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Understanding Screenwriting #102: The Master, Robot & Frank, Taken 2, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #102: The Master, Robot & Frank, Taken 2, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Master, Robot & Frank, Liberal Arts, Taken 2, Trouble with the Curve, The Racket, The General Died at Dawn, The Fall Television Season 2012, but first…

Fan Mail: A bit of old business first. A few days after I sent #101 off to Keith, “AStrayn” added some comments to US#100, although he described himself as a “lurker not a commenter.” I welcome all kinds, but the more “commenters” the better, since the high class readers of this column tend to have very interesting stuff to say. He, as do I, appreciates David Ehrenstein’s comments and rebuttals. AStrayn also was delighted I am going to continue the column, since he has read every one. I hope he has a life as well.

David was back with comments on #101. He thinks Struges could have made up for Grable’s lack of edge in The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend by giving more edge to the other characters. I am not sure that would have been enough. Zoe’s granddad tried that in his direction of Jeanne Crain in Pinky (1949). He let her blandness stand in for a kind of shock at her situation and the intensity of the other characters. It sort of works there, but I don’t think that would work in Sturges’s film, since in the case of Blonde Grable’s character may just seem more out of it than she already does. But it’s certainly something to think about.

And David informs me that Jacques Rivette and I actually agree on something (Winslet’s performance in Titanic). That’s another sign of hell freezing over. Congratulations also to David on his new book on Roman Polanski. Sometime I will tell you about meeting Polanski and Sharon Tate…

“outsidedog” mentions that he found the transcript of the first of the Kasdan-Spielberg-Lucas discussions on Raiders on the Internet. I haven’t seen it, but he says it is easy to find. Well, maybe for someone who is not a Luddite about computers as I am, but I may give it a try. Meanwhile the rest of you can see what you can find.

The Master (2012. Written by Paul Thomas Anderson. 137 minutes.)

Can we all stop thinking about L. Ron and Tom Cruise and just watch the damned movie?: I always seem to have mixed feelings about Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. I never saw Hard Eight (1996), but I thought Boogie Nights (1997) was an interesting mess. I remember reading in an interview with Anderson at the time that the script for Boogie Nights was originally much longer than the film, which still clocked in at 155 minutes. It struck me in watching the film that there were several scenes that were obviously intended to be part of a longer film and that Anderson had not gotten around to cutting them, either at the script level or in the film editing, to fit the running time of the film. Some of the scenes with Julianne Moore’s character Amber dealing with her legal problems are the most obvious examples.

Magnolia (1999) was also a sprawling script, but it hung together better than Boogie Nights, not so much on a narrative level but on thematic levels, especially with the recurring Anderson theme of fathers and sons. Plus the deluge of frogs, structured to hit at just the right moment in the running time of the film. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) was Anderson’s mostly tightly controlled film and closer to a more conventional film, as if Anderson was saying, “See, I can do that if I want to.” There Will Be Blood (2007) had a sprawling plot, like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but without the range of characters of the two earlier films. Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday were both very emotionally closed off characters, which reduced audience involvement with the story. In terms of its narrative, There Will Be Blood has a lot going on outside of what we actually see in the film, and our suspicions grow that those elements may have been more interesting to watch than those we actually see.

The Master first introduces us to Freddie Quell, a Navy enlisted man in the South Pacific at the end of World War II. You might assume you are back in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), since the photography is gorgeous, but given the sailors frolicking on the beach, you might expect them to break into “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific (1958). But Anderson is of the show, not tell, persuasion, so the sailors make a sand model of a naked woman on the beach, which Freddie proceeds to have simulated sex with. He’s the most interesting, and also most creepy, character among the sailors, and therefore the one we most want to follow. So we do, into post-war therapy. The shots in the group lecture are exactly like the close-ups John Huston uses in his banned documentary Let There Be Light (1945-1948-1980; it was shot in 1945, copyrighted in 1948, and finally released to the public in 1980). Anderson also uses dialogue from Light, slightly varied for this film. And then Freddie is off to a series of jobs he seem unable to keep. If Daniel and Eli are closed off characters, Freddie lets it all hang out; we never know what he is going to do or say. Most of what he does and says is usually the wrong thing for the occasion. As interesting as he is to watch, we sort of want him to get his shit together.

He wakes up one morning on a yacht captained by Lancaster Dodd, who runs what we can only call a cult, the Cause. Dodd has been compared to L. Ron Hubbard, but Anderson only uses Hubbard as one of many models for Dodd, and the Cause could be any cult. Anderson is creating his own world here, and if you are paying attention to the film, you will quickly stop making comparisons with Hubbard. Anderson could have simply made this a satire of Scientology, but that is only a very minor element in the film. Dodd is a much more open character than most cult leaders, and the kicker is that he is funny. Not funny in the sense of being satirized, but a character with a real sense of humor. Rumor has it that Anderson and the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Dodd, based the character in part on Orson Welles, and I can believe it. Hoffman as Dodd is absolutely charismatic.

So shortly we get a great two-person scene between Freddie and Dodd as Dodd starts what he calls “processing.” See my comments on Hope Springs in US#99 for how most shrink scenes don’t work and why. The scene here works beautifully for several reasons. It is not strictly speaking a therapy sequence. Freddie does not unload his woes with Dodd nodding politely. Dodd is asking Freddie a series of quick questions, repeating a question when he thinks Freddie is not telling the truth, which is most of the time. We are also well past the half-hour mark in the film, so we are very invested in both Freddie and Dodd. And finally, with Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie and Hoffman, you have two actors at the height of their powers.

Freddie fascinates Dodd, who rightly calls him a scoundrel, and Dodd thinks if he can “cure” Freddie, then it will be a great triumph for him. That’s the film’s plot, for those of you who did not think the movie had one. Eventually Freddie goes through the complete processing experience. Now that should be as compelling as their two-man scene, since it shows a process, something that movies are usually very good at. In fact, this is one of the weakest sections of the film, since it is very repetitive. You will probably get as tired as I did of Freddie crossing the room from window to wall again and again.

Meanwhile we get hints of what is going on outside Dodd’s group. Police show up at one point to arrest Dodd for financial shenanigans. The yacht we saw when we first met him belongs to a rich woman who wants him to pay for damages. The group moves from house to house, each house owned by a member of the Cause. We learn there will be a big convention in Arizona, but it’s in a large storefront office rather than a convention hall. Anderson gives us only what we need to know about the Cause and the outside world as it affects the story, unlike the activities outside the main story in There Will Be Blood. Freddie and Dodd are more interesting as individuals than Daniel and Eli, and they hold our interest. Anderson and Hoffman keep Dodd just this side of absurdity, so we at least half believe in what he is doing. And we hope he will be successful with Freddie.

Freddie runs away from the Cause and returns to see Dodd only several years later. Dodd is now in England, which you would think would not be susceptible to the Cause but apparently is. We get another great two-man scene between Freddie and Dodd. Both are disappointed Freddie did not work out, but his demons are still in control of him. Dodd is sympathetic, but with an edge, and then he begins to talk about time travel and we realize how flaky he is. Is Freddie better off out? With all his demons? Could the Cause have eventually worked for him? We’re both happy he’s out and sorry it did not work out in the group. With Freddie and Dodd we have another of Anderson’s surrogate father-and-son, but done in more depth. The film is also a very American story, with Dodd standing in for any number of movements toward self-empowerment. Americans love the idea that we can make ourselves into better persons, and in this sense The Master is a tragedy, since Freddie has not changed by the end of the film. Except that he is having sex with a real woman rather than a sand model. And he is using some of the Cause’s terminology to seduce her. How much more American can you get?

Robot & Frank (2012. Written by Christopher D. Ford. 89 minutes.)

Robot & Frank

Charm, take one: I used to tell my screenwriting students that if you were going to write a film in a well-known genre, you had better bring something fresh to mix. This is exhibit A for the prosecution. We have had over the last hundred or so years about a million or so movies about robots. We have had them sexy (Metropolis [1927]), stalwart (The Day the Earth Stood Still [1951]), lethal (2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]), and cute (Star Wars [1977]). So the degree of difficulty for Ford to make something fresh was very high. Give the man a 10.

We are in the near future. Frank is a retired jewel thief who has serious memory problems and does not seem to take very good care of himself. Hunter, his son, gets him a help robot that will make food, clean the house, etc. Frank, like most curmudgeons in their seventies, hates the idea. OK, Frank and the robot are obviously going to bond and become buddies. Nope. Ford is great at establishing Frank’s humanity, giving Frank Langella a lot to do in the role. On the other hand, Ford is also great at not establishing the robot’s humanity. Most robot movies make us think there is some humanity in the robot. Here there is not. None. Not a jot, not a tiddle. The robot is a machine, but he is very smart in the kind of mechanical intelligence that robots can have. Ford doesn’t turn the robot cute, but gives him lines that can come legitimately out of the kind of intelligence that robots have.

So when Frank figures out he can use the robot’s mathematical skills to pick locks and its mechanical skills to do things he can no longer do, the robot does not develop a moral conscience. He is more into the mechanics of what they are doing. And he is very good at them. Ford makes his robot very consistent. When he is introduced to “Mr. Darcy” (a great name), the robot who will be taking over the local library as it goes all digital, the two robots have no small talk because they are robots, for Christ’s sake.

The living actors (Langella, Susan Sarandon as the local librarian, and James Marsden and Liv Tyler as Frank’s children) are given enough to do. The robot is “acted” by two people. The human inside the suit is actress Rachel Ma, who is thoroughly convincing, and the voice is perfectly done by Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard makes Ford’s dialogue smart in exactly the right ways. Sarsgaard gets my vote for voiceover of the Year.

Liberal Arts (2012. Written by Josh Radnor. 97 minutes.)

Liberal Arts

Charm, take two: Radnor’s trying to rely a little too much on charm here. Radnor, who also directed and plays the lead, has written a starring role for himself. Here is he Jesse, a New York college admissions interviewer in his mid-thirties. We get a nice scene at the start when we see him responding to a variety of unseen applicants about college. You can tell that a lot of them don’t belong in college, and that he is rather tired of dealing with them. So when a former professor of his, Peter, asks Jesse to come out to Ohio (the picture was filmed on the campus of Radnor’s alma mater, Kenyon) for Peter’s retirement dinner, he goes. And meets Zibby, the 19 year old daughter of friends of Peter. Radnor as a writer does not give himself much to do, but as a director he holds on himself more than he needs to. As a writer, he does not give Zibby that much to do, and he doesn’t get very deeply into how she feels about the developing relationship with Jesse. As in the similar Hello I Must be Going (see US#101), there is not enough texture in the characters. Zibby, on the other hand, is played by the luminous Elizabeth Olsen. As happened in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, see US#86), the script does not give her enough to do, but Olsen has more star quality than Radnor and she wipes him off the screen. She has the charm to carry their scenes, and he doesn’t. He is also upstaged by Richard Jenkins as Peter, Zac Efron as a campus flake, and Allison Janney as a former professor of his. He has written good parts for them, and they get the most out of them. Maybe Radnor should not star in his own scripts.

Radnor is also sloppy in the script about not giving us the interesting details. Jesse is a reader, and on the campus he meets Dean, an emotionally wounded student. Dean is reading a big thick book and Jesse tells him it is his favorite book too. But we have no idea what the book is. Later Jesse and Zibby get into a disagreement over her love for a trilogy of vampire novels. They are obviously supposed to be the Twilight novels, but we can see the cover of one of the books, and it is not a Twilight book. For a film that promotes reading, and that’s good thing, not being precise about what is being read is rather tacky.

Taken 2 (2012. Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen. 91 minutes.)

Taken 2

Just a typical take-your-daughter-to-work day: You may remember from US#20 that I liked Taken (2009) for what it was: a good, fast, who-cares-about-the-plot implausabilities B-movie. The sequel is in that same tradition. I was amused by one review that went on and on about how this is just the same as the first one, but when the review come to describing the plot it picked up on one major plot element that’s different. And that’s not the only thing.

Taken père mostly takes place in either a nighttime Los Angeles or a nighttime Paris, with Bryan Mills killing a lot of anonymous baddies in dark rooms and even darker hallways. Taken fils starts with some great aerial shots of a truck going through the mountains of what turns out to be Albania. In the back of the truck are several boxes that look to be caskets. Which they are. They carry the bodies of some of those anonymous baddies, who were not anonymous to their family and friends. Especially not to the father of one them. He is Murad Krasniqi, and he is determined to get the man who killed his son.

So then we get Bryan and Kim, his daughter who was kidnapped the last time. They both seem to have adjusted to what happened, and Bryan comes to pick her up for her driving lesson. She has failed her driving test several times, and Bryan is determined to help her. That sounds like filler, doesn’t it? Stay tuned.

Bryan has to go off to a mission in Istanbul and suggests Kim and his ex-wife Lenore join him. This is another example of Besson and Kamen going so quickly you don’t question it. So they all end up in Istanbul and Kim is kidnapped again. Nope. Here’s where it gets interesting. The baddies want to get all three of them, but they end up getting only Bryan and Lenore. Kim avoids capture. And so for the next half hour or so Kim is trying to rescue Bryan and her mom. Bryan manages to communicate with her—don’t ask—and tells her to go to his equipment bag in his hotel room closet and bring two grenades and one gun. Not three grenades and two guns. Bryan is like Q in the Bond movies: only bring to a fight what you will need. It works and soon Bryan and Kim are free, escaping the bad guys in a car. Kim insists Dad drive. He says, “Can you shoot?”


“Then you drive.” Those lines are the epitome of what the Taken movies are all about. And see what I mean about the driving test scenes earlier? Eventually it comes down to Bryan having to rescue Lenore, or as he says when Kim asks him what he is going to do, “What I do best.” Well, since that is the franchise, of course we want to see him in action, but it’s the least interesting section of the film. Since Lenore is played by Famke Janssen, who was memorable as Xenia Onatopp in the 1995 Bond film GoldenEye, you’d think she would get a chance to kick a little bad guy butt, but not here.

Besson and Kamen use the fast pace they set for a nice payoff at the end. The threesome is back in Los Angeles and is having lunch at a seaside restaurant. Eventually Kim’s boyfriend of the moment shows up and joins them. The scene goes on just a little longer than it should, and we just know something is going to happen…to set up #3 if for no other reason. But it doesn’t. Given how much money Taken 2 is making, I am sure there will be a 3, and I hope they let Xenia Onatopp in on some of the action.

Trouble with the Curve (2012. Written by Randy Brown. 111 minutes.)

Trouble with the Curve

Where are the great lines?: A lot of people think of Clint Eastwood as the strong, silent type who seldom says anything in his pictures. As we have talked about before here, that’s not true. In US#18 I wrote about how the dialogue in Gran Torino (2008) brilliantly caught American male attitudes about race. In US#44 I started the discussion of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) with a list of several great lines from the film. And then there is “Do you feel lucky, punk?” and “Go ahead, make my day.” The major weakness with Brown’s script here is that the dialogue is completely flat and literal. Everybody says exactly what they think and how they feel, and they don’t say it in any interesting ways. This is a script set in the world of baseball, so Brown is going up against Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham (1988) and Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s Moneyball (2011). No contest.

Trouble almost feels like a response to Moneyball, which showed how modern managers learned how to use statistical analyses to figure out which players to buy. The older scouts were seen as out-of-touch dinosaurs in that film. Here the main character, Gus, is one of those dinosaurs, but he and his fellow scouts are shown to have much more of a feel for the game and the players than the computer nerds. Gus, with the help of his daughter Mickey, warn his team not to hire a hot-shot hitter, but they do anyway and he flops. Gus is a curmudgeonly type, like Walt in Gran Torino, but Brown does not give Eastwood anything more to do than squint, which of course Eastwood is great at. Amy Adams is fun as Mickey, but she is inconsistently written. Sometimes she says she was happiest as a kid when she was watching games with Gus, but then gets on his case for palming her off on relatives most of her youth. You could bring those two elements together with a couple of lines, but Brown doesn’t.

The Racket (1928. Scenario by Del Andrews, adaptation by Bartlett Cormack, based on the play by Bartlett Cormack. Titles by Tom Miranda. 84 minutes.)

The Racket

Getting into the movies: I first brought Bartlett Cormack to your attention in the item about Fury (1936) in US#79. This is the film that got Cormack into the movies. The stage play opened on Broadway in 1927 and had a reasonable run of 119 performances, closing in early 1928. It’s set in a suburban police station where Police Captain McQuigg has been sent by his corrupt bosses, who are under the thumb of racketeer Nick Scarsi. McQuigg is determined to nail Scarsi, and when Scarsi’s younger brother kills a woman in a hit-and-run accident, McQuigg uses that to get Scarsi out to the station. Violence ensues. Since Cormack was a reporter, he has two reporters, Pratt and Miller, hanging around the station, and neophyte reporter Ames, who looks as though he may get involved with Scarsi’s brother’s gold-digging girlfriend. I sort of assumed on reading about the play that it was a rip-off of the more famous play dealing with cops and newspaper people, the Hecht-MacArthur The Front Page. But a check of the Broadway Data Base shows that Cormack’s play opened and closed before The Front Page opened in later 1928.

While the play is all on one set, the film does not get to the station until 35 minutes into the film. We see a lot of what was probably exposition in the play acted out in a variety of locations. Then the tension tightens as we focus on the events in the station. While the titles are credited to Tom Miranda, I can’t help but think many of them must have come from the play. The girlfriend says to the young reporter, “Didn’t your mother tell you not to speak to strange ladies?” When somebody asks McQuigg why he’s ready for a fight with Scarsi, he says, referring to the suburban location, “It’s the country air.” The director of The Racket is Lewis Milestone and it is not surprising that three years later, when he came to make the first film version of The Front Page, he had Cormack working on the script. Milestone obviously recognized good writers.

The General Died at Dawn (1936. Screenplay by Clifford Odets, story by Charles G. Booth. 98 minutes.)

The General Died at Dawn

On the other hand…: Milestone directed this film as well, and it’s a mess. Based on Odets’s 1935 New York playwriting successes Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing, he was brought to Hollywood and assigned to this film. Why anybody at Paramount thought the poet of the American proletariat would have been a good choice for an exotic melodrama set in China is anyone’s guess. It is not a match made in heaven. The dialogue is clunky and overwritten, and there is a slightly-more-than modest amount of left-wing speechifying. The Hollywood actors, most of them first rate, are at a loss with how to deal with Odets’s language, and Milestone gives them no help at all. Normally excellent actors like Madeleine Carroll and Porter Hall give bad performances, while Gary Cooper is smart enough to protect himself by underplaying the dialogue.

Not only is the dialogue bad, the plotting is awful. Cooper plays O’Hara, an arms dealer trying to get a supply of weapons to some rebels. In the early scenes he is told by several different people to fly to his destination and under no circumstances to take the train. Cut to O’Hara on the train, hanging out with Carroll’s Judy Perrie, whom he seems to already know. Comments on the IMDb raise the question of whether a reel is missing, but the current running time is the same as its original. There is probably a scene or two missing that got cut, without any additional reshoots of either the cut scenes or the remaining scenes. Paramount seems to have been satisfied with what they had; Thalberg at MGM would have cleared up the mess. If what we see is what Odets wrote, he did a worse job than I thought.

Not only is Milestone’s direction of the actors bad, he does not capture the exotic look the film is going for. One critic said the film looked as though it was shot on the sets left over from Shanghai Express (1932), which pretty much tells you what Paramount had in mind for the film. But to bring something like that off you need Jules Furthman and Josef Von Sternberg, not Clifford Odets and Lewis Milestone.

The Fall Television Season, 2012.

Go On

New and returning: As I write this, it has not been a great season for new shows, but there are a few with potential. Let’s start with the lesser ones. Go On brings back Matthew Perry as a talk radio host getting over the death of his wife by going to group therapy. I am not sure what the franchise is here. Is it the radio scenes or the group scenes? I think the group scenes, but the other people are rather standard issue.

The New Normal is about two gay guys (Brian’s the flamboyant one, David’s the “straight one”—isn’t it time for a new set of cliches?) who hire Goldie to be the surrogate mother for the child they want. Maybe, but Goldie’s Nana shows up, spouting the anti-gay cliches the industry assumes people in fly-over parts of the country all believe. They don’t, and we might, maybe, forgive her if the comments were funny, but they are not. I also have to wonder about Goldie’s eight-year-old daughter Shania, who after watching Grey Gardens once is suddenly swanning around the house as Little Edie. Ben & Kate are brother and sister. She is the mature one, and he is staying with her and her young daughter. He is the classic man-child and the writers are relentlessly obnoxious about it.

The Mindy Project is about an ob-gyn whose personal life is messy. How’s about we have an ob-gyn whose personal life is not messy? Just for a change. Emily Owens, M.D. is about a surgical intern whose person life is… yeah, you guessed it. The pilot, written by Jennie Synder Urman, spends way more time than it needs to comparing the hospital to high school. Maybe on Grey’s Anatomy, but not most hospitals I know. Still the show does have the luminous Mamie Gummer as Emily.

Neighbors is about a family that moves into a gated community where all the other residents are aliens from another planet. The wittiest thing about the show is that the aliens have renamed themselves after sports figures. Other than that, there is nothing you have not seen on 3rd Rock from the Sun, or longer ago, My Favorite Martian.

666 Park Avenue is a haunted apartment house show, as opposed to just a haunted house show. A young couple moves in, with the wife taking over as the manager. The owners, Gavin and Olivia Doran, are probably up to no good. Well, we know Gavin is because we see him at it. He may in fact be the Devil. But Vanessa Williams, who plays Olivia, should be collecting unemployment insurance for all she is given to do. The show may amount to something, but it seems pretty much standard issue for now.

Partners is a sitcom about two guys, one of whom is the flamboyant gay guy and the other is the straight guy. No, really, he’s straight. And he just got engaged to Ali. The show is based on the real-life relationship of its two creators, David Kohan and Matt Mutchnick, but so far all the episodes have focused on Louis, the gay one, interfering with the straight one Joe’s love life. A little of that goes a long way, although I am a big fan of Michael Urie, late of Ugly Betty, as the straight one. No, not really. He’s the gay one, and he brings a lot of energy to the show.

Nashville is created by Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise, Something to Talk About), and I knew it was in trouble when two minutes into it my wife said, “It’s another All About Eve.” Right you are, dear, as Khouri makes so obvious so immediately. One thing I love about Mankiewicz’s script is that he doesn’t let us know for sure that Eve is a bitch until very far into the movie. We suspect, but we don’t know. In the pilot for Nashville, Khouri established that the older country music star, Rayna, is nice to her husband, her kids, and anybody who crosses her path. She does her own makeup, for God’s sake, whereas the younger Juliette has lots of people doing her makeup and hair, and she treats them like shit. The show is putting the two singers together on a tour, but I doubt if there will be many surprises. On the other hand, the show does capture the flavor of Nashville and the country music scene better than Smash did Broadway. Snails and oysters, as Crassus would say; I happen to prefer Broadway to Nashville.

Elementary is another redo of Sherlock Holmes, this time in modern New York and with a woman as Dr. Watson. She is a former doctor who has been hired by Holmes’s father to be a “sober companion” for Holmes. She is also smart about medical stuff, and in the first few episodes is given a little more to do than Dr. Watson usually does. And she is played by Lucy Liu, who brings a lot of colors to the role.

The new show that I like the best is Vegas, co-created by Nicholas Pileggi, the author of the book and screenplay for Casino (1995), and in Vegas he gets a chance to correct the mistake that Scorsese made with the film. As I wrote in my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, “I also think that Scorsese was so into the tragic, melodramatic view of gangsters that he did not understand that for everybody living west of the Hudson River, the story was basically a comedy: Goodfellas Go to Vegas and Get Their Clocks Cleaned by a Bunch of Cowboys.” Pileggi gets that the story is a comedy, and we are encouraged to laugh as Sheriff Ralph Lamb gets the better of gangster Vincent Savino. The interplay between the two as Savino tries to figure out how to deal with Lamb makes for some interesting scenes, as does the kind of documentary material about the casino business that Pileggi brought to Casino. That material is more interesting so far than the typical crime stories the show deals with.

On the returning front, NCIS, NCIS:LA, and CSI all had a lot of cleaning up to do their first episodes from the kind of cliffhanging stuff they left us with in the spring. If you had not been watching in the spring, you would have had no idea what was going on in these episodes. The Good Wife showed how to handle the transition. Yes, Lockhart Gardner is undergoing financial problems, so we have a trustee appointed to study the financial situation. He is Clarke Hayden (played by the most restrained Nathan Lane you have ever see in your entire life—and he’s wonderful), and in the first episodes, we don’t quite know where he stands. The first episode, “I Fought the Law” (written by Robert King & Michelle King), brings on Hayden, but he is secondary to the situation where Alicia’s son Zach gets into a tangle with a cop in another county. Alicia, with some technical help on the Internet from Zach, finds out that the area the cop stopped Zack was a bit of the highway where a lot of drug stops are made. That would be enough for some shows, but not The Good Wife. The drug cars on this part of the road that are stopped are going northbound. Which means they are not the cars bringing drugs into the county, but taking the drug money back to Canada. Needless to say, the cops confiscate the money. And the police union threatens not to support Peter for governor if Alicia carries through the case, which would close down this lucrative practice. Our guys win, at least for now. And in following episodes we get return engagements by some of the great guest stars the show has built up over the years.

On Castle last spring Castle and Beckett finally fell into each other’s arms. Now they are trying not to let anyone know about. Yeah, fat chance. Castle’s mom and daughter pick up on it almost immediately. In “Murder, He Wrote” (written by David Grae), the two other cops, Ryan and Esposito, are determined to find out who Beckett’s secret boyfriend is. She and Castle have gone out of his county estate in the Hamptons for a romantic weekend. Yeah, fat chance. A guy falls into Castle’s swimming pool and dies, and Castle and Beckett reluctantly help the local sheriff, who has never handled a murder case before. Castle gets Ryan to look into some New York connections, and Ryan figures out from one of the people he interrogates that Beckett is with Castle. Now, does he tell, or not? If not, how do you show he is not telling? Well, in this case, Esposito is pushing him to say what he learned in the interrogation, and Ryan is deliberately not telling him about Castle and Beckett. This episode also lets Stana Katic, who plays Beckett, be looser, funnier, and sexier than she normally gets to be. I’ll vote for that.

On Modern Family Gloria is now pregnant, and in the first episode (“Bringing up Baby,” written by Paul Corrigan & Brad Walsh), Jay has to find out. It’s his birthday and Phil and his friends take him fishing. Gloria tells her son Manny, who thinks that Jay will be upset, as do we. Jay hears from his friends all day long about how miserable being old will be, so he turns out to be delighted that Gloria is pregnant, which will give him a second chance at fatherhood. Everybody is surprised at his reaction. On Two and a Half Men, we are still getting more of Walden and less of the others, which is too bad since he is the least interesting character on the show. In “Four Balls, Two Bats, One Mitt” (story by Chuck Lorre & Eddie Gorodetsky, teleplay by Don Reo & Jim Patterson), Alan suggests to Lindsey they have a threesome. Lyndsey thinks it’s a great idea, but it should be two men and her: Alan and Walden. Alan’s not happy, but we get a great scene of them all trying it (as much as you can on network television), and then when Alan and Lyndsey pick up a girl for their threesome, the girl falls for Walden. It’s risque and funny, and it tells us a lot more about Alan and Lyndsey than it does about Walden. On How I Met Your Mother, we still haven’t met the mother. And on Two Broke Girls, Max and Caroline are still trying to make it with their cupcake business, but at least they have stopped saying “vagina” in every other sentence.

30 Rock came back from hiatus with “Episode 701” (written by Jack Burditt), which was just silly, as Jack is trying to run NBC into the ground by putting on bad shows. He thinks he can then buy it cheaply. “Episode 702” (written by Robert Carlock) is a little better. It showed on October 6th, the night of the vice-presidential debate, and started with the news that Paul Ryan had been thrown off the ticket because it was discovered he was born in Kenya. He was replaced by Bob Dunston, a Herman Cain-type buffoon, who is a dead ringer for Tracy Jordan. Jack does not want them to do political satire, since it always raises the ratings. He makes Liz promise she will not write a single word about Dunston. Jack is upset when he sees the sketch, but Liz points out she did not write anything, just selected quotes from the actual Dunston. The whole Dunston plot surely comes out of Tina Fey’s experience doing Sarah Palin four years ago. But in this episode it is not as well developed as it could have been, and the episode was cluttered with a lot of other subplots. Carlock should have re-read the section in Fey’s book on the Sarah Palin business.

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.



Watch: The Long-Awaited Deadwood Movie Gets Teaser Trailer and Premiere Date

Welcome to fucking Deadwood!



Photo: HBO

At long last, we’re finally going to see more of Deadwood. Very soon after the HBO series’s cancellation in 2006, creator David Milch announced that he agreed to produce a pair of two-hour films to tie up the loose ends left after the third season. It’s been a long road since, and after many false starts over the years, production on one standalone film started in fall 2018. And today we have a glorious teaser for the film, which releases on HBO on May 31. Below is the official description of the film:

The Deadwood film follows the indelible characters of the series, who are reunited after ten years to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. Former rivalries are reignited, alliances are tested and old wounds are reopened, as all are left to navigate the inevitable changes that modernity and time have wrought.

And below is the teaser trailer:

Deadwood: The Movie airs on HBO on May 31.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.



Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.



Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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