Understanding Screenwriting #133
Irrational Man, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Grandma, American Ultra, A Foreign Affair, Exodus: Gods and Kings, True Detective.
By Tom Stempel.
Too Much Bait, Not Enough Switch
(2015. Written by Woody Allen. 95 minutes.)
When I saw the first trailers for this, I almost decided not to go. It looked like yet another Woody-Allen-Young-Woman-Enchanted-By-An-Older-Man flick. He’s been doing those for nearly forty years. Then the reviews began to come in and they suggested that that element was just the set-up after which the film took a darker turn. So it was maybe less Manhattan (1979) and more Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).
It starts off as though that is going to be the case. We hear Abe, a philosophy professor on his way to a new job, talking in voiceover about philosophical and ethical issues, up to and including murder. Then we get something I don’t recall we have ever had in an Allen picture: a voiceover from the major woman character, Jill, a young student. Unfortunately she is going on about how interesting she finds Abe. We spend a lot of time with her being intrigued by him, which takes us back to the old Allen homestead. In last year’s The Rewrite, which I reviewed in US #128, Marc Lawrence at least gave the student the professor was involved with a little character (she was working out daddy issues), but here Allen is just focused on Jill focused on Abe. People occasionally mention it’s not a good idea for her to get involved with him, but he gets into no serious trouble because of it.
An hour into the film Abe, who has been seriously depressed, suddenly sees the light: he needs to do a simple, righteous act. Unfortunately he is, as the title says, irrational. He plots and kills a judge, whom he and Jill have overheard woman in a diner talking about how unfair the judge is being to her. Abe’s plot appears to be a perfect murder, and at first neither Jill not anyone else suspects him. Allen spends way too much time with Abe and others talking about the crime and how it might have been committed, rather than giving us plot twists. There is a long scene of that sort of discussion in which Abe and Jill have dinner with her parents and that is the only thing they talk about. If my daughter brought home one of her professors twenty years older than her that she was infatuated with, you can bet we’d talk about other stuff.
Jill begins to suspect that Abe committed the murder and the bloom is off the rose. She particularly gets upset when a) she learns the truth, and b) another man is arrested for the murder and Abe is reluctant to turn himself in to save the other man. Given what finally happens to Abe, you will understand while Jill gets an extensive voiceover.
Since the lead is a philosophy professor who dazzles a student with his intelligence, it is not surprising that there is a lot of talk, especially about philosophy. A lot of it seems rather shallow, as though it was researched rather than felt. It is also not particularly funny, so it is not nearly as interesting to listen to as the great philosophical debates between Boris and Sonja in Love and Death (1975).
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
(2015. Screenplay by Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram, story by Jeff Kleeman & David C. Wilson and Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram, based on the television series by Sam Rolfe. 116 minutes.)
In 1962 producer Norman Felton was toying with the idea for a television series inspired by Hitchcock movies, which involved an innocent person caught up in an adventure. Ted Ashley, an agent, suggested that Felton look at a travel book called Thrilling Cities. Felton read it but felt there were no real story possibilities in it. Jack Ball, an advertising man, suggested Felton talk to the author of the book. The first film from the author’s series of thrillers had been made as a low-budget film in England and had not yet opened it America. So Felton flew to New York and met Ian Fleming. (The details on the television series are from Jon Heitland’s excellent 1987 book, The Man From U.N.C.L.E Book: The Behind the Scenes Story of a Television Classic, and from my interview with Sam Rolfe for my book on the history of television writing.)
Fleming had some ideas for globe-trotting adventures, but his notes were primarily about the hero of the series, Napoleon Solo. Solo was suave, cool, tough, and worked for a mysterious organization doing odd jobs. His boss had a secretary he flirted with. Sound like anyone we know? By the time the contracts were to be signed, the James Bond phenomenon had exploded, and Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, the producers of the films, threatened legal action if Fleming’s name was in any way connected with the series. For solid economic reasons, Fleming dropped out of the project and the name Napoleon Solo was not allowed to be used in the title in any way.
Felton got experienced television writer Sam Rolfe, who had created the series Have Gun, Will Travel in the fifties, to develop the series. It was Rolfe who came up with the concept for the organization U.N.C.L.E, deliberating leaving unclear what the initials meant. Rolfe liked the idea of the organization being multi-national, and created the character of the Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin, thinking that Kuryakin would be good for a few episodes, and then, this being the middle of the Cold War, either he would try to kill Solo or Solo would try to kill him. It didn’t work out that way. Rolfe deliberately gave less character development to Solo than Fleming had, and virtually none to Kuryakin. Rolfe intended them both to be cool and mysterious, and Kuryakin’s fans hated when the show gave background information on Kuryakin, so the actor playing him would deliberately cut out any personal references any of the non-staff writers would put in. Since nobody thought Kuryakin was a leading part, the title became The Man From U.N.C.L.E, not the Men from.
The idea was that the series would be an adventure series, but with some humor. Unfortunately, NBC, the network broadcasting the show, did not like the humor, and the episodes with humor were pushed to the back end of the season. The ratings did not pick up until those episodes aired. The series premiered in the fall of 1964, and by the start of the 1965-66 season it was one of the top-rated shows. Both Solo and especially Kuryakin, and the actors who played them, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, became huge stars. When McCallum was scheduled to do a personal appearance at Macy’s department store in New York City, it was expected that five thousand people would show up. Fifteen thousand did and began trashing the store when the appearance was cancelled. McCallum managed to get out alive.
Sam Rolfe left the show at the end of the first season, since he preferred to develop rather than run shows. Due to the popularity of the gadgets that agents had, especially their basic gun, more gadgets were added in the second season, and the third season moved from humor to outright comedy. Rolfe was in London with his wife when he saw an episode in which Kuryakin was riding a bomb down from the sky, just like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove (1964). He turned to his wife and said, “We’re spending the last of the royalties, I think. This is not going to go much farther.” When it started it was the only spy show on television, but it was quickly followed by Get Smart and I Spy. Rolfe says of U.N.C.L.E., “It became a parody of a parody of itself. They were trying to outsmart Get Smart, which came on after us.” The series was cancelled in the middle of the fourth season.
The new movie appears to have been in development for some time. In the film’s credits, but not in the IMDb listings, Norman Felton, who died in 2012, is listed as an associate producer. It looks as though Kleeman & Wilson probably came up with an earlier draft of the script, enough of which was used that they get a story credit, and it eventually fell into the hands of Ritchie & Wigram. Ritchie & Wigram were involved with the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes films, the first of which I liked, the second of which I didn’t. I suspect the basic plot came from Kleeman & Wilson. It has the bane of nearly all big budget movies: an origin story. Their Solo is an occasional thief who works for the CIA, and he is thrown together with the KGB’s Kuryakin in an operation. Solo has found Gaby, the daughter of a former German scientist now working for the Americans but who has been kidnapped. Solo and Kuryakin are to take her to Italy, where her uncle and possibly her father are working for not-nice people, probably building an atomic bomb for them. Gaby is somewhat like the innocent characters that Felton insisted on in the series, except she is not that innocent at the beginning and less so as the film progresses. They track down the uncle, who seems to love torturing people, which leads to a nice throwaway sight gag of what happens to him after he finishes torturing Solo. Unfortunately, the father is not nearly as interesting a character, so we don’t get much of him before the big ending. Solo and Kuryakin succeed in saving the world, and an Englishman who has been floating around the margins tells them they are now part of a team code-named, yeah, you guessed it, “Uncle.” His name is Mr. Waverly, a throwback to the spies’ boss in the series, but here he is played by Hugh Grant, who is much younger than Leo G. Carroll, who played him in the series.
As I mention in writing about the first Sherlock Holmes film Ritchie, who directed those films and this one, seems to like to populate his films with thugs. In this case he has turned Kuryakin into a Russian thug, which makes him a whole lot less interesting than the original was. He is played here by Armie Hammer, who at least tries to bring a light touch to bits and pieces of scenes, presumably with the tacit approval of Ritchie. Gaby is played by the brilliant young actress Alicia Vikander (Testament of Youth , Ex-Machina ), and she had Hammer get some good chemistry going, especially in the scenes where they are dealing with having to pretend to be married. The female head of the baddies is played by Elizabeth Debicki, and you believe every evil thing she does.
And who have I forgotten? Ah, Napoleon Solo. He is played by Henry Cavill. He is not a block of wood. He is trying, unsuccessfully, to be cool and suave, and he is neither one. You can see him making an effort, but he simply is not Robert Vaughn. And he is definitely not Sean Connery or Cary Grant. At least, unlike Frederick Stafford, the empty suit in Hitchcock’s 1969 film Topaz, he’s trying, but his line readings have no natural flow. He also has no chemistry with anybody else on the screen. Since the chemistry of Solo and Kuryakin was the heart of the series, the lack of chemistry here leaves a giant hole. Cavill is the dead center of the film, with the emphasis on dead.
David McCallum, the original Kuryakin, has always been, first last and always, an actor, which helped him survive his brief mega-stardom. Fifty years after U.N.C.L.E. he is again in a top-rated television series. He plays Ducky, the Medical Examiner, on NCIS. I doubt if Cavill will be on a hit television show in fifty years.
A Little Gem.
(2015. Written by Paul Weitz. 79 minutes.)
Look at that running time. Big-name television showrunners like David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon (The Wire), and Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) have not even finished clearing their throats at 79 minutes. Weitz understands that he’s telling a small story that will be better at a densely packed 79 minutes than dragged out to a greater length. Sometimes shorter is just better.
The plot is simplicity itself. Sage, a pregnant, unmarried, 18-year-old goes to visit her grandmother Ellie to ask her for the $600 she needs for an abortion. And she needs it by 5:45 that night for her clinic appointment. Ellie is broke at the moment, but takes Sage around with her to try to scare up the money. They succeed and Sage gets her abortion.
The devil, as they say, is in the details. Ellie is not your 70-year-old typical grandma. Before Sage shows up, we see her breaking up with Olivia, her much, much younger lover, whom she’s only been together with for four months. In that scene we learn that her longtime partner of 38 years, Violet, died a year before and Ellie has not completely gotten over her. Ellie is poet and occasional college lecturer (listen to her describe those jobs), and is expecting some money soon, but not in enough time for Sage. Ellie is also cranky as hell and has in the past pissed people off. She has not stopped. One of their first stops is a bookstore-coffee shop whose owner, Carla, had once offered to buy several of Ellie’s collection of first editions (listen to what Sage thinks The Feminist Mystique is all about). Ellie gets Carla upset, partly because Olivia is now working there. In US #131, I admired the eight-character scene the writers of Tangerine brought off; here Weitz manages a five-character scene in the bookstore that’s equally good if not as spectacular. Carla, by the way, is played by the late Elizabeth Peña in one of her last films. Boy, is she going to be missed.
Another stop is to Ellie’s ex-husband. But, but, she’s a lesbian. Yeah, but she was briefly married to Karl. They haven’t spoken to each other in thirty years. Look at how and why Weitz has Ellie avoid bringing up what she needs the money for and what happens when she does. Karl, by the way, is played by Sam Elliott, who along with his great performance in I’ll See You in My Dreams is having a career-best year.
Finally they try Ellie’s daughter and Sage’s mom, Judy, and in about ten seconds you understand why they did not want to approach her. All three characters are so sharply drawn we understand the family dynamics instantly. And then Weitz deepens our understanding.
Then it’s off to the abortion clinic and we get the best dealing-with-anti-abortion-activists scene since Juno (2007). Oh right, there haven’t been any others since Juno. Inside the clinic, the doctor wants to make sure that Sage talks to a counselor before the procedure. She’s so insistent on it that I was afraid Sage had ended up an anti-abortion pseudo clinic, but Weitz is not being doctrinaire.
Late in the picture Ellie goes to visit Olivia, sort of to make up. Her parents are there and are pleasant, but when Ellie and Olivia go outside to talk privately, Weitz gives them a two-word conversation that tells us all about how they feel. It is brilliant, concise screenwriting.
Weitz, who directs this film as well as writes it, had worked with Lily Tomlin on the 2013 film Admission, which he directed but did not write. He thought it was about time somebody gave Tomlin a starring role, so he wrote Grandma just for her. Unlike Diablo Cody on Ricki and the Flash (see my comments in US #132), Weitz provides a lot of great supporting parts for actors to play off Tomlin. And everybody comes through. There is no Henry Cavill in this picture.
(Also in theatres is Learning to Drive, which is a small gem, but not quite up to Grandma. I am not going to do a full item on it, but it’s worth seeing for the great performances by Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley as well as one of the best lines of the year explaining why a blow job is called a blow job.)
For Specialized Tastes.
(2015. Written by Max Landis. 95 minutes.)
I almost did not see this one. I had not heard very much about it, but then I stumbled upon a trailer for it on the Internet. The trailer suggested it was not just an action film, but had some deadpan humor, beautifully delivered by Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. Since I like Stewart and Eisenberg, I gave the movie a shot and was nicely rewarded with a fun afternoon in a theatre.
The film starts out with a very bedraggled Mike handcuffed to a desk. You may not be able to tell it’s Eisenberg, and before you can figure that out, an investigator asks Mike how all this happened. So we get a very fast montage of most of the action scenes we will see in the movie. I suspect that Landis was a) wanting to get the movie off to a fast start, usually a good thing, and b) aware that the first half hour of the film itself was going to be very slow before all hell breaks loose. Landis tells us there will be action and he hopes we will be willing to wait for it. Fortunately, what he then delivers makes it well worth the wait. We are introduced to two stoners living in a small town in Virginia. Mike works at a convenience store and in fact seems to be the only employee of it. Phoebe works at a bail bonds office. Mike says to her, “We are the perfect fucked-up couple,” then explaining she’s perfect and he’s the fuck-up. We don’t disagree with him, although Phoebe may not be perfect, but she is a sweetie who really seems to love Mike. How many times have you seen a woman hanging out with a terrible guy and wonder what she sees in him and why she stays with him? Landis’ writing, helped enormously by Eisenberg and Stewart, makes you believe these two belong together. Their scenes together are wonderfully nuanced.
Two thugs approach Mike in the store parking lot and he kills them with ease, much to Mike’s surprise. What we might have thought was a gentle stoner comedy turns into The Bourne Identity (2002). Mike is the last remaining survivor of a government program to, well, you know. Victoria Lasseter, the woman who trained Mike, wants to protect him, but Adrian Yates, who is now her superior, is determined to eliminate Mike at all costs. Victoria is played by Connie Britton, so you believe her maternal instincts, and Adrian is played by Topher Grace in a nice change of pace. A lot of mayhem takes place, and we find out what happened to Boyd Crowder after he was sprung from prison and went to work as a thug for the CIA. Yes, that is Walton Goggins as Laugher, and it is good to see him in action. Eventually, after a lot of bloody – very bloody – action, the movie comes to a satisfactory end.
What has surprised me is that the reviews for this have been all over the place. Amy Nicholson in the LA Weekly wrote that it is “perhaps the most romantic film of the year… its emotional intelligence is off the charts.” On the other hand, Richard Brody in The New Yorker wrote “Eisenberg and Stewart handle the action with aplomb but have little room for emotional maneuvering.” I’m with Nicholson on this one. Landis’ script lets Stewart and Eisenberg show the same kind of nuanced chemistry they had in the 2009 film Adventureland, which I mentioned in my review in US #25. I think what throws off Brody and others who do not like the film is that the emotions are very subtly done, which I think plays well against the action, although it may seem too subtle in the midst of all the action. You have to have a taste for this kind of nuance for the film to work for you.
A Disappointment This Time Around
A Foreign Affair
(1948. Screenplay by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder and Richard Breen, adaptation by Robert Harari, based on a story by David Shaw [those are the official credits; see below for a more nuanced version]. 116 minutes.)
Readers of Creative Screenwriting know Elaine Lennon for her recent series of pieces on Robert Towne. Elaine has a lot of other interests as well, and earlier this year she wrote one of the best pieces she’s ever done, an analysis of A Foreign Affair, which you can read here. The film showed up on Marlene Deitrich Day in TCM’s Summer of the Stars, so how could I not watch it? I had seen it once before and liked it, but this time it just left me cold. I have been trying to figure out why ever since.
Part of the problem is that Wilder started out with the idea of making a propaganda film. (The historical background on the film is from Ed Sikov’s great On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder.) Wilder had been asked by the military to go to Germany in 1945 to help revive the German film industry. It turned out to be an impossible task at the time, but he got the idea that what could help the Allies get Germany back on its feet were films that promoted American ideals. Wilder was fascinated the ruins of Berlin and the condition of the people there, and began to conceive of a film about an American military man and his liaison with a German woman. Conditions were so bad in Berlin that the Allied authorities would not allow him to make the film at the time.
Wilder came back to the U.S., made another film, then returned to the Berlin story. He added a new character, an American congresswoman on a fact-finding mission, whom he borrowed from a story by the brothers Irwin and David Shaw that Paramount owned. I don’t know why Irwin (later the author of such novels as The Young Lions) does not show up in the official credits. Wilder and his partner Charles Brackett worked with another writer, Robert Harari, on a treatment, not an adaptation. Harari was later replaced on the project by Richard Breen.
The film begins with Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, from the state of Iowa, arriving by plane with a congressional delegation. The material with the delegation is somewhat satirical, but not up to the usual Brackett and Wilder standard. When the delegation arrives in Berlin, they are given a tour by Colonel Plummer, who gives us a lot of exposition about Berlin. This is probably a holdover from Wilder’s idea of a propaganda film, but it is more than we need, since we can see what the situation is. Wilder was shooting in Berlin just after RKO had sent a crew to shoot Berlin Express (1948, see my comments on it in US #28), and the RKO film uses the locations better, since a lot of Foreign Affair was shot back on the lot at Paramount. The American GI is Captain John Pringle, who is having an affair with Erika Von Schluetow (Deitrich), the former mistress (some sources have her as his wife) of a Nazi official.
We meet Johnny as he trades a birthday cake Phoebe has brought from his girl back home for a used mattress for Erika. The writers are very careful to avoid the obvious, but by then they were masters of getting around the Production Code people. This is, however, one of the things that date the film, along with all the detail about Berlin and the occupation. We are now so used to seeing movies go much further than these writers were allowed and the film seems now much tamer than it was then. It was accused by several critics of bad taste, but it is very genteel in comparison with Wilder’s later films. In 1961 he and I.A.L. Diamond returned to Cold War Berlin to make One, Two, Three, a much livelier and sharper satire on politics than Foreign Affair, although I suspect audiences these days need footnotes for some of the jokes.
John manages to loosen up Phoebe and they end up together, although he is a much better and more interesting match for Erika. We learn late in the picture that the military knew about his relationship with Erika and encouraged it, hoping to get her Nazi boy friend to come out of hiding. That works and Erika is carted off to jail by several soldiers, although it is quite clear she will seduce all of them to let her go before they get to jail. James Agee, in his review in The Nation, dings on the film for endorsing “everything it has been kidding, and worse.”
If all of that is true, why did I like the film the first time I saw it and not this time? I suspect that it seemed fresher the first time. Some films are only good for one or two viewings and then fade. The other reason is that having read Elaine’s piece, which deals with all the issues of the film, I may have known too much about it to properly enjoy it. That’s a problem in the film history field. Joe Adamson, a friend of mine, wrote the best book ever about the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo (1973), and he told me later that after doing the book he was unable to watch any Marx Brothers movies for years afterward. I had a similar problem after I wrote by biography of Nunnally Johnson. For years I found it difficult to sit through The Grapes of Wrath (1940) without giggling at Ma’s “mean mad” speech. Sometimes too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.
At least there is no Nefretiri
Exodus: Gods and Kings
(2014. Written by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steve Zallian. 150 minutes.)
I missed this one in theatres and caught up with it on Blu-Ray. I don’t know what the sound mix was like in theatres, but it was God-awful on the Blu-Ray. I almost gave myself carpal-tunnel syndrome changing the volume so it was not too loud with the music and loud enough for the dialogue.
Since this tells the story of Moses leading his people out of bondage, it’s sort of a remake of Cecil B. De Mille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments. That one ran 220 minutes, with more than a lot of padding. De Mille and his writers brought in a love story between Moses and the fictional Egyptian princess Nefretiri. It was so badly written that people who have only seen it and nothing else Anne Baxter did think she was terrible actress. De Mille’s style, there as in most of his films, was very pompous, starting with Charlton Heston as Moses.
The director of the new one is Ridley Scott, so you know it is going to be visually dazzling, which it is. Special effects have improved drastically in the last sixty years, and Scott knows how to use them. The writing has not improved that much, although a look at the credits suggest there were too many cooks stirring the broth. There are near the beginning a couple of clunker lines, which don’t get things off to a good start, and the writers have not provided the vivid, if melodramatic, characterizations that De Mille’s writers did. Signourney Weaver shows up as what appears to be an Egyptian princess or queen, but it’s never quite clear which. Moses is given a lot of character detail, especially in the first half of the film and Christian Bale does a good job. The characterization of Rames is not quite as vivid as in the earlier film. In De Mille’s film God is just a stentorian voice, but here God is seen, but as a 10-year-old boy. Some people got furious about that, but it does liven up the film, and in some ways is closer to the Old Testament God than De Mille’s version.
The script begins to lose focus when God starts sending locusts, frogs, and assorted other plagues. We see very little of the actors in these scenes and way more special effects than we need. I do like how the writers deal with the Red Sea. Moses crosses it the first time at the Straights of Tiran when the sea is at low tide. Then when he is leading the Hebrews, it is again at low tide and they walk across. By now we are getting a little irritated because De Mille’s parting of the Red Sea is much more flamboyant, and we are waiting for the big wave. We finally get it and it destroys the Egyptians. It is a much more spectacular effect than in De Mille’s film and almost worth waiting for.
The Second Season.
(2015. The second season. Written by Nic Pizzolatto. Approx. 510 minutes.)
I started the first season of this last year, but the philosophizing and the mystical elements turned me off and I stopped after a few episodes. I gave this season a shot and stayed with it until the end. The reason I started it is that the basic idea (corruption on a massive scale in one of the incorporated communities southeast of downtown Los Angeles) is a terrific idea. It was partially based on the corruption case in the city of Bell. Unfortunately, Pizzolatto lets it dissolve into a standard issue/corruption and murder story, which is not as interesting as the real thing. I am not sure how you could turn it into a detective story, but what Pizzolatto ends up with is yet another “ugly, stupid, violent people do ugly, stupid, violent things to other ugly, stupid violent people” show. He could have found a livelier way to deal with a variation on the Bell scandal.
I suppose I could have stopped watching when I realize where it was going, but I kept on to the end because of the acting. It was nice to see Vince Vaughn, normally a likeable guy, as a tough, corrupt wheeler-dealer. Likewise, it was great to see Rachel McAdams, normally in lightweight roles, as a very tough cop. The real surprise to me was Taylor Kitsch, whom I thought was a, yes, block of wood in Battleship (2012), although looking at that review in US #96 it was his character, not his acting that seemed wooden, but still. Anyway, he was terrific here as a younger cop. There may be hope for him. More so than for Henry Cavill.
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