Saturday, July 24, 2010


I was going to post my Doctor Who wrap-up, only to discover that Americans won't see the finale until today. So it'll be up sometime next week, if I can contain the rant so it doesn't exceed all of the bandwidth of the Interwebs. But in the interim, a short post on Inception.

Reviews seem to be somewhat mixed. Some people love it, some resent that it's supposed to be great, some are confused, some don't think it's dreamy enough, etc. And as usual, some completely miss the point. Jim Emerson, for example.

Boy, was I misinformed. I'd gotten the impression that Christopher Nolan's "Inception" was about dream states, but what this movie's facilely conceived CGI environments have to do with dreaming, as human beings experience dreams, I don't know. For what it's worth, Warner Bros. describes it as a "science fiction action film." But the movie's concept of dreams as architectural labyrinths -- stable and persistent science-fiction action-movie sets that can be blown up with explosives or shaken with earthquake-like tremors, but that are firmly resistant to shifting or morphing into anything else -- is mystifying to me.

As is the writer-director's conception of dream-time as something linear, scalable and reliably convertible with a calculator. (There's an app for that: Let's see, 5 minutes of real time equals -- what? -- one hour of dream time, equals a week of deeper dream time, equals ten years in limbo... Have you ever experienced seven consecutive days in the course of a single-setting dream?).

Oh, Jim. Yes, you were misinformed if that's what you thought. If only you'd watched the film! Then you would be correctly informed. Because all of that was explained. Discussions on lucid dreaming, shared dreaming, and the fact that an architect was needed should have clued you in. Then there was all that dialogue that you seem to have skipped over. The whole POINT of extraction and inception was to create a dream-space where the dreamer didn't know he was dreaming. So no, the movie wasn't about escaping into an existing dream and being naked in high school, or flying. It was about architecturally creating NEW spaces and realities. Everybody in the movie reiterates this. It's quite clear. That's what really worked for me -- the idea that the dreamspace was SO real that it was virtually indistinguishable from reality. The movie gave us a reality based on our own physical universe. Even the totems are specifically pointed out as having weight. The characters go so deeply through the different dream levels that it IS hard to keep track of where you are. And that's basically the POINT, especially when they're talking about limbo. See, people dreaming in limbo have NO idea they're in a dream. And at a certain point, is there even any difference? If you build a dream-world that is convincingly real, does that negate reality?

Inception works like the best of Philip K. Dick because it asks his favorite question -- What is reality? One of his definitions is "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

Inception is the closest we've come to Blade Runner because of its very ambiguity. Nolan could have given the audience an unambiguous ending and when you're watching the film, part of you aches for it. But when you don't get it, well... if you're with the movie, then it's just SO affecting. And so Christopher Nolan. As one guy in the audience moaned at the end, "DAMN YOU, NOLAN!" Memento had one of the strongest character points-of-view I have ever seen in a movie. It's quite astonishing, really. And Inception continues to explore point-of-view. But rather than it being the main character's point of view, like it is in Memento, it's the audience's. At the end, Cobb has walked away from the totem which, let us remember, is his wife's totem and not his, indicating that he's in HER reality or dream, perhaps? So Cobb makes the decision that THIS is reality. He doesn't question it, so he hasn't given it that test. He ACHES for it, so he makes the decision that he is in reality. Does that make him wrong? It's the audience that is left wondering. I would love to know if the studio fought him over this. Because if there HAD been an unambiguous ending, I think it would have wrecked the movie. It definitely would have damaged the film's emotional core.

Unlike Jim Emerson, I think the decision to make the movie NOT weird and dreamy, but realistic, gives it a chilling reality. Nolan wants his characters to question what is real, to question perception, and he wants the audience to question it, too. He gives us rules about how one interacts in dreams, and those rules have to do with maintaining a tenuous reality. But even with all of the explanations (yes, all that TALKING, which people don't seem to like), he asks us to accept a world where dream extractors exist. It's not a science fiction/future world, it's a world we're familiar with, but bubbling under the surface is this form of corporate espionage. What's so marvelous about this is that Nolan's already using his audience's point of view, setting them up for the ending. He's using our perception of the world. It's not the weird, noir world of Dark City. It's not even future Los Angeles of Blade Runner. It's essentially 2010, but something is just... different. Nolan doesn't allow us to step back. He invites us in.

So really, this COULD already exist, but we just don't know about it. And when you look at the weird shit that's floating around, why couldn't it already exist? Hell, Sony's been doing work on mind control. What if we're all in dreams, or games, having information stolen, but we don't know it because it seems like real life?

One of Philip K. Dick's favorite discussions was about how much perception alters reality, and how governments and corporations have found ways to create spurious realities that they then market back to us, the consumer. His amazing speech on the subject, which he gave in 1978, is just SO ahead of its time. I'm sure I've posted a link to it before but here it is again.

If you question the creation of realities, all you have to do is look at Fox News. It's always easy to deduce if you're talking to someone who's a Fox News junkie because they use the talking points, but not like they're imparting information. They're imparting BELIEF. Fox News creates a reality, feeds it to its consumers, and makes those consumers think that THEY THEMSELVES did the research that led to this conclusion. It's fascinating, and I think it would scare the shit out of Philip K. Dick.

But it's not just politics that does this. It used to be that we were advertised to, and we knew it, and we accepted that advertising had to exist, and that was fine. But now EVERYTHING is an advertisement. There are no barriers anymore. A lot of it is SO viral and clever that we don't even realize what it is anymore. We can no longer tell the difference between a REAL reality, and one that a corporation wants us to believe.

That's a large part of why Inception worked for me. I can't wait to own it on BluRay!

Comments and nonsense at the end of the Doctor Who post, because I'm dragging my ass down to San Diego tomorrow to make fun of starships.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Only Quirky Crimesolvers May Apply

So it's development season, where all TeeVee writers (and, sadly, feature writers) head off to the sales for the new development season hats and handbags. Remember, don't wear white after the networks close for pitches. Tacky.

But not only is it development season, it's also summer-show season. And they've been premiering like crazy little rabbits. If you're a viewer watching these shows, you might be thinking, "Wow, a lot of jobs for people in H-wood." You'd be partly wrong. A goodly number of these shows were either produced entirely in Canada, or South America. Yes, you read that right -- South America. This is the studios' attempt to save money and stick a knife in the backs of the unions. Have they succeeded? Well... not exactly. These shows aren't blowing the doors off the ratings machine. But then that means the studios lose LESS money. So compared to losing MORE money when they have to pay writers and crews a living wage (actors are still American, except for the Canadian ones), it's a win for the studios and a loss for the rest of us. And for all the jobs lost by American writers, it's a hundred times MORE for crew members. They gave us a lot of misplaced shit during the strike, but that doesn't mean I'm at all happy to see all their jobs sent to Canada or South America. Oh, Canada... you quiet, polite America's hat... you've finally found a way to completely screw our business. See, studio execs still get paid. Producers still get paid, and they get even MORE frenzied about making Canadian content shows. But if the show is Canadian content, that means it's Canadians who make it. And that isn't good for any of us.

That aside, there's a strange similarity amongst all of the summer shows. It's tone. Literally every promo or ad I see could represent five other shows. It's the summer of the seemingly quirky procedural. There aren't any dark shows, of course. It's summer! Everybody wants sunshiny shows with oddballs who share witty bon-mots! But... ALL of them? Really? I'm wondering if this is some kind of a contest, where every town must be represented by a quirky procedural. If so, we're going to have a winner soon.

So when you're pitching shows, you kind of have to keep this stuff in mind. Because if something's doing well right now, odds are the studios and networks are going to want... that. Before all this crazy summer programming, networks had to kind of wing it. Their fall shows wouldn't premiere until fall, so they had to figure out what they were going to want after those shows either succeed or fail. They had to essentially time travel (but don't try to SELL them time travel. Are you insane??). But maybe they aren't going to do that as much this year. Networks are just starting to open. Let's see what happens.

The procedural, witty or not, is still the go-to show for any network. Unfortunately, there are 65,456 of them on right now, and half of those are on USA. Yes, USA, the hit machine. Everything they put on works which is awesome... until it comes time to hear pitches. USA pitches really need to thread the needle. They have to be in the network's wheelhouse, but they also have to be different enough from the shows they have on. It's tricky. And that's even aside from the fact that I don't know one writer who wants to be pitching procedurals anymore. But it's not about what WE want. It's about what THEY want. So the trick is to find something you love within these parameters.

This leads writers to think about the wild settings in which they can put their quirky characters: A former pageant queen does security for a big hotel; A roller derby star is a bounty hunter; An orchestra conductor solves his cop brother's murder in a planned community. It's easy to get caught up in procedural roulette. But they hear five billion of these. And I always like to go back to the basics, back to what works. One of the best character introduction scenes ever was in the X-Files pilot. Which I just happen to have here (hopefully this works):


This is a masterclass in how to introduce your characters, their different ideologies, and your series in one economical scene. And unfortunately, it seems to be kind of rare these days. People are getting lost in the slickness of their shows, the desire to always out-hip themselves and everyone else. Now we've got the annoying, jittery camera work, the pointless push-ins that have NOTHING classical about them, the utter lack of rhythm to the editing. I miss the moments. The simplicity. I think all of this other crap is making television shows look like YouTube videos shot on some dude's Nano. These shows cost money, but they look cheap. And they sound even worse. What happened to scoring TeeVee shows? Now, all I hear is some vague, skittering nonsense that sounds like it was made in Garage Band. The thing about a show like The X-Files is, it holds up. And I'm not sure most of the stuff we're seeing now is going to hold up. The classics work for a reason, gentle readers.

So thank God for X-Files alumni like Vince Gilligan, who brings all of that to Breaking Bad. At least there's ONE class show on the air.

Belated thanks for the comments on my Zenyatta post. I've been watching racing for a long time and I've just never seen anything like her. It's a real treat being able to see her up close. And touch her, every once in awhile!

Stephen Gallagher wrote about The Phantom:
It's not shallow to say you have to get the look right before almost anything else. Comics are a visual medium and the visual impact leads. The look of the early superheroes was largely based on the costuming of acrobats and circus strongmen and made a kind of contemporary sense. The usual move in modernising involves reinterpreting the same look as some kind of logical body armor.

The Phantom's new look was like a cross between the bomb disposal suits in THE HURT LOCKER and those bootleg soft-toy Power Rangers you'd see as sideshow prizes in seaside towns.

Ditto everything you said. And it's nice to find another fan of the Billy Zane movie! I don't think any writer could have cracked this, frankly. The entire miniseries struggled against the update.

From the lovely Phantom-fan Cunningham:
Re: The Phantom - I'm a big opponent of the idea of body armor and costumes that 'augment' the actor's physique with padding (I'm thinking primarily of THE FLASH and BATMAN here). To sum up - it's Super MAN, not Super COSTUME.

I love that he was 2 1/2 times stronger. Well, THAT'S random. The costume was a huge mistake. And you're right; it makes anyone special. So why did they need Kit, then? Nobody believes in The Ghost Who Walks anymore, so the whole "legacy" thing means nothing. I've been working on an idea with a legacy element and because of these missteps, I've been REALLY focusing on why this particular person. I find it curious that the network let this go with such a weak explanation.

And thanks to folks who sent the LA Times article on Knight & Day. Seems like people who are going to see the film are having the good time they're supposed to have, which is great. What's interesting about the article is that the development of Knight & Day sounds an awful lot like the development of a TeeVee show. Mangold was the showrunner and all of these writers functioned as his staff. I understand that there were people who were pissed off that they didn't get screenplay credit. But coming from TeeVee, I kind of like what happened here. Although there are certain megalomaniac showrunners and higher-level folks who like to add their names to scripts, a truly good showrunner won't do that. The showrunner's job is to shepherd the script, not to take money and credit away from another writer. The best showrunners I've worked with don't do this. And if feature writers or directors are doing the work with the expectation that they'll get screenplay credit, well... I'm not sure I agree with that, either. In a writer's room, other writers polish scripts. But if you start down the road of wrestling for credit, then you end up with a competitive, backstabbing writer's room and that doesn't work for anyone.

But in features, this is just how it's done. And the development of Knight & Day doesn't sound that torturous to me, actually. It just sounds like development, and it did yield a super-fun movie that doesn't feel like the usual hodge-podge of styles and ideas. So mission accomplished. I do have to wonder, though, about all the lousy movies that have come out this summer and why there aren't articles on THEIR torturous development or list of writers and drafts. Why was Knight & Day singled out? Maybe people heard that and went, "Wow, SO not seeing that." Or do people just not care if The A-Team had fifty writers on it, because they know it's going to suck anyway?

There's a point at which a movie HAS to have a vision or a guiding hand. And in this case, it was James Mangold. For most of these movies, nobody seems to be minding the store. Maybe the more relevant article is about when development DOESN'T work.

"It's America's fault, frankly." That's a little harsh. Using that line of reasoning then pretty much every product failure is the fault of the consumer not the marketer. New Coke failed? It's America's fault. The Edsel failed? It's America's fault. Could Knight and Day's failure possibly not be the fault of America but maybe the fault of studio executives who were oversold on the star power of Cruise and Diaz? Times change and so do public tastes in film and film stars. That said, I'll have to agree that Knight and Day was a great movie although I grew up watching Cruise and, to a lesser extent, Diaz movies so I was presold.

It's certainly a combination of factors but I DO blame America for not going to see it and going to see shitty movies instead. I also blame the critics. When I overhear people saying, "I hear that movie's no good," well... where are they "hearing" that? They're not saying that Aunt Flo saw it and didn't like it. They're going by their local papers and the Internet reviews. And yes, I DO know MANY people who are swayed by the reviews in their local papers. Even though y'all don't do that, it sure doesn't mean that the country isn't doing it. Because they ARE. Not everybody is on Twitter or Facebook. Knight & Day wasn't made for the usual audience -- twelve-year-old boys. Of course THEY don't read reviews. But the audience that movie WAS made for? They read 'em. It's not the people who just plain didn't go see the film who bug me. It's the folks who went to see some shitty movie instead, and then they complain about how much movies suck.

When A Little Princess came out, there was an article in the LA Times bemoaning the lack of family films. On the very next page was an article about how nobody was going to see A Little Princess. The movie business is certainly at fault in some respects but so are people who want to be entertained but then go see lousy movies, while ignoring the good ones. Look, we go through this all the time, with movies and with TeeVee shows. And it's never going to change. But when a good movie comes out and nobody goes to see it and THEN it gets destroyed in the press and people giggle about what an asshole Tom Cruise is, well... I want to say something.

So I've said something.

I still need to talk about Doctor Who, but that's going to take a very long rant that will no doubt be incredibly unpopular and divisive, so I need some time to prepare.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Now It's Time To Bash Film Critics... Again

A bit of synchronicity for this post. Here's a recent article from the LA Times about how work has dwindled for screenwriters. The WGA made half of a good move in meeting with the studio heads. The other half, though, is that they need to meet with PODs and producers and other production entities, because that's where a lot of this abuse is taking place. If Warner Bros rightly wants writers to deliver material on time (really, people, DELIVER YOUR GODDAM SCRIPTS ON TIME), then they should reciprocate and pay writers on time. Writers rarely get paid on time. It usually takes several months for a paycheck to arrive. So the WGA needs to buckle down on this.

As you can see from the article, producers are taking advantage of the ratio of writers to work to make writers jump through hoops. As far as I'm concerned, it takes FAR more work to come up with an entire pitch than it does to just write the fucking script. But producers and executives remain obtuse about this. It happens in TeeVee, too, where now writers are expected to have entire stories broken just to pitch an idea to a studio. It's like they think that because a document is only two pages long, it doesn't take as much work as a full outline or a script. Only it DOES. You STILL have to break the story, which is the lion's share of the work. And the same goes for features, where executives and producers are given the luxury of hearing full pitches in-between their massages and fantastic lunches, and then picking which one they like best. That's horrible. To put it in perspective, that would be like somebody going for a job interview and being asked to do 75% of the job for free, so the employer can pick and choose who he wants for the job. Would anybody in any other industry stand for this?

This all falls on executives and producers who don't have the balls to make a decision. Because of the corporate culture (I've talked about this before), everybody is scared to death to take a chance because a wrong decision means they will lose their jobs. They know this because they see it happen, and they know that there must always be a scapegoat when you're talking about a corporation. This means that everything becomes increasingly conservative, and it's trickled down to the writers, as the article shows.

But "conservative" in Hollywood apparently means shitty. Studios don't understand that this is a speculative business. Corporations shouldn't be involved in these kinds of businesses because that's not how they operate. So these studios can only make sure-winner kinds of films, which means movies based on board games and comic books and all that. Shit comes out, and mostly America goes to see it. If America doesn't go to see it, then the source material gets blamed. See how that works?

But what if a Hollywood studio makes an ORIGINAL film that (GOD FORBID) isn't based on Chutes & Ladders, and it fails? Who gets blamed? Well, the people who are in it, or the people who made it. Because in a corporate culture, SOMEBODY MUST ALWAYS PAY. I'd like to blame other people. I'd like to blame the film critics and the American public for the perceived failure of Knight and Day. I hear your eyes rolling, gentle readers. But did you SEE the film?

The moronic David Denby calls it "jumpy, unmotivated and senseless." Wall Street Journal flack Joe Morgernstern opines "Knight and Day woke me up to just how awful some summer entertainments have become. It isn't that the film is harmful, except to moviegoers' wallets and movie lovers' morale, but that it is truly phenomenal for the purity of its incoherence." Which sounds like an apt description of that review, you pretentious asstard. Interesting that some of the more "literary" magazines and newspapers just turned up their noses, like they were expecting one of their precious indie films and not the kind of movie Hollywood used to make twenty times a year (looking at you, tiresome Village Voice).

And the always interminable Lisa Schwartzbaum, who apparently just likes to her herself talk (the review should be about the FILM, sweetheart... not about you), completely missed the point of the film. Which says something about a person who can't parse a summer romantic suspense comedy. But then it seems that most of these reviewers are looking for their negative hook, instead of actually reviewing the movie.

I find it interesting that many of the reviews are so dismissive of the fun this movie brings. What's the problem with entertainment actually being entertaining? Why must the word "fun" be used to denigrate a movie that is trying to be exactly that? I mean, mission accomplished, Knight and Day. Fun, clever, inventive, twisty, romantic. And the locations are exactly the kind of locations that this kind of movie needs. It's over-the-top spy suspense. This kind of movie used to be okay to make, but now it isn't? Are the "film critics" so beaten down by the shit the studios churn out that they have already formed their opinions before seeing the movie? Wow, that can't be it, right??

It's not like the automatic bashing of a film is new. I remember when every critic lambasted The Thirteenth Warrior. I guess because it was an easy film to dismiss. But the only reviewer who went, "Hey, hold on a second now" was Owen Glieberman. And he was absolutely right.

You know what else is different about Knight and Day? ONE writing credit. ONE. And it's not one of those "A-list" writers that keeps some executive's job safe. The writer of Knight and Day is Patrick O'Neill. According to IMDB, his only other writing credit was the show Dead Last, which none of you remember. It was basically Scooby Doo with ghosts. It was on the WB, and they didn't support it (shocker). Well, O'Neill brings that off-kilter brand of humor to this script. When people bemoan the lack of orginality in Hollywood and then they blame the writers, they do writers like O'Neill a disservice. I will go see anything O'Neill writes.

Of course, the guy taking the big hit for this is Tom Cruise. When you take a chance and make a movie that isn't based on a videogame or isn't a remake, then you're REALLY taking a chance. And that's weird, right? That making a movie based on a good script is now equated with taking a chance? Apparently, Tom Cruise is a total failure at the box office because this movie didn't do well. Since the studios seem to be mainly focused on promoting their game-show remakes in 3D, movies like Knight and Day just get buried. It's not Tom Cruise's fault that the movie didn't do well. It's America's fault, frankly. It's the fault of these stupid film critics who are so lame they can't even see fun when it's right in front of them. When you see this film, you remember how good Cruise is. He's a MOVIE STAR, and he doesn't need 3D to prove that.

But he's not alone here. Cameron Diaz is great, too, and so is the supporting cast. EVERYBODY in the film knows what movie they're making. It's patently obvious, but not to film critics, I guess. And James Mangold, the director, couldn't have done a better job here. He does two things marvelously -- he lets the actors create moments, especially early on. And he's got a fantastic sense of visual humor. Forget these music video hacks. Mangold should be the go-to guy for action comedy. He hit this nail right on the head. He did the script justice. The whole movie, in fact, exists because of the script. It's not an afterthought, like it is with every other movie you guys will go see because titans clash and all that bullshit. Did you go see Transformers, but you won't go see Knight and Day? Then you're an idiot if you complain about how bad movies are.

But wait! Some critics actually WATCHED the film and liked it. Here's Kenneth Turan's even-handed review, where he actually talks about WHAT HE SAW UP THERE ON THE SCREEN. I know. Crazy, right??

America, you failed completely. You don't deserve to see anything good.