Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Lego Movie: Not Everything Is Awesome

So I'm going for that "Social Pariah" achievement today: I don't really like the Lego Movie much.

It feels good to get that out, frankly. I floated the idea today on Facebook, and was emboldened by the emphatic reaction (one like and one comment agreeing with me), so decided to phone in base this week's blog around it.

What brought this on, you ask? I happened to catch it on TV at my mom's place this afternoon, and decided to give it another shot (I once tried to watch it on a plane but I turned it off shortly after - possibly for Jack Reacher). I made it quite a bit further in than the last time, too - but that extra 20 minutes wasn't much to my liking either.

In fact, if I were being provocative (moi?), I might even go so far as to borrow some writers' reactions to Interstellar and call it an ideological monstrosity.

OK, that's kind of a strong statement, so I'm gonna backpedal a bit here. Interstellar was an ideological monstrosity because there's a pretty shocking lack of non-white characters (apart from one supporting character) and because, as my sister puts it, it implies that famine and starvation are only the end of the world when they're happening to the West.

The Lego Movie, in that light, maybe doesn't quite fit into that mold, but I find it pretty insidious in its own way. The bad guy, to begin with, is named "Business", and his whole deal is that, like business in real life, he hates spontaneity. He only wants people to follow the instructions that come with each Lego kit, and he doesn't like intermixing, ie using bricks from multiple types of kits to create wondrous new things limited only by YOUR imagination. He hates that stuff SO MUCH, that he's going to use Krazy Glue to immobilize everybody, everywhere.

If you've read my blog before, you may know that I lean slightly leftward, on the political spectrum, and that I am somewhat mistrustful of large corporations. If I could get away with it, corporations would be the bad guys in all my stories (slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean). So, uh, why is Lord/President Business such a problem?

Well, it's all so on-the-nose that it kind of deflates the magic and inhibits suspension of disbelief. And once that's gone, you start to see things about the movie: the fact that it's pretty much the exact same plot as the Matrix, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings; the fact that despite all this "anti-business" and "anti-imagination" stuff, you're still watching a movie using dozens of major licensed properties, which was released by a big studio and came with a catchy song.

And as far as the plot, I think it illustrates what I was saying recently about the dangers of following a beat sheet too closely. If you can see exactly where Blake Snyder would have put his beats, then the movie's not doing its job and drawing you in (much like if you're noticing how clever the author is, the novel's broken).

There are some cute parts of the movie, of course. Having Will Arnett play Batman, for instance, and play him as the dickhead boyfriend of the main guy's love interest, is inspired. Morgan Freeman turns in a nice performance as the mentor, and Liam Neeson does a good job as the (conflicted) evil henchman. And bringing together all of the big properties - DC Comics, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc - into one movie implies that it should be fun. But let's be honest: Wreckit Ralph did a much better job of setting up the main character, his world and his dramatic need, while pulling together characters from a bunch of classic videogames. And it had Sarah Silverman. Need I say more?

So yeah, not a big fan of the Lego Movie. I know a lot of people on my Twitter feed (comedians and the like) loved it, and many were disappointed it wasn't nominated for best animated film or some crap. I'm not. The supreme irony of the movie is that in telling kids how important it is to let your imagination run free, the filmmakers have had to rein Lego in and cram its ethos into the straitjacket of the modern Hollywood screenplay. Good job, Business.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

DC went back to basics with Cartoon Network's Justice League

Like everyone, I have a bunch of shows in rotation on Netflix, and also like everyone, I'm transfixed by one in particular at any given point. For much of last year, that series was How I Met Your Mother (and I regret nothing!), but at the moment the "it" show is Cartoon Network's Justice League.

It ran in the early 00s, and was a follow-on to the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series and its companion Superman: The Animated Series. It shares the art style of the two previous shows, as well as a few of the same voice actors, notably Kevin Conroy as Batman, who's widely held to be the best actor to play the role, at least of the last 20 years (sorry, Christian Bale).

The immediate impetus for starting up with the show was the Nerdist Podcast's wonderful interview with acclaimed voice director Andrea Romano, who was responsible for casting the voices that helped Warner Animation become a powerhouse in the 90s - she did Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Batman, as well as Justice League (which I started because, frankly, it was the only show in that sequence available on streaming). She and Chris Hardwick talked so much about that era of cartoons, which I remember so fondly, that I was moved to revisit it.

Now, I didn't see Justice League when it was on, but based on what I have seen so far (I'm about 20 episodes into Season 1, out of two seasons in total), it really does hold up. It succeeds in capturing the feel of the early Justice League of America comics from the 60s, while maintaining a modern sensibility reminiscent of what Grant Morrison was doing with JLA at the time. That's probably because, like Morrison's run, it's focused on the big names - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman - along with the Flash and Green Lantern. Hawkgirl adds another (sorely needed) female to the cast, while comics mainstay Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onnz rounds out the lineup.

There are a lot of cute nods to the comics, as well. In the first sequence of three episodes (every story was a two- or three-episode arc), the team splits up into pairs to fight the invading alien hordes in different parts of the world (Metropolis, Paris, Malaysia), just as they did in the very earliest comics. Later on in the season, there's also a reference to the classic JLA/JSA teamups of that era, when several members of the League encounter a 40s-style team called the Justice Guild, with stand-ins for the Golden Age Green Lantern, Flash, Wildcat, Black Canary and the Atom.

With that episode in particular, I was also pleased to see that the new show retained Batman: TAS's ability to tell a moving story. When the parallel world on which they encountered the Guild is revealed to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the illusory heroes - who were an inspiration in particular to Green Lantern - give up their own lives so that the few genuine survivors can finally start to rebuild. "We gave up our lives once, after all," says one of the Guild members.

Another reason I'm so enjoying the show is that, continuing on from my post a couple months ago about DC losing the plot a bit, it tells Justice League stories in an uncomplicated and, most importantly, fun way. I haven't picked up a Justice League comic in years, but perusals of Wikipedia show me that I'm not missing much. That might be partly because the characters (and creators, for that matter) keep getting dicked about every year or two for yet another company-wide crossover and retcon. This means that characters die and get resurrected and die again, team rosters chop and change according to the writer's whim, and everything's just a bit stupid and confusing.

That's a function of trying to tell stories about the same characters for decades - in the case of Superman and Batman, we're coming up on 80 years. But at the same time, it's nice to have the TV show, which by necessity can't lean too heavily on all that continuity, to present the stories in a simple and still engaging manner.

The TV show's other big advantage is that it knows exactly who it's aimed at. The comics seem to have this weird split personality, where sometimes they want to get kids reading, and at other times they fall over themselves to show how "grown-up" they are by amping up the gruesome. Or to put it another way, the only way DC found to follow up Heath Ledger as the Joker, with his self-inflicted scars, was to have the comics version cut off his own face (eh?) and then continue wearing it. Which, let's be honest, all sounds like he went to a lot of unnecessary trouble.

I don't believe the stories should be simplistic, or even exclusively aimed at kids; I've had a look at the more recent Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon, which is more kid-friendly and leaves me slightly cold. But the Justice League TV show's limited run and strict rules about, for instance, no blood, at least let the creators find better ways to tell a story that could appeal to all four quadrants (bit of movie-biz talk, since I've been reading all those screenwriting books).

This is, incidentally, why I continue to enjoy the Flash and Arrow TV shows. There's a lot of fan service (in the form of little nods and references to some pretty obscure DC stuff, e.g. Felicity Smoak), but it all becomes a way for the creators to tell stories that make sense to today's viewers, instead of being bogged down by a million issues of continuity.

Anyway, I'm coming to the end of Season 1, and expect to power through Season 2 pretty quickly too. And after that I can look forward to even more references, as the follow-up series, Justice League Unlimited, took a look at the even more obscure characters that made up the League during its long history.

Frankly, I'm just happy we've already had an appearance from Kanjar Ro, one of the weirdest characters to come out of the early JLA comics. It's just a shame they couldn't work his Gamma Gong into the story.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Thoughts on Screenplay Structure and Blake Snyder's Save the Cat

I just finished reading Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, on the recommendation of my friend Tom (with whom I'm writing a screenplay), and because an author I knew back in London said he used it to check that his novels were hitting all their beats correctly. I'm also told that Save the Cat has become the de rigueur template for screenwriters, and JJ Abrams in particular swears by it (which might account for the opening of Star Trek Into Darkness - a sequence that stands out in that awful movie for being even more awful).

With this pedigree, I pretty much had to read it for myself. I did, however, stop off to read Screenplay by Syd Field first, since even the introduction of Save the Cat says to do that. So those two, plus Robert McKee's Story and Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, make four books I've now read about screenwriting.

I have to admit, despite that august company, there really is something to Save the Cat's methodology. A Hollywood screenplay is expected to be around 110 pages, divided into three acts and hitting some very specific beats. Save the Cat walks you through all of those, one by one, almost like painting by numbers - you have things like the opening image and the theme stated in Act One, fun & games and bad guys close in showing up in Act 2, and the final image closing off Act 3 and the rest of the movie.

The way Snyder (who died in 2009, aged 51) presents it, these are iron laws that studio executives are looking for in every script that crosses their desks, even if they don't use the exact same terminology he does. If they don't flip to page 75 and find the bad guys closing in, whatever that means in the context of your film, then it's back to the drawing board for you.

I think what appeals to me most about Save the Cat's structure is that there actually is a lot of room for interpretation within those guidelines. I'm convinced that the greatest creativity comes from limits being imposed on the artist, and seeing what the artist can do within those limits. This doesn't necessarily work in every context - superhero comics and rock music have each effectively been doing the exact same thing, within the same structures, for the better part of a century now - but it's also true that having no constraints at all can lead to some bad art. Just listen to some particularly indulgent freeform jazz or psychedelic jam sessions from 1960s hippie collectives for examples.

As an aside, you can see something similar in technology, where each advance is, ideally, a solution to an existing problem. The internal combustion engine, the solid fuel rocket and the atom bomb are all attempts to do something specific within the then-current constraints on technology - I once read something where a piece of technology was referred to as "a work-around, not technology", which made me want to scream back, "All technology is a work-around!"

Where Save the Cat runs into trouble - and the fault is not necessarily Snyder's - is when the structure becomes more prized than what you do within it. On the official Save the Cat website, there are a number of beat sheets in which contributors have put recent movies in the context of the book's structure.

I was eager to read the one for Guardians of the Galaxy. This is because I thought the movie was gibberish from start to finish, but I felt like I was missing something because everybody else liked it. The introduction to the Guardians beat sheet said the movie was well-structured, so I thought that seeing it broken down might make me appreciate it more.

Which turned out to be a big fat sack of wrong.

Seeing it divided up into Snyder's beats just made me appreciate more keenly how nonsensical each part of the film truly was. And yet the contributor was praising how well it fit into Save the Cat. Clearly there's something wrong there. The difference between a good screenplay and deceptively good one, then, is the difference between using the beat sheet as a guideline, and shoehorning your story into it.

I liked the book, though, and probably would recommend it, because it is useful to check your story against its beats to ensure that your second act doesn't drag, or that your first act adequately explains everything that's still to come.

My only other qualm, and I mention it here more for how amusing I found it, is the way Snyder takes issue with certain films, most notably Memento, which he calls a "low-performing arthouse gem". He evidently had issues with the way Memento was structured, and that there wasn't a likeable hero to be found (no scenes of cat-saving, you could say), although he never comes out and says what exactly bothers him.

It's just funny to me that the guy who wrote pillars of the Western cinematic canon like Blank Check and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot (his two produced movies) should take the time in his book to snipe so savagely at an early film by the director of Batman Begins, the Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar... More to the point, while Memento may have pulled in negligible box office, it probably got much better critical buzz than either of Snyder's movies - which is what's allowed Christopher Nolan to have the amazing career he's built for himself.

On the other hand, Snyder does a much better job of explaining exactly why Signs, by M Night Shyamalan, was so terrible, to the point that it's made me like that movie even less than I already did. So he clearly knew what he was talking about, if not batting 1.000 in his opinions. Which goes to show that everyone's fallible - even the guy who teamed up Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty.

Go figure.