Friday, January 09, 2009

Home For The Holidays Recap

I was going to do blog entries over the holidays, but just never really got around to it. Instead I did all kinds of other things, including a bunch of new Script Tips. So here is the capsule version in two parts...


At my sister’s house. Our family has lived in Concord forever, my grandfather on my father’s side moved there to drill water wells for farmers. My mother’s side moved to the Bay Area during WW2 because there were jobs in the shipyards and in factories. And no one ever moved away. All but one of my mother’s three sisters live in the area. One of my dad’s brothers lived with my grandparents well into adulthood, the other brother set out for parts unknown - kind of an INTO THE WILD thing. Both my brother and sister live local. So the whole family is *there*. Both sides. Nobody leaves Concord. Ever.

For as long as I can remember, we had Thanksgiving at my parent’s house and Christmas at my Aunt Sharon’s. Now, the strange thing in my family is that when my Uncle Glen moved out of my grandparent’s house, it was because he married my Aunt Sharon. My father’s brother married my mother’s sister. That kind of stuff is still legal in most states. My Uncle Glen (who was married to my Aunt Sharon before he died) had all kinds of 8mm movie stuff, as well as a bunch of toys - he was an adult who lived at home with his parents for much of his life. If this had been today’s world, he’d have a ton of video games, but back then he had those 3 minute versions of GODZILLA on 8mm. Add that to my Aunt Norma who worked at the movie theater, and you have a kid who wants to grow up and make movies. When I was a kid my Uncle Glen used to make toy trucks out of old milk cartons, pencils and 8mm film reels. Anyway, after he passed away, we still at Christmas at my Aunt Sharon’s house in the horse country area of Concord. Then, I think between her two sons (my cousin-cousins) moving away and some sort of silly family skirmish, Christmas moved to my sister’s house. Part of that might have been my sister *having* a house.

The old family traditions are still there: there is a competition for best name tags at the place settings, there are still jokes about the time my Aunt Sharon made the crescent rolls and screwed up the recipe so that they weighed about a pound a piece (even though my Aunt Sharon now eats Christmas dinner alone - something I still don’t understand), and when it’s time for holiday pie everyone asks for mincemeat because they know nobody made one. Oh, and the candles usually remain unlit due to someone forgetting.

So this year, sisters two girls (my nieces) show up - one is now not only married, she’s about to pop a kid! Her husband Markus is a great guy, but he’s into tattoos and piercings and my niece is head to toe tattoos. Colorful. Markus is a big guy, who looks like he’s beat the crap out of you if you looked at him funny, but he’s really a quiet shy guy... who is a fan of kung fu movies and has seen all of my stuff (before he married my niece). My other niece, who is a nurse, is engaged to the guy she brought last year - who is clean cut and kind of preppy (I think he’s in medical school, soon to be a doctor) and has a sly wit. This came in handy, because my sister’s husband’s father’s wife is the third most annoying person on earth. I think she’s a trophy wife. She needs to be the center of attention at all times, and brought a couple of hundred vacation photos (some were even in focus) and then made sure we all looked through them. She said she would have brought *all* of them, but didn’t want to bore us. And she talked a mile a minute all night long. She was at the other end of the table from me, so I survived. My poor parents sat right next to her. They probably know every single thing that happened to her on vacation in minute detail. After diner we played a board game, and she insisted on being team captain and then complained about it. Eventually everyone went home... and I realized the next time I see my nieces, one will be a tattooed mother and the other will probably be getting married to a future doctor. Things are turning out well for both of them.


- Bill
Classes On CD On Sale!


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Likeable Leads & SWINGVOTE brand new tip for 2009.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Del Taco on the road.

NEXT FRIDAY: Hitchcock Returns!

Movies: CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON - This film is almost three hours long.... and based on some old short story and, you know, *important*. So I never really expected to really like it, let alone cry a half dozen times. The concept is simple.... yet complex... Benjamin Button is born a withered old man/baby and grows younger with each passing year... ending up a baby. Someone in the film says we begin in diapers and end up in diapers - and, honestly, how many babies look like bald little old men? That’s probably what sparked the short story ages ago, and it’s what makes this film from the writer of FOREST GUMP both interesting and insightful. The film gets to deal with aging and loss and being different and feeling old when you are young and young when you look old... and how we see things and people differently. Oh, and it’s a romance and an adventure and kind of does that FOREST GUMP thing with history - though more with time periods than with specific people and incidents.

There are people who always say Hollywood should make more movies like this and fewer of those big budget special effects movies where everything is fake... except BUTTON probably has more special effects than any of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies! There are only a couple of scenes where no character is in old age make up. Because Benjamin starts old and grows young, in the early scenes he is always in old age make up. As a baby, he’s a special effect. As a child, his face is all CGI - some amalgamation of Brad Pitt and digital aging and whatever they did to create the Gollum in LORD OF THE RINGS. As Benjamin gets younger... the rest of the characters het older! So when we finally get Brad Pitt without make up, everyone around him must be in old age make up! Someone is always in make up in this film.

And because it takes place in the past... the backgrounds are all special effects. 1918 New Orleans no longer exists - they had to take 2008 New Orleans and use a bunch of special effects to transform it. And many of the locations and events in the film are special effects. This movie is all fake!

Because Benjamin is a freak, the story has many scenes about his adventures trying to fit in, and trying to act his age even though he doesn’t look it. He befriends a Pygmy - someone his own size - who takes him to the French Quarter and introduces him to night clubs and brothels and other adult diversions. He is surrounded by old folks who look just like him... and many have reverted to childhood. This film has a great running gag - one of the old guys tells him he was struck by lighting 7 times in his life - and each time he tells him of a different event, and we see the lightning strike. This is spread throughout the film and always gets a laugh. But the main thing about living in an old folks home is that characters are constantly dying. And Benjamin learns about death at an early age. Benjamin gets a job on a tugboat with a colorful crew - and every one of these characters is as different as Benjamin. The captain wanted to be an artist, but ended up running his father’s tugboat... and tattooing all kinds of interesting art on his body. He’s an illustrated man. Speaking of fathers, Benjamin’s father Mr. Button is often in the background of his life... and later a part of his life. They even steal a shot from FIVE EASY PIECES where Nicholson takes his aging father in his wheelchair out to the woods to have a heart to heart conversation as the sun sets behind them. Same shot, same scene with Benjamin and his father.

But the core of the film is the love story between Benjamin and Daisy (Cate Blanchet) the grand daughter of one of the people in the old folks home. They played hide and seek together as children and have an on again off again relationship throughout the story. This is a long film, and there is a point in the story where something happens in their relationship which leads you believe the film is probably over, so you grab your coat... and then the film goes on for another half hour. That half hour is okay, and has one of the great scenes in the film, but you kind of wish they had quit when they were ahead.

The most curious thing about BENJAMIN BUTTON is that it has lots of great scenes, and I did get misty eyed a few times and laugh at others, but it struggles to add up to a story. GUMP was also a bunch of great scenes with a similar type of story, but it seemed to add up better than BUTTON does. I think this may be because GUMP used history as a through-line, placing Gump in the center of major historical events. We not only had an event in history that we recognized, we had our protagonist right there in the newsreel footage! So we not only had Gump’s life as a through-line, we had history itself... and Gump ends up the most important man in each historical event. BUTTON never has Benjamin in the center of things - he gets to fight in WW2... but in some little sea battle that isn’t important...and what Button does in that battle isn’t very important. GUMP would have been on the Enola Gay or stationed at Pearl Harbor or on Omaha Beach... or all three... right in the middle of the big historical event. Benjamin is on the sidelines, so instead of having the world’s story to connect the scenes, we just have Benjamin’s story - and it’s too slight to connect these scenes. The story ends up episodic... and struggles to come together into a story.

Where GUMP used history as its throughline, BUTTON just doesn’t have a throughline... except for Benjamin. I’ve found that movie with external throughlines hold together more than films with internal throughlines. We can see the external throughline, but can only see traces of the internal one. Button’s life story just doesn’t seem strong enough to hold all of these pieces together. And I came away from GUMP with a handful of really memorable lines and scenes... but nothing like that with BUTTON. No lines so unforgettable that they’re going to pop up on T shirts, no scenes so good that they will be used in a half dozen parody movies. I’ll bet you can remember 5 lines from FOREST GUMP right off the top of your head... but not a single one from BUTTON. If you end up with an episodic film, at least make sure those episodes are strong enough to carry the film.

Another thing that I found curious was the scenes from Button’s life they decided to show. The theme here is time and aging, and we begin with the unveiling of a clock in a train station... and end with that same clock, no longer in use... replaced by a digital version. But once we leave the old folks home - actually a little before - we are not really dealing with time and aging as much as we are getting the diary entries of some guy with a vaguely adventurous life. He and the tugboat crew have all kinds of adventures, serve in WW2 and end up in Russia of all places. There he meets a woman (Tilda Swinton) and has an affair. Except for the one scene where they stumble into a battle, the tugboat’s WW2 adventures are kind of bland - they are still working as a tugboat. The relationship with the woman starts out sounding like it might be exciting, there are rumors that her husband is a spy, but the husband isn’t really a character in the story... and there is no intrigue or espionage involved (when there could have been). They also miss a chance to deal with aging and time - both the tugboat and the woman are a little long in the tooth, but neither is an issue in the story. I would have had the husband sleeping with a younger woman, the wife feeling old and unattractive, and really played that up. Then really played up that she thinks she’s the younger woman to Benjamin, when she is really the older woman to him. And dealt with the dynamics a serious difference in age makes in a relationship...

Or just zoomed through this stuff at high speed and then spent *more* time on the juicy parts of the story - exploring the differences in age in a relationship with the woman he loves, Daisy. The film seems to spend more time on the dull parts and then switch POVs to Daisy so that we don’t have to see the effects of aging on Benjamin when he gets to be old (but looks like a 20 year old Brad Pitt). Once Benjamin’s child is born, the film keeps jumping *decades* in the story... after showing us minute-by-minute what happens when Benjamin is living in the old folks home and on that WW2 adventure. The story robs us of the scenes that really have to do with aging - and that undercuts the theme. Most of the almost three hours ends up about Benjamin as a young man.

BUTTON ends up being an enjoyable movie while it’s on the screen, but there’s nothing that really sticks with you. It ends up a popcorn flick for critics and people who like “serious movies”. I liked it, and Pitt and Blanchett give great performances and the whole film is amazing and interesting... but an hour later you’re hungry again.

- Bill


alain dominic said...

Happy New Year Bill,
Have visited your website many times, thanks for the great advice. I also keep running into your articles/comments on Wordplay & just stumbled across you here! I just started a blog here myself, dedicated to detailing my strategies and tracking my progress in becoming a working screenwriter. Only a couple posts so far, but if you're curious, go to Otherwise, thanks again, keep writing and keep doling out those golden nuggets of advice for those of us as yet unsold/produced!
All the best for 2009,
Alain Dominic

ObiDonWan said...

I have to say something about the latest PIRATES OF THE C... movie. All the dialogue scenes, the plot-carrying ones, not the funny stuff, don't add up logically to me. It's like the characters are talking about one thing and then suddenly cut to another and I'm left struggling to follow.
Anyone else have similar reactions or can explain how I got so confused as to misunderstand?

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