A Story is a Promise


A Story 
is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling book cover

A fifth edition of my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, is now available on Kindle for $2.99, and from Barnes and Noble for their Nook reader for $3.
This new edition explores what happens when story characters are an extension of authors and suggests techniques for authors to create characters with fully realized inner lives. The book includes a section titled Deep Characterization, and a revision of A Story is a Promise, with an outline of The Lovely Bones and updated reviews of films like Inception.

The book is a great resource to guide authors who want to self-publish through a revision of a completed manuscript.

Essays on the Craft of Writing
About the Author

Quick Cuts

Reviews by Bill Johnson


A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.
These capsule reviews of current movies offer a basic overview of what these stories did (or didn't do) to engage an audience. They are not meant to convey a full review of the movie, or a scene by scene breakdown. All reviews by Bill Johnson, copyright 1999-2014.




St. Vincent

posted 10/29/14

Bill Murray plays a cantankerous old man who, in need of money, takes in a neighbor boy to babysit. In Murray's world, that means taking him to the racetrack, his local bar, and meeting his hooker regular. But the subtext in the movie is about the decisions that poor people have to make to get by. The movie goes for a heartfelt ending, and by not sugarcoating the decisions the characters make, earned that ending for me. The mileage for others will vary.

This is Where I Leave You

posted 9/24/14

The first half of the film features adult children returning home for their father's death and the bickering that ensues as everyone tries to renew the childhood pecking order. The 2nd half of the film is all the heartfelt moments of the adult children sharing their feelings about each other's lives. There's no transition, so the character go from tearing at each others' wounds to comforting each other. The bickering makes it hard to care about happens to the people involved.

The One I Love

posted 9/12/14

This is a Twilight Zone kind of film. A couple in a failing marriage go to a retreat to revitalize their marriage. What they discover is each has an idealized version of themselves to interact with. When the wife clearly prefers the company of her faux husband, her real husband tries to control what's happening with rules, which is what his wife wants to flee.

In the end, the two couple have to decide who is in love with who.

A clever film.

As Above, So Below

posted 9/3/14

And plot above all.

The movie takes a few moments to introduce something that drives the main character, a young woman, and seconds to introduce the young man who helps her. Then it's off to the crypts under Paris and about 30 minutes of a group of people trying to find a hidden chamber. There are a few 'boo' moments, but mostly its just more of the same.

Toward the end of the film, the young woman comes across the hanging body of her father who committed suicide and she reconciles with him. Her helper, in a few moments, reconciles with his dead younger brother.

What drives the character is resolved in moments, leaving in its wake people walking through tunnels for most of the film, with the minor characters dying at a predictable rate.

The Descent showed up this kind of plot could be in the service of a story.

Sin City: A Dame to Die For

posted 8/25/14

The same visuals as the original Sin City, but this film mostly fails to develop any kind of feeling to go with the action. Until the final scenes, there's no reason to care about what happens next or to whom it happens.

Visually interesting, flat storytelling.

Guardians of the Galaxy

posted 8/7/14

I make a distinction between story and plot, and this movie offers a wonderful, transparent example of that. A young boy hesitates to take the hand of his mother dying of cancer, then is kidnapped by an alien who turns him into a kind of Indiana Jones-type scavanger. So he's lost his family, and he soon finds himself surrounded by others who have also lost their families, so they have a room to join together. That's what the story is about, and it connects all the main characters.

The plot revolves around an infinity stone and how it could be used to control the universe.

Because of the main characters and their new family, they are able to become Guardians of the Galaxy.

The movie is great fun.

Maleficent

posted 6/7/14

Maleficent, a new film starring Angelina Jolie, has a wonderful opening and a wonderful close, but the middle seriously sags. Why that happens speaks to a problem with story structure.

The film opens with Jolie as a mythical creature and a young girl who watches over and protects the Moor, where other creatures like pixies roam. Humans occupy a nearby kingdom. Each mostly keep to their realm until a young man enters the Moor to steal a jewel and is caught by Jolie. They become friends, grow up together, and she falls in love with him.

When the nearby king fails in an attack on the Moor, the young man uses Jolie's love for him to take her wings and get himself appointed king. This sets up a central question, will she get revenge? She curses the new king's daughter so that when she reaches 16, she will fall into a deep sleep that can only be woken from a kiss of true love.

In this middle section, Maleficent watches over the girl, whom she clearly and deeply loves. As the girl gets to know Maleficent, she comes to love her like a mother. But this section of the movie mostly keeps the king scheming to destroy Maleficent off-stage, and there's no real drama around seeing Maleficent care for the girl. Beautifully acted by Jolie, yes; the narrative tension necessary to sustain the movie, no.

Narrative tension is generated when a character has a clear goal accessible to a story's audience, and is blocked from achieving that goal. When an audience has internalized a character achieving that, the narrative tension is transferred to the audience. This is what makes a story compelling.

Maleficent has no narrative tension in its middle section, so the drama of the story sags.

Jolie's wonderful performance can't make up for that.

Jolie as an actress had the same problem in the movie Changeling. Great performance, no narrative tension.

Non-Stop

posted 5/9/14

This movie set on a jet features Lian Neeson as an alcoholic air marshall and Julianna Moore as a passenger. So, the acting is solid. The trailer promises an action film, which this film is not. It's a psychological thriller. Unfortunately, the longer the movie goes on, the less sense it makes. Worth a matinee.

Transcendence

posted 4/25/14

Big budget Hollywood films that fail to find an audience often offer lessons in storytelling. Transcendence is another example.

In most successful films, a main character embodies a story's promise (what the story is about) and that character experiences narrative tension around the course and outcome of the story. Transcendence violates this by starting with the aftermath of what's happened in the film with a major, but secondary character, then returns to the present. Johnny Depp is a scientist working to create a singularity, an articial, highly intelligent computer system that has the potential to evolve rapidly. But Depp is soon shot and dies, and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer. This takes 25 minutes. The action is slow and the settings mostly dark.

Main character #3 is kidnapped to force him to help shut down the new version of Depp, and he experiences narrative tension about this, but he's not the main character.

Eventually he's reunited with Depp's wife, who builds a massive underground compound at Depp's direction. A scientist friend gets through to her about the possibility that the A.I. is using Depp's personality to mislead her and its plan is to wipe out humanity and take over the world under the guise of using nano-technology to heal the crippled and end poluition. Now she experiences narrative tension.

This builds to a major confrontation, when to save his human wife, a newly minted Depp in a physical body allows himself to be infected with a virus to save her. Depp and the wife he loves die together; her love has pulled on what was left of Depp to do the right thing. He dies, and since everything about him has already infected the world, everything in the world (pretty much) shuts down.

The film ends with main character #3 in a garden created by the human Depp that still has some of the nano-technology that could rebuild the world. Will he allow the technology to rebuild the world?

The film develops a number of ideas about technology, but none are ever developed.

A film can be developed with multiple main characters. L.A. Confidential is a great example, but it's also a great example of story mechanics. Several main characters, but one story (about illusion, reality, and identity) and one plot (who's going to replace Mickey C, and what happened at the Night Owl Cafe?)

You don't find that kind of clarity in Transcendence. Big budget Hollywood films that fail to find and satisfy an audience often have flawed story mechanics. Understanding what's happened is often highly instructive.

Enemy

posted 4/23/14

The set up in this film is that a college professor who lectures about chaos and repetition in history is profoundly stuck in his life. The film makes the point over and over. Then he discovers he has a body double living in the same town. And the film makes that point over and over. And every scene has portentous music.

The double is married to a possibly unbalanced, pregnant woman; every time she's on screen, there's a jolt of energy and anticipation.

I noted in a review the director wanted to create a Twilight Zone episode quality. TW episodes were 23 minutes, then 46 minute. This film feels like an hour long Twilight Zone episode stretched out to ninety minutes.

It came across that the director wanted to create an art film without having much to say.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

posted 4/5/14

Excellent action film. Like the best action films, it asks the audience to care about the characters.

Good chemistry between the leads. I recently saw Upside Down, which had zero chemistry.

CGI is CGI.

300: Rise of an Empire

posted 3/15/14

Somehow having two main characters adds up to 75% of the drama the film needs. Like the film Troy, it has a 'pass the salt and you'll be immortal, Achilles' kind of on the nose dialogue, in this case about freedom. I guess the unification of the Greek city states doesn't register like 300 men sacrificing themselves in a battle.

Three Days to Kill

posted 2/27/14

This Kevin Costner film has a variety of tones, always leavened with an undercurrent of cheeky humor. It worked for me. I enjoyed watching the film. Some of the funniest scenes are Costner asking for advice about his estranged teenage daughter from bad guys he is preparing to torture for information related to killing an uber bad guy called Wolf, protected by a minion called Albino. It shouldn't work, but it did for me. I cared about his becoming a father again to his daughter.

Her

posted 1/12/14

This is a thoughtful film set in the near future. A newly divorced young man who struggles with relationships is given an opportunity to have an A.I. (artificially intelligent) female companion. As soon as it's operating, it begins learning about him and what pleases him. He soon finds himself falling in love with this new companion, who is understanding, sympathetic, and able to navigate through the maze of his conflicted behaviors -- mostly emotional withdrawal -- that has doomed two marriages. But what he doesn't grasp is that this companion is rapidly evolving, to the point she and other A.I.s like her have no desire for human contact.

The film ends on the suggestion that what he's learned about himself and relationships from her makes him capable of being in a loving, intimate relationship with a physical woman.

While the idea of the film might be new to general audiences, it's an idea that's been explored in science fiction for over forty years. The idea is handled well here.

The Counselor

posted 12/17/13

The Counselor is a lawyer who thinks he can do a one-off on a drug deal to support his girlfriend/fiance in a lavish lifestyle, even though others involved in the deal counsel him that he's entering a different world with different rules and a near certainty that things won't go as planned. But the Counselor doesn't take their counsel and the drug deal turns out to be a set up by a partner's ruthless girlfriend, who is a deadly predator.

This is all dry and uninvolving, and the underlying point is that men will do most anything for the women they love.

It's only half way through the film when the deal goes wrong that the main character is put into a state of narrative tension, trying desperately to save himself and his girlfriend. That's when the action has impact.

The dialogue continues down the path of everyone giving the Counselor gravely philosophical insights into this new world he's in.

The film lacks the moral center Tommy Lee Jones gave No Country for Old Men.

Homefront

posted 12/3/13

This Jason Statham action film written by Sylvester Stallone and set in Louisiana has some interesting scenery but it lacks the cheeky-charm of some other Statham action films. The title could have been Unintended Consequences, and a stronger focus on characters trying to avoid the consequences of a schoolyard spat would have given the film a stronger subtext.

Thor

posted 11/14/13

The movie is a great example of the difference actors can make. Without the charm of Chris Hemsworth and the menace of Tom Hiddleston, this would be a rather dull special effects movie.

Enough Said

posted 10/26/13

This starts off as a gentle, observant comedy about two middle-aged, single parents each dealing with a daughter going off to college. When they begin to date, there's a major complication: she's a masseuse who begins working for his ex-wife, who wants to be friends while she bad-mouths her ex-husband.

The story about the two parents dealing with the loss of daughters while dating in middle age is quiet and observant, but the plot complications around the masseuse trying to maintain a relationship with the ex-husband and hiding her new friendship goes into broad comedy.

The main actors do a great job of conveying feelings with subtle eye gestures.

Austenland

posted 9/8/13

I love Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, so I'm a natural audience for a film about an unmarried, free-spirited woman who pays a fortune to go to Austenland, a recreation of the time and characters from Austen novels. But the movie needs us to believe in her fantasy of a Mr. Darcy, or, in real life, a man with some sense and sensibility. A fantasy, yes, but a need that is conveyed with a tone of realism.

Unfortunately, the movie immediately dives into broad and then arch comedy with the introduction of Austenland, tones which undercut the main character's journey in the film.

In the end, she gets her Mr. Darcy, but every heart felt scene often is followed by something bordering on slapstick. Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice is a pompous ass, and not to be taken seriously, but he's not a commedic ass striving for laughs.

I think in the end fans of Pride and Prejudice will enjoy the movie.

World War Z

posted 9/1/13

The movie has fast zombies, a big plot, and a thin story. The zombies set up the big plot question, will humanity survive. The story question is more obscure; it seems to revolve around people making impossible choices. But I'm not sure, and because I'm not sure, the journey of the main character feels thin.

Kick Ass 2

posted 8/18/2013

The first film had a cheeky tone, an underlying logic, and it gave its character inner lives that rang true. It wasn't a film for everyone, but it worked well and asked us to feel invested in the characters.

The sequel pretty much avoids any realistic characterization for over the top violence and vulgarity that is often just silly. There are moments of characterization and feeling that become more frequent toward the end, but they end up coming across as haphazard and not central to the story.

One way to describe the plot is 'busy'.

I would have had more appreciation for Jim Carrey if his objection to the movie was its stupidity.

Elysium

posted 8/8/2013

Neill Blomkamp's Elysium is an example of what is called World Building in science fiction stories. The world he creates is a polluted earth over-populated with the poor who live in slums and are managed by robotic police and administrators. In the sky hangs Elysium, a rotating space station where the super wealthy live in comfort. A few heavily guarded factory managers travel between earth and Elysium.

The beginning of the film sets out the conditions on Earth through an introduction to Max and Frey, young orphans. Max promises Frey that someday he will take her to Elysium.

In screenwriting terms, that's a set up for each character, and viewers will expect a payoff for each set up.

But that early set up doesn't quite connect to the ending of the film. The focus of the film seems more aimed at the world building than the characters.

This is the End

posted 6/15/2013

My meauring stick for a dumb comedy is that I get at least two good laughs out of it. This movie has an early, brutal death for Michael Cera, which is always good for a hearty laugh, and a few more hearty laughs along the way, so I recommend it. For me it tended to be more amusing than funny, more about the various comedians playing off each other.

Iron Man 3

posted 5/4/2013

I love the relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper, and everything else is the fun action I expect. I wonder on occasion why so many action films turn a relationship into a tacked on formality that generates no dramatic weight. The first Bourne film with Matt Damon also developed a deeply felt relationship between adults.

Seeing a hero deal with an anxiety disorder was also interesting.

The plot pretty much took care of business.

Oblivion

posted 4/29/2013

This is a big budget science fiction film staring Tom Cruise. Mostly the money is up on the screen in the effects, but the plot plays as thin. It's mostly Tom, and Tom and a few others. I enjoyed watching the film at a $5 matinee.

Oz

posted 3/19/2013

Watching this, I wondered if anyone involved watched the Wizard of Oz. The 'show' at the end is fun, but to me, everything else had the glossy sheen of a musical, but no one was singing.

The plot picks up some traction with the appearance of Wicked.

At the end, Oz hands out gifts to characters who were marginal to the story and plot, as if that somehow mimicked the main characters and action in the Wizard of Oz.

Since con men need to have zero feelings or sympathies for their victims, it's a difficult character type to use for transformation.

Mama

posted 3/18/2013

This film has a strong beginning, with a father preparing to kill his young daughters in a cabin in the woods, instead being killed by a ghostly entity that then helps raise the girls, who both revert to feral states.

The film picks up five years later when the girls are rescued and sent to live with an uncle and his punk rock girlfriend; the ghostly entity goes with them.

The film builds well until plot point two, when characters begin acting in inexplicable ways -- going to a cabin haunted by a ghoul in the woods in the middle of the night -- and each character's journey to the cabin starts in broad day light, so the scenes feel mishandled on a basic level of logic. A character who dislikes children remains alone in a haunted house with freaky, scary kids.

The ghost which is scary when barely seen becomes progressively less scary in the last scenes of the movie.

Dead Man Walking

posted 3/16/2013

This is a convoluted thriller about two people seeking revenge. I enjoyed the acting, but for me there came a point when it became an improbable revelation that an engineer from Europe living in the US would develop the skills of a highly trained commando; or that people armed with hand guns and automatic weapons could be going around the streets of New York without attracting immediate attention from the police.

Once I started thinking about details that didn't add up, the film lost momentum for me.

The title could apply to several different characters.

Django Unchained

posted 2/6/2013

This is violent, profane, and funny in turn. I held off seeing the film because a reviewer mentioned it was a lost opportunity to say something deep about slavery. I found that every frame of the film screams indignation about slavery and how people operated in that system, from slaves to poor whites to house servants.

The film is a homage to spaghetti Westerns. Nice action and funny, droll acting.

Recommended.

Zero Dark Thirty

posted 1/16/2013

This is an account of a CIA analyst's personal mission to track down Osama bin Laden. It's a compelling account but not a powerful story. It has a plot question but not a story question, so we just observe the dramatic events. The end just asks the question, what will she do now? There's not much payoff.

The Hobbit

posted 12/31/2012

Poster for the movie The Hobbit. I enjoyed watching this movie very much. Often times, when a novel is turned into a film, there's some serious compression. Minor character are eliminated or combined, plot events streamlined to keep a focus on a main character.

The Hobbit takes an opposite tact. Events that are related in passing show up on the screen. Although it's been many years since I've read the novel, the movie seemed to incorporate every major scene in the novel, some with more detail than I recall.

People who go to the movie expecting to see this compression, or the pacing of a typical Hollywood film, are apt to get something they didn't expect.

Once I realized this would be a leisurely telling of the novel, I settled into my seat and enjoyed the film journey.

Jack Reacher

posted 12/30/2012

Poster for the movie Jack Reacher. This is an ordinary, competent action film. There is some humor as the minons of the chief bad guy (played by director Werner Herzog) seem to have been hired from the Three Stooges School of Martial Arts. Robert Duvall adds some dramatic heft in the 2nd half of the film. Tom Cruise is fine as Jack Reacher, but I say that as not having read the novel this is based on. There is a nicely done car chase with a muscle car.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Poster for the movie Perks of Being a Wallflower.

posted 12/20/2012

The structure of this film shows how something from a character's past can be alluded to long before it takes central stage. The main character is Charlie, who starts high school fearing his recent troubles will make him an outcast. When he falls in with two seniors, his life takes a turn for the better, although I felt his life becomes so much better in the first half of the film, it undercut the drama.

I did find the film a pleasure to watch and recommend it.

End of Watch

posted 11/30/2012

Poster for the movie End of Watch. I make a distinction between story and plot; plot is about what happens; story is about why it matters. The plot of End of Watch revolves around two patrolman in L.A. who unknowingly anger a Mexican drug cartel that marks them for death. Will either survive? That's plot. But story... some issue of human need acted out to fulfillment... I never quite saw it on the screen. It does come out that the two men love each other, probably more than they love their wives; and one is more intellectual than usual for a street cop.

But story? I never quite saw one.

Twilight

posted 11/22/2012

This film mostly reduces the characters to posing. Bella's father generates some dramatic weight because his needs are accessible.

Skyfall

posted 11/14/2012

This latest Bond film takes the time to give him an inner life and a past to go along with the action.

Argo

posted 10/24/2012

This is a taut, well-constructed thriller about getting some Americans out of Tehran after people in the American embassy were taken hostage. I've haven't been this nervous and tense at a movie in years. A great demonstration on how to build drama into scenes.

The Master

Poster for the movie The Master.

posted 10/21/2012

This film operates as a character study, and not a story with any kind of traditional story or plot. The main characters are Freddie Quell, a loner prone to violence who has sex with real women and sand castle women; Lancaster Dodd, founder of The Cause, a Scientology like-program; and Dodd's self-controlled and controlling wife, who wants Freddie gone. But Lancaster takes in Freddie as a disciple and tries to help him with techniques that Dodd's son claims he's making up as he goes along.

There's a subtext in the film about how America after the war became more open to folks like Dodd.

Total Recall

posted 8/25/2012

This uses a Blade Runner visual motif, but it quickly turns into an action film with a high body count and never particularly asks us to care about the main character. The special effects can't overcome that. Neat hover car chase.

ParaNorman

posted 8/24/2012

posted 8/12/2012

Poster for the movie ParaNorman. The set up here is quick and neat. Norman is a boy who sees dead people, which makes him an outcast in his family and community. When a witches' curse looses some zombies on the town, only Norman can save the day, but only when he fully understands why the young witch has cursed the town.

The animation is always clever, filling the screen with interesting sights. The minor characters are always fun and engaging.

Safety Not Guaranteed

posted 8/12/2012

Poster for the movie Safety Not Guaranteed. The set up for this story is that a reporter and two unpaid interns are sent on assignment to track down someone who submitted an ad about time travel to a community paper in Seattle. In different ways, all three are trapped in their mental visions of who they are (or were in the past). A young woman is depressed, until she meets the young man of the ad, and finds his promise of training for time travel to be invigorating, even as the details about his life fall apart.

Interesting take on how any deeply felt purpose in life -- even one that seems crazy to others -- can be more invigorating than no purpose. Been there, done that. Did bellows breathing 3-4 hours a day for a year.

This was shot on a fairly low budget, but it ultimately asks that we care about and feel invested in these characters.

Dark Shadows

posted 7/4/2012

The trailer suggests this is a comedy, but it's 25 minutes before there is a humorous moment. The central issue tends to revolve around family and a curse that turns Johnny Depp into a vampire.

The real focus seems to be on the sets and Johnny Depp's costume, make up and performance, which are fine.

I watched this at a late night show and got a discounted slice of pizza for two bucks. It was cold and congealed, which reminded me of the movie.

The Hunger Games

posted 6/25/2012

Poster for the movie The Hunger Games. This well-made film offers a great example of how to turn a popular novel into a movie. The film eliminates several minor characters and shortens something that pre-occupies Katniss in the novel, whether she'll go along with playing someone's girlfriend for an audience. The absolute poverty in District 12 is conveyed in some quick shots in the movie, while conveying that poverty occupies a number of pages in the novel.

Katniss' relationships with her mother, younger sister, and her younger sister's cat are also conveyed quickly.

The movie deftly conveys the central question of the novel, whether Katniss will be able to keep her humanity when she enters the games.

The movie of The Lovely Bones offers an example of how turning a novel into a movie can go off the rails. That movie starts with an image that muffles what the story is about; and a central feature of Suzie's after life -- that it's a kind of drab way-station for people who haven't let go of earthly life -- is turned into a kind of super-sized, colorful, amazing theme park that everyone should desire.

People who loved the novel The Hunger Games will enjoy the movie very much.

Hysteria

posted 6/23/2012

This movie demonstrates the problems of trying to cover a lot of terrain with a shifting mix of tones. The first set up is a young doctor in 19th century London who discovers his promotion of the new ideas of germs and washing hands between patients keeps getting him fired by older doctors. He then gets a job with a doctor who uses orgasms to treat the the common malady of upper-middle class women, hysteria (which was considered to be a condition aflicting women until 1950).

His employer has a chaste young daughter he's openly shopping to the young doctor, and a fire-brand, force of nature oldest daughter who torments her father with her ideas of poor people being human beings deserving of compassion, education, and medical care.

The film covers the slow, sedate courtship of the young doctor and the young woman, interrupted by occasional outbursts when the older daughter passes through pleading for money or support.

The question, who will he end up with?

But his immediate problem is he's wearing out his hand servicing women in the clinic, some of whom take hours of stimulation to climax and get relief from their symptoms (which mostly seem to be passing the time in the long wait for the treatment to be effective).

Meanwhile, the young doctor's wealthy benefactor invents what becomes the first electric vibrator, creating a huge demand for the young doctor's services. At this point, the film shifts to being a droll British sex comedy.

The film shifts back to a realistic tone to deal with the young doctor realizing he's in love with young fury, not young chaste.

The problem is, he's barely spent any time with young fury, so the relationship feels abrupt, and has a different tone from the realism about medical proceedures, then the comedic tone, then the serious tone about women's rights and the treatment of the poor.

The film has a good heart. It allows the young daughter to have the realization that a better life for her won't involve being the wife of the young doctor.

Shifts in tone can be one of the most common and vexing problem in some scripts. The shift in tone helps create the effect of a climax at the same time it undercuts the impact.

Prometheus

posted 6/13/2012

I don't always expect characters in a film to behave like rocket scientists, except when some of them ARE scientists. The characters here act more like ten year olds on their first backyard overnight camp out.

Some impressive CGI, and the action picks up in the 2nd hour.

The movie raises some big questions (who created us) but it doesn't do much to explore them.

The Cabin in the Woods

posted 6/12/2012

This is clever and well made, with the Josh Whedon touches of strong character development and sly humor. Some college students go off to the cabin in the woods and find themselves part of an elaborately-staged, deadly ritual overseen by some jaded bureaucrats.

In the end, a pair of unlikely characters remain loyal to each other.

I saw this on a smaller, 2nd run screen, and I felt that scale added to my enjoyment of the film.

Men in Black 3

posted 5/29/2012

This is fun, and, by the end, heartfelt. It doestn't hit all the high notes of the first film, but the film is consistently fun.

Josh Brolin does a great imitation of a young Tommy Lee Jones.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

posted 5/25/2012

The title character is a 30 year old adolescent who lives in his mother's home, smoking dope, and thinking about fate. When he gets a wrong number about someone named Kevin, he considers it a sign to follow.

He comes across his narcisstic, self-absorbed brother, who's befuddled about why his wife would want to have an affair.

The movie does a good job of moving the two brothers to a deeper understanding of themselves and transformations (of a kind). After a meandering quality, the film has an active ending.

Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, who also worked together on the Puffy Chair.

The Raid

posted 4/30/2012

This is a wonderful martial arts film that also takes the time to develop the relationships between the characters. Some great action scenes, although one goes on so long, it calls into question how someone could still be conscious after so many blows. Recommended to those who love martial arts films.

John Carter

posted 3/21/2012

250 million dollars and no one thought to answer the question, what does the main character want? What he doesn't want is conveyed clearly and repeatedly: to not fight in anyone else's cause.

Another demonstration that money and special effects aren't a replacement for telling a good story.

A Dangerous Method

posted 2/2/2012

This movie about Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Sabina, a patient of Jung's, illustrates that conflict in a film does not have to revolve around action. Here the most heated conflict revolves around ideas. Jung is a disciple of Freud, who has invented psychoanalysis. Freud's goal is to ensure that psychoanalysis be taken seriously as a scientific method of understanding people through an understanding of the subconscious and the unconscious. When Jung begins to express an interest in a collective unconscious and mysticism, Freud sees this as something that will undermine his life's work.

Each man is committed to his ideas and their primacy. Neither can walk away from the conflict between their ideas.

When Jung begins to treat a young Russian Jew named Sabina with the new talking cure, he finds himself attracted to her (as he is not to his wealthy, genteel wife). When Jung and Sabina become lovers and rumors about that begin to surface, Freud now has a weapon he can use to discredit Jung, and by discrediting Jung, his ideas as well.

But he does not.

A thoughtful, intelligent film directed by David Cronenberg.

Take Shelter

posted 1/13/2012

This movie demonstrates a central issue of storytelling, narrative tension. I define narrative tension as the tension a character feels to resolve or fulfill some issue, and the tension that increases as that character takes action. Romeo in Romeo and Juliet is a great example of narrative tension, because everything he does to act on his love for Juliet puts him in deeper conflict with his clan.

Novels that lack a main character in a state of narrative tension are often episodic, a series of events but lacking a clearly defined central conflict.

In Take Shelter, the main character is a blue collar worker of 35. The film opens with him standing outside in the rain, but the rain drops include oil. As the film continues, he has nightmares about a powerful, deadly storm, and also attacks on himself and his six year old, deaf daughter. But then he has a nightmare while awake. Are the nightmares a premonition of something looming or symptoms of mental illness? At 35, his mother began to experience the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

To save his family, he excavates around a tornado shelter using equipment he's borrowed from his job. This gets him fired, just before his deaf daughter is slated for an operation to restore her hearing. But he can't stop what he's doing if it means the safety of his family.

This film's main character is always in a state narrative tension that is accessible to the audience. He fears he's descending into mental illness, but if he's not, how does he save his family? But his actions to save his family threaten to tear his family apart and seem to prove he's mentally ill to those around him.

When he confesses what's happening, his loving wife helps him get through the aftermath of a storm, and they take a family vacation to a beach before he'll be put on a regime of drugs and institutionalization. While the father is on a beach with his daughter, the fear in her eyes causes him to look up. The monster storm he's seen in his visions is now approaching. As his wife comes out onto a vacation rental deck, she realizes the rain is mixed with oil.

That ends the film and answers the central question of the story, but raises more questions about how and why he was having these premonitions and why they manifested as nightmares about him and his daughter being attacked.

This film also demonstrates the difference between horror and psychological terror. In a typical Hollywood horror film, there are often a series of 'boo' moments, where some sudden action is designed to scare the audience. Here there's a creeping sense of terror that is transferred from the main character to the viewers of the film. I found the film much creepier and more horrifying than most of the horror films I've seen in the last ten years. A well-made, well-acted if unsettling film.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher

posted 1/9/2012

This American version of the Swedish novel has opening credits that suggest the movie will be about S&M and bondage. More so than the Swedish film of the novel, this movie is more visual and more compressed. This movie also does a better job of conveying Lisbeth's journey, from anti-social misfit to a woman potentially capable of being in a loving relationship with a man.

The Swedish film ended on a strictly plot note, which undercut the power of that film as a story.

I'm more removed from the novel than when I did the early capsule review, but I still found Lisbeth to be the more interesting, compelling character. More so than Mikael, she has a deadly, single focus: avenging the violence men commit against women.

In novels by struggling, unpublished authors, I often see these kind of potently defined minor character who act around a single desire: to get even, get vengeance, right some injustice acted upon them. The problem comes in when a main character is diffuse about what they want. Mikael is a stronger character in the novel than the movie because what drives him comes across more clearly.

Sherlock Holmes, a Game of Shadows

posted 1/6/2012

Unfortunately, this movie takes the title too far. For most of of the movie, it's not clear what Moriarty is trying to accomplish in the shadows. The result is there's a lot of beautifully staged action, but for most of the film, no sense of an underlying point. What Moriarty is trying to accomplish comes out at the end of the film, but too late to make this a powerful story or an engaging plot.

The film does have the easy camaraderie of its two stars.

The Guard

posted 1/2/2012

On the surface this film is a fish out of water story, with the fish being an ivy-league, African-American FBI agent sent to Ireland to help intercept a drug shipment. Circumstances force him to work with a braggart, racist cop. The FBI agent can't stand the man, but he also wonders if his seemingly uneducated, vulgar partner with a large sexual appetite for hookers is really much smarter than he lets on.

The plot is generic but the storytelling is organic. What happens, and why, is based on who these two men are, and the choices they make based on who they are. Different characters would change the outcome of the plot, versus action films where the characters are in the service of the plot.

A pleasure to watch.

The Skin I Live In

posted 12/6/2011

This film by Pedro Almodovar demonstrates how a shift in time and perspective can affect an understanding of a story. The film begins with a scientist/surgeon living in a secluded mansion and keeping a beautiful young woman in an isolated, locked room. A housekeeper suggests it would be best if the young woman were dead. Then, a man in a costume shows up, the wastrel son of the housekeeper. He ties her up and rapes the young woman, while commenting that she looks just like 'her.' The surgeon comes in and shoots and kills the rapist.

The film now shifts to six years earlier. The surgeon is at a dinner party with an unstable daughter. It comes out that her mother recently died. Unnoticed by her father, she goes out with another young man. He expects this is for sex, but when she resists, he panics, hits her, tidies up her clothing, and flees. The father finds his daughter, who has undergone a psychotic break and later commits suicide.

He captures the young rapist and performs a sex change operation. Over the years, continued operations turn the young man into the beautiful young woman seen at the beginning of the film.

This explains who the young woman is, but it also completely changes the perspective on what this is a story about, that it is a kind of modern day Frankenstein story.

Odd but compelling film.

Finding Joe

posted 10/29/2011

This documentary about the Hero's Journey features interviews with a number of artists, writers, philosophers, and teachers. This would be a good resource for writers who would like to know more about Campbell's ideas that Chris Vogler explores in his book about screenwriting.

The Hero's Journey is a good model for new screenwriters looking for a model that will help them with plotting and storytelling. There is also a book out now about the Heroine's Journey.

Bridesmaids

posted 9/2/2011

It's interesting to me that comedies can get in to much deeper character waters that more dramatic films. Here, the main character exists in a state of ever increasing desperation. The humor floats over the top of her situation, but there's no way around the main character's grim situation. This reminded me of Local Hero's story about adult loneliness.

In a movie that is generally realistic, a state patrolmen seems to come from a parallel universe where he has no duties, drives his car to a bar with a woman he's met for drinks, etc. It's a different tone.

The Green Lantern

posted 8/9/2011

There's a weak attempt here to set up a character arc of irresponsible to responsible (used in Ironman), but what sinks this movie like a rock is that the main character is trivial. In a better movie he would be the comic sidekick.

Submarine

posted 7/10/2011

This is a whimsical, wry movie, Gregory's Girl as if shot by Fellini. The main character is a young boy who falls for his first girlfriend while he plots to save his parent's marriage. The story feels fresh and deeply felt. There are many funny scenes between the boy and his parents, including his mother tactfully explaining how she came to give the neighbor a hand job.

I've seen several movies that have attempted to be Fellini-est, but they generally miss the mark because Fellini loved people and that always came through his storytelling. That comes through here. This filmmaker is telling a story about real people.

Chameleon

posted 7/8/2011

A young man from France attempts to pass himself off as a missing American teen, and finds himself in a dysfuntional family where the step-brother knows the missing teen is dead because he killed him, but the mother comes to prefer the fake son over the dead son.

There's no clearly defined main character here, so it's hard to get drawn deeply in to the mystery. How the family reacts to the fake family member is interesting.

Scream 4

posted 5/24/2011

Poster for the movie Scream4.

This is a haphazard mix of old and new. A younger group of actors has been cast to play/clone the characters of the original movie, but it's hard to tell who the main character is, and the girl who appears to be the main character doesn't really register or have much screen time until the end of the movie. There's also an issue of tone. The first two movies in the series were dramatic with a current of humor as several characters were knowledgeable about how things worked in a slasher movie, and they used that knowledge to try and save themselves. Here, characters range from comic to serious and the tone becomes haphazard.

I don't expect victims in a horror film to be rocket scientists, but one young woman is trapped in a car in a parking garage by the killer. Instead of calling the police or waiting for help, she gets out of the car in high heels to look for the killer. I can't recall seeing something this lame in a movie.

Neve Campbell, Dewey, and Gail register, as well as a few of the minor characters, but the central idea of the story is withheld for the climax, leaving the movie to jump from scene to scene, tone to tone.

Source Code

Poster for the movie Source Code.

posted 4/29/2011

Source Code starts with a clever plot; a military officer can be placed in the body of a passenger on a train. He has eight minutes to figure out who has planted a bomb on the train; when the bomb goes off, he dies along with everyone else on the train. And then the eight minute segment happens again, and again, and again until he discovers who the bomber is. But he also falls in love with a passenger on the train, and it is his attempts to save her that give the story a heart to go along with the clever plot.

The film starts with an initial plot question, can he save her? It then opens out to, can he save himself?

The answers to those questions are thoughtful and dramatic.

Well done.

Paul

posted 4/27/2011

Paul is a film about an alien who falls in with two English comic book/science fiction geeks and their road trip. The movie is consistently amusing and most of the characters are eccentric, but the characters are presented in a good-natured way. We're asked to smile about their foibles and character tics and not laugh at them.

A nice film to watch in a second run theater.

Battle: Los Angeles

posted 3/25/2011

I love a good action movie. I kinda maybe almost barely liked Battle: Los Angeles. The film is more first person shooter video than movie. Having the aliens be drones meant they had just a little less character to play than the actors.

Cold Weather

posted 2/27/2011

This Indie film shot in Portland, Oregon has a nice film sense. The main character is a young man who's dropped out of school, who gets involved in trying to find out what's happened to an ex-girlfriend. The underlying story is about the brother learning about his older sister's life.

The King's Speech

posted 1/27/2011

I teach that drama is an anticipation of an outcome. This film about a stutterer who becomes the King of England is very dramatic indeed. Every time the main character has to speak in public, there a question of whether he'll be able to speak at all.

Well-made and acted.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

posted 1/3/2011

This is the final film in the trilogy. The main questions that drive the plot are whether Lisbeth's half-brother will kill her and whether she'll be killed or institutionalized by her tormentors. Even though Lisbeth spends much of her time early in the film recovering from being shot in the head, she's still the focus of the film's drama and action.

The major plot questions are answered, but the story thread that underlies Lisbeth's character -- whether she'll gain an ability to be in a loving, intimate relationship -- is left unfulfilled. This makes her character in the film true to life (it's very difficult for victims of severe abuse to be able to form loving, intimate relationships), but it undercuts her journey as a story character. She computes, she evaluates, but there's only a flicker of feeling that registers when she realizes she's going to finally defeat her tormentors in court.

Skyline

posted 12/8/2010

Skyline has no promise, the characters don't embody dramatic truths that arise from that promise, and there's no fulfillment of a story's promise. There are characters who have issues, a situation (LA under attack from aliens), and drama (how scenes will turn out). This kind of film story leaves actors in the lurch, since they have things to do but no underlying connection to each other. So actors end up posing and getting blamed for what shows up on the screen, moving toward the answer: who'll survive? (The aliens, the bad reviews).

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World

posted 11/10/2010

I teach that buffoons carry no dramatic weight. The main character at the heart of Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is a buffoon, so the film is a lot of cleverness revolving around a hollow, weightless core. I could see how a high school girl might be impressed with Scott, but why a young woman would have the slightest interest in him escaped me.

RED

posted 10/27/2010

RED is an action film about a retired CIA operative who makes a connection with a phone pal, then finds himself on a list of people being killed by young, ambitious operatives. He must fight to save himself and his new friend.

The set up here is what people go through when they retire and start to feel useless.

The film has a droll, under-stated, comedic tone, until the violence becomes more intense.

The Other Guys

posted 8/12/2010

There are some laughs here, and sometimes that's enough.

The set up is that two incompetent NY detectives prove themselves.

MicMacs

posted 8/12/2010

I teach that buffoons carry no dramatic weight, that it's hard to feel invested in what happens to them. In this film, most of the characters are more comic than buffoonish, but I ended up in the same place. I didn't particularly care what happened to the main character.

The set up is a man who lost his father to a mine and who, in turn, is shot, has a chance to get back at the companies involved in making weapons.

Shot by the director who did Amalie, so the movie is consistently clever.

Cyrus

posted 7/31/2010

A lonely, divorced man meets an attractive woman at a party who has sex with him and leaves in the middle of the night. When he tracks her down, he finds that she's living with a 22 year old son who considers his mother his partner in life and the new lover a threat. The movie lets hang in the air the notion that the divorced man is as much an over-grown adolescent ruining his ex-wife's upcoming marriage plans as the mother's son is another over-grown adolescent ruining his mother's life, except she's happily, physically bonded to both feuding adolescents, her son and her new lover.

The movie demonstrates how much tension can be generated from a character dreading that something might happen, here the new lover having to take the mother and son to his ex-wife's wedding and dreading the son acting out.

If the movie had continued another 30 seconds, I would have expected the son to shoot his returning rival.

Predators

posted 7/9/2010

This film has a muscular beginning. The story set up revolves around whether a human predator can retain some humanity. The plot is the standard, who'll survive. Despite an initial thrill, characters are not interesting enough to sustain the suspense.

This is not a remake/reboot of the first film; it's meant to stand alone.

Splice

posted 6/12/2010

This is an old-fashioned horror film, with the set up of two scientists playing God to create a new life form and then finding their personal issues clouding their judgement in a way that dooms them. The film generates a quality of menace and creepiness more than outright horror. A stronger, initial note about one character's unsuitablity to be a parent would have given the story more depth.

The creature they create for all the right and wrong reasons, Dren, is well-designed to be human-like but not quite. Dren is feral but with some human emotions.

People who like horror that is thoughtful might give this a try.

Hot Tub Time Machine

posted 6/6/2010

This movie shows the danger in creating an unsympathetic character to generate a character arc and set up a happy ending. One of the characters is such a crazed creep, however, that the first third of the movie is weak and not funny, and it raises a huge question of why the guy has any friends at all. The plot does play with the idea of characters traveling to the past needing to not change anything that affects their present lives. Some laughs.

How to Train a Dragon

posted 5/12/2010

Stories aimed at children often have clearly defined characters. Here, a young Viking boy is thoughtful and frail and the son of a powerful, super-sized father who routinely states his disappointment in his son. When the boy captures a deadly dragon, he learns enough about the dragons who attack his village to change the lives of his clan for the better.

Every significant character has a dramatic truth and an issue that plays through the plot.

Nicely done.


Ironman 2

posted 5/12/2010

Where the first film was muscular and enjoyable, this is trival and muddled. The film has its own Jar Jar Binks as a comic bad guy. Unfortunately, buffoons carry no dramatic weight, so the story feels slight, the arc for the main character unclear (or just not important). Hopefully everyone involved got paid well.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

posted 4/18/2010

I viewed this movie within a week of reading the novel, so it was interesting to compare the two. The novel creates narrative tension for the main characters by revealing their inner thoughts and feelings. In the movie, the character who makes the strongest impression is Lisbeth, who has some immediate, and powerfully presented, goals and issues to resolve. The movie recreates the story along a vein of visual action, finding out what happened to a missing girl, while the book covers much more ground with more characters.

In the book, the main issue for Lisbeth is gaining an ability to feel and experience love in a relationship. The movie ends on a different, visual note that undercuts her real journey.

The main goal for another character in the novel is getting his life back and getting revenge on someone who got him sent to prison. Getting revenge registers in the film, why getting his life back was important to him, not so much.

A central issue in both the book and movie is how women are treated by men and fascism in Sweden during and after WWII.

Ghostwriter

posted 3/29/2010

This movie has a slow - slow - opening, with a ghostwriter hired to re-write another ghost-writer's memoir of an embattled, former British Prime Minister. There are moments of creeping suspense, but it's not until the ghostwriter decides to investigate the murder of his predecessor that the film gets into a higher gear. Everything is well-done; nothing is great. The story is about the sleeping, glib, apolitical ghostwriter waking up to the world around him.

Dreamkeeper

posted 2/22/2010

A friend who works at a library talked me into watching this, and we ended up watching the different stories in the film over several weeks. The core story is a grandfather and his troubled grandson going on the road together to a pow wow. The grandfather is a storyteller, and the stories he tells are all acted out, telling the legends of a number of native American tribes. All the actors but one are Native American, and great care was taken to make the stories accurate to indian traditions.

This was a real pleasure to watch.

Shutter Island

posted 2/22/2010

Memento is a great example of a film about a man who wants to control the story of his life. Shutter Island has the same idea at its heart, but where Memento gets that idea across immediately and has some complexity, Shutter Island puts the complexity up front and mostly withholds the real point of the story for a climax.

The film is beautifully shot and composed.

Wolfman

posted 2/18/2010

I can't remember a film more mis-cast. Benico del Toro is just wrong for the part. The director can't frame him in a shot that makes him look like he belongs in the film. Then Anthony Hopkins shows up as the lord of a manor in the English country side; he's absurdly mis-cast as well. Then Agent Smith shows up, but somehow all the mis-casting is never bad enough to be funny. It's just constantly jarring.

The movie has some nice action scenes.

Great horror films like Alien have a powerful subtext, like the corporation being the real monster/alien killing the crew. In this film there's a slight stab at a subtext late in Wolfman that is too little, too late.

There is a nice moment between del Toro and his romantic lead at the end of the film, but it's also too little, too late.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

posted 2/8/2010

This is a film about storytelling. Doctor Parnassus sustains the universe through his storytelling, but his daughter wants to have her own story for her life, and the devil also wants to keep the story pot stirred. Heath Ledger plays a character who wants to shape how others perceive the story of his life (whether he's good or evil). This is a thoughtful, beautiful film.

The Lovely Bones

posted 1/15/2010

The novel this movie is based on starts with the murder of a young girl and how that tears her family apart, and the impact it has on those associated with her family as well. Most of the book is internal to the many characters, how they feel about what happened, how it changed them over time, and how, as the narrator relates, the broken bones of the family finally heal and the murdered narrator is finally able to leave behind the inter-heaven where she has stayed connected to her earthly family.

The movie starts not with the action that tears apart the family, but an introduction to the family and schoolmates. This takes several minutes, and also introduces several characters who won't have significant roles to play until the end of the film. The film does drop into these opening scenes the narrator reciting lines from the book, but it's like a large tapestry has been taken apart and a number of threads have been strung back together in a small, crude square. Compounding the problem, the fairly low-key inter-heaven of the novel is initially presented as a visual extravaganza that makes death seem like a wonderful ticket to a great afterlife. It undercuts why the narrator would still feel involved with her earthly family.

Since I read and enjoyed the novel, I can't watch the movie as a virgin experience, but I can recognize all the structural problems that deflate the movie. It would have been better to reimagine the novel as a movie, and not attempt to shoe-horn so much of the novel into a shortened time frame.

The young actress who plays the narrator holds the screen.

Daytrippers

posted 1/10/2010

The movie has an interesting set up, that a plague has turned most of humanity into vampires, but there aren't enough humans left to provide a blood supply. The few remaining humans are hunted while a scientist at a bio-medical company tries to create a blood substitute before the vampire civilization collapses.

Like Gattaca, there's an attempt to show how this civilization functions.

The problem is that the character with the strongest journey in the film is the scientist's younger brother, who enjoyed his conversion from socially weak human to powerful, immortal vampire. The main character doesn't register strongly enough to carry the film.

Willem Dafoe plays a human with a secret.

The September Issue

posted 12/21/2009

The September Issue is a documentary about the process of creating the September issue of Vogue. The editor of the magazine is Anna Wintour and she makes the final decisions. She's like a general leading an army.

Comparing the production of the September issue to a story's plot, some of the plot questions here are will they be able to meet the deadline and get the issue out in time? What photo will be chosen for the cover? Will the page count exceed other years?

Anna's second in command is Grace Coddington.

She's the creative director for the magazine.

I've been exploring what happens when an author's main character in a novel is diffuse, and minor characters are more interesting. This documentary is a great example of why and how a minor character can be more compelling than a main character.

What drives Anna as a person -- her dramatic truth in story terms -- is diffuse and comes out late in the documentary. It revolves around revelations that her siblings find her job as editor of Vogue, and fashion in general, trivial. Her daughter apparently agrees with her siblings.

What Grace wants -- to have particular sets of photos featured in the September issue -- comes across immediately, with the introduction of her character, along with what she feels as various photos she champions are eliminated from the issue.

Comparing Grace to a story character, what she wants and feels is accessible to the documentary's viewers. What Anna wants and feels is not.

I strongly urge any unpublished author who has been consistently told by informed, intelligent readers that his or her minor characters are more interesting than a main character to watch this documentary, so they can see the difference between a diffuse main character and a dramatically defined minor character.

Then ask yourself, is what your main character wants set out for your readers? Is what your main character feels about what they want accessible? Do his or her feelings shift and change as new complications arise to block him or her?

In The September Issue, Grace is like a fully charged live wire that shines brightly; Anna is a low-voltage, dim bulb.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

posted 11/21/2009

There's some funny material in this film, and an over-reliance on voice over to get across the history of the military's attempts to teach troops paranormal abilities. Part of the need for the narration is three time lines, the present, the recent past, and a time after the Vietnam war. Multiple time lines can work, but they require a strong story line to connect all the material so a story builds toward the fulfillment of its promise . Here, the two main characters have issues that don't really connect, one discovering his true path in life, the other seeking redemption, so the story becomes a shaggy dog story that moves to a funny conclusion.

It's always odd to watch a film where the narrator is explaining the obvious.

Zombieland

posted 10/26/2009

A young man feels alone and without a real family, until a zombie Holocaust leaves him a survivor with a redneck and two con artist sister. By the end of the film, he has the girlfriend and the family he's sought.

Cold Souls

posted 10/24/2009

Paul Giamatti plays himself as an actor struggling with a role in a Chekov play. When he reads an article about how having one's soul removed can help one remove neurosis, he has the process done. And finds his acting too exuberant and unmodulated. So he gets resouled with the soul of a Russian poet, but it's really the soul of a suicidal factory worker. This actually helps his acting but ruins his sex life. Ultimately he struggles to get his original soul back.

This is a darkly humorous story about what it means to have something of our essence removed.

District Nine

posted 8/21/2009

This movie starts out thoughtful and intelligent. The set up is about some aliens who end up stranded in South Africa and how they are perceived and dealt with. It then mutates into an action film. The film also has a mostly unsympathetic main character, a risky choice that put me in the position to spend more time thinking about what the story was about until there wasn't much to think about anymore.

Public Enemies

posted 8/11/2009

The opening storytelling in the film feels diffuse, about many things, including J Edgar Hoover using PR to build up the reputation and budget of the F.B.I. He turns loose agent Melvin Purvis to bring in Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger. The story becomes about the crisis of conscience that Purvis undergoes as he experiences the cost of tracking Dillinger with inexperienced agents and the mounting pressure to capture or kill Dillinger. Dillinger comes across as an adrenaline/media junkie who sees all his friends and compatriots killed.

In the background, the mafia and organized crime also want Dillinger gone, as his crime sprees create laws about traveling across state lines to commit crimes.

The film gains traction as Purvis' issues come to the fore.

Cheri

posted 7/20/2009

The set up for this art film is that a retired courtesan sets up her wastrel son to have an affair with an aging courtesan. When the affair lasts for six years and the son falls in love with his aging paramour, his mother arranges his marriage to a young bride, but the son can't forget about his true love.

The movie is very observant about the role of the Other in a marriage, that person a married person really connects to or relates to in life in place of a spouse. And the consequences of that on all concerned. The movie also raises the issue of age for the older courtesan.

The voice over used in the movie is often jarring, explaining the obvious.

Drag Me To Hell

posted 7/15/2009

A young girl working in a bank is cursed by a gypsy to have her soul dragged to hell in three days. That sets up a concrete plot question, will the girl be able to save herself? But what the story itself is about is to what lengths she'll go to save herself. That's introduced about half way through the movie, so the character/actress doesn't gain much traction until then.

The film is technically well-made, although at times I wasn't sure if scenes were played for scares or laughs.

The Hangover

posted 6/16/2009

This is a funny movie. It also has good story dynamics. Each character is introduced in a brief scene that encapsulates who they are and the issues they bring to the story. Well done.

This runs toward male, drunken-loutish behavior, which won't work for everyone. It's in the Bad Santa mode.

Terminator Salvation

posted 6/5/2009

It took me most of the film to finally realize and accept that John Connor is not the main character. He doesn't have a strong goal or purpose until deep in to the film. The character who starts the film is the main character. The mis-direction does set up a nice twist for the ending, but it saps the film of vitality. I kept expecting more of the John Connor character.

June 16

I read up about the movie and discovered that John Connor wasn't meant to be the main character; his lines were built up when Christian Bale agreed to play the role. This shows what can happen when a story's structure is compromised to star power.

Knowing

posted 5/18/2009

This film seems to be a supernatural thriller (crazed child, spooky characters in the shadows), but at the end becomes a different type of film. That undercuts the fulfillment of the story. For the plot to work, who those spooky characters in the background are is withheld until the climax. It's difficult to create drama in this kind of situation, because the main character is mostly reacting to events and trying to solve a puzzle. The film does develop an issue of the main character reconciling with his family.
Last Night, a Canadian film, did a much better job of developing drama around the end of the world and how a family faces that situation.

Star Trek

posted 5/10/2009

A well-conceived re-introduction to younger characters of the first Star Trek. This is the kind of movie where the money shows up on the screen; the ship is nicely-detailed. Spock makes the strongest impact as a dramatic character, caught between two worlds, always a good choice for a character. Bones and Scotty add some humor. Recommended to fans of the show.

Sunshine Cleaning

posted 4/17/2009

Two sisters have lived in an emotional limbo since the suicide of their mother. When the older sister gets into the business of bio-hazard clean up (often dealing with cleaning up after suicides), the sisters connect to their own grief through dealing with the grief of others.

I've seen this movie compared to Little Miss Sunshine. Cleaning is not a comedy, and there's almost no attempt at humor; it's more about the pathos of being among the working poor.

Watchmen

Watchmen is more like an art film than a typical Hollywood film. In a typical film, a main character often embodies a story's promise, and that character is in a state of narrative tension, which increase as plot obstacles block a character from achieving some goal, but leading ultimately to the fulfillment of a main character's quest or drive to resolve or fulfill some issues or event. Which gives viewers a character to become invested in or involved with.

Watchmen has a fairly straightforward plot, who killed the Comedian and threatens the other Watchmen?

But the story itself is about a society that has lost its moral center, which leads to a resolution of the central plot question around the idea that death can serve a greater good. The deaths that initially appear to set up a greater good in Watchmen are a superhero helping the U.S. to win the war in Vietnam. But this only leads to the moral decay of Richard Nixon in office for several terms and a world on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

So the fulfillment of the story's promise revolves around ideas, and not so much a particular character being a vehicle for the story's promise, unlike a film like the recent Batman. This makes for a film not as accessible as most standard Hollywood fare.

I haven't read the graphic novel; I suspect for those who have read it, the film will feel more fully realized than it might for people who haven't. I expect to see the film again to see if I missed the setting out of its promise while I was waiting for a central character to emerge as the bearer of the story's promise.

For a film story that wants to be about ideas, some of the characterization in the film felt flat, not sharply observed, with Rorschach an exception. He's the most typical good/versus evil hero; he's also one dimensional as a character. He simply wants to inflict pain and destruction on anyone he considers immoral, criminal, or too liberal. He's writ small what has the world at the edge of annihilation.

Revolutionary Road

posted 1/23/2009

A good-looking film. For those who have the novel, the opening scenes of the movie highlight the difference between telling a story as a novel and as a film. In the film, how this couple walk down a hall after a play sums up the state of their marriage.

The story is about a young couple living a lie, that they are 'better' than the other suburbanites, artistic, special. A mentally ill man shows up and forces them to acknowledge that lie, like the character Hickey in The Iceman Cometh.

The wife is unable to continue living the lie and the husband must deal with the consequences.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

posted 1/23/2009

The initial set up for this story was the arrival of a vampire/werewolf hybrid. The first two films operated as extended trailers to set up what I thought would be a third film about the actual story of this hybrid. My mistake. The third film is more backstory about vampires and werewolves. Perhaps a fourth film will finally tell the story of the hybrid.

Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

posted 1/7/2009

There's a great spectacle in the first hour of this film, about a boy born as an old man, who ages in reverse until he passes away as a baby. There's not much narrative tension until the now middle-aged man meets a young girl. When they eventually get married, the question that weighs on the marriage: what will happen as she gets older and he gets younger? That's a powerful question.

In that first hour spectacle didn't always translate into powerful storytelling for me.

Twilight

posted 12/7/2008

Twilight the novel is a story about sacrifice. The narrative tension in the novel for the main character revolves around her exiling herself to live in a place she detests to make her mother happy. This can be conveyed in a novel because the story is told from the narrator's POV and her states of feeling and her narrative tension. I define narrative tension as the tension a character feels around achieving some goal that the events of a story (or the character's personal beliefs) block them from achieving.

In Twilight the movie, the issue of sacrifice for the main character isn't evoked, so she doesn't generate narrative tension. The character who experiences narrative tension early in the movie is Edward, the 17 year old vampire who is attracted to the novel's main character. He's attracted to Bella, but if he acts on that attraction he puts his 'family' at risk. Like the first Harry Potter movie, it's not until deep in the film, when Bella must act to save her father and Edward's family acts to save Bella, that the movie generates narrative tension.

Both the movie and the book also fail to generate a clear answer to the question, why are Bella and Edward attracted to each other? A recent film about a young vampire that does offer an explanation is Let the Right One In, a recent vampire film from Sweden. The main character here is a young, bullied boy. When he meets a strange, 12 year old girl, it's conveyed that both are lonely outcasts. The narrative tension in Let the Right One In is palpable, and it's a much stronger film.

Synecdoche, New York

posted 11/30/2008

A director doing a revival of Death of a Salesman realizes his wife is going to leave him when she comes up with a lame excuse to skip the opening of the play. He then creates an extended, Willy Loman-type fantasy about his life on a giant stage. He has his own, personal, long-suffering Linda (Willy's wife in Salesman) who helps him with the production, with an actress to play his help-mate.

This is wonderful, complex storytelling, fully-realized.

Happy-Go-Lucky

posted 11/30/2008

This is put together by a director who allows the cast to improvise. The main character here is 30 year old Poppy, an unnaturally happy young woman. The main thread that holds things together (beside a wonderful performance by the actress playing Poppy) is her run-in with an unnaturally unhappy driving instructor. I haven't seen this kind of volcanic intensity on screen since the captain in Das Boot screaming that his boat go faster.

Poppy also reminded me of another British film, Billy Liar, with the same kind of set-up and question, whether an extreme character could maintain that quality in spite of everything.

This is not for anyone who likes stories with a traditional plot.

Changeling

posted 11/1/2008

Changeling is a beautifully composed film with a unclear introduction of the story's promise. Early in the film the issue of responsibility is highlighted in a way that suggests that will be the promise of the story. But the body of the film is about how a mother with a missing son is abused by the police when she protests that the boy they insist is her missing son is not. Then, toward the end of the film, the main character played by Angelina Joline speaks about what it's like to deal with the need to believe that her son is still alive (a belief that in real life she took to her grave). If that had been the promise of the story, that would have required a focus on the other parents of missing children and how they dealt with that.

One problem this lack of a clear promise creates is that it gives Jolie as an actress a situation to play but not a character to play. A film like Chinatown has a story about Jake trying to keep his hands clean in an amoral world (because taking action got a girl killed in Chinatown). Jake trying to keep his hands clean gets Mrs. Mulrey killed in Chinatown. In L.A. Confidential, the story is about illusion, reality, and identity. But you can't say that about Changeling; it's about many things, how men in authority abuse women, how corrupt LA police were at the time, how the police were used for political objectives.

As heartbreaking as the situation is for the mother who's lost her son, it's hard to feel a deep sense of narrative tension. That would require giving the actress a stronger role to play.

Changeling provides a good example of the difference between theme and what I call promise. A theme of Changeling is that the LA police abuse women. The movie proves that theme. One can also use a movie to prove that love is good (or love is painful), death is painful, war is bad, friendship is good, taking time to smell the roses is good, etc. Telling a story is different than acting out any of these themes. A story's promise is a foundation of what a story is about; it's about the totality of a story, in the same sense that a collection of threads can create a beautiful tapestry.

Changeling has many wonderful threads and looks great, but it lacks a quality of being fulfilling.

A historical side note about Changeling, when the killer goes to see his sister, she has a strange, conflicted reaction. In real life, his sister was also his mother.

Ghost Town

posted 10/15/2008

The set up here is an anti-social dentist dies for several minutes during a routine medical procedure and wakes up with an ability to see dead people. Dead people who want his help to deal with their unresolved problems and issues with the living. Ultimately deciding to help some of these souls finish their business on earth and pass on, he heals his own wound and is able to regain his humanity.

The film gains some emotional traction when he tries to ingratiate himself with a widow to help her nearly departed pest of a husband move on.

Cthulhu

posted 9/25/2008

This film does a good job of creating creeping menace when a young, gay college professor returns home on the death of his mother to a small coastal town in Oregon. The lighting and acting can be uneven, but there are also some beautifully staged scenes. A thoughtful horror film based on an H.P. Lovecraft story.

Righteous Kill

posted 9/21/2008

I make a distinction between story and plot and this film illustrates why that's a good idea. The plot here is a serial killer, probably a cop, is killing criminals who eluded the justice system. Fine. The film has all the usual plot twists for this kind of thriller. But the story issue is about losing faith. That issue is raised at the beginning and end of the film. The problem is, that just leaves the actors, among them DeNiro and Pacino, standard plot issues to wrestle with. There's nothing compelling about the story, and not much for the actors to do, because there's no real narrative tension around the outcome of the film.

Narrative tension is generated most often when a main character wants something and what he or she wants is accessible to the story's audience. When the audience internalizes a character's narrative tension, what happens to that character becomes compelling. That's when actors are able to give memorable, powerful performances. Here, what should generate that narrative tension is pushed to the side as the plot plays out. Without a compelling story, the plot here never generates much power and the actors don't have much to do.

Burn After Reading

posted 9/20/2008

The trailers promote this as a comedy, but the main underlying issue is desperate people trying to get the kind of life they feel entitled too/desire. The film is also a parody of government conspiracy movies. In this film, the all-seeing CIA is mostly befuddled by events that it wants to just go away.

Tell No One

posted 9/1/2008

This French film is based on the novel by Hank Coben. The movie offers a good example of how to convert a novel -- which advances through the inner reflections of the narrator -- to a movie which must advance mostly through action. The book does a great job of setting up its story in two opening paragraphs, about how a lie affects a relationship. The movie takes several scenes to establish how much in love two soul-mates have been since they were children.

The opening set up is a the couple being attacked, the wife dying, but eight years later her grieving husband gets an email from the dead wife, that she's still alive; and she warns him to 'tell no one' that he's heard from her. The action of the story is driven by the husband's uncontrollable need to find out what happened to his wife.

The movie jettisons the husband's complicity in the events that led his wife to fake her own death, but the utterly compelling plot question remains: what happened? Why? The movie does explore how a lie affects relationships.

Babylon AD

posted 8/31/2008

I make a distinction between story and plot, that story is about an issue of human need and plot is the outcome for concrete (generally) events. Films that fail generally introduce what a story is about late in the film, undercutting the impact of the plot. Babylon is unusual because it clearly introduces its story -- about a mercenary who's lost his humanity and who ultimately regains it -- but there's no coherent plot. There's no answer to the question, how does the outcome to this story make the slightest difference?

And that's just the ending. The beginning of the story has a powerful religious cult hiring a mercenary to transport the equivalent of the mother of the next messiah from Mongolia to New York...starting off in a car, then getting onto a trained in a bombed out train station and riding across a bombed-out landscape ruled by militias and other heavily-armed groups. Why not use a plane? Not even a bother for an explanation (for example, that the chaos has made the area a no-fly zone). Just about everything to do with what would be called backstory is absent from the film.

There's an effort to make a decent-looking film. The director has walked away from the project. Hard to say what created the train-wreck.

Hellboy II

posted 7/16/2008

This is beautifully made, but without Hurt to create a moral center for the film the elements didn't quite work as well for as the first Hellboy film. It felt busy to me.

Hancock

posted 7/6/2008

Hancock starts out with one plot, about a drunken, loutish super hero who decides to try and reform with the help of a failed PR guy, then jumps into a second plot about half way through the film. Something like this can be done - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an example of a film that grows more complicated as it advances. The script for Hancock really needed more work to weave together all the elements of the film. Or it could have been two films.

Prom Night

posted 6/17/2008

What's interesting about this slasher film is why it fails, while another film like The Ruins at least tells a story.

The film opens with a teenage girl coming home to find a sadistic stalker killing her family. She hides, terrified and trembling. Go to the end of the film, and the girl once again survives, terrified and trembling. So, the 'arc' for the character is non-existent. She ends the film the same way she began.

There's no set-up for the man who stalks her, why he chose her. So in the first half of the movie there's no real connection between the two characters, and no real tension around his arrival back in town.

It doesn't help that the high-school teacher/stalker is given a Charles Manson-look early in the film; later, when he has a buzz cut, he's much creepier.

So, the main thrust of the film, people die, the killer dies, the movie is over. The film has some technical quality, but nothing visually interesting is done; no ideas about what it means to be a teen with a past (like Scream develops).

Indiana Jones

posted 5/25/2008

Fun opening sequence, then the story and plot become a muddle, with not much excitement and action sequences that feel borrowed from the earlier movies in the series. Structurally, there's not much of a goal early in the film; it's a search for someone who's missing, and what it means and why it's important doesn't feel vital. The film also lacks a great villain.

Iron Man

posted 5/3/2008

This is a muscular, enjoyable action film that takes the time to develop characters alongside the action. And, unlike many super hero movies who are given powers, Iron Man is created by the hero, played by Robert Downey, Jr. Downey is joined by Gywneth Paltrow as his assistant, a role she gives life and heart to, and includes Jeff Bridges, who plays a wonderfully smarmy villain.

The set up for Tony Start's character is to go from being unresponsible to responsible.

Highly recommended to fans of action films.

Deception

posted 5/1/2008

This is a film in the mold of Malice, where the main character goes from being a patsy to, in the words of someone in Malice, getting 'in the game.' But, the main character in Deception also goes from being dead inside to alive. This creates a problem in structure, since it's not clear what the arc is for the main character, dead to alive or patsy to player. This is compounded by the fact that for a stretch of about 20 minutes, the main character, a mild accountant, experiences life as a member of a sex club, which is interesting and connects to his going from being dead to alive, but not from being a patsy to a player in a con game. And these problems are compounded by every deception in the story being flagged, unlike those that were hidden in Malice. A careful viewer is always aware of what's coming next.

The actors don't overcome the problems.

The Ruins

posted 4/13/2008

This is a horror film in the vein of The Descent. The main characters are developed before the action turns grim, and no one does anything stupid. The story explores how people deal with fear.

Young at Heart

posted 4/6/2008

A group of elders in their 70's, 80's and 90's sing rock and roll classics and punk rock tunes. This is a poignant, sweet-natured documentary. Some of the drama comes from wondering which of the performers will be dead by the time of a concert performance.

The Band's Visit

posted 3/19/2008

A formal band from Egypt gets lost in Israel and ends up spending the night in a small Israeli town. English is the linqua franca, and as the night goes on, human connections happen. A strong sub-plot is the formal leader of the band reconciling with a young man who reminds him of a son who committed suicide.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

posted 2/19/2008

This is a film aimed at a younger audience, with some good story mechanics. The underlying story is about a family rebonding. The main character, a young boy, has some serious issues with anger and impulse control when his parents are going through a divorce; he wants to live with his father instead of his mother, meek brother, and a strong-willed older sister. The chronicles of the story were created by his grandfather who learned how to perceive the unseen world of fairies, goblins, and sprites, putting himself and his daughter in danger from trolls and orges. When the young boy opens that book, he must act to save his family.

There are a few scenes that might be too scary for children under five; I sat near one in the theater, who cried in terror.

The Eye

posted 2/3/2008

This horror film is a remake of a Korean film. The set up is that a blind woman who gets a cornea transplant is now able to see spectral wraiths escorting the newly dead to the afterlife. The film has some 'boo' moments, but the structure of the story undercuts the drama. For most of the film, the main character is trying to convince a doctor that she's not crazy, she's really seeing wraiths escorting people to the afterlife. It's not until deep into the film that the actress has a stronger goal, finding out about her donor to discover why she now has second sight.

There's not much drama in the film to go along with the boo moments. Stronger acting could have helped, but with this kind of story structure problem, it's hard for an actor to overcome not having a clearly defined goal or purpose.

The film also has a slow pace, which means people like me have time to wonder about the 'rules' that govern what's happening. At different times in the film the wraiths are showing up to escort the newly dead to the afterlife, making sure someone dies, and showing up before people die. This allows the film to create a climax based on these shifting rules, but it's not as powerful as it could be. That's a typical problem in a film where the rules change (or the tone) to set up a climax. The climax happens, but it lacks power because it doesn't fully connect to what came before.

The Golden Compass

posted 12/15/2007

The set up for the story is that the main character, a young girl, lives without rules in a society with an organization that wants everyone to live by its rules. Unfortunately, once you get past the set up, the girl doesn't have much of a goal other than reacting to events, so it's hard for the story to develop narrative tension around her actions. Other characters, including an armored bear, do have goals and hence narrative tension when blocked from achieving what they seek. The movie ends with the title character having some clear goals, so the movie operates as an extended set up for the next film.

I hadn't read the book the movie is based on but I did read some reviews that spoke about the movie and the book, so I felt comfortable following the action.

The movie demonstrates once again that a big budget doesn't overcome story structure problems.

No Country for Old Men

posted 11/28/2007

This is a great film, with dialog to die for. The story is about how ordinary people deal with someone capable of extreme violence. The plot mainly revolves around whether a hunter can get away with some drug money he came across.

Recommended.

The Darjeeling Limited

posted 11/27/2007

I love Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums. This film comes across as the director and actors having a good time. Some interesting visuals. When some people become successful enough, you end up in a place like this, where no one seemed to have the authority to say 'come back when you have a good script' to everyone involved.

Killer of Sheep

posted 11/26/2007

This ultra low-budget film by Charles Burnett is about life in Watts in the 1970's and about what various people do to survive, including neighborhood children. The main character works in a slaughter house for sleep and can't sleep at night. Wonderful acting. Available on NetFlix.

The Mist

posted 11/25/2007

The set up for the plot is that a mist covers a small town and large, unearth-like creatures begin killing people. The main plot question, who will survive? The people inside a store must choose between waiting for help or walking out into the mist. The story here is what fear leads people to do, with the larger group breaking into different factions.

The fear factor works best when what is in the mist is unseen.

What I enjoyed most about the film is that no one makes bad choices during the first half of the film; people simply make choices based on their fear and some of them are bad choices that get them and others killed.

Wristcutters: A Love Story

posted 11/13/2007

The set up is that a young man commits suicide and ends up in a drab afterlife populated by others who have committed suicide. When the young man discovers his girl-friend committed suicide a month after he did, he goes on a road trip to find her. When he and his companion pick up a hitchhiker, complications ensue. This is a shaggy dog story, with most of the characters eccentric and odd. In the end, the young man discovers love in this barren place.

This kind of structure -- a character has to lose everything to discover what's important to them -- is found in many films and stories. When it's done well, it works.

The film also shows what can be accomplished with a low budget and some strong story ideas.

We Own the Night

posted 10/19/2007

This film wants to be great, in the mold of some of the 70's films like the Godfather, but it fails. One example sets out why. A young man manages a nightclub; his life is booze, dope, good times, and a sexy girlfriend. But when his brother and father, who are cops, are attacked, he gives up that life to help put away the men threatening his family. The girlfriend goes right along as he radically changes his life and becomes a cop. Why? The movie provides no answer.

The relationship here is a serviceable plot device that doesn't give the actress much to do with her role.

Buddha's Lost Children

posted 10/12/2007

A former kick-boxer in Thailand becomes a monk who takes in abandoned children to feed and teach spiritual discipline. This documentary follows his treks to villages in the Golden Triangle, where the villagers are poor and, in some cases, addicted to drugs. When a horse is injured, everyone sets up camp until the horse is ready to travel again. A look at the spiritual life, and what it looks like when life -- all life -- is valued. Recommended.

Eastern Promises

posted 10/10/2007

When a nurse tries to track down the family of a dead woman's new baby, she becomes involved with the Russian mafia in England and a chauffeur infiltrating the mob. The plot is about whether she and the baby will survive; the story revolves around people trying to flee Russia for the promise of a better life and a character trying to help the people being preyed upon.

Some realistic violence.

The Jane Austen Book Club

posted 9/29/2007

I think Jane Austen is one of the world's great novelists, so watching a movie with characters talking about her books is easy for me to like. This is an ensemble piece, with six characters reading and discussing Austen's books, and some of the issues in their lives reflecting the character's in Austen's novels. I went along for the ride, but this movie might not work for others. Another example of how a viewer like me can enjoy a particular film for reasons that have nothing to do with the film itself.

Mr. Woodcock

posted 9/20/2007

There are a few laughs here, but this movie has the same problem as School for Scoundrels, which also featured Billy Bob Thorton and a nebbish, weak character to oppose him. The movie shuffles along and tends to hit plot points late and shifts tone (like the movie Sunshine) to get to a climax. This is mostly about someone who teaches others how to leave their past behind them as a way to be happy in the present, except he's unable to leave his past behind him and be happy. It's hard to care what happens to him, which is a difficult flaw to overcome.

Moliere

posted 9/5/2007

Both this film and Becoming Jane have the same conceit, that each author drew from particular life events to write some of their most well-known material. As I writer, I found this giving credit to the events rather than the authors, so I could never quite enjoy either film. In another situation, a friend who was a retired boilermaker could not read past the first page of the novel The Fight Club because a revolver was 'silenced' by having holes drilled in the barrel, which is nonsense. So he couldn't read any more. Another friend grew up around horses and the 'stampede' of overweight farm horses presented as stallions in Legends of the Fall made her laugh.

Sometimes a story can fail to engage particular people because of these kind of issues.

The Bourne Ultimatum

posted 8/20/2007

Well-made, well-acted action film. Bourne completes his journey to discover who he really is.

Stardust

posted 8/12/2007

This movie has a lavish look, dry wit, and many special effects, but, unlike Princess Bride, it takes most of the movie to generate some emotional connection between the two leads. There's an issue here of chemistry between the actors, but also an issue of the set up of the story and plot keeping a distance between them. Ultimately this is about a young boy who refuses to accept a common fate in life.

Sunshine

posted 8/8/2007

This movie has some beautiful visuals and a spaceship meant to appear realistic, but there's a kind of boogie-man who shows up at the end and takes the film into Alien territory. The message of the boogie-man doesn't quite connect to what's happening and also creates a shift in tone, so the last half hour of the movie has suspense but not the fulfillment of a promise.

Evening

posted 7/18/2007

The structure of this film is a dying woman in the present remembering events of her life when a close friend married. The past is more dramatic than the present, since it's hard to turn a woman dying in bed into drama. A character sums up the story toward the end of the film with a line that sometimes all one can do in life is muddle through and not be paralyzed into inaction by bewildering choices or unintended consequences analyzed in hindsight.

1408

posted 7/4/2007

The plot set up here is a writer who makes a living debunking ghost stories finding himself in a hotel room that really is haunted. The deeper story issue is the main character's forced conversion to an understanding that the supernatural exists. At one point there's a resolution that suggests what's happening is psychological (based on grief over the death of a daughter), but then the film adds another twist.

There are many effective 'boo!' moments in this film. These work more often than not because I was engaged by the main character, played by John Cusack, and his issues were set out early in the film. The Mothman Prophesy is an example of a film loaded with 'boo!' moments, but the issue the main character brought to the story was introduced at the end of the film, so the artificial scares happened in a void.

Live Free or Die Hard

posted 7/3/2007

This is a popcorn movie, with increasingly big action scenes. It's interesting to consider the Die Hard films in terms of Aristotle's unity of action. The first and best film contains the action mostly in one place. Die Hard develops a powerful climax of action and emotion. There's a real payoff. The second film splits the action into two places, and hits some powerful but weaker notes than the first film. The third film has much running about a city and feels forced. This latest film travels around New York and West Virginia and it's hard to feel a connection between characters (and drama over outcomes) until characters collide at the end.

Pirates of the Caribbean

posted 6/7/2007

Very, very busy. Taking out the entire Chinese pirate connection would have helped to focus on the main characters. There are some moments of beauty and wonder, but the writers come across as traffic cops, juggling characters acting across vast distances so everyone can get to the right spot at the right time to betray someone.

Spiderman 3

posted 5/15/2007 One reason to introduce a story's promise early in a film is to give the events, action, character issues and dialog a context, a sense of dramatic purpose. This movie is a great example of what happens when a story promise is muted or fragmented (is Spiderman 3 about losing yourself, making choices, forgiveness, etc.) The problem here is compounded by three different villains and an alien parasite. The promise of the film is what should connect all these threads; absent a strong promise, the film just travels along different threads that ultimately come together, but with little fulfillment. When a story has one main character who is opposed by one villain, it's easier to create a story line. The more characters and villains, the greater the need for a strong promise to create a clear, dramatic purpose that connects every character.

The Namesake

posted 5/5/2007

This is an emotional and heartfelt story about a couple from India assimilating, to different degrees, into American culture, and having two children who grow up to be wholly Americanized. The film explores the lives of the parents and a son named Gogol after the Russian author. This kind of storytelling requires a light touch, which the director pulls off. In places the film feels more like a documentary that captures the texture of the lives of these characters than a fictional film. Recommended.

Darkon

posted 5/5/2007

This documentary is about people who role play being participants in a fantasy world similar to Lord of the Rings. Characters scheme behind the scenes to gain power and form allegiances, and mock battles are fought in costume with foam swords and other mock weapons. What the documentary gets across is just how much some people need to belong to a world where they are acknowledged and valued, even if they have to create it for themselves two weekends a month. Recommended.

The Invisible

posted 5/3/2007

The set up for this film is that a young man is beaten to death when a gang is told he snitched someone to the police. Although he's invisible to others, he struggles to find a way to communicate what happened and where his body can be found. During this process, the rather morose victim discovers how his mother really feels about him and gains a new perspective on life. Then the set up of the film changes, but the switch ends up feeling more like a cheat instead of a clever switch, like the rules of the story changed. A 'bad' girl also doesn't quite pull off being tough and threatening.

Disturbia

posted 4/15/2007

Disturbia has a teenage boy under house arrest who can't go farther (or further) than 100 feet from a signal box. When he suspects a neighbor is a serial killer (he passes his time spying on the neighbors), the plot question is, if this is true, how will he prove it? The film takes care of business getting to an answer (although the climax in the neighbor's house seems to happen in a different movie). What the film lacks is a deeper quality of storytelling, since it's obviously designed to be an updating of Rear Window. Where Window is about the psychology of the characters, with the neighbor bumping off a troublesome wife mirroring what Jimmy Stewart might like to do to Grace Kelly as she maneuvers him toward an altar. Disturbia has a good plot, but there's nothing underneath.

The Host

posted 3/25/2007

This South Korean horror film is in the quirky, humorous mode of Tremors. An American military officer has a chemical dumped into the Han river in Seoul, creating a fish-like mutated monster that begins devouring the locals and taking away a small girl for a later meal. Her dysfunctional family that runs a snack stand by the river can't convince anyone she's called them on a cell phone and is trapped in a sewer, so they escape from the authorities (who are trying to pass off all the mayhem as a virus like SARS). The basic plot question is whether the little girl will survive; the story is about how the situation pulls the family together.

The tone of the movie veers from heart-felt to slapstick. That ultimately undermines the overall impact of the story, but I enjoyed this and recommend it to those who like quirky horror.

The Lives of Others

posted 3/24/2007

A Stasi officer (the East German secret police) takes on the mission of getting something incriminating on a popular playwright so a state minister can have the playwright's girlfriend without complications. The plot question is straightforward, can the playwright avoid arrest and imprisonment for challenging the authority of the state? The story question here revolves around the Stasi officer who finds himself, in bugging the playwright's apartment and listening in, exposed to what it's like to have a life and thoughts and to experience love. He's drawn in to protect the playwright at the loss of his job. Years later, the playwright discovers what the Stasi officer did to save him. The fulfillment of the story is the transformation of the Stasi officer.

Recommended.

Little Children

posted 3/12/2007

A major difference between literary fiction and a Hollywood movie is that a literary novel often is told from within the point of a main character or characters. Readers experience what the characters experience, think about, feel; share illumination of ideas. A powerful literary novel can have unsympathetic if compelling dramatic characters. Hollywood movies are more often about what is happening on the screen, with questions about the outcome of the action supported by dialogue, with a main character who is often sympathetic. Little Children tries to bridge that gap by having a narrator who relates what the main characters are feelings and what they are thinking. Since narration that simply points out the obvious can be tedious, the narrator also offers observations not shared by the characters.

The set up for the story is that the main characters in the film have all passed the age of 25 without growing up. Characters make decisions without much thought, and are mostly unsympathetic.

The movie is beautifully composed and acted, but it might fail to engage people used to Hollywood films, and be found to lack depth by those who read literary fiction.

Bridge to Terabithia

posted 3/9/2007

Jesse is a young boy from a poor family living on an isolated farm. He's an artist without understanding what that means until a new girl in his school teaches him about the power of imagination. Terabithia is a place they create together. This is a sweet-natured story about being fully awake in life instead of being trapped by external conditions.

At the viewing I attended, just about everyone in the audience were adults.

The Number 23

posted 3/1/2007

It's hard to break down all the problems in this movie. It's mostly about obsession until the end, when it's revealed the story is about choices. Unfortunately, everyone who gets out of bed in the morning (or afternoon, or evening, or even not at all) has choices to make. So, telling a story about choices is different then announcing it's what a story is about to create a plausible climax/revelation out of a stew of a plot. There's a great reliance on voice over in the first half of the film, and an over-reliance on explanations of the plot at the end, so sitting in the theatre watching the movie involves hearing everything that's happening being explained. Carrey manages to pull off a mild-mannered man with a dark alter-ego, but not a mild-mannered man going crazy. As often happens when something in a movie breaks down, there's plenty of time to think about the problems.

Astronaut Farmer

posted 2/23/2007

This movie has two sides. One is a charming, quirky fable about a man with a dream of building a rocket on his ranch that will launch him into space, how this dream gives his life meaning, and how the dream gives a purpose to his family. On this side of the movie, why people dream, and what it means to have no dreams, is explored in a heart-felt way. The plot question here is obvious, will he succeed?

The second side of the film is about why the government has rules about people building what will probably be a huge bomb in a populated area. This part of the film occurs in a story world where the rules of common sense don't apply, and a giant rocket can take off from inside a wooden barn and leave the barn intact instead of what would, in reality, be reduced to a small piles of smoking sticks. People who would be reduced to burnt corpses by the rocket's flames are unscathed.

I stayed mostly on the charming fable side and enjoyed the film, but it took an effort. An underlying issue here is what happens when realistic and unrealistic elements are mixed in a story.

The Guatemalan Handshake

posted 2/19/2007

This film by writer/director Todd Rohal is in the quirky, odd vein of The American Astronaut and Repo Man. The set up for the story is a young girl's voice over that in a demolition derby, the 'winner' is typically too battered to move and almost destroyed by events. That's a commentary on the lives of the characters, who are a collection of odd people and a sick turtle, in the vein of Napoleon Dynamite. A set up for the plot is an accident at a nuclear power plant.

The story is not linear and not logical, but the camera work is inventive and engaging and the characters interesting.

Not for everyone, but a real gem for those who love the off-beat.

The Bridge

posted 2/17/2007

This documentary by Eric Steel explores the lives of people who have committed or attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden State Bridge. Footage is shown of those on the bridge as they hesitate, pace, ponder, then often casually climb over a railing and jump to their deaths; this footage is interspersed with interviews with family and friends. The documentary gives voice to those left behind as they struggle to deal with what they might have said or done, or whether it would have made any difference. Movies tend to wrap up a significant character's death in a neat, dramatic package. This documentary shows what can be left behind with someone's death.

Marie Antoinette

posted 1/21/2007

A difficulty in turning someone's life into film is to avoid a structure of 'this happened, then that happened.' A good story, unlike life, is more than just a sequence of events; it's that something that gives meaning to a life. One way to discover the underlying purpose of a life story is often to see where a character ends. In this film, Marie Antoinette makes the transition from a sheltered teenage girl to a woman strong enough to meet her fate. But, that means the question of whether Marie will make that transition needs to be framed as a question in the beginning of the film, in the same way that in Lost in Translation, the young girl's issue of being lost is set out early.

What happens instead is that viewers are, in the first third, shown Marie going to France as a naive young girl and slowly realizing the depth of her dilemma if she can't get pregnant by her doltish husband. Then the movie begins to skip through periods of the next several years of Marie's life, as a young girl who spends lavishly on her whims; as a young mother; then her attempts to seek out a life separate from the rigid protocol of the court; taking on a lover; then facing the mobs of France.

But instead of building toward a powerful fulfillment, the film simply offers another take on Marie's life, that she was more complex than the woman from the history books. That idea is a starting place for a story, but an idea is not a story.

Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

posted 1/19/2007

This is a beautifully shot and composed fairy tale for adults. A young girl travels with her pregnant mother to a villa controlled by her new husband, a captain in Franko's forces fighting to eliminate some hold-outs from the Spanish civil war. The captain is cruel and determined that his new wife will provide him a son. The young girl rebels and finds himself conversing with a Faun that gives her three tasks to perform before she can regain her heritage as the daughter of the king of the underworld.

The film travels between the underworld and the conflict between the captain and the local resistance fighters and their supporters. In the end, the girl does what she believes to be right at great cost to herself.

In an interview, the director and author of the script, Guillermo del Toro, spoke about the underworld creatures being symbolic of human types (the rich, for example). Characters in a story (human, alien, monster, symbolic) ring true because they have some purpose in a story's world. Characters in a story fail to ring true when a story's purpose is obscure or muted. In Pan's Labyrinth, the characters are suggestive in an artistic, fantastic manner.

The Good Shepard

posted 1/15/2007

This is a thoughtful, slow film about the birth of the CIA and how a life of secrets and duplicity affects the main character played by Matt Damon. Damon plays his character as analytical and emotionally reserved, so the film doesn't gain much emotional traction until he must deal with how his life has affected his wife and now adult son. The plot revolves around who leaked information about the Bay of Pigs invasion and whether a top level Russian defector is who he claims to be.

In the end, Damon's character is left to ponder the cost of his choices.

The structure of the story revolves around several time periods that ultimately gives some answers about Damon's life and answers to some plot questions.

This film would have more appeal to those interested in the birth of the CIA. The story is often more interesting than gripping.

Flags of Our Fathers

posted 12/19/2006

This is an ambitious film. The scope of the early film is not just war for individuals, but for a country at war in need of heroes. This is introduced through a narrator. But the larger focus requires a tight focus on what the story is about, and the creation of a story line so the action of the plot through multiple characters and events creates a powerful fulfillment. Unfortunately, the elements don't all work together toward this end. As the story begins to focus on the men who would be proclaimed heroes of the battle for Iwo Jima, some potently refuse the honor, and it takes a good part of the film to fully understand why (they were actually part of a second team to raise the flag after a battle to gain the heights of the island). The battle scenes are more dramatic and compelling than the scenes about the soldiers being sent on tour to sell war bonds. During this touring, a soldier named Ira comes to the fore, and seems to be taking the lead as a main character. But the film then reverts to a new narrator, this time the son of one of the soldiers who helped raise the second flag. This ties into the larger focus on why a nation needs to create heroes, but it dilutes a sense of what the film is about and who the main character is. With the shift to a second narrator, the movie's fulfillment becomes diluted.

A strong attempt to create a masterpiece about war.

The Departed

posted 12/17/2006

This film takes the time to set up the backstory of two young men growing up in South Boston. Each grows up to join the State police, but one goes deep undercover to bring down a local mob boss, while the other joins a special investigations unit trying to bring down Frank Costello (loosely based on Whitey Bulger, a real mob boss in South Boston). The early set up deepens the tension as the two characters must quickly figure out who to lie to and who to tell the truth to, in situations that have fatal consequences.

Recommended.

In real life the question of whether Whitey Bulger, an FBI informant, used his FBI handler for his own ends was never clearly established.

Shortbus

posted 12/15/2006

The director of this film started out with the intention of using sex in a dramatic film in a non-pornographic way by making the characters and their issues the focus of the film. But, the director also allowed the actors to be part of developing the story. The film ends up setting up a central point, that sex doesn't equate intimacy, but then doesn't do much with the point. Some story threads are weaker than others.

Stranger Than Fiction

posted 11/25/2006

This is a funny, cheeky, and, ultimately, heart-felt story about a life-less IRS auditor who discovers he's the creation of an author with writer's block. What she's trying to figure out is how to kill her latest novel's main character, Harold Crick. Harold begins to hear the author's voice narrating her novel and his life and realizes that his death is approaching.

The plot of the story is whether Harold can change his fate and not die; the story is about how Harold, facing death, comes to life.

Although the film is billed as a comedy, like many good comedies the story is heart-felt. We share Harold's journey.

I never thought I'd hear the name Italo Calvino mentioned in a Hollywood movie.

Highly recommended.

The Black Dahlia

posted 9/19/2006

The Black Dahlia is Chinatown without Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Roy Jenson, Roman Polanski, and an intelligent screenplay. The film is a large collection of plot threads that come in waves, but not with a deeper, potent unity that connects them. The tone wavers from realistic to camp, the acting from inexpressive to over the top. The Black Dahlia murder investigation is actually a very small part of the story; the actress who plays Betty Short in film tests, Mia Kirshner, makes a strong, subtle impression as a not very talented young woman trying to make it in Hollywood.

Visually interesting.

The Illusionist

posted 9/1/2006

I make a distinction between story and plot; that story is an issue of human need or idea about life that is fulfilled by the action or events of a story; and plot is about what happens, and offers resolution. In The Illusionist, a young, poor boy is forceably separated from the young girl he loves because she comes from an aristocratic family. He travels the world and becomes a great magician and returns to turn of the century Viena, where he discovers his young sweetheart is now a princess about to be engaged to the crown prince, who considers himself a rationalist. The plot question is, will he be able to help his renewed sweetheart 'disappear' in a way that he couldn't as a young boy. The story appears to revolve around whether the main character is a magician or has special powers to raise the dead and do other unexplainable-by-magic feats. As more and more people flock to his performances, the question arises whether he might become the focal point for a new kind of society that doesn't need crown princes or monarchs.

The film, which is artistic in design, brings up issues of class, but the focus is mostly on the magician and his efforts to get his beloved away from the prince; and the realization of a police inspector that he can be a detective or the prince's toady, but he can't be both. That ties into the issue of class, but presenting an idea is not the same as doing something with it. When the prince talks about the different types of common folk needing a monarch to rule them, it doesn't particular fulfill something vital. Hence the film has a weak ending. Resolution, but not a deeply felt fulfillment.

The film is a pleasure to watch.

Snakes on a Plane

posted 8/23/2006

The title sums up the movie and the embedded plot question, who will survive and how? And the first wave of attacks do have some visceral, scary jolts. Then the movie seems to be running down a check-list for different parts of anatomy snakes can bite, then the expected plot complications happen in the expected order. The action is solid and the dialogue is serviceable but nothing special.

There are a few moments of feeling among the characters, but nothing that rises to the level of giving the action a purpose that ties together what's happening to who the characters are. For example, an opening sequences demonstrates that a main character is a thrill seeker, but that doesn't connect to anything else in the film.

Pulse

posted 8/14/2006

I went to see this film in spite of the weak reviews. The structure of the film has a classic flaw; what it's about is narrated as the last line of the film, about the dead having a will to return to life equal to that of the living trying to survive an onslaught of the dead. But, for the first half of the film, the main characters simply respond to increasingly strange events. Since there's no real story or plot (since the characters are unaware of what's really happening), the actors can only respond to events in lieu of playing characters who define themselves based on what they want, and what they are willing to do to get what they want. This leaves the actors with little to do except pose for the camera and try and emote whatever a scene calls for.

I've read that the original Japanese film this is based on is an exercise in creepiness and looming dread. That kind of tone can be hard to make 'work' in a Hollywood style film aimed at a larger audience. The shooting style of extreme close ups happens in a void. It didn't connect to anything that was happening.

The movie does toss out the idea of characters being connected in so many ways with cell phones and email and the ghosts attacking through these devices. But tossing out the idea isn't the same as doing something with it.

The Descent

posted 8/10/2006

This is a well-made, thoughtful horror film. It's also a lesson in how a group of characters can be made distinct through visual cues and a few lines of dialogue that define characters. The film is in the mold of Scream in that the audience is asked to relate to the characters instead of a typical Hollywood horror film where characters exist to die in unusual ways.

The main character here is a woman who's been unable to overcome her depression after the untimely death of her husband, which comes about in a freakish accident caused by her awareness that something is seriously wrong with her marriage. The story then jumps forward a year to a regathering of women with the goal of taking the depressed woman on a journey into a safe cave exploring experience. But someone decides instead to take everyone into an unexplored cave.

There's much tension here when things go wrong and some of the characters grow more desperate. Then some cannibalistic humans evolved to live in caves show up and it becomes a nightmarish, bloody quest for survival.

In the end the main character finds within herself a primal will to survive.

At one point I felt sorry for the human monsters closing in on the transformed heroine.

This is powerful storytelling, but not for everyone. People who are claustrophobic or not used to movies that evoke real terror should give this a pass.

Lady in the Water

posted 7/29/2006

This film is a good example of the difference between personal storytelling and telling a story to an audience. The story apparently started as a bedtime story M. Night Shyamalan told his children. So the plot has the logic of a bedtime story. Every few minutes there's another revelation about a bigger menace or situation that must be resolved. What also makes this personal storytelling is that the characters all just assume their roles with no question (which requires them to accept immediately that a mysterious girl is from another realm and they are chosen characters in her purpose here).

Personal storytelling doesn't require a plot, or a point, or character development; it just requires action that validates the storyteller in some way. Here, M. Night Shyamalan is a writer who's work will save the world. The film becomes Mr. Shymalan's personal fantasy brought to life; his validation of himself.

Many people create story worlds where they (the main character is typically an extension of the storyteller) are respected, loved, bedded, acknowledged as heroes, worshipped. This kind of work is aimed at fulfilling the needs of the storyteller, not the needs of an audience.

Another aspect of personal storytelling is the desire to vent; here, Mr. Shymalan gets to kill a film critic (critics haven't been thrilled by his recent films). I'm sure the moment of the death of this representative critic thrilled Mr. Shymalan (even the other characters come to loath the critic). And I assume some people will enjoy seeing a critic get torn apart. But it's personal storytelling because not much is done to get the audience involved or invested in the character who dies, other than enjoying his death.

Personal storytelling also requires no explanation of symbols. The otherworldly characters here are given no real back story, like one would find in The Lord of the Rings or many other fantasy stories. Personal storytelling doesn't require plausibility or history or much thinking at all; it just requires symbols and characters and events that resonate with the storyteller or his children.

The Great Yokai War

posted 7/27/2006

Every film I see by Japanese director Takashi Miike is a unique experience. This latest film was promoted as a children's film, and, indeed it is, which was more surprising to me than anything else Miike has done.

The story is about a young boy coming of age and learning the difference between being a child and an adult. The plot revolves around a war between mythical creatures, the Yokai, rooted in Japanese folklore. The film-making is clever and inventive, a visual treat.

Superman

posted 7/5/2006

I expected to love this film. For me it failed on the basic level of what does Superman want? Something that would translate into a clear, dramatic, compelling story question. I know he's in love with Lois Lane, but what does he want that hasn't already been played out in the other movies? The movie starts to generate some dramatic tension as events bring Superman and Lex Luthor together, but that's late in the film.

The Devil Wears Prada

posted 7/4/2006

A mid-Western college graduate gets a job at a glossy fashion magazine on a whim by the editor even though the young girl has no fashion sense, has never heard of the editor, and doesn't see the job as that important in her life. As the young woman becomes invested in the job, she becomes a fashion maven and on-call 24 hours a day to her demanding boss. This leads to the breakup of her relationship with a young man.

In storytelling terms, the underlying dynamic is that when the young woman's life alters so dramatically, her once stable relationship falls apart. Any time two people are in a stable relationship, and one of them undergoes a life-altering change, there can be great drama over whether a relationship can continue.

Click

posted 6/25/2006

Adam Sandler is an angry man-child who finds it difficult dealing with life and marriage to a beautiful wife, paying bills, raising two kids, and dealing with a demanding job/boss. When Christopher Walken offers him a universal remote, he discovers that he can fast forward through unpleasant experiences and then the hum drum of life. The first half of the film is slap stick humor around his realization of what he can do with the remote.

The second half is his belated discovery of what happens when the remote begins to fast forward him through life, letting him experience only the high lights, a job promotion, the marriage of a son, etc. But he's lost all connection to his family and his own life. This half of the film becomes more heart felt, but still mixed with slap stick humor.

The lesson he learns is that family is what's important in life.

The shifts in tone will jar some; overall, the film takes care of business.

The Lake House

posted 6/25/2006

The stars of The Lake House are the director and production crew. They knew how to stage scenes and shoot the actors in a way that make the story heartfelt and make the story work as well as it does. The set up for the plot is that a man and woman share a house, but two years apart, and through messages left in a mail box they fall in love. Eventually they meet.

The plot works to the degree movie-goers want to see the couple get together.

The Da Vinci Code

posted 5/23/2006

I've only read the first three chapters of the book (about five pages in). From watching the movie, I get a sense of what made the plot of the novel compelling, but no idea of what made the main character in the novel compelling. In the movie, Tom Hank's character is along for the ride, offering interpretations of symbols but rarely personally involved in the action. Toward the end of the film another character suggests that Hank's character was now involved in history rather than a passive observer of the past. At the end of the film an issue of faith pops up. The result is that while the film offers resolution of what happened to the grail, there's almost no fulfillment of a story promise that connects to the main character. Oddly enough, just about everyone else in the film is defined by what they want and what they are willing to do to get what they want.

The film reminded me of the first Harry Potter movie, which was like a coffee table edition of the book. Similarly, The Da Vinci Code looks good and is probably faithful to the plot and basic outlines of the characters, but lacking the narrative tension of the novel.

The movie also would have benefited from a thoroughly creepy albino and a Catholic bishop with a face that embodied all the pain and weariness of this world, in place of the competent actors playing the roles.

In the end I think people who've read the book will enjoy the movie more than others, and some people will enjoy the historical sweep of the film. Overall it's well done, but slowly paced.

Thank You For Smoking

posted 5/8/2006

This satirical film is about a spin doctor who works for the cigarette industry; he faces an increasingly difficult job of promoting the idea that the then known health issues associated with smoking were not scientific fact. The deeper story issue is whether the spin doctor will turn his son into his successor.

Silent Hill

posted 4/30/2006

The film is visually interesting and mind-numbingly dull; the first third of the film is a mother at a track meet screaming her daughter's name every fifteen seconds. Later the father shows up and walks around shouting his wife's name every thirty seconds. When someone finally explained the plot, I must have missed a few lines because I wasn't quite sure who lets loose the mayhem that frames the climax.

People who play the video game will, I assume, enjoy the film more than anyone else.

Lucky Number Slevin

posted 4/10/2006

The set up for this film is hidden in plain sight. The plot revolves around what appears to be twin cases of mistaken identity. The real engine of the movie is clever dialogue and clever characters. At a certain point, a stronger heart would have helped.

Inside Man

posted 3/30/2006

I went to this film expecting a bank heist with overtones of race, sex, and class. It's more like a chess match with overtones of race, sex, and class. The plot question is straightforward, who will win the match of wits between a hostage negotiator and the leader of a crew of bank robbers holding a number of hostages, but obviously with an intent other than robbing the bank. This part of the story lacks urgency until the leads, Denzel Washington and Clive Owen, finally begin to confront each other directly.

What develops slowly as a story question is the issue of moral accounts being squared; that good actions in one time of life do not negate bad actions in another time and place. How this connects to the hostage negotiator is subtle; how it connects to the bank robber obscure. So the story isn't as compelling as it might have been.

The cast does bring the story to life.

16 Blocks

posted 3/22/2006

This film has a straightforward set up, an alcoholic, burned-out detective has two hours to take a talkative criminal 16 blocks to testify to a grand jury. But when hit men show up, the detective defends the witness, then finds himself being hunted by rogue cops.

The plot question is simple, will the detective be able to save himself and the witness. The story question is whether the asleep detective will wake up again and live his life.

The film touches every base in the action genre but somehow never comes fully to life.

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

posted 3/12/2006

This Russian horror film has a straightforward set up about a battle between good and evil that ends in a truce, and a prophesy about someone who will tilt the balance between the two factions. The film both acknowledges Western horror films (a character watches an episode of Buffy on TV), while managing to avoid making the story revolve around a body count. Here, a vampire employed to help enforce some of the rules of the truce finds himself at the center of a plot to lure a young boy to join the dark side. There's some nice camera work and moments where what the characters are feeling about their lives register strongly.

This is the first part of a trilogy. I look forward to seeing the second film.

Tristan Shandy

posted 3/12/2006

This movie is based on a book considered unfilmable, because the book is about life being a muddle, and the course of the novel is mostly overtaken by meandering tangents. The film is about trying to shoot a film based on the book, and the film becomes a humorous muddle overtaken by meandering tangents. The movie is an object lesson in one way to turn a book into a movie, take the central thrust of the novel and recreate it using the characters in a film setting. Very enjoyable to watch.

Underworld Evolution

posted 1/21/2006

The first movie in this series took about 90 minutes to introduce its story, about loyalty. Which meant the actors mostly had nothing to do except pose and look like they were actually in The Matrix. But, it did seem that the first film would at least set up a story for the second film. Except there's even less of a story in this film. There's a faint jab toward one character trying to resist feeding on ordinary humans; there's another faint jab toward the concept of loyalty. Mostly there's blood and carnage, blood and carnage; and then the movie ends with a voice over that suggests the purpose of the second film was, like the first, an extended trailer/back story to set up a real story in the third film.

Even more unfortunate, the main characters in this film get overshadowed by the characters who are acting to shape the course and outcome of the story.

The film is yet again another example that special effects won't save a film with a weak story structure. It's hard to feel involved with the characters or what's happening; it's even hard to follow what's happening at times.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

posted 1/18/2006

This is a witty, engaging take-off on film noirs, while actually working as a film noir. A criminal in New York finds himself sent to Los Angeles to star in a film, but first he must take lessons in being a private investigator. When he gets involved in a murder mystery, his personal life and his New York baggage combine with his attempts to be a private investigator in his new life in Los Angeles to create a complex, convoluted mystery.

The film should be a real pleasure for people who enjoy the unconventional. Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer play off each other with cheeky charm and wit.

Christmas in the Clouds

posted 1/1/2006

This is a sweet-natured comedy about a resort in Colorado owned and managed by American Indians. The complications include mistaken identity and a missing, colorful mouse. Most of the cast are Indians, and it's interesting to watch Native-Americans play characters with issues to resolve and deal with.

King Kong

posted 12/28/2006

There is much greatness in the 2nd and 3rd hours of this film, which is a remake of the original film. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Kong and a young actress, played by Naomi Watts. The camera-work and effects are amazing. What undermines the great work is that the producer in the film is played as a buffoon. Buffoons carry no dramatic weight. So the film ends up with three tones, an unrealistic tone for the buffoon, a realistic tone for the main characters, and a hyper-realistic tone for the crew on the boat and the natives on Skull Island.

Buffoons in stories lack dramatic weight because they generally live in a self-contained universe unaffected by what's happening around them. The character Carl Denhem keeps offering to have all the movie's profits go to the most recently killed member of the film crew, but it's a joke that isn't funny. There is a moment toward the end of the film that suggests Carl has broken through his persona to some moment of human feeling, but he immediately turns his back on that.

The film is strongest when it focuses on the growing relationship between Ann and Kong.

The Chronicles of Narnia

posted 12/14/2005

This film and story is often compared to The Lord of the Rings, but in terms of being a film story I thought the better comparison is to the first Harry Potter film. The Potter film was like a coffee table edition of the book; scenes introduced characters and environments. It was only two hours into the film that real narrative tension happened, when Harry had to choose between doing what was right or siding with evil to be able to see his parents in a magic mirror.

I've never read Narnia, but watching the movie I felt like I was being introduced to all the significant characters and situations, except there was no narrative tension for most of the film. The children did act out and resolve their personal issues, but I never felt connected to either side in the war, and, other than being told the wicked witch did wicked things like abolish Christmas and punish her enemies, I never saw the same kind of battle between good and evil that the film of The Lord of the Rings developed.

People who have read Narnia were probably better able to fill in the blanks. I did enjoy the movie and its spectacle, just never found it compelling.

I did wonder who all the cute talking animals ate for dinner.

Good Night, and Good Luck

posted 12/14/2005

This is a thoughtful and intelligent film about Edward R. Murrow taking on Senator McCarthy during the time when fear of communism created an opportunity for demagogues. The decision to confront McCarthy at the height of his power sets up a plot question about what the outcome will be. The story ends on a subtle note, with Murrow's show undone because such a serious program cannot justify its ratings at a time when quiz and variety shows were much cheaper to produce and reached a larger audience.

Bee Season

posted 11/19/2005

This is a quiet, thoughtful film about a young girl and her family. When she begins to win spelling bees, her father, a college professor who teaches the Kabala, becomes aware that words open her to mystic experiences. He becomes enthralled with teaching her. This shift in family dynamics (the father previously ignored the daughter in favor of a talented, older son) unravels the family. An event that shifts family dynamics is one way to start a story, because the characters have to re-define themselves. That the characters in this film redefine themselves to extremes, in terms of storytelling, will either be considered thought-provoking or illogical.

The film will work better for people with an understanding of spiritual experiences (how the son's choices connect to what his younger sister is doing).

This film does not have a pacing typical of Hollywood films, or even some art films. By starting the story with what appears to be a 'perfect' family, the plot takes a while to begin driving the action.

Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire

posted 11/17/2005

The movie has several plot tracks, the return of Voldemort, Harry's first crush on a girl, an intra-school competition. I wasn't sure what the story itself was about, so I didn't feel a strong sense of narrative tension around the course and outcome of a story question.

Zathura

posted 11/16/2005

A sweet-natured film about two boys, five and ten, who play a board game that becomes a real-life adventure in space that must be played to the end for the boys to return home. Along the way they repair their troubled relationship. The film takes care of business.

Stay

posted 10/30/2005

Stay opens with a character who appears to have survived a terrible accident and car fire. He then shows up in the office of a psychiatrist saying he's going to commit suicide in three days. Like The Jacket, the story is about a dying man needing to give his life meaning.

There are many, many stylish touches in the film, particularly with transitions that suggest the reality of the story is shifting and being re-imagined. The film is a pleasure to watch, but would probably be too obscure for people looking for a more traditional story and storytelling.

A History of Violence

posted 10/6/2005

This is a powerful film about the nature of violence, and the question of whether someone can create a new life that leaves behind a violent past.

The story begins with two bad men casually murdering some people, then cuts to a middle-aged man, Tom Stall, who owns a diner in a small town where everyone knows each other. When the bad men show up to rob the diner, Tom kills them both. That gets Tom on the news, and a few days later a very threatening Ed Harris shows up insisting that Tom is really Joey, a violent man from Philadelphia. Tom denies he's Joey, but when violence is required to save his family, Tom becomes a lethal Joey.

The acting is first rate, with Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

On a side note, years ago I spent time in a chat area with Josh Olson, aka BadCog, the screenwriter for History. In an interview, Cog mentioned his dislike of 'conscious theme.' How anyone could write a script titled A History of Violence and not be aware of what the story is about is beyond me. While I dislike the word theme (it's used as a label more often than not), what a story is about should infuse the action and the characters. A scene in History that was about sex and violence felt more like a mis-step than didn't really have anything to say. In that sense, the scene wasn't connected to anything deeper in the story.

As I recall, Josh used to watch 2-3 movies a day. That was his education in screenwriting, and it shows in the suggestive, subtle dialogue and clever action. He's earned his success.

Recommended.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

posted 9/26/2005

The opening two minutes of the film are a man knocking on the door of an isolated farm house and waiting for someone to respond. He notices a nest of bald-faced hornets that shouldn't be active in the winter, but nothing about the opening speaks that directly to the purpose of the story, and that's the problem with the story structure in the first half of the film. Many dark places, no clear story purpose.

The plot question is set out early and clearly: is a Priest responsible for the death of a girl he considered possessed, that he tried to help with an exorcism?

The story question that arises half way through the film is embodied by the priest's defense attorney, who discovers a sense of faith during the course of the priest's trial.

The first half of the film is often objective, giving an overview of the characters and Emily Rose and what happened to her that led to the priest considering her to be possessed by demons. Every character except the DA seems to get their five minutes of screen time. But dark hallways and shadows and hissing cats aren't a substitute for a compelling main character, or a compelling story question for a cast of characters to act out. Or particularly scary.

The film does raise some questions about belief, science, religion, and law, but during the course of the film Emily Rose appears to suffer a mental illness, then just as convincingly demonstrates she's possessed.

The trailer for the film suggests a supernatural thriller, but the film is mainly a courtroom drama with flashbacks.

Flightplan

posted 9/23/2005

This film has a powerful set up, a mother on a plane can't find her daughter, and no one believes that she brought her daughter aboard the flight. The attempt to make the plot realistic in the second half of the movie stumbles when the pacing allows the audience to pull back and think about the contrivances of the plot. In a movie like The Usual Suspects, which is also contrived, there's a stronger narrative momentum that doesn't allow as much time to stop and consider the improbability of the action.

Hustle and Flow

posted 9/5/2005

A powerful film about a pimp who has a dream about becoming a rapper. The actor, Terrence Dashon Howard, commands the screen. In terms of storytelling, this is a character who's living close to the gutter who still has a dream that comes to animate his life, and then the lives of his dispirited hookers.

There's a formula to the storytelling, but the movie demonstrates the good things that can happen when the formula is done well, with actors who are willing to walk on the dark side of life. In the language of one of the main characters, this is story that both 'talks the talk and walks the walk.'

The Brothers Grimm

posted 8/28/2005

This movie is a visual feast. The plot has a quick and neat set up. The Brothers Grimm are con artists swindling German villagers by exorcising phony witches, trolls, and other gremlins. When they are captured by a French General, they are ordered to uncover who or what is terrorizing a German village. It turns out to be a real witch.

The plot question here is straightforward: will they be able to defeat the witch (and outsmart the French general).

The story, however, is a stew in the Van Helsing tradition. A story is suggested in an opening scene, then referred to twice more in the film. Generally, what the story is about has almost nothing to do with what's happening on the screen.

One of the ideas in the film is to take snippets of many of the Grimm fairy tales and use them in the service of the film's plot. But, those fairy tales often had an underlying point or moral. With no underlying point that connects the fairy tales to the film, these scenes fail to develop the story dramatically. They are just clever ideas.

This is compounded by the three leads being clean, neat, Hollywood actors with million dollar smiles in a film populated by dirty, rough-hewn peasants; demented, often dirty officials; or foppish military officers, all against an amazing background of muddy villages or a dark and musty forest.

Since the actors only have a plot question to resolve for much of the film, they aren't able to generate much narrative tension over the outcome of the plot or story or their purpose in the story. This isn't just an issue of acting (although stronger actors could have given the impression of a better story). What's vital to the three leads just doesn't make a strong impression, or connect to all the plot threads. Because Terry Gillian is such a great visual artist and the film is a marvel to watch, the film is always interesting Just not compelling. In the end, that which should have defined the relationship of the brothers has all the power of a minor childhood spat.

The film is a great example of, once again, the difference between resolution (plot) and fulfillment (story), and what happens when a story's promise is marginalized.

The Island

posted 8/27/2005

Strong idea at the heart of this action film, that clones are unknowingly being 'raised' in what seems a perfect society, until they 'win' a lottery and are sent off to be cut up for body parts. When one of the clones discovers the purpose of his existence, he fights to survive.

There are some great chase/destruction scenes ala the second Matrix film. Much money appears on the screen.

Part of the structure of the storytelling is to show the slow journey of the main characters to gaining human feeling and identity. This works as a story device, but it also undercuts the fulfillment of the story (the middle section is mainly chase scenes). In the end the film doesn't get to a deeper level like Gattaca, because the audience is asked mostly to just observe the characters and their world in the first third of the film, and to understand the ideas underpinning the world of the clones, but the storytelling is solid and takes care of business.

Four Brothers

posted 8/26/2005

Four men who were raised by a saintly lady in inner-city Detroit set out to find her killers. The plot question is built in, will they succeed? That the men are black and white sets up the issue of family being more than blood-related. But, in spite of the solid story and some good acting, the film never quite aspires to the heights it aims for. Less dialogue would have helped. The characters keep explaining the obvious to the audience.

Mr & Mrs. Smith

posted 8/11/2005

This film has a five act structure. The first act is the weakest, because it introduces its two beautiful stars as husband and wife who are not attracted to each other, but without offering any reason why they married. With the revelation that they are hired killers working for different companies, the plot kicks into a higher gear as the characters form a deeper bond admists their attempts to first kill each other, than kill minons sent by their companies to kill them.

The action in the middle acts is more fun and engaging than the big climax at the end of the film (staged to be like the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but without the emotional payoff).

If the characters (hard to separate from the actors) had been given a basis for their marriage, the story would have been stronger and the ending more fulfilling.

The Fantastic Four

posted 8/11/2005

The promise of an action film is action. The Fantastic Four breaks that promise. It should have been called An Introduction to the Fantastic Four. The Incredible Hulk breaks through to connect with the audience. The other actors have roles to play, not characters.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

posted 8/8/2005

Great visuals and a story that fails to develop fully. There are several issues at play in the story about good overcoming bad, about family, and about mechanization in the modern world. But the story never develops a consistent story question in the way that Edward Sissorhands built to a powerful, fulfilling ending around its main character. he plot questions are more immediate, who will find the golden tickets, who will be the survivor of the tour.

Much inventive charm and wit.

Dark Water

posted 7/27/2005

The trailer of this film suggested a supernatural thriller. The movie is a psychological thriller. So I kept waiting for the fulfillment of a promise that never came, while watching the fulfillment of a promise I hadn't expected.

Well done, well acted, well shot. In the end there's not much payoff for all the set up.

The Snow Walker

posted 7/3/2005

This story is set in 1953, when a cocky bush pilot accepts a payoff to fly a sick Inuit girl to a hospital. The plane crashes, and the pilot, played by Barry Pepper, tries to walk out while leaving the sick girl (played by Annabella Piugattuk) at the plane. When he's overwhelmed by unbearable, thick clouds of mosquitos, he loses consciousness. When he comes to, the girl has tracked him down and nurses him back to life, even though she only speaks a few words of English.

This is a simple story, with a plain plot question: who will survive? That one person survives is suggested in an opening scene of a figure walking in the snow. The story is about the pilot learning something about his humanity, and coming to appreciate the girl's way of life.

Much beautiful scenery and a heartfelt story.

War of the Worlds

posted 6/30/2005

A father bonding with his estranged children is at the heart of the story, set against a backdrop of great special effects and what happens to people when a desire to survive becomes paramount. I had mixed feelings about the film. An early, emotional scene between the father and his teenage son falls flat, and the set up for the plot doesn't make sense. The most beautifully-realized scene is a young girl by a river seeing a body float by, then the body joined by hundreds more. This is a film where you can see the money on the screen.

Recommended to people who love grand special effects.

George Romero's Land of the Dead

posted 6/24/2005

Romero has a thoughtful way of making zombie films that speak to current politics. In this film, zombies are pretty much everywhere except an exclusive enclave managed by a wealthy and ruthless entrepreneur. The poor are kept around to maintain and secure the enclave, and played off against the threat of the dead, in the same manner poor white laborers and black slaves and laborers were played off against each other by the wealthy for hundreds of years.

When a mercenary who decides he wants to live in the big house is double-crossed, he takes an armored vehicle used to make runs into the countryside for food and medical supplies. This happens at a bad time, for one of the zombies is developing a low level of intelligence (like how to use a gun and construction tools), and is leading the others in an attack on the wealthy enclave.

In the end, the hero of the film survives to try and find a place he can call home, letting the zombies who've eaten the rich leave in peace to find their own place in the world.

Very graphic gore. A lower budget might have produced a more thoughtful, interesting film.

Batman Begins

posted 6/16/2005

This movie takes a serious look at how Bruce Wayne became Batman. Issues like fear and vengeance, good and evil are discussed in a thoughtful way (for a Hollywood movie).

There's much to admire in the production in the first half of the movie. Christan Bale has the acting ability and the muscled, physical appearance to be credible as a young man capable of avenging his parent's death.

A weakness in the film is a lack of chemistry between Bale and Katie Holmes. This isn't an issue of story structure, but it affects the overall impact. Another issue is that the larger world of Gotham that Bruce Wayne as Batman seeks to defend is under-realized. It's not so much a world as the appearance of a world generated by special effects.

Much fine acting with Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman leavening the movie with humor and gravitas. The Batmobile in this film is more like an armored, souped-up Humvee than the sleek black rocket of other films. Some humor in the film comes from the new Batman figuring out what tools of the trade he needs and how to use them.

Oldboy

posted 6/17/2005

This Korean film demonstrates the power of a compelling plot question. A man is imprisoned in a room for fifteen years for a reason he doesn't know. When he's released, he seeks answers and vengeance. But he must put off his vengeance if he is to get answers.

The answers ultimately shows his complicity in an act that led to his imprisonment.

Since the main character knows nothing, the audience learns about his situation as he does.

This is a Memento-like film where what seems apparent isn't true, and what's true has different levels of meaning.

This film has scenes of harrowing physical and emotional violence that isn't bloodless and painless like most Hollywood films. Anyone planning to see the film should be prepared.

Revenge of the Sith

posted 5/24/2005

Great special effects, solid storytelling, flat acting. The plot question is about the outcome of the conflict between the Jedi Council and the Chancellor Palpatine, who is secretly a Sith master. The story is about Anakin's transformation from a Jedi Knight to Darth Vader. With the three recent films, the Star Wars saga is clearly about Anakin's descent into the dark side and his eventual redemption.

The actor who plays Chancellor Palatine comes across as a fully-realized character with an agenda. Other actors at times don't appear to be in the environments of the film story.

Kung Fu Hustle

posted 5/5/2005

This is a fun, rollicking action film told with great humor. Much of the humor comes from reversals. The most innocent-looking characters are the most lethal.

A pleasure to watch.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

posted 4/30/2005

I love the book and enjoyed the movie. The story (mostly this is about recreating the tone of the book) is about everyman Earthling Arthur Dent learning to survive in a much larger, varied universe than he could ever imagine. Plot questions are created around whether Arthur and Trillium will get together and who ordered the demolition of Earth for a hyperspace by pass.

Sin City

posted 4/28/2005

This is a movie based on a graphic novel, and the look of the film is an attempt to recreate the novel. Wonderful visuals. The storytelling is mostly about violent men redeeming themselves with a violent, grand gesture that mostly gets them killed.

The Ring 2

posted 3/18/2005

The first American Ring movie scared me. I also noted that many of its production techniques started showing up in subsequent horror films. When I read the mixed reviews for The Ring 2, as always I was curious to discover why. The main problem in The Ring 2 is the most common problem in movies that fail to reward the attention of an audience, a failure to give a main character a clear goal, and a failure to develop narrative tension around that goal.

In the first Ring movie, a mother views a video tape and realizes the threat that accompanies the tape, that she'll die in a week if she watches it, is true. When her son accidentally views the tape, she frantically goes on a journey to discover the source of the tape and somehow save her son's life. As she seeks out clues, the viewers of the film find out more about the images on the video.

The elements of the film that work well are a main character who is compelled to act with greater and greater urgency around a clearly presented goal. In this case, the time frame of the story, that she has one week to save her son, adds to the drama. The creepy, jittery images on the video add to the sense of weirdness the movie generates. At the heart of the story is an issue of parents listening to children.

In the sequel, the first third of the film re-introduces that the ghost of the girl from the first film/video tape is back and after the mother's son. But, why, and what the mother should do about it, is diffuse. Things happen. Worse, the production values in the first third of the film are on a par with a weekly network television series.

About a third of the way into the film, the mother finally has a clear goal, to find out more about the ghost, and to be reunited with her son (taken from her because he appears to be abused). This raises the issue of her need to a good mother, which, ultimately, is what the story is about.

Two-thirds of the way into the film, the mother learns she must kill her son to save him. Now we have a character in a state of narrative tension. She must do something she can't do, but to fail to act is to leave her son possessed by an evil spirit. Now the movie is finally a good story.

But it's too little, too late.

The movie also fails to overcome some illogical scenes. The son wakes up with a nightmare in the middle of the night and the mother takes him to the small town newspaper where she's an editor...and everyone who works for the paper is sitting at their desks. No reason why is offered. In another scene, the mother and son are attacked on a highway for a reason that is never made clear. The scene or dialogue that would have provided an explanation was apparently left out of the movie.

Too bad.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

posted 3/14/2005

I'm a fan of Wes Anderson's work, but I waited to see this because of the mixed reviews. I found the problem to be a lack of dramatic tension in the first quarter of the film. Because there's not much at stake, many scenes just amble along, not particularly funny or dramatic. When the story gets into gear around a quest and Bill Murray's character dealing with issues of fatherhood, the story hits firmer ground, and the humor begins to work.

The issue for Murray's character that comes fully on-stage later in the film is that of a man in late middle-age finding that what has defined his life is winding down and there's nothing on the horizon. When he meets Owen Wilson, who claims to be his son, he starts to think about family. He's also in a contest with Wilson for the affections of Cate Blanchett, which also kicks the drama up a notch. In the end, Murray's character discovers that his crew mates have always been his family.

Without a firmer introduction of that at the beginning of the story, most of the early scenes are flaccid.

Hitch

posted 3/12/2005

This is an amiable romantic comedy mostly carried through by the actors. The storytelling has a flaw that undercuts the overall impact of the story. Will Smith is Hitch, the date doctor, a man who teaches ordinary men the skills (or manipulations) to become involved with beautiful, successful women. But the fulfillment of the story suggests that what Hitch teaches is irrelevant. Except that the movie has demonstrated that it isn't. The overall level of storytelling reflects that willingness to settle for an easy payoff.

In general, most scripts that I read don't rise above their flaws. The movie is an example that star power isn't the solution.

The Pacifier

posted 3/6/2005

A duck bites Vin Diesel's ear, which I found very funny.

Other than that, the movie is a demonstration of the pitfalls of trying to manage too many threads. Diesel is a navy Seal babysitting several undisciplined kids, so where the story is going is a foregone conclusion. But taking the time to set up everyone's personal and group issues and playing them out in different arenas means the film is in a long, slow, set-up mode that has a quick payoff. There's very little tension, because the people the children need protection from are mostly kept off-stage, and the job Diesel is given -- finding something in the children's house -- is generally ignored. In some scenes, all the children are actively protected from danger, in others, they aren't. So there's no internal logic to what happens.

More of the duck would have helped.

The Jacket

posted 3/4/2005

This is a powerful film about the issue of identity and the need that one's life story have a desirable meaning. As a soldier lies dying in the first Gulf War, he envisions what his future could be. Or, he's dying later in the story and still envisions what his future could have been to give his death purpose and meaning. Others could have a different interpretation of this film and be just as right. The story and plot, by design, are meant to be cryptic. Probably too cryptic for some, but I enjoyed this.

I doubt this film will develop the kind of audience that Donnie Darko found to break down and follow all the clues to the plot. In the end, The Jacket is a stylish thriller, while Donnie Darko said something about being young and alienated. A friend who took a teenage soon to see Donnie Darko said after the movie they had the deepest conversation they'd had in years. There's nothing in the Jacket that goes deeper than some good performances and a cryptic plot.

Constantine

posted 2/17/2005

Constantine has good to great special effects, but since that's standard in big-budget films, it isn't enough to carry the film. The film does have a great turn by Tilda Swinton, and an interesting devil. What the film can't overcome is no chemistry between the leads, and minor characters who come and go and live and die without much impact on the plot or story. A main character reveals what's important to her half way through the film, and that's the first moment of human feeling. Without someone or something to care about, it's hard to feel involved in what happens.

Million Dollar Baby

posted 2/2/2005

This is a powerful film. Frankie is a fight manager who over-protects his fighters. Scrap works at Frankie's run down gym in LA. When Maggie shows up wanting Frankie to be her trainer and manager, he wants nothing to do with her, but her determination to become a boxer at 31 sways him to take her on as her manager.

At the heart of this story is the idea that no matter what we do, how we train, how much we pray, how we try to do right, we can't always protect ourselves, not in a fight in a boxing ring or from life.

Recommended.

Elektra

posted 1/25/2005

Another movie with many elements and a late introduction of a story issue for the main character. Elektra's life focuses on death and mayhem when her mother is killed by dark forces. So she becomes an assassin who works for hire. Not quite a logical connect. If she'd taken on a quest to kill the killers of her mother (and their minions), and lost her humanity along the way, the character would have a stronger, purer logic. Instead, Elektra is given characters tics -- she's OCD in parts of the movie, not in others, and it doesn't seem to have anything to do with what happens. Toward the end of the movie, her real character motivation comes out -- to regain her humanity (and thus her purity of heart) that she lost with the murder of her mother.

The film starts by nailing a plot question about a battle between good and evil, and the need for each side to recruit a character who will provide a tipping point in that battle, but the evil characters don't seem to be part of any larger world.

More proof that special effects won't save a weak story.

Closer

posted 1/23/2005

This film has some powerful acting that revolves around four characters who enjoy seduction and drama over love and intimacy. The dialogue of the film (which is based on a play) is raw and powerful. The scenes of the movie all revolve around those moments when relationships begin, shift, or die, so the characters project a naked intensity unusual in most Hollywood films. The story is another example that fulfilling a story's promise isn't about being uplifting; this is a story about characters unable to love, and the story strips away the facade behind their use of the idea of being in love.

Some of the most passionate moments in the film take place between the two male leads, who meet in an internet sex lounge and can't get each other out of their minds. For them, bedding the women involved is about keeping score and getting even with each other.

The actors are Juliet Roberts, Clive Owen, Jude Law, and Natalie Portman.

Kinsey

posted 1/15/2005

A beautiful film that captures the ignorance about sex that Kinsey's two books overturned, or attempted to overturn. The film goes through the major stages of Kinsey's life and work. In a subtle way, the story is about how Kinsey the scientist grew up to be like his father. While the father found refuge in an absolute belief in religious morality that had no understanding of human beings, Kinsey studies human sexuality with the same zeal he studied gall wasps, and with about the same understanding of human beings. A scene at the end of the movie suggests Kinsey had an epiphany about human love, but that moment is also undercut.

Powerful storytelling with a first rate cast.

White Noise

posted 1/12/2005

The trailer suggests a straight-ahead horror film. The opening 35 minutes of the film suggest a story about grieving for a lost one when we have so many digital memories. There is tension generated when a spouse is late to return home, but it's not until the first scare happens that the movie settles into being a routine supernatural thriller. The mixed messages of the film undercut its overall impact. Nothing much comes out of the long opening, except to make the pacing seem slow for the kind of film promised.

Michael Keaton brings the main character to life, and he's great at bringing edgy tension to the screen.

Darkness

posted 12/31/2004

Darkness has a plot about a family moving in to a house where a failed sacrifice of children happened forty years previously. A child who escaped the sacrifice is now the father of the family moving into the house. The basic plot questions, who'll survive? What's the meaning and purpose of the sacrifice? Is the father going crazy, and will he harm his family? The answers are mostly withheld until the end of the film, so there are many, many scenes with the lights in the house going off and strange shadows darting about just barely seen by the human characters. Toward the end of the film, there are scenes with characters who seem to be taken directly from The Ring. One way to spot an influential film is to spot how many techniques/scenes/characters end up in other films. The producers of The Ring should charge a licensing fee.

But, returning to the movie at hand, I say a good film is both a story about an issue of human need and a plot. Only I couldn't say what the story (as I define it) of Darkness is about. There are all kinds of threads that connect in some way, but no central issue, hence, no narrative tension for a main character to resolve, and no way for me as an audience to feel caught up in a main character's issue. For about half the movie, I wasn't even sure who the main character was.

There's a clever twist at the end, but what it means and how it ties in to everything else that's happened, I'm not sure. I could see this being a script that read well, or perhaps the movie is based on a novel that conveyed more information about what the story and characters were about.

The film does look good. The actors give it a good go.

Blade: Trinity

posted 12/22/2004

Blade is a good example to use to set out the distinction I make between story and plot. Blade has a plot about the on-going conflict between vampires and humans, with a plot question that revolves around whether the original vampire will be able to defeat Blade. But, there's no story set out as a story question, and advanced along a story line to its fulfillment. Story threads pop up between fight scenes, about Blade being an outcast, about revenge, about a mother's love for her daughter. But it's impossible to say, 'This is a story about X,' in the sense that Van Helsing, as bad as it was, made furtive stabs at being about Van Helsing's quest to discover his identity ("Your name is Bob," the helpful vampire tells Van Helsing).

What happens in this kind of film is that every actor has to figure out a role to play since there's no unifying story idea. Parker Posey goes over the top as a female vampire; an angry wise guy who used to be her sexual slave makes movie wise-cracks while being beaten; Whistler's daughter kicks vampire ash; a computer nerd plays basketball; a blind mother gives lessons to her young daughter, etc.

Like Van Helsing and Chronicle of Riddick, there's a surfeit of special effects that never replace the want of a good story.

Ocean's 12

posted 12/12/2004

This is a sequel to Ocean's 11, a film that brought together a number of stars in an enjoyable heist film. Twelve has a slow start from a need to reintroduce all its characters, but once the plot kicks in, and the plot complications, the film is a pleasure to watch. Catherine Zeta-Jones is again luminous in a film role, and she gives the story its greatest dramatic weight as a woman who must decide what kind of life she will live. Her scenes with Brad Pitt are a pleasure. The chemistry here between George Clooney and Julia Roberts has a warmth and on-screen affection the first film lacked. An assured, confident film meant to entertain.

Sideways

posted 11/12/2004

This movie has a quiet opening. A wine expert is taking an old friend on a road trip through wine country just before his friend's marriage. The friend is an actor who was once a soap star, who now does voice work. The wine expert is still depressed about a failed marriage. What starts out as a simple trip gets knocked sideways by chance meetings with two women, and the faded star's desire to get laid before he gets married. The story is a wry, then humorous, then heartfelt look at adult relationships, and about men who haven't grown up. Discussion and commentaries on wine also speak to relationships.

The Grudge

posted 11/10/2004

The Grudge is a horror film from the Japanese author who created the novel that became the American film The Ring (based on the Japanese film of the novel). The Ring is a powerful story about parents and children; the Grudge is a plot machine that delivers scares at an ever increasing rate, but while we get some explanation of the plot, there's no real story on hand in The Grudge, and no real narrative tension (over a character in the story trying to shape some outcome). The only narrative tension in The Grudge comes when a character tries to save her boyfriend who's gone to a haunted house to save her, and that's at the end of the film.

Everything that came before that was scares on the level of opening a door at night and having a black, hissing cat jump up into your face unexpectedly. Yes, the scares are scary, but it never amounts to anything; there's no narrative tension transferred from a character to the audience. There no real sense of what this story is about, other than characters who go into the house and come into contact with the grudge dying.

I assumed there was something about the elements of the Japanese horror novel that spoke to a Japanese audience. It doesn't translate into this film.

I Love (heart symbol) Huckabees

posted 10/23/2004

Interesting, challenging film. On a simple level, it's about a young man's search for the meaning of his life. On another level, the movie is a comedy about the odd metaphysical paths some people become caught up in to help make that journey, and the odd notions and teachers that guide people on those journeys. The story also pokes fun at how and why people shift personas, and how actors play those personas (sometimes with a wink and a nod to the audience).

Which means the film will seem disjointed to some.

The film has a Fellini-est quality, with a suggestion that life is a circus and we might as well enjoy our roles, or choose new roles. Mark Walberg, who plays a fireman, tugs the movie into Felline-est quality by not acting like he's in a comedy.

The movie does get across the joyful glee of feeling caught up in an empowering transformation.

The Forgotten

posted 9/23/2004

This movie opens with a powerful plot question: is a mother still grieving the loss of her son imagining she ever had a son? To preserve a revelation, the person/entity responsible for what's happening stays mostly off stage. The story's climax answers the initial plot question, but it doesn't really fulfill some deeper story purpose introduced at the beginning of the film (in the way that the Sixth Sense was about second chances). The film ends up being a kind of shaggy dog story.

Sky Captain

posted 9/20/2004

A loving tribute/recreation of the old serials from the 40's. The way the film is produced (just about all the background images are computer generated), raises a question about how many more films will soon be mostly created on computers.

Gozu

posted 9/13/2004

Japanese director Takashi Miike makes some of the oddest films I've ever seen. Audition, Visitor Q, Dead or Alive, Ichi the Killer, Happiness of the Katakuris (think the Sound of Music crossed with Dawn of the Dead). This latest Miike film (that I've seen; he makes five features films a year), has all his trademark elements: amazing ending, main character reacting to the incomprehensible, lactating woman, man with a cow's head, a horrifically funny scene of a small dog's demise to open the film, something being done with a spoon I never imagined. But, in the end the film dragged for me. The story, besides the obvious about a relationship between two men, doesn't seem to have any other point. The plot revolves around a Yakuza gang-member disposing of the body of another gangster who's gone crazy.

Resident Evil

posted 9/12/2004

More video game than movie, and not much fun. The movie is another film that proves a lack of characterization, story, plot, and common sense cannot be overcome by special effects. Just about every interesting visual image is in the trailer. There is one moment of human contact/feeling near the end of the film. The movie is organized around the idea of individuals battling an inhuman corporation.

Hero

posted 9/6/2004

Great storytelling and amazing visual images. The story is about what is worth fighting and dying for. The plot revolves around whether a character played by Jet Li will assassinate a king who wants to unify China. Each stage of the plot and the deeper meaning of the story is revealed through a series of stories that give different meanings to how Jet Li came to be before the king.

The cinematography is breathtaking.

Donnie Darko - The Director's Cut

posted 9/3/2004

I love the original version of this film. The director's cut adds material to explain time travel that is jarring and not integrated into the story. This version of the film ends up being an example of how sometimes there are good reasons why producers step in to do a final edit of a film.

Suspect Zero

posted 8/27/2004

Zero is a remake of Se7en without Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Brad Pitt, and a story, until the last twenty minutes. The set up is that someone is hunting and killing serial killers. That's a plot, and an idea, but it's not a story. For most of the film an FBI agent stays in a state of continual heightened tension, but there's no break from the tension, no real sense of what it means, or how it connects to a deeper story purpose.

The film demonstrates the price for withholding information that would allow the audience to feel involved with the story's main character.

The last twenty minutes play to a different dramatic rhythm that is more focused and heightened than all the visually-inspired tension of the previous 90 minutes. Those twenty minute revolve around the story of what happens when someone is trained to look at horror without blinking. That's a story idea that begged for a character like Morgan Freeman's character in Se7en to unfold.

Carrie Moss has a role in the film, but no real part to play that is integral to the story.

Code 46

posted 8/26/2004

This is a thoughtful film in the mold of Gattaca, without that film's focus on a main character achieving his goals in spite of his genetic inheritance. In Code 46, the privileged and those they need to do the work that supports them live in protected city-states surrounded by arid scrub land. Code 46 sets out the laws around which couples can have children. An investigator (Tim Robbins) sent to investigate someone creating forged travel documents (most people are restricted to the city-state in which they were born), falls in love with the forger (a lower class worker) for reasons that only become apparent later. In the end, his memories of his experiences are wiped and he's returned to his privileged world.

Like Gattaca, there's some strong world-building here, with some lapses due probably to a lack of money. In this near future world, most people are driving cars made in 2003.

Much of what's happening in the story is explained via narration. This makes the story and plot easier to follow, but puts the film in the odd position of being neither an art film (without the narration viewers would be forced to figure out what is happening), nor a mainstream film like Gattaca because of the slow pace and downbeat, somber ending.

Interesting film that will struggle to find its audience.

Alien Versus Predator

posted 8/13/2004

A big aspect of the promise of this story is in the title. Unfortunately it takes about 40 long minutes to get to that point. The film unintentionally highlights the superior storytelling of Alien and Aliens, where many characters were introduced in the context of a story and plot that defined who characters were by how they reacted to events and tried to shape outcomes.

AVP has a weak storyline around the issue of why people (and aliens) accept challenges. But in the first 40 minutes characters are mostly given generic things to respond to (deciding whether to go on an expedition) and generic things to do (show pictures of children). Only when most of the minor characters are killed off does one character finally come fully center stage. Until then, many, many characters with flashlights go down many, many dim corridors.

Some fun watching Predators and Aliens fighting.

The Village

posted 8/9/2004

An interesting failure. Where the Sixth Sense focuses on a few characters and develops great drama around the issue of second chances, The Village focuses on a large group of people and the first half of the film suggests the issue of repression. That the repression of the characters creates the monsters around their village. An idea about secrets is tossed into the mix, and the issue of loss. The next third of the film focuses on loss, and how the elders of the village formed their community to escape violence-generated losses.

The main characters include the village idiot (no repression at all), a blind girl (who senses what others repress), and an unexpressive young man.

Because there's no clear story line, the film doesn't develop drama consistently.

Seeing Other People

posted 8/1/2004

This is a fun, amiable story about a young Hollywood couple who are engaged. When she starts to wonder if she's missed something by not being more sexually active, she pressures her fiance to accept that they will each be free to experience meaningless sex. He resists, then goes along.

The events that follow test the depths of both their love and friendship. In the end, they learn something about themselves and their relationship.

Consistently droll and funny, with jokes that can be remembered after the movie. An example of a well-done, low-budget movie that is character driven.

The stars are Jay Mohr and Juilanne Nicholson, with Andy Richter in a subplot about an ordinary guy who gets involved with a single mother and her dysfunctional relationship with her son.

Recommended.

Bourne Supremacy

posted 7/24/2004

A powerful action film that has an emotional core. The plot is about Bourne learning more about his identity and avenging the loss of his girlfriend. The story is about Bourne taking another step to regain his lost humanity.

The relationship between Bourne and Marie (the girl he met in the first film, played by Franka Potemke) is developed in the beginning of the film. It's presented as a heartfelt relationship that gives Bourne a compelling reason to seek out those who came after him.

The camera work tends toward busy, jerky shots. A chase scene in a taxi goes on so long and is so destructive, it becomes improbable.

I enjoyed the film very much and recommend it to anyone who'd like to better understand how to blend action and story.

Troy

posted 7/24/2004

This film strives to be epic, but several problems undermine that goal. One, Peter O'Toole is only in about a third of the film. He brings to his role a depth of characterization that always elevates his scenes, and character, to epic quality. Two, the first third of the film suffers from characters talking about being immortalized by their actions, but they aren't talking to each other as much as telling the audience what the story is about. Over and over and over. When characters finally have reasons to interact in ways that advance the story and create drama, the story develops dramatic tension and traction.

A third problem is that Agamemnon is presented as something of a buffoon. It's hard to imagine how someone (as presented) so silly and slight could have unified the warring Greek city-states.

A fourth problem is that the actress who plays Helen is a pretty girl. There's no sub text, no suggestion of anything deeper to her personality, nothing that suggests how she might somehow be different if she really is the child of a god and a mortal.

Brad Pitt as Achilles is given silly lines of dialogue to speak in the first third of the film. When he finally has to respond to the action going on around him, and the choices he must make, he becomes an interesting character. But not interesting enough to carry the film.

There is a lot of money on the screen. An interesting failure.

I, Robot

posted 7/16/2004

Fun, a visual treat in terms of world-building, but a standard detective story. The story is about overcoming prejudice, the plot is a murder mystery. The title of the story comes from Asimov and his three laws of robotics, but the idea at the heart of the story comes from a lesser known writer who took the idea of robots protecting humanity to one logical extreme.

King Arthur

posted 7/13/2004

I loved the idea at the heart of this movie, to make a gritty King Arthur film where several of the knights look like barroom brawlers. Then King Arthur keeps shouting about freedom as if that concept meant anything to peasants living lives of absolute poverty. So the story has competing ideas that never mesh. The Saxons are presented as the Klingons of their time, with no historical context for how that made them different than the Romans, or anyone else within a thousand miles for the next thousand years. The relationships between the knights creates some dramatic tension, just not enough.

Terminal

posted 7/8/2004

This film is a modern day fable about the power of waiting. Tom Hanks plays a man stranded at Kennedy airport in New York when his country ceases to exist. He slowly learns how to create a life for himself in the terminal, makes new friends, and learns how to deal with the official in charge of his stay until he's able to get a new passport and visa. The story develops a number of threads, including Hank's character developing feelings for a stewardess (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is radiant in the role).

Some of the story threads play stronger than others. At times characters behave in a way designed to advance the story and plot. The film has a sweet nature, but never quite hits the high notes it clearly aims at.

Spiderman

posted 7/8/2004

A powerful, emotional story. Spiderman has to deal with a number of reverses, losing a job, losing MJ, the girl he loves, not able to pay his rent, seeing his Aunt lose her home to foreclosure. As Peter Parker's life becomes more difficult, he begins to lose his powers. He finally decides to give up being Spiderman, until he finally realizes being Spider-Man is what he wants to do with his life.

The villain is Dock Ock, a mad scientist with four intelligent mechanical arms grafted to his body. With Spider-Man unmasked, and Dock Ock always unmasked, both actors are able to express the feelings of their characters more powerfully.

Highly recommended.

I'm Not Afraid

posted 6/29/2004

A young boy in rural Italy finds another boy kept captive in a pit. The captive boy calls him his 'guardian angel.' The plot question of the story is whether the kidnapped boy will survive. The story question addresses how the violence and domination games of adults are passed along to children. In the end it is the kidnapped boy who becomes his rescuer's guardian angel, by teaching him compassion.

Recommended.

The Mayor of Sunset Strip

posted 6/17/2004

This is a documentary about an odd fellow who became attached to numerous famous musicians and stars, and a champion of musicians like David Bowie. He led a charmed life in a less-than-charming world, and his claim to fame was that he became kind of an epicenter to a number of scenes in LA. At one point the person behind the persona comes out when someone he's helped a great deal takes over most of his job as a DJ at a well-known radio station in LA.

Recommended for people who love the music of the 60's, 70's, and 80's. Many on camera interviews with musicians.

Born Into This

posted 6/17/2004

A documentary about the life and writing of Charles Bukowski, with many on-camera interviews, and interviews with many of the people who were part of his life. Highly recommended to anyone who would like to know more about this writer and his writing.

The Chronicles of Riddick

posted 6/17/2004

Vin Diesel returns as the character he played in Pitch Black, a film and story about human beings with human feelings. It takes Chronicles about 3/4's of its length to get to a moment of human feeling. That's about it. The film has an operatic feel and the look of ancient Greece and Rome, set against a backdrop of almost continuous special effects. Great eye candy, no real taste.

Both fun and frustrating. Diesel is a powerful presence. Voice over is used to set the stage for the story.

Harry Potter

posted 6/6/2004

The latest Harry Potter film has a new director, and a new 'look,' much more realistic and darker than the first two films. The main thread of the novel is also handled well, the issue of Harry having some place to fit in. The story also introduces a new character who ultimately has the same problem of fitting in at Hogwarts.

The film is a pleasure to watch for adults in a way that might take away something for young viewers. All of the young actors return, and this story plays to their hitting puberty and the scary action giving them cause to hold on to each other.

Gary Oldman makes a powerful impression with the time he has on the screen.

Recommended.

The Seagull's Laughter

posted 5/26/2004

This Icelandic film takes place after WWII when the widow of an American soldier returns home to a poor fishing village with a dozen trunks of fashionable clothes and a determination that the other women in the village will stop being abused by men, and that working people will not be ignored in favor of the well-off. The outer structure of the story follows her impact on the village, and a young cousin's attempts to convince a local, handsome, young constable that his older cousin is evil and a murderer. The inner story is about the young girl's introduction to understanding men through observing her older cousin. A heartfelt and whimsical film with a dash of black humor. Highly recommended. This is a quiet story.

Stupidity

posted 5/25/2004

This documentary opens with some stupid trailers created just for the movie. One, Kung-Fu Jesus, ends with the line, 'This time he's fighting back.' The film (actually, most of it is shot on video or uses video clips from TV), has different segments that explore the dumbing down of American culture. The documentary is an example of work that doesn't have high productions values, but overcomes that with thoughtful ideas and humor. Recommended.

Van Helsing

posted 5/7/2004

The movie has a great black and white opening of the castle laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation being attacked, then the film becomes an extended series of climaxes. I felt like someone was shouting at me for two hours. The story is mostly plot, with characters who all have issues to resolve, but no central issue that connected the different elements of the story. The one character in the movie to register human feeling and emotion is Frankenstein, the monster.

Like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the special effects used to create sets look fake by design (a wooden stage coach goes off a cliff and explodes like it's filled with a 1,000 pounds of napalm). Some very nicely visually detailed vampires and werewolves, and a great cross-bow.

The Fog of War

posted 5/7/2004

Robert McNamara (the Donald Rumsfeld of his time) offers his thoughts and insights on the causes of wars. Listening to McNamara comment on film clips of his younger self justifying the Vietnam war is an odd replay of Rumsfeld's logic for the war in Iraq.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

posted 4/13/2004

A meditation on falling in love, falling out of love, and two people coming to a deeper understanding that holds out the promise of real intimacy. The film opens with Joel, played by Jim Carrey, meeting a young woman, Clementine (played by Kate Winslett) and falling in love. The film then jumps to a previous time when Clementine has fallen out of love with Joel, and she's undergone a process to erase all memories of him. Joel decides to undergo the same process.

The structure of the story is that as Joel's memories are erased, starting with his most recent, the viewer comes to understand why Clementine decided to erase Joel from her mind: that he'd fallen out of romantic love into a state of being critical of who she was and how she lived her life. So she moved on. But as Joel goes back in time to memories of when he most loved Clementine, and felt happy for the first time in his life, he tries to fight off the process of memory erasure and preserve some memory of her.

That structure informs the middle half of the film.

When in the present Joel and Clementine have a chance to be together again, each is given a tape they'd recorded earlier that set out exactly why each of them wanted out of the relationship. All the unspoken thoughts and feelings that festered and killed their feelings for each other are heard. And, when they are heard, Joel and Clementine have a chance to accept themselves and their potential relationship.

There are also subplots with the people who do the memory erasure, and several shifts in time that only become apparent later in the film.

This is a thoughtful, quiet story. Perhaps too quiet for people seeking a more typical Jim Carrey experience. I recommend the film highly to anyone who would like to explore a complex kind of storytelling that shifts in time and gets to the deeper truths of the characters.

Hellboy

posted 4/3/2004

There's much fun in Hellboy, and some heartfelt feeling once all the characters and their issues are introduced and developed.

There are several general paths a story like Hellboy can take in its openings scenes. This film takes the path of starting at the beginning, in 1944, with some American troops interrupting a Nazi experiment to open a gateway to Hell to get help for the Nazi cause. Taking this path for the story means the audience is introduced to a number of characters and situations before the adult Hellboy appears on screen. This kind of opening gives a strong overview of a character's world, and is a way to introduce many significant characters. The film skirts just around the edge of having a diffuse opening that asks an audience to sort through many different characters before the main characters are introduced and their issues set out.

Another path a story like this could take is to begin with the main character in a dramatic situation in the present, then do some flashbacks to introduce the beginning of the story.

Another path is to begin at a dramatic point deep in the film that defines a main character, then go back to the present and work forward to that point.

Once Hellboy gets to its main character, the story takes on a loose, funny tone. Hellboy is a blue-collar hero who spends his time using a power grinder to keep his horns down to notches, so he'll be more attractive to a young woman who also has special powers. The rocky relationship between Hellboy and the young woman, and between Hellboy and his surrogate father, gives the story much of its heartfelt quality.

A young FBI agent who is made a companion to Hellboy has his own hero's journey to make, but a few pieces of the journey seem to have been left on the cutting room floor.

Ron Perlman is great as the droll Hellboy. He brings the character to life.

Recommended.

Spartan

posted 3/18/2004

The title of this film comes from a story about the King of Sparta in ancient Greece. When neighboring kingdoms would ask for soldiers to help in their defence, the king would send one Spartan. That soldier was expected to do the work of an army.

In this film, the spartan is played by Val Kilmer, an unthinking weapon used by his handlers to do anything required to protect the republic. When a politician's daughter is kidnapped, he follows her trail, almost catches up to her abductors, when the chase is called off for an improbable reason. This is the first third of the film, and it features much tight, lean dialogue by hard-bitten men.

Then the spartan is forced to think about his mission, and to discover the real truth of what happened to the girl.

The rest of the film deals with the consequences of Kilmer's character having to think and feel, instead of just act and react to situations. His character ends on a note of powerful transformation.

The film makes several observations without dwelling on them, that the men like Kilmer's character are much more at risk of being killed by their handlers; that saving someone from one grim fate can return them to an even worse fate; and that politicians can be artful, heartfelt liars.

This film has both intense and thoughtful action. Recommended.

Secret Window

posted 3/15/2004

The trailers for this film suggest it's a supernatural thriller, which it is not. Johnny Depp plays a writer grieving over his impending divorce from an unfaithful wife. John Turturro plays a creepy stranger who insists Depp's character stole a story he wrote. The set up for the story is in the beginning of the film, when the camera shows Depp in a mirror sleeping on a couch, then the camera moves through (the looking glass) to Depp. Films like Secret Window, Swimming Pool, and Identity often use some visual image to suggest the direction of the story and plot.

Twisted

posted 3/5/2004

Twisted is a good example of just about everything that can go wrong in a studio film cast with good actors. The plot is standard but workable, a thriller about a new homicide detective who ends up in the middle of several murders, all men who died after having sex with her. But, because there's no story that really plays through the plot, characters seem to be in different movies as different scenes unfold. The detective's partner keeps shouting at her that partners need to trust each other. A rapist beaten up by the main character keeps finding ways to whisper to her that she's just as violent as he is. This troubles her because her father killed her mother, then committed suicide. A police therapist probes her violent tendencies, including an attack on another detective. The detective's mentor decides that leaving her involved in investigating the murders is a good idea since she's somehow involved, and, in the climax of the plot, the mentor's real feelings about the dead parents come out (the detective's father was the partner of her mentor).

But, without the story being about something at its core, the main character is left to do things like drink wine, fall to the floor unconscious, wake up 12 hours later after another murder has been committed, and not wonder if she's being drugged. And so the plot lumbers along.

Very strange. I wondered what was in the original script that attracted people to the story and characters.

Dogville

posted 2/27/2004

This new film by Lars Von Trier opens with an innocent-appearing young woman appearing in a small village needing to be hidden from gangsters. The villagers take her in at the urging of a local intellectual/unpublished writer who sees her arrival as a way to illustrate one of his ideas about life. The villagers begin exacting a higher and higher price for their protection of the young woman, and when they finally have no more use for her, they turn her in to the gangsters for a reward, only to discover the main gangster is her father who just wanted her back to help run the family business. From what the young woman learns about humanity from these villagers she once idealized, she agrees to join her father's business.

The village is a stage where the outlines of houses are drawn on the floor, a way of suggesting that everything about this village and these people will be revealed. The structure of the story reminded me of The Iceman Cometh, with people in denial being exposed for who they really are.

Nicole Kidman plays the young woman, Paul Bettany the town intellectual. John Hurt provides a wonderful narration.

This is not a traditional Hollywood film. The story advances mostly through dialogue and a presentation of ideas and levels of meaning.

Monster

posted 1/31/2004

Charlize Theron creates an amazing performance as the prostitute, serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The story presents Aileen as someone who's lost the ability to even have a private fantasy that her life has any value. Going into a bar to spend the last of her money before she commits suicide, she meets Selby (Christina Ricci) a young girl just out of the closet as a lesbian. Both women are lost souls who mirror back to each other a sense of being important.

The story acts out the lengths people will go to sustain a relationship that mirrors back to them something they crave to believe about themselves.

Highly recommended, but these are human beings in pain, so people looking for light entertainment should think twice before seeing this.

Somethings Gotta Give

posted 1/25/2004

This is a funny, observant, and, at times, heartfelt romantic comedy. Jack Nicolson plays an aging lothario who has never dated a woman under 30. He's off for a weekend in the Hamptons with his latest young girlfriend when they discover her mother, Diane Keaton, is also using her summer home. The mother ends up offering to share her home, and Jack has a heart-attack. Keaton ends up taking care of Jack when her daughter returns home, and the older, wary couple find themselves falling in love.

Audience members in their 40's, 50's and 60's might find this funnier than a young audience.

The story is about accepting the price of falling in love.

The film has a structure that is rare in Hollywood films, it really is three separate acts. Not acts that quickly glide forward, but acts separated by a kind of pause while characters think about what just happened while they decide what to do next. The last time I saw this kind of pronounced acts pause in a Hollywood film was Rushmore.

Highly recommended.

The Butterfly Effect

posted 1/23/2004

I like stories like the one promised in the trailers for this movie, that a young man has the power to go back into the past to change his present, and all the unintended consequences of his actions on his present life, and the lives of his friends, and what that reveals about what is important to him. This kind of plot often doesn't stand up to any thought about what's happening, but I knew that going in. The initial set up for this is very straight-forward, then the movie goes into a long, long sequence of what isn't suggested by the trailers, violence among children, animal torture, incest, pedophillia, a baby dying in a prank gone wrong, to suggest all the different wrongs the young man is trying to avert. People who don't like watching violence among children should avoid this.

Cold Mountain

posted 1/10/2004

This movie is beautifully shot, but becomes a powerful story when the characters reach what is the starting point of the book. The movie starts by introducing the main characters, Inman, a Confederate soldier fighting in the Civil War, then cross-cutting to Inman first meeting Ida, who has moved to Cold Mountain with her father. The book starts with Inman recovering from his wounds in a hospital and deciding to start on the road home to regain the humanity he feels has been lost in the war's violence. In the book, Ida has just lost her father and discovers she has no means of support and no money, just the farm her father bought before his death. Each character begins the novel on a journey.

By developing early in the movie the budding relationship between Inman and Ida and his life on Cold Mountain, the movie gives Inman a clear goal in wanting to return home and to Ida. Inman's goal of regaining his humanity comes out late in the movie, so what defines his journey early in the book is only brought out late in the movie. The movie does suggest that the violence of the war is a reason why Inman is fleeing the fighting, but returning to Ida comes across as his most powerful reason for heading home.

Because what Inman seeks is conveyed by his thoughts in the novel, the book is better able to explore his inner journey. The movie is better able to show the relationship of Ida and Inman, but since that budding relationship isn't very dramatic, the beginning of the movie is more beautiful than compelling. The movie also adds some new characters to make some of the action and conflict more personal, while a point of the book was how impersonal the violence became.

There are no easy answers about translating a book to a movie. This movie acts out one path to go down, starting with great action and spectacle not in the book, simplifying the time line, and adding a few new characters to personalize the conflict.

The movie is well-acted all around. Renee Zellwegger does a great job as Ruby, a woman who comes along to help Ida on her farm.

Bad Santa

posted 12/03/2003

Santa is introduced here wasted and drunk in a bar. Bad Santa. Bad, bad, funny Santa. This film makes no bones about being vulgar. When Santa, played by Billy Bob Thorton, meets an over-weight, very strange boy, Santa has one decent impulse left in him that just about gets him killed. Very funny for those who like dark humor. The story remains true to its tone. I had several good belly laughs watching this. Others will find their milage varies.

Gothika

posted 11/21/2003

This story introduces its central idea when a patient tells a therapist, 'You can't trust someone who thinks you're crazy.' The story then introduces another aspect of its promise, to be a supernatural thriller, when the therapist comes across a dead girl standing on a lonely country road. When the therapist is accused of murdering her husband, but she doesn't recall the event, she ends up in the same prison she worked to treat patients. That's a stretch, but, so far, the film looks good, looks confident. The film now has some clear questions, did she kill her husband? If she didn't, who did? If her former friends consider her crazy, how can she trust them? Also, supernatural events continue.

As the story moves toward a climax, the plot shifts to being a standard, non-supernatural murder mystery. It's as if in The Ring, the story shifts late in the film into a conventional murder mystery (Gothika uses a great deal of The Ring, its settings, characters, conventions; at times Gothika comes across as a sequel to The Ring). This late shift to conventional murder mystery doesn't work very well because it violates the promise of the story to be a supernatural thriller. A film like The Others works because the ultimate revelation fulfills the story's promise, even if that promise wasn't clear (to many people) at the beginning of the film.

Another way to talk about what happens in Gothika is to describe its plot climax as a shift in tone. I come across many scripts where the climax is either a shift in tone - from comedy to drama - or a shift from being realistic to unrealistic or surrealistic. This can be done well, but it more easily comes across as an artificial attempt to create a surprise ending. This kind of shift often fails because nothing foreshadows it. The surprise 'works' because there's nothing to suggest it coming.

Master and Commander

posted 11/18/2003

The promise of this story is to take the audience into the world of 1805 and the British Warship the H.M.S. Surprise. Peter Weir delivers on this promise masterfully. The plot of the story revolves around the outcome of a series of battles between the Surprise and a French ship that is heavier, has more guns, and a larger crew. The main characters are played by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany as Captain of the Surprise and Ship's Surgeon. The action of the story defines these men, and forces them to examine what they owe each other and to what they owe their duty and devotion. This is epic film making and wonderful storytelling.

Love Actually

posted 11/8/2003

The story starts by suggesting its promise, that love is all around us. The movie then introduces eight characters or couples and develops how they experience love. There are some shifts in tone here (characters range from realistic and deeply felt to farcical to neat packages with messages). Some wonderful acting.

Most film stories allow the audience to focus on two central characters, and everyone and everything else follows in their wake. That makes it easier to develop characters in the short time a film screens, and to develop tension over how a situation will be resolved and the issues of characters fulfilled. Here, without central characters, I realized my reactions to the story were dependent on how I felt about the characters and their situations, and the actors playing the characters, and that other people might enjoy or not enjoy the film based on having entirely different reactions to the story, its characters and actors. Did I cringe because I found one young man seeking to get laid buffoonish, or because he reminded me of myself when I was younger (and older, and today, and probably into the future).

An enjoyable film that doesn't have the depth of feeling, clear tone or sense of purpose of Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Matrix Revolutions

posted 11/8/2003

This film points out the difference in telling a story that revolves around an idea (Neo struggling to wake up in the first Matrix, then trying to wake up humanity) and introducing an idea that simply gets referred to occassionally. The idea for the last two films is about choice. Since every character in every story has to make choices, mentioning the idea isn't the same as telling a story about making choices. Compounding the problem, some of the choices are movie cliches (the tired plot about the captains in competition), and often what ideas are presented are swept off the screen by extended action sequences.

That major plot elements in a story could be changed without affecting the course or outcome of a story is a hallmark of weak storytelling.

Neo has an interesting opening scene that suggests that programs have feelings and desires, but that idea moves off stage and what's left are discussions about agent Smith being Neo's shadow self, and their conflict being rooted in the nature of the world, even one as artificial as the Matrix.

Less money to spend might have forced the storytellers to focus more on the characters.

Lost In Translation

posted 10/30/2003

A thoughtful, quiet film about two lost souls, an aging star played by Bill Murray doing a whiskey photo shoot in Japan, and a lonely wife/college graduate played by Scarlett Johansson wondering about the meaning of her life. The title is the main cue in the beginning of the film, first showing Murray in some funny scenes realizing how much is being lost in translation from Japanese to English. Both Murray and Scarlett are unable to sleep on Japanese time, and their nocturnal wandering in the hotel brings them together. Her search to give her life meaning comes through more forcefully early in the film, but Murray's deeper issues also come out in quiet, unforced scenes. The film has a gentle confidence.

Highly recommended.

Bubba Ho-tep

posted 10/21/2003

An odd, compelling movie about Elvis Presley in an old folks home fighting an Egyptian mummy preying on the residents. Elvis ended up in the home when he switched identities with an impersonator so he could be free of his fame, broke a hip, and woke up in the rest home after a long coma. He has many regrets about his life, but taking on the mummy with an African-American man who thinks he's John Kennedy gives him a renewed purpose in life. Everything about the story and plot is odd-ball, often funny, and more and more often as the movie progresses, heartfelt.

Bruce Campbell (Ash in the Evil Dead) and Ossie Davis play the main roles. Some of the humor is quite crude in the opening scenes (Elvis is quite distraught about his lost sexuality), but it sets up the later transformation of the character.

This isn't for people looking for a traditional film, but I loved it.

OT: our town

posted 9/23/2003

A powerful documentary about high school students in Compton putting on the Thorton Wilder play Our Town. Many students, parents and teachers are introduced in the beginning of the film, but as the parallels to the play and the lives of the students develop, and the life stories of several of the students take center stage, the documentary takes on power. The approaching deadline of the opening night of the play, and the intense states of feeling that puts the students into, makes the students accessible to the film's audience. Recommended.

Underworld

posted 9/19/2003

Big on style and art direction, but the story has a flawed, inverted structure where what it's about and why the audience should feel invested in the characters and how the story turns out coming out toward the end of the movie. With much of the backstory set out in this film, a sequel might be a stronger story. Having a main character named Craven is campy, but the story stays mostly in the goth/Matrix realm. The actors don't have much to do besides posture until the story is finally on stage.

Whale Rider and Pistol Opera

posted 8/3/2003

Whale Rider tells the story of a young Maori girl. Her grandfather wanted her to be a son who would lead a renewal of his people. To him, the girl goes from being a bitter disappointment to a threat to the renewal he's trying to establish through training young boys in the Maori culture. A heartfelt story where what all the characters are feeling is immediate and accessible. I had a good cry watching the film. The young girl and the grandfather are locked in a struggle from the moment she's born.

Japanese film maker Seijun Suzuki's film Pistol Opera is about style and art and staging. The film is a seminar on lighting and staging action as a collection of static images. The plot is about Stray Cat, an assassin wanting to move up in the assassin's guild rankings. The story is about death and probably much else. I'm positive Seijun had a good time doing this film, but I didn't feel involved after the first hour.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

posted 7/25/2003

There's fun in this story, and much money up on the screen, but the story and plot bog down in introducing every main character and then giving them all a featured scene or two to shine. The film also pays a price for not having a larger-than-life villain. The characterization develops some traction toward the end of the film. The plotting ends up being similar to a television series, where characters can develop over a number of episodes, so characters look great, but here end up having a hasty, thin feel.

The look of the film veers between hyper-realistic (meticulous close up of great actors) and special effects that uniformly look fake by design. Character types range from human to mythic. The film comes across as a failed attempt to recreate the look and feel of the first Indiana Jones film. Good demonstration of how hard it is to create an action film with a large cast. Something like the batmobile makes an appearance for a few scenes.

Medea

posted 7/20/2003

Off-beat telling of famous Greek tragedy, directed by Lars Von Trier in 1987 using a screenplay by Carl Theodore Dreyer. The story is about a woman spurned by her husband (Jason of Argonaut fame) for a younger wife who takes revenge by murdering their children. Von Trier uses the marshes of Denmark to stage the story. Some beautiful camera work in the service of a slow march to the story's tragic end. One of Medea's sons helping her with his own suicide is a powerful moment.

The film has a storytelling and visual sense that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen only grasps at.

Hulk

posted 6/20/2003

Amazing, awesome screen dissolves. The story and plot have problems, particularly in the first hour. The film starts with a series of shots the titles play over that set up a father's experiments on developing a super-human. These opening credits run several minutes. When his experiments go awry and he's blocked by the military from doing human experiments, he continues his work using his own body. Then it's on to the father's life with his wife and four year old son. This goes on for 10-20 minutes. Something happens between the father and mother just as a lab experiment on the secret military base causes an explosion, and this sets up a plot question: what happened between the mother and father. Then the story transitions to the young boy now an emotionally shut-down young man.

One level of most stories of this type is that a main character takes the story's audience along on a journey of feeling. Since the main character is too young to do anything except react to what's happening, most of the feeling in these scenes revolve around a young father who then disappears from the story. When something finally happens in the plot that puts the two main characters into heightened states of feeling and in conflict with their parents, the story and plot finally sync and advance dramatically.

One way this kind of problem is often handled is to do a quick opening set up, then jump forward in time to the present and then reveal what happened in the past as flashbacks. The risk of using flashbacks is that a story stops while a flashback explains characters. This film avoids using flashbacks but at a price of slowing down the opening.

All the different issues raised by all the significant characters early in the film also muddy the eventual appearance of a story line. Every character has a clearly presented issue to resolve, but all these introductions also serve to slow the advance of the story.

Nick Nolte does a great King Lear riff. The other main actors are fine once they have dramatic characters to play (characters reacting to plot events that drive the action of the story forward).

The climax takes place in murky lighting.

Spellbound posted 6/9/2003

This wonderful documentary is a great example of how to tell a story. The 'plot' question is clear, who will win the contest? Each main character (eight children are profiled) has a unique voice. Each child must deal with being different, and deal in different ways with defeat. This is a great documentary; very heartfelt and knowing.

Frailty

posted 6/9/2003

I missed this when it came out and saw it recently at the request of someone who had some questions about the structure of the story. The plot of this story grows from the storyteller's understanding of the audience's assumptions. Bill Paxton plays the father of two young boys. When he announces that God has selected him to kill demons passing as humans, the oldest son struggles to escape his father and save his younger brother. What he does to save his brother comes out in a series of flashbacks as the older brother is interrogated by an FBI agent. The main assumption here, that the father is crazy and killing innocent people.

The flashbacks work in this film because they advance the story.

A well-told story.

Donnie Darko

posted 5/15/2003

I saw this film for the second time and liked it even more than on my first viewing. The story is about a young man told the world is coming to an end after a jet engine crashes through the roof of his house, destroying his bedroom, but there are no jets missing an engine. The young man has visions of someone in a bunny costume telling him to commit violent acts. The film, shot for 4.5 million, took full advantage of affordable digital special effects. Recommended.

X Men

posted 5/15/2003

The film has a strong opening, clearly defining each major character's dramatic truth--what each character wants/needs to resolve. Half way through the film I realized I'd stopped caring. When I got to a climax that had a character taking an action that really didn't tie into anything central in the story, I decided a collection of clearly defined dramatic truths does not create a powerful story. The plot revolves around one man's quest to destroy all mutants as a personal vendetta, and the feuding mutants having to work together to save humanity. The deeper story is diffuse, probably about... except I didn't care enough to figure it out. Wolverine continues his quest. Actors and special effects are fun to watch.

Songs From the Second Floor

posted 4/15/2003

A great, strange, beautiful film. Directed and written by Roy Andersen. The basic thrust of the plot is the tensions breaking down a society just before the millenium. Like Ming-liang Tsai, Andersen composes complicated scenes staged in front of a locked-down camera. Some amazing shots, particularly a man dumping some Jesus on crosses he's failed to sell, with a group of people in the distance slowly walking into the scene; and another scene in a train station that suggests infinity.

This is an art film of real power. A constant refrain is, 'Beloved be the one who sits down.'

The Pianist

posted 4/15/2003

A beautiful, epic film about one man's survival in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. The film is based on a true story about a gifted pianist who survived the war. Great work all around. The film gains power as the focus tightens on Wladylaw Szpilman after his family is sent to their deaths. Recommended.

Spider

posted 4/15/2003

A dark, slow, thoughtful film. Ralph Fiennes plays a broken old man returning to the neighborhood where he grew up to live in a half-way house with other broken old men. Fiennes chose to play the character of Spider as someone who mostly mumbles incoherently while staring at his feet. The structure of the story is that as Spider visits the scenes of his childhood, he's able to watch what happened as he slid into mental illness.

The film is a good example that a story's promise and the fulfillment of that promise doesn't necessarily mean uplifting. This story has a dark promise and fulfillment. Directed by David Cronenberg. Great performance by Miranda Richardson. Not for people wanting any kind of traditional structure.

Briteny, Baby, One More Time

posted April 15, 2003

This film returns Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank of American Movie to the screen. There are many hilarious scenes in this low-budget film which works best when Mark isn't on-camera. He's a personality, not an actor, and his inability to play a character demonstrates the danger of using a non-actor in a film. Mike Schank is consistently funny playing the same drugged/deranged character from American Movie. The plot revolves around a Briteny Spears look-alike played by a gay young man. The film has a funky energy. The obvious humor may not work for some people, but I had several good laughs.

Dreamcatcher

posted 3/25/2003

This film is based on a Stephen King novel. The film demonstrates the problems with taking a novel to screen. The story begins by introducing four main characters and their back stories, then puts them into a cabin where they are soon under attack by an alien and a worm-like creature designed to use humans as a host. Strong, clear plot, but somehow a clear story and story line never jelled in the film. The plot question of who'll survive all the action is straightforward, but not a clear sense of what it all means. I haven't read the book, but I assume there's a story to go with the plot.

Shifting point of view in a novel can take readers into the heart of a character's dramatic truth. In the film, all the switching around gives the characters a diffuse quality the actors can't overcome. They become character types, but not characters in a compelling story.

When a story and its characters fail to become compelling, plot holes are easy to spot, and this plot has some mind-boggling improbabilities. A character in mortal danger sends a friend off to get duct tape instead of asking to be handed a high-powered rifle in the next room. A space ship big enough to knock down a forest hits Earth, everyone in the area is to be killed, and somehow the authorities expect to be able to cover this up. Since the film is shot to have a realistic tone (in terms of what characters do and say to each other), unrealistic events break the tone.

Very strange.

I heard William Goldman speak at the recent screenwriting expo in LA. He said he tried to be faithful to the King novel, and admitted that science fiction isn't a kind of storytelling that he follows.

Alias Betty

posted 2/14/2003

A french film about a young mother who loses her son. Her disturbed mother goes out and kidnaps a little boy who looks like the dead son, and passes the young boy off as the child of a family friend until her daughter begins to bond with the boy. When the daughter learns the truth, she is determined to return the boy to his mother until she learns he's been seriously abused and beaten by his mother. Powerful story about a mother devastated by grief who comes back to life via offering love to a child. The plot revolves around a collection of characters, some amoral, who maneuver to get what they want.

About Schmidt posted 1/22/2003

A sly, funny, sad story about a man who retires and has his wife of 42 years die within days. Schmidt's sour narcissism is revealed in letters he writes to an orphan in Africa he's sponsoring for $22 a month. The device of using letters to reveal Schmidt's inner life works in the story because the letters are, one, funny, and two, because they have a sub text. What Schmidt writes about himself is often at odds with what the audience understands about his character.

A motif in the film is that the un-self aware Schmidt isn't much different than a cow going through life. When his daughter refuses to either drop her marriage plans to a man Schmidt despises or allow her father to move in with her, he must think, and slowly come to feel, what he wants to do with his life.

Recommended.

Frida
posted 1/15/2003

This film tells the story of Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter who overcame great physical pain to be an artist. The main structure of the film is to advance in scenes that have a reversal. Frida has her mentor Diego Rivera agree that they will always be student and mentor, never lovers. Once he agrees, she pulls him to her for a passionate kiss. The art direction in the film is wonderful. The story focuses on Frida's early years, then jumps forward to an ending.

Bartleby

posted 1/15/2003

This modern-day adaptation of the Meville novella is set in a public records office. Soon after Bartleby is hired, he begins parrying all requests that he do some work with 'I would prefer not to.' This creates a great uproar among his co-workers, and forces his boss to try and understand what motivates Bartleby. Ultimately, Bartleby refuses to provide an answer.

While most stories are about characters who want something and are willing to overcome obstacles to get what they want, Bartleby is about a character who is withdrawing from life and the effect his decision has on others. Watching the film reminded me of the dynamic of a relationship ending via one person deciding to withdraw emotionally, and the strong feelings that can arouse for the other partner. Crispin Glover plays Bartleby. Recommended.

Harry Potter
posted 12/17/2002

I had little interest in this film based on watching the tedious first film in the series. I was pleasantly surprised. I found the first film to be like a coffee table picture book, a literal recreation of things and people in the first book, with very little narrative or dramatic tension. This second film does generate drama from the opening scenes. The film still has some of the flaws of the first, however. In Rowling's books (I've read two all the way through), she very clearly sets out a story question and plot question for each novel. Prisoner of Azkaban has a story question around Harry fitting in, and his being able to attend an event at the Hogwart that required an adult relative's signed release. The plot question is whether Harry will be able to survive Sirius Black's attempts to kill him. Very clear, very direct questions.

After watching Chamber of Secrets, I'm not sure what the story question and plot question are. There's a plot question of the school being closed if attacks on students with at least one muggle parents can't be stopped. Loyalty as a story issue is raised. There's a question of Harry being sent back to the Dursley's if the school closes (the issue of Harry having a place to fit in). At one point, students start to shun Harry, which raised an issue of whether he could fit in at Hogwart. A house elf helps Harry for reasons that aren't clear.

As the story goes along, new, dramatic questions rise up, so, scene by scene, the story has drama. I just didn't see the kind of narrative tension around Harry having a clear goal. One significant stretch of the film has Hermione being the character who drives the action.

In the end, the film is enjoyable, just not as pleasurable as the novels. I assume Rowling nailed her story and plot questions in the book.

There are some very scary scenes in the movie. The film might not be appropriate for young children.

Solaris
posted 12/12/2002

This film has gotten some weak reviews that call the storytelling slow, and a few suggestions that Clooney wasn't right for the part. My take, the story has a basic flaw in its structure. The initial set up is fine. Clooney is a therapist who clearly is unable to process through his grief about something that happened to his wife. He accepts an assignment to investigate what's happening on a space station orbiting a planet named Solaris. When Clooney arrives, he finds blood, dead people, and two survivors. One of the survivors tells Clooney he'll understand what's happening as soon as he sleeps. When he does, his dead wife shows up.

So far, strong, interesting plot, and strong story question about what Clooney will do about the return of his dead wife. But a problem in structure derails the plot. Most of the middle section of the film is flashbacks about Clooney meeting and falling in love with his seriously disturbed wife in parallel with scenes on the ship with the replica of his wife. There's no real drama or narrative tension around Clooney meeting, dating, and falling in love with his future wife, so that aspect of the story drags. There are long, long shots of Clooney trying to decide what to do about the replica of his wife. These scenes also drag because of an overuse of close ups.

This story structure problem isn't something that Clooney as an actor can overcome. Another problem, this is a film that aims to be about ideas, but there are no serious ideas explored in Clooney's relationship with his wife, or the question of why a therapist would marry someone so emotionally disturbed (serious mood swings, depression, suicidal to the degree that she kills herself). All these scenes with Clooney and his wife look great, but they don't have a deeper point. This lack of a clear sub text pulls down the film.

The plot picks up speed when Clooney and one paranoid survivor who wants to destroy the replica of Clooney's wife must make a decision about what to do. Then it comes out at the end that what the story was about wasn't just Clooney getting a cosmic second chance with his wife, but his forgiving her for his role in her suicide. The film doesn't acknowledge the anger the dead wife felt toward him that she would punish him by killing herself, or that he would have to be seriously disturbed to want to be with her, then to stay with her, or to want to be with her again after the hell she's put him through. But none of that is apparent about his character. Clooney is asked to play a character who's moral and thoughtful when what's underneath that persona is not in the film. The film ends up having a glossy surface and not much underneath.

So, the fulfillment of the story is interesting, just not developed in a clear, powerful way. Because the ending doesn't fulfill what came before, the climax of the plot doesn't generate the power it might have.

The movie does explore some ideas about the nature of reality.

The Ring

posted 12/6/2002

This is a scary film about fate, parents and children. The plot set up, people who watch an odd video immediately get a phone call and are told they'll die in one week. Then they die. A young reporter watches the tape, then realizes her son has watched the tape. She sets out to understand the mystery of the tape with the help of her son's father.

The film has a generic opening, then gets to deeper waters both emotionally and visually. The story is about the young mother not listening to her son, and another mother who takes drastic measures to stop listening to what her daughter is saying. There's a question about whether the son's father would survive if he choose to become more responsible about being a parent and father to his son.

The film is a good example of the difference between creating a sense of menace and dread or just trying to scare an audience, i.e., Final Destination. Destination suffered from a lack of character development, which meant it didn't matter much who died next, and how people died was typical horror film. In Ring, we're asked to care about characters. That makes the horror more horrific, and suggests the storytellers respect the conventions of the horror medium.

One Hour Photo

posted 11/27/2002

The story begins with Robin Williams (who disappears into the role) getting his photo taken. Then it comes out that this is a police mug shot. In an interrogation room, a detective asks Williams what a husband did to provoke him. Then we go back in time to Sy, played by Williams, at his job as a photo clerk who has created an imaginary life with what to him is an ideal family. At his apartment, Sy has a complete record of the family's history going back for several years.

The plot question is concrete, what will Sy do to the husband?

The story question is suggested, then made concrete in the last scenes, why did Sy have a need to create a fantasy family?

The story has a ten minute sequence of several improbable plot events, but otherwise is a quiet character study that steadily builds a sense of dread. Most of Sy's scenes are in washed out colors that suggest his inner life is washed out.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

posted 9/30/2002

This break-out film offers a simple but potent story. The aging daughter of a Greek-American family decides she would like to have her own life, and not the life her father wants for her. When she falls in love with a non-Greek young man, what she wants for herself comes into conflict with what her father wants for her. This story found its audience because the story is clear and direct; the young woman is not a Hollywood beauty who only has to take off her glasses to be Julia Roberts. She's like most of us, pretty in a plain way, attractive when she dresses up and starts to feel good about herself.

Nothing complicated here, but getting there is all the fun.

13 Conversations About One Thing

posted 7/27/2002

This powerful film explores the issues of fate and how the lives of people can be interconnected in subtle ways. Highly recommended. Alan Arkin shines as an insurance adjuster. The subtle shifts in time here are a pleasure to comprehend. Assured storytelling.

Reign of Fire

posted 5/30/02

Dumb story that makes no sense, but the only movie this year with fire breathing flying dragons. Big ones.

The Royal Tenenbaums

posted 12/24/2001

This is a witty, sly, observant film about family life. Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, a man who deserted his family and late in life tries to return when he's broke and has nowhere else to go. His return forces his adult children to deal with issues they've tried to bury or ignore. What Royal doesn't expect is that he'll come to love the adult children he long-ago deserted.

This story is novelistic in scope, and several scenes begin with several sentences on the screen to set out what's happening. Narration also fills in key details about what the characters are feeling or thinking.

Bill Murray plays a character in the film, and for the first time (for me), he's a character in the story, not Bill Murray.

Recommended.

Vanilla Sky

posted 12/22/2001

This is a handsome Hollywood production with handsome Hollywood stars, Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, and Penelope Cruz. The story is about the nature of dreams and reality, particularly when reality is painful. A line of dialogue repeated several times, "It's time to wake up." My problem with the film is that having an idea for a story is not the same as exploring an idea in a film story.

The film is beautiful to look at.

An American in Paris

Posted 12/22/2001

This is a beautiful, joyous film that I was lucky to see recently on a big screen. The dancing of Gene Kelly is exuberant and a pleasure to watch. His first dance with Leslie Caron expresses his feelings for her in an exquisite way. When they dance together and kiss for the first time, it's an affirmation of the beauty of love. Late in the film when Kelly's character believes he has lost her, he imagines dancing with her, then the image dissolves to Kelly holding an armful of flowers, but not his beloved. When he drops the flowers, his feeling of loss is communicated potently.

This is the story about the cost of being bound to another person. Unlike Vanilla Sky, there's a serious story going on beneath the surface. The film is full of witty, observant dialogue and playful use of the camera.

Lord of the Rings

posted 12/19/2001

This film is an awesome treat for anyone who read and loved the books, or for anyone who likes seeing a story that sets out a new, fully-realized world.

People who haven't read the books might find the background of the story thin.

I see a fundamental difference in the storytelling in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. In LOTR, the audience is allowed to experience the tension the characters feel as they must act to help shape the outcome of this epic battle between good and evil. The way the story is presented, the characters feel compelled to react to what's at stake in the story.

In the Harry Potter film, unlike the books, Harry is a kind of passive witness to events. He generally simply witnesses the magic happening around him, and this reduces the audience to being a passive witness to a passive witness. It reduces much of the movie to a kind of coffee table book illustration of the book. It's not until the end of the film, when Harry must choose between serving evil and being allowed to stay in magic contact with the parents he's lost and deeply misses, or serve good and lose that contact, that the story develops a strong sense of drama.

Lord of the Rings begins with drama and builds on that initial tension, and the audience is allowed to share that tension. We're allowed to feel Bilbo Baggins great tension around turning over the ring of power to Frodo. We're allowed to share Sam's misgiving around stepping foot outside the Shire. Every character wrestles with decisions of great consequence, and their actions define who they are.

Recommended.

Shallow Hal

posted 12/1/2001

This comedy has a simple idea, that a shallow, image-obsessed man is changed so that he sees others according to their inner beauty. When Hal meets Mary, a 300 pound plus woman, he sees Qwyneth Paltrow, who is shot and lit in this film to have a luminescent beauty. But Hal's best friend still sees the 'real' Mary, and he eventually opens Hal's eyes.

This could easily have been a silly, trite, vulgar movie, but it's played with some feeling and heart. Qwyneth acts out the hurt and confusion of Mary when Hal keeps telling her how beautiful she is, and life has acted out for her that she's not considered desirable.

In the end, Hal, played by Jack Black, has to decide if he can love the real Mary.

The movie sets us up for the expected answer, but getting there is fun.

The closing credits show footage of the film crew, making the sly point that most of us aren't Hollywood beauties or models, that we come in all shapes and sizes and personalities.

Amelie

posted 11/23/2001

This is an endlessly clever, inventive, joyful story about a young French girl who knows how to help everyone but herself. An old painter helps set her on the path to finding her own soul mate.

The director is Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who directed City of Lost Children, so it's an amazing film to watch. Highly recommended for those who like artistic films. Every scene has images that could be framed as beautiful photographs.

K-Pax/Don't Say a Word

posted 11/23/2001

I'm posting notes about these two films because I found them both to be formula films, each about dealing with grief, but only one film put some energy into the formula. That film was Don't Say a Word, about a psychiatrist who must get a girl scarred by the trauma of seeing her father killed to give up a number. If she won't, his daughter will be killed. Michael Douglas is the star, and he brings some energy to the role. I didn't have much expectations for this film, so it was a nice surprise. The story has some grit and muscle. The plot -- about some thieves trying to recover a jewel -- isn't anything to think about.

I had high expectations for K-Pax. I love Spacey and Bridges, but this film is really just an extended conversation between these two men, with no believable world created around them. Bridges works in a sanitarium for the homeless mentally ill in New York that is wonderfully clean, modern and sanitized, which is improbable in the extreme. Unfortunately, the storytelling rings about as true as the setting. Somehow there's no soul here, in spite of the wonderful actors.

The Deep End

posted 9/21/2001

The movie begins with a mother trying to get a gay hustler away from her innocent (just out of the closet) young son. When the young son accidentally kills the hustler, without his knowledge the mother hides the body. She's then faced with dealing with a blackmailer who wants some quick money. With her military husband on assignment, she has no way to get the money. While she struggles to meet the demands of the blackmailer, she and the blackmailer begin to bond.

This is a strong story about the need most of us have for someone to turn to in time of crisis.

American Pie II

posted 9/21/2001

This sequel to a very popular film takes a long while to become funny. Like the original, there's a lot of attention paid to setting up a story, this time about a group of young man returning home for the summer after a year at college. They collectively learn it's time to let go and move on.

Mumford

Posted 5/27/2001

This came out in 2000. Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, it's a sweet, warm-hearted story about a young man who sets up shop in the town of Mumford as a therapist. As he helps the people of Mumford work through their problems, it comes out that Dr. Mumford isn't who or what he seems. Late in the film, the story is 'named' as being about getting a second chance.

The film does a good job of showing therapy as a process where people are guided to find their own solutions. The story has a quiet, easy-going pace.

Memento

Posted 5/11/2001

This story has a great plot concept. The story starts with a man, Guy Pierce, killing someone he accuses of murdering his wife. The story then goes back in time, scene by scene, showing what led up to this moment. That when his wife was murdered, Pierce's character suffered a brain injury and could no longer retain short term memories. He tracks down his killer by tattooing notes on his body and on photographs. But what he keeps finding ways to repeat to himself turns out to be just a version of the truth, a version that he needs to believe.

Even though the story happens in reverse chronology, the story moves forward to the end/beginning of his realization that his 'story' may or may not be true, but he can only act as if it is. The story raises the question, how can we know that the stories we tell ourselves are true?

The set ups for what we learn as the story goes backwards in time are wonderfully staged.

Directed by Christopher Nolan.

Christopher Nolan also directed Following. This story also mixes up its time sequence, with scenes from the recent past, present and near future mixed together. What sets the story in motion is an unemployed writer deciding to follow people just to see where they go. He unwittingly ends up getting caught up in the murderous plans of one of the people he follows, and pays the price for trying to be clever.

This is a story that revolves around being diabolically clever, not offering engaging characters an audience is expected to emphasize with.

Posted 3/13/2001

You Can Count on Me

This film has a powerful opening. A husband and wife are talking while they drive home. An accident takes their lives. The opening ends with a teenage daughter being told her parents are both dead. The story then moves to ten years later. The young girl is now a single mother with an eight year old son and a routine, well-travelled life working at a small town bank. She then faces two situations: a new boss who wants the bank to be run like a big-city institution with big-city rules, and a younger brother who's been drifting around the country passing through town wanting money.

The brother seems to be everything the sister is not, lost, angry, unable to live by any rules. And these siblings know how to push each others' buttons. They know where the wounds are. But, they also know how to comfort each other. When the brother decides to spend some time living with his sister in the family home, his anger leads to many complications. But, it also begins to show the sister that she doesn't have to simply accept the fate life has seemed to be dealing her. She can make choices at work, about who she wants to marry, about dealing with her son's fantasy about his absent father.

By the time the brother leaves, it's become clear that the sister has actually been more lost than her brother.

This film has a depth of character not often seen in American, commercial films. Recommended.

Posted 3/13/2001

After Life

This Japanese film has a powerful story concept: when people die, they have three days to choose one memory from their life to take into the after life. They are helped to make a choice by interviewers who, it turns out, are people who couldn't decide what memory to take into their after life. This is a beautiful film that explores the nature of memory and how we find meaning in life.

I reviewed this film for ScreenTalk, the International Magazine of Screenwriting.

Posted 10/26/2000

Gods and Monsters

James Whales is the creator of Frankenstein, the director of the film, and a dying gay man. The strokes he's experiencing make him relive a past he's spent his life trying to escape: a father who loathed 'nancy boys', terrible poverty, being 'different' in a strict family, and the horrors of WWI, including being in love with a young man who ends up a body caught on the barbed wire and a topic of black humor as his body deteriorates.

Into James' life comes Boone, a young, ex-marine gardener who's drifting through life. Boone is unaware of his own life, his own stories. He's just living what's been passed along to him.

Ian McKellen, who plays James, is a master actor at the height of his powers. Lynn Redgrave plays the German housekeeper of James who loves him.

A beautiful, heart-felt film about being different.

Posted 9/9/2000

The Five Senses

This graceful, lovely art films explores how its characters perceive the world through their different senses. It deepens to explore how their memories and feelings are shaped by their perceptions. A beautifully acted, directed, and staged film. It has a number of characters and slowly shows how their lives interconnect.

The story's plot revolves around the possible kidnapping of a little girl.

Croupier

This quiet, thoughtful film has a title character who tries to live a simple life while he writes a novel for a corporate publisher. Finding his imagination blocked, he takes a phone call from a wastrel father and gets a job as a croupier in a gambling casino. Watching others gamble what many can't afford to lose, he finds himself inspired to write, only to belatedly realize he's become caught up in a game of chance he can't win.

The structure of this story demonstrates how what appear to be inconsequential events can have an entirely different meaning.

Posted 7/7/2000

Winter Keeping

This thoughtful German film has a beautiful twist. A character who appears to be completely amoral and dark turns out to be moral. A character who appears to be moral turns out to be completely dark inside. A quiet story about chance, fate and unintended consequences.

Post 6/14/2000

Smoke Signals

This came out a year ago, but I just broke the film down for a class. It's a wonderful example of how a story can take an audience deeply into a new world. Here, into the lives of two young Indian boys on a reservation in Idaho. This is storytelling at its finest. There's a potent story here about how we forgive (or not) our fathers.

The leads here, Thomas and Victor, are not typical Hollywood style actors, or Hollywood-style Indians. Recommended for home viewing.

Posted 4/28/2000

Frequency

This movie has a wonderful setup. A boy's father dies, and something in him never quite gets over his loss. As an adult, he drinks too much and can't maintain a relationship. His feeling of loss is palpable. Then something magical happens. He's able to contact his father via an old ham radio. And warn his father about a disaster in a way that his fireman father does not die in a fire. But saving his father changes the past, and his mother is killed.

The story reaches a point where it becomes mostly concerned with plot questions revolving around saving the mother's life, but overall this is a well-told story. It clearly puts its main characters through a full range of feelings, and invites its audience along to share that journey of feelings.

Posted 3/6/2000

Pitch Black

This film is a wonderful example of the fact that it's not just a matter of money when it comes to creating a well-told film story. This story sets its characters down on a planet just about to go into a situation where all three of the planet's suns are in eclipse. And nightfall on this planet brings out deadly creatures that only hunt during this long night.

When they first crash on the planet, the characters must deal with finding water on a planet with three suns. Then, when they realize the danger of nightfall, they must find a way to get off planet or die. The environment here doesn't allow them to wait passively for rescue. It forces them to act. And as characters react to their changing situation, they reveal things about who they are, what drives them. And what drives them, drives the story forward as they try to survive an increasingly dangerous world.

This story creates a strong sub text around ideas, of the value of religious belief, around the idea of an act that leads to the deaths of others is murder in one circumstance, heroic in another.

An intelligent film in the mold of Aliens.

Posted 3/2/2000

Wonder Boys

Wonder Boys is a droll comedy about the nature of creativity. Michael Douglas plays a writer whose first book found critical acclaim and popular notice. But he's stuck on finding a way to finish his second novel. Complicating his life, his wife has just left him, his lover is pregnant, a student living at his home wants to seduce him, and his best writing student clearly is either a writing prodigy, nuts, a liar, suicidal, or all four. And then his life gets really complicated.

How he resolves these many tangled issues and finds a way to get both his personal and creative life back on track are at the heart of this story. Like many well-told stories, this story's plot takes on a kind of life of its own, with complications building on complications. And as new problems arise, we get fresh revelations about what drives the story's character.

Another nice aspect of this story, we don't know exactly how characters are going to respond to events, so the attention of the audience is drawn in and held in this world.

Recommended.

Posted 1/22/2000

End of the Affair

This is a beautifully-realized art film about the nature and power of passion, religious belief, fate, and jealousy. The story begins in a present where a man walking in the rain comes across a man he once knew, a man clearly troubled. It comes out he suspects his wife of having an affair. His friend offers to hire a private detective to find out if this is true. He goes ahead and does this without the knowledge of the husband. Then it comes out the friend DID have an affair with the wife, and he's now jealous to find out who her current lover is.

The story moves forward at first through the POV of the jealous man, then goes back and shows the affair and its abrupt ending. The story then plays out through the POV of the wife, and shows her reasoning for ending the affair.

A beautifully told story, it shows the power a storyteller can generate by exploring an incident from different perspectives. What often seems obvious is shown to have a deeper meaning when viewed from a different perspective.

Posted 10/27/99

The Limey

This is a beautifully told story that begins with a man's voice pleading, "Tell me, tell me, tell me about Jenny."

We're then introduced to a rough-hewn, ex-convict who's come to America from England to find out how his daughter died in what to him was clearly a staged accident. As he moves through this outer journey of finding out what happened to Jenny, we also move through his inner journey of understanding his life with his daughter and what she meant to him.

In the beginning of this journey, people clearly underestimate how driven this man is. Yet, even when they know full well how relentless he is, he still bends everything in the story to his relentless will except for what comes out at the climax of the story. One of the most emotionally satisfying, fulfilling stories I've seen this year.

This is a film that requires the active participation of the audience. Scenes are edited in a way that dialogue from one moment is transposed over a visual image from another moment. It's a technique that generates considerable dramatic power in what might be a more ordinary scene. It fully acts out how a story is never linear, that the storyteller chooses the moments that best tell a story. Chooses how to present those moments. Here, that process is fully on view to wonderful effect.

This is not a simple, straight-forward story. It's a fusion of a sensibility seen in art films and gangster films. A joy to watch, dialogue that is a marvel of potent understatement. This story gets right to the point. "Tell me, tell me, tell me about Jenny," a man pleads, for an answer he could not expect.

posted 10/22/99

Three Kings

Three Kings is a smartly told story with a good story foundation, about amoral characters finding themselves slowly drawn into a situation where they discover a sense of morality and act on it. I enjoyed very much how each character in Kings came to a new understanding of themselves and a sense of morality at different points in the story. Each character clearly had their own path shaped by an inner sense of who they were, and by how events affected them and they respond to events, we see their inner journeys.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the film was the visual intelligence; this story is filmed in ways that heighten its impact. I strive to get people to stop writing a screenplay as if they're just a kind of camera passively recording information. To think about what can make a story visually interesting, without stepping over the line into trying to direct a film, or filling script pages by offering instructions to everyone else involved in place of telling a potent story.

A story predictable to its characters is generally predictable to its audience.

A few things in the film irritated me, but overall, I enjoyed watching this film very much, and recommend it.

The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense offers a clear view into how a storyteller sets a story in motion. The movie opens with a man telling his wife that she will no longer be second in his life, but first. So the story opens with questions. Will he be able to fulfill this promise? What brought this relationship to this point? Can this relationship be saved?

By opening with this question, the audience is allowed to feel this moment and the questions it raises; in this way the story begins in an active voice.

With the appearance of a young man with a gun, the story offers a more urgent question. Who will live through this scene? The ramifications of this question play out through the rest of the movie.

Sixth Sense is a wonderful example of how a storyteller sets a story in motion in a way that draws in an audience to care about both the moments of its journey, and the story's final destination.

Stir of Echoes

I saw Stir of Echoes after reading a review that felt the story had some fine points, but wouldn't find an audience in part because of coming out after The Sixth Sense. I felt the reviewer missed the point of why Echoes wouldn't find a larger audience. Sense opens by setting out Willis's need to re-engage, to find again the depths of love in his relationship with his wife. This human need plays through the story, is woven through its plot. It's the emotional core of the story, along with his desire to help a frightened little boy.

Echoes introduces its issue of human need, Kevin Bacon's character feeling that his life is collapsing into being ordinary, and that this is killing his relationship with his wife. But the issue isn't developed clearly, and doesn't fully reappear until plot point two, when he talks about not stopping what he's doing because he doesn't want to be ordinary again.

This muting of the story's core emotional issue left a hole in the film the plot could not carry, since it was clear where the plot was going.

Too bad. Bacon is great at playing this kind of character, and there are many fine elements in the story, the plot, the characters, the strong evocation of a time and place. A film worth seeing. What happened in Echoes is a common mistake I see in screenplays. That issue which should pull on the audience is left mute while plot details and character details are developed. It creates characters and plots that ultimately have a weak or muted effect.

These films, Echoes and Sense, offer a great contrast between how to build a story to a moment of transcendence that is quite potent and moving, and how that experience can slip away if a story's mechanics and elements aren't in sync.

American Pie

When a movie like this finds an audience, I like to check it out to see why. This is a teen comedy about sex, but it does a good thing. It respects its story -- about some high school seniors finding out some things about who they are, and who their friends are -- and it respects its plot and characters. Nothing too special, but every situation and issue is set up cleanly and played through with a minimum of fuss. Since there are no *stars*, every character is given something to deal with.

Some crude humor here, but like Something About Mary, we're asked to care about these characters. Scenes that have been done in other movies are played here with energy and feeling. It gives the movie a fresh quality.

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