Monday, March 13, 2017

"The Black List didn't get me a career so it's a total lie!"

There were 53 active players on the New England Patriots' roster last season. 53 players who got a Super Bowl ring after making it to the biggest game of the season and winning.

How many of them were the subject of stories in sports magazines? How many of them were on the cover of those magazines? How many of them will spend their retirement years living off of high profile sportscaster jobs and endorsement deals?

How many of them go home every night to a supermodel wife?

How many of them can you name right now besides Tom Brady?

So what would you think of a linebacker in his first year on the team who feels like he was cheated because he played for the same Super Bowl-winning team as Tom Brady and is furious that he's not getting endorsement deals left and right? They both won The Big Game - how come HIS contract's not even in the same ballpark as Brady's?

The answer to this is obvious, right?

This is the sort of thing that runs through my mind when I hear someone proclaim that the Black List (both yearly and website) is a sham because it didn't work for THEIR script. "I got on the Black List last year and I STILL haven't been paid for my writing! This is bullshit," they might say. "I got four 8s on the Black List website and was number 4 on the Top Lists and I still didn't get an agent! This whole thing's a grift!"

This post is semi-provoked by a conversation I saw on Twitter last week, but it's a fairly perennial topic in Screenwriter World, so don't take this as an attack on one particular person. Rather I want to say something about an attitude I see cropping up now and then. There's an apparent belief that if you reach a certain achievement, the industry owes you a career. That's not how things like The Black List work and it's not helpful at all to wallow in that delusion.

(Also, everywhere I say "The Black List" feel free to read "Nicholl Fellowship" or "ABC/Disney Fellowship" and so on. In general, what I have to say applies to all of these in some form or fashion.)

In its purest form, the Black List is a survey of industry tastes. It reflects the town, but as with the adage about staring into the abyss, the Black List reflects back at the town. It can elevate great material that thus far, hasn't found the right filmmakers to bring it to life. Perhaps the most important service it provides is shining a spotlight on something a little left of center, validating that writing's brilliance. There are plenty of documented cases of this exposure playing a part in a screenplay going into production, most recently being ARRIVAL. Eric Heisserer's script got a big boost after appearing on the 2013 Black List.

2013. It took three years from the Black List to the big screen - and that's probably pretty fast, on average. I'll put the question to you - if there is a single script from the 2013 Black List that DIDN'T get produced, does that "failure" mean that the Black List "doesn't work?"

It's a pretty silly question, right? Acknowledging that the Black List simply cannot make careers out of every honored writer and films out of every honored screenplay in no way rescinds the credit they are due for the instances when their exposure HAS made a difference. Just because something didn't work for you doesn't always mean there's something shady going down.

The value of the Black List can be found in the correlation between its selections and films that went on to acclaim from the industry's highest honors. 4 of the last 6 Best Picture winners appeared on an annual Black List and 10 of the last 14 Best Screenplay winners did. Does that mean they owe their Oscars to the Black List?

Hell no! But it DOES demonstrate that the annual list identified them as worthy well before they went into production. It gives credibility to their voters's eye for talent. If someone gets on the Black List and assumes they'll be collecting an Academy Award, they're taking the wrong lesson from the experience.

"All I need is to get on the Black List and I'll be set." "All I need is an agent and then I'll be getting jobs left and right." "All I need is a staff writer gig and I'll be working in TV for the rest of my career." - ALL of this is dangerous and wrong-headed thinking. It implies that all you need to do is reach the bottom step of the escalator and the mechanism will carry you to the top.

Motherfucker, those are STAIRS. Or in the rare case they are an escalator, they're moving in the opposite direction.

This industry is a series of ever escalating auditions and as with auditions, the pack of talent gets winnowed down with each progressive move forward. You get six votes that earn you mention on the yearly Black List. That's great. It means your work is going to be read by everyone in town. Now tell me who's responsible for getting you to the next step, whether that's getting an agent or getting a sale?

It ain't the Black List. It's you - YOUR material. When I interviewed Franklin Leonard four years ago, we chatted a bit about the possibility of the Black List being rigged, perhaps by people attempting to stuff the ballot box lobbying. His take was that it didn't happen that often, certainly not consistently enough to be anything other than an outlier. Is it possible? Sure. But if I was someone looking to scam my way onto the Black List, I'd of course realize that no amount of scamming would magically make my writing into, say, Sorkin-level brilliance.

But let's say you're a writer with an okay script that had enough fans to land it on something like the Black List. What does that mean really? Eh, maybe a lot more people read my so-so writing, and so if it's inadequate, my screenplay gets passed on by a higher volume of reps and producers. Perhaps I get a couple meetings, where again, the onus is on me to prove I have the goods and am "ready." If I'm an imposter, it ends there. If I'm that one-in-a-million writer who has it, I keep climbing.

Thinking this is easy is one of the worst traps to fall into. A few years back I had a script that was one of the top scrips on the Black List website. I got a number of reads off of that strength and even queried several reps citing my achievement. I got a lot of, "This is great writing, but this isn't what I'm looking for at the moment." If you're savvy, you can use that to find out what they ARE looking for and remember to query them again if your next script seems like something they want.

A rep who tells you, "This isn't for me" is actually doing you a favor. The goal is not to get A rep, it's to get the RIGHT rep. In my case, I ended up with a young manager who seemed to be the right guy for this kind of script. He got the script in to all the right people who should be looking at it and the result was a lot of meetings, the usual "we really like your work" and then the "We'd love to see the next thing you're working on." Ultimately, it didn't go anywhere, and I'm not bitter about that because it wasn't necessarily the most mainstream idea. Later, my rep left the business, and after I got over that shock, I realized, "If their heart wasn't in it, it's better that I find someone who is playing this game to win."

Celebrate rejection like you would celebrate the end of a relationship with someone who it'd be a complete mistake to marry. Would I love to hear that Steven Spielberg wants to direct my next script? Sure, just like how when I was a teenager, I'd have loved to have dated Katie Holmes. Of course now I look at it and realize Katie and I would have never made it work and that relationship would have been a mistake for both of us. I'm glad we both dodged that bullet, and it's a lot healthier than sending her letters every week saying, "Why won't you love meeeeeeeee?????!"

(Okay, that took a weird turn.)

Both Black List arms can boost your career - but they can't boost EVERY career and the onus is still on the writer to take responsibility for what needs to happen once the eyes of the town are upon you. You can blame the List for the false hope you cultivated, or you can go back to the computer and start your next (and hopefully better) script. Which of those two options is more likely to actually accomplish something?

It's American Idol and the Black List is like the end of Hollywood Week. That's where the show would be left with 36 semi-finalists. That's some great company that includes Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Does every AI semi-finalist have a career like Kelly or Carrie? Would you expect them to?

But they still wouldn't be multi-million dollar successes without AI. Likewise, the Black List gives you the stage and the mic. Now the town will see if you can sing.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 today! (We are all so, so old)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 today. That's something I find staggering to process. In many ways, Buffy ushered in an era of TV that is still ongoing to this day. It's pretty easy to point to several current shows - many of them on the CW - and feel them trying to evoke that Buffy magic. In processing how remarkable this is, I tried to think about what shows from 1977 were that much in the public consciousness at the time Buffy premiered in 1997.

I couldn't honestly come up with one - save for Star Trek, which was from 1966 and a special case as movies and spinoffs had kept it alive on film for most of those 30 years. The filmed Buffyverse ended in 2005 - nearly a full 12 years ago. And sure, you could point to plenty of old sitcoms like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, and so forth as shows that still had a strong awareness 20 years or more after their debut... but how many of them were regarded as still influential on then-present television?

I'm embarrassed to recall how late I was to the Buffy party. For all my fanboying of Joss Whedon, I wasn't even the first one in my household to discover the show. That honor goes to... my mother. At the mature age of 17, I was far above watching some silly teen drama. No, I had already skipped on to the adult dramas of Law & Order, ER and Homicide, some of the most well-crafted TV of any era. Why would I watch some dumb show based on a failed movie?

Considering the number of posts I've devoted to teen dramas over the years, that whole paragraph seems especially ironic. But it's true. My mother discovered the show somewhere during the second season. I recall the first episode I caught a piece of. It involved a love spell gone wrong, forcing everyone to act silly and result in a lot of second-hand embarrassment on the part of the viewer. (Watching actors forced to play ultra-horny never fails to make me want to crawl under the couch in embarrassment for them.) Immediately I tagged it as one of TV's most overused premises, used to thuddingly bad effect on TNG's in "The Naked Now" and not much better in Lois & Clark's "Pheromone, My Lovely," a episode where the only virtue was Teri Hatcher doing the Dance of the Seven Veils.

The second episode I walked in on my mother watching? "Inca Mummy Girl."

So yeah, I didn't become a convert until just before the start of Season 3, after hearing the hype over how season 2 had ended. When the finale re-aired early that fall, I caught those episodes, and from that point on, there was no doubt I'd be planted in front of the TV every Tuesday to catch new episodes. Before long, I was learning the names of the writers and recognizing the differences between a Marti Noxon episode and a Jane Espenson episode. I became a lurker on the newsgroup and quickly got addicted to the discussions peeling apart the deeper layers of the show. There were few shows I could engage in that way at that time.

Let's be honest - the fact TV scholars keep calling back to Buffy is a pretty good indication that even in a golden era of TV, Buffy was groundbreaking enough to leave it's mark.

I still argue that season 3 of Buffy is one of the most perfectly-structured seasons of television. It's the platonic ideal of balancing standalone episodes with a season-long arc. The individual installments maintain their own identity week-to-week, even as the larger story is advanced as needed. Better still, the season paces out its villains. Though we meet the Mayor early on, it's not until about 2/3 of the season that he really steps up as the Big Bad, and even then, his scheme is given a particular timing that completely takes care of the big question in most other cases: "Why is this guy waiting all season for his endgame?"

Also, because of how the season unfurls its plot, we never fall into a rut where it feels like every week is the same wolf-and-sheepdog drama of the two sides clashing over and over again. Current genre TV often falls into this trap - introduce the main villain in the season premiere and have them and the hero spend all season locking horns. (Honestly, Buffy itself came perilously close to falling into this trap in Season 5, and even closer still in Season 7).

There's probably little else I could say about Buffy that I haven't said before in several other posts, so before I get to plugging those, I'll leave with this: Happy birthday Buffy! Hope it's better than the birthday where you lost your virginity. Or the one where your Watcher took your powers and locked you in with a psycho vamp. Or the one where Giles got turned into a Demon. Or the one where Dawn slashed her wrists. Or the one in the episode that I never rewatch.

The Body: How to write a crying scene - Part I and Part II
Pangs: PC or Not PC? Writing good character conflict
Show, don't tell
What Serialized Shows Like The Vampire Diaries Should Learn From Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Third Season

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Me around the net: a THAT THING YOU DO tribute and a Brutally Honest Razzie Ballot

I really was going to try to get some more posts out this month, but it's been hard. I do have some other appearances around the web that might be of interest to you.

First, I made an appearance on Jeremy Dylan's podcast "My Favorite Album." Jeremy's suggestion was that given my profession, I should pick a movie soundtrack.  With that prompting, it took me less than a nanosecond to pick That Thing You Do!

We talk about how the film embodies the spirit of early 60s rock, as well as the spirit of Tom Hanks, how Hanks used his leverage as the biggest movie star on earth to get this idiosyncratic little film made, how the original songs in the film feel authentic to the period without feeling like parodies of real 60s rock, the trick of creating fake historical stars in films set amongst real history, how Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger was responsible for the title song and how the film morally diverges from almost all other rock'n'roll movies.

You listen at the link above or download the episode here.

You might also be interested in the article I wrote last year celebrating That Thing You Do's 20th anniversary.

Perhaps you've seen the "Brutally Honest Oscar Ballots" that THR likes to run this time of year. They purport to be a candid look inside the voting process, but really it feels like THR digs up the most egotistical assholes who enjoy getting lightheaded from the emissions of their own methane.

Stands to reason that the Razzies would have voters who'd be just as "brutally honest" in their reasoning too, right? That's what I explored in this Film School Rejects post: "A Brutally Honest Razzie Ballot."

Worst Actor

Henry Cavill? I think his CG stand-in logged more screentime than him, so he doesn’t belong here even before we debate the merits of his inclusion. Ben Affleck was not only the best Batman ever but in any instance where his depiction doesn’t match the comics, the comics should bend to him! Dinesh D’Souza is playing himself, so though he’s a repellent turd, he has an unfair advantage in that it comes naturally to him. I already told you why I can’t vote for Ben Stiller.

Robert De Niro is probably the obvious choice, but his turn will come around again. Trust me, there’ll be plenty of times for the Razzies to honor the body of his career. Gerard Butler’s up for two films, so I don’t think there’s any point in arguing it’s not his year.

My vote: Gerard Butler

You can find that post here.

Also, I TOTALLY got a kick out of this "Oh No They Didn't" post about my Razzie Ballot post. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Essential new blog: Jeff Willis's All Writes Reserved

You can find a lot of opinionated blowhards like me telling you how to write your script, but there aren't many resources for people who need answers for the more business-oriented questions. I'm talking about the legal details of option rights and how spec sales actually work. Well, worry no more. Friend-of-the-blog Jeff Willis has started a new blog devoted to these topics called All Writes Reserved.

If Jeff's name sounds familiar, you've probably seen some of his tweetstorms, some of which I've archived elsewhere on this site, such as Creative Rights Advice for Screenwriters.

His most recent post this week covers the topic of "Sterile Scripts" - drafts written while under contract to a particular entity.

What happens to those drafts written while the work was under option?

Remember that the script is legally not owned by the writer during an option period; it’s owned and under the control of the company. If writing services are included in the deal, those services are most likely in your contract as a work for hire, meaning that in exchange for the money you’re being paid, the results and proceeds of your writing are owned by the company that’s paying you (i.e., you don’t own that draft the way you own a script you wrote on spec).

Think of it like an artist who’s commissioned to do a family portrait. The money is what the artist receives in exchange for the work. He doesn’t then also get to keep the portrait after he’s done; the portrait belongs to the family that paid him to create it.

The same is true of drafts and rewrites and polishes that the company is paying a writer to perform. Even if the rights to the original script are returned to you, those drafts you wrote for the company aren’t. Those drafts then become sterile scripts… a draft of a script that the company owns but cannot produce because they don’t own the rights to the underlying material (your original script).

Among other topics he's covered are:

Power dynamics in negotiations
Submission Releases
Conditions Precedent
Non-guild Deals
Script Sale Breakdown
Intellectual property

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

My Top 10 Films of 2016

You can find 11-20 here. These are my Top 10 Films of 2016

1. Arrival - I first read Eric Heisserer's script ARRIVAL about three years ago and found it to be a remarkable piece of writing that broke so many "rules" but was far and away better than anything else I'd read that year. I also felt like translating that script to film was going to be an incredible challenge, particularly in the execution of the film's big twist. Damn if the result doesn't look effortless and the result is an ending that lands on you like an emotional haymaker.

Through this first contact with aliens story, we explore how humanity deals with the unknown, through our worst impulses and best. I've heard this described as "competency porn" and I agree. After a Presidential campaign where educated people were dismissed as "elite" by masses who championed their own ignorance, it was good to see a film that championed science and problem-solving. And for all that to be legerdemain while the REAL question of the film snuck up on you? Masterful. I'm hoping I'll have time to write a longer piece on ARRIVAL, but this was the best film of the year.

2. OJ: Made in America - I've previously reflected on my fascination with the O.J. Simpson case, but director Ezra Edelman comes at it from an angle I'd not seen before. O.J.'s rise to football fame is juxtaposed with rising tensions between the L.A. black community and the police. Airing across five nights in two-hour blocks, so much groundwork is laid that it took until Night 3 to reach the murders. That gives the trial a context it's never had before, particularly after seeing O.J. work hard to separate himself from the black community, and then turn around and play the race card in pursuit of an acquittal.

In the same year that saw The People vs. O.J. Simpson, it was difficult to imagine the trial exploration feeling fresh, but every moment is captivating, particularly the recollections of former jurors. The final segment of the documentary covers O.J.'s post-acquittal downfall in jaw-dropping detail, with more footage and stories you're unlikely to have seen. It's 467 minutes that leaves its mark on you and never drags.

3. Swiss Army Man - "The farting corpse movie" is probably how you've heard of this film, but it's so much more than that. A suicidal man trapped on a desert island comes upon a corpse that has surprising utility for the stranded man. That's only the start of the weirdness, and soon the corpse is talking to him, asking him questions about life and love. Writer/directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan have crafted one of the more bizarre films of the year. I'll be honest - this is often the kind of shit I mock, but the Dans (as they are called) succeed where many other fail because the emotions of the story are real. We find ourselves relating to this lost soul who seems to be animating this corpse in his mind. Because of that empathy, a late-film twist really pulls the rug out from under the audience.

4. 10 Cloverfield Lane - And now we go from a film I never could have conceived to the kind of film I really, really want to make some day. I'm a sucker for limited location thrillers where the claustrophobia is like a pressure cooker for intense acting among a small cast. I've seen and read a lot of "captive woman in a basement" thrillers, so I know all the pitfalls here. The script by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle manages to avoid every exploitation trap and cheap scare.

John Goodman gives one of his best layered performances as a guy who keeps us off balance the entire film. Is he dangerous? Is he a decent man who's gone a little off kilter due to PTSD? Is he lying to keep Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character captive or is he telling the truth about the attack that's forced them into his bomb shelter? Goodman walks a difficult tightrope through the entire film until he's forced to show his hand. Director Dan Trachtenberg's next smart move was casting Winstead, who's able to hold her own against Goodman and make her role more than the victim that the situation could cast her as. Some people really don't like the ending, but I think it's the perfect payoff to all the suspense Goodman's claims generate. This is a genre premise done exceptionally well.

5. 13th - Ava DuVerney's comprehensive documentary is an incredible piece of work that draws a straight line from how the Reconstruction Era's 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, paved the way for mass incarceration of African-Americans. Following that path, we trace the entire history of racial inequity in America. The film's most powerful moment comes during a montage where Republican candidate Donald Trump's rally speech about longing for "the good old days" when protestors would be beaten is juxtoposed with police assaulting civil rights protestors in the 60s.

6. Moonlight - Most of my list is made up of high-concept films, issue-oriented movies, or stories that are so unusual and bizarre that they can't help but make an impression. And then there's MOONLIGHT, which isn't quite any of those, but instead is a rather moving story about a young fatherless African-American boy who has the odds piled against him. His mother's a junkie, the guy who becomes a surrogate father to him is a dealer, he's bullied at school, and he's dealing with the fact he's gay. There are a hundred ways to write this wrong. It's almost literally one cancer diagnosis from "cloying indie movie awards bait BINGO." And yet... there's honest emotion to this. We're drawn into Little's story in a way that makes him a person and not just a martyr to whom bad things happen. Writer/director Barry Jenkins sticks a difficult landing here.

7. The Jungle Book - I hate 3D. It's more often just a way to jack-up ticket prices and almost never enhances the storytelling in any meaningful way. There are only three films where I believe it truly added value: Avatar, Gravity... and The Jungle Book. It was a constant mind-blowing experience to watch this film and remind myself that just about everything on screen but the boy was created in a computer. Everything in this movie looks photo-real, and director Jon Favreau stages everything in a way that only further convinces us that this jungle is a real place that exists.

When I was a kid, The Jungle Book was one of my favorite Disney cartoons. Looking back, that seems odd. The story's pretty slight and the musical numbers have a couple good entries, but are less frequent than other films. Justin Marks's script brings a little more structure and weight to the film than the source material, but the real secret weapon here is young Neel Sethi as Mowgli. There are veteran actors who are thrown by the process of acting against a green screen, but the way Neel interacts believable with CGI animals, you'd never guess this was his first feature role. (Read my interview with screenwriter Justin Marks here.)

8. The Shallows - A lot of what I said in the 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE review applies here. This is the ultimate "chase your protagonist up a tree, then throw rocks at her" movie. Blake Lively plays a surfer who gets stranded on a reef far from shore... and in the path of a great white shark. Writer Anthony Jaswinski provides the survival techniques that are a staple of this genre. (Think THE GREY, but with a warmer climate and a female lead.) Director Jaume Collet-Serra makes the most of the beautiful scenery and the entire film is quite gorgeous. Better still, he wrings every last drop of tension out of Lively's struggle to outwit the shark. I wish we got more of these low-to-mid-budget thrillers like this and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.

9. The Edge of Seventeen - Sign me up for whatever writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig does next. This is another film that puts character first and doesn't give a damn if we find them unlikable. Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a troubled and often abrasive teen who's rendered with so much empathy that most viewers will likely see some of their own teenage selves in her. Even as she's pushing away and alienating the people closest to her, we understand why she's doing it and we find ourselves rooting for everyone else to just back off and cut her some slack. It feels raw and honest to the point where it can stand with the best of the John Hughes catalog. This is another one that's not a high concept story, but its three-dimensional characters linger with you long after the movie has ended.

10. Hell or High Water - I have a theory that Chris Pine is not so much a Leading Man, but more of a "Michael Keaton in a Tom Cruise body." HOHW finds a way to make that work for this story of two brothers pulling off a spree of bank robberies to save the family farm. The writing lesson for this one? Have smart protagonists and face them off against smart antagonists who seem capable of beating them. I'm not usually one for westerns, but this one had my attention from the start and knew just how to pace itself.

Monday, January 9, 2017

My Top 20 Films of 2016 - Part 1

As is my tradition, I've compiled my Top 20 Films of the past year, which I will be unveiling today and tomorrow. I won't claim to have seen every big movie of 2016, but I've seen enough that I feel comfortable putting this list out there. Among the ones I haven't seen - Silence, Hacksaw Ridge, Lion and 20th Century Woman.

I've also actively avoided Manchester By the Sea and Birth of a Nation for fairly parallel reasons. Maybe I'll check one of both out when they come to streaming, but with so much else I'd rather make a priority, spending money and time on either of those films wasn't something that appealed to me.

And it probably shouldn't need to be said, but the rankings shouldn't be taken as absolute. I kept shuffling titles around each other even as I was writing these posts. There's a lot of "apples to oranges" in comparing these films, so on a different day, you might see some films easily exchanging places with other films in their immediate vicinity.

I saw over 70 films released in the last year and in ranking ALL of them, I was glad that a decent percentage of those were films I enjoyed to one degree or another. They were also a diverse bunch of releases, and so I maintain that anyone wanting to call 2016 "a bad year for film" simply wasn't looking hard enough for the good ones. They were out there.

I can't dispute that it was equally clear that 2016 was responsible for a large number of bad movies that were exceptional in their putridness. I'm not doing a "Worst of" list for many reasons, chief among them being that I'm certain that there were worse movies than what I saw, and that includes some pretty terrible films. (Just to give you an idea of how bad it all was, Independence Day: Resurgence couldn't quite crack the bottom 10.)

But why focus on the negative? It's more fun to celebrate the good, starting today with...

11. The Invitation - Another limited location film built around tension within the group. This achieves that with a much larger cast, though that fact also raises a few issues for me. More specifically, there comes a point in the film where I'm convinced more than one person would be sane enough to get the hell out of that situation. I've heard plenty of theories as to why the confession offered by John Carrol Lynch's character doesn't and more of the dinner party to the exit, but I don't buy any of them. What does work is the incredibly unsettlng atmosphere and a final shot that doesn't give an easy release from the intense finale.

12. Captain America: Civil War - I keep debating if it should be held against this film that it cannot stand alone. More than any other Marvel film, this is the culmination of multiple entries, and yet, you don't feel the strains of that as much as you could have. At the end of the day, this is a really strong entry in the Marvel canon that builds off of a well-justified conflict between Iron Man and Captain America. Along the way, the ground is seeded for upcoming films starring Spider-Man and Black Panther, but the clever work of screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely keeps these cameos from feeling like mere advertisements for future spinoffs. (To see how all of this could have gone much more out of control, check out Batman v. Superman.) After a second viewing, I still find myself on Team Iron Man.

13. The Nice Guys - Ten years after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, we finally get a worthy follow-up from writer/director Shane Black, who shares scripting duties here with Anthony Bagarozzi. This tale of two '70s era private eyes on the case of a missing teenage girl didn't quite blow me away as much as the former film, but it remains a fun romp full of everything you'd expect in a Shane Black film. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are as good as you'd expect, but I feel like the real find here is Angourie Rice, who was 14 at the time of shooting. She handles the Black tone and dialogue like she was grown in a lab specifically to wield it.

14. Rogue One - The first non-episodic Star Wars feature is a solid film, if one that lacks the emotional punch that The Force Awakens delivered so powerfully. The first half could stand to be faster moving, and I wish that the main characters had more depth to them... but once the mission actually gets going, the last hour or so is an awesome ride. This movie is the perfect example of how a story that ends strong can redeem earlier missteps. (That said, I do still have misgivings about how tiny the Star Wars Universe is becoming.)

15. Sing Street - Such a cute and nostalgic film about a young Irish boy in the 80s who starts a rock band and finds his own musical voice even as his parents relationship falls apart and he experiences his first love. I'm a major disciple of writer/director Jim Carney's previous film Begin Again, and while this one didn't hit me quite as acutely as that did, it still has some really hummable, toe-tapping tunes and just a really fun vibe.

16. Zootopia - I didn't expect a stealth lesson in prejudice and racial tolerance from this film, and the more I consider it, the more remarkable it is how seamlessly it's woven into the Pixar formula. It's a theme that sneaks up on you without compromising the usual humor and fun characters you expect to find in this film. Without being preachy, it offers strong values to a young audience that will rewatch these movies again and again and absorb the lessons young people really need to hear in this day and age.

17. Jackie - A look back at the four days from President Kennedy's assassination to his funeral, from his wife Jackie's point of view. Natalie Portman gives a powerful performance as Mrs. Kennedy, aided by a strong script that plays on her fear that her husband will become an historical footnote. I'd read long ago about how she had devised some aspects of the funeral, but never fully understood what that meant to her until this film showed me.

So why is this so low on the list? For all the wonderful choices in art direction and aesthetic, the movie feels just a bit "over-directed." Too many shots are composed so perfectly that you are AWARE of how precisely they've been staged. (It's the same feeling I've often gotten in M. Night Shyamalan's work.) It's the directing equivalent of over-acting, and there were moments that it undermined Portman's performance for me and made me too aware I was watching "acting!"

18. Hidden Figures - I did not know the story of Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician for NASA who worked on the Mercury and Apollo 11 launches. Nor did I know that there were other African-American women working in NASA at that time. I applaud the film for bringing to light a long-ignored aspect of much-retold history. As a friend noted, it's PG, so it can be shown in classrooms across the nation. That's an effort I very much applaud. Taraji P. Henson is perfect as Katherine Johnson, and you won't find so much as a trace of EMPIRE's Cookie in her performance. She completely disappears into the role. Much praise also for Janelle Monae, whom I did not recognize from her music career and assumed was an experienced character actress.

Alas, this felt a little too much like a "made for TV" movie in its execution. The directing is pretty unremarkable, and while I went after JACKIE for being TOO directed, at least it felt like a movie. It's workmanlike in its approach, a weakness occasionally shared by the script. It feels like a surface-level Wikipedia take rather than a full deep dive into what that time truly felt like. The other irritant is the aggressive miscasting of Jim Parsons as a NASA engineer. If you have even a passing familiarity with his BIG BANG THEORY character Sheldon Cooper, his appearances are as jarring as if Oscar the Grouch popped out of one of Denzel Washington's trashcans in Fences. There's a lot to like in Hidden Figures, but some better choices could have been made.

19. La La Land - Once this film started getting high praise at festivals, I resolved to avoid all previews, all reviews, all write-ups until I saw it. I've seen this cycle before and wanted no part of it - praise, backlash for the overpraise, the backlash to the backlash, and finally, the drawing of battle-lines. Seems like that's exactly what happened. My take: If you want to separate good directors from bad ones, given them a long-take scene and you'll spot the posers right away. Damien Chazelle proves more than once in this film that he's one of the real deals. La La Land is a very pretty-looking film, shot in a really gorgeous way. It's vivid, bright and colorful. You can pick a clip out from it almost immediately.

On the other hand, what can I say about a musical where the music is the least notable part? It goes beyond there not being a single track I needed to IMMEDIATELY run to iTunes for - ten minutes after it was over, I couldn't even hum a single melody. Gosling and Stone get by on their natural charm and chemistry, but it's hard to ignore they're playing some incredibly thin characters. I don't think it cashes the check that the hype was determined to write, but man is it a pretty way to spend two hours.

20. Lights Out - One of the creepiest horror movies I've seen in a while, and it owes a lot of that to being built around something primal - fear of the dark. It has a great atmosphere about it, and a strong cast that compliments the script well. I'm always up for a horror film that pushes itself to be inventive, and that's exactly what we get from Eric Heisserer's script and David F. Sandberg's directing.

Come back tomorrow for the Top 10!

Friday, December 30, 2016

In defense of PASSENGERS

Every now and then I see a film get a reaction that makes me wonder if I saw the same movie as the rest of the audience. When OBLIVION came out, it was so aggressively panned that I waited until DVD to view it, upon which I discovered a very entertaining, well-made sci-fi film. Slightly more recently, I felt that the aggressive hate for TOMORROWLAND felt quite out of proportion to the mildly disappointing but still interesting film.

And then there's PASSENGERS. Last weekend, it felt like you couldn't swing a dead cat on the internet without hitting someone ready to tell you that the premise was creepy, or that the film was sexist, or that the ethics of the film were appalling.

In a nutshell, here's the premise of the script by Jon Spaihts: Jim is one of 5000 passengers in cryo-sleep for a 120-year voyage to a new colony planet. Due to a completely unprecedented malfunction, his chamber wakes him after 30 years, making him the only person set to be awake for 90 years. He can't go back to sleep and though the ship is programmed to tend to his needs, his only companion is a robot bartender. In other words, he's facing the prospect of never having human contact for the rest of his life.

This is tantamount to solitary confinement, a practice that many psychologists consider inhumane. This article from Gizmodo calls it "the worst kind of psychological torture" and in fact, "solitary confinement beyond 15 days leads directly to severe and irreversible psychological harm. But for some, it can manifest in even less time." We need to take this into consideration and then note that Jim spends an entire YEAR alone on the ship before he comes very close to attempting suicide.

Human beings are social creatures and without that interaction, Jim is trapped in hell. However, he's tech-savvy enough that he knows how to wake up someone else. Company would go a long way to relieving his pain, but there are other ethical concerns. Jim discusses this with his bartender, likening it to being trapped forever on an island, but having the power to transport one person there, knowing that you were ruining their life.

This one interaction alone shows that the film is aware of the ethics behind Jim's predicament. By questioning it in such a way, I don't understand how anyone could come away from the film thinking the movie sees what Jim does as pure. It's largely about the question of if you could make your personal Hell more bearable by condemning someone else to join you. He ultimately awakens the beautiful Aurora, leading her to believe another malfunction is to blame for her state.

Where many of the critics seem to miss the mark is where they equate Jim's actions with a violation of sexual consent. I think it's offensive to actual rape victims to equate anything in this film with sexual assault. To me, what Jim does is not about sex so much as it's about human contact. He needs a companion ship that isn't necessarily sexual. Sure, the water is muddied because the two DO fall for each other and there's no lack of sex appeal on the part of Aurora's portrayer, Jennifer Lawrence.

If Jim had woken up a man, someone who he felt would be his Number One Bro, would we still be having this debate? PASSENGERS seems most interested in the morality behind alleviating your pain by sharing it with someone else. I don't even know if I'd necessarily argue that the film comes down on the side of it being right, but it DOES depict how a desperate person might come to believe this is the only course of action available to them.

Seriously, could YOU face the prospect of 90 years alone on a ship? How far would you have to be pushed before you convinced yourself you HAD to have human contact? And once you arranged that, would you really be forthright with the fact that you caused the malfunction? Jim certainly makes selfish choices, but they're selfish choices in the midst of an incredibly painful experience. I also don't believe you have to choose between being sympathetic to Jim and sympathetic to Aurora.

Aurora rightly is furious when she learns Jim engineered her awakening. "You MURDERED me!" she screams, more than once. The blossoming romance is immediately dead, and she begins a period of shutting him out. At this point, I thought the film might explore her isolation as a way of depicting what her loneliness might drive her to. This path could lead her to understanding Jim's horrible decision, even as it isn't necessary for her to condone it.

Instead, the third act brings Jim and Aurora together to resolve the increasing malfunctions of ship's systems. It turns out that an asteroid impact is to blame for the damage that shut down Jim's pod and that the other damage it caused has built up into a reactor malfunction that will destroy the ship. To save everyone, Jim has to go outside the ship and open a door manually so Aurora can vent the reactor while he's stuck in the path of the radiation. It means certain death, and indeed, he takes the direct blast with only a small shield to deflect it. Though Jim told her not to come for him, Aurora dons a spacesuit of her own and risks her life to bring him back, where he is resuscitated.

There's some criticism that the third-act crisis is a convenient way to let Jim off the hook. If he hadn't woken her, then there would have been no one else to help him save the ship and the entire crew. Aurora is presented with a situation where she can say, "If he hadn't woken me, I'd be dead."

This would be a more fair criticism if the film embraced it. I believe it does not. A couple points to recall:

- As the crisis reaches its peak, Aurora suggests waking some of the crew. There's no hesitation on her part, even though this means they would share her fate on the 90-year voyage. In the context of this moment, doing so would directly save 5000 people as well as herself, so yes, there is a "needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few" scenario. But she's not without self-interest here either. Remember too, that Jim would have died had he not acted to preserve his own sanity.

- Aurora goes against Jim's wishes when she risks herself to save him. Jim is content to die saving everyone else. Is her motivation romantic? I don't think it necessarily has to be, and the film allows for the interpretation that it's not. Aurora surely knows all the details of Jim's horrible year alone and what being that alone did to him. If Jim dies, this is the fate she's facing - the total abyss of loneliness for the rest of her life. Is risking herself for him a purely selfless act? Or is it one she willingly takes because it would be better to die quickly than in the lingering slow torture Jim endured?

Taking those together, I don't think we can discount that Aurora comes to understand what pushed Jim to awaken her. She's stared that same fate in the eye and it gives her what she needs to accept his choice. The ending is not about letting Jim off the hook so much as it's about pushing Aurora to her limits. In the end, she needs companionship just as much as Jim did. This is why I feel that even if there had not been an immediate crisis, Aurora would have eventually thawed things with Jim. Whether that came as a result of madness, Stockholm Syndrome or genuine empathy is a matter of debate.

Moreover, this is easier to see if you're not determined to equate Jim with being a "stalker." He's not a calculating and manipulative predator. The film more accurately diagnoses him as a drowning man grabbing for any life preserver. You can decry his actions, but the point of the film is to make you ask, "What if you were the one who was drowning?"

It disturbs me that we see art being attacked for merely exploring complex scenarios like this. Back when Indecent Proposal was made, did people think that just by making the film, the creators were advocating that a married woman sleep with a billionaire for one million dollars? If we discourage art that asks uncomfortable questions or explores moral grey areas, what will be left with? You can be uncomfortable with Jim does and still acknowledge that the film doesn't endorse it by building drama around it.

Passengers is the story of a man pushed to his moral limits. The more I examine it, the more I suspect the film is rejected out of hand by viewers uncomfortable contemplating what they would truly do in Jim's shoes.

Bonus: I wrote an article for Film School Rejects in which I worked out how Jim and Aurora could have used the functioning medical pod at the end of the film to take turns sleeping long enough for both of them to make it to the colony within their lifespans. You can find it here.