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The 84th Academy Awards is almost here!  Leading up to the event, we’re going to put all the hours we spent watching these films to good use by giving our thoughts on all the categories, big and small.  We may not be experts on everything, but I daresay that’s never stopped anyone from blogging before.  On the (very remote chance) you disagree with us or the (much more likely chance) you want to applaud our picks, please chime in below.

This time we are going to talk about Adapted Screenplay.

Adapted Screenplay

The nominees are:

  • The Descendants, Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
  • Hugo, John Logan
  • The Ides of March, George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
  • Moneyball, Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan

JOHN

No need to beat around the bush here. This category has a very clear winner, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan pack an incredible amount of detail into this story. I understand there’s a lot more going on in the original novel and they have performed a master work of consolidation and narrative structure. Just think of the precision needed to properly order the scenes for the mystery to slowly unwrap. You can’t just rely on the novel for that when excising so many other plot lines. I also appreciate the intelligence the script assumes of the audience. It rewards careful attention and rarely feels the need to stop and explain things. There are no stray lines of unnatural dialogue meant to catch the audience up. I understand that some viewers found it confusing, but it kept me incredibly engaged.

Because we are the Grouches, let me whine about a couple of the other nominees. Moneyball improved a bit on second viewing with me, but it still feels like maybe a quarter of a story. Odd parts get a lot of attention: the big dramatic sports moment is the attempt at a 20th straight win, which is a cool achievement but wouldn’t a film about the quantitative revolution in baseball acknowledge that it’s still just one game, no more or less important than any of the other 161? And then it speeds right through the team’s upswing. The movie moves from several big trades to a montage where Billy Beane and Peter Brand are giving the players advice and the team begins its ascent. But these are unrelated episodes. What would a series of personnel movements have to do with telling players to take more pitches? If you’re changing the way people think about baseball, why would you wait to have these conversations until mid-season? And its quick presentation glosses over these important aspects of the Beane philosophy. As a baseball fan, a lot of little things like this hit me just a little wrong. And I’m not even as steeped in the game and the numbers behind it as some of my colleagues here on the site.

And while I’m ranting, what’s the deal with The Descendants? There are three major plot threads running through the movie: George Clooney’s wife is dying, he discovers she cheated on him, and he needs to make a decision about the development of his family’s land. Why don’t all of these come together better? I don’t often say this about movies, but give us more about the land trust! There’s probably a pretty profound statement to be made by connecting these threads about the responsibility to family and one’s place as a link in the generational chain but The Descendants just doesn’t do it. It has several wonderful scenes but it really needs to come together better.

I’ll finish with something that’s been driving me nuts about The Ides of March. the story hinges around the fact that Ryan Gosling’s character met with the campaign manager of the other candidate. This is viewed as a huge betrayal. But it never explains why. These guys are all Democrats. They run in a small circle of elite political consultants. They’ll all be on the same side after the primaries are done. Why is it so horrible to talk to the other side? This is all too under-explained for me and it really took away from the film’s impact.

JARED

Coming into Oscar season, if you had told me that the nominees in the category would include:  An actor on Community, the guy writing the upcoming Bond movie, a political thriller, a script about baseball and economics co-written by Aaron Sorkin, and a spy thriller, well, you could have made a lot of money betting with me.  But had I believed you, I’d be one happy camper.  Until I saw the movies, that is.  What a horribly disappointing category, chock full of uninspired scripts.  There’s nothing even to root for.  I realize the  films eligible don’t overlap, but for comparison, here are the films nominated for Best Scream-play at the 2011 Scream Awards: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2Black SwanScott Pilgrim vs. the WorldSuper 8, and X-Men: First Class.  I mean, geez, that’s not even close, Academy.

Since this category matters a bunch to me, I’m going to delve deeper.  Hugo is a bad movie for a number of reasons, chief among them, I’m sorry to say, is the script.   It is impossible to get attached to any of the main characters, since none of their developments are fluid.  The stuff with the early movies feels tacked on.  The bits with the characters who inhabit the train station are  a huge waste of time since they aren’t developed enough to care about them. Oh, perhaps most importantly, the movie is really really boring.

Speaking of boring, hello Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy!  Maybe it is just me, but I’m of the belief that if you are going to have a spy movie about uncovering which one of four or five people are actually double agents, then those people should appear on screen for more than two or three scenes before the big reveal.  Because I totally was not invested in the outcome.  I honestly don’t understand complaints that the action was hard to follow, because there wasn’t really much action to speak of.

The Ides of March is a great idea, in theory.  But it sputters in practice.  I agree with John’s points above about the movie under-explaining things.  He talks about the meeting, but that’s just one of any number of plot points where the film didn’t explain to the audience why it was such a huge deal in the context of the story.  It isn’t much fun to have a movie about the game of politics if the film doesn’t explain what the rules are.

Moneyball was always going to be a tough sell.  I’ll give credit to Chervin (and/or whoever) for figuring out how to turn the book into a movie.  That wasn’t an easy nut to crack, and a clear case where the adaptation from the source material required some serious work.  But a truly successful adaptation apparently required more work.  I’m a tough judge here, since baseball and economics are my thing.  But you know what?  I’m more or less OK with how they handled that aspect of the film.  I’ve more a problem with characters and how they flitted in and out in a desultory fashion.  I get that this is a film about Beane and Pitt.  But if you are going to have other characters in the film, you might as well use them with some coherence.  Also, and this goes to what John talked about, I think the writers got sidetracked a little too often from the main story about Beane learning, adopting, and arguing for this new line of thinking.

John also mentions this above, but all of the Grouches agreed that we wanted to know more about the land deal in The Descendants.  If we all are agreeing about a plot point pertaining to real estate, I have to think we are right on this one.  There’s nothing particularly memorable about the dialogue, either.  And I just realized by default that this movie gets my pick.  So I should say something nice about it, I guess.  Um.  It wasn’t terrible?  No, that’s a little harsh.  The script is fine.  I think it does a pretty decent job sketching out the different characters and making them distinguishable, and also like they seem they are from the real world.  Sure, the daughter’s boyfriend or the grandfather may be a little cartoonish, especially at first, but they get smoothed out over the course of the script.  Which is kinda like real life.

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In The Ides of March, characters don’t have relationships with each other.  Not really.  Because in this world of politics, another person is only something to be used when needed and discarded when he or she becomes too much of a liability.  Friendships don’t seem to exist.  There are contacts or employers/employees or consultants, but no confidantes.  The movie shows us just how dangerous secrets are in this realm, and their power to set any number of things in motion.  And there’s no character development, by design.  The film supposes that people, at least in the political racket, are made up of their wants and then, to a man, will do whatever it takes to acheive those goals.  Indeed, it is perhaps telling that the only character seemingly unwilling to let the means justify the ends is the politician himself, George Clooney, a superficially Obama-like (circa 2007) governor vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But the story isn’t his, rather it is Ryan Gosling’s, something of a wunderkind who is second in command of Clooney’s campaign, working under Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Other characters include Paul Giamatti, campaign manager for Clooney’s rival; Marisa Tomei in a thankless role as a news reporter; Evan Rachel Wood as an attractive young staffer on Clooney’s campaign; Jeffrey Wright as a senator who could swing the race but is demanding a cabinet-level position in return for the delegates, Jennifer Ehle as Clooney’s wife; and Max Minghella as third in command of Clooney’s campaign, giving the worst performance ever recorded on film.  In completely unrelated news, Minghella is apparently dating Kate Mara in real life.

I don’t think I can get into the plot beyond those character descriptions without getting spoilery.  And though we have policy here of allowing spoilers, I’m not sure there’d be point.  The film is a little slow to get started, but once it does, I’m not sure anything is terribly surprising, necessarily.  It is film about political intrigue – there are power struggles, secrets, scandals, and backroom deals.

And that’s sort of the problem.  Nothing feels terribly inspired about the film.  Everything is entirely professional, of course.  I mean, look at that cast.  But since none of the characters seem to feel any emotion, other than the most generic stuff, each actor is subtle and understated, but not carrying the film on his shoulders.  So there’s not really anything special to watch while the nothing in particular is going on.

One plot point (and I’m not revealing anything that wasn’t in a trailer, I believe) is that Ryan Gosling meets with Giamatti, who as mentioned heads the campaign for the other committee.  This apparently is a big deal.  But John and I both agreed that the film never really justified why it caused so much fallout.  Maybe it really would be a big deal, but if so, that’s inside baseball enough, and so integral to the story, that the film should have done a better job explaining.

A couple stray observations.  Brian and I both noticed that Clooney (as director) seemed to emphasize a particular piece of paper in one scene.  This paper was never brought up again, even though there was a perfect opportunity for it, later on.  I’d be curious to see if anyone else noticed that and found it distracting.  And maybe this is just me, but I thought the film did an excellent job deciding where to drop f-bombs.  Evan Rachel Wood says it the first time early on, bringing a jarring halt to the conversation and really illustrating how it can be a “dirty” word.

In terms of Oscar, the film won’t rate on my ballot.  A middling film with a middling script that doesn’t allow for award-worthy performances.  For the actual Oscars, the film faces a few big roadblocks.  George Clooney is also in The Descendants which seems like it will be better-received and offers Clooney a great shot at Best Actor nomination.  So a lot of Clooney’s capital will be spent on that film.  I think the only other actor in this you could pitch is Gosling, also for Actor.  But he also has Drive, plus actor is going to be a tough category again this year.  Best Adapted Screenplay is certainly a possibility, but another category jam-packed with high profile contenders.  As for Best Picture, as of right now, it seems like some prognosticators I trust have it making the cut but maybe slightly more don’t.  I’d tend to agree with Mark Harris here.  To get a nomination, a film has to be loved by at least a small, if significant, chunk of the population.  I can see The Ides of March picking up downballot votes, but it doesn’t strike me as a film that will inspire passion.

September 2017
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