Shock & Awe: Surprise Endings

I recently read a short story where out of the blue and with no warning, the main character dropped dead, stopping the story cold.  Though it was intended to be a surprise ending with an ironic, poignant twist, it felt more like a cheap shot — plain old shock value for shock’s sake.

The problem with shock endings is that there’s no second act for the author.  No sequels for the director either. Think The Sixth Sense.  M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t produced anything of similar stature since, unless you count those Amex commercials.

Once the reader knows an author is out to trick them, because that’s their shtick, it’s like approaching a street huckster.  Even for those that want to be suckered again, it’s nearly impossible as a writer to meet the raised expectations.

If you want to tell a ghost story, then let the reader in early. Everyone sitting around the campfire knows the stories are meant to scare the bejesus out of you, but that doesn’t lessen the entertainment value. And, there’s nothing wrong with an ironic twist, like “The Gift of the Magi”, or “The Necklace”.  A surprise ending works when it’s subtle and leaves the reader with an ‘ah ha’ moment, not whiplash.

Readers need a thread to follow from beginning to end, one they can trace back with appreciation. A slap upside the head as an ending is not the same thing, and will normally be tolerated only once.

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DVD Review: Fanboys

At one time Star Wars was a strange interface between the insular geek world and the rest of the soulless masses.  A lot of people saw the original trilogy so even if you weren’t talking to a fellow geek the person at least had some idea what you were talking about.  He might not know the name of Chewie’s home planet but he probably knew Chewie was a wookie.  He could probably tell you that Luke’s father was in fact Darth Vader, even if he couldn’t tell you why Vader wore all that…stuff.  Star Wars was a shiny geek badge that everyone recognized.  We loved it.

Then something happened.  Something bad.  It started with the re-release of the trilogy.  The film stock was remastered and the soundtrack updated for modern theaters.  So far so good.  The effects were cleaned up and enhanced.  Some of this was superfluous: extra tentacles in the sarlac pit, say.  Some of it was filmmaker indulgence:  redoing Luke’s speeder.  Some of it was pretty good:  most of the new Bespin stuff was all background; maybe not essential for storytelling but it looked amazing.

Star Wars geeks already know where I’m going with this and it’s only three words.  Han shot first.  But not in the re-release where a digitally mutilated Solo ‘avoided’ a blaster shot from Greedo that was never in the original.  Fans sensed a great disturbance in the Force.  I won’t go into the horrors I’ve endured since that moment, others have gone over it in great depth, but it was obvious that Lucas had been seduced by the Dark Side.

The Flick:  The point being there are three distinct Star Wars ages.  Original Trilogy (good), theatrical re-release (WTF), and everything after the re-releases (unreasoning depression where fans try to hold on to the original love and forget they ever heard the words midichlorian). 

Fanboys isn’t really about Star Wars.  As the title plainly states it’s about people who love Star Wars.  The movie opens Halloween night in Ohio, 1998, six months before the release of Episode One.  Three friends, Linus, Hutch, and Windows arrive in full Star Wars costume.  They meet an old friend dressed as a car salesman.  That’s not his costume, he came to the party from work.  Eric has put aside his childish love of Star Wars for adult responsibilities and his friends got left behind with it.  The interaction is awkward since the other three clearly have no shame in their love of ‘all things Lucasian’.  They complain about their storm-trooper armor binding, they argue about how cool Boba Fett was or wasn’t, and they talk about Linus’ plan, developed in the fifth grade, to infiltrate Skywalker Ranch. 

Eric tries to go about his business but Hutch and Windows come to him at work with horrible news.  Linus has a terminal illness and will be dead in four months.  Not just dead, but dead before he can see Episode One.  To repair the friendship Eric revives the plan to break into Skywalker Ranch so they can watch a print of the movie before it hits theaters. 

What follows is a straightforward buddy/road movie that’s very well done.  Like all quests our fanboys’ journey is episodic but the movie doesn’t feel choppy.  Neither does it lag, the pace is near perfect and full of jokes and gags that feel like real moments.  The gags are definitely geeky in nature; this movie is about fanboys and for fanboys and Star Wars fans are going to get more out of it than people that think Chewie’s friend is named ‘Hans’.  It’s not just referential humor but a similar quest structure with the friends representing different Star Wars characters. 

That concept could have been a crutch but the movie owns it and makes it seem original even when the scene is as close as literally jumping down a chute into a trash compactor.  The actors are pitch perfect but special mention goes to Dan Fogle as Hutch and Kristen Bell as Zoe the girl geek.

Fogle has a similar chubby smart-ass look and style to Jack Black but always keeps it warm and genuine.  He doesn’t get into the manic brashness that Black’s characters can show.  That brash volume can grate but Fogle is likable no matter what he’s doing.  Even if it’s starting a fight with Trekkie’s in Kirk’s future hometown.  Also, the man ad libs a crack at Windows in a spot on Palpatine impression. 

Kristen Bell plays Zoe the hot girl geek who harbors romantic feelings for Windows.  Despite looking like an adorable pixie Zoe is the tough one of the group instead of weak and pining.  She refuses to be left out of the expedition and demands her due of respect.  She gets that respect by securing her alpha status through combat with Hutch.  Plus the lady gives Carrie Fischer a run for her money by totally rocking a Leia slave-girl outfit at the end of the movie.

They make their way cross country through a slew of well done cameos.  Eventually reaching California and Skywalker Ranch where they manage to break in.  They even find a copy of the movie but are thwarted by security at the last moment.  Mr. Lucas though is ‘mildly flattered’ by the near act of piracy and if they can prove they’re fanboys through a simple quiz they can go free.  More than that, aware that Linus is dying, he will get to watch Episode One.

As Linus says after the whole adventure is over, “It was never really about the movie.”  Fanboys is about staying true to your friends.  It’s about holding on to as much of the wonder you had when you were a kid as you can.  It’s also about staying true to yourself and being comfortable with yourself and it’s even about facing your mortality with a sense of peace.

The Story:  Since this is a blog about writing I have to say some thing about the story.  Several movie sites were following this flick prior to release and they kept reporting conflict between the film makers and the producers.  Most of us were anticipating the film with the log line about childhood friends who go on one last adventure before their friend dies.  Then the movie was shot and before it was released there were rumors that the whole matter of Linus’ illness and death would be cut out of the movie.  I promise you that movie would have sucked.  

Apparently the feeling was that Linus dying was too much of a downer for a comedy.  This is obviously the formulaic thinking of ‘film industry’ rather than the storytelling of ‘film maker’.  Yes Linus dies and it’s poignant even sad but it’s also the driving force of the story even though it’s notin the forefront of the action.  Without it, it’s just a bunch of idiots committing breaking and entering when they could just buy a ticket like everyone else.  

There’s a low point in the movie where everyone has to decide if they’re going to go back home because the doctor says Linus should; or if they will keep on because that’s what Linus wants to do.  Apparently the posited ‘happy no death’ cut would have had Linus with only a concussion in this scene.  Weak, man.  Weak.

Movies should have the right ending for that movie.  If that sounds like it’s not a big deal ask yourself how good a movie Thelma and Louise would be if they lived at the end.  Let story tellers tell the story.

Anyway.  Enthusiastically recommend Fanboys for geeky good vibes and one of the truly great last lines.

Wrapping things up with a bow is only for presents

I saw Cloverfield this week and got into a debate about it with a fellow screenwriter.  He didn’t care for it because he felt it left too many questions unanswered.  Where did the monster come from, what happened afterwards, and other points I won’t bring up to avoid spoilers. Now I’m an admitted fan of Giant Monster Movies, but even then I didn’t have a problem with the unresolved issues.  I actually rather liked it.

I heard a screenwriter talk about this issue in a podcast, and he put out that it is somewhat generational.  That nowdays younger people are so used to having all the answers at their fingertips, Googling information, texting friends, reading websites, that not being able to find something out just… bothers them.  It’s abnormal.  I think he’s onto something.

I don’t mind open ended movies.  Memento made me think, made me puzzle through things on my own, and led to great conversations after the movie.  I rewatched it recently and still don’t have all the answers, but it is just as fun to ponder.  It engages me, makes me part of the story.  Life rarely comes with neat explanations, and my movies don’t need to either.

It’s important to give a sound finish to the story, to not cheat the audience, and that line can sometimes be fuzzy.  Follow your characters and events and you will usually find you say all that you really need to.  If there is one all important secret, one valuable tidbit I can give to ending your story, it is to always remember to