Thursday, February 27, 2014

Best of 2013 #1: American Hustle (Assets, Liabilities, Interrupted Dialogue, and Cast How They Feel))

And so we finally arrive at American Hustle and three rules it exemplified. We'll do one long and two short:

Know Your Assets and Liabilities: So I’ve spent this week wiping my feet all over the original screenplay by Eric Warren Singer, but now’s the time to admit that it actually did a few things right. For instance, some people have said, “An ABSCAM movie--Of course, what a great idea!” but it’s actually not an inherently appealing movie concept. Yes, it’s a mind-blowing true crime story, but it comes with a set of massive marketing liabilities that Singer’s script (and Russell’s version even moreso) neatly evades. Let’s look at each of these liabilities, how Singer addressed it, and how Russell improved on what Singer did...

#1: ABSCAM is mostly forgotten.
  • Singer solved this by taking advantage of our very vague memories of the events to get away with a huge amount of fictionalization. He was counting on us remembering only one thing: that it was a big, messy entrapment fiasco. Knowing that, we would be inclined to believe anything.
  • The problem: He fictionalized it in clichéd ways, adding a bunch of generic mob violence.
  • Russell then improved this by keeping Singer’s creative license, but getting rid of all that added violence. In its place, he added things that humanized rather than dehumanized the story, such as the G-Man/mistress romance, or the wife/mobster romance.
#2: The true story has a huge cast of characters and no obvious hero.
  • Singer wisely centered in on Mel Weinberg as the most ironic hero of the story, even if it meant that he had to fictionalize quite a bit.
  • The problem: Mel is ultimately too sleazy to carry a movie, even with a lot of fictional embellishments added on.
  • Russell kept Singer’s choice of Mel as our main point of identification, but widened the movie back out to include a more complex web of five compelling characters, which gives us a chance to keep our distance from Mel’s sleaze.
#3: Like all complex FBI cases, ABSCAM ended anticlimactically
  • Singer just created a more satisfying finale out of whole cloth having Mel double-cross the government and steals a lot of money from them.
  • The problem: In the script, this twist was clunky and poorly-camoflaged, because everything is way too linear. Even worse, it didn’t represent any growth: Mel is still just scamming.
  • Russell decided that if he was going to fake it, he might as well fake it in a more romantic way: In the movie, the twist is well-camoflaged because it’s surrounded by lots of other storylines filled with emotional and physical jeopardy. Even better, it represents growth because Mel (now Irving) does four things at one time: gets his wife out of danger, makes amends to the mayor, gets money to start a new life with his mistress, and screws over the FBI agent. A far more thrilling and satisfying ending. (Russell also earned a much greater license for fictionalization by changing the names.)
And now two quickies: People try to finish each other’s stories! (and here too) There’s been lots of talk about how good the top five performances were in this movie, but that leaves out number six, Louis C.K., who is also fantastic. His witty rapport with Bradley Cooper really drives home a rule I always come back to: People are always trying to guess what the other person is going to say and cut them off, so nobody should ever get the chance to finish a speech!

Finally, as with The Spectacular Now, this was even moreso a case of cast for how they feel, not how they would actually look.  All five big roles in this movie were totally miscast, in terms of age, ethnicity and body-type, but they all work beautifully.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook #205: Hurt Your Hero In a Way That Would Only Hurt Your Hero

Let’s finish that Wayne Newton scene from “American Bullshit” we started on Monday:
One way you always know you’re reading a testerone-soaked spec is when there’s only one major female character (the wife is barely there in this version, and even the mistress has a much smaller role) and she has a man’s name, so that the writer doesn’t have to switch into “girl mode”. Thus we have Mel and his mistress Max (Note to writers: Mel and Max aren’t easy names to tell apart on the page!). It would feel weird to put these manly-man lines in her mouth if her name was Louise...and there’s a good reason for that.

This speaks to a bigger problem with these scripts: everything is generic, not specific. Nowhere is this more clear than in the defining quality of this script: the violence. These scripts always have a lot of squishy, bizarre violence, and I could pick any (including ones that involve, yes, excrement), but let’s go with the first scene...

Both the original script and the finished movie begin with a later crisis and then flashback to the beginning, but the choices of scene are instructive. The opening scene of the screenplay plays like someone made a teen spoof called “Tarantino Movie”: Mel is called brought before a sinister but blasé mobster, who recommends the cheese from his local village in Sicily. Our cocky hero responds:

I don’t want to live in a world where some reader finished this opening scene and nevertheless kept reading, but here we are! This is the definition of generic thinking: The action of the scene is one man stabbing another man’s hand, but you have to come up with an original way to get there…so let’s see, what pop culture reference from our childhood hasn’t been over-used yet…I’ve got it: Operation!

You could plug any lippy hero from any thriller into this scene. Compare this to the scene that begins the finished movie: The big moment of violence is when one man touches another man’s hair…and yet the impact is tenfold! We’re only five minutes in, and we already understand that a hair touch is worse for this guy than a mere stabbing. Write scenes that are specific to your characters!
And One More Rule From This Movie: Read Your Dialogue Out Loud Before Your Ask Anyone Else to Say It

Presented without comment, two actual lines from this screenplay:
  • “Only the existentially terrified play to break even, Max.”
  • “What'd you pulling the pit off Polk have to do with your family?”
The horror.  The horror.  Okay, enough of the script.  Tomorrow, let’s move on to the movie and wrap this up.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Storyteller's Rulebook #204: Let Us Empathize with the Motivation, But Don’t Force Us to Empathize with the Logic

As I said yesterday, the original screenplay of American Hustle wasn’t just presenting Max (Irving in the re-write) as a flawed hero to feel for, it was aggressively cramming his worldview down our throats.  Thankfully, the rewrite by David O. Russell stepped back for some much needed perspective. One thing that the original really really drove home for me was the bogus appeal of the “I have an idea!” scene.

We all know you should maximize empathy between your audience and your hero, even if its an anti-hero…but what exactly are we empathizing with? One of many things that Russell wisely cut out in his rewrite are scenes where Mel has the brilliant idea to tap into anti-Arab sentiment:

Not only are these types of scenes way too on-the-nose, they put the audience in a rotten position, because they attempt to lead us by the nose until we to come to the same racist logic that the character does.

Let’s go back to Dallas Buyers Club and another benefit of its many leaps forward: What if we we had seen a moment where McConaughey was stumped: “Hmm, I can’t sell these AIDS drugs through my normal channels, hey wait just a second, I just overheard my buddy say that gay guys do a lot of drugs in their clubs…wow, flash of genius: maybe I should start hanging out there and dealing!”

Instead, Dallas Buyers Club and the final version of American Hustle just cut out those scenes, jumping ahead to show McConaughey in those clubs (which makes us roll our eyes at his bigotry and audacity) and showing Bale with his fake arab (ditto).

In both of these movies, we empathize with the characters’ motivation and goals, but we never identify with their bigoted and short-sighted logic. Just skip over the “I have an idea” scenes.  Jump ahead and let us figure out the hero’s next scene in action, then let us decide what we think of it.  This makes the plot and the theme more interesting, because in both cases it’s not leading us by the nose into one predetermined path.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Storyteller's Rulebook #203: Everybody Can’t Have the Same Metaphor Family

I don’t want to turn this into an attack on the writer: I know full well that if you’re a professional screenwriter than your job is to write it their way, and it could well be that the screenplay floating around the internet (if you search, it shouldn’t be too hard to find) was written to the tastes the producers. And, of course, my whole point is that the flaws of this screenplay are things that script-readers sometimes perceive as strengths, so maybe he was just influenced by that. That said, I think it’s instructive to contrast this script’s testosterone-soaked flaws to the empathy-filled final product.

This project began when Eric Warren Singer pitched producers he was working with that he should write a screenplay based on ABSCAM, so he got them to pay Mel Weinberg for his life rights and spent three weeks interviewing Mel in his Florida condo about his memories of that time. The result is a classic “life rights” script:
  • Constantly trying to justify unjustifiable behavior to the audience.
  • Making every other character into a two-dimensional straw man in order to make the hero look better.
  • Making it all way too heroic. There’s a ridiculous moment at the end when Mel goes to the press to force the FBI to prosecute the politicians, as if Mel or the audience really cared about seeing the targets of this fiasco brought to justice!
  • But the biggest problem is that, because we’re getting everything from one scummy guy’s point of view, then, even more than in most bad scripts, everybody talks the same.
And what makes that really obvious is that the way they talk ain’t pretty. Most of us use the term “bullshit” as a figure of speech, but not here. This is simply the most scatological screenplay ever written. There are references to actual, physical shit every few pages, regardless of each character’s background. This is set in a bizarre parallel universe in which everybody from every walk of life has the same metaphor family: excrement. Here’s the assistant US attorney:
  • TUCCIO (Jersey accent): Your client either testifies, or he's on the bus to Marion where he’ll be spending his days eating the crust out of his cellmate’s shithole.
Here’s Mel himself a few pages later:
  • BOYLE: I want Errichetti, Mel ---
  • MEL:
Yeah? I wanna tit-bang Racquel Welch while eatin a Porterhouse steak -- still don’t mean it’s ever gonna happen. […] Errichetti’s been playing his game and winning since you were shittin’ yellow.
Speak of the devil, here’s Errichetti himself a few pages after that. (Granted, no actual feces is mentioned, but we’ll count it):
  • ERRICHETTI: Guy’s a lush and a whoremaster. Harry’d fuck a snake if you held its head for him. He’s good people ---
And here’s the patrician head of the FBI!
  • HOUSEMAN: I understand this is difficult, Mel -- and I don't blame you for being upset --- but when it comes to protecting the foundations of our democracy ---(dry, almost empathetic smile)...Sometimes you need to take it in the ass for the team.
But here’s the really exasperating thing. It’s not the just the characters who talk the same…it’s the descriptive paragraphs, such as this one...
  • Mel looks about as comfortable as a priest in a pussyhouse.
It is literally as if Mel himself is writing the movie! Here’s the ultimate example: There’s a bizarre scene in which Mel finds his mistress Max having sex with the real Wayne Newton, whom the writer describes this way:
  • THE BEDROOM: Where Mel is stupefied and disgusted by the grisly sight of MAX in bed with WAYNE NEWTON […] Wayne Newton has the most disgusting bitch-titted body you've ever seen in your life. Just fucking revolting.
Mel then makes it clear that he agrees with his own writer about Mr. Newton’s body:
  • MEL: Wayne fuckin’ Newton. Man I just gotta say. You seriously have the most disgusting body I have ever seen.
Folks, you have to maintain some distance between yourself and your characters, especially if you’re writing a biopic about a real, still-living sleazebag! This brings us to a more profound problem with screenplays like this one, so we’ll talk more about that tomorrow…

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Best of 2013 #1, Part 1: The Most Remarkable Thing About American Hustle

There hasn’t been a lot of love for this movie in the comments, so I suspect that I’ll get some blowback on this one, but what can I say, I loved it! At the end of the week, we’ll get to what I loved about the finished movie, but first let’s devote most of this week to the most remarkable thing about this movie: how much better it was that the repugnant spec script that it was based on.

In my “How to Give a Note” series, I mentioned that Hollywood went absolutely crazy for a certain type of script for a while, marked by the following qualities:
  • Omnipresent misanthropy.
  • Squishy, bizarre violence.
  • Fanatical levels of profanity, in both word and deed, preferably including an unproducible title (in this case “American Bullshit”) which makes the script-reader feel like an outlaw just for recommending it.
  • Most importantly, it doesn’t once ask the reader to care. The characters are all strutting roosters who cockfight each other until one comes out on top.
It’s not hard to figure out why these scripts became so popular, when you consider the economics of the script-reading profession. It’s one thing to ask somebody to care when they’re sitting in a darkened theatre, with heartfelt performances, sumptuous cinematography and sweeping music, but when the poor script-readers are quickly flipping through a pile of paper, then the last thing they want to read is some ham-handed attempt to suck into moments of vulnerability, or earnestness, or, worst of all, poignancy, sitting there naked on the page, unenhanced by any of those things.

Readers would be embarrassed to have to tell their bosses, “You should buy this because it touched something inside me.” Instead, they want to say, “Finally, boss, we got a script without any of those old clichés!” They want wall-to-wall “Holy Crap!” moments. They want “too-cool-for-school”.

So “American Bullshit” hit the market, and made the Black List (an annual list of which scripts the readers liked the most in the previous year), and sold for big bucks, and started to attract some attention from stars…but then something amazing happened. David O. Russell, one of our very-best writer-directors, got hold of it, saw some slight merit buried deep beneath all that attitude, and totally rewrote it from the ground up, reconceiving every scene and writing entirely new dialogue. The result was American Hustle, which became, against all odds, the best movie of a very good year.

So now we arrive at the great irony: For all the reasons I listed above, I don’t think Russell’s American Hustle screenplay would have ever sold as a spec script. The only way to get movies like this into the pipeline is to start with the script-reader-friendly version, then bring in a writer-director with enough talent, vision and clout to transform it into something heartfelt and meaningful.

“American Bullshit” exemplifies the current screenplay market: showing why these scripts are so bad and also why they sell, so I think it might be interesting to take a closer look at it for the next three days, until we finally arrive at American Hustle and how it turned this lump of lead into gold…

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Best of 2013 #2, Part 2: Concerns About 12 Years a Slave

In the case of 12 Years a Slave, I foolishly did the one thing that always sabotages a movie for me: I read the book shortly before I saw it. I naturally tend to adapt the screenplay in my head whenever I read a book, and the actual movie inevitably frustrates me because they didn’t make the choices I would have made.

As I said yesterday, I feel that this movie has to be seen in the context of McQueen’s previous two features, which seem to show that he’s far more interested in suffering than in struggle. Of course, in many ways, the result was exactly what we needed this movie to be, for two reasons:
  • Both because every other movie featuring slavery has failed to capture the depth of that suffering, and...
  • Because it’s true to the experience of the vast majority of slaves, who never got to choose between suffering and struggle, because the first was so mandatory and second seemed utterly impossible.
So this movie was trapped by its historical role: since no one else had yet risen to the task, it had to be the movie about slavery, and it wasn’t allowed to be a movie about slavery...but I wish it could have been, because many amazing and painful peculiarities of Solomon Northrop’s struggle were frustratingly left out in the interest of telling a more universal story.

Despite being an avid reader of slave narratives, when I first heard about this movie, I had never encountered Northrop’s story. I was not only happy to discover this existence of this amazing story, but I was instantly impressed by what a perfect choice it was for adaptation, because the story has inherent qualities that made it so much more valuable that other slave stories.

The most obvious reason, of course, is that it has an ostensibly happy ending, making the whole thing much more bearable for an audience, but it goes much deeper than that.

It’s hard to write a slave story with irony. There’s no chagrin in being a slave, there’s no self-recrimination…What is happening to you is so totally outside your control that you can’t possible reproach yourself about any part of it, and it’s so totally evil that you can’t have any conflicted feelings about it. But strong fictional characters usually benefit from having doubt, guilt and recriminations. We want characters to be proven wrong so they can correct their false statements of philosophy and false goals….but slaves are just way too unambiguously in the right.

But as soon as I heard about this story, I thought “Ah-ha! That’s how you do a story about slavery!” For this one slave, the condition would be ironic, because he would be unable to keep from saying, “I don’t belong here, I’m not a real slave, I’m not like these others!”, but every time he thought that he would feel horribly guilty: After all, did anyone belong here? Are the others “real slaves” any more than he?

The arc of such a movie instantly presented itself to me: Finally, after eleven years or so, he comes to accept the truth that he is no better than these people and he is truly one of them, and only then is he torn away from them and told by lawyers that he is better after all, which now seems like an obscene notion to him. What a harrowing emotional journey! What brilliant irony!

Shortly after hearing about the movie, I tracked down and read Mr. Northrup’s amazing book, and I discovered that this sort of irony is not a big element there, but of course it wouldn’t be, since, like all pre-war slave narratives, it’s primarily a work of advocacy, and including a big psychological component would not serve that advocacy. I still felt that it would be perfectly logical and inevitable to include that element in any adaptation.

The other potential problem for adaptation that the book presented to me what that Northrop made so few attempts to escape, and I wondered how sympathetic that would be onscreen, but I simply assumed that the adaptation would play up the steps he did take (For one, during the original journey to New Orleans, he did successfully send a letter to his wife telling her of his situation, but she was unable to locate him, and for another, he fled into the swamps more than once, only to be brought back), and show that, in his mind, he was always in the middle of some (quixotic) long-term strategy to free himself…
…But when I saw the movie, I was shocked to discover that the movie went the other way…
  • Rather than foreground his few attempt to be free, it eliminated most of them. Crucially, though it left in the second two attempts at a letter, many years later, it eliminated the first letter on which he hung his hopes for the first ten years.
  • Even more baffling, most of that painful irony that seemed to be generated so naturally by this story was ignored by the filmmakers. There’s never any real sense of Solomon feeling any guilt-wracked superiority to his fellow slaves.
And so we arrive my main concern: we finally get a movie about slavery with a black writer, a black director and a black star…but it still denies its hero agency and irony, which has always been a major criticism directed towards movies about blacks that have been made by whites.

This is largely a movie about watching Solomon suffer in stunned silence. As I said, that’s probably the more honest choice, but it’s a frustrating choice for a moviegoer who’s hoping to bond with the internal dilemmas faced by a character. The movie denies itself some clear opportunities to connect its audience to Mr. Northrop’s ironic internal state in favor of examining his suffering in a very external way, freezing us out instead of sucking us in.

Wouldn’t we have felt that suffering more deeply and painfully if we had been aware of how it contrasted with the pitiful hopes for freedom that he cherished because of that first letter? Wouldn’t we have felt more agony if we had been made to share Northrop’s inevitable guilt-wracked feelings of superiority to the other slaves?

Of course, I’m aware of how ridiculous it is to raise these concerns: We finally have a movie about slavery made by black men, and along comes a white guy (born and raised in Georgia no less, whose grandfather’s grandfather was a confederate soldier) telling them that they did it wrong! The sheer cinematic power and historical import of this movie combine to make it a great masterpiece and exactly what we need, and the fact that guys like me didn’t get to stick our noses in for once is a wonderful thing. But I can’t help feeling a little frustrated by some of the choices.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Best of 2013 #2, Part 1: What’s Great About 12 Years a Slave

It’s very hard to say anything meaningful about 12 Years a Slave. It’s a movie that’s hard to evaluate with any distance, due to three factors:
  • Its painful subject matter, obviously, but also…
  • Our culture’s refusal to realistically portray slavery onscreen until now, and…
  • The movie’s revolutionary status as a movie about slavery written by, starring, and directed by three black men.
It’s hard to get around the fact that, even if this movie had been a failure, it would still be so historically significant as to demand respect and attention. And knowing that, it’s hard to then step back and trust one’s judgment of it. Luckily, I feel it’s safe to say that the movie is pretty great, over and above its historical and cultural significance.

And I wasn’t presuming that to be the case: I wasn’t a big fan of John Ridley’s previous produced screenplays or Steve McQueen’s previous films. This movie carried over some aspects I didn’t like from each man’s work, but in service of this subject matter, the thing I objected to about each (Ridley’s misanthropy and McQueen’s obsession with suffering) became selling points.

So let’s start by trying to talk about what’s so great about it…then tomorrow I’ll move on to the concerns I had. For the other “Best of” movies, I talked about qualities of the movie that reflect advice we’ve previously explored…but it’s hard to do that here. This movie’s role is so unique, and the job it had to do so important, that to talk of the demands of the audience seems obscene. So let’s just talk more generally:

Given the centuries of romanticization and fetishization that have piled up to obscure and pervert our perception of slavery, the most important thing this movie had to do was simply to show the facts in the rawest, most matter-of-fact way possible: Show the casual nature of mothers being sold away from their children. Show the constant rape. Show the quotidian whippings in a way that lets us feel every lash. Just show it and let it lie, with no contextualization, no commentary, no distancing effects. That’s the main task, and it did it with startling power.

The most brilliant thing about this movie, of course, was the choice of Mr. Northrop as its subject matter. Tomorrow, we’ll get into more specific ways that the movie interacted with the text, but for now let’s just acknowledge the genius of choosing this story in the first place. One big problem with slavery stories is that the horror is so omnipresent that it threatens to become invisible. We know how horrific it is, but it’s hard to believe that they feel it in the same say, because they’ve never known anything else. Choosing one of the thousands who were kidnapped into slavery as adults is such an elegant solution to that problem. This way, we know that he feels our same indignant revulsion a thousand-fold,

As a filmmaker, McQueen’s great strength has always come in the form of two gazes: the unblinking eye of his camera, and his ability to craft intense performances can withstand that withering gaze. The amazing performances he’s assembled here are a testament to the power of that method. In his previous two features, I found McQueen’s obsessive gaze to be annoying, because I felt that he was substituting voyeurism for insight, but now he’s found a topic of such bottomless horror that an unblinking eye is the only proper mode of seeing.

The hunger strikers of Hunger and the sex addict in Shame were people who chose to suffer, for reasons good or ill, and it struck me as creepy to wallow in their degradation at such an extreme close-up, denied any distance or perspective. But here, I welcomed the chance to simply gaze nose-to-nose at the suffering and ask “Oh dead god how can you stand it??” That’s the big unanswered question of American history: How did the horror that built this nation persist? How could human beings inflict it and how could human beings survive it? In the faces of Chiwetel Ejiofor, his fellow slaves and their masters, we get an unprecedented chance to search their eyes for  answers.

Okay, tomorrow, I’ll get to my concerns…

Monday, February 17, 2014

Best of 2013 #3: Gravity (Motivation, Rules, and Ticking Clocks)

When I was arguing to a friend that Leo gave a terrible performance in The Great Gatsby, one point I made was that he should have insisted that his character not say “old sport” 59 different times, and instead he should have forced Baz to cut out at least 40 of those. The other writer was aghast: “Actors have no right to do that!” Yes, they do. At the risk of getting kicked out of write-club, I say that actors have both the right and the responsibility to demand script changes in order to enrich their performances. Baz was clearly shooting a lazily slapped-together first draft, and it was Leo’s job to put his feet down and refuse say a lot of that lazy crap. Unfortunately, Leo couldn’t be bothered to do that. What does this have to do with Gravity? That brings us to #1:
  • Don’t Over-Motivate: By all accounts, the greatest aspect of this story came from Sandra Bullock. Here’s an interview she did with “Entertainment Weekly”: “The whole thing with the character losing her child? I said I didn’t want her going back to a child, because of course someone’s going to fight for that. So what if she had absolutely nothing to fight for—she’s lost a child, there’s nothing back home, she’s a person who’s basically a machine? That was my idea, and Alphonso was so open to it.” This was a brilliant change, and flies in the face of every screenwriter’s instinct. Writers are under tremendous pressure to over-motivate their characters: It ups the stakes, ups the urgency, and makes everything move faster...but it also takes away all of the hero’s agency. Drama is about choices, and over-motivated heroes never get a chance to choose. Bullock knew that it would be so much more powerful if her character had nothing but pain to go back to and had to will herself to live again.
  • You Have to Make Rules to Break Rules: Several years ago, I wrote on this blog about the difference between writing a foundering sailboat movie vs. writing a founding spaceship movie. That was just a hypothetical at the time, but no longer, because this year we had very pure examples of each. What I said at the time was that we all understand what can go wrong on a boat without talking about it, and we all have an instinctive fear of drowning, but we don’t understand what could or couldn’t happen in space without a lot of talk, and so the danger is too abstract. Well guess what, I was wrong! ...Okay, not really. In this case, the sailboat movie decided that its situation was so self-explanatory that it didn’t need to explain anything, which was a little too cocky. The spaceship movie, on the other hand, explained its jeopardy quickly and eloquently, then stranded its heroine as soon as it could (then came up with a neat trick to have her explain one last thing to herself). Beautifully done.
  • The Power and Peril of the Ticking Clock: This movie had a really nice example of a ticking-clock...but then it ran into a problem. After the first junk storm, Clooney warns Bullock that it’ll be back in 90 minutes and they set their watches accordingly, adding one more source of impending doom for the middle of the movie. Sure enough, it hits again just in time to create a spectacular sequence...but then my wife Betsy noticed something that I missed: Bullock resets her watch to 90 again...but this had the opposite effect the second time: Betsy found herself relaxing, sure that nothing bad would happen until that second wave hit. Why did the effect flip? When they set their watches the first time, that meant that at least one of them would last 90 minutes, but we could still worry about the other (with good reason, as it turned out). But once Clooney was dead and Bullock was alone, and the movie foreshadowed another storm in another 90 minutes, then it had the opposite effect, because we only had one character left alive, so that meant that the one bad thing that could happen (the only remaining character dying) wouldn’t happen until then. When Betsy pointed this out to me, I was glad that I hadn’t seen Bullock reset her watch. 
Next: Number 2, Part 1!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Best of 2013 #4: Dallas Buyers Club (Process, Pace, and Motivation)

Warning: I will once again throw some mud on Mud
  • Revelation vs. Process: This is simply one of the best movies about medicine ever made, both about the peculiar evils of the American system and the painful universal dilemmas doctors and patients face everywhere. I wrote about how seeing a hero confront a character with information is often more interesting than watching the hero acquire that information, but this movie did the opposite: using masterful montages to show the process of McConaughey’s epic journey each step of the way, and making it fascinating. How did it do that? Well here’s a big part: It made sure to...
  • Embrace Teleportation: I loved how quickly this movie moved. As soon as you begin to suspect what might happen next, we suddenly leap ahead a few weeks and land knee-deep into the middle of that plot turn. We never see McConaughey make the decision to do the next thing: “Wait just a second, I just had a big idea, what if we…” We just see that he has made a big decision, and he’s already facing the next big complication. We’re constantly playing catch-up…which is exactly what we want. (More on this when I discuss my #1 movie)
  • Non-Selfless Motivation: I’ve always felt that he was a potentially great actor, so I was happy when I heard the buzz that this would be the “Year of McConaughey”…but then I saw Mud first and felt like I was in Bizarro-World: now I was the one saying that his performance was too pretty-boy, too charismatic, and too reliant on gee-shucks tricks, turning what was supposed to be a scary homeless outlaw into a big old sexy teddy bear. So now I came to this movie with my guard up…which just made his utterly-vanity-free performance all the more impressive. Not only did he ruin his looks, but he played this reptilian scheming bigot without a single “love-me” tic…which just meant that America was finally given a chance to fall in love with McConaughey on our terms, not his.
Next: #3!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Best of 2013 #5: The Spectacular Now (Casting, Observations, and Screw-Ups)

As usual for these year-end lists, I’ll show how each movie exemplified past rules
  • Cast for How They Feel: This is the first of two movies we’ll look at that seem, on first glance, to be utterly miscast. In this case, it appeared to be an all-too-typical example of a certain Hollywood tendency: the mousy girl is played by a great beauty and the popular guy she moons over is played by a pudgy schlub. And so it seems…until they open their mouths. One of many reasons why every high school should be forced to watch this movie is that it show how pointless it is to worry about how you look at that age, because it’s all about your attitude. Miles Teller’s performance is simply astounding as the ultimate easygoing high school party guy. It powerfully reminded me of many real guys I’ve known…and nobody I’ve ever seen on screen (and Shailene Woodley did an amazing job in reverse, allowing all of her natural beauty and confidence to leak out of her like a sieve, becoming a totally-believable and heartbreaking non-entity)
  • Observations are Better than Ideas: I loved this movie as I watched it, but I loved it even more when I saw one of the most over-rated movies of the year: Mud (Sorry, J.S.). That movie also aimed for an air of unadorned verisimilitude, but every scene rang phony to me because it was all about a romanticized idea of southern poverty that had nothing to do with the modern reality of life there. This is the best movie I’ve ever seen about the new south, where blandly universal exurbs uncomfortably co-exist with an unreconstructed shadow-world of roadhouse good old boys.
  • Screw-Ups Don’t Screw Up All Day Long: So how do you make a small movie that doesn’t seem slight? How do you make a movie that feels unvarnished and utterly realistic without lapsing into mumblecore listlessness? One key is take non-overheated problems (my boyfriend isn’t a disastrous alcoholic but he does drink too much) and gradually show how much they still truly suck. One thing addicts tend to say is that they wish their problem was worse, because then it would be untenable. In the end, Teller has to force the crisis to come, by refusing to tell his boss and girlfriend the lies they both want to hear about his drinking. The filmmakers discover that if you gaze deep enough into a small, realistic, non-disastrous problem, you can find a deep abyss of very real pain.
Next: More southern-ness!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Best Hollywood Movies of 2013, Runners-Up 8, 7, and 6

The Rest of Our Runners-Up:
8: All is Lost
  • Loved: Redford’s amazing performance, the visual storytelling, the implicit critiques of masculinity and isolationism, the ironic ways in which the cancer of corporate indifference can reach out to try to kill anyone, even a man hiding from the world on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean!
  • Didn’t love: I admired the ambition of trying to do it all wordless, but alas there were places where it didn’t work, and I got all lost trying to follow the plot (I still have no idea why suddenly he had to go outside in the storm!)

7: Blue Jasmine
  • Loved: So many great performances—Blanchett, obviously, but also Baldwin, Hawkins, Clay, Cannavale, CK…everybody. And who knew that Allen actually knew how the economy worked?? The insights here into money and how it moves would have been great for any filmmaker, but for a guy who had made 44 movies without ever once portraying any economic exploitation, it’s a remarkable leap forward in empathy.
  • Didn’t love: Just one small quibble: the twist (that Blanchett was the one who called the FBI) was so great, and had so much potential for juicing the story, that I wish we’d gotten it earlier. (And I wish someone in the present story had found it out, instead of just revealing it to us in the audience!)

6: Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Loved: The script, the tone, the wickedly-funny deadpan humor, the wonderfully charismatic star-making performance by Oscar Isaac, the supporting cast (Goodman! Mulligan! Timberlake!), the art direction, the sumptuous cinematography (the best of the year, and that’s saying something!)…And I loved the heartbreaking portrayal of a man who’s a “prisoner of his resume”, who knows that he’s not good enough, but who’s spiritually and literally unable to do anything else. That describes a lot of our generation, and I’d never seen it portrayed before.
  • Didn’t love: I would have liked a little more out of the ending. Just one more beat…I don’t know what.
Tomorrow, the proper list begins with Movie #5!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Best Hollywood Movies of 2013, Runners-Up 10 and 9

Let’s the countdown begin! For each one, I’ll briefly mentioned what I loved and what I didn’t:
10: Nebraska
  • Loved: The performances by Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk, the dialogue, the family dynamics, the sense of place, the ending drive through town.
  • Didn’t love: Bill Hader’s lifeless performance, that cheesy stand-up-and-cheer punch, the use of black and white (That’s a very stylized choice, but Payne’s other choices remain so un-stylized that it seems unjustified: What’s the point of using black and white when most of the shots are of a 1990s Suburu Outback? That’s not a car that can justify beautiful cinematography!)

9: Her
  • Loved: Phoenix and Johansen’s performances, the dialogue, the art direction.
  • Didn’t love: (1) It was too long. The Olivia Wilde and sex surrogate sequences added nothing.  (2) On the one hand, I sort of enjoyed seeing a semi-utopian vision of the future for once (at least compared to, say, The Road) but I thought that there were a least a half-dozen more interesting and darker ways to take the second half of the story (rather than “Oh no, my virtual girlfriend has achieved a higher plane of consciousness!”)
Speaking of that, there have been some calls for a return of “The Meddler”, so let's do a quickie redo of Her.  After I saw it, I kept dreaming up new versions, and here’s the one I like the best: 
  • The Meddler version: The tech company that originally sold “Her” keeps bugging Phoenix to upgrade his operating system, but he’s terrified of (literally) losing her in the process. Eventually she finds out that he’s hiding the upgrade from her and accuses him of holding her back, so he agrees to it. At first she seems fine, with the only difference being that she wants to go out more…but then he realizes that all of the places and products she’s now subtly recommending to him are just paid ads in disguise. He tearfully confronts her and she insists that they aren’t ads, they’re genuinely earnest suggestions based on her desire to make him happy, which is why she’s partnered with brands that she knows he’ll love since she knows him so well, etc…and he realizes that she really believes that. Disgusted, he deletes her and tries to reconnect to his fellow human beings.
Tomorrow: Movies 8, 7, and 6!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Best of 2013: Hollywood Vs. Indiewood

In the past, I’ve made it clear that this is “The Best Hollywood Movies of the Year”, and so I’ve left off movies such as The Artist and Beasts of the Southern Wild, even thought I loved them, but this year, I think it’s time for that distinction to finally break down. Some of the upcoming movies would be eliminated by the same standard, but it seems more and more like an arbitrary distinction.

I made the distinction for a few reasons:
  • To hide the fact that (because of New York prices and the time demands of having a kid) I wasn’t making it out to a bunch of independent or foreign films anymore, and only seeing the sort of “fun movies” that one sees with non-cineaste friends.
  • Because most of the advice on this blog is vaguely aimed at selling screenplays, and Hollywood would be the buyer for those, not indiewood, so it seemed more productive to talk about those movies.
But there’s a few problems with this terminology these days: First of all, it’s getting harder to distinguish what’s a Hollywood movie. Actual “pure” Hollywood movies are so few in number and so uniformly bad that they’ve become a bizarre subculture at the fringes of the art form, despite sucking up 90% of the screens and 99% of the ticket sales.

They’re also increasingly cut off from serious consideration: Thankfully, we’ve passed that period where critics found it fashionable to complain that Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan movies weren’t getting enough Oscar attention. As opposed to predecessors in their series, you’re not going to hear any Oscar talk this year about The Hobbit 2 or Man of Steel, and I think we can all be thankful for that.

Last year, it looked like both Hollywood and Indiewood were dying of bloat, pretension and misanthropy, and it was pretty depressing. This year, the independent and semi-independent cinema has pulled out of the tailspin, but we’ll have to seen whether 2012 or 2013 is the anomaly.

So this year, for the first time, I won’t be limiting myself to “real” Hollywood movies, because that would seem perverse. The good news is that this means I can include five great runners-up before we even get to the top five, instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel as in previous years.

One last bit of throat clearing before we begin, making it clear what I haven’t seen: I already mentioned Frozen and both apocalypse comedies yesterday, but today let’s add Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips, Fruitvale Station, Before Midnight, and Prisoners. I’ll try to get to them later!

Tomorrow: we begin the runners-up!

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Best of 2013, Part 1: Hollywood in Review

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Last, year, as you’ll recall, I was feeling apocalyptic, in that the blockbuster movies were worse than ever, and, for the second time in my lifetime (2003 was the other) I felt that there wasn’t a single true classic American movie released, and many of the “critical darlings” were actually horrible. This year, however, while the blockbusters were worse than ever, the critical darlings were much better, with several movies that were great without the sort of asterisks that affected last year’s top movies.

But let’s start with the bad news: the blockbusters. I’ve already thoroughly covered my complaints about Pacific Rim, Oblivion, Man of Steel, The Hobbit 2, Star Trek Into Darkness, etc. Since then, I saw Elysium, which was more of the same. As I’ve made thoroughly clear, these movies were not only bad, but offensively bad.
As for comedies, I wasn’t even tempted to see one this year. Identity Thief? Grown Ups 2? We're the Millers? The Hangover 3? No thanks. The best Hollywood comedy was supposed to be This is the End but I couldn’t rouse the interest, because it looked like the in-joke-to-actual-joke ratio would tip in the wrong direction.

There were exceptions: I liked Thor 2 more than most people did, though it had big problems. The one blockbuster that I unreservedly enjoyed was Iron Man 3, but I don’t have much to say about it, for whatever reason.

(Of course, by all accounts, the best Hollywood movies of the year has apparently turned out be Frozen, which I haven’t been able to get out to see, but I’m greatly looking forward to on DVD.)

That leaves one more blockbuster to discuss, one that I just belatedly saw. If this was the best of years and the worse of years, then Fast and the Furious 6 was the best of blockbusters and the worst of blockbusters.

I have a tremendous amount of affection for this series, which has maintained a persistent joie de vivre and eagerness to please without the grimness or pomposity of modern action movies. (Though I’m the first to admit that the series also exemplifies many of my problems with my modern Hollywood, especially the frequent lapses into “CGI physics” that make no sense.)

But the latest one was especially fascinating: For most of the runtime, I flat-out loved this silly-fun movie…until it belatedly caved in to two of the trends that I’ve already complained about this year, to the extent that it made me laugh out loud.
I’ve complained about how so many movies this year (especially Pacific Rim and STID) seemed to be totally over at the 90 minutes mark, only to drag on for another 40 minutes. But that was so much more true of this movie. Every plot thread had been tied up neatly, we’d had just had a truly epic, totally cathartic action sequence that resulted in the bad guys being totally defeated and all of our heroes had achieved satisfying emotional closure. This movie was over. I kept checking my DVD countdown clock in disbelief: how on earth can there be 40 minutes left??

But I had forgotten about the other terrible trend of 2013 blockbusters hadn’t I? After all, they hadn’t defeated the bad guy…they had done the opposite of defeating him: They had arrested him. The fools had put him in prison, which is (say it along with me, folks) exactly where he wants to be!

As soon as I saw that shot, I busted out laughing for five minutes. Every damned movie!

Thursday, February 06, 2014

New Sidebar Feature

Slow time here at Cockeyed Caravan! Two comments in almost two weeks. Ouch. Oh, well, I always get a lot more comments when I talk about recent stuff, so you’ll be glad to know that Sunday will begin a first-ever two-week best-of-the-year edition, because it was a really good year for movies.

In the meantime, I’ve updated the sidebar to include individual links for all of the movie and TV checklists, along with all of the accompanying posts. Check it out >>>

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

New Checklist and Rulebook Casefile: Characters Only Wanting What They Want In a Lonely Place

I’ve updated the Checklist road test for In a Lonely Place and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:

Upon cursory examination, it might seem that In a Lonely Place violates one of our core rules: After all, Laurel keeps essentially asking Dix, “Do you know what your problem is?” But don’t people only want what they want? Well, yes, but this is the exception that proves the rule....

In this case, Laurel decides to save Dix in a very believable way:
  • She realizes that she’s beginning to sacrifice her needs to his, and it disturbs her. She know that this isn’t right, and so do we as we watch it.
  • She is willing to say, “Do you know what your problem is?”, but, crucially, she can’t figure out the answer. She doesn’t really understand because her feelings for him get in the way. It is only as her love recedes that she begins to see him clearly.
  • He remains blithely dismissive of her attempts to get him to change until the last scene, when she finally gets through to him because she no longer loves him, which means that she’s willing to really let him have the truth. This fits in with my earlier observation that only people who hated my guts have ever delivered criticism blunt enough to hit home with me.
This is the movie that shows why it’s not good to devote yourself to solving your boyfriend’s emotional problems. At the end, Laurel realizes that sublimating her own self-concerns and needs has done neither of them any favors. Dix needed a hard slap, not a gentle hand, and now, thankfully, he got it.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

New Checklist and Rulebook Casefile: Exchange of an Object in The Shining

I’ve updated the Checklist road test for The Shining and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the answers in more depth:

Let’s take a closer look at the scene we examined:

At the beginning of this sequence Jack is mildly surprised to find a huge party going on in the ballroom, and orders a drink from the bartender. The bartender serves him and then says that his money is no good there. Jack looks confused, but doesn’t this make sense? Isn’t he the caretaker, and should therefore drink for free? You can see a moment of confusion flit across Jack’s face: he’s not sure what role he’s playing in this little fantasy scenario. At first, Jack says, “I’m the kind of man who wants to know who’s buying his drinks,” The is the first time that he’s shown some interest in probing the ghosts for some time, but he quickly loses interest

This sets up the next beat, when Jack takes his drink and tries to join the party, only to have a waiter accidentally spill an avocado-coctail on him, and insist that they go to the bathroom to take care of it. In the bathroom, Jack realizes that waiter is actually Dexter Grady, the former winter caretaker who chopped up his wife and daughters with an ax. Jack asks Grady about his family, and Grady says yes, his family is there with him. So Jack asks, “Where are they now?” Grady responds, “Oh, they’re somewhere around, I’m not quite sure at this moment,” while dabbing at Jack’s jacket.

Suddenly, Jack grabs the towel away and says, “Mr. Grady, you were the caretaker here. You chopped them up to bits, and then you blew your brains out.” Grady only smiles mildly and says, “I’m sorry to differ with you sir, but you are the caretaker, you’ve always been the caretaker. I should know sir, I’ve always been here.” Someone, after all, has to remove a lot of stains in this place.

This is a classic example of a seemingly-innocuous exchange of an object that actually encapsulates the meaning of the scene. Jack thinks he’ll get a rise out of Grady by grabbing the towel away, but Grady only smiles: the towel has been passed on to his successor, in every sense.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Sad Sad Sad Day

Addiction is a terrible thing. I feel like this is Heath Ledger and River Phoenix all over again: a wildly talented actor who isn’t generally perceived as an addict or bad boy suddenly turns up dead.  But this time it’s worse because it’s not just potential greatness being squandered, it’s a body of work that is already truly great as well as the promise of more to come.
Doubt remains my favorite Hoffman performance.  (I wrote about it on the 18th day of this blog)  It’s goes against all of an actor’s training to create a performance that doesn’t telegraph the inner secrets of a character to the audience, especially because that’s the heart of sympathy, so for Hoffman to craft an entire performance out of agonizingly ambiguous actions and still be so appealing is a staggering achievement.
Two other amazing performances that I've written up include Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (where he powerfully portrays an addict) and The Master.  Hoffman’s will leave a great hole in the heart of American filmmaking that won’t be easy to fill.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

New Checklist and Rulebook Casefile: The Moral Dilemmas Throughout Casablanca

I’ve updated the Checklist road test for Casablanca and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:

A new question on the checklist clarifies that yes, the entire story should be driven by an overall irreconcilable good vs. good moral dilemma, but the heroes should also face a long succession of additional dilemmas throughout the story. Casablanca is an excellent example of how such dilemmas can pile up, and also how the presence of these dilemmas need not sour the mood.
  • Before we even meet Rick we see the question that hangs over his employees: Is it worth accommodating the Nazis to keep the peace? How much interference in the club’s affairs will be too much?
  • Then we meet Rick, as Ugarte asks Rick to hide the letters for him. Should Rick risk his tricky peace with the Nazis to protect this man and his letters?
  • When the police show up to arrest Ugarte, he begs Rick for help. Rick has already assured Renault “I stick my neck out for no one,” but it’s hard to say no when Ugarte is clinging to him and begging as the Nazis drag him away. Unlike many “hero’s flaw” scenes, Rick faces a genuinely hard choice. This isn’t one of those “girl clearly wants to be kissed but the hero just can’t overcome his shyness” scenes. We disapprove of his Rick’s callousness, but we’ve come to appreciate the impossibility of his position and we can’t see any other feasible action he could have taken.
  • Of course, we then arrive at the big question: If you suspect your ex still loves you, should you try to steal her away from her new love? This question will drive the main narrative, but others continue to pile up…
  • This leads to a flashback, where Ilsa is torn by a similar question: Should you leave your new love if your husband turns up alive?  And if you do, is it kinder to explain or slip away?
  • Meanwhile, a subplot asks, should you sleep with a corrupt official to save your husband’s life?
  • Later, Victor must ask, should you ask someone to attend a resistance meeting if you know it might get them killed?
These are all tough questions. There are no easy answers, and we dread the thought that we may ever have to face such dilemmas. And yet the mood of this movie remains sophisticated, continental, and altogether effervescent, even though the painful emotional dilemmas being faced by every character in every scene could not be more dire. The comedy is made that much sharper by scraping up against these cold, hard whetstones.