Thursday, January 29, 2015

This blog turns six! - There's still much more work to do

Today this blog is six years old. Honestly, I'm kind of surprised it's lasted this long and that so many of you fine people still drop by to read every new post. It's funny to think that when I started it, I wondered if I'd have enough material to keep me going six months.

Some of you have possibly noticed that the blog output has slowed a bit. That's largely due to the fact that I've exhausted a lot of the common topics and questions I could cover related to screenwriting. I've been able to compensate for that over the last few months as it's Oscar Movie season and I've had a full buffet of great movies to discuss.

The other big sea change is that it's become more and more common for people to use Twitter as an output for their musings and advice. I still like the idea of a permanent archive on the blog, partly because it allows new readers to discover those nuggets long after the fact. Even so, I know I've had plenty of times where I've tossed off a good rant on twitter and found that got it enough out of my system that I didn't feel the need to come back here and flesh it out. I'm trying to be better about that.

Ah, Twitter. I really can't believe that I still have yet to plateau in terms of followers. As I write this I have over 27,700 followers and the last time I checked, only a few percent of those were deemed "fake." It's flattering to see evidence that people are still discovering me and interested in what I have to say.

I bring this up because even more than through this blog, I've made a lot of great friends and contacts through Twitter over the last six years. It's absolutely been one of the best things I could have done for my career. I've made some good friends, including fellow aspiring writers, actors, and working writers - including a showrunner or two. I definitely recommend trying to build your own social network. It takes time but if you use Twitter right, you might find a few doors opening up for you.

As it's Awards Season, it feels appropriate to conclude this look back with a few thank yous.  There's not enough space here to acknowledge everyone whom I've met and become friends with due to this blog, but there are a few in particular I want to call out.

I did my best to put this list in random order, but I have to start with Scott Myers. About five months into the life of this blog, Scott was the one who really put me on the map when he featured me and gave me a very generous plug on the only must-read screenwriting blog, Go Into The Story. For almost five years, my relationship with Scott was completely through emails and tweets. I met him just over a year ago and it was a genuine delight to find he was everything you'd expect. Scott is the screenwriting professor I wish I'd had in college, running the sort of blog I could only dream of reading when I was taking my first steps into screenwriting. As I implore you often, please visit Go Into The Story regularly.

Hollywood has a reputation for having a lot of assholes. Some of that is earned, but my first-hand experience has been that there are a significant number of sincerely giving people. Over the years, a very high percentage of the working writers I have met have been some of the kindest, most helpful people out there. There's this myth that working writers are out to screw over aspirings. I've never seen any evidence of this, and the people I'm about to name-check are the furthest from that:

Eric Heisserer was one of the first working writers whom I got to know through Twitter, following his reaction to a tweet about the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET reboot. He later consented to an interview about the film and also authored a guest post about the life of a script in the studio development process. Even today, that post stands as my third-most-popular post of all time. On a one-on-one level, Eric has also been giving enough of his time to read some of my work and offer help where he could. He didn't do it so I'd blog about it, he's just that kind of person. Publicly he's very giving in offering the occasional screenwriting knowledge drops on Twitter, and I encourage you to follow him for his regular insights.

If you just know John Gary from Twitter, you probably have this image of him as the cranky pessimist who's the first one to say why the latest screenwriting development is a half-empty glass. But you'll have to look hard to find a more passionate advocate for writers, and someone more determined to make sure that naive aspirings aren't taken advantage of by charlatans and scams. He also regularly takes on what he calls The Hope Machine - the parent of the pie-in-the-sky fantasies that writers have about how easy it'll be to gain fame and forture from their writing. John doesn't tell you want you want to hear - he says what you NEED to hear. Like me he's seen the business from the inside as both a reader and a writer, and you would ignore the wisdom from that experience at your peril.

Along the same lines, I consider Geoff LaTulippe a must-follow. You can never accuse Geoff of not speaking his mind and while his blunt and aggressive nature sometimes gets him into trouble, he's very open to answering questions from aspiring writers on Twitter, on his podcast Broken Projector and on his personal website. If memory serves, Geoff might have been the first pro writer to reach out to me with an offer to read my script, and I know that's a courtesy he's extended to a few, perhaps many, others.

Justin Marks is a working writer who I first came to know via Twitter. We seem to approach things from a similar point of view and it's rare that there's a significant gulf in our opinions. (Justin once quipped that "we could pilot a Jaeger together.") I finally met him last year and it was a relief to learn that our rapport extended to our face-to-face interaction. Justin's got two big projects in the future: The Jon Favreau-directed Jungle Book movie coming in 2016 and the sequel to Top Gun, still unscheduled as far as I know. He's another one whose tweets can be a good insight into the business, so give him a follow.

F. Scott Frazier was one of the first writers to reach out to me to meet in person, and I'm glad I dropped the mask to do so. Scott tends to do his good deeds without advertising them, but I know he's gone out of his way to be a mentor to some writers. Like many others I know, he definitely believes in paying it forward, and frankly, he's prolific enough that it would be understandable if he didn't want to take the time to do so. I'd be remiss if I didn't plug my interview with him.

When people come to me asking for a coverage referral, I point them at Amanda Pendolino and ONLY Amanda Pendolino. Like me, Amanda's gotten a number of years as a script reader under her belt while trying to build her own career. She gives really sharp notes, and in a manner that always feels constructive. I recently gave her a script that I'm pretty sure wasn't her cup of tea, but she made a passionate, persuasive case for her opinions without making me feel like I'd been eviscerated. That's rare. On top of that, she's a great writer who deserves to be on staff somewhere. I know if I was a showrunner, she'd be one of my early draft picks.

Speaking of showrunners, Jeff Lieber is another favorite twitter-buddy. Currently one of the showrunners on NCIS: New Orleans, Jeff is one of the creators of Lost, as well as the creator of Miami Medical and was a showrunner on Necessary Roughness. He's used those assignments and others as fodder for his Showrunner Rules, which he regularly doles out on Twitter. You can find the whole archive here and his feed is always a valuable read.

The people I've named already are all great writers, but one writer whose work just knocked me on my ass was Brian Scully. I gave a spotlight post to his brilliant script MERCIFUL last year and soon after that, Brian landed management with Verve. I'm currently in the weeds on a very dark script of my own and I can honestly say that MERCIFUL has been like that rabbit they use to get the greyhounds to do laps around the track. I've read plenty of scripts that have inspired me and taught me, but MERCIFUL is one that really pushed me to be better and to not be scared to take chances.

Through my association with Go Into The Story, I also came to know Nate Winslow. Scott Myers calls him "future super producer Nate Winslow" and not without good reason. Nate is a savvy guy who's worked on a number of film projects, most recently at Defender Entertainment. If someone's smart, they'll snap him up to be their Creative Executive because he's got a great eye for projects. There are some people who you can just tell when you meet them that they have what it takes to make their own good fortune. With Nate, I know it's only a matter of time before he puts together a project and becomes one of those guys everyone is trying to get their scripts to. He's another one who keeps me motivated, if only so I don't feel like I'm standing still next to him.

And last, but certainly far from least, I consider myself fortunate to have gotten to know Black List founder Franklin Leonard. I take a very dim view of most services that ask screenwriters to pay for them. I don't typically trust coverage companies because you can't really trust who's reading those scripts, and it's rare to find such a company where the person in charge has a significant amount of credibility to put on the line. When Franklin told me he was expanding the Black List's mission to including hosting and review services for aspiring writers, I was skeptical. After he laid it out for me, I became a believer.  A few half-wits have accused my endorsement of the site of being the back-scratch that was redeemed by payola. I can assure you I have no official affiliation with the site, nor have I ever taken any sort of money, bribery or whatever you want to call it. I endorse the Black List because I believe in it and in what Franklin Leonard is trying to do.

I've been fortunate to meet many successful people. I've worked for a number of industry pros who were very good at their jobs and have been able to produce films for most of their adult lives. I want to tell you what sets Franklin Leonard apart from them. Those men and women are very adept players within the existing system. Franklin Leonard is a guy with the will and the forethought to change the system. The Black List is constantly evolving and expanding, carving out partnerships with management companies, studios and producers. More than that, Franklin is possibly one of the most above-board and intelligent people I've met out here. There's nothing phony about him, and if we had more Franklin Leonards, that wouldn't be a terrible thing for our industry.

Franklin is smart enough he could probably be very successful just playing the game as it is. Instead he's forging his own path. I'm glad that writers - both aspiring and professional - have such a driven advocate. I know he's going to continue to push to make the Black List better. I once said to him that he must be proud of everything The Black List has become and his reply was, "There's still much more work to do."

Those who succeed are often those who are rarely satisfied.

These people I have named all have a few things in common. In one way or another they have all provided support and inspiration, and I've been lucky to get to know them. And there are still plenty more whom I don't have the space to name here. I also would never have met ANY of them, had I not started this blog six years ago and stuck with it even when I was getting only 50 hits a day the first few months. I would be a poorer individual for not knowing them.

If you have good fortune, pay it forward. When you deal with others, know there's little to be gained from being a dick. When you reach a goal, start formulating the next one, pushing yourself even harder than you did before. Most of all, don't let yourself become too satisfied with whatever you accomplish.

Thank you all for six great years. There's still much more work to do.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Your character contrasts should come from character, not clothes.

One of my favorite podcasts, How Did This Get Made, did an episode this week on TANGO & CASH. Some of you might remember this as the underwhelming 1989 teaming of Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone. I was a little too young to discover this teaming of the titans when it first came out, so as a Lois & Clark viewer who discovered this movie in the mid-90s, I knew this as the movie where Teri Hatcher plays a stripper with a rather odd stage outfit.

This movie is VERY 80s. In fact, we've probably reached the point where its overwhelming 80s-action-ness makes this a campy delight. The idea is that Tango (Stallone) and Cash (Russell) are mismatched cops who have to clear their names after being framed by a crime lord. Tango and Cash are L.A. supercops, with Tango being a rich detective who always wears crisp Armani suits, while Cash looks more like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. This is fitting because Lethal Weapon is one of the earliest examples of the "cop movie where polar opposite partners have to overcome their differences to work together." It was such a staple of the period that I remember Roger Ebert once joking that every police department must have some computer that automatically pairs detectives with their temperamental opposites.

HDTGM points out something very important about TANGO & CASH though - the extent of the conflicting characterization only goes as far as the wardrobe. Temperamentally, there's not a lot to distinguish the characters. They're two guys who don't like each other and have to put that aside, but that's not the same thing as having opposing personalities that clash on a fundamental level. So I'll use that to offer this tip - when writing, make sure that you're not using clothing, physical appearance or backstory as the sole ways of differentiating your characters. There has to be more depth to your characters than just their look. If their histories are different, that should inform their characters in a way that brings those conflicting agendas into the drama.

Basically this is another way of reiterating the old rule of "cover up the character names and see if you can still tell the difference between the characters."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hear me talk Michael Bay on the Draft Zero podcast!

Stu Willis and Chas Fisher recently invited me onto their podcast Draft Zero to talk about about the work of Michael Bay:

Together, Stu, Chas and Bitter come through with their long-threatened episode to see what – if anything – screenwriters can learn from analysing the work of one of the most successful filmmakers all time, Michael Bay. We look at THE ROCK, THE ISLAND, and PAIN & GAIN, and cover writing great villains, controlling the flow of information to the audience (via car chases, of course) and creating visual decisions on the page. 

Go to the episode's page here.
Download the episode in mp3 form here.

As you probably guessed, this ties into my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, still available on Amazon for only $4.99!

His movies have cumulatively earned $2.4 billion in the domestic box office, making him the second most-successful director of all time, right behind Steven Spielberg. If one gathered the top six directors in that category, that same man would be only one of the half-dozen to not also be in possession of an Academy Award: Michael Bay.

Commercial success and meaningful art don’t always go hand-in-hand, but is it possible for a filmmaker to consistently hit his mark with the audience without truly doing something right artistically? Professional critics have long taken aim at Bay’s music-video-honed visual style, full of fast cuts, moving camera shots, hot women. The internet is full of negativity and scorn for the director too, but has anyone truly given Bay’s oeuvre the benefit of the doubt?

Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films is the first-ever attempt to approach the Bay catalog from an intellectual standpoint. Come ready to find the deep subtexts and profound meanings in Michael Bay’s filmography.

EXPERIENCE – the controversial discussion about man’s relationship with God buried within Armageddon!

DISCOVER – how Pearl Harbor demonstrates that emotional truth is far more vital than strict adherence to actual historical events!

LEARN – how The Island is a pointed allegory attacking the proliferation of remakes and reboots that Hollywood produces!

UNDERSTAND – the vulnerable confession that Michael Bay offers under the cloak of a true-life Miami crime story in Pain & Gain! And much more!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER makes its most compelling statement an afterthought

When I first finished watching AMERICAN SNIPER, I'd probably have given it two stars out of four. There were a couple isolated good scenes, but it felt episodic and often dull. Worse, I really hated the ending. Like, HATED.  I wasn't sure I wanted to write a review where I focused 90% of it on a footnote at the end. If you want a review of this film in total, check out Drew McWeeny's take, which more or less aligns with mine.

As it happens, AMERICAN SNIPER is from a particular brand of film that makes you angrier every time you consider it. It's like an onion, the more you peel it back, the more it stinks. Because the problem with the ending is really a gangrene that infects this entire putrid piece of superficial filmmaking. There is a truly fascinating movie that could be mined from Chris Kyle's story and it's utterly ignored here.

I don't know how you make this film and NOT make PTSD a major, integral component.

Chris Kyle was "America's deadliest sniper," with more confirmed kills than any other marksman in U.S. history. He served four tours in the Iraq War. What that means is his time was up, but he kept going back for more - despite having a wife and two children back home who needed him. Kyle's wife in particular is perplexed by his need to keep going back there. For me, that makes her the most sympathetic character in the film. It's a lot easier to understand her fear of losing her husband than the compulsions that keep sending him into harm's way.

In one of the film's first scenes, we see a tense moment (depicted in the trailers) where Kyle has his scope trained on a kid who might be carrying a grenade. His other lookout can't confirm and so it's entirely his call to take the killshot. If he shoots and he's wrong, his ass will be fried. If he lets the kid go and he DOES have a grenade, a dozen or more soldiers could be killed.

That's a day at the office for him. And that's the movie I wish I saw more of. It's easy to imagine that self-preservation instincts will kick in and make it okay, but Kyle's not in the heat of battle. He's watching from a safe perch - he'll be fine either way, but his job demands he not only shoot a kid, but be damn sure it needed to be done. And he has seconds to make that call.

Live through four tours of that and you're going to be dealing with some serious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's estimated that it affects about 11-20% of all combat vets from the Iraq War. We see a few symptoms of this in Kyle, though it's not called out as such until the last ten minutes of the film. There's one point where he returns to the States and doesn't go home or tell his wife. Instead he goes to a bar and she's hurt and confused when she learns he's back in America.

Chris Kyle was a guy who needed help. And this movie could have been a great way to explain PTSD to a wide audience that doesn't understand it. This film made over a $100M this past weekend alone. Think of all the minds that could have been woken up.

In real life, Chris Kyle seems to have been a seriously troubled guy. The movie doesn't deal with some of his more outrageous claims (such as that he went to New Orleans during Katrina and picked off looters with a sniper rifle from the top of the Superdome.) I can understand why the incidents considered unlikely to have happened were not adapted. And yet, doesn't the sheer fact that Kyle made such overblown proclamations point to the fact that the guy was dealing with some pretty major stuff? The movie pulls back Kyle's trauma to the point of defanging the tragedy of what war did to him.

In the final years of his life, Kyle worked with other soldiers suffering from PTSD. We get a taste of this in the film, but not nearly enough to make this land. And then comes the unforgiveable footnote. Kyle's fate - like Turing's in THE IMITATION GAME - is delivered via on-screen captions.  Except here, the fact and circumstances of his death are far more relevant to the film than in IMITATION GAME.

Because Chris Kyle was killed by another vet he was trying to help. A vet suffering from PTSD.

I don't think it does Kyle's memory much good to pretend that his four tours in the Iraq War didn't do incredible damage to the man. I don't think it honors the men who went over there and are still dealing with that to sweep the full scope of their trauma under the rug. This movie could have been a wake-up call to a nation - a call to arms for us to not abandon our soldiers and their medical needs once they've served their time.

It should be impossible to dislodge the contributing factors to Kyle's murder from the rest of his life. You cannot talk about Chris Kyle without talking about his final fate, because it paints an incomplete and erroneous picture of every thing that led up to it.

Throw out the politics of the film, throw out the repugnance of the fact that Eastwood overuses the device of Kyle weighing a killshot against a kid (it happens twice - SERIOUSLY), and ignore some of the uncomfortable racism. Give a pass on on those things that bother a lot of viewers and you're STILL left with a movie that misses the forest for the trees.

The PTSD story is right there and this movie is too dumb to see it. It's like doing the Magic Johnson story WOLF OF WALL STREET-style, showing him sleeping with hundreds of women and then tossing up a caption at the end saying "Oh, btw, Magic got AIDS."

Hell, it's like doing WOLF OF WALL STREET and ending after he's smuggled his cash into the Swiss Account, only to reveal via captions that he eventually got nailed by the FBI and turned informant.

I usually try to stick to the "critique the movie you're presented with, not the one you wish was made" style of criticism. In this case, the movie walks right up to pieces that would make it a much better film and just stands there. It's filmmaking malpractice to leave such rich dramatic material on the table. That the rest of the movie isn't all that good is pretty much a side note.

I did not enjoy AMERICAN SNIPER. I do not recommend AMERICAN SNIPER. That is not a judgement on Chris Kyle as a person or on veterans in general. I've seen a lot of idiots respond to criticism of this film by shouting something like "Chris Kyle was a great American! See this to support our boys! If you don't like it, you're a libtard Commie pinko!" A movie about a great man isn't necessarily great.

You want to support our boys? You want to honor Chris Kyle? Give to the Wounded Warrior Project or to Disabled American Veterans.

12 Organizations working to raise PTSD awareness.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ignoring when real life gives you a better ending: THE IMITATION GAME

I saw THE IMITATION GAME and AMERICAN SNIPER last week. As the two of them have had a lot of Oscar buzz surrounding them I went into both films with high hopes. As it turned out, the Top 20 films of 2014 posts that I wrote a couple weeks ago are in no need of being revised.

Both films are "based on a true story," and what was interesting to me was that both films shared a common infuriating flaw: the protagonist's death was relegated to a footnote. My jaw dropped when THE IMITATION GAME tossed off Alan Turing's suicide as a text caption over a final celebratory moment. Later, I was flat out infuriated at the way AMERICAN SNIPER threw in a description of Chris Kyle's murder with all the grace of a handwritten note explaining "Note: Poochie died on his way back to his home planet."

I am not one of those people who thinks a "based on a true story" film needs to be a total biopic of its subject from birth to death. Hell, I prefer it when it's not. When I was a reader, I saw so many bad biopic scripts that were just trying to cram in EVERYTHING about their subject. You can usually get a far more effective movie if you hone in on one particular aspect of a character's life and explore that. A good example of this done right? SELMA.

The issue with the two movies I'm discussing today is that their subject's deaths inform so much about their lives and are directly relevant to the stories that are told in the narrative. Alan Turing built a computer that broke Nazi codes in World War II and in doing so, likely shortened the war by two years and saved tens of thousands of lives. This man was a hero as surely as anyone who fought in World War II.

And what happened to him later in life? Well, his work was classified, so there was no public recognition of what he did. Even worse than the lack of glory was the fact that he was later prosecuted for being a homosexual, because in 1952, it was a crime to be gay in the United Kingdom. Offered a choice of going to jail or chemical castration, he took the castration.  (Presumably the irony of punishing homosexual acts by sending one to jail would not set in until years later when the HBO series OZ reached the UK's shores.)

In the film, we're not shown a trial. There's no big dramatic moment when we see the state pronounce sentence on a man who saved their asses in World War II. We're given a framing story that would have set all this up, but we learn about the conviction and the castration in one scene between Turing and his ex-beard. It dulls the impact of the injustice somewhat and then even more offensively, his suicide gets NO on-screen depiction.

Yeah, he kills himself - almost certainly because of that pain of what the state put him through and somehow the movie glides right past that. I'm not just angry as someone fascinated by Turing, I'm angry as a writer. How the hell do you leave that dramatic moment on the table?

Despite that, THE IMITATION GAME is a serviceable movie. It's well-acted and competently directed. It's not standout and is the kind of film that in a few years you might strain to remember, but it does more right than it does wrong.

AMERICAN SNIPER on the other hand.....

You know what? Let's deal with that tomorrow.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Motivations: make them clear, make them early

I pulled out my bluray AIR FORCE ONE this weekend and watched the film for the first time in what has to be at least ten or fifteen years. You might be asking, "Bitter, why on earth would you own THAT film on blu?" It's a fair question. Even I have considered it a so-so film.  It's about as good as any "DIE HARD on the President's Plane" could ever hope to be. And next to OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and WHITE HOUSE DOWN, it really looks like a masterpiece.

(As to why I own it: It was part of a two-pack with one of my favorite movies, IN THE LINE OF FIRE. Both movies together for $4.99. I'd have paid that much just for IN THE LINE OF FIRE, so it basically was a freebie.)

I decided to watch with director Wolfgang Peterson's commentary on to see if he addressed something that's been under my skin since my first viewing - the really shitty motivations of the Secret Service turncoat played by Xander Berkeley. For those who haven't seen the film, it involves terrorists disguised as a media crew taking over the President's plane. Obviously, a major plot question the screenwriter was faced with was "How does this crew actually take over the plane?" It's hard enough to hijack a commercial jet. How the hell do you mastermind a takeover of the aircraft of the most powerful man in the world, which has to be one of the most secured vessels on the planet?

The film opts for probably the most obvious (but most plausible) avenue - one of the Secret Service agents is a collaborator with the terrorists. He takes out three of his fellow agents, which clears the way for the terrorists to get to the plane's armory. I can't blame the film for wanting to get to the fireworks factory as soon as possible, because there are indeed some wonderfully tense moments. For any of its flaws, you have to love a film where Gary Oldman gets to chew the scenery as a bad guy, and this was when Harrison Ford still could play an intense ass-kicker in his sleep. (I teed up the next joke for you, so go for it.)

But the film never even attempts to give any motivation for WHY Berkeley's character would be working with these Russian terrorists in their plot to hold the President hostage, a plot that necessarily requires the deaths of several, if not ALL of the people he's been working alongside for many years.

It doesn't help that Berkeley's performance is pretty terrible. I've seen the guy do good work in other projects, so maybe he was directed this way, but it amounts to him alternating between bland expressions (when other characters are watching) and instant evil sneers (the instant that character turns their backs.) It's about the same level of directing as Homer Simpson assuring people that the audience will understand that the dog in his movie is evil so long as you do a close-up of his eyes shifting back and forth.

On the commentary, Peterson says that they had "a line" explaining his motivation, which would have been delivered around the time he reveals himself to the President and kills two other men trying to get the President off the plane. The director claims that there were editing issues, and that it didn't seem to fit, so they cut it.

Can you see the problem here? Peterson was waiting until the climax to explain the motivations of this crucial character. To me, that's insanity. The big question hanging over the film is "Why is this guy betraying king and country?" It becomes a suspension of disbelief issue after a certain point, particularly when the film uses the other character's ignorance of this fact to generate suspense. Had Oldman's character killed the agent at the start of the takeover, we might have been able to handwave the betrayal as something like "he was bought off." The longer he's actively participating - especially when the time comes that it'd be easier for him to shut up and just escape with the others - the more we crave an explanation for this guy's actions.

My whole point in bringing this up is less to rant about AIR FORCE ONE specifically, and more to make a general point about character motivations. Don't skimp on motivations, particularly when the entire film hinges on why a particular character takes a significant action. That's not a crack to be papered over in the climax of the film (unless the mystery of that motivation is a significant driver of plot action in the film, and this doesn't really count.) That's a question you take off the table early on so that the audience can enjoy the ride.

And really, if your entire explanation for a motive hinges on "a line," there's probably some deeper issues of shitty writing that need to be fixed too.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

SELMA illuminates our present state of race relations by revisiting the past

I have this memory of being in first grade and just learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time. We had some kind of worksheet that gave us some basic facts about him, along with a drawing. I very clearly recall squinting at the date of his death: 1968.

1968? That made no sense to me. He was fighting for black people to be seen as equal. A year earlier I had played Abe Lincoln in a school play, so I understood about the Civil War and how black people were consider slaves then. But that war ended in 1865. Surely this information about Dr. King meant to say that he died in 1868. 1968 was only about 20 years ago. The Batman TV show I watched in reruns every afternoon was from 1968. You mean to tell me that when Batman was fighting crime, there were still major civil rights issues?

I told my mom there was a mistake on the ditto. She informed me the date was right, that he hadn't died all that long ago. I just couldn't process how people could still be so racist in so recent a past. I grew up in the midwest, where as far as I was concerned, everyone WAS equal. There were black kids in my class, no one treated them any different. I just couldn't process how racism had lingered so long after the days of Lincoln, and then how it seemingly had disappeared so much since Dr. King.

It's funny how it all makes sense to a child that everyone should be equal. Of course today I look around and all I see is how much further we have to go. 

It seemed so odd to me then because it wasn't my experience. It was so far outside the realm of what I knew, that I couldn't process it. I thought about that a lot during SELMA, a film deftly brings the experience of oppressed southern blacks into the audience's awareness.

Like THE CRUCIBLE, SELMA tells a story about the past with very direct commentary on our present. Some of the parallels are so of the moment that for a moment, you might almost think that it was conceived in direct response to incidents like the horrifying police brutality in Ferguson, and the abominable dismantling of the very Voting Rights Act that's origins are depicted in the film.

The film wisely doesn't attempt to be a full biopic on Dr. King and instead focuses on the marches Dr. King led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to protest obstacles put in place to prevent black citizens from registering to vote in the South. Though they legally have the right to vote, a number of provisions have been put in place to achieve the end of disinfranchising black voters. In turn, this ensures that racist, bigoted elected officials remain secure in office, and also that blacks can't serve on juries, meaning that that the system shields racist officials and individuals even if they manage to be brought to trial for crimes against the black community.

Dr. King has appealed to President Johnson to step in and call for a congressional law outlawing these practices. Johnson has bigger fish to fry, and there's more than a suggestion that he doesn't want to piss off a large chunk of the Southern electorate by calling for legislation sure to be unpopular among angry reactionary bigots who will vote him out of office. He tries to pass the buck on down to the state level.

The film essentially becomes a chess match between King and Johnson, with King recognizing that their endgame needs to be to shine enough light on the injustice in Alabama that Johnson has no choice but to act. As long as these actions are taking place in darkness, Johnson can afford to ignore it. But if the eyes of the nation are fixed on Selma, Johnson is going to have to get his hands dirty somehow.

There's a simplistic view that activism is just about making a lot of noise. Hell, I think there are plenty of activists who think the best way to achieve their ends is to be loud and disruptive. There's not a lot of big picture thinking going on there. There are some brilliantly-written scenes that lay out this strategy. It's not just about making noise - King insists they work out a plan so that when Johnson caves, they can give him specific solutions that can be implemented as part of the law they will call for. They're not just doing pie-in-the-sky "raising awareness." It's very much a "Now that we have your attention, here are the solutions we want in a language you can understand."

There's a scene where King and his associates have to decide what the single most important aspect of the issue they need to address is. It's a moment of exposition, but it doesn't play totally as such. It feels like problem-solving, and in one efficent scene, the stakes and the solution are swiftly laid out.  We know what the law has to address, we know that King has an endgame, and we understand what it will take to get there.

There's another intriguing moment of gamesmanship where Malcolm X offers his own form of assistance in a meeting with Coretta Scott King. It's made clear more than once that politicians like Johnson see King as the more "acceptable" figurehead for the civil rights movement, as opposed to the more militant and aggressive Malcolm X. Malcolm X knows this and offers to be the "worst-case" alternative that sends the power structure running into King's arms. (As it turns out, he's assassinated before much can be done, but it's interesting to see the dynamics at play here.)

There's a pitfall cliche that a number of older films about civil rights efforts fall into - they're often centered on the acts of a white savior. It doesn't seem like a huge problem until you struggle to find such a film where the black protagnist is truly at the center: To Kill A Mockingbird, A Time to Kill and especially The Ghosts of Mississippi all fall into this trap. That doesn't automatically make any of those movies bad, but it's a trope that one should always be sensitive to.

I bring this up because in a way, SELMA addresses this "white savior" tendency. It's spelled out that the real victory will come when the struggles facing African-Americans are put on display for the white Americans. Then they will call for change and Johnson will have to listen. There is the unfortunate implication that white activism carries more weight than black activism. Particularly at that point in time, that's an unfortunate reality, and I would love to see film scholars more intelligent than I dissect this point in a little more depth. King definitely comes across as a man who is determined to use the system to change the system.

I don't recall any prior instances of Dr. King being depicted on screen, which means that David Oyelowo has to break ground as the first performer to personify this icon. That's no small task, though it might be aided in part by the fact that Oyelowo is still a relative unknown. We're not asked to accept Will Smith as Martin Luther King and so Oyelowo's challenge is to find a way to make the "behind closed doors" depiction of King feel like a piece of the great orator whose "I Have a Dream" speech every school child is familiar with. He pulls it off and perhaps the greatest compliment is that I cannot think of any other actor who could have done a better job.

It's hard to watch some of the sheer police brutality in some scenes and then realize that too many recent tragedies echo the same circumstances. Cops are show beating unarmed citizens, and at one point shooting another citizen dead long after they'd fled the scene of the riot and ceased to be a problem. You want to watch it and think, "Damn, that's horrible, but at least it's in the past." And then you remember that a Ferguson cop emptied his gun into an unarmed kid a hundred feet away and the case was never even brought to trial! The injustice these marchers face is far from in the past.

Even more so, it's a sad irony that the entire climax of the film comes down to Johnson calling for the Voting Rights Act that will shut down all of the red tape that has been disinfranchising black voters. In one early scene, we see just how capricious these laws are when a woman played by Oprah Winfrey goes to the registrar's office and he asks her increasingly arcane questions about how many local judges there are and what their names are. When she fails to answer a question that I'd wager most white voters would flunk, he uses that as a means to deny her.

Why is that said? Because just over a year ago, the conservative wing of the Supreme Court struck down some major parts of that act. This opens the door for future legislation to again restrict voting. For those who didn't quite grasp the full implications of this when the decision came, SELMA could be an eye-opener.

I'd put this on the list of 2014's must-sees, and I suspect that it'll become a tool for many a history teacher. I can't point out the virtues of the story without noting that this was no easy film to produce in the first place. This film not only faced the challenge of a comparatively small $20 million budget, but it also legally could not use any of the text of King's actual speeches. Every speech given is a line-for-line paraphrase of his actual words. (The script is credited to Paul Webb, but there was no WGA arbitration and interviews have made clear that DuVernay made considerable contributions there too.) 

This is a film as much about 2014 as any other contemporary film. I'm aware this is an intensely competitive year, but director Ava DuVernay deserves to be singled out by both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America for her extraordinary work here. SELMA is more than an "eat your vegetables" movie. It's an important film that honors some brave men and women who stood up for their rights and forced a nation to look hard at it's own shame.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My Top 10 films of 2014

Continuing yesterday's post, here's the main event! My Top 10 films of 2014.

Before we begin, I'm sure someone will bring up the fact that a film I called "the most brilliant and subversively political film you'll see all year," a movie I said, " might be the most cinematically daring film of this decade, if not this century," is not on this list. The truth is, I didn't think it was fair to these other twenty films to make them measure up to the opus that was TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. I gave it four thumbs up last summer and if you're curious about why, check out this review, or buy my book on all of Michael Bay's movies - MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films.

1. Boyhood - I feel like these first three or four films are in a dead heat with each other. I give BOYHOOD the edge because it's a deceptively simple story, yet really quietly powerful. I've seen a few people snark about how the film has no point beyond just showing people get older. Some even say that it's no different than watching characters grow up over the course of a long-running TV series or a continuing film series like HARRY POTTER. I think that misses some of the point of BOYHOOD, which often seems to be about the quieter, mini-milestones of youth. It's a character-heavy story that doesn't burden itself so much with making each year fill a "character-defining moment" quota. After a lot of thought, I think it works because it puts the audience in the shoes of the parents, always aware that their child will continue to grow and evolve, and wondering what sort of young man he'll become. There's a moment with Patricia Arquette near the end that really drives home how much we've been following the story of her life as well as her son's. So let the naysayers cry about how there was "no story." That just makes me more impressed with how this movie provokes an audience to feel.

2. Nightcrawler - If you're in the middle of writing a dark suspense film, like I am, NIGHTCRAWLER is both essential viewing and also confidence-crushing. Working from his own script in his directing debut, Dan Gilroy pulls off one of the most intense films of the last year. At least two sequences will have your heart racing and the wonderful thing is that by the time each of those emerges, the film has taken so many risks that we truly feel like anything can happen. I saw this movie while I was working on a script that had a total sociopath at its core and I was struggling with how to depict that without pandering to the audience. The first two scenes alone were a revelation in unfurling that sort of character. Jake Gyllenhaal gives what is likely his best performance ever as the ambitious and slimy Lou Bloom. He makes your skin crawl even before he gets to the really nasty stuff. Unfortunately, he's so good that the Oscar buzz for his performance seems to be overshadowing the equally deserving Rene Russo. And in a year that was even slightly less competitive, I bet Riz Ahmed would be a dark horse contender for Best Supporting Actor buzz.

3. Whiplash - For my money, it's one of the best films of the year, capped off with a fantastic performance by J.K. Simmons as a band conductor at one of the best schools in the country. Miles Tellar plays the jazz drumming student desperate to earn his respect, to the point that he endures a lot of verbal and (technically) physical abuse. It's also a very small-scale movie. Though there were turns in the story that came as a gut punch to me, it's much more about character than plot. Any writer seeking to learn from strong character writing (and that should be all of you) really would benefit from studying this film. Don't walk into this movie with the misconception that a film needs to be an epic in order to be one of the year's best. Simmons deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this one.

4. Selma - Like THE CRUCIBLE, SELMA tells a story about the past with very direct commentary on our present. Some of the parallels are so of the moment that for a moment, you might almost think that it was conceived in direct response to recent incidents. The film wisely doesn't attempt to be a full biopic on Dr. King and instead focuses on the marches Dr. King led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to protest obstacles put in place to prevent black citizens from registering to vote in the South. This is a film as much about 2014 as any other contemporary film. I'm aware this is an intensely competitive year, but director Ava DuVernay deserves to be singled out by both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America for her extraordinary work here. SELMA is more than an "eat your vegetables" movie. It's an important film that honors some brave men and women who stood up for their rights and forced a nation to look hard at it's own shame.

5. Gone Girl - What I appreciated most about Gone Girl is that this was not a film that felt like it made a choice between having a complex, twisting plot and complex characters. There's enough real estate here for both. Usually in these kinds of films, the plot goes through so many contortions that the characters either don't have time to be fleshed out, or the film needs them to be cyphers so that later twists aren't telegraphed. Wild Things is a good example of this, a fun, trashy thriller with more turns than a roller coaster, but barely any pretension about its cast of characters. It's far harder to tell a story about complex people and maintain enough mystery about them to keep shocking us late into a complex story. Ben Affleck is quite good as a man suspected in the disappearance of his wife, maintaining his innocence even as the evidence piles up, but Rosemund Pike utterly owns this movie with her Hitchcock-blonde portrayal of that wife, Amy. If you've gone this long without learning of the many twists in this film, see it before someone ruins it.

6. The Lego Movie - We all wrote this off before seeing it, and we all ended up with egg on our face afterwards when this was as clever, fun and moving as some of the better Pixar films. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller remind us that even a questionable idea can be - wait for it - awesome with the proper execution. At this point, Lord and Miller could be announced on a remake of Birth of a Nation and I'd say, "Let's give them a chance before we judge."

7.  Birdman - the story of a washed up actor who saw his career plummet after walking away from the latest sequel in his superhero franchise twenty years ago. That actor, Riggan Thomsan, (played by Michael Keaton) is on the verge of a possible comeback via the Broadway play he's directing, starring in, and adapted. The problem is the show isn't very good and it's just had to recast one of its main players at the start of previews. The film's thoroughly character-driven from start to finish. As much as the three-act structure is there, this is not a movie where you'll be overtly aware of the structure. You will notice the film's technique of appearing to have all been shot in one take. Though the visual effect is seamless, I found it occasionally showy to the point of distracting. That doesn't change that this is a well-made, well-acted film.

8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Dawn is probably the best film this summer at building tension and character simultaneously, and that equation adds up to tragedy. Even if you went into this story unaware of how events have to turn to line up with later installments, you'd probably be struck by the inevitability of the events, specifically the war between apes and humans. After this, there's no excuse for fully CGI-characters to not feel as real as ones played by human actors. This is a movie that opens with some fifteen minutes in ape society and it's absolutely riveting. As it develops the conflict between humans and apes it's clear neither side really wants a war, but the ones doing the most saber-rattling are provoked into it out of the fear that if they don't strike first, they will be run over. Both sides have their justifications and once the die is cast, the saddest moment of the film comes when it's apparent there will be no way to avoid the consequences. It's rare to get this sense of tragedy in a summer movie. In fact, it's probably even rarer to find this sort of craft in a franchise that's some eight films in.

9. Interstellar - INTERSTELLAR is a hard movie to write about, even though it ranks among director Christopher Nolan's best. It's also one of his most emotional. The director has a rep for being cold, but the script - co-written with his brother Jonathan Nolan - wisely makes the emotional relationship between McConaughey's Cooper and his daughter Murph into its backbone. The sequence where he awakens from decades of cryo-sleep to catch up on years of recorded messages from his daughter as family as they grew up without him. I have some issues with the third act (I think Murph makes a critical realization WAY too fast considering what a logistical leap that it is, and then a later scene involving Cooper and Murph is too rushed and abrupt to be a fitting emotional catharsis for that relationship.) So much of this film works that if its ambitions outstrip its ability in a few spots, I can roll with it. Best seen on the biggest screen you can find.

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past - Not just my favorite comic book movie of the year, but one of my favorite comic book movies ever. The degree of difficulty on this was insanely high. There's the blending of two casts in what is essentially a crossover between the two X-MEN continuities, a complex time travel plot, and solid character arcs for multiple leads. On top of that, there's a coda that addresses some of the missteps of the past films and brings closure to a 15 year saga while putting us on a path to tell new stories with the younger cast. The fact that any of this feels effortless or simple is just a tribute to the fine work of credited writers Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn and director Bryan Singer. If you want to write superhero movies, you need to study this film.

Monday, January 5, 2015

My Top 20 Films of 2014, Part I

2014 was an awesome year for film, don't let anyone tell you otherwise. We had a surplus of good and great movies of all flavors. To not find good movies, you either have to have terrible taste, or else be in need of trying harder to find the great material. This is one year where there was such a spectrum of interesting, engaging films, that there's a lot of variance in people's year-end lists.

When I started compiling my list, I was initially struck by how few films I saw this year that I truly hated. There were a few disappointments, to be sure, but not many outright dogs. There were plenty of films I avoided, mostly out of a sense that it wasn't my thing. I circled back and caught a few of those movies on DVD and most of them we so forgettable it took a look at a list of this year's releases to remember I even watched them. So take a lesson from that - you can still see plenty of movies and not waste too much time and money on outright crap.

(I'm not doing a Worst of 2014 list, but I will say my least enjoyable experience in a theatre this year was SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL for. As I'm sure there were worse movies in release this year, it feels really disingenuous to claim that as the worst movie anyone could have seen this year.)

I made it a point to see a lot of movies this year and as I started taking stock, I realized that my list of favorite and recommended movies could not be contained by a mere top 10. In all honesty, I probably could have gone into the 20s, but at a certain point, a best-of list can be so long as to be ridiculous. I ended up drawing the line at a Top 20 because in looking at the movies represented, you could probably pick any five of them at random and I wouldn't be embarrassed to have them called out as the five best of the year.

These are all ranked, but any such list is going to be comparing apples-to-oranges to some degree. I did my best to figure out where everything fell, but in the end, is there really that much difference between being 3rd and 4th? Or 14th and 15th?

I haven't seen everything, but I've reached the critical mass where I feel comfortable standing on these picks. My yet-to-be-viewed films include THE IMITATION GAME, UNBROKEN, AMERICAN SNIPER and INHERENT VICE. I'm also really bummed I didn't get out to see WILD this weekend, as all indications are it probably would have landed somewhere on this list.

Also, FAULTS probably would have snuck into the high-teens somewhere, but as it's not getting a wide release until March, I'm treating it like a 2015 film. (This is also how MILLUS is listed with this year and how COHERENCE would have been on this list had it not been eventually nudged out.)

Today we'll cover 11-20 and then the Top 10 tomorrow.

11. Rosewater - The story of how journalist Maziar Bahari was imprisoned by the Iranian government on suspicion of being a spy after appearing in a satirical segment of The Daily Show that covered the 2009 Iranian election. Comedian and The Daily Show host Jon Stewart weaves an emotional and thoughtful mediation on torture, coercion and freedom. We see how torture can break a man, and how it doesn't necessarily have to be physical beatings, but just prolonged isolation and deprivation of hope. When Bahari is able to take a small victory against his captors despite being powerless, it's one of this year's most uplifting moments.

12. Captain America: The Winter Soldier - I don't know how coherently this plays to viewers who haven't seen at least the first CAPTAIN AMERICA or THE AVENGERS, but at least unlike most Marvel productions, its connections to the other Marvel films is a virtue rather than the worst thing in the film. (Few things were saddder than THOR: THE DARK WORLD's persistent name-dropping of events in THE AVENGERS, as if desperately saying, "You liked that film, didn't you? We're part of that thing you like!") Part superhero-film, part spy-thriller, CAP 2 uses it's lead character as a black-and-white counterpoint to the shades-of-grey world we live in today, particularly with regard to surveillance and national security. Yes, some of the logistics of the Helicarrier plot are goofy, but the pacing, themes and character arcs make that less of an issue than it could have been. This is also the comic-book movie that proved you CAN juggle a lot of major characters in a comic book film that isn't an AVENGERS-like team movie. Nowhere is that more evident than in the use of Black Widow, made far more indispensable here than she was in IRON MAN 2. (Honestly, the film easily could have been called CAPTAIN AMERICA & BLACK WIDOW, and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury is also probably put to his best use here too.) I still love the goofy charm of seeing all the heroes rub shoulders in THE AVENGERS, so that's probably still my favorite Marvel movie, but this is a VERY close second.

13. Kill the Messenger - Few things disappoint me more than the total shrug this based-on-a-true-story film was greeted with upon release. Five years from now, people will be asking, "Why didn't tell me Jeremy Renner was so good in KILL THE MESSENGER?" Renner plays a reporter named Gary Webb, who exposes the CIA's role in supplying Los Angeles gangs with cocaine in the '80s, the sales of which went to fund Contra rebels. Webb's moment of glory comes at the middle of the film, and our expectations about the noble profession of journalism are subverted as the second half details a brutal smear campaign that wrongly destroys Webb's credibility, career and marriage.

14. Edge of Tomorrow - I still don't think the ending totally tracks, but that's about my only problem with this Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt vehicle that finds Cruise trapped in a GROUNDHOG DAY-like timeloop in the middle of an alien invasion. It's both smarter and funnier about time travel than the marketing indicated and Cruise again proves why he's one of the last TRUE movie stars. Dare we hope that Blunt's against-type performance here as a total badass signals a future for her as a major action star?

15. John Wick - JOHN WICK shows that just because an idea is old, doesn't mean it's dead. Break it down to its barest essence and it sounds like one of those script's you'd pass by for fear of it being generic: "A retired hitman is drawn back into the trade on a crusade of vengeance. Brutality ensues." The brilliance of the film is the way that first-time director Chad Stahelski moderates the tempo. For every intense, non-stop action sequence where Keanu Reeves takes out a small army of goons, there's a moment where the film takes stock of the stakes and allows characters to react to the fallout of the action orgy. There's actual emotional engagement here, and it's another case of a director using Keanu's occasional blankness to good effect.

16. 22 Jump Street - At this point, I need to stop being amazed when writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller totally stick the landing on something that seemed destined to disappoint. This sequel sends Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum undercover in college (where they are admonished "just do the same thing as before.") The script milks the meta-humor exactly long enough to keep from wearing it out and even manages to freshen up old bits like "sleeping with the boss's daughter." Ice Cube thankfully has more to do in this one (give this man his own vehicle!) Honestly, the rest of the movie could have been mediocre and the ending credits gag would still make this a must-see, as we're taken on a tour of about a dozen future sequels for the franchise.

17. The Theory of Everything - While I still have some script issues with this one, you can't deny that both Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne give amazing performances as Jane Hawking and Dr. Stephen Hawking. Redmayne especially, as he's forced to spend must of the film bent into a misshapen position, immobile and limited in every possible way that one could communicate emotion. That barrier presented Anthony McCarten with an unusual challenge when the time came to write one of the film's most emotional moments, the break-up between Dr. Hawking and his long-supportive wife. Though it feels like other moments bend over backwards to make both of them squeaky-clean in the separation, that moment is powerful, raw and honest.

18. The Fault in Our Stars - If this had a fall release date, would we be hearing Oscar buzz for Shailene Woodley? She gives an expectedly-moving performance as a teen fighting cancer who finds love with another cancer survivor. I've never read the John Green book which is adapted here by THE SPECTACULAR NOW's Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, but the film hits the right emotional beats by really understanding its teen characters. Neustadter & Weber really understand how to craft real people whose emotions can drive a scene, without having to rely on plot to provide all the urgency and heavy-lifting. That's got to be tricky when dealing with source material that is able to get inside both characters heads, something impossible to truly pull off in a visual medium. It definitely says something about their writing that fans of the novels generally come away satisfied with the screen translations. I once briefly met Neustadter and he jokingly suggested I give (500) DAYS OF SUMMER another chance. I'm thinking I might actually have to do a "second opinion" post about that sometime in 2015.

19. Neighbors - We need more of these. An original comedy idea with a premise that seems low-concept, but excels thanks to strong character. A married couple with a baby moves in next to a frat house and clashes with the college kids. The smart move is that the frat boys are allowed to be real people, likeable people, and not one-dimensional stereotypes. The couple - played by Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne - also are fleshed out more than you'd expect rather than just getting stuck playing dofusses mad at those damn kids. Expecially refreshing is the fact that Byrne's character is a total participant alongside Rogan rather than being relgated to a "nagging wife role." (The film even has a meta joke about that.) I'll always cheer for a film that doesn't fall back on the most dumbed-down execution.

20. Millius - Would you enjoy the experience of sitting down with a number of titans of filmmaking as they all share tall tales of a larger-than-life peer? Then rush off to Netflix and look up the documentary MILIUS in their streaming category. The real-life Bill Brasky in question is John Milius, the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of Apocalypse Now. He's also the writer-director of Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. It would be a crime to spoil many of the great stories offered in this documentary. Though many tales paint him as a force of nature, there's also little doubt that few have a way with the pen as he does. When a producer needs someone to write "bigger speeches" to convince Sean Connery to sign onto a film, Milius's name alone sways the actor's opinion. When Milius is on his game, the pages seem to flow out of him like water over Niagara Falls. And when the writer falls on hard times, you feel the weight of that tragedy.

Come back tomorrow for the Top 10!