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Persuasion (2007 TV Movie)
An enragingly bad job of adapting the Austen novel
15 January 2008
The PBS series of TV dramatizations of Jane Austen novels began Sunday with PERSUASION. It was agonizing to me, awful on nearly every level, especially when compared to the 1995 movie from Britain. The PBS attempt to crush the novel into 87 minutes is a fiasco, and as I watched I ranted repeatedly against the writer, the director, and the producers. The 1995 movie took another 20 minutes or so (107 minutes) and it made all the difference in the world -- both because the additional length gave it additional depth and weight, and because it avoided PBS's witless decision to cram far too many backstory elements into the film when they didn't have time to make them all clear and complete enough. When they were told it had to come in under ninety minutes, they should have refused to be a party to it. If somehow they were forced to do it, they should have found a writer and director who could do a far better job of discerning and deleting the unaccommodatable sub-stories. Then the poor job of casting was compounded by the director's feckless lack of sensibility in judging how to make us care about these people. For those of you who saw the PBS disaster I urge you to watch the 1995 movie version.
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Hair (1979)
One of the five best movie musicals.
18 July 2006
One of the great mistakes in commenting on HAIR has been to judge it as a "statement" or a portrait of an era. This is particularly so when the verdict is that it's a period piece whose time has passed. That approach is as misplaced as judging MY FAIR LADY or THE MUSIC MAN on the validity of their depiction of their social eras. HAIR is hugely, constantly vivacious (never more so than when Treat Williams is on the screen), immensely inventive in its presentation of the songs -- often ingeniously blending four or five scenes into one seven or eight minute piece -- and the music itself is seizing. For me, perhaps the best movie musical of all was CABARET, but even it did not equal Forman's imagination in his creation of the music scenes. And Twyla Tharp's choreography is as uniquely her own as Fosse's ever was his own.

(Many films have moving after-stories, but few are more memorable than this: Cheryl Barnes was a hotel maid when she was asked to audition for the part of Hud's former girl friend with their child. Her solo was astonishing. But after the final shooting in a Nevada (?) location, she never left town. I believe she went to work in a restaurant there, and dropped out of show business forever.)
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GWH as a case-study in saving a non-active "protagonist"
5 March 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I find GOOD WILL HUNTING immensely engaging throughout. And from the point of view of a writer analyzing the script, that's amazing -- because Will, the ostensible "protagonist", lacks two of the usual defining traits for that role: he is acted-upon far more than he acts, and he has no "story-goal".

Early on he solves the hallway problem, he picks the fight in the playground, rescues Chucky in the Harvard bar, and pursues Skylar. From there on he coasts, until the end when he makes his one and only life-bending decision in the movie: He leaves Boston to go see about a girl.

To those teaching story-craft, I suggest it's more useful pedagogically to hang the label "protagonist" not on Will, but on Sean, the therapist played by Robin Williams. Will is little more the protagonist than, say, the "Mona Lisa" would be in a caper movie depicting a bunch of guys trying either to steal or save that painting.

Sean does have an announced story-goal: Save the kid. And he acts-on Will until he, Sean, achieves that goal. (Sean also has a personal need, though it's one he's not aware of: He, like Will, has to be saved. This amounts to another story-goal the audience wants to see achieved, and again it's Sean's effort that achieves it: In the course of saving Will, he saves himself.) This view is of interest to more than academics. The practicing writer – and directors and dramaturgs -- should study just how it's pulled off – having a lead character who's essentially passive, and yet who holds and satisfies our attention throughout. GWH is a good case-study in how to break a craft-rule and survive.

GWH footnote: The "official" version of the screenplay published by Hyperion does not have a single scene, not one, that's identical to the movie as released.
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Woody Allen's writer at work in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY
29 February 2004
Woody Allen here tackles an immensely difficult assignment for a screen-writer (or playwright): Give us a story about a writer where the focus is on the writing-process. By "writing-process" I mean the usually internal action of conjuring an effect wanted right here, watching your imagination serve up utterances, actions, scenes that might do it, having your sensibility/intelligence judge the offerings -- No. No. Yes!

How can you ever "dramatize" -- i.e. make filmic or stageworthy -- internal stuff like the `writing process'? (This is distinguished from the "external" story of how a writer acquires his/her story-material, or how he struggles to get produced, or how he fights those who don't want him to write at all. Thus BARTON FINK, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, AUTHOR AUTHOR, CHAPTER TWO, THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN, the various scripts about Oscar Wilde, Donald Margulies's COLLECTED STORIES, William Nicholson's SHADOWLANDS -- none of these quite qualifies.)

For many reasons, perhaps the closest a screenwriter can come is this: avoid the original scribbling and show the writer in the act of REVISION, or "fleshing out" a given outline or assignment. ADAPTATION gives us the second, BULLETS gives us the first. The heart of this particular "theme" within Allen's movie is the interplay between the playwright David (John Cusack) and Cheech (Chazz Palminteri). It's not at all silliness on the part of Allen that he chooses an unlettered thug to correct the "writer" -- in fact I think it's part of what Allen seriously (and hilariously) wants to convey. No doubt David can spell better, and discuss Shakespeare, Ibsen, and O'Neill more "learnedly" than Cheech, but imagination, and sensibility to story and character, can't be learned in school.

Allen has found a form that allows him to articulate each of those steps a writer goes through -- knowing the effect he wants, imagining the "answer", rejecting the offered action and giving the reason why, and, in Cheech's case, even imagining the right answer: "See, what she has to do right here is XXXXX, because if she doesn't then YYYYY -- and nobody in his right mind can swallow that, and who'd wanna anyway." Before you shrug off Allen's accomplishment too quickly, name one other movie/play that exposes the writing-process this nakedly and truthfully. ("Truthfully"? Yes -- ponder Salieri's ranting at God in AMADEUS for giving the gifts to a crude, juvenile like Mozart, and not the fine, cultured, dedicated Salieri.) If, on the other hand, the writer's process strikes you as a shitty, boring subject, this isn't the movie for you. I think this movie is seriously funny, and I like it a lot.
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Zaillian's genius in "Searching for Bobby Fischer"
28 February 2004
In SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, Steven Zaillian's is the most complete and near-flawless film-work of the 1990s. I can't say merely "director's work" because he also wrote the screenplay. And (I have to presume) he chose Conrad Hall as d.p., James Horner for the music, Wayne Wahrman as film-editor, and he worked with a lighting director, sound director, set director and more -- each of whom did a job worthy of the highest praise. And the cast, the supernal cast -- many of whom have had larger and more celebrated roles, but none of whom has ever nailed a role more satisfyingly -- Kingsley, Mantegna, Allen, Fishburne -- even the smaller and cameo bits are effectively faultless -- by Linney, Stephens, Shalhoub, Pendleton. And of course, Pomeranc's work is a kind of miracle. Every part of it evokes from me applause for Zaillian's imagination, sensibility, knowledgeability, intelligence, judgment.

I confess I post this comment because none of the other comments I've seen on SEARCHING seems to me to realize how much Zaillian must have contributed to making this -- and I think it deserves this adjective -- GREAT movie. (I further confess I didn't first watch the movie until some three years after its debut because of its title. I was damned if I wanted to spend two hours in the presence of someone as nasty-seeming as Fischer. But the title of course was Fred Waitzkin's, the author of the source book. Fred, you cost me a few years -- but Steven Zaillian has made up for it many times over.)
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