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Rian Johnson (#110 of 7)

Understanding Screenwriting #111: 42, The Company You Keep, Renoir, In the House, To the Wonder, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #111: <em>42</em>, <em>The Company You Keep</em>, <em>Renoir</em>, <em>In the House</em>, <em>To the Wonder</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #111: <em>42</em>, <em>The Company You Keep</em>, <em>Renoir</em>, <em>In the House</em>, <em>To the Wonder</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: 42, The Company You Keep, Renoir, In the House, To the Wonder, Billy & Ray, Looper, The Barbarian, but first…

Fan Mail: I was delighted to see David Ehrenstein back in the comments section and not just because he more or less agreed with me about On the Road. In the past several years I’ve come to feel that my column isn’t complete until David weighs in on it. The other three comments were on Evil Dead. “Syvology” is obviously a genre fan and gave up thinking I could teach him anything when I used the terms “horror movie” and “scary movie” interchangeably. “Buck Theorem” thought the script was worse than I did, especially the exposition, which I thought at least established the characters. The most perceptive comments were from “Dersu DeLarge,” who felt that since I liked some of the humor in this Evil Dead, I might appreciate the humor in the others. I may have to look into that.

42 (2013; written by Brian Helgeland; 128 minutes.)

Almost worthy. Many reviews have pointed out that this is a very conventional screen biography of Jackie Robinson. It is. In the film, he and his wife pretty much say and do what we expect they said and did. But Brian Helgeland is a pretty good screenwriter, and he’s done some nice work here. To keep his focus tight, he’s smart to limit himself to just two years in Robinson’s life, 1945 to ’47, starting with Dodger owner Branch Rickey deciding he’ll make Robinson the first black major-league baseball player. We watch Robinson in the minor leagues learning how to deal with all the small shit that comes down on him there, and then we see him putting that experience to work on the big shit when he’s called up to The Show.

Oscar Prospects: Les Misérables

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Oscar Prospects: Les Misérables
Oscar Prospects: Les Misérables

With its Oscar clout and inevitable crowd-pleasing matched by widespread critical ire, Les Misérables is easily the year’s most divisive awards contender. The film does have its champions, like the oft-snarky New York Post critic Kyle Smith, who gave it the top spot on his 2012 top 10 list, but by and large, Les Mis has endured ample lashings from reviewers, as diverse as David Edelstein, Richard Corliss, and our own Calum Marsh. The divide between journos and tearful devotees has become one of the season’s buzziest narratives, most recently prompting helmer Tom Hooper to “respond to his critics,” whose qualms, as expected, couldn’t stop the musical from squashing the box-office competition on Christmas Day (the movie raked in $18.2 million, history’s second-largest holiday opening). What does it all mean for the movie’s Oscar fate? To be honest, probably not much. It seems unfathomable that Les Misérables won’t end up on the Best Picture shortlist, an outcome that was in the cards before a frame of footage was seen (or, arguably, before a frame of footage was shot).

Oscar Prospects: Looper

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Oscar Prospects: Looper
Oscar Prospects: Looper

Does Looper have a prayer in the Visual Effects race, where tigers and hobbits and Avengers will be sprinting, neck-in-neck? Before the film’s release, the answer would have likely been a resounding “no,” as the throwback panache of Rian Johnson’s aesthetic isn’t even trying to compete with all the 3D bells and whistles of the spectacles above. But with a rapturous response from critics (RT score 94 percent and holding), Looper has the buzz and support to step into some serious contention, if not in the major races, then in tech areas that previously seemed beyond its reach. That is by no means to say the movie’s tricks are not impressive. A near faultlessly calibrated slice of futurama (err, future drama), Looper is 2012’s action flick to beat in terms of quality, and its old-school restraint has a contrasting lure that might make it a viable slot-filler (think the annual foreign trend in the Animation category). There must be scads of Academy members tickled by the dirty realism of a beat-up, flying crop-duster, or effectively unnerved by the rapid, Cronenbergian disappearance of a marked “loop’s” appendages. This wouldn’t be the title to declare where the industry stands today, but it would be the one to give the category an added touch of class.

Squirrels and Devils

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Squirrels and Devils
Squirrels and Devils

In this week’s New York Press, I rave about Ice Age 2: The Meltdown. This cartoon fable offers one comic-epic splendor after another; at its best, it recalls the Chuck Jones classic What’s Opera, Doc? in its ability to both mock and satisfy the conventions of its source material—in this case, the symbolically charged epic journey movie. “This is not just a decent sequel, it’s a cartoon animal comedy about fear of annihilation; in essence, War of the Worlds for kids.”

The biographical documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston unnecessarily hypes its mentally ill musician-artist hero as a genius, but director Jeff Feuerzeig still delivers a penetrating and often stylistically striking nonfiction feature. “Bending the very structure of the film to reflect Johnston’s worldview—which was fractured over time by schizophrenia and assorted drugs—’The Devil’ feels like something a brilliant schizophrenic might produce during a rare period of clarity,” I write. “Johnston’s signature image, a bloody eyeball pulled free of its socket, describes the filmmaker’s aesthetic: a hellishly funny vision, unmoored from reason’s shell.”