Tuesday, January 20, 2009

One Rat Short

A nice little video that shows the versatility and strength of a well-thought out three-act structure.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Tough Stretch

It's been a weird week full of movies. It's been a weird week of bad movies, actually. Went to see The Day the Earth Stood Still with Keanu Reeves last Sunday. That should have been a sign. Did I listen? No.

While the movie isn't as bad as everyone wants it to be, it's got this hollow, scraped-out feeling to it. You want to blame Keanu, but you know he's just the vessel. You're watching a character without a character for two hours. It might have hurt more to have an Anthony Hopkins in there. Keanu has the virtue of not raising our expectations unduly.

Like a lot of blockbusters, the plot structure had a sour milk feel to it, like it was sitting out in a producer's office too long. It's actually quite different from the 1951 version. You sensed that the filmmakers had taken out what didn't work anymore, added the blockbuster yeast, and fed it through the plot machine they have buried in a secure location half a mile below Century City. The recipe should have worked, but there were too many cooks, and no agreement to add a pinch of salt, or to keep out the partially hydrogenized monosodium something or other. You walk out of the theater feeling like you had one too many twinkies, and it's time to join a gym or maybe a Buddhist monastery.

Maybe my week was all about trying to get the taste of that movie out of my mouth. Maybe I was looking for perspective on my own script, or what writing is supposed to mean for me in the new year. Either way, I subjected myself to American Gothic, a terrifyingly bad 1987 horror flick that managed to completely engross me with the sheer camp impossibility of it topping itself -- until it did. The tagline is "The family
that slays together, stays together". 'Nuff said. You watch, and that same horror plot unfolds before you in a strangely devotional kind of orthodoxy. Here's the group of sassy, innocent white kids. That's the bitch, over there you have the hottie, and right on cue, the responsible guy with the good girl with a problem. And so on. What's scary is that this stuff does work on some level. Even when you're farming on poor land, you've got to farm correctly.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107165/ is one of Javier Bardem's first starring roles. He plays a macho guy with a chip on his shoulder and a deep insecurity, assiduously hidden throughout his life. In a way it's a beautiful movie. It's hard for an American audience in 2008 to watch a dream sequence full of castration symbols, but you can appreciate it for what it meant at the time. And it follows that same plot structure -- the same basic beats that drive The Day the Earth Stood Still and American Gothic. Aristotle knew what he was talking about.

Simon Pegg knows what that structure is, and knows how to follow it. Shaun of the Dead is a pretty brilliant script. He knows who he's writing for and he knows how to communicate. He pretty much replicated the same process for a cop movie spoof in Hot Fuzz. No harm in that. Run, Fat Boy Run is another story. The movie's busy serving two Caesars here -- it's a comedy and a terribly, terribly predictable romance. No amount of careful screenwriting is going to fix a problem like that. And when said Fat Boy, played by Simon Pegg, literally hits the wall while running the marathon (with a hangover. With the love of his life and his son watching. With his landlord and best friend and gamblers with bets against him all in tow.)... you almost have to get up and do the dishes.

I don't mean to sound nasty about this. I'm going to stop now. I'm going to devote myself to looking a little harder at my screenwriting and why I'm doing it this year. I'm going to get past what I know and find more of what I don't understand yet. Let's see where I am in a year.