Somewhere (2010)… or Nowhere

I collected a few thoughts on screenwriting, or fiction writing in general, from watching Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” (2010).

The film was winner of the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival last year in the ‘Emerging Film’ category.  As daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola must have breathed films from birth.  She is also an Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay with “Lost In Translation” (2003), which also brought her an Oscar nom in the Best Director and Best Picture categories.

While I had enjoyed her “Lost In Translation”, a sensitive, existential rendering framed in the context of cultural cacophonies, I sat through “Somewhere” feeling detached and unmoved. But I did make some mental notes on how to write better… especially when I compared it with another film depicting a similar theme, Mike Leigh’s “Another Year“.

I’ve appreciated the overriding intent of “Somewhere”, the portrayal of a pointless life in the midst of Hollywood stardom. Behind the façade of glamour is a sad man, failed in his marriage, aimless, smothered with ennui. The setting of the film is significant too. From the movie poster we see the iconic Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont, a historic landmark that’s synonymous with fame and celebrity. That is where our protagonist, actor Johnny Marco lives, at the moment.


So here are some mental notes I made on writing while watching “Somewhere”:

1.  We all know it: Show, not tell. But too much showing can be force feeding.

Case in point: The film starts off with the sound of a car engine revving, then we see a black Ferrari come on screen from the left, circling round and go off screen.  We wait for it to come back, then go round and offscreen again. This goes on for, I forgot to count, maybe four times. Then it stops, and a man gets out.  We later find out he is the main character, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff).  Got it… his life is going in circles, heading nowhere.

But just to confirm that we are on the right track, we’re shown some more.  We see Johnny Marco so drunk he falls down the stairs and breaks his arm.  We see him lying in bed watching exotic dancers performing in front of him, only to fall asleep before they finish their routine. We are shown again another time, another pair of exotic dancers in his room, this time he gives a bored little clap. We see him womanizing, partying, driving his Ferrari aimlessly on the road. We see him being ushered to promo sessions and photo shoots, in unfeeling mode, and answer questions from the press.  And as if not enough pounding, we hear a reporter asking the explicit question, which by now has become so contrived: ‘Who is Johnny Marco?’

This is not just the first 30 minutes to set up the mood and character, this is throughout the film.  So I noted: once you’ve got your point across, move on.

2.  Stir up empathy, not inflict vicarious suffering.  You don’t have to drag your audience to the level of boredom to depict boredom. Like, we don’t have to be turned into stutterers before we can appreciate the struggles of a stammering king.  There is a scene where Johnny has to sit down and have his face plastered with goo to make a mold of an old man. We see him plastered bit by bit until his head is covered with goo.  The static camera then stays on this plastered head, as we wait with him for the goo to dry.  Lucky we are spared after a minute and a half.  I appreciate the long take if it conveys meaning in an aesthetically pleasing way, but here it is almost didactic in its expression of tedium and ennui.

3. Bring up a contrast. Yes, in this case, Johnny Marco’s 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) is a perfect foil.  Staying with her father for a short while before going to summer camp, Cleo’s life is nothing short of wholesome. She is angelic in her innocence and beauty; in contrast to her Dad, she is happy and purposeful. She figure skates, plays tennis, swims, cooks, does Sudoku, plays Guitar Hero and Wii with youthful vitality.  Johnny is mesmerized. Despite a failed marriage, Cleo is the best thing that happens in his life… and in the film as well.

4. Put the character in the context of a story, even though it is just a character study or that it is static. For the viewers to appreciate the character on a deeper level, they must see the person in various predicaments, which are missing here.  Without a story as vehicle, we only see a two dimensional character.  I thought of Mary (Lesley Manville) in “Another Year”.  Very similar to Johnny here, Mary is a sad and utterly despondent character.  Also, like Johnny, she is going nowhere even at the end, where she is spiralling further down the hole of loneliness.  Not unlike Johnny here.  Yet I found “Another Year” appealing because the other significant characters continue to show us their life story. The foil there is Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). Through the four seasons, we see how they treat each other and deal with life, and relationships are being depicted. It is still a character study with no major dramatic climax, yet the film can hold my interest because I am watching Mary through the frame of Tom and Gerri’s story.

5.  Throw in a dash of humor, even though especially when your character is in utter sadness.  Unlike “Lost In Translation”, “Somewhere” is almost devoid of humor. A laugh or two is probably the fastest way to dissolve the audience’s aloofness. Back to “Another Year”, Mary is not a lovable character. She is delusional, dependent, aimless and weak.  As audience, we are impatient with her unhappiness, because we feel she is solely responsible for her plight. But humor disarms our critical stance and gently prods us to sympathize her.  Her character does not change and become loveable at the end, but we learn to be more gracious and give her some allowance.  We find that it is not so static after all, for we the audience, unknowingly, have been changed.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


CLICK HERE to read my review of Another Year.

CLICK HERE to read my review of The King’s Speech.

Oscar Nominations 2011

Here are the ten movies you might like to watch before the 83rd Academy Awards on Feb. 27:

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • Inception
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • The King’s Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • The Social Network
  • Toy Story 3
  • True Grit
  • Winter’s Bone

For a complete list of nominees and to watch the announcement from this morning in case you missed it at 5:30 am (PT) or 8:30 am (ET), CLICK HERE.

The nominations count are as follows: King’s Speech = 12, True Grit = 10, Social Network = 8, Inception = 8, The Fighter = 7, 127 Hours = 6

The King leads the pack.  A royal flush they say, hope that’s the hand on Oscar night.  Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, and director Tom Hooper all get nods. Other categories include Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Screenplay.  To read my review of The King’s Speech, CLICK HERE.

The surprise here is True Grit.  The Coen brothers’ film got snubbed at the Golden Globes and comes back with a vengeance.  Two years in a row they get the nod for Best Picture, after last year’s A Serious Man (my review here).   True Grit is a remake of the 1969 Western for which John Wayne got his Oscar.  Here we have a distinct Coen style film with smart dialogues and great acting.  “Nothing is free except the grace of God,” the beginning voice-over says, matched with the tune of the old hymn ‘Leaning on the Ever Lasting Arms’… I was amused to see how these two notions echo at the end of the film. At 13, Hailee Steinfeld beat out 15,000 other girls in the audition to get the role of tough and articulate Mattie Ross, seeking justice for her daddy’s death.  Now one year later, she has landed at the Oscars. Amazing. Also, Jeff Bridges gets the nom again, after snatching the Best Actor Oscar from Colin Firth last year.  It’s interesting to note that, while Colin Firth can act with half a voice, Jeff Bridges here shows us he can act with just one eye.

I’m excited to see Mike Leigh finally getting recognition for his poignant original screenplay for Another Year.  Unfortunately, the film does not get any more Oscar nods.  Veteran British actors Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, and Lesley Manville give a performance of deep resonance.  Lesley Manville is no less deserving than anyone on the list of Best Actress nominees.  This is one of the most neglected movies of 2010.  I saw it at the Calgary Film Festivals last year.  I know some cities are just showing it now. Don’t miss it.  CLICK HERE to read my review.

Toy Story 3.  The animated feature that gets into the major league, following the only two other animations ever to be nominated in a Best Motion Picture category, Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991).  The theme of growing up and parting with your beloved and familiar finds its way into a touching animation that may well appeal to parents more than kids.  The idea of a child leaving home for college has been used in several movies in recent years, most notably, The Blind Side (2009) and The Kids Are All Right (2010).  I’ve watched all of this year’s ten Best Picture nominees. But, don’t laugh, Toy Story 3 was the only time I’d shed a few tears.

For Best Documentary Feature, I’m glad to see our notorious graffiti artist Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop has not evaded the Academy.  To read my review CLICK HERE.

The Academy Awards will take place on Sunday, Feb. 27.  This time Anne Hathaway and James Franco (a Best Actor nominee himself for 127 Hours), the youngest of Oscar hosts, are set to offer a fresh new look.  Hathaway had proven her versatility dancing and singing with Hugh Jackman two Oscars ago, and Franco has been hailed as the new Renaissance Man…  Just hope they will live up to expectations.

Another Year (2010)

Update Feb. 10: Leslie Manville just won British Actress of the Year at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards.

Update Jan. 25: Mike Leigh is nominated for an Oscar for Original Screenplay.

Update Jan. 18: Another Year is nominated for a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film of the Year, and Leslie Manville for Best Supporting Actress.

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.”

— ‘Eleanor Rigby’

Every DayAnother Year, film titles like these evoke the oblivious passage of time, and the human experiences that float down the stream of life. The kind of films we would find in art-house cinemas, not your fast-paced action or effects-generated spectacle.  Another Year would gratify one’s need for slow ruminations and offer one time to savour the dynamics among characters.  The film was on my ‘must-see’ list at the Calgary International Film Festival 2010, which ended last weekend.  It had met all my expectations and offered more.

What’s more is the excellent performance from a high calibre cast of British actors.  Their nuanced portrayals of characters convey emotions unabashedly, but in a deep, restrained and unsentimental manner.  That is what makes Another Year so satisfying.  I enjoyed it much more than director Mike Leigh’s previous title, equally acclaimed Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), in which Poppy (Sally Hawkins) the happy gal is just a bit too loud and even obnoxious for me.  While here in Another Year, Tom and Gerri are the happy couple whose relationship is one of mature, quiet and gentle bliss, compassionate towards themselves and others.

Framed in the passing of the four seasons, the film explores the realities of life: ageing, loneliness, death, love, marriage, friendship… Yet the occasional animated and humorous renderings of the characters allow a lighter way of handling the subject matters.

Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent) are a happily married couple living in London.  In the midst of the bustling city, they have their own plot of land close by their home where they work hard to grow vegetables. They bring home fresh produce to cook healthy meals and entertain guests.  Their vegetable garden is an apt metaphor for the love they cultivate in their relationship despite the busyness of everyday life. Tom is a geologist and Gerri a counsellor in a medical office. If there’s any pun intended here with their names, it would be for the very opposite effect that they are a harmonious pair whose relationship has attracted those less happy to cling on for stability and support.

Their usual dinner guest is Gerri’s office administrator Mary (Lesley Manville).  A single, middle-aged woman, emotionally fragile, alcohol dependent, and desperately seeking love and companionship. Her male version is Tom’s long time friend Ken (Peter Wight), equally miserable. A heavy smoker and drinker, Ken’s physical health mirrors his emotional state.

But why Tom and Gerri gather such damaged and dependent friends the film does not explain.  What we do see is a most gracious couple extending their lives to them. Through their interactions, we see the contrast. While we admire the almost perfect marriage, we ache for the singles, sad and lonely… as we see them in this film.  I trust the director is making a specific rendering and not a generalization on singlehood.  The contented Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) is the best spokesperson for the single league.

Tom and Gerri have an adult son Carl (Martin Savage) who frequently comes home to visit his parents from a nearby town by train. When I saw the shot of a commuter train going past on screen, it flashed upon my mind the image in Ozu’s works.  That is one of the Japanese director’s signature shots, a train passing through, and his favourite subjects also being family, marriage, nuanced interactions.  I thought, if Ozu were an Englishman living today, this would be the kind of films he would make.  And lo and behold, I found this tidbit of trivia on IMDb: One of Mike Leigh’s top 10 films of all time is Tokyo Story (1953).

If one is to find fault with Another Year, it could be the very fact that Tom and Gerri’s marriage is just too perfect. But with all the ubiquitous dysfunctional families we see represented in movies nowadays, Leigh might have opened a window to let in some much needed fresh air. Tom and Gerri make an ideal contrast to what we have so sadly gotten used to seeing in films.

There are excellent performances from the veteran actors, but one stands out. Lesley Manville’s animated portrayal of the vulnerable Mary deserves an Oscar nomination. The most impressive shot comes at the end. Without giving it away, let me just say the ending shot lingering on her face and the ultimate fade to black is poignant and most effective. Of course, it’s acceptable to applaud after a festival screening. And so we did, appreciatively, a much needed channel for a cathartic response.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples