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The Doctor Is In: Why Hollywood Spends So Much Time and Money “Fixing” Screenplays

In terms of money spent, time invested, pages turned out, there’s more script “doctoring” than script creating in the American movie business.

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Writing is creating something out of nothing.

Rewriting is creating something out of what is there…


Robert Towne

Tomorrow, your wannabe screenwriter’s prayers are answered; you get a break, you get hired to work on a movie. And you’re lucky — that first gig opens doors for you. People in the business come to know your name, know what you can do, they ask for you so you don’t have to scuffle around for work, and there isn’t much downtime between gigs. You go for 10-20 years working regularly (well, semi-regularly — let’s not stretch a fantasy into the fantastic). You become what you’d always dreamed of becoming: a working screenwriter.

But here’s the rub. You go that whole time, from the head-exploding giddiness of that “We want you” phone call until that day 10-20 years hence when you wind up teaching screenwriting at some small two-year college out in the hinterlands, without once working on an original piece of your own. Your future students Google you up on IMDB, and they run down a respectable list of film credits under your name, but one after another is followed by, “uncredited…uncredited…uncredited…”
How is that possible? Is that even possible? You’re damned right it’s possible.

Because, my friends, the bulk of screenwriting is just that: rewriting. And not rewriting your own stuff. In terms of money spent, time invested, and pages turned out, there’s more script “doctoring” than script creating in the American movie business.

In a previous piece I’d written about screenwriting, five-time Emmy-winning writer/producer/director Bill Persky described his decades-long career thusly: “…most of what I have written was filling in the next episode of people someone else had created, and except for originals, that is what most film writers are doing.” One of Hollywood’s ace rewriters, Robert Towne, once told an interviewer asking him about his script doctoring, “All scripts are rewritten…” In a New York Times Magazine profile of another rewrite ace, David Rayfiel (whose credited/uncredited screenplay work runs 60/40 percentage-wise), Alex Ward wrote: “In a medium where, according to one agent, ‘approximately three movies are made for every 1000 screenplays that are written’…virtually every screenplay that is produced undergoes revision of some kind…” In that same article, Ward continued, “Almost every movie writer, (Rayfiel) points out, has at one time or another had his work revised, by himself or others. The torturous process of revising scripts — to suit directors, or actors, or production schedules, or all three — is an accepted fact of life in the business.”

This is nothing peculiar to the Hollywood of today. Thus it is, thus has it always been. Back during the heyday of the studio system — say from the 1930s into the early 1950s — it was not uncommon for a producer and/or director and/or studio production exec to run a piece of material through any number of its salaried writers in the hopes of attaining that ever-elusive cinematic grail of “getting it right.” Take the 1942 classic, Casablanca: the screenplay passed through the hands of five credited and one uncredited writer — and was still being worked on during the shoot. In fact, there were times when a studio would have more than one writer working on the same project simultaneously, each not knowing about the other!

The only difference between then and now is that in our media-glutted environment, a movie’s screenplay going through a process not dissimilar to a long relay race makes for a juicy bit of entertainment news. We hear more about it these days because we can.

That said, however, there are times it goes to levels that seem ridiculous. My favorite tale on this account has to do with the 1994 live-action version of The Flintstones. According to several sources, from the time film rights to the 1960s animated TV series were acquired in 1985 until the film’s release, over three dozen writers worked on the project. End result: a moneymaker, but one with an abominable 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

So what is it that goes on in that process? What’s that vast tonnage of rehashing and re-rehashing and re-re-rehashing material all about?

Screenplay Writing

The answers range from the strictly practical to typical Hollywood insanity. And despite how it looks when the score of rewrite talents a production runs up a la The Flintstones, it’s never a decision to be made capriciously. “If you’re replacing somebody,” says veteran TV movie producer Gerald Abrams (over 70 TV movies and miniseries including Family of Spies [1990] and Nuremberg [2000]), “it’s expensive, especially on television budgets.”

Sometimes, fate allows no choice. On what was then titled The Empire Strikes Back (1980, later re-branded, Star Wars Part V The Empire Strikes Back), George Lucas had to bring in Lawrence Kasdan to finish developing the screenplay when the original scribe, veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett, was lost to cancer. Abrams tells a less-lethal but no less a sometimes-life-gets-in-the-way story of having to replace one of the writers on a medical drama pilot, Cutter to Houston, when the writer had to be hospitalized with chest pains.

I went through a similar experience myself. Back in the early 2000s, producer Sonny Grosso asked me to take over for a writer on a true-crime TV movie who, after having delivered the story outline, landed in the hospital for surgery. I banged out two drafts for Grosso which kept the project alive, but then was shown the door when the original screenwriter recovered enough to come back on the project. So goes the Hollywood talent merry-go-round.

There are times when the issue may be purely logistical. On one of my favorite movies, John Sturges’ 1960 Western classic The Magnificent Seven, Walter Newman, who had written the screenplay, decided not to accompany the production to Mexico for personal reasons, so Sturges brought in William Roberts to do on-scene rewrites (Newman was so miffed when the Writer’s Guild decided Roberts’ contribution was enough to warrant a shared writing credit that Newman pulled his name off the film completely).

While such cases illustrate that replacing a writer may be a case of have-to, most of the time it’s about want-to.

Think of any film project as a Jenga tower; you remove a few key pieces, the tower collapses, and you have to start all over again. In the movies, that process looks something like this:

A producer hires a writer to develop an idea the producer has for a movie. They go through a couple of drafts, get the material to a point where the producer thinks he/she has something that can hook a director…and he/she does. But the director has his/her own vision of the material, doesn’t feel in sync with the writer, and so brings in another writer he/she feels will be more in tune with that vision. The producer takes a long time to try to find a home for the project — too long, in the director’s eyes — so the director leaves to take a more promising gig elsewhere. The producer then brings on another director who has another creative vision requiring another writer. The producer can’t find a home for the project, sells the property to another producer/production company/studio with their own ideas of how the project should play, which means yet another writer, and then…well, you get the picture.  Typically, the longer a project is in development, the more likely it will go through one set of creative hands after another; every time one of the check-signing, decision-making players changes, one writer will be going out the door as another one is coming in.

My second professional gig was adapting Douglas Terman’s post-apocalyptic bestseller Free Flight for a couple of newbie producers. They shopped the property around for several months before selling an option to producer Elliott Kastner. Kastner wanted his own writer on the project, so I was dropped. When Kastner’s option expired six months later without him being able to set the project up anywhere, the rights reverted to the newbies, who brought me back onto the piece. Another few months passed and they sold the property to RKO, which was going through one of its sporadic attempts to revive its production arm. RKO liked the work I was doing and kept me on through three drafts, but on the eve of greenlighting the project, the management which had brought Free Flight into the studio was ousted and the piece was shelved. Sometime later, I contacted RKO about the possibility of resurrecting the project only to find that they’d already tried that with another writer and director. When both were offered more attractive gigs, they bailed and Free Flight went back on the shelf. Round and round on the merry-go-round.

Oh, the Horror!

I went through this same whirl-a-gig on an adaptation of Steven Szilagyi’s novel Photographing Fairies, a 1920s-set fantasy inspired by the case of the “Cottingly Fairies” (full disclosure:  Steve was and remains a good friend, and was a co-author on my first novel, The Advocate). When the book was published in 1992, it did quite well both commercially and critically, enough so that Steve’s agent thought it worthwhile to try peddling film rights. When they couldn’t get any takers, the agent thought it might make the material more attractive if there were already a screenplay adaptation, so Steve hired me to hammer one out. The agent finally got someone interested in a film adaptation — a husband and wife team who had done special effects on one of the Muppet movies. But — and you probably see this coming — they wanted to do their own script, so I was bounced. The property changed hands again, the Muppet FXers were out, and the screenplay on the finished 1998 film is credited to Chris Harrald and Nick Willing, who also directed. Round and round.

In the late 1990s, Cliff Hollingsworth was an aspiring screenwriter bouncing between his native South Carolina and L.A., where he kept himself fed as a security guard while trying to sell his screenplays. In 1995-96, he latched on to the Depression-era story of the comeback of light heavyweight boxer James J. Braddock. Hollingsworth tracked down Braddock’s two sons, spent hours getting stories from them about their father, and molded them into a screenplay titled Cinderella Man. Hollingsworth finally landed the script in front of Penny Marshall who, after one rewrite, replaced Hollingsworth. The project stalled, eventually came to the attention of Russell Crowe, who pitched it to Ron Howard, with whom he’d scored a major hit and a Best Actor Oscar nod with A Beautiful Mind (2001). Howard, in turn, called in Beautiful Mind screenwriter Akiva Goldsman for a rewrite (after a WGA arbitration, Hollingsworth and Goldsman shared screenplay credit on the 2005 release). Round and round and round. 

Often, the change of hands isn’t so much about changing visions at the top as much as a writer’s inability — despite his/her best efforts — to get material where a director and/or producer want it to be.  Writers do hit walls.  

On his Emmy-nominated 2000 miniseries Nuremberg, Gerald Abrams was working with veteran TV writer David W. Rintels, but found what he says was a widely-shared experience by those who’d worked with Rintels. He could deliver a strong first draft, but no matter what notes he was given for revision, subsequent drafts didn’t look much different from his first draft, and so another writer had to be brought in.

I was writing a small thriller called Road Ends (1997), and after a half-dozen drafts had to tell director Rick King, who was producing the film along with star Chris Sarandon, that I’d burned out on the material and couldn’t take it any further. King and Sarandon had to do further polishing on their own, and then King had to do on-scene rewriting to accommodate the film’s tight budget and locations (the screenplay had been set in the Florida keys, but budgetary reasons forced shooting in the hills outside of L.A.).

A piece may not need a page one overhaul, but be missing…something. This from a Mark Harris 2017 piece in New York about screenwriting:

“I often hear execs admiringly describe writers as ‘specialists’:  This one can give you a page-one dialogue polish in a week, that one can ‘bring the heart’; this one is a carpenter who can hammer the framework of a plot into place, that one can ‘add depth’…” “If you want to use the ‘script doctor’ analogy,” Robert Towne once told an interviewer, some projects don’t require “…a major operation — just spot surgery in a highly specific area.” 

These are the true “script doctors” who are something like baseball’s relief pitchers — brought in late in the game to save a project. The label may not have always been there, but the function was, as screenplays routinely wound their way through the writers’ stables of Old Hollywood.

I first heard the term in the 1970s in connection with Robert Towne, who by then had been branded a rewrite ace. Towne had begun his career in the early 1960s working on low-budget horror flicks for B-movie king Roger Corman, but it was his rewrite work on Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which not only established him as a go-to script doctor (credited and uncredited work include Drive, He Said [1971], Cisco Pike [1972], The Godfather [1972], The Yakuza (1974], The Missouri Breaks [1976], among others), but led to a long-running collaborative relationship with Bonnie and Clyde star/producer Warren Beatty, which extended through The Parallax View (1974), Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Love Affair (1994).

Part of Towne’s reputation was based not only on his ability to artfully fix script problems, but to do so under high-pressure circumstances. In one interview, Towne recalled Francis Ford Coppola tasking him with coming up with a scene for Marlon Brando and Al Pacino on The Godfather, knowing the project was going to lose Brando within 24 hours. The resulting scene is a lovely autumnal duet late in the film, Michael Corleone sitting with his father, Vito, in their yard, the ruminative father saying how he’d never wanted the gangster life for his son. “There wasn’t enough time, Michael,” Vito Corleone muses, “wasn’t enough time.” “We’ll get there, Pop,” Michael replies, “We’ll get there.” It may be one of the most affecting scenes in Coppola’s mob epic, and belongs to neither of the film’s credited screenwriters — Coppola and Mario Puzo — but to relief pitcher Towne.

Like Towne and Beatty, there are filmmakers who regularly like to run material through the hands of a writer not just to fix problems, but because they feel that writer is exceptionally plugged into their particular sensibility. Says Akiva Goldsman, as respected for his rewrite work (Charlie’s Angels [2000], The Sum of All Fears [2002], Hancock [2008], among others) as for his originals: “The more you work with someone, the better you work together.”

One of my script doctoring heroes, and someone who exemplifies Goldsman’s philosophy, is David Rayfiel, who was regularly director Sydney Pollack’s go-to script guy. In his 1986 New York Times Magazine profile of Rayfiel, Alex Ward wrote:

“…(Rayfiel) is generally unknown outside the movie-making business. But among some insiders, says (director Sidney) Lumet, ‘The word is, if you’ve got trouble with your picture, get David’.” 

Award-winning novelist and free-lance editor Ellen Akins had worked for Pollack in her early post-graduate days. Her take on the Rayfield/Pollack collaboration:

“They both started out in theater, in New York City, and they shared a love of jazz (Rayfiel often said that he wrote dialogue ‘like jazz’). But most of all, I think, Sydney was a romantic, and David Rayfiel had a sort of wit and magnetism that emerged in the elliptical or suggestive sort of writing that Sydney admired. Rayfiel used to say that art is courtship, and his writing conjured that in a way that worked on Sydney as much as if not more than on an audience.

“I should say there was an industry insider who once said to me that some said (always ‘some’) that Sydney’s dependence on Rayfiel was actually a weakness. But if that’s what got him through so many movies, then I’d say Rayfiel was critical to Sydney’s success.”

Though Rayfiel worked for a number of directors, the largest share of his efforts were in service of Sydney Pollack, whom he’d met when they’d both been working in television in the early 1960s. Of the 17 feature films listed by IMDB for Rayfiel, 10 were for Pollack, including Jeremiah Johnson (1972, uncredited), The Way We Were (1973, uncredited), Three Days of the Condor (1975, credited), Absence of Malice (1981, uncredited), and The Firm (1993, credited). “(We) are complementary,” Rayfiel said of their collaboration. “There’s something he doesn’t have that I have, and there’s certainly some things he has that I don’t have.”

For Pollack, Rayfiel’s strength was what he could do with character. “If (most writers) want you to know something about a character, they’ll simply have the character say it or have another character say it about him,” Pollack told Ward. “David doesn’t do that. He writes elliptically, so that it comes out organically, the way you would know something about someone in real life.” “…the dialogue I write gives characters character,” Rayfield explained in the same article, “I am a good eavesdropper.”

Perhaps the paradigm that galls screenwriters the most is when the parade of rewriting rewriters has less to do with improving the material than it is about Hollywood’s insane form of producer paranoia.

David Breckman, a 20-year TV veteran whose writing/directing/producing credits include the hit cable series Monk, outlines the dynamic this way:

“At the risk of oversimplifying, one reason I’ve heard (rewriting) is common at the studio level is that it serves as a kind of cheap psychic insurance for executives. When you’re talking about Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, etc., the script phase is still the least expensive part of a production, and when frightened suits are about to press forward with a $200 million tent pole — Transformers 12, let’s say — they can tell themselves they’ve done all they can to ensure its success if they’ve thrown five or six (and often more) top-tier writers at the screenplay.

“It’s a nutty way of telling stories, and multiple writes often homogenize a script and drain it of its ‘voice’ — but it was ever thus.”

Which explains how and why top caliber talents like Joss Whedon (The Avengers, 2012), and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, 1993) get hired to punch up a bit of FX-heavy nonsense like Twister (1996).

#####

Whether due to changing creative visions or risk-averse producer paranoia or someone simply doesn’t want to leave home, the endless interchangeability of screenwriters in the development process displays the movie industry’s general attitude that writers are as valued and disposable as Kleenex tissue. It makes the concept of the screenwriter as some kind of author — a fantasy I think many young aspiring screenwriters hold — laughable.

At the same time, as for the script doctor, well, there can be pride in being the person who comes in for the save. Robert Towne told interviewer John Brady in Brady’s The Craft of the Screenwriter:

“…it’s better to have a reputation for fixing things up than for messing them up…In rewriting someone…you can come to feel it’s your very own…Or you can feel that you are in the service of somebody else’s material that you love very much, and you want to work. We all have rescue fantasies. Somebody may have a terrific idea, but they’ve screwed it up, and you’ll fix it.”

For more on Bill Mesce’s writing, pick up Idols, Icons, and Illusions and Reel Change: The Changing Nature of Hollywood, Hollywood Movies, and the People Who Go to See Them. Both paperback editions are available on Amazon.

Hollywood-Screenplay-Writing

 

 

 

Bill Mesce, Jr. is the author of recently published The Rules of Screenwriting and Why You Should Break Them (McFarland) which not only includes more on his adventures with Sam Lupowitz and his other screenwriting experiences, but commentary from industry professionals like Goodfellas screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, best-selling author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan, and others.

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘Crazy World’ Brings Wakaliwood to the Masses

‘Crazy World’ is the latest Wakaliwood film from Uganda to be translated and brought to the world, containing crazy action on a low budget.

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Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema.

As children are being abducted by the Tiger Mafia — led by a pint-sized leader frequently mistaken as a child himself — parents begin formulating a plot to rescue the children and get revenge on the thugs who keep destroying their village. Unfortunately for the Mafia, they’ve made the mistake of kidnapping the Waka Stars — children with can outsmart and beat up anybody when they work together. Other characters include a parent who has gone insane six months after his child was abducted (and now lives within the village dump), and of course, characters named after Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan for good measure.

Crazy World

As silly as the premise sounds, Crazy World is even more absurd in employing a trademark of Ugandan tradition by incorporating narration from a VJ — or “video jockey” — who describes what’s happening, why it’s happening, why it’s bad that it’s happening, and who is about to get their heads kicked in. A side note about the midnight screening for TIFF: the narration was done live, and made the whole experience all the more delirious. But even without the live narration, what’s there is simply a staple of Wakaliwood films. The narration can have to do with the film itself, or even suggest the social and political anxieties that make the scenes all the more striking.

It’s also impossible to talk about Crazy World without mentioning the utter insanity of the action. For starters, every kick and every punch lands with the loudest thud imaginable. It sounds like a boxing match is happening, but it’s actually kids beating up grown men. The fights tend to be contained to a small set where green screen is quite obviously employed (to hilarious effect), and some of the worst special effects show buildings and vehicles being blown up. This isn’t a knock; in fact, these low-budget effects work exceptionally well because the film itself feels just as DIY and cobbled together. It’s infectious how fast Crazy World moves and how well it works, simply due to well-choreographed action.

Crazy World

Crazy World is my entry point to Wakaliwood, and there will be many who have never seen a film like this. However, those that do might find a new favourite style of action filmmaking — one that leverages its set pieces against the backdrop of regional concerns in Uganda. It’s a movie that transports you not because it’s put together well, but because it’s put together so lovingly. A hilarious romp, Crazy World is one-of-a-kind cinema that sets the bar for low-budget filmmaking.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Examines a Criminal’s Upbringing

Justin Kurzel’s latest film boasts a great supporting cast, and applies a gritty aesthetic to one of Australia’s most renowned criminals.

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True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s latest film — a fictionalized version of the story of Ned Kelly — takes an Australian outlaw and attempts to humanize and emphasize the importance of taking your life in your own hands. Bolstered by an exceptional supporting cast, another great score by Jed Kurzel, a gritty attitude, and fantastic final act, True History of the Kelly Gang is a movie that will best be remembered for its moments — not the narrative in between. Focused heavily on the character work, Kurzel delivers a satisfying enough period drama that demands a lot from its actors in order to provide nuance in a fairly standard biopic structure that builds to a blistering climax and somber finale.

A tale of criminals being the heroes to the oppressed, True History of the Kelly Gang takes its time warming the audience to who Ned Kelly (George MacKay) ultimately becomes, and why he was revered by others in the community. Beginning with his childhood (and literally featuring diegetic intertitles that state “Boy” and “Man” when their respective segments begin), the film explores Kelly’s upbringing from his Irish immigrant family, led by matriarch Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis in a very potent, voracious performance), and her many decisions that lead to Ned’s ultimate notoriety. More aptly, Ellen finds herself juggling father figures, as well as who she wants her son to become, while attempting to drown out any of her husband’s proclivities and vices.

True History of the Kelly Gang

Ned logs his adventures throughout and starts telling his own story for the ones he loves to read when he eventually passes. “Every man should be the author of his own story” is a mantra Kelly holds onto, and it frames the film for Kurzel into something more singular, only occasionally looking at how others may portray Kelly’s story. That being said, True History of the Kelly Gang flows in a very linear-fashion, and often feels like it’s just going through the motions in order to get to the next big moment. Even with early appearances from Russell Crowe (in a role that is a lot of fun to watch him chew on) and Charlie Hunnam, the film often feels like it knows where it wants to go, but has a runtime to pad out before it feels right to get there. The script surrounds Ned with violence and tough decisions, which work in the moment, but getting to them is sometimes a chore.

Moments are what keep True History of the Kelly Gang interesting. While the main villain (played exceptionally by Nicholas Hoult) keeps the film strung together as he chases Ned throughout Australia, the journey never transcends the crafting of individual scenes. Whether it’s Hoult’s character’s sly trickery and deceit that unfold and enrapture, a tough decision that either leads to violence or trouble (but never a more virtuous outcome), or the final gunfight where the visuals, score, and sound design all cascade into each other to form one of the most memorable scenes of the year, these moments don’t work because of the characters that were built, but instead satisfy due to an understanding of film techniques. The screenplay itself is solid, but never amounts to a whole as strong as the individual parts.

True History of the Kelly Gang

This holds True History of the Kelly Gang back, turns it into a very well-made film that never really justifies the time it spends building upon Ned Kelly’s character. The story could have opened with Kelly as a man, and audiences would likely not feel much different about his plight. This often is the case with Kurzel’s films, however; they know where they want to go, but don’t rarely justify the time they take to get there. Instead, beautiful visuals and a score that moves between raucous and dissonant distract from an otherwise standard telling of a man brought into a violent life, and his fight to be himself.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Pleads for Love and Laughter Amidst Hatred

‘Jojo Rabbit’ brings Waititi’s signature humor to a coming-of-age movie about growing up as a youth in Nazi Germany.

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Jojo Rabbit

After directing Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi probably got carte blanche to do whatever he wanted in Hollywood. Already signed on to do Thor: Love and Thunder, the New Zealand director decided to do something almost no other director would probably consider: making a comedy about Hitler. That would be the reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. It’s all done with that signature Waititi charm that makes the film a joyous mix of entertaining dialogue and lovable characters.

The hardest thing to get past in Jojo Rabbit is its initial premise. Set during World War II, just as Germany is on the cusp of defeat, the film follows ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he begins his training to be a part of Hitler’s army. After he is sent home from a Nazi bootcamp, he discovers a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his house, and is forced to help hide her or risk his mother (Scarlett Johansson) being murdered by the Gestapo. His blind fanaticism to Hitler and his ideals puts Jojo in a precarious situation that is only further made tense by the presence of his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler (played with Chaplin-esque exuberance by Waititi).

Jojo Rabbit

It would be easy to write off Jojo Rabbit as a farce if based on its initial set up. Easily reminiscent of the director’s first coming-of-age film, Boy, there’s a level of quirk that will likely aggravate audiences unwilling to give the premise the time of day. Hitler is not played off as menacing — he’s played off as a joke. The entire Nazi regiment is filled with cartoonishly evil devotees to Hitler, as well as naive children that join the army as last-ditch draftees. It’s easy to see these portrayals as mere jokes, but the screenplay doesn’t ever feel like it’s one hundred percent about showing Nazis as bad; instead, it goes even broader to show that hate itself is bad and worthless, by using Nazi Germany and Hitler as target practice.

Setting Jojo up as the main character, the film breaks down his staunch hatred of the Jewish race by forcing him to confront his beliefs and what they mean to the world around him. How his fanaticism affects his mother, or how it has suddenly forced him out of being a child, all contributes to Jojo as a character being torn down inch-by-inch by the love surrounding him. Jojo’s mother, Rosie, is worn out by the war and simply wants it to end, while Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf seems at odds with the ideals of the Hitler regime, and now acts as a high-ranking officer with a very lazy devotion to the fuhrer. 

Klezendorf and Rosie are characters that always exist within Waititi’s films. Klezendorf substitutes as a father-like figure to Jojo, as his own father continues to fight the war in Italy. He tries to provide guidance and love to the child while Rosie struggles to deal with Jojo’s blind devotion to Hitler — who also acts as a father-figure to the young boy. Jojo Rabbit explores how propaganda and hateful rhetoric can shape the youth into hateful people without the years spent open to the world around them. It’s an ambitious extension upon Waititi’s prior coming-of-age tales, which tend to show how negligence can affect a child’s upbringing.

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit is also one of the funniest movies of the year — not because it makes fun of Hitler and Nazi Germany (though those jokes are also gold), but because it takes aim at every form of hatred. Waititi only has sympathy for those who have the potential to love, and so he doesn’t just make everyone the subject of ridicule, but focuses on those characters who bring it on themselves. A dedicated SS officer will be ridiculed to the high heavens because he just wants to capture and kill traitors and the Jewish people; it’s the price paid for being a jerk, and Waititi simply has no time to defend every character’s actions.

Jojo Rabbit isn’t here to simply say that a time period and a certain person was bad. Waititi is making a claim that many have already made: there is too much hate in this world, so why not be a little nicer? Opening with a German version of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” there’s a constant nagging at the oppressors of the film to be a little nicer and maybe open up to another point of view. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s his previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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Film

‘Nefarious’ Shows Passion For The Home Invasion Genre

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From creative horror fiend Richard Rowntree comes his newest venture, a home invasion film titled Nefarious. The Dogged director and his crew have found an angle to take on the genre to make it feel fresh and lively.

Nefarious follows a few different people in the same small town, from four roommates in trouble with a considerable debt to the wrong people, to a special needs man named Clive who has won a considerable sum of money in the lottery. The film follows multiple sides of the story as they develop, with the violent and ill-tempered Darren at the helm of the intruders. With desperation leading him and his thugs to the house of Clive and his brother, Marcus, these intruders find they’ve gotten into something so much bigger than they thought.

Nefarious kicks off with the first of many interrogation room asides that allude to the events of the film. Soon the plot gets rolling, and the story begins to be pieced together. These interrogation room scenes place characters against a pitch-black backdrop, giving off a bit of a surrealist and dreamlike vibe, and some of the most impressive shots — particularly a scene with the two detectives looking through a two-way mirror — come from this setting. The intro runs a bit long, but continues the surrealist lean, with shaky visuals ranging from violent to erotic to strange shots of different individuals.

Nefarious - Interrogation
Lou being interrogated in the dark expanse.

Whilst Nefarious is a low budget horror experience, it makes use of what it has very well. The cinematography is fantastic, with varied camera angles and creative framing, along with an attention to colour and lighting. There’s a marked step up in the lighting department from Richard Rowntree’s previous offering; Dogged did use what they had well, but with Nefarious it feels like there’s more mastery over it.

On the technical side, everything comes together nicely, not ever feeling cheap or like it’s cutting corners. In fact, the gore and action — which doesn’t really rear its head until the denouement — is quite effectively done. The one exception is a slightly stilted jab with a crowbar to end a character’s life, but it doesn’t hinder the scene at all. The sets are also incredibly well put together, feeling realistic (perhaps due to filming in real houses and locations), and one particular secret room is all the right kinds of terrifying and disturbing.

Meanwhile, the music doesn’t particularly standout on its own, but the distorted bassy beat backdropping a few scenes fits incredibly well with the tone. There’s also an off-kilter element to the soundtrack that helps keep the viewer on edge.

Nefarious - Fridge
Gross and off-putting, just how you want your frozen viscera.

The acting isn’t stellar across the board, but for the most part it’s quite impressive, with performances from Gregory A. Smith as Clive, Toby Wynn-Davies as Marcus, and Buck Braithwaite as Darren shining. Nadia Lamin also puts in a solid performance as the conflicted Lou, and there’s even a cameo from the director himself as the taxi driver.

By the time the denouement is reached, Nefarious reveals a twist more complex than one would first think. Whilst it’s foreshadowed thoroughly enough to see coming, the weight and scope still come as a surprise, and the exposed extra layers of secrecy keep us on our toes. This finale is built to fantastically, culminating in a whirlwind of brutal and sadistic action, but it does get a bit muddied by those multiple twists overlapping each other, which can make it a bit less impactful. Regardless, the great imagery, execution, and pacing through the final confrontation creates a solid finishing point for Nefarious.

Nefarious defies its budget and shows us a refreshing approach to the home invasion genre, whilst allowing itself to grow outside of it as well. There are a few hitches here and there, but nothing that takes away from an otherwise excellent and thrilling ride. The ending alone is worth the watch, though the buildup is captivating as well. Now with two full-length competent horror films under his belt, I’m looking forward to seeing what angle of the genre Richard Rowntree explores next.

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is a Festival Standout

Noah Baumbach’s newest drama is a searing portrait of a marriage dissolving, and his best film to date.

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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