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Successful Movie Formulas II: The Sequel

November 13, 2009

Last week, I discussed the folly of hating on a film because it dares to be “formulaic”. Some of the most wretched frameworks put to a storyboard deserve further scorn, but before I jump into that mineshaft of PCBs, I want to mention a few more movie molecules that have earned some love:

And the band played on… – Films about musical ensembles take a big risk in their allocation of valuable screen time to songs that audiences have likely never heard. There’s a chance of a massive tune-out, especially if the music does not fit the ideals imparted by the film (does anyone really believe that Wayne and Garth would place the Quarterflash-style cheesepop of Crucial Taunt in their disc changer?). A clever way around this gamble was perfected in That Thing You Do!: instead of hoisting an entire performance of the tune into the movie, employ a small snippet of the song in a scene, such as a rehearsal or live performance. Insert action where the protagonists wax nostalgic about (fabricated) romantic conquests, then cut to dialogue between two nervous parents, as they hand-roll cigarettes and whine about that Devil-music keeping Jimmy away from the big game. Follow with another rehearsal, featuring a verse, chorus, and maybe a bridge. Repeat as necessary.

As a music obsessive, this does Oneders for my appreciation of the songs within a film. During a 2002 interview with Pitchfork, the irrepressible Lou Barlow spoke of Folk Implosion appearing within a film called Laurel Canyon. (Lou changed the name of the band to Foke Implojun after completing his contract with Interscope – I crap you negative.) Laurel Canyon successfully marries the piece-by-piece strategy utilized by Tom Hanks and Co. with a prototypical LA story of fallen romance and the generational divide. Frances McDormand plays a Joni Mitchell-esque record producer that is struggling to reconnect with her son, portrayed by Christian Bale (the behind-the-scenes featurette does not answer the obvious questions: did Bale go ballistic towards the crew, and does his business card feature a color called “bone”?). The two songs performed by the Coldplay-aping band (“Shade and Honey” and “Someday”, both sung by actor Alessandro Divola), written by Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, are fantastic. Don’t miss Lou, Russ Pollard and Imaad Wasif in deep concentration, only to interrupt the rock with their fake British accents.

Also worth a drive to the lone indie rental shop is Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains!, which features Laura Dern and Diane Lane as the leaders of a punk-rock band on the rise. It is pure adrenaline to watch them battle the Looters, which featured some nobodies named Paul Simonon, Steve Jones and Paul Cook. (Cook’s daughter Hollie is an emerging singer-songwriter in her own right, and Jones was the host of a radio show for LA’s Indie 103 entitled “Jonesy’s Jukebox”, which is sorely missed. I especially loved the episodes featuring Patton Oswalt and his witty retorts to the song requests of random callers: “Can you play any Rascal Flatts?” “NO WE CAN’T! Next caller, you’re on live, what do you want to hear?”)

If you got Eddie, than you got me, too – also known as The Reunion. The Blues Brothers is a wonderful example of this molecule. Reuniting the boys requires taking the Bluesmobile on the beach, offering to purchase diners’ children, transforming the Dixie Square Mall into a drive-through (and inspiring the creators of a little game called Grand Theft Auto – Vice City), standing up Twiggy at a hotel, and dusting off their suits after their residence explodes. The Blues Brothers is a rare band-related film in that the impact of the music is not compromised, despite the violation of the split-the-song-into-pieces principle above (biopics – real or imagined – are able to execute this because the songs are already familiar to the audience. We already know “Great Balls of Fire”, but not “Earache My Eye” from Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke).

Of course, most examples of this formula have nothing to do with music. George Clooney figured out that every couple of years, he can bring together his best friends, party like its 1969, and what the hell, even get a movie out of it, too. The Ocean’s films offer the perfect chance to emulate our fellow Kentuckian by serving as a grand excuse to meet your buddies, toss back a few Old Fashioneds (bourbon, not brandy – this ain’t Wisconsin), and collectively bask in the relief that Danny Ocean has finally located that expert safe-cracker he so desperately needs to complete the heist.

Most of the Hal Ashby – Robert Altman canon still awaits my viewing, however I have made significant headway during the past few years. M*A*S*H follows this formula to the hilt, as Hawkeye and Trapper, when not stealing Jeeps, faking suicides, and teaching youngsters how to read, assemble a formidable gridiron squad. California Split reunites a duo of degenerate gamblers in a film that would have been a huge hit if released in 2004. Here’s Elliott Gould again (in his prime, was anyone cooler?), and his talented foil (George Segal) realizing, like Hall & Oates, that they are far more victorious as a team.

Sometimes the whole “getting the band back together” formula can be used for sinister purposes. When the owner of the 1919 Chicago White Sox nixed his promise to increase player salaries, he created a fertile environment for skullduggery, hornswagglery, and -dare I say it – monkeyshines. Eight Men Out reminds us that pining for the “good old days” of sport’s innocence is a ridiculous conceit. There’s great fun in rooting on Chick Gandil and his Burt Cooper-esque sidekick as they power through every psychological trick in the book, convincing just enough of the team’s stars to throw the series (for Lefty Williams, all it took was the corralling of star pitcher Eddie Cicotte). Watch Studs Terkel (RIP) circle individual plays in the scorebook, identifying the ones that look fishy. Gandil’s gambit is a success – the team loses! But when the dirty money never materializes, the real double-crossing unfurls.

While technically residing within the confines of the small screen, the sweeping narratives of The Wire and Mad Men have been cited as “mega-movies”. In the beginning of The Wire’s season two, and the finale of Mad Men’s season three, we witness the frantic reassembling of the gang. While The Wire’s outcome was never in doubt, especially as eleven more episodes awaited (was McNulty really going to spend the whole season on harbor patrol?), there were reasons to speculate a new direction for Mad Men, especially after the lack of resolution concerning Sal. What gave the finale its energy was the specter of PPL and McCann’s nefarious plans to do away with Sterling Cooper’s subtle creativity in the face of tragedy. This formidable opponent, coupled with the quest to rebuild the team (enter Joan!), makes Mad Men the charming hybrid – or M*A*S*Hup, if you will – of Hawkeye and Pierce’s football antics with the closure of The Wire’s reunited crew of specialized talent.

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