Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Unknown

I once read a writing manual called 36 Master Plots.

It categorized every story ever told into one of 36 templates. I remember "Love Returned" and "Love Not Returned" were among the 36.

Another guru posited 12 basic stories. Another pegged the number at 7.

I think it may be true there is a finite number of story shapes. Or at least a finite number of shapes we've discovered and passed down in the last few thousand years.

And I suppose we add to the total every now and then.

After all, it's hard to imagine "mediocre-court-composer-murders-world's-greatest-musician-and-steals-his-music-only-to-mourn-him-the-rest-of-his-life" existed as a story type before Amadeus hit theaters. Who knows, though.

What's easy to imagine is that the new skull-cracking action thriller Unknown is NOT a new entry into the Master Plots pantheon.

This is a story we've seen many times before.

And I always love it.

The movie places Liam Neeson's biotech scientist and his lovely wife Betty Draper -- I mean January Jones -- in Berlin, where Neeson is set to participate in an important conference on the Food of Tomorrow.

Neeson reaches his fancy hotel only to discover he's left his important briefcase at the airport.

He jumps in a taxi, sans wife, to go back for it.

Then fate intervenes.

A truckload of spilled barrels creates a dangerous situation on a bridge over an icy river, and faster than you can say "action set piece" Neeson's cab is IN THE RIVER, and he's unconscious, and it's sinking, and he's saved only by the quick thinking of his scrumptious Eastern European cab driver, sexy Diane Kruger.

Neeson is revived on the scene by paramedics. He awakens in the hospital four days later.

With--

WITH...

...amnesia.

Sort of. It's more like reverse amnesia. He remembers who he is -- a biotech scientist in Berlin to give a talk at an international seminar -- but no one else's memory agrees with his, including his own wife's.

To make matters worse, Neeson finds Betty Draper carousing with another man, a man with Neeson's name, credentials... his entire life.

So maybe Neeson isn't actually who he thought he was.

But if that's true, why are there shadowy figures following him around and trying to kill him?

Answer me that!!!

Despite the "reverse" wrinkle, this is still the basic amnesia plotline, and it works here just the way it worked in the Bourne movies and the great Roger Zelazny Amber novels.

Hero needs to figure out his real identity before it catches up to him and kills him.

Awesome.

This basic story shape is so much fun -- it's an action movie wrapped around a mystery -- that it's hard to screw up, even if you cast implausibly attractive women in the role of cab drivers and uncork a third act twist so head-spinning I actually heard a voice in my head say "Uhhhhhhhh... prob'ly not." But then another voice in my head said, "Shhh, Neeson's about to go on another killing spree" and I quietly enjoyed the rest of the movie.

Does it hold together? No. Does it makes sense? No.

Is it fun swirling around a vortex of total plot collapse for a hundred minutes before getting sucked in and crushed?

It's a heck of a lot of fun.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 62/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 80/100

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Young Adult

So I watched Rocky recently.

Good golly, that's a great movie.

Here's what I love about it:

It's a metaphor for the supreme challenge of life. The challenge of self-worth.

Rocky is a guy whom life has passed by. His number never came up. For most of us, it never does.

As a consequence, Rocky lives in uncertainty as to what exactly his real worth is.

Maybe he is just another bum from the neighborhood. Maybe he was lucky to be spared an opportunity to prove himself. Maybe he would have failed the test anyway.

Maybe he's just another worthless piece of human garbage.

Guess who was going through precisely these emotions during the writing of the script? A lumpy-faced, speech-impaired, struggling actor named Sylvester -- not yet Sly -- Stallone.

Stallone was a guy who liked to work out, and enjoyed following the sport of boxing, but he was not a fighter himself in any conceivable way. He was a wannabe pretty boy actor. On the most obvious level, there was no way he could understand the travails of a character like Rocky, whose entire life was devoted to the urban Philadelphia fight game.

Except he did understand. While he didn't resemble Rocky -- Stallone was bright whereas Rocky was dim-witted, Stallone was a charmer whereas Rocky was a lonely introvert -- Stallone resembled Rocky in the way that mattered most. They were dealing with the same issue in life: the demon of failure, and the ensuing crisis of self-worth.

It was this very paradox -- Stallone's similarity to and difference from the character of Rocky -- that made the movie a deeply affecting parable of the struggle for achievement; its real pitfalls, and its real rewards.

It's hard to imagine Stallone could have written a more honest script if he had written about a struggling actor. It would have been too close to reality in the superficial ways. There would be no metaphor for the artist to filter away inconsequentials.

Which brings us to Diablo Cody and her new script, Young Adult.

Like Stallone, Cody broke into Hollywood by writing about a character who seemingly had nothing in common with her -- a pregnant sixteen year-old named Juno. But underneath the surface, the two were close kin. They both coped with insecurity by employing a caustic wit and keeping others at an emotional distance.

This paradox made Juno rich, interesting and universal the same way Rocky was. It wasn't the details that mattered, it was the substance. It was the humanity.

Cody's next script was Jennifer's Body, about another teenaged girl whose best friend experiments with sex and consequently turns into a blood-sucking fiend. An experience Cody probably knew nothing about and, simultaneously, probably knew everything about.

Jennifer's Body was pretty good, despite a lambasting from critics who wanted it to be a dramedy instead of a horror flick.

Now we have Young Adult, a movie written by Cody, produced with Juno partner Mason Novick and directed by Juno helmer Jason Reitman.

Good chance of catching some magic again, right?

Too bad Young Adult is about a female writer in her thirties returning to her small town roots in rural Minnesota.

The Cody stand-in is Charlize Theron, a wonderful actress who gives her best Diablo Cody impression, walking around her apartment in sweat pants, swilling Diet Coke out of a two-liter bottle and tapping away on her laptop the latest chapter of her pop novel about a teenaged girl.

Hmmmmm...

The story takes Diablo Cody -- oops! I mean Charlize Theron -- back to fictional Mercury, Minnesota, where the successful but romantically unfulfilled Theron aims to woo back her high school sweetheart, the ruggedly handsome but happily-married-with-a-baby Patrick Wilson.

Theron is a flagrant anti-hero, and an inept one at that, clumsily plying her wares as a seductress to a man who isn't the slightest bit interested. Meanwhile, fellow high school classmate and schlub, comic Patton Oswalt, provides sarcastic and judgmental commentary.

It's a dull little piffle with utterly no claim on the audience's emotions.

The reason is that Cody is not and never has been a vain, homewrecking loser whose best days are irrevocably behind her.

If she were, Young Adult might have been a great movie.

But she's merely a female writer of teen-centric fiction with roots in Minnesota. Who wears sweatpants and drinks a lot of Diet Coke.

The superficial details of reality are faithfully represented in Young Adult, but the inner truths are completely absent.

Diablo Cody's stories can take any imaginable form she wants them to. But she'll be best served if she sticks to soulful main characters with thin skins whose above-average intelligence only serves to make them isolated and hostile. It's what she knows, and I mean that in the most complimentary way.

She should forget about writing what she knows in the literal sense. That just obscures the issue.

Movies are metaphors. Usually, the more disguised the metaphor, the better.

Diablo Cody forgot that.

And wrote a movie it's hard to sit through.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 26/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 24/100

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

"High Concept" isn't what it used to be.

In the eighties, the notion of "high concept" swept Hollywood. The term denotes a story idea whose broad appeal is instantly surmisable and, therefore, easily marketable.

One of the best examples of this is the 1985 comedy about a teenager who travels backward through time -- in his scientist chum's electric blue DeLorean, no less -- where he accidentally prevents his father and mother from meeting and falling in love.

Instead, his mother falls in love with -- gulp -- the time traveller himself.

Now, if our boy can't re-engineer his parents' first kiss at the "Enchantment Under the Sea" school dance, his entire existence will be wiped out and he will fade into eternal oblivion.

High concept!

(For those who don't know, I just recounted the plot of The Hunt for Red October.)

But something happened in the nineties. Something awful.

The independent film boom turned movies into art.

High-quality but low concept movies like Pulp Fiction and Swingers hijacked the culture. This made film aficionados happy, but studios furious. While these films made money, they didn't make crazy money, and crazy money is why Hollywood studios and the multinational conglomerates that own them exist.

Enter the 2000's. Hollywood bought up or drove out of business every independent film production company, then proceeded to reboot the 1980's with high concept back in place.

Except it was a different kind of high concept.

Mindful of the fact that moviegoers -- tainted by those awful 90's -- were now averse to the outright campiness that made the 80's so profitable, the new high concept had nothing to do with story.

And everything to do with branding.

It was the perfect evolutionary adaptation, really. Edgier, more mature stories could continue to play, but only if they bore the stamp of success in a previous format. Only if their very titles were ALREADY a cultural force to be reckoned with.

Suddenly, the graphic novel -- and its more popular sire, the comic book -- took over the town.

Old-fashioned, non-illustrated novels -- or the much more preferable series of novels, like Harry Potter and Twilight -- continued to generate ever greater franchises.

Remakes became even more ubiquitous as film vaults and television libraries were pilfered till nothing but scraps were left.

Even Pixar, the great bastion of original content in the last decade, has made movies that closely resemble each other in theme, tone and visual affect.

Why?

Because they have a brand to protect.

The brand is everything now. It's the new version of high concept. And unless 3-D knocks it off its perch -- which could happen, we could be entering an era of pure visual effects -- it seems poised to stick around awhile.

This makes it strange that a movie like The Adjustment Bureau could get itself made.

It's the tale of David Norris, a rising young politician played by Matt Damon.

Damon has a good news/bad news situation early on. He loses an election for Congress, but while composing his concession speech in a men's room, he meets a gorgeous and spunky young woman played by Emily Blunt. They hit it off right away, and her influence inspires him to make a concession speech full of rare candor, which is a hit with the public and lines him up for another great run at Congress next time 'round.

The next day something strange happens. Damon jumps onto a city bus and finds himself sitting with Emily Blunt, purely by chance. They strike up another conversation. She gives him her phone number. They are equally smitten, and something is Definitely Going to Happen Between Them.

Except that it's not supposed to.

And that's where the Adjustment Bureau comes in. Said Bureau is a group of sinister gentlemen in 1920's-style suits and hats.

They carry books with lots of squiggly lines indicating the course of events which are supposed to happen in the world. When something happens that isn't in the books, like Damon meeting Blunt on that bus, they step in and set things right.

But Damon really likes Blunt. She's super hot, she's got that awesome British accent, and her acting career is really taking off. In the movie she plays a ballet dancer, but that career is taking off too.

Therefore Damon resists the Adjustment Bureau's attempts to separate him from his Friday night dinner/movie/question mark.

Even when Damon is told he will be President of the United States one day -- but only if he abandons Blunt -- even then, Damon strives to undo the Bureau's plans, and those of its mysterious Chairman.

As you can tell, this is a very concept-driven piece.

Almost the definition of High Concept.

There are a lot of things you have to take on faith in this movie -- goofy rules like "water inhibits the ability of Bureau members to read the future" and niggling details like the plausibility of Damon risking his life and taking on the Bureau to be with a girl he hardly knows -- but if you can get past those ancillaries, the concept provides enough framework for a diverting pair of hours at the cinema.

It's not great. It's not going to win any Oscars. But it's enjoyable, indisputably high concept, and entirely unbranded.

And in 2011, that's unusual.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 71/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 74/100

The Hunt for Red October
: 99/100

The Eagle

I have a brother who's a history ph.D, and he once told me that ancient history doesn't really deserve to be called history. Not in the academic sense, anyway.

The reason is that the sources for ancient history are so few, and so unreliable, that if ancient history were held to the same standard modern history is, not a single new book would ever be published.

The more I've delved into ancient history, the more I've come to think this is true.

And it may explain why I love the field so much.

In the absence of detailed records, it's generally the most compelling story, not the most defensible argument, that carries the day.

Which is oh-kay by me.

Enter The Eagle, a tale of adventure set in the reign of Hadrian, the last emperor of Rome's expansionary period.

The mystic grecophile doesn't make an appearance. Instead we're asked to settle for Channing Tatum's Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young Roman officer with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

You see, Aquila's father commanded an entire legion in Britain. The Ninth Legion, in fact, which vanished one day in the northernmost wilds of the empire. Not a single soldier was ever seen again. Nor was the legionary battle standard, a gold Eagle of immense symbolic importance, ever recovered.

Our boy Aquila has gotten himself assigned to the same region in Britain, with the intent of finding the lost Eagle and thereby restoring his family's honor.

And maybe discovering along the way just how his father met his end.

Needless to say, the plot makes this difficult.

Before the story even starts rolling, Aquila gets himself injured fighting psychotic British barbarians. He is hurt so badly he is discharged from the legions, albeit honorably.

While he heals in a nearby town, he comes into possession of a British slave named Esca. This young lad is quiet and sullen, but also fearless, and utterly bound to his word of honor. He has pledged himself to serve Aquila, and serve him he shall.

Even when Aquila asks him to play tour guide in the desolate realm of proto-Scotland, where Aquila intends to seek his father's lost Eagle without the benefit of the Roman Legions, who no longer journey so far North.

Over the course of their travels, Aquila and Esca explore some strange and dangerous lands.

They encounter friends, enemies, bad weather, worse luck, and in the end they find the Ninth Legion's lost Eagle.

They also become good friends.

The movie is based on a popular book called The Eagle of the Ninth Legion, by Rosemary Sutcliff. The book is categorized as Young Adult fiction, and you can see why. A young man in search of his father, entirely on his own save for one loyal companion, exploring a world of danger and mystery entirely devoid of sexual or societal dynamics.

It's pretty much classic YA fiction.

Since I like YA fiction, especially if it's set in ancient Rome, I liked The Eagle.

In point of fact, however, modern scholars believe Rome's Ninth Legion may not have been lost at all. And if it was, evidence suggests it was lost on the Empire's eastern frontier, not its northern.

And no matter where it was lost, the legion's Eagle was certainly not returned to Rome by the dead commander's avenging son.

Or was it?

When it comes to ancient history, you can never be sure.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 62/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 77/100