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Understanding Screenwriting #70: The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, & More

If you followed some of the Links of the Day about The Illusionist, you may be familiar with the controversy over it.



Understanding Screenwriting #70: The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Illusionist, No Strings Attached, From Prada to Nada, The Company Men, Mystery Street, Le Amiche, La Dolce Vita, The Write Environment, Downton Abbey, Fairly Legal but first…

Fan Mail: First, I want to thank “Biglil,” who wrote in on US#68 to correct some factual errors in Pirate Radio. In today’s world I’m all for getting one’s facts straight, since there is so little of it going around.

Second, David Ehrenstein got the impression in my comments on The Dilemma in US#69 that I somehow had a beef with The Kids Are All Right. I don’t, as my comments in US#54 make clear. My point was that The Dilemma did not handle the mixture of comedy and drama as well as Kids and other films.

Third, in today’s bullets can’t kill it category, “Samm” insisted in a comment on US#69 they (and I am not sure what “they’” he was talking about) are all Hero’s Journey films. Sigh.

The Illusionist (2010. Screenplay by Sylvain Chomet, adapted from a screenplay by Jacques Tati. 80 minutes.)

Fools rush in: If you followed some of the Links of the Day about this film, you may be familiar with the controversy over it. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that he was reluctant to talk about the film, and he provided a link to Roger Ebert’s site, which provided more detail. The gist of it is that Tati’s grandson, Richard Tatischeff Scheil McDonald, is objecting to the film of The Illusionist because of the way Tati treated McDonald’s mother and grandmother. Tati and the grandmother were not married, and Tati left her and McDonald’s mother in Paris during the Occupation in World War II. McDonald seems to think that we judge artists by their morals. Thank goodness we don’t, or we would have to forego a lot of great art. It is very naïve to assume that great artists must be highly moral. Some of them are, but many are not. Richard Wagner was not, and neither was Picasso. Film directors are notoriously not nice people. As terrible as they could be as people, I would not want to do without the films of Hitchcock, Lang, Huston and Ford. Dorris Bowden Johnson, Rosasharon in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), once said, “John Ford was a terrible human being. But he was a great director.”

Still, Tati’s abandoning his mistress and their baby to the Occupation certainly should make us queasy, and I can understand Rosebaum’s reluctance to deal with the film. I, on the other hand, am always willing to jump into a nice murky mess like that. Part of what complicates the issue of this film is that Tati’s screenplay was written in the ‘50s as a kind of letter to the child he left behind. He was obviously working out his presumably guilty feelings about his actions. According to the material McDonald provided Ebert, which one of Ebert’s readers wisely pointed out had not been fact-checked, Tati’s original screenplay deals with an illusionist traveling in Czechoslovakia. He meets a girl in her early teens, about the age of Helga, Tati’s daughter. She believes his magic is real, and a semi-father-daughter relationship develops. A young man exposes the illusionist’s tricks to the girl, and the illusionist and the girl part ways. Tati sent the script to Helga, and he may well have meant it only as a communication to her. He never made the film, and it is interesting that he never intended to star in it himself. It might have been too painful for him to do as an actor, or he may have intended it to be more dramatic than his comic films, or comic in a different style than his. His choice of a leading man was Pierre Étaix, just starting his film career, although with a background as a gag writer and nightclub performer.

Chomet is best known for his lively 2003 animated feature, The Triplets of Belleville. He got permission from the part of the Tati estate that controls the rights (not McDonald’s branch, obviously) to develop Tati’s script as an animated film. Well, Tati was known for his near wordless slapstick comedies, so that would seem to make sense. The basic story of The Illusionist, however, does not lend itself to that sort of film. The story, in both Tati and Chomet’s version, is more drama than comedy. I have no idea how much dialogue was in Tati’s script, but there is very little in Chomet’s, and it makes the film very confusing. We want to hear what these people say to each other. In Chomet’s version, the illusionist is French, but he is touring Scotland and lands in Edinburgh, so there is a logic in not having him and the girl being able to communicate verbally. Chomet unfortunately has not provided the visual characterization that would make up for that. He has modeled the illusionist on Tati: tall, wide in the middle, deadpan face and with a loping stride. Tati got a lot out of that as a performer, but Chomet does not with his animated version. Keep in mind that Tati did not intend to play the part himself. He may have recognized that his style as an actor was not going to work. Tati as a director worked more with long shots than closeups (with Tati’s body you want to see all of it), but this is a story that demands closeups. Chomet’s girl is bland, and we get none of the character animation with her that we got in Triplets of Belleville. There are one or two scenes (the illusionist working in a garage, and then later as a department store window model) that suggest classical Tati, but they are not central to the story, and Chomet’s animation is not up to Tati’s movement. Late in the picture, the characters are in a theater and we get a clip from Tati’s 1958 Mon Oncle. Chomet does himself no favors there.

The best thing about the film is the least Tati-ian thing about it. My wife, who spent time in Edinburgh in her youth, came out of the theater humming the backgrounds. Both the Scottish Highlands and the cityscapes are beautifully drawn. On the other hand, I have never seen as many buses in one film as we get here. My wife assures me that Edinburgh was like that in the ‘50s.

No Strings Attached (2011. Screenplay by Elizabeth Meriwether, story by Mike Samonek and Elizabeth Meriwether. 108 minutes.)

It’s not Nora or Nancy: This is a so-so rom-com. The story may not seem that fresh to you. Boy and girl meet at summer camp, then again in college and yet again when they are young professionals. One is now a doctor doing a residency, the other a television production assistant hoping to become a writer. Because of their busy schedules, they agree to have sex with “no strings attached,” i.e., “fuck buddy”/“friends with benefits” sex. It’s so common in movies we have all these terms for it. And we know what is going to happen. In spite of their insistence they won’t, one of them falls in love with the other and complications ensue. Needless to say, they get together in the end. So why should we watch?

The doctor is the woman. And the production assistant is the guy. Well, that might be interesting for about a minute and a half. But the doctor is not what you would expect from a “woman screenwriter.” If this were a Nora Ephron script, Emma would be a neurotic ditz who loves food and whom we are encouraged to find “cute.” Emma is not neurotic and she is not a ditz. She eats fast food, when she can be reminded to eat. She is cute (Natalie Portman, given a lot more to do than she did in Black Swan), but not “cute.” Nor is this a Nancy Myers script. Emma does not live in a big house with a kitchen the size of James Cameron’s ego. Emma is a very modern professional woman, focused on her work. She lives in an apartment with three other residents, two of them women, the third a gay man. As happens when women live together, their menstrual cycles end up in synch, with even the gay guy having sympathetic pains. Which leads to the best joke in the film: Adam creates a “period mix tape” for Emma, with such songs as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” The two other women residents are not ditzes either, but just as professional as Emma. The closest we have to a woman ditz in the script is Lucy, Adam’s supervisor, and she is too smart and hardworking to be a ditz. She is something of a flake, however, and Lake Bell, who plays her is getting back at Nancy Myers (see my comments on It’s Complicated in US#39), by showing that she has real comics chops. When it looks like Adam may get together with her, we are rather torn. Emma is appealing in her own tough way, but Lucy has her charms.

One of the truisms of the screenwriting business is that men often have trouble writing women characters and women have trouble writing male characters. Meriwether’s Adam is a little too perfect. He is handsome (Ashton Kutcher, beginning to grow up), not neurotic at all, and just devoted to Emma. He never puts a foot wrong, which gets a little annoying. Would a real guy make a period mix tape? It’s a funny idea, but still. He also has some buddies he hangs out with but they are standard-issue buds. The most interesting male character is Alvin, Adam’s father, a former TV star. He is something of a lech and spends most of the film with Adam’s previous girlfriend, a British tart named Vanessa. This upsets Adam, which I think is supposed to show his dark side, but it’s more logical than neurotic.

In addition to the fact we see where the story is going, it doesn’t get there in a particularly fresh way. In the summer we are scheduled to get Friends With Benefits and we will see if the writers of that one (Will Gluck, Keith Merryman, and David A. Newman) handle similar material in a better way. That one will have Mila Kunis as Natalie Portman and Justin Timberlake as Ashton Kutcher.

From Prada to Nada (2011. Screenplay by Fina Torres & Luis Alfaro and Craig Frenandez, “From” the novel Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. 107 minutes.)

Menos Clueless: As you may remember from US#32 and #33, I am a fan of Austen’s novel and films made from it, particularly the 1995 version that Emma Thompson wrote. So I couldn’t resist when this Latino version was sneaked into theaters. After all, if Amy Heckerling could transpose Emma into the Beverly Hills high school world of Clueless (1995), why not Sense in East Los Angeles? Unfortunately, as Spanish readers already learned from the snarky sub-head, this one is less than Clueless.

The setup is that Garbriel Dominguez Sr., an apparently well-to-do resident of Beverly Hills, dies, leaving two daughters, Nora and Mary. (Their mother died years ago, so no Latina Mrs. Dashwood.) He also left them with no money, since he had huge debts. There is also a son he had by another woman before he married their mother, and the son and his bitchy white wife Olivia (the equivalent of Fanny Dashwood) take over the house in an unclear bit of plotting. They intend to remodel and sell it to pay the debts. Nora is the Elinor of the story, Mary the Marianne, although she is closest to Cher in Clueless in her devotion to shopping. So instead of a nice cottage out in the country, the girls go off to live with their aunt in Latino East L.A. In Clueless, Heckerling found the closed society of a snobby upper class high school a perfect fit for the limitations of Austen’s world. The Latino culture the girls move into is much more free and lively. The writers could have solved the problem by making the aunt, Aurelia, a more conservative and restricting person, but she is just generally nice and helpful. Great in real life but less so in drama.

Nora wants to be a lawyer and has blinders on about that, which matches reasonably well at the beginning with Elinor. Her Edward Ferrars is Edward Ferris, Olivia’s brother. He hires her as a legal assistant at his law firm, but they admit their love in the middle of the film, and she ends up leaving the law firm and setting up a legal counseling service in the barrio. Wait a minute, she’s not a lawyer yet. Isn’t this practicing law without a license? And as a law student shouldn’t she know this, especially if she is that smart? Edward then gets engaged to a friend of Olivia’s, but writers here do not get him out of it in the interesting way Austen does. He just shows up at the end of the film and tells Nora he’s not engaged. In a tribute to Thompson, he does indeed say “My heart is and always will be yours.” You may remember the line is not in Austen. It’s cute here, rather than heart-stopping the way it is in the 1995 film.

Mary meanwhile has fallen in love with her “Willoughby,” a college teaching assistant, while not paying attention to the writers’ most inventive variation from Austen. Their “Colonel Brandon” is a younger guy whom Mary first takes to be a gangbanger. He fixes car mirrors without telling her, and then he turns out to be a budding artist who teaches painting to kids. A much better match for Mary than Colonel Brandon would have been.

One of the writers of the screenplay, Luis Alfaro, is much better known as a playwright. His version of Sophocles’s Electra, the 2005 play Electricidad, shows a much more vivid view of East L.A. than we get here. In addition to the aunt being all-purpose good, the other Latino characters are not as well defined as they need to be. In Electricidad, Alfaro uses several residents as a Greek chorus, but the friends of the aunt here just hang around. I have no idea if Alfaro’s work on the screenplay was softened by others, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. The 2002 film Real Women Have Curves has better drawn characters and a sharper view of life in East L.A. It deals with life in a garment-sewing sweatshop as more than just a quick joke that this film does.

Still, From Prada to Nada is not worthless. There are a few good jokes, and Camilla Belle is charming as Nora, given the limitations of the writing. Alexa Vega, whom you may remember as Carmen in the Spy Kids movies, is now all grown up and has some good comic chops. Like Kate Winslet, Marianne in the 1995 version, Vega steals a bunch of scenes from her elders. One flaw in the acting is April Bowlby as Olivia. It is a thankless part, and the writing makes her a one-note bitch (as opposed to Thompson making Fanny a two-note bitch). Bowlby was great as Kandi on Two and a Half Men, but outright bitchery does not seem to be within her range.

The Company Men (2010. Written by John Wells. 104 minutes.)

Not airborne: This film premiered at Sundance a year ago and only just got into theaters in late 2010. The reason for the delay is obvious: the distributors were trying to avoid Up in the Air (2009; see US#37). And with good reason. The films have a similar subject (people being fired in corporate downsizing), and Up in the Air handles it much better. Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, working off Walter Kirn’s novel, found a unique way to deal with the subject: follow the guy who is hired to go around firing people. We hadn’t seen that character before. Nor had we seen the young woman business grad who accompanies him. Both of those characters, and the woman he has the romance with, are fully developed characters with all kinds of interesting edges. So we focus on them, but we also get short bits of (real-life) interviews with some of the people being fired. Those bits are used as a counterpoint to the story, and the story a counterpoint to them so they do not become monotonous and depressing.

Wells takes a more literal approach. We follow three executives, each of whom is fired from the same company over the course of the film. The first is hot-shot sales guy Bobby Walker. He is the one who cannot believe he was fired, even after it happens. He is in denial for a long time. The second is Phil Woodard, who gets depressed and kills himself. The third is Gene McClary, who eventually realizes he can become a consultant and sets up his own firm. Wells has not made any of these characters as distinctive and individual as Reitman and Turner made theirs. Once you get a sense of what each one is like, they behave true to form. One small exception is Gene, who turns out to be having an affair with Sally Wilcox, the legal affairs person who is handling the firings. But she is not particularly well drawn either. We are not surprised when she shows up in Gene’s new office and tells him she thinks she is going to be fired as well. The wives of the men are also standard issue.

By focusing on the men who were fired, the film becomes very repetitive. Any new job Bobby tries to get does not work out, until he joins Gene at the end. We are supposed to get a sense that Bobby has opened up a bit as a result of this experience, but we get that in a very conventional touch-football scene with him and people he’s met who are trying to find work as well. I kept waiting for something fresh, and it never came.

The company that Gene founds at the end is supposed to be a consulting company, but it appears to be developing into a shipbuilding company. The company they were fired from was downsizing their shipbuilding division, so what makes Gene and the others think they can make a go of it? Especially in these times. And what bank is going to finance them? Part of our current economic problem is that banks and financial institutions are hoarding money rather than investing it. What Wells sees as a happy ending strikes me as a real pie-in-the-sky idea.

Mystery Street (1950. Screenplay by Sidney Boehm and Richard Brooks, from a story by Leonard Spigelgass. 94 minutes.)

No Grissom, no Horatio, no Bonasera: A pregnant bar girl gets herself killed and several months later her skeleton is found on a beach by a birdwatcher. What do the cops do? Well, they call in the CSI gang. Except this is 1950 and there are no CSI units, no DNA searches, no multi-colored equipment (we are in black and white after all), so who are you going to call? Well, if the beach is out on Cape Cod, why not try a Harvard professor of legal medicine who has begun to apply some science to criminal investigations? So the cops box up, no literally, they put all the bones in a cardboard box, and take them off to Dr. McAdoo. Even though it’s only 1950, he can tell them the skeleton belongs to a woman of a certain age and height, and that she probably was a ballet dancer once.

Leonard Spigelgass, who wrote the story for this, had been around Hollywood since the introduction of sound. Sidney Boehm was a terrific writer of films noir, as we saw in US#30 when we talked about his script for The Undercover Man the year before this one. He went on to write The Big Heat (1953) and Violent Saturday (1955) among others. Richard Brooks was just about to turn to directing, including such films as In Cold Blood (1967). So you know you are in good hands here. The introduction, where we meet the bar girl (Jan Stirling, in a warmup for her Lorraine “Kneeling bags my nylons” Mimosa the following year) and follow her to her death, seems a little slow to us now. That’s only because we are used to the discovery of the body in the pre-credit scenes on CSI. Boehm and Brooks are carefully setting up a lot of plot details, especially ones that will make it seem as though Henry Shanway is the murderer. They are also giving us the girl’s landlady, Mrs. Smerrling (the great Elsa Lanchester), who will complicate matters. And since this is one of those pseudo-message B-pictures that studio head of production Dore Schary was doing at MGM, the lead detective is a Portuguese-American who has to deal with a smidgen of racism.

Yes, you can look at it as a forerunner of CSI, but it is also a terrific film. And if that does not seal the deal for you, this is the film that John Sturges’s direction on The Capture (1950; see US#61) got him as a tryout at MGM. And if that is still not enough for you, the cinematographer was the greatest of all the film noir cameramen, John Alton, at the height of his powers.

Le Amiche (1955. Screenplay by Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Michaelangelo Antonioni and the collaboration of Alba De Cespedes, “freely inspired” by the story “Tre Donne Sole” in the book La Bella Estate by Cesare Pavese. Original running time 104 minutes, US cut 95 minutes, DVD cut 100 minutes.)

Italians, parte una: This early directorial effort by Antonioni showed up on DVD last year, and one reviewer described it somewhat facetiously as the neorealist version of Sex and the City. It is done near the end of the neorealist period (we do get several street scenes in Turin), and it is about a group of women and their romantic problems. There is of course more to do it than that. What it is not, however, is much of a forerunner to the later, great Antonioni films. It is very much what was called in those days a “woman’s picture” and it certainly does not have the light touch of all of the Sex and the City variations.

The film starts a lot faster than any other Antonioni movie you ever saw. Clelia, who has come from Rome to her hometown of Turin to open a branch of a fashionable store, is in her hotel room getting ready to go to work. The maid comes in and says the room next door is locked to the outside. The maid goes through the connecting door and discovers Rosetta has overdosed on pills. Clelia meets Rosetta’s friends, including Momina, a rich woman who has many affairs; Nene, a ceramic artist in love with Lorenzo, a painter; Mariella, a flirt; and Rosetta herself, who survives the suicide attempt. Rosetta is in love with Lorenzo, who says he will leave Nene but really won’t. As in later Antonioni films, the men tend to be rather enervated, especially in comparison to the women. The film takes these women and their problems seriously.

What sets it apart from other women’s pictures of the time is Clelia. She is focused on her job, although she does develop an attraction to Carlo, the assistant to the architect remodeling the store. The other women point out that Carlo is rather lower class. When she goes for a walk with Carlo through the less picturesque sections of Turin, we discover she was born in the area and has worked her way up. She decides to go back to Rome rather than stay with Carlo in Turin, and her reason is surprising, especially for a 1955 film. She tells him that “Working is my way of being a woman.” This may be why, even though they have cast the queen of lurid neorealist films of the time, Eleonora Rossi Drago, as Clelia, she is not allowed to be sexy in the part. Yes, the film is forward looking enough to give us a woman who lives through her work, but not forward enough to imagine, as No Strings Attached at least manages to do, that a working woman might be willing to have a little on the side.

La Dolce Vita (1960. Story and Screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, and Tullio Pinelli, script collaboration by Brunello Rondi. 174 minutes.)

Italians, parte due: La Dolce Vita was a sensation in its day. It was loved and hated by the Italian critics and audiences, and it was one of the top-grossing Italian films of its era. It was equally argued about by critics in other countries, including America, where it became one of the top-grossing Italian films until then. It was written about then and since as much as any other legendary film, and both its title and the name Fellini gave to a photographer, Paparazzo, have become part of the cultural language.

Looking at it today from the standpoint of screenwriting, two elements stand out. The first is that for an episodic film, it has a structural unity that most episodic films do not have. This came from the way the script developed (according to Hollis Alpert’s biography Fellini: A Life). The first inklings of what became La Dolce Vita came from Fellini’s idea of making a film about his days as a young journalist in Rome. By 1958 he was an acclaimed filmmaker, noted primarily for La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957), two neorealist classics. He had developed a script earlier about his early days in Rome, but he realized Rome had changed by the late ‘50s with the arrival of Hollywood filmmakers making such films as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959). With them came what were just then being called “the jet set.” So Fellini and his writers decided that the journalist should be in his mid-‘30s and covering “the sweet life” of the celebrity society. Marcello is the one through-character who appears from beginning to end. We not only watch what he watches, but we see him change. At first he is just a journalist, but then we find out he has ambitions to write serious books. He is encouraged in this by Steiner, an intellectual, who is the first person to ask him about the book he is supposed to be writing. Marcello attends an intellectual salon at Steiner’s apartment, a scene that always struck me as a little contrived, like a non-intellectual’s idea of what intellectuals sit around doing. After the salon Marcello goes off to the beach to work on his book. At least in the English subtitles we never learn what kind of book it is, although some sources say it is a novel. Steiner has seemed a happy man, with a wife and two children, but he suggests to Marcello that he is not content. In the next to the last major sequence Marcello learns that Steiner has killed himself and his children, and Marcello must help the police tell his wife. When she comes home via bus, Paparazzo and the other photographers swarm all over her. In the final episode, we learn that Marcello has given up not only the book, but his job as a journalist. He is now writing publicity about the kind of people he has previously reported on, and he is just as decadent as they are. Marcello’s arc, to use the Hollywood term for it, gives the film a unity it might not seem to have upon first viewing, helped enormously by Marcello Mastroianni’s great performance.

The second screenwriting element that stands out is that, unlike most episodic films, all the episodes are interesting. Sometimes that comes from the visuals, as in the famous opening scene of a statue of Jesus being carried by a helicopter past ancient Roman walls and over the modern city. Sometimes that comes from the satirical elements, as in the sequence with the visiting movie star, Sylvia, played by Anita Ekberg. That sequence, by the way, seems the most modern of all the sequences, with Paparazzo and the others of his ilk behaving no differently than they do today. Other sequences focus on characters, as in the sweet, sad sequence of Marcello and his father, who has come to town on business. There are also poetic moments in many of the sequences, as in the party at the house of a group of society people. The society folk live up to the comment of someone going into the house that the parties there are like funerals. The final orgy is rather tame by our standards (trust me, it was not in its day), but you still will not be able to look at feathers and fur wraps the same way after you see the film.

The Write Environment (2008 – 2011, Created by Jeffrey Berman. Each episode 60 minutes.)

Public Television, take one: Early this January, KCET, a Los Angeles public television station started running this series of interviews with screenwriters. Berman is particularly interested in writers of comics (he later did a similar series on comic book writers), and so he focuses on writers of comic book-type films and TV shows. In the first episode he interviews Joss Whedon, spending most of the time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Dollhouse (2009-2010). In the second, the interviewee is Tim Kring, and Berman spends much more time on Heroes (2006-2010) than he did on Kring’s more adult show, Crossing Jordan (2001-2007). The questions are fairly standard issue, and Berman does not dig that deeply. For example, he blithely accepts Whedon’s long-disputed claim that he wrote most of Speed (1994). Now you would think that a public television station might come up with something a little more serious, especially a station in Los Angeles (their studios are in East Hollywood).

For all of its forty years of existence, KCET has never made much of a connection with Hollywood. Partly it is they cannot afford to pay Hollywood prices (neither can indie film producers), partly it is that the bureaucracy in public television is worse than Hollywood’s, and partly it was simply that the leadership did not do it. I noticed when I watched the first two episodes of this show that even though it was being broadcast in 2011, it seemed to have been made several years before. Whedon, for example, talks about Dollhouse as though it was not yet on the air. A check of the IMDb shows that the series was produced in 2008. So why its KCET running it now?

In late 2010, KCET decided to split from the Public Broadcasting System. There was an ongoing dispute about fees, in which both the mandarins at PBS and Al Jerome, the head of KCET, behaved like idiots. They never came to an agreement, and as of January 1st, KCET became an independent public television station, losing access to the cream of the PBS shows. They have replaced them with old (Prime Suspect reruns) or second-rate (The Write Environment) material and botched setting up a new news unit. The station’s ratings have dropped by about half.

Downton Abbey (2011. Episodes one and two written by Julian Fellowes, episode three written by Julian Fellowes and Shelagh Stevenson, episode four written by Julian Fellowes and Tina Pepler. Each episode 90 minutes.)

Public Television, take two: More than one local Los Angeles television critic noted that KCET’s timing in leaving the Public Broadcasting System was abysmal. KCET went indie on January 1st, and on January 9th, PBS’s Masterpiece Classic started the four-episode run of Downton Abbey, a huge hit in England. In the Southern California area, the PBS shows were picked up by KOCE in Orange County, and they got off to a rousing start.

How good is Downton Abbey? I intended to take notes and do a full write-up of the series, but I got so hooked so quickly I never had time to pick up a pen. So I apologize if this item is not up to my usual standard. The show is created by Julian Fellowes, an actor and writer best known for his screenplay for Gosford Park (2001). According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, producer Gareth Neame asked Fellowes if he wanted to return to the world of Gosford Park, but Fellowes decided on an earlier period. The show begins in 1912 and ends in 1914. Fellowes was interested in a time close enough to our own where there were recognizable elements (telephones, electricity, votes for women), but that was also a time of change (telephones, electricity, votes for women).

Episode one begins with word that the Titanic has sunk. Look at how Fellowes uses that to take us into the life of a very grand English country house. Robert, the Earl of Grantham, the head of the family, is upset that two relatives have died on the ship. One of them was supposed to marry his eldest daughter Mary and keep the estate in family hands, a plotline that extends to the end of the four episodes. But note that Robert also has a moment of sympathy for those below decks who perished. I was about to reach for my pen when we began to get all the other characters introduced, and we hear reactions from those both upstairs and downstairs. Characters that we assume are certain types turn out to have all kinds of interesting backgrounds and secrets. Fortunately Fellowes does not have to deal with Altman as a director here, so we do not get the standard-issue Altman undercutting of the characters. Fellowes gives all the characters their dignity, even in moments when they might be expected to lose it.

The majority of the four episodes are taken up with trying to find a husband for Mary. The obvious choice is a very distant relative, Matthew Crawley, but he is a bit of a modern fellow and really has no desire to take over the running of Downton Abbey. He and Mary sometimes seem on the verge of getting together and then equally on the verge of not getting together. There are two other sisters, Sybil, who is interested in politics, and Edith, who seems willing to take any of the men Mary or Sybil’s castoff men. The downstairs characters are just as richly drawn, and we get involved in the maid Anna’s interest in the new valet, Mr. Bates, who served with the Earl in the Boer War. By the fourth episode she uses a trip to London to find out, a) he had confessed to stealing the regimental silver in the army, and b) he did it to protect his wife, who committed the theft. There is a Mrs. Bates?

And about then, during a garden party in the summer of 1914, the Earl gets a message that war has started. Fade out. But, but, what about Mrs. Bates? What about a husband for Mary? What about Maggie Smith, playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham; will Fellowes and the writers ever be able to write a line that Dame Maggie cannot get a laugh with?

The best news I had all month was the simple white on black title after the fade out: “A second series of Downton Abbey is now in production.”

Fairly Legal (2011. “Pilot” written by Michael Sardo. 60 minutes.)

Get your finger out of your mouth, baby: I almost did not watch this new show. It sounded at least a little fresh: Kate Reed has given up being a lawyer and become a mediator. We haven’t had one of those before. But on the day it premiered I was working on a column most of the afternoon. It will not surprise you to learn that I have a window open on the IMDb when I am writing this column. Every time I went back to it, at the top was an ad for the show, with a shot of its star, Sarah Shahi, looking seductive with a finger in her mouth. Well, crap, who needs another seductive lawyer?

Fortunately I overcame my aversion to infantilizing smart women and watched the show. Shahi did not put her finger in her mouth once in the episode, and the character Sardo has created for her is smart, charming (but not seductive), and sensitive (to others; that’s what makes her a great mediator). On her way to work from her late father’s boat, where she lives, she stops in at a coffee shop just as it is being robbed. She mediates the robbery, with the robbery getting $17.50 in beer and beef jerky and the storeowner not losing his money or his life. And you believe it, a credit to both Sardo and Shahi.

Kate gets assigned cases from the courts, but she is also dealing with her stepmom, who is not all that much older than Kate and is a smarter lawyer herself, a little colder (but not too much) than Kate. They are obviously going to have to negotiate running the firm set up by Kate’s dad, who has just passed away. In the second episode, “Priceless,” also written by Sardo, the will of the dad is read and the estate is divided four ways: Kate, stepmom Lauren, Kate’s brother Steve, and…David Smith. Who is David Smith? Neither of the three know. I’m staying tuned.

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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