Oscar Talk: Moneyball

It’s awards season. Here at SBM, we’ll take a writer’s look at some of screenplays nominated at this year’s Academy Awards.

Moneyball is a film working in very classic dramatic principals. It adores contrasts, pairing the physically blessed with the intellectually revolutionary, pitting the old and dysfunctional against the new and vital. The contrasts of the film are apparent even in the billing. Right beneath the All-American genetic specimen that is Brad Pitt, we have Jonah Hill, who I will spare any less than flattering adjectives. Moneyball constantly pits these contrasting types against one another because it knows that in these simple dyads rest inherent conflict.

Moneyball begins with the bold Billy Beane, General Manager of the low payroll Oakland As, meeting up with the reserved but brilliant Peter Brand, a Yale Graduate and statistician. Beane, a former top baseball prospect who never lived up to his potential, finds himself at odds with archaic scouting philosophies. After another season ending in disappointment to the New York Yankees, Beane listens, exasperated, as his scouts repeat the same old cliches about upcoming prospects, the very same cliches so many attached to him when he was a much desired young man who eschewed college to play full time when MLB came calling.

In a pivotal scene, Beane asks Brandt if Brandt would have drafted him in the first round. After some prodding, Brandt admits that he wouldn’t have, and Beane hires him immediately. In so many ways, Beane is rebelling against a system that failed him, that promised him the world and left him a failure. When Beane sits in a room who have been in the scouting game for decades, he hears all the same superlatives teams attached to him. While the scouts drone on about looks and attitudes and other intangibles, Brandt offers data, numbers, and cost efficiency. Together, Beane and Brandt are a pair of young bucks with rationality and math on their side going up against the archaic and outdated establishment. They take players with nontraditional throwing motions, they switch player’s positions, and turn the unappreciated into stars, all while saving precious dollars.

Moneyball reaches a great culmination of the ideologies at war. The old way of superstition and irrationality clashes with the new way of statistical analysis and evaluation. For the duration of the film, Bean, for all his bluster, clutches to a single superstition: he refuses to watch his team’s games live. When his team stands to set a record for consecutive wins, he can’t resist. He races to the stadium, just in time to witness what seems a historic collapse in which the team gives up an astonishing 11 run lead. In Bean’s face, we see the anticipation of a jinx and curse rearing its ugly head. Then, Scott Hatteberg, he of the risky position switch, and the player most emblematic of the new management style conceived by Bean and Brandt, comes to bat at the bottom of the ninth, and hits a homerun as triumphant as any in film history.

In the end, Moneyball offers one final irony when Beane turns down the opportunity to manage the Boston Red Sox in order to stay in California to be nearer to his daughter. The prophet of supreme rationality surrenders to sentimentality. In the post-script, Moneyball goes on to claim that the Red Sox would end a decades long championship drought due to the philosophies and practices established by Beane and Brandt. Now I don’t follow baseball with any sort of scrutiny, but the notion that the Boston Red Sox, one of the absolute wealthiest franchises in MLB with a payroll to match, finally won a World Series due to philosophies predicated to maximizing a minimal budget somewhat paradoxical. But that’s the game all adaptations must play: do we prefer truth, or a great story?

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Scattered Thoughts: Top 5 Sword Fights

With the passing of the great Bob Anderson, the swordmaster whose work has graced films such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings series, I thought it’d be nice to maybe celebrate the Top 5 Sword fights. First, let’s set some ground rules: since we are paying tribute to a choreographer and not a screenwriter, great sword fights can transcend bad movies. A great battle can benefit from a nice sense of escalating conflict, but it shouldn’t necessarily be excluded for lack of it. Also, due to the ever evolving complexity and sophistication of the medium, the list will be limited to the past twenty years or so. Sounds fair, right? So let’s go.

5. Star Wars Episode 1 – Darth Maul vs Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon.

Here’s a classic example of ‘great fight, bad movie’. This is a beautifully choreographed battle, accompanied by one of John Williams better themes. The movie also builds to this battle nicely, keeping Maul mysterious and only briefly flashing bits and pieces of Ray Park’s magnificent agility.

About half way through the fight, the three wander into a long hallway of force fields alternating on and off, separating the players. I, for one, thought this was brilliant. Juxtaposing a meditative Qui-Gon with a pacing, animalistic maul while they await their freedom draws a beautiful contrast while building a wonderful tension. Obi-Wan trying to catch up to the battle, helpless and isolated from his master, adds a lot, too.

Unfortunately, this great battle is marred by the decision to intercut it with a pair of equally silly wars featuring the much reviled Jar-Jar Binks and the young Anakin Skywalker. Also, as is the case with seemingly all lightsaber battles, the ending seems a tad anticlimactic. The characters spend all fight performing remarkable stunts and feats, only to finally be dispatched rather easily and suddenly.

By the way, should any debate arise, lightsabers obviously count as swords, hence Bob Anderson’s work on the series.

4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Yu Shu Lien vs Jen Yu, round 2

The rare female vs female sword fight, and predecessor to some of the more ludicrous sword fights recently put on screen in Hero and House of Flying Daggers. This one may admittedly be cheating, because Yu Shu Lien is only using a sword for about half the time. Regardless, this is an elegantly choreographed battle with a lot of emotional intensity to boot. Yu Shu Lien, scorned and betrayed, has plenty of reason to go after impudent Jen Yu, thief of the venerated Green Destiny, and the fight benefits from it.

Crouching Tiger was one of the first in a new vein of martial arts movies, bringing a great deal of wonder and melancholy to a genre that had never quite crossed over to North America on such a grand scale. While its followers like the aforementioned Hero can sometimes take the melodrama to excess, Crouching Tiger hits a very enjoyable balance, thanks in large part to the charm and warmth of its cast. The love and longing between Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai makes for maybe the saddest and most moving romance in action movie history.

3. Pirates of the Caribean: Dead Man’s Chest – Will Turner vs Jack Sparrow vs Commodore Norrington

Again, bad movie, great fight. A three way battle is difficult to execute, but this one has some nice, highly entertaining bits. Fighting inside a runaway water wheel, for instance, is gloriously over the top, not to mention just plain fun. The writer’s made an admirable effort of giving all three participants good reason to be in this fight, but the flimsiness of some of the previous events undermines what might have been a great coming together of plot lines.

Generally, this is a movie that suffers from characters being way, way too dumb, and it really drags this marvelous fight down. That anyone who has any experience with Jack Sparrow could take his word unless forced is absolutely ridiculous, and yet Norrington, Elizabeth, and Will all dance to his tune in one contrived, totally implausible scene after another. Jack tricks Will into getting taken captive by Davey Jones, and bafflingly, Elizabeth trusts that Jack had nothing to do with it. Even more egregiously, Norrington lets his rage be redirected from Jack to Will in midbattle by Jack’s desperate spin. But good choreography is good choreography.

2. Fearless – Huo Yuan Jia vs Qin Lei

This one is just out and out magnificient. Exquistely shot, beautifully lit, elegantly choreographed, and emotionally tense. Huo Yuan Jia, in his supreme arrogance, has challened Qin Lei to a duel because of an alleged attack on one of his students. While “the misunderstanding” is a well worn cliche to get a fight started, what follows is well worth it. Jet Li rocks the screen with what is may be his best fight ever, and Chen Zhi Hui truly holds his own.

The fight benefits from having great dramatic weight within the context of the story. Its consequences drastically alter Huo’s life, and leads him to profound changes in his attitude and lifestyle. A superfluous fight is seldom a good fight.

1. Rob Roy – Rob Roy vs Archibald Cunningham

I’ve discussed this scene here at SBM previously in a Writer’s Toolbox on Fight Scenes, and though it may not quite reach the technical mastery of the above battles, it benefits from a much more intense build-up. Rob Roy is by no means a great film, but this scene certainly is one of the great fight scenes, sword or otherwise.

Rob Roy culminates with a fantastic, slow burn sword fight where the powerful, lumbering Liam Neeson is outmatched by the frustrating skill of tiny, speedy Tim Roth. Rob Roy takes wound after wound, cut after cut until near exhaustion. When all seems lost, and Cunningham has his sword at poor Rob’s throat, Liam Neeson proves his unassailable manliness by vanquishing his foe in spectacularly brutal fashion. Justice is served in simple, satisfying terms, and the Scots achieve a rare catharsis.

Honorable mentions:

-Battle at the lake in Hero: omitted for its exhausting use of blank stares, celebrated for its total contempt of all physics.
-Westley vs Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. A classic with a clever gimmick at its core, but just not quite up to the athleticism and dynamic filmmaking of the ranked battles.

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Mad Man McKinnon's Marvelous Menagerie of Magnificently Manly Men: Jason Sudeikis

So often, ‘greatness’ is a subjective, ineffable designation, one that Masters, Critics, and Scholars can debate endlessly. However, on rare occasions, greatness is so transcendental, so obvious, it overcomes dispassion, ignorance, and apathy, and stirs the souls of even the furthest removed laymen. From artists to athletes, there are a precious few whose talent is so abundant, so overwhelming, so triumphant, it makes them not only icons of their field, but heroes to us all.

Jason Sudeikis has so much game I can’t even wrap my head around it. I’m not a ladykiller. I don’t want to be a ladykiller. I abhor ladykillers. Yet still I must tip my cap to this gentlest of gentleman. I was surprised when I heard he was dating Scarlett Johansson. I was tickled when there were rumors he was the father of January Jones’ child. When I heard about Eva Mendes, I was beginning to sense a pattern. And now, as whispers emerge that he and Olivia Wilde are an item, I merely nod my head knowingly.

Some of the world’s most revered beauties and most in demand stars, all bewildered and enchanted by Jason Sudeikis’s presumably seismic charm. How does he do it? How does he go so far with seemingly so little? He’s passably handsome. He’s reasonably funny. Saturday Night Live probably doesn’t pay great, but it’s steady. As much as I can’t explain it, I understand it. I like Jason Sudeikis, in my own masculine, heterosexual way. He seems nice, I guess. Fun, yet safe.

At the 2010 Winter Olympics, I saw the incomparable Shaun White demolish his competition so thoroughly it left me in muted awe. Ordinarily, I am utterly indifferent to snowboarding, but watching that young man, the magnitude of his achievement seemed undeniable. I’m sure many have felt similarly when bearing witness to Michael Jordan, or Wayne Gretzky. Most of the time, I either shrug or roll my eyes when I hear about celebrities’ relationships and sexual exploits. It simply doesn’t interest me. But as Jason Sudeikis’ legend grows before my eyes, I am simply staggered. His character in Hall Pass was as wildly miscast and recklessly implausible as any I can remember.

Good for you, dude. Seriously.

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Writer's Toolbox: Second Chances

We all have regrets, moments we wish we could have back. Nothing haunts us like the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. Since so much of fiction is wish fulfillment, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that second chances play such a large part of so many different narratives through every genre. Redemption is impossible unless our heroes have an opportunity to right their previous wrongs, and nothing is more dramatic and climatic than a culmination of an arc that really captures that illusive sense of justice and closure we all crave.

The second chance is a staple of many genres, but it’s been elevated to cliche in sports movies. How many time has a down on it’s luck man or team gotten another bite at the apple? Rocky, Cinderella Man, the Mighty Ducks… the list could go on and on. Rocky in particular recycles the formula over and over: a second chance at the big time, a second chance at Apollo Creed, a second chance against Clubber Lang, and on and on for all eternity. The more intense and disappointing the initial failure, the more meaningful a new opportunity becomes.

Second chances are the entire raison d’etre of all backwards time travel movies. Like a great many devices, the purpose is wish fulfillment. What might our lives have been like had we we merely a changed a thing here or there? Time travel offers a literal second chance wherin a character can relive critical decisions. But for stories to really work, they need drama, and drama comes from the danger of things not working out. Failing a second chance is a great way for characters to reexperience tragedy in profound, devastating fashion. Just look at Back to the Future, of all places.

In Back to the Future, Marty does all he can to save his best friend Doc, leaving a note detailing the old man’s impending doom. When Doc tears up the note without ever reading it, terrified of altering the timestream, Marty rushes back early to his timeline. As luck would have it, a car failure costs him precious time. When Marty finally returns to the scene of Doc’s demise, he’s too late, and a weak ‘No!’ escapes his lips for the second time in his life, simultaneously with his earlier self. It’s a crushing, fatalist failure.

Among many others, the much less venerated Hot Tub Time Machine recycled this Back to the Future device with a great deal of success. As a middle aged man, Lou is an utter and complete failure, abandoned by his friends until a suicide attempt draws them to his side. When a magical Hot Tub allows them the opportunity to relive the most cherished, debaucherous vacation of their lives, Lou sees the opportunity to change the most humiliating, unbearable experience of his life: a thorough beating at which his friends never got his back. When his friends again fail to show, Lou relives the most horrible moment of his life, the moment that ignited his downward spiral in the first place. Pretty heavy stuff.

Of course, Back to the Future and Hot Tub Time Machine are comedies first, and only tease at the paralyzing futility of our own existences. In the end, it turns out Marty’s message reached and rescued Doc, and Lou manages some closure by soundly beating the bully that ruined his life. Regardless, by so astutely confronting the audience’s fear of failure, these comedies manage to muster a great deal of unexpected drama and pathos. From me, at least.

Second chances don’t have to be quite so literal. Circumstances can change, so as long as a hero’s character is similarly challenged.

Fine Example:

“I could have been a contender.”

It’s hard to imagine any line in film history that has better expressed regret. In one of the most oft-quoted speeches of all time, Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy laments a squandered life. Years before the beginning of the film, at the insistence of his brother and the local mob, Malloy threw a fight he was sure he could dominate. In the rear view mirror, he attributes all his failings to that moment.

In the beginning of On the Waterfront, Terry’s ignorance and compliance leads to the murder of a man he deemed decent. Despite the desperate pleas of the victim’s family and the local Priest, the entirety of the town keeps quiet due to the stranglehold the mob has on the community and the unions. As Terry falls more and more in love with Edie, the sister of the deceased, his frustration with the mob grows and grows. By the time Terry delivers his famous speech under his own brother’s gun point, he has witnessed multiple murders and threats on innocent lives.

When his brother is murdered for sparing his life, Terry finally stands up to the mob. When threats are made against his life, and he is abandoned by his community, he stands strong. When he is refused the opportunity to work, he marches straight to the mob headquarters, and proves himself the fighter he always knew himself to be. After Terry absorbs a beating that nearly kills him, the town finally rises to his aid, and they take back the pier so long controlled by the mob.

The more heartbreaking the failure, the more dramatic the second chance. Terry’s triumph is so invigorating because his circumstances make his regret so palpable. Because his pain runs so deep, the chance to redeem himself is all the more meaningful. This careful orchestration of redemption combined with the delicate portrayal of squandered potential are what make On the Waterfront such a treasured cinematic achievement, despite its alleged genesis as a justification for Elia Kazan’s aid in Hollywood blacklisting. Obviously, Brando’s legendary performance didn’t hurt, either. But that guy gets enough credit.

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Scattered Thoughts: Heroism and Sexuality

Every once in a while, usually in art associated with comic books or video games, I come across an image that stirs something in me. Generally, it’s a sort of shudder, a cringe at being associated with something crass or sexually exploitative. Most recently, some character design for the video game Batman: Arkham City awakened some dormant frustrations. In its flaunting of excessive and impractical cleavage, images like this of Catwoman or other similar characters embarrass me. But why? Is it appropriate feminist defensiveness? Or is it mere prudishness?

For whatever reason, I have a tendency to assume abstinence and borderline asexuality of my most cherished heroes. I’m not anti-sex, or at least I hope I’m not. I’ve always found that the greater a hero’s suffering, the more profound their nobility impacts me. Sexuality is one of life’s great pleasures, one of many that a character like Batman has denied himself. I don’t picture him playing video games, or having wonderful Thanksgiving dinners, either. Simply put, it’s difficult to frame sex as a noble or selfless act. If it is, nobody’s getting what they want, which defeats the purpose. Unwavering stoicism seems to be what I find most interesting an hero, and it’s a trait female heroes are rarely given.

The problem is, it’s a pretty phalocentric, heterosexual perspective from which I’m coming. In a world where so many peoples still vilify and persecute out of shame and jealousy, there can certainly be nobility in an insistence on sexual freedom and openness. Countless figures real and fictional have justly become icons for bravery and sexual honesty. Madonna, Mae West, Freddy Mercury… Even a character like Kirk on the television show Glee has been sanctified in many circles. There’s great and genuine heroism in anyone who shirks the scowls and clucking tongues of those who would try to belittle or marginalize, and the more images of people like that the better. And sure, Catwoman’s figure and clothing may emphasize an unlikely idealization of the female form, but they’re no more ridiculous than Batman’s enormous muscles and trademark crotch/ass highlighting shorts.

Sex is not something to be demonized, but an essential element of existence. Resisting puritanical oppression is a commendable deed, without a doubt. ‘The slut’ is obviously no longer an acceptable archetype for villainy. So where’s that leave us with Catwoman, a character who skirts back and forth along the line between avenger and criminal? Or any other femme fatale for that matter? Are they to be condemned for weaponizing sexuality, or revered for their freedom and self-assuredness?

Generally, any character who has agency and exerts thorough control over their existence and desires is commendable, and Catwoman certainly fits the bill there. But is a commendable character the genuine motivation behind the formation of this particular interpretation? Or is this design exploitative? Does she exist to titillate and excite the sensibilities of a predominantly male demographic? Sexually submissive imagery like this certainly seems to suggest that’s the case. While Batman is shrouded and obscured, Catwoman arches her back, highlighting her assets, so to speak.

In the end, I realize my reaction comes from an incomplete evaluation of Arkham City’s intentions. Sadly, I’ve yet to play the game, so I can’t fairly evaluate Catwoman’s characterization. Maybe my beef is not with the writers and designers, but merely with the advertisers. Images like these can assume baseness of its audience, and I like to think I appreciate characters like Catwoman for reasons beyond libido. But maybe I’m just too down on libidos. Maybe I’m what’s wrong. And round and round we go…

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Writer's Toolbox: Totems and McGuffins

Like a sage of disputable authority once proclaimed, we are living in a material world. Be it our clothes, collectibles, or accessories, we define ourselves by our possessions because of the values we or our cultures attribute to them. Whether a watch is 500 dollars or 5 cents, the person wearing it makes a statement one way or another, particularly in story telling, as when pen meets paper, nothing is arbitrary. Totems, thus, are objects of significance that crystallize a character’s history, values, or conflicts.

A totem is not just any object around which a plot revolves. If an object has no great symbolic value, and its pursuit exists only to advance the machinations of the story, then it’s usually what is called a McGuffin. As coined by Alfred Hitchcock, a McGuffin can be an object of obvious superficial or monetary value on which a character pins their hopes and dreams, but just as often it is a mysterious, ineffable item (think the suitcase in Pulp Fiction).

The McGuffin is an excuse for plot to happen. Any pursuit of treasure usually can be considered a McGuffin, be it a Maltese Falcon or big ass pile of money. Obviously, bad guys can chase the dollar as much as they want, but these days, self-conscious writers try to temper such obviously superficial pursuits by cobbling together some commendable interest for their protagonists. Thieves need the money to extricate their families from abominable circumstances. Indiana Jones doesn’t care how much money the Holy Grail would fetch. He’s just interested in its historical value.

The McGuffin is a simplistic plot mechanism with only superficial value, and it has its place, particularly in thrillers, adventures, or any other story exclusively concerned with visceral exhilaration. More ambitious writers, however, ought to try to sneak added meaning into every little corner they can. A Totem is an item that takes on symbolic or emblematic significance. The Lord of The Rings brings its Totem to the forefront of its narrative: the Ring of Power is a constant presence, a symbol of greed, obsession, and in Frodo’s case, overwhelming responsibility. A Totem’s emergence often signals the resurfacing of some great inner turmoil. In Gladiator, Maximus carries tiny wooden dolls that serve as reminders of his butchered family. From them, he draws strength in his darker moments before a battle. In Inception, Cobb carries a spinning top as a reminder of his failure to his wife. Totems can go beyond that, carrying with them a character’s entire raison d’etre. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Jack obsessively attempts to con his way into repossessing his beloved ship. In the Black Pearl he has invested his entire identity, and since losing it, he has become a fraud and a paradox: a Captain without a ship. In a conversation with Elizabeth Swann, he expands on it’s profound importance: to him, The Black Pearl is freedom.

Fine Example:

Super 8 features a reoccurring Totem that encapsulates a universal childhood fear: the loss of a parent. A simple locket becomes the symbol of fear, yearning, and eventually growth. By the way, this is fairly recent movie we’ll be dealing with, so it’s only fair to warn you that here be SPOILERS.

As the film begins, we meet Joe Lamb, a young boy who just lost his Mother in a factory accident. All he has to remember her by is her locket, and he clings to it stubbornly, always keeping it near to himself, hiding it from even his father. In his encounters with a massive alien monster escaping from a cruel and malicious government, Joe comes to understand that bad things happen. But pain must be let go so that life may go on. In sharing this lesson with the Alien, he saves himself and the town. In one of the film’s final images, a great magnetic force tries to rip the locket from Joe. Instinctively, he snatches it from the air, but the pull continues. In a symbolic gesture, he releases the locket, and it disappears into space along with the alien.

As for the McGuffin… I am admittedly of the mind that it is a plot device of convenience. Rather than a mark of craftsmanship, it is a necessary evil. As I mentioned above, the most notorious example is Pulp Fiction’s briefcase. What makes the briefcase so intriguing is not an obvious value, but a mysterious one. When the viewer is left to decide it, its significance can be infinite and universal so long as the context provided by the narrative makes it seem so. Sometimes, an audience enjoys speculating, as the massive success of tv series like Lost can heartily attest.

Footnote: There is some debate as to the official spelling of ‘McGuffin’. Some choose the ‘Mac’ variation. As a ‘McKinnon’ distinct from the ‘MacKinnons’, I will follow in the footsteps of my kin and spell it with the right and honourable ‘Mc’.

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Mad Man McKinnon’s Marvelous Menagerie of Magnificently Manly Men: The Beastie Boys

To gaze upon the Beastie Boys is to gaze upon the true face of camaraderie. A trio of longtime friends since Hebrew School, they’ve evolved from punk rock misfits, to holder of Hip Hop’s first #1 album, all the way up to the genre’s elder statesman. They’ve revolutionized genres and formats, and built new stars along the way. Artists like Beck, Rick Rubin, and Spike Jonze have built their careers off their collisions with the Beastie Boys, and countless great music videos and songs have been the result.

Unquestionably the only Hip Hop group to maintain a fervent fan base and continued creative success 20 years after their inception, The Beastie Boys still play to packed houses around the world, and delight audiences with their high velocity rhetoric and unending enthusiasm. To attend a Beastie Boys show is to witness a bizarre amalgamation of disparate genres and styles. In one moment, Old School tag teaming Hip Hop. In the next, high-speed Punk Rock. In the next, extended funk instrumentals. Occasionally, totally unwanted Country Mike Performances. All are put forth with skill and creativity, and usually in adorable matching outfits.

Few artists have elevated the relatively young art form of the music video like the Beastie Boys. They gave MTV one of it’s earliest, most iconic videos with Fight For Your Right, a song that meshed frat boy antics with a massive Kerry King guitar performance. Almost ten years later, they offered perhaps the format’s high water mark: Sabotage. A wild, bizarre parody of 70s cop shows, Sabotage won the world over with comical wigs, mustaches, and spirited playfulness. Since then, the Beastie Boys have contributed more great works while developing their own film making skills. Besides videos like Intergalactic and Fight For Your Right Revisited, MCA/Nathaniel Hornblower/Adam Yauch has directed the concert film Awesome! I F***in’ Shot That! and the high school basketball documentary Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot. Plus, he’s a funky Buddhist, and he founded the great Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Thank you, Beastie Boys. Keep Shakin Your Rumps, Sure Shotting, and Body Movin’ as long as your no doubt weary bones will carry you.

UPDATE: The world lost a great man far too soon on May 4th, 2012. Adam Yauch was an icon, and one that I had deep, personal affection and respect for. I don’t usually get emotional about people I don’t know, but an audible “NO!” escaped my lips as I read the headline walking down the street. A great, great man, and I know the pang I felt pales in comparison to the grief of his true loved ones. My condolences.

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Scattered Thoughts: Sequels Part II – The Sequel

Earlier, SBM tried to delve into what made great sequels such a special and rare beast. Here, we’ll look at why so many fail.

It should be obvious that the motivations that drive sequels into production are not exclusively artistic ones. Consequently, a lot of films that strive for closure end up with sequels anyway. Writers then frequently resort to reversing course in the development or evolution of their characters’ arcs. Characters then end up seemingly unlearning or forgetting lessons learned in the first film. Recently, The Hangover Part II was ridiculed for totally recycling the first film’s plot, but comedies are judged on whether they’re funny or not, and that was its main failure. Better yet, think of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, where Will and Elizabeth repeatedly take Jack at his word despite all their history, irrationally making pawns of themselves and playing along with Jack’s machinations so the plot can advance. Worse yet, there’s literal amnesia, as put to use in Spider-man 3 when Harry Osbourne conveniently forgets his friend Peter’s secret identity, all in the name of repeating the experience of discovery and betrayal already played out in Spider-man 2.

An inability for writers to build upon their characters can lead to another pitfall in sequels: over-expansion. When writers fail to see new frontiers with which to develop their characters, they often colour the margins of their world, adding peoples and settings with which characters can engage. Unfortunately, this can mean beloved characters fail to get their due. The most egregious example I can think of is X-men: The Last Stand, wherein Cyclops gets harshly swept aside when he’s killed by his wife Jean Grey, without so much as the respect of an onscreen death. I hate to dwell on this particular series, but Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End gives another classic example, where the famous Kraken is killed (and quite irrationally, to boot) between the end of the second film and the beginning of the third.

Occasionally, writers and producers misjudge what audiences responded to in the original film, or in this upcoming example, films. Probably the most reviled sequels/prequels in film history are the ones to which George Lucas has attached his name. Before we get started, I am more an admirer than an out and out fan of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, so I lack the intense response to the latest films that many others do. To me, the flaws of the recent incarnations are flaws that were prevalent throughout both series, and only nostalgia and rose-tinted memories have saved the earlier films from similar criticism. Still, countless others have put forth with breathless detail the missteps of the more recent entries of both franchises, and all the reactions spring from the same sentiment: the new films lost sight of what made the original films so appealing. Star Wars in particular focused excessively on the politics of a senate and a monarchy rather than on the adventures and rebellion of an outmatched band of misfits, an inherently more appealing and universal premise. The new films also tainted the chemistry of the original players with unwanted new characters. Jar Jar Binks to many is a blight and embarrassment that reverberates beyond even the world of film, and Indiana Jones’ son Mutt Williams didn’t win too many fans, either.

Often sequels also feature new writers, and that can lead to substantial changes to the themes and values of the original piece. Perhaps the greatest betrayal of an original film’s central message comes in Terminator 3, where the self-actualization and triumph of will of the first two films loses out to fatalism and inevitability in the third. In the first two films, the core lesson is repeated again and again: no fate but what we make. The future is not promised, and the entire purpose behind the time traveling of Kyle Reese and the various Terminators is the manipulation of upcoming events. Terminator 3, on the other hand, deems Judgment Day unstoppable, which consequently undermines all preceding events. Optimism gives way to Pessimism. All stories should be battles between opposing forces, so it’s often desirable for chapters in a series to end with differing ideologies seemingly winning out. But when writers are forced to hand off their babies to others, the initial intention of a piece can get lost, or even warped or perverted. Terminator 3’s ending isn’t necessarily a mistake, but taken in the context of the first two, it’s certainly a betrayal of James Cameron’s central parable, and a cynical and maybe even condescending one at that.

A recent practice for extremely successful films has been to shoot a pair of sequels consecutively or even simultaneously. Back to the Future, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Matrix all took to this method, all with varying levels of success. Inevitably, the sequels in these cases tend to be thought of as companion pieces. Problems in critical reaction and audience appreciation seem to arise (recently, at least) when the second film doesn’t function as a stand-alone piece. Back to the Future 2, POTC: Dead Man’s Chest, and Matrix Reloaded all end with cliff hangers that were met with grumbles and sighs. It turns out people resent watching the wheels spin for two hours with no satisfying resolution. The cliff hanger, though, clearly isn’t destined to fail. Perhaps one of the most beloved sequels of all time (The Empire Strikes Back) ended with a massive cliffhanger: Luke Skywalker discovers Darth Vader is his father, and Han Solo and Princess Leia are taken captive by the evil Jabba the Hut. It may be blasphemous to say so, but the entire 2nd act of the film is also basically stalling, with Leia and Han simply running around and hiding out so Luke can have enough time to complete some semblance of a training regimen. That being said, though The Empire Strike Back posits similar problems to the POTC and Matrix sequels, there’s no doubt the cliffhanger it drops is far more exciting and novel than any film in its wake has since managed.

Generally, the characteristics that make up a bad sequel are the same qualities that make a bad movie. That’s no shocker: sacrificing character depth and plausibility to make way for plot machinations is never going to work out. Above all else, sequels happen because people responded to and identified with a group of characters, and when sequels fail to do proper justice to those characters, it becomes a nigh insurmountable task to satisfy an audience.

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Scattered Thoughts: Sequels

Summer is upon us, and we all know what that means: sequels, and lots of them. So with that in mind, SBM will be looking at how some writers and filmmakers manage the miracle of a satisfying and compelling sequel. In a latter post, we’ll look at why so many have failed by turning over and examining the corpses of such franchises as Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Terminator.

A great film is a rare beast, and a great sequel even rarer. Ignoring the overly pragmatic financial reasons, a film merits a sequel because people respond to it in some marked way. But how can writers recapture that ineffable novelty of great films while growing the characters and themes that audiences responded to? The most obvious method is to plan ahead, and craft the first film as merely a piece of the whole. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are beloved trilogies because they were conceived from inception as trilogies. That being said, each individual film still needs to feel like a compelling stand-alone piece of film-making, which becomes difficult when total closure is deliberately staved off. Each film, then, must end with a significant step forward, or the completion of a significant arc for one of its major characters, so as to avoid the appearance of stalling. Fellowship of the Ring ends with Boromir’s death/redemption, and The Two Towers with the epic battle at Helm’s Deep. Momentum needs to keep rolling, and a film’s central conflict can’t be left dangling.

Great sequels are also a chance to revisit and re-explore a world we fell in love with, and no movie takes that more literally than Back to the Future 2. Opinions are fairly split on this one, but I delight in how it expands and layers the first film, and allows audiences to re experience beloved moments in strange new contexts. Countless charming moments are relived, from the chase scene in the Hill Valley town square reimagined with future tech, to the Johnny B. Good performance that’s allowed to continue due to a second Marty insuring the safety of the first, to an additional Marty blindsiding Doc after the completion of the climactic race to the Clocktower. A new wrinkle or twist is added to classic scenes, and thus the margins of the first film are coloured and rendered all the more exciting. In most cases, so thoroughly recycling conceits of the first film is a cardinal sin, but Back to the Future does it with rare flair and creativity, expanding on its original premise and complicating it in almost dizzying fashion.

Few stories, though, allow for the plausible re immersion into a particular time and place like Back to the Future. Consequently, sequels usually must find new situations, experiences, and locales to challenge characters. The trick, though, is not betraying what made the character compelling or lovable in the first place. Probably one of the most iconic sequels, and the film probably most responsible for defining its characters in our popular culture, is Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Both of its central characters, Sarah Connor and the Terminator, play totally different roles from their earlier depictions. Sarah has evolved from a lost, confused waitress into a hardened, resourceful soldier, and the Terminator has switched from destroyer of the Connor legacy to its guardian. Part of why the film works so well is because these transformations and reversals are so plausible. It’s jarring to see Sarah Connor so completely transformed, but perfectly understandable given her circumstances at the conclusion of the first film. By pitching her so far into the opposite extreme of her personality in the first film, Terminator 2 can tell an almost cyclical story about Sarah Connor’s rediscovery of her humanity. When she fails to assassinate the man deemed by future events as the most responsible for the development of the evil Skynet, it’s a moving moment, a reemergence of the tenderness and vulnerability of her character in the first film. Obviously, such reversals can’t perpetuate themselves forever. But Terminator 2 succeeds by being a warped reflection of its predecessor.

Most films strive for a sort of emotional and thematic closure, so it can be difficult for sequels not to feel superfluous or redundant. Developing lingering threads from the first film can create a valuable sense of continuity and forethought. Consider The Godfather Part II. The first Godfather famously ends with Michael Corleone closing the door on his wife Kay, lying to her about murdering his brother in law. Godfather 2 shows where the relationship would develop from there. Kay and Michael become deeply alienated from one another, and Michael’s descent into evil reaches even more pronounced depths when he murders his own brother. The stakes are upped, and the consequences disastrous. If a character gets away with something in the first film, it’s best for it to come back to haunt them in the second.

Truthfully, what makes for a great sequel isn’t any different from what makes any other kind of film great. All great stories are stories of growth and new experiences, and that simply becomes more difficult when writer’s are forced to recycle characters and premises. Add that to the enhanced expectations that come with dropping a ‘2’ at the end of a beloved film, and pleasantly surprising an audience becomes an uphill battle. In “Sequels Part II: The sequel”, we’ll delve deeper into why so many sequels stumble.

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Writer's Toolbox: The Other Man

We all know the drill by now. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. Somewhere between meeting the girl and losing the girl, some conflict inevitably emerges, and more often than not, that conflict is The Other Man. A long time staple of any form of romantic fiction, The Other Man presents a sort of antagonist to a pair of male and female protagonists, an obstacle preventing their courtship.

Often, The Other Man has some reasonable claim to a relationship: he is usually already attached to the female protagonist when the new male love interest comes along. He is usually a stable presence, offering comfort and security to counter the danger, rebellion, and sacrifice the new love interest might require. The key, as always in drama, is generating difficult decisions for the characters to whom we relate.

The means to resolving that decision used to be to have The Other Man eventually reveal himself as a heel. From Pride and Prejudice to Wedding Crashers, The Other Man would seem a perfectly viable possibility for a mate until the plot revealed his truer nature. However, if one of two possible mates is clearly a cretin or even a monster, there’s really no decision at all. In these cases, it’s better for The Other Man to transform into a more physical threat to the male and female protagonists. If there’s no danger of him winning (or merely retaining) the affections of the love interest, then he should at least threaten to otherwise destroy the opportunity for a relationship between the protagonists, either through violence or circumstance. This is the path taken by scumbags like Caledon Hockley in Titanic.

There are, however, subtler ways for The Other Man to be a threat to the protagonists’ relationship: he can remain a perfectly genuine and honest suitor, totally worthy of love and respect in his own way. If The Other Man is a character that remains sympathetic, then the decision to choose the male protagonist over him becomes all the more difficult. This is the James Marsden special.

The danger in keeping a sympathetic Other Man, it should be noted, is that he might in fact end up being TOO sympathetic, and audiences may lament his failure to sustain a relationship. Writers resolve this issue a number of ways, most frequently by providing them with another admirable and likable mate. Eowyn, The Other Woman to Aragorn and Arwen in the LOTR series, immediately shacks up with Faramir when her rejection is made definite. However, if drama is the goal, then no conflict should be resolved too easily. The sudden emergence of a suitable alternate can seem a little overly fortuitous, and a little like a halfhearted attempt to tie up lingering loose ends. In the end, it’s okay for The Other Man to end up alone. For him to suffer nobly gives him a little bit of rare dignity, and in the end, that helps distinguish him.

Fine Example:

The Duke in Moulin Rouge is the rare Other Man who manages to be both pathetic and dangerous. A powerful man on whom the entire Moulin Rouge Dance Club depends for financing, The Duke is strung along by promises for the affections of Satine, the club’s premier courtesan. However, a series of misunderstandings lead Satine to falling deeply in love with Christian, an aspiring yet tragically impoverished writer. The push and pull of Satine’s obligations to her professional family at the Moulin Rouge and her desire to pursue her relationship with Christian become the film’s central conflict.

Throughout the early proceedings of Moulin Rouge, The Duke plays a rather innocent if unappealing sap to Satine’s machinations and manipulations. Thoroughly enchanted by her, he displays persistence and sweetness as she leads him on again and again, sneaking away to spend time with Christian under the guise of theatrical rehearsal. Just when The Duke threatens to become overly sympathetic, he is made aware of Satine and Christian’s affair, and a jealous, dangerous, and possessive force begins to emerge. When she finally meets him at his tower for a long delayed dinner, she refutes him yet again at the last moment, and he crosses the line into utter villainy, forcing himself upon her.

Unique to the Duke as an Other Man is the credibility and logic of his turn. The plot effectively forces his transformation by constantly thwarting and frustrating his pursuit of Satine. His viability as a mate disintegrates as his dark side emerges, but the threat he presents to Satine and Christian’s relationship transforms into something more tangible: should Satine not choose him, Christian will be murdered.

Story wise, Moulin Rouge excels almost more than any other film in stacking the deck against its love interests. No couple faces more impediments to their love than Christian and Satine. Just as Satine makes peace with Christian’s penniless existence, her obligations to the Moulin Rouge percolate. Just as she decides to run away with Christian, she’s informed that she’s dying. Just as she accepts her impending fate, she is informed that Christian will be killed should she choose him over the Duke. What chance could any love possibly have against such innumerable obstacles? And yet by overcoming such long odds, Moulin Rouge reaches a rare cathartic climax, however short lived it may be.

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