Things to watch on Netflix, Part 1: CARTEL LAND

cartel land movie poster
cartel land movie poster
Fire up the Netflix and watch this. DO IT NOW.

So I’ve been home almost two weeks after some surgery (I’m fine), and what do you do when you’re on painkillers, can’t drive and can’t write?

You read books. And you watch whatever is free on Netflix.

As a public service, this is the first of many reports on what you (a) must watch, (b) should try out and (c) can fire up if you want to make fun of something or are zonked out on meds, in which case everything is pretty funny.

CARTEL LAND is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long, long time, on Netflix or in the giant buildings where they charge you $9 for exploded kernels of corn that cost them 25 cents.

Here’s the trailer. Click on the thing.

Though this is a documentary, I have to compare it to the heavily hyped SICARIO, which starred three amazing actors: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin.

That movie got a lot of attention from critics, and hey, I didn’t hate the thing, it’s just there’s no hankering in me see it again. Zero. Nada.

Sidenote: There should actually be a score for that, a useful tool for critics and movie-goers alike: how much would you (1) pay to see it again because you loved it or (2) ask to GET paid to spend two hours of your life in a dark room with this movie? Call it the Plus or Minus Money Rating, and I bet it would be more accurate than one, two, three or four stars, which really doesn’t tell me much.

SICARIO made me think of THE EDGE OF TOMORROW, which Emily Blunt also starred in. Her acting was equally good in both movies. However: despite the fact that her co-star was Tom Cruise, I happily saw that masterpiece of fun three times in the theater and probably six times on Blu-Ray, which for some reason has a hatred for the letter “e.” Sort it out, Blu-Ray.

But how much would you have to pay me to watch SICARIO again? $30, minimum. $15 if you provided dinner and drinks.

I’d happily watch CARTEL LAND again. It doesn’t feel like a documentary. The filmmakers shot it like a big, epic blockbuster, and the editing makes you feel like you’re there.

What’s most impressive to me is this: the crew who filmed this documentary clearly risked their lives to do it. They were in the middle of shootouts and midnight raids.

Without giving away the ending, the thing this documentary does so well is violate your expectations. It’s one of the few movies that make you feel smarter for having watched it, and not smart in “I learned sixteen facts about the drug trade” kind of way. There’s wisdom to this movie that doesn’t beat the audience on the head.

Watch it and tell me what you think.

What do you want to know about the deepest recesses of Netflix? Pick your favorite and I’ll write the review.

8 reasons why blockbusters are meta-stories instead of Villain of the Week

Name something popular, anything at all, and chances are it’s a series instead of a One Hit Wonder.

This is about why that is, despite a serious quality handicap, and how your favorite series either does it wrong, does it halfway or flat-out nails it.

There are two basic types of series: evergreen and meta-stories.

Evergreen

This includes sitcoms, mysteries, and other shows where things don’t really change … except for the villain or problem, which constantly changes, until the movie series runs out of steam, the novelist gets sick of it or studio execs at NBC look at the dying ratings and pull the plug.

The advantage of an evergreen story is the audience can fire up Netflix and watch any random episode without being lost. You can , buy any of Lee Child’s series at Barnes & Noble and enjoy Reacher beating people up for 325 pages without needing to know anything about the other books.

Star Trek, in all its forms (original, TNG, Voyager) was an evergreen series.

HOWEVER: the best string of movies was a meta-story about Spock, with Spock sacrificing his life to save the Enterprise and crew (Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Corinthian Leather), then Kirk and crew sacrificing to bring Spock’s newborn body back from Planet Crazytown (Star Trek 3: We Stole This Sweet Klingon Warbird) and finally Spock is back with us and directing the movie, which was smart {Star Trek 4: Save the Whales), except it lead to a future movie where Shatner directed, which turned out to be an Achy Breaky Big Mistakey.

 

The disadvantage of an evergreen series is huge: it inevitably grows stale. Also, the lead actor will always be tempted to cash out and bail for the movies. And often, the ratings or sales simply tank, making studio exec or publishers pull the plug, ending the series with a whimper. Continue reading “8 reasons why blockbusters are meta-stories instead of Villain of the Week”

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.

4) Humor that’s deeper than one-liners and puns
Another staple of action movies is a bit of comic relief to balance out all the explosions.

Bond is notorious for bad puns, like “She always did like a good squeeze” after Remington Steele dispatched Onatopp, who later fell in love with Wolverine.

Schwarzenegger is famous for his one-liners, too. I’ll say the phrase and you’ll know the movie:
“I’ll be back.”
“Consider that a divorce.”
“Stick around.”

For action stars, that’s about all the humor than can typically muster, unless their name is Jackie Chan or Jason Statham and they know how to make a fight itself funny.

The humor in action movies is almost always about other characters. The hero is a straight man.

EDGE OF TOMORROW has humor throughout, and it’s far more sophisticated and varied than puns, one-liners and physical gags.

That takes actual acting chops, which Tom has. He uses them, often to get laughs at the expense of his own character. It’s different and refreshing.

3) Acting range
ROADHOUSE is a cult classic that turned Patrick Swayze into a believable action hero, if only for one movie, despite the insane chasm between dirty dancing with Jennifer Gray and bar fights alongside Sam Elliot.

But the range of most of these stars goes like this: brooding while looking off into the distance, brooding while ignoring the love interest, brooding while training, brooding while handling weapons and gear and, finally, grimacing in pain while being tortured by the bad guy before he escapes, throws the villain down a bottomless pit and broods while walking off into the distance.

Not a lot of range there. It’s like the famous internet chart, the Many Moods of Batman.

Tom has plenty of range, which he uses to connects with his co-stars — and connect with the audience in a variety of ways. Other action heroes typically focus on a variety of ways of dispatching bad guys.

2) Improving on the graphic novel

The movie differs from the original graphic novel, and this time, that’s a good thing.

In the novel, the alien Mimics reset the day with three separate ingredients: a Server alien, an Antennae and a Backup Antennae.

Bit complicated. And the novel has the Emily Blunt character turn on the hero at the end, because she figures out she’s the Backup Antennae and the day will keep resetting unless the hero kills her.

This is all too Connor McCloud vs. Duncan McCloud.

The movie simplifies things: there’s an Alpha alien that looks different than the others and has the power — along with the big, immobile Omega brain — to reset the day. If you kill the Alpha and get its blood splattered all over you, that power to reset the day gets transferred. The catch: you have to die, every day.

In the movie, Emily Blunt’s character doesn’t fight Tom Cruise and make him kill her. The climax does something great: it strips Cruise and Blunt of all their powers and gadgets.

Before, she and Cruise both had mech suits and Cruise had the power to reset the day. The climax takes those things away. Cruise only has one shot, one life, and they have to do it without the suits and guns. The stakes are much, much higher.

1) Go ahead and hate him in Act 1
A huge weakness of most action movies is there’s no character arc, no growth.

The hero is a smooth, handsome killer in Act 1. He breaks necks (and hearts) in Act 2 as a warmup, then mows down an army of bad guys in Act 3.

The hero doesn’t really change: he’s awesome the first time you see him, the most skilled and deadly killer around, and it takes an army of bad guys to even match up with him.

In this film, Cruise’s character starts out as a jerk and a coward. Not a little jerk. A big one. And not simply a coward, but a soldier who tries everything to avoid going to the front lines.

So if you started out disliking Cruise, as I did, his character isn’t trying to change your mind. At all. He isn’t saving the cat (Blake Snyder!) in the first scene. The script embraces your ambivalence or dislike of Cruise, and the movie works better if you don’t have a TOP GUN poster in your bedroom and all of his movies on BluRay.

Because the more you dislike or hate Cruise in Act 1, the bigger the journey will be by Act 3 — and real momentum comes not via intensity, but from the emotional distance traveled. If you love a character in Act 1 and love him in Act 3, there’s no journey.

The script doesn’t flip a magical switch, either, and say, “Okay, now you’re supposed to love the guy from here on out.”

Cruise’s character evolves, slowly, and not always in a linear way. There’s a great scene where he gives up. Instead of fighting the same battle on that beach for the 159th time, he steals a motorcycle, goes to London and has a giant pint of beer. This isn’t a throwaway scene. The director, and screenwriter, are surprising us by letting the character make different choices. The hero isn’t your typical action hero robot, plowing ahead to save the day no matter what. He’s human and flawed.

In the end, Cruise’s hero sacrifices himself to protect others. There was a lot of resistance, internally, to him making those choices. His character didn’t always do the heroic thing.

So there’s more to saying this movie is like GROUNDHOG DAY crossed with INDEPENDENCE DAY, and yes, I bet somebody on YouTube already posted a mashup called GROUNDHOG INDEPENDENCE DAY.

Bill Murray’s character in GROUNDHOG DAY also starts out as a selfish jerk. There’s no single moment that turns him into a nice guy. He does bad things and makes all kinds of bad choices. Only in the end does he figure out that becoming a better person takes more than charm and wit. It takes sacrifice and selflessness to get him there.

EDGE OF TOMORROW might have worked with another, unblemished actor. Matt Damon is talented and worked with this director before, and he put on a similar mech suit in Elysium, so I bet he could strap it on just fine. But the movie wouldn’t be as good.

Let’s give props to Tom Cruise: just as Robert Downey, Jr.’s past troubles helped make him the perfect choice for Tony Stark, Cruise’s long rise and fall from grace helped make him the perfect person for this movie. He nailed it in a way that a lesser known – and better liked — actor simply couldn’t.

OBLIVION swings for the fences and misses

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: OBLIVION is an interesting and beautiful movie that could have been classic.

Why did it flop?

Let’s look at the prime suspects:

5) Tom Cruise fatigue

This is an easy target. Cruise has gone from “Biggest Movie Star on the Planet” to “Incredibly Excited Actor Jumping on Oprah’s Couch” to “Scientologist Who Gets Divorced a Lot.”

As a huge fan of Lee Child’s Reacher novels, I have to say that Reacher is something like 6’5, 250, blond and quietly sarcastic, while Cruise is short, light, dark-haired and loudly cocky.

HOWEVER: I will give the man his due, because Cruise did a fine job of acting in this movie. The average sci-fi apocalypse movie would have a hot new 20-something actor mumble his way through the thing looking stoned while trying to seem macho. Cruise was an upgrade from the typical New Action Hunk.

You could’ve put Matt Damon, Ryan Gosling or George Clooney in this sucker and it wouldn’t solve the problem. Cruise gets a pass.

 

4) Double mumbo-jumbo

Screenwriter Blake Snyder (may he rest in peace) says in SAVE THE CAT that audiences will buy one crazy piece of magic or sci-fi. They’ll buy a giant robot assassins with heavy Austrian accents or they’ll buy witches with real magic powers–but they won’t suspend disbelief to see a movie featuring magical witches battling a robot assassin.

Audiences might buy sci-fi techno stuff mixed in with a little magic if you distract them with lightsabers and don’t try to over-explain the magical stuff. But if you start talking like an idiot about the magic being caused by science, say something insane like “midi-chloridians,” they will turn on you, and hate you for ruining things forever.

OBLIVION throws all kinds of stuff in here: an apocalypse, an alien invasion, evil robot drones, massive human cloning, frozen astronauts who are 85 years old or whatever plus and a serious fetish for spiffy helicopter-things.

All of this, however, is under the happy umbrella of technology. Even the craziest stuff seems plausible given the setting of the movie. Also: Cruise should spend his salary from this movie to make a working replica of his helicopter-jet thing, which I’m gonna call the Tom-mobile.

 

3) Insanely confusing plot

This is a good suspect. While the movie technically avoid the double mumbo-jumbo trap because it’s all science, there are enough plot threads to weave a throw rug.

We’ve got dream sequences in black-and-white, Morgan Freeman channeling Morpheus by way of Mad Max, some Minority Report flavorings and a dozen other subplots thrown into the blender.

Even so, the director holds it together. You understand it. So the confusing parts of the plot aren’t what keeps this movie from being an instant classic.

 

2) Happy endings are for suckers

The ending is happy, which fanboys never like. Tom Cruise Clone #1 and the dying Morgan Freeman blow themselves up in the mothership of the aliens, saving the world, and later we see Tom Cruise Clone # 2 finding his wife and baby daughter.

Reunited and it feels so good. Except it doesn’t feel great.

 

1) The villain

There are three parts to a villain, which I’m making that up right now.

Let’s call it Guy’s First Law of Villainy, which states villains must be motivated, fascinating and scary.

Motivated: If your villain is simply doing bad things for no reason, it’s nonsensical.

This is a huge problem with OBLIVION, since these aliens invading Earth go through all kinds of trouble to (a) find Earth in the first place, (b) travel a bazillion light years to get to our precious rock orbiting the sun, (c) wage a long and brutal war to gain control of the planet so they can … (d) suck up all the water in our oceans to create nuclear fusion or whatever.

Hold up.

Water is no big flipping deal. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. Oxygen isn’t exactly rare. You can find water on asteroids, comets and planets. There’s some moon orbiting Jupiter or Saturn that we think is a giant ball of water with a frozen crust of ice on top.

I don’t buy aliens going through massive amounts of trouble to steal our water. Sci-fi needs to make sense, because sci-fi fans are smart people who care about this stuff. So this is a huge problem.

Fascinating and scary:

If you’re going to have an alien invasion movie, don’t forget the aliens.

OBLIVION has no aliens. I kid you not.

It has all kinds of drones, which look like angry flying cousins of Pac Man, yet tiny little drones aren’t scary of fascinating. Give us big, threatening bad guys, not cute little ones.

Who is the ultimate villain of the movie? A big faceless computer.

That’s not fascinating or scary. At all.

To make this movie work, we needed amazing aliens, the kind that are incredibly fun to watch. ALIEN got this right, as did ALIENS.

PROMETHEUS forgot about this rule, and therefore wasted the gross domestic product of Paraguay on Michael Fassbender and special effects for no good reason.

This is the reason OBLIVION failed as an alien invasion classic: no aliens. You can’t expect audiences to go wild for a boring, faceless computer as the bad guy.

It’s the same trap that doomed THE MATRIX sequels. We never saw Neo battle the ultimate bad guy in charge of the machines. He died playing anti-virus cleaner for the machine lords, which put the B in Boring.

Writers: can you do it in FOUR WORDS?

That’s the acid test for every writer: four words.

If somebody in line with you for the Largest Latte Known to Man asks what you’re working on, can you explain it in four words?

How about eight words?

Because if you can’t, you’re not really done.

What if I told you ... how to get to Sesame Street?

And I don’t care that you’ve spent the last seven years locked away in a French monastery, slaving away 25 hours a day, eight days a week to perfect (a) The Great American Novel, Even Though It Was Written in France, (b) the movie script that will turn Hollywood on its ear and stop it from spending $250 million apiece on Michael Bay explosion-fests involving robots that transform into cars or whatever  or (c) a punk-rock masterpiece with song after song with lyrics so beautiful, and rebelliously ugly, that anyone who listens to it quits working for The Man and buys an electric Fender so they can learn the only three chords you need to know to become AN INSANE ROCK GOD.

So let’s get down to it. If you haven’t already, read these posts to get all educated and such, even though it is technically cheating — because today, there is a quiz.

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

Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Writing secret: all you need is CURIOSITY and SURPRISE

THE MOTHER OF ALL LOGLINE QUIZZES

Loglines, which, if you weren’t paying attention, are short little summaries of movies and books and such.

There are two ways to score this quiz, the first involving length and the second quality.

Four words or less gets you an A, five words is a B and so forth.

Quality is subject, but even if your logline is insanely brilliant, anything over eight words gets a big fat F, and F that glows in the dark and follows you around for a week like a bad cold or a moldy metaphor, which is like a simile, but different.

Sidenote: If you are a Literary Muffin of Stud, go ahead and share your brilliant answers in the comments. Then we’ll talk smack.

Sidenote on the side of that sidenote: If you are a shy lurker, as 99.9 percent of writers are, print this and scribble your answers, then share your brilliant answers somewhere, with somebody. Because it’s time you stopped being a shy lurker writer type. YOUR HEAD WILL NOT EXPLODE. Maybe you’ll even make a friend over the Series of Tubes and such, fall in love, get married and move to a former dairy farm in Vermont or whatever. These things have happened.

Quiz Part 1) Write a logline for your favorite movie, but turn the villain into the hero without changing the story.

Example

STAR WARS:  Wise ruler fights to stop murderous rebels, who keep blowing up invaluable public property.

Shot the length rule to bits there. Let’s shorten it to five words.

STAR WARS: Wrinkled leader battles murderous rebels.

There we go. I like it. Could have nailed four words if we smited “wrinkled,” but I don’t care.

Bonus, because we hit five words and give ourselves an A++ and such: Palpatine’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1.

Quiz Part 2) Take your current project — movie, novel, performance art piece involving a dance number that expresses your feelings about unemployment — and write a logline making fun of it.

Go ahead. Have at it.

It’s more fun than you’d expect.

Quiz Part 3) Write five fresh loglines by twisting or rewriting stupid books and movies that had promise, then took all that promise and blew it to pieces with The 12-gauge of Utter Stupidity.

Examples

MATRIX REVOLUTIONS: Man wins war against robot enslavers.

Six words. It’s a better plot, because not Keanu “Whoah” Reeves doesn’t sacrifice his life to play virus cleaner for the robots, therefore protecting the status quo and ensuring a cycle of endless war and nuttiness. His death actually changes things with this logline. But six words is still too long.

MATRIX REVOLUTIONS: Man frees mankind from robots.

Five words. Too many “mans” in there. Where’s Trinity and such? But it’s better.

ONE SHOT: Tom Cruise is a foot too short to play Reacher.

Yes, I am a bad man. The trailer still looks awful. Couldn’t they find some short actors to play the thugs who Tom Cruise beats up? It looks like junior high bullies hassling a second-grader for his lunch money.

ONE DAY: Man meets girl, loses girl, gets girl back.

That’s the standard plot for every romantic comedy ever, but it’s also 1,398 times better than the actual plot of ONE DAY where man meets girl, man loses girl, man loses girl again, man finally marries girl, girl gets RANDOMLY PANCAKED BY A TRUCK, man is sad, roll credits.

TRANSFORMERS 3: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON OR WHATEVER: Magic robots leave Earth, because why would magic robots need our lame technology and such anyway? Also, Megan Fox buys a pair of pants.

I’m cheating again, though it is fun. Alright, TRANSFORMERS 3: Robot war obliterates Earth.

Much better. Also, it’s right up the alley of Michael Bay, who loves nothing more than blowing up stuff anyway.

ENTER THE NINJA by Die Antwoord

Well, this is different. It’s not achingly good or insanely low-budget and terrible.

The music is oddly OK, and the production values are high.

But it’s just so flipping weird.

Let’s take inventory: We’ve got  (1) a skinny ex-convict or whatever who thinks he’s some kind of ninja, though (2) his albino woman who keeps singing “samurai” all the time and (3) I have no idea whether this third person, the short man wearing a hoodie, is supposed to be a ninja, a samurai or some kind of wizard.

Let’s clear up the ninja vs. samurai thing real quick. Samurai = soldiers with big katanas and armor. Ninja = what every Internet Tough Guy wants to be. Pick one, not both. They are incompatible.

Also, ninjas will NOT allow Tom Cruise into their secret club.