Coming Up In This Column: The Town, Easy A, Going the Distance, Something's Gonna Live, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Hollywood: A Third Memoir (book), California Dreamin', Captain Horatio Hornblower, White Collar, Nikita, Mad Men, but first…
Stop the Presses: On the front page of the September 13-19, 2010, issue of Weekly Variety, Jeffrey (EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE IN 3-D NOW AND FOREVER!) Katzenberg was quoted as saying, “Consumers are more and more cautious. The lure of 3D is not panning out.”
Fan Mail: “AStrayn” took exception to my notion that “The Suitcase” episode of Mad Men would work as a stand-alone episode and felt I was saying that viewers who did not have a history with the show would “understand everything.” I never claimed they would “understand everything.” In any stand-alone episode of a serialized show, obviously people who already know the show will get the most out of it. But in a good stand-alone, which I think “The Suitcase” is, knowing all the backstory of the characters and the situations is not as crucial as it is for other episodes. That's one of the reasons shows do them—so Emmy voters who may not watch the show on a regular basis can still appreciate them.
I agree with David E. that Lord Love a Duck (1966) is one of Lola Albright's great performances, but I have to admit that the last time I saw the film, I did not like it as much as I had the first time. The big problem with the script is that Barbara Anne's friend and mentor Alan is so obviously her gay best friend that it is completely unbelievable when he turns out to be straight and in love with her. Well, it was 1966, after all.
The Town (2010. Screenplay by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan. 124 minutes)
Not quite The Asphalt Jungle, but still good: I mentioned in my comments on The Badlanders (1958) that I thought the 1950 film of The Asphalt Jungle had one of the best combinations of plot and character in the robbery genre. The Town almost matches it, and in one way goes a little beyond it. As in most heist movies, we are sympathetic to the robbers. We find them exciting and dangerous and when they are on-screen, stuff happens. Here, as in Jungle, the criminals are real pros. In the first robbery sequence we see the gang knows enough to rip out the security camera tapes and cook them in a microwave. The leader is Doug MacRay, and not only is he good at his job, he is handsome (he's played by Affleck, who also directed) and shows degrees of common sense and even sensitivity. Second in command is Jem, the hot-tempered one. He ends up taking a hostage during the robbery, which was not planned. The guys were wearing masks, but they are afraid she might have seen something. So Doug arranges a cute meet with her and begins to fall in love with her. Some of their scenes are a little overwritten, especially Doug's tale of losing his mother, but the actors make them work. The hostage, a manager of the bank, is played by Rebecca Hall, who has gotten better and better as a film actress. We care for Doug and Claire, so watching it all go south is painful. There are also some very colorful supporting crooks, including “Fergie,” the local crime boss, and Doug's father. You write great parts, you get great actors, such as Pete Postlewaite and Chris Cooper, as those last two, respectively. Not to mention Jeremy Renner as Jem.
In The Asphalt Jungle, the police commissioner supervising the case is a standard solid citizen, even if one of his detectives is corrupt. Frawley, the F.B.I. agent in charge of this case, is a much better drawn character. He is tough, smart, occasionally funny, and not above leaning on people, such as Claire and Krista, Doug's ex-girlfriend (Blake Lively, who has been very bland in everything else I have seen her in, is a revelation here). And, since he is played by Jon Hamm, he is just as handsome as Doug is. In the second half of the film, our sympathy also goes out to him, since the gang's activities, or at least Jem's, have gotten more violent. And the gang in general is losing our sympathy. The writers, whether following the novel or not, give us three heist sequences. The first is the bank and the second is an armored car, which gives us a great slow-speed chase in the narrow streets of Boston. The third is Fenway Park after a big weekend, and here we really get turned off by the gang. Hey, they love their hometown, but they are still going to rob Fenway, for Christ's sake? Needless to say, it does not go well. The ending is satisfactory on all counts.
Easy A (2010. Written by Brent V. Royal. 93 minutes)
You write good parts…: I'd call this one bright but not as sharp as it might be. The setup is terrific. Olive, a high school girl nobody seems to pay attention to, avoids (in a very funny scene) a weekend with her best friend Rhianna by claiming she has a date with a college boy. When Rhia bugs her for details in the rest room Monday at school, Olive makes up a story about having sex with the imaginary date. Word spreads very quickly (in a nice shot that is repeated a little more than it should be) and she has a “reputation.” Since Olive is reading The Scarlet Letter in class and is very smart, she decides to accept the reputation. She helps Brandon, a closeted gay guy, appear to be straight by pretending to have sex with him at a party (also a very funny scene). Don't worry; Brandon gives up the pretense later on and gets a terrific payoff, which includes the tag to a line earlier in the picture that just seemed a one-off joke. Yes, Olive does get hit on by guys who really want to “do it,” but she is also asked by shy guys to pretend she did it with them. Then things get even more complicated.
The upside is that Olive is a terrific character. She is easily the smartest person in whatever room she is in, but she's also the nicest. It's a great starring role for Emma Stone, whom I mentioned in US#26 was “terrific” in last year's Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. She's got the smarts and the charm for the part and she delivers. She is also helped by the cinematographer, Michael Grady, who makes her and everybody else in the picture look really, really good. But Olive is not the only good character in the film. Her parents are odd, in the most interesting ways, and the parts attracted Stanley Tucci to play her dad and Patricia Clarkson to play her mom. They are not working at full power, but that's not what's required. Charm, and a light touch is. Clarkson and Stone have a scene together near the end on the hood of a car that is one of the great mother-daughter scenes in recent films. And wait, there's more: Olive's favorite teacher, Mr. Griffith, is Thomas Haden Church, and his wife, a guidance counselor who could use a little guidance, brings out another great performance from Lisa Kudrow. Not all the parts are that well written. The principal is standard issue huffy, but it is funny to see Malcolm McDowell, Mick Travis his ownself from If… (1968), on the other side of the barricades. Todd, the boy Olive ends up with, is rather blandly drawn. Yes, he is given a “motivation” for knowing what Olive is up to, but nothing is developed from that.
As bright as the film is, its satire is not as sharp as it could be. Olive's nemesis is Marianne, a relentless Christian promoting abstinence. Royal could have gone a lot further with this character and the abstinence movement. And, alas, he does not give that character a payoff at the end, as he does the others. As with Georgie Minafer, we want to see her get her comeuppance. But then Orson Welles never actually showed us that comeuppance, either, so I guess Royal is in good company. Or maybe he is just thinking about a sequel: Easy A+.
Going the Distance (2010. Written by Geoff LaTulippe. 102 minutes)
Why is little Gertie from E.T. talking dirty?: Having a good time, from the look of it. Judd Apatow and the girls from Sex and the City may have a lot to answer for. While visually American movies have not gotten more sexually graphic, they have certainly gotten verbally more graphic. The boys in Apatow films never seem to shut up about sex and all its permutations. Sometimes, as in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, there is a little characterization as well, and those tend to be Apatow's better films. In Sex and the City, both the TV show and the movies, it is the girls talking among themselves. Going the Distance tries to have it both ways, with both the boys and the girls talking dirty, sometimes to each other. Given that the picture has not performed that well at the box office, LaTulippe may have gone a bridge too far in the language area. Having the guys and the girls doing it together may have turned off some members of the audience. That may be the limit beyond which, at least for now, the audience won't let you go. Or it may just be the sound of Drew Barrymore being crude that was too much. Foul language is awfully tricky to handle in an American film, since as a writer, you never quite know where the line is. In the new semester of my screenwriting class at Los Angeles City College, we have started looking at The 40 Year-Old Virgin in ten to fifteen minute segments. I will give you a more detailed reported at the end of the semester, but it is fascinating to see what Apatow and Steve Carell left in and what they took out in the theatrical release (we are looking at the unrated version) in terms of language.
I have to admit that my wife and I and the audience we saw Going the Distance with laughed a lot at the film. But then I was at Yale and in the Navy for four years each, and my wife worked with a bunch of male scientists for years, so there was nothing we have not heard before in one form or another. I was particularly taken with Erin's (Barrymore) description of having oral sex performed on her, which has a great punchline. Nonetheless, the film has more than its share of flaws. Erin and Garrett meet just after another of his relationships breaks up and they connect very quickly. LaTulippe uses, and maybe overuses, their connections through pop culture as a fast way to establish them as a couple. He also includes a lot of generic “couple montages,” including the standard “larking about on the beach.” It's long past time to put a moratorium on that. The first half-hour goes quickly, but then she has to leave New York City to go to Stanford, and in the second half-hour they try to deal with a long distance relationship. This includes a very funny phone sex scene. But in the third half-hour, the film gets very repetitive as they talk about what they can do about their situation. So the film slows down just when it should be speeding up. The solution they ultimately find is very much one for our time, and the final joke is nicely set up and played.
Something's Gonna Live (2010. Written by Daniel Raim. 80 minutes)
Not structuring the documentary: In US#57 I talked about the structuring of two of this year's best documentaries, A Film Unfinished and Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. The filmmakers of both of those found intelligent ways to pull together the variety of material they had. Unfortunately Daniel Raim has not in this film.
In 2000 Raim did the highly acclaimed documentary The Man on Lincoln's Nose. It was about the great art director Robert Boyle, who worked with Hitchcock on, as you may have guessed, North by Northwest, as well as several other of the Master's films. In the current film Raim picks up Boyle again, as well as several of Boyle's friends and colleagues. Mostly they all wander around Hollywood, Paramount studios (where they first met), and Bodega Bay, where Boyle and storyboard artist Harold Mickelson revisit the locations for their 1963 film The Birds. Some of this is amusing and nostalgic, but other than that there does not seem to be much point to it. Then Raim brings on two older cinematographers, Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall, which gets us away from the discussions of art direction and production design. But Raim never finds a compelling shape for the footage he has.
On a more positive note, all of the artists talk about the importance of story to films. Although not one of them ever mentions screenwriters.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010. No writer credit. 86 minutes)
Now this is how you do it: Unlike Something's Gonna Live, this is a beautifully structured documentary about the great British cinematographer. I have no idea how much is on the cutting room floor, but everything, and I mean everything, in here has to do with why we are interested in seeing a movie about Cardiff. We get a few personal details, but not many. We do get a few “walking around” scenes, but those tend to be with who I assume is the director, Craig McCall, as he asks Cardiff about his work. Since this is a film, we can SEE the work. Yes, the cinematography of Black Narcissus (1947), which won Cardiff an Oscar, is gorgeous, but even clips from the film show how over-the-top the melodrama was in the film. Some of Cardiff's directing credits are discussed, but not the awful ones, although he does talk about some of the potboilers he photographed. The structure of the film is more or less chronological, although I thought McCall was shrewd to avoid discussing working with Marilyn Monroe on The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) until very late in the picture, which sets up a degree of suspense among those of us who want to hear about that troubled shoot.
Hollywood: A Third Memoir (2010. Book by Larry McMurtry. 146 pages)
Imagine that: a screenwriter who is not bitter: Well, it helps that McMurtry thinks that his screenwriting work is his tertiary career. First, he is a novelist. Second, he is a bookseller who has owned a couple of bookstores. He first dealt with Hollywood when his 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By was made into the 1963 film Hud. Since then he has had novels adapted into films and television movies and miniseries, and he has done some screenwriting himself, most notably the 2005 adaptation of the Annie Proulx story Brokeback Mountain, for which he and his writing partner Diana Ossana won the Academy Award.
This thin, delightful volume recounts his adventures in the screen trade, and he is remarkably clear-eyed about the business. He is not settling scores, or bitching at what was done to his work. He even thinks the screenwriters of Hud made a mistake by keeping the ending of the novel and not improving it. He accepts Hollywood for what it is, and he enjoys the very interesting characters he meets there. And then he goes back to Texas or wherever he is living at the moment and gets back to work. Just like all real writers should.
California Dreamin' (2007. Written by Cristian Nemescu and Tudor Voican, additional dialogue by Catherine Linstrum. 155 minutes)
Paisan, fifty-five years later: I am not sure if this was ever released theatrically in the United States, although it did play at a couple of film festivals in this country. It caught my eye when I was browsing on Netflix. It is Romanian and sounded not unlike some of the other Romanian films I had liked. A NATO train with what is probably spy equipment is stopped by a local railroad stationmaster in a small town in Romania. The stationmaster, Doiaru, is used to holding up trains so his associates can steal from them. The American Captain in charge of the train, Doug Jones, is none too happy about all this. His soldiers don't mind, especially given the surprising number of young ladies in the village.
What struck me almost immediately is that the writers (Nemescu also directed) are picking up on one of the themes Rossellini had in Paisan (1946), which we talked about in US#58. We see the communications problems, both linguistic and cultural, between the Romanians and the Americans. Rossellini's second theme, of how war corrupts, is not in play here, because Doiaru is already corrupt. The connection with Paisan hit me in an early scene as the soldiers get off their ship and onto the train. The English language dialogue, probably by Linstrum, is not written by anybody who ever had any experience with the American military.
Unfortunately the writers here are not up to Rossellini and Fellini and their associates. There is very little characterization, and what there is is straight off the rack. Doiaru is a small town corrupt official. His daughter, Monica, is a sullen 17-year-old who sees the soldiers as a way to get out of town. Captain Jones bellows a lot. Even with a Romanian Elvis impersonator and a bordello run by the town mayor, there is very little that is new or observant about the film. The Concert (2009—see US#57) is a lot fresher in dealing with its clash of cultures.
The running time of the film is also a problem. Nemescu, the director, died shortly after shooting was completed. So what we have in effect here is the rough cut of the film. It could easily be condensed by a good half-hour or more. That would not improve the script, but it might help the film. You could also do what I did. I watched the first half-hour of the DVD at normal speed, then the last two hours at twice normal speed. At least on my DVD player it still lets you read the subtitles, although you do have to be quick about it.
Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951. Screenplay by Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts and Aeneas MacKenzie, adapted from his novel by C.S. Forester. 117 minutes)
Time passes, attitudes change: I first saw this when it came out in 1951 and loved it. Well, I was nine or ten. I saw it again several years ago and it seemed rather stodgy. Then I ended up watching it one recent Saturday night on my wife's smaller TV, since she had co-opted the wide screen one for the UCLA football game. Maybe it was the small screen, but it was not as bad as I thought the last time I saw it. Not anywhere as good as I thought it was when I first saw it, but still…
C.S. Forester started writing about the fictional Royal Navy hero Horatio Hornblower in the thirties. The Hornblower stories are set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, and are very much the forerunner of the Master and Commander novels of Patrick O'Brian. In spite of the way the credits for the film read, Forester's adaptation includes material from the first three novels. The Happy Return (1937) deals with the South American adventure in the first half of the film. A Ship of the Line (1938) is about fighting the French fleet. Flying Colors (also 1938) has the escape from the French on the Witch of Endor. As you might guess, given the script's genesis, dramatic structure is not its strong point. Since Hornblower rescues Lady Barbara in South America, we follow their romance, which makes the film more of a love story than it needs to be. We do get plenty of sea battles and sword fights, and you can see why Warner Brothers first thought of Errol Flynn for Hornblower. By the time the first was ready for production, Flynn was thought to be too old, and he was replaced by Gregory Peck, who may be better than Flynn would have been.
The focus in the film, as in the novels that Forester had written up to that time, was on Hornblower as an adult. Later, Forester went back and wrote several novels about Hornblower's younger days. When this film was made, Hollywood was still looking at adults for their leading men. From 1998 to 2003, the Brits made a wonderful series of made-for-TV movies about the young Hornblower, following his rise through the ranks. The young Hornblower, beautifully played by Ioan Gruffudd, is even more befuddled by women than the adult one was, and the TV movies stick to action and life in the British Navy of the period. Generally I prefer the TV movie versions, since they have time to develop characters and relationships in ways the feature does not. Ah yes, good writing will always triumph.
White Collar (2010. “Point Blank” episode written by Jeff Eastin. 60 minutes)
Oh my God! They killed Kenny: Or in this case, Mozzie. Well, maybe.
This was the half-season finale of White Collar, so nearly the entire episode was about Pete, Diana and Neal trying to bring former F.B.I. agent Fowler, whom they suspect of killing Kate, out into the open. This involves a plot to have Alex steal the box from Kate's apartment safe and return it to the Russian Museum, which Neal assures Alex will take the heat off her. So she may at least temporarily be out of the series. The plan gets Fowler to show up at the Museum, but it turns out he didn't plan to kill Kate. He bought the explosives, but his idea was that Neal and Kate would bail out of the plane before it blew up. Fowler was being blackmailed by somebody with a lot of clout, whom Fowler never met. He always met a go-between, whom we see.
And in the final scene the go-between walks up to Mozzie, who is sitting on a park bench, and shoots him. In the chest. And Mozzie appears to die. That was a shocker to me because Mozzie, as I have written about often, is a great supporting character for this show. I cannot believe they have really killed him. And of course, they probably have not, even if he looks very dead at the end of the episode. And take comfort, Mozzie lovers, he showed up in the promos that began the next week for the next mini-season of episodes in January. Well, that's a relief. But they did give me a start.
Nikita (2010. “Pilot” episode, no writing created, but “developed by” Craig Silverstein. 60 minutes)
Not quite the end of American television as we know it: Back when the 1990 French film La Femme Nikita was playing in New York, The New Yorker's weekly blurb for it was: “The end of French cinema as we know it.” It was an early film written and directed by Luc Besson, and when he created the part of a young woman criminal who is turned into a professional killer, he shaped the part specifically for Anne Parillaud. It made her a star. When Robert Getchell and Alexandra Seros adapted it into the 1993 American film Point of No Return, nobody bothered to think through what it would mean to the film to have Parillaud replaced by the very American Bridget Fonda. They failed to reconceive the part for her, the picture was a flop, and Fonda's career took a hit from which it never recovered.
I never saw the Canadian-made television series based on the film that ran from 1997 to 2001. Nikita has been resurrected yet again, this time for an American-made series. Given all that is gone on before, we cannot watch her go through her training again, so the pilot starts with Nikita coming out of hiding and telling the Division she is out to destroy them. This is intercut with Alex, a young woman bank robber, going through the training. We find out at the end of the pilot that Nikita and Alex are in cahoots, although exactly what kind of cahoots we do not yet know.
Nikita in this case is Maggie Q, a protégé of Jackie Chan, so you know she has some nifty martial arts moves. A lot of them in the pilot. I mean, a LOT of them, and they get rather repetitive. I am not sure if she can carry an entire series. Partly it is that Nikita is presented as a stoic, but Q simply does not seem very expressive, even within the limitations of the part. She is certainly striking looking, both at rest and in action, but she may need more to hold our interest. Some of this is also the writing of the pilot as well, which is incredibly humorless. Her two nemeses are Michael, her former handler, and Percy, her former boss. They are played by Shane West and Xander Berkeley, who are usually great, but here are just required to scowl a lot. I may watch the show one more time, just to see if anybody, ever, cracks a smile.
Mad Men (2010. “The Summer Man” episode written by Lisa Alpert & Janet Leahy and Matthew Weiner. 62 minutes)
One step forward, one step sideways: Let's take the sideways step first: What the hell were any of them thinking by having Don write a dippy little high school journal? It makes obvious all the stuff that the writing of this show usually keeps subtle and nuanced. If they ask for my vote, it's drop it.
The forward step comes in a great, yes subtle and nuanced, scene in the elevator between Joan and Peggy. Peggy's “boys” having been behaving like boys, assuming that when Joan went into Lane's office, it was to have sex. The “older” guys at the agency seem paragons of feminism compared to this gang. Joey, one of the new kids, draws a pornographic cartoon of what he thinks Joan and Lane must be doing. Peggy sees it and criticizes it, but then Joey puts it up on their window facing Joan's office. Peggy takes the cartoon into Don, who tells her to handle it, since “You don't want me involved in this.” He tells her to yell at the guys or fire them. Peggy talks to Joey, who refuses to apologize to Joan, and Peggy fires him.
Now Peggy and Joan meet in the elevator. How would you write that scene? Here's what the team comes up with. Joan is pissed that Peggy took control and fired Joey. She could have talked to one of her influential men friends and got him fired. Peggy says the result is the same, but Joan says not. Peggy's actions reduce Joan to being a powerless secretary and Peggy to being a humorless bitch. Joan is still thinking of office sexual politics the way they have always been. She knows how to navigate those waters. Peggy does not want to play those games and is willing to take charge openly. We see in this short, dense scene the clash of cultures within the world of women that is going to evolve into the women's movement and the backlashes against it. That's the kind of writing we love on Mad Men. More please.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.