Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A tribute to Harold Ramis and Dr. Egon Spengler, the coolest Ghostbuster.

 As kid, when my friends and I would throw on our toy proton packs to play Ghostbusters, I was always Egon.  Maybe he was my favorite.  Maybe he was just the one I resembled the most.  After all these years, I don't totally remember why.  I just remember thinking that Venkman was too much of a smart ass and Ray was kind of a man child.

But Egon - Egon was cool.

With the passing of his portrayer Harold Ramis on Monday, I've seen many, many reflections on Egon and on Ramis's other work in general.  A number of people have remarked on how "Egon was a nerd who acted like how nerds really are."  I don't know if I'd have put it that way, but at least he's not Sheldon Cooper or Steve Urkel, and for that we are grateful.

The particular types of nerds those two characters represent are usually socially awkward and frequently the butt of the joke.  Urkel is also excessively clumsy while Sheldon is an insufferable whiner defined largely by a superiority complex the size of a Dyson Sphere and an inability to adapt to any circumstance with an axis that doesn't revolve around his desires.

And then there's Egon.  A lesser movie would have made him the nerdy geek who Venkman picks on.  Instead, Ramis makes him a guy capable of holding his own against the scientist with the personality of a game show host.  There's a quiet confidence that Ramis brings to the character, avoiding both the awkwardness and arrogance present in most film nerds.  When his secretary starts flirting with him, his reaction isn't to trip all over himself, but instead he remains aloofly oblivious.  Or maybe he knows and he's playing his own game of hard to get.

I'm sure at some point in everyone's life, they're friends with someone whom others don't "get."  You know, the friend who makes a scene at a party, or who always causes trouble when you go into a restaurant.  I'm sure we've all had the feeling of, "Ugh, I have to put up with this guy. I'm friends with him, but would it kill him to be more mature?"

The next time you watch GHOSTBUSTERS, pretend that is Egon's inner monologue in every scene with Venkman.  Any time Egon offers an odd-on-its-face reply to Venkman's wise-assery, pretend that he's messing with Venkman.  Case in point:

Venkman: Egon, this reminds me of the time you tried to drill a hole in your head, remember that?
Egon: That would have worked if you hadn't stopped me.

There are a couple ways to read this dialogue.  First, there's the possibility that it's meant to be taken at face value.  Egon really tried to drill a hole in his head.  But that seems so crazy for a guy that smart that I suggest a second possibility - that Egon was doing some other kind of experiment in para-psychology and the chronically-terrible-student Venkman only half-remembers what it was about.  In this version, Egon's probably a bit bemused that Venkman reduces a complex procedure to something so mundane.  (This IS the guy who says, "pretend for a minute I don't know anything about I don't know anything about metallurgy, engineering, or physics" later in the film.)

And then there's the third possibility - that Venkman is just riffing and Egon volleys it back to him with perfect dry delivery.  The beauty of Ramis's performance is that it's layered enough that all three of those interpretations could be true.

Watch the film with the mindset that Egon is the smartest guy in the room and that his quiet confidence comes from the fact he doesn't need to prove it.  Venkman is a ball of "me, me, me" insecurity in constant need of attention, but Egon is completely at peace with his role in the group. I like to think that every time Venkman goes off on one of his jokey tangents, Egon's there silently certain he could match and top every silly quip of Venkman's.

Think I'm reading too much into things?  Notice how he projects authority when Louis Tully is dropped off at the station.  And later when Venkman makes the silly quip about getting the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper together, it's Egon who lets Peter know this is no laughing matter without insulting Peter for his ignorant suggestion.  Ray may be the heart of the Ghostbusters and Peter may be the ID, but Egon is the brains.  He's the true leader.

There's something odd about spending so much of a tribute to a writer-director on his acting work.  Part of this is that I don't know where to begin with his writing and directing credits.  I do recall it blew my mind as a kid when I found out the guy who played Egon was also the man who directed National Lampoon's Vacation and who co-wrote Back to School and Animal House, among many others.  Take a look at the films he contributed to as a writer and/or director:

Animal House
Back to School
Armed and Dangerous
Ghostbusters II 
Groundhog Day 
Analyze This 
Analyze That 
The Ice Harvest
Year One

A lot of classics and solid hits among those.  I wouldn't even know where to begin to talk about Groundhog Day without saying something that hasn't been said before.  In fact, as I look at those movies, my most prominent thoughts are how much his work made me laugh and how surreal it feels to realize he's gone.

It's weird to mourn the passing of someone you never met.  But then it's also unusual to note the loss of someone who seemed to still have so much living left to do.  When I was younger, the famous people who died all seemed so old.  They were ancient relics of a different time, commemorated in massively deteriorated video clips and aged celluloid moments.  Sometimes it was shocking to realize that they hadn't already been dead for years.  But still, death was something that came for people my parents grew up watching - the Little Rascals, the Three Stooges, and so on.

It's too soon for my generation to start losing the Ghostbusters.  I'm not ready to watch those movies and regret that a reunion of my childhood's Fab Four is impossible. Over the last couple of days, we've been mourning Harold Ramis on blogs and on Twitter, but it's not just him we're grieving for.  His passing marks the death of a little bit of our childhoods. 69 is far too young an age to leave this world.

By all accounts, Mr. Ramis was a genuinely nice guy and always pleasant to be around.  My condolences to his family and those who knew him.  We can only hope that the door swings both ways.

Also check out Scott Myers' excellent tribute post over on Go Into The Story.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Lone Ranger's real problem is that it's embarrassed by its hero

I'm some eight months late to the party on this, but I finally watched THE LONE RANGER last weekend and came away with some thoughts.  This was one I skipped last summer because - to put it bluntly - the trailers failed to sell me on the movie and there were plenty of other films I was more interested in seeing in my free time.  The fact that a lot of critics went after this one didn't help, nor did the fact that the only insanely positive reviews I saw seemed to be coming from a place of wanting to be contrarian.

Still, I was curious enough to see the movie on DVD, if only to see if it really was as bad as people claimed.  And here I agree that the rhetoric surrounding the film probably got a little bit out of hand.  There were definitely worse movies last year.  You could argue this is a major disappointment coming from the team behind Pirates of the Caribbean, but it's nowhere near the disaster that Dead Man's Chest was.  It's got a lot of well-staged action and a cut of this film that just the set-pieces would probably be damn entertaining.  When he's asked to do broad, over-the-top and well-choreographed cheeky action, director Gore Verbinski delivers.

But unfortunately that only accounts for about half of the film - and the other stuff that's left... is not good.  If the rest of the film was merely neutral, I probably could have let the action carry me away and assess that in a big picture sense, the movie was great fun.

The problem is that the stuff that doesn't work is often offensive in how bad it is.  Too often it's the kind of misfire that's hard to ignore.  It's made worse by the fact the final moments of the film shoves those flaws in our faces anew, leaving us unable to wrap up the viewing experience without being reminded "Oh yeah! That was awful!"

As I watched the film I kept seeing the sequences I recalled being targeted in some negative reviews last year.  I'll deal with a few of those below, but one moment in particular completely surprised me and it's the moment where I decided the filmmakers were embarrassed by their own hero.  But I'll get to that momentarily.

John Reid, the man who becomes The Lone Ranger, isn't introduced as the sort of macho-heroic figure you might expect.  His first scene is actually kind of charming in how it uses that. While riding on a train, he picks up a child's stuffed animal and attempts to toss it back to them. In a well-executed bit of comic timing, the toy is sucked out an open window, prompting the child to cry as Reid is chagrined.  The mother invites Reid to pray with them, and he says, "No thank you ma'am. This is my Bible," and indicates his law book.

Yes, this incarnation of the Lone Ranger begins as a bookish sort who would look completely out of place in a gunfight.  Moments later, it's played for a laugh when he takes on a bad guy and says "I must warn you - I boxed in law school."  It's not quite as extreme as watching Niles Crane awkwardly resort to fisticuffs, but that's definitely the sort of laugh that the movie is going for.

On it's own, this isn't a problem.  I kind of liked how this gave Reid a lot of room to grow.  If we accept the Lone Ranger as a superhero of sorts, then it's fair game to play up the nerdy alter ego.  THe problem is that the script can't resist undercutting the Ranger at every turn throughout the film.  Scenes seemingly designed to show off how formidable the Ranger has become are instantly undone by a cheap joke.  Some of these come in the form of physical comedy and others arrive as sarcastic quips from Tonto.

As I kid, I know I rented The Legend of the Lone Ranger more than once.  I now recall very little about it, beyond the fact that it got a number of the touchstones right.  Those who remember The Lone Ranger at all probably recall bits like the use of the William Tell Overture, the line "Who was that masked man?," the fact he uses silver bullets and that he's prone to rearing up on his horse and saying "Hi-yo Silver away!"  In fact, that last one is probably the iconic hero shot the character is remembered for.

We get that moment in the film.  After a really good third act and a massive set piece involving a train, things mostly seem to be on track.  The William Tell Overture kicks in at the start of the sequence and for the rest of the sequence everything seems to play almost perfectly.  The action is audacious and fun, the heroes are making all the right moves, and for the most part, the humor seems to enhance the scenes rather than take the piss out of them.

The adventure over, the Lone Ranger rears up on Silver and gives his familiar battle cry as he prepares to ride off into the sunset.  And if the film ended there, it at least would go out on a high point and a rush of endorphines.

But it doesn't end. Instead we cut to Tonto, whose practically rolling his eyes.  He says, "Don't ever do that again."  Get it? Because the Lone Ranger's are so cheesy and embarasssingly square that you HAVE to have someone call them out.  Seriously, Verbinski and his team are so embarrassed by their square-jawed hero that they can't even let that ONE moment play out without any irony.  And it's emblematic of how the film treats the character throughout.

Tonto's main purpose in the film is to provide a vehicle for Verbinski and his team to keep reminding us that they're above the material.  He's their mouthpiece for puncturing the straight-arrow nature of the Ranger.  There's nothing wrong with a good-natured quip now and then, but the more they do it, the more it feels like we're encouraged to see the Lone Ranger as a fop. In The Lone Ranger, Tonto's quips are all about undercutting any competence and presence on the part of our hero.  He's Tonto's punching bag.  It's sort of like watching a Sherlock Holmes movie where Watson is played by Jonah Hill and he's constantly calling the famed detective "a nerd who can't get laid."

Picture this: in the next James Bond film, Daniel Craig orders a dry martini, shaken not stirred.  He nods down the bar to the impossibly beautiful woman whom we know would be putty in the hands of Sean Connery.  The woman smiles, eyes aglow, and says...

"Come see me when you're ready for a MAN's drink, Sally!"


Or what if The Dark Knight Rises had a sequence where Batman confronts Catwoman and she goes, "What's with that stupid growly voice?  Is that supposed to scare me?"


Just by way of comparison, I think most people are of the opinion that 1997's Batman & Robin is a silly, campy film, right?  Most Batman fans are embarrassed at how cartoony the tone and the dialogue are and it was so poorly received that it necessitated a total reboot of the franchise in a completely different tone.

As bad as Batman & Robin is, there's really no point where director Joel Schumacher tries to convince you he's above the material.  We're talking about a movie where Batman pulls out a Bat-Credit Card and NO ONE blinks at how silly it is.  If Verbinski had directed that moment, Robin would have had some quips along the lines of "Who the hell issues a Bat-credit card?  What's your credit limit? Do they do debit as well?  Or is it de-BAT?"

Schumacher's Batman might be a square-jawed boy scout along the lines of the Adam West interpretation, but Schumacher still directs the film like Batman is our hero. As much as he's overshadowed by the villains, at no point are we directed to believe the guy in the batsuit is a silly klutz.

Batman & Robin commits to its reality more firmly than The Lone Ranger. Digest that one for a few.

THE LONE RANGER has a host of other tonal issues too, including a really misguided framing device that has a young boy encountering Tonto at a fair in 1933.  The elderly Tonto is there as part of a display called  "The Noble Savage" and the whole story is then told as sort of a tall-tale from Tonto.  It's a misfire in terms of tone and also in how it sets up the world.  If you were to show me this two-hour-and-thirty-minute cut of the film and give me free reign to edit it, all of this material would be the first to go.

The one thing it does accomplish is that it opens the whole story up to the possibility that we're seeing it through the eyes of an unreliable narrator.  Given how bananas Tonto is in places, that would at least give the film's strange tonal shifts some context.  I don't really think this was intended, though.  And if it was deliberate, the film doesn't commit hard enough to being a tale told by an Indian with a few marbles missing.

Of course, the other problem with this framing device is that it means that after the aforementioned "Don't ever do that again" scene, we have to again return to this 1933 travesty to tie up everything, which means Tonto gets the last word AND the ending credits are spent on watching him take a solumn walk off into the desert alone.

THE LONE RANGER concludes not with a heroic gallop into the sunset, but a downer ending that makes you pity Tonto's sad fate and loneliness. The film's biggest failings are what Verbinski uses as punctuation.  You almost feel like a fool for enjoying the final act as much as you did.

Someone give this film the Phantom Edit treatment.  It won't fix everything, but it WILL mitigate the damage.

To return to my main point, the most important lesson one can get from it is to remember that the audience usually needs to believe in your hero in order for the film to work.  If you don't think your guy is capable of saving the day, why should we?

Monday, February 24, 2014

How to vet a potential agent or manager

I often get asked for advice about pursuing agents and managers.  A lot of the questions I get revolve around how to get an agent to read your work.  It's not often I get asked questions that deal with the scenario of "I've caught him, now what do I do with him?"

So let's say a potential rep likes your work and calls you in for a meeting.  What now?  The most important thing to remember is that it might not always be best to go with the first agent or manager to show interest.  Not all agents and managers are created equal, and if you're selecting someone with that much power over your career, it's pretty damn important to determine if they're right for you.

The best rep isn't necessarily the guy at the fancy agency with three letters.  There are pros and cons to everyone.  It certainly sends a message about your place in the food chain when your rep is that bigshot WME agent with half of the hottest writers in town on his client list.  On the other hand - with that many whales demanding this guy's attention how much of a priority do you think you'll be?

In that light, the advantage of going with a smaller rep could be that you're more of a focus for them.  Also, they might have a little more hustle and the virtues of that can't be over-estimated.  But then again, smaller reps might not have as many doors open to them.

So how can you break the tie?  After polling a number of professional, working writers I know, I've distilled their advice into several questions you can ask in that initial meeting to figure out if this rep is the right rep for you:

What are your overall plans for me? 

What are your goals for first year? 

What is your strategy for [the spec that got you this meeting]? 

(If dealing with a manager) What agents do you want to pair me with? 

What are your expectations for development of new material? 

(If dealing with a boutique agency or management company,) how involved is the senior or named agent or manager?

How many notes do you give before sending out? 

How important are attachments? 

Do you send out "naked" specs?  (specs that don't have actors, directors, or producers attached.)

How much do you work with other agents/managers at the company? 

It's very important for you to go in there with a strong sense of who you want to be, and to communicate that vision to them at the meeting.  Regarding your next two or three projects, have an idea about what your brand is. This is the time for you sell them on who you are and show that you're doing the things you need to do to get where you want to go.

As an example, if you want to direct, how are you going to make a case for it? What's the next short you're gonna make? If you want to write studio films, what's the spec that's going to get you on that list? Whatever your long-term goals are, bring them up in the meeting.  This should be about getting as much information as possible as well as getting a sense of how this person would be to deal with.

Yes, the agent or manager is there to interview you to see if you mesh with them, but they also have to mesh with you.  Don't go home with the first guy you dance with just because he asks.  A bad rep can be worse than no rep.

Please feel free to leave any other advice in the comments.  I'd like to make this post an easy resource for those seeking representation.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Support Marisa Stotter's documentary on the history of women in comics

My friend Marisa Stotter is running a Kickstarter campaign for "She Makes Comics," a documentary she's doing about the contribution of women to the comic book industry.  Already, she and her team have interviewed a number of comic legends including writer Chris Claremont, Vertigo Comics founding editor Karen Berger, and comic artist Joyce Farmer.

It sounds like the documentary will focus on the largely unknown roles women have played in comics in the industry's seven-decade history. The project's page explains:

"From the early days of the medium to the present, women have had an important and sometimes overlooked hand in the creation of comics. Alternative and underground comics, graphic novels, and webcomics have been particularly fruitful areas for female creators. And more women than ever are involved in iconic mainstream comics franchises. 

"While women have made significant strides in the medium over the past several decades, it's still not easy to be a woman in comics. Female readers fight to be recognized as legitimate fans in an insular and sometimes sexist community. In mainstream comics, there remains an unequal balance of women in creative and business roles, and some publishers have been criticized for misogynistic portrayals of women in their titles. The pessimistic question is often asked: is there a place for women in comics? 

"In spite of these issues, our project intends to emphasize the valuable contributions women have made since the Golden Age of comics. They may not be as recognizable as Will Eisner or Stan Lee, but we hope to make some of comics' most prolific women into household names by showcasing their talents and contributions."

If some of this sounds familiar, perhaps you saw the write-up on the project last week in The Hollywood Reporter.  With less than two weeks left, they've raised just over $30,000 of the $41,500 that they're asking for.

I don't often promote Kickstarters on this page because I fear it will provoke a floodgate of "Please promote my project!" emails.  I've pretty much decided on a policy of only promoting a crowdfunding effort if I've been moved enough to contribute to it myself.  Suffice to say, I have donated and I wish Marisa and her crew the best of luck.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Tuesday Talkback: Calling all Star Wars fans who love the prequels

It occurred to me this week that in May, we will reach the 15th anniversary of the release of The Phantom Menace.  Yes, fans, the prequel trilogy is a decade and a half old.  If you'll recall, when that movie first came out, a lot of fans who grew up with the first trilogy derided the more juvenille film as a film that played like it was made for eight year-olds.

Well that means that those eight year-olds are now 23. College graduates.  Maybe some of them are even readers of this blog.  In fact, I hope they are.

I've heard George Lucas often quoted speaking anecdotally about young fans who came to the series via the prequels and as a result, they find the original trilogy outdated and boring.  It also seems there's a decent subset of fans whose entry into Star Wars was The Clone Wars series.  Lucas claims that some of those fans don't even seem to be aware of the films.

When I was growing up, Star Wars was pretty much three films.  That was it, unless you want to count the "extended universe" of novels and games that sprung up in the 90s.  But generally speaking, until 1999, most everyone experienced Star Wars the same way.  And because of that, a lot of people of my generation have similar reactions to the elements that came after.

But now that the youngest of the prequel viewers are now older than I was when the prequels came out, I'm sort of curious to hear the perspectives of the audience the films were aimed at at the time.

So if your introduction to Star Wars came by any means other than the three classic films, please sound off in the comments, particularly if you're among those subsets that prefers the prequels or the Clone Wars animated series.  How did joining the series via those on ramps affect your perception of the story as it played out in the original trilogy? 

It would be nice if we could keep the prequel bashing to a minimum, at least from the members of my generation.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A review of the ROBOCOP reboot from someone who's never seen the original

Confession time, folks. I've never seen the original ROBOCOP.  I was seven when it first came out, making me way too young to see it in theaters and as I got older, it was never something I felt compelled to seek out.  Now, to hear fans of the original speak about it lately, you'd think this was akin to never seeing Citizen Kane or Psycho, but the truth is that among my circles, ROBOCOP was just another 80s sci-fi action movie.

However, it's clear that if you want to stir up an audience of a film, all you have to do is threaten to remake it.  The mere threat of such a desecration tends to provoke an uprising that would have you thinking there was a mission to put arms on the Venus de Milo.  Over the past year I've heard more about the original ROBOCOP in fanboy circles than I had in the 25 years that preceded it.  As it became clear that the pending ROBOCOP remake was trying to take a different path than the original, I decided to do something that I wish I'd had the chance to do on Total Recall - I was going to go in totally fresh.  I wanted to see if this movie could stand up without any affection or nostalgia for the original getting in the way.

The verdict?  It definitely stands on its own.  There's really no point where I was lost and had a feeling, "I bet this all makes a lot more sense of you've seen the original."  If there are jokey, inside references to the original, they're integrated well enough that I didn't feel them sticking out like sore thumbs.  (This is more of a sequel thing than a remake, but a good example of this might be something like the extended "zip it/sush" callbacks in the final Austin Powers.)

It's an unspecified point in the near future and OMNICorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is faced with a problem.  His military drones have proven to be effective peacekeeping forces abroad, but thus far, Congress has passed legislation banning their usage on American soil.  It seems most Americans are squeamish about the idea that a drone decides independently if a target is a threat and warrants the use of deadly force.  (Which, to be fair, is a pretty a solid point.) 

Enter Detective Alex Murphy, who's all but killed in an explosion arranged by a drug lord.  With two limbs blown off and most of his body covered in fourth-degree burns. Sellars sees an opportunity here.  In order to get the congressional act against his drones overturned, he needs to sway public opinion.  What better way than to find a paralyzed law enforcement officer, restore him with the cybernetic limbs that OMNICorp research has developed and turn him into a drone, essentially putting a man inside of a machine.  If he can use drones on American soil, Sellars' company stands to make billions.

This leads into what is probably the most effective part of the movie, where the reconstituted Murphy discovers he's little more than a head, heart & lungs and one organic forearm held together with robotic parts.  Even his brain has cybernetic impants, which among other things, allows him quickly assess targets as threats or neutral, and accomplish things like calculating his escape from a building and over a high wall.

Gary Oldman features in these scenes as a scientist named Norton, who's working out the kinks of Murphy's new state and it's interesting how his character arc slightly parallels Murphy's.  When we first meet Murphy, he's working with amputees, helping them achieve normal lives with their new robotic limbs.  Initially, he rebuffs Sellars' efforts to exploit his work with a military application, but the promise of additional funds has probably won over many a scientist, and Norton is no exception.

Murphy is pitted against a drone in a side-by-side simulation and while Murphy performs well, compared to the drone's efficiency, he's a failure.  The drone dispassionately neutralizes targets while Murphy's concern for simulated hostages makes him hesitate and act less decisively.  Basically, the moral contemplation that the American public wants is a liability to Sellars' drones' effectiveness.  The man in the machine might be an asset in terms of PR, but it's a detriment to performance in the field.

Ordered to find a way to fix this problem, Norton rewires Murphy's brain so that when he goes into "Combat Mode," the drone program takes over entirely.  Murphy thinks he's still in the driver's seat, but that control is an illusion.  It's a little chilling to realize this "fix" has taken away a piece of not just Murphy's soul, but Norton's as well.

Throughout the film, we don't chart just Murphy's path to becoming less human, we see Norton is on a parallel track.  Norton is faced with a problem that his professional ethics get in the way of, so he discards them and merely follows his objects.  This is precisely the same "problem" that Murphy's ethics cause until he is made to merely follow orders.

But the most disturbing moment of the film comes later.  Just before he is to be introduced at a ceremony with the Mayor, Murphy undergoes a procedure that will upload the entire Detroit police database into his brain.  This includes the Closed Circuit TV footage from the cameras in seemingly every corner of the city.  Oddly no one involved anticipates that it might agitate their cybernetic patient when he processes the footage of the bombing that nearly killed him.  Murphy has a total freakout and it comes at the worst time.  Norton needs to make him ready to step on stage with the mayor in mere minutes, so he orders his team to drop Murphy's dopamine levels to below 5%.

The effect of reducing that particular neurotransmitter basically turns Murphy into a zombie that follows his programming without question.  Norton has almost literally robbed the man of his soul, which is an incredibly disturbing thing to see coming from the guy who appeared to be our moral center when the film began.  Norton does what he has to do in that moment, and the moral implications of his actions are probably more unsettling to the audience than they are to him at that point.

ROBOCOP is largely a story about two men losing their souls to technology in different ways.  The man vs. machine element of the script is generally the meatiest stuff and the storyline that carries the most weight.  The drone aspect adds some interesting elements to the plot as well, and between the two, there are enough moments that leave a viewer thinking this is a movie that could have been really, really good.

And then there's stuff that the film just leaves on the table.  It's utterly baffling to me that the script is so blase' about the massive invasion of privacy that the CCTV cameras seem to represent.  Once he surrenders to his programming, Murphy is able to access seemingly every CCTV camera at will and there seems to be no corner of the city he can't instantly watch.  Later it's even demonstrated that he's capable of retrieving audio from those cameras and even enhancing reflections on shiny surfaces to he can see things not directly in the camera's line of sight.

It's Big Brother taken to an extreme.  I suppose it's possible that in the future, the CCTV cameras have been so pervasive that no one gives them a second thought.  There's also probably the fact that until RoboCop, there hasn't existed a method to collate and compile all that data quickly.  Murphy is able to instantly process data and find connections that would seem to justify a warrant and also give him the means to find people and place them under arrest.  That's both as impressive and as scary as it sounds.

If artificial intelligence is supposed to have advanced to this degree, I can't help but wonder why computers were never deployed in this manner.  If Murphy can solve crimes so quickly just by matching archive footage with other evidence, you'd think that the police would have attempted some application of this tech before Murphy's rebirth.  It also occurred to me to wonder how this process would affect the act of getting a warrant.  Most of the time we see Murphy acting on previously issued warrants, but certainly when he goes in to arrest two crooked cops, he's acting on his own authority and probably hasn't gotten a warrant via what we know as the proper channels.

(I realize it's a minor point that can easily be hand-waved by "It's the future, the law is different." Still, when most of your audience probably knows the basics of the law just from decades of cop procedural, it probably wouldn't hurt to give them a little more to go on in terms of how the legal system works.  I'm not saying I wanted to see Law & Order: Special Robo Unit, but a little more texture to the world would have done wonders here.)

Another weak point in the film is its tendency to stop dead for on-the-nose exposition.  The Samuel L. Jackson character (who's clearly playing a riff on the Bill O'Reilly/Keith Olbermann sort of cable pundit who trades on outrage and fear) shows up several times in the film in scenes where he directly addresses the audience.  He's a stand-in for just about any other method of dramatizing the pro-drone perspective.  His first appearance isn't bad at setting the stage and taking shots at the propaganda of cable news.

The device gets diminishing returns when it becomes clear that he's an easy tool for the screenwriters to get information out to the audience without dramatizing it.  There are also probably a few too many scenes of OMNICorp characters sitting around a table spelling out the logic that gets us from Point A to Point B.

Just a little more depth to the characters would have mitigated this somehow.  As good as it is to see Michael Keaton, his Sellars character is underwritten.  Keaton gives the guy enough humanity initially that he doesn't seem like a two-dimension evil corporate badguy motivated only by greed, but the script fails to add any shadings to his character throughout.  I like that his motivation to put a man into the machine isn't that he thinks it will improve the performance in any way.  It's a pragmatic PR act and him taking advantage of a loophole to get what he wants.  If he thought a human brain was really the key to making a better drone, then I'd have issues with his motivations.

The problem is that by the third act, Keaton has little to work with except going through the motions of the CEO who needs to dispose of a PR problem.  I'll grant that Keaton plays him with just enough weight that he comes across as a driven guy who's making the most efficient decisions he can.  The problem is that he's still stuck being the bad guy in a script where the whole point is to see the "man" triumph over the "machine's" programming.

This necessitates a climax where Murphy will have to overcome his drone directives.  There's an basic, easy way to do that - put his family in danger.  Even more obviously, the most cathartic solution there is to have the man who tried to exploit him be the one they need saving from.  Thus, Murphy faces off against the man directly responsible for taking away the little that was left of his humanity.

But that means that Sellars would have to create a situation where he is a direct danger to Murphy's family, smug in the knowledge that Murphy can't take action against him.  And honestly, Sellars hasn't been written as a guy that hands-on or recklessly stupid up to this point.  That's why it feels so false when (SPOILER) he points a gun at Murphy's family while gloating that he could shoot them both and there's nothing Murphy could do about it.

Keaton doesn't really sell the moment, though you can feel him trying.  The problem is that this climax plays like a first-draft scene that isn't being true to the characters.  It's servicing the needs of plot and story constraints, but I don't believe that Sellars would take the action that provokes just enough will in Murphy to allow him to strike.  (And at this point, Sellars knows that Murphy has grown beyond his programming when he's found an emotional touchstone, so why in God's name would he tempt that by threatening his family when Murphy is all but subdued already?)

There's some good stuff here.  I wouldn't say that ROBOCOP is a movie that deserves to be totally dismissed out of hand.  But I'm not blind to its flaws and I feel like what ended up being shot was a draft or two away from being a strong film.

I plan on following this up with a review of the original ROBOCOP, but it's a "very long wait" on Netflix at the moment, so that review might be a while in coming.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Webshow: How much of a twist to reveal?

I'd be shocked if there's anyone reading this who hasn't wrestled with this question - when pitching someone your story, should you lay the major twists on them?  Or is it better to let them discover those twists when reading the script?  There's a pretty good case for both options, which means there's not an obvious right answer.  So we'll delve into that question in this week's video.

The videos are going on a brief hiatus, but don't worry. The Puppet will be back soon!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Tale of Two BATMANS

One of the highlights of THE LEGO MOVIE has to be Will Arnett's wonderful vocal performance as Batman.  As a longtime fan of the character, I felt the parody was pitch perfect, pretty much taking everything familiar about the character and tweaking it just a bit.  In the comics, Batman is often pretty insufferable and arrogant when dealing with his fellow heroes and one of the sheer delights of THE LEGO MOVIE is how it takes that persona and exaggerates it ever so slightly so that what seems "badass" in one context becomes fodder for humor in another.

And so as I reflected on Arnett's performance, I found myself thinking of the previous silver screen Batmans.  Interestingly, the more I thought about the disparate takes on the character, the more I realized there might be a blog post in this.

It feels like often when we try to discuss films in the superhero genre here, there's always some idiot in the comments who pops up to say, "It's stupid to take such dumb films seriously."  I think that's a pretty close-minded view. Not only is it ignorant to dismiss an entire genre of films just because some films in it have been bad, but the superhero genre is currently one of the hotter genres.  It would probably behoove you to understand WHY some of these movies work.

With so much debate about what kind of Batman Ben Affleck will make, I keep finding myself comparing the Burton Batman film series to the Nolan series.  Between the two, I vastly prefer the Nolan series, largely because it feels like a better interpretation of the version of the character I grew up on.  But I'm open to other interpretations if they're done well.  There's no one RIGHT way to do Batman, which I think is something that gets lost in a lot of internet hand-wringing about any adaptation.

But in an objective sense, I think there's a lot that the Nolan series gets right that the creators that preceeded him got wrong.  I was watching the excellent documentary that's exclusive to The Dark Knight box set recently and screenwriter David Goyer made a really important observation.  I didn't write down the exact quote, but he says that earlier films always seemed to start with "Who's the villain going to be?" while the Nolan films always were conceived by thinking about "What's the story we want to tell?" and figuring out which villains best serve that story.

It also has the result of making each of the Nolan films a story about Bruce Wayne.  The story revolves around Bruce/Batman and what he's going through.  The Burton/Schumacher series tends to have Batman overshadowed by his colorful antagonists.  He's always reacting to them and trying to stop them, but there's no meat to the Batman part.

The first film in the Nolan series, Batman Begins, is an origin story.  By definition, that makes it a character-driven tale in a way that Burton's original film wasn't.  Sure, Burton showed us Bruce's parents being murdered and eventually revealed the Joker was the killer, but he doesn't delve into Bruce's psyche beyond that.  Burton might touch on the motivation to become Batman, but Nolan shows us the process of how he gets there.  Batman Begins is about a journey.

Batman '89 really isn't the same sort of film.  I rewatched it recently and realized it didn't age well for me.  I loved it as a kid, but far less about it resonates today.  Nicholson's Joker is a lot of fun, but there are large portions of the movie that feel inert.  As a kid, I didn't grasp much of what was going on in the mob plot and I just went with the flow.  Now that I'm older and can actually follow the story beat for beat, it definitely feels thin.

What's funny is that I remember upon its release and for years afterward, this was hailed as a more "realistic" Batman.  Technically that's true when your point of reference is the Adam West Batman, but with some distance, you realize Burton's Batman is often just as campy in it's own right.  For better or for worse, it became the template for many a comic book movie attempted in the next decade.  The villains were the stars of the film and the heroes were just someone to bounce off of.

And yet, that's why I suspect Nolan's films will endure longer than the series that came before it.  It boils down to this - at the end of each Nolan film, Bruce Wayne is not the same person he was when the story started.  Begins is an origin story, and then The Dark Knight becomes a story about Bruce dealing with the consequences of the life he's chosen.  He created Batman to be a symbol that would inspire people to stand up to crime, and yet now that's literally happened, he's disturbed by vigilante's appropriating that symbol and putting themselves in danger.

Worse, the escalation Gordon spoke of in the first film arrives in the form of The Joker.  All Bruce wants throughout the movie is to be able to walk away from his life as Batman.  He feels a duty to continue, but it's evident this was never a long-term plan for him.  He merely saw it as a corrective measure to help get Gotham back on the right path.  With Harvey Dent's rise to power, Batman sees the day when the city institutions will be strong enough to take over and he can step down and have a normal life with Rachel.

Bruce's entire arc in The Dark Knight stems from that desire.  It's the spine of the movie in a way that none of the Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney Batmans managed to achieve.  By the end of the movie, he's essentially succeeded on one front, but failed on another.  Batman comes out of The Dark Knight a changed man.  Name any of the films in the first series where Bruce Wayne is a significantly different person at the end of his journey.

That's pretty significant considering that Keaton's Batman confronts his parents' killer in the first film.  He finally faces the person responsible for the tragedy that drove him to this life of vigilantism and yet, it seems he gets no closure from it.  Hell, he KILLS the guy and there's not even an acknowledgement of any emotional fallout for him.  If Bruce had a moment of reflection where he realized that resolving his parents' death wasn't going to bring him peace, that would be one thing.

It's sort of curious.  In the final film, both the revelations that the Joker killed the Waynes and the fact that Bruce avenges them is kind of weightless.  Remove either of those points from the screenplay, and you really wouldn't feel any difference.  Some of this certainly is a reflection on how these movies where developed back then.  I don't know how fair it is to hold Burton's Batman to a standard that hadn't been set at that point.

However... it is totally valid to contrast the two in terms of examining why one approach makes for a higher level of film.  I don't begrudge anyone who enjoys the first Batman film but I definitely feel like Nolan and Goyer really had goals beyond making a fun popcorn blockbuster.  The result is a movie that would be compelling even if it wasn't built around Batman, but instead an original character.

The lesson here should be that good stories are about the transformation a character goes through.  It's why most origin stories end up as pretty good movies even when the main plot is so-so (looking in your direction, Iron Man and Spider-Man (2002). )  In your own work, never neglect this.

And yes, there are exceptions to this rule.  X2 and The Avengers both manage to be rather strong comic book movies without really pivoting around a central protagonist's character arc.  Those films are more about the relationships among the various characters.  They take some outsize personalities and have them interact in interesting ways.  But that's probably worth examination in another post.

The bottom line is - no matter what your story, it can't be hurt by building it around a solid character arc.  If I can't see where your protagonist changes via the events in the script, I'm more likely to throw it in the PASS pile.

Monday, February 10, 2014

THE LEGO MOVIE - not judging a book by its cover

It's a little hard to get to the heart of why THE LEGO MOVIE works without getting into some really huge spoilers about the final act.  As always, consider this your warning that if you read this before seeing the film, plot secrets will be present in this review.

"They just made the movie to make money" has to be one of the most ignorant criticisms laid on any film.  It's not as if mulch-national corporations are in the business of staking a massive sum of wealth on an investment that isn't likely to pay off.  That's not to say that there aren't films made as cynical cash-grabs.  (I've been a bystander to a few of these in my time in the industry.  Sometimes they work.  Sometimes they don't.)  It's not that I don't understand the gut impulse to dismiss THE LEGO MOVIE as such, but I do think it's important to recognize how close-minded that assertion can be.

I can't help but think of He-Man, which was one of the first toy-to-cartoon franchises.  When you delve into the history of the series, you're left with what appears to be a pretty clear-cut case of "We have these toys, now let's make a show to market them so the kids will be interested in buying them."  It's afternoon cartoons as half-hour toy commercials, pretty much the opposite of Bugs, Daffy, Scooby Doo and so on.

So does that mean that this cynical attitude filtered all the way down through every level of He-Man's production?  I'll let you be the judge.  Take all look at this interview with Michael Halperin, who developed the cartoon show:

Can you tell me some of your work on He-Man? 

In 1983, before "Masters" became a series, Mattel had produced the action figures. Once they were on the market, children contacted the company because they were confused. Who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? Where did they come from?

What was your job? 

Mattel asked me to come in and create the back story (bible) for "Masters" that could act as a device for merchandising the figures as well as the premise for the TV series (Filmation had begun the process of designing the cartoon characters -- but they had no stories). I was Creative Consultant to the series during its first year (65 episodes) with the job of approving all story lines. I'm proud to say that I brought Larry DiTillio into the series. His Dungeons and Dragons gaming background proved invaluable as a writer. He was what I looked for in story creation.

What are the main stories you developed? 

I developed the story of how Prince Adam became He-Man; the origins of Teela; why Castle Grayskull existed in the first place; the "secret" of Castle Grayskull which I believe has never been revealed; how Queen Marlena arrived on Eternia; the topography and geography of Eternia; Snake Mountain, the abode of Skeletor; the origins of Evil-Lyn, Tri-Klops, and Beastman, etc. 

The whole interview is worth a read, but what I want to get at is that no matter what the "money men's" motivation was, Halperin and his staff seem genuinely determined to tell good stories and build a mythology using the toys as a framework.  I'd never claim that the He-Man cartoon was high art.  Certainly the animation was pretty weak, but the stories were rather solid, especially for a kid's show.

The bottom line is that it's dangerous to assume the motivations of the people putting up money for a creative project speak to the motivations of everyone involved in bringing that project to light.  If THE LEGO MOVIE sucked, it wouldn't be because it was based on a toy - it would be because the people writing and directing the film couldn't find anything worth saying with what they were given.

Writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller cleared that hurdle and then some.  They found a way into the story that would resonate with audiences on an emotional level.  In doing so, they might have produced a film with as much to say about a child's relationship with toys as the Toy Story trilogy.  What starts off as a seemingly Saturday-morning-cartoon level plot about the evil Lord Business scheming to destroy Lego World eventually reveals itself as an examination of how adults attempting to preserve their childhood by preserving their toys are losing touch with the whole reason toys exist in the first place.

One truly significant difference between this film and movies like Toy Story and Wreck-It Ralph is that those films built their narrative around entirely original characters as the main leads and used established licensed characters as supporting players and cameos.  Since Woody and Buzz weren't plucked from existing toylines, the inception of the project wasn't perceived as quite so naked a cash grab. 

For much of its running time, the story's drive is centered on Lego character Emmet as he and his friends attempt to deliver a "Piece of Resistance" to stop Lord Business's plan to freeze every Lego land with with a superglue device.  It's fairly standard hero's journey stuff... and then Emmet dives into some kind of dimensional rift and ends up... in our world.

The big twist of the film is that he finds himself in a basement containing several Lego buildings and lands that have been preserved on tables.  A young boy plays with his father's toys, ignoring "Do Not Touch" signs.  For you see, the father is a collector.  To him, his toys are museum pieces to be put on a shelf and left undisturbed, not something to take apart, rebuild and play with.  The father is so fixated on preserving his creations as he built them that he starts supergluing pieces together.  This drives home the point that Lord Business is the in-universe avatar of the father.

(I admit this raises some questions about the nature of free will in Legoland.  The connection between Lord Business and "Dad" is pretty clear, but the "real world" scene also contains a pretty heavy implication that everything in the movie is basically the result of the son playing with the toys.  So should we even regard the Lego characters as "real" or is the entire movie little more than the imagination of a child?  Perhaps, like the final scenes of St. Elsewhere, this isn't meant to be examined too closely.)

What makes this work is that it's a revelation aimed at two different segments of the audience.  The kids presumably identify with the frustration of their collector parents forbidding them from playing with certain vintage toys.  Conversely the adults get a bit of a jab right between the eyes, perhaps one that will promote some self-examination.

But the bottom line is that this film actually has something to say.  Compare that to BATTLESHIP, which had equally dubious source material.  BATTLESHIP failed not because it was based on a child's game, but because nothing in it had any real weight.

So in a broader sense, here's the lesson to you, dear Screenwriter: no matter what your project is, make sure you've got something you're trying to express through it.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Webshow: Using a spec pilot to break into TV writing

This week's video answers a reader question about how viable it is to break into TV writing using a spec pilot.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Black List partners with TNT and TBS to help diverse writers break into TV

Yesterday The Black List announced another opportunity for writers via a partnership with TNT and TBS.  Here is their press release.  Scroll down for my thoughts:

TNT and TBS are partnering with The Black List on an initiative to promote diversity in the industry by identifying talented writers to develop scripts and concepts for the networks. TNT and TBS are the first television networks to team up with the Black List following the site's expansion into episodic content. The networks will be looking for writers from diverse backgrounds for possible blind script deals and staffing consideration on TBS and TNT series, with the goal of signing script deals with particularly strong writers in the half-hour comedy and hour-long drama genres.

The Black List is an online community where video content creators find scripts to make and writers to write them and where writers find producers, studios and networks to make their scripts and employ them. Since its launch in October 2012, the Black List has hosted more than 10,000 screenplays and teleplays and has completed more than 13,000 script evaluations. More than 40 writers have found representation at major agencies and management companies, while more than 20 writers have sold their scripts as a direct result of introductions made via the site. At any given moment, more than 2,000 screenplays and teleplays are being actively hosted on the site for perusal by over 2,300 film industry professionals, ranging from agency assistants to studio chairs and network heads.

As part of its program with TNT and TBS, the Black List will solicit teleplays to be evaluated via the Black List website by its community of industry professionals and readers. The Black List will then provide TNT and TBS with a short list of five finalists in each genre. The finalists will be chosen based on criteria the networks provide and on the evaluations received. The networks will then have the option to offer blind script deals. The list of finalists may also be shared with TBS and TNT's current showrunners, who will have the option to offer staff positions.

"As we continue to expand the original programming lineups for TNT and TBS, it's important that we forge partnerships not only with established producers but also with fresh talent," said Michael Wright, president, head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies (TCM). "We're confident that through this initiative with the Black List, we're going to find an abundance of exciting, highly creative work from a wide array of emerging writers."

In addition to TNT and TBS, the Black List is currently partnered with the Writers Guild of America, East; the Writers Guild America, West; the Sundance Institute; and Warner Bros Pictures.

My thoughts: First off, I asked Franklin Leonard via Twitter how they defined "diverse writers," and he told me, "We use the WGA West Writers Report as a guide on the question of diversity."  So essentially that boils down to women, minorities and older writers of both genders.  (I believe that "older writers" is the age 41 and above bracket, but I could be mistaken and they're drawing from age 51 and above.)

Also, a writer cannot have earned more than $250,000 total for their writing work over the last ten years.  Further submission requirements can be found here.

Even though I'm not eligible under any of those requirements, I think it's exciting that aspiring writers have yet another avenue to break into the business.  The best part is that for writers already using the Black List, this is a competition available to them at no extra cost.  And if they weren't already on the Black List, the rules say they need only host the script on the site for one week during the submission period in order to opt in.  That costs a mere $25.

This is also a good time to bring up a number of other great programs for breaking into TV and their associated entry fees.:

Disney/ABC Television Writing Program -NO FEE.

The Warner Bros. Writers' Workshop - $30/script.

Nickelodeon Writing Program - NO FEE

NBC Writers on the Verge - NO FEE

CBS Writers Mentoring Program - NO FEE

New York Television Festival - $30 early fee; $50 regular submission fee; $100 late deadline fee.

And as the Black List press release notes, the site has a number of other partnerships as well and the cost to opt-in for any of those opportunities is free if you're hosting a script on the submission period. I'm very impressed with how the Black List site is quickly becoming a one-stop shop for a variety of programs and fellowships, including the Warner Bros two-step blind script deal and the Sundance Diversity Workshop, as well as the Cassian Elwes Screenwriting Fellowship.

I don't really see a downside here to submitting - especially if you've already put your wares on the website.  The participation of the Turner networks is impressive on it's own, but I also am very intrigued that showrunners may be given a list of the finalists, meaning there's the possibility that someone not selected as a recipient of a blind script deal could be hired on one of the TNT or TBS shows, provided their sample is strong enough.

I recommend the same introspection that I advise when it comes to entering any contest or fellowship, but from where I sit, this is just one more way for writers to break in.

I haven't followed the TV pilots side of the Black List as closely as I did the feature side.  Thus far we haven't gotten a full data-drop with regard to the number of pilots uploaded.  To my eye, it appears that the TV submissions are lower than the screenplay submissions were when they launched but that is TOTAL supposition.  That could be good for writers looking to submit because there may be less competition.

Also, in this Done Deal Pro thread, Franklin says he's heard of at least three instances of writers being signed with representation off of their pilot submissions.  None of the writers have been identified or announced officially though.  Hopefully a more formal announcement will be forthcoming, provided the writers wish to be identified.  (A number of reps find it advantageous NOT to make these sorts of announcements until the proper time.)