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Posts in: April 2008

Time Well Wasted

Author: Unknown

Genre: Drama

Storyline: 6

Dialogue: 5

Characterization: 7

Writer’s Potential: 7

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Consider

Logline:

A teen desperately wants to use a baseball scholarship to escape his small Texas town, but his slowly eroding life may make leaving impossible.


Synopsis:

None


Comments:

The writer does a good job of evoking the setting through the choice of locations, actions, and showing us the characters’ everyday lives. Many interesting films have this slice-of-life feel, but Time Well Wasted misses opportunities. A story with a barebones plot like this needs to rely more on the strength of its characters to reenforce its theme(s). The characters here don’t have much depth, and the bizarre third act muddles the theme.

Letting us know early on how much Gill wants the baseball scholarship (symbolizing his desire to get out of Alba) will help us understand the impact when he risks giving it up for the impregnated Bailey. It’s never made clear what Bailey’s doing in Alba in the first place, which makes it confusing when Gill’s only choices are to stay in Alba with Bailey or ditch her to go to UCLA. We’re told she’s from LA, and there’s a too-subtle implication of a funeral that I guess was supposed to be for Bailey’s parent or parents? This needs to be made much clearer, so we can understand why it’s impossible for Bailey to go with Gill—no family, no friends she can stay with, etc. She’s stuck in Alba.

Many scenes consist of people just hanging around, talking, yet by the end we know very little about these characters. I give the writer credit for not writing on-the-nose dialogue (though it does veer into melodrama in the third act), but there’s not much subtext, either. It’s just people talking, offering a minimum of character depth without providing a window into the true nature of the characters, especially Gill. The negative portrayal of Outcast fans came closest to providing subtext, but it doesn’t tell us much about them other than implying they’re less intelligent or unique than Gill and Bailey.

Until the out-of-nowhere death of Bailey, I was operating under the assumption that the theme here was the inability to escape fate. The pregnancy jeopardizes Gill’s opportunity to flee a small town where he’d rot, setting him on the exact same path as his father, but his problem is solved almost instantly by Bailey’s death. He has a tough to choice to make, but then it’s made for him. What is the writer trying to say with this? Is this still a comment on fate? Maybe if the pregnancy was made a more important part of the story earlier, her death would have more impact and we’d have a clearer idea of why her dying is necessary for the story.

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Shitty Transfers

My sister bought me the Criterion Life of Brian DVD, the most appropriate Christmas gift ever. I didn’t get a chance to watch it until this weekend, and it left me feeling a little disappointed. Not the movie itself—the bad film transfer.

Now, look, I know Life of Brian didn’t exactly have a huge budget, so the fact that its aesthetics resemble the 1970s European “erotica” I’ve reviewed doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is that, in this age of digital wonderment, Criterion couldn’t (or didn’t) clean up the film or audio as well as they could have. It would be one thing if this were the older (now out-of-print) cheapie DVD—this is the Criterion DVD, the one that retails at $40. Most of its extras came from the old Laserdisc release, and the new ones don’t justify such a lofty pricetag, so are we really just paying for the Criterion name?

We live in a world where you can buy copies of movies made in the early ’40s that look like they were made yesterday. Why can’t ’60s and ’70s classics get the same treatment? Life of Brian is an irritating example, but other ’70s classics like The Verdict and The Conversation suffer from the same problems, while others made in the same era (like The Parallax View and The Deer Hunter) don’t. (Admittedly, some of the more popular ones, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Godfather movies, get elaborate restorations.)

I know it depends partly on the quality of the print and the companies releasing the DVDs. They decide whether or not to devote the time and cost to restore them, which will drive up the final price of the disc, so they have to know whether or not potential buyers would pay the extra money for it. This Life of Brian thing is ridiculous, though. I’m fine with the pleasant surprise of a $10 copy of The Parallax View‘s quality; I’m not fine with my sister spending $30-40 on a copy of a movie that barely looks better and, in fact, sounds worse than my VHS copy.

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The Co-Op

Things have officially gotten weird with the Big-Shot Producer. I fired off the fourth draft of my confusing conspiracy thiller, Disappear on Monday. I expected the usual month (or two…or three…) of silence, followed by an unenthusiastic “What else you got?” followed by me scrambling to turn one of my demented scripts into something reasonably mainstream. Instead, I received a lengthy response urging me to join some sort of bizarre co-op.

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The Bead™

Sometimes I read a script that I just can’t figure out. I know it has problems, I can even put my finger on what they are, but I can’t offer up solutions; granted, some people don’t like solutions, but offering solutions while I point out problems has never failed me, and one of the unfortunate side effects of covering so many scripts is that I am, at this point, a better reader than I am a writer. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to figure out what’s causing it, but what happens when I can’t even do that? I know the characters are thin, but why? I walk myself through the story, reminding myself of surprising moments of nuance and subtlety that give the characters depth. Why is it that, at the end, I felt like they were paper-thin? Something went awry.

I can’t pretend to understand how it happens, but when I actually talk out these problems, I figure them out. It’s all in how you’re telling the story. Here’s the story, and here are its flaws. But what if the writer did this, that, or the other? The solutions present themselves, and if you do it right, you can solve every single problem in one fell swoop—and if you’re really good, you can do it without insulting the writer.

You’ve found The Bead™.

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Workplace Comedy

In early 2005, Stan Has Issues™ attempted a noble but failed experiment: a dual blog, Stan and Anne Have Issues™, which would temper my frustrations and cynicism with…slightly less frustration and cynicism. Don’t bother going back into the archives to find the posts from this almost-mythical era; they’re all gone now. You can take a wild guess as to why the dual blog fell apart, but I don’t have much interest in delving into it.

I’m more interested in this fun fact: Google “stan and anne have issues” (without quotes). Go ahead, do it. I’ll wait. Come on, you lazy asshole. Click this. Too silly for you? How about “stan and anne” (with quotes)? Two random names, one of which has not appeared on this blog in nearly three years and has been almost entirely stripped from the archives, and yet it still tops Google. Even without the quotes, stan and anne only sinks to #3. And even just stan anne only sinks it to #9—still on the front page. It’s weird.

I don’t claim to know or understand how Google compiles and filters its results. I know that, thanks to Google bombs and other attempts to manipulate search results, things have gotten more complicated than the circa-1999 philosophy of “if it gets the most clicks, it gets the top spot.” Still, it seems awfully fishy that this blog would still be the #1 for these key phrases, so long after one half of this blog became little more than a memory.

(Also, if you’re wondering why I was starting searches like these in the first place: I discovered, while narcissistically Googling this blog, that several blog search engines still list this place as Stan and Anne Have Issues™, complete with a tacky tagline I wrote. I started searching for “stan and anne have issues” so I could try to update all of these search engines. I wonder if that accounts for the Google craziness…)

Edit 4/5/08—I neglected to mention the irony that posting about Stan and Anne Have Issues™ is less likely to remove the Google association with that name. You no longer need to point it out.

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Nothing Ever Happens

So the second script I read had one unfortunate side effect: very little in the way of plot. It gave me an early Richard Linklater vibe because of the setting and the writer’s penchant for meandering scenes of characters just hanging out. Although he defies many conventions, Linklater’s a master of subtext and conflict. For instance, Dazed and Confused has a very loose plot—seniors want to beat up next year’s freshman class—that sets up the characters and their minor goals over the course of the night (e.g., “beat up a freshman”/”don’t get beaten up”). It has the traditional obstacles and changing goals, but it’s mostly a movie about hanging out. Yet, from the conversations these characters share, everything they say tells us a little something about them. Their attitudes on superficial things like music, acid-induced dreams, fashion—what a person discusses and the way others react to it all tell us things about who they are.

The script I was given had the loose plot and the deliberate (some might say “plodding”) pace of a Linklater film, but it didn’t have much else in common. When the characters talked about buying a keg, all they were talking about…was buying a keg. That’s a problem. Similarly, the characters desires and goals are shielded until, quite literally, just before each goal is altered. (In one case, we don’t know a character wants a scholarship until page 100, and he gets the scholarship on page 102—ooh, the suspense. In another, the character reveals he’s unwilling to take the scholarship because he knocked up his girlfriend and needs to take care of her. Beyond logic problems I won’t go into, this is another conflict that’s brought up way too late and then resolved almost immediately. In literally the same scene that he mentions it to the love interest, she’s hit by a drunk driver and killed, leaving him to take the scholarship.)

I don’t want to go on and on ranting about this particular script, but I do want to bring up some fundamental tools of drama that this script should have employed but didn’t.

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The Sun Sets on Jericho

All right, I got my rant about CSI out of the way last week—let’s get back to business.

Aliens in America (The CW)—Last week, I decided to go on a rant about the low-quality but enduring (hell, thriving) CSI franchise, which caused me to miss reviewing last week’s unbelievable Aliens in America—by far the series’ best, and they’ve set a pretty high standard so far.

Winter has set in, and the Tolchuks are looking forward to their upcoming vacation to…Vancouver. When Raja foolishly attempts to pray before their flight, he’s flagged as a terror suspect and the entire family is thrown out of the airport. The frustrated Tolchuks give Raja hell for it, prompting him to leave the family. Meanwhile, Justin gets frustrated at Gary’s apparent disinterest in everything he does. In a nice twist, Gary is equally annoyed at his sons disinterest in sports, cars, and power tools.

Aliens in America‘s ability to simultaneously skewer and reenforce traditional family values is one of the things it does better than any show in recent memory. Even Arrested Development‘s values were as dysfunctional as the Bluths themselves. Dysfunctional as the Tolchuks are, they still operate as a family unit, and in this episode they discover just what that means.

Did I mention it was also hilarious? Justin’s rendition of “Space Oddity” might eclipse his uncomfortable Rent duet with Franny as the series’ funniest moment. I also admire this show for its ability to play on Americans’ “terrorist” prejudices without political pandering. The Tolchuks getting tossed from the airport marks one of the series’ funniest and most frenetic sequences, and the family’s visit to a mosque they think Raja frequents has to be seen to be believed.

Canterbury’s Law (Fox)—Though its rapid, unscheduled move from Mondays to Fridays is undoubtedly a portent of early cancellation, I’m enjoying this show. Like the first season of Rescue Me, a show that shares many of Canterbury’s writers, I still barely have any idea who the characters are, but it’s clear both the writers and actors know. They’re laying groundwork, slowly but surely, and I assume in the long run audience patience will be rewarded. Of course, there probably won’t be a long run, and consequently no rewards.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—I admit the easter episode was a bit of a disappointment, but they bounced back with a great episode centering on Chris and Drew. They cut school in search of Wayne Gretzky, while at home the Rocks freak about the mysterious disappearance of both sons. The episode got a lot of mileage out of the fish-out-of-water syndrome Chris and Drew experience once they’re out of Bed-Stuy. The episode also had a great, extended callback to the infamous GRITZKY/#98 jersey Julius bought from Risky.

Jericho (CBS)—It’s really disappointing to see this one go, but I guess it’s a little easier to swallow this time around, since they’ve given audiences a proper finale. Granted, Jericho still had plenty of juice left, but I’m not exactly going to be sending Air Force jets or pints of blood to CBS to keep it on the air. Viewers got seven taut, well-crafted episodes with great guest stars and some subtle, even-handed political commentary—plus, a shitload of kick-ass action.

Echoing my CSI complaints from last week, I wish CBS could take a little ratings hit from a show like this. I know it’s tough to stay the #1 network, but the “all procedural, all the time” format can only work for so long before people get tired of the Bruckheimer mold. Even NBC, which has renewed Law & Order: Original Recipe for its 900th season, has a little variety in their programming (besides which, Criminal Intent has already been thrust onto USA Network, indicating the first sign of bland procedural fatigue; ironically, Criminal Intent is the most entertaining of the Law & Orders). When CBS dares to take a risk, and it doesn’t pay off immediately, they get rid of it. Remember Viva Laughlin? Neither do I, and they only canceled it in September…

Or, if it’s like Jericho and it does do well right out of the gate, they practically sabotage it with awful scheduling tactics that make sure the viewers didn’t return after the series’ early mixed-bag/finding-its-footing episodes. By the time it turned into a show worth saving, CBS had already killed it.

Is it telling that I no longer watch anything on CBS? Does this speak to a snotty critic mentality, or CBS’s quality vacuum? You decide.

King of the Hill (Fox)—I don’t usually like episodes that focus on Kahn, because he’s such an asshole, but this episode did a great job of exploring the character’s vulnerabilities while featuring a plethora of the show’s trademark subtle one-liners. My personal favorite:

“We initially came to make fun of you, but that was great. It actually makes you miss you around the office. It’s too bad they make you telecommute.”

“They…make me?”

Medium (NBC)—Another two weeks, another two-parter. Unlike the last two-parter, which was solid until a predictable ending, this one was a masterpiece—possibly the height of Medium‘s quality to date. Focusing on Anjelica Huston’s private investigator’s tragic past, with a wonderful subplot in which Joe both gets inspiration and argues with Allison about money for an idea involving solar panel magnification, the two episodes did an exceptional job of building the confusing, dream-contorted mysteries and semi-mundane domestic problems that have become the trademarks of Medium. What’s more—it built a conclusion both shocking and inevitable, but not nearly as predictable as the previous two-parter.

Would this have been as effective without the mysteriousness and, shall we say, brusqueness of Anjelica Huston’s Cynthia Keener? If we knew less about her, it would failed. If they had cast a lesser actress, it also would have failed. But hey, this isn’t just about Huston’s Emmy-worthy work—everyone involved with this show should take a bow. With The Wire out of its way, I’m tempted to call this the best show currently on television. If it’s not that, it’s definitely duking it out with Lost for the top spot.

My Name Is Earl (NBC)—The last time My Name Is Earl did an hourlong episode (“Our Other COPS Is On!”), it was a series low point. Considering the rapid quality decline during this season, I found myself dreading the show’s return.

To my surprise, it was actually pretty funny. The “coma sitcom” stuff was both gimmicky and pointless (practically speaking, the point was: Jason Lee stars as Earl, so putting him in a coma for the entire episode after returning from a six-month hiatus…might disappoint some viewers; creatively, it’s a total waste and a comedy vacuum), but fortunately it didn’t dominate the episode. We spent more time watching Earl’s friends and family react to the coma, providing us more proof than ever that this isn’t just a vehicle for Jason Lee. It boasts one of the finest comic ensembles currently on TV.

The Riches (FX)—The new season’s second episode was wonderfully done—ably using the entire ensemble, performing the usual balancing act between “will they get busted?” suspense and black humor—and now, this week’s return to Eden Falls has settled into last season’s groove. As Wayne tries to balance Hugh’s insanity and Dale’s stupidity with this season’s new “13 million dollar payoff,” he also finds himself dealing with the arrest of Cael. If you recall, last year he and some pals broke into the school’s computer to change grades. This has finally caught up with him, resulting in potential expulsion.

Like The Wire, The Riches‘ soap-opera structure makes it difficult to judge individual episodes in terms of quality. This felt like a step back after the season’s first two episodes, but it also started some gears turning on storylines that could carry us through a season or more. Perhaps the biggest revelation is Dale’s misguided attempt to blackmail Wayne; he didn’t come out and say it, but it’s pretty clear that he’s using the hidden body of Pete—the real Doug Rich’s friend—to get what he wants. Is Wayne finally going to have to put Dale away for good? (As annoying as the character can be, I hope not—Todd Stashwick is doing great work in the role.)

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Adrenaline

Author: Justin Ware

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Storyline: 6

Dialogue: 7

Characterization: 7

Writer’s Potential: 7

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Consider

Logline:

An unlucky-in-love geek joins a group devoted to the artificial creation of one-night stands—by forcing women into adrenaline-pumping situations.


Synopsis:

None


Comments:

To start, Adrenaline has a great premise with huge comic possibilities. The dialogue is consistently witty, and the slapstick set-pieces work well conceptually, although some (like the skydiving bit) go on long enough to feel laborious. Fitten and Courtney get just enough development to avoid being clichés. However, it would be nice to see them taken a little further—maybe Courtney isn’t as perfect as she seems or Fitten has more specific sexual frustrations. More importantly, the gang of adrenalists don’t have much depth (including Chip, despite his significance in the story).

What I kept waiting for, from the introduction of the adrenalists on, was an explanation for why all these people have banded together…to get Chip laid. There’s not much indication that the others do more than assist in his conquests. In fact, in the third act it’s revealed that one of them is married and one is divorced. Why did these guys join up? What do they stand to gain? I thought it would head in a direction where Fitten makes the others realize they’re being used, generating conflict and comedy as the teamwork dissolves and each of them tries to manipulate the plays to get the girl for themselves, for their own specific goals (e.g., making an uninterested wife jealous). It would offer more variety than the gags that exist to humiliate Fitten.

A development like that would also solve the problematic third act. In its current state, the surprise reveal forces Courtney to radically shift her personality. It’s impossible to believe someone initially portrayed as intelligent and articulate (and discriminating when it comes to men) would do a 180 into Stupidville, which makes the third act frustrating despite the twist and happy ending. If the conflict, and Chip’s decision to “woo” Courtney, came more from a desire to get rid of Fitten (who has destroyed his team), it could provide a similar surprise ending—in which Fitten fights for Courtney, which makes her soften and fall for him, only to learn this was Chip’s plan all along. This one relies more on the characters we know and care about, and less on believing first that Courtney has turned into an idiot, then that she’d have set up her own elaborate plan to humiliate Chip, which strains credibility.

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Charlton Heston (1923-2008)

Doesn’t matter what you thought of his politics. He starred in the greatest unofficial trilogy of sci-fi classics in history: Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973).

Rest in peace, Mr. Heston. You passed with the knowledge that you won’t be turned into a delicious and popular foodstuff.

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Perfect Plot

I had trouble sleeping last night for a really dumb reason. It’s been a week since I sent Disappear to the Big-Shot Producer, and somehow reading through other peoples’ work made me realize something:

Disappear had a serious plot hole, and now it was out of my hands, ready to be scrutinized by people who may notice it and not care, notice it and toss it aside, or (if I’m really lucky) not notice it at all. The hole is a basic logic flaw that affects many thrillers and action movies: why do villains go to such elaborate ruses when it’s way easier just to shoot somebody?

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