Darkness Visible

Tuesday, May 20

Moved to new domain

I know you have reason to hate bloggers that lack commitment, like me.

Occasional posts, ugly layout, derivative ideas. Yeah, well, that and so much more has moved to www.johndavidroberts.com.

It's still a work in progress - aren't they all. More nominally interesting stuff about me, my writing (don't ask), my job search, and stuff I think is worth reflecting on.

Wednesday, April 2

21, or Why Sesame Street does Counting Better

Ben Campbell has a problem. He's brilliant but poor. Now that he's been accepted into Harvard Medical School, he can't afford to go. If he wins the scholarship he's competing for, he'd have a full ride. But as a 4.0 student at MIT - sure he has a robotic project on his resume, but really - he's just another very smart grind. Because there's no way he's going to stand out among the 4.0 war heroes, Olympic contenders, and inventors competing for that scholarship. He needs money.

Since seeing the movie, I've been snarking that Ben could have taken the social entrepreneurial approach and launched a charity foundation to help dull students with perfect academic records raise money for the top five most elite schools in the world. But all I'm saying is that it's almost impossible to care about Ben's problem.

You and me, the audience, we're more like Cole Williams (Lawrence Fishburne), especially now as the economy goes south. He's run out of options. He finally says to Ben what we're feeling throughout: You're going to figure it out. You're going to get what you want. In other words, you think you need money for Harvard Med., but what you need is an imagination, kid.

Intended to be the last second-act reversal that shoves Ben's toward desperation, that moment is the dose of reality that punctures the premise of the story. For those of us who came for entertainment, we've just watched the denouement we'd hoped for: guy gets girl, together they get the money and revenge on their mentor/professor/pimp Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey). They run out of the casino. They're free. Mission accomplished. Silver lining - I'm entertained! And then Cole shows up, takes the money, and tells us that suspension of disbelief was just plain stupid.

Now for the props. Congratulations on making this movie even momentarily watchable. For all the character flatness and unreality of it, the task of taking on a story about brilliant, boring, book-monkeys counting cards - COUNTING! - and making it visual story is Herculean. Because you had so little to work with in these black-jack undergrads - not falling into illegal gambling, not being corrupted by the money, not crashing and burning at school, not falling into murderous rivalries - that you succeed in making them seem occasionally sexy and funny in a PG13 movie? Bully. Bully for you.

Some ideas:
  • Ben's arc: It seems that the neglected, or mangled, character arc that Ben launches is the one in which he loses his innocence. His aim is med. school - good ends - but gets money by counting cards - bad means. We don't see and aren't convinced of his struggle as he lets go of the moral sensibilities that have guided him all his life. We see little shock to his system as the new, above-the-rules sensibility takes over.

    Though his two long-time friends and project partners Cam and Miles (charmingly played), stand for his past, loyalty, and getting to good ends by good means, his pain at distancing them and theirs over his defection are scarcely telegraphed. Even throughout the second act, as Ben spirals into a life of high rolling and welcome luxury, his friends do little more than complain and shrug.

    To show Ben paying the price for choosing the Vegas way, suppose Cam and Miles take a more active role as observers to Ben's descent, allowing them to create consequences that matter to him emotionally - loss of friendship, being replaced on the robotics project, befriending the new guy - and challenging him throughout as the Greek chorus that reflects how bad things are getting. Or suppose Ben starts buying things for his mother, who starts sniffing around and interfering with his Vegas trips. At the very least, Mom could dog him by phone, calling him like a message from his conscience, recalling where he came from, and stabbing him with a reminder that his struggle to fund medical school has turned into a bit of a debauch. Or suppose Ben develops a profound affection for Mickey (As Goldman says, service the actors) as a substitute father figure, a relationship that's bound to be betrayed. My suspicion is that this is the shape of the script, or the first version of it, and that it became diluted in development.

  • Gotta Love Jill: Poor Jill. The beautiful blond cipher. There's a lot of fodder in her character to show us the contrast between Ben and her: her father taught her to play black jack, he'd bet and spend and bust. Suppose she were drawn as the amoral character who promotes the harmlessness and excitement of the scheme to Ben. As Ben is attracted to her, and she to him, their relationship would become an analog for Ben's departure from his moral sensibilities. She needn't be very "bad," but a little hard and cool, ruthless when winning is at stake, and a model of grown up behavior that Ben will try out, fall in love with, and of course, have to reject in the end. It would have placed the romance a little more squarely in the center of his motivations and provided a much stronger motivation for losing track of his med. school goal.
One last thing. The folks I saw this with, like me, lost track of the story for about 20 minutes while trying to figure out The Price is Right problem that Mickey puts to Ben in the first act. No, none of us were 4.0/MIT. You can read the rationale for the answer here. Patience! Much math ensues.

Gotta go. I'm playing two hands of black jack as I write. Split 'em, boss!

Screenwriters: Peter Steinfeld, Alan Loeb

[The disclaimer, a.k.a. 'Respek': All movies are hard to make, hard to write, hard to hold to the original vision when collaborating, even with the best intentions. The “movie” is the story we saw, not the story the screenwriter wrote. Every story can be better. I love a good story. I break things to see how they work. Go out and buy a ticket or purchase the DVD. Support a screenwriter. Decide for yourself.]

Friday, March 28

Unaccompanied Minors and reasons to care

Who cares, right? Unaccompanied Minors - that tissue of kooky observation, first broadcast as a segment on Chicago Public Radio's This American Life - certainly didn't sound like a movie idea. I'll admit that the lunatics-take-the-asylum situation is ripe for highjinks. It appears to have been a stepping stone, for most people on this project, rather than a hit. But it's eighteen months old. Why bother?

Unaccompanied Minors is a great example of a small idea, inflated with entertainment, aimed at a large clear audience, and played to the heights of it's budget. That it wasn't a more satisfying story isn't because the writers didn't try.

In fact, if we assume the movie worked rather than that I was in a mood, the ending grabbed me the way long distance phone commercials used to, right by the emotional jugular. While it may say too much about my upbringing, the conversion of the bad guy, the forgiveness for the troublemakers, the romance that buds between the hero and the girl who hated him, they're all the ending of the story we wanted to see. And because they arethe right ending, go figure, I almost forgot the hollow middle. Almost.

Charlie (Dyllan Christopher) and his sister Katherine (Dominique Saldana) get stranded with a hundred or so other Unaccompanied Minors (UMs) in the ring of hell known as the Hoover airport. Katherine worries about being home in time for Santa to find her the way an addict worries when the crack house is empty. She's tracking him with update from NORAD and fears most of all that won't find her.

Charlie knows that his mother in far San Diego can't retrieve them. He fears his father won't inconvenience himself to rescue them. Reluctantly, he accepts his fate; he'll watch over his little sister, who's interfering with his attempts to impress Grace Malone (Gina Montegna). When Charlie hints to Katherine that Santa's not real, she threatens to go to pieces. Soon after, Charlie accepts that his mission is to make sure that Santa visits his sister.

This sentimental goal is perfect for the Charlie, who's neither boy nor man: his choices will let us know which one he is. But moments later, when the vast concrete holding cell breaks out in food-fight mayhem, Katherine disappears in the shuffle and Charlie...searches for her. Right? No, he dashes out the door, where we follow the parallel stories of four escapees who will become the focus of the cat-and-mouse act two action. Charlie's naive, but the filmmakers should know better.

Here's the anatomy:
Catalyst: Charlie and Katherine become trapped in the airport among hundreds of UMs

First act break: After a solitary lark around the mall, Charlie is returned to the holding pen by the director of security (Oliver, the antagonist played by Lewis Black). It's bad. Katherine and the others have been taken to a nearby lodge for Christmas Eve.

Second act: Charlie and kids trick Olver and escape to try to reunite with Katherine, but what really follows is a good looking chain of set pieces that rely heavily on putting kids where they shouldn't be.

End of second act: Charlie and kids confined to solitary. I kid you not.

Third act: Kids escape (by heating duct, of course) and restore the Christmas decorations that Oliver had banned, bringing the true spirit of Christmas back to Hoover airport. The magic of their Christmas generosity transforms all of the main characters.
I didn't care about Charlie. He was far too cool about his mission and his sister's anxious fretting. I didn't care about his father, who finally arrived. I didn't believe that Charlie wanted Katherine to believe in Santa one more year. I hoped that Oliver would be served justice, but he wasn't. Instead, he was outsmarted and finally just gave up.

But I hoped that Charlie and Grace would admit that they liked each other. And they did. But this comedic, happy ending marriage should have been frustrated by his sister Katherine, ideally because he has to save her illusions from being punctured one last time.

Honestly, I hope someone will remake this movie some day, take the story and turn it on it's head, so that it's no longer a story about a bad security chief and trapped kids, but instead, it's a story more like Lost. A story of travelers against travelers, until the kids teach them the true meaning of Christmas.

Monday, February 11

Writer's Guid Awards

Writers shower themselves with awards:

JUNO, Written by Diablo Cody; Fox Searchlight

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Screenplay by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, Based on the Novel by Cormac McCarthy; Miramax

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, Written by Alex Gibney; THINKFilm

THE WIRE, Written by Ed Burns, Chris Collins, Dennis Lehane, David Mills, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, David Simon, William F. Zorzi; HBO

30 ROCK, Written by Brett Baer, Jack Burditt, Kay Cannon, Robert Carlock, Tina Fey, Dave Finkel, Daisy Gardner, Donald Glover, Matt Hubbard, Jon Pollack, John Riggi, Tami Sagher, Ron Weiner; NBC

MAD MEN, Written by Lisa Albert, Bridget Bedard, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton, Tom Palmer, Chris Provenzano, Robin Veith, Matthew Weiner; AMC

EPISODIC DRAMA - any length - one airing time
THE SECOND COMING (THE SOPRANOS), Written by Terence Winter; HBO

EPISODIC COMEDY - any length - one airing time
THE JOB (THE OFFICE), Written by Paul Lieberstein & Michael Schur; NBC

LONG FORM - ORIGINAL - over one hour - one or two parts, one or two airing times
PANDEMIC, Written by Bryce Zabel & Jackie Zabel; Hallmark Channel

LONG FORM - ADAPTATION - over one hour - one or two parts, one or two airing times
THE COMPANY: A STORY OF THE CIA, Teleplay by Ken Nolan, Based on the novel by Robert Littell; TNT

ANIMATION - any length - one airing time
KILL GIL VOLUMES 1&2 (THE SIMPSONS), Written by Jeff Westbrook; FOX

THE COLBERT REPORT, Written by Bryan Adams, Michael Brumm, Stephen Colbert, Rich Dahm, Eric Drysdale, Rob Dubbin, Glenn Eichler, Peter Grosz, Peter Gwinn, Barry Julien, Jay Katsir, Laura Krafft, Frank Lesser, Tom Purcell, Allison Silverman; Comedy Central

DEAD HEAD FRED, Written by Dave Ellis and Adam Cogan, D3 Publisher

Sunday, December 2

Disturbia, or I know what's coming but damn I'm scared

As always, spoilers lie within.

If thrillers are not my favorite genre of movies, Disturbia does a great job of refreshing the conventions and updating the Rear Window motifs.

Efficient exposition, but something's fishy

Screenwriters Christopher B. Landon and Carl Ellsworth show us what motivates the protagonist quickly, neatly, and violently. Kale Brecht (Shia LeBoeuf) and his father are buddies. We get it. When they crash on the way home from a day of fly fishing and the father Daniel dies, and Kale later decks a teacher in school, we get that. It’s a lot of mayhem, but it works. For efficiency and an adrenaline spike, it’s perfect.

But it’s such a big event – traumatic for characters and graphic for viewers – that it weighs in as more than an expository beat. Granted, it shows how the privileged, suburban kid will come to be clapped into house arrest. But if you’re still thinking at the end, you're wondering about Kale and his father. Hold that thought until we get to the third act.

Trapping Kale at home is a great dramatic situation that limits the characters, settings, and action, and all of these put pressure on the protagonist. Also, it observes Aristotle’s unity of place and Hitchock’s unity of paranoia. That is, given enough time and insufficient entertainment, a human being will make up stories about what he sees and develop a free-floating terror of it. Kale becomes convinced that his neighbor Robert Turner (the unfailingly creepy David Morse) is a serial killer. The story Kale and Ronnie and Ashley tell themselves soon convinces them all that Kale’s right.

While there’s little question who the sociopath is, finding out what he’s done, where he did it, and what the teens will do to answer those questions left me with half-moon fingernail cuts in my forearms. The best of the second act reversals comes when Kale’s friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) has been caught, killed, and narrow-cast on video into Kale’s bedroom. Or perhaps his dead body is in Kale's closet. Or not.

Bottom of the seventh and, Ohhh, where did that knuckleball come from?

But dramatically, two stories develop in parallel rather than entangling in one another to focus the storytelling and the audience’s emotional reaction. Kale pulls out all the geeky digital stops of 'kids these days' to capture evidence of violence, murder - anything. When his limits bar him from getting into Turner’s house, he sends Ronnie. At the same time, he’s befriended and be-flirting with Ashley Carlson (Sarah Roemer). She joins their cabal, spys on Turner, and increasingly commits herself to the conclusion that he’s a killer. Ronnie serves as a sounding board for Kale, allowing us to know what he’s thinking. But he's rarely more than an extension of Kale, for purposes of dialog and in the phystical world behind the limits of Kale’s electronic surveillance anklet.

Maybe it seemed too close to the Rear Window plot to put Ashley in the role of Kale’s confidante, reluctant co-conspirator, daring partner, threatened amateur investigator, and love interest. Though she gets involved, Ashley is well out of harm’s way in the concluding sequences. Rather than focusing on the girl Kale cares about most, at the denouement the focus shifts to his mother Julie Brecht (Carrie-Ann Moss), who Turner kidnaps and imprisons in a desparate moment.

Sure, it makes sense that Julie would try to convince Turner not to press breaking-and-entering charges against her son. And what son wouldn’t rescue his mother, no matter the past antagonism between them? (Are you reading this, Mom?) But why, with so much risky turf to explore, such a pretty girl do it, and such strict limitations on Kale - why didn’t we get the goose-pimple inducing pleasure of watching Ashley fall into murderous peril? Then we would have had the satisfaction of seeing Kale rescue her, confirm his suspicions about Turner, and serve up primal justice?

Everybody's got a hungry heart. Except this guy.

That nagging first act question about Kale’s father didn’t quite bite the story in the ass, but the more I thought, the more I heard it barking. Inwardly, Kale suffers an emotional blow that leaves his bruised or scarred, maybe for life. What part of his story is informed by his father’s death and that wound? Is he seeking forgiveness, redemption, a father figure, a resolution of the rage he feels at the universe? Any of these would have been good if they were glimpsed through the thriller plot. Because the emotional goal of Kale’s story is absent, the violent dispatching of his father seems like a heartless trick of screenwriting, “Well, if he loves his father, kill him off. That’ll get him going.” I’m not complaining about the tricks. I just believe in finishing what you start.

I know, I know. You're going to say, "Dude, it's a movie. Chill!" That's it exactly. It's a movie.

[The disclaimer, a.k.a. 'Respek': All movies are hard to make, hard to write, hard to hold to the original vision when collaborating, even with the best intentions. The “movie” is the story we saw, not the story the screenwriter wrote. Every story can be better. I love a good story. I break things to see how they work. Go out and buy a ticket or purchase the DVD. Support a screenwriter. Decide for yourself.]

Friday, November 30

Enchanted. Yes I was.

If you ever believed in believing, Enchanted is a story so full of hope that you'll be glad you lost your magical thinking so that you can remember it fondly throughout this movie.

Great set-up and exposition

Plunging headlong from familiar fairy tales (principally Cinderella by way of The Princess Bride) Giselle (the perfect Amy Adams) meets her destined true love and Prince (James Marsden) and they pledge to marry tomorrow. But his mother is the evil Queen Narissa who'll lose her crown when her son, Prince Edward, marries.

Turning Grimm, the Queen lures Giselle to a deep well and pushes her to a fate worse than death – launched from a three-dimensional manhole in the 21st century Times Square. If that’s not shock enough, wait ‘til she sees the price of hotels! Giselle wanders the neighborhood looking for someone who’ll help her until she sees a billboard for a theme restaurant, The Prince’s Castle. She cannot understand why no one will answer the 2-D door. Enter our reluctant protagonist, Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey).

The set-up and exposition in which the audience learns who loves and hates whom among the cartoon characters breathlessly unfolds thanks to cultural memory. We all know Cinderella and a couple other rags to riches romances. As Rossio and Elliot sagely say, beware the story that no one knows. First the screenwriter has to educate the audience, then she has to tell the story, and together they take a lot of time.

The second act that won’t make you think about refilling that giant drink

The second act – so often, sigh – is the wasteland where story focus and entertainment die a slow unwatchable death. Not Enchanted. Though we have no doubt where the story is going, the obstacles facing Robert and Giselle, force their stories to converge. Robert tries to get rid of Giselle; she can’t resist teaching him how to win his girlfriend. But in a spectacularly winning scene, Giselle confronts Robert. He’s negative. Always. They shout “NO,” at each other until she realizes she’s angry, which of course means she’s in love. Thank you, Amy Adams, for single-handedly making that scene work. And that’s the midpoint, because what was two parallel stories about getting back to the status quo turns into a love story.

Drama swallowed by evil dragon in the third act

Things go off the rails when the wicked queen reappears in the third act. Seems like the real evil in the real world would be the burden of familiarity. But, no. The fairy tale evil for Robert and Giselle threatens in the form of the transformed Queen, now a giant lizard, namely Susan Sarandon. She returns to steal Robert from Giselle. Why? Evil, I suppose, but certainly not for reasons made clear in this CGI sequence.

Honestly, at this point, so little made sense about the final conflict that I completely lost interest. Some stuff happened: on a rainy rooftop, Giselle rescues Robert and slays the dragon, both nearly fall to their deaths, over which the Queen natters about the story. Seriously, wherefore this meta-comment rather than dialog directed at her victim. Why not dramatize? Okay, screenwriting is hard. I sympathize with the choices that led to these conclusions. Turning Giselle into the dragon-slayer is a nice touch. And they must live happily every after. Blame the director or CGI or the weak performance by Sarandon (was it just me, or was the terrific actress phoning it in?), but somebody let us all down.

Innocence is good

Finally, I want to praise the movie for it’s unapologetically wishful tone of possibility. We all have to lose our innocence, but this movie should make you nostalgic for it. Save those rotten tomatoes labeled “arrested development” aimed at me. I’ve praised Knocked Up and relished Team America: World Police. This thing is full of clever storytelling.

By setting the rules of the story in cartoon fairy tales, the demands of believability are reframed as “everything believable in childhood tales can happen here.” So when the incredible, but archetypal, characters are exiled to our world, we feel affection for Giselle while we question whether she can steer by her fairy tale compass. Buoyed up on this a good-hearted hoot, it’s worth a second thought at this time of year. It worked for Giselle. Maybe we can all try a little harder to believe in love, regardless the opposition.

Wednesday, November 21

Dan in Real Life

After being misled by The New York Times review, I recommended "Dan..." to my in laws. "Awesome," they said. When folks get an emotional charge out of a movie, I see it. What do they know? Anyhow? Usually, more than me.

A.O.Scott did such a good job pointing out the movie's charming and unexpected beats:
The characters are funny not just to us but also to one another. Like most people, they use humor as a means of communication and self-defense, which gives the movie a genial, unhurried, lived-in feeling.
...that I missed his complaints:

"The story and the characters do wear a little thin in places. ...exactly who Marie is, apart from the embodiment of wonderfulness, is never quite clear. Nor is it entirely plausible that she would fall for both the dim, genial Mitch and the cerebral, uptight Dan.

"Dan, like many characters played by Mr. Carell, has the curious quality of seeming to be more complicated than he really is."
Doesn't matter what A.O. Scott and I think. The movie's going to do box office.

Dan starts out so well. A widower and advice columnist, Dan is less confident raising his three daughters than he is answering other parents' questions. He loves his girls and they test him. So far, pretty real. Dan's goal? To protect his daughters from the worst blows of growing up. We love him for that. He and the girls head to the family lake for the annual reunion and ritual of closing it for the season.

Mopey and just bad company, his mother throws him out the next morning for a little alone time. He meets Marie (Juliet Binoche) in a bookstore and all at once he feels something like love. With it, the weight of being a widower and besieged father lifts. But when he gets to back to the family cabin, he meets Marie again, his brother Mitch's girlfriend. The story quickly turns into Dan's reluctant but sure pursuit of Marie and the problem of what to do about their infatuation once he knows she returns his feelings. His family looks primed to become the barrel of monkeys that will get in his way, but they are sweet, gentle, and sometimes knowing. Mitch is dense and forgiving, mostly.

Dan's three daughters, the other women in his life, would seem to be the source of his inner conflict over whether to give up his responsibilities and seize the chance for love again.. But he's so busy keeping the secret of his infatuation with Marie from his brother and the family, that the girls are reduced to (pretty funny) noise in three registers. If Dan really was dedicated to his daughters, the ease with which he lets go of that responsibility makes him a shallower character. And he stays that way to the end.

The lesson: The protagonist's goal in the first three scenes must be his goal throughout, unless it's pried from his hands with difficulty. Dan's second act arc is admitting that he loves Marie despite the secrets and inopportune timing. But the arc we wanted was to watch him struggle to choose between his love for his daughters and romantic love with Marie.