Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

September 28, 2005

I know you've got lots going on in that purty little head of yours but will you please please please for the love of God shut your wordhole?

For those (and I'm sometimes one of those) who resist the blanket "don't use voice over" tenet, may I recommend the educational experience that is Little Black Book?

This is a film from which a lot of lessons can be learned, but the most glaring misstep has got to be the use of voice over. It doesn't just not add anything, it actively detracts from the storytelling. A few reasons why:

  • The voice over may have been included in order to soften the blow of our hero invading her boyfriend's privacy (she takes a tour through his PDA, the metaphorical black book). As she's about to go hunting, her voice over reminds us that she's feeling a little guilty about doing so. This is completely unnecessary-- one of the things romantic comedies offer is wish fulfillment, good and bad. Sure, it's wrong for the character to do what she's doing... but many of us have wished we could cross that line. She gets to. Does she have to dampen the spirit of naughtiness? Characters in rom-coms have done far, far worse, without apologizing. At least, not 'til the very end.
  • The voice over isn't funny. It doesn't contribute a single laugh to the film.
  • The v.o. follows the hack path of telling us exactly what the movie's showing us anyway. The effect of hearing what you're also seeing is that all tension goes out of the story. It's as if sight and sound negate each other. You see it, you hear it, you stop caring.
  • Perhaps worst of all, the constant nattering in our ears doesn't actually give us any insight into the character. For example, in the (far too long, pointless) my-life-'til-now opening, we see Brittany dumping her college boyfriend. The voice over seems to be explaining why: some gobbledygook about him holding her back from her dreams. How would he hold her back? Oh, she doesn't really explain that part. Whatever it is that is the character's "problem" in this scene, and in the film (e.g. the reason she's going to do this dumb thing and risk her relationship) remains a mystery, v.o. or no.
  • There is so very much voice over. Just when you hope maybe Brittany's done "explaining", she goes on.
This film is a brilliant reminder that sometimes we feel closer to the character that doesn't protest too much. Let them do their thing and then face the consequences. Less talk, more rock.

September 22, 2005

When you kinda hate the hero...

...and you kinda like the movie. Case in point: Bad Santa. Wow, Billy Bob can't get much grosser. And yet, you leave the movie feeling pretty darn fuzzy. And I watched it on a hot August afternoon, so it's not just tapping into Christmas hoo-ha. What gives?

The answer is painfully simple, but I think it's a lesson worth articulating. (If this is obvious to you, remember that sometimes we need to be reminded of even the obvious things.) I liked Bad Santa because of the little kid. The kid is... well, just about the sweetest kid I've ever seen on screen. This kid makes Haley Joel Osment look like Christopher Walken. Or something.

But it's not simply that the kid is sweet, and that we care about him. The really important thing is that the kid is innocent. The kid is the only thing that makes the world of this movie tolerable, because the kid's existence suggests innocence and goodness are still possible in this world. Which means, it's possible our hero's heart might grow three sizes one day.

The lesson? The hero can be anything you want, if the characters around him are well chosen. For a current example, see Lord of War.

September 19, 2005

Halfway There, with Dragons

The post-dragon-apocalypse movie Reign of Fire was so much fun. It goes to places that better movies --say, 28 Days Later-- don't: it actually gives us post-apocalypse. Not only are these folks still fighting the durn dragons, but they've been doing it for twenty years, and trying to set up a civilization in the meantime.

Structurally, what I like most about Reign is its midpoint. One way of thinking about the midpoint is as a moment in which success is within reach, only to be yanked away. It's a moment of hope, to be followed by failure and despair. At this midpoint, the cavalry is here, and it seems like they're going to take care of the dragons once and for all. But the mission goes awry and people die and equipment is lost and more dragons are coming.

The midpoint:
  • Is exciting and surprising
  • Raises the stakes - the situation is now more dire than it was in the opening
  • Provides complications for later, in the loss of equipment and men and morale
  • Unites our two groups of people - now the soldiers and the settlers have to work together
  • Gives us a taste of what the climax will be like, and a sense of how hard it's going to be to defeat these beasts
My complaint? That anticipated climax falls flat. The midpoint should never be more dramatic than the climax. Storytelling 101, guys. But maybe that lesson was lost in the flames...

September 14, 2005

Time to Get a New Plan

Recently saw Mad Max (the original) for the first time. I know I'm not here to debate technical aspects of the production, but will somebody please re-score that baby?

Ahem. I think, in brief, the story of Mad Max works. Cop kills gang leader, gang pursues cop and family, gang kills cop's family, cop gets "mad" and exacts revenge. You can see how the acts break down, and it seems pretty tight, right?

But let's look at the story a little more closely: cop kills gang member; cop's partner is injured by gang; cop decides to take a holiday with family; cop and family are spotted by gang; cop and family barely get away from gang; gang pursues; cop and family continue with their holiday; cop and family are separated; gang kills cop's wife and baby; cop gets very angry and hunts down and kills every single gang member.

For me, this train goes off the rails at "cop and family continue with their holiday". Whaaat?! Max doesn't get mad after witnessing his family barely survive their first scrape with post-apocalyptic meanies, he just figures he'll keep a closer eye on them? It's simple, really: when the story throws life-changing events at the protagonist, the protagonist must respond. He has to change tack, get going, step up to the plate, get a new plan. He has to do something different. It doesn't have to be the right thing... just reflective of his understanding that the old ways of dealing with things aren't going to cut it.

Get the hell out of that Ordinary World, wouldja, Max?

September 11, 2005

The Great Thematic Sell-Out

Alternate Title for Post: Sonny Came Home with a Vengeance

A fun popcorn flick, I, Robot was disappointing in that it managed to be completely --and unnecessarily-- devoid of a good theme.

The most obvious potential theme was probably: What is life? What does it mean to be alive? Admittedly, this is well-trod thematic territory, and I'm not sure I'd want to write a movie that'd inevitably get compared to Bladerunner, either. But we're talking about a story in which the human protagonist hates robots but has a robotic arm! How can we not go to that place? Is Will Smith less human because of his robotic arm? How much of him would have to be robotic before he'd cease to be human, or sentient, or autonomous, or alive? The movie literally never addresses the question. The movie's never in the same *room* with the question.

Secondly, the movie could have explored the hubris of humanity. Humans created robots; robots are slaves; robot-slaves are on the verge of bloody rebellion. Ergo, humans may be responsible for their own downfall at the hands of robots. Yes, this is thematic territory explored in The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica, and I wouldn't argue this is what the movie should be about just for the sake of it... but the movie itself puts us on this path (it's the creator of the robots that's murdered; the poor treatment of robots throughout; Sonny's dreams about rebellion) but doesn't allow us to truly take a walk down it.

But worst of all, I, Robot actually creates brand-new, interesting thematic territory and abandons it. What if the film had argued that robots are actually better than humans? That they are more evolved? That we need them? The "villain" of the film is VIKI, the supposedly non-sentient central nervous system of the robot world. VIKI's mission statement is to protect humans at all costs. She incites what appears to be a robot "rebellion" because she believes humans are killing themselves and need to be protected from one another. Well... she's right, isn't she? And this is interesting, isn't it? The film itself shows us multiple moments in which humans are saved by robots... the asthmatic woman... the doctor needed Sonny to get the investigation started... Sonny saving the humans in the climax...

So how does our protagonist deal with this information when he learns it in the climax? He says that VIKI "so has got to die". And then destroys her. Well, thanks Will, for making sure that no character does any actual thinking. And ensuring that this movie isn't actually about anything. I just can't figure out how to reconcile Will's "arc" (more empathy for robots) with the thoughtless, happy killing of their leader (zero empathy for VIKI).

I think it's a problem that I came out of the movie understanding the robots, but not the humans.

September 05, 2005

The Big Reveal that Isn't

Collateral takes a big risk, story-wise, in that the last target on Tom Cruise's list is a prosecutor that just happened to ride in Jamie Foxx's cab earlier in the night. That this woman would ask out a cab driver and then be hunted by his fare a few hours later is a huge coincidence... huge. The last target is--gasp!--the very woman Jamie just met and fell for!

But instead of feeling cheap, it feels inevitable. The opening allows us a lot of time with this particular gorgeous prosecutor. It even goes to pains to a) establish that she is indeed a lawyer; b) set up the trial starting the next morning; and c) ensure Jamie will know where she's going to be in the middle of the night. She then leaves the picture. Literally, she leaves the picture for the second act.

But as Tom and Jamie go through their hellish night, we're forced to think of her-- Tom's clearly killing witnesses for a big trial, and he keeps telling Jamie he should "ask the girl out". We're constantly reminded of her, and, frankly, we're starting to worry for her. The film allows us some dread. By the time the "reveal" happens, we're not surprised-- the moment merely confirms our worst fears. Yet it's still a reveal because Jamie didn't know 'til now. In the moment, we feel for Jamie, knowing the impossible situation he's up against.

Imagine the film had tried to actually play the scene as a huge shock. Cheapola. Instead, it's a dark moment for the hero that isn't about information we're receiving... it's about emotion. It keeps you in the film instead of making you mutter "dunh-dunh-dunh!" and then get up in search of Twizzlers.

A reveal isn't always better. Sometimes it's best to hide a reveal in plain sight.

September 01, 2005

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story v. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

A silly post in which we will argue that the silly movie Dodgeball is better than the silly movie Anchorman.

Concept & Structure

Okay, both concepts are really SNL sketches. And both are ridiculously paint-by-numbers structurally... the kinds of films where you feel the reversals coming, and don't believe them (see: most of Ben Stiller's work in the last decade).

But what Dodgeball has going for it that Anchorman doesn't, is actual cohesion of story. Virtually every scene in Dodgeball is directly related to the plot-- they need the money to beat the rivals, they train, they do the dodgeball tourney, the rivals are in it too... it all fits and I understand where it's going.

As opposed to Anchorman, in which it feels like every third scene was created in a vacuum (or, maybe, bandied about in a room full of non-writers) and no one bothered to figure out (or care) about how it fit into the story. Case in point: the anchorman rumble. Arguably the funniest scene in the film, and the perfect example of a scene that made no impact whatsoever story-wise. Jumping from scene to scene without a driving story is just so tiring.

The Hero

Anchorman seems to be missing one. Are we supposed to ever be on side with Ron Burgundy? Is this a new trend, in which the heroes of comedies are self-parodying? In which the whole performance feels overwrought and underfunny? The problem with this film is, we've got nobody to like or care about. I'm starting to miss Adam Sandler.

In Dodgeball, Vince Vaughn dials it in. And I don't think he actually has an arc of any kind-- there's some kind of did-he-sell-out-or-didn't-he reversal at the end, but nobody's really buying that. Come on. But you know what? It doesn't matter. He's the straight man to everyone else's shtick. And we like him. When he's on screen, you actually want to look, as opposed to the cringing and the turning away... to make Dodgeball as unlikable as Anchorman, you'd make the Ben Stiller character the hero.

Ben Stiller

In Dodgeball, he commits to playing an over-the-top villain. In Anchorman, he's Ben Stiller playing "cameo by Ben Stiller".

The Love Interest, aka Christine v. Christina

Christine Taylor perfected the only-sane-character-in-the-movie bit in Zoolander, and resurrects it here. And it works just fine. Her character works as someone who's genuinely part of the team. She likes Vince and the men. Ergo, we do too.

Christina Applegate is Veronica Corningstone, love interest and "feminist" rival for Ron Burgundy. Sounds promising-- the woman who's going to be down-to-earth and actually put the idiots through the ringer? Instead, the movie has her first falling in love with Ron (proving she's not down-to-earth at all, she's a character that could only exist in the world of this movie-- a world where feminism is pretty much a '70s-period joke) and then has her pining for him even as she loathes him. By loving him, she betrays us.

Secondary Characters, Some of Whom Believe They Are Pirates

No doubt, the supporting cast of both movies is pushing the silly factor into just plain dumb. But the Anchorman dumb is boring... characters feel so artificial, it's actually painful spending any time with them-- who's funnier, the guy who's really stupid, or the guy who wears a cowboy hat? At least in Dodgeball, if they're not always funny, they're strange and sweet. Justin earnestly wants to be a cheerleader, and he's so earnest, dammit if I don't want that for him too. And then there's Steve the Pirate... just bizarre enough to be funny a couple of times, and the film doesn't try to get more laughs out of him than that.

In Conclusion

Maybe what it all really comes down to is, in Dodgeball, we're on the underdogs' side. In Anchorman, it's impossible to take sides. Everybody just... loses.