30 September 2011

You're only half the story

tvtropes is , as most know, a combination wiki and message board devoted to cataloging and listing every bit, event and cliché that appears in fiction in general. Browsing tv tropes reveals two very valuable things.

1. There are no new ideas.
The exhaustive lists for movies like Princess Bride and Pirates of the Caribbean, show just how many conventions so many movies share (Even Casablanca and The 400 Blows) . There doesn't seem to be any film or work of note that doesn't have an enormous cross-referenced list of "tropes".

2. The author only writes half the story.

The rest of what makes a successful story live is the audience.
The"Wild Mass Guessing" and "Fridge Brilliance", categories of the site prove how freaking insane fans are, like people who think Sofia from Golden Girls was a figment of Rose's Imagination or that any character who changes actors is a Doctor Who Timelord. With shows and franchises with particularily devoted fanbases like the Recent My Little Pony Series (even just for one character) and the Christopher Nolan Batman movies,the debates just get strange.

But with all this dissection going on over lines or pieces of business that were one-off jokes, or simply trying to re-write plot holes as ultra-subtle brilliance, tvtropes proves that the audience is an active participant, not merely the recipient, of the ritual we call storytelling. 'Cause there's no way in hell Batman's a Timelord.

"The more beautifully you shape your work around one clear idea, the more meanings audiences will discover in your film as they take your idea and follow its implications into every aspect of their lives."

-Robert McKee

24 September 2011

The Films of Jonathan Lynn: Trial and Error

Released in 1997 by New Line Cinema, Screenplay by Sara and Gregory Bernstein, directed, of course, by Jonathan Lynn.

"Trial and Error" follows best friends Charles Tuttle (Jeff Daniels), a high-powered lawyer and Richard Reietti (Michael Richards), a struggling actor, and their high-jinks in a small town in Nevada . When Charles is too hung over from his bachelor party (thrown by Richard, of course) to appear in court for a routine continuation, Richard takes his place, but the matter goes to trial. While Richard has to defend a shameless defrauder (Rip Torn), Charles has to cope with his fall from grace, merely being ordinary.

Visually, the exteriors look great. In my post about "Wild Target", I've slammed Gabriel Beristain for setting up bland "sitcom style" look to these movies, but with the stunning snowcapped mountains in the background and exposures such that you can almost feel the desert heat, "Trial and Error" so far has set up the best cinematography in a Jonathan Lynn movie since Beristain's work on "My Cousin Vinny".

"Trial" is a well crafted movie with some very funny scenes , but compared with the other movies in Lynn's catalog, it doesn't really offer anything new. Every funny thing you could do with the legal system had already been done in "My Cousin Vinny". "Trial" is ostensibly about lies and deception (what with carrying on a charade during a trial about fraud), it seems like that ground has been covered, too.

All of Jonathan Lynn's films so far ar farce: the plot hinges on a secret being kept (like hiding the corpses in Clue') or a bald-faced lie being maintained (like how Vinny Gambini claims he's "Jerry Callow"). With little more to offer than some beautiful cinematography and Charlize Theron in a tight top, "Trial and Error" is little more than routine.

My focus with these reviews largely is story and screenwriting, and one thing "Trial and Error" illustrates very clearly is Character Arcs. Many screenwriters and critics believe this is the most important story element , from Michael Corolone's descent into corruption in the film version of "The Godfather", to Chihiro's growth from a whiny brat into a compassionate problem solver in "Spirited Away" .

Don't get them mixed up, now.

Usually, the character does something at the end of the movie that he would (or could) never do in a million years at the beginning.

In "Trial and Error" both Charlie and Richard go through their arcs. At the beginning of the film, Charlie is a lawyer for whom everything, even his pending marriage, is about his career. At the end of the movie, he walks away from the courtroom, dumps his fiancee and runs away with Charlize Theron. Richard starts the film as a goofball who'd rather show off than take responsibility for anything. At the end of the movie, he addresses the court honestly, admits his client is a scumbag and should be put away because it's the right thing to do.

Box Office Mojo says the film opened at #4 with a worldwide total gross around $14, million, considering New Line's modest release policy at the time (even "Austin Powers" didn't get a lot of launch promotion and publicity, that was saved for the sequel in '99 when the property was already classified as "pre-sold"). But that sounds like enough to keep a film directing career going, at least long enough to direct "The Whole Nine Yards".

18 September 2011

Color redux.

This is what happens when you just can't stop noodling around. You'll notice changes from last post. I've tried to approximate flesh tones within the given palettes, cut the variation within the restaurant location (there are definite changes in mood, but I've decided to give more focus to separating the scenes by location)

If you're into color theory and all that cool stuff, you'll notice these are all analogous schemes. No compliments, tetrads, or triads here. Since the scenes of the film are very direct and to the point, I felt the color design should reflect that. Also, since the final product won't time out to more than one minute, I figure dynamic opposition(visually) between the scenes should press a sense of scope the movie wouldn't otherwise have from the time slot.

14 September 2011

Some color scripts.

Here's some color scripts for a short film of mine. Hopefully, without even the details of plot (more on that , later), these sketches should give you a good idea of mood, location and time frame. Feedback, is of course, welcome and encouraged.

10 September 2011

The Films of Jonathan Lynn: Sgt. Bilko

Released 1996 by Universal Pictures, written by Andy Breckman, based off of the Phil Silvers show, created by Nat Hiken.

Sergeant Ernest Bilko is a scheamer who repeatedly leaves his long-running fiance at the alter and runs illegal gambling operations behind his superiors' backs. When his old C.O., Major Thorn(Phil Hartman, perhaps the only good thing to come out of Greedy), arrives to audit progress on development of a "hover tank" (and settle a personal score with the Seargent), Bilko has to find a way to save his own skin and that of his base, Fort Baxter.

The Cast is fantastic! It's billed as a Steve Martin vehicle, but Bilko's really an ensemble piece. Glenne Headly, Daryl Mitchell and Dan freak'n Ackroyd round out the primary cast. Steve Martin's a wonderful physical comedian, but It seems the burden of whoever gets stuck on screen with him while he's doing schtick to bring in truthful reactions to the scene and make it believable! Which everyone (particularily Headly and Mitchell) do in spades.
Even the bit players are brilliant! Nearly everyone of the men in the motorpool get a scene-stealing moment, from Spc. Paparelli in drag (Max Casella) to Major Ebersole (Austin Pendelton...again) fantastically losing a game of poker the entire roster is amazing.

If you wanted to find a fault with the film, the characters are pretty thinly drawn. Bilko, and everybody else are basically Looney Tunes. Every character's pretty much a one-trait gag: the greedy one, the fat one, the mean one, the dumb one etc.
Major Thorn (the mean one) wants revenge on Bilko for sending him to Greenland. He breaks into Bilko's records and finds explicit evidence of every illegal gambling ring and dog race Bilko ever organized. That would be enough for a court martial, but Thorn takes it one step further and frames Ernie for diverting funds, claiming Fort Baxter's "Hover Tank" is a fraud. This claim gives Bilko the solution in the third act, when he and the motorpool successfully fly the tank and save the day.
A reasonable person in this situation would find the real evidence, turn it in, get Bilko booted away, simple. Only a complete caricature of obsession like Thorn would shoot himself in the foot like that, defying all common sense. I could whine about how this makes him a weaker antagonist by lowering his competence and threat level, but I won't.

Having excellent actors play a gang of incredibly broad characters serves a definite purpose: the story's over-the-top, but excellently constructed.

More specifically, it has a point. In "Story" Robert McKee makes mention of "the controlling statement", a brief dictum that sums up what happens and why. As he puts it

" The more beautifully you shape your work around one clear idea, the more meanings audiences will discover in your film as they take your idea and follow it's implications into every aspect of their lives".

Brian McDonald, author of "Invisible Ink", calls this the armature, like the wire skeleton of a clay sculpture, and also make mention, that in motion pictures, this moral (if you will) is often expressed offhand in a line of dialog.

In one of the very first scenes, Sgt. Barbella tells newcomer Laredo-I mean, Holbrook:
"That's the golden rule around here, you don't say nothing unless you're prepared to back it up."

Throughout the film, everything revolves around proving claims. Ernie Bilko tells Rita he loves her, but he has to prove it by being there for her, and (eventually) marrying her.
The biggest laughs come when character's have to justify their lies. Like why Bilko has a horse on a crane, and why Sgt. Henshaw (John Marshall Jones) has a closet full of dresses in a room he claimed was his (*gasp*SPOILER: it isn't).

In the finale, Bilko and his men "prove" the hover-tank works by faking the field demonstration. Thorn knows this is impossible since he personally sabotaged the tank's firing controls before, and accuses Bilko of trickeryh. When the visiting General asks him how he knows the tank can't work, Thorn (in True Daffy Duck fashion) indites himself out of frustration.

Bilko's a solid piece of work, thought out, well constructed, marvelously cast, and as always with Jonathan Lynn's movies, with Tony Lombardo's crisp editing keeping the pace brisk and enjoyable. Some places do drag, like the super-fake CGI on the Hover-Tank (hey, it was 1996!) but the film's got it where it counts.

In ticket sales, Bilko did twice the overall revenue of Greedy, and certainly has had a better track record critically, in television rotation and home video/media sales. A grand improvement, I'd say.

08 September 2011

The Films of Jonathan Lynn: Greedy

Released 1994 by Universal pictures, written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel.

This movie blows. The script's poorly conceived, and impossible to execute well.

The scenario goes that, at the behest of his corrupt relatives, Danny (Michael J. Fox) has to stop his estranged Uncle Joe McTeague (Kirk Douglas) from willing his fortune to the attractive sexpot, Molly (Olivia d'Abo), who lives with him.
But the story lacks stakes.

Let's talk about Star Wars!

When Princess Leia was taken prisoner by Grand Moff Tarkin, she refused to give up the location for the rebel base? Why? Why didn't she just hand over the info, pay the fine in court and go home? Just as the audience is about to ask this, Tarkin orders his space station to blow up her home planet, Alderaan.

Now let's talk about When Harry Met Sally

Both Harry Burns and Sally Albright want to find a romance so true and long lasting they can give interviews in a tacky livingroom about it, but finding love it tough. Okay, but if it's so rough why doesn't Harry stop dating and start reading books from the beginning for a change? Why doesn't Sally just get a nice pith helmet with a fan on it? Before the audience even asks these questions, Harry tells Sally about "dying one of those New York deaths nobody hears about..."when they drive to the city at the start of the movie.

In his book "On Directing Film" David Mamet said the keys to drama lay in answering three questions : "What does the hero (or protagonist) want?" , "What's stopping him from getting it?" And "What happens if he doesn't get it?" .

If Luke Skywalker doesn't save the Princess, other planets will blow up, like Alderaan. If Harry and Sally don't find love, they will die alone, in worse states they are now. Even in the third act of "The Distinguished Gentleman"(which I slammed for sloppy writing) If Thomas doesn't indite Congressman Dick Dodge, thousands of photogenic little children will die of power-line cancer!

What happens if Danny doesn't get Uncle Joe's money? Nothing. Danny gets supported by his successful girlfriend rather than being able to open his own business, which... doesn't sound that bad. What happens if Uncle Joe just gives all his money to Molly? Nothing. In the very first scene, it's established all of the McTeagues are Upper-Middle Class. Without an inheritance, they all still have careers and equity There's no consequences. Like how poker's only fun with gains and losses riding on the outcome, dramatic narrative is only interesting if there's something at stake. It's basic fiction 101 and a writer-director with two major TV shows and four feature films under his belt should have known better.

I'll concede, though, the casting kicks ass. Austin Pendelton (the stuttering lawyer form "My Cousin Vinny") shows up again in a one-scene wonder. Coleen Camp (Yvette from "Clue") shows up as one of the cluster of relatives. Ed Begley Jr. sells a lot of otherwise lackluster scenes just through reactions (sincere, too, not a "take". One suspects the film should have been about him). And Phil Harris chews up every scene he's in, which is welcome in an otherwise very dull movie. Hell, Jonathan Lynn himself even plays the Butler, Douglas. But none of them have anything to work with.

This material just isn't funny. The setpieces are built from classic hack material and premises. Who likes celebrity impressions? At best a novelty. But the movie's big mid-point climax is Michael J. Fox doing an impersonation of Jimmy Durante, song and all. They had to put Jimmy Durante footage over the opening credits to explain who the guy was. This also kills any opportunity for an decent opening gag. The first thing on the screen is 40 year old re-run. The end routine is a fistfight between Danny and cousin Frank, not slapstick with odd props and silly noises, but... a real fistfight, where someone could break a jawbone. Jeez, man.

Personally, I find Greedy an increadible weak film, poorly structured with little in the way of defined characters. The script gives little in the way for anyone; costumer set designer, editor or the ensemble cast to work from. But, box office mojo says it opened at #2, which in absence of either a production cost or advertising budget implied the movie made money. Even the acknowledged great directors made an awful movie or two, and I'm glad that enough 1994 moviegoers didn't see things the way I do now, and that "Greedy" didn't turn out to be a career-killer for Jonathan Lynn as a director.

06 September 2011

The Films of Jonathan Lynn: Wild Target

First off, broken scanner means no compulsory fan art (I didn't post CFA on The Distinguished Gentleman, either, but that only matters if you're all into consistency and stuff like that. )

Second off, I'm gonna skip ahead and look at a recent release. 2010's Wild Target

Produced by Magic Light Pictures (and friends) distributed in the US by Freestyle Releasing and Honest Engine films, distributed on home video platforms by Fox. It's written by Lucinda Coxon, based off of the film, Cible émouvante written and directed by Pierre Salvadori. Starring the Octopus man from Pirates of the Carribbean, that Girl from the wolfman and Ron Weasley.

The Harry Potter Reference? You're really gonna go with that?

Wild Target is unusual, in that it's been released seven years after The Fighting Temptations, the longest gap between Jonathan Lynn films, (most of which have come out regularly every 2-3 years). Odd, but so unusual as to discredit Lynn as an example as a successful contemporary career filmmaker.

The movie's about Victor Maynard, an assassin who falls in love with his mark, Rose. He winds up protecting her rather than shooting her, a carwasher named Tony tags along during the chase and, in noble light-comedy tradition: "hilarity ensues".

What's striking about Wild Target is David Johnson's cinematography. Most of Lynn's films have the stock "comedy look" about them: high-key lighting, nonobtrusive camera work very much presented like a sitcom without a laugh track.


Weirdly, my main criticism of the film is the same as it was for Nuns on the Run. The antagonists, the evil businessman played by Rupert Everett and rival hitman played by Martin Freeman, aren't credible obstacles or threats . Businessman Ferguson spends so many scenes playing broad and bitchy to be taken seriously and rival assassin Dixon keeps having his on-screen competence undermined by statements about how he's "second best" to Victor.

Now, plot isn't everything. And perhaps the ultimate purpose of story is to make some observation on the human condition or provide instruction for future generations. But a big part of making a living through narrative is entertaining the audience (so they'll pay you money). And applicable rules of dramatic form is one of the the most reliable, and most often proven methods of doing so. So I stand by my opinion, these bad guys are too easy!

SPOLIERS BELOW (just in case you care)
Personally, I enjoyed Wild Target, for many of the reasons I enjoy most of Jonathan Lynn movies, it's funny, but it also makes you think.

The movie deals with Victor's mid-life crisis, and legacy. His mother states it outright when she says that he "is, in many ways, becoming (his) father's son". Victor takes in Tony as an apprentice, refuses to shoot a pretty girl after his mother suggests he should be getting married, installs said pretty girl in his mother's old bedroom and ends the movie with successful procreation with said pretty girl.

In a way, the change in Victor's life is brought about by sentiment. He's shown to be little more than a lonely, cold professional in Act I. He saves Rose at the beginning of act II, borrowing a fair share of trouble, and his father's old gun backfires on Dixon, saving them all(except for Dixon, obviously). It's a gun Victor had never used or attended to (much like his personal life) and only kept "for sentimental reasons".

Box Office Mojo says wild Target had a production budget of 8 Million US dollars, with to-date worldwide grosses of 3 and a half million (again, in US dollars).

With these numbers, and no further projects (announced, in production or otherwise) it's possible this could be Jonathan Lynn's last film, which isn't a bad note to end on. If Wild Target is all about legacy it would be fitting for it to be the finale of a steady 25 year career in film comedies.