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Mark Boal (#110 of 6)

Understanding Screenwriting #107: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #107: <em>Quartet</em>, <em>Tabu</em>, <em>56 Up</em>, <em>The Gatekeepers</em>, <em>Cat Ballou</em>, <em>The Americans</em>, <em>30 Rock</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #107: <em>Quartet</em>, <em>Tabu</em>, <em>56 Up</em>, <em>The Gatekeepers</em>, <em>Cat Ballou</em>, <em>The Americans</em>, <em>30 Rock</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Quartet, Tabu, 56 Up, The Gatekeepers, Cat Ballou, The Americans, 30 Rock, but first…

Fan mail: The main bone of contention among the folks who wrote in about #US106 was that I had missed the point in Zero Dark Thirty—that, as Bill Weber wrote, it’s “supremely clear in ZDT that information INDIRECTLY leads” to Osama bin Laden. “Carabruva” agrees with Bill. I didn’t miss that point when I watched the film, since I was looking very carefully for any connection. What I didn’t do, unfortunately, was make mention in the item that it was very, very indirect and nowhere close to the “big break” that critics of the film were claiming. I fear both Mark Boal and I were nodding a bit on this point.

Some of the most interesting comments on the Zero Dark Thirty item came off the record from some of my “acquaintances.” I’d emailed them with a link to the column, and one of them replied, “I do not know if torture worked or not, but I am appalled by the fact that any senior officer or congresswomen would agree to it. However, one DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] felt it was important, and another does not. Most intelligence officers I respect felt that the producer wanted it both ways: torture sells and (gasp!) torture is bad. They were more amused by the portrait of the analyst. She is a composite of women in the Bin Laden cell, all of whom were strong, bright, and opinionated. But C.I.A. is a paramilitary organization. You simply don’t talk to superiors the way our hero did.” As for my feeling that the “I’m the motherfucker” line was the best line in the film, it was even if it was not “accurate,” but hey, we’re making movies here. By the way, I later heard from another “acquaintance” that the real person Maya is based on is even better-looking than Jessica Chastain. I doubt that’s possible, so that may just be more C.I.A. disinformation.

I spent some time in the item whacking Boal and the film’s team for not responding better, especially to the complaining senators. An article in the Los Angeles Times that appeared the day after my column was posted nicely covered what happened at Sony and why they took the road they did. I understand their point of view, but I think they were wrong. The article was a Link of the Day, and if you missed it, you can read it here. The article included a great comment from Boal, and since I’ve been beating him about the head and shoulders, I feel obligated to quote it, since it nails down what happened. He said, “We made a serious, tough adult movie and we got a serious, tough adult response.”

Quartet (2012. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on his play. 98 minutes.)

The Best Exotic Marigold Musicians Retirement Home. The first thing I loved about this movie is that it’s short. One of the downsides of having to slog through all those two-and-a-half-hour-plus end-of-the-year films is that they cost you money to park. In Los Angeles, the tradition is that at indoor malls that have multiplexes, the first three hours of parking are free, and then you have to pay through the nose for anything beyond that. By the time you get from your car to the theater, get your tickets, sit through 20 minutes of trailers and the film, and get back to your car, you’re probably over three hours. Some, all right, a few, films are worth the extra cost. So I went into Quartet happy knowing it was not going to cost me any more than the ticket price.

Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions Picture

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Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Picture
Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Picture

Despite the hysteria, it may not be appropriate yet to call a time of death on the decades and decades’ worth of precedent that will be shattered when Argo wins Best Picture despite very conspicuously not being nominated for its director, not having even remotely close to the year’s highest nomination tally (it trails behind four other films), and not having even a halfway plausible shot at winning more than two other categories aside from this one. After all, there’s still one tradition working in the movie’s favor. It’s going to win the all-important Oscar for Best Editing, some would say for how exhilaratingly it crosscuts between a grim interrogation at a Mehrabad Airport checkpoint, Walter White barking out commands in D.C., and Alan Arkin and John Goodman being humorously cockblocked from answering their telephone by archetypal union (i.e. guild) workers, whereas others would say for how ruthlessly it edits out any historical perspective that doesn’t turn the Iranian populace into swarthy pod people.

Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions Original Screenplay

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Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

More than in any of the other categories it’s nominated in, the unreal fall from grace suffered by Zero Dark Thirty will be particularly palpable when it inevitably loses here. Though few would deny that it represents this category’s most massive undertaking, and even some of the political blogosphere’s harshest critics still gave Mark Boal’s skill backhanded praise for what they deemed flagrant ethical persuasion, the 24-hour news cycle has plainly turned what was until the nomination announcements the presumptive frontrunner for the prize into, well, something like Peter Staley up against the Academy’s petrified bureaucracies, who are evidently ignoring the film and hoping it will all go away. The Academy’s skittish unwillingness to grapple with the film’s prickly but magnanimous examination of a political situation with no easy answers is going to go down as one of their all-time NAGLs, especially given the two-pronged love letter to God and country (Hollywood and the rest of the U.S., respectively) that’s poised to take Best Picture. But as far as this specific category goes, the controversy swirling around just how much input/propaganda the C.I.A. supplied Boal with may well have killed off its chances to win original screenplay even if the issue of whether his film obliquely or outright endorses “enhanced interrogation techniques” hadn’t already hit the dependably liberal AMPAS right in the balls. Either way, Boal won’t lose this one because his movie failed to discredit Americans’ monstrous thirst for vengeance. He’ll lose it because our current climate also thirsts for clean, unfettered catharsis, something Zero Dark Thirty responsibly elides.

Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions Director

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Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions: Director
Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions: Director

When introducing Life of Pi at its New York Film Festival premiere, Ang Lee quipped that there are three things directors are warned to never work with: Children, animals, and water. With his latest, of course, the Taiwanese maestro broke all three rules, helming a high-seas adventure with an adolescent hero, and populating much of it with a part-CG, part-live-action menagerie. For his efforts, and for stepping up to the plate to adapt Yann Martel’s worldwide bestseller (a supposedly insurmountable task previously passed over by M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuarón), Lee is likely to land on Oscar’s Best Director shortlist, following prior nominations from the Broadcast Critics and the Hollywood Foreign Press. No stranger to the Academy’s affections, the man who won this category in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain is the closest thing to a fourth-place lock this year, tailing behind three shoo-ins whose projects were all far more political.

Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions: Original Screenplay

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Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions: Original Screenplay
Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions: Original Screenplay

Thanks to Mark Boal’s second consecutive slam-dunk teaming with Kathryn Bigelow, the one certainty of this year’s Original Screenplay field is a bit of 2010 déjà vu. Boal picked up a statuette that year for penning Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, and he’s poised to do the same for his work on Zero Dark Thirty, his collaborator’s high-stakes, buzz-heavy follow-up. There are ample fine points to Boal’s script that fall in his favor, like the shaping of a classic hoo-ra heroine and the refusal to shy away from divisive torture scenes, which have surely provided the most popular angle for journalists covering the film. But the greatest asset should prove to be the movie’s all-access fascination, which only grows as this epic manhunt soldiers toward its killshot.

Next in line as a likely candidate is Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, a pint-sized love story beautifully suited to the offbeat auteur’s whimsy, and his most well-scripted effort since The Royal Tenenbaums. Currently teetering as a will-it-or-won’t-it Best Picture hopeful, Moonrise Kingdom has performed surprisingly well in the precursors, landing a Golden Globe nod for Best Picture—Comedy, getting shortlisted by the AFI, and clinching a heap of Indie Spirit nominations. If there’s one achievement for which the film is primed to advance, it’s Anderson’s markedly humane, yet still characteristically ironic, screenplay.

Oscar Prospects: Zero Dark Thirty

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Oscar Prospects: Zero Dark Thirty
Oscar Prospects: Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was certainly made to seem special, kept under tight lock and key before being slowly, strategically unveiled at year’s end, but few pundits likely predicted the gravity of the film’s Oscar potential, and that Bigelow may well have another winner on her hands. As 2012 winds down, it’s beginning to feel a lot like 2009, when The Hurt Locker stormed ahead as the little contender that could, and sat poised to not just claim the Academy’s top prize, but make Bigelow its first female Best Director. If you want to go by precursor buzz alone, Zero Dark Thirty has now stepped ahead of Lincoln as this year’s Best Picture frontrunner, claiming top kudos from The New York Film Critics Circle, and topping the 10-Best lists of early-out-of-the-gate critics like David Edelstein and Lisa Schwarzbaum (Owen Gleiberman and Richard Corliss, who also revealed their lists, included it among their picks as well). For whatever it’s worth in this early stage, the film also picked up five nods from the International Press Academy, landing Satellite nominations for Picture, Director, Actress (Jessica Chastain), Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), and Editing (Dylan Tichenor). And as of this very writing, the National Board of Review has named Zero Dark Thirty its Best Film of the Year, with Bigelow taking the Director trophy. It’s more than safe to assume that the movie has an ironclad slot in Oscar’s top race, if not a damn good shot at ending up ahead of the pack.