Category Archives: The Big Screen

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.

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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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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

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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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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Why WORLD’S END ended with a wimper

On four different British Airways 747′s to India and back, I watched many, many movies. And it’s worth talking about them not in a “hey, this is out on DVD, so should you fire up Netflix?” kind of way, but in a storytelling way.

Did it work? Why or why not?

WORLD’S END proves that talent doesn’t always equal success. This is a movie with great comedic actors, yet a structural problem kills it. Because it’s truly two different movies slammed together.

The first movie is a comedy about five mates in England getting back together for an epic pub crawl they didn’t finish as college kids.

The second movie involves robots from space, which comes as a huge surprise, and not a good one.

Simon Pegg is brilliant, and he teams up with his sidekick once again, like in SHAWN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ. Brilliant!

This movie had potential but is not up to Simon’s usual snuff. The thing is, fixing this film wouldn’t take much.

While the Simon Pegg character is talking his buddies into returning to their home town for the crazy pub crawl, he could’ve dropped hints about drunken fights in pub bathrooms with possible robot imposters. A single line like that could’ve saved this movie.

But instead, we get an orphaned payoff with no real setup.

Bonus: Simon continues the stunt casting of former James Bonds with facial hair playing villains. Timothy Dalton with a Tom Selleck mustache was in HOT FUZZ and this time we’ve got Remington Steele with a goatee. Loved this.

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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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THE WOLVERINE proves Writing Law #1 – Less is More

Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine on the big screen 873 times so far, and I love the man. Does a great job in the role.

However: Even the charm and acting chops of Hugh the Jackman weren’t enough to salvage the hot mess of the first solo Wolverine movie, which I believe was titled WOLVERINE: A TRAIN WRECK OF A SCRIPT.

So it is with pleasure that I say this latest Wolverine flick, now out on DVD and BluRay and 3D smello-vision and such, is far more watchable than the first hot mess. Check out the trailer:

But hear me now and believe me later in the week: even with the same director and a SMALLER BUDGET, you could have made this latest movie infinitely better. (Spoiler alert: I’m going to fix the movie while revealing big plot points and plot holes.)

Here’s how to fix it: Cut out every possible character. Show no mercy.

Because less is more. Continue reading

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A montage set to music: The best movies of 2013

Movies are all around us. Kind of like the Force, before George Lucas ruined it with all that claptrap about midichloridians or whatever.

Films live inside your TV, your iPhone, your laptop. They’re sitting on shiny metal disks and even being celebrated in these insanely large and dark stadiums where you pay $12 for popcorn and a Diet Coke that costs 20 cents.

And if you’re anything like me, movies are something magical.

So there’s this professional movie critic, David Ehrlich, a man you’d think only takes joy in ripping apart SMURFS 3: ARE WE THERE YET, PAPA SMURF while praising some black-and-white existential French movie where the hero finally kisses the girl and promptly gets hit by a bus–well, you’d think critics like him wouldn’t create something so joyful and beautiful as this.

Except of course he would. Why does anybody become a movie critic, book reviewer or rock journalist? Because they love nothing more than movies, books and making fun of Axl Rose and Vanilla Ice trying to stage a comeback.

So tell me, peoples of the Series of Tubes: which movies in 2013 make your top three?

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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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THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2 skips right to three villains, which is nuts

So, it’s the second movie in the series that already had three movies in its previous incarnation. Let’s skip the usual insane pattern of having two villains and go straight to three: Electro, the Green Goblin and Rhino. Seriously?

This is getting a smidge ridiculous. Will we see four villains in the third movie and five in the fourth? The original trilogy of Spiderman movies starring Tobey Maguire went like this:

SPIDERMAN: one hero, one villain (Green Goblin, played by Sergeant Elias from PLATOON). Well done.

SPIDERMAN 2: one hero, two villains (Doc Octopus and James Franco, who likes to write novels while going back to college, plays the angry Son of Green Goblin by using all of the acting range of that dude who played Anakin Skywalker).

SPIDERMAN 3: one hero, three villains (Sandman, Venom and grumpy Son of Green Goblin).

THOR also followed this silly formula, with one villain in the first movie (Loki) and two villains in the second (angry pasty space elf plus Loki again).

The first movie that started our current comic-book movie craze, the original Batman directed by Captain Crazypants (love you, man), had one hero (the Batman, by Michael Keaton when he had hairs), one villain (the Joker by that dude from THE SHINING) and Alec Baldwin’s ex-wife No. 2 or whatever as the girl for Batman to kiss.

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MISSING YOU by John Waite teaches us all about subtext

Here’s a classic song with a video that proves singers should sing, and actors should act.

What’s not to love here?

John Waite‘s hair is pure ’80s gold, with feathery blow-dry action in the front and a sneaky pseudo-mullet in the back. It’s a Don Johnson-punk mullet. Plus he rocks the standard One Dangly Earring look that every lead singer was required to have for about two years.

HOWEVER: What’s most interesting to me is how the lyrics clash with the video.

The lyrics avoid being “on the nose,” which is Hollywood screenwriter slang for people saying, or singing, exactly what they mean. Nobody in real life does that. It’s not realistic, not good for a story and not fun for the audience.

People avoid coming out and saying directly what they truly feel.

A hero doesn’t say, “Hey, I’m really scared, and I don’t want to die, so maybe you could drop that gun and let me handcuff you, seeing how I don’t want to get shot or get stuck with piles of paperwork if I shoot you first.” He says, “Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?”

A villain doesn’t say, “Being locked up in this dark basement next to low-level lunatics is beyond boring, and I would rather stick needles in my eye than communicate with these beasts, but pretty young FBI agents are something I never get to see, so I hope you stick around and talk to me for hours, Special Agent.” He says, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

So while the acting and the visuals in the video are completely on the nose, with zero ambiguity or subtlety, the lyrics are great and full of subtext.

John Waite misses his girlfriend / lover / wife, but he doesn’t say, “Hey baby, I miss you a lot, and I’m a wreck, and I wish you’d come back.”

He sings, “I ain’t missing you” and follows that up with “I ain’t missing you at all” and seven other variations of the same thing.

But we know he’s lying.

And that’s what makes this song a classic.

Related posts: Music Video Monday’s Greatest Hits

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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 2 Music Video Monday, Red Pen of Doom, The Big Screen