Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Have at Least Six Painful Decisions: The Archive

Hi guys, I continue to dig through old posts looking for stuff for a new book and re-discovered this forgotten micro-series that I like a lot. The Checklist is set in stone now that it’s in a book, but I can’t figure out why this question never made it onto the list, and I wish I could add it now. Ah well.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Best of 2018, #1: The Favourite (And How Audiences Pick Their Favorites)

(Spoilers ahead!)
This year, The Favourite was my favorite (and wouldn’t it be nice if the Oscars picked it, just so that the headlines could write themselves?)

We’ve talked about the Villain Fake-Out before, where a supporting character turns out to have been the villain all along, but this movie does something more ambitious: Our hero gradually turns villainous, and her victimizer gradually grows more sympathetic.

The movie does all the work of making us fall in love with Emma Stone (First step: Cast Emma Stone), and we only belatedly say 90 minutes later, “Hey, why did I ever fall in love with this lady? She’s kind of terrible.” So we look back at what gave us the false impression that she would be a better lover for the queen than Rachel Weisz. We see the tricks they used:

  • Stone is poor. She’s a cousin of Weisz, but her father has cost them everything, and now she must come begging for any job.
  • Stone is humiliated: When she gets off a carriage seeking her cousin, someone sadistically kicks her and sends her sprawling in the mud. Later, she is treated terribly by the rest of the staff.
  • Stone is “nicer”. The sexual relationship between Weisz and the queen has turned acidic. At times it seems they can barely stand each other, but the queen clearly needs Weisz, both sexually and for advice.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our poor, put-upon heroine could live out a Cinderella story, win the heart (and bed) of a royal and get to spend the rest of her life attending balls in the palace?

But it’s only when Stone is the new Favourite that we remember, “Oh right, bad people can be poor and humiliated, too.” And they can even be “nice”, when it advances their cause. As Weisz tries to remind the queen after she’s been forced out, a good lover should tell you when you look like a badger. Stone sees that the queen no longer wants honesty, and there’s a chance to steal her away with fawning lies.

We believe in all the characters, because the details in the movie are wonderful, but we care for and invest our hopes in Stone’s character only. Then we discover that her eventual success does not gratify our emotional investment like we thought it would. By design, we do not care for nor invest in Weisz’s character …until the end, when we re-evaluate our value system. The movie encourages us to question the ways that all movies get us to choose our favorite character, and realize that just because one character is clearly easier to care for and invest in, doesn’t mean that the easy choice is the right choice.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Best of 2018 , #2: Black Panther (and Rise Above Your Genre's Limitations)

Black Panther begins with an exhilarating scene: On the verge of becoming king of Wakanda, T’Challa invites anyone who wishes to challenge his right to rule to fight him unarmed. A giant named M’Baku steps up, and the two have a thrilling fight in a waterfall. Our hero, though smaller, fights better, proves his physical superiority, and earns the right to rule.

But then, halfway through the movie, Killmonger comes along and demands his own challenge. They go back to the waterfall, where he turns out to be a better fighter and seemingly throws T’Challa to his death. Killmonger then becomes king and Black Panther.

And here’s the thing, it must have been so tempting for the filmmakers to have Killmonger cheat in that big fight. That’s how they did in the perfectly fine cartoon version, after all. That’s the way superhero movies are supposed to go: might makes right, and the heroes are going to win any fair fight.

But the filmmakers rose above that temptation. Killmonger wins fair and square. The kingdom is rightfully his.

There’s just one problem: That’s a really messed-up way to choose the leader of your country. FDR was maybe America’s greatest president, and he wouldn’t have fared very well in that waterfall. Many people have noted that superhero movies have a fascism problem. This movie tackles that head on. They get us to root for the hero to rule in a fascistic “punch your enemies into submission” way, then remind us that that’s all kind of messed up.

In the end, T’Challa never goes back to that waterfall. There is no third unarmed fight. He doesn’t contest that the first fight wasn’t fair. He takes his country back by using every trick in his book. And once he’s back in charge, he starts making some changes in how things are done. This movie confronts the genre’s fascism problem, and the result is the biggest-grossing and most acclaimed superhero movie of all time.

People go to genre movies to experience familiar genre pleasures, and they come prepared to forgive your genre’s inherent flaws.  But sometimes, if you’re sure that your movie is wildly entertaining, then you can try to confront those flaws and rise above the limitations that have held back your genre from Best Picture status.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Best of 2018, #3: Vice (and Who Has the Right to Tell a Story?)

A lot of people were shocked this was nominated for Best Picture, because the reviews weren’t great, but if you look at my previous Best Of lists, you’ll see a lot of McKay, Bale, Adams and Carrell, so you can’t be too surprised to see this here, can you? I don’t know what those bad reviews were talking about because I loved it.

And there was nothing I loved more about the movie than the opening title card:

  • The following is a true story.
  • Or as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is one of the most secretive leaders in history.
  • But we did our fucking best.

One of my problems with BlacKkKlansman is that it falls into a trap I’ve talked about before. In order to make a movie about the Klan in the ‘70s, the filmmakers just waited until someone walked in the door with a self-aggrandizing memoir. Then they had to turn an “I prank called David Duke” anecdote into a whole movie.

But movies should tell true stories that need to be told, not just tales on the periphery of history that a self-promoter wants to push. This is much harder to do, but the makers of Vice did their fucking best. Neither Dick nor Lynne Cheney were pushing McKay and company to tell this story, but enough of the facts were out there that they could get the job done.

I did a whole series many years ago on the question of who has the right to tell a story. Do you have the right to make a biopic about someone who doesn’t want their story told? For that matter, do liberals have the right to make movies about conservative protagonists? I think that one way you earn that right is to show empathy for your enemies, even the very worst of them, and this movie does that well. My heart leapt when Cheney almost-instantly told his daughter he didn’t have a problem with her being gay. That was the moment of actual heroism that McKay was able to find in Cheney’s life, and the movie would never have worked without it. That was the moment that McKay earned the right to tell this story: He found humanity within his anti-hero, and celebrated it.

You don’t have the right to tell a story about any protagonist, fictional or otherwise, if you can’t empathize with them at any point. If McKay took the attitude that Cheney was simply inhuman, the movie wouldn’t have worked. It wouldn’t have been convincing, it wouldn’t have been tragic, and it wouldn’t have been ironic. That’s the difference between an anti-hero and a villain: A good anti-hero must have the potential of redemption, and fail to achieve it.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Best of 2018, #5: If Beale Street Could Talk and #4: Roma

On “The Secrets of Story Podcast”, James Kennedy and I just had a debate about passive protagonists. He argued that, as a story guru, I’m too predisposed to demand active protagonists and overly dismissive of stories about passive ones, even when that works better for the story, and he’s probably right.

How important is it to have an active protagonist? An active protagonist certainly makes it easier to fully invest in and identify with a story, but does that have anything to do with great storytelling? Movies with passive protagonists simply require more of the viewer. Instead of reaching out and pulling us in, they require us to step through the screen of our own accord. Is that a bad thing?

If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma are very similar movies. Both deal with poor, minority, working women in the early 70s going through a pregnancy without a father around (though the dads are missing for very different reasons). Each is structured around the course of the pregnancy without a lot of plot beyond that. In each, the heroine is very sympathetic but also relatively passive, making very few decisions until the very end.

So according to my book, neither movie should be very compelling. And yet they are. Why?

  • Most obviously, because their suffering is very moving, in terms of the personal, systematic, and historical injustices they suffer. But according to my usual advice that should not be enough.
  • The realism is rewarding. We revel in each movie’s ability to capture unique-but-universal little moments that make us say “Ah-ha, yes, life is like that, isn’t it?” We like that the movies respect our intelligence and don’t try to manipulate us.
  • I think it’s key that these are the two best shot movies of the year (It’s an absolute outrage that IBSCT didn’t get a Cinematography nomination.) The majestic camerawork grants a power and dignity to these women’s lives that circumstances cannot.

I did not cry at either of these movies, despite their tragic endings. I was not put through the ringer or taken on an emotional rollercoaster. I felt somewhat alienated and distanced from these women, though I felt for their suffering very much. I was moved, but more on an intellectual level than an emotional level. Perhaps this is just because I am a white man unconsciously inured to the suffering of women of color. Perhaps it is because the movies did not grab me in the way they intended to. Or perhaps it’s because they had precisely their intended effect, preferring to be thoughtful rather than manipulative.

But I had no doubt that these were great movies that everyone should see, regardless of whether their heroes followed my rules.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Best of 2018: Runners Up 10-6

When I do these lists, I tend to go back and forth between having 5 and 10 movies, depending on how strong the year was …and some years I split the different by declaring movies 6-10 to be runners-up, as I’m doing this year. This is largely just because I don’t have enough to say about these five to fill entries, but I’ll do a little...

10: BlacKkKlansman This movie was a lot of fun and also a timely tale about the mainstreaming of hate, but ultimately I found it to be too predictable and the lead too uncharismatic. Nevertheless, Lee’s direction is wonderful as always, and I’d love to see him win Best Director for old time’s sake. I had another issue with this movie that I’ll talk about in contrast to the #3 movie.

9: Paddington 2 This was the best reviewed movie of the year with good reason -it’s absolutely delightful- but its pleasures were perhaps a little too small-scale to finish higher on the list. Brendan Gleeson definitely deserves an Oscar, though.

8: Infinity War No movie thrilled me more or hit me harder in the gut. It was a cheap hit, because they’re obviously going to undo it all, but powerful nonetheless. Thanos is one of the all-time great villains, at least so far.

7: A Star is Born I hate to reward a fourth-time-around remake, especially since it’s nowhere near as good as the 1954 version, but this movie, judged on its own merits, works spectacularly well. Cooper and Gaga both felt like real flesh-and-blood people, which is pretty amazing given how melodramatic the story is.

6: A Quiet Place A masterfully-made white-knuckle chiller. And I actually found a Rulebook Casefile:

I’ve talked about how superhero movies have a Klan problem, but of course by the same token, post-apocalyptic movies have a survivalist problem. If America is actually invaded, then those living off the grid with big gun stockpiles will look pretty smart, but liberal filmmakers such as myself don’t want to tell that story, so we have to come up with apocalypses that don’t reward gun ownership …such as aliens that attack loud sounds. Even in this case, where the writer/director/star seems like he’s probably a right winger based off other projects he’s chosen, he knew that it would be more fun to have unique villains doing a unique attack that had to be defeated in a unique way.  We’ve talked about how you should come up with ways to hurt your hero that would only hurt your hero, well I guess it also works the other way: Come up with ways to defeat the invader that would only hurt this invader.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Not on the Best of 2018 List: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Every few years a movie comes out that everybody absolutely loves, but I find I don’t love it, or even like it, and in fact I can’t imagine how anybody could like it. There were so many reasons I disliked Into the Spider-Verse:

  • Headache-inducing visuals: I just saw this movie with a friend and we were the only ones in the theater. We were seeing an “XD” showing, not a 3-D one, but everything in the foreground or background had a double-vision effect going on. He turned to me a half-hour in and said, “Uh, is this a 3D print or something?” I said, “Yeah, you’re right, it is.” So he went out to get glasses, but he came back without them and said, “They say that’s just how it is.” I was convinced they were wrong, and as I watched, I thought, “Well, this is a very unpleasant viewing experience, but I shouldn’t blame the movie, because, no matter what they say, this is clearly a 3D print.” But when I got home and googled it and found out that no, that’s just how it is. The movie also does that drop-every-3rd-frame thing that “Dragon Prince” does to make it look more like cel animation, which is massively annoying.
  • Headache-inducing concept: The whole idea of the movie is that every parallel Earth has its own Spider-Man with its own tweaked version of the origin. That’s fine, so Miles Morales is the one from this Earth, right? But he’s not: the Peter Parker Spider-Man has already existed on his Earth and gets brutally beaten to death at the beginning (I was glad I hadn’t taken my kids!). So doesn’t that violate the whole concept? Why is our Earth the only one with two Spider-Men, and how did it get two? Miles is bitten by a seemingly-normal spider in a subway tunnel. There’s none of the explanation we get in other movies about a radiated or genetically engineered spider. So how did he get powers? Is this the same spider that bit Peter? Has it bitten anybody else in the intervening years? It would seem like this would be a set-up for a movie about lots of Spider-Men all on our Earth, but then we go off in a different multi-dimensional direction, and no explanation of how Miles got his powers is given. It just doesn’t hang together as a concept.
  • Headache-inducing plotting: To those that love the movie (which, I’ll stress again, is everybody but me) can you explain to me why Spider-Man can turn invisible? Or shoot electricity? Isn’t the whole concept of the character supposed to be that he has the powers of a spider? Why mess with that? Just because the writers said, “Hmm, how to get him out of this? I know, we’ll just give him electricity powers!” Is there any other explanation other than laziness?
  • Sheer exhaustion: We’ve already had three Spider-Men in recent years, two of which were pretty great. We’ve already had two kingpins, two green goblins, etc. Aren’t you people tired? Am I the only one that’s tired?

I suppose there were elements of the movie that were appealing. Miles was likeable. His relationship with his dad was well written. Nicolas Cage was funny. But, for the most part, I thought this movie sucked, and I’m so, so completely baffled at the love it’s received. Not on the list!

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Best of 2018 Intro and Why Bohemian Rhapsody Didn’t Make the List

Okay, the Oscars are almost two weeks away, so we’d better get started on some year-end write-ups. I thought there were no capital-g Great movies this year, but there were a lot of very good ones that I’d like to spotlight.

(As usual, I should begin by pointing out that I haven’t had a chance to see many of the movies that are showing up on other year-end lists, such as The Wife, Cold War, First Reformed, The Ballad of Buster Skruggs, Eighth Grade, Sorry to Bother You, Hereditary, Zama, Burning, Leave No Trace, At Eternity’s Gate and Destroyer.)

Okay, last year I began spotlighting why some movies didn’t make the list, so let’s start with:

Why It Didn’t Make the List: Bohemian Rhapsody

It’s interesting to look at which historical inaccuracies I’ll let a biopic get away with. In this case, I went along with the big change, but one tiny 20-second scene ruined it for me ...and made me howl with laughter.

For the most part, the writers have found a great biopic subject whose life lends itself very naturally to classical story structure. An awkward gay Zoroastrian finds a band where he can be a star, experiences many glorious years, falls into debauchery and drugs, ditches the band, realizes that he’s messed everything up, finds out that a charity concert wants the band to get back together, humbles himself, crawls back to them, and then they have a triumphant concert.

But the writers decided to make one big change: The real Freddie Mercury would find out two years after the reunion concert that he was dying of AIDS. The writers said “Gee, what if we move that up by two years? It makes it much more dramatic that he now has one last chance to get the band back together, doesn’t it?”

And you know what? I’m fine with that. I’ll grant dramatic license for the purpose of a more satisfying movie. And after all, Mercury must have suspected already in 1985 that he was in serious danger, if the movie is to be believed about how much anonymous gay sex he had in the early 80s, a time when transmission was rampant and every gay man knew dying people. So I’ll go with it.

No, my problem was with a super-brief scene that would have been so easy to cut, but they just couldn’t help themselves. I have no problem with getting some mileage out of the fact that Live Aid was a charity concert (they show organizer Bob Geldof making a plea for a million pounds in donations), giving a heroic patina to the performance and allowing Mercury to tell his father that he’s finally living up the Zoroastrian call for good works. But they’ve made clear that all the greatest musical acts in the world are performing at the concert, and they list them, and they show that Queen has to shoehorn themselves into a line-up that’s already been finalized. The movie accurately portrays that Live Aid does not need Queen.

But just before Queen goes on, they felt they had to include a scene where Geldof goes back to the phone bank and sees that seemingly nobody has called to make any donations so far. The concert is a failure! Then Queen comes on, and the lines light up! In ten minutes, they’ve suddenly reached a million pounds! To put it mildly, I didn’t buy it. It’s funny that I was willing to go along with the big act of dramatic license, but not a small one, which just made me laugh out loud and say “This is manipulative bunk.”

Malik and the music were great, though. And I’d love for it to win Best Editing.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Believe, Care, Invest in “Educated”

Okay guys, I’m starting to play around with the next book, and I’m considering the title, “Believe, Care, Invest: How to Get Everyone to Love Your Hero”. I think the heart of the book will be a walk though 10 novel examples, 10 movie examples, 10 TV examples, maybe 5 non-fiction examples, and 5 comics examples, a breakdown of the first page or chapter or 10 minutes of each, and how they get us to believe, care and invest. What do you think?

As proof of concept, let’s start with our most recent book. This is so masterfully written that I don’t have to go beyond the first page. We’ve even get Believe, Care and Invest pretty much in order!

Believe in: The best way to get us to believe in the reality of a character is through the use of vivid, specific, sensory details. Let’s look at the first two sentences of the book:

  • I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn. The wind soars, whipping my hair across my face and pushing a chill down the open neck of my shirt.

Right away in the first sentence, we have a person and an action, then we have a vivid image. Then in the second sentence we get a sensory description of the wind. This will not just be a book about what the heroine saw and heard, it’ll be a book about how her life felt in a tactile sense. Not a recitation of facts, but intimate feelings. Later in the first paragraph, we get:

  • Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air... I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess

We get not just adjectives describing nature, but active verbs: dance, sway, quiver. Nature will be personified in this book. Young Tara will be reluctant to leave this mountain, even after suffering grueling abuse and neglect there, because she loves it like a person, a person who seems to love her back. These details get us to picture the setting vividly and thus believe in the heroine describing them.

Care for: The best way to get us to care for a hero is to watch them unjustly suffer abuse, neglect, or humiliation. In Tara’s case we get lots of neglect, right here on the first page.

  • On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping. I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.

By which she means that she is neither schooled in town nor homeschooled --she just receives no education whatsoever.  First she shows us what’s going on through the image of the bus, then she confirms what we’ve just seen: Show, then tell. This will be true of the whole book, the only way we’re going to believe it is if she shows it all to us in vivid detail. We then find out just how extreme her situation is:

  • Dad worries that the Government will force us to go but it can’t, because it doesn’t know about us. Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse.

These details help us both believe and care at the same time. I had never heard of kids in the 1990s without birth certificates before, and I thought as I read, “Who could make this up?”, which is exactly the sort of response you want while writing a memoir. And of course we’re now deeply worried about a heroine who’s trapped in an extraordinary sort of prison.

Invest in: Usually, the best way to get us to invest in a character is to show that she’s independent and capable, but young Tara won’t get a chance to show much independence from her family for a long time, so the book can’t begin with that (In fact, the first chapter will show just the opposite: A time she rejected a chance for independence). But this first page gets us to invest in an ironic way. It shows she was raised to be a bad-ass:

  • I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves.

Ironically, she allows us to admire and idealize this manly man, the very image of rugged American masculinity. She then makes it clear she is his protégé:

  • I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood.

We care for and invest at the same time here. We see that her parents are dangerous lunatics, but don’t you wish you could have gotten some of that training? And of course, her days will in fact be abominable, and she will have to survive them. Throughout the book, every time she survives horrific injuries, our heart will go out to her, but we’ll also admire her toughness.

We believe in, care for, and invest in young Tara Westover, all on this first page. We choose her to be our hero, instead of just going along with whatever is placed in front of us. This is how to get people to read and love your book.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Negative Example Posts: The Archive

Hey guys, I’m going through old posts as I think about the next book, and something occurs to me: A few of you have asked for me to do some “how not to” checklists on bad movies, but I’ve done a lot of deep-dives into bad movies over the years that have never gotten spotlighted in the sidebar, so I figured I’d devote a post to archiving those. (I have a bit more to say on “Educated”, and I need to do my end of the year round-up, but I haven’t figured out what I’m doing next, so I’ll just do this for today.)

Green Lantern and John Carter:


Pacific Rim:

Bridge of Spies:

Edge of Tomorrow

What's the Matter with Superheroes?

What's the Matter with Hollywood in 2013 (Man of Steel, The Hobbit, Star Trek Into Darkness, etc.)


Gone Girl