Sunday, May 6, 2012

Telling A Movie

There's only thing I hate more in movies than having childhood-crushing concepts to begin with.

Bad writing.

More specifically, writing down to the level of the perceived demographic.

Exhibit A.

So I saw this Twilight movie thing this weekend on DVD. Fans of the "franchise" always vehemently correct me and say, "IT'S BREAKING DAWN, NOT TWILIGHT!" No hun, it's the twilight of your virginity, and the rest of your life is going to be a very dark and lonely place. The whole story is fail, and it embarrasses all girls who are desperately trying to gain a modicum of respect in this world. It's awful that they're already constantly represented as an indecisive, withdrawn from reality, weak and whiny, gender who only chases ego-driven muscular monsters. I doubt most girls even want a bloated, muscle-bound guy; mainly because the drive to look that huge stems from insecurity and goes on to conjure asinine personalities (not always, but it's proven at every high school, college and beyond). In the same vein, most girls don't want sullen, pale, hair-obsessed introverts who smirk from the dark corners of a room and wear tighter pants than the girls themselves. To quote my friend Tina: "When I'm with a guy, I don't want to feel like I could break him." The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.

Anyway. After I eye-rolled and groaned for two hours (not in a good way), I discovered a very sad pattern that's been snowballing more and more as studios try to bank and bet the house on that one big summer blockbuster once a year. The writing is getting worse and worse. I'm sure the trend started before I was born in 1982.

"Star Wars: A New Hope" in 1977 is widely considered the first "blockbuster" in movie history. It earned over $775,398,007 worldwide back then, making it the first film to reach the $300 million, $400 million, $500 million, $600 million and $700 million mark. Adjusted for inflation, that's the second highest grossing movie of all time in the United States, behind "Gone with the Wind" in 1939, (and that film was in theaters for almost a decade). Movie-going was different back then with not a lot of competition. So ever since Star Wars fired proton torpedoes into our eyes and obliterated our expectations, studios sat up and took notice just how much money they could make when special effects take a front seat to the entire experience. You can love the Star Wars films as much as you want, but when you mention the name "Star Wars" to anyone around the world, they think about lightsabers, X-wing fighters, Chewbacca's growl, and Darth Vaders helmet and breathing sounds; not the rich plot and weaving saga. So the moral of the story became: Spend a lot of money, get even more back. It was the beginning of the Studio-to-film maker-to-ticket price-to-viewer inflation. The rules changed. You didn't even need a major actor in the movie anymore, as long as the cool special effects held up. From then on, the movie itself made the actor's career, not the other way around. While thespians everywhere shook their heads, stunt doubles filled their pockets with cash.

And then Steven Spielberg flipped the movie industry on its ear again and went full-CG for the action scenes with Jurassic Park, and it kicked the walls down from a film maker's previous restrictions. No longer were you handcuffed to wires and strings and camera tricks and shadows and animatronic costs and glitches and puppeteering. With CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery), finally, anything was possible. Spielberg and Jurassic park reinvented the wheel, sliced bread and fire all at the same time. Try this: Watch a movie prior to Jurassic Park. When you're done, go watch a film made after Jurassic Park. The special effect jump is astronomical. Once again, the studios found a new reason to push special effects to the forefront of the medium while everything took a step - and sometimes two steps - back.

► Dumbing Down The Protagonists

Remember that movie, Quarantine? It was about a reporter that followed a fire station crew on a call to an apartment complex. When a zombie-like epidemic is discovered, they try to escape the building, only to find out the government has quarantined it; barricading the windows, bolting up the doors, and covering the structure with plastic, leaving our survivors inside to fight for themselves. It was a pretty cool, neat little premise. Not wholly original, but at least it was one where you thought, "I guess that could happen under extreme circumstances, sure." So you buy into it and settle in.

Unfortunately, as soon as the zombie shit hits the fan, the whole story loses steam very quickly. And here's why: The bad guys didn't get smarter; The good guys just get dumber. This annoys me to no end, and it happens in just about every horror movie. It might have worked in the 60's and 70's, but nowadays, audiences are simply too refined and smart and clairvoyant to have their thrill nerve triggered by a character who refuses to turn on the lights when they enter a room. And in "Quarantine", our heroes do stupid stuff over and over and over again. For instance, when it becomes clear that people with certain symptoms will end up as raging, raving lunatic, undead, people-eating machines, shoot them. Kill them. Chop off their heads. I don't care if it's only a little girl. I don't care if it's a friend of yours. I don't even care if it's me. Kill them. No excuses. Are you going to find the cure within the next 5 minutes? No, you're not. Kill them. Shotgun to the face. Kill them all, find a room, stock up and wait it out in peace. What's that? The guy who's been complaining the entire time about how the various plans we come up with won't work is showing signs of the virus? Shovel to the throat. Don't care. Very simple. This isn't difficult. You bring with you the people who are fine and kill those who aren't.

The worst part of the movie is when they actually catch a zombie-thing and still don't kill it. Instead, what do they do? Get this: They handcuff it to the stairs. And not just any part of the stairs. The bottom of the stairs in the center of the apartment complex where everyone has to run across and up and down. That's like chaining a demon to the stripper pole in the center of your room. To make it even worse, every time they ran past it and screamed when they were lunged at and attacked, they still never killed it. I could go on and on, but you get my point.

The same mind-numbing things happened in the recent movie, "Splice". The scientist couple were given hundreds of reasons and proof as to why they should kill the damn thing. But they never did, even though at every new stage of its life it caused irreparable damage to one or both of them either physically or mentally. Instead, they kept it around long enough to (spoiler alert) have sex with it, torture it, kill it, watch it turn into a male version, kill one of them and rape and impregnate the other... before eventually killing it anyway. And then having its baby on the off-chance audiences actually want a sequel (hint: no, please).

Hey writers, here's a protip from me to you: If, at any point during your writing, it will make the audience groan and ask, "Why are you doing that, you idiot?", then you're doing something wrong. Scary movies and scenes are always much more effective when even the viewer would do what the character on screen would do to try and get out of the predicament. Because then we're thinking, "Wow, even I'd be screwed. How can you beat this guy??" That's scary. But if the characters decide to run into the woods at night and walk into an abandoned cabin with blood on the walls, all we're thinking is, "Well, the black guy and the tough guy are toast, the hot girl gets brutally murdered second-to-last, and party-minded guy who goes exploring solo will die first. And let me guess, the batteries in the flashlight are dying and there's no cell phone reception. If only there was a clue to let them know they should get out of there. Oh hey, someone's heard of a old myth about this place..."

I just wish writers write UP the intelligence level of the villains, and not take the easy way out and simply dumb down our heroes for the sake of plot progression.

► Keeping The Characters "Static" ◄

Another thing that pisses me off in movies is when characters never really change. The ones where they never learned the lesson or understood the deeper meaning of their adventure or even took a moment to consider the ramifications of their actions. Perhaps the worst offender of this in recent years was the movie "District 9."

Now, I liked this movie. Matter of fact, I have it an 8.3 on my ratings board, putting it above "Avatar" (7.1), "Battle For LA" (8.1) and "Eclipse" (Beiber.Lohan). But my main issue with "District 9" is that the main character, Wikus van der Merwe, is essentially an unbearable prick throughout 99.9% of the movie. Even after becoming part Prawn and being put through the torture, ridicule and experiments that Prawns had to undergo themselves, he still had no sympathy for them. And even at the near-turning point of helping the parent and child Prawn escape, he still sabotages the plan for his own purpose.

Wikus: Half Prawn, Half insufferable douche.

It's at this point when he gets caught by the pirate-Waterworld-gang-whatever and they want to chop off his arm to be able to use the advanced weapons. The problem is, you simply don't care about Wikus enough to give a damn if he dies anymore. In fact, I overheard the people sitting behind my friends and I saying out loud, "Just kill him already." And it was true. It was a popular sentiment, especially since at this point in the movie, they writers introduced you to the truly sympathetic characters: The Prawn family. That's how you wanted to see survive and escape. But we kept following around this selfish, arrogant, stubborn and narrow-minded jerk, and he kept ruining the story for the supporting characters, the Prawn. It was just hard to give a damn if he died or not. He never changed and was a "static" character for virtually the entire film, as good as it was. To be honest with you, I forget if he ends up alive. And I don't care.

The point is, people enjoy it when the characters they follow grow, learn and change, and become what's known as "round" characters. Otherwise the last two hours were a complete waste. Villains are often given a pass on this because the one constant a story needs is conflict, and an antagonist provides this. If the writer wants to be bold he or she can give us a backstory as to how the villain became a bad guy, but it's not always needed. Or, if they're feeling really brave, they can "round" out the bad guy, have him join the good guys, and reveal the "true" villain behind it all (i.e. Magus in Chrono Trigger). That's always fun. But at the very least, the heroes need to grow and change at least a little. Give us a moral. Have some friends die. Make us care about what happens. Think of your favorite movies: Braveheart. Avatar. Star Trek. Star Wars. Dune. The Matrix. They Live. Whatever. In all of those movies, the main character(s) changes and evolves into a bigger role.

► Not Letting The Movie Breathe

Lastly, give the movie time to be an experience. Look, at this point, the teens and young adults demographic is the most pop-culture and tech-savvy groups on the planet. We can spot lame CG effects miles away, we know how Photoshop works, and we've seen all the cliches before. You don't have to bombard us with special effects and explosions just to impress us. Remember Transformers 2? It was basically lame parent jokes, explosions, something about millions of tons of metal humping the camera, more explosions, Megan Fox acting awful in slow motion, another explosion, and Shia LaBeouf yelling a single word. A lot.

And then all of that explodes into one, big, massive, explosive explosiontastic explosionala of an explosion into a hundred explosionillion pieces. Also, massive Decepticon Testicles. And I won't even go into the embarrassments knows as Skids and Mudflaps. The movie was never really a movie. It wasn't bad, per se (I gave it a 5.8 - still above average), but it was hardly great by any means. People will point to the fact that the story was awful or that it had no plot at all, but I retain that it was the pacing - or lack thereof - that killed it. Because if you're going at hyperspeed the entire time and your main focus is explosions and special effects, then you're not giving time for the story to breathe and grow and have it's moments with the audience.

Telling a story is much more than just regurgitating information. You have to use bait to get them interested, hooks to catch their attentions, mysteries to keep them involved, and exploiting moments of drama and surprises to keep them thinking and guessing. And you have to have an ending that make emotional or logical sense as the reward so they come back for the next story (or sequel). You can't just say, "Okay, audience. Here's the two main characters. Now watch this: EXPLOSIONS! Why, you ask? Just because! BOOM!! Look, they're running! MORE SPECIAL EFFECTS!!! Okay, they're crying now, so you should be, too. Now BOOOOM!!! AGAIN!!!! HAHAHA!! Oh, this is so freaking awesome." It doesn't work that way. Say what you will about the show "Lost", but it was so popular for so long and will go down as one of the greatest shows in television history because of how it told it's story, mysteries and all. Even the aforementioned "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was more reliant on story and pacing than special effects. Sure there were incredible monsters and magic and fight scenes, but they were all tied to the pace of the plot and made sense. They were used sparingly; Only when asked for and needed. Can you imagine if Michael Bay directed "Lord of the Rings"? It would look like someone typed a script on a laptop wearing boxing gloves while riding a horse backwards. And then the horse exploded.

Ultimately, that's my main concern in film: How it tells its story. I hope the writers and directors understand that they can take their time. Don't rush a single scene. You can have your huge, sweeping angles than pan around the battlefield with all the fireballs and dragons and crazy magic everywhere, sure. In fact, it better have that. But please don't make that all it is. Give me a reason to cry. To cheer. Give me a reason to hope I see character X in the following films. Don't be afraid to spend 10 minutes developing our group of protagonists with a conversation around a very non-special effect campfire scene. It's okay if there's silence and a few loving glances or angry glares instead of yelling. Let the film breathe.

Also, Anne Hathaway. kthnx.


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