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July 30, 2007
“Margot at the Wedding”

Written by Noah Baumbach

“I tried to murder Margot when we were girls. I put her on a baking sheet, sprinkled her with paprika and put her in the oven.”


I don’t think I get Noah Baumbach. I loathed “Kicking and Screaming” and I think I half-liked, half-hated “The Squid and the Whale.” The same could be said about his latest screenplay, “Margot at the Wedding.” I think for about half of the time I really enjoyed his writing, his characters, his dialogue and some of the conflicts he set up in such a simple, almost play-like situation. The other half I was just annoyed by how mean everyone was, how randomly disturbing acts of violence or sexuality would suddenly happen, and how the script becomes so self-aware every now and again.

And maybe that’s just me. I know a whole hell of a lot of people love the writer/director, and I guess I can see why. He has one thing going for him however, and that is that he’s gifted at directing actors. Or in fact, maybe he’s not; maybe he just gets incredible casts together that know exactly what to do. Regardless, I’m sure if “Margot” gets any awards attention it will be for its cast.

Nicole Kidman stars as Margot, a troubled wife/mother/sister who is, forgive me, a bitch. It’s a juicy role for Kidman though, and if the trailer is any indication, it’ll wind up being one of the stand-out performances of her career. The story pretty much follows the title: Margot and her son Claude (Zane Pais) go to Margot’s childhood home, now owned by her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for Pauline’s wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black). Things have been sour between Margot and Pauline for the last few years, and Pauline isn’t sure if Margot is visiting to support her before the wedding or to continue her affair with an old-boyfriend. John Turturro will show up briefly as Margot’s husband Jim, and there is all sorts of bizarre craziness involving Pauline’s neighbors, who enjoy slaughtering and animals and nude romps in the backyard.

It’s Noah Baumbach, what else would you expect?

One thing evident right after completing the script is that this is the best role Jack Black has ever been given. He’s a man that often says (and does) the wrong thing, but something about his character here just came across as more endearing and believable than the other characters he’s portrayed. There’s a scene in the script that may call for Black to do full-frontal nudity while saying, “My scrotum is longer than my penis,” and seeing how fickle and silly our critics can be, it could just be the thing they need to see to begin counting Black as a serious actor.

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s role is strong as well. We see fragments of Margot’s bitchiness inside of her, but we also can see her trying so hard to not be that person, trying to simply be a loving sister, aunt, fiancé and mother (to daughter Ingrid). She’s perhaps the most likeable of the three leads, which may help her come Oscar season to finally grab herself a nomination.

Unless Margot becomes THE critic’s darling of the year, it’s not going to get anywhere near a Best Picture nomination. I could see all three leads and the screenplay (the obligatory “we like indie films!” screenplay nomination) getting notices, however, and that’s how I’d hedge my bets if I were you.

Like “The Squid and the Whale,” Margot ends with an odd flourish of hope for the future. It’s appreciated, but it’s too little too late, and it might even come off more sarcastic than anything. “Anxiety doesn’t go away, just so you know,” Malcolm tells Claude at one point, and it’s pretty clear Baumbach believes this. For a reader and a future audience member though, I’d love to see him smile a little more, and not think everyone alive was such a miserable nutcase. I’m sure he’d lose his indie cred, but he’d gain a new fan in me.

July 24, 2007
“Lars and the Real Girl”

Written by Nancy Oliver

“This is Bianca. She's a missionary, but she's on sabbatical to experience the world. She's shy. Everything is so new.”


“Lars and the Real Girl” sounds like it could be a dumb, Adam Sandler comedy. “Get it! He loves the sex-toy!” Har-har. Or it sounds like it could be some weird, Cronenberg-ish movie: “He loves the plastic, the way it feels, the lifeless eyes,” and so on. With a cast that includes Academy-Award Nominees Ryan Gosling and Patricia Clarkson, I don’t know what I expected, but I certainly didn’t expect what I got: “Lars and the Real Girl” is one of the most heart-warming scripts I’ve ever read. If Frank Capra ever made a movie about a lonely young man in love with a sex-doll that was written by “Six Feet Under” vet Nancy Oliver, that’s what “Lars and the Real Girl” would be. Maybe.

I have no idea how this will translate to the screen. Director Craig Gillespie has released nothing as of this writing. The long-delayed “Mr. Woodcock” hits theaters September 14th, and “Lars” barely a month later on October 12th. Is that some kind of record? Regardless, we’ll start hearing about how the script survived his untested directorial hand when it premieres at the Toronto fest in just a few weeks. For now, all we have to go on is the script.

Ryan Gosling is Lars, a thirty year-old man suffering from loneliness and the inability to touch people. He lives in a small home behind the house of his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus’s pregnant and loving wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). At the office one day, co-worker Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Locos) shows Lars a website where you can design your own sex-doll, customizing every single part of its body. Six weeks later, Lars excitedly introduces his new girlfriend Bianca, a missionary on furlough from Africa.

Of course, Bianca is a sex-doll, but Lars seems unaware of this. In fact, Lars clearly believes with all of his heart that she is real. Gus and Karin have never seen him happier, so reluctantly they begin to play along on the advice of Dr. Dagmar, who begins acting as Lars’s shrink under the cover that Bianca is sick. The entire community begins to get in on the act and Bianca becomes one of the most loved patrons of the town alongside Lars, who slowly begins coming out of his skin and maturing into the man he’s always feared becoming. So much so that he begins to fall for co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner).

That’s the lead-in and I suppose I’ll just leave the details scant, but in my opinion, this is a pretty flawless script. I laughed, I cried, I was consistently surprised and delighted by every step writer Nancy Oliver took with it. It’s the kind of spec script I’m sure thousands of writer’s dream of writing and never do. It’s hard to gauge how indie films will track with the film-going public. There’s every chance the basic tagline will scare audiences away. But I hope not.

There is no reason this can’t be this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine” break-out hit. In many (every?) ways this is a stronger script, again, in my opinion, and the fact that it’s fronted by a rising star like Gosling certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s a strong departure from his turn in “Half Nelson” (obviously). It’s more comedic and much more empathetic for starters, and I’m sure it’ll be a pleasure to see Gosling emit a believable, heartbreaking chemistry with Bianca, the best sex-doll character the cinema will have ever seen. Indeed, it’s the last time we’ll see Gosling before he faces arguably the biggest challenge (and role) of his career in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones.” The rest of the roles are all strongly written, but clearly supporting. The movie’s heart and soul belong to Gosling and Bianca.

Also working for the script is a lack of your typical indie clichés. “Lars and the Real Girl” could very well turn out to be rated PG for starters, and most of it’s humor and quirkiness feels less like the stereotypical indie quirkiness and more like the quirkiness and heart found in the great Spielberg/Zemeckis classics of the eighties. In fact, “E.T.” might be a good model for how the script reads, and I feel like that script and now classic film could have been an inspiration for Oliver’s work here.

In terms of awards consideration, again, who can say? Gillespie may be a complete hack of a director, or he might be the perfect fit for such an oddly delicate script. I’m sure Gosling will get his usual praise from critics, and of course I dearly hope the script gets some love, but it’s all a wildcard until Toronto.

I can’t wait for the trailer, or even a still image. As far as I’m concerned, “Lars and the Real Girl” is the best original screenplay I’ve read (or seen) so far this year, and it has the potential to be a truly classic film. Only time will tell if everyone involved can live up to the incredibly high standard Nancy Oliver has set. Regardless, she might have just become one of the most exciting new screenwriters we’ve seen in a while, and I’m desperately excited to see what she comes up with next.

July 17, 2007
“Gone, Baby, Gone”

Written by Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane

“I remember there used to be this commercial on TV, I’m pretty sure it was for dog food. The commercial said, ‘Doesn’t your pet deserve to be treated like a member of the family?’ I was eight, maybe ten. I used to think, ‘Well, depends on the dog.’ I was never so sure of things as when I was ten years old.”


Oh Ben Affleck. When “Good Will Hunting” broke in 1997, he and Matt Damon were the two hottest things not on “Titanic.” Now, look what’s happened. Damon is arguably one of our greatest actors, and Affleck, well; he’s turned into one of our greatest jokes. “Family Guy” has knocked him on a couple of occasions, and after a string of increasingly poor choices a few years ago, who can blame them?

It seems like Affleck himself couldn’t. Starting with last year’s startling performance in “Hollywoodland,” he’s been changing his career in a very deliberate and impassioned manner. The Allen Coulter film showed an actor knowing it could be his last chance, and devouring the role with a fearless, career-best performance. And now, he’s out to silence all other critics with his first screenplay away from Damon and a directorial debut.

I can’t say how the directing turned out, but I can say this about the script: we’re going to have to stop making fun of Mr. Affleck real soon, because “Gone, Baby, Gone” is a tight piece of writing.

Adapted from the Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”) novel of the same name (and apparently co-written by Aaron Stockard, although my draft only lists Affleck), “Gone, Baby, Gone” follows two freelance detectives in their search to find an abducted child. That’s the plot in a nutshell, but being a Lehane story (yet again set in Boston), it’s obviously a lot more complex than that. As someone who has never read the book, I don’t know how much I want to talk about the plot, since watching it all unfold was nothing short of exhilarating at times. The last thing I want to do when reviewing a script is spoil it for the audience. There are plenty of websites where you can have that provided for you.

The script begins with Patrick Kenzie (the best role Casey Affleck has ever had) and girlfriend/co-detective Angie Gennaro (to be played by Michelle Monaghan) discovering that Angie is pregnant with their first child. Almost immediately after making this discovery, the two are called in on the case of Amanda McCready, a kidnapped four year old and the daughter of the Helene McCready, who is the kind of mother that makes you appreciate your own mom more than you ever knew you could. They work with cop detectives Remy Broussard (Ed Harris) and chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) on uncovering what exactly happened to this poor little girl.

You’ll probably hear me say “this was a great script” a lot in this space during the coming weeks, mostly because I don’t really want to dwell on the bad scripts. It’s not fair to bash a movie sight unseen. But I have no problems trying to get more people excited for a movie when what lies on the page is as good and deeply personal as this. The fear of losing a child (or indeed, the fear of loving a child so much) must have been fresh for Affleck with the birth of his own daughter while he was writing this. For all the twists and turns and revelations one expects from a detective movie, it all comes across as a work of passion and personal fears, and it’s that edge that, I would venture to say, makes the script something more moving than previous Lehane adaptation “Mystic River.” Where Brian Helgeland’s script had all the emotions out there on its Oscar baiting sleeve, the emotions here feel real and the fears more painful than you can imagine. It’s a scary movie (three sequences in particular sent chills down my spine, most notably a sequence in a pedophile’s home) and its third act is so blissful in its moral confusion that I couldn’t help think about what I had just read for days afterwards.

For me, what really stuck out in “Gone, Baby, Gone” was the relationship between Kenzie and Gennaro. It’s never forced, but it’s beautifully realized. They’re two people that can clearly take care of themselves, but love each other enough to always stick their neck out for the other. It reads like it could be one of the great on-screen teams, and Affleck’s certainly done right by casting two actors that have been on the cusp of hitting it big for a while.

This will be Casey Affleck’s movie, and to be frank, it could be his year. He was already the best thing in “Ocean’s 13,” and his work in the upcoming “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” has been one of the most buzzed performances all year. Add the role of Kenzie to that and I have no doubt we’ll be seeing Casey Affleck’s name a lot this upcoming awards season, especially amongst critics groups.

Ed Harris has another great role here, as does Boston rapper Slaine as Bubba, a close friend of our heroes. Bubba is all brutality and sin on the outside (you can see him in the trailer), but he loves Kenzie and Gennaro deeply and watching him take care of them (and vice versa) was another highlight in the script.

As far as awards potential goes, I don’t think we’ll see much. It’ll deserve a lot I imagine, specifically for this script and, given the potential, Casey Affleck, but it’s not an Oscar picture. It’s brutal, it’s scary and it doesn’t scream Oscar (as many contenders this year do) more so than genre. However, this can certainly be a critic’s darling if it rouses the right amount of passion. Why don’t we get more detective movies like this, and last year’s “Brick?” When did this genre start growing old? I never realized how much I missed a good detective movie until reading “Gone, Baby, Gone.”

Next week I’ll be writing about what’s probably my favorite original screenplay of the year, “Lars and the Real Girl.” See you then, and as always, feel free to ask me questions (as spoiler-free as possible please) below.

July 10, 2007
“Charlie Wilson’s War”

Written by Aaron Sorkin
Based on the book by George Crile

“I know you think of yourself as a drunk and a fuck up but you're not. You have such greatness in you. And you're needed now. I don't care how many women you sleep with, that's what great men do, and by the way, pick up the phone and I'll show up anywhere you say, wearing anything you like, and I'll fuck you till you black out. You should believe everything you’ve heard about me.”


It’s a tricky thing, “reviewing” the screenplay of a film yet to be released theatrically. That is where I found myself with Aaron Sorkin’s “Charlie Wilson’s War,” an adaptation of the book by George Crile. Hell, we don't even have a trailer yet and many in the awards-watching community have begun pinning the film with that cursed “frontrunner” label. The film has arrived at this distinction due to a number of reasons, chief among them the sheer prestige of the picture. Mike Nichols. Tom Hanks. Julia Roberts. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Plenty of reason for high expectations.

Oh, and let’s not forget hotshot scribe Aaron Sorkin, most famous for NBC’s “The West Wing.” Sorkin finds himself spinning away from the disappointment “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” cancelled by NBC after just one season. So I was more than a little intrigued as to what his first return to movies since “The American President” in 1995 would yield.

It is with great joy that I can report “Charlie Wilson’s War” as a knock-out. While I haven’t had the opportunity to peruse Crile’s book, it becomes apparent nonetheless that Sorkin’s fingerprints are all over the adaptation. Nowhere is this more evident than the dialogue.

As the lead-in quote might demonstrate, the writer finds plenty of room to have fun under the pressure of heavy and heady subject matter. In fact, this might be an endearing characteristic that will make “War” stand out amongst the year’s Oscar hopefuls. It’s hysterical. So much so that when the important information and politics bubbled ferociously to the surface, I found myself laughing while learning. It’s like the greatest class I never had in college. What other Oscar contender will feature a congressmen going to the Jihad with his personal belly dancer in order to help a deal go through?

Tom Hanks will star as Charlie Wilson, giving the actor what has to be his best role since Forrest Gump thirteen years ago. The script kicks off with the Texas Congressman in a pretty compromising situation involving a hot tub, cocaine, a wannabe TV-producer in search of money and a Playboy model. From here the yarn follows Wilson to his life in the capitol, where we watch – in ways much too entertaining to spoil here – Wilson plunging headlong into American aid and arms to Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, with the help of President Zhiva of Palestine and a budget that would inflate from $5 million to $200 million in no time at all.

In the last few years, Hanks has certainly been experimenting a little more than we’re used to seeing from him. America’s favorite actor in the 90s has been delivering incredible and interesting performances in sub-par movies such as “The Terminal” and “The Ladykillers,” but it’s great to see him land a film and a role he can really sink his teeth into, one that actually merits his hard work. For the first time I can recall, we actually get a randy Hanks. One sequence involves Emily Blunt’s character – nothing beyond a cameo –undressing in Wilson’s apartment to show him “the second best view in all Washington.”

Nearly stealing the show is Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a hot-headed American CIA agent who gets tied up with Wilson in their mission to arm the Afghanis. It’s another great role for Hoffman and definitely one to watch come awards season. But the talk of “Charlie Wilson’s War” being the Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts show is far from the truth, as Roberts’s character, Joanne, the "sixth wealthiest woman in Houston," really only has around four scenes, nothing of real consequence – at least on the page. The role still seems tailor-made for the actress.

There is a sequence, maybe 60 pages into “Charlie Wilson’s War” that presents Wilson with the travesties he’ll soon fight to eradicate. Now, maybe I’m jaded by recent movies that just want me to cry so bad at the horrors of the world, and maybe it’s just Sorkin’s genius, but I love that there are no weeping hysterics from Wilson here. Watching, observation, that’s it. It affects him deeply, and it changes his life, but there’s no heartstring tugging. No unnecessary lingering.

And perhaps that’s the script’s greatest strength: although a government representative, Wilson is pretty flawed and even stupid at times. We root for him while associating with him, and as he almost single handedly starts changing the fortunes of all these poor souls, I felt the triumph and joy that he does and it resonated all the more clearly.

I’m hesitant to criticize the script because most of the criticisms I found are things that are easily remedied during filming (or even before filming starts). Towards the end of the second act things get a little repetitive, and while Sorkin tries his hardest to keep it interesting, we really just want to see how it’s going to wrap up. But the script’s final moment most definitely brings the story full circle with modern political climate.

At 145 pages, “Charlie Wilson's War” is a fast read, mostly due to Sorkin’s rapid fire dialogue. Director Mike Nichols will have to be at his best to make sure it doesn’t become verbal noise after a while, something Sorkin scripts have struggled with in the past. But who are we kidding? In the last few years Nichols has won everything but another Oscar, taking “Angels in America” to televised glory and Broadway’s “Spamalot” to Tony victory. He’s a director that seems to continuously be improving on his talents, and we’d all be fools to think he’d not be up to the challenge here. Regardless, this is a script with the potential to be a classic on celluloid.

July 01, 2007
About "Page to Screen"

“Page to Screen” at In Contention has undergone something of a revision in intentions this season. In past years, the column was designed to raise awareness of the writing progress by drawing attention to the source materials of a number of the year’s cinematic offerings. It was, therefore, a keystone in covering the adapted screenplay race.

The feature has now taken the form of a screenplay review column, hopefully serving as a healthy lead-in to the awards season. Written by Brian Kinsley and published weekly, on Tuesdays, “Page to Screen” hopes to engage the readership by offering analysis of the scripts behind many of the year's upcoming contenders. Opinion of potential race projection will be blended with overall criticism of the screenplays themselves.