R.I.P.D.

Okay, so what is it with all the hate for this movie?  It has a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes and, of course, it died at the box office, mostly due to a paucity of good reviews.  I watched it today just to kill some time but found myself engrossed and highly entertained.  This is an economical and funny supernatural comedy very much in the ilk of Men In Black that is fast paced and unpretentious.  The writing is good and natural and the funny bits land well.  The acting, especially on Jeff Bridges’ part, is extremely good.  And the story is engaging if not highly original.  This is basically Men In Black IV, but it’s a nice take on the MIB concept.

By comparison, The Room, a movie so inept it seems made for MST3K, has a 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Do the critics honestly believe that The Room is three times better than RIPD?  Watching The Room can only be turned into a pleasurable experience by openly mocking it.  RIPD on the other hand, would have been a lot of fun to see at the Alamo.  A beer and a pizza would have gone perfectly with Bridges’ curmudgeonly wild west Sheriff lines.  As a matter of fact, I’m a little bit pissed that I didn’t go see it when it first came out.  That’s what I get for letting other people make my movie viewing decisions for me.

I think the critics were just suffering from action movie fatigue and overhype strain.  I know I was.  Man of Steel and Into Darkness were both disappointing.  Oblivion and Last Stand were equally disappointing and The Hobbit was an unexpected flat-line from my perspective.  I’ve written here before about the sameness that is creeping into the action movie genre.  Never much for originality to begin with, I get the feeling I can tell you what’s going to happen next given only a few minutes taken from any place in the movie.  I didn’t even bother to watch the end of Iron Man 3, I was so certain what was coming.

In the 1970s, action movies were gritty, intense and most likely to star Roy Scheider or Gene Hackman.  Die Hard and Lethal Weapon changed all that in the 1980s when action movies became louder and flashier but with less substance.  I’m not saying that was a bad thing.  Gritty is awesome for a while but then you want to have some fun.  And the 80s, if they were about anything, were about having some fun.

In the 1990s, advanced computer graphics changed the game again, stepping up the flash and the bang and once again reducing the content to little more than a series of snarky quips.  You can chart the drop in quality with the rise of Michael Bay until it reaches its natural nadir by turning one of the most horrific attacks on the United States, Pearl Harbor, into a movie that is little more than a video game.

Then came the superheroes.  And, once again, I am not saying that’s a bad thing.  I love me some comic books.  I love that we finally have the ability to make a comic book movie that is awe inspiring instead of just awful.  It’s just that there are so many of them and they all essentially tell the same story. 

This is my issue, this is a problem I have: when the sameness starts to get to me, I look for something different.  RIPD and The Lone Ranger both looked like they were maybe a step away from the tried & true path.  But they both failed miserably.  And this is where it becomes my problem: whenever I sit down to fashion a story, I look for a way to make it different.  I want an angle that isn’t plumb in the mainstream.  And that’s not always a good idea.  As much as they complain about redundancy, people turn away from the different and lean in for the familiar. 

New stuff is out there for a while, flying under the radar of the general public, gathering critical mass until it breaks through one day and becomes the norm.  All that vampire porn was out there in the Romance sewers for years before True Blood opened the floodgates.  Likewise, Philip Pullman wrote Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in the U.S.) in 1995 and the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997.  The Young Adult market exploded in the early 2000s and all those authors who had been toiling away in something like the basement of the publishing industry started getting big checks and lots of attention. 

Now everyone wants to write vampire porn and young adult supernatural but the markets are flooded with titles.  Good luck getting noticed there.  No, I think the only thing you can do is write what you like, create the books you want to see on the shelves to paraphrase Gandhi, and hope that your stuff gets swept up in a similar groundswell.  And if not?  Well, at least you have the joy of writing the book.  They can’t take that away from you.

Dune vs. The Shining vs. Ghost Story

Everyone who reads this blog knows I’m a Stephen King fanbois.  I don’t deny it.  Hell, I adamantly defend it, but I also happen to be a big fan of Kubrick’s The Shining.  As mentioned in other posts, I believe that the novel of The Shining was mostly unfilmable, especially in its time.  What Kubrick did was discover the essence of that story and render that to the screen.  On my seventh viewing, I finally got it and now it’s one of my favorite movies.  I even shared The Shining with my kids – but not without one of those long-winded introductions they love so much.

I’m also a fan of David Lynch’s Dune.  And, once again, I’ve reported in other posts how disappointed I was when I watched the movie the first time.  And, just as with The Shining, it took some time and many viewings to get that Lynch had done the same thing Kubrick had.  He took an essentially unfilmable work of fiction and gave us his impression of it.    

My central thesis when it comes to complex stories like Dune and The Shining, is that you can’t capture the whole thing in a single two hour movie, so the director creates an impression of his reading of the story instead.  And I would argue that’s a totally valid way of presenting the source material… in some cases.

Which brings me to what I believe is the greatest horror novel of all time: Ghost Story by Peter Straub.  This fascinating, vivid and complex story has more layers and distorted perceptions than your personal reality can hold.  It’s also a brilliant character study stuffed inside a nearly perfect Gothic novel.  And what’s more: It was eminently filmable.

I still clearly remember when the movie was announced because the casting was so perfect.  Although the book’s protagonist is young, the most important characters driving the story are elderly.  So when I heard Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman and Patricia Neal had been cast in those pivotal roles, I felt assured we were going to get a top quality movie out of the process.

I’m not sure who didn’t get it, whether it was the writer Lawrence D. Cohen or the director John Irvin, but, seeing as how Cohen was responsible for two clunky adaptations of Stephen King novels (It and The Tommyknockers)*, I have to assume he was the one who turned this multifaceted gem into a smear of dried oatmeal.

Using what I imagine to be a sledgehammer on his keyboard, he managed to deftly remove all of the layering, all of the history, all of the nuance, all of the allusions to the monsters of supernatural literature from the story.  He even changed the nature of the beast tormenting the Chowder Society into… a ghost.  I guess the irony in the book’s title eluded him.

Whoever’s fault it was, they didn’t distill the book down to its essence and give us their impression of it.  They turned it into a standard Hollywood horror movie and inserted the character names from the book.  As a result, the movie stunk and the wider world of readers who could have been drawn into Straub’s other work remained on the sidelines. 

The book is highly recommended.  The movie, you should avoid.

 

* I know Cohen also wrote the script for Carrie, which is not a bad movie, but keep in mind that the novel is pretty much single faceted.  It couldn’t have been much of a challenge to turn that one into a screenplay. 

 

It Redux

We all have a friend or acquaintance or relative who doesn’t own a television and we all know the exact tone of voice they use to inform us of this fact.  I have to admit that this used to fulminate in me the exact amount of shame intended when it left the speaker’s mouth.  Back when Mork & Mindy and The Greatest American Hero and The Love Boat ruled the airwaves, it was right to be embarrassed about watching television.  There was no way to defend 46 minutes spent with Bo & Luke Duke.

But if you tossed out your box full of glowing white dots after one particularly awful episode of Maude, you missed out on The X-Files, Millennium, Carnivale, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter (season 1), The Wire, The Sopranos… I’m just pulling these off the top of my head and I could go on doing that all night (but I won’t) because television in the last fifteen years just all of a sudden grew up.

The reason this subject even came up is because, owing to my fascination with the novel, I attempted to watch the miniseries of Stephen King’s IT tonight and I was flabbergasted at how unwatchable it turned out to be.  Now my negative feelings about the novel are well documented as is my near fanbois crush on its author, but I never would have expected something as stilted and awful to come out of it like this miniseries.  It was so bad, I started taking notes which I won’t post here because they’re just mean and I have a No Mean Posts policy.

I bailed about thirty minutes in when Seth Green entered as Richie Tozier and even he was awful.  Seth Green!  And that was the thing that got me started thinking.  Seth Green is a comic genius and a decent actor.  Richard Thomas is an excellent actor.  Annette O’Toole and Tim Reid and, really, every other lead in the cast are and were accomplished actors.  Why were they hitting their marks, over emoting and giving stilted line readings?  They knew better.

That was when I remembered something that happened way back when I first signed up for Netflix.  I got nostalgic and immediately began ordering up the shows I had loved when I was in high school and college, some of them listed above.  My interest quickly died out when I had to sit through these incredibly slow paced offerings.  Rockford going to the police department?  Okay, so a shot of him going out the door, a shot of him getting in his car, a cut to the street in front of the department as his car pulls up to the curb and takes an unlikely open spot, a shot of him going into the building.  And… finally, he starts talking to Detective Becker.  And the pacing of the line readings is just very slow. Why?  Because they have time.  As much as six extra minutes per episode.  Also, this is the pre-cable, pre-MTV generation.  We hadn’t yet gotten hooked on quick cuts and jerky, wandering cameras and rapid fire, overlapping dialogue. 

You think television underestimates its viewers these days?  Try watching something from the seventies.  Those establishing shots are everywhere.  I found myself leaning forward during one scene in Greatest American Hero like someone waiting for the last note of “Shave And A Haircut” because a conversation simply would not end.  They had gotten the point across, the drama had been inflated and deflated, the exit lines had been spoken, and Robert Culp just stood there.  I wanted to yell, “Get out, stupid!  The scene’s over!  You’re holding up the show!”

But that’s not the problem with the IT miniseries.  It’s at the root of the problem but it’s not the actual problem.  We’d had MTV for almost ten years by the time IT came out.  We’d had Hill Street Blues and China Beach and Twin Peaks by then.  

The problem with IT?  Good enough for TV.  That’s the problem. 

These days, we’ve grown used to seeing 22 short films during a television season but back then, back in the “good enough for TV” days, everything was done to a lower bar.  With a few exceptions (the previously mentioned Rockford Files comes to mind, which still holds up to this day, believe it or not) the writing, the cinematography, the lighting, the direction is all done down to a level that I can only describe as, yep, you guessed it: “Good enough for TV.” 

What is James Lipton’s withering attack on Tobias in Arrested Development?

Tobias Fünke: Are you calling me a coward?

Warden Stefan Gentles: There’s only one man I’ve ever called a coward, and that’s Brian Doyle Murray. No, what I’m calling you is a television actor.

Tobias Fünke: Ouch.

So what caused this swing toward high quality television after three decades of insipient mediocrity?  Who knows, but I think it had to do with three things:

1) Writers are treated like crap in Hollywood with one exception: Television.  In TV, the writer is the executive producer.  The director who would rewrite his script in the film world actually works for him in the television world.  Writers had steered clear of TV for years because of its reputation for low quality but then guys like Stephen J. Cannell showed you could actually make quality product there.

2) Then cable happened and all those new channels were looking for a way to compete with the Big Three.  They started trying things, pushing at the sides of the box, looking for an edge.

3) And, finally, along came the inexpensive, high quality digital cameras (and the attendant digital editing bays) that could provide a filmic experience on a television budget. 

For a while, we would get a few out of the box shows of superior quality (Twin Peaks, X-Files, Millennium, etc.) mixed in with the usual dreck.  That was enough to draw the good writers with the new ideas and then, when the new digital cameras came in, that brought in the directors who wanted to make movies and the lighting experts would light a scene darkly and the cinematographers who weren’t afraid to put the color black on the screen. 

Still, you have to wonder why in 1990 when King was established as the world’s most popular genre writer they would approach this miniseries with such a lack of passion.  They obviously had the budget, they hired top name television actors, so it wasn’t made on the cheap.  Stephen King is credited as one of the writers and the show was directed by John Carpenter’s cohort Tommy Lee Wallace.  Who knows?  Sometimes projects just don’t gel.  Or maybe I’m just viewing it in retrospect with the altered vision of 20/20 hindsight.  Maybe there’s just no way to go back and watch a show from the past without seeing it through a lens misshapen by the roads you’ve traveled and the things you’ve done in the intervening years. 

The Trick, The Clockwork and The Butler

The interesting thing about writing mystery stories is that you start with the trick.  Or at least I do.  Once you have the trick (It was the butler all along!), you work backwards from there, filling in the frame of the story, dropping in the false blinds and red herrings, until you have a basic chassis on which you can hang the actual novel.  The next question is: Who gets it?

I’ve just put together the chassis for a new murder mystery, one I’m quite excited about, and have gone through the process of choosing which detective(s) will get to solve it.  Are the mechanics of this trick more suited to the 1940s?  Is it a Roy Doyle story?  Or is this something that would better suit Murray & Campanella?  Or, better yet, is this a place to start a new character?

I was tempted to go with a new character because that’s fun and you’re just wide open creatively the whole time instead of being hemmed in by the character traits you previously established in other books.  But, in the end, I think the story belongs to Murray & Campanella.  Plus, it doesn’t hurt that they’re my two favorite characters to write dialog for.

I’ve given myself two weeks to write as much as I can before Christmas break at which time I will switch back to the second Battalion Black novel in an effort to finish it out in a blaze of glory.  At the same time, the first book will be making its snail mail way to Tor Books as a hail Mary.  Then I’ll probably finish this M&C novel before beginning the third and final installment of the Battalion Black series.

God that’s a lot of writing ahead of me.  Glad I don’t have carpel tunnel syndrome yet.