Everyone Has Reversals

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

September 29, 2007

The Way You Make Me Feel

Every once in a while, I'll see a movie that makes me reexamine how I see movies. I think these are invaluable, because it's so easy to feel you've seen it all and can't be surprised.

The most recent movie that forced me to get over my assumptions and actually pay attention, is the Irish film Once. The music in the film is phenomenal, but what I'm most interested in is how the movie both is, and isn't, a romantic comedy... and how it refuses to play by the rules of rom-com convention. Here are a couple of examples:
  • In the film, the guy's still pining over a girl who left him. In a conventional rom-com, the guy's supposed to get over that absent girl, and start anew with the gal who enters his life in the first act of the movie. Instead, Once lets him pine for the absent girl -- going so far as to have him writing a song while watching old home videos of her -- and then allows for the idea that perhaps he and absent girl still have a chance!

  • Similarly, the gal in this film has an absent husband in another country. She, her mom, and her little girl moved to Ireland for a fresh start. Our first instinct, as viewers of many rom-coms, is that the dad is a deadbeat, or was at least a romantic mistake, and the gal is supposed to start anew with our heartbroken guy. Instead, the gal, after the experience of making music and becoming close to our musician guy, decides maybe the right thing to do is invite her kid's dad here to live with them, and give being a family another chance.
Now, in neither this example or the one above were we given strong evidence that our heroes should move on, and leave these past loves behind... it is simply our assumption that that is the case, because of how these movies "usually work".

And, of course, there's the ending. Which is perfect, surprising, and sublime, and because I've already spoiled too much, I won't spoil that. But suffice it to say, sometimes it is most satisfying to not get what you, as a viewer, think you want.

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September 16, 2007

How to Be True

I thoroughly enjoyed re-watching True Romance last night; it remains a sentimental favourite. Now, I'm not so much about Elvis in the bathroom, or the Sicily history lesson, or the kung fu. Most of that stuff typed by anybody but Tarantino just sounds like it's trying too hard.

No, I'm more about plain old storytelling. Here are some True Romance lessons that endure:

1. The characters have colour. I'm not just talking about Clarence and Alabama. I'm talking about guys like Floyd (the stoner played by Brad Pitt). This is a character who has nothing to do except inadvertently lead the bad guys -- twice -- to the good guys. Why does he do it? Because he's so far out of his head that he just wants to be nice and show how helpful he can be. Anybody want a hit from his honey-bottle bong?

2. Speaking of leading the bad guys to the good guys... the structure of this story is predicated on a big coincidence in the inciting incident: Clarence leaves his driver's license in Drexl's (the dead pimp's) hand. Without this "oops", there is no way the gangsters would've figured out who stole the coke, and where he might be. But you know, you buy it... Clarence just shot up the place and killed some dudes and he's just a guy who works at a comic book shop, and he's a bit... stressed, the moment he's actually running out of the place. A good reminder of how you can still make a must-have plot point credible.

3. There's a ton of characters. But we don't meet anybody until we need to. Thank God we don't spend an hour checking in on cops Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore before they come into play, eh?

4. The scene where the gangster (James Gandolfini, who has not been at all typecast in his career) beats the crap out of our heroine Alabama. This scene is so brutal it's hard to watch, but I have to give the filmmakers credit: this scene, unlike how it might be played in another movie, never turns sexual. There's no threat of rape. How refreshing! And why does this beating never go there? I'd guess it's because the gangster is a professional. He's here to do a job. Not all gangsters are psychos, and not all scenes of violence against women must be sexual violence. (Yeah, I said it, Andrea Dworkin! Eat it!)

5. And then, of course, there's the romance: "Baby... you have blood in your eye." Awww.

And those are some of the reasons I still love True Romance. Feel free to share yours.

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September 09, 2007

I'm Cold, and There Are Wolves After Me

In disaster movies, we expect our heroes to face all manner of obstacles. If it's a sinking ship, you're gonna have flooding, freezing, dangerous debris. If it's a burning building, you're gonna see flames, smoke, falling structures. Either might explore obstacles in the form of human weakness or selfishness. But for the most part, we want the obstacles -- all of them -- to be the direct result of the initial disaster.

Which is why the wolf sequence in The Day After Tomorrow feels so lame. Here we've got climate going haywire, killing millions, burying major cities... but we're going to watch a couple of kids getting chased by CG wolves on a boat.

The wolves feel tacked-on and strain credibility. They're bordering on Kim Bauer's foot getting caught in the cougar trap. Just what are the odds?

Imagine there was a sequence in Inconvenient Truth about how maybe we'll all also be in danger of hungry, roaming wolves when the climate shit goes down. (There isn't, is there?)

I know it was tough, Day After Tomorrow -- how can you continue to up the stakes when your disaster, your antagonist, is basically winter? I wish you'd turned your attention inward, to human conflict in that library, instead of throwing wolves at the problem.

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September 03, 2007

Our Own Worst Enemy

Ahh, bless cross-country plane rides. I love catching up on recent releases I might not otherwise see.

One such movie? The Last Mimzy.
It's a bit of a slow burn, but I have to give the film credit for its refusal to pander. This is pretty sophisticated for family fare, and I found the ending really satisfying.

What interested me most, though, was the reminder that not all films need to have a villian. In this case, the "alien" life form of Mimzy is benign... though misunderstood. As the news of Mimzy's powers spreads, so does the fear, eventually leading to Mimzy and the whole family being quarantined by -- you guessed it -- the FBI. Does this sound familiar at all?

There's a certain kind of family story in which the antagonism comes from us -- human beings, going about our jobs. You might even go so far as to say the human beings in these stories -- the FBI, CIA, whatever -- represent the adults of the world, who are simply not able to see the truth -- fantastical thought it might be -- through our fear of the unknown.

Personally, I kind of like that these stories call me out on my grown-up fears. And I really like the absence of a "bad guy". How refreshing!

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