The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Look For the Union Label

So as of midnight tonight, my union, the Writers Guild of America, is on strike. You’re going to see the impact of this first on the talk and comedy shows, which will go into reruns without writers to fashion jokes out of the headlines – just in case you ever thought Jay Leno made up all that stuff on his own.

For awhile that’s all the change you’ll see, since the studios have been stockpiling film and television scripts in order to keep the pipelines flowing for the months ahead. You might see a few more “reality” shows on the schedule as they try to make those stockpiles last, since the non-union writers who spend 80+ hours a week in editing rooms putting together the storylines for those “reality” shows work without overtime, health plan, or pension benefits.

But otherwise you’re not going to know much about this strike except what accusations get lobbed back and forth across the headlines. And since the companies we writers are in dispute with, well, OWN the vast majority of media outlets in this country, you might be able to predict how this strike is going to be presented.

So what’s this really about?

Let’s take a brief Wayback Machine sojourn to 1984. In the contract negotiations for that year, the Writers Guild politely turned around, unbuckled their pants, bent over, and puckered up, as the studios pleaded that they couldn’t risk sharing too much revenue from this newfangled technology known as “home video”; since it was so expensive and precedent-breaking, and no one yet knew if the masses were going to embrace it. So the writers played along and accepted an extremely small percentage formula for determining residual payments. Residuals are how the creators of this entertainment get to share in the money it makes long after it has moved on from the multiplex. Every time TNT shows
The Shawshank Redemption, there’s residual checks involved.

When it came time around 2001 to calculate the formula for DVDs, even though they are infinitely cheaper to manufacture and ship, studios wanted to keep that formula intact, even though writers had watched for over a decade as everyone but them got fat on home video revenue. The studios used the same arguments – that this was new, expensive technology, that nobody knew if America was going to buy in, etc. And the Negotiating Committee of the time did not believe in being confrontational, and they were saving their energy to protect our health plan, so they gave in.

Then we watched as, once again, DVDs transformed the cash-flow model of filmed entertainment, and allowed studios to keep the profits rolling in even as production, distribution, and marketing costs have mutated beyond astonishing to the level of gob-smackingly ludicrous.

Here’s how it sits now – if you pay $20 for a DVD over at Best Buy, the amount of that $20 that makes its way to the writers in residual checks (which is what many veteran writers live on after the studios have replaced them with younger ones) is about 3 cents. Maybe 4.

The Writers Guild would like to make 8 cents off every $20 DVD. It’s that simple. The studios would like you to believe that General Electric, Westinghouse, AOL Time Warner, Disney, NewsCorp, and Sony (the six conglomerates that control all the major movie/TV production and distribution entities) are going to fall to flame, ruin, and bankruptcy if this happens, and that we Writers are maniacal Bolsheviks for even suggesting they loosen their grip on that revenue as just compensation for having, well, written the content.

In addition, this now very-familiar conversation is happening again in the area of Internet distribution. Writers are catching on that, hey, there’s going to be some money made distributing movies and TV shows over the Web in the next couple of years, and the studios are suggesting that we should see exactly, um, NONE of that. Why? Because it’s a spooky, new, expensive technology, and they’re not sure America will embrace it, so it would be FAR too risky to establish a percentage they might share with us. I haven’t been out here that long, and even I think that argument is getting musty.

In a way I can see their fear. Traditionally, whichever of the three major Guilds (Writers Guild, Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild) signs a contract first, the other two then use that contract as a template. So the studios see this as not just a question of Writers rubbing a few more nickels together, but the potential hole-in-the-dike for all of those loathsome fuzzy creative people to start taking a bigger piece. And, well, We Can’t Have That.

Since the last contract, we have a new Guild President, a new board, a new Negotiating Committee, a new and unprecedented cooperative relationship with the Writers Guild East. We’ve been preparing for this moment, and I can honestly say that we didn’t want it to come to this. I only got my Guild membership because of my one ringing success – my script sale. In a sense I’m more of a fluke than a working professional at the moment. All of my present work is happening on spec, so this strike doesn’t change my daily routine one whit. But there are thousands of others out there putting an already-extremely-tenuous livelihood at risk; and they’re doing it so we all can have a better deal.

I’ve tried to think about what I can do to support this effort. The Guild is advising that each of us put time in every week to help out – standing on picket lines and the like. That’s hard to do with my routine, but I’m going to do my best. And I’m going to do something else, too.

I know there’s not a lot of logic to it, but I don’t have much else to give up to show my solidarity. So here it is – as of now, this blog is on strike. I’ll still read and comment on my friends’ blogs, but until there is a new contract in place, I will not post content here or on any of my other web outlets. You ought to know by now what an addiction blogging is for me, how essential a part of my craft it’s become. I suspect I get more enjoyment providing you with this work than you’ve ever gotten from reading it. So maybe you understand that it’s not easy for me to choose this. But it feels like the right thing to do.

I’ll be writing, of course. You may see an avalanche of material when the strike ends. But the WGA knows what it wants. Until we get it; I’m signing off. Take care.

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Ice Age: The Meltdown

Originally published 4/8/06
Full review behind the jump

Ice Age: The Meltdown

: Carlos Saldanha
: Story by Peter Gaulke & Gerry Swallow, screenplay by Peter Gaulke & Gerry Swallow and Jim Hecht
: Lori Forte
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Queen Latifah, Chris Wedge

Geothermal variance gets a major squash-job for
Ice Age: The Meltdown, in which the frozen era that kicked off during the movie’s predecessor comes to an abrupt end only a couple of years later. Our heroes are still alive and in their prime. Sadly, the head-spinning climatological implications of this are the only bit of daring present in this animated sequel from 20th Century Fox-based Blue Sky Studios, which otherwise delivers a rather minor and perfunctory follow-up.

Before, Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano), Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) and Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) separated from all the other critters of the wild who were migrating south to
avoid the Ice Age, and had some charming and even poignant adventures while trying to return a primitive human baby to his family. Now the humans have vanished, and all the animals have reunited and seem to not mind this Ice Age so much after all. Although it’s fair to point out, it’s become rather balmy for an Ice Age when the kids take up water-sliding. Perhaps if we merely substitute the term “Ice Age” for the normal passage of winter to summer and back, and grant the possibility that these animals have very short memories, then that could be considered explained.

But temperature indeed instigates the danger – the towering walls of glacier that ring their verdant valley are melting, and could crumble at any time, flooding everything and killing them all. A vulture (Will Arnett) takes great pleasure in pointing out their dire circumstances, too, announcing that the cataclysm will take place in exactly three days; but if they wish to avoid becoming his carrion, they should head for a “boat” at the other end of the valley. In asking myself how a vulture has such precise knowledge of a glacier’s longevity, I am forced to conclude that he was one of the screenwriters. I have yet to satisfy the question of why he told all his potential victims how to escape and foil his plans. Perhaps in later eras he will evolve into a Bond Villain.

You might rightly accuse me of holding a kids’ movie about talking animals to too high a logical standard. Perhaps. But the point is – when a movie really picks you up and carries you along, are questions like this even occurring to you? The drift in my thoughts is a symptom of a deeper problem, that this movie does not have enough inspiration to cover the skeleton of its plot contrivances, and must survive off the nourishment of the odd successful joke or sequence.

It’s not that there aren’t conflicts. Manny is just beginning to realize that his iconoclastic attitude might have been too successful by half, as no one has seen any other mammoths around in a long time, and the new weather doesn’t bode well for those like him. “Extinction” jokes rub him the wrong way, and the problem is only compounded when, on the long march to safety, he meets a real live female mammoth, Ellie (Queen Latifah), who thinks she’s a possum.

Sid, with his wet lisp and vacant optimism, supplies heart and mayhem in equal parts (I still love his bottom-heavy construction and how soft and tactile his fur looks), while Diego no longer has any credible viciousness to back up his displays of temper (sort of like the real Denis Leary in that respect). Like most cats he fears water; this is a weakness, not a plot line, though the filmmakers attempt to make one out of it anyway. Ellie has two possum brothers, Eddie and Crash (Josh Peck, Seann William Scott), who are sort of like the Little Rascals for the Jackass generation, spouting clichés and endangering themselves and others for giggles.

And the water’s rising, and the vultures are circling (and, at one point which should be funnier than it is, they burst into a showtune), and two ferocious aquatic predators are in pursuit as well. Which leads to the question – could a mammoth fight while under water – in fact, do anything under water except sink? And here was one question that needed no answer nor snark, because it is executed with enough vigor that I didn’t care. But all these conflicts just feel less immediate, less personal and blood-curdling, than the events of the previous film.

I should point out that I smiled often. Sid has a colorful and musical encounter with a few of his own kind that comes to an inspired though utterly logical conclusion. Manny, when claiming large creatures don’t go extinct, is asked about the dinosaurs and has a good riposte: “The dinosaurs got cocky. They made enemies.” And, as in the first movie, we take frequent breaks from the action to check in on the rodent Scrat (Chris Wedge), whose eternally-frustrated quest to secure and bury a single sweet acorn is just as existential (and just as infinite in its comic possibilities) as the coyote’s pursuit of the roadrunner. These are easily the biggest laughs in the movie, though the filmmakers wisely restrain from dominating the running time of a feature with poor little Scrat.

In a way Ice Age: The Meltdown is at it’s best when it’s more breezy and anecdotal – like we’re watching a series of self-contained short subjects about broad characters we have an affectionate familiarity for. A feature film can be something bigger and more transporting, it can actually take us somewhere emotionally (as the original did when we learned the fate of Manny’s family). This sequel is good, but it is lesser in that crucial way.

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - V for Vendetta

Originally published 3/29/06
Full review behind the jump

V For Vendetta

: James McTeigue
: The Wachowski Brothers, based on the DC/Vertigo graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd
: Joel Silver, Grant Hill, Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski
: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Piggott-Smith, Rupert Graves, Roger Allam

There is a flamboyance to the graphic novel, even (and some of you will think me silly to use this word) a sense of romance, that doesn’t always translate. I’m not talking about kissy romance or adventure romance, both of which have been delivered repeatedly and to great satisfaction by the movies over the decades. I’m thinking of a romance that’s more about dreaming up another world – a world where a man in tights and a cape could appear on the scene, say he’s here to help, and be accepted. That’s what I’m trying to get at.

And it’s that sense of romance the filmmakers are trying to capture in
V for Vendetta, an adaptation of an acclaimed and provocative miniseries from the early 1980’s written by Alan Moore (who also wrote the originals of From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and is making a habit out of disavowing these movie adaptations). In attempting to honor its source it’s less action-packed than you might anticipate, and daring enough to create a protagonist who is part Musketeer, part Phantom of the Opera, part ham, part ninja, and at least half-mad, and invest in him the idea of real revolution. Not a generic happy-go-lucky tossing off of shackles followed by cheering throngs; but the grim, bloody and terrifying mass trauma that revolution really is.

The result is a collision of ideas and style that is never less than captivating but not quite as transcendent as necessary. There are frequent moments where the filmmakers’ ambition pays off, just as there are moments where their limitations are too painfully on display. But perhaps what is most notable is that we have a film produced by Studio Hollywood, in a genre usually reserved for teenagers, that is unapologetically rabble-rousing.

You might conclude that the Wachowski brothers, writer/directors of the Matrix trilogy, and here delivering the screenplay to their former assistant director James McTeigue, are taking very specific aim at contemporary circumstances. Given that they’ve been trying bring this product of the 80’s to the screen since the mid-90’s, that’s crediting them with prognosticative powers I’m not ready to grant. I think, giving them the benefit of the doubt, that what they’re striving for is what J.R.R. Tolkein defined as “not allegory, but applicability”.

They are trying, as Moore did, to create a coherent and compelling nightmare future in which fascism has taken root in a society that was once free but traded it away one inch at a time for the promise of security; and now, as Ben Franklin predicted, has neither. I have not the space nor interest to turn this review into a commentary on how that might or might not be applicable to our lives today, so I will continue to simply critique the movie and I think we can all live with that.

The place is Britain, some twenty years after “terrorists” unleashed an artificial plague which killed tens of thousands. The people turned to their televisions, to their Churches, and to a dynamic leader who promised to protect them. This man, the Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt, with enough inner fury to fill out his larger-than-life role), has ruled without check or question ever since, and calibrates the fear and obedience of his people with propaganda by day and curfews by night.

And so we see not only the cultish extravagance of a dictatorship, with its symbols and angry rallies, but also its evil banality, where rooms full of plain black binders hint at the people who have been stuffed in black bags and “disappeared” for saying the wrong thing, or living their life in the wrong way (virulent hatred of homosexuals is encouraged), or for resisting the authority of the “Fingermen”: empowered bullies who prowl the streets looking to take advantage of their position.

They try to assault Evey (Natalie Portman), a young gofer at the television station who has snuck out past curfew for a dinner date. This is one of those scenes where the Wachowki’s pseudo-hard-boiled dialogue is at its most clangingly-inappropriate level – inevitably when their characters want to sound tough, they resort to grade school sexual puns that tumble awkwardly off the tongue. So it’s not just for the sake of Evey’s safety that we’re relieved to see the scene broken up by V (Hugo Weaving).

V is the amalgam revolutionary mentioned above – his face is always hidden behind a white mask designed to resemble Guy Fawkes (who, hundreds of years ago, was foiled in an attempt to blow up Parliament in an event known as The Gunpowder Plot). Weaving’s challenge is to invest V with a soul using only body language and his agile voice, and he generally succeeds. He speaks in floral torrents, Shakespeare and platitudes, heightened discourse with burning rage underneath. He is not to be admired so much as steered clear of, because he has a most grandiose plan to upset the order of things; which includes bombings, assassinations and general incitement to riot. While things may turn out better for England when he’s done, your personal safety is far from guaranteed.

Circumstances conspire to bring he and Evey together, and he shows her a few things about the alternative to living in perpetual fear (her parents were stuffed in black bags when she was a child). She, in turn, reminds him that, in spite of the wrongs inflicted on him, which include the reason why he lives behind that mask, there is more to life than just the violent settling of accounts.

And as V’s legend grows among the populace with each killing, a high-level party member named Finch (Stephen Rea) conducts a thorough investigation that causes him more restlessness and doubt about the people he works for the more he learns. I appreciated every second that Rea and his hangdog face were on screen – he is, as these things are reckoned, the closest thing to a real hero in the movie, if you consider his motives and the choices he is empowered to make along the course of the plot.

You’ll see that I talk little about fight scenes. Although V has a fondness for blades and considerable skill, he works in short, directed bursts. On some level he is aware that revolution is not a one-man operation, and that the reason he is succeeding is that historical forces have reached a tipping point where someone like himself can finally play an instigating role. And that is what he has prepared for. It’s to the movie’s benefit not just thematically, but because McTeigue shows a distinctive lack of visual flair or imagination. Scene after scene is composed with the most rudimentary camera work, and fight scenes are constantly on the brink of incoherence.

I’m not advocating that the Wachowski’s perspective-skewing directorial tricksiness would have been any more useful, but at least they would have been at home with the scope. V for Vendetta, reflecting the spirit of its source material, tells a large story with many little stories that unfold along the way. Some of them, like the tragedy of the actress Valerie (Natasha Wightman), humanize the almost unfathomable heartbreak this kind of society can wreak. That’s when this thing works, when it takes an uncluttered look at this strange other world that in its surface detail is flamboyant, romantic “comic-book stuff”, but is somehow just familiar enough to distress.

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Inside Man

Originally published 3/28/06
Full review behind the jump

Inside Man

: Spike Lee
: Russell Gewirtz
: Brian Grazer
: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Cristopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Here we have a heist movie wherein a criminal mastermind plans an escapade based around a piece of knowledge that all the evidence suggests it is impossible for him to have. We also have a movie which might possibly be better if one of its major roles were completely eliminated.

And yet, I would like to put in a request for more movies like
Inside Man, not because of these and other flaws which are real and we will dutifully examine, but because it is mounted with driving energy and atmosphere, and because it pairs an unpredictable filmmaker with classic genre material and he doesn’t respond as if he is slumming it.

The mastermind in question is Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), who in the tradition of great stage illusionists tells us up front what unlikely thing he intends to do and continues to point out that he is doing it even as it unfolds before our eyes. So when the police and other interested parties waiting outside the imperious Manhattan bank he is robbing don’t take him at his word that he intends to walk right out the front door rich and free, they really have no one to blame but themselves.

And the filmmaker in question is Spike Lee, who has defiantly followed his own muse for over a generation now through movies both heralded and reviled, but one thing that is beyond dispute is that he knows New York – the streets, the people and the vibe. He doesn’t gaze in rapture on the skyscrapers, he looks from ground level, and it enriches every frame of this, the first unapologetically commercial effort of his career. I hope it will not be the last.

Russell’s scheme is ingenious in that it capitalizes on the clichés of bank robberies – the arrival of police is not an urgent deadline but simply part of a more elegant equation. He and his masked collaborators take hostages, confiscate cell phones, wave guns around, and lock down the bank. A patrolman passing by spots smoke leaking out the front door, sees Russell making threats and calls it in.

And from there the movie sits back to appreciate the machinery set in motion – how a weathered metropolis like New York responds with practiced smoothness. Emergency vehicles converge, reporters take their stations, the street is cordoned off and barricades are erected as routinely as if this were a scheduled parade; and, naturally enough, a melting pot crowd materializes behind them to gawk. The crowd even comes in handy when Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington) gets an electronic bug snuck into the bank but can’t figure out what language he’s hearing – he just turns on the outside speakers and asks for volunteer translators, and what follows is priceless.

Frazier is an engrossing balance of ambition and cynicism. He has risen as far as his brains and street smarts will take him – and Lee’s regular composer Terrence Blanchard ties his jazzy tones in with the detective’s readiness to adjust and improvise within the situation, the movie’s musical backdrop is a triumph all its own. To achieve the next step, the rank of 1st detective (and all the life improvements he’s stalled on its behalf), Frazier accepts without moral shock that he now must play at politics, or to put it less delicately – horse trading and blackmail.

So even as he commands the police response to this confusing hostage situation (Why does the thief seem so calm while besieged? Why are his demands so pedestrian and unlikely? Why does he dress both his cohorts and prisoners in identical coveralls and masks?), he treats the arrival of Madeline White (Jodie Foster) with a kind of bemused curiosity. She is introduced by the Mayor (Peter Kybart) as someone with no official standing, but who should be allowed to “assist” to the extent that she does what she wants without having to explain why. She’s been retained by owner of the bank (Christopher Plummer), who is concerned about something these robbers might or might not find, but which he will not divulge to her.

He is so secretive about this thing that it’s a wonder anyone could know what it is – and yet Russell does, and this is never explained. But never mind. Frazier recognizes these games of the elite, and accepts their intrusion as an invitation to join in, especially since they have the potential of explaining this most frustrating and unusual robbery.

And that’s a bit of my issue with Foster’s character right there. As effortlessly as she occupies this beguilingly corrupt creature, and as much as I welcome any appearance by her in a film, the result of her presence is that we’re often left watching Frazier figure out things that, thanks to her, we already know. This especially makes the movie’s final 15 minutes, when he’s doing what should be his best detecting, feel superfluous – a vent of moral outrage directed at characters who have confessed their crimes to the audience already.

When the movie is procedural, and allows us to breathe in the details of Russell’s scheme (Owen’s impervious confidence is mesmerizing) and Frazier’s urgent sense that something larger is afoot, it’s good. When it takes those moments in between to delight in the behavior of its New Yorker characters, it’s even better – although it has a purpose that gradually dawns on us, we accept the narrative flash-forwards, where Frazier and his partner/apprentice Detective Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) conduct post-robbery interviews with the hostages, as they are because they are so delightfully performed. Inside Man is a movie that values these qualities – brains, wit and a crackling sense of place. It is imperfect but it is never perfunctory. That is why we need more of them.

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Daily Dose of Pretty

Sorry to have missed yesterday's Daily Dose. I hope everyone survived the ordeal.

Eastern Shore outside Kapa'a, Kauai, Hawaii

Image Copyright 2006 by Nicholas Thurkettle. All rights reserved.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Daily Dose of Pretty

Southern Oregon

Image Copyright 2004 by Nicholas Thurkettle. All rights reserved.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Daily Dose of Pretty

International Rose Test Garden, Portland, Oregon

Image Copyright 2004 by Nicholas Thurkettle. All rights reserved.

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