Posts in: April, 2008

Getting Burned Out on a Character

In mentioning the notecard theory the other day, I started rambling about a novel I’m in the process of revising and editing. It’s in pretty good shape in a general sense—nothing huge to rewrite—but it had enough flaws that I needed to get organized on it.

I neglected to mention that, until a day or two before that post, the novel had been sitting, lifeless, while I distracted myself with easier (and potentially more lucrative) screenplays about people beating up Nigerian 419 scammers. I spent much of last summer revising it, then I decided, “I need to get on that novel again” and put it up in the little status sidebar, thinking if I let all my shame hang out, I might do something about it.

Well, I am doing something about it, but not because of its shameful flaccidity as it flaps in the wind. I just got burned out on this particular set of characters.

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Fuck Free Shit

Remember how I was going to score a free copy of a certain highly anticipated video game that comes out tomorrow? Yeah, I never heard back. I don’t know if the PR lady didn’t like my bullshit excuse for an article, or if she (rightly) flagged us as a fly-by-night operation desperate to get our hands on free shit, but the game’s out tomorrow. Or maybe she’s just not too worried about me running the article on launch day. It seems like most “early reviews” have exclusivity/fawning rights, while everyone else will have to make do with scraps later on.

My Amazon preorder shipped. I just hope, if the PR lady does decide to send a copy, it doesn’t have NOT FOR RESALE stamped all over it like most freebies, so I can return it to Amazon.

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Man, did I feel like an asshole last night. Readers of this blog know that I have a tendency to just say shit, unchecked. The problem with the blogosphere is that anyone, including someone who has no idea what he’s talking about, can start a blog, and somehow people will take that person seriously, quoting from him or her as if an opinion-based blog—even one that occasionally reports fact—is a legitimate source.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a little puff piece of On Deadly Ground, Steven Seagal’s underrated 1994 directorial debut. In that post, I got all defensive because I felt like Vern, the author of Seagalogy (the book that inspired me to watch Seagal’s first dozen or so movies back to back), had unfairly trashed On Deadly Ground. Like I said, I’ll just say shit. There’s no filter here, so even though I’m constantly wrong, I don’t expect to get called out.

Well, Vern called me out. In a very reasonable, polite way that had me instantly feeling guilty. Last night, he left a comment on my post:

Good post. But as the author of SEAGALOGY I have to disagree that I trashed ON DEADLY GROUND. I love this movie and in my book I defend it on many of the same grounds that you did. I praise the complex construction of the bar scene, say that the movie is “daring in so many ways it’s ridiculous,” that “as a director I honestly think Seagal did a good job,” and list in detail all of the Seagal trademarks and themes that this movie has the ultimate example of. I’m not sure how you could interpret that chapter as a trashing, but it’s disappointing to find that out.

Anyway, good to see someone else enjoying the movie and even having some respect for what Seagal was trying to do.

So I went back and reread his chapter on the movie, and I realized—not only was he absolutely write about not trashing him, my post on the subject makes similar points. I’d like to chalk my mistake up to the sampling of negative reviews I’ve read, or maybe the fact that I read Seagalogy faster than I needed to and, let’s face it, his movies share enough similarities (that’s one of the points—recurring motifs and themes that cross the movies) that I might have had it confused with a lesser effort by the time I wrote about On Deadly Ground.

I still felt like shit. I wrote a polite response, and he didn’t seem to mind enormously. He seemed happier that someone else found enjoyment in On Deadly Ground than that I unfairly attacked him even though we liked the same movie for many of the same reasons.

I went back and edited the post (there’s an explanatory note as to why at the bottom), but man…it’s really embarrassing to be so thoroughly wrong.

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Back from the Strike

Well, here it comes—the mighty return of shows in the wake of the writers’ strike, along with the impressive return of a series that aired last winter in Britain, the second season of BBC’s Robin Hood.

Bones (Fox)—With a more-disgusting-than-usual crime and a tackling-issues approach to college athletics, this episode could have turned out pretty badly. Though it didn’t have the normal level of character depth (despite the usual amusing banter, they mostly took a superficial look at why Booth loves sports), they made up for it with a mystery that kept doubling and tripling back on itself, to the point where my initial guess—which I later dismissed—turned out to be right. It had a really tight, complex (but not ridiculous) story that, I guess, didn’t leave as much time for characterization. The final scene with Booth and Brennan in the diner was pretty nice, though. Also: what the hell happened to John Francis Daley?

Everybody Hate Chris (The CW)—I enjoyed Chris’s struggle to collect cans among the homeless in Bed-Stuy (and his even more difficult time collecting them in white neighborhoods), and I also liked the way it came around to being about the relationship between Chris and Julius. Meanwhile, the idea of Rochelle betting she could go a week without yelling was an inspired story choice. I even sort of liked the ending; giving the money to Kill Moves was a nice, sweet moral, and having him spend the money on crap typically undermined the sweetness—but in a good way.

Lost (ABC)—Lost came back from the strike with probably the best Ben-centric episode they’ve ever done. (Okay, now that I think of it, this may only be the second or third Ben episode, but nonetheless, it made his character vastly more intriguing.) More than that, they seem to have taken a page from season three—coming back from an extended break kicking ass. I know they have fewer episodes to tell the same story, but the episode didn’t feel rushed—just balls-to-the-wall. Great effort all around, including the smoke-monster effects (which sometimes looked cheesy in the past).

Medium (NBC)—What a great theory on the unsolved 1982 Tylenol killings. For those who don’t watch Medium but still, for some reason, elected to read my thoughts on it, the theory the writers posed was this: stuck at the airport during a blizzard, six people with different backgrounds and no connection to each other discuss people they’d like to kill and figure out a way to do it and, theoretically, not get caught. (It’s ironic and awesome that they draw on each person’s background to hatch the plan, rather than pulling it out of thin air.) And, of course, they would have gotten away with it if not for the meddling psychic.

With a great turn from Herman’s Head himself, William Ragsdale, playing the distraught husband/murderer. He really sold me on both aspects of this, and although they underplayed this, the genius is in the setup—in a semi-drunken state, he put a contract out on his wife. Even if he wanted her dead at the time, the grief sets in when he realizes that, okay, maybe sometimes he wishes she were dead, it’s a different story to actually have it happen. Ragsdale made the emotional disparity very believable, making it all the more difficult to believe Allison.

Having had many frustrating experiences with discompassionate doctors (this seems to be a recent thing, too—I wonder if House is making these doctors think “If I’m a total dick, they’ll think I’m a genius!”), I also enjoyed the subplot with Joe and the ophthalmologist. They’ve touched on the psychic issues with the other kids before, but with Marie they have an opportunity to explore the idea of psychic influences in someone too young to have a clue what’s happening. She can know the animals on the eye chart without being able to see it properly, and she has no idea why. It’s an interesting aspect to tackle.

My Name Is Earl (NBC)—Absolutely atrocious. Sorry, guys. You had a good run until this season. I may tune in next year just to see what’s cooking.

The Office (NBC)—I’ve read some complaints about this episode, I guess because it’s so dark, but I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever laughed harder. It may not have had the tight story and characterization of something like “The Negotiation” or “Dinner Party,” but the transformation of Ryan is unbelievably great, and Michael’s pathetic desperation to find a hot woman took him to a dark place, and I think it’ll only get darker. Is it mean to say I look forward to it? (On a related note, the groundwork of Ryan’s failure as a big-shot corporate player has been laid—that should give us hilarious results.)

The subplot with Jim unintentionally causing everyone to get locked inside the office park felt, initially, like a throwaway. When I thought about it, I’m actually starting to think they’re laying more groundwork. To what, I have no idea, but it was an interesting choice to have Jim come up with this great idea everyone supported, only to have it blow up in his face because he forgot a pretty major detail. Suddenly, everyone forgets his great idea. Could this suggest a promotion in the future? A promotion where he’ll fail?

Reaper (The CW)—Like Lost, Reaper returned with a great episode, possibly their finest effort to date. I do have to wonder how often Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black can get killed before they just stop coming back. Not that I want them to stop coming back—they’re great additions to the show. I also wonder what will happen to the apartment now that the Devil’s plan has come to fruition; after all, Sam’s dad is still credited as a series regular, and I can count on one hand his number of actual appearances. (Besides which, having them move out of their parents’ houses betrays the series’ look at “slacker loser” zeitgeist.)

The Riches (FX)—What a downer. I’m still loving this show, but it didn’t exactly leave me feeling good. So who else thinks Cael’s getting conned? I’m also a little intrigued by what’s going on with Dale and the other Travellers. They’re certainly up to no good, but the not-so-veiled threat from the faux-developer makes me think nothing will end well for the Malloys this season.

Meanwhile, we were treated to an incredibly depressing birthday party and Dahlia’s disappointing relapse. I’m not entirely convinced the writers sold me on the idea that Dahlia’s suddenly so obsessed with honesty and trust that a lie from Wayne—even one of this magnitude—will send her over the edge, but I guess most addicts look for excuses instead of reasons. Beyond that, I’m still having a hard time with Wayne’s inability to explain his actions. “You never would have come back if you knew Pete was dead” doesn’t quite fly with me as a reason to lie, and Dahlia knows Dale’s crazy. She tried to shoot him last season, for crying out loud. Wayne telling her what he did, but much sooner, would have solved this whole conflict. I don’t know, we’ll see where they’re going with this. I just hope the strike-truncated season finale next week doesn’t leave everything up in the air.

Also, I’m not sure yet how I feel about DiDi’s romance with the security guard. I like seeing Joan of Arcadia‘s Michael Welch (who was pretty much the only reason to watch in the downward-spiraling second season), but it seems kind of bland so far.

Robin Hood (BBC America)—I won’t pretend this show is a masterpiece. It’s a fun action-adventure show, but through the first season it had two major flaws. First, the plot of nearly every episode revolved around one of the Merry Men getting nabbed by the Sheriff’s men, then Robin and the rest staging a daring rescue. I don’t have a problem with the idea that we get to know these characters by putting them in jeopardy—the problem is the repetitive nature of the jeopardy. If they had a more widespread cast of villains, it would have gone a long way toward varying the routine.

The second problem was related to the first. When Robin came to Nottingham Castle to rescue the imprisoned character of the week, he inevitably had a personal confrontation with the Sheriff, which inevitably resulted in Robin getting the upper hand and saying something like, “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you right now.” The Sheriff always had an answer, but that’s basically like pointing out the fundamental flaw in the series: whatever half-assed reasons the Sheriff has in the short-term, just killing him would make everyone happier. It’d also end the series.

In the second-season premiere, Robin Hood undid both of these problems: first, we’re given the impression of variety among both villains and storylines. The Sheriff introduced the Black Knights, a group of influential leaders who, we learn, are taxing the shit out of peasants to finance a Blackwater-esque army of mercenaries to overthrow King Richard upon his return to England. Secondly, when Robin pulls the old, “Why shouldn’t I kill you right now?” retort, the Sheriff bluntly states that Prince John—for reasons unknown—has a standing order to burn the entire area to the ground if the Sheriff dies an unnatural death. This could tie into a subplot from last season, but I don’t remember.

I also liked the appearance of the Sheriff’s creepy, snake-obsessed sister. Her death will undoubtedly give the Sheriff more interesting motives and strengthen his characterization. On top of all this, this writer did a nice job of reintroducing the ensemble and adding a variation on a theme—Edward gets nabbed and imprisoned by Gisborne, but in a nice twist, Robin and his men have no clue, and in order to save his own life he has to enter into a pact to spy for Gisborne. All of these elements will hopefully lead to a more interesting, focused season.

(The show’s occasional employment of heavy-handed political allegory is a minor flaw. I thought I should point it out so readers won’t assume I’m ignoring it, but it’s not a problem that bothers me.)

Supernatural (The CW)—Another solid post-strike return. It worried me at first because the intro with the two nerds was waaaaaay too derivative of one of the better episodes in Buffy‘s final season; fortunately, despite their nerd antics, this episode turned out to be a lot of fun. Shot as a spoof of “reality” haunted-house shows like Ghost Hunters, the writers and production team did an exceptional job of creating legitimate scares using nothing but the shadowy, claustrophobic environment. The documentary style also lends itself to more visceral scares—it feels a little more real, even though it’s not.

If I were to have any real complaint, it’s that the first show to come back after the strike had less Sam and Dean than were used to. However, they did a great job casting the guest stars (two of whom are making their second appearance, and I hope they make more) and getting us invested in the death of Corbett and his ultimate “hero” moment. Some might complain that the writers wussed out and churned out a quickie joke episode because they’re on a tight schedule, but this episode’s story and supporting characters made this the best variation on the haunted house story that this show has ever done.

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A Touch of Frost: Season 13

With 13 seasons and 37 feature-length episodes, A Touch of Frost is bound to have an off episode or two in its run. The real downside about MPI’s A Touch of Frost – Season 13 collection is that it’s not a collection at all. The show only ran one episode in that “season,” and as such the DVD only contains one, “Endangered Species.” Instead of waiting for possible Season 14 episodes to bundle this lackluster episode with, MPI went ahead and released it solo. At the risk of sounding too harsh, it’s really an episode for fans/completists only. I urge casual viewers or non-viewers to check out MPI’s releases of earlier seasons. After I was assigned to review the Season 11 & 12 collection, I spent time catching up with what I’d missed. It’s a great show, but “Endangered Species” left a lot to be desired.

I couldn’t explain the decision-making process, but for the first time in the show’s history, it’s gone to a Law & Order-esque “ripped-from-the-headlines” approach for its stories. I don’t know; maybe it was like that all along, and I am just too ignorant of big British news stories over the past 15 years. Either way, the two crime stories featured in this episode—one about exotic animal smugglers, the other about a teacher-student sexual relationship—felt a bit overdone. And when Frost faces off with both a crocodile and a tiger (in two separate scenes), somebody should realize they’re heading dangerously close to sitcom territory and either play it for laughs or just pack it in and go home.

A Touch of Frost‘s writing has always been characterized by an empathy for the criminals. Not sympathy, mind you—this show does not let them off the hook, but it does show, firsthand, their rationale. With “Endangered Species,” the mysteries were interesting enough, but they didn’t spend nearly enough time with the criminals. I don’t want to give spoilers, even if I’m not recommending this, but each case offered razor-thin motives for both the innocent and the guilty. Frost is usually better than this.

Since the mystery aspects disappointed, I had some hope that the usual “Frost’s failed personal life” subplot would hold my interest. It’s a continuation of the relationship Jack started with the woman at the gym in Season 11. It wasn’t bad, but for anybody who’s watched A Touch of Frost, you pretty much know how and why the story will end for the couple. It’s a bit disappointing, as the show continues to age (and may reach a point where it doesn’t return) that Frost can’t grow a bit, realize his commitment problems, and either stop making himself miserable by entering disastrous relationships or ease off on his job obsession. I guess this isn’t necessarily a criticism of the show, and the fact that I’ve gotten so worked up about it offers some evidence of its emotional impact.

Nonetheless, I’d tell anyone but a die-hard fan to skip this season’s DVD. Here’s hoping Season 14 (scheduled to air in Britain sometime this year) will show a return to form.

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Notecard Theory

So for all you non-writers, there’s this theory floating around—mainly but not exclusively in screenwriting circles—that notecards will magically help to improve structure. There are about 90,000 different methods of doing this, but the most useful one I’ve heard works like this: for every given scene, you write down a general description of what happens in the scene, followed by (a) how it fits into the overall story, (b) the characters involved in the scene, (c) their conflicts within the scene, (d) how these conflicts are resolved, and (e) how this scene reenforces the theme. In theory, you should have all the answers and a fully-loaded 3×5 notecard, or you should cut the scene. (Or rewrite it until you can provide all the notecard information.)

Most of the time when I hear the notecard theory, it doesn’t work like that. It’s a much more useless structural idea: you map out the scenes with notecards so that you can shuffle them around. I’ve read lengthy, possibly apocryphal stories (all of them coming from unsold spec writers) explaining how notecards saved their script. One part of the story doesn’t work, so they shuffle one scene from the first act to the third act, and—boom! Citizen Kane 2: Razing Kane. Am I an anomaly for never really having problems with an overarching structure or misplaced scenes?

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Scoring Free Shit

I spent part of today trying to score a free copy of a certain upcoming video game that I am looking forward to more than any person should. Apparently a PR firm contacted a website I’m working on, even though we’re a film review site, to let us know we can contact them for hi-res graphics to promote the launch. The publisher forwarded it to me, telling me he’d help me score a free copy if possible. I said, “Awesome,” because even though I preordered it, I don’t technically have the money (whoo credit!). So I got a polite e-mail from somebody at the PR place asking me about the nature of my story, so she can help to better accommodate me.


Some quick thinking led me to the realization that a good, film-related article could be culled from the very notion that video games are becoming increasingly cinematic; beyond this, the series has been known for movie references and parodies. I could write a decent comparative article about the games, their influences, and whether or not a video game can capture the same emotional depth as a film. (P.S.: They can.)

No word yet on whether or not that’s good, but considering the impromptu nature of this B.S., I am feeling pretty good about my skills. I’m ready for grad school!

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What It Takes to Make CSI Not Suck

In the vast realm of popular culture, there’s very little I hate more than the CSI juggernaut*, but recently I’ve found myself obsessed with the Miami flavor. I can’t tolerate anything other than this one because it always seems to me that the cast goes wildly over-the-top because the performances are secretly tongue-in-cheek. They always have these little grins on their faces, which may or may not be the excessive botox and facelifts the regular cast members have obviously undergone, that makes me think they’re going to crack up as soon as they cut. I have to believe this is the case to keep my sanity.

The other series, which I’ve sampled on occasionally out of curiosity, don’t hold up nearly as well because there’s a different kind of attitude to the cast—a smugness, as if they really feel they’re a part of something important. I guess you could argue that it’s important to bring joy to tens of millions of Americans who like the kind of TV you can watch while doing the laundry and making dinner, but I like something a little more substantive. Even the Seagal movies I’ve raved about lately, while ridiculous and implausible, are at least attempting to get at something resembling a higher truth—exposing rampant police and government corruption, oil companies fucking over both Native Americans and the environment, and so on—while the CSI shows are content to play out the same basic ideas over and over again (to be fair, the Law & Order shows on NBC are equally guilty of this, and more than anything else so is American Idol). Making crimes ridiculously over-the-top is not a substitute for quality, especially since it always turns out to be the first person they interview, played by an actor so cartoonishly evil any good detective would hold them in interrogation until they break them.

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Banning People from the Internet

Remember this lady? Here’s the disconnect, for me: first, on the Lee Stranahan blog, she refuses to post a link to her own blog. After first accusing commenters of being ridiculous by destroying his bandwidth and leaving trolling comments, fair points both of them, some folks asked for a link to her own blog, so we could take it over there, but she said no. It’s a private blog, invitation-only (Blogger’s stupidest feature, if you ask me; if you aren’t going to let it all hang out for the Internet masses, why blog at all?).

So, with a baffling two-day roll-out, she decided yes, she’d make a public blog—specifically designed for readers both of Stranahan and Bitter But Brilliant. She started by posting about 20 things in less than two days. Many of the early entries were clearly copied and pasted from another place (ostensibly her private blog); later, she took it upon herself to troll BBB posters (including yours truly) using the blog, since they banned her from the forum.

After checking out that trainwreck several times last weekend, it suddenly prompted me to sign in so I could view the private blog. That’s right: she privatized another blog. Which begs the question: what’s the point? You have two blogs, one public and one private. Ill-advised though it was, I suppose the point of the public blog was so that we could get to know her in order to stop mocking her. I don’t claim to know that for sure, but it did seem like the sampling of entries were selected to ingratiate her. It didn’t work, so why not just delete the blog? Do you really need two private blogs? After that, do you need to roll out yet another public blog, this one with comments disabled? You couldn’t have just disabled comments on the other one? Maybe she’s just not Internet savvy, but it seems like excess.

It started to make me wonder: should the Internet have some kind of Logan’s Run-esque rule where anyone over a certain age isn’t allowed to go online? Since it seems she’s devoted her life to trolling message boards and creating unnecessary blogs, that’s a tax on bandwidth that nobody really needs. I suppose this rule should also apply to younger people, as well. What I’m saying is, only people between the ages of 22 and 35 are allowed on the Internet. Sorry, pervs, find another outlet.

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Joke Ideas

I hate it when I have an idea that starts as a joke but turns into something legitimate, like that Young Patriots idea or Rolling in It: The Movie. Both started out as jokes, but the more I thought about them, the more I liked them. It’s a sickness, I think. I have commercial instincts—really, I do!—I just choose to ignore them so I can focus on crazy shit people would probably pay me not to think about.

The latest came about simply enough. Thumbing through the Writer’s Market to find a suitable publisher of my epic masterwork, it occurred to me that very few of them dealt with a genre I’d classify as “comedy.” Many of the ones listed as “humor/satire” focused more on something political or nonfiction. Even worse, many of them pigeonhole themselves into a particular genre…and that’s where the joke idea came from. Since my current novel can’t even fit into a different, non-comedic genre (like “detective fiction” or “romance novel”), the places where I can submit it are severely limited. I told a friend of mine that I should start writing a novel that combines every conceivable genre. She thought that was hilarious, and together we concocted a basic story:

At an unspecified point in the future (sci-fi!), a private investigator (mystery!) on the Martian colonies (also sci-fi!), which have been dubbed by Earth as the “new frontier” (western!), is hired to search for the woman he once loved (romance!). When independent-minded colonists start to talk revolution (political allegory!*), war breaks out between Mars and Earth (war!). Against this colorful backdrop, the P.I. has to return to Earth undetected (thriller!) and search an unfamiliar world (adventure!) until he reunites with his love (more romance!).

So yeah, it’s about as retarded as you’d expect…

or is it?!

It’s rough around the edges, although maybe not for an idea that was fleshed out during a 15-minute gigglefest**, but once I started to think about it, it does seem like the kind of goofy comedy I could have a lot of fun with. Once I flesh it out and iron out the story kinks, it could be entertaining…but will it be commercial?

*Also a shameless rip-off of Greg Bear’s Moving Mars.

**If it’s wrong to hang around with women and giggle like a schoolgirl, I don’t want to be right.

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