no brains allowed

This is kind of a film review… but not really. I don’t go into the particulars of the narrative. So no spoilers, either!

 

Popcorn, check. X-tra large Coke, check. Contraband M&Ms, check. Logical, critically-thinking brain–whoa. Check that at the door.

A disappointing number of blockbuster films this year have done their best to convince us that they are, in fact, good films. Transformers 4Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, even Guardians of the Galaxy. (And I really wanted to love that last one.) The most I can say for any of these movies is that they aim to be fun–but senseless. Plot holes are meant to be ignored. Narrative dead ends are unimportant. Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

I can enjoy spectacle. Why, just last month I loved the Fourth of July fireworks. But I can’t forgive this new wave of cinema that insists we not pay attention to the nonsensical story. Should I have expected more from Transformers 4 or TMNT? Of course not. They’re the film equivalent of cotton candy. They’re gum: sweet and diverting to chew, but utterly indigestible. I did–and rightly so–expect more from Guardians of the Galaxy, though, which is currently coasting through good reviews and word-of-mouth on a tide of nerd-love, Star Wars-ian nostalgia, Rocket Raccoon worship, bitchin’ music, and a lot of Marvel kool-aid.

None of these scripts would’ve passed muster in film school–except maybe for the obvious market appeal. Setting aside the fact that these are all franchise cogs, I am hard-pressed to think of better examples of lazy storytelling. Since the aforementioned Michael Bay efforts never had a chance of approaching a coherent narrative, I’m going to focus squarely on Guardians.

Let me be clear. I’m a Marvel fan. I’m a DC fan. I’m a comics, sci-fi, fantastical storytelling fan in general. I loved Marvel’s Phase One. I enjoy Arrow, and I even nerdgasmed over the Dark Knight trilogy. The current adoration over Guardians, however, leaves me nearly apoplectic. As a writer and as a would-be filmmaker, I’m appalled by the shortcuts James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman took. Entire character biographies were dropped in spurts of dialogue like oversized nukes. Songs from the 70s provide the emotional atmosphere, obfuscating any genuine experience we have with the story. Ironically, it’s the surprisingly entertaining character of Groot that serves as a metaphor for the entire process. For a character reduced to only using the same three words as his entire vocabulary, he conveys an impossible amount of information and intent each time he says them. In his case, it works–as a humorous conceit. In the case of the film, I find the conceit too big to swallow.

I saw the movie on opening night with a buddy of mine. I took care to notice the other people in the theater with us. Geeks, mostly, a lot like us, but with a few families and small children. Undoubtedly, the mood of an audience affects the moviegoer and vice-versa. Could it have been my bad luck, then, that those around me weren’t terribly moved by anything they saw or heard? The only time I noticed any significant emotional reaction was when a new song started. After we left, the chatter was subdued and mostly about other topics not involving the movie we’d all just seen. I turned to my buddy and noticed a small frown on his face. “I didn’t really like it,” I said. His frown deepened. “Yeah… me either,” he replied. It was like being told Santa was a lie.

I was so looking forward to Guardians. I’m no hater. And there’s a lot I liked about the film. Chris Pratt was great. Bradley Cooper was entertaining. Dave Bautista was surprisingly good, too. (I had mixed feelings about Michael Rooker, who I normally love to death.) I geeked out over the Thanos moments, brief as they were, and even Lee Pace was great to watch, although Ronan the Accuser is one of the weakest, most one-dimensional villains I’ve ever seen in any film. But the story never captured me, not from the first scene.

Obviously, it’s all subjective. One man’s masterpiece is another man’s total waste of time. 🙂

All I know is, if Avengers 2 doesn’t blow me away, I may need to take an extended break from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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nothing new, or, why i love 22 jump street so hard

There’s nothing new under the sun, right? But is this true? Is it a bad thing?

Sometimes it is. We look at films like Dances With Wolves and we generally agree it’s a great film. Then we look at Fern GullyThe Last SamuraiPocahontas, and Avatar and some of us wonder… didn’t we see this already? Well, in a sense, yes we did. The same could be said for other similar narratives as Star WarsHarry PotterEragon, and… I don’t know, maybe Percy Jackson. And the list goes on. John Woo films in the 90’s. Michael Bay films… ever.

Sometimes these efforts turn out terribly and (no pun intended) predictably so. But sometimes they surprise us with something fresh, intelligent, and (paradoxically) refreshingly innovative.

Take 22 Jump Street, for example. (Don’t worry. I’m going to avoid spoilers.) From almost the very beginning, the film unapologetically calls out how it’s going to be mostly–almost exactly–like the first film. (Stick around through the end credits for even more thematic hilarity.) The dialogue even takes us into extremely metaphysical territory with the theme of formulaic storytelling in Hollywood franchise films. Including itself! Somehow, it makes the entire effort hilarious and brilliant. In my opinion, and in everyone else’s opinion in the theater full of people I saw the movie with.

I didn’t think I would like 21 Jump Street. I was probably one of the last people to see it while it was in theaters. I generally don’t like reboots. I especially don’t like TV shows rebooted into feature films. (The A-Team, Charlie’s Angels, Dukes of HazzardMiami Vice, I’m looking at you! Yes, I watched those TV shows and I loved them. No, I’m not even going to mention my favorite childhood cartoons that have been cinematically beaten and left for dead.) I didn’t like Jonah Hill, and I was only only okay with Channing Tatum. All the pieces were in place for me to seriously dislike/hate the movie. I can’t remember what made me try it. But I did. And I loved it. (Except for the Johnny Depp cameo near the end.) Was it a good movie? I don’t really recall. I just laughed my ass off for 99% of it. Channing Tatum and Jonah were a comedic dream team of unlikely proportions.

Fast-forward to yesterday afternoon. I was feeling bored with energy to burn. I was out and about, and I had the option of either going home to watch my DVR or Netflix or stay out and see what was playing at the local cinema. (Naturally, writing was completely out of the question.) There are a lot of movies in the theater now that I don’t really care to spend my money on. Sex TapeDawn of the Planet of the ApesHow to Train Your Dragon 2, The Fault in Our StarsTammy… none of them move me to fork over the cash. Maybe if I was still working at the theater I’d check out Sex Tape or The Fault in Our Stars or even The Purge: Anarchy. The dollar theater near my house had some films I definitely wanted to check out: The Lego MovieMillion Dollar ArmNeighbors. Alas, showtimes for those didn’t work for me, either being in the morning or at night. So I reluctantly picked 22 Jump Street.

Wow. I missed the first few minutes, but as soon as I sat down I was hooked. This post isn’t a film review, so I’m not really not going to talk about plot, theme, or characterization (but those were all good!). My point is that, although it wasn’t breaking new ground, it wasn’t boring or repetitive. It’s not news that, pretty much for the entire 2000s, Hollywood has been on a sequel/prequel/reboot kick. Prepacked content is highly sought after, not only for film but for television. (Don’t get me wrong. I love all the superhero stuff, but it’s reached an all-time saturation high.) Even many films that appear to be original concepts turn out to be based on something else. (Blue is the Warmest Color?) I recently read an article titled “Has Hollywood Lost its Way?”, which provides some charts and numbers on this trend. While it was written back in 2012, the trend has only increased since its publication. And although I don’t know how I feel about its emphasis on producing short films, I generally agree with the rest of the article.

What does this mean for the writer? Well… in film school, they taught us that it means we should prepare ourselves to write for other people for the first several years of our career. Write things we’re not wholly devoted to, in love with, or even particularly like. It was, as maybe I should’ve mentioned on my blog last week, all part of paying your dues in Hollywood. For some of us, it was eye-opening, for others it was a challenge. I land somewhere in the middle of the two. There are stories I want to tell, that I need to tell. But I love the medium (film, TV) enough that I am more than willing to tell other stories, stories that are not necessarily personal to me. I can make those stories personal. I think that’s part of the task of a writer.

That story you’ve been working on? Maybe they did turn it–or something like it–into a major motion picture. Does that mean you need to stop working on it? Absolutely not. It may mean some tweaking is in order, but don’t give it up. I have a friend who is going through exactly this issue, and I think I’ve told her more than once not to give up on her project if she still loves it.

So there’s nothing new in Hollywood. So what? Hollywood is churning out more content than ever. More people are going to movies worldwide than ever. Hollywood is not, as Spielberg predicted, about to implode. (No offense to the maestro himself, but he needs to look to his own career first, I think.)

Literature may or may not be a different creature. I have oft-heard accusations flung at this series or that of being too derivative of something else. A Harry Potter rip-off or Twilight fan-fiction (true or not) or Hunger Games-lite. Maybe in some cases it’s well-deserved. Maybe the story is too similar. And maybe you’re worried what you’re working on is too similar. That’s really no cause for you to give it up. Take the concern to heart, I suppose, but never just throw in the towel. There have been countless comparisons between Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl. I guess I can see the similarities, but I can also see the differences.

If there’s nothing new in Hollywood, then I say you’re looking in the wrong places and you’re looking at it the wrong way. There is an old wisdom saying that there are only seven stories in the world (or 33 or 21 or whatever number you please). Possibly. But there are an infinite number of ways to tell those seven stories. So don’t count it out just because it seems unoriginal. You may be in for a pleasant surprise.

don’t lie to me

disclaimer: I differentiate between writing and storytelling, but for this post I’m pretty much referring to them as the same thing.

 

I recently talked to a friend about creating her own blog. She’s a fellow writer and storyteller, and we spent some time discussing the benefits of a blog. (Check her out at http://vindicatorartists.wordpress.com!) She’s working on some really interesting things, and I hope she shares some of that on her blog. When we talk, I think a lot about how our friends (writers and non-writers) react to us. In my opinion, there are really only two ways the people in our lives respond when we talk to them about our writing efforts. They either encourage us or discourage us. There are a lot of variations on those two, but it comes down to positive and negative reinforcement. I’m not going to talk about discouragement. It’s fairly obvious, and I really have very little to add to it.

So. Encouragement. It sounds great, right? It usually is. Friends urge us to keep on keepin’ on. We can do it. Don’t give up. And various offerings of how rejection/failure/adversity helps build character. I’m not suggesting these things are false or pointless. They’re extremely valuable truths. I get frustrated a lot during the writing process. Writer’s block, plot holes, continuity issues, flat characterization. Lack of time/inspiration/energy. It (almost) always lifts my spirits when I’m reminded there are people behind me, rooting me on.

But there’s a dark side to encouragement. There’s the empty kind, or as I think of it–enabling. It’s when the words of support begin to reflect something that isn’t really true. (Yes, I’m sure many of you may say that truth is relative.) We’ve all experienced this, especially in grade school. Everything we did was “great” and “wonderful,” even when it was utter crap. Because at that time in our lives, we needed the positive reinforcement. But some people never left that phase of encouragement. Bad writers (and yes, there are bad writers out there) are told they’re good writers. Why? Because someone believes they need to be pushed along, even if they have zero talent. I most recently encountered this in a writer’s group I attended a couple years ago. There were a few good writers, a few mediocre ones, and a few undeniably “not so good” ones. But the feedback was all the same. This is great! Really well written. I can’t wait to read more. I wondered if I’d read what they had. Yes, writing is a subjective experience, but there are standards! You can like a really bad piece of writing, just like you can enjoy a really terrible movie (Batman ForeverOblivion, every post-2000 Michael Bay flick.) It’s perfectly okay to enjoy bad writing. The problem is in saying it was great storytelling just because you liked it. That’s a cardinal sin, especially when you’re doing to a friend. I can understand why someone would say it, but be honest.

I’m… terrible at this. I have done this in the past, but 99% of the time I at least lied in an honest way. (I believed it was good writing–at the time.) Okay, well, that’s forgivable. But there’s the 1% when I knew it was terrible, and I said it was good, anyway. Bad me. But I have trouble, real trouble, saying that someone’s writing is bad. Not because I don’t believe it, but because I’m too afraid of the backlash of being too honest. You want my opinion? Then you should be prepared for it. But people usually aren’t. They get angry, defensive, aggressive. All of a sudden it’s my fault that I don’t like it. Well, no, that’s not why it’s bad, I explain. I’ve disliked really good writing (ChinatownThe Empire Strikes Back–though I eventually came around to that, The Dark Knight Rises), so my feelings on a piece have little to do with my opinion on the quality of it. I’m just too much of a turkey to tell you the truth. And that’s when encouragement turns bad.

Why am I mentioning all this? I guess because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the kind of feedback I give. On anything, really, not just writing. Am I being honest? Am I being positive or negative? Do I even care? I tend to take things very personally. I listen intently to feedback, even if it doesn’t seem like I do, even if I decide not to use it. I listen, and I react to it. I’ve taken a lot of discouragement over the years from family and friends. Writing isn’t a real career to them–despite the fact that they enjoy TV and movies. I should do something more practical, something serious. I should get real. I can’t do it. Whatever. Fortunately, I’ve never been told I’m a bad writer, and for a while I took it at face value. Then I began to wonder if people were doing to me what I’d done to them. Were people just stroking my ego? Was I actually a talentless hack? It’s a judgment call, I know, but I still wanted to know if people thought that. It took a long time to come to the conclusion that people were being honest with me about that. Now I’ve been told that some of my stories aren’t good. Hell, I went through that all the time in film school, when my professors would rip my scripts up. But even then, they encouraged me and spoke positively of my writing.

I don’t want to make you question. And I’m really sorry if I’ve done that. I guess I wanted to encourage you to be honest. You can say if something is bad. You can say it’s terrible. Just–don’t leave it at that. Think about why something wasn’t good before saying it wasn’t good. Think about whether it really didn’t work or if you just didn’t like it.

Trust me, we’ll appreciate the difference.