Everyone Has Reversals

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

December 26, 2005

One Way to Move the Modern Audience

Almost every scene in The Return of the King is about the same things: courage and hope in impossible circumstances. Here, courage isn't about standing up to fight and hoping to win. It's standing up to fight completely expecting to lose. Whether it's Sam finally acknowledging they don't need to save rations for the trip back from Mount Doom, or little Merry and Pippin each becoming part of the battle, or King Theoden coming to help defend Gondor, or his niece Eowyn fighting the Witch-king... the film is littered with people willing --again, expecting-- to sacrifice their lives for the sake of a world worth living in.

Same thing in almost every scene. And you know, it's powerful every single time it happens.

Courage isn't about being strong; it's about being strong when logic says run. Or shut your mouth. Or let sleeping Orcs lie.

This kind of courage is largely missing from movies in other genres. What about, say, a romantic comedy in which one or both leads have to be truly brave, even as they're certain they have no shot at the love they desire?

The lesson: we, as writers, need to be a whole lot braver!

December 18, 2005

Stakes, Well Done and Rare

Yeah, you know you love puns.

The Bourne Identity
and The Bourne Supremacy are fine action films. They're lean, clean, and intense. But Identity has something going for it that Supremacy doesn't: real stakes.

In Identity, Matt Damon seems like a decent guy we more or less don't want assassinated by his own government. Fine. Life-or-death stakes for one poor, forgetful trained assassin. But when he hooks up with Franka Potente, the stakes are solidified. This cool, interesting, yet ordinary woman's life is now on the line too. And let's be clear: Franka is not a trained assassin. She certainly doesn't deserve to be shot at. And the film doesn't even give us a chance to feel that this maybe-couple's relationship is going to be in danger... we'll be happy if they make it out alive. Never has the resolution of a platonic-looking hug seemed so satisfying. (At least, I don't think... feel free to remind me if I'm forgetting great hugs in the history of film.)

And then, the franchise paints itself into a corner. Early in Supremacy, Franka's no longer, er, in danger. It's just Matt on the run again. All we've got is the life of this former assassin to worry about. Along with, I guess, his guilt and desire to become a real human being again. The problem is, every time Matt's on the run and dodging bullets for the sake of memory and redemption, he's putting the lives of innocent bystanders in danger. Because the Bourne character is such a blank canvas, it's hard to get emotionally attached to him. I don't exactly want him to die, and I do want some redemption for him... but in Supremacy, I don't think I can condone the death of even a single bystander for the sake of this particular guy. It just doesn't seem... right.

Won't somebody think of the children, etc.

December 10, 2005

In the beginning...

There are a lot of don't-try-this-at-home lessons in A Home at the End of the World. The film doesn't quite hang together. Its spine is limp. It's got no momentum. It's sometimes really, really precious.

But this film does something superbly: it gives us a back story sequence right up front that's so powerful, it creates a sense of interest and sympathy in the protagonist... a protagonist who, for the majority of the film, is a walking, talking cypher.

In this back story sequence, the protagonist as a little boy is hovering on the fringes of his older brother's house party. The older brother is a free spirit-- stoned, loving, peaceful, friendly. At one point, this older brother is called inside from the back yard. Without thinking, he runs toward the party in the living room... right through the glass sliding doors. He dies a few moments later in the arms of his girlfriend. Everyone at the party is as stunned as we are.

And when we get a grip on our emotions, we say to ourselves-- that kid brother's going to be messed-up bigtime. And guess what? He spends the rest of the film looking for the "home" of the title.

If you're going to rely heavily on explaining a character with a back story scene... it'd better be a damn fine scene.

December 04, 2005

Pick a Genre, Any Genre

While it's in many ways an effective film, the "reveal" in A History of Violence is problematic. Is Viggo a former assassin, or is this a case of mistaken identity?

Half a movie passes while we're waiting for the answer to that question. And while we wait, and excellent dramatic scenes play out in front of our eyes... we're waiting for our answer. We're thinking instead of feeling. Is he, or isn't he?

The answer to this question determines the film's genre. If he's a former assassin and his old gang's here to track him down, then the movie's a thriller. If it's a case of mistaken identity, the movie's a drama. We wait through half a movie to find out what the answer to the question is, and therefore, how we're supposed to enjoy this movie. If the reveal had been earlier, we'd have been allowed to settle in and enjoy the film.

Trust the dramatic potential of your situation... secrets are for wusses.