MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Leatherheads and The Ruins

When I finally caught up to George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, I found myself kind of astounded by the critical reception; most just shrugged it off as something of a light, fanciful throwback film. t’s true that it’s all of those things, but that doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter, which is that the film works (for the most part).

We’ve seen other attempts in recent years by filmmakers striving to recreate a kind of film that no longer exists – I’m thinking specifically of Peyton Reed’s Down With Love – and I think in almost all of the cases, the filmmakers did not live up to their stated goals. Instead of bringing something passé into the modern era, they were happy to merely be in the same ballpark. In a lot of cases, the directors are more than happy to just put something up on the screen that looks like it’s from another era, rather than a film that feels like a film from that era. If not for a few issues, Leatherheads would fit perfectly alongside Bringing Up Baby, Palm Beach Story, It Happened One Night as one of the best screwball comedies ever made.

The story, for anyone unfamiliar, follows Dodge Connelly (Clooney) who is the player/coach of a professional football team in 1925. This is an era when football wasn’t the national sport that it is today; in fact, nobody really went to professional football games, thinking of it as more of a college game. Dodge’s Duluth Bulldogs are going under because of a lack of revenue and in order to prevent his team from having to go back to their old jobs in the mine shafts, he concocts a plan to recruit war hero Carter Rutherford (The Office’s John Krasinski) to play for his team at an exorbitant salary, knowing full well he’ll draw fans to the game. Concurrently, sassy reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) is working on a story in which she is trying to prove that Rutherford isn’t really the hero he purports to be. A love triangle and hilarity ensue.

The film works best when it focuses on the football and the relationships between the guys. In specific, the chemistry between Clooney and Krasinski is one of the best things about the film, the way they play off each other. Krasinski is perfectly cast as the good-natured kid who is never less than calm and collected even when he’s in over his head. Clooney’s hard-luck pseudo-tough guy is the classic Cary Grant kind of role, where he might get some mud on his uniform, but he’s never less than graceful (even when taking a punch to the face).

The weak link comes in the form of Renee Zellweger and her storyline and it’s quite a shame because it is the only thing separating this good movie from greatness. As a comparison, I implore everyone to witness Jennifer Jason-Leigh’s similar take in the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy, in which Leigh is also playing a fast-talking sassy reporter. Though the Coens’ film takes place three decades later, it still should have been the template for Zellweger’s performance, which feels more like a facsimile of how a 1920’s female would act rather than an organic performance. You can consistently see the wheels turning for Zellweger and it’s a shame because she’s a talented actress, but she just doesn’t belong in the part. She comes alive when she gets to share scenes with Clooney, but the scenes between her and her editor are excruciating.

The other problem with the film is that Clooney really seems to want to make a point about journalistic integrity, which is a fine point to make (and one he already made in his last film,Good Night and Good Luck) but it’s not the movie I signed up for. The first few reels of this film give me no indication that I’m going to be in for a chunk of film in the middle devoted to whether or not a story should be written that question’s the war hero’s story. It’s a clear case of Clooney advocating for fair journalism even if it might be “bad” for the country to hear that their heroes are indeed mortal. And again, this is a great point to make…just not in this movie, which purports to be about the birth of professional football in America. By the time we get to the “big game” at the end of the film, we’re tuckered out by all the preceded it and it doesn’t provide an adequate conclusion because it isn’t sure which is the more important part of the story – the football or the journalism.

With all that said, it’s more often than not a great time at the theater. Clooney is really proving to be a director to watch, easily adapting his style for whatever genre he has chosen and trusting his photographer to get the right look for the film; while this film might have been in black and white had it been shot during the period when screwball comedies were king, Clooney and his cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (as well as production designerJames D. Bissell) wisely choose to give the film a candy-colored look and a deep focus, making the colors pop like an old Technicolor picture. It’s interesting that although color plays such an important part in the look of this film, that it still feels like a film from the era in which it is set.

More than anything, I had a ball watching the film, smiling to myself quite a few times and while I might not be staying up all night thinking about its merits, I’d be happy to revisit it a few more times should it pop up on cable. And truly, it made me a believer in George Clooney – the director. I’ve already said that I think he’s the Cary Grant of his generation, but now I’m starting to wonder if perhaps his career might look more similar to Robert Redford’s.

The Ruins

I’ve devoted quite a lot of column space in which I’ve spoke of my excitement for this film because the novel was so well-crafted and cinematic, basically urging people to see it because it was a can’t-miss proposition.

Well, it missed.

The interesting thing about it, though, is that I can’t really blame anyone for the failure of this film; it really isn’t anyone’s fault. Although many of the plot details have been changed, it is essentially the same story that I read put on the big screen. The actors turned out to be perfectly cast, the location is even more foreboding than the way I imagined it and the look of the film is pitch-perfect. But something was very definitely lost in the translation.

When I first picked up the book and read the first twenty or so pages, I remember thinking to myself, “this is just like that crappy movieTuristas,” because it starts in a similar fashion, with a bunch of pretty twenty-somethings frolicking on the beach and by the pool with little clothing. But what happened next in the book wasn’t anything like that silly picture in that it allowed us to get inside each of these characters’ heads, endearing them to us and removing that veneer of vapidity that most characters in this situation would possess.

The story follows four Americans, along with a newfound German friend and a Greek dude, going deep into the jungles of Mexico, in search of the German’s brother who supposedly ran off to an archaeological dig of an ancient Mayan pyramid. When they finally get there, they find themselves unable to communicate with the Mayans who live in the nearby village and once one of the girls steps on a vine near the pyramid, the Mayans force the entire group to go up the pyramid or they will shoot them.

The sad part of the story is that because there is no first-person narration like there is in the book, we are unable to get into the psyches of any of the characters and they wind up being just like the young kids in any other horror film: meat prepared for slaughter. The intriguing thing about this storyline was that the threat was not from a person or a specter, but from(spoiler alert!) plant life. And while in the book, my imagination was able to run wild with the thought of these vines slurping and sucking and peeling into the flesh of these characters, the actual sight of it isn’t nearly as terrifying. (spoilers end)

I’ve talked to a bunch of people who quite enjoyed the movie and almost all of them hadn’t read the book. So perhaps there’s something to be said for my preconceived notions, but I do believe that there is not a lot that separates this film from any other film of its ilk because it doesn’t make any more of an effort to get to the heart of these kids, no matter how hard the actors try with what little material they have to work with.

Jonathan Tucker stands out among the cast members as Jeff, the leader of the crew who is always level-headed and logical about every decision. Jena Malone plays his girlfriend Amy, who in the book comes across as a lot less shrill. Shawn Ashmore plays Eric, who in the book is a very conflicted character because he isn’t very smart but tries to do right and who in the film comes across as bland. And rounding out the cast is Laura Ramsey as Eric’s girlfriend Stacy, who winds up suffering Eric’s fate in the book.

Carter Smith directed the film and he does a good job of realizing the locations described in the book and keeping the pace and tone of the film taut, but he is a slave to Scott Smith’s work as both novelist and screenwriter. I suppose if there’s anyone to blame it’s Scott Smithbecause he concocted the original story which, it turns out, should not have been adapted into a film at all. On the page, it is a gripping page-turner that allows us to see these characters as something like us, allowing us to relate to these guys and when they wind up mired in their situation, we genuinely want them to get out. In the film, it’s just another sub-par horror concept.

The most egregious error of all in adapting the book into a film is that while the book ended on a haunting and despairing note, Smith had no problems adding a Hollywood postscript that brings home the point that this movie is just like any other modern horror film: a few scares here and there, but ultimately forgettable.

– Noah Forrest
April 23, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon