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 www.blcklst.com.

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.