With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

genius-poster

Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

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The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

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Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

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The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

Heart of Coppola

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Francis Ford Coppola likes me! He really likes me!

So, no sooner do I finally get around to posting my laurels from Nashville than I find out that my screenplay The Naughty List was selected as a semifinalist in the 12th Annual American Zeotrope Screenwriting Competition, an organization run by Francis Ford Coppola (I seem to recall he was a director of geopolitical documentaries).

I had started to wonder if the screenplay was going to see any love in the competitive world…this is good!

Coming to a theatre near you (please, please, please)

Coming to a theatre near you (please, please, please)

So, what is the story of The Naughty List?

What would you do if you learned decisions you make every year ruin the lives of millions of children?

Oh, and your name is Santa Claus.

After a brush with death just days before Christmas, Santa rescinds the Naughty List only to learn that for some kids, the lump of coal started a life-long downward spiral. In fact, two kids—now warlords—are about to unleash hell on each other and their people.

With a loving heart and snowy balls, child-like Santa dives into the fray. But his magical meddling only makes things worse.

He greases the wheels of war. More children suffer, including a girl desperate to save her family. As his magic fails, Santa knows he must face the oncoming storm as a mortal.

One man. Two armies. Can Santa stop the madness and save a crumbling Christmas?

 

Belated laurels

Ah yes, almost forgot. This showed up in my in-box back in December. The laurels for my Best Animated Feature Screenplay at the 2014 Nashville Film Festival.

The winner was my screenplay for Tank’s, a story that proves even a fish in water can be a fish out of water.

Tank's for the love!

Tank’s for the love!

To read the opening pages of Tank’s, visit:

Tank’s (Part One)

Tank’s (Part Two)

It gets to us all – Jon Stewart

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For many of us, programs like The Daily Show were our weekly bulwark against the insanity of clashing cultures and ideologies or against insanity itself. Regardless of your personal sociopolitical leanings, shows like this one help many of us to see that we are not going insane or losing our hearing, that the bizarre ironies of peoples’ words and actions are not just figments of our imaginations.

Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel

But where most of us simply allowed the insanity to flow over us and healed our wounds in the salve that was satirical comedy and commiseration, the world’s woes wear on the people who bring us this salve. Such, I think, was the case this week with the announcement that Jon Stewart will shortly hand the reins of The Daily Show to another.

A couple of months ago, I tweeted Jon and The Daily Show to express my concern about his health, both mental and physical. Over the last several months, it seemed that each episode of the program was taking more and more out of the host, that he had to fight to maintain his composure. And he seemed to be losing that fight.

Aging sucks

Several times, his personal comments on recent events bordered on screeching rants, as though the nuanced commentaries we had witnessed for the past 17 years required too much of him. On other occasions, he almost seemed to throw his hands into the air and with a head-bobbing sigh, surrender to the madness that swirled around us all.

Jon Stewart seemed tired, and if not broken, at least seemed wounded.

And please, this is not a condemnation or expression of disappointment. The man has clearly earned his weariness and wounds. (Too Jewy to say he took on our sins?)

Nice hat...where's my chocolate?

Nice hat…where’s my chocolate?

Even the strongest metal abrades to nothingness if repeatedly and relentlessly thrown against a stone wall that seems to regenerate itself at will. For every monolith of stupidity or cruelty that The Daily Show tackled through humour, a dozen others formed behind it. And the show kept pushing.

And so, as much as he will be missed, Jon Stewart will step aside and begin the healing process, while the show will become what it will become under the guidance of another.

Tracey+Stewart+Jon+Stewart+Family+Walking

As he expressed in his announcement, the first part of that healing will likely be him reinforcing his roles as Dad and Husband. Eventually, will we see him back on stage performing stand-up (sure, we all say we’ll go to the gym)? And after that, who knows? (As long as it’s not acting…dear god, Jon, NO!)

The man has earned his rest, and we will applaud and cheer and cry as he walks out the door (and about two weeks later, we’ll start pitching screenplay ideas to you).

Coming to a theatre near you (please, please, please)

Coming to a theatre near you (please, please, please)

Be well, Jon Stewart, and thank you.

Fading Gigolo faded too slowly (a review)

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Writer. Director. Lead performer. Possibly the most critical functions in defining how well a movie will do, and often one individual will play more than one role with varying degrees of success. But when a single person plays all three, look out.

For some reason, the movie that results from the triple play rarely seems to work in my experience. And 2013’s Fading Gigolo falls right into that category. (Citizen Kane is one of the few successes I can think of.)

The triple play of Hollywood stalwart John Turturro, Fading Gigolo tells the story of two friends, second-hand bookstore owner Murray (Woody Allen) and florist Fioravante (Turturro), who are both going through some financially tight times. So when Murray’s dermatologist (Sharon Stone) suggests she and her girlfriend (Sofia Vergara) are considering a ménage á trois, Murray immediately thinks about his good looking buddy and suddenly it is American Gigolo for the middle-aged.

Boobs and bums but no climax (Stone, Vergara)

Boobs and bums but no climax (Stone, Vergara)

Oh, and all of this happens in the first two minutes of the movie.

One after another, Murray lines up customers for Fioravante, whose kicked-puppy facial expressions and old-world charm sweep the women off their feet and money out of their wallet. To his credit, Fioravante feels some guilt over taking advantage of the lonely women, but he gets past that with the help of Murray’s nebbish logic.

Life becomes more complicated, however, when he meets the widowed Hassidic Jew Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) and in helping her come out of her shell, finds himself developing feelings for the woman.

Fioravante helps draw Avigal out of herself (Turturro, Paradis)

Fioravante helps draw Avigal out of herself (Turturro, Paradis)

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I thought it would be a beautifully sweet film about human relationships with the comedic backdrop of Woody Allen as a pimp. And to be sure, there are moments of beauty in the film. But only moments.

Unfortunately, there are no moments of conflict in the film. Nothing against which the characters can really push and grow, with the exception of Avigal, and so the movie feels like the emptiest of emotional calories. You feel good while it is in front of you, but the minute a scene is over, you don’t remember a single moment of it.

Woody Allen still has it, although somewhat sparingly, and there were moments in the story reminiscent of his characters in Bananas or Sleeper, but in some respects, he has just become an older caricature of those characters. Sharon Stone has one or two moments where you can see some vulnerability in her character, but those dissolve pretty quickly. And Sofia Vergara is simply boobs with an accent, as with every role I have ever seen her perform.

A little Hassidic slapstick (Allen, Liev Schrieber)

A little Hassidic slapstick (Allen, Liev Schrieber)

As mentioned earlier, Vanessa Paradis’ Avigal is the only character with an arc in this story, the only character who is transformed, and the actress does a pretty good job with a relatively straightforward character. Unfortunately, against a backdrop of nothing characters, I can’t tell if she did a good job or just a less bad job.

But again, all of my irritation is focused on Turturro and his failings. Fioravante is a sweet man but has all the internal conflict of Michael Landon’s angel character Highway to Heaven, i.e., too good to be true.

As a writer, Turturro missed every opportunity to enrich a flat screenplay. In the writing vernacular, there was no inciting incident (the reason to become a prostitute is weak), no turning points, no crisis and no climax except in the sexual sense.

And because the writer Turturro seemed satisfied with the screenplay, the director Turturro had nothing to offer to improve a moribund story comprised of high-fructose corn syrup.

So much talent. Such a beautiful concept. Such potential for humour and pathos.

Such a let down.

Movie should have worked just on this line alone

Movie should have worked just on this line alone

Wolf of Wall Street a never-ending bore (review)

Poster math

Layer the stylings of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas over Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and you have Scorsese’s 2013 treatise about greed in America, The Wolf of Wall Street. Unfortunately, where this should have been a wonderful blending of two great films, it was instead the mutated step-child.

Briefly, the movie follows the adventures of real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort as he rises from the ashes of Wall Street to lie and cheat his way to fame and fortune from the then despised penny stocks market. Through a haze of booze, drugs and female flesh and relying on balls the size of the tri-state area, he pulls a fleet of nobodies into the middle of the financial maelstrom, becoming everything for which Wall Street is despised. Throw in a little money laundering and he, of course, becomes the target of an FBI and SEC investigation that ultimately brings him down.

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If, from the synopsis, you don’t immediately see the influences of Wall Street and GoodFellas, you’re not really trying or you need to go back and watch them again.

I wish I could say it was just the 3-hour running time that interfered with my enjoyment of the film, but GoodFellas was 148 minutes and Wall Street was 126 minutes. Rather, I think the problem was that it felt like the movie was 6 hours long. Time seemed to drag out as though I was getting a contact high from all the Quaaludes the characters were consuming, but without the peaceful overtones.

I appreciate it was based on the life of Jordan Belfort, so perhaps the screenwriter Terrence Winter felt he had to be careful tiptoeing around the contents of Belfort’s book of the same title. But for the love of God, there was no place that Winter felt he could simply skip ahead?

When Leo DiCaprio would narrate the scenes, in some cases turning directly to the camera to do so, my mind immediately jumped to Ray Liotta in GoodFellas. Never more so than when he would try to explain how Wall Street functioned, almost mimicking Liotta’s explanation of the mob, down to the vocal cadence. The two examples below show both men introducing the troops.

And when DiCaprio would try to rally the troops, he became a bombastic Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas), enthusiastically letting people know that greed was good…or in his case, that there was no nobility in poverty. Hell, in his narrative voice-over, he even mentions Gordon Gecko in an obvious homage that simply highlights how pale an imitator this movie is.

So I am left asking what exactly does The Wolf of Wall Street offer that the other two films didn’t.

Wealth, opulence, greed, excess? Been there, done that.

Booze, sex, drugs, violence? Watched that, saw it.

Illicit business, FBI investigations, wire taps? Old hat, nothing new.

Hubris, hedonism, idolatry? Biblical, but done and doner.

It made almost $400 million worldwide and was nominated for five Academy Awards (winning none), so people liked it.

For comparison, Wall Street earned $44 million globally in 1987 and won Douglas the Best Actor Oscar, while GoodFellas managed $47 million in the US in 1990 and won Joe Pesci the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (of six nominations).

DiCaprio has charm…and so did Liotta and Douglas.

Interestingly, I didn’t feel this one had the cinematographic snap of Scorsese’s earlier works…it didn’t feel like the camera was dancing with the actors as it did in GoodFellas.

Maybe it was simply a matter of timing. Wolf showed up just as the United States was truly starting to recover economically from the banking scandals and burst real estate bubbles, and in an almost self-abusive way, Wolf reminds Americans (and the rest of the world) of a time when money was cheap and easy. It’s definitely not a morality play, for no one is seen to suffer for their excesses.

It is the American dream seen through a tumbler of Scotch. The manifest destiny of anyone willing to gamble with the weaknesses of others. A sign that nothing has changed. That nothing ever changes.

Wall Street was a warning. GoodFellas was the rise and fall of Man. The Wolf of Wall Street is a love letter to unbridled greed.

Movie math

The Voices gets a hearing (a review)

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Not one to generally participate in the Toronto International Film Festival, it was a rare evening in which I found myself standing in a rush line to see a movie, but a friend of mine wanted to see the latest Ryan Reynolds film called The Voices. This is not your typical Ryan Reynolds film.

Reynolds is Jerry Hickfang, a good-natured if skittish guy who works in the shipping department of a bathroom fixtures company in Milton, the derelict remains of a town in Nowhere, USA. Jerry is a nice guy, who lives above a derelict bowling alley with his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers. And of course, Jerry has the hots for office cupcake Fiona, a misplaced Brit with a craving for bigger things, played by Gemma Arterton. For her part, Fiona finds Jerry a little creepy, but is not above using his puppy lust to get a lift during a rain storm.

Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) struggles to understand Mr. Whiskers' advice

Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) struggles to understand Mr. Whiskers’ advice

Oh, and the other thing you probably need to know about Jerry is that he is in court-appointed psychiatric treatment, isn’t really good about taking his meds, and has a family history of hearing voices, but that’s not something he likes to talk about.

So far, so harmless. But after a literal run-in with a deer who begs Jerry to finish him off, the blood-letting never really stops and the rest of the movie becomes a giant slip-and-slide of mostly implied blood and offal.

So, The Voices is a thriller…and a drama…and a comedy…and a farce. You squirm in revulsion (never really reaches horror) as often as you LOL.

Director Marjane Satrapi (who brought us Persepolis) attended the screening and describes the story as completely fucked up. She said she was mesmerized by the screenplay and desperately wanted to meet the man who penned it to see what messed up human could conceptualize such a story. So she was surprised when she met Michael R Perry, a tall normal-looking fellow.

Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi

As Perry explained, he wanted to look at the life of someone of multiple personality disorder from their perspective rather than society’s. And in that, he succeeded.

With Satrapi’s help, the two clearly crafted the oddly idyllic yet troubled world within Jerry’s mind, giving the audience only the briefest glimpse of how the rest of the world saw things. With Jerry, it was all perfect love and butterflies. To the rest of us, it was squalor and pain.

Where the story fell down for me was in explaining why everything went wrong so suddenly. In writing circles, we talk about “Why today?” Why does your story begin today, at this moment, and not 6 weeks ago or 5 months from now? In this case, what was the event that caused Jerry to go from lovable schmuck to… Some might suggest it was the deer accident, but even Mr. Whiskers called that bullshit

The other place I felt let down was that the conflict never escalated, it merely accumulated. Rather than find interesting ways for Jerry’s mania to manifest itself, the writer simply repeated the same event over and over, as though each of the characters voluntarily walked into a wood chipper.

And I don’t know if the ending was presented as written or was something that blossomed out of Satrapi’s mind, but it was lazy and bordered on the ludicrous. It was a bad after-taste on a film that had merits.

Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick

Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick

On the plus side, Ryan Reynolds was amazing to watch…this was not the charming goofball romantic comedy, although Jerry was sadly charming when he wasn’t obviously tortured by his snarky brogue-spewing cat. (NOTE: Bosco and Mr. Whiskers easily have the funniest lines in this film.)

Gemma Arterton’s Fiona was a delight. She was delicious to watch as the voluptuous vixen whose biggest fear in life is being bored. Problem solved!

Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), as tier-two love interest Lisa (see, the writer even repeated this beat), was largely wasted. Her character was pretty two-dimensional. As nice girl looking for a nice guy, her function was to have Jerry explain his condition to the audience (exposition disguised as opening up).

The Voices is definitely worth seeing, if only for what it attempts to do. I can’t help feeling, however, that if they had rewritten the screenplay a few more times, they would have achieved their goals much better than this.

My recommend (and that of my friend) is that this is a Cheapie Tuesday movie (or whatever your local half-price day is).

 

PS I was unable to find a trailer for this movie, so I offer the following interview with Satrapi at Sundance London…I will warn you, however, that it does include a lot more info about the plot than I gave above.