Big Love a big challenge at Toronto Fringe

Big Love

When you first walk into the Randolph Centre for the Performing Arts’ Annex Theatre, you are struck by a musty darkness. One deep breath and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d mistakenly walked into a derelict used-book store.

Tonight was a little different though. Although the smell was still there, the stage was not barren. Rather, it was populated by a half-naked DJ, pumping the jams in high heels and a gold lame mask, ready to celebrate Big Love. And that’s when the party started.

Big Love tells the story of 50 reluctant brides, who escape to Italy to avoid marriage to 50 cousins. As they try to talk their way into an estate, the cousins arrive to claim their women. The battle of wills–both within and between the camps–has begun.

As someone who likes a lot of story in my drama, this very much felt like a 20-minute play stretched out over 70 minutes. The other 50 minutes? Long-winded soliloquies about sex, gender and conflicting agendas for the hard-of-thinking.

50 brides for 50 cousins

50 brides for 50 cousins

There was a moment, however, when I thought the playwright (Charles L. Mee) might reach for something more than a steroidal rendition of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. A couple times, the speeches floated to the plight of refugees and women pushed to the edge, abandoned by their families, communities and countries.

For that fleeting moment, I wondered if the mass marriage was a metaphor for a larger message about slavery and subjugation. I walked away disappointed in this regard.

That being said, the actors’ performances were generally quite good. In particular, I tip my fedora to Matt Lacas (Piero) who I felt did a wonderful job as the perpetual salesman and host, stuck between the warring camps and knowing no one could ever be happy.

I also greatly enjoyed Rosie Callaghan (Olympia) who I felt gave a scintillating performance as a young woman struggling with a personal civil war of self-identification versus the need to be loved.

The choreography feels like a work in progress, however, the many numbers feeling slightly or grossly out of step. And although the women seemed to move smoothly enough, I saw little synchrony in the men’s numbers.

And then the unexplained flinging of bodies to the ground completely baffled me. I can only hope it was a metaphor for something, but goodness knows.

What I thought the actors lacked in coordination, however, I felt they more than made up for in vocal skills. Each of the handful of songs felt like a masterpiece in harmonies, most sung acapella. For me, these were the magical moments in the performance and left me wishing the entire play had been set to music.

Had Big Love been even a third shorter, I might have enjoyed it. But I didn’t feel my dissatisfaction was for lack of effort on the parts of the performers. This fell squarely on the shoulders of the playwright and director.

Case in point was the play’s ending, which felt like a complete cop-out.

Big disappointment

Big disappointment

[Adapted from a review that originally appeared in Mooney on Theatre.]

Mad Max: Furiosa’s Movie (a review)

poster

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.

Screenwriting, not choreography

Write-dance

In her weekly blog Why The Face, my friend Marsha Mason (more “Hey, there!” than Goodbye Girl) hits briefly on two topics of particular angst in new screenwriters: camera directions and over-written action sequences.

For me, both of these come down to the same issue: the screenwriter’s need to choreograph his or her story so that the reader “sees” the movie as the screenwriter “sees” it.

Below, with permission, I have reproduced Marsha’s original post and my comments on it.

WTF

Why The Face, March 1, 2014:

There are two things I’ve noticed of late in a number of the scripts I’ve been reading that you really don’t need to do.  They’re small things, but they can wind up pulling the reader out of your script, when what you really want is them sucked into your story.

1) Camera directions: leave them out. When someone falls in love with your script, the director that attaches to it will be the one to figure out what camera angles they’ll use and when.

And…

2) Detailed descriptions of fight sequences/car chases/long physical comedy bits: once someone falls in love with your script, there will be stunt choreographers, fight directors, and your star actor/comedian, people whose specialty it is to design these sequences for the production, based on the needs/wants of the director/producer/star.

A better idea is to describe the feeling and the tone so the reader knows what you’re aiming for, rather than going on for a page or more.  Ie “An epic car chase ensues.   More Seth Rogen behind the wheel than Al Unser Jr., it goes for blocks, barely missing nuns and orphaned children.”

Essence of, then right back into your story.

My comments:

Couldn’t agree more. Too many people feel they have to direct their screenplay to ensure the reader “sees” what they “saw” in writing it.

In a few screenplays I read recently, the writer went to great lengths to choreograph fight scenes, offering the minutiae of balletic movements.

“Raising his knee, he blocks X’s kick, and then twirls to chop X across the back of the neck. Stunned by the blow, X falls forward but recovers quickly enough to tuck and roll back to his feet. Etc. Etc. Etc.”

A fight sequence should have a sense of energy, urgency. These are people struggling. You want that to play out emotionally. You want the reader to break out in a sweat, his or her pulse elevating while reading the scene.

Instead, you slow down the reading with lengthy descriptions. The reader has to wade through line after line of description.

As Marsha describes, you can offer the fight in broader strokes to elicit feeling or tone.

Alternatively, you can present a sequence in short, staccato phrases and sentences. It is like having 20 hockey players firing pucks at you, at will. You become powerless in the onslaught, never precisely sure from where the next shot is coming.

Because the descriptions are short, they take little time for the reader to absorb before he or she moves onto the next one. Each line comes faster and faster, until the reader finds him or herself in the fight.

And then suddenly, it is over and the reader is left drained, but exhilarated.

In action sequences, less is more.

Sleigh

 

(Note: The above sequence is from my latest screenplay The Naughty List, a holiday-themed film for adults. Think The Santa Clause meets Good Morning, Vietnam.)