UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: People of Many Colors

Tom Stempel analyzes Mission: Impossible-Fallout, The Spy Who Dumped Me, BlackkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, Support the Girls, and Crazy Rich Asians.
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Tom Stempel analyzes Mission: Impossible-Fallout, The Spy Who Dumped Me, BlackkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, Support the Girls, and Crazy Rich Asians.

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But First:

I’ve gotten carried away with writing about writing, and in addition to this column, I have set up a Facebook page for my writing. We already have a bunch of posts up and more are on the way. In addition to connecting with this column in a number of ways, I will also be throwing in references to other stuff I do such as the upcoming new chapters in my book, FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, some older pieces I’ve done, and stuff that does not fit into this column. Trust me, it will be fun. Give it a whirl.

Note: Spoilers ahead!

Not Really Non-Stop Action, But Almost.

Mission: Impossible-Fallout (2018. Written by Christopher McQuarrie, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller. 147 minutes).

I started writing this column ten years ago, so I missed writing directly about the first three Mission: Impossible theatrical films, but in my review of 2011’s Mission:ImpossibleGhost Protocol you can read here, I made some general comments about the earlier ones. One that applies more than ever is that while the television series was very much an ensemble piece—they really were a team—the first film made it clear that it was going to be a star vehicle. There is a team in the opening scene, with a great bunch of actors, but they are all killed off very quickly. I was ticked off. I would have loved to have seen a real Mission: Impossible movie with that crowd.

Tom Cruise was not only then and now Ethan Hunt, but he is the producer of the films. So he sits down with the writers and works out the stories, and perhaps more importantly, the stunts he wants to do in the films. The stunts are, of course, spectacular. Here they include a free fall, night parachute drop (where he could have more safely taken the Paris Metro), a lot of reckless driving (as I noted in an earlier review, the IMF people do not drive any other way), and a helicopter crash.

Generally, the scripts for the MI films are not strong on character, and that includes Hunt’s character. One reason I think MI 3 is the best of the previous lot is that it has the best villain, an arms dealer played by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. It also has Hunt dealing with being married to Julia and trying to avoid telling her what he does. The script for MI 3 was written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams, and I suspect Abrams’s television work makes him a little more skilled at dealing with character work.

MI:6’s writer is Christopher McQuarrie, best known for his 1995 film The Usual Suspects. He also wrote MI:V, and his script here is better. He also wrote two other non-MI Tom Cruise films, Valkyrie (2008) and The Edge of Tomorrow (2014). The script for Valkyrie brilliantly uses Cruise’s star charisma for the character, and The Edge of Tomorrow is full of the kind of twists and turns you would expect the writer of The Usual Suspects. 

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McQuarrie’s script for MI:6 combines both of those strengths. There are constant betrayals and reversals, so you have run almost as hard as Cruise does onscreen to keep up with them.

A standard ad line for action movies is that there is “non-stop action.” That is almost true here, and it does get exhausting, especially in the last twenty minutes, but McQuarrie uses the down time between the action scenes very effectively, especially in a scene near the end with a character we have not seen for a while.

Early in the film, Hunt has dreams about his wife, Julia. The last time we saw her, they nodded and smiled at each other at the end of MI:4 even though I think she was later established as dead, but I may have misread that. But she shows up here in his dreams, and he is unnerved by that, which is not something we are used to seeing from either Cruise or Hunt. It gives Cruise, the actor, more to do than he usually does in the MI films, which gives the film a little more heft.

For the final sequence, Hunt is in Kashmir and who is there but Julia—and her new husband. So before the big finish, we get Hunt’s African-American associate, Luther Stickell, explaining to Ilsa Faust, Hunt’s sort-of girl friend, the backstory about Julia. It’s a long scene, especially while we are waiting for the big helicopter scene, but we want to hear what Luther has to say.

And You Thought the Trailer Was Bad.

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018. Written by Susanna Fogel & David Iserson. 117 minutes).

I was appalled when I saw the first trailer for this early in 2018. It looked frantic and unfunny. The second trailer was only a smidgen better. I love both Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon but they seemed to spend most of the trailer screaming.

In spite of the trailers, I went to see the film, and it is as bad as I was afraid it was going to be. The script, oddly enough, is not that terrible. Audrey (Kunis) is dumped by her boyfriend, who turns out to be a spy. He leaves a thumb drive with her with instructions on whom to deliver it to in Europe. Not smart tradecraft, but hey, my review of MI:6 did not get into all the inconsistencies in it.

So Audrey and her best friend, Morgan (McKinnon), head off to Europe and hijinks ensue. The problem is that Audrey and Morgan behave like idiots. Both of them. O.K., that is a script problem, but Fogel, who also directed, does not rein the actors in. At least Kunis understands that she is the straight man to McKinnon’s whacko, but I don’t think Fogel understood that. Fogel either pushes the two to extremes, or just lets them go. You can understand a director letting McKinnon loose, but as a director you have to keep the whole of the picture in mind. She did not.

At one point Audrey and Morgan are driving recklessly around one of the traffic circles in Paris. I fully expected them to run into Ethan Hunt on his motorcycle driving against traffic. No such luck.

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The Joint is Jumping.

BlacKkKlansman (2018. Written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee, based on the book Black Klansman: Race, Hate and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime by Ron Stallworth. 135 minutes).

I have generally liked Spike Lee’s documentaries better than his fiction films. Documentaries like 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) get to the heart of the matters without Lee feeling the need to show off his considerable filmmaking skills. Sometimes showing off works. As I wrote in my review of Chi-Raq (2015), “The movie is a mess, but it is a wild, funny, entertaining mess, with more life in it than in many more genteel films. Several of Lee’s films have tried to use this style before and also ended up as messes, but not as entertaining as this one.”

Wachtel and Rabinowitz wrote the first drafts of the screenplay for the producers, and one of those producers, Jordon Peele of Get Out (2017) brought it to Lee. Lee and his Chi-Raq cowriter Willmott did the subsequent drafts, so I suspect some of the over-the-top elements come from them. Fortunately the basic true story is so strong that it carries the picture.

Stallworth was the first African-American man to be hired by the Colorado Springs police department in 1973. Stallworth was able to get himself a membership in the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be white on the phone. He had one of his white fellow officers, Flip Zimmerman, go in his place to the actual meetings. As you can see, the story gives you some potentially great scenes.

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The story also gives the writers a chance to comment on race and racists in America. The members of the Klan Stallworth talks to and Zimmerman meets are all white, of course, and like most racists are, stupid. The racists are also funny. Which does not mean they are not scary. They are.

The ending of the film, after the main story is over, uses footage from Charlottesville as well as other news coverage of racism in contemporary America. Some audiences have found that moving, others, including the one I saw it with, did not. Well, when do you expect everybody to agree with Spike Lee?

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Not Quite Up to Get Out.

Sorry to Bother You (2018. Written by Boots Riley. 111 minutes).

This one gets off to a very good start. Cassius Green, an unemployed African-American man, gets a job as a telemarketer in a boiler room with a racially mixed group. Riley, who also directed, cuts to Cassius in the rooms and situations where the people he is calling are. If you have ever got called while you were in a potentially embarrassing situation, you will get a tickle out of these scenes.

Then one of his African-American co-workers tells him he should use his “white voice” when talking to white clients. So he does and is much more successful. Either stay through the end credits, or look them up on IMDb, to see who the actors are who are doing the white voices.

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So Cassius gets promoted to being a “Power Caller” in a much flashier office building (although, perhaps for obvious reasons, he does not have an office, but makes his calls from an alcove in the hallway). The satire begins to fade. Eventually gets called to his white boss’ house and the film turns into a surreal horror movie. Well, you may say, Get Out did that. It did, but Peele’s script prepared you for that. You get the African-American guy thrown into the trunk of the car in the opening scene, the killing of the deer, and assorted other things. Here the change is abrupt and takes you out of the interesting tone and approach of the first half of the film. Riley could have handled it much better, but hey, this was his first feature screenplay. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for his next ones.

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Womenfolk.

Support the Girls (2018. Written by Andrew Bujalski. 90 minutes).

This gets my vote for best title of the year. The movie’s lead character is Lisa, the African-American manager of a restaurant, with a multi-racial crew of waitresses. We see her on what turns out to be her last day on the job, and we see how supportive she is of the women, both black and white, that work for her.

The second level of meaning for the title comes from this: the restaurant is a low-rent imitation of Hooters called Double Whammies, and the women have to wear at least slightly revealing outfits. Bujalski does not push that aspect of the story too much, since this is a comedy-drama, not a soft core porn movie, although I should note that the audience I saw it with one afternoon was almost exclusively male; maybe they learned something. The male characters, mostly the patrons in the restaurant, seem to have wandered in from BlacKkKlansman, but here their stupidity is about women not race. They are not the white men who run the Impossible Mission Force.

The film is about the women, and we get to know several of the characters almost as well as we know Lisa. The issue of race is only lightly touched upon, primarily in discussions about the company policy that only allows one African-American waitress per shift. Mostly is about the working class life that the girls lead. Usually in films, i.e., those written by men, women like these are not given the time and detail. In this case, Buljaski gives them their due.

And Yet Another Color.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018. Screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan. 120 minutes).

Crazy Rich Asians, with its all-Asian cast, is a monster hit and justifiably so. I have not read Kwan’s novel, but the script is a terrific piece of work.

Chiarelli and Lim have kept a lot of the characters from the novel, although they may have been tempted/pushed to cut back the characters. The advantage of having so many characters is that with these people, there are so many different characters. Usually in American films and television, the Asian characters are supporting roles who spend a lot of time providing exposition so the stars do not have to learn all those lines. Here the writers have made each of the many characters distinctive, which makes the film rich in detail about the people in it, and even more, rich about the Chinese cultures, both in American and Singapore. And the characters and the culture are the source of great humor.

Rachel Chu is our female lead, and she is Chinese-American who has earned her doctorate and teaches at a university. She is played by Constance Wu, whom some of you will be familiar with as the mother in the TV series Fresh Off the Boat. I could never get into that show because the mom is such a prig, but Rachel gives Wu a chance to show off her charm, which is considerable and essential to the film.

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Her boyfriend, Nick Young, is played by Henry Golding, who is incredibly handsome and has a marvelous voice. He’s not yet that good an actor, but when you are looking at him, who cares. Nick decides to take Rachel to Singapore for his cousin’s wedding and to meet his family. Alas, Nick, who is not the sharpest pen on the desk, has not bothered to tell Rachel his family is rich. Very rich. Very, very…well, you get the point.

Fortunately the script does not leave it at that. Rachel is a very American girl and determined to follow her own “passion.” Nick’s mother, Eleanor, is very old-school Chinese and is more devoted to family than chasing individual dreams. This becomes the dramatic focus of the piece. Eleanor is played by the great Chinese actress, Michelle Yeoh, at the top of her form. The Rachel-Eleanor scenes are great, especially their final face-off over a Chinese game (and no, I don’t know what the game is…and I don’t care, since I was busy watching Wu and Yeoh duel both as characters and actors).

You have probably seen many of the cast in smaller roles in film and television, but one of the delights of the film is seeing so many of them having great material to play in really good roles.

More please.

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