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I know that some people crave a sense of realness from their movies.  They want characters to talk and act like real people.  They want actors to portray someone who seems like an actual person.  I’ve long made it clear that such things don’t really influence my opinion of a movie.  Well, if any movie was going to put that maxim to the test, it’d be Moneyball.

I’ll spare you my life’s story, but suffice it to say I’ve been familiar with sabermetric thought for at least a decade (thanks Ian!) and so Moneyball was perhaps the 2011 movie I was most anticipating, even if I wasn’t quite looking forward to it.  After that Soderbergh mess (an animated Bill James?!), how could Zaillan, Sorkin, and Bennett Miller make a coherent film out of the book?  Could Brad Pitt make baseball sexy?  Who on earth was going to see a movie about baseball economics?  Would I be able to handle poetic license in a story I know so well?

As it turn out the answers are: More than expected, Brad Pitt can make anything sexy, plenty of people, and maybe. Zaillan and Sorkin (although, to be honest, I didn’t really hear Sorkin’s voice in the movie, save for a line or two) ended up telling a rather  familiar story: a dashing, tolerably flawed hero teams up with his young sidekick and uses his smarts to (almost) vanquish the richer, more powerful bad guys.  The screenwriters stripped away a lot of the story of course, they had to, but they ended up with a marketable movie that still feels very faithful to the book.  Which is a rather impressive feat.

While the story may have ended up coherent, it felt far from complete.  Part of that stems from the trap into which so many adaptations fall – the compulsive need to name drop bits of the source story without enough explanation.  The well-known jean salesman line felt forced, for example.  But more than that, I’m not sure the characters were given compelling arcs.  The ancillary characters (so everyone who wasn’t Brad Pitt or Jonah Hill) flitted in and out of the film willy-nilly.  All of the players, Brad Pitt’s ex-wife and kid, the old braintrust, the A’s owner, everyone showed up for a scene or two, never to return.  Some have talked about Billy Beane as a father, but I don’t think that subplot is nearly present enough to be worth mentioning.

I suppose I’m partially upset because the film grabbed a lot of actors I like and gave them nothing to do.  Chris Pratt has a dozen lines.  Tammy Blanchard has four seconds of screen time.  I bet you didn’t even realize Nick Searcy (Timothy Olyphant’s boss on Justified) was in the film.  Philip Seymour Hoffman got a couple of scenes, I guess.

But fine, this is Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill’s story.  Or is it?  Jonah Hill is just there to look out of place and suggest players.  No character development there.  Hill was a savvy casting choice though, I think.  The character isn’t much more than highbrow comic relief.  Look at the nerd be uncomfortable around athletes!  Hill obviously can handle that with ease.

The whole time, it felt to me like Brad Pitt was doing an impression of Kyle Chander’s Coach Taylor from FNL.  A very good one, of course, since Brad Pitt is very talented.  Even if he’s constantly eating on screen.  Which I think is a function of how he tends to act with his hands, but that’s a different post.

I’ve been working on this post, off and on, for a couple of weeks now, but I don’t think I’m ever going to get it to where I want.  Because I did like movie OK, but I keep wanting to be super reactionary to the fact that it is one of the best-reviewed films of the year, which just does not make sense to me.  And so I keep struggling to see the movie that others seem to see, even though I’m not close to finding it.  Sure, I found it a little weird from a baseball perspective that they didn’t mention starting pitching.  And from econ perspective that they don’t really justify the Carlos Pena trade.  And from a modern perspective the comment about how defense doesn’t matter.  And from an Orioles/lover of baseball players as actors that there wasn’t more Royce Clayton as Miguel Tejada.

But I think I can put all that aside and say that I’m pretty convinced critics, generally speaking, are wrong on this one.  I don’t know if they were distracted by Brad Pitt or what, but this film isn’t an extremely well told story.  It is a mostly competently told one.  The team did an admirable job adapting the book, but there’s no way the screenplay should be in line for an Oscar nomination, much less be a front-runner.

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The Oscars are less than a week away and we’re taking a look at all the categories we care to. Today it’s Adapted Screenplay, whose nominees are all also Best Picture nominees.

  • 127 Hours: Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
  • The Social Network: Aaron Sorkin
  • Toy Story 3: Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
  • True Grit: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
  • Winter’s Bone: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini

Adam:

He isn't coming for 30% of the Oscar

The Social Network. Fin.

Oh, I am assuming I will need to write more about this category. Ok. First, Aaron Sorkin writes dialogue better than anyone else out there – bar none. Let me qualify that, he writes dialogue for smart people better than anyone else out there. Sports Night and The West Wing are two of the best television programs ever made. The largest reason for this is Aaron Sorkin and his writing. The Social Network owes pretty much all of its appeal and positive criticism to Sorkin’s script – and it is well deserved. Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue is present in all its glory, but is supported/ enhanced by his artful telling of this story. I liked the back-and-forth of depositions and actual story, mainly because Sorkin was able to do so smoothly and keep the story moving at the same time. The biggest compliment I can give Sorkin and his script  is that I really enjoyed the movie, and that is as someone who hates Facebook and is unimpressed by David Fincher (so that is pretty impressive).

As the only Grouch to really enjoy True Grit, I throw in a few words about the Cohen brothers’ script. A minor spoiler is that they modified the story slightly from the original. At first I was a little worried about it, but that quickly changed. I thought they did a great job with both the changes and the script as a whole. The story moved, the changes were largely relevant, and the dialogue was entertaining. The only thing they failed miserably on was the ending. I stated before that the glaring failure of the remake was the ending. While I liked the Coen brothers’ version a lot better, the ending was far inferior to the original’s. All in all, though, I definitely think they deserve to be nominated and their script ranks second in my mind.

I honestly don’t have a lot to say about the other movies nominated. I liked Winter’s Bone’s story (surprisingly enough some of the scenery/ characters reminded me of home). There were definitely better movies made in 2010 and better scripts, but I am not angry about its nomination. Toy Story 3 was fine. Not great, but fine. I laughed some, and didn’t hate that I watched it. 127 Hours is pretty much in the same boat. All in all, we have an extremely strong script, a strong one, a decent one, and two weak ones. Not the most impressive bunch I’ve seen, but, for the Academy, I’d say this is a pretty good showing.

Who Should Win: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network (hands down)

Jared

I was pretty proud of myself for describing the dialogue in the Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit screenplay as “Runyonesque”, so I’ll stick with that.  Which makes it a little surprising, then, that I didn’t like the film more, given how much I like Damon Runyon.  Here’s the thing, though.  Runyon’s dialogue serves interesting characters doing interesting things.  The Coen’s dialogue serves kinda interesting characters doing terribly uninteresting things.  So while at times it was a welcome distraction, a Western can very rarely be entertaining because of the talking in it.  Brian makes an excellent point about Josh Brolin’s Tom Chaney (there’s a Washington Senators dying to be made here): That’s it?  The man was on screen for what, three minutes?  This film was a road trip movie, and not a particularly good one at that.

There were lots of good things about Winter’s Bone.  The cast were all pretty interesting.  The look of the film felt great.  And it was refreshing setting for a movie for a script.  And while the script was certainly the genesis of all that, I personally want to see a little bit more from my Oscar nominees.  I’m not sure I can point any one particularly weak part of the script, just not sure I could point to any one particularly strong one, either.  The plot seemed almost like a procedural in nature.  Jennifer Lawrence’s quest was, at times, very linear.  The sparseness of the script certainly matched the locale, but I tend to need more.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep harping on it, I don’t understand all this love for Toy Story 3 and would be much happier if people replaced How to Train Your Dragon wherever I see the former.  OK, yes, the scene at the end got the room a little dusty.  But otherwise it is just the toys being placed in crappy situation after crappy situation.  I didn’t see the heart or wit that were the hallmarks of the first two films.  I’m not suggesting this film was bad, just that people are perhaps lauding it with praise left over from 1 and 2.

127 Hours is perfectly adequate.  The script is generally taut and engaging, though it may rely a little too heavily on the dream sequences.  Especially considering it really is a one trick pony: a hiker gets stuck and (SPOILER ALERT!) cuts off his arm, the end.  It is hard to envision how that simple story could make for a compelling story, so kudos to Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy for turning in a relatively interesting screenplay.

He's coming for...

Clearly though, Aaron Sorkin’s script for the The Social Network is tops here and it isn’t particularly close.  Thank goodness it qualifies as an adapted screenplay so there’s no chance of it losing to the juggernaut that is The King’s Speech.  From the opening seconds of the film, you know you are in for something uniquely Aaron Sorkin.  And something amazing.  I undoubtedly felt, while the movie was still going on, that I was watching something epic.  I think it is mistake to take the film for something grandiose, like generation-defining.  But that doesn’t make the movie any less enthralling, filled with clever lines and fascinating scenes.  Sorkin’s screenplay is the best one of the year, and maybe the best we’ve seen in awhile.

John

Another decent slate, though marked with films whose strongest elements were outside the script, in my estimation. 127 Hours is all fast cuts, splashy camerawork, and terrific acting. The story is fine, but it achieves what it does through the ways Danny Boyle chooses to visualize it. Toy Story 3 works quite well. I can only say it didn’t build up to something as delightful and emotional as most Pixar movies for me. It is still quite humorous and clever with Mr. Tortilla Head one of my favorite gags of the year.

ALL OF IT


I think True Grit is full of great language, strong characters, and a decent story, but the performances and technical work stand out more to me. Winter’s Bone is a strong second place, particularly in its characters. But it succeeds on atmosphere, which is a lot more than what’s on the written page.

I follow my colleagues with a resounding decision for The Social Network. When people think screenplays they think dialogue and Sorkin has a great way with words. But let me also draw attention to the film’s flashback structure, which really allows its themes to unfold. Or the drama and humor in the plot. This is more than just Sorkin walk-and-talk pizazz.

Snub: I think Fair Game would have found a good home here.

Oscar nominees are announced on the 25th.  Yay!  So let’s summarize what we (the royal we, at least) know.  Keeping in mind, of course, that when it comes to the Academy, no one knows anything.  Especially me.  This time: Best Adapted Screenplay.

VIRTUAL LOCKS

  • Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
  • Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3

I’ve almost started multiple physical altercations defending Studio 60, so it isn’t terribly surprising how strongly I feel about Sorkin’s script for The Social Network.  Fortunately, the rest of Hollywood seems to agree with me as this lockiest of locks has been cleaning up the precursors.  I’m kinda bummed about the love for Toy Story 3.  Sure, it has the touching scene at the end, but the rest of the film was generally unremarkable.  Michael Arndt wrote Little Miss Sunshine, though, and that’s probably worth an extra Oscar nomination anyway.

LIKELY IN

  • Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, True Grit
  • Debra Granik and Anne Rosselini, Winter’s Bone

Man, I really got to get my lazy butt to see True Grit, huh?  Given the film’s strong box office and the Academy’s love for the Coen brothers, this nomination should be nearly in the bag.  The buzz for Winter’s Bone started with Jennifer Lawrence, I think.  From there, it was an easy Frozen River jump to a screenplay nomination.  I don’t really get it.  The story is relatively weak and dialogue nothing special.  I think Hollywood wants to pat itself on the back for recognizing an indie, especially one that doesn’t take place in a city.

LAST ONE IN

  • Ben Affleck, Peter Craig, and Aaron Stockard, The Town

Don’t forget that Affleck already has a screenplay Oscar.  The film’s buzz may have peaked just a tad before nominations were due back, but the movie inexplicably raked in plenty of dough and generally positive critical reviews.  If it does get a nomination, I’m going to pretend the nom is actually for Inside Man, because it seems to me that a heist movie should actually have a compelling heist.

FIRST TWO ALTERNATES

  • Robert Harris and Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer
  • Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours

Adapted screenplays and I just aren’t getting along this year.  I’m completely mystified as to The Ghost Writer‘s buzz.  It just isn’t an interesting film.  127 Hours‘s star has been plummeting over the past few weeks, giving me mixed feelings because while I didn’t think it was anything special, I’d rather it get in than others on the bubble.  It may come down to how many people realize just how difficult it is to write an engaging screenplay when the film almost entirely takes place in one spot.

DARK HORSES

  • Laeta Kalogridis, Shutter Island
  • David Linsday-Abaire, Rabbit Hole
  • Glen Ficarra and John Requa, I Love You Phillip Morris

Shutter Island is floating around the fringes of a number of categories, but I really hope it doesn’t break through here.  Haven’t seen Rabbit Hole yet, but it seems like exactly the kind of movie Oscar loves to nominate.  Brian told me I wouldn’t like I Love You, Phillip Morris so I haven’t seen it.  The WGA gets a huge kick out of ruling films ineligible for its awards, so it doesn’t necessarily mean anything that Phillip Morris picked up a nomination, but youneverknow.

SHOULDA BEEN A CONTENDER

William Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders, How to Train Your Dragon
Michael Konyves, Barney’s Version
Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

I think my biggest disconnect with the Academy this year will be in the Adapted Screenplay category.  There’s a ton of middling fare that will see nominations.

I missed out on the free screening of The Social Network that Brian and John saw, I instead caught the film last weekend with Adam and Gavin.  From the very second the film begins, there’s no denying this is an Aaron Sorkin joint.  Full disclosure: I’m passionately in love with Aaron Sorkin’s writing.  Well, except for Malice, we won’t talk about what happened there.  I’m one of the few who will proudly defend Studio 60.

Anyway, I’ll freely admit that generally speaking, Sorkin only writes one character.  He writes that character very very well, of course, and his characters have minor nuances.  But in his world, characters are basically good people who adhere very strongly to their moral code, strongly protective of their team/group/substitute family, and are often boxed into situations where they are forced to question their ethics.  And who are intelligent, talk really fast and walk down lots of hallways.

The brilliant part here is that Mark Zuckerberg is unlike any character Sorkin has written before.  The Facebook (co-?)founder is unabashedly self-centered and would be wholly out of place in any of Sorkin’s dramas.  He’s decidedly not part of any team, and there are very few hallways at all.  Which means Sorkin gets to soften a character who would probably be unlikeable in the hands of a different screenwriter, but also is forced to explore a new venue for his creativity.

The end result is pure magic.  Sorkin and Fincher combine to tell a really interesting and engaging story.  As much as I may hate to admit it, I find myself agreeing with John here.  I’m utterly fascinated by the attempt to ascribe larger questions to the film.  I’ve seen people question the movie’s take on race and gender, not to mention positioning the film as generation-defining.  Because to me, this movie is much smaller than all that.  If you want to say it starts some discussion on ideas and intellectual property in the digital era, fine.  But mostly, it is simply a well-told story and something of a character study of a (kinda) genius.  Never overly dramatic or broadly funny, the film adroitly exploits Sorkin’s gift for dialogue to have drama and be funny, but not distract from the underlying story.

The only complaint I have was with the ending of the film.  Not entirely the fault of the filmmakers, I think, because I’m not really sure there is any good way to end the Facebook story, but it did feel abrupt.  I’m also not sure I would have framed the story with the two interview rooms.  I see why they did that, and it certainly allowed for some great lines, but I’m not entirely certain it was necessary.

I’m really curious to see how the film does come Oscar time.  A Best Picture nod is all but set, it seems like.  David Fincher is a good bet for a Director nomination at this point.  There’s been some hubbub over whether the script should be adapted or original (apparently Sorkin was writing the screenplay at the same time as and largely independently from Mezrich), but I’m fairly confident it will get an Adapted Screenplay.  I’m a big Jesse Eisenberg fan.  The Squid and the Whale was probably my favorite 2005 movie and Zombieland was obviously my favorite 2009 film.  So I’d love to see him get a nod, but I personally don’t see it.  His performance wasn’t flashy and I couldn’t point to any single Oscar scene.  His competition this year is shaping up to be a bunch of Hollywood vets and James Franco commanding a movie to himself, so Eisenberg may find himself just on the outside.  I’m between Brian and John on Andrew Garfield.  I thought he was fine, a good fit for the role, nothing spectacular.  He’s got a good shot for a Supporting Actor nomination, not sure he’d be my pick, but I won’t argue too much against it.  Especially if it will help the Spiderman reboot, which I increasingly think will be the greatest thing ever.

Last week, John and I got to see a preview screening of The Social Network. Our thoughts, below:

JOHN: The Social Network is an immensely entertaining film. I was totally skeptical of the concept of a Facebook film, but the advance raves piqued my interest. Good thing it did because I had a hell of a good time.

I hesitate to give it any sort of higher significance as a lot of other commentators have. It’s not the film that explains our generation or anything like that. It’s an inherently interesting story about a driven kid and a business dispute, deftly constructed and full of entertaining dialogue. Truthfully, the fact that it’s about a game-changing website barely even matters. It does sort of dwell on themes of obsession and honor, but it’s primarily a plot-driven film and is better for it.

Come Oscar time it could certainly find a spot in the Picture, Director, and Screenplay races, and probably deservedly so. I’ve soured on Sorkin over the years as his contrived dialogue does less and less for me. It’s still quintessentially Sorkin, but the characters don’t feel like they came from some sort of smooth-talking alien planet like in Studio 60. Interestingly, it may end up in the Original Screenplay race since it was apparently written separately although concurrently with the Ben Mezrich book. And David Fincher brings an interesting enough visual style to the table, though there’s one totally bizarre rowing scene that stands out whose flair I didn’t get at all.

I liked Trent Reznor’s score, but not as much as I hoped. As for the cast, I love Jesse Eisenberg but he’s got the Michael Cera syndrome of playing the same character in every movie. Here he tightens his lips and alters his body movements, but it’s sort of the same old performance. Justin Timberlake is turning into a very good actor but if he ends up in the Supporting Actor hunt it’s only because he’s Justin Timberlake. The acting revelation here is Spider-Man-in-waiting Andrew Garfield as Mark Zuckerberg’s screwed business partner Eduardo Saverin. If audiences come out of the theater sympathizing with Saverin over Zuckerberg more than the creators intended, it’s probably because Garfield nails it.

Go see The Social Network when it comes out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

BRIAN: Like Jared, this film was high on my list of movies to see. Probably would have been my answer to our Question of the Week of the Oscar movie we are most looking forward to. Having been a relatively early Facebook user, and been on the perimeter of the perimeter of the entire Facebook creation story (Hi Alice!), I was fascinated to see how it translated to the screen. And then there’s the pedigree behind it. Aaron Sorkin on the script, David Fincher behind the camera and Jesse Eisenberg in front of it.

Verdict? Highly entertaining and enjoyable — funny in parts, depressing in others. Watching Eisenberg work through the Machiavellian scheming was a joy — here is a character whose brain is always working. The gem of his performance is that you never know if he’s thinking about the next release of Facebook or if he actually cares about the people he’s screwing over. The early sequence of the implementation of Facemash, Facebook’s predecessor, really sets the tone and allows Sorkin’s script to shine. The whole first hour was a perfect example of Sorkin at his best: heavy exposition with a light touch that gives you just enough insight into the characters to be drawn in for the next sequence.

My only trepidation going in was that Sorkin was working off of a book by Ben Mezrich, a fiction author who pretends to write non-fiction. Notorious for playing fast and loose with his facts, Mezrich devises a backstory to the Facebook narrative that doesn’t really exist. Yet as I watched The Social Network, I realized that in the end, it doesn’t really matter, because even when movies are based on just-the-facts sources, they inevitably alter the story for cinematic convenience.

For this, and other reasons, The Social Network reminded me a lot of one of my other favorite (and underrated) movies, Shattered Glass. In both, you have a narcissistic prodigal genius who has little ability to interact with others. The difference, of course, is that Stephen Glass got caught. But what I appreciate out of both films is their ability to let you sympathize with and despise its central character — not an easy feat. And each of them finds a way to make what should be boring, exciting. For Shattered Glass, its fact-checking and editing a magazine (and believe me — its not that exciting), and in The Social Network, it’s coding the back-end of a website. Aaron Sorkin makes programming look cool.

Unfortunately, I’m worried that this film is going to bomb, and bomb badly, and the box office. The screening was half-empty and the few friends I’ve talked with have little to no interest in seeing it, which is a shame. It’s a very good movie that deserves to be seen — and I hope that Sorkin gets his much deserved screenwriting nod. Eisenberg, and the film itself, are deserving of recognition too, but it’s too early for me to say if it’s my front-runner.

And just to disagree with John — I thought Garfield hammed it up and was actually distractingly bad in this. I’ll be curious to see what he’s like in Never Let Me Go.


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