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

Sunday, July 30, 2006

When Bad DVDs Happen To Good People

So I was pondering the state of my DVD collection tonight, and wondering what the worst DVDs were that had somehow made it onto my shelf.

(Never mind how they got there. It's a DVD shelf. Sometimes things just wash up).

I finally decided that it was a tie. "Legally Blonde 2", and "American Wedding". I'm already apologizing.

What's the worst DVD on your shelf?

Friday, July 28, 2006


This post is inspired by some recent byplay over on Wordplayer, in which Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest authors Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio complain about some of the reviews their movie is getting.

They aren't complaining about the bad reviews, per se. I respect the fact that these two writers openly admit that the film isn't perfect, and not as good as the first one.

What they are complaining about is a slew of reviews that have come down on the movie like a sack of bricks. Reviews that essentially say that the movie is so terrible, that no one will enjoy it.

And Ted and Terry are right to complain.

Because whether you like Dead Man's Chest, or thought it was okay, or didn't like it at all, it's clear that there are a large number of people in each of these camps.

It's a fascinating movie, in that it's a really good example of how movies can hit people different ways, and how expectations can also play into that -- a lot of people hoping for the same fun experience from the second movie as the first didn't really get enough of that, and their disappointment over that soured their entire feeling of whether the second movie works, even as the kind of different movie from the first that Dead Man's Chest is really trying to be.

But there's no question that a large percentage of the people who went to see the film were entertained, some immensely, some to a moderate level (I generally liked it, didn't love it).

And film critics have the responsibility to bring across in their film reviews that it's this kind of movie. Don't they?

Film criticism is a weird genre of writing, because there's really two aspects of it. Most film critics want it to be the kind of job in which they analyze films and talk about why they do and don't work, (actually being "film critics") but the problem is that few critics can really do this well, or have an audience that particularly cares.

Pauline Kael was a great film critic. Roger Ebert is too, though it has been softened by the fact that few people actually read his film criticism any more; instead, too many people just get his bite-sized reviews from the TV show.

Because that's the main part of writing about movies today. People who write movie reviews might believe that they are critics, but really, people reading them just want to know if it is worth spending $10 to see the movie or not. The job really isn't "film critic", it's "film reviewer".

And this is harder than you think. Because most movies aren't going to be enjoyed by 100% of the audience, or 0%. Most movies fall into a gray area, and most critics really find it hard to bring across exactly how large this gray area is. They'd rather review the movie on its merits, and whether it worked for them (for what that's worth), than worry about what most audiences will think.

And many critics just get lazy. If they sort of like a movie, they rave about it, even if it isn't that good, and everyone isn't going to like it. Or they dump all over it, even if that is unwarranted too.

They filter their opinions through a sensibility honed by seeing way too many films, that may indeed be able to discern filmmaking skill, but which has lost its edge regarding the simple question of whether the average audience member will enjoy it.

Many critics can't even write a review without giving away half the movie -- because again, they are trying to pretend that their job is something it really isn't.

But here's the problem. Most people don't want to read reviews that are going to give away plot points before seeing the movie. And most of the time, when you finally see the movie -- and then might enjoy that piece of film criticism -- the newspaper has long been recycled.

Generally, I just find myself skimming film reviews, because I'm tired of having too much spoiled for me in advance. I let my eyes leap over it, looking for words that will give me the general feel of the story. Ironically, generally the headline is enough, or, in the instance of reviews that do it, the number of stars that it gets.

And that's the main problem. If you are a film critic, and few people are actually reading your reviews start to finish, then what purpose are you really serving?

And if you can't review a movie to give an accurate sense to someone reading it if this is a movie they will enjoy, then what's the point?

I think the perfect film review can blend reviewing and criticizing, if they follow these simple steps:

-- Don't give away anything that hasn't already been shown in countless commercials. This gives you more leeway than you think.

-- Be open to the fact that, though you might hate certain genres of movies, that these genres have audiences, and you need to be able to tap into whether these films will work for these audiences or not.

-- Realize that it is quite possible for a movie to have large flaws and still be very entertaining to a large swath of people.

-- Realize that even if you hated, or loved, a movie, that you aren't the end-all, be-all of human taste, and that your reviews should be able to say that, even though the movie is lacking in X, Y and Z, that nevertheless its still a fun time at the movies, if you don't expect that much. Or realize that even though you loved that obscure French film, it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea.

-- Be able to concisely reflect all this in an entertaining, intelligent review, that at the end will leave the reader relatively confident about whether or not this is a film that they might want to take a chance on.

It's not easy.

I used to review movies in college (my first review was on "Splash") and I dabble in tearing apart movies here (my last was on "Lady in the Water" -- symmetry), and I like to think that I can be thoughtful about whether or not movies work or not.

And I always appreciate reading what a knowledgable film blogger like Billy Mernit has to say about movies, such as in his current review of My Super Ex-Girlfriend here. This is the kind of review that really works well; it's a good read, it gives you a real idea about whether or not you are the kind of person who will like this movie, and he is able to analyze it without giving much away that you don't already know.

I'm not anti-film critic. There are good film critics, there are bad film critics, and critics have their place. And the wrath of M. Night Shyamalan toward them is generally unfounded, because too often they are right about his movies.

But film critics who hammer a movie like Dead Man's Chest -- which though it isn't perfect, certainly isn't unwatchable -- have just lost touch with what their job really is.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

But I Really Don't Want To Direct

I was going to do a post talking about all the really successful, generally-known screenwriters out there who don't direct, but I was having a problem coming up with a lot of real solid names.

Charlie Kaufman. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. John August was, but he's directing something now. Akiva Goldsman... but he's not one of my favorite writers.

I'm sure if I really thought about it, I could come up with a longer list. But I'd have to strain a bit.

The point is that, in Hollywood, if you want to really have a lasting writing career, and make a name for yourself, you have to become a writer-director. Plus obviously it gives you more control as well; you get to shepherd your work onto the screen in the way that you see it.

And there are scads of stories of good writers who became very good writer-directors. One of my favorites is Barry Levinson. He wrote a ton of stuff for TV, became a successful screenwriter, and then got his shot. He went on to write and direct Diner. Tin Men. Avalon. Liberty Heights. Plus a few very good films from other people's scripts, like Rain Man, The Natural, Bugsy, Wag the Dog and Good Morning Vietnam. (Okay, he's done some crap, too. Like Toys, and Sphere. No one's perfect).

My problem? I really have no interest in directing. I've been on movie sets, and it all left me cold. If I ever sold a script, I'd have no interest in holding out for the director's slot -- I'd want them to hire someone who could do it justice. It's not a skill set I possess, or that I ache to learn.

I know, I know. I'm entering into the realm of fantasy. I should have such problems.

But it's really true: there aren't a lot of role models out there for people who just want to write movies, and get them on the screen. It's hard for a writer/non-director to have the kind of career in which you can string together a lot of movies and really become known for doing a certain kind of thing.

If Barry Levinson hadn't directed his Baltimore movies, who would have? If John Hughes hadn't written and directed his teen classics, would they have gotten made?

And say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan, but he has his body of writing work because he went out and got people to pay him to direct it.

I find that a lot of my favorite screenwriters are guys who have been directing their scripts from the start of the careers, doing their own low-budget films and not trying to write big studio stuff.

Guys like Noah Baumbach, who did The Squid and the Whale, and Kicking and Screaming (no, not the Will Ferrell one). Or Whit Stillman. Or even Woody Allen, before he was replaced by a pod person, somewhere after Crimes and Misdemeanors.

But that's not me.

So I'll keep writing, and keep loving movies, and hope to one day strike gold, and turn it into a vein. But a little part of me wishes that I had gotten the directing bug somewhere along the line. Because it really seems like the way to go.

So let's talk about the screenwriter, who never gets enough respect.

Who are some of your favorite screenwriters? Who are the people whose name on a movie automatically gets you to want to see it? Who are the screenwriters who inspire you to want to write better?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The MPAA Stumbles Again....

As part of my research for last week's post about ratings, I signed up for the MPAA's new "Red Carpet Ratings Service", a weekly e-mail that they send out, geared toward parents, so that they know what objectionable content might be in the movies available in their local multiplex.

Yesterday, the first e-mail went out -- and they botched it, badly.

They accidentally put the wrong "rating reason" on both Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and on Lady In The Water.

In both cases, whoever was typing them up simply gave them the same "rating reasons" as the movie above it on the list. Unfortunately, both of those movies were very R; respectively, a movie called "Shadowboxer", and "Clerks 2".

So they reported Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest as being rated PG-13 for "strong graphic violence and sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use".

Lady in the Water was reported as being rated PG-13 for "Pervasive sexual and crude content, including aberrant sexuality, strong language and some drug material".

15 minutes later, they sent out the e-mail again. There was no sign that a correction had been made; you had to read it closely to see that Pirates of the Caribbean had been changed to the proper rating reason.

Lady in the Water hadn't.

So I sent them an amused e-mail, letting them know it was still wrong. About 30 minutes later, they finally sent out a correct list, though without the word "correction" on it anywhere.

So any mothers out there, who just printed out the first list -- and assumed that the next two were just duplicates -- now must believe that Pirates features a bunch of naked, horny, violent pot smokers.

And that Paul Giamatti must be buggering the narf.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


So I'm immersed in rewriting my supernatural thriller, which has led me to revisit all the notes I got back in February.

At that time, I sent my latest draft out to a dozen or so friends, to get their thoughts on what worked and what didn't. And I got back a wide range of notes. Some very helpful, some just interesting; I'm a firm believer that you can cull something from anyone's notes, if you try and figure out what inspired them.

Rereading the notes now, though, I was struck by something.

The people who were really honest and critical about my script felt extremely self-conscious about it. So many of the e-mails I got back were prefaced with some nervousness, trying to soften the blow before they listed what was wrong with my baby.

Even though that's exactly what I do for a living.

And that's exactly what I want in notes.

And those were inevitably the best notes I got back.

Anyone out there who writes, who hasn't realized it yet, realize it now -- honest, critical notes are the best notes you'll ever get.

And they shouldn't be apologized for.

Of course, it helps if the notes are constructively critical. The first script I ever wrote was a comedy set on a college campus, where the main character is accidentally turned into a vampire. It was awful, and one of my best friends told me so, in no uncertain terms.

Unfortunately, "this sucks" was about the extent of it. Criticism like that, honest as it might be, is only minimally more helpful than "this is great", because neither really tell you anything.

But everyone goes through that period where "this is great" is really all they want to hear. There's a certain amount of affirmation that a lot of writers need, particularly starting out; learning how to write is a long, lonely process, and sometimes you need to try to bring people in to make sure that you are on the right road.

But seek out the honest, knowledgable ones, because they are the ones that are going to push you to get better. Your mom, telling you "honey, this was really good" might be nice to hear, but let's face it, she'd probably say that even if it wasn't.

But honesty has become an awkward thing, on both sides. People giving honest criticism always feel uncomfortable about it, so much so that many people would rather say "I liked it" than to try to explain why they didn't.

I've had times in the past with friends, where I was honest with them (constructively, I thought), and it was obviously something they didn't want to hear. At all. So they've never given me anything else to read.

Would it have been easier to tell them "I liked it". Probably. It's an easy trap to fall into.

On sites like Zoetrope, many people who post their scripts for criticism are miffed whenever they get a response that doesn't give them top marks. They complain about the criticism rather than try to understand what inspired it, even if it is misbegotten and misguided.

But this is where criticism works, down here in the trenches. Film critics dumping on a completed movie really doesn't serve any constructive purpose, because it's too late to change anything; it's already a movie, it's already done.

But as writers, we need to embrace honesty, not feel uncomfortable with it. Our screenplays aren't perfect yet, not by a long shot. Neither are our friends'.

And the trick is to be honest, but constructive. And to listen to the honesty, and not to follow it blindly (because, in the long run, no one knows everything in this business, not even me) but to filter it through what you want to do with the script.

Honesty should be the rule, not the exception.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

So I Need a Name...

I'm currently involved in the umpteenth rewrite of my supernatural thriller, and one of the things getting overhauled is the villain. He's getting more depth, more evil, a more coherent motivation.

Sounds like an MTV show. "Pimp My Villain".

Anyhow, what he also needs is a new name, because the old name -- John -- is just too dull to cut it. I was just leafing through a baby name book, but nothing is jumping out.

So I'm taking suggestions, now.

First name, last name, if it's evocative I'll take it. Nothing too on the nose, though -- I don't want to call him Damon, or Lou Cypher, or any riff on anything Satanic.

A brief thumbnail sketch --

He's in his late 30s. Wealthy, shady businessman, but with a lot of charm; think Clive Owen. Comes across as a loving father to his son, but he's really a total sociopath.

Come up with a good name, and I'll name a minor character after you.

Friday, July 21, 2006

"Lady in the Water" Has Problems (No Spoilers)

To establish something right up front: I think M. Night Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker.

Visually, his films look great. He has a feel for getting good performances out of his actors. He also has a good feel for bringing little bits of humor to otherwise-serious stories. And each of his movies are rife with solid, well-crafted sequences.

They are also the kind of stories that I like to tell. Ordinary people, trying to deal with a fantasy twist that is thrown at them.

The problem with M. Night is that he is only as good as his screenplays. And as a screenwriter, quite frankly, he's getting worse.

The famous story about M. Night is that it took him 10 drafts of The Sixth Sense to get it right, and it wasn't until the 5th draft that he came up with the twist involving Bruce Willis' character.

Unfortunately, with The Sixth Sense came fame, and with fame came the ability to not need to do ten drafts any more, if he didn't want to. So every movie he does, the scripts just get shakier and shakier.

Unbreakable? Maybe he did 4 drafts. The script held together pretty well, until a third act that didn't go much of anywhere, and one of the worst actual endings I've ever seen.

Signs? Feels like a 3-drafter. Some good bits here (love Joaquin Phoenix freaking out to the bad footage of the alien on TV), but the idea that you need a dying woman to pass along a message that you might want to hit an alien with a baseball bat is really rather eye-rolling.

The Village. A two-drafter, all the way. Potentially-interesting idea, poorly executed story-wise.

Lady In The Water? You guessed it. It feels like a first draft all the way.

It's not giving anything away at all to tell you that M. Night even opens the story up by pretty much telling you where it is going; literally, before we meet any actors, we learn of these humanoid sea creatures, and the knowledge that they need to pass on to people, and that there these wolf creatures want to kill them.

Pretty basic set-up, given to you right up front.

Still, so much early exposition (complete with rudimentary drawings) is an early sign of this script's major, major problem -- M. Night's story here is needlessly overcomplicated.

Not only does he have way too much info that has to be established, but when he does get the lore and the rules laid out, they still don't make much sense.

The whole script just feels incredibly contrived, like he's making it up as he goes along, and it's frustrating as hell, because we want to like this movie.

Paul Giamatti is appealing (as always), the fairy tale feel adds some nice touches, the world of this apartment complex is well-drawn, and there are enough good ideas floating around here to show the solid movie that it could have been. Even M. Night, playing a supporting role, is actually decent as an actor.

(Despite how the commercials are selling this, however, it's not a horror movie. Or much of a thriller. And don't get me started on how incredibly ineffective the evil in this movie is, or the awful deus ex machina ending).

But this has to be one of the worst-executed plots that I've seen in a long time. M. Night seems to realize the problems, too; he works overtime trying to make the exposition entertaining, and tries to have fun with the idea of the characters trying to figure out the "rules" of the fantasy that they have found themselves dropped into.

But the rules don't really make any sense. The story feels slapped together, so much so that we are never satisfied by much of it, because it relies too much on cheats, and on pure contrivance, and on the characters being driven by a fear of creatures that never actually seem to attack much, or with much credible logic.

M. Night also drops in a truly awful subplot involving a character who is a movie critic, who over-analyzes the storyline as the film is going on. All of this reminding of formulaic storytelling just serves to further make one realize how badly manufactured this particular story is.

And I have no idea -- none -- why M. Night felt further inspired to name the female lead "Story".

A recent Entertainment Weekly excerpt (from a book coming out about M. Night's making this movie) details why Disney didn't make this film; Nina Jacobsen had a list of valid complaints about the script, and rather than address the gaping story flaws, M. Night just took it to Warner Brothers, who basically gave him his budget and let him make the movie he wanted to without giving them any of those pesky things called notes.

If you are a filmmaker, that's a dream scenario. Unfortunately, you still have to be able to pull it off. And M. Night simply doesn't. It's frustrating, because again the man has filmmaking skills.

But maybe it's time for him to direct someone else's script next time.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Memorable Scenes in Forgettable Movies

Back in the day, when I lived in Manhattan and was a movie theater manager, I used to see pretty much every movie that was released. It was easy; most of them were free.

One year I saw 152 movies in theaters, including 30 in one month. You have to dig pretty deep to see 30 movies in one month.

Now, I'm lucky if I see 30 movies a year in theaters, and I pretty much only go out to see the movies I want to see. Ebert & Roeper recently did a show on the Worst Movies of the Year, and I hadn't seen any of them. There was a time when I would have seen them all.

Looking back at the lists of movies I saw back then (yeah, I kept a list), I realize that there are entire movies that I have no real memory of. "Bordello of Blood"? Something about vampires, right?

I know "My Fellow Americans" is a Jack Lemmon movie, but I'm surprised that I actually saw it... but there it is on the list. "City of Industry"? "Metro"? "Night Orchid"? No memory.

Other movies I've seen in the past will sometimes have only a single sequence that sticks with me. And there's something fascinating about that. These are the things that I think we want to capture as writers/filmmakers; the moments that people will always remember. And the fact that you can remember them, even when the movie was otherwise pretty forgettable, is something too.

Here's a random memorable scene in an otherwise forgettable movie for me. In "Pump of the Volume" (which wasn't nearly as edgy or funny as it really needed to be), Christian Slater is an underground DJ, and Samantha Mathis is the girl he likes, and... I don't know. There was a plot there somewhere.

But what I remember is a great moment in the early second half of the film, when Christian and Samantha are arriving at school after... I can't recall. Doing something the night before.

But they meet up, in a crowd of people. The camera spins around them, and moves in tighter, and tighter, and tighter, until it's just their faces filling the frame, as their lips slowly, tentatively move closer. And then they have a great, little, perfect kiss.

A piece of visual ballet in an otherwise flawed film.

What moments are there for you, banging around in your memory? Resonant, perfect little pieces of films that are the only reason you hesitate when you come upon them on late night cable, hoping that fate will drop the scene in, right there, just at that moment?

Dredge them up. Let us know.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


So the Motion Picture Association of America will now e-mail you the ratings of new movies every week, so that you know what to steer your kids (or yourself) toward or away from.

The problem, of course, is that actual ratings have become nearly pointless. Because unless it's a kids movie or a violent action movie/horror movie, pretty much every movie is rated PG-13, no matter what the wide range of audiences it might actually appear to have.

I like the whole idea of ratings, in theory. I think it's important to know what is in a movie, and the little descriptive boxes that they have under them help immensely.

But let's face it. The studios know that PG-13 is going to mean their maximum audience, so they are skewing everything toward it. So movies that should be R are now softer, and movies that should be PG are now harder.

I'm not sure who is really winning in that scenario.

Don't believe me? Let's look at what is in theaters now (or opening on Friday), and what the little box on the ad warns parents about.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST should logically be PG, because it's based on a Disney ride, it's being marketed to kids, and because there's really no reason that it needs the gory moments that are in the film now, which just feel awkward. But sure enough, the ad warns "Intense Sequences of Adventure Violence, Including Frightening Images". Adventure violence? Sounds like someone's really bad defense at an assault trial. But anyway, the movie is rated PG-13.

SUPERMAN RETURNS. Another movie that would logically be PG, particularly since again, it is being marketed to kids, and Superman is so goody-goody he probably wouldn't go see a PG-13 movie himself. But thanks to "Some Intense Action Violence" (it's nice that they can break the violence down for us), it too is PG-13.

THE BREAK-UP is about as grown-up as a movie gets; do 12-year olds really want to see this? Do 16-year-olds? The ad warns "Sexual Content, Some Nudity and Language". Films like this should be R; might as well actually make a grown-up movie for grown-ups. Nope. Somehow, despite the sex and the nudity, it's PG-13.

YOU, ME AND DUPREE. "Sexual Content, Brief Nudity, Crude Humor, Language and a Drug Reference". Now we're talking. R, right? Nope. PG-13.

CLICK. "Language, Crude and Sex-Related Humor and Some Drug References". Still PG-13.

LADY IN THE WATER. Despite it being sold on TV as a horror movie, and the ad warning of "Some Frightening Sequences" (that's it? Just Some?) it is PG-13. Truly scary horror movies are not rated PG-13; it's usually the first tip-off that it's not really that kind of movie. ("The Sixth Sense" -- and all of Shyamalan's other movies -- were also PG-13, as is "The Others", though if you make a good supernatural thriller, you can pull off the rating).

MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND. "Sexual Content, Crude Humor, Language and Brief Nudity". I guess throwing a shark through the side of a building doesn't even get a mention. PG-13.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. "Some Sensuality". Whatever that means. Apparently enough to get it a PG-13.

SCOOP. The new Woody Allen movie, opening Friday. It has Scarlett Johansson it in, which should be enough to get an R on its own, and sure enough it has "Some Sexual Content". But, still, PG-13.

LITTLE MAN. "Crude and Sexual Humor Throughout, Language and Brief Drug References". Finally, a movie so dedicated to the funny that it can have "crude and sexual humor throughout"... But WTF? It can't be that funny, because it's still only PG-13.

THE DA VINCI CODE. "Disturbing Images, Violence, Some Nudity, Thematic Material, Brief Drug References and Sexual Content". All of that, and yes, still PG-13.

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. I know, you thought it was G. But it has "Risque Humor". PG-13.

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS 3: TOKYO DRIFT. "Reckless and Illegal Behavior Involving Teens, Violence, Language, and Sexual Content". PG-13.

See a trend here?

And clearly, though PG-13 was meant to bridge the gap between PG and R, obviously it is really just making movies that previously would have been rated R seem more family-friendly, or enabling filmmakers to goose the violence and crudity in PG movies to shoot it up to PG-13.

There are some non PG-13 movies. Miami Vice is R. A Scanner Darkly is R. Clerks II is R, thank God. Some movies just should be R, otherwise what's the point of making them?

Monster House is PG (despite "Scary Images and Sequences, Thematic Elements, Some Crude Humor and Brief Language"). Nacho Libre is PG (despite "Some Rough Action, Crude Humor Including Dialogue"). The Lake House is PG, despite the potential damage to children of seeing Keanu Reeves try to act.

And Cars is rated G, bless its heart.

Somehow, the non-PG-13 ratings feel more honest than the fake-middle-ground ones.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Discussion: How Do We Serve Older Actresses -- and Older Audiences?

My parents are getting up there in years, but they still like going out to the movies. And they are constantly complaining that there's nothing out there for them to see.

They're right.

One has to believe that a good, entertaining movie skewing toward an older audience would make a lot of money, because don't kid yourself -- the older crowd is out there, and they are hungry.

It's one reason that "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" made so much money; sure, the main characters weren't old, but it felt like something older audiences would like. And they flocked to it.

There have been a few others examples that occasionally pop up too, in which movies tap into the older audience, and do well. "The Notebook". "Space Cowboys".

But instead, it seems that every year, Hollywood is just more and more determined to make mass-market movies that hit as many levels of audiences as they can, but of course what that really means is that they are going for the younger audiences first, and if older audiences want to go out and see Superman Returns or The Lake House, well that's fine.

So there's a need, and there's also a hell of a lot of great older actresses out there to serve it... and yet we're ignoring them too.

This is a big mystery to me (and I know it was explained a bit in the documentary "Searching For Debra Winger", but I didn't see it, and Hollywood obviously didn't care). What has happened to the great stories for older women?

And I'm not even talking old, old. I'm talking 40. Though there are actresses in their 50s and 60s who could rock a movie too.

And it's strange, because if you look at the heyday of Hollywood, there was a lot of work for actresses of this age.

But if Katherine Hepburn was 40 and in Hollywood now, what would she be acting in? What about Bette Davis? Claudette Colbert?

Would people be writing movies for them, because they have star power? Or would they be relegated to character roles and guest shots on Will and Grace?

Meryl Streep is getting work, but the substantial roles are becoming few and far between even for her. Julianne Moore seems to have pretty much cornered the market on playing housewives age with any meat on the roles at all, but what will she be playing in the next five years?

Glenn Close is doing cable, Geena Davis is doing network TV, Susan Sarandon can't find a decent part.

Julia Roberts can't even find good roles. Julia Roberts. And she's only 38.

So let's talk about this. A lot of the people who wander over to this blog are writers -- do you find yourselves automatically writing characters younger than yourselves, just because that's what Hollywood wants? Have we become so indoctrined toward writing for younger audiences that that is all anyone does any more?

(I have to admit that, on reflection, I'm guilty. Though many of my specs have female leads, they are inevitably in their 20s, or younger).

If you were told that you had a chance to pitch a movie to Julia Roberts' production company, what kind of story would you pitch her? What kind of movies should Hollywood have a 40-year-old Julia Roberts starring in?

Otherwise, I'm sure everyone reading this goes to the movies a lot. What is it about today's films that you can't make the kind of Tracy-Hepburn mature comedy that they used to make 50 years ago? Why is it only rarely that older actresses can be in romantic comedy-dramas, and even then apparently only if Jack Nicholson is in the movie too?

What is it going to take to reinvent the older female film to reawake Hollywood to its potential?

Talk to me.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Movie Characters That Aren't As Original As You Think They Are

This is inspired by a post over on Wordplay, where Bill Martell points out that Click, Cars and the Devil Wears Prada are essentially all the same film, in which a workaholic realizes that they need to change their priorities and put friends and family first.

This got me thinking about way-too-overused characters and character arcs that I constantly see. There's nothing more tedious than realizing you are reading a tired riff on the same old bit.

If you've built a script around one of these characters, think about whether you've at least come up with an interesting spin on them, or whether maybe it's time to.

And these characters aren't necessarily wrong to use -- generally, it only becomes glaring when the entire storyline rests on their pat, familiar little problems.

THE WORKAHOLIC. Generally, these characters are always missing their kids' functions, or frustrating wives by missing dinner, or are trying to keep their boss happy by working harder than the younger guy who is after their job. Granted, this is a problem that exists in real life, but too often in the scripts I read, the characters don't even take a step back and do the can-I-work-less, still-support-my-family and be-really-happy test until late in the script, when it conveniently turns out that gee, they weren't all that tied to their workaholic ways anyway.

And of course there's never a scene in which the family and friends realize they should get off the main character's case, because he's in a stage of his career where he has to work hard if he wants to make it.

THE DREAMER. Sort of a version of the workaholic. He's stuck in a job he hates (or, in half of the scripts I read involving teens, his parents want him to go to med school or law school) but he really wants to be in music. Or a writer. Or a dancer. Of course, by the end, he goes for the arts, which his family/parents are often ultimately supportive of, though not for the obvious reasons (that the world has too many damn lawyers anyway).

THE IMMATURE GUY. This is probably the worst offender, because he's everywhere. Almost every comedy I read with a male lead in his 30s, it's about him realizing that he needs to grow up, and a) get a job b) get a life c) commit to the girl, d) all of the above.

It somehow takes the entire story for the character to really come to grips with the fact that they have a problem, despite the fact that it's painfully obvious to everyone else from page one (while, if they ever go to the movies, they constantly see their alter egos getting lives). All of these guys are almost exactly the same, and few writers figure out how to make them charming, funny or inspired enough to compensate. THE 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN did this story well. FAILURE TO LAUNCH, not so much.

THE NICE GUY WHO LIKES THE HOT CHICK, BUT WINDS UP WITH HIS CUTE FRIEND. Somehow, writers got it indoctrinated into their heads that they had to spread the gospel of why average guys shouldn't chase attractive women, but should instead go for the smart galpal instead. Wise movies, like THE SURE THING, at least pull off the story by having an actual plot going on other than this. It's amazing how many scripts I read where you can assess all the characters that you have met by page 10, and figure out everything that's going to happen, and who is going to wind up with who.

But I've read endless painful tales -- usually teen screenplays, but not only -- that feel they need to re-establish the idea that being attracted to a woman just because she has a pretty face and a nice body isn't the path to happiness. Granted, sex appeal shouldn't be the only reason you are interested in a woman, but the stories really aren't about that; most of the time, they need to make this work by having the object of their affection turn out to be really dumb, or really a bitch.

ATTRACTIVE WOMEN in movies are stock characters as well; if they are likable characters, it is pretty easy to figure out who they are going to be with from minute one (hint, it's the good looking lead, or John Cusack). If they aren't likable, they are bitchy head cheerleaders, horny executives, or the first person to die whenever Jason comes a-calling.

You know what movie I want to see? The movie in which an attractive woman, tired of all the nice, cute guys never hitting on her because they have been brainwashed into thinking that they never have a chance, ties up a screenwriter, and gets him to tell the story with a happy ending for her character. Hopefully while wielding a whip, and wearing leather.

THE RUNNING MAN. He has a piece of information, or he saw something, and now shady forces probably working for the government want him dead before he can learn the truth. Even though inevitably the government puts much more effort into killing all the people he might want to talk to, than simply killing him. Because though he has no answer for people shooting at him point-blank (which fortunately no one ever does), he's great at fleeing out back doors, or fighting off hitmen with household appliances, or getting a piece of information out of a dying guy.

THE WHITE GUY WHO THINKS HE'S BLACK, OR OLD WHITE PEOPLE RAPPING. Next script I read with one of these characters, I'm tracking down the writer while wearing the leather and wielding the whip.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Dissecting Pirates

Spoilers ahead.

So I finally saw it, and I generally liked it. Spectacle goes a long way with me; put the money on the screen, show me something new, and you're halfway there.

And some of these sequences really sung. Escape from cannibal island in a cage made of bones? Great. Swordfight in a waterwheel? Brilliant. Kraken, tearing apart a ship? Fierce.

I have to give it a solid B+.

Why not an A?


They screwed up Captain Jack Sparrow.

In the first movie, he's fun. Sure, he's drunk a lot of the time, and you wouldn't trust him with your 3-year-old, but you wouldn't be afraid to turn your back on him.

But in Dead Man's Chest, he's different. It's not just because he's sober and scared most of the movie, though maybe that changed the way Johnny played him; to me, Johnny should always play Jack like he's very drunk.

The biggest problem is that suddenly, in the second movie, Jack Sparrow has become unlikable. A selfish jerk. A guy that you really don't want to spend time with.

And I get the point of this - in theory. It's all supposed to set up the last two beats, in which he redeems himself by coming back to the ship, and then Elizabeth cuffs him to the ship because she's still pissed at him. Storywise it works, for the story they are trying to tell.

(Though I still think the story is still too complex. This is a Disney pirate movie. If your average 9-year-old doesn't get a lot of this -- and he won't -- it's too complex).

But Jack Sparrow being a jerk really isn't any fun. We're never rooting for him to acheive his mission at all during the script; indeed, it's his own fault he's in trouble, since he made this deal with Davy Jones in the first place.

Instead, he's an antagonist for most of the piece. Which granted is an ambitious story choice, but -- seriously-- I don't think it's the movie that audiences really want.

In the first movie, Jack was selfish, and he had his own agenda... but he wasn't trying to hurt people in his life (such as taking action to doom people to an endless life on a ghost ship, as we get here) just to save himself.

If anything, the Jack in the second movie should be LESS selfish -- because c'mon, these are people who risked their lives (and indeed, have gotten into serious trouble) to save his. The character growth that Jack goes through at the very end of the second movie is character growth that would have more logically taken place by the end of the first.

In the first movie, we like him despite his flaws. In the second, we really don't like him much. And that's a major, major problem, because liking Jack, and having fun just watching him, are key elements to the success of this franchise.

We come into Dead Man's Chest already liking the characters. All they need is to have a cool adventure together. Not unconvincingly pitted against each other through an overcomplex tale.

So it's a credit to good acting and some great special effects that it gets the B+ from me, because I think the Jack Sparrow thing is really a big flaw here. Hopefully, in the third movie, his becoming a nice guy will stick.

Or hopefully the kraken at least swallowed a few barrels of rum, and we'll get drunk Jack back again.

Otherwise, I'm not clear why Davy Jones' heart could go into a jar of earth, and it wouldn't hurt it. Or why Davy Jones would bury his own heart someplace he can't go.

Or how Norrington, stranded on a deserted island with the heart and no boat, is able to make it all the way back to the evil British guy before the longboat reaches the voodoo chick....

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Emptying My Mailbag

About 3 months ago, I opened the floor to questions. I answered many of them, but I just figured I'd knock out the rest... then open the floor to more.

(Answers to previous questions are in April and May postings).

Q: Does it happen often that some exec in the firm totally ignores your coverage and goes in another direction from what you absolutely believe is the best course?

Absolutely. Obviously, mostly in the case of good scripts that don't get made.

But it works the other way too; sometimes bad scripts have continued life. The biggest problem, though, is the lack of communication between exec and reader in many companies I work for.

Often I will get scripts without being given pertinent information, the most common being that it is a script in development at the production company, often a new draft that they just got in, though they don't bother to tell me that. So if I hate it they are still going to develop it, maybe because it has someone attached they want to work with, or because they have already sunk a lot of money into it.

Of course, if they'd told me that up front, I could have focused my notes more creatively.

The most heinous example of this was when I read "View From The Top" for Miramax. I think I was told that Gwyneth Paltrow was attached, but the script was a mess, and I gave it a pass/pass, and trashed it in my comments.

Turns out it was going into production the next day, to beat a possible writer's strike. Why no one told me, I have no idea. I rarely have contact with actual execs; it's assistants who physically hand me (or messenger me, or e-mail me) the work.

Of course, in retrospect I was right about that script. And I worked there many more years, so honesty didn't hurt me any.

I like to think that I write coverage where even if I don't really like it, I still bring across enough information regarding plot and potential that the exec might spark to something and decide to take it forward. Plus they are much more obsessed with commercial potential than I am; I just like good scripts.

Q: How would you rate the quality of the "site favorites" scripts at

I have no idea. I've cruised the boards over there, but never actually read any of the scripts there.

Still, the whole "site favorites" and grading thing just seems problematic to me. I'd say that the vast number of scripts there need real work, and the point of other people reading it is to give you feedback on how to make it better.

Grades shouldn't be important, unless you've polished the hell out of it from previous notes that you have gotten there. But too many people seem obsessed with bad grades on first drafts, and miss the whole point of the process.

Q: How significant is the size of a script on your first impression of it? I've been told that a reader will reach for your script first if it's shorter, but I've also been told that if a script is not long enough a reader will assume that it is missing something. I ask because I have the unusual condition of writing shorter scripts.

Because I'm a pro reader for multiple companies, I generally have an order in which everything has to be back somewhere, so I generally just grab what is on the top.

I'll usually groan if a script is over 120 pages, though with many genres (like historical dramas) this winds up being necessary. The 158-page romantic comedies, however, already have a strike against them.

It is extremely rare that I get a script under 90 pages. Anything in the 80s just feels real short. Generally, I think the golden page length is between 100-110... but ultimately it's about doing what's right for your script. Don't tighten it down needlessly just because it's 121.

Q: Have you read any great and/or awful adaptations of books lately? Any that were better than the source material (like with the Godfather)?

My problem is that I never get to do any leisure reading, at all. So it's rare that I get an adaptation of something that I actually have read. I read a lot of books for work, but it's rare that I'll then get the script based on it to read.

I did read the short stories that "Million Dollar Baby" was based on, and I didn't really see the movie in it at the time; it all felt very familiar, while the depressing third act twist felt wrong. Haggis and Eastwood made it work somehow.

I read the novel of "Mystic River", and thought the movie had a lot of the same flaws that the book did, though some good writing and acting elevated it.

There's a really good screenplay adaptation of a Stephen King novella called "Dolan's Cadillac" that is floating around, that I read years ago. Sylvester Stallone was attached at one point, though he would have been terrible casting. Hopefully someone will make it with the right actor.

Q: Can a reader truly give a non-biased and accurate review of any screenplay that is just not his "cup of tea", so to speak? If a reader is heavily into Sci-Fi, or action flicks, how can he fairly critique something, such as a family film?

Hey, storytelling is storytelling. If it's an interesting tale, it shouldn't matter that it's not something that I'd likely see in the theater. Plus, I'm just the first gatekeeper; if I'm just being asked to put a consider on the top 30% of family scripts (or period dramas, or gritty urban rap scripts) that I read, I'm probably not going to let a good one slip by.

Many companies will know what their readers like, though, and steer things to them accordingly. But I like to think that I get a broad base of genres. One company that I work for has probably given me 60 teenage girl books over the past year.

Q: Some folks insist that loglines are CRUCIAL. What's your take on it as a reader?

If you are querying an agent, manager or producer, trying to get them to read your script, a great logline can be crucial to sparking their interest. But as a reader, I rarely ever see them, and they don't matter to me at all.

Q: Are the mistakes that you see via your $60 notes much different than the mistakes you see on the agent/studio stuff?

Not really. Both contain a solid percentage of scripts by writers who make a lot of format errors or simply can't write very well, but I've also given notes to a lot of people whose writing is right up there with the stuff I read on a day-to-day basis.

It still all comes down to story. Most of the notes I give are on story.

Q: What have you learned, by reading so many scripts, that you didn't know or wouldn't have ever occurred to you, or have never seen mentioned in a screenwriting book?

I'd say that the biggest thing I've learned is that it's a myth that there are all these amazing, unproduced scripts out there. Everyone is looking for a great idea they can turn into a movie; all you need to do is find it, and execute well enough to show the potential in it.

Q: The book 500 Ways To Beat The Script Reader. Ignore or absorb?

I don't know; I haven't read it. But here's my 1 way to beat the script reader: write an original, entertaining, well-written story. It'll get a consider every time.

Q: Robert McKee's book Story. Essential reading and useful for the creation of a Hollywood script or strictly a tool for non-creative development types that helps them judge creative work?

I haven't read that either, though I did go to one of McKee's weekend seminars back in the early 1990s, before the book came out. It was about 30 hours, and was riveting, and I filled half a notebook with notes, and then never opened it again.

My feeling about the top screenwriting books is that most have a lot of good advice, but that ultimately they push formula much too much. Read the books, get the sense of the rhythm of filmmaking that they are essentially trying to clue you in on (keeping stories moving, turning points, basic three-act structure, character through action), absorb it all into some part of your brain, and then stop obsessing about it and just write.

Q: What are things that make you stay with a script and do things like remember the premise, remember the title, and remember the writer's name?

It's funny the scripts that stay with me, and the ones that don't. I've gone to see movies, and not realized until well into it that I read the script years earlier.

Odd scripts stay with me for one reason or another. One that comes to mind was by Garrison Keillor (of all people) called "Mammoth", about a teen waiting on line all night for concert tickets. It did a lot of things right; I'm not sure why no one has taken a whack at it, since it seems easily castable and doesn't have any real budget issues.

I grew up on teen films, and the good teen scripts I read seem to stick with me. There was a short story I read for Miramax years earlier that I loved and which they bought; they had a good script written from it, but then the project died. No one is making good teen movies any more, unless they are weird and out of the studio system (like Napoleon Dynamite) or snarky (like Mean Girls).


If you slogged through all that, congratulations.

Any more questions? The floor is open again.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Death of Subtlety

From today's Los Angeles Times:

"Product placement apparently isn't cutting it in the movie business anymore. Not satisfied, say, with a mere passing shot of a mega-star munching a Whopper, Burger King is developing a film whose main character lives above one of its burger franchises, according to a story in this week's Advertising Age."

"No, it's not a horror film. And it's almost not going to be what would seem like the natural sequel to 2004's nutty teenage comedy "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle." Instead, Burger King, along with ad agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky, which is overseeing the script, envision a "character-driven" story along the lines of "Garden State" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape".

The sad thing is that stuff like this is already taking place. I recently read a teen novel for a company I work for, in which a lot of the action took place in a nationwide clothing store. Sure enough, if you check the copyright page of the book, it came from that store's book division.

Writing a movie script like this for an ad agency has to be one of the biggest forms of hackwork available -- I think I'd rather write Freddy Got Fingered 2. There are already plenty of dubious reasons why scripts are made; commissioning one whose sole raison d'etre is to have characters living above a Burger King has to be a new low.

I'm already imagining inevitable sequences. Visiting characters comment on the wonderful smells coming from below. The main characters eat there constantly, though naturally they will be trim and fit, and still be able to have sex without breathing heavily (though they may stop midpump to grab a handful of fries).

Emotional sequences will take place in Burger King booths, which will be mysteriously absent graffiti or passing homeless people eyeing the remains of the main character's burger. Unless of course the homeless person is charming and/or played by Mickey Rooney, with important wisdom to offer our hero ("try the shakes, they're 72% natural!").

The worst thing is that there just doesn't seem to be any attempt at subtlety any more. Don't these companies realize that the only way to actually pull off something as blatantly manipulative and misconceived as this is to be beyond secretive about it?

Don't they realize that, if there was a hint of a sense that White Castle had bankrolled Harold & Kumar (note: I don't think they did) that the movie completely would have lost its sense of cool, as well as 90% of the audience that did go see it?

Of course, maybe that's the answer. If every attempt to do this is outed, and there is enough public outrage, then movies will be made for the right reasons again -- violence and nudity.

Monday, July 10, 2006

It's Raining Pirates

I haven't seen this movie yet, but $132 million over the weekend (estimated; it might be more)? Wow.

Yeah, I know, the idea of box office records is dumb, because obviously any movie released now, with over 4000 theaters to play in (and over 8000 screens to be shown on) at today's high box office prices has an obvious advantage over movies released in the past.

In fact, the estimate is that ticket sales (about 20 million people saw it) were only slightly ahead of Spiderman's previous record pace (despite the fact that Pirates broke the record by about $18 million), just to show how much prices have gone up since then.

But still. Given the long running length (which cuts down on the amount of shows per day) and the mixed reviews that it got, it's an amazingly huge number.

Put it this way. It took in more money in its first three days than Mission Impossible III (which got similar reviews, if not better) took in in its first 9 WEEKS.

I've met its screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terrio Rossio, who are very nice, very bright guys who are extremely knowledgeable about storytelling and writing in general (if you haven't been to their site Wordplayer yet, go there now, and spend the day there).

So congrats, guys.

Sometime in the next 7 days, I will see this movie, and I will try to figure out why so many critics loathed it (though, given that I read several reviews in which the critic admitted hating the first one too, I'm hoping that many have simply lost touch with what makes a movie entertaining). If I hate it, I won't be afraid to say so, and I'll tear it apart.

In the meantime, feel free to post your general impressions of the movie in the comments, without getting too specific -- no plot spoilers yet!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Marketing "Lady In The Water"

So I'm going to make a prediction now. I have absolutely no hard evidence to back it up, but there's something in my brain that says it is so.

My prediction is that "Lady In The Water", the new M. Night Shyamalan film, isn't the movie that it is being sold as.

The current compaign is actually a great one, because it makes the movie look mysterious and exciting. No longer does it look like a motel version of "Splash"; now there is Danger! And Evil Creatures! And Characters Running in Fear!

It is being sold as a horror/thriller, and sold well. And maybe I'm wrong (I haven't read the script), and maybe it is a truly effective horror/thriller, and that audiences going to see it based on that idea aren't going to be disappointed.

But I don't think so.

Because the initial trailers for this movie were sort of lame. They were trying to set this up as a "fairy tale", and there was only the barest glimmer of potential menace. Mostly we got the sense of a lonely janitor, foggy nights, and a girl in a pool who seemed like she was destined to be some sort of otherworldly love interest.

The problem is that, if this is an intense horror/thriller, I have no idea why you'd try to sell it with the first trailer. Unless there is some brilliant bait-and-switch going on here (the studio making you think it's a light fairy tale, with the idea of surprising you and scaring you, provided that you actually come and see it), what it feels more like is the studio trying to figure out how to market a story that didn't fall into traditional marketing plans.

Because let's face it. If it really is the movie they are selling it as now, there'd be no reason not to sell it to the public that way from the start. I think the studio would have been thrilled if M. Night delivered a scary foggy motel creature feature, and would have had a ball letting the public know about it from day one.

Instead, this feels like the marketing team worried because no one was all that excited by the first trailer, so they are cobbling together as many scary-looking moments as they can, and grabbing enough random story elements out of the actual storyline so that they can later credibly claim that the movie they are selling is the movie they are delivering.

I hope I'm wrong. I think M. Night still has a great movie or two in him, and it would be nice if he started reversing his recent downward trend here. But there's a smell around this movie, that is a bit too pungent to ignore.

Marketing also came into play during my recent low-pay, no-credit rewrite.

The original writer had started the tale off with a sequence lifted from the third act of the movie, which is a common technique in scripts that take a while to build; you want to reassure the reader that this is going somewhere interesting, so you tease with the climax stuff, before settling into your actual story.

It's a form of marketing, that makes a certain amount of sense for the right kind of script; it's the same reason that horror scripts (including my original one, that I'm noodling around with) often start with someone getting violently knocked off, just to set the tone. "Scream", for example.

The irony is that, in terms of horror/thriller type scripts, the showing-the-scene-from-Act-3 is really something that is only necessary for the script, and not the actual movie.

Because thanks to the deluge of marketing, by the time anyone would sit down to watch a movie based on this script, they already know the kind of movie it is, so there is no reason to tease with third act stuff (and, if you don't know what kind of movie it is, you've bought your ticket, so the slow build-up won't lose you).

Which is one of the weird things about the movie biz. You are writing something that won't exist in a bubble; if it's a movie, people will already be bringing expectations to it. But it's hard to really reflect this with a script that someone is cold-reading, because unless you've been able to prime them beforehand, they can always toss it away and move to the next one.

As writers, we're always told that you need to grab the reader early, and it's generally a good idea just from a basic storytelling standpoint; hell, you should grab the reader throughout. But again, if it's a film, the people have paid to see it; there's no real need to hook them from minute one once they are sitting down. Because the marketing has already done that for you.

Obviously, the closest thing to marketing for screenwriters is in the process of getting someone to read your script. Building interest in a query or cover letter, or pitching it to an exec to make them want to read it. You are essentially putting together little commercials for your script, coming up with little expectation-building shorthand. "It's 'The Wedding Crashers' meets 'Beaches', but with more nudity".

And yet, actually doing something like putting a mock-up of a potential poster on the cover of your script is considered amateurish.

My second prediction? The day is coming when things like poster mock-ups will be common. As the movie biz moves more and more toward films only getting made that can reach a wide audience, there will be a distinct advantage in writers having marketing skills (maybe even studying marketing -- ack, I know), and being able to let the movie execs see the commercial potential of your idea beyond what's on the page.

I know, the purist in you is cringing. But seriously, want to sell a script? Write a great story, that a lot of people are going to want to see. And then figure out how to let the execs vividly imagine this happening.

Better yet, get the execs to imagine that your great script will still make money even after they hire McG to direct it and he screws up the movie.

Basic stuff, but if you write a script that you are hoping that someone else will buy and spend a lot of money making, you'd better at least ask yourself how this movie would be sold, and what its potential is in that arena.

Because, when push comes to shove, writing a good story only gets you so far. The money people are going to want to make money on it too.

And if you are making a "Lady In The Water" type genre film, and you find yourself pitching it as the kind of tale that you haven't actually written, well maybe it's time to write the version of the story that everyone is going to want to see.

And then write the hell out of it, and bring enough originality to it so you haven't just written another dumb movie in which Tara Reid plays a scientist.

Might as well embrace that now, and figure out how to kick ass within those parameters.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Update On My Health...

I had a check-up today, and things look good.

My blood sugar is maintaining good levels (thanks to medication, and my continuing to not eat crap), while everything else checks out well too.

My weight is down to 190, so I've lost 10 pounds since my diagnosis about 3 months ago, just through a good diet (not starving myself, just eating right) and some moderate exercise.

There's nothing that keeps you disciplined like having a good scare, then having to keep checking one's blood twice a day, so that every time I do eat something too rich and see the bump, it's an immediate guilt trip.

I also had my prostate checked. Thank God for a doctor with skinny fingers.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Why Superman Didn't Fly For Me

This is a tough post for me to write, because I really wanted to like SUPERMAN RETURNS. I like the character, I like the visual element of it, and on that level, the movie delivers -- it cost a ton, and it's on the screen.

And for those of you who dug it, all power to you.

But too much of the movie really didn't work for me. I'm a guy who needs his plot to make a certain amount of sense; I can forgive some things, and even enjoyed MI3 and X-MEN 3 despite some real story flaws.

But there was just too much in SUPERMAN RETURNS that was underwhelming to me. Opportunities missed, inherent problems not overcome, story fixes that were just lame.

So now I'm going to tear it apart. Because it deserves it.


THE SET-UP IS FLAT. Talk about a vague, draggy first 30 minutes. It's unclear why it takes Superman five years to go looking for his planet, while we don't get the answer to the question of why the kryptonite on his planet wouldn't hurt him (I'm sure there's a mythos, but it wasn't acknowledged here, which I'll get back to in the Kryptonite musings later). I guess he flies there in some sort of crystal ship, which crashlands on Earth later, though why it crashlands (and so accurately, exactly where he crashlanded as a baby) is unclear, or why he couldn't have bailed out on the way down, and simply placed the ship in the field.

SUPERMAN IS FLAT. There really isn't any edge or ambiguity to this character at all -- he doesn't have a dark side, like Batman, he isn't figuring out how to make the most of his powers, like Spiderman. Superman just does good stuff, and does it well, which makes the whole idea of Lois' editorial "Why the World is Better Without Superman" inane -- all he does is go around saving people, without any negative connotations. There's no downside to Superman, no sense that you wouldn't want him around, and indeed, all we see him do throughout is selfless, heroic things.

In Peter Travers' positive review of the movie in Rolling Stone, he says "Bryan Singer tarnishes his hero's halo with enough sexual longing and self-doubt to make him rivetting and relatable". But the sexual longing stuff here all felt generic and familiar, while I don't think the self-doubt thing comes across at all.

Plus Brandon Routh just isn't a very charismatic actor; he seemed like he was trying to do Christopher Reeve, but was missing the twinkle that Reeve brought to the role.

SUPERMAN ISN'T HONESTLY CHALLENGED. The problem with Superman is that he really is extremely powerful, and fast, and almost psychic in his ability to save people in the nick of time. But we never get the sense that he's struggling to do it. Even the sequence where he saves the shuttle and the plane, though visually impressive, lacks suspense, because there's no doubt that Superman will catch the plane and stop it before it hits the ground. As indeed happens.

Compare this to SPIDERMAN 2, with the great sequence in which Spiderman has to stop the runaway subway train. There's the real sense throughout the scene that Spiderman is trying to figure out simply how to do it, while he realistically struggles so much doing so (and brings himself physical pain doing so) that we are with him every step of the way. It's dramatic, and it shows someone stretching their powers, going beyond what they usually do to accomplish something.

I never once got that sense during Superman Returns. There's never a moment when I thought "How's Superman going to get out of this one?", or in which Superman has to make a real choice in saving some people at the expense of others. He's just Superman, which I guess is fine for people on a certain level, but which really doesn't push the character in nearly enough interesting directions.

LEX LUTHER IS FUN, BUT TOOTHLESS, AND HIS EVIL PLOT IS STUPID. Let's get this straight. He's going to make this new land mass out of crystal, and kill a billion people, because then he thinks people are going to pay him for the new land. Ummm.... What?

Plus the new land mass is desolate, and ugly (aside from the waterfalls, which won't last long anyway, because there's no actual river/melting snow feeding the water flow). There are plenty of desolate, ugly places in North America already that no one wants to buy or live on, that don't even come with the baggage of having been created by a mass-murdering psychopath.

I know, I know, he's crazy. Not good enough.

Kevin Spacey adds some humor, but this character worked best in Superman 2, when he actually had people on his side who were a match for Superman, who gave Superman a challenge. Here, he's just a crazy villain, and not even a particularly smart one; he's too dumb even to have anyone guarding his boat, while he leaves Lois Lane with a working fax machine and the heavy-handed mention of exactly where they are located (don't get me started).

How weak is the villain? He's so weak, that the movie can't even have a climactic showdown between him and Superman.

THE WHOLE KRYPTONITE THING. The only thing Lex Luther has going for him is Kryponite, but again the whole Kryptonite thing is vague and largely illogical.

The idea is that Lex Luther has created this new land partially out of Kryptonite, so that as soon as Superman lands on it, it saps his strength, and the bad guys can kick his ass (in a painfully unimaginative sequence). To cap it off, Lex Luther then stabs him with the Kryptonite blade.

That's all fine, and it's the closest that this movie comes to a "Wow, how is Superman going to get out of this?" moment.

But then the movie cheats. Superman gets saved, in a frankly very unconvincing sequence (involving a seaplane and Lois Lane swimming down what should have been a large distance to pull him to safety, despite the fact that she was just unconscious and thus should be more than a little shaky). Lois pulls the Kryptonite out, enabling Superman to recover. Okay. Maybe.

But how is Superman able to lift this whole Kryptonite-based land mass -- this huge, Kryptonite-crystals-really-close-to-his-face landmass -- without getting as weak as he got when he was standing on it? Especially since, as we learn later, he STILL HAS A CHUNK OF KRYPTONITE IN HIS BACK?

If you are going to have Kryptonite -- and even proximity to Kryptonite -- be this dangerous to Superman, then you need to get out of it honestly. There needs to be the real sense that Superman needs to do something credible to get out of the situation. Here, it felt like they were just sort of winging it, and not well.

CONTRIVANCE. There are some incredibly contrived bits here, story problems that beg for better fixes than they get here.

I can imagine the story conference. "We need to have Lois Lane go to Lex Luther's hangout". "Okay, let's have her make some calls, and find out where the power went out first?"

It seems incredibly unlikely that this info (power outage down to the second) would even be findable, or that a public utility dealing with all the problems from a blackout, would have someone able to actually determine this for her, when efficiency isn't their bailiwick, and hell, if they did care so much, why wouldn't they send their own people out, to see if it's a power problem that won't flare up again?

But that's the least of the contrivances.

"How do we get the kid with her?" 'Ummm... She picks him up? And then takes him with her? And then sneaks him aboard a ship (James Bond never found a villain's lair that was this easy to get into), even though she has no idea whose ship it is, and she's at the site of something that could be dangerous and almost brought down a plane she was on?" (though even the pulse happening when she was on the plane at the same time was extremely contrived too... and, umm, wouldn't there have been other planes in the sky as well?)

Because I guess something as simple as her driving the kid to the site, and Lex Luther seeing her and snatching her, would have been too easy.

Also, what happens to the big crystal thing he grows in the basement? There's not even the requisite sight of where the top of it even goes; it would have been easy enough to have Lois spot it and then get snatched.

And then there's the clunky mention of the location where they are, and Lois' faxing it to the news office (instead of just texting it on her phone to her boyfriend.... oh yeah, she's a reporter, sneaking onto a boat with a kid, but she LEAVES HER PHONE IN THE CAR. Ugh.) and her boyfriend having a seaplane that gets him to the site incredibly, unrealistically quickly.

These are bad fixes. Bad. Anything that makes your brain stop in the middle of a movie, and say "Wait a minute...", things that clearly only happen because they serve the needs of the story, need to be reworked and made much much more credible.

LOIS LANE'S KID. I liked this character, but wow do I wish they had done more with him. Instead, they have to play a dumb game, where it's clear that Lois is hiding the fact that it is Superman's, though no one here seems able to do the math (one wonders when her new boyfriend came into her life; you have to figure she would have waited for Superman for a little while).

Meanwhile, there's great potential with this kid, because he's obviously going to be a mix of Superman's strength and Lois' human frailties, and he has his heroic moment, when he saves his mother with the piano. And then they go in the room, and he doesn't even try to get them out. Instead, he says he's sorry, which doesn't seem to pay off anything.

It begs the question over whether Lois has already told him not to use his powers, which would be interesting, but use it -- have her tell the kid that she knows she said that, but there are times when he needs to, and now try to get them out of the room. Maybe he can, and maybe he can't, but at least deal with it. Instead... nothing.

Maybe they are saving it for the next one. But they still could have done much more with the kid here.

THE ENDING DRAGS. Everything with the main plot has already been resolved, but the movie goes on for 10 more minutes, in which we get slow scene after slow scene in which pretty much everything happens that we expect, in underwhelming fashion.

GOOD/BAD. The bullet clunking off his eye was great, because not only is it visually interesting, but it perfectly answers the nagging question of why bad guys wouldn't stop bouncing bullets off his chest and shoot him in the head. Less great is the constant winking at the fact that no one notices that Clark and Superman are the same person, even though now, on top of everything else, they have both just returned after being mysteriously missing for at least five years. All the attempts to explain it away here by having Lois and her boyfriend musing about it just makes it seem even more inane -- as an elephant in the room, it works better if the characters aren't constantly saying "hey, is that a trunk?"

THE GOOD NEWS. Pirates of the Caribbean 2 opens on Friday. Early word is good.