How to Ruin a Comic Book Movie

May 17, 2011

I saw Thor on opening night. And I didn’t write the review that night because, well, I got home at 2:30 in the morning and had to be at a class at 8:30 the next day. And then I didn’t write the review the next day, because when I got home at 8 pm, I was welcomed by a couple dozen people shouting “Surprise!” in honor of my thirtieth birthday. And after two days of not reviewing a movie, you sort of start to lose interest.

But I wanted to write this review because this movie is, for reasons that completely escape me, actually getting good reviews. I don’t get it. So I’m going to set the record straight with my top five list of ways to ruin a fantasy/sci-fi movie:

  1. Start it with a cheesy voice-over exposition monologue – I’m trying to think of a movie that was actually made better by this particular plot device, and I’m having trouble. Because the information can always comes out in some other way. In The Fellowship of the Ring, that entire sequence was rehashed, almost word for word after Gandalf throws the ring into the fire. In The One, Jason Statham does the same for Jet Li. Star Wars I guess comes close, but those prologues are all short. No, the best way to ruin a fantasy/sci-fi movie is to give your exposition in this way.
  2. Make your characters parodies of themselves – The first thing we see Thor do is wink smugly at the ladies like a fucking douche, treating his coronation like a joke. Okay, I get it, he has to have a flaw to overcome, but remember, what makes a character interesting is internal conflict. Thor has none, until the movie’s midpoint, when he makes a run for his hammer. Only then does he cease to be a complete idiot.
  3. Make sure your exposition scenes make no sense whatsoever – The first thing we see Odin say to a young Thor and Loki is that one of them will be king. Well no fucking duh. And wait, doesn’t the throne go to the first in line? Why the hell is Odin telling Loki that “one of them will be king,” when the only thing that would have Loki be king is if Thor died. That makes no sense.
  4. Make your exposition really, really obvious – Thor puts on shirt. On shirt – which apparently hasn’t been washed – is a sticky nametag that says “Hello, my name is ____”. There is a name written on it, but I don’t remember it because the name is not at all important to the story. Jane Foster rips it off saying, “Oh, that’s my ex. Good with science, bad with relationships.” Doh!
  5. Make sure that those obvious exposition scenes serve no point whatsoever – To make that scene even worse – it served absolutely no function. Perhaps to establish that Jane is single? Yeah, we figured that one out when there weren’t any guys around as she was swooning all over blonde hunk exhibit A. But good-with-science-bad-with-relationships-ex never appears in the movie, nor does his existence or lack thereof show up as a driving factor in any way. The only thing this scene was used for was as a false alias to break Thor out of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s maximum security center, and the connection was about as strong as a watered-down Miller Lite.
I’ve loved all the movies in the Avengers series so far, but I hate to say it, this one blew. It was a fun night at the movies, surrounded by people dressed up, etc., but not one for the non-die-hard fans.
UPDATE: I watched Priest the other night, and that starts with a cheesy voice-over exposition monologue. Here it actually didn’t bother me so much. Although I think a short series of supertitles would’ve gotten the job done just as effectively, the information was necessary and it wasn’t then rehashed later on. So I guess here’s an example of one that didn’t completely suck.

Rules of the Trilogy and The Hunger Games (10.13-10.15)

September 13, 2010

I’m not one to obsess over books. I never – I mean, NEVER – get so absorbed in a book that I’ll read the whole thing in a day, without some compelling professional reason for me to do so. Especially when it’s something my wife likes. All she reads is teen fiction, romance, and vampire novels. The Twilight series was a literary orgasm for her.

But when she told me about the premise of The Hunger Games – that a group of two dozen children in an Orwellian future are forced to enter an arena and fight to the death for everyone else’s amusement – I was intrigued. And then I read two and a half books in three days.

I’ve thought for a while about the rules of trilogies. Here are some of my observations.

  1. The series is about a war of some kind, with the first installment introducing the hero (who is discovered partway through the war) and telling the story of a battle that proves to be a major turning point.
  2. The first installment has to be self-sufficient. Consider Star Wars. The story could easily have ended with A New Hope, although it was clearly set up for sequels to follow. The Matrix and Back to the Future do the same thing. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t, but Tolkein always insisted that wasn’t a trilogy but a single book split into three parts for the sake of convenience, and besides the first installment of that story – The Hobbit actually was its own story.
  3. The second installment is not self-sufficient, and ends with a huge cliffhanger. Like Han Solo frozen in carbonite kind of huge. The stakes have to go way up, and this shows the rebels building their forces, though usually with huge setbacks and sacrifices on the part of the heroes.
  4. The hero goes through some serious hardcore suffering, and either dies or fails in his quest.

For the first installment, I’ll say I was struck by one thing: raising the stakes. Raising the stakes is simple. You just make the objective more difficult or more important to achieve. And Suzanne Collins certainly does that. Early on, when Primrose’s name is called and Katniss volunteers in her place, it’s somewhat expected – after all, we wouldn’t be reading this story if Katniss wasn’t going into the competition. But what makes it more interesting is that the person who’s called to go with her is someone to whom she feels indebted, but who will be utterly useless as an ally in the ring. And it just goes up from there. Of course, Peeta’s confession during the interviews makes it a whole new ball game. And then, in the climax, it seems impossible to win — but they still come out of it.

I was disappointed with the second book, Catching Fire. It starts off real well, with Snow’s surprise appearance and then the victory tour where she accidentally riles up the crowd. And it was good up until the announcement that the Quarter Quell would be made up of victors. (Although I can’t believe the author tried to convince us Katniss wouldn’t have understood Plutarch’s “clandestine gesture”. I mean, come on.) The problem I had was that the story then glosses over their training and the actual build-up of the resistance, and instead skips ahead as quickly as possible to the Quell, which was mostly just a repeat of what had happened in the first book. I think this showed a serious lack of imagination, and part of the reason why I read the second book so quickly is because I was trying to skip through and get to the part I actually cared about: the war.

Better would have been a real movement — an attempt to organize the resistance or see how it crops up — for most of the second half of the book. Show the training, and further attempts at communication with people from other districts. And then, the arena should really only last a couple of chapters before Katniss gets attacked by Johanne, which is really where it could/should have ended.

But the third book, Mockingjay, redeemed the trilogy. Although I didn’t like a lot of what happened, that was because I was so invested in the characters by then, and it bugged me when they did stupid things. All of Katniss’s actions worked with her character and the world of the story. The story with Peeta was riveting, the District 13 political drama captivating — especially considering it was the politics that got me interested in reading the books to begin with.

And of course, the story ends with a very interesting death/failure combination.

All in all a really great series, and I can see this being read in high schools. Along with Lord of the Flies and 1984, it offers some pretty serious social commentary, and left me thinking and wondering for quite a while.

Who’s Your Hero?

August 31, 2009

We finally got there.

As you may or may not know, I’m taking an improv class on narrative longform – that’s improv that tells a story, as distinct from shortform improv (the kind you see on Whose Line Is It Anyway?) or what I call montage-style longform (where there’s no narrative throughline, you just do one long show with random scenes).  And after several weeks of scenework, this week’s class was all about establishing the hero.

Think of some stories you like, and then answer the following question: How do you know who’s the hero?  This was one of our exercises, and the results we came up with were not surprising:

  • He’s the person the story is named after.
  • He’s the person we’re rooting for.
  • He changes over the course of the story.
  • He’s the person making the most active decisions.
  • He appears in more scenes than anyone else.
  • Any scenes he’s not in are there to support his story.
  • He’s got the biggest obstacle to overcome.

Then we set out creating scenes in which we established, as early as possible, who the hero is.  One of the guidelines I’ve established for myself is that whoever’s first to appear on stage, on screen, or on the page, is more often than not the hero.  There are exceptions to that rule, but usually those exceptions exist to establish the tone (Hamlet), or as part of a broader scene to establish the need for the hero (The Dark Knight), who is often then be the first to appear on screen after the scene is over.  Interestingly, an early draft of the Star Wars script has Luke Skywalker first appearing somewhere around the 4th minute – not really doing much, just showing up all by his lonesome to show us, the reader, that he’s the person we’re meant to be following.

Drama: The Absence of Action or Results

March 18, 2009

There’s a personal development program I participate in, and as part of that, I was today looking at my most recent “training issue” and the structures I’m putting in place to have a breakthrough around that.

My most recent training issue is Give up drama and arrogance.

On reflection, I find this very interesting.  I am a very dramatic person.  It makes perfect sense.  I grew up as an actor, I’m now a writer, and so for most of my life I’ve been trained in how to add drama to everything I do.  It’s a strong suit; being dramatic is, in a sense, what I rely on to produce results.

The irony is that for me, as with most people, my strengths and weaknesses are very closely related, and this area is no exception.  Because the way this translates into life is it’s all about me and how difficult it all is and how I’m suffering and failing and as I look at all of that, whether it’s around work or relationships or my marriage or cleaning my effing house, it’s all kind of silly and gross.

So now that I’ve distinguished it I can be responsible for it, and I can be dramatic where it serves me (in my writing or performing) and I can give up the drama where it doesn’t.

Where it starts to get even more interesting is when I started to look at the structures to put in place around giving up the drama.  What everyone keeps telling me is that I’m addicted to insights, and that I need to stop “seeing things” and start doing and being in action.  Which led me to the following structure for having a breakthrough: “…instead of looking for insights and talking about it, I am getting into action. Being in action in all areas of my life is an access to giving up the drama, since drama only exists in the absence of action or results.”

Let’s look at that last sentence again: Drama only exists in the absence of action or results.

I’ve long been revering McKee for his insight that story exists in the gap between expectation and result, and I think I’m on to something else here, too.  Because where drama occurs in a film or a book is in those moments when there is no action or when results are not being produced.

Think about it.  When are the “dramatic” moments of a film?  It’s not when someone’s blowing up a car or getting chased down an alley, it’s when there’s a pause in the action; when people are talking to each other about themselves or others.  The drama in The Dark Knight occurs when Bruce Wayne is sitting in the penthouse saying, “She was gonna wait for me, Alfred,” or when Alfred tells him “Some people just want to watch the world burn.”  Crashing into a skyscraper in Hong Kong and then returning to the plane while it’s in mid-flight isn’t dramatic, it’s just cool.

To take it a step further, there’s a whole genre of movies called “drama.”  These are the movies that come out in the fall, and are the ones that win Oscars because they’re deep and moving and meaningful, but when you look at the plot of these movies, typically speaking, not a lot happens.  The Shawshank Redemption is not a high concept flick filled with people doing stuff or producing results.   It’s a story about what happens to our hero between the decisions he makes.   The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is clearly dramatic, but when you talk about that movie, you’re not talking about the things he  does.  In Star Wars on the other hand, you do talk about the things they do – blowing up the Death Star or using the Force.  Where’s the drama?  “No, I am your father …”

Which means that if you’re looking to create drama, have the characters slow down and talk.  Have them fail to produce the desired results (save Rachel Dawes’ life, kill Darth Vader, get a new trial based on Tommy’s testimony). And if you’re not looking for drama, then don’t – have them be in action and actually causing something and producing results.

If in Doubt, Add Incest

December 1, 2008

I recently purchased the original Star Wars trilogy.  I somehow managed to miss this cultural phenomenon growing up, and although I must have seen it a few times as a child, I was 18 (and getting ready to watch Episode I) before seeing and remembering any significant part of it. And that was 9 years ago, so I decided, spurred by the need to refer to it in a few things I’m working on, to purchase and watch the trilogy in its entirety.

Then, this past weekend, I rented and watched Chinatown (for the first time) and Not Another Teen Movie (not the first time, but I’ve been trying to get my wife to watch it for eons).  And while at Vulcan Video renting those, I perused the shelf of used DVDs, and couldn’t help but buy one of my all-time favorites from high school, The Crow.

And after watching all four (six) of these movies within a week, I noticed a startling trend: they all have an element of incest in them.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Consider: Luke and Leia kiss in A New Hope and in Empire Strikes Back, but not in Return of the Jedi. And the IMDb rankings of these movies are 12, 9, and 109, respectively.  Notice that Empire – in which they have a full-on mouth kiss – is ranked higher than A New Hope – where they just kiss on the cheek – and far higher than Jedi, where they don’t kiss at all.  The more incestuous the scenario, the higher the ranking!  Here’s another one: Back to the Future is ranked 102, but its sequels don’t even make the top 250. Ha!  If that’s not all the evidence you need, I don’t know what I can say to convince you.

Chinatown is ranked 53rd (AFI has it at 21) and Psycho 22nd (AFI: 14).  Think about how much less awesome movies would have been without their respective incest elements.  And this doesn’t even include great literary classics like Hamlet or Oedipus, TV relationships like that of Arrested Development‘s George Michael and Maeby, nor great but under-acclaimed movies like The Crow, Cruel Intentions, Clueless, Not Another Teen Movie, or that Ron Jeremy film The Blonde Next Door.

This all leads me to the startling conclusion that, when in doubt, you should always add an element of incest to your story.  It makes them all better.

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