Category Archives: The Big Screen

Was Episode 2 of GOTHAM an epic fail or glorious win?

The pilot episode of GOTHAM tried to pack three hours of characters, action and material into one hour, which is more like 42 minutes with all the commercial breaks.

Did I like it? Absolutely.

Was it 10 pounds of plot shoved into a 5-pound bag? Yes. And part of that couldn’t be helped.

However, we now have Episode 2, in capital letters, to reflect upon and answer the question: Can the writers and showrunners keep this thing exciting while slowing it down and giving key characters more screen time?

Here’s the trailer for the pilot, and while this trailer is well done, it doesn’t do justice to how much they tried to pack into it.

And for comparison, before we chat, check out the promo for Episode 2:

So how did they do? Just fine.

In fact, this is one of the rare shows where Episode 2 is better than the pilot.

Why? This time was slower in a good way. They gave villains time to chew the scenery, with the best bits being the slowest scenes.

The second show reminded me of how Quentin the Tarantino ratcheted up the suspense, higher and higher, with the opening scene of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.

And that’s only a taste of that scene. It goes on and on, and you don’t care that nothing seems to be happening, that’s it’s simply two men at a table with a glass of milk, talking. Because there’s crazy tension and conflict there without a single gunshot or explosion. Michael Bay would go deep into withdrawal, right?

But slow can work. Slow burns are often the best burns. Gunfights and making things go boom doesn’t mean anything unless you give it meaning.

BREAKING BAD understood this perfectly. There was no shortage of blood on the floor of that set, yet Vince the Gilligan and his creww always took their time to carefully plant setups and build up that tension before finally paying them off.

One of best examples of Chekhov’s Gun ever comes from a literal gun, an M60, they planted in the trunk of Walter White’s car, not knowing when, why or how that gun would go off later in the last season. Brilliant!

Well played, GOTHAM people. Good actors, good sets and good pacing. Keep it up.

What say you, (a) casual Batman fans and (b) intense fanboys who know how to spell and pronounce Ra’s al Ghul? Bring it in the comments.

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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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Filed under 3 Tinseltown Tuesday, The Big Screen, The Glowing Tube

Big, Beautiful Movies with Sad, Stupid Endings

The First Law of Bad Literary Novels is simple: there are no happy endings.

It’s the same story with Big, Beautiful Movies with Sad, Stupid Endings.

Now, that’s not to say every book and movie needs a prototypical Hollywood happy ending. Tragedies should have sad endings, and there are plenty of classic movies where the ending is ambiguous.

Rocky actually loses his first fight. The victory comes from not getting knocked out – and from the journey from loser to contender. Rocky suffers, sacrifices and grows. That’s why the movie is good: there’s a big contrast between where Rocky is in Act 1 and where he ends up in Act 3.

The trouble with these movies is the audience doesn’t want to see them again, if they ever saw them in the first place, because the ending sours everybody, despite the beautiful imagery and amazing acting.

I’m not saying you can’t make a great movie without being low-brow and throwing in more explosions than Michael Bay ever dreamed possible.

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The trouble with LUCY by director Luc Besson

I’m a huge fan of Scarlett Johanssson and Luc Besson, director of THE TRANSPORTER, THE FIFTH ELEMENT and THE TRANSPORTER PUTS THE FIFTH ELEMENT IN THE TRUNK AND DRIVES IT AROUND EUROPE.

So I saw LUCY last night in this giant building where the floors are sticky and popped corn drenched with fake butter costs $10 a bag.

The previews looked great and word was this movie is interesting, if not weird. Hey, it’s directed by Luc Besson, who I really want to call Jean Luc Besson, so it’s going to be exciting and fast and weird.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s a great parody trailer:

Is this movie good? Sure. Exciting and different. Worth renting, and maybe watching in the theater.

What keeps it from greatness? The Invincible Hero Problem strikes again. Continue reading

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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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Filed under 3 Tinseltown Tuesday, Fiction, The Big Screen