Top 4 Reasons Burlesque Is a Great Movie

December 13, 2010
I’m not saying it’s the best movie ever made, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. Here’s why:
  1. Christina Aguilera. Wow. I’ve always respected her as a singer, but I had no idea she was such a talented actress. As a point of comparison, I like Miley Cyrus (I know, I know …) but whenever she’s on screen, all I see is Miley Cyrus.  Aguilera, by contrast, was the character. She played the small-town-girl-dreams-of-being-a-star perfectly, and I was truly absorbed at every moment.  With this movie I think she’s begun to establish her future as an icon of Madonna-esque importance. Granted, she’s still got a few years ahead of her for that one, but I’ll be watching.
  2. There wasn’t a bad guy. I liked that the antagonist is charming but not in an overly slimy way, and that he never actually becomes a villain, so to speak. Even when his plans for the club are revealed, he’s still not evil, nor is he portrayed as such. I love the line, “It doesn’t make you a bad guy, it just makes you the wrong guy.” Great button to that scene. Of course, Nikki was a bad guy, and a villain, and the monodimensional nature of her character did detract, in my opinion. You win some, you lose some.
  3. It’s economical. One of the challenges of a musical is that you have to keep people’s interest through songs, which are great at illustrating the themes/emotions of the characters but don’t always succeed at advancing the plot. In Burlesque it really works that the opening sequence advances us, through montage, to the character’s quest, that the second song doubles as the first turning point, and that so many of the other turning points come through songs as well.
  4. Great treatment of the hero. That Ali wasn’t just some helpless farm girl–that she always had a comeback for the catty girls backstage, that she had the balls to just pick up a tray and start delivering drinks, that she had no qualms about appearing on stage naked and covered only by strategically placed props, that she shoved her way in and made her boss listen to her time and again–really made her much more endearing. How putrescent and predictable would it have been to see her struggle to appear on stage in a thong for the first time or to show up with a weak, embarrassed voice until the time she really needed it? I really bought her from the very beginning as someone who would be successful, and she continued to be likable even when she had achieved her success.

10.03 – Forever Odd

February 21, 2010

Forever Odd is the sequel to Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, about a small-town guy who can see dead people.

Having now read three of Koontz’s books, I’m noticing a few trends:

  1. As a creator of characters, Koontz is second to none. What makes Odd Thomas so interesting is his sarcastic wit, and his insistence on bringing that sarcasm to the most tense of moments – both in dialogue and as a narrator. Furthermore, Koontz’s villains are just extraordinary. Like, truly demented and bizarre, and yet somehow we buy into their actions. I think Forever Odd actually had the weakest of Koontz’s villains of the three books I’ve read to date, and yet it was still so much fun hating her.
  2. Oh my God, stop dragging out your second acts. In all three of the Koontz books I’ve read, there’s a point shortly after the inciting incident – say, a fifth of the way into it – until roughly halfway through, where it just starts to get boooring. I shared recently that in From the Corner of His Eye in manifested itself as, “I’m wondering when he’ll get to the point.” Then he got to it shortly after that. In Forever Odd, though, it’s just a series of this happens, then this happens, gradually plodding along until we actually get to some action. I remember that in Odd Thomas as well.

Next up is a nonfiction marketing title, which I started reading last night and I’m already a third of the way through.

The Straight Man

December 16, 2008

No, this is not the opposite of the gay man.

In comedy – particularly in comic duos – there is a straight character and an absurd, or comic, character.  This isn’t a universal truth, but it’s a pretty good guideline.

In The Birdcage, Nathan Lane is the flamboyant queen, while Robin Williams plays the down-to-earth gay-straight homo.  In the SNL sketch “ESPN’s NCAA Tournament Pool Party,” Jason Sudeikis plays the host of a sports talk show, with two special guests who have the highest scores in the NCAA Tournament Pool.  The first, Peyton Manning, is a sports writer, and the other, Amy Poehler, is a receptionist at Teen Vogue Magazine.  Throughout the sketch, Sudeikis asks the two guests questions about their picks, with Manning offering the normal, sports-related arguments, and Poehler saying things like, “Oh, I would never pick Duke!… Because in college, I had a roommate named Duke — Catherine Duke. A total BITCH, and a WHORE.  And I found out she’d been sleeping with, like, five of my boyfriends.” In this scenario, it’s not hard to see that Sudeikis and Manning play the straight men, and Poehler plays the absurd man.

What’s interesting is the way in which this straight-absurd dynamic plays out in different scenarios.  In the TV show The Office, Michael, Dwight, Angela, and Andy are the comic characters, while Pam, Jim, and Ryan play the straight men.  Notice that most of the show’s dynamic focuses on the comic characters’ interactions with the straight men.  But notice also that when the comic characters interact with each other, one of them almost always becomes straight: in scenes between Dwight and Michael, Michael suddenly has the normal perspective, loathing Dwight just like everyone else does.  In the Dwight-Angela-Andy saga, either one of them takes on the more normal role, or their interaction takes place in front of one of the normal characters, to offer us that perspective.

The role of the comic character is to heighten the stakes.  In It’s Always Sunny in Philaelphia, they’re always heigtening to the next level of absurdity – we ate human meat, now we’re addicted.  We’re addicted, now we have to kill someone.  We can’t kill someone, now it’s time to go to the morgue.  And so on.

The role of the straight man, meanwhile, is to feed the comic character the material for heightening.  His job is to be the one that says, “Do you think a dog is a filthy animal? … So you’re saying that if a pig had personality, it would cease to be filthy?”

The straight man will get the less frequent laughs, but the laughs he gets will usually be bigger.  Usually it’s by calling out the normal perspective in the most obvious way.  In the aforementioned SNL sketch, “Well, don’t feel bad — nobody saw that coming. Mandy, you saw that coming …” was huge, because it’s basically saying what everyone is thinking.

Creating Characters You Care About

December 6, 2008

I just got back, not too long ago, from my second ever improv performance.  What I’m actually interested in talking about, though, is something I saw in one of the troupes that performed after us.

This was a group of really experienced improvisers, and they are the owners and/or instructors of the ColdTowne improv theater.  So these guys know what they’re doing.

The show was chugging along nicely, and it was entertaining, but then about halfway through there was this huge turning point.  It was a two-person scene.  One’s fiance had just left him because he was a cheapskate, and he was confiding in the other, a friend of his.  The scene got its laughs, but what was really amazing about it was that that wasn’t really the point – there was this tremendous level intimacy between these two characters, and the scene went on for about 8 or 10 minutes; far and away the longest scene in the entire show. After that, the rest of the show was uproariously hilarious.

I found it fascinating how this one scene, that wasn’t really all that funny in and of itself, set up another 10 or 15 minutes of hilarity, just by creating characters and relationships we care about.

Applying this to movies, there’s this sense that comedies are all about jokes; but if we look at the truly great comedies – The General, Some Like It Hot, Back to the Future, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, and even spoofs like Airplane! or Spaceballs – what makes them great is not just the jokes but having characters and relationships  we really care about.  Even in Airplane!, we want Ted and Elaine to get together at the end.

There are some, I think, that violate this rule: Monty Python springs immediately to mind.  But I think that’s off in it’s own realm, having achieved cult status for its immense quotability.  South Park, I think, falls somewhere in between; the kind of movie that gets better every time when you can quote along to it.

But I’ll be looking, from now on, for the relationship-development scene early in every comedy.

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