Thursday, August 25, 2011

Finding Forrester

Originally Written and Posted at on 6/14/09 w/ Extensive Revisions & Additional Content.

After achieving commercial success and critical acclaim with 1997's Good Will Hunting that nabbed 3 Oscars for Best Supporting Actor to Robin Williams and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Director Gus Van Sant was clearly at his peak as he achieved his first Oscar nod for Best Director. To follow-up the success of the film, Van Sant did the unthinkable when he signed to direct a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic film Psycho. Van Sant chose to re-make the film in color and shot-for-shot like the original Hitchcock classic that definitely received negative reviews. After the fallout from his remake of Psycho, Van Sant took a break for his personal projects as he returned to film in 2000 with a coming-of-age drama entitled Finding Forrester.

Directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Mike Rich, Finding Forrester tells the story of a young African-American teenager who has a talent for writing while living in the inner-city. After befriending a reclusive novelist who lives near by, the young talent finds himself being accepted into a prestigious private school where he deals with new social changes and such as he leans towards the guidance of his new reclusive friend. Starring Sean Connery, Rob Brown, F. Murray Abraham, Busta Rhymes, Anna Paquin, and Michael Pitt. Finding Forrester is a well-made, coming-of-age drama from Gus Van Sant.

Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) is a 16-year old African-American student who is also a talented basketball player. With a passion for both basketball and books, Jamal doesn't reveal his talents as a writer to his friends as he lives in the Bronx with his mother (Stephanie Berry) and his older brother Terrell (Busta Rhymes). One day, Jamal and his friends notice someone is watching them play as they sneak into his apartment to see who it is where Jamal accidentally leaves his backpack where he retrieves it with notes about his writing. When he and his mother learned he's been accepted to the prestigious Mailor Callow in Manhattan, Jamal meets a young student named Claire (Anna Paquin) who gives him a tour of the place. Though unsure of his new surroundings, he gains a friend in Claire and another student named John (Michael Pitt).

During another trip to the reclusive man's apartment building, he meets the man that is revealed to be William Forrester (Sean Connery) who is impressed by Jamal's writing though he feels the boy could do better as he becomes the boy's mentor. Despite being part of the basketball team and having some friends, the school's literature professor Robert Crawford (F. Murray Abraham) is not impressed by Jamal as Jamal seeks guidance from Forrester. Though he keeps his meeting with Forrester a secret out of respect for Forrester, Forrester asks that whatever material Jamal has written must stay in the apartment. Jamal decides to take Forrester out of his apartment where it starts off slow until they go to an empty Yankee Stadium as Forrester begins to open up about his life and frustrations with the world of literature.

With Crawford becoming more suspicious about Jamal's writing talents as a writing contest is coming up, Jamal finds himself in trouble with Crawford with Forrester reluctant to help. With Jamal's future in trouble, it's up to Forrester to help out the young boy.

While the film's plot might be relative to other old-men guiding a young man into life lesson's in other films like Martin Brest's Scent of a Woman and Van Sant's own Good Will Hunting. Screenwriter Mike Rich does create a story that is rich with the idea of an Africa-American youth getting a chance to have his writing talents pushed further by a reclusive novelist. Yet, it's really about a young man getting help as his talents in writing gets attention by an elite school while helping this reclusive old novelist to rediscover life and writing. The screenplay does show a character like Jamal dealing with all of these changes around him where he tries to deal with his new surroundings but hoping not to alienate his old friends at the Bronx. At the same time, it allows the character of William Forrester to slowly unveil himself while showing reasons why he didn't publish anymore material.

Though the script's faults may lie in its familiar plot points and storylines. It is handled with such grace and subtlety by Gus Van Sant. Van Sant's direction definitely leans more towards the European art film style rather than something conventional in his compositions and shots. Though there are some conventional approach to framing and shooting decisions, notably the basketball scenes and some of the drama that goes on in the classroom. Still, Van Sant is engaging through what he shoots and presents while giving the actors a chance to be loose in their performance without any kind of huge theatrics. While the material is a bit sub-standard in comparison to the other films Van Sant has sone in the past. He does create a look and feel that is unique without forcing any kind of melodrama to the film.

Cinematographer Harris Savides, who would become Van Sant's regular cinematographer in the next series of projects, does great work with the film's low-key, colorless photography style. While there's bright colors in several exterior scenes in some of the film's NYC locations including a museum scene. Savides' camera in its interiors and nighttime sequences are filled with intimate shots and not much lighting schemes to revel in the dark world of William Forrester. Savides' work in its photography is exceptionally exquisite without any kind of theatrical lighting schemes and such. Editor Valdis Oskarsdottir does some excellent work with the film's stylized editing with the use of rhythmic jump-cuts to keep the film moving quite leisurely. Even as it moves quite well for a film that's around 135-minutes long as the editing is done in a conventional yet well-mannered style.

Production designer Jane Musky with set decorators Susan Bode and Lynn Tonnessen plus art directors Robert Guerra and Darrell K. Keister do some fine work with the look of the prep school in its richness plus the home of William Forrester. Notably as it is surrounded by books and photographs while they do some fine work with the old photos of Sean Connery as a young man including a painting of him at the school. Costume designer Ann Roth does some very good work with the costumes from the prep school look that the kids wear to the contemporary, urban clothing that Jamal's friends wear to contrast the two different worlds. The sound work by editor Kelley Baker plus mixing from Van Sant and his longtime collaborator Leslie Shatz works very well to complement the chaos and surroundings that the characters are at including the world of New York City.

The film's soundtrack is mostly filled with a mix of jazz pieces from Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and many others plus ambient-like guitar pieces from Bill Frisell. Along with an island-flavored cover of Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, there's a famous piece revolving around Forrester's bike rides to the musical style of Carl Orff, which is often famous for the theme pieces from Terrence Malick's 1973 debut film Badlands.

The casting by Francine Maisler, Bernard Telsey, and David Vaccari is well-assembled with some memorable small roles from rapper Lil' Zane, Damion Lee, Damany Mathis, and Fly Williams III as Jamal's urban friends along with Matthew Noah Wood as a basketball rival of Jamal at the prep school and Glenn Fitzgerald as a man who drops food off for Forrester. Other small roles include Michael Nouri as Claire's father, Richard Easton as a well-mannered professor who is amazed by Jamal's talents, and April Grace as Jamal's English teacher at his old urban high school. The film also features some cameo appearances from Alex Trebek in an episode of Jeopardy which features an appearance from Van Sant regular Alison Folland plus Joey Buttafuoco as a nightman at Yankee Stadium and Matt Damon in one of the film's final scenes as a lawyer.

Stephanie Berry is very good as Jamal's caring, no-nonsense mother while rapper Busta Rhymes gives a surprising yet restrained role as Jamal's older brother who is amazed by his talents and encouraging it. In one of his early film roles, Michael Pitt is very good as John Coleridge, a quiet student who befriends Jamal who would defend him during a class session with Crawford. Anna Paquin is in fine form as Claire, a student who also befriends Jamal and is amazed by his intelligence as her relationship with Jamal nearly goes into romantic territory but fortunately, doesn't. F. Murray Abraham is good as Professor Robert Crawford, a failed writer who tries to get Jamal kicked out believing he isn't good enough. Abraham's performance is good, his character kind of comes off as one-dimensional as a frustrated man who is very ignorant about Jamal's talents.

In his film debut, Rob Brown is great as Jamal Wallace, a talented young kid who loves to play basketball but also likes to read books and write things. Brown's performance is very restrained and also not very brash as he gives the character an innocence who is more concerned about doing the right thing but doesn't want to be alienated by his friends. Brown really shines in his performance while having a great rapport with his co-star Sean Connery. Connery gives a magnificent yet humorous performance which includes the famous line, "You're the man now, dawg". Connery displays a restraint but also a grizzled persona of a man trying to hide from his demons while guiding a young writer to greatness as it's one of Connery's better performances which is often lost in some of the bad action films he's done in the late 90s and early 2000s.

***Additional DVD Content Written on 8/24/11***

The 2001 Region 1 DVD from Columbia Pictures presents the film for its original 2:35:1 theatrical aspect ratio for the widescreen format with 5.1 Dolby Digital for English and 2-Channel Dolby Surround for English and French with subtitles in both languages. The DVD includes several special features made specifically for the DVD release.

The first is HBO’s Making-of TV special about the film which is essentially a 15-minute typical making-of special that features interviews with cast members, director Gus Van Sant, screenwriter Mike Rich, and producers for the film. Sean Connery and Rob Brown talk a lot about the film’s themes while Van Sant discusses wanting to create something about reclusive writers and unlikely writers. It’s a pretty good featurette that has some moments though it has some distracting narration. The second special featurette is the 12-minute Found: Rob Brown about the casting of Rob Brown. Van Sant reveals the difficulty of finding a sixteen-year old African-American kid from the Bronx where he turned to Spike Lee for help. Through the casting call, Brown was discovered as Van Sant helped him prepare for the part as did Sean Connery to help him make things easier as it also includes some outtakes and fun moments between takes.

Another mini-feature are two deleted choir scenes cut out from the film where the two scenes has the Dewitt Clinton High School Chorus perform a variations of Lacrimosa and Lean on Me. They feature some great shots though it’s obvious why they got cut from the final film. Other additional special features includes a filmographies section for Gus Van Sant, Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, and Anna Paquin plus trailers for the film along with Van Sant’s To Die For, Caroll Ballard’s Fly Away Home that starred Anna Paquin, and First Knight that starred Sean Connery. Also in the DVD is a booklet where screenwriter Mike Rich talks about the inspiration for the film as well as brief tidbits on the production. Overall, it’s a decent DVD release that doesn’t offer much but it is still good for fans of the film.

***End of the DVD Contents***

While it may be considered one of his weakest feature films in his library of films, Finding Forrester is still a good yet engaging film from Gus Van Sant featuring great performances from Sean Connery and Rob Brown. While fans of Van Sant will certainly feel like it's one of his weaker efforts but doesn't reach the low point of films like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and his 1998 remake of Psycho. It's a film that does stray a bit from convention while providing a wonderful insight into the world of writing. In the end despite its flaws, Finding Forrester is still a good, coming-of-age drama from Gus Van Sant.

(C) thevoid99 2011

No comments: