Dec 30, 2001


This film exhibits all the problems of telling real events in a dramatic form.

Will Smith does a fine job of imitating Ali but the script has no structure. It simply strings together events over a fifteen-year period.

Ali goes through change but not character change. For example, he refuses to go into the army, but since we only see him as a celebrated champion, his insistence that the Viet Cong have not infringed on his rights in America rings hollow.

A bigger problem in this film is the lack of plot. Plot comes from hidden information revealed. Everything in this story is on the surface. And since the events of this story are fairly familiar, the narrative drive disappears long before the movie is over.

Dec 21, 2001

The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums comes from a long line of quirky family comedies, at least as far back as You Can't Take It with You.

These families are like caper or suicide mission teams. Each member of the family has a specialty. But the point of the crazy family members is not to form a single team but to co-exist as individuals within a single house.

These stories don't set diversity against unity. They say that community only happens because of diversity.

It's like an old Brueghel painting. In one corner of the painting people are ice skating. In another a blacksmith does his work. In another corner men return from a hunt.

Each character is caught up in his own activity, unaware of what others are doing. But we the audience can see all of them living at once. Each individual seems to be connected to the others, not by someone's command, but by an invisible hand of spirit in which everyone quietly respects everyone else's passion.

In the quirky family comedy, this "Brueghel effect" is created by using the "buzzing household" technique. A big old wooden house with lots of rooms is filled with members of an extended family each totally intent on his own activity. Oftentimes they aren't particularly talented at what they are doing. But what's important is that they are passionate and not afraid to stand out as individuals.

Typically this community of diverse members is set in opposition to an outside authority that wants to force the family to live like everyone else. Far from creating community, this outside authority is intent on destroying individuality and community.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a totally front-loaded movie. It sets up the crazy family members but doesn't know what to do with them. All of their unique achievements are behind them. And none of their talents is used in the present tense story.

Also you can't make characters looney and cartoonish and then try to get audience sympathy when they apparently feel real pain. Emotion can only come when the story has been set in some recognizably human world. And this family seems from another planet entirely.

Oct 7, 2001


This popular film takes the Traveling Angel story structure (which I talk about in detail in the Comedy course) and gives it a French twist.

In most Traveling Angel stories, the hero enters a community in trouble. The problems of a number of minor characters are detailed and then the traveling angel - who is perfect - proceeds to fix them.

Amelie, by contrast, begins with the traveling angel. Far from being perfect she has a strong psychological problem. Since childhood, she has withdrawn from life. She is afraid to take emotional risks. She is unable to love.

The early part of the film shows her helping the minor characters in the community. Because these characters are only loosely connected, this part of the film seems episodic and unfocused. The narrative drive flags.

About halfway through the writers attach a love story to the traveling angel story. Immediately the narrative line picks up steam. Notice also that this line is directly connected to the traveling angel's need. She must take a risk to love.

Unfortunately, because of so many other minor characters and the lateness of the love story line, the audience doesn't get an opportunity to get to know Amelie's future lover. So the payoff at the end when they get together is only mildly satisfying.

This film shows yet again how powerful and popular the Traveling Angel comedy is. But the real pleasures of Amelie are some nice scenes and playful camera work.

Jul 5, 2001


One of the main screenwriting strategies since Star Wars is to grab from a number of story forms and weave them together. Unfortunately this technique is much harder than it looks.

AI shows the episodic and bloated script that results when you don't know how to connect all the story pieces in an organic whole. Writer Steven Spielberg combines elements of Pinocchio, Cain and Abel, The Wizard of Oz, Hansel and Gretel, Joan of Arc, the Holocaust, Christian sacrifice in the Roman Collosseum, fairy tale, science fiction, horror, and drama. But the center does not hold.

This script, and film, is like a suspension bridge that is so long it collapses the line. AI pulls most heavily from Pinocchio, but Pinocchio is a simple fairy tale. Both its structure and theme are too slight to sustain anything longer or more important than a short story.

But Spielberg has tried to turn Pinocchio into an epic. Collapse was inevitable. First because a puppet or robot boy cannot generate enough audience empathy for an epic. Sure, the boy is cute, and I'd prefer he get back with his "mother." But he is a robot, and I know he is programmed to want her. After about an hour, I need to move on to bigger stakes.

This hole where a powerful main character should be also limits the structure. You can't drive an epic structure, especially one made up of so many distinct story units, without a great hero at the wheel.

Third, an epic requires an epic theme, in both scope and moral complexity. This has neither. If you remember the original definition of an epic - the fate of a nation rests on the actions of a single individual - you can see how this tale of a machine boy trying to find mom is bound to grow tiresome long before it is over.

There are some wonderful scenes and visuals in the film, especially hollowed-out, flooded New York City.

But a movie built of pieces can only give momentary pleasure. And when the writer keeps adding pieces with no regard to the audience, the odor of self-indulgence starts to overwhelm. When Spielberg brings in the advanced intellect aliens, followed by the boy's creepy, all-day reunion with mom, the audience with whom I saw the film had clearly had enough.

All the critical commentary about uniting the sensibilities of Kubrick and Spielberg is a bunch of auteur nonsense. This film's structure is a bunch of pieces looking for a whole, and no amount of arresting images can make up for it.

Jun 30, 2001

The Anniversary Party

When you watch a porn film, you enter an alternative universe where it's completely normal for everyone to have sex with everyone else all the time. They look like real people, but they're not.

When you watch The Anniversary Party, you enter an alternative world where everyone's emotions are raw and exposed to everyone else all the time. They look like real people, but they're not.

I suppose this world could be the way professional actors live their lives. But I suspect it is more the result of the genre the two writers are using. Like Memento, The Anniversary Party isn't so much a film as it is a film-making strategy.

If you are going to make an independent film, you have to find a way to tell a story for almost no money and also show off your strengths as a writer/director.

These writers start with the first technique of indie filmmaking: bring a bunch of actors to a house. They've borrowed heavily from Celebration, a film shot in digital video in which a family gathers at a country estate to celebrate the father's birthday only to find out some ugly secrets.

This strategy is perfect for these writers because it plays to their strength, which is their acting. This kind of communion story is all about individual scenes. There is virtually no plot to tie all the scenes together, which is one reason this film seems even longer than it is.

Instead The Anniversary Party moves by a series of permutations among all the characters, as two actors have a moment together and we move on to another two actors. Drama comes almost entirely from embarrassing situations, all leading to a few big secrets that come to the surface and embarrass everyone together.

Unfortunately, this story strategy doesn't make a good film, because it is episodic, forced, unreal, and pointless.

But it is perfect for actors, who get to emote and show raw pain, with an occasional monologue where they can really show their stuff.

Since acting, and famous actor friends, was what these two writer/directors had going in, their story strategy was perfect. There are many moments that are quite funny. And the film highlights the power of performance when some of the actors do little skits, especially Kevin Kline and a little girl who do a dance together that is absolutely brilliant.

The Anniversary Party is thirtysomething over the course of one night. That might please you or bore you, but either way it is very smart indie filmmaking.

Jun 12, 2001

Moulin Rouge

This movie knows the power of the cross-cut. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be aware of the cross-cut's weaknesses.

Moulin Rouge is at its best is when it is cross-cutting within the scene. The opening and closing twenty minutes are superb. Cross-cutting within the scene highlights suspense - since many actions are happening at once - and texture - because it shows the layers of a place and a moment.

But cross-cutting within the scene is by its nature horizontal. To go horizontal you have to have a strong narrative drive to support the sideward movement. This script has no story drive between the opening and closing sections. So it collapses under its own weight.

The story stalls at the song "Like a Virgin". Why? Because the creators are hitting the same beat; the hero has already won his goal, the girl, so all that is left is fooling the dim-witted opponent again and again.

This film shows what happens when you ignore the basics of storytelling and go for the flash. Moulin Rouge has almost no plot, so instead of a knockout, this film is two great scenes framing a flatline.

May 30, 2001

Pearl Harbor

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that a movie that set out to copy Titanic should be so embarrassing. I felt like the guy in A Clockwork Orange who had to watch violence and pornography with his eyes pried open.

The structural gimmick of the love triangle between the boyhood friends and the nurse was so full of contrivance and cliche that I kept being amazed that the actors didn't break out laughing. Since this personal line was so silly, the duty line of the men going off to war, which the personal line was supposed to offset, became a joke as well. Not that it wouldn't have been a joke on its own. This stuff was Top Gun warmed over, and Top Gun was already a cliche of a cliche. Especially when Alec Baldwin, as Colonel Dolittle, was on, it literally felt like they were doing a Saturday Night Live skit, but they kept right on doing one bad scene after another with no one breaking for laughs.

Of course it didn't help matters that the subject of this film was the biggest screwup in American military history. This wasn't a battle, it was a firing squad. Watching massive stupidity that results in thousands of Americans slaughtered is not my idea of a pleasant way to spend my time at the movies.

Since they didn't want to end the film with a massive defeat, the creators figured they would tag on another movie, the Dolittle raid on Tokyo. While this raid was considered a real morale boost for the American people, it was militarily useless and a bungle from start to finish. So this movie kept right on beating the cliches to death, rubbing our noses in our own incompetence, long after the big battle scene was over. The result was a three hour marathon of self-abuse.

The only thing that saves this movie is that the attack on Pearl Harbor, as painful as it is, is spectacular. Even now, seeing all those men slaughtered brings strong feelings of anger and pity.

One lesson to take from this movie is that James Cameron's strategy of starting with a love story and turning it into a disaster picture can still bring a load of people into the theaters. Spending a ton of money on marketing hype helps too. But boy was this movie hard to sit through. As I left the theater, all I could think of was, "They shoot audiences, don't they?"

May 25, 2001


Shrek has the best script I've seen this year. It's the result of two elements of writing, structure and texture, that are rarely found together in Hollywood mainstream movies.

Structurally, the writers combine the fairy tale form, the myth form and the buddy picture in a seamless whole. The community begins in trouble, which forces the hero to go on his journey. His goal is the opponent's goal, to bring back the Princess. This allows the writers to save the big conflict with the main opposition for last.

On this strong line, the writers hang a series of anti-fairy tale elements for the hero and the audience to encounter. The story plays out the fairy tale structure, but also makes fun of it along the way.

By also adding the buddy picture element, the writers give the hero an ongoing opponent he can banter with along the route. That goes a long way to removing the episodic quality many myth-based stories have.

These great structural elements are also what make the fabulous texture of this film possible. By texture I mean details, sometimes comic, sometimes reverses of cartoon and fairy tale expectations. Texture is usually horizontal. That is, you are not moving the story forward, you are layering the moment. You are taking a pause in the forward line so you can please the audience with a little magic.

This film has the densest texture I've seen in a long time, and it's why adults like this film possibly even more than children. Shrek is a film worth careful study.

Apr 26, 2001

Kissing Jessica Stein

Kissing Jessica Stein is a good example of an independent film using its strengths in writing to make up for the fact there was little money. An independent film isn't going to have much in the way of production values. That puts even greater pressure on the script.

Some indie writers make up for no money with a gimmicky premise, like Memento or Run Lola Run. Others turn their weak production values into their greatest strength, like The Blair Witch Project. The writers of Kissing Jessica Stein use a cute, but eye-catching premise and good scene and dialogue writing.

This film - about a woman who tries going out with another woman after the hetero dating scene becomes intolerable - uses a similar technique to the one Sex, Lies and Videotape used many years ago. It promises sexual titillation to get you into the theater, but never delivers on it. Normally this is very dangerous. You better deliver the promise of the premise or the audience will think their investment was wasted.

But here the writers deliver so many funny scenes and lines of dialogue that you don't mind the prudery of the film itself. This kind of light, fluffy writing is much more difficult than it may appear. Romantic comedy is the soufflé of genres. You've got to be very good to make it appear effortless, and that especially means being good at witty repartee.

These writers are. Luckily they are also good enough actresses to play what they have written. And they are helped immeasurably by the terrific actresses playing the mother and the best friend.

This film has a conventional structure. But it is a great example of the most important rule of genre films in Hollywood, which is hit all the beats of the genre but do them in an original way to make it fresh.

The biggest structural problem this film has is the way it sets up the male love interest. The writers make him so unappealing at the beginning they can never bring him back. That results in a weak ending where we're supposed to believe the hero will eventually find happiness with the guy.

You can see why the writers made this choice. They had to shut down the possibility of the hero going with a man in the beginning so she will be forced to date women. But the writers don't just get rid of the guy. They blow him up with nuclear toxicity. Those are the kinds of writing choices you have to watch out for because of the terrible consequences you inevitably pay at the end.

But in a script whose strengths are scenes and dialogue, this isn't a lethal blow for the movie as a whole.

Jan 16, 2001


Chocolat is a textbook example of the "traveling angel" story form that I talk about in the Comedy Class. It also shows us the dangers of following the textbook so rigidly you suck all the life out of the story. This writer hits every technique found in traveling angel films like Mary Poppins, including the "angel's" arrival on a strong wind that changes the town forever.

This story does add an element rarely found in traveling angel stories, which is that the angel has a ghost and weaknes of her own. But this form is about bringing magic, style and fun into restricted lives, so the worst thing you can do is make one of these stories predictable. Unfotunately this one is.

A useful lesson when doing any genre story: Hit the beats but do them in a twisted and original way.