Hail, Caesar! (Film Review)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

A phrase you often encounter when reading reviews of bad movies is “it has no plot.” When you hear that, you probably think, nothing happens in this movie. Well, that’s not necessarily true. A movie can have no plot, and still have lots of stuff happen in it. To have no plot, it just has to lack a single MAIN story. And what I mean by a main story is a single protagonist, with a clear goal, going up against various obstacles, experiencing a climax, and then changing as a result of all that they have gone through. John McLane fighting Hans Gruber and the other terrorists to save his wife in Die Hard, Martin Brody protecting Amity Island and his family from the Shark in Jaws, Indiana Jones racing against the Nazis to recover the ark in Raiders Of The Lost Ark–these are all perfect examples of films with main stories. They have beginnings, middles, and ends. They don’t have an excessive amount of sub-plots and supporting characters to distract us from the Main story, which is the protagonist with his or her goal, going up against an obstacle, ultimately achieving their objective, and becoming a better person as a result.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m bringing all this up. Simple, the subject of today’s review, Hail, Caesar, the latest film written and directed by the Coen Brothers, has no plot. There’s no main story. Just sub-plots. No one goes up against any extreme obstacles, experiences any climaxes, or changes as a result of all that they’ve gone through. Now, to be fair, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’ve read my review for Wong Kar-Wai’s Days Of Being Wild, you know that I still enjoyed the film, despite it having no real plot. The acting, cinematography, color scheme, soundtrack, and most importantly, its emotional resonance all made the film enjoyable and touching. They made it worth watching. Hail, Caesar also has characteristics that make it worth watching–some beautiful sets and period costumes, some funny dialogue, a rich supporting cast–but, in the end, these things don’t make the film good. They’re just salt to cover up bland food.

For those of you who want to know what, exactly, I’m talking about, Hail, Caesar is set in the 1950s, in California. The main character, Josh Brolin, is the studio head for Capital Pictures. He is a man with a million things on his plate, and yet, somehow, he always manages to find time to go to Church and give confession. Now, the movie’s been advertised as a kidnapper comedy, with George Clooney being the dim-witted star who’s been mysteriously taken from the set of his latest feature, but that’s not really what the picture is about. It’s about the movies made back in the 1950s. There are several, rather lengthy, segments in this film where we just cut to various sound stages where different movies are being shot. These include a Western chase scene, a Gene Kelly style musical number, and a big water aerobics act. These segments have nothing to do with the kidnapper plot, and are really only there to paint a picture for us of what movies were like back in the day. Yes, they’re well-crafted, and relatively entertaining, but they have no purpose. This makes them distracting, and, ultimately, annoying. In addition to having all these cutaways, the film doesn’t really spend all that much time on the kidnapper story. We spend at least two thirds of the movie with a guy named Hogey Carmichael, a cowboy who can’t act, trying to act in a dramatic film, and failing miserably. And when we do return to the kidnaper plot, it’s not interesting. The Big Lebowski, another Coen Brothers Film dealing with kidnapping that I actually like, is able to keep the audience’s interest because it keeps us guessing the whole time. We don’t know, until the very end, whether or not the person who was kidnapped actually got kidnapped. The protagonist gets a severed toe in the mail, and a group of men actually come by his house and threaten to castrate him if he doesn’t pay. All of this creates genuine stakes. We believe that someone really could get hurt in all this, which makes the story as a whole more interesting. In Hail, Caesar, by contrast, we see who the kidnappers are very early on in the story, and we know that they have no intention of hurting Clooney. This causes any semblance of tension that was in the film beforehand to just vanish, and leaves us with far less interesting storylines, like will Hogey Carmichael learn how to act, will Scarlet Johansen find a father for her baby, and will Josh Brolin leave the movie business and go to work for Lockheed Martin?

All I can say is that, if you want to go to the movies and be mildly entertained for a few hours, and all while knowing that nothing you just saw will stick or resonate with you afterwards, go see Hail, Caesar. As for me, however, and it truly pains me to say this because I love the Coen Brothers, this is just a 5 out of 10. Apart from the acting and the period decor, I can’t think of anything that makes this movie worth my time or money.

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Trumbo

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

I just realized something, my reviews of movies I enjoy tend to be a lot shorter than my reviews of films I don’t. I guess it’s because, when you don’t like something, you look a lot harder for things not to like. And as for the movies you like, well, you like them. You’re therefore willing to overlook certain flaws they might have, and are left with simply saying, “It was good.” That’s the case here with Trumbo, a film that tells the true story of a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, who ended up being able to circumnavigate the system by using pen names. I like it, and, well, I don’t really have much to say other than that.

It’s well-acted, the costumes and sets are period appropriate, and I actually think the writing is quite good. This is ironic because, most other reviews of the film I’ve read praise the acting and sets, but say the writing is the weakest part. I don’t think that’s the case. I personally believe they’re just saying that because the man whose life this film is based off of, Dalton Trumbo, was such an extraordinary writer that nothing can really compare to his work. But, with that said, the screenwriter who penned this biopic shouldn’t be short-changed. There are some very witty, very well-written lines in this movie. My absolute favorite scene is when a guy from the government comes to the Z-grade production company that Trumbo has been secretly working at, and threatens the owner, played by John Goodman. Goodman, to show this fed how little he cares about the blacklist, pulls out a baseball bat, begins smashing up his own office and says, “You wanna call me a pinko in the papers? Go ahead! My audience can’t read!” This, and many other scenes in the film, possess a wit and craftiness that can only come from the efforts of a talented writer, so, don’t believe what other reviews tell you. The script of this movie is solid.

The only problem I might have with this film is the fact that certain characters–particularly the women in the film–feel a bit like tokens, fulfilling archetypes like the nagging daughter, the supportive wife, and the bitter ex-actress who never got to be a star. And yet, I can’t really fault the movie for that either because the script contains scenes where we learn the backstories of all these women, and we see them as more than just “wife” and “daughter.” Trumbo’s wife, Annie, used to be a Circus performer, and his daughter, Nicole, is an advocate for Civil Rights. And they’re not the only characters given a respectful amount of history and depth in this movie. Virtually everyone on screen is given a name, a history, and motivations for acting the way they do. All this is a sign of strong craftsmanship, and further evidence that this movie is worth watching.

So, once again, Trumbo is a well-acted, well-written, and well-designed film that I deeply enjoyed, and that you all shouldn’t hesitate to watch. It’s an 8 out of 10. Try and catch it if it’s still in theaters.

Steve Jobs

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, and Views Are My Game.

As many of you already know, my all-time goal is to work as a screenwriter. And as some others among you might also be aware, in order to hone my craft and achieve this objective, I enrolled in the Dramatic Writing Program at NYU Tisch. I’ve had a great time here, and learned a lot, and today, I’d like to share one of the many valuable pieces of information I gathered with you all. That being that all drama is conflict.

In a dramatic work, be it a play, TV show, or movie, there has to be some kind of disagreement or dissatisfaction. Without it, there is no story. If characters are agreeing with each other, or are completely happy with their state in life, they have no reason to act. They have no reason to embark on dangerous, life-changing adventures. Walter White would never cook Meth if he weren’t poor and dying of cancer. John McLane would never go to the Nakatomi Plaza and fight those terrorists if he and his wife weren’t at odds with one another. Even in comedies, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the characters are acting out of some kind of pain. Steve Carrell’s character has never had sex, and now he has to take action in order to address his own feelings of dissatisfaction. The bottom line is, if there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

But, with all that said, stories can’t just be conflict. There also have to be consequences in order for a narrative to be both compelling and realistic. No one likes watching people yell at each other endlessly. It’s much more interesting to have two people get into an argument, and then have one of them storm out of the room, or get convinced by the other’s point. The reason is that, in those cases, the character’s actions yielded consequences. Which is far more realistic. In real life, when we yell at, or hurt, our friends and loved ones, they get angry at us, and we suffer as a result. We experience the consequences of the conflict we created. So, if you want to make your plot and characters believable, have your protagonists act out of some form of dissatisfaction, have there be some kind of conflict between them and other characters, and finally, have that conflict yield some kind of consequence.

The reason I’ve given you all this brief lesson in drama is that, I just watched Steve Jobs, the latest film from acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and it is literally nothing but conflict without consequence. It’s a story about the late Apple Inc creator, Steve Jobs, launching three different products on three different occasions, and all the backstage drama between him, his ex-wife, his boss, and his old colleagues. There’s lots of yelling, lots of arguing, and lots of conflict, but there are absolutely no consequences, no repercussions, to it all. He argues with his ex about whether or not their daughter is even his, and rather than have the girl be outraged and saddened by the fact that her own father doesn’t want her, Sorkin has her constantly hanging out with Steve, saying she loves and wants to live with him, and asking him important life lessons. Jobs is shown disavowing his old boss and business colleagues, and yet, for some odd reason, Sorkin has these people he betrayed come to each of his launches, and wish him good luck. I’m honestly kind of shocked that such a talented writer made such a basic story-telling error. In most of his earlier works, such as The Social Network and Charlie Wilson’s War, the characters suffer as a result of their choices. Mark Zuckerberg is left alone and friendless because of his selfish actions, while Charlie Wilson is forced to watch Afghanistan be consumed by radicalism because of his short-sighted policies. Here, there are no consequences to Steve Jobs’ actions. He behaves like a jerk, and yet, still has all his friends and loved ones by the end of the movie.

The hell, man?

Look, I realize that maybe Sorkin was trying to be respectful since Steve Jobs passed away recently, but come on! There’s no drama here! None of the character’s actions make sense. Yes, the dialogue is still snappy, and the performances are great, but the story makes so little sense in terms of realism, and is so painfully boring, and utterly lacking in tension in some places, that I can’t give the movie anything higher than a 6.5 out of 10. And that makes me sad. I’m a writer, and a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s. I wanted to like this movie. But, alas, Steve Jobs was not all that it was built up to be. Such a shame. Such a waste.

From Screenplay To Screen: Alex Proyas’s Dark City

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

And thank god for editors!

What? That doesn’t make sense to you all? All right then, let me start from the beginning.

In my first edition of “From Screenplay To Screen,” I discussed how frustrating working as a screenwriter is sometimes. I explained that, in order to get paid, you must sell your script to a studio, which can change and edit it however they like–in many cases, sacrificing creativity and originality for tropes that have worked in the past. This tendency of film companies to “mutilate” scripts is a serious issue. So serious, in fact, that three Oscar-nominated writers–Jeffrey Caine, William Nicholson, and Steven Knight–actually went on record in a Guardian article saying that the only way for up-and-coming screenwriters to ensure the sanctity of their craft is to either direct their own films, or write for television, where they have much more power. Man! If that doesn’t show you how big a problem the studio’s editing of our scripts is, I don’t know what does.

And yet, while I agree with these writers, and stand by my previous assertion that studios need to be more open to new plot lines and methods of storytelling, I recently came across a script that helped me realize that this insertion of the big wigs’ into the creative process does, in some cases, serve a purpose. The script in question was Alex Proyas’s Dark City, and before I can discuss it any further, I feel it necessary to provide some back-story on a few details.

In 1998, a whole year before the release of The Matrix, another Australian sci-fi film dealing with the notion of our world being an illusion hit the big screen. That film was Dark City, a Neo Noir Crime Thriller about a suspected murderer with amnesia uncovering the horrible truth that his world is nothing more than an elaborate construct, used by alien creatures to study our behavior. While receiving much acclaim for its intricate plot, philosophical undertones and stylized aesthetics, Dark City failed to become a financial success, barely breaking even with its $27 million budget. Many of the film’s fans claimed that mainstream audiences just weren’t ready for something as new and original as it–that it was, to put it bluntly, too smart for its own good. The irony, though, is that the version of Dark City that actually got turned into a movie was a significantly dumbed down, highly altered work that bore scant resemblance to the original script. I got the chance to read an early draft of the screenplay, and not only was it almost nothing like the movie I’d grown to love–it had a bleaker ending, the characters were different, it was a lot more violent and racist–it straight up made no sense. I have no doubt that if that script had been turned into a movie, it would have made even less money at the box office than it actually did, and probably not have gotten nearly as much critical acclaim.

This got me thinking. Studio executives’ practice of altering writer’s scripts is an evil. There’s no doubt about that. But is it a necessary evil? Does it, in some cases, actually make the scripts better? That’s a loaded question, but, on the whole, one that I would answer, “yes” to. And before any of my fellow writers out there accuse me of selling out, I want to reiterate that I only said that SOMETIMES the intervention of studios into the creative process makes screenplays better. For the vast, vast majority of the time, however, I believe we should be given more respect, more freedom, and more artistic license.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to explore is that tiny fraction of time where changing a script to be more palatable to a wider audience is a good thing. See, when studio executives alter a writer’s work, its because they’re afraid that the public isn’t ready for something like this, and they don’t want to potentially waste lots of money on a product that won’t sell. In some cases, however, their doing so actually improves the work’s narrative and/or literary quality. As I mentioned earlier, critics and intelligent moviegoers loved the edited version of Dark City that got produced. They still found it thought provoking. They still found it original. It was just more hopeful, and made more sense plot-wise. To illustrate my point, let me go through some of the differences between the film and script.

So, the plot of the movie goes something like this. One night, a man named John Murdoch wakes up in a hotel bathtub, suffering from amnesia. He receives a telephone call from Dr. Daniel Schreber, who urges him to flee the premise to evade a group of men who are after him. During the telephone conversation, Murdoch discovers the corpse of a brutalized, ritualistically murdered woman, along with a bloody knife. He flees the scene, just as the group of men (known as the Strangers) arrives at the room.

Eventually, Murdoch learns his real name, and finds he has a wife named Emma. He is also sought by police inspector Frank Bumstead, as a suspect in a series of murders, though he cannot remember killing anybody. While being pursued by the Strangers, Murdoch discovers that he has psychokinetic powers–which the Strangers also possess, and refer to as “tuning”—and uses these powers to escape from them.

Murdoch explores the city, where nobody realizes that it is perpetually night. At midnight, he watches as everyone except himself falls unconscious, as the Strangers stop time and physically rearrange the city as well as changing people’s identities and memories. Murdoch learns that he comes from a coastal town called Shell Beach, though nobody knows how to leave the city to travel there. Meanwhile, the Strangers inject one of their men, Mr. Hand, with memories intended for Murdoch in an attempt to predict his movements and track him down.

Murdoch is eventually caught by Bumstead, who recognizes that he is innocent, and has his own misgivings about the nature of the city. They confront Dr. Schreber, who explains that the Strangers are endangered extraterrestrial parasites who use corpses as their hosts. Having a collective consciousness, the Strangers have been experimenting with humans to analyze their individuality in the hopes that some insight might be revealed that would help their race survive.

Schreber reveals that Murdoch is an anomaly who inadvertently awoke during one midnight process, when Schreber was in the middle of fashioning his identity as a murderer. The three embark to find Shell Beach, but it exists only as a billboard on a wall at the edge of the city. Frustrated, Murdoch breaks through the wall—into outer space. The Strangers, including Mr. Hand, who holds Emma hostage, confront the men. In the ensuing fight Bumstead, along with one of the Strangers, falls through the hole, revealing the city as an enormous space habitat surrounded by a forcefield.

The Strangers bring Murdoch to their home beneath the city and force Dr. Schreber to imprint Murdoch with their collective memory, believing Murdoch to be the final answer to their experiments. Schreber betrays them by inserting false memories in Murdoch which artificially reestablish his childhood as years spent training and honing his psychokinetic abilities and learning about the Strangers and their machines. Murdoch awakens, fully realizing his abilities, frees himself and battles with the Strangers, defeating their leader Mr. Book in a psychokinetic fight high above the city.

After learning from Dr. Schreber that Emma’s personality is gone and cannot be restored, Murdoch exercises his new-found powers, amplified by the Strangers’ machine, to create an actual Shell Beach by flooding the area within the force field with water and forming mountains and beaches. On his way to Shell Beach, Murdoch encounters Mr. Hand and informs him that the Strangers have been searching in the wrong place—the mind—to understand humanity. Murdoch tilts the entire habitat to face a sun, so that the city experiences daylight for the first time.

He opens the door leading out of the city, and steps out to view the sunrise. Beyond him is a pier, where he finds the woman he knew as Emma, now with new memories and a new identity as Anna. Murdoch reintroduces himself as they walk to Shell Beach, beginning their relationship anew.

Pretty cool story, huh? I certainly thought so the first time I saw the film. But, as I said before, that storyline is almost NOTHING like the one put forth in the script. That one is closer to something you might find in a shitty, b-grade psychological thriller. How so? Well, why don’t I show you?

So, the script also begins in a hotel, with John Murdoch–who, in this version, is named John White–waking up in a bathtub next to a murdered woman. However, unlike the film, he doesn’t get a phone call from Schreber, telling him to get out while he still can. He simply sees the woman’s corpse, gets scared, and flees. He also does something that, to most people, might seem kind of trivial, but to me, was a major plot flaw. See, in both the film and the script, when he wakes up in the bathtub, he realizes that there’s a fish in the water with him. When he gets out, the fish tries to follow suit by jumping out of the water. Now, in the movie, John picks up the fish and puts it back in the tub, thus saving its life. This is partially what leads Bumstead to later believe him when he claims to be innocent because, “What kind of cold-blooded killer stops long enough to save a fish?” In the script, however, rather than saving the fish’s life by putting it back in the water, John decides to do something gross by instead sticking it in his pocket. In so doing, he both kills the little creature, and takes away any room for doubt that Bumstead might have about him being a murderer. This, in turn, makes Bumstead’s decision to team up with him later in the script seem nonsensical, because there’s nothing about John’s behavior to indicate that he didn’t kill anyone. It’s subtle details like this that can make or break a screenplay.

But, I’m getting sidetracked. Back to the story! So, in the script, after John leaves the hotel, he is pursued by The Strangers, who, here, are referred to as Mystery Men. Now, in the film, when John first confronts them, he discovers that he has psychokinetic powers, which play a significant role later on in the story. In the screenplay, however, John doesn’t exhibit any kind of superhuman abilities when he first sees them. In fact, no indication whatsoever is given throughout the script that he might be telekinetic until the climax, when, out of nowhere, he suddenly decides that he can fly and move objects with his mind. This both confused and frustrated me when I first read the screenplay, and I personally find it to be one of the script’s greatest narrative weaknesses. Now, don’t get me wrong! I don’t think you have to explain everything that happens in a movie. But if the things you aren’t explaining are major plot points–like a protagonist’s sudden acquisition of super powers–that’s not good writing. In fact, that’s the polar opposite of good writing. That’s lazy, amateur writing.

But, once again, I’ve gotten sidetracked. Back to the script! So, after John manages to evade the Mystery men, he goes on an extended tour of the city–visiting places like a Barber shop, a Chinese restaurant, a Church where he meets a mute Japanese prostitute, and then finally, the prostitute’s house. Neither he nor the audience really learns anything particularly important from these episodes, other than that, one, John might be schizophrenic, and two, the screenwriter, Alex Proyas, really doesn’t like Asian people. The former detail is indicated by the fact that, every five minutes or so, John has a weird hallucination of some kind. While he’s hiding in the prostitute’s house, for instance, he dreams that she suddenly learns how to speak and then calls the cops on him. And this is only one of many more, incredibly odd, fantasies he has throughout the course of the script. The latter detail, Proyas’s seeming dislike of Asian people, is indicated by the fact that none of the Asian characters in the screenplay have names, can speak English, or speak at all, and have incredibly stereotypical roles–restaurant owner, sex worker, etc.

Anyway, while John’s at the prostitute’s house, an unnamed woman comes in and claims to be his wife, but John, of course, does not recognize her. This leads her to start weeping, and, as is common in a lot of trashy movies, there is a gratuitous sex scene, where the prostitute tries to make her feel better by taking her into the bedroom and performing cunnilingus on her. Why was this lesbian episode included? I don’t know. Maybe the screenwriter just wanted to distract the audience from the fact that he’d written a really weak script. It certainly didn’t add anything to the story. Neither John’s wife nor the prostitute is given a name, and they both end up dead in the next scene, so, honestly, you could just have easily not included this segment at all, and the story would have been just fine. Except, it wouldn’t have actually been just fine, because the story itself doesn’t make any sense.

As I mentioned earlier, both the prostitute and John’s wife wind up dead after he falls asleep and has another dream. This forces him to, yet again, flee the premise. One thing you notice very quickly while reading this script is that it’s highly repetitive. Almost every scene follows the same basic pattern–John goes to some place, he meets a person who tells him a little bit about himself, but doesn’t answer most of his questions, he has a dream, and then he wakes up to find them dead. This is what happens with the prostitute, it’s what happens with Schreiber, and it’s what happens with Bumsted. Don’t believe me? Well, why don’t I show you? After John leaves the prostitute’s house, he finds the card for Dr. Schreiber’s office in his pocket, goes there, doesn’t learn much, falls asleep and then, wouldn’t you now it, wakes up to find that Schreiber’s been killed. This same scenario plays out again when, later on in the script, John is apprehended by Bumstead and his men. Bumstead interrogates John, who tells him about the Mystery Men, Bumstead decides to believe him for no reason, John falls asleep, and then, like clockwork, Bumstead ends up dead. A big chase scene through the city follows, with John being pursued by a robot that the Mystery Men have created specifically to hunt him. It’s really silly.

Anyway, the Mystery Men finally catch John, and put him on trial, where they bring out the re-animated corpses of all the people he supposedly killed–the woman from the hotel room, the prostitute, his wife–as witnesses. Now, I’ll admit, the idea of having a murderer go on trial, and be forced to hear the testimony of all the people he killed, is a pretty creepy, and pretty cool idea. It’s inventive, it’s effective, and it’s highly unsettling. But, alas, the screenwriter decides not to dwell on this interesting premise. Instead, he has John suddenly remember that he has this little hand-written book in his pocket, which contains evidence of the Mystery Men being aliens, and the city being an elaborate construct. The script makes no effort to explain where this book came from, or who wrote it, but again, this whole interesting plot thread is abandoned almost instantly when John, deciding that he can take it no more, acquires super powers out of thin air, and blows everything up. After the dust settles, we find ourselves on a beach, where John, and an unknown woman, meet on the docks, and John, after telling her his name, strangles her to death. The script ends with the camera panning down to the little hand-written book that he used to defend himself in his trial. The wind blows it open, and we see that it’s blank.

So, that’s Dark City, the screenplay, and, well…it’s terrible. I’m sorry, but there’s just no way to sugarcoat it. It’s bleak, it’s racist, there are whole major plot threads that are introduced without ever being explained, and the narrative itself is drastically different in tone and theme from the film. Are the Mystery Men actually aliens studying our behavior, or is John just insane? Is the city really an elaborate construct, or did he just imagine the whole affair? Is the point of this screenplay to tell us that the world in which we live is an illusion, or is it to convey that this one character is off his rocker?

I don’t know, and in the end, I don’t care. All I do know is that I’m glad the studio executives got involved when they saw this mess of a script. They recognized it’s potential, but realized that no one would go see it unless drastic changes were made. So, they brought in several other writers–such as David S. Goyer–gave the story a happy ending, explained certain details, expanded upon others, and, in the end, gave us the contemporary classic that we now know and love. All I’m trying to tell my fellow writers here is that, just because somebody says that they want to edit your story, don’t automatically assume that they’re going to turn your work into garbage. Odds are, they’re just trying to make it more palatable to a wider audience, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, if you want to keep selling your scripts, it’s actually quite a good thing. So, it might be in your best interest to be open to the idea.

 

From Screenplay To Screen: John Logan’s The Last Samurai

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

 

As some of you might already know, my all-time goal is to become a screenwriter in Hollywood, and as some others of you may well be aware, the first step to becoming a successful screenwriter is learning the structure of a good screenplay. How, you might ask, does one do that? Well, just as aspiring authors might look to Pulitzer, Man Booker, or Nobel Prize winning texts for inspiration, the up and coming screenwriter examines Best Screenplay winning scripts for hints as to what made these pieces successful. It is a practice I myself have employed, and one that I have found extremely helpful over the years. And yet, it is also one that has made me far wearier of the film industry in general, for as I read these beautiful works, I couldn’t help but notice something troubling they all had in common. Rarely, if ever, are the films that get produced the same as the scripts on which they are based. Now, to some of you, this might seem like a pretty trivial matter. After all, isn’t the practice of writing really all an exercise in revision? Isn’t it a given that the final product won’t be identical to the first draft? Yes, writing is all about revision, and yes, the end product does differ greatly from the original work, but you see, its different for screenwriters because, unlike regular authors, who just sell their final pieces as is, we have to sell our scripts to directors and studios, who can do whatever they want with our babies, if we want to get paid. Plus, there is a substantial difference between making alterations to a text, and flat out transforming it into something else, as is often the case with screenplays. Doing so can drastically alter the tone, meaning and themes of the story, and in some extreme cases, turn a touching and profound piece of work into generic Hollywood junk. Case and point: Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai.

 

Now before any of you fan boys out there feel the urge to crucify me, let me make one thing abundantly clear: I do NOT hate this movie. I am, in fact, a HUGE fan of it. Everyone’s got that one movie that changed their lives–either it opened their eyes to a whole new imaginary world, or else motivated them to do something. For my father, that film was Ridley Scott’s Alien. For me, it was The Last Samurai.

 

For those of you who don’t know what it’s about, it’s basically Dances With Wolves set in Japan. In 1876, the Japanese government recruits alcoholic American soldier, Nathan Algren, to train the newly formed Imperial Army. Japan has just emerged from centuries of isolation, and is now hoping to modernize and learn from the West. As such, the country is caught between the new–embodied by the greedy businessman Omura, who manipulates the young emperor Meiji to increase his own wealth–and the old–represented by the samurai lord Katsumoto, who, while loyal to the emperor, believes the nation is changing to fast. While he’s there, Algren gets captured by the samurai, who decide not to kill him, and spends several months in their village, sobering up and learning their way of life. As you might expect, during his time there, he grows attached to them, particularly to the family of Taka, Katsumoto’s sister. Eventually deciding that he can no longer fight these people he loves, Algren dons red armor, picks up a sword, and rides into battle against the very Imperial Army he trained. Unfortunately for him, the samurai, being both outnumbered and going up against canons and machine guns, get massacred, and he is the only one left alive. The film ends with Algren appearing before the emperor, offering the latter Katsumoto’s sword, and urging him to respect tradition. Touched by his pleas, the emperor accepts the blade and refuses to sign an arms deal that would vastly expand both Omura’s wealth and America’s sphere of influence in Japan. Satisfied, Algren returns to Katsumoto’s village and the home of Taka, where he finds, “some small measure of peace. One, which we all search for, but few of us ever find.”

 

The first time I saw this film, I was truly blown away. It was every nerdy, pre-teen boy like my self’s dream: young man goes to distant country, becomes fluent in a new language, acquires bad-ass skills, learns important life lessons, and even finds love with a beautiful woman. I feel no shame when I say that this picture was the single greatest reason why I took three years of Japanese and studied Aikido. (I guess I deluded myself into thinking that somehow I could make what had happened in it real). Anyway, for years I watched it over and over again, finding something new to enjoy about it every time I did. And yet, even in the midst of all my adoration, I began to question some of its odder aspects. At first, it was little things like; If Japan has only just opened up to the West, how is it that so many people–Omura, Katsumoto, the Emperor–are fluent in English? Over time, this curiosity expanded to other, larger things like; why is the conflict, which is clearly a civil war, characterized as a tribal uprising? How could Graham, the British interpreter, have lived in Japan for decades if the Land of the Rising Sun only just opened up to foreigners? Why is it that the White guy, Algren, is the only one to survive the war? And if the emperor wasn’t willing to preserve tradition at the behest of Katsumoto, a native Japanese who’d lived his whole life by the book of Bushido, why would he suddenly agree to do so when a foreigner, the exact kind of person that’s threatening Japan and that Katsumoto wouldn’t want him to associate with, tells him to? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the film was seriously lacking in the way of logic. This, as you might expect, seriously decreased my enjoyment of the picture.

 

But by far the greatest factor in changing my perception of the film was the reactions of Japanese and Japanese-Americans who saw it. Many, like my Japanese teacher, Yukiyo Mormon, felt that the movie inaccurately portrayed the period in which it was set. As she was quick to point out, the emperor did not, as the film portrays it, have any real political authority at that time, and more importantly, there was no major uprising by samurai during the Meiji Restoration. Many of them, as I was shocked to discover, willingly set down their swords and happily joined modern Japanese society, becoming powerful businessmen and government officials. By far the most troubling thing to her and other Japanese people was how the film excessively glorified and simplified samurai culture. See, throughout the movie, Algren, as well as the people who hire him, characterize the conflict as a tribal uprising. In one scene, for instance, the characters even liken the samurai to Native Americans, whom it is revealed through flashbacks Algren has fought in the past. What this does is cast the samurai as an ethnic minority–noble savages living in harmony with nature; struggling to preserve their way of life in the face of outside encroachment. This portrayal, as my teachers were desperate to point out, is just about the polar opposite of the truth. Not only did the samurai belong to the ethnic MAJORITY of Japan, they were also the country’s RULING CLASS for centuries. So, if they ever were to rise up against the central government, it wouldn’t be because they thought the rest of Japanese society viewed them as a sub-human scourge that needed to be eradicated, but rather, it would be because they were rich old fogies who didn’t want to lose all their power to the nouveau riche. Also, many Japanese people I spoke to found it kind of insulting that it was the White guy, Algren, who manages to convince the Emperor to respect tradition. To them, this was a classic example of Orientalism, of Westerners attempting to keep Eastern societies from modernizing. In short, I was hard pressed to find a single Japanese person who liked this movie. This, in turn, got me thinking about it in a whole new light, and, as result, led to me liking it a great deal less.

 

But what, you might be wondering; does any of this have to do with screenplays? Well I’ll tell you. See, after hearing all the complaints from my Japanese friends and teachers, I didn’t watch this movie for ages. Then, around junior year of High School, when I realized that I wanted to be a screenwriter, I decided to take another look at it. See, I thought it would be a good idea to read the screenplays for the movies that I’d loved growing up, or had been successful, in order to understand what worked about them, and since The Last Samurai had been both financially successful AND a huge part of my life, it was only natural that I should include it. Anyway, I looked up the original script by John Logan–who also wrote such films as Gladiator, The Aviator, and Hugo–and discovered some shocking things about it, namely that it was almost nothing like the film that was produced. How different was it? Well, why don’t I draw you up a list of all the details that were either changed, or just plain omitted, from the original text?

 

  1. In the screenplay, Algren is shown as a Civil War Vet, not an Indian fighter. This is precisely why Omura and the other Japanese officials want to hire him–because they’re in the middle of a Civil War, and he understands these kinds of conflicts.

 

  1. The screenplay explains how Katsumoto and Omura learned to speak English so well–Katsumoto, as an Imperial official, was given orders to study the language so as to negotiate with foreigners, while Omura learned it at Princeton, no doubt to get ahead in the area of international business.

 

  1. Much more back-story is given on the Meiji Restoration, the Samurai Code, and the structure of Japanese government. Also, the script points out everything that my Japanese teacher told me–that the emperor was a figurehead, that most samurai and daimyo set down their swords willingly, and that the samurai were not an ethnic minority, but rather, an old aristocratic class dissatisfied with the prospect of losing power.

 

  1. The conflict is shown as a civil war, and not a tribal uprising. This, to me, makes the story much more respectful to the samurai and to Japanese culture in general, because when Katsumoto is described in the movie as a “tribal leader,” and likened to a Native American rebel, it’s not only inaccurate, its kind of condescending.

 

  1. In the script, Bagley–Algren’s old commanding officer, and the one who convinces him to go to Japan–is portrayed as a cowardly old buffoon, and not a heartless young psychopath. There’s a whole subplot in the movie where Algren hates Bagley because, years before, Bagley had his men massacre an entire Native American village. This was what caused Algren to become a depressed alcoholic, and is the reason why he feels so reluctant to train the Imperial Army. Even when I absolutely adored the movie, I never really understood why the filmmakers chose to include this part. If you think about it, it doesn’t add anything to the picture, or make sense given the larger narrative. I mean, if Algren hates Bagley so much, and doesn’t have to listen to him anymore because he’s no longer in the Army, why would he agree to travel across thousands of miles of ocean, and adapt to a strange new culture, just to fight for a man he despises? It just doesn’t come off as all that logical. If, on the other hand, Bagley is just a guy–not angelically good or devilishly bad–it becomes far more plausible that Algren might want to work with him again.

 

  1. The character of the Emperor is considerably more nuanced in the screenplay. He’s shown as an intelligent, curious young man caught between two worlds, and not a weak-willed boy easily manipulated by his advisors. There are several scenes that were not included in the film where we see him talking with Omura and the other officials, trying to strike that balance between traditionalism and modernity. All this makes him a far more complex and interesting figure, and I think it’s a real shame that, in the film, he only ever got to be a cardboard cutout.

 

  1. There’s a scene in the movie where Katsumoto’s village is under attack from a group of ninjas hired by Omura. In the screenplay, however, the assault takes place on the road back to Tokyo. This makes more sense if you think about it, because if Omura already knows where Katsumoto’s village is, and is even able to send mercenaries there, why bother building up a huge army to crush him? Why not just solve the matter quietly, as opposed to spending millions of dollars on military equipment and training?

 

  1. The screenplay gives us a much more concrete reason for why Omura is so hell-bent on removing Katsumoto; if he can build a railroad through Katsumoto’s province, he’ll have access to the sea, and from there his Zaibatsu will be able to trade with China.

 

  1. In the script, Algren is shown as having lost a wife AND a younger brother, and it is implied that it is his sorrow over their deaths that caused him to become an alcoholic. I’m personally glad that they chose to omit this part in the movie, because it felt kind of contrived to me, but that’s beside the point. This is still a major difference between the two pieces.

 

  1. The differences between Japanese and American society are explored much more deeply in the screenplay than in the film. Yes, they do show Algren experiencing some culture shock in the movie–like in the scene where he watches a defeated general commit seppuku, or ritual suicide–and yes, he and Katsumoto do have a couple conversations about the differences between their countries and peoples. However, on the whole, the film’s Algren seems much less put off by the strangeness of his new environment, and adapts to it far more rapidly. In the screenplay, by contrast, he’s shown as reacting far more negatively, and in some cases, violently, to his surroundings. There’s one scene early on in the story where he and his friend get thrown out of a Geisha house because they mistake it for a brothel, and when he arrives in Katsumoto’s village, he regularly argues with, and even insults, the people around him, calling their culture savage and bizarre, and asking them why they can’t act in a manner that’s more comprehensible to him. This behavior, while obviously making him come off as far less likable, is considerably more realistic if you think about it. Even in today’s world, where people from different nations interact with one another on a regular basis, many Westerners who visit Japan find its culture rather perplexing, so imagine how confused an American from the 19th century, a time when most people never left their town, let alone their country, would be if he were suddenly dropped into a samurai village. It would be shocking, to say the least.

 

  1. The screenplay explains what happens to all the major characters, and not juts Algren. This was always something that bothered me about the movie–that we never got to see what fates befell The Emperor, Omura, or Graham the Interpreter. In the screenplay, however, we’re given full closure on each of these individuals. Omura is stripped of his wealth and position, and sent to an island up in the far north. The Emperor grants equal trading privileges to all nations, and lives to see his country surpass China, Korea, and even Russia in military, technological, and economic might. And lastly, Graham returns to England, where he publishes a book entitled, “The Last Samurai,” based on Algren’s writings.

 

  1. It is made abundantly clear in the script that “The Last Samurai” is Katsumoto, not Algren. What this does is make him out to be the main character, or at the very least, the moral and spiritual pillar of the story, neither of which he is in the movie.

 

Phew! That’s a lot of changes!

 

Anyway, after I read the screenplay and saw all the alteration that had been made to it in the film, I had an epiphany. I realized that, if you want to work in Hollywood, there are certain rules that you, as a writer, must abide by. First, you can only have white people be the heroes of your stories. Why? Because the largest demographic that goes to see movies in this country is white people, and white people are still uncomfortable with the idea of having a person of color, who’s not Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman, in the lead. Second, if you’re writing a period piece, don’t bother throwing in too much historical detail or accuracy, because 1) popcorn chewing audiences won’t notice how much effort you put into making your story authentic, and 2) because these same audiences will find too much history boring. And thirdly, you’ve got to have a romance in there somewhere. Even if what you’re writing is an action movie or war epic, you’ve got to include at least one scene with sex or kissing in it. Why? Because boners speak louder than brains. (Sigh).

 

Anyway, after discovering all this, I started to question whether or not I actually wanted to be a screenwriter. The more I thought about it, the more the profession didn’t seem like a logical choice for me. After all, I’m a person who loves history, who believes Americans should be better informed on current events and global issues, and who’s long fought to end the stereotypical portrayals of certain groups in the media. So, did I really want to be part of an industry that, in addition to controlling what content I could put out there, very often exploits minorities, rewrites history, and thrives off the public’s love of sex and violence? The answer I inevitably came to was “YES!” Yes, I do want to be part of that industry. Why? Because how else, except from within, can I make the films that Americans watch more accurate, more educational, or more respectful? How else can I make the dreams I have come true? Yes, Hollywood and the movie industry are flawed, but neither of them is beyond saving. My generation, the Millennials–the most highly educated, international, and Tec savvy generation in global history–is taking over, and I have no doubt that we will bring about substantial changes in the content that gets put out there. Together we will usher in a new Golden Era of filmmaking, one with new rules, new standards, and new techniques that surpass anything our forebears have done.

 

So, fellow writers–do not despair! Continue to hone your craft. Don’t be afraid of the supposed restrictions of Hollywood. The people enforcing them will be gone soon enough, and together we can create new movies and works of art, unbound and unblemished by anything!

Should Screenwriters Just Sell Out: An Analytical Comparison of Charlie Kaufmann’s Adaptation and Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths.

Greetings loved ones! Liu is the name, and views are my game.

 

About three weeks back, a good friend and fellow writer asked me to do an analysis of Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. As both a huge admirer of Mr McDonagh’s work, and someone quite flattered at the idea of receiving fan requests, I agreed to the task. In an interesting twist of fate, I got Seven Psychopaths in the mail at exactly the same time as Adaptation, a film I’d been hoping to watch for a while. More interesting still was the fact that, as soon as I got the chance to sit down and see these pictures, I discovered that they shared a startling number of similarities. Both movies focus on screenwriters struggling to create profound pieces of work that don’t include sex, violence or any of the other Hollywood tropes. Both protagonists end up embarking on wacky adventures which give them the inspiration they were looking for. And finally, both stories end with the main characters writing scripts filled with nudity, guns, and just about all the other stuff they initially said they didn’t want to write about. Do I smell a hypocrite?

Anyway, when I saw how similar these films were in terms of both plot and theme, I decided to be bold and do something I’d never done before–squeeze two analyses into one. Under different circumstances I would never have even considered taking on such a task–I’ve been known to take weeks to write a single analysis, let alone two in one–but given the time and climate of the request, I simply couldn’t refuse. See, I’m about to go off to college to study creative writing, and I thought it beneficial to both my craft and confidence to analyze films, which, in addition to being critically acclaimed, dealt with the process of writing and with the dilemma of originality. So in the end, though I continually told myself that it wasn’t worth the effort, I decided to grit my teeth and get the analysis done. I won’t pretend that it was easy–I had to stop, backtrack and start from scratch several times–but, overall, I’m quite glad I did it. Analyzing these films taught me a great deal about the discipline it takes to be a writer, and I feel considerably more confident in my work for doing this.

But, concerning the pictures themselves; when I first saw them, I kind of hated them. Their protagonists constantly whined about how much they despised the “kiss kiss, bang bang” doctrine of Hollywood, and yet, by the time the opening credits rolled, they’d embraced it themselves. If there’s anything I truly dislike in this world, it’s hypocrites. They just make me want to scream. But you know what? Being a little bit of a hypocrite is forgivable, even endearing. It shows that you’re imperfect, that you’re human. What isn’t forgivable is being a giant hypocrite who does the things he or she professes to hate to an excessive degree, in other words, to be like the makers of these films. In an interview at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, Martin McDonagh explained how Seven Psychopaths was his own small rebellion against movie violence, and yet this “rebellion” is one of the most violent films ever made. Within it, several people are burned alive, even more have their brains blown out, and one dude has his head sawed off, very, very slowly. Similarly, Adaptation’s protagonist, a fictionalized version of the film’s screenwriter, Charlie Kaufmann, says he doesn’t want to make a movie with sex in it, and yet every other scene seems to have some dude masturbating or some woman pulling her top off. But what was most troubling to me about these movies the first time I saw them was their underlying message–the message that creativity and originality are overrated, and that in order to succeed, one must write the mindless drivel that the masses have seen a million times before. This flat out depressed me because, If that’s true, why should I go through all the trouble of studying to be a filmmaker? I mean, it’s all been done before, so why should I bother with attempting to create something new?

As you can see, my feelings toward these pictures weren’t exactly warm upon my initial viewing. And yet, as time wore on, I developed a more nuanced understanding, and, by extension, appreciation for them. Yes, the movies possessed many of the characteristics of other films that their creators claimed to hate, but that’s the whole point of satire–to mimic one thing to an excessive degree in order to show how stupid it is. Similarly, while the characters did end up selling out, so to speak, they did so in a manner that actually left the door open for creativity. In Adaptation, Charlie decides to take advice on screenwriting from a man named Robert McKee, who is completely for originality and staying true to one’s beliefs, but all while following certain principles of storytelling. Seven Psychopaths likewise possesses a moment where the protagonist has an epiphany about balancing rebellious ideals with corporate interest. The main character, Marty, writes a story about a former Viet Cong soldier who, in order to get back at the Americans who murdered his family, sends a prostitute with a bomb strapped to her body into a veterans convention. Marty doesn’t like how violent this vignette is, and so abandons it. He is eventually convinced to finish it, however, when a friend gives him an idea that the whole veterans convention scene is actually the dying thoughts of a Buddhist monk about to burn himself in order to protest the Vietnam war. The fantasy represents the monk’s anger, his desire to stop these horrible and destructive people in a manner befitting their barbarity. In the end, however, he is able to let go of these violent feelings, and make a statement that is both powerful and clear, and more importantly, doesn’t hurt anyone else. To me, this whole monk scenario is a very good metaphor for rebellious screenwriters. We, like the monk, want to stop a certain group whom we dislike, and to do it in a manner that is resonant and memorable. And yet, if we attack these people, be it with words or weapons, we just end up hurting ourselves. Sure we can protest–we can even strive to be original in that protest–but the simple fact is, everything has been done at least once before, so there’s no point in hating stuff that has been around for a while and that we already know works.

So, if I’ve learned anything from analyzing these two pictures, its that, nothing in this world is original, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As writers, we must simply do our best to work within the limits of human imagination and public interest. If we’re able to do that, we will be far more successful in both our careers, and our own personal crusades. And in the end, that’s about all we can really hope to do in life.

If you disagree, please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. Thank you for reading my first ever double analysis, and have a good night.