a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Weekend Boxoffice #10

Slim pickings among new wide releases this week:

THE NATIVITY STORY (3183 screens). Anyone's guess. It's getting rather bad reviews, but the devout will likely go see it. This movie's performance is actually going to be important; if it makes a lot of money despite bad reviews, the religious films will keep flowing. If it tanks, then at least maybe people will take more care in making good religious movies. Call it $15.3 million.

NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VAN WILDER: THE RISE OF TAJ (1979 screens). This smells like straight to video, so I'm not sure why it is getting such a wide release; who knows, maybe it's actually funny. No, probably not. $1.8 million.

TURISTAS (1570 screens). I read a version of this a while ago, and it wasn't terrible. Still, it looks sort of generic. $5.4 million.

Expect older movies to hold over well. Call the top four:

Happy Feet $20.1 million
Casino Royale $17.8 million
The Nativity Story $15.3 million
Deja Vu $13.1 million.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Nice To See That Bond Is Human

So I also saw Casino Royale this past weekend (3 movies in one weekend, after not seeing any in a month) and despite hearing a lot of good things about it, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it actually was, finally, a very good Bond movie.

Daniel Craig feels perfect in the role, and it's a breath of fresh air that they finally let his Bond be human. Past Bonds were always expected to be completely inflappable, to never be worried, to always be sort of boring. Here, finally, it felt like a Bond that was really living the part.

(Now if they'd just do something similar with Superman).

The setpieces worked well, particularly the early running-around-the-construction-site one. I agree that the casino segment seems to go on for a while, though ironically it's not because of the actual poker scenes -- I think they only show three hands in the whole Casino Royale sequence.

The poker scenes were also the typical ones, in which it all comes down to everyone having the kind of great hands that never simultaneously happen in real life. You don't need to know how to read other players, or see their tells, if you get a hand like this. As it was the bad guy's tell was so painfully obvious, that the poker-expert bad guy shouldn't have needed anyone to tell him about it, while Bond should suspect throughout that he is being set up.

The very end drags on for a while, though the final setpiece is very solid too. Overall, it's an entertaining ride.

It's also an example of a studio film that gets a PG-13 despite a myriad of reasons why it should have been R, including a torture scene. Just because the brutality is implied, doesn't mean that we don't feel it.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Deja Vu and Logical Flaws

I liked Deja Vu a lot. It's the kind of stuff I like to write -- everyday people going through a tale that is enlivened by some supernatural or sci fi twist.

Here, a lot of it works well; Denzel Washington is very likable, and the movie strikes a nice balance between geeky technical stuff, action and a nice little romance. Even all the exposition is finessed very well.

Logic is a problem though, something that some of the reviews have been picking up on. It's the kind of movie that gets you to think as you are watching it, so much so that it demands, more than other movies, that what you are thinking about should actually make perfect sense by the end.

In Deja Vu, it doesn't always. And as regular denizens of Wordplay know, co-writers Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio have been carefully writing for a while about how they aren't completely enamored about the changes director Tony Scott made to the screenplay.

So tonight, after seeing the movie, I read the script. I have a draft makrked "First Draft May 17, 2004", which I believe was the draft that sold.

And the core story is the same. The logic problems are the same. The biggest change is the fact that in the movie, Denzel Washington's character is initially misled about the technology he is taking part in; in the script, he is simply told the truth from the beginning . The movie's version works better; it is more credible that they wouldn't tell Denzel what is happening initially, and as Denzel puzzles out what is happening, it gives the audience a chance to do the same.

Unfortunately, a lot of critics (a subset referred to as "idiots") didn't seem to be paying enough attention, and got confused over what exactly was going on.

Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman's review, in which he seems completely baffled about what is going on, is a prime example; he cites the initial cover story as what is actually happening, despite a sequence in the middle of the film that makes it perfectly clear what the truth was.

Maybe he was in the bathroom.

*** SPOILERS ***

The big logic flaw in this movie is the fact that the film (and the script) tries to have it both ways; they have fun with the idea that even as Denzel Washington goes back in time, everything he does in the past has already happened. So his fingerprints are in the woman's apartment throughout, it is his bloody gauze in the wastebasket throughout, when she talks to her friend on the answering machine, he is there with her.

But because this all happens in a time stream when the woman is still dead, it makes no sense that it is happening.

Put it this way -- when Denzel Washington goes back in time, and saves the woman from being killed, that is when everything should change. There's even a helpful drawing of it along the way (which is in the movie and not in the script; maybe that's one of the big problems, though the drawing is true) in which we learn that things that change the past will create a different time path.

The problem is that there would be no time path in which Denzel is investigating this woman's death and also find himself puzzling out evidence that turns out to be of his presence after he saved the woman. It's impossible, even under the terms of this script's logic.


So the script doesn't hold up under close scrutiny. Though a reading of the negative reviews (it's currently running at about 61% positive on Rotten Tomatoes) shows that a lot of the critics who haven't liked it aren't giving it close scrutiny; they aren't disliking it because this key plot idea doesn't make sense, they are disliking it because they haven't paid enough real attention to the plot to understand what the hell is going on.

And for me, the logic holes were forgivable; I was along for the whole ride, and it was a good one. Deja Vu is well worth seeing, though if you need to go to the bathroom in the middle, hold it.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


So I finally saw Borat, and I was a bit underwhelmed.

I generally liked a lot of it, and there were times I laughed a lot, but maybe it was the hype, or the fact that the commercials had given away so many of the funny moments, but I thought I'd be a lot more entertained than I was.

I was also distracted throughout by the odd construction of the whole film. Basically it is just an excuse for the setpieces in which he acts oddly in front of "real" people, to capture their reaction to the character, his attitudes and his behavior. But many of these setpieces felt contrived, manipulated just to fit into the storyline, from the prostitute just happening to show up at the house, to the college kids just happening to drive by in an RV, to the whole obviously-fake Pamela Anderson sequence.

Even the framing device didn't hold together that well for me. The idea is supposed to be that they are going across America, filming this movie, so obviously they have a cameraman with them, but they never refer to him at all. When the producer leaves, and Borat is alone... clearly he's not alone.

I know, one isn't supposed to take anything here literally. But rather than get caught up in the story here, or the story-within-the-story, or the story-within-the-story-within-the-story, they just kept bumping heads a bit too much for me.

For whatever reason, I liked the very-similar-in-many-ways Jackass 2 much more. Maybe it's just me.

Still, I did laugh, and I had to keep shushing my wife, who was being too loudly outrageously amused.

Within a few days, the movie will have passed the $110 million barrier. Amazing.

I fear that we are doomed to see a lot of projects try to imitate its success, with greatly diminishing returns.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Seems Like a Good Idea To Me

The LA Times today reports what could be an example of things to come in Hollywood, and it's hard to find much fault with it.

It seems that last May, screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci (who wrote The Legend of Zorro and Mission Impossible III) were putting the final touches on the shooting script for "The Transformers" when they came up with the idea of punching up the humor by borrowing a page from TV and bringing in a bunch of fellow screenwriters to go through the script in a round table setting, to make the script more fun.

So they rounded up a bunch of pros who were also fans of "The Transformers" (though how they ascertained this is unclear): David Ayer (Training Day), Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball), stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt, Jon Hurwitz (Harold and Kumar), Lona Williams (Drop Dead Gorgeous), Jeff Nathanson ("Catch Me If You Can") and Don D. Scott (Barbershop).

While the screenplay's major elements (structure, plot, characters) were locked down, these writers were asked to double-check its logic and help squeeze what additional humor they could from potentially comedic moments. All invited writers signed a waiver that established they would get a standard $2500 consulting fee (for a session that ran only four hours) as well as a catered lunch; they also gave up any claim to ownership of any ideas that make it into the film.

This isn't hugely different from what some writers' groups go through, much less circles of readers during the writing process. What makes this interesting is that it is a big-budget studio film in which the original writers are circumventing the usual process of having the studio farm the script out to other writers for polishing/punching up, in favor of overseeing the process themselves, so that they can keep a lot more control over it.

In instances where the intent is to add more comedy to something, it also seems like a great idea for screenplays; there's no question that the more brains that there are adding laughs, the better, particularly in the situation in which the original writing team is the ultimate arbitor of what sticks. Especially if they have the ego-free attitude to accept ideas that will improve the script.

In the case of "The Transformers", I guess time will tell if the round table helped. But it feels like win-win on both sides; the script has to have been improved to a certain extent, while $2500 and lunch for four hours work for what was probably a fun session is hard to sneeze at either. I'd do it for $100 and a burrito.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Weekend Boxoffice #9

Early this week, because of the holiday.

5-day weekends are extremely hard to predict, but I'll do my best.

DECK THE HALLS (3205 screens). Matthew Broderick is finally starting to look his age (87?) and when exactly was the last time Danny Devito made a funny movie? Still, it'll probably do a little family business. $21.7 for the 5 days.

DEJA VU (3168 screens). I'm not sure they've really figured out how to sell this, and its going to compete for the same audience as Bond, but they'll both probably do fine. $39.8 first 5 days.

TENACIOUS D (1919 screens). Hard to say, though I don't think it'll be too huge. $13.3 million.

THE FOUNTAIN (1472 screens). I've heard great things about this movie, and terrible things, and not much in-between. I think it'll get lost in the shuffle. $12.2 million.

My guess for the top 6 for Wednesday - Sunday:

HAPPY FEET $52.1 million
CASINO ROYALE $49.6 million
DEJA VU $39.8 million
DECK THE HELLS $21.7 million
TENACIOUS D $13.3 million
THE FOUNTAIN $12.2 million

I'm probably wrong. Tell me where, and make your own guesses.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Natural Selection At Work

When I read on the toilet, I learn all sorts of things. This from Sports Illustrated --

"REPORTED By doctors at the Baltimore VA Medical Center, that emergency-room visits from men decline by 30% during broadcasts of sporting events. (The researchers looked at 796 pro and college football, basketball and baseball games between 2000 and 2003).

"In the four hours after the events, the number of men in the ER went up 40%. David Jerrald, the doctor who led the study, says an acquaintance of his died recently when he put off calling 911 during Georgia Tech football game. "By the time he capitulated to having 911 called, he was in cardiac arrest," says Jerrold, who hopes that men will "reconsider watching that two-minute drive and go to the hospital".

Yikes. Plus lord knows what effect being a fan might have on your blood pressure if you aren't feeling well and then your team does something stupid.

I wonder if this works for TV too -- if people are holding off heading for the emergency room if Lost or Desperate Housewives or The Sopranos is in the middle of the episode.

I was watching "A Simple Plan" in a movie theater with a friend when he started having chest pains; we left immediately and went to the hospital. It turned out to just be gas. I'm not sure what the lesson is there.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Weekend Boxoffice #8

Holiday time is coming, and studios are trying to cash in.

HAPPY FEET (3804 screens). On the one hand, it doesn't seem they are selling this very well; it looks very childish, and it's hard to imagine boys being all that interested in it. On the other hand, penguins are still hot, it's directed by Babe director George Miller so it's probably good, and there is holiday family money to be made. Call it $20 million opening weekend, and it'll probably hang out for a while if it's any good.

CASINO ROYALE (3434 screens). Daniel Craig doesn't really do anything for me, but it looks like they are trying to make things a little grittier and different, and I think that'll help this franchise; I think people are getting a little tired of the same old Bond stuff. At the same time, a lot of this will probably be the same old Bond stuff that they want anyway. Call it $36.3 million.

LET'S GO TO PRISON (1495 screens). Also known as "Let's Rent This On Video". Hard to imagine that Dax Shepard or Will Arnett are going to bring in big crowds for what looks like a lot of standard don't-drop-the-soap jokes. Call it $4.4 million.

Top 3:
Casino Royale $36.3
Borat $21.7
Happy Feet $20.0

Your guess?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Writing It Short, or Writing It Long

So the only new TV series I've been watching this year is "Heroes".

I was watching "Jericho" for a while, but it just got depressing, especially since every episode was the same - bleak post-apocalyptic stuff, and then a contrived mini-drama in which Skeet Ulrich (ugh) saves the day. Every week.

The good thing about Heroes is that it's the kind of stuff I like to write. Character/action/drama, with a supernatural twist. Real people put into extraordinary situations, to see what they will do.

The problem with Heroes? It's the kind of stuff I have written.

Every week, the series becomes a little more like my Nicholl semifinalist script.

No wonder none of these people who requested it have gotten back to me.

I knew there were some similarities early. My Nicholl script is also about a group of people with special abilities; generally smaller abilities than the ones at play in Heroes, but still. And one of my supporting characters is a guy who can draw the future.

But as Heroes has gone along, the story has become more about these people on the road, and the plot is increasingly becoming about their stopping a killer who is targeting people with special powers. Which is... pretty much what my plotline is.

I'm not saying they stole it; they obviously didn't. My script also has a lot of stuff that is completely different; the plotlines ultimately aren't all that similar.

Similar enough to torpedo the script? Probably. Sigh.

The fascinating thing, though, is that in my script I tell a fairly-involved story in two hours. Arguably, you could boil Heroes down to a feature too, though they are revelling in the fact that they don't have to; they get to tell it long, and that's very freeing.

Figure a season of a TV drama is about 22 episodes. Scrape out the commercials, that's about 16-17 hours to play with. That's a lot of time.

The main difference is focus. The way I crammed my story into two hours is by picking a main character and telling the tale entirely through her. It's her tale; everyone else is just along for the ride.

Heroes sprawls. It has about a dozen main characters; there are episodes when some don't even appear. The pace can be slower; they can linger over character moments. They can hang around comparatively-minor characters for longer periods of time, and give them mini-dramas that don't drive the central plotline in any way.

Of course, this is also problematic in that they need to pad a lot of stuff out; even telling a multi-character tale like this could probably be done tightly in 6 hours, so 16 is stretching it. The story tends to be a bit repetitive; we get not 1 or 2 scenes of the cheerleader healing herself after an injury, but 8 or 9.

The funny thing is that a while ago I tried to turn my script into a pilot; I had a minor "we like it, though we don't actually want to give you money" interest from a prodco. So I specced it into a pilot, and that was when I discovered the whole hunt-for-a-killer plotline that it evolved into, and then I backed it back out into a script.

Oddly, though, even the spec felt like a feature, because it still focused almost entirely on my main character. I hadn't really let it sprawl; I hadn't taken the opportunity to move other characters into the forefront.

Ultimately, I think there's interesting aspects about both writing things short or long. There's a definite tightness and structure to getting things down to feature length that is satisfying. But there's no denying that a lot of TV series are currently having fun just letting the characters and situations breathe.

Of course, in other currently-depressing news, I'm also becoming increasingly aware that my new supernatural thriller feels way too much like a very-special episode of The Ghost Whisperer. There really are only about 29 plots in the world.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Weekend Boxoffice #7

As the weather gets colder, the movies start getting better, in theory, though there are a few clunkers this week.

Borat is tripling its screen count, to 2566. Stranger Than Fiction is opening up on 2264, and getting solid reviews.

A Good Year breaks out on 2066 screens, though it looks formulaic and sappy, while Russell Crowe, as good of an actor as he is, seems wrong in it. The Return is opening up on 1986 screens, but I have no idea what the hook of this horror/thriller is, so I guess the whole box office rests on Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Harsh Times is opening on 956, though it's hard to imagine that movie making much money, despite the advertising; the young white male audience it seems aimed at can't be all that excited about it, can they?

My predictions:

Borat $29.8 million
Stranger Than Fiction $14.7 million
The Return $11.6 million
A Good Year $6.9 million
Harsh Times $4.7 million


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Cleaning Out My Closet

I know it has been a while since I've made a substantial post, but I've been in sort of a transitional funk.

The representation hunt is rather frustrating; turns out that even semi-ing in the Nicholl Fellowship won't get people to read your script particularly fast, though it's out there.

I finished a just-about-done polish of my supernatural thriller, which is sitting on the window cooling; I want to read through once more before I deem it ready to give to people. Hopefully by then someone will actually want to see it.

Meanwhile, I'm cleaning out my closet, and throwing stuff away. This has long been a problem for me; I'm a major packrat. Among the things I had boxed up in my closet are several hundred old cassette tapes, tons of TV shows and movies taped off TV in the 1990s, old paperback books, copies of coverage that I did before I had a computer, and of course, every rough draft of every incarnation of every script I have ever written, and every note I ever made about it on the way.

It's the last two stashes that have been going first. The coverage has already been disposed of, though I thoughtfully (anally?) shredded the cover page of every single one. Aside from a few early notebooks of script notes, all the loose pages of notes and all the extra copies of intermediate drafts are going. I'm keeping several drafts of all my scripts, but when a box of stuff can be boiled down to a script or two, most of that box has to go.

I've also uncovered some writing that I thought was lost, or that I had completely forgotten about, including a pair of puppet shows I wrote for my roommate in Manhattan in the 1990s. One of them was even performed, to a happy audience, though the videotape of that performance, which I wasn't at, is amazingly dark and inaudible.

I also found some sketches that I wrote for a sketch comedy troupe that I belonged to in Manhattan, several of which were performed during the troupe's one performance, before they gloriously imploded. I wasn't at that show either (I was a writer, not a performer).

I need to stop missing the few minor successes I've had.

Needless to say, when you clean out your closet, you find yourself reliving your past. I found a big envelope full of letters from friends to me at camp and college, back from the day when people actually wrote letters. I found a box containing every Playbill from every play I ever saw in Manhattan (when I spent a couple of years reading for a Broadway theater in exchange for free tickets to pretty much everything).

I found my old Rubik's cube. There's a box of old 45s, and some comic books, and some trading cards, including a complete set of Mallrats cards, even though I wasn't a big fan of the movie.

I found all my old mathletes awards. Damn, I was sort of a nerd.

The really sad thing is is that I lugged all of this stuff across the country, and then from Pasadena to Glendale to Woodland Hills. Most of it should have been jettisoned long, long ago.

Some of it I'm keeping, still. But I'm trying to toss anything that doesn't have sentimental value, or which I'm unlikely to watch or listen to anytime in the next 20 years.

If I find Jimmy Hoffa's body, I'll let you know.

Monday, November 06, 2006

And On The Seventh Day, They Met And Hung Out

It's time to hang out with some fellow scribes.

This Sunday, we have reserved an upstairs room at Jerry's Deli in Westwood for some dinner and conversation. Hopefully this will be the first of many get-togethers.

We need to get at least 15-20 people to easily cover the minimum, but the more people we get/more money we spend, the longer we can hang out. So we're going for the 50-person maximum.

Please e-mail me to let me know if you can be there. All the info is listed over on Wordplay here. If you don't spend a lot of time at Wordplay already, you should.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Writing a Script is Like Building a House... and so is Building a House

So I spent today doing something that I've always wanted to do, but which I had never taken the step to actually doing myself until now.

I did volunteer work, helping Habitat For Humanity build a house.

My wife's job set up a thing for their employees to volunteer, and though not many of them did, me and my lovely brude went over to the site (in Port Hueneme, about 40 miles northwest) and spent the day busting our humps for a good cause.

Today, that amounted to installing insulation in the ceiling, then helping awkwardly move (in two adjacent houses) over 100 pieces of fairly heavy drywall up a staircase to the second floor. Then we helped fill in a ditch over a pipe.

For someone like me who spends the bulk of their week sitting around reading scripts and writing coverage, just getting out and being active with other people is nice. Breaking a sweat to help a family get one step closer to a house to live in? Even better.

I loved every minute. I may pop back over in early December, just to hammer some of that drywall in.

Anyone who wants to join me, let me know.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Weekend Boxoffice #6

I'm not sure why it's family film weekend this weekend, but the only two movies opening wide are The Santa Clause 3 and Flushed Away.

(Borat is also opening, but only on about 800 screens).

I guess the idea is that these movies will still be playing through the Thanksgiving break, but honestly, The Santa Clause 3 looks like such srtident, shrill crap that it's hard to believe it won't be completely dead by then.

Still, though Flushed Away is likely the better movie, I really don't think they are selling it that well; I've seen a ton of commercials, and none of them grabbed my brain, even though I like this type of animation.

So, though both will do a little something-something, my prediction is:

The Santa Clause 3 $20.1 million
Flushed Away $16.1 million

Saw III will probably drop off a lot, and bring in about $15 million or so. Borat? Maybe $10 million this weekend, if it clicks. Though in 2 weeks, it'll probably be making more than all these movies.

Your predictions? (And is anyone honestly eager to rush out and see either Santa Clause 3 or Flushed Away? Do you have kids that are intrigued by either movie?)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Trick or Treaters

I've always had a fondness for Halloween; last year I even blogged about the time I went trick or treating in July.

I grew up in suburban Long Island, where as a kid Halloween was all about getting candy from as many houses as we could. We weren't trickers, we were all about the treat. We wound up with pillowcases stuffed with candy.

But nowadays, it seems that too much fear has set in. Nevermind that there aren't any confirmable stories of razor blades in candy or costumed kids being snatched off the streets.

In the 9 Halloweens that I've had in the Los Angeles area, in various apartments, I've had maybe 20 total trick or treaters knock on my door.

Last night was a relatively good Halloween; we actually had 8 people knock on the door of our complex, and some were adorable.

But 8. Come on. That's nothing. We still have a bowl of candy sitting here that I can't eat.

It's better than last year, when we had no one knock on our door. This year, the complex sent around a piece of paper that to post on your door/window about whether you had candy. It's orange, you can't miss it, and we're in a fairly high-traffic area of the complex.

I was convinced that this was the turning point. So I bought a lot of candy, just to be sure.

8 kids came by.

And I couldn't help but notice that most of my neighbors either didn't put the sign up at all, or put up the "sorry, no candy" side of the sign.

I get that a lot of parents would rather take their kids to safe parties than turn them loose in the neighborhood or (god forbid) actually go trick or treating with their kids. I guess you can argue that most kids can do without the sugar. Maybe safety is an issue in some neighborhoods; I don't know.

But it just seems a shame that this fun, essential kid-thing of my youth is being lost.

Did anyone see a good number of trick-or-treaters last night?

Stories, please.