Wednesday, January 23, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - All of my posts for Film School Rejects

When I started writing my blog, I never even considered the possibility that it might lead to writing for other outlets. I certainly hoped it would boost the profile of my writing, but I had no ambitions of making a career out of it.

It was Scott Beggs who invited me to write something for Film School Rejects, and if I'm being honest, my first inclination was to politely decline. Then, what usually happens happened - I started getting ideas. To my delight, Scott liked my idea - a weird take exploring how one might apply the nitpicking of the modern STAR TREK films to WRATH OF KHAN, which is generally acknowledged as one of the stronger TREK movies. It was fun to kind of poke the bear of fandom.

So every now and then when I had a more pop-culture-y idea that seemed like it would stir up a reaction with FSR's reader base, I'd pitch it. At the time, my blog audience was pretty decent, but FSR seemed to have a wider reach and it was fun having my stuff read by people less familiar to me.

I've gone back and linked to ALL of my Film School Rejects posts, along with some reflections on each one. The posts in bold are some of my favorite ones, and also some of the more unique ones.

If The Internet Had Existed When ‘Wrath of Khan’ Hit Theaters - My first FSR piece remains my favorite, particularly for the reaction it stirred up. Alas, the original comments section was the casualty of at least two server moves for the site, but it was GLORIOUS to see half the comments on this piece come from anti-JJ TREK fans who used this to attack the new films while the other half of the commenters kept trying to explain, "You don't get it! YOU are what this article is mocking and you're doing it right now!"

Why The World Needs ‘Superman Returns’ - I am the internet's official defender of SUPERMAN RETURNS. I loved it when it came out, I felt it deserved a sequel then and will still argue that the only post-Nolan DC film that can hold a candle to it is WONDER WOMAN. I love this movie, and this piece explains why. I also tell you why most arguments against it aren't intellectually honest.

The Biggest Challenges Facing a ‘Wonder Woman’ Movie - This is a fun one to look back on now that we actually have a WW film. I think that Patty Jenkins deftly navigated every minefield I foresaw here, which is quite the feat because I KNOW other filmmakers would have faltered.

Must There Be a Wonder Woman Movie? - Do we "need" a WONDER WOMAN movie, I asked? Is it about a love for the character or is all this chatter coming from the perspective that she's just so big as a licensing icon that it's her time. After having seen and heard of some takes that were all wrong, I started to wonder if no WW movie was better than a bad WW movie.

The Long, Troubled Future History of ‘Back to the Future Part IV’ - Another early favorite, where I imagined the future production path of BACK TO THE FUTURE PART IV.

Why Isn’t There a Solo Black Widow Movie? I make the case that CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER created the moment where it was inexplicable that we hadn't seen evidence of a Black Widow solo film, while defending that her supporting role in THE WINTER SOLDIER shouldn't be treated like a demotion.

Badly Written Spin-offs (Not Gender) Killed Female Superhero Movies - The lie has persisted for decades that no one wants to see female superhero movies. I reexamined SUPERGIRL, CATWOMAN and ELEKTRA to see if that reputation is warrented and if those films should be our baseline.

Bombs Away: Enjoying ‘Batman & Robin’ on Its Own Campy Terms - What if, hear me out, what if BATMAN & ROBIN wasn't as bad as we've all claimed for 20 years?

5 Modern Gems Released During the Dumping Ground That is the Last Half of August

When The Smartest Version of Freddy Krueger Invaded Our World - I stan for the under-rated WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE.

Spare Us Your 90-Minute Video Takedown of The Force Awakens - I hate Red Letter Media's overblown takedowns of the Star Wars films almost as much as the critical culture it spawned. This was my appeal for sanity ahead of THE FORCE AWAKENS.

Why I Wrote a Book About The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films - The origins of my Michael Bay book, revealed!

Mark Hamill’s Comic Book: The Movie Shows That Luke Skywalker is One of Us - I reviewed Mark Hamill's directorial debut.

A Look Ahead to What The Next 15 Years Holds for the Lights Out Franchise - using prior horror franchises as a guide, I prognosticate what's in store for LIGHTS OUT.

6 Films That Are Waiting for Their Legacy Sequels - What other franchises are ready for THE FORCE AWAKENS treatment?

An Appreciation of That Thing You Do on its 20th Anniversary  - I celebrate one of my favorite films by looking at the Extended Cut as a teaching tool for how strategic editing can shift the entire feeling of a film.

Reclaiming The Fun Side of Batman - Adam West and Burt Ward return to the roles that made them iconic and I celebrate the need for Batman to get a little silly now and then.

Gilmore Girls “Final Four Words” Leave the Most Important Conversation Unsaid - I give high marks to the GILMORE GIRLS revival on Netflix.

How The Flash and Supergirl became my wife’s gateway drug to superhero fandom - Learn how the biggest fight my wife and I ever had was about if the time-travel in season one of THE FLASH made sense.

The Known Unknowns of Star Wars - The Star Wars franchise has an entire galaxy to play with and the first announced spinoffs were all built around familiar characters. I talk a little bit about why that is disappointing

7 Films That Could Be Headlined by Creepy Dead CGI Actors - ROGUE ONE's Peter Cushing resurrection inspired this piece.

The Passengers Dilemma - if you've seen PASSENGERS, you know the end of the film has the two main characters stranded on a spaceship that will take 89 years to reach their destination, but only one working hibernation pod. They decide that each can't condemn the other to lonliness so they live together. Here, I work out the math that has them splitting time in the pod and time awake so that they could both live to reach the destination, albeit at an advanced age.

A Brutally Honest Razzie Ballot - One of my all-time favorite posts, inspired by THR's "Brutally Honest Oscar Ballots," I imagine a Razzie voter doing the same for their ballot.

The Films of Frank Capra III, Ranked - A slightly tongue-in-cheek piece ranking the films of First Assistant Director Frank Capra III.

Why Are We Compelled to Rank Movies in a Series with Each New Release? - Film culture sites love to rank every new Marvel movie, Tarantino movie, or anything else in a series when the latest one comes out. But does it really mean anything?

An Aggregated Oral History of 2009 Films Ruined By the Last WGA Strike - Compiling quotes from the makers of TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, QUANTUM OF SOLICE, G.I. JOE, STAR TREK, and WOLVERINE, I give a sense of how the 2007-08 WGA strike really screwed up the films of 2009.

Ten Years Later, THE HOAX is Even More Timely In The Trump Era - a salute to one of my favorite underrated films, THE HOAX. Richard Gere plays Clifford Irving, a failing writer who fakes a biography of Howard Hughes after claiming to have been personally selected by the recluse. As one lie piles upon another, Clifford keeps building the con into an unstable house of cards. If you liked CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME, this 2007 film will probably scratch a similar itch for you.

Consider With Reservations: The Stars of Quantity Over Quality Cinema - I look at the direct-to-video output of such reliable talents in that area like John Cusack, Bruce Willis, Pierce Brosnan and Nicolas Cage.

How Movies Like 'King Ralph' Condition Audiences to Give Ill-Prepared Leaders a Chance - I blame Trump on one of his closest filmic counterparts - King Ralph

'Justice League' and the Fetishizing of Longer Cuts - Is longer actually better when it comes to films? This is a contemplation of how rarer, less-polished cuts can take on a myth of their own.

News from Earth-2: The Never-Seen Zack Snyder Cut of 'Batman v Superman' - one of the trippier posts I've written, wherein I posit that Joss Whedon had been brought in to save BvS instead of JUSTICE LEAGUE and that only now are we seeing "The Snyder Cut" of BvS. This article catalogues the differences between the Whedon Cut and the Snyder Cut.

The Morality of Erasing Content Made By Sexual Predators - As MeToo continues, what do we do when men we're now supposed to hate were responsible for art that was incredibly popular?

In Defense of Luke Skywalker - I make it clear where I stand on THE LAST JEDI as I debate the claims that it presents an implausible version of Luke Skywalker

An Ode to the Past and Future Films of Dawson Leery - on the 20th anniversary of Dawson's Creek - I went through Dawson Leery's filmography and tried to figure out if his movies would have been any good.

In the Aftermath of Tragedy, Generation Rey is Showing Why It's Their Time to Lead - As the Parkland survivors became gun advocates, I drew a parallel between them fixing what the Columbine generation couldn't and Rey fixing the sins of Luke Skywalker.

If You Want To Make a Superman Show, Make a Superman Show! - I took a look at how KRYPTON appeared to bend over backwards to introduce Superman elements in a show that takes place pre-Superman and decried prequels that want to have it both ways. I might have been a little hasty in this because KRYPTON was generally pretty deft in how it mined the mythos.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

My Top 10 Films of 2018

Continuing from yesterday, here's the rest of my Top 10 Films of 2018. Remember, if I left off your favorite film, it's a personal insult to you. Yes, you.

10. Vice - I think Dick Cheney gets off too easy. One of the most corrupt, power-hungry men responsible for getting us into an unnecessary war we're still paying for gets a semi-comedic biopic treatment. It doesn't quite humanize him, but I think it takes the sting out of his corruption a bit. But once I put aside the Cheney movie I want to see, I have to admit the one we got is pretty good. Christian Bale gives an amazing performance and I had to remind myself several times exactly who that was emoting beneath all that makeup. And I have to admit, the darkly funny tone DOES truly work for the end of the movie where Cheney's health is dire and he's near death. Director Adam McKay delivers his version of Dick Cheney well, even though I don't think it'll change the minds of anyone who had an opinion out Cheney before the film.

9. BlackKklansman - A black police officer in the '70s infiltrates the KKK. Tell me that's not an incredible premise for a movie. A lot has been made of Spike Lee's decision to use the final moments of the film to draw a straight line from this version of the KKK to the white supremacists of the Charolettesville rally. When I heard about it, it seemed heavy-handed but in the film it's absolutely an earned moment. I'm writing this before nominations come out, and from where I sit, John David Washington should be a contender for Best Actor, and Topher Grace is pretty damn good as David Duke too. I like the subversiveness of casting the former boy-next-door as the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

8. If Beale Street Could Talk - A powerful story of love and injustice. A black man named Fonny is wrongly accused of rape just as his romance with longtime friend Tish blossoms. We experience their romance in flashbacks alongside the present-timeline story of Tish dealing with Fonny's incarceration as she and her mother work to find the rape victim who can prove Fonny's been misidentified as the perpetrator. Heartbreaking and beautifully shot, even more that MOONLIGHT, this is the film that made me eager to see what writer/director Barry Jenkins can do with a studio budget. All of his films feel personal and emotional.

7. Eighth Grade - Speaking of personal and emotional, writer/director Bo Burnham puts us all inside the life of a 13 year-old girl in her final weeks of eighth grade. Kayla is the kind of girl who's confident on social media, but shy and anonymous among her classmates. I think EIGHTH GRADE had some of the more intense and emotionally uncomfortable film moments of the year, whether it's Kalya feeling she needs to hint she's promiscuous in order to get her crush to like her, or the utterly, painfully tense sequence of Kalya getting a ride home from an older friend who uses Truth or Dare to interrogate her sexual experience level and also establish he's got all the power in the car. Watching him slowly push the boundaries and coercing Kayla well past her comfort zone was especially potent in the year of MeToo and Brett Kavanaugh.

6. Love, Simon - It's been 25 years, and it's time to acknowledge that teen movies should be free of John Hughes's shadow. This was one of the thoughts that came to me during LOVE, SIMON, a high-school dramedy about a 17 year-old boy (Nick Robinson) with a secret. You see, Simon is gay. This isn't a movie about Simon realizing he's gay, or figuring out his sexuality, which is a not-uncommon story (for supporting players) in teen films. (Or smaller indie films, if the lead is the one discovering their sexuality.) Simon knows who he is, he just doesn't know what to do about it.

There's a bullshit line that a lot of reviewers use when discussing the experience of walking out of a film as a privileged person who has felt empathy for some kind of "other": "It's not a gay/black/Muslim/etc. story, it's a universal story." It's a line that means well, but when wrongly deployed can seem to be erasing the uniqueness of the black/gay/etc. experience. LOVE, SIMON is a gay story. There's no logic to erasing that. But it's a gay story with so much to say about identity and perception that it allows for identification beyond sexual orientation. LOVE, SIMON is about finding the strength to be seen as the person you are and realizing that what everyone else thinks about it means both nothing and everything.

5. Avengers: Infinity War - I could knock this for being a film that only works if you have even a passing familiarity with the Marvel franchises. Where the first AVENGERS did an excellent job of reintroducing the main players in a context that allowed new viewers to feel immediately up to speed, this third installment quite a bit less hand-holding. But if you look at this as the 19th film in an unfolding saga, that critique goes away fast. It nimbley balances the entire ensemble not just in terms of characters but also their disparate tones too. Thor's arrival in Wakanda is easily one of 2018's best film moments with Thanos himself being the new gold standard for mo-cap CGI characters. There's never a moment where you question Thanos is actually there. It's a popcorn movie, but it's a GOOD popcorn film.

4. Black Panther - Ryan Coogler is easily one of the best directors Marvel has every employed and even with Marvel's history of pulling impressive casts together, this has one of the strongest. There are a lot of reasons why this film surpasses most other Marvel efforts, with one of the most crucial being Michael B. Jordan's turn as the villain Killmonger. Marvel hasn't always had the best track record with their villains, but Jordan makes his one of the most charismatic and interesting antagonists. You're not quite rooting for him, but you understand him with a depth that most Marvel foes lack. We also are introduced to Wakanda, a world unlike any other in Marvel, and it feels like it has a richer, deeper culture than some of the settings in earlier entries.

3. Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse - Holy crap, this was fun! And probably one of the most visually inventive movies of the year too! It was just a big fun comic book of a film that captures the best aspects of the Spider-mythos. I really feel like this opens the door to the next chapter of superhero films, showing animation as a viable way to adapt these characters in a way that reflects their more fantastic origins. It's the antithesis of the Nolan approach, which demands everything be grounded and fit into the real world.

2. A Quiet Place - Brilliant, high concept genre film-making. I fear it will be overlooked by Academy voters, especially those who only watched this on a screener at home instead of the theater where you could feel the audience holding their breath for 90 minutes. Earth has been invaded by aliens who track their prey by sound. After a ballsy opening sequences that establishes just how viscous the creatures (and filmmakers) are willing to be, the film leaps forward and shows how ready it is to milk every aspect of this hook. A family of four, headed by John Krasinski and Emily Blunt do their best to survive on a farm in the middle of nowhere. There's just one additional complication - she's pregnant. How is she supposed to give birth without making a peep, much less care for an infant?

Director and co-writer Krasinski's decision to cast hearing impaired actress Millicent Simmonds as one of the children is a gamble that pays off. This is the kind of thriller that seems made just for me - a simple hook with all the possible tension wrung out of a contained location. Aspiring writers should study this for how the film sets up its premise with a minimum of dialogue exposition and then milks every aspect of that premise.

1. Mission: Impossible - Fallout - The craft that goes into creating a solid action film is often deeply under appreciated. I was already on the MI train just after seeing it in theaters. Watching it on bluray and seeing how this film was made took that conviction to an even higher level. There are at least five incredible action sequences in this film that were largely achieved practically. We all knew that Tom Cruise really did a HALO jump for the film, but did you know he was really hanging from that helicopter in the climax? And that he learned to fly the helicopter so that he could act as his own stunt pilot and essentially the camera operator for that sequence? I don't even know how to begin to summarize how they shot the motorcycle chase through Paris. Action sequences at this level are pure artistry.

But this isn't all just action - there's actually a pretty solid character story for Ethan Hunt as the man who's given everything to his country while losing the most important things that mattered to him. Does the Syndicate plot get a little too complicated? Yeah, but thirty minutes into the film that doesn't matter so much and you can just enjoy Henry Cavill's fist pumping, Angela Bassett being a badass boss, and Ving Rhames being Ving Rhames. If every action film was this good, the genre would have no trouble getting respect.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The First Half of my Top 20 Films of 2018

The Oscar nominations come out tomorrow, which means these next two days are the perfect time to drop my Top 20 List. 2018 was another solid year for film, one in which I'd proudly stand behind my top 30 films even. The one thing the year doesn't have is one or two films which EVERYONE agrees are brilliant, which sometimes leads some to call it an "off-year." I found plenty of films to like this year, both in the prestige and genre categories, so from where I sit, this was a win.

20. Support the Girls - It's a "day in the life" movie (see: EMPIRE RECORDS, CLERKS), but applied to a Hooters-like restaurant with Regina Hall as the manager/den mother keeping it all together. The worst case scenario for this film would be that it plays as a collection of subplots, like a thief caught in the vents and an under-the-radar car wash being organized to support an employee trying to flee a bad relationship. But it's Hall who centers this film, turning it into a character study of a strong woman whose employees never quite understand the extent of emotional labor she takes on for them. It's an under-seen movie, but one worth it for the performances of Hall and Haley Lu Richardson, who it took me a good 20 minutes to recognize.

19. First Man - As a technical achievement, this is an incredible film. The restaging of the moon landing was appropriately powerful in IMAX and the two hours that build up to the moment remind us just how perilous that endeavor was. As part of the generation that has "always" known we could make it to the Moon, I think sometimes it's too easy to forget how amazing a goal it was to set out to land on the moon, and what an achievement we as a nation were capable of when we put our mind to an impossible task. The phrase "We can land a man on the Moon, but we can't..." exists for a reason. In an era when we're led by a petty despot only interested is representing the interests of the smallest and most avarice among us, there's power in being reminded that Presidents once set goals that encouraged the best in their people and that science was once revered.

The film's relatively low placement on this list is largely due to the fact that I didn't feel emotionally engaged with Armstrong himself. A great deal of that is purposeful - he was a distant person. Though there were some powerful moments that reminded us of the very human cost of this journey, I had almost as many restless moments in the film. I have nothing but respect for how this film was made, and for the thoughts in prompts in a post-film reflection, but as far as what it made me FEEL - it came up shorter than I hoped.

18. Incredibles 2 - I'm worried I'm starting to take Pixar for granted, or maybe the competition is just stepping up in a major way. After almost a decade and a half of waiting, we finally got a sequel to one of Pixar's best films and it didn't disappoint. This time around, it's Elastigirl's turn in the spotlight as she is the face of superhero missions designed to put a good PR face on superhero activity. Mr. Incredible gets to be the fish out of water as a stay-at-home dad and the film makes the most of both comedic set-up. Better still, the kids take the spotlight in the third act while the story resembles a really GOOD version of a Silver Age Marvel or DC romp.

17. Blindspotting - When Daveed Diggs is a major star, this will be the film people point to as a favorite in order to earn film geek cred. Diggs gives an incredible, empathetic performance as a paroled felon with three days of probation left when he witnesses a cop kill an unarmed, fleeing black man. A lot of this year's best films dealt with race head on, proving that the most powerful art feels personal. Taking on race and guns, this feels very "off the moment" until you realize that "moment" has been around for at least 30 years. Diggs walks through this film like man in a pressure cooker - tension building until he finally explodes in the finale. It was one of those moments where I genuinely wasn't sure where a film was going to go. I'm a little bummed to see it so underrated.

16. Three Identical Strangers - In 1980, a young man goes off to college and is shocked when everyone there seems to recognize him, but calls him by a different name. This quickly leads him to an encounter with a long-lost twin, who he was separated from at birth. More incredible, the media attention from this story unearths another lost triplet. That's already more than you should know about this incredible documentary that digs into the differences between the siblings and explores the multiple tragedies of their lives.

15. Can You Ever Forgive Me? - I thought of THE HOAX a lot early on in this film about a biographer who falls into forging personal letters from famous authors and selling them to support herself. But where THE HOAX was a caper, this is more of a character study, a sad portrait of Lee Israel, played as an abrasive "cat lady" by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy manages something amazing - she makes a self-sabotaging felon sympathetic. We're practically cheering on Lee as her forgeries get more and more elaborate. Even when the FBI is coming for her, some part of us wants her to get away. The award buzz she's been getting has been well-earned.

14. Sorry to Bother You - This one... goes to some weird places. I always get suspicious of films like that, because weird for weird's sake often feels like a crutch that some writers use when they don't know how to develop a conventional narrative. One reason why I like it here is the rest of the film is so well-built that you imagine it could have stayed in a more conventional setting and still had something powerful to say. Writer/director Boots Riley tells the story of Cash Green, who climbs the ladder at a call center by using a "white voice" in his phone interactions. For a while we're lured into thinking it's a goofy satire of corporate America but before long the veil drops and reveals this film has some very pointed things to say about worker exploitation.

13. Searching - Until the last ten minutes, this was EASILY in my Top 10. I'm not sure what we call these films, but this is another one told entirely from the screen of a laptop. The opening montage rivals UP for the saddest opening that takes us through several years in a life and relationship, with the novelty that the entire history is communicated through computer updates and folders. It's incredible storytelling, as is the conceit that keeps the entire narrative unfolding on the laptop. When a teenage girl disappears, her widowed father probes in her life and her online presence to find clues to what happened and finds that he might not have really known his daughter at all. I can't get into what I didn't like without spoilers, but the ending is just a little too pat. Still, a remarkable achievement.

12. Thoroughbreds - I've been a member of the Olivia Cooke fan club since BATES MOTEL, where her status as one of the only major characters not to appear in PSYCHO meant that each week was an exercise in "Will they kill Emma now?" Here she plays a teen sociopath who memorably tells us, "It doesn't make me bad, it just means I have to try harder to be good." When another teenage girl is forced to hang out with Olivia's character, the two become a corrupting influence on each other and begin to plot murder. Ana Joy Taylor is just as good as the other half of this duo and I'll be looking for writer/director Cory Finley's next film for sure.

11. Creed II - It's an idea that shouldn't really work. After the first CREED, the most obvious way to go would be to have Adonis Creed take on the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring. Further, ROCKY IV is one of the series's weaker entries, so this sequel had quite an uphill road ahead of it. To my amazement, it proves to be a powerful story about family and legacies, very much a piece of the original CREED while drawing on Rocky's history. After this, I'm eager to see Adonis blaze his own trail, but this sequel does a solid job in its own right of laying the ghost of his father to rest. If this is Stallone's exit ramp from the series, he went out on a good one too.

Come back tomorrow at Noon for my Top 10!

10 Years of Bitter Posts - Video Interviews with Liz Tigelaar, Franklin Leonard, F. Scott Frazier and Jeffrey Lieber

When I created the Puppet to give me a way to be a little more public, the thing I was most interested in doing was interviews with writers. This shows I hadn't considered two things: 1) how much harder it is to operate a puppet than it looks and 2) most writers HATE going on-camera.

Despite that, I found a few VERY patient writers willing to spend up to an hour talking to a puppet with all the gravity they would give an NPR interview - while also basically assuming ALL the risk of looking ridiculous.

What I'm saying is, Liz Tigelaar is a saint for trusting me enough to be the first one on deck. You might be watching this 13-part interview and wonder, "Is Liz Tigelaar as nice as she seems?" No! She's nicer!

In this conversation with Liz, we trace through how she got her start as a writers' assistant, working as a staff writer, creating Life Unexpected and much, much more.

Equally patient was Franklin Leonard, who sat for two interviews, one about the history of the Black List in general and one announcing the launch of the Black List website.

Speaking of the Black List, multi-Black List writer F. Scott Frazier also endured questions about how he broke in and gave us some insight into being a working feature writer.

And after that I had a fun interview with TV showrunner Jeffrey Lieber. Jeffrey got his start in features, wrote the original pilot that became LOST, and then created MIAMI MEDICAL. After our interview he ran NCIS: NEW ORLEANS and was a Consulting Producer on THE ORIGINALS. If you're on twitter, you probably also know Jeff from his "Showrunner Rules."

Original posts:
Liz Tigelaar interview
Franklin Leonard interview
F. Scott Frazier interview
Jeffrey Lieber interview

Friday, January 18, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - The Puppet and 12-Step Screenwriting

After this blog had been established for a few years, a friend suggested to me that I should find a way to expand my audience to YouTube. At the time, it was enough of a novelty that it wasn't unreasonable for someone with an existing following to have a shot at reaping some extra coin vial ad revenues.

There was just one problem - having been concerned from the start that such blunt criticism could hurt my employability (remember kids, the internet is written in pen), I wasn't keen on throwing all that away so soon and subjecting the internet to my face. In pondering this dilemma, the solution arose initially as a joke - what if I used a puppet and HE became the face of The Bitter Script Reader?

If I thought merely being anonymous added a level of mystique to my writing, speaking through a puppet only inflated that novelty. I don't think anyone would have sat for screenwriting lessons delivered by the "real" me on video - but put that stuff in a puppet's mouth and it becomes almost surreal enough to get the audience more engaged.

We first introduced the puppet in "Shit Script Readers Say," figuring it couldn't hurt to tie into a then-popular internet meme. Alas, I learned very quickly I was no Jim Henson and there was quite a learning curve involved in making the puppet come alive. It's a very subtle thing, giving a puppet life on screen and I came out of the experience with a new respect for real puppeteers.

After that video, we soon transitioned to basic screenwriting lessons. I tried to offer my own sort of MasterClass (before there even WAS such a thing as MasterClass) via 12-Step Screenwriting. It was a weekly series that took you through the broad basics of writing a screenplay, act by act.

I tried hard for this series to be a guide rather than a list of "rules" and mandates that things MUST happen by particular page numbers. Hopefully it was taken in that spirit. I try to be a guide more than a guru. People have told me that this helped them understand some of the basic concepts of screenwriting and I'm always flattered to hear people got something out of this.

For now, the puppet is retired. A big factor was that it was a lot of effort for very little reward. I found it limiting to always have to stick the puppet behind a desk and I feared the audience would become similarly bored too. We considered a couple sketches, more elaborate pieces that would have the Bitter puppet interacting with people and other puppets, but the simple fact was that the effort of producing those videos on a weekly basis was greater than what we were getting out of it.

This reminded me of something that occasionally slipped my mind - my goal was to be a professional writer, with blogging being sort of my side hustle. The more I put into YouTube, the more I was working harder at being The Bitter Script Reader than actually writing screenplays and spec episodes. When I've got something to say, I can dash off a blog post pretty quickly, but a video? That's at least an entire afternoon of shooting and then editing.

If you consider Bitter self-promotion, then then lesson I learned here was to not let self-promotion eclipse the product. As important as it is to market yourself and network with others in pursuit of work, all of it is meaningless without product to show for it.

That's the screenwriting lesson no one ever gives you - you only get to spend each moment once, so make sure you're putting enough of those moments into your pages.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

10 Years of Bitter Posts - Why SCREAM is one of the best films ever made

One of my all-time favorite movies is SCREAM and so it's little shock that over the years I've found opportunities to blog about it. It's one of the best horror films ever made and I honestly think probably ranks among the best spec scripts ever written. I feel like there's a lot to be learned from it, and these posts cover quite a bit of ground:

Lessons from Wes Craven & Kevin Williamson's SCREAM

Why I like Wes Craven's characters and what I fear from SCREAM 4

This is where so many horror specs I read fail. I see a lot of scripts that are clearly trying to be franchises, to the point where all they've done is work out the gimmick that will drive the series. So much time is invested in giving the killer a cool look, or a gruesome gimmick to his kills. Where they fail is in coming up with a strong dramatic arc to sustain the story. Too often the cast of characters is treated as little more than a future body count: a dead asshole jock here, a slutty girl with nice breasts there. 

And sure, there are plenty of bad B-movies made every year. There's a long list of produced slashers that never dug deep. 

But the horror thrillers that endure? The ones that future filmmakers grow up wanting to emulate? Psycho, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream - they all have an important element in common: strong character arcs for their protagonists. Your hero isn't the guy wielding the blade and drawing blood. Never forget that.

Scream's Sidney Prescott: Horror's Greatest Heroine:

Without hesitation I picked Sidney Prescott, who was not only horror's greatest heroine, but possibly one of the strongest modern teen females ever created. She's perhaps the best-realized version of the girl-next-door turned heroine. When she takes on the killer, she doesn't have the advantage of super powers, cool weapons or military training (ala Buffy, Ripley, or Sydney Bristow.) She's also got her shit together a lot better than some of the WB female leads of the day, who tended towards mopeyness, martyrdom, and wallowing in their own baggage.

Yes, like most heroines, she's got some issues from a dead parent, but unlike say Lana Lang or Joey Potter, those issues don't DEFINE her. The wound is there, but it's not stopping her from interacting normally with her friends and it doesn't feel like she uses every conversation as an excuse to pick at that scab. She has friends, she's well-adjusted and she's generally likable. You get the sense you could carry on a conversation with young Sidney, and not once get the urge to smack her, or feel like she's making it all about herself.

I'm aware she's a descendant of Nightmare on Elm Street's Nancy and Halloween's Laurie, but I feel she is a successor that improves on the original. They're both icons in their own right, but Sidney is a better-realized character in my opinion.

The opening of SCREAM 4 - expectations and misdirection:

The opening scene initially left me disappointed, until I got what the creators were going for. We open with two teens - played by Pretty Little Liars' Lucy Hale and 90210's Shenae Grimes - who pretty much embody everything the original Scream characters weren't. One is dumb enough to keep talking to a Facebook stalker, and another one when faced with a threatening phone call from the killer, first hangs up, and then later passes the phone to her friend. (Grimes by the way, makes ZERO effort to distinguish this character from her 90210 role, right down to the same acting ticks.) Moments later, these girls are dumb enough to actually open the front door when it might as well be flashing "KILLER ON THE OTHER SIDE."

So it's no shock when these two are swiftly dispatched, and just as I'm thinking "Wow, that was oddly tensionless for a Scream opening," the title card for Stab 5 comes up and I realize the joke is on me. It puts a clever spin on what we just saw. After all, in a world where Stab 5 is supposed to be of questionable quality, Shenae Grimes WOULD be its Drew Barrymore. Consider that a point for the casting people. (This is probably the best place to note that Scream 4 continues the series tradition of strong casting, not just for the genre, but for a feature in general.)

I have too much affection for most of the SCREAM characters to want to see them actually killed off, but after the latest film, my relief at their survival made me realize that sometimes what I wanted doesn't always lead to the best story. And so I wrote this: Scream 4 - when a core character needs to die:

Sometimes in order to make these stakes real, you've got to sacrifice a beloved character. The thinking is that if the audience sees you gun down an audience favorite, you've proven that affection for the characters alone won't save them and everyone is fair game. Supposedly, when Return of the Jedi was being developed, screenwriter Lawrence Kasden was a major proponent for killing off one of the core characters at some point in the story. He felt it would have been more powerful for the Rebel victory to come at some cost, and he was a major advocate for killing a character early in Act Three, so that the audience would worry that they were just the first of several.

And finally, check out my three-part interview with SCREAM 4 co-producer Carly Feingold, starting here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

10 Years of Bitter - "Black Swan" from script to screen

As you know, one of the great joys of being a reader is that sometimes scripts cross your desk years before they're made - and often with different talent attached. There are times you'll read something and be asked to evaluate it for Ryan Reynolds, or Chris Pratt, or Anne Hathaway. That knowledge results in examining the script with a completely different eye. "Can I see these actors doing this?" "Does knowing the director's style inform how I visualize this script?"

Remember the Anne Hathaway/Robert DeNiro comedy THE INTERN? I read it when it was going to be Tina Fey and Michael Caine! As you can probably imagine, with two actors like that, their screen personas are so defined that it instantly gave you a feel for the characters. Change that to Hathaway and DeNiro and you get a different kind of energy - but it still works! It doesn't always happen that way, and sometimes the intel you have at the time impacts the coverage. It's one reason why you might hear that such-and-such script was passed on all over town before someone took a chance and it ended up a huge hit.

The other obvious reason this happens is that screenplays are constantly rewritten, often deep into production. Then, the editing of the final film can also dramatically transform the film from what a reader, producer or agent had to imagine years earlier. One of the most interesting instances of this happening in my career was when I read BLACK SWAN years before it was released. I was given Mark Heyman's June 2009 draft and I'm pretty sure that at the time, no actors were attached. Darren Aronofsky was attached, but I don't remember being given this information specifically before my read.

Around the time BLACK SWAN was making the awards rounds, I wrote up a four-part series breaking down some of the major differences between the script and the film. In Part 1, I talk about the character of Lily, played by Mila Kunis in the final film. In the released film, there's no doubt that Lily is a real person, but to those who read the early draft, there was a pretty heavy suggestion that Lily was something... different.

There's a couple of points I want to make here. The first is that the script is very heavy-handed with the resemblance between the two. There are several scenes where the reader is shown again and again that they look exactly alike. Part of this is that the script is describing something that will be more elegantly seen than read, but it also feels like there was an attempt in the final film to simplify the doubling moments.

Clearly, we can understand why the script would play up that subtext. After all, this is about a dancer who has to play essentially two roles in Swan Lake, so the duality theme is already an organic part of the story. The problem sets in when the script doesn't know when to quit. It bludgeons the reader with the symbolism to such an extent that I recall wondering if the same actress was going to play both roles. After all, the writing makes the distinction only between "looks exactly like Nina" and "looks a lot like Nina" so it seemed like they could have gone with casting Portman in both parts and merely giving her a slightly edgier look for Lily - except when she had to be EXACTLY the same as Nina.

Why did I think Portman might play both parts? Because this draft has moments that strongly imply that Lily might not be real at all - that she's just a figment of Nina's imagination. We see Lily interact with other characters, simultaneous to Nina being there, but those who've seen Fight Club know that isn't always a guarantee that both characters are real.

In Part II, I discuss Nina's character, including how changing one moment completely informs her character in a different way:

In the script, she goes home and dances in her room until she completes the difficult coda, eventually beaming with satisfaction when she nails it. The next morning, she dolls herself up and reports her accomplishment to the director. He's unimpressed and then forces a kiss on her. It's her aggressive reaction to that which convinces him she's got what it takes to be the Swan Queen.

If you've seen the film, you'll know that all of that is pretty much how it plays out on-screen - with one crucial difference. In the movie, Nina doesn't complete the coda, but lies that she did. Again, I think this is a more interesting character choice. It's an even better example of how fragile and desperate she is for the part - it's the first sign of just how she'll sell out her integrity to get the part. In the script, she's coming from the perspective that she earned it and is capable of it. In the movie, she's more like a student begging their teacher to change their B to an A because they have to have an A! It gives Nina an interesting flaw.

In Part III, I address how another rewrite added tension to a sequence by adding the character of Beth into a scene she wasn't a part of before:

In the film, there's a sequence where the director presents Nina to the ballet's patrons, while attempting to make it appear that Beth is retiring gracefully. During this gathering, a drunken Beth confronts Nina outside, flat-out accusing her of sleeping with the director to get the part. (As we've already discussed, Nina doesn't sleep with the director to get the part, but she does sleep with him after getting it. She loses a little of the high ground there.) It's after this heated scene that Nina and the director go back to his place and he starts asking her about her sex life. (He claims it's important for the role.) The next morning, Nina is with the other dancers when the company gets the news that Beth was struck by a car and is hospitalized. The director thinks she did it on purpose.

In the script, the same plot points occur, but they are arranged differently. After a few scenes that make it clear that Beth's "retirement" is not by choice, Nina and the others get word of Beth's accident. The gala for the patrons is just a few scenes after that, and for the most part, it serves the same purpose as the scene in the film.

But the scene is much more engaging in the movie. Putting Beth in that scene adds an additional level of tension. Will she make a scene? Will she confront Nina and the director in public?

Part IV deals with one of the most talked-about scenes in the film - the Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis sex scene:

I'll be honest, this is one of those scenes where the writing confused the hell out of me on a first read. I just couldn't see how they were going to commit this to film and not have it come out like a chaotic mess.

The scene starts off with the two of them pawing each other and Lily throwing Nina onto the bed and straddling her. Lily takes off her top and kisses Nina and when Nina opens her eyes "Lily now looks identical. Her DOUBLE. (She goes in and out of looking like her double and like Lily as they continue to make love.)"

Then we're told "Nina flips Lily over, becomes the dominant one (though who is whom becomes very confused.)" After a few aggressive moves, there's a brief moment where Nina is alone in bed, masturbating. Then suddenly, Lily is back. Nina climaxes and then two kiss lying side by side, "almost like Nina is kissing a mirror" the script says.

This was a fun series to write and I'm a little disappointed I never did anything quite like this again. I might have to put something like this on the to-do list.