Maze of Frustration

The Maze RunnerI went in excited to see The Maze Runner. I haven’t read the books, but they sound cool. Mazes have fascinated me since I was a kid, and this seemed like a rich opportunity to explore their mystery and adventure.

The movie is a good time, for the most part. I don’t watch Teen Wolf and am not familiar with teen heartthrob Dylan O’Brien, but he makes a solid leading man. It’s also nice to see Thomas Brodie-Sangster who nerds know as Jojen Reed from Game of Thrones; he brings real acting chops and credibility to the film. The maze itself is an awesome visual achievement. You really feel its massive scale and power. It seems entirely real, from its cracked and dirty concrete to the vines that have overgrown it. And its terrifyingly rendered denizens are clattering nightmares you won’t soon forget.

Unfortunately, the film is guilty of two major sins: exposition and withholding. As an adaptation, I can almost forgive the first. The movie has to convey a lot of information to the audience or nothing will make sense. But it’s too often done in marathon question and answer sessions, where the amnesiac main character gets stuck tediously interviewing people to find out what’s going on around him. As hungry as we are to learn about this mysterious world, it’s hard not to squirm in your seat during these monster data downloads.

I have a much harder time forgiving the film’s need to withhold information from the audience. It makes for an extremely frustrating viewing experience. I won’t give anything away that’s not obvious from the trailers, I promise, but the film contains some major mysteries that we’re dying for answers to. When the characters on screen actually start to figure things out (or regain their own memories and knowledge), they still don’t tell us what the hell is going on! In one instance, one character blurts that it doesn’t matter. Wrong! It matters to me! Later, when we are finally given what should be real answers, they’re vague and don’t ring true. It’s maddening.

Let’s talk about dramatic irony for a minute. As most writing students know, it occurs when the audience knows something the characters in the story don’t. It creates tension and can work very effectively. We know there’s a monster hiding in the closet as the main character reaches for the doorknob, and we’re climbing backwards out of our chairs in anticipation. Cool stuff. And then there’s the opposite of dramatic irony, let’s call it reverse dramatic irony, where the characters know more than the audience. This can work well in the case of a first person narrative, especially one involving an unreliable narrator. When it doesn’t work, it feels like the story’s creators are fucking with the audience by intentionally withholding. It creates the wrong kind of tension: tension between the audience and the movie. It sucks. This is the main problem with The Maze Runner.

In Robert Rodriguez’s fascinating interview with Quentin Tarantino on El Rey’s exceptional The Director’s Chair, Tarantino talks about toying with the audience:

Tarantino considers himself an audience member. He’s one of us. He knows what our expectations are, and he subverts them. He gives us something fresh and better than what we expect when he makes his “left turn.” He still delivers. He doesn’t withhold.

PierceBrownsRedRisingI recently read Red Rising by Pierce Brown, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a master class in setting up compelling questions and then providing satisfying answers that also create new questions. By continually deepening the story’s mysteries and shifting the paradigm, Brown creates a powerfully addictive read. And he doesn’t withhold.

It is unfortunate The Maze Runner does. It could have been a truly great experience, perhaps one of my favorite movies of the year. I still like it, sure. It’s well-made and lots of fun, but I wish it didn’t make me so angry.

Of course, now I must read the books. I need some damn answers!

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Why the Internet is Winning

I do most of my shopping online because I live in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles excels at making everything much more difficult than it needs to be. Film shoots beget street closures beget gridlock beget aneurysms. If you somehow make it to the store, you find a Thunderdome atmosphere overstuffed with people enraged it took them 20 minutes to find a parking spot, and you are in their fucking way. No, thanks. I’d rather be a shut-in.

But I received a Barnes & Noble gift card from my mother for Hanukkah, and I thought, “I haven’t been to a book store in awhile. I used to love going to book stores, and I miss them a lot. This will be fun.” I found myself in Santa Monica on a recent Sunday for a brutal and bloody afternoon of War of the Ring with an old friend. After the battle cries ended, I ventured to the Santa Monica Promenade, an ongoing social experiment pitting an army of homeless people against an invading horde of tourists in a crowded outdoor mall. Who will win?

I avoided the car-pinball parking structures and managed a street spot near Barnes & Noble. Signs announced that I would be towed if I didn’t move my car by 5 PM. It was 4:15. I had plenty of time. Or I should have. I walked down the street, into the store, past the not-smiling security guards and up the two escalators to the Science Fiction & Fantasy section.

WoolFirst item on my list: Shift by Hugh Howey, the follow-up to his completely captivating Wool. (I lost more sleep to this book than any in recent memory, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Drug pushers should take lessons in addictiveness from Howey.) Given the holidays had just passed, I didn’t expect fully stocked shelves, but I found inventory thin enough to make Calista Flockhart envious. No Shift for me.

I did manage to find a few titles after poking around. With only one book left on my list, I set out to find Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh. I have been reading her blog a lot lately and was super-excited to read her bizarro life stories in book form. I rode the two escalators back down to the ground floor, thinking that’s where Humor lived. Nope. A sales associate led me back up to the second floor, located the section and a hardback copy of the book. I had wanted paperback, and she told me I could find it downstairs on a display table. I rode the escalator back down, wandered around and found a table with hardback copies – no paperback.

Time ticking away, frustration building, and tow truck images flashing through my mind, I decided Allie Brosh would have to wait. I queued up to pay and soon found myself face-to-face with a gentleman who asked me if I’d found everything okay. “Actually,” I said. “I’m looking for a paperback copy Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, and I couldn’t find it.” He actually sighed. And then he said something like, “You can’t come to the front of the line and then expect us to help you find something. You need to talk to customer service over there.” He pointed a customer service desk near the elevator. He continued, “Do you want to go talk to them now?”

I can’t say that’s his exact quote, but it was the gist. He had asked if I had found everything I needed and then refused to help me find anything. The guy was a dick. If I remember correctly, he also had a goatee and a beret… a fucking beret.

I paid and walked over to customer service. To their credit, they weren’t dicks. The kind woman told me to go back up to the third floor and look for a table called “Laugh Out Loud,” and I’d find the book there. So I rode the two escalators back upstairs, checking my watch, now imagining calling my girlfriend, asking her to drive an hour to get my car out of a Santa Monica impound lot. But I wanted that book, dammit.

Hyperbole and a HalfI wandered the third floor for awhile, checking every table I could find for “Laugh Out Loud.” No luck. I wasn’t laughing out loud. I was getting “Muttering Under My Breath Angry.” I eventually told another customer service associate what I was looking for. She sighed loudly and said that they had taken the “Laugh Out Loud” table down, but she guessed that customer service on the first floor didn’t know that. Apparently, customer service had divided into warring clans, and I was to be a non-combatant casualty. The woman called first-floor customer service, and then I rode more escalators. And there, sitting on the customer service counter, were paperback copies of Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half. Holy fucking shit! I grabbed one, paid for it, and got the hell out of there. And no, I didn’t get towed.

I used to like stores. I spent much of my young adult life working retail – fond memories, mostly – and am sad to see that world eroding away. But this visit to Barnes & Noble couldn’t have been a clearer indicator as to why. Lousy customer service and poor inventory don’t make happy customers. The whole process of buying a few books took over a half-hour, many sales associates, two loud sighs and probably twenty escalator rides. It would have taken five minutes online.

P.S. Hyperbole and a Half is completely hilarious and great, well worth the effort to locate. I had to set the book down five times just reading the first story because I couldn’t stop laughing. Brosh’s sharp wit and ridiculous illustrations support surprisingly poignant and insightful stories, all of them worth your time. Get it!

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Put Your Phone Away

Please? I was really excited to see this movie, and now you’re ruining it. The light from your phone illuminates the theater like the beam from the Luxor. It’s distracting, and it rips me out of the experience of enjoying the film. I can clearly see that you’re texting someone, and I can almost make out the words. You put the phone away after a minute, but then it’s back out moments later for more texting.

Texting

I whisper a couple times, “Can you please put away your phone?” You ignore me, of course. I say it louder, “Put your phone away!” You look back angrily, as if I’m bothering you. But you’re bothering me and everyone else, and you don’t have the right. You’re not home in your living room. You’re in a crowded theater full of people who have paid real money to watch this film. Instead, we’re watching you text.

A few minutes later, I go get a meek employee from the concessions stand. She tries to talk to you, but you insist on standing up and getting in my face, threatening me. You put your hand on my arm, and I shake it off. The theater employee intervenes, and I go back to my seat. The employee and security talk to you for awhile in hushed whispers while you glare at me. By now, you’ve completely wrecked the movie for me. The ruckus we’ve created has probably ruined the movie for many of the other folks in the theater, as well. Thanks for making me into an asshole.

At least you keep your phone off for the rest of the film.

As the credits roll, you get up, come over and say something about wanting to see me outside. I do my best to ignore you, and you go away eventually. I always watch the credits because I like to see the names of everyone who dedicated so much time and energy to make the movie, the movie you just ruined. This also buys me a little time. Maybe you’ll cool off. Maybe you’ll go away. Leaving the theater, I request a refund and ask for security to escort me to my car. People can be crazy, and you’ve clearly demonstrated you’re a hothead asshole with something to prove. I’m not a fighter, and you might have a knife or worse. Fortunately, you’re gone. And that’s the end of it.  Until the next time I try to enjoy a movie at the theater, that is.

Will you put your phone away? Please?

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Summer of Stand-Up

Since I finally broke down and got the cable hooked up to my TV, I’ve really been enjoying all the excellent stand-up comedy this summer has to offer.  Showtime has done an exceptional job bringing quality stand-up and comedy discussion to us masses, and it seems like there’s more goodness on the way.

I wasn’t familiar with Hal Sparks until I watched his special “Hal Sparks: Charmageddon,” and now I’m a fan.  I was initially wary of him, as he seems almost insincere, but I’m glad I hung around.  He’s surprisingly insightful, and he cracked me up.

I’ve been a Jake Johannsen fan since his first HBO special, “Jake Johannsen: This’ll Take About An Hour.”  I’ve since seen him live and try to stay current on what he’s up to.  I was really excited to watch his new Showtime special “Jake Johannsen: I Love You,” and he doesn’t disappoint.  Check it out.  (Note: “Jake Johannsen: This’ll Take About An Hour” has been posted in its entirety to YouTube.  Hopefully Jake approves.  It’s one of my favorite stand-up specials, and it’s well worth watching.)

I had the pleasure of watching Jordan Brady’s documentary I Am Comic the other night on Showtime, and it blew me away.  It should be required viewing for comedians, teachers, wannabes and serious fans.  I have never seen a more comprehensive take on stand-up comedy, and Brady does an incredible job digging into the joys and realities of the industry.  I emailed Brady to ask about purchasing a DVD, and he said he is planning to release it in the fall.  He recommended I join their Facebook page for the latest updates.

I’m also really psyched about “The Green Room with Paul Provenza,” Showtime’s new discussion show about stand-up comedy.  Provenza leads a panel of four other comics through talks about the state of comedy and whatever else comes up, hilariously illustrated by lightning wit and stories of their experiences.  It’s a bit reminiscent of past favorite “Dinner For Five” with Jon Favreau, but “The Green Room” plays looser and much funnier.  Stand-up isn’t easy, and this show makes it very clear why the pros are the pros.

Finally, curiosity brought me back to NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.”  My hopes weren’t high, but I wanted to see Craig Robinson.  Turns out he’s only a very minor presence as the host, but there’s so much more going on.  The always hilarious Andy Kindler anchors the judge’s panel, and Greg Giraldo and Natasha Leggero give him nice support.  I know they’re supposed to be equal presences, but Kindler owns it; he kills me.  The show has come a long way since Dat Phan, and it’s open season for this year’s contestants.  I’m sure it’s disappointing to the amateur hopefuls to see so many pros in the contest, but it does make for good TV.  As of now I’m pulling for Chip Pope:

Have a great summer!

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Franchise Hogs

I read this morning that Logan Lerman, the guy who plays Percy Jackson in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, is very close to being cast as Peter Parker in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot.  I enjoyed Lerman in The Lightning Thief.  I thought he did nice work evolving his character’s unsteady charm into the winking confidence that his demi-god required.  As Peter Parker, I’m pretty confident that he would deliver a solid and likeable performance, embrace the awkwardness and insecurity that defines Parker, and ultimately rise to the heroics that makes him Spider-Man.  That’s all fine.

However, none of this forgives him being a franchise hog!  Popular actors cashing in on multiple high-profile franchises is really nothing new.  Did people cast aspersions on Harrison Ford for playing Han Solo and Indiana Jones?  Did they level criticism on Humphrey Bogart for playing Rick Blaine and Sam Spade?  I can’t say, but these days franchise hogging seems to have become an epidemic.  It seems like every time I read the entertainment headlines there’s another franchise hog, and it’s gotten out of control.

Shia LaBeouf first got me thinking about this when he appeared in Transformers and then Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  I like Shia LaBeouf, and I know he worked for years to get to where he is.  I’m sure when his agent came to him with the possibility of working on either film, he hesitated to think about the greater good.  He just screamed, “Hell yes!”  The idea of working with Steven Spielberg or even getting punched by Michael Bay were too good to pass up.  No one can blame him.

Let me back up for a second and define what I mean by “franchise.”  Entertainment lawyers may debate me, but I mean movies that are based on materials that have a devoted fan base and will likely lead to sequels.  I’m talking about reboots, comic book movies, book adaptations, TV crossovers, etc.  You know what I mean.  Shia LaBeouf can make Eagle Eye and Disturbia all day long, as far as I’m concerned.  The problem lies when he starts popping up in things that have become iconic to our culture, playing household name characters (or characters from tremendously popular movies) over and over: franchise hogging.

There have been plenty of other offenders lately.  The surly and gravel-chewing Christian Bale chomped down on Batman and Terminator, a major issue for me.  Should he be allowed to be both Bruce Wayne and John Connor?  Robert Downey, Jr. played Tony Stark in Iron Man along with Sherlock Holmes.  Shouldn’t he just get one?

Why is this a problem?  It breaks the spell.  I want to disappear into my entertainment.  I want Batman to be Batman, dammit!  I don’t want to be distracted thinking I just saw him fighting robots in the future.  I don’t want to wonder if Jude Law will make a wink-wink cameo in the next Iron Man movie.  I just want to grab on for the ride and not be distracted by stuff like this.  Hats off to Peter Jackson for mostly avoiding huge name actors for the Lord of the Rings movies.  Not to say that he went with unknowns, but can you imagine if he had cast Tom Cruise as Aragorn?  What if Tom Hanks played Bilbo Baggins?  Why not Cameron Diaz as Galadriel?

I also believe in spreading the wealth.  Years ago, a friend of mine who does voice acting was lamenting the loss of voice work to name actors.  Yes, Billy Crudup and Morgan Freeman, we’re talking to you.  If you listen to the voice work in commercials these days, you’ll recognize Edward Norton , David Duchovny, Tom Selleck and so on.  These jobs used to go to unknowns, but more and more big name actors (or their agents) have been muscling in on the voice action.  I understand wanting to ride the gravy train that their success provides, but that half-day’s voice work would have paid someone else’s rent for a year.

The same goes for franchise hogging.  Why not let somebody else get their big break?

Hollywood economics aside, franchise hogs mostly upset me as a fan.  Nowhere is this more evident than in comic book movies.  I grew up reading comics as a kid, and I still love them today.  I celebrated the victories of comic book heroes and mourned their losses.  They even helped me to better understand some of my own challenges growing up.  While I didn’t have blue skin like Nightcrawler, I did know what it was like to feel ostracized sometimes.  Peter Parker didn’t always get the girl, and neither did I.  When you grow up loving these characters and their journeys, you want them brought to the screen with the greatest of care.  And it’s a fucking honor to get to play their parts.

You shouldn’t be playing multiple superheroes.  Period.  Ryan Reynolds played Deadpool in the awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine and is set to appear in his own spin-off film about Deadpool.  Awesome!  But wait, he’s also going to be Green Lantern?  And both movies are set to be released next year?  What the hell?  How can he be in both the Marvel and DC universes?

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  Chris Evans was recently cast as Captain America in The First Avenger: Captain America.  Congratulations, Chris.  You look the part, you’ve got natural charisma, and you’ve proven yourself as a leading man and ensemble player time and time again.  I can really see you wielding the shield, but you might be the biggest franchise hog of them all!  Some of us are trying to forget the Fantastic Four movies, but we still remember you as the Human Torch.  How are you supposed to play two characters in the Marvel universe?  How does that work?

Why should we care about franchise hogs?  Why does any of this matter?  Because movies matter.  There will always be a little kid in me that goes to the theatre to experience things far greater than I could ever experience in my own life.  I want to live out dreams.  These actors are our guides, and we look to them with trust and adoration.  They shouldn’t mislead us.  They shouldn’t confuse us.  They should do right by the stories that they help to tell.

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