Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hindsight and Some, Not All, Rearview Mirrors Suck

| by Justin Thomas |

Parental Advisory: There’s blue language to follow. Fair warning.

Helpful road signs might read, “Danger: Obese Man-Eating Plants Ahead” or, “Danger: If You Go Around This Corner You Will Die.” Those are things I’d want to see before going ahead or going around the corner. Screenwriting has those road signs. There are plenty of horror stories to be found about how a screenplay or screenwriter gets manhandled and how things change to make the screenplay “better,” which is code for make the screenplay something other than the writer wrote. And all of the horror stories are true.

I cowrote a screenplay. I’m not a screenwriter nor am I in screenwriting. I didn’t even write a screenplay. I cowrote one and my writing partner and I had some success with it. A more accurate description would be we had tremendous success with it if you count tremendous success as everything up to actually having the movie made.

We won the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition in 2004. We had a production company take it for a year to see what they could do with it, which naturally meant we needed to rewrite it and watch nothing happen. We were finalists in the 2006 Austin Film Festival, got to have the “and the award goes to” be said before our names were read and even got to give a little speech. And Austin is where, as they say, the plot thickens.

A producer hooked up with us and loved, loved, loved the script. It’s perfect. Wow, how it harkens back to movies made in the 50s. “You guys are great. I’m starting a company and I want this to be one of my projects.”

The Bullshit Detectors™ should have been going off but in the whirlwind of Austin the bullshit detectors failed us. When we returned home and saw his Web site and how his mission statement confirmed what he’d told us, we thought we’d found the Promised Land. This guy believes in the vision of the writers! He stands behind the screenplays! He is the yin to fifteen writers on Spider-Man 4 Hollywood yang.

Of course we bought what he was selling. Of course we signed the option. Of course we thought one day the movie would be made by a guy who gets it.

Flash forward to 2010 and the ruin of the previous four years makes me want to hop in a time machine, travel back to October 2006 and take a baseball bat to our heads. “Wake up you fucking morons...” Anything to save the time and tears of the previous four years is something I’d do, right now, without a second thought.

What happened? How about the belief in the writer’s vision meaning a month to do a rewrite, being fired after the rewrite didn’t achieve the requested results, and being replaced by a guy who writes words for horses to speak? How about our vision being completely bastardized and changed and having the key components, the two conceits upon which the script gets noticed by everyone, be completely destroyed? How about being treated like sorry little ingrates when we dare question the direction the production is headed even though we were told we’d have say and are even contractually obligated to be credited as coproducers? The experience has been a complete 180 on every single point made to sell us at Austin. Fun times, no? And to allude, even slightly, one writer is more responsible for where the script is heading than the originators while maintaining it remains our vision is unforgivable.

There have been fun times through it. There was a table reading with real actors. There was a meeting with a director where at least one of us got to give thoughts as to where things were going. Now and again we get a phone call with tremendous news. Oh, hey, I’m shopping it to Actors A, B and C. Oh, hey, I landed a Hollywood Legend who worked with Hitchcock and Wilder. Oh, hey, I’ve landed a new director who knew Welles. These calls happen about once every three to four months with nothing in between and they always, always, include the reasons why the movie isn’t going to be made in the foreseeable future. So fun times, yes, but they’re always accompanied by the other side of the coin to the point I get filled with dread when I see the 310 area code on the caller ID. “What’s it going to be this time.”

It’s taking a while but I’m getting to the point. The road signs aren’t bullshit. The road signs are true. Everything you can take away about screenwriting from Sunset Blvd. is true. When a character in a movie says something akin to “what did he know, he’s just a writer,” it’s simply how things are. If a slick talking, “I’m not part of the problem” Web site mission statement guy happens your way, check what’s under that sheep’s skirt. There are sad things in this tale of woe including having a script be virtually destroyed but nothing is sadder than thinking things will be different but winding up in reality.

Oh, I know, all the Whos down in Whoville, the tall and the small, cry boo, hoo, hoo. We should have been thinking just a little bit more. We signed the deal. We’ve taken the pittance. The movie still might get made. Shut up and get back to work. It’s easier said than done.

Back to the road signs. If you’re a writer, or aspire to be a writer, choose something other than screenwriting if your writing means anything to you. If you’re a poor dope who always wanted a pool, write a novel to get it. No form of writing is less respected than screenwriting. Everyone will get their hands into it and it’ll change. The writer is not the author of the finished film. Would a novelist have his debut changed by everyone who reads it before it goes to print? That’s a very simple no. Your guild card might say you’re a writer but you’re actually just a unionized eater of shit. Choose something else. Choose something a person will curl up to read when it’s time for bed and remember no one curls up with a good screenplay. No one.

If your vision means something to you, choose something that isn’t collaborative or find a way to control the entire process. If you still want to ignore the warning signs, still want to write for the screen and still want to fight for your vision the best advice I can give is don’t believe a word anyone says if they say they believe in the writer’s vision. It’s a lie.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Backwards Bond 2: Quantum of Solace

| by Justin Thomas |

A white room with black curtains leaves no room for gray or the benefit of the doubt. The benefit of the doubt annoys me like nothing else in the world save perhaps producers who continually provide healthy helpings of nasty digested material between slices of white bread and expect you to call it fois gras while stomping on your dreams. But back to the benefit of the doubt... I don’t like it. If I hate something I just want to hate it. Like the Romans. I don’t care about sanitation, medicine, education, roads or the fresh water system. Oh, and peace. I don’t care about any of it. I hate the Romans, that’s that and I don’t want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

So it pains me to know I’m going to have to leave a final verdict on Quantum of Solace until I see whatever film or films finish this particular arc and also go through the rest of the entire Bond series.

The Empire Strikes Back makes the Original Trilogy. If Lucas had simply rehashed the plot of Star Wars the resulting sequel would have done well at the box office, sold lots of toys and been forgotten by time. But Empire breaks the mold and the sequel trap by dumping Luke into a swamp and separating him from the other heroes while working up to a downer ending. In 1979, Lucas knew what he was doing and with that pivotal film he secured his and his creation’s place in film history. Quantum of Solace feels like an Act II that doesn’t match Act I in a three-act series because of how dramatically it veers from Casino Royale.

A lack of Bond knowledge might be working against me because maybe Bond is supposed to be fighting the Doctor Evil Bad Guy with the crazy lair, henchmen and gamma-radiated velociraptors riding rabid monkeys in a pit into which Bond is dumped. Quantum of Solace, with the goal its baddies have, is more crazy, over the top, let’s use a giant umbrella held in the air by trained bats to blot out the sun, drive up energy costs and benefit from the ComEd stock we purchased before the bats took flight. As I understand it, Dominic Greene (helpful surname there, eh) is working for some bad guys to control the water supply of Bolivia and it requires them establishing a friendly dictatorship to sign over the water supply Greene stole, wait for it, through the use of underground dams he built without anyone noticing it. Dude, doesn’t a story idea of that caliber belong in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Or maybe that’s Bond and, if I have a problem with it, I’m going to have a problem with Bond.

Casino Royale didn’t feature that type of Bond. Bond played at a personal level, sitting across the table from Le Chiffre and relying on, wait for it, drama, to carry the day. Bond played at a personal level when he sat in the shower with Vesper to help her deal with seeing firsthand what Bond does. He was no superspy and no superhero and it helped make Casino Royale a good movie while the over-the-top insanity of being Bond detracts from Quantum of Solace. I don’t know whether the Bond in Casino Royale is “James Bond,” the thing everyone has grown to know and love, but I know the Bond in Casino Royale can work and I was disappointed to see it change.

And the movie annoyed me. Look, if you’re going to do the Michael Bay split second cuts, get a damn tripod, put the damn camera on the damn tripod and leave the damn camera on the damn tripod. If you’re going to have a subplot, tie it to the main story better. If you’re going to use Mathis, have a point behind it. If you’re compelled to blow up everything on screen engage me enough in what comes before the explosions so there’s weight to the explosions when they happen.

Maybe the third film in this series will help Quantum of Solace. Maybe all the heavy lifting parts of the global domination thing will make me forget about how well Bond, and Daniel Craig, works when he has to stare at his enemy across a table with nothing but cards between them. If that’s the case then I’ll have to reevaluate Quantum of Solace, but as a film, it should be able to stand on its own. It doesn’t. It feels like it’s the first part of a two-film cycle because it’ll have more in common with its successor than its predecessor or, if it’s standalone, it was built on the idea of “let’s make a good Roger Moore Bond movie.” And if I’d wanted that, I wouldn’t have waited until I was eligible to run for President of the United States to finally watch a James Bond movie.


The Brits are a funny people because they just won’t leave well enough alone, will they? If one of The Doctors gets tired of doing it they just regenerate another one. If Paul McCartney dies they just go to Canada to find another one. If they lose one war against the Americans they just wait a few years and try again. And if they need a new James Bond they see the character as being more important than the actor, find a new one and move along. I have my favorite Doctor (well... that’d be David), my favorite Paul (the one who wasn’t an assclown to George Harrison), my favorite UK/US war (The Revolutionary War, natch) and my favorite Bond.

I’m glad when I finally got into Bond I did so with Daniel Craig and that he showed me something I hadn’t seen from him before. Screen presence. It felt lacking in Road to Perdition, my only pre-Bond exposure to him, and he felt completely overmatched by the other performers in that movie. If I’d used the benefit of the doubt with him in Road, I would have asked the question, “who the Hell is going to work opposite Paul Newman and not look like a schmuck?” but I didn’t.

He commands attention as Bond. The look in the eyes, the way he holds himself, the way he is so driven even when he’s overmatched or in over his head, just everything about the way he stands in front of a camera screams “movie star” the way people in the Golden Age of Hollywood screamed “movie star.” And they let that loose on James Bond.

Craig pulls off the struggles of learning the physical parts of his job, the working through problems that the people in the cold, gray rooms can’t solve, the ability to seduce and be seduced and play emotionally detached, seemingly but not really emotionally detached and everything in between. Craig nails everything they throw at him and his performance either matches the quality of the material or compensates for it.

At this point I’ll be surprised if Craig winds up as something other than my favorite James Bond because Craig’s presence is unique among screen performers not just screen performers who play Bond.

Good luck, Roger Moore. You’re gonna need it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Monster Squad

| by Allan Stackhouse |

Watching childhood classics at an adult age is a rather precarious thing. Elements of the film can either translate or not, making the majority of them hit or miss. A miss for me, something I know I may get flack for, is The Dark Crystal. Among all of my female friends, the film brings up fond memories of watching it at each other's house over a slumber party talking about boys. I watched it a month or two ago and was thankful that it was on Instant on Netflix rather than having it tie up my DVD queue. A hit for me was writer and director Fred Dekker's 1987 hit The Monster Squad.

Recently, I decided to rent this movie after having it recommended by a friend. Its release to Blu-ray late last year was also a very good indicator that the film was worth watching, as you should all know from my insistence on good films getting Blu-ray releases (see my pleas to George Lucas for Star Wars to be released on Blu-ray). For some reason, I walked into the film slightly biased because of its age. It must had been on my TV stand for almost 2 weeks, waiting to be watched. My preconceptions could not have been anymore wrong. The Monster Squad turned out to be a very adventurous tale of rag tag group of misfits with an obsession for monsters. The monsters in their storybooks find their to the kids' front door and it's up to them to save the world from Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein, and the Mummy.

Watching the film on Sunday morning was a pleasant return to adventurous live-action movies targeted at a younger audience without a ton of CGI but with a solid story. The relationships that take place in the film are rewarding in the fashion that only '80s films can be: a grittier look on film with a perspective that comes from younger eyes without being totally childish. The special effects that did take place in the film, good as though they may have been at the time, were still quite entertaining to watch. A standout moment for me was when the Wolfman was blown up with an actual explosive device. You just don't see anymore good old fashioned explosions like that anymore. I don't know if it's the spelling of the word 'dynamite,' the sparkling fuse, the anticipation of the explosion, or the possibility of being able to stem the fuse but there's just something about dynamite that I'll always be attracted to.

I believe the majority of the appeal with this film lies in the fact that children were the main cast. Actual children. Not 23 year olds playing teenagers but actual grade school children. We were all children once with friends (I hope). Children, at this age, without the assistance of adults simply does something magical for cinema. It conveys the idea to children that they can accomplish things beyond their imagination. This child-lead dynamic can also be found in The Goonies and I believe it is the same reason it is also a well-remembered '80s film. I was wondering if there was a recent film that had this and the only one I could come up with is Harry Potter. Maybe these types of films can't stand on their own today (I doubt it) but I think somewhere along the line some studio exec decided that these films were no longer going to be able to turn a profit and that mentality spread to the point these kinds of films are now fond relics. Perhaps this is a generational thing but I steadfastly believe the '80s kids will proudly hold bragging rights over '90s and millennium kids having been able to grow up with films like The Monster Squad and The Goonies over my nephews and nieces who have the three Spider-Man movies. My poor nephews and nieces.

The friendships and bonds made in childhood are ones that you carry on throughout your life. Whether you like it or not, they provide the foundation for how you build your next friendships and relationships. It's life lessons like these that I wish were still in use in features and even television. I may not watch as much of it as I used to but I find today's live-action children's programming to be severely lacking in teaching children life skills, which they so sorely need in this digital age. One of the worst results of this comes in the form of e-bullying where some children have killed themselves. If more high-quality media was around to teach children the meaning of what it means to have friends, determination, and imagination, perhaps more American children would be asking for tree houses to have friends over instead of asking for iPhones, PSPs, or you name it device that teaches our children to prefer solitary forms of entertainment rather than group.

Another highly enjoyable element of the film were the villains. The development in Frankenstein's character was an adorably unexpected surprise. The film got away with more violence than would be likely be passable today but it was still appropriate for the purposes of the film. In fact, I enjoyed when Dracula blew up the police car Detective Sapir was in. It narratively raised the stakes of the film at a point when it could have easily relied on the fact that it was nearing the end of the film.

If you haven't seen The Monster Squad, you should check it out. As a reformed skeptic, I enthusiastically encourage anyone who's looking for a little '80s style adventure to see this. And if you haven't seen it in a while, rent or buy it. You'll be doing yourself a favor for those times you want to escape into an era whose films are so poignantly connected to their generation.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Sequel Trap

| by Allan Stackhouse |

In reference to this article, I must express my excitement over this movement away from BS sequels and toward original content. It would be foolish to believe that this pending wave of new ideas guarantees the improvement of the state of film; however, I believe that Hollywood, for too long, has taken advantage of the possibility of earning more money on one film and developing it into a franchise. Pirates of the Carribean, Mission Impossible, Batman, Ice Age, there's a slew of them out there that were once successful singular films yet stretched in every which way just to make money. There's absolutely nothing wrong with franchises but these films need to be done well and not hawked like some handmade goods at a flea market. I resent this idea that writers are called back and asked to toss around ideas like a clown juggles pins at a birthday party. On the likely chance that the original writers weren't clowns, their work was more than likely turned into garbage by a team of re-writing clowns. For the purpose of keeping this editorial concise, I will be using animated films as my main examples.

Disney was the main culprit (and victim) of this free-wheeling sequel mentality. The Lion King was one of Disney's best. Yet, in attempts to turn a quick buck, Disney released The Lion King II: Simba's Pride 4 years after the original. The Roman numerals are obnoxious to me, almost as if insisting that the film is worthy of the formality apart from a numerical '2.' It is not worthy. Flip Kobler, I'm calling you out. Why Disney at the time thought you were worthy to write for them, I will never know. You wrote one okay episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine by some miracle, you got to work for Disney and wrote Beauty and the Beast: An Enchanted Christmas. Some executive at Disney must have been extremely pleased with your work since you went on to write sequels to Pocahontas, The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. You are guilty of f*cking up Disney classics. Bear in mind that I do not use the term “original,” when referring to first films, loosely. These sequels are almost as bad as a knock off film found in the $1 bin at Wal-Mart. Yeah, I'm calling out you too, Wal-Mart. To further destroy people's memory of the original, Disney released the abysmal Lion King 1 ½. How it passed for acceptable to anyone at the caliber of Disney is not beyond me because I just realized I typed Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure. John Lasseter's infamous shakedown of Disney did not occur until 2006. What I would pay to have been there for that. Or to at least have John Lasseter tell me about it.

Cinderella III: A Twist in Time and Shrek Forever After further this grievous affliction of sequels by relying on some stupid event that tells the same story from the first film. I haven't even seen Shrek 4 but I will tell you the secret formula for a Part 3 or Part 4 of an animated movie: the villain, through some sort of time-warping magic, undoes the fairytale relationship so hard-sought in the first film, flashbacks ensue, sprinkle opportunities for the lovable supporting characters, break the spell with a touching reunion with sparkles and BAM! Send the finished product out to all the theaters, call McDonalds or Burger King to sell little toys that will ultimately lead them to an $8 waste of an afternoon at the movies, and call it day. Telling the story from another perspective is simply not interesting to me. Perhaps in a short but definitely not a feature. These tricks prove nothing to be more than a narrative crutch – better yet, a walker with the tennis balls on the bottom – for telling a story. It's my greatest hope that Hollywood realizes the ridiculousness of this vile process and will either develop sequels beyond the strength of its initial concept or just leave the first movie alone and move on to original content.

The idea of providing an enjoyable continuation in story is legitimate however, the story – or lack thereof – and execution almost always loses this legitimacy. I recall watching The Lion King 1 ½ and regretting the experience entirely. Despite already feeling awkward since my friends and I were playing white elephant, this “movie” gave me such a great level of disappointment. The only redeeming quality of that evening was winning the Extended Edition of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Forgetting about this jackpot of a prize, turning this epic film and grand piece of art into a joke was insulting to me as a writer and I'd also argue misleading for aspiring writers. No writer should aspire to be hired into positions to dumb down material or walk into amazing material and grind out some disgusting byproduct. For Linda Woolverton, one of the scribes of The Lion King, this has to be a bastardization of her blood, sweat, and tears. For the consumers, they're being sold garbage that is playing on their attachments rooted in the original films.

Toy Story 2, Pixar's first foray into the dangerous territory of sequels, did not fall into the trap of being a low-budget, direct-to-DVD piece of garbage. Quite the opposite. I've even heard it being a favorite among the Pixar films for some and it's currently #242 on the IMDB Top 250. The film did not solely rely on our familiarity with the characters and at least attempted to move the story along into an unfamiliar territory with higher stakes. Just the presence of Buzz Lightyear does not promise magnificence. Toy Story 3, Pixar's second sequel, also successfully steered clear of a rehashing and was enormously successful. Everyone involved with the film can sleep like a baby at night and look at themselves in a mirror and smile knowing they achieved brilliance.

This convention of familiarity promising success is disappointing as a writer and a fan of original content. An older example of an original animated movie that had no familiarity to me yet was completely enjoyable was Surf's Up. Great characters, no stupid fake accents, and beautiful imagery all combined to make a wholesome and entertaining film for all ages. It was a film that had to be sold on its own merits through its trailer and good old fashioned word of mouth and advertising. Of course there could be sequel but there isn't and it doesn't make me love the original any less having only one film to admire. Simply adding a 2, 3, or 4 to a film's title simply does not sell it for me. It never did and from the article, I believe this mentality is catching on.

I believe the problem with sequels lies first and foremost with the development. Instead of a writer or writers brains burning with these phenomenal ideas in their heads, the formulation is rooted in “insert negative noun here.” Greed so often gets in the way of creativity. Hollywood has many a time found synergy in this area however, with sequels, this synergy is almost never there.

When Hollywood figures out the formula for a successful sequel is when I believe people can start taking sequels seriously. For all I know, this formula already exists but is whittled down into nothingness by money-hungry studios, zealous directors, and miscast actors. As an avid lover of movies, I am thrilled beyond words for a flood of original films. I don't need another Die Hard, Terminator, Ice Age, or Superman. Keep giving us your best shots, Hollywood, but don't sell me anymore watered down sequels.

P.S. If anyone out there knows Linda Woolverton, tell her I'm thrilled that she's writing Maleficent.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Day Four: The Fawn (The Verb Not the Gloves)

| by Justin Thomas |

Ask me to detail the military objectives of the Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill and I’m not going to be able to give you an answer nor am I particularly interested in finding the battle’s Wiki page now that junior year American History is sixteen firm years in the past. Unless I get my crack at Jeopardy! it doesn’t seem like information I’m going to need to know between now and death. What I can tell you is I know precisely why I wouldn’t charge up the hill of explaining why the Lord of the Rings movies suck to a rabid fan of the trilogy.

A dyed-in-the-wool fan of Peter Jackson’s work might be able to listen to reasons why the films aren’t the finest example of any aspect of filmmaking and even might be able to concede points. Maybe they’d concede the entire argument because I can be damn persuasive when I put my mind to it (listen to me ramble about Savannah Smiles and you can kiss your current paradigm goodbye). But those rabid, dyed-in-the-wool fans have the silver bullet: so, who cares about the problems, I still love them because it’s Lord of the Rings. And there, Dear Reader, is where the conversation ends, because I understand.

There are issues with Star Wars, it’s not a perfect film nor does a perfect film set in the Star Wars universe exist and, yes, I’m including Empire in that. There are issues, they are not perfect, I’m embarrassed by some of the problems but I don’t care. It’s Star Wars and that’s where that particular conversation ends. There are precious few movies to which I can point and say, “perfect,” and with some of them I’ll say “not perfect but I still love it” and it’s hard to move me off the latter.

If movies mean enough to you then you know what I’m talking about. You’ll see something and it’ll be like a home run hitter getting the bat on the ball so well he knows it’s going to go far before it lands. It’s in your wheelhouse, it’s your bag, it’s your cup of tea, it’s why you go to the movies. There might be millions of other people who share your sweet spot (attempting to say it’s unique to be a Star Wars fan is like attempting to say wolverines would make good house pets or, in other words, stupid) or maybe you’re the only person you’ve ever met who named a kid after Charles Laughton due to Night of the Hunter. It doesn’t matter who else and how many who elses share your opinion. If you love it you love it and anyone who takes issue with it can jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang hit that wheelhouse for me. Genres I dig include space opera, science fiction, mystery and Westerns; the kind that can be traced back to the pages of pulp fiction. It shouldn’t surprise me that an inability to remember life before Star Wars, hours spent watching Charlie Chan, growing up with Wayne and Eastwood on television, filling the post-Jedi void with Trek and consuming with enthusiasm every frame of early Spielberg would lead to an affinity for pulp and a race back through as much of it as I could get my hands on. Nor should it surprise me, knowing what types of movies get me going, that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang left me with that giddy as a schoolboy feeling.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is good but not perfect. It came from a smart, well-written script, features strong performances and is made with enough attention to craft to keep me from picking at it like a scab until I can’t watch it again. Some movies get made that are good but not perfect, come from a good script and, well, you get the point, but they won’t hit that sweet spot for me. If Sex and the City 3 is somehow put together as well as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang I’m not going to walk away with that grin because it’s just not my thing even though I will concede it’s well done.

There are more elements in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that are the types I get crazy about. It’s sarcastic as all Hell, which I enjoy. The dialogue is stupid good, just fun dialogue to hear spoken by actors who know what they’re doing. It’s wicked smart and requires the audience to use its brain or get left behind. It was made by Shane Black who took the title of Most Miserable Man in Hollywood when Robert Mitchum died, another personal favorite due to his misery. It’s like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was made specifically for me, which makes me happy to know it’s not equivalent to Jaws 3 quality-wise because I don’t have to dance with the guilty pleasure monkey.

My key requirement of a movie is that it properly execute against the known elements of what makes a movie a movie. A haiku is required to have precise elements and movies aren’t that dissimilar: structure, dialogue, character development, etc. When a movie hits the elements, I feel as though time wasn’t wasted. When a movie hits a portion of the elements in a new way, I’ve got something to talk about. When a movie hits more than it misses and falls within my wheelhouse genres? Then I get to walk away with a big damn smile on my face and find someone, anyone, to whom I can pontificate about the movie’s greatness. It happened when I first saw Back to the Future. It happened again with The Sixth Sense. And Kiss Kiss Bang Bang did the same thing, which is why it merited more than just thumbs up or thumbs down. I go to movies with hope I’ll see something like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and wind up crazy excited when it happens.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Chocolate Martial Arts

| by Allan Stackhouse |

It's needless to say that Tony Jaa was amazing in Ong Bak. He brought to the world the marvel of flying knee kicks to the face. What does need to be said is how superb Chocolate was. Ong Bak martial arts choreographer Panna Rittikrai and director Pracha Pinkyaew have made another marvel of a film featuring Thai martial arts at its finest. You would think that with Ong Bak behind it, the film would have a significantly boosted popularity but it's only an underground hit, at least within my circles of friends.

What makes Chocolate immediately interesting is Zen, the main character. She's an adolescent girl with autism. By looks, she is just your average 13 year old girl but no, she's a martial arts powerhouse who doesn't hesitate to kick gangsters in the face and elbow assassins on the back of the head. With all the American bad ass chicks, they have the height and musculature of someone who could easily take on a man: Lucy Lawless' Xena, Jennifer Garner's Sidney Bristow on Alias, and Uma Thurman's The Bride in Kill Bill. JeeJa Yanin is not as young as Chloe Moretz's Hit Girl from Kick Ass but she is strictly a hand to hand fighter, beautiful as watching her purple-leatherdness shoot people in the face.

One of the most amazing scenes I've seen in the history of martial arts films was the breakdance fighter in Chocolate. At one of the final scenes of the film, we see him twitching a bit, similarly to Zen's behavior. This is one of the first fighters that poses a true challenge to Zen. After taking some nice knocks, a special part of her brain makes her stop and adapt to his movements to eventually best him. Her consistently unexpected improvisations in fight scenes without the use of wires were fun to watch and a great tool for the filmmakers to portray her determination especially since she has so few lines within the film.

One of the best contrasts to Ong Bak was the lack of repetitive shots and repetitive moves. There's almost nothing worse for me than seeing the same exact moves in a martial arts or action movie. A contest of who can punch the other the hardest and longest across different sets is simply not interesting to me, which is unfortunately what a large amount of classic American action movies end up being. Ong Bak literally took the same shot and would either repeat it or show it from a different angle, sometimes angles. I found this completely unnecessary and amateurish, taking me out of the film when I was repeatedly forgiving a lot of the story. Rittikrai and Pinkyaew somehow managed to read my mind and grow significantly as filmmakers, learning from previous mistakes.

The level of violence was also taken to new heights. Whereas a large majority of violent films will rely on fake blood and pulled punches, the stunt people in this film looked like they were actually having the crap beat out of them. In fact, during the credits, footage of injured cast is explicitly shown. JeeJa was frequently kicked or hit in the face during filming. And the poor stuntmen! These poor guys were dropped from three story buildings but the less straight forward falling looked incredibly painful.

Also unlike Ong Bak, I found the story to be quite interesting. It had elements of some classic stories: Romeo and Juliet's forbidden love, Rain Man's likable special needs, and Enter the Dragon's multiple levels of villains. Each element is also executed well. After seeing this bad ass samurai assassin in the first few minutes drop out of the film leaves us dying for him to come back. When he does, it's awesome. In an amazing scene, a group of sword wielding assassins charges at him and he pulls out a gun and shoots at them until his clip runs out. Then, he draws his own sword and goes to town.

Chocolate, if you haven't already got the impression yet, is definitely a film you should check out if you like martial arts or action films. The high quality of fight scenes are simply nonexistent in any other movie I've seen. Instead of feeling obligated to return to some half baked narrative, the film successfully navigates a cohesive -- although not very deep -- story line while capturing simply brilliant martial arts. I would love for word of this film to get around for the sake of more films like it to at least be around for me to choose besides the garbage that passes for a direct-to-DVD movie at Blockbuster.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Day Three: The Unrestrained Expression of Affection

| by Justin Thomas |

If you say “method” to me I wind up getting upset about living in the suburbs and not in the city. “Method” means madness, which makes me think of Lawrence of Arabia and the Music Box and I wind up trying to find the cheapest bottle of wine to drown the sorrows because I can’t just open the door and walk there. Or I’ll think of Brando because along the way I picked up he was a method actor, which makes me think of the little twin screen theater in Libertyville, Illinois, where he once worked, which makes me think about my hometown movie theater and its impending doom and I wind up trying to find the cheapest bottle of wine because The Man in the Rearview Mirror will never screen at the corner of Grand and East Fifth Street. If you say method, even if I give a quick thought to method acting, I’ll wind up blitzed and stumbling about in my boxer shorts wondering why my phone isn’t ringing off the hook with social engagement invitations even though, as a drunk idiot stumbling about in my boxers, I probably know the answer. My train of thought jumps the track. Sorry.

I know absolutely nothing about the art of acting. Nothing. I know Bill Paxton can’t do it and I think Kevin Spacey can but I don’t stack one Spacey role up against another for fear of finding similarities. Daniel Day Lewis seems to be able to because he wins awards and they’re always different roles, but I don’t know how he does it. Sometimes I can spot a great performance – laugh if you will but I include Nick Frost in Hot Fuzz in that category in a paragraph that includes the name Daniel Day Lewis because Danny Butterman is not Nick Frost – and sometimes I can spot a bad performance – every single time Bill Paxton appears on screen in anything – but the hows and whys? You might as well ask me to split the atom.

“Talk about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang you dope.” I’m getting there.

The characters in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang aren’t characters for which actors are given statues. It likely has to do with the type of movie and that the movie doesn’t “say” something. They’re characters actors seem to do well with because they’re great characters. Does that help the process? Does that matter? To whom am I even addressing these questions? Where’s that wine...?

If I attempt to evaluate the performances in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang I’d say my inability to distinguish between what would have been in the script and what might have been improvised has a lot to do with why I say they’re great performances. The improvisation question comes through in the reactions, particularly Harry, because in the Harry example I just don’t believe every single nervous twitch is in the script. That has to be the actor adding to the character through performance, right? Understanding the character on the page and adding to it through the performance?

Harry/Robert Downey, Jr.

Harry’s pretty cool but Harry’s also a complete idiot and he doesn’t appear to get what’s happening even when he gets what’s happening. An example: he figures out the clue to the underpants but then expresses disappointment when Perry can’t find the brilliance in theorizing about destiny but will go nuts over that clue. He’s a complete idiot but he also appears to know it. Perry spends a lot of time questioning Harry’s intelligence but Harry doesn’t lift a finger or utter a word to argue.

After Perry finally comes to grips with the idea he likes Harry, and is willing to let Harry know it, Perry tells Harry to stop stealing because he’s not a punk. Harry knows he’s not a punk and behaved in just such a way through the entire movie. He’s on the case when the sleeping girl at the party needs someone to protect her virtue. He cares for the dead girl in the lake when she needs someone to protect her modesty. He lets Harmony know copping a feel is a biggie and she should know it, too. He’s such a thoughtful criminal when he breaks into the toy store that he carries the bullets while his partner carries the gun. So while he might not have understood he’s not a punk he can look back on the story and see it. Bad narrator? Yes. Punk? No.

There’s one moment where it appears as though Downey really gets Harry. He’s in the airport, talking to Flicka, and he comments on how smart her suit looks. How smart her stewardess suit looks. She gives a look like “what the Hell are you talking about” and Downey doesn’t exactly shrug his shoulders or roll his eyes but a brief little motion says he knows it was an awful line. That little reaction makes it, and those little reactions run throughout the entire movie.

Gay Perry/Val Kilmer

If you watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with the commentary, in which Kilmer participates, you’ll hear he’s vastly different from Perry. That doesn’t necessarily indicate to me he’s completely gone in the Perry performance but only indicates he’s able to perform two different characters. That’s a long way of getting to the idea I’m uncertain the Kilmer on the commentary is the Real Kilmer, but it’s completely different to Perry so one or the other is a great performance. What? Concisely, Kilmer appears to disappear into Perry as well as he did Doc in Tombstone.

What I appreciate most about Perry is his ability to think quickly and react as well as he can to get to the right course of action as quickly as possible. When Harry’s hooked up for electric shock, Perry knows not only how to goad their captor but also how to goad their captor in such a way he can retrieve his hidden gun. Notice I said as quickly as possible and not quickly, which I’m sure wasn’t quick enough for Harry during the electroshock therapy.

I have a criticism of Perry and it’s around him finding a way to like Harry. When does it happen and what causes it? It’s a little too subtle and it’s bothering me. I can’t find what caused it.

Harmony/Michelle Monaghan

Michelle Monaghan joins Donna Reed and Cloris Leachman in the long line of Hollywood hotties hailing from the Hawkeye State. More importantly, she finds a way to bring enough to her performance as Harmony to be able to hang with Downey and Kilmer while they’re at the top of their game. That’s a tall order to ask of anyone and, maybe if I understood acting, I’d have the thought someone being on their game completely causes the others to elevate their own. Or maybe she’s a great actress and it comes through in Harmony.

Harmony’s a tricky character because she has to believe with complete conviction she’s living a Johnny Gossamer novel or it doesn’t work. It’s set up well with a younger Harmony reading Gossamer to her mom and paid off when older Harmony never questions the ridiculousness of how she’s trying to tie the cases together. She’s the one who finally puts the pieces together, which leads to a great joke when Perry can’t find her because she’s decided it’s ridiculous and has gone to work.

There’s a lot going on with Harmony and Monaghan plays well the shifting of the gears between femme fatale and the dream girl from high school. And, well, if you want to start a forest fire you’d only need to find a clump of brown bushes and toss her in. Monaghan being easy on the eyes doesn’t hurt Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Dabney/Larry Miller

There’s one other moment needing mention here. When Harmony appears on the news, Dabney sees her and takes issue with the fact they only ever show people from the waste up. You know, like a Playmate from 1964. It’s not a throwaway moment because it’s defining a minor character in an enormous way, gives a little bit of who the writer is because that type of connection can only come from previous experience and Miller pulls it off so well. So genuinely, it doesn’t look like he’s acting at all. It’s quick so don’t blink.

Chemistry 101

Over nearly six years at my current job, I know who I hate. There are people that get under my skin, rub my rhubarb the wrong way and generally annoy me. There are also people with whom I just click and better work is typically the result. Downey, Kilmer and Monaghan didn’t have the luxury of time to get to know one another, to know the ins and outs of what they want to do and play to it. In a short span of time they gelled and their chemistry together, regardless of what “method” they used for the parts, seals the deal with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It’s something that’s there and works, like it did with Lemmon and Matthau, or it’s not.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Day Two: The Enthusiastic Praise

| by Justin Thomas |

There are no big coincidences and there are no small coincidences. There are only coincidences, and I learned this from Seinfeld of course. Want to know another thing I picked up from Seinfeld? Asking questions of myself, aloud, then answering them. Is it a coincidence Kiss Kiss Bang Bang turned out to be a good movie? No, it isn’t. Do I have an answer as to why it’s a good movie? I have the start to an answer and it begins with Shane Black. Will I ever break this annoying little habit? Sure, just like someone will eventually figure out that trouble over in the Middle East.

If one can believe the trivia section on IMDB, and I don’t see why one can’t, Black struggled with writer’s block on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but it’s not evident in the finished movie. If anything, the finished movie looks as though he knew exactly what he was doing and really went for it. While it doesn’t blaze entirely new trails, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is not the first movie of a new genre, it does push Black’s ideas to the extreme and benefits from it. If he would have pulled back the compromise would be evident and the movie would suffer.

You’re one funny guy

Double Indemnity is not a comedy nor are many film noirs. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a comedy and we’re not subjected to Shecky Greene for two hours. There’s a tremendous amount of humor in the character interaction – I’m sorry, but the wisenheimer exchanges and the reactions they cause are just funny to watch – but Black loads the film with jokes, too. He just uses well-timed cuts to get from the set up to the punch line, thus using editing effectively in executing his jokes.

When Harry and Harmony sit and have their conversation about her not being famous – yet – we’re being set up for them to get together. There’s no way it can end any other way, which leads to the punch line of Harmony’s friend waking up in Harry’s bed and comedy in his attempt to explain what happened to Harmony the next morning. We don’t need to see the rest of that first night. None of it matters. We know where it’s going then the joke comes when it’s completely unexpected.

It happens again the night they finally get to the point where they’ll sleep together. They both want it. They both want it for the right reasons. Their lives have been leading up to that very moment. Then Harmony says she has a confession to make. Cut to Harry kicking her out of the room because her one betrayal in high school was the only one he could not handle. We don’t need to see the confession or Harry’s immediate reaction to the confession. The joke was set up early enough, and strongly enough, that the cut to the punch line is all we need.

The best example? When Harmony’s asleep at the party and a man runs his fingers over those stems, Harry steps in and lets the man know he’s in for trouble if he doesn’t walk away. Cut to Harry getting the piss beat out of him by the man.

Black’s jokes live in the editing and it’s a writer knowing, maybe as well as a writer can know, how to use film language to tell his jokes.

I suck the heads off fish

Allow me to pound on Avatar for just a moment. If you look up the antonym of “subtle” you won’t find a picture of Colonel Miles Quaritch, but you will find the antonym of “subtle” which Quaritch’s character development certainly is. At least Cameron had his wardrobe department stop short of putting a sign “I’m the Bad Guy” around his neck. Black does something with Harmony to define who she is that’s so quiet and small it can get missed but it’s also just large enough to do the job.

When she confesses to Harry she’s not famous, and he replies with “Yet,” she’s drinking a Genaro beer. Then she talks about her appearance in a Genaro beer commercial with the devil in how she acts surprised that she’s drinking a Genaro. Paraphrasing: oh, look, a Genrao beer, what a coincidence. You see, it was no coincidence. Harmony drinks Genaro beer when she goes to bars in the hopes someone might tie the beer to her face and recognize her from the commercial. She wants the recognition. She wants to be famous. It’s tremendous when a screenplay has the ability to not only give character development such as that but puts faith in the audience to get it.

Never again will I wonder whether Shane Black knows how to write based solely on that one moment. Maybe he can’t get everything to work spot-on each time out, but that ability is in there somewhere. Enthusiastic praise indeed.

Nihilists might be cowards but at least they’re definable

Right now I’ll issue fair warning: here comes pseudo-analytical crap about a concept I haven’t yet fully grasped. You were warned.

There are theories film noir is not a genre but an era and, as such, there can be no such thing as “new” film noir. The films come from the bleak outlook on humanity immediately following World War II, and World War II could leave people with no way to look at humanity other than bleakly after more than 72 million people died between 1937 and 1945. I wish I understood better this theory to which I subscribe, but I have an offshoot of it. To properly make a “new” film noir, one needs to understand how film reflects its contemporary society and translate it in such a way contemporary society can grasp itself.

If we look at Harry, Harmony and Gay Perry, they are failures (Harry never finished anything), hungry for something better (Harry will try to do something other than steal, Harmony continues trying at age 34 even though it’s probably over), unquestionably more intelligent than the other person (Perry never misses a chance to tell Harry how stupid he is) and sarcastic (just about every single exchange). Crossing that against my remedial thoughts regarding Generation Y makes me think Black pretty well hit it.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang doesn’t use the stylized language of film noir the way Brick uses it, which sounds more like a ventriloquist dummy to film noir than it does film noir dialogue. It uses the language of its time, stylizes it and leaves the audience reveling in its authenticity. I admire one much more than the other, and I won’t be writing about Brick at length. Lucky Brick.

Maybe I shouldn’t leave that section in but I’m going to because the delete button is way the hell above the numbers and I’m lazy. The point: my opinion is Black gets closer to modernizing the concept of film noir than any movie I’ve seen that was made during my lifetime.

Be careful what you wish for

When they let Orson Welles loose with the world’s greatest train set he produced Citizen Kane. When they let Shane Black loose with $10 million he produced Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Be very clear here, Reader: I am not comparing the two in terms of quality, impact on cinema, potential for lasting praise or under any other condition other than free rein allowed both Welles and Black to make the movies they wanted to make. Sometimes good movies result from allowing someone to execute their actual vision rather than dressing up a writer’s screenplay as a pig and calling it Daisy Duke. When in doubt, kill a pig. If you took nothing else from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, at least know what to do when in doubt.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang doesn’t have a self-aware narrator. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has a hyper self-aware narrator, one who consistently critiques himself (he doesn’t think much of himself in this role and rightly so), one who can’t get a linear story going right off the bat (I forgot about the blue robot) and one who can interact with the people on screen (the extras in front of the lens). And you’d better be on your game if you’re listening to the story because he’ll bust your chops if you happened to miss information that was given to you. That’s Black saying I’ll go for it and see what happens, and he pulled it off. Maybe it’s not something you particularly enjoy but if you get into it, the narration is a rather remarkable thing.

Want to know what Shane Black was thinking about when writing that “bad scene... like the shot of the cook in Hunt for Red October?” He was thinking about the cook in Hunt for Red October and, when writing that bad scene, decided to drop in the reference. I like to think he thought of himself as a magician putting the secret right out there for the audience to see without them being able to do a damn thing about it. I’d call that supreme confidence.

And the last bit of confidence I’d like to point out? When Perry comes back in at the end, when Harry laments at the inability of a studio to suffer through a downer ending, he says maybe we should just bring them all back. And by all he means everyone who died in the movie, Abraham Lincoln, some sort of dog and Elvis. It’s absolutely similar to Spielberg using the oxygen tank to blow up the shark in Jaws: if they have the audience by that point the audience will buy whatever they’re given.
There are problems? Yikes.

So it pains me to do it but I have to say I also have minor problems with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

There’s a boyfriend from Paris and he relates somehow to Dexter’s daughter, but it took too many times through the movie for me to get it. It’s important, but not important, and I’ve spent too much time on it now.

Perry slaps around Harmony’s father for what he did to Harmony’s sister and Perry says the father pulled the trigger but it took years for the bullet to hit. Shouldn’t Harmony also be held accountable for her sister’s death? She loaded her sister with lies about her would-be Hollywood father, lies that eventually took her sister to Hollywood, a search for her would-be Hollywood father and ultimate suicide when discovering her would-be Hollywood father’s would-be secret. If Harmony hadn’t lied, her sister would be a victim of abuse but wouldn’t have been a suicide. That matzo ball is too big; it’s too right there to be missed.

The body count is off. Harry and Harmony make a big deal about sixteen people dying at the end of a Johnny Gossamer novel but only eleven people die in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

So I can identify problems but in the cosmic ledger sheet what Kiss Kiss Bang Bang gets right outweighs what it gets wrong.


Oh, to hell with it. If you’ve made it this far I’m not going to make you read anything else. I saw the last Lord of the Rings. I know when to end it. Don’t forget to validate your parking.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Bittersweet End of a Toy Story

| by Allan Stackhouse |

Being at an age when I still collected toys during the first film's release, Toy Story will always hold a special place in my heart. My excitement over seeing another adventure with Woody, Buzz, and the gang was one that I had to keep in check for the decade since Toy Story 2's November 1999 release. Pixar has delighted the masses with a slew of amazing original projects but my 12 and 27 year old selves both agree that we needed to find out what happens to Andy's toys. Welcome as original characters such as WALL·E, Remy, and Nemo are, the idea of another Toy Story film was like going home for the holidays. Toy Story 3's innovative elements characteristic of Pixar made it a highly enjoyable experience.

One thing I greatly appreciated about Toy Story 3 was the prominence of strong female characters. Barbie, Jessie, and Mrs. Potato Head each performed in many empowering moments throughout the film. The first and one of the funniest examples was ninja pirate Mrs. Potato Head attacking Woody in Andy's imaginary play sequence. The girls really rallied to be part of the team which was a welcome change to Bo Peep's solely supportive character (even though I did miss her). Placing the weight of saving one of the characters could have easily been given to Woody but the weight is placed on Barbie and she rises to the challenge. Her character breaks away from years of stereotypes and shows a more intelligent side of Barbie. While there's nothing wrong with occupying oneself with fairy business as in Barbie: Fairytopia, the secret agent role she takes on was a wonderful change for her character.

Having an effeminate character was also a huge but welcome surprise from Pixar. From the trailer, Ken seemed to have a lady's man quality yet that could not be further from the case in the film. One scene that had the theater uproarious with laughter was when Barbie, in Ken's astronaut uniform, successfully procures Buzz's instruction manual from Bookworm, the librarian. Bookworm's completely unsurprised reaction to Ken (Barbie in disguise) walking away in high heels was hilarious and left me with my mouth open in surprise. I would venture to say that Pixar chose to be very progressive with Ken's depiction and inclusion in the film as an effeminate toy. This could have been written years and years ago but I would venture to say that it may have been because of Hiyao Miyazaki's overly obvious social commentary on the wasteful habits of humans in 2008's Ponyo.

Pixar 100% took the imagery and sequences to the next level. I recall 2's conveyor belt scene being intricate but the variance in landscape and color at Sunnyside was nothing in comparison to the waste facility. The billions of pieces of garbage all moving on the way to the shredder was absolutely breathtaking. The dark colors and speed of the belt illustrated a sense of danger beyond just the upcoming grinder. What threw it over the top for me was the incineration sequence. This was the absolute peak of strong visuals and emotion of the film. Having been betrayed, once again by Lotso, the gang is on their way down to an inferno whose hot emanating light captures the toys color. Their eventual resignation to the situation combined with a fiery orange contrasted with gray garbage is one that I could watch over and over. The violence of the actions that occur at this waste facility are also quite telling of Pixar's stance on waste.

The only problem I had with the film is the story. Everything else was at Pixar's usual finest. Storywise, I was absolutely overjoyed that the film steered away from the mortality theme that made Toy Story 2 a depressing experience. The problem I had with the film lies in the second act. While the movie started strongly with an exciting chase sequence and ended with an extremely heightened sense of emotion, I felt that the second act had overly predictable action. Instead of developing characters or the story, it was basically a 30 - 40 minute coast to the very exciting end. Even though the setting of a daycare center was made apparent at the movie's trailer leak, the setting felt very restrictive and not as fluid as with other Pixar films. Instead of Andy's family constantly putting the toys in a humorous state of panic or a trash grinder putting everyone at death's door, the action of having the toys trapped would obviously lead them to escaping. This, for me, did not add enough dramatic weight and served only as a bridge to the reunion with Andy.

With color and sound, Pixar once again masterfully conveys the emotions and tones of the story. At first sight, the Sunnyside daycare looks like a warm and inviting place that is somehow familiar to all of us. The developments in Pixar's lighting of the characters has also come a long way in 11 years. Moments of the film made me stop paying attention just to admire the brilliant lighting, something I've never done in any of the previous films. The vocal talent was at its best, as usual. Ned Beatty's Lots-O'-Huggin Bear was so evil that I could taste hatred in my mouth every time he spoke. Tom Hanks completely outdid himself, once again, as Woody. Instead of incredulously denying Buzz into the group, I could feel the desperation and conflict Woody had in all of his lines.

As a side note, my friend and I saw the film on IMAX 3D. This was my first experience watching a Pixar feature on 3D and I have to say that I did not find the experience particularly immersive at all. If anything, the process took me out of the movie, having to remove my glasses at a few points during the film. Perhaps this is just a matter of preference but I would sooner not pay the extra $7 or $8 to see a movie.

At the end, the action took over the majority of the story which Pixar is renowned for. As far as being a grandiose elegant film, I deem Toy Story 3, despite a weak second act, to be a great film that holds up with the rest. For capping the trilogy, Toy Story 3 did its job. I wholeheartedly miss these characters already and cannot wait to reunite with them when I watch the movies again or go to Disneyland.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Day One: The Gush

| by Justin Thomas |

The best way I can describe Quentin Tarantino the filmmaker is Quentin Tarantino doesn’t make movies so much as he has cinematic orgasms. Regardless of whether they work for you, what winds up in his movies comes from a lifetime of watching movies, thinking and thinking and thinking about what he wants to do and then doing it where the finished result clearly tripped that little endorphin-releasing mechanism in his mind. If his movies work for you then the tripping of his little mechanism trips your little mechanism and you get those wonderful endorphins, too. The scene between Landa and the farmer to open Inglourious Basterds? Oh, yeah. And how.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang trips the mechanism for me and it would appear director Shane Black went somewhere very specific for him to bring it to life. It’s the only film he’s directed and I was surprised to see it is only the sixth screenplay to which he’s credited as writing, but any doubt as to whether he knows what he’s doing should be cast aside after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

What does Kiss Kiss Bang Bang tell me about Shane Black? He knows his stuff. He understands precisely how to tell a joke through the language of cinema. He can give character details in a manner so subtle only multiple viewings reveal them, but the viewer is left with an “oh, I knew that” once it’s actually discovered. He’s spent time in the film noir era, a lot of time, and knows noir is more about a mindset than it is a checklist of things to include. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang also shows me what happens when a writer gets free rein to do whatever he wants with something and, while it might not be perfect and it might not find an audience, there’s less doubt as to whether it’s the writer’s vision.

If you want someone to explain good acting versus bad acting or add some sort of tool through which you can evaluate acting ability you’ve got the wrong person because I can’t do it. Does Kiss Kiss Bang Bang help me? Nope. Were Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan acting? Beats me. It might appear the characters they inhabited were loved well enough to really throw their backs into it, but again, I know diddly squat about acting. I do know their performances and their chemistry were a blast to watch, and I could watch the three of them in future The Dead People in L.A. movies if we wind up lucky enough to get them. Which we won’t because...

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang failed in the States and I’m not surprised. I can’t imagine the studio knew what to do with it; the confusion would have left them with no reason to support it with a marketing campaign and a wide release and without that few movies have a chance to succeed. Please see The Shawshank Redemption as a previous example of this. It did well worldwide and I’m not surprised. Who first went gaga over the film noir period, the films made here but studied elsewhere? The French. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is enough of a thread back to that period that people who want more than a cinematic Royale with Cheese will get it and support it. Future film geeks, boys born in 2005 who decide to learn just a little bit more about movies, will find this and have the gosh-wow endorphin moment. Of this I am positively convinced because, well, it happened to me. I just happened to have been born in 1975.

There you go. Above are 603 words of gushing without much substance. Fanboy-type crap. Worry not, Dear Reader, as there is more to come about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I’ll be spending the week on it because pseudo-analytical nonsense is what I do and while Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is worthy of gushing there are also things within it worthy of note beyond fanboy-type crap.

I’ll finish Day One with this: buy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Don’t rent it. Don’t watch it on HBO and don’t you dare watch it on TBS. Buy it. Immediately. If you have any interest in seeing whether movies have more to offer than those you can see by buying a ticket on Fandango this very afternoon, buy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I make the recommendation without reservation, well, unless you’re among the nice people in the Midwest, then I make the recommendation with the warning they drop “the bomb.” A lot.

Buy it and then watch it, of course. Don’t just buy it and let it collect dust. If you do that then how will you understand the “brilliance” of me pointing out the obscure little references in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Day Two and beyond?



Friday, June 18, 2010

Adaptation and Adapted: Shawshank

| by Justin Thomas |

This post is decidedly PG-13 for language; it’s necessary to write about Shawshank the way I want to write about Shawshank.

A recent viewing of The Shawshank Redemption left me bothered. It left me concerned about how I’ve assumed so much of it into how I talk, react to situations, use its scenes, sequences and themes to try to illustrate what’s happening in my life and the lives of others and how much I question whether I’ve had an original thought since 1996. A lot of times I spout a bunch of bullshit about the meaning of life and a large part of that bullshit can be traced back to The Shawshank Redemption.

The movie led to another trap in which I found myself for years. “Shawshank is the best movie of all time.” That’s a bunch of bullshit, too. I haven’t seen every movie ever made so how can I possibly say, let alone think, such nonsense? It’s not even the best movie I’ve ever seen so it has no business being at the top of any list to which I’d contribute a vote.

For years I didn’t know how to discuss it free from hyperbole and free from my lack of ability to think for myself, and few tried to keep me honest because while Shawshank might not be universally loved, it’s pretty close. That and I tend to be stubborn so good luck getting me to change an opinion.

So how should I go about it?

I read Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, crossed it against the movie and discovered the hook upon which I could hang my hat to explain how Shawshank is worthy of note free from my personal baggage. How does the adaptation written by Frank Darabont compare with the source material written by Stephen King? Darabont’s script provides focus and clarity to the source material’s story and winds up telling the same story.

Red narrates both the adaptation and the source material, but in the source material Red claims his story is really about him and not Andy Dufresne. He falls into the trap of telling, not showing, and it’s too large a leap to make without more connections made how Andy and the Andy legend affected his life. Darabont picked up on this and wrote the script to show it, not tell it, rather than ask the viewer to make the same leap King asked of readers. Everything that happens in the film determines whether Red will maintain hope or become institutionalized, and it certainly includes everything that happens to Andy. If Andy can maintain hope even with everything that happened to him – with the figurative and literal rivers of shit through which Andy must crawl – then Red can, too.

The great departure from the source to the film is Brooks. Readers know of Brooks because of his bird and almost nothing else. The film’s Brooks is the second-most-important character to Red’s story. He defines institutionalized. It means learning to deal with the walls before coming to need them. It means being nothing on the outside. It means being frightened and doing what’s necessary to remain where things make sense. Without the example of Brooks, Red might not see precisely what surrendering hope could do to him. None of it is adding for the sake of adding, and it fits perfectly as a counterpoint to Andy and his refusal to surrender to the walls.

Structurally the film centers on Red. We meet him at his first parole hearing when he tackles it half-assed. He tells them precisely what they want to hear without any sincerity at all then can’t even feign surprise when he’s denied parole. In his second parole hearing he gives precisely the same answers but in a completely different way: it’s sincere, but it’s a sincere surrender. He’s given up, and at that moment in the film he’s as close to being a casualty of Shawshank as any other point in the movie. The third parole hearing, the one that dances with an “oh, that’s a movie moment” moment, is when he tells off the parole board. But it illustrates he’s learned Andy’s lesson of hope, and he has it but knows chances are he won’t be released so he demands they stop wasting his time. Those three parole hearings, those three story mile markers, came from Darabont, not King, and it solidifies Shawshank as being Red’s story.

Darabont cuts away characters to keep the film focused and moving forward. There were multiple wardens and multiple head guards in the novella, but the film maintains the same characters throughout to keep from needing to learn more information. Andy’s imprisonment lasted much longer in the source. Tommy chooses to not help Andy in the novella but has the choice made for him in the film. The changes keep the film going, affect Red or affect Andy, which ultimately affects Red. All of it is Darabont dialed in precisely as to how the source can yield the best movie possible.

The finished film illustrates how well Darabont wrote the script because the events of the movie dovetail too well for it to be an accident. He couldn’t have counted on the performances, the set design, the cinematography or the music when he wrote it, and while they have a lot to do with how well the film works, none of it works without that bedrock. An entire screenwriting course could be built to discuss the finer points of this particular adaptation and how understanding the source as well as Darabont understood his gives a better chance at a good movie.

Did I check the hyperbole there? I hope so. My personal pledge, one with which I’ll struggle, is to leave it to the person with whom I’m talking to determine where Shawshank falls for them, and it’s time to stop using Shawshank to illustrate points and find a different source. Maybe it’s time for the one slightly above my shoulders to get used from time to time.

And I apologize for the river of shit everything above became. See? I couldn’t keep my promise for a single paragraph.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

My Shorts Aren’t in a Wad Over Star Trek... But They Should Be

| by Justin Thomas |

I feel hornswoggled by JJ Abrams' Star Trek. It’s big and loud and dumb, and there are things that should really bother me, but I’m not upset about them. What follows is an attempt to get at the heart of why I might look the other way while also confirming I can sniff out writing that won’t be described as Wilderesque. And, yes, I’m going to toe the line of being a fanboy. Fair warning.

Something about the scenes leading up to Kirk getting on the shuttle and heading to Starfleet Academy felt familiar. Our farmboy hero has a spot of bother in a bar. There’s a shot of our farmboy hero staring out at what might be his destiny when he sees the Enterprise being built. Finally, our farmboy hero drives his uber-cool ride to where he’ll depart the farms and gets rid of it because he’ll never need it again. It was something, a presence I’ve haven’t felt since... well, you know the rest. I warned you there were going to be fanboy moments.

But you know what? I don’t care if I’ve seen it before. Chris Pine grabs the Kirk role and does something completely unexpected: he wrestles it from The Shat and makes it his own. I should freak out about the similarities between Kirk’s departure from Iowa and Luke’s departure from Tatooine, but I won’t.

Galaxy Quest lovingly spoofs Trek, but Star Trek doesn’t run from the spoofs and sees them as less-than-groundbreaking storytelling. I’m not even certain Star Trek embraces them, but testing the limits as to the number of times we can see Kirk dangling from a ledge, his life in danger, feels like a tool Galaxy Quest 2 would have fun with if it were made. At least they managed to leave his shirt on.

Okay. I’m going to look the other way on that one, too. It might be because it’s so Trek it belongs, or it might be something else in the film done well distracts me. How about Zachary Quinto as Spock? Does that work? Star Trek is two for two in young performers taking iconic roles and not only surviving but thriving in them, and that’s surprising to the point I ask you, what ledge(s)?

How about the “if you emotionally compromise me I’ll have to resign,” from Spock Prime followed by Kirk on the bridge trying to emotionally compromise Spoke finished with Spock resigning because, per his lines, he’s emotionally compromised? In the span of about five minutes? Yikes.

So what. Karl Urban’s Bones is spot on and, of the three, the most welcome in its lack of departure from the original. Three for three if you’re scoring at home.

What about Spock kicking Kirk off the Enterprise, sending him to a planet where Spock Prime just happens to be marooned and both of them within walking distance of Scotty?

Nah, I’m not going to pick on that one. Simon Pegg plays Scotty, and I’d watch Simon Pegg play an acorn with no lines in a primary school production of “The Littlest Oak.”

The list of what Star Trek gets right goes on and on and that list is paralleled by a list of storytelling devices belonging more to a B-Movie than a David Lean film. Big. Loud. Dumb. And precisely what the Trek franchise needed at just the right time. At its best, Trek provides a lens through which we look at our world and our time to reach a better understanding while tossing in a dash of fun. Did Trek on screen and on television relinquish the latter for the former towards the end of the era leading up to the reboot? Or did Trek suffer from a mismanagement of the property where milking the cow meant more than developing good stories and solid characters? Or was it a combination of that plus more?

Star Trek passes on the brains and goes for the fun ride. It did well at the box office and will open up the franchise to people who hadn’t found a way to embrace it through ten movies and five television series. There’ll be another go from this crew and it would be nice if the next movie decides to think just a little more, but the sleight of hand comes from parting ways just enough from the original Trek ideals to ensure Trek continues.

It’s not the finest example of filmmaking in the world, but it might serve well as a blueprint for future franchise reboots. I hope whomever takes control of Skywalker Ranch when its current overlord settles out to pasture pays attention to Star Trek when the time comes to reboot the galaxy far, far away. And you know it’s going to happen. It’s simply a matter of time because there’s too much money at stake.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

My Kind of Cinematic Town

| by Justin Thomas |

A few words about your insufferable know-it-all, not-so-humble narrator...

In 2007, for the first time in my life, I went to Los Angeles to attend a table reading of a screenplay I cowrote. During the flight I had the idea I was entering the fabric of American culture: traveling to Hollywood to pitch an idea and see if it might get made into a movie. It was a cool thought to have, and if I’d known about it and had the time and patience, I would have made the trip on a bus. There’s a slight possibility I’m also a complete idiot because if we learned nothing else from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, it’s that traveling by bus is its own special version of Hell.

And how I had fun in L.A. A meal or two at Mel’s. Seeing the Hollywood sign. The table reading and hearing words I partially had a hand in putting to paper spoken by folks from Battlestar Galactica. Seeing the Pacific so big and blue and without memory. Cruising Sunset Blvd. Watching my friend talk to Cloris Leachman while eating her popcorn without her permission. It’s safe to say I liked L.A. from the start, but I had no problem traveling back to that cowtown on the shores of Lake Michigan when it was over.

You see, I happen to love Chicago, and a 35-year search for something better has yet to return any results.

Of the nine million people in the Chicago metro area I would guess I’m one of a handful who chose it mostly because of movies. The film industry wasn’t embraced by The Boss, mayor Richard J. Daley, and his 21-year reign of terror kept the cameras from rolling anywhere within the city limits. As all things must do, Daley eventually passed and it became easier to get Chicago on screen.

Chicago is where the Blues Brothers decided to cause an insane amount of mayhem and, regardless of how one feels about the movie, one has to say they haven’t seen quite as many car crashes in a movie.

Here is where Tommy Lee Jones chased Harrison Ford and the Harrison Ford Acting Finger™ in The Fugitive, and after more than a decade I haven’t yet found the bar from which Dr. Kimble cased the one-armed man’s house even though I’ve tried. Ford and the Harrison Ford Acting Finger™ were also born here.

John Cusack and his record store in High Fidelity were in Chicago, and Cusack knew there were other things to show than the normal establishing shots of the Sears Tower and Hancock Center.

A night can be spent at the El Rancho Motel up north and you can bring your own chips and travel bottles of booze for the complete Del and Neal experience from the aforementioned Planes, Trains and Automobiles. That instantly makes Chicago better than Madison County, Iowa.

Ordinary People provides the most-authentic snapshot of North Shore life I’ve seen, but the lack of any zombies in the film makes it only authentic, not accurate.

Christopher Nolan uses Chicago as his Gotham City and it no longer feels like the distraction it originally was when I first saw it used as such.

On screen Chicago shines, but things happen off screen, too. The best execution of film criticism, people sitting around doing nothing but talking about movies, came from two Chicago writers. Siskel is dead and Ebert has lost his voice, but if you read his blog and his reviews, his writing is so strong you can still hear it. Now, he’s completely out to lunch with many of his opinions on film, but the man can write. Capone over at Aint It Cool News lives, I believe, within sight of Wrigley Field (1060 West Addison in case you weren’t paying attention in Blues Brothers), and he provides some of the most well thought out opinions about movies I’ve read. The best little theater this side of the Mississippi, the Music Box on Southport Avenue, helps people remember there’s more to movies than just what happens to be in the local megaplex on any given weekend.

Need firmer ties to the film industry? David Mamet is a Chicago guy as are Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Joe Mantegna, Bonnie Hunt and Harold Ramis, and they all embrace it. Charlton Heston honed his ham at Northwestern University north of the city as did Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Two words: John Hughes. Enough said.

“Blah, blah, blah, Chicago is great but that’s, like, your opinion, man. What’s your point?”

A week or so ago I took the train to work at my company’s downtown office. When I arrived at the station I got turned around, found myself in the biggest room I’ve ever seen and stumbled upon the steps from The Untouchables. You know the ones. Costner and Garcia chasing down the bookkeeper. “You got him?” “Yeah, I got him.” “MY BABY!” It was an instant reminder of the fact I’m in the right place, and weirdly, in the right place for the right reasons, even though doubt might creep in from time to time.

Aspiring to be a screenwriter in any place other than where the film industry is, you know, located, is moronic, but now and then I’m reminded where I’m at is due largely to the movies I wouldn’t mind writing if I had the chance.

And all of that somehow makes sense to me.

Here endeth the lesson.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Remake v. Remade: Psycho

| by Justin Thomas |

In 1985, just after Back to the Future hit the screens, the R.C. Hardware Hank team upon which I found myself finally won a game. Through a blazing summer and fourteen games we struggled, drawing the collar until the last game of the year when we finally broke through and scored more runs than our opponent that finished the year 0-14. It was hardly a battle of the titans. So if I were given an inter-dimensional portal the very last thing I’d do is open it and have that 1985 R.C. Hardware Hank team play a game against the 1927 New York Yankees? Why? The ’27 Yankees were the best team ever assembled and R.C. Hardware Hank wasn’t just bad. We were awful.

There are few directors up to the challenge of doing a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho. That movie stands above all others he made, which is saying something in a filmography that includes The Birds, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train and Notorious. Maybe Spielberg in 1975 or Shyamalan in 1999, but while they showed the ability to understand Hitchcockian suspense I wonder if they’d be able to match what he did at the top of his game with an entire career leading up to the purest execution of his ideas. Hitchcock’s Psycho is the ’27 Yankees of suspense movies and while I don’t know who could do it, I know Gus Van Sant, director of the 1998 Psycho, wouldn’t be in the conversation.

A shot-for-shot remake of Psycho might have been misguided but evaluating the effort is impossible because it’s not a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. It’s a “nearly” shot-for-shot remake and the changes, regardless of whether they work, destroy the experiment. If the experiment had been done properly it would have been in black and white and it would have been shot as a period piece. It would have been made with the same budgetary constraints and shot with a television crew to replicate the conditions under which Hitchcock worked. It wouldn’t have a cut to stormy skies during the shower sequence or a shot to a woman when Norman attacks Lila. It wouldn’t include masturbation. These changes make it “kind of Psycho through a little bit of the Gus Van Sant lens” and leaves the remake in muddy waters of trying to serve two masters but failing both.

I don’t have a good answer as to why a shot-for-shot remake of any movie would be undertaken; I don’t understand the point. Van Sant’s Psycho gets me no closer to understanding why because, again, it isn’t shot-for-shot. Maybe it’s to see what the actors would do with the material. In the remake we’re given Marion played by Anne Heche who is aware she lives in a post Affirmative Action world, Lila played by Julianne Moore who is aware she lives in a post Spice Girls Girl Power world, Sam played by Viggo Mortensen as though he’s in a high school play, and Norman played by Vince Vaughn who is simply overmatched by the Anthony Perkins performance. Vaughn might be the biggest tragedy in the entire mix because he’s good at what he does, but he just can’t pull off the subtle shifting of gears Norman Bates requires. So if Van Sant had gone black and white, had gone period and done a true shot-for-shot, his actors completely miss the mark straight down the line. The most noticeable changes, the performances, make me wonder whether Van Sant understands the original Psycho at all.

Halfway through the remake I wondered whether it was a joke; whether the entire production was winking at me and I was evaluating it the wrong way. Does the remake of Psycho have more in common with Showgirls than it does the original where you have to get the joke to get the movie? It’s confounding and, for as close as it is to the original, amazing how much of a train wreck it is.

I still don’t understand the need for a shot-for-shot so I would be interested to see what a true shot-for-shot remake of any movie would be because the concept is out there. What would the result be of a true effort behind it? With Psycho, a more-compelling experiment might be to pick five directors, give them the same script, a television crew and a similar budget adjusted for inflation and say, “let’s see what you can do with it.” Here are a few names: M. Night Shyamalan (even now), Bryan Singer (he gets Hitchcock at some level), Edgar Wright (same here), Ridley Scott (Alien is Hitchcockian) and Christopher Nolan (I needed a fifth and Fred Savage is busy filming Daddy Day Trippers). Sure, those are easy names to throw out there, but what would those five films be? That’s a more interesting question to ask than what would a Gus Van Sant kind of, sort of shot-for-shot remake of Psycho look like.

Monday, June 14, 2010

True Blood's Bite

| by Allan Stackhouse |

My love of True Blood could not be higher but it was not always at the maenad-induced trance level it is today. Before my “Lo Lo Bromios” chants, I recall a time last summer flipping through channels, catching the middle of an episode, and not knowing what in the name of Sam Merlotte was going on. The second time was the same but the third time was the charm. The moment of the repeat I caught wasn't completely confounding so I decided to watch the remainder of the episode. Next thing I knew, I was at the credits of the next episode. There began True Blood's bite into my jugular. As I watched Season 2, I feverishly raced to catch up on all Season 1 episodes I missed. Not having the complete knowledge of Season 1 to reference didn't prevent me from enjoying the show. Season 2 was done so well that I'm honestly having the hardest time believing any of the subsequent seasons could top it.

The character attachment I experience with True Blood is at a level that I did not expect from a vampire show. I haven't been on the vampire band wagon since Buffy the Vampire Slayer and this return to one of my teenage interests was unforeseen to say the least. True Blood does not dwell on the melodrama of vampirism. It treats these creatures as extremely carnal: lustful, greedy, and blood-thirsty. If there's anything that the first episode of Season 3 did it was to further establish my addiction to these characters. The presence of Queen Sophie, werewolves, and Pam in leather in the FIRST episode hints at, if not formally announces, a great season.

One of the biggest things that gets me about True Blood is the ability of even the supporting cast to completely envelope me. Pam's screen time minutes could be counted on one hand yet she is a prime example of a brilliant supporting character. We have no idea who she is and we don't care because she delivers some of the best lines of the episode. She provides a lot of comic relief to Eric's villainous seriousness. Hoyt is another smaller player in the makeup of Bon Temps but his charming innocence wins everyone over. Even Arlene's two children are adorable with their fascination of the world of vampires and murder.

True Blood understands that a show about heroes and villains is only as strong as its villains. Maryann is simply one of the most creative villains ever to grace television. Firstly, I've never even heard of a maenad. Her motives, methods, and maenad-status are frightening and captivating. I almost never get scared watching television but I did with Maryann. Her intentions being so mysterious made her even more terrifying throughout Season 2. The ability to control another human as vampires do is interesting in a brief sense but wielding control over an entire town with a mere chant and ultra creepy dance was terrifying. Imperiling Sam Merlotte, a beloved main character on the show consistently kept the stakes high.

Season 3, in just its first episode, continues to set the bar higher. The characters are poised to develop in ways that I'm sure we'll never see. I, for one, am absolutely thrilled to be taken on another summer of the best thing on television on right now and I know I'm not alone.

Sam Jackson Start to Finish 2: School Daze

| by Justin Thomas |

I know about Spike Lee because of Nike and the New York Knicks, but his body of work was completely unknown to me and would have remained so if not for Samuel L. Jackson appearing in School Daze. If I’m ashamed of having not seen a Spike Lee movie it’s more about having missed an important filmmaker’s body of work than not doing everything possible to understand racial relations in the United States, but if I knew his films inside out I would certainly have a more clear understanding of his ideas about race relations.

Why was I surprised black Americans aren’t unified in “this is only what it can mean to be a black American?” There is no magic bullet for what it means to be a white American. Class, education, sex, heritage and even appearance divide white Americans. Why would it be any different for black Americans? Or Jewish Americans? Or Asian Americans? The most striking aspect of Lee’s message in School Daze, for me, is the question of black America and white America is not and can never be so simple because there’s no such thing as black America.

Samuel L. Jackson as Leeds works in the class issue when School Daze takes the opportunity to show the college kids from Mission College interacting with the townies, credited here as the Local Yokels. The college kids take jobs away from the people who live there year round, who were born and raised there, and Leeds takes issue with it. And he has a point, one that Laurence Fishburne’s character, Dap, understands and one that makes Dap think differently about his message. When Dap finally gets to the place where he’ll look to the camera and say “wake up” it’ll be partially because Leeds helped him get there. Sam plays Leeds as confrontational but not threatening, which he can do. Or maybe that’s what he does: play roles as confrontational but not threatening, which makes it even more shocking when he decides to put a cap in someone’s ass. He threatens to do just that in School Daze.

School Daze might suffer from trying to do too much. There are so many characters, so many moving parts and so many ideas it’s probably too short and too haphazard to do them all justice. An example: Half Pint essentially disappears for huge blocks of the movie and it’s necessary to understand what he’s going through as his pledge season nears its end for that story’s conclusion and how it affects Dap to be earned. The relationship between Dap and Julian, clearly one of respect and animosity, could have been the entire movie but all that’s shown is them being unwilling to set aside the respect and just go at each other’s throats. I wanted more of Dap and Julian, and I wanted the movie to be better constructed to prevent the need for me to connect the dots on my own. There are structural problems to the story and I will be interested to see whether subsequent Lee films address them.

There are moments where School Daze cuts through the heaviness of the subject with well-executed, if not entirely well-timed, humor. Lee uses a musical number inspired by the Jets-Sharks rumble to illustrate differences between two groups of co-eds. When Dap and Julian get in each other’s face, the president of the student government steps in to calm the waters and Dap and Julian find common ground in screaming at him before understanding they should back down. Ossie Davis gives the best football coach inspirational speech I’ve ever seen because of its honesty; four consecutive homecoming losses mean the coach wants the players to think about their school, their pride, their families and their girlfriends while they’re playing, but he also wants them to think about his employment status.

Two movies into the experiment and I’m no closer to figuring out Sam Jackson, but I’ve also seen two movies I’d never have seen if not for the experiment. School Daze is nowhere near a perfect film and I’m uncertain whether I’d say it’s particularly good from a filmmaking perspective. But it’s got ideas, good ideas worth discussing and understanding, and it is vastly superior to the Ben Affleck movie Glory Daze. As such, School Daze is the best movie to ever use the word “daze” in its title, and that’s something.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Burgeoning Oeuvre of Mr. Ryan Murphy

| by Allan Stackhouse |

Parental Advisory: This blog discusses adult themes and situations.

When Nip/Tuck first arrived on air, it was groundbreaking in its depiction of graphical surgical content, gratuitous amounts of sex, and plethora of adult themes. It introduced Dr. Christian Troy, one of the hottest characters to ever hit cable. He was irresistible to any woman, a complete jerk (think of much worse words), and had lots of money made from the vanity of Miami's -- and then L.A.'s – finest. His latest series, Glee, could not be anymore different in theme than his previous but still proves to be a smash hit.

Lea Michele's Rachel Berry is Glee's Dr. Christian Troy. Instead of an extremely big di-.... err... ability to attract women, Rachel's got a huge voice. While not as tangible as what Dr. Troy has to offer, Rachel's voice is just a big a draw. Her voice permeates the scenes of Glee. While we're watching, her voice is in the back of our minds, hiding in our ears. For Nip/Tuck, Dr. Troy banging some woman or saying a myriad of creatively insulting things to completely piss off someone was the eventuality we all yearned for.

It's completely understandable and maybe even necessary for Ryan Murphy, the shows' creator, to want to create a lead character that couldn't be anymore different from Dr. Troy. Other than the fact that it's obviously necessary to tone down the sexual nature of a network TV high school show, I'd imagine that Murphy could simply get tired of writing for the same TV MA L S V characters. Despite the obvious differences, there are structural parallels characterisitic of Ryan Murphy: a show unlike anything else on television, unique characters, and engaging drama mixed with comedy.

Nip/Tuck could easily be perceived as complicated and therein lies why some people don't like Glee: it's simplistic nature. Or maybe they just don't like musicals. I would argue that the format is doing its job: attracting a wider audience and taking them out of the drama of a horrible global economy. With a more episodic format, it's easier to pop in and out of an episode but those that avidly catch each episode will get the full benefit of the season. At the high school level, the stakes are a lot more relatable than cosmetic surgery, serial killers, and black market organ sales. Though the stakes aren't life threatening, for these high school kids, they are that high. Those that truly enjoy the show or have sung for some sort of performance understand this. Anyone that's ever just wanted to sing can appreciate -- and welcome, for a ton of people -- the drama that this provides.

If anything Ryan Murphy has proven, it's his talent for creating innovative shows that his audience cannot get enough of. He was quoted in Variety saying, "There's so much on the air right now about people with guns, or sci-fi, or lawyers running around," he said. "This is a different genre, there's nothing like it on the air at the networks and cable. Everything's so dark in the world right now, that's why 'Idol' worked. It's pure escapism." I love that he so casually comments on the originality of his now second break out hit show. For me, it would have been enough to be taken on the 6 year ride through the lives of Dr. Troy and Dr. McNamara with the mystique of Ava Moore, the violence of The Carver, the horror of organ harvesting, the taboo of Eden Lord, and Dr. Troy's dramatic cancer scare but no. Instead, we are now taken on a refreshing and uplifting journey that is stimulates our eyes and ears. Sex is interesting but so is singing a great song. Something in Ryan Murphy's brain understands this almost too well. He creates shows that are missing from the general TV landscape, fills them with rich characters (and now songs), and takes everyone for a wild ride.

This idea of great songs lead to the brilliance of Glee's first season finale. Matthew Morrison comes to the conclusion of returning to the glee club's roots: Journey. New Directions, the glee club we all root for, sang a beautiful medley of Journey songs at the Regionals. Watching the characters dominate their competition was so satisfying and tear-jerking. The juxtaposition of Vocal Adrenaline's “Bohemian Rhapsody” over Quinn's baby delivery was so beautifully dramatic. We are thrilled that Quinn is finally having her baby while cursing that the traitorous Jesse St. James could beat New Directions.

None of my friends have been there since episode one like I was but regardless of the episode or song that brought them into the series, we're all looking forward to the second and recently confirmed THIRD seasons of Glee. Having so many brilliant shows end this year (LOST, Ugly Betty, Nip/Tuck, and Legend of the Seeker), it's wonderful to know that one of my favorite shows isn't going anywhere.