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Critiques Page 5

Copyright © 1998, 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 of writer.

Star Trek : Insurrection, 1998, Jonathon Frakes, Director. Michael Piller, Writer 
(based on Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry)

I watch about a third of the movies that hit the big theater chains (and critique about a third of those). I'm a fan who never missed an episode in the first Star Trek TV series, so the Star Trek movie series is in my "always*" category. Through Paramount, the Star Trek  producers  helped  inspire many writers a decade ago. They were one of the few (often only) series that were open to submissions by freelance writers. Star Trek scripts were a great incentive in writers groups. I confess to having written a script, but never submitted it - it was good practice and a lot of fun.

This story has some good writing elements in it, and some not so good.

I don't know if the writer was aiming for a motif, but the story opens with one. The opening scene is an idyllic setting with people pleasantly going about their daily lives, close to the earth, happy, not bothered by anything. The pastoral scene continues with an excellent contrasting story: the peace is suddenly disturbed by an invisible force that becomes disruptive and violent. An android, Data (Brent Spiner), slowly comes into reality as he removes his invisibility suit. Data then exposes the alienobservation posts on the hilltops. High technology and violence have invaded their peaceful lives. Throughout the movie, the idyllic lifestyle contrasts with the activities and life of the aliens. The motif is part of the story, not just a scene or shot added to it to set mood, so it blends in exceptionally well.

This is a series, so we know Data from previous episodes. He is one of the good guys, so why is the Federation trying to kill him? Why is he battling the Federation? This is the mystery and the action storyline that forms the intro, which sets up the plot. The intro usually ends at a turning point that propels the story into part two. By propels I mean sets up a situation that the protagonists feel compelled to resolve - it "gets them all charged up." Well, this intro didn't work as well as it could have. It turns out that Data has a damaged chip. So they capture Data and it's over, right? A James Bond style intro with nothing to do with the story?

I'm sure the story lagged at this point for many people. Some of us caught that Data was trying to protect the Federation's Prime Directive of non-interferencein developing cultures. Another mystery: why was Data battling against the Federation, including the Enterprise and crew mates, as if he thought they were trying to break the Prime Directive? Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) mutters the same thing. But the story seems to move forward as if by its own momentum, not by the plot. The muttering scene with Picard was not well developed - it failed to make this mystery stand out in a dramatic way to get our attention, or even get the character's attention. Picard didn't really mutter, but what he said didn't stand out from the rest of the conversation and activity. See Dialogue: Length: Less Is More, and Scenes and Drama: Making Action Move the Story.

Humor was another element that often made the story more enjoyable. OK, it wasn't always the best humor, but most of it was pretty good and a couple of times I laughed aloud. And it didn't interfere with the dramatic action in the scenes.

The last element to examine involves two themes in the story. They are frequent themes in Star Trek episodes. I am alert to the idea that some themes in the stories in our lives become meta-narratives that become part of the philosophy of viewers. In Captain James Kirk's final(?) movie appearance, he was in an idyllic setting but when summoned to service he summed up the series theme well in the words (this isn't a quote), "The world is in peril and we're the last chance to save it." So with a smile, off he went. I suspect this clarion call appeals widely to those afflicted with the human condition - the opportunity to serve others - or possibly to "save the world (unless your a cynic). These are the kinds of things that not only appeal, but are those in which people can find some encouragement. Once again, in this story the pastoral life is contrasted with the "save the world" lifestyle. The conflicting ideals manage to put us in touch with both of these needs in our lives. The series always elevates both ideals, and never puts either down.

The other theme involves the Prime Directive, which the characters typically follow like it was a god. It usually works well, but it backfired in this story. Here was a small group of peaceful people who became the center of a moral and ethical dilemma. Their environment kept them from aging, and could keep everyone in existence from aging. But the Prime Directive pinned the universe to a non-interference rule. The Federation answer involved deporting the small group without their knowledge, but then they would age normally while all the universe benefitted from their world. The Enterprise crew's answer was to blindly uphold the Prime Directive. As it turned out, the inhabitants were very advanced in space travel and knew that the entire universe needed what they had, but they didn't offer it, preferring to protect their way of life. No one could think of a better solution? These things were a drain on the story, sapping it of the energy that comes from good, well defined conflict. 

- Scott
* Now, more mature and high-minded, I never miss Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For more information, see Scenes and Drama: Making Action Move the Story.

Alternative movie reviews at Film Vault (no connection to this web site.)

For full credits, and for movie reviews with which I usually disagree regarding entertainment value, visit the TV Guide movie database. These links are for convenience, and there is no business association.

Home Fries, 1998, Dean Parisot, Director. Vince Gilligan, Screenplay .

This movie is a good example for learning, and has a lot of good writing elements in it: 

It is a bit dark comedy - the unfaithful husband is scared... to death, and someone in the small town might know that his sons did it. Who else then must die? Of course, a pregnant woman with whom Dorian (Luke Wilson) falls in love. The baby turns out to be the prodigy of the unfaithful husband. The Mother (Catherine O'Hara) of the two sons, Dorian and Angus (Jake Busey) has no moral values except herself, so if her sons so something illegal to satisfy her wishes, no problem. Jerry Springer would have to reject this group as potentially too dangerous... and probably hopeless. Maybe Geraldo... 

Comedy: The local cigarette company features employees standing outside coughing themselves to death, which is dark but realistic - visit a tobacco growing state sometime. Dorian's mother reprimands him for picking his nose, but doesn't care if he kills someone. And she lets it slip in front of Angus that Dorian is her favorite, driving Angus over the edge. Dorian eases his mind by verbal repetitive reinforcement of the fast food burger construction sequence - they should have put it in a song or a limerick for him. This guy is a helicopter pilot? The baby - well, his "father" is his brother. 

Romantic comedy: Suspicion becomes Pity then turns to love as Dorian gets to know his father's pregnant mistress. Dorian must then turn away from his brother and mother, and protect Sally (Drew Barrymore). 

There is also suspense: Will Dorian's brother and mother find out who Sally really is? Will they manage to kill the Jezebel if they do find out? Or will they accidentally pick the wrong person and kill her?

I liked the writer's mix of many elements - it makes an involving story. But the story needed some massaging to make it work better. 

What worked? It is difficult for the audience to relate to characters in a dark comedy. After all, they are doing something that goes against typical values. The protagonist, Dorian, stands for higher values from the start. He tries to stop Jake from firing the helicopter machine gun that scared their step-father to death. He is an impediment to every dangerous or illegal act his brother promotes, staying involved just so he can outmaneuver his brother's plans. Nicely developed character. 

The other protagonist, Sally, is pregnant and attractive, so is easy to identify with. Her home-wrecking is unwitting, even though we wonder why she has to "date" someone her father's age. 

There was also a lot of character revealing during the story which preempted ten pages of characterization up front. Instead of knowing the full extent of their degenerate state up front, it is revealed to us more and more as the plot thickens. Also well done.

What didn't work well? 

There should more anticipation of what is going to happen. The situations should last longer, so they would be funnier. We are along for a madcap ride in this story. We quickly get into a situation and it is over much too soon. Writing in sequences and writing longer scenes are approaches that improve these things. 

The characters could also be more fully developed. 

This story is full of zany characters and situation comedy. It is good as it is, but I would like to have seen the things that didn't work so well improved so that it was better developed and better at the box office. 

- Scott

For more information on writing in sequences, refer to: 

Alternative movie reviews at Film Vault (no connection to this web site.)

For full credits, and for movie reviews with which I usually disagree regarding entertainment value, visit the TV Guide movie database. These links are for convenience, and there is no business association.

Living Out Loud,1998, Richard LaGravenese, Director. Richard LaGravenese, screenplay. 
(based on The Kiss and Misery by Anton Chekov).

This is an excellent story to learn some "what not to do" things from. This is one of those movies for which you expect the critics to rave and the audience to rail. This must have been a practice run for the director. For once the TV Guide critic was on target: low rating. This is the story of why slice of life stories bomb. A bunch of friends, associates, fellow comarades on the train of suffering, a sharing group - all of these people can appreciate the disconnected day to day events of our lives. For the rest of us it is a little like watching video clips of some other families' vacation. Yawn - run!

Slice of Life stories start at some point in a character's life and follow the character through successive days until the writer stops writing. They usually don't have a plot, much less a theme. This one is better than most because we at least realize that the character is trying to resolve an issue that arose because of some event. This one at least is character driven... I think. 

Concept (seems to be): An emotionally disconnected woman and an emotionally disconnected man divorce so the woman is finally forced to stop being emotionally disconneced, make new friends, and get on with her life. 


The main problem with slice of life stories is that there is no plot for the audience to get interested in. Our interest is piqued just a little in this story about what is going to happen to Judith - but not much. The plot is the carrot that pulls the viewer's attention into the story and pulls them through it. Leave out the plot and you leave out the biggest and best device you have for engaging the audience.


I really didn't connect with Judith (Holly Hunter) - I didn't care how things turned out for her - and the probable reason is that she had very little at stake and she didn't seem to care either. It wasn't the acting - it was the story. Judith was childless, we didn't see anything that told us that her husband meant a lot to her, and she plows ahead putting her life together like all she lost was her job and all she feels is a little lost. If I worked out the concept right, it was true to the concept, but the concept doesn't make for a good story. Raise the stakes. Give the character something important to lose. 

I recommend developing the characterization as the story develops, instead of trying to do it all up front and bore the audience to death. This story does some developing, or revealing, throughout the story, but this is the way not to do it. As the story goes on, we do get hints that Judith is touched (not hurt) at a deeper level. She fantasizes about throwing herself out a window and landing on her husband - but we don't see any acting out or feel any depression. It misses. She goes through the loneliness, drugs and alcohol, and sex that anyone might go through on losing a lover - but it could have been a lover and not a sixteen year husband. So far the action doesn't show us anything. Later she hits her husband in an elevator. OK, she finally works up to a civilized slap with a glove and he retaliates with a civilized lawyer tactic - go to jail or forfeit some money. I half-way beleived it. 

Ok, there are a lot of people with weak relationships who go through what Judith went through. It wasn't a fascinating story to them, and it isn't to us.

This story shows the importance of having an interesting concept, of having a plot, of having high stakes so that the character cares so that the audience cares, and of the action revealing how the character feels. 

- Scott

For more information on plot and raising the stakes, refer to: 

Alternative movie reviews at Film Vault (no connection to this web site.)

For full credits, and for movie reviews with which I usually disagree regarding entertainment value, visit the TV Guide movie database. These links are for convenience, and there is no business association.

The Mighty, Miramax, 1998., Peter Chelsom, Director. Charles Leavitt, Rodman Philbrick, Screenplay.

This movie worked better than Simon Birch, which has a lot of similarities. Both involve young men who are held back by their backgrounds and who befriend someone who is held back physically. Together they assist and complement each other. 

Why does one movie work and the other not? Not the actors - both had fine acting. This movie had superlative performances by Maxwell Kane (who played Elden Henson - the "giant" who is emotionally repressed - moving from dim/dull and inching his way out to a spectacular full emotional ending) and Kieran Culkin (who played Kevin Dillon- the physically handicapped young man). Both stories are driven by theme and characterization, not by plot, which is a little unusual but welcome. 

Theme is the key to why one worked well and the other didn't. Simon Birch attempts to answer the big "why?" Each of us have a destiny, and Simon was determined to make us see his. Everyone is important, he seemed to say, and his life is proof of it. Fine message with which I can't argue (and which I have written about myself for fun in Priest of Sales). It's just that real life may bear out Birch's beliefs, but pushing religious beliefs in a movie (or elsewhere) typically doesn't work very well. One's religious views are a personal matter and an entire audience isn't open to a "message" - it is seeing a character act on his faith that is important and works well. Arguably, Simon Birch acted on his faith, but the movie carried the "message" whether intended or not. And yet, in reality there was little difference between the two.

In contrast, The Mighty was about two boys working at creating their own destiny. Fate had already left its mark, Eldon became inspired by the indomitable Dillon - who had already faced his destiny and learned to work with it, and together they took the reigns of the future in their own hands. They aspired to a higher vision - the knights - and through it they found the courage to become what they could be. But Simon Birch was just as irrepressible - nothing could keep him down and he would allow nothing to defeat him. We could certainly identify with both boys: the need for friendship and acceptance, the need for overcoming physical problems, the need to feel like you belong and have a place in life, the need to feel like you are making a contribution or "slaying dragons." Both of the physically disabled boys die at the end, and both of the other boys gain some closure about their fathers. Both are good stories. So what is the difference? 

One movie is a triumph of destiny, the other is a triumph of the human spirit. 

- Scott

Alternative movie reviews at Film Vault (no connection to this web site.)

For full credits, and for movie reviews with which I usually disagree regarding entertainment value, visit the TV Guide movie database. These links are for convenience, and there is no business association.

Practical Magic, 1998, Warner Bros., Griffin Dunne, Director. Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman, Adam Brooks, Screenplay.  (Based on the novel by Alice Hoffman)

We could all use a little magic now and then. It's like the saying about money - "Money doesn't bring happiness, but having a little of it sure couldn't hurt." We have a lot of magic today, it's called electricity and automobiles and psychology and a long list of things that make life easier and help us overcome difficulties. But none of it really changes human nature, and none of it replaces living, experiencing, and growing. 

I was very impressed that this movie didn't let magic get in the way of the story, as it might have with a fantasy. That is, the characters took responsibility for their lives and their actions, and created their own answers rather than letting magic create it for them. Hardly any different than The Mighty. (Perhaps this is because the book that it was based on hardly used magic at all - there is actually more in the movie.) 

This story was fun. You could identify with the characters and their plights. The characters seemed very real. And the curse hardly seemed any different than real life. And as for the magic? I know of a young woman who "prayed" for a man who "didn't drink, smoke, or beat his wife." Well, I quit smoking and now she's stuck with me. Be careful what you ask for. : )

- Scott

For full credits, and for movie reviews with which I usually disagree regarding entertainment value, visit the TV Guide movie database. These links are for convenience, and there is no business association.

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 referring to the many creative people who are telling a story on screen. And it is a lesson for the rest of us writers. 

The entire cast, though deserving, is not listed because of the lack of availablity of credits, and secondarily because the focus is on writing and the people who most influence the writing, the director and writers. 

Other distribution restrictions: None

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