By Tom Stempel.
I was delighted to see a user comment on US #120. When I did the column for “The House Next Door” a large part of the fun of was getting comments from readers agreeing and some vehemently disagreeing with what I wrote. I look forward to more comments here. It was also nice that the comment was from Erik Bauer, the founder of Creative Screenwriting, and that he liked the background of the scripts I wrote on. I suspect he was particularly thinking of the item on the politics behind Belle. So let that encourage you to send in your own comments. I will comment on your comments in future columns.
You may have noticed that the last few columns dealt with movies from late 2013 to midsummer 2014. The reason for that was that I had written a bunch of columns while the new managers were getting the rebuilt Creative Screenwriting up and running. After midsummer I did not write any more columns until they caught up with me. Now they have, but that has left a pile of movies from the second half of 2014 that I had not written about. To catch up, what I am doing here is an entire column of what I call in the book Understanding Screenwriting Short Takes. These are briefer items on a larger number of films and television shows. Those of you who think I get too wordy will be delighted to see me and my computer so restrained. Those of you who like my wordiness will just have to wait until #123. Either way, here are some short takes.
(2014. Written by John Michael McDonagh. 102 minutes.)
This has one of the best opening scenes of recent movies: Father James is listening to confessions in a small Irish village, and the guy on the other side of the box says he is going to kill the good father the following Sunday. As you may remember from US#80, I am a fan of McDonagh’s The Guard (2011), and he is not quite up to that level here. After the great opening we get introduced to a lot of the villagers, leading us to wonder who the potential killer is. Mildly interesting, but the ending, which makes sense religiously, isn’t particularly compelling dramatically.
Guardians of the Galaxy
(2014. Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. 121 minutes.)
Long-time readers know I am not generally a fan of movies based on comic books. I do see some from time to time if the trailers or reviews suggest something interesting. In this case, the reviews said there were humorous elements reminiscent of the first Star Wars movie. Well, the writers are trying, but the attempts at humor fell flat for me. I suspect that if I had seen the film before I read all the reviews, I might have been more amused, but it just did not seem that fresh. The story seems pretty much standard issue, and as I have mentioned about some other films lately, the visuals are just exhausting.
Love is Strange
(2014. Written by Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias. 94 minutes.)
This is a nice love story between two elderly men that gives us some interesting characters. Then three-quarters of the way through it suddenly jumps ahead several months, leaving us to hear about what happened, which we would have preferred to see. The focus then shifts of what has been a subplot, which means the film drops several of its most interesting characters. If you are making that big a jump, it better be to someplace we really want to go.
The Skeleton Twins
(2014. Written by Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson. 93 minutes.)
The writing of this story about twin brother and sister gives its two stars, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, a lot to do, which I like writers to do. Unfortunately, the script does not take the characters anywhere interesting. We get the relationship between the two, but by the end of the film there are exactly where they were to start with, if not worse. You never want to unintentionally make your characters so stupid audiences will be turned off.
This is Where I Leave You
(2014. Screenplay by Jonathan Topper, based on his novel. 103 minutes.)
If you are going to get great actors like Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Connie Britton, Kathryn Hahn, and Timothy Olyphant to appear in your script, then the very least you could do is give them things to do. I got the feeling this cast was collecting unemployment. It may have worked better as a novel where you just have the author’s description of the characters to focus on, but when you have that crowd of actors, we are going to want to see them do stuff.
(2014. Written by Simon Barrett. 99 minutes.)
This was one of the two or three best screenplays among the films I will be covering in this column. The picture did not last very long in theatres, but I am sure you can pick it up somewhere. The setup is simple: David, an Iraq veteran, shows up at the home of the Petersons, the parents of a soldier killed in action. David says he was a friend of the son’s, and they welcome him into the house. The cliché would be that the eldest daughter Anna would get the hots for him. She gets suspicious of him instead. Then he does some not-so-nice things around town, but all of them help the members of the family. Anna gets even more suspicious, and we are too, because we have no idea what David is up to. Barrett is great at not telling stuff until we need to know it, one of the rules of screenwriting. When you see it, keep track with a watch as how long it is into the picture before we learn stuff about David. Barrett also gives the actors a lot to do, unlike Jonathan Topper. David is played by the former Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey, Dan Stevens. He’s good looking and likable in the beginning, but he always suggests there is something going on. Anna is also nicely written and well played by Maika Monroe. The ending is a bit bigger and flashier than it needs to be, but I suppose that is required these days.
The Two Faces of January
(2014. Screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. 96 minutes.)
This is the second great script from this period. Amini, who also directed (beautifully), is best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for the 1997 adaptation of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. The novel here is apparently second rung Highsmith, but Amini more than does it justice. MacFarland, a con man, is on the run in Europe with his wife Colette. They begin to hang out in Greece with a tour guide/minor con man named Rydal. None of them really trust the other and part of the suspense comes from that. Then a man looking for MacFarland comes to a bad end at MacFarland’s hands in one of the most suspenseful scenes I have seen in years. So the three of them are now on the run, and the suspense builds and builds. Amini knows how to turn the screws on them and us. If you want to write suspense movies or even just suspenseful scenes, this is the film to look at to see how it should be done. The film goes along with Night Train to Munich (1940) and Charade (1963) on my list of the best Hitchcock movies Hitchcock never made.
(2014. Screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel. 149 minutes.)
This script is not chopped liver either, but it has a major flaw. For most of the first half, it’s a terrific drama. Amy Dunne has disappeared, and a lot of evidence suggests her husband Nick may have done her in. Flynn handles all that very well, from keeping us from not knowing the truth about Nick to the public search for Amy to the media coverage. Nick and the supporting characters are well drawn. We get flashbacks of Nick and Amy’s relationship in the early days, but it’s mostly from Nick’s point of view, so we don’t know how much to trust it. Spoiler alert: if you have not read the novel or seen the film, skip on to the next item. Midway through the film, we find out that Amy has planned all of this to make suspicion fall on Nick. And I mean ALL of this, and here’s where I have a problem. Amy becomes more of a construct than a character. She is a super-villain, who can do no wrong in her evil scheme. That’s just a little too convenient for the rest of the film, and writers should avoid convenience at all costs, because it irritates audiences by letting them know you are not doing your job properly. The fact the picture has worked as well as it has, both critically and commercially, is due to Rosamund Pike’s spectacular performance as Amy. She is equally convincing in Nick’s flashbacks and in her later reality. Flynn has given her a lot to do and the fact she does it so well almost helps Flynn out of the hole she’s written herself into.
Kill the Messenger
(2014. Written by Peter Landesman, based on the book Dark Alliance by Gary Webb and the book Kill the Messenger by Nick Schou. 112 minutes.)
This script is based on the true story of the late journalist Gary Webb, who in 1996 wrote a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News on how the CIA was arranging to have money from drug sales used to finance the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Unlike All the President’s Men (1974), this one does not move in a straight line. We follow Webb collecting the information in a very President’s Men way, but when the articles are printed, all kinds of shit hit the fan. Because Webb was working for a newspaper in a smaller market, the big city papers dump all over him, undoubtedly helped by their inside sources at the CIA. The best scenes are the people at the bigger newspapers discussing why they won’t support Webb. Webb goes from hero to goat in nothing flat. He loses his job, can’t get another one, and eventually commits suicide. (The end titles suggest the CIA arranged the suicide, since he shot himself twice in the head, but his family concurs with the suicide verdict for a variety of reasons that you can read about here.) Needless to say, this is not a happy ending, and probably the reason the film was not a commercial success.
Dear White People
(2014. Written by Justin Simien. 108 minutes.)
This is certainly a fresh idea for a movie: a number of black students at an Ivy League university deal with a black-face party organized by a white group. As many people have pointed out, in spite of having a black president, we are hardly in a post-racial society. Simien is good at creating characters who show us a variety of attitudes, although sometimes the speechifying gets a little too Aaron-Sorkinish. The problem with the script is that it is not nearly as funny as it needs to be as a work of satire. You will very seldom hear me say this, but Simien spends more time on the characterization and less than he should on the jokes. There are a few good lines, but not enough.
(2014. Screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, story by David Dobkin and Nick Schenk. 141 minutes.)
The trailer looked very impressive: Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall at full power as, respectively, a hotshot lawyer who returns to his small home town and his father, a judge who is on trial for murder. The son represents the father and truths are told. The script is fine for a two hour movie, but look at the running time of the film. Movies do not get better as they get longer. The director David Dobkin and the editor Mark Livolsi let it drag on, primarily by holding forever on the close-ups, particularly of Downey. Who, as it turns out, was one of the producers, as was his wife. Actors should be kept out of the editing suite.
(2014. Written by David Ayer. 134 minutes.)
This is the third great script. An American tank crew tries to survive in Germany in the last month of the war. Yes, the crew is something of a standard WWII crew, but the characterizations are first rate and several of the actors give their career-best performances. Fortunately Brad Pitt, the sergeant in command of the tank, brings both his movie star self and his actor self, and his is one of the career-best performances. Two things in particular struck me about the script. One is that it avoids the sentimentality of many war movies. In the middle of the action, the tank takes over a German village. Pitt’s “Wardaddy” takes Norman, the newest and youngest member of the crew, into a house where Wardaddy has spotted two women. Wardaddy has them fix him a meal…and then he sends Norman into another room with the youngest of the two women with instructions to have sex with her, saying if Norman doesn’t, he will come in and have her himself. We never quite know if Norman and the girl get it on. Then the rest of the tank crew shows up and do not display the manners of Wardaddy. Throughout the scene we never quite know what’s going to happen. The second thing is that the film beautiful captures the absolute corruption and decadence of everybody, including our “greatest generation” guys, that happened in the last few months of the war. I recently read Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light, the third of his great Liberation trilogy. It deals with the war in Europe from D-Day through to the German surrender in May 1945, shows the cost of the war in terms of lives, money, moral values, and destruction of everything in Germany. That’s what this film is all about.
(2014. Written by Theodore Melfi. 102 minutes.)
Vincent, an old curmudgeon, ends up watching Oliver, a boy whose mom has to work. He takes the kid to the race track and that sort of miscreant behavior. O.K. so far, and Vincent is a great part for Bill Murray. The other characters are interesting as well. Then the film takes a turn for the sentimental, and we can see it coming from miles away. Oliver’s teacher Brother Gerhaghty has been teaching about saints in the Catholic school. For the final project of the class, he wants each student to do a project on someone he or she considers a saint. The joke is of course that Vincent is as far away from a saint as you can get. Or so we are led to believe. Instead of playing with the idea of this guy being a saint, Melfi has Oliver discover stuff about him that may make him legitimately a saintly figure. Well, hell, where’s the fun in that? When Oliver makes his presentation at school, Vincent shows up and is moved. Where’s the fun in that? He ought to be pissed the kid has invaded his privacy. In the final scene, most of the characters in the film are having dinner at Vincent’s house. And he seems reasonably happy about it. How about a final close-up of Vincent where we see his ambivalence about this? It would be much more realistic, and certainly more interesting. Real is nice in your scripts, but interesting is better.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
(2014. Written by Alejandro González Iñàrritu and Nicholás Giacobone and Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. 2119 minutes.)
At least a couple of reviews and/or articles about this film suggested it is Iñàrritu’s 8 ½ (1963), since like Fellini’s film it deals with an artist struggling to do creative work. To say that Birdman is not up to 8 ½ is not to dismiss it out of hand. The characters are deeply written and the actors are given a lot to work with here. Michael Keaton gives his career-best performance as an actor who once had a hit blockbuster movie franchise he walked away from and is now writing, directing and starring in a play on Broadway. Edward Norton is also great as another actor he brings in, and Emma Stone shows some great dramatic chops. The scenes with the actors are terrific, but unfortunately Iñàrritu, who also directed, has shot the film in long, and I mean long, takes, so between the good scenes, we have a lot of walking around the St. James Theatre in New York City. I love literal backstage stuff, but here it distracts us from the heart of the movie. On the other hand, there are some fantasy sequences that are spectacular, including a flight around New York City that ends with a great payoff involving a taxi driver.
(2014. Screenplay by Tommy Lee Jones & Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley A. Olver, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout. 122 minutes.)
This is a rather lopsided script. It starts out to be the story of Mary Bee Cuddy, a pioneer woman in the Nebraska Territory, who volunteers to take three women back to “civilization.” The three have all been driven mad by life on the frontier. Along the way she saves a crusty geezer named Briggs from being hung, in return for which he will help her on the journey. So we might legitimately expect an African Queen sort of relationship, but Mary is so tightly wound she never really opens up. About two-thirds of the way through the film, there is a plot twist that takes Mary out of the film and shifts the focus to just Briggs. We are deprived of what we thought the film was going to be about. I mentioned above that if you are going to have a big twist, you had better make sure the stuff that comes afterwards is worth it. In spite of the arrival in the last third of stars like James Spader and Meryl Streep, the scenes with them don’t make up for the loss. The writers also give us no characterization for the three women, so that does not help. The three actresses are left on their own, which leads to one great bit. Briggs has delivered them to Streep’s character, and the women are sitting quietly on the sofa while Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, Academy Award winners both, discuss the situation. One of the women starts fiddling with her doll’s hair and upstages the two stars. The actress probably learned that at her mother’s knee. She is Streep’s daughter, Grace Gummer, and I would imagine there was an interesting dinner table discussion after Streep saw the footage. By the way, Gummer gets a lot more to do and does it really well as Hallie in the final season of The Newsroom.
(2014. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. 169 minutes.)
This is not a very intelligent film, either about people, or the world, or the survival of the human race. Its message is that father-daughter love can conquer time and space, which the 1997 Contact bungled as well. It might have been more convincing shorter, but the movie gives us too much time to think about the holes. One of the banes of existence for sci-fi films is establishing the world of the film. Here we are in some unspecified future, and the details get sloppy. In an early scene we learn that textbooks are saying we faked the moon landing, which does not connect with anything else in the film and is not smart enough to work as a joke on its own. If the Nolans intended it as a satirical jab (like the space toilet in 2001: A Space Odyssey), Christopher Nolan has badly directed the actress who says the line. We are also told the government closed down NASA because they did not want to fund it. Then who funded the rouge space operation we see? Nolan’s direction has always been better at flash than people. See my comments on the last part of Inception (2010) in US#52. Christopher Nolan has said in interviews he wanted to focus on the emotions of the characters here, but the characters are rather flat and standard issue. Yes, yes, the characters in 2001 are flat too, but that is part of Kubrick’s wit: they are so bland compared to the majesty of space. Where is Kubrick’s wit when we need it?
(2014. Second season, various writers.)
In US#114 I wrote about the first three episodes of the first season of The Bridge. I liked those episodes, and the rest of the first season. This year saw the second season, and it was a major disappointment. The first season started with a murder on the bridge between El Paso and Juarez. The body was in two parts, half belonging to a Mexican woman and the other half to an American. So we got an American detective, Sonya Cross, working with a Mexican detective, Marco Ruiz. The story expanded from that murder, but the murder investigation provided the spine for the season. The first season was also helped by the great writing and acting of the characters of Sonia and Marco. The second season followed multiple storylines, which were often difficult to follow, since there did not appear to be a single spine for the season. The writing and acting of Sonia, who has a minor case of Asberger’s, was sloppy, without the fine detail work of the first season. And Sonia and Marco were very seldom working separately on different aspects of the cases, so we did not get them relating to each other the way they did last year. I was not surprised that it was announced recently that there will not be a third season.
Masters of Sex
(2014. Second season, various writers.)
This was the best new series of 2013-2014. I did not get to writing about it in the column, but I did do a longer article on the series and how it is more revolutionary for television than The Sopranos ever was. It was posted in the online Canadian journal Offscreen, and you can read it here. The show is about the real life characters of William Masters and Virginia Johnson setting up their first studies of human sexual activities in the sixties. The series, developed by Michelle Ashford, is an adult look at sex. The first season was establishing the world of the show. The second season began to dig deeper into a great variety of sexual attitudes. Whereas The Bridge could not figure out how to develop its basic idea, Master of Sex did. If you have not seen the show, you might want to catch up with it however you do that. Particularly look at the scene-writing. Nearly every episode gives you a couple of great scenes: characters explored with depth and often with many surprises. Writing for the big or small screen does not get any better than Masters of Sex.