Critiques Copyright © 1997 - 2000, Dorian Scott Cole
My purpose isn't to rate movies on whether or not people should see
them. My main purpose is to use movies that people are currently
watching to explain what did or didn't work, and why. Then we can
all learn from these. My criterion for what did or didn't work is
simply, "Was it entertaining?" I go to movies to enjoy them, not
critique them. The critique comes later. See the end for an explanation
Following are my critiques of selected new movies:
Man On The Moon (Jan. 11, 2000)
Being John Malkovich (Dec. 6, 1999)
American Beauty (Oct. 12, 1999)
Blue Streak (Oct. 3, 1999)
The Sixth Sense (Aug. 23, 1999)
The Red Violin (July 27, 1999)
Wild Wild West (July 13, 1999)
Instinct (June 7, 1999)
Entrapment (May 4, 1999)
The Matrix (Apr. 5, 1999)
October Sky (Feb. 21, 1999)
Payback (Jan 30, 1999)
Gloria (Jan 30, 1999)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Jan 13, 1999)
Home Fries (Nov. 29, 1998)
The Mighty (Oct. 19, 1998)
Practical Magic (Oct. 19, 1998)
Lethal Weapon 4, and also The Mask of Zorro
This story is an excellent example of several things, including what can be done with a chronology. A chronology is a slice of real history that tells about events that happened during that period. But we like to make sense of our lives, and if we can, of history. It would be very difficult to make sense of the invasion and occupation of a peaceful nation by a conquering army. In the larger scheme, Tibet is probably a strategic military location from a defensive point of view - control the mountain passes and you prevent access by foreign invaders. History is a bone-yard of conquered nations that makes very little sense. The web site, http://126.96.36.199/tibet/ gives a lot of fascinating background information about the story and locations.
Events mean very little unless you can show the human impact. The movie hinted at the human impact for the Tibetans, but there was a parallel story of Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) and his personal odyssey. Heinrich's odyssey showed us Tibet through the eyes of a foreign resident taken into the culture, but his real journey was that of personal transformation. This is the stuff stories are made of, and are rarely found in chronological events unless the writer digs really hard to put one together. (The original story was written by Heinrich about his ordeal.)
There are two excellent examples of character transformation in the story. The first is a turning point at which the extremely self-centered Heinrich sees the consequences of his behavior and decides to be different. But people don't really transform in an instant - they just change direction, and even that is shaky. Personal transformation is a very slow process. In Tibet, Heinrich undergoes the slow process of personality change. At the end, he not only wants the son that he abandoned, he has modeled the role of father through contact with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The loneliness of imprisonment and isolation, and the sharing in the young Dalai Lama's life as the Dalai Lama discovers the world that only the foreigner Heinrich can show him, makes Heinrich aware of his ability and his need to be a father.
The turning point scene makes an excellent use of symbols, and could have made more use of them than it did. I can't guess Heinrich's motivation for changing at that moment, but it could have been shown. In the story, they are starving and Heinrich has just encouraged his fellow traveler, Peter (David Thewlis), to exchange his keepsake watch for food. They escape, then while resting Peter discovers three inexpensive watches in Heinrich's backpack. Outraged, Peter tells Heinrich just what he is, and storms off without him. Moments later we see Heinrich catch Peter, beg forgiveness, and offer him all three watches. The watches were a symbol of Heinrich's selfishness. Peter's watch was also a symbol of Heinrich's transformation - near the end of the movie he has located the watch and gives it to Peter as a gift.
We don't know what went through Heinrich's mind. We see a change, but we don't understand it. Did he make peace with Peter strictly for utilitarian reasons - food, loneliness? Or did Peter's lecture hit home? Behavior doesn't always tell us what we want to know, and we can't look into a person's mind. But we could have known - could have seen into Heinrich's mind through the use of the same symbols. We could have seen Heinrich clutching the watches but reflecting about himself on the cold, barren, rocky, hilltop, seen the growing isolation as Peter recedes in the background, seen Heinrich loosening his grip on the watches, then throwing them away from him. Looking at Peter, picking up the watches and going after Peter, at first slowly but as he realizes what he wants running faster and faster. Through the symbols of the watches and Heinrich's actions, we would have seen the inner workings of his mind. As it stands, we only know that he changed his mind. And perhaps that was the correct scene. My purpose isn't to question the writing, but to show how it could have been done.
This is a comedy in the tradition of the classics. I could just see Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Aristophanes sitting in this audience enjoying a few irreverent pokes at the human condition. There is a very serious subject underlying all of the humorous episodes, which is, what happens to people out of work in a town that depends heavily on one industry, steel, which has fallen to competition using more efficient methods? Men are trying to kill themselves, trying desperately to find work, some are afraid to tell their wives they are unemployed - then the roof falls in, divorce, loss of respect and family, and it is a horrible time for all. There is a tragic element to it, in that the men don't know how to support their families any other way, and reduced to mice they are scrambling for crumbs. It raises the question metaphorically and symbolically, "How far will they go?" This movie is an excellent example of how to handle a dismal situation in writing without wallowing in it. It didn't turn into a drama or a tragedy - it was very funny.
I'm not sure I would have put the child in the middle of it all. For some this was an uncomfortable element, even if it was a solid part of character motivation and plot. For example, in Seven Years In Tibet, which is critiqued on this page, we don't see the boy until the end of the film, but his presence is felt for the entire story.
This is also an excellent example of a point I try to make frequently. You don't need to remove all of your clothes on stage to make your point. As the saying goes, "A man's imagination is a girl's best friend." We managed to get through ninety minutes of comedy without anyone parading in the buff. And at the end, there is no full-frontal nudity, but we leave the theater with a smile on our face. This film doesn't push the envelope, it just toys with the subject of nudity without anyone having it shoved in their face.
Here is a movie that lives up to its promise: mystery, suspense, thriller, convoluted plot. This is one I'm going to buy because I want to see it periodically. It lives up to Dead Again and Total Recall, but it didn't borrow the storyline from either. Since it is a mystery, and a really good one, I'm not going to give anything away. If you want a foretaste - visit the web site at http://www.the-game.com - it's a fun site and really gets into the concept, plot, and motif of the movie. This one captures the imagination and will probably spawn a lot of commercial ventures in the same vein (much tamer, of course).
The movie has a good first thirty minutes, but it provides an important bad example of one method I talk a lot about. Capture audience interest in the first twenty minutes without doing a lot of characterization writing and story building. In fact I say you can do it in as little as the first nine minutes of the story - the first three to five scenes. The writers did an excellent job with characterization - I got the essence of Michael Douglas's character and Sean Penn's character right away. (Part of this is in the acting, but some material has to be there.) I knew what they were about. I knew what the character's problem was. (I'm also a little tuned into personality issues, so I don't need it spelled out for me.) So in place of laboriously spelling out the details of character and environment, anything that essentially needed to be said could have been brought out as the plot develops.
One good example of how the writers did this very thing very well is in the following segment: The game had started, Douglas went to see one of his investments that wasn't doing so well, and callously fired the company president. This shows his character and his problem. But then his briefcase won't open so he can't serve the papers - which taps right into his character, his problem, the plot, and the meaning of the game - the game is underway. The company president reappears several times later, like a symbol, so this works almost like a motif (a dynamic one) that recurs to set mood (remind us of the meaning of the game) but also gauges Douglas's character's progress. Perfect! Could have been the second sequence in the film.
Typically actors and writers give some small indication that their character is not on the level - something deceptive is going on. Well Deborah Unger (and writers) get kudos for character believability. She never once gave it away. Neither did the other characters.
This is also an excellent example of a thriller that has excellent characterization, or more probably develops out of excellent characterization. Excellent interaction of character and plot.
This was DreamWorks SKG's first production. Good start. My main criterion is, "is the movie entertaining?" Yes. Knowing what I know now, I would go see it. And this also appeared to be a tradition-breaking movie. Some things they tried worked, some didn't. : )
A+ for breaking two traditions:
1) The main role appeared to be shared male/female. The female wasn't a dangling decoration this time. I can't thank them enough for that. : ) It was a good attempt, but not perfect. Nicole Kidman's character saves the day by diffusing the bomb. George Clooney's character saves the day by locating the other bombs and chasing down the terrorists in final moments. The tension between the two characters was good. Any problems I saw didn't come from the two sharing the lime-light. It came from weaknesses in the story.
2) The main character wasn't in the first scene. In a welcome break from typical star-vehicle movies, both Kidman and Clooney didn't show up until several scenes into the story. A story got to develop without that intrusion. (Even though this is the type script I typically write.)
When are we going to stop expecting main characters to be supermen who can do everything? Both main characters knew everything and could do everything. Clooney's character, an Army intelligence officer, was also the combat specialist who jumped out of the helicopter into a truck to eliminate the bad guys. Then in New York, his character single-handedly nailed the terrorists even though the area was crawling with FBI and police.
At least Kidman's character, a counter terrorist specialist, wasn't a martial arts expert on top of everything else she could do. At least Kidman's character could grow. She went from being a naive newbie to a veteran who could understand the entire situation and yell, "Take the shot!"
When characters are supermen, they not only have no room for growth (change), there is also nothing human about them that will add to the drama. Even though Clooney expressed sorrow or wept in one scene, it was still very limiting. It makes for wooden characters. Clooney went through all the right motions to create a savvy and worldly intelligence officer, and even a combat veteran, but the story didn't leave any room for him to bring anything to the character. Get on stage - do your part - get off the stage. I would much rather have seen an intelligence officer who couldn't fight, who at the end is suddenly confronted by terrorists who can. He would have had to use his wits to outmaneuver them. This would have been a great place to bring something to the role. (For example, look at what Nicholas Cage was able to do in The Rock.)
I got the feeling the character's abilities developed just in time for the scene they were in, and didn't come out of well developed characterization.
The structure had some good points and some bad ones.
The story got right into the action - we knew what story was about in the first scenes, even though we didn't know who or why. This was basically very good.
Not knowing who or why was one of the problems. It seemed to me the writer was trying to keep the identity of the terrorists as much a mystery to the audience as to the main characters. The mystery element could have been good, but in this case it worked against the story. We kept getting clues to identity, but not something that the main characters were discovering, so the clues had no particular reason for coming. I felt lost about the role of the terrorists most of the time. They were a supposed subplot without a storyline.
In the final scenes, as the terrorist is running down a New York city street a couple triggers a flash. Nice scene, wrong place. I didn't mind a flashback at this point - it didn't break the action as it might have. But the scene delivered very little at that point. I needed that scene near the beginning so I could get a handle on the terrorist's motivation and enjoy that tension all the way through the movie.
And in general the action was original - even though it generally followed motifs established in other movies. How many times do we watch a nuclear bomb diffused before we tire of it? At least it was an original method used to diffuse it.
Maybe I'm spoiled, but in general the story seemed very fragmented. We got small vignettes on the terrorists, and I didn't know why. I had this lost feeling a lot in the movie. The storyline lacked cohesion. Part of that was the lack of establish shots. I wondered how Clooney's character was going to fly from the States to Russia in time to catch the truck - he wasn't in the States - I still don't know where he flew from. I got the feeling someone shuffled the storyboard at the last minute and no one rewrote for it. I didn't get the feeling this was written in well developed sequences - it seemed like loosely hung together scenes. Some scenes can be shifted to create interest or to show parallel developments, but in general a story unfolds linearly.
The most basic problem I saw with structure was the long building process the story went through before getting to the chase. It was a typical thriller construction, which many people like, and which seems to work well in some novels (although give me a Ludlum thriller and I won't get past a few pages - I'm bored stiff for two-thirds of the book. Of course, I don't like baseball and football either - I prefer soccer where something is happening continuously - and I like to play it, not watch it.) But this is the first movie in a long time that could not hold my or my wife's interest during the first thirty + minutes. I expect a thriller to do something, and the writer to build the story while integrating the action. To create a movie with the widest audience appeal, things need to keep moving during the first thirty + minutes.
Settings and motif
The opening motif was excellent and really set the mood for the story. The settings really contributed to the movie and seemed very realistic (I suppose many of the scenes were shot on real locations). Excellent cinematography in most places - but in a few scenes the action was nearly unintelligible because too much happened that was obscured by poor lighting, or lacked sufficient camera angles to capture it well, or happened too quickly. The scene of the nuclear explosion was excellent.
The action genre seems to be fading (I know this was a thriller, not strictly action). I think two of the biggest reasons are: 1) the public is tired of seeing the same scenes in different settings, and 2) the public is tired of supermen characters. I really believe the main reason stories don't engage the audience is because of problems with characterization. Plot may draw the audience, but it takes characters to create good stories, not a plot machine. Anyway, it should do well at the box office, but it could have done better. Save the film on the cutting room floor, and in ten years re-release it.
It looks to me like the folks at Dreamworks SKG are getting some creative
freedom. I'm impressed. I think some great stories are going
to come from there. - Scott
Writer: I use the term writer loosely in these critiques. Creating a movie is a collaborative effort, and the original writer does not have a lot of control over the finished work, unlike a novel in which the reader sees exactly what the writer wrote (except for editing, which is less common). The producer, director, other writers, actors, film editors, cinematographers, musicians, and a myriad of other creative people have their own vision of the story and influence what goes on the screen. If the director and film editor cut portions out, then what the writer put there might not be there. So when I say writer, I am really refering to the many creative people who are telling a story on screen. And it is a lesson for the rest of us writers.
Other distribution restrictions: None