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Two films at this year’s AFI fest had, as their central characters, women who work outside the home. But the takes on the situation by the respective filmmakers couldn’t be more different.
In Things to Come (not to be confused with the Sci-Fi film from 1936 starring Raymond Massey…I hope), Nathalie Chateaux teaches philosophy in high school. And I don’t mean teaches philosophy, she TEACHES philosophy (and in a way that makes you put on sackcloth and ashes, moaning and bewailing in despair over the U.S. educational system).
Everything in her life seems in perfect equilibrium. She has a loving husband, family, occupation (her only real downside is that her mother is emotionally unstable).
Then she encounters a series of misfortunes. Her husband asks for a divorce; her mother dies; and she is basically fired from her position of overseeing the philosophy texts used in school.
But what makes Things to Come so different from other films like it is what Nathalie doesn’t do. She doesn’t fall apart. She doesn’t have a nervous breakdown. Her life doesn’t become high melodrama. She doesn‘t become a manic depressive bitch. She has an emotional reaction to the events, of course, but her life, like the majority of lives of women (unless you are a typical female lead in a film) goes on.
Yes, her life goes on, as life is want to do.
And it’s amazing just how refreshing, perhaps even revolutionary, this approach is. To see a woman’s life simply lived, to see it play out simply as it is, rather than emotions being forced as a square peg into a round hole, devolving into a character study of a stereotypical female neurotic.
Nathalie is played by Isabella Huppert who is, at least to me, inarguably one of the top five actresses in the world. Huppert always reminds me of Bette Davis, an aggressive and intense actress who never cared how she looked on film or how a role made her look to the audience and would tear into any character with the ferociousness of a lioness.
But Huppert is somewhat lucky in France. While in the U.S., so many actresses have difficulty finding suitable roles the older they get, our Gallic ally across the pond appears more supportive with the careers of such actresses like Isabella Adjani, Nathalie Baye, Catherine Deneuve, among others, hardly registering a stumble (and Huppert and Deneuve having writers and directors creating roles specifically for them).
The film ultimately is a paean to life and that when misfortune and death appear, it only means that there are still things to come.
Written and directed by Mia Hanson Love, who is creating a nice little oeuvre of films with this along with Goodbye, First Love and Father of my Children.
With Andre Marcon of Me, Myself and Mum as the philandering husband and Edith Scob of Holy Motors and Summer Hours as the mother.
The movie is glossy and well made and at times has a ripped from the headlines attraction (for better and for worse). The audience loved it. I mean luuuuuuuuuved it. I felt that very little in the movie seemed remotely real and it never came together in a satisfying way.
There are several reasons for this. The main one, as far as I’m concerned, is the title character herself. She’s played by Jessica Chastain with the intensity of a Joan of Arc, or perhaps more accurately, with the fierceness of someone trying to get an Oscar nom.
But though Chastain gives it everything she’s got (and more), she can never convince that Sloane is a real person. No, for my money, she’s little more than a construct by the filmmakers and does things not because this is what her character would do, or to keep her character consistent, but what the filmmakers need her to do in order for the plot to work out the way they want it to.
The basic premise begins with Sloane, the head lobbyist at the most powerful lobbying firm in the U.S., doing her thing. One day she has an offer to work for a gun manufacturer to defeat a controversial bill whose goal is to keep firearms out of the wrong hands. She declines and ends up quitting to work for an organization that supports the bill.
Why? Who knows? Has she reached a moral line in the sand? Maybe, except she seems to pride herself on having no moral compass whatsoever. Could it be that she wants to take on an impossible case just to see if she can win it? Or does she do it because if she succeeds, she can basically name her own price?
It’s never clear and instead of the film clarifying the motivation as the story goes on, it instead just continues to muddy the whole lake the closer to climax it comes.
The movie is depressing and often ugly. Even more so when it’s upbeat and optimistic. The nearer the good guys get to winning, the more cynical it becomes.
At AFI, where I saw it, it was introduced as a film having the sort of strong female role that the American cinema should emulate. As the credits were rolling, all I could think was, heaven help us if such a dream comes true (and remember, be careful what you wish for-you might get it).
For 90% of the movie, the film takes the Diana Christensen/Network approach to working women. Basically this translates as whenever a woman tries to do a man’s job, there is something wrong at her core because, well, that’s just how women who try to do a man’s job are.
In Network, the character is a neurotic and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In Miss Sloane, there is something fundamentally wrong and not normal (the character’s word, not mine) about her (revealed in probably the worst written scene during an encounter with a male escort).
In the last 10%, Sloane’s actions and motivations are muddled and all over the place. The plot itself stops making a lot of sense.
However, it should be noted that the filmmakers (director John Madden and writer Jonathan Pereira) pull one hell of a rabbit out of their hat with a twist ending that, though it doesn’t perhaps quite reach the height of The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, is still pretty damn neat.
At the same time, when it’s revealed, you forget all the twiddle-twaddle that came before. It’s a nice example of a bait and switch.
Though Miss Sloane’s plot and title character may never feel real, I must say it’s filled with an impressive cast of supporting characters who do have a vibrancy to them, including Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg, and especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw as one of Sloane’s underlings. If one wants to use a character as an example of a strong female role to emulate, she is the one to go to.
Also with Jake Lacey (of Girls) as the hooker with a heart of gold. Like Chastain, he works hard to make the role come to life, but the character is no more believable than the title one.