Archive for Die Hard

Dynamic Conflict

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2018 by dcairns

I got Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure for Christmas, and it’s quite good — one of the best of these damn screenwriting books. I can’t bear Syd Field’s books, the man thinks “sets up” is one word, spelled “setsup” like “catsup.” True, he has slightly more screen credits than Robert McKee, but no feature film ones, and his TV writing credits are for a show he produced: in other words, he gave himself the job.

O’Bannon actually wrote movies, and had the debilating health problems to prove it. This is from Michael Wiese Productions, who do good film books by actual filmmakers, and it shares a melancholic quality with editor Sam O’Steen’s Cut to the Chase: it’s been published post-mortem, with much work from other hands to make a book of it. O’Steen had his wife, a fellow editor, to interview him and prompt his memories, O’Bannon has co-author Matt R. Lohr. I’m going to go ahead and blame him for getting the plot of King Lear wrong.

But the selling point here is O’Bannon’s unique take on the three-act structure. I’m with actual writer Ed Solomon on this one — reading screenwriting books before you start writing will just do your head in. If you write something decent, the books can sometimes be useful to help tighten it and make it work better. I’d encountered O’Bannon’s theories before in an interview he gave to a screenwriting magazine. There’s not much new here, certainly not enough to fill a book, but NONE of these manuals have enough in them to fill their page count. All you can hope for is that the good stuff will actually be good.

O’Bannon’s chief innovation is to better define the Act Two Curtain — in his formulation, at this point, “the doors close” — before this approximate three-quarter mark, leading into the climax, the protagonist and antagonist could theoretically have walked away from their conflict (yes, as always, the assumption is that this will be a conflict-based narrative: see Mackendrick’s On Film-Making for a bracing alternative). After this curtain, the characters are locked in to their struggle. Sometimes one has committed an act so awful towards the other than vengeance is now imperative; sometimes, one has been revealed to pose an existential threat to the other. I guess in JAWS, when the boat starts to sink, Sheriff Brody is committed to seeing the thing through.

In that same old screenwriting mag I read another movie hack claim that DIE HARD was all third act from about fifteen minutes in, but O’Bannon’s theory disproves this nicely. It may seem to be all climax, but just where a Second Act Curtain should be, our hero is told he can relax and leave it to the FBI now, and then discovers the terrorists are going to blow everyone up and ONLY HE CAN STOP THEM. Classic O’Bannon, though written by three other guys.

One always finds oneself talking about really commercial, manly stuff when attempting to prove screenwriting theories. One successful guide uses THE KARATE KID as its paragon. This alone should make us skeptical. But if you’re interested in screenwriting, test O’Bannon’s theory against movies you love. I might try this in a follow-up post.

O’Bannon’s other best point is where he blasphemously trounces the idea that Acts One, Two and Three should end or begin on a specific page, or a specific minute of screen time. He points out that the audience doesn’t know what time it is. He’s right. I think we DO get a sense, when we’re watching a film, that This has been going on a long time and we still don’t know what it’s about, when the first act is a long time in reaching its curtain. But we can get that feeling in fifteen minutes, if the first act is really boring, as I just did with a screener I was viewing for Edinburgh Film Festival, a would-be horror movie that began with half an hour of conversations. And sometimes we can get to the end of a film without once having that feeling, and STILL not know what the film was about, as I did with another movie, a thoroughly convincing and beautiful art-house job.

The surest ways to avoid activating the audience’s internal clock is to tell an engaging story or unfold a tapestry of cinematic beauty. And let the curtains fall where they will.

Dan O’Bannon co-wrote DARK STAR, ALIEN and TOTAL RECALL.

 

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“What bitch?”

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2010 by dcairns

Even though I am and will always be a huge Richard Lester fan, I would have to say that Rita Moreno is the principle reason for watching THE RITZ, directed by Lester in 1976 from Terrence McNally’s play. Not that it’s a bad film at all, it preserves the tight farce structure of the play, apart from a redundant opening-out at the very start, which does at least give us a George Coulouris cameo in which his character’s dying words set the plot in motion — at last George gets a CITIZEN KANE of his own, only his KANE plays in a gay New York bathhouse.

Jack Weston is a Cleveland businessmen (“I’m in garbage.”) on the run from his mobster brother in law (Ben Stiller’s dad Jerry) who hides out in what should be the last place anybody would look for him. The Ritz is a grand, multilevel set by Philip Harrison, projecting an aura of splendour even if the windows are boarded up and the partitions fall down at embarrassing moments. The movie’s action plays on the potentially off-colour idea — a comedy of mistaken identities in a gay sauna — while keeping all actual sexual activity offscreen/stage, with the only kiss being a hetero-on-hetero Italianamerican family bonding moment, given a spicy undercurrent and then swiftly undercut. So there’s a curious innocence about it all, which also comes from the movie’s pre-AIDS environment, where jokes about weekly blood tests and lines like “You’re lucky if that’s all you catch,” are meant to amuse rather than chill. The posters of young, departed movie stars, carry an air of melancholy which the strenuous knockabout does its best to dispel.

I had half an idea worked up about this being an interesting double feature to play with DIE HARD, but I was actually dreaming when I had the notion, so I’m no longer sure how it went. I guess the way Weston talks to himself as he flees from one level of the building to another is part of it. He has an excuse: he’s in a play and he almost knows it. I always choked slightly on Bruce Willis’s first monologue.

There’s also the progressively more disarrayed appearance of both characters, with Willis’s iconic darkening vest paralleled by Weston’s disintegrating disguise (Lester, bald since the age of 19, is always amused by toupees: Weston’s gets ripped in two early on) and steam-shrunken suit. Fiona declared several times that he looked like a cartoon, and he gets more and more cartoonish as the film strips him of his certainties.

I guess both protags are displaced blue-collar guys thrust into an effete multistorey world and imperiled by organized hoods. But there’s no equivalent of F Murray Abraham’s splendid camping, Treat Williams’ falsetto-voiced detective, or of course Rita Moreno’s delusional cabaret singer, Googie Gomez. On the other hand, Lester’s film has fewer explosions.

Gomez was a party piece worked up by Moreno who inspired the whole play/movie. Her total conviction of her own megatalent, and her multiple inadequacies as a performer combine to make her a very likable and funny grotesque. And she’s funny in specifically female ways which should do a lot to eradicate any arguments about “why women aren’t funny,” which still surface occasionally although nowadays generally spewed from the mouths of repulsive contrarian dipshits like Christopher Hitchens. Moreno is hysterical.

The old lady doing the accounts is Bessie Love, silent star (INTOLERANCE, THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH.)

Lester, so far as we know a confirmed heterosexual, could have been on shaky ground here, like Donen directing STAIRCASE, but fortunately he lets McNally guide him, and anyhow the play is entirely devoid of self-loathing, self-flagellation and self-abuse. Casting British comedy faces like Peter Butterworth and Leon Greene is potentially dodgy, as they remind us that we’re on a sound stage at Twickenham Studios, but they’re welcome presences anyway. Is the movie is perhaps a little too afraid of letting any actual eroticism into the mix? Perhaps, but then it has a Felliniesque affection for the hopefuls and hopelesses of low-grade entertainment, and their inability to project the kind of sexual charge they aim for (Moreno is  mistaken for a drag queen; “those now you see it, now you don’t, go-go boys” are pale and hairless geeks) is observed with unstated pathos.

THE RITZ  is a nice way to pass an hour and a half, even if it never even tries to transcend its stagebound origins.

The Ritz

Caveat Lector

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2009 by dcairns

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QUIET PLEASE, MURDER! is a really nice, modest little wartime noir written and directed by a fellow who doesn’t seem to have gotten the breaks he deserved, John Larkin.

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Excitingly, as the film begins, there seem to be no good guys. George Sanders is Harry Fleg (a Scots word for fright), a murderous book thief who decides to forge copies of his ill-gotten Burbage manuscript rather than part with the original. He’s constantly espousing his cheesy psychoanalytic theories about guilty bad guys needing to punish themselves, and this is no doubt his own way of bringing down vengeance upon his head. It’s a glorious role for Sanders, who gets to say ~

“How many butterflies did you torture since lunch, hoping one would turn on you?”

The line he was born to say! Although, in fairness, George makes nearly every line sound like he was born to say it.

He says this one to his equally devious and neurotic partner, the silky Gail Patrick, whose job is to certify the fake books as genuine and help their sale. But she goes against his explicit instructions and sells a bogus folio to Sidney “Satan is his father!” Blackmer, whom I will always associate with the role of Roman Castavet in ROSEMARY’S BABY. Blackmer is buying treasures for the Nazis to fund their inevitable post-defeat retirement, and resolves to punish Fleg when he realises he’s been had.

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Enter the hero, Richard Jennings. I came to have a pretty complicated relationship with this fellow. He enters the story as a private eye, but soon makes a shady deal with Patrick, and I had him pegged as a villain. Once I realised he was meant to be the hero, I liked him a lot less. The actor didn’t seem appealing enough, and there was little reason to like the character. But then I warmed to the chap. True, his hair, seemingly close-cropped, exploded in flailing fronds like some hideous scalp-squid when he got punched. But the character is written with a nice semi-redemption, and is so resourceful I couldn’t withhold respect. Plus Jennings has interesting qualities. His voice has a nice, unusual timbre, like Kirk Douglas when he’s occasionally miscast as an intellectual.

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Jennings’ hair escapes, everywhere.

Most of the movie takes place in a library during a blackout, and the locked-in quality gives it a slight air of DIE HARD, only less frenetic (That first DIE HARD — that’s quite some movie! Try it if you don’t believe me). It’s nice that we have about five separate factions in the movie, all out to double-cross each other, and all behaving with as much intelligence as the plot will allow. The rogue’s gallery is a delight, and the MALTESE FALCON-y ambivalent hero is enjoyably rendered. Joseph MacDonald shoots it in lustrous monochrome. A good evening in!

I got a tape of it from Napier University library, and recommended it to the librarians there. Librarians are underrepresented in cinema, having had to make do with Rachel Weisz in THE MUMMY remake and sequels*, where she doesn’t actually get to grips with the Decimal Dewey system nearly enough. Whereas the plot of this one actually turns upon the act of filing.

*Jacques Rivette, however, has given due respect to the book people.