UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Movie Theatres Return!

Tom has some movies from streaming services ('The Half of It', 'The Trial of the Chicago 7') and some from, yes, actual movie theatres ('News of the World', 'The Courier').
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Not Exactly a Love Story.

The Half of It (2020. Written by Alice Wu. 105 minutes)

The Half of It, Netflix

The Half of It, Netflix

I usually start each column with a well-known film. I am starting today with a small film you probably have not seen, and most likely never heard of. It is an absolute gem of a film, and I can’t recommend it enough. It is streaming on Netflix.

And even if you don’t fall in love with it like I did, you will, if you pay attention, learn a lot about screenwriting.

This is Alice Wu’s only second film in 16 years (she directs as well as writes). Her first was 2004’s delightful Saving Face. You can read my take on the film in my 2008 book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-Quite0-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays. The item is in the Short Takes on Good Films chapter.

A log line for Half might be “a modern version of Cyrano de Bergerac,” the 1897 play by Edmund Rostand. In the play Cyrano, who is disfigured by a large nose, writes love letters for his friend Christian to Christian’s love Roxanne, since Christian is a dolt. Cyrano is also in love with Roxanne, and his letters enchant her. It is not until Cyrano is dying that Roxanne realizes it was he who wrote the letters. Assuming the actors are doing their job, their final scene does not leave a dry eye in the theatre.

Here is Wu’s version. We are in a high school in Suquamish, Washington, and high school senior Ellie Chu makes side money writing papers for other students.

Paul, a football player who knows he cannot write, asks Ellie to write a letter to Aster, the girl he thinks he loves. Ellie says no until she needs money to pay her electric power bill, then does. Notice how quickly Wu sets that up; you don’t need to take forever to get your exposition in.

Here is where Wu begins to differ from Rostand. Before Paul even asks Ellie, we see that Ellie is interested in Aster. One letter leads to another. Pretty soon the teacher who knows and approves of Ellie writing other students’ papers (because it means she has more interesting papers to grade) is bothered that Ellie is not doing the other students papers, which means the teacher has to read them.

The movie opens with a quote about love from Plato’s Symposium and we get quotes from Sartre and Wim Wenders as well. Aster recognizes the quote from Wings of Desire (1987) and that ups Ellie’s game. We think we know where this is going, but Wu has told us early on in one of Ellie’s monologues that this movie is not a love story where everybody ends up with the one they love. I would not recommend telling the audience that for most screenwriters, but it lets Wu give us a lot of shifts and twists.

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Her twists are more character turns that plot turns, but they help drive the plot lines forward. There is one plot line that we think we know where it’s headed, but then it’s not headed there. Then, when you are sure it’s not, it’s headed there again. But it does not end up where you think. That kind of character writing makes the plot turns more believable, unlike those plot turns somebody has told you have to come at page 26 or whatever. And Wu’s approach keeps the film moving at a good clip, which keeps us involved trying to keep up.

All of that comes from Wu’s understanding of her characters and the multiple motivations that drive them. We know very little about Aster in the beginning of the film, but Wu lets us learn more about her while she is dealing with Paul and Ellie. One question viewers of Cyrano sometimes have about Roxanne is: if she is such an intellectual, why doesn’t she realize Cyrano is writing the letters? Look at how Wu writes and directs Aster (Alexxis Lemire) to deal with that issue.

The main character of course is Ellie, and Wu makes her as well-rounded as any character you can think of in the movies. She is smart, but because she lives in a mostly white community, she feels very much an outsider, at least until a school talent show that goes wrong and then goes right for her late in the picture. And then goes wrong. She is observant about the world around her, which gives Wu and Leah Lewis, the actress playing her, the opportunities for many reaction shots as well as her observations in her voiceovers. Wu and Lewis balance off the visual and the verbal beautifully. This is a great example of a writer-director and actor perfectly in synch.

Close to the end, we get a good multi-character scene in the church where Aster’s father preaches and Ellie plays the organ. Also involved are a senile priest, the real jock who assumes Aster will accept his public proposal in church, the teacher, Paul, and Ellie. Multi-character scenes are very difficult to pull off, and Wu does it here almost as well as the final scene in Tangerine (2015); you can read what I said about that movie and multi-character scenes here.

But don’t get up to leave yet. Wu has two more events that make for beautiful ending scenes.

Let’s hope it does not take Alice Wu sixteen more years to make another film.

Why Are We Watching This Movie Now?

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020. Written by Aaron Sorkin. 129 minutes)

The Trial of the Chicago 7, Netflix

The Trial of the Chicago 7, Netflix

The movie is about the trial of several young demonstrators charged with causing the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The trial was the following year, which makes it over fifty years ago. Granted, the trial was a hugely entertaining event, but why make a film about it now? What relevance does it have for us now?

Mark Platt, one of the producers, was interviewed in the Los Angeles Times and stated that he thought it was very much for our time. But that’s producer talking during awards seasons. The political situation was very different then than now. Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run for re-election as president because of the controversy over his handling of the Viet Nam war. Johnson’s vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, got the nomination, but the extreme anti-war folks in the Democratic Party objected to him and did not work for him. So we ended up with Richard Nixon as president. Johnson had refused to bring a federal case against the agitators, but Nixon and his attorney general, John Mitchell, were determined to see them convicted.

What’s different now? The duly elected president is a Democrat, and the riots we are now concerned about came not from the left, but from the right in the storming of the Capitol. The Chicago demonstrations were simply a protest, and the violence came from the police. The violence this year came from the protestors, who were serious about taking over the government.

Now there is no way Sorkin could have known that was going to happen, but it makes the film out of tune with the times. The judge in the Chicago trial has a scene where he castigates the demonstrators, and it sounds very much like what the liberals are saying today about the Capitol rioters. The scene takes you out of the picture and not in a good way.

Aaron Sorkin started his career writing stage plays. His first big stage hit was turned into the movie A Few Good Men (1992). Like that film, Chicago 7 is a courtroom drama, but Sorkin has improved his craft since Good Men. The earlier film is a very conventional courtroom piece about a relatively simple case. Chicago 7 is a complex case with all kinds of political overtones, and a great gallery of characters. All those years of creating and writing television’s The West Wing (1999-2006) has given him the experience to bring off something on the scale of Chicago 7.

The upside of the film is the writing and acting of the characters. Sorkin keeps a great balance between the political talk and the character talk, and he gives the actors a lot to do. As I have said on many occasions, if you write good parts you get good actors. One of the standouts is the character of Abbie Hoffman, the clown prince of the defendants. Sorking writes him much more subtly than another writer might, and Sacha Baron Cohen finds the right rhythm and tone without going over the top the way the real Hoffman appeared to at the time. In a similar vein Frank Langella makes Judge Julius Hoffman much less of a buffoon than he was in real life, which may cut down on the laughs but gives the film an interesting tension that it might not otherwise have. Eddie Redmayne underplays Tom Hayden, which makes his scenes at the end of the movie all the more dramatic. You can see for yourself what Sorkin, who also directed, has done with the other roles.

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The characters, the acting, and the basic story may carry you through the film. It has for a lot of viewers. In my case, it may just be that I followed the case at the time and the film only had a few surprises for me. For those of you who are younger, the revelations may be enough.

Movie Theatres are Open! Well, Some of Them.

News of the World (2020. Screenplay by Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies, based on the novel by Paulette Jiles. 118 minutes)

News of the World, Universal Pictures

News of the World, Universal Pictures

In Los Angeles a few of the indoor movie theatres opened in mid-March. There were of course restrictions: limits to the number of people in the audience, social distance spacing between unrelated audience members, and hand sanitizers everywhere. Well, it’s a start. For some people the smell of theatre popcorn sent them into swoons of delight.

I decided that News of the World would be a good film to see in a theatre, since it is a western set in Texas. Surely the big theatre screen would do the scenery justice.

Well, it didn’t. Paul Greengrass, a terrific director (Captain Phillips [2013], Jason Bourne [2013], is British, and he seems to have very little sense of the landscapes of the American West. In doing a western he is going up against John Ford, Henry King, Budd Boetticher, and Clint Eastwood to name only a few. Aside from a few good aerial shots, there is nothing visually that demands a really big screen.

But even that would not have helped, given that the writers have written a mediocre script. Some of that starts with the novel. It was a finalist in the National Book Awards, but if you read the readers’ reviews on Amazon here, you will find that a lot of readers did not care for it, and for some of the reasons the script does not work. The characterizations are very flat and conventional, and in the film we never get inside the characters.

Captain Jefferson Kyd is a Civil War veteran from the South who tours Texas reading items from newspapers to groups of folks who are illiterate. I assume that the detail of his having to bend over to read the items through his pince nez glasses comes from the novel, but the more he does it on screen the sillier it looks. Kyd gets talked into taking a ten-year-old girl named Johanna to her nearest relatives. Johanna’s white, German family was killed when she was six and she has been living with the Kiowa tribe since. She speaks Kiowa and slowly recalls a bit of German, but speaks no English.

Her lack of English can work fine in a novel, but it severely limits the connection she may develop with Kyd in the film. Greengrass and Davies have not written actions that will show the relationship of the two, compared to how Alice Wu in Half does. In the final scene we see a happy Johanna gleefully providing sound effects for Kyd’s reading, but we have had no scenes showing how Johanna came to that cheerfulness. There is no character development here.

The film is trek story, but it suffers in comparison to the classic western trek stories. The characters that Kyd and Johanna meet are standard issue western bad guys and noble Indians. Compare that to the gallery of oddballs Josey Wales meets in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).

In the novel Kyd is 70 years old. Tom Hanks, who plays him, is 64, but like most actors he looks ten years younger than he is. And, typical Tom Hanks, he is the sweetest person on earth. The part really calls for one of those great western character actors like Walter Brennan, Warren Oates, Strother Martin, or on a star level, John Wayne in his Rooster Cogburn days.

No Big Scenery, But a Better Script.

The Courier (2020. Written by Tom O’Connor. 112 minutes)

The Courier, Lionsgate

The Courier, Lionsgate

This one I saw the same day I saw News. It is not essential to see it on the big screen, since it is mostly interiors. Although you can appreciate the performances more, I suppose.

The script is based on the true story of Greville Wynne, a British businessman, who was recruited in the early sixties by MI-6 and the CIA to deal with a high-ranking Soviet official who is willing to provide information about the Russian nuclear program. If that sounds like something out of John Le Carré, I have a suspicion, unproven, that Wynne’s experience may have been the inspiration for Le Carré’s 1989 novel The Russia House, which was made into the 1990 film. Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay for The Russia House and Tom O’Connor’s script here is not quite up to Stoppard’s. But then whose is?

O’Connor is very good at getting into the characters, especially Penkovsky, the Russian, brilliantly played by Merab Ninidze. The CIA agent involved, Emily, is the smartest person in the room, and Rachel Brosnahan brings a little of her Mrs. Maizel pizzazz to the part. Listen particularly to how she tells her CIA boss how she deals with the twits at MI6. That’s how you make a character interesting.

The star part of course is Wynne and it is a great role for Benedict Cumberbatch. At the end of the film, there is brief newsreel of the real Wynne after his release from the Soviet prison. My usual reaction to that is the real person is more interesting than the actor. Not true here. Watching the real Wynne, you can see how brilliantly O’Connor writes him and Cumberbatch plays him.


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