Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Space Jam 2: Friendship is Magic


The rumors are flying that Space Jam 2 is happening. Since there is no reason why not, and Hollywood continues to milk the nostalgia cow, I'd say it's inevitable.

How can Space Jam 2 best capture the spirit of the original? The first Space Jam was a time capsule of everything that was popular in the 90's, so the new one should be a time capsule of everything that's popular in 2015. To wit, here is my speculative script treatment for how the new movie should go down.




"Space Jam 2: Friendship is Magic"
By James L. Steele

The Loony Tunes are not cool anymore. Instead, I recommend replacing all Loony Tunes with MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC characters.

(You're humming the theme song right now. Just admit it.)


ACT 1

We open on the same ALIEN PLANET featured in the original film. Reality TV is all the rage. (Show WALL OF MONITORS broadcasting every reality TV series ever made to all corners of the galaxy.) These aliens created the genre to conquer the galaxy, and they have succeeded.

Ratings are good, profits are through the roof, but it's not enough for the executives and investors. To get even more viewers, MR. SWACKHAMMER (the boss alien from the first film) decides to capture this generation's most popular cartoon characters and force them to star in a reality TV series.

Cut to EQUESTRIA, daytime.

TWILIGHT SPARKLE, RARITY, APPLEJACK, PINKIE PIE, RAINBOW DASH, and FLUTTERSHY are doing their usual pony activities. Alien HENCHMEN secretly land, observe, and then capture our main characters. (SPIKE is optional.)

The ponies are transported back to the alien planet and dumped into the office, where Swackhammer pitches the new reality TV series to them, for which they have been cast: a camera crew is to follow them around as they try to win places on other reality TV shows.

Having no choice, the ponies go along with it, trying out for several shows in multiple animated worlds, frequently doing interview cutaways. They are forced to bicker and backstab each other for the hungry TV audience (show the HUNGRY TV AUDIENCE craving DRAMA and CONFLICT).

They are also told to be as bad as possible. Any attempts at being good at any of the shows they try out for are met with outrage from their aliens captors, saying it looks better for the cameras if they suck at everything they try. The girls have to oblige.

Meanwhile, in the real world, LEBRON JAMES has just begun a reality series of his own. (Possible titles include: NBA SHOWDOWN; THE RECRUITS; NBA ULTIMATE DREAM CHALLENGE.) The NBA recruits new players through a reality TV series now. Every season, they hold open tryouts, and then the contestants have to achieve ordinary basketball-related challenges in ridiculously small time limits with outrageously bizarre restrictions on equipment and location; and must please judges and survive vote-offs and sabotages on top of all that. All the while, the prospective pro-basketball players are compelled to backstab and bicker with one another during the contests as well as between. (Show the HUNGRY TV AUDIENCE craving DRAMA and CONFLICT again.)


ACT 2

Twilight Sparkle hears one of the alien producers talking with his superior about their plan to keep the series going for 10 years: they want the ponies to perpetually try out for reality TV shows, but never actually earn a place on one. Twilight sees a way to use this to escape. She tells the girls they must actually win a place on a show. She persuades the camera crew into letting the ponies try out for Lebron's reality TV series in the real world, figuring basketball should be easy for them.

They actually secure a place on the show. The aliens did not expect this--the contract they made the ponies sign does not have any provisions for what happens in this case, so the aliens scramble to come up with a solution. The ponies use the opportunity. Hearing of their plight, Lebron convinces his lawyer (can we get WAYNE KNIGHT again?) to write it in their contract that if the ponies win, they sign an NBA player's contract and are released from the alien's contract at the same time.


ACT 3

It is up to Lebron to coach them through the difficult challenges and win a place in the NBA. However, now there are two different TV series producers trying to turn the ponies against one another, and disharmony threatens to tear their friendship apart. (Show the various INTERVIEWS and dramatic BEHIND THE SCENES BICKERING. Also show the HUNGRY TV AUDIENCE feeding off it.)

Meanwhile, the aliens send the henchmen down to possess some of the other contestants, boosting their basketball skills to make it harder for the ponies to win. By the time the trick is revealed, it's too late. The girls will need all the help they can get if they hope to compete with these new, supertalented players and go home again. Lebron James is just the person.

Along the way, they learn the true meaning of friendship (show the MAGIC of FRIENDSHIP) and teamwork. Together, they overcome the obstacles, win the contest, survive the sabotages, please the judges, survive the FINAL BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT (with Lebron himself playing on their side), make it through the DRAMATIC VOTING ROUND, and are released from their alien contract. The ponies return home, friends once again.


EPILOGUE
When the episodes for Lebron's show air, the ratings shatter records, and the producers want the ponies back. In Equestria, the ponies realize they are now contracted NBA players, and must report for season games soon. They are eager to start. It sounds like fun! (Sequel cliffhanger!)

CREDITS MUSIC: a rap/dubstep/boyband version of the MLP:FiM theme that will never be dated.


Creative notes:

All characters should say "literally" at least once per three lines. "Seriously" should be used at least once per five lines.

Starbucks should sponsor the whole film. Nothing but Starbucks ads all over the place.

John de Lancie should have a cameo in this film, either as Discord, or as a human character.

The entire voice cast from MLP:FiM should also have cameos as humans to give the film rewatch value.

For the stadium scenes where an audience is present, all spectators should be playing on their phones.

When the contestants are talking to each other, they should be texting on their phones while bickering and arguing and backstabbing one another. Likewise for the interview sections.

Keep Michael Jordan as far away from this movie as possible. Only CURRENTLY popular icons of awesomeness are allowed here.

Consider using the real-life Lebron James to play himself. Using a computer animated double might look more realistic, and the performance might be better, but we must strive for authenticity. That's why the first movie did not animate Jordan, so we should not animate Lebron.


Conclusion:

I would love to write this story, but due to the subject matter being so current, it will be outdated before I can finish it. Unless I write it in less than a week, which is presumably about as long as it took the screenwriters to complete the first movie.


ATTENTION HOLLYWOOD: if you like this idea, feel free to use it, but remember this spec is © 2015 James L. Steele. All rights are reserved. If you want to use this treatment, I only ask for a small fortune in return.

#SpaceJam2Plots

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Begging for a Job: the New American Way

Recently I was at the service desk and someone just happened to come up to the desk and ask to speak to the hiring manager. Our Human Resources person just happened to be standing right there, and she talked to him.

The guy (young adult; I don't want to call him a kid yet!) wanted to talk to the hiring manager directly to tell her just how much he wanted to work at Starbucks and that he thought he would be great for the opening.

I've seen this kind of thing happen over and over for years. It hasn't stopped. Is that what we've come to in America? Outright begging for employment? The only advice we can give our kids these days is to make personal appeals everywhere we apply? Only problem is that everyone else has given their kids the same advice, so it is pointless.

The hiring manager still has a dozen or so applications to choose from, and the only thing you have that sets you apart from everyone else is how much you really want to work, and how much you feel you would be good for the job?

Employment advice articles outright admit the best way to get a job to "network," which is code for "know people and get them to do you favors." Your skills don't matter--lots of people went to college to get the same skills you have. Employment history doesn't matter--people with that are shunned because experience means they'll want more money. The problem is so basic we don't want to admit it: too many people, not enough jobs for them.

Begging is part of the job-hunting process now. What an abysmal state we've fallen into.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Definition of "Literary Fiction"

So far, I've discovered 3 topics that can turn most writers and editors from logical, reasonable human beings into the most vindictive, pretentious people on the planet. People who seem above arguing on the internet will defend their opinion on these topics with more passion than they will defend the books they have written. These topics are:

1) to self-publish or remain traditional.

2) Number of spaces after a period.

3) The definition of "literary fiction."

I have yet to address this last point, so let's dive into it!

*

Since I began seeking places to publish my work, I have struggled to define exactly what "literary fiction" is. It is not "literature"--those great works of the past that have stood the test of time. Literary fiction is not even trying to be like literature, as some people claim.

Every time I read it, I get the feeling the author is imitating the feeling you get when you're trying to remember a dream. It is fiction that uses as many words as possible to say as little as possible. It is fiction that is intentionally written to derail coherence.

I find the wandering, meandering style annoying and unprofessional, the eloquent vagueness pretentious and unreadable, the unnatural dialogue awful and unbelievable. Everything I read that calls itself "literary" has this feel to it. It does not read like it is "about something," or striving to be timeless or rise above the confines of popular, genre writing. It reads like it is being deliberately unclear.

I don't get litfic. I don't get its appeal. I don't get why it is considered more "professional" than anything else. I have talked to other, more established "genre" writers about this. They joke that there really are two major camps in the writing world: the literary one, and the genre one. Those in the genre camp often joke about literary writers. One story I heard was how one literary writer said the story she was writing was about space travel, but oh, it's not genre! As if writing science fiction is an admission of harboring unclean thoughts.

They said it's the fiction the "elites" have declared is "good" writing. It's what colleges teach their students is good writing. It is writing that stresses craft over story. Writing that has been workshopped to death. It's supposed to be the kind of writing that is about something--or strives to be on the same level as fine literature, but it does not do either of those things. Most of it reads like a badly remembered dream, and the stories that don't instead go out of their way to be unclear!

I'm convinced literary fiction exists to ensure college professors have a job. Students reading these books will have no idea what to make of them, which means professors can step in to interpret the story for them. The professors can feed the students whatever interpretation they want, and they feel good about themselves for having reached a conclusion.

This also leaves room open for professors and even students to have differing opinions on the story, to read as many meanings into it as possible, allowing them to divide up into camps and schools of thought regarding what the author meant. Then they can feel superior to others who don't get it. Books like these keep the academics busy. Stories like these make them feel relevant.

But guess what the author meant? He created confusion on purpose in order to invite people to read meaning into it because he knows all he has to do is make academia feel important to achieve immortality.

Since many--if not all of these authors went to esteemed colleges and attended writing workshops themselves, I presume they write their stories specifically for those people to have something to interpret, in the hopes that they will ponder and dissect the story endlessly, because that's what academics like to do. So give them something to interpret. Give them a challenge! Don't be bold and make a point; be vague, so the professors and their students can read whatever meaning into it they please. That's how you achieve immortality. That's how you gain respect in the literary world.

I don't get it. Much of real literature exists to make a point. Most of it wouldn't exist if the author didn't have something to say. Even genre stories can be packed with themes and have important points to make, so the idea of eloquent vagueness calling itself "literary" is completely deceptive, and the argument that this kind of writing strives to be on the same shelf as classic literature is nonsense.

I am of the opinion that prose (if not language itself!) exists to convey clear meaning, and taking this craft of refined thinking and twisting it into deliberate meaninglessness should be considered a crime! I'm not saying writers shouldn't leave anything open to interpretation, or that every story has to make a point, but I dislike vagueness for its own sake. I spent many years in isolation, practicing the craft, trying to get better at expressing myself clearly in words. Why would anyone take that same devotion to do just the opposite?

Nope, literary fiction is not for me, both as a reader and a writer. I'll stick to my genre stuff.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Amazon's Latest Move Against Authors

I read an article that states Amazon wants to pay its Kindle Direct Publishing authors based on the number of pages Kindle readers read, not per download. As if isn't difficult enough to make money off writing, now Amazon is only going to pay authors based on how much of the book people read. One critic pointed out it's like going to a restaurant and only paying for eating half a hamburger.

This is in addition to KDP letting people borrow and return digital books! On top of this, Amazon is watching what we read, targeting us with suggested purchases. We already know they can recall books automatically and alter the text at will!

Publishing through Amazon directly is the same as signing a contract with any other giant, corporate entity: the publisher owns your work, can do whatever it wants with it, and the terms will never benefit the author.

The good news is that this is voluntary. Only Kindle titles enrolled in the program face these kinds of restrictions, but Amazon kind of has writers by the shorthairs. If we want the non-sucky royalty rates, we have no choice but to let Amazon give our work away for free, essentially. If we want to retain control of our work, we have to accept the sucky royalty rates. We may yet see a day when agreeing to these distribution terms is mandatory to publish anything through Amazon.

These systems are set up to favor the business. If you take Amazon's wonderful royalty system, they expect a lot in return. While these things are legal, they demonstrate what's possible, and that it does not benefit authors in any way. Our system of economics is set up to favor the business, not the person who actually does the work. Always remember that.

Authors beware: direct publishing through Amazon is portrayed as freeing writers from one-sided publishing deals, but it is anything but. There may not be a big contract to sign, but it's still in the terms and conditions. Don't get screwed.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Do Online Reviews Matter Anymore?

Writers sure are entertaining, aren't they? What, with the meltdowns regarding negative reviews over the last few years, and revelations that authors are faking reviews, and some are hiring people to leave fake reviews for them.

Then there are the writers who are coming out against libraries for giving their work away for free. Libraries! The library was once revered and respected, even during the most anti-communist of times, and now it's under criticism? Even if it's only an isolated incident, it reveals something deeper going on.

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Regarding negative reviews, these days reviews are not perceived as mere feedback. Reviews are regarded as a tool authors use to sell books. Therefore, negative reviews hurt sales.

It shows how much competition there is now, and how difficult it is to make any money off writing. Not that is was easy before--convincing people to pay money to read your work has always been a challenge--but technology (especially the internet) means there are a hundred times more people trying to do it. Somehow you gotta stand out. It's so difficult for writers to get noticed they have resorted to creating the illusion of a crowd of admirers in order to attract a real crowd of readers.

As a result, nobody trusts reviews. We know most reviews are fake, or the writer's friends, or the person got a free copy in exchange for a glowing review. What was once a place to leave real feedback has instead become personal, and it is this lack of trust that's hurting sales.

It's the same reason some are starting to sneer at libraries. They're not perceived as a place of learning, or freeing information from the stranglehold of an oppressive elite, but a place where people can get an author's books for free, which also hurts sales. What a shift in attitude.

Some argue that the internet has freed all the information, so libraries are no longer needed. I disagree with this assessment. We need places where books are preserved in physical form. Digital information is too easy to edit, change and censor. Printed books are permanent.

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This dramatic shift has more to do with a sign of the times than a whiny attitude on the part of authors. There is so much competition now, so much noise, so many people screaming for attention it's harder than ever to get noticed. So difficult that even libraries are under criticism for adding to this difficulty. The internet has made it so hard for any creative person to stand out that every negative review is perceived as hurting an author's chance to succeed.

But nobody trusts reviews anymore. In fact, people are more likely to trust the one dissenting opinion that is thoughtful and balanced than the 30 glowing reviews that are two sentences each. Take criticism as a good sign that your work is reaching a wider audience.

So I say let's stop obsessing over reviews. Nobody really cares about them anymore. I think the only reason writers care so much about them is because it's like a high score. The more positive reviews you rack up on a book, the more confident you feel that people like you, and you're not wasting your time being a writer after all! You can also masturbate over the knowledge that you collected more reviews than some other author whose work you view as inferior to your own.

It's time to find another way to feel better about ourselves.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Jupiter Ascending, big idea is boring when framed as a wedding

So... Jupiter Ascending...

The Wachowskis had a pretty cool idea for Earth's purpose. A damn interesting idea. But instead of making their story about that, they chose to focus on a Bella Swan character who does nothing through the movie but fall from tall buildings and get kidnapped!



Somehow Bella--er, Jupiter has the same DNA as a royal woman on another planet who's been dead for thousands of years, and this royal happens to be the rightful owner of Earth. The same DNA pattern happens to emerge on Earth, and that makes her, legally, the same person as the deceased royal. What? She's not the daughter of a royal; her DNA just happens to match exactly? How does that work?

Somehow, someone notices her DNA is a match, and several people send bounty hunters to either kill or capture her before she can claim her birthright--no, that's not it. Uh, her title... because she's a reincarnation and legally the same person, so she has to go somewhere to claim it.

I lost track of how many alien species were after this woman. The greys, the bounty hunters, the reptiles (who do have a very cool design), the soldiers... Who was working for whom? The greys had her once, and they didn't test her DNA then? Why?


The dialogue is tiresome. There's about five minutes of action, then 10 minutes of dialogue, then ten minutes of action, followed by another dialogue scene. Filmmaking tip: Phantom Menace is not a good example of structure! There's so much dialogue I was twitching by the end of the first hour, dreading when the action would stop and characters would start talking again. I was begging for it to be over! I'm all for exposition, but when half of what they say makes no sense, or serves to further a forced romance with a man she just met, I cringe.

Yeah, there's a forced romance here. Bella/Jupiter falls in love with one of the bounty hunters after her. He's working for someone who wants to keep her alive. She just met him a few hours ago, and she's in love with him only because he saved her life. Oh, and he happens to have been spliced with wolf DNA, making him an excellent hunter. Yup, she's Bella.

All of these people are after Bella so she can never claim the Earth as her property, and they are legally free to own it. Bella's rescuer takes her to a planet to make her title official, and the Earth legally hers.

The Wachowskis made it impossible to take this universe seriously thanks to this bureaucracy sequence. It's something that belongs in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, not an epic sci-fi action thriller about the real human civilization, and their reason for creating the human colony known as Earth. The idea that royalty has a bureaucratic procedure is ridiculous, and in any other movie it might have been funny, but here it just adds to the mishmash of stuff that never comes together into a cohesive whole.

After numerous, pointless dialogue scenes that make up most of the movie, we finally hear the grand revelation the movie was building up to: the Earth is one of many "farms" created by the real human population that lives on other planets. These farms are allowed to grow until the population reaches critical mass, and then they are harvested for genetic material. This is refined into a chemical that revitalizes cells and keeps other planets' populations immortal. It's actually a really cool idea. Trillions of people die so a few million can be immortal. This is the big business of the universe: buying more time to live.

It's explained in the most boring way possible, and framed in the most trivial way possible. We don't see it. We see a lot of action, but none of it furthers the story. Most of the dialogue goes to furthering the forced romance between Bella and her rescuer, not the bigger idea that's way more interesting. All of the action also goes to further this weak, forced romance, not the grand sci-fi idea it should have.

The big concept behind the movie is very solid, but the movie isn't about this idea. It's about Bella being kidnapped and pressured into marrying or abdicating so someone else can claim the Earth as his own property to harvest so he can make more profit. This should be epic, but it seems trivial when framed from the point of view of marriage, and that's Bella's only role in the situation. She possesses the Earth, so everyone wants to marry her, or force her to abdicate.

Had the movie focused on the harvesting idea, it would have been cool. Instead it's about Bella! ...who loves dogs. Come on, if her rescuer has more DNA in common with a dog than a man, why does he still look human? Someone quips they're beauty and the beast, but the guy doesn't look or act like a beast! And why does he get wings at the end?? Bird wings... That's random.

And bees? BEES are genetically programmed to recognize royalty, so they obey Jupiter?! What the fuck. Male bees are also programmed to mate with the queen and die; does that have significance?

Bella/Jupiter almost redeems herself at the end, but her sole act of heroism is saying no, I won't abdicate. After everything leading up to that point, it's not enough.

The Wachowskis tried to make the next Dune. This is either bold, or misguided. It's such a big movie with a big idea and big action, and instead it's about marriage and rescuing a damsel in distress. What a waste of great potential. I would have cared more about Jupiter/Bella had the movie been about these human farms, and if she had a more active role in deciding the fate of the one we call home, instead of wasting so much time interrupting weddings or abdications.

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I get the feeling I'm being way too critical of late. Maybe the movie pissed me off because the reptile things reminded me of something I already wrote :-)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Jurassic World, pretty good but more of the same

Jurassic World (2015)
starring Chris Pratt

Well, the consensus wasn't too far off. It wasn't a bad movie, but none of it really means anything. They tried to give the human characters some personality and history, but there's not enough of it to remember any of their names.



On the car ride home, all my group had to say about it was "it was good." Then nothing more about the movie was spoken because it was, yeah, pretty good, but... Just... That's it. Just another survive-the-monster story we've seen a thousand times. The original Jurassic Park was no better, but it could ride on the newness of its special effects. Jurassic World cannot, so it's just one of a hundred CGI blockbusters in recent memory.

What's the plot? Man creates new hybrid species of dinosaur to please the crowd, it gets loose, and now the heroes have to survive its rampage. Not too different from the last three movies, but I didn't expect any different.

I like Chris Pratt's character. I like the idea of someone having a relationship of respect with the raptors like one would build with a pride of lions or a pack of wolves. That was used very well.


(source)


I like our female lead luring the T-Rex to the final battle. She goes from "useless-female-love-interest" to "courageous female lead" with that one decision, and I like that.

I like the idea of making a new species of dinosaur just to draw in more crowds. Mixing different dinosaur (and modern animal) genes purely to produce visual effects, but ignoring the behavioral problems this will cause is something I can totally imagine Ingen doing, but you'd think they would have made their hybrid look cooler. Add spines, add a bizarre scale pattern, give it spikes on the skull, make its claws as long as its legs--go nuts making it look amazing and terrifying! The geneticists in the movie certainly would have, since the goal was to exaggerate the predator traits for spectator awe, so why does it look just like a T-Rex? Sorry, but it is not terrifying. It does not even look unique!

Four screenwriters, and none of them thought to make the new dinosaur behave less predictably due to its genetic makeup? It doesn't really do anything different from any of the other species of dinosaur they have, and the story could have shown far more surprises to put the heroes in more danger. That would justify why this dinosaur is so hard to kill! In the movie, the only reason nobody can kill the hybrid is because it causes so much damage nobody can aim their guns at it long enough to put it to sleep. It's pretty contrived. Making it behave in more unpredictable ways would have gone a long way to personify the danger of tampering with life for the sake of profit, and the unexpected consequences.

The screenwriters could have gone the opposite direction with this. Jurassic World makes a bizarre chimera of dinosaur traits, portrays it as a fierce predator to the crowd, but behind the scenes the animal is constantly sick, can barely walk, and sleeps 18 hours a day because its metabolism is not fast enough to support its bulk. That would have been a bold, poignant direction to take the idea.

There could have been a lot more story in this, but they settled for tried-and-true, rampaging dinosaur action. For that, it's pretty good. The final fight at the end is very well-done, bringing multiple species into the battle for a cooperative fight against a common enemy. They really did make these fights unique. It's on par with the original, but since the special effects are not innovative anymore, it doesn't have the same impact.

Of course, Michael Crichton's original message about the danger of science advancing ahead of safety for the sake of profit is lost on screen. The message is more relevant than ever, and it needs to be presented as more than just a monster movie plot.

Most movies these days do everything halfway. They have some good ideas, and they don't develop them enough! This has been a complaint of movies for years: focus on the visuals, not the story. I think we've reached a point where we want the action to mean something. VFX don't stand on their own anymore. They need story to support them.


*

How the hell did those kids get the old Jurassic Park vehicle to work?! At least 30 years to rust and rot--the tires should have been shot by then, plus the fluid systems rusted through. And surely central control would have been able to take remote control of their gyrosphere and prevent them from leaving the perimeter like that.

Wait, um, how close was the T-Rex exhibit? Would they really put it right next door to the visitor's center??

...what was the purpose of putting those raptors in headcages? And how do you get a raptor in one??

And boy, there were a lot of product placements in that movie, and they were distracting. The movie comes so close to making fun of how ridiculous sponsor-naming has become, but of course it only goes halfway because the filmmakers couldn't upset the real sponsors. I totally dare some company to put its name to the next dinosaur that slaughters a few thousand people. Or better yet, let's name some killer dinosaurs after companies who deserve it: Monsantosaurus, BPosaurus, Microsoftodon, Exxonodon, Comcastosaurus, Dowodon. We could have fun with this!