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The Setting of Casablanca

The film begins with a voice over and geographical maps establishing Casablanca, an area in French-ruled Moracco located in Northwest Africa, as a destination during WWII for refugees exiled from war-ravaged countries in Europe. According to the VO, the rich and the lucky used Casablanca as a sort of stopover en route to Lisbon where they could then fly to freedom in America, while the poor and unlucky people simply got stranded there.

Casablanca is painted as a busy, overpopulated and unsafe place where the streets are full of schemers, criminals, crooks and pickpockets, as well as people buying, selling and bartering all sorts of things (including diamonds). Most of the story takes place at Rick’s Café Américain, an upscale nightclub, bar and casino, which is also referred to in the movie as “Rick’s Place.”

Ex-freedom fighter Rick Blain, the story’s protagonist, runs the illicit establishment where in addition to booze and blackjack, Rick also, for a profit, helps refugees obtain letters of transit out of Casablanca toward freedom. Rick has a good gig going despite his cynical, selfish and somewhat jaded sensibilities until the day his former lover Ilsa, the one true love of his life, a woman who left him in Paris, suddenly shows up on her way to America. The love between Rick and Ilsa is rekindled and he asks her to marry him. But there’s one problem: she’s already married to Victor Laszlo.

Laszlo, who was actually in fact married to Ilsa during her love affair with Rick in Paris, had been imprisoned and escaped a Nazi concentration camp and was thought dead by Ilsa when she had the affair that led to her falling in love with Rick. It wasn’t until Ilsa and Rick were about to leave Paris together that she found out Laszlo had survived. Ilsa fled with Laszlo to save his life. This love triangle between Rick, Ilsa and Laszlo keeps us in suspense until the end of the movie when Rick urges Ilsa to get on the plane with Laszlo and continue their journey toward freedom. Rick stays behind to help others get their freedom, too.

In so many ways, Rick’s Café is the perfect setting for Casablanca. For one, the fact that it’s a stopover explains away anyone who shows up there. Also, the illicitness of what goes on there naturally presents endless material for conflict, tension and drama. Rick’s Café is an oasis of sin and sinister fun like gambling, drinking and sex that in many ways is an escape from reality for people who find themselves in Casablanca. But it’s also a sort of purgatory because these people, the individuals who find themselves there, are either temporarily or permanently stuck there for one reason or another and desperate to escape to America.

Since Rick runs the show there, it serves as the perfect setting for his character arc and his story. At the start of the film, protagonist Rick “I stick my neck out for nobody” Blain clearly has a lot of growth ahead of him if he’s destined to become the true hero of the story. In the end, he sticks his neck out for Ilsa and Laszlo. Rick gives up the one thing he really desires, his true love Ilsa, for the greater good. In a funny way, the setting acts like a character, too, with an arc of its own because like its owner Rick, Rick’s Café starts out as a symbol of desperation and illegal activity but through the story it transforms into a beacon of hope and freedom, too.

The First 10 Minutes of Shaun of the Dead

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Shaun of the Dead

For my screenwriting class, I needed to analyze the first 10 minutes of a movie. I was going to go with something traditional, like say When Harry Met Sally, which has a well-known solid beginning, but after a friend suggested it, perhaps jokingly, my brain kept returning to Shaun of the Dead—a perhaps lesser known movie but one that I love. As a zombie flick, it technically falls in the genres of Horror (though, while violent, it’s honestly not a bit scary) and Comedy. At its core, it’s a love story and quite a hilarious one at that. Not your traditional RomCom, it’s more of a Zom-Rom-Com.

Shaun of the Dead is a great movie from start to finish and all of the promises which the movie sets out to fulfill are set up perfectly in its first 10 minutes. What makes the beginning of Shaun of the Dead work so well is that in just 10 or so minutes we meet and thoroughly get to know all of our main characters, in particular our protagonist Shaun (played by Simon Pegg) while the conflicts are introduced, layered and begin to really build on and play off of one another.

The movie opens at the Winchester, a bar that Shaun frequents and which later becomes an important spot in the film. Shaun and his girlfriend Liz are seated across from each other. Liz is basically in the process of breaking up with Shaun because she feels neglected and because they never get time alone. Shaun’s friend Ed is there, as usual, playing a video game and swearing up a storm in the background and Liz’s two friends are there, too, backing her up and reinforcing everything Liz claims is wrong with Shaun—in particular that he seems to have no ambition, he’s lazy, forgetful, hasn’t yet introduced Liz to his mom and, of course, there’s Ed who is crude and always there and who no one, but Shaun, seems to like. Shaun convinces Liz that he will try harder. He promises to take her out for a special anniversary dinner (but later forgets to make the reservation). Liz agrees to give Shaun and their relationship one more chance.

Despite the fact that Shaun is painted as a loser, he’s also a likeable, loveable, nice guy (he buys flowers for his mom and even gives his spare change to a homeless guy). But life isn’t going so well for him. In addition to his romantic issues and his codependent best friend issues, his roommate is a jerk, he works a dead-end job and he hates his step-dad Philip.

Meanwhile, there is a zombie apocalypse brewing but no one, including Shaun, notices because they are all simply sleepwalking through their own mundane lives. The movie is basically telling us to wake up and appreciate our lives instead of walking around like zombies.

We can’t help but like Shaun and root for him. It’s easy to predict his character arc, too. We want him to man up, win back Liz, kill the zombies and save his family, his friends and the world. While this isn’t all covered in the first 10 minutes, Liz eventually dumps Shaun and he vows to get his life back on track—but he will have to battle the zombies to make that happen. With Ed by his side, Shaun sets out to rescue Liz and his mom (and everyone else, too).

If I could change one thing about the first 10 minutes of the film it would be to get the first big zombie moment in there somehow. While I think the movie does an exceptional job of building toward it and dripping in hints along the way (like the guy eating the pigeon and people starting to get sick and more and more zombified), I don’t see why there couldn’t be a bit more. That said; just the fact that we know it’s a zombie movie makes it so we know they’re coming so the fact that they don’t necessarily show up sooner still works. If anything it allows for more fake-out, made-you-jump, edge-of-our-seats type moments, too, which I love. And all of that build-up increases our adrenaline and adds to the moment when the zombies ultimately appear. On that note, I love the details and all the foreshadowing the writer uses to set the tone along the way. There’s never a doubt in our minds that something is going to happen, it’s just a matter of when.

Also, I might increase the emotion between Shaun and Liz—maybe even add in a memory or a brief flashback to a time when things were better between them. Though I’m not sure it’s necessary to the story or to either or their individual character arcs, I would have liked to get a tad more romance and emotion in there. While it becomes clear later in the movie just how much Liz means to him, I wanted a bit more.

But even without addressing my minor nitpicks, I still love this movie. And with its exceptional characters and conflicts (of the undead, real life and relationship varieties), Shaun of the Dead sets up everything we need to know about the story right from the start. By all accounts the movie has a great beginning. In just 10-12 minutes, we are entertained, engaged and pulled deep into the story as well as inspired to really care about what happens next.

If you want to watch the first 13 minutes of the movie, it’s free here:
http://www.watch32.com/movies-online/shaun-of-the-dead-2068/full.html

1980s Flash…Back to the Future

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Back to the Future: Comparing the 1981 Script to the 1985 Movie

Let me start by saying that, like any other typical 80s kid, I have always loved this movie. I was 10 when it came out in theatres and I remember thinking it was awesome (or maybe I thought it was “rad” back then with my crimped hair and legwarmers). It was so much fun to watch back then and again now at 37 with my daughter. That said; I’d never read the screenplay—any version of it—until now. So this time, as my 4-year-old watched on and fell in love with the movie, too, I sat beside her with the 1981 version of the script and a red pen so I could catch the “important differences.” This was no easy task either because there were a lot of differences!

There were a ton of little differences and seemingly minor inconsistencies like character names (in particular these: Doc Brown/Professor Brown, Lorraine/Eileen, Jennifer/Susie), setting descriptions (like the town and even the high school) and details like the years of departure/arrival but there were also some pretty major differences, too, like the time machine itself which in 1981’s script wasn’t even a car. It was a refrigerator. That would have been far less exciting and much harder to work with than the movie version’s DeLorean!

Another major difference between the two versions is how the protagonist was painted. In both versions, Marty McFly was a teen and aspiring musician but in the 1981 version he also illegally pirated movies and liked to gamble. While Michael J Fox’s character of Marty came across at times as cocky, bold and even smart-allicky, he was always likable and he had a strong character arc (so did his dad) while the 1981 script version of Marty was written as far more of a self-involved jerk. The 1985 movie painted Marty as a smart, sometimes sarcastic but still likeable honest teen with good intentions while 1981’s version painted him as greedy, sly and with negative intentions. In the 1981 version, Marty was not a very likable character but in the 1985 movie, Marty was a believable hero, a teen heartthrob worthy of the cover of any teen magazine.

Marty was also an only child in the 1981 script while he had a brother and sister in the 1985 version. Without them, Marty would have been left, as originally written, as an egocentric teen who only cared about himself and therefore who would have even cared what became of him? By adding the siblings, there was an instant increased motivation for Marty who didn’t want to lose his brother and sister who he clearly cared about very much. The fact that he cared about his family added a new layer to his character and made him instantly more endearing to the viewers, too, because we see him as someone who cares. Also, as the photo with Marty and his siblings began to fade in the movie, it added an element of fighting against the clock that wasn’t previously there. It also gave Marty more to lose and that naturally increased the drama.

Regarding Marty’s parents, one of the biggest differences between the two versions is how they fall in love. In the 1981 version Marty’s mom fell in love with George after he spilled his corn while trying to ask her out in the school cafeteria. Really? How boring! And not a bit believable. We’re supposed to believe that moment made her fall so hard for him that she married him? I don’t buy it. Who would? But in the movie version, they fell in love after Lorraine’s dad hit George with his car, causing Eileen to instantly fall in love with him (this was even explained later by Doc as an actual medical syndrome making it even more believable). This is also a huge part of the plot because when Michael J Fox’s Marty goes back in time his arrival stops that from happening and he essentially takes his father’s place as the person his mom falls for. This is a big deal for poor Marty because his mom is falling in love with him (how awful!) and in doing so he’s unintentionally pushing his own father further and further out of the picture, which in turn is totally changing his situation, his life and his family. What a great conflict!

Aside from the fact that both finales took place after the big dance scene and with the hopes of saving Marty’s mentor Doc/Professor Brown, otherwise the finales in the two versions are totally different. Of course, the 1985 version wins again with its exciting race against time as Doc and Marty need to set up the clock/lightning scene in the town square, while in the 1981 version Marty raced against time too but on a multi-state cross country trip. In the future, the final image in the 1985 version is far more satisfying and less confusing than the 1981 version. I still don’t get why or how George ended up a professional boxer in the 1981 version. How odd.

In terms of structure, the 1985 movie version flowed better than the 1981 script. The 1981 script, at times, seemed to drag on and on and there were many elements stuffed into it that didn’t seem to serve any purpose, either to the characters or to push the story forward. There was a lot about it that felt stale to me, especially in comparison to the fresh, fun and funny 1985 movie version. Many of these changes made between 1981 and 1985 were strategically made for the benefit of the film, its characters and its viewers. What often felt convenient or forced in the 1981 version came together better in the 1985 version and led to a smoother, more believable experience.

Hip-hip-hooray for the revision process because all of these subtle and not-so-subtle changes made Back to the Future a far better script and a pretty awesome (sorry, I mean rad) movie.

Blake Snyder, you’re my only hope: My attempt at a Star Wars IV Beat Sheet

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Star Wars Episode IV

Protagonist: Luke Skywalker

Act I / Beginning / Thesis:

Opening Image: Act I opens with the image of the words scrolling on the screen and that sets us, the viewers, up with some background information which will help us follow the story. After the words stop scrolling, the action starts and we see spaceships shooting each other.

Set-Up: The rebel ship is captured and searched by the bad guys. We meet C3PO and we see Princess Leia bend over and put the message into R2D2 just before she is captured and imprisoned by Darth Vader and his goons. We meet our antagonist Darth Vader and get a feeling for how scary and powerful he is. We meet Luke, a farmer who merely dreams of being a Jedi fighter. C3PO and R2D2 escape (unknowingly with the plans and the princess’s message) and they end up on the same planet as Luke and his family who then purchase the two robots/droids.

Theme Stated: “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”

Catalyst: Luke sees the hologram of Princess Leia in distress. This is the catalyst because it is the thing that will eventually put Luke in direct conflict with Darth Vader, the main villain and antagonist of the movie. Luke hasn’t met Darth yet but we have so we have enough of a sense of foreshadowing to know Luke will be in for the fight of his life.

Debate: Ben (AKA Obi Wan Kanobi) wants Luke to learn the ways of the Jedi but initially Luke resists.

Main Conflict: Will Luke Skywalker defeat Darth Vadar and save the princess?

Break into II: Act I ends when Luke sees that his family’s farm has been destroyed and his aunt and uncle have been killed. (I wondered if maybe this moment was actually the catalyst but my gut keeps telling me the catalyst is when Luke sees Leia and hears her message). Luke then decides to leave his world behind and go with Ben on the mission to reunite R2D2 with Princess Leia and fight for the Rebellion (AKA: the good guys).

Act II / Middle / Antithesis:

Act II begins with Luke embarking on his journey but he and Ben need help and they also need a ship. At the space cantina, a bar type place where all the aliens hangout, Luke is completely out of his element. Random criminals want to fight him. Luke and Ben end up having to negotiate a deal with a smuggler. Then a ton of stuff happens.

B Story: We meet Han Solo. There is a funny competitive vibe between him and Luke, who is much younger and less experienced. They are opposites in almost every way imaginable but they’re both obviously attracted to the princess. We learn that Hans Solo needs money to repay the debt he owes the loan shark Jabba the Hut. We can’t help but wonder if Han Solo is doing it all just for the money or because he wants to get Leia. They clearly have chemistry. But who will win the princess’s heart?

Fun and Games: We learn Ben is Obi Wan and that he has history with Darth Vader. We also learn Ben can make people do stuff through mind control. Luke, Han Solo and Chewbacca dress up like storm troopers and sneak into the Death Star. It’s risky but also comical. Luke also learns more about being a Jedi.

Midpoint: Luke rescues Princess Leia and reunites her with R2D2. Luke appears to have saved the day but there’s still so much more to do. Besides, as Leia says: “That was too easy.”

Bad Guys Close In: They almost get crushed to death in the garbage disposal. They manage to escape but then Luke, Leia and the good guys are being tracked by the bad guys.

All is Lost: During a one-on-one fight with the light sabers, it appears Ben/ObiWan gets killed by Darth Vader.

Dark Night of the Soul: Luke mourns Ben/Obi Wan’s death. Luke is really depressed because he loved Obi Wan and his death is a big deal in that it signifies the potential fall of the rebellion.

Reversal: The rebels discover the flaw in the Death Star by analyzing the plans. It gives them one last hope to beat Darth Vadar. Luke is heartbroken but he must press on to fulfill his destiny.

Break into III: Luke and the gang escape the Death Star but they realize they must destroy it before it can destroy the rebel base. They also learn Darth Vadar is tracking them.

Act III / End / Synthesis:

Act III begins with everyone getting prepared for the big fight. Luke and R2D2 board their plane and get ready to depart. Han Solo decides to stay behind.

Time Lock: Time is ticking as Luke needs to destroy the Death Star and stop Darth Vader before Darth and his evil Empire finds and ultimately destroys the Rebel base.

Finale: There is a dog fight and Luke is nearly killed twice. Han Solo shoots the fighter tailing Luke and then Luke “uses the Force” and succeeds in destroying the Death Star and defeating Darth Vadar. Then we see the awards ceremony and we celebrate good winning over evil with our main characters. The beautiful Princess Leia is safe and back where she belongs handing out awards to the heroes.

Final Image: We realize Luke has come a long way since the beginning. He is no longer just a farm boy with big dreams. Now he has achieved his dream of being a Jedi and he’s also a hero. This image of hero Luke (as well as the image of the princess not simply safe and sound but also back in power where she belongs) is the opposite of the initial image of dreamer/farmer Luke.

AB(Norma)L the Antagonist of Sunset Blvd

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Norma Desmond, the washed-up, disillusioned, conceited, mentally unstable, borderline agoraphobic, aging actress and ex-starlet, is the antagonist of Sunset Boulevard.

She tries and typically manages to get what she wants throughout the film in many ways, mostly through manipulation and childish behavior. One way she exhibits her controlling, dominating, antagonistic tendencies is early in the film by basically kidnapping Gillis, the younger though not exactly young by Hollywood standards writer/protagonist. She convinces him to spend the night and then practically forces him to move in by having her butler (who we later learn is also her first director and her first husband) go to Gillis’s place and retrieve, or really steal, his clothes and typewriter. Gillis is later seduced (though more by Desmond’s money than by her prowess), manipulated mentally and emotionally, and (when he finally decides to leave) eventually murdered by Desmond (a moment that brings us full circle back to the start of the film).

Another example of Desmond’s antagonistic antics is when she calls Betty Shafer, the young female writer who Gillis clearly appears to be interested in (even though she’s engaged to Gillis’s friend) and who he’s been sneaking out to work/write with every night. A third, and probably the most glaring attempt to get her way and control Gillis is when Desmond slits her wrists on New Year’s Eve in what seems like more of an intense cry for help than an actual attempt at suicide. She seals the deal by threatening to do it again if Gillis leaves.

There were definitely moments throughout the film when I felt sympathy and even pity for Norma Desmond. The fact that Gillis was obviously using her initially inspired my sympathy but it grew throughout the film as we learn more and more about Desmond and we start to see her as a broken lost soul—a woman who devoted her life to her art and her dream to be a star but was simply tossed aside once the wrinkles started to set in. Even though she’s had success and plenty of riches, her life story is a sad one and it demands sympathy and empathy from us as we watch the downward spiral of her fall from grace as she practically begs the universe and everyone in it for another chance at fame and in doing so she loses what’s left of her mind.

Though I’d heard about it, this was the first time I’d actually seen Sunset Blvd. I watched it with my husband and we both enjoyed it. He especially loved the crispness of the picture, the fact that it was in black and white and how it managed to be so intense. We both loved the crazy faces of Norma Desmond. I think she was the highlight of the film. Not only was she an excellent antagonist and one from whom we never truly knew what to expect next but she also perfectly overacted the part of the ever-dramatic and always ready-for-her-close-up actress. It was so easy to see her as the villain (largely in part to the fact that we know right out of the gate that Gillis was murdered) and a complete and utter nut ball, too. But it was also easy to sympathize with her. This was largely due to her character flaws and insecurities as well as her fragile mental and emotional state. But Gillis, the protagonist who was made out to be a crook and a user, and even a jerk at times, also made me feel sympathetic toward Desmond. The way he lied to her and fed into her ego to get money, a free ride (literally) and whatever else he wanted and needed from her made me wonder how many other people had done nothing but use her along the way only to throw her away in the end.

Little Miss Sunshine – Dwayne

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My favorite character in Little Miss Sunshine is Dwayne. He is quirky and interesting and his personal development and transformation adds so much to the film.

In the beginning, Dwayne has an “I hate everyone” teen angst thing going on which is pretty typical but what’s not so typical is the way he chooses to express it. Taking a vow of silence until he reaches his goal of becoming an Air Force test pilot certainly sets himself apart from typical teens and from his family. It is, on one hand, a very adult/spiritual move, not very teen-like. On the other hand we are reminded that he’s still a teen through his “this isn’t fair” mentality. Perhaps the most interesting thing about him at this point is that while he’s silent he doesn’t avoid or try to hide his feelings—he has more facial expressions than anyone and when his nonverbal skills aren’t enough to express his feelings then his notepad does the trick.

The scene where Dwayne learns he’s color blind and his dream is shattered reveals a major change in his arc and highlights the depth of his character. In this week’s lecture we learned “A character’s qualities are best revealed through events that provide situations for the characters to respond to – and their response is what provides us information about them.” This is Dwayne’s “all is lost” moment and he must decide where to go from here. In one scene he goes through all five stages of grief (Denial/Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance).

His body looks like it’s about to explode, he jumps from the van, runs down the hill and collapses away from his family. He hasn’t spoken in so long that we’re not sure if he will or if so what he’ll say. His explosive “FUCK!” perfectly sums up his feelings. Then, he tells his mom, “You’re not my family! I don’t want to be your family! I hate you fucking people! I hate you! Divorce! Bankrupt! Suicide! You’re losers! You’re fucking losers!” Pointing out the flaws of his family members is his final effort to separate himself before accepting his situation.

Finally, after a soft moment with his little sister Olive, he gains perspective and it is as though all the anger and pain has lifted and drifted off into the ether. He stands back up, brushes himself off, apologizes for his words and actions and goes on with his life, seemingly over it.

After this scene, Dwayne changes dramatically. It’s as though one chapter of his life ended, he grieved then was ready to move on. This transformation shows his character’s strength even more so than the vow of silence. And much like a tragedy can spark an awakening, he was like a new person afterward. He becomes calmer, more open, accepting and loving. And by the end of the film where he’s dancing on stage it is clear that he is ready to embrace life, be a kid again and have fun.

Little Miss Sunshine – Dialogue and Subtext

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The dinner scene works because there are so many curiously chaotic things happening all at once. What could have been a typical, mundane family dinner is brought to life through a ballet of interesting dialogue and subtext which keeps the viewer intrigued and highly entertained by the ever growing quirkiness of the characters and the story itself. In this week’s lecture, we learned “(subtext) can be used to develop psychological depth in your characters” and “Innuendo and double entendre can also be used to add tension and excitement to a scene.” This scene is loaded with gestures, offbeat comments, odd behavior and innuendo working together to add insight into the characters’ mentalities and motivations. Sheryl trying to juggle everything including her job, family and her brother Frank’s attempted suicide, Frank’s disappointment in himself and his growing interest in Dwayne, Grandpa’s outbursts, Dwayne’s vow of silence and all the silly facial expressions and notes which come with it, Olive’s naivety and unrelenting curiosity over Frank’s “accident” and homosexuality and her overwhelming obsession about becoming Little Miss Sunshine, and Richard’s obsession with winning and his feelings about “losers” and his innuendo that Frank is a loser for giving up on himself all transpires over a bucket of KFC. All of these things contribute to the conflict while working together to add tension and excitement to the scene and brilliantly set up the story and the actions which follow.  

Another scene that is infused with subtext is the one when they get pulled over. Everyone clearly thinks they are about to be busted for having a dead Grandpa in the trunk but instead the dirty magazines pour out and kind of save the day. From Richard’s obvious panic to the rest of the family simply watching the highway patrolman in silence to the trooper’s reaction to the porn magazines, all of it adds more and more tension to the moment.  When the trooper grins and waves to the family trying not to let on about what he thinks is the reason Richard is so freaked out (the magazines) and the family waves back so innocently, as viewers we are hoping for the best for this poor family and we’re locked in to whatever happens next. Then when the trooper sees the “Honcho” magazine, stops grinning and looks at Richard who laughs nervously and offers a look that says “I’m guilty” the whole scene comes together. We don’t need any more action, dialogue or explanation. Watching the trooper drive away is enough. This entire scene pulls the viewer in as though we are in the van with this family. We’re more than just watching passively, we are locked in and invested, and just like any member of the family we are holding our breath as we hope for the best.