Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What’s the Matter With Hollywood: Sociopathic Spec Syndrome

 When I first started this blog seven years ago, there was still a thriving market for spec screenplays. Lots of successful movies were made every year based on scripts bought on the open market. Now those days are long gone. These days, there are very few movies released in any given year based on spec scripts.

For the most part, of course, this is the due to ever-growing stranglehold of pre-established franchises on the business, but let’s face it, there’s another reason for the decline of the spec-based movie: Most of the spec-based movies that do get made happen to suck.

In the last holiday season, there were two movies based on big-time spec sales: Passengers and Collateral Beauty. I didn’t see either one, but my oh my the reviews weren’t good, and the box office was disappointing for each. In some ways the reviews for the two movies were similar, and I think it speaks to why the spec market died: the way the market is set up, it favors callous movies, and the studios seem to be oblivious to how callous they are.

In Passengers, Chris Pratt wakes up early on an intergalactic journey, and realizes that now he’ll die alone of old age while everyone else sleeps. To make his death sentence more pleasant, he decides to also wake up a hot girl, consigning her to the same fate, then claim that he had nothing to do with it and let nature take its course. Nevertheless, we’re supposed to like the guy.
In Collateral Beauty, some ad execs are tired of their partners grieving process, so they hire actors to gaslight the poor guy, going so far as to shoot video and then edit the actors out, so as to convince their colleague that he’s in contact with walking talking abstract concepts. This whole process was supposed to be kinda funny.

Audiences and critics saw these movies and instantly felt skeezed out. What supremely creepy concepts! Nobody wanted to go on these journeys with these characters.

The natural instinct is to look at these movies and assume that the screening process is insufficient, letting in too many bad movies. In fact, of course, the opposite is true: the ascension of these movies was the result of a tremendously strict process, winnowing down hundreds of thousands of entries to just a few lucky winners, after each one was reviews by dozens of gatekeepers. So what went wrong?

Let’s look at another big spec sale or recent years. This rare spec-sale was noteworthy enough that AVClub.com reported on it: A Fred Rogers biopic entitled A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The chuckleheads at AVClub, of course, just retype press releases and add a few jokes, so the writer of this news item decided to joke that the screenplay would “tell the story of the Presbyterian Church minister who found fame and inspired generations with his children’s show, only to spiral into a hellish cycle of drug abuse and sexual depravity”, before saying “Just kidding: Absolutely none of that happened, and by all accounts Mister Rogers was as soft-spoken and earnest in his personal life as he was his professional. Which means this particular biopic will lack the seemingly obligatory ‘fall from grace’ arc”. But here’s the thing: I read that script, and the writer was right the first time. In the spec script, which is purely fictional, Rogers does indeed fall into disgrace involving both drugs and sex.

It’s hard to admit that you care about something heartfelt and genuine that someone else has written. It’s much easier to say, “Look at how cynical I am! I love this cynical script and you should too.” All those layers of gatekeepers only serve to filter out the scripts that anyone would actually care about, leaving the most sociopathic scripts to squeeze through the process. Then the studios are shocked to discover that the public is not willing to stomach these characters.

Then all the movies based on spec scripts fail, reinforcing the studios’ belief that the public has no craving for original material. It’s a vicious cycle.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 5: Figure Out What Went Wrong

It might seem easy to plot a mystery or conspiracy story. You have four steps:
  1. A villain comes up with an evil plan.
  2. The villain begins to put that plan into effect.
  3. Our hero sees the effect of that plan.
  4. The hero figures out who the villain is and stops him/her.
And indeed some mysteries, especially police procedurals, are plotted in this exact manner. But it’s hard to write this sort of mystery in a satisfactory way. Audiences want mysteries that are hard to solve. The easiest way to solve a crime is to ask quo bono: Who benefits? If the nature of the crime is obvious from the beginning of a story, then the quo bono will usually be too obvious as well.

In order to get around this problem, most mysteries add step 1a: Life complicates the villain’s plan before the hero finds out about it.

Usually this means that something has gone wrong with the villain’s plan: Someone else already found out about it and had to be killed, for instance. Or another conspirator had to be knocked off. Or an innocent bystander was killed by accident as part of enacting the plan.

This makes the mystery more satisfying, because it makes the quo bono much harder to figure out. The initial crime the hero discovers is not something that obviously benefits the villain. The villain has killed someone they didn’t originally intend to kill, merely in furtherance of the conspiracy, rather than in pursuit of the original benefit.

Zootopia is another mystery in which things haven’t gone according to the villain’s original plan, in a way that complicates the story, and makes the mystery much harder to solve.  (The difference here is that the complication winds up helping out the villain.)

Here’s the original plan: Assistant Mayor Bellwether (in collusion with some chemists and a sniper) has been shooting predators and making them go savage, in order to make all predators look bad, especially her boss, Mayor Lionheart. And indeed, this movie could have begun with predators going savage in public places. Some would blame it on their DNA, but our heroes would investigate, find the poison, track it down to its lab, etc. It would have been hard to stretch that story out to 108 minutes.

But the case isn’t so simple, because reality has interfered with Bellwether’s plan: Mayor Lionheart has found out about that 14 predators have gone savage, but he’s decided to hush it up: He’s had them rounded up and taken to a defunct hospital for testing, so as to avoid a panic.

(In this instance, the complication will slow things up for Bellweather, but will ultimately benefit her more than she could have dared hope for. This is perfect: All she has to do is point our heroes to the mayor’s facility, and he’ll actually be arrested, rather than merely forced out, and she’ll become mayor instantly. Originally, she had wanted the poisonings to gradually create a panic, but this works even better: Now all fourteen cases that the mayor has covered up will come out at once, and the panic will be instantaneous. Nevertheless, things have not gone according to plan.)

The good news for the movie is that this complication obscures the villain’s plot, so it’s not obvious to us. Our heroes spend most of the movie investigating Lionheart’s conspiracy, not Bellwether’s. Our question is: Who has kidnapped these predators? The fact that they’re going savage doesn’t even come up until the movie is half over. Our eye is kept off the ball by the complication.

We’re always several stops behind the main plot, so we never get to slow down and ask the obvious question: Who benefits? If we had, the answer would have been obvious. As it is, neither we nor the heroes ever get around to asking that question until the answer is literally staring us and them in the face.
This is how you plot a mystery: You don’t need to create an ingenious solution, you just need to keep our eyes off the ball. Any illusionist will tell you: The trick is simple; it’s the misdirection that’s complicated.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 4: Set Up the Hero Fake-Out

When Officer Hopps and Nick Wilde pull off their impromptu sting operation at the end of Zootopia, they’re not just fooling the villain, they’re also fooling the audience. We’ve been given everything we need to figure it out: We’ve seen that the savage-toxin gun pellets look like blueberries, we’ve seen that they have blueberries on them, we know that they have a recorder, etc, but we, or at least I, still fall for it: It genuinely seems that Mayor Bellwether has turned Nick savage and put Hopps in deadly danger.

In any mystery, there are three different possible relationships between the hero and the audience:
  • The information superior position: We have information that the hero doesn’t have. We know about some danger that they don’t know about yet.
  • The same-information position: We’re on their shoulder, finding out about everything the same time they do, and having the same emotional reaction.
  • The information-inferior position: The hero knows more than we do, and we have to play catch up to figure out what they’re doing.
Usually, mystery writers utilize all three at different times. The first creates suspense. The second fully bonds us to the hero. The third causes us to admire the hero. All three can be useful. Hitchcock would usually use all three in every movie.

Interestingly, Zootopia never uses the first (possibly to keep things from getting too scary or suspenseful for kids.) We spend almost the whole movie in position two. By the time we get to the end, we’re used to fully identifying with Hopps, and we don’t expect her to trick us.

But there’s another reason this works: because of our subconscious understanding of the Chekhov rule: We know that if there’s a gun on the mantle in the first act, it has to go off in the third act. And throughout this movie, they keep discussing the possibility that Nick will eventually go savage. We’re primed to fear/expect that. We would feel disappointed if we never got to see it. It feels like a big payoff. Good writers know how to manipulate our understanding of these rules and the subconscious expectations they create.

It doesn’t take us long to figure out that it’s a scam, which is good. We figure it out as soon as Mayor Bellwether starts confessing all: Suddenly we remember the blueberry, the recorder, etc. We also remember that the movie began with young Hopps pretending to be attacked by a predator, establishing her acting skills. With delight, we realize that Hopps has fooled us, breaking our full identification with her to trick us as surely as she’s tricked the villain.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 3: Quietly Give Your Heroes the Objects They Need

In the end, the heroes of Zootopia triumph by setting up a complicated sting on the villains, but they set it up on the spur of the moment, when they suddenly realize they have all the tools they need on them. Specifically, they need:
  • The key piece of evidence: A gun that shoots a blue toxin-pellet at animals that make them go savage.
  • A blueberry that will take the place of the toxin-pellet.
  • A voice recorder. 
In order for this to work without the audience simply rolling our eyes, the movie needed to quietly and logically get all of these objects into their hands, one by one. How do they do that?
  • Obviously, the gun is the whole reason they’re all there. At first, they had a whole train car full of evidence, but that blew up, giving them one last piece of evidence, the gun, which still has a pellet in it. They’re on their way to deliver it to the police station, and Mayor Bellwether has come to intercept it.
  • Amazingly, they just happen to have a blueberry on them. When Officer Hopps quit the force, she was working on her family farm when she realized what the toxin was. She suddenly hopped in the family’s truck and took off immediately, accidentally bringing along what they were selling, including a carton of blueberries. Later, Nick (who has always made fun of her for being a farmer) mockingly eats the blueberries while they drive. Finally, in the finale, she gets injured and he takes out his handkerchief to bind her wound, only to discover that he was using it to hold blueberries.
  • Finally, it’s established early on that Hopps always has a voice-recorder-pen on her. This has already been a plot point three times, and none of those times feels like a set up for later. Each feels like a self-sufficient scene with its own pay-off.
When these objects are being established, at no point do we say, “Why are they mentioning this? Are they just setting us up for something later?” When Nick snacks on the blueberries, it ties into his overall mockery of Hopps for being a farmer, so it feels like a pay-off for something that happened earlier, rather than a set-up for something in the future. Likewise, the use of the tape recorder has already paid off twice, and even been used as a verbal callback, so we’re not left wondering why they would mention it in advance or why she would have it on her at the end.

In retrospect, all of these objects were set up so that they would be in place at the end, but they were all set up subtly, without calling attention to themselves. Hitchcock was called a “director of objects”: This is because objects are so essential to thrillers and mysteries. A huge part of the creator’s job is to get all the right objects in the right places at the right time, without calling attention to it.

Finally, tomorrow, we’ll look at how they set us up to be fooled by the heroes.

Monday, February 20, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 2: Set Up the Villain Fake-Out

What’s interesting about Zootopia is that Hopps and Nick never really set out to figure out who the villain is. At first the mystery is set up as “Where have all these predators disappeared to?” and then as “Why are they going savage?” The question is never really asked “Who’s behind this?”, until they suddenly realize that it’s Bellwether in the middle of an action sequence. This is fine. Not every mystery needs every element of the genre.

This eases the burden on the writers because they don’t have to create an array of suspects, all of whom would have to have logical motivation. They only need to set up means, motive and opportunity for one person, and the audience isn’t likely to notice, because we’re never invited to suspect everyone.

As I watched the movie, I didn’t figure out who the villain was until the heroes figured it out, which is ideal. As with all the best villain-reveals, I was able to instantly flip my perspective and re-evaluate everything I’d seen, seeing how everything the villain had done, none of which seemed villainous at the time, could easily take on a sinister interpretation. Let’s go back and look at each of her previous appearances.

We first meet her, she gives Mayor Lionheart the badge to give to Hopps and gets shoved aside.
  • How it reads at the time: This is an amusing side character, and we’ll probably never see her again.
  • What we see in retrospect: We see her humiliation and anger.
She helps Hopps get unfired and get assigned to the disappearance case.
  • How it reads at the time: We like Bellwether for sticking up for her fellow underdog.
  • What we see in retrospect: She wants the case to go forward to serve her sinister plan.
She helps Hopps track the car, and talks more about her mistreatment by the mayor.
  • How it reads at the time: We’re getting more of a sense of her grievance at this point, but it still just seems like an interesting character note. If anything, it makes us wonder if Lionhart is going to be the villain.
  • What we see in retrospect: She’s leading them to where the mayor has the predators caged up.
She encourages Hopps at press conference.
  • How it reads at the time: She innocently puts Hopps forward and doesn’t realize what Hopps will do.
  • What we see in retrospect: She hopes Hopps will blame all predators, and she’s very happy afterwards.
She discourages Hopps from quitting.
  • How it reads at the time: We like her. In fact we side with her over our hero.
  • What we see in retrospect: Oddly enough, our reading of this scene doesn’t change. Bellwether genuinely likes Hopps, and really wants to help her. Prey must stick together, after all.
So by the time we get to the climactic scene, we’ve seen everything we need to see. We've seen that she has all the motivation she needs to be the villain, even though it didn’t seem villainous to us at the time, and we’ve seen her engage in villainous behavior even though it seemed positive at the time.

Next time, we’ll look at another element that sets up the finale.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 1: Work Backwards from the Climax

So I’ve wanted to talk about plotting for a while but I was waiting for a perfectly plotted movie to come along, and lo here it is. Perfect plots move heaven and earth without leaving a trace. It takes a tremendous amount of blood, sweat and tears to get every element in exactly the right spot, but if you’ve done it well, then it all seems to fall out that way naturally.

Let’s look at the climactic scene in Zootopia. If you haven’t seen the movie, then stop right now, because I’m about to spoil everything, but even if you have seen it, you could probably use a refresher:
  • Officer Hopps and conman Nick Wilde have discovered what is making predators go savage: blue balls of rage toxin shot out of a gun. They’re taking the gun back to the police as evidence when they unexpectedly run into Mayor Bellweather as they go through a natural history museum. She asks for the gun, but wonder how she knew they would be there and run for cover. She ends up with the gun and shoots Nick, who seems to turn savage and attack Hopps. Bellweather brags about her plan as Nick attacks Hopps, but then they reveal that Nick was just acting: they had replaced the toxin pellet with a blueberry, and Hopps hand recorded Bellweather on her recorder pen. Bellweather is arrested.
So let’s talk about what was necessary to make this scene work.
  • First of all, the movie needs to set up the villain fake-out, where we realized that the villain has been right there in front of us the whole time.
  • Next, Hopps and Nick had to have three items on them: The gun, a blueberry, and a sound recorder.
  • Finally, the movie needs to set up the hero fake-out. The heroes pull off a fake-out on the end not just on the villain, but also on the audience, and that has to be set up as well.
So we’ll look how these things are set up over the next few days. Before we begin, however, I thought that we’d take a look at the one thing that they don’t really set up: How Mayor Bellweather knew to find them in the Natural History Museum. It kind of makes sense: They were driving the train car full of evidence to the police station when it crashed, but then they get out and Hopps says:
We heard the toxin-cooks warn the bad guy that Hopps had taken the train, and we know that the mayor is good at using the traffic cams to track people through the city, so she might have tracked the train, seen it crash, figured out that they would have to cut through the Natural History Museum to get to the ZPD, and gone to confront them. I guess it kind of makes sense.

Hitchcock talked about “elevator moments”: moments in mysteries that didn’t really make sense, but you don’t realize that until later. This is a variation: the moment that does kind of make sense, but you can’t figure out how until later.

The point is, you can’t get away with it. As we’ll see, you have to set up a lot of stuff, and there’s just not time to set up stuff like how the mayor tracked them down to that spot.  Sometimes you just have to hope the audience goes along with it. You have to know which things the audience needs to know and which things on which they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Best of 2016, #1: Zootopia

What I Liked About It: 2016 will always be remembered as the year the Klan conquered America, but it’s also the year that saw one of the best (and most entertaining) movies about racism ever made. My daughter loves watching it, then we get to have in depth conversations about the dozen levels of racism subtly portrayed, from benign to malicious, and what’s problematic about each.

So many Rulebook Casefiles! Next week, we’ll spend the whole week on how the movie sets up the climactic scene, so for now let’s focus on one object runner that’s not part of that scene: Nick’s badge.
  • When Officer Hopps falls for the scam being run by Nick Wilde and his partner Finnick, Hopps naively puts a sticker-badge on Finnick, who is pretending to be a toddler.
  • When Hopps extorts Nicks into working with her on his case, Finnick laughs at him and puts the sticker on him: “She hustled you good! You’re a cop now Nick, you’re gonna need one of these! Have fun working with the fuzz!”
  • Later, when Hopps realizes that Nick has sabotaged the investigation, Nick sarcastically points to the sticker and says, “Madam, I have a fake badge. I would never impede your pretend investigation.”
  • Later, Hopps has convinced Nick to apply to be a cop, but then offends him, causing him to throw away his application and rip the sticker off.
  • Finally, after Nick graduates the academy, Hopps puts a real badge on him.
So the fake badge changes in meaning with each exchange: naïve maternalism, to badge of shame, to icon of sarcasm, to representation of dashed hopes, to earnest achievement.  Next week, we’ll focus on the exchange of three objects that are necessary for the plot, but this object is solely a source of meaning, and that meaning grows with each exchange.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Best of 2016, #2: 20th Century Women

The Problem: None!

For those of you who haven’t seen it: Annette Benning plays a single mom in 1979 with two boarders in her rotting California home, trying to raise her teenage son. It’s a crime she didn’t get an Oscar nomination.  (And neither did Amy Adams!  All so that Meryl could get her 50th nomination??)

What I Loved About It: Everything! It was such a relief to get this bracing blast of real life after all the grim brutality offered up by so many of the other movies. It turns out that life is a pretty interesting topic. This movie felt like it could have been made by Eric Rohmer, which is about the highest compliment I know how to pay.

Rulebook Casefile:
  • Find Unique But Universal Details: I had never heard of the pass-out game they play (that almost kills the son), but it seemed so real to my experience of adolescence, so I readily accepted it.
  • Find the Internecine Conflicts: Looking back on punk, and looking at what it means in retrospect, it would be tempting to show them clashing with preppies all the time, but as an actual punk in 1979, you were far more likely to get caught up in clashes between art punks and hardcore punks. It is our internecine conflicts that dominate our waking hours, not our larger societal roles.
  • Impose a Dramatic Question: This movie’s great strength is that it’s a free-ranging slice of life, but you still have to impose a bit of structure in order to make it feel like a coherent story. In this movie, at around the 20 minutes mark, Annette Benning asks the two women in her son’s life to help raise him. Then, near the end, she tells them to cool it. That’s all the structure you need, and Mills hangs his whole sprawling loosey-goosey movie on that rickety frame, which works just fine.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Best of 2016, #3: The Invitation

The Problem: None! Now that we’re in the top three, we’re down to movies that I unreservedly loved.

Warning: I know that not many of you saw this movie, and it’s best if you see it like I did, knowing next to nothing about it, so I would recommend that you read no further, go check it out, and then meet me back here. Unfortunately, I must include mild spoilers from this point on (albeit nothing you couldn’t guess from the trailer)

What I Liked About It: It’s a great movie about L.A. Like our last movie, it’s a great movie about self-destructive grief. It’s a great movie about how we all gaslight ourselves, especially in the age of Trump. We tell ourselves, “The world can’t possibly be this sinister. It’s not so bad. I must be crazy.” Then the bloodbath begins, and we ask, “Why didn’t I trust my terror?”

Rulebook Casefile: Establish the Nature of the Jeopardy. The Invitation is a fantastic thriller, but I hesitate to call it that. It has the structure of many great thrillers, where the real possibility persists for quite some time that everything might have a perfectly reasonable explanation (Think Rear Window). What makes this movie unique is how long it draws out that section of the movie. The sinister nature of the goings-on isn’t confirmed until the last possible moment, right at the beginning of Act Three.

So how do you draw things out that far? One way is to make every little line of dialogue or gesture seem ominous, because the filmmakers use lots of great tricks to put us deep inside the hero’s paranoid head. We jump because he jumps, even though we also keep our distance from him, doubting his sanity.

But the movie also uses a very simple trick. As our hero and heroine are on their way to this dinner party deep in the L.A. hills, they run over a coyote and mostly kill it. Once our hero realizes it can’t be saved, he casually puts it out of its misery with a mighty whack of a tire iron, then continues on his way as the credits roll. This is a way to establish that yes, there will be blood. Even as we doubt our hero’s paranoia later on, that disturbing moment of violence sets the tone. The first thing we saw was a killing, and we’re subconsciously expecting that this will once again become a killing movie. That sustains us during the long wait for the other shoe to drop.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Best of 2016 #4: Manchester By the Sea

(I know, I know, I’ve mostly just stuck to the Oscar nominees so far, but my top three aren’t, I promise)(I still haven’t seen Hidden Figures, by the way [didn’t get a screener], so no telling if that would have made it.)

The Problem: As with Moonlight, this one is pretty perfect, and I hate to criticize it. But also as with Moonlight, I just found its big plot turn to be such a downer that it was hard to love.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Unlike that movie, I thought that this one had far more humanity to it. Even when you’re going through horrible things, you just can’t be heavy all the time. Life moves on, to the extent that our two heroes keep getting caught up in the flow and forgetting to grieve (until they remember at certain moments). Lucas Hedges’s character isn’t going to just dump his two girlfriends because his dad died: Life must be lived.

I liked how this movie exemplified one of our old rules, Screw Ups Don’t Screw Up All Day Long. Casey Affleck’s character, in fact, has a problem in that he’s not screwing up as often as he’d like to. Unable to forgive himself for a horrible mistake, he really just wants to die, but he doesn’t want to kill himself, so he just vows to stay dead inside and throws himself in the way of danger whenever he can. Unfortunately, opportunities to live keep presenting themselves, and he can’t squirm out of the way fast enough. Women take an interest in him, forcing him to push them away, and his ex-wife forgives him, which is the last thing he wants. Worst of all, not enough people want to beat him up to satisfy his masochism, so he has to start bar fights on the flimsiest of pretenses in order to finally get the beating he feels he deserves.

Affleck is a screw-up, but you can’t screw up all the time. His life will always be a grand tragedy, but you can’t be tragic all the time.

His last bar fight, in fact, shows him to be a screw-up-like-a-fox. He has to prove, once and for all, that he’s not fit to be a father, so he waits until the ideal opportunity comes along to stage a final screw-up, ensuring that Hedges will find the ideal home and making everybody’s lives better (except the poor guy he sucker-punches to make it happen)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Best Movies of 2016, #5: Moonlight

Does my sour mood extent even so far as this amazing movie?  It does!

The Problem: On the one hand, this is a pretty much perfect movie: It’s beautifully written, acted, directed, shot and scored. But, in keeping with the theme of the year, it still left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. As is so often the case with wildly-acclaimed movies, I couldn’t help but hold it up against the praise it’s gotten (even though I saw it shortly after it came out). If you go to Rotten Tomatoes, you see praise like “avoiding clichés, shattering stereotypes”, but does it do that? All of the characters have some relationship the drug trade (Well, we never find out why Dev went to prison, but we can guess).

My biggest problem with this movie is that it gives straight white people exactly what they want to see of gay black sexuality: It’s sexless and brutally punished. Ultimately, this movie was more about inhumanity than humanity. The characters couldn’t breathe. I’m at the point in my life where I’m craving humanity, not inhumanity, when I go to the movies. Yes, I feel like a jerk for criticizing this movie, but I gotta call ‘em like I sees ‘em.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Use the Power of Silence. The world will talk at your hero, but one of the strongest reactions your hero can have is silence. We see how Chiron’s silence isolates him, but also how it elicits both frustration and sympathy from those who try to reach him. Every time he refuses to respond, he asserts his power over the speaker more profoundly than he could by speaking, and becomes a more compelling character. It feels very counterintuitive to write dialogue in which there’s no dialogue, but it can be just as compelling as a two-sided conversation.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Best Movies of 2016 #6: Birth of a Nation

What I Liked About It: You won’t find a more intense emotional journey than this movie (although our next movie is a close second). Better than any other film, this movie captures the intense outrage of life in slavery.

The Problem: As others have pointed out, the biggest problem with this movie is that they don’t show Nat Turner killing any kids, which is to say, while it does an amazing job capturing the horror of Turner’s situation, it refuses to grapple with the true horror of Turner’s actions in response.

You’ll recall that I had problems with 12 Years a Slave. I thought that movie had the ideal source material for creating an intense bond between the hero and the audience, because, as a free man sold into slavery of the worst kind for a limited amount of time, it had a situation that we could all could totally identify with, and yet I felt that movie was too cold and alienating to let us fully emotionally bond with the hero. This movie has the opposite problem: It commits to the task of forcing our full and total emotional identification, but in this case we have a slave whose story is not an ideal candidate for that.

One can try to argue that Nat Turner’s actions were justified, even when he killed kids, if one wants, but you can’t deny that he was a weird guy. We get brief flashes of Turner’s hallucinations, but not enough. It shows us his logical motivations, but glosses over the fact that one of his major motivations was a solar eclipse. If the movie had wanted to deal more forthrightly with the reality of Turner’s life and actions, it would have needed to forgo some of that intense identification and let us be a little alienated, wondering at the real man’s unknowable tinge of madness.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Horror Feels More Real When It Has Ironies. They say that Trump is too hard to parody because it’s impossible to exaggerate how evil or stupid he is. This too is the problem writers face when portraying slavery. One way to do this is to establish that this owner is “one of the good ones” and then show how inhumanly horrific slavery is at its “best”. Few scenes will stay with you like the one where a slave refuses to eat, so the overseer casually knocks his teeth out to better forcefeed him, all while the “good” owner watches, guilt-ridden, but silent. It’s that look of “What choice do I have? He won’t eat!” that finally drives home the horror, and makes the ending feel inevitable.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Best of 2016, #7: La La Land

The Problem: As with most Oscar movies this year, this movie suffers the most simply from having the Oscar weight laid on it, which it can’t quite sustain. It’s an odd and ungainly movie, nowhere near as good as Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s previous film. Its biggest problem is that it keeps forgetting that it’s a musical for long periods of time, so that each time a song broke out, it was awkward all over again. We never step through the portal into the magical world of musicals. This is not only because the song are awkwardly sung, which I realize is intentional, but because they’re simply not very catchy or memorable.

What I Liked About It: Nevertheless, the movie is wonderfully watchable, if you’re willing to put up the effort to meet it halfway. As you’ll recall, Crazy Stupid Love topped my 2011 list, so I’m already a fan of Stone and Gosling’s chemistry and I think they’re once again wonderful together. Most importantly, there’s the ending, where the movie finally soars. Like Arrival, this was a movie I resisted while I was watching it, but the final twenty minutes made it all worthwhile, as the movie suddenly snapped together in a deep and rich way.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: A Thwarted Process Can Create Empathy for Anyone. One of the sources for the backlash to this movie has been that people are simply sick and tired of being asked to care about actors, which is after all, one of the world’s least essential professions (little better than screenwriters, in fact.) Nevertheless, I didn’t have this problem with this movie, because I thought that Chazelle did an amazing job creating empathy with a hard-to-empathize-with profession, and he did it with a brilliant scene (that only an amazing actress like Stone could have pulled off).

We get two amusing montages of Stone on auditions, with all of the ridiculous dialogue she’s expected to sell, but then we drill down on one audition that’s painfully powerful: Stone is just about to summon up tears when the director gets distracted by someone else and Stone just has to hold that moment, just on the edge of tears, until the director pays attention again. Suddenly we realize just how hard and humiliating this job is. It may not be easy to sympathize with the desire to be a Hollywood star, but watching anyone getting humiliated while trying their best is pretty easy to empathize with.
(One final point, it strikes me as strange that more people haven’t pointed out all the similarities between this movie and New York, New York.  Both were made by directors coming off a big hit [In that case, it was Scorsese following up on Taxi Driver] who decided to use up their newfound clout on an odd semi-musical about a couple trying to make it big that’s also a love letter to the director’s hometown, and in both cases the results were ungainly but still pretty great.  I wish that movie had gotten as much acclaim as this one.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Best of 2016 #8: Hell or High Water

The Problem: No problem really, I just thought it was somewhat slight for a Best Picture nominee. It’s very similar to No Country for Old Men, but so many scenes in that movie crackled with energy, whereas there was a lot less crackle here. I also thought it was too hard to make out what everybody was saying, which is getting to be more of a problem for me as I get older, which brings us to…

What I Liked About It: The inarticulateness wasn’t as bad as Loving, though. Loving did that thing where they have a non-American actor who thinks the way to act American is to squint and grunt a lot. This movie, on the other hand, actually had Americans playing Americans, which I greatly appreciated.

Another thing I liked in the “at least it wasn’t like those other movies” category was the lack of my least favorite movie trend: The squishy sound. This officially became unbearable to me with Drive: This idea that the mic should be shoved down the orifice of every wound so that we hear the squishy sounds therein. I was afraid of more of the same here, but this movie was gratefully squishy-free. It was just a nice classical Western-neo-noir like Charley Varrick or Red Rock West.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Understand the nature (and economics) of crime. Certain crimes are overrepresented in film, so that when we picture crime we picture Nocturnal Animals: Some stranger is going to rape and murder my wife and daughter! But that’s just our lurid fantasy of crime. The good thing about writing about bank robbery is that it’s one of the few crimes that actually happens more often than most people assume. There were about 5000 bank robberies last year, and a shocking number were successful. This movie presents a very believable portrait of how smart bank robberies actually work, and audiences appreciate a peek into the reality of actual crime.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Best of 2016, #9: Arrival (Tease Your Twist)

Once again, I’ll start with what didn’t work:

The Problem: Most of the conflict in this movie is false conflict. We start with a very familiar sci-fi situation: Aliens have landed and the scientists want to communicate while the military doesn’t trust them. We’ve seen this a million times before, but this time the situation is tilted too far in the scientists’ direction. It’s way to obvious to us, and it should be obvious to them, that these aliens are super nice guys, but we still get scene after scene of the military freaking out needlessly. Meanwhile, we get a very cool story of watching a linguist decode this language, but the film doesn’t trust this story enough to carry the movie (and they may be right about that). (The most obvious example of false conflict is the fact that the military doesn’t warn Adams or Renner that gravity is about to realign itself. Why not give them a heads up on that? Just to give us and them a little false shock.)

The Meddler: The aliens needed to be even more alien, to the extent that they’re accidentally killing people, either by simply crushing them, or by emitting sounds that split eardrums, or by frying them with force fields, etc. This would up the stakes considerably. Now Adams would be putting her life at risk by entering this ship belonging to these aliens that can’t stop killing people, maybe accidentally, maybe not. Now the military would have a good reason to just wipe these people off the map and the scientists would have a much harder job to do convincing the military that no, these deaths were accidental and we just need to learn to communicate. Then the communication breakthrough would be far more consequential.

What I Liked About It: The performances, the tone, the science, and especially the whopper of a twist.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Tease your twist. A great twist can’t just land like a rock on the head of your audience. As with a murder mystery, you need to “play fair”, laying in a series of clues: Not that your audience wants to necessarily guess the twist before the reveal, but they want to feel like they could have and maybe should have. The beauty of this twist is that it’s teased out and revealed so gradually that you’re on the cusp of figuring it out about a half-hour before it finally hits you, which feels so gratifying. As soon as I heard Adams say “Your father’s the scientist”, I began to figure it out somewhere in the back of my brain, but that only meant it hit with more force, not less, when it was finally revealed.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Best of 2016, #10: Fences

So here I am back. I’m so sorry to disappear for so long, but it’s just hard to care about anything in the middle of this national nightmare. I’m just glued to the news and constantly freaking out. Everything I’ve ever fought for or cared about is being gleefully destroyed. It’s literally the apocalypse.

So there’s that.

Now let’s talk about this year’s movies. The bad news is that my negativity has spilled out in that direction as well. I thought pretty much all of the most prestigious movies of the year were overrated. Even when I went to write about my 10 favorites, I found I had more complaints about them than compliments. So in keeping with my sour mood, I’m going to have to split these in four parts each. A first part where I complain, a second where I meddle, a third part where I compliment some element of the movie, and then a storyteller’s rule that can be gleaned from the movie.

Problems: Fences was actually adapted by Tony Kushner, but he took off his name so the screenplay is merely credited to the dead original playwright August Wilson. Ostensibly, this was done out of deference, but one must suspect that this was also out of embarrassment over the fact that he just hadn’t cracked it (or Washington wouldn’t let him). The original play was set in a back yard, but almost none of those scenes have to be set in that back yard, and there’s no excuse for failing to open up the play more. At least range more around the house!

The Meddler: Once in the movie, there’s a montage between two of Wilson’s acts, and it goes a long way. We need more of those. This is a movie: We don’t need dialogue like “Where’s Cory?” “He had to go out to football practice.” Show us him leaving early and going to football practice, and have Troy see him go! Then show Cory at practice! One problem with this movie is that we never really believe it’s 1957 because the production design is so generic in this one back yard. Let us see this world! Convince us that it’s 1957.

For that matter, much of the text involves Troy being haunted by his traumatic past, which takes the form of certain powerful moments that he can’t shake. Intercut the  movie with those images, which can tell a silent story. Show us mysterious and painful images and then let him explain them later.

Ironically, one of the only times Washington does add an image to foreshadow something, it hurts the movie. Before Cory’s big confrontation with his dad, Washington shows him checking out a Marine recruiting station. Now we can already guess how the confrontation will be resolved, which makes it less tense (we aren’t wondering “What will he do if he’s kicked out?”), and it ruins the shock of seeing him in his Marine outfit later.

Finally, the movie could have been shorter. It’s 140 minutes, but those extra 20 minutes would shave off easily. The movie doesn’t really kick into gear until Troy admits to his affair almost an hour in. The scenes before that act to set him up as an imperious moralist, which sets him up to be exposed as a hypocrite, but each of those opening scenes could be chopped down. The scenes with his older son add the least to the movie, so they’d be target #1.

So why do I love this movie? Because it works wonderfully as a PBS “Great Performances”-style filmed version of one of the great plays of our time, acted by two of our finest actors.  Washington get truly jaw-dropping performances out of himself and Davis.  I can certainly understand why Washington was so loathe to alter a word of the text, but even without changing a word, there were ways to make this less stagey.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: One way to give shapeless stories some shape is to have characters make a bet, and then pay off that bet ironically. Here, Troy and Bono make a bet as to whether Troy will finish his fence before Bono finally buys a refrigerator. As it turns out, their friendship is pretty much over by the time they both accomplish their goals, so they don’t bother to ask the other who got there first, but the bet has added just a shade of stakes and urgency to the lackadaisical task of building the fence.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Check Out James's Fantastic Film Festival

Hi guys! Will I ever return to regular posting? Yes, I will! I'll have a Best of 2016 countdown soon! In the meantime, you may recall on the podcast that co-host James Kennedy mentioned the very cool film festival he hosts. Well the new season is underway, and he asked if I could post the schedule. You should all check it out, it's a lot of fun!
It’s time for the screenings of the sixth annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival!
(Wait, what is the 90-Second Newbery? It’s an annual video contest in which kid filmmakers create movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery-winning books in about 90 seconds. Complete information about the 90-Second Newbery here.)

Here are the screening dates for 2017. (Want to bring the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival to your city? Every year it expands into more cities! Drop James a line at kennedyjames@gmail.com.)

90-Second Newbery 2016 Schedule
All screenings are free.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017
SPECIAL DEADLINE for submissions to the Asheville, NC screening of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival!

Saturday, February 11, 2017
The TACOMA, WA screening, co-hosted by James and author Keir Graff (Matchstick Castle) and Tacoma’s own hilarious Doug Mackey. At the Tacoma Public Library (1102 Tacoma Ave S). 3-5 pm, but come early for the 2:15 reception! Make your free reservation here.

Sunday, February 12, 2017
The PORTLAND, OR screening, co-hosted by James and author Keir Graff (Matchstick Castle) and Dale Basye (Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go). At the Hollywood Theatre (4122 NE Sandy Blvd., Portland, OR). Organized in conjunction with the fine folks at Portland Community Media. 4:30 pm. Make your free reservation here.

Friday, February 17, 2017
The OAKLAND, CA screening, co-hosted by James and authors Keir Graff (Matchstick Castle) and Marcus Ewert (Mummy Cat). At the Rockridge Branch of the Oakland Public Library (5366 College Ave, Oakland, CA). 7 pm. Make your free reservation here.

Saturday, February 18, 2017
The SAN FRANCISCO screening, co-hosted by James and authors Keir Graff (Matchstick Castle) and Marcus Ewert (Mummy Cat). At the San Francisco Public Library main branch (100 Larkin Street) in the Koret Auditorium. 4-6 pm. Make your free reservation here.

Saturday, February 25, 2017
The MINNEAPOLIS screening, co-hosted by James and authors Keir Graff (Matchstick Castle) and 2017 Newbery Medal winner Kelly Barnhill (The Girl Who Drank the Moon). At the Minneapolis Central Library (300 Nicollet Mall) in Pohlad Hall. 3-5 pm. Make your free reservation here.

Saturday, March 11, 2017
The NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY screening, hosted by James and author Keir Graff (Matchstick Castle). At the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (5th Ave at 42nd St, New York, NY) in the Bartos Forum. 3-5 pm. Make your free reservation here.

Sunday, March 12, 2017
The BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY screening, co-hosted by James and author Keir Graff (Matchstick Castle). At the Central Library (10 Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, NY) in the Dweck Auditorium. 2-4 pm. Make your free reservation here.

Saturday, March 18, 2017
A special screening of the “Best of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival” as part of the Read-A-Thon for Rochester’s Teen Book Festival. Hosted by James and Charles Benoit (Snow Job). At the Barnes & Noble in Pittsford Plaza (3349 Monroe Avenue, Rochester, NY). 3-4 pm.

Sunday, March 19, 2017
The ROCHESTER, NY screening, co-hosted by James and Charles Benoit (Snow Job). At the Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum (900 East Ave, Rochester, NY). 2-4 pm. Make your free reservation here.

Saturday, April 1, 2017
The CHICAGO screening, co-hosted by James and author Keir Graff (The Matchstick Castle). At the Vittum Theater (1012 N Noble St, Chicago, 773-342-4141). 3-5 pm. Make your free reservation here.

Saturday, April 22, 2017
The ASHEVILLE, NC screening, co-hosted by James and Alan Gratz (The League of Seven series). At the Pack Memorial Library (67 Haywood St., Asheville, NC). (NOTE: Special deadline for Asheville entries is February 8, 2017.) 1-3 pm. Make your free reservation here.

Sunday, April 30, 2017
The BOSTON AREA screening, co-hosted by James and National Book Award winner M.T. Anderson (Feed, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and Symphony for the City of the Dead). At the Brookline Public Library (361 Washington Street, Brookline, MA). 2-4 pm. Make your free reservation here.