Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thoughts on 'The Strain', by Guillermo del Toro and Chris Hogan

With all the hype lately for the Stephanie Meyer books and the movie adaptations, it's heartening to see someone return to the good old fashioned blood-curdling, mind-numbing vampires of old.

When I picked up 'The Strain' by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, I was initially concerned, finding myself asking the dreaded question: "Why... are they doing this?" Based on the back cover blurbs, The Strain was geared up to be a mash-up/homage of Salem's Lot and I Am Legend. And I immediately thought - Why? Why do we need this, since those two are basic classics in the genre to begin with? And secondly - do we need this to be a three-part series (concluding in 2011)?

But I read it anyway, intrigued by the press, the reviews and the concept, and - if for nothing else I'd get a good Halloween read in, and have a chance to clear my mind of all the young-adult vampires flying around out there.

I'm glad to say it was worth it: the setup is Salem's Lot, except instead of King's typical small town horror, del Toro and Hogan have elevated the stakes, centering on New York City (where we'll end up having the implications of I Am Legend in terms of a more massive scale infestation of vampires).

It opens with a classic CSI kind of scene, with an airplane landing at JFK with everyone on board dead - of unknown causes (at first), until a team of CDC specialists move in, and Homeland Security gets invovled, suspecting a terrorist plot. Quickly we learn of the old vampire staples: a box of ancestral dirt in the cargo hold, passengers exsanguinated, with tiny scars on their necks, and... a few vicitms not quite dead. In a neat technique, we are treated to flashbacks of a Nazi concentration camp where The Master first makes his appearance, feasting on the blood of the dying Jews. And it's here where we see the Van Helsing character, a Jew who first attempts to slay the demon, unsuccessfully... but after his escape from the camp devotes his life to tracking this vampire - so it's he who first understands what's happening in New York - and its implications.

All this is great, well-written and suspenseful. And very disturbing. There are a few new twists on the vampires, the virus they represent, and their powers and limitations that make this all fun. And I am looking forward to the next two novels. But I do have some problems.

1) Why name the protagonist 'Abraham'? Come on. We get it already. He's Van Helsing, exactly, down to his East European background, his accent, his beliefs, everything. It was enough to have him as the wise man who has had run-ins with the vampires and will counsel the other heroes on how to kill these things. Give him another name for God's sakes.

2) I know Dan Simmons even gave a nice blurb on the back cover, but with all due respect, his Carrion Comfort was a much more original, epic vampire novel, one that I'd argue is the best vampire novel ever written - about a group of psychic vampires who use humans as cattle - and pawns in their own power struggles. This is a concept The Strain introduces late in the novel as we realize The Master has broken the vampire rules, and that the other vamp lords are pissed. So again, it's not original, and Simmons' work is a tremendous classic. And one that actually ends in one novel, albeit a long one that could have been likewise broken up into three if he were greedy.

So again, The Strain was a fun read, and I'm glad to see the monstrous vampires and their viral implications returning to the spotlight, but it just doesn't feel original to me anymore, but serves as more of a reminder that I should go back and reread the other classics from which it borrows its material: Carrion Comfort, Salem's Lot and I am Legend.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why... part 2

This will be a short one because I'm just annoyed.

My new target: Criminal Minds. Two minutes into this week's episode and we've got a home invasion where the woman winds up shrieking "Why are you doing this!?" to the perps (right before they whack her with a crowbar). All right, forget everything I wrote in my first blog about why this line is the most overused, nonsensical and useless phrase writers love to force into every situation, but come on - just last year the very same scenario (and line) was uttered in the movie, The Strangers.

I could almost forgive this if last week's episode didn't also force the line - in an even more likely scenario. The agents had discovered an illegal betting ring, barged in and found themselves facing two-dozen guns trained on them. As they still tried to talk their way into an arrest, one of the perps with a machine guns yells out, "Why are you guys doing this?"

Ugh. Can't... take... any... more.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Joy of Entering Writing Contests

Okay, contests are often a big pain, a black of hole of submissions that reward you with a different kind of anguish, a younger sibling to the numb disappointment of the more typical publisher rejections. You submit your work, pay your egregious entry fee (usually around $45) and wait... and wait... and basically forget about it until you get an email announcing... 'quarterfinalists'.

If you're lucky, you find your name on a huge list of hundreds, and you're at least mollified that you made the first cut and your work of art wasn't kicked to the curb prematurely along with a thousand others. Then... you wait and wait and wait some more for... the 'semifinalists'. You scan the shortened list, and if you don't find your name you go to your browser's 'find' feature and search for it, sure they've just created the list out of order. But alas, it's not there. You're done, thanks for playing.

But sometimes, you make it past that gatekeeper too. And then maybe with life being the hectic train wreck it sometimes is, you forget about it (and the other five contests you entered ages ago) and then on a rainy, dreary morning like this one, you get a succession of emails from different contests annoucing that, believe it or not, your screenplay is one of the top 10 finalists...
And that, regardless of whether the utlimate prize is a couple grand or just a mass mailing of your work to hundreds of professionals, is why you put yourself through this pain. Why you shell out the $ and sit around hitting your 'refresh' button waiting for email announcements.

So now, I've been notified that my latest screenplay, 'Roadside Assistance', has made it to the finals in the 2009 Expo Screenplay Contest and The Horror Screenplay Contest, with winners to be announced Thursday.

Alas... more waiting...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

'Disastrous' Summer

Did we really need another 'Meteor'?

Didn't we see this movie a couple dozen times already? And, done a hell of a lot better than this one? Armageddon, anyone? A movie with an actual story, believable characters and at least some attempt at realism? How about Deep Impact? And if memory serves, there was even a little movie in 1979 entitled, you guessed it - Meteor, with Sean Connery (and Henry Fonda as the President).

But, NBC in its infinite wisdom, must have felt disaster movies are 'in'. And hey, let's go with a meteor, that never gets old. And if rehashing a meteor movie, and doing it with lackluster actors, a ridiculously low budget and inferior effects wasn't enough, they throw in an environmental disaster flick, The Storm. (I'd also argue their summer inclusion of 'Merlin' is a different sort of disaster, but we'll stick with catastrophe movies for now).

So, to follow on the trail of my previous post: "Why are they doing this?"

I'd like to suggest that 'they' are doing it - presenting these glimpses into potential worldwide destruction - because it's all part of a larger... conspiracy is too big a word. More like, propaganda. There's a popular theory among UFO buffs that all those UFO/alien movies in the 1950's and '60s were just some sort of government plot to desensitize the American public to the idea of extraterrestrial contact. To inure us to the fact that 'they' are or could very soon, be among us. Some even claimed that the government helped fund Spielberg's Close Encounters to get the public to feel all warm and fuzzy toward the invaders.

But whether or not there was any truth to that, the same concept might apply here: desensitization. Bombard us with disaster movies. Even bad ones, cheesy as they are, have their merit - especially when the public isn't watching anything else. But take heart - there are better ones coming - a slew of them. 2012, with John Cusak, is due out this fall. Knowing just came out on DVD, and at least had an original premise and a little twist. One of the new Fall shows is entitled Day One, about life enduring after most of civilization is wiped out.

Are they trying to tell us something? We saw a bunch of these kind of movies ten years ago, before the new millennium, feeding on our collective awe (and fear) of the momentous, if meaningless, date change. But what's the reasoning now?

Guess we'll have to wait and see - does it have anything to do with the Mayan Calendar, the 2012 end date? Does NASA have some information they're not sharing? Is it all just fear about the Swine Flu?

Whatever the case, I can only make this plea to NBC and others: at least try to make these movies different; original, and in a word - better.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Why Are They Doing This?

The blatant overuse of the question, "Why are you doing this?" in produced scripts, especially in suspense/thrillers, is reaching epidemic levels. Instead of actually revealing a villain's motivations through dialogue and plot, demonstrating "Why he or she is doing this", it seems that otherwise competent writers are taking this lame shortcut and just having their victims scream in terror and plead, "Why are you doing this!?"

It's the most overused line in - I'd dare say - the past ten years of produced scripts. You see it everywhere. And I'm willing to bet right now that no other phrase in screenwriting even comes close in terms of word-for-word repetitive use.

Illustrative example Number One: In a recent Heroes episode, Sylar has Claire telekinetically pinned to a wall, choking her, but she still manages to get out a question... "Why..." but she barely gets out the first word before I'm groaning, Don't Say It! But of course, this being the third season of Heroes and with the writing tumbling along with the ratings, she goes ahead and says it: "Why are you doing this?" -and I promptly reach for the remote, nearly crying, screaming my own question: "Why? Why are they - the writers - doing this?

I'd argue that "Why are you doing this?" is a question that a character should NEVER ask – one, because it's unnatural. You're running for your life, chased by a hacksaw-wielding madman, you're not stopping to ask "Please tell me, Why are you doing this?" You don't know, you don't care – you're running for your life. You can assume he's nuts and it's clear he wants to saw you in half. It's not the time or place for such a question. And second, even worse, resorting to using that phrase demonstrates a clear lack of ability on the writer's part, a failure to reveal the villain's motivations... It's an obvious 'literary' device – and a transparent one at that: as if writers are following along in some instruction manual that says, at some point, have your victim ask the monster/stalker/villain why he or she is doing 'this'.

But this ridiculous (and on-the-nose) dialogue device isn't limited to the slasher genre. Even Oscar-nominated dramas fall victim to it (and once you're on the lookout for this phrase, you find it all over). In the otherwise brilliant The Changeling, the police chief asks Angelina this question twice in the same scene.

You want other examples? You have only to flip on the TV to any movie channel or network series, and there's a good chance you'll hear it. You might want to blame Wes Craven, whose Scream (1996) illustrated the arguably first-time value of such a question (maybe once, but twice in the same movie?) Casey (the first victim) asks it of the threatening voice on the phone in the beginning, then near the end Sidney screams it out as the killers are chasing her.

Then in I know What You Did Last Summer, Julie screams "Why are you doing this?" to the rain-coated man with the hook dragging her through the mud. Do we really need that question at that time? Couldn't the writers have come up with something a little more original, not to mention realistic?

Jump ahead ten years… In The Strangers, Liv Tyler whispers the dreaded question of a bag-headed intruder after these strangers have been tormenting her for an hour. What would have worked, with far more effect, was just to have her ask, simply: "Why?" 'nuff said. But in this movie, at least the tormentor responds – and here I'll give the writers due credit for crafting the perfect response: "Because you were home."

Other examples? Did I already mention Heroes? Maybe I forget to note how the writers actually had Claire ask Sylar the same question three episodes in a row... By the third time I was cursing her genetic immortality and hoping Sylar would be so annoyed he'd just find a way to shut her up for good.

The other night I casually changed the channels and landed on CSI New York – and within one minute someone was asking Gary Sinise, "Why are you doing this?" (And as far as I could see, she was just asking him why he was doing his job).

And don't even get me started on Harper's Island… (I've lost count.)

But even the best written shows sometimes fall into this trap. In Lost, Kate asks it of Sawyer when he shows up to help take her and young Ben to the Others. But… at least she catches herself afterward, realizing how dumb it sounds, and clarifies her query: "Why are you doing this… why are you helping me?" See, I'd argue the first half of the question should have been lost in the editing room. It's so forced, lending credence to my suspicion that this phrase is somehow ingrained in writers' brains (or perhaps mandated by the powers-that-be).

Never mind that 'this' is such a vague term. Some Hollywood-types must believe it's perfect, interchangeable in any genre. Just plug it in and the word 'this' will work for every situation: from a husband cheating on his wife to a mutated freak who likes to set people on fire. Again, no need to worry about those pesky issues of character development or motivation; if you're in a rush, just force the question – Why? And, in the height of laziness, you don't even have to replace 'this' with something more colorful or revealing. Why should you ask, "Why are you stalking me through the woods with an ax and murdering all my friends, when you can just ask the stilted, unnatural-sounding, "Why are you doing this?"

I don't just blame the writers. Editors and ultimately even directors bear the same mark of shame for letting this travesty go on. But I also know how the editing process works, how painful it can be to get those red pens out and cut and slash and purify in the quest to get everything just right… which is why it's so befuddling that this phrase makes it through all that. How how can so many sets of eyes look at such an out-of-place, poorly-written and over-used phrase, and still let it stay?

Again, I'm back to believing there's some kind of conspiracy at work. Maybe someone's patented that phrase and it's part of secret WGA guidelines that one out of every five scripts needs to include it so the original writer can get a percentage.

Nothing else makes sense.

Nothing else explains… why they are doing this.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Two weeks Until Silver and Gold's release

Counting the days...
For my second published book. A lot of preliminary work to do (long after the words have been written, edited and type-set) - such as set up a blog (finally!)

So this is the first test, more to come!