THE CONTENDERS: The Screenplay: Part One (Adapted)

ON

I love to gamble. I’m usually good for one or two office pools during the week and you can jot down a poker game or three on the weekends. I’m not out of control. Really. I’m not out of control. I’m not out of control. Three times, now it must be true. On a side note, isn’t the current trend of having poker tournaments in local sports bars one of the greatest cultural advances of our time? I was attending two or three of these a week before I realized I hadn’t shown up to work in four months. There’s only one way to go after that… cold turkey.

But seriously, I consider myself a pretty conservative gambler. I could never say, bet my wife away like Nicolas Cage did in Honeymoon in Vegas. And since we’re on the subject, is it me, or was Cage losing with a straight flush (beaten by a higher one), one of the most improbable things to ever happen in any movie in the history of cinema? Talk about a bad beat. You know what? I would have bet my wife. My wife, my kids, my parents, my neighbor’s kids, everything! That was just ridiculous. I mean, it’s up there with that bus magically flying through the air in Speed, the Soviet crowd cheering for Rocky Balboa, Matt Damon turning down a ready and willing Famke Janssen in Rounders, the cast of The Day After Tomorrow outrunning the weather and pretty much anything in Mission: Impossible 2.

So while I may have underdogs I am rooting for, I have to try and be as levelheaded as I can when trying to predict who will be nominated in only two days. Probability versus improbability. And this year is a tricky bunch. I see many screenplays on the edge of nominations and very few that are locks. This is truly a gambler’s throw of the dice, but I’m going to do my best. I will try not to bet with my heart and try to use, for once and at long last, my brain. Without further ado, here are the most likely to be nominated:

Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for Brokeback Mountain working from the short story by Annie Proulx:

Okay, it doesn’t take a cosmonaut to see this coming. I’ll be the first to admit that when I heard Ang Lee was recruiting Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger to star in a gay cowboy movie my first reaction was to curl my lip and ask, “Why? Didn’t Lee do enough damage with Hulk?” Having seen the movie, I now get it. Ang Lee and his actors read a damn fine script. It is mature, thoughtful writing that fleshes out the characters even in the smallest of moments like the exchange below (thanks IMDB!):

ENNIS
Hey, Monroe. Is Alma here?

MONROE
Yeah, she’s in the condiments aisle.

ENNIS
The what?

MONROE
Uh – ketchup.

ENNIS
Thanks.

It’s a funny little moment showing how simple Ennis is and its little brushstrokes like these that made the actors’ and Lee’s job a lot easier. Brokeback Mountain not getting a nomination would be like the Colts not making it to the Super Bowl this year. Doh! But seriously, count on it.

Dan Futterman for Capote working from the book by Gerald Clarke:

This pick is like picking the Steelers to beat the Broncos. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, because I just don’t like the team. And where does my heart get me? Nowhere, fast. I’m not making the same mistake again. Capote it is. But you know, though I’m not a huge fan of the movie, the screenplay is a pretty solid piece of work and gives Phillip Seymour Hoffman some of the best moments he’s had as an actor. Capote is sensitive, intelligent, sharp, charming, shameful and sometimes just plain vicious. Futterman’s screenplay captures all of this and doesn’t hold back on the daggers.

Jeffrey Caine for The Constant Gardener working from the book by John le Carre:

This is my Seattle Seahawks pick. I liked them on paper and thought they had the stuff to go a good distance (I had them playing the Colts in the Super Bowl). While it’s not the Academy darling I think it should have been, there is enough respect for the film and its screenplay that it gets the vote. Filmmaking, like football, is a group effort. There’s the coach (the director), the star quarterback (in this case, Ralph Fiennes), etc.. But in order for a good NFL team to succeed, you need a solid running game and Caine’s screenplay is more than up to the task. It’s hard to qualify the screenplay because so much of the film’s greatness lies in the editing, but one thing is certain: no one has been more successful at adapting a le Carre novel. There were other solid efforts, like The Tailor of Panama, The Little Drummer Girl and most notably, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. But this movie feels like le Carre, it bleeds of intelligence and passion. The screenplay manages to be entertaining and substantial, a combination not shared by most of the novelist’s other adaptations (The Russia House was intelligent, but such a freaking bore). It’s also a dangerous and angry story that is sure to enlighten as much as thrill and romance.

Tony Kushner and Eric Roth for Munich working from the book Vengeance George Jonas:

The New England Patriots were injured, beat and almost forgotten about until the last few weeks of the season. I’m a big believer in Tom Brady and Belichick so it was hard for me to not pick them to get in that showdown with Indianapolis. And I can’t help but feel the same way about Munich. Don’t get me wrong, Tony Kushner and Eric Roth don’t win the big bowl this year, but I think they advance to the playoffs. Munich has been beaten up a lot, but I can’t count it out just yet. It doesn’t hurt that Kushner and Roth’s screenplay is both a page-turning thriller and a thoughtful examination on both revenge and Palestinian-Israeli conversation. Consider the safe house sequence involving the PLO and undercover Mossad agents. There is a beautifully captured scene where a Palestinian and Jew quietly battle over what music station to listen to… they are both defiant and willful, but eventually reach some level of compromise (soul music). Now that’s diplomacy. In the same sequence, another Palestinian and another Jew discuss the conflict over land rationally (the Palestinian does not realize he is talking to an Israeli). Neither wavers in their view, but both views are expressed and both views are legitimate. This is the sort of patient intelligence that found its way in a few films this year.

Much has been made about the film’s last half hour that killed the movie for many viewers. But for me, this is Kushner and Roth’s masterstroke and it is the reason I think this is Spielberg’s best film since Schindler’s List. Kushner and Roth’s screenplay does not allow Spielberg his pat, happy ending. It isn’t a complete downer, but it is too complicated and questions too much of our heroes’ actions to let you savor their victory. Was there a real victory?

Stephen Gaghan for Syriana based on the book “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism”.

Here’s the thing: I did two football brackets for the playoffs. In one of the brackets, I had Carolina meeting up with Seattle and taking them down. In the other, I took Seattle. Carolina is a little crazy to predict: you never know which team is going to show up. Unfortunately for my Giants, the really good Carolina team showed up a few weeks ago. Last Sunday, they were nowhere to be found. This last slot, the Carolina slot, could go a number of ways:

It could go with A History of Violence which had such a simple but effective story crafted by a screenwriter (Josh Olson, adapting John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel) who knows what he’s doing. I can definitely see this happen.

Then there is the beautifully told work by writer/director James Mangold and co-writer Gill Dennis adapting the Johnny Cash autobiography with Walk The Line. The beauty of the film is in the small, poignant moments that make it all the richer for fans of the Man In Black. Unlike the previous year’s Ray, this is a movie that didn’t lose steam in its last hour and Mangold and Dennis are smart enough to end the film on rollicking and romantic note.

I’ve never read Jane Austen. Hey, all a man’s got is his street cred, right? But the hell with that crap, I should have seen this movie. Everybody and their mother loves the damn thing and if Keira Knightley and I are to be wed, we might as well get to know each other a little better. I can’t speak from having seen it, but I do know that enough people respect Deborah Moggach’s screenplay for Pride and Prejudice that it would be no huge surprise if it gets nominated.

But I am going with my beer belly gut again and say ambition wins the day, or at least gets recognized, with Syriana. Also, it’s the only book out of the bunch I’ve actually read. And having read it I can honestly say this: As an adaptation, it’s horrible. The film has almost nothing to do with the book. It is said to have been “suggested” by the book and that is a much more fair representation, I guess. This easily could have been a Best Original Screenplay contender. All Gaghan had to do was take Robert Baer’s book off of the movie credits and thank the guy for making the film possible somewhere. But, as a screenplay, Gaghan drops one heavy-reading son-of-bitch on the table.

There are essentially 4 narrative threads in Syriana: Clooney’s disillusioned CIA agent (based on Baer but going by the name Bob Barnes in the movie) who is disgusted with the overpowering nature of politics when it comes to protecting our country. Matt Damon is an eventual consultant to a prince (Alexander Siddig) who is trying to out-maneuver Siddig’s brother and potential heir to the throne (of an unnamed Middle Eastern country rich in oil). It is in this section of the film where world politics are coldly laid out and it is Gaghan’s most perceptive and challenging work. Then you have Jeffrey Wright‘s Washington lawyer investigating potential bribery in oil contracting brought about by a major merger between two oil companies. But most telling and daring, the story of a young man and his father in the Middle East trying desperately to get by. Where their story leads to you will eventually guess for in far too many cases, it is the end result in a world of chaos. I have described Gaghan’s screenplay as wonderfully chaotic, but the strands connecting everything are there, though you may not know it until after the grenade has fallen into your lap. Within these four threads it will be hard to tell who are the bad guys and who are the good guys. The answer is that everyone is responsible, everyone is guilty, everyone is connected. It’s so easy to blame, but not so easy to begin to understand how to change anything. Take the now infamous speech by Tim Blake Nelson where he pretty much sums up the problem and the irony in chilling form:

DANNY
Some trust fund prosecutor, got off-message at Brown, thinks he’s gonna run this up the flag pole, make a name for himself, maybe get elected some two-bit, no-name congressman from nowhere, with the result that Russia or China can suddenly start having, at our expense, all the advantages we enjoy here. No, I tell you. No, sir. (mimics prosecutor) “But, Danny, these are sovereign nations.” Sovereign nations! What is a sovereign nation, but a collective of greed run by one individual? “But, Danny, they’re codified by the U.N. charter!” Legitimized gangsterism on a global basis that has no more validity than an agreement between the Crips and the Bloods!
(beat)
…Corruption charges! Corruption? Corruption ain’t nothing more than government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That’s Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption is what keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around here instead of fighting each other for scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption… is how we win.

Now these are the most likely films to get nominated, but every year there are movies the Academy foolishly doesn’t even give a second thought towards. These are the picks I’d love to bet on if I wasn’t interested in seeing a return. Now if you thought I was done beating that dead horse football analogy, you were wrong – like Geraldo Rivera’s Al Capone Vault wrong. Dan Rather Memogate wrong. Oprah Winfrey, James Frey wrong. No, I’m going Hostel on that horse. I’m not kidding. I am actually going to Slovakia, laying some Slovakian winking eye and breaking out the blow torch to a mare’s midsection. I am talking of going Bakersfield chimp on that thing (you lost souls that don’t listen to Phil Hendrie, check this out: linky). The horse may be six feet deep but I’m slamming that thing to China.

Just kidding. I ran out of gas on those analogies a long while ago.

But I do want to give some love to Fran Walsh, Philppa Boyens and Peter Jackson‘s lovely homage to King Kong in… King Kong. The length just didn’t bother me. And the Hearts of Darkness metaphor? Loved it.

The next two screenplays are real loves of my life. You would not have heard better dialogue in any other movie this year. For that reason alone they are on my For Your Consideration list. They also happened to have great characters and deliciously entertaining storylines. Frank Miller’s Sin City and Shane “The Prodigal Son” Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang were two of 2005’s great pieces of entertainment. Sin City was violent and poetic in all the right ways. Now I know some of you are sick to death of people yelling at you for not seeing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but damnit you deserved it. You know who you are. The film is just fun. The dialogue crackles and pops with enough wit to satisfy the biggest smartasses in the room and you leave the theatre on a Tony Montana high. Like Cage’s straight flush, you can bet on it.

Want my opinion on the Original Screenplays? Well, click here and get the skinny.

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Weekend: Nov. 15, 2018, Nov. 18, 2018

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