Hey folks, Harry here with the latest from my good friend James... The dear Professor recently took a weekend off from conquering the world to join me at BUTT-NUMB-A-THON and apparently impregnated henchman Mongo with some sort of evil seed. I don't really understand the experiment, but... Well evil geniuses do as they must... Hmmm... Now get ready for one hell of a busy Rumbling!!!! Oh... Oh yes... In case you are wondering why I have not written about FANTASIA 2000 or my opinion... I will write about it, but not till after I talk about the film with Ebert next week... I'll be damned if I tilt my hand to him! (this also goes for: TALENTED MR RIPLEY, GALAXY QUEST, THE HURRICANE and ANY GIVEN SUNDAY!)
Hey, Head Geek...
First of all, let me just say "Damn you, Knowles." I am still trying to recover from the effects of the Butt-Numb-A-Thon this weekend. I will be filing a report about the entire event in the next few days, but just getting back to work has been a major drain on me. It's the cumulative effects of this past weekend, and it's all your fault. I hope you enjoyed your birthday and all your cursed pwesents (that Harry Knowles action figure was particularly impressive), because I am going to make you pay.
Before that, though, I've got a number of other, more pressing things to share with our readers. As a result of many letters I've gotten from people about this column, I'm going to try to use headers to separate each topic. That way, you can see what catches your eye. Let me know if it's a help, or if it seems like overkill. I've got the new Fiona Apple CD playing on endless repeat... I've got a case of Jones Green Apple soda chilling in the icebox... let's see what's going on this week.
UNBREAKABLE GETS BROKEN
First and foremost, I'd like to discuss a film called UNBREAKABLE. This has been one of the most-discussed films that no one knows anything about for the past few months here in town because of the deal that was made for Disney to purchase the script. It's the first new piece from M. Night Shyamalan since the opening of his colossal hit THE SIXTH SENSE, and the deal for the film netted him $10 million to write and direct. That's a record -- $5 million for a screenplay. I've been a big fan of Shyamalan's since I first read the original draft of STUART LITTLE almost three years ago. I've been a very vocal advocate of his work in that time, and was one of the first people to go on record about how big I thought SIXTH SENSE would be this past spring. As a result, when I was contacted by not one but two different spies who wanted to send me copies of UNBREAKABLE, I leapt at the opportunity.
I mean, this is the script that Disney's been bragging no one would see early in the press lately. Supposedly the only copies of it were being kept under lock and key. And now, suddenly, I was getting it from multiple directions. A copy arrived on the doorstep of the Labs just moments before I had to leave to catch my flight to Austin last Thursday. I had been experiencing major computer problems all morning, so I hadn't been able to write my GREEN MILE review or my RUMBLINGS, and I needed to unwind on the flight. Knowing I had this wonderful new prize to chew on during the trip was the one thing that kept me sane.
Once I was seated on the plane, I opened the script and dove right in, something Shyamalan made easy. This guy has one of the cleanest, most immediate styles of any screenwriter working today. His scripts literally don't even look like other people's work. He has a real gift for drawing you in quickly, for etching characters out of little details. Within three pages of the start, I knew I was reading the work of the same guy whose LABOR OF LOVE had so completely demolished me, whose SIXTH SENSE was such a powerful read. I don't think I've ever read a script as quickly as I read this one, and I don't think I've ever re-read a script as quickly as I re-read this one.
And what did I think?
Well, I wish I could say I loved it. I wish I could say it was another home run. I wish I could say Shyamalan was going to blow the audience away again. I can't, though. I can't say any of those things, and it bothers me. This script is the work of a gifted, even inspired storyteller, but it is a story that, ultimately, doesn't tell us anything. It is flawed in some major ways, and unless Shyamalan backs off from his "trust me, I know best" stance that he's taking with Disney right now, it's going to be a film that anger and isolates its audience in the end.
There's a brilliant setup to the film. We start in 1961 with a short scene involving the birth of Elijah, one of the film's two central characters. We're in a department store and there's a doctor just arriving. He's too late to do much; the baby's been born. The doctor inspects the mother, who is fine, then turns to the baby, which is screaming hysterically. As he inspects the baby, the doctor goes pale. Something's wrong. He asks who delivered the child, then asks the woman if she dropped the baby. He explains that he's never seen anything like it, but the baby appears to have been born with both arms and both legs broken.
Just like that, we're in the present, and we meet the film's other central character, David Dunne. This is the role that Bruce Willis has already signed to play, and he's a fascinating character. Just from the first few scenes, we get the feeling that David's life isn't what he wants it to be, and that he doesn't quite know how to fix that. He's on a train from New Jersey to Philadelphia, passing the time by idly flirting with a woman despite the wedding band he wears. The somewhat teasing mood of the scene is cut short by a horrific crash that destroys the train. In a family room in Philadelphia, David's ten-year-old son Jeremy watches a news report about the wreck and freaks out, at the same time that David's wife Megan sees the report while working.
Turns out that Jeremy is concerned for nothing, though, since David somehow survives the crash without a scratch. He's the only survivor, and no one can figure out how that's possible, least of all David. What should be a happy, elated moment is muted by some unspoken trouble between David and Megan, though. His trip to New York was a job hunt, one that seems to be part of a break-up in progress that Jeremy doesn't know about. David's a broken man in these early scenes, not quite connected to his own life, and Shyamalan etches these scenes with real efficiency.
He also keeps us guessing at the purpose of the film by tossing in another flashback to Elijah as he grows up. We see an eight-year-old Elijah at the fair, wandering away from his mother to ride the Hurricane, one of those bucket-seat-on-a-whip style rides. He pads himself into his seat with stuffed animals, padding his safety bar with a sweatshirt. Once the ride is underway, his mother realizes where he is and rushes to try to stop the ride. She's too late, though, and Elijah is thrown around a bit in the car, resulting in what seems like an impossible number of bone breaks, leaving him in a twisted "S" on the floor of the ride.
Back in the present, David finds that he is the subject of much speculation about how he could have surivived the crash. He gets a mysterious note asking if he can remember ever being sick. That note starts him on a path of painful self-examination that leads him to some startling realizations about who he is and what he is capable of. It also leads him to the adult Elijah, set to be played by Samuel L. Jackson. Elijah is as fragile as David is powerful, and the two of them seem to hold certain clues to unlocking one another's natures.
Make no mistake... this is a smart, powerful, provocative piece of entertainment for much of its 128 pages. When it finally does hop the tracks, though, there's no saving it, and that only compounds my frustration with the read. In particular, there is a revelation made in the last three pages that is meant to obviously be a twist on par with the nature of Bruce Willis' character in SIXTH SENSE. That was a natural, logical leap for us to make, though, and it brought the film into a sharper focus, amplified it in every way. This twist betrays the character of Elijah in such a specific, painful way that it will turn audiences against everything that has come before. It throws the goodwill that the script has earned back in the face of the reader. It is a miscalculation of almost epic proportions, and it was the reason I had to re-read the script immediately.
I think Shyamalan is close. I think that with a rewrite that introduces and clarifies the film's water motif earlier and that changes the ending to avoid isolating the audience's hard-earned affection for what is a charismatic, fascinating character, this could be the film that does what BATMAN and SUPERMAN and BLADE and THE MATRIX and all the other comic adaptations were all unable to do. This could be the film that finally proves that superhero stories aren't exclusively for children, but can be complex moral stories with real, three-dimensional characters. Yes, that's right... THE SIXTH SENSE may have been Shyamalan's version of a ghost story, but this is his take on the superhero mythos. You can be certain that as this project takes shape, we'll be tracking it closely here at AICN. I know I'm rooting for Shyamalan to solve this thing and deliver something truly transcendent to viewers in 2001. Here's hoping he's up to the task.
Michael Fleming has been raising questions about Steven Spielberg's next film in the last few weeks, and it seems like he's dragging his feet in deciding what he's going to actually do. That's strange considering those standing MINORITY REPORT sets over on the Fox lot. Still, I can imagine that the lure of AI is fairly strong, especially if Speilberg is truly writing the piece himself. For someone who so often turns to others to bring his visions to life, there has to be something gratifying about working to help realize the final SF vision of one of our greatest filmmakers, someone who was also a dear friend.
Then there's that wild card, the Steve Kloves script for the big-screen version of the enormously popular Harry Potter series. With Kloves adapting the first book, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE, it seems a safe bet that it will be smart commercially-minded fare. In an effort to understand the Potter craze, I picked up the first book and read it last week, and for once, I don't think kids are insane. Pokemon may mystify me, but I understand the appeal of the Potter novels. After all, I was weaned on a steady diet of Roald Dahl as a kid, and if there's anything that these books remind me of, it's the work of Dahl and Robert Aspirin's MYTH ADVENTURES series. There's a real wit to the world, a distinctly dark vision that manages to entertain without ever pandering. I actually hope Spielberg does find a way to make this film, since I think it would benefit greatly from his touch as a filmmaker. Giving this to some flavor of the month could give you a slick, soulless adaptation that looks great but never gets past the surface. With the right script, Spielberg could turn this into another classic film series that redefined family entertainment. It's been a while since he's truly done something for kids, and this would mark a glorious return.
SCREW YOU GUYS... I'M GOING HOME
By now, I'm sure everyone's well aware of the truly bizarre decision by the Academy of Motion Picture Incompetence and Unfairness... er, Arts and Sciences, I mean. They have ruled that TARZAN and SOUTH PARK aren't eligible for Academy recognition this year because the category they would be eligible for isn't going to be included this year. For some reason, though, they called the category "Best Song Score" in the announcement, and that's the way everyone has been reporting it.
But there's no such category.
In the 1998 Oscars, there were two winners for Best Score. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL picked up Best Dramatic Score, while SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE picked up Best Comedy or Musical Score. Admittedly, the second category was created in 1995 to basically take Disney out of competition with other films since their musicals were kicking the stuffing out of everyone on an annual basis, but the win by Stephen Warbeck's score should have proven the category to be one with life beyond just animated collections of songs.
So there aren't more musicals besides SOUTH PARK and TARZAN this year. So what? There's been other films that could be nominated. NOTTING HILL had a great score, as did MYSTERY MEN. That's just the first two I think of as I sit here. There's obviously others that would qualify.
This raises the troubling question: why was the category dropped? I know if I was Marc Shaiman, I'd be doubly concerned. He does truly wonderful work for the Oscar telecast every year, arranging and orchestrating samples of the scores for every nominated film. It's one of the reasons that the score he wrote with Trey Parker for SOUTH PARK was so witty; he has played with every song style that Disney's used in the past decade. He's a witty, limber musical arranger, and the idea that he's good enough to work on the Oscars but not good enough to be recognized by them should grind him to no end. This move smacks of politics, and the fact that they have even changed the name of the category that they dropped should indicate the lengths that they are going to in an effort to avoid recognizing what would be a controversial film. TARZAN's just a smokescreen here, people, a sacrificial lamb that happened to get between BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT and the Oscars. I don't think this decision has been rationally explained yet, and I hope we're not done with the story. When something stinks this much, you can be sure there's a hidden agenda behind it.
A PERFECT HOLLYWOOD NIGHT
Last week, Harry mentioned to you that he joined me at the Los Angeles premiere of THE GREEN MILE, and I wanted to write about the film before it opened. When I kept having crash after crash with my computers, though, I wasn't able to finish. Turns out Henchman Mongo is going through some bizarre phase involving humping the hard drives at the Labs. I've got him scheduled for surgery later in the week to keep that from happening again, and I had the computers serviced (in the good way) while I was in Austin. I wish I had been able to share these thoughts earlier, but better late than never.
I came to THE GREEN MILE with all sorts of personal baggage, and I wasn't sure how I'd be able to review the film. After all, I consider Frank Darabont more than just a friend... he's a teacher, a guide, someone who I try to emulate as I move through this business. He has been part of my life since his days on THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES, and he's one of the most decent people I know. I read THE GREEN MILE as soon as it was finished, and I practically haunted the sets last year, watching them shoot almost every major sequence at Warner's Hollywood Studios. I explored every inch of the sets, watched dailies, and played with Mr. Jingles. I got a chance to observe that amazing cast as they bonded and found their rhythms together. I ate with them, I listened in on them, and I learned from them. Even before seeing the film, I had already had a hundred GREEN MILE experiences that mark the film for me. So how would I react to seeing it all put together finally?
I can honestly say I didn't expect to be hammered as hard as I was by the emotion of the piece. I think as a whole, the film is a confident, leisurely chunk of storytelling, classic in form and direct in content. Once again, Frank's captured the peculiar voice of Stephen King in a way that few directors have been able to do. Tom Hanks turns in one of his best performances of the decade, right up there with his exemplary work in A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN and JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, leaps and bounds ahead of the unsubtle, obvious award-grubbing turns that marred PHILADELPHIA and FORREST GUMP. This is Hanks with rough edges, with real quirk, creating a real character. He's given phenomenal support at every turn by David Morse, Jeffrey DeMunn, and Barry Pepper. There is solid work turned in by the sly Bonnie Hunt, the wonderful James Cromwell, Patricia Clarkson, Graham Greene, Sam Rockwell, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Sinise, and the always good Bill Sadler, but there are a few performances in the film that leave even Hanks in the dust.
Michael Jeter is one of those guys who always turns in interesting character work. He almost stole THE FISHER KING out from under the four fascinating leads, and he managed to register amidst the deranged carnival atmosphere of FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS even with Depp and Del Toro chewing the scenery. Still, nothing he's done prepared me for how much I was moved by Eduard Delacroix. For one thing, I didn't see Jeter onscreen at all. He seemed to have vanished into the character completely. His thick Louisiana patois is almost indecipherable at times, but it always rings true. His "bad death" is one of the most memorable images of the year, but it's the moment when they distract Del by having him show off Mr. Jingles to visiting "guests" that really broke my heart.
Doug Hutchison as Percy Whetmore is the kind of character that, as written, could easily be played over the top and beyond belief. This young actor never missteps, though, and by the end of the film, I had actually found myself in sympathy with a character I felt nothing for on the page. Hutchison's a little man with big dreams and even bigger rage, and the way he asserts himself on the Green Mile is both pathetic and understandable. You want to hate him without reservation in the film, but Hutchison is smart enough to make that impossible. He invests too much bruised humanity in Percy. Even at his worst, there's a strong sense of fear underneath that makes him real.
But the best work in the film, and the most surprising, is the portrayal of John Coffey, gentle giant, by the beautiful Michael Clarke Duncan. He is the beating heart of the film, and he is impossible to look away from. There's a moment late in the film that says as much about the transporting power of art as any ten books ever could, and it all works because of the magic inherent in Duncan's blissful smile. When his face lights up, it's impossible not to see directly into his soul. I am truly haunted by his final moments onscreen.
I think Terrence Marsh's production design is amazing, especially since I saw the sets up close. The Green Mile looks huge, and the film's compact settings somehow never become claustrophobic. David Tattersall's confident photography is a big part of that, and it burnishes this memory piece with a lovely finish. The Thomas Newman score is more subtle, more invisible than his work on AMERICAN BEAUTY, but when it needs to work, it does. And as for Frank's direction of his screenplay... it's really quite lovely. Admittedly, it takes its time, but I find that to be a virtue in this particular tale. I liked taking my time getting to the end. I loved the bookends here, finding them much more successful than they ever were in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Many critics have begun to beat up on this film, but I think audiences will respond en masse, and I still believe this film is a major contender for Oscar recognition in the spring. Even if it doesn't end up winning awards, though, it is a beautiful film, an experience I am glad to have had, and one which will endure.
After the film, Harry and I went to the party at the Armand Hammer museum, and I had one of the most surreal evenings of my life. It's hard to explain what it's like to be at ground zero with Harry at an industry function, but that damn cartoon in the upper left corner of this page is responsible for how strange things get. Harry looks just like that darn cartoon, and people can't help but walk over and talk to him. We had conversations with all sorts of fascinating people, ranging from Robin Astaire, widow to the iconic Fred Astaire, to the overly animated and very funny Quentin Tarantino; from the charming Vin Diesel to the still relatively unknown David Leslie Johnson, who is currently scripting DOC SAVAGE for Frank to produce. It was a wonderful night, and it was capped by getting a chance to talk to Duncan, to Jeter, to Darabont, and getting a chance to impart to them directly the impact that their film had on me. It was the kind of night that reminds me of why I do what I do, and it's one I'll never forget.
I KNOW ANDY KAUFMAN, AND YOU, SIR...
I am dying to see MAN ON THE MOON. I loved the script, and reading Bob Zmuda and Bill Zehme's recent books certainly has me at a fever pitch in regards to seeing the finished picture. Still, would all the lame Andy Kaufman wannabes please take a seat until the film's been released? If I see one more wacky fake stunt from Zmuda or Jim Carrey or ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, I'm going to be sick. That lame junket bit wasn't funny, and it didn't get any funnier as the entertainment magazine shows beat it into the ground. Part of Andy's charm was that he came at the audience from unexpected directions, always keeping them on their toes. There's nothing unexpected about the nonsense that's been going on, and it's just a pale shadow of the brilliance of the real deal. Just release the movie... that's entertainment enough.
ELEMENTARY THRILLS AND CHILLS
When I read that Sony had purchased a screenplay called SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VENGEANCE OF DRACULA for Chris Columbus to produce and possibly direct, I knew I'd have to read it and discuss it. It is, after all, yet another tiresome tome about my greatest enemy, no doubt making him look great while either ignoring me or turning me into some simpleton who the "great detective" easily bests. I'd given up on the idea of ever seeing myself portrayed properly on film. With Dracula serving as the villain of this film, I figured I'd have even less chance of seeing a "Moriarty" that seemed even remotely familiar.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the script turned out to not just be good, but great. Michael B. Valle is a major talent, and the way he's imagined this film is bold, ambitious, and thrilling. If the right director and cast are attached to this film, the sky's the limit. Not only is it genuinely exciting all the way through, it also offers actual character growth in Sherlock Holmes, in Moriarty, in Watson, in Dracula. It takes these iconic characters and makes them into real, identifiable figures. Valle demonstrates a great understanding of both of the mythologies that he's mixing here. The film follows the form of a classic Holmes story, but it never forgets that Dracula is a powerful enough figure to control the story. Somehow, Valle strikes just the right balance, twisting the story in new and exciting directions with each page. There were several places where I got so excited while reading that I wanted to celebrate. I wanted to see the film right then. I wanted to see this richly-imagined England come to life. This has the potential to be one of those geek-heaven projects when it is finally released, and I'm sure I'll be bringing you in-depth coverage of the picture as it progresses. Hats off to Sony for their ambition and their eye in taking this one off the market.
My only complain about the film is that, once again, it paints Holmes as some sort of hero while painting me as a villain. I maintain that I am far more likable than that cocaine-using, woman-hating, half-mad fiddle player, but Hollywood always idolizes him. If Sony does me the courtesy of hiring Anthony Hopkins to play me, I have a feeling this film may finally change everyone's perception of who I am. The world will see me for the genius I am, and Holmes will be exposed as a sham.
Well, a man can dream, can't he?
FORRESTER... FINDING FORRESTER
The oddest couple in recent memory has got to be Gus Van Sant, who just signed on to direct Columbia's FINDING FORRESTER, and Sean Connery, who is starring in and producing the drama. Still, based on a read of Mark Rich's Nicolls Fellowship-winning script, there may be some kind of alchemical magic in the pairing. It's a sweet, smart little script about a JD Salinger-like writer who takes a reluctant interest in an inner-city youth who has a wonderful writing voice, but who is considering a basketball scholarship. Forrester, the writer, pushes the kid to consider all his options and to pursue his dreams. The two of them are not fast friends, and the script doesn't take the gooey way out by throwing easy fixes at the characters. Instead, it gives Connery a chance to play a real character, someone with some fascinating traits, someone who's both unlikable and likable, someone who can be infuriating and ingratiating within pages. It's the same kind of smart emotional drama as GOOD WILL HUNTING, and Van Sant should really rip it up. Here's hoping this works as well onscreen as it does on the page.
MAGIC AND MARKETING DON'T MIX
I'm going to finish up this week with a review of next year's very first film, set to be released on January 1, 2000 on IMAX screens around the world. In some ways, it's an extraordinary film that should delight animation fans everywhere. In other key ways, though, it's a betrayal and a letdown that hurts for days after being viewed. I'm speaking, of course, about FANTASIA 2000, a film that Harry and I saw at the new Edwards IMAX screen in Valencia on December 6.
The screen we saw it on was 55 feet by 70 feet, still spanking new, and a tour of the booth was genuinely impressive. IMAX really isn't like any conventional format. The image is crystal clear, ridiculously huge, and it's ideal to show off some of the remarkable work that's been done to update Disney's grand experiment. The film starts very well, with the serene, strange image of an orchestra pit floating in space as panels tumble in from all sides to complete it. The first piece is introduced by Walt Disney himself in narration lifted from the first film as the concept of FANTASIA is explained to us. A piece of "pure music" is first up, with Beethoven's 5th Symphony kicking off the new film in high style. It's abstract, beautiful, and brief. It definitely sets the tone, though, and the images are startling on the IMAX screen.
The strangest thing appears after the segment, though... Steve Martin. He comes out and starts doing a bit. I was puzzled by the appearance of a celebrity doing cheap one-liners. All of the sudden, it was as if I was at MGM/Disney in Orlando, waiting to get on a ride, watching some crappy intro film in line. Even when Martin hands the intro over to Ihtzak Perlman, the patter doesn't get any better. It's just a gag, a way to kill a little time and throw some famous faces up there in front of us.
The next segment is "Pines Of Rome," the sequence involving the flying whales. There are parts of it that are really beautiful, but parts of it bothered me. The eyes on the whales looked like a late addition, and if they were, I have to ask why. The sequence tries to be balletic, and the lame cartoon eyes on everything keeps breaking the spell of the piece.
Quincy Jones is the next celebrity out, and he introduces Ralph Grierson, pianist, who takes the lead on the next segment, based around my favorite piece of music ever. There's something about "Rhapsody In Blue" that just speaks to me on every level, and the piano performance in the piece is terribly important, with both wit and heart required in equal measure. Grierson proves to be up to the task, as do the animators who brought this mini-masterpiece to life. Both simple and profound, this piece is set against the backdrop of '30s New York, and I wanted to stand up and cheer the sheer artistry of the entire endeavor. In particular, there's a moment involving the ice skating at Rockefeller Center that is as eloquent an expression of desire as I've ever seen in a film.
Coming off that artistic high, I was aghast to be confronted by a 55-foot-high Bette Midler prattling on about rejected FANTASIA segments over the years. Folks, I can't state this strongly enough... the celebrity segments in this movie are death. They pull you out of the spell that each segment casts, jar you back to the fact that this is a product, something Disney is selling. When you watch "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" or "Carnival Of The Animals" or "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" or "Pomp and Circumstance," it's art. When you're assaulted by Penn and Teller (really... I'm not kidding) or Angela Lansbury or James Earl Jones, it's just dull and obvious. The segments are totally unnecessary, and they date the film immediately. It's one of the most ham-handed examples of Disney's corporate thinking I've ever seen.
Of course, when you see Stravinsky's "Firebird" suite, all concerns about the level of art involved with this film vanish. This is a magnificent undertaking, and it almost matches the power of Miyazaki's PRINCESS MONONOKE. Like that film, this is a simple fable about nature and rebirth. It's not like anything I've ever seen from Disney before, and I think it represents a giant step forward for the studio.
In the end, I would tell any animation fan to run to any IMAX theater playing the film between January 1 and April 30. Be prepared to have to grit your teeth through some hideous connective material, and also brace yourself: "Sorerer's Apprentice" hasn't dated well, not when set next to newer animation. Obviously there's an affection I have for the piece, and I loved seeing it, but blown up that big, it's not the same as it is in my mind's eye. For that reason, I wish the whole film had been new material. Whatever my quibbles, this is a great theatrical experience, one I'll be having again as soon as possible.
That's all for now, Harry. Next week starts my four-part look back at the '90s, one of the most ambitious things I've tried here at AICN. Until then...
"Moriarty" out. __________________________________________________