I am a positive person. On the outside, I may have a crusty hard shell, but if you tap me with a fork, I crumble like a delicious crème brûlée. So while I eschew the hearts and flowers sentimentality of the season – the Hallmark movies about a lovely but lonely single woman and the slightly reckless single dad who looks like he just stepped from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog who hook up after fighting for ninety minutes over whose responsibility it is to save the town’s only church lost to a Grinch-like town councilman/rich old man, ugh! (And if I have to see one more commercial telling some man how special his woman is so he needs to buy her a diamond at Jared, I will put both my eyes out with a screwdriver) – BUT, I still have hope and optimism for the success of holiday movie screenwriting. That is why it is so disappointing when bad Christmas (apologies to my non-Christmas-celebrating friends/readers) movies happen to good writers. Screenwriting is hard enough, holiday features are even worse because of the emotional points that must be hit. We love classics like A Christmas Story and A Christmas Carol or the original Miracle of 34th Street. But most holiday movies don’t reach classic or even cult status – Black Christmas. The writers are lucky enough to get it made and move on.
Crystal Fish is the script supervisor for my next short film. She is a lovely, intelligent, highly focused young woman with a strange obsession. I mean that literally. For her Thanksgiving holiday Crystal has forsaken family obligations of pumpkin pie and unboxing winter clothes. Instead she is binge-watching Netflix’s Stranger Things on a continuous loop.
Netflix has officially overtaken HBO as my go-to channel. Yes, it is a strange new world when the home of Game of Thrones, Veep and John Oliver is no longer the first button I push when I can’t sleep at three o’clock in the morning, but there it is. The reason is Crystal’s humbling little show called Stranger Things. I have written about the joys of binge watching and how easy it is these days over all devices, but this. I bow to the clever writing. I quiver at the way the underlying adult psychodrama captivates me while I’m watching a story starring children. Stranger Things is about the search for a missing 12-year-old boy who disappears under the watchful eye of a government research facility in a small Midwestern town. The boy’s family and friends team up to find him and discover mysterious and supernatural freaky happenings at the government facility. This nostalgic series set in the 1980s uses child protagonists as stand-ins for the grown up target audience whose own adolescence was during that era.
The cast is stellar from newcomers like Millie Bobby Brown as an escapee from the facility with Carrie-like telekinetic powers to 1980s OG Winona Ryder as the missing boy’s mother. The spookiness reminds me of The X-files while the pre-teen adventure/mystery is not unlike The Goonies. What a combination. This is not your teenager’s binge. The science fiction show is all grown up and ready to rumble. Each episode layers in the idea of fear and trust and government shenanigans (sound familiar) and pulls you deeper into the strange conspiracy and its literal monster. It’s not scary like a horror, but grounded in a realism that makes sense in our changing and uncertain world of unknown dangers. The web is abuzz with all kinds of theories and prognostications for season 2. Emerging writers please note: when forty-something fanboys and girls actually cut their workout time in half to argue with strangers online over whether a badass preteen bald girl with telekinetic powers will destroy your fictional town in Indiana, you know you have a hit.
Between the 2016 Presidential election, Hurricanes Matthew & Nicole and the inexplicable success of Issa Rae with HBO’s Insecure I realize you are so busy assessing the damage that you may not have had time to see the new movie of your favorite book of 2015, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I saw that Rotten Tomatoes gave it a shocking splat at 44%. What gives?
Your observation is spot on. I do spend time contemplating how it is far more likely for an emerging screenwriter to be groped by Donald Trump than it is to become an internet cult sensation and handed a premium cable series as is the case for Ms. Rae. (Right time, right place, right message, right demographic. It ain’t rocket science, it’s lightning in a bottle). In between my seasonal preserve canning and frequent trips to the Wine Barn, I did manage to catch a showing of what I had hoped would be my favorite film of the year. In fact I don’t even know why anyone is talking about e-mails or tax loopholes – blah, blah, blah – Emily Blunt is terrific. Unfortunately, the film is not. I don’t think I am overstepping my bounds to say that director Tate Taylor (The Help) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) should be put into their own basket of deplorables for the disservice they did to such luxuriant mommy porn-ready source material.
The problem with The Girl on the Train is its partner in suburban chic chick-lit with “Girl” in the title – Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s electric 2012 mystery thriller. (Yes, it was my favorite novel that year). Both books center on the disappearances of beautifully bored icy blonde wives in good-from-afar marriages. As the pages turn and multiple narrators reveal what it is like to be inside these too perfect to be true lives, it is a reminder to the reader that the American dream of suburban bliss can become a nightmare. Especially if you are married to a bitch.
What makes most stories about middle class malaise work is the underlying social commentary. The grass isn’t always greener. We live that now. Upside down mortgages. Unaffordable health care. Student Loan interest rates that prevent a dream trip to Tuscany. Check out the people you went to high school with on Facebook. All those smiling vacation photos of happy families, you know at least one of them is self-medicating. The message in both novels is clear – what lies beneath the facade of Heaven is 3,500 square feet of Hell. And what better way to unleash hell than psychological suspense?
The comparison ends there. Both films are faithful to their sources. However, where Gone Girl gets it right is the underlying context of women’s role in society. The illusion of who girls want to be when they grow up. As satire it is a biting indictment of the root of sociopathy in suburbia. Most women are not Cool Girl. Even Cool Girl is not cool. She’s twisted. Seriously – Amazing Amy is fucked up. And I mean that in the best possible way.
It is exactly what The Girl on the Train did wrong. The films can be described with adjectives like treachery, psychotic and murderous. All desirable for a thriller, but a good sociopath needs more than a few plot twists turned on unreliable narration. This movie doesn’t offer a surprising plot twist. It barely throws in a red herring suspect with the therapist, who we know is not guilty from the jump – so what was the point? A good thriller would have framed him like Flynn did Desi in Gone Girl to either keep us guessing or see who is truly twisted and how.
I’m not sure why, but I can’t wait to see Suicide Squad. Is it the costumes, or the actors, or the story? I think it’s because for the past year and a half, Hollywood has been telling me that I can’t wait to see this movie. You see, it is a tentpole movie. A “tentpole” is one of those fancy industry exec terms having to do with financial investment. According to script analyst and industry blogger J. Gideon Sarantinos,” successful tentpole films must generate around $1 billion in global box office receipts off production and P&A budgets of $200 to $300 million, they must be exhibited in theaters all year long (wide theatrical window), they must appeal to a four quadrant audience (men, women, boys and girls) and contain universal and culturally relevant themes.” Whew! Got that? Because that is a lot to get.
Let me boil it down to one thing: Superhero saturation. And I don’t mean only the traditional heroes in the comic book universe, I mean dinosaurs, aliens, vampires and animated fish (I’m looking at you Finding Dory). Not to mention anything that comes from a galaxy far, far away. Aren’t you tired of it? I know I am. I’m not the only one. Of course these films won’t fail. They will make money, but maybe not as much as they could have say, ten– even five years ago. Independence Day: Resurgence had a budget of $165 million USD and made $266.5 million domestically. It topped the charts in its opening weekend overseas but still, for a film engineering to skyrocket on the Fourth of July, it certainly fizzled by box office standards.
What does that mean for the emerging screenwriter? Quite simply, forget about writing a tentpole. The screenwriters of these big budget, blockbusting, sequels and IMAX megaflicks are known to producers and executives. They are not investing over one hundred million on action sequences and special effects alone. They are trusting proven talent. If you have a brilliant alien invasion concept set in the fairy tale sphere that you know Disney will chomp at the bit for, by all means write it– hey, always go for it, but I would put that spec in second or even third position in your sample case. Your focus as a writer is on getting work, not getting a script made. To get work, you need to be read and to have a script that a producer will buy. Most producers do not buy screenplays from unknown, uncredited writers. Once you are in the door, then promote the shit out of your tentpole spec and maybe you’ll get an assignment. If your tentpole is set in a dystopian outback with a lot of car chases, George Miller might read it for the next Mad Max movie. Maybe.
Tentpoles are the summer circuses studios hang their year on. Sequels are the easiest to sell financially and blockbusters always bring the biggest box office. In my thinking aloud, I’ve answered my question – yes, tentpoles are still a thing. However, with the decline in returns and the sequel weary audience who is tired of been there, done that blow-em-ups from outer space, there is an opening in lower budget films and television projects. These are where the emerging screenwriter will shine. There is plenty of time to brand yourself as a sequel tentpole writer after you’ve gotten in the door, but get in the door. With a whisper and great writing rather than a battering ram and box of popcorn.
In the meantime, I’ll see you in the theater. Suicide Squad opens August 5, 2016.
It’s that time again. The shoppers pushing through crowds to get $10 off on the newest whatever-you-call-it. The music on an endless loop of gingerbread and treacle. The nickel and diming over the price of a tree. Let’s just cancel Christmas, shall we? On the other hand, I happen to love the yearly Ghiardelli peppermint bark so that’s okay and I live in L.A. so snow is not an issue. On TV, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “The Year Without A Santa Claus” numb the pain. Friends, parties – all know their gifts are from the heart if not from an expensive store and love me anyway. However, despite the fact that I am slightly better off this season than last, I’m still much too depressed to be all that festive, so this week’s post appears courtesy of the nice folks at The Playlist.
Here are 20 Christmas films that should be watched year round. I hate that there are no entries dedicated to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Gantan-sai or any other end of the year holidays, but come on — Santa is so much fun. I changed the order slightly because of my tastes, and I probably would have swapped in The Man Who Came To Dinner, Love, Actually, maybe Black Christmas and though set at Christmas my favorite film of all time The Lion in Winter is not about the holiday. Still, their choices are spot on. Watch the movies and I defy you to disagree.
- A Christmas Story (1983) – My favorite Christmas tradition, and this is sadly true, is the 24 hr. marathon on TNT. From the Red Rider bb gun to the giant pink bunny suit and Chinese waiters singing “Deck the halls.” A modern classic.
- The Ref (1994) – The bickering between Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis is priceless. I think Denis Leary is probably playing himself which is a good thing. But tune in for the great Glynis Johns as Spacey’s ruthless mother. I wanted to be part of that family, imagine the therapy sessions.
- Home Alone (1990) – How can you not include this? Admit it, you wanted to be that kid, too.
- Bad Santa (2003) – Being bad is pretty good for Billy Bob.
- The Apartment (1960) – It’s hard not to root for Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine as they struggle with being alone and at the bottom of the corporate ladder.
- A Christmas Tale (2008) – A French film that should be better known to English-speaking audiences. Don’t be a snob, French people have Yuletide family dysfunction, too.
- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) – The resurrection of Robert Downey, jr. And we are all the better for it.
- Scrooged (1988) – I love the scene where Bill Murray is approached by the ghost from the future and he comments on his bad breath. Updating the Dickens legendary tale with Murray’s snarky impudence was genius.
- Die Hard (1988) – I am on record that this is my favorite action flick. Explosions, machine guns, smart ass one-liners. Merry Christmas. Pass the popcorn.
- Elf (2003) – I like sweet, not a lot, but some. And this sweet hits just the right spot.
- The Best Man Holiday (2013) – Romantic comedy/dramas are a tough sell because they are so hard to pull off without being corny especially when you are laughing one minute and enduring a tragedy the next. It’s easier for an ensemble where everyone gets their story in a few simple beats. And it’s even easier when it’s a sequel because the audience is already familiar with the characters. That said, this is the best of the ensemble holiday couples movies and worth a gander. Curl up with your boo in front of the TV and enjoy.
- Gremlins (1984) – Don’t feed them after midnight. But isn’t it always after midnight?
- It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – Do I really have to say why?
- The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) – Watch this and you will forget “The Muppets,” that travesty of television that ABC has foisted upon the world.
- Scrooge (1951) – A challenge: compare all the versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and I think you will agree the Alistair Sim version is the one worth watching yearly.
- The Shop Around The Corner (1940) – First saw this when You Got Mail came out and I liked it. Possibly the best of the romantic Christmas comedies. James Stewart probably owned Christmas in the 1940s.
- Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – This movie is a gift to the young and the young at heart. The original is better. There are some movies that can be mentioned and everyone agrees it is timeless and necessary viewing. This is one of them.
- The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Who doesn’t love Tim Burton? This stop-motion fantasy flick has a soul.
- Babes in Toyland (1934) – Okay, not necessarily about Christmas, but I’d say it makes the cut because it is about toys. Cinephiles appreciate seeing Laurel & Hardy in a movie made for the 1930s. While I don’t find the story that great, seeing a movie in and of its time is heartwarming. Not everything has to be elevated or re-made. Some movies are just for little kids who want to laugh.
- White Christmas (1954) – Like fruitcake, eggnog and ugly Christmas sweaters. Everything from the plot and songs and cinematography is shamelessly sentimental, but that’s what the holidays are about. This musical love letter to Christmas will live on long after the presents are unwrapped and the resolutions forgotten.
From one emerging screenwriter to everyone.
Labor Day signals the traditional end of summer. Was it good for you? My co-worker Wilhelmina had an internship. My very good friend Consuelo Mackintosh got engaged. Another friend went on a family road trip through Louisiana and Mississippi. I did none of the these things. I stayed home. And watched TV. Went to the movies a few times, but for the most part, stayed in and watched whatever was on offer that night. I know you’re thinking what an exciting life I lead. Well it is usually, but this summer, not so much. It was like that in pop culture entertainment, too. Witness: The beginning of the end of the Kardashian Konspiracy (I hope) as the He-Wolf known as Ryan Seacrest slipped with Knock Knock Live and Caitlyn Jenner’s I Am Cait did not bring the horde of viewers of either gender as anticipated. The misstep in the previously unassailable comic book universe was the Fox-produced The Fantastic Four reboot. The what-the-fuck-was-that? was True Detective season two. (Liked it but don’t need to see it again.) Gotta say, a little boring.
What gives? Did Hollywood write off 2015 in favor of marketing for next year? It seems as if “What’s now?” is not as important as “What’s next?” The excitement generated at July’s annual “I am why God created cosplay” convention known as Comi-Con International was for next year’s blockbusters. Deadpool, Suicide Squad, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, X-Men: Apocalypse; Ghostbusters. Well, that’s my 2016 set. Only Star Wars: The Force Awakens gets a jump on the New Year opening in mid-December.
Don’t give up 2015. There’s still the fall TV season and the prestige films coming up at the end of the year. I refuse to stare at a blank screen.
Fred Armisen and Bill Hader on Documentary Now! (IFC); DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (CW); Miss Piggy’s and Kermit’s break-up should make The Muppets (ABC) worth a look; Scream Queens (Fox) will most likely have my heart; as will the new series of Doctor Who (BBCAmerica). With the shout out to Maisie Williams reminding me Game of Thrones is only nine months away.
Coming to theaters, M. Night Shyamalan’s long over-due return to form with The Visit should be something I’ll try to watch with one eye closed. Bond is back with Spectre. Two words: Daniel Craig. Don’t forget (how could you?) the final installment of The Hunger Games, Mockingjay, part 2. My dance card will be filled. Yippee!
Whew! What a relief. For a minute I thought I’d have to start reading. Well, there is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates who has been compared to James Baldwin and Richard Wright. This is a book about the brutality of our current cultural injustice that deserves a read. And don’t get all racial on me, everyone should read it as a human being because it’s about humanity, regardless of your race, class and culture.
A lot to take in. So say goodbye to the burnt hamburgers on the grill and the heat stroke and the crowd at the beach. The leaves are changing and the weather is cooling and the TV and movies screens are just getting warmed up. I for one, can’t wait.