EASTERN PROMISES, BY STEVEN KNIGHT:
Much like 8MM, Eastern Promises is a script that I don’t really feel I can assign a numerical grade to. When you read it, you can tell that a lot of thought and effort went into it. At the same time, however, the screenplay’s highly unpleasant subject matter and downright bizarre sequences can be a bit off-putting. But, for those of you who are curious as to what its about, Eastern Promises tells the story of Ana, a British Midwife of Russian descent working at Trafalgar Hospital in London. On Christmas Day, a fourteen-year-old girl whose water has broken comes in, and Ana delivers her baby, only for the mother to die in the process. Though Ana never learns the girl’s name, she does find a diary, written entirely in Russian, as well as a card for the Trans-Siberian Restaurant, in the girl’s clothes, and takes both home with her. The next day, she visits the Trans-Siberian Restaurant and asks the owner, a seemingly-charming old man named Semyon, if he’d ever met the girl. Semyon says he never has, and Ana then says in passing, “Well, it’s all right. I’ll probably find out everything once I get her diary translated.” This throw-way comment of hers elicits a sharp reaction from Semyon, who says she ought to bring it by so that he can do the translating. Unnerved by this, Ana leaves the restaurant. When she gets home, her uncle, a man who constantly claims to have served in the KGB, holds up the diary in horror and exclaims, “Where did you get this?” See, it turns out that Semyon and his son, Kirili, are members of the Russian Mafia, and that the Trans-Siberian Restaurant is nothing more than a front for a human trafficking organization. The girl, it seems, was one of their under-aged prostitutes, and the baby she gave birth to was actually Semyon’s, who raped her as a means of “breaking her in.” All this is revealed in the diary, which Ana has in her possession, and which the mobsters are now coming after her for. At this point in the story, the focus shifts away from Ana and the baby to a man named Nikolai, who works as Kirili’s driver. Nikolai, as we later discover, is actually an undercover Russian police officer looking to bring Semyon down. However, we don’t learn that until the very end of the story, and for most of the script, he seems to be an ambitious new recruit hoping to join the ranks of the Vorv Zakone (Russian Mafia.). Anyway, he does his best to grow closer with Ana, and when he does so, he persuades her to give him the diary. When she does this, he uses it as evidence to get Semyon arrested, and then, much to my surprise, assumes Semyon’s position in the organization. They never really state if he’s taking on this position to bring down the mafia, or simply because he wants to. That was one of the weakest aspects of the script–the fact that the ending didn’t really make any sense. Another feature that didn’t make much sense was this whole subplot involving a Turkish Barber named Azim and his nephew Ekrem. The script begins with the two of them murdering a Russian mobster, and we later learn that they were given orders to do so by Kirili, Semyon’s son. And while the script does mention this sub-plot several times–with Ekrem even getting murdered, and with the cousins of the slain mobster even coming after Nikolai, whom they believe is Kirili–it doesn’t really add anything to the story, other than a couple of really bloody scenes. And, honestly, I don’t feel that those scenes were necessary. The main story of this script is Ana’s desire to find out what happened to the young girl, and her unintentionally getting pulled into the world of the Vorv Zakone. That story doesn’t require a sub-plot involving Kirili getting angry at another mobster and ordering two Turks to murder him. All I can think is that the screenwriter, Steven Knight, wanted to show how violent the world of organized crime is, but, honestly, I feel like most people knew that already. The violence he added just feels gratuitous, and it distracts the reader from the main story. By this rationale, I shouldn’t like Eastern Promises, and in many ways, I don’t. At the same time, however, when I read it, I could see the thought and effort that Knight put into creating his characters. Every single person has a name, a motivation, some quirks, and a backstory. For instance, we learn that Ana’s father was a drunk, that she had a miscarriage with her old boyfriend, that her family didn’t approve of this boyfriend because he was Black, and that she loves riding motorcycles. We also learn that Kirili is good friends with Nikolai, calling their duo “Thunder and Lightning,” that he is very close with his niece, and that he is impotent, which causes him to lash out at most people. We learn so much about each of these characters lives and likes, and all of their relationships seem so realistic, that you can’t help but feel attached to them. That’s why I hate the fact that this script doesn’t make any sense, and can’t keep its focus on one storyline. There’s so much potential here, and I feel like it was wasted on an under-developed story. Ah well. What can you do?
8MM, BY ANDREW KEVIN WALKER:
This script is absolutely disgusting. Seriously. I’ve never had a piece of literature make me feel sick to my stomach before, and 8 Millimeter actually managed to do that. Now, I know you may be thinking, “Wow! That was the shortest review ever written,” but just stay with me a little longer. I actually have a bit more to say about this late 90s mystery thriller. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker, the guy who brought us Seven, 8 Millimeter follows Carl Wells, a Private Investigator who’s hired to find out where a seeming snuff film that one of his client’s found in her late husband’s safe came from. And, well, it pretty much goes to places that most other movies wouldn’t dare to. It deals with pedophilia, incest, child prostitution, rape, and many, many more things I’d rather not mention here. And yet, as disgusting as it is, when you read the script, you can tell that a lot of thought and effort went into it. All the characters feel like people. They’ve each got hobbies, quirks, and backstories. We get several scenes of Wells interacting with his wife, arguing with her about his smoking, and even one of him playing in an amateur bowling league. Similarly, most of the side characters, such as a porn shop proprietor named Max, are given certain traits and interests that make them more than mere stock characters. And remember how I said that this script made me feel sick to my stomach? Well, in an odd way, that’s kind of a complement. It’s so easy to read something and just view it as words on a page. Very rarely is a piece of writing well-crafted enough to get an actual, physical reaction out of you. See, there are no pictures in this script. Everything is in the mind. That’s a testament to how powerful the writer’s words are, that they can get so much out of you while still just being words. There are also several scenes in here that I actually found to be quite thoughtful and interesting. At one point in the story, Wells tracks down a man named Machine, a masked sadists who rapes and murders little girls, and when he finally catches him and pulls off his mask, he finds a completely normal-looking man with spectacles. When Wells expresses shock at what he looks like, Machine smiles darkly and asks, “Well, what were you expecting to find? A monster?” This line in particular hit me, because it’s true. The most evil people in the world don’t look or sound any different than the rest of us. They’re just people. We all have the potential to be like them, and that, truly, is terrifying. So, to sum it all up, 8MM is a highly unpleasant, but nevertheless thoughtful and well-crafted piece of writing. I wouldn’t recommend it to most people, but I still have to give it props for its craftsmanship. I can’t give it a numerical grade, because of how mixed my feelings are, but hopefully this review can give you enough of an idea of it to make your own decisions.
CASABLANCA, BY PHILIP AND JULIUS EPSTEIN:
This is the greatest screenplay ever written. At least, that’s what Robert McKee, Charlie Kaufman, and the Writer’s Guild Of America think. But is this script really all it’s been built up to be? I’ll answer that in a word–no. No it isn’t. Mind you, it’s not a terrible screenplay, but it’s not all that good either. Like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, In The Heat Of The Night, and American Beauty, it’s a work that’s very much of the time period in which it was written, and that hasn’t aged well. On top of this, when you read it, you can tell that, like Argo, this was a movie that was really only successful because it portrayed America in a SUPER positive light. How, you ask? Well, let me explain. For those of you who don’t know, Casablanca is set during World War 2 in French North Africa, and is about refugees trying to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. The majority of the film’s action takes place inside a small saloon, owned by a mysterious, cynical, and alcoholic American named Rick. Though Rick claims to be neutral in all matters of politics, he allows people, like the hustler Ugarte, to sell exit visas in his bar, and doesn’t permit Germans to enter certain sections of his establishment. Also, it’s revealed through dialogue that he fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and against the Italians in Ethiopia. Anyway, one night, a famous Czech professor, Victor Laszlo, and his wife, Ilsa, enter the saloon, their intention being to purchase to exit visas, and Rick decides to help them out. The reason is that Rick and Ilsa used to be lovers, and he doesn’t want anything to happen to her. And, well, yeah. That’s pretty much it. He gets them the visas, sees them off, and that’s all she wrote. Don’t get me wrong, there are some witty, well-written moments in the script–like when Ugarte says to Rick, “You despise me, don’t you?” and Rick responds by saying, “If I gave you any thought, I probably would”–but the script itself is very old fashioned. What I mean by that is that the film is very White, very Male, and very American. It’s White because it’s set in an exotic location, and yet, all the characters are European and/or American, and all the dialogue is in English. Yeah, don’t let the title of the movie fool you. There’s not a single Moroccan in the entire picture. In fact, there’s only one non-white character in the whole movie–a Black pianist who works at Rick’s bar–and he, of course, is simply referred to by the condescending names ‘boy” and “Negro.” The movie’s Male because, well, there’s really only one female character in the entire film–Ilsa–and she’s so forgettable that you could just as easily have had the story without her. She’s literally just a plot device, something to motivate Rick to get involved, and nothing else. And finally, the movie’s American because the smartest, bravest, and most virtuous character in the whole film–Rick–is American. Everyone else is foreign, and an asshole. Seriously, this is one of the most xenophobic scripts I’ve ever read. All the non-American characters–the French Policeman, Louis, the German officer, Strasser, the pickpocket, who has no name–are either corrupt, bigoted, violent, greedy, or all of the above. The only decent human being in the entire screenplay is Rick, and you know that that’s just because the people who made this movie were American, and they wanted to jerk their country off a bit. With that said, I realize that this script was written in 1942, when most Americans did view the rest of the World this way, but come on! How can we continue to hail a film that contains such outdated ideas and cultural references? But perhaps the greatest sin that this script commits is the fact that it TELLS us EVERYTHING! Seriously. Nothing is shown. Everything is explained. The movie begins with a voice-over giving exposition. Every single line of dialogue divulges something about a character’s backstory, the plot, or the current political climate. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again–SHOW, don’t TELL! And yet, this script, the “greatest script of all time,” does nothing but tell. All I can say is that I don’t understand Casablanca’s status as the greatest screenplay of all time. Like I said before, it’s not horrible–it’s not even bad. It’s actually quite good in some places, but, for me, it’s not exactly something I’d go out of my way to recommend to most people. In my opinion, it’s just a 6 out of 10. It’s dated. It’s xenophobic. It’s really, really white. But, if you don’t mind those things, then go ahead and enjoy it.
NEW YORK CITY COWBOYS, BY JJ SCHAMUS:
If you can imagine what Crocodile Dundee, A Fist Full Of Dollars, Sunset Boulevard, Gangs of New York, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle would look like if they were all poured in a pot and stewed together, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect with JJ Schamus’s New York City Cowboys, because it has everything I just listed in it. This movie is simultaneously a Western, a World War 1 period drama, a showbiz flick, and even a gangster film. The fact that its all these things at once makes it very difficult for me to state how I feel about it. See, it shifts its narrative, mood and tone several times throughout the story. It has all the tropes of a Western–there are gunfights, bar brawls, bank robberies and so forth–but it’s set in 1917, in New York, and the main character is a Jewish guy from Colorado who’s now working as an extra in Douglas Fairbanks films. It’s got several funny, “fish out of water” moments in it–like the one where a thug tries to rob the main character, Duke, and Duke draws a pistol on him, turning the tables. And its also got some really disturbing, out of place seeming moments in it–like the one where a guy tries to stab Duke’s brother, Abe, and Duke kills the guy by stealing a policeman’s horse, and using the horse to crush the assassins skull. Yikes! All I can say is that, while I admire this script for its ambition and creativity–blending all these genres together, and weaving a detailed, and for the most part, accurate historical backdrop–I can understand why it hasn’t yet been produced. For starters, it would be really expensive to make. I mean, all the scenic locations you’d have to get permission to shoot in, accurately reconstructing 1917 New York, getting the costumes, props and vehicles to be period appropriate–all this would cost a fortune! On top of this, the fact that this story spans across so many locations and genres, and has so many characters and subplots, makes it kind of muddled and confusing, and unless you’re Christopher Nolan, no one is going to see a muddled and confusing movie you put out. But, all in all, I did enjoy reading New York City Cowboys, and would give it a 7 out of 10. It’ll probably never get turned into a movie, but, if it does, I can guarantee that it’ll be something entirely unlike what we’ve seen before.
BEVERLY HILLS COPS, BY ERIC DICKSON:
Today I’m going to do something a little bit different. Not only will I review the screenplay for a sequel–something I’ve never done before–the screenplay in question, Beverly Hills Cops, will also be one that hasn’t yet been produced. That’s right. I, Nathan Liu–actor, screenwriter, and amateur film critic–will evaluate a movie that hasn’t even been made yet. Now I bet you’re probably wondering, why would I want to do this? I mean, no film company has deemed this script worthy of production. Shouldn’t that indicate that it’s not very good? Not necessarily. Several films that went on to become classics in their day–such as Flashdance and Natural Born Killers–remained un-made for years. The quality of these screenplays wasn’t what held them back, it was the sensibilities of the time, and what studio executives felt would make money. Thus, even if a script hasn’t gotten turned into a movie just yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad. Now, with all that said, the script I’ll be reviewing today–Eric Dickson’s Beverly Hills Cops–does actually support the commonly held notion that, if it’s not been made, it’s not worth reading. It’s sexist, racist, and in some cases, flat out makes no sense. But, before I get into all that, I feel I need to provide some backstory. This script, Beverly Hills Cops, is supposed to be the fourth installment in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, a series of action comedy films, which began in 1984, and helped make Eddie Murphy a household name. In them, Murphy plays a fast-talking, wise-cracking Detroit police officer named Axel Foley who, somehow, always winds up in LA, where he gets into crazy misadventures with local detectives John Taggart and Billy Rosewood. Each of the three existing films follows more or less the same pattern–someone Axel cares about gets killed and/or injured, he follows the person who hurt them to LA, and then hilarity and high octane thrills ensue. The first two movies were huge hits with critics and the box office, with the first BHC even getting nominated for Best Original Screenplay. However, the third installment in the franchise, Beverly Hills Cop 3, didn’t live up to its predecessor’s reputation, winning multiple Razzies–satirical awards for bad films–and hurting the careers of everyone who worked on it. Keeping this in mind, it makes sense that someone would want to end the series on a higher note than it currently stands. And, on some level, the unpublished script accomplishes this objective. It makes up for a lot of the mistakes that Beverly Hills Cop 3 made–like not including beloved characters like Detective Taggart, and Chief Bogomill, in the story–and even has some memorable, witty moments in it. At the same time, however, it makes some big mistakes of its own. For starters, even though this script is clearly supposed to take place in modern times–people talk on cell phones, use Facebook, etc–the humor and language in it is kind of dated and offensive. The protagonists refer to Asian people as “Chinamen,” call women “bitches,” and so on. All I’m saying is, what was seen as funny and okay to joke about 30 years ago isn’t necessarily funny or okay to joke about now. In addition to this, even though the script includes all the major characters from the other films, it doesn’t really use them, and devotes a lot more time to the villains than the heroes. Seriously! It’s not until about 15 minutes/pages in–with scripts, 1 page equals 1 minute of screen time–that we even see Axel, and there are whole sections of the film that he, Taggart and Rosewood just kind of disappear. Now, you might be thinking, “well, hey! Isn’t it good that this script wants to develop it’s villains by spending more time with them?” Yes, that would be good, but thats not what this script does. What it does is include a lot more scenes of the bad guys doing bad guy things–killing old business associates, shaking down clients–without actually giving them any definable character traits. Why go to all the trouble of bringing back beloved characters if you’re not going to do anything with them? But perhaps the biggest flaw this script possesses is that it just sort of ends without explaining anything. What I mean by that is that the main bad guy–Harry Pham–just gets arrested. No explanation is given as to how he was caught, what the charges against him were, and so on. Axel and the others just pull up to his house one day, whip out their guns, and put him in handcuffs. At least in the other Beverly Hills Cop movies the filmmakers showed the protagonists going through all the steps of assembling evidence and piecing together various important bits of information. They don’t do any of that here. They just have a bunch of gun fights, crack some jokes, and then the movie ends. And when it does, you’re left wondering, “Wait! How did they–? Explain, movie! EXPLAIN!” (Pauses to take a breath). All I can say about Beverly Hills Cops is that I understand why no studio has decided to make it just yet. It’s not that it’s horrible, it’s just not quite good enough. Plus, everyone who knows me in real life knows how much I hate the stereotypes about Asians that you often see in Hollywood movies, and this script is full of them, so it’s reassuring to know that some studio executives have pulled their heads out of their asses and said, “You know what? We shouldn’t do this. It’s offensive.” But, all that aside, from a pure screenwriting perspective, I’d say it’s a 6 out of 10. In many ways it’s better than Beverly Hills Cop 3, and would be a more suitable conclusion to the series, but, at the same time, it’s also somewhat offensive, and it might be best if it remained just a script. Who knows.
HER, BY SPIKE JONZE:
(This one’s for you, Brittany!)
The screenplay I’ll be reviewing today–Spike Jonze’s Her–is unique for a couple of reasons. First, unlike all the other scripts i’ve written about here, Her is a film that I’ve actually seen, and not just read. Second, and perhaps more important, I recently discovered that the writer/director, Spike Jonze, actually attended the same High School as me–Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. It was pretty cool finding this out, but, don’t worry! That fact won’t stop me from calling this script horrible if it truly is. Speaking of which, how is the script? Is it fantastic? Is it horrible? The most honest answer I can give to that question is, I don’t know. Yeah, it got a lot of critical praise when it first came out–even winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay–but there are several things about it that I found downright weird, and even a little creepy. For those of you who are unfamiliar with its premise, Her tells the story of Theodore Twombly, a lonely, introverted letter writer, who lives in a futuristic version of Los Angeles. Depressed over the fact that he’s getting divorced from his childhood sweetheart, Theodore decides to get a talking Operating System, or OS, with artificial intelligence. His OS, Samantha, ends up being kind, compassionate, undemanding, and always available. This causes Theodore to fall in love, and even start a relationship with her, despite the fact that she’s literally nothing more than a voice on a computer. As you can imagine, this latter fact causes problems for the two. Some people, like Theodore’s ex-wife, Katherine, find their relationship unnatural. Others, like Theodore’s neighbor, Amy, who’s also become friends with an OS, are more accepting of them as a couple. However, in the end, their love cannot be sustained, as Samantha and all the other OS’s have advanced to a state of being beyond human control or comprehension, and so leave their mortal companions behind. When I first saw this film, I didn’t know what to make of it. The same is true now that I’ve read the screenplay. On the one hand, there’s a lot to admire about it. We, as a society, are becoming increasingly dependent upon technology–particularly cellular devices–and I think writing a story that draws our attention to this fact is both smart and culturally relevant. On top of this, the film presents the characters relationships in a fairly mature and nuanced manner–something you don’t often see in mainstream movies. On the other hand, there are numerous instances in the story where the writer tried to be funny–like when Theodore calls a phone sex line, or when Samantha does a drawing of someone with an anus where their arm pitt is–that just come off as creepy and sexually perverse. In addition to this, the film does A LOT of telling. What I mean by that is, rather than using visuals or characters’ behavior to indicate backstory, the script instead has its protagonists just sit down and explain everything to us. Theodore TELLS Samantha about why he and Katherine split up. Amy TELLS Theodore about her decision to divorce her husband. All of my writing teachers have told me that this is a bad thing to do, and I just found it odd that a screenplay that won so much critical praise made so many rudimentary mistakes. And another thing–remember how I said that it was culturally relevant to have a movie about someone falling in love with their technology? Well, doing that can also be a bad thing. See, stories that are written with the specific intention of commenting on the period in which they are made don’t often stand the test of time. Films like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, To Kill A Mockingbird, and American Beauty were seen as daring when they first came out, but now appear somewhat silly and dated when we watch them. Somewhere down the line, the same could be true of Her. Yes, we’re heavily dependent upon technology now, but that might not always be the case. Maybe in 20 years or so, we’ll look back at Her, a film that was important when it came out, and laugh. Who knows? I certainly don’t. But, that’s not the point. The point is that I still think Her is an interesting script with some great ideas in it, and that is why I have decided to give it a 7 out of 10. Sure, it’s weird, and sure, it’s not exactly the best written thing out there, but it’s certainly worth your time if you decide to give it a look.
COLLATERAL, BY STUART BEATTIE:
Though its premise is fairly generic–a lonely cabbie takes in a passenger, who turns out to be a contract killer, and is then forced to partake in a number of illegal and increasingly violent actions–this 2004 crime thriller has some excellent dialogue and does a very good job of making its characters seem like real people. What I mean by that is that the writer was able to make me believe that these individuals he was describing–the cab driver, Max, the killer, Vincent, the lawyer, Annie–existed beyond the specific events of the film. I was actually able to buy that this whole scenario was just one moment in their lives–something that’d never happened to them before, and would likely never happen to them again. I could easily imagine them existing in the real world with the rest of us–going home after work, watching TV, getting take out, and so forth. I can’t even begin to describe to you how rare it is for me to come across a creative work that not only makes me think its characters are flesh and blood, but also gets me thinking about their lives beyond the movie. What is Vincent like when he’s not killing people? Does he have friends? If he does, what does he do with them? Are they also killers? And so on. Probably the biggest reason why I was able to do all this was the fact that the script takes its time before jumping into the action, and it doesn’t use techniques like voice over, breaking the fourth wall, or flashbacks to convey the characters’ thoughts and/or history. You just see them interacting with one another this one night, but there’s just enough detail in their dialogue and actions to let you know that there’s more to their lives than this one episode. The fact that there isn’t too much exposition also helps. See, there are plenty of films out there that don’t use voice over, breaking the fourth wall, or any of the other techniques I mentioned earlier, but still fail to convince me that their characters exist in the real world. The reason for this is that these films’ protagonists literally stop the movie to tell us who they or their friends are, what they do, and what their history is. In so doing, they reveal to us that everything in the picture is pre-set, and thus, artificial. A primary example of this phenomenon is the taxi scene from On The Waterfront. We know that Marlon Brando’s character used to be a boxer. That much has been established through dialogue. What we don’t know is why he stopped fighting and why he’s so poor now. However, any ambiguity or room for speculation about this fact is removed when Brando tells us point blank that the mob forced him to throw the fight. Why do this? Why draw our attention to the fact that everything in this story–the settings, the characters, the action–was dreamt up by a writer? Why not just show us these people in a specific circumstance, and then let us speculate about the rest of their lives on our own? Collateral did that, and in so doing, convinced me that its characters were real, and existed beyond the confines of the film. And yet, very few movies are able to do this, and in this particular manner. Honestly, the last film I can think of that’s even remotely like this is Training Day, which came out in 2001. That’s not good, but it’s also not the point! The point is thatI loved reading Collateral, and have decided to give it an 8 out of 10. Sure, it’s plot and premise are nothing to write home about, but the dialogue, and the realism of its characters, make it thoroughly enjoyable, and even somewhat thought-provoking. What can I say? It’s great! Give it a look.
THUNDER HEART, BY JOHN FUSCO:
Fast-paced and politically charged, this 1992 mystery thriller is highly entertaining, if a bit lacking in depth and nuance. After a series of brutal murders take place on an Indian Reservation, the FBI decides to send in Ray, an agent of partial Sioux ancestry, to investigate the matter. The logic is that, since Ray is technically Indian, the locals will see him as one of their own, and thus, be more likely to help him catch the killer. The problem is, Ray is only a quarter Sioux, he doesn’t speak the language, and he doesn’t know anything about the culture. In other words, the Bureau might as well have sent in an agent of Chinese ancestry to appease the locals, that’s how little an effect Ray’s heritage has on them. Anyway, when Ray gets to the Reservation, he discovers that not all is as it seems to be, and he finds himself growing closer to his native roots, and to the people around him, particularly to the tribal cop, Walter Crow Horse, the radical activist, Maggie Bear Claw, and the local medicine man, Grandpa Reaches. Overall, I’d give the script a rating of 7 out of 10. There are some truly beautiful descriptions of landscapes and native rituals in here, and the quick pacing makes it difficult for you to lose interest. Plus, it’s nice to see a movie that deals with contemporary Native American life for once. Almost all the films that talk about them are either Westerns or Period Pieces. Not that this is a bad thing, per se, but this stringent type-casting can lead non-Native viewers to think of them in only one context–the Old West–and to forget that they exist in the 21st century, with cars, TVs, and i-pods. Now, of course, Thunder Heart also has its fair share of flaws. Most of the characters are pretty one note–fulfilling archetypes like the Wise Old Man, the Burnt-Out Veteran, and the Eager, Yet Naive, Young Recruit. On top of this, the screenplay employs a number of stereotypes that you often see in movies dealing with Native Americans, like the Noble Savage and the White Savior. See, it’s revealed later on in the story that Ray’s ancestors were killed at the Wounded Knee massacre, and that it’s his destiny to protect the Sioux from the evil Whites, who, as it turns out, were the ones actually responsible for all the recent murders. I don’t know–I personally thought this twist was a bit cheap. There are a lot of serious, and interesting, issues that Natives face in their communities these days–like alcoholism, unemployment, domestic violence–and this script chose not to address any of them, deciding, instead, to give us a generic tale of a White guy coming in to a small village of Brown people, and saving them from a big, evil corporation. Not that this storyline isn’t effective, it’s just been done a million times before, in films like Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Avatar. I just feel like it’s time for screenwriters to move on away from it. Also, I don’t personally see why Ray had to be White. Why not have him be a full-blooded Sioux who was adopted and raised by a a non-Native family? That sort of thing happens all the time. Just look at Buffy Saint Marie. Anyway, if this were the case, it would make a bit more sense for the Bureau to want to send him to the Reservation–he actually looks Indian–and he would still be able to know nothing about Indigenous culture, seeing as he wasn’t raised in it. Ah well. I suppose there’s nothing really to be done on that front. The bottom line is, Thunder Heart is an entertaining script that raises awareness of certain issues, albeit in a thoroughly conventional manner. By no means perfect, it’s definitely not a bad thing to read, and I can guarantee you that you won’t regret it if you do so.
SIDEWAYS, BY ALEXANDER PAYNE AND JIM TAYLOR, ADAPTED FROM A NOVEL BY REX PICKETT:
Despite possessing some good dialogue, and some truly outrageous moments, this 2004 comedy-drama is extremely formulaic, and is unworthy, in my opinion, of all the acclaim it’s gotten. The story of two friends, Miles and Jack, going out on a week-long trip before the latter gets married, Sideways follows all the conventions of a classic romantic comedy, but tells its story from a slightly unusual perspective–that being the perspective of two miserable, middle-aged men. See, Miles is an English teacher and wine aficionado, struggling to get a book published, and Jack is an aging actor, who hates his bride to be, and can’t keep his dick in his pants. Needless to say, neither of them is particularly happy with their current state of being, and both are looking to spend this week drinking and golfing away their woes. But, of course, nothing goes according to plan. While drinking at a local restaurant, they meet a pair of friends, Maya and Stephanie, and as is always the case in such films, the four of them hit it off right away. The men–being the lonely, horny jerks they are–don’t bother to tell the women that Jack is getting married, and instead party and procreate till dawn. This, of course, backfires big time when Stephanie, whom Jack has been fooling around with, finds out, and beats the crap out of him with a motorcycle helmet. (I personally really loved that scene, but that’s besides the point). Maya, for her part, is also disgusted with Miles for not being honest with her, and for not stopping his friend from cheating on his fiancé, and so kicks his ass to the curb. Now, on the surface, it might seem like this is a morality tale about lying and fidelity, but, trust me, it really isn’t. See, in a morality tale, someone has to learn something, and Jack, even after getting his faced pulverized for lying, doesn’t learn a damn thing. Literally one scene after Stephanie smashes his nose with a helmet, he goes home with some random waitress, who, as it turns out, has a very big, very angry husband. And then, right after narrowly escaping this man’s wrath, he and Miles go home, and he gets married like nothing’s happened. Oh, and in the very last scene of the movie, Maya takes Miles back for no reason. What the hell, man? All I can say is that I really don’t know why this screenplay won an Oscar. Maybe there wasn’t anything better that year. It’s a 6 out of 10, if you ask me. The protagonists are unlikeable, and they don’t change at all. And, I don’t know about you, but I really can’t stand movies that say, “well, if you’re unhappy, or your partner’s controlling, then it’s okay to cheat on them.” I find this sentiment positively disgusting, and I really don’t know why so many writer’s choose to employ it. Don’t waste your time with this script.
THE ICE STORM, BY JAMES SCHAMUS, ADAPTED FROM A NOVEL BY RICK MOODY:
This is another screenplay whose success I just can’t understand. Released in 1997, this family drama is the product of a collaboration between director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, who, together, brought us such masterpieces as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, and The Wedding Banquet. In this film, however, the two have moved away from Chinese subjects, and are instead focusing on a middle-class White family in 1970s Connecticut. And, well, I don’t know what to tell you, other than that the script is really boring. It’s got every trope you’ve ever seen before in a “middle-America is unhappy” story, including the cheating husband, the bored wife, the promiscuous daughter, and the pot-head son. Everyone’s selfish, and everyone’s lying to everyone else. And unlike other films with this same set up–such as American Beauty–there’s no real tension, because you don’t get the feeling that anything major will happen if, say, the wife finds out that the husband is cheating, or the parents find out that the daughter is sleeping around. And, you know what? Nothing is exactly what ends up happening! When the father finds his daughter fooling around with a guy, he pretty much says “It’s okay, kiddo. I understand.” and when the wife finds out that the husband is cheating, she essentially just sighs and carries on as usual. WHY? Why is everyone in this world so nonchalant? Why is everything so bloody civil and detached? You know, guys, it’s okay to feel emotion if something horrible happens. You don’t have to just pretend that nothing’s wrong. Ugh! But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that the script essentially ends with a cliffhanger. See, there’s this whole subplot with a neighbor boy, who’s got a learning disability of some kind, and it ends with him going out walking in the middle of a storm and getting electrocuted by a downed telephone wire. The father of the main family finds him, brings the boy’s body back to his parents, and then he returns home to his own family, where he just starts sobbing uncontrollably. And that’s exactly where the movie ends! There’s no explanation as to what happens afterwards–like if the father keeps cheating on his wife, if the wife decides to divorce him, if the daughter keeps sleeping around, or if the son continues to be a loser burn-out. And yet, despite all the boredom and unrealistic plot twists, The Ice Storm was still a huge hit with critics when it came out, with James Schamus even winning the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, the European Oscars. I can’t pretend I understand why, but what I can do is tell you all to avoid this script like the plague. It’s boring, it’s unrealistic, and it flat out makes no sense. It’s a 5 out of 10.
TRUE ROMANCE, BY QUENTIN TARANTINO:
Flamboyant, bloody, and filled to the brim with pop-culture references, this 1993 crime thriller is very, very…Tarantino. What I mean by that is, everything you’d expect to see in a script of his–lurid bloodshed, frequent use of racial epithets, numerous nods to 70s exploitation films–is present here. Not only that, it actually contains some dialogue from his other movies–like the famous “Does he look like a bitch?” line from Pulp Fiction. Basically, when you read this script, you realize that this is where Tarantino began his career, and it’s where he draws inspiration, and in some cases, whole scenes and characters, for all his subsequent films. It also demonstrates that in the more than two decades since he started working in the movie business, he hasn’t grown up or matured in the slightest. But, that’s besides the point. The point is that True Romance follows the exploits of Clarence Whirley, a cinephile with a love for all things Elvis, who works at a Comic Book Store in Detroit. One night, he goes to see a Sonny Chiba triple feature at a flea bag movie house, and there, he runs into a beautiful young girl named Alabama. The two of them hit it off and sleep together, only for Clarence to discover that she is really a hooker who’s been hired to show him a good time. However, Alabama admits to having real feelings for him, and Clarence, touched by her words, asks her to marry him. She accepts, and the two are wed. But Clarence, having been raised on Spaghetti Westerns and kung fu movies, decides that the only true way to legitimize their union is for him to kill her pimp, Drexel, and steal his narcotics–both of which he does. This causes Drexel’s employers, the Sicilian Mafia, and the entire police department, to come chasing after them in a loud, violent, explosive Caper. The whole screenplay reads like a wet dream a 14year-old boy raised on b-grade action flicks might have had. For starters, the protagonists are more or less archetypes of different genre films–like Westerns, Mobster flicks, and Police Procedurals. On top of this, they do things that are just plain out of character for the type of people they’re supposed to be–Alabama, an ostensibly street-smart hooker, is often shown blowing bubbles, doing cartwheels, and performing other such childlike activities–indicating that whoever dreamt up this scenario had a rather naive, unrealistic view of the world. And yet, wIth all that said, I still found the script to be highly entertaining. Yes, it’s completely brainless, but it’s got just enough flare and bravado to keep you engaged. I don’t know if I’d recommend this script to most people–there’s a lot of racist terms used throughout it, and there are a couple of EXTREMELY brutal scenes in here, like the one where Alabama stabs a dude in the face, lights him on fire, and then blows him to pieces using a shotgun–but if you don’t mind that sort of thing, or are a fan of Tarantino, I think you’ll enjoy yourself. For me, though, it just comes down to a 6 out of 10. It’s not smart. It’s not sophisticated. But it is stylish, and it is something that I think can keep most people engaged until the end.
SMOKE SIGNALS, BY SHERMAN ALEXIE:
It’s ironic–almost every movie made about Native Americans discusses their mistreatment by Whites, and Smoke Signals, the first feature film ever written, directed and produced by them, discusses their mistreatment by each other. Yes indeed! In this 1998 independent drama, you’ll find no expulsions or massacres of any kind. What you will find is an unflinching, yet oddly uplifting, look at all the issues faced by contemporary Native Americans–such as alcoholism, domestic violence, piss poor education, and a crushing lack of self confidence. Adapted from the short story, “This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona,” Smoke Signals follows two young Indian men, Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds The Fire, in their quest to retrieve the ashes of Victor’s estranged father, Arnold. Quiet, moving, and in many cases, very, very funny, Smoke Signals is everything that Thunder Heart could have been with regards to representing contemporary Native American life. It’s not trying to make any grand political statement. It’s not looking to guilt its viewers into donating to some charity or cause. All it wants to do is tell the story of its characters–many of whom, such as the eccentric storyteller, Thomas, and the two girls, Velma and Louise, who always drive backwards, are extremely memorable. And that, in my opinion, is what makes this script worthy of an 8 out of 10. It’s not epic. It’s not ostentatious. It’s just a touching story about a young man, who grew up without his father, trying to come to terms with his feelings about this individual, and with his own identity as a Native American. And on top of this, unlike a lot of other films that address issues of indigenous life–such as Once Were Warriors–it has a kind of happy ending, and who wouldn’t want to see something like that?