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Sam Mendes (#110 of 7)

Understanding Screenwriting #104: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #104: <em>Lincoln</em>, <em>Skyfall</em>, <em>Flight</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #104: <em>Lincoln</em>, <em>Skyfall</em>, <em>Flight</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, Silver Linings Playbook, Middle of Nowhere, Covert Affairs but first…

Fan Mail: First an addition to US#103. I mentioned in the credits for Argo that there was another source listed in the credits of the film, but I could not find it. Shortly after I sent off the column, the new issue of the British magazine Sight & Sound arrived. It identifies the other source as “based on a selection from The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez.” I’m guessing that’s the Tony Mendez.

David Ehrenstein liked my Sharon and Roman story so much he has added it to his one-man show, currently at finer bookstores near you.

“Erbear423” understandably took me to task for appearing to dump Paul Dano and Jesse Eisenberg into the same category as Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg. I can see how you can read my comments that way, but what I was trying to get at was more the kinds of roles they often play rather than the actors themselves. I like Dano and Eisenberg very much and they have been terrific in some very good movies, but even then they are often playing the sensitive young man finding his way in the world. My point was that there were no characters like that in Argo, for which I was grateful. As for Adam and Andy, they’re on their own.

Lincoln (2012. Written by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. 150 minutes.)

The public figure: I have always liked Tony Kushner, and not just the concept of Tony Kushner the public writer. The latter would be the playwright and activist who writes about public issues like AIDS, race, violence and politics. What I like about Kushner is that he is a hell of an interesting writer. OK, I will admit that when I first saw the stage play Angels in America in 1995, the writing instructor in me mentally got out my red grading pen. I imagined waving it in the air, saying, “You can cut this;” “You’ve said that three times, twice is probably enough;” “We don’t need all that.” Even though the TV film of Angels (2004) was shorter than the play, I brought out the mental red pen again. And his 2001 play Homebody/Kabul was probably talkier than it needed to be. But his book for the 2002 musical Caroline, or Change was a model of precision. And his screenplay, co-written by Eric Roth, of the 2005 film Munich was one of the smartest scripts of the last decade.

Fully Realized: On Natasha Richardson in Cabaret

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Fully Realized: On Natasha Richardson in <em>Cabaret</em>
Fully Realized: On Natasha Richardson in <em>Cabaret</em>

Re-interpreting a role that is supposedly “owned” by another person’s portrayal has sunk many a fine actor. Anyone approaching the part of Stanley Kowalski, for example, must deal with the ghost of Brando, and there’s nothing much you, as an actor, can do about it. Either do an impression of Brando, hoping that it will be fine and you get away with it, or try to put your own stamp on the part. But good luck with that last choice. This doesn’t happen with all parts, or even all great performances. Something can be good without being definitive. For an actor to approach these parts with an air of resentment that the ghosts exist, or to wish that you could own the part all on your own without the danger of being compared to someone else, is a useless enterprise, although quite common and understandable.

Liza Minnelli played Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, and her shadow is long. I have seen a ton of productions of Cabaret over the years. Actresses struggle to find their own niche, to squirm out from beneath Minnelli’s influence, and usually it’s a losing battle, and they end up just doing their best Liza Imitation and calling it a day. Often roles are not even to BE “interpreted.” Just play what’s there, make it real, embody the characteristics required, and come alive under imaginary circumstances. It’s rare that someone can come along and give a new “spin” on a well-known character. Liza Minnelli, in all her glitter and mania, her show-trash survival skills, her twisted Fosse poses, and her spidery false eyelashes, claimed all available ground for the interpretation of Sally Bowles.

Wild Is the Wind: Revolutionary Road

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Wild Is the Wind: <em>Revolutionary Road</em>
Wild Is the Wind: <em>Revolutionary Road</em>

Richard Yates’ debut novel Revolutionary Road is a suitably bleak vision of fifties suburbia and Madison Avenue soullessness, but it’s much more than that; as Yates remorselessly tightens the screws around Frank and April Wheeler, his trapped central couple, the book pile-drives you into imagining how their helpless self-deception and character flaws, all laid out in punishing, inescapably believable detail for the reader, lead them inexorably to a conclusion so immaculate and terrible that it has the ordained feel of a Greek tragedy. Yates’ technique as a writer is brutally commanding throughout. There’s a late scene in Revolutionary Road where the madman son of Mrs. Givings, the Wheelers’ intrusive realtor, laces into the couple with such viciously pinpoint accuracy that I had to keep putting the book down to recover after every one of his verbal grenades.

Misunderstood Blog-a-Thon 2: Jarhead

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Misunderstood Blog-a-Thon 2: <em>Jarhead</em>
Misunderstood Blog-a-Thon 2: <em>Jarhead</em>

This is the second of two New York Press reviews republished in conjunction with CultureSnob’s “Misunderstood Blog-a-thon,” which concludes today. I’m including it because I think it meets the event’s criteria more exactly than my Perdition piece (scroll down or click here), which was more of a baseline aesthetic defense of a movie I thought was generally underrated. Jarhead is more ambitious, edgier and much more schematic than Perdition, and given its goal—to be what I call an “epic meta-war movie”—it cannot, by definition, satisfy audiences in any of the usual ways. But that’s what I like about it.

Misunderstood Blog-a-thon 1: Road to Perdition

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Misunderstood Blog-a-thon 1: <em>Road to Perdition</em>
Misunderstood Blog-a-thon 1: <em>Road to Perdition</em>

Various obligations have made it impossible to write an original piece for CultureSnob’s “Misunderstood Blog-a-thon,” which concludes today. But since I hate to be left out, here’s a stopgap contribution: a July, 2002 New York Press review of Road to Perdition, a movie I thought at the time was flawed but brilliant; many viewings later, I think even more highly of it. For another defense of a Mendes movie, Jarhead, click here.