Monday, December 21, 2015

A spoiler-filled reflection on STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Obligatory warning - this post is going to discuss all the major plot points from THE FORCE AWAKENS. This is your spoiler warning right here, so turn back now. If you wish a spoiler-free examination of the film, you can find that here.

Luke Skywalker - It's a testament to how good the film is that Luke doesn't appear until the final minute, and yet it still is one of the best Star Wars films to date. I like the mythic reputation the character has taken on in-universe and it really makes the whole "search for Luke Skywalker drive" really carry weight. Now the ball is in Episode VIII's court. It has to be worthy of all the build-up this film gave our exiled Jedi.

Leia - Carrie Fisher's screen time is briefer than Harrison Ford's, but Leia's encounters with Han are a highlight of the film. Fisher's persona has more recently been brasher and more humorous than Leia's, to the point where I was concerned that it might be hard to see the outspoken actress as a more reserved leader. I need not have worried. this feels like the same woman who took charge of her own rescue and later commanded the evacuation of Hoth.

It's a disappointment that she apparently didn't undergo any Jedi training. In JEDI she was held out as the last hope, but here, she's the same political leader she was before, albeit with a higher rank. How cool would it have been to see Leia light up a purple lightsaber during a ground assault? Or have her use some kind of Force abilities to gain insight into the attack? Or to reach out and try to communicate with Kylo Ren? (Or her own brother for that matter?) I like the Leia we got, but I can't help but feel an opportunity was missed here.

Kylo Ren's backstory - From the first images of Kylo Ren, people were theorizing that he was a Skywalker or Solo child, if not Luke himself. The film wasted no time dropping teases about his parentage, so it's no great shock that he's revealed as Han and Leia's son. I wish we'd gotten a little more of a tease as to exactly how his corruption by Supreme Leader Snoke happened. Even just giving us a vague point on the timeline would help. How old was he when he turned? Did his fall precede Rey being abandoned as a child?

How does a child born to two leaders of the Rebel Alliance, and trained by the man who destroyed the Sith become determined to follow an evil path? It's like an Orthodox Jew deciding to be the next Hitler. He's definitely got a warped view of Darth Vader, but does that mean he doesn't believe the story that Luke surely told? That Vader renounced his evil ways before his death? There's a key scene I'll get to later where he unmasks and he gives off the impression of being a brainwashed cult member. Adam Driver does great work, but I'd have loved just a few more bread crumbs about his turn and his goal beyond "finish[ing] what [Darth Vader] started."

Supreme Leader Snoke - At this point, he's not much more than the Emperor was in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - a mysterious figure communicating via hologram. The "Great and Powerful Oz" routine has me suspicious that we're not seeing his real form there. At a minimum, I don't think he's going to be remotely that big in person. I wonder about his history with Skywalker. Were they close? Was Snoke a Jedi instructor who infiltrated Luke's academy to corrupt Kylo Ren? It might be interesting if he was a Jedi who survived the Order 66 Purge, only to embrace the Dark Side late in life. (Hell, it might even work out that he was an escaped youngling from Anakin's attack on the Jedi Temple.

Coincidence after Coincidence - There's an adage that you're allowed one coincidence per film. I tend to look at that as a loose guideline, but the motivation behind that "rule" is worth keeping in mind. When too many coincidences drive the plot, the audience can sense the film "cheating." You don't want contrivance taking a too big a hand in things.

I can buy into the idea that the Millennium Falcon is just sitting there on Jakku, waiting for Rey and Finn to steal it. And you know what, I'll even spot the film the huge coincidence that Han Solo is able to track and recapture the Falcon almost immediately. What feels too convenient for me is the fact that Maz Kanata just happens to have Luke's old lightsaber. The last time we saw that thing, it was falling down a deep pit in Cloud City. I would have loved at least a hint of an explanation for how it went from A to B, rather than putting us off for a later explanation that will probably never come.

Rey's parentage - After the film, I immediately rejected the idea that Rey could be Han and Leia's daughter. There were just too many pieces that didn't seem to fit. It also felt like we weren't given enough information to really conclude she could be Luke's offspring, even if the film seems to want us to consider that. I decided that might be a mislead to keep us from considering other parentage. Could she be a descendant of Obi-Wan? Of Supreme Leader Snoke?

Then I read this excellent Film School Rejects speculation piece and it completely turned me around on the Solo child theory. Give it a read.

Another megaweapon? - In-universe I get it. These Death Star-level mega weapons can totally upset the balance of power. It's an important part of any arsenal. But three out of the last four (numerically) episodes have utilized one of these planet killing weapons. It doesn't help that they're always destroyed the same way - a tiny flaw that lets enemy firepower take out a crucial reactor. As much as the whole movie is a riff on A NEW HOPE, here's where I really wanted something more original. The preponderance of planet killing weapons was what quickly turned the Extended Universe novels in to an aspect of the franchise that deserved to die and I really hope we won't see another of these in Episodes XVIII and IX.

It's a fool's game to poke at the science in these films, but I think Starkiller Base is ridiculously implausible. As visualized on-screen, it either happens to be in the exact same system as five other Republic planets it attacks, or it fires a laser capable of traveling at hyperspeed. The former reeks of contrivance and the latter makes the weapon too powerful and scientifically ridiculous. (Which is also a factor if the whole planet is mobile.)

The political situation - After the endless talks of trade disputes and taxation in the prequels, I never expected people to come out of the new film craving "More politics." However, I have to concur that the situation between The First Order and the Resistance could have used some clarifying. We're told the Republic is backing the Resistance, but the implication seems to be that the Republic is considered the more legitimate governing body while The First Order is more of an insurgency (or at best, the equivalent of the Southern States in the Civil War.)

Yet the First Order seems to operate as if they have all the dominance that the Empire did in its prime, while the Resistance is reduced to hiding in remote bases. (And again, why is a military force supported by the dominant power called "the Resistance?" That's not the sort of name you'd give to something like the U.S. Military.)

Finn's skill with the lightsaber - I call massive bullshit on Finn lasting more than 15 seconds in a lightsaber duel with a Force-adept opponent who's been using his weapon for years. It's maybe the falsest moment in the entire film. In contrast...

Rey's Force skills - On one hand, it's a little absurd that Rey's Force abilties already outstrip Luke's in A NEW HOPE despite less training. Compare her pulling the lightsaber to her to all the effort Luke expends in EMPIRE trying to get his weapon while in the ice cave. And then there's the fact she displays the mind control it took Luke until JEDI to use. The topper to all of this is her duel with Kylo Ren, where she not only matches his skill, but decisively defeats him. He's only saved by a conveniently-forming chasm. Rey opening up a can of whoopass on Ren makes for one of the best lightsaber battles ever. It's a fist-pumping moment big enough to make us overlook that she's a complete novice.

But my theory is that this adeptness on her part is neither mistake, nor contrivance. She might be a latently-powerful Force-user, one whose natural ability can outstrip even Luke's. Kylo Ren's no novice, so the movie knows what it's doing in having Ren match him in combat. I hope this will be explored in later chapters.

The Map to Luke Skywalker - As a MacGuffin, this worked for me up until the point we saw it actually executed. I could go with the idea that the map is just a jigsaw puzzle piece-ike fragment. What feels aggressively convenient to me is that R2-D2 just so happens to have every part of that star chart except for that precisely missing fragment - to the point where his charts are displayed with a big gaping hole.

Artoo having shut himself down of his own accord, apparently, and then springing back to life when the plot requires it also rankles. Would it have been so hard to just have Artoo damaged in a battle and undergoing repairs until the moment when the script needs him to analyze the map? It also might have helped if Artoo first studied the map fragment, then made use of that data by triangulating some of the stars in it with stars that he already knew. The end result would still be that data in his memory banks gives the map the context needed to figure out where to go, but these changes would make it slightly less easy on our heroes.

The Death of Han Solo - From the moment Han stepped out on to that walkway, it was evident he was a dead man. The parallels to Obi-Wan's death in A NEW HOPE were just too strong, particularly when Finn and Rey arrive to bear witness from a distance. Being certain of the outcome didn't lessen the tension one bit for me. If anything, it heightened it. My heart has not been pounding like that in a film for a very long time.

Han Solo reaches out to his son, a confused young man consumed by evil but clearly struggling with a good that threatens to awaken in him. Speaking like a programmed cult member, Ren tries to shut his father's words out and sees only one path that will ensure he can never return to the light again - he impales his father.

It is possibly the single most visceral act of evil depicted on screen in any of the STAR WARS films. Sure, we've seen planets blow up, but never with people we know on them. The deaths of billions is almost too abstract a concept to empathize with - but the painful death of one of the most beloved film characters of all time? That's epic in its emotional investment. The fact his given name is "Ben," presumably after Jedi Kenobi, only twists the knife further.

Chewie's reaction was equally heartbreaking. He doesn't hesitate for a second to fire at Ren. This is significant because the lore tells us that Chewie was bound to Han by a life debt. Han saved his life years ago and Wookie culture demanded Chewie remain indebted to Han. Some books have extrapolated that this would extend to Han's children. If that was at all true in this continuity, Chewie's attempt to avenge Han shows that he doesn't consider Ren to be Han's son any longer.

I may have regarded Darth Vader as pure evil, but I never wanted him dead the way I want Kylo Ren dead now.  DEAD. PAINFULLY. I want Luke, Leia and Chewie each to get a shot in, perhaps each taking off a limb. We surely will get the usual talk of redemption, of saving this wayward soul from the darkness... but I don't care. There's nothing there to save, nothing worth saving. He made his choice. I've never felt that Anakin really deserved to die as a hero after all he did and Ren deserves even less consideration.

STAR WARS exists in a universe where morality is absolute. Black and white. Good and Evil. Ren's patricide is an act without redemption. He made his choice, and I doubt there are few viewers who don't want to see him burn for it.

It's a powerful way to draw the film to a close, and one that makes us hungry to see the fallout among the older characters, and especially how they treat Kylo Ren at their next encounter.

We have less than two years until the next episode and already it feels like forever. J.J. Abrams gave us a new chapter that was a dose of the familiar mixed with some bold and powerful moves for the franchise. J.J. threw down the gauntlet. Now it'll be Rian Johnson's turn to deliver.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A spoiler-free review of THE FORCE AWAKENS

A note about this review - I have endeavored to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. I'll have another post next week dealing with more specific discussion of major elements that I don't think it would be fair to blow for unsuspecting viewers. If you've watched the trailers and maybe seen a bit of the press tour, I won't be revealing much here that you don't know. For another post where I drill into the specifics of the big twists, what worked and what didn't, come back next week.

THE FORCE AWAKENS is the STAR WARS movie I've been waiting for since I first watched RETURN OF THE JEDI on VHS. It's not a perfect film, but it feels like more of a piece with the STAR WARS universe than much of the prequels, and I'm hardly a prequel hater. It doesn't feel slavishly devoted to the filmmaking style of the original trilogy, but still plays like an evolution forward from that theory. This is a tactile universe in a way that the prequel universe isn't. I'm able to appreciate the aesthetic design of the prequels on their own merits. That whole venture is different enough I don't feel the need to tear it down for NOT trying to look exactly like the originals.

But man, does THE FORCE AWAKENS feel like coming home. Things have changed, some things are very different, but you recognize the feel of this world - the way things move through it, the way the people inhabit it. It's kinetic. It's REAL. All of it.

A particularly savvy move on the part of JJ Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt is to build this film around the quest for a living legend - Luke Skywalker has been gone for some time now. Exactly how long is unclear. Evidence in the film seems to hint with as long as 15 years or as little as a few. In the time since JEDI, the fall of the Empire has given birth to two warring factions - the Republic, which backs The Resistance, the current designation for the Rebellion; and The First Order. All you need to know about The First Order is that they're the Imperials, and that the Nazi parallels get even less subtle.

In the 30-plus years since the Empire's defeat, the name "Luke Skywalker" has passed into legend. Even a young woman raised on the backwater desert world of Jakku and a man trained from childhood to be a Stormtrooper know who he is. The former is Rey, a beautiful scavenger who also happens to be an excellent pilot and a great combat fighter. She's thrust into a larger world after encountering the droid BB-8, carrying some secret data that the Empire wants - a map to Luke Skywalker. She soon crosses paths with Finn, a deserter Stormtrooper now being hunted after helping BB-8's master escape The First Order. Before long, the two make their escape in a craft that Rey initially dismisses as "garbage" - the Millennium Falcon.

Abrams talent for casting continues with Rey and Finn. The unknown Daisy Ridley is instantly likable and engaging as Rey. She not only stands with the best of Abrams's heroines, but with the STAR WARS gold standard of Princess Leia herself. She's got the spitfire and the pure likability that too often was missing from the prequels' Padme. The childhood crushes that my generation had on Princess Leia are probably nothing compared to what today's lads will have for Rey. By the end of the film, she's essentially been positioned as the successor to Han, Luke and Leia in terms of the character traits she's inherited. She's a child of the original trilogy, in a figurative, if not literal sense.

John Boyega's Finn makes a compelling sidekick for Rey, and his introduction is done so well that you're almost tricked into thinking it's his journey that we're on. After six films that depicted Stormtroopers as either clones or faceless cannon fodder, it's immediately fresh to go behind the helmet of these drones and find a scared young man who just wants to run. When he saves ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, it's not out of any heroic motivations - he just needs a pilot to get him off the... are we still calling them Star Destroyers? He gets a journey similar to Han's in the first film, going from being in it for himself to committing to something greater.

One of the sheer delights of this film is that I wasn't sitting there restless, waiting for the reappearance of the "legacy characters." I got so caught up in the plight of Rey, Finn and BB-8 that I felt like they were the people I came to see. They could have carried a film that had nothing to do with the original characters. If they are indeed to be the centerpiece of this new trilogy, then this series is in good hands.

Before long, they encounter Han Solo and Chewbacca. In one of the film's best gags, Finn knows of Han's rep as a general for the Rebellion, while Rey excitedly identifies him as "the pilot who made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs!" Harrison Ford slides back into Han's boots in a way that I honestly wasn't sure was possible. His last several roles have seen him play alternating variations on "gruff" and "angry." Even his return to Indiana Jones couldn't escape that, with Indy frequently feeling like a far cry from the rogue archeologist we all know and love.

From Ford's first entry into frame, it's clear - this is Han Solo. He's older, and more grizzled, but his heart's intact. His interaction with Chewie feels as sharp as ever, just as his moments with Leia are as moving as some of their best stuff. Ford and Carrie Fisher bring the weight of 40 years of history into their interactions, even if her role is more limited than his. It's probably fair to say that Han has one of the more emotional arcs of the film, perhaps even more than the character has been called to carry in earlier entries.

And yet, the film doesn't feel like it lazily trades on our nostalgia. The movie earns most of its emotional payoffs, though they are clearly enriched by the shared history we have in this universe. It's even more remarkable that it's able to do that while essentially retreading a lot of the beats of A NEW HOPE. (Or STAR WARS to the purists.) I thought it was a lazy and inaccurate criticism when people called Abrams's STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS "a remake of THE WRATH OF KHAN." Those two films have little in common aside from a villain, an aspect of the climax, and an important line. The plot, themes and character arcs are completely different between the two films.

But THE FORCE AWAKENS is very deliberately using the structure of the original film in a way that brings it much closer to that entry than the relationship between KHAN/DARKNESS. A great deal is gained by sending wildly different characters through that same structural path, but it doesn't change the fact that every major new element of this film has a direct analog to the original characters. This isn't necessarily a criticism - CREED (and ROCKY BALBOA before it) used this to excellent effect in drawing off of the original ROCKY. And sometimes the contrast lets us notice interesting departures.

This might be most relevant with regard to the film's major villains, Kylo Ren. I'll save some of my deeper thoughts on this for a future spoiler-filled article, but though he wears the black cloak and helmet, he's not Darth Vader. Vader was a very controlled, almost cold villain. When Obi-Wan assessed "He's more machine now than man" it was true in more ways than one. Yet, that seems to fly in the face of the prequel assertion that the Sith "are ruled by their passion."

There's a moment where Ren gets a report from a First Order officer who has failed him. The beat plays like we're about to get the standard "bad guy strangles lackey for his incompetence" moment. That's not what we get. Instead, Ren gives in to pure rage. In a way it makes him more terrifying than Vader because he's so unpredictable. It's hard to discuss too much about Ren without getting into plot details. I think it'll suffice to say that by the end of this film, I never wanted Vader dead as badly as I want Ren to meet an ugly end. Adam Driver has created an infinitely hatable badguy in all the right ways.

It's not perfect. There's at least one major parallel to A NEW HOPE that I think the film would have been better served without. There's also an incredible reliance on coincidence throughout the story. I could grant the first big one, accepted the second, but by the time it comes for a major buy-in about halfway through, I wouldn't blame the audience for balking at that convenience. I wish a couple major plot discoveries didn't feel too easy for our heroes. The film moves fast enough that we can roll with it, but when you reflect on the movie later, the contrivance stings a bit.

I attended with my wife, who said she liked it but felt she'd been overhyped to the point that many things, even the crowd reaction, felt like a letdown. She's not a STAR WARS fan, has only seen each film once, and one of her most immediate responses was "I felt like I knew where every twist was going before it happened." I can't argue with a lot of that. For me, there were a lot of points where knowing worked for me, as the anticipation built suspense. There was one scene where it was blatantly obvious where we were going, but my heart was pounding like it did in no other film this year, just the same.

It all comes down to the characters. After two hours, I not only cared about the old friends we revisited along the way, but was invested in many new faces. THE FORCE AWAKENS brought humanity back to STAR WARS, and I can't wait to see where the saga goes forward from here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Spare Us Your 90-Minute Video Takedown of THE FORCE AWAKENS

I couldn't let the occasion of a new STAR WARS film go by without at least one more thinkpiece, this time over at Film School Rejects:

As the release of a new Star Wars film drew near, I began mulling over how I could contribute to the conversation. With many choice topics already spoken for, I settled on the idea of revisiting a divisive chapter of Star Wars history. It had been long enough since its release and I conceded that a rewatch might bring out hidden virtues.

I wasn’t deep into my viewing before I deeply regretted this assignment. It was almost agonizing to subject myself to the witless dialogue on screen, the far-too-for-its-own-good editing, and a general sense of arrogance that permeated every frame. How anyone could watch this and defend it is beyond me.

In short, I hate Red Letter Media and its avatar “Harry S. Plinkett” with every bone in my body.

You can find the whole post here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Too PC or Not Too PC? That should not be the question.

Internet comments should generally be avoided. That's just a simple truth of the internet in the 21st Century. It's a fact that's been in evidence almost since there were comment sections at the end of articles, but in my early days of web surfing, I managed to read enough forums where things were civil and interesting, which makes it hard for me to break the habit of reading reactions. That said, even I know that Deadline comments tend to be a total cesspool of angry aspirings, bitter malcontents, and nutjob far right-winger types following the latest Drudge Report link.

But one recent comment actually provoked a few thoughts and before I knew it, I had a whole post. Last week Deadline ran a story about an Urban Cowboy relaunch at Fox that was no longer going forward. The wrinkle was that this project was intended to be a "Latin music-flavored" relaunch. To put it another way, they were going to cast it with Hispanic characters and actors. The first comment, probably from a mouth-breather sent there by Drudge or Breitbart, read "Good. Making it a Latino version of a great movie was just a stupid idea. Can we just stop being PC about programming. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Hahaha, you get’s what you get. LOL."

"Stop being PC about programming." What kind of a white supremacist paradise do you live in where the idea of a 1980 movie remade with people who have darker skin is some kind of threat to you? This is one show. One. Show. How many channels and digital networks do we have generating original content now? Gotta be in the hundreds, right? And yet somehow, one hour of TV featuring brown faces is immediately suspect and "PC."

Why would it be "PC" to be cast ANY show with an all-Latino cast? Why is that not just seen as serving an audience that doesn't see themselves represented on TV? How is it that no one considers the possibility that with so few diverse shows on the air, this kind of premise opens a lot of doors for writers to explore stories that haven't been retold again and again, completely beaten into the ground.

I remember when MODERN FAMILY premiered and I head the same suspicious accusations, "They only cast it that way to be PC. You've got the gay guys, the immigrants. Doesn't it seem like some liberal focus group put this together?" Here's the thing, idiots. Gays watch TV. Hispanics watch TV. Why is there paranoia when they get to participate in the reindeer games? And if you carry this argument out to its logical conclusion, it feels like the person is pushing for yet another family sitcom centered on a typical nuclear family. Isn't there, like, some fifty years of territory already covered with that? MODERN FAMILY's success is less about it covering demographic territory and more about the fact it was covering territory that hadn't been strip-mined to death.

Writers are always trying to find new stories that haven't been told. It's pretty safe to say that you won't find many network sitcoms about a gay couple, and certainly not many at the time where they were treated as characters first and not some sort of avatar of ALL gay couples. The same could be said of the Jay and Gloria thread. I can't think of many depictions of an aging patriarch marrying a much younger Hispanic woman that wasn't treated as some kind of trophy wife joke.

It's the 21st Century - we need to stop viewing every non-white, non-hetero depiction as some kind of insidious offering to the evil PC Gods. Some of the best-regarded TV shows of all time were unique from anything that came before. SEINFELD was drastically different from most sitcoms, eventually becoming incredibly ambitious in terms of how its stories were structured and how the characters were depicted. Conventional plots were cast aside for an often minutae-based approach. You wouldn't get that by sticking to the same story-telling tropes that drove LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, for instance.

It's not like you have to go far to find white characters represented on TV. Hell, I'm half-Jewish and it would annoy the hell out of me if someone said, "Why does THE GOLDBERGS *have* to be about Jews? They only did that to be PC."

Something that didn't really strike me until I really thought about it is that we DON'T often see Jewish families depicted on TV. THE GOLDBERGS's recent Hanukkah episode was a revelation because I couldn't even think of the last time a TV show did a Hanukkah episode. I guess there was at least one episode of FRIENDS with a Hanukkah subplot, but compared to the yearly onslaught of Christmas eps, the ratio isn't even close. (Being only of half-Jewish descent, I can TOTALLY relate to THE OC's Christmakkah episodes... except for the gift Rachel Bilson dressed up as Wonder Woman. Even with eight nights of gifts, I never was lucky enough to get that. But I digress...)

When people complain about TV and movies "trying to be PC" what they're really reacting to is that something was put out there that might not be made for them. This mere fact should not be cause for fear from anyone. We live in an era where there's more TV - more GOOD TV - than anyone could reasonably try to keep up with. Every last program doesn't NEED to be made for you. FRESH OFF THE BOAT and BLACKISH aren't shows that were funded by some insidious Politically Correct agenda - they're stories that sprang from voices that haven't been a huge part of the choir.

So in the new year, perhaps we can resolve to make knee-jerk reactions like this a thing of the past. If something doesn't appeal to you, it's so easy to ignore it. I've ignored SLEEPY HOLLOW so aggressively, I'm not even sure if it's on the air anymore. Keep changing the channel, and eventually you'll find something you like.

And would it kill TV to get just a FEW more Hanukkah episodes in come next holiday season?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A great stocking stuffer: my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films

With about two weeks to go until Christmas, I wanted to remind everyone that my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films is still available on Amazon! The ebook will run you a mere $4.99 and if you're one of those who prefers paperback books, that'll cost you $10.99.

I'm very proud of the book and to be perfectly frank, it would be nice to have a few extra dollars in the coffers this holiday season. I don't make any money from this blog otherwise, unless you could the very infrequent Adsense checks. (NO ONE makes money on internet ads, trust me.) So if you're looking for a way to support me, or just want to say Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, do it the capitalist way by buying my book.

His movies have cumulatively earned $2.4 billion in the domestic box office, making him the second most-successful director of all time, right behind Steven Spielberg. If one gathered the top six directors in that category, that same man would be only one of the half-dozen to not also be in possession of an Academy Award: Michael Bay.

Commercial success and meaningful art don’t always go hand-in-hand, but is it possible for a filmmaker to consistently hit his mark with the audience without truly doing something right artistically? Professional critics have long taken aim at Bay’s music-video-honed visual style, full of fast cuts, moving camera shots, hot women. The internet is full of negativity and scorn for the director too, but has anyone truly given Bay’s oeuvre the benefit of the doubt?

Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films is the first-ever attempt to approach the Bay catalog from an intellectual standpoint. Come ready to find the deep subtexts and profound meanings in Michael Bay’s filmography.

EXPERIENCE – the controversial discussion about man’s relationship with God buried within Armageddon!

DISCOVER – how Pearl Harbor demonstrates that emotional truth is far more vital than strict adherence to actual historical events!

LEARN – how The Island is a pointed allegory attacking the proliferation of remakes and reboots that Hollywood produces!

UNDERSTAND – the vulnerable confession that Michael Bay offers under the cloak of a true-life Miami crime story in Pain & Gain! And much more!

With the holiday season coming up, it's the perfect stocking stuffer for your friends and family. You can even gift the Kindle versions if you only want to spend an Abe Lincoln.  If you love Michael Bay, you will find something to enjoy in this book and if you hate Michael Bay you'll probably still find plenty to love here. Every movie Michael Bay has directed is covered here, in all-new in-depth examinations.

This is not a greatest-hits compilation of posts, nor is it a how-to screenwriting book. The only segment that's seen the light of day before is my analysis of Transformers: Age of Extinction. It became one of my all-time most-popular posts, so you've probably read it already. If you haven't, give it a read for a taste of what you're in for with MICHAEL F-ING BAY.

And here's what a few satisfied customers had to say on Twitter:

Still on the fence? Why not check out the appearances from my "media tour" last year?

My interview with Scott Myers on Go Into The Story:
Part 1 - Michael Bay's JUNO.
Part 2 - "Michael Bay is the Tyler Perry of China."

My interview with Amanda Pendolino.

My interview on the Broken Projector podcast:
You can find the episode embedded at Film School Rejects here.
Download the episode directly here.

My interview on the Draft Zero Podcast
Go to the episode's page here.
Download the episode in mp3 form here.

But what if you don't have a Kindle or a tablet with a Kindle app? Good news, you can still read MICHAEL F-ING BAY! Go here and download the Kindle reading app for your computer.

Here are the instructions for the Kindle for PC program.
Here's where you go for Kindle for Windows 8.
Here's the site for you Kindle for Mac people.

Link roundup:
Amazon Author Page here.
$4.99 Kindle version of the book here.
$10.99 Paperback edition here.

Thanks for indulging me, everyone.

Monday, November 30, 2015

CREED isn't just one of the best ROCKY films, it's one of this year's best films

The seventh entry in a franchise has no right being as good as CREED is. It's mystifying to me that two of the most emotional reactions I had in a theatre this year came during films that were the sixth sequel, films that followed a series of embarrassing other efforts. And as I let the power of John Williams music wash over me in the latest THE FORCE AWAKENS trailers, I contemplate the possibility that the 7th STAR WARS might make it a hat trick.

(For those curious about the other film I allude to, it's FURIOUS 7 and the incredibly classy and moving way they bid adieu to Paul Walker's character. Yes, that reaction builds from the foundation of a real life tragedy but there were a lot more ways to get that emotional note wrong than there were to get it right.)

The earliest rumors about CREED had me apprehensive. In logline form the hook that "Rocky trains Apollo Creed's son" feels like something that could have served as the genesis of a lazy follow-up. In a larger context where it feels like any existing IP is raised from the dead, zombie-like, and milked for one last drop of blood, it's understandable that cynicism would be an immediate reaction - especially when the franchise already got a fantastic ending in the moving ROCKY BALBOA.

For my money, BALBOA was the perfect bookend to the original film and if I run across it on cable, I have to stop and watch it. Multiple viewings in, that moment going into the last round where his son says, "There's nothing more to prove, Pop! There's nothing more to prove!" gets me every time. The film itself was simply a perfect ending and seemingly the best place to retire Rocky. It would be a shame if Balboa became the guy who stayed too late at the party, and going into the film, that was my chief concern.

I shouldn't have worried. Director/writer Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington have created a film that absolutely deserves to be in the Oscar conversation. I'm sure an anti-sequel snobbery will hobble the film in most categories, save for equally deserved acclaim for Stallone's Supporting Actor turn, but it's nice to dream. This is no film that's going through the motions - CREED goes the distance and then some.

It's not a film where I really feel I need to break down the plot. It follows the expected formula in a lot of places, but soars because all of the main characters are fully three-dimensional people. Michael B. Jordan's been getting critical accolades since at least his turn on THE WIRE and it feels like a near-decade of paying his dues has lead to his coronation here before a wider audience. I don't think movie stars as we used to think of them still exist. Actors like Vin Diesel, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth top-line billion-dollar films when they stick to a particular box and then struggle to even open a film that's too far outside that comfort zone. But I think that this film shows that as long as Jordan is smart about his choices (i.e. avoids any future FANTASTIC 4 debacles), he'll be anchoring major films for years to come.

Jordan's Adonis Johnson is a determined fighter with a complicated relationship with the shadow of his illegitimate father, Apollo Creed. Since he was about ten years old, he's lived with Apollo's widow in a life of privilege, but something keeps drawing him to the same ring where his father died. You have to wonder about a man who outwardly tries to separate himself from his father's legacy, yet seeks out a trainer whose own history is so entwined with that legacy. What exactly is it he's hoping to find?

And then there's Stallone. This is no mere cameo to pass the torch. He's not showing up ala Leonard Nimoy in JJ Abrams's first STAR TREK, there to assure us of the connection to the larger universe. His journey is at least as important as Adonis's. I don't want to spoil much of this, but there's a lot of emotion drawn from seeing Rocky in what is the decline of his life. ROCKY BALBOA was one last hurrah, the final curtain call to show that yes, he still could go the distance. It was a feel-good ending, one where it felt like Rocky had accomplished all he could have ever hoped.

There's just one problem - Rocky still went on living, aging further in a world where it became more keenly apparent he was outliving his usefulness. Friends died, family left. The twilight chapters of the Italian Stallion's story are filled with loss - his wife, his best friend.... and into that comes this brash kid who's very existence seems only to throw in his face everything he can no longer be.

The Adonis/Rocky relationship might be one of my favorite on-screen duos of this year. Making Rocky to a hungry fighter who has elements of both Rocky and Apollo is a masterstroke of writing because this series understands its history and knows how to draw on it. New viewers can experience the story from Adonis's point of view and identify with his thirst to make something of himself. He's got the impulsive nature of youth that allows him to quit a stable job where he's rising fast and then move across the country on a whim. It's the sort of fearlessness that's so admirable when we're young. And the kind of action that seems insane when we're older and have a supposedly broader perspective on the world.

For older viewers, Rocky is our entry point. Through him we're empathetic to the reluctance to hang onto former glories, like an adult hanging around his high school long after he's graduated. We're bemused by the naive youth who has to learn all the hard knocks we took long ago... and as Rocky finds a way to be relevant in this old story, the film earns its own relevance.

I've already seen many reviews focus on Coogler's savvy use of a long-take to showcase one of Adonis's early fights. What I like best about it is that it's a long-take that doesn't call attention to itself as a "Lookit me! I'm directing!" It's not showy because it simply tells the story. We're drawn into the scene and it works to so completely construct the reality of that fight that it took me half the bout to realize, "Wait a minute, I don't think we've had a cut yet.... oh shit, we're not cutting AT ALL! He's going for it!"

As powerful as that moment is, it's nothing compared to the chemistry between Stallone and Jordan. There's a moment between them I really don't wish to spoil except to say that it's a direct callback to possibly the most iconic Rocky image of the series. It's a moment that's beautiful and also heartbreaking in it's own way and it's because of earned moments like that that this film justifies drawing on this series's history.

CREED is no cash-grab franchise extension. It's not a torch-passing fumble like INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL was. Hell, it's not even GRUDGE MATCH, in which we got to see both Stallone and De Niro trade on their iconic boxing film pasts. This is a story that clearly meant something to Ryan Coogler, and this wonderful Deadline interview makes it clear just how deep his emotional ties to the Rocky series run. The best stories don't just mean something to their audiences, they mean something to their architects.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Reflections a month away from THE FORCE AWAKENS

We are now less than four weeks from the release of THE FORCE AWAKENS. Less than four weeks until the STAR WARS saga finally moves forward into EPISODE VII, a chapter I honestly never imagined we'd get when I was a kid, and that's just the beginning. There are at least six further films planned at the rate of one a year, and all indications are that Disney is planning on milking that cow for as long as it will produce.

I've been thinking recently about how my age bracket is probably the last generation that will have experienced a childhood where STAR WARS was mostly a dead franchise. I was born just a little too late to see any of the original trilogy in theatres. In fact, I'm pretty sure my first exposure to the world of STAR WARS came not through the movies, but through MUPPET BABIES. That series often edited in stock footage from STAR WARS and other films, such as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. In fact, there was an entire episode devoted to the Muppet Babies making their own version of STAR WARS, complete with Obi-Rolf Kenobi and Animal Vader.

I'm pretty sure I first saw the original Star Wars in first grade. That would have been around 1986 or '87. I was getting into the franchise, just as it was on its final merchandising legs. Oh, you could still find the toys in the clearance aisles of the stores, but pop culture was moving onward. Star Wars had made its stamp and it was about to lie fallow. It's something akin to what AVATAR occupies in the popular consciousness now - it was a major hit and a massive technological leap forward, but it had faded from the cultural conversation.

I'm sure that some will dispute that claim, but they would be forgetting that the Kevin Smith CLERKS scene where Dante and Randall discuss STAR WARS and the contractors on the Death Star was so notable in 1994 because at that point NO ONE was talking about STAR WARS. People weren't walking into stores to buy Boba Fett T-shirts or Darth Vader coffee mugs.

That was pretty much the state of the franchise for my entire childhood. Sure, when I was in 6th grade, the first book in the Star Wars Extended Universe, Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, was released. Because that series of books was a trilogy set five years after RETURN OF THE JEDI, it was easy to accept it as Episodes VII through IX. Even then, the Extended Universe was a playground for the hard-core fans only. From 1991 to 1999, it was pretty much the only game in town for fans seeking new material, but you could never claim that had the same impact on the wider culture as the features. During that time frame, the sci-fi franchise that was really flying was STAR TREK. By the mid-90s, there had been three TV series in recent memory and a recently-launched feature series with the NEXT GENERATION cast.

The sixteen years between JEDI and THE PHANTOM MENACE represent a state that the franchise hasn't been in since. The prequels sparked a new generation of young fans who are now probably as old as I was when THE PHANTOM MENACE came out. (And actually, the time between those two films is equal to the time between THE PHANTOM MENACE and THE FORCE AWAKENS.) As I reflect on that, I can't help but feel like the films ahead of us might be too much of a good thing.

What made STAR WARS special when I was growing up was that those three films were really all we had. (Yes, I know about the Holiday Special, the Ewok films and cartoons and the Droids cartoons.) From the time I was seven until I was ten or eleven, I must have checked the films out of my local library at least two or three times a year. My library somehow had lost its copy of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, so I saw that less-frequently, while the first and third films were burned entirely into my memory by repeated viewings. I also regularly watched FROM STAR WARS TO JEDI, a behind the scenes video that I'm certain helped stoke my interest in filmmaking.

And then I remember taking a break from the films for a few years. I'm not sure how long, but it was long enough that when the USA Network started running the movies during Christmas of 1993, the novelty had returned rather than it being "just another viewing." I also found that because I hadn't worn out EMPIRE, it eventually shifted to being the superior film in my mind. Up until then, I'd preferred JEDI for its faster pace and awesome action. It has speeder bikes, that amazing three-way climax, which includes an intense lightsaber duel and an assault on the Death Star. Plus, the Emperor is one of the great villains of film and no man of my generation can deny the impact of Leia's bikini on our young minds.

Thanks to Kevin Smith, it became cool to rag on JEDI in favor of EMPIRE, and that's a side of fandom I've long grown weary of. EMPIRE probably is the better-made film, but JEDI's often more fun to watch.

And I can even enjoy the prequels. They're not perfect films, but I hold fast to my belief that anyone who believes they are "the worst films ever made" really needs to see more movies. Prequel-hate is something I find both fascinating and utterly irritating. Psychologically, it's fascinating to study how a viewer could have such a strong tie to a work of fiction that mere disappointment triggers a rage at the films and its creator that persists years after the fact.

The original trilogy made an impact on its audience in a way that none of the sequels or prequels possibly could. STAR WARS impacted so much of modern filmmaking that newcomers to the series now have likely already been exposed to media informed by and progressed from the original films. A gentleman I work with recently told me he showed the first film to his 7 year-old son and was shocked by how slow the film felt. That's quite a contrast from the original perception of the films pace, that it moved at a breakneck clip.

It was always inevitable that future audiences would come to STAR WARS more jaded than the generation that grew up on it. The fact that an additional six films will join the canon over the next six years also seems likely to rob the mythology of its mystique. We cannot miss something that refuses to go away, particularly something that has such a long merchandising reach.

I can't help but wonder of overexposure will rob the films of the scarcity that made them so coveted. The fact that audiences waited 16 years for a new chapter in the series is surely a factor in the passion that made the negative reactions to those films so intense. With other franchises that turn out entries at an assembly line pace, it's rare for feelings over a particular misfire to linger so badly years later.

And that's a concern when I find it hard to believe ANY film could satisfy the build-up that most fans have given it in their minds. I'm doing what I can to temper my own expectations, but I'm well aware that a letdown here will be more difficult to rationalize. At least with the prequels, they were distinct visually from the originals. Despite efforts at continuity, their aesthetic was unique enough that it was easy to accept them as something only tangentially tied to the originals.

But the new films will actually feature an older Luke, Han and Leia - the three characters and actors most synonymous with STAR WARS. As excited as I am about that reunion,I realize that by its very nature, it makes a misfire harder to ignore. JEDI sent them off with a happy ending and a galaxy of possibilities. THE FORCE AWAKENS is going to be in the position of showing us the trials they faced in the intervening years - and perhaps will even force a re-evaluation of how uplifting the future was at the end of the original trilogy.

As dark as the prequel trilogy got, it was clearly a tragedy from the start. We knew that the babies were going to be sent into exile, we knew the Jedi would be wiped out, we knew that Palpatine would seize power and we knew Anakin would be evil. If the new films break up Han and Leia and have one or more of the main characters become the villain of the series, will it taint the more beloved chapters?

I don't think the answer will matter much to the 24 year-olds who were eight when the prequel trilogy began. No matter what happens, I'll be fascinated by how the new chapters are received by fans in my age range as opposed to younger fans who came of age on the second trilogy and the CLONE WARS TV series. It also occurs to me that a viewer who was 12 in 1977 would now be pushing 50. This would have also put them in their early 30s upon the release of the prequels - still at the right age for the desecration of their childhood love to tap into the right rage. Is it so easy to get mad about these things when they're 50?

And as a 35 year-old fan who doesn't hate the prequels, will nostalgia blind me to any of the new movie's flaws? Or will it make me that much more unforgiving? I'm purposely trying to go in with tempered expectations, not because I think the movie will be bad. It's more about trying not to put the film on the screen in direct combat with some sort of idealized vision of how I think the story should go.

And we have less than four weeks until we'll know. Exciting.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Black List Live returns along with a new season of the Black List Table Reads podcast

Los Angeles residents! It's time again for one of my favorite local events - a live reading from The Black List!

I've blogged about Black List Live in the past, but for those who don't know what it is, several times a year, the Black List holds a staged reading of a script that appeared on one of the previous annual lists. I've been to all of the readings but one, and I have yet to be disappointed. Black List founder and CEO Franklin Leonard always does an excellent job of picking a script that plays well live, and casting director Lisa Zagoria consistently puts together a strong cast of actors.

This time, Oscar and Emmy-nominated actor Don Cheadle heads a cast that includes Melanie Lynskey, Jaime Camil, Roselyn Sanchez, Judy Reyes, Stephanie Beatriz,  Diego Boneta, Natalie Martinez, Anthony Mendez and Ben Schwartz.

THIS Saturday, November 21
7:30PM Doors, 8:00PM Show
The Montalban Theater in Hollywood
Tickets available online

Schwartz, who co-stars with Cheadle on House of Lies and might be best known as Jean-Ralphio on Parks & Recreation, wrote the screenplay, EL FUEGO CALIENTE. The blurb describes the plot as "In this hilarious remake of SOAPDISH, telenovela icon Penelope (Sanchez) desperately dreams of Hollywood stardom. But when a jealous co-star (Reyes) and scheming producer (Schwartz) bring back the ex-lover she had killed off (Camil), suddenly her life is a soap opera crazier than the show that made her famous - El Fuego Caliente!"

Ben and Franklin announce the live reading in this video.

Franklin also interviewed Ben on a recent installment of the Black List Table Reads podcast. This one might be my favorite of all the interviews that Franklin Leonard has done so far. Ben shares a lot of stories of getting started in comedy, submitting jokes to Weekend Update, getting his first writing job on Robot Chicken, and much more!

This is also a good time to announce that the Black List Table Reads begins its second season today! The first script is Jared Frieder's THREE MONTHS. THREE MONTHS was a Featured Script on the Black List website last year and won the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Contest. In an interview with IndieWire, Frieder said the script "tells the coming-of-age story of Caleb Kahn, a queer Ziggy Stardust-loving teenager from Miami who is exposed to HIV the weekend of his high school graduation and has to wait three months to be tested for the disease. It's a comedy, it's a love story, it's a tale of resilience, and it's a deconstruction of how people in crisis sludge through great periods of waiting."

Unlike season one, which broke screenplay reads into four serialized episodes, season two's episodes will contain the complete screenplay in one shot. There will be a new script every two weeks!

You can find the Black List Table Reads Podcast on iTunes here. The podcast's site on Wolfpop can be found here

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Saluting the end of Amanda Pendolino's blog

I'm already almost three weeks late with this, but I wanted to give a belated salute to friend and fellow blogger Amanda Pendolino. Last month, Amanda essentially shuttered her old blog, The Aspiring TV Writer & Screenwriter Blog, which had been operating for over 8 years as a resource for aspiring writers. The archives will remain, and so I shall continue to link to that blog down the side of mine.

Her new online home is, which is where you can also find her notes service. As I've said before, Amanda is one of the few readers who I personally recommend without reservation. She's got the right experience, her rates are fair, and having personally gotten notes from her on at least three or four scripts, I can attest that I found her take valuable and insightful. She makes no promises about getting your script to agents, producers or managers, but if you're looking for evaluation and suggestions, she's the reader you want.

I'm not too surprised to see Amanda move on from regular blogging. I'd had a number of conversations with her over the last few years where we both discussed how we felt like we were running out of things to say. It's no secret that my own blogging has become less frequent of late. Some of that owes to work and other obligations, but at least twice in the last year, I've gotten halfway through writing a post before realizing that somewhere in the previous seven years, I'd already given that advice.  One reason most of what I've posted of late is movie and TV reviews is that it's a lot easier to write something that's a reaction to something else, rather than try to find a new angle on a general question I've probably covered at some point.

I don't plan on shuttering my blog any time soon, but posts will probably continue to be less frequent.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The wrongness of "No one knows anything"

Out in the screenwriting blogosphere and Twitter-sphere, you'll find a lot of great people, but you'll also find a non-zero number of complete idiots. After nearly seven years at this, I've gotten good enough at recognizing the signs of the worst of those people and I tend to just not even engage them. One thing I've found to be rather consistent among my least-favorite members of that population is their tendency to respond to any counter-point with "No one knows anything."

You'll generally find that William Goldman quote applied in a variety of ways, most of them wrong. The most common context I'd run up against tended to be its application as complete dismissal of any notes I'd given. It's no secret that a lot of writers are confidant in their writing and themselves. That is not a problem in and of itself. Greener writers tend to overestimate their own brilliance - my pet theory is they're still ignorant enough of what it really takes to last in this business as a writer that they have no context for what TRUE brilliance constitutes.

From time to time, I'd end up reading a script for one of these types and more often than not, they'd need a lot of work. These are the sorts of scripts that would be riddled with issues like tonal inconsistencies, completely bonkers structure, implausible dialogue, and so on. And yet, when I would point these out to the writer, they'd go on the attack. Deep down, they weren't coming to me for notes, they were seeking validation. In their mind, my role in this little drama was supposed to be limited to a pat on the back and a promise to hand the script to someone who actually mattered. In this writer's mind, how dare I stand in the way of a door he was entitled to?

And so, my talk about all the reasons why the script didn't work for me fell on deaf ears, as did my efforts to impart all the reasons why this script would be a hard sell. Instead, I could usually count on an angry diatribe telling me how wrong my opinion was, invariably invoking some form of "No one knows anything."

"No one knows anything" was never intended as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for notes, but somehow that's what it turned into. I've been meaning for some time to put that quote in its proper context and last week on the Scriptnotes podcast, John August and Craig Mazin did just that.

First, I want to quote the relevant portion of William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade:

"Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for certainty what's going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and if you’re lucky, an educated one. They don’t know when the movie is finished. B.J. Thomas's people after the first sneak of Butch were upset about their clients getting involved with the song Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. One of them was heard to say more than once, 'B.J. really hurt himself with this one.' They don’t know when the movie is starting to shoot either. David Brown, Zanuck’s partner has said, 'We didn’t know whether Jaws would work but we didn’t have any doubts about The Island, it had to be a smash. Everything worked. The screenplay worked. Every actor we sent it too said yes. I didn’t know until a few days after we opened and I was in a bookstore and I ran into Lew Wasserman and I said, 'How are we doing?' And he said, 'David, they don’t want to see the picture.' They don’t want to see the picture may be the most chilling phrase in the industry.

"Now, if the best around don’t know at sneaks and they don’t know during shooting, you better believe that executives don’t know when they’re trying to give a thumbs up or down. They’re trying to predict public taste three years ahead and it’s just not possible. Obviously, I’m asking you to take my word on this. And there’s no reason really that you should because pictures such as Raiders of the Lost Ark probably come to mind, which I grant was an unusual film. Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that just may cost them and all the sequels and spinoffs and toy money and book money and video game money totaled over a billion dollars because nobody, nobody, not now, not ever knows the least goddamn thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office."

 And now I just want to quote part of John and Craig's discussion because they nail it better than I could. You can find the whole thing here on Scriptnotes, or the transcript here.

John: Well done William Goldman. So I want to focus on what this isn’t saying. So this isn’t saying that decision makers are ignorant, that they know nothing. It’s not saying they don’t have taste. It’s not saying they don’t have experience. They truly do have the wisdom of crowds. They have sneak previews. They have all of these things. They have experience. They have, you know, their own taste. They have crowds. But they don’t have perfect knowledge of the future. And you instinctually did exactly the right thing was emphasizing the word no is that, you know, William Goldman is saying like you may have very good reasons to believe something but you can’t know with certainty what the future will hold. And anyone who does tell you they know with certainty what the future will hold is lying because you cannot predict all these things.

And so, what I get so frustrated about is they’ll use nobody knows anything as excuse for, “Well, why don’t we just try something wild because nobody knows what’s going to work.” Well, people actually may have really good sense of what’s going to work but they can’t predict things perfectly.

Craig: That’s exactly right. It’s a little bit like that exchange where someone says, “You think blah, blah, blah…” and someone says, “I don’t think, I know.” That means something, right? It means that it’s not in the realm of opinion, it’s a fact.

John: Yes.

Craig: What Goldman is saying is that essentially all this stuff boils down to opinions so you can’t know it and therefore you have to make your peace with an uncertain world.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And so, of course, people are going to make mistakes but they’re not mistakes at the time. They’re only mistakes in retrospect. That’s the thing. You just don’t know. And he even — it’s interesting, he even italicizes the word know. There’s no — so we actually know that this is what he means. We don’t think this. We know that.

John: Absolutely.

I want to add one further point - if you come to someone specifically for their opinion, having asked them to invest time and effort in a read so they can formulate that opinion, it is the height of dickery to immediately dismiss that with, "Well, that's just your opinion." OF COURSE IT IS, ASSHOLE, BUT THAT'S WHAT YOU CAME TO ME FOR.

When someone tells you something and you brush it off with "Eh, no one knows anything," that's what you're doing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Supergirl makes a solid debut that shows a lot of potential.

Longtime readers of this blog will be aware that I am a massive Superman fan, so there's pretty much no power on Earth that was going to keep me from the premiere of Supergirl. The funny thing about TV adaptations related to the Man of Steel is that while I've often watched them regularly, I often found them difficult to like.

The syndicated Superboy series in the late 80s and early 90s was a living testament to how low budgets and often-unimpressive writing produced the mediocre results one used to expect in a superhero show. Lois & Clark started strong, but by season three was almost embarassing to watch as a Superman fan and an intelligent viewer in general. That show's greatest strength was the writing of the Lois/Clark dynamic the first two years, and while Dean Cain will never be my favorite Superman, his Clark was a lot of fun to watch.

Smallville has the distinction of being a Superman show where Clark himself was often my second least-favorite character. There were a lot of talented actors there and some decent episodes, but I rarely recognized "my" Clark in there. I eventually took to watching the show as a sort of alternate timeline where everything had gone wrong. Through that lens, it became incredibly entertaining, though surely not in the light its creators intended.

The most important thing about Supergirl is that I recognized "my" Kara in there. Supergirl should be a fun character. I've always preferred her as a light-hearted, bubbly, well-meaning contrast to Superman's more paternal tone. Some recent incarnations of Supergirl have piled on the angst and made her a moodier character. I suppose that's as valid an interpretation as any other, but I've always had a soft spot for the sweeter, innocent personality. The 1984 movie staring Helen Slater was kind of a debacle, but they absolutely got the characterization of Supergirl correct, and it's good to see this show casts her in a similar vein.

Melissa Benoist is a worthy successor to Helen Slater and Laura Vandervoort. I like that the insecure, slightly nerdy Kara is the "real" her when we meet her. When we meet Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent, the ultra nerdy act is clearly a put-on, a performance that Superman gives. When we first come across Kara as Cat Grant's assistant, she has no need for such an act. She hasn't yet created her superheroic alter ego, so there's no need for a geeky deception to "throw people off the scent."

Instead, the script - teleplay by Ali Adler, story by Adler, Greg Berlanti & Andrew Kreisberg - crafts events so that the Supergirl guise is empowering for Kara. It's the incentive to make her grow out of her shell. One of my favorite running gags in the pilot is the sheer joy and amazement on Kara's face when she demonstrates a power for the first time. Look at her reaction when bullets bounce from her chest while stopping a bank robbery. There's a brief "Wow! This is so cool!" reaction that reminded me of the moment in THE INCREDIBLES when Dash looks down and realizes he's running on top of the water.

I suspect that a LOT of young girls will be rushing to find Supergirl Halloween costumes this week. The show gets the look right and Benoist looks as good in her outfit as any other superhero has on film. The show is wise to simply embrace the superhero look and not try to make it appear "realistic" or "functional" with leather suits, black colors, and any of the other tricks we become used to from shows and films wary of putting their heroes in spandex. You look at a picture of Benoist in costume and you think "That IS Supergirl." I almost want to give special credit to the cape, which looks even more majestic than Brandon Routh's and Henry Cavill's did.

As for the rest of the show, I'm intrigued by their take on Jimmy, sorry... JAMES Olsen, who we're meeting at a much later point in his career. He's probably my favorite member of the supporting cast so far. I'm iffy on Wynn. He's not given enough time to be set up as much more than "the platonic friend." Calista Flockhart's Cat Grant is off to a good start. It'll be interesting to see if Kara's blossoming confidence carries over into her work life too. I'll be interested in seeing how the workplace setting develops in subsequent weeks when it's gets a little more screentime.

That does speak to one of the pilot's flaws in that it has a LOT of ground to cover. There's a part of me that wishes this either could have been a two-hour premiere or perhaps paced a few of it's developments across the first few episodes. Moments definitely feel rushed, particularly after a montage of Kara's public heroics. That was a point where I kind of wanted a few moments to savor the public's reaction to the new hero and get a some of those soul-searching character moments that the Berlanti shows are so fantastic at. I have no doubt we'll get those in subsequent weeks, though.

The aspect of the show I'm most wary of is the DEO, the government agency that Supergirl is first captured by, then working alongside. Part of my concern is that if the pilot wasn't tasked with laying so much pipe on them, it would have given everything more room to breathe. Their early capture of Supergirl felt FAR too easy and I'm wary of making Kryptonite this obtainable so early in the series. The rushed pace also meant that Supergirl's foster sister Alex isn't much established before she's shown to be working with the DEO. I wish the Alex/Kara dynamic had a little more time devoted to it before these secrets got blown. There's also the fact that the DEO delivers a LOT of convenient exposition about Fort Razz, a Kryptonian prison that arrived on Earth when Kara did. Right now, I trust these guys about as much as I trusted The Initiative on Buffy.

(Also, how sloppy was Superman? He not only left behind Kara's ship without going back for it, he apparently also never noticed an entire prison followed her. I wonder if there's more to the story that we haven't gotten yet.)

Supergirl working regularly with the DEO is also a concept I'm going to have to be sold further on. I get that Arrow and The Flash have cemented the idea that today's heroes have entire support teams around them, but Supergirl doesn't need that. The moment where she's practically answering to Hank Henshaw felt wrong to me. Why does she even care what this guy thinks of her? Why does she have to ask him for a chance to bring in the bad guy? She's Supergirl, she should just go and do it! It would be logical for future eps to mine this dynamic for conflict.

My non-geek wife is a great control group for these sorts of shows. She loves The Flash and it's fun seeing how a show so dense in the comics mythos plays to someone who has zero connection to all the continuity and Easter Eggs that creative team throws in. Her biggest reaction after Supergirl was, "It's weird that Superman didn't show up at all in this. I thought he'd at least be there to pass the baton." That's definitely a fair point. I had assumed that Superman would be out of action or missing as part of the storyline. That doesn't appear to be the case, as all references to him indicate he's active. I'll be curious to see how long the show can keep him off-camera without it seeming weird that he and Kara don't socialize.

Last year, two DC superhero shows launched - The Flash and Gotham. I still think The Flash is probably the best superhero pilot yet, while Gotham's debut left me with mixed feelings. I abandoned that show ten episodes in because nothing in that incarnation of the mythos appealed to me. Supergirl doesn't manage to dethrone The Flash, but it's certainly a worthy companion and has a lot of aspects I already enjoy quite a bit. I feel optimistic about the show after this pilot, and I'm very eager to see what a "normal" episode feels like now that all the groundwork has been laid.

The show gets the most important aspect right - Supergirl herself. This is a Kara Zor-El I want to see each week and I don't think they could have found a better successor to the cape than Melissa Benoist. Supergirl - along with The Flash - seems poised to make superhero TV fun again, without being juvenile. In an era of "grim 'n gritty," it's good to have an antidote in the form of a girl from Krypton with a beaming smile.

(Also, if you're looking to catch up on Supergirl comics, comiXology is running a Supergirl Sale this week, with a lot of single issues for $.99 and trades for $4.99. The run by my friend Sterling Gates has a lot of elements similar to the pilot, and it stretches from Issue 34 to 59 of this series. This run is also reproduced in the trade volumes 6, 7, 8 and 9.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Repost - The Long, Troubled Future History of Back to the Future Part IV

October 21, 2015 - the day the internet will never let you forget.

This is the day that Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to in Back to the Future part II. Befitting that landmark, there are plenty of screenings and BTTF celebrations, many of them listed here. By the time you read this, there's a good chance you've already reached your limit on BTTF content.

Too bad! I'll never let a good opportunity to recycle content pass without observance. About two years ago, I wrote a piece for Film School Rejects, detailing "The Long Troubled Future History of Back to the Future Part IV." It was a look into the future where production of a long-anticipated sequel went so bad that a mysterious key player went back in time to prevent it.

Read the whole piece over at Film School Rejects.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Black List announces 2015 Participants for three Screenwriting Mini-Labs

The Black List just announced the participants selected for their screenwriting mini-labs in Toronto, Chicago and San Francisco, and I notice a familiar face among them - Timothy Visentin. I read Timothy's script WHERE DEATH FOLLOWS a couple years ago and gave it a favorable review in a spotlight post on my site. It was good to see his name in the Toronto Mini-Lab roster. Hope he gets something out of it!

Full press release below.



LOS ANGELES, CA (October 6, 2015) - The Black List released this afternoon the names of the participants for their fall Toronto, Chicago and San Francisco Mini-Labs. Submissions remain open for their Los Angeles Mini-Lab until midnight on October 8, 2015.

The 12 chosen participants are:

Toronto Mini-Lab at TIFF 2015
Timothy Visentin // WHERE DEATH FOLLOWS
Mary Goldman // UNHOLY TOLEDO
Stephen Davis // GLASLYN
Erin Cardiff // RAISED BY WOLVES

Chicago Mini-Lab at Columbia College
Anna Hozian // ANCHOR BABY
Brian Trapp // POST-HUMAN
Maggie Clancy // THE OVEN

San Francisco Mini-Lab at SFSU
Elizabeth Oyebode // SEXTON
Rachel Bublitz // GIRL FRIEND
Joe Rechtman // THE ENCAMPMENT

The Black List’s final Mini-Lab of 2015 will be held in Los Angeles on November 20-22, 2015. Submissions are open until midnight on October 8, 2015. The Black List will invite four promising non-professional writers to Los Angeles. Each writer will workshop one screenplay through a peer workshop and one-on-one sessions with working professional screenwriting mentors. Travel and accommodations will be provided by the Black List.

The selection process will work like this: ten writers for each city will be invited, based on the strength of their scripts as evaluated by the Black List screenplay evaluation service, to submit a resume and one-page personal statement. From those personal statements, four writers will be selected to participate.

Toronto, Chicago and San Francisco mentors included Derek Haas (CHICAGO FIRE); Pixar’s Victoria Strouse and Matthew Aldrich; Go Into the Story’s Scott Myers; DePaul professor Brad Riddell; and Black List Founder and CEO Franklin Leonard. Mentors for the Los Angeles Mini-Lab will be announced in the weeks leading up to the workshop.

The Black List recently released new drafts from the writers of the screenplays that were workshopped in their May 2015 New York City Mini-Lab with mentors Beau Willimon (HOUSE OF CARDS), Leslye Headland (SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE), Michael Mitnick (THE GIVER) and Jessica Bendinger (BRING IT ON). Those scripts are now available for download by industry members on

Submissions are also currently open for the recently announced inaugural Athena Film Festival Black List Mini-Lab in New York City. This Mini-Lab (February 18–21, 2016) is open to female writers with scripts focusing on women's leadership. As with the other Mini-Labs, ten screenwriters will be picked, based on the strength of their scripts, and invited to submit a one ¬page personal statement. Four writers will be selected to participate. The deadline to purchase an evaluation is November 1, and the deadline for submission is November 21.

Monday, October 5, 2015

THE MARTIAN is the kind of film screenwriting classes will study

For most of the year, I've felt this has been an okay, but not great year for movies. It's not that I haven't seen stuff that I liked, but it's more that there's been very little that blew me away. The summer movie season had the expected duds, but even there, we saw a lot of entries that ended up being described as competent. In retrospect, it's appropriate that blockbuster season was kicked off by AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, a film that was a perfectly serviceable blockbuster, while not accomplishing much in the way of emotional engagement. (Not that I won't take that over a TERMINATOR: GENISYS.)

THE MARTIAN is the first film in a while where I felt truly emotionally engaged with the story. I think INSIDE OUT was the last new release to accomplish that for me, and for that, we have to reach back to June. Matt Damon plays an astronaut named Mark Watney who's presumed dead when his flight crew has to evacuate Mars in the middle of a storm. As it turns out, he's very much alive and can't expect another mission to rescue him for four years. Oh, and there's the small matter of how he doesn't have a direct communication line to NASA to tell them he's still alive in the first place.

On top of that, his rations will run out well before any rescue, which means he has to somehow figure out a way to grow crops on a planet with no oxygen. But then you have to consider the challenge of getting enough water to cultivate the crops, and even then, it's probably at best a temporary solution.... you get the point.

I don't want to get too much into the specifics of the plot turns of THE MARTIAN, because the joy of this movie is in the unexpected nature of the obstacles Watney faces. I've seen comparisons thrown around to GRAVITY and CASTAWAY, but for me, the movie this most reminded me of was APOLLO 13. There's an entire side story about NASA becoming aware that Watney is alive, which leads to entire sequences of them figuring out how to communicate back and forth.

I don't want to deprive readers of the surprises that await as Damon's character struggles for survival, but Drew Goddard's script is an excellent study in how every time it seems like Watney finally has a handle on things and his crazy plan just might work, he gets thrown an obstacle that sends him back to square one or further. This is not a movie that's afraid to beat up its characters a bit. Goddard and director Ridley Scott are masterful at giving the audience just enough hope so that it's devastating when those hopes are dashed.

During my time as a reader, I saw a great many scripts by amateurs where they clearly were too kind to their characters. You could feel the writers holding back on being too rough on them. It's a natural impulse in some ways - once we fall in love with our characters we become protective of them - but it can make for strained drama.

A good rule of thumb in film is that if we're explained a plan in painstaking detail, it's a good bet that when the rubber meets the road, things will not go to plan. The way things NEED to happen is laid out for us so that when we're in the thick of it, we'll having that "oh shit!" reaction as things come apart. The climax of THE MARTIAN executes this wonderfully. We're presented with an extremely dicey plan of operation - then we're immediately hit with challenges to that plan before they even execute it.

Once we're through that layer of resolution, our characters are faced with the challenge of just getting ready for that plan. I always think about the climax of BACK TO THE FUTURE, where Doc Brown has set up so many moving parts that are necessary for Marty to reach the wire at the exact second that the lightning bolt is funneled into the flux capacitor. We're told - twice, really - exactly how things must fall into place for the 1.21 gigawatts to end up where they belong. Marty and Doc are hit with several obstacles - including a tree that downs one connection between the cables, a car that refuses to start and a lack of slack that makes it a challenge for Doc to fix the cables.

I think it's safe to say that THE MARTIAN seems to throw twice as many obstacles at its characters in its climax. Given the science and the logistics involved, it would be very easy for the audience to get lost in both how things have gone awry and also how the team attempts to fix it. It's not easy to give the audience that level of clarity in a scene that depends on so many concepts that likely feel abstract to the layperson. If you haven't seen the film yet, study these moments during your viewing and appreciate the craft on display.

Other reviewers have remarked on this, but it's nice to see a film that's so pro-science. We're living in a time where NASA has been slashed to the bone and man missions to Mars really are looking like the stuff of science fiction. This is a film that celebrates not only the ingenious work of Watney as he MacGuyver's his way to survival, but the problem-solving of everyone back at NASA as they try to figure out a rescue mission that seemingly can't make it to Mars until long after their target has perished.

It's stirring to see these people given an unsolvable puzzle - one that's fleshed out from several angles - and then figure out an equally complex solution. There are so many variables to every possible course of action, which makes the obstacles feel real and not just convenient roadblocks to be hurdled. Flowing from this, just about all of the conflict is with the environment. We're not given a convenient mustache-twirling villain to hate and see catharticly taken down in the end. The closest we get is Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA and the conflict he generates comes from the "bigger picture" he has to protect rather than any malice. I like movies where reasonable people can hold completely conflicting positions without either of then needing to be vilified in the process.

All of this would not be nearly as effective without Matt Damon. Stranded alone for most of the film ends up making that portion of the movie into a one-man show. Fortunately, a recurring device of having him record video logs gives him a reason to talk to the audience. Even though he's serving up a lot of exposition there, it doesn't feel like a chore to get through. Part of this is because we WANT the explanation. It's pretty obvious this is a challenging situation so we need Watney to work us out of it.

The other half of this equation is the character work. Watney's given a wry sense of humor. I wasn't prepared for how funny this film was in places, and it's not all gallows humor either. It works because at first we see his joking as a defense mechanism - a way to avoid confronting the depressing reality of his problem. In later moments, we see his jokes as a sign of his optimism, maybe even his confidence. Thus, it adds to the gut punches from the setbacks when he's not able to find any humor in a recent complication. And then of course, by the end of the film, his jokes take on a "I can't believe THIS is the best option open to us." The longshot nature of the plan is almost better punctuated by humor than by speeches given a lot of gravity.

As we head into the fall Oscar offerings, I hope that THE MARTIAN is a harbinger of the sorts of intelligent offerings we have ahead of us.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Art vs. artist: On Bill Cosby

There's an interesting thing you'll notice if you follow the conversation around celebrities who speak their minds politically - namely, how they are dismissed by their enemies.

Victoria Jackson spouts nonsense on TV about how Obama is a secret Muslim who's destroying America and almost certainly you'll find those on the left dismissing her by saying, "She's an unfunny actress who hasn't worked in 20 years."

Wil Wheaton expresses pro-gun control opinions on Twitter and his mentions fill up with Right Wingers whose most frequent comeback is some form of, "You're just some shitty actor, Wesley."

Ted Nugent implies he'd like to shoot Obama and Hillary, and you'll find no shortage of people who leap to call him an awful, no-talent musician.

And so on and so on.

It's weird that that's how so many people choose to engage with the mouthpiece of a view they don't like, rather than attacking the disagreeable view on its merits. It's like if Hitler said, "We must round up all the Jews, take their money and possessions, and exterminate them!" and the most frequent comeback he got was, "Oh yeah, well you have a bad haircut and your paintings are shitty, Addie!"

But for whatever reason, we conflate the art with the artist. If you want to attack the artist, the first target is the art, even if that product is neutral in the matter at hand. Where this gets interesting is when someone responsible for a beloved work runs afoul of public decency.

I wonder what would happen if universally beloved icons like Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg suddenly came out as card-carrying members of NAMBLA. Would we all suddenly have to denounce Jurassic Park and E.T? Would this instantly make Castaway and That Thing You Do "shitty movies?" Can you picture cinephiles declaring that Jaws "was never that great?"

More likely, the public at large would cling to whatever denial they could muster that Hanks and Spielberg weren't REALLY as evil as that declaration made them out to be. They made dozens of movie we all loved! Surely no one responsible for Forrest Gump or Close Encounters could be an evil man! As I'm making this argument, does it sound silly to you? Do you think you could still love these films, while not giving these men a free pass?

Which brings me to Bill Cosby. Over the past year, some 36 women have come forward with tales of being drugged and raped by the beloved comedian. Lest you think Bill had a busy 2014 and 2015, I'll note that many of these accusations date back decades, some as far back as the 1970s. Several of these woman had been speaking out for years, but their accounts fell on deaf ears. But then a funny thing happened - as a routine from comedian Hannibal Buress drags the accusations back into the limelight, other women come forward with their stories.

Not unexpectedly, the charges are met with skepticism. Surely these women are fame-seekers, or are just looking to get a quick payoff of hush money by going after a wealthy American icon and inspiration to black people everywhere. I don't doubt that some liars have threatened celebrities with false rape accusations, with intent to blackmail. The thing is, "hush money" is called that because it buys silence. Extortionists making utterly false claims probably aren't going to make public charges because the fear of exposure is the leverage they have against their target. A public accusation is a "shoot the hostage" move if all you're after is money.

On top of that, a lot of these women are credible, and few come across as fame-seekers. Sure, the fact that so many women seem to come forth at once might look fishy, but let's put that aside for a minute. Judd Apatow had a remark that really cut to the heart of it for me: "If even one of these accusations is true, he's a monster."

That's really all that needs to be said, isn't it?

Enough of these accusers have come forth with believable stories that I have zero problem believing that at least one out of these 36 is on the level. More specifically, I believe they all are.

This is the part where Cosby supporters usually scream "innocent until proven guilty" and note that he hasn't been convicted of any crime. The presumption of innocence is really only relevant in terms of the State's disposition to Mr. - excuse me - "Doctor" Cosby. You're allowed to render your own, non-legally binding judgements on someone. I can call him an "alleged rapist" and not he's not been convicted even while being certain that he did all of the acts in question.

But here's my problem - I really enjoyed The Cosby Show. (Or at least the first few seasons before its inevitable decline.) It's one of the most iconic sitcoms of all time. I've not been faced with a body of work that significant being tainted by association with the abuses of its actor. I knew Roman Polanski as a child rapist long before I ever saw any of his films. The creepy allegations surrounding Woody Allen were also mostly my introduction to the man. In both cases, it made me less reluctant to peruse the works of those gentlemen, knowing their failings.

I eventually gave in and watched Chinatown, largely because of how influential it was as a screenplay, but I can't bring myself to seek out Polanski's work otherwise. With Allen, knowing the older man/younger woman themes often infest his films has kept me clearly, largely because I doubt I'll be able to watch any of those movies without scanning the subtext for hints of his pathology.

So I've essentially dealt with the art vs. artist conflict by avoiding it altogether. But what do we do about The Cosby Show?

There's an understandable urge to not promote the work of a repugnant person. On that level, I understand the pulling of the show from syndication. However, considering the show's significance, it feels wrong to strike it from the record, as it were. But I don't think preserving the show's legacy requires defending "Doctor" Cosby's legacy either.

Is trying to support one without the other a case of me attempting to have my cake and eat it too? I hope not. It's going to be a long time before I can watch a Cosby rerun and not think of the rape accusations. But it should be possible to separate the art from the artist. After all, it's not like The Cosby Show was about drugging someone so it's easier to have sex with them against their will...

Oh dammit, there's that pesky subtext again.

In an ideal world, art and artist are two different entities. I should be able to laugh heartily at Cliff Huxtable while calling for Bill Cosby to be locked up for the horrors he's mostly likely responsible for, dating back to well before I was born. Condemn Cosby, celebrate The Cosby Show.

Celebrate Chinatown, tell Polanski to burn in hell.

Laugh at Naked Gun, scream "murderer" at O.J. Simpson.

Enjoy Victoria Jackson in UHF, make "cuckoo clock" noises during her Fox News appearances.

Can it really be that easy? The culture these people created is already part of the lexicon. It's fruitless to pretend we can put that toothpaste back in the tube. It's also equally naive to assume that by tearing down The Cosby Show, it's really hurting Bill Cosby in the way he deserves. If we collectively decided The Cosby Show was just a hack sitcom, would that do anything to help Cosby's victims?

And to flip that - no matter how much we enjoyed The Cosby Show, that pleasure doesn't mean we owe Bill Cosby anything. Don't let him use that as a shield. If this end to his career tarnishes his legacy, it's not a sign that we failed him. It means that he failed us.