All That Jazz

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 1.10.11 PMNormal people use the time between New Year’s Eve and going back to work on that dreaded Monday to -– well, come to think of it what do they do? I have absolutely no idea. And what is normal anyway? Again, I got nothing.

What I spend my time doing – and have done for most of my life at this time of year – is to go to the movies. For as long as I can remember (Note: And that’s long before anyone, even Louis B. Mayer, got screeners in the mail) I’ve spent the primary part of the post Christmas holiday season catching up with all of the “prestige films” the studios have mostly kept from us.

This is not simply because I’m Jewish. I probably haven’t been to temple in at least five years and even then I think it was only for a bar mitzvah. Though I did walk through several synagogues on a trip to Italy this summer, which really doesn’t count since they were FAR outweighed by the at least 437 churches I also managed to stroll through

Where were we? Oh yes, the cinema.

Go on...

Go on…

These days the cinema means lots of things. It could be going out to the mall or your local specialty theatre and paying a bit too much to see a movie that doesn’t quite live up to your expectations. It could also be watching something old you may or may not have seen before on television that you or the majority rule will be fun holiday viewing. If you’re a bit more privileged or connected or facile, it can even be watching a DVD of a current motion picture now playing in theatres at home or at a friend’s house via a screener, day and date VOD, pay cable or, um…some other means (Note: Please do NOT write in and ask what some other means means).

I admit to doing all of these in the past five days (Note: Not the some other means, I don’t want to be expelled from show business any more than I already am). Which brings me to about six and a half films just seen in a relatively short period of time. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. Which doesn’t mean I LOVED them. I liked them all and each did what all good films do – made me think while also entertaining me at the same time. Yet in every case there was something sort of, well, missing. Until today… when I caught up with a small movie that was actually released in October called Whiplash.

hitting the right beats

hitting the right beats

It’s excellent, disturbing, thought provoking, a little over the top and emotional – though not entirely emotionally satisfying. Frankly, at the end you’re of two minds and are not sure exactly what to think or who to sympathize with. Which is precisely what was missing from the other five and a half films that I merely LIKED though really did enjoy.

What were the other films? Oh, perhaps a few you might know or have heard of:

  • Unbroken
  • American Sniper
  • Wild
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • A Most Violent Year

These are some of the best and brightest the awards season has to offer and will no doubt be crowding around the Oscars along with a few others. Yet none of them has the unpredictably and sheer verve 29 year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle brought to a story we’ve essentially seen many times before – that of teacher who for good or bad pushes that potentially special student beyond the limits of where we (or perhaps they) ever thought they could go. In this case it is in the unlikely scenario of an aspiring drummer and his jazz musician professor, which works because it’s visual. Yet it really could be any one of us up there – if we allowed ourselves – who ever went to school and met that key catalyctic person. Go figure.

He already has that "Oscar glow"

He already has that “Oscar glow”

There is no point telling you any more than that or building up a film beyond the point where it could possibly live up to expectations. The only thing to be said for sure is that J.K. Simmons, the veteran character actor who plays the teacher, will indeed be the one person in the movie who will be winning the Oscar this year. That you can take to the bank because he shares the common denominator of all great performances that rivet you in films – you are never quite sure what he is going to do. He pulls you in, scares you, seduces you and then…well, you’ll see. It’s terrifying, sad, difficult to watch and yet impossible to turn away from in fear that you will miss something you might not want to have seen in the first place. This is to take nothing away from Mr. Chazelle, who manages to capture it all in the most original ways.

Taking a cliché genre, any genre, and turning it on its ear without selling out what we love about it to begin with is no easy feat. Yet it can be done. Look at the best films of Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman, Pedro Almodovar and Paul Thomas Anderson – not to mention Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski – and you begin to understand. It takes not only hard work but NERVE, VERVE and the DESIRE to do this in the first place.

Don't believe me? Try some tanis root...

Don’t believe me? Try some tanis root…

One fears that writers, directors and studios have begun to lose their taste for such things. Scratch that. Most people working in the movies know that to a certain extent this is true. Yet that doesn’t mean that one still can’t come up with something quite wonderful.

For instance, The Imitation Game is a very engaging, sad and illuminating look at Alan Turing – the brilliant, secretly gay British logician who broke the secret Nazi Enigma code and became the single biggest contributor to the Allies victory in World War II only to commit suicide less than a decade later after his arrest and sentencing for homosexual behavior. As superbly acted, clever and well-made as the film is there is little surprising in it if one knows anything about the story. Even for those totally unfamiliar, it pretty much follows the traditional dramatic route because you know from the beginning that victory is afoot and who will be primarily responsible for it – and even how.

The war.. from two fronts

The war.. from two fronts

Unbroken follows a similar path though not quite as adeptly. Still, it is not without its merits. The unbelievably true story – as its billed – of former U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini surviving a devastating plane crash and subsequent imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II – delivers everything it says it will deliver. Those are summed up in the adjectives you no doubt have seen in large font on most of its ads: SURVIVAL. RESILIENCE. REDEMPTION. It has all of those many times over. In fact, there is not a moment in the entire motion picture where it doesn’t – which is the problem. As reassuring as that can be to any of us as audience members, it is seldom what makes a really GREAT film.

Take Wild and American Sniper and substitute any or all of the descriptions above. As we roam through the 1100 mile solo hike Cheryl Strayed took through the Pacific Northwest in order to recover from personal trauma or tag along with Chris Kyle on four tours in Iraq where he becomes the most accurate and lethal sniper in US military history, there is excitement and wonderment yet a dulling reassurance of how it will all wind up. Reese Witherspoon and Bradley Cooper expertly pour themselves into each of their roles and give us everything and more than you’d want as their onscreen counterparts. Yet one can’t help but feel deep down that five minutes of any one of their real life adventures were much grittier, exciting and certainly much more morally questionable than any one chunk of time during their entire films.

The great outdoors... in full hair and makeup

The great outdoors… in full hair and makeup

As for Inherent Vice and A Most Violent Year it goes like this. The former is essentially a stoner detective comedy-drama set in 1970s L.A. and is a charming mess that will drive you crazy if you try to follow it as a whole but can certainly be enjoyed in parts and with the help of the chemical aid of one’s choice. The latter deals with working class business moguls making it beyond anyone’s dreams and, well, I only saw one-half because I felt I had already seen it many times before (Note: See earlier Scorsese reference). But again, one could and most assuredly will do worse this year. Annie or Transformers 3, anyone?

Which brings us back to Whiplash.

There will be blood

There will be blood

Part of the reason we loved the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight is we never quite knew what he was going to do or where he was coming from. The best I could figure was total nihilism in order to counter the absolutely useless, insensitive, meaningless materialistic world of today. I’d never seen anyone evil-ing their way through a film for no reason other than every reason – tapping into every bad, justified personal insult each of us has ever dished out or had to endure. No one had ever done that in a movie before in just that way to such great effect up to that point and the mere discussion of it makes me want to pop in a DVD for that scene where Joker Heath saunters through Gotham City wearing a nurse’s uniform.

Oh how we miss you

Oh how we miss you

Movies can simply be great entertainment and that is what’s wonderful. They can also be just polemic enough as they tell the story of a social issue in a satisfying way and that certainly is enough to be memorable.

But what we don’t have much of anymore are the films that make you angry, make you think or seem familiar yet will sneakily unearth something awfully important (or importantly awful) at stake in such a way where we do not know at all until the bitter end absolutely what will happen. The end of Whiplash confounds certain audiences and critics because it is precisely the correct ending of a film that gets it absolutely right even though you are convinced from time to time that it is absolutely missing the boat.

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

As a screenwriting teacher I talk to my students a lot about heroes and villains. That no one is all good (and if they were you’d hate them) and that every supposed monster believes somewhere deep down they are 100% justified to be doing the things they do. I mean, why do anything bad or good if you can’t on some level enjoy your actions? That includes reveling in your evilness. After all if you’re going to dare to be that bad and do a high wire act of contrariness to the rest of society and its mamby pamby meandering rules you better or might as well enjoy it and feel like its for a reason.

The teacher captures exactly that in Whiplash in a way I’ve never experienced before. Just as the heroic student – played with superb finesse and skill by Miles Teller – shows us that being a great guy all around is a lot more complicated than the teachings in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” gives one credit for.

Especially if you are a drum...

And don’t get in his way.

I am going to try to remember all of that and more as I continue on the script I’m currently writing as well as the next time I stand before a new group of students (Note: That would be next week) talking about what makes a good movie story. I will also recall and note that the writer-director of Whiplash, Mr. Chazelle, was himself once a young drummer who studied under a mentor of questionable methods and that this movie was inspired by, but not actually based on, real life events.   Yeah, you write or make what you know about because when you give it your all and forget about who’s going to watch and why – you have the chance to show it to us in a true and very real way we all have never experienced or even thought of before even if it would seem like we have. At one point in time, that was what movies were all about. And I’m sort of missing it at the start of this new year.

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Gettin’ Woodsy with Meryl

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 8.25.02 AM

Anytime you get to spend a few hours with Meryl Streep and Tracy Ullman is a good time and I was fortunate to spend three or more with them some days ago during a screening of the new film musical Into the Woods and the q & a session afterwards.

Yes, most of the rest of the cast were also onstage as were the director, writer, producer, costume designer, cinematographer and, well, others. There were also 1000 plus people seated in the audience with me. But the movie, those two actors and okay, pretty much everyone else either live or on digital associated with the film, were delightfully entertaining and articulate. Will this movie change the world? No. But what really will at this point?

When the real news is a small country hacks into a major studio’s computer system and successfully prevents the release of a film it assumes will be offensive in spite of the fact that it hasn’t even seen it yet, well – what movie or story about one can top that? And what can take your mind off of it? Certainly not the batch of depressing, heady, dramatic or just plain bland and/or derivative holiday films in store for us this season.

We get it.. enough already

We get it.. enough already

I’m extremely grateful and privileged to be part of two Hollywood unions – not least of all for the fact that right around this time of year I receive free DVDs of most of the these movies to screen at my leisure. But between Unbroken, Still Alice, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year and that much needed remake of Annie, can it get any creepier, heavier, or just plain sad? (Note: You decide which adjective fits which film). And Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to you too.

Oh and I'm just a ball of laughs...

Oh and I’m just a barrel of laughs…

I tend to watch mostly heavy, sad or heady movies and I certainly gravitate towards writing them. But there are moments when even I need a break. There will be hell to pay from my much more “serious” friends, colleagues and family members but Into the Woods gives you just that break without making you feel as if you’ve just spent 120 plus minutes in a game of Candy land where unearned life lessons abound around scenes, dialogue and characters designed to primarily service the product placements that surrounds them. Yes, we’re talking about the Annie trailer here.

So let’s continue with Into the Woods.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote the Broadway musical 27 years ago as an homage to fairy tales while simultaneously taking to task the happily ever after endings they traffic in. The movie, like the stage show, is deceptively escapist except eventually it’s not. If one allows oneself to be transported by it there are earned lessons that resonate in a post-9/11 world. That’s an entire universe away from NBC’s recent much ballyhooed live production of Peter Pan – a stunt idea that felt merely like a moneymaking, ratings grabbing event.   This Into the Woods movie feels like it has a reason for being – and therefore a reason to be seen. When will the powers-that-be learn? Maybe never. But they’re looking to make money, not to complete thoughts.

still processing this...

still processing this…

Don’t go in with too raised expectations. This is simply a good, old-fashioned musical that looks great and feels just weighty enough without hitting you squarely over the head with its message continuously. It diverts you for two hours (not three – yay!!!) into a strange magical alternate universe where not everything works out as you hope but as it seems meant to – much the way it occurs 90% of the time in life. (Note: The latter statistic is based solely on my own many decades of living, breathing and seeing countless outcomes and, trust me, if anything I’m underestimating the number).

Speaking of numbers, at one point during the Woods talk back it occurred to me there were a dozen members of cast and crew onstage at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills throwing out occasional pearls of wisdom about being a working cast and crew member on the top tier of the entertainment industry. Shouldn’t other artists, or aspiring artists, or even the rest of us movie gossips at least get to hear the best of what they had to say rather than having to hunt it down via some website where, given all the Internet traffic this week, we will be buffered into oblivion and quit before it even starts?

the cast about to drop some truth bombs...

the cast about to drop some truth bombs…

So — this goes out to everyone. You may or may not like the film (Hint: Drop the sour face, or as my Aunt Nan used to say – the farbissina punim – and at least give it a chance) but you will certainly find value in at least one or two of their thoughts. And if you don’t, you should. Yes, should.

TOP 10 WORDS OF INTO THE WOODS Q&A WISDOM FOR INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS

1. If a really talented person suggests your next project to you, it would be wise to listen. Director Rob Marshall scored big with his 2002 movie musical version of Chicago and following that level of commercial success many doors open for you. So it was not surprising that a hot director of a movie musical would get to meet with the royalty of musical composers – Stephen Sondheim – and be allowed to review his quite large body of work for the possible adaptation of his next big screen project.

St. Stephen

St. Stephen

But rather than push for a preconceived idea of what he wanted to do, Mr. Marshall instead chose to engage in an extended discussion of Sondheim’s canon and what he hoped to do creatively in the future. According to the director, Into the Woods was actually Sondheim’s choice of the show of his that would best suit Mr. Marshall. I would’ve been happy to do any of them, the director admitted, but he finally looked at me and said, I think you’re really right for this.

2. You can love doing the kind of job you most assuredly turned down three times before. Meryl Streep plays the gloriously wicked witch at the center of Woods but she didn’t initially want to play it. The actress recalls that the moment she turned 40 years-old she was quickly offered three different witch roles and as a quasi political stance couldn’t see herself being thrown on the casting junk heap because moviemakers were so quick to age a woman of her age out. But having now proven her point many times over, at the age of 65 she realized the opportunity to get to be in a Sondheim musical was just too good to pass up. And yes, she chose to reveal her current age matter-of-factly and quite normally – which was probably the most political act of all.

Werk it, gurl!

Werk it, gurl!

3. Inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. The development of big budget films being what they are, it wasn’t until he was watching the ceremonies commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11 three years ago that director Rob Marshall was able to finally personalize the themes of Woods. The moment he heard Pres. Obama tell the surviving family members of those who died on that day that you are not alone, he was immediately reminded of the classic Woods song No One is Alone and realized the inherent dangers of the contemporary world can cause life to turn on a dime, just as they do in fairy tales, and that you cannot necessarily save the people you love.  And to the naysayers: No, we’re not saying this movie is a 9/11 musical. Grow up.

4. When you audition, have a little fun. We all audition for jobs but for actors the process is a stressful part of their continuously free-lance lives. So Chris Pine – known more in the movies as Star Trek’s bad boy Capt. Kirk rather than a singing prince, decided that if he had to demonstrate his chops as a crooner he’d rather do Sinatra than attempt Sondheim. That’s why he chose to sing Fly Me To The Moon for his audition. And got the part of what he gleefully describes as a gloriously two-dimensional prince.

Oh but that HAIR!

Oh but that HAIR!

5. Don’t be thrown by what others say or even imply about you. Anna Kendrick, an Academy Award nominee for Up in the Air and the second youngest person to ever be nominated for a Tony Award, was a bit taken aback prior to filming. That was because wherever she went people would stop her and feel compelled to say, I think it’s so interesting that you got cast as Cinderella.

Turning to the q&a audience the actress asked: Now what does that fck-ng mean? Well, we all know what that means. But really, who fck-ig cares what they think?

Hate on haters

Hate on haters

6. Do your best even when you are told there is no chance you will get the job. James Corden, the very funny British comic actor who plays the Baker, did a staged reading of the Woods screenplay in New York but was told from the outset that it would in no way ensure or even make likely he would be cast in the film. Not being delusional Corden told the screening audience he gave the reading his best anyway because he was happy to even be included and knew movie parts like that have to go to someone famous. But he was so memorable that day that Marshall promised to go to bat for him and eventually landed him the part. As for Corden, he’ll be a lot more famous in 2015 when he replaces Craig Ferguson as the host of CBS’s Late Late Show.

7. You can have a career AND a personal life. The day Emily Blunt was cast as The Baker’s Wife she found out she was pregnant with her first child. This news was quite ironic since the entire story arc for her character is that she is a woman who cannot have a child but desperately wants one. The actress assumed her pregnancy would likely cost her the role but when the filmmakers found out they decided to proceed anyway and hide her behind trees and behind and to the side of James Corden. By the time filming ended she was seven and a half months pregnant and a lot more challenging to hide – a fact that Corden suggests we check out for ourselves with a remote control and the pause button when we’re watching the movie on DVD.

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

Fairy Tale Maternity Style

8. Writers are inherently cynical. Sondheim collaborator and multiple Tony Award winner James Lapine was tasked with adapting the book of his stage musical into a screenplay. This meant the challenging work of dropping the key conceit of the storybook characters presented directly addressing the audience from the stage and figuring out a way to re-dramatize the action for moviegoers. But the writer was not particularly overwhelmed by the challenge because he is convinced that nothing will ever happen with any project he ever works on, particularly for the movies. I am not sure why but somehow that was immensely reassuring to me. #YouAreNotAlone.

9. Always Cast Meryl Streep First. Granted this is a no-brainer but it is worth noting that once it was decided that Woods would be a film, the first person Rob Marshall approached was M.S. When she said yes, the doors to every actor in the world flung wide open. She also knew all of her lines on the very first day of rehearsal. See, cause that’s also part of the job.

She can do no wrong

She can do no wrong

10. Try to work with your friends. Of all the people onstage Tracy Ullman and Meryl Streep were clearly having the best time. They insulted each other, giggled together and seemed genuinely happy to be there. In fact, Ullman had to force Streep to face front when the compliments began flowing for her performance – at one point physically turning Streep’s body and chair back towards the audience so her friend could be properly appreciated.

Their friendship dates back some 30 years to another film (can you guess which one without looking at IMDB? Hint: It’s good and…). And in the course of the evening one couldn’t help but wonder if yet one more could be in their future. When producer Marc Platt noted that there was indeed a movie version of the hit musical Wicked in the works both Ullman and Streep wildly motioning that they would love to play the younger versions of Glinda and The Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz prequel for the big screen.

Right. I know. They were joking. But is it any more ridiculous than hiring ____________________   and ______________________ .

Feel free to fill in the blanks.

And Happy Holidays.