The Essanay Rejection Letter

silent-film-rejections

Sure it’s been around the web but the succinctness of this form rejection checklist is enviable for a script-reader even if it isn’t always constructive for the writer. It is, and could be a tremendous object lesson for screenwriters about dealing with rejection and the varying degrees of feedback they might get. Start from this and work in increasing degrees to interact further and polish the concept. Make use of it if needed and check out Open Culture for more gems like this!

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The Perfect Subplot in The Sitter

Attention Dear Reader,

Prior to reading any further I feel it only fair to warn you that a narrative thread in the film The Sitter will be discussed in detail herein and not a portion of it will be left unspoiled. If you have yet to see this film please do so. If you have seen it let us begin…

Landry Bender, Jonah Hill, Max Records and Kevin Hernandez in The Sitter (20th Century Fox)

In the critical lambasting this film has received, that I noticed both via its Rotten Tomatoes score and the encapsulated consensus that the site offers, what is missing is an insight. Granted a majority of the issues that critics have with the film are questions of taste. This is true of many comedies. Perhaps nothing is more subjective. However, I will not seek in this space to convince you that the film is funny, though I did find it to be very funny. Some also call out the film for not being very original. I cannot claim that this film re-invents the wheel.

What this film does brilliantly, which I will argue with any and all comers, is fold in a completely unexpected subplot based on the fact that it’s a comedy and the type of comedy it is. The term fold in is picked specifically to borrow the cooking term. In that vernacular it has a much more homogenizing context, somehow, in film it seems like it applies to putting something other where it does not belong.

In The Sitter Noah Griffith (Jonah Hill) is your typical slacker and atypical babysitter making it kind of a typical setup. A ne’er-do-well who in many ways has arrested development will see the truth of these children’s lives and connect with them in ways their parents cannot. Furthermore, these insights he has into their personalities and lives will better him.

The surprise comes in Slater’s subplot, it’s by far the most well-executed and most subtle of them all from start to finish. Slater, played with stunning adroitness by Max Records (whom you may know from his pitch-perfect performance as Max in Where the Wild Things Are) and countered beautifully by Jonah Hill’s usual potty-mouth with a heart of gold, not to sound snide but that’s how many of his characters can be pigeon-holed.

How does this all unfold?

We meet Slater as Noah does. He is arriving at the kids’ house and sees him in the living room lounging watching TV. The programming is a shirtless male gymnast set against a woodlands background. The thought that Slater is gay occurred vaguely to me but I dismissed it simply because the image on screen was so odd and because “that sort of thing just doesn’t happen in films of this kind.”

The second step in the progression of this subplot is the introduction, at the time as a literary ghost, of Slater’s best friend Clayton. He is merely identified as his best friend and someone who Slater is texting incessantly. Again no bells really sound at this revelation because two assumptions are made by me and likely the average audience member: One, kids text a lot and two, he’s getting responses.

The third step is where suspicions start being aroused. Slater isn’t getting responses and he’s distressed by that. However, the filmmakers deflect this for many by having it play into Slater’s myriad partially self-diagnosed manias. So we move on…

The fourth step is where it likely clicks for most audience members. In their wild night about New York Slater runs into Clayton (Alex Wolff) at a Bat Mitzvah. Slater catches him in a lie and with another friend. This creates the need for Clayton, prodded by his friend, to blow Slater off to his face and tell him he’s acting “weird.” Slater, of course, is devastated. Here is where I jumped the gun and finished the equation.

However, many times in a film you’ll know a certain event is going to happen and it’s how it unfolds that really matters. That is evidenced by this film.

What occurs in the 5th and penultimate step (The Sixth being Slater being at peace in the denouement) is just flat out brilliant. In a confrontation with his adopted brother, Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), Slater’s meds are thrown out the car window. He freaks out and makes Noah stop the car. He looks for them and shouts that he needs them because he has problems. As is the case with all the “Remedy Scenes” Noah doesn’t act out of character at all but wisely. It’s truly a tribute to Jonah Hill and his abilities that he can play a scene wherein his dialogue is flat-out blunt, button-pushing and confrontational but yet delivered sensitively and is precisely what is needed to get a desired reaction from his scene partner/opposite character.

Slater is told to his face he’s gay and in a film of this nature the magnitude of those two events alone is incredible. Firstly, the fact that another character recognizes it and points it out to him allows for the allusions to the It’s-not-a-choice aspect to be made naturally. Also, it allows the character in question to deny it before confirming it. The singular most moving moment in a film where anyone in their right mind would expect their to be none is when Slater, protesting too much, shrieks “I don’t wanna be a faggot!”

It’s also precisely this kind of scene that proves the point that I’d rather have society police language rather than the movies. The F-word in real life has become intolerable in the 21st century. That does not, however, mean that it’s been eradicated, which is precisely what makes it such a powerful choice here.

Not only that but you have in one short coming out scene, in a movie you’d never expect to see one in, the vocalization of so many truths about homosexuality and being closeted that it’s staggering.

Namely: No one wants to be gay, no one chooses to be gay, when one is closeted you almost want to be called out to relieve yourself of the burden, you and others around you think there’s something wrong with you, it’ll make your life more difficult, you’ll go through very hard times but it gets better and people get over it, coming out to your parents is the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do and so on.

I belabor the point about the kind of film it is because these kind of talking points are typically that they’re reserved for so-called Gay Cinema. The only problem with Gay Cinema is specifically that, it’s too much of a niche. There’s a lot of preaching to the choir. Even a mainstream hit like Brokeback Mountain can’t carry this message as well because first it’s about homosexuality and moreover it’s about repression thereof and the gay characters don’t receive the liberation that Slater does in this film. So many of his fears are allayed that you do hope somewhere a conversation like this is really happening between a parent or guardian and a child.

The sensitivity with which David Gordon Green, Jonah Hill and Max Records convey this scene is to be applauded long and loud. Typically, films branded as important are so because of their overall theme or their impact on cinema as a whole. While I enjoy it, this film may end up on neither end of the spectrum in time but what ought not be overlooked in an age when many with a social conscious are flat out saying that “It’s OK to be gay” and “It gets better” and other well-meaning statements that can be construed as platitudes by some, it is vitally important that the youth of this country are shown clearly and irrevocably that these things are true.

Fiction does not diminish a truth but rather can echo and amplify it more so than anything else. The true importance of The Sitter then cannot be measured in either category listed above but the reason it has importance is that it perfectly, in a social and aesthetic sense, includes a message in a film made for mainstream consumption and for they all need to be congratulated.

Review- Midnight in Paris

Carla Bruni and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris (Sony Pictures Classics)

I always feel it a necessity to state my general stance on Woody Allen prior to getting into a review of any of his works. I feel this is appropriate so you know where I am coming from and thus so you can take my review with a grain of salt should you need to. Fans of Woody Allen seem to come in two camps: First, those who believe he’s slipping and hasn’t done anything really worthwhile in the past 15 to 20 years and blind followers, while I skew more towards the latter I believe I am somewhere in the middle. I believe Allen has peaks and valleys like many prolific filmmakers but I have really enjoyed his recent works.

Lately, Allen has been globetrotting a bit and he writes and shoots frequently enough such that there are threads of philosophy and narrative choices that run through many of his films but conversely he has periods akin to painters. His break from being tethered to New York City in and of itself has breathed some new life into his recent works.

As you familiarize yourself with a filmmaker you expect certain things, with Allen it had been New York, art deco, Jazz (or another genre whose heyday is past), plain title cards, longing of some kind, etc. When minor changes to the formula are applied to the same voice it can be rather interesting.

What is perhaps most interesting in Midnight in Paris is that Allen attacks head on an issue which many of his detractors (at least of his recent work) cite him for, which is his nostalgic love affair with the past. Rather than having it be an idiosyncrasy of a character (or group of them) that we must either accept or reject it becomes central to the protagonist’s, Gil (Owen Wilson), struggle and part of why he is not understood.

By openly addressing this and applying it to a younger character one of Allen’s motifs is revitalized because he can’t be cited as someone whose “lost touch” with modernity. He’s found here a new way to funnel his voice into a modern setting. Another one of the frequent attacks on Allen’s work is that his scripts are in lieu of therapy. Truth be told it is for a lot of people and it’s more identifiable with him because he’s a personality and is more known. He’s always been a personal filmmaker and this may be his best and most coherent addressing of any hang-up he’s covered.

While I don’t think it’s on par with things like Manhattan or Annie Hall this film does have the inventiveness and flair from that era of his career. A majority of the reason why is that in this film he embraces Magical Realism and allows for facile time travel and creates time-space paradoxes and is not concerned about factual truths but emotional ones which affect his characters.

In a film where a slew of historical figures, who we all have preconceived notions about, appear the casting has to be spot on and it’s nailed on the head repeatedly whether it be Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, Dali and so on. Even funnier are how Allen writes these personalities and how they perform the parts.

It’s without question one of his best concepts in quite some time. Though not running any longer than most of his films the episodes in the past do get a tad lengthy and there is a bit of drag in the second act but not enough that it hurts the film greatly.

It’s also, clearly as the concept implies, one of Allen’s more visual recent ventures. The dialogue is strong while not being audaciously witty. The conclusion is expected but earned and sweet.

You can say what you will about Allen’s recent track record but I have nothing but admiration for an artist who continuously pushes himself to new horizons regardless of their results. However, Midnight in Paris is an unqualified success and a bold new step for this auteur and is therefore highly recommended.

9/10

Review- Source Code

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan in Source Code (Summit Entertainment)

It’s not the easiest thing in the world to assess my feelings about Source Code and most of the reason why is that a lot of those feelings lie most definitely in an ambivalent place. There is surely plenty to like about it and some things to dislike and they are usually on very different ends of the spectrum such that the overall opinion lies somewhere in the middle with the elements of disparate quality pulling at you trying to make you lean one way or another. The bottom line is that this is a good film but there are a few concerns that keep it from getting any better than it is.

What deserves to be complimented first and foremost is the cast of the film. In particular the three main players: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga. The first of which is the most pleasant surprise of the film. Gyllenhaal, in my estimation, had been a member of a group of young leads around his age who in mind were/are infinitely vanilla. Not great, and not terrible but also not bringing anything to the table. There aren’t too many dynamic young actors that bring something new to the table every time out but here he breaks free from those shackles and really shows a lot, which is made even more impressive based on observations I will make later.

Michelle Monaghan, who I had previously became familiar with through, and honored her for, Trucker, is absolutely perfect in this part. When an actress is given the confine of having to play a character that you could fall in love with over and over again and you only have eight minutes in which to do it in, that’s a formidable task and she accomplishes it easily.

Last but not least is Vera Farmiga, who manages to pull out a very good performance despite the fact that her scenes and dialogue are often redundant, which speaks a little to the screenwriting issues found herein. She all too frequently has to battle Colter (Gyllenhaal) and tell him his questions are irrelevant. She needs to have a very thin facade which breaks down over several conversations, in certain regards she has a bigger hill to climb than Monaghan. However, she’s not even afforded the same flexibility of scenario that Monaghan gets.

One of the other major issues of the film is the handling of the Sci-Fi element itself. Science Fiction seems to break off into two distinct groups there is an assumptive brand wherein futuristic or improbable things are occurring naturally and unquestioned, like in Inception for example where the dream-sharing and serums are given or the didactic wherein in a simulacrum of the world we inhabit in the present day is shown to us and a curtain is pulled back to reveal a secret that is explained to the audience. This film chooses the latter path, which in my mind requires a bit more explanation.

This film waits to grant us answers, which is fine because it allows us to identify easily with the protagonist but when we learn about the Source Code program, what it is and how it functions there are still questions that come to mind.

The idea is original and intriguing but it leaves you wanting for a bit too much which in this case is a double-edged sword. Similarly there’s the Maguffin. Now, it’s not necessary that you know its a Maguffin going in, however, I got a little ahead of this film in this regard. Once you realize finding the bomber is not the point of the story it takes too long for the narrative to catch up and after so many episodes it becomes a slightly tiresome exercise. It’s as if the film gets foisted by its own petard because the sequences are too frequent and short to keep the suspense of the whodunit alive.

A good Maguffin is one that is enthralling though perhaps never resolved. The best example is in Psycho. I care about Marion Crane’s early decisions: Stay or go? Take the money or not? I’m also rapt by her trying to elude the authorities. In the end it doesn’t really matter but it’s riveting. Here it gets tired and you’re left waiting for the bigger story to take over.

This is all said to illustrate that this is a good film that could’ve been made much better. With how the film ends, in terms of narrative not handling, it is most definitely a good film. It is just one that mishandled a few key elements that would’ve made it great.

I do have an appreciation of what was accomplished and intended I just wish it could’ve been greater and that was within reach.

7/10

Review- I Am Number Four

Alex Pettyfer and Dianna Agron in I am Number Four (Disney)

Most films that can be said to be bifurcated are strong in the first half and tail off towards the end. Few films fly in the face of the screenwriting axiom that first acts are easy and it’s keeping interest through the second act that is truly a challenge. I am Number Four does do that to an extent but it still fails to salvage itself.

It’s not as if the film doesn’t try, it most certainly does that. A lot of the fault is in trying too hard. It does a lot of legwork in the beginning to establish the players in this tale from John (Alex Pettyfer) to his protector, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), to Number 6 (Teresa Palmer) in small and mysterious, at the time, introductory scene, to Sam, the sidekick with a secret attachment to this world (Callan McAuliffe), Sarah, the love interest that tears at John’s world (Dianna Agron) to Mark (Jake Abel) Sarah’s ex and John’s earthly antagonist.

Not to mention the actual antagonists the Mongadorians, who come from a planet of extra-nostriled Voldemorts. While it’s a good thing that all these pieces do end up fitting the puzzle it takes too long to develop them and then display their purpose. Instead of locking these people into the drama in a meaningful way off the bat they all connect close together in a sort of domino effect that suddenly plunges the film into a hyper-drive from the second half through the end.

This film also leaves a lot details out and questions unanswered. It is ultimately hoping for and promising to answer them in a sequel but that’s really putting the cart before the horse. You can’t be so defensive of your story options in a sequel that you do the film at hand a disservice.

How this happens is that only one extra person of the chosen nine is found, Number 6, Numbers 5 and 7 thru 9 are a mystery. Sam who ends up being integral as his life has been directly affected by Mongadorians gets no closure and moves on with the tale into a supposed sequel. Sam’s character also illustrates another issue with this film in as much as he ends up being the most real, identifiable and well played character. This is great for Callan McAuliffe who gets a chance to prove himself in a bigger profile film than he did in last year’s Flipped, for the film, however, it’s kind of an issue when your male and female lead just look the part, say their lines, hit their marks and not much else is added to the equation through them.

Then, of course, this film also suffers from a mild case of Random Animal Syndrome. As the name suggests its where random animals make too big an impact on a film. First, there’s a gecko trailing John and Henri. We are left to surmise it becomes a dog. A dog who is not a dog rather because it’s rather easy to see early on that it’s a bit too smart and good at navigation to be a regular dog. Then we see what the dog becomes late for an awesome beast showdown, which I’ll admit is kind of cool and the CG is well done but it is slightly SyFy movie like.

There’s also a lot of information withheld not only from our protagonist but also from the audience. We already know this is a Chosen One(s) plot but what we need are the rules and a reason to root for this chosen entity. For any of these plots to work like they do in Star Wars or Harry Potter there needs to be some grounding. Some very strong attachment we can build with the protagonist so we can be truly invested in his/her plight. That doesn’t really exist here at least not in this incarnation of the tale.

I absolutely despise when reviewers get cutesy, so in closing, I just want to state for the record that I am not giving I am Number Four a four for that reason. As my rating scale indicates a score of 4/10 is “A film with a few mistakes too big to overlook.” There are definitely things to like about the film but there are too many things that stop it from getting going and leave you scratching your head. If you walked in halfway through the film you might love it until you saw the excruciatingly slow and un-illuminating first half.

4/10

Monochromatic Monday #2

Now for this week’s installment I will continue with my 31 Days of Oscar theme.

The first film is…

Gaslight (1944)

Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (MGM)

For the record this film won two Academy Awards: one for Ingrid Bergman for Best Actress (her first) and another for Art Design (Black & White). It was nominated for 5 others: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charles Boyer), Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury- her first film role at 19), Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Best Screenplay.

This is a film that I had already seen so this is where some films get a real litmus tests. Most films diminish upon a second viewing, some stay the same, others, and this is rare, get better. Gaslight falls into the middle category which is not meant as a slight at all. It is still a tremendously effective piece of work. This is for the most part a chamber drama wherein a villain gets firmly established and he and our heroine face-off throughout the rest of the film.

What differentiates Gaslight somewhat is the amount of psychology that is employed. By the time we the audience realize Gregory (Boyer) is up to no good Paula (Bergman) already doubts herself and her sanity such that we never question why she doesn’t catch on. Boyer plays such a devilish role it’ll make your blood curdle.

This is a film that hinges on subtleties: footsteps in a locked room, the gaslight going down, the odd way the servants sometimes behave around their mistress. The final confrontation between husband and wife is not one of bombast but of anger tinged with lingering doubt. Bergman truly plays many notes in this performance perhaps her best moment is when she confronts her husband and tries to get back at him. The conclusion is marvelous as Joseph Cotten, a man who lies about the periphery of the tale and slowly takes center stage, moves in.

To discuss too many plot details would be to do this film a disservice. You should see it for yourself.

I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang was nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Paul Muni) and Best Sound Recording. Now this film does have a few things going for it aside form one of the most awesome titles in the history of cinema and a couple of major hindrances too.

Paul Muni is absolutely fantastic in this part. He brings to this part a humanity and cynicism that is needed to add an extra dimension to what may otherwise have been just another social issue film of the 1930s. Now one of the more inconsistent pieces of the puzzle is the writing. For example, for the good James Allen (Muni) is a character who is poised to be sort of an American Jean Valjean. He is arrested for being forced, at gunpoint, by a man he just met to assist in a robbery. He tried to flee and is caught. For that five dollars he stole he is sentenced to 10 years on the chain gang.

Some of the negatives of the writing are certain parts of his escape are just too easy after one really close call. The suspense as to whether or not he’ll make it is somewhat drained. Then there’s the biggest issue is when he is found out he willingly goes back. Now granted this sets up a tremendous last line in which you can’t even see Muni saying it as he has drifted back into the darkness but the tragedy which is impending is undermined by this acquiescence because it’s quite clear that the assurance that are being made are false. It’s terribly transparent and the decision happens fast. If he’d given a little thought something that the edit and the screenplay should’ve accounted for on more than one occasion it might’ve been easier to swallow.

The film ends up being not so much an expose as a very tightly would circle that should really pack more punch than it does but it is still very much worth a watch.