House Logo
Explore categories +

Understanding Screenwriting #51: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Dark Mirror, Rizzoli & Isles, & More

Comments Comments (0)

Understanding Screenwriting #51: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Dark Mirror, Rizzoli & Isles, & More

Coming up in this column: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Dark Mirror, Rizzoli & Isles, Covert Affairs, Hot in Cleveland, but first…

Fan mail: If you did not read David Ehrenstein’s comments in US#50 on my comments, go back and read them, especially his explanation of the reference to Audrey Hepburn in his book review. On the other hand, his comments may tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Derek Jarman. David and I obviously both love Tilda Swinton. I just happened to think I Am Love was not all that good a film.

Edward Wilson asked if it wasn’t the case that there is a lot of rewriting on most movies. Yes, there is, so much so that actors notice it when there are NOT rewrites. See his line about Jeff Bridges, or my at least two so far references to Frances Fisher and the white pages on Unforgiven.

Matt Maul noted that in The Desert Rats James Mason had a German accent because he was Rommel speaking English to Richard Burton. But his earlier scenes are in German in that film and he is very guttural in them.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010. Screenplay by Matt Lopez and Doug Miro & Carl Bernard, screen story by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal and Matt Lopez, suggested by the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode of Fantasia, and, although they don’t say so in the credits, a poem by Goethe. 109 minutes.)

 

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

You say Jerry Bruckheimer like that’s a bad thing: Jerry Bruckheimer is possibly the most critically reviled of contemporary film producers. His pictures make bazillions of dollars and critics complain that they are overproduced. The critics are right, they are, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is no exception. But here is the interesting thing about Bruckheimer: underneath the extreme production values of his films, there are very often interesting stories and scripts. Con Air (1997) has a terrific idea: what goes wrong on a plane full of the most dangerous convicts being transported to prison. Randall Wallace’s screenplay for Pearl Harbor (2001) has a nice throughline: how America moved from its isolationism of the thirties to its involvement with the rest of the world during the war. In fact, I put Pearl Harbor in the Not-Quite-So Good category in the book Understanding Screenwriting because of its script. And I noted in the book that Bruckheimer, unlike many, many film producers, has been tremendously successful in television, where story is more prominent than large budget expenditures. He and his company do the CSI franchises as well as Without a Trace. In addition there is the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. If the recession ever ends and publishers go back to publishing books about screenwriting, my Understanding Screenwriting II: Learning from More Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays will tell you why the Pirates trilogy is an example of great screenwriting.

Meanwhile, we have The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is, alas, not up to Bruckheimer’s best. Those credited writers are just the tip of the iceberg, and in this case the film shows it. The script lopes along from one big action scene to another, seeming to reinvent the rules of sorcery as it goes along. Bruckheimer also produced the National Treasure movies, and he has the director and star of them, Jon Turteltaub and Nicholas Cage, respectively, at work here. The script has some of the lightness of the Treasure movies, but not enough. Cage plays Balthazar, a sorcerer from Merlin’s time, who is still looking for the Prime Merlinian (I think that is what he is called, but it could be the Prime Meridian or the Prime Merlot) who will be the One True Sorcerer. Needless to say, there are bad sorcerers who want to stop that. Balthazar connects with Dave, a nerdy college science student, who, lo and behold, is the new PM. Here’s one problem: I have just told you everything there is to tell about Dave. The writers have given the actor playing him, Jay Baruchel, nothing to play other than nerd. Unlike Cage and Alfred Molina, in top form as the head villain Horvath, Baruchel does not have the acting chops to hold his own with those other two without help from the script. And maybe not even then. Cage and Molina do a lot with a little here. Compare Dave to Will Turner in the Pirates movies. Will starts out as a klutz and grows into a serious pirate. And compare Dave’s “love interest” Becky to Elizabeth Swann. Becky is cute. Well, Elizabeth is cute, but she is a whole lot more. She knows piracy, the pirate code (even if it is more like guidelines), and by the third film she is the Pirate King. Becky helps defeat the bad sorcerers, but without Elizabeth’s drive. And the writers here have not provided the wonderful gallery of supporting parts the writers of the Pirates movies did.

So we get a lot of special effects action, but it generally is not very inventive. I did like the Chinese dragon that became a real dragon, but other than that, the film seems mostly overstuffed, as Bruckheimer’s films often do. There is a little hope, however. In a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times Bruckheimer discussed how he was working with the writers of Pirates 4 (Rossio and Elliott, thank God, since they wrote the first three) to cut the script because they have to cut the budget. Given that a lot of Bruckheimer’s best stuff is done on limited television budgets, maybe this will improve his films.

The Dark Mirror (1946. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on a story by Vladimir Pozner. 85 minutes.)

 

The Dark Mirror

Watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff…: One of the big programs this summer at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles is ”’Oscar Noir’: 1940s Writing Nominees from Hollywood’s Dark Side,” featuring films noir that were nominated for Oscars in the writing categories. I have mixed feelings about the program. Mixed feelings, as the old joke goes, is watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff…in your new Cadillac (I told you it was an old joke). I am not a fan of film noir as a genre. After science fiction it is the most adolescent of all film genres: the big adult world is totally corrupt, and if you have actual sex with a brunette woman you will die. As someone who has been married to a brunette, although we are both a little grayer now, for 45 years, I find that message of film noir a little silly. In spite of what film historians have been preaching for the last forty years, film noir was not that popular a genre in its day. Of the 211 films of the ’40s that brought in film rentals of $3 million or more, only nine were films noir, and those tended to be big star vehicles like Double Indemnity (1944). None of the top 287 films of the ’50s that grossed that much were films noir. By the ’60s the genre had died out. It came back to life in the ’70s for two reasons. The first was that American society had gotten darker with the Kennedy and King assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate et al, and people were generally more cynical. Government lying will do that to you. The second reason is that the baby boomer kids were going to film school, and film noir appealed to male film school students. It was easy to write about if you were a critical studies student, and it was easy to make if you were a production student. You couldn’t make a western unless you knew somebody with horses and guns. You couldn’t afford sets and costumes to make bibilical pictures which, by the way, were a much more commercially successful genre in the ’50s. But if you bought a trenchcoat for your hero and your girlfriend a slinky dress at a thrift shop and got a toy gun you were in business. And if it came out underexposed, hey, it was film noir. A fuller and better-written version of this anti-film noir rant appears in the “Black and Dark” chapter of my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, complete with footnotes.

On the other hand… The Academy program was focusing not on directors, actors, or cinematographers, but on the writing of the films. Not a lot of film programs at the Academy, the American Cinematheque, UCLA Film Archive, etc focus on writers. So that aspect of the program is encouraging. The film on July 12th was The Dark Mirror, with a screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, the subject of my first book. It wasn’t Nunnally who was nominated for an Oscar, but Vladimir Pozner, who had written the story the film was based on. From 1940 to 1956 there were three writing categories. One was Best Story and Screenplay, which was essentially the current Best Original Screenplay category. Another was Best Screenplay, the equivalent of our Best Adapted Screenplay. The third category was Best Original Story. It evolved out of the two original categories, Best Story and Best Screenplay. The Best Original Story category was an oddball one, and I am surprised it took them 16 years to get rid of it. I have never read Pozner’s story, but I know from reading others that often very little of what made the films interesting was in the original stories. Read the chapter on Rear Window in the book Understanding Screenwriting for a great example. Or dig out the 1979 book Stories Into Film, edited by William Kittredge & Steven M. Krauzer. It has the stories that were made into such films as It Happened One Night (1934), Stagecoach (1939), and Blow-Up (1966), and you will be shocked to discover how much work the screenwriters had to do to make them work on screen.

I ended up going to see the program because, a) I hadn’t seen the film in forty years (it is not yet on DVD), and b) Roxie Johnson Lonergan, Nunnally’s daughter, insisted I come. She managed to get me into the Reserved Seat section set up for the Johnson family, of which there were several members present. I am delighted they are all still speaking to me. I generally avoid Reserved Seat sections since I like to think of film as a democratic art form, but sometimes it is fun to indulge in the privilege. If I am going to see a movie, I generally just want to see the movie without a lot of extras, but the Academy’s Randy Haberkamp knows how to put on a show. The program began with Chapter Seven “Human Targets” from the 1941 serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Each of the weekly programs runs one chapter of the serial. It is tacky and low budget and hardly even rises to camp, but it did seem to loosen the audience up. Next was the great 1953 nominee for Best Cartoon Short Subject, The Tell-Tale Heart, made by UPA with James Mason reading the narration. I guess it does put you into the mood for a film noir.

Haberkamp then introduced the guests, including not only the Johnson family, but also the widow and son of Lew Ayres, the male lead in the film. That was a nice touch, since part of the idea of these programs is to make us aware of our heritage. This was followed by Haberkamp’s best idea for the series. Each film is introduced by a contemporary screenwriter, who comments on the film, film noir, or whatever they want. You can read some of the comments so far in the series on the Oscar website linked to above. The screenwriter in this case was John August, whose varied credits include Go (1999), Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Corpse Bride (2005). He actually talked about the writing in The Dark Mirror, noting that Pozner and Johnson do something you could not get away with in a contemporary script, at least one for a studio. We start the film following the police detective who is investigating the murder, then shift to the twin sisters who are suspects and then to a psychologist who is trying to figure out which one is the killer. Most contemporary movies have one main character that we stay with all the way through. August also noted that the writers were willing to let the audience be confused, which would never happen in a studio film today.

Ordinarily the film would start after the screenwriter stopped, but Haberkamp came back with one of the surprises that the website promises. He had just received by e-mail a recording from the star of the film, Olivia de Havilland. She just turned 94, is living in Paris, and sounds it good health. Haberkamp played the recording over the sound system and we heard Melanie Hamilton her own self explain how she came to do the role and how difficult it was to play the psychotic twin. She admitted she had not seen the film in a while, but had been told it holds up well, and then, sounding like Alfred Hitchcock introducing one of his television shows, she said she hoped we found it… “terrifying.” Once an actress, always an actress.

Given all of that buildup, you can imagine that when the names of de Havilland and Ayres came on the screen, there was an ovation. Another ovation for Nunnally. Another for Dimitri Tiomkin’s credit for music. Another when Thomas Mitchell showed up as the detective. Another at de Havilland’s first appearance. Another at Ayres’ first appearance. Another for Richard Long’s first…huh? Richard Long was a callow young juvenile when he did this film, then went on to appear in a couple of the Ma and Pa Kettle films, and worked mostly in television. Well, this is Hollywood celebrating its past and sometimes that can get out of hand. That’s one of the downsides of this kind of program.

Fortunately, Nunnally’s script and the performances settled the audience down. The script moves with his typical swiftness and wit, but without sacrificing character. Look at how few lines it takes to establish each of the four witnesses in the opening scenes. Look at the hints he provides as to who is who. And what August did not mention, but which knocked me out, is how casually the revelation as to which twin is the bad one is eventually made. That is because Nunnally has been developing that in bits and pieces as the film progresses, so he does not need to give us a big ah-ha moment. You would never get that past development executives today.

Several years ago a guy at Universal contacted me. He told me they were thinking of making an old Nunnally Johnson screenplay they had found in the files. It never got made (it was written in the ’40s and was a bit dated), but the guy told me that Richard Zanuck’s son had read it and commented to his dad how well written it was. Zanuck, who knew Nunnally, told him that yes, they had real screenwriters then.

Rizzoli & Isles (2010. “See One, Do One, Teach One” episode written by Janet Tamaro. Series based on the novels by Tess Gerritsen. 67 minutes.)

 

Rizzoli & Isles

Not quite up to snuff: Angie Harmon has always been good to look at. In her turn as A.D.A. Abbie Carmichael in her years on Law & Order she was, like most of the women on the mothership, not given much to do as an actress, although she did have one great line. When asked about what should be done about some suspects, Abbie said, “Fry ’em all.” We could not tell what acting chops Jill Hennessy had on the basis of her work on L&O either; that had to wait until Crossing Jordan. The same thing with Harmon. In 2007-08 she starred in an unfortunately short-lived series called The Women’s Murder Club and I mean she STARRED in it. She played a detective who palled around with three other women: a prosecutor, a medical examiner, and a reporter trying to keep up with the others. The writers of that show gave her a real character to play and she held the screen the way she often hasn’t in other films and television shows.

Rizzoli & Isles is The Women’s Murder Club lite. Very, very lite. Here Harmon is detective Jane Rizzoli. We know she’s tough because we are introduced to her playing basketball with her brother and gets a bloody nose. OK, Harmon proved on Club she can do tough, but Tamaro has not given her a lot to play to show that. Harmon is OK, but even stars need the support of the writers. Her friend on the show is medical examiner Maura Isles, but we have no idea from this first episode how long they have been friends. They are not introduced to each other in the episode, and they seem to have been working together for at least a little while, but they do not seem particularly close. When Rizzoli has a sleepover at Isles (she’s avoiding a serial killer), the conversation is flat and not at all what you would expect from two friends. At the end of the episode, Isles shows up at Rizzoli’s apartment to help clean up the mess the killer has left. Rizzoli tells her to get into her work clothes (she is well-dressed and in high heels), and Isles replies these are her work clothes. Which we have seen throughout the episode (and strikes me as ridiculous that an M.E. would dress like, but let’s not now even begin to get into the issue of how women professionals dress in television shows). If we have noticed how Isles dresses, why hasn’t Rizzoli? I suspect the problem may come from the show being adapted from a series of novels that have been going on for ten years and for whatever reasons the show developers did not want to start at the beginning.

The supporting cast has not been given a lot to do. Rizzoli’s new partner Frost is a young black guy who throws up at murder sites. That’s it so far for characterization. Rizzoli’s mom is simply a pain in the ass, which is a criminal waste of Lorraine Brocco. The older cop, the equivalent of The Closer’s Lt. Provenza just sort of sulks around the edges. And the plot, about a serial killer who is training somebody else to be a serial killer is just more gross dead bodies.

Covert Affairs (2010. “Pilot” episode created and written by Matt Corman & Chris Ord. 74 minutes.)

 

Covert Affairs

Now this is the writers supporting their star: Piper Perabo has always been good to look at. But I have never been particularly impressed with her acting chops. This show is doing for her what The Women’s Murder Club did for Harmon. She is Annie Walker and we first meet her as she is being given a lie-detector test as she joins the C.I.A.. Corman & Ord not only give us information about her past, but give us a wonderful juxtaposition of the flashbacks of Annie’s romance with a guy in Sri Lanka and the clinical approach to it by the man running the polygraph. We see the lovemaking, Annie’s reaction to the questions and her yes and no answers. Perabo’s face is a lot more expressive here than it has been in previous films. In the flashback, her lover leaves a note saying, “The truth is complicated,” establishing that he is not an X-Files fan. Then we see Annie in training, mostly volunteering to be the first of a group of trainees to jump out of a plane. Yes, you may be hooked by Perabo’s great face by now, but you will also be willing to follow somebody who jumps first. See what I mean about supporting your star?

As soon as she hits the ground she is whisked off to C.I.A. headquarters and given a mission, even though she is still in training. Her new boss, Joan, tells her they need somebody who can pass for a hooker and speaks six languages. The mission is to pretend to be a hooker and meet a Russian assassin who is going to give them information in return for money. The hooker bit is to make anybody who is watching think the Russian is just in town to party. So the Russian gets killed by another assassin and Annie volunteers to go back to the crime scene to get the PDAs that were left synching the information when the shooting started. And she talks her way past the cops and the F.B.I. to do it. By this point, and we are only twenty minutes or so in, we will follow Perabo’s Annie anywhere. The writers have given her a lot to do, and a lot of reactions to play with as a woman on the first day on a new job.

Auggie, the blind computer geek, seems like he will become her new best friend. He is played by Christopher Gorham in a role totally different from his Henry on Ugly Betty. Auggie and Annie break into the morgue to prove that the “assassin” who was shot was not the real one. Yes, that may be far-fetched, but a lot of stuff intelligence services do is far-fetched. Shortly before I saw Covert Affairs, I read (in one sitting) Ben Macintyre’s new book Operation Mincement. It tells the true story of British Intelligence in World War II dressing a dead body up as a officer and floating it ashore in Spain with papers showing the Allied invasion in 1943 would be in Greece and Sardinia and not Sicily. The body was turned over to the Germans and they believed the false intelligence, which is why the Sicilian invasion went so well. You may have seen an earlier film about this, the 1956 The Man Who Never Was, but there was a lot that was still classified at the time that Macintyre has discovered. Anyway, just having read that, it was very easy to at least semi-believe everything that goes down in Covert Affairs.

Auggie is not the only interesting secondary character. Annie’s immediate boss is Joan, a tough, tough cookie. Her boss, who turns out to be her husband, is Arthur, a real office politician who is trying to silence leaks from insiders. Joan uses company resources to tap his phone to find out if he is having an affair, so she may be a little more vulnerable than she looks. Annie has a sister, Danielle, who has no idea Annie is in the C.I.A. and keeps trying to fix her up with wimps who get in the way. Much more interesting than Rizzoli’s whiny mom.

Annie eventually chases down the real assassin. He nearly kills her but is shot by, well, it looks to her like her lover from Sri Lanka. But she was being strangled at the time, so probably she was not seeing clearly. Joan assures her it was just one of the regular agents. Except that Joan and Arthur talk and it is clear it is Sri Lankan guy and they have pushed Annie into action before her training is complete as bait to get him. You still not hooked?

I happened to be emailing back and forth with an Ivy League acquaintance of mine who prefers to be identified only as “a source with several years experience working closely with the intelligence community.” His take on the show is: “It was certainly interesting and fun, but of course for programming sake, they cut out a lot of the training prep—including a RIGOROUS screening of backgrounds. The characters DO behave a lot like some Intel officers—quick to take advantage of a situation, letting their operatives know only half the story, playing it by ear, etc. The one thing that was really off-center is the husband/wife team that work with each other and are fighting about infidelities—they would be instantly separated and placed elsewhere, if not dropped.” Yeah, but he hasn’t read about the relationship between “Will” and “Pam” in Operation Mincemeat yet.

Hot in Cleveland (2010. “The Sex That Got Away” episode written by Ann Flett-Giordano & Chuck Ranberg. “Good Neighbors” episode written by Sam Johnson & Chris Marcil. Each episode 30 minutes.)

 

Hot in Cleveland

Running hot and cold: You may remember from US#49 that I had real reservations about this show, mainly with the fact that the show seemed to agree that women in their forties and fifties were over the hill. “The Sex That Got Away” seemed a little sharper than the first two I wrote about. The girls are going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Victoria wants to reconnect with a rocker she had hot sex with years ago. They do, then have a funny scene where they realize they are not as agile as they were. They talk about having just adult sex, decide not to, then do anyway. That scene is one of the best of the series so far because it assumes adults can behave like adults. Melanie wants to thank a woman rocker for the song Melanie listened to on her prom night…when she was home alone. Melanie keeps falling over the rocker, then spilling stuff on her. The payoff in the final scene is that the rocker is gay and assumes Melanie is coming on to her. Melanie’s not, which would be interesting, but the show doesn’t want to go there.

So far I have not mentioned the show’s not-so-secret weapon. Elka, the housekeeper who comes with the house the girls are renting, is played by the woman who is currently the hottest actress in show business, Betty White. The part was originally supposed to be just a couple of episodes, but the showrunners talked White into doing more, so she is constantly popping up with good zingers delivered as only Betty White can. When they are all talking about the woman rocker being gay, Elka remembers she had a crush on Liberace. The girls ask her if she knew he was gay. Elka: “I could have turned him.” You see why they want White to stay around.

“Good Neighbors” was a relapse. Melanie gives a party to meet the neighbors, including Rick, a local newspaper columnist. She says things that sound insulting to Cleveland and its citizens, so then she feels she has to sneak into his house and check the column in his computer. Very standard hijinks ensue, with him coming on to her. Since he is played by Wayne (“Newman!”) Knight, we agree with her reluctance. This episode was mostly jokes, with not even a hint of the some of the character writing in the previous episode. If you tune into the show, I hope you get one of the good episodes.

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.