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.