Everyone Has Reversals

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

March 24, 2007

Make an Enemy a Friend

Sometimes a story needs a temporary antagonist until the real antagonist has had time to get close to the hero.

Take Zoolander. Mugatu is somewhat removed from Zoolander for the first while. So to fill the space with tension until Mugatu can come into play, Zoolander's most-hated is his model-rival Hansel. Without this antagonism in the first act, there wouldn't have been much going on. As is, we get the excitement of the walk-off while Mugatu plots. And the beauty of a Hansel is, you can turn him into an ally on a dime.

Besides, Zoolander without Hansel is like a funeral without a good eugoogaly.


March 18, 2007

You Gotta Go Home With Somebody

I've been trying to decide whether or not I really wanted to post about The Departed... or whether I should just hold onto my bile so I can move on with my life. Guess what I've decided?

That's right! I've decided to slag this year's Best Picture publicly. (S'okay-- I've had lots of practice from last year.)

The Departed ultimately doesn't work. It's a crime thriller founded on double-crosses and infiltration from both the "bad" side and the "good" side. Why is a double-cross thrilling? Because there's something at stake: we care about the human beings on one side or the other -- occasionally both -- and are subsequently worried/shocked/horrified/ excited when it becomes clear their goals, and their lives, are in danger. The way we grow close to these human beings? By going home with them. Truly being with them. Seeing what they want for their life, what they believe, and why they're willing to risk so much.

Let's look at what we have in terms of major characters in The Departed:

  1. Sullivan (Matt) - Pretty much a sneaky, conniving sonofabitch. Who occasionally plays at being "good boyfriend", but never convincingly. He's just too hollow a person. He was raised to look out for #1 and that's what he does. We're sometimes "at home" with him -- but we're never really on the inside.
  2. Costigan (Leo) - An apparent protagonist. The good guy working to take down Costello, who sacrifices much to be able to do so. Except... who is this guy, again? What exactly is he sacrificing? I understand he "wants his identity back", but... sorry, buddy, your identity was missing long before you went undercover! This is a guy we literally do not "go home with" (I don't think we even see where he lives...). Why on earth would we be invested in him? We don't even know him well enough to know how his character is changed by the events of this story.
  3. Costello (Jack) - Total jerkhead whose "rat-face" I can't get out of my head. This is a man who played both mentor and villain to both Sullivan and Costigan, but I still feel nothing for him one way or the other. I don't care about him or his coke-dusted prostitutes. He's not even quite interesting enough to hold my attention (his hateful opening monologue in the past was a good start, but the character kind of empties out after that).
  4. Madolyn the Shrink - I think maybe we're meant to care about this character because she's a pretty lady who means well. And because she seems to see something in Sullivan and Costigan that we don't. The key being: we don't. Unfortunately, she just looks like the worst reader of human beings ever.
  5. Oscar-Nominated Mark Wahlberg - Who yells "fuck" very loudly in his excellent Bostonian accent and wig reclaimed from Boogie Nights. Um-- is he a character?
So I think that's what we're left with: a bunch of twists and turns based on not a single character we really know.

You gotta go home with somebody.

Let's all go home with the characters in L.A. Confidential and Heat again, shall we?

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March 11, 2007

How to Kill a Dog

Can't wait to see who stumbles across this blog searching for that cheerful phrase! Welcome, Dexters of the future!

Ahem. To business.

There's a scene in War of the Roses in which wife Barbara has just served husband Oliver some pate. Oliver's looking for common ground, while Barbara just wants to convince him how far she'll go to get him out of "her" house. She drops the hint the pate is made from Oliver's beloved dog Bennie. Oliver's horrified, and immediately begins violently barricading them both in the house to settle this once and for all.

Cut to: Bennie in the front yard, giving a little whimper.

I would love to know if this scene -- the "It's okay, folks, we wouldn't really kill the dog" beat -- was always in the script, or if it was a late-game change. (If someone knows, please be in touch.) Because it really could have gone either way... either Barbara has truly snapped after Oliver accidentally ran over her cat and pissed on her fish. Or Barbara just really wants to convince Oliver there's no chance at reunion. Regardless, the message seems to be that in movies you can kill human beings any way you like, but don't you dare kill the dog.


Killing the Dog Method #1: A Fish Called Wanda. You may recall the stuttering, but animal-loving Ken being given the task of killing an old lady, and accidentally killing each of her three terriers instead (perhaps most memorably, squished dog by falling safe). Why is this funny and not boycott-worthy? Well, the character killing them desperately wants to kill the old lady, and is devastated with each dog's death. And the comic reversal (Oh no, I killed the dog instead of the person!) takes the sting out of the deaths. Plus the deaths are cartoony to watch. (They were originally shot gorily with butcher's entrails as dead-dog-bits, but audiences said "Gasp!" and the changes were made.)

Killing the Dog Method #2: The Hills Have Eyes (2006). Family on vacation trapped in desert has two dogs with them, Beauty and Beast. Very early on, poor Beauty wanders into the hills and is later found gutted. (Someone found a use for butcher's entrails after all...) It's gross, for sure... but in my memory we don't see the dog actually being killed. Once again, it's okay to show pretty much anything happening to the human beings, but-- the dog is killed off-screen. We're allowed a bit of distance from the event itself. Also, there are two dogs: one as initial victim, the second to avenge that dog's death and repeatedly come to the aid of the humans. The dog has its day in the end.

Killing the Dog Method #3: The Royal Tenenbaums. The day of the wedding, a drugged-up Eli Cash skids up to the house, narrowly missing Ari and Uzi Tenenbaum. Looking down, they realize their beagle Buckley is under the car. This is particularly upsetting given Buckley survived the same plane crash that killed the boys' mother the year before; they all survived the plane crash, but Buckley doesn't survive standing on a sidewalk? This dog death works because it precipitates one of the biggest reversals in the film. Chas, furious Eli almost killed his kids, chases Eli through the house, ready to tear him apart. But when the chase is over, Chas is a changed man. Having his kids come that close to death -- and then getting the rage out of his system -- seems to allow him to "reset". Maybe the other shoe has dropped. Regardless, Chas will no longer be oppressively paranoid about his sons' safety. Thanks to the sacrifice of Buckley.

Phew! That was a lot of dog-killing for one day. I didn't even make it to Eight Below!

You may be wondering if the lesson here is "Jennica should not be allowed two cups of coffee on Sunday mornings". I think it's "writers who wish to kill dogs and other beloved animals on screen, beware".


March 04, 2007

Too Many Setpieces

Want to know what my favourite scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest* is? It's the scene on Davy Jones's boat when Will (Orlando Bloom) wagers his own lifetime of servitude for that of his enslaved father's.

Want to know why?

Because it's one of the
only actual scenes in the entire movie. The vast majority of the 150 minutes is spent on prolonged duels, net-trap escapes, jungle chases, Kraken attacks, etc. And I won't deny it: much of the action is good old-fashioned inventive fun. In particular, the 3-man chase on the watermill was a winner.

But when action scenes really work, it's for a reason: they're a payoff. First you establish conflict, stakes, and what's at stake personally for the characters... then we're left anticipating a payoff of action.

Every scene can't feel like a payoff, or there's nothing left to anticipate. When it's all action, there's no weight on that action.

And the story (our characters, and why they're doing what they're doing) starts to feel emptier than Davy Jones's chest.

*Yes, I quietly acknowledge that Ted & Terry are Gods among screenwriters. But it is what it is!

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