Friday, August 29, 2014

Interview with me on Creative Screenwriting

Sorry I've been absent lately, guys. I've been working on a short film as well as a side project while also working on a new spec, so posts have been in short supply lately. I'll try to resume a more normal schedule after Labor Day.

Until then, enjoy this interview with me that Creative Screenwriting just ran. It's newly published, but I actually was interviewed about a year ago, which is why I make reference to "over a dozen people" who have been signed via The Black List site when the number is much higher by now.

Click on through for the interview and have a good holiday weekend, everyone.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Film School Rejects article: 5 Modern Gems Released During the Dumping Ground That is the Last Half of August

It’s that time of year. School is mere weeks away from starting up again, the biggest blockbusters have had their bows, and the studio releases are transitioning to the distribution equivalent of tossing an old couch on the curb to make room for the new one. May, June and July (and let’s be honest, now April) bring the big crowd pleasers. The last two weeks of summer herald the arrival of the “Everything Must Go” Sales before fall sends us into Oscar bait prestige pictures.

 Don’t believe me? The slate for the next two weeks includes Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, a sequel that’s arriving at least five years too late; Are You Here, the directorial debut of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner that garnered early reviews in the exact opposite tone of his acclaimed show; Jessabelle, a release from the Blumhouse factory that’s not getting a plum horror spot, so you know it’s good; and The November Man, an entry in the very neglected genre of CIA agents dragged back into the game because “this time it’s personal!”

It’s generally an accepted fact that if a movie is set for the dog days of August, the studio has less confidence in it than Taylor Swift’s latest beau does of being the one guy she dates who doesn’t end up inspiring a song.

 But every now and then, conventions are made to be broken.

Read the rest of my article over at Film School Rejects to find out which five films I consider to be the modern classics released during this dumping period.

Monday, August 18, 2014

My appearance on Chicks Who Script podcast, and the Hollywood echo chamber

I'm proud to announce my appearance this week on the new podcast Chicks Who Script, featuring hosts Emily Blake, Lauren Schacher, and Maggie F. Levin. They focus on screenwriting and film-related topics, and while they do give a lot of attention to women's voices in Hollywood, that's not the exclusive focus of their show. As it happens, I was their first male guest.

You can find the podcast here.

From their description: "Bitter Script Reader stops by to talk about the Internet echo chamber, "crap plus one," rape scenes in screenplays, lesbians on television, and Bitter's love for Brians Scully's script Merciful. Plus, we take our first trip through the mailbag and ask Maggie and Bitter how they got started reading scripts professionally."

First, I apologize for my occasionally-fast delivery. I'm terrible at this when there are multiple people in the room and I think it's because subconsciously I want to get my point out before the topic moves on. The show moves fast and in at least one instance, I don't think I did a good job of explaining why I was making a particular point.

Emily and I had privately discussed our frustrations with "echo chambers" on the internet.  An echo chamber is when members of a certain community who hold a particularly opinion or set of opinions about a contentious issue end up seeking out those who agree with them. There's nothing wrong with that, unless your perspective on an issue is entirely informed by this interaction. When you surround yourself with the same 50 or 100 or 1000 people who agree on the issue with you and are just as angry as you about it, you can convince yourself that this is the only perspective on the topic, or at least the only correct one. After all, everyone you've talked to agrees with you, right?

This is why knuckleheads who get their political news exclusively from Fox News (or even worse, that biovating lump of calcified puss, Rush Limbaugh) have convinced themselves that Obama is a secret Muslim terrorist who right now is cutting a deal with the Taliban while converting us to socialists under his fascist regime.

To put it less flippantly, back when being a "birther" was all the rage, Fox devoted a substantial amount of airtime to those claims that Obama was not a U.S. citizen. It got so much attention (on Fox) that it must be true (if your only perspective on the world was Fox's). So once expert after expert (who were often easily discredited or impeached via other outlets) made hay with this issue, the average Fox viewer instinctively rejected any "evidence" that the President's birth certificate was legitimate. And they found easy support amid their own echo chamber.

The Daily Show regularly uses Fox clips to show how that network works to stay "on message" and then fan the flames of a story. It's something you can take note of pretty easily in politics, but to be honest, you can find echo chambers on just about any topic on the internet: sports, religion, baking, technology.

And Hollywood.

So when I used the example of geek websites to explain how an echo chamber works, my intent was to pivot and talk about how some communities for aspiring writers are not helpful.  They can be supportive, full of a lot of well-meaning people. And they can also be havens for angry aspirings who find it easier to blame the industry for their shortcomings than to take a good hard look at their own work.

I touched on this a little while back when I discussed the development process at one company where I worked. I wanted to debunk some of the myths about "Hollywood." (People on these sites always speak about Hollywood as if it were some sort of monolithic collective.) There's this idea that all movies are made for reasons solely of commerce and never for artistic passion. While commerce is always part of the equation, that doesn't mean that the people fronting the money for the films are completely indifferent to the subject matter they deal with.  It's not uncommon for producers to seek out something that excites them even in a project that was made for the most cynical of reasons.

So when someone posting a comment from Idaho starts pontificating about everything wrong with "Hollywood" and how no one in that town has any idea what they're doing, I get a little annoyed to see a chorus of "Right ons!" as if this person as any idea what goes on in the development process. They act as if bad movies were made specifically to piss them off, and I don't think it's very helpful at all to give advice who's foundation is built on supposition and a half-remembered interview with some insider.

I also get really annoyed when writers convince each other that readers are the enemy - especially when readers are confronted with brilliant writing. One of the biggest myths is that a script reader will never support good work from another newbie because they're jealous that they haven't made it yet. In this way, the unrepresented convince themselves that the problem isn't their own work (it's clearly brilliant, right?) but those evil people who stand between them and their rightful career.


Readers LOVE finding awesome scripts. It makes us look good to our bosses when we can be the first ones to discover something hot. There's a lot of excitement to being the guy who found that one lump of gold amidst the sea of mediocrity. True, we don't want to waste our bosses time on something they might hate, but that doesn't mean we're timid to the point of stamping everything with a PASS.

Some of my best days as a reader were when I could walk into an exec's office or shoot him an email that said, "You really should take a look at this when you get a chance." The sad thing is, there just aren't enough good writers to make those days abundant.

In the echo chamber, you might weigh your work against the crowd and assess yourself as the biggest fish. Indeed, perhaps the other guppies might agree with that. "Dan is the best we got, how is it possible he got a PASS from ICM? That reader must have been envious of his talent!" Or maybe Dan is just a big fish in a small pond. Until you've seen the regular sort of submissions that an agency or a production company gets, you have no idea what the standard is.  Sure, you might have read some of the most exemplary scripts by writers like Sorkin, and you've probably seen the worst movies to grace the box office and convinced yourself that you just need to be better than that week's worst release, but that's not how it works.

Strive to keep perspective. Don't always retreat to the comfort of your message board or your website community. If you find your community is built on a lot of resentment and anger, leave. If it seems like every week is little more than whining about some injustice done to your career and how much Hollywood sucks and is run by stupid people, leave. Cynicism is healthy - but bathing in it daily is like spending an entire week in the sun without skin protection - it'll eventually give you cancer.

Most importantly, remember that a lot of people on those sites are talking out of their asses. It's possible to have educated oneself about the entertainment industry without having worked in it, but always give the proper level of authority to proclamations from people way on the outside.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Special offer for the Austin Film Festival. $25 off a Weekend Badge

There are only a select group of organizations I go out of my way to promote, but one of them that you can count among the good guys is The Austin Film Festival. They've been mentioned on this blog before in the context of being one of the more worthwhile screenplay competitions out there.

Well, they recently reached out to me with an offer for you guys. I'll let them take it from here:

Spend a weekend in Austin at the 21st Annual Austin Film Festival! Learn from some of the industry’s best with over 175 panels on crafting your screenplay, finding your inner voice, and getting your script into the right hands. 

Take advantage of the Awardee Panel with our 2014 awardees Matthew Weiner and Jim Sheridan. Grab a seat and watch our live staged script reading. And of course, take in some of our unique and thought-provoking film programming with over 200 films in our festival line-up. 

 As a reader of The Bitter Script Reader, AFF is offering $25 off the purchase of one Weekend Badge. Simply enter the code BITTERSCRIPT into the Coupon Code Box at checkout. We hope to see you this October! 

The weekend badge is $275 at full price, so this discount lets you pay for a meal, or maybe a couple extra drinks at the bar.

The Austin Film Festival is held from October 23-30. You can find further details on their website.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My tribute to Robin Williams

I've been working on a number of writing projects lately, which has contributed to my absence from this blog. In fact, this week started with me making the final push on my latest screenplay, so because of that, I've only now been able to write a remembrance of Robin Williams, whom we lost on Monday to an apparent suicide.

We've been through enough celebrity deaths in the information age that there's a pretty standard script that gets followed. First there's disbelief, then sadness, then recollections of favorite roles. Finally comes well-meaning but ghoulish cartoons of other characters mourning the death of the character's portrayed. Then it's back to business as usual. The whole thing usually takes about five, six hours.

I don't know if I've ever seen quite what followed on Twitter for the next day or so. EVERYONE was mourning this. People didn't even have to say his name, just were posting things like "Tragic. Just awful." "He was my favorite," "Oh Captain, My Captain!" Some people had personal encounters with him, virtually every famous person I follow had some anecdote about him being the nicest, funniest guy on set. Norm McDonald (whom I've never found that funny, to be honest) might have had the best one.

He was my favorite comedian. Or at least he's the first comedian I could ever remember being my favorite. I tried to remember my first Robin Williams experience and the best I could come up with was my parent's tape of Good Morning Vietnam, a staple of car trips from the time I was eight until about the time I was ten. Like any eight year-old, I repeated why I heard, so next time you watch that film, picture his "It's DAMN HOT! That's nice if you with a lady, but it ain't no good if you in the jungle!" speech being enthusiastically quoted by a child.

I remember that every time he was a guest on a talk show, I'd set the VCR to record, knowing it would be a fun appearance. I remember seeing that the Genie was the role he was born to play. I remember being blown away at how intense he could be in films like Insomnia and One Hour Photo.

And I remember reading that when Christopher Reeve woke up after his accident, paralyzed and suicidal, it was Robin Williams who first made him laugh by pretending to be a Russian proctologist mistakenly assigned to his room.

I used to think that suicide was a selfish act, and it IS - to quote Williams himself - "a permanent solution to a temporary problem." But then you see friends struggle with depression and you realize it's not that black-and-white. The people that go that far have been battling demons for a long time, that you really have no idea what goes on inside their head.

You'd like to think that if he saw the outpouring of love for him afterwards, he'd have found strength to go on. But the guy had three kids, three kids he loved very much. If that didn't stop him, knowing what this would to them, then whatever he was going through must have been dark.

I saw the roll call of his fan favorite performances on Twitter: Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society, One Hour Photo, Hook, The Fisher King, Insomnia, The Birdcage, Good Morning Vietnam. Multiple fantastic dramatic performances, and he's still thought of as a comedian first. He excelled in edgy roles and was beloved by kids everywhere. That is a career. You don't see Anthony Hopkins doing a drag comedy or Pixar film. But Robin Williams did it all without falling on his face.

There aren't many like him, who touch so many generations with such varied iconic performances. It's why you can't go anywhere on the internet without someone paying tribute to him this week.

We should all strive to live our lives in such a way that when we depart this Earth, those mourning us will be as generous and sincere in their tributes as those who knew Robin Williams personally.

He was a kind, classy guy who brought joy to a lot of people. I wish the way he left us better reflected that.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Read Brian Scully's MERCIFUL on The Black List. I gave it a 10!

Update: I should have mentioned this -  Brian Scully is repped by Kathy Muraviov at the Muraviov Company. Industry pros who aren't members of the Black List should be able to get a copy through her.

I almost never give out a RECOMMEND when I do coverage. Usually there's at least some cause for caution. Even the most impressive scripts might find themselves hit with the more face-saving "CONSIDER" rating just to avoid being seen as an over-reach.

But last fall, Brian Michael Scully asked me to take a look at his new script MERCIFUL once he had finished a draft.  I'd been a fan of Scully's writing since his earlier spec COUNTERPOINT and having gotten to know him since then, I knew he was a smart guy. COUNTERPOINT was very good, a solid Consider if not a Strong Consider, so I knew I'd be reading something interesting at least.

I wasn't prepared for it to be exemplary.  It was one of those scripts where I found myself insanely jealous of the writing.  He took chances. It was dark and grim, but never losing sight of its emotion and humanity. I'm used to reading friends' scripts and either nitpicking or writing up notes that are basically "This is how I might deal with this issue."

He had the balls to write a post-apocalyptic story centering on a woman in her 40s and it worked so well for the story, I couldn't bear to give the standard note of, "Is there any way this could be a man in his 20s or 30s?"

The Logline: A mother risks life and limb in a cross-country journey across a hostile post-apocalyptic America to find her daughter.

I feel like any attempt at coverage is going to be inadequate, so I'm just going to reprint the email I sent to Brian last year after I read it.

I have to say that if this is your first draft, it's gotta be one of the strongest first drafts I've ever read. You do an amazing job of creating a complete world here. From the opening onward I really can sense the texture in the setting, even as you (wisely) keep some of the specifics of what led to the catastrophe off-screen. Honestly, as effective as I found the flashbacks to be, it occurred to me that they would probably be the first thing to be cut in the name of keeping the budget down. (I don't want to put on my "Development" hat on too much here, but it DID occur to me that a film with a 40 year-old woman protagonist would be a lot easier sell without the expensive meteorite scenes. On the other hand, I really like the writing of those scenes, so don't make any cuts until someone with money says "We need to lose this.")

One thing that really impressed me is how visual the writing is. There are long stretches of this script that are essentially "silent." This is not "radio with faces" as Joss Whedon would say. You've got a very strong template here for a director to come in and play (oh, there I go again.) More than that, you've got a lot of fantastic scenes here like [REDACTED]'s death. Hell, that whole sequence of events from the start up to [REDACTED]'s death could almost be a short film in its own right.

Here's the biggest compliment I can give: there were multiple instances where you delivered a scene I didn't see coming at all. One of the earliest examples: that scene with the old man. I figured he'd just let her go on her way in peace. I didn't expect him to press the attack after she confronted him and I certainly didn't think we'd see our heroine kill an old man. In terms of function, that moment reminded me a lot of the end of Act One in TAKEN, where Liam's only link to the kidnappers runs smack into a bus and we're left to wonder, "Oh shit! What now?"

p. 40 - everything leading up to this confrontation is incredibly tense and the payoff doesn't disappoint.

The Amy/Sheena stuff is handled pretty well throughout, but one of the early standouts is the scene where they watch the guys with the guns execute the wandering group. Sheena's impulse is to help, while the more hardened Amy knows that it won't do any good and they'd just end up dead themselves. Sequences like this go a long way to making this world feel dangerous and unlike our own and it's really interesting to see that Amy is somewhat resigned to it, merely doing what she can to stay alive. Without dwelling on it too much, I like the bonding between them, particularly the gun lesson and the later discussion where Sheena rattles off all the things she won't get to experience.

p. 73 - it's incredibly hard to write a monologue like that and have it work on the page. Somehow you pulled it off. I'm not even forced to guess "Well, I'm sure it'll work when the actor says it." It works HERE.

p. 76 - Like I said on twitter, I think the brutality here is the one instance where you go too far.

The whole rockslide thing is horrifying, but even more of a gut punch is the handsqueeze on the next page as [REDACTED] dies. Fuck you, you bastard. You killed her.

The third act is a bit of a shift from the others, but I like the long scenes showing off the desolation in Philadelphia. Also, with all the bleakness earlier, by now we're concerned that you might lead us to a dark ending where [REDACTED].

I think the challenge of the last 15 pages or so is that you're dealing in a story that can't really have a truly happy ending. The world is hellish and surviving is a victory in and of itself. I think you're right to structure it so that we get our closure from [major plot points REDACTED]. The last raid give us a shot of adrenaline before the final quiet and I think that's written rather effectively. (I read a lot of action scenes and this felt more brutal than most of them, despite being on a smaller scale.)

Look, I don't have any major notes. I thought that on a second pass something would leap out at me, but I honestly found it easy to accept the story on its own terms. It's a great piece of writing.

I don't often give 10s on the Black List site. This was one of them. You can find the script here. Industry pros with download permission, I implore you to check it out.

I was so blown away by Brian's writing that I was concerned I'd be embarrassing myself when I gave him my own spec TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU to read. I don't know if I ever felt as relieved or elated when I opened a later email from him to find him utterly raving about TOBY.  Good reviews are nice, but good reviews from people whose writing you respect? That'll put you over the moon.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Reader questions: What should I study in college and how do you struggle afterwards?

You might have noticed that posts have gotten scarcer the last few weeks. I've been working on a new spec and have been trying to put together a short film, so my free time for this site has plummeted.  However, I am still getting all your emails and I'll respond to them as time and severity warrant.

As luck would have it, two recent emails seem to relate to each other in an interesting way so I thought I'd knock them both out here.  First up is Cecilia:

Hi, I realize you may be busy with other priorities and such and this may seem like a silly email but I really don't know who to ask. I ideally would like to go into a career in film (like directing or screenwriting most likely), but my parents will never let me study anything like that in college. Should I just write and do what I can on my own and then try to send in scripts? I truly love film so I don't want to waste my time and half ass something but I also don't want to be broke and have an unsympathetic family. Do you have any advice?

I do. Believe me, I can understand why parents would push their children to study something more stable than writing or directing.  My parents were very supportive of my choice to pursue such a path, but I entered college at the tail end of the Clinton Administration, back when we had a stable economy, no budget deficit and much lower unemployment. The economic picture is very different today and because of that, I would definitely recommend you study something that can pay the bills. Do what you can to make yourself employable down the line because it's a harsh job market out there.

That doesn't mean you can't take film classes as electives, though. Nor does it mean you can't make friends among the film majors and make movies with them in your spare time.  When I was in college, it was just before the boom where seemingly every student had their own digital video camera. Today, you probably won't have to go far to find someone with a copy of Final Cut Pro and it's a relatively cheap program to purchase.  I learned more about filmmaking from actually doing it than I did from just listening to lectures in a classroom, so there's no reason you can't pursue it as a hobby and build up your portfolio on your own.

Post-graduation you can always move out to L.A.  No one's going to care what's on your diploma.  Even though I was a Film major, I could have gotten the exact same jobs I netted out here even if I majored in Econ or English.  Heck, at least two successful screenwriters I know didn't even GO to college!

And now an email from Chris:

I know writing to you is a long shot. That's okay, for me, every day is a long shot. 23 years old, I moved to LA five months ago, after getting my B.A. I have been living on savings while simultaneously working four internships (one of which involves periodic script reading). 

I thought that by now I'd have the credits for a lowly PA/secretary job but that's not the case. I might've done something wrong, or am just unlucky. I don't want you to tell me it's all going to be okay. Or that if I keep working on my writing "it'll all pay off". I just want to know if you've ever been in my position before and, if so, what you did that helped you sleep at night. 

Cecilia - this is your future.

Chris - what you're experiencing is relatively normal for a 23 year-old in his first year in L.A. When I moved out to L.A. It took me almost seven months to get a real job that paid and until that time I did internships and worked on my writing on my own.

Some of the best advice I got was from a visiting alum who came to my school after becoming a rather big name in the industry.  She cautioned, "Your early twenties will suck." Yes, they will.

My first year in L.A. wasn't great. I knew maybe two people before I came to town, I was living off of the generosity of my parents, it felt like I was never going to be hired and I was 3,000 miles from everything I'd ever known.  I have definitely been in your position, Chris.

This is a hard place to make a living and even people who've been here for a while still struggle.  I've been on unemployment a few times myself. I'm fortunate in that my wife has been pretty consistently employed in the business and that she's extremely good and rather successful at what she does.  Over the years, my writing career has taken some steps forward and thanks to this blog and twitter, I've formed a lot of useful relationships with people in the business.

But the struggle never really ends, and especially now it's even worse because where in an economy where employers can't afford to take on many employees and they underpay the ones they do have.  It's a horrible way to treat people who've worked hard, but what can they do? Quit? HA! Then someone else will do the job for the meager pay.

Getting that first paying job in the industry will take time. I knew a guy who went almost a full year without landing his first job.  It won't be easy and I can't promise that it even will happen.  All I can tell you is that you're not alone.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Join me and Joshua Caldwell for a live-tweet of COLLATERAL on August 6th at 8pm

8pm PST on Wednesday, August 6th, 2014.

Join Joshua Caldwell and I as we live-tweet a screening of Michael Mann's COLLATERAL on the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release.

Me: @BittrScrptReader
Josh: @Joshua_Caldwell

We'll be using the hashtag #Collateral10 for all of our tweets.

Never seen COLLATERAL before? First of all, how? Second, join us for your first time.

Watch it every year? Contribute to the experience with your own insight and responses. This is a chance for fans of one of the best films of 2004 to get together for this one time event.

COLLATERAL is one of my favorite movies, boasting what should have been an Oscar-worthy performance from Tom Cruise as a hitman spending the night forcing a cabbie played by Jamie Foxx to drive him around as he pulls off five hits.  Stuart Beattie's fantastic script takes what could have just been a B-movie premise and elevates it with a great deal of tension, suspense and an overabundance of character. COLLATERAL is one of those movies I wish I wrote, and after watching the commitment Cruise displays in the behind the scenes of this and GHOST PROTOCOL, I should be so lucky to ever work with an actor as dedicated as him.

Josh and I have been prepping for this by reviewing older drafts of the script and the film's commentary and bonus features so that we can provide some interesting color commentary to the film.  We hope to make this as fun as the live-tweets that Go Into The Story used to run.

The bluray is a mere $9.49 on Amazon, which means you can probably find it for at least that cheap at your local retailers. (I've seen it for as low as $7 in the clearance bins at Best Buy.)  Sadly, the film doesn't seem to be streaming anywhere, but we're hopeful we can give you enough lead time to track it down if you want to participate.

Guardians of the Galaxy is great fun

I really didn't think this one was going to work.

Marvel has had such a string of hits that it's really easy to forget just how unknown many of their franchises were to a mass audience. Iron Man and Thor had always been second-tier, Hulk was seen as damaged goods after the failure of the Ang Lee-helmed film and Captain America was a dudley-do-right whose history necessitated the first film being a period piece.  There are reasons that any one of those franchises could have struggled to find an audience, to say nothing of the risk of having all those franchises feed into one film with all the heroes? It had the potential to be a mess.

And yet it did work. I've always felt that Marvel owes a great deal of their mass appeal to two guys: Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau.  A look at the box office backs that up - the first two Iron Man movies far outgross their cousins in the solo Marvel Studios outings. Once they all came together in The Avengers, the next films in the series saw their box office receipts soar.  Robert Downey Jr. was the gateway drug, not just to the Iron Man character, but to the whole Marvel Universe. Miscast Tony Stark and maybe none of this would have worked.

So when the most hard-core of the geek faithful insisted that Guardians of the Galaxy was sure to be a slam dunk, I wasn't ready to drink that Kool-Aid. A solo film populated with weird characters that included a talking tree and talking raccoon and none of the familiar Marvel touchstones? Honestly, it reminded me of my own excitement in the year that preceded Green Lantern's release. As a fan of that comic franchise, I was thrilled that the early trailers and stills suggested that they'd really worked hard to translate the mythology and the characters to the big screen.  Of course, none of that helped get asses in the seats, and the film's other flaws ensured that word-of-mouth wouldn't bring people in.

The hiring of James Gunn to direct and rewrite the script also inspired little enthusiasm. In the geek echo chamber, this was a brilliant move and he was the "perfect" choice.  This perplexed me given his resume. Super was one of the most unpleasant films I had endured in recent history, a violent superhero movie for people who thought Kick-Ass was too cuddly. In fact, my dislike of it was so extreme, it moved me to revisit Kick-Ass to determine if either I'd been overly kind to the earlier film, or if my tastes had changed in the intervening time. It turns out neither was the case. Kick-Ass still worked for me; Gunn's nasty brand of violence that insisted it was humor didn't.

(To be honest, I don't think Gunn would find that reaction offensive. You don't make a movie as knowingly harsh as Super and know you've done it effectively if you don't have some viewers aggressively resisting the film. If you've made a movie like that and everyone loves it, you probably did something wrong or played it too safe. )

I was mostly indifferent to Gunn's Slither, a Troma-inspired horror film that didn't strike me as particularly inventive beyond some novel casting. I can see people being entertained by it in a guilty pleasure way, but for me Troma has always been on the same plane as Asylum's brand of intentionally-bad cheesiness. You don't see many people calling for Sharknado's Anthony C. Ferrante to direct Howard the Duck, do you?

And yet, I really enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy.

I don't think it's my favorite Marvel movie. The political thriller of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the superhero camaraderie of The Avengers are both more to my tastes as a viewer, but it's impossible to deny how much of GOTG - from casting to production design to visual effects - not only works but works well.

The ensemble is a key reason why this movie works. Every one of the five hero characters is well-defined, with clear motivations. Chris Pratt's Peter Quill is a fortune-hunting hot-shot outlaw. He's pretty much what you imagine the love child of early Indiana Jones and Han Solo would be, and if you think it's hyperbole to compare Pratt to Harrison Ford at his peak, then you must be completely unfamiliar with his work. In films like these, sometimes the human characters run the risk of getting blown off the screen by the more colorful aliens. Pratt more than holds his own and as a fan of the guy since Everwood, it was a real treat to see him finally become a movie star.

Quill has stolen an orb and then ends up crossing the man who sent him, which leads to a bounty being placed on his head. Rocket Raccoon and talking tree Groot are both keen on collecting that bounty while alien woman Gamora is out to claim the orb before it can fall into the wrong hands. Their first confrontation lands all of them in prison, where the bulky alien Drax recognizes Gamora as an associate of Ronan, the man who killed his family. Though they're initially at odds, the five team up to break out of prison and then are stuck cooperating in order to accomplish their goals.

Quill's just trying to stay alive, Rocket wants profit, Groot is a follower, Gamora needs to keep the orb out of the wrong hands and Drax wants Gamora as bait for the guy he really wants to kill. Not only does everyone have a clear goal, but each goal is integral to the story and both advances and complicates the plot. In ensemble pictures, it's hard to balance that many different characters and flesh them all out, but damn if GOTG doesn't make its leads a fun group of reluctant teammates who are just a gas to hang out with for two hours.

Rocket is going to be the character most people come out of the theater gabbing about (a rodent with a machine gun has that effect), but I think Drax might have been my favorite. There's a running gag about his inability to understand that metaphors are not meant to be taken literally. It's a joke that might have been too obvious on the page, but Dave Bautista somehow finds just the right comedic vibe to make that gag land. Groot's also a lot of fun and impressively the schtick of him only being able to say one phrase ("I am Groot") doesn't wear out its welcome. I feel like Zoe Saldana's let down a little bit by the script, which supplies her with a motivation but too often makes her the straight man   (She's not bad by any means, but in retrospect, Gamora's role turns out to be less meaty than it initially appears.)

If there's a relatively consistent blind-spot in the Marvel movies, it's that their villains are often either weak, dull or both.  Ronan, though played well by an unrecognizable Lee Pace, feels like a walking plot device in search of depth. Thanos is mostly there to look foreboding and be motivation in the background for a lot of character moves. He has slightly more influence over events than an off-screen Jabba the Hutt did in the first two Star Wars movies, but not by much. I liked Karen Gillian as Nebula, but her character doesn't get quite enough to do either.

Marvel really needs to step up their game on their villains, because that column contains their biggest "miss" ratio. Winter Soldier acquitted itself well, but Thor: The Dark World had a main villain who most people probably couldn't name by the time they reached their car in the theatre parking lot. Iron Man 1 and 2 both had fairly unmemorable baddies, as did Hulk. Loki and the Mandarin are two solid wins, but I'm really ready for a new bad guy who will leave me excited for an encore.

Another quibble is that the climax falls again on the trope of the city destroying battle. Considering the backlash both Avengers and Man of Steel faced for their end battles, it was amusing to hear a throwaway line indicating the city was evacuated just before a massive spaceship crashes on top of it. That nitpick aside, all of the action plays well.  Much of that credit goes to Gunn, who ensures the plot moves briskly, even as the film has to continually check in with several groups of characters.

I am a little perplexed by the refrain that this was a "pure James Gunn film" because I see little resemblance between this and the two films he's directed. Stylistically they're completely different and Guardians tones down the gore and violence that seemed like a hallmark of Gunn's earlier films. People might be reacting to the humor, but I don't know if that's unique enough. If you didn't know Gunn directed it, you might be tempted to describe the film as Whedon-esque in tone.

The humor does help the film stand apart, though. I personally felt that the script went to the well at least once too often with gags revolving around Quill's walkman and its mixtape. There's a neat character beat in there about why this has such sentimental value for him, but there are only so many laughs to be wrung out of the incongruity of aliens encountering '70s pop. It works the first few times, but a tiny bit more restraint might have helped.

(This week, I will be burned at the stake for noting this stuff. In two years, every Marvel geek will have moved on to the new hotness and will be acting like GOTG was never as good as people claimed. Exhibit A: Fanboys suddenly shitting on The Avengers two years after proclaiming it to be the best superhero movie ever. Exhibit B: Fans excited that Batman Begins finally took Batman "seriously" now complain about Nolan being "embarrassed" by the comic book elements. Disagree with me now, but I'll see you in 2016 when the conversation shifts to where this film fell short.)

Also, when viewers of The Avengers said how it took them out of the film to see "Robin from How I Met Your Mother" as Fury's right hand, my reaction was, "She's an actress. Suck it up." (Of course, I've not seen much HIMYM.) Because of that, it probably serves me right that every time "Kirk from Gilmore Girls" showed up, I was distracted beyond belief. (Yes, I know that's James Gunn's brother Sean.) He struck me more as someone playing an alien thug in an SNL sketch than an actual alien thug in this movie's world. He seemed detached from the reality of the moments he was in and between that and the Kirk association, his scenes kept pulling me out of the film. (Burying him in make-up might have helped here.)

In the end, Guardians of the Galaxy does what any good movie should - it entertains. Marvel has defied the odds and launched a franchise off of some of their most obscure characters. It's an achievement that has me hoping that at least one of the release dates yet to be filled will be for a film that's similarly bold in concept and character.