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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.

An Open Letter to the Director of Star Wars Episode 7

Yesterday Joe Carnahan, director of THE GREY, SMOKING ACES, NARC — and as of yesterday morning my favorite director — tweeted the following:

That’s right. Who wants to touch me.

While he might have meant just involving us in any potential saber action, that doesn’t strike me as a move requiring particular bravery on the part of the studios. I think he meant giving us the you’d-think-would-be-coveted-but-has-been-turned-down-by-all-the-big-names directing gig.

First off: yo, Disney/LFL. We’ll totally do it. It’s not that crazy. We’ll be working with ILM, with you guys, you’ve already got a great writer and I’m sure you’d team us up with a great DP and a great AD, and the experience and talent of the crew will more than make up for whatever we may lack. If you can’t get a name to draw the crowds, you know people would show up curious to see what the YouTube kids came out with.

Yeah, snowball’s chance, but had to put that out there. Shy people get nothing, right?

At any rate, irrespective of the probability that this could ever happen, I couldn’t help daydreaming about it, and in so doing, considering what the best approach could possibly be to a film with such high expectations. Looking at it from the perspective of a filmmaker and, more importantly, from that of a fan.

Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at articulating my thoughts and feelings on movies, and so I thought I would share with you, yet-to-be-named director of Episode 7, what I — and, I think, others like me — want you to know about the task ahead of you.

After the negative fan reactions to Episode 1, many people made the claim that, well, with a movie that hotly anticipated, there was no way it could ever have lived up to the fans’ expectations. And, two-and-change years before the unveiling of Episode 7, we’ve already got folks tempering their expectations saying the same thing. There’s no way it can be as great as they can’t help hoping it will be. There’s no way it can do anything other than disappoint.

I don’t agree with them.

Here’s the most important thing for you to know: we, the fans, want you to succeed. The internet is… well, you know. Scum, villainy, etc. So you’re gonna get a lot of hate coming at your face once your name goes out in the world, no matter who you are. But the truth is that there is nothing fans of Star Wars want more than to love the film you’re going to make. Despite how it may sound in the comment threads of various film blogs (and I suggest you avoid them), deep down, we’re on your side. We’re rooting for you.

You’re going to hear that the fans want the new movies to be like the original trilogy, and we do. That sounds like a tall order, but it’s really not. All it means is we want back the sense of adventure, the sense of fun, lacking from the very somber, convoluted-plot-driven prequels.

If you do try to listen to what the fans want, try to separate out what they are actually asking for, versus the specific execution they suggest. Yoda fought with a lightsaber in ATTACK OF THE CLONES because fans said they wanted to see Yoda fight with a lightsaber — but what they really wanted was to see what made Yoda the greatest Jedi of all time. Which, in actuality, had nothing to do with his swordsmanship (as even Yoda himself basically says in EMPIRE).

So, for example, you’re going to hear fans clamoring for the original characters — Luke, Leia, Han — to return. And while that would, indeed, be super cool (and if they’ll do it we’ll totally take it), what we’re really asking for is the kind of characters they represent. Characters who are human, who have personality, who are memorable and distinct. We love the original trilogy because watching it feels like going on an adventure with some of our dearest friends, we know their quirks and foibles, and love them not in spite of their flaws but because of them.

Where the prequels fell short of fan hopes, in my estimation, has nothing to do with their scope, their scale, their action, their visual effects. Obviously these aspects completely outstripped anything in the original films. But they feel like a history lecture, populated by larger-than-life mythological figures for whom it would be easy for us to rattle off a complete chronology of what they do, but an impossible task to describe who they are.

When it comes down to it, we want to meet some new friends. Because for all that people (like me) can delve into the worldbuilding minutiae of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, for all that we talk about the trench run or the speeder chase, it was never really about those things. It wasn’t about the history of the Jedi, or the lightsaber fights, or the space battles. We loved those things because we loved the characters we were experiencing them with. Give us characters to fall in love with again, and you can practically do no wrong. We’ll follow them to hell and back or just watch them eat a meal together. Throw them into peril and, more than just being impressed by the visuals I’m sure you and ILM will deliver, we’ll care.

That’s all we want from you. Really. The worst mistake you can make will be to approach this thinking you have something to prove. You don’t have to show off. You don’t have to convince us you have the chops to direct action or visual effects. Just introduce us to our new best friends. It’s the simplest, and most difficult, thing for a filmmaker to do. But it’s the only one that truly matters.

Good luck. Or, if you prefer — and if you’re the one with this gig, you probably should — may the Force be with you.

Oh, and one more thing. While I meant what I said above about the lightsaber fights not being what really mattered, if it so happens that the new adventure calls for them… please feel free to get in touch.

Movie Review: JACK REACHER

Remember when movies used to have titles? When they were actually descriptive and interesting and not just the name of the main character you’d never heard of?

Sigh. I miss those days.

In the titling spirit of JOHN CARTER and ALEX CROSS, somebody decided to call this flick JACK REACHER instead of ONE SHOT, the title of the book on which it was based. I don’t want to harp on the title this whole time, but I do think titles like this hamper a film’s ability to attract the general audience’s interest. I could be wrong — it looks like it’s doing fine at the box office — but I think it could be doing better if people had any sense of what the movie was about, its tone, or anything at all from the film’s title, its equally-generic poster, or its by-the-numbers trailer.

At any rate, I’m pleased to report that the title is my biggest gripe with the film. Otherwise, JACK REACHER is a highly entertaining thriller, channeling the energy of a Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler hardboiled detective story seamlessly into contemporary times. It’s not a throwback to THE BIG SLEEP, THE MALTESE FALCON, or CHINATOWN* so much as a (highly worthy) successor to that kind of mystery story.

In a Sherlock Holmes mystery, Sherlock solves the crime seemingly by magic, only afterward describing the clues his keen senses and intellect registered and which Watson missed. But since Watson was our narrator, the fact he missed those clues means we as the reader never heard about them until Sherlock mentioned, after the fact, they were there. We never had the chance to try to solve the mystery ourselves.

The other way to do it is to be in the mind of the detective himself, getting all the clues as he does and being able to put them together alongside him. JACK REACHER is this kind of mystery story, giving you all the same pieces our man Jack has to work with, doling them out in such a way that he’s always just one step ahead of us without feeling like he’s jumping wildly to unjustifiably correct conclusions.

Obviously to discuss the plot of a mystery is to ruin a lot of the fun, so I’ll refrain there, other than to say the villain’s motivation…doesn’t make a ton of sense. Which is okay, really, because it’s just the McGuffin and the fun is seeing how Reacher discovers the truth.

Whatever you may think of Tom Cruise in terms of his personal life choices, he’s capital-Tom capital-Cruise for a reason, and as always he’s compelling to watch in every scene. He and Rosamund Pike have great chemistry, and the film possesses exactly the kind of personality and wit so often lacking from the over-serious, melodramatic tentpoles of recent years. Reacher is a fascinating badass without a dark past he’s always sulking over, which was a breath of fresh air.

I also like a lot about the way director Christopher McQuarrie staged this film, particularly the action scenes. He makes them feel properly frenetic and chaotic without resorting to the shakycam crutch so often used to hide the fact the director hasn’t bothered to stage anything coherent at all, managing even to inject some humor into the action. (One action beat descends into almost pure slapstick, but the movie gets away with it because Reacher is as astonished by the absurdity as we are.) McQuarrie also knows when not to go for the thrill and dial up the suspense instead, a skill I think a lot of action directors (and screenwriters) seem to lack.

If you’re like me and the lame title put you off bothering to so much as find out what JACK REACHER even is, do yourself a favor and check it out. It is more clever and original than the marketing would have you believe, engages your brain without being exhausting, and is well worth your two hours.


* Which I guess today would be released as PHILIP MARLOWE, SAM SPADE and JAKE GITTES, respectively. Oh, Hollywood.

My Week in Movies (1/1–1/6)

Let’s see if we can get back into this in 2013.

Not a lot of movies this first week and all of them start with C, which I didn’t notice until just now. That’s funny.

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: WORLDS AWAY

Generally speaking, the plan is for movies currently in theatres to get a stand-alone review, but there’s not enough to say about WORLDS AWAY to make it worth its own post. The film is a collection of acts from the various Las Vegas Cirque troupes — including O, Kà, Zumanity, and others — shot in stereo (apparently sometimes with James Cameron, who produced the film, operating the camera) and loosely strung together by a framing story of a young man and woman traveling through the different “worlds” represented by each act, searching for each other.

I saw the film in 3D and for once I felt it actually enhanced the experience. Many of the acts involve stunts that travel great distances or are performed high above the stage, and being able to feel the depth of the space made a difference in creating a sense of awe and appreciation for the grace, agility, and courage of the performers.

WORLDS AWAY’s plot is effectively nonexistent, but that’s never really been the point of Cirque du Soleil. Cirque has always been about marveling at various feats of human athleticism, usually set to some pretty great music. Orders of magnitude cheaper than a trip to Vegas and tickets to seven Cirque shows — and, by being able to get the cameras in among the action, showcasing the performances in a better-than-front-row view — if you’ve ever wanted to check out a Cirque show, this is 90 minutes worth catching in theatres (if you can find a showing near you).

CLEANFLIX

A documentary about Clean Flicks, a Utah-based (read: Mormon) company which in the mid-2000s began producing unauthorized bowdlerizations of Hollywood movies. Described as chronicling the “rise and fall” of the company, it actually chronicles the rise and fall of an entire cottage industry of “family” (read: fundie) friendly re-cut films.

The film does a good job of letting the Clean Flicks side of things make their case, while addressing the legal, ethical, and creative objections from the studios and filmmakers whose work is being — in my view, theirs, and I think the documentary’s — inappropriately altered. It takes a rather bizarre turn in the final third, but it’s a bizarre turn in the real events and it feels right that the documentary, shot over the course of several years while the events unfolded, should cover it.

Surprisingly engaging for what you’d think would be esoteric subject matter, as of now the doc is available on Netflix and worth checking out.

CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010)

I didn’t expect much from this, given its rather poor reviews (28% on Rotten Tomatoes), the fact I’m not super impressed by Louis Letterier, and the fact that — let’s have some real talk here — the 1980 CLASH was a pretty dumb movie to begin with, the inarguable genius of Ray Harryhausen notwithstanding.

Almost certainly as a result of such low expectations (and not having to shell out hard-earned cash for a ticket), I didn’t hate CLASH OF THE TITANS. I also didn’t love it by any means; in fact, trying at this moment to recall the movie enough to review it, I’m realizing it was literally almost completely forgettable and I have already done so. Stellar effects work, naturally, but nothing particularly memorable in terms of character, dialogue, plot or action. Oh, except the Djinn characters, they were a cool design.

I hear the sequel, WRATH OF THE TITANS, is significantly worse, which means I’ve pretty much got to check it out.