Thursday, December 6, 2012

How To Not Write A Screenplay: 10 Mistakes Screenwriter Makes

I read an article about Carson Reeves in the New York Times. He is a blogger behind a powerful Hollywood blog, Script Shadow, which reviews unproduced screenplays. The problem with a lot of the screenplays on his blog is they sound pretty bad. I don’t think I have a complete right to make that judgment because I haven’t read these unproduced scripts. The problem is that there is big differences between saying you’re writing a novel and a screenplay. If you are writing a novel, you feel like you are being a literary person. You feel like you don’t need to qualify yourself as a true writer. If you say you are writing a screenplay, than you are more likely to get that reaction of “oh, everyone is writing a screenplay.” There are a lot of problems with people who write screenplays. Often, the vision of the screenwriter is someone sitting in a coffee shop, being “creative."  
Recently, someone I know who writes screenplays came up to me and said that writing a screenplay is easier than writing a novel. In some ways, that’s true. In other ways, not so much, but as someone who reviews a lot of movies, there is advice I wish I could give the screenwriters of America. Hollywood is such a seductive idea for a writer that often it gives platforms to people who can’t really write. After all, with screenwriting, you don’t have to be concern with prose or making someone turn pages or having someone pick up the book. Your readers are actors, producers, other screenwriters, directors, and whatnot. You don’t have to compel that general reading audience, because you aren’t turning in a final product. You are turning in a blue print for something that will look much more polished than simply a manuscript.

However, there are pros and cons to screenwriting. A pro to writing the book before the movie is that if the movie sucks, you always have that wonderfully good book. Another pro is that no one is rewriting your book, maybe except editors. Though, even if editors rewrite parts of your book, you still get that sole credit. Screenplays often are handed off to script doctors and other screenwriters, so by the time you are done; you get a “story by” credit instead of a “written by” credit. Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight books, said she would never be able to write a screenplay, because she couldn’t cut out all the stuff she wanted to say and describe about her characters. William Golden, novelist and screenwriter, sums up the difference between the magic of a book and the magic of screenplay in his book on screenwriting, “Adventures in The Screen trade,” pretty simply; If your parents read you screenplays instead of books to you as a child before you went to sleep, then I don’t really want to hear about your childhood.

Or take the joke “Community” made about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, as Abed talks on about making a postmodern movie about Jesus, Shirley says “That’s nice , Charlie Kaufman, but some of us have work in the morning.” We all praise the novelists, but tend to look down on screenwriters, and I think there’s some truth to that. A problem with screenwriters is that they fall in to a couple categories that make them sound like the hacks of the writing world. I am often guilty myself of thinking poorly of screenwriters, as opposed to those writing novels. So, here it goes. I’m going to ask the question. Are you a really good writer who happens to write screenplays or are you a “writer” who is writing a screenplay for all the wrong reasons. So, here are the good and bad reasons to write a screenplay. I call this article “Are You a Writer Who Writes Screenplays or Are A “Writer” Who Writes Screenplays.” These are the questions one must ask themselves before they write a screenplay.

1.       Does This Work As A Movie?- A lot of screenwriters have a good idea for a story, but the question the writer must ask themselves is, is this a good story for a movie or is this a good story for a novel? For example, I tried co-writing screenplay years ago with a friend. The friend and I wanted to write an epic fantasy. Half through the screenplay, I realized it probably should be a novel because we kept describing stuff in the description of the screenplay, like how their time system works, that wouldn’t appear on screen. My friend and I totally disagreed. My co-writer did not understand that the description was too much for a narration (unless the audience wanted to sit there for 4 hours of narration), and this would of worked a lot better as a novel or short story. Often a writer will have a story that works better as print. A person can read a book, put it down, come back to it, and whatnot. Not in a screenplay.

2.       Can I Cap the Story in 120 Pages?- Steve Kloves, the screenwriter of the “Harry Potter” books often says people are often upset with what he cuts out of the screenplay. Remember, though, Kloves has to take 800 pages and cut it down to 120 pages. Film is a visual medium, and the audience is looking at their watches. They don’t want to be in the theater for hours upon hours. Think about “Harry Potter” as a good example of this. The books become a lot longer as the series goes on, and while the kids might love it, I think often the parents, who might love it too, are still checking their watches. People want to be in and out of the theater, within a couple hours, not sit through hours and hours until their eyes bleed.

3.       Am I A Good Writer In General? - The problem with a lot of screenwriters is that they aren’t good writers, and they figure, well, I still want to write, so if I write something that gets made into something else, then the rules do not apply to me. Well, yes and no. No one expects beautiful prose in a screenplay. You are writing a fairly standard description such as “My character walks here, looks like this and does, this” followed by your character’s name in CAPTIAL LETTERS, and the dialogue under their names. However, the problem with poor writers writing screenplays is that they are lazy and under mind that movie going audience. Gone are the days that audiences are stupid. That being said, I have nothing against the occasional dumb movie. I think sometimes we should all go to the theater to just have a good time. However, even dumb movies need some skills. Take the “American Pie” movies, which aren’t exactly brilliant films. They still have good characters, and know how to set up jokes and scenes. This brings me to the next point…

4.       A Lot of Screenwriters Are the Lazy Writers- A lot of screenwriters believe they don’t need to read or write in regular ways. A lot of screenwriters think they just need to watch movies all day, and they need to read screenplays and nothing more. They don’t need to know about the mechanics of storytelling or take creative writing courses or even know simple literary genres.  You need to be a WRITER, and not simply a SCREENWRITER. I love movies too, but if you want to write, you need to read books. Yes, you need to read literature, and not just books on screenwriting. I can’t tell you how many screenwriters I meet who fill their book shelves with how to books on screenplays. I have nothing against the screenplay how to books, because they can be quite helpful. However, there is no better lesson on storytelling and character creation than reading stories, novels, and creative non-fiction. You cannot skip over the physical book, because you happen to think, “I’m writing movies, so why put in the work of reading? I’m not writing books!” WRONG. If you do not read anything, and just watch movies all day, your screenplay will just sound like a bunch of other movie clichés thrown together.

5.       Tell a Good Story and Create Great Characters- How many screenwriters tell a terrible story, and cover up bad writing with action and gimmicks? A lot, actually.  A lot of screenwriters don’t have good characters and totally bland ideas because they figure it’s a movie. Once again, that’s undermining your audience, and just plain bad writing. Think about the world’s most beloved screenplays? How memorable are the characters? Here’s a perfect example. Eric Roth, the screenwriter of “Forest Gump”, could have just written a straight adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel. However, how memorable was Forest Gump? Now, a lot of screenwriters make the mistake of relying on the actors. Yes, Tom Hanks made that role memorable. However, that character and sense of storytelling must have been very strong in the script. And another thing, do you think Tom Hanks would have even played the role of that character didn’t come strongly through the script? You need to pack a punch in your script, because like a novel, it goes into a slush pile if you don’t. You need to think you are J.K. Rowling writing “Harry Potter” instead of some dude writing a screenplay.

6.       A Lot of Screenwriters Want to be Rich- A lot of screenwriters do get rich, but the problem with the salaries in Hollywood is that this breeds a lot of writers who just want to be rich. Writing a screenplay just for money isn’t the way to go. Oh, I understand we all want money, but there also must be a story you want to tell. A character you want to introduce. You need to treat your screenplay as if you are writing a story, a novel, and a passion. You need a motivation besides making money because that will lead to a weak, clichéd script and the people reading that script will see right through that.

7.       You Are Not Special- This are really advice for all writers. Do you know how many people come to Hollywood with a briefcase full of screenplays without actually a decent screenplay in the bunch? Yes, that fantasy is cool but unrealistic. I think you need to really have something unique. Your screenplay, your romantic comedy, your “Harry Potter” knock off may fly but you need something unique and original too.

8.       Don’t Pander To Your Audience- One of the biggest problems with screenwriters is they are thinking of the box office and target audience before they think up a good story. A lot of screenplays pander to a crowd. A romantic comedy full of clichés panders to women. Teen sex comedies that try too hard to gross out their audience also try too hard. Torture porn? Yes, it sells, but the “Saw” movies are more than horror. The Jigsaw Killer, as evil and uncaring as he can be at times, is actually a great character. That hook that he wants to punish people for taking life for granted, actually makes him deeper. So, even if your screenplay isn’t exactly high culture, you still need to put thought into it. It still needs some depth. There is nothing worst than 120 pages of pandering and clichés.

9.       An Example of Perfect Screenplay - A good story and good characters should still be your top of your list. “Little Miss Sunshine” is a perfect example. What could have been a stupid comedy about a family taking a road trip turns into a warm film about a family pulling together for the daughter. Michael Arndt takes time with each character, and gives them all back stories. Each character has a story, each character is defined. Every member of his family is so well done; we don’t even stop to wonder what their last names are. He doesn’t complicate the story, which is key in a screenplay. The story is simple, which a story in a screenplay needs to be, because this is a movie that’s visual and fewer than 200 pages. Point A to point B. Middle, beginning and end. However, each character is defined, in a visual way that the audience can see. Remember, they can only see what you describe in the script. The dialogue is sharp and relatable. I could go through each point of why this is a perfect script, but I rather you rent it and see for yourself.

10.   The Audience Can See Your Writing- Don’t think that just because a movie screen is between you and your audience, they can’t see your bad writing. Just because they aren’t looking at a page doesn’t mean your audience won’t see your bad writing. If the dialogue and descriptions are bad, your audience will see that. Just because they aren’t looking at a page, doesn’t mean they won’t see your bad writing on the screen. Don’t be lazy. Write as well as you can, and treat it like it’s going to be published. You always write like it’s going to be published, even if that’s not your goal. Trust me, your audience doesn’t leave their brains at the theater door.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Beloved Book Becomes Beloved Film

Four Stars

John Hughes had a saying that you are more serious at age 16 than you are at any other time in your life, and I’m suppose that’s true. Reading a novel like “Perks of Being a Wallflower” as a teenager, you walk away with an intense emotional experience. It would be easy for me as an adult to shrug off this book and movie as easily the case of overly dramatic teenagers, despite how serious their problems are. I have read the bestselling young adult novel the movie is based on, and I always thought that “Perks” was a story about closed doors. The problem with me as an adult is that “Perks” packs a lot of teenage problems in a novel that’s about 206 pages. Rape, pedophilia, coming out of the closet, bullying, drugs, sex, mental health, depression, and all sorts of stuff that teens deal with. Between all the typical teenage scenes in the book and movie, someone says something that sticks out like a sore thumb, often an admission of some kind that doesn’t sound quite right.
This brings me back to John Hughes’s saying, that everything is more serious when you are a teenager. It would be really easy for me to talk on and on about all the issues this novel brings up in such a short space, but on with the movie review. Charlie is a shy kid, who is just starting high school. On his first day, he meets a wonderful English teacher (Paul Rudd), who sees how smart he is, and starts giving him extra books to read. He starts to read books like “A Separate Piece” and “Catcher in the Rye”, which in this story is almost foreshadowing of the actual story we get. Angst ridden teen novels, in an angst ridden movie based on an angst ridden teen novel, I’m starting to get the picture. It helps that this movie is written and directed by the author of the actual book, which is very rare, Stephen Chosky. Charlie is a wallflower, which means he sits back and observes, doesn’t get involved and has an unusual way of thinking.
Soon he meets some older kids, Sam and Patrick (Ezra Miller). Emma Watson and Ezra Miller have wonderful chemistry as step brother and sister, and are obviously good matches for the shy Patrick. They are quirky and it’s hard not to like them as they go on and on about good music versus bad music.  Ezra Miller is very good here, as Patrick, the gay kid who has some secrets of his own. Emma Watson is also very good, with an American accent. As Charlie, the beloved character from this beloved novel, Logan Lerman does a wonderful job, and I’m (probably foolishly) hoping he gets an Oscar nod. There are a lot of hints in this movie (and in the novel) about his obsession with his dead aunt. Obviously, something was going on between him as a kid and this aunt that wasn’t exactly normal. Often, victims of abuse in the way Charlie was, become obsessed with the abuser.
Despite all the issues this film brings up, it works, because with all the underlying darkness, there’s a lot of sweatiness to these characters. Charlie’s shyness, and his two outcast friends, Sam and Patrick bring a lot of great friendship that helps them get through their traumas. Scenes like when Sam gives Charlie his first kiss, saying that the first person who kisses him should be someone who loves him, we get the sense that she means she loves him as a very good friend loves another. The scene where Patrick buys Charlie a suit because of Charlie’s great desire to be a writer or the scene where after Charlie admits that his best friend shot himself, they raise their glasses to Charlie after Sam tells Patrick what happened.

“Perks” would be easy for me to dismiss as I am no longer a teenager, and maybe I don’t have that intense nature anymore that I once had as a teenager, but a lot of teenagers have an intense nature and this film brings us back to that. I know a lot of kids will be waiting on line to see “Twilight”, and believe me, I have nothing against that. I think we all need an escape, but it is kind of a shame that more kids won’t be on line to see “Perks of Being a Wallflower”, which they might actually take something away from. One of the great accomplishments of the writer Stephen Chbosky in both the film, and this, his so far only novel, is just some of the lines alone, like “We feel infinite” or “We recieve the love we think we deserve.” Writing for teenagers often allows a writer to go for a line that perhaps some adults would roll their eyes at, because a teenager feels that seriousness John Hughes was talking about. However, a lot of Chobosky’s lines have become iconic and have great truth to them.  A lot of the lines from the book (and now the move) raise this story from a normal young adult novel.  “Perks of Being a Wallflower” might require the viewer to get in touch with their inner adolescence, and remember a time that the world did feel that serious. However, the issues these teenagers deal with aren’t exclusive to only teens, as many adults have problems with the same things.

What I would suggest is that if your kid is begging to see the finale of “Twilight”, make a deal with them that they also see this. I always think it’s important for younger movie goers to not only go to movies that feed them entertainment, but also give them something personal and positive to walk away with. As I said earlier, I have nothing against escapism for younger viewers, but I think “Perks” might also balance that out with something they might hold onto. “Perks of Being a Wallflower” is that book that teens probably pass along to each other, and this movie is the kind of movie that might actually help teens copes with some of the very serious issues they deal with.  “Perks of Being a Wallflower” is one of the year’s best films, and a testament to being able to create characters for teenagers and adults alike. On a personal note, I’ve been waiting to review the movie version of this book ever since I’ve read the wonderful novel, and I wasn’t disappointed with the film.  Often smaller movies that are geared for teenagers are the best films for them to see. “Perks of Being a Wallflower” is one of the year’s best films, and hopefully one of the best attended.  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Made in America

Four Stars

The story to “Agro” sounds like a farce or a political satire. It would be if it wasn’t true. However, “Argo” isn’t a farce. It’s not even a comedy. It takes its story very seriously. The story opens on Iran having a new leader installed by the United States, The Shah. This makes the citizens of Iran very angry, and they rebel, wanting their traditional way of life back. The movie opens on them getting through the gates and raiding an American Embassy. Most of the staff is taken as hostages, but some get out and are taken to the Canadian embassy, where they are stuck. If they leave the embassy, good chance the people of Iran would kill them. Meanwhile, back in the United States, the CIA is scrambling to find a way to get them out. Here’s the part of the story that sounds a bit unbelievable. Tony Mandez (Ben Afflect), who works for the CIA, is on the phone with his kid. He hasn’t seen his kid in awhile, as he is doing work for the CIA, and lives in an apartment in Washington D.C. I guess it’s a tough job, and being away from his family isn’t easy on him, but for guys like him, work comes first. His kid mentions that he’s watching the classic B- movie squeal to “Planet of the Apes”, “The Battle of the Planet of The Apes.” Tony turns it on his television set, and comes up with an idea. Here’s the part that sounds like it could be a comedy, but isn’t.
His idea is he’ll get Hollywood involved in getting out these hostages. They will pretend the hostages are a Hollywood crew, working on a ridiculous knock off of “Star Wars”, during the height of its popularity.  He pitches it to the CIA, who first look at him like he is nuts. Then they think about it, and approve of it. Jack (Bryan Cranston, turning in a very good dramatic performance here), becomes the go to guy for Tony to communicate with. He contacts his old friend, John Chambers (John Goodman), who has done work for them before, providing makeup to spies and such. He flies out to Hollywood, and has a lunch with Chambers, who is doing make up for B-pictures. John introduces him to Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who is an old time Hollywood producer. He informs him science fiction is hot in Hollywood right now (which made me think of how fantasy is the rage now). So, together, they go through scripts and find a screenplay called “Argo” that describes the science fiction environment as a Middle East like one. They have their script.

The idea sounds silly, but the movie takes it very seriously. The movie becomes this weird mix of a behind the scenes Hollywood movie, with the makeup artist and old time producer, using their magic to pull it off. They even hold a press conference about the fake movie. What I found interesting about this whole scheme between Hollywood and the United States government, about getting these hostages out, is the weird crossroads pop culture and real life sometimes take. Sometimes, they combine or work together to get something done.

Ben Afflect, as a director and star is very good in his role, as do John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston. I definitely see this movie as a shoe-in to some Oscar nominations. The movie wisely mostly focuses on the very real and serious situation these hostages are in. The movie sometimes diverts to the people back in Hollywood, to lighten the mood a little.  They can’t seem to believe, at first, that Tony is handing them scripts to a science fiction movie and identities that are related to this. I don’t blame them. Sometimes when someone makes a pop culture reference in a serious situation, I’ll give them a look. Not the right time, but in this film, that pop culture reference can save lives.

I often say movies are one of the few good things our country still produces. It’s always baffling to me when Americans bash Hollywood. It’s one of the few things that our country still makes well, and the world seems to accept about America. Who in their right mind would believe that Hollywood is going to Iran in the middle of a hostage crisis to make a silly science fiction picture? A lot of people, it seems. Though they do bump into hostile people, it seems that a lot of people in this hostile place of Iran are willing to buy, yeah, they are making a movie. So, let them proceed. Its very nerve raking, at times, watching this film, because I kept thinking someone, anyone, has to give them one weird look to notice that this farce they are pulling off sounds a bit off. A science fiction movie does not need to be shot in Iran. It can be shot anywhere. It’s a total crazy scheme, but once you are watching these people using it as a way of escape, it doesn’t seem that crazy anymore. Hooray for Hollywood. This movie documents a true event that was important to American history, and one of the most unbelieveable ones. "Argo" is one of the year's best pictures.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

“Paranorman”, Shoe-in for Best Animated Feature

Four Stars

“Paranorman”, the new film by the studio that brought us the wonderful “Coraline”, is about a boy who can speak to dead people. That sounds pretty clichéd, but “Paranorman” is a wonderful film for the whole family about accepting people who are different. I think that parts of it might be scary for younger kids, but I think the overall message is quite wonderful. Wonderful is a word I often use to describe films that I think are good for kids. “Paranorman” is about a kid named Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who lives in a small town in Massachusetts, which is obsessed with the witch trials that took place there all those years ago. The movie opens on Norman sitting in the living room with his grandmother. Little do we know that his grandmother died a year ago. His parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) think him weird for constantly talking about the dead people he sees. Norman is bullied at school, and the only person who tries to befriend him is the overweight kid, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Norman is a loner, but he soon finds out that he is going to need the help of Neil, his sister (Anna Kendrick), and Neil’s buff brother (Casey Affleck) if he is going to defeat the dead which are rising from the ground.
 “Paranorman” is made with stop motion animation instead of computer animation and it looks wonderfully done. Stop motion animation is when they create models of the characters and shoot them scene by scene. Also, the music in this film does a wonderful job of setting the mood. The film does become a bit of a chase, as Norman and his friends get stuck in the car as the dead rise from the cemetery. However, I was surprised at what this film is really about. It’s something more than just a spoof of horror movies with zombies. I won’t give it away, but there’s a reason this town revolves around the witch trials that took place so long ago. Norman is a bit of a witch himself, as he isn’t really understood.

Another thing I really liked about “Paranorman” is the script doesn’t play down to its audience. There’s even a joke in there where Norman says he can think but not sure if he can say the four letter word he is thinking of. Norman isn’t so much supernatural, as he is just the weird kid that happens to be able to speak to the spirits floating around as he walks to school. I like how matter of factly this film takes that. It isn’t scary that he has this ability, as much as he’s just the weird kid. However, the town misjudges him, his friends and the zombies. There are a lot of misunderstandings in this film, and it’s the witch’s curse that brought these zombies to life.

The thing that is great about “Paranorman” is that it’s a family film that is both artistic, as the animation is beautifully done and has a good message about not judging people. I think some of the film might be scary for younger children, but overall, I think it has a good message for kids a bit older. Being a teenager can be a bit tough, and I saw some of the same themes in this film that where in the same studio’s “Corlaline.” That theme of being a teenager and wishing for something a bit better was in “Coraline”. It’s Corlaline who learned to accept things. In “Paranorman”, it’s the people who are around Norman who learn to accept him.

My brother and I had an argument a while back, about the importance of films for families and younger people. I argued that it’s important to pick good movies for your kids to see. My brother thought there was room for all sorts of movies for kids to see. I argued that if a family can only afford one ticket, than it’s important they pick the film that is both a work of art and provides a good lesson for children to take away. The lesson of “Paranorman” is not judging people, and I think that’s a good lesson for a family film to have. After seeing this film, my brother said to me, that he sees my point. If you can only afford one ticket, see the movie your kids can take something away from.

Finally, with Pixar’s current two movies getting lukewarm reviews, and this being an okay year for animation instead of a grand year, I’m hoping to see “Paranorman” and Studio Ghibili’s wonderful “The Secret World of Arrietty” are up for Best Animated Feature this year. I love animation, and the magic of that art form is one of the reasons I go to the movies. Watch the beautiful scene in this film where Norman talks to the witch, sitting under a tree, in a lush field, and tell me why animation is just for kids. “Paranorman” is a wonderful film for both adults and kids, and a shoein for Best Animated Feature and one of the year’s best films.  

Monday, July 30, 2012

"Ted" is Lazy

Two Stars

I should probably just lighten up. “Ted”, the first feature film by Seth MacFarlane is mostly harmless, and can provide a good laugh. Though, one can’t help but ask themselves why Seth MacFarlane has the career he has. I’m all for dirty and inappropriate humor. Sometimes, it’s okay to laugh at stuff we shouldn’t. Some of the jokes in “Ted” try a bit too hard. There’s nothing really funny about terminal illnesses, for example. Like joking about Parkinson’s or Lou Gehrig disease, and it’s times like that you see MacFarlane, and his two fellow screenwriters, both “Family Guy” regulars, trying a bit too hard. The screenplay to this movie feels a bit loose, and all over the place. One minute, it’s a romantic comedy, and the next minute, it’s a Seth MacFarlane cartoon. I asked myself a couple times if this movie could have worked without the talking teddy bear. However, “Ted” really is a one joke movie stretched out over 115 minutes. I laughed a couple of times, but not really enough.
 So, “Ted” starts with typical Seth MacFarlane humor. John (Mark Whalberg) is a lonely kid. It’s around Christmas, or as the narrator says “that magical time of year when Boston kids beat up the Jewish ones.” His parents get him a teddy bear for Christmas and they quickly become best friends. However, he makes a magical wish.  He wishes his teddy bear would come to life, and he does. The news sweeps the nation and the teddy bear makes an appearance on Johnny Carson (groan. Here come the million pop culture references.) Later on in the film, John is all grown up and him and Ted (Seth MacFarlane), the talking teddy bear are sitting on the couch smoking weed and eating Corn Pops (For a guy who considers himself a satirist, MacFarlane certainly piles on the product placement in this film). John is dating this girl Lori (Mila Kunis), who’s basic function in this film, is to look really annoyed at everything Ted and John do.

 John has a hard time asking Ted to move out after his girlfriend Lori asks him to move the bear out. John helps Ted get on his feet. Basically, they play this out like Ted is a bad influence, a guy John should outgrow. Ted is his stoner friend and whatnot. He comes off more like that guy you knew in college who is still smoking bongs even though he’s pushing 25. It’s like, yeah, I know everyone is playing this idea straight but I can’t get over the fact that it’s a talking teddy bear that sounds like Seth MacFarlane. No one seems to think this weird, and that works in a cartoon, but in live action, it kind of comes off as more creepy than charming.

Anyway, so there’s some other characters like Lori’s boss(Joel McHale, who stars in the brilliant “Community”, and probably rolled his eyes as he read lines written by Seth MacFarlane instead of Dan Harmon), who constantly hits on her. He tells her that her boyfriend is a loser, and you know what, he kind of is. He works at a car rental place, lies to get out of work so he can smoke weed with Ted (once again, no one acts weird  that he’s a teddy bear), and ditches his girlfriend at a party so he can meet  the actor who played Flash Gordon in his favorite movie as a kid. Gawd, his girlfriend is beautiful and sweet and just perfect. No way would I ditch her but that’s just me.

I kind of don’t like movies with this kind of premise. It’s what I call a built in premise. The situations and comedy comes because of an idea that’s just built into the screenplay without any real logic. I like comedy to come from life observations. I like comedy to come from things that could happen, because comedy like that makes us laugh about our own life, not just an illogic situation that doesn’t make any sense. The screenplay to “Ted” is kind of lazy and one joke. I know Seth MacFarlane is the highest paid TV writer in the world, but later that night, I watched my favorite episode of “The Honeymooners” on television. The one with the $99,000 question, and I thought to myself, you know, it’s a lot older than “Ted”, and “Family Guy” and “Two and a Half Men”, but at the same time, this is what real comedy looks like. It’s simple, it’s still relatable, and you know, Ralph Kramden is still a lot more lovable then Peter Griffen but I digress. The point I guess I’m trying to make, is that a magical plot device like a talking teddy bear who is a bad influence gets kind of old. Seth MacFarlane seems to think that comedy doesn’t need logic, when in truth, the best comedy does. Oh and there’s a subplot about some guy who tries to kidnap Ted, and make him his kid’s teddy bear. The plot kind of runs out and results in a car chase. Just because it’s a gross out comedy doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be subject to storytelling 101.

Look, I hate to spoil anyone's good time, and I could just laugh, but Seth MacFarlane is one of the highest paid screenwriters and the highest paid TV writer in the world. So, it's worth asking why is he getting paid so much?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

You Can Teach A Old Dog New Tricks

Three and a half stars

You know, a lot of old people give up. I don’t mean old in the sense of a mean spirited way, but I mean old as in when you’re old, you’re old. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, the new film by John Madden, the director of “Shakespeare in Love”, is about the idea that growing old doesn’t mean it’s over. That’s the message of the film. It’s not a groundbreaking message, but not a bad one none the less. The film is about a bunch of older people in Britain who are preparing to retire. However, they all chose to retire to India, for various reasons. Evelyn (Judi Dench) is a widowed housewife who sells her house to cover expenses. Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Douglas (Bill Nightly) lose their retirement savings. Muriel (Maggie Smith) is outsourcing her hip replacement in a hospital program, Madge (Celia Imrie) is hunting for another husband, Norman (Ronald Pickup) is looking for love and Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is there for very personal reasons.

They all arrive at the hotel, and are greeted by Sonny (Dev Patel), who dreams of escaping his mother’s watchful eye and marrying his girlfriend, Suniana (Tena Dasae). All these people are in India for their own personal reasons, not because they are just there for an adventure. However, it can’t help but be an adventure for all those involved. Going to India isn’t exactly retiring to Florida. No offense, but India’s a bigger adventure than Florida. However, I’m getting off subject. India is a supporting character in this movie, and while the movie wisely focuses on these retiree’s stories, India is the supporting character that provides the opportunities for these characters to move forward with their stories.

India is beautifully shot in this movie and provides the backdrop for some culture shock and some wonderment. The film shows India’s colors and scenery, and uses it beautifully as a backdrop to the newcomers. Evelyn gets a job teaching those who work at a phone bank how to talk to older people. Though, the most affecting story in this is the story of Graham, who is there for very personal reasons, of which I won’t reveal. However, his story is beautifully told. In a way, all their stories are beautifully told. Of course, it’s inevitable in a film like this that the older group would end up helping out the younger people. Evelyn and Muriel end up helping out Sonny a lot. When you think the hotel is going under, they come to the rescue.
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a feel good movie for grown up’s, as opposed to a movie that looks at old age as some kind of lame end of the road. I like movies about grown up’s for a couple reasons. One of the pleasures of a film like this isn’t just the backdrop of a foreign country or heartwarming stories. It’s seeing those older actors, those pro’s. With so many movies about young people with superpowers, it’s always a pleasure to see a movie about older people who happen to just be people.

 “The Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a wonderful film about growing older, and not looking at it as the end. However, a lot of people will probably think this is some boring film only for the older set, and I don’t think that’s really true. Just because they are older doesn’t mean their stories are any less important. So, instead of lingering on the age of the people in this film, which will probably drive away many viewers, linger on their stories instead. You can do a lot worse than retiring to India. At least it’s an adventure. You know, unlike Florida.  

Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Monseieur Lazhar" is Wonderful

Four Stars

If there was a word to describe “Monsieur Lazhar” that word would be compassion. That’s certainly what the teacher has for his students throughout this picture. This isn’t just a story about a good teacher. It’s a story about a good man, as well, who is dealing with his own grief, while the children around him deal with theirs. “Monsieur Lazhar” the French-Canadian picture that was a nominee for Best Foreign Picture at the Oscars last year, presents us with a school community reeling from the suicide of one of their beloved teachers. One of the students, Simon (Emilien Neron) walks in on his teacher, who’s hanging from a rope in the classroom. Another young student, Alice (Emilien Neron) also gets a glance at the teacher. Seemly innocent, the two students develop a complicated relationship, as Simon feels responsible for the teacher’s death. Alice blames him for her beloved teacher’s death, as well. The school scrambles to find a replacement teacher, and quickly hires Bachir (Mohamed Fellag), who presents himself for the job soon after the teacher’s death.

The film takes place over one school year, as Bachir leads his new class through their grief and questions. Baschir, meanwhile, is trying to seek refuge, as his family was killed by terrorists back in his home country of Algeria. This sounds like a lot going on, and the film offers no easy answers. However, Bachir is such a kind man, that I smiled when good things happened to him. There’s also the case of the children, who are dealing with their grief. Simon and Alice especially are the focus of the story, and they are played with much complexity by the two young actors. Baschir is played by Mohamed Fellag, with kindness and compassion. He has an almost fatherly concern about his students and doesn’t want them to feel abandoned again. Mohamed Fellag is a popular comedian in Canada, but here he plays the dramatic role very well. 

Unlike other movies about inspirational teachers, “Monsieur Lazhar” isn’t about a teacher making big speeches or standing on desks. Instead, it’s about a teacher having compassion through simple gestures. Instead of making big statements, he reads a sonnet to the class. He goes about his job teaching the class. When Alice reads a paper on her former teacher, he wants to pass it around the entire school because of the maturity she showed. He cares for Alice, and the rest of his students. There’s the question of dealing with grief, in this film. The school has the students meet with a child psychologist.  The psychologist asks the teacher to leave the room while she talks to the students. Baschir is eager to get back in the classroom because he feels so protective of his students that he doesn’t even trust the child psychologist to fix their problems.

This might sound like another inspirational teacher film that deals with issues of grief and the teacher student relationship. However, writer/director Philippe Falardeau finds the right balance between innocence and a deeper issue at hand. The film unravels in an elegant and quiet fashion. Bachir, ever the traditionalist, sees the classroom as a safe haven for children. However, he also recognizes that a classroom can also be a place to learn more than just languages. The role of a teacher is to comfort as well as teach.

The principal tells Baschir that all touching must be avoided with the students; however, Baschir can’t help himself when Simon is blaming himself for his teacher’s death. He puts his hand on his shoulder, and tells him that it isn’t his fault. This leads to a final and wonderful scene that shows that sometimes all a kid needs is a comforting hug from a caring adult.