Cosmic Divide — review

As a screenwriter, I care about narrative. Because narrative is everything. On the first day of Film Studies, I learnt that narrative is the manipulation of time and space to tell a story. Which is where we get Bertie Gilbert’s Cosmic Divide, a motion picture I should have seen by now.

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Screenplay by Bertie Gilbert.

As a screenwriter, I care about narrative. Because narrative is everything. On the first day of Film Studies, I learnt that narrative is the manipulation of time and space to tell a story. Which is where we get Bertie Gilbert’s Cosmic Divide, a motion picture I should have seen by now.

Here’s the thing: Gilbert gets motion pictures. Looking at his filmography, he obviously understand how to make ideas work. Even if his earlier work is arguably inferior to his more recent releases (though that can be said of any artist), watching what he creates shows you that he has everything in his head, understands it all, and just has to make it real. With Cosmic Divide, we get an example of how storytelling should work. And that’s because it honours an unspoken rule: stories need pace. Not necessarily a fast pace, but a consistent pace. And what Cosmic Divide does is to take everything that’s happening, present it in a way that we can understand the characters, but compile that in as less time as possible without loss of information to the audience.

That’s a basic rule of editing, too – giving the audience everything they need to see in as short a space of time as possible, without eliminating the artistic value. When you watch Cosmic Divide, you can see he’s doing this, and it’s clever. But what you don’t know is that this idea is being exploited. The twist ending looks so obvious watching it back, yet experiencing it for the first time doesn’t have this advantage. Again: that’s because the final scene gives extra information that alters what’s come before. Only, it does that by tying the two main threads together. The narrative functions with two things happening, and we switch between them, the diegetic narration being the only connection. Narration on its own can often be used as writers’ short hand when information could be shown visually but isn’t. Here, we get narration happening within the story as dialogue, just edited to become narration – an example of contracting sensory information without lossage. It’s not important to see the character recalling his story, all we need to know is that he’s doing it. And we do know that because of the sound quality as a result of using a telephone.

So these two strands are happening apparently exclusive of each other. Gilbert walks through London at night solemnly, intercut with him at home waiting for something. It’s effective because we don’t know what comes first. Is he clearing his head after the event he was anticipating, or is he on his way to it, and what we’re seeing takes place later that night? You don’t know. But we’re not meant to know. The execution of whatever happens is intentionally ambiguous, but its minimalism is what keeps you watching – it knows how vague it’s being, and all you need to do is just keep watching.

And you do keep watching. And ultimately, what the ending reveals probably wasn’t supposed to have already been known. But in so simple an exchange of shots, with costume becoming significant, everything you’ve just seen makes sense. It’s the kind of thing that Christopher Nolan accomplished with Inception, and Gilbert’s doing it here, just on a smaller scale that’s more personal.

Lev Kuleshov once made a point that audiences will assume shots are connected if placed together, and it’s always fun to see artists experiment with established conventions.

If you haven’t seen Gilbert’s pieces, the link to his channel’s on the video page.

Cosmic Divide – impressive, experimental manipulation of narrative. 8/10

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Chocolate Milk — review

When we were first introduced to Jake Peralta, we were told he hadn’t learnt how to grow up. In this episode, his case took him to a chocolate milk bar, where he unleashed his obsession with the chocolate-flavoured version, before comparing himself to a child, through-which he speaks to Terry. It’s as if it’s a manifestation of his true childlike mind. Of course, it’s the reason we like him, but this was more of an introspective episode, wrapped in a sitcom filled with cutaway gags. They obviously resemble Family Guy – they don’t contain the same kind of humour as Family Guy – but they still obviously resemble Family Guy. They begin and end before the gags do themselves, and that displace in time triggers laughter.

Screenplay by Gabe Liedman.

When we were first introduced to Jake Peralta, we were told he hadn’t learnt how to grow up. In this episode, his case took him to a chocolate milk bar, where he unleashed his obsession with the chocolate-flavoured version, before comparing himself to a child, through-which he speaks to Terry. It’s as if it’s a manifestation of his true childlike mind. Of course, it’s the reason we like him, but this was more of an introspective episode, wrapped in a sitcom filled with cutaway gags. They obviously resemble Family Guy – they don’t contain the same kind of humour as Family Guy – but they still obviously resemble Family Guy. They begin and end before the gags do themselves, and that displace in time triggers laughter.

Of course, the case takes him through the process of being Terry’s “friend friend”, aka “friend”, rather than being his “work friend”, aka “colleague”. And really, his childishness is at the heart of that. Unlike many immature characters, who are obsessed with toilet humour, Peralta’s immaturity leads him to just being a good friend, and caring about someone in the same way that a child might. And then, through the process of being his friend, and being loyal, he gets a responsibility to him, and actually becomes quite grown-up for once. Through all the extremes and complications that occur, he never abandons Terry and remains devoted to what he has to do. Honestly, to someone who’s been following this show since its inception, it was a really good moment to see him actually take up that opportunity, and by the end of it, you like him twice as much as you already did.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Chocolate Milk – beautiful character development, rewarding experience. 8/10

The Big Bang Theory: the Champagne Reflection — review

There are two sides to comedy: jokes and bittersweet. The Champagne Reflection was on the bittersweet side, with characters basking in the present to think about what their lives will amount to. And the answer is: nothing. The Big Bang Theory itself states that eventually, the Universe will implode, leaving nothing. Entropy will consume all in time. That’s the basis of cosmology, and as a theoretical physicist, Sheldon Cooper only knows that too well. So it’s fitting that this episode should take the time to show us that all our efforts are truly meaningless by dividing the story into each character’s place, and linking them through meaning.

Screenplay by Jim ReynoldsSteve Holland and Dave Goetsch.

There are two sides to comedy: jokes and bittersweet. The Champagne Reflection was on the bittersweet side, with characters basking in the present to think about what their lives will amount to. And the answer is: nothing. The Big Bang Theory itself states that eventually, the Universe will implode, leaving nothing. Entropy will consume all in time. That’s the basis of cosmology, and as a theoretical physicist, Sheldon Cooper only knows that too well. So it’s fitting that this episode should take the time to show us that all our efforts are truly meaningless by dividing the story into each character’s place, and linking them through meaning.

Firstly, there’s Cooper himself. We begin with him recording the final episode of Sheldon Cooper Presents “Fun With Flags”, and reminiscing on what it’s like to end something. So many sitcoms have famous last episodes, Friends: the Last One‘s final moments being testament to this. Eventually, he decides to bring Sheldon Cooper Presents “Fun With Flags” back, which I found to be a nice jab at the kind of producers that can’t leave something alone. Basically, Peter Jackson. The Big Bang Theory‘s characters are almost defined by their pop culture interests, so for one of them to unironically channel the kind of George Lucas milking is an interesting point made by Reynolds, Holland and Goetsch.

Then we have our title reference with Leonard Hofstadter, Howard Wolowitz and Rajesh Koothrappali clearing out a deceased professor’s office and finding an unopened champagne bottle, which was said to be reserved for when the professor achieved something important, which hadn’t been opened. There, the three of them make a pact: they were all take ownership of the champagne bottle, until one of them achieved something significant.

Of course, with anything like this, there’s always the oblivious ruining of something heartfelt by another character. In this case, it was Cooper opening the bottle to celebrate the final episode of his show receiving a positive comment, prompting him to bring it back. But this was also extremely clever of the writers’: it was both in-character, while also promoting a good life philosophy- if you enjoy something, and people like it, that’s all that matters. The moment is what’s important, and life is a pile of them. Not one single great thing.

The big Bang Theory: the Champagne Reflection – bittersweet plot device, meaningful episode. 6/10

Monthly Movie: Whiplash (January 2015)

Whiplash was released in UK cinemas this January, and has become the most critically-acclaimed. Which is saying something, since it’s come-out in the infamous toilet bowl month.

Whiplash was released in UK cinemas this January, and has become the most critically-acclaimed. Which is saying something, since it’s come-out in the infamous toilet bowl month.

Screenwriter Damien Chazelle wrote the screenplay (available here) almost as therapy for the nightmarish memories he has of an abusive music teacher, brought to life by J.K. Simmons’  Terrance Fletcher. Fletcher’s teaching methods cause student Andrew Nieman to mentally and physically deteriorate over the course of the story, leading to a psychological battle between them – Nieman wanting to constantly usurp Fletcher’s doubt, while Fletcher wants to continue pushing Neiman. It soon descends into a primal endurance test between them, which ultimately manifests through Nieman at a performance, in-which he becomes one of the greatest drummers of all time. The ending is ambiguous in that respect, in that it doesn’t tell you what to think – did Nieman find his skill within himself regardless of Fletcher, or was Fletcher responsible for bringing it out of him? One ethical debate between them, which Nieman later recalls to his family, implies than anyone can become a great drummer under Fletcher’s tutelage regardless of previous experience.

As a screenplay, Whiplash has been very controversial at this year’s Oscars. To gather funding for the complete production, Chazelle (also the director) produced an extract in the form of a scene, which was shown at film festivals to encourage potential patrons. On that basis, the Academy decided that Whiplash is an adaptation. Regardless of it being an adaptation of an extract from itself to fund the rest, it’s still an adaptation as far as the Oscars are concerned, and it’s been nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. And yet, the British Academy have nominated it for Best Original Screenplay, determining the obvious logic around it to make it that thing, rather than using a loophole to deny it the chance of the award it actually deserves.

I spent my evening today reading the Whiplash screenplay. I have a bit of a sore throat right now, so I was drinking a black currant, but it looked like wine. So let’s just say I was drinking a wine and reading a screenplay on my laptop. I now officially know how it feels to be an Executive Producer.

Have you seen Whiplash? What did you think? Is it really the best release of January? Sound off below. And if there are enough comments, I might just feature them in next month’s blog. I don’t know yet. I don’t make promises I can’t keep (though they’re the best kind).

Batman: Year One — review

Written by Tab Murphy.

Batman: Year One is Warner Premiere’s one-hour animated adaptation of the 1980s modernised origin of Batman.

I picked it up from my comic book store purely because it stars Bryan Cranston as James Gordon, a casting choice Warner Bros. should carry-over to mainstream cinema, and Ben McKenzie as Bruce Wayne, who now stars as a younger Gordon in prequel Gotham. Warner Premiere promoted this as a story more about Gordon than Wayne, and that’s something that accurately carries-over here, but in a very strange way. What we get is a montage of events during Year One, which cuts between Wayne and Gordon. Most of the run time before the final act is this style; backwards and forwards between them, as a montage, playing over a long piece of music. Which is how Year One is recounted.  Run time is something I’ve had a big problem with when it comes to DC animations, because storytelling is often sacrificed because of it. Such a short runtime’s caused by writers realising they don’t have enough ideas for how to use and develop these characters, so instead they just cut the story short. And that’s the problem here: the story’s told much quicker than it needed to be. To say it establishes itself as a crime noir-esque thriller is strange, given that it rushes through each segment as if they don’t matter. Which is why there are a lot of questions left over – eg: where did Wayne get the Batman outfit? An origin story really desires that kind of information, especially for a character known for his appearance.

And even then, in scenes that have been given breathing space, the characters are so uninteresting. Bryan Cranston is an actor I love, but it’s obvious from the words he’s speaking that the script requires him to say it for the audience. In fact, there’s barely any dialogue here at all. Most of it’s internal dramatic dialogue that gives the audience all the information they might need. And that’s because there’s no time for dialogue in the story.

And yes, I complain, but that’s because I care.  Warner Bros.  could have become so popular by now if they put effort into their DVD-direct productions. If they used a cinematic screenplay, with a runtime allowing the story to exist in its own, natural terms, they could make something worth making, regardless of whether it was released in the mainstream or not.

McKenzie’s sleep-inducing performance notwithstanding, there’s nothing really notable about Batman: Year One when there should have been. There are many versions of Batman’s origin story, but this one told the story from Gordon’s perspective, and that really could have been something. But what we get instead is an extended montage that looked like a series catch up rather than the story itself.

Batman: Year One — potential wasted on frustrating montage. 4/10

Written by Tab Murphy

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Undercover — review

Screenplay by Luke Del Tredici (created by Doon Goor/Michael Schur)

Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s second season premiere just feels better than the first season. And the reason is because it’s the first season premiere to not be a series premiere. Ergo, this is the first episode following a season finale, and that means there are some things that need wrapping-up. For example, we have Jake Paralta’s undercover work, and where that leads him in this episode, as well as the insertion of a potential story arc involving Police HQ, and its affect on Precinct Nine-Nine.  The first season is often the weakest for comedies, because the second season is where we know the characters, so the comedy comes from now experimenting with them. Simply having Paralta working undercover at the start at the episode, and that carrying-over the plot, rather than just being solved at the start, is an example of this. He’s taking more ambitious steps with his career, and that makes the show more ambitious itself, and it’s much better for it.

And then there’s also the process of the undercover investigation as well. Simply doing something isn’t going to necessarily going to have a desirably improving effect, but the opportunity it can provide will. Here, we see not only funny gags used, but clever ones. The use of Paralta’s car keys is ingenious – the gags happen because of it.

Really, what this episode’s done is prove what the show’s capable of, and – I hate this say this – makes the first season less funny. I suppose that’s a good thing. But unlike a comedy drama, where gags are happening over plot, here, the plot and the gags intertwine with each other. And now that’s established, there’s no way for the writers to go back on it. The question is… will they keep it up?

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Undercover – comedy season premiere done right. 6/10

The Big Bang Theory: the Septum Deviation — review

Written by Eric KaplanSteve HollandTara Hernandez. (Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady.)

Given The Big Bang Theory is an example of the formula used by some sitcoms of comprising one episode of two half-lengths episode occurring simultaneously, the best half of The Septum Deviation is Rajesh Koothrappali’s subplot in-which it’s revealed his parents have divorced. The last time we saw his parents, there were clear tensions between them, and it’s nice to see that this sitcom is aware of its continuity. That’s what can make a sitcom so successful – to not just be popular for its humour, but also for its narrative, and to combine so as to still provide a story in-which the audience can invest, as well as allowing for character development. Eventually, all sitcoms become more dramatic than comedic, and that’s not a bad thing. The Big Bang Theory is beginning to do that, half-way through its eighth season. That’s what made Friends such the cultural behemoth that it went-on to become, even if that ended after its tenth season.

The best thing about the show on a whole is the ensemble cast, with no single character, which provides a good sandbox for the writers by allowing them to focus on multiple aspects each week. That’s why sitcoms run for so long, and The Big Bang Theory has done so because of the unlikely cohesion between the four original leads. This week’s main focus was arguably Leonard Hofstadter’s nose operation, and Sheldon Cooper’s reaction to it, though this was done for comedy to balance against Koothrappali’s drama. Which is exactly the right way of doing it. If one character’s going through a heavy situation, another character needs a light situation. Sitcoms are more comedy dramas, they just tend to stay in one place. And trust me, as someone’s who’s tried and failed miserably to write a sitcom pilot, having a funny plot, dramatic subplot, while staying in generally the place isn’t easy.

But the writers of this episode pulled it off, proving once again that Wolowitz is an underrated character, having more depth than the other four simply because he shows it more.

This isn’t such a review, more of an observation about the episode and its relationship to the sitcom genre. Really, for the midseason premiere (at least in the UK), it’s nice that The Big Bang Theory eases us back in by not focusing too much on current plotlines, and instead just reintroducing us to the characters, while also creating scenes that can bring us up-to-date on where each character suddenly stands in relation to each-other.

The Big Bang Theory: the Septum Deviation – easy storylines nicely re-familiarises characters 6/10