  2. [title to be determined]
  3. [title to be determined]
  4. [title to be determined]
  5. [title to be determined]
  6. [title to be determined]
  7. [title to be determined]
  8. [title to be determined]
  9. [title to be determined]
  10. [title to be determined]
  11. [title to be determined]
  12. [title to be determined]
  13. [title to be determined]
Season 5
  1. [title to be determined]
  2. [title to be determined]
  3. [title to be determined]
  4. [title to be determined]
  5. [title to be determined]
  6. [title to be determined]
  7. [title to be determined]
  8. [title to be determined]
  9. [title to be determined]
  10. [title to be determined]
  11. [title to be determined]
  12. [title to be determined]
  13. [title to be determined]