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Sunday, 06 March 2011


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I think you have described exactly why I almost never watch movies. I get annoyed. Sometimes I think I should just go back in time several decades, to the 50s and 60s, perhaps, when the sensibilities were different, and watch those movies instead. This thought first crossed my mind when my oldest made me watch "Rocky" (yes, I was 35 years late on that). The takes were long in that movie, the eye and the mind had time to focus.

You made me laugh, though, talking about thrillers. A few nights ago my 16-year-old son watched a video of a three-year-old boy climbing out of his crib. First he threw out his pacifier, and then his blanket. And my son said to the screen, "See, people who make movies, even three year olds can plan ahead!"

Not to derail the conversation, but does it really matter what any movie is like, when Jennifer Connelly is in it?

There is that. One reviewer cited as a flaw of the movie that the director and the camera were in love with Jennifer. Somehow I didn't see that as a weak point, although her insecurity and low station would have been a bit more believable if she weren't quite so stunning. Not that good looking people can't have problems, but she's just quite my image of a penniless ex-alcoholic cleaning lady whose husband just left her.


Catching a good flick is one of the few forms of public entertainment I still enjoy and can (barely) afford. And watching indie, foreign and documentary film is the only way to go. Hollywood blockbusters are like junk food- popular, artificial and very bad for your health.

PS- I remember liking Sand and Fog- and there's no question that watching Jennifer Connelly didn't hurt.

My daughter does the copy-editing for a small chain of newspapers in North Carolina. She spends much of her workday resuscitating the maimed and mutilated paragraphs handed in by the staff "writers". To me this is self-evidently the result of the profoundly debased state of English and language arts education in America, not to mention the "Microsoft Word effect". As in, grammar skills wither at the speed of light when spell-check and basic grammar are automated.

This is not to say that there aren't some really brilliant writers out there. But the art of writing has become so devalued, and so unremunerative, that the average or prevailing level of english composition skill among nominally educated middlebrow Americans is in free-fall.

Oh, and by the way -- the elements of House of Sand and Fog that you object so strenuously to come directly from the novel.

It was written by Andre Dubus III, who resides in Lowell, Massachusetts, and has never been a Hollywood screenwriter.

Didn't even note the "sensibility" mistake. I was so focused on the improbability of comparing a real MF back with a back apparently somehow obtained by scanning a piece of film. Perhaps they were comparing only the looks of the backs, so a picture of one back was sufficient for the comparison?

I couldn't agree more, Mike.

I've long held the view that learning to act Hollywwod-style involves nothing more than rote learning of standard reactions and the delivery of standard lines. And things aren't that different on the writer's side of the fence, either. All that's necessary as a scriptwriter is to have the ability to adapt one of a handful of standard templates to the individual circumstances of the movie you are writing. Nothing else can explain why action-heroes must deliver a certain quota of wisecracks in a movie or have identical levels of steely determination in the face of massive adversity. Or have difficult love-lives which always come good in the end. And that's even before the quota of ludicrously unrealistic stunts which don't so much disobey the laws of physics but eviscerate them and dance on their grave. Of course, now that so much is done with CGI, there is no reason why reality has to intervene at all. And it usually doesn't.

Hollywood films have become so boringly formulaic that I only need to see the barest plot outline to know how a film will unfold and even what the characters will be like. But then when all the studios are doing is aiming product at a certain demographic in order to maximise returns then the cinema-goer can't really hope for much more. It's such an apalling waste of talent.

This is not necessarily something worthwhile for the blog, but you reminded me of a recent howler i came across in a Craig's List ad:

Mint, nearly new camera. Less than 1000 accusations.

I think the standard phrase after watching a bad movie all the way through is, "Well, that's two hours of my life I'll never get back." At 61 I've almost stopped watching movies and would not dream of paying $10 to see one at a dinky multiplex. If you wait for the DVD you don't feel so bad just hitting the off button after the first five or ten minutes. In the last fifteen years I think I could count on one hand the movies I've really enjoyed. 'Apollo 13', 'Good Night and Good Luck' and 'O'brother Where Art Thou' come to mind. From TV try renting the British miniseries "Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy" and the sequel "Smiley's People", both with Alec Guinness.

Last night on BBC TV several actors and actresses of British television comedy lauded their writers. I thought it very worthwhile since I have enjoyed some of the series and actors and the "naturalness"of their lines.

Hope the show is re-broadcast and that you get a chance to watch it. You will feel good about what you hear.

Jim Beinke

I just (reluctantly) returned the Blu-Ray "Mao's Last Dancer", Wow, wow, wow! Tip: no need to rent it on Blu-Ray, as the cinematographer deliberately shot it at 50% of frame and blew it up to full frame to give it the grainy look. What a compelling, uplifting, unbelievable human story. Oh, it's also based on a real story. I'll be buying this one - one of the few that I buy in a year.

Movies of today and yesterday year are what people watch to try and forget their own
world, whatever that may be. Earlier this year I attended entered a movie Theatre to Watch the broadcast version of A Prairie Home companion. Keep in mind the program is not available in Canada execpt by satellite
or cable reception. It was the first time had been in any venue of multiple seating (ie church, theatre, airplane) in many years. It was different, the images were right smack dab in front of you and it
was just too far-fetched to be of my life.
Never again. Yes I have DVD's here, however my pre-recorded entertainment is British murder mysteries, ie Foyle's War, or Midsomer Murders or on another note Doc Martin. US programming, IMO stinks and
of course the amazing prevalence of murders, firearms and the really the only place in the world that is "free!" NOT!

This is an attempt to compare the performance of the PhaseOne digital back with the one obtained by scanning a low-sensibility film picture from 6x9 format

There is a reasonable explanation for this phrase, and it is due to something called a false friend. Many who have studied another language will recognise the problem.

"Sensible", "Sensibile" (or variations thereof) in many latin-based languages means "sensitive" in English. The logical conclusion then is that the writer is not a native speaker or English.

Mike, Here's one I just spotted on eBay.
"I bought it because I like how ascetically pleasing they are"

I know a best-selling author who probably makes a couple million dollars per book, and his books are not particularly hard to write, yet what he REALLY wants to do is screenwriting, at which he makes much less money for much more trouble. Why? I don't know -- the usual thought is that such people are hoping to sleep with movie stars.

[Hollywood actress joke, involving famous actresses X, Y and Z (fill in your own names): X says to Y, "Oh my God, have you heard what happened to Z? It's so terrible." Y (expecting the worst) "No, what happened to her?" "Oh my God, she slept with a writer."]

I love movies, went last night to see The Adjustment Bureau and tomorrow night I'll go see Cedar Rapids. I like the whole social aspect of the thing, and talking about them afterwards.

The worst Hollywood Ending I've ever seen was in the Bruce Willis "Die Hard" entry that had the fighter jet attacking the truck. Pretty good movie up to that point, but that last scene, an effort to top all other such last scenes, was terrible. What I really like in a lot of movies in the first scene; in fact, I often make friends sit down and look at a good first scene with me. Love the openings of T2 and Big Lebowski and XXX (where the Corvette goes off the bridge, with base-jumping.)

All that aside, I won't write screen plays because you give up way too much control. I can understand the reason for that, but it's not something I would ever do. On the other hand, I had one TV movie made of one of my novels -- it was terrible -- and another one is about to be made this spring, which I hope will be better. But, I wasn't involved in the first one, in any way, and I won't be involved in the next, except that I'll cash the check. 8-)


You should watch the Coen's Barton Fink tonight. I can't believe it hasn't been mentioned already.

I'm personally a bit disappointed with this rantlet. You'd think a writer of Mr. Johnston's character and background would go after something with a higher degree of difficulty. There is no easier thing in the world than to lambast Hollywood for being shallow, empty and cynically market driven.

I work in consumer software production, and (maybe surprisingly) the parallels to film production are striking to me. David's description of the writer's plight in his comment would strike a chord with many programmers and software engineers. But that's a longer thought that I can't easily fit into this comment box. Suffice to say that similar issues of control or lack thereof are also rampant in software. But very few software engineers are actually competent enough to execute any of their grand ideas as actual products... this is what the open source movement teaches us.

Movie writers seem to have similar frustrations ... but they are probably more creatively competent than software people, so it must be worse for them. :-)

Finally, I am reluctant to go down the path of decrying the decaying state of education, morality and/or language arts abilities in the prevailing culture. Such complaints, to me, also lack creativity and have been a fixture since time began.

Also, Toy Story 3 was my favorite movie last year. CGI be damned. It was well written. IMHO.

You won't be hearing any arguments from me, Mike. In support of the notion that Hollywood has lost the plot, one only needs to see some good *foreign* films. French, Swedish and Korean movies really stand out. Some good Aussie films have come as a breath of fresh air too. The Dish, and The Man Who Sued God are good examples.

You might get a laugh from Eddie Izzard's skit about British versus American movies (warning: some vulgar language):


David's comments remind me of this quotation:
"You cannot paint Mona Lisa by assigning one dab each to a thousand painters. "
-William F. Buckley, Jr.

Many thanks to you and (particularly but not exclusively) David for this well reasoned and written piece. Amen, and thank heaven for rentals!
I cannot stand movies where the characters are at the mercy of the script, its like nails on a chalkboard. My thanks therefore to the men and women such as David who are trying to create screenplays where the characters move the story in a human way.

Did I miss something, Mike, or are you saying that watching movies means watching American holiwood movies?

What about the other 200 nations, quite a few of which produce a good percentage of movies that (in my view) are entirely worth the time to watch.

For example, in the last three weeks we went to see these movies in a theatre (and it was worth seeing them on a big screen): The Illusionist, Another Year, Biutiful. (French cartonist working out of Scotland, British, and Mexican/Spanish). More often than this we see and enjoy smaller budget movies from all over.

David wrote: "One of the many pitfalls of my profession is that when people love a movie, they praise the acting, the cinematography, and—most of all—the director. When people hate a movie, they blame the screenwriter."

My architecture photographer friend said to me just last week: "When architects like a photograph they have commissioned they praise the quality of their own design; when they don't like the photo, it's my fault.

I used to go to the movies at least once a week and was a member of two film clubs, but I haven't been to a cinema now for several years. The main reason being that Hollywood blockbusters are the staple of the Australian film distribution system and I have grown weary of movies that are special effects driven rather than relying on a good story with good character development. My criteria for watching a movie (or reading a work of fiction) is that I must want to care about what happens to the characters. If I'm left feeling indifferent about them then I think that the story has failed.

Up until fairly recently I have been buying known good films on DVD by mail order, and now I buy them as iTunes downloads. There are no stores here for several hundred Km. Having a movie library at home is indispensable for our long hot summers where a cool day is 100 °F. There's nothing better than on a hot evening sitting under the air conditioner with a cold beer and watching a good film.

Mike, I'll stick my neck out and recommend a movie - go see Black Swan, with Natalie Portman. Or with your wife, like I did. We usually find American film offerings are too formulaic. Not this one. And it was produced by Fox!

On the subject of non-Hollywood, non-traditional films, and especially for photographers interested in film, I think that Chris Marker
is fascinating. La Jetée is essentially a blending of still and motion pictures, and really should be required viewing.

Anyway, this ongoing discussion of movies makes me want to chime in with a few favorites from the last decade... In the Mood for Love, Wall-E, Man on Wire... There were plenty more good ones, but those three kind of did it for me.

Everybody is a screenwriter wannabee...
Around 2003, I received a phone call from a guy saying he was a screenwriter working on a script for a new movie where the male lead was interviewing for a job in the technology of my specialty. (As we started talking, I Googled the name and was impressed with his credentials-you would know some of his movies.) We spent two hours working out 5 minutes of dialogue for this job interview that would be totally realistic to anyone in the actual business. This guy was thorough!
After we finished, I joked that everybody in LA seemed to be an actor or screenwriter, and he told me this tale.
One Sunday, a lady friend and he were having brunch at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica (it just closed!). As they were leaving, he made a bet with his friend about who was paying. As he walked out, he went to three tables at random (where he was recognized each time-Santa Monica is ground zero for screenwriters, it seems) and asked "How's the work going on the screenplay?" And he got three status reports - and a free brunch.

The Value of Screenwriters...
If you think watching movies can be painful, my younger son is a programmer/animator who has worked on about a dozen movies in the last decade including Spiderman III (he did the birth of the Sandman), Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, etc. Parental obligation has had us seeing some movies we would never otherwise see - like G-Force-and needed ear plugs to survive. Now he's working on Transformers 3 at IL&M. Director Michael Bay has been quoted today about the value of screenwriters in regards to the second Transformers movie which was a cinematic mess: "AP Moviemaker Michael Bay has accepted his "Transformers" sequel was "c**p," insisting the 2007-2008 writers strike turned the film into a rushed mess. ..."

PS: I was having coffee at the SM Public Library this afternoon and two young guys at the next table were working on - you guessed it!

David may know the old joke about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer.

I knew a (re)writer who lived a prosperous life in LA for years stationed somewhere at the midpoint of the rewrite chain: never wrote an original script, never wrote a final shooting script. This seems hardly a prescription for an artistic success; a commercial one maybe.

The damn major productions cost so much that only low budget pictures can take the risks that might create something original and groundbreaking. See Peter Jackson's early efforts, his mum was DOP on one of them.

Not able to judge but it was said that Fuji X100 manual (available by searching google) that its English is quite good, especially compared with Panasonic. Chance to have a look?

Sufficient to say that after reading that manual I have moved from "noted" to "may have to consider". Seems a good one but obvious not a good judge.

BTW, the king's speech is very good. A few film where you think you were there, forget you were watching a movie partially and share the pain/enjoyment of the character in it.

This place is heaven. The curious thing is that it's the devilish writing that makes is so divine.

"Everybody is a screenwriter wannabee"

Not me, Jim. My idea of hell would be letting undefined numbers of other people muck about with my words completely beyond my control or say-so. And even worse, still having no choice but to have my name associated with the end result(!).

Seriously, I am way too neurotic to stand for that. It would drive me--what do the English say?--"nutters."


Okay, sorry, that's wrong. It would drive me around the bend, is what I'm saying. It would make me crazy.

I can not recommend Ozu's "Tokyo Story" enough for anyone interested in photography or good movies in general. It is a slightly melancholic celebration of life and the small gestures between people, gorgeously shot in b&w tableaux.

You all think that Hollywood is in the business of making films. You are all wrong. Hollywood is in the business of making money, first and foremost.

Otherwise, we wouldn't have endless sequels and remakes - it worked then, it must work now. Otherwise, we wouldn't have film-making by the numbers - target groups, focus groups, demographic groups and what not.

There was an anecdote told by Terry Pratchett about one of his books, Mort, I think. In the book, Death is one of the central characters. He's depicted classically - a skeleton with a hood and a scythe. Pratchett said somebody from the studio told him the book was terrific but could he lose the skeleton, some target group from Moose Apples didn't like it.

Once more, with a feeling: Hollywood is in the business of making money. Everything else stems from that. It's a wonder we get as many really good films from them as we do.

Perhaps an idea when you pick a Hollywood movie of the shelf it to find what it is copied from, be it a French movie (there was a string of them a few years ago) , a Hong Kong movie (they seem to have been a more recent fad) or an old b&w one (like the mention of Yogi Bear) and then watch the original instead.

You absolutely have to see (and read): "No Country for Old Men"
Great book, great movie!

'Man on Fire'. Very interesting and enjoyable first half, then someone somewhere must have flicked a switch and it's the bloodthirsty vengeful 'victim'-hero bringing the bad guys to blunt and personal justice in a manner Bruce Willis would admire.

I think you mean it would drive you nuts, Mike!

I go to the cinema quite regularly, and have a pretty high tolerance for having my chain yanked (so to speak). But I left Black Swan deeply offended by the idea that I was supposed in some way to have found it dark, terrifying and twisted, when in fact it was tedious, cliched, unconvincing and predictable. There were several moments where I actually guffawed out loud - usually moments where, I assume, I was supposed to have been mesmerised by the intense symbolism. And I was not alone in my laughter during this particular screening.

This really doesn't have a great deal to do with your original post, Mike, for which I apologise, but I had to have a rant about just how pants Black Swan is - and this was a good opportunity to do so.

I was optimistic a few years ago when American movies like "There will be blood" and "No country for old men" even got awarded Oscars. I hoped this would open the door for independent and artistic movies in general, but sadly I was wrong. Let's face it. The movie and music industry targets teens. Us grumpy old farts are just too hard to please and too cheap to target, so why bother? Apart from that previously mentioned optimistic spell, I'm going to stay happy being old fashioned. A nice bottle of red, a good novel or coffee table photography book, and some hard bop or Bach in the background and I soon forget that there exist such moronic forms of entertainment as movies and hip hop music. Don't even get me started on American television shows…

Mike, we must be living parallel lives, from living in Wisconsin, Chicago (Oak Park and Uptown), and Washington DC; I must pass you on the street a few times a month. Now, the 'movies' thing. I haven't gone to movies for a long time either, about six years now, and have only recently started thinking about it again...

I've always stated, that both fiction books and movies must meet my critical test: it must be believable. The characters have to perform in some way that I've found, whether through experience or research, to be accurate to life! If they hang around and decide to search a creepy haunted house where someone was killed the week before, instead of never going there or, once they figured out what's going on, ran for the hills; sorry, it's stupid and unbelievable.

I remember reading 'Sand and Fog', and I remember being turned off by the book. You know, in my world, drug addicted people living on house-cleaning money who forget to pay their property taxes, don't own houses, and if they're living in the family home and they lose it because of their own screw-ups, they don't deserve it back. If Dubus wanted to give us a complicated modern 'slice of life' where no one is at fault and no one was the winner, well, he was wrong, the woman and the cop were at fault.

You can see from my feelings about the book, I would have never gone to see the movie. I agree that Hollywood doesn't make movies for my demographic, but you know, after a while, I'm even tired of the euro-movie 'slice-of-life' format where nothing gets resolved and it's just a close-up look at people during a certain period of time. I try to only go to movies where I might end up learning some greater knowledge about the world or the human condition. Very scant indeed.

Another thing is, as you get older, there is no more reason to go out and see a movie rightthissecond! No one in my group wants to talk about or compare notes about a movie the day after it's released in our area. Unless there's a reason to see it on the big screen, I can actually wait 'til the library gets it and I can watch it for nothing! Avoiding the increasingly boorish behavior by the movie-going crowd is reason enough for doing this!

Of course, I agree with some of the above posters, I'd see Jennifer Connelly in virtually anything (except this movie), but please Jennifer, quit starving yourself and get back to the Mulholland Falls and Rocketeer era!

Let me know your next move Mike, maybe we can pool expenses! I was thinking about Portland Oregon after DC, until I had to move back to Wisconsin for family reasons, and then in the ensuing years, Portland became too hip! Where next?

"It would drive me nuts"
"Nutters" are those who are nuts, in a crazy (rather than angry) sense.

I lived in Portland Oregon for a year, too. [g]


If you get the chance watch the TV mini-series called (Over here) 'Episodes' Features Tamsin Grieg and some actor called'Joey' ex 'Friends' (I know, I know. Couldn't stand him in that show but an older Joey in this series is a much more likeable character)
Basically the plot revolves around the attempt to shift a successful tv series from the U.K. to the U.S.A. and involves all the trials and tribulations outlined in the early featured comments. Very funny in parts. It was a combined feature involving the BBC and one of the American networks. All the details here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Episodes_(TV_series)

"Sensibility" is a false friend for film sensitivity in Swedish and German too.

It goes both ways. I cannot read the Swedish for aperture, "bländare", without conjuring up an involuntary mental image of bits of lens barrel and broken glass whizzing around in an industrial strength Kitchen Maid.

The only thing worse than Hollywood films is nature documentaries. I stick to looking up one-hit wonders from my misbegotten youth on YouTube.

Ok Mike, our Movie taste is probably as different as our photo taste (I Like
Karsh, but we both like McCurry.)
So I only have one movie for you. Great Score by the phenomenal Marricone,
Caution, it is sub titled. No heavy nothing just a great movie.
Cinema Paradiso. If you don't like it. I will refund your rental fee via the tip

I do think that, right now, English is suffering the globalization strike.

There is a very accurate video of a german language school that, if not really this case, accurately depicts the troubles of having English as one of the most sprawled non native language:


Due to the fact that nowadays English is sort of the international business and technology language, I´m finding troublesome to understand some northern european citizens that do translate straightahead their native language into English, making no sense whatsoever.

"Have a nice day!"
"Same to you" <-----????? This, in fact, makes no sense. The proper answer will be, indeed "you too".

Translate that to the mindtwisting difference with latin languages on "sense+sensibility", which are the exact opposite in most latin languages. Not to mention the "constipation" case: If you are constipated in Spain, you have a cold.

There you have the reason for your fun: most probably the writer was translationg from a Romance language [Romance linguistically speaking], where sensibility is how sensitive something is.

Ah two movies had me leave the theater at half time. The first one was Enemy of the State (totally unconvincing for instance as a single camera with a single lens seems to create a 3D image in a store to be analised by Will Smith's character, and Mr. Smith is a way to good actor to be this unconvincing). Second was "Ace ventura when nature calls". What was the collective which concocted that movie thinking? Were they capable of thought, were they sentient beings and part of the human race? And most of all what was Jim Carrey thinking? On movie had the sweet distinction of me not making it to half time, that was "American Pie" which lasted about 14 minutes for me (then I went to a bar and waited for the other blokes I was with and maybe at the end of the wait and a few Tullamore Dews which accompanied the waiting I could have enjoyed the movie, sleeping).

A Dutch director Paul Ruven has analysed hundreds of movie plots and he thinks that a good movie plot works according to these lines.

A) Main character has a life he or she is not satisfied with.

B) Main character starts about to change his or hers life alone or with the help of others.

C) Main character either succeeds and is happy or main character does not succeed and is either happy or sad.

The theorie behind this is that most people are unhappy about the life they lead and would like to change it so a character changing his or hers life is very nice to watch (reward mechanism in the brain fires a nice shot of endorfines) and as a result people flock to the theaters.

Greetings, Ed

Movies and pro sports are the opiates of the masses. Without the mindless diversion of an explosion or a babe on screen every few minutes, people might take the time to sit around and wonder about things, like why their governments let the financial sector ruin their countries in order to line their own pockets, like why there's tons 'o cash to subsidize the oil industry but none to pay for public schools, like why cities are expected to subsidize the stadiums that the pro sports teams play in. (Nice full circle there.)

Old guys (like me) see through it all, but that doesn't matter. We don't have the energy to do anything about it anymore. It's the young ones that need to be glued to their seats chawing down trans-fat sodden pop corn and Big Gulps of sugar-laden water.

Cynical, moi?

"I literally took the DVD out of the machine, put it back in its case, and threw it in the trash. Sorry I watched it, wish I hadn't."

I'm surprised Mike. Given that Jennifer Connelley still's bokeh, I'd have thought you'd keep the DVD just for its image rendering. :-)

Several thoughts related to screenwriting:

Everyone in H'wood/on a set feels qualified to offer advice on how to improve a script ("I have notes!")

H'Wood loves to praise the importance of writers/good scripts, yet...

The first Oscar recipient to be 'played off' by the orchestra on the 2010 Oscars was Aaron Sorkin, having received the Oscar for best adapted screenplay (despite earlier winners speaking longer)

Screenwriting is difficult to do well. But it is the easiest thing for someone wanting to make it in H'wood to try their hand at; all they need is a word processor. Any other type of work requires that an actual production be mounted (i.e. one can write on spec, but anything else means getting a job)

Indie films have about the same amount of baggage, just different baggage. I like to refer to them as using Indie Plot 1, or indie plot 2 etc.

A recommendation for an excellent documentary from last year that is somewhat about film and it's impact: A Film Unfinished. The documentary is about a Nazi propaganda film made in the Warsaw Ghetto during the occupation that for decades was accepted as an accurate document about life in the ghetto. However, in the 1990s, new raw footage was discovered from the original period showing that many scenes from the propaganda film were staged. This contrast, along with interviews from survivors put the original footage into proper understanding. A far superior documentary than the winner, Inside Job (as was Exit Through the Gift Shop). A Film Unfinished was not an easy movie to watch, but quite worth the effort.

I second the Jennifer Connelly praise and wish she weren't so skinny. And her Sand and Fog costar Shoreh Aghdashloo has perhaps the most hypnotic speaking voice I've ever heard.


Guns, blood, death, gore, and more death is the default mode of signifying depth in American art.

You forgot Barber's Adagio for Strings. Has any other work of art been put to work pulling a plow for so many hacks?

Cue music nerds to describe why Barber's Adagio for Strings is a big pile of crap.

The latest movie jerk-off is Source Code. Saw the premier last night at SXSW. Talk about writers being puppeteers - wow! All characters, no people. Can't fault the actors or the cinematographer; all the crap is in the script.

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