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Understanding Screenwriting #34: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, & More



Understanding Screenwriting #34: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, Community, The First Week of the 2009-2010 Television Season, but first…

Fan Mail: I need to catch up on comments not only from US#33 but a couple from US#32 as well.

In 32, Jamie suggested I try The Last Temptation of Christ again since I never watched the whole thing. Thanks for the suggestion Jamie, but when you get to be my age, you can tell pretty quickly that a picture is not going to work for you, so I think in my remaining years I will probably not get to Last Temptation. Jason Bellamy raised several problems he had with the script for District 9. I can see his points (and that’s the kind of comments and discussions I love), but with that film I found myself in a common situation: the writers had so hooked me in that I was willing to overlook the flaws. If the picture is working for you, you won’t be bothered by the flaws. A classic example: has anybody ever hated Jaws because the weather in every shot in the last half-hour is completely different from the previous shot?

In 33, Matt Zoller Seitz thought it was “great to see some love for Ghost Town.” That’s one of the reasons I don’t just write about new movies. Sometimes we pick up on earlier films that we missed, or are seeing again, and find something new in them. “Female geek” liked the Masterpiece Theatre version of Sense & Sensibility more than I did, although mostly for location, art direction, and acting reasons. Hey, we all like movies for a lot of reasons. “dfantico” wondered if given my comment about Amreeka “not being as good as it could have been” what my take was on Law Abiding Citizen. He thought the idea sounded interesting and wondered what went wrong. As with Last Temptation, I am pretty sure I am going to give this one a miss, so the following is just a guess. Most artists are delusional, which is what makes them interesting. Sometimes those delusions tell us stuff in entertaining ways and those delusions become our delusions. Sometimes the artists’ delusions are so unconnected to ours they don’t work for us. I gather from some interviews I have read with the makers of Law Abiding Citizen that they thought they were making a more serious film than viewers thought it was. The filmmakers apparently did not get far enough beyond the revenge elements of the story for at least the critics. Anyway, that’s my guess, and now on to movies I have seen.

Jennifer’s Body (2009. Written by Diablo Cody. 102 minutes): Not one of the Mistress’s finest, but amusing.

As I am sure you have noticed, there is an enormous backlash against FORMER-STRIPPER-TURNED-AWARD-WINNING-SCREENWRITER Diablo Cody, and a lot of it is showing up in the reviews of this film. Those of you who are long-time readers of this column will remember from US#4 that I was a big fan of Cody’s Juno, even more after looking at it again. One aspect of Cody’s script for Juno that several people complained about was that the dialogue was too cute and everybody talked alike. I shot down that last one in the comments in my column. I happened to like the archness of the dialogue. I happen to like smart-mouthed women, especially smart-mouthed women writers. If we will let Tarantino write like that, why not Cody? Is her being a former stripper more discrediting than him being a former video store clerk?

On the surface, this is a teen horror movie and it appears to bother people that she is not writing a high-minded, award-seeking screenplay. Well, Juno was not that high-minded until it started winning stuff. Liking both Juno and Cody’s wonderful book Candy Girl, I’m willing to cut her some slack. Especially when she gives us, as she does in Jennifer’s Body, some interesting characters. Jennifer is a typical stuck-up beautiful teenage girl who, through assorted hijinks, becomes evil. As the ads say, using one of the lines from Cody’s script, “She’s evil…and not just high school evil.” Her evil takes the form of killing and partially eating boys. Well, you can see why the fanboy critics are a bit upset. Her best friend forever, Needy, finally twigs to what is wrong with Jennifer and realizes she is after Chip, Needy’s boyfriend. A battle ensues, but there is more after that, although some of it seems rushed.

Because she is working in a recognizable genre, Cody’s work here is not as fresh as it seemed in Juno. We get the standard-issue teen horror stuff, but Cody’s heart is more in the Jennifer-Needy relationship. This is not a feminist or even post-feminist take on the horror genre. Cody is not writing like a Woman Writer, but like a woman who writes, with her own particular and sometimes peculiar sensibilities. Cody likes both Jennifer and Needy for different reasons and feels the conflict between them and the hurt it causes, especially to Needy. But she probably sees what finally happens to Needy and what she does about it as a good thing. In the context of the film it is, which is what makes it even creepier than it might otherwise have been.

As with Juno, a good script gets you a good cast. All kinds of interesting people show up in smaller parts, such as J.K. Simmons as a teacher with a hook for a hand and the most outrageous wig I have seen in years. Amy Sedaris is Needy’s mom, and Cynthia Stevenson is Needy’s boyfriend’s mom. And there is a great, unsettling, uncredited cameo near the end by…

The two leads reminded me of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. Megan Fox, the hottie du jour, is Jennifer and like Curtis, she gives a good movie-star performance. You may remember that in writing about Fox in the first Transformers movie in US#3, I mentioned she either decided not to or was not directed to bring out the white trash fun of the character. There is a similar problem here, and I think it could come from one of two things. The first would be that she is in her “young movie star” mode and just decided that all she had to do was show up in front of the camera and say the lines, which she does o.k. The second option is that she does not (yet) have the instincts of a true actor to fill out the role. Looking at her performances on the September 26th Saturday Night Live, the first option seems more likely. In the film, she does nice stuff scene by scene, but she doesn’t seem to have an overview of the character. Needy is Amanda Seyfried and like Lemmon she gives a great comic performance, with all kinds of actorly twists and turns. I always thought Seyfried never got the credit she deserved for her work in Mamma Mia!. Her performance in the first scene of that film sets exactly the right tone.

Even though this is a film written and directed by women about women, the opening day audience I saw it with was predominantly young men, undoubtedly there to dribble in their pants over Megan Fox. The picture did not open well, and the box office has declined. I suspect the word-of-mouth from the boys was not good, and potential women viewers were put off by Megan Fox. Too bad. They might enjoy it more than they think.

Paris (2008. Written by Cédric Klapisch. 130 minutes): Trés, trés, trés French.

If you are looking for a moody Romanian movie, skip this. If you are looking for a British heritage costume drama, skip this. If you are looking for an American comic book adaptation, skip this. But, if like me, you enjoyed Paris, je t’aime or Avenue Montaigne, or even Private Fears in Public Places, all from 2006, then this one is for you.

It is yet another multi-character story of a variety of people living in Paris. Klapisch, who is best known for his two other multi-character pieces, L’auberge espagnole (2002) and its sequel Russian Dolls (2005), got the first inspiration for Paris years ago when he met a man going to the hospital in a taxi who was not sure he was going to come back. According to an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Klapisch said, “He was looking at the people in the streets saying to himself that all of those people were so lucky because they were able to walk in the street. That story struck me so much I wanted to use that in the movie.” In the film that guy becomes Pierre, a former dancer now suffering from heart problems. He spends his time looking out his balcony window at people going by. He becomes this film’s equivalent of Lillian Gish rocking the cradle in Intolerance, “uniter of the here and hereafter.” It is Pierre in the cab at the end on his way to a heart transplant, and we see several characters from the film from the cab.

Klapisch shows Paris as very much a multicultural city, which the three films mentioned above do not do, or do not do as much as this one. And Paris certainly does this better than its American equivalents like Short Cuts (1993) and it is much subtler than Crash (2004). Listen to the owner of the bakery talk about the foreign workers she has had. And we also get several working class characters, which is also not common in these kinds of films. One group is several street salespeople and through them we go to the Forum des Halles, the newer and more modern version of Les Halles, the famous Paris wholesale market. And who shows up there but a group of fashion models who just got out from a runway show. We know all the jokes about how unsanitary the French can be, so I was delighted to see one of the salespeople and one of the models not actually have sex in the meat locker.

Klapisch, as he did in L’auberge espagnole, gives us a great gallery of characters and has gotten first-rate actors to play them. Repeat after me: you write scripts with good characters, you can get good actors to play them—and without having to pay them $20 million a picture, which is what you have to pay them to do crap. Paris is definitely not merde.

Art & Copy (2009. A film by Doug Pray, from an original concept by Gregory Beauchamp & Kirk Souder, narrative consultant Timothy J. Sexton. 89 minutes): The real Mad Men.

This is another of the documentaries that slipped into Los Angeles in September. It’s about the world of advertising from the sixties to the present. The structure is something of a mess, with a lot of material that takes away from the heart of the movie. We get several segments of a guy whose job is to change large billboards. A little of that goes a long way. There are also recurring shots of a rocket being prepared to launch, which is supposed to connect with the fact there are a lot of satellites up there spewing out ads on cable systems. But at the end of the film, the rocket launches, and we get the closing line, “Creativity can do anything,” which in the context of the film suggests advertising is like rocket science. Bizarre.

The heart of the movie is the interviews with the ad men and women who have changed the world of advertising from the sixties to the present. They are a wonderful gallery of characters, another example of the general truth that characters in documentaries are often more interesting than those in fiction films. These folks seem much more alive and energetic than the ad men on Mad Men, although some photographs of them from the sixties make them look exactly like Don, Pete, Paul and the gang at Sterling Cooper. Here is a difference between documentary and fiction. In this film, the characters are self-created, with great variations in attitude and behavior. In Mad Men, the characters come out of Matthew Weiner’s singular vision, both of the characters and their place in the world. Art & Copy, as second rate as it is, is showing us the real world and the real people. Mad Men is giving us Weiner’s singular vision of a world. Now, a good documentary can also give us a vision of the world. And an expansive fictional film or series can give us a richly detailed world, which I think Mad Men does. The difference is one of kind rather than degree. In a fiction film you go and live in the world the writers and filmmakers create. In a documentary, you face the real world. Which is why I often find myself watching a documentary and forgetting to breathe. Watching Barbet Schroeder’s great 1976 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait I did not exhale in the last twenty minutes of the film until I knew that Schroeder had gotten out alive.

One other flaw in the film: The ad men of course talk about their successes, such as the Volkswagen campaign in the sixties or the “Morning in America” Reagan campaign in 1984. There is very little discussion of the campaigns that did not work. Nor is there any discussion of the fact that most advertising does not work. Think about it: how many commercials have you seen that actually made you try a product or a service? If advertising were that good, we would all be drinking New Coke and driving Edsels. My conclusion, based on years of study, is that the media are not nearly as influential as they think they are.

We’re Not Married! (1952. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the story “If I Could Remarry” by Gina Kaus and Jay Dratler, adaptation by Dwight Taylor. 86 minutes): Not one of the Master’s finest, but amusing.

I have mentioned before that I wrote a biography of Nunnally Johnson, haven’t I? Well, I did. He is of course best known as the screenwriter of The Dirty Dozen, The World of Henry Orient, The Three Faces of Eve, How to Marry a Millionaire, Woman in the Window, Jesse James and, of course, The Grapes of Wrath. We’re Not Married! is minor Johnson at best, but not without its pleasures. It popped up recently in the rotation on the Fox Movie Channel and it was good for 86 minutes of relief from the cares of the day.

The setup is that Justice of the Peace Bush married six couples before his license took effect. One case has come to the attention of Governor Bush’s office through Attorney General Bush, and the governor’s secretary, also a Bush family member (we are in a southern state, after all) suggests simply sending out letters to the other five couples. Hijinks ensue. This is one of those early fifties films that has multiple stories, like O. Henry’s Full House the same year. Nunnally, by the way, wrote the “Ransom of Red Chief” episode for the latter film, but took his name off when director Howard Hawks turned his sly comedy into a slapstick farce.

I have not read the story the film is based on, but I know from talking to Nunnally that the first two episodes are his. Well, the first one, about a radio couple that hate each other off the air but are lovebirds on the air actually comes from a radio sketch by Fred Allen, who stars in the episode with Ginger Rogers. Allen was a huge star in radio who, unlike Jack Benny, never successfully made the transition to television or film. He made a few films, but he was not a visual actor. What Nunnally added to the sketch was a sequence of the couple’s morning routine as they glide wordlessly around their bedroom and bathroom. It is purely visual and a nice counterpoint to all the talk in the radio studio, which has a lot of Allen’s satire of commercials. And you think product placement on television today is excessive. The upshot is that the couple has to remarry to continue their high-paying radio jobs. Yes, this was Hollywood avoiding television in its early days.

The second episode is the best known. Annabel Norris is a young married mother competing in the under-funded Mrs. Mississippi contest. When she learns she is not married, she is at first sad, then realizes she can now compete in the Miss Mississippi contest. A young Marilyn Monroe plays Annabel. Nunnally had met her years before but was not particularly impressed with her, either as an actress or as a person. But he noticed the studio was sending around pinup photos of her, and the idea for the story “came to me out of her figure.” The film used several “professional beauty contestants” as extras, and Johnson asked one of them how Monroe would do in a real competition. The woman replied, “She’d win them all.” Monroe handles the shot where she goes from sad to happy rather well.

The third couple is the Woodruffs, and Nunnally’s writing suggests, without being specific about it, that Mr. Woodruff has had several girlfriends. When he reads the letter, he has a dream montage of possible girlfriends. It ends with a bill for $72 at a nightclub, which is enough in 1952 terms to make him burn the letter.

Things start to go wrong for the film with the fourth couple. He is a rich Texas oil man, she is a gold digger. She arranges to meet him at his hotel after a business meeting in New Orleans, but she sends another woman, a private detective, and a witness. She then files for divorce, using the evidence of his “infidelity” as blackmail to get more than just half of his money. Guess when the letter arrives. The writing is nice, but the sequence is badly directed by Edmund Goulding, whose direction gets worse as the film progresses. Here he lets normally reliable character actor Paul Stewart overact as the woman’s lawyer, and he lets Louis Calhern be rather cute as the oil man. Calhern does not do cute well. You know the episode is badly directed when a young(er) Zsa Zsa Gabor gives the best performance in it.

The failure of the last episode is both Nunnally’s and Goulding’s. Willie Reynolds is going off with the Army and has already received his letter. He plans to remarry his wife later, but as the train is pulling out, she arrives from a doctor’s appointment to tell him that she “is.” That’s fifties dialogue for her being pregnant. Now Willie becomes obsessed that his baby should not be “illegitimate.” Nobody says “bastard” although someone does use the term “foul ball.” Willie jumps off the train, gets his wife to fly to the port and tries to get married while avoiding the shore patrol. Yes, it does seem to be a mix of Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1944) especially when you know that Willie is played by Eddie Bracken. Nunnally, bless his heart, was simply not as ruthless as Preston Sturges as a writer, and Goulding, who could handle dramas like Dark Victory (1939) and film noirs like Nightmare Alley (1947), certainly was not as ruthless as Sturges the director.

Undoubtedly in deference to the censors, we see the four couples remarry, even though Mr. Woodruff burned his letter. Not of course the Texas couple. Even the fifties censors may have agreed that some dissolved marriages should stay that way.

The Good Wife (2009. “Pilot” episode written by Robert King & Michelle King. 60 minutes): Writing for The Face.

When Julianna Margulies first got into acting, she was told that she did not have “the face” for movies. She was not an All-American girl and she was not ethnic enough. Or she was too ethnic, which in Hollywood terms means any woman with black hair. Fortunately the creators of ER realized she had a great face: expressive, capable of happiness but with an undercurrent of sadness. Originally Carol Hathaway died in the pilot of ER, but they realized what they had with her, and the rest, as they say, is history. Except that other writers have had great difficulty writing for that face. Her films after she left ER are mediocre uses of her talent. Her series last year, Canterbury’s Law, was not awful, but she was playing a conventional tough lawyer. Fortunately Robert and Michelle King have figured out what to do with the face. Yes, this is a form of what I have called on many occasions writing for performance. Alicia Florrick is the wife of a politician caught in a sex scandal. In the opening scene she is “standing by her man” at the inevitable press conference. She has that sad look that women in that situation tend to. In a great writing detail, she sees a loose thread on her husband’s coat and is hesitant about pulling it off. Do you really want to start unraveling your life? She reaches for it and he takes her hand and they leave. And in the hallway she slaps him. Not hard enough for me, but she still loves him.

So you think the show is going to be about her dealing with the immediate aftermath of the scandal, which would maybe last a season, but then the Kings jump ahead six months. Smart move. The husband’s in prison, although trying to weasel his way out. She has had to go to work to pay the bills, so she is starting a new job at a law firm, not having practiced for 15 years. So it’s just going to be another damned lawyer show. Not so fast. Yes, there are law cases. In the pilot she handles a second trial for a pro bono client and gets her off, but a lot of the hour is taken up with Alicia dealing with the new organization of her life. Yes, that includes the job, but also the kids, and a mother-in-law who is staying with them temporarily (great touch: the teenaged daughter has set Alicia’s cellphone ring tone for calls from the mother-in-law to play the Twilight Zone theme). And she still has to deal with her husband, so the subtext of sadness in Margulies’s face is a recurring base line. And she has to work with people who worked with her husband and against him when he was the State’s Attorney for Chicago.

The pilot is one of the most relaxed pilots I have ever seen. It does not feel like the writers are trying to push everything into the first hour. We meet several of the people she works with and even though we do not see that much of them, they all look to have real potential for the show.

I also like the legal details. Having served on several juries, I am always disappointed that legal shows do not really show what goes on with juries. Here Alicia talks to the jurors on the first trial of her client. Officially they split 6-6, but she finds out they were really 11 firmly for conviction and 1 for acquittal. Except the one for acquittal is not Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, but a crazy cat lady who had no substantial reasons for voting for acquittal. The jury decided to tell the judge the vote was 6-6 or else he would not have let them go. I hope the series gets into jury territory again. Meanwhile I will settle for The Face in the best role she’s had since ER.

Community (2009. “Pilot” and “Spanish 101” episodes written by Dan Harmon. Each episode 30 minutes): This ain’t it.

There is a wonderful sitcom to be written about community colleges, but this one is not it. Its basic premise is flawed. Jeff, a lawyer, is discovered by the Bar Association not to have completed his BA, so he is suspended until he can. As John Cleason, the Attorney Regulation Counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court, noted in the September 28-October 4 issue of TV Guide, a lawyer who was found to have lied in this way would have been disbarred for eight years, with the likelihood that he would never get reinstated. Here Jeff decides to go to a community college to get his BA. CCs do not offer BAs. The highest they offer is an Associate of Arts degree. Jeff talks to a CC professor whom he got out of a DUI and hustles him into getting the answers for “all the tests in all the courses” Jeff will be taking this semester. There is no way the prof can get all that, but he gives him an envelope that appears to have them in it. At least the envelope turns out to have blank pieces of paper in it, but the prof mentions that Jeff would probably be demanding this stuff for four years. CC’s are only two years. Then we see the prof drinking wine in his office. And to get the pilot off to an even worse start, before the bad plotting kicks in, we have a scene of a dean talking on the campus quad in what appears to be a formal meeting of a large group of students about their first week at school. The meeting would be indoors, so the bullhorn would not disrupt classes.

By now you have guessed that I teach at a CC. Not only that, but the exteriors of the pilot were shot at Los Angeles City College where I teach. You can see why I tuned in to the show, and why it pisses me off. Jeff is one of those wiseass guys that network executives, who are wiseass guys themselves, seem to like to head up shows. There is otherwise nothing appealing about him. Now if they had made him one of Diablo Cody’s wiseass women… The “study group” he forms primarily to hit on a cute blonde is at least made up of the kind of variety of people you might meet on a CC campus. The single thing that rings even partially true about the show is Jeff’s speech to them after they find out he is not really a tutor. He tells them that despite the problems they as individuals have had, they are all valuable people and are now part of a community. He means the study group, but it could apply to the college as well.

The second episode, “Spanish 101” thought that having an Asia guy teaching the Spanish class was funny. Maybe, but Harmon turned him into a cliché. Although Harmon went to a real CC once, he shows not only no understanding of the heart of such a college, but is completely condescending to the people who attend. In “Spanish 101,” two of the women in the student set up an on-campus protest against the death of a journalist in Latin America. Great, except that Harmon has written them as idiots for doing so.

Maybe Harmon and his writers will begin to get it right as the show develops, but I am not holding my breath.

The First Week of the 2009 – 2010 Television Season: More or less, new and used.

It was September again, the kids were back in school and the networks rolled out new and returning shows. Here are some of each.

HBO is turning into a real network, premiering a show in September. Who’da thunk it? The show is Bored to Death and the title is not completely accurate. The pilot episode “Stockholm Syndrome” was written by Jonathan Ames and is about “Jonathan Ames,” a writer whose girlfriend has just left him. Loving classic detective stories, he puts an ad on Craigslist as an investigator. Soon he is investigating a missing persons case. Maybe, but once you get over the Craigslist gimmick, it’s another amateur detective show. And there’s not much new about the love of Raymond Chandler that Ames brings to it.

The season opener of How I Met Your Mother, “Definitions” (written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas) indicates the show is finally going to deal with Robin and Barney. Lily locks them in a room until they have “the talk” about what their relationship is. The problem is, they don’t know, which can be interesting to deal with. They decide to tell Lily they are a couple. She lets them out, and as they walk down the street, Ted says to Lily, “You do realize they’re lying,” to which she replies, “They don’t realize they are not lying.” Quite frankly all of that is a lot more interesting than Ted teaching a class where we have been relentlessly told the mother is going to show up.

Accidentally on Purpose is Knocked Up with Jenna Elfman in place of Katherine Heigl. The idea is still stupid: smart woman gets knocked up by idiot guy, and instead of dumping him, she stays with him. The only improvement is that the guy is not the complete slob that Seth Rogen’s Ben Stone was in the movie. But at least in the “Pilot” (written by Claudia Lonow), he is not particularly distinctive or memorable. Sometimes having a woman writer doesn’t help.

Leave to the writers of Two and a Half Men to find an inventive way to get rid of Mia, at least for now. In “818-jikpuzo” (teleplay by Don Foster & Eddie Gorodetsky & Susan Beavers, story by Chuck Lorre & Lee Aronsohn & Mark Roberts), Mia asks Charlie to help her develop her singing career. She turns out to be a terrible singer. Charlie tells her the truth, and that’s it. Now they just have to figure out how to keep him from marrying Chelsea. Meanwhile we get a great line for Berta (about Mia’s mouth, “That’s a pretty mouth, but it ain’t made for singing”) and a great scene with Jane Lynch as his shrink. Charlie is constipated from trying to decide which woman he wants. The shrink says, “As soon as you pick one, you can go two.” That’s why all those writers make all that money.

With “Deep in Death” (written by Andrew J. Marlowe) Castle brings back the poker game, this time with Stephen J. Cannell and Michael Connelly. Since Castle had looked into Beckett’s mother’s murder and told her about it, there is now an additional layer of irritation on her part towards him, which will help keep the show going. Based on something his daughter says, Castle finally apologizes to Beckett for investigating. She does not fall into his arms, but lets him continue to tag along, which she was threatening to stop. After all, if she stops him, there is no show. The plot on this episode was wonderfully complicated, involving a body in a tree that was stolen out of the Medical Examiner’s van and the Russian Mafia, some of whom turn out to be fans of Castle’s books.

Modern Family is one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the new season, but I have my doubts. In the “Pilot” (written by Steven Levitan & Christopher Lloyd), we are introduced to three branches of what turns out to be the same family. The father, Jay, is now married to a second younger wife, Gloria, who as one critic noted, borrowed a little too much cuchi cuchi from Charo. Jay’s daughter Claire is married to Phil, who is trying to be a cool dad. Jay’s son Mitchell is gay and living with Cameron. They have adopted a Vietnamese baby. Yes, it is a step in the right direction that they are accepted, more or less (Jay’s a little iffy) as part of the family. The problem, however, is that the writing is mostly in the traditional sitcom rhythm: setup, setup, punchline; setup, setup, punchline. Fine, except that the show is filmed in a faux documentary style, and the rhythm simply does not fit. The show runs into some of the same problems I mentioned in US#24 in writing about Parks and Recreation.

You would think that since I love Two and a Half Men, which is all about sex, that I would love Cougar Town, which is all about sex. Well, Men is not ALL about sex. It is also about the characters. Based on the “Pilot” (written by Bill Lawrence & Kevin Biegel) this show is all about sex. Jules is a fortysomething divorced mother who hasn’t had any for a while, and she talks to all her friends entirely about sex. When she is at the high school football game, she drools over the teen boys. She goes to a bar with Laurie, her employee (she runs a real estate office, so there is in the episode a line or two about real estate and not sex) and picks up a younger guy. And gets caught having oral sex with him by her teenage son. And her divorced husband. The relentlessness of the talk about sex makes this seem like a porn movie, where the only interest of any of the characters is sex. It’s just creepy. Like Groucho Marx said, I like cigars, but I take them out of my mouth once in a while.

CSI is trying to make up for mishandling the transition of Grissom’s leaving. In “Family Affair” (written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle) we learn that when Riley left, she criticized Catherine’s leadership. Nice try guys, but the problem was not Catherine, but the way the writers did not deal with her taking command. I am not sure bringing back Sara is going to help that much.

Eastwick has some potential. It is based on the book The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike and the screenplay for the 1987 film by Michael Christopher. The “Pilot” (written by Maggie Friedman) introduces us to three women in the small New England town of Eastwick. Roxie makes arts and crafts, Joanna is a reporter for the local paper, and Kat is a frazzled housewife. The pilot spends most of its time setting up that by simultaneously throwing coins into a fountain, the women gets specific special powers. This in turn seems to attract Darryl Van Horn, who buys up a local mansion, the newspaper, and the wick factory and takes the women under his wing. We don’t yet know why, but we can bet hijinks will ensue, especially since we find out at the end of the pilot that the real Darryl Van Horn died some time ago.

This being television, and this being the third attempt to turn this into a series, there are elements that call to mind other series. The voiceover is so Desperate Housewives, you expect the women to live on Wisteria Lane. The main town square set was the square in Star’s Hollow on Gilmore Girls. And the idea of the three witches got a workout in Charmed. One difference from Charmed is that the women here are grownups. Rebecca Romijn as Roxie is as beautiful as ever and she is voluptuously sensuous here in a way she’s never been before, not even in Femme Fatale (2002). Lindsey Price as Joanna, once she takes off her glasses and dresses up a bit, is a not-too-distant second. Darryl is played by Paul Gross, who was wonderful as the unhinged stage director in the great 2003-2006 Canadian series Slings and Arrows. He does not have Nicholson’s eyebrows, thank goodness, but he is making the part his own. This one is worth checking in on.

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: 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 the filmmaker’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 actress Sharon Tate, 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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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.



Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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