The Meddler: The Archive

This was a series I did where I would take a movie or book, break down all my problems with it, and then pitched my rewrite of all or part of it. I just had a blast re-reading these.  I put a tremendous amount of work into these.

Best of 2016, #9: Arrival (Tease Your Twist)

Once again, I’ll start with what didn’t work:

The Problem: Most of the conflict in this movie is false conflict. We start with a very familiar sci-fi situation: Aliens have landed and the scientists want to communicate while the military doesn’t trust them. We’ve seen this a million times before, but this time the situation is tilted too far in the scientists’ direction. It’s way to obvious to us, and it should be obvious to them, that these aliens are super nice guys, but we still get scene after scene of the military freaking out needlessly. Meanwhile, we get a very cool story of watching a linguist decode this language, but the film doesn’t trust this story enough to carry the movie (and they may be right about that). (The most obvious example of false conflict is the fact that the military doesn’t warn Adams or Renner that gravity is about to realign itself. Why not give them a heads up on that? Just to give us and them a little false shock.)

The Meddler: The aliens needed to be even more alien, to the extent that they’re accidentally killing people, either by simply crushing them, or by emitting sounds that split eardrums, or by frying them with force fields, etc. This would up the stakes considerably. Now Adams would be putting her life at risk by entering this ship belonging to these aliens that can’t stop killing people, maybe accidentally, maybe not. Now the military would have a good reason to just wipe these people off the map and the scientists would have a much harder job to do convincing the military that no, these deaths were accidental and we just need to learn to communicate. Then the communication breakthrough would be far more consequential.

What I Liked About It: The performances, the tone, the science, and especially the whopper of a twist.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Tease your twist. A great twist can’t just land like a rock on the head of your audience. As with a murder mystery, you need to “play fair”, laying in a series of clues: Not that your audience wants to necessarily guess the twist before the reveal, but they want to feel like they could have and maybe should have. The beauty of this twist is that it’s teased out and revealed so gradually that you’re on the cusp of figuring it out about a half-hour before it finally hits you, which feels so gratifying. As soon as I heard Adams say “Your father’s the scientist”, I began to figure it out somewhere in the back of my brain, but that only meant it hit with more force, not less, when it was finally revealed.

Best of 2016, #10: Fences

So here I am back. I’m so sorry to disappear for so long, but it’s just hard to care about anything in the middle of this national nightmare. I’m just glued to the news and constantly freaking out. Everything I’ve ever fought for or cared about is being gleefully destroyed. It’s literally the apocalypse.

So there’s that.

Now let’s talk about this year’s movies. The bad news is that my negativity has spilled out in that direction as well. I thought pretty much all of the most prestigious movies of the year were overrated. Even when I went to write about my 10 favorites, I found I had more complaints about them than compliments. So in keeping with my sour mood, I’m going to have to split these in four parts each. A first part where I complain, a second where I meddle, a third part where I compliment some element of the movie, and then a storyteller’s rule that can be gleaned from the movie.

Problems: Fences was actually adapted by Tony Kushner, but he took off his name so the screenplay is merely credited to the dead original playwright August Wilson. Ostensibly, this was done out of deference, but one must suspect that this was also out of embarrassment over the fact that he just hadn’t cracked it (or Washington wouldn’t let him). The original play was set in a back yard, but almost none of those scenes have to be set in that back yard, and there’s no excuse for failing to open up the play more. At least range more around the house!

The Meddler: Once in the movie, there’s a montage between two of Wilson’s acts, and it goes a long way. We need more of those. This is a movie: We don’t need dialogue like “Where’s Cory?” “He had to go out to football practice.” Show us him leaving early and going to football practice, and have Troy see him go! Then show Cory at practice! One problem with this movie is that we never really believe it’s 1957 because the production design is so generic in this one back yard. Let us see this world! Convince us that it’s 1957.

For that matter, much of the text involves Troy being haunted by his traumatic past, which takes the form of certain powerful moments that he can’t shake. Intercut the  movie with those images, which can tell a silent story. Show us mysterious and painful images and then let him explain them later.

Ironically, one of the only times Washington does add an image to foreshadow something, it hurts the movie. Before Cory’s big confrontation with his dad, Washington shows him checking out a Marine recruiting station. Now we can already guess how the confrontation will be resolved, which makes it less tense (we aren’t wondering “What will he do if he’s kicked out?”), and it ruins the shock of seeing him in his Marine outfit later.

Finally, the movie could have been shorter. It’s 140 minutes, but those extra 20 minutes would shave off easily. The movie doesn’t really kick into gear until Troy admits to his affair almost an hour in. The scenes before that act to set him up as an imperious moralist, which sets him up to be exposed as a hypocrite, but each of those opening scenes could be chopped down. The scenes with his older son add the least to the movie, so they’d be target #1.

So why do I love this movie? Because it works wonderfully as a PBS “Great Performances”-style filmed version of one of the great plays of our time, acted by two of our finest actors.  Washington get truly jaw-dropping performances out of himself and Davis.  I can certainly understand why Washington was so loathe to alter a word of the text, but even without changing a word, there were ways to make this less stagey.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: One way to give shapeless stories some shape is to have characters make a bet, and then pay off that bet ironically. Here, Troy and Bono make a bet as to whether Troy will finish his fence before Bono finally buys a refrigerator. As it turns out, their friendship is pretty much over by the time they both accomplish their goals, so they don’t bother to ask the other who got there first, but the bet has added just a shade of stakes and urgency to the lackadaisical task of building the fence.

The Meddler: Adding a Post-Credits Gag to Age of Ultron

The makers of Age of Ultron did their best to get the word out that there would be no post-credits gag at the end, merely a mid-credits teaser. Nevertheless, I’m sure that many non-fandom moviegoers didn’t get the memo, and stuck around for naught.

So let’s try to grant them some belated satisfaction! Yesterday, I mentioned that I could weary of Whedon’s preference for subverting our pre-established narrative expectations instead of creating new ones, but, being in that mode, I found myself cooking up a Whedon-esque post-credits bit that might have offered some satisfaction.

One thing I admired about the movie was that Ultron was totally defeated, without an “I’ll be back” moment, (After all, we know that Marvel has bigger fish to fry), but given that we do have that expectation, I thought it might be fun to play with it:
  • After the last credit, we cut back to a shot of the final Ultron head lying where the Vision left it in the forest. As ominous music builds, we slowly track in on its dead eye socket…Then, just as blackness fills the screen, a glowing red eye flickers on! 
  • Then BAM! Thor’s hammer smashes it to smithereens, abruptly ending the ominous music.
  • THOR: Thou were right, Vision. ’Tis good we kept watch.
  • VISION: I told you so.
SMASH to black. Lights come on, curtains close.

Edge of Tomorrow Meddler Week, Part 4: The Ridiculous (and All-Too-Familiar) Phony-Sacrifice Ending

And the fourth problem with Edge of Tomorrow is the way it falls apart at the very end. The plot logic is remarkably solid right up until the eplogue, when it wrecks itself in a depressingly familiar way.

Yes, it’s the return of the same problem that plagues Superman Returns, The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness and many more: the hero gloriously sacrifices his life to save everybody else...only to wake up afterwards just fine.

Of course, that may sound inherent to this particular movie’s premise, but it’s not, because Cruise has lost the ability to repeat and has to really win without any do-overs, which makes the finale far more exciting…until the very last second when he regains the ability just as he gives his life to defeat the bad guys.

So Cruise wakes up in the past all over again, but this time it’s a past in which the bad guy has still been defeated…even though all the guys who died defeating him are once again alive! Huh? In all of Cruise’s previous reboots, his previous progress past the point of waking up was undone. Why should it be different this time?

For a movie that had devoted so much brain power to making this (literally) loopy premise work in a rock-solid way, this is just such a slap in the face, to abruptly abandon all of that skillfully-constructed logic at the very end.

It’s like we have this idea that nobody can just win anymore, because that would somehow be “bogus” or something. “Heroism” has become synonymous with “sacrifice.” You can’t have one without the other, apparently. And yet they still want to give us happy endings, so they just make it a consequence-less sacrifice every damn time.

Here’s an idea: if you want the hero to win, just let him WIN. Let him struggle and suffer and barely kill the bad guy, of course, but skip over the phony sacrifice scene and just let good flat-out triumph over evil for once. OR have him sacrifice himself and stay dead. Either situation could have been pulled off in a meaningful and satisfying way, but they once again tried to both, which just alienates and pisses off the audience.

Edge of Tomorrow Meddler Week, Part 3: We Always Come In Late

My third problem with Edge of Tomorrow is that it become addicted to using same trick over and over: In scene after scene, it shows Cruise encountering and scrambling to defeat some “new” menace, only to have the audience suddenly realize that, nope, he’s actually already done this before and he actually knows what the bad guys are going to do. The first few times, this is clever and fun, but it quickly wears out its welcome. There are two problems here:
  1. This trick forces us to focus on the “who care, he’ll just get to try again” aspect of the premise, which is something we’d rather forget.
  2. More importantly, it short-circuits our attempts at identification. Every time they trick us into identifying with Cruise’s worried looks, only to reveal that he’s actually way ahead of us, we lose the ability to care about him or worry for him. We can’t share any genuine emotions with him, because we never get to share his first-time reactions. By the time we come along, he’s just “going through the motions” to get back to where he already was.
Ultimately, Cruise loses the ability to repeat when he gets an unwelcome blood transfusion that purges the power from his veins. This twist is well-set-up, and fits the logic of the film, and it’s believable enough when it happens, but I don’t think it was the best choice.

Instead, I think that, rather than have that scene early on where Blunt warns Cruise that he’ll stop repeating if he gets a blood transfusion, she should warn him that the power just wears out after thirty times. This would give every scene a lot more urgency, and convince Cruise to stop rebooting himself with little provocation, redoing every moment over and over to get it right. 

Maybe put a countdown onscreen of how many regenerations he has left, so every death counts. As it stands now, the movie looks intense, but this change would make the movie feel intense. The audience can tell the difference.

Edge of Tomorrow Meddler Week, Part 2: The Hero is An Everyman

Okay, sorry folks, after moving all these pieces around I accidentally auto-posted part 3 a half hour ago, but now I’ve taken it down to push it back to tomorrow and put the right one here...of course, by this point between the podcast and comments, we’ve already pretty much covered this one thoroughly, so sorry for the repeated beats! (And my computer is still broken, so I’m writing this on Betsy's computer. It’s that kind of week.)(And this is the last time I talk about video games, I promise! For the next two days, Im covering more nuts and bolts problems.)
Here’s another way that Edge of Tomorrow could have played off of the video game-like nature of the situation.  In actual video games, every character in an everyman, kept generic enough to allow for every possible player’s every possible action, which, to may mind, fatally inhibits the medium’s storytelling potential (though I know many would disagree with that assessment). 

The movie could easily have chosen to milk meaning out of this problem, but instead, it merely replicates it. 

There is no real flaw scene at the beginning, which gives the movie nothing to pay off later on.  Yes, Cruise is a little blithe and cowardly in the quick opening montage, but his reticence to get on the front lines is perfectly understandable, and we never even find out why the general hates him enough to plan this engineer this insanely sadistic revenge. 

Perhaps begin the movie with an incident where Cruise didn’t realize his mic was still on, and revealed his contempt for the brass, or the way the war was being waged?  (Going back to yesterday, he could perhaps something like “they’re treating this like a video game” Or “your average kid playing x-Box could win the war quicker than this guy.”)

Because there’s no flaw scene, there isn’t really a spiritual crisis either, no point at which Cruise realizes that he’s his own worst enemy. (Instead we get another moment stolen directly from Groundhog Day, where Cruise realizes he can’t save Emily Blunt no matter what he does, which is a nice little moment of “There are some things I can’t fix”, but because it doesn’t connect back to any pre-established flaw of Cruise, it lacks emotional any real emotional punch.)

The spiritual crisis needs to be the point where Cruise finally says, “Oh, life isn’t a video game, you can’t just figure out a pre-designated path that will allow anybody to win. You aren’t an everyman and you wouldn’t want to be.”  This is the moment where he would realize that, even though he’s freed of all physical consequences, he still has to overcome his longstanding flaws and then use that some flip-side strength that’s uniquely inside himin order to win.

But that never happens.  Cruise gets to remain an everyman and never discovers any hidden flaws or strengths inside himself.  In the end, he just wins in the way that anybody would. 

Edge of Tomorrow Meddler Week, Part 1: It Ignores Its Own Meaning

So let’s talk about Edge of Tomorrow AKA Live Die Repeat, AKA All You Need is Kill. As you might have noticed from the multiple titles, the studio didn’t really know how to market this movie, and didn’t really care, but then there was a twist: Critics loved it! But then there was another twist: Audiences didn’t show up, and the movie flopped! But wait: I had good word of mouth! At some point, the reputation finally settled at “sleeper you should see on DVD”. So I did.

So who was right, the dubious studio, the happy critics, the mass audience that rejected it, or the cult audience that embraced it? A little of each. The movie is definitely a slam-bang action blockbuster, delivering exactly the sort of all-out adrenaline-fest that draws people into Transformers movies, but with actual entertainment value added on, so it is frustrating that Transformers 4 kicked its ass at the box office.

 It’s also far better (both more entertaining and smarter) than Oblivion, Elysium, Pacific Rim, After Earth, and all of the other abortive attempts at non-franchise sci-fi from the previous year. So there’s that.

But…is it actually good? As in, not just better than crap, but actually good in its own rite? The answer is: almost. Well, okay, it’s certainly good, but it’s almost very good, and that’s really frustrating.

Unlike the movies above, this situation actually makes sense (which is saying a lot, with a premise this wild) and each plot twist is a clever and exciting escalation on the last. It’s well-structured, has fun dialogue and good performances. But it has several fatal flaws, so let’s take a look at those from a storytelling point of view:

The first big problem that plagues the movie is that it tacks on a bunch of awkward satirical elements while ignoring the satire inherent in its premise. The whole first half of the movie plays like a tongue-in-cheek parody of the D-Day landing (Too soon? Actually, yes.) Then there’s a mish-mash of other war references (The young woman who suddenly rises through the ranks to lead the army is known as “the Angel of Verdun”.) These odd detail are jokey without being jokes, and they ring all hollow. Parody and satire always limit audience identification, so they’d better add something to the movie, but these don’t.

This is frustrating, because the urge to add a satirical element is actually a good one. Here’s the premise: An untrained army PR guy is forced to fight an alien invasion on the front lines, but he finds himself living the same day over and over, allowing him to get better and better as he repeats the day, until he finally figures out how to stop the invasion altogether.

Obviously, Groundhog Day has already milked most of the meaning out of this situation, so it would seem like there was nothing left to say, but the change of setting could have provided a completely different meaning.

What this movie resembles more than anything is a game of “Call of Duty”: You’re plunged into an invasion, get killed a bunch of times, go back to the beginning each time, and learn to start over as a bad-ass right from the start. This taps into two possible sources of meaning:
  1. It could be a commentary on the FPS-generation of couch-bound man-boys, who crow online about what badasses they are while hitting reset over and over.
  2. And it could also be a commentary on the increasing video-game-ization of war itself, with guys sitting in Las Vegas with joysticks blowing up actual Pakistani families as if there were just so many Koopa Troopas.
In both cases, this premise almost taps into a deep vein of meaning...but it never actually goes there. The video games aspect is never hinted at, and this is clearly a drone-free military.

How to fix this? Let’s look at some on-the-nose solutions: Give Cruise a son by an ex-wife, then let him start the movie by having an awkward video chat with the boy, who’s ignoring him and playing an FPS instead. Or have Cruise, as PR spokesman, say that the new suits are as easy as operating a joystick.

Or make it less on-the-nose: After Cruise loses the power, have him freak out and hide until Blunt yells at him that he never would have been able to win without consequences, because we can’t really commit until we have something on the line.

Instead of critiquing video game culture, the movie just become a video game, which is a problem in more ways than one, as we’ll see next time...

The Meddler: Gone Girl (Book and Movie), Part 3: The Three Big Pregnancy Problems

So let’s talk about three more big things that make no sense about “Gone Girl”, on either the page and the screen:
  1. Stealing a pregnant woman’s pee is fine if you want to fake a home-pregnancy test and fool your husband, but it would never fool an actual doctor. This is the 21st century and they no longer kill a rabbit. Your doctor instantly gives you a full physical, including a blood test that tell them a lot more than pee ever could.
  2. Likewise, you can’t secretly impregnate yourself with one specimen of frozen sperm. You’d have two options: Either do IVF, which is a long complicated surgical procedure with a high fail rate (but at least you get several shots off one sample) or you can attempt to self-thaw and then use the turkey baster method, which would have an astronomically high fail rate, and you’d only get one chance. Getting pregnant even with a fully-participating man is already quite unlikely on one try.
  3. Why does Nick stay with her for five weeks (it was longer in the book, iirc) after she comes home and before he finds out she’s pregnant? In the movie, she says that otherwise the press will turn on him, so he has to stay, but so what? Before, he was trying to win the press over to avoid being arrested, but why would he care now? It makes no sense. Of course, the real reason that he has to stay so long without a good motivation is to allow time for the impregnation storyline.
The most annoying thing about these three story-killers is that they could so easily be fixed with one solution: Have her actually get pregnant.

If she’s so dedicated to her long-term revenge plan, then secretly going off the pill for a few months would not be so much of a stretch. This would give her enough chances to actually get pregnant, and allow her to actually prove her pregnancy to a doctor.

In this version, she would enact her revenge long before her pregnancy showed, planning to abort the baby sometime later (or not, if we’re going with the kill herself version, which would also require an actual pregnancy). She could leave a clue for Nick in the woodshed that implies she aborted the baby, then reveal to Nick at the end that she never got around to it, which still allows you to have the shock-ending. This would also help explain Amy’s sudden change-of-heart and desire to return to Nick: Pregnancy is a hormonal roller-coaster, after all, and it tends to reset your priorities.

And, most importantly, in this version, she could confront him the night of her return, or at least that week, rather than forcing him to stay in the house with a psychopath for no reason whatsoever.

Why didn’t they do this simple fix? Because murder and rape are sexy and fun, but pregnancy is a turn-off and abortion is beyond the pale? Ugh. If Flynn was going to go there, she should have went there, and solved three huge problems with one quick fix.

The Meddler: Gone Girl (Book and Movie), Part 2: Amy’s Nonsensical Plan

Here’s something that makes no sense on page or screen: Amy’s plan. Amy’s frame-up is clever and fun, no doubt, but it falls apart when we find out about her plan for the future, or lack thereof.

Amy quickly mentions in passing, in both the book and movie, that she intends watch Nick suffer for a while, then drown herself in the river to ensure a conviction. Huh? If she really wants to frame the guy, and she’s already put so much insane detail in to everything, and she’s ready to kill herself, why not just do it now, supreme in the knowledge that this will seal the deal?

Besides, if Amy is really a psychopath, as subsequent events will strongly imply, then it’s very unlikely she would ever even consider suicide. Psychopaths are the world’s most self-serving people, and they’re happy to just move on to the next victim, confident that they can once again fulfill their needs and then avoid all consequences.

And even if she’s planning on killing herself, why would she choose to stay at a cabin in the Ozarks in order to watch the coverage?? A big plot point is that she’s accustomed to luxury and can’t stand the indignity of her middle-class existence in Missouri. She has that big money belt, so why not go someplace nice? Does she not know that the rich have more anonymity and privacy than the poor?

Killing herself should never have been part of her plan. Why not just withdraw a lot of cash from those secret credit cards and then move to a Gulf Coast island to enjoy a life of low-cost semi-luxury while watching the whole circus on TV and starting a new low-key life?

You could still have her trashy neighbors bust in and steal her money (the rich and the beach-bums live next to each other on those islands, after all.) She could still flee to Desi when things went bad. It wouldn’t change much, but it would have made a lot more sense. As it is, the suicide plan creates a big motivation hole in the center of the story.  (And an empathy hole as well, because it’s hard to care about a character if you’re just waiting for her to kill herself.)

But that still leave three huge plot holes, which we’ll get to (and easily fix) tomorrow...