March 2009

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2009.

Statement of Benefits

Don’t you hate junk mail that tries to trick you into opening the envelope? I got a piece yesterday that said, “Statement of Benefits” in bold on the front of the envelope and the return address was a P.O. Box with no company name. It looked like the statements I get for one of my credit cards.

I opened it up and it was an attempt by the Denver Post to get me to subscribe. In an apparent attempt to legitimize their deception, they stuck with the “Statement of Benefits” theme, using that language to introduce my options to subscribe. The Stated Benefits: I can get the newspaper if I pay them some money.

The Rocky Mountain News just folded and the Post’s first communication with readers after that is a scam. Nice work, PR Department!

Saving Private Ryan

I recently read an early version of the Saving Private Ryan screenplay. It’s easy to find on the web, just google “screenplay” and the name. (There are a ton of screenplays on the web, most as txt files.) I can’t be sure it was authentic but it was very interesting. It was more like a straight war movie without the morality play. For instance, the nerd translator does not betray his fellow soldiers and there was no captured German who was let go only to come back and kill our heroes. Not all the same characters live/die (I won’t reveal who in case you want to read it). But my favorite set piece that does not make it into the finished film is a sequence where the Americans at the bridge steal an 88 from the Germans and then use it in the final battle. I’m not sure how probable it is that a couple of average American soldiers would know how to use an 88 (which has a crew of nine, I believe) but it was cool. The 88 is an infamous German anti-aircraft/anti-tank gun and it’s a great idea to have some Americans swipe one and use it against the Germans.

I think this script might have made a better movie. In the film, I hate that the nerd translator guy turns out to be a weak weasel. Why does the smart guy have to be a weasel? On the other hand, that scene where the American and German struggle to the death in the second floor room might be the most memorable in the movie. And the translator failing his fellow American is very upsetting. So maybe it’s a great and effective scene?

Raiders

Alert reader Wratha told me about a pdf file that’s going around the web. It’s a 126-page transcript of a multi-day story conference that took place between Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan. They were discussing the story for a little flick that came to be called Raiders of the Lost Ark. (The transcript seems authentic, it was shown in the Raiders DVD special features, which I just watched.) After this conference, Kasdan wrote the first draft of the script. Before Lucas even read the script, he hired Kasdan to write The Empire Strikes Back. Raiders and Empire, not too shabby Larry Kasdan!

The story conference was a fascinating bull session between three great movie-making minds. There are some funny parts, like when Lucas struggles to remember the name of the Ark of the Covenant. It’s hard to imagine the term being unfamiliar, but then you remember it was this movie that made the Ark famous.

Most of the major plot points are discussed in the story conference but it’s still impressive the way Kasdan turned them into an incredible script, an exceptional mix of humor and action-adventure. For example, there’s that line at the beginning when Indy jumps on the flying boat, says he hates snakes, and the pilot tells him to get a backbone. When I first saw the movie I thought that line was HILARIOUS. I just watched the film again and laughed again.

The story conference brought up some ideas that fortunately got dropped. When Indy gets on the plane to Asia to track down Marion, the plan was to have everyone but Indy parachute out of the plane — sort of an odd assassination attempt. Then Indy would crash-land the plane and slide down the snowy mountain on a make-shift sled. There was also a trip to Shanghai, a kid sidekick, and a subplot related to finding the headpiece of the Staff of Ra. And at the end, after the Ark had opened and the Nazis had melted, the plan was to have Indy and Marion ride a mine car back into the submarine base, at which point they would be dumped into the water. And maybe have the island blow up. Some of these ideas were incorporated into the second Raiders movie.

What a great opportunity to hear two creative titans discussing one of the best movies ever made. Spielberg has had an illustrious career as a director, of course, and Lucas created Star Wars, the most influential movie of my childhood. Spielberg and Lucas invented the blockbuster, and revolutionized toy tie-ins and that sort of thing. But Lucas also changed the technical side of movie-making forever, kicking it into the 21st century with digital editing, digital effects, and digital sound. It was very interesting to read this piece of movie history, these creative minds in action. I’m working on a screenplay now, in addition to my memoir project, and this story conference transcript is priceless for a wannabe screenwriter like me.

I’m reading John Keegan’s The Second World War right now. Pretty good book, not too dense, just about right for an overview, even has some good photos interspersed with the text and maps. One line really cracked me up.

Keegan was talking about the invasion of Crete in May of 1941. Before Crete, the Germans were basically kicking everyone’s ass. Crete was their first big screw-up. Unless you want to count the failure to crush the Allies at Dunkirk. Or the Battle of Britain. Put it this way, it was the first time their army looked less than invincible, at least initially. It started as a disastrous airborne expedition, in large part because the Allies knew it was coming and the key to airborne operations is surprise. The Germans eventually won in Crete but at the high cost of a large number of their best airborne troops. It was a serious lesson in the limitations of airborne operations that the Allies chose to ignore when they launched 1944′s Operation Market Garden, the infamous bridge too far.

Anyway, at one point the last two companies of German paratroopers floated down on top of an infantry battalion of New Zealand troops, Maoris. A bit earlier, Keegan mentions that no less a personage than Rommel declared New Zealand troops the best soldiers he faced in World War II. According to Keegan, Rommel called them resilient, hardy and self-confident to the point that “they had little opinion of any soldiers other than themselves.” I imagine these Maoris were all that and then some. So these German paratroopers picked the wrong place to land. The Maoris slaughtered them.

Granted, none of that sounds very funny. But the funny part is what one of the New Zealand battalion’s officers said afterward. He said of the slaughter of the Germans as they were falling into their lines, “Not cricket, I know. But there it is.”

I watched Gone Baby Gone recently. I had heard it was a pretty good movie but after watching 2/3 of the movie I wasn’t sure why. It seemed poorly written and or poorly edited and full of improbabilities. For instance, Patrick (Casey Affleck) plays a private investigator and at one point he kills two people and nobody seems to care. One of these people is clearly a terrible person but Patrick shoots him in the back of the head while he is sitting down. Basically, he executes him. (He’s a child molester so we don’t mind.) But this is supposed to be a realistic drama and private investigators can’t just run around killing people.

Anyway, the first 3/4 of the movie stinks. There are a few bright spots, like
Patrick’s cute girlfriend Angie (Michelle Monaghan) and Amy Ryan’s performance. She played the harbor cop in The Wire and Michael’s girlfriend in The Office. Here she plays a very different role: Helene, the mother of the kidnapped girl. She has a strong Boston accent in the film and is convincing. But the Boston accents are part of the problem. Sometimes it’s like watching one of those English movies where you can only understand every third word.

One other thing about the first 3/4. The director, Ben Affleck, clearly went out of his way to have real people in his film. There are a lot of shots of down-an-out people who are very convincing. It’s the opposite of the Hollywood movies that show buxom blondes running around in, say, medieval England. The real people thing is almost overdone though I agree with it in theory. I hate to say a movie is too realistic when most movies are so unrealistic but I think that’s the case here on a couple counts. It makes for an odd mixture of near-documentary and fictional film.

But I’m writing about this movie because of the last 1/4. Often a movie is good for the first 3/4 and then falls apart at the end. With Gone Baby Gone, the opposite is true. It comes together at the end and I think that’s why the people who praise it do so.

[The rest of this blog entry contains major SPOILERS]

Here’s the basic plot of the movie. The young daughter of a drug addict mom is kidnapped. Patrick is hired by the aunt of the child to help find her. Patrick uncovers an inside job. In collusion with the uncle, the police have kidnapped the child and given her to a retiring police officer who is childless. The child is now in a good home and is now destined for a great life. Patrick must decide whether to leave the girl in the good home or give her back to the drug addict mother. That’s when the movie gets interesting.

What is the Hollywood ending here? There isn’t a good one. I’d say the most Hollywood ending would be to leave the little girl with retired cop. That way, we know she’s going to have a happy life. And we still have the discussion when we leave the theater: was that the right decision?

In real life, what would you do? I’m not sure what I would do. Patrick turns in the cop and returns the kid to the drug addict mother. A Hollywood ending would then be to show the mother has turned the corner, that she has given up drugs and become a good mother. That doesn’t happen. In the last scene with the mother, she MIGHT have changed. She’s going out on a date and leaving Patrick to babysit the little girl. She hasn’t exactly lined up a babysitter, though she says she was about to get a last-minute sitter. We are left with the possibility that the mother is slightly more responsible then she was previously. There is no information about drugs either way. We have some hope for the daughter but can’t be too terribly optimistic.

I wonder how much of a hassle Affleck had with the studio over the ending. It’s based on a book so maybe that helped a bit. However it came about, it’s nice to see a movie that presents a hypothetical situation, doesn’t take the easy way out, and sparks substantial post-viewing discussion.