Adaptation

book enders game

Orson Scott Card– Author

The object of adaptation is to change the subject in order to make it better suited for a new, or alternative purpose.  Adapting a book into a movie, is not so much about faithful representation of the text as it is about capturing the subtext in away that makes better sense within a whole new system of parameters.  The film Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, explores the meaning of the word and its application to screenwriting in a beautifully profound way.

Historically, the movie version has been scorned, or at least widely accepted as the inferior of the pair when evaluated against it’s source material.  The sad truth of it is that the requisite of a film adaptation is putting at least one, more likely about a dozen or more middlemen between the author and his audience.  When you read a book, you are free to interpret and envision the story as you like with no one else weighing in.  you cast your characters and direct your own movie.  You get to have your own way all the time, no questions asked.  Of course it will be infuriating for you, when you go see a movie based on your favorite book and some guy you’ve never heard of is making knock-offs of the “real” characters give an inaccurate account with all of the important parts missing and an agenda that never before existed.

I wonder if Warner Brothers ever considered giving Clooney another crack at the cape and cowel before going to Affleck.

I wonder if Warner Brothers ever considered giving Clooney another crack at the cape and cowel before going to Affleck.

It used to be, that when something like that happened, it was your one chance to see this story portrayed in your lifetime.  Now, even the word remake has been adapted to the point where one take on a property can be run into the ground and “rebooted” in only a couple of years time.  It’s an exciting thing to see, like the countless versions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” you are likely to see crop up year after year, new interpretations of popular literature have the potential to inspire and inform not just a brand new audience, but also the same old one in different and even more powerful ways.

A book has its own properties, as a book.  It can tell a story in a way that is impossible for film.  That’s why it has to be adapted.  But when a person with vision sees a way to tell the story visually, they have the opportunity to exhibit the version of the book that means something to them, and a responsibility to be true to that vision.  A good adaptation will lose some things from the book, but replace them with scenes that contribute to the story in a similar capacity, and will hopefully include little to no narration.

A book faithfully adapted into a film is a tightrope walk that is also extremely subjective.  The less a filmmaker is willing to make changes to the source material, the more danger there is of making a terrible movie.  When you adapt a book to film, you must ask yourself if you are tying to replace, the book, or supplement it, discuss it, or explain it.  There is a good approach and a bad one.  The book will not be replaced.  More people may see the movie, but it is not a substitute for the original and with luck, a more artistically gutsy version will hit theaters within a decade that will replace your forgotten experiment, while the book in question is still selling.  The new film may have less in common with the book, with various omissions and gender changes, a reworking of the story’s end, but it will succeed in sharing a vision that perhaps the book only alludes to for some, and it will be a far superior movie, because it was skillfully adapted to accomplish the goal, not of making a movie version of such and such, but of telling a great story.

Of course this is all hypothetical.  The bold, aggressive interpretation could be terrible as well.  So what is the right way and the wrong way to adapt a book into a movie.  Why did Jurassic Park work when Congo Didn’t?  Why makes Jaws such an effective retelling of Peter Benchley’s story.  Why is Lord of the Rings so beloved?  and is it appropriate to take the trilogy approach in adapting The Hobbit?

"Amy want green drop drink."

“Amy want green drop drink.”

Jurassic Park, seems like it’s easy to explain, by the fact that Crichton is a credited writer of the screenplay.  He was not only a novelist, but had real screenwriting experience and was quite good at both forms.  he also wrote his books in a way that sort of lent themselves nicely to becoming movies, yet, even his own script departed from the source material in order to better tell his story through a new medium.  When he wrote the sequel, but did not return as a screenwriter, the adaptation suffered horribly, despite his quite obvious intentions when writing the novel of seeing it come to life on the big screen.  For example, Ian Malcom clearly died at the end of the novel Jurassic Park, yet he lives in the movie and is made the most popular character, by Jeff Goldblum’s portrayal, so he is written in as the lead in the new story, despite his apparent demise.  His foresight and obvious intentions were missed however when David Koeppe took a stab ad the adaptation himself.  He kept Ian Malcom, of course, but managed to take the story in a bizarrely inappropriate tangent, rendering the film the worst of the three films even though it focused on the world’s most popular chaotician and the third one didn’t even have a book as its basis.  Congo, on the other hand was something I was anticipating like it was Christmas.  After Jurassic Park turned me on to Crichton I read Congo and saw the trailer as nothing short of an epic and very literal translation of the book.  I just didn’t know that translation would come through a computerized voice in the hi-tech gloves of a signing gorilla.  Amy is a gorilla who communicates with her owner Peter through sign language.  For some reason it was decided that it would be best for her to sport an accessory that would translate the signs to English.  The gambit did not work.  Arbitrary changes also were made, such as the nightmares about Zinj that Amy would have and the name of the company.  The gray gorillas   rather than being trained guard dogs with stone paddles, somehow became marshal artists with excessively silly choreography in what should have been brutally horrifying attacks.  In the book, Amy helps the research team to decipher the new species’ language and use it against them.  In the movie, they use the diamonds they are after in Zinj to make laser guns.  Almost all of the changes made in Congo, either senselessly deviated from the book or deliberately detracted from the stories original intent with no apparent merit.  Jurassic Park had its deviations, but only when it was essential to the strength of the story.

gi jaws brody

“That’s some bad hat, Harry.”

Jaws is based on the novel by Peter Benchley but the film is a drastic departure from the source material, mostly due to all that is left out of the final story.  By virtue of such omissions, the characters are freed up a little from their interpersonal conflicts and a more satisfying Casablanca ending is allowed to replace the novels finale.  The movie version is streamlined and purposeful, which allows extensive subplots to be disposed of.  Just enough information is used to support the spine of the story and keep it paced appropriately.  The threat of losing tourism money by closing down the beach is enough of a problem to work with, pitting the sheriff against the mayor and setting up the need to hunt down the shark.  Once Brody, Hooper, and Quint leave the port they remain out at sea until the deadly show down with the killer shark.  It makes for a much needed act break that would be less effective if the boys returned home night after night.  The journey toward respect between Hooper and Quint, who start off as rivals is enough of a sub-current to the main plot to fill out the story without overcomplicating it with the jealousy that originally plagues sheriff Brody in the book.  In addition to the narrow focus of the adaptation, improv between the characters, added a sense of realism and charm to the movie that nonchalantly juxtaposes a casual atmosphere with a tense drama.

I'm trying to suspend my disbelief and desire for an escalating plot with the promise of some sort of resolution, but you gotta work with me a little, here.

I’m trying to suspend my disbelief and desire for an escalating plot with the promise of some sort of resolution, but you gotta work with me a little, here.

Lord of the Rings is a trilogy that aims to be faithful to the beloved classics and spares no running time in capturing as much of the original stories as possible in the beautiful New Zealand locations that realize Middle Earth in a way that it never before could be.  The work must have been painstaking but the goal was clear.  The goal of The Hobbit, however, is much less noble and the adaptation suffers greatly.  Rather than truly adapt the story for film, a single book is broken down into episodes.  It is a grab for more box office dollars that pretends to be an aesthetic choice to match the original trilogy.  While the second installment The Desolation of Smaug may have enough content to be an entertaining movie it is merely a second act without a beginning or an end.  Compared to the first Star Wars trilogy it may that the story becomes a favorite of the fans and due to the third film having an obvious conclusion, fans may argue over which one is best, just as fans argue about Empire vs. Jedi.  But the similarities end rather abruptly at that point.  Empire is part of an ongoing saga and The Desolation of Smaug will literally be the middle section of a full story.  A New Hope is smaller in scope than the others, and while it mainly just introduces the characters, it does have a definite beginning middle and end that tells a complete heroes journey.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fills its running time awkwardly and fails to portray the reverence of the trilogy before it.  Instead, the ultra-fantastic hyper-colorful scenery takes away from the initial world that was created for middle Earth, and with little urgency for most of the film’s running time, the characters are made to wallow in artificial splendor that stretches the prowess of their acting capabilities uncomfortably thin.  There is a self awareness that bleeds through the performances, as they try all too hard to believe it’s working.

Gavin Hood-- Writer/Director

Gavin Hood– Writer/Director

An adaptation should always be about what will make the book translate to screen in the best way.  Sometimes you have to strip it down, dress it up, make it more accessible, more satisfying, more entertaining, but always in the name of story.  A faithful adaptation that does not make the necessary steps to change for it’s audience is not doing justice to the author.  Jackie Brown is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch.  Leonard is a frequently adapted author and while more artistic liberties were taken with Tarantino’s film than any other, the author himself considered it to be the most faithful.

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5 Types of Turning Points

One of the best representations of life after death is the turning point.  More than a simple plot twist, a turning point takes the momentum of a movie to an abrupt halt to completely change directions.  You have to kill it before you end it, but it must be organic.  The outcome is the spirit of the film, the soul, and breaks free of the physical trappings of what happens prior to the turning point. Fail to mark this event and you will have predictable and boring results.  Fail tactfully employ this procedure and your ending will seem unjustified and lazy.  If you do your job right, with the end in mind, you will lead the story away from the outcome, until the perfect moment comes to finally guide your characters toward their intended purpose.  Whether it’s a slap or a whisper there are several effective ways to bring your story home by way of the turning point.  Here are some of my favorites (this list contains SPOILERS by its very nature):

From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (the game changer)

More than a mere turning point, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn completely changes genres.  It’s like if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got halfway through and suddenly became The Lost Boys.  The criminal protagonist take a traveling family hostage in order to sneak across the border into Mexico to escape the law.  Once they are home free, the trouble begins when the bar they stop at to meet their correspondent turns out to be a trap run by vampires who aren’t after repeat business.  The switch is fun and very surprising if you don’t already know it’s a vampire movie.  It feels as though the movie is nearly over before the real fight for survival even begins.  Less effective was the much earlier implementation of this tactic in the recently released The World’s End.

Fight Club (reveal reversal)

I call this one the reveal reversal.  The movie itself doesn’t change at all.  it’s only your perception.  You go through with blinders on until you can’t take it anymore and the blindfold is replaced by a mirror to show you where you’ve been before finally showing you where you are in order to finish the story.  In the case of Fight Club it’s the realization that Tyler and… well, let’s call him Jack are actually the same person after Tyler has built up and subsequently destroyed the narrator’s sense of self worth.  The epiphany puts all that has happened previously into perspective, just before Tyler’s master plan is revealed so the stage is set for a massive showdown nobody saw coming.  This method was also used in The Sixth Sense as a twist ending rather than a turning point.

Rocky (the mind changer)

Sylvester Stallone is not known for subtlety, but as Rocky prepares for his match against Apollo, expectations mount in the collective audience.  Sly must have known this and cleverly decided to reshape those expectations and add an extra layer of satisfaction to an already superior ending.  Anyone going into the film for the first time would expect Rocky to beat Apollo, even though it would not make much sense.  If he wins it’s phony and predictable, but if he loses its just sad.  It’s a catch 22 nicely fixed with a small scene where Rock confides in Adrienne that he knows he can’t win and all he wants to do is go the distance– something nobody else has ever done.  Boom!  Surprise!  Perfect ending.  This method was also used but did not work so well in Ghost World.

Independence Day (the ray of hope)

Possibly the most common and with the most varied success rate, this is a fake out turning point.  It goes where it was always intended to go, but only after creating a false sense of hopelessness and creating a small sliver of a chance for the audience to grab onto.  In ID4 it seems as though Earth is doomed.  David gives up on his “save the world through recycling” philosophy and has absolutely no hope of redeeming the human race by fighting off an alien invasion.  That is until the idea is put into his head that he can give them “a cold” (In this case, a computer virus, but also a clever nod to H.G. Wells)  Suddenly, the plot goes from a stand still with nowhere to go, to a grand climax on board the mother ship.  Minority Report accomplishes this with another slip of the tongue from the film’s antagonist that regenerates the plot motion towards completion, but more commonly it is done intentionally through a mentor.

Back to the future (the turn straight!)

There are the movies that refuse to turn despite the characters’ will.  The outcome is anticipated, yet the protagonist is repeatedly held back from achieving his goal, especially when time is of the essence.  This can be maddening, but is hugely effective, especially in the case of the above listed title.  This is a difficult move to accomplish, resisting an easy answer and drawing out a climax can have audiences on the edge of their seat or, bored to tears.  You have to have some sort of time element involved, even if it’s the slowly sinking Orca at the end of the captivating shark hunt in Jaws.

Aronofsky’s Noah Hits Stormy Waters: Are Good Bible Movies Impossible to Make?

aronofsky v paramount

I am intrigued by Paramount’s big budget Noah film.  It’s been a long time since Hollywood has tapped that overflowing stream of Biblical narratives that entire careers could be devoted to producing.  I’m pleased that it’s not a low budget independent movie, because it would invariably suck, but I’m also curious what a true artist such as Darren Aronofsky will do at the helm.  Apparently, pre-screened versions are not pleasing the audience and Paramount is not getting much cooperation from the Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream director who has final cut. Full story here .  Is this just the beginning of inevitable controversy due to the subject matter, can we blame the good ol’ media, or is it something more?  I have some thoughts.  Come rant with me:

Why is it that the Christian community at large loves to rail against Hollywood’s interpretation of Bible stories yet they can’t ever seem to make a decent one of their own?  As a cinephile and a Christian with very strong beliefs about both I find it absolutely maddening how starkly and unnecessarily disparate the two things are.  The Bible doesn’t even need to enter into it for a bad Christian movie to be made.  Try to adapt a story from scripture and it is almost guaranteed to fail.  This happens in spite of the wealth of great characters and tales of heroism that the Bible is brimming with like an eternal spring.  The stories are free and tap into the most significant truths about the nature of man and the meaning of life.  The Bible for all of its offerings has barely been touched and the stories that are told are simply retold without expanding to new possibilities.  Hollywood doesn’t know any better.  It’s bound to rehash what it has already done and most people only know a few of the big popular stories such as Moses and the Exodus, the Gospel of Christ, Noah and the flood, and David and Goliath.  You would think the Bible is only about 80 pages long.

Christian independent filmmakers try occasionally to fix this, but the films turn out really bad.  Even if they are able to get good sets and costumes, the acting is dreadful, mostly because the scripts are so terribly written.  Hollywood  can blame it’s irreverence on ignorance and utter disregard for the value of the source material, but Christian filmmakers should know better.  To adapt a Bible story for a movie audience, you have to be a prophet.  You have to risk being unpopular and you better be offensive.  Christians are too afraid to really say something and so they make bad movies because a good movie should challenge you, especially when dealing with such weighty subjects.

The Bible is a collection of what I like to refer to as the best stories badly told.  If you read it, you know what I’m talking about.  There is a lot of great stuff in there, obviously, but to really get a solid picture in your mind of what’s going on, lot’s of supplemental reading is required.  Even with historically contextual information at your disposal, the narrative jumps and changes focus a number of ways that are difficult to keep up with.  That combined with the fact that the text is so rich with profundity and symbolism, you can read and read and read and still miss everything.  All of these great amazing ideas just sitting there for the taking are booby trapped.  You cannot take the approach of being faithful to the text and make a good movie.  The structure of the stories prohibits it.  If you do, you will make something very superficial that will not stand the test of time and only make a few camps happy in some morbid way.

By seeking not to offend, you offend regardless and alienate yourself and your work, most importantly, you render yourself completely and utterly useless.  If Jesus tried to please the Pharisees we would have no Christianity.  I am not saying your aim should be to offend.  Your aim should be truth.  Truth will stir something in people.  Naturally some of them will be offended, but in the end, something of substance has been created.

There are so many versions of the Bible.  Translation upon translation.  Never mind that most people haven’t even read the thing, there are debates over which translations are closer to the intended meaning.  Some popular preachers, like to mix and match verses from different translations to suit their own thesis.  These ministry mash-ups are but one way the scriptures get tweaked on a weekly basis in mega churches like Saddleback in southern California.  Non Christians like to think of Christians in one light probably based vastly on media coverage and partially on regional influence, but their is a whole spectrum within Christendom that is not unlike the volatile political spectrum in the United States.  A typical Christian is just as fictional and misleading as a typical American and the average American probably knows about as much about the content of the Constitution as a Christian knows about the Bible.

With all the potential controversy it’s no wonder the Bible is shunned when it comes to making a movie adaptation.  The few who attempt it are admirable, but the demands for constant compromise doom these projects from the beginning.  Yet, film has seen remarkable evolutionary changes as an industry.  No longer are we tied down to only one version of a story.  just look what a comic book franchise can mean cinematically.  visionary directors are able to explore new interpretations of movies only a few years old.  Like Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, separate accounts of the same story is not only happening with more frequency the potential value is only beginning to be recognized.  I think the world of cinema is ready for the Bible even if the audience is squeamish.  with the right shepherds, these stories can be meaningful new translations for a world increasingly populated by books as movies.  In order for that to happen though, the switch in the heads of the makers needs to flip from “what will people think?”, to “what is this story trying to say?”

You can’t tell a good Bible story on screen if you stick only to the source material.  You have to develop the story according to the true spirit of the scripture.  That is much of what the Gospel is about.  Jesus insisted on what was right when what was written had been corrupted.  When you chose to be blind to portions of the Bible to preserve your beliefs about other portions, you are allowing the same corruption.  The healthiest thing for everybody is to stop saying “this is true because…” and instead take the time honored “What if…” approach.  in order to spark conversation rather than just debate.

I don’t know what Darren Aronofsky will contribute to the conversation, but I admire him as an artist– and a provocative one at that.  I am very interested in seeing what he does with the story.  If I dislike it, it wont be the end of the world, but it has the potential to be really great.

Influential Directors: Kevin Smith

I'd see movies, comedies, and I loved 'Animal House', I loved all the John Hughes stuff, but I never saw me and my friends totally represented.

I’d see movies, comedies, and I loved ‘Animal House’, I loved all the John Hughes stuff, but I never saw me and my friends totally represented.

Of all the directors past and present it’s difficult to come up with one more influential than the guy who motivated me to pull out my credit card and buy merchandise from his website, so intensely enamored was I with the world he had created: the world which spanned from Red Bank New Jersey, to sunny LA and nearly reached the red sun of Krypton.  True, as a director he didn’t stand out a whole lot in the beginning; but what really made his work sing was the poetry he put on the page.  His scripts were so eloquent and unorthodox that half his cast usually didn’t know how to deliver the lines.  The rest honed in on the nerve of the somewhat unnatural dialogue and were able to unlock performances that others would only hope to imitate in the years to come.

An instant fan after watching Clerks I not only began snatching up videos and theater tickets for Kevin Smith films, I went after soundtracks, scripts, t-shirts, action figures, even a lunch box.  There was something accessible about Kevin, particularly in the early years, that I just felt like, “Yeah, this guy gets it.”  In a way, I think of him as a modern day Shakespeare.  The intelligence of his scripts may be called into question due to subject matter, but the targeted range of his audience is possibly wider yet more precise than any other auteur.

I was exposed to Kevin Smith a little late.  I believe Chasing Amy had hit theaters by the time I caught Clerks on VHS at my BFFs house.  I was disappointed at first that it was in black and white.  When I saw the View Askew production logo, it made me feel like I was having a secret sleepover at Neverland Ranch.  Before long though I realized that I was watching something special and it allowed me to dream about making a low-budget picture of my own one day and becoming a massive success.  Clerks and the Kevin Smith movies that followed resonated so well with me and came along at such a point in my development as a writer, that he had a lot of impact on my own style of writing as I tried to figure out what that was and how to do it.  To this day, two of my favorite stories that I have developed over the years can’t escape their Clerks and Dogma Roots.

There is also something admirable about the way Smith throws himself into the stories he writes.  The way Holden in Chasing Amy parallels Smith at the time.  Enthusiastic fans that love Bluntman and Chronic (Jay and Silent Bob), Equate them to Bill and Ted, or Cheech and Chong rather than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Vladimir and Estragon and all Holden wants is to put something personal out there like he did with his first success.  The primary differeces being that Bluntman and Cronic was a commercial success, suppressing Holden’s artistic side, while Mallrats ironically became a commercial Flop in its theatrical run, sending Smith in search of what made him stand out with his creation Clerks.  Next, he tackled his own ideas about religion and sought to arrive at a philosophy that was honest and true.  In spite of that deeper side, he never hid from the possibility of commercial success and was able to tell substantial stories just as easily as he could walk away when there was a disagreement.  An indie filmmaker who can walk both sides of the fence is pretty rare, indeed.

Though he never quite garnered the acclaim that Tarantino has and his career has taken an entirely different path, he still stands out as one of the greatest yet easily overlooked filmmakers of our time.  For starters, He has “The Jersey Trilogy.” Which is more of a trilogy than some things now that are considered such.  I love how original Smith is, while paying homage to his favorite movies.  Mallrats, like Temple of Doom, is the most disliked yet also my favorite of the three.  Also like Temple of Doom, it takes place prior to its predecessor, chronologically speaking.  Mallrats also alludes to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as does the later Clerks 2.  The first, with the boys trying to outrun La Fours, and the latter with a go cart montage.  Randal Graves also quotes Sundance in Clerks, responding to Dante’s whines with “Bitch bitch bitch.”  More than mere pop culture references, which I believe were widely popularized in the nineties by Kevin Smith.  These homages show us a kid at play riffing on the films that inspired him and keeping them relevant and timeless while creating something new to inspire others.  One of my favorite movies is Jaws, and the way that the scar comparing scene between Quint and Hooper is duplicated in Chasing Amy is truly something to geek out over.  Hooper X of course is also a character in Chasing Amy and the leads in Mallrats are Brody and T.S. Quint.

After the Jersey Trilogy, Smith went on to make three more films featuring the Jay and Silent Bob characters, plaid by him and Jason Mewes, including Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks 2, every one of them interconnected in the View Askewniverse as highlighted in the multitude of appearances in JASBSB.  Dogma was huge for me because it took on the topic of religion with an open, honest and artistically free approach, that allowed for a fully fictionalized depiction of Biblical characters and ideas, a sharp satirical look at the church, and a hopeful look at faith and the nature of God.  Of course you can’t do something like that without upsetting all kinds of people,, but he did it anyway, which is pretty cool.

Clerks has always been a big chunk of the parts that make the sum of Kevin Smith.  In between Clerks and Clerks 2 was Clerks the Animated Series.  I can’t confirm it, but I suspect the title is a play on Batman the Animated Series.  Though short lived it was a great attempt with beautiful art designs and a few really strong episodes.  My favorite of which intertwined the premise of The Last Starfighter with plots from The Bad News Bears and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  Smith’s new AMC series Comic Book Men inserts some Clerks and Mallrats flare into a Pawn Stars type show set in his comics store Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Red Bank New Jersey.

After what was essentially six Jay and Silent Bob movies, rather than go back and re-master them all with CGI or get right to work on an episode VII, Smith made a second foray into unfamiliar territory.  The first had been Jersey Girl, which I enjoyed, the next, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, introduced Kevin to Seth Rogen. Prior to the encounter, Smith reportedly didn’t really smoke weed.  In fact, so little was his interest in bud during production that it aroused concern from Rogen.  That story along with many others such as the Superman debacle with Jon Peters and the highs and lows of directing Bruce Willis is another reason I am such a fan of Smith’s.  Whether it’s a movie, a Smodcast, or a Q and A, he is one of the best storytellers ever.  Get the man talking about an experience out of his life and he will we’ve you an epic tale of fantasy and delights.  He’s taken on Hollywood for better or worse and along with the experience and the retelling of those experiences it seemed as though Smith had burned out on film just as he reached his pinnacle with the newly debuted Red State.  His first horror film, Red State, really showed how much he had grown as a director, but also has him at the top of his game as a writer.  Though unexpected in the wake of an entire career of comedy, Smith’s storytelling prowess in his latest movie is a triumph and yet he vowed to retire.

Fortunately, a Smodcast about a fake classified ad (a man seeking a tenant who would dress up like a walrus in lieu of rent) led to a “what if” scenario that captured Smith’s imagination and lead him on a journey to write, finance and shoot a feature horror script in a matter of months.  The script has Justin Long and Michael Parks attached and has created a lot of buzz.  More importantly, however, it seems to have rekindled the passion of one of my favorite, most influential filmmakers.

Influential Directors: Quentin Tarantino

QT image

“I’m all about my filmography, and one bad film f—s up three good ones.”

When I was a young movie obsessed teen my passion for learning how movies are made continued to push me behind the scenes, even as my love for the spotlight took full bloom.  The thrill of the stage was all I cared about and the prospect of stepping into any number of characters and situations and exploring the possibilities was too exciting for me.  I loved saying things I wouldn’t normally say.  I loved making people believe I was who I said I was.  Mostly though, I loved making people laugh and I was always thinking up ways to squeeze out another reaction from the crowd.  No one had to tell me there are no small parts.  Those were the ones that always intrigued me the most, but the responsibility to carry a show as the lead was also something I thankfully got to have a taste of.  When I wasn’t in reheasals I spent a lot of time on my family’s brand new Gateway computer, playing a game called Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair.  I learned so much about the process by experimenting with the game, which lets you make a movie from script writing to production, editing, foley, scoring, and finally screening.  The game was also my very first introduction to an actor whose work in film would change me forever.  He was the funny, charismatic, and brilliant Quentin Tarantino.

I can’t say enough great things about Quentin Tarantino.  I love to hear the man speak.  He is so positive and almost always has something constructive to say.  He is a champion of the art of directing and also of screenwriting.  He has an uplifting and productive attitude about what others are trying to accomplish.  Meanwhile, he can take the most basic formula and elevate it to its most extravagant form.  Tarantino is a man who understands potential and taps into the simplest truths that flow throughout the most complicated compositions.  His work is art, a feat quite difficult in the entertainment industry, especially in regards to such consistency of quality and value.  Quentin Tarantino is an incredibly talented writer and a remarkably skilled director.  His latest film Django Unchained shows seasoning on a filmmaker whose directorial debut Reservoir Dogs helped to begin a revival of independent film, and whose award winning sophomore effort Pulp Fiction became an instant classic.

The man can be a bit awkward.  There is a sense of something sort of alien about him– Like he studied everything about our planet by watching movies– and yet he seems so warm and enthusiastic and has genuinely interesting things to say.  I love to hear Tarantino talk about anything.  Whether he is defending his movie against ignorant, ratings hungry vultures, talking simply about what interests him, or threatening paparazzi, a youtube search always gives me the fix I need.  Tarantino belongs in the spotlight.  He provides terrific interviews and deserves to be a star.  He can do just about any thing he wants and yet has not lost his way as a filmmaker.  Success is a killer.  You either get your way all the time and lose track of what works, or you become paralyzed at the thought of making a false step and do only what you think will be accepted.  Tarantino has shown himself to be neither timid, nor arrogant in his pursuit to make beautiful, smart and enjoyable films.

Even Hitchcock, “Master of Suspense” has his duds.  He’s really only known for about three movies.  If you really like him you know of three more.  Even great film makers who always turn out really good movies, rarely achieve the timelessness and sophistication that Tarantino always brings to the table.  Whether he’s really great at listening to the right people, or just a naturally exceptional self editor.  He manages to always make his movie, the way he wants to see it, and it always comes out a hit.  Lots of names will draw me to a theater, many with high expectations: But not only am I never disappointed with the work Tarantino puts out, I savor it with joy.

Before I even appreciated him as a director I was drawn to him as a writer.  The whole idea of Tarantino as this defiant screenwriter out to change the way movies were written didn’t quite match up with my perception.  When I was first studying screenwriting it seemed like everyone around me was determined to learn nothing in an attempt to be original.  When we got an assignment to examine structure in one of our favorite movies I chose Reservoir Dogs, just to show how textbook it was when viewed through the right lens.  Like every other assignment in the course, I passed with flying colors.  It was one of the few situations I found myself in where my odd way of looking at things finally paid off.  I once had a writing teacher, who tried to say Longfellow was wrong to use the metaphor of footprints in sand for A Psalm of Life to symbolize leaving ones mark in history, because sand gets washed away and has no permanence.  I was the quiet kid who (let’s face it) usually wasn’t paying any attention, but I couldn’t let it go uncontested.  I explained “my take” on the poem, to which she quite seriously replied that I had given the author too much credit.  She was the embodiment of the minds over the years that I refused to let shape me.  If Tarantino had taken any college courses in writing, I wonder if he would have been discouraged,  But that defiance, that rebelliousness so readily attributed to a high school drop out serves only to undermine the genius of an artist who has seriously done his homework.  A true student of film from all over the world, Tarantino jeopardized a possible acting career by taking a steady job at Video Archives, a rental store in Manhattan Beach, California.  There his expertise grew and flourished as he soaked up inspiration that would fuel one of the brightest burning talents the film industry would ever know.  It’s also where he met the Co-writer of Pulp Fiction, Roger Avery.

My first introduction to Tarantino as a writer, was From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, directed by his friend Robert Rodriguez.  If Hitchcock is the Master of Suspense, I strongly believe Tarantino should go down in history as the master of Tension.  It may not go noticed because he has so many strengths in structure, dialogue, visual style… but take key scenes from Inglorious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.  Even if it’s just two people talking, you know something is going to happen.  You may not know what, but something big is about to go down, and Tarantino knows, more than anything else, how to build on that until the perfect moment.  In the first scene of my first movie written by tarantino I was scared.  It’s just a Sherriff chewing the fat with a convenience store clerk, but it’s eerie as hell and before anything even happens you know something is going down.  The prologue to Reservoir Dogs is the same way.  It’s uneasy.  All these guys sitting around the table, they’re bad guys and they don’t really know each other, when Mr. Blonde playfully shoots Mr. White, you get the distinct impression he might actually do it for realsies.  It sets a remarkable tone for the rest of the film.

Prior to his meteoric rise to stardom and international acclaim he penned the scripts for True Romance (which came out the year after Reservoir Dogs with a star studded cast featuring appearances by Christopher Walken, Bradd Pitt, Dennis Hopper, Samuel L Jackson, Gary Oldman and Balki from Mypos) and Natural Born Killers.  both were reworked but the first (directed by Tony Scott) was truer to Tarantino’s vision than the latter.

Still an actor at heart, Tarantino wrote the part of Mr. Pink for himself, even warned Buscemi that his audition better be “really good”  In the end, Buscemi is just pasty skinned awesome sauce and Tarantino had to admit defeat, he still got a part, though, and still likes to give himself those little cameos which endears him to me even more than if he had subtle appearances as an extra or withdrew from the stage altogether.  As a director, he is able to effectively translate his own writing for the audience, better than anyone else could.  He pushes boundaries, fuses genres and is very visually dynamic, which compliments his vast content and well defined characters.  His one adaptation, Jackie Brown, came hot on the heels of Pulp Fiction and though it was different from Pulp Fiction in the sense that Unbreakable was different from The Sixth Sense, It is was considered by Elmore Leonard to be the best adaptation of his work out of 26 films.  A fan of Leonard, Tarantino was able to be true to the author’s work and make it undoubtedly his own in the process.

Clearly He has fun at his work and at the same time, takes it seriously and wants it done right.  I don’t know how he strikes that magical balance of whimsy and restraint.  There has been a lot of talk about his retirement, partially, due to the rise of digital projection.  So dedicated is he to film that he bought a building housing the New Beverly Cinema to save it from redevelopment and ensure the theater will continue to use traditional projectors.  He has said he plans to retire from film and become an author after the age of sixty, which would give us ten years and possibly two more films; But he also said he could stop at any time, though he thinks ten films provides a nice aesthetic for his filmography.  He’s very dedicated to his own resume and doesn’t want to make a film that doesn’t belong there.  You have to respect that.  He seems to believe a director ages like wine– in terms of vinegar.   I value that insight, except Django Unchained really showed off the fact that Tarantino has not only still got it, he’s better than ever.  I can see how that sort of diligence and commitment to making an exceptional film would lead someone to thoughts of retirement, especially in interviews immediately following the film’s release.  I know the Kill Bill films were something Quentin kind of thought of as a book and he has been interested in making a Volume 3, though he eventually said another film in the series is unlikely.  Perhaps, when he does make the transition to author it will take the form of a novel.  Since Michael Crichton passed, I have been on the lookout for a new author.  I can’t say I won’t be sorry for the loss as far as film is concerned, but I will always celebrate his contributions with much enthusiasm and I view Quentin Tarantino as the greatest inspiration and his career the height of cinematic achievement.

Influential Directors: Robert Zemeckis

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“I could never… do only one kind of movie. Anything that’s good is worthwhile.”

If I’m going to give credit to the directors that have influenced me throughout my life, I would be remiss to neglect one of the most influencial filmmakers of my young years. Randal Graves once said there is “only one trilogy,” but it isn’t Star Wars 4-6 and it isn’t Lord of the Rings. It’s not even Indiana Jones, though it is a tight race (maybe even a coin flip’s difference). The trilogy above all trilogies is Back to the Future and the director in question is none other than Robert Zemeckis.

To be honest, I tuned out when Zemeckis got into all of that mo-cap stuff. I just hate that style of filmmaking. It’s an incredible tool when used well to create realism and believability in films like King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Lord of the Rings, but when stretched beyond its strengths the technology destroys the cinematic experience.  In an animated film, one of the key challenges is finding that balance between over and under-defining characters.  A Pixar artist will add just enough detail to be breathtaking without going too far and making an awkward, eerie, too real representation.  When a film relies entirely on mo-cap technology the composition becomes muddled and it makes the job of the director so much harder than it should be, because ultimately he has to decide when it looks right and it almost never will.

Motion capture has the potential to be ultra realistic and yet it is the job of the artists to create a balanced look, or the contrast between realistic and cartoonish features clash on screen and can be impossible to adjust to.  Some films have to be animated.  Some are better as a live action feature.  No film ever needs to be mo-cap in it’s entirety.  However, despite his apparent over reliance on cutting edge technology, nobody incorporates state of the art tech into brilliant storytelling quite like Zemeckis.  I think of him as an efficient Spielberg/Cameron hybrid.  Take A Christmas Carol.  Though it failed to work as a whole in my opinion, there is some really great stuff in there that I think only could have been pulled off by Zemeckis.

Zemeckis made the riveting thriller What Lies Beneath and Forrest Gump, which I happen to just have been listening to Alan Silvestri’s score from.  but what really sets him up as one of my favorites is that he made Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Another massive technological achievement, Who Framed Roger Rabbit combines China Town with a wacky world in which animated characters interract with humans.  It’s one of my favorite movies as I love detective stories and film noir and I think the collaboration between the major animation studios is an achievement in itself (Daffy Duck and Donald dueling pianos!).  This film captured my imagination unlike any other.  I had seen Pete’s Dragon of course and portions of Song of the South, but for the first time the combination of live action and animation felt real to me and Toon Town, became a destination within my fantasies.

This was all happening in the midst of my obsession with Back to the Future which further cemented Zemeckis in my mind as a force to be reckoned with.  Though I was only 8 when Back to the Future part 2 came out (I desperately wanted a hoverboard) Robert Zemeckis next to Steven Spielberg is the first director I was actually aware of in a time when I was still learning to distinguish actors names from the characters they played.  Incidentally, Michael J Fox was my childhood hero on the strength of his roles as Alex P. Keaton, Teen Wolf, and of course Marty McFly.  I’m still immensely fond of him.  So, Zemeckis gets bonus points for being responsible for part of that trifecta.

Back to the future is one of the greatest films of all time.  I think it speaks volumes that it has survived so many other time travel and special effects movies of the decade, but I hope it will remain forever considered a classic.  Every generation should know and love the film.  It’s just so fun and clever and polished.  The characters are brilliantly developed.  The story is deftly plotted, piling set-up upon set-up for a lineup of the most amazing pay-offs.  It’s so thought out and thematically supercharged,  yet so whimsical and light and full of terrific dialogue.  While it carries itself like an average teen comedy it is so exceptional it is truly next to nothing in terms of its inherent value.  And if you want to talk about influece, lets talk about the torment I went through waiting for the third installment of the trilogy after Marty came back to 1955 and scared the hell out of Doc Brown.  The “To Be Continued” card was devastationg!  There is also something brilliant in the seemlessness of parts two and three, because they are a seperate story yet they have a momentum to them that makes the three part set feel like a whole.

Zemeckis has range, too.  From the wacky dark comedy of Death Becomes Her, to the Science fiction drama of Contact, to the solitary and desolate feature Cast Away, Zemeckis has revealed himself to be one of the industry’s top storytellers. What Lies Beneath, without the Z factor could have been shuffled away as just another Ghost story, but if you weary of the same tired concepts, Zemeckis’s creativity is a breathe of fresh air for the genre.  Another one of my favorites is Romancing the Stone, which I watched often as a kid. It had everything I wanted in a movie and I never tired of watching it. Now, I see it and I’m not exactly sure why I was so into the film, but at the time it was one of my favorites and certainly served to influence my tastes and expectations at an early age.

At home in Chicago, Zemeckis found creative freedom in an artless home through the family’s super 8 camera and became impassioned when he learned about film school on an airing of The Tonight Show. Though his parents strongly cautioned him, he applied for USC and though originally not accepted, he made a phone call to the admissions office and begged for a place. It was at USC that Zemeckis met Bob Gale, the co-writer of Back to the Future. The fact that he does a good deal of screenwriting and directing I think goes a long way toward making him one of the most effective and influencial storytellers of the last thirty years.

It was his expertise in incorporating special effects that imbued me with a thirst and excitement for knowledge about how films are made.  By addressing my belief in what I saw on screen, and learning a bit about behind the scenes planning, I began to piece together how to make the unreal appear real and put that skill to work for the first time, using forced perspective to create a monstrous giant in a student film of David and Goliath when I was twelve.  Though my dream was to become an actor, Zemeckis had opened a window that would eventually push me behind the stage and onto a computer which introduced concepts and production aspects I never dreamed of and eventually lead me to screenwriting.

Influential Directors: Tim Burton

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“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”

One of the most influential directors of my life has been Tim Burton.  His vision is incomparable and the imagery he conjures up in many of his films not only capture the imagination, but they seem somehow to unearth to the buried fantasies and nightmares from deep within me.  Perhaps it is because I grew up with his films and they have taught me to some degree what imagination looks like.  That idea of imagination as a sort of entity, or life force that has fed on artists– or inspired them, whichever way you see it– has really helped to shape my view of what makes a movie work beyond the storytelling.

If a story is an object of purpose, like a chair or a table, than imagination is the tree.  It’s complex and full of functions that serve no purpose in relation to the chair (or maybe they contribute to the chair without directly serving as a piece of the final object).  Without imagination there is no art and there are certainly no stories.  It is the raw material that becomes carved, chiseled, painted, honed (or in Burton’s case sketched) and captured into a final piece.

This idea of what imagination means as a source for artistic expression has resulted in my distaste for many newer works that attempt to showcase imagination itself.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not opposed to the odd flight of fancy, or spectacle; but without a construct, such as story, it shares a common relationship to nature.  It’s full of rare beauty and inspiration, but you can only look at it for so long and it’s really a mere jumping off point for a true connection, or expressive experience.

It’s for this reason that it disappoints me to see imagination treated not as means to an end, but the new goal of filmmakers particularly in the genres that touch on fantasy.  It should be something you start with to create something real, but it is now treated as a sort of aesthetic that directors strive for.  Tim Burton, in a large way helped to create that aesthetic, though the lushness of his vision enabled him to show everything possible within the confines of the frame and the context of the story.  He includes minor, but relevant details to enhance the sense of wonder in films like Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish, and Edward Scissorhands.  His sensibility, best illustrated in films like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman and Mars Attacks could be called “quirky” another precious resource hollywood and independent production companies have over mined and attempted to synthesize into a sort of quirkic zirconia for those dreadful “off-beat” comedies  that come from a trend following opportunist rather than the heart of an artist.

In my personal opinion, Burton peaked when he made his monumental masterpiece Sweeney Todd.  Up until that point I had enjoyed every one of his films and Sweeney took the cake.  It was one of the most gorgeous films I had ever seen and I raved about it long after, much to the chagrin of everybody.  Now the director is in demand and selling inferior stories with his flashy brand of packaging most evident in Alice in Wonderland, but Alice in Wonderland notwithstanding, great stories with true vision like the Sam Raimi directed Oz: The Great and Powerful, or Coraline would not be possible without Tim Burton.  The latter was directed by Henry Selick, who for years was referred to only as the director of The Nightmare before Christmas, which sadly lead to the assumption of many that his films were directed by Nightmare’s producer Tim Burton and kept the audience at large from knowing who the real Nightmare Before Christmas director really was.

It’s strange for me and it must be strange for Burton that the very sensibility that had him eschewed from the Walt Disney Animation Studios in the 80’s is now so in demand.  Unfortunately, while Burton is a remarkable director he is not a screenwriter (Some of his better films started out as his stories but he usually hands them off to someone else.) and the strength of his films rests on the scribes entrusted with the task of providing him with a map to navigate.  When he doesn’t have such a map (as he did with Big Fish, Batman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…) he must rely on the raw matter of imagination and exploit his gift to make up for other lacking parts, thereby diminishing its value and appearing disingenuous, or possibly worse, hackneyed.

The Hobbit is a perfect example of the state of contemporary use of imagination in cinema.  The contrast between the content of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and two-part (really?) The Hobbit is palpable.  The first trilogy captured the books and really showed us something glorious at a time when that sort of movie had not really been done.  Peter Jackson’s follow-up King Kong was long, but beautifully done and could not spare a single frame from the final cut in my opinion ( I actually went back and watched the film, looking for superfluous, dull, or unnecessary scenes and found none).  Now, with factory made dreamscapes, the natural wonder of Tolkien’s middle earth is in ruins, slathered with a veneer of overly digitized images oozing with insincerity.  We have gone from making fantasy believable to worshiping the idea of fantasy so that we abolish any notion of credibility.  Even the actors then seem like actors desperate to rope the audience in to their little game, rather than characters in that world,  unaware of our involvement.

The first time I think I was influenced by Tim Burton’s imagination was probably Pee Wee’s, Big Adventure.  I didn’t like it at all.  I was scared by it– I think it’s why I hate clowns– but I was fascinated by it, too.  Maybe it was because I loved Pee Wee’s Playhouse so much, or maybe it was my psyche coming to terms with the odd things that seemed to terrify me, from Large Marge and rescuing snakes from a burning pet shop to Francis’s oozing chewing gum (I don’t know why, but it creeped me out.).  I was prepared for Beetlejuice, which I think planted the seeds that grew into my own sense of style and vision.  Strangely, I never thought of Tim Burton, or his material as dark.  I just didn’t have that take on him at all.  His visuals were inspiring and real to me and characters like Edward Scissorhands and Jack Skellington were relatable.

For a long time dark was the main word used to encapsulate a Tim Burton take on a project.  Perhaps because his take on Batman didn’t wear grey tights and tell corny jokes.  When Batman came out in 1989 it was the first time I had seen a Tim Burton film on the big screen.  It was also my introduction to the character and I was an instant fan.  The sequel, Batman Returns was the first movie I remember truly and impatiently anticipating.  Edward Scissorhands stole my heart.  I thought it was a beautiful fairy tale and nothing seemed strange, or off about it in the sense that Burton was regarded in those terms.  It was just wonderful.  I have come to love film noir and to embrace and greatly appreciate forms and aspects of darkness, both visually and conceptually, but I never considered the work of Tim Burton to be definitively dark.  Batman the Animated Series was darker than anything Tim Burton has shown us, so I don’t really understand that assumption.  On the other hand he does dark well.  Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, Flatliners) is a darker director in my opinion, but he managed to significantly lighten up the Batman franchise after Burton had his way with it with the infamous 3rd and 4th instalments.

You could argue that the dark sensibility Tim Burton is known for, revealed in the black comedy Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow are the remnants of his own childhood inspirations coming through, and perhaps, forcing his artistic vision into a category of light, or dark is to put a filter over it and unduly censor, trivialize or otherwise undermine the integrity of his work.  Now, however it is something in demand: quirky, off-beat, dark, weird… more people are seeing these traits as something to aspire to and imitate.  The look supersedes the content and superficial forgeries fabricated from those who seek imagination rather than nurture it, who idolize and aggrandize it rather than sharpen and hone it are muddying up the waters.  While I felt that Dark Shadows sort of embodies that very reversal of style over substance it felt very flat and lifeless to me.  instead of expressive as most of Tim Burton’s films have been it was expected, playing off of the public’s notion of a Tim Burton film.  Even Frankenweenie, which was a beautiful remake of his short film for Buena Vista failed to recapture the magic of some great moments in the original when duplicated for the feature.

So this misunderstood artist was shunned by studios who had no use for his weird ideas and went on to shape the minds of a generation now targeted by those studios who want to tap into that rather substantial niche and will pay through the nose for it, but I have a feeling the pressure and responsibility from all that money and blind faith and the new larger fan base to appease are crippling his ability to function as he had.  In a way his influence has come full circle and is now working against him.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a wonderful film and very “Tim Burton”–  One of the last ones that truly was– yet many were unsatisfied, setting up the new dynamic of expectation that would turn the tide and threaten to blot out this imaginative force with superficial new demands.

Burton now produces more films than he directs and my hope is that in the process he will rediscover his own voice and once again find something personal to say.  His next film will be Big Eyes, a biographical drama about artist Margaret Keane starring Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams.  This is one I eagerly anticipate as I have the general feeling it will mark a sort of resurrection for Tim Burton as a genuine artist and provide an opportunity for a new round of more penetrating influence.

2012’s Biggest Let Downs

The 2013 Academy Awards was fun and there was much to celebrate. But 2012 also delivered some great disappointments that should have been mega hits. All of these movies were disappointing, but some had farther to fall. I’ll start with the least disappointing:

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Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Why it should have been great:

The floodgates have opened and comics are taking form on the big screen in exciting ways that were never before possible.  They have gained enormous traction in mainstream appeal and reboots have become commonplace enough that a new take on a familiar favorite can be seen just a few years after the last one.  No comic book franchise needed a fresh vision quite as badly as the underwhelming Ghost Rider.  The sequel, Spirit of Vengeance was Sony’s chance to get it right, especially after they fought so hard to retain the rights to the property.

What went wrong:

The script was rushed to meet Sony’s deadline and the movie didn’t have much going on beneath the special effects.  The lack of inspiration and daring lead to a run of the mill, action flick with a dull climax and a hokey twist of redemption for the tragic hero.

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Total Recall

Why it should have been Great:

Two 80’s classics from the mind of cult sci-fi mastermind Philip K. Dick appeared to have converged when the Schwartzenegger vehicle Total Recall was given a 21st century face lift with a  Blade Runner inspired set design.

What went wrong:

Everything.  The movie was not only flat, but the echos of the vibrant pulse of the 80’s original still spikes over the bland re-creation of every plot point.  Without at least an interesting new twist at the end, there is literally no reason to watch it.

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The Raven

Why it should have been great:

John Cusack stars as Edgar Allan Poe in a Sherlock Holmes style thriller based on Poe’s numerous tales.  Seriously, what part of that sentence doesn’t sound awesome?

What went wrong:

Edgar Allan Poe is a literary giant.  Screenwriter Hannah Shakespeare, despite her name, is not.  Though the visuals were pretty on target the story consisted of finding clues and arriving too late and finding clues… after a while it feels like a loop and it fails to contribute to or adequately explore Poe’s works, so the promising allure of the premise rises again nevermore.

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Prometheus

Why it should have been great:

Alien Prequel.

What went wrong:

Connecting the film to the highly successful franchise and bringing back the director that started it all gave false hope to many who wanted to see a compelling sci-fi horror film; and instead delivered an elaborately designed, but ill-plotted, quasi-philosophical, highly questionable storyline.  It pretends to explore the chasm between faith and science without taking a leap for true discovery, or at least making a convincing argument for either.

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The Dark Knight Rises

Why it should have been great:

The Dark Knight was a phenomenal achievement on top of the already acclaimed Batman Begins, which turned the genre on its head and delivered the Batman fans had been craving.  Audiences demanded a reprise and ceaselessly speculated about the next installment before Nolan even agreed to do another.  So the bar was set pretty high and the anticipation was palpable.

What went wrong:

Since I won’t review a film I haven’t seen in its entirety, this is my one chance to explain why I hate TDKR so much and forever hold my peace.  For starters, the decision to turn the series into a trilogy was near-sighted, and selfish.  I hate that TDKR is referred to as the final chapter of the Dark Knight trilogy, because that implies that the three films have more connective tissue than they do.  TDKR is not a natural conclusion to Batman Begins and there was no need for such an abrupt ending to the series.  I realize that there is a Ra’s Al Ghul connection and the Scarecrow even makes his third appearance, but these elements were contrived to bookend a series that artificially truncates the Dark Knight’s story. The forced conclusion effectively makes future installments by other directors extremely difficult and all but eliminates the possibility of continuing Batman films in the same vein.  It’s also worth noting that M.Night Shyamalan already did what Nolan gets so much credit for when he made Unbreakable, which was in essense the first installment of a trilogy that never happened, because it was too problematic.

The story chosen, taking Gotham under siege and revolting against its wealthy class (Occupy Gotham), lacks the layers and depth that the first two films had and simply piles scene upon scene, tenuously linking these separate characters and ideas together when they could have all been better used under different circumstances.  Rather than reinforce the story by reiterating a solid theme, Nolan pulls from three separate storylines in the Batman universe and files them down in order to force pieces together that don’t belong. The scenes were shallow and lacked the showmanship of the previous films that made it possible; serving as little more than bullet points to an over-reaching plot.  If they dropped the Dent angle and the Bane escape in the beginning, and hit Wayne harder when he was in his prime, not pissing away his inheritance in solitude.  They could have had a solid opening.  I would have liked to see an intro that finds Batman at war with the police possibly discovering “Robin” to be a worthy adversary/potiential apprentice.

Also, if they weren’t going to have Batman for most of the movie, they should have introduced Azrael, his temporary replacement, rather than setting up a Robin. I love Robin and JGL, but why use screen time setting something up when you are concluding your “trilogy”.  When Batman is in the movie, the action is a joke.  I think history will tell that people would rather forget about this film. It basically spits on the success of the franchise and gives its audience the finger. Bottom line is, if Nolan didn’t want to do the movie, he should have left it alone and let someone else take a crack at it.  Still, I had seen enough warning signs to diminish my expectations, so it wasn’t my biggest let down of the year.

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Brave

Why it should have been great:

It’s Pixar, first of all, and it was in development for a really long time.  It was going to be the first folk/fairy tale by the studio, effectively trading places with Walt Disney Animation Studios which made the much more Pixar sounding Wreck-it Ralph.  When it was titled The Bear and the Bow, the early artwork was gorgeous and the original story description read like and Mulan meets The Little Mermaid.

What went wrong:

They changed writers and dropped the title in an attempt to make the Bear element a surprise.  The quality of the animation slipped by Pixar standards, apparently putting everyone on staff on “hair duty” and letting everything else slide.”  The story was slow, way too simple for its running time and it did little to distinguish itself from the previous Disney disappointment Brother Bear.

Giving Up and Walking Out: How to Press Eject Before it’s Too Late

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Highly anticipated: Even higher pay-off

I haven’t written a review in a while.  Mostly because a lot of the films I’ve seen have really disappointed me (some of which were highly anticipated and from directors I typically hold in high regard) and I don’t like writing negative reviews.  I feel more energized and excited and better all around when I can say a bunch of positive stuff, I also love being able to share the experience and say, “Hey, you should see this.”  I find it much more valuable than finding out which movies to steer clear of.  Also, if someone likes a movie I don’t, that’s fine.  I’m much more inclined to argue my point if someone doesn’t like a film I am particularly fond of.  I haven’t only seen bad films, but nothing lately has really compelled me to write about it.  Not long ago I saw Django Unchained.  I had an absolute blast.  Tarantino is just a master and so full of passion and fun and whimsy in addition to being able to create such polished and consistent drama.  It tires me out thinking of all the great things I can say about QT and his work and his work really transcends anything I can say about it at this point.  At least that’s how I feel.  Sure, he has his detractors, but he can handle them.

gi django waltzThe last thing I wanted to do after I saw Django was review it.  I just wanted to see it again and maybe write Tarantino a thank you letter.  I still might.  Instead, I called my best friend to tell him what I did;  That I had seen the film in Portland’s Cinetopia and that I watched it with Dechutes Chain Breaker Ale (chosen for both theme and deliciousity).  Well, he hadn’t seen it yet, but we got to talking about other films including The Dark Knight Rises, which I had finally gotten around to renting.  I told him the sad truth.  I didn’t finish it.  I turned it off  and replaced it with my DVD copy of 1989’s Batman (Robert Wuhl FTW!).  I wanted a real Batman movie, not whatever that was.  And I had plenty of complaints, but mostly it was just boring, convoluted, and ultimately lacked style.  It may work for some, but not for me.  I expected something consistent with The Dark Knight and TDKR is really just, passionless and overreaching in my opinion.

So, then began our dispute about whether, or not it is okay to judge a movie before watching it in its entirety.  He believes that a movie is meant to be seen as a whole and only after the entire story is allowed to play out should you be allowed to criticise.  I understand that point of view.  It’s wrong, but I understand it.  The truth is, short of walking out of the theater and demanding a refund, you absolutely can and should be able to determine within minutes of the film’s opening if it is going to be worth the investment of your time.

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Corny

We do it with trailers all the time.  They are supposed to hook us and make us want to see the film, but it’s also part of a screening process.  You are given a few glimpses of images designed to sell you on the movie, but they still have to  use their movie to do it, so you can speculate from just a 30 second spot just how much potential the film has to be good.  You can hypothesise whether all of the good shots from the movie were used in the trailer, whether you’ve been there and seen that, and whether there is enough depth, originality, humor, or vision to set it apart from its competitors.  When I saw the trailer for TDKR my enthusiasm, already deflated by the Bane prologue I had seen, sank into complete disinterest.  We as consumers have to weigh out the options just as production companies determine their next investments.

gi tv setIf you want to write a screenplay, you can.  Nobody can stop you.  If you want to write a movie, you suddenly have a ton of opposition to overcome.  The least of which is selling your vision to someone who thinks they can profit off of it, and that’s only after you’ve proven you can be taken seriously as a writer.  That means you have to get the right contacts, you have to sell what people are buying, you have to compromise, you have to deliver.  In short, you have to abandon the notion of “your movie” and give your investors the product they are after.  Now, I’m not down on the system.  It’s a business and it’s no better or worse than any other industry.  In fact, I think it’s wonderful that art finds a way in the industry and you can find great work in studio productions as well as independent ones.  What I’m saying is it is hard, rigorous work to get in and establish a foothold in the business.  You have to meet the approval of many and pass a series of trials to succeed, but that doesn’t guarantee a good product.  For as much history that we have to refer to and as many how to guides that point out the basics of the craft of telling a good story it would seem that the ones who do the financing, still don’t understand how to differentiate between good solid entertainment and garbage.  Millions of movies come out of the woodwork and we the consumers who drive the industry are left to determine what’s good and bad as though there were no screening process at all and anyone is free to just make and distribute a bad movie, no matter the cost.

gi schlockIn most cases, it’s the indie films that really let me down.  For one, they don’t have quite as much publicity, so I am usually going into it blind, whereas if they had been marketed by a big distribution company I would have been exposed enough to the film to determine if I thought it would be right for me.  They also lack in production value and often are not directed with much finesse.  It’s hard to say exactly where an indie film goes wrong because usually the whole cast and crew is somewhat inexperienced.  You can’t always pinpoint if the writing is bad or if the actor just didn’t land it, or if better photography or more interesting coverage could save a scene that is flat.  Still, I find the same problems in big budget actioners or comedies that I just find unwatchable.  So indie films are no more likely a source of great art than “Big Hollywood” can be blamed for all mindless schlock.

gi netflix instantHere’s the thing: There are so many movies out there mainstream or not, and with several digital media platforms streaming an endless supply of potential entertainment, “consumer me” expects “film you” to get my attention and not let go, lest I find something much, much better out there to occupy my time.  For as hard as it is for a good writer to get noticed, it is an insult to see much of the turds deemed worthy to polish and exhibit because of some x factor that might incite just enough interest to raise a profit.  It becomes necessary, with such a saturated marketplace, to become a little more aware of the quality of product we are offered, especially when we pay to view such content.

gi promoMy first step in personally determining what movies I choose to watch was ignoring the stars.  They are the easiest way to push a bad movie on an audience and they often have least to do with whether, or not the film is any good.  They don’t even know how the movie is going to turn out, yet they are saddled with the task of mustering up enthusiasm in appearances on talk shows.  The things I look to are the writer– because the script is the backbone of the film– and the director, because ultimately they determine the most of what the finished product will be.  The better the track record the more the likelihood that a movie will be worth the ticket price.   It’s unfortunate then that actors work so much more than writers and directors and your trusted handful of artists make so few appearances.

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Screenwriter Drew Pearce’s only feature film credits are all still in production.

It’s also remarkable how often a high-profile tent pole, or other highly anticipated property is entrusted to writers whose IMDB profile credits them with only commercials and a short or two, or some relatively unknown television series.  As a consumer, it’s hard to trust these resume’s when it’s obvious the studios are banking on the appeal and recognition of the property itself, such as the recent slew of Hasbro related films.  Sometimes the producer has directing or writing clout that he uses while giving some young hotshot a chance.  That’s very cool, but also a little tricky and not always reliable.  In the case of TDKR, Chris Nolan is the director who elevated both the franchise and the genre.  He has a fantastic track record, but I also took a cue from the lack of willingness I perceived in regards to making a third installment.  I felt as though he did not want to make the film, but either the money was too good or he was already under contract for a third.

The role of the critic remains essential for helping to sift through all of the options.  They watch it and tell you what you can expect.  You find one of those that you trust and you are golden.  When TDKR finally came out, the critics I read gave reluctant mixed reviews, indicating that the movie had indeed fallen short of the glory of its predecessor. I again opted to hold off on watching the film which continued to show signs of disappointment.  But the critic is just a guide, and if the movie in question isn’t high-profile enough it may go unnoticed by many.  If you want entertainment now, as so many distributors promise, you have to trailblaze a little bit.  This is where it helps to recognize quickly whether or not you may have stumbled on the wrong path.

Again, it starts with scriptwriting and the process that so many readers at production companies and agencies go through just to pick that one promising gem out of the thousands of submissions.  Some people may only request the first ten or thirty pages.  That’s enough to see where the story is going or even if you have a story.  My screenwriting mentor Jonathan O’Brien stated that he could tell in ten pages if a script was going to work, and usually his instinct would be right after the first page.  If a page translates to a minute on-screen as it is supposed to then the same time frame should theoretically apply.  About ten to thirty minutes in, you usually have enough of an idea where this movie is going to determine if you want to continue watching.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you give up on it though and there are several reasons to continue to give it a chance.

gi fight club nortonFor one, the film may be very good at eluding your perceptions and preconceptions.  It is entirely possible that a film is exceptionally good and you don’t know it until you reflect on it later.  These movies you may downright loathe, but that feeling is rooted in uncertainty over what is being conveyed rather than the overall quality of the piece.  I remember the first time I saw Fight Club, I was very uncomfortable and found it tedious at times to the point of near torture.  I had empathized so much with Edward Norton’s character that it really put me through the wringer and only near the end did I get the chance to appreciate one of the most rewatchable and influential films of my lifetime, certainly a personal favorite.  If I had turned it off I’m sure I would be likely to catch it at some point years later and maybe have an entirely different experience.  So judgement should not be considered final even if it is swift and harsh.  Still, this is not the type of movie I am referring to when I talk about “giving up” on a movie.

gi poster bottlerocketYou may have even a more passive experience that leads closer to boredom than anguish, just out of the uncertainty of whether there is indeed a story.  Wes Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, but I have to be honest that I rarely “get it” the first time around.  His movies are so subtle with such a slow burn.  If you aren’t the stop and smell the roses type, it can be difficult to appreciate right off, but the craft is certainly there, buried among layers of atmosphere and keen observation.  Only after I’ve finished watching one of his films am I really able to start processing all that I have seen in a manageable context.  On the flip side, there are sometimes terrible movies, that are also at least good enough with craft, that even though you know it’s a mind numbing waste of time they manage to bait you into watching a littler longer and a littler longer until finally you reach the climax and before you know it your whole afternoon is gone.  They tricked you.  Because they had a basic understanding of formula, they were able to tell their mediocre story just well enough to keep you from looking for something else to do.

Popular opinion is the basic model we are expected to follow on sites like Netflix and amazon.com.  Other viewers’ scoring based on a five star system indicates the average rating given to a particular movie.  Unfortunately, right out the gate you can see a problem with the type of streaming options that are available.  The large majority of instant options get one and two star ratings.  Redbox offers cheap rentals, but mostly the same kind of sub par offerings with the exception of possibly a couple of good new releases and an occasional pleasant surprise.  When you are streaming entertainment that is part of a monthly service fee, giving up on a movie is as easy as changing the channel.  It’s harder if you’ve paid a buck twenty or up to four dollars to rent it.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t do it.  I’m serious about this.  A two star rating might make you feel better about not liking a film, but by chosing to give it a chance you showed that you are capable of ignoring public opinion.  If you turn that ability the other way and ignore high ratings as well it can be very freeing.  Like critics, rating systems based on public opinion can be great clues, but they are not fool-proof.  You decide what you want to see, but that power of decision doesn’t begin and end with pressing play.

I would never write a review for a movie that I haven’t seen from start to finish.  That is absolutely messed up.  But I have judged several, movies often within the first ten minutes, thereby adding days to my life.  I take the idea that a film should be judged in its entirety from a different perspective.  Even if a film miraculously has a terrific ending that is massively inconsistent with its beginning, the beginning is still decisively bad.  Even after finishing the movie on a good note there will still be that one thing–that it being horrible thing– that ruins it.  So if you’re bored and no longer care how the movie ends, that’s a good indication that it not only is a bad film for failing to hold your attention, but there is really no need to continue devoting your time to it.  After all, it’s there for your entertainment, and unlike a boring party guest, you can just shut it off and look the other way.  Why would you continue to watch something that you already know is not working.  Your rental money is already spent and will be waisted either way, might as well redeem what time you still can.

gi batmanI gave  about an hour to TDKR before pulling the plug shortly after Batman makes his unimpressive first appearance.  I had been shuffling scenes and rewriting the film in my mind, from the very beginning.  This was not the Batman I wanted to see and I yearned for a better adaptation, which is why I pulled out my copy of Batman and saved the evening with moody atmosphere, wonderful toys and one of film’s most quotable goofballs, Alexander Knox.

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“Lieutenant, is there a six foot bat in Gotham City? And if so, is he on the police payroll? And if so, what’s he pulling down… after taxes?”

People say that I missed most of the movie and that it all comes together, but most of them also agree that it doesn’t come together very well.  I certainly didn’t want to see another two hours of what I had been watching and one hour is way too much time to hold off an audience before allowing a film to become acceptable, especially in the wake of TDK.

Cutting your losses and saying goodbye to that rental money is the hardest thing.  Judging a film you only partially watched is easy.  It’s already been determined that it failed to entertain you.  You paid your money and went in with good intentions.  The movie started and set everything up and at some point you realized “this is really bad.”  Why should you have to sit idly through the entire production just to feel justified in your feelings of betrayal?  You shouldn’t.  To me, that bad, used portion of the movie and the lack of motivation to continue watching is evidence enough.  If you don’t like your Starbucks latte, you don’t drink the whole thing before complaining.  It’s better to say,” it was so bad I stopped drinking it,” than to hand them an empty cup and shrug.

A Noteworthy Discussion

Playing the waiting game while somebody else has your script isn’t easy.  In my case I haven’t even passed in on yet because I’m waiting on printer ink.  But I’m not squandering this time, either in anxious anticipation, or “vacationing” from the script.  I’m not pouring over it either, fussing over tweaks and small changes.  I am, however using this time to consider what I’ve written from a distance.

Sure, I went through when the draft was done to handle some spelling problems and minor details, but what begins to happen when you repeatedly go over something like this without a break is it all starts to become a bit boring.   Instead, I walk away from it, but I allow new thoughts to circulate.  It’s a rough draft and I have concerns about it that need to be addressed in my next revision.  As I reflect on where I think there may be issues I make a note of it in a separate notebook.  I may come up with a pretty good list on my own, but I’m going to continue to keep those notes separate until I am able to discuss the script with somebody who’s read it.

There are a couple of reasons for waiting.  One is to reduce the number of rewrites on your script and keep your mind as fresh and interested in the project as possible.  There is no question you will be rewriting the script after it is read, no matter what.  So hold off on your own notes until you have a fresh perspective from a reader or two at your disposal.  The other is so that you can address your own concerns with somebody else who knows the story, before injecting it into the story without feedback to your initial work.

I’m very happy with my draft and the notes I’ve come up with so far to make it better.  I put my best work into its creation and I know that as imperfect as it is, going back and trying to rewrite it so soon will only hamper my excitement and hinder its development.  So, instead I think about it as I think about a movie after I’ve watched it.  I think about what sticks, what needs more push, more depth, or more reinforcement.  In some cases, maybe less of something is needed, though with this draft I tended to keep it very lean.

Because I deviated from my original outline for the sake of telling the story in a more dramatic and interesting way, I was forced to bush-whack into uncharted territory while finding a way back to the ending I had envisioned.  The second act turned out to be exciting and exhausting and shorter than I planned originally due to the sensitivity of the plot once it hit the turning point.  That is to say, that once I determined that I could no longer keep the cardinal reveal a secret to the reader, the following scenes delivered and onslaught of intensity that barreled relentlessly toward their inevitable conclusion.  Because of this the question arises in my mind of whether or not I should add some length to the second act, or leave it alone.  Ultimately, the thoughts of my readers will impact that decision.  In the meantime, it is helpful to take a step back and redo my outline to reflect the new scenes and the loss of the old ones.  A new set of cards for all the scenes sectioned off into sequences is a terrific way to view your script at a glance and see what you’ve ended up with and where it may be unbalanced.  Keep it in mind as you ponder taking your screenplay to the next level and try to have as much to talk about with your readers, along the lines of improving your script, as possible.

As I said before regarding your readers, notes are good, but you don’t want someone to read with the expressed purpose of giving you notes.  It will deter from the real fixes by creating the confusion of alternative visions.  It also invites readers to think critically about what they are reading in installments as though each installment were a complete work.  As writers we raise questions to pique interest of our readers, but a reader, thinking critically about a work might respond negatively to those questions, not having the answers themselves.  This is why notes should never be the objective of the reader, but will result as a necessary afterthought.  Of course, it all depends on how much work the script needs.  If for some reason it fails to deliver on the fundamental aspects of storytelling, it’s going to be a long read and a reader might be hard pressed to be open-minded and uncritical about it.  I’ve been there, I’m afraid.  And I’ve written terrible scripts and reacted defensively before.

It’s important to understand through this process, that your script is not finished yet and may look very different when all is done.  You don’t have to agree with everything you hear, but you have to consider your audience.  You wrote something, because you were excited about it and only you could do it quite like you did, but now you want to make sure that other people can be just as excited about what you’re doing.  Your going to get a lot of ideas and suggestions to work through and that’s why it helps to be prepared with some of your own reactions to the script to share and discuss with the people who read it.  Hopefully, the result will be a more solidified concept for your revision.

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