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After more than 15 years riding the free web template gravy train, I decided it was finally time to get my own site. The blog and its content are now hosted on my shiny new site at dorkmanscott.com. If you already check my site via that URL, you’re… already there and not reading this anyway so why am I even talking to you. If you don’t — especially those of you who so kindly subscribed to my posts via WordPress or RSS — be sure update your subscriptions to pull from the new site.

Movie Review: WARM BODIES

Review may contain mild spoilers. 

It seems like I can’t swing a cat these days without knocking over a shambling and/or sprinting corpse. We’ve got zombie movies, zombie video games, zombie books, zombie TV shows, and if you’re a fellow traveler on the geek internets, zombie references practically warrant categorization as a grammatical part of speech.

Rather than feeling burned out on the entire idea of zombies, however, this situation just makes it more difficult for a new piece of zombie media to rise above the noise and capture my attention. Much of the time it feels like the way action movie pitches after the success of DIE HARD supposedly became variations on DIE HARD.

“It’s zombies in a mall!”

“It’s zombies on a train!”

“It’s zombies on an island!”

WARM BODIES is pretty explicitly “zombie Romeo & Juliet.” Nicholas Hoult plays R, a zombie with some sense of his remaining humanity but no memory of his name beyond the first letter. As one of a small herd of zombies he comes across a group of human survivors scavenging in the urban wasteland, and falls in love with a young woman named Julie after eating the brains (and gaining the memories) of her boyfriend, Perry. Just to make sure no one misses it, R’s best friend is a zombie who recalls his name starts with M, and in a later scene where R infiltrates the fortified survivors’ city, he hides in Julie’s garden while she pines after him on the balcony.

One of the few pieces of book-larnin’ I still carry at the front of my mind is from a Shakespeare course I took in college. Regarding Romeo & Juliet, the professor pointed out that part of the power of the story is that it’s structured as a comedy, and is in fact very humorous early on. Throughout the play, it goes through many of the same essential beats as a comedy of errors, with miscommunication and mistaken identity, but instead of resulting in hijinks and escalating farce they result in violence and an ever-mounting death toll.

I don’t know if this view informed the filmmakers (or the author of the novel on which the film is based) in their approach to the material, but I think there’s a nice symmetry in taking a story which turns love and comedy into death and tragedy, and using it as a backbone to tell a story about a world overrun by death and tragedy transformed by love and comedy.

As you may know from the trailers, what develops between R and Julie somehow (they wisely don’t even try to explain it) causes R to begin to come back to life, and the effects begin to ripple out to affect other zombies, and will ultimately change the world. I think part of our fascination with zombies is the way they reflect so much of what we fear about the modern world — about being mindless consumers going about meaningless rituals day after day; about ourselves, or the people we love, being changed uncontrollably into something vile, some other thing wearing our faces; about losing everything we hold dear in an instant and being faced with the no-win choice to either endure or succumb. Zombie tales tend to be bleak, full of terror and loss, the “happy” endings ambiguous at best. WARM BODIES is the first zombie film I can think of to defy this cynicism and say: yes, it may be that we have lost something precious. But we can get it back. There is hope for us and for the future. We can do more than just survive — we can live.

It’s not what I would consider a perfect movie. The movie nearly stalls out in the first act with Julia trapped in R’s zombie bachelor pad, an abandoned 747 filled primarily with vinyl records. It’s the sequence in which they’re meant to be falling in love but which in my view goes on too long, with each scene being much the same beat rather than building on the last. The story of love conquering all is a little too pat and Symbolism 101 (water as a symbolism for rebirth? Such originality!), the plotting in general is a bit superficial, and I think everyone in the end comes out a little too okay with the fact that Julia’s new boyfriend killed her old one and ate his brains.

Still, it’s got genuine humor (Rob Corddry as M is especially fun) and genuine horror, and I appreciate it for its ambition and its desire to say something new with our nightmare du jour. Worth checking out.

Movie Review: GANGSTER SQUAD

In the 1930s and 1940s, a mobster by the name of Mickey Cohen tried to turn Los Angeles into the kind of criminal oligarchy that characterized Chicago during the period. As the corruption spread, and even infected their own, the LAPD stood against him and ultimately won, preventing L.A. from becoming a permanent seat of organized crime.

This really happened. It’s a significant part of Los Angeles history. The true story of the rise and fall of a would-be empire, brought down by the determined work of a principled few — in the right hands, that story could result in a truly compelling, even classic film.

In the wrong hands, apparently, it results in GANGSTER SQUAD.

GANGSTER SQUAD dearly wants to have the significance and gravity of CHINATOWN or THE GODFATHER, but winds up being an orange-and-teal DICK TRACY instead. The dialogue is written almost entirely in cliches and soundbites, the shooting and editing style (if we’re so charitable as to consider it a coherent “style”) more concerned with whatever might seem “cool” for this particular moment than creating a sense of time and place. All of it is dragged in from other movies without a sense of why those other movies did it, so you get a GOODFELLAS steadicam-entering-the-club scene in the same film as a slo-mo shootout — complete with close-ups of dramatically blossoming muzzle flashes — more appropriate in a film like DREDD.

Josh Brolin tries his level best to occupy the hardboiled noir world the movie ought to evoke but doesn’t, and Ryan Gosling actually has charm and wit, to the extent it almost feels like his scenes have been spliced in from another, better film. But Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen is desperate for a mustache to twirl, Emma Stone is sweet but in no way evocative of the classic 1940s starlet, and the movie barely considered the other characters worth discussing so I see no compelling reason I should bother to do so here.

Somehow both predictable and nonsensical, the plot races from beat to beat without earning any of its attempted emotions or catharses, and culminates in a truly ridiculous, borderline insulting final showdown. For a movie about the “battle for the soul of Los Angeles,” the city itself isn’t a character the way it is in CHINATOWN (although, as mentioned, neither are the actual humans, so fair enough). What ought to be a sprawling historical crime epic is reduced to a generic white hat/black hat shoot ‘em up where everyone drawls out of the side of their mouths, and which could frankly take place in any city about any group of characters.

As I said, in the right hands, this story could be fascinating. Fortunately for everyone, Frank Darabont is currently developing Lost Angels for television, a drama series based on the book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City (no relation to the video game L.A. Noire) about this same period in the city’s history. If you’re curious about the story, read the book or wait for the show. Don’t bother with this misfire.

Dear J.J. Abrams…

Last week I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek “open letter” to the as-yet-unannounced director of Episode 7. It was more to get my concerns off my chest than an expectation said director would ever see it. But with the official announcement that J.J. Abrams has stepped up to the plate to kickstart this new generation of Star Wars films, it suddenly becomes much more plausible that we could reach out to him. I know he’s a fan like us, that he’s savvy about the online film community and the people in it, and shown a capacity for recognizing talented individuals in the community — like Andrew Kramer and Wes Ball — and a willingness to reach out to them and let them play with him.

And so I write to J.J. Abrams without my tongue in my cheek, but with all hope and sincerity: Mr. Abrams, my friends and I would very much like to play.

Over the last ten years, I and some of my close friends have made a number of lightsaber fight scenes which have made the rounds and gained some popularity. Being a fan and someone with his finger on the pulse of online fandom, it’s entirely possible you’ve seen one or more of them, but I’d rather err on the side of assuming you haven’t, and link them for you here:

For all I know there’s not a single lightsaber to be found, much less any lightsaber fighting, in the story of Episode 7. But if there is lightsaber fighting, it would mean the world to us to have the opportunity to be involved.

I know that as the man at the helm of Star Wars you’ll have your pick of stunt coordinators and fight choreographers, and we’re not the only ones clamoring for your attention and begging to work on the new film. I also know, from watching behind-the-scenes featurettes and listening to you talk, that you still understand what it is to love and have passion for what you do, and that you know how much it means to a young filmmaker to have that same passion recognized. You could find others to choreograph your fights, but you won’t find anyone with more love for it than we bring. To be involved at all would be beyond an honor — it would be life-changing. And if you put your faith in us, I promise we’ll make you — and the fan community — proud.

I most sincerely hope this finds its way to you, Mr. Abrams, and that you seriously consider letting us be even a small part of this new adventure.

Movie Review: HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS

Possible mild spoilers, but you shouldn’t bother with the movie anyway. 

What if Hansel and Gretel, after surviving their ordeal in the gingerbread house, dedicated their lives to ridding the world of witches? The latest in the current vogue of dark and gritty takes on fairy tales, HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS — like all the others in the trend — had promise as a concept. And, like the others in the trend, it had no idea what to do with it.

Were it not for the presence of Jeremy Renner and reasonably solid production value, you could easily have convinced me that this was a direct-to-video or SyFy Channel offering. But no, that’s unfair — SyFy Channel movies at least have a sense of campy fun, which this film sorely lacks. Instead of embracing the inherent silliness of the concept — of acknowledging and running with the sheer ridiculousness — HANSEL & GRETEL tries so hard to convince you it’s not silly, no sir; it’s actually badass, like WANTED or something.

But their witch-hunting gear and tactics are dull and unimaginative — the action beats mostly consist of sneaking up on witches in the woods and getting into fistfights with them — and the only even slightly tongue-in-cheek H&G joke is a plot point about Hansel needing regular insulin injections, because he contracted diabetes from the incident at the Gingerbread House.

(I frankly wonder how much the writer even bothered to study the story for inspiration — there’s no reference to the trail of breadcrumbs, but there’s a reference to someone’s porridge being “just right.” Look, movie. Either you’re going to do the wink-wink-nudge-nudge fairy tale tomfoolery or you’re not. You can’t just throw in a single reference and call it a day. Go all in or don’t go at all.)

At 88 minutes, it’s on the short end of the feature spectrum. I’ve seen some 90-ish minute movies lately that felt like they were three hours, so on the one hand it was a relief to watch a movie that didn’t drag its feet. Unfortunately, one of the reasons it feels like a quick film is because it’s so superficial, racing through the plot, introducing characters and plotlines and dismissing them on a whim. Peter Stormare is wasted here, and the film still feels like it’s in the “setting the stage” first act even as it ramps up to the climax. It tries to be an “edgy” take on the material by going for over-the-top violence and gore, but without a satirical story or clever execution as a foundation, the flying viscera just feels ugly and mean.

There are no characters to root for, no exciting action, no cleverness, no wit, no fun, and no point. What there is, is an overwhelming sense of been there, done that. Don’t bother.

Offer for Screenwriters: Free Script Consultation

For some time now I’ve been wanting to get into the field of screenplay consulting, and I’ve decided that 2013 is the year to pursue that objective. Over the years I’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive responses to feedback I’ve given to friends and colleagues, in writing groups, from reviews here on the blog, and from suggesting “fixes” to bad movies on Down in Front. Moreover, I enjoy a good story and the opportunity to help someone tell it.

To really make a run at this, however, I’ll need to be able to sell myself to the broader market of screenwriters who have no idea who I am and aren’t going to take the time to scour my Twitter stream or blog or listen to episodes of a podcast to find out. While I intend to introduce my services at competitive rates, I’ll still need to be able to convince writers — who, generally speaking, are not in a position to throw money around indiscriminately — that my services are worth the investment.

The bread and butter of what I’ll offer will be 3-5 pages of notes on feature-length screenplays. When I launch the site for this venture, I want to be able to show examples of the kind of notes I give, as well as testimonials by writers I’ve worked with. And that’s where you guys come in.

I am offering to provide my services — read, critique, and advise on your feature screenplay — to up to three writers, free of charge. In lieu of paying for the services, the writers must agree to allow me to post the notes on my site (with title, author, and character names redacted), as well as agree to provide a brief testimonial about the experience.

If you would like to be considered, please submit the title of the screenplay you would like me to critique, and a brief logline, to dorkman.notes(at)gmail.com. Please do not send the script unless I write back requesting it. Emails with attachments will be deleted unread. Selected writers will be asked to sign a release form before submitting their work.

I’ll be accepting submissions through the week and contacting writers by the weekend. The goal, for me, will be to get a variety of types of scripts to show my “range,” so to speak. So if you don’t get selected, don’t worry, it’s not at all a judgment of your screenplay idea or writing ability.

I look forward to working with you!

Movie Review: MAMA

I’m not sure how I feel about Guillermo del Toro as a filmmaker, but I respect the fact he uses his success and clout to help other filmmakers get their feet in the door. In 2007, he got behind THE ORPHANAGE, a Spanish ghost story not entirely unlike his own DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

This time around, it’s MAMA, based on a short film of the same name, a film which in its expansion to feature length has culled from quite a few more sources than del Toro’s body of work — the influence of THE RING and DARK WATER are readily apparent, with dashes of THE EXORCIST, POLTERGEIST, BLAIR WITCH, and even a few moments lifted from THE GRAVEDANCERS. Though MAMA, like ORPHANAGE, was made by Spanish filmmakers, unlike the earlier film it is in English.

The film starts out promisingly — a stockbroker suffering sudden financial ruin has a psychotic breakdown, murders his estranged wife and kidnaps his two young daughters. One of them is a kindergartener, the other only a year or two old. He winds up driving his car off the road in the woods, and trudging deeper in they discover a cabin by a frozen lake. He’s about to commit a murder-suicide before something in the shadows rips him away, leaving the two girls on their own. That night, sitting in the small pool of light cast by a tiny fire in the fireplace, a single cherry rolls to them — the thing in the darkness has decided to look after them.

It’s a creepy set-up, delightfully Lovecraftian. The older girl needs glasses, but they were damaged in the car crash, so she can’t really see what it is that’s adopted them. The toddler is exposed to the full brunt of the horror, but she’s too young to have her sense of sanity shattered (and will, as a result, spend her childhood without one).

The film spends the next hour doing just about everything right. It sets up the adult protagonists to be tormented by Mama, and actually makes them likable, something so many films — especially horror films — fail to do. The brother of the man in the opening sequence — the little girls’ uncle — has bankrupted himself searching for the girls, and when he finds them and chooses to take them in, his girlfriend decides she cares about him enough that she will stay and help him raise them. It really takes the time to make the story about the characters and not just the scares.

When creepy things do happen — when it begins to become clear that the girls did not come out of the woods alone, and their guardian is jealously possessive — they’re suspenseful, sometimes masterfully so, with things happening uninflected within the frame. You, the viewer, are left to infer that Something Is Wrong from the context rather than the movie getting in your face with crazy camera work and orchestra stings.

Then, just past the midpoint, the movie begins to unravel. The plot begins to make less and less sense, the character motivations and behaviors become less coherent, and the sure-handed confidence of the creeping terror gives way to jump scares, shrieking violins, and showing a great deal of the entity Mama rather than implying her.* The tone starts to vary wildly as well — sometimes creepy, sometimes silly, sometimes almost becoming an action movie. The final confrontation with Mama attempts to go for some emotional power, but the story has gotten so muddled and confused by this point it’s hard to know what I’m supposed to feel.

If you like horror films, this is worth it for some of the really solid scares, and characters you actually care about; but don’t let the first hour get your hopes up too high. It doesn’t quite stick the landing.


*As a side note, the scene which I thought felt the most out of place in the movie was, I discovered afterward, essentially the original short film. In developing stories I find it’s often the case that the concept which made me want to tell the story in the first place — be it a scene, a character, a line of dialogue — no longer belongs in the story once it’s fleshed out. This is not unique to me — it’s what is meant by the writing adage “kill your darlings.” Given that this story appears to be based in part on the legend of La Llorona, it’s kind of ironic the filmmakers failed to do so.

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