Everyone Has Reversals

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

February 24, 2007

More on the "They Wouldn't..." Factor

As Oscar years go, it's hard to get excited.

One of the Best Picture noms is Babel. An almost aggressively adequate movie. It doesn't have the urgency or unity of a Syriana, the reversals of a Traffic, or the divisive quality of a Crash. But it remains very watchable. And one of the reasons is its use of the "They Wouldn't..." factor.

Movies are agreements. Generally, we understand what we have agreed to going in. When we go to a comedy, we know that no one will really get hurt. In horrors, lots of people will get hurt-- but not the hero. When we see a drama, we know characters are going to experience discomfort and even pain, but that may be what's needed for that character to be transformed and emerge in a better place.

Basically, we agree that it'll be fair.

But sometimes a movie refuses to play fair. We don't know exactly what we've agreed to going in. The movie doesn't promise to, say, protect innocents and children. Such is the case with all of the above ensemble dramas as well as Babel.

Babel makes good use of "They Wouldn't...". In particular, it encourages its audience to think: "They wouldn't really let those kids die of thirst in the middle of nowhere, would they?" and "They wouldn't really let that damaged Japanese girl have sex with that cop, would they?" among other worries.

But anything seems possible. We're set up from the get-go that it's a world where things just aren't fair. It's not fair that the tourist got shot. It's not fair that the kid who shot her (by accident; he's a kid) is going to pay and pay. It's not fair that the housekeeper is put in the position of looking after her charges or attending her son's wedding. It's not fair that it's so hard for the deaf girl to make human connections. None of it is fair, so you just don't know how far the movie will go.

Keep it in mind. Sometimes it's nice to feel like truly anything could happen.


February 18, 2007

A Kinder, Gentler Satire

I will tell you: I was really excited about Thank You For Smoking. A story about a charming smoking lobbyist without a conscience? What a brilliant world and character to explore and -- I'd hoped -- show me some difficult truths about our society while making me giggle in discomfort.

Well, those of you who've seen it know: it ain't no Network. Or Wag the Dog, or Bob Roberts, or Dr. Strangelove. I'm not actually sure this movie has seen those movies.

The big question is: what do you ask of your satire? For me, I want satire to fulfill some, if not all, of the following:

1) Make me laugh while cringing.

2) Explore some aspect/institution in our society and show me that it's much more corrupt than I could have imagined (or at least, it has the potential to be...).

3) Related to 2): Disturb/frighten me. Make me say to myself "they wouldn't...".

4) Tell a story with the regular stuff: characters, tension, consequences.

5) Explore characters that have the chance at redemption/change (whether or not they succeed).

Thank You For Smoking
provided a few laughs, but once you've seen the lobbyists for tobacco, alcohol, and guns get together to compare death-stats, you've got to up the ante. The movie doesn't know how. (See, should've watched those other satires!) What's left is a very soft story about whether or not the tobacco lobbyist is going to lose his job. No kidding, that's what's at stake.

To which I ask: why do I frakkin' care?

The thing most absent from this film is the "they wouldn't..." factor. Here, there's no building to a "surely they wouldn't really allow the bomb to drop" or "surely they won't really kill Howard Beale on live TV".

This character -- slick as he is -- just isn't bad enough to be interesting. Now imagine the HBO, F/X or Showtime television series based on this same character and world. Then you realize how truly gentle Smoking is. And how big the gap between audacity on TV and audacity in film has become.

Instead, we're getting the
NBC version. Oh well, win some, lose some.

Labels: , ,

February 07, 2007

Characters Should Act Human

Assuming they're, you know, human.

Another lesson from Jurassic Park Numero Trois: the minute humans don't act the way human beings should, you lose your cred. Case in point? The moment William H. Macy and Tea Leoni first encounter real-life dinosaurs, they do not catch their breath. They do not scream, or back away in awe. They do not say "Holy Mary, Mother of God." Instead, they ignore the dinosaurs and focus on calling out for their missing son.

I understand: their son is missing. That's awful. Unfathomable. But I do not believe that any human being could be so focused that they wouldn't have that "holy shit" moment.

, people! Let's not forget that that's still a wild thing for human beings to see, even if they are three movies into the franchise.

Sheesh, the Marines in Aliens were less blas


February 04, 2007


A little while ago, I caught Jurassic Park III (imagine that claw-slashed typeface there) for the second time. In the theatre, I remember being disappointed-- but it's still a pretty good time. Especially if you have a thing for Sam Neill's "you people are fools" face. And I do.

This time around, a couple of really obvious not-good story points stuck out at me. The first is the annoying case of the character-arc-that-isn't. In this case, I'm talking about the divorced couple working together to find their son, who end up getting back together in the end.

This is the perfect recipe for a strong arc for these two. The couple hate each other, have moved on, don't even understand the other person anymore... but because of their shared love of their only child, they put their petty grievances aside and work together. Through this mutually agreed-upon peace, and through the many dangers they face while on the island, they see each other anew and let the positive memories back in. They realize they still love each other-- or, even better, they fall in love all over again.

Except, you know, none of that happens. Not a bit of it. They work together on the island without a single real moment of tension between them. There's no conflict, no old bitterness... in fact, they seem to quite like each other from the get-go. It's weird-- based on the reunion in the end, the film seems to believe these characters have really changed, and that the reunion is a surprise!

But when they do get together in the end? That silence you heard in the theatre? That was the sound of no one caring.

That's what happens when it all seems too easy.

Labels: ,