November 2008 Archives
November 24, 2008
It’s a very flawed way of telling stories on network television right now, because of the advent of the DVR and online streaming. The engine that drove [serialized TV] was you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired]. Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on air. So [watching it] on air is related to the saps and the dipshits who can’t figure out how to watch it in a superior way. [Source: IGN]
Okay. It sounds like he tried to say the current problem he and his writers are having is merging the old model of serialized content designed for a once-a-week audience — which means, among other things, excessive previouslies plus repeated scenes and poorly written exposition to remind audiences of what happened last week — with the new way of watching. He calls these new methods “superior to watching it on air,” followed immediately by the now-infamous “saps and dipshits” remark — which refers to “on air” viewers.
I won’t deny it’s horribly stated, and I also won’t deny that it’s very difficult to parse and find the meaning of what he said. It’s a series of contradictions: DVR and streaming make serial shows harder to watch, but it’s the superior way to view it? Serial shows are modeled for “on air” viewing rather than collecting a big clump of episodes and watching in a marathon over Thanksgiving weekend?
Was this merely an excuse for low ratings or an excuse for bad writing? The show would seem quite a bit better watched in a marathon. It’s having a week between episodes to let the show fester that you realize how awful it is. For the record, I TiVo the show but — by necessity of this column — I watch it each week. I guess this makes me a sap but not a dipshit? Or vice-versa?
Time’s James Poniewozik has some pretty good insight into the ratings aspect of Kring’s comments, while the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan spews a lot of bile about the creative direction of the show. While I don’t disagree with their points, I do feel like both of them misinterpreted Kring’s comments and overreacted. But then, I’m still puzzling over what the hell he meant by them, so I can’t blame them for ascribing meaning that I don’t see.
24: Redemption (Fox) — I wish this show’s writers would realize that 24 doesn’t work as a political thriller. In the first season, the hook that Jack Bauer had to save Senator David Palmer from an assassination attempt worked not because of the politics surrounding it — which, “first black presidential candidate” aside, were marginal at best, serving only to create a very public, very difficult to stop assassination — but because they took action-movie archetypes and made them into interesting people. I can understand why the writers shifted to Palmer’s presidency in the second season — because Dennis Haysbert and Penny Johnson-Jerald made the characters compelling, the writers anticipated audiences wanting more of them.
They weren’t wrong, but from the second season on, it’s been The Jack Bauer Show — the writers have never even come close to giving the supporting characters stories as interesting or intense as what Jack has to go through. I can understand the lack of intensity, but it’s the lack of interest that bugs me. When I stopped caring about what would happen to Palmer, Tony Almeida and Kim, I started wondering why they occupied so much of the show’s time. Other than the practical explanations — if he were the only character, Kiefer Sutherland couldn’t keep up that much intensity on a weekly basis, and most TV budgets can’t afford the type of action he finds himself embroiled in each hour — there is rarely a dramatic purpose to the other characters’ subplots. They don’t intersect or fold in on themselves the way they did in the first season, and aside from the typical “Jack calls Chloe and begs for help” scenes, he hardly even interacts with any of these characters anymore.
The CTU soap opera is a little more palatable than 24’s increasing emphasis on White House politics. I know the show wants to tackle issues, but they just take it too seriously. Most action movies include some kind of political-potboiler element, but it’s always the MacGuffin, alluded to but rarely dwelled on or taken seriously as political issues; when 24 tries to make the MacGuffin a central storyline, it leads to a shitload of goofiness like Wayne Palmer’s truncated presidency and the goofy pseudo-coup. The fifth season contained the show’s only decent political storyline — as with the rest of the show during that glorious season, I thought the writers had learned from past mistakes and figured out the formula that made the first season so great. And then the sixth season showed me how wrong I was.
So, Sunday night gave us a fresh start with the seventh-season “prequel” “movie” Redemption, which — true to the show’s formula — gives us a compelling Jack Bauer story and a metric assload of people and problems I don’t care about. I know it’s a prelude to what’s coming in the seventh season, but notice that Bauer’s story had a complete arc: he’s in hiding in the (fictitious) African nation of Sangala, ducking a subpoena that would force him to return to the U.S. He’s preparing to flee again when a group of militants attempt to kidnap a group of children. These children attend a school run by his ex-Special Forces buddy (the awesome Robert Carlyle) and a creepy Charles Bronson lookalike, so Jack’s convinced to stay long enough to get them to the Embassy and out of Sangala. At every opportunity, he tries to ditch them, but after enough setbacks, he ends up leading them straight to the embassy. “Redemption” comes when Jack gives himself up to U.S. custody so the kids can get out of Sangala.
That’s what people in “the biz” call an “arc.” Both the story and Jack’s character growth have distinctive and complete changes over the course of the two hours. It’s not without its flaws: these militants have planned a hostile coup to assume power in the country and transform it into a dictatorship, so what about all the other people clamoring to get out? Eh, we don’t have time for them — also, they aren’t adorable little kids. Really, though, the biggest problem was the poor introduction to a variety of dull new characters in a grouping of subplots that had nothing to do with Jack’s story and had no distinctive, compelling arcs of their own. They’re what longtime 24 viewers derisively refer to as “filler” — not the best way to introduce new characters.
We got to meet the new President (Cherry Jones). I’d call her bland, but she has a grinning-so-wide-she’s-probably-evil air reminiscent of Imelda Staunton in the last Harry Potter movie. Still, she did very little but whine that Powers Boothe wouldn’t include her in his decisions regarding military support in Sangala. Meanwhile, the President’s dopey son (Eric Lively) and his super-hot girlfriend (Carly Pope) deal with his drug-addicted investment-banker friend (Kris Lemche, doing his best to channel Heathers-era Christian Slater), who’s stumbled across some information about Jon Voight doing…something for…some reason? He doesn’t know much, but we find out Voight is funding the coup in Sangala. I’d say this wraps everything up in a neat little bow, except the references to Sangala in these subplots occupy maybe 30 seconds of the 75 years these people are on the screen.
I know I’m supposed to be cautiously intrigued by these new characters, but the only two who really grabbed me were Carlyle (who died) and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as the thoroughly bad-ass colonel pursuing Jack (who presumably also died). This doesn’t bode well for the new supporting players, but like I said, the show usually makes CTU a few shades more interesting. I’ve always like Colm Feore, but he was hardly around enough to make an impression (beyond “Wow, he looks emaciated — has he been sick?”).
So there you have it: a perfect example of 24. Solid, action-packed Jack story; half-assed everything else. Can’t wait for January!
Bones (Fox) — The plane story tore me because I wanted it to have a Murder on the Orient Express-style “everyone’s a suspect” concept, but they only introduced us to a select few passengers and crew members. On the plus side, from this limited group, they did create a compelling mystery — even guessing early that somebody from the fractured family did it, they kept us guessing who did it. I also like that they brought back a conflict that hasn’t reared its head in awhile — Brennan’s secret desire to do “serious” work instead of investigating murders. I’m obviously not a big fan of the Angela/Hodgins/Roxy pseudo-triangle, but the writers wisely kept the subplot as close to the sidelines as possible. All in all, a good episode with a lot of funny material, but not as great as it’s been lately.
Everybody Hates Chris (The CW) — I only had one problem with this episode, which had a great concept and was funny as ever. Nina Mansker, who played “Big Bird,” is (1) obviously about 10 years older than everyone else at Tattaglia, and (2) was clearly a model of some kind. I wonder when TV producers will realize that simply making a woman wear glasses and pull their hair into a bun doesn’t make them ugly. I did like the fact that they didn’t mock her for the glasses or the bun or the hideous clothes — true to high school kids everywhere, they picked the most obvious “flaw” (her runway-model height). Despite all the good things in this episode, the ending was obvious from the moment Big Bird stepped onto the screen.
King of the Hill (Fox) — I like Bill-focused episodes because he’s the most lovably pathetic character on TV. However, Bill episodes have a tendency to stick the rest of the Rainey Street crew into the background while Bill develops alternate interests or new friends and realizes he needs his real friends to clean up his messes. This one worked a little different, playing up Bill’s pathological need to be liked, which leads to the Peggy/Dale/Minh stock-market subplot, which leads to the Hank/Bobby HDTV subplot. (As a side-note, I love it when Dale is portrayed as a “house-husband” — he’s such a nut, it makes coffee klatches with Peggy and Minh strangely incongruous.) And, of course, things go wrong when Bill realizes people are finally listening to him — and he begins to change, losing the essence of what made the others follow him around in the first place. Bill’s fundamental lack of understanding why people might like him — or, in this case, why they might be exploiting him — is one thing that makes him a compelling character.
The Office (NBC) — See how much better this show works when they concentrate more on dynamics within the office rather than romantic relationships? As I’ve said, I don’t mind Jim and Pam (especially now that it’s stopped being a Jim-Pam-Roy triangle), but dividing everyone up into relationship subgroups just doesn’t work for me. But Ryan and Kelly work, and even the triangle with Darryl made sense with this group of characters. It’s just, on some levels, impossible to believe that nearly everyone in the office would have some sort of romantic alliance. Unrequited crushes, like Toby and Pam? That works. Having them all dating or fooling around doesn’t. I was thrilled that they made the central conflict between Michael and Toby, leaving the cute Jim-Pam house subplot and the irritating “Schrute Farms” subplot on the sidelines. The show should always be like this.
Pushing Daisies (ABC) — Man, Stephen Root and Fred Willard? They have to start letting Kristin Chenoweth sing again so I don’t miss this show so much after its inevitable cancellation. (Yeah, yeah — I know ABC’s spin is that they’ve simply “opted not to order more episodes at this time,” but I think that’s the new and more cumbersome “on hiatus.”) Admittedly, the magic-show setting was a little too cutesy (not unlike the circus setting from a few weeks back), but how can I complain when the setting gave us Fred Willard and Kerri Kenney-Silver.
Supernatural (The CW) — After this episode, I’m a little irritated that this show’s going off the air for two months. They did a terrific job of expanding the current “angel vs. demon” mythology while piling new layers onto Sam and Dean (and to a lesser extent, Castiel, Uriel, Anna and Ruby). Even the “grace” thing with Anna, which could have ended up being very, very silly, worked. I don’t know where they’re going with it, but I’m hooked…and now it’s going away for the holidays. Good planning, CW.
In the first place, I assumed the future-tormenter played by the unparalleled Richard Schiff (The West Wing) would actually turn out to be sincere in his pleas that he’s just a regular old watchmaker. Anyone who has read this column before knows that I don’t trust Jesse at all, and I had a sinking suspicion she had lured Derek into the “let’s kill this future guy — together” to further solidify their connection and allow her to manipulate him. I figured she just pulled a random dude off the street for this purpose, but it went in a totally different direction. That in mind, I still don’t trust her. In fact, I find it more suspicious that they’d introduce the idea of “grays” (humans who work for the machines) in a subplot prominently featuring Jesse — to me, it reeks of foreshadowing.
The other big surprise was the outcome of last week’s speculation that Ellison would unintentionally tip his hand about what went down in Mexico, which would lead Weaver to nab Cromartie’s body. I thought this was all but confirmed with Ellison’s surprisingly believable denials. The fact that he had the body in his trunk amazed the hell out of me — first the surprise factor, then the fact that Ellison was lying. Last season, I found his character a little, er…tedious, and it seemed like this season would continue that trend. Instead, they’ve fleshed him out while making him even more of an enigma. (As a side-note, I loved Cameron’s flipping Ellison onto his back to relieve his pain.)
This isn’t quite a surprise, but I liked that the writers are getting back to addressing what’s going on in Sarah’s head. After all, the show has her name in the title — it’s gotten away from her (admittedly annoying) voiceovers, and she’s basically turned into an emotionally numb sourpuss. The symbolic but (thankfully) not weird for weird’s sake dream sequences, and her visit with Dr. Sherman, let us know that she isn’t numb — by the nature of what they have to do, she just has to put things aside and let them fester. This might assuage some of the criticism that Lena Headey doesn’t play Sarah as intense as Linda Hamilton did in T2 (which would be virtually impossible on TV schedule). I think Headey (and the writers) are hitting the best of both worlds — the middle-ground personality that we never saw in the movies because everything happened between the events of the first two. The backstory has her as a caring but troubled mother who was doing the best to “train” John for his future until she snapped. Ostensibly, the events of T2 helped her realize what she needs to do to get control over her life: she has to put everything aside for John’s sake. How long can she keep it up before she snaps again? I think this is ground the writers will address with if the show lasts long enough.
November 9, 2008
It’s been a surprisingly busy news week for telephiles. NBC has carefully charted the Heroes downward spiral (in both creativity and ratings) and decided it’s time for some firings, starting with current showrunners Jeph Loeb and Jesse Alexander. The former is known primarily for his comic writing, while the latter’s biggest claim to fame is probably Alias.
I finally gave up on the show, long after I should have, in the last column. Despite the ranting and raving I’ve read on the Internet about how it’s wrong to fire these guys, I’m hard pressed to find a reason why they should stay. Maybe Loeb wrote some great comics; maybe Alexander wrote some of Alias’s best episodes. Maybe they’re good writers who can’t oversee for shit. I don’t know what the explanation, but the show has gone into the shitter, big-time, and it’s a creative problem. NBC has basically given them creative carte blanche, a massive budget and a surprising level of faith and trust for a show that could so easily tailspin into oblivion. Maybe the network tampered — they usually do — and put restrictions on them, but you know what? Good television writers thrive under such restrictions. Heroes didn’t. End of story.
(Update, 11/10/08: The New York Times has made a number of unsettling statements regarding the level of involvement from creator Tim Kring in the third season (sole, uncredited writer of the first nine terrible, terrible episodes?) and that 20 of this season’s 25 episodes have already been written, so any creative changes won’t occur until May at the earliest. I’d say maybe they did fire the wrong person, but you know what? The show will probably end up getting canceled by then. Not even NBC can justify keeping this show on the air after critics and audiences have turned on it. They’ll never regain the audience they had, and to be frank, said audience was never that big in the first place.)
The other big news revolves around Fox’s midseason schedule announcement. The eagerly anticipated Joss Whedon nerdfest Dollhouse will suffer the same timeslot (and like the same fate) as his brilliant, short-lived Firefly. I can’t deny the greatness of Whedon, but I can deny the supposed greatness of Dollhouse. Here’s a little secret some people — especially Whedon — don’t seem to realize: Eliza Dushku… is not very good. She’s just not. Accept it. She can barely play the “tough but vulnerable” stereotype she’s nearly always cast as. While I tolerated her on Buffy and Angel (because, thankfully, she wasn’t in either very much, relatively speaking), building an entire vehicle around her — no matter how great the supporting cast or the writing is — isn’t where the smart money is. It’s only made worse by the description of the premise, which suggests Dushku will be “re-cast” in a variety of roles each week, like Alias, only 1000 times worse (and anyone who saw the third season of Alias knows the implications of that statement).
The real tragedy was Fox’s decision to pair up the sure disaster of Dollhouse with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Anybody who’s read this column knows my affinity for that show and probably realizes how disheartening this news is. It’s a typically predictable Fox move — every time they want a quick cancellation, it’s either Friday nights or the 7PM hour on Sunday (which virtually guarantees preempts during football season, justifying cancellations long before January).
Bones (Fox) — Yay, they brought back Carla Gallo! Boo, they devoted the entire episode to making her look like a total jackass to justify her not working with the Jeffersonian team. I’ve enjoyed everyone they’ve shoved into the “new graduate intern” slot, but Gallo had the most spark and the most interesting chemistry with the rest of the group. I’ve already grown tired of the revolving door, so why tease us? I’m sure she’ll be back, now that she and Sweets are officially a couple, but why can’t she just work with them full-time? Come on, Bones! What are you afraid of?
Another fun guest appearance came from NewsRadio’s great Vicki Lewis, who hasn’t been around much since that show. I’m sure she’s been doing a lot of theatre, but it’d be nice to get her on a series that showcased her skills as well as that classic sitcom. This appearance, while refreshing, didn’t do her justice.
Also, I’m sorry I have to say this, but it seems like once a season they have some sort of artist-related murder that invariably has ties to Angela. Did she ever do anything that wasn’t art-related? I think it’s time to put the whole “artist” thing aside and give her more dimension, and I’m not talking about adding “lesbian dabbling” to her extensive resume of sexual peccadilloes.
Everybody Hates Chris (The CW) — This is the first time in awhile that they’ve given Tanya a subplot that didn’t feel like an afterthought, so I applaud the writers for that. They also did a wonderful job of tying it to a Julius-Rochelle conflict — great work utilizing the ensemble in one subplot. Also, thumbs-up for taking a very common young-woman problem and making it as bizarre, irreverent and fresh as the common young-man problems Chris faces.
Robin Givens, who appeared out of nowhere on an episode of Burn Notice last summer, reappears here as Doc’s overbearing girlfriend. I have only the haziest memories of her from Head of the Class, and I’m honestly surprised narrator Chris didn’t make any Mike Tyson jokes, but I have to admit she impressed me. She played basically the same character Tisha Campbell did a few weeks ago, but about a thousand times better. I honestly hope she works her way into the recurring cavalcade of classic-TV stars alongside Todd Bridges, Antonio Fargas, Ernest Thomas and Jackée.
The writers took the rather interesting tack of showing Chris negotiating the strange world of adulthood without quite having the faculty to do so properly or maturely. Instead, he causes mayhem and chaos — and man did Fargas do a good job of selling the hurt after Givens dumps him — and, when he tries to clean up the mess, comes to the strange realization that adults are just as messed up as the kids at Tattaglia. Nicely done, writers.
King of the Hill (Fox) — Ah, corporate synergy. King of the Hill’s focus on Fox-owned MySpace makes me as enthusiastic for the social-networking giant as Sarah Connor Chronicles does for the glistening, sleek 2009 Dodge Ram. Despite the obvious corporate mandate at work here, I don’t mind the product placement. I don’t even mind it when it’s as glaring as Sarah Connor’s extreme close-up of the Ram logo. Use of actual products — especially in a satirical but not explicitly negative way, as here — lends a verisimilitude that most television shows lack.
My only real complaint about the episode, which was pretty funny and well-plotted, was the character of Donna. We’ve never seen her before, we won’t see her again. I know this is a sitcom with a very standalone nature, but it would have been nice to see a long-time recurring character like Joe-Jack or Enrique get hooked on MySpace. They could have also brought Donna on a few episodes earlier and subtly foreshadowed the upcoming MySpace meltdown. They developed the character well enough, and she’s eerily reminiscent of more than a few coworkers I’ve shared office space with, but I would have preferred to see a slow build rather than a random eruption. Donna comes out of nowhere and goes back to nowhere by the end of the episode.
Mad Men (AMC) — This season’s finale didn’t quite have the emotional impact of the first season, but it worked pretty well. Strangely, the season’s biggest emotional punch came not from the Don-Betty reunion (or Betty’s angst over her pregnancy) — the “confrontation” between Pete and Peggy actually hit me on a deeper level. I also found the angst over the merger more interesting than the Cuban Missile Crisis material that paralleled it. At least in that case, it seemed like an intentional move from the writers. I will say that I hope Don and Betty work all their problems out, but I’m honestly not looking forward to another kid.
So I’m taking bets. Who thinks they’ll be ballsy and skip 1963 the way they did ‘61? Or will next season’s finale revolve around the Kennedy assassination?
The Office (NBC) — So last week, we had the breakup; this week, we (very briefly) have the aftermath, as Michael opens the show attempting to convince the others he’s engaged to Holly. Unfortunately, after that things veered quite a bit off the beaten path. I’ve bitched about the coupling and triangles before, and I have to admit there’s little I care less about than the Dwight-Angela-Andy cluster. I know the writers have to give them something to do, but they really can’t come up with any better, office-focused material than a love triangle? I never bought Andy as interested in Angela to begin with, so the fact that it’s gone this far irritates me to no end. Making their selection of Schrute Farms as the wedding location such a significant part of this week’s episode really bugged me.
Pushing Daisies (ABC) — If Stephen Root’s role pans out the way I hope it does, he will single-handedly obliterate my lingering Chenoweth hate. I will stop caring because everything Stephen Root has ever done or will ever do is great, automatically.
Although the show is starting to feel the lack of Lily and Vivian, this episode did a great job of expanding this strange hybrid world, which combines storybook fantasy and film noir, by staging most of the action in the Chinese restaurant under Emerson’s office. The writers also made me feel Ned’s pain in a way I haven’t since the first season. I don’t know where they’re headed with him, his half-brothers and Stephen Root, but I’m completely on board.
Unfortunately, the mystery went quite a bit off the rails in the last quarter. Tossing Chuck and Olive into the fray as new waitresses was one of the show’s most random moments, but it didn’t add much beyond an absurd visual — and as absurd visuals go, it couldn’t even begin to compare to loutish Chinese gangsters playing poker with food. I loved a lot about this episode, but it lacked the polish of the past few weeks.
Raising the Bar (TNT) — All right, I have to call bullshit on this season finale. There were a couple of things I liked — not coincidentally, all of them tied back into who these characters are: the Charlie-Kessler subplot, Kellerman getting advice from Bobbi and taking it, Bobbi not acting inconsistently because he took the advice but “it’s different” because it’s her (that’s the way it’d go on 90% of TV shows), Michelle actually trying to do the right thing when she finds out about Bobbi’s husband. I even liked the way the story of the old lady brings Rosalind and Richard together.
I didn’t like the too-easy portrait of Bobbi’s husband first as a drug addict, then as a drug addict who chases hookers. Maybe it’s because the bulk of their relationship has been presented off-screen, or maybe it’s the blinding hotness of Natalia Cigliuti making me wonder how anyone could prefer seeking prostitutes, but that whole concept was a major tough-sell, almost as tough a sell as the idea that a doctor could be dipping into his hospital’s own supply without anyone noticing (a) the inventory is off or (b) Dr. Gilardi is stoned out of his gourd. Only people who are high don’t think others notice. And, really, it’s quick-‘n’-easy character assassination to first cause a reason for Kellerman and Bobbi to be apart, then get together without the audience feeling guilty. I wish they’d done the job of making him a more interesting, nuanced “villain” that she maybe just doesn’t get along with. It’s strangely family-hour-friendly for a basic-cable show airing in the 10PM slot with controversy master Steven Bochco at the helm. Shouldn’t this entire show consist of infidelities and obscenities? Like Rescue Me for lawyers?
I like this show a fair amount, enough to consider checking it out next season, but I have some reservations. Too often, the show dips down toward mediocrity and/or cliché territory, and that’s the material that’s just not worth the time. Despite what certain whiny netizens think, there’s way too much good stuff on television to stick with something that doesn’t want to better itself. Two weeks ago, I mentioned we needed more scenes like the one with Kellerman and Charlie on the roof. I stand by that, but if the show doesn’t deliver, I’ll probably check out before season two ends.
Sons of Anarchy (FX) — Speaking of not rising to its potential… I’ve come to a rather unfortunate decision about Sons of Anarchy. We have three more weeks until the first-season finale, and while I intend to see it through to the end of the season, I’m going to drop Idiot Boxing coverage of it. If it does the job of changing my mind about the show, I’ll cover the finale and gladly indulge in the second season, whenever it airs. For the moment, it’s so ridiculously inconsistent that I just don’t think it’s worth sticking with.
I know I turned around on this show when I last wrote about it, but the problem is, the show turned back around on me. It finally reached heights of quality — and consistency — that made me want to embrace it, but the past two episodes have been lackluster at best. In fact, last week’s episode I’m willing to simply call bad, if only because I really, really can’t stand Agent Stahl. But the irritation of Stahl just points to the other problem — Kohn wasn’t scary until the episode where he got shot in the head. He wasn’t threatening or menacing; he was pretty irritating, too. Stahl is following in the exact same pattern — a bland, cardboard-cutout of a villain who doesn’t present anything close to a real threat. So basically, if the villains aren’t going to work, what’s the point of having them? Why not just stick with these bikers and the local authorities. Already, Deputy Chief Hale has proved more interesting and threatening than the “bigger” villains, yet they’ve relegated him to the background.
Jax and Tara share similar inconsistencies. One week, Jax is all into reading his dad’s book and using his head to solve their problems; the next, he’s as much a brainless, gun-toting low-life as the others. The writers don’t take the time to write in the internal struggle of running with the club the way he has for his whole life and trying to change it so it’s more in line with what his dad wanted and what he now wants for his own son. I guess they think this conflict is implied, and it’s hard to get taciturn characters to open up about their feelings, but it’s not really reflected much in the way he behaves. I don’t think this is so much a problem with Charlie Hunnam’s performance as a problem with the writers not making Jax question decisions — even if he’s doing it non-verbally and going along with it out of loyalty.
Tara, on the other hand… While it’s believable that the problems with Kohn would bring them together temporarily, it seems inconceivable that suddenly they’d be back in each others’ arms forever. Yet, this just underscores how little we know about her. I can’t say she wouldn’t behave the way she is, because I don’t know enough about her to speculate. Now that I think about it, I can say the same for nearly every other supporting character. They’re coasting on the charm of the performers and the micro-traits the writers have given them. At the end of the day, the only characters who have any depth or consistency are Gemma, Opie, Unser and Hale. Notice that three of the four are recurring characters with maybe 1/10th of the screen time of Jax, Tara or Clay.
It’s just shaking out that these people end up more interesting because they’re reacting to situations created by the main characters, which naturally brings out new aspects of the characters. The writers don’t feel the need to bring us into why the leads do what they do, and they’re acting instead of reacting. When they do react, it often undermines what we already know about them instead of enhancing it. (Much as I enjoyed Jax shooting Kohn in the head, nothing about his character suggests he’s that emotional. He’s the cold, rational one, who would be coming up with various plans rather than acting on whims. Maybe things are different because of his history with Tara, but again, we don’t know enough about their past relationship to make it believable.) There are some exceptions to this rule, but overall, we don’t know much about them, and I have the feeling that this is the main reason why they come across as so frustrating and inconsistent.
So there you have it. A rant and a half followed by silence. Sorry, Sons fans. I’m just not feeling this one. Maybe the next few weeks will change my mind.
Supernatural (The CW) — What is this? Three or four light-‘n’-fluffy episodes in a row? Granted, Supernatural does this kind of thing exceedingly well — although the characters aren’t as great and the dialogue isn’t nearly as sharp, they’re approaching a Buffy/Angel level of quality when it comes to balancing humor and horror. And yet… I don’t really tune in to Supernatural for comedy, whether they do it well or not.
This week’s episode was almost pure laughs, and the suicidal life-size teddy bear was hilarious, but I have to give more credit to the Halloween episode. While still funny, it featured some truly disturbing moments — the inside-the-mouth shot as the husband ate razor-filled candy was as amazing as it was disgusting — and did the job of expanding both the “Sam’s a crazy demon-queller” and Dean’s “The Trouble with Angels” subplots. In the latter category, they brought in Robert Wisdom (The Wire), in what I hope will be a recurring role, as the rare angel who out-badasses Castiel.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox) — As I’ve mentioned, this show is not long for this world. Shortly after the back-nine pickup (yay!), Fox elected to move this show to the Friday dead zone, starting in February (boo!). I guess we should enjoy it while we can. The writers make it easy, because with every misstep (Derek’s boring future-girlfriend) comes a new layer of intrigue (is she the never-before-seen human working for machines?). Unfortunately, it’ll be less easy to see it go, with the cast invariably driving off into the sunset in glistening, new Dodge Rams.
As nitpicks go, I have one that could be a doozy. So here’s the thing: Ellison is wrongfully accused of murder after a terminator clone travels through time and kills a man for clothes. As you might remember from the thoroughly disgusting bathtub episode in the first season, in order to match a person physically, the machines require a certain quantity of that person’s DNA (probably less in the future, with the advanced technology). So where’d Ellison’s DNA come from? Did they spare a sample clinic from nuclear annihilation? I admit, it’s somewhat intriguing to see that they want to replace Ellison for unknown reasons — otherwise, why go to the effort of cloning him? — but how’d they get that?
Even worse, when Catherine Weaver gets him out of jail by assuming the identity of the detective… What was going on there? One assumes she killed the detective, so wouldn’t somebody get suspicious once his body’s found? “What was he doing before he died?” “Interrogating James Ellison for murder.” Nothing suspicious there! I do like the uneasy alliance between Weaver and Ellison, though, and I have to wonder if he’ll start suspecting her now.
The rest of the show was just fine — no complaints, but I have to say, nothing exceptional, either. I liked them teaming up Cromartie and Jody, the fun irony of Sarah’s softness getting them into trouble (again! — this will end up being a crutch if they keep using it, though) and the return of Riley and Kim Kelly — er, Kacy. It seems like forever since we last saw them, because Fox keeps preempting the show. If it had run in succession, John’s outburst about Sarkissian would have been more effective, as well. I have a feeling the whole thing will flow better on DVD.
November 16, 2008
The good: after 13 seasons, Fox has decided to pull the plug on King of the Hill. Again. Ratings aren’t down, the show’s writing is as strong as ever; Fox just wants to make room for yet another terrible Seth MacFarlane show. Good decision, Fox! Because American Dad’s ratings aren’t low enough, they apparently want to see how close one of their Sunday animated shows can get to the bottom of the Nielsens and still survive. But there is actual good news here: ABC has mentioned that, if Fox doesn’t change its mind, they’ll pick the show up, just like they did with Scrubs. ABC doesn’t seem to mind being the dumping ground of other networks’ sitcoms, which is probably for the best. With the exception of 2006’s underrated Sons and Daughters, ABC hasn’t developed a good sitcom since Roseanne.
The confusing and possibly bad news: ABC’s funniest show, Pushing Daisies, is on the chopping block, along with Dirty Sexy Money and their Life on Mars remake. The network hasn’t confirmed any cancellations, but they released a midseason schedule with some noticeable absences. The rumor mill is abuzz with the notion that the three shows will be capped at 13-episode seasons and may return in the fall, introducing a new strategy of two shortened seasons in the fall and winter, rather than one long, rerun-packed season from September to May. Another rumor: this week’s Pushing Daisies is incredibly important, because if it doesn’t show an exponential increase in viewership, ABC will likely cancel it.
Now, I’ve leveled some legitimate criticism at Pushing Daisies before, but this season has shown a marked improvement. The ratings don’t quite match the show’s early success, but they’re steadily climbing. Maybe not as quickly as ABC would like, but it’s not exactly tanking. I’m finally liking this show well enough to make it appointment television, so I feel bad that ABC’s torpedoing it. On the other hand, as I’ve mentioned, the shaky quality of the first season drove a lot of viewers away (justifiably), which is something I have to pin on the writers, not the network. It’s not the network’s fault they can’t convince audiences the show is now better than the first few episodes of the first season.
Bones (Fox) — I liked Eugene Byrd’s earlier appearances well enough, but he didn’t make a big impression on me until this week. After the rotating group of Zack replacements, it occurred to me that somebody like Dr. Clark Edison is exactly what the Jeffersonian needs: a bitter straight man who just wants to work, dammit. In the first season, Dr. Goodman had this characteristic, so naturally they’d can him in favor of Dr. Saroyan, who is both a gossip and a woman who has a romantic past with Booth. Bones isn’t nearly as soap operatic as it could be, but it could use a character who is first irritated by their unprofessional behavior, then slowly gets sucked in.
My only minor nitpick — Edison made no complaints about going to Booth’s birthday party. Now, I’ve worked a few jobs where I haven’t gotten along with coworkers and tried my damndest to keep out of the personal drama. The easiest way to do that is to avoid any outside-of-work social functions. I know they’re supposed to build team camaraderie, but you know what? I’m not getting paid, it has nothing to do with the work — I’m not going to go. Edison should feel the same way, so it surprised me that they didn’t even have a throwaway crack about his annoyance.
Brendan Fehr from CSI: Miami and Roswell guested as Booth’s brother. I don’t think we’ve gotten quite so in-depth on Booth’s character since Stephen Fry stopped appearing as his court-appointed shrink, so that was refreshing. It also allowed Booth and Brennan to acknowledge their mutual feelings without actually acknowledging them — this is “will they or won’t they?” at its best, allowing characters to confront their feelings separately, then deny them while they’re together. But, as always, a plea to Bones writers: pick “they won’t.” Please.
Yet another fun guest star: The Cosby Show’s Joseph C. Phillips, who deserves a better career than what he has. I don’t know, maybe he’s doing a lot of fulfilling theatre work, but he’s a good actor who could have been a major star. I blame Lisa Bonet for his lack of film and television success.
Everybody Hates Chris (The CW) — I love variations on a theme. Everybody Hates Chris’ writers are great because, more often than not, they take classic sitcom plots (kid sneaks out, sees something he shouldn’t have, is torn between getting in trouble and doing the right thing) and put a unique spin on it. What could have been an obvious plot — Chris confesses what he knows and his parents find out — gets turned upside down because his fear of snitching (not just for the parental repercussions) causes him to pay Jerome to confess for him, which gets Jerome arrested.
The show also went one better than usual by giving everyone else either entertaining subplots or funny character moments — Julius and Rochelle versus Show Dogs (a Cats spoof), Tanya’s bribery and Drew’s absurd quest to get on That’s Incredible! Even Greg, who’s been underused this season, had a couple of great scenes with Chris.
King of the Hill (Fox) — This is classic King of the Hill, a full-on satirical assault of the flawed and failed “No Child Left Behind” program. Forget The Wire’s gritty, dyspeptic realism — nothing slices through the heart of an issue like sardonic mockery. In this episode, Bobby (among other Tom Landry notables) is stuck in a “special-needs” class so the school can raise their test scores and get more funding.
Over the past few years, they’ve developed Principal Moss as a character who both shies away from conflict and has a misguided devious streak (but only when it has to do with his school’s bottom line). Both of these aspects drove this week’s story, which focuses on the Hills but really tells the story of Moss’s downfall. In typical King of the Hill fashion, Moss is never portrayed as a truly bad guy. He’s just doing what he has to within a broken system, and he’s punished for it, seen selling “J-Bone” steaks at the end of the episode. I also love that, when he finally embraces Hank’s plan to just make the “special” kids work hard and study, the school’s average scores still go down. Ironies like that separate King of the Hill from the average sitcom.
Supernatural (The CW) — Here’s my problem: I liked Katie Cassidy. She could handle the comedy-to-drama-to-horror tightrope as well as Ackles or Padalecki, without quite being as good as either of them. She fit the show, she fit the part of Ruby (or, at least, made it her own) and for her trouble, the writers killed off the actress but not the character. The character has returned in the form of Genevieve Cortese, and no amount of pouty stares and full-backal nudity will convince me that she’s any good. I don’t want to sound harsh, and maybe Cortese would be fine (or, at least, unremarkable) in another role. However, Cassidy and Cortese playing the same role — it’s a night and day difference.
I wasn’t exactly sold on Cortese in earlier Ruby appearances, but I let it slide since she was barely in the episodes. This week, however, concentrated pretty fully on What Happened to Sam, which means explaining What Happened to Ruby. The Cortese incarnation of the character actually has a rather interesting backstory, but she’s still just…not very impressive. Maybe she’ll improve, but in my mind, it’s like betting against a sure-thing because maybe the underdog will win this time.
As for the content of the episode itself — well, aside from Cortese dragging it down, it was pretty good. They’ve broken away from the light, funny mold of the past few weeks, which isn’t a bad thing. True to the show’s format, this week takes on the urban myth of the prophet-like folks who claim they can eavesdrop on angels. Sam and Dean end up seeking out a girl who knows all about them — because, since the day Dean was released from hell, she’s heard endless angel conversations about the upcoming war. Some demons may or may not be in pursuit, trying to use “Radio Girl” to find out what the angels have planned… Or maybe the demons are just Castiel and Uriel, who rush in just before the “To Be Continued…” and announce their intention to kill her.
I know I praised Robert Wisdom during his first appearance, but it’s time to lavish praise on Misha Collins. His performance kind of snuck up on me, but last week I started noticing how good he is — and this week, even though he was hardly in the episode, the pure scary bad-assiness of his performance made me realize this guy is great. He’s been around the block, but I’ve never really committed his name to memory. Now, he’s on my radar. I hope Supernatural doesn’t make the same mistakes they made with Katie Cassidy.
I’ve read so many people, from professional bloggers to actual journalists to fans on message boards bitching about how lame Cromartie’s death is. He’s a goddamn terminator, and last time I checked, we did not see him get doused in phosphate or lured into a tarpit. The obvious speculation is that naïve/goofy Ellison will inadvertently lead Catherine Weaver to the body, not realizing this is a Bad Thing.
I liked this episode a lot — the “[Character Name’s Story]” structuring was nifty, they’ve finally gone back to making John feel like a real (if bratty and troubled) teenager, John’s finally brought Riley in on the secrets (sort of), each of the characters had some nice moments to shine. I even liked the heavy-handed Christ imagery with Cromartie at the end. (And hey, that’s likely a not-so-subtle implication of Cromartie’s imminent resurrection.) Because I’ve continued to like this show — in fact, I’ll argue it’s improved steadily from day one, aside from a few shaky elements (notably Shirley Manson, whose awkward performance has grown on me) — I feel like I’m becoming defensive after reading others’ reactions. Although I’m a fan of dissenting opinion, I don’t want to come across like a whiner every week, so hey, I’ll just stop trolling the message boards.
(Also, I have to note that it was a little jarring to see that they filmed this episode in the same generic backlot Mexican town so memorably utilized on Arrested Development. Way to plant, Ann!)
November 4, 2008
During election season, what stirs the male imagination more than female candidates? Hustler Video picked up on the instant popularity of Alaskan sex kitten/vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin by rushing into production Who’s Nailin’ Paylin. It follows in the footsteps of 1976’s Union of American Socialists (whose alarming storyline follows Constance Blomen and Willie Mae Reid surrogates through a depraved, expressionistic vision of post-Watergate Washington) and 1984’s Ferraro Fever, notable primarily for the Geraldine Ferraro-Nancy Reagan sapphic gymnastics that close the picture.
Unfortunately, Who’s Nailin’ Paylin lacks the variety and vivacity of older titles. The film suffers from an overall lack of focus and mostly atrocious casting. Much as I wanted to enjoy director Jerome Tanner and writer Roger Krypton’s absurd take on the circus the 2008 campaign became, the plot never jells and the humor never rises to the heights of great political satire. Instead, they rely on cheap stereotypes (portraying “Serra Paylin” as an airhead) and lame-brained humor.
November 1, 2008
Author: Brandon Camp & Mike Thompson and Rob Legato
Writer’s Potential: 4
Logline:A student journalist and her sheriff father try to track a bizarre serial killer.
Synopsis:After SARA’s (17) bedtime, a creepy man with a scarred lip breaks into the house and makes Sara choose who will live: her mother or her father. Sara doesn’t want to choose, so Scarlip uses her little brother as a hostage. Sara chooses her father. At the university in a small, rural college town, FIONA, MARNI, BRIAN, and PAUL (all 20s) walk the campus as they discuss the incident with Sara. They talk about which parents they’d choose, and everybody admires Fiona’s easy choice — her mother’s already dead. They invite Fiona to hang out with them, but she tells them she has to finish her story for the college paper.
An orchestral pianist with a bad comb over stays late to practice. Scarlip magically appears, dropping a bag of power tools as he gives Comb Over a choice: lose his hearing or his hands. Either way, Scarlip is going to rob him of his music. Comb Over can’t choose, so Scarlip chooses for him — hands. At her apartment, Fiona checks out the news. She’s disappointed to read headlines stating Sara committed suicide. Fiona turns on her police scanner and turns on the shower. As the water heats up, she cleans up the kitchen, then latches the chain on the front door. Fiona tries to close and lock the bathroom door, but it’s old and won’t close all the way. She gets into the shower anyway. After a few moments, the door flies open. Fiona leaps out of the shower and finds her soccer ball was the culprit. There’s an odd symbol drawn on the fogged-up mirror. Confused, Fiona searches the apartment. The chain on the front door is undone, and there’s a jar of peanut butter on the counter — Fiona’s allergic. Marni arrives, scaring the crap out of Fiona. Marni accuses Fiona of taking her work too seriously and becoming paranoid.
Fiona tells her dad, SHERIFF TOM WAGNER, the whole story. He wants to believe her, but the whole thing is just too odd. Wagner tries to allay her fears by pointing out the incident with Sara happened over 100 miles away. Wagner gets a call and leaves. At the auditorium, DETECTIVE BENSON briefs Wagner on Comb Over’s attack. Comb Over is still alive and hospitalized. Fiona is frustrated by the headline of the second victim. At a coffee shop, a barista tries to flirt with her by upselling her some kind of candy with peanuts. This makes Fiona more paranoid. At a photography studio, model JENNA soaks up the attention of a photographer while acting shrew-like and unpleasant to everyone around her. Scarlip appears. He gives her a choice: he’ll either pull out her eyes with a melon scoop or set her on fire with a blowtorch — she can either stop seeing her own beauty or prevent the world from seeing hers. Jenna fights back, so Scarlip kills her with the torch. The next morning, Fiona’s computer gives her a weird message: “Click here to choose.” She clicks and is shown grisly photos of Jenna’s death — before the police have even discovered the body.
Fiona goes to Wagner with the new information. He’s shocked that she knows about the crime they’ve just discovered. Fiona’s angry that Wagner didn’t mention the pattern to her. Wagner tells her to leave the laptop so they can check it out. Fiona visits Comb Over in the hospital, pretending to be another cop. She interviews him and finds out the killer knew his name, which suggests to her a personal motive. Fiona tries to put the pieces of this investigation together, finds herself puzzled. At the home of a guy named WALRUS, his blue-haired mother hears some mysterious noises. She wanders the house. Later, Walrus comes home from work, looks for his mother. Meanwhile, Fiona shows something she’s discovered to Brian. He figures out it’s a barcode, specifically an old code used in libraries, which leads them to a book title, Pathologies of Rational Choice. Brian also figures out the code points them to where the book once belonged — Milburn Juvenile Detention Facility, closed several years back after allegations of child abuse.
Scarlip goes to the home of ELLIOT VINCENT, ties up Elliot and his wife, and makes Elliot choose who will die — himself or his wife. Elliot chooses himself, so Scarlip shows some photos of his wife cheating. Elliot is enraged, changes his mind, but his wife says she’s pregnant. Elliot wonders if the child is his but changes his mind back to himself anyway. Scarlip tells her not to worry — Elliot fooled around on her a lot, too. He shoots Elliot and dumps an array of photos showing Elliot involved with a dozen different women. Wagner, Benson, and Fiona discuss the pattern and possible motives. Nobody can figure out why the “reporter” Scarlip chose to mess with is just a college student. They get word that Elliot Vincent was killed by Scarlip, which Wagner believes changes the pattern — Elliot’s a D.A. Scarlip follows CLARISSA WELLS to her car. He tries to do the normal “choice” routine, but Clarissa messes with it by acting strong and brave and refusing to choose. Frustrated and confused, Scarlip snaps her neck and sets her car on fire.
Fiona shows Wagner an article on a therapist who worked at Milburn. His specialty? “Choice therapy.” Wagner’s shocked and impressed by the clue. He and Fiona go out to visit the doctor, PENDLETON, who is a charmingly eccentric man. Pendleton offers up hundreds of hours of videotape of his subjects from Milburn, which Wagner, Benson, and Fiona watch until exhaustion. Each subject on the tape is made the same offer — a certain amount of money to snap the neck of a puppy. Nobody will do it, even with Pendleton raising the reward — except for one kid, Nathan Jones, recognizable as a younger Scarlip. He knows exactly what Pendleton wants from him and chooses to do the opposite. Benson digs into the case file, showing he was adopted a two months but was given back at age three because of mental instability and destructive behavior. He was never adopted again and went through the foster-care system, enduring abuse in home after home until being sent to Milburn, which was even worse.
The death of Clarissa is reported. She was recently divorced from an alderman, and based on the death, Wagner isn’t entirely sure it’s Scarlip, although murder is not exactly common here. Benson arrives with a tip phoned in saying the killer works at a Burgerific restaurant, thought plausible because the caller gave his name as Nathan. At Burgerific, Scarlip notices the police and disappears. Benson and Wagner talk with the manager, who gives them his address. The address Scarlip gave is actually Walrus’ house. Walrus and his mother are both dead. Scarlip goes to a hardware store and buys a bunch of stuff. He notices a kid hiding from his mom and crying because she won’t give him money for a gumball. Scarlip gives him money and blows bubbles with him. The kid’s creeped-out mother comes and snatches him away.
Wagner gets word that they found a bloody hourglass near the Clarissa scene. He and Benson go to check out Scarlip’s apartment. Inside, they find photos, newspaper clippings, all sorts of stuff connecting the victims to Scarlip. Even weirder, the place is cluttered with photos and articles about Wagner and Fiona. They also find a body, decayed from an “acid bath.” Fiona gets an e-mail from “email@example.com.” It’s cluttered with photos of each victim and Scarlip’s relationship to them — Except for Clarissa, who just has a question mark. As Wagner/Benson and Fiona investigate this information, the basic motive is laid out: Scarlip is getting revenge on everyone who ever wronged him. Comb Over worked for Child Services and handled Scarlip’s case, Jenna was a foster sister who tormented him, Walrus was an abusive Milburn guard, Elliot made sure the abuse charges were dropped, and Sara’s father was Scarlip’s original adoptive father.
There is also an unknown connection between Clarissa and Wagner — he recognizes her maiden name.
Detectives show Wagner a supposed suicide note, explaining all of this in detail, but the body is so disfigured they will need to identify it through dental records and DNA testing. Fiona figures out that Scarlip wants her to meet him at Milburn. She follows a blueprint he sent all the way to Scarlip’s old cell. She sees a small giftbox in the corner of the cell. As soon as she picks it up, the cell door closes. Inside is a note explaining he’s going to gas her to knock her out. True to his word, gas sprays from a shower head. Meanwhile, Wagner and Benson head to Fiona’s apartment to try to find her, when Benson is shot in the head. Wagner tries to hide from the shooter and is knocked in the back of the head.
Wagner wakes up handcuffed to a chair in front of a freshly dug grave. Fiona is there, too, also tied up. Scarlip gives her a choice: buried alive or burned alive. He has a shovel and a tank of kerosene. But before she makes the choice, Scarlip has something else to get off his chest: in the car accident that killed Fiona’s mother as a baby, she had a twin brother who was severely injured, brain damaged, and would require serious care, possibly never recovering, so Wagner gave the child away. Fiona refuses to believe it, so Scarlip points out a few things: he has black hair and brown eyes, he’s left handed, he’s allergic to peanut butter, he has a birthmark along his right hip. Scarlip asks if this sounds familiar. Fiona is shocked — he really is her twin. Fiona is enraged — she kicks Wagner into the grave and starts dumping the kerosene on him. Scarlip is disarmed by her spirited participation — so disarmed that she gets the drop on him. They fight, but with Wagner’s help, Scarlip is killed. Three months later, everything’s fine. Fiona’s hanging with her friends, having a good time. She goes to visit Wagner and finds — Scarlip, face melted, grotesque, holding a glass of red wine. He pulls her inside the house and slams the door.
Comments:This script has a promising start and a reasonably interesting premise. Even the big twist, if executed properly, could be very effective. All the ideas here are solid but suffer from extremely poor execution. Throughout, the dialogue is by far the strongest element, giving each character a unique voice while struggling to cover up the various narrative problems and character inconsistencies.
Unfortunately, too much of what occurs in this story is just plain dumb. The most obvious example is the handling of the twin reveal — the explanation needs to happen quickly, so the writers attempt to use a “look at all these things we share in common; clearly we’re twins!” reasoning… Except male/female twins are fraternal and wouldn’t share traits like allergies and birthmarks — they wouldn’t even share hair or eye color unless they were dominant genes. Even if this isn’t common knowledge (although I thought it was pretty widely known), a cursory Google search could have solved a whole lot of problems. Something more coherent, like a DNA pattern from the teeth that show Wagner as the unsuspecting father, would go a long way toward making this twist plausible. Maybe they don’t even have to be twins; maybe the family shares some sort of obscure genetic illness, not necessarily debilitating but an easy identifier as being part of this family.
The characters possess a little bit of depth and have somewhat distinctive personalities, but they do have a tendency to change drastically whenever the plot requires them to — Wagner goes from kind and nurturing to stern and hostile; Fiona goes from a strong fighter to a scared little girl. They don’t have enough dimension to make such drastic changes possible — the writers don’t give the impression Fiona’s trying to mask her vulnerability with a tough façade, for instance. It’s sloppy. Scarlip has some interesting qualities, but he comes off like a mad scientist in a campy B-movie — his dialogue is truly ridiculous at many points.
The less said about the “Scarlip’s not really dead” ending, the better, but what about the events just before that? Scarlip really is Fiona’s twin. What a strange, emotional roller coaster that should take her on — the father she’s worshipped for so long is not perfect, her brother is a deranged serial killer. Wouldn’t this be a time to reflect on her life, what she’s potentially capable of, what her father’s already proved capable of? Wouldn’t it, at the very least, strain the relationship? Immediately, Fiona takes in all this information and reacts with thundering indifference, feigning a reaction to confuse Scarlip but still A-OK with her dad and not at all disturbed by the situation. Then it cuts ahead three months, where things are even better. No emotional fallout. No sullen withdrawal from her social life. She’s just okay with this — no impact. It’s a little off-putting and hard to believe, and again, it speaks to both the inconsistencies of the characters and the sloppiness of the story.
Author: Tony Giglio and Michael Hultquist & Robert Martinez
Writer’s Potential: 4
Logline:A suicidal widower is kidnapped and forced to participate in in a deadly fighting competition.
Synopsis:Two hulking men, RIPPER and MAYHEM, fight in a nomadic village, circa 1000 A.D. At one point, Ripper slams his axe down, causing distortion on the screen. It’s revealed that this fight is not really 1000 A.D. — it’s staged to look that way with green screens and a few practical props. This fight is watched by people all over the world, who are angry that the distortion has caused a “Signal Lost” message to appear on their computers. In the studio control room, technical director GEORGE (40s, African-American) and computer technician YOSHI (20s, Japanese) are chewed out by boss RADU (50s, well-dressed) until they get the system back online. Audience members cheer at the return of the fight. They start voting for whether or not Mayhem will be killed or allowed to stay. Yoshi shrugs at the “Kill” decision, pointing out nobody’s ever gotten a high enough percentage to stay. A hooded man, THE EXECUTIONER, appears on the nomadic village set. He hands Ripper his axe, which Ripper uses to decapitate Mayhem.
DAVID, 30s and fit, has a picnic with pregnant wife LORI (30s) and daughter MEGAN (6). David explains to Megan how the caterpillar-butterfly metamorphosis works. Driving home, David’s car is rammed from behind by a truck, which immediately peels out and speeds away. With David distracted, a dark sedan smashes into the passenger side of the car. Later, the car is totaled. Lori and Megan are both dead. At his funeral, nobody shows up but a bandaged-up David and a mysterious TALL MAN. David starts dreaming of suicide. David decides to take a vacation to Thailand, where he meets the gorgeous MILLA (French, 20s, a tattooed and scarred not-so-secret cutter) tending a dive bar. Milla flirts with David. She ends up back at his hotel room. As they have sex, huge men burst into the room, pummeling the crap out of David.
David awakens in a jail cell in a mysterious compound. He’s wearing some strange boots. His beard and head have been shaved. The cell is covered in Plexiglas, with video monitors behind them. They come to life, showing images of violence as loud music blares. The Executioner appears on the screen, explaining that Dr. David Lord no longer exists — his name is now Death Dealer, and he is destined to die. Jailors enter his cell and inject him with something. In an office, Radu discusses David with Milla, Yoshi, and CONSTANTIN (what The Executioner is known as when he’s not “in character”). Milla and Yoshi explain David’s backstory — an intelligent but disgraced doctor who now works at Wal-Mart after killing several patients with drug overdoses. Radu asks Constantin if he can get David to fight. Constantin grins.
In David’s cell, the images and music have stopped. A jailor tosses a raw steak into the cell, then sends in a pit bull after it. David has to fight the dog to the death in order to eat; it turns out, the steak is rancid. The Executioner tells him there’s plenty of fresh meat on the dog. The Executioner asks David’s name; David states his name, and the Executioner tells him his name is now Death Dealer. The jailors inject David again, and he has an odd, hallucinatory experience in which he sees Lori appear in his cell. He wakes up and is freezing — just another act of torment. The voice of TAN LI (30s, Japanese) comes through a hole in the wall. He tells David they’re injecting him with heroin because it helps with brainwashing. He doesn’t know much about what’s happening, just that there are 8-10 others. He went on a Spanish vacation with his wife, AYAME, but she left to get aspirin and never returned. Tan got drunk and woke up in his cell.
The jailors come to take David to fight Ripper. It’s kill or be killed, but David refuses to fight. He simply tries to avoid Ripper’s moves. Constantin decides to make things more interesting. A machete drops from the ceiling. Ripper grabs it, and now David is forced to fight back. David gets the machete from Ripper and gets in a few good slices, enough to incapacitate his opponent. The Executioner comes out with the axe, but David refuses to kill him. David yells out his name and that he’s been kidnapped, but the show is on a 15-second delay. Yoshi cuts the feed before the message gets out. The Executioner decapitates Ripper. After the fight, Constantin is livid. He wants to kill David. Radu convinces him to keep his cool because of David’s incredible popularity. Milla has stolen a photo of David, which she uses as a masturbation aid. She can’t quite get off until she cuts herself. She goes to David’s cell with a plate of decent food. Things turn ugly when Milla asks about his family. He chokes her. Jailors burst in, “activating” David’s boots so he can’t move. They pull him off Milla, who insists to a jealous Constantin that she just wanted information.
David wakes up in a “challenge room.” He hangs from the ceiling, suspended from the ceiling by a rope over a deep hole. David swings to get to a platform, slices the ropes binding his hand with the edge of the platform, and tries to make a daring escape. He ends up in a strange room that feels like the outside but isn’t. Radu waits for him, surrounded by eight crazy pit bulls in cages. He offers David a deal: he can fight 10 fights, and if he survives all 10, Radu will release him — or Radu can activate his boots and release the dogs from their cages. David doesn’t believe him, tells him to shove the deal up his ass. Radu’s bluff has been called; David is beaten by guards and returned to his cell. Radu visits Constantin, who is having sex with Milla. Constantin’s pleased that Radu didn’t go for the deal. David confesses everything about his family to Tan; Milla’s watching on the monitors. David blames himself for her death.
David is forced to fight the SAVAGE SAMURAI. To sweeten the deal, Constantin threatens to kill Milla if David doesn’t win and kill the Samurai. David fights aggressively and is about to deal the deathblow when he realizes the Samurai is Tan, in costume. Tan apologizes profusely, saying Constantin showed him Ayame and threatened to kill her if he didn’t take out David. David tells Tan he’s sending him to a better place; he decapitates him with the Executioner’s axe. The Executioner kills Ayame on the air. David tells Radu he will accept his offer of 10 fights — on one condition. The tenth fight must be against Constantin. If Radu doesn’t accept these terms, David says he’ll kill himself. Radu and Constantin don’t believe him, but Constantin thinks he can beat David, so they accept the terms.
A montage follows, showing David fighting a varied group of opponents as the viewership of the tournaments go up. Showing a little fear, Constantin has their people attack an Australian prison bus carrying hardened criminal BRUTUS JACKSON. He’s huge and psychopathic. Radu is livid, because their tournament is already being pursued by every intelligence agency in the world — kidnapping Brutus is like leaving a breadcrumb trail to the studio. Constantin doesn’t care. They put David in the ring with Brutus, and although it’s not easy, David impales the bigger man on an old iron spike. Constantin’s even more afraid now — that was his last fight before matching with the Executioner. David and Constantin have 48 hours to train. Milla comes to David’s cell to wish him luck. He begs her to call his brother, giving her a sob story about them becoming estranged and David fears he’ll die before apologizing.
Milla calls David’s brother, who’s angry and insists his brother’s dead. Milla says he’s not, and the brother says, “He is to me,” and hangs up. Milla’s disappointed. Constantin trains hard in the studio’s state-of-the-art training facility; David’s stuck in his cell, training with no equipment. Before the fight, Radu gives David a pep talk, followed by an injection to make him drowsy midway through the fight. David calls Radu a coward. The fight begins. As David and the Executioner duke it out, soldiers surround the compound and begin shooting guards. They storm into the building. David gets his ass kicked, but the viewers vote for a “Stay” for David — for the first time in the show’s history. Radu tries to convince George to flip the percentages so it’s a kill, but Milla won’t let him. As Constantin pulls off his hood and prepares to kill him anyway, David’s recent life flashes before his eyes: turns out, although Lori and Megan really were killed, it was for a reason. David’s a spy whose cover was blown. The Tall Man is his handler, and he assigns David to infiltrate “Kill_or_Stay.com,” but the organization has nothing to go on but “a woman with a tattoo” — Milla. The agency plants a fake backstory about David’s disgraceful medical career and his job at Wal-Mart. The flashback keeps going until it’s perfectly clear that the “brother” Milla called was actually Tall Man, and she was playing right into a code. The soldiers infiltrating are from Interpol.
In the present, David gets the final drop on Constantin, pressing his thumbs into Constantin’s eyes, blinding him. David grabs Constantin’s knife and drives it into Constantin’s heart. Radu tries to escape, ends up in the savage pit bull room with David. David lectures Radu on what he’s done, then leaves without releasing the pit bulls. In the hallway outside the room, soldiers approach. He hands them the cage control and tells them it will let them into the room where Radu is. David reunites with Milla, and he tells the soldiers to take her into custody because she’s “one of them.” Milla’s horrified and enraged. David reunites with the Tall Man, who praises him on a job well done. David’s grief-stricken that he had to fight and kill so many innocent people. Tall Man tells David he just did what he had to do — his slate is clean.
Comments:The best thing I can say about this script is that the writers made a couple of wise decisions with David’s character — they made his pain real and relatable, and they gave us something real to make him sympathetic even after the “twist” ending, which essentially rewrites who he’s been the entire time. Because his wife and daughter really were killed, and that really is haunting him, I felt slightly less betrayed by such a goofy, nonsensical reversal. The dialogue is also not half bad — there isn’t much of a plot, so the characters spend their time talking about themselves more than what’s happening with the tournament. These aren’t the most interesting people in the world, and they aren’t having the most scintillating conversations, but at least it’s not a stream of on-the-nose babbling.
However, what good the writers do is torn apart by that stupid twist. Although it doesn’t remove David’s pain, it does call into question a lot of behavior — for instance, why constantly demand to know why he’s there or announce to the entire world that he’s been kidnapped? It can be chalked up to “he’s an undercover agent, so he’s acting the part,” but it ends up feeling like a betrayal to the audience. The moments generate sympathy for the man, but it’s all false. Worse than that, it means he killed 11 people (I’ve excluded Constantin because, frankly, he did deserve it) for no reason. These are innocent prisoners, just like he’s pretending to be, so what’s the point of the assignment? To find the compound where they’re filming and infiltrate it? Milla showed her sympathy for him instantly, so David couldn’t begged her to call the “brother” earlier? They make a big deal about how nobody’s survived more than three fights before David, so it wouldn’t be out of line for him to ask before his second match. And why kill Tan? He’s sending him to a “better place,” but he knows this whole tournament won’t last much longer. Granted, Constantin would have killed Tan if David hadn’t, but David’s dialogue before killing Tan doesn’t make sense. Bottom line: the twist just creates too many holes. Audiences will have their minds blown, but the second they put any thought into it, the whole story falls apart.
The story also takes a startlingly unoriginal concept — the “prisoners forced to fight to the death” story has been done at least once on every science-fiction TV series in history, and is often incorporated into the plot of gladiator-themed movies (e.g., Spartacus, Gladiator). The closest thing to a new spin these writers put on the story is adding those strange boots that, when activated, lock a person into place. Aside from acknowledging the show’s popularity, the writers make no attempt to add any kind of social commentary about the decaying state of entertainment or the bloodthirsty desires of this audience. What’s the point here?
As a raucous action movie, it will bring in those fans. It’ll also likely draw the attention of boxing/wrestling/mixed martial-arts fans, although I suspect many fans of these sports are action-movie fans, as well.
November 4, 2008
Author: Lucinda Coxon
Writer’s Potential: 7
Logline:In the late 1920s, a woman suffers as her husband struggles with his gender identity.
Synopsis:Copenhagen, 1928. GRETA WAUD examines some of her husband’s paintings at an art gallery, eavesdropping on admirers of his works. EINAR WEGENER, the husband in question, stands across the room, being lavished with attention from the art community. Greta goes to an art-supply store, where the clerk chats with her about a commission to paint Fonnesbech, a department store owner. She comes home, and Einar insists on a midday love session. Greta gets dressed up, with Einar helping to fix her make-up, to go see RASMUSSEN, a successful art dealer. She brings her portfolio, but Rasmussen finds the work boring. He patronizes her by saying that if she finds the right material, she may succeed.
Greta comes home, livid. She blames Einar for setting up the appointment to begin with. Greta forces a favor out of Einar. She has to do a painting of friend/opera star ANNA, but she’s so behind on her portrait commissions that she can’t wait for Anna to squeeze in a sitting. She makes Einar put on some of Anna’s costume clothing. Despite his obvious discomfort with this, she dresses him up, then starts to apply make-up, until Einar looks like a lovely, coquettish young woman. Greta and Einar watch Anna performed, amazed by the level of emotion she puts into her work. She’s similarly amazed by Einar’s ability to do the same — Greta just doesn’t put that level of herself into the paintings. She goes to do another commission, of Fonnesbech’s horse, and Einar admires the sketches — they’re better than much of what she’s done.
Einar doesn’t want to go to another gallery opening because he always feels he’s putting on a false face. Greta jokingly suggests actually putting on a false face. She dresses him up as a girl again and sketches him. Suddenly, the sketches turn to paintings — dozens of paintings, each better than the last. They attend an artists’ ball with Einar dressed as “Lili,” a “woman” they claim is Einar’s cousin. “Lili” stumbles on HENRIK SENDAHL, a fellow artist who takes Einar as a real woman. They flirt, and Einar is a little amused by the intensity. Greta stumbles across Henrik and “Lili” just as things get a little hot and heavy. She’s dumbfounded but before she can say anything, a fountain of blood streams from “Lili“‘s nose and they have to rush her away. Later, Einar lounges as if nothing happened. He asks Greta if Lili had fun.
A few days later, Greta and Einar have a more in-depth conversation about “Lili,” in which he insists she’s a real person, separate from him. She’s disturbed. Claiming to see Rasmussen, Einar sneaks off to Anna’s dressing room and becomes “Lili.” He goes on a date with Henrik. Greta’s suspicious but has no proof. She begins to take out her emotions in her work. She meets with Rasmussen, showing her the new “Lili” series. He still doesn’t like them — until he stumbles across the latest one, in which Lili is falling back into the arms of blond man, covered in blood. He believes he can find a market for paintings like these. Greta admits she has a whole series of them at her studio.
“Lili” visits Henrik again, but Henrik identifies “her” as Einar and admits he’s a homosexual. Scared and confused, “Lili” runs from his apartment. “Lili” returns home to Greta, crying. “She” admits to seeing Henrik, which makes Greta recoil. When Einar normalizes, they agree to go to a doctor, HEXLER, who assesses Einar as possibly having a tumor. They check him out with an X-ray and find nothing, so Hexler diagnoses him as psychopathic and recommends institutionalization. Meanwhile, Rasmussen has sold Greta’s “Lili” portraits to a dealer in Paris. Greta decides she and Einar should flee to France to avoid the forced institutionalization of Einar. Greta becomes the toast of the town, but Einar has no motivation to continue his work. He’s acting like a different person — not quite “Lili” but not himself, either.
Greta sees HANS AXGIL, an art-dealing Dane living in France who was a childhood friend of Einar. She pleads to him for help, and he reluctantly agrees, mainly a result of his attraction for Greta. Greta brings up a new dealer to Einar, who’s unenthusiastic since he hasn’t been producing. Greta insists that they meet him for dinner, but on the night, Einar never shows up. Greta and Hans end up having a flirt-riddled dinner. Greta invites Hans to the apartment to see Einar, but when they get there — it’s “Lili.” Greta is horrified but tries to create the impression that “Lili” is, indeed, a separate person. “Lili” apologizes for Einar not being available. That night, Einar is “half-Lili,” and he begs Greta for a nightdress. Visibly uncomfortable, Greta refuses, but Einar insists that when he dreams, they’re Lili’s.
The next day, Greta spills Einar’s secret to Hans, pleading for help. She comes home to find “Lili” has gone on a shopping spree. “She” is excited because “she” can sit for Greta again. Greta decides to take advantage of the bad situation by painting “Lili” some more. Greta meets Hans at a show of “Lili” paintings. Hans ups the flirtation ante, but Greta demures, reminding Hans that she’s still Einar’s wife. He accepts but immediately stops paying attention to her, so Greta storms out of the gallery. After going home to find “Lili” still there and unable to provide her comfort, Greta meets with Hans again. They make love.
When Anna comes to Paris for a touring production, she tells Greta that Einar has to see someone — a specialist. After what happened with Hexler, Greta is gun-shy but Greta believes the mental problems of a man believing he’s a woman are actually causing physical problems — he’s losing weight, among other things. Greta returns to find Einar returned to semi-normal. He promises he’ll find a solution to the problem. Einar goes to see Hans, who helps set him up with a variety of doctors. The diagnoses range from homosexuality to insanity, until he finds a university professor, BOLK, who both finds Einar’s case interesting and has seen symptoms like this before. Bolk mentions a new and dangerous procedure to remove Einar’s genitalia and replace them with that of a female. The only catch — nobody’s done it before. The previous man Bolk mentioned backed out of the surgery at the last minute. Einar believes that, with “Lili” taking over and getting stronger, this is his only hope. Einar says his goodbyes to Greta and Hans.
“Lili” goes to Dresden to undergo the first procedure, removal of the genitals. After considering it for a long time, Greta decides to go out of sympathy, just as Hans tells her about a big gallery wanting to show the Lili paintings. It’s better if she goes to the opening, but Greta goes to Dresden instead. She’s horrified by what she sees — a distraught “Lili” in horrible physical condition, forced still by weighted sandbags. Bolk tries to console her, but Greta is overcome. Nonetheless, she decides to remain strong by “Lili“‘s side.
A month later, “Lili” has regained some strength and is almost ready for discharge. Anticipating this, Greta goes to Copenhagen to put their old apartment back in order. She confesses to Anna her concern — the idea of two unmarried women living together is a little much, especially if anyone knows the truth about Einar. Greta cares for “Lili,” who requires a great deal of regulated medications. “Lili” gets a job at Fonnesbech’s department store. Greta wants “Lili” to start painting, but “she” isn’t interested. Greta realizes “Lili” is overtaxing herself and not taking her meds properly. One day, Greta turns a corner to find Henrik and “Lili” walking arm in arm. She feels betrayed and confused, but “Lili” insists they’re just friends — Henrik is a homosexual and has no interest in women. “Lili” announces she’s going back to Dresden for phase two of the operation, the addition of a vagina. Greta is afraid — this procedure is infinitely more dangerous.
Nonetheless, Greta stands by “Lili” as “she” returns to Dresden. “Lili” confesses that Greta has provided great emotional support during this ordeal. Greta goes to a hotel in the city, where it turns out Hans has come to offer his own emotional support to Greta. Bolk contacts Greta. “Lili” lost a lot of blood during the operation and is suffering from an intense fever they’re struggling to control. She’s also had some unusual bleeding, so Bolk performed some investigative surgery — with “Lili“‘s consent — and discovered a pair of ovaries buried in “her” intestines. Turns out, “she” was a woman — sort of. Later, Greta and Hans visit “Lili.” “She” has cooled down and looks a bit more peaceful but still isn’t out of the woods. “Lili” awakens and tells Greta “she” had a wonderful dream — “she” was a newborn baby, cradled in “her” mother’s arms, and “her” mother called her Lili. “Lili” drifts into unconsciousness or perhaps death, a look of bliss on “her” face.
Greta accompanies Hans to his mansion in Bluetooth, where Einar and “Lili” grew up. They look at the sea, which reminds a distraught Greta of the paintings of Einar’s that she was looking at in the opening scene.
Comments:This is an interesting but flawed fact-based story. It has an interesting storyline and the writer does a nice job of evoking the period and culture of late-’20s Europe. Where it stumbles, strangely enough, is in its presentation from Greta’s point of view. Greta internalizes every reaction to the chaos unfolding around her. While this might be more realistic, it does not make her a compelling character. Because it’s hard to gauge what she’s thinking or why she does the things she does, I have to wonder why the writer chose to tell her story rather than Einar/”Lili“‘s.
Because Greta never makes much of an attempt to understand what Einar is going through, the audience doesn’t truly understand what he’s going through. This unusual story doesn’t portray the typical “woman trapped in a man’s body” concept; rather, it takes the more interesting approach of having a man develop a split personality and slowly succumb to this separate, female identity, all the while claiming he’s not insane. Honestly, that’s the definition of insanity, and the fact that we never get to know him through Greta’s perspective makes it harder to appreciate or empathize with his struggle. He merely comes across as both crazy and a bit selfish, which turns Greta into a bland codependent.
Greta should fight harder to “keep” Einar, and perhaps we should see more of Einar struggling to hold on to his masculine identity. This is where the conflict of the story lies, not in Greta’s hard-to-read internal conflict over Einar’s behavior. There are brief allusions to Einar’s struggles in a few scenes, but that all seems to happen offscreen as the writer jumps ahead months and years. What we see is Einar folding like a cheap card table, while Greta supports the drastic changes. The reasons for their behavior are not clear, making the whole story more frustrating than it needs to be.
Because the story follows Greta, I assume the writer wants to target women with this story. The gender-reassignment subject matter might cause some controversy and build a slightly larger audience.
November 2, 2008
Author: Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Writer’s Potential: 7
Logline:After surviving a plane crash, oil workers must struggle across the Arctic tundra — with a pack of bloodthirsty wolves hot on their trail.
Synopsis:OTTWAY works in an oil camp with thousands of others, but he has a peculiar job. Stationed on the edge of the camp, his job is to watch for animals approaching the camp and kill them. He writes a letter to an unknown woman, explaining his job and his rather cynical feelings about it, and in flashback we see him about to commit suicide — when a huge bear nearly kills him. Ottway opts to kill the bear rather than have it kill him. Instead of sending the letter he’s writing, Ottway tears it up. He gets on an oil-company plane to get to the camp, where a kid named FLANNERY sits next to him. He talks nonstop, so Ottway turns his back on him and naps. Flannery’s insulted. The plane flies into a storm, hits turbulence, starts going down.
Ottway wakes in the wreckage, immediately rushes out to help the others. Flannery made it, but he’s injured. So did LUTTINGER, so he and Ottway help carry Flannery away from the flaming wreckage. They pass another man, whose leg and arm have been cut off. He’s dying. HENRICK stands over yet another, whose gut is ripped open, blood flowing fast. PIKE, BURKE, and TALGET argue about the usefulness of a cell phone in the middle of nowhere. Ottway gathers these survivors and tries to organize a plan. He thinks they need to build a fire, then food, then way for daylight and start walking. The others argue with him, insisting they’ll be found. Ottway makes a compelling argument against them being found and points out the wives and children they all need to get back to. The only option is to follow his lead. They all help to build a fire. While gathering wood, Ottway’s attacked by three wolves. Henrick notices and comes to help him. Together, they get cut and bruised but manage to ward off the wolves.
They all gather warmer clothes from the victims, which Pike takes as permission to loot their wallets. Henrick and Ottway yell at him for this behavior, but Ottway does believe they should gather the wallets for the victims’ families. They also grab the meager food stored in the plane — frozen dinners and peanuts. They discuss the wolves, and Ottway explains their habits. They travel in packs, so the fact that there’s three suggests they’ve abandoned their pack, which is good for them. They can small that this entire group has been wounded, which is bad for them. Ottway hopes the wolves will leave them alone. The wolves do come back, though — and they are part of a pack of nine, bigger than average from being in the wild and having to hunt bigger game. They simply stare at the survivors. Ottway decides they need to sleep in shifts, and he’ll keep the first lookout. During his shift, Ottway begins hallucinating that the woman he was writing the letter to is standing nearby. Dazed, he eats a packet of instant coffee to keep himself awake and stabilized. Later, during Luttinger’s watch, he sneaks off to urinate — and the wolves get him. At daybreak, the others wake and find his remains, horrified. Ottway decides they need to get away from the wreckage, out in the open tundra so the wolves can’t sneak up on them. He points out that they only have two hours of daylight, so they need to make it count.
As they walk, Ottway finds his gun bag. He digs through it and finds all the guns torn apart, but he takes some usable shell boxes. Burke and Pike ask how Ottway got to know so much, and Ottway explains he was a poacher at one point. Ottway’s big plan of not getting snuck up on fails — they kill Flannery without much effort, then back off. Henrick is baffled, not understanding why these wolves are taking them out one at a time. Ottway fishes out Flannery’s wallet, and they keep moving. They continue through the open tundra to a forest, which Ottway hopes will give them some protection. He’s wrong — the wolves are waiting at the tree line. Ottway tells them to walk — don’t run — to a distant edge of the trees. Burke defies the order and runs, the wolves nearly killing him until Ottway reminds Burke to use his knife. He stabs one of the wolves, scaring the hell out of it. They run away, and the survivors run into the trees.
Deep in the forest, they find a protected area and build a fire. They hear the wolves in the distance, fighting among themselves. Ottway grabs some branches, tapes shotgun shells to the ends of them, creating spears for each of them. Henrick wonders how well wolves see at night; they’re nocturnal. Nobody’s happy with this news. Henrick digs through his pack and finds some mini-liquor bottles from the plane. He distributes them. Their discussions turn into heated arguments, turning into a fistfight — when a wolf is upon them, attacking Pike. It takes a great deal of effort, but with the knives, shell-spears, and empty liquor bottles, the entire group manages to take down the wolf. Proud of their victory, Ottman insists on roasting the wolf and eating it, because the wolves will sense and smell what they’re doing and think twice about attacking again.
Later, Ottway and Henrick assess Burke’s wolf injuries. They fear he’s hypoxic, an altitude sickness that will kill him if it goes untreated. Later, the group falls into a discussion about faith. The conversation is cut short when Burke begins raving about his daughter. They know he’s at death’s door and try to calm themselves by talking about their own families. A storm rages upon them, wind blowing furiously. Burke ends up dying as a result. They try to make some distance during the day, then struggle to build a fire in the wind. Ottway ends up setting his hand on fire, but eventually they get the fire lit, blocking the wind with their bodies. After the wind dies down, Ottway hears the distant sounds of a river. They’re thrilled, thinking the river will lead them quickly to civilization. They rush to investigate…and find a high cliff edge.
The only way to get to the river is to scale the cliff — 30 feet out, then 20 feet down. They construct a crude tether from a trussing rope and clothing from the wreckage. Terrified, Henrick makes then dive and successfully gets to the trees, securing the tether. Pike goes next, followed by Ottway, leaving Talget, who has a vertigo attack and ends up falling. The trees blanket his fall, but not by much. Nonetheless, he’s alive when the wolves come upon him. He hallucinates his little girl is with him and doesn’t seem to notice as the wolves eat him alive. Pike freaks out, concerned the wolves are never going to let them go. Ottway tells Pike not to think about dying — just fight. Pike looks uncertain as they march toward the river.
As they trudge along the bank, Pike simply collapses. Ottway and Henrick try to convince him to keep going, but Pike refuses. He’s stopped caring, content with the idea of going out on his own terms. There’s nothing for him back in the real world, so why fight to get back there? The others accept this decision and wait for him to die. Afterward, Henrick asks Ottway where he was headed “that night.” Ottway doesn’t know what this means, but Henrick explains he saw Ottway leaving the bar — the night he attempted suicide. Henrick’s only seen the look in Pike’s eyes one other time — that night, in Ottway’s. Ottway has no answer to the question, but he doesn’t need one. Henrick asks another: what made Ottway change his mind. Ottway shrugs: “Fear.” They continue trudging along the river ice floe when it caves in, bringing Henrick down with it. Ottway struggles to pull Henrick out, but the current is too strong. Henrick freezes to death before he even has a chance to get pulled under.
Ottway keeps moving, yelling at himself for getting everyone killed. He comes upon an icy bottleneck, followed by a clearing, where animal carcasses are strewn about. As Ottway keeps moving, he sees a cave. Sitting at the mouth of the cave — one of the wolves, watching, waiting. Ottway has walked right into their den without realizing it. Angry and reflecting on all the lives lost on this journey, Ottway takes his own advice to Pike and confronts them head-on — taking on the six remaining wolves with unabashed fury. It’s an unfair fight, and the wolves kick his ass, but they don’t kill him. They’re scared away by something — the noise of an approaching helicopter. It lands and brings Ottway to the hospital, where he lies in bed with the woman glimpsed earlier.
Comments:This story has the potential for greatness, but it suffers from one fatal narrative flaw that drags all the greatness down with it: the writers have confused this ensemble piece with a half-baked love story. This story is about a group of hard men, in the struggle for survival, getting in touch with their primitive selves and forging bonds, essentially turning into the same sort of pack animal that’s hunting them and learning what it really means to be “hard.” But everything falls apart because we never get to know any of the characters until it’s too late, because the writers are trying to turn this ensemble piece into a one-man character study about Ottway’s search to reclaim a lost love.
What needs to be seen, right from the start, is more of all these characters in the real world — what drives them, what they want from life, what they risk losing as a result of this accident, what they’re fighting to keep alive and get back to. The deaths throughout don’t resonant nearly as much as they could because we’re given only faint glimmers into who these characters are. The writers should focus the entire first act on giving us this information, because once they crash, it’s hard to tell anyone apart, and it’s hard to really feel this tragedy without knowing where they come from. It should ache whenever there’s a casualty; instead, there are just lingering questions like, “Why was Pike’s life so rotten?” Even Ottway’s tacked-on love story is too ambiguous to be compelling. The ambiguity wouldn’t be so bad if they treated this like a sincere ensemble piece. We get the rough outline of what we need to know about this relationship, but when the writers try to hang their whole structure on this woman, we need to know more. Frankly, I’d rather know more about the other survivors’ lives than Ottway’s relationship problems.
The overall beats of the post-crash story are pretty solid and loaded with variety. The writers do a very good job of exploiting their setting without feeling too much like similar movies (e.g., Alive). Really, the poorly developed characters are the only thing keeping The Grey from being a great survival story.
Author: Richard Stratton
Writer’s Potential: 6
Logline:A recently released parolee reconnects with his old friends and returns to his life of crime.
Synopsis:At a boys’ reform school, a boy named JJ starts harassing TROY CAMERON, 17, a thug who’s small for his age. CHARLES “DIESEL” CARSON, a big 16-year-old, tries to defuse the situation, but JJ is unreachable. GERALD “MAD DOG” McCAIN, 18, whittles a toothbrush into a knife and stabs JJ in the bathroom for Troy. Troy thanks Mad Dog as he is dragged off to an actual jail. Twenty-three years later, Mad Dog (now early 40s) hides in the bushes outside a hospital. He knocks out a doctor in the parking lot, steals his medical bag, and mainlines the cocaine the doctor was carrying. Diesel bombs a few trucks at a company rivaling his boss. Troy has a parole hearing, in which it is explained that he’s been in prison for 14 years and is recognized by the state as a career criminal. Troy tells them he’s ready to turn his life around. He doesn’t want to die in prison. He’s earned a master’s degree while in prison.
At a seedy house in a bad neighborhood, Mad Dog is on day two of binge coke usage when his “old lady,” SHEILA, shows up with her daughter, MELISSA (7). They get into a fight, and Mad Dog kills them both. Diesel lives in a modest home in the Valley, where — aside from doing criminal work — he’s close to leading a straight life. He has a loving (but young) wife, GLORIA (25), and a young son. Diesel picks up the cash from his truck-bombing from GRECO, who mentions Troy’s getting out and suggests Diesel pick him up and bring him into their operation. Mad Dog leaves a message on Diesel’s answering machine, saying he was arrested for credit card fraud and needs bail money. Diesel groans. Parole officer from the “Special Offenders Unit,” LAWRENCE GOLDMAN, investigates Troy’s possible release. He interviews Troy’s mother, an old but polite drunk who admits that Troy was only in jail because he tried to kill his stepfather defending her. Goldman asks why she didn’t testify at the trial, but she doesn’t answer. Diesel sneaks into Mad Dog’s house to make sure he’ll actually be able to pay him back for the bail. He digs around and finds Sheila and Melissa hidden in a basement freezer. He’s horrified but still bails him out.
Troy’s released and has to interview with Goldman, who treats Troy with hostility and contempt, not believing a criminal with a rap sheet like Troy’s can change. He warns Troy that this is his last time out — if he gets arrested, even on a petty misdemeanor, he’s back in for life. Diesel picks Troy up at the courthouse, where he mocks Goldman’s condescending attitude. Diesel provides Troy with some fake IDs, then takes him to a clothing shop to buy some new duds. Diesel’s cell phone, a device that fascinates Troy, gets a call from Mad Dog. Diesel makes Troy hang up on him and tells him about what he found at Mad Dog’s house. Troy thinks he owes Mad Dog, but Diesel says he already did 10 years and Troy did 14 — they paid him back. Diesel takes Troy to Greco’s restaurant. In the back are two hookers, DOMINIQUE and BRITTANY. Troy takes a particular liking to Dominique. Diesel drives home to his wife and kid. Mad Dog calls again but Diesel ignores it, so the next day, Mad Dog shows up at his house, asking where Troy is. Diesel claims he doesn’t know. Mad Dog begs to be let in on whatever Diesel has cooking with Greco, but Diesel doesn’t want him involved. Troy reconnects with Diesel and insists on bringing in Mad Dog. Greco pitches Troy and Diesel a job opportunity, a robbery stealing back money that was stolen from Greco, and Troy mentions Mad Dog as a third man for the job. Greco doesn’t want Mad Dog around, either, but Troy insists.
Diesel and Troy pick up Mad Dog. Troy yells at Mad Dog about killing Sheila and Melissa, but after that, he’s over it. They come on the SUV of undercover narc BLACK GOMEZ, jack him and force him to take them to Gomez’s mansion in the hills. They use Gomez to get inside, and there they find several other women, including a black prostitute, GINGER, who’s horrified by their behavior. The three ransack the mansion while Mad Dog makes lewd, racist comments about Ginger. Mad Dog wants to kill Ginger because she keeps threatening to go to the police, but Troy reasons that they won’t because Gomez is the police, and they risk exposing the whole illegal operation. Instead, they strip Ginger, Gomez, and his ineffective bodyguard and leave them hog-tied in the living room. Ginger does call the police, though, and Goldman, who’s already frustrated that Troy has stopped checking in, gets wind of it. He shows Ginger a photo of Troy, but she claims not to recognize him. Goldman doesn’t believe her. Next, he learns of the bodies found in the place where Mad Dog was staying. Goldman knows of their connection.
After getting their cut of the “big score” and having a huge party at Greco’s restaurant, Greco offers Troy another deal, to track down an ex-prison buddy, Chepe Hernandez, in Mexico. Goldman visits Diesel, who gives him the brush-off but still takes his words quite seriously. Troy takes Mad Dog to Mexico, where they drive to a prison that looks more like a housing project — little security, littered with criminals and non-criminals alike. CHEPE makes Mad Dog wait outside, so he decides to score some weed. Chepe has a nice setup there and doesn’t want to leave. On behalf of Greco, Troy asks Chepe for soldiers to bring back to L.A., so they can “cut off the head” of the illegal police racket cutting into Greco’s territory. Chepe agrees to this — if Troy tracks a corrupt DEA agent who stole $8.5 million from Chepe and reclaims the money. Mad Dog, stoned, approaches and humiliates Troy in front of Chepe. Troy yells at him.
Back in L.A., Diesel tells Troy about the visit from Goldman, that he kept asking about Mad Dog. Diesel chides Troy for letting Mad Dog bringing heat on them. Nonetheless, the three ride together to the fancy home of DEA Agent GUSTAV ALVARO. They’re surprised when they find LINDA, Alvaro’s mistress, and her little baby. Mad Dog blows Alvaro away, then insists they kill Linda and the baby for witnessing it. Diesel adamantly refuses, and Mad Dog gets suspicious that they know about Sheila and Melissa. They take all the phones in the house, including Linda and Alvaro’s cell phones. As Mad Dog and Diesel remove the body, Troy demands to know where the money is. Linda doesn’t have a clue. The livid Troy and Diesel drive home, giving Mad Dog the cold shoulder, even though Mad Dog insists he saved their lives. He makes a few snide allusions to taking out Diesel, which Diesel doesn’t notice but Troy does. They drive out to the mountains to find a secluded spot to bury Alvaro. Mad Dog and Troy chat as the dig the hole, then Troy abruptly shoots Mad Dog in the head and throws him into the grave with Alvaro. Diesel freaks out, but Troy believes this is the way it had to be — the only way to protect Diesel, who’s making something of himself. He tells Diesel they can take the money from the last score and lay low in Vegas.
Troy goes back to Dominique, proposes marriage, and invites her to Vegas. She agrees. Greco chews Troy out over botching the Alvaro deal, but Troy mentions he’s already taken care of Mad Dog and it won’t happen again. Troy and Dominique go to Diesel’s house for a barbecue. Gloria sends Troy and Diesel to the supermarket for some extra food. They don’t notice the police tailing them. Troy goes out to the car to grab some extra money, is stopped by a cop. Inside, another cop pins down Diesel. Backup comes in and a shootout follows, resulting in Diesel getting shot to death. Goldman pursues Troy, who has killed the cop who stopped him and tries running. He jacks a preacher’s car. Cops chase them, ramming the car as the preacher and his wife pray. The cops finally run the car off the road, and Troy runs. Goldman shoots Troy, not fatally. Troy is sent back to the prison, receiving the death penalty for killing a cop.
Comments:This script has nice character work between the three principals, and it has some authentic-sounding dialogue. However, the writer struggles with the characters’ motivations to do what they do throughout the story. For every convincing action, there are a half-dozen instances of questioning why this character did that. For instance, based on what we know about Mad Dog, it seems totally reasonable that he’d go on a coke binge and kill a woman and child. It’s not right, but it works for that character. On the other hand, there is never a clear or compelling reason for Troy to immediately return to his life of crime upon release.
The problem here is that, because his intentions are glossed over, Troy doesn’t come close to being sympathetic. I think, in the end, we’re supposed to feel really sorry for Troy and Diesel. I a little for Diesel, but nothing for Troy. The writer either needs to sell the notion that Troy wants to straighten up, or that he’s the kind of thug who would take the time to get a master’s degree just to impress the parole board enough to let him out so he can continue committing crimes. There is a twisted logic there that could make Troy very compelling and unique, but the writer does nothing with it, turning Troy’s actions into little more than a series of confusing contradictions. Another unexplained question is why Troy becomes the de facto leader as soon as he’s out. He’s been locked up for 14 years, doesn’t know what’s going on with Mad Dog, doesn’t know what’s going on with the world, yet both Diesel and Greco let Troy call the shots, let him bring in Mad Dog, etc. As with everything else, this could be made believable, but the writer doesn’t accomplish the job.
Goldman is another problem. His bizarre vendetta against Troy seems to be rooted in an overall belief that criminals cannot be rehabilitated. What he needs is some sort of personal problem with Troy, not a general dislike of the criminal element. Maybe Troy does try to go straight — or at least pretends to, for Goldman’s benefit — giving it a half-assed effort before giving up because he can make better money more quickly with crime. It’s not great, but a betrayal like this works somewhat better as a motivator than just vague contempt. He could just be a nasty guy who sees his job as a parole officer more as a way to keep criminals behind bars than to help them assimilate once they’re out, but we never learn enough about him to know what really drives him. The writer doesn’t do the heavy lifting with the characters, so the story falls apart.
It’s a straightforward crime drama that will likely appeal to folks who want to watch bleak crime stories, but it doesn’t have any kind of cross-genre appeal. It’s based on a novel, so it could draw some moviegoers who enjoyed the source material. With strong (and/or popular) actors in the leads, it could gain a more significant audience.
November 1, 2008
Author: Bob De Rosa and Ted Griffin and Michael Brandt & Derek Haas
Writer’s Potential: 7
Logline:When a government agent retires, marries, and settles in suburbia, he’s forced to bring his wife into the trade when they’re attacked by assassins.
Synopsis:Corsica. SPENCER BROOME, 30s, pursues sinister arms dealer JASPAR LEVENEUX. He secretly tracks Leveneux to a hotel restaurant. Over the phone, Spencer’s boss, HOLBROOK, gives the order to take Leveneux down. Spencer gets into snorkeling gear. Meanwhile, JEN KORNFELD, late 20s, accompanies her overbearing parents on vacation in the same hotel. Jen sneaks downstairs to get some relief and runs into Spencer on the elevator. Mistaking her for a French girl, Spencer begins talking in French. Jen says nothing. Spencer follows her, so Jen admits she doesn’t speak French. On the beach, Spencer and Jen get to know each other, bonding over growing up in the same town (Altadena). Spencer invites Jen for a drink in half an hour, and Jen accepts. During the half hour, Spencer swims to Leveneux’s yacht and places a bomb. Jen, meanwhile, buys a nice outfit and feigns illness to get away from her parents again. As Spencer and Jen share their drink, Jen’s surprised when she sees a yacht and chopper exploding over the ocean. A montage shows their courtship: Spencer takes her flying, to casinos, they have fun together. Jen introduces Spencer to her parents. Spencer takes Mr. Kornfeld aside to ask permission to propose to Jen. He allows it. Spencer tells Holbrook he’s quitting. Jen and Spencer get married and have an enjoyable wedding.
Three years later, Spencer and Jen have settled into a McMansion in a suburban development called New Ealing. Spencer runs a successful design firm; Jen suspects she’s pregnant and doesn’t want to tell Spencer. Spencer and Jen argue a bit about how frequently Jen sees her parents, who only live a few minutes away. Jen teases Spencer about his upcoming birthday. Spencer drives through the neighborhood, watching cougar OLIVIA BROOKS flirt with UPS man MILO, watching 30-somethings MAC and LILY BAILEY install a new front door, generally enjoying the neighborhood. Jen arrives at the real-estate agency where she works and complains to smarmy boss DON NOOTBAR about her assignment. Don doesn’t care. Spencer arrives at his firm, where he employs five people: architect HENRY (30s); construction specialist MANUEL (50s); secretary MRS. TOMLINSON; intern YASUKO (20s); and stoned delivery guy JOSH (20s). Henry asks if Spencer wants to play basketball tonight, but Spencer has dinner plans with Jen.
Jen goes to the supermarket to pick up Spencer’s birthday cake. She’s accosted by annoying next-door neighbor JACKIE VOLLERO; once Jen gets rid of Jackie, she buys a pregnancy test. At the office, Spencer receives a surprise call from Holbrook, who thinks he’s found “the Leopard.” Talking in code, Spencer reminds Holbrook that he’s out. Guilty, Spencer decides to meet Holbrook at the usual place/time, but Holbrook doesn’t show up, worrying Spencer. Behind him, tires squeel as a car peels out — Spencer knows he’s been made. Spencer comes home to a suspiciously quiet house. Readying his gun, he walks through the dark when — surprise! It’s a party for Spencer. He’s not pleased, but he goes along with it. Spencer goes upstairs and hides his gun. Jen tells best friend MAGGIE about the possible pregnancy. She’s concerned Spencer will be pissed, but Maggie doesn’t understand what Jen’s so worried about. After the party, Spencer and Jen lie in bed together, both worrying for different reasons.
The next morning, Jen drives to visit her parents when Maggie calls to ask what happened when she told Spencer. Jen admits she didn’t tell him because the timing wasn’t right. At the house, Spencer pals around with Henry. Henry gets a call on his cell, and as Spencer goes to the fridge, Henry suddenly attacks him. They fight, but Spencer has no idea what’s going on. In the car, Maggie reminds Jen that the man is her husband — he’s not going to be angry that she’s having his child. Jen turns around and drives home to tell him. She walks in on the fight, with Henry and Spencer sprawled in an awkward stalemate. Spencer makes Jen get his gun; once he has the upper hand, Spencer ties Henry to a chair and demands to know what’s going on. Henry explains that he’s an assassin who was hired to lay low, given a monthly stipend to simply watch Spencer. Today, he got the green light to attack. There’s a $20 million bounty on his head, and Henry isn’t the only assassin after him. Jen’s freaking out, not having any idea where this is coming from. Spencer and Jen flee town, and Jen forces him to spill his guts about everything. Spencer can’t explain in detail, but the bottom line is that he was a government assassin who pissed a lot of people off, and now he has to pay the price. He starts to explain about Holbrook contacting him when Henry starts chasing them. They end up in a construction site, where Spencer crushes Henry with a bulldozer. Jen is sickened.
Spencer takes Jen to find Holbrook. They arrive at his motel room, where Spencer finds his car but notices a secret code indicating trouble. Gun drawn, they bust into the motel room. Holbrook lies dead on the floor. He’s left nothing behind but a note with five strange number codes. Spencer tries to get Jen to hide out, but she won’t do it. She insists on staying with him. Spencer warns her that he has to pursue the Leopard — has to kill him in order to stop this and retire once and for all. Jen suggests asking her father for advice, and they argue some more about her unwillingness to separate from her parents. The argument results in her blurting out that she’s pregnant. Spencer’s shocked, then furious that she didn’t tell him sooner. They drive to the store to buy another pregnancy test (she never took the one she bought and they can’t go home), but they’re all out. A manager leads them into the back stockroom, where Spencer gets jumpy and almost pulls his gun on a stock clerk. Jen stops him in the nick of time. They get the pregnancy test.
In the parking lot, Spencer steals a car. Jen points out how she helped him and asks Spencer to consider asking for help once in awhile. Spencer doesn’t think he needs help and insists that, once she’s taken the test, he’s dropping her off somewhere safe. A neighbor approaches them as they drive through town, trying to tell them about a block party happening tonight, and Spencer mistakes him for a hitman and pulls a gun. The neighbor freaks out. Spencer explains who the Leopard is: a weapons technology dealer who is more dangerous and ruthless than anybody on the planet. Holbrook became obsessed with him and thought he finally found him. Spencer believes the Leopard is the one behind the contract on his life. They go to the design firm office, where Spencer gets another gun and shows Jen how to use it. Jen prepares to do the pee test when, outside the bathroom, Spencer finds Manuel knocked out — by Yasuko. They fight, but Spencer left his gun in the car. He beats on the bathroom door, begging for Jen’s. She’s a little preoccupied. Eventually, he manages to kill Yasuko by dousing her in chainsaw fuel, igniting it with a .22 gun lighter.
Spencer makes sure Manuel is okay. The pregnancy test is positive. Spencer realizes the numbers Holbrook wrote down are direct-deposit accounts. He notices Holbrook started to write more numbers, but they were incomplete. For all he knows, the whole town is after him. They go to a fast-food restaurant to eat, and it occurs to Jen that she can cross-reference the direct-deposit accounts with home sales at the realty office. They go there and snoop around. The place is empty (it’s Saturday), but Milo and Olivia show up — both are assassins. As Spencer takes care of them, Jen searches for the information she’s looking for. She finds nothing. Spencer find the Baileys’ interior design business card in Olivia’s pocket. He doesn’t think it fits Olivia’s taste, so they pay the Baileys a visit. On the way, Mr. Kornfeld calls Jen, wondering where she’s been all day. Jen apologizes and implies she has some big news. Kornfeld gets angry and hangs up on her, then storms out of his house, leaving Mrs. Kornfeld baffled.
The Baileys are hosting the big block party. Spencer and Jen have to navigate the various neighbors and friends, looking for the Baileys. While distracted by a new person to the neighborhood, who looks like a stereotypical Hong Kong assassin, Mac Bailey waits in a tree, lining up a sniper shot. Suddenly, Jen has a thought and starts running. Spencer follows. She demands to see the Leopard list again, because suddenly she’s remembering one of the numbers. She decides they have to go home so she can check some receipts, but the Baileys are standing in their way, launching a full-scale attack right in the middle of the block party. Spencer and Jen race through yards and playgrounds, trying to get home while avoiding the Baileys and the various explosions. Spencer readies the house for an onslaught while Jen searches for her receipts. Her inattentiveness annoys Spencer. The Baileys get the drop on them, so Spencer invokes Berlin Rules, which allows Jen to walk out the door untouched. She prepares to leave, but she sees Mr. Kornfeld standing there.
Jen knows something, from the receipts — Spencer is the Leopard and always has been. It explains his traveling, why Jen and Spencer coincidentally met on a family trip to Corsica. He kept the hitmen around to monitor Spencer, then activated them when he believed Spencer was going back to the trade. Jen tells him about the baby, and he calls off the Baileys, promising them $10 million apiece for their troubles. Kornfeld makes Jen promise not to tell her mother. A closing montage shows Jen getting bigger and bigger, taking a job working with Spencer at his design firm.
Comments:This is a solid thriller story with a nice comic setting. The dialogue is reasonably snappy and, when the characters aren’t breathlessly explaining each plot twist, very natural, with each character having a distinct voice. The Kornfeld twist at the end took me by surprise, but it actually makes sense and doesn’t ruin everything that came before it, so kudos on the storyline.
Things go awry with the characters, however. Spencer and Jen are both reasonably compelling, but the pregnancy subplot feels tacked on, like the writers realized they hadn’t given Jen enough to do or maybe hadn’t created enough tension in the relationship, so they shoehorned it into a story where it doesn’t quite fit. Meanwhile, they gloss over some of the more interesting sources of conflict — Spencer’s irritation with Jen’s dependence on her parents and Jen’s anger at Spencer lying about his entire life. They argue about these things, but they move past them far too quickly. These problems could sustain the entire story if the writers didn’t breeze right past them.
The supporting characters are a little worse off, however. One of the consistent irritations in the script is the way these professional assassins continue to “blend in,” personality-wise, with this suburban lifestyle even after their cover is blown. It leads to some funny jokes, but the jokes don’t really have any kind of internal logic consistent with these characters’ personalities — mainly because they don’t have personalities. They’re suburban stereotypes who turn out to be assassins. It might be more interesting if, for instance, they’d been living their cover stories for so long, they’d gone soft — put on a few pounds, got way too interested in the mundane minutiae of their fake lives, almost forgetting they’re even assassins. This could generate comedy stemming from the more believable premise that they’re no longer living lies — they’ve become the characters and have actually turned into incompetent assassins as a result.
Despite the flaws, this script does have some funny moments, along with a good story and some well-conceived action sequences. It might be worth a look.
November 17, 2008
Man, biopics must be hard to write. It’s one thing to write a biographical book, even with a sort of novelistic “creative nonfiction” approach. Among other things, a book with an unlimited page count can create a much richer portrait of an entire life. It can also, if done with that creative nonfiction approach, play more with the fluidity of time. An important, well-known incident in the subject’s life can spur remembrances of insignificant, unknown moments that might have led to the event. Biopics are almost always framed with a flashback structure, but cinematic flashbacks can (and often do) make things cumbersome. They pose the question, “What led to this moment?” but it takes anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours to answer the question. In a book, it doesn’t have to be more than a paragraph or two. “Remember this? It reminded her of that.” The end.
Biopics have the more difficult task of trying to encompass a person’s entire existence into feature length. I had similar problems with The Final Cut, but at least a screenwriter can just take an overview of a life and condense it down in some way or another. But if someone’s led a ridiculously eventful life, you don’t have many options in crafting a screenplay. As I see it, you can either try to dramatize each of these moments, or you can concentrate on one important moment and try to use that as an emblem of the full life.
The former strategy runs the risk of information overload, with no dramatic thrust, so it feels like we’re watching a series of scenes rather than a story; at worst, it makes us feel like we never get to know the subject despite it being a movie about the subject. I felt this way about recent critical darlings Ray and Walk the Line — good performances aside, both felt more like watching a greatest-moments reel than a dramatic story. The latter strategy tends to have a solid story, but it runs the risk of not even qualifying as a biopic; it also might still leave the central character as an enigma because the filmmakers assume we can fill in our own blanks about the subject’s life before or after the incident in question. I had this problem with Capote, which actually works better as a biopic of In Cold Blood than Truman Capote, who remains a mystery until some painfully on-the-nose dialogue near the end (despite giving us some insight into the character, the clumsy handling makes the movie worse, not better). Becoming Jane takes this same general idea while making a significantly better (albeit not great) movie by concentrating on her early romantic life and illustrating how it impacted her writing.
The only recent biopic I’ve liked as a pure movie experience was La vie en rose. Although it spans the bulk of her life, it never feels like it’s breezily moving from one moment to the next without taking the time to get into the character’s head and let us understand her. It also plays with time in ways that are more effective than the standard “present-day reflections on an eventful life” — the filmmakers wisely make the structure as frazzled and frenetic as Piaf’s life/mind. Yet, it plays so loose with Édith Piaf’s life, it barely qualifies as a biopic and would be better off as a fiction inspired by Piaf.
November 19, 2008
Considering the obsessive deconstruction of the genre, slasher movies are remarkably simple. You have a disparate group of young people, mostly teenagers or college students, and a psychotic killer who borders on mythical picking them off one by one. I won’t deny the powerful subtext permeating these movies, but did we really need the dozens of movies from Wes Craven’s New Nightmare to last year’s (admittedly brilliant) Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon to beat us over the head with the feminism, the gynophobia, the antiheroes, the monsters, the Ahabs? Do we need people to delineate true slasher films from pseudo-slasher offshoots like splatter films and torture porn? Why does it matter?
Frankly, it doesn’t matter much to me now, but it probably would if I ever attempted to write a slasher script. That’s the problem with genre work: you have to understand the genre, even if your goal is to subvert or satirize… In ancient times, when I majored in music, I had a theory professor who would teach us things like symphonic form. He’d map out the structure of a symphony and then say, “Okay, now, here’s Beethoven’s third symphony — and here’s how he broke all the rules.” One day, a classmate asked, “How come we’re studying the perfect form of all this stuff, but all the memorable composers broke the rules?” His answer was a cliché, but a valid one: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”
November 21, 2008
I tend to go harder on comedies than I do on other genres. After 15 seconds of soul-searching, I came up with three reasons why. The first is obvious: I like to pretend that comedy is my genre, so I fiercely protect it from folks willing to pound out lazy clichés in place of actual humor. As they sit back, nodding and chuckling to themselves, I burst through their window and impale them on an indescribably deadly object. I take comedy seriously, and I’ve worked my ass off trying to assess something as subjective as humor in the most objective way possible. It all goes back to the golden age of The Simpsons: not everyone will laugh at every joke, but every single viewer will find at least one joke funny; if they don’t, they simply don’t have a sense of humor. Most “comedy” writers don’t have the ambition to utilize such field depth in their writing (admittedly, it’s a huge pain in the ass for someone to do alone), but even that’s okay as long as they work well within the limited styles of humor they choose.
After awhile, certain people — and I like to think I’m among them, although you may disagree — become so attuned to what makes humor work, it goes beyond whether or not they subjectively find something funny. Personally, I have an intense dislike of broad farces — but I can understand, objectively, how they work in terms of story structure, character development, and style of humor, and I can identify whether or not the script does well within what it wants to be. It’s the same as judging any genre. With comedy, like horror movies, you’re pretty much dealing with a bunch of subgenres that have to be considered on their own merits, whether I find them subjectively funny or not. I could say Farting Farce is a bad comedy because it doesn’t make me laugh, but that’s like saying Big Sloppy Action Movie is a terrible script because it doesn’t read like a Merchant-Ivory costume drama. I can divorce myself from what I find funny and say, “Yeah, somebody who likes farces would probably love this.” Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s a better-educated guess than you’d get from somebody with no sense of humor.
So I’ve honed that skill. I’ve done some of the worst stand-up, improv, and stage acting in the history of time, because there’s nothing like the sound of 300 people not laughing (I swiped that from probably the only insightful line Aaron Sorkin penned during his Studio 60 reign of terror, and he probably swiped it from somebody much better than he is). I’ve forced the most impartial people I could find (e.g., coworkers or classmates but not friends) to read my writing, because who cares what my friends think? Any asshole can make their friends laugh, and 90% of the time, they’re doing it with inside jokes that aren’t objectively funny. The trick is making other people laugh, which is something many “comedy” “writers” fail to do.
At long last, here’s reason number two: ignoring the issue of whether or not I find something funny, too many comedy writers tend to coast on important dramatic principles like character development and plot coherence because they think, “Hey, it’s a comedy! As long as the characters are wacky and the jokes are funny, who cares if the plot makes sense or the characters’ actions are clearly motivated?!” This philosophy is, for lack of a better word, fucktarded. Take a moment, if you like any comedy at all, to think about your favorite moments in comedies. If you’re not a chuckleheaded idiot, whatever came to mind was probably a moment that’s funny because of who the character is rather than what he or she is doing (or what’s being done to them).
The third reason is a little simpler and more personal: I’m a bitter asshole. Juno was terrible, but I only took it personally because it got made and its terrible screenplay won a fucking Oscar. I’m really, really hard on my own work, and I’d wager I probably make it worse by tinkering constantly instead of just leaving well enough alone. I’ll read through something I wrote and ask myself why I ever thought it was funny. It always shocks me — and should shock you — that when I read these “comedies,” I think, “Holy Christ, my shit is better than this.” It’s not an ego-driven thought, and I’m only pointing it out here because it illustrates how fucking bad this shit is.
That said, I have something to say to all the budding comedy writers out there: your shit isn’t funny until it’s funny on the page.
November 24, 2008
In a post-Matrix/Fight Club/Shyamalan world, apparently everything in the action genre is about upping the narrative ante to the point that nothing makes a goddamn bit of sense. You want to know how fucking terrible action scripts have gotten? I read a script about a group of thugs and assholes involved in some kind of… I don’t even know; it was half terrible noir, half fetishistic valentine to Japanese culture (by that, I mean it’s the type of script some pasty white guy would write after watching a bunch of anime and yakuza movies and assuming he’s an authority on Japan), centered around the kidnapping of the daughter of…someone.
See, it got confusing because the lynch-pin of the twisting and turning plot is a somewhat interesting concept involving a portable machine that allows people to swap minds. It’s like Face/Off, only with minds instead of faces and stupidity instead of goofiness. This could lead to good confusion — something intriguing and unusual, maybe even a moderately thought-provoking meditation on the nature of existence or mind vs. body vs. soul. But fuck it, it’s an action movie — let’s just keep character development to a bare minimum so it’s more surprising when one person’s body turns out to be occupied by another dude’s mind. That’s right, everyone gets the short shrift this time around, because if any character had a definable personality, we’d know the instant they swapped bodies with someone else.
But, okay, so it has thin characters and plot twists. It’s an action movie — that’s not so bad, right? Wrong. Here’s the kind of story this is: two women who bare a passing resemblance to one another get an elaborate series of plastic surgeries so they look like twins, then the main character — a male — switches bodies with one of the twins and has lesbian sex with her. For no other reason than “Whoa, man. Twins.” Remember the lack of character development? I understand the guy’s motivation, but what about the other “twin”? Narcissism? Doesn’t cut it. Past sexual abuse? Usually causes women to seek out something a little less healthy than a mirror image of themselves — maybe she abused herself as a child, but that’s meeting the writer more than halfway. It’s also the kind of story where the mind of a child is trapped in a random, unnamed body guard in the ultimate deus ex machina; the kind of story where the voiceover narration is spoken by one character whose body, it turns out, has been occupied the entire time by a different character — and even that wouldn’t be so retarded if not for other voiceover sequences where we hear the thoughts of characters’ minds in other bodies, only it’s their “real” voice, not the voice of the body they’re occupying. It’s only written this way to give us a Shyamalan-style twist, but I’ve said this a thousand times: don’t use a twist if it undoes everything that came before it. Christ!
November 26, 2008
On Monday, I talked a little about how much I liked a post-Apocalyptic western. I’ve also mentioned, on occasion, my disappointment about wasted potential. This seems to happen much more with sci-fi than other genres, but I’m not sure why. I’m not what you’d call a huge sci-fi fan, but I do enjoy imaginative forms of unreality — bleak futures, alternate Earths, alien worlds, etc. The problem comes when a writer creates a vivid, unique world…and tells a shitty story within it. The Time Machine was pretty great until he travels into the future, which is problematic since nobody but me will see a movie called The Time Machine that’s about a 19th-century tinkerer trying to rescue his slain girlfriend. The Final Cut isn’t what I’d call great, but it had good ideas and could have made some very interesting statements about paranoia and the “Big Brother” culture. Instead, it settled for ripping off The Conversation and delivering a shockingly stupid ending.
More often than not, the problem with sci-fi stories — the reason they let audiences (i.e., me) down — comes down to the metaphor. Obviously, symbolism is one of the most important tools of the writing trade. It turns a bland conversation where people shout exactly what they’re feeling into a conversation where people shout about linoleum tiles to avoid confronting exactly what they’re feeling. It makes a moment where someone overhears a meaningless conversation into a moment that makes them realize their entire life is a lie. Symbols allow writers to express their unique views about the world.