Thursday, June 26, 2014

Matt Damon should get back to writing.

Last week I wrote about recent coming of age movies that I felt were really mediocre and disappointing to say the least. These films could have been so much better had they been written by someone with talent, compassion and insight in life.

That got me thinking about movies of this genre that managed to get it right. Movies the draw you in from the get-go. Movies that make ordinary seem extraordinary. Movies that make you feel like you're actually worth something.

Naturally one stood out from the rest. It wasn't really hard for me to start thinking about Good Will Hunting, a  film about a troubled genius with pretty incredible abilities. A movie that in my opinion is one of the best of all time.

There are a lot of reasons why Good Will Hunting is a really good movie. For example, it is wonderfully acted and directed. The performances are all great. It also has a relaxed feel, even though it's a pretty serious movie.

However, the biggest reason that the movie is so good is because of its script, written by the actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (mostly by Damon). It has all the elements that makes the audience care and gets them involved with the story.

For example, Damon's character Will Hunting is an underdog, which is something that you can almost never emphasize enough. He's a math genius who for some reason only works as a janitor at M.I.T university.

He is also a conflicted character with a troubled past. But even though he gets in trouble with the law, he's not an unlikable person. Everything that he does happens for a reason. As an audience member you can't help but to root for him. 

He has real problems that make the story so compelling. He's about to go jail, until a Math professor saves him - as long as he's willing to work for the professor. So the stakes are real - it's about his freedom, both physical and psychological.

The movie is about change, which makes it important that it has strong characters. Will's therapist is a great match for Will's sensibilities. Without good protagonists/antagonists, movies can rarely succeed. 

The movie is also exceptionally well structured. It manages to make its big moments feel natural and real. Like when Will breaks up with his girlfriend (token break up), This feels completely natural. It makes sense, which is really rare in today's movies.

Also the dialogue in Good Will Hunting is really wonderful. Not only is the dialogue amazing but the scenes themselves are amazing. Watch any of the numerous clips on youtube and see for yourself.

So many movies fail or are mediocre because they don't get the important ingredients right. The characters aren't interesting enough, the problems aren't real or big enough, the stakes aren't there or perhaps the writers make too many misreads.

Good Will Hunting is a great movie because it manages to get almost everything right.  Its script is one of the best ever, and watching the movie makes you wonder why Matt Damon hasn't really written that much after this wonderful film.

Here's a guy who has a real gift. It's a shame that he hasn't utilized his skills more in recent years. After all, there are too many hacks and clowns in the business anyway. Damon on the other hand, is the real deal.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Movies to avoid: 500 Days of Summer, Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars.

Last week I managed to watch "The Spectacular Now". It had gotten pretty good reviews overall and I also had read The Bitter Script Reader's rave about it. Naturally I had to give it a chance, not because I thought it would be a good film, but because my instincts told me it's a bad movie.

Now, the reason that I didn't have any high hopes for "The Spectacular Now" was because some months ago I had seen "500 Days of Summer". That movie was written by those same guys who also wrote "The Spectacular Now" too.

As you might know, "500 Days of Summer" had gotten great reviews and was a box office success. It was supposedly this great indie romantic comedy that would set the standard for future aspiring film makers. It was so fresh and original, they said.

The problem with "500 Days of Summer of course was that despite its success, it wasn't really a good movie at all. Even though it started off rather well, after I finished it, I had to admit to myself that the film made very little sense.

500 Days of Summer had huge problems with the story, the themes and its point of view. It was about a guy who loves a girl - who doesn't really love him back. An objective look at a subjective experience that the guy was having. 

That itself was pretty confusing already, but it got way worse. For example the writers had decided to play with the structure of the movie. Scenes were played in random order so that the so called smart (dumb) people wouldn't notice that the movie didn't have characters or a plot.

I couldn't believe how disappointing the movie was. The characters talked and nothing interesting happened. They just moved on from one scene to the next one. There was no conflict and there was no real growth.

So once I finally started watching "The Spectacular Now" - by the same writers - I already knew what to expect. The story would be severely undercooked, the characters wouldn't really make sense, the conflicts - if any - would be forced and the reactions would come out of nowhere.

In "Spectacular Now", the main character  meets a lovely girl and they start dating. How this movie differs from 500 Days of Summer is that instead of the girl not loving him back, this time the guy has an alcohol problem.

I wasn't really sure about this 'problem'. When I kept watching the movie,  it became pretty obvious that even though the guy has a drink in his hand in almost every scene - which I found to be pretty comical - he doesn't really seem to have a drinking problem.

This is what made the movie so bland. The whole gimmick was the non existing personal issue, so once we got to the last of third of the movie, none of the things that happened were organic. Most of the beats came out of nowhere, which made the movie so disappointing.

It simply wasn't believable how the main character got so freaked out over his dad's "problems". His reaction came out of nowhere and from that moment on the film made no sense. It just tried to follow the beat sheet - and failed.

Anyway, this still leaves us with "The Fault in Our Stars", a film that _again_ is written by the same guys who wrote these other two movies. This one is a well reviewed movie too that has done extremely well when it comes to the box office.

"The Fault in Our Stars" is a film that is again about a girl and boy who this time happen to be cancer patients. It is, not surprisingly, supposed to be some kind of a romantic comedy that will make you laugh and cry and will give you insight about life.

I haven't seen the movie yet but based on those other movies, I feel pretty strongly that there's no reason to watch "The Fault in Our Stars". I'm pretty sure that it's an uninspired film where the characters mostly talk, the story is underdeveloped and there's no conflict. It's just like those other two films.

In my opinion, the lack of raw writing talent on these films is just a bit too obvious and unfortunate - and based on some of the more critical reviews I've read, "The Fault in Our Stars" isn't any better or any different from "500 Days of Summer" or "The Spectacular Now".

It's pretty amazing that this is the best that Hollywood can do with romantic comedies. But I think it's even more amazing that someone in charge keeps hiring these clearly-not-that-talented guys over and over again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

It's the story that counts - not the jokes or anything else.

For quite some time I have found it rather peculiar that there aren't that many blogs out there that are about screenwriting. A lot of people write scripts, so you would think that at least some of them would be giving advice on how to improve your writing abilities.

So, yesterday I stumbled on a relatively popular blog that gave a link to a post written by a professional writer. Advice by a working sitcom writer, this had to be a good thing, right?

Well, not really. In fact, I read the article and it really made me shake my head. I could not believe how - in my opinion - fundamentally bad advice this person was giving us about writing in general. It pretty much left me speechless.

His basic 'theory' and advice came in two parts: 1) your first draft is ninety-eight percent crap - and 2) you can fix it only two percent at a time. According to him your script is also going to suck no matter what and it's just about how much it's going to suck in the end.

Now, I have a lot of problems with this kind of logic and thinking. It seems that he wasn't being tongue in cheek with the article, so I'm going to assume that he really meant what he wrote (and I'm sure he thought he was being clever).

The biggest problem I have with it, the whole theory, is that if your first draft is _really_ ninety-eight percent crap, we're dealing with something that is so bad that it needs to be tossed out. Just throw the script away.

The reason I think he's also wrong is that if you have a decent story that makes sense, your first draft can't be _that_ bad. If every scene serves a purpose, then your script is at least 70% good no matter how bad the dialogue is.

When it came to his second point about fixing 2% at a time,  I just kept thinking 'dear lord'. Because if you need to fix your story, those changes are very rarely two percent patches. It's not just about changing a joke or two that might not work.

If your script sucks, you need to rethink your story ideas. You need to think what the script is supposed to be about. Who the characters are, what do they want, what are the problems they have and do we as an audience care about them.

It really isn't about micromanaging your script, because writing is about understanding the big picture. What is important, what is not, what is real, what isn't. Where's the soul and the substance? It's not about "where are the jokes?".

After I read the article, it didn't really surprise me when it turned out that this person worked on a show called 'Community'. In fact, in that context what he says makes a lot of sense - like almost perfect sense if you ask me.

When it came to that particular show, you didn't have characters that normal people were able to relate to. You didn't have a premise that made any sense. You didn't have anything to build on. At best all you had was dialogue. That was it.

No matter what you did, the script was 98% crap, or 96% garbage or 94% whatever. There was really nothing you could do. You were screwed and that is because your show was fatally flawed from the get go.

In my opinion his advice is not good at all. Advice like this is exactly the reason you should avoid bad shows like the plague. Never spec (or write for) shows like Community because you'll learn nothing. You'll just make things worse for everyone - and you might even become dumber too.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Modern Family's disappointing season finale.

As I wrote some weeks ago, Modern Family surprised its audience in 5x22 "Message Received" when it for once decided not to be just silly and actually managed to be serious.

Naturally I was hopeful that the season finale episodes would also reflect this change in mood. I thought that Cam and Mitchell's wedding episodes would also be relatively serious too.

Unfortunately this is not what happened at all. The two part season finale in my opinion was super disappointing. It's as if the writers completely lost the characters and the plot.

What made the episode _before_ the two part season finale so good was the conflict between Mitchell and his father Jay. Jay didn't feel comfortable about the upcoming gay wedding, which disappointed Mitch.

But once we got to the finale, all that was basically forgotten. Instead of giving us a proper resolution to the surprising, yet rather understandable conflict, the writers pretty much pretended that it never happened.

When it came to the wedding itself, instead of giving us a nice ceremony to show that gays aren't any less sane or any more weird than those supposedly normal, straight people, what we got was an exercise in flamboyance.

I mean, the very first thing that happened in the finale was Pepper (totally over the top as always) with his partner carrying breakfast to Mitch and Cam's bed. This was just painful to watch and things didn't really get any better. You were not able to relate to any of that.

When it came to the structure of these episodes: considering that this was a two part season finale, one would have thought that they would have come up with solid storylines that would have provided material for two episodes. This is not what happened.

Instead the episodes were too fragmented, way more lacking than your standard Modern Family episode. What's worse, the stuff made no sense, like when Claire and Luke decided to go fishing (like wtf) and got in trouble because they lost their oars...

There were other big problems too. In the second part of the finale, the place were Mitchell and Cam's wedding ceremony is being held changed three times (4 places) in one single episode. I thought that was completely ridiculous and simply unbelievable.

To be honest, I did like the scenes between Haley and Andy. There was also some good stuff going when it came to Jay trying to find a new place for the ceremony. But as a whole, the finale episodes were disappointing - really, really disappointing.

I don't want to sound too negative, but perhaps it's just best to pretend that this season finale never happened.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

South Park: The Stick of Truth is an awesome game.

Even though I play a lot of online role playing games - and even though I am one of those "server first" guys - in my opinion I'm not that big of a gamer myself.

Truth to be told, I don't get that easily excited about new games. I also don't pay enough attention to what gets released and when. Therefore it wasn't very likely that I would try South Park - The Stick of Truth.

Nevertheless, for some reason I managed to get a hold of this game. So once I got it, I had to give the game a chance since it was written by the almighty Trey Parker & Matt Stone duo.

Since this blog is mostly about television writing and storytelling, I don't think there's much point in reviewing the combat system or how the classes work. Nor is there much point in talking about the equipment, gearing, skill trees and such.

Although, all those things do work pretty well. The game is nicely put together and at least the pc version didn't have any bugs or glitches. Technically speaking I don't think you could ask for much more.

Now, what makes the game so good is that it's so well written. The storytelling in Stick of Truth is top-notch. In my opinion, story-wise this is one of the best if not the best game that I have ever played.

The premise for the story itself is pretty simple. In South Park's role playing world, villains have stolen the stick of truth that controls everything in the universe. You as our hero need to get it back.

This is what gets the whole thing going. Naturally things will quickly escalate and soon you'll meet all kinds of obstacles and problems that need to be taken care of and solved.

For example, you need to win the trust of the girls and the goths. You need to do *something* at the abortion clinic, show the aliens who's the boss and you also need to take an exploration tour inside Mr. Slaves rectum too.

Fortunately, you don't have to survive in these adventures by yourself. You can always choose a helper by you side, whether that is Cartman, Kyle, Kenny, Butters, Stan or Jimmy. They all have their unique skills that will help you to survive.

Besides our guys there are other interesting characters in this game too; we have the usual suspects, Al Gore, Terrence & Phillip, Chef, Mr. Mackey, Randy Marsh, Jesus, Nazi zombies, leprechauns and ..even girls.  All provide good laughs.

In retrospect I almost can't believe how many times I smiled or laughed while I played the game. The story not only is totally outrageous but at the same it's full of relevant social satire and great observations.

Altogether South Park - The Stick of Truth provides like 20 hours of solid game play. In my opinion the game length is just about right although  some players thought the game is a bit too short,

All in all, this is a really wonderful game and shows how talented Trey Parker & Matt Stone are. The game is a parody / tribute to the whole role playing genre and should make almost everyone happy. Highly recommended.