Movies from Austin Film Festival

October 30, 2010

I love getting to watch a zillion movies in a week. But I decided not to go out and write a ton of reviews during AFF, because (a) everyone else is doing that, (b) I didn’t really want to spend my time on it, and (c) I like to write spoiler-heavy reviews that look at the plot/structure, and most of the movies playing at AFF haven’t been released yet. So instead I’m just going to do a summary of the movies I went to see at AFF this year and my thoughts on each.

  • Exporting Raymond – This year’s opening night film was a documentary about Phil Rosenthal’s attempt to take Everybody Loves Raymond to Russia. The sitcom is a very new genre over there, and one of Rosenthal’s biggest challenges was convincing the Russians — who like their theatre, film, and television to be very dramatic and over-the-top — that this show — which is about exploiting the realities of life — would be funny. This movie was HILARIOUS. Phil Rosenthal is one of the funniest people on the planet, and watching him through this process was just a stitch.
  • 127 Hours – Danny Boyle’s new film about a canyoneer who gets his hand crushed under a boulder, and is stuck there for — yep, you guessed it — 127 hours before he finally saws off his own arm. A true story, based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, I was very curious as to how Danny Boyle would manage to make this interesting. But he did an amazing job, giving the hero someone to talk to (his video camera), and plenty of flashback and dream sequences to keep it moving. Very intense, and very well done.
  • Black Swan – Darren Aronofsky, who created such films as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and most recently The Wrestler, brings us another grim tale about the descent into madness, every bit as poignant as everything of his I’ve seen so far. On the surface, the movie is about a girl who gets cast as the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake, but to describe it like that is like saying Natural Born Killers is about a husband-wife serial killer team. It goes way, way deeper than that, to the point where every moment was an edge-of-your-seat type of moment. There were some things about the script I didn’t like, particularly at the beginning, but by the end I had long forgotten them and was so wrapped up in what was one of the most awesome movie experiences of my life.
  • Brother’s Justice -Dax Shepard mockumentary about his fake attempt to leave the realm of comedy and become a martial arts action hero. Very funny, although during the talkback at the end, when they said that the moments they tried to make funny weren’t, and it was the organic ones that ended up being the funniest, I very much agreed. A lot of comedy is getting too scripted, I think, and this film is no exception. But good, overall. Just what you would expect from Dax.
  • Echotone – The only film I walked out of during the festival. I might have stayed if the volume wasn’t painfully loud, or if the featured musicians weren’t complete crap.  If you’re looking for a masturbatory woe-is-me documentary about how hard it is to be a bad artist in a growing city, go right ahead. Good luck getting through it.
  • I Love You, Phillip Morris – A film that was made years ago, but for whatever reason has been having trouble getting released. Jim Carrey is a con man, compulsive liar, and escape artist who falls in love with Ewan McGregor in prison and continues to be a con man, compulsive liar, and escape artist. Fun movie, beats a dead horse a little longer than necessary, but overall very well done. Of course, outstanding performances by our leads, and plenty of twists to keep us rolling.
  • Company Men – Longtime TV writer/director/producer John Wells makes the jump into film with this story about the executives at a ship manufacturing company that are getting laid off in a tough economy. Great cast, but even though I asked the question afterward, I’m still feel unsatisfied with his choice of heroes. The lowest earner of the three main characters was a six-figure earner, and I personally would have liked to have seen it taken down a notch to get someone in the $60K-$80K range; make it a little more relatable to the masses, maybe.
  • Re-Cut – Horror flick, kind of Blair Witch meets 8mm. About what you would expect. Not terribly imaginative, and the female lead — The Bachelor/Bachelorette‘s Meredith Phillips — was not a very good actress, even though she was playing herself. Decent, though.
  • Rabbit Hole – Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in a film about a family almost torn apart over the loss of their 4.5-year-old son. Probably the best script of any film in the festival, never telling us anything until it comes out completely  naturally in the dialogue. There was one scene in particular where I thought, “ScreenwritingU would be proud.” Very moving, and one I’ll be rooting for come February.



The Problem-Solution Mass

August 25, 2009

I was watching my favorite part of Moulin Rouge! the other day – basically, the elephant scenes.  I noticed a very interesting pattern:

They introduce a problem, then they solve it.  Then, as soon as that one is solved, they introduce another problem, and then they solve that.  Lather, rinse, repeat, for about 20-25 minutes.  Behold:

Problem Outcome/Solution
Satine and Christian are in the elephant for different reasons. She wants to seduce him, and he wants to inspire her with his poetry. She fakes an orgasm for a while, until he bursts into song and makes her fall in love with him.
She realizes he’s not the Duke, freaks out, and then the Duke shows up while he’s still in there. They run around for a while, trying to divert him, until they finally get him out of the room. Then …
Satine passes out, and the Duke returns to get his hat, only to discover her in the arms of another man. The emergency rehearsal! Generally, the Duke likes it.
While everyone else is celebrating, Christian tries to write, but all he can think about is Satine. He goes to visit her, while she’s lamenting and dreaming.
She’s not allowed to fall in love. But a life without love, that’s terrible! He sings for her again. She falls in love again. He’s going to be bad for business, she can tell.

My favorite part of Robert McKee’s Story is that story happens in the gap between expectation and result.  Any time you think you know – or even more critically, any time the characters think they know – what’s going to happen, we need to throw them a curve ball, which they then need to figure out how to solve.  That’s done here in spades, and this happens to be one of my favorite movie sequences – I’ve watched Moulin Rouge! in its entirety maybe four or five times, but I’ve watched that sequence closer to four or five dozen.

Of course, there are a lot of other things going on here, than just the problem-solution mass.  It’s also visually stunning, outstandingly well-choreographed, hilariously funny, and thematically brilliant.  Plus, Nicole Kidman is hot.

But we could all stand to take a page from Moulin Rouge! and introduce more problems into our screenplays that our characters have to solve.

The Cold Open

January 13, 2009

A couple of nights ago I watched The Invasion, the 2007 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

While I wouldn’t call it boring, the first act is riddled with exposition and it takes a long time to get going.  The villains of the film are body snatchers who show no emotion, and they turn from humans to aliens while they’re sleeping, so the intensity doesn’t pick up  until there are enough of them to pose an imminent threat, which necessarily won’t happen until the Act II.

So that being the case, the beginning of the movie is pretty dull.  And if you were reading this script, you’d stop paying attention after page 5, if not for one thing: the cold open.

The first 30-60 seconds of the film is an intense sequence that takes place, in real time, somewhere around the second turning point.  Nicole Kidman (meet our hero!) is shown weak and bleary eyed, desperately grasping for drugs in a ransacked pharmacy.  When the sequence is over, we’re left wondering how we get to this point, and it’s this foreshadowing that keeps us interested through 30 minutes of exposition and mundane nonthreatening villains.

I remember a similar technique used in Maverick, starring Mel Gibson.  While that was long enough ago that I couldn’t possibly remember the first act, I do remember that the film opens with our hero about to get hanged, which we then get to in real time … somewhere around the second turning point.

So while there are a lot of things that could/should be done to prevent lethargy in the first act of your sci-fi action thriller, from the perspective of a film festival reader it’s a great trick to keep someone paying attention if your  beginning develops slowly.

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