Wednesday, May 27, 2015

PITCH PERFECT 2's vestigial tails send this picture out of tune

I saw PITCH PERFECT 2 this past weekend, and let me say that as a fan of the first one, the sequel made me grateful we never got a true sequel to BRING IT ON.

I'll unpack that a little bit more. This script is a perfect example of why comedy sequels are really hard to get right, and specifically why these sort of team ensemble scripts are especially hard to nail.

Everyone loved the characters in the first film and it helps that they had such a deep bench of types to draw from: the grounded Beca, the uptight Aubrey, the blunt Fat Amy, the slutty girl who's name I can't remember, the guy with the very punchable face... you get the picture. Despite having a large ensemble of women and a decent-sized number of dudes, the film didn't feel crowded because everyone had a reason for being there. That's the beauty of not writing for a franchise. If a piece doesn't fit, it gets written out and no one ever has to know it was there.

There are really two macro conflicts in the first one: Beca vs. the Bellas and then The Bellas vs The Treblemakers. The conflicts are pretty well-defined early on. Beca's issues with the Bellas stems from the leadership being too staid and tied to tradition, which results in a setlist that doesn't list any songs written in this century. So every scene with just the Bellas is often driven by this tension. It also gives purpose to the disparate personalities of the women, because it makes it harder for them to get out of their own way. That doesn't get resolved until current leaders Aubrey and Chloe relent and have Beca take the reigns in practice. The result is a wonderful scene where Beca directs the girls in a mash-up performance, bringing them together in harmony. (Writer Kay Kay Cannon is clever, isn't she?)

With that resolve, the remaining conflict is "The Big Competition," the national a cappella competition where the Bellas face the Treblemakers for the top spot. The Treblemakers, being from the same college, have crossed paths with the women repeatedly, and each time have proven to be formidable. Every taunt, every snide remark between the two groups has purpose. Bumper's douchiness Their lead-off performance is just as strong as their previous work, which means that for the Bellas's victory to be credible, they have to raise their game too. And they do. (Though Bumper is weirdly written out of the finals, every other scene where he's an unlikable ass has actual purpose.

The problem with PITCH PERFECT 2 flows from the fact that even though those conflicts are resolved, characters who have no story left to play out are still invited back for the encore, which clutters up a film that now needs to accommodate those on top of the actual conflicts driving the new story. PP2 is a perfect cast study in why most comedy sequels tend to jettison the love interests from the first film. Once the couple has gotten together, it's a lot harder to use their relationship to drive the story unless you're willing to introduce a new major conflict. In the first film, Beca's love interest Jesse is on the rival team, which allows that subplot to have ramifications for Beca's dynamic with the group.

The Treblemakers have no reason to appear in PITCH PERFECT 2 at all. There are moments where it's not implausible for them to be involved, such as when they are groups invited to some kind of underground a capella competition, but the fact is you can slice Jesse, Benji and Bumper out of every scene in which they appear and nothing of consequence is impacted. Jesse shows up to add a couple songs to the soundtrack and kiss Beca goodbye on her first day of work and that's about it. It's like he's just there to assure us that he and Beca are still a couple. Benji is given about three half-scenes that all revolve around him falling at first sight for new Bella member Emily. It's not a relationship that informs anything about Emily, nor does it demand any growth of her, the way Beca's did in the first film. It really feels like this was the quick solution to "We want to add Benji to the film, but we only have him for a few days starting TOMORROW!"

You get the same feeling about Bumper's scenes. He's basically there so that Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy has her own subplot about realizing her feelings for him are more than just as a hook-up buddy. Not only is this an uninteresting use of Bumper, but it's a pretty awful use of Fat Amy. It never really circles back to make any impact on the A-story, which again leaves this feeling like a collection of should-have-been-deleted scenes. It's really perplexing and disappointing that this was the best they could do for arguably the biggest breakout character from the first film. It's even more inexplicable when you realize that her abrasive personality would make it very easy to craft some kind of Amy vs. Bellas or Amy vs. Beca conflict.

With so much time allotted to these vestigial tails from the first film, the rest of the Bellas feel like rare-speaking extras. Cynthia-Rose, Stacie, and Lily get MAYBE a dozen lines each. There are two girls who I'm sure never spoke, and Hailee Steinfeld is wasted as Emily. The villains this time around - a German team that's more "Sprockets" than "Fourth Reich" as German stereotypes go - don't get developed much. I'll give them points for landing solid zingers every time they show up, but once you get past that and their well-arranged numbers, there's not much to them. It might have been more interesting if there had eventually been some real dynamic between their leader Komissiar and Beca, much in the way BRING IT ON had its two rival leaders come to some kind of understanding in the end.

It's a crowded film that doesn't have time to let its characters be much more than stereotypes. A rare exception might be Keegan-Michael Key as a producer Beca's interning for. There are moments it feels like Key could have tipped the character just a little bit further into "Ari Gold evil boss" stereotype-land, but he actually creates a character who stands on the precipice of being a tyrant while still being credible as a producer and thoughtful as a leader. This guy could have easily been a cartoon, but by the time his brief story is over, you really believe he knows what he's talking about and you understand why this guy is successful. There's a reality to him that too many of the other characters lack.

The music is fun, boasting some clever arrangements. I'm sure the soundtrack will find its way onto my iPhone. Regrettably, the movie that spawned it won't have the same replay-ability.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

My TV pilot LIFE OF THE PARTY is on the Black List website

Special post today! I once again am taking the plunge and putting a script of mine up on the Black List website. If you happen to be a member, I encourage you to download it and give it a read.

It's a half-hour pilot I wrote with a friend of mine. Since I posted it using a pseudonym, he felt it was only fair he got to use one too, so you can consider this comedy the work of "The Bitter Script Reader & The Sweet Script Writer."

It's called LIFE OF THE PARTY and it's about a former conservative Vice President, a maverick within his own party, who served the last few months of a deceased President's term. After the election that resulted in him being voted out of office, he finds himself a scapegoat of both political parties. Freed from the necessity of playing politics, he decides to enjoy his retirement by moving to L.A. and raising hell.

Here's what our paid reviewer from The Black List had to say in his or her comments about the script's strengths:

This is a very funny script that combines elements of family and political comedy with witty dialogue to create a show unlike many on television. CHUCK is a likable character who remains relatable in spite of (or perhaps because of) his occasional misbehavior. His childlike glee at the life of a former president, and his ability to remain positive and upbeat in the face of criticism from the media are winning qualities that endear him to the audience. 

It’s interesting that, despite his presidency repeatedly being referred to as one of the shortest and least successful in history, he never seems to begrudge his time in the White House, and this excitement is infectious. WAYNE is very funny as Chuck’s aimless and uncouth younger brother, and the two have a charming relationship that makes for some of the episode’s comedic highlights, particularly the scene at the shooting range. The show does recurring gags very well, one of the best being Chuck’s rivalry with neighbor PAT SAJAK.

We got an overall rating of 7, which is pretty good.

This is an idea that grew out of a logline exercise. I was hanging out with a few writer friends one afternoon and somehow we started tossing out the most ridiculous-sounding pitches. "Sweet" and I ended up riffing on ideas that ended with "Entourage meets West Wing."

Something about the idea stuck and even though it was a goof, we later emailed back and forth about how we should try to write it as a pilot. It was an occasional side project for us for over a year and we never could crack it. Eventually the realization hit us - we kept trying to make it work as a story about a sitting President and his buddies. When we finally realized it should be about a former President, that was when the lightning bolt hit. Almost instantly we were able to start figuring out who our President was and the kinds of people we were gonna surround him with.

This is essentially a story about a guy who got fired and has realized he doesn't have to put up with all the shit he's been getting from his own party (who blames him for the election) and the other party (who saddles him with the responsibility for the mess he left them with.) This isn't Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton leading a post-presidential life of dignity and acclaim. This is a guy who tried his hardest to serve the country, to not be afraid to buck the party line - a true moderate. And he got screwed for it.

It's always a good source of comedy to have your lead character pissed off. We've also given him a lot of toys and trappings of the office. It calls to mind a line from an SNL sketch about Bill Clinton: "Imagine what I could do with less responsibility and more free time!"

Imagine indeed.

If you're a Black List member, download LIFE OF THE PARTY here.

David Letterman, talk show host, Bryant Gumbel nemesis, retires tonight

Tonight is David Letterman's final show after 33 years in late night. Being barely older than Letterman's earliest show myself, I can't claim to be one of those who had his comedy mind completely blown by Dave. For comedians and viewers a half-generation older than me, Dave was a revelation. He was the guy who reinvented the sensibilities of late night TV, making it younger and hipper than what Carson was doing at the time.

I was a relative late-comer to Dave, with him landing on my radar during the whole "late night wars" saga in the early 90s. The first Letterman show I ever saw was his final NBC show in June 1993. By the time I came to Letterman, he'd already changed television. His comedic edge had already been adopted, imitated, refined and progressed by later comedians and TV shows. So it would be a little disingenuous for me to prostrate before the altar of David Letterman and give him direct credit for my own strange sense of humor.

Which is not to say I didn't consume a great deal of Dave in the mid-90s. I remember watching his first show in August 1993, which featured Bill Murray spray-painting Dave's desk with a giant "DAVE!" My favorite artist Billy Joel played "No Man's Land," then joked about turning down a chance to jam with Bill Clinton during the President's vacation to Martha's Vineyard. "It was nothing political. I just didn't think it'd be a good jam."

Oh, and after a "seance," Dave had old footage of Ed Sullivan introduce Paul Newman in the audience. With mock-bewilderment, Newman queried Dave, "Where the hell are the singing cats?"

I'd love it if tonight's finale somehow paid off that gag.

There was at least two years that followed when I recorded Letterman every night and watched it the next day after school. Since I was in a market that delayed Dave by a half-hour, I actually got to watch both Jay and Dave. Jay tended to have the more solid monologue, so it was ideal for watching that and then jumping over to CBS as Jay started bringing on guests. In those days, Letterman's comedy bits were classic. My favorite recurring routine involved Dave rigging up Rupert Jee, the owner of the deli next door, with a hidden ear-piece. Watching via hidden camera footage in a remote van ("resting comfortably, I might add," Dave often said), Dave would feed Rupert strange things to say and do while bystanders had no idea they were part of a hidden camera gag.

It was goofy stuff, but fun to watch. Who else would send his mom to cover the Lilyhammer Olympics and then make her ask Hilary Clinton if she could have her husband do something about the speed limits that were vexing Dave so badly in Connecticut?

Or the time he had Mayor Rudy Giuliani on and presented him with five possible new slogans for New York, with the agreement that they'd plaster the Mayor's face on the Times Square Jumbotron to read it live. I don't recall the more dignified ones that were rejected, but I do recall what Rudy gleefully chose, saying it reflected the spirit of the city: "New York: We Can Kick Your City's Ass!"

It's not lost on me that most of the bits I'm citing are nearly 20 years old. Dave isn't the same Dave anymore and he hasn't been for sometime. He's mellowed. He leaves the studio less and while he's still often a good interviewer, the comedy bits felt less and less unpredictable.

And then I think about the shows and movies that shaped my sense of humor from middle school up through college. The Simpsons began as a simple cartoon that appealed to me because of the rebellious spirit of Bart Simpson, but quickly evolved into something so dense, layered and incredibly funny that it blew my mind week to week what those writers would come up with. I was 10 when that show started and my sense of humor was still in the TGIF school of comedy. For something to be so ironic, smart and funny - something where esoteric references rewarded the viewer's intelligence and deep pop culture knowledge - it blew my mind. And at least some of The Simpsons's edge can trace its lineage to David Letterman's sensibility. He created a place in the culture where that tone could thrive. Arguably, only Saturday Night Live was as influential as that.

And if we never had Dave, it's likely that we might not have had Jon Stewart. Jon is to me what Dave is to so many of those paying homage to the gap-toothed comedian this week. He took a silly Comedy Central late night show and honed it into one of the longest-running and most biting political commentary out there. When I was in high school, political humor meant joking about how much the President liked Big Macs, or his predilection for affairs with trashy blondes and White House interns. The idea you could make political comedy out of substantive issues seemed unlikely until Stewart became the guy pointing a finger at the political theatre and essentially said, "You're all seeing this too, right?"

I don't have the hatred of Jay Leno that seems to be a prerequisite for enjoying Dave, but I also don't see Leno making the same sort of impact on the comedy landscape that Dave did. Probably most of the people you find funny on TV today decided they wanted to make people laugh after watching something Dave did. As much it feels like Dave handed off the baton in this relay race years ago, he still is the guy who carried it for all those laps and passed it intact to the current torchbearers.

But ultimately, you put aside talk of legacies and if this era of his show was better than another era and you realize there's really only one question in comedy that matters: "Did he make you laugh?"

Yes. Yes, he did. A lot.

Enjoy retirement, Dave, and thanks for the inspiration.

Monday, May 18, 2015

MAD MAX: Visual storytelling in motion

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a helluva ride.

That's really all you need to know because this is one of those rare films where it's more of an experience rather than a two-hour photoplay. Gravity might be the only release in recent history to compare, being a film that's seemingly light on story and plot but still incredibly powerful and evocative.

Despite what some will probably say on their way out of the theatre, this film isn't 90% action, though it often feels like it. Director George Miller has staged some amazing set pieces that'll get your blood rushing, and with credited co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris, has balanced those moments with quieter beats that remind us of the stakes and the humanity in the film without beating us over the head with them.

There's merit in comparing this film to the action orgys of the Transformers/Battleship school of filmmaking. Why does one seemingly require the viewer to force themselves not to examine the film too closely while the other effortlessly earns the audiences emotional investment? "Battleformers" is a sort of movie where the action eventually becomes boring as its assault on our senses eventually leaves us numb. Chicago and Beijing are nearly reduced to rubble throughout those films and while MAD MAX's violence never even threatens a city. Yet the viewer cares more for the half-dozen good-guys in the later than they do for any victims in the former.

It's not about the size of the target. It's about the audience's connection to the target.

In short, we're in a post-apocalyptic world that's basically the feudal system on motorcycles and monster trucks, commanded by tyrant Immortan Joe. Aside from lording over the people of his citadel with an iron fist, Joe has taken the most desirable women as his "wives." One of his trusted convoy leaders, Furiosa, smuggles this harem out of his home and stows them away in her convoy. Joe discovers this treachery and sends all of his War Boy army after her, sparking the chase that occupies most of the film.

The plot often feels like it's little more than "Get away from the bad guys." There are a number of engagements along the way, most of which end with Furiosa, Max and the women escaping by the skin of their teeth. But that's really it. The goal is: Get to safety. Out-run the pursuers. You could say that the urgency of the situation is what makes the thin nature of the plot acceptable, but you'd be wrong. Urgency and fast-pacing alone cannot do that heavy lifting.

In a wasteland world where the evil War Boys are viscerally unpleasant pale color, and the fat despots are pustuled and revolting to even look at, the harem stands out because they could have stepped right off the pages of a Victoria's Secret catalog. One of them, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, actually IS a Victoria's Secret model. You might also recognize her as Not-Megan Fox from the third Transformers film. I toss off a phrase like that and I'm sure you might be thinking, "Oh, these are the girls who are there just to be leered at." Amazingly, they're not. There's never a moment as uncomfortably leer-y as Huntington-Whiteley's introduction in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

While their desirability is a plot-necessary aspect of their character, there's an effort to show them as being capable in several of the action scenes. Perhaps an even nicer touch is the fact that they don't become "instant badasses" and at one point, one of the women seems to consider that her life as a sex slave might have treated her better than a life on the run will.

I've seen a few remarks on Twitter about how viewers found the wives more engaging and cared more for them than any imperiled bystanders in a Marvel or DC movie. The magic trick Miller pulls off is that most of the wives aren't really THAT deeply developed. It's not an issue of character depth that engages us in their plight - it's an issue of emotional investment. And sorry ladies, you're not the ones doing the heavy lifting of earning that.

No, this movie all comes down to Charlize Theron's character Furiosa. We care because she cares. Even before we know where she's going and what she's taking there, we've seen what she's escaping. We understand - or at least think we do - what's driving her. If you lived in that hellhole, working for that freak Joe, wouldn't YOU try to get out? Joe sending his army after her makes her an instant underdog in our eyes, so that furthers our need to suuport her.

Furiosa is developed in a way that lets us project our emotions onto her, and if that's not enough, Miller has another trick up his sleeve: Max himself. Max is just trying to survive and in the first two minutes of the film is captured and enslaved as a blood-bag. He's a tagalong in the chase for Furiosa, literally strapped in for the ride so that one of the War Boys can siphon off his blood. As such, he's less of an active participant in the first major action. His entire goal in that sequence is just to get free of the bondage contraption he's trapped in.

Once he gets loose, he encounters Furiosa and the women. He couldn't give two shits about their plight and at one point even tries to abandon them in the desert. It's his bad luck that the situation demands cooperation and so he becomes Furiosa's right hand as he's dragged into Joe's Ahab-like pursuit to get his wives back. If you think about it, it's basically North by Northwest, with Max playing the Cary Grant role of being caught up in a larger game he has no interest in, beyond surviving it.

We don't care about the wives. We've merely projected ourselves onto Furiosa and SHE cares about the wives. If for some reason we resist identifying with her, the film supplies us with Max, who's removed from the conflict but bonds with them, which wears down our resistance and makes US bond with them.

It's basically a game of Stockholm Syndrome that filmmakers play. The craft is that it's not as simple as putting characters in danger. The director needs to understand what bonds an audience with the players. Spielberg is one of the best at this. Think of all the emotional close-ups present in Spielberg's films: the slack-jawed wonder during the first dinosaur reveal in Jurassic Park, Elliott's amazement when he sees E.T. for the first time.  It even has a name: "Spielberg Face."

Consider how Max's first encounter with Furiosa and the wives plays out with terse dialogue, and a lot of silence. There's tension generated by these reaction shots but it also provokes us to feel empathy with Furiosa, and frustration with how Max's objective is going to totally screw her and the wives over. When she gets the upper hand on him, we want to cheer.

But if that doesn't work, then the hardened heart of the viewer will crack later when Furiosa finds herself in a moment of despair so great she falls to her knees and screams to the sky. This sequence starts on Furiosa, but the height of this emotional moment isn't played in close-up on her. It's a wide shot, which turns out to be from Max's point of view when the scene cuts to a reverse and we see Max's reaction. His emotions are not nearly as heightened as hers, allowing us to project onto him. We've discussed this Eisensteinian technique before, in relation to Star Wars.

That moment is all we need to understand that Max is on board. He's gone from being a tagalong on this adventure to being committed to the cause. It's Max who comes up with the final plan to fight their way back through the pursuing army. The interesting thing is that while the final endgame results in a lot of glory for Furiosa and the others, Max consciously avoids involving himself in that. To me, that suggests that his motives were generally noble rather than self-serving there.

Another nice touch is the complete lack of any romantic interest between Max and Furiosa. There's a trust and a connection that forms between them by the end of the adventure, but there's nary a hint of sexual tension. At least with regard to that character dynamic, Furiosa could have been written as a man and nothing about her interaction with Max would have to change.

I've seen complaints from guys who find it upsetting that Max feels like a supporting character in his own movie. I don't know if I quite agree with that. In terms of screentime, he and Furiosa are about even. I think what they're reacting to is that Furiosa is absolutely driving the plot more than Max is. It's her actions who set off the crusade. When Max joins up with them, he doesn't become the hero who takes over and leads them out. Instead he's outwitted and is at the mercy of Furiosa's plan. For the first two-thirds, there's never any point where Max has the upper hand, despite being a participant in all the action.

I kinda want to point out to those upset guys that Max had more to do than most female sidekicks did in action movies for years. There was a whole flap last week with "Men's Rights Activists" calling for a boycott because of the film's "feminist agenda." If any of those guys actually SAW the film, I think it would be fascinating to discuss with them why exactly this movie threatens them so much.

(Just so we're clear, if you're a Men's Right's Activist, you're an insecure scumbag who's part of a very tiny fringe group with horrible opinions who needs some serious counseling... but as a specimen of insanity, I'd find you infinitely compelling.)

The people who find fault with FURY ROAD because it's light on story are missing the point. It's not lack of plot that can hinder a film on its own. (Though there are enough obstacles and distinct set-pieces presenting their own challenges to the characters that it's really not fair to accuse the film of being plot-less. It just has fewer moving parts than your average blockbuster.) The Battleformers-type films hurt less for lack of plot than they do for lack of emotion.

Character design plays a role in this too. I'd never claim Immortan Joe is a particularly deep or a well-developed character. He is merely The Antagonist, a representation of everything that's evil in this world. Yet we want to see him killed, probably painfully. His defeat would be cathartic for us. How is it possible that a character so thin can stir such strong reactions?

His look plays a big part in this. He's not just ugly, he's physically revolting to look at. He's got strange sores on his bloated body. His armor is designed to look unpleasent against the inhuman pale of his skin and the crowning touch is the horrifying facemask he wears. It pushes certain buttons in the viewers. He's a disgusting abomination and the end of his existence will be a relief.

This same approach is how Darth Maul can make such an impact despite being horribly underused in The Phantom Menace. He has a demonic, evil look that repells us on a primal level. Jabba the Hutt has maybe 30 minutes of screentime, but he's so disgusting and so physically unpleasant to behold that we transfer that vileness onto the character.

Now think about the character design in Transformers. Or Battleship. It all feels so much more generic. Half the time, it's hard to tell the robots apart, and they have too many moving parts. Simplicity is the key in character design. The devil is less in the details and more in how much impact a visual can make instantly. In Battleship's case, the problem is more that the aliens look rather generic. Could you even draw one from memory a week after seeing the film?

Most of you reading this blog are probably writers and when you're focusing on plot and dialogue, you might stop thinking as heavily about the visual. There's no greater refresher course for how minimalist dialogue and story arcs can be elevated by effective visual storytelling than MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Austin Film Festival deadline this week - May 20

Longtime readers of this blog know that I don't endorse many screenwriting contests. There are to few of them that mean anything to people working in the industry and I feel like if I'm going to tell you to drop your hard-earned cash somewhere, it had better be with an establishment I would give money to myself.

I've previously offered lists of contests and fellowships I endorse, as well as The Black List. You'll notice that among that number is the Austin Film Festival. It was brought to my attention that the deadline for teleplays and screenplays is this Wednesday, May 20th. Consider this a public service. Details below:

Austin Film Festival Screenplay & Teleplay Competition

Final Deadline: May 20

All submissions must be received or postmarked by 11:59PM PST on Wednesday, May 20

AFF’s Screenplay & Teleplay Competition is one of the most respected writing contests in the country with a rich history of championing and supporting writers. For the first time ever, AFF will provide Reader Comments to ALL entrants in the Screenplay & Teleplay Competition for FREE! In addition, all entrants receive registration discounts, with even bigger discounts when you place in the competition. Unlike other screenplay competitions, your experience with AFF doesn’t end after making the first cut. Second Rounders (the esteemed top 10-12% in each category), Semifinalists, and Finalists attend special panels, programmed specifically for them and not open to regular badge holders. 

This year, AFF has an exciting line-up of sponsored award judges including AMC for the One-Hour Pilot category, the Writer’s Guild of America East who will provide three established WGAE screenwriters to judge the Final Round of the Drama category, Enderby Entertainment who will be looking for scripts with an original concept and distinctive voice that can be produced under $5 million, and Frank Darabont’s Darkwoods Productions who will be reviewing this year’s top Sci-Fi scripts. May 20 is the Late (and Final) Deadline for screenplay submissions so enter yours before it really is too late! Now accepting short and digital series scripts!

Monday, May 4, 2015


The press tour for Avengers: Age of Ultron has been notable for many reasons, some relevant to the film, some not. Amid the social-media-ready tempests like actors putting their foots in their mouths and interviewers asking inappropriate questions has been the unmistakable sense in every Joss Whedon interview that the writer/director was completely broken by this film. Whedon sounds like a man who's just come back from war. If you've ever had a conversation with someone who's given off a weary, "I am so over this" vibe when discussing their job, you have a good sense of how Whedon is coming off. It feels like a combination of exhaustion from the work and exasperation from dealing with the politics of studio filmmaking.

After seeing Age of Ultron, I totally get it.

In terms of scope and complexity, this is by far the biggest Marvel movie attempted, and in many respects, the biggest tentpole movie attempted. Just to use Michael Bay's Transformers films as a contrast, as big and sprawling and exhausting as they are, as much post-production as they require, the stories are pretty straightforward and they have a much cleaner throughline. You have a human hero, his girlfriend, a wacky sidekick, good robot, bad robot, and usually two or three prestige actors in small "payday roles." And the easy part is, there's little obligation to flesh them out equally.

An Avengers film is a different beast, as it requires balancing the egos of three heroes with their own film series, a further three who've been core members of the team - all of whom generally should be given some equal weight. Add to that a main villain, two additional antagonists AND a number of cameos from other supporting heroes... and you have a character roster designed to drive any writer nuts as he crafts a story that not only gives them each some face time, but also makes them integral to the story. The worst thing would be for the audience to leave feeling like, "I don't think the Hulk really needed to be in this one."

Adding to the complexity is that with most of these characters establish - some of them WELL established - there's less freedom to bend their characterizations to serve the story. Do this sort of thing wrong and you'll be sniffed out as a fraud. Oh, and you have to do it while topping already gargantuan expectiations that this'll be more spectacular than the first film.

How does Whedon manage? For the most part, he gets his lasso around this beast.

The core story - and I'm gonna drop a lot of big spoilers ahead, so be warned - springs from a Tony Stark artificial intelligence project gone awry. Ultron was supposed to be a project to keep the world safe, but due to a combination of poor programing on Tony's part and (I think, this is a bit muddy) some interaction with the gem in Loki's staff Ultron breaks free of his programming, commanders several robot bodies after building himself an imposing new form, and sets out to end war... by ending humanity.

By his side are twins who've gone through Hydra experimentation and emerged with powers. Scarlet Witch has vaguish magical powers and the ability to mess with people's minds to draw out their biggest fears. Quicksilver is superfast, though a secondary power of his seems to be to use his superspeed in less interesting ways than his X-Men: Days of Future Past counterpart last summer.

That's the A-story. Branching out from all of this comes all the various character threads. Many of these draw from what we've seen in the intervening films, such as the collapse of SHIELD in The Winter Soldier. At times, the transition is less smooth. The end of Iron Man 3 implies that Tony has hung it up and is done. Two years later, he's fighting with the Avengers as if it's business as usual.

Tony's whole arc in this is a bit jittery. Even ignoring the end of Iron Man 3, his Ultron project is exposited in a somewhat clunky fashion. We learn about it almost literally seconds before its corrupted, which feels like a slight miscalculation in pacing. It's as if Pandora opening her box was preceded only moments earlier by "Here. Take this box. But don't open it. It's bad."

Even though Tony's mistake is the event that puts everything into motion, it feels like his character is less featured in this film. Near the end of the film's second act, the plot requires Tony to virtually repeat his earlier mistake. This sparks a brief fight with Captain America and a few of the others. It's a point where we have a very, very surface-level understanding of the motivations involved.

Then at the end of the film, Tony ends up driving off into the sunset, leaving superheroing behind. There's just enough for us to connect the dots, but it's not totally satisfying in its own way.

More than any entry so far, this feels not just like a Marvel comic but one of those big summer crossover issues that's just overstuffed with characters and incidents. This is like a House of M or Secret Invasion miniseries, where it's fair game for every character to show up. As with those sprawling storylines, there are moments where one gets the impression that the less-explained moments of the epic get fleshed out in individual tie-in issues.

A good example of this is Thor's storyline, which sends him off on a brief tangent that plays out like an under-explained vision quest. This is one subplot that was more obviously trimmed to the bare bones. When Thor shows up to suddenly move a major chunk of the story forward and bring along a great deal of exposition about the Infinity Stones, it's hard not to imagine an editor's caption "*See more about Thor's vision quest in THOR #239!"

Captain America also gets short-shrift in the drama department. It's fortunate that this is a script from someone like Whedon, who's able to get a lot of character moments wedged into idle banter within the interactions. He and Tony have some verbal sparing, some playful, some not. The main conflict between them feels like a warm-up for the next film, though. Chris Evans makes the most of what he's got, but Cap isn't driving the plot like he did last time.

The good news is that everyone gets screentime and at least one or two great moments that are uniquely theirs. An early highlight is a party in the Avengers Tower filled with cameos and these large personalities bouncing off of each other. It's here where Whedon reminds us he's the master of the set-up and payoff as more than one seemingly-extraneous bit of fun here turns out to be a seed planted for bigger moments later in the film.

(One of them - it's the moment involving Thor's hammer - had its payoff come about in a slightly unexpected way. SPOILERS. The party scene underlines that only someone worthy can lift Thor's hammer. What follows is a display of egos as Tony, Banner and eventually Cap try to pick it up. Cap gets it to budge. Slightly. I assumed this was set-up for a third-act bit where Cap would need to wield the hammer. Instead, it's paid off in a different way. Following the introduction of a new character, the team debates if they should trust this new arrival. That matter is handily settled when this person easily wields the hammer. Perfect instance of "show, not tell." "How do we know we can trust this guy?" "Well, he's able to lift the thing that only really, really good people can handle.")

It's a very full movie, but fortunately it hits more than it misses. The opening set-piece is a lot of fun despite some so-so CGI and the promised clash of Hulk versus Iron Man in his Hulkbuster armor might be my favorite action sequence in the film. It's the perfect blend of tension, comedy and violence.

That sequence also ends up introducing something that is initially refreshing - the notion of the heroes actively trying to minimize human casualties. MAN OF STEEL really got hit for this, with a vehemence that seems out of proportion considering the first AVENGERS barely raised an eyebrow without doing much more to show the heroes going out of their way. And don't even get me started on the total cop-out of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY's "We've evacuated the city" as some kind of quick-fix to make the third-act ending battle more acceptable.

(I almost literally heard Rob Lowe's character from THANK YOU FOR SMOKING in my head during that scene. "It's an easy fix. One line of dialogue...")

The Hulkbuster sequence deals with this by having Tony's armor seek out a building with no people inside. There's also a sequence involving a runaway train where shielding the civilians is a priority. But by the time we get to the final action orgy, there's something very... I hesitate to say... "corny" about the film's insistance on aggressively reassuring us the civilians are taken care of. It called to mind how Saturday morning cartoons adhered to violence restrictions by always making sure that when bad guy planes were shot down, every single one of them was shown deploying their parachutes and apparently surviving.

Don't get me wrong. The goal is laudable, but I wish Whedon had found a way to moderate it just a little bit. more. A nice touch is that we get the impression that the lives lost in that battle haunt Banner.

As the end approached, the comparisons with crossover maxi-series again came to mind, as the finale plays less like the end of a story and more like a launching pad for several new series. Tony going off on his own works, but probably had more material supporting it in longer cuts, and the showcase of who remains in the team for the next film is done pretty well.


But Hulk's fate is maddeningly open-ended. The last we see of him, he's on a quinplane that's flying off into nowhere. He even apparently cuts off communication with Black Widow of his own accord and allows the jet to fly off into the unknown. It's a weird way to set up that loose thread, made even more discordant by a follow-up scene where Nick Fury says they're sure the plane crashed, but they can't find it. His almost nonchalant "He'll turn up" is a weird note to leave that scene on. It might have played better for me if Fury said it like he was trying to be blase about it, but deep down was concerned they might never find him.

Obviously he'll turn up, but the film doesn't seem to know how it wants to play the emotion of him being missing in action. On the other hand, these movies have seemingly killed so many characters who later came back fine, perhaps Whedon's muting of the character reactions is in reaction to the criticism of these fakeouts.

Hawkeye's departure makes a little more sense and I generally like how he's used in this. Fans who were pushing for a Black Widow/Hawkeye relationship are probably going to be thrown for a loop after seeing he's been married long enough to have two young kids. A neat consequence of this is it forces the viewer to revisit the supposed sexual tension between Natasha and Barton in the first film. It's kind of nice to see them showing a functional male/female relationship that doesn't necessarily end in paying off sexual tension.

Pairing her with Banner is one of the film's surprising choices. We're not shown much about this flirtation, which amounts to little more than a tease. Though has anyone noticed that when it comes to dynamics with each of the other characters, Black Widow might be the most fleshed out? Black Widow/Thor might be the only under-explored dynamic in her relationships. Tony is close behind, with only Iron Man/Hawkeye being a total tabula rosa.  Cap really hasn't been given a great deal of interaction with Banner or Thor - two characters who are mostly distant from at least half the ensemble.

It can't have been easy to craft this story in a way that allowed character to shine as much as action and plot. After one viewing, I feel like Ultron was enjoyable, but not quite as good as the first film. However, it's easily the most ambitious and even though it's not immune to the "now our moment of synergy to promote future projects" that's marred several of the films, it feels less intrusive here. The ending tag probably would have been more effective if GOTG had managed to establish Thanos beyond being "Evil Dude who sits on a throne a lot."

Still, I'd put it in the upper 25% of Marvel films. I'm a bit afraid that this movie will pull an Independence Day on me and somehow plummeted massively in enjoyment on a second viewing. For now, this has me eager for next year's Captain America: Civil War. That's being directed by the Russo Brothers, who'll follow that up with Avengers: Infinity War Parts I and II. I shudder a bit to think what a more massive Marvel movie than this will look like. If just one of these movies exhausted Whedon so much, have a few hugs ready for the Russos come 2018.

Friday, May 1, 2015

THE POSTHUMAN PROJECT - John Hughes meets superheroes

My friend Sterling Gates recently co-wrote a micro-budget film that's been getting some notice at a few festivals and today it's finally available on VOD. The movie has been described as "John Hughes meets superhero origins" and just this week got a very positive review from Ain't It Cool News.

In “The Posthuman Project”, five friends on the verge of graduating high school accidentally receive superpowers during a rock-climbing trip. The genetic boost changes everything and they are faced with the first decisions of their adult lives. Will they give up these powers and continue to live as normal teenagers? Or will embrace their newfound powers and become posthuman?

The Posthuman Project: Official Trailer from Kyle Roberts on Vimeo.

Sterling, who cowrote the film with Matthew Price, was the perfect person to tackle this material, having written in comics for almost eight years. During that time, he's written for GREEN LANTERN CORPS, WORLD'S FINEST, VIBE, HAWK &; DOVE and had a very well-received run on the SUPERGIRL title.

Price and Gates, along with director Kyle Roberts, are Oklahoma natives and were honored last month with the Trailblazer Award at The 16th Annual BareBones International Independent Film and Music Festival in Muskogee Oklahoma. In March, it won GeekFest Film Fest’s Best Feature Award at Long Beach Comic Expo 2015.

Click here to find the film on iTunes.

Press Release follows

Reckless Abandonment Pictures is announcing today worldwide video-on-demand distribution for the award-winning independent film “The Posthuman Project”, a superhero teen drama written by comic book writer Sterling Gates (DC Comics’ SUPERGIRL) and THE OKLAHOMAN journalist Matthew Price and directed by Kyle Roberts, making his debut as a feature film director. “The Posthuman Project” will be available on all major video-on-demand platforms for a May 1, 2015 release and is currently available for pre-order on iTunes.

In “The Posthuman Project”, five friends on the verge of graduating high school accidentally receive superpowers during a rock-climbing trip. The genetic boost changes everything and they are faced with the first decisions of their adult lives. Will they give up these powers and continue to live as normal teenagers? Or will embrace their newfound powers and become posthuman? The film stars Kyle Whalen, Collin Place, Lindsay Sawyer, Alexandra Harris, Josh Bonzie and Rett Terrell. The film’s producers include Vahid Farzaneh, Wendy Parker, Sha’ree Green, Matthew Price and Sterling Gates, with John Scamehorn and Kyle Roberts executive producing.

The ninety-minute feature was shot on location in Oklahoma with an all-local cast and crew and has played across the United States, Europe and South America to sold-out crowds as part of the festival circuit, winning ten awards overall, including Best Feature at five festivals.

For the film, Emmy Award-winning director Kyle Roberts fused together his love of teen drama with superheroic adventure. “This film is tonally influenced by John Hughes movies of the 1980s and Marvel’s X-MEN,” said Roberts. "A cross genre feature like this is something I haven't seen done before. And we accomplished it with a micro-budget."

The film also features the song "Thrilla in Manila” by singer-songwriter and pianist Greyson Chance, whose performance of Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" has over 50 million views on YouTube and who has appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Chance will release his second studio album, Planet X, in 2015. The album's second single "Meridians" was released last month.

The film’s writers are well versed in the world of super powers. In addition to writing for the OKLAHOMAN, Matthew Price owns Speeding Bullet Comics in Oklahoma. His co-writer, the Tulsa, Oklahoma native Sterling Gates has written multiple titles for DC Comics, including ACTION COMICS, GREEN LANTERN CORPS and JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA.

“We wanted to capture the teen experience of graduating high school and filter it through the lens of a comic book movie,” said co-writer Sterling Gates. “These characters are all dealing with vastly different struggles and emotions as their graduation looms near, but most of all, they’re worried about how their lives are going to change. One day, everything changes for them in a bigger way than they could have ever possibly imagined.”

“A superhero origin story ala John Hughes...Impressive.”— Ain’t It Cool News

“This is a fresh break from all of these so called "realistic," dark and depressing superhero movies. You're going to enjoy this movie if you're a comic book fan or just somebody that enjoys sci-fi/adventure movies.”— MoviePilot

About Sterling Gates

Sterling Gates was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He earned a degree in Art from the University of Oklahoma, specializing in Film and Media Arts, Sterling has written for various DC Comics titles including GREEN LANTERN CORPS, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, WORLD'S FINEST, ACTION COMICS, ADVENTURE COMICS, FLASHPOINT: KID FLASH LOST, HAWK & DOVE, JLA: VIBE, FOREVER EVIL: A.R.G.U.S., and STORMWATCH; he is best known for his acclaimed run on SUPERGIRL. Alongside writers Geoff Johns, James Robinson, and Greg Rucka, Sterling co-wrote the New York Times best-selling "Superman: New Krypton Saga" graphic novel series, including SUPERMAN: NEW KRYPTON, SUPERMAN: THE LAST STAND OF NEW KRYPTON, and SUPERMAN: WAR OF THE SUPERMEN.

He also scripted the MAN OF STEEL prequel comic (based on a story by David S. Goyer, Geoff Johns, and Zack Snyder) in a joint digital publishing venture between DC Comics and Wal-Mart. You can follow him on Twitter at @sterlinggates

About Matthew Price

Matthew Price is a Features Editor for THE OKLAHOMAN, where he’s worked since 2000. He’s a University of Oklahoma graduate who has also worked at the ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE and was a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund intern for the DALLAS MORNING NEWS. He’s always been interested in comics, reading them at age 2, working in comic shops starting at 17, printing his first comics 'zine at 20 and buying a comic-book store at 23. His column on comics, WORD BALLOONS, has run weekly in THE OKLAHOMAN’s Weekend Look section since 2001. Matt's blog, NERDAGE, has been honored by the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists, and his store, Norman's Speeding Bullet Comics, co-owned with his wife, Annette, was nominated for the Eisner Spirit of Retailing Award in 2005. You can follow him on Twitter at @nerdage.

About Kyle Roberts

Kyle Roberts is an Emmy Award-winning director with over 10 years of experience. He currently serves as the owner of Reckless Abandonment Pictures LLC, an independent motion picture company based in Oklahoma City, OK. Roberts specializes in film projects including stop motion animation and music videos. Through these creative efforts, media outlets all over the world have written about RA-Pictures including mentions from the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, VH1, Gizmodo, WIRED Magazine, and Mashable. In 2012, Roberts was selected to compete on Syfy's first season of 'Viral Video Showdown'. You can follow him on Twitter at @VideoKyle