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Understanding Screenwriting #98: To Rome with Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Newsroom, & More

The shaggy-dog element in the fourth story in To Rome with Love is its very casual surrealism.

Understanding Screenwriting #98: To Rome with Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Newsroom, & More
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Coming Up In This Column: To Rome with Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Frank Pierson: An Appreciation, Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton (play), War Horse (play), The Exorcist (play), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Anger Management, The Newsroom, Political Animals, Twenty Twelve (and the Skydiving Queen), but first…

Fan Mail: I trust you all marked it down in your diaries that David Ehrenstein and I actually agreed on a film, in this case that Bernie is a terrific movie.

To Rome with Love (2012. Written by Woody Allen. 112 minutes.)

Four—count ‘em, four—shaggy dog stories: Unlike last year’s Midnight in Paris, this year’s Woody Allen movie is what used to be called a portmanteau film. Instead of following one character’s adventures, we get several stories in one film. While such earlier films of the type as We’re Not Married and O.Henry’s Full House, both from 1952, and which I wrote about in US#34 and US#40, respectively, tells each story successively, Allen intercuts between all four. Like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), only better and funnier. The closest modern equivalent is Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003).

Love Actually follows nine separate stories, a rather neat balancing act, and Curtis is talented enough and witty enough to make the brief amount of time we spend on each story pay off. Allen, working at greater length on each of his four, manages to make them all pay off as well, partly because he doesn’t dawdle. But then Allen has never been much of a dawdler. Check the running times of his other films. At 112 minutes, this is one of his longest, but it never feels too long. Allen’s characterizations are not much deeper than Curtis’s, but the plotting is. Even though there are striking differences in the stories, the lightness of tone Allen brings as both writer and director makes them all seem part of the same film. The tone is that of a shaggy dog story, which all of them are in varying degrees.

The most conventional of the stories is the one Allen appears in. He’s a retired opera director who goes to Rome with his sharp-tongued wife (Judy Davis, in her fifth Allen film, knows how to deliver his stuff) to meet their daughter and her Italian fiance. Allen’s Jerry discovers that the fiance’s father has a beautiful operatic voice. The father does not want to sing in public, but Jerry insists. You could see this ending either badly or with a conventional happy ending. Allen’s ending? Since the father can only sing in the shower, Jerry, who has been established as a director of productions that were “ahead of their time,” creates a production of Rigoletto in which the father is constantly in the shower. Well, I suppose in the opera world it’s possible…

The story of an ordinary worker, Leopoldo, who becomes a celebrity for no apparent reason, is the sort of fable that Allen might have done as a story in The New Yorker. We never learn why he is suddenly the object of attention of the paparazzi, who have only gotten worse since Fellini introduced them to us in La Dolce Vita (1960). Then when the paparazzi move on to the next big thing, Leopoldo is relieved, then begins to miss it, then adjusts. That’s a nicely developed ending. The story is a combination of La Dolce Vita and Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980). Speaking of Fellini, Leopoldo is played by Roberto Benigni, who has not been this good since he appeared in the Master’s final film, The Voice of the Moon, in 1990.

The third story is Allen’s re-write of Fellini’s The White Sheik (1952), which had a story by Fellini, Antonioni (one of Antonioni’s early, funny ones?), and Tullio Pinelli, with a screenplay by Fellini, Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano. With the exception of Antonioni, who did not like what Fellini did with the story, the others writers became the heart of Fellini’s writing team. In Fellini’s version a young couple from the provinces come to Rome but lose track of each other as the wife deliberately goes out to find “The White Sheik,” an actor/model who appears in photo-novels (comic books with photographs instead of drawings). She does and he tries to seduce her. Meanwhile the husband has a run-in with a winsome prostitute named Cabiria. Cabiria is played by Fellini’s wife, Guilietta Masina, and he would later created a full-length film for her about the character, The Nights of Cabiria (1957). The White Shiek, Fellini’s first solo directing effort, was not a hit with either the public or the critics, the latter because they were still in the thrall of neorealism. It is a charmer of movie, and Allen’s version has some of the same charm. Allen has the young wife just trying to find a beauty salon to get her hair done when she stumbles on a film shoot with her favorite actor, who like The White Shiek tries to seduce her. Allen brings in a handsome young robber as well. And the husband has more than a run-in with Anna, a prostitute who has been mistakenly sent to his hotel room. She has to pretend to be his wife while he meets his stuffy relatives and businessmen, some of whom know Anna professionally. Hers, not theirs. Allen’s version, which runs shorter than Fellini’s feature, is more densely plotted, which makes it more of a shaggy dog story. But Allen does drop one very Fellini touch. In The White Shiek the young couple has to find each other because they have an appointment to meet the Pope.

The shaggy dog element in the fourth story is its very casual surrealism. Jerry, a young man studying to be an architect in Rome, happens to meet in the street John, an older, established architect. John spent some time in Rome when he was about Jack’s age, and he offers Jack advice on his love life, seeming to know what’s going to happen. Jack’s girlfriend, Sally, has invited her flaky actress friend Monica, to stay with them. John sees exactly where that is going to go. Then Monica casually uses a phrase we have heard John use before. Hmm. Then we get more subtle hints and finally figure it out that Jack is John’s younger self, and John knows what will happen with Monica. OK, so John is imaginary, only in Jack’s mind. Only he’s not. Monica and others talk to him as well. I can give you ten reasons why that should not work (film is a realistic medium, Allen changes “the rules” from scene to scene, etc.), but it does.

To Rome with Love is not as thematically rich as Midnight in Paris. Paris dealt with all kinds of issues: literature, nostalgia for the past, and Allen’s inability to get beyond the East Coast attitude toward screenwriting; see US#75 for details. It managed to be charming as well. Rome is just as charming, if not more so.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012. Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Behn Zeitlin, based on the play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar. 93 minutes.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Oh, crap…more water buffaloes: I had a bit of difficulty getting into this film, for an odd reason. Before the movies there were the usual art-house trailers. One was about a young male writer coming of age (The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2012]). Another was about a young male writer whose female creation comes to life (Ruby Sparks [2012]). A third was a potentially interesting thriller about getting the Iranian hostages who hide in the Canadian embassy out of the country (Argo [2012]). But the one that made the hairs on my neck stand up was for a film that I did not think was already on my radar. It turned out it sort of was, having shown at Sundance under the title, The Surrogate, but the Variety review did not capture its striking qualities. It is currently called The Sessions and due for release in the fall. The trailer starts with an immobile young man asking a priest if it is all right for him to have sex. The priest, a wonderfully shaggy William Macy, considers it and says yes. Well, that’s not your standard Hero’s Journey crap, is it? So the priest and the man’s friends arrange to get him a sex surrogate. And who shows up in that role but Helen Hunt. No, not the grumpy Helen Hunt from the last ten years who couldn’t even direct herself properly in And Then She Found Me (2007), but the beautiful, charming and sexy Helen Hunt from Mad About You, As Good As It Gets (1997), and the slightly similar film The Waterdance (1992). And then the trailer gets sharper and funnier and livelier. At the end of the three minutes or so, that I was the movie I most wanted to see…now.

But hey, I had paid my money for Beasts and was determined to give it a shot, given the great reviews. We are in a poverty-stricken island off New Orleans nicknamed The Bathtub, an ironic touch since it does not look as though anybody in the movie ever saw a bathtub, let alone used one. We get a lot of the squalor of the area: the sort-of houses, leftover house trailers, open truck beds, and all the detritus you could want. And more. Much more. Much, much more. What we have here is poverty porn. You usually think of the big historical costume pictures as the ones where you go out humming the sets, but the set decoration here is relentless. Part of the reason it dominates is that the characterization is rather thin. If you look at Nunnally Johnson’s script for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), about people also in very dire straits, you get a gallery of richly detailed people. The same is true in the script for The Bicycle Thief (1947)

The main character we follow is Hushpuppy, a six-year-old black girl who seems a little smarter than most six-year-olds. That may be because in the play the character was a ten-year-old boy. In the casting calls they found Quvenzhané Wallis and changed the age and gender. Wallis has a great face and the camera loves her, but the script does not give her a lot to express. Zeitlin, who also directed, seemed to think holding on her face is enough. It’s not, although it seems to be for some critics and viewers. Even Garbo had reactions to play, but the script does not give Wallis much if any. Her father Wink is a drunk, whose default setting is yelling at Hushpuppy. We can never quite tell if he thinks he is doing what he does for Hushpuppy’s benefit, or if he’s just a natural yeller. We get no nuances with him. Compare his scenes with Hushpuppy with Ricci’s scenes with his son in The Bicycle Thief and you will see the differences.

In an interview in Variety Alibar says the story is “about the heroism of learning to take care of someone.” I am not convinced that comes across, since the scenes never quite tell that story. Who is taking care of whom? It seems that Hushpuppy is taking care of Wink, but if so she is not doing all that good a job. Well, she is only six, after all.

Oh, the water buffaloes. You may remember last year I had a run of movies with water buffaloes what did not work for me. This film sneaks into a little magic realism late in the story. Hushpuppy has been telling us about the Aurochs, mythical beasts who roam the land. Sure enough they show up, courtesy of some OK special effects (the film is more expensive than it appears), but they look like water buffalo with horns attached. Given my past experience with cinematic water buffaloes, they did not help me like the film any better.

Frank Pierson

Frank Pierson: An Appreciation: Pierson died on July 12th this year. I suppose I should mention that Pierson won an Oscar for his screenplay for Dog Day Afternoon (1975). And that he started writing for television back in the early ‘60s for Have Gun, Will Travel, The Naked City and Route 66. His first feature was the very funny Cat Ballou (1965). I should mention his other screenplay credits include Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Anderson Tapes (1971) and Presumed Innocent (1990). I should make sure you know he served two terms as president of the Writers Guild of America (w), as well as being president of the Motion Picture Academy from 2001 to 2005. And you’ll want to know he contributed to Mad Men and The Good Wife as both a writer and producer.

But I can best tell you everything you need to know about Frank Pierson by his answer to a question from David Konow in an interview in the May/June 2003 issue of Creative Screenwriting. Konow asked him if the most famous line he ever wrote was in the novel the film was based on. Pierson replied:

“No, I made that up, and I don’t know where it came from. I was writing that scene and suddenly that popped into my head, and I put it down on the paper. I can still remember, I was sitting in my office out in Malibu looking out over the ocean. It was a bright, hot sunny day, and I thought, Damn it. I just know that everyone’s going to fight that line. The studio executives are going to say. “How does this high falutin’ language come out of this redneck prison guy?” I was afraid it was going to be attacked and I would have to defend it, so I was preparing myself to defend it. I stopped writing at that point, put a different sheet of paper in, and wrote a brief biography of the Strother Martin character, about how he’d come from a sharecropper family. He became a prison guard, then he got promotions, and in order to get promotions in the Florida state prison system—I had no idea if this was true or not—you had to take several hours of formal instruction in penology, which is the theory and practice of prison. He had actually gone to community college in order to get good grades and qualify for promotions, and that’s how he became captain. So that justified the line; he had a little exposure to an academic arena, and that’s where it came from. The fact of the matter is, no one every questioned it, so I never had to show the biography!”

If you don’t know what line that refers to, then all I can say is that obviously what we have here is a failure to commun’cate.

Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton (2012. Stage play written by Vanessa Claire Stewart. Approximately 125 minutes.)

Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton

Stage and Screen, Take One: Vanessa Claire met the actor French Stewart while he was doing a play at the Geffen Theatre. Stewart is best known for the five years he appeared in the television series 3rd Rock From the Sun. Like a lot of actors in successful shows he became typecast. Claire was impressed with his physical comedy skills in the play. They met after the show and talked, and Stewart mentioned that he was a big fan of Buster Keaton. He wanted to play Keaton, but felt he was now too old to play Keaton in his prime. Claire fell in love, married him and wrote this terrific play for him.

What has your wife done for you lately?

Claire Stewart loved history and researched everything she could about Keaton. But she realized that “In the Keaton stories, there are truths and there are legends that have been told. For our purposes, we are sticking to a lot of the legends that Mr. Keaton would have wanted told, but always with an undercurrent of truth…” (The quote and other details about the creation of the show are from her note in the theater program. If you want more information and reviews of the show, you can find them here.) As a film historian I should note that certain important people in Keaton’s life do not show up, such as the third Talmadge sister, Constance. But Claire Stewart only needs Norma (married to Keaton’s producer Joe Schenck) and Natalie (married to Keaton). Likewise, we do not get Irving Thalberg, whom Keaton fought with at MGM in the ‘30s, because she has Louis B. Mayer, who makes a better villain. Claire Stewart is jumping around in time from Keaton’s early years, when Buster is played by a young actor (Donal Thoms-Cappello), and the later years, when Stewart plays the part. Since Keaton retained a lot of his physical skills late in his life (look at him with the garden hose in Sergeant Dead Head in 1965, the year he turned seventy), Stewart gets a lot to do.

Claire Stewart is smart not to recreate the Keaton routines exactly, and very smart to use references to them. In one scene Keaton and his friend “Fatty” Arbuckle are having a meal at a table with the same food on hanging ropes as in The Scarecrow (1920). Later we get a scene of Keaton and Chaplin at two makeup tables getting made up for their joint appearance in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), which mirrors a similar scene in the film between the two old vaudevillians. My favorite steal is when Claire Stewart uses the changing seasons titles from the opening of Seven Chances (1925) to show the beginning of Keaton’s romance with his third wife, Eleanor. You don’t have to have seen the film to be charmed by it, but if you know the film, you will love the reference even more. The one Keaton bit he used a lot in vaudeville and his films is the housefront coming down around him. It is used here to show his world falling apart, and even though it is just a theatrical flat, it is just stunning to see it “live.”

Stewart and the rest of the cast are great, and I was particularly impressed with Tegan Ashton Cohan, who plays Natalie Talmadge. Natalie appeared in a couple of Keaton films, but she had none of the talent of her sisters. Claire Stewart makes Natalie more ambitious than she was, but this gives Ashton Cohan a lot to do, and she is brilliant, much more entertaining than Natalie ever was.

Oh, yes, one other thing. The small theater the world premiere is playing at in Los Angeles is about a block and a half away from Los Angeles City College, where Keaton made one shot for his 1927 film College. The theater is called Sacred Fools. Sacred indeed.

War Horse (2007. Stage play written by Nick Stafford, adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo. 155 minutes.)

War Horse

Stage and Screen, Take Two: July was a busy theater month in Los Angeles. The night after I saw Stoneface, I saw the National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of the stage version of War Horse at the Ahmanson. About time it got around to Los Angeles. You may remember that I had a lot of quibbles about last year’s film version and I was curious how the play stacked up.

The play is better, for some curious reasons. I knocked the script for the film because the characterization was so shallow. I was “at a loss to explain why the characterization in this film is so bland and standard issue.” I suspect after having seen the play it is because the characterization in the novel is bland, etc. There is not more characterization in the play than in the film, and the play works better. Why? First of all, Spielberg loves actors and I think stayed on them too long in the film hoping that could deliver what is not in the screenplay. The stage version moves a lot quicker, and we get caught up in what the people are doing rather than what they are feeling. What also helps is that the play has a great sense of humor, which the film does not. Under Spielberg’s direction it is ponderously unfunny.

The play is conceived in very theatrical terms. The horses are not real horses, but puppets, each one run by three puppeteers. Several reviews and regular viewers have said they forgot completely the horses were puppets and “believed” they were real. That’s known in the trade as the “willing suspension of disbelief.” I was so fascinated by how the puppeteers did what they did that I was not as emotionally moved as some people are with the play. One of my snarkier comments on the film was that I couldn’t tell if the two main horses, Joey and Topthorne, were gay. Here there is no question they are straight, since the puppeteers give them strongly masculine, almost macho, attitudes as they play in their first scene together. There is a precision in the horses’ “acting” on stage that was not there on film, and that applies to the entire show.

The Exorcist (2012. Stage play by John Pielmeier, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty. 95 minutes.)

The Exorcist

Stage and Screen, Take Three: And two nights after I saw War Horse, I saw the world premiere production of this stage version of Blatty’s novel. The playwright is John Pielmeier, best known for his play and screenplay for Agnes of God (1985), which deals with many theological issues. Well, so does The Exorcist, so you can see why it occurred to somebody to match them up. And Pielmeier made the very high-minded decision to focus on the theology rather than the scarier elements of the book as the film. Unfortunately…do we really want a discussion of the issues involved? As Bob Verini said in his review in Variety, the play’s talk is mostly from “the pages [of the novel] you flipped past en route to the next outrageous set piece.” It is not very dramatic. Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow in the film, Richard Chamberlain here) becomes a sort of Greek chorus, explaining it all for us like Sister Mary Ignatius. So every time the story begins to pick up, we get him pontificating. Chamberlain is a wonderful stage actor, but there is only so much he can do.

Blatty’s screenplay to the 1973 film delved much more into the characters, as well as the horror elements, which makes the film much more compelling, even if director William Friedkin made it the gross-out champion of the decade. The play is directed by the inventive British director John Doyle, and alas, no, they do not play musical instruments as they act. I had gotten the mistaken impression a month or so ago that the play was going to be a musical and looked forward to what Doyle would bring to it, his having done a nice job on Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd a few years back. But Doyle’s direction is depressingly straightforward, and he often has the actors standing on opposite sides of the stage talking to each other about the issues. The only detail even vaguely resembling a special effect is a bit when Regan levitates about a foot above the bed. For that they went to the trouble of bringing in Teller, of Penn and… I am not asking for all the stuff in the movie, but the theater does have a long tradition going back a couple of thousand years of being able to shock audiences with the horror of a situation. The guys here could take a few lessons from Sophocles and especially Euripides, the William Peter Blatty of ancient Greece. Or they could go downtown (the play is at the Geffen in Westwood) and see how the National Theatre tells the story in War Horse. The Exorcist is going to need a lot of work before it goes anywhere else.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Steig Larsson. 158 minutes.)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Second time around: My wife and I, having liked the Swedish version of this, kept intending to see this one when it was in theaters. We missed it because we tend to go to the late shows (my wife is a night owl), but given the running time I knew I would never stay awake all the way through a screening that started at 10 P.M. So I recently picked it up on Netflix. On Blu-Ray no less. My wife assumed that given the movies I watch I really needed a Blu-Ray, so after consulting with my friends who know about this stuff, we got a Sony Playstation 3. It has not been a joyous experience. Sony is not alone in this, but when did companies stop putting information on how to use their equipment in the little brochures that come with it? I noticed this first several years ago, when I realized the book of instructions for the Time-Warner Cable Box talked about all the wonderful things you can do with it, but at no point did it tell you how to do any of them. I would guess that Sony figured if you are buying a Playstation 3, you probably have had a 1 or a 2. Well, I haven’t. I tried when I first fired it up to use the controller that comes with it, and that caused nothing but confusion. I talked to my techie friends and they all had had the same problem. They advised me that you can get a regular TV remote that will do what I need to do. So I did, and it worked the first couple of times I tried it, but when I went to run Girl, it would not do anything. I finally figured out the batteries were dead. After only two previous uses. I eventually got it up and running, but one major flaw in Blu-Ray is that, unlike DVD, you cannot stop the film, turn off the player, and then come back and pick up where you left off. So it means you can only pause, which is useful if you need to go to the bathroom, but you don’t want to leave it on pause overnight.

So we eventually get going on Girl and it starts out badly with a title sequence that belongs in a James Bond movie: all liquid animation in blues and blacks. Guys, this is just a simple story of a girl, her piercings, her tattoos and her helping a reporter solve a forty-year-old mystery. Except that Zaillian’s script has shifted the focus to Mikael Blomkvist. I did not sit down with a stopwatch on both versions, but it felt to me that we spent more time with him than we did with her. My wife, who read the novels, says that the novel does spend more time with him than it does with her. But the Swedish film changed all that. Rooney Mara gives a good performance rather than the great, feral one Noomi Rapace gives in the Swedish version. Zaillian’s script seems to be going through the motions on Lisbeth rather than being invested in her.

The American version is only six minutes longer than the Swedish version, but it feels longer. After the Vanger case is solved, Lisbeth’s revenge on Wennerström takes way too long, much longer than it does in the Swedish film. At that point we are ready to wrap things up as quickly as possible. I was also disappointed that Zaillian does not do as much with the Vanger relatives as the Swedish film does. It is part of the Swedish texture that I missed here, although I should point out that my wife, whose mother was Swedish, loved the shots of the Swedish countryside.

Compared to the Swedish film, this one is incredibly over-directed by David Fincher. Especially on Blu-Ray, I found his soundtrack extremely annoying, with all kinds of whines drowning out the dialogue. You would have thought that one of the twelve credited producers, and Zaillian was one of them, would have mentioned this to Fincher. That’s part of the producer’s job: to keep the director from making a fool of himself. The guys failed the test here.

Anger Management (2012. Multiple episodes. 30 minutes.)

Anger Management

He’s Ba-a-a-a-ck: As I’ve written before, I was a great fan of Charlie Sheen’s acting on Two and a Half Men. He made doing that kind of comedy a lot easier than it looks. Needless to say, I was disappointed in his off-screen activities, especially since they ended up getting him kicked off the show. But he is determined to come back, so he now has a new show in which he plays a former baseball player who now is a therapist dealing with clients with anger management issues. That is maybe a little obvious, as in the pilot episode “Charlie Goes Back to Therapy,” written by the show’s creator Bruce Helford, which begins with Charlie talking to the camera saying things like, “You can’t fire me” and “You can’t replace me with another guy.” All very meta, but not as imaginative as it could be. He’s talking to a punching bag doll in front of his patients to show them how to deal with situations. Then we meet his patients. And they are pretty much standard issue, and would not have been out of place on The Bob Newhart Show back in the ‘70s. Charlie has an attractive ex-wife and a teenage daughter, again all standard issue. He also has a woman he occasionally sleeps with, Kate. We later find out that she used to be his therapist. Now he wants to go back into therapy, and both are insistent that they can no longer has sex if he is her patient. Guess how long it takes for them to get it on? Not even that long. That relationship has possibilities, but in the three episodes I have seen, the writers have not done much with it.

Sheen left Two and A Half Men because he was constantly fighting with the writers, but the writing quality on that show was much, much higher than it is so far on this one. Sometimes, Charlie, you just have to suck it up for the good of the show.

The Newsroom (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

The Newsroom

Well, it’s Aaron Sorkin, what the hell did you expect?: The reviews on this show, which premiered at the end of May were brutal. There is too much talk, it’s too political, it’s too liberal, it’s too self-satisified. Why didn’t Aaron Sorkin give us a nice, pleasant, non-political show like…uh, wait a minute, wasn’t this the guy that was acclaimed for The West Wing? Yes. And wouldn’t nearly all those complaints listed above apply to The West Wing? Uh, yes, well, they would. So what happened here? The easy answer is that Jeff Daniels is not Martin Sheen, and the less easy answer is that Will McAvoy, Daniels’s character, is not as warm and loveable as Sheen’s Josiah Bartlett. In the pilot episode (“We Just Decided To,” written by Sorkin) McAvoy, a television newsman, goes off on a college student who asks him what makes America the greatest nation in the world. He snaps at her all the reasons why it’s not, and he’s got a lot of reasons. As the series has progressed, he is obviously driven by a lot of demons, which makes him a fascinating character.

In the pilot episode, there is a lot of pontificating, but there has been less as the series continues. The pilot laid out who the major characters are going to be, but they are not as immediately compelling as the gang on The West Wing was after we go to know them. I particularly found the love triangles with the young whippersnappers less than interesting, although the characters are getting developed more in their newsroom scenes than in their romantic scenes. In “5/1,” written by Sorkin, the whippersnappers’ romantic problems drag down the main story of the night we killed bin Laden. The adults are already more interesting, and I am particularly taken with Charlie, Will’s boss. He is played by Sam Waterston, who gets to display his natural twinkle, which you never knew he had if you only saw him on Law & Order. Waterston gives great twinkle.

McAvoy, after the dustup with the college student, is brought back to a cable news network to head a nightly news show. His producer is his ex-girlfriend, Mackenzie MacHale, and they still have issues. We get, over several episodes, how the news show is put together, and what Sorkin and his team do is set it in a real time, with real news stories as the backdrop for each show. That means there is not only video coverage of the actual events, we often get clips of real people talking about the events at the time. (The standard disclaimer in the end credits about all characters being fictional is more of a crock than it usually is.) That sets up a degree of difficulty for the writers that even The West Wing did not have. And then Sorkin and the writers use it in a interesting way, not unlike what Frank Capra did in his World War II documentary series, Why We Fight. Capra figured that the best way to deal with the Nazis was simply to quote what they had said over the previous years. Sorkin does the same thing with the right wingers. In “I’ll Try to Fix You” (written by Sorkin), McAvoy is covering the stories he tells the viewers they should have covered more but did not. One of them is the dustup over how much Obama’s trip to India cost. Sorkin uses clips of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others and we see and hear how ridiculous they sound. More please.

Sorkin may well have been setting the show up to undercut the critiques about the self-satisfaction of the show. In the “Bullies” episode, again written by Sorkin, we see Sloan, the financial reporter, betray a friend by telling the audience what he had said off the record. McAvoy bullies a former campaign worker on Rick Santorum’s staff, and later admits to the bullying.

So all this, and Jane Fonda as well, playing the head of the company, and basing her performance not on her ex-husband, Ted Turner, but on Rupert Murdoch. She shows up in “The 112th Congress,” co-written by Sorkin and Gideon Yago, to remind Charlie that the corporation has its own rules. It’s a nice mano-a-mano between Fonda and Waterston. I look forward to more of them.

Political Animals (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

The Newsroom

Estrogen City: Elaine Barrish Hammond is the former First Lady who is now Secretary of State in the cabinet of the man she ran against in the primary. Hmm, remind you of anybody you know? But she was never a Senator, although she was a governor, and while her husband, Bud Hammond, did screw around on her, he has none of the intelligence and seductive power of Bill Clinton. He is more likely Lyndon Johnson was in private, but except here they have him behaving that way in public. It is a major miscalculation on the part of the show.

On the other hand, Elaine is played by Sigourney Weaver in one of the best parts she’s ever had. And boy is she up to it. She mostly goes head to read with Carla Gugino as Susan Berg, the reporter who broke the stories about Bud’s infidelities. Susan and Elaine almost seem to be forming an alliance, but I am not sure we should trust either one, which makes them fun to watch. Ellen Burstyn plays Elaine’s mom, who is a real pistol. And if that is not enough estrogen for you, Vanessa Redgrave shows up as the first gay Supreme Court judge.

Elaine has two grown sons and we get soap opera stuff about their lives. Like their counterparts on The Newsroom, the whippersnappers are the least interesting element of the show. And I do object to making the gay son the screwup (drugs, stealing money, etc.) What if he was the rock and the straight son was the screwup? Just for a change of pace.

Twenty Twelve (2011-12. Various episodes. 30 minutes.)

Twenty Twelve

How about if we get the Queen to jump out of a helicopter?: This show began last year in England, and it is an Office-like (way too much like) mockumentary about the “Olympic Deliverance Commission,” a fictional version of the London organizers of the Olympics. We got it only in the last couple of weeks before the actual Games. The problem was that real events had taken over, and as often happens, reality is better at satire. There is nothing in the show the equivalent of the company supposed to provide security acknowledging that they are several thousand people short of their goal. Or that the immigration workers at the airports threatened to go on strike just as everybody was arriving.

And then we have the harebrained idea that the Queen should jump out of a helicopter and skydive into the opening ceremonies. I doubt if anybody collected with Twenty Twelve would have dared to come up with anything that outrageous. But Danny Boyle and his team did, and they talked the Queen into it. I don’t know who wrote the film that led up to the jump, but it gets my vote for Best Original Screenplay for this year. It begins with typical British Heritage shots of a car driving up to Buckingham Palace. We don’t see who gets out of the car, and Boyle diverts us by showing kids on a tour more interested in the car than the tour. As the man from the car walks up the stairs inside, we know it’s James Bond, because it’s Daniel Craig in a tux. If he were in Bermuda shorts, we wouldn’t think Bond. And he does not have Judi Dench with him as M, since Boyle does not need her. One of the servants knocks on a door and announces “Mr. Bond.” Bond goes in and waits for the Queen to finish writing. She turns and it is the real Queen, not Helen Mirren. She says, “Good evening, Mr. Bond,” although the line is garbled (she is better at official speeches than dialogue). They leave, followed by her corgis, playing themselves. Everybody keeps a straight face, which is essential. There is not a bit of unneeded action in the scene. When we get outside, we are now with body doubles as they get into the helicopter and leave the palace behind, with a great shot of the corgis looking up at them leaving and Bond smirking down at them, a great detail. We get a flight over London, complete with Churchill’s statue waving at them, and cut to the live action as the stunt doubles of the Queen and Bond jump out of the helicopter to the music of the James Bond theme. And the real Queen shows up in the official seats, looking none the worse for wear. Beijing spent a lot more than Danny Boyle had, but they had nothing that was this inventive.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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