Saturday, July 11, 2020

Believe Care Invest: How to Train Your Dragon

Why it might be hard to identify with Hiccup:
  • It’s always tricky to establish your hero as a lovable underdog without them tipping over in the territory of being an unlovable loser. Hiccup is right on that line when we first meet him. He’s very puny, especially compared to the Vikings all around him. He’s got a squeaky voice. Everyone pities him. “You can’t lift a hammer, you can’t swing an axe,” they tell him.
  • The level of detail in this world is stunning right away, both in terms of the visuals and the narrative world-building. We begin with a paradox: “My village has been here for seven generations but every single building is new.” Then we find out why: Dragons burn it down regularly. The strange mix of Scottish and Norse culture feels new.
  • They hired Roger Deakins to help “light” the movie because they were tired of overlit CGI movies. Right away, we’re thinking, “Oh, this feels more real than a PIXAR movie.” iii. He was given a hideous name so he could frighten off gnomes and trolls, which is a unique detail.
  • Dragons are trying to kill him and everyone else. Everybody yells at him to get back inside. His father doesn’t approve of him, to put it mildly. His boss tells him “You need to stop all this.” “You just pointed to all of me.” “Yes, that’s it, stop being all of you.” He can’t get a date with the girl he likes.
  • So just when we’re saying, “I can’t invest in this loser,” he uses his inventing skills to bring down the most feared dragon of all, the Night Fury. No one’s ever done that before. Now we love him.
Five Es
  • Eat: No
  • Exercise: He’s running around when we first see him, then hauls his equipment to the edge of town.
  • Economic Activity: He’s working his job which he’s clearly good at. “I’ve been his apprentice ever since I was little …well, littler.”
  • Enjoy: Not really.
  • Emulate: “You are many things, but a dragon killer isn’t one of them.” “I just wanna be one of you guys.”
Rise above:
  • He’s ordered not to leave his job (“Stay. Put. There.”) but runs out as soon as they’re not watching him to go down a dragon.
  • …but then, once he’s downed a dragon, earning himself the job he’s always wanted, he rises above that job as well, and decides that they should all make peace with the dragons.
High five a black guy
  • No

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Believe Care Invest: The Fighter

Whoops, I’ve been moving in alphabetical order, but I missed this one!

Why it might be hard to identify with Mickey:
  • He’s quiet and downcast. Dicky steals every scene from him. He has a daughter he’s not raising.
  • Once again, the least likeable aspect is the most believable: that daughter that lives with her mom and stepfather. Also, the complex story of Mickey’s sisters and brother and their two dads makes us rightly say, “Nobody would make that up.” We know it’s a true story (they mix in real footage) and including confusing or alienating details like those reassure us that it’s not simplifying or prettifying it. And, of course, Wahlberg makes a very convincing citizen of Massachusetts.
  • We begin with a universal situation: Mickey does all the road work while his brother goofs around and tries to pick a pretend fistfight. The next day, he has to wait around while his brother stands him up. When Mickey tries to pick up Charlene, she dismissively says, “I heard you were a stepping stone, the guy they use against the other fighters to move the other fighters up.” When Mickey tells his daughter he’s going to win his upcoming fight, his ex-wife says, “It’s cruel to mislead your child, Mickey.”
  • Mickey’s a bad ass (he beats up a patron disrespecting Charlene) but he’s a thinking man’s fighter: “Boxing’s a chess game, I’m gonna pick my punches to take him down.”
Five Es
  • Eat: They all go out drinking.
  • Exercise: Very much so, he’s shadowboxing, walking all over town, punching a punching bag, and finally sparring in the ring.
  • Economic Activity: He’s working raking gravel for the city and he’s got a prizefight coming up.
  • Enjoy: He enjoys shadowboxing with his brother and drinking with his family (though he’s a little discontent in each situation.)
  • Emulate: He’s expected to emulate his brother, who fought Sugar Ray Leonard, but he’s tired of emulating him.
Rise above
  • He lays down his rake to spar with his brother.
High five a black guy
  • Very much! It’s quickly made clear that the black people of Lowell love Mickey and Dicky, though we’ll never see them again.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Groundhog Day

Why it might be hard to identify with Phil
  • He’s a depressed jerk, working a dead end job and deluded about his prospects for finding a better one.
  • The mundane reality of a weatherman, standing in front of a blank blue screen, make it feel real. Odd regionalisms like blood sausage make the setting believable. Phil’s got distinct language: As Larry says, “Did he actually call himself ‘the talent’?”
  • Just a bit, we agree with him that Rita’s perkiness is somewhat off-putting and identify with him for feeling like he wants something more out of life. We certainly share his exasperation with Needlenose Ned Ryerson. We identify with him when he steps in a puddle, all the more so because he was storming off in a huff when he did it.
  • Even though he’s clearly not very happy, he’s also clearly a good entertaining weatherman, blowing on the map to make the clouds move, etc. His main prediction will turn out to be wrong, but we don’t know that yet.
Five Es
  • Eat: He refuses to eat with his co-workers, then refuses breakfast as hit B&B the next morning, complaining that there’s no espresso and cappuccino. Later in the movie, he will eat ravenously.
  • Exercise: No. He walks around town a little.
  • Economic Activity: He’s doing his job, trying to get a better job
  • Enjoy: Not at all
  • Emulate: Not that I can tell.
Rise above:
  • Well, he wants a better job, but he’s not ready to rise above his current one. Later, he walks off the job, but that might be considered “sink below”, not rise above.
High five a black guy
  • No.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Get Out

Why it might be hard to identify with Chris:
  • He’s passive. This trip isn’t his idea. He lets his girl dismiss his fears and throw away his cigarette.
  • Right away, with an opening scene recalling the murder of Trayvon Martin, we know we’re in for some Real Like National Pain. This is going to gutpunch us.
  • Chris doesn’t have a lot of personality, but his photographs give us a world into his soul, making him feel real. The fact that his dog has IBS feels real, as do the details of Rod working at the TSA.
  • When we first see him, he nicks himself shaving, foreshadowing bloodletting to come. Then, having the seen the introductory scene (and the title), we’re already screaming “Get Out” to Chris as his girlfriend dismisses his concerns about being chased away with a shotgun. We’ve all been gaslit by our significant others, from time to time.
  • We don’t invest in Chris very much, because he’s a pretty weak guy, but it keeps coming up that his most valuable quality is his eyes, and we like good eyes. And we like that he’s wary, even though he chooses to ignore his own wariness. We admire that he checks on the deer to see if it’s suffering.
Five Es
  • Eat: Rose brings pastries, but we don’t get to see them eat them. We do see them eat soon after arriving upstate.
  • Exercise: No
  • Economic Activity: Not much with Chris and Rose. We do see Rod at work.
  • Enjoy: He semi-enjoys hanging out with his girlfriend, but he’s already in the sunken place, half-present and half watching himself and Rose from afar with a wary eye. We like her when she says of her dad and Obama, “He’s definitely going to want to talk to you about that and it will definitely fucking suck,” but he can only half-smile. She only fully wins him over when she stands up to the cop: “That was hot.” “I’m not going to let anyone fuck with my man.”
  • Emulate: Well, Chris is busily code-switching when he’s talking to Rod and Rose at the same time, one on the phone and one in person. He “acts black” with one and “acts white” with the other, but the real him is too sunken to be fully either.
Rise above
  • No
High five a black guy
  • He is a black guy.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Frozen

Why it might be hard to identify with Anna
  • She has no skills. She’s very naïve. She doesn’t know how to take care of herself.
  • Right away, as a small child, Anna is brimming with unique personality. She says, “The sky’s awake, so I’m awake!” with mock-theatricality.
  • It’s a simple trick, but it usually works, Anna’s a klutz (She wrecks the cake) She’s very human (“Don’t know if I’m elated or gassy, but I’m somewhere in that zone.”) She wakes up looking like a mess. (We then skip over the scene where she presumably orders her servants to fix her hair.)
  • Right away, Anna is almost killed, then her memories are taken from her, but we don’t really identify with those, because they’re not universal. But then her older sister shuts her out and won’t play with her anymore, and that’s a far more universal emotion many of us can identify with.  Then, of course, her parents die, because it’s Disney. We also feel for her when she embarrasses herself with Hans: “you’re gorgeous—Wait, what?”
  • We don’t invest in Anna very much. We adore her, we empathize with her failings, but she doesn’t seem like someone who we can trust to solve this problem. Her only secret weapon is love. When she trudges off into the snow after her sister, we believe that she would do it, because we know how much she loves her sister, but we’re also saying, “Her? She’s our hero? She’s not up to this.” Luckily she quickly finds allies.
Five Es
  • Eat: “I wanna stuff some chocolate in my face!”
  • Exercise: Little Anna plays energetically with sister. Older Anna rides her bike around the house.
  • Economic Activity: We begin with men engaged in the hard work of buying and selling ice, and we’ll soon meet a grown up ice dealer. Even the queen must deal with trade agreements.
  • Enjoy: Anna very much enjoys playing with her sister.
  • Emulate: Anna plays with dolls and emulates women in paintings
Rise above
  • Well, when we talked about this on the blog, I defined it as “rising above mundane circumstances”, and Anna does that, though she never really endangers her job.
High five a black guy
  • No

Friday, July 03, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Donnie Brasco

Why it might be hard to identify with Donny:
  • As we discussed in our most recent podcast, he plays his cards close to his chest. We’re not even sure he’s a good guy.
  • …but that makes him more believable (We’re finding this, aren’t we? The things that make a character believable are often potentially off-putting if not balanced out with Care and Invest.) 
  • Also as James and I discussed, we admire both his expertise with jewels, and his cool way of conveying that Lefty’s gem is fake: He examines it and then says, “Why don’t you give it to your wife…You should give it to someone who don’t know any better.”
  • When Donnie finally calls his wife, and she’s gotta go back to sleep, he says, “Put the phone on your pillow, I wanna listen to you breathe”, which is a painful way of saying “I miss you” that we’ve never heard before.
  • The details of the mafia world are fascinating and convincing (The difference between “friend of mine” and “friend of ours”.)
  • Because Donny, in the guise of an apprentice, is subtly dominating Lefty almost from the beginning, we don’t actually fear for him very much. We worry about him more when we see the damage this does to his marriage and family.
  • We always love humiliating ironies, and it’s ironic when both the mafia and the FBI tell him at the same time that his mustache violates their regulations, but his wife tells him, “That was the only thing I liked about this job.”
  • We always like watchful eyes, and the movie begins with a close-up of Donnie’s watchful eyes. He quickly proves himself to be a bad-ass, beating up the guy who gave Lefty the jewel. We admire how he manipulates Lefty. He tells the FBI: “I got him, I got my hooks in the guy.”
Five Es
  • Eat: Misses Christmas with his own family to eats Coq Au Vin with Lefty’s family.
  • Exercise: All he does when he’s in his apartment is lift weights.
  • Economic Activity: He’s pretending to be a jeweler while actually working for the FBI: He tells his wife, “You get the checks, don’t you?”
  • Enjoy: Not at all, except listening to his wife breathe. He pretends to enjoy dinner with Lefty, but we’re never sure to what degree he’s just acting with Lefty.
  • Emulate: Emulating Lefty every way he can.
Rise above
  • Not until the very end of the movie, when he half-heartedly tries to get Lefty to flee before he can get arrested, but even then he’s unwilling to break character, so he fails.
High five a black guy
  • Nope.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Do the Right Thing

It’s interesting all the ways that Mookie is like Ripley from Alien. They both stick by their company, even at the risk of their friend’s lives, until almost the end of the move, when each one decisively decides to destroy their workplace. Both serve in their story as the only one who bridges upstairs and downstairs (Ripley is the only one who ever goes down into the bowels of the ship to visit Brett and Parker, Mookie is the only one who lives in both the black and white worlds.)

Why it might be hard to identify with Mookie:
  • He’s passive and sullen. Notably, Lee shows us Tina complaining about her son’s deadbeat father (“Your father ain’t no real father, he’s a bum”) without letting us know she’s talking about Mookie until halfway through, which would probably make him too hard to care about before we’d had some chance to bond with him.
  • It’s the hottest day of the year and nobody’s air conditioning is working. Sal says, in reference to his agitation from the heat, “I’m gonna kill somebody today,” which turns out to be sort of true.
  • Although Sal likes and pays Mookie, he also treats him like a slave in some ways: “There’s no free here, I’m the boss. No freedom, I’m the boss.” Mookie is humiliated when he’s told to kick his friend out of the pizza place (“Talk some brother talk to him”) for demanding pictures of black people be put on the walls. “I gotta work here, you’re fucking my shit up,” Mookie says, only to be told, “Stay black,” and we empathize with his humiliation.
  • Mookie isn’t easy to invest in. The moment when we really decide we like him is when he comes out onto the street to walk to work, runs into some Jehovah’s Witnesses, and jauntily shouts “Hell no!” without breaking his stride. Other than that one negative encounter, we see that everybody else likes and respects Mookie, and he’s got a strong community backing him up. We see that he grapples a bit with Da Mayor’s advice, “Always do the right thing.”
Five Es
  • Eat: Never
  • Exercise: He delivers the pizzas by foot.
  • Economic Activity: He’s counting bills when we first see him. His motto is “Gotta get paid.”
  • Enjoy: He enjoys talking with his sister in the first scene. It would be harder to identify with him if we didn’t see that.
  • Emulate: He wears Jackie Robinson’s 42 jersey, and tries, like Robinson to absorb racism without reacting for most of the movie.
Rise above
  • He has to choose between his job and his friend and chooses his job. Sal says, “Mookie, want to get your friend out of here?” and he does so.
High five a black guy
  • He’s a black guy.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

New Podcast: Two More E's!

Hi everybody! So this is all very confusing, but one month ago, James and I had a marathon night where we recorded enough material for two podcasts, then George Floyd was murdered, and we decided to sit on them so as not to distract from the painful and long overdue reckoning that followed. Now we’ve finally gone back and recorded a bit more material for both, and I’ve finished cutting them. I’ve posted one and now and I’ll post the next in a week or two. Hope you like it.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Chinatown

Why it might be hard to identify with Jake:
  • He cares more about his venetian blinds than his client’s feelings. He’s a money-grubbing bottom feeder, but he’s also a bit of a dandy, and neither of those are very appealing to us. These things help our ability to believe in his reality, but hurt our ability to care about him.
  • Right away, we’re saying, “Oh, this isn’t a phony Hollywood PI, this is the real deal, handling sordid divorce cases.” On a “Believe” level, we find his non-noble attitude to his clients to be refreshing: We’re finally getting to see what PIs are really like. Later, while he’s supposed to be investigating his clients at the Water Board hearing, he’s reading the Racing Form.
  • We don’t really care about Jake until 16:38, when another customer at his barbershop accosts him, saying, “You’ve got a hell of a way to make a living.” Jake, wounded, says, “Listen pal, I make an honest living, people only come to me in a desperate situation, I help ‘em out.” Now that we’ve seen him endure a public humiliation, we care a bit more about him.
  • He then has another embarrassment we identify with when he tells the dirty joke to his operatives and doesn’t realize Mrs. Mulwray is behind him.
  • From the opening photographs, we can see that he’s obviously good at his job, but we’re not sure how skilled he has to be to do it. It’s only when he pulls a very clever trick that we suddenly invest in him: He gets tired of waiting for Mulwray to leave the beach, so he reaches in his glove compartment where he’s got a stash of cheap fob watches. He puts one under Mulwray’s tire and goes home. The next day he checks the broken watch to see what time Mulwray left. Suddenly, we love this guy. We always love resourceful heroes.
Five Es
  • Eat:No
  • Exercise: He walks a lot, climbs building and cliffs, etc.
  • Economic Activity: His whole life is his job.
  • Enjoy: Not at first. At the water board meeting, he thinks it’s funny when a farmer brings his sheep in. Later, he loves telling his operatives the dirty joke. (Often, enjoyment opens a hero up to embarrassment)
  • Emulate: I guess you could say he dresses like a classier PI than he is.
Rise above
  • He tells fake Mrs. Mulwray she should let sleeping dogs lie. “You’re better off not knowing.”
High five a black guy
  • Nope.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Casablanca

Why it might be hard to identify with Rick:
  • We don’t even meet him for 9 full minutes, and we wait even longer for him to speak. We spend that time looking for some character to invest in, not finding one, and getting frustrated. Once we meet him, he’s fairly cold and ruthless, and somewhat accommodating of his Nazi occupiers.
  • The opening narration creates a complex and fascinating world that feels very real. The production design is fantastic. It really feels like we’re in an outdoor African city rather than an indoors Los Angeles studio.
  • Rick has a distinctive way of dressing and speaking. He has a strong personality. He has lots of secrets, which we always like: “I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “What waters? We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.”
  • Nazis are everywhere. Someone is gunned down in the street for having Free French fliers. Rick clearly dislikes having to accommodate them. He betrays just a tiny hint of wistfulness when he watches the plane fly off to Lisbon. He likewise betrays a hint of guilt when Ugarte is pulled out of his arms by the Nazis. He’s a bit embarrassed when another customer says to him, “When they come to get me, Rick, I hope you’ll be more of a help.” But of course we don’t really care about him until his true love shows up married to someone else.
  • He has total control of his bar in lots of badass ways, and a lot of sway in Casablanca. “Perhaps if you told him I run the second largest banking house in Amersterdam?” “It wouldn’t impress Rick, the leading banker in Amersterdam is now the baker in our kitchen.” He finds little ways to stand up to the Nazis He knows all. He knows that Ugarte killed the couriers and calls him on it.
Five Es
  • Eat: No. “Madame, he never drinks with customers, never.”
  • Exercise: No
  • Economic Activity: Lots of it
  • Enjoy: No, he specifically refuses wine, women, and song.
  • Emulate: No
Rise above
  • Refuses Deutchbanker’s money “You’re lucky the bar’s open to you.”
  • Café and Sam not for sale at any price “I don’t buy or sell human beings.”
  • Tells one of his bar customers, “You’ve had too much to drink.”
High five a black guy
  • Very much so! Sam won’t take double to work for Ferrari.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Bridesmaids

I might be posting seven days a week for the next few months. Hmm, I wonder why...?  No telling!

Why Annie Might Be Hard to Identify With:
  • We debated on the podcast whether having sex helped us identify with a character. I said that it doesn’t, because everybody in the world is basically sexually unsatisfied, either in terms of quality or quantity. In this case, our heroine gets to have sex with Jon Hamm. She’s living the dream! How could anyone identify with that? 
  • …but the saving grace is that he’s a terrible lover, and she understandably doesn’t enjoy it. But c’mon, it’s Jon Hamm, so we can see why she would pretend to. 
  • When she has breakfast with Lillian, one of her complaints is “He calls me ‘dude’ a lot,” which is nicely relatable.
  • Later, her boss at the jewelry store says to her, “The whole reason you have this job is because your mom’s my sponsor in AA and I’m doing you a favor”, which is nicely oddly specific.
  • Jon Hamm says, “Wow, this is so awkward, I really want you to leave, but I don’t know how to say it without sounding like a dick.” She then has to climb over his gate to get out. Lillian tells her, “You hate yourself after you see him”
  • She has to walk by her shuttered bakery.
  • She’s losing her best friend. 
  • We really come to BCI all at one time when she wakes up the next morning, sneaks out of bed to do her hair and make-up, then sneaks back in and pretends to wake up. Very resourceful and adorable. (Other than that she’s a fairly hapless characters, so it’s a bit hard to invest in her.)
Five Es
  • Eat: She and Lillian have a happy breakfast. 
  • Exercise: She has energetic sex. She climbs over his gate. She and Lillian hide behind a tree to do sit-ups while listening to a personal trainer they didn’t pay for, then have to run away when he catches them.
  • Economic Activity: The personal trainer (Terry Crews) complains, “C’mon, it’s only 12 bucks.” She passes by her shuttered store: “I’m the genius who opened a bakery during the recession.” She now works at a jewelry store.
  • Enjoy: She and Annie are very funny and relaxed together, pretending to have horrible teeth, etc.
  • Emulate: Pretends to be a “cool girl”, telling Hamm, “I’m not looking for a relationship now either.” Her jewelry boss asks her to put on a “love is eternal” face.
Rise above
  • She says “I don’t want to go to work today.” At work, she tells a couple buying rings that love doesn’t last, putting her emotional need to vent over her professional duties.
High five a black guy
  • Her best friend is biracial, and a fully realized character, so it doesn’t apply.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Believe Care Invest: The Bourne Identity

Why Jason might be hard to identify with
  • He’s literally a blank slate. You might think we would most readily identify with an “everyman”, but they’re actually hard to identify with. We like heroes who know more than they show. 
  • But we always like characters who have a lot of secrets, and that’s still true when his secrets are even secret from himself. His wounds take a believable amount of time to heal. He practices saying “Tell me who I am” before the boat lands. Watching characters practice for conversations is always relatable, for some reason. 
  • He’s literally lost everything. He doesn’t even know his name. He’s afraid of every cop and every siren.  He’s a walking wound. 
  • He doesn’t know who he is, but right away he’s doing pull-ups on the boat.  He’s tying sophisticated knots compulsively. He speaks multiple languages. As soon as he confronts some cops, he busts out amazing moves to take them out. We love this bad-ass. Of course, as I’ve pointed out before, the moment we really fall in love with this is when he’s escaping from the embassy, sees an evacuation plan on the wall, and rips it off so he’ll have a map. 
Five Es
  • Eat: Just the opposite, he chooses not to eat with the sailors (but he must at some point). 
  • Exercise: He does pull-ups on the ship. 
  • Economic Activity: The ship doctor gives him some money, he goes to a bank to get the rest of his money. 
  • Enjoy: Nope he doesn’t enjoy anything until later in the movie.
  • Emulate: I guess sort of when he ties knots while hanging out with the sailors? I got nothing.
Rise above
  • He finds out who he is but decides not to report back to the US government. He leaves his guns behind in his safety deposit box, even though he’s figured out he’ll need them for whatever his job is. 
High five a black guy
  • Nope.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Blue Velvet

Why Jeffry might be hard to identify with:
  • He’s odd. He’s detached. He’s ultimately kind of disturbed.
  • This world doesn’t really feel very realistic, and it certainly doesn’t feel like North Carolina, although it was actually shot there, but I think that’s intentional on Lynch’s part. He’s more interested in portraying an idea of “Americana” rather than a specific place in America.
  • So in some ways Jeffrey is hard to care about because he’s so odd, but it’s helps that he’s odd in specific ways. “I used to know a kid who lived there, had the biggest tongue in the world.” “You know the chicken walk?” We’ve never seen a kid be odd in quite this way, and that makes him more believable.
  • He’s come home from college because his dad is in a coma and he needs to help out. He visits his dad and it affects him. We also share his frustration when he’s given no information about the case.
  • He’s not the easiest hero to invest in, because he’s very unskilled, but we love curious heroes with good eyes, and he’s certainly that: He spots the ear that no one else would have spotted, and later says, “I’m just real curious like you said.”
Five Es
  • Eat: Not until minute 17, when he enthusiastically takes Sandy to Arlene’s diner.
  • Exercise: He likes to go for walks. There’s how he finds the ear, and later how he courts Sandy at night.
  • Economic Activity: He’s come home to work in his parents’ hardware store. The whole town is named after their industry, Lumberton.
  • Enjoy: He’s pretty joyless at first, but he starts to perk up when Sandy comes into his life. They’re awkward together but they still enjoy each other’s company.
  • Emulate: He imitates the police.
Rise above
  • He borrows the stores bug-spraying equipment under false pretenses in pursuit of his kink. Presumably he lets his investigation distract from his duties.
High five a black guy
  • This is a particularly egregious example. Suddenly Jeffrey is best buds with two black guys who work at the store, and then they disappear from the script forever! And one of them is seemingly magical, because he seems to see all even though he’s blind! “Oh it’s so good to have you back,” one of them says warmly.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Blazing Saddles

Let’s see what James is missing!

Why Bart may be hard to care for:
  • He’s pretty instantly lovable. 
  • When we meet Bart, he’s working hard on the railroad, then the overseer comes up and complains that the black workers aren’t singing like in the slave days. Bart leads them in a chorus of Cole Porter’s “I Get No Kick From Champagne.” On the one hand, it’s literally unbelievable, since the song wasn’t written yet, but on the other hand, it’s so oddly specific that it makes him come alive. 
  • The deadly danger of Bart’s job is established right away as a Chinese co-worker passes out from heat exhaustion, only to get docked a day’s day for “sleeping on the job”. The extreme racism of his bosses is then established as they say the n-word many times and then refuse to rescue him from the quicksand. 
  • He’s very clever and badass. He humiliates his racist bosses, then pulls himself out of the quicksand, then hits his boss on the head. As sheriff, he brilliantly gets himself out a deadly situation. 
Five Es
  • Eat: Nope. 
  • Exercise: Bart goes over to check out the quicksand by using a handcar. 
  • Economic Activity: He’s working hard at his track-laying job. 
  • Enjoy: He has a fun time singing, mocking his bosses, and later mocking the governor. Once he’s sheriff, he enjoys riding into town in his new duds. He enjoys drinking with the Waco Kid. 
  • Emulate: He kicks up his heels on the governor’s desk. He acts like Randolf Scott once he’s sheriff. 
Rise above:
  • Refuses to sing what his bosses want him to sing. After they escape from the quicksand, Bart’s boss gives him a shovel and tells him to put it to good use. As Bart picks up the shovel, his friend sees what he’s going to do and says, “Don’t do that, man.” “Uh-uh baby.” “Don’t do that.” “I have to.” Bart stands up for himself and his co-workers though it puts his job at risk. 
High five a black guy
  • Hey, an actual black hero!  I promise we’ll have some more!

Monday, June 22, 2020

Believe Care Invest: The Babadook

Why Amelia may be hard to identify with:
  • She’s a very selfless character, and there’s always a big risk onscreen that this will be the same as self-less. Her life is consumed by taking care of her disturbed son and the residents of the old folks home where she works. She has no hobbies or interests of her own. Do such people exist? Of course, but it’s hard for us to identify with them. We identify most readily with moments of self-interested motivation. 
  • It’s absolutely essential that, after we’ve seen her selflessly serve her son and the old folks, we finally see her (reluctantly and morosely) masturbate in bed with a vibrator. She does have her own needs. Of course, she’s interrupted by her son, who’s had a bad dream and insists on sleeping in her bed. Later, when none of the old folks are responding to her bingo calling, she starts calling out numbers like five billion. She shows just enough independent personality for us to believe in her reality. 
  • We care for her immensely, as her life is almost all suffering. Her husband died on the way to the hospital where she gave birth to her son. Her son is now getting increasingly emotionally disturbed, endangering the lives of everyone around him. 
  • We see right away that she’s a good, loving mother as she shows her son that his closet and under his bed is empty. We see her do a good job taking care of the old folks. When her son reads the disturbing titular picture book, she seemingly stays up all night reading him pacifying books. 
Five Es
  • Eat: She’s briefly glimpsed having breakfast with her son. 
  • Exercise: No 
  • Economic Activity: She works her job. 
  • Enjoy: Her co-worker Robbie tries to a bit to joke around with her, but she can’t really join in. It’s tricky with horror movies, where you’re trying to create an increasingly oppressive tone. I think maybe it would have helped us believe in her if there had been a five second shot of her and her son having fun playing a game, just to convince us that she’s fully human and capable of moments of enjoyment. 
  • Emulate: Not that I could tell. 
Rise above
  • She leaves work when still on the clock to just sit in the mall having an ice cream cone (with disastrous results). 
High five a black guy
  • Nope.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Believe Care Invest: An Education

Let’s look at Lone Sherfig’s An Education, which is always a delight...

Why it might be hard to care about Jenny:
  • She’s fairly passive, but c’mon, it’s Carey Mulligan, we’re all gonna love her. 
  • We begin with a montage of her life in school (though we don’t really see her in it). They use the sides of their fists to make baby feet on the windows, which is something I remember from my childhood that I’d never seen onscreen before. 
  • She has an oddly specific metaphor family of injecting French into her conversations awkwardly. 
  • Her father tells her she’s not allowed to think for herself. The boy who likes her is dull.  She’s stuck in the rain.  
  • She’s so much cooler and smarter than her parents or the boy in her class who likes her. She listens to French pop. She’s interested in the arts. She’s the only one who can answer the teacher’s question about “Jane Eyre”. We like her for not disliking that David is Jewish, and calling out her dad’s prejudice. 
Five Es
  • Eat: Yes, she’s eating with her parents in the first real scene, then again when Graham comes over. She goes out for espresso with her friends. 
  • Exercise: In the montage, they’re hula-hooping, learning dance (Girls dancing with each other), playing lacrosse, etc. She walks through the snow to get to school. 
  • Economic Activity: He gives her the amount of money for a new cello for the right to drive alongside her with her cello in his car. He buys her lots of stuff right away. 
  • Enjoy: She and her friends hang out and laugh. She enjoys listening to French records. 
  • Emulate: She uses French whenever she can and tells her classmates of her plans to become a Frenchwoman after Oxford 
Rise above
  • Well, she thinks a relationship with David will allow her to rise above her petty circumstances, but in fact he’s using money to seduce her into sex and a life of crime, so she’s more a prisoner of her economic circumstances than she realizes. If she had money (either came from money or worked a job), she would be more immune to David’s charms.
High five a black guy
  • Nary a person of color to be seen.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Alien

Okay, that went well, so let’s continue alphabetically and go on to Alien. How does the movie get us to believe, care, and invest in Ripley?

Why she might be hard to care for:
  • Because they’re intentionally hiding the fact that she’s the hero! This movie wants to do a fake out and kill the person who seems to be the hero halfway through, so they’ve got to subtly build up Ripley to be a compelling back-up hero without us noticing. A very tricky proposition!
  • As sci-fi, the biggest trick is to get us believe in the existence of this weird world. They do this with how un-sci-fi it is: how dingy the ship is, the way the lights flicker on unsteadily, etc. There’s an odd little drinking-bird toy sitting out. The space traffic control base being in Antarctica is a good example of “Make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”
  • As for Ripley, she’s the only one who pets the cat. She says, “That’s not our system” in a sing-song-y voice.  She tells Brett to fuck off.  She’s wearing Converse All-Stars, which is always a likeable shoe.  I’m stretching here.
  • The others complain about being woken up early, but she doesn’t. Eventually we feel for her when she has to choose between the life of her crewmember and the safety of the rest of the crew ...and when she gets overruled, possibly because she’s a woman (though the part was written for a man.)
  • She’s the only one who’s willing to go from upstairs to downstairs to visit Parker and Brett. She seems to be the most careful about her job.  She takes the initiative to decode the transmission and finds out it’s a warning, then asks to go warn the others. 
Five Es
  • Eat: They all eat breakfast together right away.
  • Exercise: None whatsoever. It’s a very still movie.
  • Economic Activity: We begin with an onscreen title: “Commercial towing vehicle, ‘The Nostromo’ Refinery processing: 20,000,000 tons of mineral ore.” All they talk about is the company, what they owe it, and what it owes them. They act because of “Penalty of total forfeiture of shares.”
  • Enjoy: They enjoy breakfast and joke around right away: “I feel dead.” “Anybody every tell you you look dead?” They all laugh, even Ripley just slightly
  • Emulate: Not that I can see, but maybe James will point out something I missed again.
Rise above:
  • Not right away, but eventually.  Ripley doesn’t rise above her economic circumstances until near the end of the movie, when she finally breaks with the company.
High five a black guy:
  • The first we see of her is when she laughs at the black guy’s joke. In this case, he’s a fully realized character, so it’s not an egregious example.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Believe Care Invest in The 40 Year Old Virgin

Okay guys, I’ve been meaning to do these for some time, especially after James dropped his five E’s on us in the last podcast. So I’ve subjected all my movies to a five Es test… but now James wants to drop two more E’s in the next podcast, and I don’t want to have redo all of these so I’d better start posting these first! So let’s start (alphabetically) with Judd Apatow’s The 40 Year Old Virgin!

For each of these, we’ll start with: Why the hero might be hard to care for:
  • John Powers is one of my favorite film critics of all time. When he was reviewing You’ve Got Mail (a remake of The Shop Around the Corner) on “Fresh Air”, he lamented that, “Of course, in this new version, the man and woman both run their own businesses. They can’t work in a shop, because then they’d be losers.” He was right to decry the bastardization or the original, but the fact is, audiences do have a bias against characters who work in retail, so that was something Apatow had to overcome to get us to root for Andy in this movie. 
  • And of course, Andy’s a loser in lots of other ways. It’s one of the great paradoxes of writing: Audiences love underdogs, but we’re hardwired not to like losers, because we want to invest in a hero to win in the end, and we won’t invest in a character who seems like they’re bound to lose. Walking the thin line between underdog and loser is one of any writer’s hardest tasks. 
  • As I used to show in this video (before I went back and censored the clip, because a lot of kids were watching the videos) Andy begins this movie with one of the all time great “Believe” moments: He wakes up with a massive erection, then has to figure out how to pee. The best “Believe” moments are those that make you say, “I recognize that from my own life, but I never thought I’d see it on screen! This is so real!” 
  • We care right away because he seems very lonely, and painfully awkward around the woman in the store, then we wince with embarrassment for him as he tries to hide his shameful secret, unconvincingly telling the others, “No ass is worth thinking that much about, I always say.” 
  • It’s not tremendously easy to invest in Andy yet. It is good that he kicks the guys’ asses at poker. …But wait, let’s look at James’s five Es! They may tell us more about why we invest… 
The Five E’s:
  • Eat: Andy makes himself a nice-looking breakfast, then recounts to Cal a story about carefully making himself an egg salad sandwich. 
  • Exercise: Andy has no sexual outlet, but it’s not for lack of keeping himself in shape. He wakes up and exercises several ways. Then he bicycles to work 
  • Economic Activity: He goes to his job at a stereo store, and seems to do his work well. 
  • Enjoy: Andy can’t really enjoy himself at home, or chatting with co-workers, but then he tries to enjoy hanging out with the guys, and almost succeeds until his love life comes up. 
  • Emulate: For some reason, when he exercises, he looks at a picture of Doug Henning, but that’s all I got. 
In the podcast, I mentioned that character often have a moment where they have to rise above their circumstances, so does he do that?
  • When they invite him to play poker in the story after hours, he says he’ll tell the boss, and they believe him, but then he reveals he was just joking. He’s willing to put his job at risk to find belonging. 
And finally, does he five a black guy?
  • Very much so. Before he bicycles away, he says a friendly hello to his black upstairs neighbors Joe and Sara, who will basically never be seen again.
So is this exercise worth doing?  Let me know!  I think James E’s are proving out to generate some good clues to likeability.  Let’s keep going... 

Friday, May 15, 2020

I Cheat On James Again! Here I Am on the Bulletproof Screenwriting Podcast

Bulletproof Screenwriting is a great podcast where they talk to all the biggies in screenwriting ...and me! Host Alex Ferrari actually gets me to talk about my abortive career and lessons from the trenches, a topic James and I have studiously avoided. Of course, I talk about Star Wars too much, and I cover some of the same material from the most recent episode of my own podcast, but that’s only about five minutes, so just skim through it. Most of this is pretty new and there’s lots of good stuff here. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Hi There! We Have a New Podcast on Character Creation

Hi guys! So sorry for being gone so long without an explanation! Things are up in the air and I kept expecting them to settle down so I could start posting again.  They haven’t yet, but they may soon!

In the meantime, here’s a new plague-time podcast episode!  Appropriately enough, James is pitching the value of isolating your characters, as well as five neat tricks all starting with the letter E.  It’s a good one!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I Love This App For Listening to Your Manuscript

Hey guys, I occasionally let people pitch their apps here even though I haven’t really tried them, but in this case I’m voluntarily pitching an app because I really like it.  If you’ve read my book, you know that I say you should listen to your writing read aloud by your computer, in order to find typos and separate yourself from the material for a rewrite.  Well, I left it up to you how to do that, and you may have discovered that the tools that were available kind of sucked.  No longer!  There’s a great new app called “Edit Out Loud” that exists just for that purpose.  When it first dropped, it had problems, but the creator of the app was very responsive to all my concerns and worked with me to get it up and running on my phone.  I’ve listened to a few book for my manuscript consultation service on it and it works like a charm.  You can even mark it up to a certain extent while you listen!  Get this app before you revise.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Best of 2019, #1: Marriage Story

This is, to put it mildly, the best American movie of the year. It is, in fact, the best American movie in several years, since… well, since Lady Bird. And that’s only appropriate, since it’s obvious that one of the factors fueling this movie is Baumbach’s jealousy over that movie’s success. (One of the husband’s final humiliations is when he finds out that his wife has gotten a directing Emmy nomination, despite the fact that he thinks of himself as being the great director of the family.)

Both Baumbach and Gerwig have just turned out movies that aren’t exactly high on the subject of marriage, so who knows how things are going at home, but they’re certainly turning out great work, so I hope that whatever tension they’re feeling remains high!

Before this movie, the great American divorce movie was Kramer vs. Kramer, but this movie easily surpasses that one. That movie clearly picked a side, but this movie has the courage to split our identification (though not necessarily our sympathies) evenly. The result is one of the most heart-rending movies I’ve ever seen. It really wrecked me.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Create Real Horror Movies. This is the only movie I’ve ever seen that exposes one of my deepest fears, the fear that my kids wouldn’t miss me that much if I got separated from them. The movie makes it clear that Driver is a very good father (with the big exception that he wasn’t a great husband to his son’s mother), but when Johansson’s work takes her to L.A., Driver keeps waiting for his son to miss him and that just never happens. Unlike the kids in The Squid and the Whale, this kid adjusts quickly and easily to his parents’ divorce, and, while that’s great for the kid and mom, it’s unbearably painful for for the father. I think every loving parent has a horrible suspicion that their children are just black holes of love, never intending to give back all that they’ve taken in, and this movie really tore me up inside by showing that fear made manifest.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Pass the TBS Test. I’ve always felt that every great movie should pass the TBS Test: If you were flipping around the TV (I realize that people don’t really do that anymore), and you ran across this movie on TBS, would you be compelled by whatever scene you happened upon? In this movie, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. (A distinction that was also true of Kramer vs. Kramer, come to think of it.) There are several scenes/sequences that would make compelling short films, and none is more amazing than the home visit from the court evaluator. Driver is, as usual, riveting and squeezes just a right bit out humor out of his agonizing tension, culminating in wonderful bit of subtext-becomes-text when he slices himself open and fails to hide it.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Best of 2019, #2: Jojo Rabbit

Yes, this movie is greatly indebted to Wes Anderson, but I think it’s ultimately better than any Anderson movie since Rushmore. When I originally wrote up this list, I hadn’t seen this one yet, so I wrote that Joker was the only movie to take Trump seriously. Turns out, that’s not the case. This comedic film, about a good mom who watches her sweet 10 year old son naively (endearingly, in fact) embrace Nazism, could have been been dreadful if it hadn’t judged its tone juuuuust right, but I thought it used its humor as a powerful dramatic tool.

Why do people embrace Nazism? Because it puts you in a world of super-heroes and super-villains that is, on some level, fun. Those people at the Trump rallies are having fun, and mentally regressing to ten-year olds.

If a certain character had not blocked a certain other character’s knife, this would have been a very different movie, and perhaps a braver one, but I think it works the way it is, because it is willing to push us to that point before it takes mercy on us and our hero and drags him back to humanity.

As I’ve said before, I know I’m watching a great movie when I’m not thinking about movies but thinking about my own loved ones. Like many fathers of young sons, I worry so much about the toxic environment awaiting my son, and Roman Griffin Davis’s performance is so remarkable human that I couldn’t help but see my son in him, not a film character. As with tomorrow’s film, this film left me with a profound desire to hug my family afterwards, holding on to them for dear life.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Best of 2019, #3: Knives Out

Brick wasn’t as smart as it thought it was. The Last Jedi was pretty dumb. Looper was downright idiotic. How did Rian Johnson get so smart all of a sudden? Maybe, like Craig Mazin, his whole career pre-2019 was one long fake-out, setting us up for the knock-out punch? Even this movie’s trailer wasn’t very appealing. It showcased the movie’s weakest aspect (Craig’s accent, which is harmless but certainly never convincing) and the few jokes that didn’t land (“Is this ‘CSI: KFC’?”). So I was totally unprepared for how great this movie is.

The cinematography! The production design! The dialogue! The performances! (One silly accent aside) One problem is that, since they were being so coy about the plot, they had to hide the fact that Ana de Armas is the main character, which means she didn’t get the star treatment she so richly deserves. She quietly steals scenes from each of the big name actors, keeping us in her head, not theirs.

Tips: Beware of concepts you can’t promote well

 The most obvious way to promote this movie is “A private nurse becomes the number one suspect in the murder of a wealthy man when it turns out he left her all his money.” But that set-up isn’t established until halfway through the movie, so it would have been frustrating to viewers who had seen the trailer that it took so long to get to that set-up. So instead, it was just promoted as “An old fashioned big-house star-studded murder mystery,” and it did fine, but ultimately its marketing was a liability, not an asset. And because Armas is not one of the previously established stars, she got sidelined by that promotion strategy. Still the plotting and pacing in this movie were pretty much perfect, so I can’t complain.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Best of 2019, #4: Joker

By the time I finally got around to reluctantly watching my screener of this movie, I had been fully conditioned to hate it. Imagine my surprise to find out that it’s actually pretty great.

First, I had been warned by months of media coverage that it was a lazy Scorsese knock-off. It’s not. If you want to see a lazy Scorsese knock-off, go watch The Irishman. I thought this one definitely wanted to be in conversation with Scorsese, but its greatest assets (the cinematography, score, production design, and Phoenix’s performance) were not at all indebted to Scorsese. I thought it was an original vision.

Secondly, I had been warned by the media that this movie was recklessly reactionary. The ghouls at AVClub.com were openly rooting for there to be shootings during the opening weekend showings. They ran article after article about violence that was sure to come. It didn’t. Personally, I always found the two movies this one is most in conversation with, Taxi Driver and The Dark Knight, to be vaguely reactionary, and it’s never surprised me that one inspired a presidential assassination attempt and the other a mass shooting. Of course, it’s not too late for this one to inspire violence (the Hinkley shooting wasn’t until four years after Taxi Driver), but, having seen the movie, I’m not surprised that it hasn’t.

(Just to be clear, Taxi Driver is superior pieces of filmmaking, but I worried more about people taking the wrong message from that one than I do from this one.)

Speak to Real Life National Pain: This is one of the only American movies to take the Trump election seriously. It’s no secret that a lot of people on the left think we shouldn’t do that. “There was no populist element to Trump’s victory. Blame the Russians and move on. Triangulate better next time.” They get pissed whenever a reporter interviews a Trump voter. The problem, they say, is that such voters weren’t silenced effectively enough, and we’ll do better at that next time. This movie actually stares down America’s screaming throat and listens to the madness.

I’m old enough to remember when the left embraced empathy and the right was against it, but that seems like a long time ago now. The belief now, as far as I can tell, is that there’s never been a strong enough wall between empathy and sympathy, so one is always in danger of leading to the other, so we should all just stop feeling each other’s pain and raise the barricades instead.

What I love about this film is that Phoenix demands our empathy without ever once asking for any sympathy. Sorry AVClub, but nobody left the theater wanting to be Arthur Fleck or any of his pitiful followers. You can feel for people and still loathe their actions. We must learn to do that again.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

The Best of 2019, #5: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

This movie has received zero year-end love, so I just rewatched to see if it’s as good and I thought on first viewing. It’s even better! This is certainly the most underrated movie of the year. This year saw two eagerly-awaited follow-ups to animated hits of a few years ago. Frozen II went on to surpass its predecessor at the box office and become the biggest animated hit of all time, while this one flopped hard. How did the public get it so wrong?

I’m not sure any movie has stayed with me as much as this one. Most obviously that’s because I haven’t stopped playing and singing its songs (Yes, one fun song is genetically engineered to get stuck inside your head, but “Not Evil” does that job even better) But more importantly, I thought this movie had the courage to hit the emotions just as hard as the original, and go darker (as heard in “Everything’s Not Awesome”)

This had a lot to say about how we gender the concept of “hero”, why we crave post-apocalyptic narratives, and how men and women try to change for each other, for good or ill. The performances of Pratt, Banks, Arnett, et al, continue to be wonderful, and Tiffany Haddish is a great new addition.

Tip: The Smarter You Are, The More Heartfelt You Have to Be

This is one of the most post-modern movies ever made (Right down to an end credits song by Beck about the greatness of end credits). The whole thing is an examination of how and why we tell stories with several very clever self-aware jokes. So it’s a very head-y movie, but its heart is even bigger. In fact, that’s the whole point. The boy playing with these legos wants to be cool by closing his heart, and the movie knows that we’re conditioned to root for bad-ass-ery, so it gets us wrapped up in his quest. It’s truly shocking when we’re reminded, along with him, that it’s more heroic to open your heart than it is to harden it.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Best of 2019, Bonus Runner-Up: Us

A Saturday post?? It’s been almost ten years since I did that! Folks, there’s been a shocking turn of events: I unexpectedly got a chance to see one of the movies I hadn’t seen and it’s upended this list! This was going to be movie #5, but now it’s been knocked down to runner-up status, and if I’m going to finish all these before the Oscars, I’d best cover this one today!

Parasite isn’t on this list because it seems silly to see just one foreign-language film and say that was the best one, so I decided to limit myself to the best English-Language films of the year. But I did see it, it is amazing, and it makes an amazing companion to this film. Talk about great minds thinking alike! Both have two four member families, one living below ground and the other above, both involve a plan by the underground family to displace the aboveground one. They’re both great movies, and I just think it’s a shame they came out the same year because I fear that the similarity cost this one an Oscar nomination.

My one concern: This has one of the all-time great “Everything you know is wrong” twists, but I was never sure about its placement. It’s revealed at almost the very end of the movie, after it’s too late to affect any of the heroine’s actions. (The Sixth Sense reveal also happens at almost the very end, but in that case the hero acts.) Basically, this movie is saying “Sorry, but you have to buy another ticket and watch it again now that you have this essential piece of information that will change the way you see everything.” I haven’t had a chance to revisit it yet, but if Get Out is any indication, I’m sure it will only grow in my estimation on subsequent viewings.

Tip: Exhaust the Plot, Then Escalate

In the first half of this movie, the four members of the family go face to face with their doppelgangers, and the viewer assumes that that will be the whole movie, and it feels plenty satisfying. But then they successfully escape to the nearby lake house of their friends …only to discover that their friends have been killed by their own doppelgangers! It’s an escalation of the action, an escalation of the danger and it’s an escalation of the the theme, going from a personal horror story to a broader societal critique, and it’s absolutely thrilling to the audience.  Most horror movies have diminishing returns in the second half, but this movie is just getting started.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: The Two Popes

One of the best surprises of the year, highlighted by two amazing performances: How wonderful to see Hopkins gleefully rediscover skin-crawling creepiness and Pryce get to play a genuine hero for the first time in years (though both popes turn out to be more complicated than they first appear.) (It’s fascinating to compare Pryce’s performance here to “Game of Thrones” where he got to play the evil version of the same character, and did an equally good job.)

Tip: Give them a Fit Bit

The play, as far as I can tell, just consists of two men, a pope and a pope-to-be, sitting in a room and talking for two hours. The movie has to “open the story up”, and it does so in various expected ways (It adds little moments away from the confrontation, it dramatizes the stories Francis tells about his past, etc.) but it also uses a trick I found amusing: Benedict is wearing a Fit Bit, and, as anyone married to a Fit Bit user knows, it’s constantly telling him he has to get up and walk around, so the two keep having to get up and walk from room to room (and of course these are some of the most spectacular rooms in the world). It’s a good humanizing detail, and it livens up the visuals at the same time.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: 1917

Like Dunkirk, this is a showy technical achievement that still manages to be an impactful tragedy. I thought this film rose above that one through its performances. This one follows the same strategy of getting name actors to play the higher-ups while the youngsters are played by new faces, but I thought Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay were far more compelling than the young stars of Dunkirk.

Tip: Give Them Ironic Motivation

This movie does something interesting. It gives Chapman a personal motivation for his mission (which felt a little contrived): if he succeeds he may save his brother’s life. Despite knowing that, MacKay, worried for his own life, says maybe they should refuse orders. Then the movie kills off Chapman halfway through the mission. MacKay didn’t feel he owed it to Chapman to help save his brother when he was alive, but he does feel that obligation once Chapman is dead. That’s nicely ironic.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: Little Women

Going into this movie I couldn’t help but think about the fact that “Little Women” had a distinction that was not shared by any other Great American Novel: It already had three excellent film adaptations (1933 with Katherine Hepburn, 1949 with June Allyson, and the very best: the 1994 version with Winona Ryder) so who needed another one? Unfortunately, after watching it, I still feel that way.

This is, in many ways, a great film. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous (Oh how I wish I could take this movie’s cinematography and transfer it over to Harriet!) The performances are great (though in almost every case, the performances in the 1994 version were even better), but it never drew me in all the way.

What ultimately alienated me from this version is the timeline-rearranging. I spent the whole movie trying to figure out why Gerwig did it and I never came up with an answer. The plot turns in the book are so moving, so why spoil them all up-front? And it put Gerwig in the position of having to work hard to differentiate Beth’s two illness, which now play out simultaneously. She did so with the tired trick of color-tinting one blue and the other gold, which drew attention to itself and still didn’t work.

As for the big change to the ending of the story, it’s fine. Alcott intentionally chose to disappoint the reader, and by doing so she made a powerful statement about women’s choices in the 19th century, but Gerwig (like lots of modern readers) couldn’t accept that disappointment. She wanted a more heroic ending, and she cleverly found it by borrowing from Alcott’s own life-story. As it turns out, that does indeed make for a satisfying ending, and one can hardly criticize Gerwig as not being true to the 19th century, when this is the version that really happened. It’s a neat trick. (Of course, at some point we’ll get a fifth version which acknowledges the real possibility that Jo is lesbian and/or trans, and then this one will look dated.)

Monday, January 27, 2020

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: Harriet

This is certainly the most essential movie of the year, in that this is the story that most needed to be told. Harriet Tubman is the greatest hero in American history and she’s only now getting her biopic. And it’s perfectly fine. It does the job of telling this story, and it’ll be a good choice to show in schools from this point on. I just wish it was more artfully made.

The score (by the usually great Terence Blanchard) is ham-handed. The cinematography is very flat. This was obviously going to be a very hard movie to light, since Tubman’s whole trick was that she would travel through the woods on moonless nights, and thank god they didn’t shoot it day-for-night (You scoff that they never would have done that, but X-Men: Apocalypse had a day-for-night scene set in the woods at night, and that movie came out just three years ago), but their solution is just to have big blue flood lights on at all times, so bright that even when people light lanterns those lanterns cast shadows. How I wish this movie could borrow the cinematographer from Little Women. Even better, imagine this movie had been shot like The Revenant (another big-19th-century-foot-trek movie).

But ultimately, my big concern is Tubman herself, both in writing and performance.

Cynthia Erivo is fine, and I don’t mind that she got an Oscar nomination, but ultimately I wanted a performance with a little more interiority. Ten years ago, I gave this advice to actors and actresses: Always look like you’ve got a secret. Harriet Tubman was a woman with a lot of secrets, but Erivo plays her as too much of an open book.

In terms of the writing, I feel like the major turning point in Tubman’s life was the moment when, after years of asking God to change her owner’s heart, she reluctantly asked instead that God take his life, and the man unexpectedly died the next day. That, understandably and correctly, convinced her that she had superpowers, and she acted accordingly from that point on. The prayer is in the movie, but the camera isn’t even on Tubman at the time, it’s on her owner’s son. And we don’t see her find out that the owner is dead. We never get that “Holy shit, God does what I say, this changes everything” moment. That’s Tubman’s secret, and I wish it fired up the movie more.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Best of 2019 Runners-Up: Ford v. Ferrari

I do have ten movies this year, but I’ve decided to go with five ranked movies and five unranked runners-up, presented in random order. Some are movies I didn’t respond to as much as I wished, but were undeniably worth watching. Others, such as this one, were ones I unabashedly loved but can’t justify ranking above the others, so I’m staying unranked this week.

Ford vs. Ferrari (As with all my write-ups, this will have spoilers)

A great old fashioned man’s-man sports movie, thrillingly shot, scored, and edited. I’ve always found Mangold to be overrated (I didn’t like Logan, as you’ll recall), but this felt like a real breakthrough for me (at least in the coveted category of “pleasing Matt Bird”). You all know from my previous lists that I love Bale and Damon, and their riveting performances here (in roles that aren’t very showy) show why they’re my favorites.

Tip: Sports Heroes Should Win By Losing or Lose By Winning

You know I love irony, right? That’s come up before. Of course, sports movies always risk being unironic. Trying to win and then winning is unironic, but trying to win and then losing just feels like a bummer. The solution, of course, is to find a more ironic (and thereby satisfying) choice: Either win by losing or lose by winning.

The writers of this movie found a true story with a wild ending that’s packed with irony. They spend the whole movie (including the title) preparing us for a big showdown with Ferrari …but then Ferrari is eliminated before the final race ends! So then what the hell movie are we watching? But then Bale must confront his real demon: his self-destructive pride. His corporate bosses make an outrageous demand of him, and he at first refuses to comply, but then he realizes it’s time to let go of his pride and share the win. In the end, he officially “loses” the race, but he’s won by losing. Agreeing to share the win shows that he’s not a jerk anymore.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Not On the Best of 2019 List

Welcome to my annual series about the best movies of the previous year!  As usual, I’ll start with a list of the movies I didn’t get a chance to see. The big one is Jojo Rabbit. I was supposed to get a screener in the mail and it never arrived. Also unseen: Uncut Gems, The Farewell, The Lighthouse, Judy, Bombshell and several others I’m forgetting to mention.

Next, as has become a recent tradition, I will spotlight just some of the movies that are pointedly not on the list. If you have no wish for negativity, come back on Sunday when I will start celebrating the best!

Not on the List: The Irishman

  • The onscreen title of this movie is “I Heard You Paint Houses”, which is also the title of the book. Clearly, somebody changed the title at the last second, but why? And of all the thousands of titles they could have chosen, why that one? They cast an Italian-American in the lead role. He is in no way conveying the fact that he is playing an Irishman. That’s fine—I have Irish relatives that look enough like De Niro—but then why call it The Irishman? Why call attention to something they are not conveying in any way?
  • Not since WB hastily removed Superman’s mustache has a CGI job looked this bad. This movie might best be described as “Polar Express Meets Goodfellas”. As with Justice League, an unpaid fan has used free Deep Fake technology to improve the effects greatly and posted the results on YouTube. I realize that Hollywood is terrified of Deep Fake, but if you’re going to keep making movies like this, you have to embrace it. What really hurt is that it was released the same year as Captain Marvel, which became the first movie to flawlessly de-age a major character for the whole runtime. But, to be fair, Samuel L. Jackson wears his years a lot of lighter than Robert De Niro does.
  • At one point early on, buried in the avalanche of voiceover, De Niro casually mentions that, between scenes, he left his wife and family for another woman. This is in a 3 and a half hour movie! You can’t devote ten minutes to the everyday tragedy of that? Take a look at the first ten minutes of Up! You can pack a lot of emotion into ten minutes! I felt very gratified that De Niro did not get an Oscar nomination, because his character is utterly uncompelling. He gets 45 minutes of build-up before the real plot begins, and then another 45 minutes of wind-down after the plot ends, but all the non-Hoffa screentime is just inert, because De Niro is giving us almost nothing. I want my 3 ½ hours back.

Not on the List: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

  • I’ve always thought Leonardo DiCaprio was our most overrated actor. He was great in Titanic and Catch Me if You Can, but he’s only convincing in boy-ish roles, and any time he tries to play a grown man it feels like a middle-school production of “The Iceman Cometh”. Has he ever been more miscast than he is in this movie? Washed-up cowboy actor, reduced to playing TV villains, finds a second life as a Spaghetti Western star? Why would you cast someone who can’t grow a convincing beard in a Spaghetti Western? I didn’t buy it.
  • Pitt is fine, but he’s not digging deep. I’m not going to find anybody bad-ass when the movie is trying so hard to make him seem bad-ass, even having him beat up Bruce Lee! I hope the ghost of the real Bruce comes back and kicks the asses of both Pitt and Tarantino.
  • The most excited I got while watching this movie was when Maya Hawke from “Stranger Things” Season Three was on screen for two minutes. That season was great cinema. This was not. Great, soundtrack though, as always.

Not on the List: Frozen II

  • I’ve just discovered that, when my father built that dam for the indigenous tribe north of us, he didn’t have their best interest at heart. And so, immediately upon hearing this, I will run over and destroy the dam without asking anyone in the tribe if that’s okay with them. Equity achieved!
  • I thought everything about this movie was pretty dreadful: The songs, the personal arcs, the character work… The massive new mythology was way too indebted to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” but it suffers mightily from that comparison.

Not on the List: Avengers: Endgame

  • Unlike the above 3, I adored this movie and I love that it beat out Avatar to become the most successful movie of all time. There’s just one thing keeping it out of the top 10: They should have just restored things back to the point of the snap! Yes, it would have felt odd for Tony to wipe his own kid out of existence, but refusing to erase five years of horrific trauma for everybody in the entire universe is worse, Tony! And I spent the whole movie distracted, thinking “This five year gap is gonna totally screw up every movie they try to make from this point forward!” And then the latest Spider-Man movie came out and yeah, it was totally screwed up by the five year gap. Just undo the snap! A terrible decision marring an otherwise-great film.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

New Podcast: Should Novelists Follow Screenwriting Advice, featuring Parker Peevyhouse

Hi everybody, we’re about to do our year-end wrap-up, but first we’ve got a new podcast, and it’s a good one!  We have a special guest appearance from novelist Parker Peevyhouse!   She has two acclaimed novels and a third one that’s coming out this week, and she proposed stopping by with a juicy question: Should novelists follow screenwriting advice?  The result is a pretty great episode where we really get to the heart of what this podcast is about!  (And James has a proposed addition to Believe Care Invest!)

Monday, January 13, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Rahel in Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”

  • The Indian Province of Kerala in 1992: 29 year old Rahel returns after many years away to help her troubled twin brother Estha. She quickly becomes overwhelmed with memories of different times, including the death of a girl named Sophie Mol when Rahel and Estha were 7.
Though this novel is also assigned in high schools, it requires the most out of its readers of any of those we’re looking at. Post-colonial writers have literally had the ground ripped out from under their feet, leaving them unmoored in time and space, and modern literary masters like Roy attempt to capture that condition in prose.  Complex literary fiction challenges the reader, but in a book such as this one, those readers that rise to the challenge are richly rewarded.

Believe: It’s easy to believe in the reality of this world because every line of the book explodes with vivid, unique imagery that literally brings this world to life: The first line is, “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month,” then we hear that “the countryside turns an immodest green.” Months brood, colors have feelings—everything is alive in this world.

But what really makes the novel seem so utterly real us is the way it intimately captures the crazy logic of childhood. Our own childhoods may not have been as traumatic as Rahel’s, but Roy captures with startling intimacy the way a 7 year-old thinks. To read the book to is to feel like a child again, not in an aw-shucks kind of way, but in an “Oh, right, childhood was weird” kind of way. Rahel is convinced that she would have gotten free bus rides for life if she had been born on a bus, and she’s convinced that the government pays for your funeral if you die in a zebra crossing. That’s harmless enough …but she’s also convinced that Sophie is still alive in her coffin, which is less so.

Care: It will take us a while to understand every trauma that happened in those terrible two weeks in 1969, but we do get just a sense in these first ten pages of each of the various traumas that still have both Rahel and Estha in their grip:
  1. The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did something to Estha (which we can already correctly guess to be molestation)
  2. Their cousin Sophie Mol drowned, and perhaps they’re to blame
  3. A man named Velutha seems to have been killed by the police because of Sophie’s death, and perhaps the kids are to blame for that as well due to some further sin of theirs.
  4. As a result of all of the above, the closer-than-close twins were sent to live in different cities until now.
  5. Estha stopped speaking not long thereafter and has never spoken since.
These traumas have fractured Rahel’s sense of self, and they’ve also fractured her perception (and therefore our perception) of these events, so we get sections like this:
  • In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
  • Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream.
  • She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
  • She remembers, for instance (though she hadn’t been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches—Estha’s sandwiches, that Estha ate—on the Madras Mail to Madras.
  • And these are only the small things.
From such tangles of memory we have to pick out the salient details and arrange them into a timeline, and we are increasing horrified as it all falls into place.  What is pervasive right away is the feeling of loss and trauma, and that makes us care deeply.

Invest: Like any good hero, Rahel shows up on page one on a heroic mission.  Her brother has finally come home, there’s something wrong with him, and she must come home as well to try and fix him. Most of the pages will be devoted to her fractured memories of what happened to them in those two weeks in 1969, but we will regularly check in on her modern day attempts to get through to Estha, which she will do …in a fashion.  It is only because we are invested in this modern-day mission that we are willing to do the hard work of piecing together their past.

But of course, as with most literary fiction, we are really rooting for Rahel to deal with her own pain. As she and we sort through the shattered pieces of her traumatized psyche, we feel a shared sense of accomplishment. We have to struggle to piece together a coherent story, which can make for a frustrating reading experience, but ultimately, those who do the work the novel requires will feel all the more bonded to the heroine, because she is undergoing the same struggle. She and we are working together to make sense of her life, and we feel a shared sense of accomplishment as the jigsaw pieces slowly click together. Of course, as with any old jigsaw puzzle, we’ll never find all the pieces, but we’ll have enough in the end to get a sense of the total picture.