Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Year at the Movies - Part 2

Continuing where we left off yesterday, here's June's films. As with before, all films in red are ones I saw on DVD, and ratings are out of four stars.


The Hangover (***) - The trailers didn't inspire a great deal of faith in this being much more than a low budget one-joke comedy, so I skipped out on seeing it the first weekend, and then never had an opportunity to catch it after the word of mouth spread that this was actually pretty good. Just for bringing back the low-budget, R-rated ensemble raunchy comedy as a viable genre, it deserves high marks. There's a point in the second act where the pace starts to lag a bit, but the film weathers that. The premise of three guys trying to piece together what happened at the bachelor party the night before even as they search for the missing groom proves fertile ground for comedy. Verdict: Should have seen it in theatres.

Year One (*) - Wow. I like Jack Black and Michael Cera, so I assumed that the vastly negative reviews couldn't have been all right. When I finally watched it, I couldn't believe it misfired. If I was brought into save this turkey with a rewrite I would have no idea where to begin. Verdict: Glad I waited for DVD

The Proposal (***) - I have come to detest both green card hijinks and the trope of people racing to the airport at the end of the movie in my romantic comedies, so this should have landed right in my crosshairs. However, Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds elevate this formula romantic comedy with their fun performances and Betty White steals the movie. It's a decent date film, but I don't feel like I missed out by waiting a few extra months. Verdict: Glad I waited.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (no stars) - Worst Movie of the Year. Period. Two and a half hours of Bay-hem. I'm not sure where to begin with this. There's the ludicrous notion of Sam dying and saving Optimus Prime via a pep talk in robot heaven, the completely dropped storyline that is the inexplicable hottie-who-is-really a Decepticon, the fact that one scene perfectly illustrates Bay's Madonna/whore complex to such a degree that I actually feel sorry for Megan Fox, and the overriding issue that never before has two-and-a-half hours of action felt so boring and directionless. It's amazing to me that co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (with an assist from Ehren Kruger) scripted both this and the summer's best movie in Star Trek. Saddest of all, I expected most of this and went because I figured, "If I'm gonna see it, it might as well be on the big screen." From now on, I think I'll be satisfied with my 42-inch plasma. At least I only had to pay half-price for this one. Verdict: Wish I'd waited for DVD.


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (***) - It's been about five months since I saw it and little of the film has stuck with me save for the death of a beloved character. I recall walking out satisfied, though. Verdict: Money well spent.

Funny People (**1/2) - I really wanted to like this one. It features what is probably Adam Sandler's best performance in a long time as a comedian facing his own mortality. It even gives Seth Rogan a chance to stretch himself. Unfortunately, this film is really two movies stitched together and the second film isn't nearly as compelling as the first. The problem with Judd Apatow being so successful is that no one has the clout to save him from his own worst instincts. For more on my thoughts about this, check out this entry. Verdict: Should have waited for DVD.


G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (no stars) - Scholars will spend years debating which of Summer '09's offerings was truly the worst: this, Transformers, or Wolverine. Like those films, this script was clearly a victim of the Writer's Strike. It's so terrible that it almost crosses into "watchably bad" territory, something that Wolverine and Transformers could only dream of. In the end, I pretty much expected this is what I'd get but I went for two reasons: 1) it was family night at the movies and I wasn't paying, and 2) the presence of Rachel Nichols. (Side note: Nichols is also featured in this summer's best movie, Star Trek, as a green cadet whom Kirk romances. Like the TF scribes, she double-dipped in the best and worst.) For more of my venom about this, go here. Verdict: I didn't even pay and I want my money back. Wish I'd waited for DVD.

District 9 (***) - I'm looking forward to viewing this again to see if it holds up. Despite my nitpicking, I did enjoy this film, which starts as a mockumentary about a man sent to relocate aliens to a new ghetto and turns into something much more. Verdict: Money well spent.

September - I saw nothing in theatres and DVD has yet to catch up to the film's I elected to wait on.


Zombieland (***1/2) - It's not without its flaws, as I said here, but Zombieland is a fun ride with enough wit and originality to keep you entertained. If you missed it in theatres, catch it on DVD and don't let anyone ruin the cameo for you. Verdict: Money well spent.

Paranormal Activity (***) - I enjoyed PA, but I don't have much to say about it afterwards. It's greatest strength is probably its atmosphere and the natural performances of the actors. This is the sort of film that needs to be seen opening weekend in a crowded theatre, where the suspense feeds off of the tension of an entire crowd holding its breath. I've got issues with the very final seconds of the film, but damn if it wasn't tense in the moments leading up to that. Verdict: Money well spent.


The Blind Side (***) - As I've said before, I've got a hunch I'll find this film forgettable in a few years, but it entertained me while I was there. Verdict: Money well spent.


Avatar (***) - I'm left with some mixed feelings over this one. There's no denying Cameron's technical achievements. After a few minutes, one completely accepts his CG aliens as three-dimensional characters. Unfortunately one can't always say the same for his human players as it would be generous to say that Giovanni Ribisi's corporate sleaze and Stephen Lang's Col. Shoot-em-up approach two dimensions. One also wishes that that the story was as innovative as the visuals. The first act is burdened with some clunky exposition and the second act is very reminiscent of Dances with Wolves. The third act is the Ewok climax of Return of the Jedi done right. Unlike in Star Wars, here the concept of an indigenous people defending their homeland from a technologically superior force actually gets pulled off in a plausible manner. The story kept moving despite the long length and I was entertained, but I can't help but feel that the film will seem less remarkable as the technology becomes more commonplace, as opposed to earlier Cameron masterworks like Terminator 2 and Aliens. Verdict: Worth the $12 plus the extra fee for 3-D.

Sherlock Holmes (***) - Robert Downey Jr. is the reason to see this reinvention of Sherlock Holmes, as his performance elevates a script that's (understandably, to a degree) overburdened with exposition. The trap one can fall into when writing Holmes is that his long monologues of deductive reasoning very quickly can turn into on-the-nose exposition. In the hands of a lesser actor, two hours of this would have been hard to take. Another weakness is that since obviously the filmmakers aren't going to mix a Holmes movie with a vampire concept, it's clear from the start that the supernatural elements are a feint to be eventually debunked. Had the film taken the approach that Holmes didn't believe a word of this rubbish either, then it might have worked to show the story through his eyes with both him and the audience aware that the real mystery is what the supernatural elements are meant to hide. For me, it wasn't fully successful and also suffers from a rather unwritten role for Rachel McAdams that turns out to be little more than a feature-length tease for the next picture. Still, Downey's on a hot streak and is enough to redeem this film's faults. I wouldn't recommend anyone take any lessons in scripting from this film, but I wouldn't tell you to stay away either. Verdict: Worth the $12

So the tally comes to:

Worth the $12 - 14
Money well saved/Glad I waited for DVD - 9
Wish I waited for DVD - 6
Should have seen in theatres - 2

So I saw 20 films in the theatre and only wanted my money back for just over a quarter of them. On top of that, of the 11 movies I saw on DVD, only 2 of them were good enough that I wished I hadn't waited. That means nearly 80% of the time my instincts were right about what was so bad that it couldn't wait 4 months and save $12. On top of that, most of those movies I saw in the theatre and wanted my money back for were ones I was sure would be bad when I went in.

The long and the short of it is, I think I'm going to be seeing a lot more of 2010's films on DVD than on the big screen, at least so long as the quality of the offerings remains the same. In the meantime, I still have several 2009 movies I'm waiting to grab on DVD. A look at my Netflix queue reveals the following films should be reaching my Blu-Ray player in the next few months:

Inglorious Basterds
The Hurt Locker
The Final Destination
Terminator Salvation
This is It
Jennifer's Body
Sorority Row
The Stepfather
Couples Retreat
The Invention of Lying
The Informant!
The Men Who Stare At Goats
Where the Wild Things Are
500 Days of Summer
The Time Traveler's Wife

I will be stunned if more than two of those earn the "Wish I'd seen it in Theatres" ranking.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Year at the Movies - Part 1

When I get around to seeing more of this year's likely Oscar contenders and big-budget hits, I might compile the obligatory "Best of" list. The simple fact is that there are a lot of movies I haven't seen yet and even more that I made a conscious choice to skip until they were out on DVD.

Occasionally someone will make fun of movie critics because "it's not that hard to sit there and watch movies all day" but they forget that there are a LOT of movies released each week. It is time consuming, particularly when one doesn't have the option to pick and choose the bad ones. I recall getting zero sympathy from my non-Film classmates in college when I complained about having to endure yet another "classic" my professor insisted was educational. Watching movies seems fun until you realize you have to do it three nights a week and are at the mercy of someone else's tastes.

So for these reasons I embark on my Year in Review with the acknowledgement that it is imperfect. I can't see everything and I didn't want to see everything, so if I overlooked your favorite movie, don't throw a fit.

I've decided to write the year up thusly. Movie tickets ain't cheap these days, and in a cost saving move, there were several films I decided to wait for the DVD rather than brave the theatres. Films are listed in order of their theatrical release, with the ones I saw on DVD listed in red text. After each review, I'll render a verdict as to if it was worth either the cost of full admission, or if I had been wise in waiting for DVD. Let's see how good my screening process was.


Valkyrie (*** out of four stars) - I'm cheating a bit because this actually came out last December, but I didn't see it until January. Overall I liked it. Bryan Singer's direction was tense, the supporting cast was excellent, and Tom Cruise did a good job. The non-accent didn't bother me, and any film that has you coming out of it mad with frustration at how close someone came to killing Hitler has to be a good one. Verdict: Worth the $12

The Unborn (**1/2) - Without the final twist, this might have had a shot at a solid three stars. The problem is that the ending comes with a reveal that seems to mean that everything that came before it made no sense. I rather liked the hook of the girl being haunted by her unborn twin, and it's rare to see Jewish mysticism used in horror films, so that was an interesting novelty. The cast is pretty solid, particularly Gary Oldman and Idris Elba. Star Odette Yustman is like Megan Fox's good twin - she's less skanky looking and a fair bit better at acting. Verdict: Wish I'd Waited for DVD.

My Bloody Valentine 3-D (**) - I've already covered my biggest issue with the film in this post. Nothing else in the film is exemplary enough to make up for that - save for seeing the 3-D visuals on the big screen. The fact that can't be duplicated as well on DVD is the ONLY reason my verdict is: Worth the $12.

Taken (***1/2) - This was a nice surprise, and the casting of Liam Neeson is the smartest decision the filmmakers of this story of an assassin racing to save his daughter from a human trafficking ring could have made. If you just read the script without knowing who was attached, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a potential direct-to-DVD project for Jean Claude Van Damme. There were at least three or four instances where my jaw was on the floor in disbelief at the turn the movie had just taken (for instance, Neeson coldly shooting his friend's wife.) Best of all, throughout the film it felt like the kind of movie that would have had the guts for Neeson to fail in his rescue attempt, a decision that makes either a happy or an unhappy ending much more powerful. Verdict: Should have seen it in theatres.


Push (**) - My displeasure might be colored by the fact that this script followed me around like a homeless puppy, as I had to read it for several different bosses over the years. Bored me to death, and it was pretty much miscast across the board. Verdict: Money well saved.

Friday the 13th (*) - about 22 minutes into this, I asked myself, "What am I doing here? Why did I think this would be any different from the other films?" Aside from a marginally more talented cast, I was right. Verdict: Wish I'd waited for DVD.

Fanboys (**1/2) - I'm kind of burned out on the whole mocking of Star Trek and Star Wars fans. It was novel when Kevin Smith did it, but the joke's been told and retold a lot. This film isn't immune to that, and the whole cancer subplot is rather badly executed. The main cast is decent, though, and the film is largely redeemed by the cameos - particularly Danny McBride's - and the visual appeal of Kristin Bell in a Slave Leia outfit. Still, I didn't miss anything by waiting a few months for the DVD. Verdict: Money well saved.


Watchmen (***) - I probably need to see this again to put it in it's proper context. It's not without a few pacing problems, but I think there are some really stunning visuals and great shot compositions. On top of that, Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach steals the movie and Malin Ackerman is appealing when she's not called upon to act. The downside: Matthew Goode does everything he can to sink the movie with his valim-inspired performance as Adrian Veidt. Overall I think there's more good than bad here. Verdict: Worth the $12.

The Last House on the Left (***) - I'm still conflicted about this one, as my original review indicates. I'm sort of glad that I got to experience this in the comfort of my own home and not in a theatre full of ignorant moviegoers heckling and yelling at the screen. Verdict: Glad I waited for DVD.

I Love You, Man (***1/2) - The best Judd Apatow movie that Apatow never touched. This bromance comedy clearly has the DNA of Apatow's better movies beyond featuring his regular players Paul Rudd and Jason Segal. Rudd plays a man who's never had a male best friends and finds one for the first time in Segal. Three-dimensional characterization is a major asset to a premise that could have easily been tired and hackneyed. Best of all, the script keeps the Rudd/Segal dynamic as its main focus and avoids the Apatow tendency to let the secondary characters gobble up too much screentime. Apatow's supporting players are usually reliable for laughs and good characterization, but the reason his films always feel about 15 minutes too long is because the director isn't merciless enough to cut funny bits in service of keeping the script focused. I Love You, Man uses some supporting characters to great effect - particularly Jon Favreau, Jamie Pressley and Lou Ferrigno (!) - but director John Hamburg (who shares a writing credit with Larry Levin) keeps things moving in one of the best comedies of the year. Verdict: Worth the $12

Monsters vs. Aliens (***) - A fun romp. Kids will be entertained and even if Dreamworks Animation will never hold a candle to Pixar's in terms of story, I enjoyed it. Verdict: Worth the $12.


Adventureland (***) - A decent indie comedy, and one that convinced me that Kristen Stewart actually could act when she isn't bored stiff by the script (see: Twilight). Jesse Eisenberg comes off as a bit of a poor man's Michael Cera at times, but still manages to have fun in the role. Bill Hader and Ryan Reynolds also get in a few good moments. Still, it's probably a better viewing experience at home rather than in the theatre. Verdict: Wish I'd waited for DVD.

Observe and Report (1/2 star) - I know this film has it's defenders. I am not one of them. The kindest thing I can say is that I respect Seth Rogan for trying something different. Halfway through I considered turning off the DVD. 45 minutes later, I wished I had. Verdict: Money well saved, time badly wasted.

17 Again (***) - You won't find much original in this story that can basically be called Big-in-reverse. I also can't find much that I hated, either. The cast has a ball with their roles and the story's well-paced and structured. Maybe I'd have felt differently had I paid full price for it, but it's totally watchable as a Netflix pick. Verdict: We'll go with "Money well Saved."


Wolverine (no stars) - In any other year, this would have been my pick for Worst Film of the Year. Alas, I underestimated certain other filmmakers. So bad it makes X-Men 3 look like X2. Anyone involved in any creative decisions on this film should have their filmmaking licenses revoked. Verdict: Glad I waited for DVD.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (***) - This is little more than a Scrooge rip-off with a womanizer (Matthew McConaughey) learning the error of his ways just in time to win back his childhood sweetheart (Jennifer Garner). Part of me thinks the concept is clever and another part wants to say that the lead's transformation isn't believable. It kept me entertained, so I'll be kind to it. Verdict: Glad I waited for DVD.

Star Trek (***1/2) - My favorite film of the year. J.J. Abrams and his team found a way to give Kirk and company an origin story that leaves their futures wide open without disrespecting everything that came before it. They pulled off the very difficult task of entertaining Trekkies and people who never watched Star Trek. If the opening sequence doesn't tug on your heart strings, you have no heart, and that's just the first of the surprises here. The visual effects are fantastic, but they're always in service to the story and the casting is pitch-perfect, from the bridge crew on down to Bruce Greenwood's Captain Pike and Eric Bana's Nero. Verdict: So good I paid to see it twice.

Up (***1/2) - Remember what I said about Trek's opening tugging on the heart? Up sees that and raises it a few. A while back I singled out the early montage as a masterful example of non-verbal exposition, and I think that bears repeating. This is just a really beautiful movie, and my only issue with it might be that I felt the villain was one of Pixar's weaker ones. On the other hand, without him, we'd never have the talking dogs so that's almost a fair trade. Verdict: Worth the $12.

Come back tomorrow for the rest of the year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Worst Comic Book Movies Ever Made

Continuing the list I started yesterday, this post covers the Worst Comic Book Movies Ever Made. Now, for this list, I knew that I hadn't seen all of the movies that truly belonged here, so with help in whittling the field, I called in my good friend Clint, a man with unimpeachable credentials in the fields of comic books and bad movies. In addition to working together on the list, we each selected a "worst movie." Clint's reviews are noted with a special tag, everything else is by me.

10) Catwoman - There are some who would say that no list of terrible comic book movies is complete without this turkey and you know what, we'll have to take their word for it. Neither of us could stomach the task of viewing this reported abomination, so we decided the only fair thing to do was stick it at number ten and cop to going with the herd on this one. Can anyone who's seen it make a convincing case for why it wouldn't belong here?

9) The Punisher (2003) - OK, here's the problem with Punisher. In the old days, the Punisher got attention because he was a straight up killer in a time when comic heroes were still leaving the bad guys tied up outside police HQ with little birdies spinning around their heads. As comics got darker, the Punisher got darker still, and gradually became a celebration of over the top ultra-violence. Here's the problem: movies already have all that. We see it all the time. So, for The Punisher to make the same impact as a movie that it did as a comic, you're going to have to do either absurd Icchi the Killer levels of mayhem, or go for some of that real gets-in-your-brain visceral violence like The Wrestler or American History X. So it's even lamer that they trotted out this limp noodle. This movie reminded me of the generic PI movies they show on late night cable- maybe something starring Brian Bosworth. The whole point of the Punisher is that his need for vengeance has put him totally over the edge. In this movie, he's so over the edge that he commits the following heinous acts: 1) Befriending wacky neighbors. 2) Using cold steaks to scare a criminal into thinking he's going to be tortured. 3) Blowing up villain John Travolta's prized car collection. That seems about right for someone who killed your family, right? [Review by Clint]

8) Hulk - Upon viewing Se7en, producer Arnold Kopelson reportedly told director David Fincher, "You took a perfectly good genre piece and you turned it into a foreign film." That's pretty much what seems to have happened here. One can respect Ang Lee for trying something different with his comic booky transitions, but that doesn't excuse the boring script and the rather silly action scenes.

7) Blade:Trinity - What if they made a Blade movie and Blade was totally insignificant to the story? They'd end up with this horrible misfire. Wesley Snipes seems compeltly bored in his role and writer/director David S. Goyer (you know, co-writer of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) lets Parker Posey chew the scenery (sorry... the pun was right there) like a vampire that feeds on plaster and plywood. Ryan Reynolds is the only bright spot of this film, which seems more interested in setting up a spin-off than telling a good Blade story.

6) Ghost Rider - An even better argument than the first Hulk movie for why you should not have a CGI protagonist in a live action movie. Over the course of the film, my reaction to the visuals spanned the spectrum between "shitty" and "dumb." The villain is semi-obscure comics also-ran Blackheart, the son of the devil with an inferiority complex about his dad. In the comics, he's got an arguably cool spiny demon sort of thing going on. In the movie, he's the teenage boy from American Beauty, gussied up in eyeliner. So, it basically ends up looking like an extra from DOOM versus the guy from Fallout Boy. [review by Clint]

5) X3: The Last Stand - In a word: gutless. This Brett Ratner-directed travesty kills off two major characters without fanfare in the first half, then moves to a conclusion that indiscriminately kills and depowers most of the remaining interesting characters. The only thing more infuriating than this waste of solid raw material is the fact that the two final scenes hint that all of it can be undone quickly in time for the next sequel. This prompts one to ask, why bother with this shaggy dog story then?

4) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Not just bad, but bad on many levels. As a movie, it's just painfully average. It's a by-the-numbers studio action movie that takes no chances and breaks no new ground. The addition of Tom Sawyer as a fast-talkin' Yankee secret agent reeks of the worst sort of marketing-minded executive meddling. The only thing this movie did right was the inclusion of the immortal Dorian Grey, who was notably absent from the original comics. But what really sets this movie above the rest is the vast quality gap between the source material and the film. With properties like Batman and the X-Men, there's a lot of material out there, all of varying quality, so when you introduce a clunker like X3 into the mix, you're not really diluting the pool too much. But the League had only ever been fantastic. The second volume hadn't even been completed yet when the movie came out. So, when there's only 8 or 9 issues of tight, imaginative comics to use as a point of reference, it makes this totally forgettable effort look extra-bad. Plus, the filmmaking experience was famously so painful for Sean Connery that he's sworn off acting, so it's a double shot in the gut for us geeks. It's worth noting that all these criticisms of League apply equally to another Alan Moore adaptation, From Hell, but somehow that movie failed to gall audiences in quite the same way. [review by Clint]

3) X-Men Origins: Wolverine - So bad that it makes X3 look like X2. Wolverine is one of those characters who's cooler the less we know about him. Though exploring his origins could have been interesting, he deserved better than this poorly-executed one-off that somehow boasts worst visual effects than the first X-Men movie ten years ago, at a mere three times the cost. There are far too many winks at earlier X-Men films in this prequel, and as with X3, the entire enterprise feels pointless by the end. Couldn't we just have gotten a post-X3 spinoff with Wolverine?

2) The Spirit - I said everything I needed to say about this one here.

Clint's #1 ) Captain America: Let's be honest here - the fact that any movie from the 2000's is on a list of the worst superhero movies shows how spoiled we've become. The 80's and 90's were the real golden age of awful superhero movies. Howard the Duck, Swamp-Thing, Dolph Lundgren's Punisher - these are the stuff of shlock legend. And yet, the 1990 production of Captain America manages to stand out even among this bumper crop of turkeys. This crimes this movie perpetrates against film, superheroes, and the American way are literally too many to list.

The origin sequence, where a hero explores the limits of his new-found powers, is a sure-fire hit in any superhero movie. Captain America gets it out of the way quick by getting gut-shot a couple times and spending only ONE day in the hospital. Now that's super! Cap's arch-nemesis, the Nazi mastermind Red Skull has inexplicably become Italian, and sports an accent somewhere between Chico Marx and the "You like-a da juice?" guy from SNL. Cap's slickest move is to fake motion sickness as a pretense for car theft. He does this TWICE.

And we complain about bad CGI? You don't know how good you have it, kids.

At his best, the character of Captain America simultaneously personifies everything that's good about American patriotism, and provides hope that the 90-pound weaklings of the world can aspire to greatness. This movie presents an alternate interpretation, in which he's a time-traveling fuck-up who's seeking redemption for having done absolutely nothing to combat the Nazi menace. See, back in '43, Cap got his ass handed to him as soon as he set foot on foreign soil. Now he's got to stop the bad guys before they... well... I'm sure whatever they're doing it's very bad. It involves a chip in the President's head, but they've already been running the world for 40 years, so who cares?

And that's the real problem with Captain America. Plot points are alternately delivered with the expository grace of a USA Today headline, or not delivered at all. Story details get squeezed together like the movie is playing in fast forward, only to make space for high-stakes bicycle chases in the Italian countryside. The movie becomes a parody of itself. In fact, I'm sure some enterprising grad student could make the case for Captain America as a post-modern deconstruction of the entire superhero concept. Sadly, the movie is not nearly that creative, and even if it were, it would still be extremely boring.

[Bitter Script Reader's Note: Captain America was never released to theatres, but is heavily bootlegged and notorious in comic circles. Including it on this list might skirt the criteria we used to compile this list, but I can't reject a review this excellent. The Roger Corman Fantastic Four was also very close to making this list, but in the end it was decided there was space for only one unreleased film. Fair? Probably not, but it's our list.]

[Update: as L.F. pointed out in the comments, you can see Captain America on Hulu by clicking this link.]

Bitter Script Reader's #1) Batman & Robin - I resisted putting this in the top spot because it's almost like shooting fish in a barrel to make fun of this Joel Schumacher disaster. It's so campy that it's practically a tribute to the 1960s Adam West series. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman camp it up beyond belief as Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy, while Alicia Silverstone and Chris O'Donnell given little to do beyond squeeze into their outfits. In his better moments George Clooney makes one wonder what he might have been able to do as Bruce Wayne if given a more serious script, but there's little here worth watching. The highlight of the Batman DVD boxed set was seeing Joel Schumacher sincerely apologize for this.

Now, I also promised Clint the opportunity to do a Minority Report #1 on my "Best Comic Book Movies" list, which I'm printing below:

MINORITY REPORT - Akira: If you ask people of a certain age if they've ever watched anime, a lot of them are going to say, "No, but I saw Akira." We had stuff like Speed Racer and Starblazers kicking around in America for decades, but Akira's stateside release is when we figured out that something different was going on across the Pacific. The setting is immediately interesting, the characters immediately memorable. The pace is deliberate and creepy, when it's not balls-out insane. The plot, involving a buried government experiment to weaponize the brains of children, provides fuel for some of the most imaginative action sequences ever drawn. The story seems to break down at the end, as director and original manga author Katsuhiro Otomo scrambles to pack six thick volumes worth of pseudo-metaphysical musing into 5 minutes of screen time, but I'd argue that collapse makes the movie all the more suitable for repeat viewings.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The 10 Greatest Comic Book Movies Ever Made

As I've said before, the bad thing about a decade coming to a close is the surplus of all the "Best of the Decade" lists. As I said before, the catagory of "Best movies of the Decade" is so broad that it's almost impossible to come up with a fair list, so I've decided to limit myself to subcatagories where I've reasonably seen most films that fall into them. This started as a list of the Top Ten Comic Book Movies of the Decade, but I soon realized that it was perhaps more fitting to do the Best Comic Book Movies of All-Time.

10) Superman Returns - This might be a controversial pick. It was released to strong critical reviews and generally positive fan reaction, but as time has passed, those fans have turned on it. I think it's a rather well-done movie that occasionally goes too far in its worship of the Donner films. (There was no need to make Lex's plot a "land scheme" again. If he'd just been obsessed with getting the Kryptonian technology, that would have been motive enough and it would barely have required changing anything major.) The script's biggest weak link is that it posits a thesis in Lois's article "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman," then never really tells us what Lois's argument was. Thus, in the end, that position isn't debunked as effectively as it could have been. I know many take issue with the super-kid, and I could probably spend a whole blog post on that. Here's what I said at the time - thematically it works for this movie, and though I can see it being a problem in the sequels, I'm willing to wait to see how those future stories handle it before fully condemning it. Of course, now it looks like we'll never know.

9) Sin City - Based on co-director Frank Miller's graphic novels, this film is more a translation of the comic than the adaptation. Most shots directly duplicate frames from the various comics, and Robert Rodriguez's decision to use green screen to isolate the characters and put the environments in during post-production might be the most successful use of "green-screen filmmaking." The film looks unlike any other film out there, and though the ultra-violence might be a turn-off to some, the dark noir tone really works. Impressively, the directors not only managed to pull off the stylistic choice to include all the voiceover from Miller's comic - they got great performances out of actors who had been uneven in earlier roles. This was the start of Mickey Rourke's comeback, and the first time that Brittany Murphy didn't actively annoy me. On top of that, it was the first time Rosario Dawson impressed me, and even Jessica Alba does a good turn as stripper Nancy, bringing real vulnerability to the character. And those are the WEAKER actors in a cast that boasts Bruce Willis, Nick Stahl, and Clive Owen.

8) Spider-Man - At the time of its release, it was probably the best comic book movie since the original Superman film 24 years earlier. X-Men had already shown that it was possible to take comic book heroes seriously again, but Spider-Man goes one better by being remarkably faithful to the tone and look of the comics. The Spider-Man suit shows that superhero outfits don't need to be made out of black leather in order to look cool, while Sam Rami's direction evokes the feel and the composition of the comics. The second half gets a little goofy.. Willem Dafoe commands the screen with his over-the-top performance whenever he's out of costume, but the Green Goblin supersuit looks like something from a Saturday morning live action kids show.

7) Superman II - There are two versions available, the 1980 theatrical release mostly directed by Richard Lester, and the recently restored 2006 release directed largely by Richard Donner. The backstory: Donner shot 75% of this sequel while shooting the first film, but a dispute with producers over many issues led to his replacement and the reshooting of many parts of the film to the point where only about 30% of his material remains in the theatrical version. Though it still feels unfinished in spots, I prefer the Donner Cut for the faster pacing, the removal of many campy elements, and the restoration of some powerful scenes with Marlon Brando as Jor-El. However, in any incarnation, Superman II is a great film.

6) Batman Begins - The Batman series needed an enema after Joel Schumacher's wretched Batman & Robin in 1997, and this Christopher Nolan reboot certainly fit the bill. The hook: telling the early origins of Batman piece-by-piece, answering the questions of how he trained, where the Batmobile came from, the functionality of the costume. It's a testament to the power of this film that I've seen many, many different tellings of Bruce Wayne's parents' murder, but this was the only time that the murders hurt. It's brutal and powerful. Also, for the first time, there's a sharp distinction between how the lead actor plays Bruce Wayne and Batman.

5) Spider-Man II - The Spider-Man series gets its best villain in the form of Alfred Molina's Dr. Octopus as the continuing soap opera of Peter and his love Mary Jane develops. Though portions of the plot are reminiscent of Superman II, this is a fast, fun film that feels true to the comic. More than that, the ending makes it clear that makers saw this as a continuing story - not just an episodic series of action films.

4) X2: X-Men United - Finally! A superhero film with seemingly non-stop action. Despite the parade of characters the screenplay has to accommodate, the story never feels over-crowded. With all the exposition out of the way in the first film, director Bryan Singer is free to just tell an exciting story at breakneck pace. There are several great action scenes but standouts are the opening siege on the White House, Magneto's incredibly awesome jailbreak, and the attack on Xavier's School for the Gifted.

3) Iron Man - The best superhero movies know how to make the hero interesting rather than taking the lazy route of making the villain broad and colorful and just using the hero as a straight man to play the villain off of. (See: any Batman film produced between 1989-1997.) Iron Man is much more about Tony Stark in a way that recalls Batman Begins. Robert Downey Jr. carries this movie and even if you're not into superheroes, you'll find him entertaining. The lone weak spot might be the lack of a truly intersting villain, but when Downey is chewing the scenery, you won't care.

2) The Dark Knight - One of the few comic book movies that can be called a "film" rather than a "movie." Aside from the animated series, this is the first time that the modern Joker has truly been captured in an adaptation. Jack Nicholson was fun to watch in the 1989 Batman, but one never believed his Joker was truly insane. Heath Ledger pulls that off and gives a truly chilling performance. Christian Bale more than holds his own, but the story really belongs to Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent - Gotham's "white knight" - who pays the highest price of all.

1) Supeman - The Citizen Kane of both comic book and superhero films, and the one without which there were be no others. The best-known comic book adaptation before this was the campy 60s Batman series, whose legacy was convincing audiences and filmmakers alike that superheroes couldn't be taken seriously. The slightly less-campy Wonder Woman series in the 70s did little to change that. It wasn't until Richard Donner came along and told Superman's origins with all the seriousness of a Greek myth that the stigma was broken. I've raved about this film elsewhere, and any praise that doesn't go to Donner surely goes to Christopher Reeve for creating a Man of Steel who can be earnest without sacrificing any of his presence. Without this film, there would be no Batman series, no Spider-Man series, no X-Men and probably no Iron Man either.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday Free-For-All: Christmas is all Around

It's criminal that I can't embed of one of my favorite Christmas songs, Billy Mack's "Christmas is All Around." Click the link for Christmas cheer, everyone!

And to my Jewish friends, I'll see you at Pei Wei.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Five Overpraised Films of the Decade that I don't give a shit about

With this being another semi-vacation week, I'm forgoing the deep posts that keep my regular readers coming back time and again, and instead are doing some self-indulgent "Best of" lists. It's all the rage this week, and I'm enjoying making lists in random catagories. Join me, won't you?

Today I'm going to look back at five films from the past decade that many people raved about and loved passionately and that I didn't like. So rail against me, threaten to revoke my "expert" card, but I honestly tried to get these movies and they just weren't my cup of tea.

Some of these have been taken down a peg by eventual backlashes, but I'm sure I'm hitting a few sacred cows here. Feel free to join in with your own lists, or chime in with an "I hated that too!" You're among friends. Don't be afraid.

5) No Country for Old Men - I was really with this film until the end of the second act, when Josh Brolin gets killed (off-screen no less!) At that point, I emotionally ejected from the story and it never got me back. As much as I respect Javier Bardem as an actor, in hindsight, I can't help but feel that the whole movie boils down to one scene: "Call it." And the problem with that? Once you realize that Chigurh's motivation isn't too dissimilar to Two-Face's coin-flipping quirk, you find it a lot harder to take him seriously.

4) Crash - Best Picture of 2005? Are you kidding me? I'm not a huge fan of the mega-ensemble approach to telling small stories about a theme, largely because time restraints limit the depth one can give each character and subplot. Crash is a collection of cliches and bad stereotypes, all assembled in the same script under the delusion that the collection and juxtaposition of said tropes will add up to some profound statement. Most mishandled arc - Ryan Phillipe's. I didn't believe for a moment the transformation he makes. Most pretentious moment? Need I say more than: Matt Dillon. Thandie Newton. Exploding car?

3) Napoleon Dynamite - Hated this when I first saw it. Hated it more when I gave it a second chance. Hated the flat affect every actor had. Hated hearing about this all summer when it came out. Hated, hated, hated this movie. (If I might borrow a phrase from Roger Ebert.)

2) The Life Aquatic - I don't worship at the altar of Wes Anderson and this is a big reason why. Ever actor seems to be giving the same dry emotionless performance, almost daring the audience to fall asleep. It inspires nothing but apathy, even when a major character dies. Do you want to know why I haven't seen THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX? It's because Wes often seems incapable of getting animated performances out of living actors!

1) Magnolia - And I'm not wild about Paul Thomas Anderson either. Three hours of my life wasted, minus the time it took to watch the Tom Cruise subplot. His story was the only one I felt invested in. Don't get me started on the ending. (Yes, I'm aware that technically this was released in 1999, but it didn't open in my region until after the New Year, so I'm counting it.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: Your Favorite Christmas Movie

It's that time of year. What's your favorite Christmas movie?

I have two. I can watch A Christmas Story a million times and never get bored with it. It's a timeless classic for too many reasons to list here. Home Alone is a very close runner-up. Last Christmas I watched it for the first time in a decade and it still held up. It works because it's a kids movie that isn't afraid to slow down and go for a beat of genuine emotion, such as the whole subplot about the old man on the block who has been estranged from his family for many years. I can't help but think that if that movie were remade today, 95% of the focus would be on the traps that Kevin puts the burglars through and all the heart would be written out of the movie for fear of alienating audiences.

Honorable mention goes to Die Hard, which makes me realize that the third act of Home Alone is essentially Die Hard in a suburban home. So does this mean that Kevin McAllister grows up to be John McClane?

Wow, that was a weird stream-of-consciousness tangent. Anyway, sound off below.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Greatest Celebrity Crush Guilty Pleasures of the Decade

Next week will bring us not only the end of a year, but the end of a decade as well. With that comes the obligatory "Ten Greatest Movies of the Decade." I couldn't possibly attempt to compile such a list. There are so many movies out there, there's no way I've seen every worthy contender and even if I had, it would be ridiculous to try to quantify them into a list. It's too much of an apples-to-oranges comparison, and I imagine my tastes would change daily.

So I started thinking about subcatagories I could rate instead, and while that was rattling around in my brain, I saw this article about Mr. Skin rating the best nude scenes of 2009. Since one reason a person might seek out a particularly movie is that they have a crush on a particular celebrity starring in it - particularly if that film is rumored to have a LOT of that particular star on display - I decided to make celebrity crushes the focus of this Best/Worst of the Decade list.
With a lot of these "crush" films, I rarely expect the movie to be good - though over the years I've been pleasantly surprised when a few of them turned out to be pretty decent - full-blown guilty pleasures even.

The rules for this list: to qualify, a film MUST be one that I watched solely or almost solely because of the crush. For instance, I like Kristen Bell, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall was a film I'd have seen even if it didn't star her. So even thought that might be better than most of the films on the list, it doesn't count.

With that in mind, I present you with my personal five Greatest Celebrity Crush Guilty Pleasures of the Decade:

5) Into The Blue - Jessica Alba in a bikini. A lot. As it turns out, that isn't the only watchable aspect of this film. Not only is the underwater photography by director John Stockwell gorgeous, but the plot is a fairly serviceable one about treasure hunters who run afoul of drug dealers trying to recover a lost shipment that happens to have crashed right on top of a legendary shipwreck. Yeah, it's a shameless rip-off of The Deep, but you won't be bored.

4) P2 - I've talked a lot about this one before and despite my affection for two-handers, I can probably state that it's because of Rachel Nichols that I went out of my way to seek this out. I've covered the script's flaws here, but this is the perfect sort of film a first time writer/director should tackle. The limited cast and locations keep the budget down, and it forces said writer/director to develop all the right muscles. One must work harder at character development, building tension, and finding interesting ways to shoot the same location.

3) The Girl Next Door - I'll be honest. If this Elisha Cuthbert vehicle had crossed my desk in script form without anyone attached to it, I'd have given it a PASS. In that respect, I can't offer any great screenwriting lessons here. However, the cast - particularly supporting actors Paul Dano, Christopher Maquette, and especially Timothy Olyphant - spin straw into gold here. The protagonist himself is a bit blah, and it's best not to think about how someone as young as Elisha's character is supposed to be is already a major porn superstar. (Seems like she'd have to have something in common with Traci Lords.) Still, Olyphant cracks me up every time.

2) Blue Crush - A formula picture done right. It might not be brimming with originality, but again some spectacular photography - again directed by John Stockwell - makes this more than just an exercise in watching babes in bikinis. It's easy to take shots at formula movies because they often feel so familiar, but it's hard to argue with results like this. It's a feel-good story that moves at a decent clip and is likely to entertain an audience while providing a stock plot populated with some colorful characters. I'm all for diving outside the box, but there are times it's worthwhile to examine the cliches and understand when and why they can work.

1) Bring It On - This is a deceptive formula picture in that it seems to follow the usual road map, only to subvert the typical cliches. They had me at Eliza Dushku, and I went in not expecting much. Instead, this turned out to be a film I can't help but watch every time I run across it on cable. The first thing a screenwriter can learn from this is "wit." From the opening song, the script's dialogue is clever as it both mocks and celebrates cheerleaders. Lots of solid dialogue not only defines the characters, but provides many quotables.

The other bit of genius is that our heroes are actually sort of the bad guys. The previous Toros squad leader had stolen the winning routines from a better squad - the Clovers - that was unable to compete. Now the Clovers are actually going to be in the competition, giving them not only the superior routines, but the moral high ground. It's a good reversal on making the opposing team total assholes who the audience wants to see ground into dust.

As I've said, never underestimate the value of a good supporting character. Not only does this script have a deep supporting cast - it has one killer player in the form of Sparky Polostri, a choreographer/drill sergeant with the most quotable lines who tries to whip these "sweater monkeys... dancers who have gone retarded" into shape.

Oh, and there's a bikini car wash, if you're into that sort of thing.

Of course, when you watch for T&A, you're probably a lot more likely to get burned. Here are five times my celebrity crushes led me astray.

5) The Gift - There's a reason this film is known as "the one Katie Holmes is naked in." There really isn't much else of interest here. It's not terrible, but it's not memorable either. It's infamy comes from then-It Girl Holmes' topless scene, released at a point when she was still Dawson's sweetheart, long before Tom Cruise sent her stock falling faster than Bear Stearns.

4) The New Guy - Eliza Dushku's made a lot of bad movies. I've learned to avoid them, but I got suckered into this one hoping it would have more in common with Bring It On than Soul Survivors.

3) Havoc - Another instance of a goody two-shoes actress trying to prove her edginess by taking off her top in a dark drama. The actress in this case was Anne Hathaway, while she was still known as Disney's live action princess and before she'd crossed over into more mature fare. I recall a lot of buzz about this one on the internet when Hathaway's nude scenes became known. The result is a pretty bad movie about spoiled rich teenagers who hook up with gang members.

It didn't get many viewers and I think this proves a pet theory of mine - the novelty of seeing an actress get naked works best as a lure when the scenes in question are either funny or sexy. The nude scenes here and in The Gift veer towards the disturbing (and somewhat gratuitous). While I can see that making things more interesting for the actress, it could also make said nudity less useful as a marketing tool. If you're not riding on a good script, don't count on a scene like this to save you. Most of the bad nude scenes I read fall into this catagory. Keep that in mind the next time you're writing a scene when your lead female strips down.

2) Femme Fatale - This was marketed as a sexy thriller starring Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as a seductive con woman. A few critical raves - particularly Roger Ebert's - made this Brian De Palma-directed film sound like more than a skin flick, so I was surprised with how bored I was by it. It really feels like De Palma's direction sucks all the energy out of the story with its glacial pace. I hate to say it, but someone like Brett Ratner probably would have made this film more watchable. There were many times I was tempted to hit the fast-forward button and in the end, the film "rewarded" my patience with a copout ending that suggests that most of the film was either a dream or a fantasy. Skin fans, I honestly can't remember if the former Mrs. Stamos bears all in this film, but if that's the only reason you'd want to check out this film, your time would be better spent looking up the lead actress's old photo shoots. They're probably sexier and have more life to them.

1) Closer - Tell most guys "Natalie Portman plays a stripper" and they'll line up faster than you can say "Queen Amadala." Unfortunately that means they won't hear the rest of the warning - namely that this is a pretentious, ploddingly-paced film that could bore an audience into a coma. I'm sure there will be vocal opponents to this opinion, and I genuinely wish I could see what they saw in this film. Five years later what sticks with me the most is how I nearly fell asleep and how aware of the performances I was (in a bad way.) Oh, and that Portman has got to be one of the least convincing strippers ever committed to film.

What are your best/worst "Crush" films?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Free-for-All: SNL Star Wars Auditions

Some friends reminded me of this video today. This is from Saturday Night Live in 1997. Who knew that Kevin Spacey was so good at impressions?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Box office talk and breaking in over at Go Into The Story

Yesterday Scott Myers over at Go Into The Story had some great advice for aspiring writers about how to work at breaking in after writing their first spec script:

My suggestion to you is this: Focus on the writing. There are various theories - to which I generally subscribe - that a writer has to write x amount of scripts / x amount of words or spend x amount of hours writing in order to really learn the craft. The time you spend worrying about how to get your script to Hollywood is time you could be writing.

So three things: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages. That should be your focus for the next several years. Because if you're not ready to work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, then it doesn't matter who you get to read your script: You won't sell it.

Check out the rest here.

While over there, I ran across another article he posted about this year's box office, quoting the LA Times:

Despite a recession that has led to drops in nearly every category of consumer spending, box-office revenue is up 8.6% so far this year in the U.S. and Canada and is certain to ultimately top $10 billion, an all-time record. Unlike in many previous years, the increase isn't being driven by rising ticket prices alone. Attendance is up 4.5% over 2008, according to Box Office.


But the big story at the box office is that audiences aren't only rediscovering movies, they're seeing a broader group of them. This year's haul is not being driven by a handful of mega-hits. 2008's No. 1 movie, "The Dark Knight," grossed $533.3 million domestically, compared with $402.1 million for this year's top performer, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." 2009 has seen an unusually high number of big but not blockbuster hits that grossed between $150 million and $300 million, such as "Star Trek," "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" and "Fast and Furious."

Afterwards, Scott offers his thoughts:

Let's review those numbers: Number of movies released down 14%. Box office revenues up 8.6%. Attendance up 4.5%. So wait a minute. This is literally a case of less being more.

Interesting stuff to ponder. You can find the LA Times article here and Scott's analysis here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Californication shows that emotional moments should be seen and not heard

Though most other premium cable viewers have spent the last few days gushing about the twist that closed out Dexter, I want to take a few minutes and discuss a trope used in the final minutes of Californication's season finale.

As viewers of that episode know, the closing scenes of that episode featured Hank Moody telling his soulmate/mother of his child Karen a MAJOR secret that had been building up over the last few seasons. It couldn't have come at a worse time, as the two had finally worked through their differences and were preparing to move back to New York with their daughter. To say Karen didn't take it well would be an understatement. She starts shouting at him, practically breaking down. Then it gets worse for Hank as he goes outside only to run afoul of the cops, who are looking for him thanks to a fight he got into earlier. Hank, in no mood for this, decks one of the cops and is hauled off in handcuffs as his daughter cries.

What I found interesting about this scene is the decision not to let the audience hear either Hank's confession or Karen's reaction. As he starts to talk, a remixed "Rocket Man" comes up on the soundtrack and plays under all remaining action in the episode. Though there are a few phrases that can clearly be read on Karen's lips, the intent is that the audience isn't privy to the full conversation.

It's a trick I've seen other places, and it's been used to good effect here. While some might see it as a cop-out that the writer's didn't fully pen Hank's confession, I think they made a smart choice. It's a device that's useful when the audience's imagination is far more powerful than any dialogue the writer could craft.

The first time I saw this technique used was in an episode of ER called "Love's Labor Lost," the famous episode when Dr. Greene spends the whole show trying to save a pregnant woman, only to lose her on the table. Earlier in the show, the baby had been delivered and the father went to the maternity ward to check on him. After the mother dies, we cut to the father rocking his son, smiling, still clearly unaware of the tragedy. The shot is framed through the glass of the door, from outside the room. Greene enters, and that's where the shot stays - behind the glass. Green has his back to us and is at some distance, and since "we" are outside the room, we can't hear what he says. We don't know exactly how he breaks the news to the father, we don't know how he attempt to console him. All we see is the father react, his head turned skyward in shock.

The scene had stronger tension for not being able to hear Greene. We already know the bad news, and the direction has forced us to watch from a distance, almost voyeuristically. It's more creative and probably more effective.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer also used this technique at least twice, both in scenes involving characters being told that other characters had been killed. (In case you're interested, the episodes are called "Passion" and "The Body.") Another reason this is probably a wise move is that it keeps the emotional moments from becoming to overwrought and unbearable. We're spared the anguished hysterical cries of grief. Our mind fills in the blanks without subjecting us to the uncomfortable sounds of a teenage girl breaking down as she hears her mother has died.

Never forget the power of silence. Sometimes you need to cut yourself off from the crutch of dialogue. To give a Yogi Berra-like bit of advice, if the scene is emotional, don't be afraid to let emotion carry the scene.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: James Cameron, Avatar, and the Revolution of story

This week's Entertainment Weekly has a really interesting interview with James Cameron regarding Avatar. At one point, he talks about the anxiety that major studios are facing in trying to sell these large movies. He says that the attitude is that it's getting harder to make money on these expensive films because of falling DVD revenues and costs aren't going down. Now, I find that a somewhat ironic statement considering this year's box office is on track to be the most successful year in history. Then he makes a statement I find compelling considering what it could mean for the future of storytelling.

"The audience is more demanding. If you showed anything that's been done in the last couple years - in terms of the quality of the visual effects - to an audience 20 years ago, they'd be s--ting themselves with their mouths wide open. Now they're like [shrugs] 'Meh.'"

While it's understandable that this terrifies studios because they can't count on nifty visual effects to be a draw in and of themselves, as a storyteller, I found it inspiring for precisely the same reasons. My theory is that we are quickly approaching a saturation point, where the fact that CG can create anything will mean that the mere achievment of a visual effect will cease to be impressive.

For too often, films like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen have used story as a means to produce interesting visual effects, as opposed to employing visual effects as a means of telling a compelling story. The cart has come before the horse for so long that the studios have been selling the cart with little more than a nag attached.

And now James Cameron says that from his point of view, audiences are increasingly less impressed with those visuals. This leads to the question - if you can't use visual effects to put assess in the seats, what will get them there?

Story. Compelling characters. Plots we haven't seen before.

At least that's my theory. Is substance coming back into style? What do you think?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Secret Origins and knowing how to read

The Rookie Script Reader asks:

How about an origin story? As someone on the very very outskirts of the industry I'd be really interested to know how you actually broke in and managed to start making a living as a reader.

I covered this a while back, but it was before I had many readers, so I can understand people missing this post.

Also, I'm ashamed to say that I recognise a criticism of many readers from Things That Can F Themselves in myself, and that is finding it difficult to be able to recognise the good along with the bad in scripts. I recently read Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network as well as Fran Walsh/Philippa Boyens/Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, and of course whilst being able to see some positive points, overall they felt like pretty flawed pieces of work to me, yet I can't help second guessing myself and assuming that (from the filmmaker's past work) they're likely to actually be pretty decent films after all. Is the key to this just gaining in experience, and one day hoping to see more easily what will in fact work when it's up on the screen?

Full disclosure: I haven't read either script yet, so both of them could very well be flawed.

It's essential for a reader to have an imagination. After all, they are going to be creating the whole movie in their head as they read, so you'd hope they'd imagine the best possible version to result from the script. A lot of this comes with experience. The more you read, the better you are at it and the more you're able to see how what's on the page reflects what shows up on screen.

For me, my education was helped immensely by having one of my early jobs in a production company, so I not only got to read the scripts, but I could see early cuts of the movie and on rare occasions, even see dailies. In some cases, it showed me where my imagination was lacking and in others, it was cool to see how I more or less had pinpointed the way the scene would flow.

It's very easy to let a script read "flat" on the page. Sometimes that's the fault of the writer, but always make sure you're giving the material a chance.

Conversely, sometimes you end up giving writers too much benefit of the doubt. This usually happens when you get a script from a writer you're excited about and you WANT it to be cool. In those cases, even if your instincts are telling you that the script needs work, you might be inclined to ignore them because, after all, these guys know a lot more about writing than you do, right? Big name always equals great script, even if it's a little long, slightly unfocused and a bit too clever in its own sentimentality, right?

And that's how I ended up giving Elizabethtown a strong consider.

Once I saw the movie, I wanted to take that back. (The coverage was moot - we ended up not getting involved with the project.) I don't think I was totally blind to the flaws in Crowe's script, but I'm pretty sure that I had faith that he'd be able to make it work on screen and in the editing room. I'm also pretty sure that a newbie writer wouldn't have gotten the same benefit of the doubt from me at the time. Would I give that newbie writer a chance today? Couldn't tell you.

The bottom line is that nobody's perfect at reading. The key is probably not only in mastering your own biases, but in evaluating the flaws in a script and determining if they are easily fixable, or deeply embedded in the structure.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Rant on the ScriptShadow issue

We had some good comments yesterday on the John August v. Scriptshadow post, and though I responded to some of them there, there was one in particular that left me with so much to respond to, I decided to make it the basis of today's post.

Scott brought up a few points that I've seen elsewhere, and so I'm going to take the opportunity to respond not only to him, but a lot of other ScriptShadow defenders across the net:

"I am not saying at all that people should have access to these scripts. In fact, the only people who should are the ones who need it to do their jobs. But what we know from practice is that scripts in production or development are widely disseminated. August even says thats how he got one of his first assignments because his script was passed around."

Okay, there are more than a few things I should probably discuss here. August didn't get one of his first assignments because a few interns passed a script around and it landed on the desk of an assistant who kicked it upstairs. John actually said: "I got my second writing assignment (A Wrinkle in Time) based on the script to my first assignment, a project that was still in active development. If that script had been locked down, I might not have gotten another job."

In a circumstance like that, what happens is the producers (in this case, the producers of A Wrinkle in Time) are looking either for a rewriter or for someone to flesh out their concept into a full script. Either way, they want to know that the writer they hire can work well in the genre and style they're after, and the best way to do that is to look at their prior work. Let's assume that at this early stage in John's career the only produced film he had to his name was Go - which isn't comparable at all to Wrinkle. Thus, John's name might not be at the top of the list.

But lo and behold, John happened to have gotten hired on an assignment that probably was closer to what the producers were looking for with Wrinkle. Clearly that film never got made and the script was owned by A Major Studio. Now, had A Major Studio locked down the script, John's agent would not have been able to send the script to Wrinkle's team, which effectively is denying John a job interview. Thus, John doesn't get the job and perhaps experiences a major roadblock in his career.

I'm sure there are a few posters who will say that it's not ScriptShadow's fault that A Major Studio wouldn't release the script. But in a world where scripts are not only being leaked, but passed to people who review them on the internet, how could they be sure that some intern working for the Wrinkle producers wouldn't take a copy of the script and slip it to Carson or a site of similar purpose?

Yes, the threat of such piracy has always existed, but until sites like ScriptShadow made it much more efficient for bad buzz to be attached to a script in such an open forum, the impact of that piracy had been minimal. And since the studios own the rights to the scripts, they have every reason to hunt down any pirates of those scripts. Just because they haven't gone after the PA who printed off a copy of TRANSFORMERS 3 and kept it in his room doesn't mean they've voided the right to pursue a guy who boldly posts a copy of the script on the internet.

Script swapping does happen within the industry, but it RARELY harms anyone. Take this example - a few years back I was a development assistant at a company that was readying the latest film in their big franchise. When the first draft of the script came in, the assistant to the head of Development sent out an email to everyone saying that the script was not to be copied or taken out of the office without her (that is, the assistant's) express permission. Yes, this meant that even I, who was working in Development, had been barred from reading it.

This was on a Friday afternoon. Monday morning, one of the Development VPs delivered the script to me personally, just to see what I thought of it. It was a moot point though because I had already read the script Friday night. How did I get it? Someone close to the director slipped it to me. Now, this individual had known me for a while and knew I could be trusted not to put it online, write a review of it, or pass it on to anyone who would do any of those things.

This is generally how the inter-industry script trading works. People pass to people they know with the understanding of "Don't screw me." It's not something we do to exclude the outsiders. It's not an elitist conspiracy to keep people outside LA in the dark.

And honestly, it's rarely even that unseemly when scripts get passed around within companies. Let me explain a little bit about coverage. What Carson does is NOT coverage. He writes a review and he often makes good points, but coverage is generally more in-depth than that. It's an analysis of the writer as much as the script. That's why more companies have two slots for the PASS, CONSIDER, RECOMMEND rating. One for the script and one for the writer. Good coverage tells the person reading it not only if the script is good/bad, but if the person writing the script knows what they're doing. Maybe the script happens to be a very well-written bad idea, or a good concept written weakly.

So that's why if you're reading for Joel Silver's company, you might find yourself with the latest Bruckheimer screenplay to cover. This could easily happen if the Bruckheimer film was a spec sale from a first-time writer and Silver Pictures needs someone to rewrite their next project.

This is how and why scripts get passed around Hollywood. This is why people end up reading scripts for projects they're not actively working on, and yes, along the way it's likely that a few interns, PAs, and other employees snaked a copy for themselves - but let's be honest, these people value their jobs. When you take a job working for a producer or a studio you sign a ton of confidentiality agreements that essentially mean that if a leaked script is traced back to you, the best you can hope for is that you'll be fired.

So yeah, if someone got caught slipping Carson a script, their ass would be grass. The fact is, it's pretty hard to catch those people but since Carson is the one who brazenly posts the scripts we CAN catch him. He might not have signed confidentiality agreements but he is trading something he doesn't own and he's doing it out in the open. Thus, since his actions have had some unfortunately consequences, it's not a surprise that writers are calling for changes.

Also, I've seen the argument put forth that Carson always takes down the scripts if asked to do so by the writers, so that (1) the writers shouldn't be crybabies, (2) this means that every script and review is still up their with the tacit approval of the writers, plus (3) it's just too hard to track down the writers beforehand, so if Carson waited for approval, he'd never get it. Thus, no one's been hurt and Carson is in the right.


I'm sorry, that was hasty of me. Allow me to rephrase.


My readers often email me asking if I'll give them notes on their script. At present I don't, but suppose YOU sent me YOUR script and I not only posted a blistering review of it, I uploaded the script itself so that any original idea you had there was free to be plundered by anyone who came across it. What if I posted it on Triggerstreet, and left it to be disseminated and torn to shreds by even less-experienced writers than you?

Even if you came to me and told me to pull the review and the script, anyone with any knowledge of web archiving could retrieve the old review even after I deleted it. Plus, on the off-chance that someone was so motivated, they easily could have downloaded the script from me and put it up on another site. So even getting me to take it down wouldn't put the genie back in the bottle.

Yeah, you'd be pretty pissed too. How does it feel to know that every time your name is Googled with the word "script" the first thing anyone found was something calling you a hack who couldn't write their way out of a paper bag? That might make it difficult for you to send that script around and get representation, wouldn't it? (Because let's be frank, readers almost always Google the scripts and writers they're reading, if only so they don't end up accidentally slamming the spec that Peter Berg's company just optioned.)

Meditate on that a bit. Then talk to me again about how Carson's burning need to review a script outweighs the writer's right to stop someone from distributing his work illegally.

Bitter, out!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

John August vs. Scriptshadow

In this corner... blogger and screenwriter of such films as Go, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish.... Jooooooooooooohn August!

And in this corner... a blogger who - in the words of Wired Magazine - "says he wanted to celebrate the writer, promote talented unknowns, and acquaint newbie scribes with the art of the craft".... Carsoooooon Reeeeeeves!

The issue: Does blogger Carson Reeves actually hurt working screenwriters with his review site ScriptShadow? If you want background on John's position, check out this post and then his follow-up. Read what he says in his own words, so that there can be no complaint that I am slanting the arguments.

John claims that because ScriptShadow has made studio screenplays far more available to the non-professionals, this has resulted in studios taking stronger measures to protect their intellectual property. He describes how the studio cracked down after ScriptShadow published an early draft of an upcoming project earlier this year:

"I was suddenly given extraordinary restrictions on exactly who could read the script. I couldn’t send it to the director, the producers or anyone other than one executive at the studio. These were by far the most restrictive terms of any film I’ve written at any studio.

[...] "The more often sites like ScriptShadow poke that hornet’s nest, the bigger the reaction is going to be. The revised terms — I couldn’t even send the draft to my agent — may become the norm. Assistants will get fired for sharing scripts. In the long run, it will be crippling for the industry, and screenwriters will suffer most."

As he details, the "suffering" will come in the form of writers not being able to send out scripts of their aborted projects as writing samples, with is a fairly common way for writers to get assignment work. That's pretty serious.

Carson tweeted yesterday that he doesn't intend to comment further on the matter, which is his right and his prerogative. However, he has a loyal mob of defenders who have been commenting on John's post and - with a few exceptions - I feel it's not unfair to characterize them as a group of entitled, aspiring screenwriters whose legal knowledge seems to have been derived from a marathon viewing of the worst Law & Order spinoff (SVU, if you're keeping score).

Many of these commenters are saying that Carson shouldn't get blamed for a bunch of executives acting like assholes, because it's always easier to throw stones at a few rich fat cats and say it's their fault for making us want their unproduced scripts so much.

The fact is:

1) The studio owns the scripts.

2) They have every right to fight copyright infringement.

3) Recognizing that getting something off the internet is like getting pee out of a swimming pool, they realize the only way to keep this material private is to raise the security measures surrounding it and applying further punitive measures. That's their right. And that is the situation that John August says is happening.

Let's say I rent an apartment in a complex that is in a nice enough area that no one even has locks on their doors. It's a crime-free paradise. There is no crime and thus, no one misses their locks. Then one night, some people down the block realize that they can enter the complex and any apartment at will, plundering each unit of its goodies. The owner, realizing the situation has changed, now has to pay to install locks and pay for security, which results in a rent hike. This naturally pissess off the tenants, who feel they're being inconvenienced.

Now imagine if when those tenants tried to seek redress against the thieves for both the theft and the resulting expenses, the intruders blamed the owner for overreacting and trying to keep these trespassers off his property. That they bore no responsibility for the consequences of their theft and that their real beef is with the asshole owner.

THAT is essentially the position of the mob defending ScriptShadow against John's charges.

One commenter, Synthian (comment 37), offered a better and even more succinct defense of John's position:

"Nabisco does not owe you the recipe to the next cookie they’re building in development. (Even if you ARE an aspiring bake chef. And it would be terribly educational for you.)"

If it was meant to be released, it would have been. Do attorneys publish their inter-office memos and first drafts of their closing arguments before a case gets to court? Does John Grisham post his first draft of his latest novel online “just so readers can see the process?” Do painters release the early sketches of their work before applying pigment to the canvas?

Let's not forget that these sorts of leaks have killed major films before. Back in 2002, AICN's Moriarty got a copy of J.J. Abrams first draft of SUPERMAN and write a long, spoiler-filled review decrying every bad choice made in the script. This stirred up a lot of controversy on the net and Abrams later said that the blacklash was a major factor in the project being killed at Warners.

Full disclosure: At the time, I cheered the death of Abrams' SUPERMAN because the draft was terrible (read it for yourself - it's only a Google search away) and at the time I was exceptionally grateful to Moriarty for getting an incredibly stupid comic book movie killed. Am I a hypocrite now, or do I just have greater perspective? You decide.

As I said in comments yesterday, I'm an avid reader of Carson’s site, and I'd never actually looked at it from John's perspective. I think Carson has only the best of intentions – to educate and to help aspiring screenwriters develop their craft. He’s also run several contests aimed at helping non-repped writers get representation. So in that sense, I separate him from some of the guys at AICN who write articles with insider “scoops” just so they can bring themselves more publicity.

Just making it clear, I am NOT trying to pick a fight with Carson.

I never thought about the unintended consequences that John August says are happening, and if it’s actively making things difficult for working writers, then perhaps some restraint is necessary
I was really disappointed to see so many people dismiss John simply because they're sticking up for their buddy. I think the “Fuck you, rich boy!” and “We have a right to everything on the internet” attitudes are deplorable. Why should John’s right to privacy on his private intellectual property expire simply because he’s famous and successful? Or to take the tone of another argument, because the commenter in question feels that John's movies were sub-par? (Do bad writers get fewer rights than good ones? How come no one told me?)

Beyond that John himself proposed a few ways that Carson could carry out his stated mission without contributing to the problems listed above, and as he noted in his update post, "So far, few of them have addressed my two proposed changes:

"1.Review screenplays of movies once they’ve come out.
"2.Ask the writers before posting reviews of unproduced scripts."

This is something of a timely controversy for me. It's always been my policy not to spoil scripts which come into possession via my work. For this reason, I have long avoided doing script reviews of upcoming projects because I don't want to have to deal with repercussions from my bosses. However, through means outside of work, I recently came into possession of a first draft of GREEN LANTERN, and in fact, was in the middle of writing a review for Thursday, using it to point out some lessons that could benefit screenwriters. The draft is almost two years out of date, so I assumed it wouldn’t contain too many spoilers. In light of John's post, I have decided to hold off on this and other reviews until after the film is in theatres.

Carson seems like a good guy and I genuinely believe he has the best of intentions. He's educating many newbies about the art of screenwriting and of script criticism, and I truly hope that his site doesn't go away. Having said that (Curb Your Enthusiasm ref), I don't see why he couldn't continue to do the same work under the terms that John proposes.

Surely Carson never envisioned he'd be the catalyst for these problems, but now that he is aware, why shouldn't he work with professionals to hammer out a compromise that leaves everyone happy?

I'd be interested in hearing what everyone else thinks of this, if they're not already burned out on the subject.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: Idea file and abandoned premises

Monday night I pitched three premises to my writing group. None of them were full treatments. One had a rough beat sheet, one was basically a premise and a skeletal outline of structure and one was an Act One outline with only a vague idea of where the story would go from there. I'd guess at best, one of them might get developed further based on the feedback tonight, and the rest will join about 20 of his brothers and sisters in the "Idea File," where my pitches, concepts, and outlines go to die.

Just so we're clear, I have eight completed spec scripts to my name (three of which are collaborations). Three - MAYBE four - of those are ones that I consider solid enough to show to people, with another one currently in active rewrites.

This means that I actually follow through on about a third of the premises I come up with. I look down the list of abandoned premises, and about a third of those seem like ones I might be able to wring a marketable script out of if I invest enough time and get blessed enough by the Muses. And about a third of the ideas out there range from embarrassing to utterly, utterly stupid.

My dumbest idea: a drama-indie that revolved around a three-way love triangle between a Priest, a Nun and an Altar Boy. I won't say more than that because there's always a chance I can salvage it, but it's also one I know I could never seriously pitch unless I was down to my last idea.

So tell me, what's your ratio of "ideas gotten" to "scripts developed?" And if you feel like sharing, what's your dumbest idea in the idea file?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Visual grammar

Benjamin sent me a few questions that I admit I've found vexing:

Are you a fan of visual grammar, found in Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Slumdog Millionaire?

A bit confused, I wrote back asking him to clarify what he meant by "visual grammar," to which he provided a PDF that also led me to this article online:

Just as a side note, I'm always wary of gurus who invent rather complicated and intellectual-sounding nomenclature for common screenwriting terms, just so they can claim they've invented a new "method." I'm not gonna name names, but there's at least one popular guru whose work I find to be complete hogwash and counterintuitive unless you are adopting his method without any prior knowledge of screenwriting. (Compare that to the methods of the late Blake Synder, whose 15-point checklist is a great way for newbies to learn structure, and for more experienced writers to refine it. Mr. Synder communicated his method in a way that didn't require those who have read other screenwriting books to unlearn what they already knew.)

By the way, I'm not saying that this particular site I referenced above is one of those gurus - just that at times, some of the verbiage did remind me of the overintellectualized claptrap I've seen on the sites of other gurus who charge out the wazoo for their classes.

Getting back to the site at hand, it defines "Visual grammer" in part as:

I would say that its overall function is to do with creating an absolutely compelling world for the characters to live in.

It’s about using visual imagery to bring the world of the story alive to the audience.How a writer does this involves finding ways to make that world a vivid, palpable presence.

It can be evoking something as huge as an epic landscape or as tiny as the colour of a character’s tie.

It may be choosing whether a scene occurs at night or in daytime, dusk or first light. Describing the outside of a character’s home, or the contents of a fridge, where one word on the page says almost everything we need to know about a character.

Think of Alan Ball’s American Beauty where Annette Bening’s character wears gardening gloves and clogs that match. And how Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham’s rebellion against her immaculate homemaking by messing up her expensive couch tells us so much about his transformation.

Character, Story, Emotional Plot – are all being served here by the superb screenwriting. Visual grammar can be positively loaded with meaningful eloquence.

Put in those terms, yes, I absolutely agree with what the writer is saying, and it is something that writers often neglect, particularly in the early drafts. I think calling it "visual grammar" when discussing a writing technique is needlessly confusing because it made me think of the purple prose that screenwriters use when trying to be overly descriptive. Stuff like:

The tide rhythmically laps against the sandy shore, in a metronome of nature's beauty. Water. Sand. In. Out. White foam bubbles to the surface like the carbonation in a soda as the waves themselves erase small etchings in the sand that took it's artists hours to create in painstaking detail. Nature is indifferent - and yet beautiful at the same time. We marvel at how the tides compelled by a lunar relationship borne hundreds of thousands of miles away could directly impact the actions of those without even being aware of it.

zzzzzzzz.... what? Oh, sorry... I know that's a terrible example, but I got bored myself while I was typing it. If you've read a lot of scripts, you probably have seen the examples of purple prose I'm talking about. Avoid that crap like the plague. To me, it always reads like those 1000-word writing assignments that were given in school, and led the students to try to fill up the page by overwriting ever little bit of description, to the point of using every synonym in the book.

However, I'm very much in favor or writers finding a way to tell their story through visuals and small details that don't arise out of dialogue. The American Beauty reference is a good example of this, in part because they're as much about action as the visuals that we see.

It's not about writing long description, and it's not about writing about everything seen in every scene in exhaustive detail. Worry less about writing full paragraph descriptions of how your character's hair is parted, or what sort of socks they're wearing (unless it's important to the plot.) Make sure there's a reason for every visual you're given and that you're not just trying too hard to micromanage everything.

In other words, it's showing, not telling... and I'm always in favor of that.

I don't call it "visual grammar." I call it "visual storytelling."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reader questions: Day 3

Robert asks:

What's your take on having v.o. in the opening image? Understand it's not being used as blatant exposition but rather to give a bit of backstory and set the tone. It's also the only v.o. in the script. I ask because it really works in the context of the script but there seems to be a universal rule out there to not to have v.o. in the opening image of a spec script.

Well, you earn a few points for it being used to set the tone more than exposition, but then you lose some by saying it's the only voiceover in the script. Though it is a bit funny that you say it's not for blatant exposition, but rather to give backstory. Backstory and exposition are virtually synonymous.

My feeling on this is that it always seems strange to me when a movie opens with voiceover and then doesn't revisit it at all over the course of the story. I'd need to see it in context to really evaluate this, but my question to you would be: Would the script suffer for removing it? Is it essential, or is it an indulgence?

If I open a script and the first thing I see is voiceover, I'm going to expect that particular character to remain as the narrator and that narration to be used throughout the script. Now if it's an omniscient narrator, then my "exposition alert" really will go off. I'm sure that people will point out professional examples of this - "War of the Worlds" comes to mind - but be cautioned that it can read awkwardly.

Scott queries:

A big fan of your blog, and I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions if you do not mind.

1) The generally accepted wisdom has been that if you want to make it as a feature film writer, you need to live in LA. Is that still true?

To get established as a Hollywood writer, you pretty much have to live here. If you're going to try to get your script in front of agents you're seeking representation with, or producers you're hoping to sell to, you'll need to be able to meet them face-to-face. Email and phone meetings won't be enough. The few instances of people being able to sell their script and still live in Peoria are the exception. Plus, even after you sell your first spec, you'll want to stay out here in order to take meetings for rewriting your work and other work-for-hire projects.

2) If you live overseas like I do, would you recommend moving to LA to get started, or is the economy so bad that I should wait until it picks up before moving?

The economy is so terrible that I'd advise anyone with a semi-stable lifestyle to sit tight and wait for it to pick up. The job market in LA is in terrible shape, both in and out of the industry, so it can be hard to find ways to support yourself. Since you're coming from abroad with presumably few contacts, I'd say that would be doubly true in your case.

If you somehow are able to either arrange a job situation before you move across the pond, or if you have a very understanding friend in LA who either needs a roommate or is amiable to letting you crash on his couch, then it MIGHT be feasible to move here. Might.

And before you move, make sure you've got enough money saved to support yourself for at least six to eight months without a job.

Noreen wrote:

Things I read on your blog and others have led me to conclude that male and female readers like different things. Duh!

Example, I read female readers don't like graphic sex scenes and they think the writer is creepy, then I read a male reader say the sex scenes are not graphic enough for him and pls pile on the explicit details.

Should I pander to a male or female reader?

I'm in a bind here because I've never heard of a male reader saying that the sex scenes aren't graphic. I have seen plenty of examples of readers - male and female - rolling their eyes and flat out laughing at sex scenes overwritten to the point of reading like a bad romance novel. Those are the kinds of passages that often provoke a reader to stop what they're doing, walk across the office and show the scene to their friends, saying "You've got to read this."

I've covered my own feelings on these sorts of scenes twice before.

As far as choosing which gender to pander to, that never even enters my mind as a writer. I don't think it's as easy as saying "Male readers like this, but women like this." Write in the least skeevy, least awkward way.

That's it for the questions, folks. Don't be shy about sending in more.