Everyone Has Reversals

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

March 31, 2006

That Extraordinary World Felt So... Ordinary

There are a few things worth praising in The Corpse Bride. Like making both women good choices for the hero: interesting. There are also many things worth questioning in the film: the songs were boring. The hero makes a couple of big decisions out of nowhere. The movie's weirdly humourless (especially for Burton). And the whole thing feels like an underdeveloped and less interesting rehash The Nightmare Before Christmas (right down to the ghosty dog).

But maybe my biggest complaint is that The Corpse Bride's "extraordinary world" --the land of the dead, and the corpse bride's home-- is so blah.

It's a poorly defined "new world" in that we never understand how its rules work.
How does the whole death thing work in this world? What does it take to enter or exit this land? Are these people corporeal? Both prancing around the land of the dead, while also resting in their graves? What is the movie bringing to the idea of the afterlife that is new, or at least magical or interesting?

It's also a world that is populated by a whole lot of non-characters-- some of whom are skeletons, others just blue in the face. Not a single one of these dead characters has a distinct personality or is interesting in any way. The most fully fleshed-out characters in the land of the dead are a black widow spider and a maggot (neither of whom, presumably, is dead).

Why is all this a problem? Why do I ask so much from the land of the dead? Because a) the movie wasted a potentially fascinating/magical environment, and b) if I've seen much more interesting and unique afterlives in other films --Defending Your Life, What Dreams May Come, Burton's own Beetlejuice-- then as a viewer I can't help but compare them and Bride will inevitably come up short.

So, the lessons: no wasting stuff. And have a sense of what people come in with-- will they expect a new take on an old concept/environment and be disappointed if they don't get it?

All you folks working on angel/devil/vampire specs, I'm talking to you.

March 20, 2006

Setting the Table Doesn't Have To Be a Chore

There are lots of story lessons in Brokeback Mountain-- many good, and a few not so good. But maybe the best, simplest lesson comes in the form of its opening:

Ennis walks up to the trailer. Leans against the wall to smoke. Tries not to have a whole lot of interaction with anyone or any thing. Keeps to himself. Hangs out to the side of the frame. Just... waits.

Jack rumbles up in a falling-apart truck. Curses. Smiles. Is comfortable in the centre of the frame. Shaves in his truck's rearview mirror, all while stealing curious looks at the guy leaning against the wall.

In a few quiet minutes, we meet our two heroes and understand everything we need to know about these men: what their strengths are, where their comforts lie, and what weaknesses will be their individual downfalls. We also get a sense of the time and the world (the dust, the trailer, the truck) and a sense of the kind of tension this movie will explore: that thick kind, that hangs largely in the silences as Ennis and Jack are together, yet apart.

All this, with no dialogue.

Oh my. Oh, may I one day write an opening so fine.

March 12, 2006

It's Too Simple, Actually


Everyone Has Reversals, But So What?

All right. Call me a naysayer.

Love, Actually
is a big ol' cheat of a movie.

Good stories get complicated-- either through events and actions and shifting circumstances, or they get emotionally complicated.

Here, all we get is reveals and reversals. What are reveals and reversals if we don't see the characters struggling toward them? Instead of investing in characters, and watching them go through the tough stuff, in this movie we simply swap out to a different story (there being so many stories to follow). Instead of the tension of "Will this person do what they need to do?" the characters are simply presented with a problem, and then they either solve it or they don't.

The example I'll pull is the Colin Firth story. A classic problem (love with a language/class barrier) and a classic rom-com finale: the serenade. Well, pardon me for wondering who this character is, and who his love interest is, and why we think they should be together, other than the fact that the movie's telling me so.

Love, Actually
is a movie built around its romantic (and occasionally tragic) money shots. Where do we traditionally see money shots?

Right: porn.

This is porn for romantics.

Romantic comedies these days often, sadly, feel cynical. But I don't think it gets much more cynical than throwing a series of unearned rom-com payoffs together and calling it a movie.

If you want to write porn, well, I can't stop you.

But imagine, just imagine for a moment, that the film followed half the number of characters, and we actually got to spend some time with those people. To care about them, beyond their archetypes. To think of them as something beyond "the woman played by Emma Thompson". Imagine how lovely and lasting the film could have been.

I love Richard Curtis. He's contributed more to the romantic comedy genre in the last two decades than any of his peers. But this was below him.

It's possible I'm saying this just to lure any lurkers out there into posting comments in anger.

But no, actually.

March 05, 2006

Awesome Microcosms

A lot of popular movies have an extraordinarily (sometimes annoyingly) quotable line of dialogue. Great lines can take off as quotes or catchphrases for any number of reasons-- the line's funny, it's insightful, it's delivered by an actor audiences adore, or maybe it's coining a phrase ("Oh, that's so money!).

But it's incredible how often the most quotable lines in movies relate directly to what the story's about. Consider these examples:

"I wish I knew how to quit you!"

"You're gonna need a bigger boat."

"Get away from her, you bitch!"

"The horror... the horror..."

"Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna get."

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room. " (Not actually in the shooting script for Dr. Strangelove, FYI. Was adlibbed, as some of the funniest lines were.)

"Show me the money!"

It's clear how these simple, memorable lines tap into the heart of the conflict in the entire movie. (If you're wondering about "Show me the money!" I would argue Jerry's so focused on becoming a successful agent - on showing, and seeing, the money - that he completely misses the fact that he's fallen in love with his wife... until he has her at 'Hello'.

Maybe great lines aren't just great lines that can be attributed to luck, or great casting. Maybe they are such good crystallizations of the story that we can't help but be satisfied when we hear them, and can't help repeating them afterwards. There's power in the line that carries the weight of the entire story.

Do your scripts have that one, great line that encapsulates the entire conflict, story, theme?

Mine neither. But it's something to shoot for.