This Wouldn’t Wait

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Sometimes movies give you things you don’t expect.  Sometimes those surprises really suck, like when you go to Superman Returns and getting a movie that’s more boring than a Russian art film.  But sometimes those surprises are really great, like Drive being a really cool character piece rather than a brainless action flick.

I went into The World’s End, the latest Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost offering, expecting to laugh a lot.   But I wasn’t expecting to take a kick to the emotional nutsack.  And it’s that unexpected emotional punch that makes The World’s End the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

The World’s End unspools, for the most part, over a single single night.  Gary King (Pegg) talks his posse from high school into returning to their hometown to complete an epic 12-pub crawl they couldn’t get through back in the old days.  Unfortunately, Gary’s buddies Pete (Eddie Marsan), Steve (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Andy (Nick Frost), as well as Steve’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike), find that the little town they came from has changed since left, and not for the better.  Before they know it, there up to their armpits in odd townfolk with a terrible secret.  The only way out is to finish what they started which leads to all sorts of fist-fights and mayhem, not to mention, a confrontation with what it means to be human.

The casting in this movie is inspired.  Pegg and Frost are always great, and work absolutely awesomely together, but here Pegg plays the fool role and Frost plays the straight man.  And this is Pegg’s movie, but there’s a point where a switch in Frost’s head that gets flipped, and from then on, Frost steals every scene he’s in.  And he kicks ass in the action scenes, like a Tasmanian Devil in horn-rimmed glasses.  Pegg is fantastic, but this is by far the best performance of Frost’s career.

The rest of the cast is up to the task as well.  Martin Freeman is never better than when he gets creepily agreeable about mid-way through the flick.  Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan add plenty of laughs and even a little heart in Considine’s case.  Pierce Brosnan pops up for a pretty funny role.  The extras are appropriately cold and unhuman.  Everybody does what they’re cast to do with aplomb.

The action scenes are hilarious.  Nick Frost is especially fun to watch as he thrashes everything and everyone in sight.  It’s a pretty good laughs to see “people” beaten with their own limbs.  Wright knows how to stage action for maximum humorous effect.  The special effects are gooey, outrageous, and awesome.  The way Wright and his filmmaking crew have visualized the “blanks”, as their called, is pretty damn imaginative.  Wright seems to be one of few directors working right now who’s zigging while all the other guys are zagging.

Another of the joys of The World’s End is the writing.  The dialogue is witty, rapid-fire stuff, full of humorous wordplay.  While the film has plenty of awesome visuals, the writing really puts it over the top.  The story builds to a point where you think you know where it’s gonna go, then goes an entirely different direction.  The climax doesn’t play out in a huge shoot out, which is pretty cool and unexpected.  I loved it.

Thing thing that really made this movie for me is the unexpected emotional punch it gave me.  There was a point where I was watching Gary struggle and I actually teared up.  The World’s End ends up being about how hard it is dealing with change and how hard it is when you can’t grow up.  It also extols the importance of thinking for yourself and having friends.  I could really identify with what Gary goes through, and if a movie can get me to relate to it, it has me in the palm of its hand.

The short of it is that I loved The World’s End.  It made me laugh, kicked my ass, had me cheering, and even had me a bit misty-eyed.  It’s a gooey, hard-drinking good time.  It’s hard for me to say this, but I’d put this movie ahead of Pacific Rim.  You know how much I loved Pacific Rim, right?  That must mean The World’s End is an absolutely spectacular movie.  And it is exactly that.

In the Writing

Since Ben Affleck was announced as the next Batman, I’ve been thinking  a lot about just what goes into making an acting performance excellent.  I’ve decided that that most of it comes in the direction and, especially, the editing.  It would seem that, in the end, very little of an actor’s performance is dependent on the actor anymore.

One factor in an actor’s performance that never seems to come up is the writing.  Writing is where an actor’s performance first starts to take shape, many times long before anyone is cast in the role.  The writing tells the filmmakers and the actors who and what are character should be.  There are many opinions on what makes for good writing in movies.  So here’s my two cents:

In film school, I was taught that character is revealed through action, not words.  I bought into that, because, well, my teachers knew a helluva lot more about writing than me.  Now that I’ve had some time to form my own opinions and figure out what I really think, I realize that speaking IS an action.  Dialogue helps reveal a character’s attitudes and beliefs.  It helps us understand how he/she deals with his/her world.  Often times, it helps establish the likability of a character, especially if said character is funny.  We always like a character better if they make us laugh.

The problem is that dialogue writing has become a lost art form in big-time Hollywood movie making (and, judging by some of the books I’ve read, in novel writing as well).  Filmmakers are kicking good dialogue to the curb in favor of jaw-dropping visual spectacle.  Most movie characters now a days either say what they need to to advance the plot or they spout stupid catchphrases marketers hope they can put on t-shirts.  I guess that’s what happens when the bulk of your audience is teenage boys.

What is good dialogue, you may ask?  Well, in my opinion, it either needs to sound believable and realistic or it needs to be witty and interesting.  If you can mix those qualities, then you’ve probably written a pretty good script.  And one thing that kills a movie for me is to hear characters give long-ass speeches about big universal themes like good and evil or the nature of heroism.  Which might explain why I think Iron Man is so much better written than The Dark Knight.   

Need more?  Here’s a couple of examples.  Let’s take the lake scene from Attack of the Clones and the scene where Holden spills his guts to Alyssa in Chasing Amy.  Both scenes involve a guy confessing his feelings to a girl.  Both involve relationships that aren’t likely to work because of social stratification (Clones) or sexual preference (Amy).  One of these scenes is well written and the other is not.

First up, the lake scene in Clones.  First off, it’s hard to imagine two people speaking in such flat, passionless terms to each other.  Worst yet, who in their right mind would ever compare someone they dig on to sand?!  And we in the audience are supposed to buy that this line works.  That makes us respect Padme a little less.  After all, if she gets turned on by being compared and contrasted to sand, she may not be such a good girl, right?

Now, the Amy scene.  This scene is set in a car, a is two people just talking to each other.  Holden dishes his feelings in a long soliloquy that starts and ends with a reference to a painting Alyssa just purchased.  It may not be realistic to have a speech like that on the tip of your tongue, but you can actually imagine a real guy saying those same types of things to a real girl.  Better, the dialogue sounds just a little better than real life, as if it’s how we wish we sound when we confess our feelings to someone.  Great scene.

Over the years, I’ve picked up a few tips on dialogue.  I’m no expert, but following these guidelines has definitely help my writing.

  • Say things the most interesting way you can.  I.E., if your characters have to cross a river, don’t have them say “We’ve got to cross that river”.  Something like “If we don’t cross that river, our asses are grass” might work a little better.
  • If you’re laughing, crying, or having any sort of emotional reaction to your dialogue, you’re probably on the right track.
  • In some settings, stilted, lame dialogue is okay.  If you’re writing fantasy, for example.  Lord of the Rings probably wouldn’t work if Gandalf told Frodo something like “You gotta roll up on Mt. Doom and toss this bitch-ass ring in the lava”.
  • Try reading your dialogue aloud.  Sometimes a line works better on paper than it will if someone actually says it.
  • Pop culture references are great.  They help the characters seem real and help us relate to them.
  • Above all, have fun with it.  One of the most fun things for me in any sort of format is to tell my characters what to say.  Maybe I have some sort of God complex…

Anyway, those are just a few things I’ve learned over the years.  I definitely don’t know everything about writing, but this stuff has always helped me.  

 

HEEEEEEEEEEEEEER’S BATSY

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Reports are popping up like mushrooms that Ben “Shannon Hamilton” Affleck has been cast to play Bruce Wayne/Batman in Zack Snyder’s forthcoming Superman Vs. Batman flick.  Fans are bemoaning this choice fairly vociferously, probably because they have Affleck’s less-than-awe-inspiring performance as Daredevil fresh in their minds.

A couple points.  First, Affleck has had a decade of experience acting since then, so he’s probably got more tools to work with now.  Also, his performances aren’t always crap.  He was good in Kevin Smith’s movies and more recently, he was excellent in Argo and The Town.  So, it’s not like he’s incapable, and he’s shown he can handle meatier, heavier roles.

Second, Affleck kinda makes sense in that he’s still young enough that he could conceivably do sequels down the road.  Don’t know if that’s what the plan is, but some of the other actors rumored for the role were way too old to believably play Batman in future movies.  Affleck works pretty well from that perspective.

Finally, I’ve had my doubts about Zack Snyder as a director, but he’s proven me wrong.  I thought Man of Steel would be about as much fun as plunging a plugged toilet, but it was surprisingly enjoyable.  Snyder’s a helluva lot better than Mark Steven Johnson, the guy who directed Daredevil.  Johnson messed up Ghost Rider, and if you mess up a movie about a guy with a flaming skull for a head, you’re pretty much worthless.  I believe Snyder can get this to work.

So, don’t despair too much, Batfans.  It could have been worse.  It could have been John Leguizamo.

Underrated: Jackie Brown

 

 

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Quentin Tarantino is one of the most revered and discussed film directors of the past 30 years or so.  His work re-invigorated American movie-making in the 1990’s.  Critics and cinephiles constantly laud his films.  Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill 1 & 2, Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained are all considered masterworks made by a genius filmmaker.  One movie that doesn’t get mentioned much, though, is Jackie Brown.

Jackie Brown is the story of the title character, a poor flight attendant played by Pam Grier.  Jackie finds herself enmeshed in a web of criminal misdeeds involving gun dealer Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), recently-released prisoner Louis (Robert De Niro), and surfer girl Melanie (Bridget Fonda).  She’s being watched and manipulated by g-man Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton).  To find a way out and make a bit of a profit, Jackie hatches a plot to screw over Ordell, with the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster).

As far as Tarantino flicks go, this one is probably the most straight forward, which may be why it’s not as celebrated as Pulp Fiction, ect.  That’s a shame because Jackie Brown is a pretty great caper tale.  It’s got twists and turns.  It’s got great acting.  It’s got humor.  It’s got Tarantino’s manipulation of the timeline.  It’s got terrific dialogue.  It’s as Tarantino-y as any other Tarantino flick.

Consider the credit sequence.  Jackie makes her way through a airport to the gate where she’ll be working.  But, Tarantino makes it feel so much more epic.  He lays Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” over the scene, a perfect tune to comment on Jackie’s struggles to make a living.  Tarantino frames her in close-ups against colorful tile backgrounds.  Jackie is aging and a bit beaten down, but still beautiful and determined.  In that wordless sequence of Jackie walking to work, we learn everything we need to know about her.

One hallmark of Tarantino movies is great acting, and Jackie Brown is full of it.  Jackson is full of his trademark baravdo and had one or two moments where he comes off a bit scary.  Grier and Forster are the emotional heart of the movie, and they are tremendous together.  They are vulnerable, flirtacious, and genuinely look like they enjoy each other’s company.  Forster is particularly good, his weariness replaced be tenderness and anticipation as he gets to know Jackie.  My favorite performance in the movie comes from De Niro.  Here’s one of cinema’s iconic hardcore badasses, and he makes you believe he’s an incompetent boob.  That’s impressive.

We all know Tarantino is a master at writing dialogue, but it bears repeating.  His characters say stuff that pushes the plot forward, like any other movie characters, but they say it in the most interesting way.  That’s something that’s missing in almost all of mainstream blockbuster movie making.  Compare the dialogue between Ordell and Louis during the early scene where they discuss the gun business.  It’s full of references, wit, and energy.  It sounds the way I wish my conversations could sound and it’s light-years more interesting than a similar scene would be in a big Hollywood action flick.  And it’s not just that the dialogue’s good.  The dialogue also helps the actors by giving them something good to work with, something to dig into.  I’ve heard people bitch and moan about the acting in the Star Wars prequels, but I bet the acting would’ve been better had the dialogue been more interesting.

So, Jackie Brown doesn’t get brought up as much as Tarantino’s other movies, but it should be.  In fact, I rather watch Jackie Brown than Reservoir Dogs or Inglorious Basterds.  It may not be as “deep” or whatever as the other movies, but it’s got great actors saying great, interesting things with a great soundtrack playing in the background.  Plus, the “Chicks Who Love Guns” thing is hilarious.

And It Begins. Again.

I started a new writing project this week.  For fun, I’m trying to see if I can write a vampire romance novel.  Of course, it’s gonna be written in a way that I would like to see something like that written.  That means, it’ll be unconventional.  Still, it requires me to write real actually romantic stuff with vampires in it, which has been a struggle.

Anyway, here’s the prologue to the story.  It doesn’t have that much to do with vampires or romance and it still needs some sweetening, but I’ve alweays wanted to write a scene like this, and it was fun.  See if you can pick out the references.

 

PROLOGUE…

Sheriff McClusters was in a foul mood before he even set foot out of his prowler.  He stared straight ahead through his windshield at yet another smoking crater, another shrapnel-strewn incident scene.  He turned off his gumballs, and stepped out of his car.

“Clark”, McClusters called out.  “Clark, where are you?”

Cattle mooed in the distance.  McClusters stepped carefully across the pasture surface, yet his shiny black boots still manage to find a fresh cow pie to step in.  McClusters grumbled, dragging his foot through the grass to clean it off.

“Clark”, McClusters called out again.

A skinny, thin mustached deputy stepped forward from the crowd milling about the crater.  “Yeah, boss”, he answered.

“How many is this”, quizzed McClusters.  

Clark’s eyeballs rolled star-ward and his tongue protruded as he did the figures in his head.  “Thirteen”, Clark answered.  “Six in the last week.”

“What in the Sam Hell is goin’ on here”,. McClusters piped, to no one in particular.

“Sheriff”, a voice rang out from about a hundred yards away.  “Get a look at this.”

McClusters tapped Clark on the chest, bidding him follow.  They strode past a group of cops erecting a flimsy police line around the crater.  The yellow tape flapped helplessly in the soft breeze.  McClusters and Clark arrived at a young officer kneeling over the carcass of a cow, face nearly buried in its underbelly.  “What you got for us, Wilcox”, McClusters erupted.

Wilcox toppled over head first in the gut of the cow and dragged himself to his feet, looking like a mis-puppeted Muppet as he did so.  He wiped down his face and straightened up like a ramrod.  “Sir”, he announced.  “Dead cow.”

“Lots of cows die, Wilcox”, McClusters countered.

“Not like this one”, Wilcox responded.  “The throat’s been slit wide open.”

“You sure bloat didn’t cause that”, replied Clark.  

“Sir”, answered Wilcox, “the wound appears to be surgical.”

“And it would appear that way, wouldn’t it”, a loud booming voice broke through the night air.  

“Christ”, groaned McClusters.  “Knox.”

A hairy-faced gent in a hoodie and horn-rimmed glasses stepped up next to McClusters.  He stopped to look over the poor dead beast.  He stood back up, cleaned his glasses off on his hoodie and drew in a deep breath.  “This animal did not die a natural death”, he announced.

“What?  You think when the blistering sun was cooking Bessie here from the inside out, she thought it was natural”, joked McClusters.

“Bloat would blow out the guts, but I’ve never seen it slit a cow’s throat.”, Knox said.  

“You think little green men did this”, asked Clark.

“Maybe.  If that’s who was in that pod over there”, answered Knox.

Knox led McClusters and Clark over the the incident area.  Embedded dead center in the crater was a spherical metallic object.  A portal was open in the top side of the object, revealing the pearloid interior.  Shards and scraps of the object’s exterior peppered the the pasture grass.  “Wasn’t your father on the scene at Roswell back in ‘47”, asked Knox.

“That was a weather balloon”, McClusters shot back.  

“Not what I heard”, interjected Clark.

“And you watch too damn many movies, Clark”, McClusters grunted.

McClusters kicked at a piece of debris.  “So Knox”, he asked.  “What’s you theory?”

Knox pulled on a pair of rubber gloves.  “My theory is that a career law enforcement officer should know better than to disturb evidence.”

McClusters chuckled.  “Evidence of what?  Aliens?  Crazy pod people?  A bunch of nerds with nothin’ better to do than screw around with a bunch of country folk?”

“I don’t know that I believe any of those explanations”, answered Knox.  “But something is at play here, and I’m not sure it’s of this plane of existence.”

McClusters shot a confused look over to Clark, who could only offer a shrug.  “Thank you, Mr. Knox.  That was very helpful.”

Knox grinned and shuffled off to his car.  He popped the trunk and retrieved a metal briefcase.  He set the case down and pulled on a pair of rubber gloves.  He then produced a long, gun-like apparatus with a hand-like claw.  He strode back over the the officers, still smiling.  “Mind if I get a few samples”, he chirped.

“Knock yourself out, Knox”, McClusters approved.  He and Clark watched Knox practically skip over to the incident area.  They turned and looked over the scene, still crawling with cops combing the area for clues.  “I suppose the G-Men will be here in the morning”, Clark said.

“If not before”, answered McClusters.

“That’s not ideal”, Clark said.

“It surely is not”, sighed McClusters.  “It’s times like these, I wish I would’ve listened to my mother and joined the ballet.”