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Sunday, 18 September 2016

Watch What You Write

Because one of the projects I've been working on this year, and indeed, for the past few weeks, is a superhero screenplay, I've been watching a lot of those, either on Netflix or rented from Amazon (er, when I'm not renting the Fast & Furious saga, that is).

This is, as I mentioned in a previous post, why I rented The Amazing Spiderman, the version with Andrew Garfield - I was following the suggestions of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, or Syd Field's Screenplay, to watch movies similar to what you're writing.

It's pretty childishly obvious, as far as advice goes. For instance, my interest in fantasy novels stems from my early attempts to write a fantasy novel of my own. I'd read Tolkien before then, but apart from the more YA-oriented fare, like CS Lewis or Lloyd Alexander, I was unfamiliar with how the genre worked.

Now, you would think that having grown up on comics, I'd know how the superhero genre works, but it happens not to be so. Comics are one way of telling stories - a language, if you like - and movies turn out to be a similar but not entirely equivalent language, and this is one of the things I've been discovering as I watched more of them.

The main takeaway, in fact, has been that Act One of a superhero film needs to be almost exclusively about the hero. Those first 30 or 40 pages are meant to establish where the hero starts, what they need to learn, and how they get their powers - the first act ends when they've put on the mask and gone looking for bad guys to beat up.

Interestingly, though, the thing that established this iron law for me was one step nerdier than just watching the films - I discovered it through reading the shooting scripts (or what purported to be shooting scripts) of Batman Begins and the 2002 version of Spiderman, the one with Tobey Maguire.

This is a suggestion from Robert Ben Garant and Tom Lennon's Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, incidentally - they note that shooting scripts are as close to what's on-screen as it gets, which means you aren't reading an initial draft that was used to gin up interest in a film. Although those can be pretty interesting to read too - look for the script for Die Hard, the opening of which is subtly different from how the movie was shot.

In any case, I remember the "eureka" moment pretty clearly - I'd just gone through Act One of Spiderman, and made the connection, so I'd then gone looking for Batman Begins, to see if it held true. It felt like I was on to something, so I checked the notes I'd made for Amazing Spiderman (yes, I took copious notes while I was watching Amazing Spiderman - two and a half pages on a yellow legal pad, in fact). And eureka indeed - my first page of notes corresponded roughly to the first act, and to the point in the 2002 Spiderman movie where Tobey Maguire dons his own mask.

So the suggestion, then, is to both watch movies in your genre (taking notes), and then look for the shooting scripts online. Reading the script is helpful because you get less distracted by the fun on-screen, which is also important. And the best is if you can watch or read films/scripts from different movies that tell effectively the same story - remakes or reboots or reimaginings seem to be close to justifying their existence purely for budding filmmakers.

Now, that said, Act One and the transition to Act Two is about as far as I got in my research so far. I haven't entirely figured out how Acts Two and Three work yet, but when I do I'll be sure to post what I've found. But in the meantime, I'll be working my through the Fast and the Furious again - with notes...

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Wanting to Write, vs Wanting to Be a Writer

I always have a hard time when people ask me what I want to do with my life.

That's not because I don't know, of course. The difficulty comes in expressing it - long ago I decided to stop saying I wanted to be a writer, because it implied wanting the lifestyle of being a writer without the work of actually writing books. So instead I started saying I wanted to write, which is accurate, but also implies that I'm not doing it. I had, in fact, a conversation once that went pretty much along those exact lines. When I said I wanted to write books, the person I was talking to said, "So write."

How to explain that at the time I had already written two novels, and was working on a third? Or that I'd written a bunch of short stories, and sent them out to publishers and magazines, dating back to high school? It was a long, convoluted conversation, in which I eventually got my point across, I hope, but it showed me the futility of answering the question the way I do. Although I'm sure she'd have said the same thing if I'd answered that I wanted to be a writer.

That said, I do think it's a useful distinction to make, even though most people don't understand writing (or other forms of creativity) to begin with. To me, saying you want to "be a writer", like wanting to "be" anything else, implies that you're interested mainly in the optics of it. Being a writer sounds fun - you get to go to book parties, see your films optioned (and sometimes turned into good movies), and all that. Paradoxically, it doesn't seem to include the actual sitting at your desk night after night, trying to finish a thing.

On the other hand, saying you want to write suggests that you do understand the actual mechanics of what makes one a writer, though it also implies that you aren't doing any writing at the moment. And, as illustrated above, leaves you open to well-meaning but not-always-helpful suggestions like that from my friend.

"So write" sticks with me after all this time, as well, because it's one of those pieces of advice that are logically correct (if you want to write, do so), but don't take in the full import of writing as a hobby or vocation or whatever. It implies some lack of seriousness, at least to my ears, as the advice isn't to "just write, research markets or agents, and submit to them".

But saying that I want to be a writer also isn't very satisfying because it implies I'm not there yet. I'm not saying that having taken second place in Spinetinglers.co.uk's January 2013 contest, and earning £50 as a result, makes me a writer, on par with George RR Martin, but if I have put in the work for as long as I have, even without more than that to show for it, doesn't that mean I can say I'm a writer?

I appreciate this is all a bunch of weird, semantic tail-chasing. Weird semantic tail-chasing is one of the things I live on. And it might be coming because at some level I wonder if the effort is worth it - it's not like I'm so good that publishers or whoever can't ignore me. On the other hand, as I tell myself every time I consider quitting, it's not like I have another vocation lined up. Sitting at home and watching TV every night until I die doesn't sound very appealing.

While I'm generally a positive person, I also understand that hard work is only one part of being successful. The most important part, certainly, but there are a lot of people who work hard at whatever they love without ever striking it big. There's also luck, which is predicated in part on how hard or how smart you work. I can't escape the (almost romantic) image of being the unrecognized genius, which is slightly satisfying on a sub-conscious level, but not as much as the idea of seeing a bookshelf filled with my own novels, or of seeing my name in the credits of a movie.

To bring it all back around, whether I tell people I want to be a writer or that I want to write, most won't get it. But what's important is probably that I understand what I'm setting myself up for - and that I understand what I mean when I tell people what I want to do with my life.

So do I realize the full import of wanting to write, and to be a writer? Sure - I just spent Saturday night finishing up an outline for a horror movie, after all, rather than going to a bar to meet girls. But while I hope for the payoff, I should probably remember to give myself a break about not having hit it yet. And think about new ways to do it.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Batman Vs Superman: Just as Bad as I'd Feared

Not beating around the bush here with that title. I was bored last night, and looking for a movie to rent on Amazon, so I went looking for superhero movies I'd missed when they were in theaters. My first two choices, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, weren't out yet, and Deadpool felt a little expensive for something I'd seen on the plane, so I swallowed hard and went for Batman Vs Superman.

I'm not even going to bother putting up the spoiler guy for this. It's a bad movie. It's badly acted, badly scripted, badly directed and has lackluster CGI. Someone comes back from the future, completely out of the blue, to warn Batman not to let Lois Lane die, and then it turns out to be a dream. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor as if the character's a merger between Mark Zuckerberg and the Joker.

Compared to this, Suicide Squad was a work of art.

What's frustrating is that, in theory at least, I like David Goyer (who script doctored BvS). He wrote Batman Begins, which while not my favorite Batman story, at least got the character back on an even keel after Batman & Robin. He also has some good insights into the character - my favorite is how Goyer once pointed out that there are three facets to Batman/Bruce Wayne's personality: there's the public face of Bruce Wayne, the public (sorta) face of Batman, and the private Bruce Wayne, who's actually a badass.

In fairness to Goyer, the fact he rewrote the script means we were probably saved from something really brain-damaging... or it could have been to shoehorn more prep for the upcoming Justice League movie. Whatever.

The problem is that it could have been really good, if they'd just stuck with what's so good about the characters (including Wonder Woman), or even just added some horsepower to the action scenes. It seems odd to say about a movie that cost something like $200 million and features the destruction of two cities, but the action scenes are so boring - I know I can't seem to shut about the Fast & Furious movies, but at least they're exciting. The one car chase here looks like it was filmed underwater.

Funnily enough, though everybody was freaking out about him in the role, Ben Affleck as Batman wasn't the worst thing about the movie. In fact, I'll go so far as to say he was fine - he didn't have the unctuous playboy act down as well as Christian Bale in his prime, but I found him believable as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. And they solved the Bat-voice problem which had plagued the Nolan films.

Of course, it's still one of the top 50 highest-grossing movies of all time, despite losing 81% of revenues in its second weekend and a further 50% in the third. There's always been the impression that nerds are so starved for movies that cater to them that they'll lap up any old crap, and it's hard not to get the impression that this is why BvS has done so well (it didn't hit its projected $1 billion but it certainly recouped its budget). I also remember seeing some friends on Facebook taking issue with the blog posts (including ones I shared) saying that they didn't actually have to go see it - it's almost as bad as the fans of Suicide Squad who (Donald Trump-style) tried to ignore Rotten Tomatoes for giving their beloved movie a low score.

I read once that blockbusters are badly written because there's no compelling reason (whether in terms of cost or profit) for them to be written well. But I can still hope that someday someone decides to put out a superhero movie that doesn't suck quite this blatantly.

Or, screw it, just let me re-watch all the Fast & Furious movies while I wait for number 8 to come out. At least I'll enjoy myself.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Coming around to the Fast and the Furious saga

Like many bien-pensant movie fans, I've spent the last fifteen years laughing derisively whenever the subject of The Fast and The Furious came up. They featured some not particularly excellent actors, and seemed with each installment to add yet another action star, Expendables-style, to the roster, and another dumb variation on the original name (2Fast 2Furious! Fast 5! Furious 7!).

Graphs like this didn't help, frankly

And yet...


I recently broke down, since I saw that Netflix had the first three movies on streaming. I'd actually seen parts of the original movie on TV a few years ago, and part of the seventh on the plane last year, so I was curious about a number of things, like how they'd gone from that original film to the set-pieces and exotic locales of the latest. And I was curious how they would see of Paul Walker's character, following the actor's death in 2013 while Furious 7 was in production.

I can also blame my youngest sister, who revealed to me when Furious 7 came out that she'd seen and loved all of the movies. Since she has a master's degree in English from Oxford, how can I argue with an endorsement like that?

So yeah, not only did I mainline (heh) the first three movies, I then rented the fourth through sixth movies on Amazon and caught the seventh on HBO Go. This all took me about ten days, with my lunch breaks devoted to watching a bit at a time, and then catching a bit more while watching dinner after work.

It was kind of tough going at times, I'll admit. 2Fast 2Furious, to me, is easily the worst of the bunch, badly acted and poorly scripted, with holes in logic large enough to drive a fleet of Skylines through. There were similar problems with the third installment, Tokyo Drift, but I actually liked that one a lot.

The problem with criticizing those aspects, though, is that the movies are just so damn fun. The first one starts with a truck-jacking run by three souped-up Civics, and the filmmakers double down on the car-related capers in each film, to the point that by Fast & Furious, the confusingly named fourth installment (and the start of FF's imperial phase), you can't help but laugh with joy at what they're doing. It could be Walker and Diesel dragging a safe through the streets of Rio, or it could be Dwayne Johnson knocking out a military chopper with nothing but a gatling gun ripped from a downed predator drone, but it makes you happy.

Yes, this is The Rock firing a gatling gun at a helicopter. What's your point?

Another thing that sets these movies apart from other recent action movies is the relationships between all the characters. The first traces Paul Walker's undercover cop being drawn in by Vin Diesel's "family", composed of siblings, lovers, neighbors - all folks united by their love of ten-second cars. By the end Walker and other actors collected over the course of the saga (like Ludacris and Dwayne Johnson) are also part of the family, joking around with each other in ways you rarely see in ensemble flicks - the Avengers movies are dour and dysfunctional in comparison with this crew.

Related is the fact that each movie does a good job of showing its characters' joy. Weak as it is, Tokyo Drift is the first film where I put my finger on this aspect - there's a scene late in the second act, where Lucas Black is driving with his love interest along a mountain road at night. They're relaxed, talking about their childhoods, while the wide shots have a convoy of sports cars drifting left and right along the road's hairpin turns, in such perfect unison that they look like a single organism.

But even as early as the first movie you can see this joyfulness. Paul Walker's just lost his first race against Vin Diesel, and badly, but he's in the mob of fans congratulating Diesel on his win, and despite losing his car Walker's got this broad, goofy grin on his face - I once heard Walker referred to as "possibly the worst actor of his generation", but it's hard to see it in that single scene. And it carries on through the seventh movie, where you have the entire crew joking and teasing as they prepare to parachute their cars out the back of a plane over a remote mountain pass in Azerbaijan (of all places).

It was also nice that they gave Paul Walker's character a decent send-off at the end of Furious 7, almost breaking the fourth wall for us to share in celebrating what the actor meant to them as characters and us as viewers. I'm curious what they plan to do with the character, if anything, in the forthcoming eighth installment; the best would be leaving him out of further adventures, rather than using the character's death as an inciting incident to set Vin Diesel and the others on their latest quest, but we'll see.

I will, anyway - in the theaters. Probably not on opening day, but hopefully with my sister in tow, a new set of silly films for us to bond over.

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Naturalism of Stranger Things

Like pretty much everybody else in America, I've now finished watching Stranger Things on Netflix (or rather, binged watched it over the course of three days). I'm not really looking to discuss the plot, but I'd also like to be able to talk about whatever I want, so here's your warning:


Anyway, how about all that 80s goodness? I guess I should admit up top here that I'm actually kind of nuts for stuff from that decade - I've recently been looking (not always successfully) for action movies from the 80s on Netflix, after having caught Rambo II and III in close succession, and watched The Running Man not long after that. Also, Back to the Future is one of the few movies I own, and it's hard to get more 80s than that.

So it was fun to see something that looked a lot like my childhood, and did so without (to my mind) being excessive. Sure, I did think when they introduced Sheriff Hopper that they were taking the Stephen King references a little too far by casting someone for the role who looked way too much like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but David Harbour actually managed to do so much with the role that by the end of Day One of my viewing (when I was wrapping up the fourth episode) I'd forgotten about that association.

It's also true that sometimes the visual references back to other shows or movies could be distracting - when Mike and the gang are walking along the tracks looking for the gate, I want to be thinking about what's happening, rather than thinking, "Oh, right, Stand By Me." But I suppose that's the danger in creating something that unashamedly parades its influences for the audience.

In my opinion, that's why the show was so successful - people will usually respond favorably to things that are a melange of stuff they know, as long as the mixing is done well and doesn't follow the source material too slavishly. It's why Super 8, JJ Abrams's attempt at a similar homage to the 80s and to Steven Spielberg, was less successful - Abrams made everything look and feel too much like The Goonies mixed with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and didn't end up having the space to make the audience care about the characters.

Another reason is that Stranger Things also feels like an artifact of its time. Much like Drive, which felt like a lost 80s Michael Mann film of the type you might find randomly channel-surfing on a Sunday afternoon, Stranger Things looks and sounds and feels like a story that's been sitting around since 1984, which we've only just noticed now.

No matter the fact that they hired the super-recognizable Winona Ryder as the put-upon single mom (another 80s sci-fi archetype, btw), or that most of the cast hadn't been born yet - the kids' faces are of the type that you'd have seen back then, and they're engaging in behaviors that would get modern-day parents sent up the river by child services (like, you know, swearing and riding bikes on their own).

That casting is extremely important, incidentally. I noticed it while I was watching (and it's one of the things that Super 8 got mostly right too), but the changes in casting policy for kids didn't hit home for me until just a few days later, when I watched The Amazing Spiderman, the 2012 reboot featuring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker.

Andrew Garfield doesn't look or sound 17 in Spiderman, and the reason for that is that he was 29 when it came out. Even Emma Stone was 24 despite playing Peter's classmate Gwen Stacy. There are probably advantages to casting older actors, but I found myself being pulled out of the movie at times when Peter smiled and looked like a guy well past drinking age.

Although that's the nature of film-making now, isn't it? Verisimilitude isn't as important as getting butts in seats, and if it takes name stars who are 12 years older than the characters they play, then studios are probably happy to do it.

But I'm getting off topic. The casting was one of things that the Duffer Brothers got so, so right, along with the music and dialogue and references, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens in Season 2.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Second Season Syndrome

Just finished Season 2 of Daredevil, and over the last 13 episodes, I've been struck by the odd idea that second seasons of shows are typically the best of all.

It shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but it's something that had never occurred to me before. In this specific case, Season 1 of Daredevil was focused on setting the scene, with Matt Murdock not donning the red suit until the very end of the season finale. This led to a lot of stuff that we saw play out in Season 2, like the Hand and more of the Kingpin's machinations, but whereas getting through Season 1 was kind of a slog, I couldn't get enough of Season 2 - to the point that I've been watching two episodes a day this week.

I can think of a few other examples, like the Big Bang Theory, Star Trek: TOS, Justified or (more controversially) the Wire. I can also think of a few counter-examples, notably Heroes, which apparently turned into a real stinker in its second season.

But thinking about it, I believe that improving in the second season or iteration is a lot more common for TV shows than other media. The "difficult second album" or "shitty sequel" is almost axiomatic for music and movies - in the case of the latter, a band or artist that's emerged with a singular vision that they developed over years is suddenly expected to hit it big again in vastly different circumstances, while for movies a sequel is usually driven by similar dynamics in that the studios and financiers want more of the same.

Where TV shows have the edge, I believe, is that by being serialized they're expected to continue, and lead on to bigger and better. A hit CD or movie or novel, as I said, emerges from nowhere and makes everyone fall in love with it, but generally speaking stands on its own. JRR Tolkien took so long to write The Lord of the Rings because he probably never expected The Hobbit to be so resonant (and yeah, WWII-related paper shortages and bombings likely also helped).

A TV show, by contrast, has the time (unless it's a real stinker from the start) to figure out its strengths and weaknesses, and calibrate accordingly, both across a single season and across multiple seasons. To cite the Big Bang Theory again, the first couple episodes are pretty painful to watch, thanks to some weird gender politics and treatment of socially awkward types. But as the relationships fleshed out, the season ended strongly, and when it came back for Season 2, the show fired on all cylinders until about the middle of Season 3, when Penny dumped Leonard.

Or, in the case of a show that starts well, the second season allows the writers to expand on the universe. This is the case with Justified, where the Crowder storyline from the first season expands out to include other characters from Harlan County, like the Bennett Clan, who insinuate themselves into proceedings for the rest of the show (or at least, through to Season 5, which is as far as I've gotten).

Similarly with the Wire, the second season allowed the creators to show that it wasn't simply about cops and drug dealers, by showing how the decay and hopelessness of the West Baltimore projects was mirrored in the destruction of the dockworkers' livelihood.

Of course, not all shows improve in the second season - Star Trek: The Next Generation didn't get good until Season 3, and Grimm, as I've said, plodded along as a kind of guilty pleasure until the end of Season 4 when the writers decided to throw everything out the window and go apeshit. Others, like the aforementioned Heroes, are so perfect in the first season that they can never live up to that early promise - or they write themselves into a corner with an overarching plot that gets too convoluted to ever resolve.

Daredevil, pleasingly, managed to open out its universe in ways that felt right, and if the overall plot was more disjointed than in Season 1, it just all felt much more assured. What I'm a little concerned about is Season 2 of Mr. Robot - the first season felt so perfectly done, and went to such interesting places, that I have trouble imagining how they top it.

Because that's what you're meant to do in creative endeavors - or really anything. Doing a great job at first is wonderful, but once you show what you can do you're held to that standard for ever after. Satisfying customers is simple, but not easy, because it involves doing the same thing, but better. So I'll be checking out reviews and ratings for this new season of Mr. Robot - fingers crossed.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Euro 2016 and the End of History



So, my title this week may be a little melodramatic, but that phrase has been bouncing around in my mental space a lot recently (interestingly enough in the context of the Brexit vote at the end of June, which I'm still processing). In any case, another European Championships has come and gone, and we've added a new nation to the club of winners.

Ronaldo's tears

Call me sentimental, but there's something ineffable somehow of seeing a player universally acknowledged as one of the best of the game, but who never wins anything with his country. In an odd way, I'm sad to see Cristiano Ronaldo taken off this list.

It's not so much that I dislike him, because disliking Cristiano Ronaldo is frankly a bit cliche. Everybody hates him, and part of the fun of hating him is acknowledging that he really is one of the best in the world (though I still think Messi's better overall). But when you've got a player who's that good on the field, and that arrogant off it, it seems a little unfair that he should also get to win the second-biggest prize in football.

On the other hand... part of me really did feel for him today when he had to limp off with his knee-knack. We're so used to Ronaldo's theatrics that when he's genuinely hurt and fighting to stay on, you do feel a little remorse for him. And even I found it hard not to be moved by his expression when the game ended and his team had won.

ronaldo21

There was a lot of talk this year about the Golden Generation of the late 90s and early 2000s, the last representative of which is Ricardo Quaresma, as there is at every tournament. I think there's been a sense for a long time that Portugal has been not as good as it was in those years, and a sense of injustice that Ronaldo should come along after those older players had faded away. But now, somewhat improbably, Ronaldo's guided and inspired his nation to sporting glory, twelve years after they had it snatched from them by a Greece team that played very similarly to how Portugal played this year.

How good was the tournament, really?

There's been a lot of talk lately about how bad Euro 2016 has been. Even at the end of today's game, Steve MacManaman was parping on ESPN about what a terrible winner Portugal was, and certainly the pundits at the Guardian have been complaining about the cagey football engendered by the expanded format.

Thinking about it, though, I'm not so sure. That is to say, of course there have been some bad teams, and some cagey games - and it's hard to argue with the point that there's been a dearth of goals this year. Somebody noted on Thursday, when France was beating Germany, that there hasn't even been a hat-trick in the tournament.

But how much fun would it have been if every team had done as well as people had expected? We'd have missed out on Iceland's run (and England's implosion would have been less spectacular if it had come at the hands of any other team, frankly). At the very least, the knockout stages would have been a bit more balanced and so the final would likely have been contested by two of the same old teams - perhaps even Germany and Spain.

No, the football may not have been as scintillating as Mexico 1970, and the expanded format, with its weird rules for qualifying and for the group stage, may not be that successful. But any tournament that can give us surprises like Iceland, Wales and, at the very end, Portugal - well, we probably shouldn't discount the value of upsets and shock results.

So what's next?

And, as imperfect as the 24-team European Championships are, they'll still be better than the next two World Cups - which will take place in Russia and Qatar, respectively. If nothing else, we know that the European Championships actually get awarded to good venues, regardless of how much bribery and backhanders are going on.

And to be honest, though some are already sniffing at the 2020 format, which will be played in multiple cities across Europe to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the European Championships, I think it'll actually be great. The great advantage that Europe has over other regions is the existing infrastructure and fanbase, not to mention the relative ease of getting between venues (erm, excluding Baku, Azerbaijan, of course). Sure, there'll be some grumbling about last-minute plane or train tickets, but it actually seems nice that for once the entire continent gets to join in the fun.

I don't know where I'll be in four years, but it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that I could get over to one of the countries hosting matches. And it'd be great to experience, once again, that feeling of watching a game and knowing that the entire city around you is doing the same. The last time I experienced that was the 1996 semi-final between England and Germany, and I think we could have it again in 2020.