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Zodiac (#110 of 11)

Understanding Screenwriting #113: The Bling Ring, The Heat, White House Down, Monsters University, & Unfaithfully Yours

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Understanding Screenwriting #113: <em>The Bling Ring</em>, <em>The Heat</em>, <em>White House Down</em>, <em>Monsters University</em>, & <em>Unfaithfully Yours</em>
Understanding Screenwriting #113: <em>The Bling Ring</em>, <em>The Heat</em>, <em>White House Down</em>, <em>Monsters University</em>, & <em>Unfaithfully Yours</em>

Coming Up In This Column: The Bling Ring, The Heat, White House Down, Monsters University, Unfaithfully Yours, but first…

Moving on: This is going to be my last Understanding Screenwriting column for The House Next Door. Don’t worry, it’s not going away for good, just moving to a new location. Earlier this year, I got an announcement from Erik Bauer, founder, publisher, and editor of Creative Screenwriting magazine. In addition to writing for the magazine, I was on the editorial board from 1994 to 2008, when the board was dissolved. Erik had sold the magazine and the Creative Screenwriting empire (website, screenwriting expo, etc.) to another man in 2007. Unfortunately, the recession came along the next year, and the magazine closed down in 2011. This spring Erik had what he called a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to buy back the Creative Screenwriting empire, and his announcement said that he’s intending to revive the magazine, beginning in 2014. In the meantime, he’s reviving the Creative Screenwriting website in August, and my Understanding Screenwriting column will be moving to it then. The new address will be www.creativescreenwriting.com, and he hopes to have the new website up the first week in August. I trust you will all come and visit and leave the kind of intelligent comments you’ve spoiled me with for the last five years. And I must finish my work here at the House with a great big “thank you” to both Keith and Ed for their support over the years.

Fan Mail: “shazwagon” raised the question in regard to the close-up of Jesse at the end of the opening scene in Before Midnight: “How do you know that it was the writer’s decision to show the close-up later?” That’s an easy case; since both the actor involved and the director were also the writers, we can pretty much be sure it came from them. In other cases, it can be a tricky question. Generally writers will make an effort to write in reactions for the characters (but not camera directions, since directors pay no attention at all to writers’ suggestions in that area). If, as in the close-up in Before Midnight, the reaction is related to everything else going on in the scene (here the counterpoint to the dramatic action with Jesse and Henry), then it almost certainly comes from the writers. If actors and directors in general are at the top of their form, you feel that the moment is happening now right in front of your eyes. Look at Jeff’s (James Stewart) reaction to the itch in an early scene in Rear Window. It seems the camera just happened to catch him when the itch did. Not so; it’s all laid out in John Michael Hayes’s great script.

David Ehrenstein is back to disagreeing with me and all’s right with the world. He thought Behind the Candelabra was better than I did. He especially liked the performances by Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. I liked the performances, but felt the script didn’t give them as much to work with as it could have.

The Bling Ring (2013; written by Sofia Coppola; based on the Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales; 90 minutes.)

Sofia Coppola, meet W.E. Burnett and John Huston. You may remember that, in US#68, I found Coppola’s Somewhere very disappointing, but I also said we shouldn’t give up on Coppola. The Bling Ring shows why, and it’s one of her best films yet. Never give up on talent. Here Coppola’s minimalist style, which was a little too minimalist in Somewhere, is perfect for the subject.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Aaron Aradillas’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Aaron Aradillas’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Aaron Aradillas’s Top 10 Films of All Time

How do you distinguish a movie that’s one of the greatest of all time from one of your all-time favorites? Is there a distinction? Making a top 10 list of the greatest movies of all time made me realize that there is and there isn’t. For example: John McTiernan’s Die Hard is one of my favorite movies, but it didn’t make this list. On the other hand, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou is one of the greatest movies ever made, but it didn’t make this list either. Maybe it would’ve been easier to choose movies in specific genres and categories. For example: Most people would argue that Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest musical of all time. It certainly is one of them but I’d make the case that Saturday Night Fever is just as monumental an achievement in the musical genre.

But the task at hand is to make a list of the 10 movies I consider to be the greatest ever made. Following the model of the Sight & Sound critics’ poll, I consider this list to be fluid and not set in stone. Surprisingly, I didn’t agonize over this list that much (I agonize more when I make my year-end list). My choices are movies that continue to speak to me long after I can anticipate every line of dialogue, every edit, or plot point. I feel I will never fully understand why I consider these movies to be the greatest ever made. So, if some of my choices baffle you, take comfort in knowing they baffle me, too.

Oscar Prospects: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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Oscar Prospects: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Oscar Prospects: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Even the T-shirts are meticulously placed in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, like the one with the Nine Inch Nails logo that cutely nods to composer Trent Reznor, or the one that reads, “Fuck You You Fucking Fuck,” and was probably given precise holes and tears by David Fincher himself. Fincher has certainly grown to be quite peerless when it comes to presenting the oxymoronic aesthetic of polished grunge, and his latest marries that look with the themes of techie alienation, investigative obsession, and cold, impossible love that have run through recent works like The Social Network, Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The craftsmanship of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as indicative of Fincher’s formal gifts as anything he’s created, and, so as not to disappoint the critics who’ve always chided his films for being chilly, he’s even rigorously considered the story’s climate, taking many opportunities to hurl snow at the screen for good, cheeky measure. All that unignorable, masterly exactitude is going to net a lot of enthusiasm for this film in the Academy’s technical branches. Whether the enthusiasm will go much further than that is another story.

New York Film Festival 2010: Hereafter

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Hereafter</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Hereafter</em>

Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter is a bad movie, even an awful one. Many critics will write brilliant, funny words about why. Few will discuss the fact that its footage has been processed and projected digitally. But this is by far and away the work’s most fascinating aspect. You can tell that Hereafter print you’re watching is digital for at least three reasons: The camera’s continual speed and agility, the way actors keep melting-streaking in and out of focus while walking, and the ubiquitous white-blue-and-gray color scheme, which differs from the bleached-out look of a printed-on-film film like Minority Report in that the shades are less delineated. You stare at actors’ faces, and see pixels.

This is not to say that film is good, digital bad. Film usually reveals itself to audiences with splices and scratches, while Eastwood has shown how DV printing and projection can look pristine. Both Gran Torino and Invictus made handsome videos, in both cases because he used a more medium-friendly darker color palette, with lots of greens and browns (no overexposure), and because he used actors and situations (Clint scowling, Morgan considering) that lacked vibrant, dynamic motion, meaning technicians didn’t have to worry much about keeping the image in focus. When the action did kick up, like in Invictus’s rugby games, the running camera and recurring blurs added to the thrill by making viewers feel like they were chasing the scene.

New York Film Festival 2010: The Social Network

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>The Social Network</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>The Social Network</em>

David Fincher’s films coil around an invisible center. His protagonists chase after something that they don’t know and can’t see, sometimes spending years in the hunt. In his first several features (following a successful career as a music video director), the center held, and the characters uncovered the thing that they were looking for. Ridley zaps the alien; Pitt and Freeman catch the killer; Michael Douglas solves the game; Norton sniffs the masculine high of his inner Tyler Durden; Jodie Foster and daughter finally break out of the room.

But then something happened inside Fincher’s movies, something roving and difficult to place. Five years passed after 2002’s Panic Room, and when Fincher’s next film, Zodiac, came out in March 2007, many audiences didn’t know what to do with it. Like Se7en, it was a serial-killer movie, and Fincher used many of his standard techniques, which Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas discuss in a fine video essay: wide lenses, deep focus, swooping crane shots, low-angle tracking shots, crosscutting between events in different locations, shock cuts that punch us toward unexpected spots. A visual whirlwind took us on a search for the killer, but unlike in Se7en, where he’s uncovered, Zodiac spends nearly 25 years without finding him. In Se7en, the murderer walks into the police station and cries, “Detectives! I think you’re looking for me”; in Zodiac, the chief suspect looks directly into the camera and says, “I’m not the Zodiac. And even if I were, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.”

New York Film Festival 2010: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives</em>

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” —William Faulkner

There’s a new game in international cinema, one that began at least 15 years ago but that American audiences are only just discovering. Dave Kehr described some of the movement’s features in The New York Times this past March: ambiguous-to-incomplete narratives, unknown and/or nonprofessional actors whose real lives inform their performances, a mixture of fictional and documentary material in the screenplays, and action unfolding in studied long shots, which can run for several minutes and in which the chief focus is on how the character interacts with his or her environments, both manmade and natural.

Kehr was writing specifically about the Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, and also mentioned Roy Andersson (Sweden), Lisandro Alonso (Argentina), and Jia Zhang-Ke (China). He could have easily mentioned Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, currently producing the most exciting work of any of them. It’s true that Apichatpong’s films can be difficult to get into; when I first saw his 2004 film Tropical Malady, I found myself swooning over the delicately photographed, lyrically motorbike-bound gay love story in the first half and checking my watch, over and over, during the long nighttime hunt for a glowing-eyed tiger in the second. Lacking knowledge of Thai culture or its mythology, I felt, quoting Jonathan Rosenbaum on an earlier Apichatpong film, “a lack of an analytical context in which to place this material.”

You Gotta Be Kidding: Peet’s 25 Films of the Decade

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You Gotta Be Kidding: Peet’s 25 Films of the Decade
You Gotta Be Kidding: Peet’s 25 Films of the Decade

[Editor’s Note: This article is cross-published at Directorama.]

People who know me realize I’m not much of a list-maker. My peculiar taste is suspiciously mood-specific and based on private obsessions that are ever-evolving (just like everyone else’s, for that matter), so numbering favorites is about as pointless to me as, say, a Stephen Sommers remake of Howard the Duck to mankind. Then again… what is life but a string of silly exercises?

I started making this list just to see if I could. I do not claim to have seen every worthwhile film this decade. I do not claim to have the authority to tell you what you should like. I do not believe in objective valuation and it doesn’t think highly of me either. But I might be the guy to convince you to see something you may have dismissed or overlooked. In any case, beware of superlatives.

A Perspective on Aughts Culture

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A Perspective on Aughts Culture
A Perspective on Aughts Culture

I haven’t seen David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive since it was released in theaters in 2001, but I saw it twice on the big screen then, and I remember it vividly. There are some dead ends in the narrative, and these dead ends are what people seize on when they criticize the film, but there are scenes and moments in Mulholland that strike me as classic: Naomi Watts’s audition setpiece, where we realize that her character is a fine actress, or maybe just dreams of herself as a fine actress. The rapture of the sex scene Watts shares with Laura Harring. The impatient look on an aged Ann Miller’s face as she stares at Watts at a party near the end. Most of all, though, I remember the face and the voice of Rebekah Del Rio as she sings Roy Orbison’s hit “Crying” a cappella, in Spanish, her voice soaring out from some deep place within her and lingering in the air like a taunt of emotional defiance. I’m not sure how Mulholland Drive would look to me now that this decade is ending, but I thought at the time that it was the best film I had seen that had been made after the year of my birth, 1977, which saw the unfortunate debut of Star Wars.

The Conversations: David Fincher

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The Conversations: David Fincher
The Conversations: David Fincher

Jason Bellamy: Ed, earlier this year we had a lengthy and spirited debate about Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Encapsulating that exchange is difficult, but to nutshell it as best I can: I argued that Kaufman’s film is “complex for complexity’s sake” and that Synecdoche, New York’s inner themes aren’t worth the effort of their labyrinthine design; you disagreed and argued that the structure was “encoded with elegant metaphors.” Throughout our exchange, at my blog and yours, I’m not sure that the word “gimmick” was ever used, but thematically that was the bonfire we danced around.

I bring all this up because David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, inspired by a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a 166-minute exercise about a man (Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button) who ages backward. He’s born, on the night after the end of World War I, the size of an infant with the physical maladies of an old man, and from there his body grows younger while his spirit and soul grow older and more experienced. Within the margins of this story are ankle-deep philosophical waxings about the aging process (body vs. mind), a fairly straightforward love story and a Forrest Gump-esque trip through American history. But I wonder: Is Benjamin Button anything more than a gimmick?

Lichman & Rizov “Live” at Grassroots Tavern: Episode 8, “Lifestyles of the Not-So-Rich and Cinephilic” with Kevin B. Lee and Preston Miller

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Lichman & Rizov “Live” at Grassroots Tavern: Episode 8, “Lifestyles of the Not-So-Rich and Cinephilic” with Kevin B. Lee and Preston Miller
Lichman & Rizov “Live” at Grassroots Tavern: Episode 8, “Lifestyles of the Not-So-Rich and Cinephilic” with Kevin B. Lee and Preston Miller

Well, this week we address the letting go of Nathan Lee and some of our favorite—okay, the Zodiac one—articles he’s penned. Heck, Lee even makes me pick up Film Comment when he has a piece in it, which is rare since I can’t actually read things that aren’t solely online. From there we ponder the inevitable question of where criticism can be taken in this new landscape, where even war horses like David Ansen are copacetic about being let go. (Granted, he does have a particularly sweet deal from The House of Meacham.)

Our second big topic involves The House Next Door’s own Kevin B. Lee—who just happens to join us this week, along with Jones writer-director Preston Miller—and his summary of a film criticism workshop at NYU which featured Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin. Rosenbaum took the time to praise DVDs for giving modern audiences a first chance as it were to experience a wide variety of films, but Dave Kehr counter-argued in the comments on Kevin’s blog, as well as at his own site. (Note: the comments and the page in question at Kehr’s site are currently “gone” due to some technical upgrades.) So what is the best answer in this new age of cinema? Is DVD so bad? Shouldn’t we have more revival houses? Won’t we be robbing ourselves of a certain kind of film experience? Isn’t sliced bread great? Yes to all these things—especially the DVD one because 2-disc special editions aren’t cheap, man.

We also look at the rather ambiguous viral marketing campaign of Fanboys, which could possibly be under the careful control of “Darth” Harvey Weinstein as opposed to the drooling fanboys now engaged in widespread Internet “backlash”. More importantly, we touch on the piece in the recent Wired Magazine that gives the film a great big blowjob in print, but tells a much harsher story—and news that Stephen Brill is now confirmed as the new director after re-shooting material during the writer’s strike—online. Way to go, Wired!

Finally, Leonard Maltin gives us his fifteen favorite NYC Scenes of all time—his #1 being Enchanted, and completely ignoring all the outer boroughs. No Spike Lee, no French Connection, no Mean Streets—but plenty of other De Niro, Allen and Audrey Hepburn. We give some of our favorite scenes as well.

Join us next week as Vadim and I fly solo like tiny sparrows into the fearsome ball of gas that is life. Basically because Keith is on assignment and we’re still at Grassroots. Until then, special thanks to our guests Kevin and Preston, and if you see Vadim or me at the bar, please buy us a drink. (Or tell Gawker to link to us so we can tell the people at the bar how famous we are, and convince them to buy us drinks. That works too.) JL