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)

InterOkay – review of Interstellar

interstellar-movie-banner

I can forgive writer-director-producer Chris Nolan for naming his movie Interstellar as few would be inclined to go see a movie entitled InterOkay and yet, that is what I thought of the movie. It was okay.

Not brilliant. Not amazing. Not a cinema-changing moment. Just okay.

Set in the near future, the Earth has suffered through a variety of crop blights and other unnamed disasters that has humanity at the brink of extinction. As one school principal puts it, the human race has become a caretaker generation, simply trying to manage the status quo in the hopes that something better might show up later.

Failed astronaut Cooper struggles to keep his family whole

Failed astronaut Cooper struggles to keep his family whole

Drop into this failed world the character of failed-astronaut now failing farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who struggles to protect his family—dutiful son, frustrated pre-scientist daughter, sage father-in-law—from the ravages of dust storms and drought. Through a series of odd events, driven by daughter Murphy, Cooper learns of a mission to explore planets in other galaxies in hopes of finding a new home for humanity. They will get there via a wormhole that suddenly appears near Saturn, sent by a mysterious ‘They’.

To get deeper into the plot of the movie here would be to trip all over spoilers and I don’t want to do that. It would also require that I better understand the various plot points, which would likely take a second or third viewing…call me when Interstellar makes it to Netflix.

In an acknowledged homage to every movie that has come before it—Grapes of Wrath meets Top Gun meets 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets The Right Stuff meets Waterworld meets Prometheus meets The Black Hole meets…you get the idea—Nolan and his cowriter brother Jonathan Nolan have woven together a vision of human spirit that is broad in scope, deep in meaning and soul-defining in spirit. Or at least that seemed to be their intention.

The ones left behind search for a way out (Jessica Chastain)

The ones left behind search for a way out (Jessica Chastain)

On paper, the most meaningful speeches seem to come across as cliché, trite or in the most offensive cases, Pablum. And it is only because the Nolan boys have put these speeches into the mouths of some great actors—e.g., John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain—that the movie is not laughed off the screen. Only actors of this quality could breathe life into these leaden lines and hoary speeches.

For me, possibly the worst example of this is scientist-cum-astronaut Amelia Brand’s (Anne Hathaway) attempt to explain love as a higher dimension of existence, as something that transcends space and time and should thus be counted as at least an equal in making logistical decisions. I’m not saying that her argument is wrong (or right) but rather that the material comes across as angst-riddled teen melodrama, made all the worse because it’s coming out of the mouth of an adult.

Ferris Bueller with lipstick? (Anne Hathaway)

Ferris Bueller with lipstick? (Anne Hathaway)

Where I have to give the movie massive credit, however, is in the visual treatments. (Thank you, Director of Photography Hoyte van Hoytema and Production Designer Nathan Crowley.)

This is a visually stunning film where each image is inspired. You feel parched while witnessing the death of the American heartland and your eyes itch with the approaching dust storm. The other worlds are crafted with such realism that you sense the dampness or the cold. And for all its darkness, a black hole seems anything but black.

Without getting into spoilers, I found the story line challenging in some respects because it felt like the Nolans wrote a relatively short screenplay and then every time they asked someone to read it, they were asked “Yeah, but what about…?”

At least three times during the film, I caught myself thinking that this must be the end, only to have Nolan scream “plot twist” and have the movie spiral in another direction to tie up a loose end. Even as the credits rolled, I had the sneaking suspicion they would get half-way done and we’d have more scenes.

And the very last scene before the credits was either “Oh shit, we forgot about…” or was a ham-fisted attempt to set up the sequel (of which I have heard nothing).

bridesmaids_screenplay02

As friend and fellow blogger Danny F. Santos suggested to me recently, he thought the movie might have been better served by converting it to a mini-series and I can definitely see his point. Some aspects of the film seemed rushed, despite its lengthy running time of 169 minutes. (Danny’s blog)

Given the importance of the replacement Earths to the conceit of the story, however, amazingly little time was spent on these worlds. I appreciate that the Nolans may not have wanted to make it longer, but that just lends credibility to Danny’s idea (or they could have done a Peter Jackson-Hobbit impersonation).

To their credit, the Nolan boys have woven an incredible tapestry of plots and subplots, tapping into several deep questions about humanity, the explorer’s heart, interpersonal commitment, abandonment, the purpose of science and complicity in our own demise.

Unfortunately, they used so many strings that they seem to have suddenly found themselves with a lot of loose ends that they either tied off with a bow or tied to another string. For the latter of those methods, I am confident that they wanted me to experience a revelatory “Oooooh!” but too often I was left with a confused “Eh?”

For all my issues with plot points and dialogue, however, I do have to admit that the movie passed my butt test. At no point did I find myself squirming uncomfortably. As the credits rolled, I found myself comfortably rested and satisfyingly entertained.

Unfortunately, for a movie of the scale and scope of Interstellar, “rested” and “entertained” are an indictment, not praise.

Is a Serial Serial Killer a Series Killer?

bones card

Okay. That’s it. I’m raising the red card on an issue I’ve been grumbling about—at least privately—for several years now.

To mix my sports metaphors, I am calling a double dabbling penalty on the television series Bones, which I am just catching up on via Netflix. (Spoilers coming if you’re not up to Season 9.)

bones team

I love procedural programs, and as a certified science geek, I particularly like forensic series such as Bones and CSI. If you want to piss me off really quickly, however, I recommend you start a story line involving a serial killer.

Now that may sound counter-intuitive, but I find most serial killer story lines to be incredibly lazy and highly repetitive. More often than not, the episode structure and format are completely blown apart and rather than being about solving a crime, the episodes devolve into a personal vendetta, where the lead investigator—cop or forensic scientist—goes off the rails and alienates his or her team for a few episodes (or season).

“Don’t you get it? He’s taunting me, testing me, letting me know he’s always one step ahead of me.”

Yes. We know this. So let’s move on and get back to solving crimes (aka puzzles). You know, the reason I watch your ruddy show.

Watching a procedural series turn into a psychological drama is like watching a pretty actor try to take on a meaningful meaty role. It’s typically painful to watch and not what I purchased. You’re reneged on our unspoken agreement.

[NOTE: Dexter is held outside as that always was a series about a serial killer hunting down serial killers.]

Csiepisodebuilttokill2

Up until recently, I’d believed that this was just an annoyance I would have to live through. God, how I struggled with Grissom’s Miniature Killer. But Bones just escalated that annoyance to a new level, which is why I raise the red card and call for an ejection…

(Last chance to avoid spoilers.)

…for Bones has used a serial killer to introduce a second serial killer.

Seriously? A serial serial killer?

It’s not bad enough that I had to watch a season or so of Christopher Pelant torment the Jeffersonian team, only to have him torment Bones herself with news that several unsolved murders are connected and that her negligence has allowed a serial killer (The Ghost Killer) to go unchallenged. And all just 24 hours before Pelant is killed by Booth, leaving everyone but Bones questioning if he was just lying to drive her nuts.

bones-ghost-in-the-killer-01

So now, as a fan of the show, I conceivably get to sit through yet another season of the Jeffersonian team getting torn apart by this second serial killer. Can you tell how excited I am?

Remember when Fonzie jumped the shark? Well, Bones just jumped not one, but two (so far only two) serial killers.

As an open note to television writers and showrunners, when you’ve run out of things to say, stop talking. End the series. Take your bows and move on.

I will keep watching Bones, if only because I’m an idiot and have invested 8.5 years of my life to these people. Also, I know there is a significant death coming in early Season 10, not yet on Netflix Canada.

We’ll have to see who outlasts whom, but I know which of us is on life-support.

tv-bones-autopsy-cast-poster-AVAsp7018

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)

 

Too many voices (spoil the screenplay)

Superfluous

Congratulations! You have just outlined your next screenplay. Or maybe you’ve written “Fade Out”. That’s quite an accomplishment and you should be proud of yourself.

Go ahead. Take a moment to luxuriate. I can wait.

Okay, now I need you to kill one of your characters…or two…or maybe even three.

What? Oh, I know you’re not writing a thriller, but murder will be good for you. And even if you are writing a thriller, you’ll feel better after you pull the plug on certain characters.

Having written a few screenplays and having read 50X more, one common thread I find is that writers (me included) create too many characters, some of which are completely unnecessary.

Now, I’m not talking about the red-shirted cannon-fodder that fills the background…the cab driver, the concierge, waiter, ex-boyfriend, whatever. No, I’m talking about those characters just below the protagonist, antagonist, side kick/mentor/love-interest who help move your characters through a plot point (or several) and then disappear completely.

red shirts

Let me give you an example from a murder thriller collecting dust on my hard drive…The Children of San Miani.

In my story, a journalist provides a young detective with just enough information to introduce her to the lead suspect, a victim’s rights advocate with a major reason to want the first murder victim dead.

In reviewing my first draft, I realized that the moment the journalist connected the detective and the advocate, he completely disappeared from the story. He became superfluous to (story) need, so I simply stopped talking about him.

This begged the question: Did I need the journalist character at all?

With very little thought, I quickly realized I could accomplish all of the journalist’s plot points without the journalist, either by ascribing his actions to other main characters or to the story itself. And poof, he was gone.

The result was a story that was that much tighter. A story that was a bit less confusing and yet still maintained the mystery I needed for the thriller.

Look at your story. Focus on those second-tier characters.

Are there some that don’t make it to the end of your story; that simply trigger or drive a scene or two forward?

Can those triggers or drives be handled by another character in your story, maybe a main character? Or perhaps those actions can extend the life of another secondary character who just plops into your story from the ether?

In some cases, the answer may be no; that in the grand scheme of things, this character is vital if temporary.

Fine. Keep the character. You are the best judge of what is needed for your story. But I’ll bet at least one character can go.

1248-left4dead-no-mercy-wallpaper-wallchan-1280x960

Show no mercy. Cut the strings. Release the Kraken. (Oops, sorry. Wrong movie.)

Don’t smother your screenplay. By eliminating the unnecessary, people will better understand and appreciate your story more quickly.

And when you may only get one read (if that), the easier you make it on your audience, the better.

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, and may be completely superfluous.)

charACTer

Anyone writing stories NEEDS to read the blog post by Chuck Wendig listed below!

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/06/03/just-what-the-humping-heck-is-character-agency-anyway/

Wendig blog

Seriously. Please read this!

His pivotal point: “The story exists because of the character. The character does not exist because of the story.”

Too often, I read screenplays where the protagonist is merely swept along like a bobbing cork on a sea of conflict. They merely REACT to the injustice around them rather than ACT to change it. They are the victim of the story.

To my mind, a much more interesting character is one who takes action when presented with conflict and then deals with the repercussions of that action. In some stories (the best ones to my mind), the protagonist is his or her own worst enemy, bringing conflict upon him or herself.

It is not enough to chase your hero up a tree and then throw rocks at him. He can also catch some of the rocks and throw them back, perhaps hitting innocent bystanders who then turn on him as well.

As a reader and viewer, it is through the actions of your characters that we learn their perspectives, their world views, and thus, their flaws. And if your story has a redemptive angle, it is through the complete failure of this world view and the character’s re-evaluation of it that he or she is reborn.

Just like giving the same premise to 12 writers results in 12 different stories, placing any of 12 different characters into the identical situation with identical opponents will result in 12 different outcomes if the characters are real.

Honour that in your writing and honour your characters.

They are called char-ACT-ers, after all, not char-REACT-ers.

 

Wendig is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChuckWendig

Enemy—The movie with the meta title

Enemy

So, it was $5-Tuesday yesterday at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto and a friend invited me to see a movie called Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Like any weary movie-goer, I immediately jumped online to look at the trailer and thought, “Hmmm, weird, but interesting”.

I was half right. The movie was weird.

At this point, I should probably say “SPOILER ALERT”, but truth be told, I am not sure that if I laid out every event that occurred in this movie, you would know what was happening. I sat through it and I don’t know what happened.

As the trailer indicates, the movie is about a man who is dissatisfied with his life—never explains why, he just is—and is merely going through the motions of living until one day when he realizes that his exact doppelganger lives in town.

Terrified at this revelation—never explains why, he just is—he is nonetheless drawn to his twin and after jumping through a series of over-complicated hoops, he meets the twin. At which point, he second-guesses his decision and it is his twin’s turn to go neurotic—never explains why, he just does.

As you may have guessed from my above repetition of “never explains why”, my greatest issue with this movie is unclear character motivation. Perhaps it says more about me and my life history, but I have no idea why any of these characters acts as extremely as they do.

I am confident that it is part of the artistic conceit of the piece that at numerous moment are you fully sure which Jake Gyllenhaal character you are watching onscreen. The challenge with this is that the emotional rollercoaster of each of the characters is such that from cut-to-cut within the same scene, I am never sure which Jake Gyllenhaal character I am watching. I ended up watching the characters’ clothing rather than the actor’s face to try to follow the story.

And the motivations of the secondary characters are just as muddy for me, although at least here, we have different actors and so don’t have the Gyllenhaal rabbit hole with which to contend. Like a faucet tap, the emotions of these characters change with a flick—questioning in one moment, horny in the next, and angry in the third, and all in the span of 30-45 seconds.

A definite statement of who I am, I spent much of the movie trying to predict the reveal of the story based on the clues or purely on conjecture.

Twins separated at birth? Time travel with a glitch? Parallel universes collide? Psychotic episode of one man leading two lives?

No SPOILER ALERT to say none of these came to fruition, but that still doesn’t mean that any of them may not be true. Hell, all of them might be true. I don’t know.

And any hope of a conclusion is muddied by a massive metaphor that scurries through this movie—I won’t tell you what it is—and yet offers no satisfying explanation.

Enemy is described everywhere as a thriller. I’d be more inclined to call it a puzzler…and even that may be too lofty. Head-scratcher and headache-giver might be more accurate.

As I read up on the movie to write this, I learned the film won Canadian Screen Awards (our Oscar) for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress, and was nominated for Best Film. I find that disturbing.

The film was based on the 2002 novel The Double (O Homem Duplicado), by Portuguese author José Saramango. Part of me wants to find the novel to see if it is any clearer than the movie, but as of this moment, a bigger part of me just wants to walk away from this entire episode in my life.

 

Previous posts about characters in writing and film:

Just Tell The Story – Austin Film Festival

The Dignity of Characters

A Matter of Character

Can You Relate?

I Am Always Right (Motivation)

Dara Marks at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

Unpacking Baggage (Part One)

Unpacking Baggage (Part Two)