Drama

A Simple Plan

from xkcd

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Wendy And Lucy

wendy-and-lucy

Wendy evokes the dreamer in Peter Pan on the cusp of adulthood, so simultaneously innocent and eager to grow up that she moves asymptotically toward heartbreak with each passing moment. Lucy is the feminine of Lucifer, the light-bringer who, by aspiring too much, found himself illuminating the torture of damned souls.

With the economy gone to shit, some people watch romantic comedies to feel better, while some people (myself included) prefer to see movies like this. On one level, it lets us play out our fears about what might happen if we, personally, run completely out of money. At another level, the fact that mainstream movie star Michelle Williams is playing someone so poor, unknown, and desperate comes across as a touching acknowledgement that those of us living down here on the ground aren’t drinking ambrosia. And it goes without saying (doesn’t it?) that Michelle Williams, widow of the recently deceased Heath Ledger, has a lot of fans looking for an opportunity to commiserate along with her.

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Know1ng

knowing-movie-disaster-predictions

Quicktime trailer.

Listen closely to the beginning of this trailer, or you’ll miss the creationism. The hero is a teacher, teaching his class that, according to the laws of science, there is no grand design for the universe.  That somehow leads to the conclusion that, ha ha, it must be impossible for him to be there teaching the class.

It gets worse. The father and son looking each other in the eye and saying “You and me, together forever.” The son asking his father if they’re going to die, and the father promising: “I would never, ever, let that happen.” In other words, they’re both going to heaven.

This looks a lot like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, with Nicolas Cage as Lot. It’s a telling scene where he selects one woman and child to rescue from a train that’s about to crash; he’s helping God separate the wheat from the chaff.

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The Wrestler

Here’s the Quicktime trailer.

The trailer quotes Newsweek: “Witness the ressurrection…of Mickey Rourke,” with the words fading in on a delay. The implication is that to see this movie is to witness the resurrection of the actor via the resurrection of the character.

Try to imagine what it would be like to watch this trailer with an unknown actor in the lead. The “has-been on the rebound” story works best when the main character is played by an actor whose own glory days somehow correspond to those of the hero. Mickey Rourke is not a has-been, but, excepting his turn in Sin City, he has been out of the limelight for a while. Someone whose glory has raged and then faded can’t come back as if the fading never happened… they can only come back in a way that somehow simulatneously points to their disappearance, and rebukes it. Nothing can be reborn without first ritualistically dying, and sometimes, in order to make the rebirth plausible, the ritualistic death must be performed publicly.

In Cop Land, Sylvester Stallone plays the emasculated sherrif of a town brimming with corrupt cops, including Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta. Robert DeNiro is the internal affairs guy trying to get Stallone to do the right thing. It’s stroke after stroke of perfect casting, with the actors inseperable from the characters. Can Stallone, or his character, get taken seriously again as a tough guy? Can he really go toe-to-to with Harvey Keitel and stand a chance? Will Stallone’s character, or Stallone, seriously listen to advice from DeNiro’s character, or DeNiro, on how to trasform his career and regain his self-respect?

Saturday Night Fever made John Travolta into such a definitive 70s icon, that he would not really be taken seriously again until he joined the movie-going world by directly making fun of his own image in Pulp Fiction.

Paul Newman was never a has-been, but by bringing Fast Eddie (of The Hustler) back to life in The Color Of Money, he reinforced his own image as timeless and unassailable. Half the viewers went to the theater to see Tom Cruise play pool and bed Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. The other half went to see Newman put Cruise in his place.

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Let Them Chirp Awhile

Here’s the Quicktime trailer.

The title basically means “It’s okay to have a little bit of unproductive fun in your youth, even though you will eventually give in to the inevitable sorrow and entropy that is endemic to all life, and die.”

Trailers for this sort of movie aren’t about describing the plot, or even particular characters. The only goal here is to express just the right balance of sincerity and cynicism, so that the target demographic will feel touched and understood.

Some obvious predecessors:

Kicking and Screaming (the Noah Baumbach film, not to be confused with that soccer movie) is about a group of college seniors who have insulted themselves from adult life in a bubble of intellectual self-referentialism.

These attractive wet people in Garden State are contemplating death and stuff like that.

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Yonkers Joe

Here’s the Quicktime trailer.

Story: Good Guy does Bad Thing for Good Reason.

Some other examples:

In Guys & Dolls, heart-of-gold gambler Nathan Detroit plays a game of craps to save an orphanage, or something.

In Rain Man, pompous entrepreneur Tom Cruise uses his autistic brother to count cards in Vegas. Notice the casino scheme/retarded family member connection to Yonkers Joe.

Breaking Bad is about a high school chemistry teacher with leukemia, who becomes a meth cooker in order to provide for his wife and a son with cerebral palsy. Notice again the needy family member with a debilitating mental condition.

In The Trap, a nice engineer down on his luck due to the poor Serbian economy has to raise 30,000 euros to pay for an operation for his cute kid. A gangster offers him the money in exchange for the murder of a rival. He takes the deal, and heartache ensues. Note again the debilitated family member, the morally conflicted protagonist, and the larger conflict between loyalty to those most dear and allegiance to the rules that hold society together.

Can you think of any more?

Bonus anecdote: In my first screenwriting class, one of my classmates worked a mentally retarded character into her script because “a movie has a much better chance of getting nominated for something if there’s a ‘tard in it.”

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The Reader / Valkyrie

The Reader quicktime trailer

Valkyrie quicktime trailer

There are two types of movies about the Holocaust: those that offer to take us back to a simpler time, when it was easier to distinguish between good and evil; and those that offer to comfort us for our own modern sins with the knowledge that Nazi Germany contained just as much moral ambiguity as anywhere else.

This second idea is more palatable as we gain more and more chronological distance from the events themselves. But it also has increasing appeal for Americans who have the disturbing feeling that they are living in the belly of a beast that has the potential to do a lot more damage than Hitler’s machine. The fact that Berlin, is becoming a thriving cosmopolitan cultural center, doesn’t hurt either. People want to convince themselves that it’s okay to like Germany again, and movies like these help.

Adventure
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Johnny Got His Gun

This play about a guy trapped in his own mind is obviously being brought back to the stage and on DVDs to capitalize on the success of The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (and popular anti-war sentiment in the US).

The most interesting part of this trailer is “Live on stage, on film.” This is not really possible; the audience is either in the same physical space as the performance, watching it unfold in real time, or they aren’t. Sure, you can listen to a CD of a live concert event, enabling you to hear the audience respond to the music, to hear any accidental or deliberate variations that took place on that particular night. But films of stage plays don’t work that way. The audience (if there even is one) is quiet. The camera angle changes to give you the best view. But most of all, you simply are not sitting there breathing the same air as the performers, supporting them with your respectful silence, feeling that by being in the room, you are helping to make the magic happen, which is what live dramatic performance is really all about.

The difference is especially important in the case of a story about a guy trapped in his own mind, literally unable to share a room with another human being. His whole inner life is about the impossibility of reconciling live participation in human events with an inner movie that goes on forever, always referencing life, but never becoming it.

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Red

Here’s the trailer.

This is a “stubborn old man just trying to do one thing right” movie.

The death of the dog, of course, is symbolic, and this film isn’t going to draw a mainstream crowd, no matter how it’s promoted.

Sadly, the studio (or the distributor) has decided that it’s not enough to just sell the movie for what it is; they’ve got to try and make this subtle, quiet, character-driven film look like it’s an action-packed bonanza.

Since very little happens that’s conventionally dramatic until late in the story, that means showing audiences a trailer that gives away most of the ending. I was a sucker to see this movie after 30 seconds into the trailer. Now that I know what happens (and now that I associate the ruined ending, rather than the powerful story, with the movie’s release), I probably won’t see it.

Pictured: The Straight Story, about an old man who takes his tractor for a long journey to visit his estranged brother, and Babe, about an old man who enters his talented pig into a shepherding contest. The quirks are what sold both stories, but what made them good was the human characters’ simple, plodding determination to do one simple thing the right way, no matter what.

Too bad whoever cut the trailer for Red didn’t have the same philosophy.

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The Longshots

Here’s the trailer.

Several overlapping formulas here:

Movies about girls playing boys sports aren’t very interesting in themselves anymore, and even real-life stories about girls playing on boys’ teams are common. This formula only really worked by itself when the audience could imagine that the battle for serious recognition of female athletes was still being fought. That’s not to say that it can’t still work, but something new would have to be brought to it. Ironically, the villainous kids’ taunt to “get a little dirt in your skirt” echoes a self-empowering zinger often shouted by the female baseball players in A League Of Their Own.

Speaking of A League Of Their Own, it featured a down-and-out coach with a drinking problem (Tom Hanks). So did Hoosiers (Dennis Hopper, assistant coach), and so did The Bad News Bears (Walter Matthau in the original). These are all what we might call “fallen mentors.” They take a path parallel to, but different from, the misfits they guide. The misfits want validation, the mentors want redemption.

That the title, The Longshots, is so reminiscent of the very recent The Comebacks, which is a parody of exactly this kind of film, is revealing in terms of just how not-self-aware this production is.

It’s not an accident that all the jeers in the trailer are made by white kids, and aimed at black kids. That’s a lame effort to get you angry enough at the white kids to pay for your ticket. Is it going to work?

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