Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Artist: Best Picture of the Year

Off to rehearse for a comedy pilot, but had to say something about The Artist, the new near-silent, black-and-white film that's generating so much buzz.  It's terrific.  The most imaginative and visually beautiful film I've seen all year.  Jean Dujardin may single-handedly bring back the pencil mustache!  (The Fedora is already making a comeback among sophisticated dressers, my darling husband included. Let's hope the film also brings back the beefy three-piece suit to replace those silly, skinny-legged things sold in New York at Suit Supply.)

But enough about fashion.  Every frame of this film is drop-dead gorgeous.  The lighting is perfection. (Watch for the scene where Dujardin stands at the back of a darkened, near empty theater with the light on his face.  It took my breath away.) The story is simple, straightforward, and compelling.  It also has some quirky scene elements reminiscent of The Coen Brothers.  In fact, this is a film the Coens would have made had they thought of it first.

The Europeans are again showing Americans how it's done.

The only disappointment: I looked up Dujardin on IMDb and his photo shows him with the ubiquitous three-day beard sported by half the actors in Hollywood.  He looked utterly forgettable, whereas in the film he's a knockout.

But that's a small point to be dealt with by his agent.  I'm buying this film.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Surprise, surprise. There's a global market for American TV.

Racing through December and trying not to be too dismayed by the scheduling conflicts and missed opportunities.  Family responsibilities.  Too much to do.  The tree isn't up. I'm so tired I found myself in tears on the way to the day job on Monday.  But I watched Phil Rosenthal's hilarious doc, Exporting Raymond, while wrapping gifts the other night and was amazed to learn there is such a foreign clamoring for American TV.  No, not subtitled reruns.  They are selling the scripts to foreign production companies and reshooting the series with foreign casts.  This doc is about efforts to sell Everybody Loves Raymond to Russia.  It's an eye-opener, and very funny!  Hang in through the credits.  There's a scream of a sight gag involving a Big Mouth Bass (the animated plaque.)  Also check out the completed Russian episodes.  The question I had was, "Is this kind of humor universal?  Or have we found a new way to export American culture?  If the latter, let's hope they stick to shows like The Nanny and ELR and leave Community in the can (or wherever they keep shows these days.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sadly, Hugo disappoints

I really looked forward to seeing Martin Scorcese's film Hugo because Scorcese is a terrific director and the film was getting great buzz online and in the papers. A lot of people like this film. Last night I saw it and, sadly, I did not.  Boo. To begin with, it's not a film for children, it's a film in which children appear.  It gets long and talky, which kids have no patience for (even for adults it could have been 20 minutes shorter), and Sacha Baron Cohen is allowed a running aside to another character that is inappropriate for children to hear.

But the killer for me is that it goes from a film about action happening to the main character (OMG a little boy is lost and in peril!!!) to a film about something that happened to Ben Kingley's character years ago (the old man fell on hard times career-wise and is just distraught about it.) At that point it loses its magic.

Films are about ACTION, as Viki King points out in her book on writing screenplays.   Plus, when Kingley's story is presented as the "mystery" the plot as been building toward, and the focus shifts to him, my reaction was "What?  THAT's all it is?!"  What about the kid?!  Oliver Twist is about Oliver Twist!  David Copperfield is about David Copperfield!  Harry Potter is about Harry Potter! Halfway into Hugo, the little boy's story goes away and the film becomes a college seminar on the origins of filmmaking.  No, no, no.

It wasted wonderful name actors, like Emily Mortimer and Jude Law, in under-five-line roles that could have just as easily gone to lesser known character actors who needed the work.  It brings in characters, like the bookseller, played by Christopher Lee, and then goes nowhere with them.  It indulges in gratuitous camera shots (the overhead in the book store, the revolves around people when they're talking) that distract the viewer from the dialogue and lose the intimacy of the moment.

That said, Hugo has a rich and breathtakingly beautiful look we don't often see in films.  It moves seamlessly between real characters and CGI.  And Asa Butterfield, the boy who plays Hugo, is captivating and a delight to watch.

And this review is why my kids don't like going to the movies with me.

Friday, December 2, 2011

If you're an aspiring screenwriter, keep the faith...and brace yourself!

This seems to be my week for delving into the technical side of the filmmaking business and watching a lot of documentaries on getting a concept from page to screen.  My husband is a budding novelist (he's shopping 3 novels around to publishers at the moment) and I have a script in the works for a tense drama/horror short.

Last night the two of us watched Tales from the Script, one of the best films about screenwriting since Get Shorty (just kidding.)  Actually one point that comes through in Get Shorty (a favorite) is that good screenwriters love the movies and have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of films and filmmakers.

But one problem screenwriters - or any writers, for that matter - have is too much love of their own words, and too often trying to "tell" the story rather than "show" it.  You have to think in scenes and emotional tone, without having your characters describe the scene or emotion.

Harrison Ford, in one of the film's many anecdotes, tells a screenwriter how much he likes the lines that were written for his character in a particular scene.  The elated writer says, "Gee, thanks!" and then Ford tells him he's not going to actually say any of them, because he can convey all of those words with a look.

Exactly.  Film is visual.  I find with my own script that I get all those words out of my system by putting it into scene direction.  The director can take it or leave it, but at least I've got my intent on the page. Another thing I find myself doing is reading the dialogue out loud to see if it rolls off the tongue and sounds like something a person would actually say.  (Actors cringe when they're handed speeches passing for dialogue.)

Bottom line from Tales of the Script: prepare to actually sell only 25 percent of your finished work and to have only half of those scripts go into production.  Once sold, prepare to see your script torn apart by a committee and scenes and characters added/deleted to make it more marketable but which ruin the story.  Still, the Hollywood pros all seem to have their own strategies for preserving as much as possible of their original concept.  For that reason alone, this is a film worth watching.

p.s. By the way, when I started out to write a screenplay, I came across a number of useful books, one of which is How to Write a Movie in 21 days: The Inner Movie Method by Viki King, an old standard that has been in print for 15 years.  Despite the rather off-putting title and breathless prose, what the book does that is very useful is get you moving.  It doesn't analyze screenwriting as high art; it's nuts and bolts, get it on the page. A lot of practical tips, and you can buy it used.