The World’s Worst Juggler (a puppet saga)

Waylon Bitterman

You may have heard me speak previously about the challenges of writing for puppets, which in their finest hour are little more than petulant little shits with diva complexes, who generally view a script as little more than a replacement for toilet paper.

In fact, the only real redeeming feature of most puppets is the ability to shove your arm up their bottoms, in some case, up to the elbow.

In any event, we managed to capture one of these little monsters on video recently, which I present below.

 

To see more of these fetid little creatures, please subscribe to the Lemon Productions Inc YouTube channel. (No, seriously, subscribe to this ruddy thing…I need the work.)

Mad Max: Furiosa’s Movie (a review)

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If you are looking to have your mind blown away by astounding visuals and amazing stunt work, blinding sandstorm apocalypses and psychotic banshees, mind-searing explosions and grotesque examples of human depravity, then you should really see Mad Max: Fury Road.

If you’re more interested in carefully constructed characters trying to make sense of a world gone mad, learning to cooperate even with their most hated enemies if only to survive and in the process, learning more about themselves as humans, then go watch Lord of the Flies (YouTube), because Mad Max: Fury Road has none of that.

I liked the movie. I liked it a lot. But I never engaged in the movie.

Throughout my time watching it, it remained a movie that stimulated my retinas and ear drums, but never reached my brain or my heart or my gut.

(NOTE: Some spoilers may follow.)

To summarize the plot:

Tanker truck driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is sent on a mission to go from the Citadel, a collection of humans controlled by the self-described demi-god Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), to deliver fuel and mother’s milk (you have to see it to believe it) to Gastown, presumably another citadel situated across the desert.

As she heads off with her armed escort—this is post-apocalyptic, gang-ravaged Australia, after all—Furiosa veers off the road, taking everyone into the desert. Unbeknownst to everyone else, she has stowaways aboard; Joe’s five prized breeder women whom he is using to build his master race (think Sister Wives meets TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting). Furiosa is taking the women to security in the mystical Green Place.

Mothers of future warlords (Sister Wives meet 19 Kids & Counting)

Mothers of future warlords (Sister Wives meet 19 Kids & Counting)

Learning that this has happened and that his fertility harem is gone, Joe calls out his troops and signals Gastown to do same, and a two-pronged pursuit across the desert is on.

Further complicating matters for Furiosa is her need to fight off the marauding gangs that litter the desert-scape between the towns and who want to steal her precious fuel.

Chase into sandstorm best part of movie

Chase into sandstorm best part of movie

That gets you started on the story. Much more and we’re in spoiler territory…although, there are few revelations in this film that could get spoiled.

The one thing you may have noticed about my plot summary is the absence of Max (Tom Hardy), the title character of this film and the three originals of the series. That’s because, for about half of the movie, Max is just along for the ride (in some cases, quite literally).

Universal blood donor Max (Tom Hardy) is mostly along for the ride

Universal blood donor Max (Tom Hardy) is mostly along for the ride

Without question, after an initial misunderstanding, Max helps Furiosa in her journey—that is what Max does in these movies—but this is Furiosa’s journey and thus, her movie.

One of the challenges I have with the story and in retrospect, possibly one of the reasons the film never engaged my heart or gut, is I don’t ever recall learning why Furiosa is helping the women escape. From the outset, she seems to have a position of prestige within the Citadel, even if it is Hell incarnate. And while we do later get a sense of her long-term desire to leave, I still don’t recall the reason why she would jeopardize her escape by taking the women.

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) just wanted a peaceful drive in the desert

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) just wanted a peaceful drive in the desert

Although Joe is obviously angry at the betrayal, the fuel for his pursuit is the reclamation of his harem. Furiosa made her life more difficult by taking them, which would be fine if I understood why. People make outwardly rash decisions all the time in film—else there would be no film industry—but they always have an internal rationale for the decision that the audience can appreciate. That did not exist here.

Likewise, I didn’t understand why these women were so important to Joe. Yes, they were the most attractive of the fetid bunch that we see onscreen, but I am confident that they could have been replaced more easily than the fuel that was used in their reclamation. Even if it was just ego, show me that.

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is Leader of the Pack and universal sperm donor

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is Leader of the Pack and universal sperm donor

I’m not expecting nuance in these characters—that would probably get you killed in this environment—but I would like to understand more about the rationales inside their heads.

The other thing that kept me from engaging was—to borrow a metaphor from This is Spinal Tap—that writer/director George Miller turned the dial to 11 the moment the chase started and largely left it there throughout the movie.

There is no denying that this provided a rush, much like being strapped to the nose of a bullet train, but after a handful of minutes like that, it just becomes normal. Rather than slowly escalate through the film and let me see that the next threat was more gruesome than the last, it was just one long chase scene with the same ever-present threat.

Sure, there were moments of quiet and introspection—if nothing else to provide exposition for where we are and what we’re doing—but the transitions there were like cranking the dial from 11 to 1 and then cranking it back up to 11.

This is largely why I say there is nothing to really spoil in discussing this story…there was nothing that really shocked the audience or caught them off guard. The cinematic experience was beautifully choreographed, but someone forgot to pull up the footmarks from the floor, so the audience was always aware if the next scene was going to be a tango, a waltz or the cha-cha.

But hey, this is an action film, and if it provided one thing, it was ACTION (all caps because that’s how much action it provided).

Like the man in the old Maxell Tapes advertising, you will be blown away by this experience. But when the lights go up, you will straighten your clothes, brush your hair and find yourself completely unaffected by this movie. Just a couple of hours at an amusement park.

Oh, and as for Max, all you really need to know is: yeah, he’s still messed up about his family (see Mad Max Movie #1), but he’s largely a good guy.

Marvel plotlines assemble – Comment on Age of Ultron

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron

So, you plunk down your $20 for the new IMAX 3-D Star Wars film. You saw the two previous trilogies, so you think: “This is going to be so cool.”

But then you get a glimpse of Captain Jean Luc Picard and think: “What the feck?”

And then a few minutes later, there is a reference to the smoke monster, and you scratch your head: “How did Lost get in here?”

That’s the way I felt after watching The Avengers: Age of Ultron…or perhaps, more accurately, after sitting in a bar for 4 hours after seeing Ultron with friends who are completely immersed in the Marvel universe.

In fairness, I went into this movie with the attitude that it was a comic book movie and therefore, I had low expectations other than visual stimulation. And for the most part, I was pleased with the result.

The CGI was stunning. The characters were witty in their banter. And nothing in the movie was very surprising…if you didn’t know how this movie was going to end, you really shouldn’t be watching comic book movies.

My challenge with the film—and the subject of beer-laden discussion afterward—was the sheer volume of references to and characters from previous films and television series of the Marvel pantheon.

Marvel universe study aids.

Marvel universe study aids.

For the record, I saw the first Captain America movie, all of the Iron Man franchise, two Thor movies, the first Avengers movie, all of the Spiderman movies (keep asking myself why, however), and just started watching the Daredevil television series.

And yet for all of that leg work, when the movie started, I had no idea why the Avengers were fighting who they were fighting and who the enemy were. Apparently, if you missed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the Agents of Shield television series, you missed a lot that sets up this movie.

Now, having that background doesn’t necessarily keep you from understanding the main plot of this movie—can James Spader actually outsmarm Robert Downey Jr. (no spoilers)—but I’m the kind of person who likes to understand why things are happening.

They didn't invent smarm, but they've taken it to new heights!

They didn’t invent smarm, but they’ve taken it to new heights!

And to writer/director Josh Whedon’s credit (or condemnation), the dialogue throughout the film was one long stream of exposition—I wasn’t expecting character arcs in a comic book film.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a couple of short sequences, all of this exposition comes as things are exploding and/or in the midst of battle scenes, so your eyes and ears are being bombarded at the same time as your brain is trying to puzzle things together.

Thus, I spent a lot of time shrugging my shoulders when things happened without relatable context to me.

A guy with wings shows up…hunh, there’s a guy with wings. Thor slides into a pond in a cave…I guess this is something important.

[A couple of friends in my group were seeing the movie for the second time…apparently, this helps a lot. Nice move, Marvel marketing department!]

Now, I am not the demographic for this film series. I don’t still read the comic books and have not rushed to see ALL of the Marvel films or television series. And more importantly, I don’t want to do the Internet-searching homework necessary to fill in any blanks that arise (which was another activity in that 4-hour bar discussion).

And that’s why I have described this post as a comment rather than a review.

I cannot review this film because I don’t really know enough about the Marvel universe, other than to say “boom”, “ooooh”, “wow” and “okay, sure, whatever”.

You’ll be hard-pressed to be bored by The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but you may not be any further ahead at the end of the movie than you were at the beginning.

And when all is said and done (or blown up), that may ultimately be the reason I step away from the whole damned thing and leave the adulation to my friends.

Other reviews/thoughts on Age of Ultron:

Howard Casner – Rantings & Ravings

Ryviews

Lady Geek Girl

Wilson Reviews

22 questions about Avengers: Age of Ultron answered (Den of Geek; nothing but spoiler so only click if you must have the answers)

In other words

Word up!

Word up!

According to a Global Language Monitor survey from 2014, there are 1,025,109.8 words in the English language. (Not sure what the 0.8 word is.) And based on further research, this tally makes English anywhere from 5- to 10-times larger than most Western European languages.

Depending on who you ask or possibly where, a native English-speaking adult has a functional vocabulary of anywhere from 10,000 to 75,000 words. Thus, on a regular basis, we use about 1-10% of the words available to us.

Many of those words have similar if not identical meanings and can often be used interchangeably with slight variations in implied meaning or significance. Hell, a British clinician with a list-making fetish famously went out and tried to catalogue these word relationships, offering encyclopedic lists of alternates to the most commonly used English words.

A man with a list (or maybe that's just how he sits)

A man with a list (or maybe that’s just how he sits)

So, given this profusion of synonymic wonder, why am I seeing an increasing number of stories—novels, screenplays, etc.—that seem only capable of the low end of the vocabulary spectrum?

And I’m not even talking the big words here. I am talking the simple words we use every day and yet which hold little more meaning than their strictest definition. Words like “said”, “walk”, “enter”.

Now, I am not suggesting people necessarily have to write with a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus next to them, something of which I have been accused on occasion. But while exsanguinating your latest cerebral machinations into the fibrous folds of the human record—sorry, I digress—why not make the most of the words that are at your disposal?

For example:

Hearing a cry from the other room, Cecily walked through the door.

Now, Cecily may indeed have “walked” through the door, but that tells me absolutely nothing other than her transitional geographic location.

What was Cecily’s emotional state and how eager was she to discover the source of the cry?

There are so many other words—common words—in the English language that will tell us so much more about Cecily than the fact that she moved.

What about strutted, strode, skipped, crashed, bolted, dashed, raced, blasted, crept, snuck (sneaked?), sauntered, staggered, bounded, tripped, stumbled, inched, crawled, or fell?

Each of these words tells us so much more about Cecily’s relative state of confidence and sense of urgency, and any one of these in place of “walked” prevents the writer from having to later explain her emotions with a second sentence.

In some cases, people will append adverbs to offer greater insights into the emotional state of a character, but again, even this can often be avoided through use of more descriptive verb.

For example:

“You’re crazy,” Philip replied angrily.

Definitely better than just “Philip replied”. But what if Philip did more than reply? What if he screamed, shouted, barked, bellowed, screeched, roared, or cried?

Again, each word offers a slightly different take on Philip’s emotional state and gives us a sense of whether he is angry at his target or terrified by her.

All the kids are doing it

All the kids are doing it

And what holds true for verbs, also holds for adjectives, and particularly as some of the simpler ones can be relative.

The precise height of a tall man varies significantly between someone who is 5 ft 2 versus someone who is 6 ft 1. And again, the adjective has an opportunity to add an emotional or psychological angle to the description.

Rather than “tall”, what about towering, mountainous, tree-like, statuesque, cloud-scraping, looming, or neck-straining?

Or instead of a specific age (unless the precise number is vital), what about world-weary, worn down, spry, vivacious, ancient, wizened, infantile or cadaverous?

Got your back, kid!

Got your back, kid!

Again, I don’t think we need to discard the presocialized anthropoidal biped with the bath water, but particularly in our writing, I think we need to make better use of the wealth the English language affords us and open ourselves to more precise and effective word choices.

Together, we can strut the walk and hallelujah the talk.

Fading Gigolo faded too slowly (a review)

fading-gigolo-poster03

Writer. Director. Lead performer. Possibly the most critical functions in defining how well a movie will do, and often one individual will play more than one role with varying degrees of success. But when a single person plays all three, look out.

For some reason, the movie that results from the triple play rarely seems to work in my experience. And 2013’s Fading Gigolo falls right into that category. (Citizen Kane is one of the few successes I can think of.)

The triple play of Hollywood stalwart John Turturro, Fading Gigolo tells the story of two friends, second-hand bookstore owner Murray (Woody Allen) and florist Fioravante (Turturro), who are both going through some financially tight times. So when Murray’s dermatologist (Sharon Stone) suggests she and her girlfriend (Sofia Vergara) are considering a ménage á trois, Murray immediately thinks about his good looking buddy and suddenly it is American Gigolo for the middle-aged.

Boobs and bums but no climax (Stone, Vergara)

Boobs and bums but no climax (Stone, Vergara)

Oh, and all of this happens in the first two minutes of the movie.

One after another, Murray lines up customers for Fioravante, whose kicked-puppy facial expressions and old-world charm sweep the women off their feet and money out of their wallet. To his credit, Fioravante feels some guilt over taking advantage of the lonely women, but he gets past that with the help of Murray’s nebbish logic.

Life becomes more complicated, however, when he meets the widowed Hassidic Jew Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) and in helping her come out of her shell, finds himself developing feelings for the woman.

Fioravante helps draw Avigal out of herself (Turturro, Paradis)

Fioravante helps draw Avigal out of herself (Turturro, Paradis)

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I thought it would be a beautifully sweet film about human relationships with the comedic backdrop of Woody Allen as a pimp. And to be sure, there are moments of beauty in the film. But only moments.

Unfortunately, there are no moments of conflict in the film. Nothing against which the characters can really push and grow, with the exception of Avigal, and so the movie feels like the emptiest of emotional calories. You feel good while it is in front of you, but the minute a scene is over, you don’t remember a single moment of it.

Woody Allen still has it, although somewhat sparingly, and there were moments in the story reminiscent of his characters in Bananas or Sleeper, but in some respects, he has just become an older caricature of those characters. Sharon Stone has one or two moments where you can see some vulnerability in her character, but those dissolve pretty quickly. And Sofia Vergara is simply boobs with an accent, as with every role I have ever seen her perform.

A little Hassidic slapstick (Allen, Liev Schrieber)

A little Hassidic slapstick (Allen, Liev Schrieber)

As mentioned earlier, Vanessa Paradis’ Avigal is the only character with an arc in this story, the only character who is transformed, and the actress does a pretty good job with a relatively straightforward character. Unfortunately, against a backdrop of nothing characters, I can’t tell if she did a good job or just a less bad job.

But again, all of my irritation is focused on Turturro and his failings. Fioravante is a sweet man but has all the internal conflict of Michael Landon’s angel character Highway to Heaven, i.e., too good to be true.

As a writer, Turturro missed every opportunity to enrich a flat screenplay. In the writing vernacular, there was no inciting incident (the reason to become a prostitute is weak), no turning points, no crisis and no climax except in the sexual sense.

And because the writer Turturro seemed satisfied with the screenplay, the director Turturro had nothing to offer to improve a moribund story comprised of high-fructose corn syrup.

So much talent. Such a beautiful concept. Such potential for humour and pathos.

Such a let down.

Movie should have worked just on this line alone

Movie should have worked just on this line alone

Rosewater too nicely scented (a review)

rose_water_movie_poster_1

I don’t know if it is that I have become numb to the harshness of world events shown on the news or that the movies I watch have inured me to violence, but I must say that I found the movie Rosewater didn’t hit me as hard as I expected.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Rosewater is Jon Stewart’s film adaptation of the book Then They Came For Me by Maziar Bahari, a journalist who was imprisoned and tortured in Iran for 4 months largely for filming the protests that arose after the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. The protests were the result of an election that was almost certainly rigged to re-elect the incumbent and Supreme Leader favourite over more moderate candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Aside from the scenes that set up who Bahari is and how he came to be covering the Iranian election for Newsweek, leaving his pregnant wife behind, the film largely examines the relationship that develops between Bahari and his lead interrogator, a man who treats himself with a cologne of rosewater (thus the movie title) and is dealing with his own issues within the infrastructure of Evin Prison and the actual job itself.

This is where the movie excels. It rather even-handedly portrays a man who has little interest in being a martyr for a cause, as his father and sister had effectively become before him, and balances this against a delusional system that sees itself as protecting Iran’s Islamic State from the evils of outsiders and yet, at an individual level, struggles with the fact that it will inevitably lose. The interrogator is not a monster, but ultimately is a man who wants something better and yet feels incapable of achieving it. Thus, he plays the role he is assigned.

The relationship and struggles between these two men—Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari and Kim Bodnia as the interrogator—is worth the price of admission alone, and in my opinion, Bodnia magnificently plays the more interesting of the two characters. As the movie itself alludes, Bahari was tortured of body while the interrogator was tortured of soul.

The horrified journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal)

The horrified journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal)

The tortured interrogator (Kim Bodnia)

The tortured interrogator (Kim Bodnia)

But that’s where I ultimately found the film wanting.

Although the movie gave us snippets of what a traditional interrogation looked like with harsh beatings and the resulting bruises on other prisoners, with the exception of one scene, we never truly saw how Bahari was tortured aside from solitary confinement (of which I by no means wish to underplay the significance). Thus, I never really felt like I was emotionally drawn into the peril Bahari was legitimately facing—potentially, his death. It remained all too abstract and cerebral.

To look at this issue from the other side, I am truly pleased that Stewart didn’t go down the road of over-dramatizing the violence, as this could easily have become a horror film. I just think there was room in the middle to bring me a little further into the peril.

Another complicating factor for my viewing was that I was watching this film next to my good friend and writing partner Agah Bahari, who is nephew to the man being assaulted onscreen. For his sake, I am grateful the portrayal of violence was not more heavy handed as I cannot imagine the impact such scenes would have.

Rosewater tells a very important story on many levels and despite being based on events from five years ago, remains significant today given the continued efforts at reform within Iran and its outward resistance to Western influences, as well as its horrible record of imprisoned and tortured political dissidents and journalists.

For such a dramatic story, the acting was incredibly even and bordered on inspiring, never becoming melodramatic. It had some amazingly beautiful moments of introspection mediated by the ghosts of the past, and again, the crisis of the interrogator was palpable and poignant. There is even a segment of outright laughter, incredible as that may be to believe given the subject matter.

Stewart did an amazing job with his directorial debut, providing us with a beautifully balanced presentation of completely polar events. I just wish it had stimulated my gut as much as it stimulated my mind.

I look forward to reading the book, simply to see what was altered and to learn more about Bahari’s thoughts and feelings in retrospect.

Then_They_Came_for_Me_(Bahari_book) Journalist and author Maziar Bahari

Journalist and author Maziar Bahari

See also: Agenda Journalism – Wendy Mesley v Jon Stewart

On shaky Groundlings (a review)

94629-swg

Just got back from seeing a preview of The Groundlings latest improv show entitled Slippery When Groundlings and really have only one response: Watch for the names Jill Sachoff-Matson and Alex Staggs. I don’t know when these two artists will hit it big, but I guarantee you they will.

Unlike the standard Second City shows I am used to watching, this one didn’t seem to have much of a theme beyond irritating people…but then, all sketch and improv comedy seems to be reduced to irritating people. And given the reputation of The Groundlings, I was surprised at how many sketches seemed to be one joke spread over 3 or 4 minutes. I expect that from student shows, but I expect more from main stage casts.

The first third of the show was evenly bad with the exception of a piece called “Carl’s Jr.”, where Sachoff-Matson first caught my attention as a dweeby woman who has been run down and then backed over by life.

Jill Sachoff-Matson

Jill Sachoff-Matson

The second third picked up somewhat, starting with “Church Camping Trip”, but a solid premise was completely let down by a lack of where to go with it. It’s a good sketch, it just needs more brainstorming. This was followed by Sachoff-Matson’s “Kindergarten”, which actually caused me to laugh out loud. Sachoff-Matson is mesmerizing both physically and in how her mind works, particularly as she portrayed yet another train-wreck character.

But just when I thought I had seen the best part of the show, Alex Staggs shows up with “Giving Up”, a lounge act in which he gets the audience involved with hilarious results. I would be willing to see where Staggs goes with this every night because he exudes comedic range with this.

Alex Staggs

Alex Staggs

Following the short intermission, Ariane Price gave us her send up of sad-sack informercials with “Emulsion”, another audience participation bit that was incredibly tight because of the character Price portrayed. You felt so sorry for her Eastern European refugee glam-girl wannabe that your heart melted and you wanted to give her a hug.

Ariane Price

Ariane Price

The problem was, the crew then wasted all that good will with “Sub”, a throwaway bit about an aged substitute teacher who has trouble reading fine print on an attendance sheet. That’s it. That’s the bit.

But the show was rescued by the big musical dance finale “Brittany” where again Sachoff-Matson showed what she can do with a woman completely at odds with her world and her own body.

If I have one complaint about Sachoff-Matson’s overall performance, it is that her three best pieces all largely portrayed the same character. But where this would normally kill it for me, she managed to do so in such unique ways that it wasn’t the mortal sin it might have been.

I don’t know what other sketches they have in the hopper, but there is a definite need to replace several from tonight before this show will be solid from front to back. And while good, the other cast members are going to be challenged to shine as brightly as Sachoff-Matson and Staggs.

groundlings

No parity in parody

Parody

Mel Brooks is a god! Carl Reiner is a god! Carol Burnett is a god! Mike Myers is a really funny Toronto boy, who flew pretty close to the sun. (He may yet be a god, but he has to get back on his feet.)

And among their many talents, these people share the amazingly delicate talent of creating parody…a talent I have yet to seriously attempt beyond the scale of sketch comedy.

Delicate talent? Seriously attempt? Isn’t parody just a matter of picking a genre and inserting dirty jokes and/or completely ham-fisting its various tropes in the mathematical assumption:

Absurd + Puns + Dirty = Funny

I increasingly understand why people think this as I watch more of the recent fare of parodic films that appear to have taken this equation to heart.

Last night, for example, I watched Paranormal Whacktivity, a sexed up romp through the found-footage haunted-home segment that includes films such as Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch. This film was horrific, but not in a good way…nor was it particularly funny or sexy. And it wasn’t very good as a parody because it didn’t even stick to its genre, mixing Paranormal Activity with Ghostbusters, which both involve spirits but are hardly cinematic siblings.

It was useful, however, to my understanding of parody.

When I compare Blazing Saddles, Airplane, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery to Disaster Movie, Not Another Teen Movie, and Breaking Wind, I realize that the truly classic parodies have something that the new ones don’t: a strong central story.

Somewhere in the evolution of parody films, the movies became less about story and more about ripping off as many genre clichés as possible, offering no firmer links between these scenes than bad jokes, fart noises or perky breasts.

Blazing Saddles wasn’t about taking a bunch of classic scenes from Westerns and simply linking them. It was more about taking iconic characters from the Westerns and creating a classic, if twisted, story. The sheriff abandoned by the town folk, the washed up gunslinger, the evil cattle rustler, the crooked politician.

Similarly with Shrek; although this film has such a strong central story that I’m not sure whether I should even include it in a list of parodies. Yes, it played up almost every fairy tale gimmick, but the story really didn’t model itself on any given style or pre-existing story.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is another odd case. With a strong through story led by Steve Martin and Rachel Ward (directed by Carl Reiner), it takes parody to a whole new level by incorporating actual scenes from noir films within the scenes with live actors. Thus, Martin’s character may find himself playing across from Barbara Stanwyck or Edward G. Robinson. Now, that is great film writing and editing.

Interestingly, the Wayans’ brothers first entry into this genre—Scary Movie—offers another lesson about parodies: the challenge of dipping into the same well too often.

Although horror/slasher movies are not to my personal tastes, I thought the first one or two films of this series were particularly well done. But as the series continued, picking on more films from within the horror/slasher genre, it started to become a parody of itself. The jokes were no longer fresh. All the best tropes had been used up in the first two movies and so the later films just seemed to be running in place.

Six Star Wars films, one Spaceballs. That works. (NOTE: Spaceballs is one of my least favourite Mel Brooks movies, much to the chagrin of many friends.)

Even the much stronger series of Austin Powers and Police Squad films showed this sense of comedic fatigue.

The original film is a surprise. The first sequel may be enjoyable. Anything after that is milking a dead cow.

I have no doubt that bad parodies will continue to be made…if nothing else, they seem to require little writing and typically have poor production values, and are therefore inexpensive.

My hope, however, is that another Mel Brooks, Keenan Ivory Wayans or Mike Myers comes along to raise us from these creative and comedic doldrums. (NOTE: At present, my money is on Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who have the comedic talent and the Hollywood clout to do it right.)

 

A few personal favourites (hyperlinked to trailer or favourite scene, where available):

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Airplane

The Cheap Detective

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Hot Shots (not so much the sequel)

Rustler’s Rhapsody

Shrek

Scary Movie

Blazing Saddles

Silent Movie (I may be only person who likes this one)

Young Frankenstein (all time favourite)

 

Besotted Voce – A few (hundred) words on character voice

Voices-graphic-2

No matter with whom you speak, to an outside observer, the two of you sound different.

I’m not talking about the pitch or timber of your voices—although those likely are different—but rather those other factors that make your speech distinct: cadence, word choice, sentence structure, etc.

For five years, I worked as an editor and writer on a couple magazines in Washington, DC, and over that time, I found that I could tell which of my workmates wrote which articles without looking at their bylines…even without our names, the pieces had our fingerprints all over them.

How Mark Lesney opened an article was very different from the way Nancy McGuire would.

Mike Felton explained his thesis very differently from David Filmore.

And the two Randys were polar opposites in sentence construction: Mr. Frey being pithy, while Mr. Willis would wax poetically at the drop of a proverbial hat.

Some might argue that these differences reflect variations in style, but I believe the situation is less superficial than style. Instead, it reflects who we are as individuals; our personalities, our experiences, our beliefs, and our feelings both emotional and physical. We speak/write as the people we are at that particular moment. I as me and you as you (this sentence screams for a “Goo-goo goo-jube”).

Ideally, this same variety of voice should occur in the fictional characters we create, whether for screenplays, novels, short stories, sketches or whatever.

With all but the shortest lines of dialogue, a reader or listener should be able to tell which lines correspond to the same speaker even in the absence of any overt identifying marks such as the character’s name.

A simple example: Despite achieving the same goal in response to another person, the following lines say them differently:

“You’re nuts.”

“You are insane.”

“You’re one crazy motherfucker.”

“That, sir, is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.”

* silent stare *

With these five lines, we see differences in:

  • Relative status (e.g., tone)
  • Degrees of personal control (e.g., length, use of contractions)
  • Emotional state (e.g., length, word choice)
  • Possibly educational or social background (e.g., vocabulary, use of jargon)

It can be a challenge for one mind (the writer’s) to create several distinct voices. It is a form of consciously willed multiple personality disorder. Thus, early drafts of a literary work may sound flat because too many of the characters are speaking with the writer’s voice rather than their own.

In theory, this is an easy thing to fix during revisions. Simply take the sentence and knowing what you do about your character—his or her emotional and psychological state, status, social and educational background, life experiences, physical challenges—make the line more accurately reflect how the character would speak.

One complicating factor is that a seemingly simple change in response by one character may elicit a change in the response of the dialogue partner(s). I am likely to respond very differently if presented with any of the five reactions above. And thus, the writer has triggered a change-reaction that reverberates through the scene.

A second complicating factor is that the change in dialogue may also need to be paralleled with a change in physical action. A high-status character is more apt to be purposeful in her actions and responses, whereas a low-status character may be more physically erratic or perhaps flinching in his response. And again, the change-reaction echoes through the scene.

This may sound daunting. It isn’t…but it is a lot of work.

The trick is becoming comfortable with the many voices you need as a writer. We all start with our own voice, the omnipotent godhead that creates the fictional universe; but the trick comes in developing the skills to inhabit other bodies, other souls as you create other characters and then being able to shift back and forth as required without going insane (well, not fully insane, at any rate).

My best advice to any writer who struggles with this is not to take yet another writing class, but rather to take an improv class or several. Despite the terror that this advice may elicit in some (most?) of you, I can think of no better way of understanding—and more importantly, exercising—the differences between different characters.

You’ll quickly find improv is not about funny; rather it is about truth. And once you’re comfortable with experiencing the truth of a character, the rest of this is much less daunting.

 

As seems to be a routine now, today’s post was prompted by the amazing words of Marsha Mason and the Why The Face blog she posted earlier today.

PS The magazines from my Washington days were Modern Drug Discovery and Today’s Chemist At Work (because Today’s Chemist in the Boudoir was already taken).

Lessons from bad movies – The Canyons

canyons poster

I believe that you can learn something from every experience you have, and because I am trying to learn more about screenwriting and films, this means watching bad movies. Thus, I was intrigued when I saw Netflix was showing a film called The Canyons.

Written by Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and starring Lindsay Lohan and porn-star-going-legit James Deen, The Canyons shows the decay of Hollywood through the eyes of a struggling young actor who is still in love with his former girlfriend who is now the adornment of an unbalanced but oh-so-controlled producer on a trust fund. Paranoid from birth, the producer eventually learns of rekindled flames between the two and slowly his self-control ebbs. To tell you more would be to spoil the (complete lack of) surprise in this film.

Although the story was straightforward and highly predictable, I have to admit to being confused by one very big thing: I don’t know who the protagonist is. Through whose eyes is the audience supposed to see this story?

Lindsay Lohan’s Tara (the girlfriend) shares almost equal screen time with James Deen’s Christian (producer) and Nolan Gerard Funk’s Ryan (actor), and the story’s perspective seems to shift on a whim. If I go purely by a scale of which character left me feeling least icky in their behaviour, I would have to say Ryan was the protagonist. But he feels more like an unwitting pawn in this film.

Interestingly, however, if I was forced onto a limb, I would actually say Christian was the protagonist despite his antagonist schtick. As a character, he is reminiscent of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman…possibly his baby brother…although there is no comparison between Christian Bale’s performance and James Deen’s.

Speaking of which, the wooden performances of the actors don’t help my quest for a protagonist. (At her best, Lohan’s glamour-gone-gory Tara was reminiscent of Ann-Margret’s characters in Carnal Knowledge and Tommy at their most strung out.) Without distinct emotive clues and any sense of subtext, I really have no clue what any of the characters hopes to accomplish…there simply aren’t any goals, again with the possible exception of Ryan.

Lohan-Margret

To continue piling on, I would be intrigued to find out what kind of movie director Paul Schrader thought he was making.

On the one hand, with rampant over-use of black & white images of derelict movie houses, it seemed Schrader was going for art-house film, using the photographic decay as a metaphor for the social decay of Hollywood (this is the man who wrote Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo).

At the same time, his rampant insertion of lengthy scenes of graphic sex gave the film a B-movie, soft-core porn feel. Here, Schrader may have been going for a moral decadence metaphor, but if so, I think he failed terribly. Instead, we were left with a humping morass of buttocks and breasts that a 13-year-old boy couldn’t be bothered to whack off to.

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But the one scene that truly grabbed my attention was a lunch conversation between Tara and Christian’s assistant Gina, played by Amanda Brooks. What caught my attention, however, was not the scintillating or captivating dialogue (there wasn’t any) or the repressed subtextual exchanges (they were incapable) but rather the fact that even the camera was unable to pay attention to the scene.

On either close up, the camera angle perpetually slid to the left or the right, and sometimes back again. Not panned to capture a background element. Slid, as if someone had forgotten to tighten the flange that holds the camera to the tripod. The camera literally nodded off.

So then, if this movie was so bad, how could I learn a lesson?

The lesson of The Canyons is that if you can get an actor of sufficient name recognition who is trying to prove something (e.g., I’m not washed up) interested in your script, you can get anything made.

 

Postscript:

As I looked up some background facts on this movie, I learned that The Canyons was the first film to be largely funded via crowd-sourcing. Given the performance of subsequent crowd-sourced films like Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here (poor) and Kristen Bell’s Veronica Mars (modest), I am beginning to wonder if there isn’t some merit in studios having some influence on whether and how a film gets made.