Understanding Screenwriting #132
Ant-Man, Trainwreck, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Ricki and the Flash, Phoenix, Making Patton (book).
By Tom Stempel.
One of the Funny Marvel Movies
(2015. Screenplay by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish and Adam McKay & Paul Rudd, story by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, based on the comic book by Stan Lee & Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby. 117 minutes.)
I am a little too old to have been caught up in the Marvel universe. When I was a kid, it consisted of Captain Marvel, a cheap imitation of Superman. Captain Marvel’s sole contribution to American culture at the time was the introduction of the word “Shazam” to the language. So you can see why I have reviewed only a few of the Marvel movies, and the one I have liked tend not to be the big, wretched excesses like the Iron Man movies (see my take on the three of them in US #112 ) or the Avengers (see US #96). You will see in my comments that I tended to like the funny stuff in those films, as scarce as it sometimes was. As I mentioned in US#122 I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) primarily because the reviews admired its sense of humor, which I, alas, found limited.
I find it interesting that the Marvel films have begun to develop a sense of humor. In the first Iron Man (2008), the humor seemed to come mostly from Robert Downey Jr.’s adlibs. By the time of the third one (2013), the humor seemed to be at least partially scripted. I suspect that the folks at Marvel realized that a streak of humor was obviously appealing to audiences and began to build it into their films. That is probably why they approached Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish to write the script for Ant-Man. Wright was the co-writer and director of Shawn of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), which bring a nice snarky humor to genre satire. Cornish wrote British television sketch comedy and collaborated with Wright on The Adventures of Tintin. They obviously applied their humor to their Ant-Man script, which Marvel was willing to indulge them in, since Ant-Man is not one of the best-known characters in the Marvel universe. Wright was originally scheduled to direct, but there was some sort of falling out with Marvel and he left the picture. He and Cornish maybe went a bridge too far in their satire, or else focused more on the comedy than the characters.
When I saw the first Iron Man, my main reaction was that I would like to see those actors in a real movie. Marvel has begun to develop a better sense of how to use the stars they do hire, as in Mark Ruffalo’s performance as the Hulk in the Avengers movies. The characterization in this film is sharper than in a lot of previous Marvel films, and Paul Rudd (as Ant-Man/Scott), Michael Douglas (as Dr. Hank Pym, the inventor of the Ant-Man suit), and Corey Stoll (as Darren Cross, who uses the Ant-Man technology for his own evil purposes) are given a lot to play and do it well. I have in recent years commented on several young leading men in films as being blocks of wood. The Block-of-Wood award in this film goes to Evangeline Lilly (as Dr. Pym’s daughter), who is simply wiped off the screen by her leading men. I suspect the characterization comes from Rudd, a first-rate actor, and Adam McKay, who wrote extensively for Saturday Night Live, where writing for actors is the name of the game. There is near the end of the film an appearance by Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s more popular in England than the U.S., so it’s likely it was a Wright & Cornish contribution, but Rudd & McKay may have added to its characterization.
The characters are so well written and played that we are willing to spend a full half-hour with them before we get a big comic set-piece, in which Scott takes the Ant-Man Suit for a test drive for the first time, with messy results. The special effects here, and later in the film, are good, but not excessive, and are at the service of the story and character, which is not always true in Marvel films. The effects get more elaborate in the later action scenes, but with a better sense of scale, both physically and visually, than in most Marvel films.
I also liked the fact that the script does not beat us over the head with references to the rest of the Marvel universe. There is a good throwaway gag about Tony Stark early on, but only one of the Avengers shows up later in the picture. At this point, Marvel doesn’t have to grind their universe into our heads.
I do, however, miss the best line from the trailer, which did not make it into the film. Scott asks Dr. Pym if they can change the name from Ant-Man. He says it’s too late. I am sure it will show up in one or more of the DVDs of the film.
Once or Twice in Love with Amy
(2015. Written by Amy Schumer. 125 minutes.)
I have written, either directly or indirectly, about the importance of starting a comedy with a good laugh. Listen to Tangerine’s “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch,” for an example. Here it’s a short scene in which Gordon is explaining to his two children, Amy and Kim, that “Monogamy isn’t realistic.” That’s O.K. as a funny line when delivered to nine and five year old kids, but what makes the scene is his explanation, using Kim’s doll as an example, of how things can go wrong in a marriage. It hilariously develops the idea, and by the end of it we are willing to follow the writer anywhere she wants to take us.
For me that was a good thing, because I have not been a fan of Amy Schumer. I’ve seen bits of her television show, but the gags and sketches seem undercooked. I liked the idea of the Last Fuckable Day (the last days actresses can play characters studio executives think guys will want to, well, you know), but the sketch seemed haphazard, as though Schumer and her team thought just putting her, Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patricia Arquette together was enough. It wasn’t. A lot of other material on the show seemed grossly sexual just to be grossly sexual.
The screenplay for Trainwreck is a massive leap forward for Schumer as a writer. There is a real focus on the characters. Schumer plays the adult Amy, a single woman devoted to booze and screwing around. We get a lot of both in the early parts of the film, and while some of it could have been cut or at least condensed, it does establish the character and her attitudes towards men and sex. The adult Kim is the opposite of Amy, happily married, although the script makes clear her husband is very bland. The scenes between the two sisters really crackle with both conflict and love. Amy is a magazine writer with no interest in sports who is sent to interview a doctor who treats big-time athletes. Aaron is a nice guy, whom Amy does not know what to do with, since she appears never to have dealt with someone like that. He likes her, and she doesn’t know how to deal with that, either. She has trouble dealing with somebody she does not feel she deserves. Schumer’s script gets deeper into the characters and brings off late in the picture a shift to a more serious tone, first at a funeral, then in an argument between Amy and Aaron. Because we like both these characters we feel for them. Schumer then comes up with a terrific ending involving Madison Square Garden, cheerleaders (we thought they were just there for cheerleader jokes, but look how Schumer sets up something more), and a trampoline. It’s nice to see a movie ending without a courtroom scene, a chase, or somebody running to the airport to keep their love from leaving.
Schumer appears to be great at writing reactions for the characters, not only her own, but the others. I say “appears” because this film is one of those where sorting out the contributions of the writer and the director is next to impossible. How many of the reactions were there in her first drafts, and how many were the result of the director pushing her? The director is Judd Apatow, who knows from comedy, not only those he writes and directs himself (The 40 Year Old Virgin ), but those he produces for others (Bridesmaids ). How much of Schumer’s improvement as a writer comes from working with Apatow, and how much of it is coming from Schumer realizing the demands of the feature form require the kind of discipline and focus she does not have on the TV show? And how much of this being the best film Apatow has directed in a while come from the fact that he is working with some other writer’s vision, and not just indulging in the narcissistic navel-gazing we saw in Funny People (2009) and This is 40 (2011)? I hope those questions don’t keep you up at night, but you might want to think about them as you watch the film again. And again.
Not Really Impossible, But Only Because It’s Just A Little Too Convenient
Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation
(2015. Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, story by Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pierce, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller. 131 minutes.)
First of all, let’s just call this one M:I V, since it’s the fifth in the series. You can read my take of the first four in US #89, and some of what I said about them applies here. As before, a lot of things happen a little too conveniently. Early on Ethan Hunt knows that Solomon Lane, the chief baddie, is going to be at the Vienna Opera for a performance of Turandot. How does he know that? And how does he know that in enough time to get Benji Dunn to fly over from Washington for it? We never find out. Toward the end, Hunt is being chased by Lane through the streets of London, where Hunt leads him into an elaborate trap the IM team has set up for him. How did Hunt know there was going to be a chase, and how did he know he could lead him to that exact spot? What if Lane shot at him in such a way as to drive him down another alley? There are also, as in M:I IV, many times when the team, which has supposedly been disbanded, finds not only safe houses, but piles of the equipment they just happen to need. O.K., there is a long tradition of that going back decades in the Bond movies, but a little logical development would not be out of place.
Christopher McQuarrie, who also directed, is best known for his screenplay for The Usual Suspects (1995), and now after a down period he has written some good scripts, especially when working with Tom Cruise. As I mentioned in US #15, McQuarrie and his co-writer on the script for Valkyrie (2008) really knew how to write for Cruise’s star persona. I did not write an item on Edge of Tomorrow (2014), but I thought it was an ingeniously plotted movie. M:I V is not quite up to those earlier ones, although he has certainly written to Cruise’s strengths, e.g., his willingness to do almost any kind of stunt, supposedly without stunt doubles. In M:I IV, it was the scene of Hunt on the world’s tallest building; here it is Hunt hanging onto the outer door of an airplane as it takes off. I think McQuarrie was clever to make it the pre-credit sequence and then the company to use it heavily in the promotion of the film. It gets it out of the way so we can concentrate on the rest of the action and story, filled with holes as it is.
I commented on M:I IV that the members of the team were given scenes that made them so interesting that after some of their scenes together, you really did not want Hunt to show up, since he was not particularly expressive there. He’s more expressive here, but McQuarrie does not tempt fate by giving them any scenes together in which Hunt does not appear. Simon Pegg as Benji is the most involved, but Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames appear to be collecting unemployment compensation for all they are given to do, although Renner is given a great punch line at the end of the film. I was sorry not to see Paula Patton back as Jane Carter, but her replacement is Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust. Ilsa is an officially disavowed MI 6 agent who is in fact working uncovered trying to trap Solomon Lane. She is given a lot to do and Ferguson brings a real edge to the part. The M:I films have always botched the romantic angles (see my comments in US #89) and this is no exception. We are given so little in the script to suggest an attraction between Ilsa and Hunt that when she suggests they go away together, it seems to come out of nowhere. And Hunt’s wife from the two previous films does not show up either.
I was not the only person to notice the striking similarities between M:I II and Hitchcock and Ben Hecht’s Notorious (1946), and I thought for a moment when everybody went off to Casablanca, maybe they were about to do something with a heroine named Ilsa, but like a lot of things in the script, it sits there undeveloped.
One of the truisms about writing this kind of movie is that it depends on having a great villain. Philip Seymour Hoffman as an arms dealer in M:I III made it the best of the series. Unfortunately Solomon Lane is a flat nothing. We do get masks again in this film, which leads us up the garden path here a bit. Sean Harris, who plays Lane, has a vague resemblance to Simon McBurney, who plays Atlee, the head of MI 6. I kept expecting them to turn out to be the same person, or at least brothers. They aren’t. I suppose McQuarrie could defend this as a red herring, but it mostly seems sloppy. On the other hand, a more legitimate red herring comes from the casting of Alec Baldwin as the head of the CIA. Since he is determined from the beginning of the movie to shut down the IMF, and Baldwin plays it in the sleazy way only he can, we suspect he is part of The Syndicate. He’s not, but how he is established early on in the film is given a great payoff at the end of the film.
Well, It’s Not as Bad as Paradise
Ricki and the Flash
(2015. Written by Diablo Cody. 101 mintues.)
By now you certainly know that I am a huge Diablo Cody fan, but you may remember from US #117 that I was extremely disappointed in her 2013 film Paradise. Ricki and the Flash is her first film since then, and while it’s not as bad as that one, it is awfully uneven. She’s not directing this time, and as she has said in an article in the Los Angeles Times, she has no intention of trying it again. Some writers just really don’t want to direct, particularly after they’ve tried it once.
The director this time around is Jonathan Demme and the film bears more than a passing resemblance to his 2008 Rachel Getting Married, which I reviewed in US #9. In that one Kym, the flakey sister, has been let out of rehab to go to her sister’s wedding, which she disrupts in a variety of ways, eventually coming to terms with her rather staid family. One of the issues that got raised was that the girl’s mom had left them at an early age. In Ricki, the interloper, is the biological mom. She left the family several years before to become a rock star. Except that she never became a star, and is now singing in a small Tarzana, California club with her band, the Flash. She doesn’t make much money and sort of scrapes by working as a cashier in a Whole Foods-like store, dealing with a manager who is younger than the kids she left behind.
It is not a wedding that at first brings her back to Indianapolis. She gets a call from Pete, her ex-husband, telling her that her daughter Julie’s husband has run off with another woman. Pete’s current wife Maureen is conveniently out-of-town, dealing with a dying father, so Pete hopes that Ricki can come and offer some help. (Maureen is played by Audra McDonald, just as the stepmom in the white family Rachel was played by another black actress, Anne Deveare Smith; at least McDonald gets one solid scene, which Smith didn’t. No songs though.) So Ricki manages to scrape together enough money for a plane ticket (there is a certain amount of humor Cody gets out of anybody with that much bling trying to get through security), and shows up at Pete’s mansion. Julie is really in a nasty frame of mind. O.K., so far so good. Ricki is a lively character with no obvious mothering skills and Julie needs professional help. Ricki manages to get Julie out of her funk way too quickly, especially since we are enjoying mother and daughter go at it. Ricki is played by Meryl Streep and Julie by her daughter Mamie Gummer, Streep’s daughter. Boy, do they have chemistry. Unfortunately the other acting daughter, Grace, who stole a scene from her mom in The Homesman, as you may remember from US #122, is not in this film. That is not the movie Cody has written.
Ricki solves Julie’s problems. Maureen, whose dad has not yet died, returns home and asks Ricki to leave. Which she does, an hour into the picture. So she’s back in California, which means Cody is now working with only one of the four most interesting characters in her script. Well, obviously Cody has to get her back to the family, so eventually Ricki gets in invitation to her son’s wedding. Eventually, yeah, about that. One of the comments I made on Rachel was that Demme had so larded up the film with music that “Watching the last third is like going to a movie and having a concert break out. The music takes us away from the story and the characters.” It’s worse here. Yes, we get Streep showing she can sing rock as well as Sondheim in a couple of numbers at the beginning of the film. They establish the character of Ricki, but when she goes back to California, we get about fifteen minutes of Ricki singing before the wedding invite shows up. It stops the show and not in the good way. The reviews for this film have been all over the map, and some critics have thought that Streep’s singing (and her performance) are the saving graces of the film. I think the singing just interrupts the flow of the film. I have no idea how much of those musical scenes were part of the script, but since Cody is one of the film’s producers, presumably she went along with it. I think both the musical numbers and Streep’s performance are way, way over the top, and I wish Demme had reined her in a bit.
So Ricki goes back to Indianapolis for the wedding, not quite knowing what to do. We get one more Ricki-Julie/Meryl-Mamie scene at the wedding, which simply reminds us how much we have missed Julie for the last half hour. If you have not yet figured what Ricki will do as a present for her son and his bride, you should get out of screenwriting and into aluminum siding. Yes, she’s brought her band with her, and the wedding turns into another concert. Cody and Demme get some minor fun with the reaction of the stuffy guests at the wedding to Ricki’s music, but the reactions are pretty much general issue. Cody and Demme could give us more varied reactions from the people in Indianapolis to Ricki. Having known people from Indianapolis, I think they are more lively than the film makes them out to be.
I have compared this film to Demme’s Rachel, but it also has similarities to Cody’s Young Adult (2011), a much better film, which I reviewed in US #88. The characterization is much sharper in that film than here, and the storyline is much more focused. And, quite frankly, Charlize Theron gives a better performance than Meryl Streep does here partially because Cody’s writing is better there than here.
Ah, well, maybe next time.
No, Not Really Another Vertigo
(2014. Screenplay by Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki, based on the novel Le Retour des cendres by Hubert Monteilhet. 98 minutes.)
A lot of really lazy film critics have said Phoenix bears some resemblance to Hitchock’s Vertigo (1958). It is only in very minor ways, but I suspect the laziness of the critics comes from Vertigo having taking over from Citizen Kane (1941) on the most recent Sight & Sound poll of critics as the greatest film of all time. It’s not, but S&S is nowadays one of the most relentless auteurist magazines around. In the eighties I had a couple of articles about screenwriting published there, which would be impossible now. I still read it even though it continually pisses me off.
Just in case you have never managed to get all the way through Vertigo, the story is this. Scottie, an ex-cop, is hired by his friend Gavin to keep an eye out on Gavin’s wife Madeline, whom Gavin thinks is suicidal. Scottie follows her until one day she apparently commits suicide by jumping off a bell tower. Scottie is devastated because he was falling in love with Madeline. Later when he sees Judy he is struck that she is a dead ringer for the late Madeline. So Scottie tries to remake Judy in Madeline’s image. Judy was actually a double whom Gavin hired to lead Scottie around. In Phoenix, Nelly shows up in Berlin in 1945, her face severely damaged from her time in Auschwitz. She insists the plastic surgeon try to make her look as much like her old self as possible. She tracks down her husband, who does not recognize her. He does think she looks enough like his dead wife that he convinces her to pretend to be her so they can collect her inheritance (she goes along with it because she loves the schmuck). So we have some scenes of Johnny trying to teach Nelly to be herself. O.K., that’s it for comparisons with Vertigo: a guy trying to remake a woman. In Scottie’s case it is out of obsessive love, in Johnny’s case it is out of greed. In Vertigo we don’t know it’s the same woman until the very end. In Phoenix we know from the beginning. Hitchcock’s movie is done in his high Hollywood style, Phoenix is a much grittier view of immediately post-war Berlin.
As you may be able to tell, I am not a fan of Vertigo. For one reason, the script and presumably Hitchcock show no interest whatsoever in the character of Madeline/Judy. I have suggested to many writers over the years that if you are going to do a remake of Vertigo (and there have been many; insert your own Brian De Palma joke here), then tell it from the woman’s point of view: what does Judy feel about all this? One of the strengths of Phoenix is the writers (Petzold also directed) pay meticulous attention to Nelly. In Nina Hoss’s stunning performance, we get every little emotional nuance of the character at all times.
This is not the first time this novel has been made into a film. It was the basis for the 1965 release Return From the Ashes. Ashes, written by Julius J. Epstein (Casablanca), is a more conventional, sleek thriller, closer to the Hitchcock mold. (I don’t recall any reviews of the time referencing Vertigo, since Hitchcock was not yet God and Vertigo had been a flop in its release seven years before.) In the novel and in Ashes, the husband is colluding with her daughter (who does not appear in this version) to use the main character (the names are different in both the book and both films) and then kill her. In the book his plot works, in Ashes, it doesn’t. This gives a strong ending to both the book and Ashes. Nina Hoss apparently said at one film festival that they could not figure out how to end the film. Well, if you have dropped the murder plotline, you have that problem. As it stands now, Johnny picks up Nelly, supposedly returning from “The East,” at a train station. He has brought several of her old friends with him and they accept Nelly as herself. Johnny still has not twigged to who she really is, but she has him accompany her as she sings the Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash song “Speak Low.” She used to be a cabaret singer and as she sings and lets Johnny see her real camp tattoo, he realizes who she is. Then she walks out of the room. Fade out.
The writers show a case of what I call creeping David Mametism: a tendency to not finish the story. I always though Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross needed a third act so we could see the outcome of the play’s actions. Mamet also wanted to end his screenplay for The Verdict (1982) without showing the actual verdict; the producers overruled him. Here we would like to know what Nelly does. She has learned from a friend that Johnny actually divorced her after she was sent away to the camps (and that he may have been the person who betrayed her), so presumably she can walk away with the inheritance free and clear. Or give him the money because she really, really loves him. It would be nice to know. I suspect the writers were so into their glum vision of the world they could not stand to put in even a semi-happy ending. They have the same art-house lack of interest in what the audience wants that we saw Olivier Assayas had in his script for Clouds of Sils Maria in US #129.
Letting A Real Historian Loose on Movies
(2012. Book by Nicholas Evan Sarantakes. 268 pages.)
I came across this book recently in a bookstore (Remember them? Brick and mortar? The great smell of new books that Amazon.com has yet to duplicate?). I bought it based on the subject, since I had watched the film again recently. When I sat down with the book I realized that it was one of a growing number of books about film written not a film historian, but by a “regular,” or in this case a military, historian. Sarantakes is the author of three books on World War II in the Pacific. In researching them, he looked at the papers of Frank McCarthy, who not only produced Patton (1970), but also MacArthur (1977). While looking at material on General Douglas MacArthur, he glanced at the Patton material and realized, as he puts it, “McCarthy saved almost every scrap of paper associated with the making of Patton.” So he thought about doing this book.
Here’s an advantage of having a regular historian doing this book. He doesn’t know that you are supposed to give credit primarily if not only to the director. McCarthy is the real hero of the book. He was an assistant to the chief of staff of the Army during the war, General George C. Marshall. He met Patton several times and after the war, when he went to work for 20th Century-Fox, he began in 1951 trying to get a film made about Patton. But Sarantakes not only writes about the producer, but the various writers who worked on the project. The two credited writers were the young Francis Ford Coppola and the more experienced Edmund H. North, whose credits include the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but there were other writers who worked on the project over the years. When nobody else could come up with a good script, McCarthy took a chance on Coppola, based on his experience doing rewrites on Is Paris Burning?, the 1966 film about the liberation of Paris during the war. Coppola wrote a script that had surrealist touches, most notably the famous opening monologue. Over the years Coppola has said he was fired from the film because of that scene, but in fact he left the project voluntarily because of an opportunity to direct his first major feature You’re a Big Boy Now (1967). North was brought in to do another draft, but when George C. Scott read North’s first draft, he insisted they go back to Coppola’s script. North’s ultimate contributions were to simply straighten out Coppola’s wilder touches (a bunker of the Nazi intelligence people was original mostly electronic toys, like something out of a James Bond movie). You should read the book to get a real sense of what collaboration means in the making of a film, especially the way the writers work with the producer.
You will also want to stick around for the chapter on how audiences took the final film, one of the best examinations of a film and its audiences I’ve seen. And then you will have a lot of astonished laughter at Sarantakes’s listing of what appears to be all the ways people have used the film, especially the opening monologue, in movies, television, politics and sports. May anything you write have that kind of afterlife.
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