UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: LEFTOVERS
By Tom Stempel • September 13, 2021
Tom catches up on some films that have been around for a while, such as 'Shiva Baby', 'Kajillionaire', 'First Cow', 'Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard', 'Soul', as well as one newbie, 'The White Lotus'.
The Pick of the Litter.
When I was growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, in the forties and fifties, seeing movies was a hit and miss affair. Movies played the big cities first and came to Bloomington months later. The A pictures played the two local first run theatres from Saturday to Tuesday, and the B pictures that played the second half of the double features in the big cities played Wednesday through Friday. Not surprisingly some of the Wednesday-Friday movies were better than the bigger ones. Touch of Evil (1958) and Ride the High Country (1962), to name two. And then they were gone. For what looked like forever.
All that has changed in 2021, and not just because I live in Los Angeles. Most new films play for several weeks. And there are other places to see films: television and cable systems, DVD purchase and rental companies, and streaming services.
I missed Shiva Baby when it played briefly in a theatre in the early days of the re-opening. I read some reviews, but it was not high on my watch list. You may not have heard about it all.
Then I read an article and interview with writer-director Emma Seligman in the Summer issue of Sight & Sound and it went to the top of my list. I found it on HBO (the regular, not the extra crispy HBO+) and watched it. By now you know one of the joys I take in doing this column is pointing out well written screenplays you might not know for you to study. Shiva Baby fits that bill.
Seligman takes a simple situation and develops the hell out of it. Danielle is a twenty-ish Jewish woman whom we first see after a romantic meeting with Max, a guy in his thirties or forties. He gives her money, but it does not seem like a standard hooker-john relationship. Seligman in the S&S interview makes it a little clearer than she does in the movie that the Danielle-Max relationship is something a number of young Jewish women are involved in. He is her sugar daddy, to use the old 1920s expression.
Then Danielle goes off to a shiva (a mourning ceremony in the Jewish tradition). She does not want to go, but her parents have pushed her into it. She does not know who died. What could go wrong?
A lot. First there is Maya, her ex-high school girlfriend who is leading the life Danielle’s parents want her to lead. Nothing like that to make her feel like an underachiever. Danielle keeps try to avoid Maya, who seems to want to re-connect with Danielle. So Danielle is moving around the small house trying to avoid her. Seligman brilliantly stages all the action in limited space, getting her characters to collide with each other.
So guess who shows up next? Right, Max. Awkward. And guess who else shows up? Max’s wife Kim. Did Danielle know he was married? She did not. And who has Kim brought with her? Their baby. Who spends most of the movie crying, provoking a running gag about who brings a baby to a shiva.
And nobody can leave the house. Except for Danielle and Maya, who sneak a kiss outside. Oh, you were not listening to Seligman’s subtle dialogue that suggests their earlier relationship. Now that I have told you, you will listen for it.
Seligman not only choreographs the action, she has written a wonderful gallery of characters, and as usual, if you write great characters, you get great actors. Seligman’s choice for Danielle is Rachel Sennott, who is a comedian in real life, but who catches all the nuances of this woman in this situation. Her parents are Polly Draper and Fred Malamed in what are probably their career-best performances.
At one point Danielle loses her cell phone. As you watch the movie, try to figure who are the best characters to find it, and what do they do with it. Selgiman’s choices, especially her last one, are great screenwriting.
Oh, yeah, Emma Seligman is 26, one year older than Orson Welles when he made you know what.
You Write Good Parts…
This is another I missed when it first showed up on a streaming service, and which I recently picked up on HBO.
Robert and Theresa are middle-aged scammers (no, not the kind who you call on the phone and tell you and your Social Security number has been deactivated). These two are rather low rent, as in stealing stuff out of post office boxes. They are played by Richard Jenkins, having the time of his life, and a more restrained than she should be Debra Winger.
Their twenty-something daughter is Old Dolio (listen for the explanation of that name) played by Evan Rachel Wood, who you may remember from Once and Again (1999-2002), Thirteen (2003), and more recently, Westworld (2016-2020). Old Dolio is maybe the most difficult part she has ever played. She is emotionally restrained, almost but not quite totally inexpressive. Her parents have brought her up to be a scammer, which means not being emotionally open to anybody unless there is some profit in it.
The first half an hour of the film follows the three of them as they run their scams. Just when you think you are going to die from the monotony of it, good actors and all, July introduces a new character, Melanie. She’s a young woman they meet on a plane during a luggage scam. Melanie is much more emotionally expressive than Old Dolio. She lets herself get talked into working scams with the family. Old Dolio is baffled why her parents are paying more attention to Melanie as they are to her. July does not give Wood a lot of lines, but she gives her a lot of reactions to what is going on.
Melanie is played by Gina Rodriquez, who showed a nice acting range as Jane the Virgin (2014-2019). She did, but nothing compared to what she does here. About an hour into the film, Old Dolio and Melanie split from the parents for reasons I will let you find out yourselves. The parents disappear from the movie for about half an hour; a tricky thing to do with two stars. But the script now focuses on how Melanie is going to turn Old Dolio into a person. And we are so involved with Wood and Rodriquez we will follow them anywhere.
The parents show up again, but then July shoots herself in the foot. The last two scenes go for an obvious closure that demolishes all the rich nuances that have gone before. Watch the movie for what is good and figure out how you could close the picture better.
You know I love westerns, but you may remember I did not like Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010), which I reviewed here. But I had been watching some westerns with really great cattle scenes, including stampedes, for the last couple of months, so I figured I would give Reichardt a chance.
This one is as slow as Meek’s Cutoff, if not slower. Two guys meet up in a scruffy village in the Northwest. One of them is a baker, and when the important landowner imports a cow, they steal milk from the cow and the baker makes biscuits, which they sell. That takes up almost an hour and a half. And then---
I had recorded this on my DVR and as occasionally happens, there was a power outage in the middle of the night, and the rest of the movie was not recorded.
I was not that involved in it, but I wanted to see if Reichardt could come up with an actual ending, unlike in Meek’s Cutoff. Since we are now in 2021, I was able to find it on a Netflix DVD. So what happens next is:
Not much. The landowner’s guards find them at the cow. The chase that follows is one of the worst directed chases ever filmed. The two separate, find each other and take a nap in the woods. Fade out. The cow does not even get a one-cow stampede.
Shall we set up a go-fund me account to buy Reichardt some endings?
The same afternoon I saw F9 I also saw Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard and it suffers greatly in comparison. I saw The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017), but did not feel inclined to write about it. It was noisy, brainless fun, with some good chases in the canals of Amsterdam, but that was it. It was successful enough to warrant a sequel, which is not even as good as the original.
Ryan Reynolds is Bryce, the bodyguard, who has been drummed out of the union. His shrink tells him to avoid any bodyguard activity. So he is resting on a beach when he gets involved. The rest of the film Reynolds is limited to a single reaction: “I’m not supposed to be doing this.”
The hitman he was guarding in the first one, Darius, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is back, but we get more of his wife, played by Salma Hayek. The writers’ idea for her is to assume that since she is married to somebody played by Samuel L. Jackson, she should swear like he does in all of his movies. Bad idea. The vulgar language gets obnoxious very quickly.
The other problem is that the stunt work is so bad in comparison with F9 that it drags the whole movie down.
The Best Pixar Film in…Decades?
One question I always think of about animated films is: why is this an animated film? Would it be better live-action? I was wondering about this film for the first eight or nine minutes. Joe is a middle school band teacher whose students mostly play badly (listen for a great musical gag under the Disney logo). He is a jazz pianist who gigs around town and suddenly gets offered a big break. He gets the job, then falls into a sewer. He ends up in a place halfway between Earth and Heaven. Well, there have been live-action movies that do that. But here is where the animation makes the film. And not just any animation, but Pixar animation.
I have not been that fond of the Pixar films for the last decade or so, but the GAPS (the Geniuses at Pixar, for you latecomers) are back at the top of their game. They have written a brilliant script that takes advantage of everything that animation can do. Joe finds himself being stuck mentoring 22, an unborn soul (how do you draw an unborn soul?) who has defeated other mentors. They go back to Earth, but 22 ends up in Joe’s body (great slapstick as she tries to walk), and he ends up in… a cat’s body. The writers have thought through what that means for both of them.
Part of the reason Joe and 22 have gone to Earth is so Joe can make his gig. Yes, his body has enough muscle memory so that 22 can make beautiful jazz music. So the gig should be the big finish of the film, right? No, it goes on for another twenty minutes, usually a bad sign, but not here, since the writers have other issues they have brought up and pay off in a variety of interesting ways.
Jazz? Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you that Joe is Black, as are most of the human characters of the film. Kemp Powers you may remember as the author of the play and screenplay of One Night in Miami, and he and the others show you the Black community in great loving detail. Yes, there is a scene in a barbershop, but there is not a clichéd moment in it.
Not only is the character animation great, but the photorealist backgrounds are dazzling. You ought to see it on a big screen in a theatre.
But you can’t. Disney decided to show it only on Disney+, a great disservice to the film and the talent that made it. (It is available on DVD now, which is how I finally saw it.) Disney, like a number of companies starting or connecting with streaming services, is focused on promoting those services. Disney and the others are not releasing the financial figures on their streaming releases. IMDb says that the film has grossed $119,273,208 overseas. If you believe that for more than a second, I have some nice ocean-front property in Las Vegas I’d like to sell you. On one of their best films in years, Disney left a LOT of money on the table.
This limited series was one of the critical hits of the summer, and understandably so. Ten years ago White wrote a great little series for HBO called Enlightened, which I reviewed here. When the pandemic hit, production schedules were all screwed up. HBO asked White if he could come up with something they could shoot quickly during the pandemic. So in a couple of months, he came up with the six one-hour scripts for The White Lotus. He talked the Four Seasons Resort in Maui, Hawaii, to let them shoot there while the resort was closed.
Ah, you write good parts, etc. White, who also directed, was able to gather a great cast, who are all at the top of their form, which is the main reason to keep watching.
White is a master of scenes of people being uncomfortable in awkward situations. The problem is that nearly all of the almost six hours are scenes of people being uncomfortable. It is a very monotonous show, and only the actors make you keep watching.
The rumor is that HBO has asked for a second season. I am not sure that will work, unless White can figure out how to write a greater variety of scenes.