Three random airplane movies: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Anybody who’s a fan of Clint Eastwood‘s spaghetti westerns knows that THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is one of his best films ever. Clint hardly says a word the entire thing. It’s like the first 30 minutes of WALL-E, if you changed him from a robot that cleaned up humanity’s trash in an apocalyptic wasteland to a gunslinger who cleaned up human trash in an apocalyptic wasteland.

So: flying over to Germany and back, I saw many, many airplane movies. As a public service, I’m reviewing the ones that I remember to (a) save you from watching stinkers, (b) give you a head’s up on hidden gems and (c) say sarcastic things about Sarah Jessica Parker.

First up is the Good, then the Bad and finally the Ugly.

THE IDES OF MARCH

More good stuff from George the Clooney and Ryan the Gosling, who does a good job portraying the crazy life of a political campaign.

As a reporter who covered all kinds of campaigns, and as somebody working in politics now, this movie gets a lot of things right. The long hours. The mix of cynical veterans and 20-something interns full of energy. Lofty ideas crashing into the shores of reality. Reporters working angles. War by leaks.

I appreciated this movie, and how it saw all the shades of gray in the characters.

Ryan goes from a wunderkind who can do no wrong to having no job — and then, having learned things the hard way, rolls around in the mud to pull a coup on the boss who fired him to get the job of running Clooney’s campaign. You see this character suffer and change.

Clooney could have played his presidential candidate as a straight-up hero, a cartoonish good guy. Once again, Clooney has the guts to play somebody interesting and flawed.

Verdict: Rent it on Netflix at least TWICE, because I say so.

PAUL NEWMAN AND ELIZABETH TAYLOR IN SOME FILM WHERE PEOPLE TALK A LOT

From watching this with the sound off: Paul Newman is a good-looking jerk. He broke his leg, so he lays around the house all day, drinking up the booze and glowering at people. For some reason I never understood, Elizabeth Taylor is completely nice to him the entire time, even after he tries to break her ribs with his crutches.

This movie raised many, many questions in my mind:

First: Why doesn’t Elizabeth Taylor — or whoever owns this house — kick angry Paul Newman to the curb?

Second: Who’s paying for all this booze that Paul drinks?

Third: Does he have a job?

Fourth: Yes, he’s good looking, but does he have blackmail photos of Elizabeth or something? Because being good looking doesn’t usually let you sit around a house for weeks and weeks, drinking all their alcohols while you throw things at your host and act like a total dipstick.

This is a talky movie. There are old people and kids and a birthday cake.

I’m guessing it was a play (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF?) before it was a movie, because nobody every drives anywhere and there’s just a few sets. The camera keeps bringing us back to Paul Newman’s bedroom, where he demolishes Elizabeth Taylor’s liquor while giving her the cold shoulder.

She is far too kind in this flick. I would’ve kicked him out of the bedroom, crutches or not, after his first hissy fit.

Also, why is Paul the Newman such an angry drunk? My guess is he was some kind of high school sports jock, sad about the passage of his glory days, because the first scene I saw was Paul at some high school stadium at night, killing a bottle of whiskey or whatever while he throws stuff around before running hurdles. On the last hurdle, he trips up and that’s when he breaks his leg.

I found Paul Newman to be completely unsympathetic. Plugging in the airline headphones wouldn’t change my opinion because he never seemed to say anything anyway.

Note: After firing up the googles, yes, this was CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, and the internets say Tennessee Williams, a playwright famous enough to have his OWN STATE, hated this movie adaptation of his play so much that he told people the film would set back cinema for 50 years or whatever. 

Verdict: This might be a good movie with the sound on. Who knows? Visually, it was boring. You’d have to pay me in purple euros to watch it again.

I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT

I also watched this with the sound off, peeking every 10 minutes, and that was plenty to understand the plot: Sarah Jessica Parker is a working mom with a husband, kids, a gigantic loft and many, many pairs of shoes. Her boss is Remington Steele / 007, which makes her life even more miserable, right?

It’s a rough life.

There are more than 7 billion people on the planet. Half are women. I bet if you showed this film to moms in Africa who walk miles every morning to fetch drinking water, or moms in China working on assembly lines 14 hours a day, they’d break down and cry at all the hardships that Sarah Jessica Parker has to endure in this movie. Should she spend more time at the office with the suave Pierce Brosnan, more time at home being a wife and a mother or maybe hire another nanny and just not feel guilty about it?

The climax of this movie, I believe, comes when Sarah Jessica Parker faces the ultimate test: should she pack five pairs of shoes on her business trip or six?

The Hollywood executives who greenlit this turkey should be belted into a 15-hour airplane ride, halfway across the world, while they’re forced to watch this thing five times straight.

Verdict: Kill it with fire. Nuke it from orbit. No mercy.

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

Those nine words are magic.

And those words help sell 5.842 gazillion miles of barbed wire back in the late 1800s, when the West was still wild and there weren’t handy trees or stones to make fences.

Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt – I’ll remember that for days. Forever, maybe.

It’s honed down to perfection. Nine words, and not a one is wasted.

barbed wire
A little strand of steel with a twist and BOOM, you are golden. Photo by Guy Bergstrom.

In the five seconds it takes to hear those words, or read them, you’re sold.

Writers struggle with those first five seconds.

  • What’s the best way for a reporter to convince the city editor put a story on A1 instead of buried next to the obituaries on B15?
  • How can you sum up a 100,000 novel in a single page – or a single sentence?
  • When a magazine editor is buried with pitches, how does yours stand out from the slush pile?
  • What should a screenwriter say about his script while riding in an elevator for 30 seconds with Steven Spielberg?

Science shows us secrets

Here comes the science: people make up their mind about you – or your writing – in the first five seconds.

Viscerally. Unconsciously.

Their little reptile brains see your face or your words and make a split decision.

Later on, our oversized frontal lobes justify that snap judgment.

It’s not a rational thing. I’ve seen the science. Go read BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell. (Go on, read it. I’ll be over here, drinking Belgian ale.)

Different researchers testing for different things found the same result.

  • The first five seconds of a job interview determines whether you get it
  • The first five ticks of the clock during a professor’s first lecture of the semester, with the sound turned off, can be used to predict exactly how students will rate that professor.
  • A quick glance – less than – at two candidate mug shots will predict who will win the race. This works with adults or five-year-olds. Mug shots. No names. No parties. The shape of the face.

This last result fascinated me. Researchers had people glance at those mugs, then rate the candidates on attractiveness, intelligence, competence and whatnot.

They thought attractiveness would matter.Nope. They thought race and sex and age would matter. Nope.

Competence was the only thing related to the eventual winner.

This makes sense. If somebody’s attacking your village, you don’t pick Nerdy McNerdy as the leader of the defense. Brains without brawn won’t work.

You don’t pick Miss America to lead the troops into battle, either, because she’ll simply be nice to look at while you all get slaughterd.

And you don’t pick Mr. Neanderthal, tough but stupid.

Who do you want? Somebody who looks competent – tough but smart. A Clint Eastwood, somebody who looked like he knew what the hell he was doing.

Hold it out and squint

Alright, you’re already thinking of the Greatest Squinty Eyed Tough Guy in Movies, so remember this rule: Hold it out and squint.

Hold out your first page of your text and squint.

Is it a sea of gray?

Is there a photo or graphic? Are all the paragraphs the same length? Do you have any subheads or anything to break up the text?

Now, this doesn’t work for certain things. You can’t have photos and whatnot in screenplays or manuscripts.

Later on, though, it will make or break you.

When you go to rent a movie (yes, I know Blockbuster is dead to you and it’s all Netflix now, so pretend you’re clicking away with Mr. Mouse), you make decisions in far less than five seconds. You glance at the front cover and move on.

Same thing with books. Glance and move. Glance and move.

Maybe you pick a book up and read the text. What makes you pick it up? Images first. Maybe a good title. Glance and move.

That’s why the Squint Test is so important.

Think about movie posters with too much going on. When you squint, you don’t know what’s what.They’ve got the star and the co-star and seven different sidekicks in there, plus the villain and two random thugs. It’s a mess.

Less is more. Simple works best.

The poster for JAWS is perfect: a pretty young woman swimming along and a giant invincible shark roaring out of the depths of the ocean. It doesn’t get any more primal than that. We need the shark and a pretty girl. That’s it.

jaws movie poster
The JAWS movie poster is classic, and will always be classic, because it is simple and brutal and seven separate types of awesome. Steven the Spielberg, stick with this movie thing — you have talent.

Putting this knowledge to evil use

Our conscious brains aren’t really running the show. We’re like a mouse riding on top of an elephant, sometimes biting the elephants ear to go left or right.

How can we writers use that knowledge?

Tap into the reptile part of our brains. Go for the gut.

Blake Snyder hit this idea with his Hammer of Truth in SAVE THE CAT when he demolished the conventional wisdom of genres.

JAWS isn’t a horror movie. ALIEN isn’t a sci-fi movie. FATAL ATTRACTION isn’t a domestic drama. All three are the same story, the same primal threat: there’s a monster in the house. You can’t get away. Either you fight it and kill it, or it eats you.

Hollywood screenwriters are masters of the first five seconds. Fire up the google and check out “loglines” to see how they sum up a movie in a sentence. They make writers of novels look like silly chatterboxes. Think you’re being hip with a one-page synopsis instead of five pages? Hollywood laughs at a full page of text. One sentence, buddy.

Can you do it in a sentence?

How about nine words?

Copywriters are also world-class at those first five seconds. Visit copyblogger and soak up their wisdom. DO IT NOW.

The best five-second pitches — whether it’s a headline for a newspaper story, a poster for a movie or a pitch for a novel — tap into those primal needs and instincts that Blake Snyder talks about.

Survival vs. death. Love vs. loss.

You know what the stakes are. Instantly. Not 30 seconds into it. Not 15 seconds after learning about the when and where and who. You see what’s at stake, right away.

Here are four words: COMET WILL DESTROY EARTH.

That’s a newspaper story everybody will read. Everybody. It’s a movie people saw twice (ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT).

Part of the secret seems to what’s missing: the hero. You don’t hear a damn thing about the hero after you’ve boiled it all down, do you? Screw the hero. Heroes are plain vanilla and boring. The best ones, the ones that hook us, talk about the bad guy: the alien, the shark, the comet. Hmm. Maybe there’s a reason for that. But that’s a post for another day.