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Understanding Screenwriting #64: Unstoppable, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Boxing Gym, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #64: <em>Unstoppable</em>, <em>The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest</em>, <em>Boxing Gym</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: The Hero’s Journey, Unstoppable, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Wild Target, Four Lions, Boxing Gym, Two and a Half Men, Burn Notice.

Fan Mail: In the comments on US#63, “Juicer243” put an ad in for a site where he says that to “really understand screenwriting” you have to get the site’s take on the Hero’s Journey. No, learning about the mythology of the Hero’s Journey will not teach you a damned thing about screenwriting. It will only teach you what development executives think a movie has to have. The Hero’s Journey pattern of narratives in various cultures began in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which is generally considered to be a ripoff of Sir James George Frazier’s epic late 19th-early 20th century study of comparative cultures. Campbell’s book would have been forgotten by now, except that George Lucas, trying to convince people that the first Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) was more than just sci-fi movies for kids, promoted the film as being influenced by Campbell. Campbell, being something of a celebrity whore, bought into that and kept popping up on PBS with Lucas to explain it all for you. The Lucas films a) made more money than God, and b) established the teen-fan boy audience as the audience primarily aimed at by Hollywood. So it is not surprising that Campbell’s ideas, especially as promoted in Christopher Vogler’s 1998 book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, became the standard clichéd structure that Hollywood believes in.

The Hero’s Journey follows a young man as he is called to adventure, resists the call, gets supernatural help, goes through a bunch of trials, is tempted by Woman, wins out in the end, and returns to his world. It is more complicated than that, and you can look it up on Wikipedia if you want to. Needless to say, it is a rather limited view of what a movie can be, especially with its patriarchal, teen-boy fear of women. You may be able, of course, to fit several classic films into the archetype. Just off the top of my head, you can do it with Citizen Kane (1941), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) without breaking too much of a sweat.

On the other hand. Again just off the top of my head, here are some great or at least good classic scripts that do not fit into that paradigm: It Happened One Night (1934), The Thin Man (1934), Nothing Sacred (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), Brief Encounter (1945), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Gunfighter (1950), The Narrow Margin (1952), Roman Holiday (1953), Some Like it Hot (1959), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Blow-Up (1966), Chinatown (1974), Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), Terms of Endearment (1983), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Thelma & Louise (1992).

And here are some more I have written about recently in this column: The Town, Easy A, The Concert, Life During Wartime, Get Low, The Kids Are All Right, Please Give, The Secret in Their Eyes

And there are even more this time around, as you will see below.

Unstoppable (2010. Written by Mark Bomback. 98 minutes)

Unstoppable

Trains: Trains are wonderful cinematic toys. They huff, the puff, they go uphill, they go downhill, they go fast, they go slow, they get into wrecks. The movies have loved trains from the beginning. After all, Porter’s 1903 groundbreaker is not The Great Stagecoach Robbery, but The Great Train Robbery. We have had the building of railroads in The Iron Horse (1923) and Union Pacific (1939). Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend loved trains. When somebody asked him why he did not make movies about airliners, Hitch said people can get off and on trains, but you can’t do that with airliners. We have had a lot of great train wrecks in Union Pacific and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). David Lean’s father worked for a British railroad, so I am sure there is something Oedipal about Lean’s wrecking trains in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia. And John Frankenheimer smashed up more than a few in The Train (1964).

With that buildup you are probably thinking I am going to dump on Unstoppable. Guess again. It is one of the great train movies of all time. Not necessarily a great movie, but definitely a great train movie. You may remember that in US#22 that I liked the action scenes in Race to Witch Mountain (2009), which was co-written by Mark Bomback. I liked his screenplay for Live Free or Die Hard (2007) even more, although it was over the top, but in an entertaining way. This script is even better, more focused and less over the top, but just as action packed.

Structurally the script is nicely thought out. It is based on an incident in 2001 when a train got loose and traveled 60 miles without anyone aboard. In this case the train has several tank cars worth of dangerous chemicals on it. It goes off on its own because an idiot worker inadvertently leaves it in gear in the rail yard. One thing I like about the early scenes is that Bomback captures the reality of people figuring out what has gone wrong, scenes that remind of how well United 93 (2006) handled similar events. The smartest person around is Hooper, the rail yard manager, who begins to figure it all out. Hooper, alas, has to deal with a boss, Galvin, who comes up with an idea to stop the train that does not work out, to put it politely. Galvin also gets a phone conversation with the CEO of the railroad that in one question and three or four lines tells you almost as much about the economic collapse as Inside Job (2010) does. Good writing by Bomback there.

So it is up to Hooper and the working class to once again save the asses of the bosses. From before the train got loose, we have been following two workers on another train. Barnes, the engineer, is the older man, having worked on the railroad for 28 years and recently given notice that he is being let go with only half benefits. The conductor is the younger guy Colson. This is his first time with Barnes, and we get early scenes of Barnes taking Colson’s measure. Yes, we get some backstory on the two, but Bomback parses it out slowly. We finally get the information on both men’s marriage while they are in the cab of their train, trying to get up to seventy miles an hour—in reverse—to catch the runaway train. As Callie Khouri said about writing Thelma & Louise, “You can have people having meaningful conversations screaming down the highway at hundred and twenty miles an hour.” Look at the family details Bomback gives them in this scene. I mentioned in writing about Race to Witch Mountain that there were too many reaction shots, especially since the two kids did not express much. Barnes is Denzel Washington and Colson is Chris Pine, and they both give great movie star performances all the way through the film.

So, yeah, the trains. One is a runaway, one (well, only the engine by this time) is chasing it. Bomback uses a variation of the structure that Keaton used in The General (1927). Keaton’s Johnnie has his train stolen and he chases it in the first half, then gets the train back and is chased by a Union train in the second half. Bomback has Barnes and Colson just doing their job in the first half as Hooper and the others try to solve the problem, and then coming in to stop the train in the second half. By the time they get involved, we know how hard it is going to be. The trains are big and powerful. Kenneth Turan in his review in the Los Angeles Times compared the runaway train to one of the dinos in Jurassic Park (1993) and it may well have been the great sound design that suggested that. I would not be surprised to learn that some of the dino sounds were used as effects on the sound tracks here. Bomback is also lucky in his director. This is the movie Tony Scott was born to direct. As I mentioned in US#28 when writing about his ’09 version of The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Scott loves his stars, and in Bomback’s script the balance between stars and action is even better. Washington has lost the weight he gained for Pelham, and he can run around on the tops of the trains. Scott also avoids, for the most part, digital effects (they are used briefly when the train threatens to tip over). One thing about great train movies is that they don’t use models. Those are real trains on real collapsing bridges in The General and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and these are real trains in real locales here.

Oh, yeah, one other thing for you Hero’s Journey freaks. Hooper is played by Rosario Dawson. She is not a temptress. She is not evil. She is one of the smartest people in the room and pretty much in charge of the rescue. She’s clearly the best man for the job. Welcome to the 21st Century, fan boys.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009. Screenplay by Ulf Ryberg, based on the book by Stieg Larsson. 147 minutes)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Not as good as #1, but better than #2: You may remember from US#47 that I liked the first of the three films in this trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). It moved quickly and introduced us to a fascinating heroine, Lisbeth Salander. The screenwriters had done a great job in condensing the lengthy novel into a reasonable running time, all the while giving us some great characters and as well as showing how the story connected to Swedish history and culture. I had just seen the great The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) and I didn’t think Tattoo was quite up to it, since the plot kept us getting as deeply into the characters as Secrets did.

The second film, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009), was a letdown. The story sounded like a Law & Order: SVU retread and moved at a snail’s pace. It did not have as interesting a collection of supporting characters as the first film, and the storyline about the man who turned out to be Lisbeth’s father, Zalachenko, did not take us as deeply into the culture as the story in the first film did. The script also made Lisbeth seem almost normal, which is not very interesting.

Hornet’s falls somewhere between the two. Lisbeth is now in the hospital, having been shot and beaten up by her father and her stepbrother, Neiderman. She is charged with several murders stemming from the shootout at the end of Fire. Lisbeth spends the first hour of the film in the hospital and the second hour plus on trial. So we are not going to see her running around like we did in the first film. But the Lisbeth here is not the “normal” girl we saw in Fire. She is in shock, almost catatonic, but we can see in her eyes that her, shall we say, unusual mind is working. Noomi Rapace gives a very different performance here, one of the most minimalist performances I have ever seen. It is the same character, but who is now in another situation, and Rapace’s instincts for how to act that are phenomenal. Her Lisbeth here connects with the one we saw in the first film, but not in any obvious way. Would-be actors should look at the first and the third films and try to figure out how she does that.

Lisbeth’s supporters are gathering information to help her case, as well as keep her alive. Mikael Blomkvist is back in action, as opposed to the other two investigators in Fire. Yes, we do not get that many scenes between him and Lisbeth, which I complained about in Fire, but you get a sense that they are together here even when they are not. That was not true in Fire. Lisbeth gets more scenes with Annika, Blomkvist’s sister, who is representing her. Blomkvist is also getting help from a government commission whose job is to protect the constitution. When they first approach Blomkvist, I was even more suspicious of them than he was. After all, the whole thrust of the three films is that Blomkvist and Lisbeth and their kind are individuals up against the power of the state and its institutions. Blomkvist has a moment of hesitation and then agrees to work with them, which I, not having read the novel, assumed would come to no good end. But they are the good guys, which is a little too conservative, conventional, and, especially, convenient for what has been a radical trilogy.

There are other interesting characters as well, such as the young doctor treating Lisbeth. He’s just a nice guy who wants to help, and is willing to bend the rules a bit to help her. Given all the older guys who nearly all pond scum, having a nice one around is a nice change. Unlike the end of Fire, we do find out what happens to Neiderman. I think he is better used in this film than the previous one. He seemed a conventional thug in that one, and here he is an implacable killing machine, if you see the difference. We even get a sense here that he might be feeling a little lonely without his and Lisbeth’s father. Lisbeth did not kill her father in Fire, but one of his old protectors does early on in the film.

One of the pleasures of the film is watching all the narrative elements from the first two fall into place. There were a lot of loose ends in Fire, but that often happens in the middle film of a trilogy. I mentioned at the end of my comments on Fire that the writer of it, Jonas Frykberg, was going to be back on the third one, but that credit apparently did not stand, and Ulf Ryberg gets the sole credit here. Both Fire and Hornet’s are directed by the same guy, but Hornet’s is a better film and feels better directed. A good script makes a director look better than a bad script does.

Wild Target (2010. Screenplay by Lucinda Coxson, based on the screenplay for Cible émouvante (1993) by Pierre Salvadori. 98 minutes)

Wild Target

Me and Netflix: I think I first came across a reference to this film in the British film magazine Sight & Sound, and somehow I got the impression that it was not being released in theatres, but only on DVD. So I went out to my Netlix Queue and tried to add it. It ended up in that section at the bottom of the page called Saved DVDs, which appears to be films that Netflix knows exists but have not gotten around to adding to their six bazillion films. Shortly thereafter a trailer showed up for it in an actual movie theatre. And then the film appeared in the same movie theatre. So I went to see it.

It is about Victor Maynard, a hitman who—wait a minute. A hitman? I hate movies about hitmen. If you believe American movies and television, most American men work as either hitmen or cops or both. I discourage students in my screenwriting class from writing about hitmen, given the plethora of films featuring them. I ask my students, “How many of you know any actual hitmen?” Usually no hands go up, although one time I had a class in which three or four hands went up. I think they were joking. Most American movies about hitmen are hot, sweaty action movies, with very high body counts and more blood being shed on screen than is good for viewers’ mental or moral health.

Every so often, however, I do find a hitman movie appealing. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) has a great idea: a hitman goes back to his high school reunion, and gets a lot out of it until the final shootout, which gets excessive. You Kill Me (2007) also has a great idea—a hit man goes to Alcoholics Anonymous—but then does not development well. Wild Target also has an interesting idea: Victor ends up trying to protect his target, Rose, from other hitmen who are trying to kill her. She has run a con involving a forged painting on Ferguson, who does not take that lightly. Victor is given the contract, but he ends up killing somebody else who is trying to kill her. OK, you see where this is going. She is attractive, they fall in love, kill the bad guys, and live happily ever after. But Coxson, and presumably Salvadori in his original script, don’t get there in any obvious ways. For example, Victor is very fastidious and even his mother thinks he may be gay. He’s never really thought about it, and when he does, he begins to wonder himself. This leads to a terrific scene between Victor and Tony, a young guy who becomes Victor’s apprentice without realizing what it is that Victor really does. Victor comes into the bathroom while Tony is taking a bath, and we and Victor think he may be about to make a pass at Tony. But they sort of discuss it and Victor realizes he’s not gay after all.

Tony can be rather dense. He is nicely played, by the way, by a young British actor named Rupert Grint, whom I have not seen before, although his IMDb filmography shows he has been in a number of films about a British private school. But the reason Tony does not know Victor’s occupation is that Victor has told him and Rose that he is a private investigator. Look at how long Coxson keeps that pretense up until he finally tells them what he does.

If Tony is rather dense, Rose is always on. We never quite know, and suspect she might not know herself, whether she is acting or not. When she finally falls in love with Victor, it’s funny because we don’t know how much she believes it herself. She appears to be acting for herself. Emily Blunt, who has done good work elsewhere, is really at the top of her game here. She played the title role in the 2009 film The Young Victoria, but as I mentioned US#41, the script did not give her much to play. Coxson’s script gives her a lot to play, with a lot of different colors: smart, messy, playful, seductive, bitchy, etc. and Blunt devours it whole.

Victor is Bill Nighy and he does not play it like the romantic lead, which makes him much more effective. His mother is the great Eileen Atkins and Coxson has written a couple of wonderful scenes for her as well.

The tone is one of deadpan comedy of the kind I admired in Red (2010) in the last column, but without all the excessive explosions of that film. If you liked Red for the same reasons I did, you will probably like Wild Target.

Four Lions (2010. Written by Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, & Christopher Morris, with additional writing by Simon Blackwell. 103 minutes by my count, 101 minutes by Sight & Sound, 97 minutes by IMDb)

Four Lions

Well, they haven’t blown up the theater yet: The poster for this English film is rather simple. We have a picture of a crow with something duct taped to his chest. In the large space above him, the word “funny” is repeated several times, each one attributed to a film critic or quote whore. A crow with duct tape is funny? Well, yes, in the context of the film. The story is about five would-be terrorists in Northern England bumbling their way into an attack on the London Marathon. Funny? Yes, definitely. Well, why not? The history of film has seen a lot of dark comedies, even before both Red and Wild Target. Look at Keaton’s The General, which gets one of its biggest laughs from a Union sniper being impaled by a wayward sword. Or Kubrick’s Dr. Stangelove (1964), which gets a few yuks out of nuclear annihilation. All you have to do is have the guts to do it and, more importantly, pay attention to your subject.

Christopher Morris is the director as well as one of the writers and he has been whacking the eccentricities of British public life since the early ’90s. (The background on and quote from Morris are from Ben Walters’ article on the film in the June 2010 issue of Sight & Sound.) Morris started in radio, then moved to television, where he is best known for a 1997-2001 series called Brass Eye, which parodied British politicians and celebrities. His co-writers here, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell, worked on the 2005-2009 series The Thick of It, which was the basis for the 2009 feature In the Loop. Armstrong and Blackwell were two of the writers on the feature as well. So these guys know their way around comedy, and particularly parody of public utterances. What Morris did was spend three years of research about terrorism, talking to experts, police, imams and many Muslims. He kept finding that, as he said, “Terrorist cells have the same group dynamics as stag parties and five-a-side football teams.” And he learned that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed spent two hours looking for a costume that would not make him look fat when he recorded his video.

So Four Lions begins with the first four would-be terrorists we will follow trying to record their final statements. As one of them admits later, it turns out to be mostly bloopers. The recording is a funny scene that gets the film off to a good start, but the writers are not just doing jokes. They are establishing the particular characters of these men. Omar is the leader. He is the smartest and the most organized. He is also married and has a son, both of whom support him killing himself as a martyr. The dynamic between Omar and his wife is so ordinary that it becomes completely unsettling. Waj is the rather dense one of the group, and Faisal is the klutz who comes up with the idea of strapping a bomb to the crow. That ends badly for both of them. Barry is the one white guy in the group who says at one point, “Woman talking back. People playing stringed instruments. It’s the End of Days.” Hassan, who joins the group shortly after the film begins, is younger and so dumb he lets a local girl in to dance in his apartment while all his bomb-making materials are laid out on the table. But she’s so dumb she doesn’t realize what they are.

As the quote from Morris makes clear, he is on to the fact that most terrorists do not join the movement out of religious fervor, but to hang out with the people they get along with. The most religious person in the film is Omar’s brother, who wants nothing to do with the terrorists. He is, of course, the one the police are spying on and whom they pick up. The attack on the Marathon ends badly for all, and because we know the characters, we are a bit saddened by their demise at the same time we are glad they have been taken out.

Four Lions is a real high-wire act that is both funny and moving, and avoids the several hundred ways it could have gone wrong. This may be one reason why the film has so far in this country not been met with protests from Muslim groups. I suspect that moderate Muslims understand the film and also understand that the terrorists are funny in a dark way. Still, one cannot be too careful. In Los Angeles, the film is being run at a theater in the Landmark chain. It is not, however, playing at the chain’s flagship, the Landmark multiplex at the upscale Westside Pavillion. It is playing at a one-screen theater in Westwood Village. So if the theater does get bombed, it will only take out one screen rather than a whole multiplex. So far, so good.

Boxing Gym (2010. Directed and edited by Frederick Wiseman. 91 minutes)

Boxing Gym

Not, alas, one of the Master’s best: I have been a Wiseman fan from the beginning, and I show at least one of his films every semester is my History of Documentary Film class. This one is his most recent, but it does not hold together. Yes, we are in anh institution (Lord’s Gym in Austin, Texas), but we don’t get a lot of interesting interaction between the owner and the customers who come to study boxing. The usual Wiseman pattern is to have several sequences that add up over the course of the film. The sequences here don’t. I think the sparring match near the end is supposed to show what all the training leads to. It is just a sparring match, not a real fight, so it does not provide the climax that closing sequences in his film often do (the banquet in Racetrack [1985], the final case in Welfare [1975]). In the best of Wiseman you get great scenes that he ties together, but that does not happen here.

Two and a Half Men (2010. “Springtime on a Stick” episode written by Eddie Gorodestky & Jim Patterson. 30 minutes)

Two and a Half Men

Also not at their best: As you know if you have read a lot of these columns, I am a big fan of this show. Generally the writers have a nice mixture of funny and raunchy, sometimes more raunchy than they need, but still funny. This episode is completely off-balance, very raunchy and not very funny. Not being funny makes the raunch seem ever worse.

It gets off to a bad start when Charlie comes in on Jake and a girl from school. Charlie’s drunk, which is just creepy under the circumstances. It is one thing to be that way around Jake, another around a teenaged girl. Alan ends up inviting his and Charlie’s mother Evelyn to dinner for her birthday, but as they are driving her there, she has to stop at a pharmacy to pick up some…lubricant. She meets Charlie’s pharmacist Russell and he gets invited to dinner as well. And he brings a date. And he’s stoned. Usually the writers can come up with some funny stuff about situations like that, but not here.

Burn Notice (2010. “Eyes Open” episode written by Jason Tracey. 60 minutes)

Burn Notice

Michael’s back: So Michael survived the shooting, Barrett is dead, and Michael and the gang are tracking down Barrett’s henchman who picked up the suitcase. It has the “Bible” in it that has information on who burned Michael. Jesse even agrees to help, although he is still sulking over Michael having been the one who burned him. So this season begins.

What was interesting about this episode was that Tracey has given Jeffrey Donovan, who plays Michael, a little more to do in the acting range. Traditionally Michael has smirked a lot as he deals with the bad guys. Donovan gives great smirk, which is why we love him. But in this episode, he is stretched as an actor in a couple of ways. One is that Michael is still recovering from his wounds, so he is not quite as agile physically and even mentally as he normally is. The other is that Michael goes sort of undercover to contact a serial killer and pretend to be his biggest fan. Michael usually does not play a toady, even undercover, but he does here and it’s a nice change of pace for Donovan. Sometimes series writers have give their leads something more to play so they don’t go out of their minds with boredom.

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.