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The Good Wife (#110 of 10)

Understanding Screenwriting #83: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, Pan Am & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #83: <em>50/50</em>, <em>The Mill and the Cross</em>, <em>Pan Am</em> & More
Understanding Screenwriting #83: <em>50/50</em>, <em>The Mill and the Cross</em>, <em>Pan Am</em> & More

Coming Up In This Column: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, What’s Your Number?, A Single Man, The Playboy Club, Pan Am, Prime Suspect, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Whitney, The Good Wife, but first…

Fan Mail: Yes, David, I am definitely trying to take Hero’s Journey Soup off the menu. And you will get no argument from me about Jean-Claude Carrière’s status as a screenwriter. As far as I can tell, his nonfiction book The Secret Life of Film has not, alas, been translated into English.

50/50 (2011. Written by Will Reiser. 100 minutes.)

Tone, nuance, restraint: When Casey Robinson researched cancer for his script for Dark Victory (1939), he became determined to make it as medically accurate as he could. Between Warner Brothers and Bette Davis that didn’t last very long. The film ended up being probably the first in which the leading character gets Movie Stars’ Disease: they look great until late in the picture when they cough once and die. See Love Story (1970) and Terms of Endearment (1983) for later variations. And all the thousands of television movies that have come along since. What makes 50/50 so fresh is that it avoids all, and I mean all, the cliches of the genre.

2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions

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2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions
2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions

On September 18, Bryan Cranston will not win his fourth trophy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, as Breaking Bad’s fourth season fell outside the award show’s eligibility period—and if you think that bodes well for the AMC program’s chances for Outstanding Drama Series in 2012, remember that Mad Men’s much-delayed fifth season is still slated to fall within the upcoming Emmy calendar. Standing to gain from Cranston’s absence is always-a-bridesmaids John Hamm—unless Steve Buscemi’s Golden Globe and SAG victories earlier this year, and the chillier-than-Mad Men Boardwalk Empire’s surprise showing at the Creative Arts Emmys last weekend—weren’t just flukes of nature. A three-time winner for Outstanding Drama Series, Mad Men may have to move over for the new HBO prestige drama on the block, and if Betty White doesn’t win her 3,897th Emmy for acting saucier than your grandmother, that may be enough for this Sunday’s telecast to go down as the Year of the Passing of the Guard. Below, my predictions in a handful of the major categories—brought to you with less than my usual dash of wish-fulfillment.

Understanding Screenwriting #72: Of Gods and Men, Rango, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #72: <em>Of Gods and Men</em>, <em>Rango</em>, <em>Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #72: <em>Of Gods and Men</em>, <em>Rango</em>, <em>Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Of Gods and Men, Rango, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Crusades, Imitation of Life, Some Late Winter/Early Spring Television 2011.

Of Gods and Men (2010. Scenario by Etienne Comar, adaptation and dialogue by Xavier Beauvois. 122 minutes.)

A great train movie: Religion is a very difficult subject to make a film about. Movies are a very concrete medium. We photograph things and record sounds. Religion is very internal: what we believe and what we feel. How do you show that? With Hollywood it usually involves people looking up into the light with beatific smiles on their faces (see below for a notorious example), which hardly does the job.

Understanding Screenwriting #69: Barney’s Version, The Dilemma, Modern Family, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #69: <em>Barney’s Version</em>, <em>The Dilemma</em>, <em>Modern Family</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #69: <em>Barney’s Version</em>, <em>The Dilemma</em>, <em>Modern Family</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Barney’s Version, The Dilemma, Watching the Detectives, Friendly Persuasion, Harry’s Law, The Good Wife, Modern Family, Hot in Cleveland, Retired at 35, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein did not believe me when I wrote that Lee Garmes’s cinematography on Shanghai Express (1932) was better than Bert Glennon’s on Blonde Venus the same year. All I can say is look at the two films. The ideas for the cinematography may be von Sternberg’s, but the execution is the cinematographer’s, and you can see the difference. As for David saying that von Sternberg thought of the script, the words, the characters, and the plot as only partial elements (David’s italics), that explains why I have trouble with a lot of von Sternberg’s work. I like directors who show a little more respect for at least the idea of the script.

Barney’s Version (2010. Screenplay by Michael Konyves, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler. 132 minutes.)

Great actors in great scenes do not necessarily a great movie make: I haven’t read Richler’s novel, but after seeing this movie I did what I did after It’s Kind of a Funny Story (see US#63) and went into the Barnes & Noble next to the multiplex and skimmed the book. Even just skimming I can see its appeal, as well as its structure. Richler writes it in the first person, so the novel really is Barney Panofsky’s version of his life. His entire life. You can see the problems Konyves faced. Richler sets it up that a friend of Barney’s has written a novel based on Barney’s life and Barney wants to set the record straight. That gives Richler a reason to let Barney wander all over his life, since in a novel you can have all kinds of digressions. Many years ago a friend of mine who had been writing screenplays decided to attempt a novel. I had written a couple of books by then, and after she had been writing a while, she said to me, “How come you didn’t tell me writing a book was so much easier than a screenplay?” You have no length limitations, you can get inside people’s heads, and it does not have to be dramatic. Richler takes advantage of all of those.

Understanding Screenwriting #65: Hereafter, Fair Game, Morocco, The Good Wife, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #65: <em>Hereafter</em>, <em>Fair Game</em>, <em>Morocco</em>, <em>The Good Wife</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #65: <em>Hereafter</em>, <em>Fair Game</em>, <em>Morocco</em>, <em>The Good Wife</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Hereafter, Fair Game, Morocco, Casanova Brown, Yellow Sky, The Good Wife, but first…

Fan Mail: What we all hoped would be a lively discussion of the Hero’s Journey sort of fizzled out. As always David Ehrenstein had a couple of good zingers about the Journey’s use in Hollywood, and I loved “Joel”’s logic on why it makes all movies good. But “Juicer243” really let the side down. Rather than engaging with the issues I raised, he simply repeated his ad for a website and then resorted to the old, “if you don’t like it, it’s probably that you don’t really get it.” The other possibility is that I really get it and that’s why I don’t like it. As we have all discovered in politics, religion and film, it’s hard to have an interesting discussion with a True Believer.

The problem I have with any doctrinaire approach to screenwriting (or the creation of any art for that matter) is that it limits the creative mind. I mentioned three films in my rant that you could maybe fit into the Hero’s Journey: Citizen Kane (1941), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), but what makes those films interesting is not the Hero’s Journey pattern, but all the details the writers of those films use to fill out the patterns (yes, that’s plural) of the film. Look at them if you don’t believe me.

Hereafter (2010. Written by Peter Morgan. 129 minutes)

Will somebody around here please call rewrite?: I am afraid I have beaten you over the head (in US#11, 18, 40, among others) about how Clint Eastwood tends to shoot first drafts, even when the scripts need work. Well, here’s another one that needed a lot of revision, and Peter Morgan knew it, as he told an interviewer in the November 6th Creative Screenwriting Weekly. He had done a first draft and passed it to his agent, just to gets notes on it. The agent passed it on to producer Kathleen Kennedy, who passed it to her producing partner Steven Spielberg, who passed it on to Eastwood. Who wanted to do it and did not go along with Morgan’s request to do revisions.

Understanding Screenwriting #61: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #61: <em>Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps</em>, <em>You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #61: <em>Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps</em>, <em>You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Whatever Works, Some Appreciations, Buffalo Bill, The Capture, The Good Wife, Modern Family, Law & Order: Los Angeles, Second Glances at New Fall 2010 TV Shows, but first…

Fan Mail: I cannot tell you how relieved I was when Fritz Novak’s comments showed up in the comments section on October 8th. Here I’d gone at least a little out of my way to whack HBO, Scorsese, gangster movies, and New Jersey fanboys, and for the first few days after the column was posted, nothing. Bupkiss. So I was glad to see Fritz speaking up. As for paying attention to audiences, I certainly do, although not to the detriment of what’s up there on the screen. See my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing for further comments on movie audiences.

He gives me a hard time for dumping on gangster movies while continuing to discuss westerns, “the most played out genre of them all.” Yes, there is another western in this column. But a couple of things. First, I do tend to take an historical view of film and screenwriting, and I know that genres come in and out of fashion. I remember reading a paper at UCLA in about 1971 saying the gangster movie was dead. The Godfather came out the next year. The problem I have with Boardwalk Empire (and still have—you will later read my comments on episode two in this column) is that it is not doing anything fresh in the genre. Fritz says that the HBO style is slow because there is a lot of exposition. Well, in Boardwalk Empire, there really is not much exposition. In the first two episodes, I didn’t feel I was learning that much about the characters and the situations.

Fritz also tries to defend Scorsese’s sense of humor by bringing up Goodfellas (1990), which he finds “one of the funniest movies I’ve ever scene [sic].” I must admit I was not amused. Fritz points out that the characters in the film laugh at their own violence, but that does not make the film itself funny. Now, maybe if Lubitsch had directed it…

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010. Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, based on characters created by Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone. 133 minutes)

Is this film necessary?: Oliver Stone, the co-writer and director of the 1987 film Wall Street, did not want to do a sequel. He avoided the writing of the new film and was not going to direct it until he read the script. He is not one of the credited writers and given that there are not any of the preachy monologues there were in the original, I am willing to believe his contribution to the script was minimal. He just directed it. And did such a good job that the picture is turning out to be one of his biggest hits in years. Hmm.

Understanding Screenwriting #41: The Young Victoria, The Last Station, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #41: <em>The Young Victoria</em>, <em>The Last Station</em>, <em>The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #41: <em>The Young Victoria</em>, <em>The Last Station</em>, <em>The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond</em>, & More

Coming up in this column: The Young Victoria, The Last Station, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller (book), Libeled Lady, Return to Cranford, The Good Wife, Some January 2010 Television, but first:

Fan mail: Nobody’s logged in yet, so we will get right to the main events.

The Young Victoria (2009. Written by Julian Fellowes. 105 minutes)

We are not all that amused: It sounds like a great idea: the love story of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Although we are most used to the stuffy dowager that Victoria became in her old age (see The Mudlark [1950] for the genteel view), she obviously had some passion and intensity (see Mrs. Brown [1997] for the livelier view). We haven’t, however, had much of the younger Victoria. The Brits tried in the 1937 film Victoria the Great, but as Leonard Maltin notes in his movie guides, it is rather “stodgy.” The current film is not particularly stodgy, but it is rather flat and literal. Fellowes, who wrote Gosford Park (2001) and is an actor, just simply has not dug deeply enough to make the characters come alive. Given his experience as an actor, and given the characters he created for Gosford Park, this is a real surprise.

Here is a scene that gives a good example of the problems in the script. Fellowes establishes early on that since Victoria is the queen, she has to be the one to ask Albert to marry her. It is also established that Albert knows this. So naturally we are expecting a proposal scene. We have those setup lines, but later in the film Fellowes jumps into the scene without any other preparation. We do not see her getting ready to meet Albert to propose. We get no sense of any concern on her part that he might say no. Yes, she knows he loves her, but my God, what if he really doesn’t? As a queen, what is she going to do if he doesn’t say yes? What about him? When does he realize what she is going to ask? In the film he sort of gets it from the beginning, but what if she hit him with this on an off-day? He’s a nice guy, but what if he had been distracted? Or what if he gets it while she’s just warming up and plays with her a little bit. As it stands, she asks, he says yes, they hug, end of scene. Many other scenes in the film have the same problem.

Understanding Screenwriting #35: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It,

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Understanding Screenwriting #35: <em>Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs</em>, <em>Bright Star</em>, <em>Whip It</em>,
Understanding Screenwriting #35: <em>Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs</em>, <em>Bright Star</em>, <em>Whip It</em>,

Coming Up In This Column: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bright Star, Whip It, The Phenix City Story, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mad Men (2), The Following Weeks of the 2009-2010 Television Season, but first:

Fan Mail: dfantico suggested the ways he would rewrite Law Abiding Citizen in his comments on US#34. I generally avoid telling people how to rewrite a script, although I sometimes fall into that trap. As a screenwriting instructor I try to not to tell students how to rewrite their scripts. I just point out the problems and let them figure it out. They learn more that way.

Since I did not do any comments on the comments on my piece “Talking Back to Documentaries,” let me just throw in a thanks to the people who wrote in on it. I was glad to give you some ideas of stuff to watch. I was particularly touched by the comments from joan, who seemed from the comments to be Betsy MacLane, the co-author of the textbook I use. Glad to know the class meets with your approval.

Understanding Screenwriting #34: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #34: <em>Jennifer’s Body</em>, <em>Paris</em>, <em>Art & Copy</em>, <em>We’re Not Married!</em>, <em>The Good Wife</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #34: <em>Jennifer’s Body</em>, <em>Paris</em>, <em>Art & Copy</em>, <em>We’re Not Married!</em>, <em>The Good Wife</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Jennifer’s Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We’re Not Married!, The Good Wife, Community, The First Week of the 2009-2010 Television Season, but first…

Fan Mail: I need to catch up on comments not only from US#33 but a couple from US#32 as well.

In 32, Jamie suggested I try The Last Temptation of Christ again since I never watched the whole thing. Thanks for the suggestion Jamie, but when you get to be my age, you can tell pretty quickly that a picture is not going to work for you, so I think in my remaining years I will probably not get to Last Temptation. Jason Bellamy raised several problems he had with the script for District 9. I can see his points (and that’s the kind of comments and discussions I love), but with that film I found myself in a common situation: the writers had so hooked me in that I was willing to overlook the flaws. If the picture is working for you, you won’t be bothered by the flaws. A classic example: has anybody ever hated Jaws because the weather in every shot in the last half-hour is completely different from the previous shot?

In 33, Matt Zoller Seitz thought it was “great to see some love for Ghost Town.” That’s one of the reasons I don’t just write about new movies. Sometimes we pick up on earlier films that we missed, or are seeing again, and find something new in them. “Female geek” liked the Masterpiece Theatre version of Sense & Sensibility more than I did, although mostly for location, art direction, and acting reasons. Hey, we all like movies for a lot of reasons. “dfantico” wondered if given my comment about Amreeka “not being as good as it could have been” what my take was on Law Abiding Citizen. He thought the idea sounded interesting and wondered what went wrong. As with Last Temptation, I am pretty sure I am going to give this one a miss, so the following is just a guess. Most artists are delusional, which is what makes them interesting. Sometimes those delusions tell us stuff in entertaining ways and those delusions become our delusions. Sometimes the artists’ delusions are so unconnected to ours they don’t work for us. I gather from some interviews I have read with the makers of Law Abiding Citizen that they thought they were making a more serious film than viewers thought it was. The filmmakers apparently did not get far enough beyond the revenge elements of the story for at least the critics. Anyway, that’s my guess, and now on to movies I have seen.