Friday, February 28, 2014

Writing: Adapted and Original Screenplay

Taking a step away from the best films in their genres for a moment, I'll take a look at screenplays. The delay is largely due to Before Midnight which presented a couple of logistical issues. The first being that it was the third film in a trilogy of which I'd not been exposed as of yet. The second being that I had roped someone into watching them with me, so scheduling was a bit trickier. We finished just in time, though, so let's take a look at the screenplay nominees.

Adapted Screenplay:
  • Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke for Before Midnight
  • Billy Ray for Captain Phillips
  • Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Philomena
  • John Ridley for 12 Years a Slave
  • Terence Winter for The Wolf of Wall Street
I had intended to watch Before Sunrise and it's sequels some time ago, and the Oscars were kind enough to force my hand. The films are striking on their own, but having watched them all in just over a month was a treat in consistency of filmmaking and character. Curling up to all three with someone for whom I care deeply certainly didn't hurt either. Hawke and Delpy got credit for the middle film Before Sunset and hadn't agreed to this film until some time after they and Linklater had all become parents having wanted to authentically portray that in their characters. Those characters Jesse and Celine spent the first film falling in love, the second wondering what could be, and in this one finally discover that their true love is just as dangerous as all their past individual loves. The strength of these films (beyond the long unedited takes) has always been the dialogue, and I'm glad they're finally getting some recognition. Watching Jesse and Celine move out of the euphoria of their first date and their first day rediscovering each other and into the grind of a nine year old relationship is heartbreaking as it shatters their fairytale. In the first two films their lives were only ever really complete and happy in those two days they had together. Now that they've realized that option, they've inevitably found every way to sabotage their relationship. Like the films before it, Before Midnight is essentially all dialogue. Here, the dialogue is emotionally all over the spectrum as it should be in the scenario put forth. The cutting remarks are truthful and painful, and the shared jokes are touching. I'm still trying to understand the ending. That's my only critique, and it might well be invalid.

I know I've ragged on Captain Phillips over and over again, and that probably belies my feelings about the script. The story of the film is in pretty stark contrast to the actual Captain Phillips. The film only begins to raise questions without ever answering them. The depth of the characters is never really explored. The real protagonists here might not even be characters so much as the NAVY or the unseen insurance and shipping companies with Phillips being nothing more than their visible, on-screen tool. The editing crews did a magnificent job of taking a troubling script and making an almost respectable film. That script, though, is something I can't get behind.

Philomena is a film that could have easily been unengaging or spiraled off on a number of different tangents. It cleverly addresses a lot of themes without ever getting lost in them. Philomena is as charmingly simple and personable as Martin Sixsmith is focused and impersonable. It's a screenplay that takes a dreary subject and people that could have easily been particularly uninteresting, and crafts an engaging tale out of them.

I'll never say that someone who got their start on Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air isn't a phenomenal scriptwriter, because they obviously have some solid credits under their belt. It's clear, though that John Ridley's work has gone downhill progressing to Undercover Brother and more recently The Wanda Sykes Show. In all seriousness, I was blown away by the fact that someone with a resume as unremarkable as Ridley's had delivered something like 12 Years a Slave. So I dipped into reading the book earlier than expected and it's immediately clear Northup's taste for description. The sections I've gotten to read have dialogue and exquisitely described settings that are held faithful to in the film. Now, wouldn't I be griping if the film differed wildly from the book? Yes, of course I would. Some books are harder to adapt, certainly, but some lend themselves well to film, and this is definitely in the latter group.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a film full of quippy and - I hesitate to use this word - smart dialogue. This is despite painfully uninspired wordplay that rears from time to time, but there are a number of well-crafted monologues that are absolutely crucial to selling the character of Jordan Belfort and thus the film. Beyond that, though, it's a testosterone fueled romp featuring ableism, misogyny, and classism. To the end, the corruption is never vilified and guilt never felt. The script is reckless and unredeeming.

If The Wolf of Wall Street had finished differently, if it had carried some sort of morality, I might have been able to like it despite its flaws. If it hadn't been a classist tapdance on the heads of any underprivileged class the writers could get their hands on, I might have found value in it. If Captain Phillips either ignored or explored the question of Somali piracy, it might have been something far more valuable than the source material. Instead whole groups of people are dehumanized, and, in turn, the rest of the films are hard to relate to. Not that a film has to focus on a disenfranchised group, but to not devalue them further is important both socially and artistically. Furthermore, neither of those films really made me feel anything other than regret for watching them. Philomena and 12 Years a Slave both work the angle of rehumanizing those against whom injustices have been borne and carry intense emotional scenes. Both were solid with 12 Years a Slave perhaps having richer, more focused source material. Before Midnight is a film carried nearly entirely on dialogue. The scene creation and the artful play throughout is truly impactful, and the characters are brought to life in a depressingly authentic way. It's clearly my favorite of the bunch. I think it stands a chance as the trio were nominated for Before Sunset and they could well be awarded for the cumulative achievement of the series. My guess is as bad as anyone's for who will win, though. 

Original Screenplay:
  • Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for American Hustle
  • Woody Allen for Blue Jasmine
  • Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack for Dallas Buyers Club
  • Spike Jonze for Her
  • Bob Nelson for Nebraska
I know I'm in the minority opinion on this, but American Hustle, in contrast to, say, Philomena was unfocused and messy. My love for Rosalyn Rosenfeld is because of Jennifer Lawrence, not the screenplay. I can't quite put words to it, but the whole theme of the film feels played out, and a lot of that starts with the screenplay. There were rich bits here and there, and parts of the production design were strong. I never saw it congeal, though, and as such, I never saw the characters have the real tension and interplay I wanted and needed from them.

Blue Jasmine on the other hand had its eccentricities of character, but they all felt realistic in their own odd ways. Jasmine and Ginger were so very different in their breaks, but their on screen interactions were quirkily genuine. Their characters could have easily fallen apart at any point, but the contexts of scene and supporting characters emboldened strong performances by the actresses. I'm much more middling on Woody Allen's artistic ability than most, but, as he does every year, he churned another film out. This time it's pretty notable.

Oh, Dallas Buyers Club, I thought I might really like you. Underserved populations bucking the system, taking advantage of their circumstance, and making something grand is a fancy-tickling concepts for me, but we have a Rayon problem. I've gone on at length about the problems of her character, and that's a pitfall so massive I've lost sight of the rest of the film. That's all rooted in the screenplay, and it renders a vast majority of the film and its interactions in an unwatchable state.

Much has been made about Her giving us a form of "womanhood unencumbered by the female form" in which  it "fails to present us with a single convincing female character—one whose subjectivity and sexuality exist independent of the film’s male protagonist," though both more and less than I might have expected. As someone who is burdened with lack of representation on screen (see Dallas Buyers Club), I understand the pain of lacking women on film. The thing here is that the male protagonist essentially doesn't exist without Samantha, his computer love, either. Yes, the women exist secondarily to his character and his story, and that's unfortunate, but Samantha is a much bigger and stronger character than people make her to be. She's instantly discredited as not being a woman because her body is neither analog nor analogous to the bodies we typically understand. She's intelligent, though - more intelligent even -, and she's conscious. The screenplay deals deftly with the body dysphoria she has as well as the othering she suffers on screen if not the othering she suffers at the hands of humans off screen. It's almost like we as a society haven't gotten to a point where we can accept women regardless of what their bodies may or may not be. The concept is emotionally and relationally complex, and Jonze handled both it and his female lead amazingly well right up to Samantha's final scene.

Lastly we have Nebraska which so charmingly captures middle america. The settings are as much or more of a character than any of the actors, and they're as honest as can be. The characters waver in their charm from Woody Grant's sweet-as-sugar ex-girlfriend Peg Nagy down to the self-serving and cruel Ed Pigram and Kate Grant. Regardless of how likeable they all are, they all function very well in context of each other with the seeming exception of Kate. She, though, provides the relief and energy the movie needs to keep moving and keep the viewers engaged. There's a lot right about Nebraska, and it's clear the screenplay was a real empowerment to its success.

There are a couple really strong contenders, and I'm pretty sure American Hustle will build it's collection of statuettes here. It has a certain vision and charm that ensnares a lot of people. It just doesn't do it for me, though. I won't lie; I'm biased toward exactly the sort of science fiction that Her is - subdued and philosophical. The cast is small and intimate, the setting is unique but not flashy, the concept unique and exploratory, the dialogue charming and witty. I love this film and it starts here.

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