Movie memories for 2015

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For a guy trying to make it as a screenwriter, it takes a lot for me to go out and pay to watch a movie. I think it’s, at least in part, because I don’t deal well with disappointment and particularly when I’ve had to pay for it.

Luckily, my friends had some luck dragging me out of the house this year, so below, I offer one-line critiques of the various films I saw in theatres (with hyperlinks to longer reviews I’ve written).

Taken 3: When the hell did I see this, and more importantly, why?

Paddington: Charming and a lot of fun.

Kingsman: A rollicking good time.

It Follows: It bores me

Ex Machina: Oh My Deus, was this written by a robot devoid of emotions?

Age of Ultron: Miss a movie, lose a thread; think I am out of this series.

Mad Max Fury Road: You will believe a man can drive…that is all.

Inside Out: Underwhelmed, but appreciate I am only one.

Self/Less: Flawed but interesting

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Trainwreck: Not one, but Schumer can do better

Ant-Man: Most fun I’d had all year…Rudd is perfect for this

Man from UNCLE: Stylish throwback that I liked more than most people did

The Martian: Surprise hit for me; kudos to all including author of book

Steve Jobs: A metaphor for dysfunction…and sadly, not in a good way

In the Heart of the Sea: More like in the heart of my sleep

Star Wars The Force Awakens: Visually stunning, overly sentimental, disappointingly regurgitated story

Spectre: Good movie with a stupid ending…am I outgrowing Bond?

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Inside definitely Out (a review)

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Earlier today, I had the opportunity to see the latest Pixar movie Inside Out in the company of one of the film’s writers and its story supervisor Josh Cooley (a very nice man). And aside from receiving a lovely lecture about story development at the famed animation house, the connection afforded me an opportunity to appreciate the movie much more than I did on simple viewing.

To briefly bring everyone up to speed, Inside Out tells the story of the emotions that rattle around inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley as she struggles with a move across the country. Although we are introduced to 5 main emotions in Riley Headquarters (get it?)—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear—there is no mistaking that Joy is numero uno in this space.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) sucks the oxygen out of any room she’s in and proves that even the best intentioned of assholes is still an asshole. Her goal in life is to make every moment of Riley’s life a happy one and is not worried about shoving aside the others (ever so happily) to ensure that.

But where Joy has developed a respectful détente with Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader), she firmly but gently has no use for Sadness (Phyllis Smith), practically ostracising the poor creature to the periphery.

With the upset of the move from Minnesota to San Francisco, though, Sadness seems to want to be more involved and in a fracas with Joy, the two get sucked out of headquarters and into the long-term storage hinterlands of Riley’s brain.

At this point, the story basically turns into the Odyssey as the two emotions struggle to return home before Riley falls completely apart at the hands of the others. (To say much more would be to offer spoilers.)

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

The challenge I had was in trying to figure out exactly at whom Pixar was targeting the movie.

Superficially, this is a pure kids movie (ages 6 to 10, maybe), unlike many previous Pixar concoctions, which had elements for both kids and adults. Inside Out doesn’t have the depth of Toy Story or The Incredibles to truly speak to adults, much as the most mature 11-year-old isn’t ready for the adult world.

I’m not saying there aren’t adult-focused jokes interspersed throughout the film, but rather exactly that. They are interspersed, like small granules of sugar designed to feed the parents accompanying the kids to the theatre.

Up talked about loss and aging

Up talked about loss and aging

There is no real adult storyline to this film to touch adults as there was in Up or Wall-E. Instead, the film has sweet, adorable moments of baby bums and first goals that might tug at a parent’s heartstrings but never engage the soul.

But as a friend suggested, it is not strictly a kids flick either because it touches on esoteric aspects of the psyche that kids that age would never be able to comprehend, such as abstract thought and the concept of forgotten memories. The problem is these aspects are more conversations of the mind and not the soul. So even here, the adult is largely passed over unless they have an interest in neurology and psychology.

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

And as a writer, perhaps the biggest sin with Inside Out is there is no sense of what’s at stake.

Sure, Joy is losing her cool as she fights to get back to headquarters. For her, Riley having a down moment is a disaster.

And Sadness isn’t exactly having a picnic as she is routinely sideswiped or ignored by Joy in their efforts to get home. If anything, she increasingly takes the blame for everything onto herself.

But what’s at stake? What if they don’t get back to headquarters?

Does someone die? Is life no longer worth living?

I don’t know because that was never a question on the table. And without stakes, I find it difficult to root for the hero.

And this challenge is made all the more difficult by the fact that the hero (Joy) is also the villain, albeit passively. She is truly her own worst enemy, and so I quickly find myself irritated by her with no great concerns about the outcome.

The six hour conversation and lesson with Cooley helped me see a lot more of what the writers, animators, editors, directors and producers were trying to accomplish. And that did help me understand the movie better. The thing is, few others were going to get this kind of help.

The movie will do well at the box office. Of that I have no doubt. It is a wonderful vivid distraction for young kids.

But it won’t have the staying power of Pixar’s earlier efforts and likely won’t be spoken of again in a few years other than in possibly hushed whispers.

Music to my ego

Like fish

When you first start exploring any art form, you are typically rapt in the joy of expression, but you are also at your most ego-vulnerable. Thus, it is nice every now and again to receive some positive feedback and it is even better when that feedback comes from someone who represents your art’s industry (rather than your mom).

As many of you know, one of my screenplays was a Second Rounder in the 2013 Austin Film Festival screenplay competition. Part of achieving that status is receiving readers’ notes that explain why you moved forward in the competition and why you stopped. A couple of days ago, I received the notes for my feature Tank’s.

Wow.

Below, I offer some of the positive feedback (I received negative too).

An exhilarating, imaginatively conceived, meticulously crafted, professionally polished animation intended fairy tale, a love story set in the cosmos of fish.”

Obviously the work of a talented, experienced writer who knows animated light comedy, how it works, and how to do it.”

The linear narrative is redeemed, however, by the enthralling depiction of fish as people, their humanly drawn nautical universe, and a buoyant, lighthearted mood pervading the narrative.”

Is the writer competitive here with, say, the creative minds at Pixar? Without question, yes.”

“The storytelling is befitting of the silly/adult humor of Dreamworks while still maintaining the light family-friendly air of a Disney cartoon musical.”

Kind of makes me want to keep writing, you know?

JB

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission because I am that good)

 

The Throw – Austin Film Festival (part two)

Terry Rossio, Pirates franchise

In Part One of this post, we talked about Terry Rossio‘s comments at the Austin Film Festival regarding the different kinds of cuts in films: storyline cuts and storyteller cuts. But how do you establish these cuts?

With the throw, which Rossio divides into two categories (a fixation, it seems): the strong throw and the soft throw.

[Added note: Rossio provided a film clip to demonstrate each of these throws but I was only able to record so many in my notebook…hopefully, you’ll be able to figure them out for yourself.]

Strong throws can be very obvious and are used for a variety of reasons. He offered the example of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, where a strong throw is used to set up a flashback. Alternatively, a throw can be used to convey story information so that the audience can discern the link between two scenes. Rossio quotes someone from Pixar who once suggested: “Give the audience 2+2 and they will love you forever.” Throws can also be used to move us through a montage, where each snippet is linked in some way.

Rossio described the discovery throw, where one scene is the answer to the question raised in the previous scene. As an example, he offered the scene in Aladdin where Jafar and Iago complain they will need a new victim to attain the lamp, “a diamond in the rough”, at which point, we move to Aladdin running across a roof with guards yelling “Stop thief!”

And he described the comic throw—also known as the Gilligan cut—where a character repeatedly comments on something (e.g., refusing to wear a dress), only to see the character immediately in that situation (e.g., Gilligan in a dress).

And finally, Rossio suggested strong throws can be used to set up reversals in a story, where we see characters moving a story in one direction, only to see the exact opposite in the next scene.

Soft throws, Rossio suggests, are much more common in film and are by nature more varied and artistic, providing a greater range of effects.

Such throws can provide a promise of things to come for an audience, such as in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy remind his partner what a cautious fellow he is, only to then grab a gun from his desk and head into the fray. Alternatively, such throws can also imply that the next events will be really boring in this scene and that something is more interesting elsewhere. The example he gave was from The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke is leaving Hoth for Dagoba, a long boring journey, and so he tells R2D2 “I’d like to leave it on manual control for a while.” A signal that we’ll kill time here, so let’s go watch Han and Leia run the blockade.

Such throws can also be used to cut off a scene before key information is revealed, creating a sense of mystery and a promise of an answer to come. Rossio warns, however, that this type of throw can feel very manipulative to an audience. The example he gives is again from The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke is in a hurry to leave Dagoba to rescue Han and Leia but Yoda and Obi-Wan’s apparition try to hold him back. As Luke leaves, Obi-wan says “That boy is our last hope.” only to have Yoda correct him, “No, there is another.” Is that Leia in Cloud City?

Rossio describes these throws as connective tissue in a film or screenplay, unifying disparate elements and speaking to the audience in a subliminal, symbolic or subtextual manner.

There is the intentional misdirect throw, to keep the audience from figuring out what’s going on too quickly, and the throw to set up a passage of time, often so characters can have sex, Rossio quips. The train entering the tunnel.

Soft throws can also help set up a change in the state or tone of the movie or to introduce a new character. Rossio gives the example of the movie Key Largo, when the suspicious guests of a Florida fishing resort reveal themselves to be mobsters who take the other guests hostage. A second later, we meet the mysterious boss (Edward G. Robinson) upstairs. The mood of the story has changed, for the worse for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

These cuts can also be used as an internal cut within a single scene to cue the passage of time in a scene that would take too long to play out and would bore the audience. The cigarette that is lit and rested in a clean ashtray, only to be followed seconds later by another cigarette being placed in a full ashtray—ah, the 70s.

As Rossio explains, whether strong or soft, the throw allows the audience to fill in the gaps within a movie. He offered a quote that suggested “Filmmaking is giving the audience the experience of completing the image.” And he added the idea that no scene should be complete except for the last one. There should always be something that prompts the audience to move willingly from this spot to the next one.

He then offered a self-deprecating moment by presenting a quote that suggested a very popular use of throws is to give a movie a sense of consistency or connectivity when in fact the story makes little or no logical sense at all. The quote was referencing a movie that Rossio wrote and acknowledge had a plot that was all over the place.

In the Q&A session afterward, someone asked Rossio if throws were something for which you should aim in the first draft of a screenplay and his answer was basically no, that it was something you added in later drafts. His thinking was that in a first draft, you don’t really know if your scenes are in the right places and if things will need to move around for the sake of the best story.

You only look to incorporate a throw once the story is pretty much set, he says, adding that not every scene abutment requires a throw and you should never simply add one for the sake of adding one, if it will look arbitrary or out of place. The throw, he says, should smooth the transition between scenes, not highlight them by standing out.

 

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission for a sense of continuity.)