Coming up in this column: The Book of Eli, Valentine’s Day, Theater of War, Hamlet 2, Test Pilot, Prince Valiant, In the Line of Fire, Life Unxpected, Temple Grandin
The Book of Eli (2010. Written by Gary Whitta. 118 minutes)
A stranger comes into town…: I am not normally a fan of post-apocalyptic movies. My left brain always has trouble with the reality of the details. For example, if it is all arid and dusty, where do they get their food? Where do they get their refined gasoline to drive their motorcycles and trucks? Where do they get the bullets they fire off in great numbers? And so on. I had some of those problems with this movie, especially the bullets, but Whitta has thrown in a nice scene when The Man With No…, sorry, Eli, comes into a rundown town. He has not said much so far, as one might gather when one learns from Peter Clines’s article on the writing of the film in the January/February 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting that Whitta is a big fan of Sergio Leone and Toshirô Mifune samurai films. By the time he gets to town we already know he is a whiz with an industrial strength machete, having dispatched several hijackers on the road. We also know he doesn’t say much. Hey, if it worked for Eastwood, why not? So he goes into a store and negotiates swapping various stuff he has picked up along the way for other stuff he needs. I don’t know how much of the dialogue is in the script—most of it I would guess—but Denzel Washington as Eli and Tom Waits as the Shopkeeper get a nice rhythm going and we get a sense of what is now valuable and what is not any longer. If the rest of the film appeals to post-apocalyptic action junkies, this scene appeals to my left brain.
Eli is carrying, well, you can guess from the title of the film. What book? We assume early on that it is the Bible, but we are half-way into the film before Whitta tells us. In the early drafts he made it clearer earlier, but at the encouragement of his managers and the studio (Warner Bros), a lot of the religious material got cut down. Until Washington came on as the star and wanted some of it back. The balance the collaborators ended up with is good, since it does not make the film preachy. We are caught up with the characters and the situation. Carnegie, the town boss, wants the Bible because he can use it to increase his power. Chases and action ensue. The directors are the Hughes Brothers and they know how to stage action. I could have done without what the New Yorker blurb calls the “brown-and-white” photography. It probably did not help that I had caught about fifteen minutes (the arrival of Lawrence and Farraj at the deserted army post by the Suez Canal) of Lawrence of Arabia the night before I saw Eli, which does put the Brothers’ desert landscapes to shame. On the other hand, they do get the most out of the actors. Mila Kunis plays Solara, who becomes a follower of Eli. She was cast for her looks, which are perfect for the part, but as she showed two years ago in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, she has some acting chops, which are also on display here. She holds her own against Washington. The Brothers may get too much out of Gary Oldman. Whitta has him wounded in the leg early in the film, and Oldman has never met a shtick like a game leg that he didn’t like a little more than he should.
The two twists at the end are rather inventive, one having to do with the book Eli is carrying, and the other having to do with how it is used in relation to Oldman and his mistress in their final scene. On the other hand, the very end of the film is so blatantly setting up a sequel that it left a bad taste in my mouth. Yes, I’d like to see that actor again, but not necessarily in that part.
Valentine’s Day (2010. Screenplay by Katherine Fugate, story by Katherine Fugate and Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein. 125 minutes)
Not as good as Love, Actually, but not as bad as He’s Not That Into You: Yes, here we have another all-star cast, multiple stories rom-com. And it is not as bad as some of the reviews would have you believe. Or maybe it just seemed better to me because I saw it after I read the reviews. Or it may be that I live in Los Angeles and loved all the LA-centric jokes. Of course, it is also not up to What’s Cooking? (2000), which is still the best contemporary film that captures the real LA. But it has its LA moments, including one at the very beginning. I wrote before about the importance of starting a comedy off with a nice joke, and here’s this film’s one: A fleet of pick-up trucks, each with a similar bush in the back, is driving down the street in a very affluent neighborhood. They dance around each other as they turn into separate driveways. O.K., that may not strike you as funny if you live in Manhattan, but in LA the dance of the gardeners’ trucks is funny.
Over that shot and several others of morning in LA, we get voiceover from a couple of radio personalities. This sounds like something leftover from earlier drafts of the script, when one of the writers probably assumed they were going to need something like Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti (1973) to tie it all together. They don’t and the more stories they added, the more useless the narration is. The idea that it is Valentine’s Day and we are going to watch a bunch of romantic couples is fairly clear fairly early. Richard Curtis used Christmas in much the same way in Love, Actually (2003), but Curtis was smart enough not to stick to just romantic love. In Curtis’s film, in addition to the romances, we have the rock star Billy Mack’s relationship with his manager and Daniel trying to be a good father to his stepson. That provides a nice counterbalance to the romantic stories. Here, with one late-entry twist, it is all romance, all the time, but at least the writers catch the romances at different points in their relationships. Curtis managed to balance nine stories in his script, but Fugate tries for more. Her writing is not sharp enough to make them all work. Curtis is the master of giving us quick, sharp characterizations. In Valentine’s Day, the characterization is at least better than it was in last year’s He’s Not That Into You. You may remember my complaint from US #20 on that film that we never find out what a lot of the people do for a living. Here it is clear, starting with, appropriately enough, Reed, who owns a flower shop. That’s a convenient way to connect him with several other people in the film. Several others have work relationships with each other over a variety of professions, not all of them in show business.
On the other hand, the lack of characterization leaves some of the actors more or less adrift. Anne Hathaway’s Liz comes off best because she not only has an office job, but moonlights in an even more interesting line of work, which gives Hathaway a chance to show some acting chops of hers we have not heard before. And gives her boss, Queen Latifah, a great payoff scene at the end of the film. Latifah is even funnier in the real scene than she is in the outtake of at the end. Several of the male characters are rather bland, including Dr. Copeland, Jason, and for most of the film, Holden, who gets a nice twist at the end. Felicia is a teenage ditz, and an actress new to me, Taylor Swift, gives the part some real topspin. Some reviewers have panned Swift, and while I am not sure I want to see her try Lady Macbeth very soon, she is good here. I have heard rumors both that she can also sing and not sing.
Actors often say they take a role in a film because of the director. The director here is Garry Marshall, and he has had enough success, at least commercially, with the rom-com genre to encourage all these actors to sign up. Stay through at least the first set of outtakes, since the last one is Julia Roberts having some fun with one of her previous adventures with Marshall. Better actors should look at the script than the director. Marshall directs the actors well (although I agree with the review in Variety that said the cinematography does the actresses no favors), but the script does not give them enough interesting stuff to do. See below for a script that does right by its stars.
Theater of War (2008. No writer credit, but directed and edited by John Walter. 95, 96 or 100 minutes, depending on your source)
Bertolt Brecht meets Mr. Ed: I did not know about this film at all when I came across it in my usual nighttime ramble. Before I turn off the television each night, I run down the guides Time-Warner provides for the assorted movie channels and set the DVR for what looks interesting. All the blurb on Sundance said on this one was it was a documentary about the production in 2006 in the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park of Brecht’s Mother Courage, with Meryl Streep as Mother. How had I missed that? (If I had been reading either Slant or The House Next Door in May 2008 I would have seen their reviews of it, but I didn’t come to The House until August of that year.) Well, it was not widely distributed, and I can see why.
Not that it is uninteresting. After all, you get to watch some of the brighter lights of the American Theatre put on a production of what is considered one of the great plays of the Twentieth Century. So we have a process, which can make for an interesting film. One problem is that we do not see much of the process. Streep’s performance seems pretty much the same in the rehearsals and the bits we see from the final performance. Streep at one point says she does not like to let people in to see the process, since it shows so much bad acting. Here it does not show so much bad acting as demonstrate why she was really miscast in the part. As one review (you can check out the few reviews of the film on the IMDb’s external review page) points out, she is a little too aristocratic for the part, and what we see of her performance is a little too mannered and fussy, as Streep can sometimes be.
Another problem is that the film keeps shifting focus from the production. It cuts to Jay Cantor, a novelist and professor, pontificating to his class about Marx and Brecht, but mostly about Marx. And then shifting to a mini-biography of Brecht. And then to some very interesting scenes with Carl Weber, who was an assistant to Brecht. And then to a combination of a book of stills of the first production in 1949, along with recordings of that production, which starred Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel, who was much more suited to the part than Streep. Bits of these discursions are interesting, most are not.
What is interesting, but not necessarily in the way I think the filmmaker intended, is the idolatry of both Marx and Brecht that keeps popping up. It shows up not only in Cantor’s comments, but in those from Tony Kushner (who adapted the play) and some of the other artists connected with the show. Brecht was certainly a giant of Twentieth Century theater, but much of his work has dated badly, at least in some part because of his doctrinaire Marxism. One of the problems that middle left intellectuals have had since the collapse of the Soviet empire was making Marxism convincing for the next generation. Cantor’s class does not seem particularly impressed by it. In the early ’90s there was a small film studies conference at UCLA in which a bunch of Marxist film historians tried to figure out a way to maintain their “authenticity” in view of the collapse of communism. They generally have not figured out how to do it, and the writings of several of them, such as David Bordwell, have gotten a lot less obviously Marxist than they were before.
What that means for the production of Mother Courage is that for purposes of putting on the play, the artists have to take the audience to live in Brecht’s Marxist world to make it at all convincing on stage. Joe Dougherty, who was a writer on the television show thirtysomething, told me in an interview for my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing, that when he went to write an episode, he “went into a thirtysomething trance.” A slyer version of that idea came from the comedian George Burns, who was one of the producers on the talking horse series, Mr. Ed. He used to sit in on the writers’ conferences. At first he did not say much, but one day he stated, “If you don’t believe the horse talks, you can’t do this show.” In some part of your brain, when you write a Mr. Ed episode, you have to believe the horse talks. When you do Mother Courage, in some part of your brain, you have to be a Brechtian Marxist.
The question, which the film avoids like the plague, is did audiences in 2006 want to go and live in that world? In a spectacular failure of nerve, Walter does not give us any indication of how the production was received. We get no reviews (they were not that good), and no interviews with audience members. Did they believe the horse talked, or did they just come to see Meryl Streep?
Hamlet 2 (2008. Written by Pam Brady & Andrew Fleming. 92 minutes)
William Shakespeare meets Mr. Ed: I saw Theater of War in the afternoon and at night watched this fictional version of the talking horse problem. I had seen the trailers for this film back in 2008, and thought it looked like it might be amusing, but it had not been in theaters long enough for me to see it. It popped up on HBO. Boy, was I glad I hadn’t paid $20 for my wife and me to see it in a theater.
Dana is an actor who has ended up teaching drama in a high school in Tucson, Arizona. He puts on play versions of famous films, such as his two-actor production of Erin Brockovich. He decides to do an original, a sequel to Hamlet in which Hamlet comes back in a time machine along with Jesus and lives happily ever after. Hey, if Mel Brooks can do The Producers (the original 1968 movie) and “Springtime for Hitler,” why not Hamlet 2 and “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus”? Two problems: It’s not sharp and it’s not funny.
Brooks’s screenplay is more tightly focused than you might remember. We have the storyline of putting on a flop and we have the outrageous play within the film. Here we have a very unfocused story about Dana trying to save the drama program at the school while dealing with his students while dealing with his wife who eventually runs off with their boarder while dealing with…well, you get the picture. None of these story elements are done in an interesting or funny way. Mostly what is supposed to be funny just turns out to be silly. Dana’s behavior would have gotten him kicked out of any school in the country. Steve Coogan does not help by overacting. Some other scenes have no comic fizz to them at all. The scene in which his wife tells him she is leaving is written and played perfectly straight. Several elements are brought in and then not developed, such as using the Gay’s Men’s Chorus of Tucson as essentially backup singers for the production.
The play and its production are also not focused. We know in The Producers that the author intends Springtime for Hitler to be a serious defense of Nazi Germany, and the jokes key off that. In the stage play Hamlet 2, Dana is sort of working out his issues with his father, but that is overpowered by the stagecraft, whereas in “Springtime for Hitler,” the stagecraft (i.e., the Busby Berkeley overhead shot) carry through on the joke. “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” is supposed to be just as transgressive as “Springtime for Hitler,” but we have no idea why, since it just seems one other element in the show.
So here we have an example of the talking horse syndrome in reverse. We see the delusions that Dana is under about his life and talent. He believes his horse can talk, but it can’t. And the writers of the film thought it was funny, and it wasn’t.
Except for one audience. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and got such a good response that Focus Films picked up the distribution rights for $10 million. It grossed less than $5 million when it was released. Hamlet 2 is only one of a number of films that made a terrific impact at a film festival, and not just Sundance, and then died at the box office. Because so many films at film festivals are so bad—I have come to believe that film festivals exist primarily to sucker people into seeing movies they would not otherwise pay to see—every so often a movie like Hamlet 2 will come along and seem better than it is. Sometimes an audience will believe a horse can talk, even when it has nothing funny to say.
Test Pilot (1938. Screenplay by Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young (and Howard Hawks and John Lee Mahin, uncredited), based on a story by Frank Wead. 118 minutes)
The MGM style in its full glory: I mentioned in US#41 in talking about Libeled Lady that the MGM screenplay style was to provide scenes for its stars. This is a perfect example of that, and an entertaining one to boot. Clark Gable is Jim Lane, a test pilot. Spencer Tracy is Gunner, his mechanic. Myrna Loy is a Kansas farm girl Lane meets and marries when his plane crashes on her farm. The rest of the film follows the ups and downs not only of Lane’s flying, but of their marriage. Look at the scene on Loy’s porch when she comes back from a date with her fiance and Gable is waiting for her. In narrative terms it does not have to be that long, but it gives Gable and Loy a wonderful scene to play. Much later Gable and Tracy have been AWOL from Loy for five days and come back to the apartment. Look at what the writers provide for Gable and Tracy to do while trying to figure out how to tell Loy, in the next room, that they are back. Look at Loy telling Tracy what she thinks the three roads in her life might be. And look at the scene between Gable and Lionel Barrymore as his boss near the end. As a star vehicle, the script is wonderful.
The scenes with the stars get us into the emotions of the scenes and the situations, often in obvious ways. But sometimes the focus on stars throws the scenes off. After a pilot is killed, the other pilots get drunk and ignore his death. Gable has a good time playing a drunk scene, but we don’t get under the surface of the emotions the way Jules Furthman does in a similar scene in his screenplay for Only Angels Have Wings a year later. As you know, I am always a little dubious about the uncredited writers the IMDb lists, and especially so when it turns out to be a director. But it is possible that Hawks worked on this and then went off and had Furthman write that script, which is based on a story by Hawks. Furthman is a better writer than the two credited writers on Test Pilot, which is why Only Angels Have Wings is a better movie. But boy, if you love Gable, Tracy, and Loy, you may not care.
Prince Valiant (1954. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the comic strip by Hal Foster. 100 minutes)
One of the later not-so-funny ones: In writing about the legendary screenwriter Dudley Nichols in FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, I mentioned that he is best known for his serious work, such as The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). But I added that some us prefer his later, lighter ones such as this and Heller in Pink Tights (1960). Maybe, maybe not.
Nichols was one of the most highly respected screenwriters of the ’30s and ’40s, and he did as much as anybody to help persuade people that screenwriting was a serious business. He wrote essays and articles about it, and with John Gassner published a couple of volumes of best screenplays. Nichols’s reputation has diminished, since many of his highly acclaimed scripts of the period seem clunky and ponderous now. The symbolism he writes in The Informer is thuddingly obvious, e.g., the wanted poster for the man he informs on following Gypo around like a little dog. Although he wrote intelligently about the differences between film and theatre, he still was a very wordy writer. Well, if you are drawn to material like Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), which he both wrote and directed, you probably love words. On the other hand, his script for the 1940 The Long Voyage Home breaks up O’Neill’s four one-act plays into an interesting film structure. But I generally prefer Nichols’s less ponderous scripts. Rawhide (1951) reverses his situation in Stagecoach by having a group of people held hostage by the bad guys in a stagecoach station rather than a moving stagecoach, and becomes a competent little western thriller in the process.
The script for Prince Valiant is simply not as lighthearted as it should be. Aside from his credit on Bringing Up Baby (1938), there is not a lot of comedy in Nichols’s filmography. He was one of the writers on Cecil B. De Mille’s The Crusades (1935), where his heavy-handedness fit with De Mille’s approach, but the basic material in Prince Valiant is just not that substantial. We do get some good jousting and some great second unit scenery of England and English castles in the then-new CinemaScope process. This makes one remember that this was the film the head of the studio Darryl Zanuck kept referring to when Elia Kazan and Budd Shulberg tried to set up On the Waterfront at Fox. Zanuck should have stuck to what he knew best.
In the Line of Fire (1993. Screenplay by Jeff Maguire. 128 minutes)
Bye Bye, Blockbuster: I was out for a walk a few weeks ago and noticed that my neighborhood Blockbuster store was closing. I really appreciated having it a couple of blocks away so that on a day when I had a couple of hours, I would wander in and see if anything jumped off the shelves saying, “Watch me! Watch me!” But now it is closing, and they were having an “Everything Must Go!” sale. I limited myself to ten DVDs. Some were older (Drums Along the Mohawk ), some were ones I wanted to upgrade from my Beta and VHS panned-and-scanned versions (You Only Live Twice , The Outlaw Josey Wales ), and some, like this one, were just targets of opportunity.
The project began many years before the film was released. Jeff Apple, the producer, was fascinated the Secret Service’s job of protecting the president. One of Clint Eastwood’s biographers, Patrick McGilligan indicates it was Maguire who came on the project late and added the interesting detail that Frank Horrigan had been with Kennedy’s motorcade at Dallas and was haunted by his failure. The fact that the producers were looking at older actors for some time suggests it may have been part of the earlier scripts by other writers, as well as Apple’s comments that he first got interested in the subject during the Lyndon Johnson administration. In any case, that was an element that the various studios which were approached hated. They all wanted the character made younger and hotter. Which would have turned this into just another cop chasing just another mad would-be killer. In Maguire’s script, Leary is fixated on Horrigan and his experience with Kennedy. While the script is terrific as a thriller, the Kennedy connection adds interesting textures to the film. As well as providing one of the richest characters Eastwood played in his career. Leary is a great role for John Malkovich, and Malkovich and Eastwood have a great on-screen chemistry. Eastwood was in the middle of post-production on Unforgiven (1992) when the project came to him, and did not want to direct it himself. The director was Wolfgang Petersen, whose American films until then had not matched his 1981 German success Das Boot. Aside from his insistence on doing more than just a couple of takes of each shot, he and Eastwood, who very seldom does more than two when he directs, got along well. The success of this film gave launched Petersen on a Hollywood career that included such hits as Air Force One (1997), The Perfect Storm (2000) and Troy (2004). Amazing what a good screenplay can do for a director’s career.
Maguire has also provided another interesting foil for Eastwood’s Horrigan, the younger female agent Lilly Raines. Rene Russo lightens up both Horrigan and Eastwood, and Eastwood has seldom seemed as charming as he does here. There are some wonderful dialogue scenes between them, and Rene Russo gives a great performance as Lilly. Much better than her performance the year before in Lethal Weapon 3. Well, she had some help. Not only is the Maguire script better, but the editing of her performance here is better. While writing in US #37 about The Blind Side, I mentioned that the cutting of a Mel Gibson film is quicker than that of an Eastwood picture because the rhythm of the two stars is different. Russo’s rhythm is closer to Eastwood’s, and the great editor Anne V. Coates does a beautiful job of cutting what Petersen has shot with Russo (and everybody else—it is one of the best edited films you will ever see). In Lethal Weapon 3, the cutting is faster and it often looks as though Russo is just getting started in a shot when it cuts to Gibson or something else. Just as writers have to write for performance, editors have to cut for performance as well.
Life Unexpected (2010. Episode “Turtle Undefeated,” written by Adele Lim. 60 minutes)
Bye, bye Lux: In US#41 I wrote that I thought this show might have possibilities, but by this episode (#5), it has worn out its welcome. Lux, whom I mentioned in the pilot was a potentially interesting character, got more and more conventional sensitive teenager as the episodes have progressed. Now she is like every other teenager on the CW and who wants to see that?
Cate and Baze, her unmarried parents, are still having the same arguments. In an earlier episode Cate mentioned on the air that she was the mother of an illegitimate child, but other than the mention of the radio station getting a few calls, nothing more was made of it. Ryan, her fiance, is still hanging around. At least Cate and Baze have not slept together again.
As indicated by the lack of reaction to the announcement of her child, the show is not getting into the material it keeps bringing up as deeply as it could. Two more examples from this episode: Lux arranges to have a party of her teen friends at her room over Baze’s bar. Cate is bothered that she is not involved. So she dresses up and goes to the party. Since Shiri Appleby, who plays Cate, does not look old enough to have a 16-year-old daughter, one guy at the party flirts with her. And nothing is made out of it. What is Cate’s reaction to this? Is she turned on? Grossed out? How much does she play with him before dumping him? Or before it is revealed she is Lux’s mom? And why don’t we see the boy’s reaction when she is revealed?
The second example: two of Lux’s friends from her homeless days crash the party. The middle class teens are a little put off. But what if they are not? What if the middle class kids think the homeless kids are exciting and dangerous? We all know people who like the bad boys or the bad girls or both, so why not play with that?
So I am afraid I am giving up on the show. Life is too short and there is too much else around.
Temple Grandin (2010. Teleplay by Christopher Monger and William Merritt Johnson, based on the books Emergence by Temple Grandin and Margaret Scarciano and Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin. 109 minutes)
Shirley Temple Grandin: The opening scene of this HBO film is a nice variation on the famous Francis Ford Coppola-Edmund North opening of Patton: Temple Grandin stands out and tells us who she is. Except that instead of being in front of an American flag, she is in one of those optical illusion rooms where nothing is quite as it seems. It is a perfect way to establish how the autistic Grandin sees the world. And Claire Danes makes Grandin just as compelling as Scott makes Patton, not only in this scene, but in the rest of the picture. Obligatory “back up the trucks” line: If this one is nominated for the pile of awards it should be, there are already enough pickup trucks in the movie they can use.
If you missed Peter Swanson’s review in Slant, Grandin was diagnosed as autistic when she was a child, then grew up to develop a variety of techniques for calming cattle before they are led off to slaughter. As the title of one of her books says, she thinks in pictures, and the room in the pre-credit sequence is not only an example of that, but shows up again in the main body of the film. The writers and the production staff use animation very effectively to let us see the world as Grandin sees it. The writers also provide some great character writing, not only for Danes, but for the rest of the cast. The opening sequences show us Grandin in her late teens at her aunt’s ranch for the summer, which establishes both Grandin and her aunt, a nice role for Catherine O’Hara. Grandin’s mother feels a lot of guilt for Grandin’s autism, and the writers give her a great moment at the end when Grandin tells an autism conference how much she owes her mom. Director Mick Jackson focuses on the mother’s reactions during the speech, and Julia Ormond, as she does in the rest of the film, delivers the best performance I have ever seen her give.
I do like Grandin’s defense for helping calm cattle before killing them, that we owe them respect, given what we are doing to them. I am not sure it completely overcame my queasiness about her work, but as a lover of hamburgers it would be hypocritical of me to complain too much. It helps that the writers don’t push the issue any more than they do. In the second half of the film, as Grandin is trying to persuade cattlemen to try her ideas, the film gets a bit repetitive. They don’t understand and dismiss her and in the end she is right. The scenes reminded me of a story Philip Dunne told me. He was working with a screenwriter named Julien Josephson on Suez (1938). Josephson had written pictures for George Arliss, the imperious British actor who played historical figures like Disraeli and Cardinal Richelieu. Josephson had also written movies for Shirley Temple. Dunne asked him, “Julien, that’s quite a switch, isn’t it? You move from Shirley Temple to George Arliss and back.” Josephson replied, “No, it’s the same formula: the bright little character gets the best of the grown-ups.” Monger and Johnson and Danes convince us that Temple Grandin is the “bright little character.”
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.