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.