Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lady In The Lake - All POV!

Philip Marlowe novels were all first person, so Robert Montgomery (Elizabeth's dad) decided to make a whole movie first person - everything in the film is from Marlowe's POV - so *we* get punched in the kisser and kissed by dames and end up in the middle of shoot outs and car chases. Cool for a while.

For those of you who wonder where the idea for last night's HOUSE episode came from.

You can also check out a great old Bogart movie based on a novel by the great David Goodis called DARK PASSAGE, where we get a POV escape from San Quentin, then the criminal gets plastic surgery (a scene lifted for MINORITY REPORT) and when they unwrap the bandages, it's Bogart looking in a mirror... and we break out of POV for the rest of the film as Bogart tracks down the real killer... entering his old life as somebody else and talking to all of the people he knew without them knowing that it is him. Great little film!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Be Indespensible! why you should be your best at all times.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Quiznos roast beef sandwich.

Movies: DUPLICITY - I would love screenwriters to conquer the world. I believe that screenwriters are both the brains and the heart of every movie. The reason why I tear apart bad movies to show where the scripts went south is not some sort of strange sour grapes - I know that what a screenwriter writes is not always what shows up on screen - I want all of is to learn from whatever mistakes were made in the way the film told the story... and maybe even act as an “I told you so” to any writers who fought hard against some idiot note that ruined their script and also ruined the movie. So I tend to worry about screenwriters who finally get their chance to screw the silly notes and make their film the way they want to... I don’t want them to screw up.

I am a fan of Tony Gilroy. The BOURNE movies, of course, but also gems like DOLORES CLAIBORNE - a film based on one of those non-monster Stephen King novels that has somehow been forgotten now. I wrote an article for Script Magazine on MICHAEL CLAYTON before it had even been released! I wanted people to see that film, so that screenwriters could rule the world. But when the film finally came out and I saw it, I thought it was okay. Not great, just okay. It was a character study sold as a political thriller when I was hoping for a character study that was also a political thriller - check out THE PARALLAX VIEW for a great example of that. What I want is for Tony Gilroy to have a hit that is as big as the BOURNE movies so that every studio in the world is fighting to hire him and let him make the film his way with no interference.

DUPLICITY isn’t going to be that hit film, either. The movie makes a bunch of rookie mistakes and ends up being just okay - much of that is due to Julia Roberts and Clive Owen having chemistry... and Tony Gilroy writing some really clever banter for them to fire at each other. The characters are great, the dialogue is great... but the movie needs some stronger plotting to keep it going.

Roberts and Owen are two ex-spies, one for the USA and one for England, who meet long ago, have a torrid night together... then Roberts drugs Owen and steals some classified papers. Later, Owens spots her, chases her, and extracts his revenge... which you know from the trailer is rug burns. This is a couple that belongs together - but can never trust each other. Occupational hazzard. But they hatch a scheme to quit the government and work as industrial spies - because that is where the money is... and we kind of figure the plan may be to steal some of that money somehow.

And here is the big mistake in the film... This is supposed to be a STING-like romp filled with cons and double crosses, but instead of bringing the audience in on the plot, so that when something goes wrong we *know* it has gone wrong and are worried, the decision was made to keep the audience at arms length. We don’t take either Roberts or Owen’s point of view in the story, we are completely neutral. And that means when something happens to them, it *does not* happen to us. We just watch as observers.

THE STING brought us in on the con, and gave us the story from Redford’s point of view. We were told what was supposed to happen to make the con work, so when things went wrong we could worry... and when the film cons *us* we get taken. The whole thing with a confidence trick is that the mark needs to feel like they are inside the trick rather than outside - they are part of a scheme to take someone else’s money... when it is really their money that is being taken. Those clever Nigerians have some money from a Prince they are trying to smuggle out of the country, and they want to put it in *your* bank account, and all they need is all of your banking information. They will give you 10% for helping them smuggle the Prince’s money out of the country. You are inside the scheme, making 10%, not outside the scheme being taken. The *audience* in a movie like this needs to be inside the scheme, so that they don’t realize they are being taken... but DUPLICITY leaves us outside in the cold.

Roberts and Owen end up working for rival big soap & cosmetics companies, each trying to steal the other’s face creams... which kind of makes this silly. The good thing about that is there are a whole lotta gags that can come from a fight to the death over face cream... the bad thing is that at the end of the day, something silly is the motivation for your whole film which makes the film less powerful. Though the film is light in tone, it can still have something serious driving the story - look at NORTH BY NORTHWEST. So the whole story seems trivial and unimportant, which isn’t the same as light and frothy.

The remake of THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR also has male and female characters who do not trust each other but may love each other, and one of the reasons why that film works is because we see the story from Rene Russo’s point of view. We see the story through her eyes so when Brosnan’s character pulls some sort of twist, she feels it and we also feel it. We know what she is thinking and feeling but not what he is thinking and feeling. He brings her into the story - there is the stolen painting, would you like it or shall I burn it? But she doesn’t know if this is real or part of his scheme. We are inside her head and inside the story.

When the double crosses come in DUPLICITY, because we are outsiders in the story, they have no impact. It’s something that happens to a character on the screen, *not* to someone we identify with and care about. And a strange thing happens when the double crosses start - because we are outside observers, we can easily see which double crosses are real and which are part of the scheme. If you discover the woman you love is sleeping with someone else, that hits you personally and you are too emotional to think clearly. But if one character up there on stage discovers that another character up there on stage is having an affair, you just process the information. You can think clearly about it, and realize that a fake affair would help the scheme and make more sense than a real affair that was so obvious their partner would catch them. So the audience is not conned, not shocked, and the twist dies.

The other problem with not bringing the audience inside the story, not giving us a POV character and allowing us to experience the twists and turns and cons through their eyes, is that the *dream fulfillment* of a con movie is being more clever than anyone else. We, the audience, participate in the con and outsmart people who are richer and supposedly smarter than we are. We’re smarter than them! And even if the story cons us as well, as in THE STING, we know that by the end of the film this will have been done for a reason that helps the con men get away with the scheme. The con men are smarter than we are, and anticipated a problem we did not. At the end of the day, the clever con men have still taken down the rich jerk and we were part of that...

Except in DUPLICITY we are not part of that. We are outsiders watching really clever attractive characters do things we don’t understand with wit and style and grace. So when they pull off their scheme, hey that’s nice... but we don’t get any of the joy. We also don’t get any of the fear that the scheme will go wrong. We just watch things happen as uninvolved observers. When we come to the end, we don’t feel much... when we should have felt at least a couple of things.

Another problem in the film - although I think it’s all the same problem - is a lack of “juice” - the bantering between Roberts and Owens is great, but the film has no suspense and not enough mind-f*ck twists in a genre that needs those elements to survive. I often wonder if the lack of “juice” in a film where the screenwriter has control is a rejection of genre - a rebellion against Hollywood. “You made me put in all of those entertaining genre scenes in BOURNE so I’m going to leave them out of this film.” - and we get very little suspense and not enough twists. There *is* a nice suspense scene near the end, but not much before that. When it comes to the heart beat of pacing, this film is on life support most of the time. There’s nothing wrong with making a film exciting and interesting. Those are good things.

The characters and dialogue are fun and enjoyable - Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkenson are great as rival heads of big companies who are locked in a personal war with each other. Plus, there is a great running gag about pizza that keeps popping up when you least expect it.

DUPLICITY is an okay film, but it’s not going to be that big hit that turns screenwriters into stars. If it didn’t have Roberts and Owens in the leads, it would be a nice little movie that would probably be dumped on DVD... and I suspect that is where most of its money will be made. My mom dad will rent it or see it on cable and think it was good. It is a good way to kill a couple of hours.

- Bill


pwstrain said...

There was an old M*A*S*H* episode that was POV as well, as I recall.

Dave Ale said...

I'd offer up Matchstick Men as a good con-artist movie. An enjoyable ride, and I felt like I'd been punched in the gut at the end -- which is perfect for that type of movie.

Anonymous said...

good blog, very useful for me

Anonymous said...

have you read that hilarious Robodog8000 script or whatever the heck it is, the one with all the "not to do's" in it? let me know and I'll link it

Brian said...

Excellent point about DUPLICITY. I think the only really successful example of the "big con" story in which the audience is left in the cold for most of the duration is the 60s series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. Each episode would basically lay out the overall mission(rescue the scientist) but then we'd see Martin Landau showing Peter Graves some kind of odd device and they'd smile knowingly at each other until the end when we finally saw how all the threads came together. It's why the show never developed the characters beyond their skills, the whole show was about plotting.

Eric M said...

Thanks. I feel like I just watched Duplicity with a critical eye.

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