Category Archives: 3 Tinseltown Tuesday

Giving THE TRANSPORTER a tune-up

THE TRANSPORTER is the break-out movie for Jason Statham, and though I am perhaps the world’s biggest fan of Jason the Statham Kicking Things in the Face, there are clunky bits rattling around in the engine compartment of this film, keeping it from true greatness.

It’s like a classic car with a gorgeous front end, giant engine and gimpy transmission.

So I’m dragging it into the shop and turbo-charging this thing.

Having recently rewatched THE TRANSPORTER using time-travel technology called Blu-Ray, three things stuck out: the beginning, the middle and the end.

The beginning is amazing. The middle sags.

The ending is underwhelming.

Let’s grab plot wrenches, get our hands greasy and figure out why.

Act 1: A Man and His Car

The first scene of the film is amazing. Frank puts on his driving gloves, fires up his exquisite piece of German engineering and picks up his first package to transport, no questions asked. Turns out to be four bungling bank robbers and this opening car chase is thrilling.

The next major scene brings us to the best part of the movie, after his second job goes bad and Frank’s beloved black sedan goes boom while he’s eating a sandwich. Frank returns to that client’s mansion and rings the doorbell. Result? Awesomesauce.

Continue reading

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GAME OF THRONES as a cheesy ’80s TV show

game of thrones

Now, having only seen bits of GAME OF THRONES doesn’t stop me from loving this video, and wishing they could make an entire episode like this.

Nailed it, didn’t they?

For comparison, here’s the most epic ’80s synthethizer music intro ever, from AIRWOLF:

Let’s chat for a second about why GoT is such a huge hit. It’s not like he invented something brand new, and no, J.R. Tolkien didn’t, either. He borrowed from Nordic myths.

GoT seems to have become huge not despite the fact that major and beloved characters might die at any time, but because of that fact.

It’s completely unlike your typical TV series, which is based on one or two major stars and a cast of bit players. The stars never die, though if a major star leaves the show to give Hollywood a shot, the series often goes kaput.

Think of STAR TREK except Kirk dies in the third episode and Spock gets eaten by a salt-monster on some desert planet in episode five, leaving Bones in charge until the Klingons destroy the Federation in episode seven. Crazy, right? But you’d watch it.

As a special bonus: here are all kinds of intros to crazy ’80s TV shows. Enjoy.

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Why ARCHER’s arrows are hit and miss

Cast of ARROW tv show

ARCHER — the TV show about a dude with arrows, not the cartoon spoofing James Bond — isn’t horrifically good or amazingly bad, which are the two types of things that are worth discussing and dissecting.

Yet this middling show about a middling superhero is worth taking apart to see the good, the bad and the ugly.

It’s also a good test case, a chance to learn a few lessons from where ARROW works and when it doesn’t. Useful less for anyone who ever wants to write stories, novels, TV shows and movies — or become a masked avenger who lives with his mom.

On the mark: Constant action
There’s no lack of fights, chases and conflict. The opening scenes are often quite good, sometimes starting in the middle of a battle without any boring exposition at all, making you wonder, “Who are those guys Archer is ventilating with green arrows?”

Off the mark: Constant special talks
The fights aren’t bad. The dialogue, though, can kill you.

Every conversation is a special talk that ends in zingers. It’s like the showrunners hired some guy who helped choreograph fights on Jason Statham’s last movie to handle all the fights, then kidnapped the entire writing room of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS to provide the dialogue. Continue reading

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Top 5 reasons EDGE OF TOMORROW works — and why it redeems Tom the Cruise

Edge-of-Tomorrow-Poster

Not because the movie is great, though it is.

Not because the director the same amazing man behind THE BOURNE IDENTITY. And not because Emily Blunt and the other supporting actors nailed it.

I almost didn’t see this film because of my antipathy for Tom Cruise, and yeah, I’d lost respect for him the last few years. But this bit of cinema goes a long way toward rehabbing Cruise as a blockbuster star, though not for the reasons you’d expect.

Warning: spoilers. Also, I refer to action heroes as “he” for simplicity, and yes, Ronda Rousey and other female action stars are amazing. 

5) Reversal of tough-guy expectations
Most action stars have an actual background in Being a Tough Guy.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was the king of bodybuilding. The rest of the cast of THE EXPENDABLES 12: ANARCHY AT THE AARP MEETING is full of martial arts maniacs, pro wrestling hulks and mixed-martial arts studs.

The fact that Tom Cruise is short in real life isn’t an impediment here. Jackie Chan, Jean Claude Van Damme and Jet Li could all fit in the back seat of a Yugo.

Doesn’t matter. They look big and tough on screen.

The difference? While he did all his own stunts in this movie, just like the toughest Tinseltown tough guys, Tom the Cruise can actually act. Shockingly, acting ability tends to matter on the big screen. Continue reading

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Top 3 reasons why DEAR KITTEN won the interwebs

This is three minutes of film, via the Series of Tubes, that doesn’t have a single special effect or Michael Bay explosion. Yet it’s blowing up the Series of Tubes like nobody’s business, and not simply because it has cats.

Watch it, then we’ll dissect this to see how — and why — it works so well.

Beautiful, right?

Here are the top 3 reasons why this snippet of film by BuzzFeed works so well:

1) This is actually a long ad for Friskies … with barely a glimpse of the cat food they’re trying to sell you.

So right there, it’s refreshing, since 99.999 percent of TV ads are in your face, hoping to grab your attention for three seconds before you (a) change the channel, (b) pull out your iPhone or (c) amble on over to pillage the pantry.

Even the insanely hyped Super Bowl ads, the ones that are so famous that we get backstory about the advertising folks who created them, despite the fact they look more like your neighbor Bill the Accountant than Don Draper — well, those supposedly amazing ads are typically disappointing. They try too hard. Too fast, too loud, too much. You can see all the money on the screen and yeah, a lot of it is wasted.

Instead of 30 seconds of cars zooming and Danica Patrick in a bikini selling web domains (don’t get that one, either), we get 3 minutes of slow, leisurely voiceover from a cat while B-roll runs wild.

And it is hilarious.

DEAR KITTEN is also different from some of the better Super Bowl ads, like the Darth Vader kid who starts the car using the force. Those are more like one-joke skits, except not so much that the repetition drives you nuts like a bad SNL bit that’s gone on too long. This kitten business isn’t Johnny One Note at all. Continue reading

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Filed under 3 Tinseltown Tuesday, 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, The Glowing Tube

Who says scientists can’t tell killer stories?

A great example of breaking up a talking head with interesting B-roll.

Well done, brilliant scientist and editor peoples at The Atlantic.

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Tiny film teaches us big honking writing tricks

Here’s an itty bitty film that’s crazy funny and extremely well done. Watch it, then let’s talk it over.

So, here’s the thing. Drama is very simple, when you get down to it.

  • Step 1: Create conflict, say two young brothers wanting to inherit the same rich farmland.
  • Step 2: Dream up ways of making it far, far worse, like one brother stealing the other brothers favorite cow and serving up Bessie barbeque at the next family gathering.
  • Step 3: Raise the stakes even higher in the big finale and put our fighting farmers in a North Dakota version of the Thunderdome — two men enter, one man leaves, because the other guy has a pitchfork in his head.

Humor is far, far tougher.

You have to dance on the knife’s edge of normalcy, push boundaries, tell uncomfortable truths. Be edgy without being offensive, insanely creative without coming off as insane.

Humor doesn’t have easy formulas, and the risks are far greater. Jokes fall flat. Things that seem hilarious in the writing room go nowhere, while little throwaway bits turn into comedy gold. You can’t predict it.

So let’s talk about three little things before the Big Thing that I noticed in this short film.

First, they dispense with names, with one exception: the delivery service logo.

A typical story would be awash with names. If David Lynch was doing this, DUNE style, the floating head of a princess would be on screen for five minutes, telling us the name of the planet, its ruler, the strength of its army, the name of the alien who’s supposed to get this package delivered and so forth. Then we’d get all kinds of voice-over about the delivery ship and how it travels through space-time using dark matter or whatever.

Second, there’s no backstory. No flashbacks, no explanations, nothing. The makers of this short film know backstory is irrelevant when they’re showing everything now, as it happens. If you’re explaining, you’re losing the storytelling war.

Third, no dialogue. Maybe you could argue about the aliens saying things we don’t understand, but no, that doesn’t count. It’s like the opening half hour of WALL-E, which was brilliant without a single word of dialogue.

So: no backstory, no names and no dialogue. What’s the Big Thing they did?

These filmmakers maximized the gap, creating chasms between expectation and result from BOTH directions. They were constantly, creatively, always raising the stakes from the POV of the space delivery man and the aliens.

That gap usually exists only for the hero. The villain knows exactly what’s happening and why. He’s not surprised at all.

It’s the hero who’s fumbling around, wondering what the hell is happening, and only at the very end does the villain have any gap between expectation and result, because the villain expected to shoot the hero after his monologue, not get thrown down a bottomless pit.

Most films and novels stick to that unwritten rule: No Surprises for the Villain, because surprises are precious and reserved for the hero. We don’t usually see the villain failing or being confused. If we see things from his POV at all, the villain is doing deliciously dastardly things and doing them well, because that makes it harder on our hero.

In this film, the gap grows wider and wider from both points of view until it can’t get any bigger, and they’re doing something interesting with the gaps: not only is each gap funny, they also raise the stakes every time until the climax.

Could you make it even worse for the alien planet than being Death Star’d at the end by the delivery ship’s main engines? No.

The opposite of this happens in bad Saturday Night Live skits, which are bad for a very specific reason: they latch onto a single funny idea like a lamprey eel, then do it seventeen bazillion times until it’s time for a commercial break so we can get educated about the new formulation of Head and Shoulders.

Those bad kits aren’t funny because of a structural problem. The gap doesn’t grow bigger. The stakes don’t get raised. It’s repetition without a purpose.

Well done, film gods who made this beauty. Give us moar moar MOAR.

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, The Big Screen

French filmmaker’s epic tribute to BREAKING BAD

This video by Alexandre Gasulla contains everything I love about BREAKING BAD: the beautifully framed images, the music, the menace, characters who actually suffer and change and die.

Most television series are packed full of cardboard stereotypes and cliches that never change from episode to episode, unless the actor breaks out and bails for Tinseltown paychecks.

Even the best shows either jump the shark (Fonz actually did this on a motorcycle), forgets that when you turn a great villain into a pseudo-hero you have no villain at all (HEROES), gets seven times weirder than necessary (LOST) or simply limps on too long past its expiration date until the network cancels the thing and the showrunners throw together a Giant Flashback Episode, because otherwise, all the actors who bailed to become movie stars won’t be in the finale at all (every TV show ever).

BREAKING BAD ended on its own terms, the story complete. Thank you, Alexandre, for making this work of art celebrating a work of art.

Related post: Top 5 reasons Breaking Bad was insanely good

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Why the classic movie DUNE is a hot mess

I remember watching DUNE in the theater and thinking, “Whoah.”

Then again, I was a whippersnapper with no taste when it first came out. So on Old Movie Night, we popped in DUNE and fired it up.

Oh my.

There’s no doubt that DUNE is a hot mess. The question is, why?

Suspect No. 1: Horribly Cheesy Special Effects

This is a good place to start. You can’t excuse David the Lynch for not having access to better special effects, not when this movie came out after all three of the original STAR WARS movies were out.

Check out the trailer and tell me the effects are up to snuff, even for the era.

So, the effects in DUNE are Dr. Who-level lame. You expect the rocks to some styrofoam they bought off the old Star Trek set.

But bad effects aren’t the main reason this film is a hot mess. An audience will forgive bad effects if the story and characters are compelling.

Suspect No. 2: All Kinds of Crazytown

You don’t hire David the Lynch to direct a normal movie. You hire him to spice things up and go a little nuts.

Being absurdly weird can earn your movie cult status, with college kids playing it simply for the biggest excesses and worst moments of wackadoodle.

Moderately good or bad things are mediocre and boring. Give me stuff that's horrifically good or amazingly bad, then we'll talk. Kthxbai.

Moderately good or bad things are mediocre and boring. Give me stuff that’s horrifically good or amazingly bad, then we’ll talk. Kthxbai.

Then again, the tough part is once you base-jump off the Cliff of Normalcy, there’s no guarantee your chute will open.

And this film sprints away from Normal, stiff-arms Edgy and slides right into Bizarre.

This is half of the reason the film is a hot mess. You’re constantly distracted, sometimes by the bad effects, but more often by the weird, bizarre and gross sideshows that don’t truly move the story. The Baron Harkonnen’s massive zits get a ton of screen time. The Guild Navigators are grotesque. The bad guy troops have reverse mohawk hairdoes while the good guys wear surplus World War II uniforms. It’s constantly and consciously odd, which pulls you out of the story.

But if the story kept moving, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on all the weirdness.

Suspect No. 3: Ponderously Beating the Audience with the Cudgel of Pretentiousness

This is the true culprit.

Audiences will believe in sorcerers and elves if you don’t explain them. They’ll buy lightsabers and aliens who are into M & M’s — but not if you get pretentious and deep trying to explain all those things.

See, audiences want to believe. If you set things up from the start, they’ll stick with you. What you can’t do is (a) switch mid-way though a normal book or movie to say “Hey, actually the hero is a vampire. Surprise!” (b) commit the Hollywood sin of double-mumbo jumbo — trying to have a story that’s about dragons and trolls … plus space witches with lightsabers or (c) constantly stop the story to intrude with pretentious narration and dialogue that’s on the nose.

It’s that last sin that DUNE commits right away, with a long narration setting things up following be another and another and another.

Every time the story moves forward two inches, somebody has to stop to explain it to the audience for three minutes, as if we aren’t smart enough to watch the story and understand.  It feels less like a movie and more like a lecture. Then the credits roll.

I bet there’s a supercut of DUNE somewhere, a lot like STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM EDIT where some kind person sliced out all the boring nonsense, like Jar Jar Binks and all the talkative scenes where George Lucas is patiently over-explaining things to you and ruining the Force forever by saying it’s caused by space bacteria or whatever. No.

DUNE breaks new ground with the Unnecessary Voiceovers by having every actor whisper a voice-over of what they’re thinking, which is usually stuff the audience already knows, but hey, beat them on the head with it again.

Which is too bad. There are great actors in here like Kyle MacLachlanPatrick StewartSting and Jürgen Prochnow. A less wacky, less ponderous film with the same cast would have been awesome, even with the same cheesy special effects. It would also be far shorter and more watchable.

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 3 Tinseltown Tuesday, Fiction, The Big Screen

Why THE LEGO MOVIE works like magic

Movies based on toys, or cartoons from the ’80s designed to sell toys, tend to suck like Electrolux.

THE LEGO MOVIE is a happy exception to this rule. It’s worth talking about how they accomplished that trick.

They didn’t do it with snazzy special effects and big-name actors. Just about every film based on toys has great CGI explosions and big actors who aren’t so big that they won’t cash a giant check: BATTLESHIP had Liam Neeson, TRANSFORMERS had Megan Fox, G.I. JOE movies have had the Rock and Bruce Willis.

What makes this movie about interlocking bricks any different?

Reason Number 1: The Humility to Make Fun of Yourself

You don’t see the other toy movies doing this. They try hard–too hard–to be serious, and real, and only tangentially related to all the toys they want your kids to buy.

THE LEGO MOVIE has the guts to poke fun at itself, not once or twice, but during the entire film. Relentlessly. Brutally. Hilariously.

Reason Number 2: Subverting and Smashing Conventional Storytelling

This is the real secret. THE LEGO MOVIE picks up typical Hollywood structure by the throat and body slams it to the asphalt.

A normal action movie features a cartoon hero (Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Bruce Lee or Bruce Willis) who’s tough and cool in Act 1 and doesn’t change by Act 3. In fact, this hero doesn’t change, suffer or grow in any of the sequels.

Instead, the writers of this movie picked a hero who’s an Everyman that the prophecy says will become great and powerful, and save the world … except he never really gets those powers, and the prophet (Morgan Freeman!) admits in the end that he made it all up. There is no prophecy.

In parallel, the screenwriters take Batman, who stands in for your typical cool/tough hero, and show that he’s actually a hot mess. Is he still tough and capable? Sure. But you see the real man behind the façade, and it’s funny and insightful.

The villain is where the writers truly nail it.

In a typical action movie, there’s a cartoon villain doing evil things for no apparent reason other than he’s a villain and that’s what they do. Then in the finale, the hero kills the villain in a dramatic one-on-one gunfight, swordfight or fistfight.

Not this time. Continue reading

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