Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The X-MEN Movies: The Marvel Cinematic Universe's Idiot Older Brother

The first X-MEN movie was more than fans had hoped,
but less than what should have been.  The X-MEN
comic is positively epic. The movies have not been.
THIS POST IS A SPOILER-RICH ENVIRONMENT.  Please do not read further  if you don't want the X-MEN movies spoiled for you.  It's never my goal to ruin movies for people so, I generally try to avoid being any more spoilery than I have to, but when writing about a movie series, it's kind of impossible to avoid all spoilers.  YOU HAVE BEEN SPOILER-WARNED!

Don't get me wrong--I enjoyed the X-MEN movies.  All of them.  Well, almost all of them (COUGHx-menoriginswolverineCOUGH).  I was overjoyed when the first X-MEN got so much right.  I was still disappointed in how much it got wrong, though.  I mean, come on, it's me--I've read the X-MEN comics.  Sometimes I wonder if everyone who made that first X-MEN movie had.  As far as I can tell, all they did was read the X-MEN issue of WHO'S WHO IN THE MARVEL UNIVERSE and then just stuck in the more popular characters.  Which was great, all told.  That was more than I was expecting, to be honest.

What the first X-MEN movie got right.

The plot and dialog for all of the films was pretty good with the films getting better and better as they went (not including the two Wolverine stand alone films which were steps backward in quality, though the one in Japan was the better of the two).  It was nice to see the general dynamic of Magneto versus the X-Men being respected as much as it was.  However, there is one thing they absolutely had to get right in order to capture one of the most interesting and long-running dynamics...

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Trouble with Trailers

We all know what trailers are.  When's the last time you saw a really good one, though?  I can't remember.  I'm shocked when I see a trailer that doesn't make me roll my eyes at least once.  Even movies I like have trailers that are stupid.  When I saw TERMINATOR: GENISYS, every single trailer I saw before the film either gave me too much information in the form of spoilers or stupidity, or they gave me not enough information to determine whether or not the movie would be any good at all.  Is there a solution to this problem?  Or is it just really really hard to make a good trailer?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Saving FANTASTIC FOUR: Break the Formula

One of the big problems with Hollywood has always been its urge to make it easy for itself.  Why actually take the effort every time to write a good script when you can plug variables into a formula and BANG you have a shootable script people will put their butts in theater seats for?

Put simply: Formulas don't work.  Not by themsleves.

Sure, they may seem to work for some films, but how likely are those "success stories" to be rewatched?  The key to a crowd-pleasing movie that is also a good movie is to have a formula guide you as a writer, but not to have it dominate your choices.  

FANTASTIC FOUR can be boiled down to an equation.

Young White Male + Problem that Needs to Be Solved + Complications + Implementing the Solution = Climax

Aside from the most basic of backstories given to two of the characters (Ben and Johnny) there is nothing of ANY interest included in this film.

No spoiler alerts for this piece: There is nothing in FANTASTIC FOUR that could be considered a spoiler

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Problem with Pilots and How Solving it Will Make All TV Shows Better

Unlike a lot of pilots, the first episode and the first season of
BEING HUMAN did not suffer from Not Enough Planning
Syndrome.  Sadly, later seasons did. :(
There is a general understanding in Hollywood that TV pilots just aren't very good.  There's a saying in screenwriting circles that says "always start your script as deep into the story as you can."

In Hollywood, today, the former is embraced while the latter is ignored.  At least, that's how it seems to me. I've seen several first episodes of series that seem to have no idea what they're doing.  When ever I mention this to other writers, what I usually hear back is the excuse: "Well, pilots always suck because they haven't figured out what the story is or who the characters are."

I wish so many of us writers weren't so eager to defend half-ass writing.  I get that all that really matters is if people watch, but aren't your story and characters things you should work out before you hand in your "finished" script?  And if you have a clear plan for them in mind, don't you think that will make your pilot and any episodes that follow stronger and more likely to get an episode order?

Seriously: how can you defend the idea that it's OK to flesh out your story and characters further into the series?  Too many shows suffer from Not Enough Planning Syndrome.  It's so easy (though it's also time consuming) to just sit down and answer questions about your story and about your characters.  Just make choices.  Your bosses/fellow writers will let you know if they don't work or if they are just horrible directions to go in.  Figure out where your plot is going beyond the first episode and even beyond the first season.  The question to ask yourself is this: what is the long arc of both my story and my characters?

When Not Enough Planning Syndrome Strikes, We Are All the Victims!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

POWERS that (Should) Be (Better)

I am finally getting around to writing up my take on the Sony Playstation Network series POWERS.  For anyone who is not familiar, this is a show that is based on the Brian Michael Bendis comic series of the same name.  It's a comic I am unfamiliar with, so I won't be talking about it's adaptation, but I will talk about how the show adapts the general super-hero idea to the small screen.
"REAL POWER LIES WITHIN" a better script. :(

One thing I won't be doing is praising it.  This show falls prey to a number of common problems.  The biggest is giving into the syndrome I described in my piece about the Wachowskis SENSE8 (read it here).  Internet First Syndrome, put simply, is when producers and writers behind the show decide they can take advantage of the no-commercial structure of Internet-First TV shows and just take everything slowly--too slowly.  In too many cases, this manifests itself in the form of padding. In this case, it takes POWERS about 7 episodes of not much importance to get to a big plot point.  Remember how Netflix's DAREDEVIL took what should have been a pilot episode and stretched it out into nearly an entire season of episodes?  Yeah, like that.

POWERS in a nutshell

Sadly, POWERS comes across like a show on a budget--gritty, but featuring weak-looking gore, no FX make-up,  props that look hokey, featuring a very simplistic, predictable story.  There were no surprises, no interesting characters, and action that looks like a fan-film.  Actually, I recently saw the fan film, PREDATOR DARK AGES, and it had better action and FX than POWERS.

POWERS left me wanting so much more.  I will never read the comic if this is how good it is.  The show tries to be tough and gritty, but it fails on almost every practical level.  It tries to say important things about the nature of fame and power, but does so in a way that is not compelling.

Ultimately, it felt like a show that didn't know exactly what it wanted to do beyond that one huge (and hugely obvious) plot point that takes forever to actually happen.

Look--even they seem underwhelmed by this show and they're
starring in it!
What worked in POWERS

Not much.  The universe of POWERS is developed, but boring.  The budget, I assume, keeps the story in Los Angeles, and it's an LA that looks a lot like real LA--not like an LA that would change due to having super-powered people around.  That said, we know there is a world beyond the borders of the story.  That's cool and interesting and not something other shows get right.  ARROW and FLASH never give the impression that there are is a culture evolving around super-heroes.  POWERS nails that and it's the most interesting thing about the show.  Sadly, that's not the focus of the show.

Another thing that worked, but was also not the focus of the show, was Retro Girl's place in the universe.  I really understood where she was in her life and career as a super-hero and I got her conflict.  I also liked what they were going for with the African-American partner.  The dynamic between her and the lead white guy was interesting, but really underdeveloped, sadly.  I really wish the show had been about that partner because her character is far more interesting than a washed-up, ex-super-hero-turned-police-detective.  I mean, that is a pretty old character archetype, isn't it? This doesn't mean it's an inherently bad choice, but it sure as hell doesn't make it instantly a good one.

One last thing that (sort of) worked for me was the gritty violence.  I thought it looked not-so-great, but I got the point. When there is violence, it's a mess and it's brutal.  I got the sentiment, even if the budget wouldn't allow for it to show like I felt it should have.  Seeing blood splattering everywhere is cute, but not all there is when making disturbing visuals.

What Didn't Work in POWERS: IT'S SPOILER TIME, KIDS!  You've been warned!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Making a Better TOMORROWLAND

I remember being so excited when I first heard
about this movie. I remember reading that the
script was based on objects found in a box from
Walt Disney's old office. Pretty sure that was just
PR BS now, since I didn't come across any reference
to this box in reviews or interviews with the director.
I know--this seems like an easy target, but nothing frustrates me more about a bad film than if it's a missed opportunity to do something that could have, and in this case should have, been amazing.  When it comes to optimistic science fiction films, I'm in the camp that believes we need more of them (despite the fact that I generally prefer dystopias and post-apocalypses in my stories).  In that sense, I agree with this film's message, but not how it goes about expressing it--as everyone who has seen it knows, this film does damn near everything wrong.

No, that doesn't mean I'm going to write a ten-part series on the failings of this film (though, I could).  What I am going to do is explain how I would have recut and reshot portions of TOMORROWLAND so that it would make a better, more watchable movie.  I usually focus on how I would have rewritten the script, but this time, I'd have rewritten the entire thing from scratch, making it pretty much unrecognizable, compared to what Disney let reach the screen.  It really is that wrong-in-the-head.  After the spoiler alert, I will go into a short explanation of the thing biggest problems I had with the film and then I will get to how I'd retool the final cut.


OK, so, one of my biggest problems is...

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Saving SENSE8 and a Few Other Internet-First Shows, Too

In case you haven't heard of it, SENSE8 is a new genre show from The Wachowskis and it's available on Netflix.  I feel like there really wasn't very much publicity for this show.  I hope this show does well despite the lack of ads.  Is it perfect? Well, I'm writing this, aren't I?  That means it needs some kind of saving and it needs more than better advertising because I almost gave up on it several times and would do so no matter how much it had been hyped.

First, what works?

The premise of SENSE8 is that eight people, around the globe, from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, discover that they are somehow psychically connected. Not only that, they can temporarily take over each other's body, kind of like Scott Bakula's character in QUANTUM LEAP.  It's a pretty neat concept, but there's a catch and I call it Internet-First Syndrome.  I'll explain that in a bit.  Before that, more of what worked.

The premise.  The premise worked really well and it is a fascinating concept. I don't want to go into too much detail without a spoiler alert (keep reading for that), so just trust me when I say that it is a great premise for a show about people (as opposed to shows about specific conflicts).

The acting is largely perfect.  I think every single actor on the show seemed to really get where their character was coming from.  What I loved the most about the casting was the diversity.  Anyone who knows me, knows I'm tired of seeing white faces everywhere.  Especially white male faces.  While there are a couple of them in this show, there are also Latino faces, African faces, Asian and Indian faces, and even a trans woman's face.  She is also played by a trans woman, as well, which is nice.  A trans character is not the only non-traditional story element in this show.

The themes explored are varied and fascinating.  This isn't just your typical, X-FILES rip-off where there is a single through-line and we spend the entire series in service of it like Sony Playstation Network's POWERS.  While there is a general level of predictability in it, there are plenty of surprises and really, really, wonderful moments for both the story and the characters.  I did find certain aspect of the story to be lacking, mostly in the main plotline that ties them all together.  I'll get to more on that in a bit.  I'm still gushing...

The story isn't just diverse in themes, it actually veers away from the main story quite a bit into really interesting corners of human culture that mainstream genre shows and movies really don't venture very often.  This is simply not a show that would ever be made via traditional Hollywood channels (literally and figuratively).  It's so much of what I long for in American storytelling.  I'm glad I stuck with it, though it really was frustrating for the first four or five episodes.

So far, you might wonder where the bout of IFS is involved.  Well, right here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Can TERMINATOR: GENISYS Save the TERMINATOR Franchise? (Answer: No, it's too late.)

Full disclosure: I didn't think there should have been a single sequel or spin-off in any media after the original, 1984 TERMINATOR film.  I enjoyed each of the films to varying degrees (they got more and more forgettable as they multiplied) and I never read any of the comics because I felt they violated the premise of the original film: that Skynet had sent one Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor. Comics were just starting to climb in price back then, and I figured, I could afford to see a Terminator sequel film every once in a while. However, keeping up with the comics, just in case they were good, would be too pricey.  So, I stuck with the live action stuff.  I'm glad I did, but even the best of the bunch left me a bit "meh."

Yep, I'm going to say it: TERMINATOR 2, left me a little flat.  Sure, the liquid metal Terminator was cool, but the original film explained that only one killer robot was sent back, not two (or more).  Sure, I overlooked it just to enjoy the movie, but with all the awkward sentimentality mixed in, I kind of wish I hadn't. I mean, the "bond" young John Connor and the "good" T-800 developed was hokey and cliché. 

"Asta la Vista"? Really?

The other films had some interesting ideas, but ultimately, they were just poor excuses for making some cash off of the TREMINATOR brand.  So, when I first heard about TERMINATOR: GENISYS, I quickly questioned the wisdom of the money-people behind it.  This just seemed like an almost shameful attempt to squeeze the last drops of cash out of this stone.

Then I saw the trailer.  

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


So, "AMERICAN HUSTLE" got nominated for some Oscars, right? The acting in it was superb, right? Loads of people saw it, right?

So, what's to "save"?

The whole damn movie, that's what.

You may have enjoyed it for the acting. Or the great period costumes. Or Amy Adams' precariously placed breasts. But one thing I did not enjoy was the pacing. Wow. I started zoning out once the relationship between Adams' and Bale's characters was established. I never really zoned back in after that. Well, that's not entirely true. I made myself pay attention once the story seemed to be reaching the climax.

The thing is, the climax is pretty anticlimactic. In fact, I have to struggle just to remember what it is. I guess it was the part where we discover how Bale's character turns the tables. That whole scene has such a calmness to it, that it felt weak to me.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Netflix's DAREDEVIL should be Cast Out (part 2)

This is part two of "Netflix's DAREDEVIL should be Cast Out" (read part 1 first! It'll make more sense!). Do I still think that since I wrote part one? Well, as I wrote both parts as one giant thing over the span of a few weeks, yes. Of course. This is not because I felt the acting was bad or the production or anything else was bad--aside from the script.

If you haven't already read part one, go read it now. It includes a nice little spoiler-free mini-review that covers the basics of the mess that I think Netflix's DAREDEVIL really is. It also covers:

Spoiler-rich, What Worked in Netflix's Daredevil
Netflix's Daredevil is a Man without Sense
Time to Pick a Couple Nits
My Problem with the Kingpin of Crime

In part two, we will cover:

Enough with the Origin Stories, Guys!
What really got my Blood Boiling About Daredevil
World Building and How Daredevil Screwed it Up
How I would have Written the first season of a DAREDEVIL show

OK, here we go with part two! Remember This is a SPOILER-RICH ZONE... YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Enough with the Origin Stories, Guys!

What is probably the biggest problem Netflix's DAREDEVIL has, is that it's lead character's arc is too long and too boring.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Netflix's DAREDEVIL should be Cast Out (part 1)

OK, that title may be a bit strong, but I do feel that way, if for just one reason. I'll get to that one reason in a bit. Other than that one reason, I still think Netflix's DAREDEVIL series is a mess. Obviously, it entertained a lot of people, but for this comic book reader, it was tedious and meandering and, honestly, pretty misleading.

As this is a series that is effectively 13 hours long, there is a LOT to say. So, I'm breaking this up into two posts. This post will cover the following:

My spoiler-free mini-review
Spoiler-rich, What Worked in Netflix's Daredevil
Netflix's Daredevil is a Man without Sense
Time to Pick a Couple Nits
My Problem with the Kingpin of Crime

Part two will explore:

Enough with the Origin Stories, Guys!
What really got my Blood Boiling About Daredevil
World Building and How Daredevil Screwed it Up
How I would have Written the first season of a DAREDEVIL show

Already read Part 1? Check out Part 2 which is live now!

Spoiler-Free Mini-Review

My mini-review is that, as an action show, it was really well made. The action sequences were realistically staged and felt more like real life than anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The acting was nearly perfect. I had a few issues with both Charlie Cox and Vincent D'Onofrio's choices, but I stopped caring about the ones with Cox as the show progressed and the ones with D'Onofrio only got worse as the show went on. More on that, also, in a bit.

Honestly, I was left a little flat by the show, both as an adaptation of the DAREDEVIL comic and as a TV show. When I said it was misleading, earlier, I meant that this show is called "DAREDEVIL" but it really should have been called "MATT MURDOCK" because of how not like the comic character he was.

I'm not a huge fan of the comic, but I read it for a few years back in the late 80s/early 90s. I know the character's abilities and origin story and really thoroughly enjoyed how he was a kind of blue-collar Batman. To be clear, I am no expert on the comic character. That said, the show does stray from the comic that I remember in many places, so using "that's the way it was in the comic" should not be used to excuse a weak choice in the Netflix version. Honestly, I found the comic book version much more fun and intriguing. His powers were much more developed and understandable in the comic than in the Netflix version. I understood how he could be fearless. In the Netflix version, he just came off as kind of an idiot.

I know Daredevil got his ass handed to him a LOT in the comic. The thing is, somehow the Netflix version didn't manage to make him seem dauntless, so much as stupid. To go into more detail, I need to take you into a spoiler-rich zone. You have been warned.

SPOILER-RICH ZONE BEGINS NOW: Enough with the Comic Comparisons, What Worked with Netflix's DAREDEVIL?

I loved the relationships. I got where everyone was coming from and genuinely enjoyed seeing them interact as humans. The really nice thing about the Netflix-model for episodic storytelling is that you don't have to break for a commercial. You can let your scenes run a little longer and it's great. In the first few episodes I LOVED Matt's discussions with Claire and Foggy. I really dug D'Onofrio's choices early on. Loved loved loved them. More than that, I ADORED Vondi Curtis Hall's take on Ben Urich. Urich is probably my favorite non-powered Marvel comics character (SPOILER ALERT: it is how the show treats this character that makes me think Netflix's DAREDEVIL should be tossed in the trash and done over--more on this in part two of this review).

I don't have a problem with the general idea of the series--to be a sort of DAREDEVIL: YEAR ONE kind of thing. The problem with that is, it ultimately doesn't work. And that's my biggest general problem with Netflix's DAREDEVIL. It was the most boring, repetitive origin story EVER. It made me long for the runtime of Ben Affleck's DAREDEVIL movie. My wife, at one point, looked up the Netflix DAREDEVIL hashtag on Twitter and found many tweets echoing the following sentiment:

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What is Wrong with CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER? Oh, a few things...

With the new AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON movie coming out this weekend, I thought it would be a good time to ask the question: What is wrong with CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER?

What isn't wrong with it? I'll answer the latter first, the former later.

As usual, Hollywood churns out generally entertaining stuff.  The "Captain America" sequel is definitely a blast and is very entertaining and for that reason, in my opinion, is even more insidious as it manages to include quite a bit of character development without upsetting it's ridiculously break-neck pacing.  It helps that the first "Captain America" film did an amazing job of adapting the original comic's premise for the big screen, so we are ready to like this film.

The first film was paced so well that there was essentially no aspect of the movie that was given short shrift.  Story, character, editing, effects, music, it was all nearly perfect.  The sequel, however, manages to sell everyone short except for Cap and Black Widow.

Again, on the surface, it seems like the perfect movie.  It opens with Cap meeting a young veteran while jogging.  It's pretty much a perfect sequence and makes for a good character dynamic for later, when Cap needs a second teammate (not sure why he didn't just call Tony Stark or Bruce Banner or Thor--well, Thor probably doesn't have a mobile phone, but you get my point).  Likewise, the character moments Cap and Natasha share are really great.  Two competent people dealing with what their competence doesn't prepare them for: real life.  It's a really nice dynamic and super rare to see.  When is the last time you saw a male and female character of any competence level have a non-sexual relationship in movies or TV these days?   And this one was even based on mutual respect.

I should also say that the score is utterly amazing.  It's totally creepy and almost mind-bending compared to most scores done for action movies.  This music has moments where it screams at you: SOMETHING IS WRONG and it's wonderful.  Listen to the score by itself and you'll see what I mean.  It's one of my favorites.  Henry Jackman deserved an Oscar for it, in my opinion.

So, that's pretty much what worked.  Now for what didn't.  Remember, this is a spoiler-rich zone.

First, the Story.

As the story progresses, we learn that SHIELD, an 80 year-old government organization, has been utterly infiltrated by HYDRA.