Doubt

I had grave doubts about Doubt. Having read the play and considering it essentially perfect, a dramatic story with great characters and great resonance to the times as well as a certain timelessness. Four characters, a handful of scenes; a taut, perfect play. It won the Pulitzer and many other awards. I was not surprised. It’s a classic.

So when I saw the trailer for the movie version and it looked exactly like a filmed version of the play, I said, “No thanks.” I can pretty much guess what that film is. Great performance by Meryl Streep in a confined, unfilmic adaptation.

I was only partially right. Because of a free Creative Screenwriting screening, with writer/director John Patrick Shanley speaking afterwards, I gave the movie a shot. I’m glad I did. It is excellent, and not just Meryl Streep’s performance.

Shanley, as he made clear in his talkback, was well-aware that film and theater are two different beasts. So he expanded out the world of St. Anthony’s Catholic school and neighborhood. Now there are many more than four characters, including the elements. As he told Meryl Streep, he even made the wind a character.

The two pivotal scenes of the play remain intact. When Meryl Streep’s authoritarian nun, Sister Aloysius, confronts the mother (Viola Davis) of a kid she believes is being ‘seduced’ by Father Flynn and the scene where she confronts Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) himself.

Both Davis and Hoffman are able to withstand Streep’s hurricane of a performance. I wish I could say the same about Amy Adams, an actress whom I love. Once again cast as the naif, in this case innocent young Sister James, she is simply out of her depth among these clashing titans. Look for the other three to get noms, deservedly so.

As for the directing, well, it isn’t as wacky as you would expect from John Patrick “Joe vs. the Volcano” Shanley. There are some weird canted angles that DP Roger Deakins should’ve put the kibosh on, and some odd editing choices, but other than that, he lets his words and the actors’ performances shine.

I really loved this film. The story is just as good as when I read the play, but transported nicely into the medium of film. I’m still debating which is the better adaptation, Doubt or Frost/Nixon. Both did a good job, but I think Frost/Nixon was inherently more cinematic material. So kudos to Shanley for the heavy lifting.

The theme of Doubt is doubt. Shanley wrote it in the context of the buildup to the Iraq War. But the contemporary resonances are resonances only; it is set in his childhood and shines with small details like the priest’s fingernails and the magnetized dancer. I think it is timeless; but if it is not rewarded with Best Adapted Screenplay, it may be because, post-Obama, the contemporary resonances are not so resonant.

In any case, the movie is fantastic and I really wasn’t expecting that. I don’t think most people are. Hopefully, the great writing and acting will out, as the Bard says, and Shanley will trace the boards of the Kodak theater to receive his second Best Screenplay award.

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Creative Screenwriting Podcasts – They will put up the Shanley interview soon

The Wrestler

The Wrestler is a very good movie, but a very small movie. It looks like it was shot on 16mm, most scenes have minimal coverage, the drama is traditional. This is not to take anything away from the film, but to put the roar of Oscar buzz about it in perspective. It is the underdog, the Little Miss Sunshine of this year, and will probably only triumph in the Best Actor category.

Mickey Rourke’s performance is as good as everyone says, and it carries the film. His Randy ‘The Ram’ Ramsinski will break your heart. The very good script, by former The Onion writer Robert Seigel is very slow to get started and never generates the showy emotional fireworks that are traditionally the province of the character drama. It nonetheless has you rooting for The Ram’s comeback, despite his self-sabotaging tendencies.

Darren Aronofsky’s directing is good only in that it gets out of the way of the script and Rourke’s performance. Which makes it very good in my opinion, in the same way that the directing of Rachel Getting Married gets out of the way of story and character with a faux-raw, faux-documentary aesthetic.

The Wrestler had some turns that surprised me, because they play against the ‘comeback movie genre.’ It’s a movie that I can respect, but it’s not one that I can love.

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