Dec 29, 2000

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a film with some dazzling set pieces. But the story never quite jells. It begins by focusing on a master warrior who wants to give up his fighting ways so he can be with the woman he has always secretly loved. But then the story switches to a young aristocratic woman with tremendous warrior potential who is about to marry a man she doesn't love. These lines run parallel but never become one. The first story has a passive hero. The second story has a terrific hero but one without a clear goal or need.

A central feature of the film is the use of the Chinese convention of warriors being able to scale walls and defy gravity. The writers take this convention to a new level by having the fighters in effect fly over rooftops and natural settings of incredible beauty. A fight in the treetops is especially stunning.

But the real potential of this technique is largely wasted because it is not connected to character and theme. Flying is the ultimate expression of freedom. But the characters doing the flying here do so only as a technique of fighting.

Cast Away

Cast Away is one of those high-concept movies that gives you the shell of drama but not the content. This isn't a fantasy, but it might as well have been. A man who is constantly on the run gets marooned on a desert island for four years. Besides losing a lot of weight, he supposedly learns the right priorities in life, including how much he misses the girl he wanted to marry.

This film misses in so many ways. Ironically, a fantasy trigger might have helped here. This "realistic" set up is of course anything but. Nobody gets marooned on a desert island, which makes this set up seem even more contrived than the typical fantasy.

For this kind of life lesson film to work, the hero has to be someone at the beginning who is choosing to waste his life. True, this guy works for Fed-Ex and he's always on the clock. But he seems to be a very decent and caring man. And there is very little time up front for the audience to see the hero and his girlfriend together. You can't montage emotion. If you want the audience to care about a couple, you have to give them the screen time together. A few mousy grimaces by Helen Hunt won't cut it. (Why does Helen Hunt always looks like she's waiting to be hit?) Finally, this guy doesn't lose his girlfriend by his own wrong choices.

After this misguided set up, the movie enters an excruciatingly boring middle where there is no conflcit. Tom Hanks is a very engaging actor, and this movie certainly proves that a lot of people will pay to watch him hang out at the beach. But the audience shouldn't have to match this character's four year wait to experience how bored he must feel being alone on an island (known as the Boredom Fallacy).

As Hanks' character first awoke on the beach, I had vague hopes that we would get to see some variation of the Robinson Crusoe tale where a man must reinvent civilization. I was looking forward to what new twist Hanks would give to our current society. But, alas, all we get are the standard beats of a guy who has to find a way to survive on an island.

With the wrong set up, the end of the story doesn't pay off. I didn't care that Hanks old girlfriend is already married and has a child. I hardly knew her in the first place. It didn't matter that Hanks learned some great lesson in how to live life, because he wasn't that off base in the first place. Maybe he was too into his job, but the modern world is busy. Spending four years alone on a desert island doesn't make me any wiser about how to live in modern society.

Yes the man ends the film as clean slate, standing at a crossroads in the middle of an ocean of grass. And he may go back and see the attractive stranger whose package he delivered himself. Like a fantasy, this film needed to follow the three-part geometry that makes all social fantasy pay off. The hero's weakness up front, when worked through the forge of the hero's unique tasks in the fantasy world, is transformed and creates a new person. In Cast Away those three parts have virtually nothing to do with each other.

Dec 27, 2000


This is one of the stranger movies in some time. I know the tradition of young boys coming of age with beautiful women is a hallowed one in Italy, but this film pushes the envelope. A gorgeous woman spends the entire movie walking back and forth in the town square while a young teen-age boy gawks at her.

No plot, no character development, no action by the hero. The message of this movie seems to be "Aren't women beautiful?"

Dec 26, 2000

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

This modern-day Odyssey/Sullivan's Travels is a pleasant diversion. But the question that kept nagging me in the back of my mind was: O Brother, Why art thou? Using the myth structure for a new story is a fine technique, but you have to create something truly new. Otherwise it is literally paint-by-numbers. Here the pleasure is limited to recognizing the basic associations: look, there's the sirens, there's the cyclops, etc.

When you use a myth as a foundation for a story you are writing, the first thing you must do is look at the theme. Ask yourself: what can this classic story tell us about our world now? How does flipping it on its head create a whole new perspective?

Dec 20, 2000


It was the ultimate challenge for a defender of free speech to take on the case of the Marquis de Sade. Unfortunately the constructuon of this story is so wrong-headed that I kept wishing someone would put a gag in the Marquis' mouth. We have a hero who just has to write, even using his own blood as ink, as though that is enough to justify publication. We have the kindly priest who lets his insane patients put on the Marquis' witty sex ditties. We have the oppressive scientist who, surprise, is a hypocrite.

The conflict among these schematic characters goes on interminably with virtually no plot. Finally the film ends with one of the most absurd flips in recent memory. A story must be judged by its own internal logic, not some simplistc realism. But within the bounds of what this story sets up, its final events are utterly unbelievable and unmoving.

Writers often know where they want the story to go, but they fail to earn that ending by the proper dynamics of opposition in the middle. The result is fake drama, and a lot of angry audience members walking out the door.

Dec 19, 2000

What Women Want

What Women Want is a perfect example of what is good and what is bad about a Hollywood high concept comedy. Like Tootsie and Groundhog Day, this film takes a twist premise and shows a self-centered, chauvinistic man how to care about a woman and live well. The technique extends back through Pygmalian (both Shaw and ancient Greece) and Dicken's A Christmas Carol. Of course Scrooge doesn't get love in A Christmas Carol, but it's the same thing. Learning a life lesson by some cosmic means. This is and has always been a very popular form.

The trick comes in extending this twist premise for a full two hours. Most films that use the twist last a few scenes. To do it well, you have to work with character oppositions and theme.
This film takes a surprisingly long amount of time to set up the switch of the man who finds he can hear women's thoughts, but that may be because the writer realized that that is the most fun part of the switch for the audience. Once the hero has begun to use his power, it's so unfair that the game is over very soon. So the best part comes in seeing a man discover he suddenly has this power. No doubt the initial thrill would be incredible.

While that is a gleeful moment for the audience, it isn't much of a theme. And this film doesn't have a diverse enough set of opposing characters, the way Tootsie does, to expand the theme and give it some texture.

There are some fun scenes in this film as the hero takes advantage of his power. But there is no conflict in it.

The problem with the limited theme and the weak opposition really becomes apparent when this film tries to find an ending for the twist. Once the hero learns to listen to women's thoughts and changes his actions to please them - which he does almost immediately - he becomes the ideal man.

But this film seems to go on forever as it tries to find a way to make the hero pay for listening in on women's thoughts. Every time I thought they were finally going to end the movie he would be sent off on another mission of redemption.

Every fantasy needs a way to return to the mundane world, with the hero having learned his lesson. But it should happen quickly and without false moralizing.

Nov 28, 2000


Most writers set up a series of reveals that build steadily. M. Night Shyamalan sets up his structure to play one monster reveal. This reveal isn't just the biggest reveal in the story so far. It is information that is so powerful it changes everything that has come before. It is like an earthquake underneath the world the audience shares with the hero.

Most writers do not use this technique because you have to come up with a second alternative for how the events of the world work and what they mean. You have to be able to come up with a detailed reality with the same apparent events as the first alternative, but whose cause-and-effect connection is totally different.

Most writers have tremendous difficulty coming up with one cause-and-effect line. But in Sixth Sense Shyamalan showed that if you can come up with two, you can blow the audience away.

Nov 21, 2000

You Can Count on Me

Kenneth Lonergan's film shows us the difference between drama and melodrama. Because we see true drama so rarely it is a surprise when it comes along. What is called drama in Hollywood is almost always melodrama. Melodrama is about going big: the shocking reveal, resorting to the gun, the character who goes mad. It's exciting, it's surprising, but it's almost never honest. It is fake drama, and for that reason, the emotion doesn't hit home with the audience.

This film is real drama. Sammy, a woman with an eight-year-old boy and a job at the bank, endures a visit from a fun but unreliable brother. They don't shoot each other, no one goes mad, no one molests the little kid. But there is real conflict and honest emotion. The brother eventually leaves and the sister and her son stay behind in the town. But they are all deeply changed by their time together.

Notice how the writer sets up both brother and sister as likable people with serious flaws. He's a Tom Sawyer, a mischevous fun-lover who's also unreliable. She is a decent stable woman who locks herself into her way of life and falls into relationships with men because she feels sorry for them. No one is evil in this film. Not even the loser father.

The quality of the drama makes the film's one false note stand out even more clearly. Sammy's affair wiyth her boss isn't set up properly to be believable. So it becomes obvious that the writer is using the event to force the plot to go where he wants it to go.

One other lesson: notice how Lonergan often starts scenes late or ends them early. This not only gives the story economy it makes it feel more real.

Nov 4, 2000

The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton is a storyteller who shows characters trapped within a system. This is advanced storytelling and the most challenging kind of fiction writing you can do. Wharton is a master at showing that the real currency in a close, hierarchical society is status, not money.

But in The House of Mirth, Wharton makes the deadly mistake found in much of advanced fiction: creating a passive character. Lily Bart simply reacts to the attacks of others around her. Wharton compounds the mistake by making her hero foolish. That means that the plot is stripped of almost all turns. The hero is beaten on for the entire story and then falls. But we've known the final destructionwas coming for a long time. About the only element of story interest here is the fact that Lily's ultimate downfall is caused by her own misplaced sense of right.

Terence Davies' adaptation makes the weaknesses of Wharton's story worse. This film defines slow. Wharton doesn't have to be this dull, as The Age of Innocence proved. Here everything is pounded into the ground.

Some important lessons: if you write about characters within a system, make your hero active, even if he or she fails to defeat the larger system. Keep the scenes tight. And remember, this is film, which uses the cut, and that means that the juxtaposition of scenes is more important than what is in any individual scene. The placement of one scene before or after another should create new information.

Oct 20, 2000

The Contender

The first lesson of this film is: Make it authentic. If you are going behind the scenes, you better be right. Not here. A Republican wants to try to hold up a vice presidential nomination. No one would care. The President nominates someone who switched from Republican to Democrat. Wouldn't happen. A freshman congressman joins forces with an opposition leader to stop his own President's appointment for VP. Not in a million years. A woman accused of having sex with two men strolls the grounds of the White House with the president while both are smoking cigars. Right. The Republican leader opposes the Senator because she is a woman, and cares nothing about the fact that she is an atheist. Not in my lifetime.

The other lesson is: Make your hero drive the action. This lead character, who is accused of improper sexual behavior, is treated as a punching bag for the entire film. She doesn't do anything but sit there with a stiff upper lip. Basic story stuff, and it's still true.

Billy Elliot

Clearly the British are learning from Hollywood. Billy Elliot is the BBC version of Rocky, with a few elements from Flashdance and How Green Was My Valley thrown in as well. I kept waiting for the kid to open his arms wide and sing, "Gotta dance!"

But if this is formula moviemaking, it's a formula that works. This kid's success makes you feel good, no matter how jaded you are or how much you notice the strings of manipulation.

The formulaic quality of this film may be why the writers back off of two key moments that could have been bigger. One is when Billy first becomes intrigued with ballet. There is very little sense of why he would be so inspired to dance, before he has actually done it. Yes, the movie opens with him bouncing on his bed and working his body to the music. But that's not enough in an environment that is so hostile to dance.

The second moment is the end when Billy goes in for his audition. The Flashdance version has our hero going through an amazing display of acrobatic dance that has the judges and the audience tapping their feet by the end. But this movie pins Billy's success on what he says about dance. His physical display of greatness has happened earlier in the film when he is frustrated from going to an audition and dances all over the city.

This frustration dance is a brilliant scene, and the actor playing the kid is fantastic. This is dance as modern art, where the artist uses everyday things to make his art. Billy uses stairs, walls, and railings to express how he feels. And it is a dance that is both amazingly accomplished but also obviously untrained. This is a very difficult combination to show, and the choreographer and the lead actor both deserve great credit.

Notice they also cheat this moment in the setup. Until then Billy has been a hard-working klutz. Suddenly, when he is deprived of his chance to try out, he dances like a raw Baryshnikov. But the writers probably didn't want to blow the power of the scene by showing the audience earlier that the boy really is good.

This movie is also guilty of flipping the repressive figures of the father and the older brother too quickly. Dad goes from being a nasty, homophobic bully to being a saint who goes back into the coal mines to help his boy learn to dance.

Billy Elliot is mainly worth studying to see how the writers take the genre and both hit all the beats that make it work and twist certain beats to make it seem new.

Sep 29, 2000

With a Friend Like Harry

Thrillers have always been one of the more contrived forms, but there are limits. Within the world the story creates, the logic must make basic sense.

This film has such a poor set up that I almost walked out. The hero meets a stranger in a bathroom on a superhighway. The stranger claims to be an old school acquanence, but the hero has no memory of him. Yet he invites the man and his girlfriend to their country house, then to stay overnight. Then he accepts a brand new car from the stranger. This is not just unbelievable, it's stupid, and there's nothing that angers an audience more than a stupid hero.

Throughout the movie there isn't a peep about motive from anyone. None of this bizarre behavior makes any sense.

The only explanation that has any weight is that the stranger is a figment of the hero's imagination. But notice that is a classic cop out. If the hero is crazy then anything is allowed and the story doesn't have to make sense. You just end up with a really pissed off audience that doesn't like to waste two hours watching lies.

May 11, 2000


Gladiator is high-concept Hollywood at its best. Like Jurassic Park, it starts with the premise of the championship fight. What is more dramatic and fun for an audience than a heavyweight fight? The question is: who will be the fighters? Michael Crichton figured he'd put the two champions of evolution - humans and dinosaurs - in the ring at the same time and see who's best. David Franzoni's idea was to take a great Roman general and warrior and put him in the ring against Rome's best gladiators.

Franzoni then strings together a series of classic Saturday matinee story techniques to make the high concept work. The film begins with a terrific battle scene whose real purpose is to show the audience what a great soldier Maximus is. He fights for the glory of Rome and an old emperor, played by Richard Harris, who reminds us of Camelot.

Having set up the moral and physical greatness of Maximus, Franzoni introduces the main opponent, Commodus, the emperor's son. This is a key technique because it expands and extends the high concept beyond the hero fighting in the ring. It is what takes the story from simply an action film to an epic. Now the future of the entire empire rides on our hero.

Intercut with the opening is an arcadian vision of Maximus' home, where he longs to return when his fighting days are over. That sets up The Outlaw Josey Wales trick where Maximus' wife and child are murdered and his arcadian home destroyed. The mighty man has fallen to the bottom and must begin his climb back to the top where he will gain his revenge against his hated foe, Commodus, the emperor.

This gives us the clean desire line, and Franzoni can then hang on that line all the old matinee tricks. I actually laughed out loud while I was watching this movie as one classic story technique after another was pulled out of the storytellers' war chest out to do its duty. There's the tiny village in the boondocks of the Roman Empire that just happens to have its own mini-colosseum. From Seven Samurai we get the calm Maximus catching a nap before his first gladiator match. Then it's Maximus cutting seven opposing gladiators to pieces in quick succession.

Each new fight is set up to show that Maximus is an even greater warrior than we had thought before. With his fellow gladiators from the boondocks - another borrow from Seven Samurai - Maximus uses his army experience to turn the tables on the hometown gladiators who are supposed to massacre them. Next is Maximus' fight against the undefeated giant gladiator and the tigers.

Intercut with these fight scenes are intrigues surrounding the emperor, his lovely sister, and the senator, played by I Claudius himself, Derek Jacobi, who wants to return Rome to a republic. The important thing to realize is that this material is the super-structure the writer has built to increase the stakes of the fights and to give the audience breathing room before the next bout starts.

This kind of story structure - esentially a tournament - often has a tough time figuring out how to end the story. This film is no exception. The hero's final battle has to be with his main opponent, who is the emperor. But the emperor's not much of a fighter. Maximus, by contrast, has already proven to us that he is the best fighter in Rome. So the writer is reduced to a ridiculous finale where the emperor fights as a gladiator with a mortally-wounded Maximus. But Franzoni gets away with it because he also pulls out the old action technique of the noble death.

In theme and story technique, this film is extremely old-fashioned. Like Last of the Mohicans a few years back, Gladiator uses 1930s storytelling with 2000 film technology. The result is one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.

Mar 24, 2000

Erin Brockovich

I'm not sure how this tv movie got made into a feature. Which is not a put down of tv movies. The best drama writing these days is on television, and it's not even close.

But the fact is, this is a standard injustice movie where an idealistic crusader helps the little guy beat the big corporate bullies. The twist is that this crusader is not a big-shot lawyer or a 60 Minutes tv producer, she's an out-of-work blue collar girl with three kids and no husband and no self-esteem.

There are few plot surprises here. But the movie has an emotional payoff at the end because a lot of innocent people had their lives destroyed and the hero forces those reponsible to pay. We know that kind of justice doesn't happen much in life. So when we see it, it feels good.

Hats off to Marg Helgenberger for her performance and to Julia Roberts who finally found a dramatic role that could show off her strengths.

Mar 22, 2000

The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin's story-telling is not about character or plot. It's about running themes through dialogue. He crafts his stories on a three- or four-part crosscut, which allows him to touch on often arcane subjects of governance without boring the audience stiff. But the stories are really an excuse to lay down long tracks of dialogue which inevitably build to an inspiring monologue on the larger thematic issue.

This kind of story-telling requires a talent in dialogue and theme, which is an unusual combination for a writer. And it is not a combination that the popular entertainment industry normally values. Which makes the presence and success of West Wing in mainstream American tv especially pleasurable.

This combination of dialogue and theme also highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of this show. The dialogue is often poetic and dense. So the language of this president and his court is language fit for a modern king. Poetic dialogue largely disappeared after Huck Finn. Dialogue became vernacular, because that was the talk of the common man. Placing his story in the office of the President allows Sorkin to push the dialogue back up the poetic scale.

But there is a price, even in this rarified atmosphere. This language often doesn't sound like real talk. Everyone seems to be an expert in every area of modern knowledge. Everyone speaks the same glib banter. And we know we will have to sit through a monologue which reminds us, yet again, how magnificent American democracy is. The President, who usually delivers these inspiring monologues, is the perfect father, strong but caring, intelligent but full of love. Which makes the President the most difficult to stomach of any character in the show.

Sorkin also has the annoying habit of spoiling the moment. He'll write a nice piece of dialogue and then push it into the fake or the sappy.

For example, in one episode the President is addressing some radio talk show hosts when he spots a Laura Schlessinger-like woman sitting amongst the crowd. Sorkin gives the President a brilliant monologue in which he shows how foolish it is to take some of the commandments in the Bible literally. Then Sorkin has the President, while still staring at the chastised woman, tell one of his aides,"That's how I beat him," referring to a conservative he defeated in a past election. In a second the President goes from enlightened teacher to smug bully.