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Understanding Screenwriting #20: Moscow, Belgium, He’s Just Not That Into You, The International, & More

Understanding Screenwriting #20: Moscow, Belgium, He’s Just Not That Into You, The International, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Moscow, Belgium; He’s Just Not That Into You; The International, Taken; Taking Chance; Ugly Betty; The Closer; and Damages, but first…

Fan Mail: Thanks for the nice comments about my grandson and Lawrence.

Hokahey mentioned teaching a unit on American Film History to 8th graders. He/she might be interested in the “Education” chapter in my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing. The chapter deals with reactions from my LACC students to the films shown in class. I also include some comments from Nancy Lathrop Rutherford, a former student of mine who taught middle school for a while (she’s moved up to high school and it has relaxed her to no end) and weighs in with comments from her students. She was always surprised that the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t play better to middle schoolers because, as she put it, “Quasimodo IS every seventh grader.”

Moscow, Belgium (2007. Screenplay by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem and Pat van Beirs. 102 minutes): Love, Belgium style.

Boy and girl meet cute, argue, have problems, get together in the end. Structurally it sounds like a typical American rom-com. It’s not. First of all, the woman, Matty, is 41. Not a Jennifer Aniston 40-that-looks-26, but a real 41. Her hair is unkempt, there are lines in her face, and there is no sign of “work” or Botox. And she is grumpy as hell when we first meet her. Then in a store parking lot she backs into a large truck and she and the 29-year-old truck driver, Johnny, don’t just disagree charmingly to let us know they are made for each other. They really rake each other over the coals. He starts backpedaling as soon as she suggests calling the cops. Which we begin to understand when the two women cops arrive and obviously know Johnny. So much for the cute meet.

Most of the rave reviews for this film have focused on Barbara Sarafian, who plays Matty. Understandably so, since she is dazzling: earthy, funny, sexy, and very real. The writers have created that character for Sarafian to play and she is smart enough as an actress to take off with it. And I LOVE it that Matty does not have a neurotic bone in her body, unlike a lot of women in American rom-coms. She doesn’t whine or pout the way Nora Ephron’s heroines do. If she thinks you are full of shit, and there are several people she thinks that of, she’ll tell you outright. You may or may not want to know her in real life, but you can’t not watch her on film.

The writers also create three great characters for her to play off of. One is Johnny, who in an American movie would be virtually flawless. He’s not, and he makes more than one stupid choice over the course of the film. Another is Matty’s almost-ex husband, who is having real second thoughts about having left her for a 22-year-old student of his. How often we see the romanticized version of that May-September romance. Here we see its failure, without ever seeing the student. Werner, the husband, is so well written we also feel like we know the student by the end of the film. The third great foil is Matty’s 17-year-old daughter, and we can see where she gets HER no-bullshit attitude from.

Late in the picture Matty, the daughter and the daughter’s friend (look at how few lines it takes to define the friend,) go out to a bar. Johnny is there and makes a fool of himself singing karaoke to Matty. From all the Frank Capra movies on, we know that him making a fool of himself in public will cause her to melt into his arms. Not a chance here. And remember those few lines that defined the friend? They lead to a terrific punch line in the scene. And you thought the original lines were just a bit of characterization.

So what we have is a Belgian comedy that is sharply written, funny, and real.

The bad news is, it’s not that well directed. The director is one of those “the jerky-cam is the way to shown the truth” types, although the camera does not bounce around as much as it has in many recent films. The problem is that he does not set up his camera where we want to be. In many shots the camera is at an angle so we only get some of Sarafian and the other actors’ faces, so we miss some of their wonderful performances. But, as in SO MANY films, the script and the performances save the director’s butt.

He’s Just Not That Into You (2009. Screenplay by Abby Kohn & Mark Silverstein, based on the book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. 129 minutes): Love, American Style.

The good news here is that this film is better directed than Moscow, Belgium. The director keeps his camera on the charming cast, and John Bailey, the great cinematographer, lights the cast so we can see them and watch them all glow.

Yeah, you guessed it. The script is not as good as that of Moscow, Belgium. As you may know, this film all began one day in the writing room of the series Sex and the City when Greg Behrendt uttered THE phrase. Everybody picked up on it, it became an episode of Sex and the City and later a book with the phrase as its title. You may remember from US#1 that I pointed out in talking about the film version of Sex and the City that some things work better in shorter form. That’s still true.

The film gets off to a bad start by trying to make us believe that a man just not being that into a woman is a universal condition by showing us many groups of women around the world dealing with it. It’s only mildly funny because it’s just not true. As I have mentioned on a couple of occasions, documentaries on certain subjects are often funnier than the fictional version, and that’s because they are truer. What this film does is assume that the condition of men reacting this way is not only universal but the single most important element in the lives of the characters. This makes the film rather schematic, especially in the scenes where the writers keep trying desperately to find other ways to express the title’s bit of wisdom. The film’s approach makes the characters seem shallow, without much connection to the real world. This is especially true of Gigi, who has the largest part. She seems stupider and stupider as the film goes along.

The story is one of those multi-characters comedies that no one other than Richard Curtis should even try. In Love, Actually Curtis has a larger cast of characters than this current film, but he gives them all characters to play so the actors do not just stand around looking gorgeous. Curtis also makes the connections that we are constantly discovering between the characters surprising and enlightening, and related to the real world. Here the reaction is simply, do we know this person knew that person? And if they do know them, how does that fill out the story? Too often, the answer here is “not much?” And we do not learn much about the world in which they live. Three of the women work in what appears to be some kind of creative office, but we never get a clue as to what they do in the office, other than gossip about men. Matty in Moscow, Belgium has a real job and deals with real people while doing that job.

He’s Just Not That Into You does avoid a few stereotypes. There is a trio of three gay male best friends for Mary instead of one. While I miss seeing either Jennifer Hudson or Queen Latifah, none of the women (all white) have a sassy black female friend. And the character of Anna comes across as the female equivalent of the guys, since she has relationships with men that she seems to be just not that into. This is not seen as triumph for feminism. She avoids entangling alliances with men because she wants to be a singer. We see her singing in a club at the end, but we do not hear her. If we heard her and she was bad, then she would seem just as delusional as some of the other women. If she were good, then it would call into question the behavior of all the other women in the film.

As my wife said as we left the theater, “I’m glad I’m not out in the dating world these days.” Amen to that, dear.

The International (2009. Written by Eric Warren Singer. 118 minutes): Running and shooting, take one.

The International is like one of those “September 10th” movies that got released after 9/11. Its attitude about big international banks-—that they are run by smart, evil men who are smarter than the rest of us and cannot be brought down by anything-—pretty much collapsed in the public mind along with financial systems. We now know those running the banks were greedy idiots who would have trouble organizing a piss-up at a beer drinking contest. So the film’s fictional bank and its leaders are not particularly convincing at this time. And the coda that the bank survived and continued its ways is even less convincing. Yes, I do know the film’s bank is based on a real bank and a scandal involving it in the early nineties, but times have changed, as Bernie Madoff told me the other day at the hotel where he’s doorman.

The story involves Salinger, an Interpol agent, and Whitman, a New York deputy District Attorney, trying to find out what the bank, The International, is doing buying up military armaments. The bank’s plot is complicated, which means we get a lot more exposition that we should have had on the mechanics of the deals, and I am not sure I still have it entirely clear. This might work if we had interesting characters to follow, but both Salinger and Whitman are very one-note characters. Salinger is an obsessive wreck and Clive Owen plays him mostly with a thousand yard stare. (It did not help that I saw the trailer of the next Owen film, Duplicity, before The International; he seems much livelier in that.) Whitman is Naomi Watts, who can be wonderful when they give her a role to play, but she does not have a natural movie star’s ability just to be interesting on-screen. There is no chemistry between Salinger and Whitman and none between Owen and Watts. Which leaves a big hole in the middle of the picture.

If Singer had filled the hole up with an interesting gallery of supporting characters, we might have bought it, but they are all standard issue, except for Wexler, an ex-STASI officer now working for the bank. He and Salinger have an interesting scene in which they discuss how far you can go against your ideals to accomplish what you set out to do. It helps that Wexler is played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who had to live with the STASI in East Germany in his earlier years, and knows what is going on in this guy’s mind. But the scene does not go much of anywhere, and does not pay off at the end, where Salinger is let off the hook by an assassin-ex-machina.

Singer does come up with at least one interesting action scene, which is the shootout at the Guggenheim Museum. The use of the locale is amusing, but the twist in the middle (two characters who should not be collaborating have to) is even better. The final shootout in the film, on the other hand, has one of those plot holes that are there simply to set up the scene: why doesn’t the bad guy use his cellphone to call any or all of his security people who are in the neighborhood?

Taken(2009. Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen. 91 minutes): Running and shooting, take two.

Notice that this one is 27 minutes shorter than The International. Whereas The International is jumping around between many countries, as befits its title, this one takes place in two cities, Los Angeles and Paris. And the plot is a lot easier to follow: ex-spy’s daughter is kidnapped by white slave traders and he tracks them down and kills them. No frills, stripped for action. Well, not exactly. Besson and Kamen take a fair amount of time to set up that Bryan Mills is feeling guilty about not being there for his daughter during his spy days, and they also take a little time to reveal that he was a spy. And when he hears his daughter being abducted over the phone, they stay on his face as he reacts to what is going on rather than showing it. The International opens with a closeup on Salinger’s face, but we do not know what he is looking at or what his reaction to it is. When Bryan swings into action, we are already feeling his pain. We want him to kick ass. It helps that Liam Neeson has the kind of star presence that sells the part. His sheer physicality helps, although he has had some “work” done on his eyes that have left him a little less expressive than he has been in the past.

The plotting has enough holes you could drive several trucks through, but it is determined to be such a guilty pleasure that you just chuckle as the improbabilities fly by. Could his former co-workers in The Company really give him a voice identification on the voice on the phone in a matter of minutes? Just like we no longer think the banks are omniscient, we know the C.I.A. isn’t. Could he really keep beating up and killing all those people without the French police paying any attention? Isn’t it convenient that he arrives in the right places at just the right times? But hey, it’s a fast, B-picture on an A budget.

And it has so far outgrossed The International. Sometimes short and simple (and even simple-minded) is better.

Taking Chance(2008. Screenplay by Ross Katz and Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, based on a journal by Lt.Col. Michael Stoble USMC [ret.]. 77 minutes): Short, simple, and definitely not simple-minded.

One thing that movies do very well, because they take place over time, is show a process. In a documentary like Nanook of the North we see Nanook build an igloo. Taking Chance is sort of a docudrama, and we follow the process of Marine Chance Phelps’s body from his death in Iraq (done only by sound over black film) through its preparation at the mortuary site at Dover to its delivery to the family and burial in Wyoming. The film shows the great care that is taken by everyone involved. We get caught up in the details that, unless you are involved in the work, you probably did not know.

The film is based on a journal by Marine Lt. Col. Strobl, who was the accompanying officer. Strobl worked in the Pentagon, crunching numbers and feeling guilty he had not volunteered for duty in Iraq. This was his first time accompanying a body and what made his journal resonate with people who read it was his observation of the reactions of everybody he met. Everyone is determined to honor Chance in whatever way they can, which gives the film variety and surprise. If Strobl ran into anyone who was disrespectful or political, it is not in the film. Ordinarily one would want some people to be against the war as a counterpoint, but at 77 minutes, you don’t need it. The film becomes a tone poem on loss.

The character of Strobl is not probed in any depth, but we watch his reactions to the other people’s reactions. Do I have to hit your over the head again about reactions being the lifeblood of film? Kevin Bacon, who was directed by Clint Eastwood in Mystic River, has adopted Eastwood’s minimalist acting style here and it is perfect for the part.

My Breakfast with Claus: Just a couple of screenwriting historians sittin’ around talking.

Claus Tieber was in Los Angeles recently and we had breakfast the one morning the research libraries were closed. I met Claus by e-mail several years ago when he contacted me to say he was working on a history of American screenwriting. Now, you would think that since I wrote the 1988 book that people still refer to as the best in the field, FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I might take exception to someone poaching on my territory. Not at all. If you had asked me in 1988 if I thought that twenty years later my book would still be considered “definitive,” I would have dismissed the idea. FrameWork was intended as a summing up of what we knew at that point, and I was sure people would come along and make it obsolete.

It didn’t happen. A year and a half after the book came out, an English author, Ian Hamilton, brought out Writers in Hollywood, 1915-1951. If you open up both his and my books to the footnotes, you will be amazed, amazed I tell you, to see that he has “found” exactly the same quotes from exactly the same sources I did. Two years ago, Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Marc Norman came out with the heavily hyped What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting. A lot of his “research” was from the stuff Hamilton got from me. I was looking forward to Norman’s book, but it was filled with errors, sloppily written, and with questionable focus-—does a book on screenwriting really need more pages on Faulkner’s Hollywood mistress than on most screenwriters? It was so bad in so many different ways that I was unable to write a review of it that would not have seemed completely self-serving.

When Claus and I first e-mailed back and forth (he teaches film in Vienna), he said he was going through FrameWork and figuring out how he could get beyond what I was doing. That was an encouraging sign. We met several times when he came to Los Angeles to do research, and sure enough, he began to find things I had not. He was even finding things that contradicted what I said. Because his grant money ran out, he could only go up to the seventies, and he focused on case studies of films and studios rather than an overall view. His book, Schreiben F?r Hollywood: Das Drehbuch in Studiosystem, was published last year in German. As I can’t read German, I have not read it yet, but I am helping him try to get an English translation and publication in this country.

Claus was in town researching two projects. The first is screenwriting in the silent film, and what he has already discovered is that the supposed Classical Hollywood Style in screenwriting (hero, villain, single conflict, etc) was only a minor part of screenwriting in the silent years. I will not give away anything more than that on the subject, but I await his book on it. His second project is a look at blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson, many of whose papers are at UCLA. He did not have any bombs to drop on Wilson over breakfast, but if they are to be found, Claus is the guy to find them. When, not if, his first book is published in English, I will let you all know. It is great to have somebody first rate working in the fields with me. Anybody else want to join us?

Ugly Betty (2009. Episode”There’s No Place Like Mode,” written by Shiela Lawrence. 60 minutes): Fashion Week!

After weeks in which we hardly saw the innards of Mode while we dealt with all the soap opera details of Daniel and Molly, Willie and Conner, Papi and Helena, and who knows who all else, it was great to get back to the satire of the fashion business. Except some of it may not be satire.

Daniel has Betty write a press release for an avant-garde (do people still use that term?) designer Mode is presenting for Fashion Week. After Betty and her new boyfriend, “sports guy” Matt, visit the designer, Heinrich, Betty and Christina (exactly how many years has she been pregnant with Willie’s baby from the frozen sperm?) write up a parody press release. Yes, it accidentally gets sent out, but Heinrich thinks it is fresh, and so Betty is assigned to produce his “show” at fashion week. His “costumes” are angels with wings made out of broken glass, the height of the absurdity of high fashion. Matt takes Betty to visit his sports world, which consists of a team’s locker room, giving us lots of great reaction shots of Betty. Matt tells her that he feels he doesn’t write about sports, but about the real life of the men in sports. O.K., but he is suggesting Betty do the same with fashion. Hasn’t he paid any attention at all to the absurdities around Mode?

The day of the show comes up. Justin has given his ticket to Helena, Papi’s nurse and now girlfriend (ethics, shmethics), so that she and Hilda, who is unnerved at her dad having a romance, can get to know each other and bond. They do, just as Christina goes into labor (see, somebody remembered her pregnancy) and can’t get out the back door. So, with nurse Helena’s help, and shielded by the monstrous angel wings of Heinrich’s outfits, she gives birth, and the hydraulic lift lifts up Willie and her baby to the cheers of everyone. Over the top, yes, but this is Ugly Betty, after all. And Lawrence neatly works it all out.

In the end Betty decides that she really wants to stay in fashion, since “Fashion is art.” See what I mean about maybe it not being satire? My thought was run, Betty, run, but if Lawrence and the other writers can maintain the balance of this episode, they may be able to make it work.

The Closer(2009. Episode “Fate Line,” written by Steven Kane. Episode “Double Bind,” written by Steven Kane & Ken Martin & Leo Geter. Both episodes 60 minutes): Back to form.

In US#19 I complained a bit that the “Power of Attorney” episode was so plot heavy that we missed a lot of the reactions from Brenda’s team that liven up the show. In “Fate Line” Kane has returned to the squad, but added in a new character, Fritz’s sister, who is in town for the wedding. Oh, yeah, Claire, the sister, thinks she’s psychic and wants to help Brenda with her case. Some of the team such as Lt. Tao think Claire is on to something, while others such as Lt. Flynn think she is wacko. The reactions of everybody on the squad to Claire add a lot. As usual with screen psychics, she is right, although not always in the way she or we think.

Claire is back in the season finale, “Double Bind.” This time she is more involved in the wedding, which, since this is a cable show, is a small affair. The reception is not much larger, with only a few extras to augment the recurring cast. The reception is most of what the videographer, who has helped on the case, gets when he asks each of the members of the squad to give their best wishes on camera to the couple. Not up to the level of the writing in “Fate Line.”

Damages(2009. Various writers. 60 minute episodes): Goodbye Patty.

I talked about my reservations about both the first and the new season of Damages in US#16. I have followed most of the episodes so far, but have finally decided to give up on it. I am simply not finding it that compelling, in a variety of ways.

Patty is not as compelling in this season as she was in the first. Then she seemed like an arch-schemer; now she’s just a lawyer doing her job.

Ellen’s conniving with the F.B.I. is not compelling because it’s repetitious.

Walter Kendrick is a standard big businessman villain and not as compelling as Arthur Frobisher.

Claire Maddox is not compelling as a foil to Patty.

The plot is not compelling, since it is an environmental law case of the kind The Practice would have dealt with in a couple of weeks, in between mad cow disease and sleepovers.

It is always nice to see Glenn Close, Marcia Gay Harden, and the rest of the actors, but the writers need to give them more to work with.

Yes, I will be dealing with the Dr. Drew Baird storylines on 30 Rock if and when they finally get around to running the third of the three episodes.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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