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