Friday, December 29, 2017

My Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

The end of the year brings Top 10 Lists! I'm still catching up on my 2017 feature releases, so expect that around the middle of January, but I've watched more than enough TV to put out a list of my Top 10 TV Shows for 2017. No one reads these intros anyway, so let's get right to it:

1) American Vandal - The first time I saw a trailer for American Vandal, I was convinced it was a fake trailer. Even when I realized it was posted by Netflix, I remained open to the possibility that they had decided to have a little fun making a fake trailer applying the MAKING A MURDERER formula to the story of a high school documentary determined to find out who spray-painted dicks on the cars in the faculty lounge. In other words, my expectations that this joke could sustain a single installment, much less 8 episodes, were very low. I could not have been more wrong. American Vandal blew past those expectations and even beyond any best-case-scenario I could have conceived.

There are few savvier moves in television this year than the story turn in Episode 5 where we learn that the mockumentary has gone public and the rest of the show becomes not just about the investigation, but the impact of the documentary on the people it examines. The creators pulled off an incredible high-wire act here that elevated this beyond almost any mockumentary I've ever seen. Far more than a goof, this is a series about voyeurism, the media, and the regular trials of just getting through life in a typical high school. My biggest regret is that I watched this at a time when I wasn't available to give this a 5 or 10 part examination on my blog.

2) The Good Place - The best thing network TV did last year. Last year's finale (which aired in January) completely upended the entire series with a reveal that worked all the better because we barely knew a mystery existed. Learning that Eleanor and her friends ALL were in The Bad Place not only let Ted Danson do some fabulous scenery chewing, but it positioned the series for a total reset in Season 2. It seemed like the creators could only disappoint from there, but amazingly, the second season quickly moved past the expected repeated beats and blew up the show again. I have NO idea the state we'll leave the show in with this year's finale and I love watching a show where it feels like anything can happen.

3) 13 Reasons Why - I wrote 13 (actually 14, really) posts about why I was hit so hard by this series about the events that led a teenage girl to take her own life, and many months later, I stand by all of it. Katherine Langford gave the breakout performance of the year as the gradually unraveling Hannah Baker, who leaves behind cassette tapes addressed to each person she says put her on the road to her death. The episode focusing on Clay's tape is still one of the most heartbreaking episodes of TV I saw this year, and Dylan Minnette deserves just as much praise as Langford for anchoring this series.

Beyond all that, it was nice to have a Netflix show where each episode felt like a distinct chapter as opposed to being part of a "13-hour movie." I don't dispute a couple middle chapters lagged, more for their lack of present-day momentum than for the Hannah-focused material. (Episode 7 being the worst offender in that regard). But the show finished strong and despite the near impossibility of continuing this arc in a satisfying way, I'm as eager for Season 2 as I am for the next Star Wars. Like American Vandal, this series really seems to capture the authenticity of teenage life today, and manages to do so with a fairly diverse cast.

4) Master of None - I've seen a lot of lists single out the series for the short-film quality of standalone eps like "New York, I Love You," but that overlooks how cohesive the show feels despite these "art project" forays. The standout episode of the season is "Thanksgiving," which doesn't center on Aziz Ansari's Dev, but rather co-writer and supporting player Lena Waithe's Denise, as we follow her journey of coming out across several years. Waithe and Ansari deservedly won an Emmy for this episode, and I want you to imagine any other similar comedy series pulling off the trick of building an entire episode around a character who was absent from more eps than she appeared in and have it STILL feel like a true half-hour of the series. Could Curb Your Enthusiasm get away with a Jeff-focused or a Funkhauser-focused installment?

Not everything about this season was a home run for me, but the running thread of Dev's Cupcake Wars series and the finale's left turn into a sexual harassment story brought to mind how the best seasons of Seinfeld kept a standalone feel even with season-long storylines.

5) The Handmaid's Tale -This series had the timing of the century coming on the heels of Trump's arrival in the White House. The openly oppressive and misogynistic society it depicts feels like something out of a Mike Pence wet dream. That timing adds a fresh sense of horror to the story of Elizabeth Moss's June/Offred, a handmaid assigned to the home of one of the new society's leaders. No show or movie this year made me HATE its villains as much as this series dead. Yvonne Strahovski's Serena Joy had brief moments of empathy through the season which made her truly despicable actions in the finale even more potent and infuriating.

I also REALLY hope that Ann Dowd's Aunt Lydia, the woman whose job it is to basically break and brainwash the handmaids, comes to a really nasty end before the season is over. Dowd has created one of the great villains of television, and all of this gives Moss some really great material to play against. And in the "we didn't know you had it in you" category, former Rory Gilmore actress Alexis Bledel showed of some incredible chops in her Emmy-winning showcase episode. The universally powerful acting smoothed over a couple of the slower episodes that felt like they were there to build out the world for future seasons. I'm curious to see how season two expands the world and the story of the Resistance, or if retreats to the more intimate drama and tension that was more often the show's strength this year.

6) Better Call Saul - Even as the show added Breaking Bad antagonist Gus Fring to the mix, it seemed to stake out more of its identity as being its own show completely independent of its "parent." It's interesting that - like 13 Reasons Why, in a way - this series mines a lot of tension out of the drive to a sad conclusion the audience likely keeps trying to will out of existence. We've had a lot of time to fall for Jimmy McGill, enough that it's gonna be hard to have him taken away from us when he completes his transformation into the much more amoral Saul Goodman. This is essentially a series about the battle for Jimmy's soul and we've known from the start that he loses. What we didn't know was that he had this much of a good heart to begin with.

This season gave us plenty of charming moments with our favorite shyster, but the real power came from the final conflict between Jimmy and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean.) The episode where Jimmy fully outwits Chuck and destroys his reputation in the process was a heartbreaker. We root for Jimmy because the series is empathetic to his point of view and because Chuck is a dick - but Chuck isn't all wrong in his criticisms of Jimmy and it feels like next season, we'll see more of that validated, even as Chuck has been taken off the board.

7) Bates Motel - When this series was announced, I didn't think they could pull it off. Then after watching season one, I still doubted a series based on PSYCHO could work, but Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore were doing such great work that it outshone the often weak plotting with regard to the local town mythology. The big moment of season two for me was when we saw the birth of the Mother persona and it still felt like a genuine shock, as the lead actors had managed to separate their work so completely from the Hitchcock production. The final two or three seasons were the strongest, with this season finally sending Norman into total madness and becoming the deranged young man we met in the film. Ingeniously, the creators threw a curve ball when they introduced Marion Crane and upended all expectations. It could have sunk the series, but by then, we'd accepted this Norman Bates as a different animal from Anthony Perkins's iconic performance. Sometimes, bad ideas can be executed really well and I never thought I'd be eager to see a weekly Norman Bates hour.

8) Better Things - Pamela Adlon is an actress usually called upon to play straight-talking, no-bullshit voices of reason. One of the savvy things Better Things does is take that persona and put her in situations where it's often impotent, like trying to be single mother to her three daughters. Technically the show is a comedy, but for me it often plays more as a drama with funny parts. This season tried the "short film each week" approach possibly to an even more aggressive degree than Master of None. It makes for occasionally frustrating viewing if you're expecting immediate follow-up to dangling plotlines, but somehow it's effective to feel like we're sometimes getting incomplete pieces of Adlon's Sam and her life, with us having to figure out the offscreen journey from A to B via context. Perhaps more than any of the other shows on this list, I've found this is one that you can't explain to people - you just have to get them to watch it.

Also, this is possibly one of my favorite scenes from the year, with Adlon cycling through every possible line reading of "No!"

9) Big Little Lies - Some writers have such potent voices that you can pick them out instantly, despite any attempts to vary the tone or the subject matter. No matter the TV or movie script, Sorkin always sounds like Sorkin, Amy Sherman-Palladino will ALWAYS sound like Amy Sherman-Palladino, and David E. Kelley will always be identifiable by his quirkiness and monologues. Or so I thought. This is the most un-David E. Kelley show that David E. Kelley could have done.

Though it's framed by a murder investigation, the series really is the story of several affluent women in Monterey, who spend most of their time teaming up to work with and against each other in all manner of school-related drama that involves each of their first-graders. With actors like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern, the series is a compelling exploration of the difficult lives they lead beneath their privilege. (I realize that makes this sound like American Beauty, but I assure you the series is much, much better.) One has an abusive husband and needs to understand that before she has any hope of leaving him, one finds herself tempted to stray in her marriage, another initially presents as a Queen Bee monster before revealing a softer side, and another is finally ready to confront the sexual assault that conceived her child.

I'll be honest, I wasn't too compelled by the framing mystery. It was the characters and their storylines that brought me back for each episode, not the desire to find out who had been killed and who was the murderer. The eventual reveal that Kidman's husband was the same character who raped Shailene Woodley's character also seemed a bit pat and unnecessary. Maybe on a second viewing I'll notice things that set that up more clearly, but on a first pass, it came out of nowhere. As a showcase for some of the best working actresses, though, BLL is hard to beat.

10) One Day at a Time - I'll admit, this one took a few episodes to fully grow on me. I don't really watch any three-camera shows any more and part of that is that the tone and style feel too artificial for me. (I think this has more to do with the quality of the new series I've seen, as I don't have this issue with reruns of Seinfeld, Cheers and just about any other classic sitcom.) I've never seen the original version so I can't speak to comparisons between the two. Like several other shows on this list, it became more relevant this year than it might have, focusing on a family of Cuban immigrants raised by a single mother who's also a military vet. The show's dealt with PTSD, illegal immigrants, gender bias, religion, homosexuality, and more... all with the same deft touch that co-creator Norman Lear used almost 40 years ago when he created All in the Family and The Jeffersons. It feels authentic instead of preachy and manages to be consistently funny. It's a great era for sitcoms that actually have something to say.

Honorable Mentions:

Veep - a solid season that's only a disappointment when stacked against a couple really strong prior seasons. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss had one of favorite line readings this season when she threatened, "I will destroy you in ways that are so creative they will honor me for it at the Kennedy Center."

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Yes, it didn't produce the number of instant classics that season 7 or 8 did, but this was a very entertaining season nonetheless. "Accidental Text on Purpose" belongs in the Curb Hall-of-Fame and the resolution of Larry's fatwa was actually pretty clever.

GLOW - I love the way that season can be read as Alison Brie's character discovering and embracing that she's the villain of the story. It's a great way of addressing the issue that I and many others had with her likability in the first episode. And how great was Marc Maron?

Great News - Another strong, if underseen, network sitcom. Briga Heelan stars as a young local news producer who has to deal with her smother of a mother becoming the station's new intern, played by comic legend Andrea Martin. The show's got the comic sensibility of 30 Rock (it's from some of the same producers, including Tina Fey) which allows it to do things like deal with sexual harassment in the workplace in oddball ways while still making a legitimate point about gender issues. Nicole Richie has also become a force of comic insanity that rivals Jane Krakowski's Jenna on 30 Rock.

The Goldbergs - Five seasons in and this show is still consistently funny and getting solid work out of its ensemble every week.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Luke Skywalker takes us on an emotional journey in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Warning: I'm going to be discussing everything about Star Wars: The Last Jedi here. Consider this your Spoiler Alert.

As one of the authors of THE MAKING OF STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII, I was curious to see how much of the film Brian Michael Scully and I correctly guessed now that the film is in release. Turns out we nailed it, all of it. Don't bother to check, just take my word for it.

I'm led to believe that most boys growing up tended to dream about being Han Solo more than they did Luke. Han was the cool guy, the hot shot pilot who got the girl and always had a witty line to say. His cocky aloofness was apparently far more appealing than Luke's pureheart earnestness.

I was one of the kids who wanted to be Luke Skywalker.

After a film's worth of build-up we finally get to know the modern version of Luke Skywalker in writer/director Rian Johnson's THE LAST JEDI as Rey arrives at the first Jedi Temple to ask for his help. Arm outstretched, she delivers his lightsaber, his father's lightsaber. Luke takes it, studies it for a moment... and then chucks it over his shoulder.

This is not going to go the way we think.

There are a lot of plot threads winding through THE LAST JEDI (too many, to be honest), but the most consequential and controversial is the Luke/Rey thread, as the young would-be Jedi learns what drove Luke into exile and why he's none too eager to come out of it. After Rey ignores his first few admonishments to go away, he tells her, "I came here to die."

I don't think that claim entirely holds up under scrutiny, but I'll come back to that in a moment.

We already knew that Luke disappeared after Kylo Ren went bad, killed all of his students and destroyed Luke's Jedi Academy. What we didn't know was the confrontation that set this off. Luke visited the young Ben Solo as he slept and looked into his mind. He discovered that the darkness in him was greater than he feared, too great to be stopped at that point. In a moment of impulse, he ignited his lightsaber, ready to end his threat now. It was a reaction he almost immediately reconsidered, but Ben awoke, saw this and attacked Luke. By the time Luke woke up, his students were dead.

So Luke's guilt is three-fold:

1) He feels he should have caught Ben's turn to the Dark Side sooner.

2) He shouldn't have momentarily considered killing him.

3) He shouldn't have FAILED to kill him.

And yes, 2 and 3 set off a logic feedback loop. That's part of the issue.

Also, let's consider the fact that Luke was the guy who still believed there was enough good still in conflict with Darth Vader that he could be salvaged. How dark must Kylo Ren's soul be for Luke to think even for a second that he was beyond saving?

I suspect that when Luke went looking for the first Jedi Temple, it was with the intent of using that ancient knowledge to figure out where he went wrong so badly that he allowed the rise of another Vader. He needed to understand what he could do differently to keep his students safe from the Dark Side. Clearly, what he learned about the Jedi and the Force was that this susceptibility was less of a bug than a feature. That would have to be what drove him to see the Jedi legacy as one of failure, and one that the galaxy would be better off without.

It's not the future we envisioned for Luke when we left him in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Having defeated the Emperor and redeemed his father, his Jedi ascension came with the promise that he would be the one to restore the Jedi without making the mistakes of the past. This was only further reinforced by the prequels, which deliberately showed the old Jedi as stiff and formal, almost rigidly constrained by their own dogma. Luke was to be a new breed, possibly more spiritual and less orthodox.

Luke represented the hope of a new post-war generation, ready to move past the mistakes of its parents and ready to begin a new golden age. Only now, another fascist faction has risen, democracy has been destroyed and all the mistakes that older generation were supposed to have put in the past are now the responsibility of the younger generation to fix anew.

Oh, wait. NOW I totally relate to what sent Luke out to that island. And if I was Rey, I'd be all over him like, "Are you kidding me, dude! Get off your ass and fix this mess you made! It can't be ALL on the next generation!"

I actually understand the reaction from fans who feel that THE LAST JEDI undermines Luke's entire story. The original six films paint a picture of an archaic Jedi Order that needed to evolve in order to survive. Luke was the redemption of all of that, to the degree that it's the entire point of the six-film arc. TLJ tells us, "Yeah, that's not true at all."

I'll be honest. I'm still processing that. The movie doesn't let Luke off the hook by having Rey open his eyes to the good of the Jedi. A surprise visit from Yoda serves only to reinforce Luke's perspective that the Jedi cannot go on as they used to. It's very easy to take from this film the idea that the galaxy would be no worse off than if Luke Skywalker had never been born.

It's hard to watch Luke become a cautionary tale of his own, but Mark Hamill plays the broken Jedi Master perfectly. In his early scenes, Luke seems to have gone a bit loopy in isolation and even when he gives in to offer Rey insight into the Force, he's far from the serene mentor we might have hoped he be. (In one interesting bit of potential foreshadowing, he notes with fear that she didn't even hesitate about diving into a reserve of Dark Side power. Is there darkness in Rey? Or will she learn it's possible to wield the Dark Side without being corrupted by it?)

While it's taking apart our expectations of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, THE LAST JEDI works to subvert our assumptions of what a STAR WARS film should be. In a shocking late film twist, Supreme Leader Snoke meets his end during a confrontation between Rey and Kylo Ren, when Ren betrays his master and murders him. Snoke seemed poised to fill the void left by the Emperor and so long as he lived, there was reasonable hope for Kylo Ren's redemption. In one of the film's most delicious ironies, Ren kills his dark master and THAT is the thing that conclusively shows he's too far gone to be saved.

This means we go into the final chapter with the First Order led by a dangerously unstable man-baby. Twice in the final battle he's shown to be unhinged, as when he orders all ships to pursue the Millennium Falcon and then later when he has every gun trained on Luke Skywalker. The First Order isn't in for the most considered leadership and it almost makes one wonder if Ren's eventual downfall will come as the result of a coup.

And to be clear, I never thought Snoke was going to be revealed to have some secret connection to past characters or anything of that sort. I'm glad he didn't turn out to be some kind of Emperor clone or anything else that would have made this universe smaller. Some fans may be upset he got taken off the board so early... I'm ecstatic!

By the same token, the film resolves the mystery of Rey's parents in the only way that would have really made sense - they were nobodies who sold her for booze money and who are buried out in the desert. As someone tired of the "Chosen One" trope and "small universe syndrome" I'm thrilled she didn't turn out to be a former student of Luke's who had her memory wiped, or a secret daughter of Han and Leia, or Luke's daughter, or any other theory that fans built up over the last two years. She's no one, and that gives her more impact than any lineage they could have tied her to.

Not everything works here. As much as I like Finn his entire subplot does little but go in circles. He and Rose have a fun rapport, but by the time their story's resolved it ends up changing nothing about the main narrative. Benicio del Toro brings an interesting energy to his part, and the diversion lets Rian Johnson get in an interesting layer about war profiteers in the STAR WARS universe, but in a movie that's two and a half hours long, this extra baggage brings down the pace a bit.

Leia's storyline is a little more interesting, as the First Order pursues the Resistance, Leia's capital ship finds itself in a slow speed chase. One attack kills most of the leadership and leaves Leia in a coma, prompting her replacement (played by Laura Dern) to clash with Poe. This story is a little more engaging, mostly because it provokes some growth in Poe. It also pays off in one of the most stunning visuals of the new trilogy when the enemy flagship is taken out. I've seen nitpicks of the "science" here, but STAR WARS is the last franchise you should try to bring any kind of science realism to.

Carrie Fisher's final appearance as Leia is as emotional as you'd expect. In one wonderful sequence she appears to have been killed after being sucked into space, only for her Force abilities to manifest long enough for her to propel herself back to the ship. I still feel it was a major missed opportunity to apparently not have Leia explore her Force abilities at all in the intervening years, but this one moment mitigated that slightly. (And, had Carrie lived, possibly could have set up an advancement of that storyline in Episode IX.)

Adam Driver continues to do incredible work as Kylo Ren. We're basically getting the Anakin arc done right this time, and that plays well against our expectations. We keep expecting the redemptive moment even as the film tells us twice that this only can end with his death. I'm looking forward to seeing him go full-on megalomaniac in the third film, and especially how that'll force Daisy Ridley to raise her game even more to match him.

It's remarkable how much the new characters have already taken over this franchise. Chewie, R2-D2 and C-3PO are all present but even more in the background than THE FORCE AWAKENS would have led us to expect. Chewie gets some of the film's better moments, though, including his interactions with the Porg creatures on Luke's island and a late-movie moment where he flies to the rescue. As dark as this film gets, all it took is the Falcon riding in, Rey in the gunner's chair, and the Falcon theme from the first film blaring for me to feel like I was 8 again.

(The only thing that could have topped it would have been if - when Ren orders all ships after the Falcon - Luke's X-Wing had flown to the rescue and taken ALL of them out. And yes, I wouldn't have objected to a little more fan service in the vein of "Luke Skywalker, Jedi badass.")

All of this leads to something I was sure we'd see by the end of this trilogy, if not this movie: the death of Luke Skywalker. After using the Force to project his image across the galaxy to confront Kylo Ren and give the Resistance a chance to flee, Luke looks across the ocean at twin setting suns, reacts with wonder to something he sees, and vanishes into the Force like Obi-Wan and Yoda before him.

It's a beautiful image, one that brings us full circle with the young dreamer who stared over the horizon 40 years ago as one of John Williams's most affecting scores played. Luke departs this world believing that nothing he devoted his life to truly mattered, that it will be up to Rey to learn from his mistakes and become the new hope he was believed to be. He leaves knowing that there's nothing he can do to save Kylo Ren from himself.

It's a terrible thing for that dreamer to be faced with - a galaxy made worse despite his own best intentions. And yet, despite that, we're told that he was at peace as he went. The trauma that drove him into exile was so profound that he cut himself off from the Force. I'm going to presume that was the reason that Yoda never made a Force Ghost visit until now. Is there still room for Luke to be wrong about what he asserted to Rey? Did his life, despite its failures, still have purpose?

I like to think so, and I'll chose to believe that when he reengaged with the Force, this time with his new insight that it didn't belong to just the Jedi, he gained a deeper understanding of his place in all of this. There was no guilt, no regret to anchor him any longer, and that was the peace that he united with as he became one with the Force.

THE LAST JEDI eschews many conventions and remainders of the past, to the point many fans have seen it as hostile to THE FORCE AWAKENS and the original films. "Let the past die," Kylo Ren says, "Kill it if you have to." We need not assume that because the franchise is moving beyond its beginnings that it's fully denouncing them. I admit, the most reasonable reading of Luke's story allows for that interpretation.

But this is not the last word on STAR WARS, and even though this is no longer his story, I will be surprised if EPISODE IX doesn't bring at least one visit from Luke, and in a way that unifies all the trilogies and shows us that no matter how derisively Luke refers to himself as a "legend," that title is well-earned.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Bitter's Holiday Gift Guide

As Black Friday dawns, I wanted to offer up a resource for those of you looking to get something for the aspiring writers, filmmakers and TV producers in your family.

Books for the aspiring writer:

For someone interested in knowing what a showrunner does: Showrunners: The Art of Running TV Show is a very frank, in-depth look at the art and business of running a TV show. It really drives home what a demanding job it is. Many participants speak wearily of the long hours and the heavy workflow, but most also display an awareness of how careful one must be when complaining about a job that pays so heavily. Still, we're reminded at the start that 85% of new shows fail, and an interview with a TNT &; TBS executive points out that being a great writer doesn't always make one a great showrunner.

It's also a movie and both references will convey just how all-encompassing the job is. I might actually favor the book, which is in the format of an oral history that has beekn culled from many of the same interviews that appear in the documentary. The book has room to expound on several of the interviews, though the documentary sets itself apart by taking us into several writers' rooms, along with showing us some of the showrunners working on set and meeting fans at Comic-Con.

J.J. Abrams (Alias, Felicity)
Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies)
Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus)
Jane Espenson (Husbands)
Hart Hanson (Bones)
Mike Kelley (Swingtown, Revenge)
Robert King & Michelle King  (The Good Wife)
Damon Lindelof (Lost)
Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica)
Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory)
Ray Romano & Mike Royce (Men of a Certain Age)
Shawn Ryan (The Shield)
Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy)
Janet Tamaro (Rizzoli & Isles)
Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse)

For a first-person look at breaking in and working on staff: Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek.  Jeffrey Stepakoff traces his career in television, starting with breaking in in the '80s, up to the time he was on staff during a critical season of Dawson's Creek. He's retired now, so don't expect much insight that's specific to the current TV landscape, but there's a lot of knowledge to be gleaned from his war stories.

A memoir from a man who co-created one of the most successful sitcoms of the modern era: You're Lucky You're Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom. This is Phil Rosenthal's account of the creation and maintenance of Everybody Loves Raymond. It's been a while since I read this one, but I remember it being an interesting look at modern TV production through the eyes of a showrunner.  I didn't even watch Everybody Loves Raymond and this one kept me in.

Another memoir about becoming a working writer when your first gig was on one of the most successful shows in TV: Conversations With My Agent. Rob Long got his start on Cheers. After that, it was a fight to make sure it wasn't all downhill. As the book copy says: Getting from pitch to pilot is a tricky path to navigate successfully, from making non-negotiable changes and deal-breaking edits, combined with accommodating the whims of studios, networks and agents, often the finished product ends up a long way from where the script-writer started. With the help of his agent, her constant demands, monstrous salesmanship, brutal irony and unswerving loyalty, Long's career fluctuates from wannabe to player, from award-winning script-writer to burnt out has-been.

To better understand the business of TV: Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of The WB and UPN. I've raved about this one before, and I consider it a remarkable look at the sorts of pressures faced by a fledgling pair of networks and how that comes to bear creatively on their shows. Network executives are often demonized as soulless "suits" out to maliciously destroy a show's uniqueness for the sake of the bottom-line, but co-author Susanne Daniels is not one of those. 

The best behind-the-scenes episode and production guide there is: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion. I'm cheating a bit because this one is out of print, and as you can see, used and new copies command a pretty high price. Still, you might find these in second-hand bookstores. This is nearly 800 pages of information about the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Each episode is covered in-depth, with plenty of quotes and insights from the writing staff. It really gives you a sense of how a story takes shape and might go through multiple iterations before finally making it to screen.  Most episode guides focus mostly on synopsis and trivia, but this is a book that really digs into the creation of each episode and the evolution of longer arcs. I wish every TV show was dissected as in-depth as this book does for DS9.

The MasterClass videos:

I just plugged these last week in a massive post, but a couple emails I got afterwards indicated to me that you guy might be interested in giving these as gifts this coming holiday. I've reviewed three MasterClasses so far:

(Note: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)

The cost is $90 for a single class OR you can purchase the All-Access Pass for 180 and have unlimited access to all of their classes for an entire year. The ones of particular interest to aspiring actors, writers and directors are:  

Ron Howard Teaches Directing
Helen Mirren Teaches Acting
Martin Scorsese Teaches Filmmaking

There are other classes available, but the one that has me most curious is Stephen Curry Teaches Basketball  Here's a convenient link to make a purchase as a gift for someone. And as a special bonus, if you use any of the links I've posted, I get a few shekels for the referral. Think of it as giving a gift and getting to support my site at the same tiem, which brings me to... 

Shameless plug:

My book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films is still available on Amazon. The eBook will run you a mere $4.99 and if you're one of those people who prefers paperback books, that'll cost you $10.99

I'm very proud of the book and to be perfectly frank, it would be nice to have a few extra dollars in the coffers this holiday season. So if you're looking for a way to support me, or just want to say Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, do it the capitalist way by buying my book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you love Michael Bay, you will find something to enjoy in this book and if you hate Michael Bay you'll probably still find plenty to love here. Every movie Michael Bay has directed is covered here, in all-new in-depth examinations.

If you want a taste of the book, read the chapters on TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION and THE ROCK for free at their respective posts. Also check out "Why I Wrote a Book About The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films" over at Film School Rejects.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Monday, November 20, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE: a superhero all-star movie held back by low ambitions

Man of Steel Review
Batman v. Superman Theatrical Review (spoiler free) (spoiler discussion)
Batman v. Superman Ultimate Edition Review
Suicide Squad Review
Wonder Woman Review

JUSTICE LEAGUE represents the fifth film in the effort to mount a unified DC Universe on film, and as far as going forward, probably the most crucial piece of the puzzle. This isn't just another super-hero film - it's the all-star team of ANY superhero universe. Superman and Batman as individuals are more popular than anything Marvel has to offer and after this year, Wonder Woman is like right on their heels.

(Spider-Man has been consistently more popular than her throughout their publication history, and most of the former Marvel B-list has gotten a boost from the Marvel Studios films.)

The point is, WB if JUSTICE LEAGUE laid a major egg, it would have cemented the DC Cinematic Universe as a failure. As I compose this review, the final box office isn't in, and the financials of the film have very little to do with how good it is, so for now, let's exclude that from the definition of success. The real question that matters: is the movie any good?

Answer: Kinda? It's... okay?

Two weeks ago, I picked on THOR: RAGNAROK a bit for playing fast and loose with its structure and plot progression, but ultimately came down with the judgement that it was fun enough to still be a good movie. I won't be surprised if I see takes on JUSTICE LEAGUE that follow a similar path, but I think this film falls short in ways that undermine it more than THOR.

A failing of the film is a lack of attempt to reach for any higher theme. There are moments where the film seems to be TELLING us that it's about hope, but I never felt that emotion coming through on screen via the plot or the action. It's a very surface-level film. Though BATMAN V. SUPERMAN stumbled over its own themes, there was a very clear ambition to deal with how earth-shattering the existence of a being like Superman would be in political, social and religious issues. It's even the foundation of the Batman/Superman conflict in a way. I don't think it fully succeeded, and I won't even award points for trying but it shot for more depth than JUSTICE LEAGUE. It's a shame because finding those connections among the characters could have elevated the film. THOR: RAGNAROK might have had messy plotting at times, but the themes and characterization smoothed over those bumps.

The "plot" of JUSTICE LEAGUE is the most basic of any DCU movie so far. There are three "Mother Boxes" scattered across Earth and an evil villain named Steppenwolf has returned from  beyond with the goal of recapturing all three and assembling them, for doing so will unleash power that will destroy the world. Awakened to the threat, Batman and Wonder Woman go looking for other beings with enough power to fight Steppenwolf and his army of Parademons. This leads them to recruit The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, who've all been operating under the rader until this point.

That's basically the plot - stop bad guy from getting boxes. Boxes end world. You might think this means we're getting a quest movie inside the film, but nope. Steppenwolf already knows where two of the boxes are and he easily reclaims him. Meanwhile Cyborg figures out where the third box is as soon as he's told about it, and the heroes almost gift-wrap that one for Steppenwolf to take.

Steppenwolf's plan is lacking in any sort of complexity, which is fitting because he's the thinnest comic book movie villain of anyone since the guy from THOR: THE DARK WORLD whose name I can't remember. Ultron might have been trapped in a weak movie, but at least he had a personality, a recognizable motive, and an ideology that made for interesting dramatic confrontations with our heroes. At this point, it's inexcusable for these movies to have paper-thin villains who are only able of challenging our heroes physically. They might as well have had Doomsday be the headlining villain for all the difference it makes.

There are three plots in play here:

1) Gather the heroes
2) Resurrect Superman
3) Beat up Steppenwolf.

They're not integrated especially cohesively. THE AVENGERS bent over backwards to not only make each team member's inclusion feel organic and necessary, it used their interpersonal dynamics to drive the plot forward, as when Loki starts messing with them. (For instance: Banner's included not because he's the Hulk, but because of his gamma radiation experience. The Hulk is what Loki uses against the other members.) Yes, AVENGERS also has an end-of-the-world plot, but Loki's a magnetic enough character to make the route there interesting. JUSTICE LEAGUE has a pretty decent handle on how our heroes interact with each other, but there's no meat to their dynamic with Steppenwolf.

The fly-by-night nature of the film is fairly evident in the gathering of the heroes. Batman is hunting powerful people (though really it's Lex who did the legwork. Bruce is just benefiting from it) rather than those characters emerging naturally from the story. Bruce goes looking for Aquaman and ends up running right into a huge clue about the Mother Box. I almost wish it had been the other way around, with Batman's Mother Box quest revealing Aquaman, and the result of that being Aquaman INSISTING on joining the team. It would have driven the story with more urgency and made Aquaman more proactive. I also feel like Cyborg could have been brought in via similar means, instead of Batman seeking him and him just happening to have a Mother Box connection.

That said, I like The Flash a lot in this film. He's the nervous comic relief, but he's played well as a contrast to Batman's stoicism and Wonder Woman's. Unlike Aquaman and Cyborg, I think this film works well as his introduction and there's a very charming scene just before the end credits that made me want to see this character on-screen again more than anything else. Weirdly, I think he's the only character to get anything resembling an actual arc, going from a guy who just "push[s] people and runs fast" to an actual hero who risks his life in battle.

The weird thing about Batman and Wonder Woman is that I enjoyed their screen time a lot, but they left me with very little to say about them. There's an interesting moment where the two clash and Batman points out that she spent a century in hiding. Of course, he immediately goes over the line in invoking Steve Trevor's name, but for a moment there I couldn't help but think, "He's... got a point, actually." I wish this movie gave us more understanding of why Diana went so public again and what it means for her to do that now. Maybe that's something being saved for WONDER WOMAN 2.

Now to talk about Superman. And to do that, we have to wade deep into spoiler territory. I don't want to get into half-assed autopsies about what was a changed, what was a reshoot and so on. There's a time for that talk, but the fact remains that this is the movie we've been presented with.

Learning about the power that the Mother Box has, Batman makes an INCREDIBLE leap to suppose that its power could be used to resurrect Superman. It's a jump that could have used more of an A-to-B thought process linking it. (Maybe the bad guys try to claim Superman's body for the same purpose and Batman figures it out?)

Batman's plan works... sort of. Superman is revived, but clearly not in his right mind. This facilitates a fight between the other heroes and Superman, including a really well-done moment where the Flash takes him on and realizes with horror that Superman can perceive him at super-speed. There's also an attempt at playing off of Batman's hate of Superman in BvS and how Superman might hold a grudge. It doesn't totally land because Superman's not in his right mind (and was allied with Bruce by the end of BvS) and Batman's turnaround from mistrusting Superman to embracing him as a symbol of inspiration and hope has never been all that clear.

The resurrection itself is a prime example of JL's low-stakes approach to things. Batman decides they need to use the Mother Box to jump-start Superman's dead body. To that end, they recover Superman's body and head to a gestation chamber in the crashed Kryptonian ship last seen in BvS. Flash activates the Mother Box, the energy hits Superman and instantly brings him back to life. See the problem? No obstacles.

I couldn't help but think of a similar resurrection sequence in the comic LEGION OF 3 WORLDS #4. In that issue, Superboy's dead body has been regenerating in a pod in Superman's Fortress. The Legion has gone there to complete the last stages of the process, which involves them choosing a very precise sequence of crystals. At the same time, the villain of the story, Superboy-Prime, has been told that if he and his team don't destroy the Fortress before the Legion is successful, Prime will lose.

So at that point there's an entire team of super villains bearing down on the Fortress, with the attack knocking out the one Legionnaire who knows how to use the crystals. Also, if the right sequence isn't activated before the countdown ends, the entire procedure will fail. So we've got two ticking clocks - a literal one and a "how long can the bad guys be kept at bay" one. The sequence is squeezed for maximum tension with the pressure from the battle forcing a decision inside without much contemplation.

None of that tension is present in the Superman resurrection sequence. There's a world-ending scenario going on and none of that urgency is brought to bear as they try this extremely unproven Hail Mary that forms one of the story's major turning points.

With that said, JUSTICE LEAGUE improves on BvS in at least one necessary aspect: it gets Superman VERY right. Cavill is finally allowed to be charming and relatively angst free. Superman is a friendly, heroic presence and the "boy scout" warmth that Reeve delivered so well is finally present in this Superman. His costume is even in the correct brighter shades of red and blue!

Superman gets too little to do, and it's a mark against the film that it fails to supply one truly iconic and heroic Superman image. (There's a moment that feels like it's aiming to be the equivalent of Reeve's "General, would you care to step outside?" but it falls short due to staging and score.) Even so, between the way he's handled here and the end narration, there's a clear message sent: "Okay, we get it. We know how to do Superman now. He's fixed." I left BATMAN V. SUPERMAN bummed that they had gotten Superman so wrong. Leaving this film, my attitude was: Bring on MAN OF STEEL 2.

While I'm on this kick, I think it's total bullshit that JUSTICE LEAGUE gives no resolution to Clark's "death." From the moment BvS showed that Clark Kent was as confirmed dead as Superman, I felt it was a mistake and could only be justified if there was an incredibly clever "out" that would explain Clark's resurrection to the world. JUSTICE LEAGUE instead kicks this can down the road for the next Superman to deal with, which feels incredibly unfair to a movie that should have gotten a clean slate.

(I should mention that basically NONE of the JUSTICE LEAGUE foreshadowing in BvS pays off, bolstering my contention that Bruce's two nightmares and the sequence of videos that Luthor compiled could have easily been cut out and kept the movie moving more efficiently.)

By the end of the movie we're left with a brighter DCU in general and a world that feels worth returning to. The only locked-in follow-ups at this point are AQUAMAN in 2018 and WONDER WOMAN 2 and SHAZAM in 2019. The fate of FLASHPOINT will apparently be decided soon. CYBORG and GREEN LANTERN CORPS have been said to be on tap for 2020, but no production has begun.

Jason Momoa was okay as Aquaman, in a very different interpretation from the comics. I'm not itching for an AQUAMAN film, but I'll check it out. I'd line up today for WONDER WOMAN 2, though, and Ezra Miller was enough of a delight as Flash that I'll be happy to have him back in either a lead or supporting capacity. Cyborg, I could take or leave, though.

In the end, I didn't get everything I wanted from this film, but I feel reassured that the people behind the scenes at last get what they should be making. Hopefully the future of DC films is fewer SUICIDE SQUADS and more movies like WONDER WOMAN.

Friday, November 17, 2017

MasterClass series adds six new classes, including Ron Howard and Steph Curry AND an incredible deal!

(Note: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)

I hate doing posts that sound like commercials, but I feel a little less like a shill when I know I'm promoting something that you all would enjoy. If you've followed the blog for a while, you might recall I've done some reviews of the MasterClass video series. Specifically, these offerings:

Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (My review here.)
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (My review here.)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (My review here)

I found value in each of the classes. Though the Hoffman one was geared for actors, it gave me a lot of really useful insight from a directing standpoint. The highlight of the Sorkin one was seeing how he ran a writers' room and interacted with students playing the part of staff writers. The Mamet one was less revelatory for me but would have been more than adequate as a Screenwriting 101 course.

Earlier this week, MasterClass made two announcements. First, they've added six new classes and one of them is Ron Howard Teaches Directing.

Ron Howard? THE Ron Howard is doing one of these? The Academy Award-winning director of A Beautiful Mind? The director who SHOULD have won for Apollo 13? Ransom, Frost/Nixon, Drive, Willow, and the upcoming Star Wars Story Solo?

This is the part where I usually say "Shut up and take my money!" With the other classes, the cost was $90 a class. MasterClass has introduced what they call the All-Access Pass. If you purchase that, you have unlimited access to ALL of their classes at the cost of $180 a year. They have a total of 27 classes, so if you watched all the classes, it works out to about $7 a class. (That likely would require you to binge the classes and not follow the weekly schedule - which is doable.

For me, there's probably about 10 classes I'd be into so that comes out to $18/class. Maybe the best way to look at it is that for the cost of two classes, you can check out all of them, so if there are more than two that appeal to you, I'd go with the All-Access Pass.

My one regret is that I won't have the time to check the Ron Howard class out and review it for you before the holidays because I would love to be able to tell you that it's worth it or would make a good gift. If it's up to the standard of the three classes I have seen, I don't think you have anything to worry about.
Also included in the new classes are:

Stephen Curry Teaches Basketball
Helen Mirren Teaches Acting
Wolfgang Puck Teaches Cooking
Marc Jacobs Teaches Fashion Design

(They're big on cooking classes at MasterClass. You'll find a few more on the website.)

The remaining roster of classes includes:

Martin Scorsese Teaches Filmmaking (SCORSESE has one of these?! How did I miss that?)
Christina Aguilera's MasterClass
deadmau5's MasterClass
Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation
Garry Kasparov Teaches Chess
Herbie Hancock Teaches Jazz
Shonda Rhimes teaches writing for TV
Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking
Steve Martin teaches comedy
Hans Zimmer teaches film scoring
Reba McEntire teaches country music
Werner Herzog teaches filmmaking
Serena Williams teaches tennis 
Usher teaches performance

With the holidays coming up, maybe one - or all of these - would make a good gift for someone you know.

If I get around to watching the Ron Howard class, I will absolutely review it here at a later date. That's my promise to you. I don't think ANY amount of mentoring from Christina Aguilera will make my singing voice tolerable, though.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

If you want to work in TV, you should be following this ONE TREE HILL story

For the last month, there's been an increased awareness of sexual harassment in the industry, fallout from the numerous victims of sexual assault who've come forward against Harvey Weinstein. The domino effect has been astounding.

Late last week, Variety published a story where 19 former and current employees of Warner Bros alleged misconduct from Andrew Kreisberg, the executive producer of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. Warner Bros has suspended Kreisberg pending an investigation, and Variety's article went on to discuss numerous instances of abuse and disrespect Kreisberg had shown his staff. It represents the worst kind of experiences one can have working in TV.

This abuse had gone on for so long in part because the staffers who endured it believed there was no way to come forward without risking not just their jobs on the show, but their careers in general. Given that, it's remarkable that NINETEEN people spoke up, even with the protection of going unnamed.

It was that bravery that motivated Audrey Wauchope to speak up on Twitter over the weekend. In a series of tweets you can find here, she detailed the sexism and harassment she endured from the showrunner on her first staff job. Though she didn't name the series, it was evident to anyone who looked up her IMDb page that she was talking about One Tree Hill and its showrunner Mark Schwahn.

Monday, Variety published a statement from 18 women who worked on the show, including original stars Hilarie Burton, Sophia Bush, Bethany Joy Lenz, almost all the other female regulars and several writers and crew. Their statement read, in part:

All of the female cast members of One Tree Hill have chosen this forum to stand together in support of Audrey Wauchope and one another. To use terminology that has become familiar as thesystemic reality of sexual harassment and assault has come more and more to light, Mark Schwahn’s behavior over the duration of the filming of One Tree Hill was something of an “open secret.” Many of us were, to varying degrees, manipulated psychologically and emotionally. More than one of us is still in treatment for post-traumatic stress. 

Many of us were put in uncomfortable positions and had to swiftly learn to fight back, sometimes physically, because it was made clear to us that the supervisors in the room were not the protectors they were supposed to be. Many of us were spoken to in ways that ran the spectrum from deeply upsetting, to traumatizing, to downright illegal. And a few of us were put in positions where we felt physically unsafe. More than one woman on our show had her career trajectory threatened.

All of this is preamble to the post I really want to bring to your attention. All of the previous stories played out in the trades (or, like Wauchope's tweets, were republished on one of the trade sites) and were easily discoverable. This blog post from former One Tree Hill writer David Handelman is probably going to have fewer eyes on it. Handelman wrote for the show in season six and he elaborates a little bit about the toxic work environment that Wauchope described:

So it was very hard to go up against him. And most of the other writers in the room were in similar positions -- they'd started out as assistants and been promoted over the years, and owed him everything. Writers were sequestered from set, unlike most shows, so they had no relationship with the cast and crew, and at the end of each season he told the writers there was no guarantee they'd be back, creating a culture where you were anxious to keep your job. Same thing with the cast, who were plucked from relative obscurity (except for Chad Michael Murray) and suddenly had that most elusive thing for an actor -- a steady gig.

To be clear, the room was hardly a daily terror -- we shared a lot of laughs, exchanged Christmas gifts, and socialized. Schwahn at times could be funny and kind and even self-deprecating, cared deeply about the show and liked mentoring people, and actually let them write a lot of their scripts -- not as common as you might think.

But that whole ethos -- "I can do what I want, and you all owe me" - had its dark side. One of the writers began dating a guest actress, and soon lost favor with Schwahn. When the lead actors were in L.A., they'd stop by the office to meet the staff, but the actresses never did. There was lewd talk, requests for backrubs. One writer kept her private life super private from all of us for fear it would diminish her currency with Schwahn.

It was horrible for women, but created a bad work environment for everyone. You never knew when The Boss would be angry. 

It's an unusually candid look at the darker side of writing for TV, especially when taken in conjunction with Wauchope's account. One detail that jumped out at me was the mention that the writers weren't allowed to go to set. That's a red flag for an insecure boss. On most shows, the writer goes to set for the production of their episode. (Or at the least, a member of the writing staff is sent to "cover set" for the episode, whether or not they wrote it.) A good showrunner wants their staff to learn how to produce. A bad showrunner is threatened by them.

The solidarity shown by the One Tree Hill team is inspiring, and gives hope that it's the start of a wave that'll wipe out some bad behavior in this town. Until then, aspiring writers would do well to know the kinds of sharks that await them, and posts like Handelman's are a must read.

Monday, November 6, 2017

THOR: RAGNAROK - the bumblebee that shouldn't be able to fly

There used to be an urban legend that scientists had proven that, scientifically, the bumblebee's wings were too small to support its body. Essentially, the claim was that everything about science said that it shouldn't be able to fly and yet somehow it did. (It's since been debunked.)

I thought about that myth upon leaving THOR: RAGNAROK, which is a perfect illustration of that mythology. I enjoyed it a lot, which was rather surprising because I thought the previous entry in the series might have been the worst Marvel film ever, and even the first THOR film didn't get much above a lukewarm reaction from me. At least on first reaction, I found this more fun than either GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY feature.

But when you look at this movie analytically, you'll see that it really shouldn't work. The plot has a couple false starts and detours, including a second act that's almost wholly removed from the rest of the picture. In the hands of a lesser director an cast, this would feel like a mess. Instead, the breezy tone keeps things moving and takes the audience along for the ride, and Chris Hemsworth's hilarious performance as Thor manages to unify this patchwork film.

At the conclusion of the previous THOR movie, Thor's evil brother Loki (who was believed to have perish) was revealed to the audience as having impersonated their father Odin and usurped his throne in Asgard. As RAGNAROK begins, this switcharoo still hasn't been discovered and the audience could be forgiven for expecting that the main conflict of the film will revolve around Thor trying to defeat Loki and rescue his father.

Instead, here's the progression of events:

- In the first ten minutes of the film, Thor gets wise to the deception and exposes Loki. It seems in the three or so years he's been on the throne, Loki hasn't done anything more nefarious that producing a play that recasts Loki as the hero, and lie around having grapes fed to him.

- Thor forces Loki to take him to their father, whom Loki dumped in a nursing home on Earth. The building has been torn down, though, making this a dead end. Don't assume this means we're in for a hunt for Odin because...

- Loki gets snatched by Dr. Strange [GRATUITOUS MARVEL CAMEO ALERT], who magically sends both him and Thor to Odin. Strange is so delightfully in-character that it's not until the scene is over that we realize "Wait... did we just get deus ex machina'd?"

This all happens in about 20 minutes. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of amusing stuff along the way, but Loki's defeat and the quest for Odin both are resolved incredibly easily. Try this in an original spec and you're gonna get hit. HARD.

- Odin tells his sons he's dying, with no explanation other than it's his time. So it's not even a consequence of what Loki did. It just happens because the script needs it to happen. He warns that with his death, his evil firstborn Hela will at last be able to return to take vengeance on Asgard. (I actually don't have a problem with this seeming contrivance, but the convenience of his death happening now, with little motivation, feels like a first draft issue.)

- Hela shows up, kicks Thor and Loki's asses and disrupts their transport back to Asgard, getting both of them lost along the way. She conquers the undefended kingdom easily.

- Meanwhile Thor is captured and sold as a gladiator to the Grandmaster on Sakaar. He spends the entire second act here, eventually teaming up with a rediscovered Hulk (now Grandmaster's champion) and Valkyrie, a former Asgardian warrior in exile.

There's a lot of fun stuff on Sakaar as Thor has to convince both Hulk and Valkyrie to help him, but the Grandmaster storyline and the Hela storylines never intersect. It feels like Hela spends the second act spinning her wheels on a slow takeover of Asgard while Thor deals with his unrelated problems. Every moment Cate Blanchett is on-screen is a delight. It's a major step-up from Evil Guy Whose Name I Can't Remember from THOR: THE DARK WORLD, but there's not enough story momentum for her while Thor is stranded elsewhere.

It's a problem one barely notices since the Thor stuff is amusing. For a while, it's almost as if Hela was just a vehicle to facilitate the Thor/Hulk buddy movie. Naturally, Thor eventually convinces his friends to help him take on Hela and liberate Asgard, but beyond that there's nothing for the Grandmaster to do in the third act. What's more, what Thor needs to ultimately defeat Hela was planted in the first scene of the film, so it's not even truly something he gained through his experience.

The film tries to bind the second and third acts via some character work with Hulk and Valkyrie and it works well enough that you leave the theater with great affection for both characters. Director Taika Waititi has a wonderful sense of pace and everyone's comic timing is on point here. It's a rare joke that doesn't land and this film is packed with jokes. What can you say about a sci-fi movie where Jeff Goldblum shows up to play an alien ruler basically AS Jeff Goldblum and it doesn't feel out of place in the slightest?

This is a film that embraces the weird and the quirky but does it without self-consciously winking at the audience. (Okay, maybe the Stan Lee cameo lands with a bit of a thud, but that's it.)

Hell, they get away with a Hulk dick joke. A year ago, would you have put money on a THOR movie being able to do that and not make it cringeworthy?

A movie can get away with a lot if it leaves the audience feeling good. RAGNAROK avoids the morose pomposity that has hobbled other superhero films and gives us two hours or a rollicking good time with some of our favorite action figures, while adding some new toys to the box. (This had better not be the last time we see either Valkyrie or The Grandmaster.)

And you know what? As much as the Dr. Strange cameo shouldn't work, considering this is the 17th film in the Marvel series, it feels a lot less inexplicable to use him for plot convenience than it might have to pull something like this three or four films in. Is it an indulgence? Yes, but it feels earned to the audience because of all the time we've spent in this continuity.

Like I said, it's the bumblebee that flies when it shouldn't. It's impressive to come away really enjoying a film that quickly ditches a set-up that promises tension and takes shortcuts to put the real major conflict in play. A steady diet of these would probably lead to diminishing returns, but this is just so damn pleasant it's impossible not to get swept away by its infectious charm.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Breaking down the pilot of VERONICA MARS

Last week I did a live-tweet of the pilot of VERONICA MARS, breaking it down in terms of what's to be learned from it in terms of writing a strong pilot and establishing a show. Soon after I was done, I had two repeated requests from followers: 1) Could I archive the live-tweet on my blog? and 2) Would I do it again?

As to the first question: see below. As to the second, I'm planning on breaking down the ALIAS pilot starting at 7:15pm Pacific time tonight. You should be able to find it streaming on Hulu. You could also purchase it on Amazon or iTunes.

Below is the transcript of my live-tweet. I made a few additions and corrections, but it's otherwise as I tweeted it. If you want to see the original thread, go here.

Part of the reason I'm doing this is I used to have good notes on this pilot for my own ref and I need to reconstruct them. I'm working on a pilot that's similar in some ways so it's helpful for me to take a peek under the hood of shows that are in the same vein.

Opening scene - noirish, seedy motel. Veronica VO. Sets the mood and the tone. Cheery voice with a cynical outlook. Calculus textbook on the seat before we see Veronica is a nice visual way to tip us off that the PI is a teen. Teaser ends with Weevil and the PCH motorcycle gang pulling up. Sets up major part of the show.

2nd scene - high school "If you go here, your parents are millionaires or they work for millionaires." Important line. Veronica gets a Save the cat moment in getting Wallace down from the flagpole.

Next scene, she nails a question in class despite being half asleep. AND she gets to interpret Poe's work as "Life's a bitch, then you die." What does all this have in common? Character.

Next scene: Veronica has a "random" locker search. She's one step ahead of the principal. More establishing bits about her relationship with faculty, and the fact she's tipped off about locker searches.

Now that we have a sense of WHO she is, we get an exposition dump. Her ex was Duncan Kane, who dumped her out of the blue. Key detail for later. The VO is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, but it's entertaining, as when she calls Logan a "psychotic jackass." It's memorable.

Another important bit: Veronica not intimidated by Weevil, even with him backed up by his biker gang. We see all this in less than 7 minutes.

I'm not gonna call out every scene, but it's worth noting we're locked in to V's POV. We don't cut away from her at any point.

Ten minutes in and we get to Veronica's father's PI office. Defense attorney Cliff stops by to drop off a cup of exposition. He mentions that the local strip club has a creative way of keeping their liquor license. Remember that for later.

And then we meet V's dad Keith, just after a meeting with Veronica's ex Duncan's mother, Celeste Kane.  

Act Out on "Dad tried to send her husband to jail for life."

Act two open - Veronica and Keith. We see their dynamic. Important to show how all your main characters relate, at least to the protag.

Case of the week (or so it seems): Veronica follows Jake Kane, Duncan's father. Celeste suspects him of cheating. Backstory about how his company employs the town and how he made half the town rich practically overnight. After that, more flashbacks, and we finally reach the real mythology...

Lily Kane - Veronica's best friend and Jake's daughter - murdered. VO tells us this was a major media case. Keith was Sheriff. Investigated Jake, So the case cost Veronica her friend, and her father his career and reputation. AND it was never solved, despite a lot of public interest and publicity.

Annnd we find out that Logan was Lily's girlfriend. Keith loses his job in the scandal, but his wife leaves. Lotta emotional stakes here.

Basically, Act Two is where Backstory kicks in the door and announces its presence. It's a lot, but it's cleaner for all the intros in Act 1.

Or to put it another way, DON'T DROWN YOUR AUDIENCE IN MYTHOLOGY TOO FAST. If the pilot opened on the Lily Kane stuff we'd be lost
"Want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I?" Well, that's a dark line. V got roofied at a party, woke up without underwear.  Lotta flashbacks, complex timeline. You know what helps? Flashback-Veronica has much longer hair. Look for the visual things like that.

Mystery tally at the end of Act Two: 

1) Who Killed Lily? 
2) Who raped Veronica? 
3) Why did Duncan dump Veronica 

Top of Act 3: Logan taunts Veronica about her mother. We learn she left 8 months ago. Also see Logan and Duncan are buds.

Now we move to Veronica's other case of the week, helping Wallace get the PCH bikers off his ass. It's a vehicle to show the V/W dynamic. Wallace pissed off the bikers by calling the cops on them for shoplifting at the store where he worked. Police took the security tape as evidence.

Another Keith/Veronica scene, shows the kinds of cases that pay the bills (bail jumpers). She brings him up to speed on Jake Kane case. As soon as Keith sees the license plate belonging to someone who was meeting with Jake Kane at a hotel, he says to stay away from the case. Another mini mystery to generate tension.

Payoff to Veronica locker search bit: she plants a bong in Logan's locker so he gets caught. It also sets up a complicated bit I'll recap quickly. Veronica basically uses the bong to set off a smoke alarm in the police evidence locker, gives her the chance to recover the security tape that the PCH gang is mad at Wallace over.

The big note: the case of the week puts all the regular relationship dynamics on display.

ACT THREE OUT - the car VM photographed meeting Jake Kane belongs to Veronica's mom. Leeanne Mars is meeting Jake? But why?

Top of Act Four - Veronica asks Keith why he wants to drop the case. He lies. Provokes bigger question for Veronica and audience - why?

Next: Flashbacks show Veronica tried to report her rape to Sheriff Lamb. He mocked her and blew her off.

There's a bit where Veronica uses the exposition Cliff dropped earlier to set up a humiliation of Lamb in court. It also involves her recovering a videotape that gets the PCH gang off the hook, and in turn gets Wallace out of the doghouse. Basically EVERY. LINE. OF DIALOGUE came together for that moment. Not one wasted scene

Next, Logan shows up for payback, smashes V's headlight. PCH gang shows u for a "She's with us" kind of moment. Humbles Logan. Weevil beats up Logan until Veronica calls him off. So now we see V & Weevil are on the same side. Kinda. Wallace gets an apology from Weevil (somewhat forced) tying that up. 

And from there we go to Veronica back at the PI office. She breaks into her dad's safe and we learn he's never stopped working the Lily Kane case AND the hotel pic V took is in the case file. So Keith never stopped working the case, but V's VO tells us her big question is "why did Dad lie to me?"

Critical point: the big mythos mystery has implications for her current relationships. It's not JUST about who killed Lily, it's about how those revelations still can upend her life after they come out. We're not tuning in just to solve the mystery, we're going to be tracking what the investigation does to the father/daughter relationship over the season. 

It's smart because it makes the show about more than just a puzzle. You need emotional stakes to hang things on so that when that mystery goes away, there's still meat on the bone.

Last scene: Veronica on stakeout again. VO declares she will solve this case and bring this family back together. it's the "I Want."

Not one wasted scene in that pilot. Everything is pushing plot, character or both. multiple subplots AND two ongoing uber-mysteries.

Major relationships established and shown: Veronica/Keith, Veronica/Wallace, Veronica/Weevil, Veronica/Logan.

relationships mostly suggested: V/Lily, V/Logan, V/Mother.

Oh! I forgot that we also set up V/Lamb and V/Cliff. both pretty important. These 45 minutes are JAMMED with character intros. And also notable, only a few of those are meeting for the first time. we're dropped into relationships that feel like they existed for years. One lesson here: KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS. 

Seriously. It helps this is all from V's POV, but the others are pretty well drawn.

Somehow the Veronica Mars pilot juggles being plot-heavy and character-heavy. Sometimes a plot procedural will go with a simpler story just to let the characters breathe while going through it. VM is like "nah," and interweaves three subplots, possibly four.

You could pull the Lily Kane murder stuff out and you'd STILL have enough story for one episode. That's how much is packed into this.

Other pilot breakdowns:
The Office
Homicide: Life on the Street