Reviews of I Love You, Man and Duplicity


I Love You, Man is, of course, as anybody knows who has been reading any media outlet lately, a bromance. That is because the two love interests are straight men (if they were gay, it would be called a dick flick). Everybody thinks this a new genre, but the boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy stories date back to the early days of film with such movies as What Price Glory? What’s new is that the director, writers, producer, advertisers are finally admitting to what is really going on. The honesty is kind of fun because it’s just so cute watching straight men make fools of themselves trying to admit they have feelings for one another. The downside is that one gets the feeling that the director, et. al. also think they deserve to be rewarded for discovering something everybody else knew all along (like a student wanting extra credit for remembering to put his name at the top of the test). In spite of all that, I Love You, Man is a frolic, a very, very funny divertissement, a wonderful way to spend a few hours, especially if life is getting you down. The middle part tends to slow; that’s because the script (screenplay credited to John Hamburg and Larry Levin) didn’t seem to know exactly what kind of character arc they wanted to give the Paul Rudd character: is he suppose to be someone who needs to learn how to be more open and free like the Jason Segel character, maybe, possibly, it’s as good as any other character arc we can come up with? But since the Segel character is more annoying than charmingly free at times and Rudd’s character doesn’t need a character arc (he’s just fine as he is), this section feels a little like everyone’s biding time until the final act. The Lou Ferrigno parts also don’t satisfy; it feels as if he’s cast because Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t take the gig because he’s still governor. The real standouts are Jon Favreau as a boor of a husband who has found the perfect wife for himself; Andy Samberg as the gay brother (included so the audience can be absolutely sure that what is going on between Rudd and Segel is not homosexual in nature); and J.K. Simmons and Jane Curtin playing normal, yet, effective parents who the authors thankfully forgot to pattern after the ones in the Focker films. See it with someone you love—of the same sex—and this time don’t sit with one seat between you so no one suspects you’re out on a date.
.

Like I Love You, Man, Duplicity is also a frolic, a very, very funny divertissement, a wonderful way to spend a few hours, especially if life is getting you down. The main difference is that while I Love You, Man is like having a beer at a neighborhood bar, Duplicity is like having a fine wine at a non-boring cocktail parties (yes, there are such things). This doesn’t make Duplicity better than I Love You, Man because beer and a bar are not inherently superior to wine and a cocktail party. At the same time, Duplicity is the better picture because the structure (screenplay by Tony Gilroy who also directed) is more intriguing and much cleverer (whatever you do, do not, I repeat, do not go to the bathroom until after the first flashback as my friend did, it will take forever for you to figure out what the hell is going on) and the sexual tension between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts is more dangerous and exciting, if more socially acceptable. At the same time, the supporting cast of I Love You, Man is more interesting, the ones in Duplicity often seem to just be along for the ride. See it with someone you love, but with someone of the opposite sex (unless you’re gay, then… well, you know).

Reviews of Sunshine Cleaning and The Great Buck Howard


Sunshine Cleaning is a movie about estranged sisters who bond after starting a business cleaning up crime scenes. It’s one of those formulaic films that have been the basis of American movies since the dawn of silents: someone goes on a three act journey and has a character arc change by the end. As such, the movie is obvious and takes no real chances. At the same time, the script is intelligent and well written (by Megan Holley) with some moving moments and it’s doubtful the audience will be disappointed. It also has some fine acting, especially by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as the sisters and a fine supporting cast of Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn and Clifton Collins, Jr. In the end, it doesn’t quite work as well as it should because the gimmick, the cleaning service, actually overshadows and distracts from the hero’s journey rather than really informs it. The sisters bond more in spite of it all rather than because of it. And there’s one scene, where Amy Adams attends a baby shower, that doesn’t have a strong enough pay off and falls flat. It probably doesn’t help that she has a big speech about what she’s gotten out of cleaning up crime scenes when in reality it’s Blunt who is the one who has come to realize what Adams has supposedly, but not really, learned here.

The Great Buck Howard also has Emily Blunt and Steve Zahn (though this time Zahn is playing the typical Steve Zahn role, complete with unflattering mullet). Like Sunshine Cleaners, it’s also formulaic as well as entertaining and intelligently written (this time by Sean McGinly, who also directed). In it, a man played by Colin Hanks, leaves law school in a huff and against the wishes and knowledge of his authoritarian father (play by Hanks’ real life father, Tom Hanks, who probably isn’t as authoritarian as his character or Colin would probably have never entered show business). In the end, …Buck Howard works better than Sunshine Cleaning because the gimmick here, an over the top character based on the real life over the top mentalist Kreskin, is more central to Hanks’ character arc and provides an ending that is wittier and cleverer than Sunshine Cleaning’s. It’s also buoyed by a delicious performance by John Malkovich as Howard and an equally delicious performance by Tom Hanks playing an unsympathetic character, something he’s actually very good at and the kind of role he hasn’t really played since perhaps That Thing You Do. It’s nice to know that if the public grows tired of Hanks being cast because he’s instantly likeable, he can always take a page from Alan Alda’s page book and revive his career by playing assholes.

THINGS THAT PISS SCREENPLAY READERS OFF 3/18/09


One of the areas where many authors err in writing narrative is that they try to do other people’s jobs. It is important to remember that you are not the director, the editor, the costume designer, the set designer, the casting agent, etc. Think Birdie Coonan in All About Eve telling Margo Channing, after Eve Harrington has left with Margo’s costume, that nothing pisses dressers off more than someone else doing their job.

You are the writer. You write the story, the plot, the structure; you create the characters; you come up with the themes and ideas. You create the framework, the bedrock, upon which everybody else builds their vision (no matter what self important auteur wannabee director with a messianic complex may tell you).

For those of you who are playwrights, you should know most of this already. When it comes to narrative, a playwright only puts down what is necessary for the story to make sense. They can try and put down more, but believe me, the very first thing directors and designers do in reading a play is pretty much cross out anything that is not essential to telling the story. They means all scene, costume and character descriptions. They ignore all blocking and they, along with the actor, ignore all indications as to how one is to speak a line.

Have you ever read a play by Shakespeare? There is almost no narrative and what there is only what is essential to understanding what is going on (and not even always that; there are times when a line won’t make sense until one really deconstructs what is going on). This is pretty much the way you want your script to look.

So, here is an example of badly written narrative.

Femmy Fataly, a woman of 23 who has already seen better days, briskly enters the dining room with a wistful look on her face, as if she was thinking of that day long ago when she lost her virginity. She has kittenish cheeks, long black hair that goes on for miles, puffy deep blue green eyes and large breasts that makes construction workers whistle for hours. She caresses the lily white dress she wears (right; like she deserves to wear white) with long willowy fingers, one of which has a gold and silver ring made of intertwining dragons, which suggests something to her personality she’s not willing to share at the moment.

The dining room is filled with a mixture of antique and IKEA (Femmy’s ex-mother-in-law, the dragon lady as Femme would call her, just never understood her taste and would say so continuously). It has a huge picture window that let’s in so much light that if Femmy were a vampire (and her ex-mother-in-law often speculated such), that she’d be dust by now. On the walls are paintings that Femmy thinks are quality, but her ex-mother law knows better and says so as often as she can behind her back (in case you haven’t figured it out, Femmy and her ex-mother-in-law don’t get along). And the knick knacks that crowd the shelves could supply enough garage sales for months, and Femmy should know, since she visited enough of them growing up.

Femmy Fatale grew up dirt poor in the South in a trailer home destroyed by Katrina. Her saintly mother would walk fifteen miles in the snow to earn $150 a week scrubbing floors. Her father spent most of this time sleeping it off. Her brother was on his fifth child by his sixth girlfriend (he was only 18) when Femmy decided she had had enough and hitched her way to Dallas, being pick up along the way by an oil man who had her teeth fixed in exchange for favors rendered.

What’s wrong with this picture? If you don’t say something like “Where, oh, where to begin”, then you are someone we readers describe as a writer who really pisses us off. And if you think I’m making any of this up, I have read much more detailed narrative that what I wrote. So, to list:

1. As was stated in previous entries, the narrative paragraphs shouldn’t be any longer than 2 ½ to 3 lines. As we’ve also stated in previous entries, ditch the literary metaphors like the virginity thing; it’s annoying and if you’re doing your job, unnecessary.

2. Be careful about detailing how someone looks. There are several reasons for this. Believe it or not, what makes a character an individual is rarely what they look like. It’s their dialog and action that makes them real. Consider: would Femme Fatal be a different character if her hair was brunette rather than black, if her eyes were brown rather than deep blue? Would she essentially be any different if she didn’t have kittenish cheeks?

Another reason for not going into such detail, as I’ve been told, is that if you give a producer, director, production company, agent the detail above, they might say, “too bad, this might have been perfect for such and such who would sell her only adopted child for a role like this and wants to work in this genre, but she doesn’t look remotely like this character”. I’m not sure I fully believe it, but to quote Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “sheep are dim”, and many people claim that those in the industry have the brains of a sheep.

3. Don’t go into detail describing set and costumes. That’s what designers are hired to do. If you’ve done your job right, the designers will have no problem coming up with exactly what Femmy would wear and what her home would look like. Actually, even if you haven’t done your job, they’ll still do just fine. If the costume or set decoration is not essential, then don’t list them. In the movie Rebecca, the painting of a gorgeous woman displayed at the top of the stairway is necessary to the story and should be mentioned in the narrative somewhere along the way. The exact layout of the foyer and the various doors that lead elsewhere, don’t and therefore don’t need to be.

4. Don’t go into biographical detail of the character. The fact that Femmy survived Katrina is only important if it is part of the plot. If it’s part of the plot, then it will be revealed when it’s pertinent and this part of the narrative is redundant. If it’s not part of the plot, then it’s has no bearing on anything and is unnecessary.

5. Don’t direct the actor. The person who is getting paid ten times more than you are for participating in the movie will decided along with the director, also getting paid ten times more than you (bitter, no, I’m not bitter), whether they want to enter briskly and whether they want to look wistful.

Here is an example of how the narrative should read:

INT. DINING ROOM DAY

Femmy Fatale, a young woman in her early 20’s, with a nice body, enters a room of eclectic furniture, shelves overstuffed with Tzotchkes and walls covered with many paintings in bad taste.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? And you reduced the number of pages to your script by one. And most important, if you write narrative like that, you won’t be pissing us readers off.

I WAS QUOTED IN THE DRAMATISTS GUILD E-MAIL NEWSLETTER


Roland Tec, in the last DG newsletter, had asked whether it would be helpful to have some sort of workshop on how to write synopsis, etc. for when one makes submission inquiries to theaters. This was my response, which he posted in the 3/13/09 Dramatist Guild e-mail newsletter:
Certainly a workshop or panel or whatever one wants to put together to help one with submissions can’t hurt. At the same time, it’s hard to see exactly how it would help. Since most theatres (at least Lort Theatres, etc.) will only read or do plays that are recommended by an agent or theatre professional; have been done in a theatre that fits a certain criteria; etc., one could have the most brilliant synopses, etc. and it probably wouldn’t make a difference. The days are probably long gone whereby plays and playwrights can be discovered based solely on the quality of the play except in very rare occasions. The issues surrounding getting a theatre to read, much less produce, an over the transom script are probably far more serious that is suggested in your column.– Howard Casner
For about 30 or more years now, the Dramatist Guild has been in need of a paradigm shift when it comes to helping their members get their plays produced. But my feeling is that any suggestions to them has fallen on deaf ears (especially reflected in a fairly useless book of theater listings that doesn’t have the information dramatists really need to know before submitting a play); they just don’t seem to realize or care just how much has changed. There is now some indication that it may now, after all these years, be dawning on them, as they are slowly emphasising the idea that getting produced is almost impossible at most LORT theaters (most theaters period) and that more and more one has to produce one self or find other ways of making oneself known. They still haven’t taken the full step in this direction, but maybe they will soon.

SCREENWRITER TULLIO PINELLI DIES


Tullio Pinelli, one of Italy’s most important screenwriters, has died at age 100 (yes, 100). He is most famous in the U.S. for his work on numerous Frederico Fellini films including The White Sheik, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. Nominated for four Oscars (writing for La Strada, I Vitteloni, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2) and many other awards. His films (especially his Fellini films) are required viewing for serious screenwriters. Really. Don’t embarass yourself by not watching them.

REVIEWS OF WATCHMEN AND 12


Watchmen. The director Zach Snyder gives it everything he’s got (no kitchen sink, in the tradition of the cliché, but plenty of toilets), but unfortunate to say, it’s not quite enough and in the end, the movie has little to offer except Snyder’s visual stylings. It actually becomes reminiscent of the movie Dune, in which David Lynch also gave it all he had, but also only ended up with something nice to look at. Part of this is a weak script (though I’m sure David Hayter and Alex Tse did their best considering the almost impossibility of the assignment) and part of this is Snyder’s lack of deftness when it comes to the acting. Outside of perhaps Jackie Earle Haley (who does his best with some florid and kitschy hard boiled film noir lines), actors who have been much better in other movies are here sadly bland and dull. The plot isn’t easy to follow (in spite of the fact that the action stops for at least three major expositional scenes to explain everything, I still wasn’t quite sure why The Comedian was murdered, though I’m willing to concede that that’s more my fault than the film’s; I did blink once or twice). Also not quite clear is why these crime fighters retired just because Nixon had some law passed; each one individually could take out a whole army, so why would they care what Tricky Dick did. In the end, what is perhaps most interesting here is that in spite of the women crime fighters being dressed in the traditional form revealing garb that horny teenagers like to masturbate to, the real emphasis is on male nudity. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (au contraire, as far as I’m concerned), but it’s something of a novelty at the least when Billy Cruddop’s blue, uncircumcised dick gives one of the standout performances in the film.

12. A Russian version of the American semi-classic 12 Angry Men in which a jury saves the integrity of the American judicial system by doing what the system didn’t do, actually try to figure out whether the defendant is guilty or not. The story was always somewhat fallacious; the theme was how well our system works when in reality it actually dramatized how easily it was for an innocent man to be convicted (like the TV series Law & Order). Though it is interesting to see a traditional American form of jurisprudence being implemented in another country and though the writers Nikita Mikhalkov (who also directed) and Vladimir Moiseyenko devote quite a bit of time to showing the background of the defendant (thereby adding more urgency to the verdict than there was in the American version), the movie never catches fire. Most of this is due to a script in which every character is given a very long, showcase monologue to explain his reason for changing his verdict. But the monologues are so unfocused (a few times, after the actor was through, I still wasn’t always sure why he changed his mind) and are so structurally obvious and arbitrary, eventually I just tuned out what they said and just waited for the characters to change their verdict (but it did make ideal times for going to the bathroom). What’s also odd here is that the characters constantly complain about how long the proceedings are taking, until someone starts orating, whereupon everyone automatically politely waits until the person stops talking. The staging is also very stagey, as if performed for a live audience, yet one wonders whether it’s too self consciously theatrical even for legitimate theater. The authors try to add a twist to the ending, where the jury foreman wants them to vote guilty because the defendant would be better off in jail. It’s supposed to be profound, but it’s moral insanity as far as I’m concerned and Mikhalkov and Moiseyenko should be ashamed for even taking the idea seriously; sure, let’s not decide whether someone is really guilty or not, let’s just bypass all that and decide where he’d be better off (this is the sort of debate one had while drunk in a college dorm room at two in the morning; but it’s time to put away childish things). It also doesn’t help that there are several false endings; though it was amusing watching the various audience members stand up and sit down, stand up and sit down, as they were fooled over and over again.

What Happens Next, A History of American Screenwrting


I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Mark (Shakespeare in Love) Norman called What Happens Next, A History of American Screenwriting, which is pretty much what the title says it is. I’ve reached the 1930’s, but I’ve run across a few interesting tidbits:

1. Most early screenwriters (during the silent films) were women, though no one seems to know why.
2. One, Gene Gauntier, was inadvertently responsible for authors of source material (like books and plays) being paid for the right to use their work when she did a 15 minute adaptation of Ben Hur and the Wallace estate sued.
3. Thomas Ince is responsible for the way a screenplay looks on paper when he wanted to make movie production to be as efficient as possible.

Also, a quote. In talking about the basic formula and structure that was started in silent film (though dates from Aristotle) and is still used today:

“This often monotonous narrative structure answered many studio needs. For an industry increasingly compelled to churn out products, it streamlined production; screenwriters learned to mold and hew their output to fit the template and save time; and it provided the front office with a basis to judge a writer’s screenplay and a vague but finite vocabulary to use when it set out to change or improve it.”

I.e., the reason that this formulaic structure (often seen in many books on how to write screenplays) was adopted was not because this was the only way to make a story work for an audience, it was because it was the most efficient way of churning out product.