Thursday, October 30, 2014


WARNING:  This review contains spoilers, inasmuch as you can spoil a film based on a nearly twenty-year-old news story.

I was a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh in 1996, when troubled multi-millionaire John du Pont, heir to a centuries-old Pennsylvania chemical fortune, was arrested for the murder of Dave Schultz, a gold medal-winning Olympic wrestler who had been training with du Pont's champion-hopeful team at the family's Foxcatcher Farms estate.  The story was covered heavily in the PA press at the time, perhaps more so than in the rest of the world, but mired as I was in my studies, my awareness of the case in '96, and thus my memory of the events now, was sketchy at best, grossly misinformed at worst.  (I specifically remember believing, from the half-heard drib and drab that constituted my knowledge of the murder, that du Pont and Dave had been lovers.)  When I did think about it at all, my reaction was not that much different than that of Bennett Miller, director of Foxcatcher, the punishingly intense new docudrama about the du Pont / Schultz killing.  In the film's press notes, the director recalls at first finding the whole story funny.  I mean, after all, this pasty, fey-voiced rich boy is obsessed to the point of murder with wrestling?  What would make a man like du Pont so caught up in something so seemingly beneath a person of his perceived stature?  And what sort of wrestlers would look at someone like du Pont and think, "This man can make me a champion"?  

Foxcatcher engages all of these questions and many more, resulting in a terrifying and resonant motion picture that stands tall as the year's best so far.  In a year and an election cycle that has grappled seriously with the often poisonous influence of privilege, this is 2014's definitive cinematic essay on the subject, a bold treatise on the ways in which money, class, gender and sheer brute physical skill often trump all other concerns in determining who is on top and who's flat on the mat, and the deviant darkness unlocked when the supposedly privileged run up against a reality that their assumed advantages are not able to surmount.  (I walked out of the theater thinking as much about Elliot Rodger as about John du Pont.)  The film also deals with the frequently equally corrosive nature of patriotism, and the many negative "virtues," from crushing the weak under your heel to our nation's ever-more-costly obsessive love of firearms, that encompass what it means to be a "true American."  At its heart, though, Foxcatcher is ultimately a story about three men, two of whom are defined by needs so deep-seated and unconquerable that they irrevocably alter their destinies, while costing the third man his very life.  

In a small but thematically relevant alteration of the historical record, Miller and his screenwriters, E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for Miller's previous crime-centered docudrama Capote), have moved the events of the Schultz murder from the mid-1990s back to the late 1980s.  It's the waning days of Reagan's America, and the President's promise of a new national morning has given way to the dusky sunset of a harsh, economically fraught reality.  The first figure we are introduced to is not du Pont or the ill-fated Dave, but rather Dave's brother Mark (Channing Tatum), a fellow gold medal winner whose post-Olympic fortunes, to put it mildly, have not soared on eagle's wings.  He lives in a grungy midwestern apartment, spends his afternoons wolfing down lonely cheeseburgers in his car or ramen noodles as he stares at the wall, and supplements a seemingly barely existent income with $20 speaking engagements at local schools…and he's only able to book those when the schools can't get Dave (Mark Ruffalo), whose natural affability and easygoing charm, not to mention his considerable wrestling skills, have carried him to much steadier employment and a possible berth as a coach for the US national team.  Dave's potential departure would be just the latest in a string of abandonments for the introverted, inarticulate Mark, who has swum in his brother's wake since their itinerant, fatherless childhood.  Mark's speech to the schoolchildren, a collection of hollow platitudes about American excellence and how "you can be anything you want to be," is reminiscent of a returning veteran of a little-lamented war, who has granted his country a bit of refracted glory and who has now ceased to serve any practical purpose for the nation to whom he gave so much.  Mark is frustrated, discontented, and ready to listen to anybody who's willing to put a little of that much-missed faith in him.  And the universe answers his unspoken call by sending him du Pont (Steve Carell, hard to spot behind considerable makeup and a halting, eastern patrician accent), whose offer to coach Mark back to the glory of the wrestling ring is nothing less than a cult leader's all-strings-attached promise of eternal salvation.  

As du Pont assembles a cadre of aspiring champions at his family estate, with Mark as their unofficial team captain, the mysterious pathologies of this would-be crafter of Olympians begin to reveal themselves.  A man who has never had to work a day in his life, du Pont has busied himself with the typical pursuits of the idle rich; he is a philatelist, a somewhat celebrated ornithologist, and an amateur marksman, with an obsession with guns so absolute that he throws a tantrum when a tank he has purchased, seemingly for no reason, arrives without its expected .50 caliber machine gun mounted on top.  (In a lightly handled but metaphorically weighty piece of contextualization, a documentary video Mark watches about the du Pont family mentions that the origins of their fortune lay in the manufacture and sale of gunpowder.)  Du Pont controls when his wrestlers, especially Mark, can eat and sleep, and what they do with their down time, which for Mark means accompanying du Pont to fundraising dinners so he can parrot pre-prepared phrases of praise about his beloved coach.  They also share copious quantities of cocaine and late-night two-man practice sessions that are reminiscent, in a piercing close-up of Mark face-down on the mats as du Pont tussles with him, of homosexual rape.  All of this, the pomp and pageantry, the grandstanding speeches and "inspirational" visits to nearby Valley Forge, are a means for du Pont to finally, finally impress his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), a frosty finishing-school matriarch who alternately coddled her son (to the point of paying teenagers to be his friend when he was in high school) and discouraged him from anything that would have enabled him to set himself apart from his historically significant name, most notably wrestling, which the champion equestrienne merely characterizes as "a low sport."  And when even his stewardship of Team Foxcatcher does not allow du Pont to vanquish his Oedipal demons, he does the only thing he feels he can do:  He throws all the money he can muster at Dave and has him join the team at Foxcatcher.  But Dave has always been the greatest influence on Mark's life, for better or worse, and when the fraternal warmth and genuine wrestler's wisdom of Dave begins to usurp du Pont's position, both as the head of the Foxcatcher team and as Mark's guardian angel, a barely maintained purchase on sanity begins to utterly fall away.

Miller received the best director prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his work on Foxcatcher, and his helming of the film is a reflection of du Pont himself:  fiercely comprehensive control concealing the roiling emotions underneath.  Virtually humorless, the film simmers with unspoken tensions and pain almost from the very first scene; an early practice session between Mark and Dave vibrates with the conflicting love and hostility between two men who we feel have always been close, but have likely never really talked about how they feel about one another.  The director handles the picture's showcase scenes in an understated style that keeps them from turning into mere set pieces, while still mustering all of the considerable filmmaking skill at his command.  A scene in which Mark, furious at himself for losing a championship match, trashes a hotel room is so intense and unspeakably painful it's almost hard to watch, and Dave's fumbling attempts to verbally express the methodology behind du Pont's coaching style during a TV interview is social satire of a sly high order.  The pace is brooding throughout, the atmosphere coiled, explosion ever percolating beneath the surface; even when du Pont finally lashes out and slaps Mark (a moment that struck the screening audience with which I saw the film silent), he never raises his voice beyond his usual, deceptively serene tones.  Cinematographer Grieg Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty) favors shadowy lighting, muted colors, and compositions that, through distribution of onscreen space or careful deployment of foreground and background objects and figures, frequently isolates his characters onscreen, emphasizing their alienation…very fitting for a story of two men who have essentially lived their entire lives on the outside looking in.  Handheld camera is sparingly employed, unleashing the emotional turmoil the characters are otherwise unable to express, as when du Pont, driven into a near-zombie-like state by the death of his hated, ever-disapproving mother, releases her prize horses into the fields surrounding the estate.  Miller also creates extremely credible wrestling scenes, never tricking up the essentially close-quarters, heavy-shouldered nature of the sport and refraining from making any of the matches depicted onscreen really about "who wins."  After all, who cares whose shoulders are on the mat when the one you're really fighting is yourself?  Editors Stuart Levy, Conor O'Neill and Jay Cassidy maintain the even but emotionally fraught atmosphere established by Miller and Fraser, and the chilly foreboding is amplified by a deep-bellied, brooding score by Rob Simonsen, with an assist from West Dylan Thordson and Mychael Danna (an Oscar winner for Life of Pi).  

Frye and Futterman's screenplay is brilliant in its anatomization of the particular issues plaguing Mark and du Pont.  For Mark, a simple man who wanted nothing but the security of family, friends and the respect that comes with being one of the best in the world at your chosen field, has earned all of these things and then seen them denied to him again and again.  It's little wonder that he is drawn to du Pont, the scion of a celebrated old-money American clan, the kind of man whose entrance into a room moves everyone out of their seats.  So caught up is Mark in the American promise of wealth and exalted status that du Pont represents that he never realizes that, if du Pont's last name were Smith or Watson, or Schultz, most people wouldn't look his way to sneer at him.  Du Pont does possess a degree of self-awareness that Mark doesn't, and he knows, whether or not he can articulate it, that the Foxcatcher wrestling team is his one opportunity to forge something real, something potent and impressive and lasting, that's his, that flies in the face of his family's history and legacy, that indeed may discredit its patrician leanings by its very nature.  (A major sticking point between du Pont and his mother is the placement of wrestling trophies and awards in a case previously reserved for the family's equestrian prizes.)  He sees in Mark's physical power and athletic prowess all that he never was, but all that he can be via an act of vampiric siphoning of the wrestler's glory. Du Pont, in essence, is the typical American war hawk, sending a young man into battle to bruise and abuse his body for the achievement of a glory that will, at the end of the day, serve only his betters while relegating him to an ever more physically decrepit shadow state.  And both men harbor resentments towards Dave, who has both the physical gifts of Mark and the peer-group respect of du Pont, but who possesses in spades something they both lack utterly:  complete comfort in his own skin.  It's a gift that many struggle to achieve, but one that comes to Dave as easily as breathing.  It is not a virtue harbored in a vengeful or selfish way, but it ultimately drives a wedge between the two brothers, and hurls three bullets from du Pont's pistol into Dave's body, with fatal results.  

The script doesn't state these issues outright, counting instead on the utterly remarkable performances of the film's leading men to carry these unspoken hurts and angers into the film.  Carell has arguably the flashiest role of the three, with its vocal and physical requirements, and with its patina of presenting a well-regarded comic actor "like you've never seen him before."  There has already been some backlash indicating that the performance is really an achievement for the makeup team rather than the actor, and indeed, Carell is able to supplant the audience's comic assumptions here much easier than he would have been without the close-cropped gray hair, small nasty-looking teeth, liver-spotted eyebrow-less forehead and hawklike nose (which adds to the absurdity of du Pont requesting to be referred to by his men not as Mr. du Pont, but as "Eagle" or "Golden Eagle," as he claims his likely non-existent friends do).  But Carell also alters his general physical carriage, creating a man whose above-it-all body language seems just a bit too rehearsed, and whose speechifying manner of conversation reflects an individual who is used to talking, but not so much listening.  After his mother's death, when the walls of  his insanity begin to close in, du Pont virtually foregoes speech entirely, and Carell's dead eyes and mouth, twisted into a lock-jawed snarl, alternately offer a caricature of the wounded blue blood in extremis and a Boschian mask of unstated anguish and madness.  Ruffalo, by contrast, moves with an off-handed stealthiness, shuffle-bouncing along on the balls of his feet, his arms forever poised to lock into a grapple, as if wrestling is so much a part of this man that he carries its lessons with him even in repose.  The actor's usual long-boned lankiness has here compressed into a squat, compact muscularity that perfectly suits the character, and he makes the most of his naturally light, reedy speaking voice to paint Dave Schultz, a still much-beloved figure in the international wrestling community, as the kind of man who never imposes himself and never has to, the kind of man who speaks much less than du Pont, but says much more than him when he does.  

In a film where the physical presence and movement of characters is obviously so central to its affect, it's Channing Tatum who carries the day, putting on a masterclass in the art of acting without the benefit of grand speeches or memorable dialogue.  Mark Schultz is a man whose hatreds, frustrations and desires have been long suppressed, and this inner tension is manifested in a tight jaw, a heavily lidded stare salted with incipient physical assault, and a speaking style that is slow and ineloquent at its best.  Tatum buries his considerable movie-star charisma within the frame of this damaged man, paradoxically hulking yet diminished; he doesn't move with his brother's catlike lightness, instead lumbering into rooms with his arms hanging dead at his sides, head down as if expecting a verbal dressing-down at any moment.  One can tell that the athletic glories that have accrued so naturally to Dave have been for Mark a lifelong war of attrition, one that he is still fighting, with himself and anyone who stands in his way.  Tatum deftly conveys Mark's excitement at du Pont's seeming acceptance of him through the gentlest of physical relaxations (even his willingness to appear shirtless before a tuxedo-clad du Pont is a telling physical detail), but any man who regularly punches and slaps himself when he's done wrong has issues that no kind smile can assuage, and when Mark fails himself and du Pont with a heartbreaking championship loss, his self-abuse, culminating in shattering a hotel-room mirror with his head before piteously binging on chocolate cake, steak and fried chicken, is Tatum unleashed, his self-directed wrath terrible and awesome to behold.  Academy voters frequently devalue the nature of the physical in creating a memorable character, relying on speeches and scintillating dialogue to remind them that, yes, what they've seen here is ACTING.  Tatum is in the somewhat complicated position of being either ready to go up against Carell in the year-end best actor races (where he will find it hard to compete against the perceived total alteration of Carell's being in creating the character of John du Pont) or tangling with Ruffalo in the supporting actor races (where his chances will be damaged by the perception that he really doesn't belong in the supporting race when his character is arguably the film's lead).  It's not a difficult choice for me, though:  Tatum's performance is Foxcatcher's crowning glory, a masterful, frighteningly eloquent demonstration of the way in which a skilled actor can tell you all you need to know about a character through his body, his face and his eyes.  When Tatum stares at Carell in the film's later scenes with the fury of ten thousand demons, you quake at his anger and marvel at the actor's command of his entire instrument.  It's my pick for the performance of the year, and I think it should be in the lead actor races alongside Carell.  

The final words heard in Foxcatcher are a chant that has become weighted with complex levels of meaning in recent years:  "USA!  USA!"  Bennett Miller's masterful film asks hard-edged questions about the cost of the my-country-uber-alles mentality, the ways in which the drive to be the best can frequently bring out the worst in us, and how money, position, and prestige can't buy you a soul, a heart, a friend, or a conscience.  Whether or not audiences will want to see a film with such a clear-eyed yet dark perspective on such weighty subjects remains to be seen.  But they should see it.  In doing so, they will see themselves in new, painful and painfully necessary ways.

Foxcatcher opens in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 14.  

Friday, August 29, 2014



The Writers

David Howard and Robert Gordon; story by Howard

Why It's Here

When you hear the term "feel-good movie," what do you picture in your mind?  Odds are you're thinking about a heartwarming dramatic feature, most likely based on a true story, in which a misunderstood and disrespected underdog finds their inner strength, defeats their demons, and wins the big game / gets the girl / saves the orphanage.  What most people struggle to recognize is that the feel-good formula can exist within a broad range of genres and styles.  One of my earlier entries in this series is precisely that sort of underdog-wins-the-big-game story I just described.  Does it make it any less valid a feel-good scenario if the underdog in question was really a pig?  An equally unlikely and just as stirring entry in the feel-good pantheon is 1999's Galaxy Quest, a beautifully rendered and affectionate sci-fi satire in which the hard-luck cast of a mothball-scented Star Trek-style cult TV show lands the role of a lifetime…as the crew of a genuine space mission to battle an honest-to-God alien warlord.  It would be hard to imagine a pack of dogs more under than the "crew" of the NSEA Protector, nor a bigger game than the fate of an entire benevolent race menaced by warrior lizards from another galaxy.  But this is an aspect of Galaxy Quest that snuck up on most of its earliest audiences, who likely attended this Christmas Day release expecting some wacky sci-fi-fueled hijinks and nothing more.  I know that's all my brother and I were aiming for when we bought our tickets, but when we walked out of the theater two hours later, we were stunned to find not only how many laughs we had enjoyed, but how happy the film had made both of us feel.  I believe that it is this heartwarming and inspirational tone, slipped in amidst all the admittedly dynamite jokes packed into the screenplay by David Howard and Robert Gordon, that helped to transform the film into a solid holiday-season hit.

The film blasts off with images from the glory days of Galaxy Quest, a Trek manqué right down to its none-too-convincing plywood bridge set and the awkward camera jostles used to simulate a space-laser direct hit.  These images are being screened for an enthusiastic audience of conventioneers, a gang of super-fans who Howard and Gordon wisely never milk for easy at-the-expense-of-nerds laughs.  Sure, it's funny to see a bunch of Klingons shoulder to shoulder at a men's room urinal, but the people behind the elaborate makeup and headpieces are never condescended to or treated as if they're inferior to the viewer simply for loving a piece of niche-taste genre material.  This indicates that, as with previous countdown entries Fear of a Black Hat and This is Spinal Tap, Galaxy Quest is that increasingly rare beast:  A parody with genuine affection for its satirical subject.  Howard and Gordon clearly love Star Trek, cheesy production values and all, and that delight in the source material translates to the screen in its unabashed and sincere appreciation for even the most obsessive Galaxy Quest TV series fans, an unspoken understanding most clearly embodied in the character of Brandon (Justin Long in his feature-film debut), who brings his "crew" of geek buddies to the convention to riddle the cast members with questions about the most minute Galaxy Quest esoterica imaginable.

But not everyone in Galaxy Quest loves Galaxy Quest.  The cast members' feelings about the show that made them famous and straitjacketed them into sci-fi personae for the rest of their lives are, at best, extremely mixed.  Some of them, like blonde eye-candy-with-a-brain Gwen DeMarco (a lively Sigourney Weaver) and former child star / ship's pilot Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), seem to have settled into their pigeonhole and made relative peace with it, while Protector science officer Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub…and no, I don't know why a Lebanese man is named "Kwan" either) has retreated into a foggy mental haze that indicates either severe I-don't-give-a-shitness or a fairly extended history with depressants.  (In the original, harder-edged draft of the screenplay, Kwan was specifically portrayed as a pothead; this aspect of the character was excised to obtain a more family-friendly PG rating, but his space-cadet persona was retained.)  For classically trained British thespian Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman, dryly hilarious), on the other hand, the role of fish-fin-headed Dr. Lazarus has murdered both his credibility and his love for his craft; he woefully laments his past as a celebrated Shakespearean ("I played Richard III…I had nine curtain calls," he whines in a lament his castmates can now recite by heart) and is only coaxed onto the convention stage with the age-old actor's exhortation "The show must go on."  That encouragement is provided by the Protector's "captain" and the bane of his costars' existences, Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen, blessedly free of Shatner mannerisms and never better in a live-action film).  Jason seems to be the only Galaxy Quest performer who relishes the dubious perks of once-upon-a-time stardom; he swaggers like he's still at the top of the ratings, he throws come-ons at Gwen like it's part of his job description, and his commitment to the role earns him swoons from the ladies and wide eyes from the little kids.  All is well in Jason's world…until he overhears a pair of dickhead teenagers in the convention hall men's room as they insult the pathetic fanboys at the con and the has-been "actors" they've all queued up to see.  Jason responds to this with a signing-table meltdown directed at hapless Brandon; when hammered with minutiae-driven questions by the eager super-fan, he responds by assuring him that "There's no quantum flux, there's no auxiliary, there's no goddamn ship!" It's the legendary William Shatner "get a life" Saturday Night Live sketch played for poignance rather than laughs, and the heart-tugging continues when we see Jason later that night, in his lavish but notably empty Hollywood Hills home (Howard and Gordon make a point of showing that the fame of the Galaxy Quest cast has failed them in one respect, as Jason, Gwen and Dane all seem to live alone), drunken and forlorn as he stumbles to recite a stirring speech along with his character on TV.  The writers smartly refrain from making the actor characters too similar to one another or giving them all the same attitude about the show that made them famous; they all have different actorly dreams and neuroses, and these conflicting personalities keep the energy high and the clashing of characters piquant even as they find themselves engaged in a genuine deep-space conflict.

That battle kicks into gear when the Thermians, a docile and peace-loving race of aliens led by the endlessly grinning Mathasar (Enrico Colantoni, in a goofily inspired performance), approach Jason begging for the kind of space-hopping help that only the Protector's intrepid crew can provide.  The Thermians are under siege from a race of malevolent reptilian space monsters led by the dastardly Sarris (Robin Sachs, genuinely menacing in fantastic old-school makeup by the late, great Stan Winston), and they, having intercepted satellite feeds of old Galaxy Quest reruns that they believe to be "historical documents," talk Jason in to corralling his old castmates for a genuine, real-life space adventure.  Howard and Gordon smartly have Jason react with enthusiasm rather than Peter Venkman-like skepticism to this fantastical proposition.  He of course at first thinks it's just more fans taking it too far (the hung-over Jason, staggering obliviously through the corridors of a real-life starship, mutters to the Thermians, "So do you have pages or do you just want me to wing this?"), but when the illusion becomes reality, Jason, the man amongst the Protector crew who most depends on maintaining that illusion in order to give his life any meaning whatsoever, leaps at the chance to become a space captain for real.  This reaction on his part shows how Howard and Gordon have really thought about how these people, with these particular personalities, would react to this unbelievable scenario.  Dane pushes back the most, Gwen and Tommy just assume it's Jason drunkenly rambling again, while Kwan…well, nothing rattles this moon-headed drug casualty (beamed aboard the Thermians' ship, he merely mutters, "That was a hell of a thing…").

As the battle intensifies between Sarris and the Thermians, Howard and Gordon have ample opportunity to showcase the Thermians' culture, which they have modeled entirely after the futuristic "reality" of Galaxy Quest, which they consider to be a reflection of the ideal society (this is not dissimilar to deeply religious people attempting to live "as Christ would have", but the writers never address this connection head on, and it is perhaps best left as subtext in a movie that is, after all, basically light entertainment).  This slavish devotion to a world that the Protector's crew of course knows to be phony is, naturally, not without its problems.  Dining with the Thermians, who have programmed their food machines to produce the prototypical cuisine of the Galaxy Quest characters' home regions, Dane finds himself turning up his nose at a goblet full of hideous space beetles "just like Mama used to make".  Tommy is forced to pilot a spacecraft whose controls are based entirely on his own mimed hand motions…never mind that he's never actually flown a spaceship, or even an airplane, in his life (bringing the ship out of its hangar causes no end of tension and more than a few scraped-free wing panels).  During a race against time to rescue the Protector, Gwen and Jason encounter a corridor lined with raising and crushing pylons, seemingly there for no reason other than that the Protector housed just such a nonsensical death-trap hallway in one particular episode (Gwen refuses to run through the gauntlet, screaming that "This episode was badly written!").  It's a marvelous example of the logic of popular entertainment smacking up against the cold hard truth of the real world, and the Thermians, ultimate fanboys that they are, never once question that Dane might not want to eat bugs, that there's no reason the Protector would house a corridor that seems designed merely to attempt to kill its own crew members.  After all, it happened on the show…so it must have happened for a reason.  Right?

Then again, of course, the Thermians don't know it's only a show…until a harrowing moment in which Sarris makes his way onto the Thermians' ship and, torturing Mathasar, demands that Jason tell him the truth about the Protector and its crew.  Jason, to his credit, had already attempted to explain this to Mathasar and the others when the action had gotten particularly hairy.  But the nonplussed aliens, having the concept of acting explained to them, could only recognize it as "deception…lies", something that Sarris had done to them before:  "He will say one thing and do another."  Of course, they could never conceive of "Peter Quincy Taggart", stalwart commander of the greatest starship in the galaxy, doing something that their mortal enemy would do…and they certainly can't comprehend the idea of someone doing it merely to amuse others.  But Jason comes clean, reveals the truth about who he and his crew really are…and still is able to marshall his team to stand up to Sarris, unleash the power of the ship's classic MacGuffin, the "Omega-13", and save the galaxy.  As much as anything, Galaxy Quest is a parable about the power of belief, in others and in oneself.  Jason, Dane, Gwen and the others know that to most of their home planet, they are nothing but a bunch of has-beens hawking 8x10 glossies at a convention table for forty bucks a pop.  But if an entire race of beings sees you as noble, upstanding saviors, the very exemplars of all they have wanted their society to be…at the end of the day, don't you owe it to them to at least try to live up to the standard to which they've held you?  For that matter, don't you owe it to yourself?  Doesn't the show, indeed, need to go on, even if it puts you and the rest of the galaxy squarely in the balance?  It's a stirring subject for what is ostensibly a piece of cinematic family fun to take on, and it puts Galaxy Quest proudly alongside the best entertainment-with-a-message that Disney and Pixar have ever given to the mass audience.

By embracing the power of the Thermians' belief in the Protector's crew, Galaxy Quest stands as a paean to that much-maligned cultural figure:  the fanboy.  This film was made in an era before fanboys and their favorite media and literature stood astride the pop-cultural universe like cape-wearing colossi, when portraying obsessive Star Trek fans, indeed science fiction fans in general, as pimply, nitpicking perpetual virgins was de rigueur in comedy.  Howard and Gordon, on the other hand, choose to present obsessive fandom as a potential force for universal salvation.  The Thermians would never be able to defeat Sarris on their own; their benevolent gentleness is no match for his deceptive, brutal manner of conquest.  Only by banking their faith on their love for a decades-old, past-its-prime TV show and its crew are they able to harness the technological savvy, tactical acumen, and spiritual strength ("Never give up!  Never surrender!") to defend themselves, defeat Sarris, and bring order to the galaxy.  The power of one's love for cheesy old TV can be so powerful in the world of Galaxy Quest that it can save your life even if you don't realize it's just a TV show that you love.  And it's not just the Thermians who benefit from the love they have for Galaxy Quest; it ultimately saves the cast members as well, as poor, put-upon Brandon is called upon for his expertise about the Protector's infrastructure to guide Gwen and Jason (who accidentally switched Brandon's toy communicator for a real Thermian one during a parking lot mishap at a supermarket opening) through the ship's bowels to stop a self-destruct device that threatens to destroy the ship.  Howard and Gordon have rendered Galaxy Quest as a testament to the ways in which fanboy culture has enriched the knowledge base, empathic abilities, and spiritual intelligence of its adherents.  When you hear die hard Star Wars and Doctor Who fans discuss the objects of their cultural devotion, the zeal and passion with which they outline the metaphysical undergirdings of their beloved entertainments borders on religious fervor.  It has clearly touched their lives, made them different people, often better people, than they were before.  Galaxy Quest understands this truth intimately, and deftly illustrates how such cultural forces can work to the good of both their consumers and creators alike.

And none of this even takes into account the film's magnificent trickster element:  Guy Fleegman, a former one-off Galaxy Quest cast member played, in a brilliant performance, by the always reliably entertaining Sam Rockwell.  (And just because I can't let this review pass without at least a little fanboy-baiting…Rockwell's Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 is one of the best performances in any Marvel film.  Deal with it.)  Guy was a classic redshirt, a cannon-fodder crew member who bought it in a single Galaxy Quest episode years ago and now makes his bones huckstering at conventions, introducing the regular cast members at their signings and milking his one moment standing in the shadow of greatness for all it is worth.  Anyone who has ever been to any convention can tell you that Guy is not a figment of the Galaxy Quest's writers' imaginations; these individuals exist by the dozens. He manages to get himself swept up into the Thermians' recruitment and finds himself along on the Protector crew's greatest mission ever…and his reaction, naturally, is that of the perpetual not-ready-for-prime-time player.  He screams in hysterics the first time he lays eyes on an alien, whimpers about the certainty that he will die first when the crew touches down on an alien planet to harvest an energy-giving beryllium sphere (in his defense, he's not the only one convinced on this last point; when a group of razor-toothed aliens threatens to attack, Gwen bleats, in a quick throwaway that might be the single funniest line in the whole film, "We gotta get outta here before one of those things kills Guy!"), and is so torn about the tenuous nature of his necessity to the Protector crew and its mission that he starts to question whether he, the actor, not the character he played, even has a last name.  The film subjects Guy to some of its most merciless jokes.  A reluctant groupie, in another cough-and-you'll-miss-it laugh line, shoves a grabby Guy away backstage with a snide "You live with your mom!", and even in the film's spectacular climax, when the real ship crashes right into the stage at a Galaxy Quest convention, the con's MC (played, in a nice quick cameo, by The Kids in the Hall's Kevin McDonald), introducing the emerging crew members, can only dub Guy, "Uh…another shipmate!"  But it's impossible to deny that one-off grunts like Guy are the heart and soul of Galaxy Quest and franchises just like it, with most fans knowing, deep in their hearts, that if they lived in this world, the chances of them being Luke Skywalker or Captain Picard are much smaller than the odds that they'd be just another Guy.  Just ask the countless Wedge Antilles fans out there about this; they'll tell you exactly what I mean.  And the film gets it too, giving Guy the ultimate hero's reward at the end when he joins Galaxy Quest:  The New Adventures as a full-fledged cast member.  His character's got a last name and everything.

J.J. Abrams, director of the highly acclaimed Star Trek reboot and helmsman for the currently-in-production, formally untitled Star Wars:  Episode VII, has called Galaxy Quest "one of the best Star Trek movies ever made."  While you may or may not agree with that assessment, it's hard to deny that it is arguably the best movie ever made about Star Trek, about what it means to its fans, and about all of the unexpected adventures, dangerous, desultory and delightful, that it has brought to the lives of those who made it and live it.  I'm not a particular adherent of any one fanboy culture, but many of my friends are.  I've got friends who can quote chapter and verse from Doctor Who, and my brother knew a young man who wept when the Enterprise crew was forced to sacrifice the beloved starship to save themselves in Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock.  (Having not seen the film in years, I eagerly await the comments:  "Well, actually, they had to destroy the Enterprise to…")  My ex-Zombette, a die-hard Marvel fangirl, cried at the end of Iron Man Three last summer.  I hope they're all reading this, and I hope they all know:  Galaxy Quest feels you, it understands you, and it loves you.  Guys, gals, and every fanboy and fangirl out there in Pop Culture Land, on behalf of David Howard, Robert Gordon, and myself…this one's for you.

AWARDS WON:  Silver Raven, Best Screenplay, Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film; Hugo Award, Best Dramatic Presentation (shared with director Dean Parisot); Nebula Award, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Best Script

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


I'm here today to announce to you that the Movie Zombie is available for private consultation services for your screenplay, treatment, television spec script (including pilots) or book manuscript.  My scripts have won multiple prizes at notable screenplay competitions, including three prizes from the Worldfest-Houston International Film and Video Festival, and I have optioned several scripts to notable independent production companies.  I am also the co-author of Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure, which I penned with the late screenwriter / filmmaker behind Alien, Total Recall, The Return of the Living Dead and other genre classics.  The book, published in 2013 by Michael Wiese Productions (Save the Cat!, Your Screenplay Sucks), was a number one screenwriting bestseller on and was hailed as "an instant classic" by Diabolique Magazine.  I lecture regularly at film festivals, colleges, genre conventions and book signings, including appearances at MonsterPalooza, the Atlanta Film Festival, the Writers Store, and the upcoming Great American Pitchfest.  I am a regular guest on film and writing podcasts worldwide, and I have appeared on Connie Martinson Talks Books, the nation's longest-running literary interest program.

My rates for different media pieces are below.  If you are interested in arranging a consultation, contact me by phone at 412-513-9397 or by email at

- Reading of treatment plus 15-minute phone consultation: $100
- Reading of treatment plus half-hour phone consultation: $150
- Reading of treatment plus half-hour phone consultation and 2-3 pages of detailed treatment notes: $200

- Reading of script plus half-hour phone consultation: $150
- Reading of script plus one-hour phone consultation: $250
- Reading of script plus one-hour phone consultation and 5-10 pages of detailed treatment notes: $300

- Reading of script plus half-hour phone consultation: $200
- Reading of script plus one-hour phone consultation: $300
- Reading of script plus one-hour phone consultation and 5-10 pages of detailed treatment notes: $350

- Reading of book plus half-hour phone consultation: $300
- Reading of book plus one-hour phone consultation: $400
- Reading of book plus one-hour phone consultation and 10-15 pages of detailed treatment notes: $450

(Book prices negotiable based on length of manuscript)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


It's not every film that can, at various moments, convince you that you are witnessing both the best and worst film of the year.  But Darren Aronofsky's Noah is not every film.  Indeed, it's like no other film in its genre, taking the Old Testament tale of a man charged with rescuing a small pocket of human and animal life from the flood-borne wrath of a disappointed God and transforming it into a wild, impassioned, sci-fi-flecked apocalypse narrative.  It's charged with furious speeches and confrontations at once purple-prosed and surprisingly powerful, and it's chockablock with as many spectacular FX beats as the superhero-of-the-week actioner rattling the walls of the auditorium next door.  It also parades a swaggering set of narrative cojones as grand as any of Aronofsky's previous works; this is a film with the bold brilliance to obey the spirit rather than the letter of the Biblical narrative, presenting a protagonist who means to follow the no-half-measures judgmental fury of his lord to their savage pedocidal extremes.  Anyone who bemoans Noah's inaccuracies because of the presence of "rock monsters" (and we'll get to those beings…oh, we'll get to them indeed) is missing the larger fidelity of Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel's vision.  The result is a film that, like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, is gutsy enough to tackle and attempt to dramatize the real-world implications of biblical thinking.  Like Temptation, it has inspired its own share of distrust and contempt amongst the religious bodies of the world, many of whom had not seen the picture before heaping their excoriations upon it.  And like Temptation, it is in many ways a more spiritually probing and inquisitive film than the classic Bible epic content to portray the great men and women of the Good Book as mere waxwork icons mouthing sanctified homilies.  

Aronofsky isn't screwing around here, and he's not hedging his bets either.  Despite the unconventional visualization of the subject matter, this is doubtlessly a dramatization of the flood narrative taken straight from the pages of the Book of Genesis.  Adam and Eve are evoked by name, their fall from grace in the Garden of Eden depicted onscreen, complete with a glowing perfection-avatar First Couple and a forbidden apple pulsating with a disturbing heartbeat rhythm.  This fall leads to the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, an event that here has torn the world into contentious tribes whose "civilizing" ways have raped the planet, leaving the byways of the earth rocky, bitter and bereft of flora, fauna and hope.  The only beacon of true civilization is embodied by the descendants of Lamech, the third, peace-loving son of Adam and Eve, whose stalwart chief descendant is Noah (Russell Crowe), a man who teaches his own sons the virtues of simple farming, love and kindness towards all creatures, and respecting the charge man has been given by "The Creator" to protect his planet.  (The film's insistence on referring to its deity only as "The Creator", never as "God," has been one of the chief sticking points of the anti-Noah contingent, regardless of the fact that true historical accuracy would have demanded the term "Jehovah" instead.)  Despite the best efforts of Noah, his saintly wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, reunited with her Beautiful Mind co-star and Requiem for a Dream director), and their children, including their young charge Ila (Emma Watson), The Creator is displeased with the despoiling of the planet he has so carefully nursed into being.  In a wild dream, The Creator tells Noah that he will flood the earth, washing it clean of wickedness and saving only Noah, his family, and a male-and-female pair of each animal of the earth, innocents all.  Noah is commanded to build an ark to survive the storm, and he fights and kills to protect his craft from the marauding swells of humanity who demand a salvation they have explicitly been denied by the will of The Creator.  But once aboard the ark with his family and their zoological cargo, Noah cannot quell the screams of the drowning that echo in his soul.  So much death and destruction cannot be for naught, and The Creator's work must not be in vain.  Neemah and the children thus find themselves in a pitched emotional battle against a patriarch who has become an avenging angel who means to wipe clean the earth of the very last remnants of sinful humanity…even if he has to slaughter Ila's newborns straight from the womb to see it done.  

For centuries now, the tale of Noah has been told from pulpits and in synagogues around the world.  It is customarily framed as a narrative of renewal and salvation, of God smiling on a sinning but still striving humanity.  But the quick-and-clean approach of the original Genesis narrative does not truly convey the horror of what the all-powerful Creator unleashes upon his backsliding people.  No, you need $135 million and the best special effects Industrial Light and Magic can muster to get the job done these days.  While I am as skeptical as the rest of the moviegoing world about the ongoing prevalence of "we can do it, so we will do it" CGI epics (Noah was preceded by a trailer for Transformers:  Age of Extinction, an action blowout with "impressive" CGI that, to my eye, doesn't even look finished), I am all for harnessing the power of computer-generated imagery to bring to life historical occurrences that eluded special effects technology in the pre-CGI era.  Not to suggest that the Noah tale is indeed based on historical fact, though virtually every major religion of the pre-modern era contains a flood narrative within its mythology.  But if you're going to bring a well-worn tale of raging waters and celestial destruction to the screen, I have no problem with the deployment of special effects, and Noah's are truly remarkable, rendering pummeling rushes of water that scatter and shatter the multitudes like so much hellish confetti.  In one image that I'll never forget, a rocky outcropping teeming with terrified humans clinging for life is smashed by a wave that washes them away as if they'd never drawn breath at all.  Noah's literally apocalyptic images remind us of what kids' storybook tellings of the tale make it easy to forget:  This is a story about a being so furious and disappointed that he wants to kill everyone on the planet, and who has the power to do just that.  This has always been a story about the death of thousands, and Noah allows us, for the first time ever, to feel the full-brunt gut punch of that vengeance.

Aronofsky and Handel also do not shy away from depicting Noah as a perfect instrument of potential  divine vengeance, damn the implications of where his fidelity to his Creator's whims may take him.  Russell Crowe is a once boundlessly acclaimed actor who has fallen under considerable critical scorn in recent years; he was singled out for some of the nastiest brickbats leveled at 2012's Les Miserables (as something of a Crowe apologist, I found his work in the admittedly deeply flawed film intriguing, his rock-style approach to the songs cleanly setting him apart as the film's antagonist), and his recent resume has been flecked with high-profile under-performers like Ridley Scott's DOA 2010 take on Robin Hood and this February's Winter's Tale, which rated a scathing How Did This Get Made? podcast a mere two weeks after its theatrical release.  But Noah is a thrilling reminder that when Crowe finds material he sparks to emotionally, he can tear into a character with a ferocious commitment unmatched by few other actors today.  His Noah takes the actor and the audience on quite a journey, starting as a sweet-souled farmer nevertheless scarred by the tough vicissitudes of a God-abandoned world (as a boy, Noah witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of Tubal-cain, a warrior king who plagues the adult Noah in the person of Ray Winstone, who blusters and shouts and does what Ray Winstone does, but does so impressively enough).  He's warmhearted enough to take in Ila when her family is slaughtered by Tubal-cain's marauders, and he struggles to be the best possible father to his eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth), who becomes Ila's husband; conflicted middle child Ham (Logan Lerman), who strains to break free of the paternal umbrella and taste all humanity has to offer; and youngster Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), who in the manner of many such youths, knows that father knows best…doesn't he?  But when The Creator levies his command to build the ark, and Noah witnesses the true depths of desperate human depravity on the eve of the flood, his heart hardens into a resolve that no man, not himself, not his family, not his soon-to-be grandchildren, must survive, so he cements a compact with his Creator to see the human line end with his brood.  And he's got a knife handy should Ila's coming children be female; no better way to snuff out life than to literally slash the throat of its only human source.  Many religious people, who seemed to have no problem with the bloodbath that was Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, seem to be taking umbrage at this savage treatment of the white-bearded nautical zookeeper so beloved of them as children.  But we're talking about a man who is told that a flood will kill virtually everyone on the planet for sins real and imagined, and that this just might mean the death of himself and everyone he loves as well, and his response is essentially, "Thy will be done."  Many individuals of faith find this unquestioning acceptance of God's will a stirring inspiration, but when you see it dramatized onscreen as Russell Crowe with a knife in a mewling baby's face, one has to question, at least for an instant, the costs of blind adherence to intangible command.  Countless millions throughout history have died through such convictions, and Crowe's performance bravely embraces that life-be-damned fervor; it's one of the finest pieces of acting this fine actor has ever committed to celluloid.  

The rest of the performances run the typical gamut of a film of this type, the actors swinging for the fences, sometimes connecting hard and true, sometimes just shouting a lot with tears in their eyes.  Connelly is an always-reliable presence when trafficking in emotional extremes, and her tear-streaked hysterical plea to her seemingly lost-to-her husband is heart-rending.  Watson shares the honors with Crowe for the film's best performance, her subtly shifting face and voice laying bare the burden and responsibility that have fallen into this young, untested girl's care.  Just as Winstone does what Winstone does, Anthony Hopkins does what Anthony Hopkins does as Methusaleh, Noah's grandfather and the world's oldest man portrayed as a dotty soothsayer with a love of drug-spiked tea and a ravenous craving for fresh berries.  Sadly, none of the actors portraying Noah's sons makes much of an impression.  Booth is a pretty-eyed blank, Carroll a fresh-faced kid and nothing more engaging than that, and while Lerman has some heavy emotional lifting to carry off (including bearing the brunt of a fatal decision by Crowe that many in the audience, I suspect, will not forgive the character for), he doesn't quite nail the confusion and struggle of Ham with maximum emotional force.  Considering the centrality to this narrative of Noah's essential sacrifice of the familial bond to the greater good, this lack of impact from the three young men's performances is a notable problem, and keeps Noah from ultimately achieving true greatness.

But Aronofsky and Handel score in numerous other respects, taking wild cinematic gambles with the material that largely pay off.  The creation of the universe is dramatized in a whitter-quick stop-motion rush of images, cells splitting into fish and birds and monkeys with an exhilarating visual ease that by itself conveys the wonder of The Creator's power.  Clint Mansell's thunderous score strains the boundaries of restraint while still stirring the emotions, and longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique lenses the proceedings with his usual paradoxical sense of painterly grit.  The production design of Mark Friedberg remarkably renders an alien biblical landscape and the mammoth yet crudely constructed ark that represents humankind's last hope; likewise, Michael Wilkinson's costumes evoke science fiction as much as they do sword-and-sandal epic ("A long time ago" indeed…).  Some viewers will be disappointed by the limited role that the animal passengers of the ark play in this story; once Noah and his family load them aboard two by two, they are put to sleep with a special magical all-purpose substance called "zohar," and are out like a light for the duration, so if you're hoping for wild ark-borne stampedes, animal fights, or narrative developments that treat these creatures as anything other than cargo, you had best look elsewhere.  And then there are the Watchers, Aronofksy and Handel's most audacious conceit.  These craggy, stone-encrusted beings, animated in a bizarre stutter-step manner that recalls nothing less disturbing than the shutter-walking ghosts of classic J-horror, have been used as a stalking horse for biblical purists wishing to tar Noah as biblically unfaithful.  But the Bible, its surrounding apocrypha, and centuries of Christian teaching (not to mention Milton's Paradise Lost) are rife with tales of fallen angels, cast out by The Creator and made to suffer the tortures of the damned simply by being denied the presence of their god.  And that's what these "rock monsters" really are, angels cast out of heaven and tarred with the cracked-mud cage of their shame for the crime of sympathizing with the likewise expelled Adam and Eve.  Aronofsky boldly places the Watchers front and center throughout the film's first hour; they help Noah and his family build the ark and boldly defend it from Tubal-cain's marauding masses, their sacrifice on behalf of God's will earning them back to the Creator's side.  They're Noah's biggest love-it-or-hate-it creative gamble, and I frankly applaud the brass and conviction with which Aronofsky and Handel dramatize an oft-discussed but seldom seen theological concept.  (It helps that the Watchers are voiced by a coterie of fine actors, including Nick Nolte, Frank Langella, and Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis, and are animated by ILM with skill and truly innovative invention.)  

Noah is not a film I expect to see on televisions every Easter from now until the end of time.  It is not interested in spoon-feeding its audience a Sunday school vision of events, fresh-scrubbed and with all the craggy implications of the biblical record sanded away.  It's a thorny, rough-hewn blockbuster that dives neck deep into the morass of biblical fundamentalism and grapples with the implications of that literalist drive with more probity and curiosity than virtually any other big-budget Hollywood motion picture has even attempted.  The results are loud, violent, spittle-flecked, occasionally ridiculously overblown (seriously, we already knew Winstone was evil; he could have at least killed that lizard before he bit into it).  It's also thoughtful, fierce in its convictions, and made with a damn-the-torpedoes power that is, at frequent moments, great and undeniable.  Noah is one of those films that, once it is seen, cannot be unseen.  And it should be seen, and it should be dealt with, by any person of faith, by anyone who's ever questioned their own beliefs, and by anyone interested in the ever-expanding, singularly risk-taking filmography of Darren Aronofsky.      

Thursday, March 27, 2014



The Writers

Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman

Why It's Here

Regular Movie Zombie readers might recall my recent year-end roundup blog, in which I refused to discuss the recent accusations of parental sexual impropriety leveled at Woody Allen in the wake of his Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for my no. 4 film of 2013, Blue Jasmine.  At that time, I didn't think a discussion of the charges raised by Mia Farrow, her now-grown daughter Dylan (a young child during the period in which the alleged misconduct took place) and son Ronan were relevant to my praise of the film, the subject matter of which did not in any way touch on the issues dredged up by the accusations.  But now, a mention of the scandal is impossible to avoid, as I've come here today not to bury Allen, but to praise Manhattan, the humorous 1979 romantic drama in which Isaac Davis, a quintessentially neurotic New York writer played by Allen, is involved in an affair with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, an Oscar nominee for this performance), who is beautiful, bright, mature…and all of seventeen years old.  Allen was found not guilty of the charges recently re-raised by the Farrows, as he was when similar accusations were made in 1992 after it was exposed that he had embarked on a sexual relationship with Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, who soon thereafter married Allen and is still today his wife.  But one has to imagine that such unsavory accusations would not still be plausible in the eyes of many had Allen not made a film, one of his most prominent and celebrated, no less, in which he is involved in an illegal dalliance with a girl who is, despite her poise and intelligence, still a child in the eyes of the law.  Allen would not be the first world-class filmmaker whose improprieties with women stretched the boundaries of the United States's age of consent laws.  Charlie Chaplin was sexually involved with, married to, and the father of several children by underage women (one of his wives was only sixteen when she became pregnant by him), and Roman Polanski cannot return to the U.S., lest he be arrested for fleeing charges of drugging and violating a 13-year-old girl in 1977.  But Chaplin and Polanski have never made a film in which the main character's relationship with an underage girl was a major plot element.  Given the fact that Allen shares writing credit on Manhattan with Marshall Brickman, with whom he won a 1977 Oscar for writing the groundbreaking romantic comedy Annie Hall, it is impossible to say whether this statutory relationship was originally introduced to the narrative by Allen or Brickman.  But this relationship is almost certainly the single element of Allen's art most responsible for the persistence of his perceived potential guilt in the eyes of many doubters.  Why, they think, would you make a movie about this unless it's something you had more than a passing interest in?  

Isaac's relationship with Tracy in Manhattan is about much more, however, than an older man's lust for nubile young flesh.  In a sequence near the end of the film, Isaac, dictating notes into a tape recorder, discusses plans for a short story about neurotic New Yorkers who create their own fraught, tangled romantic problems, partly as a means of distracting themselves from the very real issues of mortality and social chaos facing them as they stand on the precipice of what would go down in history as the Greed Decade.  Manhattan is not specifically a social document, and it's certainly not any kind of political screed; usually, when the characters get into discussions of real issues, it ends up merely demonstrating their pseudo-intellectual ignorance about those very issues (as Isaac does when he suggests baseball bats and bricks as the best solution to the problem of a proposed neo-Nazi march in New Jersey).  But it's no accident that, in Isaac's opening narration, he twice refers to the city as "a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture."  Manhattan exemplifies precisely this social breakdown through the brilliant metaphorical utilization of the stormy romantic entanglements of a group of smart, well-to-do members of the cultured classes, people who can get tables at all the right restaurants, have read all the right books and seen all the right films and can throw around all the right names with the appropriate levels of engagement or contempt, but who, when it comes to the vicissitudes of their own hearts, are as confused and prone to disastrous decisions as any impetuous teenager.  Except for maybe Tracy, who, in a deftly satirical narrative positioning that defuses any potential accusations of exploitation by the filmmakers, turns out to be arguably the most mature, together person in the entire film.  

Mature and together are definitely not words that spring to mind when contemplating Isaac, the central figure of this romantic roundelay.  An ostensibly high-class man in early middle age, Isaac has under his belt two failed marriages, a young son he loves but nonetheless does not live with, and a lucrative but unfulfilling job writing for an apparently terrible TV comedy series (Isaac accuses the show's staff of only finding the program funny due to the copious amounts of drugs they consume in the control room:  "You should get out of TV and open a pharmaceutical house!").  He can throw around references to Strindberg and Zelda Fitzgerald with the grace of the true intellectual, but he is in many ways an overgrown adolescent.  He is given to foolish displays of childish bravado, like insisting on smoking cigarettes because of how cool he believes it makes him look, and he has a rebellious teen's impetuousness and lack of impulse control; he bluntly quits his job with no thought to the financial consequences (he eventually has to downsize to an apartment with horribly noisy neighbors and persistently brown tap water), and we hear several times about his attempt, upon finding out that his second wife Jill (Meryl Streep) had fallen in love with a woman, to run Jill's lover over with his car.  It's no wonder that Isaac's most relaxed, carefree moments onscreen are with his son Willy (Damion Scheller), with whom he gets to enjoy some street hoops and a Central Park football game with the other members of the "Divorced Fathers & Sons All Stars."  One would think, given his lack of authentic maturity, that his relationship with Tracy would be an ideal fit for him.  All the hunger of a buddingly sexual girl, none of the true commitment…what could be better?  But Isaac doesn't count on Tracy truly falling in love with him.  Throughout their relationship, he insists that she take things as non-seriously as he seems to; he refuses to let her stay at his apartment too often, and he constantly refers to himself in terms that suggest that their relationship is not meant to last, telling her she should view him as nothing but "a detour on the highway of life" and their romance as something she'll one day regard as just "a fond memory".  He reinforces this perceived lack of seriousness with frequent digs at her youth and inexperience; he even teases her for sounding, he says, like the mouse in the Tom and Jerry cartoons.  (To her credit, she gives as good as she gets, blasting back at his "whiny" voice and accusing him of thinking she's "unaware of any event pre-Paul McCartney.")  But no matter how much he insists that their relationship is destined to end, she won't give an inch in her faith in its durability.  Even her romantic notions are not the girlish whims of a child, but those of a more thoughtful, classically minded woman:  When Isaac tells Tracy they can do whatever she wants on one of their nights together, she proposes a moonlit carriage ride through Central Park.  She is exactly the partner Isaac doesn't realize he really needs.  Supportive, steadfast, loving, generous, and blessed with a spiritual and emotional serenity, even at seventeen, that no one else in the film even comes close to possessing. 

It's perhaps no surprise, then, that Isaac finds himself drawn to a woman who is Tracy's polar opposite in almost every respect.  Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton) is a Philadelphia native, a fact she brandishes in casual conversation like a sign that reads "Cultural Integrity."  Where Tracy is quietly, sincerely engaged in learning and absorbing the vast array of art, culture and life that New York has to offer, Mary instead seems to have learned about the wider world primarily in order to heap contempt upon it.  She and Isaac's similarly supercilious writer friend Yale (Michael Murphy) discuss a fictional institution of their own creation, "The Academy of the Overrated," in which they have enshrined true legends like Mahler, Jung, Van Gogh (Mary sarcastically pronounces this "Van Gock"), and Allen's beloved Ingmar Bergman (Isaac later says that if she'd cracked on Bergman one more time, "I would have knocked her other contact lens out.")  Isaac excoriates Mary from one end of Manhattan Island to the other after their first meeting, but upon encountering her later at a museum fundraiser, they strike up a deeper conversation that leads to a romantically fraught afternoon at the Hayden Planetarium (the film's finest showcase for Gordon Willis's sumptuous widescreen black-and-white photography), which eventually becomes a full-blown romantic affair that leads him to dump Tracy.  His admitted honesty about the reasons he ends the relationship provokes a reaction from Tracy that is as pure and truthful as we would expect; "Now I don't feel so good," she whimpers, her eyes filling with tears.  True to his perception of his fellow Manhattanites as self-inflicted victims of romantic neurosis, Isaac turns his back on a relationship which, despite the age problem, is practically perfect to take up with a woman about whom his original unflattering perceptions were more or less right on the money.  Some people, Allen and Brickman seem to suggest, just aren't happy without some kind of problem with which to grapple, and apparently Isaac's (also self-inflicted) unemployment, not to mention Jill's forthcoming tell-all book about their marriage, isn't enough for him.  He needs to bring his self-perpetuated unhappiness right into his bed.

As if it wasn't bad enough, Mary and Isaac originally meet due to the former's adulterous affair with Yale, who steps out on his wife Emily (Anne Byrne, as the only other truly mature person in the film, albeit a doting mother-wife unable to control yet another overgrown teenager) and still insists that "I'm not one to have affairs" while simultaneously sloughing off his earlier "very minor" dalliances with other women.  Yale is another New Yorker who seems to suggest through his actions that his appreciation of "the finer things" somehow exempts him from attending to the better angels of his nature.  He cheats on his wife, continually blows off work on a proposed Eugene O'Neill biography, and impulsively buys himself a Porsche convertible despite Isaac's counter-suggestion that they get rid of all cars on the island entirely. He is in every way as id-driven and emotionally reckless as Isaac, but without the smattering of self-awareness that at least allows Isaac to realize that his actions, uncontrollable as they may be, are detrimental to his happiness.  Mary, naturally, is no better than any of them.  She is more than willing to prostitute her talent for a quick payoff, setting aside her own writing to pound out a novelization of a film because "it's easy and it pays well," and insisting to continue to see the married Yale even though she knows that "I'm bright and I'm beautiful and I deserve better!"  Awareness of one's good qualities is no sure guard against making terrible, self-destructive decisions, as Mary ultimately proves when she confesses to Isaac that she's still in love with Yale in spite of their romantic bond, and then splits up Yale's marriage to Emily to be with him.  

This all plays out against a subtle, richly observed portrait of high-class Manhattan living in the late '70s, as definitive a portrait of its cultural era as Saturday Night Fever was of the Brooklyn disco scene of two years earlier.  Allen is a man accustomed to the finest that the Big Apple has to offer, and he and Brickman play out their romantic entanglements against a panoply of stellar city backdrops.  Isaac and his coterie dine at Elaine's, attend the symphony, take boat rides on the lake in Central Park (Isaac trails his hand languidly in the water, and hilariously comes up with a fistful of pond muck), weekend in the Hamptons.  It's all so terribly classy and cultured and aesthetically refined, while the people in front of it are all so terribly immature and impulsive and insensitive and neurotic and self-defeating.  It's telling that when Isaac, having broken Tracy's heart for the "privilege" of getting his likewise broken by Mary,  is making a list of the things that make life worth living, he largely names not people or experiences, but merely cultural objects that are detached from his actual existence (among them:  Flaubert's novel Sentimental Education, "those wonderful apples and pears by Cezanne," and the early Louis Armstrong side "Potato Head Blues").  Manhattan is one of the definitive cultural dispatches from the Me Decade, a wonderful portrait of a time and place in which the right taste, the properly dropped names and the hot dinner reservation were all one needed to mask a complete and utter lack of substance.  In an odd way, this film would almost make a perfectly perverse companion piece to American Pyscho, Mary Harron's 2000 horror satire (adapted from Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 novel) in which a similarly superficial New Yorker uses his cultured tastes and impeccable social status to mask his sideline in butchering anyone who strikes his fancy.  What perhaps saves Isaac from a similarly murderous path is his devastatingly self-critical vision.  Some see him as just as screwed up and neurotic as the crowd with which he runs, no better than the sexist filmmaker he meets at the museum (played by Saturday Night Live's original mad genius, Michael O'Donoghue) who is unaware that his film about a man who "screws so great" that it kills his partners is misogynistic.  Jill, in her book, dismisses Isaac with a rainbow of excoriating insults ("He longed to be an artist but balked at the necessary sacrifices"), while insisting that his fear of death, which hinted as awareness of a greater scheme of things, was nothing but "mere narcissism."  But Isaac's awareness of his own emptiness and that of his world comes to a dramatic head when he confronts college instructor Yale in an unused science classroom, blasting him for his lack of maturity and willingness to sell out his better self for the quick buzz.  Yale of course refuses to take responsibility for his actions:  "We're just human beings, you know?  You think you're God!"  Isaac shoots back:  "I gotta model myself on someone."  Okay, that's a little narcissistic, sure.  But as with all of Allen and Brickman's best lines throughout Manhattan, and indeed with the best dialogue throughout much of Allen's filmography, what makes us laugh also rings a note of truth, a constant throughout what is, despite its laughs, a fairly serious film about genuinely meaningful subject matter.  Questions can be raised about whether or not Manhattan should really even be regarded as a comedy.  It does feature some obvious gags, such as Mary and Isaac's encounter with Jeremiah, the ex-husband Mary had previously described as a "devastating" lover who thoroughly opened her up sexually, who we discover is a stumpy, balding nebbish played by Wallace Shawn, one of cinema's great stumpy balding nebbishes.  But by and large, Isaac is the only character given most of the laugh lines, and we can chalk that up to Isaac, a TV comedy writer, just being one of those naturally funny guys.

Funny, yes.  Neurotic, no question about it.  But if he had only paid a little more attention during his afternoon with Mary in the planetarium, he would have realized that he knew the secret to happiness all along.  As Mary laments the "million facts at her fingertips" that don't truly benefit her at all, Isaac gives her a bit of philosophy:  "Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind.  Everything really valuable has to enter you through a different opening.  If you'll forgive the disgusting imagery."  Isaac realizes that some things about life can't be explained or contextualized or turned into a magazine article or a devastating think piece in the Times.  You just have to see them, feel them, and let them into your heart.  In one of the film's most beautiful moments, Isaac comes to realize that he must practice what he preaches when he finally hits on something real for his list of what makes life worth living:  "Tracy's face."  Allen and Brickman thus bring this most romantically presented of Allen's films (the black and white, the score of lushly orchestrated Gershwin classics) to a climax so rich in its emotion and sweet simplicity that Nora Ephron borrowed it for her own 1989 New York romcom When Harry Met Sally:  Isaac runs across town to tell Tracy what he finally knows, only to find her preparing to leave for London to study acting, a trip that he had previously encouraged her to take as a means of getting her out of his life.  Now he wants nothing more than for her to stay, for her to be with him, and now it's okay, at least in the eyes of the courts; Tracy's eighteenth birthday has passed, meaning "I'm legal, but I'm still a kid."  But Tracy was never a kid.  She was the only one with the self-possession and spirit to rise above the neurotic morass that surrounds her, and when Isaac hems and haws and frets about how their time apart will destroy "that thing about you that I like," she shuts down his worries with the certainty of one truly in love.  "Not everyone gets corrupted," she assures him.  "You have to have a little faith in people."  Sure, she may just be a kid, one who had embarked on a perhaps ill-advised relationship with a much older man.  She may be naive.  She may have learned nothing from the romantic fallout of the basket cases with whom Isaac has surrounded her.  But in that moment, with Allen and Brickman's perfectly judged dialogue, Allen's impeccable staging, and the soaring strains of "Rhapsody in Blue," it's hard to imagine a more simply stirring romantic finale.  And one that is all the more powerful because we've had a front-row seat for the people, the problems, the city that had put Isaac's faith so direly under threat to begin with.  

AWARD NOMINATIONS (BOLDFACE INDICATES A WIN):  Academy Award, Best Original Screenplay; BAFTA Award, Best Screenplay; National Society of Film Critics Award, Best Screenplay; New York Film Critics Circle Award, Best Screenplay; Writers Guild of America Award, Best Original Comedy Screenplay 

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Welcome to the first-ever installment of Zombie on Demand, where the Movie Zombie presents reviews by request of his readers!  Regular reader and friend of the blog Aletheia Atzinger of Pittsburgh, PA, in addition to her interest in movies, is also a devoted "marshmallow," a designation used to identify fans of the cult-favorite UPN-CW series Veronica Mars, which originally aired from 2004 to 2007 to a hardcore but too-small-for-the-network base of fans.  The cancellation of the series, which chronicled the adventures of a high-school-age private eye in a SoCal beach town, has caused no diminishment in the fans' dedication and passion, a fact proven last year when series creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $2 million to put towards the funding of a feature-film revival of the character.  The fans came out in force, eventually bringing in a total Kickstarter take of $5.7 million.  The film is now enjoying a limited theatrical run (I saw it on the big screen at an AMC multiplex in Burbank) in addition to regular availability on VOD platforms; some contributors to the campaign received a digital download of the film concurrent with its screen-and-on-demand release.

Truth be told, I initially rejected Aletheia's request that I review this film, on the not-unreasonable grounds that I have never viewed even one episode of the original series.  This fact is nothing new for me.  For reasons largely financial in nature, I have not had cable TV for almost seven years now.  I only intermittently utilize Amazon Instant Video for the purposes of watching television, and the TV set I do have access to is used exclusively as a monitor for a Blu-ray player.  You would be shocked into silence at the number of acclaimed, successful series of which I have never seen more than a handful of clips; Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Girls are all part of this illustrious pantheon, as are the collected exploits of Ms. Mars.  My first thought, then, was that I would have absolutely nothing to add to a conversation about a Veronica Mars film.  But then, I remembered some of Roger Ebert's reviews of television-derived cinema, particularly his largely favorable comments on The Simpsons Movie, and how interesting it was to see what he had to say about films spun off from programs with which he obviously had no more than a nodding familiarity (I guess seeing every movie made over a forty-five-year stretch kind of cuts into your boob tube time).  Plus, I recalled some of the interesting experiences I've gotten out of tackling pop-culture material for which I am obviously not the target demographics, like the week I spent reading Stephenie Meyer's Twilight a few years ago (my verdict:  500 pages for a book that ends at the friggin' prom?  Man, did I feel had…).  What tipped me into accepting this request was the realization that in many ways, my lack of familiarity with Veronica Mars made me its purest possible critic.  With a minimum of baggage, I would be able to truly evaluate the film's worth as a film, not merely as a fan-service delivery device.  I could definitively answer the question:  If you're not already a marshmallow, is Veronica Mars worth your time, and more importantly, your ticket-buying dollar?

That answer:  No, not really.

The obstacle, contrary to what one might expect, is not a lack of familiarity with the series.  Thomas, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with longtime series scribe Diane Ruggiero, does a smooth job of acclimating newbies to the Veronica Mars universe.  An opening montage narrated by Bell sets up the backstory:  The teenage daughter of the chief of police of the fictional Neptune, CA, Veronica gets into crime-solving as a way of coping with the murder of her best friend, and along the way mixes it up with a bevy of characters both sweet and savory, along with some who are both, most notably Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the bad-boy love of the dead friend who is increasingly drawn to Veronica.  The series picks up Veronica ten years down the road from her high school days.  She's now living in New York, shacking up with radio jock "Piz" Piznarski (Chris Lowell), and interviewing for a gig at a high-powered Big Apple law firm.  But she is inexorably drawn back to Neptune by the murder of Bonnie Deville (Andrea Estella of the band Twin Sister) a Lana Del Rey-ish pop singer who was a classmate of Veronica's and the current lover of prime suspect Logan Echolls.  Veronica's return to the wild streets of her hometown, where her disgraced ex-chief father (Enrico Colantoni) is now a small-time private dick, brings her back into the orbit of old friends and foes, rekindles her push-pull attraction to the alluring-but-dangerous Logan, embroils her in a dark conspiracy amongst a cool-kid clique from back in the day…and reminds Veronica that while you can take the girl out of the crime scene, you can't take the crime buster out of the girl.

My guess is that longtime Veronica Mars acolytes will eat this film up, and not just because Bell herself name-checks "marshmallows" barely a minute into the picture.  The film brings back a boatload of familiar faces from the series, everyone from richie bad girl Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter) to d-bag surfer boy Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen).  Veronica of course brings her bestie Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) and kicky computer geek Mac (Tina Majorino) into the fold of the growing mystery, and a subplot foregrounds former biker-gang member and Veronica informant "Weevil" Navarro (Francis Capra).  The film also does its part to expand Veronica's circle of intimates and enemies by incorporating fresh faces like Ruby Jetson (Gaby Hoffmann), a weird former classmate obsessed, for very different reasons, with Bonnie and Logan, and Stu "Cobb" Cobbler (Martin Starr), a former wallflower who now holds mysterious power over the school's former elite.  Colantoni is the anchor, giving Bell a strong, mature presence to play off of and rooting the film's crimefighting in a recognizable world of real-world law enforcement.  Jerry O'Connell has a good moment or two as the prick police chief who has usurped Colantoni's job, and Ken Marino reprises his series role as lowlife rival P.I. Vinnie Van Lowe, who now has a lucrative sideline selling sleazy viral celeb videos online.  The picture even manages to fit in cameos by This American Life host Ira Glass (Piz now works for his show), real-life Bell spouse Dax Shepard (effortlessly amusing in a wordless bit as a creep hitting on Veronica in a bar), and a mystery celebrity, also playing themselves, whose identity I will leave the unspoiled to discover.

All of this works, I suppose, well enough.  The film's central mystery, while not as explosive as this revival could have warranted, is interesting enough to hold one's attention during viewing, and it all ties up with a minimum of red herrings and loose ends.  As such things go, it's tightly constructed and pays off cleanly.  So why was I not more entertained by the Veronica Mars movie?  Mainly because, as far as I'm concerned, this isn't really a movie, despite its theatrical play and PG-13 MPAA rating (be warned about that, by the way; some of the sexual talk is a bit more frank than I was expecting, and Veronica does let fly with one admittedly well-placed F-bomb).  I'm sure that Veronica Mars fans were willing to get more of their favorite sleuth however they could have her, and if a new weekly series is not in the offing, a movie would have to do.  But since just seeing more Veronica Mars was more the endgame than a legit Mars movie, what we get is a long, commercial-free television episode.  Thomas directs in a very network-TV style, with long, deliberately paced scenes of dialogue and a flat, unadorned visual style; the cinematography, by Ben Kutchins, adds 2:35 widescreen imagery and utterly nothing else cinematic to the equation.  The film is also missing movie-scaled set pieces, though one wonders if that's something a true Mars fan would even really want; Mars was not an action series, and one assumes that car chases and exploding helicopters would seem out of place in this world.  (Besides, $5.7 million is a healthy budget for TV, but small for a studio-released film; such action might have simply been outside the scope of what the film could produce.)  Two missing ingredients, however, would have gone a long way towards making this feel more like a legitimate motion picture.  Rather than directing himself, Thomas should have been wise enough to hire a helmsman more accustomed to the scale and style of a feature film; one of today's DTV action maestros like John Hyams (Universal Soldier:  Regeneration) or William Kaufman (Sinners & Saints, one of 2010's best action films) could have given the picture the requisite feature gloss while being affordable for this low-budget production.  Also, spoilery cameo aside, this picture needed the presence of an honest-to-goodness movie star; Starr's role, new as it is to the Mars universe, would have been the most likely candidate for some star-powered sprucing up.  Most folks I have mentioned this to have argued that Bell fits the bill, but starring in some movies does not necessarily make you a movie star.  Do you know anyone who headed out for Frozen declaring, "We're going to see the new Kristen Bell film"?  I saw Veronica Mars largely through the auspices of a Fandango gift card.  My guess is that if I had paid full-price for a ticket, I would have walked out feeling somewhat cheated.  I doubt fans will feel that way, of course…but haven't they already sort of paid for their tickets already by funding the thing in the first place?*  

The film does boast some problems besides its lack of big-time movie scope.  Bell is an enjoyable presence, tart and appealing as she usually is, but the other performances run a gamut of diminishing returns.  Colantoni brings easy charisma and likability to his role, and Starr is intriguingly creepy and insinuating.  Marino scores some smiles if not outright laughs; Hansen, on the other hand, made me chuckle almost every time he opens his mouth, his complete douchebaggery leavened by his utter awareness of his role in life as precisely that sort of douchebag.  Hoffmann also stands out as a weirdo precisely on the right side of the line between endearing and just skin-crawly.  Other performances are much more problematic.  Dohring simply doesn't have the star wattage to stand at the center of a mystery like this, and maybe he popped with Bell on the small screen, but their scenes here just fizzle uninspiringly in front of us.  A few performers, Ritter in particular, are still pitching their performances for TV, and Daggs and Majorino both seem to be here more for the sake of fan service than to have anything actually interesting or plot-essential to do (this is especially sad in the case of Majorino, who I find to be an intriguing and oddly sexy presence).  Capra's appearance is the most blatantly fan-servicy among the returning-fave characters, given a potentially explosive but utterly perfunctory subplot with only the function of making sure Weevil shows up in the movie.  For a picture that otherwise soft-pedals the fan service to a pretty admirable degree, this is a sad mis-usage of a well-liked character.  The plot in general suffers from too many half-resolved, go-nowhere subplots; I am not familiar with the particulars of the Kickstarter campaign, but I had to wonder if one of the incentives was getting to give "notes" that ended up in the finished film.  How else to explain a subplot involving the scandal of Veronica's sex tape with Piz?  And notice how I haven't really mentioned Piz again up until now?  That's because he contributes nothing to the plot, and Lowell's performance is nothing that couldn't have been accomplished by a cardboard cut-out of the same actor.  Another complaint, though it's really more of a quibble:  The film's soundtrack, laden with alt-pop bands major and deservedly minor, intrudes on a number of scenes and after a while, quite frankly, it just got on my nerves.  Aletheia tells me the Dandy Warhols' music has been a "fan peeve" since the show's very first season.  It doesn't matter to me who's playing it; just don't let it drown out the dialogue next time.

Veronica Mars ends with a clear set-up for a follow-up film, or maybe a reboot of the series.  Honestly, if this is what Thomas, Bell, et al. have to offer in the way of cinema, their best bet, and really their fairest service to their fans, would be to find a sympathetic cable network and revive the series proper.  I didn't hate Veronica Mars, but I don't even like it when they show commercials at the movies now.  What makes you think I want to watch a whole TV episode instead?

*  I don't have proof of this, but I am fairly certain that a few folks appearing in this film were big funders who got into the picture as a Kickstarter incentive.  My fan-funder suspects:  the Canadian kids at the karaoke bar, the nervous girl Veronica makes for-no-reason eye contact with at an outdoor dining patio near the end of the film, and a heavyset, hirsute gentleman disembarking from a plane ahead of Veronica as she arrives back in Neptune.  All of these folks are too unusual and specific to have come from Central Casting; my guess is they got on screen by giving, and giving big.  Props to them, though.  I noticed and remember them, so they made the most of their moment.  I'd call that getting your money's worth, wouldn't you?