Friday, April 21, 2017

Consider With Reservations: The Stars of Quantity Over Quality Cinema

A recent viewing of a few direct-to-DVD type films gave me flashbacks to my reader days. I explore that in this post for Film School Rejects:

In my prior life as a script reader, I certainly read a lot of bad scripts, but at times, an even more common occurrence was a script that seemed to do a great many things right, but somehow fell just short of being something you wanted to champion as a movie. As draining as the terrible scripts were, there’s something pure about clear-cut bad. It takes little effort to explain why they’re unfit.

The real challenges were the scripts that had kind of a decent premise, kind of an okay twist or two, and a lead character who wasn’t bad so much as he or she was just… there. The raw materials are there for what COULD be a script. They just happen to be assembled in the least compelling way possible. It’s competent enough that it feels close to being a movie, but it’s raw enough that you won’t want to put your job on the line to tell someone else to read it. Scripts like this often got the “Consider with Reservations” ranking. If you’ve worked in Hollywood, you’ve probably read a number of scripts like this. If you’re not in the biz, it’s hard to find a good analogy to explain these scripts that need more time to bake.

Then, after a trip to Netflix one recent afternoon, I realized there’s an easy series of examples I can point to. In their library at any given time, you’ll stumble across a ton of recent films you’ve never heard of that star former mega-stars like Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis, John Cusack, and Pierce Brosnan.

The men who headlined some of the biggest films of the eighties and nineties now film entire movies that no one knows exists until they show up under the heading “Because you liked Con Air.” Just going back five years, here are the films of just ONE of those aforementioned actors: Stolen, The Croods, The Frozen Ground, Joe, Rage, Outcast, Left Behind, Dying of the Light, The Runner, Pay the Ghost, The Trust, Snowden, The USS Indianapolis, Dog Eat Dog, Army of One, Arsenal, and Vengeance: A Love Story. That’s SEVENTEEN films! How far into that list were you before you were sure I was talking about Nicolas Cage?

Read the rest of Consider With Reservations: The Stars of Quantity Over Quality Cinema over at Film School Rejects

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ten Years Later, ‘The Hoax’ is Even More Timely in the Trump Era.

Ten years after it's release, the little-seen Richard Gere film THE HOAX remains a fascinating film about truth, outrageous lies and why the bigger the lie, the more people believe it. Based on the real story of a man who convinced his publishers he was working with recluse Howard Hughes on the latter's biography, eventually becomes a great study in tension and paranoia too.

And, in showing how people rationalize even the most unbelievable lies, it seems more relevant today than ever, in the Trump era.

This is the topic of my latest piece for Film School Rejects:

But to return to The Hoax, there’s something appropriate about the uncertainty of historical fidelity in a film about a writer pulling off the mother of all lies. It’s 1971 and Clifford Irving (played with wonderful desperation and cunning by Richard Gere) has just had his latest book rejected by a publisher. Unfortunately, the commercial failure of his last book — about an art forger — has killed his hopes for another project. Like many writers when faced with a “Pass,” he doesn’t take it well and barges into a company meeting to say he’s got the book of the century, something they’d regret passing on — an autobiography of the reclusive Howard Hughes.

It’s an utterly implausible and grandiose lie and — in a manner less surprising in the Trump presidency of 2017 than it was in 2007 — the brazenness of the lie gives it credibility. Who in their right mind would lie about something so easily impeached? Putting the experience of his last book to use, Irving expertly forges notes from Hughes (and it is true that in real-life, handwriting experts said that the odds of being fake were “less than one in a million.”) Hughes’s reclusiveness and erratic behavior also ends up selling the lie. The man was known to be unstable, so bizarrely, and attempt he’d make to disown involvement with Clifford would lack enough credibility to expose Irving.

The real Clifford Irving complained bitterly about the liberties the movie took with his life. Screenwriter William Wheeler agrees with my notion of truth in film, telling The New York Times, “I almost feel like I would not be servicing the material correctly if I didn’t have some mischief in my attitude. I wanted to stay true to the spirit of the things that happened, and the motives of those doing it, and within that, construct my own tall tale, based on Clifford’s tall tale, which is based on Howard’s tall tale. And [director] Lasse [Hallström] did his own spinning on top of mine. And then, Richard.”

Read the rest at FSR: Ten Years Later, ‘The Hoax’ is Even More Timely in the Trump Era.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Reactions to my FSR post "An Aggregated Oral History of 2009 Films Ruined By the Last WGA Strike"

With two weeks to go on the WGA's contract with the AMPTP, I've got an already hot new post on Film School Rejects taking a look back at the consequences of the last Writers Guild strike:

Hollywood is facing the threat of another Writers’ Guild Strike, one which would immediately stop all writing and rewriting on guild signatory productions — essentially everything from the major studios. So far, negotiations have been contentious, with the WGA arguing that though the business has seen record profits, the average writer’s income has declined in this boom period. And yet, at the bargaining table, the AMPTP — who represent the producers — came offering not gains, but rollbacks. They basically asked the writers to accept less than their current contracts.

The total cost of what the writers are asking for is not particularly excessive. For instance, the cost to Disney would be $21.2 million a year — barely more than half of Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger’s $43.9 million salary last year. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on this, but if you’re interested in the particulars, this post from TV writer Ken Levine lays it all out pretty well.

So if the writers demands aren’t that excessive, is it wise for the AMPTP to force a strike by playing hardball? A long strike would have the result of impairing production in television and film. In TV, the fall season would be delayed and on the feature side, the major tentpoles set for 2019 might have to begin production without complete scripts. And under Guild rules, no writing or rewriting can be done on those scripts for the duration of a strike. This would include Marvel’s Captain Marvel and the sequel to Avengers: Infinity War, the ninth Fast and the Furious film, the next Spider-Man film, Transformers 6, and at least one or two yet-to-be announced Warner/DC films.

In looking back at the old strike, I aggregated an "oral history" of sorts, compiling the quotes of what writers, actors and directors had to say about how the strike affected the production of several 2009 releases: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Star Trek, and Quantum of Solace. Just about all of those were critically panned (save for Star Trek, which I actually think is a fantastic film) and the strike was frequently cited as a factor in their quality.

There was a little blowback on Twitter about the title of the article, "An Aggregated Oral History of 2009 Films Ruined By the Last WGA Strike." It was accused of being anti-writer propaganda, which I strongly dispute. The writers don't WANT to have to strike, but they are left with no choice if the AMPTP won't make a fair offer rather than instead coming to the table with rollbacks. So if you as viewers don't want your anticipated tentpoles of the next two years to be terrible, support the writers so that they can get a fair deal from the AMPTP.

I also faced some snark on Twitter from people saying "these movies were going to suck anyway." Frankly, I think that sentiment is far more anti-writer than what my headline was accused of being. As noted, Star Trek actually turned out pretty good, Wolverine had two sequels that were very good, The Bond films immediately before and after Quantum were also great, and even Transformers was considered pretty decent until the sequel. It's not impossible that more of these films could have been good.

Let's not forget how much we scoffed at sure-fired duds like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie before we saw them. Ergo, saying these films were going to "suck anyway" is assuming facts not in evidence.

Anyway, take a look at how things went down on those films in the post here.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Why Are We Compelled to Rank Movies in a Series with Each New Release?

Got another post for Film School Rejects that sort of branches off of my earlier The Films of Frank Capra III, Ranked post. This one examines the pathology behind the relentless ranking lists we get each time a franchise releases a new chapter.

The ubiquity of practice certainly suggests the writer and the readers must be getting SOMETHING out of it. Is it that in our society, we find it less satisfying to praise a winner if we’re not simultaneously mocking and debasing the losers? I’ll plead guilty to relishing the act of putting HOOK at the bottom of every “Spielberg Movies, Ranked” list I’ve ever been a part of. Would others argue that the list serves the purpose highlighting the cream of the crop? If that was so, why not just write a post called “The Five Best Marvel Movies?” 

Read the rest of "Why Are We Compelled to Rank Movies in a Series with Each New Release?" over at Film School Rejects

Friday, April 14, 2017

Fate of the Furious: The Films of 1st AD Frank Capra III, Ranked!

I have another new piece at Film School Rejects. This week, the lastest film in the Fast & Furious series has been released: The Fate of the Furious. As is required by law, when a franchise unleashes a new chapter, there must be some measure of ranking the previous entries, or the previous works of a collaborator.

Friday brings us the release of The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film in The Fast & The Furious series. Thus, there could be no better time to look back and rank the previous works of one of the films most notable craftsmen, a man whose name is legendary. I speak of course of First Assistant Director Frank Capra III.

Capra III is the grandson of director Frank Capra, a Hollywood legend whose work includes It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life. How did that pedigree fare two generations removed? This exhaustive look at Mr. Capra III’s 1st AD career will tell the tale.

While the film’s director often gets the lion’s share of the credit, the First AD is one of the most critical positions on set. In fact, it’s the most important person “below the line.” (In other words, the most important of the people who aren’t “important.”) He or she is the one who keeps the trains running on time, the taskmaster who sets the schedule and then keeps everyone on it. They oversee the entire crew and essentially do all the hard work so the director can focus on the minutiae of their job. A true student of film can probably stop the distinctive work of an AD everywhere without even checking the credits.

21. Oscar (1991) — Mr. Capra the Third’s maiden voyage as 1st AD was the rather unremarkable mob comedy from Stallone’s brief foray into lighter fare such as this and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! Capra’s background directing seems stranded in the stagy production design.

See if you agree with the rest of my rankings and check out the entire list at Film School Rejects.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

RIVERDALE is one of the most interesting new shows of this season

It recently hit me how unusual it is what RIVERDALE has been able to pull off. Can you imagine the CW hyping a new SUPERMAN show and then delivering a series based on SUPERMAN: RED SON, a graphic novel that posits what would have happened if Kal-El's rocket landed in Russia and he was raised Communist? Or perhaps promise a JUSTICE LEAGUE series and then unveil it as an adaptation of KINGDOM COME, a series that casts most of DC's heroes in middle age and in conflict with each other and a much darker world around them? Even given the popularity of those stories, it feels like Warner Bros would deem it too risky to make these outlier stories into the mainstream face of their properties.

Yet that's just what RIVERDALE is pulling off by transplanting the familiar Archie Comics characters into a new Twin Peaks-eque teen drama. When I first heard about the project, I suspected they might push Archie Andrews and friends to a more slightly mature DAWSON'S CREEK world, but the creepy atmosphere and darker vibe goes far beyond that. The archetypes the characters from the comics represent are there, but they've been complete and consumed into this unsettling world where one of the classmates has been murdered and no one - not even his family - seems above suspicion. Themes of corruption hang in the air constantly, whether they're wafting from the storyline of Veronica's mother cutting backroom deals with the mayor, or from the more personal corruption in progress as Archie's duplicitous teacher seduces him. This is a RIVERDALE so corrupt, we've seen local gangs established as influencing the town politics.

The weird thing about this is that it works rather effectively. Maybe for me that's because I'm aware of the Archie universe without being especially passionate about it. When I was growing up, Archie comics were usually the books that relatives got me when they didn't really know what I liked to read. I'd been reading Superman since the age of 6, but every now and then an Archie one would slip in. I remember them being fairly simple stories, the same kind of pre-teen comfort food you'd get from the animated DENNIS THE MENACE cartoon and SAVED BY THE BELL. There was no edge to Archie, but that was the point. They were easily defined archetypes: The Normal Kid, The Rich Girl, The Girl Next Door, The Best Friend, The Jock and so on.

These were comics aimed at 8 year olds so you're not going to find a lot of nuance. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I recall Betty and Veronica often changing places with regard to which one was the sympathetic "good" one and which one was more self-absorbed "wrong" choice in the love triangle. Because Archie didn't change and mature, I found it pretty easy to leave behind, even as my Superman, Batman and JLA-related collection grew to beyond 15 longboxes. It never even occurred to me that Archie meant THAT much to people until soon after I moved to LA and befriended a girl who was working for a director who was DEEP into geek culture. She didn't relate to her boss much because while he was into the DAREDEVILS and BATMANS, her passion was to be a producer on an ARCHIE movie. (The most recent comic book film around the time I learned this was CATWOMAN, so no one had much expectation at all of seeing Archie and friends appearing in live action.) At the time it struck me as odd that the simple stories resonated so much, but every now and then I'd find more people around my age with the same affection. The fanbase was disproportionately female, so perhaps this was an audience that conventional wisdom overlooked because of the assumption that "comic books are for boys."

I like that RIVERDALE is a big swing. There are no half-measures here. No punches pulled in the name of keeping the characters wholesome. The makeovers the characters get often draw on their history, but spun a completely different way. For instance, the blandly wholesome "good-girl" Betty is revealed to have a domineering mother who demands she be the perfect daughter. It makes Alice Cooper (the mother, not the singer) into the kind of paternal figure who'd be the villain of some indie movie about a teenage girl who cuts herself because she can't live up to the pressure to be perfect. Alice is rarely affectionate to Betty and even had her other daughter committed to a home for troubled youths (supposedly out of concern but CLEARLY more out of Alice's desire to keep the pregnant teen hidden from public view, thus protecting the facade of the perfect Cooper family.)

Jughead also is radically re-contextualized here. I recall him as the goofball who eats a lot of burgers. Here, his relationships with most of the gang are strained, particularly with Archie. Jughead is positioned as the outsider, the one who scribbles pseudo-profound observations about the others and the ongoing mystery in the true crime book he's writing. He's closed off, and likely appears perpetually sullen and alienating to most of his classmates. (Recent weeks have seen him open up and relax around the others, particularly Betty, but a newcomer to the town would never mistake the old Jughead for this guy. Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle is the fact his father is the leader of the Southside Serpents, Riverdale's motorcycle gang.

Veronica might be my favorite, and a lot of that owes to the fact she's allowed to be fun. I've been trying to pinpoint exactly why this works. She's got as much family drama as anyone: her father's in jail following an embezzlement scandal and her mother is having an affair with Archie's father. Oh, and she also forged Veronica's signature on company documents after Veronica refused to abet her mother's schemes. I think what let's Veronica be the sparkplug is that she seems to actually enjoy being with her friends and participating in all things RIVERDALE. So many of the show's relationships are fraught with tension and Veronica cuts through that. With her peers, she tries to resolve or cut through tension rather than be a prisoner of it. During a storyline about the guys on the football team slut-shaming the girls of the school, it's Veronica who spearheads the revenge scheme rather than pout or stew over it. When Betty is on the outs with Betty over (who else?) Archie, it's Veronica who works to clear the air and actively works to save the friendship. At its worst, the teen drama can turn into a lot of pretty people whining to one another "I can't believe you would do this to me!" over that week's misunderstanding. Veronica is defined by her refusal to be a prisoner of those cliches.

Which is not to imply that the others don't confront their conflict and demons, they just go about it in different ways. Several other characters push back against their parents, but lack the self-confidence Veronica displays. Surely there will come a time when fortunes will reverse (it's just the nature of drama) and Veronica is the one being kicked while she's down, but for now I'm enjoying this dynamic. I didn't expect that at this particular time in our culture that it would be easy to empathize with the "poor little rich girl" but RIVERDALE's finding ways to deepen the character beyond her two-dimensional depiction without making her unrecognizable.

I guess this brings me to Archie, who I'm finding to be a much more loaded character to discuss. In any ensemble like this, the central "normal guy" character is deceptively difficult to get right. Some of this is unfair. They have to be flawed in order to make good drama, and as the central figure, they don't often get a week off from screwing up or making mistakes. With extreme examples like Dawson Leery, the character tips too far, and one too many ventures into unlikability could cause us to question everything we enjoyed about the character in the first place. (Though I don't agree with it, "Kevin Arnold is a Dick" is a pretty good example of this kind of evidence logging.)

Thus far, the show has been cautious about wading into the Archie/Betty/Veronica triangle. There's plenty of groundwork for the show to use later, but it hasn't been foregrounded to the degree many other teen dramas would have by this point. It's a wise move that let's the characters be more fully formed before the triangle consumes them (and it almost always does.) By developing Archie/Betty, Betty/Veronica, Archie/Veronica on their own first, it'll give more weight to when the series decides to go full-hog into that romantic drama. To use a DAWSON'S CREEK example, think of how much better season 3's Dawson/Joey/Pacey triangle worked than the initial Joey/Dawson/Jen one did.

But it's impossible to discuss Archie without touching on his initial big plot. We learn in the pilot that he's been hooking up with his music teacher, Miss Grundy, since the summer. This kind of plot is always going to be a hot button for me. I absolutely loathe the romanticizing of teacher/student affairs on TV. Everyone jumps to Pacey and Miss Jacobs as their comparative, but I'm not someone who wears rose-colored glasses for DAWSON'S CREEK season one. It was an awful plot then and it hasn't aged any better in the years since. That show had nothing interesting to say about such an affair or the emotional impact on the underage participant. It was cynical shock value, with the novelty being that the teenage Pacey was the predator. "DAWSON'S did it" is not a good enough answer to pursue this kind of story.

My wife watches PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, and so I've seen a fair amount of those shows, which contains a teacher/student affair where the student is a teenage girl. This one raises my hackles because this pairing is eventually presented as one of the couplings we should be rooting for. It normalizes statutory rape and really seems to brush past the wrongness of such an affair. I don't think you have any business writing this story unless you're willing to acknowledge you're writing about statutory rape - and treat it seriously in that context. (Contrast PLL with LIFE UNEXPECTED, which seemed to be taking the wrong path with their teacher/student couple, only to throw in a late twist that forced the adult player to question the morality of what he'd done.)

I'm mindful that there's still plenty of time for RIVERDALE to throw such a twist at us, so I haven't let this one plot put me off of the show. To their credit, early on it was lampshaded that Miss Grundy was a sinister, predatory person, negating the PLL problem. With the affair exposed in Episode 4, most of the character reactions were horror and concern. No one cheered Archie with an "Attaboy!" (Or to use the vernacular of SOUTH PARK, "Niiiiiice.") However... we've not seen many emotional consequences for Archie either (yet.) This plot has all the hallmarks of something that's gonna pop up in the final three episodes to redefine the central mystery, so I'm willing to be patient.

I just question if this was the wisest plot to throw at the central character while he's being established. I've felt disconnected from Archie, and I suspect this is the culprit. He's gotten a couple interesting beats throughout, notably a story dealing with Jughead and the tensions between Jughead's father and Archie's father. The show has also done some interesting things with him trying to write songs and perform with one of the Pussycats (of Josie and the Pussycats), so I have faith that by the end of the season he'll be rounded out to better effect.

Josie and the Pussycats are also being treated with some unique shades. When Archie tries to write songs for them, they call him out on "cultural appropriation," questioning what a white teenage boy could have to say about the lives of black females. We also learn that Josie's father - a famed musician in his own right - doesn't think much of pop music and disapproves of his daughter's band so much that he can't even sit through an entire performance at the school talent show. (His anti-pop stance had me contemplating fan fiction where he meets Ryan Gosling's jazz purist character from LA LA LAND.)

So many words and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what makes RIVERDALE so compelling. There's a reason the show is titled "RIVERDALE" and not "ARCHIE." The creators have been establishing an entire canvas, gradually fleshing out many corner of the town. It helps the setting feel "real" in a way few shows manage early in their run. Did Capeside feel this fleshed out six episodes into DAWSON'S CREEK? Did GILMORE GIRLS get very far into establishing Stars Hollow as more than a generic quirky small town this fast?

Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, working under Berlanti Productions's Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter have established so much Riverdale culture that a broad variety of storylines can be launched from these origins. Arguably, this is helped by some clever casting in the adult roles, as virtually every senior member of the cast has a notable teen role on their resume. Luke Perry (BEVERLY HILLS 90210), Robin Givens (HEAD OF THE CLASS), and Skeet Ulrich (SCREAM) are just a few of the names to be dropped there. (Mädchen Amick is the overachiever, with her TWIN PEAKS history giving a link to one aspect of the show's lineage, and her DAWSON'S CREEK stint linking to the other half.)

And even though RIVERDALE seems to have an engine that could power it for five seasons or more, I wonder if - in the spirit of some ARCHIE reboots - we might find that each season completely reboots the context around the iconic characters. If this year is "ARCHIE meets TWIN PEAKS," what's to stop next year from being "ARCHIE meets THE WALKING DEAD" aka "AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE." (Yes, this exists - a comic miniseries about Riverdale being overrun by zombies, and it's written by series creator Aguirre-Sacasa.)

But for now, I'm more than happy to take in the shady, sinister vibe RIVERDALE's putting out this season. If you haven't checked it out yet, give it a look, and odds are you'll find something that appeals to you

Monday, March 13, 2017

"The Black List didn't get me a career so it's a total lie!"

There were 53 active players on the New England Patriots' roster last season. 53 players who got a Super Bowl ring after making it to the biggest game of the season and winning.

How many of them were the subject of stories in sports magazines? How many of them were on the cover of those magazines? How many of them will spend their retirement years living off of high profile sportscaster jobs and endorsement deals?

How many of them go home every night to a supermodel wife?

How many of them can you name right now besides Tom Brady?

So what would you think of a linebacker in his first year on the team who feels like he was cheated because he played for the same Super Bowl-winning team as Tom Brady and is furious that he's not getting endorsement deals left and right? They both won The Big Game - how come HIS contract's not even in the same ballpark as Brady's?

The answer to this is obvious, right?

This is the sort of thing that runs through my mind when I hear someone proclaim that the Black List (both yearly and website) is a sham because it didn't work for THEIR script. "I got on the Black List last year and I STILL haven't been paid for my writing! This is bullshit," they might say. "I got four 8s on the Black List website and was number 4 on the Top Lists and I still didn't get an agent! This whole thing's a grift!"

This post is semi-provoked by a conversation I saw on Twitter last week, but it's a fairly perennial topic in Screenwriter World, so don't take this as an attack on one particular person. Rather I want to say something about an attitude I see cropping up now and then. There's an apparent belief that if you reach a certain achievement, the industry owes you a career. That's not how things like The Black List work and it's not helpful at all to wallow in that delusion.

(Also, everywhere I say "The Black List" feel free to read "Nicholl Fellowship" or "ABC/Disney Fellowship" and so on. In general, what I have to say applies to all of these in some form or fashion.)

In its purest form, the Black List is a survey of industry tastes. It reflects the town, but as with the adage about staring into the abyss, the Black List reflects back at the town. It can elevate great material that thus far, hasn't found the right filmmakers to bring it to life. Perhaps the most important service it provides is shining a spotlight on something a little left of center, validating that writing's brilliance. There are plenty of documented cases of this exposure playing a part in a screenplay going into production, most recently being ARRIVAL. Eric Heisserer's script got a big boost after appearing on the 2013 Black List.

2013. It took three years from the Black List to the big screen - and that's probably pretty fast, on average. I'll put the question to you - if there is a single script from the 2013 Black List that DIDN'T get produced, does that "failure" mean that the Black List "doesn't work?"

It's a pretty silly question, right? Acknowledging that the Black List simply cannot make careers out of every honored writer and films out of every honored screenplay in no way rescinds the credit they are due for the instances when their exposure HAS made a difference. Just because something didn't work for you doesn't always mean there's something shady going down.

The value of the Black List can be found in the correlation between its selections and films that went on to acclaim from the industry's highest honors. 4 of the last 6 Best Picture winners appeared on an annual Black List and 10 of the last 14 Best Screenplay winners did. Does that mean they owe their Oscars to the Black List?

Hell no! But it DOES demonstrate that the annual list identified them as worthy well before they went into production. It gives credibility to their voters's eye for talent. If someone gets on the Black List and assumes they'll be collecting an Academy Award, they're taking the wrong lesson from the experience.

"All I need is to get on the Black List and I'll be set." "All I need is an agent and then I'll be getting jobs left and right." "All I need is a staff writer gig and I'll be working in TV for the rest of my career." - ALL of this is dangerous and wrong-headed thinking. It implies that all you need to do is reach the bottom step of the escalator and the mechanism will carry you to the top.

Motherfucker, those are STAIRS. Or in the rare case they are an escalator, they're moving in the opposite direction.

This industry is a series of ever escalating auditions and as with auditions, the pack of talent gets winnowed down with each progressive move forward. You get six votes that earn you mention on the yearly Black List. That's great. It means your work is going to be read by everyone in town. Now tell me who's responsible for getting you to the next step, whether that's getting an agent or getting a sale?

It ain't the Black List. It's you - YOUR material. When I interviewed Franklin Leonard four years ago, we chatted a bit about the possibility of the Black List being rigged, perhaps by people attempting to stuff the ballot box lobbying. His take was that it didn't happen that often, certainly not consistently enough to be anything other than an outlier. Is it possible? Sure. But if I was someone looking to scam my way onto the Black List, I'd of course realize that no amount of scamming would magically make my writing into, say, Sorkin-level brilliance.

But let's say you're a writer with an okay script that had enough fans to land it on something like the Black List. What does that mean really? Eh, maybe a lot more people read my so-so writing, and so if it's inadequate, my screenplay gets passed on by a higher volume of reps and producers. Perhaps I get a couple meetings, where again, the onus is on me to prove I have the goods and am "ready." If I'm an imposter, it ends there. If I'm that one-in-a-million writer who has it, I keep climbing.

Thinking this is easy is one of the worst traps to fall into. A few years back I had a script that was one of the top scrips on the Black List website. I got a number of reads off of that strength and even queried several reps citing my achievement. I got a lot of, "This is great writing, but this isn't what I'm looking for at the moment." If you're savvy, you can use that to find out what they ARE looking for and remember to query them again if your next script seems like something they want.

A rep who tells you, "This isn't for me" is actually doing you a favor. The goal is not to get A rep, it's to get the RIGHT rep. In my case, I ended up with a young manager who seemed to be the right guy for this kind of script. He got the script in to all the right people who should be looking at it and the result was a lot of meetings, the usual "we really like your work" and then the "We'd love to see the next thing you're working on." Ultimately, it didn't go anywhere, and I'm not bitter about that because it wasn't necessarily the most mainstream idea. Later, my rep left the business, and after I got over that shock, I realized, "If their heart wasn't in it, it's better that I find someone who is playing this game to win."

Celebrate rejection like you would celebrate the end of a relationship with someone who it'd be a complete mistake to marry. Would I love to hear that Steven Spielberg wants to direct my next script? Sure, just like how when I was a teenager, I'd have loved to have dated Katie Holmes. Of course now I look at it and realize Katie and I would have never made it work and that relationship would have been a mistake for both of us. I'm glad we both dodged that bullet, and it's a lot healthier than sending her letters every week saying, "Why won't you love meeeeeeeee?????!"

(Okay, that took a weird turn.)

Both Black List arms can boost your career - but they can't boost EVERY career and the onus is still on the writer to take responsibility for what needs to happen once the eyes of the town are upon you. You can blame the List for the false hope you cultivated, or you can go back to the computer and start your next (and hopefully better) script. Which of those two options is more likely to actually accomplish something?

It's American Idol and the Black List is like the end of Hollywood Week. That's where the show would be left with 36 semi-finalists. That's some great company that includes Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Does every AI semi-finalist have a career like Kelly or Carrie? Would you expect them to?

But they still wouldn't be multi-million dollar successes without AI. Likewise, the Black List gives you the stage and the mic. Now the town will see if you can sing.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 today! (We are all so, so old)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 today. That's something I find staggering to process. In many ways, Buffy ushered in an era of TV that is still ongoing to this day. It's pretty easy to point to several current shows - many of them on the CW - and feel them trying to evoke that Buffy magic. In processing how remarkable this is, I tried to think about what shows from 1977 were that much in the public consciousness at the time Buffy premiered in 1997.

I couldn't honestly come up with one - save for Star Trek, which was from 1966 and a special case as movies and spinoffs had kept it alive on film for most of those 30 years. The filmed Buffyverse ended in 2005 - nearly a full 12 years ago. And sure, you could point to plenty of old sitcoms like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, and so forth as shows that still had a strong awareness 20 years or more after their debut... but how many of them were regarded as still influential on then-present television?

I'm embarrassed to recall how late I was to the Buffy party. For all my fanboying of Joss Whedon, I wasn't even the first one in my household to discover the show. That honor goes to... my mother. At the mature age of 17, I was far above watching some silly teen drama. No, I had already skipped on to the adult dramas of Law & Order, ER and Homicide, some of the most well-crafted TV of any era. Why would I watch some dumb show based on a failed movie?

Considering the number of posts I've devoted to teen dramas over the years, that whole paragraph seems especially ironic. But it's true. My mother discovered the show somewhere during the second season. I recall the first episode I caught a piece of. It involved a love spell gone wrong, forcing everyone to act silly and result in a lot of second-hand embarrassment on the part of the viewer. (Watching actors forced to play ultra-horny never fails to make me want to crawl under the couch in embarrassment for them.) Immediately I tagged it as one of TV's most overused premises, used to thuddingly bad effect on TNG's in "The Naked Now" and not much better in Lois & Clark's "Pheromone, My Lovely," a episode where the only virtue was Teri Hatcher doing the Dance of the Seven Veils.

The second episode I walked in on my mother watching? "Inca Mummy Girl."

So yeah, I didn't become a convert until just before the start of Season 3, after hearing the hype over how season 2 had ended. When the finale re-aired early that fall, I caught those episodes, and from that point on, there was no doubt I'd be planted in front of the TV every Tuesday to catch new episodes. Before long, I was learning the names of the writers and recognizing the differences between a Marti Noxon episode and a Jane Espenson episode. I became a lurker on the newsgroup and quickly got addicted to the discussions peeling apart the deeper layers of the show. There were few shows I could engage in that way at that time.

Let's be honest - the fact TV scholars keep calling back to Buffy is a pretty good indication that even in a golden era of TV, Buffy was groundbreaking enough to leave it's mark.

I still argue that season 3 of Buffy is one of the most perfectly-structured seasons of television. It's the platonic ideal of balancing standalone episodes with a season-long arc. The individual installments maintain their own identity week-to-week, even as the larger story is advanced as needed. Better still, the season paces out its villains. Though we meet the Mayor early on, it's not until about 2/3 of the season that he really steps up as the Big Bad, and even then, his scheme is given a particular timing that completely takes care of the big question in most other cases: "Why is this guy waiting all season for his endgame?"

Also, because of how the season unfurls its plot, we never fall into a rut where it feels like every week is the same wolf-and-sheepdog drama of the two sides clashing over and over again. Current genre TV often falls into this trap - introduce the main villain in the season premiere and have them and the hero spend all season locking horns. (Honestly, Buffy itself came perilously close to falling into this trap in Season 5, and even closer still in Season 7).

There's probably little else I could say about Buffy that I haven't said before in several other posts, so before I get to plugging those, I'll leave with this: Happy birthday Buffy! Hope it's better than the birthday where you lost your virginity. Or the one where your Watcher took your powers and locked you in with a psycho vamp. Or the one where Giles got turned into a Demon. Or the one where Dawn slashed her wrists. Or the one in the episode that I never rewatch.

The Body: How to write a crying scene - Part I and Part II
Pangs: PC or Not PC? Writing good character conflict
Show, don't tell
What Serialized Shows Like The Vampire Diaries Should Learn From Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Third Season

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Me around the net: a THAT THING YOU DO tribute and a Brutally Honest Razzie Ballot

I really was going to try to get some more posts out this month, but it's been hard. I do have some other appearances around the web that might be of interest to you.

First, I made an appearance on Jeremy Dylan's podcast "My Favorite Album." Jeremy's suggestion was that given my profession, I should pick a movie soundtrack.  With that prompting, it took me less than a nanosecond to pick That Thing You Do!

We talk about how the film embodies the spirit of early 60s rock, as well as the spirit of Tom Hanks, how Hanks used his leverage as the biggest movie star on earth to get this idiosyncratic little film made, how the original songs in the film feel authentic to the period without feeling like parodies of real 60s rock, the trick of creating fake historical stars in films set amongst real history, how Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger was responsible for the title song and how the film morally diverges from almost all other rock'n'roll movies.

You listen at the link above or download the episode here.

You might also be interested in the article I wrote last year celebrating That Thing You Do's 20th anniversary.

Perhaps you've seen the "Brutally Honest Oscar Ballots" that THR likes to run this time of year. They purport to be a candid look inside the voting process, but really it feels like THR digs up the most egotistical assholes who enjoy getting lightheaded from the emissions of their own methane.

Stands to reason that the Razzies would have voters who'd be just as "brutally honest" in their reasoning too, right? That's what I explored in this Film School Rejects post: "A Brutally Honest Razzie Ballot."

Worst Actor

Henry Cavill? I think his CG stand-in logged more screentime than him, so he doesn’t belong here even before we debate the merits of his inclusion. Ben Affleck was not only the best Batman ever but in any instance where his depiction doesn’t match the comics, the comics should bend to him! Dinesh D’Souza is playing himself, so though he’s a repellent turd, he has an unfair advantage in that it comes naturally to him. I already told you why I can’t vote for Ben Stiller.

Robert De Niro is probably the obvious choice, but his turn will come around again. Trust me, there’ll be plenty of times for the Razzies to honor the body of his career. Gerard Butler’s up for two films, so I don’t think there’s any point in arguing it’s not his year.

My vote: Gerard Butler

You can find that post here.

Also, I TOTALLY got a kick out of this "Oh No They Didn't" post about my Razzie Ballot post. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Essential new blog: Jeff Willis's All Writes Reserved

You can find a lot of opinionated blowhards like me telling you how to write your script, but there aren't many resources for people who need answers for the more business-oriented questions. I'm talking about the legal details of option rights and how spec sales actually work. Well, worry no more. Friend-of-the-blog Jeff Willis has started a new blog devoted to these topics called All Writes Reserved.

If Jeff's name sounds familiar, you've probably seen some of his tweetstorms, some of which I've archived elsewhere on this site, such as Creative Rights Advice for Screenwriters.

His most recent post this week covers the topic of "Sterile Scripts" - drafts written while under contract to a particular entity.

What happens to those drafts written while the work was under option?

Remember that the script is legally not owned by the writer during an option period; it’s owned and under the control of the company. If writing services are included in the deal, those services are most likely in your contract as a work for hire, meaning that in exchange for the money you’re being paid, the results and proceeds of your writing are owned by the company that’s paying you (i.e., you don’t own that draft the way you own a script you wrote on spec).

Think of it like an artist who’s commissioned to do a family portrait. The money is what the artist receives in exchange for the work. He doesn’t then also get to keep the portrait after he’s done; the portrait belongs to the family that paid him to create it.

The same is true of drafts and rewrites and polishes that the company is paying a writer to perform. Even if the rights to the original script are returned to you, those drafts you wrote for the company aren’t. Those drafts then become sterile scripts… a draft of a script that the company owns but cannot produce because they don’t own the rights to the underlying material (your original script).

Among other topics he's covered are:

Power dynamics in negotiations
Submission Releases
Conditions Precedent
Non-guild Deals
Script Sale Breakdown
Intellectual property

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

My Top 10 Films of 2016

You can find 11-20 here. These are my Top 10 Films of 2016

1. Arrival - I first read Eric Heisserer's script ARRIVAL about three years ago and found it to be a remarkable piece of writing that broke so many "rules" but was far and away better than anything else I'd read that year. I also felt like translating that script to film was going to be an incredible challenge, particularly in the execution of the film's big twist. Damn if the result doesn't look effortless and the result is an ending that lands on you like an emotional haymaker.

Through this first contact with aliens story, we explore how humanity deals with the unknown, through our worst impulses and best. I've heard this described as "competency porn" and I agree. After a Presidential campaign where educated people were dismissed as "elite" by masses who championed their own ignorance, it was good to see a film that championed science and problem-solving. And for all that to be legerdemain while the REAL question of the film snuck up on you? Masterful. I'm hoping I'll have time to write a longer piece on ARRIVAL, but this was the best film of the year.

2. OJ: Made in America - I've previously reflected on my fascination with the O.J. Simpson case, but director Ezra Edelman comes at it from an angle I'd not seen before. O.J.'s rise to football fame is juxtaposed with rising tensions between the L.A. black community and the police. Airing across five nights in two-hour blocks, so much groundwork is laid that it took until Night 3 to reach the murders. That gives the trial a context it's never had before, particularly after seeing O.J. work hard to separate himself from the black community, and then turn around and play the race card in pursuit of an acquittal.

In the same year that saw The People vs. O.J. Simpson, it was difficult to imagine the trial exploration feeling fresh, but every moment is captivating, particularly the recollections of former jurors. The final segment of the documentary covers O.J.'s post-acquittal downfall in jaw-dropping detail, with more footage and stories you're unlikely to have seen. It's 467 minutes that leaves its mark on you and never drags.

3. Swiss Army Man - "The farting corpse movie" is probably how you've heard of this film, but it's so much more than that. A suicidal man trapped on a desert island comes upon a corpse that has surprising utility for the stranded man. That's only the start of the weirdness, and soon the corpse is talking to him, asking him questions about life and love. Writer/directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan have crafted one of the more bizarre films of the year. I'll be honest - this is often the kind of shit I mock, but the Dans (as they are called) succeed where many other fail because the emotions of the story are real. We find ourselves relating to this lost soul who seems to be animating this corpse in his mind. Because of that empathy, a late-film twist really pulls the rug out from under the audience.

4. 10 Cloverfield Lane - And now we go from a film I never could have conceived to the kind of film I really, really want to make some day. I'm a sucker for limited location thrillers where the claustrophobia is like a pressure cooker for intense acting among a small cast. I've seen and read a lot of "captive woman in a basement" thrillers, so I know all the pitfalls here. The script by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle manages to avoid every exploitation trap and cheap scare.

John Goodman gives one of his best layered performances as a guy who keeps us off balance the entire film. Is he dangerous? Is he a decent man who's gone a little off kilter due to PTSD? Is he lying to keep Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character captive or is he telling the truth about the attack that's forced them into his bomb shelter? Goodman walks a difficult tightrope through the entire film until he's forced to show his hand. Director Dan Trachtenberg's next smart move was casting Winstead, who's able to hold her own against Goodman and make her role more than the victim that the situation could cast her as. Some people really don't like the ending, but I think it's the perfect payoff to all the suspense Goodman's claims generate. This is a genre premise done exceptionally well.

5. 13th - Ava DuVerney's comprehensive documentary is an incredible piece of work that draws a straight line from how the Reconstruction Era's 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, paved the way for mass incarceration of African-Americans. Following that path, we trace the entire history of racial inequity in America. The film's most powerful moment comes during a montage where Republican candidate Donald Trump's rally speech about longing for "the good old days" when protestors would be beaten is juxtoposed with police assaulting civil rights protestors in the 60s.

6. Moonlight - Most of my list is made up of high-concept films, issue-oriented movies, or stories that are so unusual and bizarre that they can't help but make an impression. And then there's MOONLIGHT, which isn't quite any of those, but instead is a rather moving story about a young fatherless African-American boy who has the odds piled against him. His mother's a junkie, the guy who becomes a surrogate father to him is a dealer, he's bullied at school, and he's dealing with the fact he's gay. There are a hundred ways to write this wrong. It's almost literally one cancer diagnosis from "cloying indie movie awards bait BINGO." And yet... there's honest emotion to this. We're drawn into Little's story in a way that makes him a person and not just a martyr to whom bad things happen. Writer/director Barry Jenkins sticks a difficult landing here.

7. The Jungle Book - I hate 3D. It's more often just a way to jack-up ticket prices and almost never enhances the storytelling in any meaningful way. There are only three films where I believe it truly added value: Avatar, Gravity... and The Jungle Book. It was a constant mind-blowing experience to watch this film and remind myself that just about everything on screen but the boy was created in a computer. Everything in this movie looks photo-real, and director Jon Favreau stages everything in a way that only further convinces us that this jungle is a real place that exists.

When I was a kid, The Jungle Book was one of my favorite Disney cartoons. Looking back, that seems odd. The story's pretty slight and the musical numbers have a couple good entries, but are less frequent than other films. Justin Marks's script brings a little more structure and weight to the film than the source material, but the real secret weapon here is young Neel Sethi as Mowgli. There are veteran actors who are thrown by the process of acting against a green screen, but the way Neel interacts believable with CGI animals, you'd never guess this was his first feature role. (Read my interview with screenwriter Justin Marks here.)

8. The Shallows - A lot of what I said in the 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE review applies here. This is the ultimate "chase your protagonist up a tree, then throw rocks at her" movie. Blake Lively plays a surfer who gets stranded on a reef far from shore... and in the path of a great white shark. Writer Anthony Jaswinski provides the survival techniques that are a staple of this genre. (Think THE GREY, but with a warmer climate and a female lead.) Director Jaume Collet-Serra makes the most of the beautiful scenery and the entire film is quite gorgeous. Better still, he wrings every last drop of tension out of Lively's struggle to outwit the shark. I wish we got more of these low-to-mid-budget thrillers like this and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.

9. The Edge of Seventeen - Sign me up for whatever writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig does next. This is another film that puts character first and doesn't give a damn if we find them unlikable. Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a troubled and often abrasive teen who's rendered with so much empathy that most viewers will likely see some of their own teenage selves in her. Even as she's pushing away and alienating the people closest to her, we understand why she's doing it and we find ourselves rooting for everyone else to just back off and cut her some slack. It feels raw and honest to the point where it can stand with the best of the John Hughes catalog. This is another one that's not a high concept story, but its three-dimensional characters linger with you long after the movie has ended.

10. Hell or High Water - I have a theory that Chris Pine is not so much a Leading Man, but more of a "Michael Keaton in a Tom Cruise body." HOHW finds a way to make that work for this story of two brothers pulling off a spree of bank robberies to save the family farm. The writing lesson for this one? Have smart protagonists and face them off against smart antagonists who seem capable of beating them. I'm not usually one for westerns, but this one had my attention from the start and knew just how to pace itself.

Monday, January 9, 2017

My Top 20 Films of 2016 - Part 1

As is my tradition, I've compiled my Top 20 Films of the past year, which I will be unveiling today and tomorrow. I won't claim to have seen every big movie of 2016, but I've seen enough that I feel comfortable putting this list out there. Among the ones I haven't seen - Silence, Hacksaw Ridge, Lion and 20th Century Woman.

I've also actively avoided Manchester By the Sea and Birth of a Nation for fairly parallel reasons. Maybe I'll check one of both out when they come to streaming, but with so much else I'd rather make a priority, spending money and time on either of those films wasn't something that appealed to me.

And it probably shouldn't need to be said, but the rankings shouldn't be taken as absolute. I kept shuffling titles around each other even as I was writing these posts. There's a lot of "apples to oranges" in comparing these films, so on a different day, you might see some films easily exchanging places with other films in their immediate vicinity.

I saw over 70 films released in the last year and in ranking ALL of them, I was glad that a decent percentage of those were films I enjoyed to one degree or another. They were also a diverse bunch of releases, and so I maintain that anyone wanting to call 2016 "a bad year for film" simply wasn't looking hard enough for the good ones. They were out there.

I can't dispute that it was equally clear that 2016 was responsible for a large number of bad movies that were exceptional in their putridness. I'm not doing a "Worst of" list for many reasons, chief among them being that I'm certain that there were worse movies than what I saw, and that includes some pretty terrible films. (Just to give you an idea of how bad it all was, Independence Day: Resurgence couldn't quite crack the bottom 10.)

But why focus on the negative? It's more fun to celebrate the good, starting today with...

11. The Invitation - Another limited location film built around tension within the group. This achieves that with a much larger cast, though that fact also raises a few issues for me. More specifically, there comes a point in the film where I'm convinced more than one person would be sane enough to get the hell out of that situation. I've heard plenty of theories as to why the confession offered by John Carrol Lynch's character doesn't and more of the dinner party to the exit, but I don't buy any of them. What does work is the incredibly unsettlng atmosphere and a final shot that doesn't give an easy release from the intense finale.

12. Captain America: Civil War - I keep debating if it should be held against this film that it cannot stand alone. More than any other Marvel film, this is the culmination of multiple entries, and yet, you don't feel the strains of that as much as you could have. At the end of the day, this is a really strong entry in the Marvel canon that builds off of a well-justified conflict between Iron Man and Captain America. Along the way, the ground is seeded for upcoming films starring Spider-Man and Black Panther, but the clever work of screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely keeps these cameos from feeling like mere advertisements for future spinoffs. (To see how all of this could have gone much more out of control, check out Batman v. Superman.) After a second viewing, I still find myself on Team Iron Man.

13. The Nice Guys - Ten years after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, we finally get a worthy follow-up from writer/director Shane Black, who shares scripting duties here with Anthony Bagarozzi. This tale of two '70s era private eyes on the case of a missing teenage girl didn't quite blow me away as much as the former film, but it remains a fun romp full of everything you'd expect in a Shane Black film. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are as good as you'd expect, but I feel like the real find here is Angourie Rice, who was 14 at the time of shooting. She handles the Black tone and dialogue like she was grown in a lab specifically to wield it.

14. Rogue One - The first non-episodic Star Wars feature is a solid film, if one that lacks the emotional punch that The Force Awakens delivered so powerfully. The first half could stand to be faster moving, and I wish that the main characters had more depth to them... but once the mission actually gets going, the last hour or so is an awesome ride. This movie is the perfect example of how a story that ends strong can redeem earlier missteps. (That said, I do still have misgivings about how tiny the Star Wars Universe is becoming.)

15. Sing Street - Such a cute and nostalgic film about a young Irish boy in the 80s who starts a rock band and finds his own musical voice even as his parents relationship falls apart and he experiences his first love. I'm a major disciple of writer/director Jim Carney's previous film Begin Again, and while this one didn't hit me quite as acutely as that did, it still has some really hummable, toe-tapping tunes and just a really fun vibe.

16. Zootopia - I didn't expect a stealth lesson in prejudice and racial tolerance from this film, and the more I consider it, the more remarkable it is how seamlessly it's woven into the Pixar formula. It's a theme that sneaks up on you without compromising the usual humor and fun characters you expect to find in this film. Without being preachy, it offers strong values to a young audience that will rewatch these movies again and again and absorb the lessons young people really need to hear in this day and age.

17. Jackie - A look back at the four days from President Kennedy's assassination to his funeral, from his wife Jackie's point of view. Natalie Portman gives a powerful performance as Mrs. Kennedy, aided by a strong script that plays on her fear that her husband will become an historical footnote. I'd read long ago about how she had devised some aspects of the funeral, but never fully understood what that meant to her until this film showed me.

So why is this so low on the list? For all the wonderful choices in art direction and aesthetic, the movie feels just a bit "over-directed." Too many shots are composed so perfectly that you are AWARE of how precisely they've been staged. (It's the same feeling I've often gotten in M. Night Shyamalan's work.) It's the directing equivalent of over-acting, and there were moments that it undermined Portman's performance for me and made me too aware I was watching "acting!"

18. Hidden Figures - I did not know the story of Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician for NASA who worked on the Mercury and Apollo 11 launches. Nor did I know that there were other African-American women working in NASA at that time. I applaud the film for bringing to light a long-ignored aspect of much-retold history. As a friend noted, it's PG, so it can be shown in classrooms across the nation. That's an effort I very much applaud. Taraji P. Henson is perfect as Katherine Johnson, and you won't find so much as a trace of EMPIRE's Cookie in her performance. She completely disappears into the role. Much praise also for Janelle Monae, whom I did not recognize from her music career and assumed was an experienced character actress.

Alas, this felt a little too much like a "made for TV" movie in its execution. The directing is pretty unremarkable, and while I went after JACKIE for being TOO directed, at least it felt like a movie. It's workmanlike in its approach, a weakness occasionally shared by the script. It feels like a surface-level Wikipedia take rather than a full deep dive into what that time truly felt like. The other irritant is the aggressive miscasting of Jim Parsons as a NASA engineer. If you have even a passing familiarity with his BIG BANG THEORY character Sheldon Cooper, his appearances are as jarring as if Oscar the Grouch popped out of one of Denzel Washington's trashcans in Fences. There's a lot to like in Hidden Figures, but some better choices could have been made.

19. La La Land - Once this film started getting high praise at festivals, I resolved to avoid all previews, all reviews, all write-ups until I saw it. I've seen this cycle before and wanted no part of it - praise, backlash for the overpraise, the backlash to the backlash, and finally, the drawing of battle-lines. Seems like that's exactly what happened. My take: If you want to separate good directors from bad ones, given them a long-take scene and you'll spot the posers right away. Damien Chazelle proves more than once in this film that he's one of the real deals. La La Land is a very pretty-looking film, shot in a really gorgeous way. It's vivid, bright and colorful. You can pick a clip out from it almost immediately.

On the other hand, what can I say about a musical where the music is the least notable part? It goes beyond there not being a single track I needed to IMMEDIATELY run to iTunes for - ten minutes after it was over, I couldn't even hum a single melody. Gosling and Stone get by on their natural charm and chemistry, but it's hard to ignore they're playing some incredibly thin characters. I don't think it cashes the check that the hype was determined to write, but man is it a pretty way to spend two hours.

20. Lights Out - One of the creepiest horror movies I've seen in a while, and it owes a lot of that to being built around something primal - fear of the dark. It has a great atmosphere about it, and a strong cast that compliments the script well. I'm always up for a horror film that pushes itself to be inventive, and that's exactly what we get from Eric Heisserer's script and David F. Sandberg's directing.

Come back tomorrow for the Top 10!