Saturday, July 19, 2008

Changing Horses In Midstream

I watched Hancock earlier this week, and while it had its moments and solidified my high regard for Will Smith as an actor, I did not like the film. It had a lot of potential. Perhaps too much, as by the end it seemed to be pulling in multiple directions.

In fact, halfway through it complete shifts both plot AND tone. Initially, I thought this was its major fault. And while that definitely let to my dissatisfaction, I later realized the mere fact it changed so quickly and so significantly wasn't the problem.

Million Dollar Baby does a very similar thing, as its plot and tone take, if not a complete 180, still enough of a turn to throw you off. But I liked it. A lot.

In trying to analyze the differences in how the films handle these changes, I was surprised at the similarities I found.

Obviously to discuss these I'll need to go into some detail about both films' plots, so here's a warning: THERE BE SPOILERS!

Both films begin with a plot that is exactly what you'd expect from watching the previews. Hancock follows a superhero who's kind of an asshole as he tries to rebuild his image. Million Dollar Baby follows a tough female boxer as she convinces a retired boxing coach to train her, leading to the formation of a very loving, father-daughter sort of bond.

The latter film's tone during its first half is pretty easy to define. It's a realistic, gritty, yet upbeat mood of yearning for the underdog to make it. Basically, Rocky with a girl.

Hancock is a little harder to define, which is what kept me interested for awhile. While it's definitely comedic, there's a sense of sadness permeating from the title character; you can feel his loneliness and desire to be loved. And the humor itself, while slipping into over-the-top country a couple of times, stays fairly tongue-in-cheek. There are elaborate special effects, but they aren't meant to inspire awe. They essentially say, "Yeah, I'm a superhero. Here's the kind of shit I can do."

Even as Hancock tries to reinvent himself, the film avoids being too sappy (for awhile). It has a bit of fun with the idea that he can still be an asshole as long as he's a lovable asshole. (But don't get my started on how much I hated the "call me an asshole one more time" motif.)

I would hardly call the revelation that Mary (Charlize Theron), the wife of the PR agent (Jason Bateman) helping Hancock change his image, also has superpowers a plot twist. From the first moment she and Hancock see each other, it's annoyingly, painfully obvious that they share some kind of secret. Then it just becomes a matter of how long the film drags on before finally getting to it.

Though it turned out to be too good to be true, I loved Hancock's simple explanation for why he was the way he was. He didn't know. He woke up in an emergency room in Miami eighty years ago (He doesn't age.) with a crushed skull and amnesia. The skull miraculously healed itself, and he discovered he was invincible.

Wham, bam, thank you ma'am. Since this wasn't an origin story, I didn't care to know all of the intricate details about how he got his powers. (Actually, I generally don't care to know them even when it IS an origin story because they tend to focus on them too much.)

But after Mary reveals her secret, we're treated to some of the most convoluted backstory possible. I've tried to sort out the details to make it easier, but believe me when I say it wasn't explained nearly as concisely as I've done here.

1. Thousands of years ago, a number of "things" like Hancock were put on Earth to protect the people and watch over them.
2. For some reason, they were created in pairs, which meant they were forever linked and predisposed to being together. Whenever they're apart, they are drawn to each other, sometimes without knowing it (like when one has amnesia).
3. This is an especially bad idea because when the pairs are together for two long, they start to become mortal. This leaves them vulnerable to attacks and death by old age, which is how all the others died.
4. Distance is the only thing that helps them keep their powers, so Mary has tried to stay away, but Hancock keeps being drawn to her .
5. They were together a number of times in the past, but since they were vulnerable, they were attacked. I'm assuming that they were then apart for long stretches of time, otherwise they'd be much older.

Before all of this came out, I thought the revelation was going to be that Mary was actually a super villain, and that she and Hancock would have to fight. That ain't great, but it's a lot more straight-forward than what they went with.

A bit of a side note: My initial guess was that Mary had gotten her powers from sleeping with Hancock in the past. But perhaps the implications of that are beyond the bounds of PG-13 territory.

This isn't to say that I don't want a complicated story-line. It just don't want a convoluted one. There is something incredibly tragic in the idea of a couple that is separated for hundreds of years at a time in order to keep the other one safe. That reminds me of The Time Traveler's Wife in a way. But having Mary simply talk about it wasn't enough to get me emotionally invested.

The biggest problem was all of the explanation that became necessary after the plot changed. It went from a movie that didn't need to explain anything to a movie that still didn't make sense after seemingly endless discussions.

While Million Dollar Baby dramatically shifts plots as well, we know exactly what's going on. One of Maggie's (Hilary Swank) opponents fights dirty and punches her after the round ending bell has sounded, catching her off-guard. She's knocked down and lands on her stool in such a way that she becomes completely paralyzed, save for above the neck.

It definitely grabs you from out of nowhere, pulling you into the depths of hell. But even though it's a surprise turn, you know exactly what's going on. The only questions that need to be asked are moral ones, and the film doesn't really ask them for you, much less attempt to answer them.

While they still would have needed to cut down on all of the exposition, Hancock would have been a lot more interesting if the story had changed to something we were familiar with, such as an affair between Hancock and Mary. At least that would have thrown us off of the real secret for awhile.

The tonal shift in Million Dollar Baby isn't significant, but it's there. While the film stays gritty and realistic, it loses that uplifting hope that it starts with when you think you're going to watch Maggie rise to greatness. Instead, you're filled with agony and despair.

Hancock's tonal shift is much more pronounced, and the really unfortunate thing about it is that while the plot gets more serious and dramatic (or at least attempts to), the tone becomes campier and more cookie-cutter blockbuster action movie.

Mary doesn't want Hancock to expose her secret. When he flies off to do so, they have a huge chase, destroying everything in their path and eventually fighting in front of Mann's Chinese Theater, which is kind of a stupid move on her part if she wants to keep her powers a secret. In addition, the special effects are now meant to dazzle us, including a tornado and snow that shows up for some reason.

This could have been really powerful and dramatic. A woman desperate to keep her secret hidden in order to keep the man she loves. Instead it becomes a pointless action sequence.

The real twist of the plot (that is, the only thing that really surprised me) comes soon after this when Hancock is injured. For some reason, Mary told him everything except how them being together makes them slowly become mortal.

This scene is done pretty brilliantly, as it seems to be about Hancock slipping back into his alcoholism. He stops by a convenience store to buy some drinks and winds up thwarting a robbery. He gets shot in the process, and the bullets actually wound him. (Though to what degree is never clear. He's not entirely mortal because he gets shot A LOT later and doesn't die.)

So as you see, both films feature serious injuries that take you by complete surprise. And afterwards, the majority of the film takes place in a hospital.

In Hancock's case, the hospital serves as an action set piece when some "villains" return to settle the score after a prison break. While I'll admit that Hancock is more vulnerable now, these bad guys were previously NO THREAT WHATSOEVER, so it's hard to be worried for him. Add that to the fact that they have no plan except to show up at the hospital with guns. Considering that they don't know why Hancock was injured (for all they know it was a special kind of bullet that they don't have), this is really stupid.

Both films end with the main character making a decision to do what he thinks is best for the female lead. In Million Dollar Baby, Frankie (Clint Wastwood) euthanizes Maggie, and though this has lead to a lot of debate, it's definitely what her character wants.

The decision in Hancock isn't nearly as tough to make. He leaves. It's supposed to seem tough because Hancock has been shot and has to stagger away, leap out a window, and get further and further away so that he and Mary can become immortal again. (As he's attacked by the bad guys she suffers the pain right along with him, so by the end they are both on the brink of death.)

That is, I think they are. But it's never clear exactly how close he is to dying or how much he even feels the pain. Granted, I didn't want more explanation. But it would have been nice to have had some idea of how heroic his actions were.

With both of these films, I knew there was a "twist" before I saw the movie. No one called the turn of events in Million Dollar Baby by the name "plot twist" though, perhaps because it was a freak occurrence and not a revelation that had been true all along. And I wouldn't call the first reveal in Hancock a twist simply because it was so inevitable from the very beginning.

One I loved. One I didn't like. Obviously other things in the films besides how they handle the major change affected those decisions, but I'm sure not having to listen to countless questions be answered helped me become much more engrossed with the drama in Million Dollar Baby.

Can anyone else think of any other films that shift so dramatically in either plot, tone, or both? And what did you think of them?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

This Was Your Life

The other night my roommate and I attended a screening of the soon to be released film American Teen. It’s your typical high school film. There’s comedy and drama. People are mean. There’s a nerd who wants to find a girlfriend. There are relationships that start and end. There’s a subplot about the basketball team. More or less everything you’d expect.

One major difference though: it’s all real. Nanette Burstein, director of the documentary The Kid Stays In The Picture, followed a group of high schoolers in Warsaw, Indiana for their senior year. While the film isn’t anything groundbreaking, it is an interesting look back into the whole high school experience, a nostalgic jaunt down memory lane.[1]

It’s interesting how closely some of the storylines resemble Hollywood films. There’s a group of popular girls who take down one of their own, a la Mean Girls, though what they do is infinitely crueler. There’s a jock who dates the free-flowing artistic girl only to break her heart. Though Freddie Prinze Jr. isn’t a jock[2], it reminded me of She’s All That, minus the happy ending.

After the screening, four of the featured teens (now two years older[3]) answered questions about their experience with the film, including what it was like to look back on documented evidence of their senior year. That is, eight months of their lives.

This got me thinking about what a strange experience this would be. It’s not reality TV, where years down the line you could see how you acted in a certain competition. It’s not even a documentary about a specific event, like Spellbound or The King of Kong. It’s merely following their normal everyday lives, much like the show “This American Life” focuses on a particular aspect of someone’s daily life that, while normal to them, might seem strange to outsiders.[4]

Most of us look back on our teenage years and laugh at certain aspects and feel bad about others. But they can literally watch themselves. It’s as if they had a crazy documentarian for a Dad.[5]

All of the people involved with American Teen have changed significantly, which is to be expected, but they each found it fascinating to look back on themselves. While I wouldn’t relish having a camera crew follow me around, I can’t deny how much I’d love to see movies scrapped together from previous years of my life.

What about you? Do you think you’d learn anything from it? Would you enjoy it? Or do you want to leave the past in the past?

[1] I actually identified most with a friend character that was barely featured. I didn’t really learn enough about him to know if we were alike, but I have a feeling.

[2] Summer Catch doesn’t count.

[3] So probably not teens anymore, for the most part.

[4] But even this is more specific than American Teen. No one would call anything in the lives of those teens out of the ordinary.

[5] I bet there is years’ worth of footage of Werner Herzog’s kids.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Women Wear Pants Too: The Ladies of "Man Stroke Woman"

From time to time, I'll highlight a lady that gets to do more in Hollywood than just play the wife/girlfriend/romantic interest.


Amanda Abbington

Daisy Haggard

Meredith MacNeill

First, let me clarify that this show isn’t as risqué as the title makes it sound.[1] It airs on BBC, and in American terminology it would more accurately be described as “Man Slash Woman,” that is, men & women and their various interactions. It’s a sketch comedy show featuring the three women above plus three men. The most famous of the bunch is Nick Frost, costar to Simon Pegg in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.[2]

The show has a number of things going for it, all of which have to do with keeping things small. Each episode is only a half hour long, so you can race through a few episodes (or the entire disc) without feeling too guilty. The first series (as “seasons” are called in the UK) is only six episodes, so while all of the sketches might not be hilarious, it never feels as if they ran out of ideas. And perhaps most importantly, the sketches are only as long as they need to be. Some are only a few seconds, while others are longer, but rarely does one go past two minutes.[3] No one can accuse the Brits of overstaying their welcome.[4]

I rented it from Netflix and promptly went through it in two sittings. Though my roommate and I repeat some of the lines from time to time, and I would love to show many of the sketches to other friends, I can’t advocate buying it because I felt it was a bit uneven.

Still, it’s an impressive feat for a cast of six, another aspect that makes the show so interesting. Only when it’s essential to the sketch do any of the performers change appearances, so sometimes it’s fun when a recurring character makes a surprise appearance in a sketch that you thought was going to be about something else entirely.[5]

Having such a small cast could be a negative factor if there was a performer you just couldn’t stand, but I seriously doubt that will be the case, as each person more than pulls his or her own weight. Since I’ve talked before about how a number of people think women aren’t funny, let me just say that the women on this show are INCREDIBLY funny. Each one is equally adept at playing the “straight man” or the comical centerpiece. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a pair, the three ladies, or the whole group on screen…no one gets pushed to the background.

There are a number of sketches to be found on Youtube if you care to peruse. In fact, many of my favorites from online turned out to be from series two, which already aired in Britain but has yet to come out on DVD. I’m eagerly anticipating its release.

Every episode of the first series ends with the same sketch, the three women playing rude, annoying workers at a make-up counter in a department store. Each features a customer that grows impatient with the juvenile antics of the two workers and asks to speak to their manager. The third woman comes over and pretends to show a real interest in the complaint before then engaging in the same child-like behavior.

Though they all follow the same pattern, each one is unique and produces a great deal of laughs. (At least from me.) So I’ll leave you with my favorite of the six (the moment 44 seconds in kills me every time):

[1] That said, since it’s from the BBC, it does use language and discuss topics you aren’t going to see on “SNL.”

[2] One of my favorite comedies ever. If you don’t have a problem with the occasional gory death played for laughs, check it out immediately.

[3] It’s a benefit to being a single camera show filmed on location. No skits that are beaten to death, buried, dug back up, and beaten some more.

[4] If you ignore British Colonialism, that is.

[5] Some sketches/characters appear just throughout a single episodes, while some appear throughout a few (or all).

Friends On TV

Last Sunday some friends and I staged a reading of an episode of “30 Rock” that I wrote for a contest.[1] Based on their feedback and comments I’ve gotten from people who read it later, I did a good job capturing the voice of the show. And I have to say: it was easy.

That doesn't mean it didn't take a lot of effort. I spent countless time outlining, struggled through a first draft that I knew wasn’t great, and then spent three or four late nights rewriting scene by scene.

But compared to writing my own material, it was a breeze. And I believe that ease comes down to one simple fact: Once you know the characters, the story almost tells itself.

Two years ago, I wrote an episode of “My Name Is Earl.” It was my first time writing something not completely original, something I hadn’t created every aspect of. The first season had just ended, and I had only seen one or two episodes. But it was hot and fresh, plus the concept easily lent itself to creating scenarios. Combining that with the fact that a friend had given me a good idea for something Earl could complete for his list, I decided to write an episode.

While I could have read plot descriptions online to make sure I wasn’t repeating anything, I wanted to see more of the show to get a feel for the characters.

So I downloaded[2] the first season and began to watch it. I wound up watching the ENTIRE first season in one day. Perhaps not the healthiest exercise, but it gave me a great advantage. I now felt like these characters were my friends. I felt like we had hung out, so I knew what they were like and how they talked and how they acted.[3]

From there, I was easily able to create a detailed outline that allowed me to write the entire 30+ page script in one day. And, unlike the one for “30 Rock,” I didn’t have to change that much.[4]

I later did the same thing for “Heroes.” And when I say “the same thing,” I mean it as literally as I can.

This was during the long break of the first season, after the 12th episode or so. I now needed a drama show to write an episode of, and a number of friends had told me I would probably like "Heroes". So I downloaded all of the episodes, and watched the pilot while vacationing with a friend. Upon returning home, I spent the next day watching the rest of the episodes.[5]

Based on that I created an even more detailed outline, and once again I was able to write the entire draft in one day, meaning 50+ pages this time. I did have to go back and rewrite it, but I never made any major changes to it.

While I didn’t connect with the “Heroes” characters on as deep of a level, (We weren’t “bestest buddies.”) I was able to get a flow for how the show worked and what sorts of things to expect each episode. Still, the action wouldn’t be as interesting if not for the characters, and though I didn’t like all of them, there were a number I was quite fond of.

I’ve only had the luxury of feeling intimately connected with my OWN characters two times that I can recall. One was while doing the third (or maybe fourth) rewrite of a sitcom pilot that I wrote a year ago. I was getting pretty frustrated because it was close but not quite there, and a friend sat me down and asked me questions about my characters. He also had me compare and contrast different characters from various shows, which highlighted the fact that even characters that could be lumped together with simple descriptions (jerk, sweet, depressed, etc.) are actually very different. That difference comes from what’s underneath their personalities (Why are they acting that way? What’s their ultimate agenda?), and how they manifest that personality (their actions).

Once I was able to pinpoint the personalities of my characters, the writing was much easier.

The second time, which actually happened earlier chronologically, is when I was rewriting a comedy script I had written along with the friend mentioned above. Granted, there were only three main characters, but we knew them so well that dialogue would just roll out of us.[6]

I want to reiterate that I’m in no way saying that writing for TV is easy. If the episode I wrote was actually being written for the show, it would have had to be completed much faster.[7] But when it comes to writing things on spec, existing shows are much easier for me to dive into because I already know the characters so well.

Still, the ultimate goal is to always reach that point with the characters from my original work, no matter how long it takes to get there.

[1] Well, actually it's for the ABC Writing Fellowship, but it’s quicker to just say “contest.” (Unless you then explain it in a footnote.

[2] Back then you couldn’t view them online, and the DVD hadn’t come out yet. Since it was for “research,” I felt justified.

[3] Yes, this was a little freaky.

[4] Of course, it’s not nearly as good as the “30 Rock” one either.

[5] A little math shows that the “Earl” watching actually took more time, but "Heroes" felt worse because each episode was such a commitment. Plus the fact that, in retrospect, it wasn’t as good.

[6] Which is why we spent countless hours debating about this line versus that line.

[7] Maybe twice as fast. Or maybe even more than that.