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UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: The Return of People, Jets, and Dinos We Loved. Sort of.

Tom Stempel is dealing with the curse of contemporary films, sequelitis, including 'Downton Abbey: A New Era,' 'Top Gun: Maverick,' and 'Jurassic World Dominion.'

“What?”

Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022. Screenplay by Julian Fellowes. 124 minutes)

[L-R] Hugh Dancy stars as Jack Barber, Kevin Doyle as Mr. Molesley, Alex MacQueen as Mr. Stubbins and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a Focus Features release.Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features LLC.

[L-R] Hugh Dancy stars as Jack Barber, Kevin Doyle as Mr. Molesley, Alex MacQueen as Mr. Stubbins and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features LLC.

In my review of the first Downton Abbey feature film in 2019, I made a big point about one line of dialogue. We have followed a letter on its trip to Downton Abbey and to Robert, Lord Grantham, who tells his daughter Lady Mary that it says the King and Queen are coming to visit. Mary’s response is “What?” I wrote that this was a terrific line of dialogue because a) it was great punchline to the opening sequence, and b) it was beautifully delivered by Michelle Dockery.

In the new film, early on we have a scene where the Dowager Countess tells Robert, his wife Cora, and Mary that she has been left a villa in the south of France. Mary is given the same response, “What?,” but it does not have quite the same impact as before. It does not provide the final punch to a scene, and Dockery does not push it as hard. That’s the sort of thing that happens a lot in sequels.

In the first film, Fellowes divided the film into two halves. In the first half, we spend more time with the upstairs people preparing for the King and Queen’s visit, while in the second half we see the downstairs people dealing with the Royal staff invading their territory.

In this film, Fellowes is telling two stories, but intercutting them. The Dowager Countess’s villa is one story. Everybody, including her, are baffled why a Frenchman has left her a villa. So Robert, Cora, and Carson (there is a lot of tap dancing by Fellowes to get Carson on the trip) go off to visit the current owner of the villa, Montmirail, and his mother Mme de Montmirail. Montmirail is very open and welcoming to the Crawleys, his mother is not. She does not want to give up the villa (although it is not the only house she owns) because she is still irritated at her late husband for giving the villa to the Countess.

The Countess does admit that she knew the woman’s husband sixty years ago, but insists they were not lovers. But people begin to do the math and realize Robert was born nine months after the Countess and the husband spent the week together.

There are not a lot of great scenes in the first three-quarters of the film. Fellowes is rushing through the plotting and not given his characters their moments, which he is normally very good at. The first good scene is Robert dealing with the possibility he might actually be part…eww…French. It is one of Hugh Bonneville’s better scenes in the series and films. Don’t worry Francophobes, Robert is thoroughly British, although he’s had a good scare. Montmirail convinces his mother that she has more than enough houses and the Crawleys now have a villa in the south of France.

Meanwhile, back at the Abbey (I cannot tell you how long I have been waiting to use that line), the roof is leaking like a sieve and Mary has decided to let a film crew come and make a film at the Abbey, which will pay for the roof repairs. Yes, there will be actual movie stars there and Daisy the maid is dying to see Guy Dexter. Unfortunately, Guy’s interests go in another direction and one of the staff we never thought would see a happy ending appears to be about to have one in Hollywood with Guy.

It is 1928 and of course, it is a silent film, which does not mean that Mr. Molesley the Abbey klutz will not stumble into a shot or two. Except that it is 1928 and the producers decide to shut down the production because talkies have come in. At Mary’s suggestion, the company decides to make it as a talkie. So what we are then getting are a lot of scenes and twists that you will be familiar with from Singin’ in the Rain (1952). That may not bother you, but since I have been reading up on Singin’ those scenes were very much déjà vu. Yes, the leading lady has a voice like a crowbar, but since Debbie Reynolds is not around to loop her, Mary gets the job. And Molesley turns out to be a screenwriter, coming up with scenes and dialogue that are going to get him a job in Hollywood.

I was impressed with the historical accuracy of filmmaking details. They even get one thing right that Singin, which is very accurate about the transition from silents to sound, got wrong. After the demonstration of the Vitagraph system at the producer’s party, Simpson, the studio head, says Warner Brothers was making an all-talking picture. The Jazz Singer (1927) was not an all-talking picture, but had a charming dialogue seen between Al Jolson and his mother that Jolson improvised. The director of the film at Downton takes Mary to see a silent film starring the actress in his current film. Mary says she thought The Jazz Singer was all-talking, and the director corrects her with the information above.

For most of the film, Fellowes does not really service his large cast as well as he did in the series or the first film. In the last twenty minutes, the scenes get better. The extras in the film have not been paid, so the house staff gets to dress up in fancy costumes and pretend to be the rich people. The Countess and her sparring partner Isobel have a nice scene where the Countess unravels the mystery for her.

Fellowes started the film with Tom Branson’s wedding (you may remember from the first film that he had fallen in love with a woman who can help the Crawleys keep Downton) and we get a dolly shot past everybody on Tom’s side of the church just to let you know that you will be seeing your old friends in the film. Not all of them are well serviced by Fellowes. So at another service at the end of the film, we get another dolly shot. I would have preferred scenes.

[The Exquisite Reality of Yesterday: A Chat with Julian Fellowes about 'Downton Abbey: A New Era']

I Did Not Like Top Gun (1986).

Top Gun: Maverick (2022. Screenplay by Ehren Kruger and Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks, based on characters created by Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr. 130 minutes)

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Credit: Scott Garfield. © 2019 Paramount Pictures Corporation.

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Credit: Scott Garfield. © 2019 Paramount Pictures Corporation.

I like Top Gun: Maverick better.

I like Top Gun: Maverick a whole lot better.

There was a basic shallowness about the first film. When I was in the Navy, I knew a few Naval Aviators, and to be fair, the film caught their testosterone-driven self-romanticism. What the film did not do was get underneath their attitudes. I was reminded of how well Jules Furthman’s screenplay for Only Angels Have Wings (1939) revealed the emotions underneath the bravado. Compare how the pilots in Angels react to the death of one of their colleagues when they have dinner with the reactions to Goose’s death in Gun.

I also found the gung-ho Cold War propaganda overbearing. I was teaching a course in American Film History at UCLA when Gun came out and was appalled at how the kids ate it up. If I would have had time, I would have run Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) to show them what those attitudes would lead to.

So, here we are 36 years later. In real life, the Navy would have eased Maverick out long ago, but this is a movie. Maverick was a hot shot pilot then and he still is. In a solid opening sequence, he pushes a plane beyond its limit and it crashes. None of this would surprise us. But Maverick survives and rather beaten up he wanders into a roadside diner in the woods. The customers just gape at him. He asks, “Where am I?” and a kid replies, “Earth.” The scene tells us that Maverick is not exactly in the world he’s always been in.

We learn that Iceman, now an admiral, has been looking out after Maverick for all these years, and it is Iceman who gets Maverick a new gig. He is to go back to the Top Gun school and train the best of the best Top Gun pilots for a special mission. We begin to see the mature Maverick. He was not at all mature in the first film, but he is here, and the writing, direction (by Joseph Kosinki), and acting get the most out of that, which is a large part of what makes the film so interesting. Fortunately, in this film, not only Tom Cruise the Movie Star but Tom Cruise the Actor show up. Cruise’s performance is often very nuanced in a way you do not generally see in Tom Cruise performances, especially the movie star ones.

And just to make it a little more interesting in showing us Maverick’s dealing with how his life is turning out, one of the kids in his class is Rooster, who is the son of Goose. Rooster, and sometimes Maverick himself, blames Maverick for Goose’s death. There is a certain amount of tension between Maverick and Goose, to put it politely.

After Goose died, Maverick made a deal with Goose’s widow that he would try to keep Rooster from flying. But Rooster is determined to fly because, well, he is Goose’s son. The scene where Goose’s widow gets Maverick to agree to her plan is a wonderful scene, but alas, we do not get to see it. For some reason, the filmmakers do not include it in the film. I have no idea why. We don’t get a scene with Meg Ryan, but we do get one with Val Kilmer as Iceman. It is a nice, moving scene, but I would have voted for Ryan.

Ryan, who played Goose’s widow, not in the new film, but I don’t think that is just misogyny on the part of the filmmakers. They do provide an interesting woman for Maverick to deal with. She is Penny (Jennifer Connelly), who runs the bar the pilots hang out at. She had a fling with Maverick once, but has no intention of having another. What makes her so interesting is that she is sharper and smarter than Maverick and always one or two jumps ahead of him. This gives Cruise yet another layer to play. (Needless to say, she can’t stay away from him. He is Tom Cruise, after all.)

Needless to say, we get a lot of training scenes, and I think the editing in this film is much better in the action scenes than it was in Gun. The mission always seems to be “three weeks away” until suddenly it has been moved up a week. The mission is a raid on an Iranian nuclear site in the middle of a group of mountains. You get your money’s worth.

And then the picture goes on another 20 minutes or so. Usually, I hate that, but they have set it up so that the action that comes after the raid has just as much meaning and emotional impact as what has come before.

Sometimes, as the Marx Brothers discovered, having a gang of writers on a film can work out well for you. That’s what happened here.

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The 147 Minute Runt of the Litter.

Jurassic World Dominion (2022. Screenplay by Emily Carmichael & Colin Trevorrow, story by Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow, based on characters created by Michael Crichton. 147 minutes)

[L-R] DeWanda Wise as Kayla Watts Laura Dern as Ellie Sattler in Jurassic World Dominion. Courtesy Universal Pictures.

[L-R] DeWanda Wise as Kayla Watts Laura Dern as Ellie Sattler in Jurassic World Dominion. Courtesy Universal Pictures.

When director Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly were brought on Jurassic World (2015), they hated the script they were given and rewrote it in three weeks. As you can tell from my review here, the results were a mess. Their script for the 2018 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was better, as you can tell from my review here. Alas…

The film begins with some of the clunkiest exposition you will ever see. At the end of Fallen Kingdom, the dinos have been let loose in the world. So here we get a lot of exposition of how that is working out. Not as bad as you might think, although there is so much information you may not be sure. This establishes that the film is going to be overloaded with, well, everything.

We are mainly following two sets of characters from different groups of Jurassic movies. From the World series, we have Claire Dearing, the former manager of Jurassic World; Bryce Dallas Howard does not appear to have to wear any high heels in this one. Also from the World film, we have raptor whisperer Owen Grady; Chris Pratt puts his hand up so many times you think one of the dinos is right in wanting to bite it off.

Owen and Claire are off living in the woods with Maisie, a teenage girl whose late mother had messed around with some DNA and made Maisie impervious to all illnesses (I think, but very often the explanations are technobabble of the worst sort). Maisie gets kidnapped and taken to…Malta? Why Malta? Because the dragon lady type who arranged the kidnapping lives there. But she is selling Maisie off to Biosyn, an evil company if ever there was one. It is based in the United States, so why drag Maisie overseas only to have her dragged back? The reason appears to be so we can have a big scene in which dinos chase people around Malta. It is not a bad chase, but like everything else in the film, it goes on way too long.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: French Lessons, A Trip Up the Nile, and a Book in English]

The second group of characters is Ellie Sattler, Alan Grant, and Ian Malcolm. You may remember them from the Jurassic Park movies. Now Ellie is on the track of genetically engineered locusts, which she thinks are being manufactured by Biosyn. So she wants to bring Alan, her old colleague, into the hunt. If you have seen all the Park movies, you know why this is a bit awkward. Alan and Ellie were a romantic couple in Jurassic Park, but she wanted kids and he didn’t. They did not get together, and neither one appeared in JPII. Alan shows up in JPIII, but he’s changed: he’s developed a sense of humor, which he did not have in the first one (my suspicion is that Sam Neill realized he had nothing to play in Jurassic Park and talked the writers of III into giving him a sense of humor). Just to make things interesting, Ellie has divorced Mark. The writers here do not do a lot with Alan and Ellie. When they get together at the end, the scene does not get even an “aww” from the audience.

The two sets of characters end up together at Biosyn, but the script does nothing with that. They are just four non-descript characters fighting the dinos.

And the dinos are pretty non-descript as well.


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