Tag Archives: Silver Linings Playbook

Instant Tension: Just Add Guns!

Say three guys are discussing the proper pronunciation of the word milk. Then the argument heats up and they start yelling. Things are starting to get a little intense Now one of them pulls a gun on the others. Things just got real, man! Then the other guys pull out their guns! Just like that the tension in the story jumps through the roof and the argument about elocution is forgotten in favor of will these friends kill themselves over it.

Most stories (and hilarious Julian Smith videos) need tension to move them along or they’ll wind up boring. So the story needs a crisis, a threat or something. One of the easiest ways to do this is to add a gun. Instantly someone’s life is on the line! Drama! Suspense! Tension!

This can be done right, of course. Look at Lost, especially in the earlier seasons when there were only a handful of guns. We got great drama from the fight for possession to their occasional use and threatening. The conservation of guns allows the actual use of them to provide great tension. Guns mean that life was seriously at stake and there were consequences. But the show didn’t always need guns. “The Constant”, arguably the best episode, is a terrific, tense episode that doesn’t have anyone firing a gun.

Some stories require guns. Video games like Uncharted or Mass Effect are about guys with guns saving the day. Chuck is about spies doing spyish work with guns. Take away James Bond’s gun and we get, well, not James Bond. You can’t rave against guns in these stories since they’re essential to the plot.

But let’s take out guns. Can a story keep that level of tension without a firearm?

Ender’s Game is a magnificent book, that should go without saying. One of the things that makes it so good is the state of constant excitement and tension. And besides the practice ones used in the Battle Room, there aren’t any guns. Rather, the tension comes from our wondering how Ender’s going to carry on.

The larger narrative external to the central one in Ender’s Game is a war between mankind and the alien buggers. But the one we follow is Ender’s personal struggle as he’s thrust into a new environment where he must use his wits to get ahead. We’re invested in the kid’s struggle, we want to see how far he can be pushed and how he’ll continue to think his way out. There are the occasional life-or-death moments, but for the most part the tension is intellectual.

Sometimes the thing at stake isn’t the character’s life but humanity. Silver Linings Playbook uses this sort of tension. Pat, Tiffany, and the other characters’ lives are never at the risk of ending, but rather we’re wondering if their lives will continue. As we watch Pat over the course of the movie we’re cheering for him, hoping that he’ll be able to get past his inner demons and come out on top. In a story like this we don’t need the external threat of death to spur things along. Sometimes the internal conflict is more than enough.

Other times a blend makes things work. Iron Man 2 has a few external conflicts in it (Monaco and the climax), but the central plot centers around Tony Stark’s struggle with his humanity and the consequences of doing the superhero schtick. The tension is a lot like that in Silver Linings Playbook: Will Tony be able to fix himself? It’s a blend that works.

Look, stories need tension, that’s just a fact of life. The question is always how to go about with that tension. Internal, external, guns waving around everywhere; the key thing, of course, is to do it well.

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Quality and The Oscars

So it’s Oscar time. Which means award times. And, well, I’m mildly disappointed with some of the nominations. I find that movies, video games, and so on can’t be judged subjectively or comparatively. Least not on a flat scale of quality+writing+cinematography+explosions.

Here’s how I judge stuff: did it accomplish what it set out to do, and did it do it well? It’s an odd scale, yeah, but it’s one that works. Like Lincoln, the movie that snatched a dozen nominations: Spielberg set out to create the definitive cinematic biography of Linocln and the passage of the 13th Amendment. Not only did he accomplish that, he made it look good. So yes, Lincoln was a good movie.

In a similar but different vein, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter presented itself as a biography of Lincoln’s life, only this time vampires were woven in as the primary antagonist. Did it pull it off? Yep. Was it the dramatic/kickass action movie it billed itself as? Oh yes. So yes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was also a good movie. But it would never win an Oscar.

Do I want Lincoln to win Best Picture? No, not really. It’s a great movie, but it’s, well, it’s obvious. I guess Amour is too, though I haven’t seen it and won’t say anything. I’m going to watch Beasts of the Southern Wild sometime before tonight because I want to see it.

And the others? Zero Dark Thirty had the best portrayal of a military raid in cinema that I can think of. Not only did it follow proper procedure, but the whole way it was done gave it the tension and moral ambiguity that it deserved. Les Miserables was a great musical and definitely deserves the nod, but that’s about it.

I read Life of Pi seven years ago on a ship in Norway and enjoyed the book and the movie captured it perfectly. Lastly, Django Unchained is Tarantino being Tarantino, and hey, no complaints there. It’s not as good as Inglorious Basterds, but it’s not crap either.

That leaves Argo and Silver Linings Playbook and they’re my favorites of the nominees. Why?

Argo was different. It was a drama/thriller, but it was also funny. It was intense, but it remained fun without negating any of its intensity. Any idea how hard that is to pull off?

Then Silver Linings is about broken people and I love it because it takes a movie about a romance and gives it weight and worth. But it won’t win because it can be passed over as a romantic comedy and who’d want one of those to win? (Also: Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in that movie was fantastic)

So what movies would I want nominated and why? So glad you asked, dear reader, because you’ll find out.

Right off the bat: Skyfall. Yes, it’s a James Bond movie which means it shouldn’t win, but it’s just too dang good for it to not even be recognized. It’s smart, well made, and, hey, I’ve been over this before. At least we all know it’ll get the Oscar for Best Original Song.

My favorite movies of 2012 will forever be The Avengers (with Silver Linings second). Joss Whedon and crew set out to create an ensemble superhero movie and they pulled it off. At least give the man a writing nomination for being able to balance six main characters without any being terribly overshadowed. It’s simply a well made movie but gets precluded due to its ‘light’ subject matter. So no Oscar.

Beyond those two, Looper should’ve gotten a nod at least for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s makeup and Ted for special effects. The Cabin in the Woods had a wonderfully clever script, but we all knew it wouldn’t be nominated.

At the end of the day, though, doesn’t really matter who’d I want to win. Heck, I’ve never even watched the Oscars before (I will tomorrow, though). All they do is piss me off because the movies I want to win never win. I find them to be so… not predictable but routine. Up or District 9 or True Grit would never win because they were either genre or just too fun. By nature Oscar movies have to be better than other movies. Not The Dark Knight better than Batman and Robin sort of better, but rather the Lincoln better than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter better. Oscar movies need to be serious, maybe inspirational, but certainly dramatic; earnestness, spirit, and heart need not apply. But movies like Silver Linings Playbook and Argo have heart to spare.

Finally: If Paperman doesn’t win Best Animated Short I will strangle a baby narwhal.*

*Writer’s note: I will not strangle a baby narwhal due to a) my lack of access to a baby narwhal and 2) why would anyone want to strangle a baby narwhal (besides Paperman not winning)?

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Broken Pieces

I saw Silver Linings Playbook the other day and loved it (it is currently my favorite of this year’s Oscar nominations). For many reasons, really. Like the brilliantly intelligent script that doesn’t talk down to its audience, some great cinematography, stellar acting and so on. But what really got me was how the protagonists were just so broken. No, not their lives; they were broken. There’s a difference.

Let’s take Uncharted. Nathan Drake is not a broken person. Sure, he’s got crappy luck but he’s a whole person and never finds himself completely lost and gone.

Cloud Strife of Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, is broken. Events prior to the game traumatized him into adopting the identity of someone else. When this illusion comes crashing down he is left a quivering, paralyzed husk. Cloud is compelling due to his need to put himself together to beat the villain. This is accentuated all the more by the help his friends provide. That’s what a broken character is.

Another example? Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly is in pieces. He saw everything he believed in abandon him in the Unification War and now he’s stuck living in the ruins. His demons haunt him and shadow everything he does. Mal doesn’t want to get too attached to his crew for fear that he might leave them, but he does anyway and hates to mention it. He never came back from the war and he can’t; the man just wants to find some semblance of Home. His brokenness isn’t just a motivation: it’s his very being. When Mal makes a sarcastic biting remark he’s not trying to be funny, it’s him masking his pain.

 See, what makes broken characters broken is their traits, complications if you will. They have their goals but their personal complications get in the way. It’s an incredible sort of internal conflict. A guy has to defeat himself to defeat the villain.

Iron Man 2 features a broken Tony Stark. Sure, his brokenness not as developed as the characters in Silver Linings Playbook (more on that in a bit), but he still works as an example. What’s wrong with Tony? He’s realized he’s dying, the hero schtick isn’t working out and he’s lost. So he does stupid things and alienates everyone near him. In order for Tony to beat Vanko he first has to deal with his own issues. Only when he gets past his brokenness can the plot continue.

But that’s when there’s a villain. Silver Linings Playbook has no classical villain. See, Pat has issues. A lot of them. As does Tiffany, the female protagonist. They’re cruel and sarcastic to try and compensate for their hurt. What we get from the movie isn’t some story where the protagonists have to overcome some obstacle so they can fall in love, they have to get past themselves.

It’s unusual for a cinematic romance; two characters having to become someone worth loving in order to be loved. It’s painful as we find out why these characters are who they are and it’s crushing to watch them fail and hurt each other. But more than that it’s honest; an honest look at brokenness and damaged people.

It’s different and it makes for a compelling story. So yeah, Silver Linings Playbook is my pick for Best Picture, ‘cuz it’s a love story about broken people. Go watch it.

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